Monday, May 30, 2011

The Circus Is In Town

"Everyone is makin' love
Or else expecting rain."

Bob Dylan
"Desolation Row"

The Republican presidential field for 2012 is taking shape, like it or not. I'm already hearing the mutterings from Republicans who don't like any of their choices.

In the nascent days of the campaign — when no one had actually entered the race yet — a premium was being placed on maturity and experience, someone who had dealt with budgets and had to forge compromises, a governor, perhaps.

Barack Obama, the argument went, is in over his head. He didn't have enough experience — or he didn't have the right kind of experience. Anyone could see he isn't up to the job. The unemployment rate is nearly twice what it was when he took office. The price of a gallon of gas has already doubled.

The key to victory in 2012, went the thinking in Republican circles, is to nominate someone who has demonstrated that he/she is, in the words of George W. Bush, a uniter, not a divider. (Bush himself was never a uniter, but, ironically, his own words may point the way to post–Dubya success.)

Republicans will vote for their nominee. They always do, but they can't win it alone. They need to persuade enough independents — many of whom have been disenchanted with Obama for quite a while but probably still would vote for him over someone who is seen as an extremist — to vote Republican as well.

There will be a few supporters from the other party — there always are — but that is a bonus. If either party starts winning over the other party's members in even modest numbers, that is a signal that things are not going well for the other party.

The battle for the presidency will be decided by the independents.

So the search was on for a "grown–up" — and some noises were heard from some of the petulant children in the GOP's wannabe section who prefer a more extreme style — if not necessarily more extreme politics (although the two are not mutually exclusive).

As those who have been mentioned previously in conversations about the 2012 nomination have been making up their minds about whether to make the run, the field that is emerging does, in fact, lean toward what many folks originally said they wanted.

But now there appears to be a concern that the prospects lack pizzazz. The Republican field is competent enough, say some critics — but boring, too boring for the 21st century.
  • Boring is in, says Howie Carr in the Boston Herald, and that should favor a guy like Mitt Romney, who was a Republican governor in Massachusetts.

    Romney is a "grown–up." Whatever else he is — or isn't — depends on your point of view, as it does with anyone else, but, when all is said and done, he is still a grown–up.

    On that, I think, most of us can agree.

  • "But with eight months to go before the Republican primaries," writes Elaine Kamarck in the Washington Post, "will voters be content with this group of boring guys or go looking for someone more exciting? What, exactly, does being a grown–up mean? And, more important, do grown–ups win?"

    For Republicans who have been living for a chance to "make Obama a one–term president," that is certainly a valid question — especially if you read "grown–up" as meaning stodgy, immovable, old school.

    People have grown accustomed to a new kind of intimacy with their politicians in recent years, and it is only going to get bigger in the future. Savvy political consultants have been making texting and tweeting integral parts of their strategy to personally bond with voters, digitally sidestepping the media. That seems a little too clever — by half — but who knows?

    It tends to be the young who are the first to embrace new technology, and politicians who find ways to tap into and mobilize the young voters will have the inside track for electoral success in the future.

    So the challenge is to present a package that combines appeal to the young with reassurance for older voters that the candidate actually knows what he is doing.

  • Being able to defeat Obama shouldn't be a problem for this group, writes Shelby Steele for the Wall Street Journal.

    He has a record to defend, but his persona, cultivated in 2008 and sharpened in office, outshines his performance. Voters are blinded by the "myth," Steele suggests.

    "There have really always been two Barack Obamas," Steele writes, "the mortal man and the cultural icon. If the actual man is distinctly ordinary, even a little flat and humorless, the cultural icon is quite extraordinary. The problem for Republicans is that they must run against both the man and the myth. In 2008, few knew the man and Republicans were walloped by the myth. Today the man is much clearer, and yet the myth remains compelling."
Steele makes a point of which many Republicans are justifiably fearful — criticism of Obama, even honest disagreement, is dismissed as racism.

And no one wants to be labeled racist.

That is no different, in my mind, from the Republican smokescreen after 9/11 that contended that anyone who disagreed with the president in his conduct of the war on terror was unpatriotic.

Such arguments do not address legitimate concerns. They appeal to emotion, not reason.

The next presidential election must be fought on the grounds of reason, not emotion. There have been many very important issues in recent decades that should have been discussed at length during presidential campaigns — but, instead, got swept under the rug in favor of such diversionary issues as gay marriage, flag burning and swift boating.

That cannot be allowed to happen again.

Steele touches on another important point. Obama does have a record to defend. That is the nature of an incumbent election, and Obama must defend that record. That is what presidents who seek re–election must do. The fact that Obama has never had to do this for any office beyond Illinois state senate is irrelevant.

