Monday, August 31, 2009

Words I Never Thought I'd Hear -- or Read

There's a lot of rhetoric — on both sides — in the health care reform debate.

And I know that economist/columnist Paul Krugman has tended to support Barack Obama's actions since taking office. Sometimes, he hasn't thought those actions went far enough, but he supported them, anyway.

Well, today I was mildly shocked when I read the headline on his column in the New York Times"Missing Richard Nixon."

Now, Nixon spent the last 20 years of his life trying to rehabilitate his image. Initially, he was about as grudging as Pete Rose, determined not to admit that he had made a mistake. But he came to the conclusion rather quickly that he had to offer his mea culpa before he would be forgiven.

There are times, as Krugman has discovered, when Nixon doesn't look so bad in hindsight.

One such time is the current health care reform debate. Most of us remember when Bill Clinton and the Democrats tried to reform health care in the 1990s, but not as many Americans remember when reforming health care was on the agenda in the early 1970s.

"Many of the retrospectives on Ted Kennedy's life mention his regret that he didn't accept Richard Nixon's offer of a bipartisan health care deal," Krugman writes. I couldn't have been very old when that happened. I have no memory of it so I'll have to take Krugman's word for it.

But Krugman writes that "[t]he moral some commentators take from that regret is that today's health care reformers should do what Mr. Kennedy balked at doing back then, and reach out to the other side."

I've heard that from others. But Krugman doesn't buy it — "surveying current politics, I find myself missing Richard Nixon."

Wait a minute. Hold the phone. I can remember Nixon's landslide victory in 1972, and I can remember when he resigned two years later. Nixon was never popular with my parents and their friends, but when he left office, it literally seemed to me that he was universally despised.

It's been 35 years since he left office, and it's been 15 years since he died. Individual attitudes toward Richard Nixon the man may have softened, but I never expected to hear or read anyone say they missed having him in the White House.

Fortunately, Krugman was quick to elaborate.

"No, I haven't lost my mind. Nixon was surely the worst person other than Dick Cheney ever to control the executive branch. But the Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren't as warped by corporate cash as they are now."

Well, that makes sense. Especially when he goes on to suggest that the influence of corporate cash has rendered the nation ungovernable. But it isn't that tidy.

"Nixon's proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today," Krugman writes. "In fact, in some ways it was stronger. Right now, Republicans are balking at the idea of requiring that large employers offer health insurance to their workers; Nixon proposed requiring that all employers, not just large companies, offer insurance."

What happened? The right wing took over the Republican Party, Krugman says. "Moderate Republicans ... have either been driven out of the party or intimidated into silence."

But that's too simplistic as well. "We tend to think of the way things are now ... as the way it always was," Krugman writes. "But our corporate–cash–dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s. And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That's especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon's day."

It is enough to spark memories of Deep Throat's admonition to Woodward and Bernstein — just follow the money.

"Given the combination of G.O.P. extremism and corporate power," Krugman writes, "it's now doubtful whether health reform, even if we get it — which is by no means certain — will be anywhere near as good as Nixon's proposal, even though Democrats control the White House and have a large Congressional majority."

As he wrapped up his column, Krugman appears to have thought that he was coming off as too pessimistic. "I'm not saying that reformers should give up," he writes. "They do, however, have to realize what they're up against."

That, too, seems to be a rational answer, and that leads us to what may be an insurmountable problem. Krugman manages to touch on it at the end.

Many of those who voted for Obama, it seems to me, have invested a lot of their emotional well–being into the belief that the election of Obama last year was a transformational moment for the nation. I have thought all along that it was a step that had to be taken at some point, but it did not ultimately resolve anything.

Thinking that it did is nothing more than denial.

"[T]rue transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader," Krugman says. "Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system."

Emphasizing job creation seems a little more logical now, doesn't it? Putting people to work is something everyone can agree on, right?

Choosing Kennedy's Successor

Ted Kennedy's body is in its final resting place.

The eulogies have been given. The mourners have returned to their homes. The president is back in Washington. Kennedy's congressional colleagues are wrapping up their late summer break.

And, back in Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts, attention is turning to his successor.

Gov. Deval Patrick announced today that a primary will be held Dec. 8 and a special election will be held Jan. 19. Hillary Chabot of the Boston Herald writes that "[e]arlier today, Democratic lawmakers hit the gas on a push to appoint a temporary successor to Kennedy, moving up a public hearing on the legislation to Sept. 9."

Frank Phillips writes, in the Boston Globe, that "[a]ll eyes now are on Joseph P. Kennedy II ... with family members and political allies expecting him to make a decision very shortly."

There had been some talk, in the days before Ted Kennedy's funeral, that his widow might be persuaded to take his place. Most indications are that she is not interested. Chabot, in fact, writes that she told Patrick today that she is not interested. But there is some doubt. Chabot's colleague, Edward Mason, reports, in the Boston Herald, that a "Democratic operative with Kennedy contacts" has said that Victoria Kennedy is "very much interested" in being her husband's temporary replacement while the voters choose his successor.

So it falls to Joe.

"No other Kennedy of his generation with the political stature to step into the role has signaled interest in it," Phillips writes.

And the entry of a Kennedy into a special election campaign shortly after the death of Ted Kennedy apparently would have a chilling effect on the field of potential contenders.

Phillips writes that two Kennedy loyalists who have been considering seeking the job — Reps. Edward J. Markey and Michael Capuano — "would not run against a member of the family."

Joe wouldn't have an open shot at the Democratic nomination, though. Phillips reports that "[t]wo other major Democratic figures considering entering the race — Attorney General Martha Coakley and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch — have told associates they plan to compete for the primary nomination no matter who enters."

Personally, though, I find it hard to imagine Massachusetts Democrats nominating someone else if any Kennedy was on the ballot.

And, even though some Republicans in Massachusetts have expressed an interest in the seat, I find it even harder to believe the voters in the Bay State would elect one to the Senate over a Kennedy or some other Democrat — even though they did elect Mitt Romney governor in 2002. During Kennedy's tenure, only two Republicans — Edward Brooke, a black progressive who earned his reputation by prosecuting organized crime and contributing to the investigation that led to a conviction in the "Boston strangler" case, and former Gov. Leverett Saltonstall — were elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.

Only Democrats served as Kennedy's Senate colleagues from Massachusetts in the final 30 years of his life.

The other day, when I wrote about Teddy Kennedy Jr.'s eulogy to his father, I observed that he was not a likely choice to take his father's place because he lives in Connecticut. Today, Phillips sets me straight on the fine points of the law in Massachusetts.

Teddy Jr., Phillips acknowledges, "lives in Connecticut but owns a house in Hyannis Port. This would not be an issue, however, as there is no residency requirement of a U.S. Senate seat."

Even so, "he has given no indication publicly that he is interested in the seat."

And that brings us back to Joe, who increasingly appears to be the sole hope for those who wish to see the Kennedys keep the Senate seat in the family on a long–term basis.

Ideologically, he appears to be well suited to succeed his uncle. When he was in the House, Joe's high ratings from Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the Committee on Political Education (COPE), Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) mirrored Ted's.

And the two got similarly low ratings from groups like the American Conservative Union (ACU) and the National Security Index (NSI) of the American Security Council.

In the meantime, I suppose, all eyes — especially those in the Oval Office — will be on Patrick and the Massachusetts lawmakers — and whether they will grant Ted Kennedy's dying wish to have an interim successor named to speak for Massachusetts in the Senate — and preserve the Democrats' "filibuster–proof majority" for the rest of 2009.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Kennedy Controversial in Death

This morning — the day after Ted Kennedy was buried near the graves of his brothers, John and Robert — his praises are being sung in most places.

There are exceptions, of course. There always are. Sometimes such voices are in a distinct minority, and they don't always agree on the reasons for dissenting.

Yet, dissent they do.

