Sunday, July 31, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again

"Peace is at hand."

Henry Kissinger
October 1972

A few hours ago, the president announced a tentative agreement in the debt ceiling debate.

Barack Obama told the nation that "both parties have found their way toward compromise," which will be good news, indeed — if it comes to fruition.

And that is the as–yet unanswered question. Will both sides agree to it? Or will support break down as each side has an opportunity to examine the deal more closely?

I am reminded of the day in October 1972 when, with Richard Nixon a week away from facing the voters in his bid for a second term, Henry Kissinger announced to the world that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam.

It was the original October surprise. It was what everyone wanted. And it was clearly what Nixon believed would secure a second term for him.

Based on Nixon's job approval numbers from 1972 — and the self–destructive nature of the Democratic ticket — that outcome probably was never in doubt.

But, when Nixon was at this point of his first term — July–August 1971 — his job approval numbers were about 10 percentage points lower than the share of the vote he received in November 1972. They were, essentially, at the break–even point, with roughly half of respondents approving of his performance, and much of it reflected public disappointment that Nixon's "secret plan" had failed to bring an end to the conflict in southeast Asia.

In the context of the times — and to be fair — there were, as there always are, economic issues that demanded the president's attention.

(In fact, August 15 will be the 40th anniversary of Nixon's imposition of a 90–day freeze on prices and wages following his announcement that America would no longer convert dollars to gold at a fixed rate, marking the end of the Bretton Woods financial management system.)

But those economic conditions — however severe they may have been and whatever role (if any) the actions that were taken then may have played in our current economic woes — were not the primary focus of attention.

Even Nixon's supporters probably would admit that he was one of the most paranoid men ever to sit in the Oval Office — and, after the Pentagon Papers were leaked in June 1971, I'm sure he must have sensed increased public scrutiny in his foreign policy.

In 1971, Nixon was vulnerable on that issue, after all his talk in the 1968 campaign about the need for new leadership to replace the failed leadership of the previous four years. By October 1972, he must have seen the rhetorical value of being able to say a deal for peace ("with honor," as he put it) was in the works.

Nixon did, as a matter of fact, sign such an agreement in January of 1973 — but the hostilities in Vietnam continued for more than two years (outlasting Nixon's presidency, which ended with his resignation in August 1974).

Similarly, Obama's presidency is vulnerable if this deal falls through and the United States winds up defaulting. That could wind up causing a chain reaction of economic events that no one can imagine — or wants.

Fortunately, the Asian markets responded positively to the news of an impending deal, which should relieve some of the pressure on U.S. lawmakers.

Well, it buys them some time — a few hours, anyway.

But there isn't much time left.

Is peace really at hand?

Friday, July 29, 2011

How Hot Is It?

It's been nearly 20 years since Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show, but, if you can remember when he was the show's host, you can probably remember many of his ongoing routines.

I'm thinking of one in particular that was usually likely to surface during Carson's monologue, but it could happen at any time. It frequently popped up when something really extreme had been happening — for example, a lot more (or a lot less, for that matter) rain than usual.

He would say something like, "It was so wet (or dry) today that ..." and, before he could finish the joke, the audience would roar as one, "How wet (or dry) was it?"

As I say, it could be anything extreme — or anything, at least, that was perceived to be extreme. It could be "Dan Quayle is so dumb" or "Al Gore is so wooden."

Weather was always a good source, but it could be anything. Carson and his writers could be very creative at times.

(All together now — How creative were they?)

Lately, as the nation has been enduring the kind of heat wave that usually seems to be reserved only for Texas, I've been missing Carson.

Well, actually, as far as I am concerned, late night TV has never been the same since he left — so missing Carson is not a new thing for me — but, when there's something in progress like this heat wave, I really miss him.

These times cry out for an opportunity for heat–weary people to shout in unison, "How hot is it?"

Jacy Marmaduke of the Dallas Morning News has been keeping area residents advised as local temperatures have cracked triple digits daily for four straight weeks now.

Recently, this summer's heat wave claimed the second slot on the historical list. It overtook the summer of 1998 a few days ago.

I was living in Dallas in the summer of 1998, and that was, indeed, a brutal summer. I was working for a trade magazine and I had to cover a trade show in Chicago that July. While I was there, I encountered quite a few people who had come from places to the north — and some were complaining of the heat.

Personally, I didn't find the heat in Chicago nearly as severe as the weather I had just left. The difference was noticeable upon my return.

I don't think that would be true this summer. Nearly the entire country has been sweltering. It's been easing lately in places where it usually doesn't get that hot, but much of the country remains in the heat wave's grip.

Depending upon the cloud cover we have, our streak of triple–digit days may come to an end around here tomorrow — but, even if it does, the immediate forecast suggests that a brand–new streak is likely to begin on Sunday, and that one seems certain to continue for awhile.

Besides, as a meteorologist told Marmaduke, there isn't much difference between 99° and 100°. The difference is almost entirely psychological.

If the streak does not end tomorrow, the summer of 2011 may well go down as the hottest on record — at least in terms of consecutive 100° days.

To accomplish that, it will have to exceed the triple–digit streak of 1980 — and it just might do that, but it will never match the intensity of the summer of 1980.

I remember that one, too.

I wasn't living in Dallas in those days, but my grandmother was, and I remember coming here with my mother to visit my grandmother, who was starting to experience symptoms of dementia.

Daytime highs in 1980 seemed to get past 100° before noon and just kept climbing through the afternoon. I remember several days when temperatures flirted with 110° (the worst actually exceeded 110° a few times) — and I remember driving on the streets of Dallas and hearing the asphalt squish beneath the tires.

In 1980, a daytime high of only 100° was seen by some as a sign of an imminent cool front (it never was, but hope sprang eternal. Those triple–digit temperatures were daily facts of life for more than six weeks).

Needless to say, you could do a lot more than fry an egg on the pavement.

This summer's heat wave has been a scorcher, but the summer of 1980 (if it possessed human characteristics) would scoff. I can just imagine the things it would say. "Amateur!" it would sneer. "In my day, I gave 'em heat they're still talking about three decades later."

If some have their way, though, that consecutive triple–digit streak will tumble, and the summer of 2011 will be atop the list when all is said and done.

Marmaduke quotes a 15–year–old from Plano who wants a streak he can tell his grandkids about.

All I can say is, be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Foresight in Hindsight

I taught journalism on the college level for awhile in the 1990s, then I was sidetracked by other things.

(I liked the way Robert Redford used that word to describe, in "The Natural," why he had been away from pro ball for so long. I think it frequently applies to life in general.)

Nearly a year ago, I returned to the classroom. I've been teaching journalism again, and I've also been teaching developmental writing, which focuses on the fundamentals of written English (subjects, verbs, prepositional phrases, dependent and independent clauses, etc.), at the local community college.

As the start of my second year there approaches, I've been thinking about what I learned last year and how I can improve what I've been doing.

That isn't quite as easy as it may sound because there are many differences between being a professor at a four–year college and being an adjunct professor at a community college. I can't always apply what I learned in the classroom then to what I'm doing now.

Last year, I spent the summer preparing to teach classes that wound up being canceled just before the school year began because enrollment in those classes wasn't sufficient.

It wasn't that way when I was teaching in the 1990s. In those days, I knew what I would be teaching long before the semester began. My classes were never canceled because enrollment didn't reach a certain level.

Anyway, I hope I'll be teaching journalism again this fall. It remains to be seen if I will.

I do know, though, that I will be teaching developmental writing again — because it is required unless incoming students meet or exceed a certain grade on their placement tests — and I've been thinking about what I learned from teaching that class last year.

I think one of the most important things I have learned has to do with expectations.

Some of my students are foreign students for whom English is a second language, and they compare the rules of their native language to the rules of their acquired one. That is their frame of reference. It is how we human beings process information. We compare new knowledge to that which we already have.

