Thursday, April 15, 2010

April Is the Cruellest Month

Depending on your point of view, I guess, just about any month could be deserving of the designation "the cruelest month."

T.S. Eliot wrote that it was April. He pulled no punches.
"April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers."

T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land (1922)

As I say, Eliot was blunt. That "cruellest month" line opened the poem, the first part of which was titled "The Burial of the Dead."

And, while it is true that people die on every day of every month of every year, April always seems to be more prone to it.

It was last April, for example, that a young pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels died in a car accident a few hours after making his first start of the season. John Paul II died in April 2005 after a reign that was the second–longest pontificate in history.

In April 2007, a crazed gunman killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech and then killed himself. In April 1999, two high school students went on a rampage at their school in Colorado.

In April 1995, an American terrorist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. He claimed to be motivated, in part, by the federal government's siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on the same date in April 1993, which left 76 people dead after a fire swept through the buildings.

And that's just the stuff that has happened in the last 17 years.

In April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred. Three astronauts could have lost their lives in a mission that had to be aborted in April 1970 because an oxygen tank blew up. In April 1968, Martin Luther King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. And John F. Kennedy went through probably the bleakest period in his brief presidency with the ill–fated Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

And, in April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. It was one of the greatest disasters of all time, with more than 1,500 lives lost.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that nothing good happens in April.

For sports fans, college basketball crowns its champion. Baseball season begins in April, and golfers participate in the Masters on the picturesque course in Augusta, Ga. Earth Day has become a significant day for the growing environment/ecology movement. And April is the month when we give special attention, in one way or another, to poetry, marching bands, Arab Americans, world health, patriots and those afflicted with Parkinson's disease.

But it is also a month that habitually begins with a day dedicated to fooling people, and by the time the month is half over, all the adults in America must report their incomes to the government and pay their taxes — or humbly request additional time.

Well, I guess you gotta take the good with the bad.

I studied history in college. I guess an interest in history went hand in hand with my journalism studies. And I was aware at an early age of the significance of April in history, even before I heard of Eliot's poem.

My parents' generation was shaken by the news that Franklin Roosevelt died in April. They had never known any other president. Generations earlier, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865 — the month that historian Jay Winik called "The Month that Saved America."

When he looks back on this April, though, Barack Obama may well remember it as the cruelest month of 2010. In a little more than six months, Americans will go to the polls to vote in the midterm elections, and political observers are increasingly grim in their assessments of the Democrats' chances.

This is a time when embattled Democrats need the Obama who generated such enthusiasm among the young voters and black voters and liberal voters two years ago. Obama needs their help now even more than he did in 2008.

I suppose some of the Democrats expected to get that when the health care reform bill was passed, but it doesn't seem to be having a ripple effect that helps either Obama or the Democrats.

CNN's latest poll, which concluded on Sunday, found that the president's approval rating was basically unchanged from its finding of a month ago — 51% approve, 47% disapprove. The numbers from Fox always seem to lag behind the others, but its 43% approval rating in the survey that concluded last Saturday, is a new low.

It made me curious what Bill Clinton's numbers looked like in April 1994. And I wanted to know what Ronald Reagan's numbers were like in April 1982.

In Clinton's case, Gallup/CNN's survey in early April found that, like Obama, he received a 51% aproval rating, which was about what he had been averaging in the first three months of that year. Other surveys tell us that Clinton enjoyed even greater popularity that spring (64% in the CBS/New York Times poll, 57% in ABC/Washington Post in March and again in NBC/Wall Street Journal in April), but his numbers fell as 1994 wore on and history tells us his party lost control of both houses of Congress in November.

By November, Clinton's popularity was in the mid–40s in most surveys.

Reagan's position may be considered most similar to Obama's. It was under Reagan with a 10% unemployment rate, after all, that Republicans had to face the voters in 1982. They ultimately lost ground in the House, which remained the chamber they did not control.

Well, in April 1982, according to Gallup, Reagan's approval rating sank to a new low — 43%.

That, by the way, is where his approval rating stood in November.

How does this relate to what Obama must battle this year? Well, both Clinton and Reagan pursued ideological agendas instead of paying attention to what the voters were saying that they wanted. It's the same mistake a lot of new presidents make. Perhaps it is the hubris of power. New presidents always seem to believe they know best — until the midterm elections.

I guess they always feel there is plenty of time to right the ship. It doesn't seem to me that six months is enough time for enough displaced workers to get jobs and start to feel secure. And that is what it's going to take for Obama to turn this thing around.

But that's just my opinion.

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