Friday, July 31, 2009

Corazon Aquino Dies

I was sad to learn a few hours ago that former Filipino President Corazon Aquino has died of colon cancer at the age of 76.

A couple of years after Geraldine Ferraro made history in the United States by becoming the first woman on a major party's national ticket, Aquino made the kind of history Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin could only dream of 20 years later. She was the first woman president of the Philippines, "swept into office on a wave of 'people power' in 1986," recalls Seth Mydans in the New York Times.

If you were old enough to remember when Aquino won the presidency, you must have compared the electoral frenzy that propelled the "plain housewife" to the movement that made Barack Obama first the nominee for president and then the president–elect in this country.

And if you were honest, you had to concede that Aquino's triumph was much more dramatic.

After Filipinos went to the polls in early February 1986, the Commission on Elections provided the "official" tally showing corrupt President Ferdinand Marcos the winner over the widow of one of his leading opponents, but the National Movement for Free Elections' "unofficial" tally had Aquino in the lead. Late that month, the People Power Revolution installed Aquino in the presidency and drove Marcos into exile.

Aquino was president until 1992. In his obituary, Mydans correctly observes that, when Aquino said she could offer only her "sincerity" to her countrymen, that "was what they hungered for and what she delivered as president."

That, I think, makes Aquino comparable in another way to Obama. At the end of the day, most Obama voters probably will say they responded to the appeal for change (much like the voters' response to Aquino's pledge of sincerity), but they differ on what shape that change should take.

I know many people who voted for Obama believing he would pursue an agenda that would involve such social policies as permitting same–sex marriage and legalizing marijuana, but he hasn't supported either. His attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions fall far short of what scientists say will be necessary. And his health care reform package leaves much of the influence in the hands of the insurance companies.

Similarly, as Mydans points out, Aquino "did not lead the social revolution that some had hoped for."

And she discovered that, in a democracy, power had limits. "Under pressure from her restive military," Mydans remembers, "she was forced to abandon one of the most strongly held ideas she brought to her presidency, an amnesty and reconciliation with a Communist insurgency."

Aquino's presidency was a mixed blessing for the Philippines, but it may have been the only way to achieve real reform there, and she kept the admiration of her people for the rest of her life. The Manila Bulletin writes that Aquino was "the country's Icon of Democracy." And that was part of her legacy.

But Mydans is correct when he observes that Aquino's election "set a difficult precedent in the Philippines, where people nostalgic for their shining moment continue to see mass movements as an acceptable, if unconstitutional, answer to the difficulties of a flawed democratic system." That, also, is part of her legacy.

Does that mean the glass is half empty or half full? Aquino was an optimist. I think she would say that, on balance, her presidency was a success.

Rest in peace.

Land of Disenchantment

I've been reading something today that I find intriguing yet puzzling. It's an article by Dan Balz in the Washington Post.

A little background is in order here. Yesterday, I wrote about a focus group in Maryland. Even the participants who didn't vote for Barack Obama in last year's election spoke highly of him.

In his article (which carries the headline "Obama's Poll Numbers Don't Add Up to Whole Story"), Balz wonders if the polls are wrong and contends that the poll numbers "don't entirely capture the dynamic of this moment in the Obama presidency."

That may well be true. But I'm finding it hard to get a handle on what, exactly, Balz was expecting from the focus group and what he thinks may be the implications for the future.

"Based on the polls," he writes, "what (pollster Peter) Hart and the others watching the group discussion Wednesday night had expected was that ... these 12 independent voters would, almost uniformly, speak of their disenchantment with Obama and their concerns about his leadership."

Well, there has been some slippage in Obama's approval rating. But that is normal. I've cited examples of this before. After six months in office, a president's "honeymoon" is usually over. All the polls I have seen suggest that Obama remains personally popular, but support is lower for his policy initiatives.

I'm not entirely sure why Balz thought the focus group (which included seven Obama voters, four McCain voters and one Nader voter) would be disenchanted. Which poll gave him that impression? He doesn't really say — except at the end of the article, when he makes a brief reference to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that contained "warning signs" for the administration.

A majority of respondents still approves of Obama personally. It is the individual policy proposals that have been in trouble. And the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details.

The public has been hesitant to support Obama's health care reform plan. The public is edgy about talk of a second stimulus. The unemployed are not encouraged by an economy that continues to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs each month (we'll see what the latest jobless figures are next week) after Obama and the congressional Democrats confidently asserted in February that the stimulus would start producing jobs almost immediately.

Now, no one knows what the future holds. And maybe Obama and Joe Biden were correct earlier this month when they said they "misread" the economy and they received incomplete information. To be sure, the first three months of this year were brutal.

Unemployed Americans have been taking one body blow after another. But most of them will probably tell you that they don't blame the president for the state of the economy. They just want to see improvement. They want to see more jobs available and fewer hoops they have to jump through just to get an interview.

They want to be able to provide the basics for themselves and their families. They want to feel that they are contributing to the economy.

If the improvement actually is there, the Democrats haven't done an adequate job of getting the message out. The unemployed are scared, but most are willing to be patient, as Obama has urged. Their bill collectors are another matter. So they're feeling a sense of urgency that many may not have felt even a few months ago.

As Balz points out, "Obama has hit a difficult patch at six months." Indeed he has. It seems to happen to every president, and it seems to be more profound whenever expectations for the incoming president are high. Personally, I can't remember a time in my life when expectations were higher than they were when Obama took office. The networks followed his every movement as he made his way to Washington — as if a savior truly was coming.

So it should come as no surprise that a bit of the luster has disappeared — especially now that unemployment is nearing a double–digit rate nationally and is already well past that in more than a dozen states.

It is probably appropriate to wonder if the polls take into account all the dynamics. But, please, tell me a poll that can do that six months into a president's term and 16 months before the next election.

By July 1993, Bill Clinton had had more than his share of bad publicity, but I don't recall any polls that suggested that his party would lose 54 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate the next year. In July 1981, Ronald Reagan's numbers were starting to decline, but I don't remember any surveys that indicated the Republicans would lose two dozen House seats in the midterm elections.

Obama doesn't have to worry about running for re–election next year. But more than 470 senators and representatives do have to worry about it — unless they have already decided not to run, in which case their parties have to worry about holding the open seats.

Well, both Clinton and Reagan were re–elected. But their first–year choices and proposals had a lot to do with their parties' fortunes in the midterm elections.

Those presidents learned the hard way that few presidents escape the political backlash that occurs in the midterms, and those who do typically do so because the country is rallying behind its president at a time of crisis. George W. Bush was a rare exception to the rule, thanks to the anxiety that was spawned by the terrorist attacks. John F. Kennedy was another exception because of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Can Obama learn the lessons of history well enough to achieve his goals and still keep his advantage in Congress?

Texas Heat

It gets hot here in Texas in the summer.

I grew up in Arkansas, but my parents were born and raised in Texas so we always came here for holidays and summer vacations when I was growing up. And, for as long as I can remember, I've liked Phil Sheridan's observation — "If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell."

The man clearly knew what he was talking about. (Of course, he also said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Not exactly politically correct, but you have to remember that he lived in the 19th century.)

Fast forward to the 21st century, where it is still hot in Texas.

We've been enjoying a bit of a break from the typically oppressive Texas temperatures in recent days, but the forecasts call for the return of daytime highs in triple digits in the next few days. And even the most optimistic of us has to concede that we aren't likely to see hot weather disappear until sometime in October — if then.

Once the hot weather goes away, it probably won't return until late April or May. But the political climate in Texas seems likely to get progressively warmer between now and March, which is when the Republicans will hold their gubernatorial primary.

I assume the Democrats will have a primary as well, but there are no big names in the Texas Democratic Party anymore. So all the attention will be on the GOP.

