Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Response

"The images summed up Hurricane Irene — the media and the United States federal government trying to live up to their own doom–laden warnings and predictions while a sizeable number of ordinary Americans just carried on as normal and even made gentle fun of all the fuss."

Toby Harnden
The Telegraph
Aug. 28, 2011

Perhaps I'm getting cynical, but I can't help seeing the political motives of just about every move politicians make now — under virtually any circumstances — even those politicians who are thought to be above such mundane concerns.

The response to Hurricane Irene illustrates my point.

I don't know anyone — regardless of political leaning — who wasn't dismayed by the sight of rising floodwaters and people struggling just to survive after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans six years ago — and then further dismayed by the interminable delay in getting assistance of all kinds to the people who needed it.

And I don't blame the president for wanting to avoid the kind of scornful criticism that was heaped on George W. Bush in 2005. In the past, he's gotten plenty of positive hype to go with the negative, but lately, it seems like the last good thing anyone had to say about him was back in the spring when the Navy SEALs got Osama bin Laden.

Just last week, Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell wrote that at least one competitive third party will emerge in next year's presidential election.

"Look no further than the recent launch of the centrist, bipartisan, Americans Elect," they wrote. "This is a nonprofit political organization that plans to break the stranglehold of the two–party duopoly by selecting a third presidential ticket, via an Internet convention, that will be on the ballot in 2012."

And opinion polls have shown the president losing his grip on swing states that swung his way in 2008.

But let's be fair.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in American history. Its highest sustained winds exceeded 170 miles an hour. More than 1,800 people died. It left damages well over $100 billion.

Hurricane Irene's highest sustained winds were around 120 miles an hour. Not quite two dozen casualties have been reported so far, and damages are roughly one–tenth the damages left by Katrina.

When a hurricane strikes, there is always a need for swift, decisive action by the federal, state and local authorities. But some storms are more severe than others, and Katrina was, any way you care to look at it, far more severe than what the East Coast has endured in the last few days.

I'm not trying to minimize the suffering of the people on the East Coast. But it turned out that the hurricane just happened to zero in on those Obama states — North Carolina and Virginia — followed by a march through the solid Northeast that staked Obama to the early lead on Election Night 2008 that he never relinquished.

From a politician's perspective, it's an ideal time to shore up those nervous supporters in the Northeast — who are probably going to vote for Obama, no matter what, but it's still a good idea to remind them that you're looking out for them.

Even if the threat wasn't as great as had been expected.

Which is how it turned out.

In fact, it was already looking like storm damage would be far short of expectations yesterday when Obama made his reassuring speech from the White House. But Obama — who must really be feeling the need to give the appearance of being in control of events instead of being controlled by them — reminded viewers that, even though the immediate threat was mostly gone, there would be much work to be done in the coming weeks and months.

I got the impression of a sprinter who is crouched at the starting line, clearly itching to leap into action. It was probably intended to be reassuring to all those folks in New York and Connecticut and Massachusetts, but it struck me as a bit self–serving and inappropriate.

Sure, there has been some damage, and there has been some loss of life. But I've seen tornadoes that did all that in my home state of Arkansas, and I don't recall any American president going on national TV to announce that he was going to make it a priority that everyone's needs would be met.

Of course, none of the broadcast media folks lived in Little Rock, either.

Well, that should keep those blue staters in line, anyway, and give Obama a little more freedom to pursue the independents who have been abandoning him in the swing states.

Actually, I guess, Irene was a win–win for Obama. I mean, damage was minimal, media exposure was maximum (he can show his Irene footage in his campaign ads and compare his response to Bush's after Katrina) and the markets were so relieved that things weren't nearly as bad as they could have been that they posted significant rallies Monday, even though many traders could not get to Wall Street.

Too bad the Obama campaign couldn't bottle that and save it for late October 2012.

Re-nominating Clinton

It's ironic now, when one watches footage from the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago 15 years ago, to see and hear Bill Clinton thanking the delegates for entrusting him with the presidential nomination again.

It's ironic when one realizes that, at that time, Clinton was already involved in the relationship with Monica Lewinsky that would threaten to undermine his second term.

From the perspective of 2011, it's hard to look back at Clinton's second term and not see many ways in which trust was violated — and, as a result, much of a presidency was squandered.

But, on this night in 1996, he was the earnest Bill Clinton I remember from my days in Arkansas. When I lived there, he was defeated in his first bid for re–election, in part because he approved a modest increase in license tag fees.

As I say, the increase was modest, but voters perceived an almost cavalier attitude in Clinton and punished him for it. When he ran for governor the next time around, he publicly apologized to the voters for the increase.

Raising state revenue in the midst of what was then the worst economy since the Depression was necessary, but he still apologized "because so many of you were hurt by it."

Perhaps he didn't realize — or perhaps he chose to ignore — that the decisions elected officials make can influence the voters in many ways — especially those decisions that are intended to be known by only a few people because that is precisely the kind of thing that tends to leak out.

