Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prioritize, Prioritize

I think I was in college when I first heard a little jingle about plagiarism — "Plagiarize! Plagiarize! Let no one's work evade your eyes!"

As a journalism major, I was constantly being warned by my instructors not to plagiarize anyone. It became an article of faith with me. So I guess that accounts for my appreciation for that little snippet, which bubbles to the surface in my brain from time to time — sometimes because I really am confronted with a clear case of plagiarism, other times for reasons that aren't altogether certain at the time.

Today, it popped up, not because I have seen evidence of plagiarism but (I presume) because I've been seeing (and hearing) frequent pleas to Barack Obama to do a better job of prioritizing — and the two words sound so similar.

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, for example, was writing the other day about how the midterms — "like it or not," she writes — are going to be a "referendum" (her word) on the Obama presidency.

You might have to look long and hard to find anyone who was a more devoted supporter of Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign than Clift, and she has some trouble shedding that enabler role. She insists, for example, that "there's nothing wrong with Obama that a better economy wouldn't fix," and she's probably right about that.

But the economy isn't better. That's the reality.

And Clift, while still giving credit where she feels it is due, has plenty of blame for others for why that is so.

She still seems to think that Obama has time to right the ship of state ("The only saving grace for Democrats is the roster of fringe candidates the GOP has served up, and the hope that voters will reject the change these Tea Party insurgents represent," "it's not too late for Obama to raise the level of his game," etc.) but I don't.

Clift suggests things that might qualify as cosmetic changes, like revamping the economic team in which Obama places so much faith. And that wouldn't have been a bad idea — last year. But Obama was busy obsessing over health care, a Supreme Court nomination that was never in jeopardy and a "teachable moment" over race relations.

(Speaking of race relations, isn't it interesting that Obama and the Democrats never miss an opportunity to lecture the rest of us about race relations and are quick to dismiss any criticism as the product of racism when escalating unemployment has hurt minorities even more than whites?)

Even Clift can't escape the conclusion that Obama simply isn't doing the things that presidents usually do to reassure voters when times are difficult. She points out — and rightly so — that Bill Clinton survived impeachment by "going before the cameras every day to insist he was doing the work of the people."

Obama, on the other hand, will be addressing the nation tonight about Iraq.

"The time for that was earlier in August when the last of the combat troops rolled into Kuwait," writes Clift. "Voters want to know what Obama is doing to create jobs" — as I observed the other day, a great time for that would have been last Labor Day"and if he doesn't get the message soon, he will in November."

Maybe, in Obama's inexplicable sense of logic, what he is doing is groundbreaking and will work in ways that the rest of us cannot see yet. Perhaps, in the years to come, political science professors will be telling their students how Obama rewrote the rules for being a successful president and leader of his party during bad times.

If so, then perhaps on November 3, the day after the midterms, it will be incumbent upon me to acknowledge that Obama really did know what he was doing all along.

And if that's the case, I'm a big enough man to admit I was wrong and give credit where credit is due.

But today, about nine weeks before the voters go to the polls, I'm inclined to think that the Democrats are going to lose at least one chamber of Congress — and perhaps both.

If that happens, the Democrats will be all too eager to point fingers. Some are avoiding the rush and getting started on it ahead of time.

And, to be sure, there will be many scapegoats — some legitimate, some not.

But you will need look no further than the White House and its failure to prioritize to find the biggest reason for the setbacks.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't Tweet and Drive

I overlooked a cautionary tale from the Pacific coast a couple of weeks ago.

Dr. Frank Ryan, 50, a famous plastic surgeon, drove his vehicle off a California cliff and was killed.

One of his patients revealed to ABC News that he had been sending a Twitter message about his dog while he was driving.

This ought to be a warning to everyone who has tempted fate by texting from behind the wheel — or even talking on the phone while driving.

And I don't mean a subtle warning, like the ones you used to see on cigarette packages.

I mean a blunt warning, perhaps backed up by some serious legislation and the threat of some jail time.

Road safety isn't just about seat belts and air bags anymore. Apparently, 21st century drivers must be reminded relentlessly to keep their eyes on the road.

And they must be told not to do things that will distract them while driving — like texting or carrying on phone conversations.

Don't do that. Is that blunt enough?

You might not live in an area where you could drive off a cliff. But keeping your eyes on the road while you're driving isn't just something your Mom told you to be a party pooper.

It was good advice.

Remember, Dr. Ryan was apparently sending a Twitter message about his dog when his vehicle took its fatal plunge.

Is a Twitter message (regardless of what it may be about) worth risking your life?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Gold Standard

Does the name Donald Luskin ring any bells?

Just to briefly identify him for those of you who are unfamiliar with him ...

Luskin is the chief investment officer for Trend Macrolytics. Politically, he is a libertarian. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for National Review Online and SmartMoney.com.

And he's in his mid–50s.

Anyway, if you've been following recent economic discussions — and, I suppose, most of us have been doing so, even if we find the subject of economics boring and tedious and about as appealing as having a tooth pulled without the benefit of novocaine — you've probably heard the steady drumbeat of warnings about a "double–dip" recession.

(Personally, I find such talk baffling because it implies that the economy experienced one recession, then enjoyed a burst of economic activity, then sank into a second recession.

(It is called a double–dip recession because of the "W" shape that is created on the economic charts, like the one from the early 1980s.

(Please withhold your jokes about "W" being the middle initial of the previous president.

(My problem is this: If all those who warn us about a double dip are right, and a "second" recession is coming, when did the first one end? Oh, well, perhaps I digress.)

But back to Luskin. He says a double–dip recession is not in the cards, and investors should not hesitate to acquire stock right now. Why not?


"If the global economy was really heading toward another big leg down," Luskin writes for SmartMoney.com, "we wouldn't see gold creeping back up to within a couple percentage points of its all–time high."

Luskin insists that, while stocks are going through a "correction," gold is doing well. He has long been an advocate of gold, and he concludes that gold's performance means "there's no way we're headed back into the vortex of despair we saw in 2008."

Well, that's fine if, like Luskin, you place a lot of faith in gold as an economic indicator — and if you have enough disposable income to make investments in stocks.

Personally, I'm not entirely convinced. Granted, I'm no economist, and perhaps I would feel differently if I had a more extensive education in economics.

But I'll be skeptical about any recovery talk until I start seeing a lot of unemployed getting jobs every month.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On Your Own

"You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging
For your next meal.

"How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?"

Bob Dylan
Like a Rolling Stone

In less than a year, Bob Dylan will be 70 years old.

That's probably hard to comprehend for a lot of folks who can remember the lanky twenty–something fellow who burst onto the music scene in the early 1960s and composed songs that became anthems for social and political movements in America, a seemingly hesitant troubadour of unrest.

But those ballads may be due for a comeback, and, in the years to come, the twilight of Dylan's career may be remembered as a revival of the songs he wrote when his career was dawning half a century earlier.

I say that because, with each passing day, I get a greater sense of a growing unease and frustration. The middle class is being squeezed out of existence. People with college degrees, even advanced college degrees, have been out of work for months, even years. Many are losing the unemployment benefits that have kept them going — and with them, they are losing their faith in the future and in their leaders.

Speaking of unemployment benefits, I heard some people speaking optimistically recently about the fact that initial unemployment claims were below expectations for the first time in four weeks.

But Jeffry Bartash of MarketWatch quoted Brian Levitt of OppenheimerFunds, who wisely warned that the number of new claims (473,000) is "still an elevated number."

No kidding.

"Nevertheless," wrote Bartash, "investors welcomed the news and U.S. stocks rose modestly in early Thursday trades."

What do you suppose is the message that is being received by long–term unemployed Americans and those who are partially employed or "underemployed?"

Do you think it could be that, as long as you have deep pockets, deep enough to invest in stocks — and political campaigns — you won't be abandoned by your government, but if you're an individual who has worked hard for years to feed his family and keep a roof over the heads of his spouse and children, but you lose your job, not because of anything you've done but because of the mistakes of the higher–ups, then you're not even close to being too big to fail — and your government will throw you under the bus just to show that it can pinch pennies?

"[T]here are well over 14 million Americans without a paying job," writes Mortimer Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report, "so the level of discontent is very high. Just how are they going to regain control of their lives?"

