Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Freedom of Speech

I believe in freedom of speech, the free exchange of ideas, the right to question what someone else has said or written. I do not block anyone from my blog. If someone wants to make a comment on anything I have written, that is fine.

I do not believe in freedom of abusive speech, of hateful speech, of speech that is intended to encourage violence.

When I say I believe in freedom of speech, that does not include the person or persons who recently set up a poll on Facebook asking whether the president should be killed. My guess is that he, she or they can expect a visit from the Secret Service at any time. Deservedly so.

And I agree with what Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times. Yes, politics is a "tough business," as Friedman writes. It always has been. But, what Friedman calls a "cocktail of political and technological trends" has created a witches' brew that has spawned "a different kind of American political scene."

I have been thinking about freedom of speech today because I have been blocked from a website merely for asking a question.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will identify the site here. It is The Hinterland Gazette, formerly known as Black Political Thought. I referred to it on this blog yesterday. The item I questioned is referred to in my post.

I have been visiting the site off and on for quite awhile now — long enough to have an idea of how things are done there. And the treatment I have been given smacks of a double standard.

In the past, I have seen some really outrageous comments posted there by visitors. And I have seen the primary author of the site respond with a warning that the visitor(s) would be blocked in the future if similar comments were posted.

I have left comments on the site in the past. The author never took exception to any comments I left before.

Was yesterday's comment outrageous? I didn't think so. The post on the site suggested that the daughters of the Spanish prime minister were "secret Goths" because of the clothes they were wearing in a photograph of them with their parents and the Obamas. I left a comment and checked back later to see if there was any response. There wasn't one before I went to bed last night.

When I checked this morning, my comment had been deleted so I cannot quote it for you verbatim. But it was something like this: "Is this a fashion critique site? If it is not, why is this story important?"

I was never told that this was considered objectionable by the author or anyone affiliated with the site. I was never warned that I might be blocked from the site in the future. It was done arbitrarily. And now, whenever I try to write a comment, I get a message saying I am blocked from making comments.

Oddly enough, as of this morning, the site still includes my Freedom Writing blog on its favorite blogs list. I don't recall when this blog was added to that list, but it seems to me it has been on that list for close to a year.

So, apparently, the site encourages its readers to visit my blog. But it doesn't want me to comment on its posts.

Well, until such time as the site actually makes it impossible for me to look at its content, I will continue to do so. If I see something to which I take exception, I will say so here.

If those who run the site decide to physically block me from looking at its content, I will encourage my readers to boycott the site.

I'm being up front about my intentions here. No surprises. That is a courtesy that was never extended to me.

And I believe courtesy should go hand in hand with freedom of speech.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Slowly I Turn, Step by Step ...

Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress remind me of Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the Congress of the early 1990s more and more with each passing day.

Except that the stakes today are so much higher than they were in Clinton's day.

Instead of focusing like a laser beam on policies that would make job creation his administration's top priority, Obama has squandered most of the first year of his presidency pursuing the quixotic goal of health care reform.

Millions have lost their jobs this year. Hundreds of thousands are on the verge of having their unemployment benefits pulled out from under them. And Obama has been making concessions in the hope of appeasing enough Republicans to pass health care reform legislation.

Garden–variety Democrats assumed that having 60 votes in the Senate insulated them from setbacks. Not so. The Senate Finance Committee voted down the public option today by a vote of 15–8. All 10 Republicans on the committee voted against it, and they were joined by five Democrats — Max Baucus of Montana, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Bill Nelson of Florida.

So, after devoting all this time and energy to health care reform, Obama might get some legislation passed. But it's going to be a watered–down version of the legislation he has been pushing for. Real reform will have to wait — perhaps for the next Democratic president.

Meanwhile, unemployment continues to get worse. How much worse? We'll find out on Friday, when the next jobs report comes out.

My guess is that it won't be pretty.

And here's another guess. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist may be right when he says Obama is headed for a defeat in 2012 that will rival Jimmy Carter's in 1980.

And it sure doesn't seem like a good time to be pressing for the Olympics to be held in Chicago.

Of course, by 2016, Obama may be back in Chicago, doing his community organizing shtick again.

The Value of Proofreading

As someone who studied journalism in college and worked as a copy editor for many years, I have long had doubts about the wisdom of allowing so–called "citizen journalists" to write articles and post them directly to the internet — completely bypassing that tedious and old–fashioned phase wherein facts are checked, along with spelling, punctuation and grammar, by copy editors.

Sure, double–checking things takes time. It might even prevent a publication or a website from "scooping" another one. But, at the same time, when an extra set of eyeballs looks over an article, mistakes can be caught (and corrected), mistakes that could cause considerable embarrassment for the author and the publication/website.

No one is perfect, of course, and the presence of a copy desk does not guarantee that every mistake will be caught. But sometimes, those eyeballs can catch mistakes that, if permitted to be published, could lead to expensive litigation.

Unfortunately, copy desks have been rendered expendable in today's economy — as John McIntyre, the recently laid–off head of the copy desk for the Baltimore Sun and author of one of my favorite blogs, You Don't Say, could tell you.

Many newspapers seem to be cutting back on those who spend long, often thankless hours reading other people's writing and doing the things those writers are now expected to do — but often do not seem inclined to do unless someone holds a gun to their heads.

And many websites do not seem to care enough about the quality of the articles that appear on them to maintain even a modest copy desk.

Now, I'm a writer. And I know that writers don't particularly like to have someone going through their work with a fine tooth comb.

But with no copy editors — or, at best, a few overworked and underpaid copy editors on staff — mistakes are just allowed to be published or posted, no questions asked. To me, that seems like a recipe for chaos.

In recent months, I have lamented the lack of accountability in today's media. Today, I came across an example of something that a good copy editor might have caught before it was posted online.

It is an item from the website that was following up on something that I wrote about during the weekend.

It was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's statement in a speech to fellow Republicans that he believed Barack Obama might be headed for the same fate as Jimmy Carter.

In the followup,'s Alexander Mooney wrote that Crist was standing by his statements. Fine. That is certainly his right. Then Mooney wrote, "Carter won just six states in 1980 — the fewest by a major–party presidential candidate since 1964."

OK, Carter did carry only six states in 1980. That part was true. But if anyone had bothered to check the assertion that it was "the fewest by a major–party presidential candidate since 1964," a quick glance at an almanac would have confirmed that the statement was false.

It was actually the fewest states carried by a major–party presidential candidate since 1972, when Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern carried only the state of Massachusetts.

That is a good example of a factual error that could have been caught — indeed, should have been caught — but was not caught.

Of course, saying Carter's showing in the 1980 election was the worst by a major–party nominee in 16 years is more sensational than saying it was the worst performance in eight years (even though it is true). I wasn't in CNN's newsroom so I don't know if someone did catch it and decided to let it slide.

But it wasn't the focus of the story. It wasn't mentioned in the headline. So I can only assume that no one caught it.

I actually thought about mentioning it in a comment, but had closed comments on that article. There were already 219 comments posted, so I started to read through them to see if anyone had mentioned this mistake. But I gave up after scanning a few dozen. The readers' comments were largely concerned with name–calling.

