Saturday, May 29, 2010

The C Word

The "C" in "C word" doesn't stand for "color" — although I have no doubt that there are those among the Obama apologists who wish it did because that would be something their hero could blame that is beyond his control.

The "C" doesn't even stand for "conference" — as in "press conference," which is something Obama can control, and it's a good thing he held one on Thursday.

I say that not only because it is essential for a president to keep the country informed when the greatest disaster of its kind is happening in the Gulf of Mexico — which it is — but also because, as Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway reminded readers on Tuesday, the president's last press conference was nearly a year ago.

On that memorable occasion, Obama criticized the Cambridge, Mass., police for responding to a citizen's complaint and arresting a black man, who turned out to be a noted Harvard professor, for breaking into his own home.

It was also held during prime time, whereas Thursday's soiree was in the afternoon (and, presumably, drew a smaller audience). So, like Roger Maris' single–season home run record, I guess an asterisk is needed — because the clock is still running on Obama's streak between prime time press conferences.

Will the streak live for a year? Less than eight weeks to go. Does anyone know the Vegas odds?

The president pledged an open and accessible presidency, and, in fairness, he has been accessible for one–on–one interviews with some members of the press, usually the ones whose employers already have shown themselves to be editorially sympathetic to Obama's agenda.

A president has many ways of communicating with the people — and, since the Kennedy presidency, the televised press conference has been one of the most effective ways of explaining policy. Not all presidents have excelled at the give and take with the press (JFK did set that bar pretty high), but the nine men who succeeded Kennedy (including Obama — because, after all, no matter how many one–on–one interviews a president does, there's nothing more American, more democratic than an open press conference in which a dozen or more people get the chance to ask the president a question in front of a national TV audience) have utilized it.

In spite of his much–publicized oratorical skills, Obama has been reluctant to hold press conferences. He got off to a rather fast start, holding monthly press conferences in the first couple of months, but the pace of his press conferences seemed to taper off after his faux pas about his bowling skills and the Special Olympics — and was nonexistent after the Sotomayor confirmation hearings last summer.

No, the "C" in "C word" clearly doesn't stand for "press conference" — although maybe it does qualify as a word for which this White House has little fondness. After all, Obama could have used the occasion of Labor Day to hold a press conference and reassure unemployed Americans, who saw their ranks swell by nearly 250,000 the month before, but he did not.

Perhaps he didn't hold a press conference on Labor Day because he was too busy putting the finishing touches on the speech he was scheduled to give to America's schoolchildren the next day.

Or maybe he was too tired after traveling to Cincinnati to give a speech on health care reform on Labor Day.

Well, that's ancient history now, I suppose.

I guess the "C" in "C word" could stand for "crude," as in crude oil. Alphabetically, of course, it could — and perhaps that would be appropriate, given that, during Thursday's press conference, Obama told America that "[rapid response] has been our highest priority since this crisis occurred" more than a month ago.

Perhaps it was just coincidental that, as Obama was saying that, in my mind's eye, I saw the mayor from "Jaws" telling the sheriff "it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh? What?' You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

No, actually, the "C word" is "competence." Sometimes it is expressed directly. Sometimes it is implied.

But that is the buzzword I have been reading and hearing lately. And, upon reflection, it does seem to me that, if it was fair to use that as the standard by which to judge George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina or Jimmy Carter's handling of Three–Mile Island, it's fair in this case as well.

At first, I guess I tended to brush off criticism as more from the sour grapes crowd. In fact, I think the first article I saw was a double whammy — a column from former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan in the Rupert Murdoch–owned Wall Street Journal.

"He was supposed to be competent," moaned the headline on Noonan's column, and I almost didn't bother to read what she had written. But then I did, and I couldn't help admitting there were times when I felt she might be on to something. Like:
  • when she started with the observation that "[t]his is his third political disaster in his first 18 months in office. And they were all, as they say, unforced errors, meaning they were shaped by the president's political judgment and instincts."

  • or when she wrote that Obama "continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen. ... [H]e has not, almost from the day he was inaugurated, been in sync with the center. The heart of the country is thinking each day about A, B and C, and he is thinking about X, Y and Z. They're in one reality, he's in another."

    Kind of like that Labor Day thing I mentioned earlier. Seems like an obvious time for a president who is presiding over a nation reeling from an economic crisis to hold a press conference on job creation. And maybe, I mused at the time, that is precisely why he did not hold a press conference. Too obvious. Style would be critiqued with no attention given to substance. The spin would be all about politics.

    Well, I mused that at the time. But I never really believed it.

    Anyway, the days after Labor Day turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. At some point, it became obvious that the press conference on joblessness — which, for months, has been getting the top spot in polls about Americans' No. 1 concern — wasn't coming, that Obama hadn't merely been playing pre–emptive politics by not addressing the issue on Labor Day.

  • or when Noonan complained that Obama "repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae," observing that his professorial demeanor "made him seem like someone who won't see the big picture."

    His tendency to lecture isn't too appealing, either.

  • or the thing that seems so incredible to so many people — "the way both BP and the government, 40 days in, continue to act shocked, shocked that an accident like this could have happened. If you're drilling for oil in the deep sea, of course something terrible can happen, so you have a plan on what to do when it does.

    "How could there not have been a plan? How could it all be so ad hoc, so inadequate, so embarrassing? We're plugging it now with tires, mud and golf balls?"
Peter Wehner also has ties to previous Republican administrations, so you've got to consider the source, but I am compelled to admit that he puts his finger on a problem I have seen in not only Obama but also his most strident supporters.

"Obama is among the most thin–skinned presidents we have had," Wehner writes for Politics Daily. "In Obama's eyes, he is always the aggrieved, always the violated, always the victim of some injustice. He is America's virtuous and valorous hero, a man of unusually pure motives and uncommon wisdom, under assault by the forces of darkness."

It all has a Nixonian feel to it, doesn't it? And, in a telling observation, Wehner writes, "When arrogant men lose control of events it can easily lead to feelings of isolation, to striking out at critics, to bullying opponents, and to straying across lines that should not be crossed."

Shades of Watergate, for sure.

Then Wehner makes another point: "With Obama there is also the compulsive need to admonish others, to point fingers, to say that the problems he faces are not of his doing." He's been president for 16 months now, and he continues to blame his predecessor for everything. I gather, from what I see in the polls and in the primaries that have been held so far, that it's wearing thin, even with those who bent over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Last week, Obama spoke in the Rose Garden of the "cozy relationship between the oil companies and the federal agency that permits them to drill." Wasn't 16 months enough time to do something — or at least get started on something — about that cozy relationship?

Wehner concludes that Obama "was as unprepared to be president as any man in our lifetime" and he is "overmatched by events."

As I said, you can make a case for disregarding such thoughts from Noonan and Wehner. They have reputations as being among Obama's loyal opposition.

It isn't so easy to overlook what Charles Blow of the New York Times writes.

"People needed to be assured that Obama possessed three basic presidential traits: being informed, engaged and empathetic," says Blow.
  • "As for the first trait, he was superb as always. I think amassing facts is his idea of being warm and fuzzy."

  • "On the second, he was a bit wobbly."

  • "On the third point, empathy, Obama came up short."
And empathy is one of those things Americans want to see in their presidents. Even if there isn't a damn thing the president can do — and there often isn't — people like to know that a president, in Bill Clinton's famous words, feels their pain.

