Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Season of Loss

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven."

Ecclesiastes 3:1

The last couple of years have amounted to one long season of loss. Frankly, it's wearing me down.

I've been through this kind of thing before, although not quite as extensively as lately. It's been getting to the point where I'm almost hesitant to check my e–mail for fear there will be word that someone else I know has died.

Let me backtrack a little here. I was raised in the South.

And, if you were raised in the South, there are times when — regardless of what your personal religious beliefs may be — a quotation from the Bible is the only appropriate answer to the complicated question of why bad things happen to good people.

For me today, the above quote from Ecclesiastes — which was more popularly known when I was a boy as a line from a song by the Byrds — is the one that keeps coming to mind.

Yesterday, I received an e–mail from one of my high school classmates reporting that the son of another classmate had been killed in a car accident.

I have written of this classmate before, most recently last February after his father, a man known as "Justice Jim" Johnson, committed suicide.

Justice Jim, as I mentioned at that time, was something of a notorious segregationist politician when I was a child. He also lived just down the road from my family, and I spent many afternoons playing with his twin sons, who were my age.

I found this undated photo of David's twin brother
Danny (left) with their father, Justice Jim (right),
and Danny's daughter at some sort of school dinner.

Few people outside my own family have known me as long as David Johnson and his twin brother, Danny. When their father killed himself about five months ago, I found myself frequently thinking about my childhood and pondering the bizarre twists and turns of life — the randomness of it all.

I reflected a great deal on myself as a child, and I pondered what I might tell that child if I could go back in time and talk to him. But the well was dry. What could I tell him? I know I had no idea what the future held. Not even a clue. No one does, really, even those whose lives seem to have been pre–ordained. What wisdom would I share with him that might make his life easier?

I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, of course, what I wanted to study in college and all that. But, in spite of my plans and expectations, life has, at times, taken me in totally unexpected directions. It is at such times, I suppose, that I am reminded of how little I really do control.

"Life is what happens to you," said John Lennon, "while you're busy making other plans."

That's OK, I guess. I'm a journalist, by training, experience and inclination, and it can be difficult for a journalist to be in the dark, to not know all the facts, but journalists learn to live with imperfections like that. However, in the last couple of years, it seems like darn near everything is out of control. And there are many times when that is a little too imperfect for me.

I don't know the details of the accident that took the life of David's son, but to be 21 years old and (presumably) healthy and then to die in a car accident seems — to me, anyway — to be perhaps the most random way a person could die.

And the pain of losing your father and your child within a matter of months is something I cannot begin to imagine.

I've never been a fan of Garth Brooks, but he might be on to something when he sings that our lives are better left to chance.

Is there anything good to be found in this? I'd like to think so — for my friend's sake — and for my own peace of mind as well.

As I say, I've experienced seasons of loss in my life, and the one through which I have been living lately often seems as if it will never end. Such seasons have come and gone. In short order, bad times have been followed by good times in the natural ebb and flow of the human existence.

But lately the bad times seem to last longer than they did, and the good times are fewer and farther between. Is that just a normal function of aging?

Or has it been worse in the last couple of years because everything else seems to be so screwed up? You know what I mean — the avalanche effect.

I don't know why the Ecclesiastes quotation keeps running through my mind — unless it is because of the dual message it offers. Yes, it acknowledges that time is short — that, in the words of another popular song, it's later than you think.

But, rather than urge readers to enjoy themselves, Ecclesiastes offers the assurance that there is an appointed time for everything. In hindsight, that time may seem very short, and you may be denied the satisfaction of seeing your goal(s) fulfilled. But if one has faith, it seems to me, one must believe that, in some way, every life — no matter how brief it may be — makes a contribution.

My faith isn't always as strong as I'd like it to be, but I would like to believe that.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Historical Inevitability

When I was young, I remember my father telling me that America had survived as a nation because it always seemed to get the kind of leadership it needed when it was needed.

At the time, I guess it struck me as being his personal version of "Manifest Destiny" — i.e., it is America's destiny to get the kind of leadership it needs when it needs it.

I don't remember how old I was when he made this observation to me. I might have been in high school ... might have been in junior high. I don't remember if there was a particular crisis going on when he said that. Could have been anything, I suppose. There was always something in those days — Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate, oil embargoes, etc. — that seemed to be crying out for leadership that never really came.

I guess it's what George H.W. Bush called "the vision thing." (Personally, I was kind of relieved that he didn't call it "the vision thingy." That just didn't seem very presidential to me.)

And I wonder if that belief that my father expressed is a byproduct of living through the Great Depression and the inspiring presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. If that is so, then perhaps it goes beyond my father or even his circle of friends.

Perhaps that is what the majority of the people of my father's generation believe — that America is destined for greatness because great leaders will always emerge when they are needed. That was, after all, their experience in their formative years.

But that hasn't always been the experience of the people of my generation. And sometimes I wonder if the great leaders truly were as great as advertised or if they just looked great when they were compared to those who came before.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, is typically regarded as one of the greatest presidents, and he was preceded (and followed) by strings of presidents who are generally considered by historians to be among the worst in our history.

(I don't mean to suggest that Lincoln was not a great president. I believe that he was. But I also believe there was a certain amount of truth in a comedy bit on a David Frye album in the early 1970s, in which he presented a fictitious conversation between President Nixon and his party rival, Nelson Rockefeller, about how to derail the possible presidential candidacy of infamous party–switcher John Lindsay, the mayor of New York.

(The Nixon character, as I recall, fretted about how good Lindsay would look on television and how tough he would be to defeat in Nixon's campaign for re–election. Rockefeller reassuringly replied — in a reference to a notorious sanitation strike during Lindsay's administration that left mounds of trash piled up all over the city — that "anyone would look very good, in my opinion, standing next to all that garbage all the time.")

The three presidents who came before FDR — Harding, Coolidge and Hoover — ranked in the bottom one–third, according to a survey of scholars conducted by Siena College this year.

If you study the American presidency for any length of time, you're bound to come to the conclusion that we've had a heckuva lot more truly terrible presidencies than truly great ones.

Oddly enough, most of those truly terrible presidencies began with a certain amount of enthusiasm and optimism. With the exception of a few who became president after the previous president's death or resignation, most of the presidents who are today rated as terrible were chosen by the voters in a democratic election.

As ludicrous as it may seem today, people actually did vote for James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce and Warren Harding — and others who are not remembered favorably in the history books. And those people must have been nearly as enthusiastic about electing those presidents as they were when they elected Lincoln or the Roosevelts — or Barack Obama.

Well, regardless of how much enthusiasm accompanied the elections of America's presidents — both the truly great and the truly awful — it is virtually impossible to predict how an individual presidency will be regarded by historians before it has even begun.

However, a genuine historical inevitability (i.e., not a recent phenomenon) has arisen: Except for rare circumstances (which usually involve some sort of international crisis), midterm elections go against the party in power.

But it isn't always so inevitable. In Congressional Quarterly, contributing writer Stuart Rothenberg reminds readers that, until last summer, there was practically no talk among insiders in either party that suggested that Democrats would lose ground in 2010.

Early in Obama's presidency, Rothenberg writes, Democrats were encouraged by several factors ("Republican retirements, Democratic incumbency and financial advantages, and new Democratic opportunities") that indicated to them that, even if the traditional backlash against the party in power occurred, they could minimize their losses. And Republicans, while hopeful, were aware of the considerable damage that had been done to their "brand."

All of this assumed that events would follow a predictable pattern — which, of course, they almost never do.

Nearly 15 months ago, Rothenberg writes, "my newsletter ... noted that 'small Republican gains would seem the most likely outcome' of the midterms, adding that the House 'is not at risk in next year's elections.' "

Even though conditions were bordering on the horrific when Obama took office, there seemed to be a willingness on the part of the public to give him and his Democrats in Congress plenty of time. Polls seemed to confirm this. When he became president, Obama's approval ratings tended to be in the 60s. But those days ended by June of 2009. For the next several months, Obama's approval ratings mostly languished in the 50s, and they have been almost entirely in the 40s since the start of 2010.

"My point in resurrecting all these numbers and projections," says Rothenberg, "is that it was not always inevitable that Republicans would make large House gains, no matter what you may read and hear now."

And he's right about that. If you don't believe me, look it up.

