Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Franken Wins in Minnesota

It took eight months of tedious, meticulous counting and seemingly endless court challenges, but the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled, 5–0, in favor of Democrat Al Franken today in his Senate race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

To his credit, Coleman appears to have accepted the decision gracefully. He conceded defeat, saying he would "abide by the results."

So, with Franken's victory and Arlen Specter's defection from the Republican Party earlier this year, Barack Obama and the Democrats appear to have a filibuster–proof majority in the Senate for the next 18 months. Whether they will be able to maintain that kind of majority for the rest of Obama's four–year term in office will depend upon what happens between now and November 2010.

It seems appropriate, although not for the reasons he wrote about, that David Brooks' column in the New York Times today focused on the Democrats' experience with their efforts to reform health care during the Clinton presidency and how that experience shaped the Democrats of today.

Referring to the passage last week of the climate change bill in the House, Brooks says Obama "will do what it takes to pass a bill," and the Democrats in Congress developed "a ruthlessly pragmatic victory machine."

Brooks calls it "Vince Lombardi politics" — which, apparently, is a reference to Lombardi's philosophy that "winning is the only thing," but I hope the Democrats learned more than that from their decade of exile from congressional power.

The Democrats have learned how to win. Now, with Franken, the Democrats have enough votes to do what they want to do, so what is important, if they want this to be more than a temporary interruption, is to show America and the world why they must win.

Winning is the only real objective in sports. But in politics, winning is not the only thing. Sure, you have to win elections before you can do anything. But, even in a marathon of an election like the Minnesota Senate race, the election is only the beginning.

The Republicans had the discipline to win. But they overlooked the why part more and more, until winning alone became the only reason for their existence.

It reminds me of an interview Ted Kennedy gave after he had announced that he was challenging President Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination. CBS' Roger Mudd asked Kennedy, "Why do you want to be president?" Kennedy gave a rambling response that never really answered the question.

Did that prevent Kennedy from winning the nomination? I don't know.

What I do know is that Obama and the Democrats must be able to explain to the voters, in simple and honest language, why health care reform and climate change and additional stimulus packages — and anything else the Democrats seek to achieve — are necessary.

Winning can't be about special interests and big contributors.

It has to be about the people.

If You're Not Part of the Solution ...

How does a cliché become a cliché?

Those of us who write have been warned all our lives not to use clichés too much. If clichés are used infrequently, I was taught, they can be extremely effective. But they should not be used too often, or else the writer may come to be seen as unoriginal — and, thus, be viewed as irrelevant.

A cliché tends to come into existence as a nugget of truth. It may evolve into a stereotype that is unfairly applied, but it had a legitimate starting point and a reason for being in the first place.

I guess that explains why there are times when a person may hear something that is so perplexing that the immediate reaction is a cliché.

That was how it was for me when I heard that Citigroup plans to raise workers' base salaries by as much as 50% to make up for smaller annual bonuses.

My first thought was, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

I'm sure that, at this point, I don't need to tell the Citigroup story in detail. What you need to know is that Citigroup received two federal bailouts because it mishandled things so badly.

And it is also worth mentioning that the federal government will soon assume more than one–third ownership of the company.

But, on some points, I feel confused, just as I did when I worked for a company that was purchased by Citigroup.

The assumption by many, I'm sure, is that Citigroup is plotting to raise executive salaries to get around the reduced bonuses. But, according to the news reports I have read, Citigroup can do what it wants in regard to salary for any employee who is not in the top 100 in compensation.

Therefore, this plan applies, as Eric Dash writes in the New York Times, to the "rank–and–file employees." That would make me happy for my former co–workers, if it weren't for the fact that Citigroup terminated about half of the people in my old office more than a year ago. I don't know how many people I knew are still there.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has some definite ideas about Citigroup and makes some good points in an editorial on this subject. But sometimes the Inquirer's reasoning escapes me.

"You can see the logic of greed at work here," the Inquirer writes. "If they're losing their fat bonuses, why not make up the difference by hiking base salaries? Merely switching bonus dollars to regular pay isn't fooling anyone. It's the logic of a company that still doesn't get the message of the bailout."

Excuse me, but am I missing something? Based on that paragraph, it seems to me that the Inquirer is suggesting that these salary increases are going to the executives whose bonuses have been reduced. But my understanding is that ordinary employees will see the salary increases, not the executives.

If anyone suggests that rank–and–file salaries will go up to offset reduced bonuses, they can't be talking about the office I worked in. The company I worked for was purchased by Citigroup in 2002, but the rank–and–file workers never received a single bonus from then until the time I left in January 2008.

Even so, it does seem to me that the bailout money wasn't intended for salaries, even if the salaries in question are the ones paid to the employees who have been doing the work they were instructed to do and not the executives who implemented the risky policies.

"Officials at Citigroup say they need to pay higher salaries to keep talent," the Inquirer says. "If the gene pool is so talented, how did the firm get into this trouble in the first place?"

Well, again, it seems to me that Citigroup's employees are the ones who will see the salary increases in this plan, not the executives. The employees were not behind the policies that wrecked the economy.

I may be guilty of misreading this editorial — and if I am, I apologize to the Inquirer — but my understanding is that Citi is trying to retain its best workers. That makes sense to me. Whatever top–notch employees there are at Citi would probably leave if they feel they cannot make as much as they would if they left and went to a competitor.

A friend of mine says he read an article that said Citi only intended to raise salaries on those with better–than–average performance reviews. That seems logical, but my guess is they will screw it up like they did everything else.

Dash is correct when he observes that "[t]he Citigroup proposals ... present a crucial test for the Obama administration," but he goes on to point out that "administration officials have little power to prevent the company and others in the industry from raising salaries for rank–and–file employees."

As a recipient of federal funds, Citigroup's activities will — and should — be scrutinized. Perhaps, after close inspection, we'll get some clarification on a lot of things — not just who is getting a salary increase.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Supreme Court Overrules Sotomayor

The Supreme Court handed down its decision today in the reverse discrimination case from New Haven, Ct.

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sided with New Haven in the case when it came before her appellate court last year. But the Supreme Court favored the white firefighters who appealed the ruling over the role race should play in job advancement, claiming reverse discrimination.

The vote was 5–4.

There really isn't anything about this that surprises me.

The vote reflects the current makeup of the court — five mostly conservative justices, four mostly liberal justices.

The justice who is retiring — David Souter — dissented. Since Souter has a mostly progressive record with the Supreme Court, it can be assumed that Sotomayor will vote as he probably would have in future cases. At least, in this case, he supported her position.

Each side will spin this case in a way that favors its position. But, when all is said and done, nothing happened that is likely to derail Sotomayor's nomination. Those who were inclined to accuse Sotomayor of judicial activism before are still inclined to do so, but that alone doesn't seem likely to change the outcome.

And nothing has happened that would deter Sotomayor's supporters.

Marc Ambinder writes, in The Atlantic, that the nominee's critics are seizing on the ruling in their quest to deny her a spot on the bench. But those who hope to see Sotomayor's nomination defeated will need something more significant than this in their arsenal.

Autopsy Finds No Head Trauma

Yesterday, I mentioned the death of TV pitchman Billy Mays and the rough landing of his airplane the day before. Mays said he was hit in the head during the landing, and reports indicated that he later complained of not feeling well before he went to bed, although he apparently felt all right when he left the plane.

I mentioned that this sounded similar to the case of Natasha Richardson, who died after taking a fall on the ski slopes in mid–March.