He must do it now even though his opponent is the generic Republican to whom Gallup polls have shown the president losing ground.

Roland Martin of CNN insists that we won't know the real GOP field until after Labor Day — and he may be right.

I know he would be right if this was 1984. Republican Ronald Reagan waited to declare his intention to run for re–election until early that year — even though some of the biggest names in Democratic politics were lining up to seek their party's nomination.

But, contrary to what Martin contends ("the old model of announcing early is over") things are more accelerated today. Obama's re–election campaign has already been under way for a couple of months — and not only are we months away from the first primary but Obama doesn't even have a challenger in his own party.

That might change, but, for now, it must be assumed that Obama will have no opposition (other than the general Republican field) for more than a year. Nevertheless, his campaign has begun.

It makes sense to me that the serious contenders in the Republican race will be known before Labor Day, even though Martin writes that "[w]ith social media and the ability to raise funds online, it's not that critical to announce early. In fact, the earlier you announce, the more time the media and your opponents have to define and/or attack you."

That's true to a point — but the early announcers also get first crack at the big–money donors. That individual contributor stuff made good copy in 2008 — but a lot more people are out of work (and therefore have less disposable income) now.

Like it or not, Republicans, these are the choices from whom your 2012 nominee is likely to come.

If you aren't pleased with the choices, just remember the campaign that was waged 20 years ago. In 1991, most people thought President George H.W. Bush was invulnerable — in large part because of his whirlwind success in the Gulf War — and, one by one, the big names in the Democratic Party opted out of the race.

In the end, the Democrats nominated some bumpkin named Bill Clinton — who went on to become the Democrats' only two–term president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Carnage in Joplin

I went to college about 70 miles south–southeast of Joplin, Mo.

I didn't spend much time there. I went there a few times, and I knew people who came from there, but I couldn't rightfully claim to have an intimate relationship with the place.

Nevertheless, it is heart–breaking to see what has happened there in recent days. I have needed little more than to see images of the devastation or to hear reports that the twister that ripped through Joplin on Sunday was among the deadliest ever to understand the enormity of it all.

A lot of grim work is being done in southwest Missouri.

Rescuers are finding a barren wasteland in an increasingly futile search for survivors in the debris.

The president will be in town on the one–week anniversary of the tornado, but I honestly wonder if the purpose of his visit is more political than anything else.

No memorial service is planned on Sunday (at least, I am unaware of one) — and even if one is planned, this isn't the outcome of an inherently evil act. The Joplin tornado has left thousands of tragedies in its wake, but this isn't like Tucson or Oklahoma City or Ground Zero. There is no "bad guy" he can promise to bring to justice.

The idea of bringing someone to justice plays into the concept of closure — and it tends to satisfy a biblical need for revenge.

But this was an act of nature. That's what the insurance company said many years ago when a huge tree limb fell on my car, and that's what this was. You can't bring a tornado to justice — even though this one may yet prove to be as deadly as the bomb Timothy McVeigh set off at the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Obama appears to understand this — but he also seems almost eager to score some points from human misfortune. The president who has been criticized frequently for being too aloof, too remote now seems to want to be seen as the new president who feels your pain.

I can almost see the empathetic pictures for the campaign brochures and the footage for the commercials being planned and shot.

Is that a wee bit too cynical? Perhaps. But, tell me, what's he gonna do? There ain't much, and he knows it.

"All we can do," he admitted, "is let them know that all of America cares deeply about them and that we are going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure that they recover."

That's fine — but can't he do that in Washington?

Can't he declare southwest Missouri a federal disaster area without the trappings of a photo opp?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

America's First Serial Killer

Monday was the sesquicentennial of the birth of the man known to history as America's first documented serial killer — H.H. Holmes.

Serial killing was not a new thing when Holmes (whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett) started killing people in the second half of the 19th century so I must conclude that he was not this country's first serial killer — and I'm reasonably sure he wasn't the first to confess to killing someone.

But he did confess to more than two dozen murders — and the authorities of the day, using the forensic technology they possessed, confirmed nine of them. Thus, by the most common legal definition of serial killing, Holmes was a serial killer.

By some estimates, he may have been far more prolific than the legal community could have imagined. His actual body count may well have been more than 200.

He began his life of crime as a swindler, but he soon moved on to more sinister things.

For the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Holmes opened a three–story "World's Fair" hotel. It was a block long, and it was located a short distance from the fair, an attractive option for out–of–towners.

It was a real house of horrors, though, a maze with dead ends, rooms with no windows, stairs that went nowhere, doors that could be opened only from the outside. Holmes' victims — and, of the ones who have been confirmed, many were women who worked for him in his hotel or the other commercial ventures in the building, but there may also have been several who were in town strictly to visit the fair — never had a chance.

