Monday, January 31, 2011

Reagan Revisionism

This Sunday will be Super Bowl Sunday, and the upcoming clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers will be getting most of the media's attention the closer we get to it.

But this Sunday will also be the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. So far, it hasn't been causing the kind of fuss that Abe Lincoln's 200th birthday produced a couple of years ago. That may be because Reagan has only been dead for a few years. His memory is still somewhat fresh for many Americans.

So it is with me.

I remember Reagan quite well. I was a critic of most of Reagan's policies, as I have written here frequently. I often felt as if I belonged to a minority in those days — and, in fact, I did. Most people liked Reagan when he was president, even if they disagreed with him on issues.

That was something I never really understood at the time because I didn't like him. I thought he was, at heart, an actor, insincere, unfeeling. To be candid, I often thought he was a hypocrite.

Even today, I think I still feel that way — to an extent. But I don't feel that way as intensely as I did. Perhaps I have mellowed.

It is from that perspective, therefore, that I have been reading — with interest — Ryan Cole's article, "Everybody Loves Reagan," in The American Spectator.

"Death, the hindsight of history, a sympathetic public, and a handful of dedicated historians and opportunistic politicians," he writes, "have turned this once divisive and controversial leader into a bipartisan reminder of our better angels."

Cole makes a valid point when he observes that other presidents have been given the same kind of treatment, and it really shouldn't be surprising that this kind of makeover is in the works for Reagan. During his presidency, he often went to great pains to assure certain groups of people that he was really on their side — even while his policies were giving those groups a quick kick in the stomach or a roundhouse to the chops.

Nevertheless, as Cole writes, "The growing consensus on Reagan's greatness ... is warranted. And his apotheosis ... should be welcomed."

And clearly it is. As Cole points out, prominent Democrats, including the president, have been speaking fondly of Reagan's memory in recent years.

The "new, warm and cuddly (and generally non–idelogical) Reagan," he writes, is "a hero and a great president, but the emphasis is on his pragmatism, diplomacy, and generally unconservative behavior. It's increasingly difficult to find the conservative who generated histrionic levels of disgust from Democrats."

But that conservative is still there.

Reagan was more skillful than most when it came to spoken language, and he was no dummy. He knew about code language and how to use it to his advantage.

He could, for example, use an incendiary phrase like "states' rights" in a place like Philadelphia, Miss., where racial hatred and violence made a mockery of the "city of brotherly love" meaning of the name that is found in its native Greek — and get away with it.

Reagan's assertion was still a source of controversy more than a quarter of a century after he made it.

He spoke of the urgency of spending money on defense but rarely, if ever, spoke of spending money on things that improve and enrich lives. In the interest of saving a few dollars, he could play games with school nutrition, suggesting that ketchup was a vegetable. He could ignore the growing AIDS crisis until a friend like Rock Hudson was afflicted with it and died, then he grudgingly approved limited funding for research.

But medical research struggled for years to regain the ground it had lost while Reagan buried his head in the sand.

I always got the feeling that Reagan saw America in monochromatic terms. He spoke of "bold colors, not pale pastels," but that was not in the context of the things in life that government can promote that will lift people up and give beauty and deeper meaning to their existence.

Without that, I always wondered what kind of America Reagan wanted to preserve, and I was never really sure I wanted to be part of it, whatever it was.

It has been more than 20 years since Reagan left the White House, and now we are getting an idea of the kind of America he built. The results have not been anything like what his admirers would have you believe.

Nevertheless, there are some things Barack Obama, who seems increasingly eager to wrap himself in Reagan's banner, can learn from his predecessor.

One is that, no matter what you would like to achieve as president, there are some things that simply must wait for another time. A president must set priorities, and Reagan did that part of the job quite well.

Another is that, as Cole observes, a president must be willing to "compromise in pursuit of his objectives." Reagn did that after a midterm setback. So, too, did Bill Clinton. And they were rewarded with second terms.

But Reagan and Clinton also projected optimistic attitudes, and that goes a long way with voters.

Circumstances may be bad. They were horrific in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Southerners were worried about what the future held when the Civil War was ending, but Lincoln assured them that no one would be treated maliciously and all would be treated charitably.

Presidents who speak in generous terms, whether they are sincere or not, tend to be successful. Presidents who come across as sour and pessimistic, even if they are telling people the truth, typically do not remain president for long, and that is something that I think Obama needs to work on. As president, he has had a tendency to lecture people when they really needed a pep talk.

He showed signs of getting away from that in his State of the Union speech last week. But he has to do more than talk the talk on a single occasion.

He must walk the walk every day.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Leadership Gap

Over at the Washington Post, they describe Ruth Marcus as "[a] boots–on–the–ground columnist who reports first and opines later."

Thus, when she writes that "[t]he state of the union is ... leaderless," I feel compelled to listen to what she has to say.

She isn't really saying anything that I haven't been saying for quite awhile, but I find it refreshing when I see things like that written in papers like the Post by people like Marcus because I know their histories.

Marcus, the Post admits, leans to the left, which suggests that she supports many of the things Barack Obama does. That doesn't necessarily mean that she supports all of his policies, but she is at least sympathetic to them.

She is clearly not a Tea Partier.

"I'm becoming increasingly worried," Marcus writes, and she isn't alone. A lot of us feel that way. Some of us have felt that way for a long time.

Some of us have been fretting about this absence of leadership for quite awhile. I suppose it is encouraging, though, that some of those who have been Obama's most ardent defenders for the last couple of years are finally beginning to speak of it.

They, of course, would never be accused of racism for noting a flaw in the emperor's clothes, would they?

Then again, Marcus, as the Post says, has a history of using facts to make her points — and that kind of thing has tended to be somewhat annoying for elected officials, many of whom would prefer that their activities in office were not subjected to that kind of scrutiny.

Marcus insists on recalling that, just before he took the oath of office more than two years ago, Obama told the Post, "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure that some of the hard decisions are made under my watch and not under somebody else's."

As she has sought to hold him to his own standard, she wonders, "[W]hat hard decisions has the president made?"

She worries — and justifiably — that the spending freeze he proposed in his State of the Union address amounts to "nibbling around the edges" and doesn't really address the problem.

"Examine the president's words, and you see nothing new or specific," Marcus writes. "It hardly constitutes bravery to call for a bipartisan Social Security fix that doesn't slash benefits. At that level of generality, who would disagree?"

Obama knew when he came into office that there were difficult choices to be made.

But — in case you didn't already know this — an article in Marcus' Post by writer Peter Wallsten suggests that quite a few difficult choices have not been made.

Wallsten observes that Obama has overseen a "makeover" of his White House staff that is "designed to help him keep a sharp focus on economic issues heading into his 2012 reelection campaign."

It ought to bother Americans to know that others have to keep their president focused on what just about everyone has known all along was the most pressing issue. For that matter, it ought to bother Americans to know that their president has to be managed or handled in any way.

Wallsten calls it "Obama 2.0" — that's a joke, I say a joke, son, but, like any good joke, it has a lot of truth (a lot of unpleasant truth) behind it that Obama cannot afford to ignore.

Obama, with his golden tongue, may be able to persuade voters next year to let him stay in the White House for another four years, even if those voters do think that the country is going in the wrong direction, because they like him, they really like him.

But that is only part of his electoral challenge in 2012 — and how successful he will be will depend to a large extent on what he accomplishes this year.

Things won't be easy for Obama this year or next. His party lost the House in last year's midterms. It is highly unlikely that Republicans will lose enough seats next year to flip control of the chamber again.

But things are going to be a lot tougher for him in the first half of his second term if his party loses the Senate next year.