But, apparently, Mays' death had nothing to do with the rough landing or being struck in the head.

The medical examiner said today that his findings indicate that Mays died because of heart disease.

The preliminary conclusion is that Mays suffered a heart attack in his sleep. More will be known when the results from the toxicology tests come back.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sunny Slopes of Long Ago

When I went to church this morning, I must admit that I expected my pastor to speak about the famous people who died this week — Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

I wasn't sure what he was going to say, but I pondered the prospect as I drove to church. Would he speak of the uncertainty of life? He could have — and it certainly would have been poignant today, given the fact that, upon returning home, I learned that another famous person, TV pitchman Billy Mays, was found dead at his Florida home this morning. Mays wasn't as well known as the other three, but millions were familiar with his booming voice from his infomercials.

As with Jackson, Mays (who also was 50) did not appear to be a victim of foul play, but there are reports that he was hit on the head when the airplane in which he was riding had a rough landing yesterday. He seemed to be all right when he disembarked, but, reportedly, he told his wife he wasn't feeling well before he went to bed, which seems reminiscent of the death of Natasha Richardson a little more than three months ago. An autopsy is scheduled for tomorrow.

Would my pastor speak about the mysterious ways of God? That, too, would have been appropriate. And, in a way, I guess that is what he spoke about. He reminded the congregation — which seemed smaller than usual but had to be considered hardy, given the 100°–plus temperatures we've had in Dallas lately — of John Lennon's words: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

(Which reminds me. I must add that one to my favorite quotations on Facebook.

(Incidentally, I'm not sure when Lennon said that first — I don't even know if he was the first one to say it — but I know it was a line from the song "Beautiful Boy" that was on the last album Lennon released before he was murdered.)

My pastor calls these "holy interruptions." And I guess that is appropriate, when you realize that Jackson was preparing for 50 shows in England when he died.

Personally, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of fame after reading David Segal's musings on the subject in the New York Times.

Segal wrote that, while watching the TV coverage of the reactions to Jackson's death, "you had to wonder: When will this happen again? When will another pop culture figure mean so much to so many that people are moved to assemble, hug and dance?"

Segal seems inclined to believe that, because things have changed so dramatically since Jackson's record–smashing LP "Thriller" was released a quarter of a century ago, it might never happen again.

And his point is well taken. "People who buy music tend these days to buy — or steal it — online, a song at time," he writes. They don't seem to be buying albums, even though I suspect there are still some people (like myself) who prefer CDs — and I expect that segment of the marketplace to be around for awhile.

But, even if music consumers are acquiring their recordings online one at a time instead of investing in an entire CD's worth of material, that is, as he concedes, more a matter of "business and math" than it is a reflection on the fame and influence of the performer.

And, frankly, it doesn't seem all that different from the way things were when my brother and I were kids and we bought Jackson Five singles instead of LPs.

As I recall, we had quite a collection of those singles. But we collected them largely because we could afford them. In those days, we probably would have needed to save our allowances for four or five months to accumulate the money to pay for one album.

By comparison, a 45 rpm single only required about three or four weeks' allowance. You only got two songs (one on each side, except for those rare recordings that were one long song that started on the A side and concluded on the B side), and it was still a considerable exercise in discipline for a 7– or 8–year–old to save his allowance for a month. But it was simply unrealistic to think that a boy that age would resist the temptation to buy baseball or football cards or soft drinks or candy for five months just to buy a record, no matter how good the record was.

So today, as it was then, the focus is economic. But here's what has changed. Technological advancements have put more pressure on the artists and less on the consumers. When I was a child, the artists and the recording companies decided which songs would be released as singles. If a song you liked was not released as a single, the only way to get it was to buy the entire album. You couldn't download it — although you might be able to make a tape recording of a friend's copy if you had taping equipment. When I was collecting Jackson Five singles, most of the people I knew did not have taping equipment.

Today, consumers can buy the tracks they choose. They can download them from the internet and burn them onto homemade CDs in a matter of minutes. The choices are theirs. They are no longer at the mercy of the promoters and marketers representing recording companies.

There are a handful of (mostly deceased) performers whose bank accounts would unquestionably grow if recordings of any of their previously unreleased songs were discovered — even if those recordings turned out to be among the worst songs those performers ever recorded. If they were songs that Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley sang or the Beatles played but never released, their fans would line up days ahead of time to buy the CD without even hearing it.

For just about everyone else, though, the emphasis is on quality. Artists can't get away anymore with packaging CDs that have a couple of hot singles and a bunch of filler recordings to bulk them up.

But, to get back to Segal's premise, I think it's true that fame and success won't take the forms they did for Jackson and, no, we probably won't ever see another "Thriller." But that doesn't mean that someone of comparable stature won't come along.

The yardsticks for measuring fame are always changing. An album that spends months at the No. 1 spot on Billboard may not be possible anymore, but people often forget that seven of the nine songs on "Thriller" were released as singles — and all of them spent some time in the Top 10. I believe "Thriller" could still wield the kind of influence it did 25 years ago.

What we saw on our TV screens Thursday night was people reacting to the death of someone who connected with them as an artist. And people have always responded that way when someone who touched them dies. If that person dies at a young age, it is more painful — but it is still a sense of loss.

When Elvis died in 1977, I heard people wonder if we would ever again see the outpouring of grief that we saw then, but we did three years later, when John Lennon was killed. Again, I heard it said we would never see that kind of grief again, but we did, when Princess Di was killed.

Princess Di's public wake became the gold standard, I guess, although perhaps she doesn't belong in this group. She wasn't a recording artist, after all, but she did touch people's lives in a profound way. Anyway, the outpouring of grief over her death made people wonder if we would ever see that kind of global gloom for another deceased celebrity. And now, we have, following Michael Jackson's fatal cardiac arrest.

I think we'll see this kind of reaction when Paul McCartney dies (I'm not so sure about Ringo. That remains to be seen) and I think we might see this kind of reaction whenever Bruce Springsteen dies or whenever Bono dies. It's human nature. These men sang the songs that marked the milestones of many people's lives.

Those artists connected with their audiences. Sales are a tangible way of measuring someone's popularity, but they can't measure the intensity.

When McCartney dies, the public reaction may match or exceed Jackson's. (I have this image in my mind of folks at candlelight vigils singing "Yesterday," "Hey, Jude" and "Let It Be" in the hours after McCartney's death — while the talking heads on cable discuss his tumultuous marriage to Heather Mills.)

I'm not as sure of Springsteen or Bono, but I think they have the kinds of followings that will make it close.

I don't think Segal would buy that argument, mainly because those examples already have achieved a certain level of superstardom. Mostly, I think he writes about the up–and–coming artists. "[E]ven if nobody achieves album sales on a Jacksonian scale, couldn't he or she be an artist every bit as popular, every bit as loved, every bit as listened to?" Segal asks. "Probably not. The pop–idol field — like every field that can lead to super–fame — is more crowded than it has ever been, and the variety of routes to stardom keep growing."

I go along with that to a certain extent but not entirely. I think it relies too much on the bottom line, too much on commercial success to be an absolute. Jackson was an innovator as well as a performer. At a time when entertainment is evolving rapidly, being a good innovator is as important as being a good performer. Pioneers don't always enjoy the success their innovations bring to others, though. But some, like Jackson, enjoy a great deal of success.

There are a lot of things going on at the same time. And that reminds me of my very favorite line from "Forrest Gump" (I've heard these called "Gumpisms").
"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental–like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Part of what is going on is the ongoing contribution recording artists make to events in our lives — through songs you heard when you were in love for the first time or when you got married or when you had your first child or when you graduated from college. Or when a parent or a sibling died.