Which, I guess, explains, in part, my fascination with Maureen Callahan's column in the New York Post, which carries the headline "Kennedy's Free Pass With Women."

Now, I don't suppose it should come as any surprise to most people that the Post's columnists are critical of Kennedy, even in death. In a little over a week, it will be one year since the Post went against the grain in New York and endorsed John McCain over Barack Obama. It also endorsed the re–election of George W. Bush in 2004.

Its political leanings should be obvious.

And I have to give Callahan credit — to a certain extent. I agree that, given Kennedy's youthful behavior, his treatment from women has been somewhat bewildering.

But she is wrong when she opens her column by saying, "In all the obits published and specials aired this week, Chappaquiddick gets a few paragraphs, a few minutes, a tidy recapping of the events of July 19, 1969."

That misrepresents the facts.

Callahan's colleague at the Post, Jonah Goldberg, wrote that Kennedy's death was "marked by cynicism, opportunism and irony," with Democrats seeking to enhance their position on health care reform by naming the bill after Kennedy months after they denounced Rush Limbaugh for suggesting that was precisely what they would do. Goldberg also complained that Mary Jo Kopechne's death had been "minimized" in an effort "to protect the Kennedy brand."

Likewise, in his article in Forbes, Victor Davis Hanson complained that "a clear case of involuntary manslaughter for the 'average citizen' was reduced to a traffic violation for the 'high and mighty.' "

In Hanson's eyes, it was one of many examples of a double standard that was applied to Kennedy during his life.

Recently, I observed that Chappaquiddick has been mentioned frequently in the days since Kennedy's death.

True, sometimes it was a passing reference. But other voices were so angry that they made Chappaquiddick seem like a recent event, not something that happened 40 years ago.

It reminded me of a time when I was about 12. My family was visiting my grandparents in Dallas during the Christmas holidays, and I had been out shopping with the son of my parents' friends. I found (and purchased with my Christmas money) a three–record boxed set of audio recordings from the 1960s. As I remember, it was produced by CBS, it was narrated by Walter Cronkite and it was called "I Can Hear It Now: The Sixties."

I was interested in the presidency from an early age, and I was interested in American history as well so a collection of sound clips from that turbulent decade was right up my alley. At the time, I think I assumed it was intended to be one volume of a more extensive audio library, but if it was, I never saw any other volumes that were dedicated to other decades.

Anyway, when we returned from our shopping trip and I was waiting for my mother to pick me up, I showed my prize to my friend's mother and began pointing out what was included in the collection. I mentioned that a portion of Ted Kennedy's eulogy to his brother Bobby was on the recording, and my friend's mother said simply, "He killed that girl."

I don't recall any sound clips from Chappaquiddick that were included in the collection. And I don't recall bringing up Chappaquiddick in the conversation. But the mere mention of Kennedy's name prompted that observation.

Granted, only a few years had passed and the wound was still raw. But, for some people, the wound is still raw, four decades later.

That shouldn't mitigate Kennedy's actions. And it's possible Chappaquiddick did work against him when he unsuccessfully sought the presidential nomination in 1980. I was a college student in Arkansas at the time, and I voted for President Carter in the state primary. I wasn't the only one. Kennedy lost that primary by more than a 3–to–1 margin. In fact, I don't remember the Kennedy campaign making much of an effort to win the Arkansas primary.

Unless a younger Kennedy seeks the presidency, that was the only opportunity I will have to vote for a Kennedy. When Kennedy challenged President Carter, I remember some commentators bringing up Chappaquiddick, but I don't remember it being a major issue. Maybe it would have been if Kennedy had appeared to be a more serious contender for the nomination.

Anyway, Chappaquiddick was never a factor for me when I voted in the Arkansas primary. I was then, as I am now, an admirer of President Carter. There was never any question in my mind how I would vote in that primary.

And, rightly or wrongly, I remember blaming Kennedy's challenge in the primaries for Carter's eventual loss to Ronald Reagan. I felt that Kennedy forced Carter to squander time and resources to win his nomination instead of focusing on the general election campaign.

If that is true, then it also may be true, as I have heard recently, that Kennedy's quixotic presidential campaign led to the implementation of the many Reagan policies that he spent the last decades of his career fighting against.

Kennedy's ultimate influence on the 1980 election may have been an incorrect interpretation. But that is how I saw it.

Similarly, I guess, those who have written about Chappaquiddick in recent days may have misinterpreted its influence on the last four decades, but that is how they see it.

That's the tricky thing about history. It is open to all sorts of alternative interpretations.

Would Carter have been defeated by Reagan anyway? Maybe. That is something we will never know.

And we will never know the truth about Chappaquiddick.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Teddy Jr.'s Tribute

The last couple of days have reminded me so much of the outpouring of affection for Ronald Reagan when he died in 2004.

There were times during Reagan's memorials a little more than five years ago when I felt the mourners were laying it on a little thick. But I attributed it to the fact that I was not a Reagan supporter when he was alive and, I figured, well, let his admirers pay their tributes to his memory.

This time, of course, it has been for someone who was about as far from Reagan on the political spectrum as it seems possible to be — Ted Kennedy. And I am struck by the fact that these memorials always seem to have a single memorable moment.

Forty–one years ago, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Ted Kennedy himself was responsible for the memorable moment at Bobby's funeral service in New York. And, without question, I think the most touching moment today was the speech given by Teddy Jr.

I've heard — and read — some speculation today that Teddy Jr. might be appointed to replace his father in the Senate. It isn't a bad idea, except that, logistically, it could present quite a problem. He lives in Connecticut. If a Kennedy is going to be appointed — or elected — to replace Teddy Sr., it isn't likely to be his namesake.

But he did give quite a speech this morning. If you haven't seen it, watch the attached clip.

I'll say no more.

I Think He's Clueless

They said their final goodbyes to Ted Kennedy today in a funeral mass that featured a eulogy by Barack Obama, a man who might well never have become president if not for Kennedy's endorsement.

I'm sure there are many who are still ooohing and aaaahing over Obama's speech today. He is indeed an impressive orator, and I mean to take nothing away from that skill.

But it is a talent that seems best suited for political campaigns. It can be helpful when a campaign is over and the orator must lead as well as persuade, but one must know how to make that transition. Once one is in office, oratorical skill is beneficial only when it is used effectively to implement policy.

In that regard, I have come to the conclusion that Obama is clueless.

Obama has a well deserved reputation for sharp political instincts. But that is a reputation that was honed on the campaign trail. If the public gets the idea that such a person is not so effective once in office, it can be extremely difficult to reverse that.

I know I live in a traditionally Republican area, but I've been getting the sense that even some Democrats are disappointed. And the Gallup Poll supports that.

The cumulative effect, of comments that have been made and actions that have been taken, on his public image — and, as a consequence, confidence in him to govern — has not been good. Trying to appease a group of people who cannot be appeased has made Obama look weak. Comparing his bowling skills to Special Olympics has made him appear insensitive. Protocol missteps in his foreign travels has made him appear uninformed.

When faced with a challenge from Republicans to his stimulus package, Obama sought to appease his adversaries. He got just enough GOP support to pass his package, but whether it was his idea or the idea of Democratic lawmakers, Obama's campaign promise to give tax credits to employers who hired Americans was left out. Now, many people who might have gotten jobs with the help of such a tax credit are on the verge of losing their unemployment benefits.

Job creation should have been a priority all along. But despite Obama's campaign trail promises and a lot of lip service from lawmakers, it has not been a priority in the seven months that Obama has been in office.

When Obama and the Congress return to Washington, they will take up the debate on health care. But for millions of unemployed Americans, the greatest threat to their health, both physical and mental, is not being able to pay for housing or nourishing food or adequate clothing.

