Saturday, February 28, 2009


Today, I've been looking at my blogs list on the right-hand side of this blog.

And it occurs to me that, for all the high-minded talk of "change" that was heard during last year's election, this country is still easily distracted by paper tigers — when there are plenty of real tigers ready to devour us in the wink of an eye.

All that has changed is who is being distracted.

In case you hadn't noticed, unemployment is now in double digits in the largest state in the Union.

Gross domestic product shrank by 6.2% in the final quarter of 2008, which was much worse than anticipated.

And, while I know this is getting redundant, the Dow had another triple-digit loss yesterday. It will be just slightly over 7,000 when the market opens on Monday.

The pendulum really seems to have swung on that one. I remember a day about 10 years ago when everyone in my office was talking about the history that had just been made when the stock market cracked 10,000 for the first time. And not long before what is now considered the start of the current recession, it reached its highest level ever.

So there's plenty of bad news for journalists (the ones who still have jobs) to write about. I'll grant you that it may help your morale more to contemplate a paper tiger than to read the bad stuff. But it won't go away, just because you're distracted.
  • My friend and former newspaper co-worker, Kyle, who writes the therapymalaria blog, resumed writing his blog today after a four-week absence and chastised those in the "mainstream media" for being "mesmerized" by Republicans and not exercising their responsibilities as public watchdogs.

    I was inclined to agree with him, even though I find the phrase "mainstream media" to be a vague and widely (and not always justifiably) applied label — until he concluded that journalists were unable to "wean themselves" from the horse race of a political campaign and, therefore, "[i]t is no wonder newspapers are struggling."

    As a former journalist, he ought to know better. Newspapers, like other businesses, are going under because of the crummy economy. The bottom line is advertising revenue. It's not possible to pay a newspaper staff and pay all the other expenses involved in printing a daily publication on 50 cents for each individual copy. Advertising keeps the presses running, and that's been drying up.

    Declines in advertising revenue have been well documented, but declining readership doesn't help matters. And, for that, many newspapers deserve plenty of blame for failing to recognize the need to establish a revenue-producing online presence from the very start.

    But I'm sure, if you were to talk to the now ex-employees of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, they would say that speculation about the 2012 presidential campaign had little, if anything, to do with their employer's demise. Likewise, the journalists who lost their jobs in San Antonio and Hartford, Ct., this week most likely would see no connection between the GOP's angst over its 2012 nominee and their own troubles.

    And Democrats cannot afford to be smug and continue to refer to it as the mess they inherited. By the time 2012 gets here, the Democrats will be judged on the progress that has been made. The mess belongs to them now.

  • In fairness to Kyle, there are newspaper columnists who are obsessing over the 2012 Republican campaign, but most of them seem to be in the centers of political power — Washington and New York — where election speculation has always been part of their work, even in "off" years. Or they are other bloggers. Then again, maybe he and I are reading different sources.

    I'm seeing the obsession on the part of bloggers like David Frum, who writes, for The New Majority, about "The Goldwater Myth."

    You know you're obsessing when you write about a campaign from 45 years ago and hold it up as a model for bouncing back from the last two elections — especially since the 1964 campaign didn't produce any real political fruit for conservatism for another 16 years.

  • J. Bradford DeLong continues to try to make sense of Bobby Jindal's remarks at Grasping Reality With Both Hands. Seems like a losing proposition to me.

  • But, for that matter, Jonathan Zasloff wrestles with the same problem at The Reality-Based Community.

  • The Blue Indiana blog devotes space to repeating TPM Muckraker's report that Jindal's tale about Hurricane Katrina was a lie.

    That's funny. At the time, I thought it was just plain loopy.

  • Mary Ann Akers at the Washington Post's The Sleuth blog feels compelled to remind former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode that he lost the election in November.

    Of course, that's somewhat timely. Goode, as she observes, doesn't seem to have gotten the message.

  • Meanwhile, Akers' colleague, Chris Cillizza writes, at The Fix, about the top 10 Republican prospects for 2012. That's way ahead of schedule.

    Enough already with 2012 — we're only two months into 2009.
And from the Eric Holder "nation of cowards" file (and, I will admit, I wrote about Holder's comments earlier this week) …
  • The Arch Pundit blog writes about the "selective outrage about race" that is being shown by Roland Burris' media adviser.

  • Politik Ditto, which supposedly is written by a black conservative Democrat, takes former Air America broadcaster Mike Malloy to task for a "racist" joke at Bobby Jindal's expense.

    Politik Ditto also criticizes Barnes & Noble for a book display at a Florida store honoring Barack Obama — that included a book about monkeys that B&N says was placed there by a customer.

  • Politik Ditto isn't the only black-authored blog that doesn't accept B&N's apology. Black Political Thought does the same thing.

    It seems to have replaced the New York Post and its chimpanzee cartoon as a target of racial wrath.

    Look, I'm not saying that racial prejudice has been eliminated by Obama's election. It hasn't. But can we cool it on the race card for awhile? I'm starting to sense the same kind of walking-on-eggshells mentality that some people felt during the war on terrorism/Patriot Act period and the hysteria that brought on. This time it's a measure of one's racial tolerance. Last time it was a measure of one's devotion to country, a mass revival of the "America, Love It or Leave It" attitude that I witnessed as a child on a much more modest scale during Vietnam. What will it be next time?

    When ordinary people are worried that each word they say or each gesture they make may be misinterpreted as being derogatory to whatever the issue du jour happens to be, something is wrong.

    Barnes & Noble has apologized. Even if you find the explanation somewhat fishy, can you be gracious enough to accept the apology?

  • Sister Toldjah, meanwhile, is obsessing over "cloth toilet wipes" and instructions about how to use them.

  • Tara Lohan touches on the same topic — sorta — in a piece on "America's Love Affair with Really Soft Toilet Paper" at

  • Meanwhile, Susie Madrak of Crooks and Liars feels moved (so to speak) to agree with The Guardian's assertion that soft toilet paper is "worse than driving Hummers."
Now, I'm not saying these blogs aren't worth reading and their ideas aren't worth discussing/debating.

I'm just saying that there are more important things to deal with right now.

If You've Got Your Health ...

... then you've got everything. That's what they say.

But in today's economy, health insurance can be lost along with a job. And good health is no more guaranteed than jobs are. tells a compelling story about a woman who had been employed with a Honeywell plant in Florida for more than 20 years. A year ago, she and her co-workers lost their jobs when the plant closed and the jobs were moving to Mexico.

The woman was due to get married the next month. Then, in May, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

For awhile, she was still covered by her company's health insurance. But, by September, she had to pay for it herself. Under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), displaced workers can continue to be covered by their former employer's health care plan for a year and a half — but they must pay the premiums themselves.

For many people, those premiums take a huge chunk of their unemployment benefits — so many people are having to make choices between things like health insurance and mortgage payments.

Barack Obama's budget calls for the creation of a $634 billion health care reserve fund.

"Among the fund's goals are universal health care coverage and reducing growth in insurance premiums," reports.

But that may be too little too late for many people.

As is a provision in the stimulus plan, under which the government will pick up nearly two-thirds of the costs of COBRA premiums. There is no doubt it will help many people, but there is a catch. To qualify, you must have lost your job after Aug. 31, 2008. The woman in the CNN report — and hundreds of thousands of others — lost their jobs before that date and will not qualify.