Now, approval numbers in the 40s don't tend to make a president an asset on the campaign trail — but, historically, a president's party still can do reasonably well in a midterm election, as Rothenberg points out.

But that isn't a sure thing. Even FDR, who enjoyed an approval rating in the 50s at the time of the 1938 midterms and was the beneficiary of a wartime approval rating in the 70s during the 1942 midterm campaign, saw his party lose ground. It can be argued, though, that no other outcome really was possible. In 1938, Democrats held 75 of 96 Senate seats and 333 of 435 House seats; in 1942, they held 66 Senate seats and 267 House seats.

In hindsight, there was nowhere to go but down.

On the other hand, FDR's successor, Harry Truman, faced a different problem. His party had fewer seats to defend in both houses of Congress, but Truman's approval rating fell below 50 in the late spring of 1946 and continued to decline, settling in the mid–30s by Election Day. Truman's Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the stock market crashed in 1929.

The Democrats regained control of Congress in 1948, when Truman pulled off his famed "upset" triumph in his campaign for re–election, and he even enjoyed a brief surge in popularity early in 1949. But he dropped below 50% for good more than a year before the 1950 midterms and, by the time Americans went to the polls in November 1950, Truman's approval rating was in the upper 30s or low 40s. His party retained control of both chambers but lost six Senate seats and 29 House seats.

As the years have gone by, the lesson appears to be this: Once a president slips below that 50% approval level, it seems to be increasingly difficult for his fortunes — and, by extension, his party's fortunes — to bounce back, particularly in this era of 24–hour cable news.

To modern observers, George W. Bush is the most flagrant example of this, but it would be a mistake to blame it exclusively on the CNNs and the Fox Newses of the world. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson received the highest share of the popoular vote that a presidential candidate ever received, but after the summer of 1966, he seldom enjoyed approval ratings that exceeded 50 — and his party began a downward trajectory that continued through several election cycles.

For the most part, Bush's approval rating fell below 50% — permanently — after the Terri Schiavo episode in the spring of 2005. By the time that Democrats regained control of both chambers of Congress in November 2006, polls were reporting approval ratings in the 30s.

Obama's rating isn't as low as Bush's — but he had much farther to fall. And the wound that has been suffered by those who supported him two years ago and now feel, to varying degrees, betrayed by the gap between the expectations and the reality — a stubbornly high unemployment rate in spite of Obama's insistence (all evidence to the contrary) that he focuses on job creation every day; two wars that continue to rage on in spite of Obama's insistence during the campaign that he would bring them to an end; a three–month flow of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico that made Obama seem impotent — is deep.

Obama and his supporters are tumbling into a trap I have seen before. Some men — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton come to mind — are successful in their campaigns for the presidency in part because they blame conditions on the other party, but that turns out to be a double–edged sword. No matter how long it took for the bad conditions to surface, voters expect immediate (or almost immediate) improvement.

In the absence of evidence of such improvement, Obama and the Democrats resort to reminding voters that they inherited this mess from the previous administration. When a president focuses on what he inherited rather than what he is doing about the problem, he loses the confidence of the voters.

"Actions, indeed, do have consequences," Rothenberg writes. "In this case, the combination of an aggressive Democratic agenda, a weak jobs recovery and a large deficit has created a political environment very different from the one 18 months ago."

Argue if you must that an increased deficit was a necessary evil to halt the economic erosion. Voters don't see much in the way of job gains — and that is the bang for their bucks that the voters are looking for.

In recent weeks, Rothenberg has written that:
  • A total of 88 House seats (76 held by Democrats) are in play this year, and Republicans are projected to gain 28–33, but "it is important to note that considerably larger Republican gains in excess of 39 seats are quite possible."

    A gain of 40 seats would give the Republicans control of the House.

  • Democrats, who currently control 57 seats plus two independents who generally vote with them, now look likely to lose five to eight seats in November.

    That's roughly what the projection has been for awhile, but the bad news for Democrats is that Senators Boxer, Feingold and Murray are only slight favorites for re–election.

    Voters clearly have doubts about the Republicans controlling the Senate, and Rothenberg concedes that "[t]he chances that the next Senate will have a Republican majority are not great, but even three months ago there were not enough Senate seats in play to imagine a Republican gain of 10 seats. Now there are, with 11 Democratic seats definitely competitive."
Rothenberg isn't the only political analyst who anticipates rough sledding for the Democrats this fall.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, runs the Crystal Ball, which has been uncannily accurate in its projections over the years. Currently, the Crystal Ball expects Democrats to lose seven Senate seats and 32 House seats, narrowly retaining control of both chambers.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who worried about the midterms earlier in the summer, seems to have had a change of heart and has said recently that he expects Democrats to hold Congress in the midterms.

Perhaps they will. But if they don't, Democrats should remember what Rothenberg says:

"It didn't have to be this way."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Oklahoma's First Lady

I used to live in Oklahoma. It's an interesting place — not nearly as backward or one–dimensional as some folks seem to think but, at the same time, most assuredly right wing in some of its political views.

Oh, sure, Oklahoma may seem a little stagnant politically. It has voted Republican in presidential elections 14 of the last 15 times, and far too many Oklahomans seem to share the opinions of their senior senator, a political Neanderthal who was first elected to the Senate when I was living there — in a special election to choose the successor for David Boren, who had resigned to become president of the University of Oklahoma.

And women and minorities have not been too successful in statewide races.

It's possible, given the fact that so many Oklahomans are full– or part–blooded native Americans, that Oklahoma has elected someone with at least a partial native American ancestry as its governor or one of its senators.

But all of the people who have been governor or senator from Oklahoma have been indisputably male — and, although one black Oklahoma politician in recent memory (J.C. Watts) has risen to national prominence, most of the winners of statewide races in Oklahoma have been (apparently) Caucasian.

Well, Oklahoma voters are going to make history of a sort this November.

The state's lieutenant governor, Jari Askins, a Democrat, was nominated by her party this week to run for governor. She will be opposed by Rep. Mary Fallin, who was the first woman elected lieutenant governor.

Thus, the stage is set for Oklahoma to elect a woman governor for the first time in its nearly 103–year history.

A couple of weeks before Oklahoma Democrats and Republicans held their primaries, the Rothenberg Political Report was calling the race to replace term–limited Democratic Gov. Brad Henry "safe" for the Republican nominee.

An Oklahoma Poll released shortly before the primaries seemed to support that conclusion, with Fallin leading Askins by six percentage points — but that finding was much closer than the double–digit advantages previous polls this year have shown.

Of course, that Oklahoma Poll also showed Askins trailing her primary opponent by 16 percentage points. But she pulled off an upset, winning by less than 1,500 votes, for which she has given considerable credit to former Oklahoma Sooners and Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer.

Switzer endorsed Askins last week — and, clearly, one should never underestimate the power of a Sooner coach to influence Oklahoma politics. Switzer, after all, endorsed Henry in 2002 — and helped propel him to the first of two gubernatorial victories.

I think Rothenberg probably is right. This is really looking like a Republican year nationally, and, in Oklahoma, that makes this election Fallin's to lose — but, with Switzer on her side, I wouldn't underestimate Askins in this campaign.

Sometimes, of course, elections are largely symbolic, demonstrating in a way that virtually nothing else can how we have either grown or regressed as a people.

I've always felt, for example, that the 1960 election was symbolic with a Catholic winning the presidency. In the historical context, the outcome was about America's willingness as a predominantly Protestant nation to trust a Catholic to be its leader. It was on a lesser level, really, that the battle between the nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was waged.

Forty–eight years later, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was unavoidable that their duel would be regarded in the history books as symbolic — and then, when Obama won the presidency, the entire election earned, at the very least, recognition for its symbolic value.

The stakes aren't nearly so high in Oklahoma this year, but, even though there has been no discernible "plot" to deny women positions of authority there, circumstances have conspired to prevent women from governing the state — even though women have served as lieutenant governor for the last 15 years and could have become governor at any time if the incumbent had died or resigned.

This is an opportunity for Oklahoma to tear down that wall.

In 2010, nearly one–fifth of the U.S. Senate seats are held by women. If the current Supreme Court nominee is approved, one–third of the members of the highest court in the land (memorably referred to as "the Brethren" in Bob Woodward's 1979 book on the Court) will be women.