Holmes wanted it that way. He was the only one who fully understood how his hotel was designed because he kept changing builders. It kept suspicion down and tongues from wagging.

Holmes, too, had been a medical student. He apparently dissected many of the bodies and sold parts to medical schools through the connections he had established when he was younger. Thus, getting rid of the evidence was ridiculously easy.

After the fair concluded, Holmes left Chicago. He resurfaced for a time in this part of the country and tried to build a hotel in Fort Worth that was similar to the one he had in Chicago, but he gave up on that and wandered around North America for awhile.

Holmes might have gone undetected if not for the fact that he was arrested in St. Louis for a horse swindle. He was bailed out, but, while behind bars, he became friendly with Marion Hedgepeth, a train robber in whom he confided a scheme for faking his own death and having his wife collect on the insurance.

Hedgepeth was promised payment for providing the name of an attorney who would participate in the scheme, but Hedgepeth wasn't paid so he blew the whistle.

And the whole thing unraveled.

The legal system didn't dawdle over things like appeals in those days. Less than two years after his arrest in St. Louis, on May 7, 1896, Holmes was hanged.

He was a little more than a week away from his 35th birthday.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Who Will Win in Wisconsin?

Things could get pretty exciting in next year's elections.

The Democrats really don't need for things to get too exciting. They already have their work cut out for them in 2012, what with a president and a reduced majority in the Senate to defend.

Holding on to that advantage in the Senate could be a Herculean challenge.

About one–third of the seats are on the ballot in each election cycle — unless there are vacancies that make additional special elections necessary.

In 2012, the Republicans will only need to swing four seats to their side to flip control of the chamber — and Democrats, because of their success in the 2006 elections, hold about two dozen of the seats that will be on next year's ballot.

Whether the incumbents are running or not, most of those seats currently appear likely to stay with whichever party now holds them.

There are some clear tossups emerging — Democrat–held seats in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and Virginia — and winning four or all five would give control of the Senate to the GOP.

But, barring a tsunami–like event between now and November 2012, it has been hard to see the Republicans running the table or coming that close to it — not impossible but hard.

Until recently.

Last Friday, Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, reliably liberal, a dependable vote for his party and an apparent cinch to win a fifth term if he sought one, announced that he would not run for re–election — and that, I believe, could change things for Barack Obama.

Things were already getting interesting in Wisconsin this spring, but I felt that, ultimately, Obama would get through it, thanks to Kohl. And why shouldn't he? The state has voted for Democratic presidential nominees in six straight elections — although it has sometimes been by a paper–thin margin. Obama's supporters had every reason to expect the state would remain in the Democrats' column.

Before Kohl's announcement, I was inclined to predict that Wisconsin would vote to re–elect Obama next year. He won there by a wide margin in 2008 — wider than anyone in more than 40 years — but I'm not so sure about a post–Kohl environment.

The Rothenberg Political Report isn't ready to declare the seat a tossup yet — but, with Kohl's announcement, it did move the race from "Safe Democrat" to "Leans Democrat" — a progression that several Democrat–held seats went through en route to defeat in the 2010 cycle.

With the popular Kohl on the ballot, Obama had a proven Democratic–voter magnet on the ballot with him. Kohl was first elected to the Senate in 1988 and was never seriously challenged after that. Without him on the ballot, there may be a free–for–all in the party primary and, possibly, the general election.

The idea may seem absurd to young political observers, who may be aware of the fact that Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since before Kohl was elected to the Senate — but neither had it sent a Republican to the Senate in that time until Ron Johnson defeated Russ Feingold last November.

If anything could stand between Wisconsin Republicans and victory in next year's Senate race, it might be the absence of a heavyweight name. House Budget chairman Paul Ryan might have been that name — but he announced today that he would not enter the race.

Speculation now appears to be centering on former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Even if the Wisconsin Republicans have to settle for less than a heavyweight nominee, I still expect a lot of money to be spent in what might otherwise have been a rather pedestrian affair — if the 76–year–old Kohl had sought another term.

Even though Obama and the Democrats must have expected to spend some money on campaign advertising in Wisconsin next year, they are likely now to be forced to spend even more. They will need to do whatever they can to prop up the Democrats' Senate nominee — whoever he or she may be — because they won't have Kohl to attract Democrats.

Speaking of heavyweights, Feingold (who went from 55% support in 2004 to 47% support in 2010) has been mentioned as a possible candidate as well, but he hasn't announced his intentions yet.

Whatever his plans may have been for 2012, Feingold may now have to re–evaluate the situation. Open seats have a way of changing things — especially when the electorate is as volatile and polarized as this one.

