Wednesday, March 31, 2010

LBJ's Game Changer

My grandfather used to love to tell this story.

Grandpa was a Texan. In his retirement years, he belonged to a fishing club in rural east Texas, about two hours from his home in Dallas. The clubhouse was set up so that members and their guests could stay overnight, eat their meals in a big country dining room and keep their fishing boats and fishing equipment on the premises.

On the evening of March 31, 1968, Grandpa was at the fishing club. I don't know if my grandmother was with him on that occasion. She often came there with him, but I don't think she always did. Anyway, there was a TV in the dining room and Grandpa told me that was where he watched President Lyndon Johnson deliver a major speech on Vietnam — a speech that turned unexpectedly dramatic at the end.

It was a real game changer.

In his book "The Making of the President 1968," historian Theodore H. White wrote that there was speculation about Johnson's intentions within the administration that day but no certainty. He mentioned an anxious exchange between Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford and White House staffer Henry McPherson, who asked, "Clark, what's up? Is he going to say sayonara?"

The vice president, Hubert Humphrey, conferred with Johnson that morning, but when he left on a scheduled trip to Mexico City later that day, White wrote, he "was still not sure that the president actually meant to give up at all." (After Johnson withdrew, Humphrey entered the race and went on to win the nomination at a time when most delegates still were chosen by party bosses, not primary voters.)

The first lady's press secretary and adviser to both the president and his wife, Liz Carpenter, who died earlier this month at the age of 89, spoke with Johnson after his meeting with Humphrey. White wrote that "she felt in her bones that the [re–election] campaign was on."

I don't know if the first lady herself knew Johnson's plans. If she had any suspicions, she did a good job of covering. Two days before the speech, White wrote, "Mrs. Johnson had come to a women's group of politicians and pledged herself, personally, to all of them to do whatever was needed to re–elect the president: to go anywhere, stump anywhere, appear anywhere."

I was far too young at the time to understand the complexities of the issues or the times. I knew that my parents were opposed to the war and supporters of Gene McCarthy, a writer (poet, really) and senator, the man whose insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination received credit for toppling the Johnson presidency.

I'm not sure if McCarthy deserves credit for that. The momentum of the times and the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam had a lot to do with it. As far as I could see, McCarthy mostly amplified public disenchantment, but he did so exceedingly well. His platform was primarily anti–Vietnam War, but as his former colleague, George McGovern, wrote on the occasion of McCarthy's death (using a reference that McCarthy probably would have appreciated), he was an orator. "The ancient Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined an orator as 'a good man speaking well.' " McGovern wrote. "I give you Gene McCarthy — a good man who thought, wrote, spoke and quipped well."

In hindsight, I guess, much of what the president said was predictable. His policies on the war weren't significantly altered in the speech. But then he shocked the nation and the world.
"I have concluded that I should not permit the presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year. With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country.

"Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."

President Lyndon Johnson
March 31, 1968

With those words, LBJ ushered in a truly transitional year in America. A lot of years are labeled "transitional" — and, to an extent, many really are — but 1968 may have been the most momentous year in my lifetime. Less than a week after Johnson's speech, Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. When the Democrats convened in Chicago to nominate Humphrey, it was the riots in the streets that America saw on its TV sets — and remembered at the polls.

Those were probably the biggest stories in a year that seemed to have a new stunning development on a weekly basis.

And from that day until the day my grandfather died in 1969, on the occasions when my family met my grandparents at the fishing club, Grandpa would observe, as we sat down to eat in that dining room, that he watched Johnson's speech in that room with the owner of the fishing club, a fellow who was known to all as "Kit" Carson.

Whenever Grandpa mentioned Johnson's speech, it wasn't necessary to ask which speech he was talking about. Grandpa was a Texas Republican in the days when Republicans were in the minority in Texas. Oddly, his daughter (my mother) was about as far to the left as my grandfather was to the right. They were the embodiment of the generational divide that afflicted the nation in those days.

Anyway, when you acknowledge that Grandpa was a Republican, it is a logical — and accurate — conclusion that the only thing he had in common with Lyndon Johnson was their native state. Consequently, he was elated that LBJ would not be running for president again.

Well, by 1968, fewer and fewer Americans wanted Johnson to remain in the White House. My parents were glad he wasn't running again, too. In fact, shortly before Johnson announced his withdrawal from the race, Gallup reported that his approval rating had fallen to 36%, the lowest — to date — of his presidency.

It was already clear in January, with the Tet offensive that led Walter Cronkite to conclude that the Vietnam War was not winnable, that 1968 would be a year like no other, but Johnson's announcement really iced it.

And it seemed to set in motion a series of events that left America reeling. The extent may not have been clear until enough time had passed, but once that time had passed, White found the words to summarize it.

He observed that, after Johnson's speech, McCarthy, who had been campaigning in Wisconsin, spoke with many political correspondents, including the legendary Mary McGrory, with whom he "devoted himself entirely to poetry." He quoted Yeats and Robert Lowell and then quoted from some poetry he had written.

"There was little poetry in Washington that evening," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "for it was not part of the script of history that Lyndon Johnson of the Pedernales should be brought down by a poet from Watkins, Minnesota. Of Lyndon Johnson's evening in Washington, Yeats had already written:

" 'We are closed in, and the key is turned on our uncertainty.' "

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The 'Bounce' From Health Care Reform

I know some people who are truly baffled.

Barack Obama's triumph in the health care reform battle is an historic achievement, they say. I've heard some people say that, in terms of domestic policy, it elevates him past Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights/voting rights legislation of LBJ's Great Society — and it may lift him above Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Well, when the chapters on this period in American history are written, perhaps Obama's position among the presidents will be secured. If that's all Obama wanted to do as president, then mission accomplished — probably.

But he's got nearly three years left in his term, and that reverence that the Democrats seem to think Obama deserves ain't showing up in the public opinion polls.

The USA Today/Gallup Poll, conducted March 26–28, reports that 47% approve of the job Obama is doing and 50% disapprove. What gives?

I think it's the ongoing problem of unemployment and the perception — if not the actual fact — that Obama and the Democrats have done little, if anything, to alleviate the suffering. And I still think that they're going to pay a price for it in November.

But it seems to me that the big mistake that Obama's supporters make is in seeing these disapproval numbers as proof that Americans aren't appropriately grateful for health care reform legislation. And, from that faulty conclusion, they jump to yet another faulty conclusion — that this is all the result of racism. I've heard it argued that if a white man had done what Obama did, he would have been praised endlessly. But Obama has been criticized because he is black.

That's an easy scapegoat. Too easy. Sure, there are probably some respondents to these polls who don't like Obama because he is black, but most of those negative responses are coming from people who question Obama's judgment, not his bloodlines. They think he is doing things in the wrong order.

And so, apparently, does Bob Herbert of the New York Times, who writes, "[I]t is time for the Obama administration to move quickly and powerfully to the monumental task of putting Americans back to work. ...

"[T]he United States is in real danger of sinking into a long–term economic funk. The recession is not over for the nearly 15 million people who are unemployed. Many of them have been out of work for longer than six months, a seeming eternity. Widespread joblessness and underemployment are threatening to become permanent features of the American landscape, corroding not just our standards of living but the very vibrancy of the American way of life."

Herbert does give the Democrats credit for proposing jobs bills, "but they are small–bore initiatives that will accomplish little." He observes, as I have, that what is needed is a commitment to rebuilding America's infrastructure, something the pending legislation doesn't address.

A good example of the administration's failure to connect the dots is Education Secretary Arne Duncan's assertion that "we have to educate our way to a better economy."

I agree that education is important. I agreed that health care was important, too. But I've been saying all along that joblessness was the most urgent issue facing the administration. And infrastructure is the key to long–lasting, high–paying jobs. Any other approach is like treating a broken arm with a band–aid.

