Friday, December 31, 2010

No Pardon for Billy the Kid

There's been a lot of speculation about what the future may hold for outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

And, in the buildup for today, Richardson's last day in office, there was another kind of speculation — would he issue a pardon to the infamous Billy the Kid?

No one knows what the future holds for Richardson. But today, he announced that the immediate future would not include a pardon for the 19th–century outlaw.

The whole thing stemmed from a promise that was allegedly made to the Kid but was never kept.

Next July, it will be 130 years since the Kid (aka William Bonney) was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Prior to that, New Mexico's territorial governor reportedly offered him a pardon for killing a law enforcement officer in exchange for his testimony about killings he witnessed.

Richardson agreed that the territorial governor did, indeed, make a deal of some kind with Billy the Kid, but he said he "could not rewrite history." It was unclear, he said, why the territorial governor did not keep his promise, and because of that uncertainty, he could not issue a posthumous pardon.

Randi McGinn, the lawyer who defended the Kid, said the effort would go on and "perhaps a future New Mexico governor will grant justice for the Kid."

But it won't be Richardson, who claims to have read many books and seen many movies dealing with the subject.

The descendant of the territorial governor applauded the decision. Richardson "followed the correct, rational track in forgoing a pardon for a convicted murderer," he said.

And Robert Utley, the author of a book on the Kid, also supported Richardson's decision. "If Billy deserves a pardon," he said, "it will be granted by history, not the governor of New Mexico."

In nearly 130 years, history has not granted such a pardon.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lessons Learned in 2010

"As we ring in 2011 with prayers for the world, our nation, our towns, our jobs and our families ... let us look back at a teeter–totter of a year, where high–riding America suddenly found herself hitting the ground of reality with a thud. War is not over; the economic recovery is slow–to–stagnant and those who are not yet struggling themselves know someone, or love someone, who is."

Elizabeth Scalia
Our Sunday Visitor

One of the time–honored end–of–a–given–year traditions of journalism is the year–in–review piece on whatever relevant topic the writer spends the rest of the year writing about — politics, sports, movies, etc.

These articles usually appear in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. In all the years I worked for newspapers, that week habitually was the closest thing to a slow news week one was apt to find. Once in awhile, something would happen — but not often.

When I was growing up, such reviews typically came in the form of newspaper and magazine articles. In the digital age, you're just as likely to see a review like that in video form, either on television or the internet.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that you have seen or read something like that about 2010 in the last few days.

I can tell you, from having written my share of such articles, that there are several ways to approach writing them. I always preferred the chronological approach, personally. I kind of felt that it put things in context — X happened in January, whereas Y happened in May and Z happened in October.

Sometimes, my year–in–review articles came across like illustrations of the domino theory. But the truth is that certain events happen because (and only because) other events happened first.

Seen in that light, I think, the story of a period in time (like a year) can only be told effectively in chronological sequences.

Several years ago, for example, I remember watching a program on The History Channel about the month of April 1865, a truly pivotal month in the nation's history.

It was the month Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. A few days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer.

To people in the 21st century, it seems kind of neat and orderly — this happened, then that happened, then the nation began Reconstruction.

It is what happened. We know that. Our history books tell us so — but, as the program pointed out, there were many other events that took place that month and in the following month that had the power to change the direction of the flow of events — and, ultimately, alter the course of history.

It is because things happened as they did and in the sequence they did that the dominoes were positioned to, eventually, create the 21st century reality we have today.

Very often, events can be seen clearly only from the perspective that distance provides — and by acknowledging that sometimes things happen because other things happened earlier.

I've never believed it was quite as simple as the chaos theory, which suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Andes can affect the weather on the other side of the globe. That suggests a tad more interdependence than I find comfortable.

But the chronological approach isn't the only way to tackle the assignment of reviewing a year. There is something to be said for other angles as well.

I'll grant you, the chronological approach doesn't really require much thought. When you have the benefit of a lot of hindsight, the way the producers for The History Channel have, you can do the kind of thoughtful analysis of the events of a given year because you know what happened in the years, decades, even centuries that followed.

But it's harder when you're writing about a year that has not yet ended. No one can yet say how the events of this year will influence the events of the future. All we can say with any real certainty is that they will influence the future.

That's why I give credit to Elizabeth Scalia of Our Sunday Visitor for at least trying to find more than a superficial examination of a year.

Our Sunday Visitor, in case you don't know, began operation as a Catholic newsweekly nearly 100 years ago.

I'm not Catholic so I haven't read the paper itself. I have only seen it online, but it appears the paper is still being published — and appears to be thriving. In fact, Our Sunday Visitor has a complete publishing wing that puts out books, periodicals and religious/educational materials.

Anyway, back to Scalia.

Her article focused on eight events that shaped this year. The task of peeking into the future is not an easy one, and I give her credit for trying even if she does so through a somewhat biased lens.

Our Sunday Visitor has always been politically and socially conservative, actively opposing communism, birth control, divorce and "indecency" in books and films. And Scalia's opinions seem to reflect that.

Some of the things of which she wrote were clearly religious in nature — so it wasn't really surprising to me that the pope's "fairly good run" this year and the church's role in relieving Haiti were at the top of her list.

In fact, the Roman Catholic church played a prominent role in many of the items on her list.

But I was intrigued by the final item — labeled Defeat of the Democrats.

Now, let me say this: Whether the opinions that are expressed or implied happen to be Scalia's or her employer's, they seem to be more conservative than my own. But that's really beside the point because many of her observations seem to be so obvious that neither philosophy nor theology come into play.

They are simply facts. And facts, as I wrote the other day — and John Adams said nearly 250 years ago — are stubborn things.

For example, Scalia writes, "Anyone paying attention ... when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for Massachusetts' 'Ted Kennedy' seat in the U.S. Senate knew that recession–weary voters were ready to throw aside sentiment, tradition and the status quo if it meant creating jobs and hitting the brakes on both government spending and a controversial health care bill that appeared unwieldy, costly, undefined and terrifyingly broad in scope."

Considering the results of last month's midterms, I find that hard to dispute.

I also find it hard to argue with her assertion that "[a]nyone paying attention when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blithely remarked, 'we have to pass [the health care bill] to see what's in it,' knew that her disregard for the valid concerns of the citizenry came across as arrogant and oddly unserious."

Furthermore, she wrote, "[a]nyone paying attention would have predicted an electoral 'shellacking' come November."

Can't argue with that, either, or with her conclusion.

"It was as if the Democrats simply had not been paying attention," she wrote. "Whether the Republicans were remains to be seen; their very future may hinge on how well they comprehended the voter messages of 2010."

Aye, as Shakespeare wrote, there is, indeed, the rub. Were they paying attention?

Imperial hubris, I have frequently mused, was never confined to one side of the political spectrum. The Republicans were guilty of it and got their comeuppance in 2006 and 2008. Then the Democrats were guilty of it and got their comeuppance in 2010.

What will happen by 2012?

That depends on who is paying attention and who is not.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Facts Are Stubborn Things

"Carl Van Horn, the director of the Heldrich Center and one of the two professors ... conducting the survey, said he was struck by how pessimistic some of the respondents have become — not just about their own situation but about the nation's future. The survey found that workers in general are increasingly accepting the notion that the effects of the recession will be permanent, that they are the result of fundamental changes in the national economy."

Bob Herbert
New York Times

I have heard that the New York Times will go to a pay–for–online–access format in 2011.

The Times tried this a few years ago and eventually dropped it. Apparently, it wasn't paying off. But, with the horrid economy, the folks who run the Times — in spite of the somewhat obvious comparisons it invited to Einstein's definition of insanity — made the announcement several months ago that they would give it another try, starting in January.

I suppose we'll find out soon if all systems are still go for that move or if cooler heads have prevailed at the Times. But, acting on the assumption that the bean counters at the Times still can't see the forest for the trees, I have been checking in at the website more frequently — in case that will no longer be an option this time next week.

Well, I suppose it will be an option — but only if I pay the admission price.