There's going to be plenty to watch in Wisconsin next year.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Pause That Refreshes

Several years ago, I was spending a weekend at an old friend's home, and I happened to notice that one of my favorite films was scheduled to be shown on TV.

"Have you ever seen 'One Two Three?' " I asked my friend.

"No," he replied, "but I've seen its sequel — 'Four Five Six.' "

We got a good laugh out of that one, but, unfortunately, we didn't watch the movie — and I regret that because I would have liked to share it with him. Perhaps one day I will.

Anyway, my thoughts have turned to "One Two Three" today because it was the (fictional) story of a Coca–Cola executive.

And it was 125 years ago today that Coca–Cola was first served in a drug store in Atlanta.

At first, Coca–Cola was sold as a medicine. In the late 19th century, it was believed that carbonated water had health benefits, and it was because of those perceived medicinal benefits that its developer wished to market it.

As hard as this may be for some folks to swallow, it was developed by a Georgia druggist named John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran.

The invention of Coke actually came about because of Pemberton's military service. He was wounded in battle and became addicted to morphine — and embarked on a search for a cure for his addiction, eventually coming up with Coca–Cola.

For the rest of Pemberton's lifetime, Coca–Cola was marketed as a medicine — a tonic, I suppose, intended to relieve a number of ailments.

Today, of course, it is the leading soft drink company in the world.

Well, I presume it is the leader. It always was the leader when I was growing up, and I don't think it has been displaced by anyone.

But competition has been around for a long time. Both Pepsi and RC Cola have existed for more than a century. As a result, I suppose, I always felt (well, at least since I first saw the movie) that the title was a reference to the three titans of the soft–drink industry.

Coke was the first of the colas, though — chronologically as well as in the marketplace.

In my household, in fact, "coke" was a generic term.

In other households, such drinks are called "soda" or "pop." My mother seldom drank Coca–Cola, but she used the word "coke" to refer to any soft drink.

When my mother said "Would you like a coke?" I knew she wasn't speaking only about a Coca–Cola. I knew she meant any soft drink that was available.

I always felt that "One Two Three" was one of Billy Wilder's best comedies — and that is saying something when you think about all the movies that he wrote, directed and/or produced — but it was often overshadowed by the others that he did.

The story had several joking references to the rivalry between Coke and Pepsi (which, I gather, was a fact of commercial life by that time), but I don't actually recall any references to RC Cola. Perhaps that is because Royal Crown (as it was known) was more diverse, dabbling in other flavors (and, hence, other markets) at the time that "One Two Three" was in the theaters.

It got its title from a phrase that Jimmy Cagney, playing a Coca–Cola executive in Berlin in the early 1960s, would say when he wanted something (usually several things) done quickly.

"One, two, three!" he would say, snapping his fingers with each word.

That movie will observe the 50th anniversary of its premiere later this year, and I plan to write about it at length when that time comes.

But, for some reason, today I feel compelled to write about one of its lesser–known yet memorable performers.

Her name is Liselotte Pulver. She played Cagney's sexy secretary, and her character served as the bait in his plan to retrieve his employer's new son–in–law from his East German captors.

Cagney deserved and received much praise for his performance, but the sometimes frenetic pace of the film was too much for him, and he went into virtual retirement when it was over.

There were other performers in the film who, for various reasons, seemed to get more attention than Pulver. Pamela Tiffin, who played the boss' daughter, may have been perceived by some as sexier than Pulver. She was quite a bit younger. And Horst Buccholz, who played her East German fiance/spouse, was a rising star when "One Two Three" was made. He made his American debut in "The Magnificent Seven" the year before, and he went on to appear in several American films before his death in 2003.

Cagney, of course, was an old pro — with a film resume that went back more than 30 years. Arlene Francis was, too, although she spent many years on television, not the silver screen.

Pulver's career, I gather, was spent mostly in her native Germany. Most Americans weren't familiar with it.

But Pulver was a refreshing element in the story — a true pause that refreshed.

And that was appropriate, I suppose, for a movie about a Coca–Cola executive.

Friday, May 6, 2011


It never occurred to me before.

Last summer, as you may recall, my practically lifelong friend Phyllis died. She had been living with cancer for a few years, but then she was stricken with pneumonia, and it was too much for her body to withstand.

A mutual friend of ours participated in the funeral planning. He returns to our hometown at the end of each semester to participate in commencement ceremonies at the university there, and Phyllis' death came very near the time when he would be doing that at the end of the summer session.

He spent a little more time there than normal last August, helping with the arrangements.

Anyway, he is back there now. He just arrived yesterday. The university will be holding its spring ceremonies this weekend, and he posted a notice on Facebook.