They're not asking for bailouts. Can they be blamed for wondering about the priorities of a nation that bails out the bankers who played such a prominent role in the economic meltdown (and stands by while those bankers are given multimillion–dollar bonuses) and then takes away the meager source of support for unemployed workers while counseling them to be patient for a year or two?

Maybe Kennedy's death is the reality check Obama needed. He's had his "filibuster–proof" Senate majority for less than two months, but it can be gone in the wink of an eye. While I don't think anyone doubts that Massachusetts will pick a Democrat to take Kennedy's seat, there are other Democrats in the Senate whose party's grip on electoral power in their states is so tenuous that, if any of those senators should die suddenly, it might be a real challenge for the party to keep the seat.

Increasingly, it seems to be obvious that 2010 is apt to be quite a challenge for some Democratic incumbents who are going to be on the ballot. But if anyone would have known about the ever–shifting nature of political power in America, it would have been Ted Kennedy. And he was enough of a student of history to know how voters hold the party in office accountable.

There may be many concepts that voters don't comprehend as fully as they should. Certainly, the health care debate is full of them. That's got to be one of the main reasons why seemingly transparent scare tactics are successful.

But the voters understand when unemployment is high. Next Friday, we'll get the latest unemployment figures. My guess is that those numbers will be something of a letdown for some people who were unduly encouraged by last month's 0.1% drop in the unemployment rate (I wonder how that happens when actual job losses were still in six figures).

Did you watch Kennedy's funeral mass today? Sandwiched in there, between remarks from the priest and the musical interludes, were intercessions from Kennedy's grandchildren, nieces and nephews, some of whom referred to the poor, the unemployed, the vulnerable, the ones who have been forgotten by society. They are the ones who were championed by Kennedy.

To be sure, some spoke of health care reform and Kennedy's belief that it was the issue of his life. But Kennedy was an advocate of workers' rights, and I have a hard time believing that he would passively permit the lifeline of unemployment benefits to be denied suddenly to hundreds of thousands of Americans — something that is due to start happening in a matter of weeks.

Health care reform is important. I don't think anyone would agree with that more than Ted Kennedy.

But, in a nation that is nearing double–digit unemployment, I have to wonder if Obama, sitting on the front row with his wife, his vice president and Jimmy Carter, the man whose presidency was ended in large part because of escalating unemployment, gets it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

All That You Can't Leave Behind

I found this on YouTube today.

Tonight, mourners have gathered in Boston to pay homage to Ted Kennedy.

It is closed to the public, but it is still being televised on CNN and C–Span. It has been alternately moving and amusing to listen to the eulogies from both Democrats and Republicans. As vilified as Kennedy was in life for his liberal leanings, it has been enlightening to listen to people like Orrin Hatch and John McCain speak with genuine affection for a friend.

But, as I have been reading the articles on the internet — and viewing videos like the one I have posted — it has occurred to me that Ted Kennedy, like Richard Nixon, has one Achilles' heel that will be with him as long as there is an American history that is chronicled in the history books.

For Nixon, it was Watergate. For Kennedy, it was Chappaquiddick.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that Kennedy's death would bring another round of discussions about that incident.

The Week reported that "Kennedy's name was Google's top search term the day after his death, but Mary Jo Kopechne and Chappaquiddick were Nos. 2 and 3."

And some writers, like Michael Scherer in TIME, mentioned it only in passing. Scherer referred to it as one of Kennedy's "darkest moments."

Howie Carr of the Boston Herald briefly brought up Chappaquiddick in a general article that recites all of Kennedy's shortcomings.

There has been much talk in tonight's memorial for Kennedy of the late senator's love of humor. Tom Blumer writes, for NewsBusters, that Chappaquiddick was one of his favorite topics.

To be sure, some people defended Kennedy. Melissa Lafsky speculated at The Huffington Post that Kopechne, "a dedicated civil rights activist and political talent with a bright future," might have "felt it was worth it" to trade her life for Kennedy's career.

Boy, that sparked a debate.

Rick Moran responded, in American Thinker, that it was "maybe the most amazingly shallow, myopic, and ultimately self–centered sentence ever written."

Perhaps that is unduly harsh. Personally, I believe that, unless one possesses the selflessness of a soldier, who knows he might at any moment have to sacrifice his life for others, no one is ever prepared to die at the age of 28.

So I thought Lafsky's article was interesting but a little preposterous.

Especially when I consider Eliott C. McLaughlin's survey of media experts for, asking if Kennedy's political career could survive a Chappaquiddick in the 21st century — "in the era of blogs, talk radio and 24–hour news cycles."

It's a fair question. The media has changed considerably in 40 years.

I remember, at the time, that Chappaquiddick was overshadowed, to a great extent, by Apollo 11 and its historic trip to the moon. If we could return to July 1969 and everything else was the same — but talk radio, blogs and 24–hour news were part of the media mix — I agree that Chappaquiddick would be a source of continuing discussion — even as the lunar module was descending to the moon's surface.

Heck, with split–screen technology, both stories could be covered simultaneously.

And I think Kennedy's career might well have been over. But I'm thinking from the perspective of one who has just been through an election year in which reverence for political dynasties was brought into question. In 1969, Kennedy, I believe, benefited from a reservoir of affection that Massachusetts had for John and Robert Kennedy and the Kennedy family.

We may find out in the months to come whether that reservoir still exits as Massachusetts chooses a replacement.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Lincoln Bicentennial

August 27 was always an important date in my family. As I have observed elsewhere, today was my mother's birthday.

She was born and raised in Texas, where August 27 actually is a legal state holiday, although it wasn't one when she was a child and it probably comes and goes today without the knowledge of many state employees. You see, August 27 was Lyndon Johnson's birthday. After Johnson's death, the state legislature created a holiday on his birthday. It is optional, and state offices do not close for it. In fact, much of today's workforce probably would not recognize Johnson's name.

Elsewhere, I guess, August 27 isn't a very significant day. But, since we observed the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln earlier this year, it seems to me that someone needs to point out that today is the 200th birthday of Lincoln's first vice president — Hannibal Hamlin.

Hamlin is kind of a nondescript figure in American history. He and Lincoln didn't even meet each other until after they were elected. His is not a household name, but Hamlin was the charter member of a very exclusive club — a politician from the state of Maine who was on a major party national ticket. In fact, I guess you could say he belongs to an even more exclusive club — politicians from Maine who were elected to a national office.

In 1860, he was elected the first vice president from the Republican Party. Apparently, he was a skilled orator and a vocal opponent of slavery, and he would have become president following Lincoln's assassination if he had been renominated in 1864. But that year, Lincoln ran under the banner of the National Union Party, which was a coalition of Republicans loyal to Lincoln and Northern Democrats, plus a few Southern Democrats. The National Union Party chose Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee, to be Lincoln's running mate. Lincoln's attention was on postwar Reconstruction, and he believed a Southerner like Johnson could help him with that.

In hindsight, it might have been better if Hamlin had been allowed to run for re–election with Lincoln. A few years after Lincoln's assassination, Johnson, of course, was impeached by the House and then acquitted by a single vote in the Senate trial.

Presidential candidate Jame Blaine was the next Mainer to be nominated for national office. He lost to Grover Cleveland in a bitterly contested election in 1884. Blaine and many of his supporters believed their defeat was due to a narrow loss in New York, where, shortly before the election, a Protestant minister used the controversial phrase "rum, Romanism and rebellion" to summarize what Democrats stood for — rum being a reference to the liquor interests, Romanism being a reference to Catholics (then, as now, a sizable constituency in New York) and rebellion being a reference to the Confederacy.

That was also the campaign in which it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, leading to the famous Republican chant, "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" Even so, Cleveland became the only Democrat to win the presidency in the late 19th century. When he won the election, jubilant Democrats added the line "Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

A man named Arthur Sewall was the next Mainer to be nominated by his party for national office. He was a Democrat who never held office but was a member of the Democratic National Committee in the 1880s and 1890s. William Jennings Bryan picked him as his running mate in 1896. The Bryan—Sewall ticket was beaten by William McKinley, and Sewall's name was largely forgotten for more than a century — until he was mentioned by the St. Louis Post–Dispatch in its endorsement of Barack Obama last year.