Once again, the short-sightedness of the American public is on full display.

I have written on this blog many times about the unwillingness of the American people to listen when leaders like Jimmy Carter warned of the perils of ignoring the need to develop alternative energy sources 30 years ago. The "sacrifices" Carter asked of Americans were viewed as intrusive, too hard on average Americans.

The price that must now be paid for sticking our heads in the sand will be staggering — and will be with us for years to come.

This is another example.

Sixteen years ago, as first lady, Hillary Clinton was appointed chairwoman of the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. She was vilified for her efforts by Republicans, who derided it as "Hillarycare." It was cited by pollsters as a major factor in the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.

In subsequent years, "Hillarycare" became the same kind of derogatory synonym for similar government plans that "Watergate" became for government scandals.

But how much better off would we be today if "Hillarycare" had become the law of the land?

With no employer–paid health insurance, many Americans will choose not to seek medical attention, even when they experience symptoms of serious, even life-threatening, illnesses.

The woman in the report owes nearly $20,000 in medical bills. She is currently cancer-free, but she still faces additional surgeries.

When faced with a health care crisis, be it cancer or heart disease or anything else, the ability to pay should not be the major concern. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. It should not depend on whether one is employed.

Friday, February 27, 2009

War and Peace

It may be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as the economy is concerned.

But the light is becoming easier to see in Iraq — although it may seem every bit as far away.

Barack Obama said today that the nation has "begun the work of ending this war" and will all but end the combat mission by August 2010.

It is a gradual conclusion that is realistic and responsible, even if it is considered inadequate in many ways by Obama's fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi feels the residual force Obama plans to leave in Iraq (between 35,000 and 50,000) is too large.

Other Democrats also quibbled with the number. Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California said such a force would be viewed by Iraqis as an occupation force.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who ran against Obama in pursuit of the presidential nomination last year, said, "You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war. You can't be in and out at the same time."

But Obama's foe in the 2008 general election, Sen. John McCain, said Obama's strategy was "reasonable" and said he was "cautiously optimistic."

And a majority of the visitors to — 55%, in fact — say the plan is "just right." The CNN poll isn't scientific, but nearly 180,000 people have responded to the question as of 4:25 p.m. (Central) today.

Obama, undoubtedly, needs to cultivate the support of Democrats in Congress. But his approach makes sense to me. Steve Benen writes in Washington Monthly that it's about time the war in Iraq came to an end, and he is right. But the conflict must be brought to a responsible conclusion.

And it will allow the United States to shift its attention back to where it should have been all along — Afghanistan.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who'll Stop the Pain?

Recent unpleasant developments in the newspaper business have not been unexpected.

Nevertheless, Editor & Publisher has been filled with bad news for journalists lately — news that supporters of freedom of the press have been hoping could, somehow, be avoided.

But that, it seems, was not to be.
  • The owners of the Rocky Mountain News were unable to find a buyer for the newspaper; consequently, it will fold after tomorrow's edition — and nearly 150 years of publishing.

    According to E & P, the Denver Post, which has had a joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News since 2001, has already hired some of the newspaper's top staffers.

  • In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant announced plans to lay off 100 staffers this week.

    "That brings the news staff to 135, or just more than half the newspaper employed last year," reports E & P.

  • In San Antonio, the Express-News is cutting at least 75 newsroom staffers. The move has been called "a fundamental and painful restructuring of the newsroom staff."
Who'll stop the pain?

School Daze

George W. Bush is told about the second plane
striking the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Those who are old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001, undoubtedly recall the image of George W. Bush sitting in a Florida classroom while a group of first graders read "The Pet Goat."

I'm sure Bush will remember that day as long as he lives.

But it didn't seem to occur to him when he and his wife made a surprise visit to John J. Pershing Elementary School here in Dallas.

The Bushes recently moved in to their new home in an affluent section of Dallas and visited the school yesterday. According to WFAA, the local ABC affiliate, the ex-president spent more than an hour at the school and visited every classroom.

That image from 2001 was the first thing I thought of when I saw the picture of George and Laura Bush sitting in a Pershing classroom yesterday.

But it really got weird when I realized that today is the 16th anniversary of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

That first attack, back on Feb. 26, 1993, involved the detonation of a car bomb, which was intended to knock the North Tower into the South Tower, bringing both towers down and killing thousands of people. It failed to accomplish that goal, but half a dozen people were killed and more than a thousand were injured.

In 1993, Bill Clinton had been president for a little more than a month. Bush had not yet been elected governor of Texas. Eight years later, Bush was president and the terrorists tried again — and succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.

Now, here we are, another eight years have gone by and another new president is in office. It makes me wonder what sort of unpleasant surprise the terrorists may have in store for Barack Obama.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jindal in the Light of Day

Words failed Rachel Maddow after Jindal gave his rebuttal.

Upon reviewing the reactions to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican response to Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress last night, it seems that many bloggers and columnists share my assessment — even if my opinion was immediate and may not have allowed time for sufficient reflection.

I don't know if Obama's speech was a "home run," as Black Political Thought wrote. Nor would I go to the extent of labeling Jindal's remarks either "choppy" or a "disgrace" — although his delivery did leave a lot to be desired.

At best, though, I would agree with Frank James, of the conservative Chicago Tribune, who observed that the speech had its "jarring moments" — in particular the reference to Hurricane Katrina.

I'm sure Katrina has special relevance for people in Louisiana — but it reminds the rest of us of one of the lowest moments of the Bush presidency. Thus, even if Jindal had a worthwhile point to make — and I'm not sure he did — mentioning Hurricane Katrina is not the best sales pitch for Republican-style leadership during a crisis.

Katrina certainly wasn't funny. But Jason Linkins, at Huffington Post, found something funny to say about Jindal's speech. He saw an "uncanny" resemblance between Jindal and Kenneth the page from NBC's comedy, "30 Rock" — which may be appropriate, since Tina Fey, who skewered Sarah Palin so well on "Saturday Night Live" last fall, is the creator, executive producer and star of the show.

Linkins didn't write much. He let two video clips, one of Jindal and one of the Kenneth character, do his talking for him — and pretty eloquently, too, I might add.

Sam Stein reported for Huffington Post that pundits on both ends of the political spectrum criticized the speech. The verdict, Stein wrote, was that Jindal "came up short" on the "three hurdles" he had to clear in what was, admittedly, a "thankless" assignment — responding to Obama's speech.

Those hurdles, Stein said, were
  • "to show that he could handle the national spotlight,

  • "[to] present himself as a fresh face of the Republican Party, and

  • "[to] stand up to the current president oratorically."
Responses from both sides, Stein wrote, were "decidedly harsh: 'amateurish,' 'laughable' and, most commonly, 'a missed opportunity.' "

Andy Barr of reported that Jindal was "panned" by a variety of observers, including NPR's Juan Williams, Fortune magazine's Nina Easton and conservative RedState blog's Erick Erickson (who found fault with Jindal's delivery more than his message).