A friend informed him that a "Relay for Life" is being held in a nearby town in Phyllis' honor this weekend. I gathered from his response that he had already spoken to Phyllis' family and had been told about this event.

And it all clicked.

Of course. I've seen this before. I knew a couple of people who died of brain tumors when I was growing up, and, at some point, folks organized special events like this "Relay for Life" in their memories. Likewise, I knew some people who died of other diseases, and similar events were organized in their memories.

I suppose these events have — almost always — been intended to raise money for medical research. They also — almost always — become annual events and carry the deceased person's name.

It's a form of immortality, I suppose — I couldn't wish it for a better person even though I still wish, perhaps for selfish reasons, that she was still around.

And I'm glad her name will be remembered — even when the time comes when the people who remember her name have no memory of her.

It's been nearly a year since she died, but in that time, there have been many occasions when I have remembered things about Phyllis that I had forgotten — or, at least, haven't given a lot of thought in awhile.

She continues to influence me, at times to inspire me, in ways that neither of us ever could have dreamed when we were children in Conway, Ark.

Neither, I suppose, could we have imagined, when we saw fundraising events being named for people we had known, that one of us — and, who knows, perhaps even both of us — would be remembered in such a way, possibly long after our contemporaries have joined us.

I am glad she is being honored in this way, but I am sorry she didn't know just how many fish were caught in the wide net she cast during her life.

I guess that is the thing I find singularly sad about such tributes.

Yesterday, as I wrote in this blog, was the 16th anniversary of my mother's death. She was a first–grade teacher when she died in a flash flood — admired and mourned by many.

(She knew Phyllis when I was growing up, knew her pretty well, as I recall. Mom knew all of my friends, but some she knew better than others. We lived in the country, and she knew the kids with whom I played every day, of course, but Phyllis, like most of my classmates, lived within the city limits.

(Mom didn't see most of those friends as frequently. She was acquainted with the kids who attended our church — but Phyllis didn't belong to our church when I was growing up. Nevertheless, Mom and Phyllis gravitated to each other and became friends. I'm not sure how or when that occurred, but it did. I remember that, by the time I was in high school, I noticed Phyllis and Mom seeking each other out at school functions.)

Anyway, the last children Mom taught are old enough now to have children of their own. In a few years, they may be first–graders in the school where Mom taught for the last 12 years of her life.

Those children, obviously, never knew my mother. But they will almost surely know her name. Less than a year after she died, the school dedicated a garden on the school property to her memory.

I don't know what the garden is used for today, but the original intention, as I understood it, was for it to be a place for contemplation, for reflection, for storytelling. A sort of a "quiet place," you might say, and that, I think, would have suited Mom just fine.

It was not a playground for recess. The swings and the slides could be found on the other side of the building.

There was a sign that identified the garden and on it could be found my mother's name. Even if you only ever walked past it and never stopped, you were almost sure to absorb the name from reading the sign — in much the same way that some people who perform heroic deeds say they learned the procedures for CPR and the Heimlich maneuver by casually glancing at posters on breakroom walls.

I haven't been on those grounds in a long time, but I assume that garden is still there. If it is, I am glad that it stands as a monument to Mom.

At the same time, I have a hard time thinking of my mother as a name on a garden wall or Phyllis as the name of an annual fundraising event. They were flesh–and–blood people for me, people who continue to influence my thoughts, my life, my memories.

When I think of my mother, I don't think of the honors she received for her creative teaching techniques. I think of her dedication, of evenings I spent sitting with her at the dining room table, helping her grade papers so she would have some free time to watch TV or play with the cat.

And when I think of Phyllis, I remember laughs and moments we shared, some with other people, some with just us.

I'm sorry they're gone. I miss them every day.

And, when all is said and done, I am glad they are remembered by others.

Even if those people never met them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some Random Thoughts About Mom and Freedom 7

I have mixed emotions today.

Today is the 16th anniversary of my mother's death in a flash flood. It is always a grim anniversary for me, and I am always glad when it is behind me.

But today is a milestone anniversary of another sort. May 5 will always be a grim day for me, but it is less grim than usual today because of that other anniversary, the milestone.

Half a century ago today, I guess you could say that America really entered the space race.

There had been other events in man's reach for the stars — slightly more than three weeks earlier, Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and America had been dabbling in unmanned spacecraft for awhile — but it was on this day that Alan Shepard (in the Freedom 7) became the first American in space. It was a short flight, about 15 minutes, but it was really the foundation for U.S. manned space travel in the 1960s and 1970s. The lessons that were learned in that short time made everything that followed possible.

(I'm not sure how the space agency arrived at the name. The number 7, I have been told, came from the fact that the capsule that was chosen was labeled #7 in a group of capsules — but seven, after all, is considered a lucky number. Coincidence?

