Friday, April 30, 2010

That's Ridiculous ... And Yet ...

Whatever else you may say about him — and there certainly are many things one could say about him — House Minority Leader John Boehner is not bashful about expressing himself.

In a conversation with NPR, Boehner said Republicans will seek to repeal the health care reform legislation if they win a majority in Congress in this year's midterm elections.

My immediate reaction was twofold:
  • I sort of took it for granted that the Republicans in Congress wanted to repeal the health care bill. I thought they made it quite clear that they were against it.

  • They've also been aiming to recapture a majority in Congress. That would allow them to control the agenda for the last two years of Barack Obama's term in office.
At this point, I am inclined to think that the Republicans are poised to narrow the gap between themselves and their Democratic colleagues, but I'm not convinced that either chamber is going to flip — yet.

So, right now, anything Boehner says about what Republicans might do if they pull off a 1994–like reversal in the midterms strikes me as being so much wishful thinking.

And then Boehner came across as just plain looney when he asserted that "at least 100 seats are in play." Never in the history of midterm elections has one party enjoyed that kind of lopsided advantage over the other.

And then ...

Boehner spoke about the special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat that had been held for nearly half a century by Ted Kennedy. And he said this: "If Scott Brown can win in Massachusetts, there isn't a seat in America the Republicans can't win. What we're seeing every day is the playing field widen, widen beyond anything we've seen around here during my 20 years."

I find that argument harder to refute.

Next Friday, we will get the jobs report for April — and it will answer some important questions, or, at least, it will start to answer them. Will the economy see jobs added for the second straight month? Or will the March numbers turn out to be a mirage brought about by some sort of economic abnormality?

While I would welcome any good economic news, I am skeptical about the likelihood of seeing any kind of noticeable dent in the unemployment problem by the time that voters go to the polls in November. That would require many months of continuous high six–figure gains — in permanent, not temporary, employment — and I have seen no reputable forecasts that predict anything like that.

Common sense tells me the Democrats can't get credit for creating enough jobs to earn them many points with the voters this fall.

They need to be looking for ways to connect with disgruntled voters if they want to retain their majorities in 2011.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Demise of Il Duce

Mozart's music would have made
the ideal backdrop on April 28, 1945.

I've always been fascinated by the concept of time travel.

If time travel was a reality, I'm guessing that the last week of April in 1945 would be a popular destination. That was when World War II was coming to an end in Europe.

Tomorrow, for example, is the 65th anniversary of the wedding of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in the bunker in Berlin where they killed themselves the next day. On that same day, American troops liberated Dachau.

And, on this day in 1945, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were executed by a firing squad. Their bodies were brought to Milan the next day, where they were hung upside down on hooks from a gas station's roof. This was in keeping with a medieval practice of hanging criminals by their feet.

The dangling corpses of Mussolini, Petacci and other officials were stoned by observers who vented their anger at being betrayed by a leader they had once loved.

Mussolini was in power for more than 20 years. During that time, Italy saw its old economic problems resolved by fascism — and countless others created by it.

I suppose it was due, in part, to a desire to resolve these new issues that Mussolini forged an uneasy relationship with Adolf Hitler. Hitler considered Mussolini (who rose to power a decade before Hitler did) to be an influence, but Mussolini was uncomfortable with Hitler, particularly when it came to the subject of race. Germans accused Italians of being "mongrelized," and Mussolini responded by questioning whether the Aryan race was as pure as the Nazis contended that it was.

Nevertheless, Italy joined Germany and Japan in signing the Tripartite Pact, the original basis for the Axis alliance.

Italy surrendered in 1943, more than a year before either Germany or Japan. The situation had grown progressively worse for the Italian people since the outbreak of the war, and discontent with Mussolini reached the point that when he was removed from power by the king and placed under arrest, they offered little, if any, resistance. German troops rescued Mussolini from being handed over to the Allies, per the Italian armistice agreement, and Mussolini was a puppet ruler for the remainder of the war.

Sixty–five years ago today, the Italian people — and the people of the world — were rid of him, once and for all.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Standard of Excellence

It was 45 years ago today that Edward R. Murrow died of lung cancer — two days after his 57th birthday.

When I was studying journalism in college, it seemed there wasn't a class I took in which Murrow's name did not come up. No matter what we were discussing in class, Murrow's life and career always had something relevant to contribute to the conversation.

As far as I was concerned, that was as it should be.

I didn't give much thought to what was the norm in other majors when I was in college, but, as I thought back on it over the years, I realized it had to be the same way with other subjects. Surely, physics majors must have many opportunities in their classes to mention the name of Albert Einstein and recall something relevant he said or wrote. Students of economic thought still speak of Adam Smith more than 200 years after his "The Wealth of Nations" was published. Euclid lived more than 2,000 years ago, but I'm sure his name is brought up with some frequency in math classes.

There are icons in every subject.

Granted, Murrow more appropriately belongs to the pantheon of broadcasting's pioneers. When we discussed print journalism in school, Walter Lippmann's name often came up. And when our discussions predated the 20th century, the conversation focused on names like Benjamin Franklin, Horace Greeley, etc.

But Murrow was always important — primarily because he showed the kind of courage that journalists always admire.

Regardless of the risk to his personal safety, he brought war news to Americans from Europe. After the war, he stood against Joe McCarthy and the infamous Red Scare.

He was a giant of journalism, but even a giant eventually tumbles. Murrow was a heavy smoker throughout his adult life, and that presumably was what brought him down.

But even in that regard Murrow was something of a pioneer. At the time of his death, it had only been a year since the surgeon general made the connection between cigarettes and life–threatening illnesses, which ultimately led to the health warning labels that are now standard on cigarette packages, but in 1965 many people may not have gotten the message until Murrow, whose cigarettes were ever present during his broadcasts, died.

We may never know how many people were inspired to give up smoking by that event, but even if only one was so inspired — and that person added even a day to his/her life because of it — it could be said to be Murrow's final contribution to a better America and a better world.

I don't know if he would be gratified today to know whether his sacrifice played a role in the dramatic decrease in adult smoking in the United States in the last 45 years. Perhaps he would, but I'm more inclined to think that he would be concerned about the future of journalism with so many newspapers struggling to survive.

Even though he made his mark in broadcasting, Murrow addressed the proud traditions in this country of freedom of speech and freedom of the press when he said, during the conflict with McCarthy: "We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular."

Monday, April 26, 2010

While Pondering Life's Mysteries ...

I was looking at the CNN website today, and I saw an opinion piece by a woman named Anousheh Ansari.

Ansari is an Iranian–American businesswoman who was the first Muslim woman in space.

I'm glad to see articles like that because they show us things that cultures have in common, and sometimes they shatter myths that serve as barriers between cultures.

Ansari recites a litany of the labels she has been given and protests the "labels we put on ourselves and let others put on us." I appreciate her resistance to labels.

I, too, try to avoid labeling people, but I can't help wondering something about a Muslim in space. Ansari doesn't address it in her column, and I would appreciate it if someone would tell me if anyone has ever talked about this.