Perhaps more significantly, Barr wrote that the reaction from University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato (whose accuracy in predicting the 2008 election was almost 100% on target) was that "it's difficult to imagine him now as Obama's 2012 opponent" — a role for which many Republicans clearly were hoping he would be mentioned after his national debut last night.

But, as Sabato observed, Jindal still needs "a lot more seasoning" before he'll be ready for that role.

And John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at California's Claremont McKenna College, may have had the best assessment of Jindal — "[H]e has a lot of time to improve his delivery. In the year 2040 he will still be younger than McCain was in 2008."

Still, Obama's speech was not without its drawbacks as well.

It is true that the crisis facing the country was not of his making, that he inherited it from his predecessor, and it doesn't hurt to remind people of that fact at this point.

But Obama has now been president for more than a month. It is his mess to deal with now. The American people waited patiently through the months of transition (and simultaneous inaction by the lame duck president) while hundreds of thousands more jobs were lost. With the new president now in charge, the expectations are high.

As both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton discovered in their first years in office, even a supportive public can soon turn on a president who doesn't deliver quickly. And regaining the lost momentum can be awkward and time consuming.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jindal's Speech

Tonight, I have been watching Barack Obama's speech and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's Republican rebuttal.

It has only been a short time since Jindal gave his response, and I haven't had much time to digest what he said. So my words may seem a bit off the cuff.

But my initial reaction is that he had little to offer in the way of an alternative. The nation faces the most severe crisis of my lifetime, and Republicans, who have now been rejected by the voters in the last two elections, cannot win the trust of the American people by simply saying "No!" to Democratic proposals.

And that, it seems to me, is what Jindal did tonight.

I will admit that Jindal is a talented young man who has a bright future in his party. And he was right to observe that all Americans, Republicans as well as Democrats, take pride in the progress America has made by electing its first black president.

But, while that president was making his case for the government's expanded role in the nation's efforts to recover from the financial crisis, Jindal's position, essentially, was that the Republicans have deviated from the Goldwater/Reagan path that brought so much electoral success in the last three decades.

He ignored the fact that the conservative philosophy has been largely discredited, that deregulation and tax cuts have failed to produce the desired effects. Americans today are angry — and justifiably so — at the big bankers and Wall Street — and unregulated companies that played fast and loose with public health in the preparation of food products while greedily pursuing profits — and they have little tolerance for those who promote the policies that got us into this mess.

He doesn't believe government should get involved as much as it is with the stimulus package. Well, if that's what he believes, that's fine. But what is his alternative? The times call for bold action, but all that Jindal offers is more of the same.

It's fine for Jindal to assert that America will overcome this crisis. Obama did the same thing. And such an assertion is necessary for Americans who have lost their jobs and/or their homes to regain their confidence. But more is needed. Obama provided that in his speech. Jindal did not.

Tonight was not Governor No's finest hour. And it underscores why the country opted to take a new direction last November.

The Politics of Race

I am astonished that Attorney General Eric Holder doesn't — or won't — see how much things have changed in America. After all, much has happened in his lifetime. Yet, he proclaims that America "does not differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago."

Sounds like a cue for one of Seth Meyers' "Really!?!" segments on "Saturday Night Live."

Holder was a child during the 1950s, when the participants in the civil rights movement were protesting the segregation of public schools, public transportation and public facilities, when progressive-minded Americans of all races were taking part in lunch counter "sit-ins" and the "Freedom Rides."

He celebrated his 10th birthday the day after John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president, and he holds his current position because he was nominated by the nation's first black president — who was elected in a campaign that was as free of the influence of racial prejudice as I could have imagined even a short time ago.

I have no doubt that some people (both black and white) cast their votes last November strictly on the basis of race. But I believe they were a distinct minority. Most people decided how to vote based on the issues that were discussed and the ideas that were expressed.

When Holder was a child — even when he was a teenager — a Barack Obama could not even vote in many places in the United States, much less dream of being nominated for president. How can Holder not see a difference between 1959 and 2009?

Today, at a time when millions of Americans of all colors are suffering in a cruel recession that often seems to have no end, Holder expresses displeasure because of "social segregation." He conveniently overlooks the fact that blacks and whites work together in harmony, sit next to each other in movie theaters and restaurants, stand in the same lines to vote and apply for unemployment benefits.

And Holder can't see how much things have changed? I can. I grew up in the South. When I enrolled in first grade in 1966 (Holder would have been 15 by that time), it was the first year that the public schools in my hometown were integrated — yet, as I recall, integration was achieved peacefully.

I can remember, as a small child, going to movies when the theater in my hometown was still segregated and blacks were ushered in to a designated section of the balcony through a rear entrance. I don't recall when that changed, but that, too, was accomplished without much fanfare, as was the desegregation of just about every other public building and privately owned business in town.

It's been many years since I lived in my hometown, so I don't know if any blacks have sought political office there — or if any have been elected. But if it hasn't happened, it will. And any blacks who decide to seek office there would be wise to follow Obama's all-inclusive example.

The very thing that set Obama apart from other blacks who sought major party presidential nominations in the past — the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons — was his expressed desire to be the president of all the people, not just the black Americans. As president, he has continued to embrace Americans of all colors — and, even if he believes that Holder, however misguided Obama may think he is, may have a point about blacks and whites not socializing together, Obama understands that now is not the time to chastise them for it.

There are, as my grandfather liked to say, bigger fish to fry.

I'm sorry if Holder doesn't think blacks and whites attend the same parties often enough or that enough of them have an after-hours beer together. But, as a lawyer, he should understand that the law can't legislate social behavior — and that such a change will take time to achieve.

America is a work in progress. More work undoubtedly remains — and not only in race relations. But, even if Holder does not acknowledge it, a lot of work has already been done.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Economists: More Pain, Then Gain

Anyone who has ever embarked on a weight-loss regimen that includes vigorous exercise is familiar with the old adage — "No pain, no gain."

Apparently, the same pearl of wisdom can be applied to the current economy.

Chris Isidore of reports that a survey of economists reveals that they are "forecasting a far deeper and more painful recession ahead in the first half of the year, but a modest pickup in the second half of 2009, followed by a solid recovery in 2010."

Well, the first quarter — in which a 5% decline in economic activity is expected — is nearly two-thirds behind us now. A decline of 1.7% is expected in the second quarter. Then, according to the economists, a 1.6% increase looks likely in the third quarter.

The bad news for the unemployed is that the jobless rate is predicted to rise to 9% by the fourth quarter of the year. That isn't the double-digit figure that many people have mentioned, but it is higher than the 7.5% rate that economists predicted previously.

Remember, this isn't written in stone. It is subject to change — whether the conditions that will lead to such a change will be positive or negative remains to be seen.

Whenever I hear about a survey of economists, I am reminded of a line that has been attributed to Harry Truman: "If you lined up all the economists end to end, they'd point in different directions."

I suppose skeptics would argue that, if economists were blessed with some special insight or possessed a crystal ball that would tell them what the future held, there would have been ample warning that could have empowered the rest of us to avoid this mess.

Then again, I guess the flip side would be that many economists did, in fact, warn people what might be coming — and few, if any, listened to them.