The Post–Dispatch told its readers that John McCain was guilty of "selecting the least qualified running mate since the Swedenborgian shipbuilder Arthur Sewall ran as William Jennings Bryan's No. 2 in 1896." That probably sent more than a few history students — and their teachers — scurrying for their history books, wondering Who the heck was Arthur Sewall?

Bonus points are in order if you know (without looking it up) what Swedenborgian means.

The newspaper's endorsement seems to have been ignored by the voters. Missouri voted for McCain.

The most recent Mainer on a national ticket (unless I have overlooked someone) was Edmund Muskie, who was chosen to be Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968. The Humphrey–Muskie ticket lost a close election to Richard Nixon, with independent segregationist George Wallace carrying five states and threatening, at one point, to send the selection of the next president to the House of Representatives.

Anyway, Hamlin is the only politician from Maine who has ever been elected vice president. He died on Independence Day in 1891.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Dream Shall Never Die

The torch has truly been passed to the next generation — of Americans and of the Kennedy family.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, 77, died late Tuesday after a 15–month battle with brain cancer.

This is the first time in my memory — and the first time in the lives of millions of Americans — that no Kennedy has been in the Senate. For nearly half a century, Kennedy represented the state of Massachusetts, and his death leaves a "long list of hopefuls" who may contend for the open seat in a special election, reports the Boston Globe.

What many of those contenders do will depend, to a great extent, upon what other Kennedys do, the Globe says. If a Kennedy decides to seek the seat, the newspaper says, resources and supporters are likely to gravitate in that direction, but it is not clear at this stage whether a member of the family will do so. Kennedy's widow, Victoria, does not seem to be interested in the seat. Kennedy's nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy II, has not indicated what his plans are.

They are the family members who are most frequently mentioned by political observers. There are, of course, other Kennedys — many other Kennedys — but not all of them live in Massachusetts so there is a chance — perhaps more than a chance — that the state's era of Kennedy representation has reached its conclusion.

For now, the Kennedys will gather for the second time this month to say goodbye to one of their own. It was just two weeks ago that Kennedy's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, died at the age of 88.

Whether it was acknowledged or not, it was generally expected, following Kennedy's diagnosis, that he would die soon. His brain tumor, a malignant glioma, is almost always lethal, although some people who are diagnosed with it live longer than others.

But it still came as something of a shock this morning to learn that Kennedy had died.

I was reminded, in many ways, of how I felt 18 years ago this month, when I received a phone call from an old friend telling me that another old friend had died of cancer. He had been diagnosed only a few months earlier, but his rapid decline left everyone preparing for the inevitable. Yet, when it came, it felt like a ton of bricks had been dropped on me.

Kennedy's public life was filled with moments that are being remembered today — his eloquent eulogy to his brother Bobby in 1968, his impassioned speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1980, his presence at many of the pivotal moments in the nation's history.

And his speech at last year's Democratic National Convention, which he gave one year to the day before his death.

He was born on George Washington's 200th birthday, which may have been an indication of the role he was to play in American history.

If he genuinely aspired to be president of the United States, it was a goal he never achieved. But he left his mark on the nation in the form of hundreds of laws that bear his name.

Rest in peace, senator.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Blogging, Opinion and Anonymity

This morning, I have been reading about an interesting legal case involving a supposedly anonymous blogger in New York whose identity was revealed by the blog's host, Google.

The blogger had "posted rants" about a model at a blog titled "Skanks in NYC." The model, Liskula Cohen, didn't want the blogger's comments to remain on the internet for the rest of her life so she sued to get information about the blogger's identity, and a judge ordered Google to comply.

Google complied, and now the blogger says she will file a $15 million lawsuit against Google for not protecting her identity.

"The judge rejected [her] argument that blogs on the Internet 'serve as a modern–day forum for conveying personal opinions' and should not be regarded as fact," reports Stephen Samaniego for

Samaniego says legal experts believe the blogger is not likely to win the suit.

It reminds me of an online discussion I had with another blogger a few months ago.

This blogger had written about a murder case in which a child went missing and her body was later discovered in a suitcase. The church the child attended — and the home of the church's pastor — were investigated by the police. No one in authority had accused the pastor of anything, but his grandchild was about the same age as the murdered child and it turned out they had been playmates. The victim lived near the church and the pastor's home. That made them locations of interest.

When I was a general assignment reporter, one of my beats was the police beat. Based on my experience, it sounded — to me — as if the police in this case were leaving no stone unturned. I think most of us would agree that is the kind of diligence we would want from the police if someone we loved — particularly a child — met with foul play.

But the blogger made a remark in her report that was along the lines of "It's hard to imagine a pastor being involved in something like this, but ..."

That struck me as being sort of a non–accusation accusation, and I made the comment that, if the police investigation revealed a more likely suspect, the pastor might feel inclined to sue anyone who had implied that he might have been involved.

The blogger got defensive and responded that she had been stating her opinion. "That's what we do here," she said.

I replied that I understood what she was saying, but I also majored in journalism in college and, as a result, I know a little about communications law. I'm not a lawyer, but I know enough about the law to know a civil proceeding and a criminal proceeding are two different things.

In both instances, the burden of proof falls to the one bringing the charges. But the proof need not be as compelling in a civil case as it needs to be in a criminal case.

Remember the O.J. Simpson murder case? In the criminal case, Simpson was acquitted of murder charges because, in the jury's eyes, the prosecution did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. When the families of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman brought Simpson into court for the civil case, the prosecution did not have to meet that standard. It also did not need a unanimous jury verdict. There were a few dissenting votes, but there were enough votes supporting the prosecution that Simpson lost and was ordered to pay millions of dollars to the plaintiffs.

Communications law has been evolving for hundreds of years. It has adapted when new forms of communication have emerged, but the principles have remained constant.

Many bloggers believe — erroneously — that anonymity is guaranteed on the internet and that their statements can be defended as opinion.

Anonymity is not guaranteed. If a blogger writes something that is considered pertinent to a legal investigation, the provider of the blog space is likely to side with authorities, as Google did, and produce whatever information it can. Bloggers who sign up with Google only have to give an e–mail address, but if law enforcement is seeking information, a blog space povider may well do as Google did and turn over that address to the authorities and let them track down the blogger.
"Google does comply with valid legal processes, such as court orders and subpoenas, and these same processes apply to all law–abiding companies. At the same time, we have a legal team whose job is to scrutinize these requests and make sure they meet not only the letter but the spirit of the law."

Google statement

As for bloggers who believe that opinion is a defense, I would remind you that the judge in New York rejected that argument.

Laws vary from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And communications law is still emerging in the virtual world.

But, until these laws have fully emerged, the best advice I can give to bloggers would be:
  • If those conducting an investigation have charged someone with a crime, that is when it is appropriate to begin forming an opinion. Until such a charge has been filed, though, any such "opinions" can be viewed as speculation.

    That could leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit. And even defending yourself in a lawsuit can be very expensive. It can be even more costly if you lose. How costly? It depends on the jury.

  • Just because you have an opinion about someone or something does not mean you must express it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Tip of the Iceberg

As a trained journalist and veteran copy editor, I've been expecting this.

I've been hearing the praises sung for online journalism, for so–called "citizen journalists" who can post their reports directly to their employers' websites from remote locations, no copy editors needed.

Speed is the desired virtue. It is prized over accuracy. The old–fashioned copy desk slows things down. And many online news sites have dramatically reduced — or eliminated altogether — that tedious copy desk that seemed to gum up the works at a morning newspaper when it was late at night and everybody wanted to go home.