I've heard a lot of people worrying about Barack Obama's plunging job approval numbers. And, I'll grant you, those numbers are alarming, especially when you compare them to the incredible approval numbers that accompanied him into office (when, if you want to be technical about it, there was nothing, other than rhetoric, of which to approve or disapprove) or some of the numbers of his predecessors.

For example, Gallup currently has Obama's approval rating at 43% and his disapproval rating at 50%. That was the same approval rating George H.W. Bush got in a Gallup poll about two weeks after he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. It is also the same approval rating Ronald Reagan — the same Ronald Reagan who is now revered as a conservative icon — had when his party suffered setbacks in the 1982 midterm elections.

And it's lower than any of the job approval findings for Clinton right around the time of the 1994 midterm elections — when Clinton's party lost control of both chambers of Congress.

Obama and the Democrats insist that things are better than folks think, a proposition that seems to me to be so fantastic that it belongs in a Monty Python movie. When Joe Biden, for example, talks about how great the economy is doing, he sounds to me like the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," swearing that his injuries, which left him with no limbs, were merely "flesh wounds."

Maybe they are right — it's a tough point to prove or disprove, with much of it relying on the largely unverifiable claim that jobs have been "saved," which has an almost evangelical ring to it — but, if they are right, the president's got a helluva publicity problem.

And it is a perception to which Obama himself appears to contribute willingly, sometimes eagerly. There is a growing disconnect between this president and the people that Obama is unable — or unwilling — to see. Sometimes — the mosque near ground zero controversy is a good, and timely, example — he seems determined to take a position that is practically guaranteed to antagonize the most people.

To be fair, though — even though it is part of the overall picture — that doesn't specifically address the economy in general or joblessness in particular. But, for that matter, neither did Obama last Labor Day.

It seemed like the ideal time to encourage — or even inspire — the jobless, maybe talk about what he was doing to promote job creation. At the very least, it was a time to reassure the unemployed that he hadn't forgotten that they were hurting and he was doing everything he could to relieve their pain.

But he never did. His focus on that day was on campaigning for health care reform and preparing to address the school children of America.

When you narrow it down to that, however, it's more of the same. He claims that he's been working on and promoting job creation since Day One, but many of the unemployed have seen no evidence of it. They don't know if he's arrogant or flippant or if he takes it for granted that the voters will never turn on him, that they will always adore him as they did in 2008.

But, whichever it is, he's living in a fool's paradise.

You can be sure that the voters do know that, nationally, unemployment is at 9.6%. It was about three percentage points lower when Obama was elected.

Even those voters who are the least knowledgeable of economic theories can tell you that doesn't sound like progress, never mind those who have gone farther in their economic studies than the principles of supply and demand.

Yet I continue to hear the same excuses I've heard since 2008 — this is Bush's fault and all criticism of Obama is based in racism.

The voters can't hold Obama responsible this year. He isn't on the ballot. But more than one–third of the Senate seats, all of the House seats and three–quarters of the governorships are on the ballot. And many of those jobs are currently held by Democrats.

It's no surprise that Congress gets low marks from voters. Congress always gets low marks from voters. But who is affected the most really depends on which party is in the majority. And, with so many Democrats holding congressional offices, a big thumbs down from the voters in 2010 is an expression of dissatisfaction with the Democrats that seems likely to be transferred to the ballot box.

It's really pretty simple, isn't it?

So, Democrats, let me ask you this. How's that working for you?

I can tell you what the latest congressional approval ratings say:
  • Let's start with the best news for Congress. It comes from the Associated Press/GfK, which reports that 24% of respondents approve of the job Congress is doing. That's a pretty significant drop, though, from the response to polls three and four months after Obama took the oath of office — when nearly 40% of respondents approved of the job Congress was doing.

    That might not sound great, especially compared to the 60s Obama was receiving around the same time — but, in the context of the history of this kind of polling, you can take my word for it. It's pretty impressive.

  • CBS News chose to emphasize the fact that, in its recent poll, Obama's job aproval rating went up slightly.

    But, while you had to hunt for it, the poll found that only 22% approved of Congress' job performance.

  • The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey has been polling cell phone users only.

    The fact that those respondents are all cell phone users suggests that they are among the most receptive to emerging technology, but they haven't been as receptive to Congress, with only 21% approving of the job Congress was doing.

    And these surveys have consistently shown that the cell phone users are unimpressed with the direction of the country. Currently, the survey reports, 58% believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

  • Gallup's findings were even more discouraging, in part because Gallup's surveys usually are the most reliable.

    And Gallup found that only 19% approved of the job Congress was doing.

    Like Associated Press/GfK, Gallup found much higher approval ratings for Congress in the spring of 2009, but that approval has declined steadily ever since.

    On the plus side, 19% approval represents an improvement over Gallup's finding from last spring. But it shows virtually no change in Congress' rating this summer.
I guess the bottom line is that, if you're out of work, you're on your own. Brush up on your Dylan.

If you've got a job, do whatever you have to do to keep it — even if you hate it.

And if you're a congressional Democrat running for re–election, you've got plenty of problems. Many of those Democrats, I am convinced, will not be successful in November. Make room in the unemployment line.

In the meantime, maybe Obama will say something — anything — about joblessness on Labor Day.

But don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Who Will Be the Last One Standing?

William Saxbe died yesterday at the age of 94.

If you aren't old enough to remember the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford presidencies, you might not recognize that name. But Saxbe was Nixon's attorney general during the final year of the Watergate scandal, and he remained in the Cabinet to serve as the attorney general under Ford — at least for the first six months of the Ford presidency.

Now, I'm old enough to remember much of the Nixon administration. And I can tell you that, for many reasons, Cabinet members seemed to be cheap and plentiful when Nixon was president. Twenty–nine different men held the 12 unelected Cabinet posts that existed during Nixon's 5½–year administration. Two of them served in two different Cabinet posts.

Nixon was a complicated man, a man whose own insecurities, fears and suspicions loomed over all the activities in his White House. And one of the clear underlying themes of everything in those days — from Woodward and Bernstein's reporting for the Washington Post to the Senate hearings to Nixon's famous transcripts — was how paranoid everyone in Nixon's administration became.

Even the people who voted for Nixon didn't particularly care for him. One of my earliest memories of Nixon was of his supporters describing him as "the lesser of evils."

And I must admit that I felt discouraged when I heard that. I had read inspiring stories of other presidents — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt. I had heard my parents speak admiringly of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. And I hoped that, one day, America would elect a president who would inspire me during my lifetime.

But that president was not Richard Nixon.

There was a sense of fear that surrounded Nixon's presidency, a sense that anyone who spoke against him publicly was finished in Washington. So a shroud of enabling silence descended over the Nixon White House.

But his presidency ended 36 years ago. Nixon himself passed away 16 years ago. You would have to think that, even from a group of men as large as the one that served in his Cabinet, there would be few left after 36 years.

So, when I saw that Saxbe had died, it got me to wondering. Was he the last? Or was anyone left from the Nixon years?

I guess, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized that at least one Nixon Cabinet member — Henry Kissinger — is still living. He's 87.

Most of the notorious members of Nixon's Cabinets are gone now — John Mitchell, for example, who was one of Saxbe's predecessors at the Department of Justice, and John Connally, who served at the Department of the Treasury.

But I was astonished to learn that more than one–quarter of the men who served on Nixon's Cabinet at one time or another are still alive.

Kissinger is probably the best known of the bunch, but one of Nixon's Labor secretaries, George Shultz, also was prominent in the early days of the Reagan administration as Al Haig's replacement at the State Department. Shultz is 89 now.

Another name that some people will recognize is that of James Schlesinger. He was Defense secretary under both Nixon and Ford, then went on to serve as the head of the newly created Department of Energy during Jimmy Carter's presidency. Schlesinger is now 81.

Those who remember the Nixon presidency also may remember the name of Melvin Laird, who was Nixon's first secretary of Defense. He, too, is still living. Like Kissinger, he is 87.

The other four probably aren't very well known to most Americans. I doubt that they were very well known to most Americans even when they were serving in the Cabinet. They are:
  1. James Hodgson, 94, former secretary of Labor;

  2. Frederick Dent, 88, former secretary of Commerce;

  3. Peter Peterson, 84, former secretary of Commerce; and

  4. James Lynn, 83, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Who do you think will be the last one standing from the Nixon administration?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bullets and Ballots

NPR's Linton Weeks reports that guns are very big with politicians in both parties this year.