For others, I think it's a simple matter of applying logic — if something is true in one usage, it must be true in all usages. Same sort of thing, really. It's all based on past experience — and the knowledge of previous outcomes.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I was reminded of an old episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy, who was expecting the couple's baby, decided that everyone who came in regular contact with her child — Ricky, Fred and Ethel — had to speak nothing but perfect English.

Ricky, whose native tongue was Spanish, resisted, but Lucy made her point by asking him to read out loud a story that worked in several words that had similar spellings but different pronunciations — all in just a few sentences.

The spelling was o–u–g–h. It was pronounced differently, of course, depending upon which letter(s) came before.

Anyway, the story Ricky read was about a woodsman. It spoke of how he cut boughs (pronounced bows) from trees.

All this cutting made his hands quite rough (pronounced ruff). Also, apparently, all this cutting released a lot of junk into the air, which gave the woodsman a hacking cough (koff).

There were other sentences that contained words like enough (enuff) and through (threw). I'm sure you get the idea.

Ricky mispronounced each word and got increasingly frustrated. Spanish isn't so complicated, he protested. A sound is always the same. It sounds the same. It is spelled the same.

Many of my students last year (and, I am sure, many of my students in the coming year) would sympathize with Ricky. Why must written English be so complicated?

Well, the main reason is that the British Isles were occupied by different conquerors over the centuries, and elements of those languages were absorbed into the evolving English language. In English, you will find words with roots from all corners of the globe — primarily from the civilizations that actively occupied Britain at different times but also from cultures that were more like bystanders.

Each contributed words (and whatever linguistic peculiarities came along with them) to the language.

As a result, you have to work a little harder to make sure that you do things correctly in English. One must apply, as fictional detective Hercule Poirot put, the little grey cells. One size does not always fit all.

I tried to make this point with my students last semester by contrasting written English with other subjects — and I unexpectedly learned a couple of things about the shortcomings of the modern educational system.

In math, I told my students, when you learn the multiplication tables, you know that they will never vary. The answers will always be the same. Two times three will always equal six. Three times three will never equal six.

You can count on it.

In chemistry, I told them, H2O is always the chemical formula for water. It is never the chemical formula for anything else.

You can count on it.

Those examples made my point, but I wanted to add one more for emphasis. In hindsight, I should have stopped when I was ahead — and launched into my discussion of the peculiarities of the English language.

In history, I told my students, events always happened whenever they happened. When you commit an important date to memory, it doesn't change. The years in which the American Civil War was fought will always be between 1861 and 1865. The year of President Kennedy's assassination will always be 1963.

To drive home my point, I said to my students, "If someone says '1776' to you, what do you think of?"

I was shocked that no one, in a classroom full of people, raised a hand to indicate that he/she knew the answer. I thought everyone knew the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

I still think it is a good point — even if the modern education system doesn't seem to be producing high school graduates with adequate appreciation for their history. I mean, even if those students don't know those dates, they are facts that you will find in any history book.

English is much more ambiguous. It isn't as certain as a mathematical equation or a chemical formula or a date in a history book.

But that is what makes English, both spoken and written, a living, vibrant thing.

My students want written language to be a simple, fill–in–the–blank proposition, like the mathematical formulae they learned when they were younger. Logically, they know that only three times two will equal six so if they are asked to complete something like this — 3 X ___ = 6 — they know that 2 is the only possible answer.

But the rules are different for language. My students seem to have trouble understanding that the very same word may be a noun in some uses — and a verb in others.

For example, take the word run. Ordinarily, that is a verb — They run in the park.

But it can also be a noun — for example, when it is used as part of the names of events or when it is used to describe the act of scoring (particularly in baseball). Under such circumstances, it becomes a noun.

The same thing applies to spelling, punctuation, all that stuff. You've gotta use your brain.

If I can get my students to use their brains, I feel we're moving in the right direction — even if there is still much to be done on the basics.

That's the way I feel about the people who are in charge of the debt ceiling negotiations in Washington these days.

Creative solutions are required. Everyone — the president, the speaker of the House, everyone in Congress — needs to put the interests of the nation ahead of everything else.

I'd like to get all of them to look beyond their limited horizons.

They might not be able to resolve the situation once and for all — but, at least, they could deal with this crisis and move beyond the roadblocks.

Our problems, as John F. Kennedy said, are man made. Therefore, they can be solved by men.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner

I am a concerned American.

I am concerned for many reasons, and I have been concerned for a long time. The debt ceiling crisis that is consuming so much time and energy is an additional concern that no one really needs.

I know I don't need it. It's just more stress for me.

That stress level wasn't eased by the tenor of the debate over the debt ceiling that played out on TV tonight.

Now, if you read this blog on even a semi–regular basis, you know that I don't always agree with Barack Obama. In fact, I have frequently disagreed with him — and, although you may not realize it, that is a source of considerable anxiety for me.

I have struggled with this because, as I have said before, I was brought up by parents who were Democrats. And there have been times when I have given this president the benefit of the doubt — in no small part because I understand, at least instinctively, his objective.

But I have had nagging doubts about his leadership from the start — and much of it, I think, has stemmed from the fact that Obama doesn't stay focused on anything for very long. Sometimes, I have wondered if he has undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.

For awhile, I felt my doubts might have been misplaced. Obama came into office and made what appeared to be bold moves that were designed to put people back to work and really fix the economy.

But that is what was misleading.

It wasn't long before his focus shifted to other things — and, ever since, I have felt increasingly uneasy about the way that Obama and his followers rely on racism and Republican obstructionism as excuses for why they can't do things.

They get mired in the blame game, and they whine about the rigidity of the opposition. They act as if this is something new in American politics, but it isn't.

I'll admit that the opposition to Obama is more extreme, more polarized than ever before in my experience — just as his support is more polarized in the other direction. Obviously, it is more difficult to bring these two sides together than ever before.

But that is not an excuse.

Successful presidents learn to use the "bully pulpit," as Teddy Roosevelt called it. Mobilizing public opinion — in fact, using it pre–emptively — is a big part of presidential leadership.

Obama and his supporters have been correct when they have pointed out that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all lobbied for — and got — higher debt ceilings. They understood how critical it was for a president to mobilize public opinion if he was going to come out ahead in any significant negotiation.

To mobilize the public, a president must empathize with people's problems — "feel their pain," in Clinton's words — and that has been a problem for Obama. Do you recall the exchange last year between Obama and the middle–class black woman who told him, at a town meeting, that she was worn out defending him while she saw her standard of living deteriorate?

Obama used the opportunity to polish his campaign pitch, spoke of achievements that had no real bearing on the woman's situation as she had described it (but would clearly appeal to select segments of the electorate) and wrapped up his answer with a Reaganesque "stay the course" message.

He never thanked that woman for her support nor did he ask her any questions that were intended to find out more about her situation so he could address issues that directly affected her. In fact, he showed very little interest in her concerns. He was far more interested in promoting what he saw as his administration's achievements — perhaps with an eye to the approaching midterms but almost certainly with his re–election bid (which he announced about six months later) in mind.

"Stay the course" doesn't tend to mean much to people who have been out of work for a year or more and can't see any improvement that affects them. It tends to sound like "Prosperity is just around the corner."

The case for that — and a lot of other things — would be better if Obama had shown himself to be a better negotiator, but he hasn't. He is almost always reactive, not proactive.

That isn't leadership, and it's been an issue on just about every domestic and international matter that has come up in this president's term.

But, in the interest of brevity, let's just look at the debate on the debt ceiling for a minute.

When Obama agreed to the extension of the Bush tax cuts last year, why didn't he do so on the condition that the debt ceiling would be raised at the same time?