Herbert suggests that Obama and the Democrats should follow FDR's lead and approach the current situation with "the emergency of a war."

Mark my words. It is a war that cannot be fought with slingshots.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gosh, Who Knew?

Sarah Klein of writes, for, that a scientific study confirms that fattening foods are addictive.

Well, stop the presses.

Don't get me wrong. Some studies are necessary to contribute to our knowledge, to help us learn things we don't know. And they can confirm or refute things that we suspect.

But, really. Don't we all already know that fatty foods can be addictive? When I was younger, I guess they didn't know as much about nutrition as they do today, but the emphasis seemed to have been on sugary foods when I was a child. Maybe there was some knowledge about fat and calories and carbs and things like that, but I remember most of the attention centering around sweets.

It's really been in recent years that the attention has shifted to fats.

Well, to be fair, this may be the first study that, aside from stating what seems to be obvious, actually equates the consumption of these foods to the behavior of people who are addicted to cocaine or heroin. And that makes it only the second substance of which I know (nicotine being the other) that studies have suggested can be as controlling of an individual's life. Over the years, as easily available, high–fat, high–calorie foods have become more plentiful, the obesity rate has gone up at a staggering pace. For years, folks have been blaming poor metabolism or, if their own behavior can no longer avoid implication, an unwillingness to exercise — and to be sure, those factors can play roles.

But there are fast–food joints on just about every block in this city, and I'm sure it's that way where you live as well.

What do you know? Bacon cheeseburgers and fries and pizza and nachos taste good. And they're also fattening. And with the proliferation of the truly obese, it really shouldn't be much of a jump to conclude that the unchecked consumption of those fatty foods that taste so good has contributed to the (pardon the expression) expansion of the obesity problem.

So what can be done? Food is not illegal, like cocaine and heroin. And it can't be regulated, the way tobacco products are supposed to be.

Perhaps this study is like many I have seen conducted in academia — designed to confirm an already generally accepted truth and add bulk (but not authority) to the authors' lists of publications.

And, really, there isn't much that can be done — except possibly to encourage a change in professionals' approach to addictions. Perhaps, for example, if overeating is being equated to a drug addiction, psychologists need to stop treating overeating as a behavioral problem.

But even if they did, that doesn't mean ordinary folks would adjust their attitudes toward the overweight accordingly.

After all, they've been comparing an addiction to nicotine to an addiction to heroin for decades — yet, in spite of such an assessment, people continue to treat smoking cessation as a matter of will power.

But a long–time smoker will tell you that it isn't about will power at all. It's about the powerlessness that smokers experience. And that is not a simple behavioral problem.

What is needed, I guess, is a study that measures people's attitudes. And how to change them.

But that's a marketing problem, I suppose.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blow by Blow

Charles Blow writes an interesting column in today's New York Times about the anger of the far right that has been visible for all to see in the aftermath of the passage of the health care reform legislation.

"Whose country is it?" the headline on his column asks, and Blow proceeds to make the case that, in the words of the old Bob Dylan song, the times they are a–changing. And they can't be stopped.

Blow sees this as the general ranting of extremists against the perceived takeover of America by the non–white, non–male, non–straight, non–Christian, non–European elements of the population, resulting in the loss of control of their country.

"It's an extension of a now–familiar theme," Blow writes, "some version of 'take our country back.' "

But they can't have it, Blow says. "The problem is that the country romanticized by the far right hasn't existed for some time, and its ability to deny that fact grows more dim every day. President Obama and what he represents has jolted extremists into the present and forced them to confront the future. And it scares them."

Blow may be right when he refers indirectly to the inevitability of what is happening — the black man in the Oval Office, the woman wielding the gavel in the House, the Jew and the gay man who were the "most visible and vocal proponents" of health care reform.

And change — any change, really, but especially change on that scale — is unsettling. Blow is right when he observes that it frightens many on the right.

When people are frightened, they can be defensive. They can be irrational. They are seldom logical.

But Blow makes the mistake that many on the left make. He tries to apply logic to the situation.

Those on the right are outnumbered, Blow implies. Their numbers are dwindling. He concedes the possibility that the Republican Party may enjoy "a short–term benefit" from not taking a stand against "the radical language, rabid bigotry and rising violence" while profiting politically from expressing concern about legitimate issues of taxation and government's role, "but it's a long–term loser."

It's probably admirable that Blow thinks of things in the long term. But if the right wing really is as concerned about the societal shifts as he suggests — and, to be sure, some of the members of that faction are primarily concerned about that — I doubt that they have analyzed the long–term implications. Blow writes about the wave of the future, but those about whom he writes are thinking about the past and the present. Blow might find them shortsighted and intractable. But, to use the familiar movie line, what we've got here is a failure to communicate. The two sides might as well be speaking languages the other does not understand.

What is really called for, it seems to me, is an understanding of the fear that is at the bottom of all this rage; then, appropriate steps can be taken. We've all been scared at one time or another, right? Think about the last time something really terrified you. Were you inclined to analyze the long–term implications? You may have felt a profound sense of loss or you may have been angry about the fact that something dear to you was being taken from you. You may have said and/or done things that you later regretted, things you wouldn't necessarily have said and/or done if you had allowed a cooler head to prevail. But I would be willing to bet that you never gave any thought to the long–term consequences.

Most people — but not all — feel inclined to lash out at those whom they believe (rightly or wrongly) to be their tormentors when they get backed into a corner. And extremists can be dangerous enough when they act spontaneously. We've all heard about the threats against House Democrats who supported health care reform, threats that don't appear to be coordinated or necessarily planned out. And Blow observes that gun sales have escalated since Obama took office. The ingredients for a tragedy are in place.

I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss what extremists might be capable of — especially if they take the time to think about their actions. Don't forget what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City.

I grew up in the South, where I learned early that right–wing extremism tends to go hand in hand with a belief that there is a mandate from God to do whatever may be deemed necessary to preserve the way of life that has always been. The fact that a majority of Americans accept abortion rights, for example, did not prevent an anti–abortion activist from killing an abortion provider in church last year. He was not deterred by the fact that the numbers were against him. I suspect that, if anyone asked him, he would say they merely needed to be shown the light.

Granted, that wasn't in a state that is considered part of the Deep South, but hatred isn't confined to one region. And Blow doesn't specify the South in his column — although it is the region that has produced most of the conservative lawmakers in Congress. Even so, the South has earned its reputation for intolerance over the years, and I'm a little surprised that Blow doesn't seem to understand that. I don't know where he was born and raised, but I know he went to school at Grambling in Louisiana so he lived in the South for awhile at least.

Things have changed a lot since the 1960s, but it is still necessary to exercise care when dealing with the South. And, by definition, whenever one is addressing the right wing, one is addressing the South.

Perhaps he has been away too long to remember just how virulent Southern thinking can be. Perhaps he only remembers the history book accounts, which are bad enough but still mostly focus on the headline news — the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964, the shooting of Martin Luther King in 1968, etc. — and not the routine acts of violence that were carried out against mostly nameless, mostly faceless, low–profile victims.

Thankfully, that part is greatly diminished from what it was, but it would not be wise to let the application of logic allow potentially tragic complacency to be in charge.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Doobie or Not Doobie?

It may be an issue whose time has come. And, if that is the case, there may be no more appropriate place for it than California.

Voters in that state will decide in November whether to legalize and regulate marijuana use, an issue that has come before voters in other states in other election years but has always failed.

In 2010, however, there is an unusual confluence of issues, like two mighty rivers that meet and create an even greater force, that might make this vote different from the rest. Even if the eventual result is the same, the margin may be closer than it has ever been — and it may be a sign that the tide is turning.

First, there is the recession, which has produced — thus far — a 13.2% unemployment rate in California and a shortfall of the state budget that has forced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for "draconian" spending cuts while warning that there is surely more/worse to come.