And Clinton, who came up short in her quest for the nomination, has risen to unexpected heights as the nation's secretary of state.

Having a woman in high office is not a new thing for most Americans. And Oklahoma will belatedly join that club in November.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

There Must Be a Better Way

To this point, I have avoided jumping in to the Shirley Sherrod business.

But an issue has been raised that I simply must address.

Let me start by saying that, for 30 years, ever since its debut when I was a journalism student at the University of Arkansas, I have admired what Ted Turner wanted to do and sought to do when he created Cable News Network.

It isn't an easy task, providing people with up–to–the–second information about news as it develops, but CNN has done an admirable job of trying to tell people about the events that have shaped their world and altered their lives in the last three decades.

I realize that CNN has many competitors today — not just on cable but on the internet as well — and the pressure to be the first to report something is intense. CNN, it seems to me, has made a valiant effort to maintain high journalistic standards, and that isn't always an easy thing to do.

Sometimes CNN has had to sacrifice speed for accuracy, which is a difficult but often necessary choice to make.

A year ago, in fact, in the media frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson's death, nearly every cable and online media outlet — except for CNN — reported by mid–afternoon that Jackson had died. Why didn't CNN go ahead and report what we know now to be true? Because CNN, unlike all the other outlets, was waiting for someone in authority at the hospital to confirm the news.

All the other outlets were going with the opinions of people who may have been in a position to observe Jackson or to report an absence of vital signs — like, for example, the emergency response folks who responded to the 9–1–1 call and took Jackson to the hospital — but they did not have the legal authority to pronounce someone dead.

Once CNN had that confirmation, it joined the chorus.

As the Shirley Sherrod saga has unfolded in recent days, though, it seems that CNN — which recently announced that it was scrapping the Associated Press as a content provider, in part as a money–saving strategy and in part because of CNN's desire to establish its own brand in the newsgathering business — has yielded to the pressure, and the standards I always admired in CNN seem to have taken a back seat to expediency and scapegoating.

Yesterday, as Alana Goodman of the Business & Media Institute writes, CNN's Kyra Phillips and John Roberts ranted about those who "blog anonymously" and use that anonymity to write things that, to put it mildly, probably would be considered libelous in what used to be called the "Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual."

The implication was that anonymity on the internet makes it possible for people to be smeared and their lives and careers to be destroyed — even though it was clear to everyone long before Phillips and Roberts engaged in their witch hunt (which glossed over the fact that the credible and responsible journalists, including those at CNN, took the blogger's word at face value, as did the administration) that the blogger in this case was not anonymous at all.

There are many legitimate issues that have been raised by this unpleasant chapter, but internet anonymity is not one of them.

I do believe that internet anonymity is an issue that needs to be addressed — and probably will be addressed as communications law evolves, through legislation and court rulings, to include technology that didn't exist when the original laws were written — but not in the context of this particular issue.

Managing editors in newsrooms all over the country need to talk to their reporters and editors about journalistic standards, double–checking the facts, things like that. Barack Obama — or someone authorized to speak for him — needs to talk to his administrators about how to handle allegations against subordinates, especially in this highly charged, polarized atmosphere.

And we all need to talk about scapegoating, to revisit constitutional guarantees that a person is entitled to know the charge(s) against him/her and to face his/her accuser(s). A person who is charged with a crime that might cost him/her liberty and possibly life is entitled to a lot of things that Sherrod apparently was denied, by both the media and her employer.

In the context of this matter, internet anonymity raises entirely separate issues — primarily freedom of speech, which, for a legitimate journalist, means freedom of the press.

Freedom of the press, I was told in journalism school, was guaranteed to those who owned a printing press. In the 21st century, I suppose that could be amended to freedom of the computer, which really has been around since the late 20th century. And, like the belief that access to just about everything on the internet should be free — once one has paid the monthly admission price, in the form of an internet account — freedom of the computer is considered a given.

If you have a computer, so the thinking goes, you are free to post what you want. There are consequences, it is believed, that await those who carelessly post revealing pictures or objectionable comments. Nothing, after all, is truly anonymous on the internet — not with all the ways there are to track a person's electronic fingerprints.

In spite of their obvious applications in more practical fields, like business and banking, computers have long been billed as the best all–purpose tool for self–expression, whether one is a writer, an artist, a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, whatever.

And a lot of people use blogs to share what they write or sing or sculpt or paint or photograph with others.

It truly has been freeing for the creatively inclined — but, having said that, I feel compelled to note that, with some of the things that are being posted, I have been sure for quite awhile that it was only a matter of time before something would have to be done to demand accountability and prevent bloggers from posting irresponsible rumors and gossip.

Such restrictions have existed in print journalism for a long time, and they have evolved as the term "media" expanded to include radio and television — and will have to expand further to include the same issues as they apply to the internet.

The sense of anonymity that many bloggers use as a shield behind which they can say what they please — as well as the mistaken belief that the concept of "fair comment" will defend them against all lawsuits (it won't) — must be addressed at some point. I believe these and other issues will — and should — be addressed.

But the Sherrod case does not provide the appropriate stage for that discussion. For Phillips and Roberts to speak of internet anonymity in connection with this matter whitewashes their own culpability, as well as that of CNN, the other all–news networks and the administration.

A Postscript

Today, I located the cartoon by my ex–college classmate that I mentioned yesterday, and I thought it would be appropriate to post it.

I discovered that my memory must have been playing tricks on me because it doesn't exactly call Bill Clinton the "Comeback Kid." What it actually says is, "Kid Comeback."

Oh, well, it't still a darn good cartoon. If you lived in Arkansas in those days, you know how dead–on those caricatures of Clinton and Frank White were.

And I still believe that cartoon inspired Clinton to call himself the Comeback Kid the night of the New Hampshire primary in 1992. After all, Michael Gauldin worked for Clinton for many years.

Thanks again, Mike, for the laughs ... and everything else.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Life Influences

In every life, I suppose, there is a point when someone influences that life and nudges it in the direction that ultimately will define it for good or ill.

Sometimes, people have several influences like that. I was one of those people. My mother really got the ball rolling, encouraging me to write from a young age. Her mother–in–law — who went to college at a time when that was not the sort of thing most young women did and had gone on to a career as an English teacher — reinforced the message.

There were certainly influences on me from outside the family. When I got to high school, I came under the influence of my journalism teacher, who took the rare step of keeping me on the newspaper staff for a second year even though her practice had been to do that only for those students she had chosen to be the editor of the paper.

The baton had been passed.

I was, thus, encouraged to pursue journalism in college, where I learned reporting from a man who built his reputation as a reporter for the New York Times and the paper where I later worked for nearly five years, the Arkansas Gazette. And, of course, in college, I learned about the great journalists who were before my time and whose influence can still be seen in professional newsgathering today, even though the tools that are used and the methods by which the news is delivered are far different from what they knew.

Then I entered the world of professional journalism and embarked on a path that eventually brought me back to the classroom, where I remained for four years. Then, for reasons I prefer not to discuss here, I gravitated in a different direction.

Life does that to you sometimes. Some people follow storybook career paths that seem to have been etched in stone from the moments of their birth. Others follow more fluid paths that twist and turn, perhaps taking them completely away from their original objectives.

"Some folks' lives roll easy," sang Paul Simon. "Some folks' lives never roll at all."

And some folks — like Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" — sorta get sidetracked.

I guess that's what happened to me. But I hope I'm moving in the right direction again. In precisely one month, I will start a new job as an adjunct (i.e., part time) journalism instructor at the local community college. I've been trying to prepare myself to enter a classroom for the first time in 14 years, and I'm already anticipating the many ways I could stumble.

But I'm also thinking of those who influenced me along the way and trying to remember the things they taught me. Because I want to be able to pass along to my students their desire to seek the truth, their commitment, their integrity.

If I can do that, then my efforts — and the efforts of all who influenced me — will not be in vain.

In my formative years, there were many influences I never met — Woodward and Bernstein, whose determined reporting reminded everyone how important the journalist's watchdog role is in a democracy; Walter Cronkite, who was probably more trusted than any man except maybe the pope; Mike Royko, a columnist whose writing I once compared to another great American journalist, Mark Twain, in a paper I wrote in college.

And a fellow named Daniel Schorr, who occupies a unique role in the story of the Watergate scandal.