More than two–thirds of the Senate seats that will be on the ballot in 2012 are currently held by Democrats. Because of the gains made by Republicans in November, they will only need to win about four of those seats to seize control of that chamber as well.

And then Obama will have to hope that his party can regain one or both of those chambers in the midterm of his second term, which has not been very favorable terrain for previous presidents.

In the meantime, he will have to lead an America in which the legislative branch is controlled by a hostile majority.

There is a strange dichotomy that settles in rather quickly when a president has been re–elected, regardless of whether his party is in the majority or the minority in Congress. At the same time that he is enjoying the pinnacle of his political power, he is well on his way to becoming a lame duck.

As each day passes, his authority will diminish even more as lawmakers realize there is progressively less of a penalty to be paid for standing up to the administration — the president is rendered almost irrelevant by the time he takes the oath of office for a second time.

If Obama is re–elected but, at the same time, the opposition seizes full control of Congress, it is hard to see how Obama will achieve anything in at least the first half of his term. Does America have that much time to squander? Can this country wait until at least 2015 for the economy to get back on track and for Americans to be put back to work?

Last November, I remember my father complaining bitterly about the Republican capture of the House. What, he asked me, did people think they were doing, putting Republicans in charge of the House again?

I felt compelled to remind him that it was not a collective decision. Americans voted only in their own districts, and many Republican gains came in districts that have traditions of voting for Republicans but voted for Democrats in either 2006 or 2008. Many of those districts were merely returning to their roots.

And some were legitimate swing districts. If you look at the histories of their representation, you can get a pretty good idea from which direction the wind was blowing.

I also felt compelled to remind him that midterm elections have always been rough for incumbent presidents. Even those rare midterms in which presidents didn't lose any ground on Capitol Hill.

Conventional wisdom holds that, once a president has been through a midterm election, he has learned the ropes and won't be likely to make the kinds of mistakes that new presidents tend to make — and will be more efficient, more effective in the next two years.

Well, that's the thinking. Is that the way it will work out this time?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Reagan's Finest Hour

I was never even close to being an admirer of Ronald Reagan when he was president.

But I give him credit for what he did on this day 25 years ago when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after takeoff, and all seven members of the crew were killed.

Others have been doing the same today.

Carl Cannon of Politics Daily writes that Reagan's speech to the nation late that afternoon was "perhaps the most inspiring of his presidency."

I always felt that way about it. And I think the reason why it was the most inspiring was because it was stripped of ideology.

Reagan's true believers would probably cite other speeches that he gave as more inspiring because those speeches spoke to their core beliefs about taxes and defense and co–existing with the Soviet Union. And I'm sure that is the kind of speech Reagan would have delivered if he had proceeded with his original plans to give his State of the Union address that night.

Ultimately, because of what had happened, he postponed his address for a week and gave a hastily written speech from the Oval Office that afternoon, a speech that spoke of the future and pioneers and courage — things with which everyone could agree.

At the time, it was my understanding that Reagan had planned to mention, at some point in his State of the Union address, that the first teacher in space was preparing to conduct a lesson from space that America's schoolchildren were scheduled to watch later that week.

There was even talk that the administration had been putting pressure on NASA to proceed with the launch. It had already been postponed several times because of bad weather and other factors, and the word was that the administration was eager to capitalize on the space program and the fact that a teacher was on board the shuttle in the State of the Union address.

Consequently, the story went, the administration had been leaning on NASA to light that candle.

I don't know if that played any kind of role in what happened or not. And I don't know if the State of the Union speech that Reagan gave a week later differed substantially from the one he had planned to give. Matter of fact, I don't recall anything about the State of the Union speech he eventually gave.

The things that I do know are these:
  • On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, the temperature at the launch site was around freezing. It was right at the minimum temperature that was acceptable prior to launch, and engineers were concerned about the affect of the temperature on the solid rocket boosters (SRBs). The SRBs provided more than four–fifths of the thrust that a launch required.

    As it turned out, their concerns were well founded. An O–ring seal in the right SRB failed. To observers, it looked like the shuttle exploded. But those who knew more about the science of space travel could tell you that what everyone saw was a rather rapid sequence of events that occurred and caused the "launch vehicle" to break up.

    Technically, the statement by the launch officer that there had been no explosion was correct. But that knowledge was far from consoling to those watching in person or on TV. If anything, the knowledge that some or all of the crew members may have been alive as the shuttle plunged to the ocean in an uncontrolled dive for more than two minutes was even more terrifying. What must they have endured in that time?

  • Six months after the Challenger disaster, a commission that was charged with the responsibility of investigating the event and determining the time and cause of the crew members' deaths reported that it could not precisely establish either.

    The shuttle had been designed to withstand atmospheric re–entry, and it had withstood the disintegration of the launch vehicle. It was not likely, the commission reported, that the breakup had caused their deaths — or even serious injury.

    But the shuttle had been cut loose from the vehicle that was supposed to propel it into space, leaving it without power, and so it tumbled back to earth. The shuttle had no escape system so the crew was trapped.

    It took nearly three minutes for the shuttle to crash into the ocean, at which point all seven crew members almost surely died, if they had not died already due to a lack of oxygen in a depressurized cabin.

    Whether any or all of the crew members remained conscious until the shuttle slammed into the sea will never be known. They found evidence that suggested that some of them may have been conscious, at least for awhile, but the actual causes of their deaths could not be determined.
It was with as–yet unresolved issues like these hanging over their heads that shocked and grief–stricken Americans turned to their president for words of comfort.

And then another thing that I know to be true happened. Reagan spoke for five minutes and soothed everyone, regardless of their politics.

It had been a traumatic day for me, just as it had been for everyone else.

Like September 11, it began as an ordinary Tuesday. In those days, I was working nights on the copy desk of a metropolitan newspaper, and my days off happened to be Monday and Tuesday so I was right smack dab in the middle of my "weekend."

It was my habit in those days to do a load of laundry on Tuesday so I would have plenty of clothes ready for the start of my work week on Wednesday night, and that's what I was doing that Tuesday morning.

I had just retrieved a load from the laundry room in my apartment complex, and I was folding clothes in my living room. My habit was to have on the TV or my stereo when I was doing things like that and, for whatever reason, I had chosen to have on my TV that morning.

I had CNN on, mostly as background, and they announced that they would be switching to the shuttle liftoff momentarily.

Oh, good, I remember thinking. Some actual news to watch.

I remember standing there, my jaw hanging open, as I watched those plumes of smoke twisting crazily in the Florida sky — while a little dot that later turned out to be the space shuttle drifted silently down to its watery grave.

Space travel had changed a lot since I was a child. When I was small in the 1960s, a space mission received extensive, virtually uninterrupted coverage from all three major networks, even if it really didn't amount to much. Space travel was new and mysterious, and no one knew what dangers lurked out there, even those who studied space and knew a lot more about it than most Americans.

There was a reverence for space travel among people — almost as if the very act of leaving our planet and venturing into space amounted to an unauthorized intrusion into heaven that might rouse God's wrath if he caught us doing it.

Perhaps part of that came from the shared national experiences of a fatal fire in an Apollo capsule in 1967 and then an aborted moon mission in 1970. In those days, Americans knew there were dangers involved in space travel.

But, by 1986, that reverence was gone, replaced by a kind of cockiness. People seemed to take space travel for granted. It must have been very much like the attitude of people at the time the Titanic was launched — a sense that man's ingenuity had conquered nature.

Anyway, prior to Jan. 28, 1986, the major networks had stopped devoting air time to shuttle launches, but they were on hand when Challenger lifted off — not because of any perceived risk but because of the historic nature of the launch. A civilian teacher would be on board.