Muslims are supposed to perform ritual prayers called salah five times each day, and they are supposed to face Mecca while doing so.

As I understand it, these prayers are mandatory, but, depending on the circumstances, there is a certain amount of wiggle room on the specifics, so what does a Muslim in space do about facing Mecca? Does he/she even bother with that part of it and just go ahead with the prayers?

Or does he/she simply face in the direction of the earth, whichever direction that may be?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reversal of Fortune

In its own way, at its own pace, history fills in the blanks for us.

On this day 15 years ago, the pain and the grief was intense in Oklahoma City and the rest of Oklahoma. Four days had passed since the horrific bombing that took 168 lives, and President Bill Clinton came to the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds that Sunday to speak at the memorial prayer service. He came to fulfill his presidential role as Comforter in Chief, but I am convinced the ever–pragmatic Clinton must have come with at least some political objectives in mind as well.

Clinton's party had just lost control of both houses of Congress about six months earlier, and the president's future was uncertain. In general, polls showed that there were about as many Americans who disapproved of Clinton's job performance as there were those who approved.

History tells us that Clinton went on to be re–elected the following year. He carried 31 states and D.C., receiving more than 47 million popular votes and 379 electoral votes. No one heard of Monica Lewinsky until well after the election. The Republicans in Congress did not try to have Clinton removed from office until that second term was half over. No doubt there were many who thought, in 1995, the voters would take care of that for them.

In 1995, there was still some doubt that Clinton would win a second term — and part of that doubt was based on the perception in the country that Clinton was wishy–washy, that he wasn't tough enough for a nation that had gleefully re–elected Ronald Reagan a decade earlier.

On that Sunday in April 1995 — almost exactly a year after Clinton delivered one of the eulogies for Richard Nixon — I was living in central Oklahoma, and I recall no conversations I had with anyone else who was living there nor do I recall any discussions on the Sunday morning news shows that dealt with Clinton's political prospects.

I guess it would have been astonishing if local attention had focused on Clinton, even though the presidential entourage was coming to the state that day. Everyone's attention was still on the bombing site. The waning hope that survivors might still be found was mentioned, even though conditions had been unseasonably cool and wet in the days after the bombing, and experts warned listeners that the odds were against finding any more survivors buried in the rubble. Although Timothy McVeigh was in custody, there was some talk of the search for "John Doe #2," McVeigh's alleged accomplice, but if he ever existed, he was never found. I've only heard him mentioned once in nearly 10 years.

And there were still those who clung to the rumors (which had been discredited within hours of the bombing) that Middle Eastern terrorists had been involved. It's hard to remember now, but, at the time, the first (and unsuccessful) attack on the World Trade Center was a not–so–distant memory, and the American public, then as now, was more prepared to blame a foreign terrorist than a domestic one.

For the most part, my recollection of that day is that the people of Oklahoma were still in shock, and Clinton came to help them come to terms with their loss. His visit was mentioned respectfully by the local media, but there was none of the excitement that a place like Oklahoma City would be expected to show — under normal circumstances — for a presidential visit.

Part of that may have had to do with the fact that Clinton is a Democrat and Oklahoma hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since Clinton was a teenager.

Oklahoma hasn't always been the Republican state that it is today. For the first four decades of its existence as a state, Oklahoma voted for Democratic candidates for president most of the time. But since 1952, Oklahoma has voted Democratic only once.

I really doubt that Clinton came to Oklahoma City 15 years ago today with the idea that he could win over Oklahoma with a lot of posturing and tough talk. But he used the kind of language ("evil," "terrible sin") that resonated in deeply religious Oklahoma and spoke of how healing the grief and pain was "God's work."

I think he came to Oklahoma City hoping to win over enough locals to make him the most competitive Democratic nominee Oklahoma had seen in awhile — and, in the process, revive his own political fortunes.

"You have lost too much," Clinton told his listeners, "but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes."

He quoted Scripture, telling the people of Oklahoma City that the dogwood he and his wife had planted at the White House in memory of the lost lives "embodies the lesson of the Psalms — that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither."

"[A] tree takes a long time to grow," Clinton said, "and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin."

When I sat in my Norman, Okla., apartment that day and watched Clinton deliver that speech, I felt that what he was beginning was his campaign for re–election. To me, he had seemed rather silent in that spring of 1995, metaphorically licking his wounds and biding his time while the Republican majorities in Congress reveled in their newly acquired power.

Oklahoma City was Clinton's triumphant return to the national stage — and that, to me, is the great irony of the Oklahoma City bombing.

McVeigh said he was retaliating for — even said he chose the date because of — the siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, two years earlier. That siege began very early in Clinton's presidency. He hadn't had time to accomplish anything, really, but it could be said that the Oklahoma City bombing was aimed at Clinton.

We've all heard McVeigh's comments about "collateral damage." Clinton may have been part of that, even though he was in another time zone. It just may have been intended to hurt Clinton more than it hurt anyone else, even those who were killed.

Yet Clinton turned the tables on McVeigh and may well have won his second term because of what he said 15 years ago today.

Ironic, huh?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Channeling Dead Presidents

I live in the state of Texas.

I grew up in the state of Arkansas. Many of my friends, from childhood to adulthood, still live there.

For awhile, I lived in Oklahoma. Some of my friends from that period in my life still live there.

All three states voted Republican in what was clearly a Democratic year two years ago. A few months later, Barack Obama was in the White House, and lots of people — not just Democrats — were assuming that, because the Republicans had screwed things up so royally when they were in charge, Democrats would be in control of the government for a generation — if not longer.

I didn't buy it — for several reasons — and I warned Democrats that, historically, voters turn against the party in power during the midterm elections. Evidence supporting my position keeps piling up, but some Democrats continue to live in a state of denial.

Not all of them, though. In fact, the message may have gotten through to the Democrat who matters most — Obama.

The best evidence of that may have been Obama's speech on behalf of California Sen. Barbara Boxer in Los Angeles on Monday.

A year ago, most political observers probably would have laughed off the slightest suggestion that Boxer might face any kind of problem being re–elected. California has been solidly Democratic for the last two decades, and Boxer's share of the vote has gone up each time she has asked for another term in the Senate.

But the backlash against Democrats in 2010 has become so pronounced that, even though they stopped short of predicting that Boxer's seat is in jeopardy, the analysts for The Rothenberg Political Report wrote in February that they were adjusting the status of the race to reflect its more competitive nature.

A few days earlier, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball mentioned Boxer's seat as one that could shift the balance of power if everything else fell into place for the Republicans — but, Sabato observed, "observers always say she's vulnerable and she ends up winning handily every time."

That may be true, but there are a couple of things that aren't considered in that remark:
  • Unemployment is 13% in California. That's far higher than it has ever been when Boxer sought a Senate term, and it is nearly three full points higher than it was when Obama became president.

    What's more, the higher the state's unemployment rate has been when Boxer faced the voters, the tighter the race has been for her.

    When she was first elected in 1992, she won by less than 5%. Unemployment in California that fall was near 10%.