Maybe so, but that old–fashioned copy desk tended to be populated by people who had studied libel in school and were trained to double–check facts. Sometimes, they merely saved their employers a little embarrassment. Other times, they saved them considerably more than that.

There was a time when both print publications and broadcast news outlets placed as much emphasis on accuracy as they did speed. But the priorities seemed to change when personal computers were introduced into the mix.

When did news outlets decide that copy desks couldn't help them avoid pitfalls in communications law — and thus were expendable? Has communications law changed because the method of delivery has changed?

I don't know the specifics of this particular case, but I think we're seeing the start of content chaos on the internet.

Noam Cohen of the New York Times reports that Wikipedia "will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people" in the coming weeks.

"The change is part of a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia's leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace–the–chaos culture into something more mature and predictable," Cohen writes.

I can't help wondering, though, if this lesson might have more meaning if something of perceived value was on the line. Apparently, Wikipedia's seemingly open policy allowing anyone to edit its articles (a policy that has been limited, Cohen reports) hasn't led to any court challenges of which I am aware.

Instead, Cohen writes, "The new system comes as some recent studies have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first–time or infrequent contributors as it once was."

If this decision is being spearheaded by unfavorable survey results, that suggests to me that no one is suing Wikipedia over anything that has been posted by its "citizen journalists" so far. Whatever has occurred may only be regarded as a mild embarrassment — something akin to a prank.

But that also suggests to me that many allegedly information–oriented websites really are being run by marketers and public relations specialists. That isn't really new in the Fourth Estate, but it seems to have more influence in the digital world. These are people who are driven by profit margins and spin. In their eyes, content is a necessary evil that can be produced by anyone, and accuracy is nice to have — but not essential.

Cohen writes that the shift in editorial policy is a result of Wikipedia's acknowledgement that it has grown and wields greater influence in the world than it did. But copy editors have always known that the value of accuracy has never depended on the size of the audience.

Wikipedia is only the first high–profile battleground.

I believe the battle between communications law and the internet is merely beginning.

Thanks, I Needed That

Tomorrow is the anniversary of my "termination." That's a nice phrase, isn't it? It sort of implies that, yes, you don't have a job anymore but it wasn't your fault. Saying "you're terminated" is nonjudgmental, unlike "you're fired." It's another way of saying, it's just one of those things.

One of those things that has happened to several million people since December 2007.

I've been trying to keep my mind off the upcoming anniversary. And how am I doing that? Well, for starters, I read an article at that was written by John Devore. It is titled "8 Ways To Stay Positive About This Goddamn Stupid Recession."

OK, that probably isn't the best way to accomplish my objective. Forgive me. I've been out of work for a year.

On the other hand, maybe it is the best way.

Recently, the pastor of my church delivered a sermon about the role of humor in faith. During his sermon, he quoted Charlie Chaplin, who said, "To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it."

My pastor spoke about people who have experienced real physical pain. Cancer victims. Being out of work isn't painful in that way, but, trust me, it is painful enough.

So, in the spirit of "laughter is the best medicine," I read Devore's article. And I have to give him credit for summarizing some things pretty well.
  • Being out of work is "exhilarating," he says, "like being chased by bears."

    I've compared it to trying to climb a mountain while an avalanche is coming down around you. But Devore's analogy is probably funnier.

  • When he wrote about making new friends, I could sympathize with his observation that "[l]aughs will be had with Raaj at the copy center, as I fax my resumes off to prospective employers and crack jokes about how I'll never ever hear back from them."

    I know the feeling. I often feel like I am dumping my resumes in a black hole.

  • And Devore makes some profound (and often humorous) observations about the things he is learning about life.

    "I've learned how to beg," he writes, "because you can't eat integrity. That God doesn't answer prayers, as he's an aloof prick."

    And then there is this one: "On Facebook, no one can hear you scream."
I'm thinking about putting that last one in as my status update on Facebook. And leaving it there indefinitely.

But maybe I won't. It might be too depressing to realize that no one is paying any attention to it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Hiding Place

In the last week, a 33–year–old woman named Sandra Sanborn was arrested by Quincy, Mass., police. She confessed that she hid 19 bags of crack cocaine in her bra.

I just have a couple of thoughts on this.

First, it seems to me that a woman's bra is a pretty good hiding place if what you're trying to hide is small and flat, like paper money or a credit card. But 19 bags of anything that is bulky needs to be concealed elsewhere, if only because ...

Nineteen bags of just about anything stuffed in a bra will give the impression that the woman's breasts are larger than they really are. And, if you're a woman and you're trying to smuggle 19 bags of crack cocaine past the authorities, do you really want to hide them in a spot that is sure to attract attention?

Now, speaking only for myself, when I meet a woman, I try to look her in the eyes the whole time. I try not to allow my eyes to go below her shoulders.

But I know there are some guys out there who set their sights lower — in some cases, quite a bit lower.

In my experience, you can't tell which guys are which until you begin talking with them. And then it is too late.

So my advice to any would–be crack cocaine smugglers is simple: Don't use your bra to conceal the substance.

Pick some place that is inconspicuous.

Seems like a no–brainer to me.

Unfortunately, that seems to be what she has — no brain.

Democrats in Denial

Ian Swanson and Mike Soraghan write in The Hill, in what seem to be astonished tones, that the 2010 midterm elections are looking like a "more difficult political environment for Democrats."

I've been saying this for months — I'm not sure when I first wrote about it in this blog, but I know I mentioned it to people after the Democrats made concessions to the Republicans and got next to nothing for their trouble in the debate over the stimulus package in February.

I've been talking about it ever since.

Pooh pooh, my friends protested. Obama just won by a wide margin. Democrats have a 257–178 advantage in the House. When was the last time the Democrats had that many House seats?

Well, actually, Democrats had 258 House seats when Bill Clinton took office in January 1993. In the 1994 midterms, they lost 54 House seats — more importantly, they lost control of the chamber for a dozen years.

Clinton, of course, had to clean up an economic mess made by another Bush. It wasn't as severe as the one Obama inherited from the younger Bush, but it was bad enough. I don't recall anyone seriously criticizing the steps Clinton had to take to right the economic ship — especially since, when he left office, he left behind a budget surplus (which was immediately squandered by the second Bush).

I did hear some squawking by Republicans when the stimulus package was passed — but everyone understood that desperate times called for desperate measures, right?

Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate, my friends say. How long has it been since either party had that many seats?

True, 60 Senate seats is rare and usually short lived. It took the defection of Arlen Specter from the GOP to give the Democrats their so–called "filibuster–proof" majority. But such numbers are very hard to sustain. Prior to the current party division in the Senate, Democrats held 61 seats when Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. His party lost three Senate seats in 1978, then lost control of the Senate for six years when 12 seats flipped to the GOP in 1980.

But what many people forget is that Democrats had been making steadier and more impressive gains before Carter's presidency, in the late 1950s and early to mid–1960s, but they started losing ground in the South (largely because of civil rights) and elsewhere (largely because of Vietnam). Their downward trajectory was interrupted, temporarily, by the political backlash over Watergate.

In 1958, Democrats gained 15 seats, giving them a 64–34 advantage. An interesting footnote is that figure includes both senators from Alaska. The state actually joined the Union after the 1958 elections; although it has established a solid Republican reputation since that time, its first two senators were Democrats.

The party maintained that number in 1960, then increased the total to 67 in the 1962 midterms, thanks to a surge of patriotism following the Cuban Missile Crisis. When Lyndon Johnson won the presidency by a landslide in 1964, his party gained another seat in the Senate, but then it began losing a handful of seats at a time — four losses in 1966, six losses in 1968, four losses in 1970.

Democrats made sure Richard Nixon's coattails were short in 1972; they took back two seats from the GOP, then captured five seats in the election held a few months after Nixon resigned. I'm not sure if it matters, but the 61–seat majority already had been established by the Democrats before Carter won the presidency.