The Republican primary apparently will match incumbent Gov. Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush when he left to take the oath of office as president in 2001, and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who recently announced her intention to leave the office she has held since 1993 in a few months so she can devote all her time and attention to the governor's race.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't expect a senator to relinquish his/her seat to run for another office unless it was up for election during the same election cycle. But Texas is so big that I guess Hutchison feels she has no choice. Maybe she has grown tired of Washington and wants to return to Texas, win or lose.

Leslie Eaton anticipates the "Texas–Size Brawl" in the Wall Street Journal, noting that the Hutchison–Perry contest is expected to "pit moderates against social conservatives."

If the heat in Texas is an appropriate analogy, I think the image of the rattlesnake, which is often the object of a "roundup" in rural Texas communities, could be fitting as well.

It should be interesting albeit bewildering.

The two Republicans have appeared to be allies in the past, but Eaton's article observes that they already are "sniping" at each other.

Hutchison didn't vote for the stimulus package back in February, but she has, nonetheless, criticized Perry for refusing the stimulus money that was intended to help Texas' unemployed, as Eaton points out. I criticized Perry for that myself.

And Perry has been making transparent bids for the support of conservatives. As Eaton writes, these conservatives "are most likely to vote in the primary," according to the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

The general assumption is that the winner of the primary will be the next governor of the state. It's been relatively quiet up until now, but that should change.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On a First-Name Basis

CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger reports that it was "jarring" to hear members of a focus group refer to the president by his first name.

But, she continues, "the more they talked, the more it made sense. After all, they are seeing a lot of him." There is, as pollster Peter Hart said, a "sense of intimacy" when people speak about the president in this way.

It seems to me that Americans rarely have felt that kind of easy familiarity with elected leaders in the past. It more often has been seen with movie stars (i.e., Marilyn) or rock stars (i.e., Elvis and Bono). I know that lots of folks referred to Eisenhower as "Ike," but I was a toddler when he left the White House so I don't remember anything about him. And that was a nickname Eisenhower got while a student at West Point. He had been known as "Ike" for a long time before he ran for president.

There may have been a tendency for people to call President Kennedy "Jack," but I don't remember because I wasn't in school yet when he was assassinated. And my family didn't own a TV while he was alive so I didn't have the daily exposure to Kennedy that others had.

I recall most references to Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, as being the more formal "President Johnson" or the acronym "LBJ" — but I remember my grandfather speaking disparagingly of him as "Landslide Lyndon."

Grandpa was a Texan, but he was no Johnson fan. When he called Johnson "Landslide Lyndon," he used a nickname that was hung on Johnson when he won a disputed Democratic primary race in Texas for the U.S. Senate in 1948 by a mere 87 votes.

Most often in my life, people have called presidents by their first names (or variations on their first names) in a negative sense. My father, for example, always called Richard Nixon "Tricky Dickie." And I knew people who referred to his successor, Gerald Ford, as "Jerky Jerry." Near the end of his presidency, I heard non–Southerners speaking of Jimmy Carter in a faux Southern accent — "Jimmuh." And we all recall how people used the pronunciation of George W. Bush's middle initial — "Dubya" — when referring to him throughout his presidency.

I don't care if people want to call Obama "Barack." Heck, they can call him what he used to call himself when he was a teenager — "Barry." It doesn't matter to me. As Shakespeare put it, what's in a name?

What matters to me is results. I've seen a lot of effort made for bipartisanship, but Obama has little to show for it. Right now, he is gambling a lot on health care reform. Health care is important, but there is a clear gap between Obama's personal popularity and the refusal of Americans to embrace the policy.

I'm sensing the gradual closing of the window of opportunity for him to accomplish some important objectives, like health care reform. And then there are things — like same–sex marriage and marijuana legalization — that polls show many of his supporters want but Obama has not indicated that he supports.

Polls, of course, are nothing but snapshots of opinion at a particular time, but Gallup is picking up on some erosion in his support. Nothing major right now, but a trend can be seen. And history says these things can quickly get out of hand, even for presidents who were elected by wide margins. Remember Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994? How about Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in 1982?

And, for you older folks out there, do you remember when Lyndon Johnson was elected to a full term in 1964? He got the biggest share of the popular vote that any presidential candidate ever received. But his party was hammered in the midterm elections two years later.

Obama is still enjoying high popularity with the under–30 crowd — but those people haven't established themselves as reliable voters yet. The over–65 voters do have that reputation, but Obama's support in that demographic group has slipped below 50%.

And there are some other troubling numbers as well. In the last month, Obama's support is down by seven percentage points in the Midwest; down by nine percentage points in the fastest–growing demographic group, the Hispanics, in spite of having nominated a Latina to the Supreme Court; by nine percentage points with voters who report having had "some college" education.

I'm not saying that Obama should pander to these groups. But as long as he is taking time out of his schedule to have a beer with Professor Gates and the police officer who arrested him, he could toss a bone to the people who got him elected.

Whether they call him by his first name or not.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Wanted: Some Constructive Advice

Normally, I like to use this blog to write about current events or anniversaries of historic events.

I love history. I've loved history since I was a child. Maybe that's because history is really a bunch of stories about people and places. I guess that, more than anything, is why I studied journalism in college and pursued it as a career through most of my adult life. I like to tell stories.

And I like words better than numbers. I never was very good at math. If you looked at my checkbook, you could probably pick up on that right away.

It reminds me of something that one of my journalism teachers said in class once. She said that, if people who can't read are illiterate, then people who have trouble with numbers should be called "innumerate." I can't argue with her logic.

History isn't always clear when it's happening. Journalists are witnesses to history, but they seldom have the luxury of having all the facts. The other day, I wrote about the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, and I remember how uncertain things seemed at the time. Woodward and Bernstein broke the story for the Washington Post, but everyone had to go through a drawn out — and often painful — process before it reached its resolution. No one really knew how it would play out.

In hindsight, it may seem that resignation was inevitable, but there were genuine concerns about other options right up until word leaked out, in August 1974, that Nixon had decided to resign. The general public was under the impression that Nixon was going to dig in his heels and fight the charges in a Senate trial, hamstringing the Congress for months. And, in the years that have passed, I have learned that there were those in the administration who were afraid that Nixon might do himself harm.

In the end, though, Nixon peacefully gave up the presidency and returned to California, expecting to have to defend himself in court. But that wasn't how it played out. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him a month later — and probably doomed his own election prospects for 1976 in the process.

Today, I find myself facing a situation that millions of others are facing — and my guess is that few of us know how it will play out. I certainly don't. I'm talking about the unemployment situation. I've been out of work for more than 11 months now. My unemployment benefits have been extended a couple of times and now they will run out soon. I am frustrated. My self–esteem has never been lower. And I need some advice that will improve my odds of simply getting an interview.

But I have learned, in nearly two years of blog writing, that my colleagues in the blogging community often have some constructive suggestions to offer, whatever the situation. So I am appealing to you for your help, your insights, your advice.

I don't have any figures to back this up, but my guess is that most of today's job seekers are like me. They read articles about job seeking, trying to find tips that will help them write a more effective cover letter or a more effective résumé. But the more of these articles that I read, the more confused I become. I'll read an article in which the author suggests that a job seeker do something and it sounds logical to me. But then, in practically the next article I read, the author recommends doing something that is entirely opposite of what the first author suggested.

There's a lot of conflicting advice out there.
  • Cover letters: I know cover letters are important. What I don't know is how long they should be. What is your opinion?

    I've read some articles in which the authors say to keep them short, maybe a few paragraphs that speak about your accomplishments or the responsibilities you have had on the job, then provide a lot of information in the résumé. Other authors have said that job seekers should really make their case in the cover letter, go into detail and let a short résumé fill in the details.

  • Résumés: For that matter, how long should the résumé be? And how should it be structured? I've read some articles that say you should put your skills at the top of the résumé. Others suggest putting them at the bottom. How much of your work history should you include? How should you account for gaps in your work history?