I find that stunning, and I'm not really sure why. I mean, I know that conservatism is enjoying something of a revival in America. Poll after poll, after all, has suggested that there is considerable backlash against Democrats/liberals/progressives — and that seems likely to be confirmed when the votes are counted in November.

But guns aren't political props for Republicans only.

Some Democrats, as Weeks observes, are using guns to make the case that they are in touch with their constituents' concerns. Of course, macho posturing doesn't always work. Just ask Michael Dukakis.

Others — those who, presumably, can't bring themselves to hold a gun even when posing for a publicity photo — are already busily pointing their fingers at potential fall guys in anticipation of what is to come.

And many in the media are enabling them by coming up with scapegoats well ahead of time. Heck, it isn't even Labor Day yet.

"The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, "with the right spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment."

She then goes on to defend Barack Obama against the religious prejudice that has been stirred up by the mosque near ground zero controversy — never once acknowledging that Obama, as he tends to do, jumped into an argument that really is not something to which a president with a bad economy, soaring unemployment and two unpopular wars to resolve should devote even a fraction of his attention.

Of course, the same thing could have been said of Obama's so–called "beer summit" a year ago. Or his highly publicized NCAA tournament selections a little more than a month after he took office. Diversions at best. Distractions at worst.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that, even in the best of times (which these clearly are not), a president doesn't need to be weighing in on this kind of an issue. In fact, I would think that the last thing a president whose religious affiliation is, at best, confused by many Americans — and whose middle name has an ominously Muslim sound for Western ears — would want to do is wade into a no–win argument like this in the middle of a bleak midterm election campaign.

Obama, Dowd writes, is "[t]oo lofty to pay heed to the daily bump and grind of politics." That may be, but he'd better develop more of a taste for it — and an appreciation for how the game is played — if he really wants to be more than a one–termer.

I get the sense that Dowd is beginning to understand this, however grudgingly. In Dowd's world, it's all a big misunderstanding, and I guess it will stay that way, even after November, whatever those midterms may bring.

"Obama has failed to present himself as someone with the common touch," Dowd writes. "And to the extent that people don't know him or don't get him, he becomes easier to demonize."

So, apparently, we're back to blame again — but not blame for Obama. Nothing is ever his fault. The blame is for those who "don't get him." Maybe they're stupid. Maybe the problem is that they "cling" to guns and religion because they feel they've been abandoned by their leaders.

Voters do understand guns and religion. Those two things have been winning elections for candidates in both parties for many years. A good political strategist knows there are more votes to be gained than lost when you whip up a frenzy over either one.

As much as Dowd and other Obama defenders may want to believe that this demonizing is racist or, perhaps, the result of religious bigotry, demonization has been part of American politics for a long, long time.

If Mo didn't know that, where the heck has she been?

Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to calm a frightened nation by telling it that the only thing it had to fear was fear itself. But fear comes in many packages, and the politicians who can exploit it the best, particularly during bad times, are usually the ones who are the most successful.

Americans are fearful today. Politicians in both parties understand this. Why else would they incorporate guns into their campaigns?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Future Shock

Did you ever see the original film version of "Carrie," the one starring Sissy Spacek?

If you did, you could never forget the ending. Amy Irving, whose character was the sole survivor of the bloody prom night, has a peaceful, reverent dream in which she takes flowers to the land where Carrie's house once stood. As she is placing the flowers beneath a For Sale sign on the property, a bloody hand reaches up through the rubble and grabs her wrist. She wakes from the dream screaming hysterically.

The calm has been shattered. The facade is in ruins.

Isn't that a great analogy for the human experience?

It's an analogy the Democrats might want to think about after the votes have been counted in November. Because it seems likely to be their experience.

Thinking about it back in the spring, or the winter — or, preferably, a year ago — would have been better. It might have mitigated the damage. But, at this point, thinking about what might have been only squanders what little time remains.

Just like Amy Irving's character, they seem more than willing to march directly into a disaster zone (Danger, Will Robinson), intentionally oblivious to the threat — and, what is worse, unwilling to learn anything from it. They're like the guy who has a terrible toothache but ignores the pain, hoping it will go away — which, of course, it never does.

But, unfortunately, in this case, the toothache is only a symptom of a much more serious affliction. You see it every day in individuals — the inclination to blame others for their own failures. Sometimes, that is legitimate. Most of the time, it is not.

When Barack Obama won the presidency and Democrats built huge congressional majorities in 2008, they seemed to understand the terrible economic pain being inflicted on Americans. Job losses continued to mount during the presidential transition — so much so that, only a couple of weeks after the election, Gail Collins of the New York Times suggested that Bush should resign and let Democrats take over early, immediately implementing the clear will of the people.

That kind of thinking — tongue in cheek though it may have been — ignored the facts that (a) some states and districts that had been voting Republican for decades voted for Democrats in what may have been temporary electoral tantrums while others continued to vote Republican in spite of the Democratic wave sweeping the country, and (b) many of the voters who propelled the Democrats in 2008 belong to demographic groups with historically low voter participation rates and were enticed to come to the polls by Obama's charisma.

Perhaps some of those voters will participate in November, even though Obama is not on the ballot. If they don't, perhaps they will return to the polls in two years, when Obama is on the ballot. After that, my guess is that — in the absence of someone who is comparably charismatic and committed to the same agenda as Obama — their participation will decline steadily until it returns to its historic levels.

Unless those groups establish a better track record, they can't be considered likely voters, and Democratic nominees, especially those in traditionally Republican states and districts, shouldn't rely on their help.

I got the impression that Democrats saw a long–term, generational shift in political philosophy and allegiance in the election of 2008. Perhaps, when historians review the record of this administration decades from now, that is what they will see. But right now, there is no evidence of the sustained participation of greater numbers of young, black and/or progressive voters that Obama and the Democrats will need if they are to solidify their grip on power.

Personally, I felt the election of 2008 turned into a cult of personality campaign. Many of the voters who participated for what may have been the only time in their adult lives in 2008 may be drawn back to the polls in 2012 when Obama is on the ballot, but without him, the party's chances of retaining these voters are grim.

You don't have to be much of an historian to know that. But apparently some people need to have it spelled out for them — a task that is apt to be accomplished in November.

Well, at least Irving's character did have a few legitimate excuses for not seeing what was coming — nobody warned her, and it was a dream.

The Democrats of 2010, however, have been getting plenty of warnings for more than a year. They are like the people in the flatlands who can see a storm coming long before it arrives. But they don't heed the warnings.

Then, in November, the TV cameras will show Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi with those "deer in the headlights" expressions on their faces.

And, because of their neglect or arrogance or both, what is going to happen to them in November will be no dream. A nightmare, perhaps, but no dream.

They're going into it prepared to wage war — but they're fighting against the same things they fought against in the last two election campaigns — Republican policies, foreign and domestic, and the incompetent Republican administration.

It's George W. Bush's fault, they will say.

And, if history is any indicator — which it almost always is — the voters will agree with them. Poll after poll showed that the voters agreed with Ronald Reagan in 1982 when he asserted that America's economic problems were the fault of the Democrats and Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

But those same polls also showed that voters felt it was irrelevant.

What Reagan and the Republicans didn't get was that the voters felt they had already punished Carter and the Democrats. They had given Reagan and the Republicans the opportunity they sought, but improvements were slow — too slow.

CNN's "Political Ticker" reports that Democrats are unveiling a new advertisement in their autumn arsenal (see above). It ends with a shot at Bush.

The message, which will be instantly recognizable to anyone who remembers the early 1980s, is "stay the course." It isn't phrased that way, of course. After all, the last thing 21st century Democrats want to be perceived as doing is taking a page from the playbook of the last truly successful — and now dead — Republican president.

But, in 1982, he pleaded with the voters to "stay the course," to give him and his party more time to turn things around. The voters weren't feeling terribly generous. They didn't give control of the Senate back to the Democrats, from whom they had taken majority status and given it to the Republicans.

But their anger with the Republicans in 1982 was visible in the races for House seats. America had taken 49 House seats from the Democrats and given them to the Republicans in the 1978 and 1980 elections. In 1982, they took 26 back and gave them to the Democrats.

Sounds a lot like what I expect in 2010. The evidence of the coming political tsunami is building all around them. The latest Rothenberg Political Report projections anticipate a 28–33 seat gain in the House and a 5–8 seat gain in the Senate — not quite enough to flip control of either chamber but enough to stall the Democrats for the next two years.