I've heard it called "the soundtrack of our lives" — sales and airplay can influence that, but I know that there have been times in my life that I have associated with songs that most people never heard of.

Maybe that is the result of what my pastor would call a "holy interruption" — when one may, in seemingly random fashion, hear a song that forever summarizes that moment, that time in a life. The deaths of most of the artists who sang those songs may not inspire the kind of global grief we have seen with Elvis and Princess Di and Michael Jackson, but, for the ones whose songs are linked to critical times in my life, I know I will feel their loss, just as I am sure that others will. There won't be as many of us, but the intensity of the loss will be just as great.

Segal frets that "our infinite menu of options" means the end of "true superstardom" and opines that Jackson's death — and the deaths of McMahon and Fawcett — "reminds us of how little in pop culture we currently share."

I don't think that is true. If Segal grieves the loss of a culture in which we all share the same experience, maybe that is a good thing. The artists who speak to us don't speak to us on group levels. They reach us as individuals and for reasons that are as unique as their listeners.

They represent, as Gus McCrae said in "Lonesome Dove," "the sunny slopes of long ago."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The FDR Example

One thing that I seldom do with this blog is tell my readers whether they should read something.

I will often refer to articles that I read online, but I almost never tell the reader to read anything. I will provide the link and, if the reader wants to read it, that is his/her choice.

But today, I want to recommend one — Bill Clinton's essay on FDR, "Getting It Right," in TIME.

I've been reading it, and I have found it to be very interesting.

It shouldn't be necessary, at this time, to remind anyone that Roosevelt was president during the Great Depression. And Clinton, in case you have forgotten, took office during the economic downturn that occurred under the first President Bush.

Only three other Democrats (besides Roosevelt and Clinton) have been elected president twice. And one of them was not victorious in two consecutive elections. Democrats who have won two consecutive national elections have been rare.

So, if Barack Obama thinks he'd like to be re–elected in 2012, it wouldn't hurt to read this article. Roosevelt actually was elected president four times, and it seems to me that the insights of the only other Democrat to win the presidency twice in more than 60 years since FDR's death would be particularly valuable (Republicans have elected and re–elected four presidents — Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and G.W. Bush — in the six decades since FDR's death).

Especially since Clinton concludes that Roosevelt "got the big things right."

In fact, Clinton observes that Roosevelt sought the presidency running as a "fiscal conservative" but realized, upon entering office, that "aggressive involvement by the government" was needed "with prices collapsing and unemployment exploding."

And that required an ambitious, expansive agenda.

This is something about which I have expressed my concerns before, but I'm probably guilty of not looking at the whole picture. I'm unemployed, and there are times when I feel fearful about the future. I worry that my unemployment benefits will be taken from me, and I worry about a federal debt that can never be repaid so a sense of urgency tends to engulf me. I get anxious to see some improvement in unemployment. If we can start putting people to work, my mind tells me, more people will be earning incomes and paying income taxes to help pay this bill.

It ain't much, but it's something.

And it's not that simple, of course. But, while it's probably selfish to say this, if we can't make a dent in the national unemployment rate, at the very least, I want to see some improvement in my unemployment situation.

I guess I'm too anxious at times to see some proof that we're going in the right direction. But just because there are mountains between us and our destination doesn't mean the destination isn't there — or that we can't get to it.

Some of my friends have told me (in their own words and their own ways) that so many things demand immediate attention that it must be done this way. I, grudgingly, agree with them, but I admit I feel more inclined to believe it when I read what Clinton says.

The fact that the Clinton administration turned the economy around in the 1990s and actually built a sizable surplus before he handed presidential power to George W. Bush tells me that Clinton knows something about this subject.

It also makes me wonder how things might have been right now if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination, and then the election, instead of Obama. The problems wouldn't be resolved — but would we be doing better or worse than we're doing?

With the benefit of a First Spouse who was president for eight years providing unique advice, how would Hillary be doing? Would she have managed to push through a bigger stimulus package? How would she have handled the revolution in Iran? Would she have enjoyed the kind of approval ratings Obama has received?

Those are questions for another analysis at another time. For now, though, the president could do worse than to follow President Clinton's urging to be "inspired by FDR's concern for all Americans, his relentless optimism, his penchant for experimentation, his relish for spirited debate among brilliant advisers and his unshakable faith in the promise of America."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Buenos Errors



Today, we're getting a flurry of news — nearly 40% of the states face the possibility of shutdowns as their budget deadlines approach, the world continues to watch as events unfold in Iran, the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona school administrators violated a 13–year–old girl's rights with a strip search and actress Farrah Fawcett has died of cancer — and the relationship between South Carolina's governor and a woman from Argentina doesn't seem too important to me.

Mark Sanford's press conference yesterday was a spectacle, all right. After days of speculation concerning his whereabouts, he made what Frank Wooten called in The Post and Courier a "cringe–worthy" appearance before the media.

I've been told that he was regarded as a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Frankly, I was told the same thing about Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who revealed his own affair less than two weeks ago.

But such talk must have been confined to limited political circles. I consider myself to be pretty well informed on political topics, but I never heard either man mentioned as a serious presidential contender until after the news of their affairs broke.

I'm inclined to believe that these affairs wouldn't be regarded as matters of interest to most people across the nation if it weren't for the fact that both men are members of the Republican Party — the "family values" party — and are mentioned, if only in hindsight, as presidential contenders.

Indeed, I've heard the word "hypocritical" used to describe Republican politicians like Sanford and Ensign, who supported the move to impeach President Clinton, allegedly because he cheated on his wife. But, as Wooten points out, Clinton was impeached not because he had an affair but because he lied about it under oath. The articles of impeachment did not accuse Clinton of infidelity. They accused him of committing perjury, obstructing justice and abusing power.

Technically, that is so. But it is also true that these things get confused in the public mind. We're long past the time in our history when being divorced was an obstacle to the White House, but infidelity remains a significant stumbling block.

Gary Hart's presidential ambitions were destroyed when the public learned of his relationship with Donna Rice. John Edwards may have been able to seek the presidency again in the future if not for revelations of his affair with a campaign staffer; he may still be able to do so someday, but it seems doubtful right now.

And other politicians — the most recent and most obvious examples being Mark Foley and Larry Craig — have seen their political careers ended by sex scandals. To be fair, Foley was not guilty of infidelity, but his scandal, like Craig's, was homosexual in nature — and it involved minors, which was hypocritical in its own way, considering that Foley waged a campaign, while in the House, against pedophiles.

Ensign's relationship may well be a subject for the people of his state to debate three years from now — that is when he is due to run for re–election. But Mark Sanford is barred by state law from seeking another term as governor in 2010. Unless he decides to seek another office, this is a matter that is between him and his wife and their four sons.

Nevertheless, the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal wasted no time in calling for Sanford's resignation. "Mark Sanford cannot navigate a deep and painful personal crisis and lead the state through its economic crisis at the same time," the newspaper wrote.

(To put things into perspective, the newspaper endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. It also endorsed George W. Bush when he sought re–election in 2004.)

Do you want to know what really concerns me in these matters? It isn't the fact that both Ensign and Sanford apparently violated their spouses' trust. I don't want to trivialize that. But I think it's something that is private.

The part that is public — and reflects poorly on their qualifications for the presidency — is their bad judgment. I think that is especially true of Sanford, who reportedly used taxpayer funds to travel to Argentina to be with his mistress.