Obama often seems to be above their pain.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Portal into the Past

These days, millions of people think they know what Americans experienced during the Great Depression three–quarters of a century ago.

It is understandable that they should feel that way. This recession has been persistent, stubborn, cruel, painful — choose the adjective you think is most appropriate. Housing foreclosures have been rampant. Job losses have been across the board. They haven't been confined to specific industries. Few have been spared the misery that has been wrought.

But the vast majority of the people who are living today were not living in the days of the Depression, and their only sources for comparison are books, journals, films, perhaps the recollections of older family members (most of whom likely are not living anymore). Even most of the living people who can remember that time in American history were mere children. They didn't have to look for work when the unemployment rate was 25%.

Dorothea Lange did live in those days. Is the name unfamiliar to you? Perhaps the name is unfamiliar, but the work she did during her life shouldn't be.

For it was through her photographer's eyes — and camera lens — that those living in the 21st century can get an idea what life was like for so many Americans in the 1930s.

For example, her 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson — titled simply "Migrant Mother" — captured for many the sense of helplessness and shame that many people experienced during the Depression.

"I did not ask her name or her history," Lange said. "She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."

Lange wasn't a trained reporter, and Thompson later acknowledged that she got some of the details of her story wrong.

"There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell," she said. "The only ones we had were on the Hudson, and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have."

If Thompson harbored any resentment, it was that she was never compensated for her image.

Well, Lange wasn't a businesswoman, nor was she writer. She was a photographer, and her photography told stories the way words couldn't.

What is more, her pictures didn't just tell the stories of people who were victims of the economy. She also took pictures that told the story of discrimination in America.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 100,000 Japanese people living in the United States (more than three–fifths of whom were American citizens) were forced to relocate in internment camps. Shortly before that happened, Lange snapped the picture at the right that shows Japanese children pledging allegiance to the American flag.

She was a pioneer, a woman excelling in what had been largely a man's world. But that wasn't her only handicap. Like so many others of her generation — including the man who was president during the Depression — Lange suffered from polio. She survived, but the disease left her with a permanent limp of which she, apparently, always was conscious.

"It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me," she said. "I've never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it."

I don't know how pronounced that limp was. I knew a man who had polio when he was young and walked with a noticeable limp until his death (in his 80s) a few years ago. I never saw Lange walk so I don't know if, perhaps, it was as severe as that.

I've known people, for example, who, for one reason or another, suffered from speech impediments. Some were quite severe, while others were so modest that no one except the people who were afflicted really seemed to be aware of it.

If Lange's handicap was modest, perhaps it served its purpose by helping her to be more empathetic with the suffering she must have seen all around her in the mid–1930s — and then, of course, after Pearl Harbor.

Lange died of cancer at the age of 70 in 1965. Today would have been her 115th birthday.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Things With Feathers

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops — at all

"And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm

"I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me."

Emily Dickinson

I've had many thoughts as the enormity of what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico has become apparent.

Some of my thoughts are relevant, and, I suppose, others are tangential.
  • One thought I have been having pertains to religious conversations I had with an acquaintance in college.

    Now, when it comes to matters of faith, I suppose I'm like a lot of people. There are some things that I believe, and there are other things of which I'm not so sure. And that, I suppose, is what keeps bringing me back to my church, even if I have been away for awhile — a desire to sort them out.

    At this stage of my life, there are many things of which I am not certain. But when I was in college, I believed I knew most of the answers. I didn't, of course, but I thought I did.

    And this acquaintance was convinced that he, too, had all the answers — about God and the afterlife and the existence of hell and the certainty of the end times as described in the Book of Revelation. His answers weren't like mine, though, and he apparently decided it was his obligation to "save" me.

    Problem was, I didn't think I needed to be saved. The mean and vengeful God he kept describing sounded nothing like what my parents had always told me about God. So I defended my image of a loving and compassionate God. And he defended his image of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. Neither of us budged an inch.

    Ultimately, I suppose, we decided to agree to disagree, and we went our separate ways. He probably thought I was a lost cause, doomed to hell, and maybe he was right.

    I know I'm not as convinced about some things now as I was then, but one thing that I still believe that I believed in my college days is that humans are obliged to be good stewards of this planet.

    We are so obliged because, of all the creatures on earth, we are the smart ones. Every other creature on this planet does things to satisfy its needs without giving any thought to the consequences to others. But only man's activities can completely alter an ecosystem.

    And man knows it.

    We aren't necessarily superior. But it is humans' ability to think and to reason that sets them apart from all the other creatures."[W]hy did God plague us with the power to think?" asked Henry Drummond in "Inherit the Wind." "What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse is swifter and stronger, the butterfly is more beautiful, the mosquito is more prolific, even the simple sponge is more durable. Or does a sponge think?"

    Like Matthew Harrison Brady, I do not know if a sponge thinks. I doubt it. But, if it does, its reasoning cannot possibly be worse than the reasoning of those who found ways to cut corners — and allow man's lust for oil to jeopardize the Gulf of Mexico and all the wildlife who live in and around it.

    If there is a hell, surely there is a place in it that is being held for those who allowed this catastrophe to occur.

  • I also have been thinking of times I spent on the Gulf coast. I was thinking of one year in particular — which year it was escapes me at the moment, but I'm guessing that I was about 14 or 15 at the time — when our family went to South Padre Island for Christmas, then drove north by northeast until we got to New Orleans and went to the Sugar Bowl.

    In those days, my family had one of those tent trailers, and we often slept in it when we went on trips, but, for some reason, as we made our way along the Louisiana coast, we stayed overnight in a very basic travel lodge. The rooms weren't very fancy, but they were roomy enough for a family of four, and they had their own stoves so we could cook our meals there.

    I can remember the seawater smell of the harbor that was a short walk from the place where we stayed, and I can remember tasting that smell in the fresh (and dirt cheap) shrimp we bought from the local fishermen. I always loved my mother's cooking — but what she was able to do with that fresh shrimp, some rice and some canned vegetables (plus a few well–chosen spices) simply defied belief.

    And I wonder what this oil spill is going to mean to fresh Gulf seafood.

    Will future generations be able to enjoy the pleasure of fresh Gulf shrimp?

  • Several years later, I went on a trip with my mother to Biloxi, Miss. She loved to jump the waves in the ocean — no matter how old she got, she became almost childlike when she was near the sea — and for some reason the two of us decided to go to Biloxi one summer. I was living in Arkansas, and Mom was living in Texas. We saw each other so rarely that I guess we just decided to take a little trip together.

    So we got a motel room on the beach and spent a few days breathing the Gulf air and jumping the waves. At night, we dined on fresh seafood and gazed at the water. From time to time, we saw birds that had been perched on the roof take flight over the water.

    It was a memorable trip, a memory that I will always cherish. But I wonder how many such memories will be made in the coming years if the oil slick turns out to be only as bad as — and not worse than — the experts predict.

  • Then, a couple of years later, when I was working on the copy desk for a daily newspaper, we began to get word of an oil tanker that had hit a reef in Alaska and spilled a quarter of a million barrels of crude oil into the water.

    I am speaking, of course, of the Exxon Valdez disaster. That happened more than 20 years ago. You don't hear much about it anymore, but they are still struggling to clean up the mess.