    Also, for the benefit of older workers, should you include the date(s) that you graduated from college and graduate school? Are you"dating" yourself when you do that? In other words, does that invite age discrimination?

  • References: How many references are best? Should you include references that are primarily personal, not professional? How about teachers you have had? I have one person on my references who was my favorite professor in college. He taught reporting and he gave me an A. I was quite proud of it — still am, for that matter, because this professor only gave you an A if you earned it. He is retired now, but he is still pretty well respected. I'm glad to have him as one of my references. But I'm not sure what an employer's reaction is to former teachers on a reference list.
So, does anyone have any constructive advice for me?

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Smoking Gun of Watergate

Today is the 35th anniversary of an important event in American history.

On this day in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved, by a 27–11 vote, the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon. The article dealt with obstruction of justice.

In the great drama that was Nixon's impeachment proceeding in the summer of 1974, Saturday, July 27 was a significant day, both publicly and privately.

A few days earlier, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon had to turn over the tapes he had been trying to keep to himself. That was really the beginning of the end, but behind–the–scenes work needed to be done,

Fred Buzhardt, Nixon's attorney, was worried about one tape in particular — the one of a conversation from June 23, 1972, less than a week after the Watergate break–in. In "The Final Days," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that Buzhardt was certain the tape "undermined" Nixon, but he needed reinforcement. So, acting on the instruction of chief of staff Alexander Haig, Buzhardt asked speech writer Pat Buchanan to come to his office. His objective was to solicit Buchanan's opinion without revealing what was in the tape.
When Buchanan arrived, Buzhardt hedged. What would happen if there was a serious problem about the contents of one of the tapes? "Al told me to ask you," Buzhardt said.

Buchanan wanted to know what he meant.

"Well, what would you say if there was something that showed the President knew of the cover–up earlier than he said?"

"Is it an early tape or a late tape?" Buchanan asked. Before Buzhardt could answer, Buchanan finished the thought. "If it's something ambiguous, we can handle it. If it's in March (1973), well, it means he was wrong by a week or so. But if it's in June or July of '72, then that's the smoking gun."

Buchanan pressed for more information, but Buzhardt would say only, "It's pretty serious."

The Final Days

And so it was.

When the tape was made public, Nixon's support "eroded significantly," in the words of Vice President Gerald Ford. The tape clearly showed Nixon instructing then–chief of staff H.R. Haldeman to order the CIA to halt the FBI's investigation into the break–in.

In other words, obstruction of justice.

On July 27, Ford said the failure of the House Judiciary Committee to produce any evidence against Nixon was a "travesty." Little did he realize that, on that very day, Buzhardt and Buchanan were having their conversation about the tape that ultimately became known as the "smoking gun."

And it devastated those who had defended Richard Nixon.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Governor Palin Steps Down

I've never really been sure how I felt about Sarah Palin.

Granted, I had my doubts about putting a former mayor and a first–term governor a heartbeat away from the presidency (although it wouldn't exactly have been a first for America — that sounds a lot like Calvin Coolidge's political résumé when he ran in 1920).

But I also had my misgivings about making someone who spent much of his adult life working as a community organizer the 44th president of the United States. So when I went to the polls last fall, I voted for Ralph Nader and left the decision (which I had come to regard as a foregone conclusion, anyway) in the hands of others.

And, although I hope for his success, as I have mentioned here before, I feel that Barack Obama is a polarizing president. He evokes strong reactions in both his foes and his supporters.

But he isn't the only one.

The same, it seems to me, is true of Sarah Palin. Last year, everyone I knew had very definite ideas about Sarah Palin — more definite than the ideas I had about her. I thought she made some mistakes. I disagreed with her on some issues. But, when the election was over and members of the McCain–Palin campaign staff seemed intent on blaming her for their defeat, I thought she was being made a scapegoat. I felt the election was irretrievably lost when the economic meltdown occurred — and that was not Palin's fault.

Frankly, it has bothered me this year to see some (not all) Democrats trying to deflect criticism by attacking Palin. I think that kicking someone who is down is unseemly for winners.

That may seem a little inconsistent, since I have written in this blog that I think the Bush administration, which was much maligned in its final months in power, should be investigated. But, that, I think, is a different matter. George W. Bush held the presidency for eight years. Bush's actions and the actions of his subordinates directly contributed to the weak economy we have today and the poor image we have beyond our borders. An investigation is the only way to establish the mistakes that were made and on which levels so they can be prevented from happening again.

Palin, on the other hand, was not elected to federal office. She and John McCain lost by a wide margin. They were put in the unenviable position of having to defend a discredited incumbent from their own party. Guilt by association may not have been the only reason they lost, but it was way up there on the list.

Nevertheless, Palin is, as I said earlier, a polarizing politician, and I cannot think of anything that demonstrates it better than the reaction — from the left and the right — to her decision to resign.

In the last few weeks, as Palin has prepared to step down as governor of Alaska today, there has been much speculation about her plans. Will she write a book? The answer appears to be yes. Will she go on a speaking tour? At the moment, that seems likely but it is less certain. Is she planning to run for president in 2012? That one remains unanswered for now.

And many pundits have said that leaving office in the middle of her term will work against her if she is planning to ask first Republican voters and then voters in general to trust her with the presidency.

But leadership really is a funny thing in a democracy, isn't it? When you look at the men who have been president of the United States, the majority of them have been lawyers — but they've come from all walks of life. The man who today is regarded as the patron saint of the Republican Party spent much of his life prior to the presidency performing in movies. The man who was president before that had been a peanut farmer.

Career soldiers have become president on several occasions, but I think all of them rose above the level of enlisted men. My grandfather's favorite president had been a college professor. Both occupations require leadership skills, but they aren't often thought of as ones that will prepare you for the unique demands of the presidency.

But leadership is an intangible. What it comes down to, I guess, is whether enough people feel they can trust a person to handle whatever may come up in the next four years. And it's almost impossible to guess what the next four years may hold.

Well, normally that is the case. But I find it hard to believe that the candidates in last year's presidential election didn't realize that the economy and unemployment would play major roles in the next four years. So 2008 may have been an exception to the rule.

But to get back to my original point — do you suppose that, nine years ago, either Bush or Al Gore thought for one minute that terrorist attacks would dominate the agenda through nearly all of the four–year term they sought? If they ever entertained that notion for a second, it's a surprise to me. I don't recall either man mentioning terrorism in that campaign.

One thing that Bush and Gore had going for them in the 2000 campaign, though, was the fact that they were both officeholders. Gore had been vice president for nearly eight years. Bush had been governor of Texas for nearly six years.

It certainly seems to help a presidential candidate's prospects if he/she is holding an office when asking the voters for their support, but it isn't unheard of for someone to run for president while not holding office. Reagan had been out of office for several years when he was elected president. So had Richard Nixon. So had Carter. And many other out–of–office politicians have sought their parties' nominations over the years.

But if Palin does so, she will be the first one I am aware of who chose to resign her office rather than finish her term.

Maybe, if one is from Alaska and wishes to be nominated for president, it makes sense to shake the shackles that keep you in Alaska and prevent you from doing the things that can build important connections in the Lower 48.

That doesn't concern me as much, though, as her comments today regarding freedom of the press. She spoke highly of the concept of freedom of the press, then she slapped the media, telling reporters that her successor "has a very nice family, too, so leave his kids alone!"

Now, I am not defending the fact that Palin's family has been dragged into the public discourse. But, to be fair, I think her real argument is with David Letterman.

And it made me uncomfortable the way she allied herself with America's troops at the expense of the press. She scolded reporters in her farewell address: "How about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit making things up?"

Maybe it is my background in journalism that makes me feel this way, but I got a Nixonian impression from Palin's last speech as governor, a sort of a "This is my last press conference ..." sensation.