It is appropriate for voters to assess the judgment of a politician. Whether it is Gary Hart insisting that reporters would be disappointed if they tried to catch him in the act (even though he knew they would not be) or Mark Sanford traveling to Argentina on the taxpayers' dimes, their actions speak volumes about their judgment.

I don't live in South Carolina so what Sanford does about the remainder of his term as governor does not concern me. But I am a citizen of the United States — and, as such, I am entitled to evaluate the judgment of any person who asks for my vote for the presidency.

In that regard, both Ensign and Sanford are far short of my standards.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

I've come to a conclusion today.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is blinded by her adoration for Barack Obama. And that colors (if you'll pardon the expression) how she feels about everything else.

I will admit, there was a time when I was a regular reader of Dowd's columns. In addition to agreeing with many of the things she said, I admired her way with words. But I've felt myself growing more distant from her in the last couple of years, and I have wondered why that was so.

Today's column brought a lot of things into focus for me.

In that column, she writes critically of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's apparent infidelities. This is not a new topic for her. She has written similarly critical columns about Democrats Bill Clinton and John Edwards, but Republicans have not been left out. On the eve of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, she obsessed about John McCain's "dalliances" that led to the breakup of his first marriage — and I presume she will write about John Ensign, too, when she gets around to it. And she'll probably have something to say about Mark Sanford after she's had a chance to absorb the news.

In fact, based on some of the things she wrote about President Clinton, I really thought she would be a supporter of Hillary Clinton during last year's campaign — if only out of sympathy. But she pretty much disabused me of that notion long before she wrote about a "duel of historical guilts" between misogyny and racism around the time of last year's Texas primaries.

Now, in case I haven't made this point clear in my previous writings, I don't approve of anyone, male or female, cheating on a spouse. I believe marriage is a commitment, and I was brought up to believe that you honor your commitments. In fact, it is for that reason that I have supported proponents of same–sex marriage. I am not gay, but I do not believe that two people who want to make a public commitment to each other should be prevented from doing so.

I believe that people who are in the public eye have a responsibility to set a good example. I don't believe that responsibility is confined to the bedroom. I'm not so sure how Dowd feels about it.

Dowd apparently watched Obama's press conference yesterday. She may have been one of the reporters who was there. I don't know. I didn't see her there, but that doesn't mean she wasn't there.

For that matter, she may well have been on hand when Obama signed the tobacco bill into law on Monday.

Whether she was or not, she seems far too eager, in today's column, to give Obama a free pass on smoking.

"Sneaking a smoke now and again is not the worst presidential flaw imaginable," she writes. (I think I can guess, from reading her column over the years, what she does think is the worst presidential flaw imaginable. If infidelity isn't at the top of her list, my guess is that appearing to be weak and indecisive might be, and I'm sure there are those who would agree.)

She goes on to make observations like this: Obama is "positively monkish" compared to Berlusconi. What does the word "monkish" imply to you?

Then, after reciting Berlusconi's transgressions at length, she writes that she finds it "interesting" that Obama, with his "daunting discipline," is unable to "apply his willpower to cigarettes."

She proceeds to turn the rest of her column into a defense of Obama's style. She never takes him to task for the mixed signals he sends to "the next generation of kids" that both Obama and Dowd insist the legislation is designed to help.

Perhaps that is because she fails to recognize that her own language belittles the effort it takes to quit smoking. She falls back on the word "willpower," which tends to imply that anyone who is unable to give up smoking lacks discipline or self–control.

"Willpower," to me, is as misleading, when one is discussing smoking, as the word "habit." Nicotine, as Dowd's own New York Times has been telling people for more than two decades, is tougher to shake than "heroin, cocaine or amphetamines, and for most people more addictive than alcohol."

"Addiction" is the appropriate word. How else can you explain why millions of Americans continue to smoke in spite of the clear evidence of the death and disease smoking causes?

For many people, giving up smoking may require someone's help. It may require medication. It is not simply a bad habit that can be broken by the sheer force of "willpower." It is not a moral shortcoming.

The tobacco companies have known this for a long time. It is why they manipulated the nicotine content in their products.

One of the things this new law is designed to do is allow the feds to monitor the amount of nicotine in cigarettes. That's good, but it isn't enough to deter young would–be smokers.

When I began smoking as a teenager, I didn't read the warning labels on cigarette packages. Tobacco companies might have been manipulating nicotine in those days as well. I don't know. I didn't check whatever such information was printed on cigarette packages when I was in high school.

But I did observe what the adults — the famous and the ordinary — said and did.

What's the message that Barack Obama is sending to the young people he would like to discourage from smoking when he calls himself a "former smoker," yet admits he still smokes from time to time?

Because I have been what I call a "recovering smoker" for more than two years, some of my friends who are trying to shake their addictions have sought my advice. A friend of mine, who lives in another state, called me a few weeks ago to tell me she had gone a month without smoking. I congratulated her, but I knew from experience that it wasn't over.

And it wasn't. About a week later, she sent me an e–mail telling me that she had been on vacation for a week. She visited a cousin who, unaware that she was giving up tobacco, had purchased a carton of cigarettes for her before her arrival.

"I only smoked a couple each day," she said, apparently proud of her "accomplishment." Sorry, but, if you smoked at all, you're still a smoker.

Smokers have a way of rationalizing these things. And that's what Obama is doing when he claims to be a former smoker but he admits that he still smokes from time to time. He rationalizes it by telling people that he doesn't smoke every day, that he doesn't chain smoke.

Mr. President, this isn't about volume or frequency.

The truth is, you aren't an ex–smoker until you've purged your body of nicotine completely. And, even if you do that, you may prefer to continue to think of yourself as a "recovering smoker," as I do. As I wrote yesterday, asserting that you are a former smoker implies that you believe you have won the struggle with tobacco.

I respect this adversary far too much to assume that.

And, for Ms. Dowd's benefit, what does it say about Obama's marital commitment? Before he entered the 2008 presidential race, he made a deal with his wife. In exchange for her support for his decision to run, he would give up smoking.

Obama announced his candidacy on Feb. 10, 2007. That was more than 28 months ago. His wife held up her end of the bargain. Has Obama held up his?

Infidelity isn't the only way someone can betray a spouse's trust.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Next Frontier


Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon's surface in July 1969.


Forty years ago this summer, Buzz Aldrin was part of perhaps the greatest adventure in which any man has participated — Apollo 11's trip to the moon.

In a special commentary for CNN, Aldrin urges mankind to "continue the journey" — not by "rerunning the moon race that we won 40 years ago" but by focusing on "a destination in space that offers great rewards for the risks to achieve it."

And he has a place in mind.

"I believe that destination must be homesteading Mars," Aldrin writes, "the first human colony on another world."

Aldrin says we could start by sending crews to Mars' moons, then we could move on to the planet's surface.

I understand Aldrin's desire to go to Mars — and I understand why he thinks returning to the moon fails to "ignite the imagination of young Americans" the way the space race of the '60s did.

But, before anyone starts packing for a trip to Mars, there are some things that need to be resolved.

It's going to cost a lot of money to send a crew to the "Red Planet." I don't know how much because I'm hardly an authority on space travel, but I know enough to know that the moon was — and still is — in our orbit, which other planets are not. Therefore, the distance to be traveled is greater.

How much greater? Well, I don't know exact distances, but the Apollo 11 crew needed only a few days to fly to the moon, a couple of days for Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to land on the moon and take a few strolls on its surface, then rejoin Michael Collins and spend about three more days returning to earth. The round trip took a little more than a week.