I hope someone brought it to CNN's attention, but I doubt it. Last time I checked, it was still there.

Facts, as John Adams wrote, are stubborn things. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion — but not his/her own set of facts.

Copy desks are valuable in other ways, too. They catch misspellings. If you spend much time online, you may have noticed that spelling is less and less important to many people, but it is still important to me, and I would like to think it is still important to others as well.

I presume that others have at least a passing interest in maintaining spelling standards. I have often heard people preaching the virtues of computer spell checkers, but few people seem to use them.

One spelling mistake I ran across today, ironically, appeared at a blog called Regret the Error.

The blog, which is written by a freelance journalist named Craig Silverman, focuses on mistakes that appear in the media. The mistake that I spotted was in a headline on an item about Brooke Shields' recent appearance on NBC's Today. The headline tranposed the i and the e in her name.

I did point out that mistake in a comment, and a correction was made. But you can see the original headline in the screen capture that is attached to this post.

Sometimes copy editors can raise questions about the wisdom of running certain pieces, like one I saw today at The Hinterland Gazette, a site that advertises itself as "a daily dose of commentary on social and political issues from an African American centrist."

The item to which I refer suggested that the daughters of the Spanish prime minister and his wife, who posed for a photograph with Barack and Michelle Obama, were "secret Goths," based on their attire.

The only evidence for such an assertion was a photograph in which everyone — except Mrs. Obama — was dressed in black.

No one would ever mistake me for a fashion model, but I don't think commentary on teenage girls' clothing qualifies as a legitimate "social" issue.

Do you?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Forty-five Years Since the Warren Commission

Here in Dallas, the Kennedy assassination remains a sore topic nearly half a century later.

The Sixth Floor Museum, which occupies the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository (the same floor from which the shots allegedly were fired at President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963), has attracted more than 6 million visitors since it opened 20 years ago. While some of those visitors certainly were Dallas residents, the vast majority were folks from out of town looking for answers to a mystery they can't solve.

I suppose the Warren Commission Report is a sore topic for people here, too, but it has been hard to tell. I don't recall any articles or conversations on that subject.

There probably were articles about the report that were published locally back in 1964, but it is something that never seems to be brought up now.

Yesterday would have been a good time to reflect on the findings of the Warren Commission. It was the 45th anniversary of the public release of that report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But the only recent article concerning the assassination I have seen in the Dallas Morning News appeared three weeks ago and said nothing about the Warren Commission. The article was about the sale of the home where Oswald's wife was living at the time of the assassination.

When Oliver Stone's film about the assassination, "JFK," came out in 1991, I had many misgivings about the official conclusions about the shooting. The film didn't address them all, but it came close. Certainly, there were things in the film that were fictionalized, but at least it made a serious effort to explain things that no one — least of all the members of the Warren Commission — had explained satisfactorily up to that time.

I still have considerable doubts about
  • The "single bullet theory,"

  • as well as the notion that one gunman fired three shots and caused all the wounds to Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally with only two bullets (it was established that one of the shots missed completely),

  • and I still believe the notorious "grassy knoll" played a role in the assassination.

  • I don't believe the Warren Commission adequately investigated several suspicious people who were seen in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination,

  • and the so–called "three tramps" in a boxcar in a rail yard west of Dealey Plaza are right up there at the top of that list.

  • And why wasn't Jack Ruby brought to Washington, as he requested, for an interview with Chief Justice Earl Warren? Ruby claimed to know things that hadn't been brought out, but he said he didn't feel safe in Dallas. In Stone's film, it was suggested, by Warren, that the federal government could not guarantee his safety in Washington. Why not? No one has ever explained that to me.

  • Over the years, there have been various theories that have pointed the finger at the CIA, organized crime, the Secret Service, Cuban exiles, Soviet agents, even Lyndon Johnson. If there is evidence that proves that any of these had nothing to do with the assassination, why hasn't it been produced?

  • Why wasn't an autopsy performed in Dallas, as Texas law required?
Well, I could go on and on.

But, after 45 years, it seems unlikely to me that we will ever learn the truth about what happened that day.

My 1,000th Post

This is a personal milestone for me. This is my 1,000th post on this blog.

It all began with a simple post about picking a name for my blog two years ago tomorrow — on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007.

I'm going all Ted Baxter here.

Do you remember Ted Baxter, the pompous anchorman from The Mary Tyler Moore Show? One of the running jokes on the show was the acceptance speech Ted had prepared in anticipation of winning an award — and always had it memorized, ready to recite at the drop of a hat. Oddly, it was the same answer he had prepared for anyone who wanted to interview him for a biographical feature.

"It all began at a 5,000–watt radio station ..." and I believe the fictional station was in Fresno, Calif., but I'm not certain about that. You would think I would remember. I was a big fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.

The joke was that, most of the time, he didn't win, and his speech went undelivered. But it seems to me that Ted finally won the recognition he craved — in an episode in which Walter Cronkite was the guest star.

Anyway, I started writing this blog two years ago. An old friend recommended it to me, and I am grateful he did. But I made a mistake with this blog. I used it to write about anything that came to mind — and it became unwieldy.

So last year, as I approached the first anniversary of the debut of my blog, I decided I needed to be more topical. I had been using this blog to write about a lot of different topics, but last September I decided that I needed to start two other blogs and dedicate them to sports and entertainment.

Then, on Sept. 25, 2008, I announced the creation of two new blogs.

I'm still writing those blogs. When I want to write about football or baseball or horse racing (other sports, too, but those are probably the main ones for me) or, sometimes, the people who tell us about the sports we watch, I write at my Tomato Cans blog. Mostly, I have been writing about football recently, posting my predictions in the weekly college and pro football schedules. In the coming weeks, I'll be writing about the baseball playoffs. And, in the last few weeks, I have posted sports–oriented comedy videos featuring routines by Andy Griffith and George Carlin.

And when I want to write about books or movies or music or TV — or if I want to indulge in some free association — I write at my Birth of a Notion blog.

And that has helped me focus this blog more on current events and history. Sometimes, being a journalist, I write about language.

All three blogs are works in progress, though. My style is still emerging, and there remain some inconsistencies. They probably aren't noticeable to casual readers, but, for someone who spent many years working on newspaper copy desks, it's just part of my DNA to have a signature style that is consistent in all of my blogs.

Anyway, thanks for reading my blogs. I hope you will come back.

What Awaits Democrats in 2010

In recent months, as the Obama administration clearly has been emphasizing health care reform and de–emphasizing job creation, I have stated that I believed Democrats were setting themselves up for midterm losses next year similar to the losses they experienced in 1994.

Relax, writes Ed Kilgore in The New Republic. It ain't gonna happen.

That must come as a relief to some Democrats, who were feeling anxious that Barack Obama was duplicating the mistakes from early in Bill Clinton's presidency. Whew! Now they can get back to being complacent.

Not so fast.