So, it seems to me, the best that can be said is that there is light at the end of the tunnel — but it seems to resemble those optical illusions that one encountered in those old houses of mirrors that used to be found at carnivals (I don't know if you can still find those houses of mirrors on carnival midways anymore — it's been a long time since I've been to a carnival).

The optical illusion, in this case, is that the "tunnel" appears to be longer than anyone, including most economists, initially thought it was.

And the light should (logically) grow brighter as confidence returns.

But that, it seems, will take awhile — and, unfortunately for the unemployed, the light beckoning them to the tunnel's end won't get stronger until employers have regained enough confidence to hire more people.

So how severe is the recession? According to John Blake of CNN, comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s are erroneous. He thinks the more appropriate comparison is the Panic of 1873, when "[t]he stock market crashed. Wall Street panicked. People stashed silver and gold under mattresses while businesses shut doors across America."

There are some significant differences between 1873 and 2009. Some are not comparable, particularly the technology that is available today that wasn't even dreamed of in the 19th century. But some are — such as the quality of presidential leadership. In 1873, Republican Ulysses S. Grant had just been sworn in for his second term. He never made any decisive efforts to alleviate the economic crisis, and, in the next year's midterm elections, Democrats wound up taking control of the House for the first time in nearly 20 years (senators would not be elected by direct vote until the next century).

In 2009, Democrat Barack Obama has just taken office, and he has made decisive action on the economy his top priority.

Of course, everyone wants to know when things are going to get better. It reminds me of a movie I saw more than 15 years ago, "Leap of Faith," which was about a faith healer and a farming community that was slowly dying from a severe drought. All the residents of the town who came to the faith healer's shows wanted to know when rain would return and save their crops.

If the film is to be seen as an analogy of the American economy in 2009, the "town" is the nation and the faith healer is Obama. But can he tell us when it will rain again?

And that leads me to another survey from CNN.

Paul Steinhauser reports that a new national poll finds that nearly three-fourths of Americans are fearful about the way things are going in the country.

The same survey also suggests that more than three-fourths of respondents felt that things were going well for them personally, but CNN's polling director had an explanation for that. "Americans always believe things are better in their own lives than in the rest of the country," he said. "But they are realists as well — they recognize that bad times somewhere else in the U.S. may eventually come to affect them."

If confidence is the name of the game, Americans still show confidence in their new president, slightly more than a month since he took office. CNN reports that two out of three Americans approve of the job he is doing.

And that is a crucial piece of the overall puzzle. If the president inspires confidence, that can make a big difference — even if it is psychological.

What Obama says in his speech to Congress tomorrow night — and how well it is received by the lawmakers — can have an enormous psychological impact on those who listen to what he has to say.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thoughts on Transfiguration Sunday

Today was Transfiguration Sunday.

In my church, my pastor spoke about what always crosses his mind on this day — the first reported "appearances" of Jesus on things like tortillas. has an interesting account of the "Shrine of the Miracle Tortilla," which my pastor mentioned in his sermon.

It was interesting to hear his thoughts, but I've been thinking about a different kind of transfiguration today — if, indeed, "transfiguration" is the right word for it.

Roget, by the way, defines transfiguration as "the process or result of changing from one appearance, state, or phase to another."

After church, I stopped off at the grocery store on my way home — and, in the checkout line, I saw one of those tabloids, which reported that George W. Bush is depressed and suicidal these days, following his departure from the White House, and that he feels a "tell-all" book, written by his wife, will destroy him.

It's not my intention to draw a conclusion here about Bush or his presidency or whether or not a book by his wife will destroy him in the eyes of his countrymen. But seeing that tabloid made me think about the choices Americans make when they come to the inevitable forks in the road.

Last year, for example, the fork in the road was the decision Democrats had to make between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when they were choosing their presidential nominee. The eventual nominee, of course, was Obama. He's only been president for a month, and it remains to be seen whether he was the best choice, but America, of course, actually wound up getting both candidates in leadership positions. Clinton is now secretary of state and will play a significant role in shaping American foreign policy in the years ahead.

In 2000, it was the Republicans who came to a fork in the road and had to make a choice between Bush and John McCain. It's still too early to determine whether the GOP — or the nation — made the right choice, but I think I can reach a few transfiguration conclusions.

Because of his age (and because Democrats had held the White House for the previous eight years), I'm inclined to believe that McCain's "time" to run for president was in 2000, not 2008. He was still in his 60s then. By 2008, he was in his 70s and the Republicans had held the White House for eight years. Conditions were more favorable for the Republican nominee in 2000 than they were in 2008.

And, of course, there was the economic meltdown last fall — which I believe sealed the deal for the Democrats. Until that happened, McCain still had a chance to make the race competitive. After that happened — and America started losing half a million jobs per month — the Republicans' chances of winning were slim and none.

Conditions weren't dire for the Democrats in 2000 — but there was a sense of "Clinton fatigue" in the land, even though Clinton was leaving office with a budget surplus for his successor. I'm still not convinced that Bush legitimately won that election, but I'm not sure that McCain wouldn't have been able to do so if he had been the nominee.

You could probably go back through the last couple of centuries and find all sorts of examples like that in American history.

But my thoughts today have been drawn to Jeane Dixon, the astrologer/psychic who achieved fame for allegedly predicting that John F. Kennedy would die in office. Before the 1956 election had been held, Dixon wrote in Parade magazine that the 1960 election would be "dominated by labor and won by a Democrat." She didn't predict who the Democratic nominee would be — and later admitted that, during the 1960 campaign, she thought Republican Richard Nixon would win.

I mention Dixon because, a few years before her death in 1997, I saw her being interviewed about her predictions and she said that she had warned Bobby Kennedy not to run for president in 1968. She said he was "rushing things" by seeking the nomination that year, that his "time" was really eight years later, in 1976.

She didn't say Kennedy would be killed if he sought the nomination in 1968. But, when one looks back at the events of 1968 and 1976, it's hard not to reach the conclusion that Dixon may have been on to something.

Ever since seeing that interview, it's been hard for me to think about the 1976 campaign — in which former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who did resemble Kennedy, won the nomination and, ultimately, the election — without thinking of Dixon's comments.

I don't know if Dixon was correct about Kennedy or even if she predicted that his "time" to run for president was 1976, not 1968. I've heard many people say that, if he had not been assassinated, he would have beaten Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the general election, but that isn't necessarily true. Nixon might still have been elected, in part because Americans had been through eight years of Democratic rule and were ready for a change.

Another "what-if" from American history to ponder.

Ted Kennedy Turns 77

In the mind's eye, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts is still in the prime of his life, like his brothers, who were murdered in their 40s and will remain forever young.

Some of us remember the young man who so eloquently eulogized Bobby Kennedy in 1968 — or whose national ambitions were dashed a year later when his car plunged into the waters of Chappaquiddick and a young woman died.

Others remember the Ted Kennedy of three decades ago, who made his only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination when he challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter and fell short, even though he won 10 primaries. That summer, at the convention, Kennedy delivered perhaps the most memorable speech a non-nominee has given in modern times and hinted that he would seek the nomination again, although he never did.

And the memory of that 1980 convention appearance may always be linked, fairly or unfairly, with the memory of Kennedy refusing to shake Carter's hand.