Anyway, as just about anyone old enough to remember the late 1990s will tell you, the revelation of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky became the foundation of the impeachment charges that paralyzed his presidency.

The — ahem — moral seems clear: If you want your private life to remain private, don't run for office.

It is a reminder, I guess, that elected office — especially the presidency — is a sacred trust. The voters entrust the powers of the presidency to select individuals, and that carries with it certain expectations — of behavior, of policy direction, of a lot of things.

And it's darn near impossible now to listen to Clinton recite his administration's economic accomplishments — i.e., the millions of jobs that were created in his first term — and not feel somewhat wistful after one makes the inevitable mental comparisons to the current economic situation.

Because my roots are in Arkansas, I often feel — justifiably, too, I might add — that I grew up with Bill Clinton. It seemed he was always in office, mostly as governor.

He is quite a bit older than I am, but we both came from small towns in Arkansas (my hometown is considerably larger now, Clinton's is marginally so), and, when he describes his boyhood in his memoir, "My Life," he could be describing mine as well.

After I became old enough to vote, I supported Clinton every time he was on the ballot in the years I lived in Arkansas. Sure, I had heard the stories about his infidelity, but, from what I could see, if there was any truth to the stories, he did a good job of keeping his personal and public lives separate from one another.

No one asked me about Monica Lewinsky in 1996. Nobody had heard her name. That was something that came out after Clinton had been sworn in for a second time.

In 1996, if someone had asked me about Clinton's private life, I would have said that it did not seem to have had any kind of influence on his job performance. I didn't approve of the idea of a president who was unfaithful to his spouse, but I figured that, as long as it didn't affect his job performance, it was not my business.

Going into the Democratic convention in Chicago 15 years ago today, there were some Republicans who complained that the vice president, Al Gore, was too wooden, too stiff — which always struck me as a weak complaint, a nitpicky kind of thing.

The sort of thing one quibbles over when one has no more arrows in one's quiver.

At the convention, Gore poked a little fun at himself, using the enormously popular "Macarena" song to do so.

Because much of the party's platform and other business were addressed ahead of time, the delegates to that convention had little else to do while they waited for the speakers so they danced to the "Macarena." The television cameras showed them dancing on several occasions, and Gore mentioned it during his speech.

Then he pretended to do his version of the "Macarena" — standing perfectly still (only his eyes moved) — and then asked, "Would you like to see it again?"

The crowd roared.

Seldom in modern memory had Democrats gathered for a national convention in such a jovial mood. Certainly, their last convention in Chicago — the one that nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968 — had not been a pleasant experience.

And why shouldn't they be jovial? Clinton's job approval ratings had been in the 50s most of the year, and all indications were that he would be re–elected.

And he was.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mom's Milestone

Today would have been a milestone for my mother — if she had not died in a flash flood 16 years ago.

Today would have been her 80th birthday — and, if nature had not intervened, I am quite sure she would still be with us today.

I can't know a thing like that, of course. But I know the family history, and I know what Mom's health was like on the day she drowned. At the time she died, I believed she could have been with us for another 20 years, at least, and I still believe that today.

Anything else could have happened in the last 16 years, though. Family history isn't infallible. Mom's father died of a heart attack in his sleep when he was 70. The same thing could have happened to her.

But my grandmother outlived my grandfather by nearly 20 years — even though the quality of the last 10 years of her life is debatable. She suffered increasingly from dementia, and I know that Mom feared a similar fate.

She never said so, but she didn't have to.

Mom was a first–grade teacher. At times, it seemed to me that she drew energy from the 6– and 7–year–olds in her classroom. They kept her young, and I realized, after she died, that a significant part of her was afraid of ending up like my grandmother, unable to recognize those who came to see her, unable even to communicate in her final years.

Funny thing — when Mom died, she was the subject of several newspaper articles because she had been recognized for her classroom innovations. Someone (and I can't remember now whether it was an administrator or another teacher or a parent who said this) was quoted as saying Mom was "everyone's favorite grandmother."

I had trouble seeing her as a grandmother. Mom was a free and independent spirit. She also had a childlike fascination with things that I'm sure made her popular with the children who spent their first year in elementary school in her classroom. It permeated her life — and I never realized that until after she died.

I remember one day when I was sorting through my mother's belongings following her death. My father walked into the room while I was looking at a special vest Mom wore on an excursion to St. Louis with some of her colleagues. The vest was covered in buttons she got at a Cardinals baseball game.

One button was equipped with a music player. When you pressed it, it played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I pressed it, listened to it, looked up and saw my father, who had entered the room without my notice. He smiled. "Your mother was a child," he said, turned and walked out of the room.

Yes, she was. Maybe that was what made her such a great mother — and a great teacher (and, by extension, everyone's favorite grandmother). Above all other things, my memory is that it was fun having her for my mom. She made everything an adventure. I'm sure it was that way for the children in her classroom.