Well, back in '62, Nixon encouraged the press to "think about what you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

I don't think today was the end of anything for Palin — except her tenure as governor. I don't think we will be missing anything.

But if Palin wants to be president, she needs to learn — as Nixon never really did and his combative vice president, Spiro Agnew, certainly never did — that a cordial relationship with the press is preferable to an adversarial one.

Lessons From a Massacre

On Wednesday, July 18, 1984, the attention of Americans was drawn to a lot of things.

Some Americans were focused on the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, where Geraldine Ferraro was being nominated for vice president. Until Sarah Palin was chosen to be John McCain's running mate last year, Ferraro was the only woman on a major political party's national ticket.

Other Americans were anticipating the start of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, which were scheduled to begin later that month in Los Angeles. The Soviet Union and more than a dozen Eastern Bloc countries and allies were boycotting the Olympics, but most Americans didn't seem to care. They were just excited to have the Olympics in this country.

I was working nights on the sports copy desk of the Arkansas Gazette. At the time, when I wasn't focused on my job, my thoughts were on the car trouble I had been having and the new car I was planning to buy to replace my old one.

But, whatever one was thinking about on that day was forgotten when news began trickling in about a shooting at a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif.

It is worth mentioning at this point that, while mass shootings have become disturbingly commonplace in recent years, they were still relatively rare in 1984. For that reason alone, the shootings at the San Ysidro McDonald's were a source of macabre fascination for many people.

On that day, most people didn't know where San Ysidro was. I certainly didn't. But I learned, from monitoring reports on the Associated Press wire, that it is a community in the San Diego area, just north of the Mexican border.

The shootings began in midafternoon (California time) when a man named James Oliver Huberty walked into the McDonald's with a 9 mm Uzi semi–automatic, a Winchester pump–action 12–gauge shotgun and a 9 mm Browning HP and started shooting. Huberty continued shooting for more than an hour, firing more than 250 rounds and ultimately killing 21 people and injuring 19 more.

A patrol officer was the first to arrive on the scene, but he quickly discovered that he was no match for the heavily armed gunman inside the restaurant.

The officer "radioed in a Code 10 — 'send SWAT' — and seconds later a Code 11 — 'send everybody,' " writes Jim Kavanagh for

Seventy–seven minutes after the shooting began, a SWAT team sniper on the roof of the neighboring post office shot and killed Huberty, bringing the massacre to an end.

But, as Kavanagh reports, it wasn't really the end of it for the police — in southern California or elsewhere.

"Police clearly needed more firepower and a new strategy," Kavanagh writes. And they got both.

Twenty–five years later, police departments have developed special response teams to handle emergency situations like the one at the San Ysidro McDonald's. They've also implemented professional counseling programs for officers who are involved in traumatic incidents.

Such programs have played key roles in assisting responders to all kinds of things in the years that have passed.

In hindsight, they seem like obvious things — but, as I say, mass shootings were somewhat rare in those days.

Police work is an evolving science. As weapons and perpetrators become more sophisticated, the need for more sophisticated approaches to law enforcement becomes clear as well. Citizens must hope that those who are charged with the responsibility of protecting them and their loved ones learn the crucial lessons.

It is fortunate for everyone that police departments learned some important lessons from the experience.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that no police department, no matter how well–trained or well–equipped its people may be, will ever be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring.

But it can be better prepared to respond to it and to deal with its aftermath.

I'm sure James Huberty never thought of that when he was shooting at people on that July afternoon in San Ysidro.

But that is his legacy. And the rest of us are better off for it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We the People

There's an old saying that goes like this: If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

I don't know if that went through the minds of the voters in Oakland, Calif., this week. But the folks in Oakland voted, by a landslide, to tax proceeds on medical marijuana.

That's an important step toward repealing an unjustifiable prohibition that has been in effect in this country for more than seven decades. (And Peter Guthier makes a persuasive case that "the very first federal vote to prohibit marijuana was based entirely on a documented lie on the floor of the Senate." Those who insist on believing that morality somehow had anything to do with this law actually know nothing about it. It had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with racism and protectionism.)

It is no secret that the state of California — like many other states — is facing severe budget problems. The voters in Oakland took a proactive step to help the state.

It may be a drop in the bucket, but if the other cities in the state — heck, if the entire state — would follow Oakland's example, it could take a giant step toward solvency.

It has been estimated that taxing all marijuana proceeds, not just those that are medically sanctioned, could mean as much as $1 billion per year in additional revenue for the state. It wouldn't be as significant in every state, but every state could profit from legalizing marijuana.

It would mean the creation of new tax–paying businesses with tax–paying employees. It would also mean that a huge portion of the black market would disappear, which would require reassigning police officers who have been wasting their talents on an unenforceable law. And those individuals who have any substance abuse issues could come out of the shadows and seek help without being branded criminals.

"It's just smart economics," San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the Oakland Tribune.

Attitudes on marijuana seem to be changing in America. I know it isn't scientific, but a little earlier, I was visiting the website, and they were asking, as their "Quick Vote" poll question, whether marijuana should be legalized. Nearly two–thirds of the respondents said it should. was conducting the poll in connection with a report from Chuck Conder that a drive to legalize marijuana in California is gaining momentum, in large part because of the state of the economy.

The truth is, it would be a smart policy for the nation. It makes sense.

Maybe that's why I have this nagging feeling that's why it won't happen.

Some Werds

When I was a boy, George Carlin was building a reputation as — in my opinion — the best comedian alive.

Much of his reputation was established by his routines about words, language, clichés. That wasn't how his career began. If you go back and listen to his earliest albums, you'll hear routines in which he plays characters that were inspired by broadcasting personalities like TV newscasters, weathermen, disc jockeys. Other routines were his musings about issues of the day like the drug culture and birth control.

But when he was in his mid–30s, he made an album called "Class Clown," in which he performed what may have been his most famous and most requested (but probably the least frequently played on radio) routine called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," a seven–minute monologue that earned his album a parental warning label many, many years before such a thing became standard in the recording industry.

From that moment on, every Carlin performance, every Carlin album included at least one discussion on language, often more. His very next album, in fact, had an 11–minute routine called "Filthy Words," which was an extension of his "Seven Words ..." routine. That album also had routines on childhood clichés, how certain words (in this case, "fart") were used as personal descriptions and thoughts about "raisin rhetoric" (which was inspired by a popular Raisin Bran commercial from the '70s in which the actors wore raisin outfits, complete with dark shirts labeled "RAISIN," and sang a commercial jingle while sitting in a bowl filled with a milk–like liquid and surrounded by bran flakes).

The album that followed that one had a routine called "Some Werds." It was actually a rant about phrases like "calm, cool and collected," "kit and kaboodle," "odds and ends" and other aspects of language that made no sense to him. He wrapped up the routine with a fictionalized statement from an "anti–pornography dude, kind of an anti–smut man ... (the words) you select tell a lot about you." That led into the statement: "Our thrust is to prick holes in the stiff front erected by the smut dealers. We must keep mounting an offensive to penetrate any crack in his defenses ..." Well, I'm sure you get the general idea.

Anyway, that is why I have been inspired to give this post the title "Some Werds." For a long time, I have had some thoughts relating to language and popular usage, and I feel like I will explode if I don't express them.

When I was in school, I always did well in English. I almost never missed a word on a spelling test. I always got an A when I wrote an essay. When I took my college entrance exam, I scored in the top 5% in the nation in English.

I'm not sure how I developed this talent. It probably goes back to my childhood. In addition to the things I was taught in school, many things were reinforced in my home life. I come from a family of teachers. My father was a college professor. Before my brother and I were born — and then again after we reached our teen years — my mother taught in elementary school. My father's father also was a college professor.

And my father's mother was an English teacher.