(As for the Freedom part of the name, well, I haven't heard any stories about how it was chosen, but that's one of those American–sounding words, like liberty and justice and democracy.)

Nearly a decade later, Shepard was the commander of Apollo 14 and became the fifth man to walk on the moon. He would have been the seventh man to walk on the moon if the previous mission, Apollo 13, had been able to land. But it was prevented from doing so by a design defect.

My mother had Shepard's pioneering spirit, I think. She was a community activist when I was a child — and she was part of the successful local movement to switch our county from paper ballots to voting machines.

The people who live there now probably take it for granted that they can cast their votes on voting machines, but it was not always that way.

When my family moved to my home county in Arkansas, paper ballots were still being used there, and the people who held office held all the cards. They knew all sorts of ways to manipulate votes with those paper ballots, and I remember hearing my parents speak with their friends about their wish to break "the machine."

Thanks to the efforts of my mother and her friends and colleagues, the vice–like grip that the old–fashioned kind of machine had on my home county was broken forever.

I think Mom would be pleased to know that her achievement has lived on and thrived. Elections there appear to be more open today than at any time in her lifetime.

I think she would be proud of that — and, if she could have chosen the day that she died, she might well have chosen the anniversary of the day that the first American traveled in space. I don't know.

I do know, however, that I'm proud of Mom. Always will be. And I miss her very much.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Riding For Freedom

It was on this day half a century ago that the "Freedom Riders," civil rights activists of all races and faiths, embarked on bus rides into the segregated American South.

The intention was to test the Supreme Court's decision the previous year in the Boynton v. Virginia case. The details of that case are not all that important; what is important is that the ruling essentially declared that segregation in public transportation was against the law.

I am no legal scholar, and someone who remembers those times might have a different take on it, but I always felt that ruling was not intended to be a social statement — well, not entirely. I felt it was mostly about the conduct of business.

It was made within the context of interstate travel, but it wound up having a much broader application to American life.

Segregation in places like waiting rooms and diners that served buses with passengers who crossed state lines was a violation of a mid–1950s ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The ICC had not been enforcing its ruling, though, and Boynton v. Virginia was the Court's way of telling the ICC to clean up its act.

(It is also important to note, I think, that the majority opinion was written by Justice Hugo Black, an FDR appointee who is considered one of the most influential justices of all time. For a short time in his youth, Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan — apparently, for much the same reason as the late Sen. Robert Byrd.)

Civil rights activists saw an opportunity to draw attention to their cause, and they set out on the "Freedom Rides," starting on this day 50 years ago.

They drew a lot more than attention. The reactions in the South were violent, brutal. I grew up in the South, and there are many things about this region of which I am proud. But its history in racial relations is not one of them.

Later this month, when PBS broadcasts a documentary on the Freedom Riders, I presume you can see archival footage of burning buses and passengers who were savagely beaten by mobs in the Deep South.

(If you don't want to wait nearly two weeks until PBS shows its documentary, NPR has posted photographs from LIFE magazine.)

The footage I have seen is horrific enough. I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been to witness in person.

The destination of the original Freedom Riders was New Orleans, but, as Katy Reckdahl writes for the New Orleans Times–Picayune, they didn't get that far.

However, they inspired a movement that involved more than 400 Freedom Riders on more than 60 excursions into the South in 1961.

Angela Tuck writes, in the Atlanta Journal–Constitution, that the Freedom Rides still resonate with us in the early 21st century.

It is interesting to note the ways that some people are observing the 50th anniversary.

Last week, Aaron Barnhart of McClatchy Newspapers drew a distinction between this anniversary and the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War.

Civil rights leaders whose names were hardly household words at the time, much less today, have been reminiscing about their experiences.

So have folks who were, for all intents and purposes, participants in, not facilitators of, the rides.

PBS has chosen some college students — from Virginia, Georgia, Utah, Kansas City, all over — to re–trace the footsteps of those original Freedom Riders for an American Experience program.

And, as Gail Kerr points out for Nashville's The Tennessean, the Freedom Rides have other implications today.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Freedom Rides played a significant role in accelerating the momentum of civil rights in America.

And, although I am not proud of chapters of my native region's history, I am proud of the lessons we learned and the progress we made because of them.

Monday, May 2, 2011


"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."

Mark Twain

The announcement yesterday of Osama bin Laden's death was a unique moment in contemporary history — unifying, in fact, and I felt compelled to share it with people so I stayed up later than I normally would on a Sunday night and listened to a few conversations on Facebook — even contributed to a couple.

When I went to bed, I was experiencing mixed, even conflicting, emotions over an event that should assure every living American that we have now heard what Paul Harvey might have called "the rest of the story."