With those memories vivid in our minds, it still comes as a shock when we see Kennedy today — an elderly man whose dark brown hair has turned completely white. His tenure in the Senate is now longer than the span of his brother Bobby's entire life — and just about as long as John's.

And it is especially stunning when one realizes it has been more than nine months since Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. People who are diagnosed with such a medical condition generally live for about a year, perhaps a little longer. But, in spite of the fact that he suffered a seizure at the presidential inaugural luncheon last month, he seems to be doing quite well.

"Hold the eulogies," writes Mark Leibovich of the New York Times.

What has been true of others has never been true of Ted Kennedy. He may live longer than many expect — long enough to achieve his goal of leaving a lasting imprint on the nation's health care system.

Happy birthday, senator. And many, many more.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Freedom of Speech

The NAACP wants the New York Post to fire the cartoonist who drew the chimpanzee cartoon — I don't really have to explain which cartoon I'm talking about, do I?

The group also wants the cartoonist's editor to be fired.

Whatever happened to freedom of speech?

Freedom of the press isn't quite dead yet. And, even if the day comes when major cities have no daily newspaper, freedom of speech will still exist in America, won't it? It will just take a different shape.

But there are several newspapers still serving New York City. It's one of the few cities left where people can choose which local newspaper they want to read. And, if you don't like the views that are expressed — or the views you may think are being expressed — by a columnist or a cartoonist, don't buy that paper. In New York, you have other options.

But don't fire a cartoonist because he expresses an opinion. That's what a cartoonist — and a columnist, for that matter — is hired to do. It's your right to disagree with that opinion, just as it is the cartoonist's right to express that opinion.

To preserve freedom of speech, sometimes it is necessary to allow unpopular opinions to be expressed, whether that opinion comes from a cartoonist or a radio talk show host.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Dick Smothers: "Our government is asking us, as citizens, to refrain from traveling to foreign lands."

Tommy Smothers: (turning to face the camera) "OK, all you guys in Vietnam, come on home!"

The Smothers Brothers, circa 1968

A few years ago, I was talking with a co-worker about the Iraq War, and I compared it to the Vietnam War.

I grew up during the Vietnam War, and, while I didn't understand everything that was happening at the time, I understood enough. I saw the nightly news reports from Vietnam and the weekly casualty reports, and I saw the accounts of the protests that took place all across America. My father was a college professor, and there were certainly many demonstrations against the war on the campus where he taught.

My co-worker was a supporter of the Bush administration, and I'm not really sure what he thought of my comments about the similarities I saw between those two conflicts. But another co-worker was sitting a few feet away, and I saw her nodding in agreement when I said that I felt America had been drawn into something that was likely to get worse.

I was reminded of this conversation yesterday. I happened to be listening to my radio, and someone called in to a conservative talk show host. The caller was complaining about how billions of dollars were being spent on Iraq yet so many lawmakers were digging in their heels when it came to helping people here at home. And, for that matter, the caller said, the government wasn't providing enough help for Iraq War veterans when they finally came home — many of whom have been maimed in service to their country.

Perhaps a large part of the public's skepticism stems from the fact that the reasons for the war keep changing. The Associated Press reports that 4,245 Americans have been killed in Iraq — but the first casualty of a war is always the truth.

When American troops invaded Iraq, the justification was the presumed existence of weapons of mass destruction in that country. It didn't take long for Saddam Hussein to be overthrown, but, during the lengthy occupation of Iraq, no evidence of these weapons has been found.

Since the original reason for the war was discredited, the Bush administration had to provide other reasons so the public would not believe it had been misled. At various times in the last six years, Americans have been told that Iraq was involved in the September 11 attacks (which has never been proven), that the war was intended to end human rights abuses (which never explained why torture was used at places like Abu Ghraib prison) and, ultimately, that the war was intended to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq (whether it has done so is a matter of debate).

The Center for Public Integrity reported last month that "President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials ... made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

Many people believe the war was started primarily to secure Iraq's rich oil reserves for the West.

If the true purpose for the war is unclear, the high cost is not, although there is some misunderstanding of the amount.

The caller I heard on the radio yesterday claimed that the cost was $900 billion — which would exceed the amount of the economic stimulus package that was recently signed into law. But that figure is incorrect, according to the tabulation by the National Priorities Project. According to the running total at the NPP website, the cost of the Iraq War — as of today — is not quite $600 billion, although it is close.

But one of the interesting things one can do at the website is break the figure down. What else could be done with the money that has been spent?

I did a quick check to see what the financial trade-off is for taxpayers in the town where I went to college — Fayetteville, Ark. Fayetteville has a population of 72,208, which is probably double what it was when I went to school there 30 years ago.

"Taxpayers in Fayetteville, Arkansas will pay $130 million for total Iraq war spending approved to date," the site reported.

For that money, a full year of health care could be provided for 85,938 people or renewable electricity could be provided for 108,591 homes. The latter would be especially important these days, since a severe ice storm this winter disrupted electricity in many north Arkansas communities.

Fayetteville is the home of the University of Arkansas, so education was an important part of the community when I was in school there (and I presume it still is). That $130 million could have paid the salaries of 2,545 music and arts teachers or funded college scholarships for 22,376 students (which exceeds the university's total enrollment).

Nearly 22,000 spots in Head Start could have been paid for, or the annual salaries of 2,720 elementary school teachers could have been paid.

It's a matter of speculation, I suppose, how much of a role the spending on the war has played in the current economic calamity. But, without the war gobbling up $600 billion and counting, how bad do you suppose things would be today?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pitfalls in the Presidency

Barack Obama was sworn in as president one month ago today, but it probably didn't take him long to become aware of the many pitfalls that come with the job.

His most obvious missteps have come in the area of his Cabinet nominations — many of which encountered no significant opposition but some of which have gone down in flames.

Yesterday, while Obama was making his first trip outside the United States, trouble was festering in his home state of Illinois.

You'd think that the state would be spared such problems in the bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth. But any hope of that probably went out the window when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and then removed from office for allegedly trying to sell Obama's old Senate seat.

Most of the attention outside Illinois yesterday seems to have been on the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped to its lowest point since 2002, which is when the last recession bottomed out. I've seen no indications that this represents the bottoming out of the current recession. Of course, one can always hope.

Certainly, the precarious condition of the stock market is not Obama's doing. But, whether rightly or wrongly, it doesn't take the public long to begin linking conditions, whether they are good or bad, to whoever the current occupant of the Oval Office happens to be.

If Obama had had the good fortune to inherit a booming economy, he would be reaping the benefits. He's still doing pretty well in terms of his approval ratings, but historical patterns indicate that his numbers will continue to slide until voters see changes that are clearly the result of his leadership.

That was a lesson that the most popular presidents in modern times — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — learned early in their presidencies. In spite of their declines in popularity, they regained their footing and went on to win second terms.

The flip side is that some modern presidents — most notably Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — have become controlled by events rather than the other way around.

Obama seems to be aware of the fickle nature of presidential popularity. During his recent campaign to whip up support for his economic stimulus package, Obama acknowledged to his listeners that, if things don't improve, "you'll have a new president" in four years. Historically speaking, that isn't an unreasonable expectation. America has just seen the last two presidents live through two full terms, which is almost unheard of. You'd have to go back to the early 19th century to find the only instance of three consecutive presidents who lived through two full terms.