I am about to begin my second year of adjunct teaching in the local community college, and I am trying to apply things she taught me in my classroom. It is a work in progress.

After she died, a family friend sought to comfort my brother and me by observing that Mom "went out at the top of her game."

At that time and under those circumstances, it simply wasn't possible for me to be comforted by that thought — I didn't want her to be gone, still don't, and no thoughts that indicated an acceptance of the new reality could be tolerated — but I have drawn some comfort from it since.

I wish Mom was still with us, but if she was spared her mother's fate, then I am thankful for that.

You see, I understand now, in a way that I really didn't before, that no one lives forever. Oh, I said things like that, but it was more of an expression for me, I guess. I didn't really think about the truth of those words or however subtly they might be influencing me (sort of like the Pledge of Allegiance I dutifully recited each morning as a child). I do now.

I understand that, while no one really wants to die (probably because none of us can be absolutely sure what happens when we die — we may think that we know, but no one who is living can really know), it's going to happen to all of us. I can't imagine what that will be like, but I've concluded that there would be no advantage in living forever — not even if one could strike some sort of deal and be sure never to age or lose one's mobility.

Since such a Faustian arrangement is not possible — at least as far as I know — I would rather not linger past the time that all my contemporaries have gone. I would rather be taken when I am still alert and capable — and the people I leave behind believe there were still things I didn't do that I should have done before I died — than to overstay my welcome and die long after my quality of life began to decline.

Whichever it turns out to be, I would just prefer that my death wouldn't be an excessively painful or lingering one. I don't even have to know it's happening. My grandfather died in his sleep — wouldn't any of us choose that over being conscious?

Mom's quality of life definitely did not decline — and I can only hope that she did not experience too much pain. But that is something I will never know.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Mom's sense of humor. It was different, but I really miss it.

Mom had a great knack for laughing at herself.

When I was a child, she used to make a beef–noodle casserole that was absolutely delicious. As far as I could see, it was perfect. Mom used to rave about how easy it was to prepare, and I don't exaggerate when I say it was one of my favorite dishes. I actually looked forward to evening meals when I knew it was on the menu.

She served it once when some friends came over, and they went wild, insisting that Mom give them the recipe. She promised that she would.

Never one to put off such things, Mom typed the recipe on an index card the very next day and passed it along to her friend while she was out running errands.

(Now, when I say "typed," I mean that — literally. It was long before personal computers and word processors with spell checkers or any of that other stuff. Mom used a typewriter — and it was the old–fashioned, manual kind, too.)

Mom didn't proofread the card first, and it turned out she had typed an o instead of an e in the word "noodle" in the title of the recipe (which was something very basic, like "Beef–Noodle Casserole," but, with the typo, it read "Beef–Noodlo Casserole").

Someone noticed the typo and remarked that the dish was "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs." Mom liked that. We ate it at least once a week every week — and we called it "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs" for about as long as I can remember.

It became kind of a family joke. I can remember having friends over to spend the night, and I would ask Mom what we were having for dinner. She would reply "Goodloe's Noodle–ohs," seemingly oblivious to the fact there was a guest in the house who wasn't familiar with the joke.

Mom also liked to joke about what she called the "Goodloe luck." It was sort of a family variation on Murphy's law. I'm not sure if she originated it or not — or if perhaps my father played a role — but if something went wrong, we were sure to hear the "Goodloe luck" mentioned.

The photo of Mom sitting in our foldout camper was taken on the occasion of my favorite example of the "Goodloe luck." We had driven from Dallas to South Padre Island during the Christmas holidays — about an 11– or 12–hour drive, as I recall. It was something we had done — without incident — the year before, and the entire family was looking forward to some sand, surf and fresh seafood.

The picture that shows Mom smiling and laughing in our camper was taken about an hour after our arrival. The weather was gorgeous, and everyone was in a jovial mood. But, during the night, a storm front moved in, and we spent the next couple of days huddled around that small table, eating modest meals and playing card games while wind and rain pounded the tiny trailer outside.

Finally, my parents decided that we had had enough, and we left on the third day. We took down our camper in a pouring rain and began the long drive back to my grandmother's home in Dallas. On the way, we heard on the radio that the storm was the worst to strike the area in decades. Boats were missing at sea.

That, my parents agreed, was the "Goodloe luck."

I guess the most extreme example of the "Goodloe luck" was the flash flood that took Mom's life. But that would be a real misnomer. There was nothing lucky about that night.

Well, anyway, today would have been her birthday. It isn't the anniversary of her death. It's an appropriate time to remember who she was, not how she died.

I can't help feeling somewhat wistful on this day. I think of the world that existed on the day Mom died and the world that exists today, and I can't help wishing she had lived to see some of the things I have seen.