I've heard Obama supporters argue (and justifiably) that the Bush tax cuts expanded the deficit considerably. Republicans wanted those tax cuts, though, and my guess is they would have been willing to make a deal.

The time to cut such a deal passed long ago, though. I don't know why, but, like most of the opportunities that were presented to Obama and the Democrat–controlled Congress in 2009 and 2010, it was allowed to slip away.

It remains to be seen whether the two sides can work out a deal in a week.

Frankly, it's more drama than I need right now.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Free Man in Paris

"The way I see it," he said,
"You just can't win it.
Everybody's in it for their own gain.
You can't please 'em all.
There's always somebody calling you down.
I do my best,
And I do good business.
There's a lot of people asking for my time.
They're trying to get ahead.
They're trying to be a good friend of mine.
I was a free man in Paris.
I felt unfettered and alive.
There was nobody calling me up for favors,
And no one's future to decide.
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song."

Joni Mitchell

Back on the night he was elected president — and in the months before — I'm sure Barack Obama did feel, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song, "unfettered and alive."

He was the proverbial free man in Paris, adored by all who saw him and heard his voice. When one watched the relationship between the candidate and the crowds on the campaign trail, it was like watching two young lovers in the throes of a brand–new passion for each other. If one breaks wind, the other thinks it sounds like Mozart and smells like a rose garden.

And he and his followers fell under a spell that convinced them that the election of this man would change things forever.

I guess the followers of every victorious presidential candidate believe he will be the one who changes things forever, but the symbolism of the Obama election was hard to ignore. I remember watching the 2008 election coverage and seeing an anonymous black woman saying that everything in the future would be right and just and fair, and she didn't have to worry about that anymore.

It wasn't just a racial thing. I heard similar things from whites on that night. And I also heard young voters of all races, many participating in an election for the first time, speaking of Obama and what they expected from him. And I heard progressives of all ages and all races speaking of the liberal causes that would be promoted in an Obama administration.

That was the fantasy.

Reality has been smacking Obama and his followers around. It hasn't matched the fantasy. Not even when he did something his predecessor could not do — rid the world of Osama bin Laden.

That would have been quite a coup a decade ago. But that's the problem. Presidents are judged almost entirely upon how they handle the situations of their times — not of someone else's. And 2001 was George W. Bush's time, not Obama's.

Whatever one may think of the circumstances surrounding Bush's election, he was the occupant of the White House on September 11, and if he had remained focused on bin Laden and promptly captured or killed him instead of turning his attention to Iraq, I believe he probably would have been re–elected in a landslide.

Bush's administration is remembered for other things today, but, before 2004, capturing or killing bin Laden would have been like winning the lottery. In 2011, it was more like winning the pot in a hand of poker.

The challenge of Obama's time has been to put America back to work. All the other things he has wanted to achieve as president depended on the accomplishment of that one objective first — because, in order to do the things he has said he wants to do, the tax base must be expanded.

The tax base has not been expanding in the first 2½ years of Obama's presidency, and there aren't sufficient resources within the existing tax base to do the things he wants to do. This is at the heart of much of the debate over the debt ceiling that currently has Congress in a stranglehold.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Barack Obama felt like a free man in Paris when he sought the presidency. The challenger is apt to feel "unfettered and alive" when the responsibility of governing is not yet his and when there is "no one's future to decide."

Alas, there are millions of futures to decide.

He probably would "go back there tomorrow" to the days when he could say what he pleased about where America should be and he didn't have to worry about things like whether there was enough money — but the work he has taken on will not allow it.

That's when some experience at bringing opposing sides together would come in handy for a president. This president's administration has spoken admiringly of two recent presidents who won re–election in spite of economic woes — and difficulties with Congress — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

The folks in the West Wing want to emulate those presidents.

They overlook, either deliberately or by accident, the facts that Reagan and Clinton both were governors before they were president. Successful governors know a lot about compromising, helping each side see the wisdom in giving up a little in order to achieve a lot.

In the current atmosphere, though, both sides have taken a take no prisoners posture. Neither side will settle for anything less than total victory — and that means total surrender from the other side. The left is repulsed by the right and vice versa.

This is a situation that calls for presidential leadership, for a president who rises above the congressional squabbles and brings the two sides together. This president has a little more than a week to do that.

Will he succeed?

Monday, July 18, 2011

When TWA Flight 800 Went Down

In the waning hours of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 began what was supposed to be a rather routine flight from New York to Paris.

But there was nothing routine about it.

Less than 15 minutes after takeoff, the plane exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. All 230 people aboard were killed — including, as I recall, a group of high school students from a small town in Pennsylvania, all members of their school's French Club, and about half a dozen chaperones.

For four years, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed the wreckage that had been retrieved and finally issued a report, in August 2000, that cited several possible causes of the explosion but pointed the finger at none specifically.

The NTSB would only say that some causes were more likely than others. It could never completely rule out anything.

Nevertheless, there was an unofficial (and rather popular) suspect at the time — and, since the cause of the explosion was never really established, it may well be considered a suspect by some folks today.

In fact, I'm almost certain that it is a suspect. All you have to do is run a search on Google or Yahoo! and you will find all sorts of sites devoted to conspiracy theories about how Flight 800 came to its fiery end.

That suspect was terrorism. It was a rather nameless and faceless sort of thing then. Five years later, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Americans would see the face of bin Laden and think of al–Qaeda whenever terrorism was mentioned, but it was much more vague in 1996.

In July 1996, many people thought the explosion may have been intended to force officials to postpone the Summer Olympics, which were due to begin in Atlanta on July 19.

Proponents of this particular theory speculated that a terrorist armed with a missile launcher could have fired at the plane from the ground.

That seemed a little farfetched to me at the time, but 15 years later, after seeing some of the things I have seen and knowing that the plan for hijacking planes and crashing them into American landmarks was being hatched at about the same time as the downing of Flight 800, I'm not as sure.

I still have plenty of doubts that a missile launcher was used in 1996 — but, after seeing attempts to blow up airplanes with explosives–laden sneakers and jockey shorts, it doesn't seem so outlandish that terrorists might try to use a rocket launcher of some kind, even a makeshift one, to shoot at a plane.

And even some folks who dismissed the idea of terrorism as too off the wall nevertheless suggested there may have been military maneuvers in the area and that someone, either deliberately or accidentally, may have fired a missile.

To be candid, the military maneuvers theory was what struck me as being really off the wall. I mean, military maneuvers? On Long Island?

Terrorism made sense — but only marginally. The Oklahoma City bombing was slightly more than a year old. The first attack on the World Trade Center had happened about 3½ years earlier. Terrorism on American soil wasn't a common occurrence in 1996, and references to it were still rather vague — but people did think about it when some things happened, and they wondered if it played any role.

The explosion of TWA 800 was one of those things.

Eventually, the NTSB concluded that
"[t]he source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but ... the most likely was a short circuit ... that allowed excessive voltage to enter ... through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system."

As you may recall — or, if you aren't old enough to remember it, you can probably imagine — that was a bit too inconclusive (not to mention too technical) for some people.

Whenever there are gaps in the official account of something big, there will be conspiracy theories. And the gaps in the Flight 800 story have spawned something of an online cottage industry that caters to those who devoutly believe (or want to believe) that flight was brought down by a conspiracy.

Many times, such gaps are innocent, but sometimes they are clues that something is being concealed. And the longer the questions go unanswered, the stronger the belief in the conspiracy becomes.

The investigation of the downing of Flight 800 answered most of those questions, but some lingered.

I suspect whatever brought it down will remain a mystery forever.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Burning Down the House

The seemingly irreconcilable conflict over the debt ceiling has the potential to burn down the nation's economic house — and, with it, the political house as well.

Let me backtrack a bit.

There just wasn't anything good about last week's jobs report. It was bad news across the board. For all incumbents. No matter on which side of the fence you may stand.

