Thursday, June 30, 2011

Waterloo Sunset

I love music, all kinds of music.

I guess that is to be expected. I was raised with the sounds of music filling the house. My mother loved folk music. My father loved Middle Eastern music. They both loved classical music and bluegrass.

In that environment, as I say, I developed a fondness for all kinds of music. I liked the music my parents liked — still do — but I also liked the music that was popular with others of my generation.

Hey, I'll listen to Mozart or Ravi Shankar or Hank Williams any time and be quite content to do so, but I'm also a product of my times, and the music of my times was rock 'n' roll — or what is simply known as classic rock today.

Oh, well, as Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

I love the Beatles. I love the Rolling Stones and the Who and Bob Dylan, and I love some of the lesser lights as well. Elvis was before my time, but I appreciate what he did all the same, just as I appreciate the contributions of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.

Anyway, I didn't watch Michele Bachmann's announcement the other day in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, that she was going to run for the Republican presidential nomination. But I wasn't surprised to learn that she had used a Tom Petty song — "American Girl" — to pump up the crowd.

What did surprise me, however, was the fact that neither she nor anyone from her staff apparently ever contacted Petty or any of the members of his band to see if they had any objections to her use of the song.

With all the talk on the Republican side of the fence about protecting and preserving one's property rights, I would have thought she would be particularly careful about being sure that her ducks are in a row when it comes to intellectual property issues.

But she wasn't careful. And Petty has kindly asked her to cool it.

I guess it was a natural mistake. Hillary Clinton used the song at her rallies in 2008, and Bachmann must have assumed it was in the public domain.

But that isn't how it works.

Well, Hillary and Michele don't see eye to eye on a lot of things. Maybe Petty didn't mind if Hillary used his song, but he does mind if Michele uses it.

Of course, this isn't the first time that a politician has tried to score points with the public through popular music. It has often been used in campaign rallies and advertising.

In a way, I suppose this is fitting. Republicans have been openly yearning for the next Ronald Reagan, and this flap over music might give Michele an advantage in that competition.

But that might not really be an advantage.

When he was running for re–election in 1984, Reagan — in what must have been a bid for the youth vote — tried to link himself to Bruce Springsteen, who may have been the most popular performer in America at the time.

He was also riding high on the charts with "Born in the U.S.A.," and Reagan was eager to capitalize on the "message of hope" he perceived in the song.

Problem was that the song was about the negative influence on Americans because of the Vietnam War — a war that Reagan had praised as a "noble cause."

That's the real issue here, isn't it? Some people are so eager to score political points with cultural references that they don't bother to look beyond the title or the melody.

In their haste, they give voters an insight into the kind of attention to detail they can be expected to bring to the issues they will confront in office.

Reminds me of the words from another classic rock song.

If the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Custer's Last Stand

It was on this day 135 years ago that the Battle of the Little Bighorn — better known as Custer's Last Stand — began.

In my studies of American history, I have really only read one book on this subject — "Son of the Morning Star," Evan S. Connell's 1984 book, which I was inspired to read in 1991 after seeing the TV dramatization of it starring Gary Cole and Rosanna Arquette.

The TV adaptation received some Emmy Awards, and I felt that both the book and the movie gave a pretty balanced look at what was, essentially, the Indians' last hurrah in the Plains Wars.

Today, I've been reading an interesting article by Bruce Kauffmann of the Appeal–Democrat of Marysville, Calif.

Kauffmann calls Custer's Last Stand "one of the great myths in American history," and I am inclined to agree. I mean, I know of other myths that enjoy a certain amount of currency with people, but I'm not sure if any are greater than the one that was born shortly after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The version of events that was given to the public in the immediate aftermath of the battle was one that portrayed Gen. George Armstrong Custer as a heroic victim. That image was perpetuated by Custer's devoted widow.

More recent examinations of the events of June 1876 have been sympathetic to the Indians. Kauffmann favors the Indians.

"Custer and the U.S. Army were the aggressors," he writes. He doesn't necessarily blame Custer, just observes that he was "part of that army" that President Grant sent to the Plains to drive the Indians from their land.

In a sense, you could say Custer was simply following orders — but, as the commander of his cavalry regiment, he had considerable latitude in the tactics he chose to use in pursuit of his objective. In other words, sometimes the orders were his, not his superiors'.

Kauffmann accuses Custer of being "foolhardy in the extreme" and writes that he was "vain and impetuous," a glory hog.

Well, that is what Kauffmann thinks. I haven't really formed any opinions of the soldiers or Indians who participated in the battle.

That probably puts me in a distinct minority. My guess is that I would be in the minority if I attended one of the re–creations of the battle being staged in southeastern Montana this weekend.

That might not be true, though. The folks who attend the re–creations may just be history buffs, like myself, who don't know much about this chapter and want to learn a little more about the history of their country. I'm definitely in favor of that.

One thing I have learned in a lifetime of studying history is that there is always something interesting that you didn't know before. As Harry Truman said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."

And that leads me to something I have learned that I didn't know about Custer's Last Stand.

I've heard about the tactical mistakes that Custer made. I have heard of how he underestimated the size of the Indian force. But this is something I hadn't heard before.

Richard Mize of The Oklahoman writes that, after Custer and his men were beaten decisively at the Little Bighorn, the federal government considered relocating the Indians to Oklahoma.

If that had happened, Mize writes, there would have been no alternative but to put them in the so–called "Unassigned Lands" in the central part of the state (then territory).

If those lands had been assigned to the Indians in the 1870s, he points out, there would have been "no land run of April 22, 1889 — no Oklahoma City, or Edmond, Guthrie, Stillwater, Kingfisher or Norman."

That certainly would have affected the course of my life. I lived in Norman for four years.

Anyway, a delegation of Lakota Sioux came to look at the Unassigned Lands and ultimately rejected the plan. They didn't want to go so far from their native soil.

If the Indians had chosen differently, Mize writes, "Oklahoma City probably wouldn't exist and Oklahoma's colorful land history could have turned kaleidoscopic."

It's a reminder, I suppose, that there is always a road not taken.

The High Ground

One of my favorite movies of the last 20 years is 1993's "Gettysburg."

It was a long movie — more than four hours — but I guess it had to be that long if it was going to do justice to what may well be the most important and most decisive event in American history. Many historians believe — and I am inclined to agree — that victory at Gettysburg paved the way for the Union's eventual triumph over the Confederacy.

I have not done a comprehensive study of the Battle of Gettysburg, but I do know, from what I have read, that there were many examples of heroism and sacrifice on both sides in that battle. Most of those who fought in it had no idea what to expect, but, if the story told in the movie was accurate, there was at least one person who thought he knew how things would play out before the battle truly began.

There is a scene, early in the movie, when Union cavalry officer John Buford (played by Sam Elliott) essentially chooses the spot for the confrontation, establishing a defensive perimeter on the tactically critical "high ground" of Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge.

He has spotted the approaching Confederate army and sent a message asking for support, but he worries that those support troops will not arrive in time.

Pessimistically, Buford tells a colleague that he can see how the battle will play out — as if gazing into a crystal ball.

"You know what's going to happen here in the morning?" he asks. "The whole damn reb army is going to be here. They'll move through this town, occupy these hills on the other side and when our people get here, Lee will have the high ground. ...

"Meade will come in slowly, cautiously. New to command. They'll be on his back in Washington. ... So he will set up a ring around these hills. And when Lee's army is nicely entrenched behind fat rocks on the high ground, Meade will finally attack, if he can coordinate the army. ... We will charge valiantly ... and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest and say what a brave charge it was.