I understand Kilgore's logic. But I think that he gives too much credit to the fact that far fewer House Democrats who represent essentially Republican districts are retiring than was the case in 1994.

And he doesn't give enough credit to the fact that the electorate is likely to be dominated by older white voters, a demographic that is "famously skeptical of Barack Obama."

Oh, he concedes that older white voters "almost always make up a larger percentage of those who go to the polls during midterm elections than they do in presidential election years." But he doesn't really address the fact that Democrats aren't likely to benefit from voting blocs that usually don't participate in large numbers but were attracted to Obama and were instrumental in his election in 2008 — black voters and young voters and liberal voters. Obama will not be on the ballot to lure them back to the polls in 2010.

Nor does Kilgore allow for the fact that, after two humbling election defeats, Republicans are likely to be energized next year while Democrats are likely to be, as I said before, complacent. That surely was the case in 1994. And Republicans are sure to be energized by a bruising battle over health care.

In general, I think Kilgore makes some good points, but his conclusion — that Democrats will experience a "cyclical turnover" of about 10 seats in the House — is too optimistic.

I agree that 2010 probably won't be an exact repeat of 1994, but it's going to be more like it than Kilgore thinks. The average midterm loss in House races for a party in power is more than twice what he anticipates, and losses on that scale will change the legislative reality for Democrats in the last half of Obama's term in office.

I don't think Democrats will lose control of the chamber, but their margin will be much smaller than the forecast Kilgore presents — as comforting as it may be to Democrats to believe the "cyclical turnover" theory.

No, I don't think 2010 will look like 1994. I think it probably will look like 1978 — when Democrats lost ground in Congress but kept their majorities. It was two years later when the Democrats lost the White House and the Senate.

Many things could happen between now and the midterm elections. But, with each passing day, it becomes less likely that anything will.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Silver Lining

At the end of this week, we'll get the next unemployment figures. Might want to start bracing yourself now. No matter what the jobs report says, I expect both sides to spin the heck out of it.

Personally, I don't expect much to get excited about on Friday. I was just reading in the New York Times that the ratio of job seekers to job openings is 6 to 1 — the worst it has been since the government started tracking it.

I figure that, if there is another modest drop in joblessness, it will prove to be a temporary lull, like the others. It will merely be evidence that the house is still burning down, just slower than it was.

For that matter, it could be a sign that some of those who were receiving unemployment benefits are no longer receiving them. Whether they got jobs would be beside the point.

Need a silver lining?

Well, it ain't much, but here goes.

Gas prices are down.

Yep, gas prices have been declining since August 7 — nearly two months now.

And, if there is anything good to be said about high joblessness, it is this: "Demand is down due to the recession and mounting unemployment."

Consequently, says Lundberg Survey publisher Trilby Lundberg, "there's nowhere for gasoline prices to go but down."

You aren't saving a fortune — about 12 cents per gallon. But that beats paying 12 cents more per gallon.

Doesn't it?

William Safire is Dead

In my life, I have had a variety of jobs and a variety of titles. But, no matter what kind of work I happened to be doing or what my title happened to be, I always considered myself a journalist.

Journalism was my major in college and graduate school. For many years, I worked for newspapers as a reporter and as an editor. I can't say the work ever paid very well, but it was probably the most satisfying work I have ever done.

As I have said many times in this blog, I have been writing as long as I can remember. I can't say how old I was when I started writing. I know my mother always encouraged me so perhaps she deserves most of the credit or blame, but I really don't know if any particular writers inspired me from an early age — other than the ones whose works my parents read to me, like Dr. Seuss. As I got older, various authors and journalists were added to my mental list of people I wanted to emulate.

One of those had to be William Safire. When I was a boy, he wrote speeches for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. In fact, Safire was responsible for the phrase for which Agnew may be most widely remembered — "nattering nabobs of negativism."

In 1973, he became a columnist for the New York Times, which seems like an odd pairing, given the fact that Safire regarded himself as a "libertarian conservative" and the Times is known for its progressive editorial policy. Safire retired from the Times in 2005, having penned essays for its Op–Ed page for more than 30 years, but apparently he continued to contribute to the "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine until recently.

And, today, he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79.

Safire and I did not share the same political philosophy. But we did share an appreciation of language. Consequently, I was pleased to see that Robert McFadden's obituary for Safire that was posted at the Times' website earlier today referred to Safire's "rules for writers."
Remember to never split an infinitive.

Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.

Proofread carefully to see if you words out.

Avoid cliches like the plague.

And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

I never lived in New York so I didn't read his columns very often until the internet gave me access to them. But when I was growing up, I read his books. I read "Before the Fall," an insider's look at the Nixon White House, when I was in high school, and I read his political novel, "Full Disclosure," when I was in college.

It's been a few years since I last worked on a copy desk, but I read two of Safire's books on language, "No Uncertain Terms" and "The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time," both of which were published while George W. Bush was president.

I would have recommended either book to Bush, who was linguistically challenged, to say the least. We might have been spared some of the more egregious — although, admittedly, colorful — Bushisms that were imposed upon us (speaking of which, the word strategery was created by Saturday Night Live writers in a memorable satire of real Bushspeak, like misunderestimate).

Maybe not, though. Judging from how quickly Bush was distracted from his pursuit of Osama bin Laden (which lasted only slightly longer than O.J.'s pursuit of the "real killer" of his ex–wife and her friend), I'm inclined to think that Bush suffers from attention deficit disorder — and, as a result, he might not have absorbed much of the useful information contained in those books.

But I digress.

I'm sorry to see Safire go. But it does give me an opportunity to direct my readers' attention to a site Safire undoubtedly would have liked — Funny Typos, Misspellings, Bad Grammar & Engrish. (Yes, that is right — "Engrish.")

In honor of someone who cared about language — a breed that is vanishing far too rapidly — I urge you to look at it and enjoy it.

And raise your glass in Safire's memory.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Same Old Same Old?

You hear this sort of thing all the time, I told myself as I read's report on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's keynote address to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, Mich.

Parties that are out of power are always saying this kind of thing. Sometimes they're just whistling past the graveyard. Other times, it turns out that they know what they're talking about. It's difficult to tell whether it's bluster and bravado or legitimate insight.

Anyway, Crist said he believes Barack Obama is charting a course that will produce the same outcome as Jimmy Carter in 1980 — in other words, a resounding defeat.

"It may happen again," Crist said. "I believe that the people have seen that they wanted a change but not this much. Not this kind, and not this way. America is awake and we're coming back."

Crist may be on to something — Obama's approval ratings have dropped dramatically — but I'm not sure the America of the late 1970s is analogous to the America of 30 years later.

The change that Americans sought in 1976 was about a lot of things, not just economics. In almost every respect, the election of 2008 was about economics. For awhile, it seemed that the election would be about things like the war in Iraq and maybe the lack of preparedness for disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Then, for awhile, it looked like the election might also be about escalating food prices and $4/gallon gas. But the economic meltdown refocused attention quickly.