It's probably worse for Democrats right now since they hold the White House and the Senate. Republicans hold only the House, but there is no reason for them to feel smug, either. And that certainly doesn't mean that House Democrats or Senate Republicans are immune (although a case could be made for Senate Republicans).

No incumbent can assume that he/she is safe because the incumbents are responsible for making the system work — and it ain't working.

Unemployment went up for the third straight month. Many economists had been anticipating at least a modest rebound for the American economy, with fuel prices easing and all that.

But I guess I should have known something wicked this way came because gas prices around here have been going up lately. (I don't know what they've been like where you live, but I paid about $3.38/gallon a couple of weeks ago at the station down the street and today, the price at that very same station is $3.59/gallon.)

And then came what I have often heard described as a bucket of cold water on the recoverythe unemployment rate is the highest it has been since last September.

My friends who support Barack Obama don't like to hear this because it contradicts their cozy view of the world — but his Republican opponent in 2012 is going to be much less important than his record in office — and that record is not too great right now.

Oh, they like to remind me that George W. Bush was president when the economy went south, and they like to recite Obama's legislative achievements, but the bottom line is that fingerpointing and a list doesn't put food on the table or keep a roof over your head.

They like to tsk, tsk among themselves and shake their heads disapprovingly over the possibility of facing an extremist like Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin in the general election because they think the choice is obvious if that comes to pass. In fact, as far as they are concerned, it isn't a choice at all — so they keep talking about those rivals because they are certain that those candidates are not electable.

And they'd like to see one of them win the GOP nomination. Then, as they see it, the election will become a slam dunk for Obama.

But it isn't going to be that simple.

Oh, I expect the Republicans to nominate someone who is more conservative than Obama. That's a given. The Republicans are the conservatives in our political universe, the Democrats are the liberals. And, in today's Democrat Party, anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi is considered suspect.

It's no better on the Republican side, where anyone to the left of John Boehner tends to be regarded as a RINO.

That leaves an incredibly large bloc of politically homeless Americans in the middle who are being stretched too thin by two polarized parties, and I think more Americans may well be receptive to the idea of a third party or an independent candidate than they have been for a couple of decades.

Unless an insurgent candidate pops up to challenge Obama for the nomination, we already know who will be nominated by the Democrats. I doubt that the Republicans will nominate an extremist, but, contrary to all the discussions I hear, I also doubt that it will matter.

The dynamics of a race that features an incumbent are entirely different from the dynamics of a race that has no incumbent on the ballot. Obama won a non–incumbent race in 2008. Now, he must win a different kind of race. Historically, the rules for such a race are crystal clear.

If the incumbent is meeting or exceeding expectations, like Ronald Reagan in 1984 or Bill Clinton in 1996, he will win, possibly in a landslide. If not (see the gentlemen who were replaced by Reagan and Clinton four years earlier — when many disaffected Americans opted for an independent candidate rather than either of the major–party nominees), he will be defeated, again possibly in a landslide.

What will matter is what conditions are like when the voters go to the polls — and we can't know, in July 2011, what those conditions will be in November 2012.

No, sir, voters are not fortune tellers, and they can be fickle. What they like today they may very well dislike tomorrow — and vice versa — but they do have an idea which way the wind is blowing right now — and it isn't at their backs.

Relentlessly high unemployment has dragged consumer confidence to its lowest level in three years, writes Vicki Needham in The Hill — and who knows where consumer confidence will be on Election Day?

I do know that the electorate has been impatient lately. How could the incumbents possibly have missed that fact? In House elections, where the volatility has been more pronounced, one party has taken at least 20 seats from the other in the last three elections.

Is that significant? You tell me. Prior to 2006, it was extremely rare for either party to take as many as 10 seats from the other in a single election. If a double–digit movement did occur, it was considered a shift of seismic proportions. In the last three elections, more than 100 House seats have flipped from one party to the other.

Here's something else: The first of July has come and gone with no one, to my knowledge, observing that it was the second anniversary of the date when the recession was said to have ended.

Two years of "recovery" have brought zero net movement in the unemployment rate — yet Obama's top political adviser is deep in denial, insisting that Americans won't care about the jobless rate when they go to the polls.

Nonsense. It's the only issue many voters do care about.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Grits and Fritz

I have a strong picture in my mind of my family's living room on this night 35 years ago.

It was on this night that Jimmy Carter became the Democrats' nominee for president, and it was truly an incredible accomplishment. Carter literally came out of nowhere in 1976 to become his party's nominee, taking the unprecedented approach of entering every primary contest.

People often forget that segregationist George Wallace was one of the leading Democrats when the 1976 presidential primaries were about to begin — and, since it was widely assumed by most that the Republican nominee would be defeated in the aftermath of Watergate and the disastrous 1974 midterm elections, many Americans feared Wallace might very well be the next president.

But Carter scored some key victories over Wallace in early primaries in Florida and North Carolina, forever eliminating Wallace as a presidential contender. For a time, the other Democrats appeared to work together in something of an Anyone But Carter movement, but Carter continued to prevail in the primaries, ultimately winning two–thirds (with most of his losses coming after the matter had already been decided).

He was the first major–party presidential nominee from the Deep South in my lifetime, and he became the first president to be elected from the Deep South in more than a century.

It's happened a little more frequently since. Bill Clinton, after all, was governor of Arkansas. And, if you want to stretch the point, George W. Bush was governor of Texas — although I can tell you, after a lifetime of living in this region, that Texas is really considered more of a border state by most Southerners.

Everything west of Fort Worth is looked upon as southwestern — which is an altogether different thing.

(One of the things I remember thinking later that year after Carter had won the election was that I looked forward to hearing presidential speeches delivered by someone who spoke like most of the people I knew.)

On this evening in 1976, I can remember sitting in our living room with my father and watching Carter accept the nomination.

In the minutes before Carter gave his speech, the TV cameras scanned the convention crowd. Unlike today, presidential nominees in those days usually didn't name their running mate selections until the last day of the convention, and Carter had announced earlier in the day that his choice for running mate was Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.

Thus, some rather hurriedly printed Carter–Mondale signs were distributed among the delegates to wave, which the cameras clearly showed in their shots of the crowd.

But one homemade sign stood out. It simply said, "Grits and Fritz." Fritz, in case you don't know, is a rather common nickname for Frederick, which happens to be Mondale's middle name.

"Grits and Fritz" stuck. I saw bumper stickers bearing that slogan right up to Election Day — I even saw people wearing buttons that said that as they attended the inauguration festivities the following January.

"My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president," Carter said with his trademark grin, repeating the introductory line he had uttered countless times in the snows of New Hampshire and elsewhere.

My father roared with laughter. So did the delegates, but their laughter changed rather rapidly into an enthusiastic — and prolonged, as I recall — cheer.

At that moment, I knew the Nixon–Ford days were just about over.

Those were heady days for Democrats, but, of course, they had no idea what was ahead of them — escalating energy prices, a recession and a hostage crisis that set the table for five Republican victories in the next seven national elections, and 18 years (of the next 30) in which Republicans held at least one of the chambers in Congress.

Funny, but I feel like I have lived through it all a couple of times since then.

Ironically, Carter gave a speech that was probably even more memorable — although Carter almost certainly doesn't like to remember it — exactly three years later. It was the so–called "malaise speech."

(It's really ironic that it should be remembered that way. Carter never used the word malaise in his speech, but people still speak of it as if he did.)

On this night in 1979, America was not a happy place. Gas prices had gone up nearly 50% since that night in 1976, but the minimum wage had risen by only 26%.

But that was still in the future on this night in 1976.

In 1976, this night was a triumph for Carter and the Democrats. On this night 35 years ago, Democrats believed that they were on the verge of seizing political power for a generation, much as the Democrats who met to nominate Barack Obama 32 years later appear to have felt.