The folks in Washington seem to have lost sight of the fact (assuming — and that is a huge assumption — that they ever fully realized it in the first place) that this recession — and the unemployment it has spawned — is different from the others with which they have dealt. And they appear determined to fight it the same way they initially chose to fight Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis — on the cheap.

On the cheap didn't work in Iraq, and it won't work against the recession.

Policy analyst Samuel Sherraden, in an article for, says the new jobs bill, in which the president and the members of his party seem to place so much faith, is doomed to fail because it focuses on inadequate tax credits instead of promoting infrastructure.

Of course, it is understandable — to a point — why infrastructure is not emphasized. Infrastructure costs money, lots of money, but revenue is down because fewer people are working and paying taxes — so there isn't as much money available as there once was.

"The House of Representatives passed a relatively strong bill in December, which included $48 billion in infrastructure spending," Sherraden writes. "Now the House and the Senate have adopted a bill that consists primarily of a payroll tax deduction for employers who make new hires and keep them on for a year. The original House jobs bill was $154 billion. The new bill is one–tenth the size."

I'm not an economist, but I don't think you have to be to see that Sherraden is right. The money simply isn't there, and the jobs bill doesn't provide the sources for the kind of revenue that is needed to repair the infrastructure and put millions of unemployed Americans back to work.

Legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana has the potential to produce the kind of revenue — I've heard it estimated that legalizing marijuana in California alone can produce $1 billion annually in tax revenue for the state — that will address the infrastructure issue. And it will keep doing so beyond 2010, unlike the tax credits the Democrats have proposed.

As Sherraden observes, "It is unwise to pass a temporary hiring incentive that will expire during a year when the unemployment rate is forecast by the Congressional Budget Office to average 9.5 percent."

Yet, in addition to providing the kind of revenue that could be used to make meaningful improvements in the nation's infrastructure, legalizing marijuana could create, virtually overnight, the demand for all kinds of jobs. Those people in occupations that would be adversely affected by legalizing marijuana — for example, lab workers who perform drug tests and law enforcement officials who have been waging a losing war against marijuana for decades — would simply be reassigned to more productive pursuits. It is doubtful that their jobs would be eliminated, only the functions of the jobs. If marijuana is legalized, attention can shift to testing for the use of demonstrably deadly drugs and the enforcement of laws against violent behavior.

Then there is health care reform, an issue that has dominated the thinking of Barack Obama (who seems to have devoted more attention to his NCAA Tournament predictions in the last couple of years than he has to unemployment) and the Democrats in Congress for more than a year. With the passage of health care reform legislation, the thoughts of many have turned to the subject of easing the pain of those afflicted with AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, etc. And that is where the issue of medical marijuana comes in.

Marijuana has been proven — repeatedly — to be effective at fighting the nausea that is a by–product of some treatments (most notably, chemotherapy). It has also been shown to stimulate appetite, which is helpful for those whose medical treatments have robbed them of the desire for food. For glaucoma patients, it eases intraocular pressure that robs people of their vision.

However, fear mongers continue to spread inaccuracies (I prefer that word to lies even though this is one of those times when the latter is more appropriate) about marijuana. I can only assume that, because medical science has established a connection between tobacco consumption and life–threatening illnesses like lung cancer, opponents of legalization have jumped to the conclusion that smoking anything will cause lung cancer, too. I am aware of no medical studies that have shown that marijuana causes cancer. In fact, the Journal of Clinical Investigation, which makes its research articles from the last 86 years freely available online, has demonstrated precisely the opposite. JCI's research shows that marijuana kills cancer cells, which is one more therapeutic benefit.

Of course, it is unlikely that most of the people who consume marijuana do so as a preventive measure — although there may be some who smoke it because they are concerned about the prevalence of cancer in their families.

But it is ironic, I believe, that this issue comes up now — not just because of the passage of health care reform but because it was one year ago that, during his celebrated online town hall meeting, Obama ridiculed the 3½ million people who submitted questions about the legalization of marijuana.

This comes at a time when officials have observed a reversal in marijuana use among the young. For many years, propaganda campaigns succeeded, to an extent, in discouraging marijuana consumption, but recent surveys have noted a shift in the behavior of the young.

Such a shift has been increasingly hard to ignore — or write off as the behavior of those who are unmotivated and untalented. Just a few days ago, Don Banks reported for that folks in the NFL "are concerned about the increased number of prospects who have a history of marijuana use in their background."

Banks' article goes on to observe that eliminating players — given the success that some marijuana users have had in the NFL in recent years — because they failed drug tests doesn't make sense if the NFL's personnel people are interested in winning — and keeping their own jobs. Some, no doubt, cling to the long–disproved allegations that have been used to justify keeping marijuana illegal — that it causes death, that it leads to madness and violent criminal behavior, that it serves as a "gateway" to other drugs.

Well, Pete Guither debunks a lot of the myths. As he clearly demonstrates, prohibition was on the wrong side of history in the 1930s.

And it's on the wrong side now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Welcome Back, My Friends ...

... to the show that never ends.

If you thought the war was over when the House approved the Senate's version of the health care bill, you were wrong.

Oh, it had the aura of finality when congressional Democrats gathered to watch Barack Obama sign the bill into law. And one got the sense that many of the Democrats who supported health care reform sincerely wanted to smooth things over with their uncooperative Republican colleagues and move on to the next issue.

However, GOP lawmakers have been talking of tactics for overturning the health care legislation. No Republicans have talked about how the differences could be resolved the next time this is brought to a vote — and it seems all but certain that it will be.

That tends to confirm what I have believed for a long time, that these are people who cannot be appeased, and I really don't understand why Obama (who is an intelligent man) didn't figure that out a lot earlier.

Anyway, I wouldn't advise congressional Democrats to count on winning any Republican votes in that battle. OK, that's the way things have worked in America since the beginning.

But what some private citizens have been doing is a lot more threatening. There is no place for it in a civilized discussion, yet the Republican leadership appears to condone it by not denouncing it.

There is room for passion and honest disagreement in our national debate. I suspect the Founding Fathers would expect no less. But there is no room for what the Associated Press is reporting — vandalism against the property and threats against the lives of 10 Democratic lawmakers and their families.

And I am concerned by the same thing that concerns Rep. Louise Slaughter, one of the sponsors of the health care bill.

"It's more disturbing to me that Republican leadership has not condemned these attacks and instead appears to be fanning the flames with coded rhetoric," she said.

I agree with her. I am disturbed by that, too, but I am not really surprised. Republicans have been using "coded rhetoric" — with varying degrees of success — for decades. They're better at it than Democrats are. They know which buttons to push.

And they'll keep pushing them as long as they believe they can intimidate the opposition by doing so.

This is the sort of "politics as usual" that many voters believed they were rejecting in 2006 and 2008. Perhaps American voters are starting to realize that it will take several additional elections to purge the system of the kind of obstructionism that has taken up residence there. Unfortunately, it never really seems to sink in with Democratic leadership in Washington, including the guy sitting in the Oval Office.

I will admit, on a couple of occasions in the last year or so, Democrats in Washington have stood firmly against these reprehensible tactics. But they haven't always had the strength of their convictions.

This would be a good time for them to find that courage within themselves and keep it handy.

And it would be an excellent time for Republican leadership to repudiate what is being done in their name.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Sky Is Falling!

Do you recall the fable of Chicken Little?

As I understand it, there are several versions of that particular fable, and the moral varies from version to version.

But, in the version I remember from my childhood, a falling acorn strikes a chicken in the head, and she concludes that the sky is falling. She decides she must give this information to the king so she embarks on a journey to do precisely that. Along the way, she runs into several other animals, and she tells them what has happened. They decide to come with her.

At some point, they encounter a fox, who eats most of the chicken's friends.