In late June 1973, John Dean revealed in his Senate Watergate committee testimony the existence of Richard Nixon's infamous "enemies' list" — a list of prominent people from a variety of professions who were perceived as enemies by the Nixon White House.

Schorr, a protege of Edward R. Murrow, was a correspondent for CBS News in those days. The list had been submitted as evidence, but it had not been reviewed by anyone at CBS. Schorr was asked to read the list on the air and was startled to come across his own name at #17.

"I tried not to gulp," Schorr told PBS' Terence Smith, "I tried not to gasp. So I read on. Mary McGrory, Paul Newman, now back to you."

I always liked Dan Schorr. He was an unassuming sort, always aware of the important people and important events on which he reported (and his career spanned the second half of the 20th century) but seldom self–conscious. I remember reading a paperback copy of his book, "Clearing the Air," when I was in college.

It was one of the most inspiring books I've ever read.

So I was saddened when Schorr — who was about the same age as Cronkite, who died a little more than a year ago — died earlier today. He was 93, the victim of an unidentified illness.

I was sadder, though, to learn of the passing of another influence on my life, a fellow named Michael Gauldin.

I went to college with Mike. We worked on the school newspaper together at the University of Arkansas. I was assigned the student government beat when I was taking reporting, and the student paper picked up my articles. I wound up covering student government for Gauldin and the rest of the editorial staff for a couple of years.

I was acquainted with Mike, but I wouldn't say we were friends. We didn't go out for a beer together after exams or anything like that, but I learned a lot about dedication from his example.

And he had a lot of talent. Everyone saw that, I think — the journalism faculty, his classmates, everyone. Gauldin was a military journalist between his high school graduation and his enrollment in college, then he wrote and edited some after graduating and served as press secretary to Bill Clinton when he was governor, but I always felt cartooning was his true calling. He used it in many of his jobs. And he did so masterfully.

After I graduated from college (the year after Gauldin did, although he was several years older and had already married and begun his family by the time we met), I saw his cartoons in newspapers from time to time, and I remember clipping one that was always my favorite. It was drawn to mimic the old–fashioned "tale of the tape" boxing posters that showed both fighters in an upcoming bout with their height, weight, reach, etc., listed below their pictures. Above their pictures were their names and the nicknames by which they were known.

Bill Clinton was beaten for re–election while Gauldin and I were in college. In those days, Arkansas' governor was elected to two–year terms so Clinton ran again two years later and faced the man who had beaten him in the last election.

Both Gauldin and I had graduated from college by that time. I was working as a general assignment reporter. He was working as a reporter and, apparently, a freelance cartoonist as well. His cartoon presented that electoral battle as a boxing rematch, with Clinton's nickname "The Comeback Kid," neatly summarizing the entertainment angle of that campaign.

That was 10 years before Clinton claimed that the voters in New Hampshire had made him the Comeback Kid. And that cartoon remained on my refrigerator until I took a new job and left that apartment.

Anyway, Gauldin, too, passed away today. Apparently, he was a victim of cancer.

Next month, when I'm addressing my students, I hope I will be guided by the memory of these two dedicated journalists.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Way the Wind Blows

"You don't need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows."

Bob Dylan

The House joined the Senate today in supporting an extension of unemployment benefits.

The unemployed will welcome the money. Rent must be paid. Food must be purchased. Clothes, too — and if you're unemployed and you've got minor children, you've got back–to–school items (clothing, notebooks, textbooks) to think about as well.

Jobs are gone, but day–to–day expenses continue.

But, in many households, even the basics have been put on hold for the last couple of months because Congress could not agree to extend benefits.

I know a lot of people who have been out of work for a long time. Folks in Congress like to describe the unemployed as unmotivated, lacking ambition, preferring to collect from the government than find a job. But the problem is that there just haven't been any jobs out there — and no one in Washington has been making much of an effort to encourage job creation.

None of the unemployed sought this, and none (to my knowledge) would rather live on unemployment checks than paychecks. But what choice have they had?

Both the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for the way they have allowed unemployed Americans to become their political pawns.

Since Democrats like to talk so much about blame, let's get that part out of the way from the start, shall we?

This whole thing really got started when the Republicans in Congress — who had no problem with spending money they didn't have back when they controlled Congress and the White House and then needed the Democrats' help to pass the banking bailout in the fall of 2008 — have rediscovered their frugal roots. Thus, when the opportunity came up — in an election year — to strike a blow for PR by refusing to extend unemployment benefits until they could be demonstrably funded, they took it.

Took it? Hell, they jumped at it.

Then Congress took its Fourth of July vacation. Happy Independence Day.

Now, Congress is on the verge of dismissing for its summer vacation. And, when it returns, many lawmakers will be preoccupied with their campaigns for re–election back home — so it's unlikely that anything will get done.

Polls have been showing that Americans have been more worried about jobs than anything else for quite awhile. And they're understandably surly about the lack of interest they perceive in their lawmakers.

So, earlier this week, Barack Obama took the opportunity to publicly call for an extension of the benefits and criticize the Republicans he so eagerly sought to appease last year.

Don't get me wrong. Obama was right to criticize the Republicans. But he and the Democrats deserve just as much blame as their Republican counterparts. Obama did not exercise his presidential authority and insist that Congress remain in session back in the late spring/early summer until something was done about unemployment benefits.

And the unemployed were made to suffer some more.

Now, with all indicators showing that the Democrats are facing major setbacks at the polls in November, they have decided that they prefer not to alienate a group as large as the unemployed/underemployed/partially employed. So they belatedly passed the benefits extension today. Presumably, Obama will sign it into law soon.

But that's why this bill was passed today. Neither party wanted to be seen as hostile to people who are down on their luck. They both want the unemployed to vote for them in November. They both would like to save money — but they both want to be elected more.

Shame on both of you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Conflict Between Perception and Reality

That's me on the left. I'm probably about 11 or 12.
My grandmother is standing behind me.

Yesterday was my grandmother's birthday.

Actually, lately I've been wondering if a person's birthday can still be called a "birthday" after that person has died. I suppose it can because it will always be the anniversary of the day she was born, even after the last person who still remembers her has passed away.

But the word "birthday" always conjures up images (in my mind, anyway) of children's parties and cake and ice cream. For most of the adults I know, birthdays are somewhat grim milestones that many prefer not to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

As far back as I can remember, my grandmother had a sweet tooth so she probably would have been comfortable with the cake and ice cream. I don't have specific memories of how we celebrated her birthdays when I was a child, but cake and/or ice cream must have been a part of it at some point.

Her daughter (my mother) loved to have parties and put up decorations and serve special party food. Based on that, I guess we must have done something, but I have no special memories and no photographs exist in the photo albums in my possession.

She seemed to have a wide circle of friends. I guess everyone has at least one person who is (for wont of a better term) his/her antagonist. But I know of only one "feud" in her life, and that was really between my grandfather and their neighbor, who had different ideas about what Grandpa should do with his property. I don't remember the neighbor's name, just the nickname my grandfather gave him and that both he and my grandmother used whenever they referred to him — "Poor Old Crippled Tom."

(For the record, I do remember meeting "Tom" — if that was, indeed, his name — and I do not recall seeing any disability or handicap so I don't know if he was really "crippled" or if that was some sort of inside joke.)

My grandmother was one of those people who seemed to get along with everyone. When my grandfather wasn't around, she may even have been capable of conducting a cordial conversation with "Tom." But even if she agreed with him, she would have left decisions about the property — a duplex in the Park Cities of Dallas, Texas — to my grandfather.

One of my fondest memories from my childhood was a country fishing club in east Texas to which my grandparents belonged. Members (and their guests) could keep fishing boats and equipment on the premises, spend the night whenever they wanted and enjoy old–fashioned country cooking. Children could run and play on the grounds.

My family enjoyed many trips to the fishing club with my grandparents. The beds were always comfortable, and the food was always delicious. In the summer, there were always trucks parked along the road nearby, from which farmers sold watermelons, peaches and other things they grew themselves.

The club was tucked away in the sparsely populated woods of east Texas. If one craved civilization, the nearest town — Pittsburg — had a few thousand residents and a drug store with a soda counter that seemed like a throwback to another era then (I can only imagine what it would seem like today).