It remains to be seen whether Obama's presidency ends the way Carter's did.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

They Call Him 'Chainsaw'

When I was a child, my parents took my brother and me on several summer road trips through the eastern United States.

I think that statement requires a little context.

In the years before my brother and I came along, my parents were missionaries in Africa. While they were there, they became close friends with their colleagues. I don't know if their friends returned to America before or after my parents did, but it turned out that all their friends were in the eastern half of the continent — so, for a time, vacations meant planning trips based on who lived where.

In those days, it was entertaining simply to watch my parents unfold maps on the dining room table and plot the routes from one friend's home to another with felt–tip pens. Our starting point was our home in Conway, Ark. Our destination was Vermont, where a couple of my parents' closest friends lived. We saved money by spending the nights with friends all the way to Vermont and all the way back.

(It was a rare treat in those days for us to stay in a motel. For my brother and me, it meant being able to swim in a motel swimming pool.)

I guess I don't need to tell you that our route was never a straight line — and we must have made that trip three or four times when I was a child.

The itinerary was never the same, but this might give you an idea of what our trips were like. One year, I recall, we took kind of a northerly approach, stopping in Kentucky, then Pennsylvania, then New York, on our way to Vermont, then we took a southerly route home, stopping in Virginia, then North Carolina, then Tennessee. Each time we stayed with friends (well, the stop in New York was to visit my father's sister and her family).

I thought it was kind of cool, actually. Because of those road trips, I figured I had visited more states than just about anyone in my class at school. And, because I was born overseas, I figured it was a sure thing that I had been to more countries than any of my classmates.

To put it in Charlie Sheen lingo, I felt I was winning.

But, if I haven't already surrendered my crown (and I may have — who knows how many states my former classmates have visited since we graduated from high school?), I would probably have to turn it over to a fellow who was actually a year behind me in school — but, before 2011 is over, he may have visited more states than I have ... and he's been doing it the hard way.

His name is Jeff. He teaches physical education in Fayetteville, Ark., the town where I earned my B.A., but he grew up with me in Conway. We knew each other as children. I don't remember if we attended the same elementary school, but I know we were in Cub Scouts together.

In high school, we kind of ran in separate crowds. I was always more interested in writing, working for the school newspaper, that kind of thing. Jeff was always part of the circle of athletes, the guys who could always be seen wearing their letterman jackets or their football jerseys.

Jeff acquired a nickname when we were in school. Because of his ferocious tenacity, he earned the name Chainsaw. No matter what might stand in his way, folks said, he would rip into it like a chainsaw. No holds barred. "Straight ahead" was his attitude about, well, everything.

Our families were acquainted as well. His father and my father were colleagues at a small private college. My father taught religion and philosophy there. Jeff's father was a coach, specializing in swimming. He built a successful program that included using the college's pool to teach children in the community to swim.

Jeff was one of the youngest in a rather large family, and he was always close to his father. I remember attending the high school graduation ceremony the year Jeff graduated. His father was a member of the local school board (the middle school in my hometown now bears his name), and, that evening, he was handing the diplomas to the graduates after someone else called their names.

He shook their hands, they smiled at each other, they might exchange brief pleasantries, then it was time to give the diploma to the next one. Pretty innocuous stuff.

When Jeff's name was called and he strode across the stage, father and son embraced to a thundering, spontaneous ovation. No one in that gymnasium that night could help but be moved by the sight.

Sadly, Jeff's father passed away in 1997. I don't know the details, but I believe he suffered from some kind of respiratory disease — an ironic way for an athletic life to end.

As I say, Jeff also is involved in physical education. I have no doubt he was strongly influenced by his father's example — as he was a year ago when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Jeff's admiration for his father is evident on his Facebook page, where he attributes (falsely) his favorite quotation to his father: "Be kind to everyone because everyone you meet is fighting a battle."

(I'm sure Jeff's father said that many times — it's the kind of thing I would have expected him to say to his children — but he probably never told them that it was really Plato who was responsible for it.

(That's OK, though. I don't think Plato would have objected if Jeff's father took credit for it.)

And Jeff appears to be winning his battle with cancer. In fact, he's doing so well that he's been trying to raise awareness of leukemia and lymphoma with a cross–country bicycle ride that began about three weeks ago in Oregon.

His friends and family have kept track of his progress through the updates and pictures he's been posting on Facebook.

An avid fisherman, Jeff has reported stopping at some rivers to do some fishing along the way. He appears to pitch his tent wherever he can — although, like my parents, he's been making some stops at friends' homes. He reported, for example, that he stopped in Boise for a few days of R&R with some friends around the Fourth of July.

Sometimes, the wind is at his back, and he makes more progress than he expected. His original goal was to cover 70 miles a day traveling at roughly 10 miles per hour, but he actually covered about 85 miles when he left the coast. "Great day in the saddle," he wrote.

"The coast of Oregon is a feast for the eyes around each bend."

Conditions continued to be favorable as he made his way through Oregon. A few days later, he wrote this: "McKenzie River. Gonna fish here today. Pedaled up the river from Corvallis yesterday 90 miles slight uphill. The weather is great. ... Slept in an old growth forest last night. ... This part of Oregon is very lush with lots of rain."

Then there are times when conditions are not so favorable. "Met my match today with the toughest climb I have had yet," he wrote last week.

"The ride down the main Salmon was nice and then once in White Bird the climb started 11 miles at 8% grade for 3200 vertical feet. The legs had a hard time responding after three days fishing in Boise, will begin my ascent over Lolo Pass tomorrow."

His latest post on Facebook says he is in Montana now. "The big open country of SW Montana makes one feel small," he writes. "In Virginia City now."

Montana, he wrote yesterday, "gave me all I wanted and more. Got hit by a hail storm, 40 mph headwinds and got a dose of the huge country with lonely roads."

In spite of all that, he observed, "This is beautiful country."

I've never been there, but, from what I have heard, it really is.

He closes each post with his signature line — "Straight ahead. Chainsaw."

My understanding is that Jeff won't be going clear across the country. Originally, his plan was for his ride to conclude around the Kansas–Colorado border — and if that is still the plan, then I expect that he will start to move in a more southeasterly direction now, probably taking him through Wyoming and Colorado.

But his plans might have changed. And, if they have, I would recommend that he stay in the northern half of the country. It's just too hot in the central and southern states for extensive bike riding.

Whatever his plans are now, though, I just say, keep going, Chainsaw.

Straight ahead.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

There Will Come Soft Rains

"There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence–wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone."

Sara Teasdale

Yesterday was another 100–plus–degree day here in Dallas.

I don't know how many straight days of this we have had. I'm sure we've cracked the old century mark every day in July, and the streak probably goes back to the last few days of June.

How long will it continue? I don't know. I check the NOAA website every day, and the last time I looked at it, the temperatures in this area were supposed to be in triple digits at least until this time next week. NOAA's forecasts don't go beyond a week — and Texas weather is notorious for changing without notice — so it may well be weeks before we see our next sub–100° day around here.

I've heard that, statistically, this is just a typical summer in north Texas, and I've lived through enough Texas summers in my life to know that there is a certain amount of truth in that. It's been common knowledge for a long time that it gets really hot here. The average temperatures in July and August are in the mid–90s, but it isn't uncommon for the temperature to exceed 100°.

Every summer, in fact — and often in the spring and autumn months, too — I am frequently reminded of one of my favorite quotations. It came from Union Gen. Phil Sheridan, who is remembered in the history books for his march to the sea, during which he burned the city of Atlanta (an event that was vividly re–created in "Gone With the Wind").

For a time before the Civil War, Sheridan was assigned to a fort in Texas along the Rio Grande. The experience of living here prompted him to say, "If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell."