The thing that the 1976 and 2008 elections really had in common was the fact that voters wanted to punish an unpopular Republican president — but Richard Nixon had resigned two years before the '76 election and George W. Bush was not on the ballot in 2008. So Gerald Ford and John McCain took the abuse that was really aimed at others — although it was clear in 1976 that part of the punishment Ford took from the voters was directed at him for pardoning Nixon.

Unemployment became an issue during Carter's presidency, but it was really a matter of bad timing. If Ford had beaten Carter, he would have had to deal with the same thing. It was part of the inevitable readjustment from a wartime to a peacetime economy, which began under Ford. That didn't help Carter, though, because things were exacerbated by the energy crisis and the Iranian hostage situation — and, rightly or wrongly, voters did appear to blame those things on Carter.

In Obama's case, I don't get the sense that Americans blame him for the economic meltdown a year ago — or the fact that unemployment was clearly escalating by the time voters went to the polls in November. In fact, the economic conditions probably made it easier for many middle–of–the–road voters to vote for him.

But they do hold him responsible for developments, good or bad, since he took office. If unemployment starts to drop, they will get the sense that things are getting better. If unemployment continues to go up, they will get the sense that things are getting worse. It's the only economic gauge that many Americans can comprehend, and it is a pretty good one because consumer spending is so vital to a healthy economy.

That is why I have been urging that job creation be given a high priority. Even if it is make–work projects. Because make–work provides an income, even a temporary one, that allows workers to pay the rent and put food on the table — and maybe a few other things. Consumer spending, not government spending, is what is going to turn things around. The stimulus plan needed fewer pet projects and more policies, like tax credits for businesses that hire Americans, that encourage job creation. All policies should be promoting job creation until the economy revives.

But, as usual, Democrats have been distracted by other things, and their united front has dissolved in recent months. I recall similar problems for Carter in the late 1970s. At the time, many people blamed it on the fact that Carter was an outsider. The quality that made him so appealing to voters in 1976 worked against him in office. Democrats in Congress stopped working with him when they concluded that neither he nor his staff knew how to get things done in Washington.

I haven't felt that was the case with Obama. True, he only had a few years' experience dealing with the power culture in Washington, but my take is that he knew more about it when he became president than Carter did in 1977.

Perhaps the real problem for Democrats is something I have seen before. It is what really makes Democrats different from Republicans. It isn't ideology. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats of Abraham Lincoln's day bears the slightest resemblance to the modern versions in that regard.

But one thing about Democrats never seems to change. Will Rogers said it best — "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

No matter how united Democrats may seem at first, it usually doesn't take long for congressional Democrats to scatter, like ducklings, each pursuing his/her own interests. Bill Clinton couldn't keep Democrats in Congress in line. Neither could Jimmy Carter. Or Lyndon Johnson. In fact, you might have to go back to John F. Kennedy — or, more than a decade earlier, to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — to find a time when a Democratic president and a Democrat–controlled Congress worked together.

What Crist — who is running for U.S. Senate — suggests is not necessarily implausible. But it seems, to me, to be too simplistic (and too easy) to compare Obama to Carter. It implies — to those who have studied history and those who remember the Carter years — that a charismatic Reaganesque Republican will emerge in 2012.

But, in 1980, Reagan was already in position to capture the nomination, following his narrow loss to Gerald Ford four years earlier. No modern Republican is so clearly positioned to be the 2012 nominee, which means the battle for the nomination is likely to be even more of a scrap than last year's was.

Of course, if Democrats live down to their historical standards, a Reaganesque figure may yet emerge. I would advise Democrats who live in the fantasy world that insists that the 2010 election will go the Democrats' way because the elections of 2006 and 2008 did need to develop a thick skin — and a good sense of humor.

"You've got to be an optimist to be a Democrat," Rogers said, "and you've got to be a humorist to stay one."

Stay tuned.

Presidential Debates

It may seem, at times, that presidential debates are a given, but they are really a recent phenomenon in American politics. Forty–nine years ago today, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in the first televised presidential debate in Chicago.

Television was still somewhat primitive in 1960, and the Kennedy–Nixon debates proved to be a split decision. Voters who watched on television thought Kennedy won while those who listened on radio thought Nixon won. The debates received credit, perhaps unfairly, for tipping the balance in what was the closest presidential election of the 20th century.

I have been studying the presidency most of my life, and I recall reading very little about the Kennedy–Nixon debates, except for the conclusion that Kennedy appeared rested and robust while Nixon — who, to be fair, had been hospitalized prior to the first debate — came across as haggard.

Historian Robert Dallek writes, in "An Unfinished Life," that Kennedy was eager to debate Nixon. He wanted to persuade voters that he was not too young or inexperienced, and direct competition with Nixon was the best way to achieve that. On the other hand, President Eisenhower advised Nixon not to debate, reasoning that Nixon already was better known and had eight years of executive experience as Ike's vice president.
"But Nixon relished confrontations with adversaries and, remembering his successful appearance before the TV cameras in the 1952 campaign (his Checkers speech — in response to allegations of accepting illegal gifts — was the most successful use of television by an American politician to that date), he agreed to four debates."

Nixon was elected president twice, in 1968 and 1972, but he never debated his opponents again. The memory of the experience of 1960 remained fresh in his mind, perhaps because the image of him that viewers took was not so fresh. Dallek writes that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said of Nixon, "They've embalmed him before he even died."

Sometimes I wonder if either Kennedy or Nixon had any idea, on that September night in 1960, of the Pandora's box they had opened.

It didn't open completely for awhile. Presidential candidates did not debate again for 16 years. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford resumed the practice on Sept. 24, 1976, and their first debate was noteworthy for an audio problem that interrupted things for nearly half an hour.

In their next encounter, President Ford uttered a gaffe that dominated news reports and may have helped Carter win the election. If nothing else, the Carter–Ford debates inspired a tradition on the nascent, one–year–old Saturday Night Live of satirical skits based on the debates, and presidential candidates have obliged SNL's writers with plenty of material ever since.

Four years later, Carter had only one debate with his challenger, Ronald Reagan, about a week before the election, but the most memorable moments were Reagan's, and he ultimately won the election.

In 1984, many of the most memorable moments in the debates between Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale belonged to Mondale. But that didn't help him in the election, in which Reagan carried 49 states.

When George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Dukakis came across as unemotional when asked if he would favor the death penalty for a hypothetical assailant who was convicted of raping and murdering his wife.

But the most memorable moment from the 1988 debates came when the vice presidential candidates, Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, had their only encounter.

The 1992 debates provided a new twist on the theme. For the first time, a third–party candidate, Ross Perot, was allowed to participate. But the most memorable moment came in a "town hall format" — the first of its kind in presidential debates — when the candidates were asked how the economy had affected them.

I can't really say there were any particularly memorable moments from Bill Clinton's debates with Bob Dole in 1996. Clinton's victory almost seemed a foregone conclusion. But Dole's age (he was 73) was always an issue in the campaign, even if it wasn't mentioned.