Most Americans who were living in 1986 probably thought of space travel as routine. And who could blame them? With each space mission in nearly 16 years, it seemed to get easier. The splashdowns that had been so familiar to the people of my generation had been totally eliminated by the implementation of the space shuttle, which could glide into an airstrip after re–entry just like a commercial airline landing at the local airport.

No carriers had to be deployed. No helicopters had to be used to retrieve the crew and the capsule. No muss, no fuss.

No big deal.

When the Challenger was lost on this day a quarter of a century ago, it was a wakeup call. And it wasn't a pleasant awakening.

Reagan helped Americans over the shock in the hours just following the disaster.

Then he did it again three days later at the memorial service in Houston.

I remember talking about it with a co–worker who happened to be a strong Reagan supporter. He and I had argued over the 1984 presidential election on a number of occasions so he knew how I felt.

When I told him that I appreciated what Reagan had done, he understood that I was sincere about that.

My feelings about Reagan as a president hadn't changed. I still disagreed with most of his policies. But I think my feelings about him as a human being did change — sometimes in almost imperceptible ways.

Whatever the truth of all that may be, this much is certain. I will always give him full credit for what he did 25 years ago today.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hitler's House of Horrors

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz in January 1945.

It was actually a system — a network, if you will — of camps in parts of Poland. It was the largest of the German concentration camps and arguably the most notorious.

The Nazis, history tells us, committed all kinds of atrocities.

Not every atrocity for which they were responsible was committed in every place — but all the repugnant, barbaric, offensive acts ever committed by the Nazis were committed within the walls of Auschwitz — mass murder, human medical experimentation, slave labor, everything. It all happened at Auschwitz.

It is virtually impossible to document how many people were killed at Auschwitz, but the figure that has been agreed upon by most is 1.1 million. In the process of arriving at that figure, the number tended to vary considerably, a point that has often been seized upon by those who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred.

Most such denials have been discredited.

When the camp was liberated by the Russians, one of those liberated prisoners was a man named Elie Wiesel, a writer and, eventually, a Nobel Prize winner who had been, the Nobel committee said, a "messenger to mankind."

On the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Wiesel gave a speech there, saying, "Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the silent screams of terrified mothers, the prayers of anguished old men and women. Listen to the tears of children. Jewish children, a beautiful little girl among them, with golden hair, whose vulnerable tenderness has never left me. Look and listen as they walk towards dark flames so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger."

Those are the words of one who has gazed into the gaping jaws of hell — and, somehow, has survived.

Monday, January 24, 2011

State of Obama

The 2012 presidential campaign will begin tomorrow during the State of the Union speech.

It isn't being advertised that way, of course, perhaps because the politicos think most Americans, regardless of their leanings, are just burned out on politics right now. But Barack Obama will be laying out his blueprint for the next couple of years when he speaks tomorrow night — and the voters are likely to judge him on how it works out.

It's a little late to be offering Obama advice on what he should say. Besides, no one ever really knows how these things will work out. If someone comes up with a foolproof method for looking into the future, at the very least we will know if a presidential address is going to be a make–or–break moment for that president.

As I recall, that was a problem with George H.W. Bush in the last year or so of his presidency. Every time he was about to make a speech during that period, the public was told that it was the most important address of his presidency.

But the speeches never seemed to match the expectations. In fact, they often fell far short of them.

By the end of his single term, Bush had become the president who cried wolf.

Now, the State of the Union speech is a little different than most presidential speeches. It is an annual event. It is not inspired by special circumstances, and only rarely does it coincide with something else of equal or greater importance (25 years ago, it was scheduled to coincide with the first space shuttle to carry a civilian teacher — but that mission was terminated by an explosion shortly after takeoff).

And I will admit that Obama has certain oratorical skills that neither of the Bushes possessed. Consequently, the emphasis on the performance may not be as great for him as it was for the Bushes — although that could change if he is not up to his usual standards.

I think the pundits' emphasis, in this case, will be on the specifics of his recommendations — and, frankly, focusing on substance would be a nice change.

One of the problems with a substantive discussion is that it can't be argued and resolved in a few hours. It will require some time before the success or failure of Obama's policies can be determined, so those who are inclined to grade the speech the day it is given should be afforded no credibility.

But the window of opportunity for every president in my lifetime, not just this one, has been brief. As technology advances, the window gets smaller and it starts to slam faster. I think people are as patient as they have ever been, but the speed of their gadgets accelerates everything else.

Two years ago, Obama's inaugural address was hailed by friend and foe alike, but, within a few months, it was clear that his stratospheric approval ratings were crashing to earth. Those who cried "racism" may have been right in some isolated instances, but, by and large, they did their president and themselves a disservice by ignoring the underlying problems.

Was the problem that, as some of his critics have suggested, he tried to do too much, or was it, as others have said, that he didn't do enough? I don't know, but there is little to be gained from looking back — unless it is to look for ways to improve. A little self–analysis is a good thing, but it can be over done.

Personally, I have never been as impressed with Obama's delivery as the folks who elected him, but it usually seems to impress most of his listeners, even those who disagree with him — so I don't think there is much to be learned from watching tapes of his past speeches.

And, with the speech coming up in a couple of days, it's really too late to be thinking about substantive changes in speaking style — for this address, anyway.

But there may be some things to learn about following up.

I have heard that the speech will emphasize job creation, and that is a good thing — if it is earnest.

We heard lots of lip service about this a year ago, after the Republicans captured Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, but it disappeared, aided by the ongoing BP spill and the general unwillingness of Democrats to tackle the problem.

When it re–emerged last fall, it was a campaign issue, a cynical ploy to win votes that failed miserably.

Now, there are no votes to win. Or are there?

Alex Kowalski of reports that the outlook for jobs is improving. Unemployed Americans — both those who are counted using the government's arbitrary methodology and those who are not — would like to believe that is true.

The fact that there is no election looming in the near future leads one to believe such talk might be serious this time. But there is no time to waste, and neither party controls enough seats in Congress to impose its will on the other. For anything to be accomplished in the next two years, it will be essential for Democrats and Republicans to work together

Bipartisanship wasn't really necessary to accomplish anything in the first year of the Obama presidency, but it will be in the last two years of this term. What will be different about this president's appeal for bipartisanship this time, now that his party no longer controls the House?

Now, most people seem to realize, even if they don't openly acknowledge it, that the crisis is spiraling out of control and what remains of the middle class is likely to be demolished.

If Obama really does focus on job creation in his State of the Union address, his listeners — both those on Capitol Hill and the millions watching on television — seem certain to agree with him. The disagreements will come on how it is to be achieved.

There has been some talk of the conciliatory, centrist tone Obama sought in his speech at the Tucson memorial service. And polls have shown that Obama's standing with the voters improved slightly in the aftermath.

But the polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans likes Obama. They also think he is taking the country in the wrong direction.

When they go to the polls in November 2012, that may be the decision they have to make — whether to re–elect a president most folks like personally but about whose policies they have serious doubts or to elect someone else.

Tomorrow night is when he can start to make his case.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Exception to the Rule

Today is January 20, the midway point of the presidential term.

Barack Obama took the oath of office on this day two years ago, and two years from today, either Obama will take the oath again or his successor will take it for the first time.

(Technically speaking, I suppose, it is possible that a former one–term president could be elected in 2012, but there are only two of those who are living and they are both in their 80s, which makes the election of either one a pretty remote possibility.)

Then the president, whoever he or she may be, will give an inaugural address. We've been doing this on January 20 since the 1930s, and we will do so for the 20th time on this day in 2013.