Sheridan, of course, lived here long before the invention of air conditioning, but I have encountered no disagreement with him among people who have lived here since A/C came along. If anything, those who live here today tend to resent the way they think the utility companies take advantage of heat waves like the one we've been experiencing this summer.

Air conditioning is a necessary evil here, especially when it is as hot as it has been lately. We are constantly reminded that heat is responsible for more deaths around here than any other meteorological cause. Makes sense. There's always more of it.

Anyway, to protect ourselves from the heat, we must run the air conditioning. We have no choice — and, when the daytime highs exceed 100° and the nighttime lows don't even go below 80°, the air conditioning seems to run ceaselessly.

And that leads to incredibly high utility bills — which are never welcome, especially at a time when gas prices are still well over $3/gallon.

But it will end ... eventually.

It was that thought that reminded me of Teasdale's poem from the collection titled "Flame and Shadow" that was published in 1920.

Well, I thought of the title of the poem more than the poem itself — because the poem itself speaks of a post–apocalyptic war world in which humanity has been destroyed and nature starts to reclaim the planet.

I'll grant you, scorched earth might be a good description of this place when the heat wave finally does subside — but that's the point. It will subside.

The temperature will drop — and cool, soft rains will return.

Someday. Maybe soon. Maybe not. But someday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Give Peas a Chance

"[I]f we think it's hard now, imagine how these guys are going to be thinking six months from now in the middle of election season where they're all up. It's not going to get easier. It's going to get harder. So we might as well do it now — pull off the Band–Aid; eat our peas."

Barack Obama
July 11, 2011

I'll be the first one to admit that the headline on this post is not original. I heard that Rush Limbaugh used it on his radio program (sneeringly, I'm sure), and the Washington Post used it as the headline on its editorial supporting Obama.

And it wouldn't surprise me if some form(s) of it wound up in print elsewhere.

It just seems so right for this topic, no matter which side of the fence you're on — and Limbaugh and the Post are about as far apart as you can get.

I've never been able to resist a really clever play on words. Neither could John Lennon, the guy who wrote "Give Peace a Chance" back during the Vietnam era.

And I think he would have appreciated this one.

I've always respected Obama's gift for public speaking. It's a gift he used far more effectively on the campaign trail than he has in the White House, and I think that is because he still hasn't learned the truth in Mario Cuomo's observation so many years ago about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose.

Obama simply hasn't proven to be nimble enough to manage that tricky transition. He wants to be the eternal outsider cheered on by his adoring supporters. He refuses to accept the fact that he has a record and that he is responsible for the economy now.

Obama rightfully admires past presidents who had a similar gift for the poetry of the campaign trail — guys like Lincoln and the Roosevelts and JFK — but he forgets the crucial role that leadership played in the success of their presidencies — even if that success was not recognized during that president's lifetime.

I think Obama sees himself as being like them in many ways — as he imagines himself to be, he sees them as being smarter than most of the Americans of their time and having used their superior language skills to sway the naysayers.

But he is often bewildered because, while he thinks is doing exactly what they did, he doesn't get the same response from lawmakers and voters — and that can be frustrating as well as bewildering.
"I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh, Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."

The Animals

There is a reason for that response, and I have been writing about it here since Obama took office.

It is not racism — the all–purpose excuse onto which the president's supporters latch when the results of his policies are disappointing.

This president has some admirable virtues. When he came to office, he was aware of a lot of problems, and his instinct was to deal with all of them.

To me, that suggests someone who deeply loves his country, someone who wants only the best for his country. He wants no flaws — even though such a state of perfection is impossible to achieve. It does not suggest someone who wants to turn the country upside down and inside out, as his political opponents have strongly implied.

But with unemployment as high as it was when Obama took office (and, of course, it is much higher still today, 2½ years down the road), it was obvious to me that, before anything else could be done, it was urgent to put America back to work. It would take money and lots of it to repair schools and highways and power grids, to develop alternative energy sources, to achieve all the things Obama said he wanted to achieve.

That meant that a much larger tax base would be necessary. To achieve that, it was necessary to put people back to work — so they could contribute to the tax revenue again.

For me, it was obvious what needed to be done. The question was how to do it.

In 2008, the poetry of his campaign speeches spoke to people — but too often "yes we can" has become "they won't let us" since Obama took office. The rhetoric rings hollow today. It sure doesn't sound like leadership.

It's easy enough at this point to say that, if the stimulus package had worked as advertised, things would be different. America was told a lot of things about what the stimulus would achieve — and little about what it would not.

If the stimulus had worked the way Obama told the country it would, I think it is likely that there would be no debt ceiling debate today. Oh, perhaps there would be, but the dynamics would certainly be different.

But it did not work as advertised.

For many Americans, especially unemployed Americans, it came as a shock when unemployment continued to post six–digit monthly losses long after the stimulus was passed — and they watched many of the outfits that caused the economic collapse in the first place regain lost ground and post hefty profits while the jobless slid deeper into economic quicksand.

Meanwhile, Obama said little publicly about job creation (frankly, I was shocked when he said not a single word about unemployment on the first Labor Day of his presidency). He spoke instead about his Supreme Court nominations (neither of which ever were in jeopardy), and he spoke a lot about his health care reform package. And he made a controversial speech to the schoolchildren of America.

As far as millions of unemployed Americans are concerned, Obama has been negligent. I've heard some suggest he should be impeached.

It was no secret that Republicans didn't like many of the things the Democrats did in the first couple of years of the Obama presidency, and it is certainly not a novel experience for the minority party to dislike and resist the majority's initiatives, but they were essentially powerless to do anything about them, especially after Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota, giving the Democrats a filibuster–proof majority in the Senate.

That was a golden opportunity, but the Democrats squandered it. Since the elections last fall, we've been hearing more from Obama on job creation — it's a welcome change but seems a little late and far too politically motivated. Besides, it comes across as insincere, considering the window he had.

I think most presidents have to learn that their opportunity is limited and they have to take advantage of their chances — and most do learn that by the midterm elections, if not before. Obama is still learning that, even after his party lost its huge majority in the House — and in spectacular fashion.

I suspect he will still be learning it when the debt ceiling crisis is past.

Eat your own damn peas, Mr. President.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Tale of Two News Stories

For many years, I worked as a writer and/or editor for newspapers and a trade magazine.

In fact, one of my standing assignments for awhile was to write a weekly column about events that were coming up. That column was titled, "The Week Ahead." In that column, I told readers about things that were coming up.

I didn't confine myself to the county in which I lived and worked. I wrote about events that were scheduled in just about every part of Arkansas. I know it is difficult for natives of a place like Texas to understand, but, unless the weather is bad, just about any place in Arkansas is easily within a day's drive of any other place in Arkansas.

It was a unique job. Part of it was spent writing about things that had just happened — and part of it was spent focusing on things that were still in the future.

There were lots of dramatic moments during my years in print media — moments that often defined who we were — but I don't think I have ever witnessed a week like the one just past.

I hope I never go through one like it again, either — and I wasn't even part of the professional news media as this week played out — but I'm not sure what could be done to prevent it.

The week began innocently enough, I suppose, with the annual celebration of the Fourth of July. From my balcony, I was able to watch two or three fireworks shows that evening (when one is gazing into the dark horizon, I have found that it is hard to determine where one such show ends and another begins).

In hindsight, that was the proverbial calm before the storm.

The next day, all hell broke loose. In Florida, Casey Anthony was acquitted of killing her young daughter, and an anguished wail rose from coast to coast.

My impression, from the beginning, was that women more than men felt the sting of the verdict. I'm not saying that men weren't affected by it, too; some clearly were. But I heard and read far more quotes from women about it, and I saw far more women participating in protests against the verdict. And I have seen frequent posts about it on Facebook — again, mostly (but not exclusively) from women.