In the late 1990s, it took months for the unmanned mission that took the rover Sojourner to Mars to arrive at its destination so, obviously, a manned trip to Mars is going to require rockets that can carry more of everything — more fuel for the journey, more food for the crew, etc.

And, when they arrive at Mars, the astronauts will find a barren planet — no vegetation, no water, nothing. NASA will need to have worked out all the details in advance because, by the time the astronauts get there, it will be too late for anyone to say, "Oh, darn! We didn't work out what we need to do about ________!" It will be a long trip back to earth to take care of anything that may have been overlooked.

And that leads me to the questions about fuel. We live in a time when greater attention is being given to the finite nature of fossil fuels. What would be the energy source for this rocket's seven– or eight–month journey? How will the weight distribution of the rocket be affected?

And I mentioned the costs before. I was a child in the 1960s and I don't recall hearing any debates about the expense of sending men to the moon. But times were better then, and the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations hadn't committed more than $1 trillion to stimulating a weak economy. For now, I feel the American public is going to be hesitant to invest in anything that can't be counted on to create jobs or contribute in an immediate way to the GDP.

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of expanding our exploration of space, and I believe Mars could hold some vital information for us. But it's going to require an enormous financial investment to do what Aldrin wants to do, and the American taxpayers will be understandably skittish about making that kind of commitment on the heels of the commitments it has had to make.

There may be plenty of bang to be had for our bucks, but I don't think taxpayers are in the mood for deferred gratification right now, no matter how romantic the notion of going to Mars may be.

What I think is likely to occur is this: The United States government may undertake a study of the possibility of a manned mission to Mars. If it is deemed feasible, NASA will begin work on plans for the right kind of rocket for the job. We're in no space race this time so NASA can take its time and make informed decisions. And, if all goes well, perhaps we would be ready to launch such a mission maybe 10 years from now.

Which means, I believe, that Aldrin, who will be 80 years old in January, probably will not see the first manned mission to Mars.

But I think he would be happy if he sees America make its commitment to the project.

I don't know if that will happen. But, like just about everything else that Americans would like to see accomplished in their lifetimes — a cure for cancer, the development of cheap alternative sources of energy or anything else you can name — it's going to cost a lot of money and it's going to come with no guarantees of success.

Of course, that has been the dilemma facing all explorers throughout the ages. Fortunately, someone or something always has made the difference — sometimes at the last possible moment.

It is part of man's DNA to want to explore, to go where no one has gone before. For a time, colonizing this continent was the next item on the agenda. After colonists arrived here, exploring the rest of the continent was next. Then it was the moon.

Now, Mars is what's next. We'll get there. But we may not get there as quickly as Buzz would like.

Obama Admits Falling off the Wagon

Since my blog post this morning, Barack Obama has held a press conference and, among other things, he acknowledged that he still smokes now and then.

As I've pointed out before, it's hard to give up smoking. The president has taken the same approach I have — sort of. In his statements today, he compared his smoking addiction to alcoholism, which is the same thing I have done. For more than two years, I have referred to myself as a "recovering smoker." That is my way of acknowledging that backsliding is always possible.

Frankly, though, I think I have been more honest with myself than Obama has. Even after more than 27 smoke–free months, I simply cannot refer to myself as an "ex–smoker." To me, such a phrase implies that the fight is over and I won.

I think the likelihood of stumbling becomes more remote with each passing day, but is the fight over? Have I won? I don't think so.

And, as long as I feel that way, I will remain on my guard.

Obama's words suggest (to me, anyway) that he is kidding himself.

"[A]s a former smoker I constantly struggle with it," he said today. "Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No."

That tells me that he is trying to quit, which is commendable. It also tells me that he is finding it difficult to do, which it is.

He calls himself a "former smoker," but how can one be a former smoker if one admits to still smoking, even if it is occasionally?

His motivations are good. "[L]ike folks who go to A.A., you know, once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with," he said, "which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place."

I applaud Obama for what he is trying to do. And I applaud him for admitting how tough it is. But it will continue to be tough as long as he continues to give in to temptation. And the war will not be won.

I don't think he is a "former" smoker. He has admitted that, like so many smokers, he began smoking when he was a teenager. He will be 48 in August. That means he has been smoking for around three decades. It's hard to stop doing anything you've been doing that long.

Obama may not be a heavy smoker. He may not be a chain smoker. But that is only a difference of degrees. Until he rids his body of the nicotine that controls him, he will continue to be a smoker. And, in that respect, there will be little difference between him and someone who smokes two or three packs a day.

If he wants to be a role model who keeps young people from following him "down that path," he still has a lot of work to do.

He isn't completely off that self–destructive path. Not yet.

The Smoking Gun

Originally, I suppose, the phrase "smoking gun" was primarily a literary device — a reference to something in a mystery novel that proved someone was guilty of a crime.

The earliest mention of it that I have been able to find was in a Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than a century ago.

As I gather, the phrase fell out of popular use for quite awhile. When I was growing up, my parents were devout mystery readers. They loved the works of Agatha Christie and other, lesser known mystery writers. I remember, as a child, watching reruns of the black–and–white TV series "Perry Mason" with my father, and my parents were devotees of the Angela Lansbury series, "Murder, She Wrote."

And, while I am certain they were familiar with the concept of the "smoking gun," I never heard them discuss it with each other or any of their friends who also enjoyed murder mysteries.

Then, as evidence of his complicity in the Watergate scandal began to accumulate, Richard Nixon's defenders in Congress began to speak of the need to find a "smoking gun" in the president's hand before they could be persuaded to support his removal from office.

On Aug. 5, 1974, the "smoking gun" was revealed. Earlier, Nixon had released the transcript of a conversation with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman from June 23, 1972 — six days after the break–in at the Watergate. In that conversation, the men discussed having the CIA block the FBI's investigation into the matter. The transcript showed that the president had sought to obstruct justice, an impeachable offense.

Nixon's support in Congress evaporated and, convinced that he no longer had enough support to survive impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974.

It is ironic, therefore, that the National Archives is releasing more than 100 hours of tapes and about 30,000 pages of documents from the Nixon administration today — exactly 37 years since the "smoking gun" conversations.

"Most of the tapes related to the Watergate scandal ... have already been released," observes Charlie Savage in the New York Times, "but scholars say some new materials on that topic are expected."

It is also ironic, I think, that Barack Obama signed into law yesterday the bill that puts tobacco products under federal control via the FDA.

The bill was passed overwhelmingly by both chambers of Congress earlier this month.

I find it ironic because, although Obama pledged to give up his own smoking habit in a deal he made with his wife in exchange for her endorsement of his decision to run for the presidency, there were indications yesterday that he has not been completely successful in the effort.

"I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it's been with you for a long time," he said. Observers pointed out that there were subtle clues in his word selection — "I know how difficult it can be" rather than "I know how difficult it was" — and in his refusal to answer direct questions about his smoking habit.

In the absence of photographs or video footage of Obama sneaking a smoke on the sly, that will have to serve as today's "smoking gun."

Obama can't lose his job over it, but, if he wants to be a persuasive role model who can encourage young people to avoid the habit or give it up, he needs to be able to assure his listeners that he truly is a reformed smoker.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cookie Dough ... and the Missing Ingredient

It's a small thing, really, in the overall picture. Last month, the economy lost more than 300,000 jobs. That's an enormous figure, but it's the smallest monthly job loss we've seen in more than half a year and it's more than 100,000 fewer jobs lost than economists had predicted.