    When she sought a second term in 1998, unemployment in California was below 6% — her margin at the polls doubled.

    And, in 2004, when she sought her third term, the state's unemployment rate dropped from 7% in January to less than 6% when Californians went to the polls in November. Boxer won with a margin in the 20–point range.

    Of course, when reflecting on Boxer's electoral history, it is worth remembering that she hasn't faced a significant challenge in a re–election campaign. That seems likely to change this year.

  • Whereas some states have developed reputations, honed over many decades, for being reliable (if not static) supporters of one party or another, California's political history seems to be more cyclical.

    In presidential campaigns, California has voted for the Democratic nominee in the last five elections. Prior to that, it voted Republican in nine of the previous 10 elections. Admittedly, though, in seven of those elections, Republicans had someone from California on the national ticket so presidential politics might not provide the most appropriate barometer.

    Its representation in the Senate has been a little more consistent. Democrats have held Boxer's seat for more than 40 years, but, for nearly 20 years prior to that, it was held by Republicans (including Richard Nixon). Boxer's colleague, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has been in the Senate for 18 years. Her seat was in Republican hands for 15 years before she won a special election in 1992.
The point is that California politics is volatile.

And the theme in 2010 is not necessarily anti–Democrat. In large part because of the economy and the devastatingly high unemployment rate, the mood is decidedly anti–incumbent, and that is a different kettle of fish. It means Republicans may well lose some seats this year, too. But, because more of the incumbents in both the House and the Senate are Democrats, Democrats have more to lose.

How many seats will they lose? Well, that's a tougher question to answer. Rothenberg and Sabato don't like to commit themselves until much closer to an election because so much can happen. (I'm sure that most political pundits are acutely aware of the fact that the Obama–McCain race was much tighter until the economic meltdown less than two months before the 2008 election. After that, Obama's lead really began to grow.)

One thing that political analysts seem to agree on, though, is that, while there are still several months left before the midterm elections, the seemingly glacial pace of job creation makes it unlikely that voters will see the kind of gains they need to see to be convinced that real improvements are being made.

This is the point where we start losing some of the die–hard Obama supporters, who simply can't understand — or refuse to understand — why people "forget" that George W. Bush was president when the economy imploded or can't connect the dots between upticks in the stock market and a recovering economy.

I don't think the problem is that people have forgotten that Bush was president when the economy tanked. The problem is that he's ancient news. They elected Obama and the Democrats to clean up the mess in 2008. And Obama and the Democrats will be judged on the basis of what has happened since November 2008.

You see, for the last 30 years, voters have applied the Ronald Reagan Rule to the decisions they make at the polls. What is the Ronald Reagan Rule? It's a modified version of his famous line at the end of his debate with Carter in 1980: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Since then, voters have only allowed two years, not four, for things to get better. Things weren't better in 1982, and the voters punished the Republicans for it. They rose up against George H.W. Bush in 1992, then turned on Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994 when the economy remained sluggish.

I think the same thing is happening in 2010. It's great that the stock market has regained much of its lost value — but how many of the millions who were thrown out of work in the last couple of years have been playing the market, do you think?

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

So Obama came to California this week to rally the troops. But why? California won't hold its primary until June, and Boxer is not being opposed by a major challenger for the Democratic nomination. Her fight will come in the fall. Rasmussen Reports says she is maintaining her lead over her three potential Republican rivals, but she's mired in the low 40s against each.

If the polls are right, as much as one–fifth of the electorate is up for grabs.

Anyway, there may be reason to believe that Obama, at last, has learned a few things from American political history. When he came to California, he apparently came prepared to channel some dead presidents and use their tactics in his effort to retain Democratic majorities in Congress.

He channeled Ronald Reagan when he did as many of his fellow Democrats have been urging him to do and blamed the economic woes on the Republicans. Reagan won the presidency in large part by blaming Carter for the economy. Then he tried to do the same thing two years later, but the GOP lost ground in the House. In 1982, Carter was old news, the same as Bush is today. It was Reagan's economy.

I wonder if the shift by Obama will seem abrupt to voters who heard him sing the praises of bipartisanship for a year. It seems like the pragmatic thing for a president to do.

And Obama channeled Harry Truman's complaints about an obstructionist, Republican "do–nothing Congress" when he asserted that Republicans have been blocking his efforts — even though Obama has a huge majority in both chambers (Truman's Democrats were in the minority in both houses).

Truman was able to win back the Congress in the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" election of 1948, but the Democrats' hold on both chambers was short–lived.

Common sense tells me that isn't the best way to win the cooperation of the Republicans in future battles. So has Obama given up on bipartisanship now? Well, if he hasn't, I don't think he's chosen the best way to promote that part of his agenda.

Maybe he still would like to get some Republican support for his initiatives. But perhaps he has realized that they are determined not to cooperate with him. Clinton could probably give Obama some useful advice for getting things done in that kind of atmosphere.

And I'll bet he has some tips for winning re–election and functioning as president for six years with the opposition in control of Congress.

But I wouldn't recommend it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain Knew the Truth

A few months ago, I observed Mark Twain's birthday by listing several of his noteworthy statements.

Today, the 100th anniversary of his death, I wanted to try to focus on a single quote. I think he had perhaps the most brilliant mind ever produced in America, and I wanted a quote that could be said to be representative of his wisdom to mark the occasion.

But Twain's wisdom was far reaching. He was wise enough to know there isn't one great truth in the world. There are many truths.

Perhaps that was what made him such a prolific writer. In his long career, he was constantly stumbling onto truths about the things that define the human experience but could only be told in context. Individual interpretations would vary.

His writings clearly connected with people, prompting many of his contemporaries to list his name among the greats. That was something he lamented. "I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors," he said, "because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I'm not feeling so well myself."

Once, he did try to address the meaning of life in a lesser known and posthumously published work, "Letters From the Earth," which is really a collection of short stories, many of which focus on God and Christianity. The book takes its title from a story that is a series of letters from Satan to Gabriel about what he has seen on earth and the strange, often contradictory beliefs that humans have.

"Man is a marvelous curiosity," Satan writes. "When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel–plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm."

And Twain seemed eager to share his feelings about life and death:
"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever–dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain, a dream that was a nightmare–confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long–drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs — the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free."

I've always had the feeling that Twain would have been an interesting person to know.

His achievements were known far and wide, but Twain still said, "I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough."

He didn't struggle with immodesty. Perhaps that was why he felt free to say what he thought — even when he expressed his opinions with his tongue resolutely pressed against his cheek.

"Honesty is the best policy," he told his listeners, "when there is money in it."

Well, honesty is sorta the same thing as truth, isn't it? And Twain certainly had his beliefs about truth.

The Baltimore Sun, in an article commemorating the centennial of Twain's death, today refers to an article that ran in the Sun about a commencement address Twain delivered the year before he died. Twain wanted to share three nuggets of wisdom he had acquired in his life — "First, girls, don't smoke — to excess. I am 73½ years old and have been smoking for 73 of them. But I smoke ... in moderation; only one cigar at a time.