It was a throwback in another way, too, I suppose. All the employees — the cooks who worked in the kitchen and served the food, the men who made sure the fishing boats were ready ahead of time when members were planning a weekend of fishing, then cleaned the fish they caught so they were ready to take home when the member left — were black.

I don't know what the pay was like, and I don't know what kind of hours the workers had to put in. The conditions may have been racist, but there was nothing racist about how they were treated, as far as I could see. Of course, that could have been one of those conflicts between perception and reality.

Anyway, if you didn't want to fish, you could stay at the clubhouse while the fishermen were doing their thing, and many of the members' wives did precisely that. In my mind's eye, I can see my mother and my grandmother sitting in rocking chairs on the big screened porch that looked out onto the boathouses and the lake. If the wind was calm, they might get up a card game with some of the other ladies; if the wind picked up, they could take the card game inside.

I don't remember my grandmother being much of a fisherwoman. Trips to the fishing club were more social events for her. It was my grandfather who went to fish — and I will always remember one summer evening when I was about 7 or 8 and he taught me how to cast at that club. An older boy had been there with his parents and/or grandparents, and he had learned to cast (and had enjoyed telling me about it). So I asked Grandpa to teach me, and he told me he'd go down to the lakeline with me after supper and we could practice between the boathouses.

Well, we went down there and my mother and grandmother watched while Grandpa watched me cast and called out instructions. And before the evening was over, I had actually caught a fish.

Mom had her camera with her, and she assembled me, my brother, my grandmother and a couple of girls who just happened to be watching off to one side. And preserved the moment for all time.

I was her oldest grandson, and I know she loved the role of grandmother, but I've heard that she didn't want to be called Grandmother — or any variation on that. My grandfather, I have been told, teased her about it mercilessly (it is my impression that their relationship resembled that of Frank and Marie Barone of TV's Everybody Loves Raymond), and she worried about it long before I could talk.

Then, one day when we were visiting my grandparents, my grandmother's tenant came in with the rent check and addressed her as "Mrs. D." I apparently latched onto as much of that as I was capable and started calling her "Dede." She liked that. It was the unique kind of term of endearment that she wanted, and it didn't betray the fact that she was a grandmother.

How she was perceived was important to her.

But not in her final years. She had dementia and stopped talking years before she died.

In fact, in the closing years of her life, I was never convinced that she knew who I was — or if, five minutes after I left, she remembered that I had visited her in the nursing home. I was never sure that she recognized my parents or my brother. She probably didn't. She never addressed anyone by name.

As much as her mind was capable of processing information by that time, she may have thought that we were just some nice folks who had stopped by her room. There may have been fleeting moments when, even if she didn't know our names, she knew she had seen our faces before.

We visited her on special occasions, and my mother tried to make things appear to be as "normal" as possible. I often wondered why Mom went to so much trouble for someone who clearly did not know who we were and would not remember that we had been there, but I guess she hoped that, if my grandmother experienced even a second of lucidity, she would know that she was surrounded by her family and that she was loved.

She was loved, all right. The number of people who knew her during her lifetime is dwindling, but there isn't a one of those who are left who wouldn't tell you that my grandmother was loved.

There was a time, however, when there was some question about when she was born. Not the month. The year.

We knew that her birthday was in July, and we knew my grandfather's birthday was in September. Traditionally, the husband was older than the wife, but the fact that the wife might have been a few months older was really overlooked. And we had always believed that my grandparents were born in the same year so the difference — we thought — was measured in months, not years.

At some point, though — and I think it was after my grandmother's mental and physical decline had begun, but I don't remember precisely — my mother discovered that my grandmother actually had been born the year before my grandfather. Maybe she found a birth certificate, or maybe my father (who became something of an amateur genealogist in his retirement) saw something in a Census report.

My grandmother wasn't two months older than my grandfather. She was 14 months older. So, apparently, she lied about her birth date. She certainly lied to my mother about it. She may have lied to my grandfather about it. He may well have died not knowing the truth.

What I recall about that revelation was not being shocked that she was actually a year older than I had been led to believe. I was shocked that she had lied — and I was impressed that she had gotten away with it for so long.

But, in hindsight, I guess I was a little disappointed in her because I always felt, when I was a child, that I could count on her integrity. She never said anything to anyone (in my presence, anyway) that was spiteful or vindictive. Or deceitful. Even when she felt it necessary to correct someone, she usually did so in the nicest, least threatening way she could think of.

So I guess I felt a little betrayed when I learned there was a gap between the way I perceived my grandmother and the truth.

It probably wouldn't have bothered me as much as it did if I hadn't kept thinking about a conversation I had with my grandmother when I was a senior in high school. One of my oldest buddies was about to marry a girl who was roughly a year older than he was. I told my grandmother about it, and she replied, "Those marriages never work."

In hindsight, I felt that was uncharacteristically hypocritical of her, considering that her marriage had been one of "those marriages." And she and my grandfather had been together for about 40 years.

But, at the time, she was the only one who knew the truth. Her response was completely consistent with the attitudes of the people of her day. I didn't challenge her on the point, but I disagreed with her. I had known my friend since we were both toddlers, and I was certain his marriage would succeed.

(As it turned out, though, she was right about my friend — in a way. His marriage did fail — but I don't think the age difference was the reason why it failed.)

I guess there will always be a conflict between perception and reality, particularly in election years.

We've seen one such conflict played out in Washington today. The president, who has been preoccupied with health care and, more recently, the constant flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the last three months, has neglected job creation and allowed unemployment to get out of control, even though polls have repeatedly shown that respondents see joblessness as the most serious problem facing America today.

Today, he urged Congress to extend unemployment benefits, even though, without effective leadership from their titular leader, Democrats allowed those benefits to lapse two months ago. Now, with an electoral disaster looming in the fall, Barack Obama wants to cultivate the perception that he is on the side of the working man, now that so many working men, through no fault of their own, aren't.

And the president, whose spine must be unbelievably flexible, given how he bent over backwards in a vain effort to achieve bipartisan support for initiatives that needed no Republican votes to pass, now seems to be just fine with criticizing Republicans for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits.

I agree with him when he says the unemployed are being held "hostage to Washington politics." But he's just as guilty of playing politics with the jobless as the Republicans are. Neither side is blameless.

This is the choice voters are given in America today. If the Democrats retain a majority in either chamber of Congress, it will be almost by default.

It's hard to pinpoint precisely what bothers voters the most these days, but the insincerity of their leaders has to rank right up there.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Odds and Sods

It has been a broiling hot July afternoon in Dallas, Texas, and even though the actual temperatures have rarely exceeded the century mark this summer, the humidity (which I believe has been brought on by the unusual rain we got in late June and early July) has been sending the afternoon heat index well past 100° on a regular basis.

Just before 3 this afternoon, the actual temperature here in Dallas was 96° (a high of 101° was predicted) and the heat index was 100°. Four hours later, the actual temperature was a 99°, and the heat index was 103°. No real relief is in sight.

So we have been advised to stay indoors in the afternoons. And that has turned my thoughts loose this afternoon. I've been "scattershooting," as Blackie Sherrod, a well–known and much–beloved sportswriter in these parts, used to say.
  • Wherever I may live in the rest of my life and whatever the climate there may be, the heat here in Dallas is one thing I will always associate with summer.

    I was not raised here, but my parents were and my family was always here in the summer to spend time with the grandparents and family friends. Many of my memories from childhood are of riding in hot cars with the windows rolled down and a hot breeze slapping my sweat–streaked face. And then, when we returned from wherever we had gone, my grandmother's house would be blissfully cool, and I recall many times when I would lay down on a bed beneath the window air conditioning unit and doze off for the afternoon.

    Ice cream, too, is the source of many summer memories for me. Unfortunately, it is often mixed with my memories of the heat. There were days when, if you were outside, you really had to gobble your ice cream sandwich or your fudgicle — because they would melt on you if you didn't.

    Well, I bring up ice cream because Baskin–Robbins, which is clearly one of the most well–known ice cream companies in America, is going to retire five flavors tomorrow, which is National Ice Cream Day. This is also being done in commemoration of the fact that 2010 marks 65 years since Baskin–Robbins began selling ice cream.

    Baskin–Robbins still will be selling 31 flavors, CNN reports. Five new flavors will be taking the place of the five that are being dropped, but the company isn't saying what they are. Baskin–Robbins is going to keep us in suspense until Sunday. Anyone care to guess what the new flavors will be?