Inaugural Day is always a day of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, and there is always a big buildup for a president's remarks, but they are usually ceremonial and symbolic, and rarely are they truly memorable.

John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, delivered half a century ago today, was different.

The most obvious difference, I suppose, was the presence of his famous line: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

It has become as familiar to Americans as any other iconic presidential statement from American history.

For some politicians, I guess, those words would have no real meaning beyond the power they had to move the listeners. But, spoken by Kennedy, the line carried a credibility that came from the knowledge that the man who said it had been injured and nearly lost his life in service to his country.

It was possibly the most memorable thing Kennedy ever said — and that would be saying a lot. Perhaps no other president — with the exceptions, I think, of Lincoln and FDR — said things that have been more widely quoted or remembered over the years.

Kennedy inspired many of the young people of his day to go into public service — including a young man named Bill Clinton. The inaugural address he gave 50 years ago today was one of his most inspirational and enduring speeches.

As Nathan Rott says at, Kennedy's words continue to inspire people in the 21st century.

They even inspired one of my favorite moments in the finale of The West Wing, one of my favorite TV series of all time, when the outgoing president and the incoming president had a brief conversation about the new president's planned address.

The outgoing president made a general inquiry about the speech, and the incoming president told him it was good "but there's no 'Ask not what your country can do for you' in it."

"Yeah," the outgoing president replied, "Kennedy really screwed us with that one, didn't he?"

Loosely translated, Kennedy set the bar so high on this day in 1961 that practically no future president could clear it.

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes that none of the presidents who have followed have been able to match it, and he is right.

"Tethered to its time and place," Dionne writes, "it still challenges with its ambition to harness realism to idealism, patriotism to service, national interest to universal aspiration."

That "Ask not ..." line was a damned good one, most people would agree, and it justifiably occupies a significant role in presidential oratorical history. Kennedy's call to public service still speaks to us, echoing across the decades.

But there are other words he spoke that day that carry special relevance to the times in which we live.

"[C]ivility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof," Kennedy said. "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."

It's ironic, I think, that Kennedy's brother–in–law, Sargent Shriver, died a couple of days before this anniversary.

All of the Kennedys played roles, whether visible or relatively invisible, in JFK's administration, but Shriver, as director of the Peace Corps, helped Kennedy carry out one of his very first acts as president.

It might be interesting to know what Shriver's opinion of JFK's inaugural address was after half a century, but I doubt that he mentioned it before he died. He suffered from Alzheimer's disease for many years.

In spite of Shriver's achievements, both during and after the Kennedy administration, I suspect he might be inclined to agree with Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press, who reminds us that "[t]his is no age of Camelot."

Sidoti seems to be thinking of the expectations that surrounded Barack Obama's recent journey to Tucson for the memorial service for the victims of the shooting. I felt — as did many others — that Obama tried (even if he did not always succeed) to strike a centrist tone in his remarks.

Other observers were disappointed because they felt the speech didn't go far enough, and others were upset because they felt it went too far.

In the modern polarized political climate, Sidoti suggests that the speech is "outdated." And, I suppose, to an extent, it is. Kennedy was speaking to the Americans of the early 1960s, not the Americans of the early 2010s.

"Yet some of the most memorable imagery in Kennedy's story line," Sidoti writes, "remains potent in a nation searching for renewed purpose and vision."

In the context of history, yes, 1961 was quite different than 2011.

In 1961, a Barack Obama could never be president. In many places, he couldn't even vote.

America's adversaries were different. The challenges of the immediate future were different.

But it wasn't really so different. America was then, as it is now, a work in progress. And Kennedy recognized that. He knew that the optimistic, idealistic goals of which he spoke could not be achieved immediately.

"All this will not be finished in the first 100 days," he conceded. "Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."

And as his address came to a close, he issued a challenge to the people of his generation. It still has relevance today.

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It Oughta Be Obvious

So far, those of us who live in north Texas have been spared the brunt of the winter weather this year.

If you don't live in this part of the country, your reaction may be to shrug your shoulders at that little tidbit of news. Most people seem to think that Texas is a hot, sweltering place all year round.

Well, it is a hot, sweltering place for much of the year. But it can get cold here in the winter. Last year, we set a local record for the most snowfalls in a single winter season.

Nothing even remotely like that has happened so far this year. Sure, it has been cold and there have been a few snow flurries, but nothing like last year.

That's going to be great for the folks who come here for the Super Bowl in a few weeks, no matter who wins on Sunday. I think it goes without saying that whether the fans come here from Green Bay or Chicago, Pittsburgh or New York, the weather here will be nicer than what they've been dealing with lately.

I'm not saying they should pack their sun blocker and summer clothes before they come here — unless the weather forecast calls for unseasonably warm temperatures (which it might — I met a friend for lunch a few days before Christmas, and the temperature got into the 80s that day). But they can expect milder temperatures while they're here.

(I wouldn't recommend that they come back in July or August, though.)

This Sunday afternoon, while the Packers and Bears are playing in Chicago, the daytime high here in Dallas is predicted to be around 50° with a chance of rain. The forecast for Chicago calls for a daytime high that is nearly 30 degrees colder. It will be even colder in Green Bay.

Sunday evening, it will cool down into the 40s around here, but it will be about half that in Pittsburgh, where the AFC championship will be decided. It should be much the same in New York.

A lot of things could happen in the next 2½ weeks, but my best guess is that conditions won't be significantly different than they are now so Dallas should seem comparatively balmy, whether you're coming here from Green Bay or Chicago or New York or Pittsburgh.

Ah, yes, Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is where the above video was shot. I'm told it was made yesterday.

Now, Pittsburgh is roughly 1,000 miles northeast of here. Seems to me that the folks who live there should be well acquainted with the hazards of driving in winter conditions.

To be fair, ice is the kind of thing folks in this part of the country usually have to deal with. If we're going to get anything in the way of winter precipitation around here, it is likely to be ice. Pittsburgh always seems to get snow in the winter.

And I would a whole lot rather drive on snow than ice. I've tried to drive on ice before. And, brother, let me tell you that it ain't no fun.

Ice is the kind of thing you get when you're sort of caught in the middle. It isn't warm enough where you are for precipitation to be rain, and it isn't quite cold enough to be snow. They call it freezing rain around here.

I don't know what they call it in Pittsburgh. Whatever it is, there must be some sort of technical explanation for why those folks had ice on the roads yesterday instead of snow. But it looks like a lot of people in Pittsburgh just have no clue about driving on icy roads.

So let me tell you the main rules about driving on ice. Then, you'll have them when you are faced with this problem:

Rule #1 for driving on icy roads — Don't.

Rule #2 — Obey all rules.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sargent Shriver Dies

Sargent Shriver died today, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention it.

When I think of Sarge Shriver, I remember the summer of 1972, when Tom Eagleton was forced from the Democratic ticket because he had been treated for depression.

I wasn't very old that summer, and many of the details were really over my head. But I remember how star–crossed George McGovern's presidential campaign seemed. We later learned that much of that was the work of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" operatives, but, in truth, McGovern brought much of it on himself. In the Eagleton matter, McGovern asked him to be his running mate without doing a thorough job of conducting a background check, and he paid a price for it.

When McGovern started winning presidential primaries (and there were far fewer of them then than there are now), the other Democrats in the race seemed to gang up on him. As I got older, I came to understand that that was the usual behavior of politicians who realize they were not the people's choice but are reluctant to throw in the towel; at the time, it struck me as unfair, which it was — but that was beside the point.