My background is in journalism, and I guess I prefer this revenue–enhancing procedure to the one to which so many news outlets have turned — personnel cuts — but I'm not terribly optimistic that it will work.

I feel that way for several reasons, which I may explore next week if the Times follows through with its previously announced plans, but today I am interested in Bob Herbert's column in the Times titled "The Data and the Reality."

Essentially, Herbert reminds readers that, in spite of optimistic talk, in spite of the flurry of bills passed by the lame–duck Congress, in spite of Barack Obama's rhetoric during the midterm campaign, "in the rough and tumble of the real world, where families have to feed themselves and pay their bills, there are an awful lot of Americans being left behind."

In an America where the word "trillion" has become commonplace to describe budget figures, unemployment numbers that are measured in millions seem to have lost their impact on those who still have their jobs and homes — even though, in a nation of about 300 million, any number that has the word million in it should alarm people.

It doesn't, of course. In the America that existed nearly 30 years ago, when the last recession to see a double–digit unemployment rate threatened the re–election of a president, such numbers still impressed some people. They certainly impressed the Americans who lived half a century before that, when a quarter of the population was jobless in the darkest years of the Great Depression.

But in today's America, when people like Herbert remind us that "[m]ore than 15 million Americans are officially classified as jobless," I suspect that prompts knowing nods from people who are jobless — and mostly neutral shrugs from the rest of America, where six—figure monthly job losses were routine for a year or more.
"The fact that so many Americans are out of work, or working at jobs that don't pay well, undermines the prospects for a robust recovery. Jobless people don't buy a lot of flat–screen TVs. What we're really seeing is an erosion of standards of living for an enormous portion of the population, including a substantial segment of the once solid middle class.

"Not only is this not being addressed, but the self–serving, rightward lurch in Washington is all but guaranteed to make matters worse for working people. The zealots reading the economic tea leaves see brighter days ahead. They can afford to be sanguine. They're working."

Bob Herbert

And now, on the eve of the second anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration, we are told that four–fifths of the modest number of jobs that were gained in November were temporary.

Midway through his term, Obama's economic policies can't be seen as resounding successes — and it is on the economy — not health care, not judicial appointments, not his basketball game — that his presidency will be judged when voters are asked whether to re–elect him in 2012.

The unemployed — be they official or unofficial (the part–timers, the underemployed, the ones who should be counted but aren't because they no longer qualify for assistance based on some arbitrary guidelines that were enacted in another time by and for people who are mostly gone from the workforce now) — understand.

They are realistic, according to the survey about which Herbert writes today. "[W]orkers in general are increasingly accepting the notion that the effects of the recession will be permanent, that they are the result of fundamental changes in the national economy," writes Herbert.

The rest are not realistic. Perhaps they're in denial. Perhaps their ignorance is deliberate, sort of a self–defense mechanism. Perhaps they just became numb to the human suffering after awhile.

It's not a pleasant topic to discuss during the Christmas season, is it?

Actually, it shouldn't have to be discussed now at all. It should have been discussed long ago — by Obama and his advisers starting the day after the 2008 election, or, even better, by George W. Bush and his people before the election.

But it wasn't. It got the same treatment as energy independence and infrastructure and the other serious issues that have threatened the nation. It got swept under the rug by bureaucrats who hoped the ship would right itself.

No, no one wants to talk about human suffering at Christmas. I understand that. It spoils the illusion.

I give Herbert credit for trying.

But this is nothing new for him. He's been writing about this for a long, long time. People just don't seem to be listening.

I wish him success. And I'd like to watch and see if his future columns finally get some sort of response from the powers that be — as more and more Americans are sucked into the black hole, as inevitably they will be.

But if the Times follows through on its plans, I simply won't be able to read Herbert's columns online anymore.

I haven't had full–time work in more than two years. I've been working as an adjunct instructor at the local community college since August, but the income from that job only goes so far. I haven't been able to find anything to supplement it.

If the Times starts charging for access, the choice is mine, but it won't be much of a choice, I'm afraid. Fact is, as much as I like reading the Times' columnists, I like to eat more. And, with gas prices on the rise, I need to save whatever money I can simply to be able to drive back and forth to my part–time job.

If something must give, it will have to be the Times.

That's the reality of the unemployed, the part–time employed, the underemployed. It's like slowly bleeding to death while the people with the blood are arguing about whose fault it is.

I've been reading a lot of articles offering advice to Obama for the new reality he will face when Congress convenes in January. Most speak of him moving more to the center, as Reagan and Clinton did, and it would make sense to emulate those presidents who went on to win second terms. They demonstrated their leadership skills when the numbers on Capitol Hill were no longer as favorable for them.

Those numbers certainly don't seem terribly favorable for Obama right now. The super–majority his party enjoyed in the Senate has been gone for nearly a year, ever since the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in last January's special election, and it is anyone's guess how much Obama will be able to accomplish with a six–seat advantage in that chamber.

Obama has not proven to be a pragmatic politician, but Senate Democrats, who hold two–thirds of the seats that will be on the ballot in 2012, need him to become one in a hurry. The longer his approval ratings remain mired in the 40s — or, worse, if they fall into the George W. Bush–like 30s range — the less inclined those senators are going to be to want him joining them on the campaign trail.

I certainly don't think they will be inclined to support many initiatives from a president, however popular, whose policies are perceived by the voters to be leading the country down the wrong road.

Of course, the likelihood that Obama will achieve anything in the House, where Republicans grabbed more than 60 seats from the Democrats in last month's elections, is virtually zero.

We're a long way from 1992, but it is still the economy, stupid.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Music of Christmas

It is early on Christmas morning.

My bedroom window faces west so I won't be able to see when the sun starts to peek out over the eastern horizon, but that hasn't begun yet. It is still dark in Dallas, Texas, where I have spent so many Christmas mornings in my life.

And I am thinking about the music I associate with Christmas. It isn't always what you might think. Sure, there are the usual associations with seasonal songs and grade–school shows, but there are other, more personal memories of music and Christmas that are on my mind.

Sorting out those memories seems to be the order of business for me this morning. Perhaps it points the way to inner peace, which seems to be a worthy goal on Christmas.

I can get just as misty as the next person when I hear certain traditional songs that bring back memories of Christmases past and friends and relatives who have been gone for many years.

It always astonishes me how empty you can feel when you can't celebrate a holiday like Christmas the way you always did, how much you miss what was and will never be again — and how helpless, how powerless you feel when things change that you didn't want to change.

Change is inevitable, of course. And I guess I'm feeling particularly vulnerable to it this year. Seems like a lot of people who were important in my life have died this year, more than usual. Yes, I know that happens with more frequency as we get older, but it still leaves me with an empty feeling.

Change need not be a bad thing. I've been without a full–time job for more than two years now, and I guess I have been a little impatient waiting for the next chapter in my life to begin. As far as I'm concerned, that's one change that has been too long in coming.

Still, though, I can understand the resistance to change.

I grew up in Arkansas, but my grandparents and most of my parents' closest friends always lived right here in Dallas. My father was a college professor so he had time off at Christmas and we usually came to Dallas to spend the holidays.

I guess Christmas is always a magical time for children, but it was an especially magical time for me, and coming to my grandparents' home was always magical.

There were times when — for reasons I have forgotten or never knew — we didn't leave for Dallas until Christmas morning. In those days, we would have our family Christmas, then we would load up the car with our belongings and the gifts for the grandparents and friends and depart on the drive to Dallas, which usually took about seven hours in those pre–interstate days.

My memories of Christmas morning in those days are of waking up early and remaining in bed, impatiently waiting for the rest of the family to get up.

Like most children, I guess, I anticipated the presents that Christmas morning would bring, but I was excited, too, by the idea of simply being in Dallas later that day, in my grandparents' home. That was always an adventure for me, and there were always things to look forward to — the brownies in my grandmother's cookie jar, the softness of the beds in her home, trips to the park on pleasant days (and there were many of them in Dallas at Christmas when I was growing up), the familiar sights and sounds that I always associated with Dallas, whether it was Christmas or the Fourth of July.