The flip side of that, of course, is that I'm glad she was spared some of the things that have happened since her death — so I suppose it is something of a tradeoff, as it is in every life, be it wealthy or privileged or longer than most.

In the great scheme of things, I guess one life is pretty much the same as the next. Some are longer than others. Some are more accomplished.

Religious people often speak of "God's will" and his "plan." I guess it is the only way some people can make sense of the irrational. There must be a reason why terrible things happen. We just aren't smart enough to figure it out.

I guess it's comforting, in a way, to believe that things that appear to make no sense — like the deaths of children — really do have a purpose. And some people believe the purposes for all things will be revealed to us when we die.

But some people will tell you that, whatever the reasons for these things may be, those reasons are God's, not man's — and God is under no obligation to explain himself.

So life continues to be, as it has always been, unfair. Some lives end far too early while others go on for a century or more, and there is no justification for it. Some lives are harder than most while others are easier, and there is no obvious justification for that, either.

I don't think I ever discussed this with Mom during her life. I know she believed in God, but I don't know what her conclusions were about the inequities of life.

Mom's life could have been longer than it was. Perhaps it could have been more accomplished.

But today, I want to remember Mom's life, and I want to do something to mark the occasion. Today is Saturday, and I'm going to the cemetery.

Maybe it seems odd to say that, but it isn't. Not really. In the years since Mom's death, the cemetery is the only place where I can feel close to her. I don't know if it is her "spirit" or not. I just know that is the way it is.

I used to go there every year on the anniversary of her death. I preferred going to the cemetery in May over going there in August, even though going there in May always seemed like more of an observance of her death than her life. It's always hot here in August — and it has been especially hot this summer.

But, since this would have been a milestone birthday for Mom, I will brave the elements, however severe they may be, and pay a visit in the morning hours. I'll keep it short, though. Classes at the community college begin next week, and I have last–minute preparations to make.

Mom would have understood.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Preppie Love

On this day 25 years ago, Robert Chambers became the "Preppie Killer" when he strangled an 18–year–old girl named Jennifer Levin in New York's Central Park.

That was a different time. Today, the murder of an unknown yet attractive girl anywhere would attract dozens of camera crews from all over the world, and the internet would be full of details on first the investigation and then the trial. In 2011, you wouldn't be able to escape those details, no matter how hard you tried.

But in 1986, things were different. I was living in Arkansas at the time, working on the copy desk of the largest newspaper in the state. I thought that having access to the Associated Press' wire meant I would know things that many of my friends did not, but the information we got on the Preppie Killer was spotty at best.

I'm sure the coverage of the case was pretty intense in New York and the media centers of the Northeast, but, as I say, that was many years before cable and the internet made it possible for people to see and read daily news coverage in places around the globe.

As the drama of Chambers' arrest and trial played out, I might as well have been in another hemisphere. Most of the information I got on the case came from my subscription to Newsweek. It wasn't quite as spotty — but it still left a lot to be desired.

I have often wondered if it might have been the "trial of the century" until the O.J. Simpson case in the mid–1990s — if the technology of the 1980s had been as advanced.

When Chambers eventually did go to trial, it was hardly what I would call the "trial of the century." But it sure did draw a lot of attention for its day — and that did lead to a kind of trickle–down effect in terms of the information that was available.

It's the kind of thing that has always attracted the folks in our culture, and if cable TV had been more extensive and the internet had been more than an information network linking research–oriented institutions, the audience that followed the Preppie Killer story might have rivaled that of the Casey Anthony trial.

Chambers was a tall, good–looking guy who, apparently, had most things handed to him as he grew up. He seems to have had something of a social inferiority complex.

Chambers attended prep schools on scholarships; his family couldn't afford the tuition. He did not thrive in that environment, received poor grades and ran into problems with theft and substance abuse.

He was accepted to Boston University, but the same problems that plagued him in prep school followed him to college, and he was asked to leave after a single semester.

On Aug. 26, 1986, a month before his 20th birthday, he was at a Manhattan bar where his girlfriend loudly ended their relationship, throwing a bag of condoms at him and assuring him that "you're not using them with me."

Chambers' girlfriend was, reportedly, upset that Levin was at the bar. The story was that Levin was Chambers' secret lover. Witnesses said they left the bar together.

I don't know if that was true or not. Neither do I know if it is true that, later, Chambers and Levin had "rough sex" before Chambers, who stood more than a foot taller than Levin and weighed nearly twice what she did, strangled her in Central Park.

Chambers claimed that Levin hurt his genitals and he pushed her from him, accidentally killing her. It never really seemed plausible, considering the nature of the physical evidence.

"I've been in this business for a while," the prosecutor said to Chambers, "and you're the first man I've seen raped in Central Park."

But that was Chambers' story, and he stuck with it.