I think the verdict — whether it was the right one or not — cuts deeply against the grain of the protective maternal instinct.

As a young general assignment reporter covering murder trials for a newspaper in central Arkansas, I realized that the duty of an effective attorney is to present a plausible case in court. A prosecutor wants to win a conviction; a defender wants to win an acquittal. Toward those ends, they will construct arguments that benefit them the most.

While I did not watch the entire Anthony trial, it seems to me the prosecution was successful in offering an argument that women in particular found acceptable.

The members of the jury apparently did not feel that the prosecution met the law's requirements, though. I've heard a few jurors say, in recent days, that they wished the prosecution had given them the evidence they needed to convict — because many, apparently, believed the prosecution was right.

In their eyes, however, the evidence just wasn't there.

Every time I switched on my TV on Wednesday or Thursday, I saw someone talking about the verdict. Aware of the public's notoriously short attention span, I wondered what would seize its imagination next. I didn't have to wait long to find out.

On Thursday evening, about 25 miles from where I sit writing this, a firefighter from central Texas who brought his 6–year–old son to this area to see a Texas Rangers baseball game lost his balance reaching for a baseball and fell 20 feet to his death.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, I have heard of the special bond that existed between this man and his son, how they shared a passion for baseball and how they stopped on their way to the ballpark to get a baseball glove, hoping to catch a foul ball to keep as a souvenir of their special day together.

I think this story has reverberated with men because it has been my experience that most men really treasure these times with their children. Perhaps it is because I share their gender, but I think a lot of fathers resent the stereotype impression society has of abusive, distant or deadbeat dads.

Now, it is true that there are abusive, distant or deadbeat dads — more than I would like to acknowledge — but my experience is that the majority of fathers are dedicated to their children. They just don't get many opportunities to show it.

Most fathers miss out on the day–to–day stuff, not because they aren't interested but because they are busy with the jobs that put food on the table and keep a roof over their children's heads. Meeting one's obligations can be a lonely business.

It is more common for women to work outside the home now than it was when I was growing up, but my guess is that it is still the mothers (primarily) who put band–aids on skinned knees and provide milk and cookies after school. My guess is that they still do the prep work for birthday parties and have heart–to–heart talks. They just do it all a few hours later than they used to.

For fathers, a baseball game is a rare opportunity to share something with their children — and it really is the kind of thing that creates memories that last a lifetime. (There was a lot of truth in what the little girl said in "Field of Dreams" about adults being drawn to that Iowa field by the lure of memories.)

I still remember the night my family went to a major league game for the first time. It was in St. Louis, which was a day's drive from my hometown. My parents wanted to visit friends who were scattered along the eastern half of the continent, but we made the first stop on our road trip in St. Louis, where we knew no one, checked into a Holiday Inn near Busch Memorial Stadium and went to see the Cardinals play their rivals, the Chicago Cubs.

It was not a good evening for the Cardinals. The Cubs won, 12–0. It wasn't too bad early on. Neither team scored through the first four innings, then the Cubs scored twice in the fifth. That wasn't so bad. Going into the seventh, it was still only 2–0.

But then the roof fell in. Chicago scored 10 runs in that seventh inning, most after the Cubs had two outs.

You can look at the box score if you want to see how truly terrible it was. What I remember is sitting next to my father and watching run after run score — and, with each run, more of the fans around us got up to leave.

I don't think my father has ever been much of a baseball fan, but I was an avid collector of baseball cards in those days, and most of the kids I knew were Cardinals fans. Like most kids, I craved acceptance so, at that time in my life, I guess you could say I was a Cardinals fan, too.

Anyway, that game didn't turn out to be much fun for me. I remember looking at my father when the Cubs scored one of those runs in the seventh. He smiled and chuckled, then put his arm around me and held me next to him for a few seconds.

"Not much fun, is it?" he asked. I remember shaking my head. "Want to go back to the motel?" I nodded.

So we all got up — except for my brother, who had dozed off in his seat — and my father picked up my brother and carried him all the way to the car. I don't think he ever woke up.

On our way out of the ballpark, though, we stopped at a souvenir stand so I could get a cap. I wore that cap nearly every day — and almost constantly on weekends — for a couple of years, not because it was a reminder of a remarkable game but because it was a reminder of a rare evening with my father.

When I was a kid, I didn't see much of my father. He taught at a local college. He often left the house before I got up in the morning and usually returned either just before or after I went to bed at night. My mother was the one who observed the early milestones of my life.

Dad always attended school functions and things like that, but he was usually busy during the days. I didn't hold it against him. That was just the way it was — not just for me but for everyone I knew.

That night in Busch Stadium was special for me, and it remains special to this day. I believe that memories of similar experiences have made what happened in Arlington the other night so poignant for so many men. It cuts against the grain of the father–child relationship that they cherish.

No father wants his child to witness a horrifying accident like that — or to have an eagerly anticipated trip to a baseball game end with that child riding in the ambulance that carries his dying father from a ballpark to the hospital.

I think the two stories that have dominated the news for the last week have been chilling to both genders more for what they represent than what they actually are.

Guilty people sometimes go free, and loving parents sometimes die. We know that. But these two cases were special.

Casey Anthony is believed by many to have violated what may be the most sacred trust in humanity — the one that exists between a mother and her child.

And Shannon Stone died because he selflessly tried to catch a baseball to give to his son as a souvenir.

It all seems like a waste, doesn't it?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Rest in Peace, Betty Ford

I always admired Betty Ford.

When her husband became president in 1974, the initial consensus (at least, until he pardoned Richard Nixon) was that he was a "breath of fresh air." And, compared to Nixon, he was.

But Betty Ford really was, as I observed on her birthday last year.

And it was with sadness that I learned of her death at the age of 93.

I didn't support her husband when he ran for a full term on his own — which didn't matter, I guess, since I wasn't old enough to vote, anyway. I thought he was a decent guy, but I had Democrats for parents, as I have written here before, and we couldn't forgive him for pardoning Nixon.

Besides, I was brought up in the South, and I was enthused about the prospect of having a fellow Southerner in the White House.

Anyway, for that and many other reasons, the clear choice for me in 1976 was Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford.

But if the choice had been between Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, I might have had to think about it for awhile longer.

I liked them both.

Betty Ford was honest and down to earth. She saw things the way they were, not the way she wished they were. I found that refreshing. So did lots of other people.

She could be outspoken at times — like when she said that she thought her children had tried marijuana and, if she had been their age, she would have, too. She was who she was, and people admired her for that.

"I figured, OK, I'll move to the White House, do the best I can and if they don't like it, they can kick me out, but they can't make me somebody I'm not," she wrote in her 1978 memoir, "The Times Of My Life."

She mostly disappeared from public life in her post–White House years. The Fords appeared at Republican conventions, but that stopped after President Ford suffered a mild stroke.

Then, in late December 2006, President Ford died — and the nation admired Betty Ford all over again as it observed her dignity during the state funerals in Washington and Michigan.

Her declining health prevented her from attending Lady Bird Johnson's funeral almost exactly four years ago. I believe her daughter went in her place.

As I say, Betty Ford was honest. Perhaps part of that stemmed from her experience of having been married briefly before she married the future president. Perhaps it gave her an insight into life and how things often do not turn out as we expect.

She knew that disappointments and setbacks were part of the bargain we all make. Perhaps it made her more appreciative of some things.

When she wrote her memoir, she had been married to President Ford for three decades. She observed that there had been "a great deal of whooping and hollering" when her husband became president "because I'd said Jerry and I were not going to have separate bedrooms at the White House and that we were going to take our own bed with us."

Her first marriage hadn't soured her. It made her more appreciative of what she had found.

"Even now, after all those years of married life, I like the idea of sleeping with my husband next to me," she wrote — and when you read it in 1978, you could almost see her sly grin.