Essentially, the moral of the story is to have courage and not give in to hysteria.

For Democrats, in a celebratory mood after passing health care reform on Sunday and sending it to the White House, where Barack Obama signed it into law today, this may seem like a strange time for talk of an imminent disaster.

But nonpartisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg isn't trying to lure Democrats into a trap in his piece at The Rothenberg Political Report, where he asserts that "[f]or Democrats, the sky is falling."

He's actually trying to give them the early warning that many insisted — all evidence to the contrary — that they got from January's special election in Massachusetts.

Citing the results of a couple of recent polls, Rothenberg writes, "Both found far more Americans believing the country was headed off on the wrong track ... than in the right direction, and both found the once strong Democratic advantage in the generic ballot, which measures how people plan to vote in November ... or which party they would like to control Congress after the next election ... has narrowed or disappeared."

But wait. There's more.

"Even worse for Democrats," he writes, by a two–to–one margin, "Americans now say it is better to have different parties controlling Congress and the presidency rather than to have one party controlling both branches."

Doesn't sound promising. What about the familiar old fallback positions upon which Democrats have relied?

"[T]he Republican brand still stinks," Rothenberg writes. "Voters aren't clamoring for Republicans to run anything in Washington, D.C., and polls continue to show that Americans still think that former President George W. Bush bears more of the responsibility for the nation's economic pain than anyone else."

Is that enough? Apparently not. "Unfortunately for Democrats," Rothenberg observes, "their own brand has fallen like a rock."

What about blaming Bush? Democrats got considerable mileage from that in 2009, didn't they?

Well, "he won't be on the ballot or in the public's consciousness in November," Rothenberg writes, "so Democrats will have to spend a great deal of time (and money) trying to make the midterms a referendum on the former president rather than on the sitting president. The chances that most Democratic candidates will succeed in that effort are exceedingly small."

Well, doesn't the passage of health care reform count for anything?

"Health care reform, once seen as a party strength, has turned into a significant liability," Rothenberg writes, "and few think the economy will turn around far enough or fast enough to help Democratic candidates in the midterm elections."

Rothenberg admits that he has been reluctant "to get too far in front of the election cycle, since circumstances can change and Democrats could well have an important financial advantage in the key post–Labor Day time period. But let's be clear about what is developing: Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership have dug themselves into a deep and dangerous political hole, and the only question right now seems to be the severity of the drubbing."

Does that mean a change in party control of either chamber of Congress — like what happened in 1994 — is possible?

"As one smart Democratic strategist told me recently," Rothenberg says, " 'All of the elements are in place for a disaster like 1994. But it could be even worse.' "

The Shortest 'Papacy'

It has not been unusual for America to have two presidents in a single calendar year.

It has happened whenever an election has produced a new president — because either the incumbent president did not run or the incumbent president was defeated. When that has happened, America has begun Inaugural Day (for many years, March 4 — now January 20) with one president and ended it with a different one.

Additionally, there have been eight times when a president has died in office — and once when a president has resigned. On those occasions, the vice president has succeeded the president. Most of the time, the president who died (or resigned) had been in office for more than a year.

Only twice in American history has this nation had three presidents in a single calendar year. On both occasions, a duly elected president–elect has taken the oath of office and then died before the calendar year ended. In those years, America has had the president who was in office when the year began, then the president–elect was sworn in, and then the new president died in office within the same calendar year and the vice president succeeded him.

Of course, the American presidency has only existed for 220 years, and there have been 43 occupants of that office.

The papacy, on the other hand, has been around much longer — nearly 2,000 years — and there have been more than 250 people who have held that title. And, while there have been popes who reigned for decades, others have been in office for a few weeks, sometimes only days.

Consequently, there have been times when the Roman Catholic church has had at least three popes in the same year.

I'm not Catholic, but in some ways the pope transcends religion. He is a global figure, and his authority is at least perceived as political as well as religious. Having been raised Protestant, I can't say that I know the history of the papacy, but my understanding is that, in the early days, a pope enjoyed political as well as spiritual authority. Today, the pope's authority is mostly spiritual in nature, but what he has to say about the issues of the day still commands a lot of attention from non–Catholics as well as Catholics.

Once elected by the College of Cardinals, a pope reigns until his death. He does have the option of resigning, but Gregory XII was the last to exercise that right more than 600 years ago.

After his death in 2005, John Paul II was said to have considered resigning when he neared his 80th birthday in 2000, but he clearly did not do so. When he died, his reign had lasted more than 26 years. But even if he had been alive for the last five years, his reign still would not match that of Pius IX, who reigned longer than any other pope — excluding St. Peter, who is considered the first pope even though the title of pope did not exist in his lifetime.

There haven't been many popes in my life, but there was one year — 1978 — when there were three popes.

In that year, Pope John Paul I succeeded Paul VI, then served just over a month before dying suddenly. He was succeeded by John Paul II, who was the only pope that most people under 35 knew until Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul II.

John Paul I's papacy seemed short — and it was — but the shortest papacy wasn't even a papacy in the traditional sense.

On this day in 752, a priest of Rome named Stephen was elected to succeed Pope Zachary, but Stephen died of a stroke a few days later — before being ordained a bishop.

I don't know much about Stephen — except that he is remembered in history as Pope–elect Stephen — and I don't know if he dreamed of becoming pope, but if he did, his life and death are reminders that, even if you believe that you have reached the pinnacle of your profession, it can be taken from you in the blink of an eye.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Timing Is Everything

There is much rejoicing today in some quarters because the House passed health care reform yesterday.

And, as E.J. Dionne observes in the Washington Post, Barack Obama and the Democrats made history by passing a health care reform bill.

Emotions certainly have been running high on this issue — on both sides, really, although emotions seem to be higher among the Democrats who voted in favor of it. Rep. Patrick Kennedy was practically on the verge of tears — given his late father's commitment to health care reform — when talking about the measure on Good Morning America.

Perhaps this reform plan really will lead to the improvements its supporters claim it will.
  • John Nichols writes in The Nation that the vote will stand the test of time.

  • It is "an accomplishment of historic proportions," crows the New York Times.

  • The actual implementation of health care reform will be messy and hard, the Minneapolis Star Tribune acknowledges, but the bill is "[a]n American cure for an ailing system."
Well, the Star Tribune is right. It will be messy. It will be hard.

And it will be years before most of the changes are in place. A lot of uninsured people are going to get sick and a lot of uninsured people are going to die before this legislation truly changes the way things are done in the American health care system — and my guess is that most of their survivors are going to wonder what all the fuss was about and why, since health care reform legislation has been passed, nothing could be done to help their loved ones.

I have said many times that I think health care reform is important. But I have believed all along that things were being done in the wrong sequence.

Until the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008, it was far from certain that Obama would win the presidential election. Once jobs began disappearing at a rate of six figures a month, the momentum moved in his way — not necessarily because of the possibility of health care reform but because of concerns about being able to provide the basics of food, clothing and shelter.

After Obama was elected, I believed then — and I still believe now — that job creation was the most important, most pressing issue and that the administration needed to focus on turning that situation around first. My reasoning was that, by focusing on jobs through the first half of his term, Obama could mitigate the losses a president's party typically endures in the midterm elections because he was emphasizing the issue that more Americans were worried about.

(It is certainly possible that I will be proven wrong, but let me point out that I've been studying elections and voter turnout since before my college days.)

Anyway, without Obama on the ballot, I figured it would be tough for Democrats to persuade the kinds of voters who were instrumental to Obama's victory in 2008 (i.e., the young, the minorities, the liberals) to participate in the midterms. We've had limited opportunities, so far, to see if I was right about voter participation, but the off–year elections in New Jersey and Virginia and January's special election in Massachusetts have shown that the groups who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 have not been participating in large numbers. (At this point, I see no reason to expect that they will be more inclined to show up at the polls in November.)