"I've led a soldier's life, and I've never seen anything as brutally clear as this."

And his vision was very nearly fulfilled — except that both sides were "butchered" and victory ultimately went to the Union, thanks in large part to Buford's foresight.

The charge he foresaw did happen — but Pickett's Charge, as it is known in the history books, was carried out by the South.

If Buford had not held the high ground until other Union forces could arrive, the battle might have been won by the South — and the story of the last century and a half might have been dramatically different.

I don't know if Elliott's monologue was some sort of literary device (perhaps created by Michael Shaara in the historical novel upon which the movie was based) or if Buford really had some sort of premonition (and just couldn't see clearly enough to tell which side would be vanquished), but I know the nagging feeling of a troubling and seemingly inevitable vision of the future.

It is truly a relief, isn't it, when it turns out that such a vision was faulty, but the mind certainly can run wild when it is allowed to do so. Fear has a way of doing that to people.

In more ways than most people probably could imagine at the time, FDR was right when he said, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

I guess fear really is what motivates most people to do most things. And fear is undoubtedly behind the polarization of modern American politics — not necessarily racial fear, although that is a component, as is religious anxiety, divisions over gender–related issues, fear of immigrants of all kinds, generation gaps, but fear in general (and, to be fair, fear of some specific things, too).

Everyone fears something. Buford — or, at least, Buford's character — feared losing the high ground, feared defeat. His fears turned out to be unfounded.

He held the high ground, thanks to some creative strategy (and, I guess, a little good fortune, too) — but there was a period when his success was not certain.

In the 21st century, it seems to me that none of America's leaders on either side of the political fence are holding the moral high ground.

I'm sure they would all protest that assertion. They would say they are motivated by and for all kinds of good things. But fear is really what is at the heart of it all.

Fear is why the outsiders (the Republicans) warn of the dire consequences of the Democrats' policies — and why the Democrats warn against the extremism inherent in the outsiders' politics.

Both sides are afraid of losing — for different reasons.

And, to be sure, there are very good reasons why both sides should take the other seriously — and earnestly try to avoid any sort of sense of complacency about 2012. In the past, there has usually been a large group of swing voters, but this time things are different. People have been taking sides, and there is little room for error.

The parties do need to win over those who really haven't decided, but there don't seem to be many of them, once you get past those who say they are undecided but that they are leaning to one side or another. That means that the challenge will be to motivate the bases, the true believers, and make sure they get to the polls.

Mark my words. Next year's election will be about mobilizing the faithful, and that could get rough. Scare tactics are likely to be used to a greater extent than voters have seen. It ain't gonna be pretty.

America will never choose an extremist challenger over an incumbent, Democrats tell each other reassuringly. Really? Perhaps they have forgotten that Ronald Reagan was portrayed as a wild–eyed extremist who couldn't wait to get his itchy trigger finger on the nuclear button when he was nominated to run against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Extremists of both stripes were spectacularly unsuccessful in the years before Reagan came along, but they were usually perceived as threatening in some way. Reagan had an amiable personality that drew people to him, even many who disagreed with him.

Today, Reagan is held up as a model by both sides. Republicans, understandably, remember him as popular and successful, the embodiment of conservative values, and they are nostalgic for those days.

And Democrats, who are just as understandably eager to be free of the burden of a troublesome economy and high unemployment, remember that Reagan rebounded from the recession that plagued his first term to win re–election by a landslide. While they are busy reminding voters that the son of Reagan's vice president was in charge when the economy imploded, Democrats will be seeking to emulate the tactics the Gipper used to overcome economic concerns during his successful re–election campaign.

They seem to have conveniently forgotten what really elected Reagan in the first place — individual answers to his question in his only debate with Carter in 1980. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Not many Americans would answer in the affirmative today.

Until 1980, Republicans were generally considered moderate, but they linked arms with the Tea Party of their day, the "Moral Majority," in what was seen by centrists and liberals as a nationally unacceptable lurch to the right.

Many of the Democrats I knew scoffed in the summer and fall of 1980 — but they weren't scoffing in November when the Republicans won the presidency and the Senate.

Today's Democrats sound just as certain as their forebears did 30 years ago that Americans are too knowledgeable, too sophisticated to be taken in by what they see as the lunatic fringe.

Nevertheless, the insiders are hedging their bets with a little bribery in the form of 60 million barrels of oil from the International Energy Agency.

In the short term, that might be a good move, but it seems likely to be delayed gratification — considerably delayed. The influence on prices at the pump, like the delayed implementation of the health care package, won't be felt immediately and might not be seen until you start making your plans for Labor Day — which is usually long after most Americans have gone on their summer vacations.

Don't get me wrong. Americans who need to get away from home for a little while should do so — for their own good as well as the businesses that cater to tourists — but many, I am sure, have put such thoughts on the shelf in the face of $4/gallon gas. A break at the pump might encourage more to get away to the beach, to amusement parks, to ball games.

I'm sure that is the kind of thing that Obama and other Democratic politicians would like to see. But the timing is way off. Here we are, nearly halfway through summer, and this policy, which I have heard will not be felt at the pump until August, is only now being enacted.

This isn't something that happened overnight. Gas prices have been rising steadily for months. And, as Jordy Yager writes in The Hill, it is a plan that has been in the works for nearly two months.

But a lot of time was wasted back in February and March and April, when Ben Bernanke was insisting the price increases would be temporary. (Obama's confidence in Bernanke may have been misplaced. He conceded this week that he does not know why growth has been so sparse — which doesn't seem like the kind of thing the Federal Reserve chairman should be saying — even if it is true.)

I'm no economist, but even I know that if you want consumers to get a summer boost from your economic policies, you can't wait this long. You have to prime the pump long before that.

Well, prices will drop a bit as a result, but who knows how long the good feelings will last? Will prices remain artificially suppressed until you go over the meadow and through the woods to grandma's house at Thanksgiving or Christmas?

If this isn't politically motivated — like those "rebates" the Bush administration foolishly gave to every American in the months just before September 11 — what is it?

Supposedly, this is intended to make up for the disruption of supplies from Libya — but prices were already going down, not as rapidly as folks would like but they have been dropping.

The administration protests that this is not political — but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ...

The president does seem to be recognizing, perhaps belatedly, the symbolic value of gestures — and that is what this appears to be. After all, 60 million barrels of oil sounds like a lot — and it is — but, realistically, it wouldn't keep the engines in this country running for a week.

It is, however, something he can mention during the campaign, a weapon in his arsenal. But he should be careful about using it. It could backfire.

That doesn't change the fact that this president, who has spoken so eloquently in the past of changing our energy priorities and breaking free of our dependence on nonrenewable energy sources, is treating a symptom, not the disease, with this policy.

Releasing all those barrels of oil will do nothing to promote Obama's energy objectives — but it will put more money in people's pockets. They might not be able to spend it on a family trip to Disney World, but they might feel inclined to contribute it to his re–election campaign. And it might improve his approval ratings for awhile.

But it isn't likely to change the fact that most people believe the country has veered off on the wrong track — and polls consistently show that, by at least a 2–to–1 ratio, more people think the country is going in the wrong direction than the right one.

As for the Republicans, well, their presidential field is more conservative than it was four years ago — and, normally, I would see that as a negative — but prevailing conditions at the time of an election usually have a lot to do with the outcome and, if things seem bleak to voters in November 2012, they are likely to vote for someone new.

That's the way things are done in America. Incumbents usually get the credit for good economies or the blame for bad ones.