There should be satisfaction in that.

Practically a decade ago, America was plunged deep into an abyss of shock and grief, and bin Laden was responsible for that. He did not hijack the airplanes nor did he crash them into buildings — but, in the language of the space age, he activated the launch sequence.

I know people who have been living for this moment for the last 10 years — and, judging from some of the comments I saw last night, many of them realize, albeit belatedly, that bin Laden's death is not the end of it, as they long had hoped it would be.

And that is a bitter revelation for those who believe in peace.

Violence only begets more violence, I read several times, and I have been thinking that that must surely be true of people like bin Laden, who live to inflict pain and damage on others. His followers are sure to be looking for some way to retaliate, and, if I or anyone I knew happened to be living abroad, I would be very concerned.

What's more, the world's experience with bin Laden and al Qaeda tells everyone how patient and calculating these terrorists can be. Those who possess bin Laden's discipline and dedication won't mind waiting years to avenge this — perhaps on a sunny autumn day in 2021.

In my lifetime, I have seen men of peace who died violent deaths — and, in the process, sparked even greater violence. Bin Laden definitely was not a man of peace.

An eye for an eye isn't merely a biblical passage, and the ones who openly speak it are not the only ones who believe it.

The comments I saw on Facebook last night came from people who occupy every inch on the political spectrum, from extreme left to extreme right and everything in between.

The ones on the left were eager to give Barack Obama all the credit and seize the opportunity to kick George W. Bush for failing to rid the world of bin Laden during his eight years in office.

The ones on the right were defensive about Bush and more prone to give credit to the guys on the ground who actually did the dirty work.

Both were right, I suppose, and, even though neither side appears to be terribly eager to give so much as a centimeter to the other, there is some common ground to be found.

The fact is that it is satisfying to know that the man who was responsible for the deaths of so many, for the pain and suffering experienced by so many who survived 9–11 and will never forget the horror they witnessed, is now dead.

But it would be naive to think that this is the end of it.

I'm not sure if I agree with Obama that this is justice — although, as I wrote last night, this may be as close to justice as we were ever likely to get.

But it wasn't the kind of justice I would have preferred to see — the kind where the guilty must answer for his crimes before a judge and jury.

Perhaps, since bin Laden eagerly acknowledged his involvement in the 9–11 attacks, that wasn't necessary.

I don't know. I am left with my original question.

Was it justice or vengeance?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bin Laden Is Dead

It occurred to me this evening, as I watched the news reports of Osama bin Laden's death, that this must be how Americans felt in the spring of 1945 when they heard that Hitler had died.

I've been watching the spontaneous gathering of jubilant Americans outside the White House, chanting "U–S–A" and singing the national anthem.

It's appropriate, considering that the 9–11 attacks were widely compared to the attacks on Pearl Harbor, that bin Laden should be killed almost on the anniversary of Hitler's death.

And, in a way, bin Laden's death is more satisfying. He did not take his own life, as Hitler did. Instead, he apparently was killed by the actions of American forces.

We will never have the satisfaction of bringing him into a courtroom and making him answer for those thousands of deaths. But what happened today may have always been the closest we could ever have expected to get to justice in this case.

Bin Laden's death does not mean the end of Muslim terrorism. That war will continue, probably indefinitely. Because of where it occurred — Pakistan — I would expect that his presence in that country will raise new questions and issues. It may also affect America's relationship with Afghanistan, which can reasonably claim that it was right all along, that bin Laden had not been hiding there.

That may or may not be the case. And tonight, it isn't really important.

Sure, there are things that demand our attention. Many Americans who are living abroad will be at risk of being targeted by terrorists for retaliation in the days, weeks, even months ahead.

But this is a rare time of celebration for a nation that is weary.

The Deficit Debate

Christiane Amanpour just might have heard it all in her career as a journalist.

She was primarily a foreign correspondent in nearly 20 years with CNN, doing most of her work in the Middle East. She had to dodge a lot of bullets and bombs.

Thus, I would think that a tour of Wisconsin town hall meetings with Rep. Paul Ryan would be relatively tame by comparison.

But it wasn't. Not when Ryan told Amanpour that the deficit will be "the greatest topic of the 2012 election."

Excuse me?

I'm inclined to agree with Jonathan Cohn, who writes in The New Republic that the emphasis is on the wrong thing.

"[T]he trouble isn't that the economy is deteriorating," he writes. "It's that the economy hasn't recovered from the deterioration that took place in 2008 and 2009."

His argument is that the economy needs a boost.

My argument is that such a boost will come when anything and everything that can be done to encourage job creation is being done.

It's the same argument, really. Cohn essentially says that millions of Americans still need jobs — and both parties are wasting precious time arguing about the deficit.