In 2000, there were many jokes made about Al Gore's audible sighing and frequent references to "lockbox," just as there were jokes made about George W. Bush's references to "fuzzy math." In the end, though, I wonder if many votes were swayed by the televised encounters.

The same could be wondered about the Bush–Kerry debates in 2004 or the Obama–McCain debates last year. But both provided more than their share of humorous moments for SNL and MadTV.

As technology has become more sophisticated, presidential debates have become more entertainment than anything else. Viewers watch, hoping to see one of the candidates stumble, not unlike those who watch hockey games hoping to see a fight break out on the ice.

Are presidential debates still relevant? Do voters learn anything from seeing the major candidates discuss the issues?

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Legacy of Publick Occurrences

A good friend of mine (his name is Doug) runs a news blog that he calls Publick Occurrences.

Unless you have more than a passing interest in American history, that may not mean much to you. In fact, your initial reaction may be that the word "public" is misspelled. Of course, I tend to be a little obsessive about spelling so maybe I am the only one who noticed.

But the name is taken from the name of the first newspaper in the Americas. The newspaper was called Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, and it was intended to be published monthly. In fact, it was published in Boston for the first and only time on this date in 1690.

(And, in case you are interested, I believe that "publick" was the preferred spelling in the 17th century. The same is true, I have been told, of the spellings of "forreign" and "domestick.")

Following its debut, the paper was shut down by the government. On Sept. 29, 1690, the following order was issued:
"Whereas some have lately presumed to Print and Disperse a Pamphlet, Entitled, Publick Occurrences, both Forreign and Domestick: Boston, Thursday, Septemb. 25th, 1690. Without the least Privity and Countenace of Authority. The Governour and Council having had the perusal of said Pamphlet, and finding that therein contained Reflections of a very high nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppressed and called in; strickly forbidden any person or persons for the future to Set forth any thing in Print without License first obtained from those that are or shall be appointed by the Government to grant the same."

I don't recall much being said about that newspaper when I was studying journalism in college. But that may have been due to the fact that it didn't have a lengthy history.

The newspaper certainly may have had something to do with the fact that freedom of the press was included in the first amendment to the Constitution, which was approved nearly 100 years later.

The case certainly seems to have raised some points about government censorship that have been addressed — to a degree — in the last 319 years.

I don't know if the timing was deliberate or coincidental, but on this date in 1789, Congress approved the amendments that later became the Bill of Rights once they were ratified by enough states.

It doesn't receive the credit it should, but September 25 was an important day in the early life of this republic. It wouldn't be correct to say that freedom of the press was born that day, but I don't think it would be stretching the point to say it was conceived in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690.

How to Stimulate the Economy

I had dinner with my father tonight, and, among other things, we talked about stimulating the economy and creating jobs.

I don't wish to devote this space to complaining, as I frequently do, that Barack Obama is not making job creation the priority. I think that point has been made.

Instead, I would like to direct Obama's attention to something that might inspire him. (Personally, I liked the idea of offering tax credits to businesses that hired Americans in 2009 and 2010. I thought it had merit. But it wasn't included in the stimulus package. Whose idea was that? Obama's? Biden's? A member of Congress'? Your guess is as good as theirs.)

What Obama needs to do is find ways to create short–term jobs, much like what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s. With all the unemployed people out there, it can't be a bunch of small crews working on small projects, although some of those could be included.

The idea is to get those people working again and spending. Everyone agrees that consumer spending lubricates the economic machine. Get millions of people working on jobs that last, say, six months or a year, and those people will buy a lot of things they aren't inclined to buy when they have to count their pennies.

Obama needs a project the size of the pyramids. And Lewis Black might just have the answer. Watch and enjoy.

What Does It Mean?

Last month, I wrote about the release of the Lockerbie bomber from prison. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and had been given three months to live — so, presumably, he will be dead by Thanksgiving.

It was a humanitarian gesture by the authorities in Scotland, where he was incarcerated. They felt the humane thing would be to allow him to return to Libya and die with his family and friends nearby. But the decision provoked an indignant howl in this country and in others.

At the time, I observed that Susan Atkins, one of the members of the Manson family who participated in the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her houseguests in 1969, was coming up for parole this month. I expressed my hope that Atkins, who was terminally ill, would be granted a similar humanitarian release, but I also said that I didn't expect her to be paroled.

As it turned out, she wasn't.

Well, the authorities won't have to confront that awkward issue again — at least not with Atkins. She died last night.

But that doesn't really answer the question of what prison authorities in California will do the next time they are asked to consider whether to grant a parole to a terminally ill inmate — and they are certain to face the question again sometime — maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next year.

Does the Atkins case mean that anyone who is convicted of a high–profile crime has no chance of being given parole, even if he/she is terminally ill? Will someone who is convicted of a similar crime that was not on the front pages of every major newspaper in the nation stand a better chance of being paroled than Atkins did if he/she is determined to be terminally ill?

As far as I know, those questions have not been addressed. Nor would I expect them to be in parole proceedings for a single prison inmate.

But things in the legal world seem to be governed by precedent. And, in this case, the precedent that was set by Atkins' unsuccessful plea for parole suggests that the answer would be "yes."

Is there room for compassion in the penal system?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

OK, You Have Our Attention

I saw a segment about this public service advertisement, and it intrigues me.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. Her treatment seems to have been successful, but she and I both know that cancer that was thought to be in remission can return.

I studied journalism in college, but I didn't study advertising. However, I know enough about advertising to know that the first objective is to capture your audience's attention. I think this public service advertisement does that in true Madison Avenue style — sex appeal.

The next objective in this campaign — as I understand it — is to encourage men to contribute to the cause.

What are your thoughts? Is this appropriate? Does it work?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ain't No Way to Hide From Pryin' Eyes

Earlier this year, an old friend of mine recommended that I sign up with Facebook. Actually, I have written about my experience, and you're welcome to read about it if you wish.

But I want to write about a different kind of experience I've been having with Facebook.

Some people have asked me about Facebook recently. If you are not familiar with Facebook, you can see limited information on just about everyone who has a Facebook account. To see more detailed information, either you or the other person must extend an invitation to be a friend on Facebook, and the other one must accept it.

You can connect with people in several different ways on Facebook, but the point is, once you have accepted each other as a friend, you then see everything the other person posts — and he/she sees everything that you post.

It's the privilege that comes with membership on Facebook.

It is possible to be friends on Facebook with people you do not know in real life. Once you become a member and you reconnect with genuine friends, Facebook will start telling you of the names of people who are friends on Facebook with people you know. Then it will be up to you whether to invite any of those people to be your friend on Facebook as well.

I assume this happens a lot because I've seen some people who have more than 1,000 friends. In fact, I have been told that there was a time when there was quite a heated competition going on among some members who were trying to accumulate these friends. Apparently, because of such competitions, Facebook established limits on how many friends one could acquire in a specific time frame.

My understanding is that these limits are really quite generous — several hundred, I think, maybe 1,000 in a month or two. I really don't know because it has been a non–issue for me. As I write this, I have 60 friends on Facebook, and only one would truly fall under the heading of "friend of a friend I have never met." I have had invitations from other people I have never met, but I decided not to respond to any more. I want my friends to be actual friends, people who were known to me before Facebook came along.