James Carville writes that, no matter how tempting it clearly is for Democrats, blaming the Bush administration for the poor economy is not wise. And he is right. It was OK in the early days of the Obama presidency, but after 2½ years, like it or not, this economy belongs to this president.

A couple of years from now, in early July 2013, America will mark the sesquicentennial of that three–day battle in Gettysburg. Whoever is president at that time will undoubtedly come to Pennsylvania for whatever will be done to mark the anniversary.

We should have a better idea at that time if he or she held the high ground in 2012 — and whether he/she continued to do so after Inaugural Day.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Worth a Thousand Words

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled the warning labels that will now adorn cigarette packages.

Well, they're supposed to be in place by September of next year so they won't start showing up at your neighborhood convenience store for awhile.

But, when they do, the difference will be — as the commissioner of food and drugs for the FDA said — "dramatic."

The overall appearances of cigarette packages will be changed. Warning labels have been printed innocuously on one side of cigarette packages (where they were easy for smokers to ignore) for years, and the language was ambiguous.

But the FDA's new labels will wrap around packages, sharing the space that presently belongs only to the brand name. They will be impossible for smokers to ignore — in no small part because the new generation of labels will carry graphic illustrations of the damage that smoking can do to people.

Now, I have always heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. I guess I have been reluctant to accept that because I am a writer. The idea of images having more influence than words contradicts my lifelong belief in the power of the pen.

But I have seen enough to know that, for the majority of people, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

It's really hard to forget a strong visual image. It's a lot easier to forget words, even words of wisdom.

Words of wisdom are often overlooked. But the words of wisdom on these new labels won't be open to interpretation.

For most of my adult life, I was a smoker. When I think back on that period in my life, I guess I actually read those labels a handful of times — enough to know what they said — but the information never really sank in. Most of the time, I was aware the labels were there, but I always managed to keep them from my sight. I would place a package with the label facing away from me or with the label blocked by something.

Would I have become addicted to smoking if I had been confronted with big labels every time I lit up? Probably not. (If you are a pack–a–day smoker, you will have to look at those labels about 7,300 times per year.)

And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been drawn to smoking if I had seen full–color pictures of diseased lungs or hearts.

I hear that's part of the strategy. The images that were selected for the labels were chosen after focus groups indicated to the FDA that they were the most effective at repulsing specific groups, such as teenagers and pregnant women.

The new labels are designed to convey the image that smoking is not cool, which is good — to a point.

Nicotine is a crafty foe, as I have said before. It starts as a habit, but it quietly seizes control. As a long–term strategy, it is wise to discourage smoking at all. It's better than having to deal with that addiction phase.

(Someday, I'd like to see the FDA mandate labels that say something like "TOBACCO COMPANIES HAVE MANIPULATED THE NICOTINE CONTENT IN THEIR PRODUCTS TO MAKE THEM MORE ADDICTIVE." Talk about honesty in advertising.)

It is important, as I have written here before, for people to stop treating smoking like a "habit" that one can control — and start treating it like an addiction, which people cannot control. Perhaps, one day, we truly will.

But, in the meantime, I think the new labels are a step in the right direction.

The new labels are an honest and unflinching look at something that has been glamorized far too long — and, as a result, far too many people have become sick and died.

Ordinarily, I'm not in favor of government interference in personal decisions.

By my own choice, I haven't had a cigarette in more than four years. But that is the point. It was my choice.

I have told my friends who still smoke that I will never tell them what they should or should not do. Cigarette smoking is a legal activity for adults (typically, 18 or older), and I will not tell anyone not to do something that I did for many years.

I will give them my opinion — but only if they ask for it — and I definitely do have an opinion about smoking. Few of my smoking friends have asked me for my opinion, though, so I'm glad that the FDA will be requiring these labels.

They'll get my point across for me — and I won't have to say a word — much less a thousand of 'em.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Weiner Roast

Up to this point, I have avoided making any comments on the Anthony Weiner scandal.

But I was speculating via e–mail with a friend of mine — for a few years, we worked in the same newsroom as copy editors — about how much fun it would be to work on a copy desk when the headline on Weiner's resignation announcement was being written.

How many off–color headlines and double entendres will wind up in print, I asked him. And he agreed that it would, indeed, be fun to be working on a copy desk that evening.

Actually, it was an ongoing joy ride for headline writers — a gift that truly kept on giving. Most of the time, headline writers only get a single shot at a memorable headline, but the Weiner story went on and on, giving headline writers the chance to improve on their work every single day.

So, before the Weiner story recedes too much in our collective consciousness, I thought I would review some of the better headlines that have been written throughout this episode involving the congressman.

There were some of the obvious ones, like the ones that suggested that Weiner had been "exposed."

And many of the headlines came from the New York Post's daily coverage of the emerging scandal. (I guess it was only right that a newspaper from Weiner's home state would be the most significant contributor.

(The Post dubbed the Weiner story the "battle of the bulge.")

But there have been some headlines elsewhere that have been worth noting.

For example ...

The headline on Howard Kurtz's piece in The Daily Beast spoke about Weiner's "junk defense."

(I can't help wondering if that has any relationship to the "Twinkie defense.")

The New York Daily News simply concluded that Weiner is a schmuck.

That one is really tough to argue with.

I've seen headlines that said Weiner was "grilled," that said his story was "hard to swallow," that said he had been "hung out to dry," that said he was "in a pickle," that contended his support was "soft."

As Jay Leno observed on The Tonight Show, since this story broke, we're all in ninth grade.

Personally, I would say that my favorite came from the Kansas City Star.

It spoke of "Weiner's schnitzel."

What can I say? I studied German for awhile when I was in high school.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Obama's Uphill Climb

Not so long ago, Barack Obama said he would rather be a one–term president who did the right things than a president who won a second term by doing the popular (but not necessarily prudent) things.

That was a noble sentiment.

In fact, it kinda reminded me of a slogan from a series of cigarette commercials from my childhood. As a demonstration of their loyalty to the product, the people in these advertisements were shown with a dark circle around one eye and the slogan (spoken in broadcasts, printed in newspapers and magazines), "I'd rather fight than switch."

Some have complained that this president is not sufficiently supportive of Americans and their interests. It also kind of reminded me of Obama's predecessor — and his infamous inability to recall a mistake he had made in his first four years in office.

And it revives the concerns I have harbored from the beginning about this president's priorities.

Is he a socialist? I don't really believe that.

But I do think he is often guilty of leapfrogging certain troubling aspects that have kept others from acting decisively. He is to be praised for his vision of the America that should be, but he loses sight of what needs to be done first.

That is an important problem.

Is he correct when he worries about the cost of health care? Yes, I believe he is.

Is he right when he says that America needs to wean itself of its dependence on foreign oil? Yes. And, in the process, should we be encouraging the so–called "green" solutions to our energy needs? Sure.

Are American roads and bridges crumbling? Absolutely.

Do our schools need to be upgraded structurally as well as held accountable in the classroom? Positively.

It's an admirable wish list. But it will require more than wishes to make it come true. All these things — and more — take time and money.

They can't be accomplished without money. But there is no money. Cities across the nation are having to cut basic services — like police and fire protection and sanitation. Where does the government go for the revenue when the very foundation of the economy has been allowed to deteriorate?

To take on major projects at a time when so many places are forced to make such cuts requires a leader to call for serious sacrifices.

Sacrifice is seldom popular with Americans — but they have responded favorably to calls for shared sacrifice during times of national crisis. And this should certainly qualify as a time of national crisis.