"Also, never drink — to excess.

"The third admonition is, don't marry — to excess."

Dave Rosenthal of the Sun writes, "I'd love to see someone deliver that commencement address today, in our world of political correctness. But Twain was able to speak his mind — and the truth — in a humorous way, without insulting his audience. That was his real genius."

As a writer, he could say, with some justification, that "[m]ost writers regard truth as their most valuable possession and therefore are most economical in its use." And he knew it often took courage to speak the truth.

He didn't hesitate to observe, "It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare."

People often turn to the Bible for truth and as a source of moral courage. In the Bible, Timothy warns that the love of money is the root of all evil — yet so many are unable to resist its seductive nature.

Twain understood the value of money, but I don't know if he loved it. "I am opposed to millionaires," he wrote, "but it would be dangerous to offer me the position."

I often get a good laugh from Twain, even when I read something I have read many times before, like when he advised young people to "[a]lways do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest."

Of Twain it can truly be said that he knew how to tell a story — whether there was a moral to be taught or not. And folks who are on the UCLA campus today can get ample evidence of that. A 13–hour reading marathon of Twain's works is planned there today.

It can also be said that he knew something of proportionality. And today, as we remember his death the day after the 11th anniversary of the Columbine shootings and two days after the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, it is worth pausing and reflecting on something he wrote about proportionality in an unfinished manuscript. After all, don't most losses seem insignificant in comparison to those events?

"Nothing that grieves us can be called little," Twain wrote. "By the eternal laws of proportion, a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."

Of course, if we're going to consider Columbine and/or Oklahoma City, it may be more appropriate to think of this observation: "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."

Even a century after his death, Twain remains relevant to current conversations.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Weep Not For the Memories

Today is the 11th anniversary of the Columbine shootings.

And all I can think about is an incident from my own high school days.

I guess I was a sophomore in those days. The weather was pleasant, and I was one of several students who had decided to eat lunch outside.

Anyway, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and all of a sudden there was a disturbance off to one side. I didn't see how it started. By the time I looked in that direction, a black student was on his feet and keeping other students at a distance with the knife he held in his right hand.

We all just sort of froze, including my group of lunch companions (even though we probably were a safe distance from the action). I couldn't hear what was being said, only the anger with which it was said. It was frightening, not necessarily because I was concerned for my own safety but because the whole situation was so unpredictable.

Well, some alert person in the office must have contacted the police because a squad car pulled up a few minutes later, and a couple of officers got out. They confronted the knife–wielding student, and, almost in the blink of an eye, subdued him. They handcuffed him and maneuvered him to the squad car while he loudly protested that he was a victim of racism. "Racial profiling" has been in use for centuries, but, if it had been as controversial at that time as it has become in recent years, it probably would have been his accusation of choice.

As far as I was concerned, though, the incident was over, and that was about the extent of my exposure to school violence when I was growing up. Lots of my friends knew how to handle a gun, but I don't think it ever would have occurred to any of them to bring one to school.

For that matter, that incident from my sophomore year is the only time I can recall seeing a knife at school. I'll bet my parents never thought about the possibility that one of my schoolmates — or one of my brother's — would bring a knife or a gun or a bomb to school. It has to be more than a fleeting thought for parents these days, though.

Times sure have changed — and not always for the better. And I often wonder: What happened?

Granted, I'm no longer a high school student. But I'm not an ancient relic, either. I have no children of my own, but my friends do, and many have children who are high school age or younger.

School violence is not a recent phenomenon. When I was small, a man went to the top of the tower on the University of Texas campus and opened fire on the people below. Just a few years ago, a student went on a rampage on the campus of Virginia Tech.

But those were college shootings. They were not entirely uncommon when I was growing up. But high school shootings were. Not so in recent years.

And, on April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were responsible for the deadliest high school shooting on record. They killed a dozen students and a teacher, and they injured two dozen more.

That might not have been enough to please them. There was a lot of speculation at the time that Harris and Klebold were retaliating for having been picked on at school, but, on the fifth anniversary of the shooting, Dave Cullen revealed in Slate both the extent of their plan and the reasons why the FBI had concluded that they were cold–blooded killers.

There was also speculation that the callous nature of the shootings at Columbine implied that young people could be numbed to human suffering by exposure to violent video games, TV programs and movies. No conclusive link has ever been shown between violence in the media and what happened in Littleton, Col., 11 years ago today.

The so–called "goth" culture was criticized by some. So was popular music. But aren't those the kinds of things that people always blame when seemingly inexplicable things happen?

I am inclined to agree with what Cullen suggested, that Harris was a psychopath and Klebold was clinically depressed. Neither could have pulled off the massacre without the other. Didn't matter whether they watched "Natural Born Killers" or "Bambi." Didn't matter whether they listened to Marilyn Manson or Pat Boone. Didn't matter whether they wore black trenchcoats or business suits.

That doesn't mean that, in the aftermath of the massacre, it wasn't a good thing that some things were done.

For example, stronger security measures were put in place in many schools, and, in addition to cracking down on weapons, schools also started cracking down on bullying behavior. There are those who say these things rob children of their innocence. That may be true, but it seems to me that, until we devote more money and attention to mental health research, we will never know all that we need to know about psychopaths. And until we know more about psychopaths, how can we be sure we are devoting our resources to the appropriate causes of school violence?

We may never know what we need to know, anyway. Life has always been tough for adolescents. I suspect it always will be, and the psychopaths among them probably always will play roles in most of their peers' woes. Psychopaths, I am told, represent less than 1% of the total population, but I would guess they are responsible for a far greater percentage of the world's misery.

Even if we can prove, as many researchers have long believed, that psychopathy is biological, we cannot be sure of preventing future Columbines by identifying and then isolating those with this defect. Psychopaths are self–centered and manipulative. What matters to them is the satisfaction of their needs.

The rest is, to use a term favored by Timothy McVeigh, "collateral damage," in one form or another. Killing is the objective for some psychopaths. It is the means to an end for others, not even a factor for still others.

If you identify and isolate a psychopath, that does not necessarily mean you have prevented a massacre. It means you have engaged in preventive detention — which introduces a whole new set of issues.

And we will almost certainly never restore our schools to the sanctuaries of safety that they were when I was growing up.

Perhaps my schools were never as idyllic as they sometimes appear from this distance, but the only bullets I had to dodge were verbal. Sometimes they hurt, but they never killed. If there were psychopaths in our midst, they never brought guns to school.

If any bullets are fired at Columbine High School today, there won't be anyone there to be hit by them. The Denver Post reports that classes were canceled. That is probably a good idea. Can't imagine that Columbine would be much of a learning environment today.

And the New York Times flogs another familiar whipping boy, urging Congress to "close the gun show loophole that made the carnage possible."

That's a good idea. But I still think we need to do more research into psychopathy.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Remembering Oklahoma City

It's really hard for me to believe — for several reasons — that it has been 15 years since the Oklahoma City bombing.