When I think of music and Christmas morning, I can't help remembering a Christmas when I was still small. How small? I don't know. It's a vague memory, but I was young enough that I was still crawling into my parents' bed in the predawn hours and snuggling next to my mother. I guess I was 4 or 5.

On that particular Christmas Eve, my father set the alarm clock so we would all get up early enough to pack the car and get on the road, but he set it on radio and not alarm so, when the appointed time arrived, we were awakened to the sound of Christmas music playing on the radio.

The three of us lay there in the dark for several minutes, listening to the music before we got out of bed and began getting ready for the trip. I can't recall the tunes that were played — I think "Oh, Tannenbaum" was one of them, but that may be the intrusion of another memory because that was one of Mom's favorites.

Most of the time when I was growing up, we were in Dallas several days before Christmas.

But I still found myself waking before sunrise and waiting for the others to get up.

I remember a Christmas one year in the 1970s. I had gotten a portable radio for my birthday the month before, and I lay in bed listening to that radio via the earphone that came with it.

It was very dark in the bedroom, the way it is now, not even the faintest traces of dawn's earliest light could be seen peeking through the curtains, and I remember hearing, for the very first time, the song "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers. I think it had been released maybe a month before, but I hadn't heard it.

If I had heard it, I'm sure I would have remembered it. I was a Doobie Brothers fan in those days, and the song, with its bluegrass and Cajun influences, was so different from anything they had recorded before.

And yet I found it oddly familiar — and appealing.

Its message had little, if anything, to do with Christmas, but it had special relevance for me. After Christmas, my family planned to drive to New Orleans for a few days. We would be in the heart of Cajun country, where we probably would hear music that was similar to that — and, in fact, we did.

I remember humming that song all that Christmas morning while we did our family Christmas thing, then when we bundled up and drove to the retirement home where my father's mother was living. I didn't hum "Black Water" as we walked through the rather bland, antiseptic halls to my grandmother's room, but the song was playing on an endless loop in my head.

Not exactly "White Christmas," but, even today, when I hear "Black Water," I remember that Christmas morning.

Christmas always reminds me, too, of my mother, as I have written here before. It has never come close to being the same for me since she died.

I've been thinking of one Christmas in particular. I couldn't say what year it was, but it was when I was still living in Little Rock and vinyl LPs were still being sold so it must have been in the 1980s.

One of my closest friends was working as a clerk in a record store, and I told him I was looking for a record to give Mom for Christmas.

Mom was always very musical, and she was fond of performers like Simon and Garfunkel, Don McLean, John Denver, but I wanted to get her something I didn't think she had heard.

My friend suggested a collection of winter–oriented instrumental classical music from Windham Hill that featured a variety of artists like George Winston. I went by the store one night when he was there, and he played some of the album for me. I was impressed and bought it on the spot.

On Christmas morning, I remember sitting on the floor next to Mom when she opened my gift. She wanted to hear it right away, and it provided the perfect backdrop for a family Christmas. For the rest of her life, Mom frequently played that album on Christmas.

Christmas truly was Mom's time of year, just as it was for an old friend of mine, Phyllis, who died earlier this year. I don't think Phyllis and I ever spent a Christmas together, but we did see each other during the holidays.

And I always knew, even if I didn't see first hand, how much Christmas meant to her.

So this year especially, my thoughts are of Phyllis. And, indirectly, that, too, reminds me of some music that makes me think of Christmas.

Phyllis, as I have mentioned before, was a dedicated Christian. She changed Protestant denominations during her life, but, as far as I know, she always believed in God and Jesus.

She was also a talented musician. She loved all kinds of music. Well, I don't know how she felt about rap, but I think she liked just about every other kind of music.

About a year or two before we met, a rock opera called "Jesus Christ Superstar" was doing something that organized religion was failing to do — bring young people into the flock.

Phyllis and I never discussed "Jesus Christ Superstar." But I think she approved of any music that inspired people to seek God.

Anyway, I remember one Christmas when my parents gave me a small package, small enough to fit in my hand. When I opened it, it turned out to be a homemade cassette recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

My father was a religion professor at a small liberal arts college in my hometown. As I recall, there was one copy of "Jesus Christ Superstar," a two–record set packaged in a special box (rare for that time) with a libretto, in the library at the college where he taught — or perhaps it was at the church where we were members.

Whichever it was, my father arranged to borrow it and recorded it when the technology for doing so was primitive, to say the least. The record he used as his source was scratchy, and it yielded a copy that was far from perfect. But I treasured that tape and listened to it endlessly until it finally gave out.

And even today, when I hear a song from that original recording, I remember that Christmas morning, whenever it was, and I listened for the first time to that tape my father made for me.

OK, my musical Christmas memories aren't exactly "White Christmas" or "Jingle Bells."

But they're mine, and I treasure them.

If you have a few minutes to spare on this Christmas Day, I'd like to hear about your Christmas memories — musical or not.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Question of the Season

"Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus."

Francis Church
Editorial writer, New York Sun
Sept. 21, 1897

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reprinted the famous 19th–century editorial that answered 8–year–old Virginia O'Hanlon's plaintive question, "Is there a Santa Claus?"

The newspaper is hardly the first to reprint the editorial. It is simply continuing a long tradition. It is the most reprinted English language editorial of all time, especially at this time of the year.

The original editorial was published in the old New York Sun. It was written by a fellow named Francis Church.

Most people think it was published on Christmas Eve — or, at least, during the Christmas season. In fact, it was published on Sept. 21, 1897.

Most people also think the headline for that editorial was "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." And the Journal Sentinel did its part to perpetuate that myth yesterday when it ran its reprint under the headline "Yes, Virginia ..."

Whenever one sees those two words, I guess it is understood that the famous editorial — or a discussion about it — will follow.

But, in reality, that was part of the reply to young Virginia's letter to the editor.

The actual headline was not nearly as certain as that. In fact, it wasn't assertive at all. It was a question, which was appropriate, I think. It reflected the skepticism, no matter how small it may be or how great the faith of the person involved, that what one has been told is the truth.

"Is There a Santa Claus?" it asked. Yep, it repeated the very same question young Virginia asked in her letter. But it did more than just answer a question with the same question.

Church could have proceeded to repeat the same old tales parents have been telling their children about Santa Claus for decades — well, at least since "The Night Before Christmas" was published in 1823.

But, instead, he seized the opportunity to explore the philosophical issues the brief letter raised.

Church's reply was brief as well, but he managed to address the question of the existence of things unseen.

Santa Claus, he assured Virginia, "exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

"Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus,"
he continued. "It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished."

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the more cynical elements of the Christmas season would, at some point, hijack the simplicity of Virginia's question and the elegance of the editorial reply and use "Yes, Virginia" to lure shoppers to the stores, as Macy's did this year in its Christmas campaign encouraging children to write "Yes Virginia Santa Letters."

In 2008 and 2009, Macy's utilized the editorial in its holiday commercials, featuring folks like Jessica Simpson, Donald Trump, Martha Stewart and Queen Latifah reading famous lines from it.

A few years back, Lord & Taylor used "Yes, Virginia" as the theme for its store windows in Manhattan.

And, like any really good piece of writing, the editorial has been lampooned and used as the basis for jokes.

I guess my favorite was in 2001. The Detroit Lions finally won a football game after losing their first 12. Jay Leno, who had been joking about the Lions' losing ways all season, said in his monologue, "There was a new Christmas movie released this weekend. It was called, 'Yes, Detroit, There Is An End Zone.' "

I recall an interesting play on the line when I was a child and Apollo 8 orbited the moon on Christmas Eve.

Upon re–establishing radio contact with mission control in Houston, astronaut Jim Lovell said, "Please be informed there is a Santa Claus."

The reply from Houston was, "You're the best ones to know."

"Yes, Virginia" has become a cliche. For some, it is a marketing tool. For Virginia O'Hanlon, it was a sincere question.