And it remains to be seen what kind of an effect the general campaigns will have on things.

Undoubtedly, there are some Democrats who would prefer that Obama did not come to their states or districts this fall. His approval ratings have been mostly in the 40s this year.

Nearly a year ago, Brent Budowsky wrote in The Hill that it was "showtime" for the Democrats.

Showtime has come and gone. The clock is ticking now, and time is running out.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When You Promise Change, You'd Better Deliver

And pronto.

Sometimes I think Barack Obama and the Democrats would rather not talk much about the 2008 campaign — unless it means an easy opening for bashing George W. Bush some more.

But that "hope" and "change" rhetoric is going to ring rather hollow in the ears of the vanishing middle class, especially those who have been out of work for awhile.

I have no doubt that Obama's diehard supporters will insist that he has delivered change in his first 19 months in office.

The validity of that position, I suppose — to borrow another president's words — depends on what your definition of is is.

Perception — as I have said many times — is reality. So I understand the rationale of those in the Obama camp who believe they can reason their way out of an electoral disaster.

And, for them, it may be sufficient to recite those achievements in the apparent belief that the voters simply need to be reminded who was running the show when the economy imploded and what the Democrats have been doing to try to salvage it.

For the most part, theirs seems to be a record that is consistent with their apparent objectives and beliefs (whether stated or unstated).

Obama and his fellow Democrats did enact a massive stimulus, even though unemployment continued to go up through 2009 and now appears stuck between 9.5% and 10% (not counting those whose benefits have expired or who are part–timers or otherwise "underemployed") — and even though many economists said at the time, and continue to say, that it wasn't large enough.

He pushed through a massive health care reform package — which, actually, won't be implemented for several years.

He nominated two women to the Supreme Court, both of whom were approved without much opposition.

The voters — those crummy ingrates — aren't giving the president and the Democrats the credit they deserve, Obama seems to feel, so he has been reminding voters lately of all the things he's done for them, how his initiatives are going to make things better in the future. And this looks like something he'll be doing quite a bit between now and November.

Now, all that long–term stuff is good, and all the lovely projections are nice to talk about. But let's be honest here. If you're a working man who has lost his job and can't pay his mortgage and can't feed his kids, that is what is going to dominate your agenda from one election to the next.

A lot of those people voted for Democrats in 2006 and 2008 (especially 2008). In 2010, they're frustrated by the slow pace of job gains — which, last month, weren't gains at all — and they aren't concerned about political philosophy or anything else except jobs.

From where they sit, if the Democrats haven't been able to deliver, maybe the Republicans have learned something from spending the last few years in the wilderness. Or, like the woman in the video, they just might not bother to vote at all this time.

When you are elected president under a banner of "CHANGE," that is what the voters expect.


Clearly visible change.

The initiatives and the appointments for which Obama can claim credit may well bear fruit many years from now — and future historians may sing his praises, as modern historians do today for some one–term presidents who acted in what they believed were the long–term interests of the nation but ignored the short term by which they and the members of their party were judged.

Now, like Ronald Reagan 28 years before, Obama wants voters to "stay the course." But voters in 1982 were much like the voters in 2010. They changed parties in the White House two years earlier, and improvements were hard to see by the time the midterm elections rolled around.

That was bad news for Republicans, who had made much of the Democrats' quarter–century hold on congressional power with their "Vote Republican. For a Change" campaign in 1980 (see clip at top of post).

They had persuaded voters to give them both the White House and control of the Senate. They hadn't won control of the House, but they gained 34 seats, and Republicans were able to persuade enough of the remaining Democrats to vote with them to implement what became known as the "Reagan Revolution."

But the revolution seemed to have profited the rich and the elite, not the working class — and the working class gave 25 House seats back to the Democrats. At this point in 1982, Reagan (whose approval rating was in the 50s and 60s for most of his first year in office) had an approval rating of 41% — which just happens to be where Obama's job approval currently stands, according to Gallup.

By the time Americans went to the polls in November 1982, Reagan's approval had crept up to 43%.

A pretty face, John Lennon wrote nearly four decades ago, may last a year or two "but pretty soon they'll see what you can do."

And, at a time when Americans have been crying out for job creation, the answer to that one is, "Not much."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Phyllis' Opus

This morning, in my hometown of Conway, Ark., people are gathering to honor my friend Phyllis, of whom I have written much — and thought even more — in the last 10 days.

I have no doubt that there have been many private conversations about Phyllis and the influence she had on everyone she knew.

But this morning the first public notes of Phyllis' opus will be played for the world, almost certainly through some tears because this is a loss for all who knew her, but it will become increasingly joyful, as befits Phyllis herself.

All the things I have written here and elsewhere, all the e–mail exchanges and telephone conversations I have had with friends, all the unexpressed thoughts and memories I have had in these last 10 days will remain with me the rest of my life.

There really is no doubt about it, as far as I am concerned. When I think of Phyllis in the days, weeks, months, even years ahead (if what is left of my life can be measured in years), I will frequently remember many things that occurred after her death. Things of which she never knew — at least in her earthly existence (but that takes us into a discussion of faith and belief, or lack thereof, in an afterlife, and, although Phyllis devoutly believed in God, I don't really want to go there today).

It was that way for me when my mother died. The circumstances were different, but I still find myself thinking as much of the time right after her death as I do of the many wonderful memories I have of her when she was alive.

It wasn't that way for me with my grandmother, though. She had dementia — Mom called it "hardening of the arteries," which I have come to believe was a polite way of saying Alzheimer's disease in those days — and she was never really the grandmother I had known in the last eight or nine years of her life. When she died, I remember wondering if I would ever be able to think of her without picturing her the way she was at the end.

As it turned out, I worried needlessly about that. It wasn't long after her funeral that I realized that my memories of her when she was sick were rapidly receding. Today, I really have to concentrate to remember her in the grip of Alzheimer's. It is virtually effortless, though, for me to remember her when I was a child or — shudder — in my somewhat rebellious teenage years.

Circumstances may have a lot to do with that. I watched my grandmother decline for years. My mother and Phyllis, on the other hand, seemed to be snatched away without warning.

Long before this time of mourning and reflection, I associated Phyllis with music. She was always musical. We didn't know each other for the first 11 or 12 years of our lives, but I'd be willing to bet she was always musical as a child. It really wouldn't surprise me if she was born with a song on her lips.

Well, we knew each other from sixth grade on, and, while I couldn't tell you how or where we met, I'm sure music was there, not far away, in one form or another. Maybe a radio was on. Maybe one of those newfangled 8–track or cassette tapes was playing.

Maybe we were in the generic music appreciation class that we all had to take when we were in middle school in those days.

For some reason, my mind associates my first meeting with Phyllis with "My Sweet Lord." Perhaps that was the big hit at the time?

Anyway, as I have written here before, she had many interests, many talents. I will think of those gifts often in the time that is left to me. But the gift that will always stand out in my memory is her gift for music and her eagerness to share it with others.

Fifteen years ago, when the film "Mr. Holland's Opus" came out, I thought about Phyllis when I saw it. It seemed natural to do so. It was so familiar — the marching band, the joy of making music, the public school setting.

Besides, even when I was an adolescent, I pictured Phyllis teaching music — and, although she did other things in her life, she actually did teach music for several years. I didn't know that when the movie came out, though, but it didn't require much of a mental leap for me to see Phyllis in Mr. Holland.

I'm sure she dabbled in composition, too, even if it was mostly part of her music studies. I don't know what she was doing when the movie came out. But I found myself wondering, as I watched the final scene (which you can see in the attached clip), if Phyllis, like Mr. Holland, had ever felt that her life had been "misspent."

Perhaps, as was said of Mr. Holland, Phyllis worked secretly on a composition that could have made her rich and famous. But Phyllis, like Mr. Holland, was not wealthy (by traditional standards), and she wasn't famous outside our town (which was small when we were growing up but has mushroomed in recent years) or our county.

So she may not have been working on that symphonic composition that could have brought her fame, but she was rich, though. Not in a monetary sense, but in all the lives she touched, and those lives will always be different because of her. Whatever is accomplished here on earth by those she left behind can truly be said to have been the result, at least in part, of her influence.