That isn't the small thing I'm talking about, though.

The small thing I'm talking about is the layoff of more than 200 workers at a Nestle plant in Danville, Va. Now, losing 200 jobs is not a good thing. And it isn't small to the people who lose their jobs. But, in an economy that has already seen 5.7 million lost jobs since December 2007, another 200 is a drop in the bucket.

The workers who will be laid off have been producing refrigerated cookie dough, which has been linked to E. coli infections in 30 states.

Nestle voluntarily recalled the rest of the cookie dough. No fatalities have been reported, but more than two dozen people have been hospitalized.

The unemployment rate in Danville is 14.3%.

Danville is near the state's southern border. Straddling the state's northern border is Washington, D.C., where the primary newspaper is the Washington Post. And in today's Washington Post, Michael Fletcher observed that new jobs are the "missing ingredient" in the recovery.

He wonders where the new jobs will come from.

Well, for awhile, anyway, I wouldn't expect much help from the Nestle plant in Danville.

Revolution in Iran



If you're old enough to remember the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and 1980, I don't need to tell you how much things have changed.

But permit me to reflect a little.

In November 1979, there was no internet. There were no personal computers. There was cable television service, but it was very limited and 24–hour news channels did not exist yet.

Access to information was, to put it mildly, limited. And American citizens were being held hostage by foreign captors in a foreign land. The issues confronting Jimmy Carter were different from the issues facing Barack Obama.

Fast forward 30 years.

In recent days — and in spite of attempted crackdowns on internet access and cell phone use — the whole world has been witness to the revolution in Iran that was sparked by the fraudulent elections there earlier this month.

The ugliness of the situation has not been kept within Iran's borders. As the video clip attached to this post demonstrates, the world has had no trouble seeing the brutality of the governing regime. When people see a young woman bleeding and dying in the streets of Tehran, the choice seems simple to Americans who, last year, said they wanted "change we can believe in."

But the events in Iran pose a dilemma for Obama, writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. "Liberals and progressives should be natural allies of those trying to overturn the existing order," he writes. But Obama and the Democrats came to power in this country in large part because they objected to the Bush administration's use of American power in the world, and "Iraq is Exhibit A for the dangers of presuming that American power can easily remake the world."

So Obama must walk a fine line. He supports the calls for democracy and accountability in Iran, but he acknowledges the history of U.S.–Iran relations and understands that America cannot be perceived as interfering.

Even if Obama feels tempted to act — and, frankly, events may escalate to the point where he feels he has no options left — at the moment, he must accept the reality that American troops are engaged in two conflicts. The military is already stretched too thin. If America gets involved in Iran, it may well necessitate the involvement of troops — and there just aren't enough of those to go around.

I've heard some people express concerns about the flow of oil from Iran. I'm no expert on economics or global politics, but, at this point, I'm inclined to believe Iran will neither shut off its oil supply to the rest of the world nor will it arbitrarily jack up prices to customers in countries that have not been favorable to the regime.

What about those who raise concerns about the safety of ships in the Persian Gulf? Well, things can change, but the Strait of Hormuz is one of the most secure waterways in the world.

For now, Iran must accept the going price for oil — and oil prices currently seem to be following a downward trajectory.

The situation, however, will need to be monitored closely. And things could change considerably if the "Great Satan" becomes an active player in the drama — especially if no American lives hang in the balance.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. I believe that is true, and I also believe we have seen evidence of it recently. But it can take time for the pen to prevail.

The guns in Iran have not kept reports of tragic events from being relayed to the rest of the world — through the internet and cell phones. But, inside Iran's borders, the guns rule, bringing to mind Gandhi's admonition that, throughout human history, "[t]here have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall."

It is not only Obama — or impatient Americans — who must walk a fine line in this situation. The longer that Iran resists the movement growing among its own people, the more likely it will be to show the world the truth of the words of President Kennedy: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pop Culture



Today, for Father's Day, my brother and I took our father out for lunch. It was a rare opportunity for the three of us to spend some time together. I guess the only real difference between my relationship with my father and my brother's relationship with him is the names we call him — I call him "Dad," and my brother calls him "Pops."

I don't want to dwell on the subject too long. I'm grateful to have both my brother and my father in my life, and I hope they'll both be around awhile longer.

I have no reason to think that they won't — but I know anything can happen at any time.

For some reason, lately I've been thinking about a time in the weeks after my mother's death in 1995 when I was having a conversation with my father. He had been temporarily disabled in the flash flood that took my mother's life, and he was experiencing one of the mood swings he went through that summer. I told him how important he was to my brother and me.

And then, I remember telling him that I wasn't ready to lose both of my parents.

Well, here I am, nearly 15 years later. I got caught in the economic meltdown last fall, and I've been unemployed ever since. And you know what? I'm still not ready to be without both my parents. I've missed my mother terribly since losing my job. I can only imagine how much more of an ordeal this would have been if I hadn't had my father. He's kept me grounded and focused as I've tried to find an answer. Answers are elusive these days, but I can't imagine them being any easier to come by if he were not around.

So I'm glad the three of us had lunch together today. And I hope, if your father is living, you were able to spend some time with him.

Remembering the Past



Today is the 45th anniversary of something that has to be considered a crucial event in the evolution of race relations in America, yet it seems to be mentioned so infrequently that I would not be surprised if today's young people find it hard to believe that it actually happened.

I'm talking about the murders of three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner — in Neshoba County, Miss., on June 21, 1964.

It was, to be sure, a different time. It was a time when the word "Negro" was used by liberals in reference to their black countrymen. "Colored" was still used by folks in a certain age group, and "black" didn't gain popularity for several years. It would have been unthinkable, in those days, to use the phrase "African–American."

Actually, it seems that, in my lifetime, popular language bears witness to black America's search for its identity. But 1964 was about a lot more than semantics.

It is unthinkable, for many, in 2009, when a black man sits in the Oval Office and another black man is the chief law enforcement officer in the nation, to imagine a time when law enforcement officials not only condoned but actively participated in the murders of civil rights workers whose "crime" was helping black citizens register to vote.

In Chaney's hometown of Meridian, the Meridian Star reports on the 45th Annual Mississippi Civil Rights Martyrs Memorial Service and Conference.

It culminated in a March for Justice that honored all those, black and white, who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and justice — but Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner are specifically honored. The event took place on the weekend that marks the anniversary of their murders.

The chairman of the event told the newspaper that the march commemorates the route that Martin Luther King and the other marchers followed on the second anniversary of the killings.

I grew up in neighboring Arkansas, but I was too young at the time to know what was going on in Mississippi. Many years later, I was sitting in a journalism class in college and my reporting professor told the class that he had been one of the reporters assigned to cover King's march in 1966. Some time later, I looked it up on microfilm and confirmed, from seeing his byline, that he reported the event.

He recalled following the marchers through the streets of rural Mississippi, and he vividly described the cold gaze of the white citizens who silently watched every step of King's entourage.

How scary was it in those days? My reporting professor also covered Northern Ireland during the bloodiest of the clashes between Catholics and Protestants, but he said the march in Mississippi was the time in his newspaper career when he was the most frightened for his safety.

I'm glad those three men — and their sacrifices — are remembered in Meridian nearly half a century later. But I honestly wonder if some people realize just how recent, in our national experience, it was. I've been looking at Mississippi newspaper websites today, and I haven't seen anything else about the anniversary of that event.

It seems to be tumbling into the dustbin of history, relegated to a paragraph or two in the history textbooks. I'm glad things have changed, but, as a student of history, I'm a devout believer in the adage that if you don't remember the past, you're doomed to repeat it.