I believed focusing on jobs, whether successful or not, would preserve Democratic majorities for Obama beyond 2010. Those majorities still were likely to be diminished, but control of both chambers probably would remain in Democratic hands. Then, after the midterms were over, the focus could shift to health care reform — Obama would be on the ballot in the next election, and his presence might help other Democrats on the ballot by attracting those groups — who could be expected to be more receptive to Democrats — to the polls.

But that isn't how Obama and the congressional Democrats chose to do things. As unemployment continued to get worse, the Democrats focused their attention instead on health care reform, subjecting the nation to more than a year of divisive squabbling.

Well, they have their legislative victory. Will they also have an electoral victory in November?

Former Democratic pollster Pat Caddell made an interesting observation on Fox News. Now, I'm not a fan of Fox News — and I haven't always been sure what to think of Caddell since he had a falling–out with the Democratic Party some 20 years ago — but the observation made sense to me.

Caddell said the health care reform vote was the Democrats' "Jonestown moment." It may well be. It's certainly a theme that has been picked up by others. Perhaps it was picked up by some of the House Republicans during the floor debate — although I can't really say because the power in my apartment was out yesterday and I couldn't watch any of the coverage.

David Sanger admitted, in the New York Times, that Obama "will go down in history as one of the handful of presidents who found a way to reshape the nation's social welfare system." But he seemed uncertain whether "it was a historic achievement or political suicide for his party — perhaps both."

Obama's supporters — especially those who hadn't been involved in politics much before 2008— may not like it, but midterms usually go against the party in power because the voters' expectations usually have been unfulfilled. Political novices often seem to be shocked by that, and perhaps it is unrealistic for voters to expect as much as they do in less than two years, but, in the words of the late Walter Cronkite, that's the way it is.

And my belief has been, as I said earlier, that Obama was elected largely because of the economy and joblessness. I believe much of it was a backlash against George W. Bush — but, since he wasn't on the ballot, the voters punished the Republican nominee. Maybe the voters would have elected Obama, anyway — albeit by a much smaller margin — if the meltdown hadn't occurred. But, until I see clear evidence that the economy was not the primary force, I will believe that it was foremost in voters' minds when they went to the polls.

Some of those voters may well be pleased today that health care reform has passed. But when they compare their expectations in 2008 to the reality of 2010, I believe many will say this is not the change for which they thought they were voting.

Here's another tidbit of conventional wisdom gleaned from my years of studying American politics, as well as the political science courses I took in college — voters' opinions, especially during recessions, tend to harden about six months before an election.

Nearly 18 years ago, for example, after Bill Clinton had beaten George H.W. Bush in the general election, I heard some Republicans complain that many voters had decided against voting for Bush by May and June (when national unemployment was at 7.3% and 8.0%, respectively) — and many did, in fact, vote against him that fall, even though there were indications in the summer and fall (unemployment dropped to 6.9% by October) that the recovery was under way.

Anyway, assuming that item of conventional wisdom is still valid today — and I have no reason to think it is not — Obama has only two more months, at the most, to persuade voters that his administration is focused on putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Given the fact that unemployment has been hovering around 10% for several months now, that is going to be a tough, tough sell.

The other day, I wrote about Lyndon Johnson's address to Congress 45 years ago urging the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The part of the story that I did not mention was that, after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial segregation, Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation." Johnson won by a landslide that November, but Democrats began gradually losing statewide races in the South after that, perhaps in no small part due to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was widely seen as a second civil rights bill, this one outlawing discrimination in voting. And Democrats continue to lose statewide races in the South today.

Then as now, Americans were polarized over the issue that was before the Congress. Then as now the president saw the issue as a moral imperative. But it seems to me that the big difference has been in the way Johnson and Obama approached the task of handling misconceptions. Johnson spoke to the nation in plain, simple, direct and honest language. "There is no Negro problem," he said. "There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."

Perhaps Obama should have done the same with health care. I don't mean the professorial lecturing that he often does — just some straight talk that everyone can understand. He seemed to do that pretty well on the campaign trail, and it might have allayed some irrational fears. He almost certainly could have been expected to deal as effectively as possible with the misinformation about the impact on abortion law that almost certainly was an inevitable outcome of this debate.

In spite of all his talk about bipartisanship, Obama got not a single Republican vote yesterday — and he came close to losing enough of the members of his own party to derail the health care plan. But in the mid–1960s, Johnson had more support (proportionately speaking) from Republican lawmakers than he got from his own party, probably because many Southern Democrats opposed both measures.

When one considers what had been happening in America in the years before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, it's hard to imagine if the timing of those proposals could have been altered in a way that would have been more beneficial to Democrats. But then, as now, they held the White House as well as large majorities in Congress. In fact, in 1964 about two–thirds of the senators were Democrats, and a larger share of the House members were Democrats than is the case today. And the question that many Democrats asked then is the same question many Democrats asked about health care reform — "If not now, when?"

In hindsight, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act may seem like such obvious common sense legislation that it may be baffling how anyone could oppose either — or how Johnson could conclude that, with so much Republican support, they could cost Johnson's party the South for a generation.

But when one looks at the election returns from the last four decades, one must conclude that Johnson was right.

Will health care reform cost Democrats in the long term, the way civil rights and voting rights cost them 45 years ago? It might. The setback won't be confined to a single region, and the extent of the loss may depend upon whether the expected benefits materialize or not.

But much of the talk today among Republicans is of repeal, and there seems to be no doubt that this fight isn't over. I am sure it will be a campaign issue in this fall's midterms, and it appears likely to be a campaign issue in 2012 as well.

And that is one more reason why I believe the Democrats should have focused on the economy first.

Will health care reform hurt Obama in the short term? Barring a significant unexpected decline in joblessness, I think it will hurt Obama in the short term — and for the reasons I have outlined.

In politics, timing truly is everything.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The LBJ Era Departs

For many years, I worked in a building that was located along LBJ Freeway here in Dallas.

I worked for an auto loan company, and I often had to call people — customers, dealers — and sometimes those calls required me to give them our mailing address. More than one gave me a questioning response when I told them the street address.

"LBJ stands for Lyndon Baines Johnson," I would tell them. If that produced no knowing response, I elaborated. "He became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy." That was usually sufficient. The people with whom I spoke were not always old enough to remember Johnson, but they recognized Kennedy's name.

Those conversations always struck me as odd because, when I was a child, everyone knew what LBJ stood for.

I was still quite young when he left the White House. I knew his first name was Lyndon and his last name was Johnson. I had heard him called Lyndon B. Johnson. I'm not sure if I knew exactly what his middle name was, but I had heard plenty of people refer to the president as LBJ.

There always seemed to be footage on the evening news of angry college students marching in protests against the war and chanting things like "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?"

I mean, unless you were deaf, dumb and blind (or, perhaps, just plain Forrest Gump stupid), just about everyone who was alive in those days knew what LBJ stood for!

My father was a college professor, and I knew some of his students. And they not only knew what LBJ stood for, most of them seemed to think LBJ was going to be around forever.

That wasn't true, of course. As I say, he left the presidency in 1969 after choosing not to run for another term; then, in one of those ironic twists of history, he died of a heart attack two days after that term would have ended.

Thus, he proved all those predictions of his immortality to be indisputably wrong in rather short order.

And, one by one, most of the figures from Johnson's administration have left the earthly scene as well. His secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, died last summer, and then today, two more people from the LBJ days — Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Liz Carpenter, a close aide to both President and Mrs. Johnson for many years — have died.

Udall was 90. Carpenter was 89.

It strikes me as ironic that not one but two people from the Johnson presidency should die within a week of the 45th anniversary of what is arguably the most significant speech that Johnson ever gave.