In the days since her death, I have seen entries in an online guestbook at the funeral home and on her Facebook page in which Phyllis has been described as bubbly, optimistic, always smiling. And that is true. In my mind, Phyllis will always be the same friend I remember from my teenage years, a force of nature, always positive, always insisting on the best from those around her because she always demanded the best from herself.

Did she ever consider herself a failure, as Mr. Holland's former student said of him? I don't know. Perhaps she did. Perhaps she felt like a failure if she allowed herself to think of how things may not have turned out as she had hoped.

I don't know how many conscious hours she spent in the hospital in her final weeks. And if I did know how many conscious hours she had, it still probably wouldn't be possible to know how many she passed believing she would recover — or if there was a point when she realized that she would not.

If she did realize, at some point, that she was not going to live much longer, she may have reflected on the things she would not have, like the opportunity to grow old (and to do so with her husband, whom she did not marry until a decade before her death), or the path she did not take.

That seems unlikely to me. Phyllis never was the sort who would dwell on what might have been. But who can say what goes through the mind of a dying person who may have already experienced the other four stages of death (anger, denial, bargaining and depression) and is left with only the final stage — to accept the inevitable?

The only thing I can conclude is, if she ever did think of herself as a failure, she was wrong, as Mr. Holland would have been.

Today, I suspect that the church where her memorial service is being held will resemble the auditorium in the final scene from "Mr. Holland's Opus." It may not be as large, and it won't be anywhere near as joyous — and that really is too bad because Phyllis deserved that kind of recognition, from a huge auditorium filled with cheering admirers, during her lifetime — but, like that auditorium, the church will be filled with some — but far from all — of the lives that were graced by Phyllis' touch.

Those lives in the church today will be merely part of Phyllis' opus, the music of her life, and through those lives and many more her spirit will live on. They will play a music that others may not hear but which was inspired by Phyllis. And for years to come, the world will continue to be touched by her, in ways that are seen and unseen, heard and unheard.

Thank God for that.

OK, I know I said earlier that I didn't want to talk about faith — and I still don't — but Phyllis always believed in God. Regardless of whatever doubts I may have, it still seems appropriate on this day to be thankful that Phyllis' spirit will live on in this world, that she won't soon be forgotten.

And if that is God's doing, then I say a heart felt "Thank you."

At the same time, I suppose, there is an equal and opposite reaction, personified in a small voice that protests that we should have had more time with Phyllis, a sense that what we should have had and what we got were two different things.

I confess, I do feel that way at times. It's the same feeling I had when my mother died.

But that's me, wrestling with my sense of loss. And I want to get past that because, as I said, Phyllis wouldn't have dwelled on what might have been.

In the future, I want to remember Phyllis with gratitude for all the things we shared.

I guess there really isn't much left to say now — except for this.

I remember once, when I was a child, I was with my mother in a store in New York City, where we were spending the summer. And I saw a sign promoting a certain brand of beer that proclaimed, in its commercials of that day, that it had "gusto."

I was only about 7 or 8 at the time, I guess, and I asked my mother if we could get some. I didn't know what beer was. I guess I thought it was some special kind of root beer (I liked root beer when I was a child, and I still associate its flavor with pleasant memories of childhood) — and I must have figured that gusto was some kind of special ingredient, like the barley and hops I had heard mentioned in other beer commercials.

Mom was a non–drinker in those days — later in her life, she did enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner, but, as I say, that was later in her life — and she must have been appalled when she heard her child asking her if we could buy a six–pack.

It was an honest mistake, though. I didn't know what beer was — and I sure didn't know what gusto was.

But I do now — because of Phyllis. You could see it in the way she approached everything — her music, her studies, her relationships. She truly had a gusto for life that she passed on — or tried to pass on — to all those around her, strangers as well as friends and family, although she seemed to be particularly intent upon sharing it with those who were closest to her.

And I will try to live the rest of my life in a way that would make her proud.

You know, it can seem terribly daunting to try to go forward after someone significant in your life has died. But we must carry on the best we can. Is there any other option?

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon may have said it best. He endured what may be the greatest loss a person can endure — the loss of his son.

"I've never looked back and regretted anything," he said. "I've had everything in baseball a man could ask for. I've been so fortunate. Outside of my boy getting killed. That really puts it in perspective. So you don't win the pennant. You don't win the World Series. Who gives a damn? Twenty years from now, who'll give a damn?

"You do the best you can. That's it."

And that is what I will do. My best. It is all I can do.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shilling For Your Dollars ... And Votes

"[O]ne of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida."

George W. Bush
Sept. 21, 2001
O'Hare Airport, Chicago

I guess it's official now. Presidents don't lead anymore. They shill.

Do you remember, a little more than a week after the September 11 attacks, when George W. Bush was in Chicago, and he pleaded with Americans to travel to places like Disney World? The popular rhetoric of the time was aimed at encouraging Americans to spend their money on expensive jewelry, clothes, family vacations, etc. — because, if they didn't, the reasoning went, "the terrorists win."

The idea — and it truly was worthy of Madison Avenue — was that the attacks were all about capitalism and consumerism — the American way of life. And it was the natural extension of the Republicans' simplistic argument — "They hate us for who we are."

Such an assessment defied the only conclusion that could be reached after a logical review of the facts — but it did have a few things going for it. Primarily, it could be boiled down to a simple, memorable phrase that Americans could remember, like "don't ask don't tell" or "just say no."

Never mind that, only a few days before, as he was standing on the South Lawn of the White House, Bush warned that the war on terrorism — which he described, in an unfortunate word choice that conjured up medieval memories for those in the Muslim world, as a "crusade" — was "going to take a while."

On that day in Chicago in September 2001, Bush faced a crisis in the airline industry. Commercial airline travel had been shut down for three days after the terrorist attacks, which had been costly, but business had been shaky before the attacks, and it was really struggling after them.

After seeing the events of September 11 unfold, people were, understandably, jittery about air travel. The demand for tickets plummeted. Airlines were having to cancel flights.

Bush knew that air travel played a key role in economic activity, and he wasn't eager to let the airlines drag the rest of the economy down. So he shilled for the airlines. Things remained bad for the airlines for several months — there was so much unused jet fuel that, by the end of 2001, gas prices had fallen below $1/gallon for the first time in decades — but folks didn't blame Bush for that. It had been the work of those nasty old "evil–doers."

No matter how long it took to wage the war on terrorism, the airline industry — and all the related industries, like hotels and restaurants — needed a boost right away.

Say what you will about the Bush administration — and I've said and/or written most of it before — but he was light years ahead of his successor when it comes to self–serving photo ops.

He was a superior shill.

See, I feel I am witnessing the same kind of thing from the current occupant of the White House — only it has been far less competent. Some people see that as a plus — that Barack Obama is such an amateur at shilling — but the truth is that shilling has become perhaps the primary role of a president.

The Gulf of Mexico is huge. It is the ninth–largest body of water in the world. It took Hurricane Katrina nearly a week to cross it and make landfall in New Orleans. Contrary to what you might have imagined, the Gulf isn't one big oil slick.

That doesn't mean that three months of constant flow of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf didn't take their toll.

Certainly, the oil has created an environmental catastrophe that will be decades in repairing. People are staying away from the Gulf. The many Gulf businesses that depend on tourism are struggling, even if they are a great distance from the actual location of the oil spill — and the Florida Panhandle is not far. Many of the people there truly are suffering.

That suffering can't be blamed on the previous administration, but it's still a threat to the economy, and Obama seems to be intent on nipping it in the bud. Maybe he thinks there are still votes to be won for this November's midterm elections.

Oh, he warned everybody that there was a long slog ahead. "Our job is not finished," he said yesterday, promising that the work would go on until the job was done. It was meant to reassure the folks on the coast, whose jobs are now at risk because the tourists aren't flocking to the beaches — and who might be thinking about voting against the Democrats in November because they're tired and angry and frustrated and they need to lash out at someone.

I'm more inclined to think this is about 2012 than 2010 — unless Obama is still harboring fantasies about avoiding midterm losses this year.

And I don't believe he is naive enough to think that his constant slide in the polls can be reversed in time to make a difference in November.

Anyway, there was a lot of talk about how Obama and his daughter went for a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn't seen by anyone who could verify it independently. CNN reports that no press cameras were on hand to record the symbolic swim, but, lucky us, the White House's photographers apparently were there.