Those murders and others forced the nation to confront an ugly reality that was and still is a problem in all corners of the country but came to be viewed as endemic to the South.

Perhaps that was due, in part, to the high–profile and highly prolific politicians in this region at that time, politicians like George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Orval Faubus. But a lot of it, I believe, was in fact an attitude that was encouraged by state and community leaders and taught by parents for generations.

In his book about the 1964 presidential campaign, Theodore H. White didn't mention the Goodman–Chaney–Schwerner killings, but he wrote about the conditions in Mississippi: "The white community is brutal to its Negroes, brutal beyond its own understanding of what this brutality brings."

White went on to observe that, around 1920, "Mississippi was one of only two states in the Union (the other being South Carolina) with a Negro majority. … But the condition of Mississippi life expelled from the state the best, the most energetic, the most able, the most responsible of the Negroes — the seekers, the yearners, the men of hope."

As a result, White wrote, "White Mississippi has fashioned Black Mississippi by its own hate into what it fears most."

And that hate boiled over when three civil rights workers came to Neshoba County to register black citizens to vote.

Some things have changed in 45 years, but some things have not. One does not need to be in Mississippi today to see hate in America and the world.

Today, we watch the events in Iran and wonder if it will become another Tiananmen Square, and we're not far removed from a fatal shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that brought some attention, however fleeting, to recent warnings that hate groups across the country are stirred up.

I'm sorry if this spoils your Father's Day, but, honestly, is there a better time to mention it?

We must remember the past if we're going to avoid repeating it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Obama's Honeymoon

Polls, as I am often reminded, are snapshots of public opinion at a particular point in time. Their findings are not carved in stone. But most are pretty reliable barometers, thanks in large part to the work of George Gallup, who pioneered survey sampling techniques.

Gallup, the founder of the Gallup Poll, was dedicated to maintaining his independence and objectivity. He refused to conduct surveys for special interest groups, especially political parties — and that, along with a track record of success, has made the Gallup Poll a reliable source for measurements of public opinion.

Therefore, when Gallup says something, it's worthy of your attention.

Lydia Saad reports for Gallup that Barack Obama's job approval rating in daily tracking polls has dropped to 58% for the first time in his 5–month–old presidency. She acknowledges, however, that this is "not dissimilar to the 59% he has received on four other occasions."

In some quarters, this will no doubt spark speculation about whether Obama's honeymoon with the public is ending.

But it seems to me that isn't exactly the question that one should be asking.

Most presidents begin their presidencies enjoying a certain amount of support from the public — including presumably hopeful support from some who voted for a different candidate in the election. The level of public support varies from president to president and can be affected in different ways by the circumstances in which the new chief executive took office.

Inevitably, public enthusiasm begins to wane. The reservoir of public good will begins to run dry. The numbers begin to decline. Different presidents react to this in different ways.

One thing is for sure. At some point, this honeymoon period will end. The laws of nature — or, at least, gravity — apply. What goes up must come down.

Today is exactly five months since Obama took the oath of office. Around the five–month mark in their presidencies
  • George W. Bush enjoyed the approval of 61% of respondents to a Gallup survey in June 2001.

    A few weeks earlier, the Bush tax cuts were signed into law, and Timothy McVeigh was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

  • Bill Clinton, who, like Obama, took office with his party in control of both houses of Congress, had the approval of only 39% of respondents to a Gallup survey in June 1993.

    A couple of months earlier, the standoff between ATF agents and David Koresh's followers in Waco, Texas, ended with a fire at the Branch Davidian compound, perhaps reminding voters of the problems Clinton had getting an attorney general with no confirmation baggage.

  • George H.W. Bush would see his approval numbers reach incredible heights in the aftermath of the Gulf War, but he wasn't doing too badly in June 1989, when 70% of respondents to a Gallup Poll approved of his job performance.

    In June of '89, the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in China (the country where the newly inaugurated president had been U.S. envoy in the 1970s), and the Ayatollah Khomeini died in Iran.

  • Ronald Reagan is probably the modern president who is most comparable to Obama. Like Obama, he took office during a difficult recession. Recent unemployment numbers have been characterized as being the highest since early in Reagan's presidency. And Obama, no doubt, would like to emulate Reagan by winning re–election in 2012.

    Numerically, Obama seems to be right on track. In June 1981, Gallup reported that 59% of respondents approved of the job Reagan was doing. Part of that may have been a sign of the admiration Americans had for the way Reagan had recovered from the attempt on his life in March.

  • But Obama is not doing quite as well as Jimmy Carter. Even though a majority of his countrymen decided, by November 1980, that his presidency was a failure, Carter's approval rating, in a June 1977 Gallup survey, stood at 63%.

    I'm not sure why Carter enjoyed that kind of popularity after five months. Gas prices were relatively stable — around 55–60 cents a gallon — and Carter had been trying to cultivate public approval in his first months as president, at one point going on the radio with Walter Cronkite for a call–in program.

  • I always feel torn when I discuss Gerald Ford's presidency. He took office after Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, and the public's distaste for Nixon in those days was so intense that I think nearly anyone alive — with the likely exception of Charles Manson — would have taken office with high approval numbers. Ford's job approval rating actually stood at 71% in the first weeks after he took office, but his numbers rapidly declined after he pardoned Nixon. By the time he reached his five–month mark, in January 1975, Ford's approval rating, in a Gallup survey, stood at 37%.

    I'm sure it didn't help that Watergate conspirators John Mitchell, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were found guilty in early January, reminding the public of Nixon's role in the scandal and Ford's pardon of Nixon. Ford always insisted that it was the right thing to do, and perhaps it was — but it wasn't the smartest political move to make.

  • Nixon is remembered today for his abysmal approval ratings at the end of his presidency, but at the five–month mark, a June 1969 Gallup survey gave him a 63% approval rating.

    In fact, Nixon's approval rating for the entire first year of his presidency was remarkably consistent. He was mostly in the 60s, with his highest rating (67%) coming in November 1969 and his lowest rating (56%) coming in October 1969. Perhaps that was reflecting the course of events overseas. National Moratorium demonstrations were held in mid–October and, in early November, Nixon asked the "silent majority" to support his Vietnam policies.
The point is that presidential job approval ratings seem to lead lives of their own.

It is pointless to draw conclusions based on five–month approval ratings. With the exception of Ford, each of the presidents I mentioned had, at their five–month mark, more than 3½ years remaining before the next election — plenty of time for anything to happen.

The question is not whether the honeymoon is over. It may not be over now, but, as I say, the honeymoon will end for Obama. So what is the question the president should be asking now?

Of course, he has many political advisors around him, people who have spent their careers anticipating such a moment and trying to prepare for it. I'm sure most have their own ideas about what he should do. And I'm sure Obama will listen to what each of his advisors has to say. I think that was one of the things that endeared him to so many of his supporters — his faith in that Lincolnesque "team of rivals" approach to problem solving.

And some of those advisors will emphasize an ability to recognize when the honeymoon is over.

But what then? If the honeymoon will eventually end (as, history tells us, it will), what is the strategy?

Bill Maher kind of put things into perspective for me last week, talking about Obama's shortcomings when it comes to the major achievements that everyone, his supporters as well as his opponents, believed would be his in short order. We knew it would take time to turn the economy around. But most people seemed to believe he would lock up things like health care reform fairly early and decisively instead of engaging in "nibbling that leaves insurance companies still running the show."