  • Have you ever been frustrated by parking meters?

    Once the automobile was invented, I guess the parking meter was an innovation that was bound to happen sooner or later, but you can blame a fellow named Carl Magee if you wish. He patented the first parking meter. And the very first one was installed 75 years ago yesterday in Oklahoma City.

    I've been looking at the web site for the newspaper in Oklahoma City, The Oklahoman, but I haven't found any articles about the anniversary. I guess that really is no surprise. I mean, what can you do to observe a milestone for an inanimate object?

    And how sentimental can one be about it when all it does is take your money?

    Still the revenue from parking meters helps to pay for city services. They're relatively painless, but they can be annoying, like when you're trying to find one more dime or quarter to make sure you don't wind up making an even greater contribution to the city's coffers.

  • If you look at the screen capture from the top of this post, you will see my favorite headline of the year (so far).

    It's from the Springfield (Mass.) Union–News and Sunday Republican, and it has an unusual relevance for me.

    A few months ago, I was summoned for jury duty. All the prospective jurors for this particular case were gathered in a court room and told that the defendant had decided to plead guilty and that the jury would have to decide his punishment. The defendant had been charged with five counts of robbery, and the judge explained that, under the law, the difference between robbery and theft is that a robbery involves a victim who was injured or may have had reason to fear being injured while the theft was taking place.

    A theft would be taking something valuable from a parked car or a vacant desk. Of course, legal definitions can vary from state to state. But the article says a wallet was stolen. The suspect apparently wielded no weapon. But he had only one arm. He must have seemed quite threatening to qualify, under the law, for the charge of robbery.

    The kicker is his nickname — "Lefty."

    That's what my father used to call Bob Dole.

    As the recession drags on, I hear Ronald Reagan's name mentioned more and more often by politicians who seem to have a problem differentiating between reality and fantasy.

    Thirty years ago today, Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president for the first time. The Republican convention was held in Detroit that year. Four years earlier, when Reagan came up short in his bid to defeat President Ford, the party held its convention in Kansas City.

    He went on to be elected president that November. Then he was re–elected four years later. And, in January 1989, he returned to California — the first president in my memory to serve two full terms, even though many people believed when he took office shortly before his 70th birthday that there was no way a man of that age could survive the crushing responsibilities of the presidency.

    But he did. And, in the two decades since Reagan left the White House, it has become almost routine for a president to serve eight years.

  • Exactly one year after Reagan, an outspoken advocate of deregulation, accepted the GOP nomination, tragedy struck the city where Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to Ford in 1976.

    During a tea dance, a walkway at the Hyatt Regency collapsed because of a structural failure. More than 100 people were killed. More than 200 were injured.

    The hotel had a distinctive lobby, with a multistory atrium with suspended concrete walkways on the second, third and fourth floors. The fourth floor's walkway was directly over the second floor's walkway. The third floor's was off to the side. Because of a design flaw, the fourth–floor walkway collapsed on to the second–floor walkway, and then both fell to the lobby, resulting in the casualties.

    The Missouri Board of Architects, Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors found the engineers who had signed off on the plans guilty of negligence and misconduct. No criminal charges were ever filed, but those engineers were stripped of their licenses.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Die Is Cast

"There are no second acts in American lives."

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Barack Obama and the Democrats had better hope that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong.

But, for that to happen, something dramatic is going to have to happen to reverse an ominous trend. The wave of self–confident delusion that Democrats rode into complete power in 2009 has been morphing into a mood of panic and pessimism. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs' recent fretting about whether the Democrats could hold the House in November is merely the latest manifestation, as John Whitesides of Reuters says. This has been building steadily, if you've been watching the polls.

I know, polls aren't written in stone. They are merely snapshots of a moment in time, not binding in any way.

But the more I see, the more I am convinced that the beating the Democrats are likely to endure in November is inevitable. What remains to be seen is how wide and how deep the devastation will be, but I'm getting the feeling I got a week before Hurricane Katrina hit, when I could see a powerful storm building in the Gulf of Mexico and virtually nothing was being done.

Sure, I told myself all sorts of things about how hurricanes can (and often do) veer from the path they seem to be following. But telling yourself that a hurricane probably won't remain on a certain trajectory is a recipe for disaster. You have to do whatever you can to minimize the losses. Katrina didn't veer away. And neither, I believe, will the electoral tidal wave of tsunami proportions that appears to be headed the Democrats' way.

Whitesides cites what is perhaps the most extreme prognosis, the one from Charlie Cook. "The non–partisan Cook Political Report lists more than 70 House seats as highly competitive and predicts Republicans will pick up 30 to 40 seats in November," he writes, "putting them on the cusp of a majority."

The Rothenberg Political Report is only slightly more restrained. It reports that 30 Democratic–held House seats are absolute toss–ups, tilting slightly to the Republicans, clearly leaning Republican or seem certain to flip to the Republican side — while only four Republican–held House seats are in jeopardy.

I've been saying all along that the Democrats' Senate majority was at risk, but now it also seems that the House is in play.

The trend is clear. At the very least, it seems likely to me that what will happen in November will come as a shock to some Democrats who either can't see it coming or refuse to believe that it is coming. They believed that their party's triumphs in the last two election cycles were proof of a permanent shift in the priorities, if not the values, of the American voters. And that may have led to a certain amount of complacency.

It wouldn't be the first time in my life that electoral success made Democrats complacent. Didn't they become complacent in the early 1990s when Bill Clinton became president and they enjoyed majorities in the House and Senate that were almost identical to the ones they had when Obama took office? Didn't they become complacent in the 1970s when the anti–Nixon, anti–Watergate backlash gave them first enormous majorities in both houses of Congress and then the presidency?

In 2010, Democrats want to blame things on everyone but themselves, but I've been trying to warn them for the last 18 months. Unemployment is the greatest crisis facing America today because it undermines everything else — especially the confidence that people need to remain free, self–sufficient and independent.

Job creation has never been a priority of these Democrats, and now they're surprised that there is a backlash. Indeed, there are still those who refuse to acknowledge that there is even a risk involved.

Surveys show that Republicans are already far more energized about voting this year than the Democrats. How are the Democrats going to energize their base? "We're not as bad as the other guys were" doesn't exactly make me want to go to the polls in November. How about you?

We've had recessions in the last 100 years. We've even had a depression. But those were in different times, when six months was plenty for a jobless person to find work. It might not have been as good as the job that person had before, but most unemployed people, even those with modest educations, could find a job in six months. So, for a long time, that was a good, even humane, length of time for society to help those who were down on their luck.

It's not that way anymore. Nearly half of today's jobless have been out of work for six months or longer, an unprecedented figure. And, although things are not as bad as they were, the prospects aren't good when the number of actual jobs being created each month doesn't keep pace with the natural growth of the working–age population.

And on top of everything else the jobless have to worry about, their benefits have been cut off — again — because Congress needed to take its July Fourth break. And then there will be the late summer recess ... and the fall election campaigns.

Maybe Congress will get around to admitting that we are dealing with the consequences of the global economy and that many of the jobs that have been lost are never coming back and helping the unemployed make these occupational transitions will take longer than it used to.

Thus, our nation's lawmakers should conclude, it is essential to extend unemployment benefits. Maybe they won't reach that conclusion. But I think it's reasonable to assume that being jerked around like a yo–yo isn't what most of the unemployed had in mind when they voted for hope and change.

There is a scene in the film "Gettysburg" in which a Union general, played by Sam Elliott, prophetically tells a colleague what he thinks is about to unfold at Gettysburg, and then he says, "I've led a soldier's life, and I've never seen anything as brutally clear as this."

It is like that for me with the 2010 midterms.

I wish it were not so. I tried to tell them. They wouldn't listen.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hot Enough For You?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

But there's only one word that would be adequate for this — and it probably wouldn't be appropriate to post it here.

I took this picture from the balcony outside my bedroom in Dallas, Texas, around 4:30 this afternoon. If it isn't clear to you, that black–and–white thing is a person dressed in a full–body cow costume. He/she is holding a sign that promotes the management's "m–o–o–o–o–ve in specials" with one hand and waving at traffic with the other.

This is not new. Someone — perhaps several different someones — has been standing out there for a couple of hours a day most of this year.