McGovern survived the challenges to his campaign, but the nominating convention, which should have been his moment in the sun, was acrimonious, and his choice of a vice presidential nominee — for reasons that my young mind could never quite grasp — was hardly treated to the kind of rousing endorsement that presumptive running mates can depend on today.

That convention, conducted in the shadow of the 1968 campaign, when so many things seemed to be done behind closed doors, was wide open, supposedly in the spirit of true democracy, but it wound up being mostly a televised exercise in pure disorganization, utter chaos.

Under the new rules, a few legitimate candidates for the vice presidential slot were allowed to have nominating and seconding speeches made on their behalf; then, during the balloting, delegates were free to cast their votes for anyone they pleased, which led to a circus atmosphere.

As I recall, about three dozen other people received votes from the delegates. Some of the nominees were rather frivolous — both foreign (Mao Tse–tung) and fictional (Archie Bunker) — and no single "candidate" ever seriously threatened to take the nomination away from Eagleton. It was a waste of time and did not give Americans who were watching the proceedings during prime time the impression that the Democrats were organized enough to find solutions to the nation's problems.

By the time Eagleton had been officially nominated and McGovern started making his acceptance speech, it probably wasn't even prime time in Hawaii. Very few people saw McGovern deliver a speech that drew praise from historian Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972."

Anyway, shortly after the convention, the Democrats were rocked by the revelations that Eagleton had been treated for depression and that his treatment had included electroshock therapy.

McGovern insisted that he was standing by his running mate. He was behind Eagleton "1,000%," I believe he said. But the pressure became too great, and, in spite of his public pledge, McGovern asked Eagleton to withdraw, which he did.

And, for awhile there in the summer of 1972, the Democrats had a presidential nominee but no vice presidential nominee. It became a running joke that McGovern was offering the spot to everyone — and everyone was turning it down. The prospect of taking on President Nixon, whose lead in the public opinion polls seemed to be ever growing, was daunting at best.

Accepting the role of running mate was seen as comparable to accepting a ticket on board the Titanic with full knowledge that the ship would strike an iceberg and sink.

But Shriver accepted the role and took on the challenge with considerable gusto — even with the knowledge that Nixon was likely to carry all 50 states, which he very nearly did.

It was Shriver's opportunity to be the "political bride" — he had always regarded himself as a bridesmaid, Teddy White wrote, even though he had done some important things in his life.

At the request of his brother–in–law, President Kennedy, he was the first director of the Peace Corps.

Then, under Lyndon Johnson, he crafted the administration's war on poverty and was responsible for founding several initiatives that I remember my mother particularly appreciated including Head Start.

In fact, between Shriver's work and his wife's work with Special Olympics, they may have been the most successful socially activist couple in modern American history. And now, of course, they're both gone. Eunice Kennedy Shriver preceded Sarge in 2009.

They left behind quite a legacy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thoughts on King's Day

"If only we would see and respect our shared humanity, so much of what ails America could be healed.

"That was the essence of the message of Martin Luther King Jr. It was the underlying theme of President Obama's speech last week in Tucson.

"It was, as well, the heart of a lovely letter first lady Michelle Obama wrote last week to the parents of America's children about the tragedy in Tucson.

"If only we would acknowledge our shared humanity, our common desire to do what is right by our best lights, we might learn to listen and trust and work out our differences on firmer ground."

Chicago Sun–Times
Jan. 17, 2011

Today is, of course, Martin Luther King Day.

If you have today off from work, you may already know that this holiday encountered some obstacles along the way to becoming a federal holiday. Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983, and it was first observed 25 years ago this Thursday. But it has only been recognized in all 50 states in the last decade.

King has been dead now for more than 40 years, but his memory is still vibrant for those who remember when he walked the earth, his words still speak to what Lincoln called the "the better angels of our nature."

Many people are putting their own spin on King's words today. Some are on target; others, not so much. The validity of one's interpretation depends, I suppose, on those who are doing the interpreting.

Well, people have been known to interpret and re–interpret things for years, generations, even centuries. They're still interpreting the Constitution in the courts.

But, today, I would just like to let King's words speak for themselves.

And I want to focus on three of his speeches that are considered among the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century by

King's "I Have a Dream" speech is, of course, at the very top of the list.

And the speech he gave the night before his assassination, in which he proclaimed that he had "been to the mountaintop" and almost seemed to know that his life would end soon, is considered the 15th best speech of the 20th century.

I don't think that speech exists in its entirety on video. At least, I haven't seen it if it does — only clips like the one above. But if you want to read the text of the speech, you can find it here.

And then there was a great speech that is often overlooked by people but holds a unique significance in the story of King's life — "A Time to Break Silence" — that King delivered exactly one year before he was killed.

On April 4, 1967, King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. It was a costly decision for him. Many white Americans who had been his allies when he confined his activities to the pursuit of civil rights turned against him when he spoke against the war. The Washington Post editorialized that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

I've heard some people speculate that, because King made that speech, powerful white Americans who had protected him to that point stepped to one side and let the conspirators hatch the plan that resulted in King's death.

I don't know if there is any truth to that.

But I know that the words King spoke that day still resonate with us today.

"A time comes when silence is betrayal," King said. "And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam."

Many white Americans turned against King after he spoke those words. But not my mother. She always admired King and his nonviolent approach to social change, and she was a devout supporter of civil rights. When he spoke against the war, he spoke about another issue that was important to her.

And she grieved when he died.

But the things he stood for did not die with him.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mourning in America

"We leave people alone in America, to a fault. We walk past rambling, dazed homeless people every day, if we live in big cities, avoiding their gaze rather than seeking to intervene. And even when we try to stop people whose behavior seems to pose a danger to themselves or others, it's hard to do anything about it, as Loughner's professors at Pima Community College discovered.

"Look at the moon–faced grin of the alleged shooter as he appeared in court for arraignment Monday. It's a haunting photo, not least because we have seen faces like that before — people who are severely disturbed but on the streets in this era of 'de–institutionalization.' "

David Ignatius
Washington Post

Bob Greene of CNN asks an intriguing question.

It isn't a question for which there is an easy or even semi–satisfying answer. However, if you watched the memorial service in Arizona last night, it is unavoidable.

Technically speaking, I suppose, Greene asked two questions. Frankly, though, they asked the same thing, just expressed it in different ways.

"Why does it always seem to take something like this to move us, however briefly, toward civility and mutual understanding?" Greene asked. "Why is it usually in the worst of times that we step back, lower our voices and look for our common humanity?"

Why does it always seem to take a tragedy — in Tucson, in Oklahoma City, in Kent, Ohio — to bring Americans together?

(Speaking of Kent, it is ironic that a man who survived the shooting on the Kent campus 40 years ago was in Tucson Saturday.)

I will always remember the days immediately following the September 11 attacks. Airplanes had been grounded so there was no activity in the skies. Here on earth, I noticed appreciably more civility between people. I saw more simple acts of courtesy than I had ever seen before.

Here in Dallas, where, ordinarily, someone will cut you off on the road as soon as look at you (and, in most cases, probably wouldn't think twice about it if you wound up in a ditch or a collision because of their recklessness), drivers looked out for one another. They were more patient with each other.

I saw people holding doors for one another. I saw people drop things and apparent strangers picked them up and returned them to their rightful owners.

Matter of fact, I don't think I heard another car horn for two or three days after the terrorist attacks. I haven't seen any statistics so I could be all wrong, but I'd be willing to wager that car accidents were way down in those two or three days. People actually seemed to be looking out for each other.

But the shock wore off and, before long, we were back to doing the things we normally do.

It's our default position, I suppose. It isn't uniquely American, perhaps, just more noticeable here because everything we do (at least in theory) is out in the open.