On March 15, 1965, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to press for the passage of the Voting Rights Act about a week after the infamous "Bloody Sunday" confrontation in Selma, Ala., during the first Selma–to–Montgomery voting rights march.

He adopted a line from the protest song that had become synonymous with the civil rights movement as he took a stand against discrimination in the most public way that a president can. On that evening, Johnson said, "Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

My mother was active in the Human Relations Council in my hometown in Arkansas when I was growing up, and I know from speaking with many of the black members in those days that they were deeply moved and inspired to hear the president of the United States use a phrase that was so closely linked to "the struggle," as they called it. That was one of the last things that most of them had ever expected to see in their lifetimes.

Language has power. It isn't always how much you know but how you express it that makes the impression. And, in Johnson's case, what he knew (which was the moral and ethical thing to do) and the best way to express it came together at a crossroads in American history.

There is no denying that there was plenty of deception and trickery from the Johnson administration when it came to its policy on Vietnam. But, on March 15, 1965, he spoke to — and, perhaps, with the assistance of — what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

It may have been the shining moment of Johnson's life and presidency.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Turning Point

After winning the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush said he had acquired "political capital" during the campaign.

It didn't take him long to squander it, though.

And I believe that he began running through his stash on this day five years ago.

For it was on this day that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed at her husband's request.

The Terri Schiavo case has to rank as one of the saddest episodes in recent American life. It would have been a tragic matter even if it had remained private, involving only Schiavo's biological family, her spouse and her doctors.

But it was made even more tragic — not to mention shameful — by the way that public figures and politicians, mostly Republicans (but some Democrats as well) and from the White House on down, elbowed their way in.

Just to provide a little background — a little refresher, unpleasant though it is, to put things in perspective — Schiavo collapsed in her home in February 1990. She suffered respiratory and cardiac arrest, but she survived, although there was considerable brain damage, leaving her in what is called a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS), which is a state of very deep unconsciousness.

Before the Schiavo case came along, there were really only two instances of PVS that had been in the news in my memory:
  1. Sunny von Bülow, who suffered severe brain damage in 1980 and remained in a PVS until her death nearly 30 years later.
  2. Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman who lost consciousness after a night of partying in 1975 and lapsed into a PVS, igniting a legal battle that resulted in significant precedents in right–to–die law.
There were other cases, I'm sure, but those are the ones I remember being prominent in the news. Suffice to say, PVS was not something with which most people were familiar, even five years ago. Anyway, there had been a lot of legal wrangling by the lawyers representing Schiavo's husband and her parents, especially since 1998. Her husband wanted to remove her life support; her parents wanted to prevent that from happening. By 2005, the case had reached a crossroads. No matter which way it went, it seemed, there was no turning back. And all sorts of prominent people — Jesse Jackson, the governor of Florida (Jeb Bush), the majority leader of the U.S. Senate (Bill Frist), the speaker of the House (Dennis Hastert) and the president of the United States (George W. Bush) — intervened, ostensibly because they were pro–life, when the judicial machinery appeared to be favoring Schiavo's husband. Their involvement turned a private family tragedy into a national debate. And there were times when it bordered on the bizarre. Like when Frist, a doctor by training as well as professional experience prior to his entry into politics, opposed removing Schiavo's life support on the basis of what he had seen in a video tape. Frist was an experienced surgeon who had performed more than 100 heart and/or lung transplants. But he was not a neurologist. And he was criticized by many for making such a crucial diagnosis based only on a video tape. Many denounced the involvement of both the Congress and the White House in the Schiavo matter. For my part, I have always been fond of the editorial that ran in the Boston Globe, which stated, "The US Congress has no place at Terri Schiavo's bedside. Neither does the president of the United States." At the conclusion of a strongly worded editorial, the Globe wrote, "They say they are doing God's work, but should consider that it is man's machinery that has prolonged this sad shell of a human being. All religions teach that there is a time to let go." Their reluctance to let go amid their protestations that they were pro–life understandably made many people suspicious a few months later, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, producing the kind of death and destruction that is rarely seen on this continent.

At that time, when TV cameras transmitted images of the catastrophe that was unfolding, Americans were baffled and, frankly, frightened by the delayed response they saw coming from the government at all levels. Black Americans wondered — not without some justification — if, considering that New Orleans was disproportionately black compared to most North American cities, racism had played a role. After all, those who had so loudly proclaimed that they were pro–life in March, when the life of one white woman with PVS was on the line, seemed strangely silent when many thousands of black Americans were drowning or their homes were being destroyed in a major flood.

In more than two centuries, Americans have seldom re–elected a president who has already served a full four–year term. Whenever they have done so, whether by a wide margin or a slim one, there is a strange phenomenon that seems to occur. The very act of re–electing a president who was elected in his own right seems to be perceived as an endorsement of the public's collective wisdom.

And that, in turn, seems to produce a reservoir of good will for the president, even among those who voted against him. Maybe that is what Bush was talking about when he said he had earned political capital.

If so, I believe he — and Congress, although Congress seldom gets good marks from the public, no matter which party is in the majority — used up most of it with partisan and transparently political actions in the Schiavo case. And, like the budget surplus that Bush inherited from the Clinton administration and then wantonly squandered before the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was gone when he really needed it.

Starting on this day in 2005, I believe Bush irretrievably lost the public's support and laid the foundation for Republican electoral defeats in the next two elections.

It may have been the most rapid decline in public support for a president who had just been re–elected in American history.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Close Shave

I have been thinking about when I was a teenager and my parents taught me to drive.

Sometimes my father instructed me. If my father wasn't available, my mother did. They had different styles. But they both emphasized the same thing over and over.

They told me to keep my eyes on the road.

There were a lot of distractions in those days. There are even more these days. I'm sure you've heard the reports of both adults and teenagers texting while behind the wheel — and slamming into the back of the vehicle ahead of them.

That's bad enough, but even before texting, I saw a lot of things that demonstrated to me that there were many people — licensed drivers — who never would have met my parents' standards.

I've seen people eating bowls of cereal while driving in rush–hour traffic. I've seen drivers who were looking in the rear–view mirror and combing/brushing their hair or applying makeup. I've seen drivers tying their ties and dabbing themselves with cologne.

I've even seen a few people who were actually changing their clothes while driving along.

In all honesty, I kind of thought I had seen it all.

But then Bob Gordon proved me wrong in Digital Journal.

Gordon reports that "[a] 37–year–old woman in Florida has been charged with reckless driving after causing an accident because she was distracted as she shaved her pubic hair."

Apparently, the woman was in an accident while she was "shaving her bikini area." Her ex–husband was handling the wheel from the passenger side. Here's the kicker — she was on her way to see her boyfriend and wanted to be ready.

Her vehicle, which was traveling at 45 mph, rear–ended a vehicle that had slowed down to make a turn.

Read Gordon's account. He quotes a state trooper who called it "surreal."

Must have been a real eyeful.

St. Patrick's Day

"If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me."

St. Patrick

Today, at your workplace or at school or wherever you happen to be, you may notice more green being worn than usual.

That's a sure sign that today is St. Patrick's Day, which is synonymous in the public mind with leprechauns and shamrocks and drinking.

Another sure sign is parades, many of which have been annual traditions for hundreds of years.

I guess he is regarded as the patron saint of Ireland. But relatively little else is remembered about St. Patrick. In fact, not much is actually known about him.

It isn't known precisely when he was born, although most historians seem to agree that he was born late in the fourth century. And the exact year of his death also is in dispute. It is generally agreed that he died in the fifth century, but the exact year is unknown. The one thing on which most people seem to agree is that he died on March 17.

Apparently, St. Patrick was a missionary, and, originally, the holiday that bears his name was strictly a Christian holiday, but, over the years, it has evolved into an Irish celebration.