    Granted, it is pretty remote — and relatively confined — but it is not terribly comforting to know that it is far easier to access the Gulf of Mexico than Prince William Sound — nor is it reassuring to think of how vast is the Gulf's area by comparison.

    In fact, if the worst–case scenario that I have heard (so far) is correct, the spill in the Gulf exceeded the volume that was spilled into the waters of Prince William Sound sometime on the third day — and crude has been gushing into the Gulf for more than a month now with no indication that man has found a solution.
I know that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was panned — and deservedly so — for delivering an, at best, tepid and, at worst, vapid response to Barack Obama's address on the financial crisis in February 2009.

But I have to give the man credit for taking the lead for his state, which is still recovering from the damage left by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago.

"We've been frustrated with the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late for the oil hitting our coast," Jindal said.

Well, somebody has to stand up for Louisiana. And that's what citizens elect governors for, isn't it?

I guess it's also what presidents are elected to do. But, as Bob Herbert observes in the New York Times, "after more than a month of BP's demonstrated incompetence, the administration continues to dither."

I know there are budget problems out the hoo–ha today. But the oil spill in the Gulf calls for bold leadership now, not dithering. The cost should not be a factor. Nor should anything else other than stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf and devoting all available resources to cleaning up the oil that has been spilled there so far.

And whatever needs be done to rescue the wildlife of the region must be done. The creatures of the Gulf of Mexico are the innocent victims of human greed. No one would mistake me for an environmental activist, but BP must pay a heavy price for what it has done, and the federal government must shoulder the responsibility for repairing the damage.

Blame can be assigned later. The wildlife — and the livelihoods — of the Gulf need to be rescued now.

Sacrifice isn't the sort of thing politicians — especially politicians who belong to the party that is at risk in the upcoming election — want to talk about with their constituents.

But they must be candid with the American people — and they must be insistent about finding answers — whether or not this turns out to be an unusually active hurricane season.

To live up to the lofty promises of hope and change, Obama must be a true agent of change at a time when it is particularly challenging. Obama promised hope and change, but, with health care reform not kicking in for another four years and until unemployment starts making noticeable movement in the right direction, the average voter can look around and say things aren't noticeably better than they were the last time they went to the polls.

By law, a president is elected to a four–year term. But the actual "windows" for tangible achievements are two years and four years. The four–year window is for the president himself, but the two–year window — leading up to the aptly named midterms (because of the resemblance to mid–semester exams in college) — is an assessment time frame with which Obama has no experience, although it will produce the congressional lineup that will affect the president's next two years in office.

Bill Clinton understands it, though. Until the mid–1980s, Arkansas elected its governor every two years, and Clinton understood the psychology that is necessary to be successful in an office that was on the ballot every other year. It didn't help him prevent the tsunami of 1994, but I think he had regained his balance by 1998.

Anyway, I believe most House members (and any governors who live in states that still choose their governor every two years — if there are any) would tell you that the campaign never really ends. Neither do the expectations.

"Hope" made a nice campaign slogan in 2008.

Now, the folks who rode that slogan to victory need to realize that, in the words of Emily Dickinson, hope is the things with feathers.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Declaring War on Poverty

If you look at an American history book today, you're likely to see Lyndon Johnson's name prominently linked with the Vietnam War.

There is certainly good reason for that. Like the mutually dependent tales of the Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal, you can't tell the story of the Johnson presidency without telling the story of the Vietnam War — and vice versa.

Dig a little deeper in history's account of that administration, and you're likely to see Johnson's name mentioned in connection with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Indeed, Johnson was a major figure in those legislative acts as well, and it would be wrong for the history books not to mention his contributions to them.

It's interesting, isn't it, the things a president is remembered for — as opposed to what that president wanted to do when he took office? But the truth — as unpleasant as it often can be — is that the times define the president, not the other way around.

It's pretty well known that Johnson was an admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal," which should come as no real surprise since Johnson served in the U.S. House for the last two–thirds of FDR's presidency. But when LBJ became president, he had to lead a nation that was embroiled in a Cold War that never existed in Roosevelt's day. And the economy of the 1960s was in much better shape than the economy of the 1930s had been.

Johnson wanted to leave his mark on American daily life in a way that went beyond what FDR's presidency had achieved. When he left the White House, he wanted to leave behind a government that would offer to people not a handout but a hand up. He was ensnared by a war in a tiny Asian land few Americans knew existed, but he still had many domestic accomplishments, and he might well be remembered as one of America's 10 greatest presidents if not for that war in southeast Asia.

Sometimes, I'm inclined to believe that LBJ may have felt more pressure to build on FDR's legacy than he felt to be worthy of being Kennedy's successor.

Nevertheless, on this day in 1964 — exactly six months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy — Johnson fired the first shot in the war on poverty.

He came to Ann Arbor, Mich., to address the graduates of the University of Michigan, and he took the opportunity to call upon them — and the rest of America's citizens — "to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."

The "Great Society." That, Johnson apparently believed, would be the phrase that would conjure up memories of his presidency for future generations. The way "New Deal" summoned memories of FDR and the way "New Frontier" reminded listeners of JFK.

He pursued that goal because he had been personally touched by poverty when he was young in central Texas, touched by it in ways that patricians like Roosevelt and Kennedy never could have been.

He did not pursue it because powerful lobbyists encouraged him to do so. There are no lobbyists for the poor, the homeless, the uneducated. Nor were there many votes to be gained from legislation aimed at helping the needy.

He felt called upon to urge his countrymen "to lead America toward a new age." He genuinely wanted to help what the Bible called "the least of these."

Perhaps LBJ believed what Gandhi believed, that "[p]overty is the worst kind of violence." I don't know if he did or did not, but wouldn't it be ironic if Lyndon Johnson, whose name is cursed in the annals of history for America's long and bloody involvement in Vietnam, was driven in his quest for the Great Society by his revulsion to the violence of poverty?

"We have the power," he said, "to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will and your labor and your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society."

And, in the days ahead, Johnson promoted — and pushed through Congress — enough domestic legislative accomplishments — among them, acts that created Head Start, food stamps, Work Study, Medicare, public broadcasting and Medicaid; acts that provided funds to support the arts and the beautification and conservation of the nation's natural wonders; acts that encouraged a higher standard of living for all — to make half a dozen administrations successful in the assessment of history.

Eradicating poverty was a worthy goal, but Johnson was not naive enough to think that it could be achieved in a few years. He warned his listeners that "the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor."

America, he knew, would always be a work in progress, and there are many challenges today that Johnson could not have anticipated 46 years ago. But, because of his efforts, when Johnson left office, the playing field had been leveled dramatically. In less than six years, Johnson brought the nation's poverty rate down from 22% to 13%.

In his speech at Ann Arbor, wrote historian Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1964," Johnson "was describing ... all the uplands of the new civilization to which America could be guided."

And, yes, there was a clear upside to it for LBJ when compared to his predecessor. "Kennedy had demanded sacrifice," wrote White. "Johnson promised happiness."

I recall once hearing George Carlin making fun of the tendency in America to "declare war" on anything we don't like, and then he recited a list of such wars — the wars on cancer, crime, poverty, drugs, etc.

It was a funny bit, but I wonder, when I think of what Johnson achieved, whether it isn't necessary to call for an effort that is the moral equivalent of war on some things in order to bring the kind of serious attention and focus that is needed to make them realities?