America was going through a time of national crisis in the late 1970s, too. It wasn't as severe as it is today, and President Carter warned his countrymen that it would be worse in the future if we didn't start making some sacrifices — but most were not willing to do that and, when Carter sought re–election, the voters turned to the candidate who said there were simple solutions to complex problems — Ronald Reagan.

You can make the case — and I have — that, if we had listened to Carter, our situation would not be as dire today. But we didn't — and I believe we are paying a heavy price for that now.

I believe most of our current problems have roots that are decades old. What has been happening in the last three or four years probably was going to happen, anyway. Someone was going to be president when the chickens came home to roost. Perhaps it is simply Obama's misfortune to have been president through most of it.

As for time, well ...

These problems rarely occur in a single four–year presidential term. They can't even be accomplished in two four–year presidential terms.

And no president can ever be sure that his apparent legislative triumphs will not be overturned. Clearly, it seems to me, one of the prominent planks in the 2012 GOP platform will be the party's commitment to repealing the health care reform legislation that is considered the signature achievement of this president.

But, in the last three decades, incumbent presidents seeking re–election could expect to be asked some variation on Ronald Reagan's inquiry following his debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

And some folks are bending over backwards to reassure Obama and the Democrats who are jittery.

Like Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post — who admits the economic numbers are "grim" right now but, nevertheless, has good news for Team Obama.

Cillizza points out that a presidential election is "less a single national contest than a series of state–by–state battles." How a state's unemployment rate compares to the national rate will be critical, he argues.

"[O]nly four swing states" have unemployment rates that are higher than the national average, he observes — Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. They will be worth a total of 66 electoral votes in 2012.

To be elected president, a presidential nominee must receive 270 electoral votes. In 2008, Obama received 365. Cillizza points out that, even if Obama loses those four states, he could enjoy a "relatively comfortable re–election" if he carries all the other states that he won in 2008.

That's a pretty big "if."

For one thing, Cillizza writes — correctly — that 10 other swing states (Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin) that are likely to be targeted by both parties currently have unemployment rates below the national average.

But that's what those rates are today. They might drop in the next 17 months — or they might go up.

In a true bellwether state (I would put New Mexico and Ohio in that category), the unemployment rate compared to the national rate might be a good political barometer.

But political histories will play a role in the other states.

Let's start with the four states that Cillizza gives up for lost in his essay — Florida, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina.

North Carolina hadn't voted for a Democrat since it supported Carter in 1976 — and it did so with a healthy 55–plus% of the vote (in 2008, Obama beat John McCain in North Carolina by about 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million). But it turned against Carter in 1980.

It's almost the same situation in Florida. Unlike North Carolina, Florida supported Bill Clinton for re–election, but it voted Republican in all the other post–1976 elections until it went for Obama in 2008.

Obama had a little more breathing room in Florida than he had in North Carolina but not much — 50.91% to 48.10%.

Of the four states, I guess Nevada has the reputation that comes closest to being that of a true bellwether. It joined the Union during the Civil War and has voted for the losing candidate for president about half a dozen times since then — and only once in the last 100 years.

Michigan has voted for Democrats in the last five presidential elections — but Democrats shouldn't feel too secure. Until Clinton carried the state in 1992, it had voted for Republican nominees in the five prior elections.

Thanks to the Census, Nevada and Florida will be worth a little more in the 2012 Electoral College than in 2008, and Michigan will be worth a little less. North Carolina will be unchanged.

Unemployment rates will be important factors in any state where that rate is higher than the national average, and those four states might well be joined by some of the 10 states on that other list that Cillizza cites.

But electoral history will play a role, too. For example, I wouldn't be too quick to assume that Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire or Virginia will remain in the Obama column.
  • Colorado has only voted for Democrats three times since World War II, and it hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the 1930s.

  • It's much the same story in Indiana, which had only voted for one Democrat (Lyndon Johnson in 1964) since the 1930s — until it narrowly voted for Obama in2008.

  • New Hampshire has voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections and four of the last five — but it supported every Republican nominee except one from 1948 to 1988.

  • Until it voted for Obama, Virginia hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. It may have been the biggest of the surprises on Election Night 2008.
Beyond that, Iowa and Wisconsin will be tough to win. The recession has been devastating for many of the people there.The other states on that swing state list will be tough to win as well.

Even if unemployment goes down marginally, consumer confidence probably will still be in the doldrums when voters go to the polls — and that can be as heavy a burden as high unemployment. There is a lot of work to be done — and not a lot of time to do it.

In short, barring an astonishing economic turnaround, Obama faces a much tougher assignment in 2012 than many of his supporters will admit or acknowledge in June 2011.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Guy Next Door

The other day would have been the 70th birthday of a man who lived next door to my family when I was a child.

I grew up outside the city limits, on a lakefront lot in what was then a sparsely developed area in central Arkansas. Many of the people who lived out there at that time had no one living directly next door — their closest neighbors might be half a mile away — but my family actually did have a neighbor.

Well, there was a house next door that we could see from our house. The identities of the neighbors changed from time to time.

For a few years, this fellow was the occupant — along with his wife and their children. He was a dentist, and he gave my parents good prices on dental work. As a result, most of my memories of him are of fluoride treatments, whirring drills, spitting and large, hairy hands reaching into my mouth.

(Well, there is another memory. He always had very voluptuous assistants in his dental office. I don't remember any of their names — but I do recall that they were far too shapely for a young boy entering adolescence.

(There is one occasion in particular that I remember vividly. I guess I was 12 at the time. A particularly well endowed assistant was poking around in my mouth, and her ample cleavage was — literally — inches from my eyes.

("My, you have active saliva glands," she remarked.)

As I say, we lived on lakefront lots. The lake was a manmade lake, and it attracted all sorts of activity in the warm months (of which there were many) — fishing, swimming, water skiing.

People from town often came out to the lake on weekends and during the summer. They would have picnics and wade into the water at the public beach. Some folks also brought their boats and went out fishing or water skiing — or whatever.

But the people who lived on the lake had no need for that. If you had a lakefront lot, you already had a private place to keep your boat, and you could go out in it whenever you wished.

My family kept a small fishing boat on the property; our neighbor owned a party barge that he used to entertain friends.

He may have owned a fishing boat, too. Whether he did or not, though, I know he enjoyed fishing. I don't remember how I became aware of that. Maybe I saw some fishing gear in his home. Maybe I observed him fishing from the shore.

I don't remember how long he and his family lived next door, either. A few years, maybe. But I know they moved away and someone else moved in to the house next door. And then someone else moved in. And then, a few years later, we finally moved out of the house in which I had lived since I was about 4 years old.

Well, to make a long story short, I don't recall hearing anything more about that ex–neighbor until about five years ago when I was looking at my hometown newspaper's website.

And there it was — a report that, following the conclusion of a church mission trip to South America, he and a colleague from Conway had joined eight other people in a fishing trip on a lake that is 100 miles long and 45 miles wide.

Apparently, he was semi–retired and had become very involved in mission work through his church. The fishing trip itself wouldn't have been especially noteworthy — except for the fact that the boat capsized. A pastor and his wife died, and their bodies were found fairly early. The six others survived.

But the two from Conway did not survive. For awhile, they clung to some kind of cooler with two of the pastor's sons, but at some point it became clear the cooler would not keep all four men afloat, and the dentist and his colleague pushed off from the cooler, one by one, and disappeared beneath the water.

"You need to live," they reportedly told their companions. "We're older and you need to live."

The story of how they died was greeted in my hometown with admiration for their heroism and sacrifice. The pastor of the church said the mission work probably would continue — although I don't know if it has.