The importance of the jobs situation should be obvious to someone like the president, who fancies himself to be as politically sure–footed as they come. Yet he has launched a re–election campaign that openly appeals to three groups that played prominent roles in 2008 — young voters, blacks and Hispanics — even though all three continue to suffer.

It is as frustrating — and pointless — as the bickering between the Republicans and Democrats about what can be done to lower gas prices. Jeff Mason of Reuters calls it "symbolism and sympathy" — and, although he directs his criticism largely at the president, it could apply to congressional Republicans as well.

It's the way politics is played in America these days, no matter which party is in control. There's always a smoke screen to divert attention from the things that need to be discussed, and I fear 2012 will be no different.

The Beatification of John Paul II

"The great danger for family life, in the midst of any society whose idols are pleasure, comfort and independence, lies in the fact that people close their hearts and become selfish."

John Paul II

I'm not Catholic so I suppose today's beatification of the late John Paul II really shouldn't mean anything to me.

And, for the most part, I guess, it doesn't.

I was raised in a Protestant church. The only times I have attended a Catholic church were when I was someone's guest — or, 20 years ago this summer, when I was the pallbearer at the funeral for a friend.

Sainthood for John Paul — or anyone else — simply isn't a concern for me. I have my own idea of what I think makes a person a saint.

I always felt my mother was a saint although she isn't going to be recognized by anyone. Nevertheless, I still think she had all the qualities one looks for in a saint.

Anyway, go ahead, make John Paul a saint, urges Peggy Noonan, remembering the pope's triumphant return to Poland in 1979, less than a year after entering the papacy.

I don't think Noonan is Catholic — to be honest, I'm not sure, really, what her faith happens to be — and if she isn't, her opinion on the matter probably means no more than mine.

However, if she is a Catholic, Noonan shows how little she knows about the process — or, at least, the terminology involved. The church says it does not make anyone a saint. A higher power does that. Instead, the church recognizes that someone is a saint.

I do remember the occasion of which Noonan writes, and I agree with what she says. It was "[o]ne of the greatest moments in the history of faith," she writes, and it "was also one of the greatest moments in modern political history."

And I remember when they gathered to say goodbye to John Paul a little more than six years ago. There was a growing movement at the time to put him on the fast track to sainthood ...

... Which, Reuters suggests now, may be a little too fast.

Actually, that doesn't really bother me, I guess, although I suppose I am sort of accustomed to the idea that those who are designated as saints are people who were dead before I was born.

Like, for example, the people in the Bible. I know that, if those people really lived, they were dead centuries before I came along. I have no image in my personal memory bank of any of those folks — the way I have for John Paul. He isn't just an historical figure to me the way he increasingly will become to others. I remember when he was flesh and blood.

I remember, too, when Ronald Reagan was flesh and blood. I didn't agree with him most of the time, either, yet he is treated like a saint by many now.

Today, also, those two men get most of the credit for the downfall of communism. I tend to think that many people played roles in that. John Paul and Reagan contributed to it, but I believe it was the combination of the resistance of ordinary people and the words of national and religious leaders over a period of several decades that, working together, brought down communism.

Reportedly, there are more than 10,000 saints, and my best guess would be that nearly all of them were before my time.

But there have been people who have lived during my lifetime whose works certainly qualify them for canonization — and the late pope is one of them.

I didn't agree with John Paul on everything, but I did respect him, and I have no problem if the Catholic church wants to recognize him as a saint.

During his lifetime and since his death, John Paul was and is symbolic of the reconciliation the church always seeks with those it deems to be spiritually adrift.

John Paul, the first Polish pope, believed he was drawn into the priesthood in part because of the events in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and his successor, Benedict XVI, the first German pope in more than four centuries, had been a member of the "Hitler Youth."

They came from opposite sides of the tracks, you might say.

(Benedict became a member of the Hitler Youth only because it was required by law, and neither he nor the members of his family advocated Hitler or nazism.)

Thus, there is clearly a symbolic quality to the very act of this German pope presiding over the beatification of his predecessor, the Polish pope.

It signifies the reconciliation of the modern Catholic church with its uncomfortable history, notably the Reichskonkordat that the Vatican signed with Nazi Germany to ensure church rights.

So perhaps this is a good occasion to revisit the meaning of the word saint.

To be a saint is to be regarded as a holy person. Name your biblical passage, and the meaning comes down to the belief that Christ dwells in that person, here on earth and in the afterlife. I suppose that could be said of just about any Christian leader, but the belief that one is a saint is a conviction that that person is exceptional.

I don't know if John Paul was exceptional or not. But if he helped his church finally come to terms with its uneasy past, then that is saintly, in my book.