Some people know how to answer that question better than others. And Virginia might have been more reassured if she heard there was a Santa from an astronaut than from an editorial writer. But there were no astronauts when she was a child. In fact, there were barely astronauts at the end of her life. She died almost two years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

So I guess the most authoritative source she could find in the late 19th century was an editor for the New York Sun. The Sun was clearly held in high esteem in her household. After all, she said in her letter, "Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun, it's so.' "

The Sun may have told her more than she asked for, but its answer has been repeated frequently to generations of children who have sought the same answer Virginia did.

I expect that continue, as it has for the last 113 years.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Mystery

Here's a real–life Christmas mystery for you to ponder.

Don't feel bad if you can't solve it. It's been around for nearly two centuries.

Anyway, I'm sure you're familiar with "The Night Before Christmas."

You know the poem I'm talking about — the one that begins "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ..."

Yeah, I knew you were familiar with it.

Well, anyway, it was published anonymously 187 years ago today in the Sentinel of Troy, N.Y. And it is given credit for just about everything that is believed by children about Santa Claus — how he looks, how many reindeer he has and what their names are, the notion that he uses a sleigh to make his Christmas Eve deliveries, the idea that he leaves presents for children all over the world.

For a long time, the poem was reprinted with no author's name mentioned. Then, a scholar and professor of first Oriental and Greek literature and then Biblical studies named Clement Clarke Moore acknowledged authorship.

He claimed to have written it for his children and had wished to remain anonymous because of his position, but he was persuaded by his children to come forward so it could be included in an anthology of his works that was published more than two decades after the poem appeared in the Sentinel.

And, for more than a century, it was generally accepted that Moore was the author.

But then, along came English professor Donald Foster, a pioneer in the field of content analysis. What is content analysis, you may ask? Well, it is a methodology for studying the content of communication. In Foster's case, he has specialized in studying texts to determine whether they were authentic. At times, his skills have been used in criminal investigations.

Foster first came to public attention in the late 1980s, when he explored the mystery of the dedication of Shakespeare's sonnets. While he was involved in that research, Foster came across what he believed to be a previously unknown work by Shakespeare. Opinion among scholars has been mixed.

So, too, has been the response to his assertion that a writer named Henry Livingston Jr. actually wrote "The Night Before Christmas." Foster apparently was persuaded to join a movement by Livingston's descendants to have him recognized as the poem's author.

That hasn't happened yet. There is still considerable dispute over the authorship.

Which man wrote the poem? Well, here is what is known.

In 1837, 14 years after the poem was first published, the Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier credited Moore. Its source was one of Moore's friends.

Scholars (including Foster) have pointed out that the style and phrasing used in the poem resembles other works by Livingston.

However, it has been argued that Foster focused only on the passages from the poem that conformed to his theory, and that many of Moore's works also are similar in style and phrasing to the poem.

So who's right? Who wrote the poem?

Well, in the words of ... er, whoever ... Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

The Declining Population

"Nearly 10% population growth is slow only in relation to that of Burundi, the African country with the world's lowest per capita gross domestic product. Our population growth rate is comparable to Mexico's, Brazil's and Indonesia's."

Froma Harrop

This morning, I have been reading with considerable interest Froma Harrop's column about America's "slow–growing population" for Creators Syndicate.

USA Today reports that, in the decade that has passed since Y2K, the U.S. population has risen 9.7%, Harrop writes. "For Americans concerned with a loss of open space and thickening congestion," she writes, "a 10% growth rate should seem darn high."

Now, they've been talking about a population explosion since I was a child. As I have said before, I am not a mathematician, but it seems to me that Harrop touches on something important there. I mean, to understand what the new population figures mean, isn't necessary to have some old figures to put the new ones in perspective?

As it turns out, USA Today did provide some numbers for the purposes of comparison, but those numbers don't suggest that the population is declining. It is still growing, just not as fast.

Here in Texas, for example, the population grew by more than 20% in the last 10 years. That seems like a high figure — and it is. As a result of that population growth, the Lone Star State will gain four House seats in 2012 (consequently, its representation in the Electoral College for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 presidential elections will go up by four as well).

But that growth rate is actually lower than it was in the 1990s, when Texas' population went up by more than 23%.

Clearly, though, the population of Texas is growing faster than most others — the rate of the increase has not been as great as it was, but it's still pretty impressive by most people's standards — and CBS News' Political Hotsheet observes that is bad news for Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Much of the population growth — and the resulting shifts of 12 House seats from one state to another — appears to be in states Obama didn't win two years ago.

"The new map will put a little more emphasis on southern battlegrounds like Florida at the expense of older battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania," write Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh for CBS News.

There may be more emphasis on Texas, too. Years ago, it overtook New York as the second–largest state. But, unless something radical happens in the next 18 months, I wouldn't expect Texas to be too competitive in 2012. Republican nominees have won Texas in every presidential election for the last 30 years.

That's clearly a concern for those for whom the presidential campaign never ends. I used to mean political activists, pollsters and campaign coordinators when I said things like that. Now, unfortunately, I mean just about everyone.

Well, that's not my primary concern in December 2010 — although Harrop does touch on one of my concerns.

"[G]reater political clout is something any state would welcome, and there's lots of room in Texas," she writes.

"But anyone who drives on Dallas' North Central Expressway at 4 p.m. on a workday knows the meaning of 'crowded.' The Lone Star State's big growth has been in the urban corridors, where there's no shortage of company."

So be warned, if you're planning a trip here for the Super Bowl in February.

At the moment, though, my immediate concern is for a friend of mine, who is purchasing a medical company.

This friend has been out of work for awhile. His wife works for a birthing center, and her employer is retiring. They're buying the business.

My friend tells me his wife has a lot of experience in this field. In her career, he says, she has participated in the delivery of more than 1,500 children.

It seems to me that that is the kind of experience an expectant mother would want to have on her side when her child is about to be born.

And, judging from the Census figures, there won't be a baby shortage around here any time soon.

So the prospects for my friend's acquisition seem pretty bright — even if the U.S. population is not growing as rapidly as it was.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dying of Thirst?

I've heard it said that water is the most fundamental element of life on this planet, and that is true.

It is so fundamental that sometimes we joke about it. We treat water as if it is our right to have fresh drinking water yet we give little thought to whether we actually do have fresh, clean water to drink.

But the integrity of the water supply is no laughing matter.

Did you ever see "Dr. Strangelove?" Do you remember the crazy general who orders a nuclear strike because of his paranoid perception of a plot against "our precious bodily fluids," which could be seen in, among other things, the fluoridation of the water supply?

I remember hearing the adults argue about that — along with their debates about "new" math — when I was a child. No one needed to tell me how serious a threat to the water supply could be.

Long before health–conscious Americans began paying attention to how much — or, rather, how little — water they were consuming, I discovered the value of water.

I grew up in central Arkansas, where it was hot and humid every summer — and for sizable chunks of the spring and fall, too — and cold drinks were always popular. If a drink had some kind of flavor, I guess that was my first preference, but water was always a reliable alternative.

I never developed a taste for tea, though, which put me at odds with most people in this part of the country.

At an early age, I found that, when I was really hot and thirsty, nothing tasted as sweet as fresh, cold drinking water.

Also at an early age, I learned that fresh drinking water was perhaps the easiest thing for me to get, whether I was at my own home or someone else's. I usually didn't even have to go inside. All I had to do was find a garden hose or the outdoor spigot to which such a hose could be attached, and I could have water.

Because of the findings of an Environmental Working Group study, water may not be tasting quite so sweet.

Those findings may be particularly hard to swallow in Norman, Okla., where I lived for four years in the 1990s.

The EWG's findings put Norman at the top of its chart of cities that were found to have extremely high levels of hexavalent chromium in the water supply.

Now, I was never very good in science when I was in school. Fact is, I never took chemistry. I've always been one of those people whose eyes will glaze over when a multi–syllabic chemistry term is mentioned in any conversation.

But you might recognize hexavalent chromium by the name of chromium–6. A decade ago, Julia Roberts brought it to the public's attention via her film portrayal of Erin Brockovich, who was responsible for exposing the coverup of the industrial poisoning of a California town's water supply with chromium–6 in the 1990s.