By the time of my earliest memory of her, she had retired from teaching, but while you might be able to take the girl out of the English class, I don't think you could ever take the English class out of that girl. In fact, I have memories of sending her thank–you notes for birthday and Christmas gifts I received from her when I was only 6 or 7 years old, and she mailed them back to me with my spelling and grammar mistakes circled.

Now, I never doubted that she loved me. But I guess my ego took a bit of a beating when my thank–you notes came back to me with my mistakes corrected. And it became my mission to write a letter to her that would meet her standards.

I don't remember how old I was when I sent her a letter she didn't send back to me. Perhaps she reached a point where she decided she had fought the good fight. Or maybe she concluded that it had become a mountain too high. She had three other grandchildren from my aunt, and they were all older than I was. By the time my brother learned to write, she may have stopped grading thank–you letters entirely.

But, as I say, it became my mission to submit the flawless thank–you note. She never announced that she had stopped grading them so I may never have passed her test.

But that experience, and the lessons I learned from it, have remained with me all my life. My penmanship has never been much to, ahem, write home about, but I didn't have to worry about that much after I learned to type. And nowadays, most written communication is done by computer, anyway. Even note–taking seems to be done more and more on computer laptops.

But I get the feeling that, for some reason, most people take computers as a license to be sloppy ... in all kinds of ways.

One way is just plain old–fashioned laziness.

I was reminded of that this morning when I was looking at a blog that is written by North Carolina journalism professor Andy Bechtel. The blog, "The Editor's Desk," made the point that the phrase "15 minutes of fame," artist Andy Warhol's often cited statement from 1968, is worn out but "lives on even though the artist himself has been dead for more than 20 years."

In my opinion, it lives on because some people are too lazy to come up with an original observation that suggests the same thing — a one–hit wonder, a flash in the pan, that kind of thing.

It's like saying "friendly confines" as a reference to the home crowd at a sporting event. It isn't an indication of how literate you are or how clever you are. It says you are lazy. Too lazy to find an original way to say which team is the home team.

By the way, I think "friendly confines" should be outlawed by most copy desks at most newspapers — but copy desks seem to be expendable at newspapers these days and, consequently, copy editors are fighting bigger battles. To use another cliché that probably should be retired, they've got bigger fish to fry.

I'm sorry to see copy desks in this sort of fix because I parlayed my training from my grandmother (not to mention my college education) into a profession for many years, but now I feel like I'm caught betwixt and between. I'm out of work, and I haven't found much of a need for people who can write and spell. Journalism majors who didn't study public relations or advertising aren't in great demand.

But I still think it's important to be able to write. And I still think it's important to spell words — and spell them out, not use abbreviations like BTW or IMO — or even more obscure abbreviations, like BFF.

I still have to stop and think about that one when I see it. It always reminds me of a scene from the original movie "The Odd Couple." Oscar was complaining to Felix about the fact that he left notes for Oscar on Oscar's pillow. Then he quoted one: "We are all out of corn flakes. FU." He glared at Felix. "It took me three hours to figure out 'FU' was 'Felix Ungar.' "

Actually, I get irritated by just about all the internet acronyms that I see everywhere around me. When someone writes "LOL," that is supposed to imply that the person is "laughing out loud." Some people punctuate every sentence with it. If that is a statement of fact, some folks must be downright mirthful, judging from all that nonstop laughing.

The ones that give me pause are the ones who write "ROFL," which means "rolling on the floor laughing." I always try to picture that in my mind, but I just can't quite manage it. And I also find it difficult to picture the ones who write "LMAO," which means "laughing my ass off." And I refuse to even think about "ROFLMAO."

Boy, talk about mirthful.

Now, some of these acronyms predate e–mail and text messaging and computer chatting — like "ASAP" and "FYI." I think they're pretty commonly accepted, even in spoken conversation.

But be honest: Before you started reading this post, did you know what "CMIIW" means? It means "Correct Me If I'm Wrong." Do you know what "IANAL" means? It means "I Am Not A Lawyer."

Apparently, they have entire books now — called "Wiktionaries" — that give extensive internet acronym listings. People who are well–versed in this kind of language could carry on entire conversations by e–mail or text messaging and never write a single legible word.

But I think it is wrong for people to assume that everyone is familiar with all these acronyms. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you know for a fact that the person for whom the e–mail or text message is intended knows what the acronym stands for. If he/she doesn't, he/she might spend three hours puzzling over it like Oscar did.

For that matter, if you are sending a message to several recipients at once, I would suggest tailoring it for the lowest common denominator. There may be recipients among them who are fluent in today's acronyms, but if you know that there is a codger or two in there, resist the temptation.

Sending out a message that you know probably would not be understood by everyone would violate what I presume is still the objective of communication — to get a message from Point A to Point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I also have an issue with the so–called "emoticons." I've always felt that every key on the typewriter (and now, every key on the computer keypad) has a purpose. Colons and semicolons and parentheses have purposes, and those purposes do not include indicating to the reader if the writer was smiling as he/she wrote a sentence.

Here's another "let's be honest" for you: Up to this very moment, did you know what :-& stands for? It is supposed to imply that the writer is tongue–tied. I learned that in an e–mail exchange. I'll spare you the details, but, again, I will recommend that you be sure the recipient is acquainted with the emoticon you want to use.

Back to the acronyms, for a minute. They might be preferable to some of the horrendous misspellings I see on the internet. Constantly. Everywhere. Sometimes it is sloppy. Sometimes it is plain ignorance.

But it really annoys me that people don't seem to understand (or don't seem to care) how to make a word a plural or how to make a word possessive. And don't even think of complicating things by introducing the concept of plural possessive into the discussion.

I used to have a manager who would send out e–mails all day. Several of those e–mails were guaranteed to require (at least in her limited written language) "there," "they're" or "their." I don't think she ever used the right spelling of the word in any of those e–mails.

My all–time favorite message from her said something like, "Their going to hold there meeting they're on Friday." She was always preaching the virtue of the spellchecker, but her e–mails were prime examples of how spellcheckers can be fooled. Context matters.

I run into the same thing with "your" and "you're." If the description is of something that belongs to a person, such as a car or a house or a book, "your" is the possessive form that needs to be used. But if the intention is to combine the words "you" and "are," forming a construction that can be used to say something like "you are correct," then "you're" is the appropriate choice.

I think it is important to use the right word to express yourself. When I taught journalism, I used to tell my editing students that they didn't need to use a sledgehammer to drive a nail.

Clearly, words can be overused. A couple of weeks ago, wondered if the word "absolutely" is overused.

My answer would be "yes," but I have a whole list of words that I think are overused. For example, I think "awesome" is overused. It means to inspire awe. Does your mechanic inspire awe when he changes your oil? If he does, I want to meet him. He might change my life. Wouldn't that be awesome? Most definitely — which I also believe is overused.

And then there are redundancies, which is an entirely different category, but I just can't finish this rant until I mention the one that really annoys me — exact same. I read it all the time. I hear it all the time. If something is the same as something else, why do you need to add the word exact? You don't.

Well, I could go on and on. But the fact is that, most of the time, I don't say anything to anyone. Maybe I should let off some steam now and then.

There were times when I worked for that girl and I had to stop myself from replying to her e–mails and informing her why she should have used "there" or "their" or "they're." Maybe I would have felt better — at least, I would have felt as if I contributed to her knowledge — if I had pointed out what she did wrong.

And there are times when people throw an acronym at me that I am totally unfamiliar with. So, like Oscar, I have to ponder it for awhile — and, given the context of the conversation or the previous e–mail messages, I can usually come close.

And, please, let's not get started on the fact that most people don't seem to know when they should (or should not) capitalize words (the answer is to be found in the difference between common nouns and proper nouns). And many don't bother to use exclamation points or question marks appropriately.