On the day it happened, I was living about 25 miles from Oklahoma City. At the time, I was on the journalism faculty at the University of Oklahoma. I was in my office shortly after 9 a.m. that day, conversing with a colleague. I've heard some people say that they could hear the explosion from 50 miles away. Maybe they did, but I cannot truthfully say that I heard the explosion. Of course, I was inside when it happened. Maybe those who say they heard it from 50 miles away were outside.

If, from that distance, being outside would make that much difference.

Anyway, I learned about the explosion the same way most people did — from a TV report. I was about to go upstairs to teach an editing class, and I walked past the student newspaper's newsroom. There was a TV in there, and a few students were already in the newsroom, even though their workdays didn't typically begin until the afternoon, and they were watching the initial reports.

I stopped to watch the report — and wound up being a few minutes late for my class. That was OK, though. Most of the students had been detained by news reports as well.

We were all a bit dazed by the news. One of my students observed that there was likely to be a great need for blood and asked if class could be dismissed so they could donate blood for the injured. I agreed.

(In case you're wondering, I never asked my students to confirm that they donated blood that day. Many no doubt did give blood. That is something I will always remember about the students with whom I worked at OU, especially the ones in my classes that semester — their generosity and unselfishness. Some may well have treated it as an unexpected day off from class but not many, and it really doesn't matter. I never made them account for their activities. I guess it would have come across as unseemly under the circumstances.)

Everyone was touched that day but especially people like my students, most of whom had grown up in Oklahoma City or in nearby towns. The bombing literally took place in their backyard.

Not all of the students actually knew someone who was killed or injured that day — but one of my students did lose her father. And ripples of loss continue to be felt. Yesterday, The Oklahoman ran an article of a young woman who was 4 when her mother was killed in the bombing. She says she has very few memories of her mother that are truly her own, that most of what she knows of her mother is what family and friends have told her. But, in one of the ironies of life, she is sort of following in her mother's footsteps. It may not be her permanent career choice, but she is working for the DEA — her mother's employer 15 years ago.

That young woman is the same age now as many of my students were that day. And many of my former students have children who are the same age today that young woman was 15 years ago. The cycle of life goes on.

As I remember, KOCO's Sky 5 was one of the first on the scene with aerial footage of the devastation. Within minutes, central Oklahoma (and, I assume, the rest of the nation) saw the destruction that had unexpectedly been visited upon it on what had seemed to be an ordinary spring morning.

I must admit, I thought of that six years later when the terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was the same kind of morning — my memory is that it was a clear–blue sky like the one on 9–11, and unseasonably mild with not the slightest hint that hell was about to make an appearance on earth.

The Oklahoma City bombing resembled 9–11 in more than just the weather. In the days after the event, there was an uncommon sense of courtesy among all the people in the area, much like what I observed in the days following 9–11.

And, unfortunately, there was an "atmosphere of hostility" in the land, as President Clinton wrote in his presidential memoir. Clinton rightly observed the role that right–wing radio played in fanning the flames, and there were reports of troublesome websites, but I always felt he gave too much credit to the influence of sites that encouraged civil disobedience and offered instructions in bomb making.

The internet did exist in 1995, and so, apparently, did such sites, but there were far fewer computers in private homes in those days, and web addresses tended to be much more complicated. A child can maneuver through the internet today with little or no trouble, but, in 1995, even adults with advanced college degrees had problems.

The internet has spread to more homes in 15 years, and it is unquestionably easier than ever for people to communicate online so I wouldn't casually dismiss the potential link between computers and evil acts when Clinton warns of parallels between those days and these. I'd listen to what he says.

As I say, I didn't hear the explosion, but I knew that area of Oklahoma City reasonably well. I can't say that I regularly spent much time there, but there had been times when I walked along the sidewalk in front of the Murrah Building. It is possible that I walked across the very spot where the Ryder truck was parked before it was detonated. I'm sure I must have looked across the area that is now a permanent memorial to those who were killed — but, whenever I was in that area, the building stood in that spot. I'm sure I wouldn't recognize it today.

I remained in central Oklahoma for another year after the bombing, but I don't think I ever returned to Oklahoma City. I never really had a reason to, I guess, but the truth is that I never felt the desire to return.

Perhaps if I had, I would have learned what The Oklahoman refers to in today's editorial — that April 19, 1995, was a minute in time. It was a painful moment, to be sure, a moment in which "lives were brutally stolen" and "[t]he lives of hundreds of others were forever changed." But it also was — and is — a defining moment.
"We are all 15 years older now, each of us moving, minute by minute, imperceptibly, toward the sunset of our own lives. Moments in time, both the marvelous and the horrible, will one day not matter.

"Until then, it is apt that we remember how a moment in time became the moment of eternity for 168 of our fellow citizens."

The Oklahoman

Someone — at The Oklahoman, perhaps — has calculated that nearly 8 million minutes have passed since that fateful moment in 1995. Oklahoma City is a better place today than it was 15 years ago, The Oklahoman says, but how much better would it be if those 168 people who died in that explosion had been allowed to live?

Certainly, if one asks that question, it is impossible not to wonder if any of the 19 children who died might have been the one to find a cure for cancer — or if one of them might have produced some other benefit for mankind. We mourned the loss of life many years ago. We grieve today for the potential that was lost.

Well, those are questions that can't be answered — and are probably best left not pondered. No amount of musing can produce satisfactory answers.

We may be unable to keep ourselves from wondering how different our nation and our world might have been if the Murrah building had not been blown up 15 years ago today — or if those four airplanes had not been hijacked in 2001 or if other acts of terrorism had not been committed — but, when the questions have been asked and the wondering is done, nothing is changed. Oklahoma City remains one of history's what–ifs.

It is fitting, as The Oklahoman writes, that we honor those who died.

But the responsibility for the future rests with the living.

For good or ill, the dead have made their contributions.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of Men and Missions ... and Money

I will admit that I haven't always been sure how I felt about Al Neuharth.

For the most part, I think he is a businessman, although he fancies himself a journalist. He founded USA Today, the crown jewel of the Gannett empire — and, as a one–time copy editor for the Arkansas Gazette, I have my share of issues with the way Gannett ran the Gazette in the last years of its existence — which I have always regarded as short–sighted, at best.

Neuharth wasn't with Gannett when it decided to close the Gazette, but he had been part of its culture, part of its mindset. So I am conflicted. Often, when I read what Neuharth has written, his opinions seem reasonable to me. But I never seem to know where the often–idealistic (and, admittedly, sometimes naive) journalist ends and the hard–nosed businessman takes over.

Anyway, I've been reading his "Plain Talk" column at in which he takes issue with Barack Obama's message to NASA last week.

Yesterday, I wrote about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13 and the need to stand by NASA. I said that I hoped Obama was telling the truth when he pledged the nation's unwavering support for the space agency.

Today, I read that Neuharth says Obama "in effect pulled the plug on our space program."

John F. Kennedy "must have turned over in his grave," Neuharth wrote.