Well, whatever the truth was, Chambers wound up pleading guilty to manslaughter, and he served 15 years in prison. He was released, ironically, on Valentine's Day 2003. With time off for good behavior, he might have been released earlier — but he had disciplinary issues in prison that mirrored the ones he had prior to Levin's death, and the same problems followed him as he tried to carve out a life for himself after his release.

A few years ago, Chambers, now in his mid–40s, was sentenced to 19 years in prison after his conviction on drug charges.

I suppose it is possible that he could get some time off for good behavior. But, given his history, it doesn't seem likely. I think he will be behind bars until he is in his 60s.

A cynical person might say a pattern has been established.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All Shook Up

Earthquakes are different in the eastern United States than in the western United States, a fellow with a geological background was saying yesterday following the earthquake in northern Virginia.

I didn't catch everything he said because I was channel surfing, and I came across him midway through his segment, but I gathered from what I heard that the fault lines along the west coast are more active than the ones on the east coast.

I guess I didn't need anyone to tell me that. Folks speak of the period between earthquakes in California in terms of years — decades at the most.

Earthquakes in the eastern United States happen about once every 500 years. The fault line that was responsible for the 5.8 earthquake that shook the east coast yesterday may not even have a name.

The eastern earthquakes also don't pack the kind of punch that the earthquakes in places like California and Japan do. Something about how the fault lines along the east coast fill with accumulated sand and sea debris, making the seismic activity less intense — but, at the same time, helping to make it possible for the quake to be felt from greater distances.

That is why, this fellow was saying, an earthquake in northern Virginia is not as destructive as the 7s and 8s we've seen along the Pacific, but it could be felt in the Carolinas or Georgia as well as the much closer city of New York. I've also heard that it could be felt as far west as Chicago.

Now, science was never my strong subject in school so I have a little trouble understanding that part of it.

Wish I had caught the first part of what he was saying. Wish I knew more about why some earthquakes are more destructive than others — even when they strike areas that expect them and go to great lengths to be prepared for them.

A friend of mine moved to New York a few years ago. Yesterday, he posted on Facebook that he was sitting on his bed when the earthquake struck, and his bed shook.

I had some friends who lived through the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. They told me that their friends out there, who had joked for years about "the Big One," called that earthquake the "Pretty Big One." It only measured 6.9, and it only lasted 15 seconds, but it resulted in 63 deaths and more than 3,700 injuries.

There was also quite a bit of property damage.

Apparently, there was some damage yesterday as well, but it will take awhile to determine the extent. Most of it appears to have been done to older buildings that are ill prepared for an earthquake of just about any magnitude.

And I have heard no reports of deaths or injuries.

In fact, what happened along the east coast yesterday seems to be similar to the kind of thing that has been happening in recent years in my home county in central Arkansas. It is not far from the New Madrid Fault in the central United States that allegedly caused an earthquake in the 19th century strong enough to ring the bells in Boston.

Anyway, there was a series of earthquakes in my home county in the spring — most of which measured in the 3s, which admittedly isn't strong enough for most people to notice.

A 5.8 earthquake is strong enough to notice but not usually strong enough to cause death or injury — unless it strikes severely underdeveloped places. The government in D.C. may be dysfunctional, but the city itself is not underdeveloped.

Thus, I figured it wouldn't be long before some people began poking fun at the exaggerated response to the earthquake.

No deaths. No injuries. The most serious damage, by far, appears to have been psychological.

In both Washington and New York — and other places along the Eastern Seaboard — nerves are on edge less than three weeks before the 10th anniversary of September 11. And, as Marc Fisher reports in the Washington Post, terrorism was the first thought to cross the minds of lots of folks in D.C. yesterday afternoon.

And why not? An airplane piloted by a Islamic extremist crashed into the Pentagon a decade ago. The last earthquake on the east coast may predate the American Revolution.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Bland Leading the Bland

When the Republicans gathered for their 1956 national convention, they were there to renominate a president who had been far from a sure thing to seek a second term almost a year earlier.

President Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack on Sept. 24, 1955, and he had undergone surgery related to his Crohn's disease early in 1956. Thus, there was some uncertainty whether Eisenhower would seek re–election — at least initially.

However, the president bounced back, and speculation in Republican circles shifted to the question of whether the vice president, Richard Nixon, would be retained.

As a matter of fact, that was a reasonable source for guesswork — even though it seems that, in modern times, almost no vice president has been spared such speculation when the president was about to begin a re–election campaign. At least, no incumbent vice president in my memory has been considered a lock for renomination.

Until the president took it upon himself to put such gossip to rest.

Whether most, all or any of the presidents in my lifetime really were considering new running mates, I do not know. The only president in my life who actually chose a running mate other than the incumbent vice president was Gerald Ford — and neither he nor the vice president had been elected.

But there is enough evidence available that we can be reasonably certain that, in 1956, Eisenhower was interested in a new running mate.