The Norman Transcript appears to pooh pooh the report, saying "the amount is slight and measured in parts per billion," but it concedes that "an independent lab test ... places the level of hexavalent chromium, or chromium–6, among the highest of 35 selected U.S. cities tested this year."

That list of cities includes several of the nation's largest (far larger than Norman) and/or the most historically notorious polluters.

Clean drinking water is something no one can take for granted.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hate Crimes Decline

David Gibson, the religion reporter for Politics Daily, wrote last month that, according to the FBI, "the number of reported hate crimes dropped significantly in 2009 from the previous year, to their lowest point in more than 15 years."

This happened, Gibson observed, "despite the deepening recession and growing social tensions."

And that's a good thing — if you can verify that hate–inspired crimes actually did drop, but that isn't as easy to verify as you might think.

I'll grant you that sometimes it's obvious — like that case a dozen years or so ago when the black man was dragged to his death by a group of white men in a pickup truck.

Sometimes it's a matter of suspicion. You may think that a crime was motivated by hate because the victim(s) belonged to a particular race or religion or gender — but suspicion alone is not sufficient to charge anyone with a crime, whatever the motivation.

I would argue that, at least to a degree, all crimes are hate crimes so I'm not sure how I feel about the special designation in the criminal code for hate crimes.

I understand what lawmakers are trying to do, but it seems to me that it is an invitation for the implementation of George Orwell's Thought Police — and I really don't believe that is what anyone really wants in America.

The laws already regulate — as much as is possible — the actions of the citizens. Do we also want to regulate the people's thoughts?

Gibson reports that the faithful are hailing the news, which is to be expected, I guess, in this season of love and hope and joy.

"[R]eligious groups are giving thanks for the decline," Gibson writes, "even if they have no clear explanations for the drop."

I guess no explanations are needed — except, perhaps, in Room 101.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Things We Think We Think

(Note: Peter King of Sports Illustrated, one of my favorite sports writers, writes a column on pro football and routinely includes a list titled "10 Things I Think I Think.")

Last month, I wrote about the anniversaries of some noteworthy elections:I didn't observe the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's victory in the 1860 presidential election (for the record, Lincoln was elected on Nov. 6, 1860) — in large part because I've already written much about Lincoln in this blog. I figured it was probably about time to give him a rest.

But I must admit that I have been regretting that decision recently as I have been following entries at The American Interest blog under the heading "The Long Recall."

Every day, the site posts descriptions of what was happening in the United States on that day 150 years earlier. The site also provides links to reprints of editorials and news accounts from the newspapers of the day. You can find rumors, financial news, world news, all the things that were shaping America and the world in the mid–19th century.

All these tidbits provide us with a glimpse into another world, another time. It is, alternately, captivating and heart–breaking to read what the people of that time were saying.

They spoke of things like secession and war, but it is clear — to me, at least — that they had no idea what was ahead.

Nearly everything they wrote or said would fall under the heading of "Speculation." It was, for the most part, educated speculation — but it was still speculation.

The scope of the war that lay in front of them — the pain and suffering it would bring, the lives and property that would be destroyed — was beyond their comprehension.

They were on the precipice of a major event, but they could not know what was to come. They knew what they thought, but what they thought was not yet a reality.

Isn't it the same with us and our time in history? For that matter, isn't it the same for every generation in every nation?

Last night, I was watching a program on Nazi Germany on The History Channel, and a scholar observed that those Germans who voted for the Nazis in the early 1930s had no idea they were voting for the Holocaust.

That is true. It is also true, I think, that the people who lived in 1860 were not so different from us — or the people in Germany in the 1930s. From reading these entries, it is clear they knew that things beyond their control were shaping a future they could not yet see. They were living in their time in history, and they did not see what is so painfully clear to us a century and a half later — that a war that would change everything was about to begin.

It is a reminder to me of conversations I have had with people who did not like the fact that I pointed out that Lincoln was not always the open advocate of abolition that the history books say.

He came to the presidency determined to keep the nation together, and he directed the war effort with that as his supreme objective. It was only later — and with pragmatic political considerations driving him — that he became associated with the abolitionist effort.

In his conversations, he used the language of his time — including the word "nigger," which was commonly used in the 19th century and can be found in non–racist contexts in the works of 19th–century types like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.

To my knowledge, he never pondered how his words might be viewed by the inhabitants of the 21st century.

Are we any different?

I can remember, with stunning clarity, everything I did on Sept. 10, 2001 — but I probably remember it so clearly because so much changed within 24 hours.

One of the things I remember about September 10 is how blissfully ignorant I was of what was about to happen. If I had had any idea what was going to happen, my actions probably would have been different, I tell myself.

And perhaps they would have been.

But I was no different than all but 19 people in the United States on that day. I had no clue what was going to happen.

And I get the feeling, from reading the entries in "The Long Recall," that those Americans who were still living when the Civil War ended in 1865 could probably look back to those days in 1860 and only marvel.

If they had only known, they might say. But if they had, what would they have done? What could they have done?

And can't we all look back on days like that in our lives — days before someone close to us died, days before we lost a job or failed a test — and wonder if, by changing something we did, even some little thing, we might have changed the course of events — like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and creating a ripple effect?

But that would require a kind of knowledge that is not given to mortal men, an insight into future events — even near–future events — for which we could make appropriate preparations.

In 2010, we do not know what lies ahead. We never do. Economic experts can tell us what they think will happen. They can tell us that they think the recession ended in the summer of 2009, but as 2010 draws to a close, unemployment is on the rise again.

Perhaps a catastrophic stock market crash is looming in the months ahead.

Or perhaps there will be a natural disaster — an earthquake in California, maybe, or a huge hurricane in the Gulf next summer — that will bring death and destruction on a massive scale. More people undoubtedly will die from cancer and heart attacks in the years ahead. Some will know it is coming and will make their preparations. Others will be caught by surprise.

Whatever it may be, in hindsight, people will say the signs were there for all to see. The tricky part is always recognizing those signs for what they are and taking preventive measures.

When people vote — as they did when they elected Lincoln, when they elected FDR, when they elected Barack Obama — they vote only with the knowledge of what is and what they want the future to be like.

They receive no guarantees. Only time will tell if their expectations have been met. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they are not.

In the aftermath of the 2010 midterms, there is talk of a left–wing challenge to Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2012. Such talk is not new.

It is, however, relatively new for Democrats, who, before the midterms, confidently asserted that Obama would face no challenges for the party's nomination — and, consequently, would be re–elected ...

Because, in modern times, only incumbent presidents who had to turn back a party challenge have been turned down by the voters.

Now, it doesn't seem to be a sure thing that Obama will coast to renomination — or re–election — in 2012.

"[I]f anything," writes Nile Gardiner in the The Telegraph, "the outlook is getting even worse for the Obama presidency, and the notion of an Obama bounce is simply a pipe dream at the moment."

Granted, Gardiner is writing from London. But he's got his fingers on the pulse of the American electorate when he writes, "Fears over the economy are undoubtedly the biggest factor in the lack of confidence Americans have in their president."

Obama knows — or he should know — what the voters expect from him under the current circumstances. It is now his responsibility to deliver. With Republicans in control of the House and a much narrower advantage for Democrats in the Senate, that will be a much tougher task for Obama in 2011 than it could have been in 2009.

But it is the hand he has been dealt.

Well, that's what I think, anyway.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Head for the Mountains

Back before George W. Bush's father was Ronald Reagan's running mate, "Head for the mountains" was the commercial pitch for Busch beer.

It may well have been the perfect advice for those who opposed Bush's ascension to the presidency in 2000.

If you were around in those days, I guess I don't have to remind you of the national ordeal that Americans went through in the five weeks between Election Day and this day, when the Supreme Court, after narrowly voting to halt the recount in Florida, effectively awarded the state — and, with it, the election — to Bush.

Recrimination was in the air long before the Democrats took a severe beating on Election Day last month, but it only makes sense, really, to put blame where it rightfully belongs — on the doorsteps of the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who halted the Florida recount with Bush narrowly leading Al Gore.

I suppose things started innocently enough. Bush's initial lead over Gore in Florida was less than 2,000 votes. Percentage–wise, the margin was narrow enough to qualify for a state–mandated machine recount.