Well, a photo of the president and his daughter in some water was promptly circulated. The non–verbal message? Come to the Gulf of Mexico. The water's fine. The food is great. The beaches are as white as sugar. Come to the Gulf and spend your money.

I hate to be a party pooper, but there is nothing in the picture that could possibly confirm where it was taken. Not to go all "Capricorn One" on you, but suspicious minds might surmise that the Obamas went ahead with their original plans to visit Martha's Vineyard, and that the picture was actually taken at one of the exclusive/private swimming holes in Massachusetts.

Water is water, right?

Now, why, you may ask, were no press reporters there? Obama had an answer for that. "I'm not going to let you guys take a picture of me with my shirt off," he said. "You guys will tease me just like last time. I was on the front page ... People commenting."

So the president wanted to help the Gulf economy — but he was sensitive about being teased. You know, most of us got over that when we were still in elementary school.

I'm not suggesting that this was staged. But photo ops that can be that easily questioned won't achieve their primary objective, which is to be of some benefit to the person(s) in the picture.

Just sayin' that the symbolic swim should have been witnessed by some folks who aren't on the White House payroll — because whoever arranged for this photo op really dropped the ball.

And maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the Obamas have tried to keep their children out of the spotlight whenever possible. And that really has seemed to be typical of all the presidential families in my lifetime. But this time, the president apparently had no trouble using one of his daughters as his prop.

Perhaps, in spite of his protests, he is influenced by polls, like the AP/GfK poll that shows Democrats losing the allegiance of independents, who played an important role in the sweeping Democratic triumphs of 2008.

Those voters, report Alan Fram and Trevor Tompson of the Associated Press, have shown "especially strong concerns about the economy, with 9 in 10 calling it a top problem and no other issue coming close." But they have seen little improvement and little indication that the administration is doing anything to create jobs or prevent further job losses.

Perhaps Obama feels some pressure to shill for those who depend on the sand and the sea of the Gulf for their livelihoods — because it's entirely possible that he is going to want their help in a couple of years.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Carousel of History

I've been reading a fascinating piece by Steve Kornacki at Salon.com in which he offers both "a hopeful example and a cautionary tale" to Democrats.

If you've been reading my blog, you have undoubtedly noticed that I, long ago, grew tired of the tendency of Democrats to blame George W. Bush for the problems they can't resolve.

That does not mean that I am a defender of Bush in any way. And if you've been reading my blog, you should know that as well. But I've never been a fan of this kind of pass–the–buck politics — not when the Republicans did it in the 1980s and not when the Democrats are doing it today.

To me, it seems like an inexcusable waste of time — especially since there is nothing new about it.

I may not always express it as well as I should, but it just seems to me that blaming the other side — even if you really and truly believe the other side deserves to be blamed — is a time–sensitive excuse. And the voters aren't as generous with time as politicians (and their diehard supporters) sometimes think they should be.

You've got to act while you have power because power is fleeting. In a democracy, nothing is permanent.

And the window of opportunity always seems to close rapidly when unemployment gets out of hand.

Many of Obama's supporters are already playing the race card. The problem — for them — is that this is not a racial issue unless it can be proven that layoffs have disproportionately affected blacks (or Hispanics or whichever racial group feels it has been discriminated against).

I'm not saying that race hasn't been a factor in some cases. But job losses have been across the board, affecting all races, all faiths, all ages, both genders. It's been an equal opportunity destroyer of American lives.

Racism, in most instances, is merely a convenient scapegoat.

Kornacki's analysis, it seems to me, is right on the money: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush left office under very similar circumstances, Kornacki observes — "feeble economy, brutal job approval ratings, sagging national confidence." So, he continues, "they were both replaced by charismatic leaders ... whose inaugurations spawned widespread public optimism."

But grim economic data sank Ronald Reagan's midterm efforts to gain ground for his party the way he had when he was out of office. And the same thing is happening to Barack Obama.

The lesson of history is being repeated.

Kornacki says there are things for Obama and the Democrats to learn from Reagan and the Republicans of the early 1980s; in particular, "Running against the guy you replaced, no matter how unpopular he was, just doesn't work in midterm elections — especially when the economy is in the gutter."

Kornacki observes that voters agreed with Reagan's assessment of the economy in 1982. They, too, blamed Carter for the high unemployment rate, but they still gave the Democrats two dozen House seats. The Republicans owned the economy by then. They said two years hadn't been enough time. The voters disagreed.

Kornacki acknowledges the temptation to run against the last guy, but he says Democrats are "poised to learn the same lesson the GOP did in '82: It just doesn't matter."

Still using the Reagan experience as an example, Kornacki points out that the Republicans continued to hammer Carter in subsequent elections, with varying degrees of success.

In 1984, when Reagan sought a second term, the economy was doing better and the Republicans could point to a record of success. In 1988, the charismatic Reagan could not run again and his vice president, the less popular George H.W. Bush, ran with an economy that was still doing well but wasn't as robust as it had been.

And, by 1992, the economy was in a recession. The pendulum swung, and, as Bill Clinton and the Democrats trashed the culture of greed in the 1980s, polls showed Reagan's post–presidential approval ratings dropping and Carter's rising.

Actually, as Kornacki suggests, Carter's ratings had been rising for years, largely because of "his high–profile humanitarian work, which reminded Americans of the basic decency that attracted them to Carter in the first place — just as the unconventional nature of his post–presidency reminded them of a quirkiness they'd found appealing in 1976."

(Those very qualities stood in stark contrast to the administration of the last president who was elected before Carter, Richard Nixon.

(Whenever people feel compelled to bring up Carter's decency and ordinary–guy appeal, I feel it is necessary to try to explain the unique circumstances of the 1976 election. Even though Nixon never said a word publicly during that campaign, his spirit hung over things like a Shakespearean ghost. After the lies and deceit of the Nixon years — which many people felt was continued by the pardon issued by his successor — there was something very appealing about the wholesome, if quirky, Carter campaign.

(More recent generations may think they saw narcissism in the Clinton years or an obsession with secrecy during the Bush years. And they did. But Nixon excelled in both categories.)

Anyway, Carter's image seemed to have been rehabilitated in the Clinton years, but, in the ebb and flow of American politics, Kornacki points out that Reagan's admirers were alarmed by his declining popularity and "undertook a sweeping effort to repair The Gipper's image, transforming him into the god–like figure that conservatives now worship."

Consequently, Kornacki writes, there is now a new generation of "Carter bashers" — some of whom may not even have been born when Carter left office.

All of which goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

An interesting side note from Kornacki, though: "[W]hile the Carter–bashing of the '80s was intended for independents and swing voters, today's version is geared toward the GOP base. To bash Carter is to affirm the Reagan legend — and to affirm the Reagan legend is to pander to the GOP base."

So one must wonder where this analysis, while interesting, is leading us.

I think, as I have suggested, that the pendulum is always swinging in American politics. Whoever is in favor today is sure to be in disfavor before long — and vice versa.

I thought, when I was a boy, that first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon would be vilified forever.

But I have been astonished to see, in recent years, that, while the initials LBJ elicited venomous responses from young protesters I saw on TV in my childhood, not many seem to remember today what they stood for.

And, in large part because of his own rehabilitation efforts, when Nixon died in 1994, he was remembered for things other than Watergate — an achievement I never could have foreseen 20 years earlier.

"It remains to be seen whether George W. Bush will in this decade repair his personal image the way Carter did in the '80s," writes Kornacki, "or if a new generation of Bush–bashers will come to dominate the Democratic Party a generation from now."

As for Bush, the campaign to improve his standing with the public seems to have begun. Although he has remained silent in Obama's first 19 months in office, Bush's memoir is slated to hit bookstores in November, and, aside from passages that may be quoted in reviews that are published before Election Day, it seems to me Bush's book will have more influence on the 2012 campaign, perhaps giving Republicans ammunition to use against the Bush–bashers.

Nevertheless, I agree with Kornacki when he writes "we can bet on one thing: Just as Republicans didn't give up on Carter–bashing after a brutal 1982 midterm, Democrats won't be abandoning Bush–bashing after this November."

It seems to be the lesson of history that neither party can learn.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ted Stevens Dies in Plane Crash

A couple of years ago, I wrote a lot about former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — his unsuccessful fight against ethics charges, his last election campaign and the protracted ballot counting in Alaska that left the outcome up in the air for a couple of weeks.