Maybe it will take that kind of approach to finally rid the world of cancer. Maybe things like cancer can't be stopped until they are treated like the deadly adversaries they are.

And, perhaps, that brings us to another lesson from the Johnson/Vietnam years that can be applied to almost anything from the war on drugs to the prospect of a nuclear war:

Some wars cannot be won and must never be fought.

And some wars, like the war on poverty and the war on terrorism, are going to take a lot of commitment and sacrifice.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lucky Lindy

That's what they were calling Charles Lindbergh 83 years ago today, when Lindbergh departed on what became the world's first transatlantic flight — although, actually, I guess they didn't start calling him that until late the next day when he landed in Paris, more than 33 hours after his departure.

Transatlantic flights are commonplace today, but, in 1927, the best and most daring aviators were vying to be the first to accomplish the feat — and, in the process, claim a $25,000 prize that was being offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig to the pilot who could fly nonstop between New York and Paris in either direction.

Transatlantic travel raises no eyebrows in 2010, but, when Lindbergh left on his historic journey, six others already had died attempting to cover the New York–to–Paris route that was called for in the conditions of the Orteig Prize.

What Lindbergh did in May 1927 was not entirely unique — the first transatlantic flight in a heavier–than–air aircraft was accomplished with several stops and took more than three weeks to complete in May 1919 and the first truly nonstop transatlantic flight (which followed a route that was more than 1,700 miles shorter than Lindbergh's) occurred a couple of months later.

Lindbergh gets the credit for it in the history books, and perhaps deservedly so. He captured the public's imagination and inspired the next era in flight, building on what the Wright brothers began nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

At some point, I suppose, the historic achievements that have kept mankind moving in the right direction are largely forgotten and replaced in the public memory by something more recent, and perhaps that is the way it should be.

But, as routine as the early discoveries may seem, they are the building blocks of civilization.

We live in a time when jets can fly at speeds Lindbergh probably never imagined, but the security hoops through which one must leap can seem to take as much time as the flight itself.

Lindy really was lucky, I suppose. I guess he had to be, flying high over storm clouds and barely over ocean waves, pressing on through fog, contending with ice, at times navigating by the stars. He received a hero's welcome in Paris and upon his return to New York. Fame was his. And so was that $25,000 prize, which probably played a larger role in Lindbergh's accomplishment than any desire he may have had to be a pioneer and to contribute to the evolution of aviation.

But I'm guessing he didn't feel lucky very long. A few years later, his infant namesake was kidnapped and murdered in what was called the "crime of the century," and the glare of the media spotlight of the 1930s led Lindbergh and his wife to fear for the safety of their second son.

Perhaps that was an inevitable consequence of the tragedy they had endured, but, in effect, they were driven from the country, choosing to take refuge in a village in southeast England.

Although the Lindberghs eventually returned to America, following a period during which they lived on the coast of France, Lindbergh said the years he lived in England were "among the happiest days of my life." Eventually, he and his wife had five children who lived to adulthood.

There was a time when Lindbergh was an unknown mail carrier. When the young, boyish–looking fellow who also was known as "Slim" and "The Lone Eagle" began his flight to Paris, his days of being unknown were over.

Nevertheless, he fathered seven more children in three extramarital relationships and kept them all secret for the rest of his life. For the world–famous Col. Lindbergh, the center of attention in the "crime of the century," those couldn't have been easy things to conceal. He was fortunate that he didn't live in the true paparazzi era.

But, even though the celebrity spotlight didn't shine on him with the intensity that Princess Diana and Michael Jackson knew, I can't help feeling that, at times, he must have longed for the days when he was anonymous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Polarization of America

In 2009, Barack Obama made numerous, very public attempts to reach across the aisle and enlist the support of Republicans for his initiatives. His attempts at appeasement were fruitless.

At the very least, I think we are seeing that, even if Obama and the Democrats are successful in holding slim majorities in Congress this year, bipartisanship is not going to be a realistic goal for them to pursue in 2011 or 2012. That canyon the parties have created between them is too far for either to reach across.

America has been growing more and more polarized over the years. And, in spite of the protestations from Obama's supporters that he has been uniting the nation, I believe the opposite is true.

It isn't Obama's fault. The polarization of America did not begin with him. But I believe the situation has grown worse since he took office.

It isn't really surprising, I suppose. I mean, if one is a member of a political party, it is because that person has a very definite world view, and there seems to be less and less room for competing views in either party. It was not always this way. There was a time — a fairly lengthy time, actually — when there was a "liberal wing" of the Republican Party and a "conservative wing" of the Democratic Party.

Laugh if you will, but it's true.

In fact, the liberal Republicans exerted considerable influence in their party, as did the conservative Democrats. And each party had quite a few centrists as well.

But the Republicans ran off most of the liberals, and the Democrats ran off most of the conservatives.

Now, centrists are becoming an endangered species in both parties. One left the Republican Party because he believed he would be more welcome with the Democrats, but he lost the primary yesterday. Another has been forced into a runoff against a liberal, apparently type — who probably will beat her in three weeks but then seems likely to lose in the general election.

Many centrists, including myself, have concluded that there is no place for them in either party today so the ones who wish to remain active in the political discourse are choosing to become independents.

But some centrists have insisted on sticking it out in their parties. I wish them well because I really believe that both parties need to move to the middle if they are to be acceptable to mainstream Americans. As things are now, both parties are positioned too far to either extreme to make consensus–building a genuine possibility.

And Tuesday's primaries just provided more proof (to me) that I am right:
  • In Pennsylvania, for example, 30–year Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties last year (apparently, at least in part, due to speculation that he could not win a Republican nomination battle this year), lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.

    Some of Sestak's supporters have characterized him as a centrist, but Specter was the real centrist in the race. In 2008, the ACLU gave Sestak a 91% rating. The American Conservative Union gave him a 0% rating. Meanwhile, Specter got a 43% rating from the ACLU and a 42% rating from the ACU.

    Ratings from other liberal and conservative groups were similar.

    So ideology trumped anything else that Specter brought to the table — seniority, for example — and now Pennsylvanians must choose between an extremely liberal Democrat and an extremely conservative Republican in November. Recent polls have shown the Republican, Pat Toomey, leading by a few points but still short of a clear majority.

    I guess, with Democrats and Republicans tending to favor their own by wide margins in polls, the independents will have to decide the winner — but which side will they choose? They've been gravitating to the center — but there's no one there.

    One thing that seemed clear from the results in Pennsylvania was that Obama's coattails are very short — if they exist at all. Actually, "coattails" probably isn't applicable in a midterm election since that is a term that generally refers to a president's influence on other races when he, too, is on the ballot. Technically, Obama won't have "coattails" until 2012.

    But the concept does seem applicable to a president's influence on races in which he becomes an active participant — although it seems to need a different name. And, when Specter switched parties, Obama pledged to support him this year in gratitude for Specter's support for Obama's agenda. Specter counted on Obama's influence with the Pennsylvania electorate to smooth over his transition.

    Apparently, though, Obama didn't help Specter any more than he helped Martha Coakley in Massachusetts four months ago — or the Democrats who sought the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia last November.

    I guess the big difference is that Coakley and the unsuccessful candidates in New Jersey and Virginia lost to Republicans, which is bad enough for a Democratic president. But Specter lost to a fellow Democrat, which raises questions about Obama's ability to influence the voters in his own party.