And an annual golf tournament in my ex–neighbor's memory has been held for the last three years. It raises money for an interfaith clinic that provides medical and dental care for uninsured county residents.

Shortly after he died, the Arkansas State Dental Association established a humanitarian award in my ex–neighbor's name. The intention was to honor dentists who volunteered to serve abroad.

From what I can see, he has been honored and praised repeatedly in the last five years — and I suppose he, his widow and his sons are entitled.

And the last thing I would ever want to do is speak ill of the deceased.

But I can't help wondering something. Was his death really necessary?

As a child, whenever I went out in our fishing boat — or in someone else's boat — I always had to put on a life preserver. My memory is that everyone wore life preservers — I always thought it was some kind of law — and the accessibility of land was not a factor. The shoreline of the lake was always visible, no matter where you were, no matter what you were doing.

My ex–neighbor must have worn a life preserver when he lived next door and he took his party barge or a fishing boat out on the water.

Why wasn't he wearing a life preserver during an excursion on a lake that was 100 miles long and 45 miles wide?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Barack Hoover Obama?

"Many of the administration's pet stimulus programs have joined Jerry Ford's 'Whip Inflation Now' buttons on the junkpile of history: green jobs, cash for clunkers, debt relief for homeowners, and now, by the President's own admission, 'shovel–ready' infrastructure projects."

Walter Russell Mead
The American Interest

No matter what you think of Barack Obama or the Republicans who are vying to replace him, you should read Walter Russell Mead's piece in The American Interest.

Mead's article caught my attention because, ever since it became apparent in 2008 that, first, Obama would be the Democrats' presidential nominee and, second, he would be elected, there has been no shortage of those who were eager to label him the second coming of another American president — during and after the campaign, he was going to be "another Lincoln" as he tried to heal the nation's racial wounds or "another FDR," as he resolved an economic crisis.

For awhile, it was said that he would be "another JFK," picking up the progressive torch that Kennedy dropped in Dallas in 1963. And, in the aftermath of the setbacks Obama's party suffered in last year's midterms, there have even been comparisons to a Republican icon, Ronald Reagan, who was re–elected in a landslide two years after a midterm drubbing.

Obama continues to inspire comparisons — only those comparisons have turned in a more ominous direction — which brings me back to Mead's article.

Now, The American Interest is a largely nonpartisan publication that focuses on foreign policy issues and international economics — so you might want to keep that in mind whenever you read any opinion pieces that appear on its pages.

But give Mead's message some thought.

Obama, he writes, misinterpreted the results of the 2008 election, and that set in motion a potentially catastrophic series of events for his presidency.

"Midway through 2010, President Obama looked less like Lincoln redux and more like a Clinton manqué," opines Mead. "By the end of that year, the penultimate dissing of the President began; friends and foes began to ask whether President Obama might not be, gasp, the new Jimmy Carter."

(Now, personally, I liked Carter. I thought he was a decent guy, and I thought his policies had the country on sound footing. Like today's Obama defenders, I told people that all Carter's policies needed was time.

(But I was young, and I soon learned that voters have little patience when the economy turns mean.

(And it's a lot meaner now than it ever was under Carter.)

Carter's image has been rehabilitated considerably since he left the White House three decades ago, but he remains a political anathema. The mention of his name conjures up images of failure, of malaise (even though Carter never used that word) — even among those who have always considered themselves his supporters.

That the Obama Administration could end up being remembered by history as an early 21st century version of the Carter presidency is a "best–case scenario" for the Instapundit blog, Mead points out — and, in the minds of most Americans who remember Carter and the beating he took from Reagan when he sought re–election, that can be damning enough.

But Mead worries that a more dire specter hovers over the president and it ought to send a chill down the spine of every Democrat — "the ghost of Herbert Hoover."

If there is a name that is linked in American history with economic disaster, it is the name of Herbert Hoover.

No president wants to be remembered as his generation's Herbert Hoover.

Mead starts by pointing out all the surface similarities — and there are plenty of those — between two men who were elected 80 years apart.
  • Both Hoover and Obama were products of broken homes;

  • both were widely traveled;

  • both had wives who were "unusually well educated and assertive;"

  • both were "unconventional candidate[s] who came into office on a tidal wave of support;"

  • both had modest political resumes and "went deep into enemy territory" for support when they were elected, winning states that hadn't voted for their parties in many years;

  • Hoover was seen as the "great progressive of his day," Mead writes;

  • and Hoover's ticket — with a Native American running mate — was the "most diverse" in the nation's history until 2008.

  • In fact, no matter how he may be perceived today, Hoover came to the presidency with a sense of idealism that would rival Obama's.

    Hoover "was a strong supporter of disarmament ... began the withdrawal of U.S. forces his predecessors had committed ... sought to avoid confrontational U.S. statements and to downplay possible grounds for conflict" and his "strong humanitarian instincts ... made him reluctant to use force but also left him concerned about the well being of people in other countries."
Well, that mostly addresses foreign policy. How about economics? That, writes Mead, is what "should worry" the White House and its supporters.

"[D]espite his long record of progressive politics, his personal appeal and his sympathy for the downtrodden," writes Mead, "President Hoover is best remembered for failing to master the Great Depression."

It isn't hopeless for Obama, Mead says. "The Great Recession is not as crushing as the Great Depression," he writes, "but President Obama's problems in the face of economic turmoil are beginning to look Hooveresque."

However ...

"Like Hoover, President Obama faces the possibility of a devastating second downturn due to economic problems in Europe — and like President Hoover, President Obama can't do much to prevent it. Like Hoover, President Obama is harried by a domestic populist revolt against his leadership and the policies he supports and like Hoover, President Obama's once unassailable popularity is being slowly ground down by economic bad news."

But time is getting short for Obama.

"Lincoln, Clinton, Carter, Hoover: that is a trajectory no President should want," Mead writes, "nor will the country benefit from 18 more months of Presidential subsidence."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Republican Frontrunner

I didn't watch Monday night's Republican debate from New Hampshire, but I've been reading a lot about it.

And I have come to the same conclusion as Michael Barone in the Washington Examiner — there is no frontrunner yet.

How could there be? I mean, this is June. The party conventions won't be held for more than a year. Primary voters won't start going to the polls for another six or seven months.

The debate, as Barone observed, "was a New Hampshire debate, but it has serious ramifications for Iowa as well."

Beyond that?

Well, I guess it can also have important repercussions throughout the party, but right now it is one small piece of a still–emerging puzzle.

Immediately, I don't think it registered with many people. A lot can — and probably will — happen between now and the first primaries and caucuses of the 2012 election cycle. This is a time when voters traditionally (and mostly silently) take the candidates' measure. Debates and straw polls have little real meaning at this point.

What matters most right now — when there are no delegates to be won — is perception, and, as Barone suggests, Romney may have the edge in that department. His "behavior," as Barone put it, was that of a frontrunner, "one with confidence and sense of command and with the adroitness to step aside from two major issue challenges."

That could be what a party that is nostalgic for the days of Ronald Reagan needs.

As I recall, "confidence and sense of command" were mostly what Reagan had going for him as the 1980 campaign began. He had been vetted against Gerald Ford in the battle for the GOP's 1976 nomination. Prior to that, he had been governor of the largest state in the nation for eight years, and he had spent decades in front of motion picture and TV cameras.

There really wasn't much left that voters didn't know about him. His challenge was to project an image of strength that would serve him beyond the primaries — which had only begun to assume their prominent role in the nomination process.

When Reagan memorably protested that "I am paying for this microphone!" at a New Hampshire debate in February 1980, it solidified his status as frontrunner for his party's nomination, and he wrapped things up quite early.