And they are. Truthfully, though, many of them might as well be strangers. Some I haven't seen since high school or college. One was a good friend in graduate school, but we probably haven't seen each other in more than 15 years.

It's a good way to get caught up with old friends, and, in some cases, it has given me the chance to become better acquainted with some of my friends' children — the next generation, which is coming of age much quicker than I would prefer.

Two are the children from my best friend's second marriage, one of whom is my goddaughter. Another is their half–brother. All three were quite young the last time I saw them, but they quickly accepted my invitation to be friends. Their mother (who has remarried) and my old friend are both my friends on Facebook, too. It is a good way to stay in touch.

However, when any of my friends posts something, I see it. Then I see the responses they receive, which tend to be from people I have never met before — and all the rest of the dialogue that ensues.

And that, essentially, is the experience I am addressing today.

Being a member of Facebook has given me the opportunity to observe all kinds of virtual exchanges. There is a strange, almost prurient fascination in this. Sometimes I sit and watch it play out. It reminds me, in an odd way, of when I was a child, and the older ladies in my world wouldn't do anything at certain times of each weekday because they didn't want to miss their "stories," as they called soap operas.

(This story thing doesn't seem to be generational. A friend of mine told me that she remembers watching soap operas with her mother and her grandmother, and they all called their soaps "my stories." Apparently, they each started doing so independently.

(I grew up in the South and, for awhile, I thought it might be a Southern thing. But many years ago, George Carlin referred to it in a routine on one of his comedy albums. Carlin grew up in New York so I figured it must not be a regional thing.)

I've never really understood why soap opera fans seemed to slip into an inconsolable depression if they missed one installment. I know it was a brand–new episode every single day, but nothing much ever seemed to happen. The most a soap opera fan might miss would be some dialogue.

I remember watching one soap opera while I was home with the flu for a few days. The show was set in a hospital, and one character was about to go in for surgery. Anyway, I got better and resumed my daily routine — and completely forgot about the soap opera for several months, until, for some reason, I found myself at home one afternoon. I switched on that soap opera — and the patient was still being prepped for surgery!

Things happen a lot faster in the Facebook world. It's like a weird parade going by. Sometimes it's like watching a car accident happen. I'm powerless to stop it, but I am compelled to watch it, anyway.

It can be kind of embarrassing. I've seen arguments being typed out on the computer screen between people I have never met. But, by the time the fight breaks out, I feel I know a lot about them. And I didn't want to know most of it.

Some of these posts — personal status updates in the Facebook world — really just seem to be silly. For example, one young man — the son of a friend — is going through the awkward pain of young love. He pines away on lonely nights when he had expected to see his lady fair but, at the last minute, the rendezvous falls through. The lovesick swain act does start to wear a bit thin, especially when I know that, the next day, the object of his affections will cook him a big meal and dote on him to make up for the previous night.

But, while she's cooking his steak, he can triumphantly post a new status update (via his cell phone) proclaiming his conquest.

Sometimes I wonder when the AMA is going to classify young love as a bipolar disorder.

As I pointed out when I wrote about "sexting," you may think that something is deleted because you delete it from your computer. But things are never really deleted in the digital world.

So my advice to my friends on Facebook — or any other social networking site — is simple. Some messages are best delivered in person. It may not be the most comfortable way to do it, but it's better than getting into virtual shouting matches that anyone can see.

If you wouldn't feel comfortable letting your mother see it, don't post it.

And a Little Dog Led Him ...

Last month and this month, I wrote a series of posts observing the 35th anniversaries of the resignation of Richard Nixon and the pardon he was given by President Ford.

Those were blockbuster events at the time, and they still hold important places in 20th century American history, but I think it is safe to say that none of those things ever would have happened if not for a speech Nixon gave 57 years ago today — the "Checkers speech."

Nixon, then a 39–year–old senator from California, was chosen to be Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's running mate when the Republicans held their national convention in July 1952.

He was accused of misusing money from a fund that had been set up by his supporters to cover his political expenses, and his future as Eisenhower's running mate was in doubt so Nixon gave a half–hour TV address defending himself and urging viewers to contact the Republican National Committee to express their views on whether he should remain on the ticket.

Television was still a new thing in those days, but roughly 60 million Americans watched, producing a torrent of support for Nixon. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket, and the two were elected by a wide margin in November.

The speech got its name from a black–and–white cocker spaniel the Nixons had been given by a supporter. Nixon insisted his family would keep the dog, "regardless of what they say about it," and they did. Checkers the dog lived another 12 years.

According to the stories I've heard, Nixon was inspired to refer to the dog by Franklin Roosevelt's "Fala speech" from 1944. In that speech — which was given eight years to the day before Nixon's speech — President Roosevelt dismissed Republican claims that he had sent a destroyer to retrieve his dog, Fala, when the dog was left in the Aleutian Islands by mistake.

FDR's speech may have been his inspiration, but Nixon apparently did not like the fact that the speech came to be known as the "Checkers speech," and the dog was popularly credited with saving his career.

In his 1962 book "Six Crises," Nixon called it the "Fund speech" and lamented the fact that the label implied that "the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my political career." But biographer Hal Bochin wrote that Nixon believed his career in national politics would have ended if he hadn't mentioned Checkers.

It's kind of mind–boggling, isn't it? If not for a cocker spaniel, American history could have been altered in unimaginable ways.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Freeing of the Slaves

My parents were missionaries in Africa in the early years of their lives together, and they learned many lessons about race relations from that experience.

Mom is deceased now, but Dad is still alive and he has maintained a sense of humor about some of the more ludicrous aspects of racism in America. He doesn't think that racism itself is funny — he has never said so to me, but I suspect that he feels 21st century racism threatens to undermine Barack Obama's presidency — but he makes jokes about things like the "Three–Fifths Compromise" and eating watermelon and fried chicken to celebrate "Juneteenth."

I don't know how others would react to it, but my brother and I know he's kidding.

Ah, yes, Juneteenth. More than three–fifths (there's that fraction again) of the states recognize it as a state holiday. What is Juneteenth, you may ask? Well, it is a commemoration of the day that news about the emancipation of the slaves actually reached the slaves.

I guess you could call it a tale of three months — September 1862, January 1863 and June 1865.

On this day in 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that declared that all slaves in any of the Confederate states that were not back under Union control by Jan. 1, 1863, would be free. On January 1, Lincoln issued a second executive order that listed the states where the first order would apply.

The Civil War ended more than two years later, in April 1865, and it wasn't until Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 18 and read the proclamation publicly on June 19 that the slaves were officially told that they had been freed.

As a result, June 19 became known as "Juneteenth."

Over the years, Juneteenth celebrations have been held regularly.

And it all really began 147 years ago today, with an executive order that most blacks in America heard nothing about at the time.

The Heart of the Matter

John Judis says, in The New Republic, that the only way Barack Obama can salvage his presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress is if voters believe the economy is improving when they go to the polls next year and in 2012.