    Or does it?

    I suspect that the reasons for Specter's defeat are more complicated. He spent most of the last three decades in the Senate as a Republican — during which time he never really seemed to build a base of support in either party — and 2010 doesn't look like a good year for a Washington insider like Specter to try to reinvent himself in a different party.

    I'm guessing that any efforts he made to persuade lifelong, activist Democrats that he was one of them proved to be a mountain too high.

    Because of Specter's many years in the Republican Party, Obama's support for his unsuccessful campaign in a Democratic primary doesn't seem to be as politically devastating as was his support for a Democrat who lost Ted Kennedy's seat in a Massachusetts special election.

    But winning a party's nomination in Pennsylvania is not the same thing as winning the general election. When I was growing up in Arkansas, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to victory most of the time — but not anymore. I don't know if it was ever true in Pennsylvania.

    Anyway, for Sestak there is more work to be done. He is not a senator–elect yet. So, if I were Obama, I think I would have a chat with the vice president and tell him to cool it on that Sestak "will make ... a wonderful United States senator" talk.

    Meanwhile ...

  • Remember Ron Paul, the Libertarian who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? He is said to have the most conservative voting record in Congress in the last 73 years.

    Well, yesterday, the Republicans in Kentucky nominated Paul's son, Rand Paul, a noted Tea Partier, to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning.

    Given Obama's recent track record, it doesn't surprise me that Paul told CNN today that he and his supporters are "licking their chops" at the thought of running against Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, particularly if Obama comes to the Bluegrass State to campaign for him.

  • Finally, my home state of Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln was hoping to avoid a runoff against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter.

    Lincoln was widely regarded as the centrist in the race while Halter was seen as the liberal. But, instead of taking a majority of the votes, Lincoln narrowly finished ahead of Halter and must defeat him in a runoff in June. A conservative businessman also was in the race, but he finished third with about 14% of the vote.

    Last night, I observed the Facebook exchanges between my friends in Arkansas, many of whom are Democrats who support Halter. They rejoiced that there would be a runoff and gleefully anticipated that most of the third–place candidate's votes would go to Halter. The momentum, they all said, was with him.

    Actually, that brings me to something I wrote on Saturday. I theorized, in essence, that any voter who votes against an incumbent in a primary is more likely to oppose than support that incumbent in a runoff.

    And, if most of the third candidate's voters do vote for Halter on June 8, he will win the runoff. It's simple mathematics.

    Except it isn't so simple. I'm not completely sure about that momentum thing. And I know that participating in a primary does not compel someone to participate in a runoff as well.

    In fact, I know from my own experience of covering Arkansas primaries and runoffs that voter participation typically drops in a runoff.

    But this will be a good test for my theory, as I said the other day, because:
  1. we don't know how many of the third candidate's supporters will be motivated to return to the polls;

  2. we don't know if his supporters — who, it can be logically assumed, are conservatives — are particularly anti–Lincoln; and

  3. if the third candidate's supporters are angry at Lincoln, are they angry enough to vote for a liberal instead of a centrist?
Well, anyway, there are a lot of factors at play here.

And I'm sure there will be a lot of attention paid to the Arkansas runoff in the next three weeks.

I don't know what will happen in Arkansas in June, but I think the centrist would have a better chance of beating the conservative there in November than the liberal would. The problem for centrists is that most don't seem to have a base in their own party.

Like Republican Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who got kicked out by a bunch of extremist delegates to the state's Republican convention. He's a conservative, but apparently not enough of one for Utah's red–meat right–wingers. Remember those ACLU and ACU ratings I mentioned earlier? In 2008, Bennett got a 14% from the ACLU and a 64% from the ACU (by comparison, his colleague, Orrin Hatch, got a 21% from the ACLU and an 80% from the ACU).

By Utah's Republican standards, I guess that makes him a centrist.

All of which leads me to conclude that incumbency isn't really the problem in 2010 — centrism is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Is It the Real Thing?

Nearly 50 years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy continues to exert his almost mystical grip on us.

He certainly has a hold on Texas. Perhaps it's a self–flagellation thing for permitting him to be killed here.

Dallas doesn't always seem to give much attention to the anniversary of the assassination, but, otherwise, the Dallas media — and, by extension, the state media — are suckers for anything Kennedy.

Dallas' ABC affiliate, WFAA, reported recently that some film of Kennedy at a party in Houston the night before his assassination in 1963 has surfaced. Such film footage, we are told, is extremely rare, and some museums have expressed an interest in acquiring it.

The 8–millimeter film, WFAA reported, was shot by a man who is now 88 years old. Supposedly, it sat in a drawer in his living room "for decades."

You can see the film at the top of this post.

Although I guess that sort of assumes the film is authentic.

Oh, clearly, that's JFK and Jackie in the film. They're the only people who can be clearly seen for any length of time, and I'm quite confident that's the president and the first lady. If they're impostors, they're flawless.

But I see nothing else in the film that would make it clear where the footage was shot — or when. Jackie's not wearing the pink outfit she wore the day of the assassination, and the president is wearing an ordinary suit. And I can't identify any of the people who are briefly seen with Kennedy. I see no landmarks in the background that could confirm they were in Houston.

For awhile, the Kennedys are seen sitting on what appears to be a stage with what seems to be a mariachi band standing behind them. That's a stereotypical image of Texas, I guess, and maybe it legitimizes the claim that the film is from the night before Kennedy's assassination. But it could have been footage from the 1960 presidential campaign.

Kennedy had a Texan on his ticket in 1960, but it was still a tight race here. I don't know how many times he campaigned in Texas, but he wanted to win Texas (which he did), and it seems likely to me that he campaigned in Texas a few times. And a mariachi band must have played at a Kennedy rally at least once.

The 1960 race was very close, and Kennedy may well have campaigned in New Mexico (a small state, which he also won by a narrow margin) and California (his opponent's home state, which Kennedy narrowly lost).

Look at the film and tell me this: Doesn't it look like it could have been shot just about anywhere? And at any time? If it wasn't shot during the presidential campaign, it could have been a presidential appearance from any time in the nearly three years he was president.

Can anyone who is seen with President Kennedy be identified as a Houston bigshot — the mayor, perhaps, or some other prominent person?

I'm just looking for a little verification, some authenticity here. Can anyone help me out?

Mount St. Helens, Three Decades Later

I have heard relatively little said about the 30th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, perhaps because so much attention is currently being given to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the moment, of course, no one knows the dimensions of the catastrophe in the Gulf. When all is said and done, it may well make Mount St. Helens seem tiny, if not completely insignificant, by comparison.

But on the Sunday morning 30 years ago today when the mountain erupted, it didn't seem so insignificant.

Oh, there were other things vying for public attention at the time. President Carter was fending off a challenge from Ted Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. The long–awaited sequel to the 1977 blockbuster movie "Star Wars""The Empire Strikes Back" — was about to be released to the nation's theaters. And Cable News Network was two weeks away from launching the 24–hour network news era.

And, frankly, Mount St. Helens struck some as being old news. After being dormant for more than a century, a series of earthquakes began in March 1980, indicating that the mountain's slumber was nearly over.

Two months later, the volcano erupted.

Fifty–seven people died, including an elderly innkeeper named Harry Truman (no known relation to the former president of the same name), a geologist named David Johnston, who perished while manning an observation post that was within the direct blast zone, and a photographer named Reid Blackburn, whose photograph of his car following the eruption can be seen at the right.