Anyway, Obama isn't unique in terms of his party's share of the Senate, only in how Democrats achieved it — with the help of the defection of a five–term Republican senator from Pennsylvania, voter backlash against a 40–year GOP incumbent from Alaska who was convicted of corruption (a conviction that was overturned by the Obama administration because it uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct) and a protracted election in Minnesota that narrowly unseated another Republican incumbent.

Obama is the fifth Democratic president elected since 1960, and only Clinton took office with fewer Democrats in the Senate.

But Clinton lost more senators in his first midterm than any of the others. We'll never know if they might have fared better if they had faced the voters with Clinton at the top of the ballot.

Common sense says they wouldn't, because Clinton appeared to need that wake–up call to devise the strategy that won a second term. After wallowing in the 40% range in his approval ratings through much of 1994, Clinton began to rally in 1995 and went on to win a second term in 1996 — but he didn't do a lot to help congressional Democrats, and that underscores a point that Swanson and Soraghan make:
"Democrats can't ride Obama's coattails as they did in 2008, when a strong turnout among young and minority voters helped them increase their House and Senate majorities.

"They also can't run against former President George W. Bush, whose unpopular policies were key to their winning control of both chambers in 2006."

Then, Swanson and Soraghan remind us who will be voting next year:
"Instead, they'll face what is expected to be an older and whiter demographic in 2010, which would hurt Democrats in the best of circumstances. President Obama won more than 90% of the black vote in 2008, and he won 66% of the 18–to–29–year–old voting category. In contrast, he lost voters 65 years old and older, taking only 45% of the vote.

"Just as important is that Democrats are losing the messaging war with Republicans on health care, according to David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It predicted this week that Democrats could lose at least 20 seats in the House in 2010."

There are many variables in elections. As I have pointed out before, George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy both profited at the polls in midterm elections because of patriotic feelings brought on by international crises.

But if the Democrats lose 20 seats in the House, that will be roughly in keeping with the historical trend. In the 17 midterm elections since 1942, the president's party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats.

Democrats cannot afford to be complacent.

Both parties spin things in the way that is most favorable to their side, but the fact remains that, even if Obama continues to be personally popular, he won't be on the ballot next year. The coalition that elected Obama — young voters and minority voters — has not proven to be reliable in the past. He needs to motivate those groups so they will show up at the polls. How could he do that? By promoting issues those voters have shown that they care about — job creation, same–sex marriage, immigration reform, marijuana legalization.

But Obama has chosen to press for health care reform — the same issue that rallied Republicans in the early 1990s and paved the way for a GOP congressional takeover that lasted more than a decade. Most young voters are not affected by health care the way most older voters are.

Obama is using a bait that appeals to his opponents, not his supporters.

As Paul Mirengoff observes in the Washington Examiner, "[W]e must ask whether the Republicans will find the kind of coherent message and strong leadership they profited from in 1994. In addition, will the fact that, unlike in 1994, Republicans controlled Congress until recently make voters reluctant to restore them to power? Finally, will Obama's leftist agenda cause voters to cut him and his party less slack than voters cut Republicans in 1982?"

Those are questions that have yet to be answered, but the declining support for Obama's health care initiative suggests movement back toward the center — and possibly to the right of center. It's the kind of thing that should make Democrats think about the near future.

But the Democrats I hear talking about 2010 remain delusional.
"Democrats believe whatever momentum they have lost can be made up if Obama signs a health care bill and the economy is on the upswing in the fall of 2010. Conversely, they acknowledge failure to pass a health care bill will diminish their prospects.

" 'If it passes, our chances are better,' said a Democratic leadership aide. 'If not, they're worse.'

"And vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts have been preparing themselves for fierce challenges, the aide said. For example, they've highlighted their independence by taking stances against leadership on key votes.

" 'This is prognosticators trying to pay the bills,' said a Democratic leadership aide. 'We've been preparing our guys to compete in a difficult climate.' "

Well, good luck with that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I Never Thought Of That

If I have a "guilty pleasure," I guess it would be those real–life forensics investigation shows on TV.

I'm like most amateur sleuths, I guess. I like to think I'm pretty good, although I'm probably not as good as I think I am.

But I really have to give credit to the investigators who were looking for evidence in the murder of 28–year–old Jasmine Fiore.

Her body was found in an Anaheim, Calif., dumpster last weekend. Her teeth had been extracted and her fingers had been removed. Police said it was apparently a deliberate attempt to obscure her identity.

However, Fiore, a former model, had breast implants, and she was identified by the serial numbers on her implants.

I never would have thought that implants could have the same identification value as fingerprints or dental records. Guess I don't know as much about forensics as I thought I did.

By the way, an arrest warrant has been issued for Ryan Alexander Jenkins, a former reality TV contestant. Jenkins and Fiore were married in March.

Apparently, he didn't know as much about forensics as he needed to.

My guess is that he thought he had come up with the perfect crime. But he was wrong, wasn't he?

Shock and Awe in Obama's America

I have mentioned before how much I admire Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman. He is intelligent and he provides great insight in his columns for the New York Times.

Today's column is a good example. Here is how it begins:
"According to news reports, the Obama administration — which seemed, over the weekend, to be backing away from the 'public option' for health insurance — is shocked and surprised at the furious reaction from progressives.

"Well, I'm shocked and surprised at their shock and surprise.

"A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months. The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it's also a proxy for broader questions about the president's priorities and overall approach."

Krugman writes in the context of the health care reform debate, but that pretty well describes the last seven months in general.

In all candor, Krugman does a better job than I have of explaining what was at the heart of my own misgivings over Obama last year and why, in the end, even though I am a Democrat, I chose to vote for Ralph Nader. People asked me why, and all I could say was that I wasn't comfortable with Obama.

I wanted to be comfortable with him. I really did. I knew I wasn't comfortable with the McCain–Palin ticket, but, try as I might, I just couldn't trust Obama enough to give him my vote.

At the time, I think I was bothered by the fact that I didn't feel he had been adequately tested by the nominating process.

In modern times, the presidential primary season has served as a trial by fire for wannabe leaders. Most of them — even the eventual nominees — get bloodied along the way, but the ones who prevail are the ones who pass the test. I guess it isn't desirable for politicians who want to be universally loved, but it tends to be reassuring for the rest of us. It tells us that the candidate in question can — in the words of the old Timex commercials — take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

In spite of what some people seem to think, that is more important than knowing that a president is savvy when it comes to the latest technology.

But Obama has never really been tested that way. He was practically handed his Senate seat in 2004. Obama won the 2008 nomination over Hillary Clinton, who was promptly slapped down by progressive Democrats when she tried to challenge the myths that progressives perpetuated about him. When President Clinton tried to do the same thing, he was practically booed off the national stage.

Then, in the general election campaign, John McCain's rebukes were so mild one had to wonder if he harbored some irrational belief that he might yet win some black votes if he wasn't too critical of "The One." He was just critical enough to avoid charges of pandering to black voters — perhaps because he was sensitive to such charges after choosing a woman running mate in what was widely seen as a move to appeal to disenchanted Hillary Clinton supporters.

So an inexperienced and untested Barack Obama was elected president. And, right away, he began seeking bipartisan consensus with bitter and ideologically rigid Republicans, making concession after concession while the minority party made none — and gave his stimulus package almost no congressional support.

Obama didn't learn from that experience. He continues to yield ground to foes who have shown no willingness to work with him.

"It's hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can't be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled," Krugman writes.

Another problem, which Krugman doesn't really address in his column, is the fact that, for all the praise he has received for his oratorical skills and political instincts, Obama has frequently seemed to be tone deaf — making almost casual statements that bring down public wrath unnecessarily and force the White House to backpedal at times when it needs to be leading the charge.

"So progressives are now in revolt," Krugman concludes. "Mr. Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it. And now he needs to win it back."