As urgent as the economy is, however, there are still distractions.

And now the heat is on Blagojevich's pick to replace Obama in the U.S. Senate — Roland Burris — whose earlier claims that he had nothing to hide now seem to be at odds with reports that he did indeed make efforts to raise money for Blagojevich last fall.

Burris' spokesman resigned yesterday, but, on the surface, at least, it appears to be unrelated to Burris' problems. The spokesman claims he was only doing the job on a temporary basis because Burris is a "long–term friend."

The Hill writes that Obama's White House is trying to stay out of the matter. And it isn't hard to understand why.

"This is one of those classic political cases where anyone who touches it comes out looking bad," a Democratic strategist told The Hill.

At the risk of sounding racist — and, as you may have heard, the attorney general says America (the same America that just elected a black president) is a "nation of cowards" when it comes to discussing race — it's a tar-baby.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

To Die For

I've never been a fan of reality TV. I've known some people who never missed an episode of a single reality TV series. If two such programs happened to be on at the same time, they would watch one and record the other to watch at another time.

But Sarah Lyall writes in the New York Times about what may turn out to be the most powerful reality episode of all.

Lyall describes a young English woman named Jade Goody, who is "[c]rude–talking, hard–drinking, overweight, barely educated, in debt, the child of drug addicts [who] appeared on the reality show 'Big Brother' in 2002 as a kind of token lowlife."

Goody is 27 now, according to Lyall, so she would have been 21 when that program began. But, in Lyall's words, there was something about Goody that "struck a chord" with the British public, and she became a "working-class Paris Hilton."

The story took a tragic turn last August when Jade, as she is informally known by her fans in England, learned she had cervical cancer. Recently, doctors told her the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for her. And Jade has said that, since she has spent her adult life talking about her life on camera, she may well die in front of it as well.

Now, she's about to marry her long-time boyfriend, and it seems all of England will be watching. The situation has raised all kinds of ethical and moral questions. Some people think she should keep her death a personal, private matter. Others see it as a way to regain the only sense of control still available to her.

And, as Lyall points out, Goody is having a positive effect in one sense — more young women have become motivated to have regular tests to check for signs of cervical cancer. Doctors call it "the Jade Goody effect."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More Bad — But Not Unexpected — News

Editor & Publisher reports that the A.H. Belo Co., which is the parent company of the Dallas Morning News, has confirmed what many expected. Belo "is laying off another 500 people and cutting expenses by $50 million before the end of the first quarter."

But before those 500 people join the millions of us who are out there looking for jobs in this less-than-robust economy, I'm sure they'll be gratified to know that Belo "won't stop publishing or home deliver on certain days," according to the company's chairman and CEO.

"We think with the headcount reduction and getting cost reductions that are not related to people that if we can do this successfully, we've created some runway — and we don't have to risk alienating our loyal customers who expect a paper," Robert Decherd said in a conference call Tuesday.

E & P observes that "[t]he latest round of job cuts amounts to more than one-sixth of the 2,950-person workforce. At the beginning of last year, A.H. Belo employed about 3,600 people."

E & P also reports that additional measures slated for April include eliminating retirement plan matching contributions and charging those who still have jobs to park in downtown Dallas lots.

I've parked in downtown Dallas lots before. And my guess is that public transportation will reap some unanticipated benefits from this move.

Too bad the same can't be said of the 500 souls who are about to receive their pink slips.

What to do About the Auto Industry?

For several years, I worked as a loan processor, verifying information on applicants for automobile loans through a company owned by Citigroup.

Over and over, I processed loans that I found troubling. My job required me to verify information on loan applicants. I confirmed their employment, insurance coverage, physical addresses and landline phone numbers. Also, whenever I was required to do so (and I wasn't required to do so on every loan), I calculated applicants' incomes.

I saw many loans that went across my desk that I felt were questionable. I saw applicants buying vehicles that they clearly could not afford. I saw applicants buying gas-guzzling vehicles with no apparent concern for escalating oil prices.

Many of these loans did not meet the minimum standards that had been established by the company. Whenever that happened, it was my job to submit the loan to someone higher up — more often than not, the person in authority found a way to get around the standards and allow these loans to proceed.

I admit that I never have been an expert on the ins and outs of personal loan financing. But even I could see that many of the loans that were being approved could never be repaid. I vividly recall processing such a loan once, in which the applicant was earning about $20,000 a year and was making a monthly mortgage payment in the vicinity of $900 a month. This applicant was buying a brand-new SUV, nearly fully loaded, and the monthly payment on the vehicle was going to be in the neighborhood of $550.

I turned to one of my co-workers, explained the details of this customer's loan and asked, "What's he going to eat for the next six years? Crackers?"

In spite of what I thought were numerous red flags on this deal, one of the higher-ups found a loophole and the deal went through.

When I began working for the company, it wasn't owned by Citigroup, and the emphasis of the business, I felt, was noble. The stated objective — over and over — was to give a "second chance" to people who had had credit problems in the past, and I was glad to be a part of it because I know many people who have experienced credit problems for a variety of reasons. I was pleased to be able to help people who had weathered serious health problems or the end of a difficult marriage and, as a consequence, found it difficult to get auto loans.

But after Citigroup purchased the company, the emphasis seemed to shift dramatically. The emphasis was no longer on being a place where the customer who had encountered problems with credit could get a fresh start. It was on the almighty dollar and meeting sales quotas — and, if a customer got a loan he/she couldn't repay, that was his/her problem for failing to plan accordingly.

Over the years, enough of those problem loans piled up, and now it isn't just the problem of the individual customers. It's everybody's problem. My understanding is that the company for which I used to work has been downsized considerably — and, at this point, it may have been shut down completely. That wouldn't surprise me. The parent company, Citigroup, certainly has had its share of financial problems lately.

Having worked in auto loans for several years, though, I read with interest an article on about General Motors and Chrysler (which is the company with whom my former employer had a partnership) saying they would need nearly $22 billion in additional federal loans because the demand for their cars and trucks has declined so much.

These loans, obviously, will be expensive for America's taxpayers — but the companies contend that it will be even more costly if they are allowed to go bankrupt. That, it seems, is the ongoing debate. It was the topic of the hour just a couple of months ago when the major American automakers came to Congress seeking bailout money — help us, they said, or we will have to go out of business.

Now they're saying it again. American taxpayers do not want to see any company go belly up — but can they be blamed for being skeptical when companies keep coming back with their hands out? reports that, in documents the companies submitted to the Treasury Department on Tuesday, GM and Chrysler said they plan to cut 50,000 jobs worldwide this year — and that even more money may be needed if sales don't improve.

If sales of American-made vehicles have plunged because more Americans have recognized the need for fuel efficiency, should the government be required to come up with ways to help automakers' sales improve?

I presume that even more jobs will be in jeopardy if sales don't improve — whether or not the government ponies up the additional billions. But how long should taxpayers be asked to subsidize a failing industry, merely to prevent the loss of more jobs?

To secure additional government funding, it seems to me that GM and Chrysler (as well as any other American automaker that feels compelled to return to the federal trough) need to make more than merely a verbal commitment to making significant changes in their business practices — and that would include the administration of auto loans.