Stevens, of course, lost the 2008 election by nearly 4,000 votes and returned to Alaska, presumably to live out his days in retirement after serving in the Senate longer than any other Republican. And I haven't written about him since.

Even though he was 85 years old on the day Alaska finished counting its ballots, most people probably assumed his retirement would be a long one. He was elderly, but he was in good health and, the reasoning continued, there was no reason why anyone should think he would not be around for awhile.

But it was not to be.

He died during the night in a plane crash in his home state. As I write this, details are trickling in. At the moment, it appears that nine people were on board the plane and five, including Stevens, were killed. Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe also was on board the plane, but there has been no word yet about his fate.

In the wild and untamed regions of Alaska, about the only way to travel from one place to another, even in those few months of each year when snow is not on the ground, is by air. That's a fact of life. There are people in Alaska who make their living running air taxi services, and anyone who ever watched the TV series Northern Exposure in the 1990s knows how crucial air travel was in those days — and still is — for postal carriers.

And it's another fact of life that plane crashes happen in Alaska. I'm not talking about the huge jets that cross the globe routinely every day. I'm talking about small, private planes, and they go down for all sorts of reasons.

It is said that Stevens' plane was brought down by bad weather. Sometimes, I guess, the vast Alaskan horizon can play tricks on even the most experienced pilot. And not all the pilots who try to travel through portions of the state, much of it still frontier, are as experienced as they should be.

Alaskan plane crashes don't always take the lives of prominent people, but sometimes they do. Stevens and his first wife were in a plane crash in 1978. Stevens' wife was killed; he was injured. Six years earlier, Rep. Nick Begich, the father of the man who unseated Stevens in 2008, was killed along with House colleague Hale Boggs, who served on the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

And, in what may have been the most notorious Alaskan plane crash, humorist Will Rogers was killed 75 years ago this Sunday.

Alaska is a rugged land. It took rugged people to settle it, but no one, no matter how rugged, can conquer it.

A plane ride in Alaska has never been routine, even if a skilled pilot could make it seem so. Stevens represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 40 years. In all those elections, he must have known the risks involved in statewide travel.

That is probably little comfort to Stevens' family on this day.

But that's the way it is.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Unique Day in American History

I guess there is not much to be said of Richard Nixon's farewell to his White House staff 36 years ago today.

I didn't have anything to say about it last year, on the 35th anniversary, which was probably a more appropriate time to do it.

I mean, I wrote about his address to the nation the night before in which he announced his intention to resign. And then, a year ago today, I wrote about the inauguration of his successor, Gerald Ford — and the national sense of relief that followed and persisted for a month, until Ford announced his pardon of Nixon.

But I wrote nothing about his farewell address. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake because, whether he realized it or not, I think Nixon, who may have been the most private of presidents, revealed a lot about himself that day.

After Ford announced that pardon in September 1974, there was plenty of speculation that a deal had been cut between Nixon and Ford before Nixon would agree to resign, but no evidence has ever been presented that could elevate such talk to a specific charge.

A month earlier, though, on Aug. 9, 1974, I recall hearing no talk of a pardon. I do recall watching Nixon's farewell speech to his White House staff — and wondering, at times, if Nixon was going to come unglued on national television.

He certainly appeared to be tottering along on the edge of mental collapse — and who could blame him? He made his reputation as a fighter who had risen above a series of crises in his life to become president of the United States — and then, after a landslide re–election, his second term had been consumed by the scandal that ultimately consumed him.

Nixon always tried to present a facade in public, very seldom letting his true emotions show. But he had a bitter relationship with the press that sometimes slipped through.

Such was the case in 1962, on Election Night, when Nixon lost the gubernatorial campaign in California, and told the reporters, in an impromptu news conference, that they wouldn't have him to "kick around" anymore.

That was his last press conference, he told them.

But it wasn't. Six years later, Nixon was running for president again. The outcome was another close one, like Nixon's loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 — but this time Nixon was the winner.

I've heard it said that Nixon became increasingly secretive because of his experiences — the charges that almost forced him to withdraw from Dwight Eisenhower's ticket in 1952; his perceived mistreatment by the press in 1960 and 1962 and the 1968 presidential campaign; the hostility he believed was directed at him by opponents of his policies in Vietnam. Those experiences, I have been told, contributed significantly to the atmosphere that led Nixon and his loyalists into the quagmire of Watergate.

And, given the constantly growing adversarial relationship that existed between Nixon and the press, it was probably only a matter of time before Nixon lashed out following the famed "Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973.

And then, a few weeks later, when the heckles of "Crook!" from the ever–present protesters outside the White House had reached a crescendo, Nixon held a press conference and asserted, to a stunned nation, that he wasn't a crook.

It was an astonishing moment in American history, the kind of moment I had never experienced prior to that time and don't expect to experience again. I was quite young at the time, but I had learned enough to know that, even if one disagreed with the president, even if one thought the president was deceitful, one would never suggest he was a "crook." One might as well question the honesty of the pope.

But Nixon was an exception to the rule. Even many of those who voted for him weren't sure about his integrity. As a result, he didn't come into office — or take the oath a second time four years later — with the national sense of good will that usually follows an election.

He was a narcissist, paranoid. Writer Richard Reeves said that Nixon "assumed the worst in people, and he brought out the worst in them." He seemed to win elections, even landslides, by default — because he wasn't as bad (in the voters' eyes) as his opponent.

As I say, I was young at the time, but it seems to me that Nixon's presidency may well have been ground zero in the emergence of dirty politics. Those tactics really began to evolve into what we see today when Lee Atwater ran George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988 — and gave American politics the Willie Horton ad.

By comparison, Nixon's campaign tactics — indeed, the whole ham–handed attempt to burglarize the Democrats' national committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel — seem amateurish, even primitive.

Anyway less than a year being re–elected by a landslide, Nixon resigned the presidency and returned to California in disgrace.

On the day that happened — 36 years ago today — Nixon delivered a farewell address that has been largely overlooked in the histories I have read of that time. He spoke of disappointment and sadness and loss. He spoke of resiliency, and he urged his listeners to remember that "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."

I've heard many things about Nixon — that he had been drinking heavily in the days leading up to his resignation, that he didn't get any sleep in his last night in the White House — but, if that was true, he didn't appear to be drunk or unusually tired (by that time, most people had grown accustomed to seeing a hollow, worn–out look in his eyes and his famous jowls sagging more than ever).

As time passed and I had occasion to reflect on Nixon's farewell address, it seemed to me that he may have had an epiphany because he finally seemed to understand, in a blinding moment of clarity, what had brought his presidency down.

It hadn't been the press. It hadn't been his "enemies." It had been Nixon himself, driven by the hatred he felt for those he believed hated him.

You can debate whether that was true, whether that was really what destroyed the Nixon presidency. But I believe Nixon lived the rest of his days convinced of it.

When you think of all the things he said and wrote in his post–presidential years, what other conclusion can one reach?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Few Random Thoughts

This is the third straight day I have felt compelled to write about the death of my good friend, Phyllis.

Maybe I am obsessing. But I can't really help it. I keep remembering things that I had long forgotten. And maybe, somewhere in the back of my mind, there is the belief that if I keep writing about her, I can somehow put off the finality of it all.

That's ridiculous, of course. Phyllis is gone. I've confirmed it in numerous ways — through friends, the online obituary at the funeral home, just about every way I can except for an obituary in our hometown newspaper (Phyllis died on Thursday, but there is still no report of it in the local paper — I don't know why).

I guess it's my training as a journalist at work. I have to confirm things through multiple sources before I can believe they are true.

And the thoughts I've had probably fall more in the category of "things I'm having trouble understanding" rather than "things I remember with fondness."

There are many things about Phyllis that I do — and, most likely, will — remember with much fondness, even though they bring tears to my eyes now. Some of those things I prefer to keep private, though. They're just memories I have of moments and things we shared. There is nothing particularly poignant about them, other than the knowledge I now have of how everything ended for her.

For example, Phyllis' last name — at least when we were in school together — was Yarbrough. I shortened that to "PY," which is what I called her in high school and continued to call her after we graduated. As the years went by, other people called her "PY," too. Some may have been inspired to do so by my example. Others may have done it on their own. Whatever the reason, it is a nickname many used for her until her dying day.