At 4:30 this afternoon, the temperature in Dallas was approximately 94° — which really isn't too bad by historical standards. I've been in Dallas in many Julys when the temperature was much higher. If you live in Dallas, you just take it for granted that it's going to be hot here in July. I don't know if climate change exists, but it's going to have to be pretty extreme to change that reality.

Anyway, as I say, it hasn't been quite as hot as it often is, but we've had a lot more rain this summer than usual, too — which is strange because our wettest month tends to be May, but this year May was abnormally dry so things seem to be happening in a kind of reverse order — and that, along with the higher–than–usual lake and river levels in this part of the country, seems to have elevated the humidity quite a bit as well.

Now, don't get me wrong. It is usually humid in north Texas at this time of year, but it is abnormally so this summer.

Consequently, at 4:30 this afternoon, the heat index stood at 102°. And I'm sure the person inside the cow costume was a sweaty mess.

I've been out of work for quite awhile and I've considered things I never thought I would consider, but I have to say that it's hard to imagine being so desperate for money that I would do that.

I don't know how much they're paying that person to stand out there in that costume in the sweltering heat of a Dallas July, but it would have to be a lot.

Especially with the latest forecasts calling for actual temperatures near 100° later this week.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What A Swell Party This Is

"[S]tyle is important in a president, and Americans react to it in unpredictable ways. ...

"The mystery of the American presidency is why and how different occupants of the White House relate to Americans — and how they defy expectations and experience."

David Shribman
Pittsburgh Post–Gazette

I must confess, I don't know much about Pittsburgh Post–Gazette columnist David Shribman's political philosophy.

But I do know that I've been reading his stuff recently, and he seems very thoughtful.

Anyway, over the weekend he addressed Barack Obama's slippage in the polls and how that may affect both this year's midterm elections and the president's own bid for a second term just a couple of years from now.

The study of the presidency has always been a hobby of mine — and when I say "always," I'm not kidding. I don't remember how my fascination with the presidency began. I just know that it has been an interest of mine as long as I can recall.

When I was in first grade, I had memorized the presidents in the order in which they served — even though it would be several years before we began talking in school about the presidents and their roles in American history. I don't recall how I learned this — except that, when I was a child, I remember having various sets of presidents' cards (which were a lot like baseball and football cards), coloring books that were devoted to the presidents and things like that.

Perhaps I memorized the presidents after repeated, benign exposure to those things — similar to the way someone learns the procedure for saving a person who is choking on something by casually looking at a public service poster in the employee break room day after day.

I can still recite the presidents, too, even though there are more presidents to remember now than there were when I was 6.

And I'm always fascinated when I read something that compares different presidencies from different eras facing different issues.

In a way, it's kind of the argument that can never be resolved, much like the debates that sometimes break out over something like whether Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds is the greatest ball player ever. Different eras, incomparable conditions.

And, at first glance, that is what this appears to be. After all, modern presidents are more visible on a regular basis than their predecessors a century or more ago — thanks to TV and internet.

But there's more to it than that.

Shribman writes, "No political scientist's algorithm can explain why, for example, the erudition of Kennedy seemed appealing while the apparent elitism of Obama seems alienating. There is no explanation why the patrician patois of FDR seemed right for an age of deprivation while the gin–and–tonic and tennis–whites style of George H.W. Bush seemed discordant even before the economy turned sour at the end of the 41st president's term."

Based on that, wouldn't you think there is some sort of "good old days" syndrome at work here? Well, not really. Shribman concedes that the chances of any one person actually having contact with a president in the first century and a half of this nation's existence were virtually nil. How can one relate to a president one never sees?

And Shribman admits that point, observing that "two early 20th–century presidents who likely could not have related to 90% of the country were able to get elected to the White House ([the extremely obese] William Howard Taft and [the extremely academic] Woodrow Wilson)."

Both men were president long before television came along, as were some presidents who, Shribman writes, "on the surface might seem to have been best able to relate to the public" but apparently failed to do so:

"Ulysses S. Grant, the people's general from Galena, Ill., and Warren G. Harding, the hard–drinking and hard–loving son of Blooming Grove, Ohio, are regarded as among the worst presidents." he points out.

I don't know what is behind Obama's dramatic decline in the public opinion polls. Shribman suggests a disconnect between the voters and the president. Of the Obama campaign in 2008, he writes, "Theatrically and rhetorically it was almost perfect. Technically it was innovative. Politically it was sure–footed."

But, he continues, "[N]othing about it prepared Obama for the presidency and nothing about it prepared the American people for Obama's presidency. On the contrary."

Perhaps Obama's policies ultimately will be proven, indisputably, to have been the right ones. But that's kind of hard for average Americans — especially the unemployed ones — to grasp when the number of jobs being added to the economy each month doesn't keep up with the increase in the working–age population, never mind the folks who used to work in the past but haven't worked in a long time.

And the unemployment rate continues to hover near 10% nationally. That's nearly half again what it was when Obama was elected — and nearly 25% higher than Obama and his advisers assured voters that it would ever be under his leadership.

Now, he must try to persuade voters that his policies are right. They just need more time. That's been a tough sell in the past, and Obama's task is made even more difficult by his somewhat clumsy efforts to prove a negative. Jobs have been saved, he insists, but that is tough to demonstrate satisfactorily.

Meanwhile, he seems to feel he can recapture the magic of his 2008 campaign — when he had no track record as president and was himself on the ballot — in an environment that is decidedly more hostile to him than it was two years ago.

It is hostile, not because of racism as his most dedicated supporters would like to think (although there certainly may be an element of that) because that is irrational, but primarily because unemployment is too high and the national debt is too great and two unpopular wars continue to be fought and oil continues to flow into the Gulf of Mexico (although there appears to be some optimism that the new cap that BP placed on the leak today will be effective) and a host of other problems — some of which a president can influence, some he can't.

Right now, Obama seems intent upon influencing the midterm races, but he hasn't been especially successful so far in 2010. Like many presidents during tough times, his presence may not always be welcomed by those in his own party.

But, apparently, he was welcomed by two Democratic Senate candidates whose prospects in November look grim.

First Obama went to Nevada. On the surface, Nevada should be friendly territory. Obama received more than 55% of the state's votes when he was elected president. But unemployment was just under 8% in those days. It's close to twice that now.

Nevertheless, Obama came to Nevada to campaign for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a considerable challenge from Republican Sharron Angle.

"Welcome back, Mr. President," editorialized the Las Vegas Review Journal. "Your economic policies suck."

Then he came to Missouri, a state he narrowly lost in 2008, where Robin Carnahan, the daughter of the late Mel Carnahan (who was killed in a plane crash while campaigning for the Senate 10 years ago), faces what appears to be an uphill climb in her bid to turn back Republican Rep. Roy Blunt.

I've heard some people argue that it isn't in the president's job description to see to it that his fellow Americans can thrive because of his actions, that jobs are available, that the obstacles to the American Dream are removed from their path.

Perhaps it isn't expressed that way in the Constitution, but I would argue that Americans' expectations have been higher at least since the days of Ronald Reagan, who said, as he campaigned for re–election in 1984, "America's future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts ... And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about."

If Obama was seriously interested in his party retaining its majorities in the House and Senate, he would have been pushing a visible pro–job creation agenda from the beginning. Instead, he has dawdled and allowed things to get totally out of control. Now he's trying to make up lost ground in the last four months before the midterm elections.

It may be too late for that. Just yesterday, the president's press secretary fretted that enough House seats were in jeopardy to flip control of that chamber in November — a prospect that most people have rejected because Republicans would need to win some 40 seats to achieve it.

Well, that's about what they needed in 1994, when they wound up winning more than 50 House seats and seized control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

In pursuit of what could turn out to be a lost cause, Obama may need to spend a lot of time working House districts that are traditionally more center–right in their politics but elected left–leaning representatives in the Democratic years of 2006 and 2008.

And his help may be quietly refused by some Democratic incumbents who have crunched the numbers in their districts and determined that their chances of survival are greater if he isn't around. Obama may have had a Midas touch in 2008, but more and more he seems to have a tin ear today.

Hope and change made for a good campaign slogan two years ago. In 2010, "reality" is what it is all about.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

What's Your Point?

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."


I won't pretend to represent every one of the millions of Americans who are unemployed or partially employed or underemployed.