That recount only took a few days. When it was done, though, Bush's lead had dwindled to a few hundred votes, and Gore requested a manual recount in four counties that typically voted for Democrats.

The recounts began, but they were being held in heavily populated counties, and officials feared the recounts could not be completed in time to meet the state's seven–day deadline for certifying election results. The Florida Circuit Court decided that the certified results had to be submitted by the deadline, but amended returns could be submitted later.

As it turned out, one of the counties completed its manual recount before the deadline. The recounts continued for the other three.

Well, one thing led to another. There was a lot of wrangling on both sides, a lot of hyperbole on both sides. There were legal challenges and counter–challenges.

The concept of "every vote counts" seemed to have been lost in the pursuit of victory at any price.

And, through it all, there was the concern that the next president needed time to make his transition. January 20, after all, was less than six weeks away.

In his memoir "My Life," the outgoing president, Bill Clinton, wrote, "If Gore had been ahead in the vote count and Bush behind, there's not a doubt in my mind that the same Supreme Court would have voted 9–0 to [re]count the vote and I would have supported the decision. ... Bush v. Gore will go down in history as one of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made, along with the Dred Scott case."

It was a terrible decision. Eventually, it may be seen to have caused as much — or nearly as much — damage to the nation as the Dred Scott case to which Clinton referred.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Last Words

Today, I have been watching the funeral service for Elizabeth Edwards.

I don't really have much to add to what I've already written this week, just some observations.
  • I can empathize with Edwards' children and their loss. I, too, lost my mother, as regular readers of this blog know, and I think it is a pain that never goes away.

    But neither do the lessons that your mother teaches you. They will stay with her children for the rest of their lives, just as the lessons my mother taught me remain with me today.

    And for that, they will be grateful. Perhaps not today, because there is still much pain, much heartache today, but someday. Someday ...

  • Regular readers of this blog also don't need to be reminded that, initially, I was a supporter of John Edwards' presidential bid in 2008.

    I publicly apologized for that in January.

    In recent days, though, I have been reminded of something that Spencer Tracy (as Henry Drummond) said of Florence Eldridge (as Sarah Brady) in the 1960 movie "Inherit the Wind," when Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady found themselves on opposing sides.

    Drummond, of course, was based on Clarence Darrow. Brady, who was played by Fredric March, was based on William Jennings Bryan, a three–time presidential nominee.

    In hindsight, the Drummond character told Mrs. Brady, he didn't think Brady would have made a good president.

    "But I would have voted for him for king," he said, "just to have you for queen."
I don't know if that particular exchange really took place. So much of the dialogue in "Inherit the Wind" was invented, anyway. The play was merely based on the story of the Scopes trial, not a faithful telling of the events.

But I guess that exchange sums up how I feel about Elizabeth Edwards. In hindsight, I don't think her husband would have been a good president.

But I'm sorry we couldn't have Elizabeth Edwards as our queen.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It Is Neither the Time Nor the Place

I really don't think the Westboro Baptist Church needs any more notoriety.

Based in Kansas, the church — the congregation of which appears to be largely members of the founder's family — has earned a reputation over the years as a hate group, taking part in pickets against gays, Jews and other groups.

The reputation is well deserved. By the group's own count, it has sponsored more than 30,000 protests in more than 500 cities and towns located in every state.

The group has been particularly active in protesting the funerals of gays, gaining national attention in the late 1990s when it picketed at the funeral of a gay man who was beaten to death in Wyoming. The church spends approximately $250,000 a year on picketing.

As I say, its activities have earned the Westboro Baptist Church a reputation as a hate group.

And I really think you have to be hateful to plan to picket the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards in Raleigh, N.C., this Saturday.

As we all know, Mrs. Edwards was estranged from her husband. But it was not because either one came out of the closet. In short, she wasn't gay.

However, she was an advocate of gay marriage, and I presume it is because of that that the protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church will bring their traveling road show to North Carolina this weekend.

I think you've got to be pretty hateful to attempt to disrupt a woman's funeral because of her political views.

Especially when that woman left behind two young children who she (apparently) tried to prepare for her death but must, nevertheless, be emotionally wounded by her death.

Children do seem to grow up faster these days than they did when I was a child, but I think it is probably safe to say that a 12–year–old girl and a 10–year–old boy know comparatively little about homosexuality.

This particular girl and boy do know that their mother is gone — and the last thing they need to deal with on a day when they will be mourning her loss is the anger and hysteria of homophobes.

This funeral is neither the time nor the place for this protest. In the name of all that is decent and humane, I hope the Westboro Baptist Church will reconsider.

Obviously, this is a fight the members of this church believe they must fight. They have already done so repeatedly.

Fight it somewhere else. There is nothing to be gained from fighting it in North Carolina — except enmity.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Elizabeth Edwards

In 2004, I voted for the Kerry–Edwards ticket.

And, knowing what I now know, I would still vote for Kerry over Bush — in spite of John Edwards' presence on the ticket.

But I don't want to think about John Edwards today. I think I made my feelings about him pretty clear in this post nearly a year ago.

At that time, I acknowledged that I had been one of Edwards' supporters in 2008. If I had the chance to make that choice again, I would choose someone else. I don't know if I would have supported Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the primaries, but I wouldn't have supported John Edwards.

And I feel that, if he had the opportunity to make that decision all over again, John Kerry would choose someone else to be his running mate.

On the surface, of course, North Carolinian Edwards failed to deliver any Southern states for the Democratic ticket. If he had, he might be vice president today.

And, as we have all learned in recent years, Edwards simply lacked the moral fiber that Americans expect from their leaders.

I have heard of presidential tickets in which voters complained that the nominees should have been reversed, that the nominee for vice president should have been the nominee for president and vice versa.

In hindsight, that doesn't really seem to be the problem with the Kerry–Edwards ticket.

The problem may have been that the wrong Edwards was nominated for vice president. His spouse possessed all the qualities — with the exception of a political resume — presidents want from their vice presidents.

But we will never know if she might have been up to the job.

Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards, died of cancer today at the age of 61. She first learned she had breast cancer on Election Day 2004.

For awhile, it seemed Edwards had beaten the cancer. But then I heard it had returned and had spread to her bones.

Then, yesterday, we were told that she had halted her cancer treatments. Medical science had done all it could, we were told, and her prognosis appeared grim.

But her death did not appear imminent.

I always admired how she dealt with the ordeals she had to live through — which included her husband's infidelity, the loss of her oldest child, her cancer diagnosis.

And the only thing I have left to say, besides "Rest in peace," is to remind you of something you've probably heard before.

It isn't too early to start screening for breast cancer, especially if there is a history of breast cancer in your family. Early detection can save your life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holding Him To It

"I think the overwhelming message that I hear from the voters is that we want everybody to act responsibly in Washington. We want you to work harder to arrive at consensus. We want you to focus completely on jobs and the economy and growing it so that we're ensuring a better future for our children and our grandchildren."

Barack Obama
Nov. 3, 2010

It has been nearly a month since Barack Obama uttered those words.

It was the day after the midterm election that resulted in the largest shift in House seats since Pearl Harbor, and the president seemed humbled by the experience ("some election nights are more fun than others. Some are exhilarating; some are humbling. But every election ... is a reminder that ... power rests not with those of us in elected office but with the people we have the privilege to serve").

But, while he acknowledged that Americans "expect Washington to work for them, not against them" and said the message was that the people wanted their leaders to find common ground, he was almost defiant in his insistence on focusing on areas where he and the members of his party have shown the least inclination to compromise.

In yesterday's Washington Post, House Speaker–to–be John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell assured readers that, when they met with Obama, "all of us will have an opportunity to show the American people that we got [that] message."

And, before Tuesday's meeting with congressional leaders, Obama, too, sounded more conciliatory, pledging to reach out more to the opposition.

But, while they all talked the talk about seeking common ground, no one walked the walk — yet.

And Republicans continued to be the Party of No, defeating an extension of jobless benefits. I really do not think that is what the voters were voting for, and I think it will be interesting to see what happens when millions of Americans suddenly lose those benefits.