Johnston, it is worth noting, was the first to report the eruption, but, more importantly, his work (and the work of his colleagues) was what persuaded authorities to close Mount St. Helens to the public and keep it closed in spite of intense pressure to reopen in the weeks following the onset of the March earthquakes. There is no telling how many lives were saved as a result.

Volcanic eruptions are rare in North America. And, while the damage was extensive, the eruption of Mount St. Helens may be having unexpectedly positive consequences 30 years later. As Linda Mapes of the Seattle Times felt compelled to remind readers, "an entirely new ecosystem" was created — "[m]ore than 130 new ponds and two new lakes were birthed at the foot of the volcano," Mapes writes, and a new habitat is being assembled there. Apparently, the species that live there are thriving.

Maybe that is the lesson of the Mount St. Helens eruption. And, perhaps, it will prove to be the lesson of the oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 as well.

Granted, it is hard today to anticipate what good may come from the constant pouring of oil into the Gulf, especially as we approach the start of what some have predicted will be a particularly turbulent hurricane season.

But history has shown that nature adapts and evolves.

What came from the belly of the mountain three decades ago changed the landscape, killed every living thing within a certain radius and caused billions of dollars in damage. Yet nature adjusted.

Wasn't that the moral of "Jurassic Park," in which Dr. Malcolm, the scientist with the devotion to the chaos theory, said, "Life finds a way?"

In the short term, we may see hurricanes in the coming months that suck up oil–laden water in the Gulf that is later deposited on land as black rain, causing untold problems of catastrophic proportions.

But, until the "experts" find a way to secure the leak that continues to spew its oil into the water, we will have to hope that, eventually, life will find a way in the Gulf of Mexico.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Dramatic Day

Until recently, if anyone thought of Oct. 15, 1969, it probably was in connection with the World Series, which was known at the time — and is still remembered today — as the triumph of the Miracle Mets, the Amazin' New York Mets, over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

October 15 wasn't the day that the Mets wrapped up their improbable championship — that happened the next day — but it may have been the day when the Mets' triumph became all but official.

On that day, the teams met in the fourth game of the World Series. The Mets held a two games to one advantage. After dropping the opener on Oct. 11, the Mets got a narrow win in Game 2 and a 5–0 victory in Game 3 and entered Game 4 with the chance to build a 3–1 lead, which has been virtually insurmountable in the annals of World Series competition.

Oct. 15, 1969, was a controversial day. For one thing, it was Moratorium Day, a global demonstration against American involvement in Vietnam. The mayor of New York (where Game 4 was to be played) ordered flags flown at half–staff in honor of all who had died in Vietnam, but the commissioner of baseball, in an apparent effort to keep the Series out of the political debate, said the American flag would be flown at full staff during the game.

That wasn't all, though. A photograph of Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, who lost the opener to Baltimore, was used in antiwar literature that was circulated outside New York's Shea Stadium that day — even though Seaver insisted the photograph had been used without his permission.

Seaver was slated to pitch on October 15 as well. He shut Baltimore out through eight innings, then yielded a run in the ninth and the game went to a 10th inning, when the Mets scored the winning run. They clinched the championship with a 5–3 victory the next day.

For the most part, public attention was devoted to Moratorium Day and the fourth game of the World Series on Oct. 15, 1969. I know of nothing that President Richard Nixon said about the World Series, but he did say that, while activities like Moratorium Day were expected from antiwar activists, "under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it."

Nixon's actions in Vietnam were, indeed, apparently unaffected by the massive protests, but, within the last week, we have heard, through England's Telegraph, of actions that Nixon apparently took to prevent a nuclear war on that day.

The Telegraph reports that a Chinese historian claims that, on Oct. 15, 1969, the Soviets were about to launch a nuclear strike against China but were dissuaded by Nixon's assurance that, if they did, the United States was prepared to attack more than 100 Russian cities, thereby starting World War III.

If that is true — and I have no reason to think it is not — it may lend some credence to a scene from Oliver Stone's 1990s biopic "Nixon," in which Nixon, Henry Kissinger and other Nixon advisers discussed foreign policy over dinner on the presidential yacht.

In the movie, Nixon talked about playing Russia and China against each other and using "triangular diplomacy" to get better diplomatic deals from each. Introducing the nuclear option may have been a high–stakes way to nudge each into doing as he wanted.

Nixon played hardball, as his handling of the Watergate scandal clearly demonstrated. In spite of extremely vocal opposition in this country to American involvement in Vietnam, Nixon followed his own course, initiating a policy that was, if anything, even bloodier than the approach that had been taken by the much–reviled Johnson administration, and he always claimed that, if he had not resigned the presidency, the Americans never would have been driven from Saigon less than a year after he relinquished power.

But perhaps there was more to it than that.

I was never an admirer of Nixon, but one thing was clear to me when he was alive and has become even more so in the years since his death. Things were never simply one way with Nixon. He was calculating, yes. He was manipulative. He was paranoid and secretive, and writer Richard Reeves may well have been correct when he observed that Nixon "assumed the worst in people, and he brought out the worst in them."

Nixon's personality may have been predisposed to wreck his presidency, but there were also aspects of his character that seemed to make him more empathetic than normally would be expected from someone who has often been described as a narcissist.

Perhaps Nixon was offended by the Soviet Union's belligerence, its reckless approach to the use of nuclear power only seven years after the Cuban missile crisis.

Even a narcissist may have a sense of what he/she believes to be correct — if only because it violates the narcissist's view of his/her role in events.

As a young man, Nixon was quite a poker player. During his time in the Navy in World War II, Nixon won enough money playing poker to finance his successful 1946 campaign for a House seat. Perhaps he felt that the Russians were forcing him to reveal his hand so he upped the ante.

The real truth may never be known.

But it is a fact that neither the Soviets nor the Chinese — nor, as a result, the Americans — used nuclear weapons on Moratorium Day 1969.

The only bombshells that week came in the world of baseball.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Quest for the Bottom Line

I guess it is no secret that newspapers are struggling financially these days.

The reasons are complex, but one reason seems clear to me. As I wrote a couple of months ago, most newspapers failed to recognize the internet for the threat it posed back in the days when the internet was still emerging and was not yet a fixture in American homes.

In fact, I recall a day back in the 1990s. Newspapers still seemed to be healthy, although circulation, as always, was down. I never worked in advertising, either classified or display, so I don't know if a downward trend was noticeable in that department. As far as I knew at the time, there was no warning sign that the horizon was not sunny for newspapers.

I was teaching journalism to undergraduates, and one of my students came to me with a question that seems positively prophetic in hindsight. He wanted to know what I thought would happen to newspapers in the digital age (which hadn't even begun to blossom yet).

I'm almost ashamed to admit now that my answer must have revealed a certain naivete on my part. It certainly must have shown a lack of vision.

Sometimes I wonder if that young man remembers that exchange. With some newspapers going under and others slashing their staffs dramatically to remain afloat a little while longer, I can't see how he wouldn't think back on it. If he does, I wish I could assure him that I'm not as naive now as I must seem when I am seen in one's rearview mirror.

Admittedly, peering into the future is not an easy thing for anyone to do. That doesn't prevent many people from trying to anticipate future events, anyway, though, and, by the time this student asked me that particular question, I had heard plenty of gloom–and–doom predictions from others that never came to pass.