No such line appears to have emerged from the June 2011 New Hampshire debate.

There may be no frontrunner yet, either, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't legitimate news coming from the debate. Michele Bachmann, who can be something of a loose cannon, announced that she will be a candidate for the nomination.

Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post that she stole the show with that "bombshell."

Jackie Kucinich of USA Today said that Bachmann "emerged from the pack" with her debate performance.

I think that perception derives mostly from the fact that she made her candidacy official. Most people already suspected that she was going to run, though — why participate in a presidential debate if you aren't planning to run? — so the announcement really didn't come as a surprise.

But neither did the announcement automatically confer upon her the title of frontrunner. That, it seems to me, is still up for grabs.

From what I have read, all the participants said things that should appeal to the Republican base — which strikes me as being decidedly more conservative than it was four years ago.

I mean, when I look at the 2012 field of GOP candidates, the class of '08 appears practically centrist by comparison. That suggests, to me, that politics in America has become more polarized, not less, in the last four years — and that whoever is elected will most likely be the survivor of a tug–o–war between political extremes unlike any we have witnessed.

Unless the congressional majorities with which that president must work are made up of like–minded individuals, that doesn't seem encouraging for the passage of landmark, historic legislation.

Compromise will be harder to achieve, and economic recovery will take much longer to accomplish.

That's a gloomy forecast, I know, but these are gloomy times.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Photographs and Anxieties

I seldom hear much about Gabrielle Giffords these days.

That is how it should be, I guess.

After all, she was news on the day she was shot — and in the days that followed, when her dramatic fight for life was played out on the nation's TV screens in the form of medical briefings.

But, for most of the last five months, she has been just another patient and the details of her treatment have remained out of public view. She did survive a wound that was worse than many that hospital personnel usually see, but most of the milestones in her recovery have been observed in private.

Lately, though, Giffords has been back in the spotlight — sort of. She has remained in the shadows, but she was on hand when her husband's space shuttle mission began, and then she was in the news again after undergoing major surgery to repair her skull.

Her doctor says she is coming along splendidly and has taken to calling her "Gorgeous Gaby."

Giffords will probably recede from public view now and resume the arduous task of recovering from her injuries — which is fine with me ...

... except for the fact that her mere presence at the shuttle launch, the reports of her milestone surgery and now the posting of the first photos of Giffords since the shooting have revived thoughts that I couldn't avoid in January but nevertheless managed to tuck away for the last few months.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since January, but try to recall the atmosphere if you can.

The immediate reaction of Democrats was that the shooting had been perpetrated by a right–wing extremist and that it was the inevitable outcome of the incendiary political environment.

A lot of the blame was directed at the so–called Tea Party and Sarah Palin — even though all evidence suggested that the gunman was not motivated by politics and had no links to either.

Democrats were reluctant to acknowledge that, which I believe reveals the true source for the Democrats' behavior. Fear of a — for the most part — faceless them.

It's political paranoia that is worthy of Richard Nixon.

I sensed a lot of fear among Democrats when Republicans captured both houses of Congress in 1994. Democrats had held at least one chamber of Congress every year for 40 years, and many were fearful that they had lost their grip on legislative power forever.

That hasn't happened, of course. President Clinton was re–elected in 1996, and a Democrat was elected president in 2008. In between, Democrats recaptured Congress and expanded their majorities before losing the House last year.

But that 1994 experience is fresh enough in their memories that many Democrats are fearful of losing whatever they have and will do whatever they believe must be done — including sacrifice some of their commitments — to keep it.

Some saw what they interpreted as unmistakable signs of erosion in their base when Republicans took control of the House in 2010's midterm elections, and they are fearful that the second shoe will drop in 2012 when Democrats could well become victims of their own success as they defend two–thirds of the Senate seats that will be on the ballot.

That is only one fear, though.

Another fear, I believe, was to be found in the response to the attack on Giffords.

Since the 1960s, Democrats have been conditioned to believe that someone or a group or a conspiracy of some sort has been resisting their leaders and their causes. They saw three of their prominent leaders assassinated in the 1960s, then they saw Democratic presidents smeared (one successfully, one unsuccessfully) in the 1970s and 1990s.

And they have been fearful that something like that could happen again.

With this president — the first black president — there was always an unspoken concern in every conversation in which I participated — even before he was elected — that, at some point, somebody would take a shot at him.

I believe that is, in large part, why Democrats have been so quick to accuse people who disagree with Obama of being racists. It's kind of a proactive measure, understandable in a way — but it is still offensive to millions of Americans who honestly disagree with the president on policy and could care less what color his skin happens to be.

Fortunately, no one has taken a shot at Obama yet — and, hopefully, no one will.

Presidential security has improved a lot since the last time someone shot a president, even more since someone was successful in killing a president. But it still could happen. It has happened four times in our history. If the methodology for protecting a president is better now than it was, so too is the technology that can be used to attack a president.

Most presidents have accepted the fact that they could easily be killed if someone is, as Lincoln put it, willing to trade his life for the president's. If someone is that determined, it seems unlikely that anything can stop him.

I don't know if the first black president will be assassinated — or re–elected. I was not born with the ability to see the future.

I do know that the only trait that all great leaders share is confidence. They practically exude confidence — in America, in themselves and in the people. Without that, others won't follow — or, at least, they won't follow for long.

When a president takes the oath of office, no one truly knows what the fate of his presidency will be. Fifty years ago, no one knew that John F. Kennedy would die in a Dallas motorcade before the voters could give his presidency a thumb's up or a thumb's down. One hundred and fifty years ago, no one knew that Abraham Lincoln would preside over a bloody civil war — and be killed a few days after its conclusion.

And 30 years ago, no one knew that the oldest man ever elected president would survive not one but two terms in office — as well as an assassination attempt.

History is full of contradictions, full of twists and turns. A president must be confident and steadfast, sure that the course he is following is correct; the people always seem to sense uncertainty and hesitance.

I'm glad Giffords is recovering so well.

And I would urge the president and those who are embarking on campaigns to replace him to avoid incendiary arguments.

The nation was not served by the introduction of unwarranted charges and counter–charges about patriotism in 2004, and it will not be served by the introduction of unwarranted charges and counter–charges about racial attitudes in 2012.

Let's talk about the issues and the nation's problems in 2012.

No matter what else happens.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What About Bob?

When I was growing up in Arkansas, the Arkansas Gazette — which was, at the time, the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi — would run editorials endorsing candidates in various races during the campaign and then would publish a list recapping those endorsements in the days just before the primary or election.

I knew people who would cut out that list and take it with them to the polls so they would know who not to vote for.

Now, I grew up appreciating the writing in the Gazette — and I was proud to work for the Gazette for nearly five years — but I would be the first to tell you that the Gazette's editorial board and its readers seldom saw eye to eye on the candidates and issues of the day.

Even when the candidates who were endorsed by the Gazette actually won, it often seemed that, when the voters went along with the Gazette's choices, they did so grudgingly — as if they really had no alternatives. That wasn't true, of course. There were almost always other choices, but sometimes they were so objectionable that even voters who habitually voted against the Gazette's selections really could not rationalize voting for them, even out of spite.

The Gazette went out of business nearly 20 years ago, and sometimes I wonder what some of those Arkansans do for political guidance now.

I can't provide them with a website or the name of a local publication that can fill that particular void.

However, if they are looking for a crystal ball in reverse, I'd like to point them in the direction of Bob Shrum, a Democratic political adviser.