But I guess the main reason why I feel many people are just sloppy is this: When I was growing up, my family had a set of World Books, and my brother and I had a subscription for several years to the children's monthly magazine from World Book.

There were a couple of cartoon kids who were featured in each issue — one month, it might be about weather; the next month, it might be about animals at the zoo; the next month, it would be about something else — and they asked questions that readers could answer by looking it up in World Book. Their signature phrase was, "We never guess. We look it up."

People today are too lazy to look it up. They're too lazy to confirm facts or spellings. And that, I believe, is part of the problem with journalism today.

There's more to it, of course. But that's another rant for another day.

Friday, July 24, 2009

There and Back Again

The historic journey of Apollo 11 came to its conclusion 40 years ago today.

It's been a long time since America sent a crew into space in anything other than a space shuttle. I guess you'd have to be over a certain age to remember a time when America's returning star travelers didn't glide into an air base. But in 1969, astronauts returned to earth the way they had been doing for years — splashdown at sea.

So, in late July 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth. The USS Hornet was on hand to welcome them back, along with President Nixon. The splashdown occurred east of Wake Island in the Pacific.

In the last week, I have written about my memories of the start of that historic mission and the night that man walked on the moon for the first time. In all honesty, I can't remember much about the splashdown.

I guess it was dramatic, but mostly because people were anxious to get the crew back on earth, successfully fulfilling President Kennedy's challenge. I remember that the astronauts were quarantined upon their return and remained that way until someone — a doctor, I presume — verified that they hadn't picked up anything in their trip to the moon and that they weren't likely to expose anyone to anything, either.

After the walk on the moon, the splashdown must have seemed pretty anticlimactic — a capsule bobbing in the waves while a helicopter lowered its basket three times to recover the astronauts.

The fact that there was a splashdown really wasn't noteworthy. We had seen so many splashdowns by that time that it was really nothing special. To me, it simply meant the trip to outer space was over. But this time, the astronauts had done more than just go into outer space.

I'm sure all three of the networks were televising it. But by the time Apollo 11 returned, space travel already seemed to be routine — so routine that, when Apollo 13 encountered difficulties that forced the crew to scrap its planned moon landing nine months later, it came as a shock to most Americans, who apparently had forgotten that three astronauts had died a little more than three years earlier in a launch pad fire on earth.

As you can see in the attached video clip, the astronauts came to the window of their quarantined quarters to talk with President Nixon.

The mission was over. The men were back on earth. There would be parades and rallies and speeches in the weeks and months and years to come.

In fact, just last Sunday, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, the Apollo 11 crew members, along with former space center director Chris Kraft, were speakers at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Lately, I have witnessed a bit of a revival of the old conspiracy theory that says Apollo 11 was faked. I never thought it was faked. Logic tells me it couldn't have been faked.

I've heard it said that 400,000 people worked on the space program in one capacity or another. My thinking is that figure would include scientists and engineers — and wouldn't necessarily include those who worked on the technical aspects of faked broadcasts, like the people who maintained the sets and the people who operated the cameras.

Including the Apollo 11 crewmen who did so, a dozen Americans walked on the moon and came back to earth to talk about it. If Apollo 11 was staged, those missions must have been staged as well. And I guess it would mean that Apollo 13's aborted mission also was faked.

How could you keep all those people quiet for 40 years? Well, some have died, but (as far as I know) no one has died of suspicious or seemingly unnatural causes.

I've heard it said it would have been impossible for a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy to succeed, even one involving as few as a dozen men. What are the odds of keeping close to half a million people quiet about a trip to the moon?

It probably would have been easier to actually land men on the moon than to handle the logistics such a conspiracy would entail.

Jumping to Conclusions

"Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Indian prayer

I learned many things in journalism school — the most important, probably, were the nuts and bolts of news writing and news editing.

I carried those lessons with me into most of the jobs I have held in my life, from being a general assignment reporter to working on a copy desk to instructing young journalism students and preparing them for their own careers in a field that has always been very special to me.

But today, as I read a commentary by Maria (Maki) Haberfeld at, it occurred to me that I haven't always followed the admonition I received in journalism school — although it actually is something my parents instilled in me when I was a child — to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.

Haberfeld was writing about Barack Obama's comment during his press conference the other night that the Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" when they arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. last week.

In fact, I said almost the same thing the day before Obama did in this blog.

But I have to conclude, based on Haberfeld's observations, that the president and I — and countless others — were wrong to do so. At least, at this point.

The president and many other black Americans were responding from the perspectives of those who have lived as black people in America. Given the facts that Gates is black and the arresting officer is white — and the use and frequent abuse of racial profiling is known to exist, even if it is not always acknowledged — that is an understandable reaction.

I am not black, but there have been times in my life when my actions or statements were misunderstood by people who did not know — and often did not bother to find out — all the necessary facts.

The police officer in this case was responding to a citizen's report that there appeared to be a break–in occurring at Gates' home. According to Gates, the front door of his home was jammed when he returned from a trip to China. Only Gates and the investigating police officer know how that information was relayed to the police — and whether it was complete and accurate.

With that in mind, let me share with you a couple of Haberfeld's observations. She is a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York:

"One needs to understand that the interaction between a police officer and a suspect is just part of a larger context," Haberfeld writes. "When a neighbor calls the police to report a burglary in progress and a police officer is dispatched to respond, a decision–making process begins for the officer."

That decision–making process includes the experiences police officers have had on the job. It is certainly a fact that these experiences can breed racism in some people. But, as Haberfeld points out, these experiences also play an important role for people who must respond to all kinds of situations, many of which can turn deadly at a moment's notice.

"Yes, the professor identified himself as a legitimate occupant of the premises," Haberfeld writes. "However, he was not arrested for trespassing. He was arrested for disorderly conduct.

"Police officers arriving at the scene of a suspected burglary in progress do not put down their armor of suspicion just because somebody proved to them that they are the legitimate occupants of the dwelling. ... A person usually does not break into his own house — it is true that it can happen, and it apparently did in this case — but this is not a standard behavior that, once explained to the officer, should mandate an automatic approach to put down your guard."

Police work, of course, is an extreme. Seemingly innocuous situations can get out of hand rapidly. And, while the public may be apt to forget instances when police officers are killed in the line of duty, as Haberfeld points out, "police officers carry these stories as their secret weapons."

Perhaps racism did play a role in Gates' arrest. To this point, though, is there any evidence of that, aside from the facts that the arresting officer and the person who was arrested are members of different racial groups and Gates accused the policeman of racism?

It is best to know the whole story before jumping to a conclusion. Let's wait until all the crucial questions have been asked and all the information has been gathered before handing down our verdict.

I am reminded of something.

When I was growing up, there was a popular TV series based on the Neil Simon play and movie called "The Odd Couple." Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in the film; Tony Randall and Jack Klugman starred as the fussy Felix and the slovenly Oscar in the TV series.

In one episode of the TV series, Felix and Oscar were wrongfully accused of ticket scalping by an undercover policewoman who did not bother to get the whole story. So the case wound up in court.

During the proceedings, Felix acted as his own attorney. He questioned the policewoman on the stand and got her to admit that she assumed a crime was being committed.

Making use of a chalkboard in the courtroom, Felix wrote the word "ASSUME" and said, circling the appropriate sections of the word as he did so, "You should never assume. Because when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME!"

Circumstances are not always what they appear to be.

In fairness to all, I urge the president — and any who take their cue from him — to withhold judgment until all the facts are in.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Human Factor in the Equation

Randy, Tammy and me in better times.

These days, discussions about the economy and unemployment and all those issues seem to be handled in the abstract.

That may be the toughest part of it for the people who are affected by the bad economy. And, unfortunately, I am one of those people. I've been out of work for nearly 11 months.