And my inclination at that time was to dismiss the idea that the existence of newspapers was, in any way, threatened. So I told my student that I believed newspapers and the internet would find a way to co–exist.

I still believe that will happen eventually, but many newspapers have already paid the price for management's failings and many more almost certainly will in the next few years. The number of newspapers that will survive these turbulent times and establish a mutually profitable relationship with the internet will be far smaller than I — or, I dare say, anyone else — ever dreamed.

Let me ask you a personal question here.

At one time or another, everyone loses something or temporarily misplaces something. On those occasions, have you ever found yourself searching the same locations over and over?

You might search new locations as well, but did you gravitate back to the same locations, too?

Perhaps you did that because you genuinely forgot that you searched a location before (and, if that is the case, you may have a different set of issues to resolve).

But perhaps you did that because you just knew that what you were looking for had to be in that location, and each time you searched it, you did so believing you had overlooked something that was obvious.

I'm getting the impression that newspaper management operates by the latter approach. I make specific reference to the New York Times.

And it sort of proves what Albert Einstein said. He said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Well, the Times is about to do something that it tried to do before, but it didn't work.

MarketWatch reports that the Times will start charging for online content in January.

Doug Mataconis mirrors my own thoughts at Outside the Beltway when he points out that the Times tried something like this a few years ago and failed.

The Times introduced something it called Times Select, in which users were charged for access to Times content, but it was dropped after awhile. I've never been privy to Times business strategy sessions, but I assumed that they discovered what I predicted at the time:

With all the free sources for news and information on the internet, most non–New Yorkers simply weren't interested in paying to read the Times four or five years ago. I suspect that even fewer will be willing to do so in today's economy.

Consequently, I predict that this pay–per–view strategy also will fail.

I understand the impatience of Times management to try to recoup its losses. I understand how frustrating it must be for the Times' publishers — not to mention its writers and editors — to think of all those people out there in Internetland who read their articles for free.

But the time to get in on the ground floor of the internet — and collect some of that seemingly endlessly easy money that was circulating in the so–called "dot–com" period — was 14 or 15 years ago. That ship has sailed. Some would say it sank.

Anyway, this is a different era. Newspapers — well, not all of them, but some of them — still can prosper in the digital age. But they're going to have to dedicate themselves to long–term goals. There are no get–rich–quick scenarios for newspapers, even if they resolve their business model issues — which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has been in the business for awhile.

After all, unless a publisher already has a fortune that was made elsewhere, he can't reasonably expect to make his fortune from newspaper ownership. There are too many expenses and too little revenue from a product that typically sells for 25 cents or 50 cents an issue.

But the next best thing, it seems to me, is to make the publication indispensable — and achieving that may require some publishers and their publications to take even more of a loss for awhile than they've had to absorb recently.

If they are wise, they will look at it as an investment in the future.

There is no shortage these days of online news organizations that are willing to sacrifice everything else, including accuracy, to be the first to report something. Often, it turns out that what is reported is little more than gossip and speculation, and much of the time, it is wrong, but it is followed — often, at best — by a terse article acknowledging an error.

Some of these organizations ignore their mistakes entirely — in those cases, I guess it goes without saying that the errors go without saying. Sometimes, the readers are never told that they were given false information. The organizations don't acknowledge their own complicity in its perpetuation — and, if their deception is revealed, it is hard to regain the readers' trust.

Trust. Now, that is what I'm talking about.

In these days of be first even if you're wrong journalism, I believe the news organizations that build reputations on providing reliable information, even if it isn't first, will make themselves indispensable.

And it is when a news organization is seen as indispensable that its users will pay to continue receiving it.

Generations ago, the New York Times was known as the "newspaper of record." If you saw it in the New York Times, you knew it was true.

I don't live in New York. I read the Times online. I don't know if it still advertises itself as the newspaper of record, but, if it does, that is just one more mistake the modern Times makes. I often see errors in the Times — some are small, some are not so small. It may have a cracker–jack copy desk, but if the Times calls itself the newspaper of record, it is living on its past glories — while it is being pigeonholed by modern readers as little more than a mouthpiece for leftist columnists.

Building a reputation for reliability takes time, and it takes the efforts of talented copy editors to make it happen. I hear people complain all the time about the declining quality of print journalism, yet newspaper management continues to respond to tough economies in a time–honored way — cut the copy desk first.

These days, it is fashionable to talk of how efficient online journalism can be, allowing the reporter in the field to write his/her article on the spot and post it directly to the internet.

And it certainly would be an efficient method — if writers performed all the functions of the copy desk (and copy editors do a lot more than simply make sure a writer didn't write y–o–u–r when he/she should have written y–o–u–'–r–e).

But most of them don't. Most reporters don't worry about the details.

If the New York Times — and other news organizations, both online and offline — builds a reputation for worrying about the details, I think it will enhance its value to a public that wants to know it can rely on what it is being told.

But it can't be achieved overnight.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Arkansas Picks Its Senate Candidates

On Tuesday, the voters in my home state of Arkansas will go to the polls.

The Democrats and Republicans of Arkansas will decide who their nominees (or the two contestants in decisive runoffs to be held in June) will be for a bunch of offices. Three of the state's four House seats are being vacated. Arkansans also will choose their governor this year, but I don't think there are contests for either party's nomination.

Currently, the state's congressional delegation is heavily Democratic, just as it always was when I was growing up there — both senators and three of the four representatives are Democrats. And one of those senators, Blanche Lincoln, is running for re–election.

It's possible, I suppose, that the governor's race will get really hot this fall, but, right now, it appears that the Senate race is really the marquee matchup this year — in both parties.

And the latest polls indicate that Lincoln is leading in the race for the Democratic nomination by nine points, but she's still a few points short of a majority. Her support level has remained in the 40s in the polls I have seen, and if she doesn't receive a majority of the vote on Tuesday, she will have to win a runoff so she isn't out of the woods yet. Her main rival is the state's lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, who went to high school with a friend of mine. He's seen his support level rise into the mid–30s in the last few weeks.

I don't know much about Halter, but I've heard him described as a Bill Clintonesque policy wonk — without Clinton's charisma.

The X factor, I guess, is a businessman named D.C. Morrison, who appears to be making a name for himself with his folksy campaign quips — a la Ross Perot. None of the polls I have seen suggest that Morrison is anywhere near drawing enough votes to get into a runoff — but his vote total just might decide whether Lincoln must face a runoff challenge.

David Jarman observes for — and rightly so — that the mystery to be resolved on Tuesday is not whether Lincoln will get the most votes, for she almost certainly will. But even if she runs first, she may be in trouble if she does not avoid a runoff.

If there is a runoff, it will be a good test for a pet theory of mine, which is: In any election, general or primary, involving an incumbent, anyone who votes for one of the incumbent's challengers is more likely to vote against that incumbent if his/her first choice does not make the runoff — or would have voted against the incumbent anyway even if his/her preference was not on the ballot.

In other words, any old port in a storm. If you're voting against an incumbent, I believe you would be likely to vote against that incumbent no matter what your option might be.

I've felt this way for a long time, but I guess I really started refining it in my head following the 1992 presidential election.