It wasn't as controversial as when she said it wouldn't surprise her to learn that her 18–year–old daughter was in a sexual relationship. My memory is that a chastened Susan Ford denied being in such a relationship.

Maybe she had a greater influence on people than she imagined. That wouldn't surprise me, either.

She was one of a kind among first ladies.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Wrong Way

Gilligan's Island only lasted three TV seasons in the 1960s, but I recall seeing (in reruns) a couple of episodes in which Hans Conried played a character named Wrongway Feldman.

Feldman, if my memory serves me correctly, was a World War I era flying ace who got his nickname because he always flew in the wrong direction.

I mention that because, after hearing today's jobs report, it occurred to me that Barack Obama should be called "Wrongway Obama."

Now, optimistic Democrats have been pointing to the example of Ronald Reagan as evidence that presidents can win a second term in spite of midterm election setbacks and high unemployment rates.

It's one of those historically similar but ultimately illogical (in a modern context) kind of comparisons. The biggest and most obvious problem — and most threatening to this president — is simply that things are going in the wrong way.

Notice the trajectory of the unemployment rates in the chart. As you do, let's revisit the early 1980s for a minute.

There is no question that, in January 1983, the unemployment rate (10.4%), while not at its highest under Reagan, was on its way down from its peak in November 1982, the month that the Republicans lost more than two dozen seats in the House.

Those midterm losses, incidentally, did not cost the Republicans control of the chamber the way last November's losses cost the Democrats their majority. In 1982, the Republicans were in the minority, as they had been for nearly three decades. Through all of Reagan's first term, his party controlled the Senate while the Democrats controlled the House.

Reagan and his Republicans had to forge compromises with Democrats from the start. The like–minded Democrats who helped them accomplish their objectives became known as the "boll weevil Democrats." Without them, it is questionable whether Reagan could have accomplished much in the first two years of his presidency.

Sounds a lot like what Barack Obama must contend with in the last 18 months of his term, doesn't it? His party controls the Senate, the other party controls the House.

But therein lies one of the key differences between 1983 and 2011, you see.

Obama's Democrats enjoyed majority status — for awhile, super–majority status — in both chambers until they were resoundingly rejected in the 2010 midterms. In theory, prior to that, there was nothing to prevent them from enacting anything they wished for two years.

Being Democrats, though, they fought among themselves and drew lines in the dirt over mostly inconsequential matters. They squandered their opportunity.

And now, to accomplish anything in the last half of Obama's term, they will have to do something — repeatedly — that this president has never done before.

He can dig in his heels and resist — but then nothing will happen between now and November 2012. Or he can give in to Republican demands — and perhaps make things worse. Even if he doesn't make matters worse, he'll hand the other side the victories he is going to need to bolster his record in next year's campaign.

Anyway, the jobless rate continued to drop through 1983 until midway through 1984, when it settled into a modest up–and–down pattern — but it was more than three percentage points lower in November 1984 than it had been in November 1982.

Today's jobs report shows a different pattern. It suggests that, after a few slightly encouraging months earlier this year, when unemployment was registering 0.1% monthly declines, it is moving back up. One has to wonder if there is any way that Obama can reverse the trend — and, if he can, will he be able to take credit for it?

In 1983, there were enough Democrats in the House who sympathized with the Republicans that they could push through Reagan administration initiatives.

But, in 2011, politics in America is so polarized that it is really difficult to imagine Democrats enlisting enough Republican support in the House or Republicans enlisting enough Democrat support in the Senate to enact anything.

So, I think you can rule out any real compromises in the next 18 months.

I think it is also important to remember the circumstances under which each president was elected.

Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in November 1979, when unemployment was around 6% — just about its lowest level during the Carter years, an improvement over what Carter had inherited but much lower than it wound up being when voters went to the polls a year later.

And it was higher than Americans were accustomed to. Reagan's 1980 campaign was built on economic issues. When unemployment surged past 7% in the spring of 1980, peaking at nearly 8% in the summer, he had already laid the foundation for an economic–oriented campaign.

Unemployment was even lower when Obama announced his candidacy in February 2007 — about 4.5%. As hard as it may be to remember now, in 2007, the 2008 campaign figured to be about foreign policy — but that changed when the economy imploded in 2008. When voters went to the polls in November 2008, unemployment was higher than it had been in 15 years.

Well, today, it's more than two percentage points higher than it was when Obama was elected.

There is a lot of work to be done to persuade America that the Obama administration is on the right track — and not much time to do it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Shattering the Supreme Court's Glass Ceiling

Seeing a woman on the Supreme Court raises no eyebrows today.

One–third of the justices are female, and two of them were appointed by the current president. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Democrats are perceived as far more likely to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court than Republicans. The three women who sit on the bench today all were nominated by Democrats.

But 30 years ago today, Republican Ronald Reagan made history by appointing Sandra Day O'Connor to replace Potter Stewart on the Supreme Court.

It was historic because O'Connor was the first woman to be designated to join what had been called "The Brethren" for a couple of centuries, and it was the fulfillment of one of Reagan's campaign promises.

Since it had been a campaign pledge, the nomination probably didn't surprise many in Reagan's inner circle. But my recollection of that day is that nearly everyone else was surprised.

"My nomination was a great surprise to the nation," O'Connor later recalled, "but an even greater surprise to me."

Her gender may have played no role, but some of Reagan's supporters in Congress insisted they could not support O'Connor, many because they were not sure she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if given the chance.

(Now, you may think there are litmus tests in the appointments that are made in American politics today — and there are. But much more of an effort is made today to conceal that fact.

(The early 1980s was a period when people were defiant about it, almost proud of it. By and large, the attitude could be summarized this way — Yeah, we're applying litmus tests. Wanna make something of it?)

Some openly suggested O'Connor would support the Roe v. Wade ruling — and if you know anything about politics in America in the 1980s, it should be that the Republican Party had embraced conservative Christians, and a person's position on abortion was the litmus test for being a true Republican. (Those who were found to be lacking were treated as derisively as today's so–called RINOs.)

Yet, when the Senate voted on O'Connor's nomination in September, she was confirmed by a 99–0 vote.

(Around the time of her confirmation, O'Connor was quoted by the Washington Post as saying something that would, no doubt, be welcomed by a certain segment of the modern population: "I do not believe it is the function of the judiciary to step in and change the law because the times have changed. I do well understand the difference between legislating and judging. As a judge, it is not my function to develop public policy."

It is, as I say, nothing special to see a woman nominated for the Supreme Court now. Three other women have been nominated since that day 30 yeas ago. All three were confirmed, and all three sit on the bench today.

And, in the peculiar logic of American politics, when those seats are open again, due to retirement or death, I suspect they will be regarded as belonging to women, in much the same way that open seats have been considered liberal or conservative, depending upon who last held them, and only a like–minded jurist would be an acceptable replacement.

It is the same sort of thinking, for that matter, that made Thurgood Marshall's seat the black seat on the court when he retired — but race trumped ideology when his replacement had to be selected.

(It was always odd, I thought, that George H.W. Bush chose to replace Marshall with Clarence Thomas, who shared the same skin color but little else with the man he succeeded.)

For the most part, I guess, O'Connor lived up to the hopes of conservatives. When the Supreme Court was called upon to break the electoral deadlock in Florida in 2000, for example, she voted with the Republican appointees, allowing George W. Bush to prevail over Vice President Al Gore.

But, overall, her voting record seemed to move more to the center as her Supreme Court career continued. I often wondered if Reagan ever imagined in 1981 the votes she might cast or the decisions she might influence in the quarter of a century that she sat on the bench.

The night before he announced her nomination, Reagan wrote in his diary that he thought she would make "a good justice."

She's only been retired for five years.

It will take awhile for history to render its verdict.