But I am one of those Americans who has been jobless for more than six months — which, at one time, seemed like a l–o–o–o–ng time to be between jobs but, with increasing numbers of Americans reporting being out of work for a year or more, that bar clearly has been adjusted.

Anyway, as I say, I don't claim to represent everyone who is out of work. But I have a question for the Democrats in Congress, and I think most of the unemployed would be interested in the answer:

If we agree with you that the recession began while Bush was president and that the uncontrolled vertical dive began while Bush was president, will you focus all of your efforts on encouraging job creation?

Because I've never disputed the fact that Bush was in charge when the economic avalanche began. And if you've been waiting for us to acknowledge that, it seems like you could have saved a lot of time — and perhaps a lot of lives — by calling for a public condemnation of the Bush administration back around the time that Barack Obama took the oath of office.

Fact is, you probably still could get a majority of Americans to agree that it's Bush's fault — but that majority grows smaller between public opinion surveys. Maybe that is because, after 1½ years in office, Obama owns the economy now. Same as he owns the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And he clearly owns those things that weren't pre–existing conditions when he took office — like the increased federal debt and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Every president reaches a point where everything he inherited from the previous administration becomes his. No president starts with a clean slate (except metaphorically), but his slate inevitably fills rapidly as the previous administration's chickens come home to roost.

It seems to me that FDR's Lend–Lease policy could be applied (with some revision) to the unemployment problem.
  • In the 1940s, England represented the last pillar of western civilization against the oppressive Nazi regime. In the early 21st century, the unemployed are the last pillar of a shaky economy.

    FDR knew that the defense and survival of England was critical to the United States, even though the two nations were separated by an ocean. And today, the economic survival of the United States depends on the millions of unemployed Americans who want to work, but there are no jobs to be found.

    They need jobs to have money to put into the economic engine. Until they get those jobs, they still need to feed themselves and their families, they still need to clothe themselves and their families, and they still need a place, however modest it may be, to protect them from the wind and the rain and the snow.

    Yet Congress adjourned for its summer vacation without extending unemployment benefits.

  • In 1940, FDR walked a fine line as he sought to help England repel the Nazis without committing the United States to war. He proposed Lend–Lease, which would allow the United States to lend the British war material.

    FDR compared the program to putting out a neighbor's house fire. "What do I do in such a crisis?" he asked. "I don't say, 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.' I don't want $15 — I want my garden hose back after the fire is over."

    In other words, get rid of the threat first.

    Unemployment benefits are like that garden hose. They aren't putting out the fire that has raged in the American economy for more than two years now. But they are keeping the fire from getting worse. They put money in people's pockets so they can buy food and clothes and pay rent.

    So why take away that hose now? If we can agree that the recession began while Bush was president, can't we agree that the vast majority of the jobless did not bring this misery upon themselves?

    If we can agree that FDR's house fire analogy can be adapted to today's economy, doesn't it make sense to put the fire out before arguing over whether it was arson or accidental?

    Unemployment benefits keep people going. They don't make everything possible. But they allow the unemployed to pay for the bare necessities while they wait for conditions to improve.

  • Those benefits may be extended when Congress returns later this month, but why put the jobless through unnecessary anxiety?

    The unemployed don't care who is to blame. Well, they do, but first they just want jobs. That's the part that the Democrats don't seem to get, and that can be frustrating for most people because the Republicans didn't seem to get it, either.

    That's why there was such hope for the Obama presidency when he was the president–elect. A majority of Americans believed that, at last, they had elected a president who got it. The fact that they were wrong has been painful for many to accept.

    Doesn't it seem a little childish to be doing things this way?
Extending unemployment benefits is the best way I know of to honor Plato's admonition to be kind.

For all of the unemployed are fighting a hard battle, harder than the employed may ever know.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pursuing Happiness

"In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress."

John Adams
From the musical 1776

The Fourth of July seems like a good time for reflecting a bit on the life and times of America's second president, John Adams.

This is something I began doing this afternoon as I watched Turner Classic Movies' presentation of the 1972 film "1776," which was based on a successful musical that went into production three years earlier — but was, as I understand it, a little loose with the facts.

I guess you could call it "artistic license."

Adams often seems to be overlooked, particularly by schoolchildren who are more dazzled by tales of the heroic exploits and patriotic achievements of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as they begin their studies of American history.

Well, it certainly seems to me — as I try to remember how it was when American history became one of the subjects I studied in school — that far less attention was paid to Adams' single four–year term as president than to the eight years that every president (with the noteworthy exception of Adams' son) served in the first half–century of the nation's existence.

Mathematically, of course, that makes sense, but, unfortunately for Adams, he is frequently misunderstood even when he is remembered.

Part of that, I'm guessing, is due to bad PR. In "1776," a Tony Award–winning musical about the events that led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Adams was presented as disagreeable and unpopular, but the truth is that he was highly regarded at the Continental Congress, considered by many the most capable member of the Massachusetts delegation.

His role in the struggle for the independence of the colonies is often minimized by historians — who, it has been suggested, were influenced by Adams himself, who wrote in a letter late in his life that he had been "obnoxious, suspected and unpopular" as a delegate.

But the portrayal of Adams in "1776," like Adams' own assessment of his image among his fellow delegates, was skewed.

Many scholars have concluded that Adams was, in fact, manic–depressive, prone to erratic mood swings. It has been said that he was paranoid, too, often seeing plots by those around him to deny him credit for something and/or seize credit for themselves.

From what I have read, Adams had a somewhat Nixonian personality. Nixon, it has been noted by some presidential historians, did not have a personality that was suited for a politician's life. Politicians typically love to be around people, but Nixon found it difficult to be with people. And so did Adams. "There are few people in this world with whom I can converse," Adams said. "I can treat all with decency and civility and converse with them, when it is necessary, on points of business. But I am never happy in their company."

It is probably a good thing for Adams that technology was so primitive in his day, or he might have been tempted to make many of the mistakes Nixon did.

On the other hand, Adams — who was hardly a physically imposing figure, standing just 5'6" and stocky with a generally fragile constitution — seems to have been intelligent at a level that most other presidents have not been.

And, while it was actually Thomas Jefferson who penned the Declaration of Independence, it may be that we can see Adams' fingerprints all over that document — especially the part that asserts that Americans are free to pursue happiness.

Adams, as I understand it, was something of a stickler for words, which was reflected in his faith. A devout Unitarian, Adams rejected Calvinism and the belief in, among other things, predestination. The concept clashed with his personal belief in a fair and just God.

"Abuse of words," Adams wrote, "has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society."

So it seems to me that it would be appropriate for Adams to insist that the Declaration of Independence say Americans were entitled to pursue happiness — not that they were entitled to be happy.

The wording of the document leaves happiness as an undefined — and unguaranteed — objective. I believe Adams may have privately advocated that subtle distinction in the wording — and his friend Jefferson may have agreed with him.

Happiness always seems to be just over the horizon for most people, just beyond one's fingertips. But the Declaration insists that we Americans have the right to pursue it, whatever it may mean to us, however unlikely our success may be.

And, I suppose, the right to pursue happiness is virtually absolute. Unless one's vision of happiness is adversely at odds with someone else's rights to life and liberty, one is free to pursue it.

By the way, I don't believe Adams ever said the words at the top of this post that were attributed to him in "1776." But he did say this:
"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow."

Adams was succeeded by his sometime friend, sometime rival Thomas Jefferson. Adams lost a contentious election to Jefferson in 1800, about a quarter of a century before presidential electors were determined by the popular vote in each state so my guess is that their relationship when Jefferson took office was a bit strained. If Adams had any words of friendly advice he was tempted to share with his successor, he may not have chosen to pass them along.

But they became friends again in later years, as I understand it. And it is one of the great ironies of American history that both Adams and Jefferson, the only future presidents who signed the Declaration of Independence, died on the 50th anniversary of the nation's birth.

For nearly 200 years, Adams held the distinction of being the president who lived the longest — nearly 91 years. But, in the last decade, both Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford exceeded Adams' record for presidential longevity. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush will surpass it as well if they live another five years.

"Thomas Jefferson ..." were the last intelligible words that Adams spoke before dying, although there were those who asserted that he tried to say the word "survives." But Jefferson didn't survive. What Adams did not know was that the 83–year–old Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.