I have disagreed with Obama on many occasions. But, as far as I know, we've always spoken the same language. When we have disagreed, it was on the substance and/or the logic of the ideas, not the definition of words.

I know that words can mean different things to different people — certainly to different generations. But I think there's only one way to interpret the phrase "pull the plug" on something.

And I clearly heard Obama say, "I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future." There's only one way to interpret that as well. Right?

So it appears that what we have here, as they said in "Cool Hand Luke," is a failure to communicate.

Well, not really, if you know much about Neuharth's history. Perhaps a failure to comprehend.

See, Neuharth's been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. He has compared U.S. involvement in Iraq to its involvement in Vietnam. And it is through that lens that he tends to view and evaluate all other federal spending decisions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, have been opposed to the war in Iraq since the beginning. And I think the spending level to which the government has been committed in Iraq played a role in the recession that has had this country in a stranglehold for nearly 2½ years. But it's only one of the issues that needs to be addressed.

And Obama does appear to be winding down — in a responsible way — American military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen less effort being made to create jobs, but Neuharth touches on one such NASA–related effort (in his view) in his critique.

"Unfortunately, some political and business leaders in Florida are buying the Obama plan because it may provide a few jobs for some of those thousands who will be unemployed here when the shuttle program ends," he writes. "That should not be the most important of our nation's concern."

Well, it seems to me that the phasing out of the space shuttle program has been in the works for awhile. I believe the program's retirement originally was called for by George W. Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. There has been some legislative maneuvering that may have contributed to a temporary impression that the program could be revived, but the plan to mothball the shuttle could hardly be considered an Obama initiative.

And, in this economy, anything that may provide some jobs for displaced specialists is not something to be dismissed lightly.

After doing a little light name–dropping (in this case, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, who calls Obama's plan for NASA "devastating"), Neuharth says this: "Obama's proposal is all about money priorities and our inexcusable war costs, not about peaceful world leadership. His proposed budget for 2011 makes that clear:
  • Wars: $159.3 billion.

  • Space: $19 billion.
"That suggests Obama thinks that wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are nearly 10 times more important than exploring the last frontier in space."

Maybe I missed something, but I don't get that message.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

When Failure Was Not an Option

It struck me as ironic — perhaps that was by design? — that Barack Obama came to the Kennedy Space Center this week to defend the changes he has proposed for the space program.

I say that, not because of the Tea Party's now annual April 15 protests or the increasingly strident criticism that comes Obama's way from the Republicans, but because this month marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 space mission.

In fact, today is the anniversary of the Apollo 13 crew's return to earth, so Obama made his remarks during the 40th anniversary of that ill–fated mission.

Jeffrey Kluger, a writer for TIME magazine who co–authored "Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13" with Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, reflected in TIME recently that the mission was a miracle that was "due to the extraordinary technological and navigational improvisations the people on the ground and in the spacecraft dreamed up along the way." But he also gave considerable credit to Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz and their "surreal cool."

As well he should.

Essentially, Lovell and Kranz were products of a special mindset that has always existed at NASA. Some folks would call it a "can–do" spirit. In a memorable scene from Ron Howard's movie about the mission in 1995, Kranz (played by Ed Harris) summarized it for the ground crew during the crisis — "failure is not an option" — although it is my understanding that Kranz never said that.

Maybe that's an example of the differences in word usage from one generation to the next. In 1970, an option was something extra you had installed in your car. "Option" simply wasn't used in that "failure is not an option" context in those days. But it was used in that context when the script writers were doing their interviews in preparation for the 1995 film.

Dramatic dialogue, yes, but it also pretty efficiently describes the problem that NASA faced in April 1970.

It may be hard for many modern people, conditioned by the convenience of the internet and cell phones and global positioning systems, to imagine how challenging Apollo 13 was. The folks on the ground had to figure out how to bring the crew back to earth when an oxygen tank exploded — I guess it was more or less understood immediately that, once that tank blew up, the original mission was out of the question.

After the crew returned safely to earth 40 years ago today, it was frequently called a "successful failure" as people learned how remarkable the accomplishment had been, even though the original mission had to be scrapped.

President Nixon didn't seem to be nearly as jubilant posing with a crew that never made it to the moon as he did the year before when he was only too happy to bask in the glow that came from Apollo 11. I always thought Nixon regarded the Apollo 13 crew as losers. Well, it was an election year. Perhaps he felt he had been deprived of a victorious photo for campaign pamphlets.

I was pretty young at the time. I remember the incident and being as stunned as everyone else to discover that something actually could go wrong on these space missions, which often seemed to be routine. But I don't think I understood the issues that had to be dealt with.

And I don't think many outside NASA's ground crew and the three men in space knew how perilously close the crew came to losing their lives.

To preserve power, the crew had to power down. Back on earth, the ground crew had to design and then describe "the mailbox" that would remove carbon dioxide. It had to be built from materials that were on board the space ship — it wasn't just laying around the capsule.

Modern folks, immersed as they are in 21st–century technology, may wonder why an image wasn't transmitted to Apollo 13. But there was no e–mail in 1970. I don't know if fax machines existed, but, if they did, no one had figured out how to send a fax from earth to outer space.

In fact, the computer you use at work or at home is far more powerful than the computers NASA was using 40 years ago. In hindsight, the space program was nowhere near as advanced as most Americans believed it was — but it did represent the best that was available at the time.

It wasn't primitive, but if it sounds primitive, that is only in comparison to what we have now. But let's not lose our perspective. Modern technology was made possible to a great extent by the research that was done by America's space program in the 1960s and 1970s. Even Apollo 13 made its contributions to scientific knowledge.

So, when Obama insists that the federal government will continue to support NASA financially as it has done over the years, I hope he is telling the truth.

I hope he will always remember the United States consistently and adequately supported NASA, even at those times when its work could not be linked to any tangible benefits.

And let's all remember a couple of truisms that emerged from NASA's moon program:

First, discoveries don't follow preset timetables. They happen when they happen.

Second, when the new technologies of tomorrow emerge from the research that is being done today, let's take steps to use it to benefit our economy. Let's encourage companies to keep the jobs that will be created by new industries we can't even imagine here instead of outsourcing them to other lands.

Friday, April 16, 2010

I'm Shocked! Shocked!

I'm having a Claude Rains moment today.

Did you ever see "Casablanca?" That's the famous Humphrey Bogart–Ingrid Bergman wartime flick — "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine ..."

There are some really classic lines in that movie, but I think my favorite is where Claude Rains shuts down Bogart's nightspot. When Bogart asks why he's being shut down, Rains (who is being allowed to win at roulette in a deal that was mentioned earlier) says, "I'm shocked! Shocked! To find that gambling is going on here!"

A second later, one of Bogart's casino workers comes up to Rains with a fistful of cash. "Your winnings, sir," he says.

Anyway, I was shocked — shocked, I tell you! — to see that a New York Times/CBS News poll has some revelations about the demographic tendencies of the Tea Partiers.
  • "Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45."

  • "They hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans generally."