American automakers need to devote more of their resources to research and development that will lead to the production of more fuel efficient vehicles. It won't mean immediate profits, but it's an investment in the future. The era of making money off gas-guzzling vehicles like SUVs and huge trucks has to end — if it hasn't already.

That's something the federal government should encourage through additional funding for the automakers — but those funds need to be accompanied by a commitment from the government to keep more than a casual eye on how the automakers spend taxpayers' money.

It all reminds me of a message that President Carter repeatedly tried to get across to Americans in the late 1970s. He was ridiculed by his opponents for making his so-called "malaise" speech in 1979 (although he never used that word in the address), but his speech about a crisis in confidence came after a couple of years of trying to persuade the American public to take steps to avoid a catastrophe later.

Americans didn't listen to Carter then — mainly because he was telling them things they didn't want to hear. They preferred to listen to Ronald Reagan the next year, when Reagan told them that government was the problem, not the solution, and that there were easy answers to complex questions.

But now, in the midst of a severe recession with another president preaching the need to develop different energy sources to what may be more receptive ears, it might be a good idea to revisit President Carter's early appeals to the nation.

A clip from one of his 1977 speeches to America is above. Watch it and ask yourself how much better off we might be today if we had listened to him nearly 32 years ago.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

I know Barack Obama has been president for less than a month. And I guess it may be one of the most frustrating aspects of the presidency that a president can't just snap his fingers and immediately enact policies he would like to enact.

George W. Bush, as discredited as he was at the time his presidency came to an end, once observed that "things would be a heckuva lot easier" if this were a dictatorship. No doubt Hitler and Stalin would agree with him.

Normally, I'm grateful for the deliberative aspects of a democracy — but the time that can be consumed certainly can be problematic. And these days, people can get antsy, if not downright impatient.

That's something I completely understand. I, like millions of others, have found myself in between jobs in recent months. My life has been disrupted, as Obama has said in a general reference to the millions who have lost their jobs in the last year. That's certainly a literate way to put it, but, nevertheless, I can feel a sense of panic creeping in around the edges more and more frequently as the days go by.

I know it's hard for me — and people like me — to be patient. I also know that these things take time.

But I feel frustrated when I see politicians and bloggers treating it like business as usual.

For me, it isn't business as usual. I often have the feeling that time is running out.

This is the kind of situation that politicians love, perhaps secretly, if they happen to have a way with words — and ways to use it to their advantage.

When I was in college, I remember Ronald Reagan, who was running against President Carter, said, "Depression is when you're out of work. A recession is when your neighbor's out of work. Recovery is when Carter's out of work."

Funny, huh? Not so funny if you were one of the ones who was out of work.

I had much the same feeling when Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson bragged about the alleged virtues of the compromise of the economic stimulus package in the Senate. "We trimmed the fat, fried the bacon and milked the sacred cows," he said.

Then, when congressional leaders resolved the differences between the House and Senate versions, creating a package that was supposed to create even more jobs than the original, Nelson had another one-liner.

"Call us the jobs squad," Nelson said.

Barack Obama signed the package into law today. Originally, Obama was going to sign it into law yesterday, on Presidents' Day. But it was postponed until today. I haven't heard any clever comments about why.

Today, Obama said the package "mark[s] the beginning of the end — the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs; to provide relief for families worried they won't be able to pay next month's bills; and to set our economy on a firmer foundation." More nice words.

But, as my mother used to say, actions speak louder than words.

Well, I guess it qualifies as a victory, although not a bipartisan one. Nearly every Republican in Congress voted against it.

Tell you what, Sen. Nelson. I'll be happy to call you and your colleagues "the jobs squad" — just as soon as I get a job and I have somewhere to go in the morning.

Until then, it's all words to me.

My guess is that several million Americans probably feel the same way.

The Last (?) Word on C-SPAN's Rankings

I don't know if, as my headline suggests, this is the last word on the presidential rankings published by C–SPAN during the weekend.

But I read something today that did provide an answer — sort of — to a question I asked, in a roundabout way, the other day.

A article has summarized the survey's findings — and suggests that it was appropriate that Abraham Lincoln finished first on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth.

The article acknowledges, however, that Lincoln also finished first in the survey that was conducted in 2000 — so the fact that he finished first in the latest survey does not appear to be, in any way, connected to the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Lincoln's occupation of the top spot may be the most obvious coincidence, but there are a couple of other ironic anniversaries that haven't — as I recall — been mentioned in any of the articles I've read about the survey, whether those articles appeared in blogs or sites run by professional news organizations.

For example, this year is the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt was ranked fourth in both the 2000 and 2009 surveys.

And, in 1809, the year that Lincoln was born, Thomas Jefferson's presidency came to an end. Jefferson was ranked seventh on C–SPAN's list.

Anyway, the "question" to which I referred had to do with why Ulysses S. Grant jumped from 33rd in the 2000 survey to 23rd in the current one.

Grant's traditionally low marks may be due, as CNN wrote, to the corruption of others in his administration and the record of the Reconstruction effort over which he presided.

But a Howard University historian observed that Grant may be "getting a bounce" from the additional attention that has been paid to Lincoln in his bicentennial year.

"Grant won the war for Lincoln," the historian said. "A new look at the totality of his career may be improving his presidential stature."

I still think, as I mentioned the other day, that Grant may be getting more credit for his support for civil rights and his opposition to the kind of violence practiced by domestic terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan. But Grant's role in winning the Civil War was something I overlooked, largely because it is not something I consider part of his presidential record.

I also mentioned the other day that Bill Clinton is viewed more favorably in the current survey than he was in the one that was conducted in his last year in office. At the same time, I observed that recent presidents should be excluded from such rankings until history has had an opportunity to adequately assess them.

Which brings me to a point made by another historian: "Bill Clinton and Ulysses S. Grant aren't often mentioned in the same sentence — until now. Participants in the latest [survey] have boosted each man significantly higher than in the original survey conducted in 2000. All of which goes to show two things: the fluidity with which presidential reputations are judged, and the difficulty of assessing any president who has only just recently left office."

Incidentally, there was another major shift in the presidential rankings that I didn't mention in my post on Sunday.

Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who was Grant's successor, fell from the 26th spot in 2000 to the 33rd spot in the current survey. The reasons for that shift are unclear — although Hayes was sort of the George W. Bush of the 19th century. He lost the popular vote, as Bush did in 2000, but won the electoral vote by a single vote after a congressional commission worked out a deal instead of putting the decision in the hands of the House, as required by the Constitution.

To this day, Hayes is the only president whose election was decided in this fashion.

Democrats referred to Hayes as "Rutherfraud," much like many Democrats referred to Florida as "Fraudia" after the disputed 2000 election.

I don't know if this had any bearing on Hayes' fall in the rankings, but liquor was banned at White House functions during his presidency, largely because Hayes' wife, Lucy, was opposed to it. She was nicknamed "Lemonade Lucy," ostensibly because lemonade — or something equally bland — was served at formal dinners, giving rise to the statement that "water flowed like wine" at the Hayes White House.