Maybe it's because of the way this nation began. We are angry and suspicious, fiercely protective of our rights against the things (both real and perceived) that we believe threaten their existence.

Americans have always held strong views about things. Sometimes those views have come into conflict, and when something terrible like the shootings in Tucson occur, we assume the worst, that the enemies of democracy (our personal vision of it, anyway) are at work.

The really odd part about it, I think, is that the shooter, Jared Loughner, really doesn't seem to have had a political agenda. The community college he once attended has described him as " 'creepy,' 'very hostile,' 'suspicious,' an individual with a 'dark personality.' "

I have not heard anyone at the community college speak of his political views. No one seems to have noticed what they were.

Maybe that's part of the problem. No one noticed.

David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post, wonders "why nobody stopped this often incoherent, irrational young man on his long path to the rampage in Tucson."

It isn't as easy as it may sound. Ignatius observes that "even when we try to stop people whose behavior seems to pose a danger to themselves or others, it's hard to do anything about it, as Loughner's professors at Pima Community College discovered."

And Ignatius makes a valid point about the current discussion of the civility of our political discourse.

"That's good," he writes, "but we should expand the definition of 'civil.' A civil society isn't just about less screaming on cable TV. It also has an ethic of community, so that people try, as best they can, to look out for one another.

"There's a coarsening, uncivil effect when we watch homeless people ranting and mumbling, freezing in the cold — and cross the street, assuming that it's somebody else's business. It takes something out of us, individually and as a country."

I've heard a lot of talk in my life about "united we stand." But, until our society decides that mental health issues deserve as much attention as we have been giving to other health issues in the last couple of years, I fear we are destined for more of these moments.

More mourning in America.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Mourner in Chief

With Barack Obama, what you see isn't always what you get.

That's the thought that went through my mind as the president neared the end of his speech at tonight's memorial service for the victims of the Arizona shooting on Saturday.

His performance reinforced the impression I have long had of him. This guy knows how to give a speech. Sometimes I think that's the kind of thing someone is born with. You can't teach it.

You can trust me on that, by the way. I took public speaking courses when I was younger, but, despite my best efforts, I don't think public speaking was ever my calling.

That wasn't my instructor's fault. I think there is only so much a public speaking instructor can do, anyway, no matter how gifted that person might be. It's like hiring Stan Musial, with his unorthodox swing, to coach hitting.

When he was on the campaign trail, Obama excelled at soaring rhetoric. It was what drew so many people to his side in the first place. It is what keeps so many in his corner today.

But many who voted for Obama with the expectation of seeing an aggressive, decisive leader in the White House have been disappointed by the tentative, at times timid approach Obama has taken to governing.

Perhaps it takes this kind of event to restore that Obama charisma, and it seems to have done that, at least temporarily. His speech tonight at the memorial service was a reminder of the kind of oratory of which this president is capable.

In an odd sort of disconnect, his presidential addresses have been low on inspiration and high on lecturing and scolding, but that wasn't appropriate to this occasion.

This is the kind of thing presidents are expected to do — and to do well.

It is what is being called the role of "mourner–in–chief." It is when circumstances force a president to comfort a bereaved nation. He cannot scold. He cannot lecture.

It is not a pleasant task. It wasn't pleasant for Bill Clinton when he had to travel to Oklahoma City in 1995. Nor was it pleasant for Ronald Reagan 25 years ago when he spoke to the nation on television following the Challenger disaster.

But it is a task that occasionally must be performed. Presidents who fall short of the mark — or, worse, do not make the attempt at all — usually do not remain president for long. On the other hand, presidents who are perceived to do well on this stage do tend to be re–elected.

Both Clinton and Reagan were re–elected, of course. Clinton's speech at Oklahoma City may have helped. Reagan's clearly did not since it came after he had already won a second term (although that could be said to have reinforced a generally positive national image of Reagan that originated when he was shot and grew as a result of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut).

Both speeches were so well done that lists them among the top 100 speeches of the 20th century.

(Some people mention George W. Bush's speech to the nation after 9–11. But, in addition to the fact that it more properly belongs in the still nascent 21st century, my memory is that his performance the night of the attacks was less than inspiring. His speech before a joint session of Congress a week later, however, was better.)

In that respect, Barack Obama's trip to Arizona today was really his opportunity to show people he could empathize with them, "feel their pain," as President Clinton used to say.

And there is plenty of pain in southeast Arizona — as well as the rest of the nation. There is the physical and emotional pain brought on by the shootings themselves. And there is the less–easily defined pain of the divisiveness that many say was behind the shootings, even though I still have yet to see a direct link.

I'll grant you that Sarah Palin's choice of words in her efforts to deflect criticism was, to say the least, poor. "Blood libel" is as offensive to Jews as "crusade" — the term Dubya used in the aftermath of 9–11 — was to Muslims.

But right now, that only means she was guilty of poor judgment — she's been a frequent offender, and it has inspired a lot of anger against her.

There is certainly a lot of anger in American politics today, a lot of finger pointing. Conservatives feel they have been unfairly (pardon the pun) targeted. It is a self–defense mechanism, I think. They are correct when they point out that, from everything we know about the attacker, he could hardly be said to be a political conservative.

(In fact, I stand by what I wrote Monday, when I said the attacker appeared to be apolitical.)

And liberals believe the attack was the inevitable result of the venomous atmosphere in which we live. You can try to tell them that they're jumping to a fallacious conclusion by blaming Palin, which they are, and they will only counter with the argument that she has contributed more than anyone else to the venomous level of the political dialogue.

And that is hard to argue with as well.

It hasn't always been this way. In fact, it hasn't always been this way in my lifetime. When I was growing up, Republicans and Democrats could disagree without the other side questioning either their motivations or their ancestry. Everything wasn't sharply divided along party lines, and each side did not spend all its time, once it gained a majority, trying to undo what the other party had done while it held the majority.

It was possible in those days for people to vote against their party on issues and not be denigrated as a Democrat or Republican "in name only."

As long as both parties insist on playing that game, in which the #1 item on each side's agenda is to dismantle whatever the other side has done, nothing will be accomplished — at least not permanently.

That, in my mind, was the great challenge facing Obama when he came to Arizona today. He had to try to bring those two sides as close together as possible — and, to be fair, there wasn't much that anyone could do in a single speech.

But a president is a leader. He is not one of 100 senators or one of more than 400 representatives. His constituency is all 50 states, even the ones that voted against him, and more than 300 million citizens, and he must help their elected officials find common ground. He must set the tone, and there were hopes, even from those of us who did not vote for Obama two years ago, that his gift for oratory might begin the process of bringing the two sides closer together.

Do you think he succeeded?

Monday, January 10, 2011

No Easy Answers

It is only natural, I guess, that a lot of people — whether they are qualified to do so — are trying to pinpoint a reason for Saturday's shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a judge and more than a dozen other people in Tucson, Ariz.

Because the congresswoman is a Democrat — and because her assailant apparently holds some extremist views — it is being assumed by many on the left that this is the inevitable product of the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

Jonathan Martin writes in Politico that the Tucson tragedy is a turning point for Palin. Whether she truly bears any responsibility for what happened, I think it should be the sort of event that makes us all stop and think about the things we say and do overtly — or covertly in the online world where anonymity is often assumed but rarely a reality.

I have no doubt that Palin and the Tea Party have contributed a lot to the atmosphere of intolerance. But those on the left should not be smug. Their responses to this event come across as knee–jerk to me — and likely to make things worse.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times, for example, wrote on his blog that Giffords, a centrist, was targeted because she is "a Democrat who survived what was otherwise a GOP sweep in Arizona" in November's midterms.