Legend tells us that St. Patrick introduced the Christian concept of the Trinity to the Irish using the three–leaved shamrock. Hence, modern St. Patrick's Day celebrations involve pinning a shamrock to one's clothing — the famed "wearing of the green."

A lesser known legend concerning St. Patrick is that he drove all the snakes from Ireland. Modern science has more or less discredited that one with its determination that Ireland never had any snakes. But it makes a good story — and a biblical one as well, given the role the snake played in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Leprechauns seem to play a prominent role on St. Patrick's Day, too, but, frankly, I'll be damned if I can figure out what relation they had to the actual St. Patrick. Perhaps an answer can be found at the National Leprechaun Musem that opened a week ago today in Dublin.

I don't know where the concept of "luck of the Irish" came from. I do know that it was the title of four movies, two of which were silent pictures. I also know that, for whatever reason, being Irish is perceived as being lucky.

That may be part of the reason why scholar Thomas Cahill wonders "[w]hy should we celebrate the Irish?" in today's New York Times. He praises the Irish contribution to literacy, including the role St. Patrick played.

And, as a writer, that is certainly something I can endorse as well.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Simple Question

I'm like most people who went to college, I suppose. I didn't major in economics.

Neither — I would guess — did most of the people who are unemployed today. That's another group to which I belong, although I would be happy to give up my membership in that particular club.

Since I have no academic training in economics — beyond those basic courses I was required to take — I hope someone can enlighten me.

Let me explain.

Obviously, economies are complex things, and the one that dominates our lives today may be more complex than any in my lifetime. There is no one factor that could be corrected that would turn things around. I assume that, if someone could pinpoint such a factor, a Nobel Prize would be waiting with his or her name on it.

Nevertheless, it is fashionable — and, perhaps, justifiable — to blame George W. Bush and the Republicans for policies that made conditions favorable for companies to outsource jobs to foreign countries where labor was cheaper. That isn't the only reason why millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the last couple of years, but it certainly is one of them.

When Barack Obama became president, he and the Democrats embarked on a radical — there are those who would use the word "extreme" to describe it — course of action to deal with the economy.

Perhaps what I am about to suggest is a case of closing the barn door after the horses already have escaped, but this is a question I simply can't answer on my own. Maybe someone with a greater knowledge of economics can answer it.

Why didn't the Democrats enact legislation that would make it more difficult for companies to outsource jobs to foreign countries?

On the campaign trail — and, then again, recently, when his attention was briefly diverted to the crisis of joblessness in the days after the special election in Massachusetts — Obama proposed tax breaks for companies that hired Americans.

When the stimulus package was being worked out, that proposal was dropped because the amount of the proposed tax break ($3,000) wasn't thought to be a sufficient incentive. When Obama revived the proposal earlier this year, he raised the amount (to $5,000), but it still isn't considered sufficient.

If the incentive is not adequate to achieve the desired effect, what possible good is the policy?

Which brings me back to my original question ...

Maybe I've missed something, but why hasn't a disincentive been discussed?

I've heard it said that the jobs that were shipped overseas are never coming back. Well, maybe some of them would if the government insisted that it would penalize companies for maintaining overseas workers on their payrolls when Americans could be doing those jobs — and I'm not talking about a slap on the wrist, either. I'm talking about fines that would be high enough to get employers' attention — and could be used to help offset the costs of getting the economy back on track.

Well, that's a rough idea. Perhaps there are legal issues that would have to be addressed. Certainly, a grace period would be necessary for existing companies to make the transition from foreign to domestic employees. Exceptions would need to be made for some jobs and some industries.

But doesn't it make sense to do whatever can be done — beyond the politician's best friend, lip service — to help unemployed Americans? Maybe filling jobs with Americans instead of Indians or Chinese would raise production costs, which would, in turn, raise the costs of goods and services.

But it seems to me that, if the choice is between paying more for a cell phone or a video game and leveling the playing field for unemployed Americans, the choice is obvious.

Flesh–and–blood Americans are more important than inanimate objects.

Aren't they?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Three Years and Counting

Three years ago today, I smoked my last cigarette.

I don't know how old I was when I smoked a cigarette for the first time. I have a vague memory of being with a bunch of my buddies in an empty lot on a warm afternoon. Someone had a pack of cigarettes — Marlboros, I think — which was passed around for everyone to take one. Then a book of matches was passed around and everyone lit his cigarette.

To borrow an infamous phrase from Bill Clinton, I don't think I inhaled on that occasion. That was a talent I learned at another time. That day, I merely sucked the smoke into my mouth, then let it escape without drawing it into my lungs.

I started smoking (and inhaling) on a regular basis when I was a teenager, which, as I have come to realize, is not uncommon. Anyway, I continued smoking — and the volume of my consumption increased — for years until, for reasons I would rather not discuss here, I gave up cigarettes on this day in 2007.

It was unfortunate, to say the least, that I found myself out of a job 1½ years later. I am still unemployed so half the time that I have been smoke–free has also been the most challenging and most difficult time of my life.

To misquote a line from "Airplane!" I picked the wrong year to give up smoking.

In many ways, I guess, it has been good that I have not been smoking. When I started smoking, a pack of cigarettes cost about 50 cents. According to signs I have seen recently at convenience stores, a pack of cigarettes easily costs 10 times that today — so, clearly, it's been to my benefit economically not to smoke.

People also tell me it has been beneficial to my health, and I guess it has. My physical health, anyway. I must admit that there are times when I haven't been as sure about my psychological health. I often miss the calming influence that smoking had on me, but I remind myself that that was the nicotine — and tobacco companies manipulated the nicotine over the years to make sure people like me got hooked and stayed hooked.

There are definitely times, though, when I wonder if giving it up was worth it.

Anyway, if you're a smoker who's been trying to give it up and you're reading this, let me assure you that I know what you're up against. I've written a lot about it.

And the best thing I can do — besides wish you success — is tell you to hang in there. You may feel like you're hanging by your fingernails from the edge of a long, steep cliff. And you may not feel like you can hang in there much longer. But remind yourself of the money you're saving. And congratulate yourself for not putting your money in the pockets of the tobacco companies. They've already made their fortunes on the lives of hundreds of thousands of others.

Then, if you're married, think about the gift of cleaner air that you're giving your spouse. If you have children, think about the gift of cleaner air that you're giving them.

Think about anything that motivates you. Use little tricks to help you stay on course. You can find lots of tips on smoking cessation at all sorts of web sites. Find a good support group.

Be prepared for anything. Most people who try to give up smoking aren't successful the first time. Some have to make several attempts before they finally make it. And nicotine, I learned, is crafty. It finds out how you're vulnerable and it attacks that weak point.

In my case, it was when I went to sleep at night. It invaded my dreams to the extent that I would wake up convinced that my smokeless streak had been broken. Then I would waste a lot of time searching my apartment for evidence that I had given in to temptation — but, of course, there was no evidence.

I still have those dreams from time to time, but they aren't as frequent nor are they as vivid as they were — so I guess I'm winning this battle.

I still refuse to regard myself as an "ex–smoker," even though my friends tell me I have earned the right to think of myself in that way.

But, as I have often written, I think of myself as a "recovering smoker," in much the same way that AA members think of themselves as recovering alcoholics.

I have never met an AA member who believed he/she had won the battle with alcohol. AA members will tell you that they are powerless over alcohol; therefore, they are always vigilant. The battle is not over for them because they know that alcohol will seize control at the first opportunity.

It is with that kind of reverence that I regard nicotine. At this point, I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would be convinced that the battle was over and I had won. I've had the upper hand for nearly 1,100 days. That is good, but it could all be wiped out if I let down my guard.

Recovering, not triumphant, works for me. What works for you?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is Mubarak Alive?

It isn't my usual procedure to write about rumors, but this one is truly extraordinary. If it is true, it could have some truly profound repercussions on the Middle East peace process.