There's an old saying that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. By the same token, I think, all that is necessary for the triumph of desperation is for politicians to take away the safety net that keeps good people going while they're trying to survive until the job market gets better.

Anyone who has been out there knows it has been horrific for the last couple of years.

Without that safety net, good people will be more likely to resort to things they ordinarily wouldn't consider if they weren't hungry or afraid of losing the roof over their heads. I'm not sure either the economy or the judicial system is ready for the kind of short–sighted lawmaking this seems to have spawned.

Midterm elections can be mysterious in their implications. I have read many analyses of the results. Some of them make sense to me. Some strike me as just plain looney.

Having said that, here are my thoughts on where we're going, a month after the midterms and only a day after the president's conference with congressional leaders.

It is unwise, it seems to me, to conclude that the American people, as a group, came to some sort of conclusion of any kind on Election Day. There are many people — myself included — who could have been persuaded to vote for the candidates for another party in the contests that were on their ballots if those nominees had been viewed as acceptable.

Besides, House races tend to be very local in nature. In large cities, some districts only cover a handful of neighborhoods. The issues are not national or international.

Only in states with the smallest populations are representatives elected on a statewide basis. The rest represent only portions of the states in which they live. Consequently, the issues that decide most House races may not be significant even in the rest of that state.

I have lived in congressional districts that were intensely partisan, and I have lived in congressional districts that were evenly balanced. Even in years when supposedly historic transitions were occurring, I can't remember anyone saying that they were voting for or against a certain House candidate because of the president.

Both sides have rationalized and will continue to rationalize the results, but they ultimately will have to come to terms with the unpleasant truths about themselves that this election revealed for all to see:
  • Democrats squandered a golden opportunity that was handed to them in 2008 — the greatest economic crisis this country has faced in more than three–quarters of a century.

    In those days, Obama was being compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt, mentioned among presidents who entered office at times of great national distress and guided the country safely through them. But he resisted the voters' message to focus on the economy and jobs, and, thanks to the ongoing decline in his popularity, he was being compared to Jimmy Carter even before the midterms.

    While I disagree, as I always have, with the negative assessment that many insisted on giving to Carter's presidency (and continue to insist on giving it today), the comparisons of Obama to FDR and Obama to Carter are intriguing, to me, because they seem to represent polar opposites of presidential success.

    Roosevelt, of course, was elected president four times — in the days before the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms. Carter was denied a second term.

    Regardless of how you may feel about those two presidencies, FDR and Carter both had something Obama does not — previous executive experience. And that would come in quite handy in the radically different political environment in which the president will find himself in little more than a month.

    Those two Democrats had to build compromises on smaller (and, arguably, less diverse) scales than they had to as president, and perhaps those presidencies serve as the ultimate arguments for and against gubernatorial experience when choosing a president.

    But Obama had no such experience when he became president. Can wielding the veto make up for not being able to pass any legislation in the second half of his term? Or can he learn a skill that he desperately needs to make him an effective leader?

    As Democrats look ahead to 2012, when not only Obama but nearly two dozen Democrat–held Senate seats will be on the ballot, the party's future may depend upon it.

    In case you haven't heard, the prevailing wisdom of the day is that Obama won't be denied a second term because the only sitting presidents since the Depression who have been defeated when they sought re–election were those who were challenged for their party's nomination — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Another — Lyndon Johnson — withdrew from the race rather than take on the insurgent Gene McCarthy.

    Democrats have been reassuring themselves that Obama will not face such a challenge — and, therefore, will win a second term.

    That's a dangerous assumption to make.

  • It is tempting, when one is flush with victory, to make assumptions about the voters' intent.

    But Republicans would be wise not to get carried away. This election was not an endorsement of Republican government. Exit poll after exit poll suggested that the voters still blame the Republicans for, as Obama likes to say, driving the economy into a ditch, and it will be incumbent upon them to prove themselves worthy of the temporary reprieve they have been given.

    Voters were, essentially, trying to get their leaders' attention. They've been trying to do that, for different reasons, for the last three elections, but there always seems to be, as Strother Martin said in "Cool Hand Luke," a failure to communicate.

    In 2006, voters began restoring Democrats to power in Washington by giving them modest control of the House and Senate. This, I have always believed, was a response to the shameful Terri Schiavo episode and Hurricane Katrina. Those were the events that began driving many voters away from the GOP.

    Two years later, Democrats were rewarded at the polls by voters who held Republicans responsible for the economic implosion. I guess the party's congressional margins were deceiving. Many Democrats seemed to believe the pendulum had swung in their direction permanently. Polls kept showing that people were overwhelmingly concerned about the economy and jobs, but Democrats insisted on scattershooting.

    The voters were in their back pockets, they assumed. And the voters figured the Democrats needed a good dose of reality so they went with the only option they had. At least, that is how I see it.

    Sometimes the option wasn't palatable. Most Tea Party candidates, for instance, were not readily embraced by the electorate, but a few were. And they may prove to be loose cannons for the Republican Party as it goes through what is, essentially, a probationary period.
Here's how I see the next couple of years playing out.

There are enough Democrats in the Senate that they can vote down anything the House Republicans approve. And House Republicans are sure to vote down anything Senate Democrats manage to squeeze through.

Stalemate, right? Which side will that favor two years from now?

The only way either side can claim to have accomplished much of anything in the next two years, it seems to me, is to reach out to the other side. Obama may have the most to lose. Unlike Bill Clinton, he won't be able to run against a completely obstructionist Congress since the Senate remained in Democratic hands.

Besides, the onus is on the president to bring the two sides together.

So, it all comes back to that compromise thing, that skill that successful governors — especially those who go on to become successful presidents — learn.

Whether he likes it or not, Obama needs to learn about the art of compromise.

That is, if he really does aspire to a second term.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts

"God only knows that we can do,
No more or less than he'll allow.
Well God only knows that we mean well
And God knows that we just don't know how."

Joe Henry

Thursday was Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been special to me.

I suppose that is because I actually was born on Thanksgiving. When one is born on a holiday, I guess that holiday always holds a unique significance.

(On at least one occasion, an old friend of mine who died a few months ago was asked her favorite number. She said her favorite number was 16, the number of her birth date.

(She said it is hard not to like the number of the day you were born, and I guess that's true. I never really thought of it that way before.

(Using similar logic, I guess, it's hard not to feel partial to a holiday on which one is born. And, while I have never discussed this with my brother, my guess is that he feels the same way. He was born the day after New Year's Day.)

Well, my situation is unusual, I suppose. It wasn't Thanksgiving where I was born. You see, my parents were Methodist missionaries in Africa at the time of my birth. They were always American citizens, though, and back in America, my grandparents were observing the Thanksgiving holiday, probably with their friends.

I don't know if my parents had planned to observe the holiday with their American friends (I don't even know if traditional Thanksgiving foods were available at that time in that part of the world). I don't think I was due for another two or three weeks so it's possible that they had plans, but, if they did, I disrupted them. Clearly, my mother was in the hospital that day, and I guess my father was sitting in the waiting room.

No one ever told me the story of how that day unfolded, but I think it is safe to assume that neither of my parents ate any turkey and stuffing that Thanksgiving.

In spite of the fact that I was born on Thanksgiving, I've always had mixed feelings about it. I like the concept of being grateful for what you have, but that begs the question of "Grateful to whom? Grateful to what?"

I mean, does the very act of setting aside a day to express gratitude for what you have necessarily imply faith in a higher power?

For some, I suppose the answer is "yes" — albeit an indirect confirmation. As Meister Eckhart, a theologian from the Middle Ages, said, "If the only prayer we ever said was 'Thank you,' that would be sufficient."

For such people, the very act of being thankful is an acknowledgment of faith.

But doesn't that suggest that you are being rewarded for doing the things you are expected to do? And, if that is true, then the whole God–man relationship, from early times to the present day, is founded in a kind of performance–based agreement, kind of like the incentive bonuses that some pro athletes have written into their contracts.