Eisenhower, it has been said, believed Nixon was too partisan and too controversial. Ike's party had lost control of both houses of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections, and he may have wanted a vice president he thought would work better with Democrats.

Some historians have said Eisenhower approached Nixon about taking a Cabinet post. But Nixon was popular with the base of the Republican Party and, if he was asked to withdraw, he must have declined.

It's possible, too, that Ike never asked Nixon to fall on his sword.

Anyway, in the end, Nixon remained on the ticket. What's more, he re–defined the vice presidency. He used it as a platform from which he campaigned for numerous Republican candidates in 1954. In the process, he assembled a devoted network of grassroots Republican allies across the country — which may have been the reason why Eisenhower relented and kept him on the ticket. He may have wished to avoid a confrontation within the party.

That, in fact, was how Nixon built the array of connections that led to his nomination and election in 1968 — by campaigning for Republicans from coast to coast in the 1966 midterm elections. And, in 1968, Nixon pioneered the "Southern strategy" that continues to influence American politics.

But, in 1956, all that was still in the future.

It may be hard for 21st century observers to fathom, but there really was nothing particularly extreme about the 1956 Republican platform. In fact, the 1956 convention was largely absent any drama to speak of.

Consequently, when the Republicans gathered in San Francisco, there was no suspense about the identities of the nominees. There really wasn't much suspense about anything. It seems to have been a largely by–the–script convention; Eisenhower was renominated by acclamation.

But the historical perspective is fascinating — for the Republican Party that so gleefully renominated Eisenhower 55 years ago is very different today. Passages from Ike's acceptance speech testify to that.

Eisenhower may have been a rather bland, plain vanilla president, but he did possess some beliefs that were bold even for his time — and almost certainly would be considered too liberal by modern GOP standards.

"Our party detests the technique of pitting group against group for cheap political advantage," Eisenhower told the delegates.

He also said, "The Republican Party is the party of the future because it is the party that draws people together, not drives people apart."

One can only wonder what Ike would think of today's Republican Party.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dangerous Liaisons

"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."

Proverbs 16:18

Over the centuries of human history, there have been many reasons why whoever held power eventually was toppled.

But at the heart of it all, it seems to me, is a special kind of arrogance — the absolute certainty that one is always in the right and anyone who disagrees is wrong, the belief that one is above the rules by which all others must live.

This arrogance has been expressed in many ways, but in my lifetime it most often seems to be linked to sexual indiscretion of some kind. When those episodes begin to pile up, my experience tells me, it's an indication that some changes are coming.

In the 1960s and '70s, for example, the Democrats built on already huge advantages in Congress that the party had enjoyed since the 1950s. In those days, the levels of Democratic control ebbed and flowed in each chamber, but, in hindsight, the commanding leads the party often had were unsustainable.

Then some seemingly entrenched House leaders (among them Wayne Hays of Ohio and the longtime representative of my district in Arkansas, Wilbur Mills) were caught with — shall we say — their hands in the cookie jar. When the dust settled in 1980, Republicans — who had appeared to be an endangered species when Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 — had recaptured the White House and overthrown the Democratic majority in the Senate.

I considered myself a Democrat in those days, and I hoped, as the Reagan presidency neared its conclusion, that the Democrats had learned their lesson.

And for a time there in the 1980s, the Democrats seemed to have learned from the experience of losing control of a chamber of Congress — and cleaned up their acts.

Gary Hart was considered the leader for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination until he got caught in a compromising relationship aboard a boat that was aptly named Monkey Business.

In the 1990s, relationships with interns led to the downfall of Newt Gingrich and the impeachment (but not the removal from office) of Bill Clinton.

Most such scandals were tied to Democrats — largely, I suppose, because, with the exception of the White House, Democrats were in charge of the federal government for most of those years. I've always felt it played a role, however minor, in the seismic shift of 1994, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.

Then, in the last decade or so, things began to come apart for the Republicans, too. The pendulum swung in the GOP's direction with Larry Craig's men's room encounter in the Minneapolis airport and Mark Foley's sexually explicit e–mails to congressional pages.

But, when they reclaimed power in the mid–2000s, Democrats hadn't learned the lesson. Their sense of entitlement to congressional authority apparently was not accompanied by a sense of responsibility to behave in a seemly fashion.

Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was revealed to have had an extramarital relationship that produced a child. Last month, New York Rep. Anthony Weiner admitted sending suggestive photos of himself to women, and recently Oregon Rep. David Wu announced he would resign because it had been discovered that he made advances to the daughter of a fundraiser.

Wu is in his 50s and has been separated from his wife since 2009. The fundraiser's daughter was 18 when these advances reportedly took place last fall. Virtually any relationship between the two would raise eyebrows, but, legally, they are adults.

That isn't really the issue, though. Americans have always had kind of a double standard when it comes to their leaders.

Private citizens may be unfaithful to their spouses — and, if it is discovered, it is neither their employers' business nor their co–workers' — nor even their friends'. It is between the spouses and, perhaps, their families, but no one else.