Well, I guess it wasn't used so much after she married. Based on some notes she wrote about herself on Facebook just about a year ago, one of her nicknames was "PC" — a moniker that, apparently, she acquired after her surname became Coleman. (I guess it was sort of a double entendre, considering how "PC" is often used as the abbreviation for "personal computer" or "political correctness.")

I will always remember one evening when we were finishing up a "chat" on Facebook, and I said something like, "Good night, PY." There was a pause, then came her reply: "No one has called me that in years! It feels good."

Then she called me "DG"my initials. It's also the nickname she used for me in high school. Nobody had called me that in years, either. And it felt good.

Now, I wonder if anyone will ever call me "DG" again. I feel torn on that one right now.

I feel that way about other things.

Even though I know she's dead — and it had been awhile since we "chatted" on Facebook — I can't help thinking, whenever I sit down in front of my computer, that I need to send a message to Phyllis asking her when she will be free to chat. And I have to remind myself that we won't be chatting anymore. I wonder when I'll stop doing that.

I'm really going to miss our chats. I miss them already.

I remember last year when I had submitted an application for a writing job online, and the application asked me a question that I had never been asked before. I wanted to talk to Phyllis about it.

The application asked, "What is your favorite word and why?" Phyllis asked me what my answer had been. I told her, "Redemption — because it suggests that no mistake is permanent, that we can all learn from our errors."

My answer must not have impressed the potential employers, but it impressed Phyllis. "It shows you're smarter than the average bear," she said, alluding to a line from the Yogi Bear cartoons of our childhoods.

And I think about when we were in school together, and we went to her house after school sometimes. It was there that she introduced me to some of the music that was special to her — jazz musician Maynard Ferguson and country singer Kenny Rogers stand out in my memory.

I've tried to listen to some of the music we listened to when we were teenagers. I can't do it. Not yet. My wound is too fresh.

It reminds me of how I felt when I lost my mother. It has been the same out–of–the–blue, punched–in–the–gut experience for me.

There are other things about Phyllis — or, more accurately, the subject of death — that I still feel a need to write about. I don't expect an answer — although, if anybody has one, I certainly would love to hear it.
  • On Friday, when I first wrote here about Phyllis, I mentioned the "McGovern Club" that Phyllis, Doug and I formed back when we were in sixth or seventh grade in Arkansas.

    I e–mailed Doug with the news Friday afternoon. In his response, he spoke of the "McGovern Club" and said that "I'm sure Phyllis would want us to carry on."

    I know Doug meant well by that, and he may be right. If you could ask her, I am confident that Phyllis really would want all those she left behind to "carry on."

    She would have felt bad if she had thought that, when she left this life, no one would mourn her passing (I would say there were/are two chances of that happening — slim and none).

    But I think she would have felt worse if she thought that anyone was so overwhelmed or paralyzed by their grief that they couldn't function.

    Nevertheless, I have never really understood why anyone would assume they know what a deceased person would think or say or feel. I guess, if you were close to a person who died — a spouse or a sibling or a longtime friend — you might have a pretty good idea. But you can't know something like that for sure. Can you?

  • Similarly, I guess, I'm not really sure what I think when I hear people talk about how someone who died is "looking down and smiling." As George Carlin said, you never hear people say that someone is looking up at us and screaming from the fires of hell — even if the person in question really lived a despicable life.

    It comes back to that afterlife question, I suppose, and whatever one imagines it to be like. And part of it, I guess, is a reluctance on the part of those who are still living to suggest (even if they believe it) that someone they knew is now suffering eternal damnation.

    It also makes me think of something else. Using words like "up" and "down" suggests a spatial element to the spiritual world when space, it seems to me, is really more of a characteristic of the physical world.

    It's sort of like the concept of space in the digital age. These things I write and the images I post with them all take up a certain amount of space in the non–physical internet world. I have "folders" on my computer that are filled with things I have written, photos I have scanned and things like that. But they do not take on a physical quality unless I print them out.

    I think it is the fact that we mortals know so little about what is next — if anything is — that prompts us to give the afterlife characteristics that are familiar to us from our physical existences.

    Phyllis, for example, was an accomplished musician. I often hear talk of a heavenly chorus or a heavenly band, and, if such a thing really does exist, I'm sure Phyllis is a part of it.

    But it doesn't make sense to me that she would play instruments she played in the physical realm. What use would a spirit have for instruments that were created by humans from materials they had on earth?

    See, my understanding of the history of musical instruments is that they largely came into being because humans discovered that this or that could produce certain sounds — and, when certain sounds were made together, they produced music.

    But music has long been used to glorify one's faith in a God. The Bible, after all, mentions the sound of heavenly music from time to time, even to the ancients, whose only "instruments" may have been hollowed out logs or reeds or something like that.

    So, perhaps, we're kinda sorta on the right track. I mean, maybe there is that heavenly band, and, if there is, as I say, I'm sure Phyllis is part of it. But I don't think she's playing a flute or a piccolo. If heaven really is perfect, I am thinking, she must be playing instruments that are beyond our mortal comprehension.

    My grandfather enjoyed fishing in his later years. After he died, I heard people talk of how he was in his boat catching the big ones in heaven. Same thing. Why would a spirit need a boat? Boats were created by men to serve their specific purposes — to cross bodies of water or to pursue creatures, like fish, that lived in the water.

    But water is something that humans need, like air and food and sleep and clothing and shelter. Spirits don't.

    Likewise, spirits don't need boats or cars or any other conveyance to travel from one place to another. They aren't subject to physical laws. Are they? The Bible speaks of God sending messengers (i.e., heavenly spirits) to earth, but it doesn't say that they used airplanes or cars or boats to make their journey.

    But neither Phyllis nor anyone else has (to my knowledge) visited me — in either my dreams or my waking moments — to share with me any insights they may have. Angels or spirits or whatever they are, if they do exist, apparently haven't made my home one of their destinations on their visits here.

    Maybe they only visit certain people, like Haley Joel Osment's character in "The Sixth Sense." If so, maybe I will need to find a real–life Haley Joel Osment one of these days, just to find out if Phyllis — or anyone else I knew — has anything to say to me.

    On the other hand ...

    I have a friend who insists that her mother, who passed away several years ago, has visited her — in the guise of her mother's favorite bird. That, apparently, is how my friend knows it was her mother. The bird sang, as birds do, and perched on my friend's windowsill for a couple of moments, then flew off.

    It imparted no special wisdom to her. As far as I know, it did nothing out of the ordinary to let my friend know its true identity. It just happened to show up at a moment when my friend was thinking about her mother — with whom, I guess it should be said, my friend often had a stormy relationship when they both occupied the same plane of existence.

    So, on the one hand, I guess I am skeptical of the existence of angels and spirits — and, if they do exist, of their ability to travel from wherever the afterlife may be to earth or anywhere else.

    And, yet, I wrote yesterday about an experience I had many years ago when I was traveling to Arkansas for the funeral of another friend. In nearly 20 years, I haven't been able to satisfactorily explain it.

    I guess there are a lot of things about the spiritual world that I don't understand.

  • Something else I wonder about is the stuff I've heard since I was a little boy — like how your life flashes before your eyes when you're dying.

    I have to wonder if that's true. If it is, how do we know? I mean, if it is true, it's only happened to people who were just about to "cross over," as the saying goes.

    And I wonder if it happened with Phyllis. As the life was ebbing from her body, did her earthly experiences flash before her eyes? If they did, what did she see and whom did she see? Did she see herself at the various stages of her life? Did she see people who have made what is called a "transition?" Or did she see friends and relatives she was leaving behind?

    My logical mind wonders if the idea that dying people see their lives flash before their eyes arose from an attempt to understand incoherent ramblings. Perhaps some people had hallucinations on their deathbeds and called out to people who weren't there, who may have died years before.

    And perhaps that was misinterpreted by those who survived.
I guess there are a lot of things I will never understand — or, at least, won't understand until my time to die comes.

Until that day, I guess there will always be times when I will regret that I didn't have that last chance to tell Phyllis goodbye, to tell her I loved her and how much she had meant to me, how much she had influenced me, how her memory will always be with me — even her voice, which I haven't heard in years and will never hear again, will echo in my ears almost every day.

But Phyllis was very perceptive. And I'm sure she knew all those things, even without hearing (or reading) them from me.

It just would have been nice to tell her, anyway.