It's the kind of thing I can equate to my own life.

As a child, I was always eager to please my elders so I tried to do the things they wanted me to do. I took certain classes because they were recommended to me. I participated in certain activities because they were recommended to me.

I went to college and graduate school for much the same reason, I suppose. There was more to it, of course, but it definitely played a role. When I look back on it now, I wonder if I did so with certain expectations of the outcome, that each of the "right" things that I did made the ultimate payoff more secure.

I guess I'm not so different from most people, even if I was born on Thanksgiving. I'm a seeker, a questioner, a doubter, a skeptic. That may be part of the reason I gravitated to journalism.

Then, again, it was hard not to be a seeker, a questioner, a doubter, a skeptic if you grew up when I did. It always seemed like those who were in charge were lying to the rest of us — Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam, Richard Nixon lied about Watergate and so on.

It was hard to know who or what to believe so I turned to my elders. I put my trust in them, and they told me to trust God.

I was brought up to believe in God, to believe in Jesus, to believe the Bible. But, in my experience, most of the people who were brought up that way went through their moments of doubt and pain as well.

Some of the people I knew when I was growing up lost their faith along the way. I still want to believe the things I was told when I was young are true. But many of the things I have seen contradict that, especially lately.

This isn't a new crisis for me. It wasn't brought on by Phyllis' death. Phyllis' death merely contributed to a pre–existing condition. She always seemed to understand things I don't understand.

Phyllis never lost her faith in God, and she suffered in her last years, which came far too early. There are many things about that experience that I don't understand. What was the purpose behind it?

When I was a child, I was told there was a purpose behind everything, a reason for every life. But I struggle when I look for the purpose.

Several friends have died this year. I expect that, of course. But the last few years have been brutal — this year in particular. Before Phyllis died, two of my friends killed themselves, and others (of varying ages) died of other causes.

And I have been without full–time employment for more than two years. I am doing some part–time teaching at the local community college, and I guess I am thankful for that this Thanksgiving. But it doesn't pay much.

There is still much uncertainty, a lot more than I ever dreamed there would be back when I thought I was doing all the right things to make my future a bright one.

I'm probably not the only one who has thought that, if there is a God and he really does have a master plan, this would be a good time for him to let me in on it — or at least let me in on enough of it to know things are moving in the right direction.

Things have been a bit chaotic for me in recent years.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Travel

I've been teaching a news writing class at the community college here in Dallas this fall.

It's been an interesting and challenging semester for me. I've been away from the classroom for several years, and I've been away from the newsroom for several years as well, and a lot of things have changed.

It is not my intention to recite all those differences here in some kind of "those were the days" rant. I expected things to be different. That's the nature of things. Nothing remains static.

Certainly, the relative health of the newspaper business hasn't remained static. As the economy has worsened, many newspaper subscribers have stopped subscribing in an effort to save a little money. That means that circulation numbers have dropped at most newspapers. And, as circulation has dropped, advertisers have been more reluctant to invest money in advertising that (presumably) fewer people will see.

Newspapers, in turn, are forced to take certain steps to save money because, as I have said here before, advertising revenue is the life blood of a newspaper.

It's a vicious circle.

I guess it always has been volatile, always vulnerable to economic downturns and technological shifts. Computers and the internet play roles today that my colleagues and I never could have imagined when I was on the copy desk or the last time I was in the classroom.

To say the least, it has been an educational autumn for me. But it has also reinforced my belief in certain things, one of which is that, no matter what kind of news delivery system comes along in the future, people will be needed who can exercise news judgment and apply it to that news delivery system in some way.

Not everyone can resolve technical issues. Many of the journalists I have known in my life probably couldn't balance their checkbooks, much less fix software problems. But most journalists can write, and if they know basic HTML or SEO stuff, they can apply it to their work and help prepare it for use on the internet as well as the publication for which they work.

Admittedly, HTML and SEO are mostly technical. But the skills I learned in college, polished in my work for newspapers and now hope to pass on to my students can, with modification, be put to practical use outside of newspapers. And such modification these days tends to involve adjustments that

I tell my students that the way to enhance their value as modern journalists is to be community–oriented. They should focus, I tell them, on giving their readers what they cannot get anywhere else

In hindsight, I guess, I have always felt that way, but the internet has made that even more relevant to the survival of journalism. And, in spite of its current problems, I do believe journalism will survive as long as it focuses primarily on the needs of its local readers.

I am guided in this by the knowledge that the New York Times is planning to start charging for access to its website. The Times tried this a few years ago, and it didn't work so it made its content available at no charge again. The poor economy apparently has prompted the Times to revisit that policy.

As tempted as I am to remind you of what Albert Einstein said about the definition of insanity, I will resist.

Instead, I simply want to point out that the Times' experience confirms what I believe — that newspapers (print publications of all kinds, really) were far too slow to recognize the role that computers and the internet would play in the dissemination of news.

By the time the owners of traditional newspapers realized that the internet was the wave of the future and, more importantly, there was money to be made in it, the public had grown accustomed to the idea that there were many free news sources out there.

Consumers like myself, who read the Times online, are not likely to pay for access to its content unless they live in New York and are looking for information they can't get anywhere else.

I do not live in New York, and I can find articles on just about any national or international news event on many other sites — so, when the Times starts charging for its content, I will simply stop visiting the site (unless I hear that, once again, it is making its content freely accessible).

Anyway, back to my news writing class ...

Earlier this semester, I concocted some scenarios and acted like a public information officer. In these scenarios, the students took on the roles of reporters and had to ask me questions to get important details. Then they had to write their stories based on the information they had gathered.

As the semester progressed, I wanted to combine some of the more routine tasks I often had to perform when I worked for daily newspapers with the internet environment and the work of internet research in our in–class simulations — so a few weeks ago, I cast my students in the roles of writers for a locally based internet site that emphasizes local news.

I asked them to use the internet to gather information for their articles and provide a list of their sources so I could check on them. Their first such assignment was an article that would be "posted" all week, reminding visitors to the site to adjust their clocks when daylight saving time ended the following weekend.

A couple of weeks later, I asked them to write a similar story reminding readers that the annual Great American Smokeout was coming up.

I'm a "recovering smoker," I told my students, and there were many times when I heard the Smokeout was coming up and I made a mental note that I wanted to take part in it, but, when the time came, I was busy with my life and I forgot about it — so I went ahead with my daily routine, smoking while I got ready for work, smoking while I drove to work, smoking on my breaks — and I might not have heard that it was the Smokeout until the day was half over.

By then, it was too late for anything except maybe a symbolic gesture.

People need to be reminded of these things, I told my students, and smokers need to know if there will be any efforts locally to provide them with support while they try to go 24 hours without lighting up.

I reminded them that it isn't a matter of "willpower." It goes much deeper than that. Nicotine, we have long been told, is a tougher addiction to beat than heroin.

I was pleased that they found some noteworthy support services that were being offered locally but hadn't really gotten any publicity. I regretted that what my students had written had no website on which to be posted.

Then, this week, I decided to combine something that was coming up with something that has been in the news recently — the traditionally heavy travel that usually occurs on the day before Thanksgiving and the reports of overly intimate "patdowns" conducted by security personnel at airports and intimate X–ray images that were supposed to be destroyed when no longer needed but instead have ended up on the internet.

I told my students to write about anything that might influence a local reader's decision about any aspect of travel. DFW International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the country, but none of my students uncovered any recommendations from DFW's administrators that suggested that things might be easier for travelers if they came at particular times or took any other precautions.

At the time, I really thought there might be more problems than apparently there have been today.

Some things may yet surface, but right now — at least according to the Associated Press — things have been pretty smooth at the nation's airports.

Oh, there were some rumblings about a movement among disgruntled travelers to "opt out" of invasive procedures. And, apparently, there were some people who took that approach. But they didn't make a big show of it at the airports.

Most appeared to follow the recommendations of protest organizers and simply stayed home.

Indeed, inclement weather seems to be the most urgent concern for travelers right now.

If that's the worst thing that happens to the TSA this Thanksgiving, that should be something to be thankful for.