Then, in case you missed the point, he was more direct in Sunday's column: "Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from?" he asked. "[I]t's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be 'armed and dangerous' without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P."

Actress Jane Fonda leaped into the fray with an ill–advised tweet that, among other things, misidentified Giffords as a progressive (as I said, she is a centrist) and pointed the finger at Palin.

I disagree with Palin on most issues. In all honesty, I try not to listen to her any more than I have to — but, to be fair, I don't recall her issuing a fatwa that called for the execution of Democratic office–holders.

That's the kind of news that would have been hard to avoid — particularly since, in the interest of candor, I must admit that many in the broadcast media (and, sadly, it is broadcasting from which most people do get their news and information) have already shown their bias against her.

I didn't even detect a coded message to that effect from Palin. I mean, I suppose one could apply any sort of definition one wishes to anything that Palin — or anyone else, for that matter — says in public.

But if Palin said anything that could be even loosely interpreted that way, it went straight over my head — and I like to think I'm a reasonably sharp person.

Anyway, my impression, from what I have seen and heard in the last 48 hours, is that the gunman, Jared Loughner (and, by the way, I looked at his Facebook page briefly before someone took it down), is a nut job. There must be a more technical term for it, but I don't know what it is.

His views often seem contradictory, even apolitical. In some ways, I guess, he could be said to be something of a centrist himself, neither right nor left, really, although, as I said, he does hold some extremist views, but there is no consistency. Some are extreme right, some are extreme left.

And he does appear to loathe Giffords. Perhaps the reason for that can be determined at some point.

My experience is that the reasons for these acts are seldom obvious. Thirty years ago, for example, a man shot Ronald Reagan and several others outside a Washington hotel. His reason for doing so? He was infatuated with a movie actress.

Nearly 40 years ago, a man shot George Wallace and several others in a parking lot. The man was motivated by a desire for fame, not by politics, even though Wallace was a notorious segregationist.

The assassinations of the 1960s were shrouded in mystery. Even if they were the acts of lone gunmen, enough questions remain unanswered for them to continue to be the focus of conspiracy theories.

But even if those assassinations were the results of conspiracies, the "lone nut" notion was made plausible by the presence of an actual, verifiable loner who could have been responsible, even if he really wasn't.

If one can presume that the things Loughner wrote about himself in his online postings were true, both sides can find ample evidence for blaming the other side, from the books he claimed to be his favorites to the statements he posted that gave glimpses into a sick and troubled mind.

If there is one thing I have learned from observing these episodes in my life, it is that you can seldom, if ever, identify these people ahead of time. The Arizona Republic, for instance, reports that Loughner was rejected for military service and kicked out of community college.

The military won't discuss the reasons for his rejection, citing the Privacy Act. The Republic mentions "multiple run–ins" with the police at the community college and hints at bizarre behavior.

He "was described by friends and former classmates as a loner," writes Robert Anglen for the Republic, "prone to dressing in black regalia of boots, trench coat and baggy pants even on the hottest days."

I have been hearing about "lone nuts" all my life. Many (not all) have, in fact, appeared to be crazy and to have acted alone. That hasn't prevented conspiracy theories from popping up.

Some have been more credible than others, but the one that emerged within hours of Giffords' shooting, of an older man who was mentioned as a person of interest, turned out to be the cab driver who drove Loughner to the store where the shootings took place.

Apparently, he followed Loughner into the store because he hadn't paid his fare.

There have always been eccentrics among us, but it has only been with the benefit of hindsight that we have been able to distinguish between eccentric behavior and threatening behavior.

I suspect that the people who look for someone to blame have deluded themselves. They believe there are simple answers to complex questions. And there is nothing more complex, more mystifying than the workings and the dysfunctions of the human brain.

It will be awhile before we have any answers about how much damage was inflicted on Giffords. It may also be awhile before we have any answers about why Loughner did this.

I suspect it will take much longer before our society figures out what to do about all this.

There are no easy answers.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Words Fail Me

I guess it is the kind of thing that you never get used to — and maybe it's a healthy sign that I am not.

I mean, I really would have expected someone like myself, someone who grew up with this kind of thing happening a lot more frequently in this country than it does today, to be better prepared for it than I was.

Even so, I was shocked when I heard today that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, the target of an apparently crazed gunman in Tucson, Ariz. It literally left me at a loss for words, and even now I am trying to sort out how I feel, what I think.

Thankfully, it appears she will survive this attack, although I suppose only her doctors are currently in any kind of position to anticipate how complete her recovery will be or how long it may take. At this point, I suppose, they probably can't be too sure of much at all.

And I don't really want to speculate on any of that, either. For that matter, I don't really want to speculate on the gunman's motives or his political leanings.

There are plenty of people who are preoccupied with that tonight.

I think that may be part of the problem. Our society is far more interested in pointing fingers, in assigning blame than in correcting the problems those errors have produced.

The fact is that we are all to blame, no matter which side of the political spectrum we may occupy.

We are all guilty because the "toxic political environment" mentioned by the New York Times has been nurtured by both the left and the right. It does not exist only in Arizona nor does it exist solely in the South or the West or any other region of the country. The fact that a Democrat was the target today is no guarantee that a Republican will not be the target tomorrow.

Both sides have been guilty of irresponsibly fanning the flames of political passions, and now those passions are burning out of control.

This is when we need real leaders to step forward and bring the two sides together, to find common ground.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Word Games

When you've been out of work for awhile, you really start to notice the word games that politicians play with job numbers.

Take today's jobs report, for example. It kind of reminded me of the reaction in June 2009 to the news that fewer jobs had been lost in the previous month than expected. The losses were still in double digits and the unemployment rate climbed to 9.4% when economists had predicted it would go up to 9.2%.

But the focus was on the fact that the pace of job losses was slowing. Things were getting better, we were told. Folks in the administration hailed the report as proof that things were moving in the right direction.

Hold your horses, I warned people. Let's see what happens in the next two or three ... or more ... months. But no one heard me. The sound of popping champagne corks was too loud, I suppose.

Reality slapped some folks in the face the next month. Job losses were worse than expected, nearly half a million.

Anyway, back to today's report.

The economy added jobs, which was good, but it added one–third fewer jobs than expected, which was not so good.

However, the unemployment rate dropped by 0.3 percentage points, to 9.4%, which was better than expected.

And that is what Barack Obama preferred to emphasize. "The trend is clear. The pace of hiring is beginning to pick up," he said upon hearing the news.

If that is, indeed, what we are witnessing, then that is a good thing, to be sure.

But, once again, I counsel my fellow Americans to wait and see if this really is an indicator of a long–term trend — or an exception to the rule.

And, while it is good that the president offers words of hope and encouragement to those who are struggling to find full–time work (something he has rarely done in the first two years of his presidency), he doesn't mention that one of the reasons that the unemployment rate has dropped is because it only counts those who have not exhausted their unemployment benefits.

Those who have exhausted their benefits are simply not counted. Whether they have found employment or not is irrelevant.

The president also doesn't talk about how many of the jobs that were created in December were of a temporary, seasonal nature. Not too much demand for shopping mall Santas and extra gift wrappers in March.

Sometimes this kind of talk can generate similar talk, and a kind of momentum gets going. If something like that happens and employers decide to just start hiring people en masse, that's great.

But let's wait a few more months before we open the champagne bottles.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Experience Is Good

More than two years ago, as Barack Obama was preparing to become president, there was, shall we say, a certain amount of resistance to the idea of bringing people with Washington experience into the incoming administration.