Sometimes it seems like our political leaders — in both political parties — treat it as a big numbers game. And I understand that the bottom line is the main consideration for everyone. The human factor often seems to be ignored.

I guess that is the most frustrating part of being out of work. Of course, I can't speak for the millions of Americans who are out of work or who are working part–time jobs or who have just plain given up looking because they can't find anything. I can only speak for myself.

But I can say, from personal experience, that dealing with this must be more difficult for those who live alone. I hope most of the people who are unemployed have someone who can give them a boost, a pep talk, when they need it.

I know there are frequently times when I need that. But I live alone. And, for much of the last 11 months, I have had to deal with it on my own. So I think I know the special kinds of challenges that some people have to face.

When Barack Obama tells us to be patient, I try to be patient. I want to be patient. But sometimes that's easier said than done.

Especially when economists say it's going to be a "jobless recovery" and that the employment picture isn't going to get better until sometime next year — if then.

And then there are those who have been saying that the government should just get out of the way and let market forces do their thing. Seems to me, when I was in school, I read about similar advice being offered during Herbert Hoover's presidency. He followed that advice. It doesn't seem to have worked.

I know, there were different forces at work. And that was a different time, of course. My parents were mere children then. It was my grandparents who had to struggle to come up with the rent money and the money for food and clothes and all the other things that kept body and soul together.

Somehow, they did. I really wonder, sometimes, how they managed. What was their secret? What did they know that I don't? I wish I could ask them. But they've been gone for many years.

As scary as things are today, they seem like they were a lot scarier then. At one point, one–fourth of all adult Americans were unemployed. That makes the 9.5% unemployment rate that we have today seem tame by comparison.

But there were fewer people in America then. It is estimated that there are about 306 million people in this country in 2009. That is about 2½ times as many people as were living here in 1930.

So maybe a 9.5% unemployment rate in 2009 works out to the same raw number of people as 25% represented in 1932.

But that doesn't take into account the fact that perhaps that many additional Americans are not counted because they have part–time jobs or they're working at low–paying jobs for which they are overqualified or they have just given up altogether.

When that number is factored in, I have to think there are more people suffering today than there were more than 75 years ago.

I don't know. What I do know is that this draws us back into the numbers game. And that, as I said before, ignores the human element.

A few hours ago, my best friend since my high school days, Randy, called me up and we talked for nearly an hour. He lives in the St. Louis area, quite a distance from Dallas. It's been a long time since we've seen each other.

But just hearing his voice helped. Things have been difficult for me this month, more difficult than they have been. And I was incredibly grateful to hear his voice, to hear his encouragement.

I've learned that you don't make many true friends in your life. But Randy is probably the truest friend I've ever had. I've known his ex–wife, Tammy, a shorter time, but the two of them made me the godfather to their daughter, Nicole. That was a proud moment for me.

And I had some anxious moments back in the spring. Randy had a heart attack, then he underwent bypass surgery. I think it is safe to say I was not completely focused on looking for a job in those days. Randy is my link to better times.

Today, there were moments when Randy and I were talking and, in my mind, I was transported back to better times in my life — and I couldn't help wondering if all those "better times" are behind me now.

Tammy tells me that isn't so. And I want to believe that. I really do. But it's hard, sometimes. Damn hard.

Do you suppose that, maybe, that was my grandparents' secret for surviving the Great Depression — the love and encouragement of friends and family?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Could While Away the Hours ...

"... conferrin' with the flowers, consultin' with the rain ..."

Well, that makes about as much sense to me as some of the things I'm witnessing.

Here's a good example. Today, Fed chief Ben Bernanke told Congress that the pace of the economic decline appears to have slowed, but unemployment is likely to stay high for another two years.

So what happened on Wall Street? The Dow Jones industrial average closed at its highest level since two weeks before Barack Obama took the oath of office.

Ever get the feeling that the Scarecrow from the "Wizard of Oz" is running things on Capitol Hill? Or Wall Street?

Maybe he's running the Cambridge, Mass., police department, which arrested Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. at his home last week. Charges against Gates, who is black and is also a law professor who spent a couple of years working on a documentary on Abraham Lincoln that was shown on PBS earlier this year to mark the occasion of Lincoln's 200th birthday, have been dropped, but they never should have been filed in the first place.

Apparently, Gates returned from a trip to China to discover that his front door was jammed. He managed to open the back door of his home with a key, but he was unsuccessful in his attempt to open the front door from the inside. Gates, the director of Harvard's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, had been in his residence for a few minutes when a police officer arrived and asked him to step outside. He said he had received a report of a possible break–in.

Gates produced his driver's license and his Harvard ID, but that apparently wasn't sufficient for the police officer. Gates was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and taken to jail, where he spent the next four hours.

Seems to me the driver's license and the Harvard ID should have been enough to make the police officer aware of the identity of the man he was speaking to.

Maybe Gates could have handled things better, but my guess is he was tired after returning from a trip to a country halfway around the world. Presumably, his luggage was nearby and he must have had his passport and airline ticket stub handy.

Surely, that would have been enough to convince the police officer — unless his head was harder than the Tin Man's.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gimme Some Truth Redux

Nearly 1½ years ago, I wrote on this blog about the need for truth from the next occupant of the Oval Office.

At the time, of course, no one knew who that would be. It was all but certain that John McCain would be the next Republican presidential nominee, and Barack Obama had been reeling off an impressive string of primary victories but neither he nor Hillary Clinton had emerged as the favorite for the Democratic nomination.

Today is the six–month mark of Obama's presidency. Over at Facebook, a group that is glad George W. Bush isn't president anymore was urging people a few months ago to throw parties on this date celebrating the fact that he has been out of office for six months. is doing something a little more constructive. Unlike some of Obama's defenders, refuses to treat the president — or anyone, really — with kid gloves. has been taking up Obama on his request for people to "hold me accountable." It reminds me of a couple of decades ago when Gary Hart, then the front–runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, challenged the reporters who were covering his campaign to follow him in an effort to verify the rumors of his womanizing.

"They'll be very bored," he promised. They weren't. Within a few days, Hart's relationship with Donna Rice was revealed and his support evaporated.

In fact, Hart made it ridiculously easy for the reporters who followed him. Today, the assignment is much bigger, and it is more complicated. claims to be keeping track of more than 500 promises Obama made during his campaign for the White House.

Most of those promises, says, haven't been acted on. But, of the ones that have been addressed to any extent since Obama was sworn in, says that
  • 32 have been kept,
  • 10 have been compromised,
  • 7 have been broken,
  • 12 are stalled,
  • and 78 are "in the works."
It isn't usually my habit to recommend websites to my readers. I often quote articles and provide links to those articles, but I do not tend to endorse the sites where they are posted — even if they are sites I visit regularly. That's a decision I leave to others to make for themselves. But, in this case, I do recommend to my readers. In today's economy, with millions of people unemployed, millions more being forced from their homes and hundreds of billions of dollars being added to the national debt, it is more important than ever to hold elected officials accountable. is performing a vital public service.

The Original Moon Walk

I don't know how long my life will last, but I think I will always remember the night of July 20, 1969.

And I think anyone who is old enough to remember that day will say the same thing. My brother, for example, was 6 years old, and I'm sure he remembers it, but anyone who was younger than that might not have much recollection of it.

Anyway, I feel pretty safe in assuming that most of the people who were alive on that day remember it because that is the day that two men landed on the moon and then walked on the moon's surface. No man had ever done that before, and less than a dozen Americans have done it since.

In hindsight, though, I really wonder why we were all so concerned about whether Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would be able to descend from the lunar module to the surface of the moon. I'm not sure of the exact distance, but my guess is that it was about 15–20 feet down a ladder. What did we all think might happen? Did we think they would spontaneously explode because of the change of pressure? Did we think they would go flying off into space, never to be seen again?

There was always more reason for concern — at least I thought so — when the astronauts were landing the lunar module on the moon or taking off to rendezvous with the command module.