Many people have said, in interviews and op–ed pieces, that the economy is, in fact, improving. But Judis has a caveat.

"[H]istory suggests that it is not enough for the economy to be headed in the right direction," he writes, "it has to be headed in the right direction in tangible ways that voters can see. Economists pronounced the recession of the early 1990s over in March 1991. But, when unemployment continued to rise through 1991 and most of 1992 and real wages stagnated, the public perceived the economy to still be declining — and it punished George H.W. Bush accordingly."

Consequently, Judis says that job creation is "Job One."

That's not news to me. I've been saying that for months.

Maybe it all needs to be boiled down to a memorable slogan, like "It's the Economy, Stupid." Of course, the problem with that one is that Bill Clinton used it to win the 1992 election, but he didn't really use it to govern — at least, not right away. Initially, his focus was on health care reform. Sound familiar?

Well, Judis has some encouraging words for Obama's supporters who, like their leader, believe (or appear to believe) that health care reform is the most pressing, the most urgent of all the problems on Obama's plate:

"Barack Obama looks like he will succeed where three Democratic presidents, Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, so famously failed — by passing health care reform," Judis writes. "That is an achievement for which posterity will likely reward him."

Then the second shoe drops. "But it may not help him and his party avoid setbacks at the polls."

Judis doesn't say health care reform is not a worthy objective. But he questions the timing (which, of course, implies it has been given priority status).

"He is correct that Democrats may not have another chance to do so for decades — and, as the experience of Social Security shows, an imperfect program can be improved over time," Judis writes. "There is good reason to applaud the president's statement to Congress that 'we did not come here just to clean up crises, we came here to build a future.' But, if Obama doesn't clean up the crisis and get the economy moving again, his administration may not be around to enjoy the future he is building."

Many unemployed Americans may not be around to enjoy it, either. As Judis points out, the health care bill won't go into effect until 2013. The millions of Americans with no health insurance likely will remain uninsured in the interim. Those who have gone without medical attention likely will continue to go without it.

Being without work forces people to make unpleasant choices. Jobless Americans — and those who are worried about joining them — may well conclude that replacing their representation in Washington is yet another unpleasant choice that must be made.

Judis acknowledges that "the U.S. economy isn't going to morph overnight from its current woeful condition to a state of buoyant full employment." But he makes a critical point when he speaks of how voters perceive the situation. The perception that unemployment was on a downward trajectory was the key for both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and the trajectory of unemployment will be the key for Obama as well.

Is it too late? I don't know. But it isn't too late to try.

Is it?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The 'R Word' Isn't What You Think it Is

While those on the left insist on fanning the flames of racism and those on the right are equally insistent that race is not a factor in their opposition to Obama administration policies, a few people do seem to grasp what is really at stake — the future of the political realignment that left–leaning Americans believed had begun in 2006 and 2008.

Last week, Brent Budowsky pondered the prospects for realignment in The Hill. With more than 40% of Americans identifying themselves as independents, Budowsky writes, "Realignment is dead. President Barack Obama and Democrats blew it. Dealignment has arrived. Republicans blew it, and are now so repellent that Americans increasingly reject both political parties."

That supports something I have heard frequently — that neither party is really interested in the problems of ordinary Americans, that what politicians on both ends of the spectrum really care about is being re–elected, and a new party is needed.

But that isn't an original theme in American politics. Didn't we hear much the same thing when Ross Perot ran for president in 1992? Wasn't that a big part of George Wallace's message when, as an independent candidate for president in 1968, he carried five states after arguing that there wasn't "a dime's worth of difference" between the two parties and nearly sent the presidential selection to the House of Representatives?

In fact, these cries for a new political party have been amplified from time to time since the Democrats and Republicans emerged as the major parties in the mid–19th century. The cries seem to be louder when circumstances are bad — and most people appear to agree that things haven't been this bad — economically, anyway — since the Great Depression.

Those who have studied the history of political trends in America aren't surprised by periodic calls for a new party. But neither should they be surprised by the re–emergence of established trends — nor should they conclude that those trends have any special significance.

Which is why I was bemused to read Fred Barnes' piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day.

"Virginia has been kind to Democrats as of late," Barnes wrote, "[b]ut now the Democratic tide is ebbing in Virginia. In January Mr. Obama's approval rating was 62%, according to a Survey USA. By August it had fallen to 42%."

Barnes, a conservative commentator, observed that the Republican candidate leads the Democratic candidate in polls regarding this year's gubernatorial campaign. He wrote hopefully about the possibility that a Republican triumph in November "will demonstrate that 2008 may have been an aberration." But that, to me, is like comparing apples and oranges.

I don't know what the vote in Virginia will say about attitudes toward Obama and his policies. At the moment, I'm not inclined to think there are any conclusions to be drawn — unless either side wins by a landslide.

If the Republican wins in Virginia, I don't think it will necessarily suggest that Obama's coalition has crumbled. I think it is more likely to confirm what I wrote about four months ago — that the party that loses the presidency wins the governor's office in Virginia the next year.

Admittedly, Obama accomplished something unusual for Democratic presidential nominees when he carried Virginia last year. He was the first Democrat to do so since 1964 — and he was the first non–incumbent Democrat to carry the state since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

But the gubernatorial trend seems to function independently of the state's preference in presidential politics. Nominees of both parties have won the governor's office in the last 32 years — including Doug Wilder, the first black elected governor in any state — even though Virginia voted for Republican presidential candidates in 10 straight elections before voting for Obama last year.

If Democrat Creigh Deeds wins the election in six weeks, that may be a tangible sign that a realignment is taking place. But if Republican Bob McDonnell wins, it would be wrong to assume that it indicates anything more than business as usual.

And if the theory of realignment is dealt a setback in next year's midterm elections, it would be a serious mistake for Democrats to assume it is due to racism. It will be an indication that another political trend is alive and well, one I wrote about last month.

A president's party almost always takes it on the chin in the midterms. Obama knows what will minimize those losses — job creation — and claims he asks his economic advisers about job creation regularly. But promises he made on the campaign trail appear to have been abandoned in favor of political expedience.

Well, the nation is fast approaching a 10% unemployment rate — something with which more than a dozen states already are dealing. Unless there is clear improvement in the next six months, Obama's party is likely to lose ground in Congress in 2010.

Talk of a realignment will fade — and racism will have little, if anything, to do with it, regardless of how each side chooses to spin it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Paradox of Politics (aka The Civil War)

Ellen Goodman tries, in the Boston Globe, to figure out why the Barack Obama of the campaign trail has not lived up to expectations since moving in to the White House.

Last year, she writes, he was the "Oprah candidate" — he "believed we could talk with anyone, even our enemies," but that reconciliatory approach doesn't seem to be particularly suited for handling global problems.

Heck, it doesn't really seem to work too well domestically. Obama's Republican adversaries have never seemed especially eager to work with Democrats, but lately even Democrats have been reluctant to work with him.