  • "They are also more likely to describe themselves as 'very conservative' and President Obama as 'very liberal.' "

  • "And while most Republicans say they are 'dissatisfied' with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as 'angry.' "
They're also wealthier and better educated than most Americans.

Stop the presses.

Now, in general, I don't agree with the Tea Partiers' complaints — and I can't say that I am surprised to learn that they tend to be affluent, white, married, Republican and over 45. Their disdain for Obama is pretty well known, don't you think?

As a student of history, I definitely think their knowledge of that subject is somewhat lacking. I mean, really. Socialist? Come on. And there are times when they really push the limits of even my advocacy of freedom of speech.

But there are some issues on which we can find some common ground.

For example, Kate Zernike and Megan Thee–Brenan report in the New York Times that most Tea Partiers "think the most pressing problems facing the country today are the economy and jobs." On that point, I agree.

You want to know what really shocks me? CNN thinks that a poll showing that 19% of Americans (roughly the same percentage that describe themselves as Tea Partiers) are optimistic about the economy is somehow significant. Granted, it is higher than the 12% who felt that way in January. But it's still less than one–fifth of the respondents.

Is this surge in optimism somehow connected with the latest jobs report — you know, the one that reported that 162,000 jobs were added to payrolls last month? Is that what is making 19% of the poll respondents feel optimistic about the economy?

Well, these days, I guess, you take your good news where you can get it, but I continue to recommend that we wait and see what happens for several months before we reach a conclusion about whether unemployment is getting better or worse.

And we got a reminder to cool our jets this week, when it was reported that initial unemployment claims went up for the second straight week.

It remains to be seen whether anyone will heed the warning.

The Hour of Lead

"This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow
First - Chill - then Stupor
Then the letting go."

Emily Dickinson

I know very little about my mother's taste in poetry. She was a first–grade teacher, and she had a poem by W.H. Auden on her desk at home.

Actually, I know a lot about my mother's preferences in things like music and movies — but other than the Dr. Seuss books she used to read to me when I was small, I have little knowledge of the poems — or most of the books — that moved her, that had special meaning for her.

(And, if I'm going to be honest, I can't be sure that Dr. Seuss meant much to her. I was probably about 4 or 5 the last time she read it to me.)

There are some things I do know. For recreation, I know she liked to read the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie. When I was a teenager, she introduced me to the political novels of Allen Drury. She also played a significant role in my fondness for the works of Mark Twain, Theodore White and James Michener.

She loved classical music and folk music. As far back as I can remember, she was a fan of Simon and Garfunkel and John Denver. Later in her life, she was fond of Neil Diamond. But she had some country in her as well. I remember once she wanted to see the Willie Nelson movie "Honeysuckle Rose," but no one else in the family could be persuaded to see it with her — and Mom always seemed to hate going to movies by herself (I guess that's where I get that inclination).

Anyway, Mom asked me if I would go to the theater with her, and I agreed. Several months later, on Christmas morning, after all the other family gifts had been opened, she took me aside and handed me a gift. When I opened it, it turned out to be the soundtrack from the movie — which included Nelson singing the Oscar–nominated tune "On the Road Again."

That was a double album. In those days before CDs, a double album was considered quite an extravagance, so it is fair to say I was somewhat stunned to be receiving one. And then I saw a handwritten note from Mom that had been taped to the record. It said, "I loved seeing this with you."

The memories of these things are precious to me now — particularly on this day because it was 15 years ago today that I last saw my mother.

April 16 was Easter Sunday in 1995. I was living in Oklahoma at the time, and my parents were living here in Dallas. They had been living here for many years. It was the place where they grew up, and they came back here to live after my brother and I were grown.

For much of that time, I lived in Arkansas. Then I moved to Texas to go to graduate school, after which I moved to Oklahoma. Although I always arranged to spend Christmas with my parents, I didn't always spend Easter with them, and, to this day, I don't know why I came to Dallas that weekend. I didn't even attend church with Mom that day. I stayed at the house with my father while she went to church with some family friends.

But after church, she and the family friends came back to the house, and we all had lunch in the backyard.

I remember it vividly, but I only have one picture of Mom from that afternoon. If you look closely, you can see her to the left, mostly hidden in some shadows and blocked from the camera by my father, who was slicing some ham.

When we had all served ourselves, my mother read a column from the morning paper that discussed why Easter was a "moveable feast" — which apparently inspired her to serve lunch outdoors. The weather was nice that day, ideal for dining al fresco.

At the time, I guess we all treated it like one of countless such gatherings we had had over the years. The two families did many things together when I was growing up. It was nothing special, as far as we could see. But we were wrong. We were so wrong. We couldn't have foreseen it, but we were still wrong.

April 16, 1995 — as it turned out — was the last time we were all together at the same time in the same place. Nearly three weeks later, my parents were caught in a flash flood on their way home from having dinner with some friends. My father was injured but survived. My mother was swept away. Her body was found a few hours later.

Not long after she died and I came back to Dallas for her memorial service and her burial, I stumbled across the poem by Emily Dickinson that appears at the start of this post. It seemed to express what I was feeling — although it was more appropriate to say (as I observed at the time) that my grief seemed to come in waves. I would feel normal and then, out of the blue, I would be overwhelmed with emotion.

From time to time in the last 15 years, I have heard the phrase "the hour of lead" or it has popped into my mind, and I think of Mom — although, while I know she was familiar with some of Dickinson's poems, I don't know if she ever read that particular poem.

Really, I suppose, it speaks more to those she left behind, the ones who had to deal with the pain and shock of her death. I heard a lot of talk about closure at the time, and I made a sincere effort to find it wherever I could, but, eventually, I had to conclude that closure was a nice concept but far from a reality.

That truth came rushing back to me a couple of years ago when one of the family friends I mentioned died suddenly. His son is a little older than I am, his daughter is a little younger. And I remember calling the family home here in Dallas and speaking to the son a few days after his father's death.

Initially, our conversation consisted of ordinary exchanges of pleasantries. His mother and sister were out, he told me. Then, he asked me, "When does it stop hurting?"

I guess different people would answer that question differently. Some people have abusive parents. Some have neglectful parents. For them, I suppose, the grieving period is quite brief, if it exists at all.

But I was very close to my mother. I can't know how close anyone else is to his/her parents — my father once described the experience of my mother's death as "devastating" — while I know my brother was in a lot of pain at the time of Mom's death, I don't know how frequently he thinks of those days now or whether he still mourns for her in any way at any time.

My friend's grief a couple of years ago seemed genuine. It didn't appear to be the kind of thing that would be easily discarded once the funeral was over.

I did not feel that his question warranted a platitude–ridden response. I felt compelled to tell him what my experience had been in the previous 13 years.

So I told him there was a lot of truth in the cliches you hear about the healing power of time. When someone close to you dies, the grief can seem all–consuming. It hovers over you in every waking hour — and sometimes it invades your dreams. As time passes, it hurts less.

But it still hurts. It hurts at obvious times — on birthdays, on the anniversary of the death, on Christmas, etc. — and it hurts at less obvious times, too.