In The Week, Shrum writes of his concern about "the emergence of a consensus that Barack Obama could lose next year."

Until recently, Shrum writes, his perception was that there was sense of "a gradually strengthening if not yet popularly perceived recovery" combined with "a weak Republican field most notable for those who opted not to run," all of which indicated that Barack Obama was on course to win a second term next year.

But some clouds have appeared on his sunny horizon — in the form of the latest unemployment report, an article in the New York Times that points out that no president since FDR has been re–elected when unemployment was 7.2% or higher and a Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows disapproval growing over Obama's handling of the economy.

But not to worry, Shrum assures his readers, even though he acknowledges that the "bump" in popularity that Obama enjoyed after the killing of Osama bin Laden disappeared almost as quickly as it came.

"[M]uch of the new mood is too instant, too superficial, and too casually ahistorical," Shrum writes.

And I will admit that he makes a good point when he says that perception is really what matters when voters go to the polls — not necessarily those troublesome facts.

When Ronald Reagan — who was re–elected with a 7.2% unemployment rate in 1984 — won his second term, Shrum observes, "joblessness was almost exactly the same — only one tenth of a point lower — on Ronald Reagan's 'morning in America' [as] it had been on his inaugural morning four years earlier."

In the interim, "the rate spiked to 10.8 percent; what Americans believed and felt when they re–elected him was that the subsequent decline proved the economy was on a steady upward trajectory," writes Shrum. "That's what counts, not any absolute benchmark for jobs or growth."

We'll see if Shrum is right. After all, this is the guy who assured Democrats last fall that they would retain control of the House.

And history tells you how accurate that prediction turned out to be.

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's the Jobless, Stupid

"Given the history of recessions driven by financial meltdowns, it was inevitable we'd have a lingering unemployment problem. All the more reason to gear every possible policy toward augmenting job growth. Once he passed his ramshackle social–spending bill called the 'stimulus,' though, Obama devoted most of his attention to re–engineering key sectors of the American economy — health care, finance, energy — regardless of the economic consequences."

Rich Lowry
National Review

OK, I know that National Review isn't what anyone would call a progressive publication.

And Lowry isn't a liberal thinker.

But I opened this piece with a quote from Lowry because he does a reasonably accurate job of summarizing the situation. Sure, he has an agenda, but just because he has an agenda does not mean he is wrong when he writes of "a wide–ranging blight that affects not just people's incomes right now, but their sense of self–respect and their futures.

"Yet it's often been an afterthought for the president,"
Lowry continues. "He has repeatedly said he was going to 'pivot to jobs.' How could he ever have pivoted off of them?"

It's a valid question. Obama's got a year to decide how he'g going to respond to that one — and I think he can be reasonably confident that the eventual Republican nominee is going to ask it (repeatedly) during the 2012 campaign.

What Lowry writes is nothing new to me. I've been reading articles that said virtually the same thing for the last three years.

What would be new — and refreshing — would be to see politicians giving more than lip service to the unemployed simply because the politicians want their votes.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Horror of War

There is no time in my memory of my childhood when the war in Vietnam was not an ever–present fact of life.

When you thumbed through a newspaper or a magazine, you were bound to see articles about it. If you switched on your TV or your radio, you were almost sure to see or hear something about the war. All the prominent people of the time were talking about it.

It was everywhere.

As young as I was, I got the sense that most people still thought of war casualties in military terms. I know I did. When the nightly or weekly casualty counts were given on the network news, I thought of soldiers.

I guess the folks who had served in World War II and Korea should have known better than that. They had seen first hand the pain that had been inflicted upon civilians in those conflicts.

For that matter, I guess, the people of my parents' generation — who were too young to serve in WWII, too young even to get away with lying about their ages — should have known better, too. They had seen the footage of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They knew that soldiers weren't the only ones who got hurt or killed in war.

Nevertheless, non–veterans seemed to know nothing about the human face of war during the Vietnam era.

I was as naive as any, I suppose — until June of 1972, when the attached photograph was taken by a young Associated Press photojournalist named Nick Ut.

The photo showed a group of South Vietnamese children running from their village after a napalm attack on June 8, 1972. A young girl could be seen running naked along the road, her face twisted in pain.

Just from looking at the photo, it wasn't really possible to determine how extensive the girl's injuries were. Only if one read the caption that accompanied the photo — and usually made a vague reference to a napalm attack on the children's village — could one begin to get an idea of just how badly she had been hurt.

The girl in the photo had torn off her burning clothes, which allowed her to survive, but the damage had been done to her tiny body.

For many, this photo truly was worth a thousand words — at least. It was a haunting image that came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong in Vietnam — in large part because a South Vietnamese village had been napalmed by South Vietnamese forces. That was no accident. North Vietnam had captured the village earlier, and the South Vietnamese were trying to drive the North Vietnamese out of it.

The villagers were simply, as Timothy McVeigh put it a couple of decades later, collateral damage.

I remember vividly seeing that picture on the pages of my hometown newspaper a few days after it was taken. I had never heard of the village — Trang Bang. But the little girl in the photo was about my age, give or take a year or two, and that put a human face on the war for me.

I could look at her and see just about everyone I knew, everyone with whom I went to school, everyone with whom I played on a daily basis. That picture gave me nightmares for weeks.

There was no question it was a powerful photograph. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has become an iconic image of that time.

President Nixon, who was running for re–election, doubted the authenticity of the photo, as a tape of a conversation with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, revealed.

Nixon had been elected president four years earlier in large part because of criticism over the way the Democrats had handled the war. His suggestion to Haldeman that he suspected the photo had been "fixed" may have stemmed from a fear that the photo could damage his political prospects.

(As it turned out, Nixon was more gravely wounded by something that happened a week later and much closer to home — the Watergate break–in.)

It wasn't until after the children had been examined at a Saigon hospital that it was concluded that the girl, whose name was Kim Phúc, had been burned so badly that she was not expected to survive. But she did.

I can only imagine the nightmares she must have lived with — that she may still be living with.

Today she lives with her husband and children in Canada. In 2008, she told NPR that she had forgiven those who hurt her.

"Forgiveness made me free from hatred," she said. "I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days. But my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful."

Her words are as powerful as the image from decades ago.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fueling the Fires of Skepticism

"The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true deserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy."

H.L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun
June 15, 1936

It's been nearly 75 years since Mencken wrote those words, and I often wonder whether Americans have learned much in all that time.

It is from that perspective, therefore, that I have a question — well, a few of 'em, actually, but they all relate to the same thing — for Barack Obama.

Remember that flap over your birth certificate? It wasn't so long ago. It should be fresh in your memory.

Did you learn anything from that?

Remember how long that dragged on? It went on (with varying levels of intensity) until recently — when you finally had to give your critics what they were screaming for because they simply would not stop screaming.

I figured that would be the last experience you would want to repeat with an election coming up — but, apparently, I was wrong.

It was an honest mistake on my part. You spoke about how this "birther" business had been a huge distraction from the things that have to be done — and you were right about that — but still you capitulated in large part because the distraction kept growing.

You resisted as long as you could, then you capitulated. You proved your point, but so did your adversaries. It has been their contention all along that you are weak and malleable. They kept up the pressure and forced you to go from proactive to reactive.

Still, you did prove your point — and, if simply proving your point was the objective, then all I can say (to borrow the words of your predecessor) is, "Mission accomplished."

You established that you were an American citizen, qualified to be president of the United States — and when you did, polls show, the segment of the population that still believed that you were not an American dwindled to about 3%.