Elected officials are different. In the twisted logic of most voters, the private behavior of elected officials must be impeccable — even if whatever they are doing privately has no influence on their public actions.

But voters in both parties believe that, because their tax dollars pay elected officials' salaries, they are entitled to know everything those officials do.

Most private citizens would consider it an invasion of their privacy if their employer started asking others about their drinking habits — or whether they prefer to socialize with males or females or whether they like to spend Saturday afternoons at the track.

If dubious behavior of any kind — legal or illegal — is uncovered, it could well spell the end of that politician's career — and, if the timing is particularly bad, it could mean the end of the politician's party's control of Congress or one of its chambers.

I thought there had been plenty of examples of this throughout history — and that recent history re–confirmed that the grip that either party has on power is tenuous.

I figured that the congressional veterans would constantly remind their parties' incoming freshmen to be on their best behavior.

But I suppose the intoxication of power is too great to keep some from engaging in dangerous liaisons.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Tipping Point?

"All I know is what I read in the papers."

Will Rogers

Sometimes I feel like Will Rogers — although these days, with the newspaper industry on life support in many markets, I guess the more appropriate reference would be what I read on news web sites — or something similar.

The president says the economy is getting better and that another recession is not going to happen.

But Morgan Stanley says that prospect is more, not less, likely.

Wall Street clearly puts more — ahem — stock in Morgan Stanley than Barack Obama. Stocks closed down again yesterday, and there is considerable anxiety about the week ahead.

There is a lot of bad news about the economy these days, a lot of uncertainty.

Jobless claims are up.

Gallup reports that confidence in Obama to handle the economy is at its lowest point in his presidency — with only 26% approving.

Obama says he has a strategy to put America back to work — and he will unveil it right after Labor Day, which I suppose is better than what he did for the jobless on his first Labor Day in office.

But why the delay? So he and his family can ride their bikes on Martha's Vineyard for a couple of weeks? If he's got a plan — at long last — shouldn't it be treated with the urgency that this administration has promised but never delivered to the unemployed — and call Congress into special session?

His protests sound a lot to me like when Richard Nixon said he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam — and the American public, weary of the war and Lyndon Johnson, bought it. No details were required.

Nixon was the challenger at the time, not the incumbent, and that is a difference this president simply cannot comprehend. Challengers can speak like outsiders because they are outsiders — even if there was a time when they were insiders.

Presidents are the flip side of the coin. They may well have been seen as outsiders when they were elected, but the very act of being elected transformed them from outsiders to insiders. They were elected to use the power of the office for the common good. Their re–election campaigns tend to be about how well they have done that.

Presidencies, regardless of how novel they may seem at first, have relatively short shelf lives. The American public tends to be quite generous with its presidents — and it has been generous with this one, believe it or not. It is hard to imagine any of his most recent predecessors enjoying popularity ratings in the 40s, as Obama has, in spite of an unemployment rate that is officially around 9.0% but unofficially may be twice as high.

As I listened to Obama complaining about the "bad luck" that has plagued him in recent months, it sounded a lot to me like the kind of thing I have heard from other one–term presidents in my life — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — but also from some twice–elected presidents.

I think a majority of voters have stopped listening to Obama. And, in my experience, when they have stopped listening, the president needs to start packing.

James Pethokoukis of Reuters puts Obama's prospects into historical context: "In fact, if a) the economic forecasts of Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are accurate, and b) voters behave as they usually do during bad economic times, then c) Barack Obama will be a one–term president."

Friday, August 19, 2011

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Jerry Ford was always a likable guy — even when he was put in the unenviable position of having to defend Richard Nixon.

And he had to do that far too often after Nixon (under the provisions of the 25th Amendment) picked him to replace the previous vice president, Spiro Agnew, who resigned in disgrace in October 1973.

There were probably many times during Ford's 2½–year presidency when he was too nice for his own good, and this day in 1976, the year he sought a full term as president, may be the best example.

On this night 35 years ago, Ford's task was to defend his own actions as president after Nixon's resignation — when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination.

He was the survivor — narrowly — of a long, sometimes divisive campaign against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan for that nomination, and this night in Kansas City in 1976 was supposed to be his night.

Ford had been mercilessly attacked by Reagan's followers for the fall of Saigon and detente with the Russians. He had been ridiculed for many things, and, although Reagan had not been nominated, the right wing of the party still managed to squeeze several conservative planks into a platform that, in the past, had been much more centrist in its tone.

In so many ways, on this day in 1976, Ford prepared to accept the nomination of a party that was moving more to the right. He could rightfully be said to be the last of his breed of Republicans.

(Not so long ago, Ford's running mate, Bob Dole, observed that Nixon probably couldn't win the Republican nomination today. "He'd be too liberal," Dole said. Astonishing.)