At the time, I wrote that that was absurd. "In order to get people with experience in a Democratic administration that was not led by Bill Clinton," I wrote, "Obama would need to dip into the pool of veterans from the Carter administration. They left office almost 28 years ago."

Now, as Obama nears the midpoint of his term in office, some of those folks whose glittering resumes brought a certain amount of gravitas to a president with little of that particular commodity are moving on to other things — and leaving behind a mixed bag for a record.

Some of Obama's more dedicated supporters may see this as evidence that they were right all along, that the 2008 elections were about taking an entirely new approach to governing and the Obama administration's failings have been the result of not being entirely true to that principle.

It can be so easy to get the wrong idea.

With unemployment about three full percentage points higher than it was when Obama was sworn in, Guantanamo Bay still open for business, a war continuing in Afghanistan and Obama's signature legislative achievement, health care reform, under all–out assault in the decidedly more Republican Congress, it's easy to get the idea that, by golly, they just might have been right about that experience thing.

But they weren't. They just got carried away with the whole "yes we can" campaign.

I guess the left–wing activists believed the hype, that the only way to make a clean break with the past was to replace all the people who had been making the decisions. It was a short–sighted approach, but they used it for leverage to maneuver the administration back to the path they expected it to take.

What they should have learned from the last couple of years is not that experience is a bad thing. As long as the accepted procedures for doing things remain unchanged, experience on the part of those who must work within the system is a very good thing to have — especially for an inexperienced president.

Since there really is no other position that can be said to be adequate preparation for the presidency, I guess most presidents have to learn the job as they go. That may be unavoidable, but, because the opposition is sure to have plenty of experienced folks manipulating the existing system, a president also needs a certain amount of experience working for him — if only in self defense.

In fact, the people surrounding the president really need to have at least some experience because the president will depend heavily on their advice.

Experience isn't foolproof, and the track record of this president is testimony to that because there are almost certainly executive decisions that have been made in the last couple of years that were influenced by the experience of Obama's advisers.

Obama, we are being told, is now on the verge of shaking up his staff by naming a chief of staff and an economic adviser who have quite a bit of Washington experience.

I would like to think that would be good news for staffers who may have walked into the White House blinded by their naivete two years ago but who should have their eyes wide open now. Folks in Washington play for keeps, and they don't like to be challenged on what they believe is their turf.

While experience in Washington cannot be said to be a crime, its absence does seem comparable to a criminal defendant who chooses to defend himself instead of leaving it in the hands of an experienced lawyer.

More than once, criminal defendants have been admonished that those who choose to act as their own attorney have fools for clients.

Virtually the same could be said for presidents who try to function without the benefits of experience.

It is to Obama's credit that, when he has an important decision to make, he is pragmatic enough to seek experience.

Perhaps it is a sign that this president is growing in and learning from his job.

That would be good news for us all. A more mature chief executive can only benefit America.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The New World Order

Well, it isn't a new world order, I guess. More like a new American order.

But it figures to affect what happens in next year's presidential race.

And that is as worldly as most presidential aspirants probably care to be — at least until they can rightfully claim president–elect as their title.

But that new world order — if it is to come — is still in the future. I'm thinking about something much more immediate.

The new order of which I speak is the new Congress, in which Republicans control the House (by a pretty significant margin, too) and Democrats still hold the majority in the Senate (but by a greatly reduced margin).

This week marks the beginning of the first session of the 112th Congress, and I think it is safe to say things are going to be different in Washington in the next couple of years.

Well, I guess some things haven't changed — like the emphasis. Oh, the focus will remain on domestic policy, but I would have thought that, with unemployment entrenched above 9% and frustrated voters having just taken more than 60 House seats away from the Democrats and given them to the Republicans, job creation would be the top priority for lawmakers in both parties.

There may be some lawmakers for whom job creation really is as urgent as it is for rank–and–file Americans, but, as Paul Kane writes in the Washington Post, House Republicans are already plotting a vote to repeal health care reform next week.

Don't worry, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson counsels supporters of health care reform. Repeal ain't gonna happen, he says — to be precise, he writes, "Just to be clear, there's no earthly chance that a bill repealing the landmark health–care overhaul could make it through Congress and be signed into law" — and he makes that assessment based on two factors, one of which seems far more likely (to me) than the other.

The first premise is that the Democrat–controlled Senate would reject it, but I am skeptical of that. It presumes that Democrats will stand resolutely against any efforts to repeal health care reform — but they were seldom that united when they had the allegedly filibuster–proof majority that they openly coveted.

With the Democrats' margin in the Senate reduced to 53–47 (and two of those 53 members aren't even Democrats — technically), all the Republicans need to do is persuade four members to vote with them (fewer if any of the Democrats are absent due to illness or injury).

Why would they be more resistant to Republican pressure than they were when the numbers were more favorable to them?

There are, as I observed in November, a dozen Democratic senators from states that voted for Republicans in the 2010 midterms who must face those voters in 2012. Some probably will be re–elected; others are not so certain, at least at this point.

As we get closer to the election year and opponents emerge on not only the Republican side but the Democratic side as well, some of those Democrats might look at the polls and decide that going with the prevailing wind and keeping their jobs beats tilting at windmills — or supporting a president who hasn't been particularly supportive of them.

That leads, I suppose, to Robinson's second premise, which seems far more likely to me, although it is hard to see how, if it comes to that, it can be of much benefit to the president.

That premise is that Barack Obama will veto any repeal that passes both chambers. It requires way more support to override a veto than Republicans can come up with under present circumstances. Consequently, Obama wins by default.

But he would still be put in the position of having to rally enough Democrats to his side to prevent the veto from being overridden. How hard that would be might depend upon how the Republicans package their assault — which provision(s) of the reform bill face a legislative challenge (and GOP lawmakers are already talking about challenging individual provisions) and that sort of thing.

So I suppose Robinson is right when he says "there's no earthly chance that a bill repealing the landmark health–care overhaul could make it through Congress and be signed into law."

Republicans have made repealing health care reform the centerpiece of their agenda. It is the #1 item on this generation's "Contract With America" — in no small part because it would deny Obama a signature legislative triumph when he is running for a second term.

But perhaps the symbolism of taking a principled stand against health care reform is what matters most as Republicans try to slither their way back into power. They promised to attempt to do certain things, but it doesn't take a mathematician to see that they simply don't have the numbers to insist on anything at the moment. Thus, the attempt itself may have to suffice for now.

That could change in 2012. Congressional Republicans need to conserve the mood of 2010 and prevent the pendulum from swinging back to the left as quickly as it swung to the right.

If nothing else, though, the Republicans are orderly — and patient. They have earned a reputation for giving their presidential nominations to whoever is perceived to be next in line. They seldom, if ever, proceed to item #2 until item #1 has been achieved.

One thing leads to the next in their philosophy. It was a Republican president, after all, who popularized the "domino theory" that was as responsible as anything else for America's tragic involvement in Vietnam.

As long as I can remember, Republicans have seen things in terms of keeping that first domino from falling — because, presumably, all the other dominoes are weaker. At least, they're too weak to resist when that first domino falls.

That doesn't strike me as a very promising omen of cooperation and bipartisanship.

In the next two years, I wouldn't count on making much headway in breaking the gridlock that seems to be a permanent fixture on Capitol Hill.

Each time the old pendulum swings — no matter in which direction — gridlock seems to tighten its grip. It tends to render the system less and less responsive to the people it is supposed to serve, less and less capable of meeting the needs of the citizenry.

Gridlock is a political tool, used (and nurtured) by whichever side it benefits at the moment.

That's the reality of the new world order.