And, as Maher observes, "The banks that brought us to financial ruin and got bailout money are laughing at us about how easy it was to get back to business as usual." That bailout thing actually began on Bush's watch, but it was initiated by the congressional Democrats with whom Obama is working today.

"And scientists keep saying that if we want to keep living, you know, on earth, it's kind of essential that we reduce carbon dioxide by 40% in the next 10 years," Maher says. "Obama's bill calls for 4%."

Obama and the congressional Democrats like to say — or at least imply — that "we won."

So my advice would be this: Then start acting like you won. It isn't necessary to get the other party's permission. God knows the Republicans didn't seek the Democrats' approval in the first half of 2001, and their congressional majorities were much slimmer.

When Al Franken is certified the winner of the Senate race in Minnesota (as I am sure he ultimately will be), the Democrats will hold the majorities they need in both houses of Congress to do whatever they want to do, filibuster be damned. A bipartisan approach will not be necessary. What will be necessary is a president who knows how to use presidential authority to keep the lawmakers from his party in line and achieve legislative goals.

If the approval numbers tell you nothing else, they should tell you that every president begins his presidency with at least some political capital. But the capital must be spent. You can't save that capital for a rainy day. It can disappear without warning.

So I recommend that Obama use it to benefit those voters who helped him get where he is — even if he isn't particularly committed to their cause. Keep them happy. Whether it's something he's shown support for in the past — like abortion rights and affordable health care — or something he hasn't — like same–sex marriage or ending the war on drugs — now is the time to give his voters some of that change they were told they could believe in.

As Maher says, "[T]he 'audacity of hope' part is over. Right now, I'm hoping for a little more audacity."

Or, as my mother used to say, "Actions speak louder than words."

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Tale of Turnout

I seem to be in a Mark Twain kind of mood today (see my earlier post on Walter Cronkite). Consequently, I'm going to start this post with a quote I'm proud to borrow from Twain.

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

I've written before of my admiration for Michael Barone and his knowledge of voting trends.

So I think it is worth listening when, as we move forward into an era that seems sure to have an influence on political participation in this country that is unlike anything most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, Barone observes that "we live ... in a decade of vastly increased voter turnout."

Between 2000 and 2008, he writes, turnout went up 25% "when population went up only 8%."

And, since 1998, Barone reports, turnout has gone up 20% in House elections.

This, Barone points out, does not happen frequently. "To find three consecutive [presidential] elections in which the percentage increase in turnout each time was larger, you have to go back to the three contests between 1928 and 1936," he writes.

A critical factor in the equation appears to be polarization in our politics. "We lament it," Barone writes, "but it inspires many people to go to the polls." Indeed it does.

Barone also mentions party organization. "Both Republican and Democratic strategists believed, going into the 2004 election, that it was better to get your own supporters registered and to the polls," he writes, "than to concentrate on the dwindling number of moveable voters."

The key to capitalizing on all this, he says, is the "balance of enthusiasm." Enthusiastic voters are likely to participate without much prodding. "If your side is more enthusiastic, you'll get more volunteers, more contributions and more people taking the trouble to vote for you even without any prompting."

And that leads Barone to speculate, asking "Which side does it favor now? We can look for clues in the turnout in the primaries for governor in New Jersey and Virginia earlier this month." Those numbers, he concludes, favor the GOP.

"[I]f I were the Democrats," he writes, "I'd be worried about the balance of enthusiasm. If I were the Republicans, I'd be mildly optimistic."

Now, it's worth pointing out that Barone may be biased when he makes his analysis. He is known to be conservative. But I have found his methodology to be sound and mostly bias–free over the years.

I'll admit that it's hard to draw sweeping conclusions from the handful of elections that we've seen in 2009. And many things can affect the turnout — including the fact that presidential elections always generate more excitement than midterms or off–year elections do.

And when it comes to drawing "clues" from the modest electoral activity we've had so far, Barone is as good as there is. Both parties would be wise to pay attention.

Especially Democrats. If the midterm elections were a couple of months away, the Democrats would need to find a way to put a happy face onOr, to put it in terms Twain would understand, if the senators and the members of the House who face electoral challenges next year don't pay attention to what Barone says, they're idiots.

An Exaggerated Report

Mark Twain is one of my favorite writers of all time. And one of my favorite quotations by him apparently stemmed from reports about a serious illness with which his cousin was afflicted. Somehow, word got out that Twain was the one who was ill — and, from that, things got out of hand. Twain, subsequent reports indicated, had passed away.

But that was not the case. So Twain attempted to set the record straight.

"The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," he famously said.

I'm getting somewhat the same sensation today with the reports concerning retired news anchor Walter Cronkite.

The 92–year–old Cronkite has been ill recently, but Mark Shanahan reports, in the Boston Globe, that he isn't at death's door — at least, not yet.

Even the Chicago Sun–Times, while hedging its bets with a headline that said "Reports of Walter Cronkite's illness are exaggerated," nevertheless informed readers that Cronkite was "gravely ill" a couple of paragraphs before reporting that Cronkite's executive assistant said he was "dealing with the challenges of being a 92–year–old man."

And that tends to put things in a somewhat different light.

Unless you're over 35, you may not remember Cronkite. He was a fixture in the evening TV news broadcasts, often considered "the most trusted man in America" and known by many viewers as simply "Uncle Walter."

For nearly 20 years, until his retirement in 1981, Cronkite was the anchor at CBS, presiding over the network's coverage of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the landing on the moon of Apollo 11 and the Watergate scandal — as well as practically all the other major events of the 1960s and 1970s, like Woodstock and Watts, Three–Mile Island and Kent State.

His on–air editorial in 1968 stating that the war in Vietnam was not winnable is often credited with being the event that turned the tide of public opinion. President Lyndon Johnson, who withdrew from the presidential race a month later, reportedly said, after Cronkite's editorial, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

Well, America hasn't lost Cronkite yet — and it may not lose him for several more years. His mother was 101 when she died in 1993. Cronkite was 77 at that time.

By the way, in case you're wondering, it's my understanding that Twain's cousin recovered from whatever had afflicted him.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Lamebrained Decision

Gov. Rick Perry is apt to face a primary challenge when he seeks another four–year term in office next year. And, when he does, he's going to have to answer some tough questions.

One of the toughest has to do with his decision earlier this year to reject part of the stimulus funds that were earmarked to help the unemployed.

As the Houston Chronicle points out in an editorial, the decision was "a thinly veiled gesture to woo his conservative base." In fact, I wrote about this three months ago, but Perry may not be able to count on that base when Republicans hold their gubernatorial primary next spring.

Perry's likely opponent is Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is probably the most popular politician in Texas these days. And, even though Hutchison didn't support the stimulus package, she wasn't the one who chose to reject any of the funds that were intended to help people in the state. Perry did that.

And, by the time the primary is held, a lot of people — whether employed or unemployed — will have paid the price for Perry's bravado. As the Chronicle observes,
"[S]oaring claims by laid–off employees are projected to empty the state unemployment compensation trust fund by next month. The number of claims paid out last month was over $350 million, nearly $260 million more than in May 2008. As a result of the added claims, state officials have been forced to borrow $160 million from the federal government and will need another $360 million to pay benefits through next October."

The chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission says unemployment taxes charged to employers in this state will nearly double.

"Instead of getting our fair share of stimulus dollars, Texas will instead be a borrower and issuer of new bonded indebtedness," writes the Chronicle. "Quite a price to pay for a political gesture."

Hopefully, Perry will pay an even higher price at the polls.