Is there enough time?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bernanke's Optimistic Appraisal

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said today that the world economy is starting to emerge from the recession.

I'll take his word for it. I studied economics in college — Arts and Sciences required students to pass two semesters of principles of economics, which I did. But that was not my major.

I suppose that, if I had the answers that would speed things up and get an economic recovery started, I'd occupy a seat on the Fed with Bernanke. But I don't. I guess I'm like most Americans. I just hope that they make the right decisions to keep this country moving in the right direction.

I guess that assumes that we are moving in the right direction. I suppose that is the kind of thing one has to take on faith.

Well, Bernanke sounded hopeful today. "[T]he prospects for a return to growth in the near term appear good," he said.

Much of what he said was kind of obvious.

"One very clear lesson of the past year — no surprise, of course, to any student of economic history, but worth noting nonetheless — is that a full–blown financial crisis can exact an enormous toll in both human and economic terms."

Obvious. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are bracing themselves for the loss of their unemployment benefits in the near future. How are those people going to survive? How will they pay for food, clothing and shelter?

"A second lesson — once again, familiar to economic historians — is that financial disruptions do not respect borders. The crisis has been global, with no major country having been immune."

Again, nothing new there.

Well, if you want to read his remarks in full, you can do that here.

On Wall Street, they probably didn't take the time to read everything that Bernanke said. They got that he was sounding a hopeful note, and stocks closed at new highs for 2009.

And home sales set a new record.

All that is good news for the Obama administration, I guess.

But, for millions of Americans, things aren't going to get better until they have a job and a paycheck.

Until then, health care reform really doesn't matter much, does it?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Quality of Mercy

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

William Shakespeare

I find it interesting that 57–year–old Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al–Megrahi — aka the Lockerbie Bomber — has been released from prison and sent home to Libya because he is terminally ill.
"Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people, no matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated."

Kenny MacAskill
Scotland Justice Secretary

I also think it is appropriate, given the circumstances. I commend Scotland for its humanitarian gesture.

And, I must admit, I am troubled — but not necessarily surprised — by the reaction of the American government.

"The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al–Megrahi," the White House said. "As we have expressed repeatedly to officials of the government of the United Kingdom and to Scottish authorities, we continue to believe that Megrahi should serve out his sentence in Scotland. On this day, we extend our deepest sympathies to the families who live every day with the loss of their loved ones. We recognize the effects of such a loss weigh upon a family forever."

Let me be clear. I am not unsympathetic to the pain and suffering that has been — and continues to be — experienced by the survivors of the Lockerbie victims. But this is not a parole — at least not in the traditional sense. Megrahi has prostate cancer and has been given three months to live. He has been sent back to Libya to die.

It is incumbent upon compassionate people, especially those who live in nations that regard themselves as Christian, to show some mercy at such a time.

But perhaps that is a concept that Americans — in spite of their lofty talk — are incapable of putting into action.

Susan Atkins, one of the members of the infamous "Manson Family" who admitted stabbing Sharon Tate to death 40 years ago this month, will be considered for parole in two weeks.

Atkins, 61, has been in a California prison longer than any woman. She has been denied parole more than a dozen times, most recently last year, even though she is terminally ill with brain cancer and is paralyzed. She poses no threat to anyone.

"She has repeatedly been described as a model prisoner who has accepted responsibility for her role in the slayings, and she now shuns Manson," reports Carey Bodenheimer for

Tate's sister opposes releasing Atkins, and I sympathize with her. It is beyond dispute that Debra Tate suffered a great loss. And many people support her position, including the governor of California. But many people agree with me that Atkins should be released — on compassionate grounds. That includes Vincent Bugliosi, the man who prosecuted Atkins.

Let there be no misunderstanding my position here. I do not believe that Charles Manson or any of his other followers who participated in those murders 40 years ago should be released at this time.

But Atkins' case is unique.

I don't expect Atkins to be granted a compassionate parole when her hearing is held on Sept. 2. But until people on both sides of the political spectrum are prepared to show some mercy — and leave vengeance to God — when the situation calls for it, spare me the high–minded talk of compassion.

Actions speak louder than words.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jobs Stimulus? Hello? McFly?

Kevin O'Leary suggests, in TIME, that America should "resurrect something like the Works Progress Administration" — the Depression–era program that "put millions of unemployed Americans to work building schools, roads, parks, libraries and other needed infrastructure projects."

That's a good idea. Why didn't I think of that?

Wait a minute. I did suggest that. Well, perhaps not in those words. But I've been saying that job creation needed to be a priority since before George W. Bush started packing up to move back to Texas.

When the Democrats pushed through their pork–laden economic stimulus package, I was saying that we needed to focus on job creation. Well, job creation got a lot of lip service but not much else.

And now, all of a sudden, O'Leary reports that "the current situation is stark." Gee. Ya think?
"When people say there are no jobs out there, it's true. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the start of the recession in December 2007, the ratio of job seekers to job openings was 1.5 to 1. Now six unemployed workers chase every available job. It's a brutal game of musical chairs in which a great many people lose and spiral downward economically with disastrous consequences, not only for themselves and their families, but also for communities that were once productive and prosperous."

Actually, I am glad to see someone treating this as the dire situation it is.

That's why I'm somewhat baffled by the emphasis on health care reform. I know it is important. I really do. But I've seen reports of people killing themselves and their families because they don't have jobs. I haven't seen any reports like that connected with health care.

Doesn't that suggest that job creation is more pressing right now?

Economists now are saying that employment won't even start to get better until well into next year. Unless the affected families have a medical crisis to deal with, health care occupies a rather low spot on the totem pole. Food, clothing and shelter are more immediate concerns.

I heard a lot of encouraging talk about job creation during last fall's campaign. Notably, Barack Obama pledged a tax credit for businesses for each American they hired in 2009 or 2010, but no such tax credit was included in the stimulus package.

Here's a thought for all those politicians who have fretted about how we're going to pay for that $1 trillion stimulus package — put Americans back to work and start collecting taxes from them again.

Here's another revenue idea that seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Legalize and regulate the sales of marijuana. State and federal governments could collect taxes on the sales, virtually eliminating the black market (and the violent crime that goes along with it) and freeing law enforcement to devote its time and resources to violent criminals. It has been estimated that marijuana sales could generate $1 billion annually in tax revenue in California alone.

Could your state use $1 billion a year? Well, revenue would be somewhat lower in the other states because California's population is, far and away, greater than any of the others. But we're still talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in most states.

It could also create jobs, just as the end of Prohibition created jobs. But Obama refuses to discuss it.

I hate to sound like a broken record (which I'm sure is an alien concept to many young people today), but job creation is the key. Put people back to work and you'll have a more receptive audience for talk of health care reform. Even make–work that only lasts a little while will help.

But whatever you're going to do, you're going to have to do it quickly. Time is running out for millions of Americans. Obama has been president for seven months, and job losses have been in six figures in each of those months.

Blame it on Bush if you want. But he isn't sitting in the Oval Office anymore.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What a Long, Strange Trip It Is

When I was studying journalism in college, one thing my professors constantly told us was that it was essential for journalists to be unbiased, to maintain their balance when writing about the news.

There is a place for opinion, they told us. That is the editorial page.

Maybe they taught me that lesson too well, because there are times when I feel like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," mulling the pros and cons of his daughters' choices for husbands. Do you remember those scenes? Tevye would say to himself, "On one hand ..." then he would think of a counter–argument and say, "On the other hand ..." and then he would go back to the original side of the fence, saying, "On the other hand ..."

Like Tevye, I am running out of hands.

There is often ambiguity in news writing because, even though journalists would like to give their readers all the facts the first time, they seldom have the luxury of knowing all the facts. Sometimes it is months, or even years, before all the facts are known. A good example is the recently observed 35th anniversary of President Nixon's resignation. It took more than two years of old–fashioned investigative journalism before the extent of Nixon's involvement in the Watergate coverup became known.