In that election, the incumbent (George H.W. Bush) was renominated by the Republicans, even though many had criticized him for his handling of the economy and many felt betrayed on the taxes issue. The Democrats nominated the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, whose memorable campaign mantra was "It's the economy, stupid."

And then there was Perot, who was running, then he wasn't, then he was running again as an independent. He often appeared flakey in the closing weeks of the campaign, but his message about the future of the American economy resonated with many voters, and he wound up receiving nearly one–fifth of the popular vote.

Clinton, of course, was elected president. He received 43% of the vote. Bush finished nearly 6 million votes behind Clinton, with 37.5% of the vote.

At the time, I was living in Oklahoma, which has, at times, voted for Democrats — for governor, congressman, senator — but not for president since 1964. And I heard some disgruntled Republicans who complained bitterly that Bush would have won if Perot had not been a candidate.

Well, that went against what I had heard from exit polls that were conducted on Election Day. These polls were conducted by polling firms that I believe are reliable — and exit polls have always struck me as more reliable than pre–election polls because the people being polled have already voted and are, for the most part, telling the pollster why they voted the way they did. They aren't speculating about how they will vote.

The polls I saw tended to agree that, if Perot had not been on the ballot, it would not have reversed the outcome. About 40% of Perot's voters said they would have voted for Bush if Perot had not been on the ballot. Another 40% said they would have voted for Clinton. And the remaining 20% said they would not have voted at all.

Those polls suggested that there would have been virtually no change in the Electoral College, which Clinton won by a wide margin.

Actually, given the high level of dissatisfaction with the incumbent that year, my guess is that far more of Perot's voters would have voted for Clinton if Perot had decided to withdraw for good.

Some may have been motivated to vote for Perot for reasons other than the economy, and they may well have been repulsed by Clinton over any one of several issues (legitimate or not) that his opponents chose to emphasize during the messy general campaign of 1992. Thus, those voters probably would have voted for Bush if the choice had been between the president and Clinton — assuming that they felt strongly enough about it to vote.

But I remember speaking with several Perot voters that year, and most expressed a deep disdain for Bush's handling of just about everything. Some may have had their reservations about Clinton, too, but none ever spoke of those.

Anyway, back to the Senate race in Arkansas ...

The Republicans seem likely to have a runoff as well. The front–runner, Rep. John Boozman who is vacating his House seat to run for the Senate, leads his closest rival by 27 points, but he's still a few points shy of a majority. In my experience growing up in Arkansas, when the second–place candidate has to make up that much ground in a runoff, it's practically an impossible task.

And, besides, Boozman isn't an incumbent so my theory doesn't really apply to the Republican race.

When an anti–incumbent mood is in the air, that's when you want to be seen as an outsider. Lincoln doesn't exactly qualify as one, which is one of the reasons why I wondered about the wisdom of having Barack Obama record a radio ad for her (see the attached video clip).

I guess Democrats who have never lived in Arkansas are prone to look at the state as the party's last refuge in the Republican South.

And, as president, one of Obama's roles clearly is to be the leader of his party. As such, perhaps he has been discovering how important it is for him to have Democrats in Congress to help him with anything else he would like to accomplish while in office — even though Democrats have shown themselves to be the same timid and ineffective wielders of legislative power that they have been in the past.

I don't admire much about Republican politics, but I do respect their tendency to do what they believe to be right (however misguided they may be) and treat bipartisanship as a worthy but probably unattainable (in most cases) objective, welcome if it occurs but not necessary if one can enact policy without it.

Right now, the Democrats can do most of the things they want to do in Congress without much, if any, help from their Republican colleagues. But that window is rapidly closing — even with the good news that jobs have been added to the economy in the last couple of months. Voters who became accustomed to the steady drumbeat of bad news for the last couple of years are going to require several months of good news to be convinced that things are turning around; they're still understandably skittish.

Earlier in the campaign, Lincoln tried to tap into that anti–incumbent mood by presenting herself as a voice of sanity in a childish legislative atmosphere. That doesn't seem to have done the trick, though, so, in the waning days of the campaign, apparently she wants to channel some of the president's popularity.

Perhaps the radio ad featuring Obama's endorsement (even though Lincoln has not been a dedicated supporter of the Obama agenda) may help her win the primary. But, down the road, I think it might hurt her in Arkansas.

I'm not really sure why folks outside Arkansas seem to be convinced the state is so much more progressive than other states in the South, including the state where I live now, Texas. Maybe it is because Arkansas produced the only other Democratic president in nearly 30 years.

And, yes, I realize that Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1976, whereas Arkansas did support its native son twice.

But, in terms of percentages, Texas actually gave Obama a greater share of its vote in 2008 than Arkansas did. More than 58% of Arkansas voters voted for John McCain, while 55% of Texas voters did. Of course, Obama didn't make much of an effort to win over Arkansas in 2008. To me, it seems a little lame to be trying to throw his political weight around there now — Arkansans haven't been showing much approval of what Obama has been doing in office.

Maybe, as I say, it will help Lincoln win her party's nomination. Arkansas' Democrats may be receptive to the message from the president.

But I don't think its Republicans and independents will be — and I am all but certain that Boozman will bring up that radio ad on the campaign trail this fall.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Million Tomorrows

In recent days, my thoughts have been on now absent friends — a longtime family friend who died last weekend and the brother of one of my closest friends who chose to take his own life a couple of days ago.

Their passing — like the recent anniversary of my mother's death — reminds me of times in my life that I cherish. Times that are gone forever — and, yet, they are times to which I still would like to return whenever I wish, like walking through a door into another room in your home.

That reminds me of something that John Lennon once said. I forget precisely how he phrased it, but it was something like this: "Death is like getting out of one car and getting into another."

Perhaps it is that simple.

But it can be downright tough to be among those who are left. This week, I've been remembering the service at my mother's graveside. At the conclusion, some of her friends had arranged to release balloons in a symbolic gesture to my mother's spirit, which was understood to be up there. I stood next to my father and, although I don't know if he has ever believed in an afterlife, I heard him mutter, "I want to go, too," as the balloons sailed higher and higher, finally disappearing in some clouds.

There are times when losing the people close to me seems to make me more aware of my responsibility to remember things. I mean, who will remember them if I don't?

In the last week, I've been thinking about moments I shared with my mother. Some are moments I haven't thought about in a long time, but, in most cases, I'm the only one left who would remember them. When I die, those memories will cease to exist.

And then I think of Big Bob, and I remember the times my family shared with his when I was growing up. There's a larger group of people who might remember those moments, but I often wonder if any of them do.

And then there is Sam, who was closer to my age but didn't cast the same kind of shadow over my life. I knew him through Brady, and I remember times when Sam was with us and he played his guitar.

Those were the days, my friend. I thought they'd never end.

But, like all things, they did.

Memories like that are frozen in my mind. I often feel like I'm the last one standing, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally — like Gloria Stuart, who, as 102–year–old Rose in "Titanic," laments that Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) "exists only in my memory."

For some reason, in recent days I have been thinking of Randy Sparks' song "Today," which he composed while with the New Christy Minstrels, the folk group he formed nearly 50 years ago.

I guess most of the younger generation haven't heard of the New Christy Minstrels. Folk music isn't as popular as it used to be. And "Today" wasn't as big a hit for the Minstrels as songs like "This Land is Your Land."

But "Today" is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the folk era — and it is a reminder that what is true today may not be true tomorrow.

Take nothing for granted.