Even today, 15 years since I last saw Mom, it still has the power to sneak up on me. It may only have me in its grip for a few seconds, but when it does, the memories of those days are as intense as if the events were happening for the first time.

I guess it is an individual thing, this Hour of Lead. Each stage requires a different length of time with each person. I've been through the chill and the stupor — but I'm still struggling, at times, with the letting go part.

Maybe, on second thought, that closure thing is possible with some people.

But if you've found it, can you tell me how you accomplished it?

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.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You're Busted!

I've been an advocate of freedom of the press all my life.

And let me tell you, it hasn't always been easy. Because if you're going to support something like freedom of the press, by definition you just about have to be opposed to censorship.

But then we get into something of a gray area. You see, even the most ardent supporters of freedom of the press will agree that there are times when censorship is necessary — and, so, certain concessions had to be made.

We've tried to be careful, even grudging at times, about the restrictions we as a society impose on the press — and we expect publications to honor the restrictions we do deem necessary.

Within the sometimes vague framework our lawmakers have created to govern the behavior of the publishing business (which, for the interests of this article, include broadcasting outlets and any other news gathering/writing outfit), I have found myself supporting some groups I never thought I would support — all in the name of protecting freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

I have always believed those freedoms were essential, but they are not absolute. Certain things are not in good taste. Certain disclosures really could jeopardize national security. People's lives can be unnecessarily threatened if you inject chaos into a previously calm situation — for example, standing up and yelling, "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

There tend to be very good reasons behind the restrictions that exist, and most newsgathering organizations make an honest effort to follow them. Most of the time it works out pretty well. Credibility is very important to most newsgatherers. Things may have been different when "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was made, but I have never worked for a newspaper that did the kinds of irresponsible things portrayed in the attached clip.

So I would applaud Jimmy Stewart — to an extent — for his defensive response. But his character was a public figure, and he would be sure to attract some attention for it.

Which brings me to today.

I was taking care of some personal business this morning, and, while I was driving around, I heard the end of a radio report about a new publication that currently appears to be available only in Michigan and Oregon, but the goal seems to be to make it available from coast to coast. It is called Busted, a tabloid–style newspaper.

Busted apparently publishes the names and mugshots of people who get arrested for anything and everything.This publication, we are told at its website, is printed weekly and can be found at "convenience store(s), liquor store(s), independent market(s) and gas stations."
"Each week BUSTED publishes hundreds of Mug Shots of Local People throughout your community who were arrested during the previous week.

"Murder to Misdemeanors, Possession to Prostitution. Each week the Busted Crime Investigation Team scours the files of county courthouses across the country, Searching For the Truth!

"Was your neighbor Driving While Intoxicated, Is there a Registered Sex Offender living around the corner; What about that Rapist you heard about on the news; BUSTED Lets You Know!

"Who tops your communities
(sic) Most Wanted list. Have you seen a list of Missing Children lately — BUSTED Keeps You Informed!"

I don't know how this publication presents these police reports. But I know that, when I was a student and then when I was a reporter and an editor, the usual procedure was to say — if it was even deemed necessary to report that someone had been arrested (and if the person was not well known, the tendency was to say, "Who cares?") — that So–and–so was arrested or charged with an offense.

We never referred to anyone in a way that suggested, directly or indirectly, that he/she was guilty. If the case went to court and the defendant was convicted, then we would use that. But we never presumed that an arrest was the same thing as a conviction.

Yet, that is what it seems to me that this publication does — perhaps not so much by design as by implication.

What happens if the charges are dropped? Or if the person who was arrested contests the charges in court and wins?

If that scenario seems far–fetched to you, I can tell you that I was once selected to serve on a jury in a case in which a middle–aged woman had been charged with driving while intoxicated and entered a plea of not guilty. The prosecution had a video tape of the defendant failing field sobriety tests (although other tests revealed no alcohol in her system), but the charges were dropped midway through the prosecution's presentation when her doctor arrived and verified, in a closed–doors conference involving only the judge and the attorneys, that what she had been telling the officer repeatedly on the night she was arrested was true — that she was driving in an unfamiliar area, that she hadn't been drinking and that she was on a prescription medication.

Why hadn't the woman's doctor been consulted before the case wound up in court? I don't know. No one ever told us. Perhaps the doctor had been consulted, but the medication was fairly new and little was known about it when the woman was arrested — and now, the doctor had the results of recent studies that shed new light on the drug's effects. Perhaps the woman had been specifically instructed to take the drug before or after eating and she had done the opposite. Or maybe she had been told not to operate any kind of vehicle after taking the drug.

No such details were provided to us. We were just told that the charges had been dropped, and we were free to go.

Before her arrest, the woman was not a public figure. As I recall, she worked as a secretary. Somehow, her employers found out about her arrest and she was dismissed. I don't think her initial arrest was publicized in any way, but, if it had been, that might have opened the door for a lawsuit against the police (and the media outlet that reported the arrest) that could have been very costly, in more ways than one.

You see, private citizens are entitled to their privacy. Police departments — and news departments — are staffed by people. And people can and do make mistakes.

It's different with public figures. The mayor of your town was willing to trade the privilege of privacy for the honor of serving the public. A star athlete or a rock musician or a popular actor will know he/she cannot go to a restaurant or a bar without somebody noticing — many somebodies if he/she engages in objectionable behavior of any kind.

And if the mayor or a quarterback or the lead singer for a popular band or the star of a popular movie gets arrested for driving while intoxicated, the news will be on TV, radio, internet and the morning newspaper. Then, if it turns out to be a mistake, those outlets will run retractions.

Juries also are staffed by people, and it is possible for a jury to make a mistake as well. But it seems less likely that 12 people will make the same mistake than it does that a reporter and a couple of editors — or a police officer and a couple of his superiors — will make the same mistake.

In other words, when it comes to matters involving criminal justice, we can usually trust the judgment of juries more than we can trust a policeman or a reporter, either of whom may have an ax to grind. Jurors are summoned to a place they seldom visit to hear the facts of a case involving a person whose name they have never heard. They might make a mistake, but, theoretically, they have no prejudice, no agenda.

If Busted is prepared to run a retraction every time an arrest turns out to be unwarranted — and that could be a lot more frequently than anyone bargained for — the editors had better be prepared to set aside a lot of space for that purpose. That shouldn't be a problem in cyberspace, but what about the printed product?

But is a simple retraction enough? Some people may feel that the damage to their reputation and their privacy was so great that the retraction should take as much space and be as prominently placed as the original report.

It may sound like a good idea to publicize every single arrest — maybe it satisfies some internal need — but not every arrest is justified. Busted does post a disclaimer that says, "Any indication of an arrest is not intended to imply or infer that such individual has been convicted of a crime," in the fine print beneath the mugshots, but will that be sufficient as a CYA? Or will those who feel their good names have been smeared by Busted demand that as much space be devoted to the retraction as was dedicated to the report of the arrest?

And which side will justice's scales favor?

We'll find out when the first test case comes up.