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Response to C-SPAN's Presidential Rankings

At the All Spin Zone blog, Steven Reynolds has a very brief rebuttal to C-SPAN's rankings of the presidents — a subject of which I wrote in considerable detail yesterday.

Reynolds seems to take exception to the placement of George W. Bush (36th) in the rankings. I mentioned yesterday that I would advocate not including any president whose term ended less than 20 years earlier, and I stand by that. But I'm not an historian, and I was not included in C-SPAN's survey. And C-SPAN did not ask me about any restrictions I would impose for inclusion in the list.

So, Bush is on the list — even though I still believe that not enough time has passed since the end of his presidency to adequately judge its impact on America and the world. In the years to come, he and his defenders may be proven correct when they say that history will vindicate him.

Reynolds proudly proclaims, in his headline, that "George Bush is NOT the Worst President EVER."

Of course, that is a matter of opinion, like everything else in the survey — and you can see the details of the survey at C-SPAN's website.

But one thing that is not a matter of opinion is the length of William Henry Harrison's presidency. Reynolds says Harrison served 32 days. I'm not a mathematician, but, based on the date that he was sworn in (March 4, 1841) and the date that he died (April 4, 1841), I would say that his presidency was actually 31 days in length.

Although I guess — to use a phrase that is famously attributed to Bill Clinton — that may depend on "what your definition of 'is' is."

A president is typically sworn in at noon. I presume it was done that way when inaugurations were held on March 4 instead of January 20, as they are today. So Harrison would have been president for half of March 4. And it was only minutes past midnight on April 4 when Harrison died, so he really didn't serve as president very long on that day.

That is probably splitting hairs, though. The point is that Harrison's presidential tenure was brief. And, because that is so, I've always tended to reject the notion of including him in a list of presidential rankings. I've always felt much the same way about James Garfield — who, as I mentioned yesterday, had been president for about four months when he was shot, then he lingered for two more months before he died.

Apparently, based on Bush's ranking, Reynolds concluded his very short assessment by asking, "Why do historians hate America?"

If one is dismissed as "hating America" because one disapproves of the job George W. Bush did — and that appears to be the sole criterion Reynolds uses for reaching his conclusion — Reynolds must feel very lonely these days.

Bush's approval rating dropped below 40 permanently — and often dipped below 30 — in the last two years of his presidency.

Polls and surveys are nothing more than snapshots of public opinion. They tell you how the public in general feels about a person or an issue at a particular point in time.

But Bush's approval ratings were consistently low. Does that mean that the vast majority of American citizens hate America? On the contrary. I think the vast majority of Americans love their country — but most of them came to the conclusion that a cretin was in charge.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ranking the Presidents

Tomorrow is Presidents' Day, so I guess it should come as no surprise that C-SPAN has surveyed a bunch of historians to come up with a ranking of the presidents, from best to worst.

This kind of list is always interesting — and debate-provoking. In 2001, former White House counsel John Dean asserted that such a list "is nothing but high-grade hokum, mixed with a lot of bunkum."

My primary argument would be that C-SPAN's ranking includes every president, and, while it is tempting to pass judgment on George W. Bush, his administration hasn't been over for a full month yet (even though there are certainly those who would argue that Bush simply stopped governing — or attempting to govern — well before his presidency ended on Jan. 20, 2009).

I would establish certain rules that would exclude recent presidents from being ranked — on the grounds that history really hasn't had a chance to fully assess those presidents' contributions.

How much time should be given? Well, I guess history is dynamic in that sense, and interpretations of individual presidents may be subject to change long after their administrations end. Harry Truman and Richard Nixon, for example, were both regarded more favorably about 20 years after they left office than they were when their presidencies ended. C-SPAN's rankings indicate that Truman is still as well regarded as he was in the survey that was taken nearly 10 years ago, while Nixon has slipped a couple of spots.

Anyway, I would say that any presidency that ended in the last 20 years should not be considered. That would remove both of the Bushes and Bill Clinton from consideration, although the elder Bush would be eligible in the first survey that is taken after the next presidential election.

Twenty years is an arbitrary figure, though. Based on my personal observation, it would be wiser to allow 30 years — thus giving history additional time to render its assessment. Using that yardstick, the Reagan and Carter presidencies would not be eligible for ranking this time.

I'm going to stick with the 20-year restriction, though. There are many people who believe that sufficient time has passed to judge the Reagan presidency, which ended on Jan. 20, 1989.

Incidentally, for the record, C-SPAN's Top 10 were:
  1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).

  2. George Washington (1789-1797).

  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945).

  4. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909).

  5. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953).

  6. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963).

  7. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).

  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961).

  9. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).

  10. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).
Also for the record, the rankings of the last three presidents (who, as I've said, I would not consider because not enough time has passed since the conclusions of their presidencies) were 15th (Bill Clinton), 18th (George H.W. Bush) and 36th (George W. Bush).

It's worth noting, however, that George W. Bush was ranked behind nearly every 20th century president (the exception was Warren G. Harding) — and most of the 19th century presidents who finished behind Bush essentially passed the buck in the years before the Civil War — the exceptions to that were Andrew Johnson (next to last), who succeeded Lincoln after the war was over and became the first president to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, and William Henry Harrison (ranked 39th), who caught a cold that became pneumonia and took his life one month after he took office in 1841.

In fact, due to the brevity of his presidency, I don't think it's fair to rank Harrison at all. Even Pope John Paul I had a longer reign. But C-SPAN included James Garfield in the rankings, and his presidency wasn't much longer. He was shot four months after taking office and died two months after that — but at least he lived long enough to do something while he was president.

I don't suppose that I have any serious arguments with C-SPAN's Top 10, other than my reservations about including Reagan in such a list. Most of the presidents on the list had to face at least one national crisis — and did so quite well.

C-SPAN rates James Buchanan as the worst American president, which leads me to a technical point. There are 42 names on the list, but there were actually 43 presidents prior to Barack Obama. Grover Cleveland served as president twice, but his terms were not consecutive. I tend to think that his presidencies should be judged separately since they governed over two different time periods. But C-SPAN's list treats him as one president, and he falls right in the middle, at #21 (between James Madison and Gerald Ford).

I can't argue with Buchanan's placement, though. When Southern states began to secede in the waning days of his administration, Buchanan contended that secession was illegal. But he also took the position that going to war to prevent it was illegal — so he did nothing.

While it's far from certain, if Buchanan had taken some sort of action to stop the Southern states from seceding, history might have been changed — and the country might have been spared the anguish of the Civil War. So, based on that particular "what-if" from history, I would rank Buchanan as the worst president in American history.

It's interesting to look at C-SPAN's rankings and see what has changed since the 2000 survey. Most of the rankings haven't changed much. In most cases, a president moved up or fell back a spot or two, if that. But there are a few noteworthy changes.

Clinton, for example, is regarded more favorably than he was just before he left office. In 2000, he was ranked 21st. In 2009, as I mentioned earlier, his ranking is 15th.

And, inexplicably, Ulysses S. Grant jumped 10 spots in the rankings, from 33rd to 23rd. Why? I don't know. Perhaps it is because his presidency took a hard line against domestic violence, particularly the sort practiced by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and was supportive of civil rights.

But his presidency was still plagued with corruption, and most historians would probably say that he was a better general than he was a president.