Then, as if to prove the additional point that you are strong and resolute and will not back down, you authorized a hit squad to take down Osama bin Laden a couple of days later — almost as if the knowledge of his whereabouts was some kind of wild card you had been holding for just the right moment.

That strategy — if that is what it was — might have worked, too.

But you blew it. Your story kept changing. I don't know why it kept changing. Perhaps it was a series of well–intentioned decisions that were meant to somehow protect society from itself — but, instead, things got out of hand.

I saw — with my own eyes — proof of this skepticism in a group that you have openly encouraged to be politically active — the young — and I can only conclude that, unless you do something both dramatic and substantive, you will not be able to count on the young to support you in droves the way they did in 2008.

I teach developmental writing at a campus in the local community college system. Much of the time in class is devoted, as you might expect, to actual writing — and there are times when I ask my students to write short essays.

When bin Laden was killed, I asked my students to write an essay about this event. I told them to describe how they heard the news and what their thoughts had been about the debate over releasing the photographic evidence. I would not grade them on their opinions, I assured the students. I would only grade how they used the elements of writing that we had discussed in class.

Nevertheless, I was interested in seeing what their thoughts were — and those thoughts were revealing.

They all seemed to feel that killing bin Laden was justified, but some objected to the idea that an unarmed man had been shot. Others contended that it had never been the intention of the special opps squad to capture bin Laden, only to kill him. Nearly all recoiled at the thought of the celebrations in the streets when the news of bin Laden's death spread.

And some asserted (in an account that sounded eerily similar to one I have heard before) that the whole thing had been staged. Only a handful of people probably were in on it, they wrote, and the "body" that was buried at sea was no body at all — or maybe it was the corpse of another 6–foot–4 man.

There aren't many of those, as far as I can see, but wait awhile. I have the feeling that these "deathers," as they are being called, could be much like the "birthers." They have the potential to be around a year from now.

Welcome to the wacky world of conspiracy theories. They take on lives of their own. Eventually, I think, most presidents learn (some belatedly) that the only way you can control conspiracy theories is to get out front from the start and be as up front as you can. It's no guarantee of success, but it beats the Nixonian stonewall approach.

Resisting is not a good idea even if the theory seems to be ridiculous — because there are always some people who will believe it, and their numbers only multiply the longer there is doubt.

I'll grant you, conspiracy theories are often ridiculous. I've been hearing them all my life — and, since I am about the same age as you are, Mr. President, I would guess that you have been hearing them all your life as well.

Therefore, I am sure you must have heard these stories — and others, too:
  • "Hitler never committed suicide. He escaped to South America, just like Eichmann and Mengele."

  • "The moon landing was a fraud. It was done on a Hollywood sound stage."

  • "Oswald didn't act alone."

  • "9/11 was an inside job."

  • "The [Catholics, Jews, Muslims — or any other demographic group] are engaged in a conspiracy to seize control of [name of state, country, region, etc.]."

  • "HIV/AIDS has been spread deliberately in the black community by agents working for the U.S. government."
And the story of bin Laden's death may be more of the same.

Surely, it seems to me that the decision not to release evidence to the public confirming that he was dead is likely to be fodder for conspiracy theorists.

Conspiracies, of course, aren't always theories. They do exist. People do conspire to commit all sorts of crimes and deceptions. They do so every day. In fact, folks have been using the phrase "conspiracy theory" for more than a century.

Originally, it was a phrase that was neither positive nor negative, simply a statement of informed speculation, but after the Kennedy assassination, it began to take on its largely lunatic fringe reputation. Most conspiracy theories are still, for the most part, speculative in nature, but they tend to be less credible than they once were.

And, although most conspiracy theories should not be taken seriously, most conspiracy theorists should.

They are the ones who perpetuate misinformation.

Obama compared the act of proving that the world's most wanted terrorist was dead to spiking the football in the end zone and suggested that it would be unseemly to do that.

But that isn't what this is about. It isn't about celebration. It's about that transparency thing Obama spoke of at the dawn of his administration.

I don't remember when I first heard this said, but it had to have been shortly after the September 11 attacks. People were saying that if bin Laden was captured, it would be necessary for him to be brought before the cameras of the world.

Even if it was eventually decided that he would be executed for ordering the attacks.

He was so notorious the world over that it would be necessary to parade him in front of those cameras over and over again for people to believe he was in custody.

But, after nearly a decade spent pursuing bin Laden, the story about his death is so full of holes you could drive a Hummer through it.

The mission supposedly was carried out by a special ops squad. In the public's mind, that's comparable to a police unit. And ordinary citizens know that cops are trained to shoot people who are armed and believed to be threats to their safety.

Therefore, in the initial story, bin Laden was armed — and, to make him even more reprehensible, he was said to have used a woman as a human shield. But, as the story evolved, it turned out bin Laden had no weapon. There is plenty of reason to doubt whether a woman (at first said to be his wife) was used as a human shield.

In fact, it appears that bin Laden may have peeked outside and been fired at, but that shot apparently missed. The next two shots apparently found their target.

But let's go back to that special ops angle for a second or two.

We were told that it was a kill or capture mission. I never served in the military, and someone who did serve in the military might have better information than I do, but it is my understanding that a special ops unit like the Navy SEALS is rarely called upon to capture anyone. They would do so only under ideal circumstances — and a mission in which an apparently top secret stealth helicopter crashed and could not be retrieved completely by American forces would hardly be ideal.

Also, if the special ops guys — like a unit of policemen — were instructed only to shoot if they felt threatened, does anyone honestly think they would feel threatened by an unarmed Osama bin Laden?

It doesn't sound like a kill–or–capture mission to me.

Subsequent versions said bin Laden was not armed — but there was an arsenal of weapons in the compound. The presence of weapons, even if they weren't readily accessible, justifies everything, I suppose.

Then — very conveniently, in the minds of conspiracy theorists — quite soon after the world was told that bin Laden was dead, it was told that he had been buried at sea.

The only evidence that he is dead are some photographs, and (presumably) the administration won't release them because they are so gruesome. The government did share them with a bipartisan panel of lawmakers — reminiscent, to some people, of how the Nixon administration initially refused to release Oval Office recordings or transcripts (it later reversed itself), offering instead to allow a single senator (an elderly Southern Democrat who was known to be a Nixon supporter) to review the tapes for the special prosecutor.

(The prosecutor refused Nixon's compromise solution, sparking the Saturday Night Massacre.)

Beyond that, we are told to trust our government.

That, essentially, is what we were told when the administration had made up its mind to invade Iraq, facts be damned. Too many people swallowed that back in 2003. We can't afford to do it again.

And many people voted for Obama primarily because they believed he would be a different kind of president — that they would not be expected to accept something important on face value alone.

I've been interested in the reasoning that has been offered to justify releasing the evidence to the public.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, for example, writes that he would have released the photos of bin Laden.

Robinson's logic is different than mine. He thinks the photos would have had a chilling effect on other terrorists and made them think twice about taking on the United States. It has symbolic value, he argues.

It's an interesting point, but I disagree. The people who were drawn to bin Laden had already demonstrated that they were not afraid to die. In fact, they welcomed it. They believed they would be treated as martyrs. Bin Laden himself may have believed, as he was dying, that he would be treated as a martyr.

I really don't see the photos as having much value as a propaganda weapon with America's enemies. But I do think it would help its supporters' resolve.

There is no doubt in my mind, really, that an evil man was killed. For that matter, there is no doubt in my mind that bin Laden was killed. I don't require proof.

But others do. As long as there is any lingering doubt about bin Laden's fate, it will detract from anything else Obama may wish to emphasize in 2012.