In fact, the landing was quite dramatic. It was unexpectedly drawn out, and the crew had less than 30 seconds of fuel to spare. Armstrong and Aldrin compensated for faulty computer readings and landed safely. After that, I figured walking on the moon was a mere formality — and a somewhat unremarkable one, at that.

Boy, was I wrong.

As I recalled in this blog last year, my family went to our pastor's home to watch the moon walk, and we all shared the big moment when Armstrong spoke his immortal words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." My memory is of our pastor's rather large living room filled with adults and children, none of whom made a sound as they watched Armstrong make his descent down that ladder.

It is a lasting memory, of course. It is a moment I will always remember, not only because of what I witnessed but because of those with whom I shared the moment.

And I also remember the actual landing on the moon, a moment that left Walter Cronkite himself at a loss for words.

That rarely happened with Cronkite, and Americans really seemed to take their cue from "Uncle Walter" at times. When Ted Koppel says, "When Walter rejoiced over man landing on the moon, America rejoiced with him," you can take that to the bank.

Those who saw him, grinning from ear to ear, as two men fulfilled what must have been a boyhood fantasy of his (and countless others) will never forget the scene. Cronkite was devoted to the neutrality of the newsman, but he could hardly be neutral on that day, even without saying much.

Today is also a sad reminder how tragic it is that Cronkite didn't live to see the 40th anniversary of this achievement. I can't help but think that he would have had some unique insights to share. He was always capable of putting every event in the perspective it deserved. And Apollo 11 deserved a lot of attention.

July 20, 1969 was truly an historic day for all Americans — but especially so for the people of Wapakoneta, Ohio. That is the town where Armstrong was born in 1930. On this occasion, Bob Greene reflects on Armstrong's "giant leap from Ohio" at

The summer of '69 was unique. A lot of memorable things happened that summer — the Woodstock festival, the Manson family murders, the Stonewall riots. John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded "Give Peace a Chance" during their famous bed–in. Ted Kennedy's presidential ambitions probably died at Chappaquiddick while Apollo 11 was on its way to the moon, although Kennedy did try to win his party's presidential nomination in 1980.

In fact, the whole year was filled with transitional and noteworthy moments. Richard Nixon became president in January. The man Nixon served as vice president, Dwight Eisenhower, died in March. Charles DeGaulle was replaced as president of France. Charles became the prince of Wales. Joe Namath made good on his "guarantee" that the New York Jets would win the Super Bowl and, later that year, the "Amazin' Mets" won the World Series.

But that summer will always be remembered for the landing on the moon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Riding the Storm Out

When I was a teenager, there was a song by a popular band of the time that was titled, "Riding the Storm Out."

It might be a pretty good anthem for those who have been hammered by the current recession.

I know the millions of unemployed Americans are yearning for a time when, as Louis Uchitelle writes in the New York Times, help will be wanted by employers again.

"Recessions have their milestones," Uchitelle writes. "There is the start, of course, in this case December 2007; the worst months, the winter and spring of this year; the gradual return to economic expansion, late this year maybe; and, finally, adding jobs."

The improvement in the employment picture typically occurs at the end of a recession — and, given the fact that this recession is deeper than any that most people living today have witnessed, that is going to take awhile.

And even when employers start hiring again, hiring activity is apt to be "spotty and cautious."

That part, I suppose, should be obvious, even if it is an unpleasant truth that most unemployed Americans don't want to think about.

"Most Americans don't consider a recession really over until work is once again plentiful, and the unemployment rate — which is now at 9.5% — finally starts going down," Uchitelle writes. "Ask economists when that will occur this time and they hesitate. No sooner than next summer, nearly all of them say. And that's a guess, verging on wishful thinking."

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, observes that it will take time for manufacturing and construction to stop losing jobs, and it will take time for businesses to regain enough confidence to hire employees.

So the outlook is for a "jobless recovery," Uchitelle writes, comparing it to the last two recessions. But this one is worse because, instead of job losses in the tens of thousands each month, we have witnessed an economy that has been hemorrhaging jobs in the hundreds of thousands every month.

To move things along, Uchitelle suggests another stimulus package may be necessary. But I get the sense that there isn't much of an appetite on Capitol Hill for more debt (Uchitelle suggests a stimulus package with a price tag approaching $1 trillion). The Democrats may be able to muster enough support in the House, but it's going to be another matter to get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, even with the recent addition of Al Franken and the defection of former Republican Arlen Specter.

But what choice do lawmakers have? More than a quarter of the states already have unemployment rates in double digits, and more are likely to join them in the months ahead. The Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress were warned by economists like Paul Krugman that the first stimulus package was too small, but they made concessions and compromises in a misguided — and unsuccessful — attempt to achieve bipartisanship.

Bipartisanship must not be a concern this time. The Democrats have the numbers in Congress. They do not need to ask the Republicans for permission. They must act — boldly and swiftly — for the good of the people who sent them to Washington.

To push through another stimulus package, at the same time that he is pressing for health care reform, Obama is going to have to demonstrate whatever skills of political persuasion he possesses.

He's going to have to use whatever "political capital" he has left. If he does not, his party faces a huge setback at the polls next year.

That is the reality.

It is not a pleasant prospect, but it is the only way the Democrats will be able to ride out this particular storm.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

May I Suggest ... ?

I've been writing all my life.

When I say that, I'm not joking. I started learning the written alphabet and writing, under my mother's supervision, before I entered kindergarten. No one appreciates a well–turned phrase more than I do, and it's always pleasing when it appears in something I have written.

In fact, there are many satisfying aspects about writing. But there's one really big drawback. For me, anyway.

And that is when I see something that someone else has written and I find myself thinking — if not actually saying — "I wish I had written that!"

I had such a moment this evening.

Readers of this blog should be familiar with the name of John McIntyre. He is a former editor for the Baltimore Sun, and he writes a wonderful blog about language called "You Don't Say."

I thoroughly enjoyed reading his latest post, "How could this have happened?" and I commend it to you, hoping you will read it.

Gotta say I agree with him on just about every point, especially his observation that "Mistakes were made."

Damn! Wish I had written that!

The Vanishing Newsmen

So far this year, we've lost two of the greats from broadcast journalism when I was growing up — Irving R. Levine in March and now Walter Cronkite.

When Levine died, I noted that "He was finicky about his sign–off." That was a reference to his insistence upon including his middle initial when he completed a report, saying "This is Irving R. Levine." The folks at NBC asked him if he would mind dropping that middle initial. They wanted to save a little time. Levine replied that he would rather leave out the B in NBC.

I guess being finicky about sign–offs was a trait among the old school broadcasters because, apparently, Cronkite had some problems with his sign–off.

At least, that is what Tom Watkins is reporting at

Today, the day after Cronkite's death, his memorable sign–off, "And that's the way it is," is being remembered as classic. But it didn't get off to a great start, Watkins writes.

Sandy Socolow, who was Cronkite's producer for four years, told Watkins the story.

On Cronkite's first night as CBS' anchorman, Socolow said, "he ended the show by saying, I'm paraphrasing, 'That's the news. Be sure to check your local newspapers tomorrow to get all the details on the headlines we are delivering to you.'

"The suits,"
Socolow said, "went crazy. From their perspective, Cronkite was sending people to read newspapers instead of watching the news."

So Cronkite changed his sign–off.

"In the absence of anything else, he came up with 'That's the way it is,' " Socolow said.

But that, too, caused some problems for Cronkite.

"(CBS News President Richard) Salant's attitude was, 'We're not telling them that's the way it is. We can't do that in 15 minutes,' which was the length of the show in those days. 'That's not the way it is.' "

But Cronkite wasn't going to come up with a third sign–off so he kept the one that is now being regarded as iconic.

Those old school broadcasters had their standards.