Neal Ungerleider of True/Slant writes that "[t]he talk of the Egyptian blogosphere right now is a fast–spreading rumor that President Hosni Mubarak has died."

I've been looking for confirmation, one way or the other, on reputable news sites, but, as of 7:45 p.m. (CDT), I haven't found any reports that Mubarak, 81, who recently had gall bladder surgery, died during his operation more than a week ago.

Ungerleider says "[t]he reports occurred after reports of Mubarak dying in a German hospital were broadcast on Russian television and on Arabic television."

If Mubarak really is dead, it will be the first time in nearly 30 years that Egypt has been without a leader. Mubarak assumed the Egyptian presidency following the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981.

The Challenges of Revolution

The word "revolution" seems to be tossed about rather carelessly by some people.

Well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

I don't mean to say that it is a careless concept. Far from it. A revolution is serious business — by definition, according to Random House, "a sudden, complete or marked change in something."

Clearly, that wasn't an idle question the Beatles asked some 40 years ago, and it was asked at a time when revolution was almost literally in the air.

In fact (if you will pardon just one more musical reference), I have often thought that, when history has had enough time to absorb the revolutionary changes that were wrought in national thoughts and attitudes by the 1960s, the best song — if not the only song — a filmmaker could use as the backdrop for images of that time would be Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move."

That's a song about the awakening of love and sexual desire, but it is also descriptive of the helpless feeling that can overwhelm a person when something that has been virtually an article of faith is being proven false — or, at least, inoperative.

Anyway, it seems to me the word revolution has been used somewhat frivolously since the days when the guidelines governing just about all of our social relationships — age, gender, race, religious, sexual — were (and, in some cases, remain) under a very public assault. It hasn't always been that way.

Eighty years ago on Friday, Gandhi launched his campaign of non–cooperation and non–violence against British rule of India with the Salt March to the village of Dandi — a truly dramatic and, yes, revolutionary moment in human history.

I've heard many things described as revolutions, whether they actually were revolutions or not. But the bar is set sorta high for genuine revolutions.

Other than an actual armed revolt, the only other kind of revolution that could have as wrenching and far–reaching influence on people as the social unrest of the 1960s or Gandhi's campaign that was ultimately successful in liberating India would be economic upheaval.

And that certainly seems to be what we are experiencing today.

At the moment, it is far from certain which side will emerge victorious. But a few basic facts are known. The most important, it seems to me, is that millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

Some of those jobs may return as the economy rebounds, but most probably will not. To date, few, if any, actually have.

Some of those jobs were shipped overseas, where workers do the same tasks Americans did but for a lot less. In some cases, their efficiency might be limited by their linguistic skills — but not always. In those situations where productivity has been hindered by language barriers, I suppose CEOs have simply looked at the balance sheet and seen that they were still saving money.

And some of those jobs were eliminated by emerging technology. From management's perspective, I guess, the best possible solution is to make a one–time investment in a machine that can do what one person (or more) did in the past. A machine will work nonstop and will not charge overtime. It just requires routine maintenance.

It's not the best solution for an unemployed American with a family to feed, but that isn't management's problem, is it?

That doesn't make it less of a problem, though, does it?

There isn't a day that goes by that there isn't a story in your newspaper, on your TV, on the internet about the impact that the economy is having on people's lives. The other day, for example, I saw a video on about an auto worker in Wisconsin whose plant closed down. Rather than accept a severance package, he took a job at a company plant in Texas — and began making a "1,000–mile commute" to work instead of selling his home for a loss in a bad economy.

In the end, though, the pressure of being away from his family for five days (sometimes six days) each week was too much, and the family joined him in Texas, vowing that their hearts would stay in Wisconsin and they would one day return. Well, they're young. There's still plenty of time (probably) for them to regain control of their lives and move back to the land they love.

It's becoming more of an impossible dream for older displaced workers.

There must be some way for these workers to remain a vibrant part of the economy. After all, the point behind revolution is to make things better for all, not to leave some behind so others may prosper, isn't it?

Maybe there is a lesson to be found in history that can be applied to the 21st century. It was on this day in 1794 that Eli Whitney received his patent for the cotton gin.

The cotton gin, a deceptively simple device that automated the tedious process of separating cotton seeds from cotton fibers, is considered one of the crucial inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

As anyone who has studied American history can tell you, the Industrial Revolution brought many changes to American life. The cotton gin came on its cusp, when patent laws were still emerging, and the ramifications of technological advancements were not always readily apparent, but, in hindsight, it can be said that the cotton gin rejuvenated slavery. Because slave labor could be devoted almost entirely to planting, maintaining and harvesting the crop, plantation owners could grow larger crops and reap greater profits, making slave ownership more sustainable.

In fact, in the half century after Whitney's invention, the slave population more than quadrupled in the South. Without the invention of the cotton gin, the costs of housing and clothing and feeding slaves might well have been impractical for many, and other choices might have been made.

It's possible, therefore, that America might have been spared the agony of the Civil War and, perhaps, the anguish of dysfunctional racial relations, particularly in the South, in the century after the war ended.

But, without the cotton gin, the Industrial Revolution might have been delayed — or, worse, might never have happened at all. America might never have become the economic power it became — and the story of human development would have been entirely different.

It may seem odd, then, that, while many plantation owners became rich thanks to Whitney's invention, Whitney himself and his business partner, Phineas Miller, did not.

Theirs is a cautionary tale. And it is one that I think is applicable to the field to which I have always gravitated, journalism.

Whitney and Miller were visionaries in their development of a solution to a production problem, and, consequently, they appear to have had one foot in the future — but they clearly had the other foot planted in the past. Their plan was not to sell cotton gins; apparently, it was to monopolize the market to a certain extent, by contracting with farmers to clean their cotton for them, in much the same way that sawmills cut lumber into boards for loggers.

Cotton growers resented this, especially once they discovered how simple the gin really was, and other cotton gins, based on the original design, began to pop up. Whitney and Miller tried to stem the tide by filing patent infringement lawsuits, but, ultimately, this devoured their profits because of the primitive state of patent law. Eventually, they went out of business.

So what relationship does this have to the newspaper industry?

Well, I have observed over the years that newspaper management responds to economic adversity in a predictable way — by cutting its payroll.

Even when the complaint is a decline in editorial quality.

Frankly, I have never understood how cutting the number of copy editors — the ones who are charged with checking facts and correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation errors — can possibly address that kind of issue. The only issue it seems to address is the bottom line, but never to the extent that it can solve the economic problems faced by a publication. It is a temporary solution at best.

It seems like even less of a viable strategy in today's economic climate. But that hasn't prevented newspapers from falling back on it, just as they always have.

Maybe their mistake was not realizing that this recession, coming after a decade of zero job growth, is different from the ones that came before.

The real problem, as I have written before, goes back many years — to a time when the internet was not the pervasive presence in American households it has become. Newspaper management's great failing was not anticipating the kinds of changes that the internet would force upon them and taking steps that would allow them to co–exist — perhaps, even, to thrive.

No one has a crystal ball, of course, but, even though I have no training in business administration, that seems like an obvious thing.

And here is something else that seems equally obvious to me.

These are times that require creative, innovative solutions — even if they are temporary — that will put people back to work. Hundreds of thousands of people who would prefer to be bringing home a paycheck rather than receiving unemployment assistance are, nevertheless, losing their benefits every week.

The times cry out for leadership like Franklin Roosevelt provided in the 1930s. Within days of becoming president, Roosevelt was addressing problems that had brought America's economy to its knees. When something didn't work, FDR tried something else. He never shifted his focus from his primary mission. His attention was unwavering.

That is the kind of leadership that America needs today — not the kind that gives momentary lip service to pressing problems while pledging to focus like a laser on them and then, at the first opportunity, turns its attention elsewhere.

That is the challenge of revolutionary times.