Democrats, Goodman writes, have been "waiting for Obama's inner fighter," but he keeps frustrating them. Even when they want to blame resistance on racism, Obama double–crosses them, saying that racism is "not the overriding issue."

Well, that was his chance to pass the buck, wasn't it? Everyone on the left lately, it seems, has been eager to blame racism for the administration's problems — Maureen Dowd and former President Jimmy Carter have been front and center.

Strange. Even Dowd wrote about her frustrations with Obama's hesitance hours before his congressional address. "Sometimes, when you've got the mojo, you have to keep your foot on your opponent's neck," she wrote.

But then Joe Wilson gave her the excuse to blame racism. Wilson gave it a face. Dowd didn't have to rely on hunches or gut feelings. And Carter piled on. And they've been followed by folks in the press who ought to know better — but economics drives everything, and those folks know that, right now, there is no better way to give sagging circulation figures a temporary boost than by taking sides in the racism debate.

So David Harsanyi of the Denver Post weighed in. And, from overseas, Janet Dailey weighed in in The Telegraph. And so did Toby Harnden in the Daily Telegraph.

Each has tried to put his/her own spin on the issue. But, in fact, the chorus has been predictable. It's like two sides of a football stadium yelling at each other. Even when they're yelling for the same thing, it seems hostile.

In recent days, Joe Klein of TIME has written about the race issue. And so has David Brooks in the New York Times. Eugene Robinson wrote about it in the Washington Post.

With an issue like racism and a president like Obama, it can be hard to get a handle on what it's all about. But I thought Goodman did a pretty good job.

"Can you be a healer and a politician? If you try to mediate an ideological divide, do you just end up in the crossfire?"

Maybe, as Goodman suggests, it's a matter of civility. Or the absence of it.

And maybe, as Harsanyi writes, civility is just plain overrated.

But when the debate is about racism, I think Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper made a good point in the Washington Post. Essentially, writes Sleeper, focusing on race "as the chief source of rage is a trap into which liberals have fallen too often."

I think the race issue was destined to be an ongoing factor for the first black president. When the first woman becomes president, she will have to contend with the gender issue. It will be easier for those who follow.

But right now, all of us must live through the growing pains that are the unavoidable byproduct of the first black presidency.

It was absurd to think we might be able to bypass this part of the growth experience — sort of like thinking one might get through one's adolescence without ever feeling awkward or stupid or ugly.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Final Exit

Every day on the calendar has seen a suicide at one time or another. The reasons for ending one's life and the methods for accomplishing the goal vary, but the end result for those who succeed — and not all who attempt it are successful — is the same.

And no single day is more or less prone to be the one when someone decides to end it all.

I started thinking about this when it was brought to my attention that today is the anniversary of two suicides separated by a year and a hemisphere.

Both involved women who were not famous on their own but had well–placed connections. Their success in killing themselves went against a trend that has been documented. More men than women kill themselves, but women make more attempts than men. Perhaps that is because men choose more efficient methods for ending their lives, or perhaps it is an indication that many women are driven by a desire not to kill themselves but to gain attention.

On this day in 1931, a 23–year–old woman named Angelika Maria "Geli" Raubal apparently shot herself in the chest, although her body was not discovered until the next day.

She was the half–niece of Adolf Hitler, the daughter of Hitler's half–sister. And she was rumored to be her uncle's lover. She spent the last years of her life living close to Hitler, and the nature of their relationship is baffling. Hitler was very controlling, but evidence of a sexual relationship is difficult to find. After Raubal's death, the physician who examined her body said she was a virgin when she died.

Prior to her death, Hitler and Raubal had a fight — at least one person alleged the fight was sparked by Hitler's "discovery" that a Jewish art teacher had impregnated Raubal — just before he left his apartment in Munich. Only one member of the household staff, a deaf worker, was on duty so there was no one who could claim to have heard when Raubal apparently shot herself in her lung with her uncle's gun. But it was established that the wound was self–inflicted because the door to the room where she died was locked from the inside.

Raubal's suicide was perplexing. For that matter, so was Peg Entwistle's.

Entwistle was a 24–year–old actress on Sept. 18, 1932.

She was modestly successful on Broadway. Successful enough, anyway, that David O. Selznick cast her in a thriller called "Thirteen Women" starring Irene Dunne.

I'm not sure how large or small Entwistle's role was initially, but, after the film received poor reviews following test screenings, the studio deleted some unnecessary scenes, which resulted in a dramatic reduction in Entwistle's screen time.

She must have felt that her career was over, even though it had barely begun, so in September 1932, she climbed the hill to the famous "Hollywoodland" sign (it was later shortened to "Hollywood"), removed her coat and shoes and left them with her purse (which contained a brief suicide note), ascended the "H" and flung herself off. Her body was discovered two days later.

A couple of interesting footnotes here:
  • Raubal and Entwistle were born around the same time. Raubal's birthdate was June 4, 1908. There seems to be some disagreement about Entwistle's date of birth. Some sources say she was born on Feb. 5, 1908, others claim she was born on July 1, 1908. Either way, though, the gap between their births was a few months at the most.

    I'd like to think Entwistle was born in July. That would mean their birthdays were separated by only about four weeks and their deaths were on the same date a year apart. It's kind of a stretch, but it would resemble the fates of two of Raubal's uncle's Nazi associates, Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg.

    Göring and Rosenberg were born on the same day — Jan. 12, 1893. After World War II, they were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. Consequently, they would have died on the same day, but Göring committed suicide the night before the executions.

    Apparently, he believed that hanging, a punishment that was typically reserved for criminals, was not an appropriate way for a soldier to die.

  • If Entwistle was born in July 1908, that means her birthday would have been in the same month and year as another actress who committed suicide, Lupe Vélez, who was born July 18, 1908.

    Known as the "Mexican Spitfire," Vélez had an extramarital relationship in the mid–1940s and became pregnant. A Catholic, she wouldn't consider an abortion, and she did not want to have a child who was illegitimate so she took an overdose of sleeping pills in December 1944.

    It has been speculated, however, that Vélez suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which led to her suicide.

    And, in yet another version of the Lupe Vélez story, Roz Doyle, in the series premiere of the "Frasier" TV show, perpetuated an urban legend and suggested that Vélez wanted to be remembered, felt her career wasn't going anywhere and decided to kill herself by overdosing. But things went awry. She got sick and wound up dying with her head in the toilet.

    The suicide, Roz said, was an example of how things can turn out the way we want them to even if they don't go according to plan.
I don't know which version of the story is the right one.

But I do know that Raubal, Entwistle, Göring and Vélez all took their own lives, and they did so for their own reasons. For the most part, those reasons remain unclear to others, even decades later. It isn't uncommon for survivors of a suicide to be bewildered, even if, in hindsight, the red flags were abundant.

As Jimmy Durante said of Vélez, "This little girl was a female Pagliacci. She seemed so happy, so full of life that you didn't think she ever had a care in the world. But they used to tell me at the time of [doing the show] 'Strike Me Pink' that she used to go to the bar at Frankie and Johnny's place and sit there all alone. Well, who can see into another person's soul?"