A significant obstacle that confronts journalists didn't really have a convenient name when I started out as a general assignment reporter. But it does now. I refer to the concept of "spin."

Well, actually, I guess it did have a name in those days — "propaganda." I guess that's the sort of thing they studied a lot in public relations classes. In news writing classes, we didn't spend much time on propaganda — except discussing what it was and how to avoid it when we could.

But "spin" seems, somehow, to be a more accessible term for the practice of manipulating the public on issues and politicians.

Sarah Palin, for example, is good at that, as Richard Cohen observes in the New York Daily News. Cohen finds her tactics, now being called "Palinisms," troubling. He compares her rants against health care to Joe McCarthy's rants against Communists.

"For sheer disregard of the facts, her statement about President Obama's 'death panel' has to rank with McCarthy's announcement that 'I have here in my hand a list of 205' (or 57 or 72 or whatever) names of communists in the State Department," Cohen writes. "They were both false — McCarthy's by commission, Palin's probably by omission. She rarely knows her facts."

Well, that isn't too surprising, coming from a woman who claimed to be able to see Russia from her house in Alaska but couldn't say much about world governments when asked direct questions.

Nevertheless, Palin seems to have tapped into something on the health care issue. Those who are fearful of government intervention have rallied behind her, even though her overall approval ratings have fallen. That's good news for Democrats, who seem confident that Barack Obama can prevail over Palin if she is his opponent in 2012, and poll figures appear to support that contention.

But I keep reminding people that this is 2009, and Obama's party still needs to get through the midterm elections next year before gearing up for the president's re–election bid.

Some of my friends accuse me of engaging in anti–Obama propaganda when I say that I think Republicans will make gains in next year's elections. But I'm merely speaking from an historian's perspective. I minored in history when I was in college, and I know that the party that holds the White House almost always struggles in the midterm elections.

In fact, in my lifetime, only two presidents have avoided congressional losses in the midterm elections that were held after they took office. That has been true whether the president was elected by a narrow margin or a wide margin.

Spin it whichever way you will. Facts are facts.

When people protest that Obama was elected by wide margins in the popular and electoral votes, I remind them that Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 by wide margins but his party lost control of Congress two years later; that Ronald Reagan was elected by wide margins in 1980 but his party lost more than two dozen House seats in 1982; that Jimmy Carter won by relatively narrow margins in 1976 and his party lost 15 House seats and three Senate seats in 1978; that Richard Nixon's party lost a dozen House seats two years after he was elected president; that Lyndon Johnson won by a huge landslide less than a year after succeeding John F. Kennedy in 1963, but Democrats lost 48 House seats and three Senate seats in 1966.

These aren't my opinions. They're facts. In the last 17 midterm elections, the president's party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats.

Obama supporters also have criticized me for saying that his stratospheric approval numbers could not be sustained. Again, this was historical perspective talking. I've seen many presidents who took office with high approval numbers, but they dropped once the president began governing. The decline is more precipitous for some than it is for others, but some have had farther to fall.

Arthur C. Brooks of the Wall Street Journal tries to explain why Obama's numbers are dropping. He makes some interesting points, but the truth is that it happens to every president. Some people insist on seeing it as racist in nature. I'm not so naive that I don't think there may be elements of racism involved, but I think that is too simplistic an answer. It's a convenient scapegoat for supporters of this president.

But that brings me to something that I read earlier today. My pastor has his own blog, and he wrote today about the "lunatic fringe" and his concerns that some people are getting whipped up into a frenzy that could lead to an assassination attempt.

No matter who the president is, no matter whether I agree with him or not, I have never felt that violence was the answer. Not in a democracy. Not in a nation that is supposed to be free.

But last year, before anyone knew whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee (and I remember saying this even before it was clear that John McCain would be the Republican nominee), I told people — and I wrote in this blog — that the next vice president would be crucial.

Between 1841 and 1974, nine vice presidents became president because the incumbent president died or resigned. That's roughly one every 15 years. It's now been 35 years since the last time that happened so, from an historical standpoint, we're long overdue.

If McCain was elected, I said last year, it was not inconceivable to think a man in his 70s would not live to complete his four–year term. And if Obama or Clinton won, I said, the chances were pretty good that someone would try to assassinate the first black or the first woman president.

Consequently, I said, the selections of running mates had the potential to be extremely important, and I urged people to consider the running mates when they were deciding which presidential candidate to support because the next vice president could easily be president before the next presidential election is held.

Well, we now know the identity of the next vice president — Joe Biden. I hope he doesn't have to assume the burdens of the presidency, but I hope he is prepared to do so if the need comes up.

I don't always agree with Obama, but I don't want to see anyone kill him.

I don't know if my pastor would be shocked if it happened, but it wouldn't surprise me. America is not as post–racial as many people would like to believe.

And the lunatic fringe is just as looney as it has ever been.

That's no spin. Just fact.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Health Care Debate

There is a lot of rhetoric these days — from both sides — in the health care reform debate.

For my own reasons, I have been a supporter of health care reform in the past. I supported it when Bill Clinton was president. It was, perhaps, the main reason I supported John Edwards when he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination last year.

I still think health care reform is important, and I give Barack Obama credit for taking it on. But I believe it needs to be done right.

And doing it right — especially when the president clearly has been pursuing a bipartisan consensus on issues — means taking the time that is necessary to address all concerns and responding adequately to the asinine charges that have been made in this debate. And to stop some of the ridiculous countercharges.

It does not mean rushing the legislation through Congress.

There is a lot on the line. Groups that want to influence the direction of the debate have already spent more than $57 million on TV advertising, reports With so much money involved, it shouldn't surprise anyone that a lot of dubious information is being spread.

To help you separate fact from fiction, I encourage you to bookmark, which clearly states that it is dedicated to "separating fact from fiction." It is a service of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I will remind you that the Times endorsed Obama in last year's election.

PolitiFact supports the validity of Obama's assertion that the health care plan for members of Congress "is no better than [the one for] the janitor who cleans their offices."

That does not mean, however, that PolitiFact is a pushover for everything Obama says and does. When Obama says, "I just want to assure [you] we're not talking about cutting Medicare benefits," PolitiFact reports that such a statement is "half–true."

PolitiFact also finds that Obama's suggestion that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan" is a half–truth.

Likewise, Obama's claim that AARP is "endorsing" the health care reform bill is "barely true," says PolitiFact.

But "half–true" or "barely true" is better than being labeled "false," and that is precisely what PolitiFact says about some allegations from the other side:
  • Ezekiel Emanuel, one of Obama's key health care advisers, "says medical care should be reserved for the nondisabled. So watch out if you're disabled," said Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann. That isn't true, says PolitiFact.

  • And Sarah Palin's claim that a provision in the health care reform bill for end–of–life counseling for seniors is not "entirely voluntary" is false, says PolitiFact.
But don't get the idea that Obama is always right. Or even "half" right or "barely" right.

Obama's claim that "I have not said that I was a single–payer supporter" is just plain false, PolitiFact says.

A lot of oxen are being gored in this debate so it really shouldn't be surprising that people on both sides get carried away. All the more reason to do it right.

Doing this right means waiting until the economy is clearly turning around. Most people won't feel that things are really turning around until unemployment starts to go down. That's one of the reasons I have been saying that job creation needed to be a priority. Despite lip service to the contrary, it hasn't been.

And when it comes down to a choice between providing a roof over your head and the heads of your children or paying for COBRA benefits (and millions who lost their jobs before September 1 of last year do not qualify for the assistance of the government to pay for those benefits) to treat a malady that doesn't exist yet (and may never exist), which expense do you think unemployed Americans will choose?

Yes, I believe health care is important. And I believe the system needs to be reformed.

But food, clothing and shelter are also important.