This night was to be Ford's opportunity to present his side, to reassure voters that the GOP had not been hijacked.

Yet, strangely, the night — and the future of the Republican Party — belonged to Reagan and the right wing. In the context of what we have witnessed in the last 35 years, the conclusion that this was centrism's last real gasp in Republican national politics is inescapable.

People often say the party was hijacked by the right–wing extremists in 1980 — and, to a great extent, that was true — but I believe it really began in Kansas City 35 years ago tonight.

And Ford, in his amiable, well–meaning way, was a willing (if unintentional) accomplice.

As tradition required, Ford delivered his acceptance speech, and he did an adequate job. Ford never was a stemwinder of a speechmaker, but it actually wasn't a bad speech — by his standards.

But he never could compete with Reagan when it came to speech giving.

And, on this night, after he had given a respectable acceptance speech, Ford also gave the delegates — and the viewing audience at home — an unprecedented opportunity to compare the nominee to the man he had beaten, side by side.

With all eyes on him, Ford waved to Reagan, who was sitting in the back of the hall, and prevailed upon him to come down and share the spotlight. Reagan agreed to do so — and, whether he intended it or not, he upstaged the president of the United States with an unforgettable impromptu speech.

While I don't believe that what happened 35 years ago tonight was what ultimately defeated Ford, it sure didn't help.

Ford didn't give a bad speech. He simply didn't sparkle — whereas Reagan, in an extemporaneous speech, did.

When Reagan was done, many of the delegates — and many of the folks watching at home — must have wondered if the wrong candidate had been nominated.

Perhaps that doubt persisted when the voters went to the polls that November. Perhaps the voters were angry about the pardon of Nixon. Perhaps they were simply ready for change.

Whatever the truth was, I think it can be safely said that what happened on this night in Kansas City 35 years ago didn't help Ford's bid for a full term.

And it certainly set the table for what was to come.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shaken, Not Stirred

Author's note: In March 1956, Ian Fleming published "Diamonds Are Forever," in which James Bond's preference for a martini that was "shaken, not stirred" became known.
In the 1950s, television was not new. It had been developed decades earlier, but it didn't play its first major role in American politics until the mid–1950s.

Broadcasting was still rather embryonic in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower ran for a second term as president. TV networks didn't fully appreciate the subtleties of camera angles, and politicians hadn't made endless studies about what appeals visually to TV viewers. That was still in the future.

As TV ownership expanded in the 1950s, so did its potential for political influence. But it wasn't until the turbulence of the 1960s that broadcast journalism really began to mature.

The week before the Republicans met in San Francisco to re–nominate Eisenhower, the Democrats met in Chicago to re–nominate the man who lost to Eisenhower in 1952 — Adlai Stevenson.

Broadcasting was still new, as I say. Its practitioners were still learning, but the Stevenson campaign had the right idea. Drama — a compelling story — would attract attention, which would, in turn, attract viewers (and, it was further hoped, those viewers would be voters in November).

The fault lay not with the objective but with the execution.

In modern times, a convention has been an opportunity for a political party to tell the story of its nominee–to–be, but in 1956, both presidential nominees were known quantities.

There was little excitement at either party's convention in August 1956; in part to shake things up, Stevenson announced that he was throwing open the choice of his running mate to the delegates — even though he loudly lamented the marketing of political candidates.
Bartlet: Can I tell you what's messed up about James Bond?

Charlie: Nothing.

Bartlet: Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.

The West Wing

In the eyes of history, that convention is remembered more for launching the national political career of the man who lost the vice presidential nomination, John F. Kennedy, than the man who won it, Estes Kefauver.

Stevenson had the right marketing concept, but he didn't use the right approach. He shook things up. He didn't stir the voters.

In 1956 — and, in fact, until relatively recently — the business of actually nominating running mates occurred on the final scheduled nights of conventions, just before the nominees made their acceptance speeches.

But, on Aug. 16, 1956, Stevenson turned what had been largely a routine matter in the past into an uncontrolled free–for–all that took three ballots to resolve — and his acceptance speech was pushed out of primetime, moving the conclusion of convention business into the early hours of the following day. Viewership for the acceptance speech was, as you might expect, below expectations.

Eisenhower might have won that election, anyway. He had some health issues, but he was a popular president.

Stevenson, as I say, had the right idea, but the execution was flawed. His convention decision didn't help his cause — and that alone was a violation of the admonition to do no harm.

Could the ultimate outcome have been better for Stevenson? Absolutely. The Democrats received less than 42% of the popular vote and carried only seven states. In fact, the Democrats lost Stevenson's and Kefauver's home states.

Could the outcome have been worse? It's hard to see how.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bob Dole's Best Speech

I don't know if Bob Dole harbored presidential ambitions for a long time — or if that was a relatively late phenomenon in his political career.

Thirty–five yeas ago — almost midway through Dole's congressional career — President Ford picked him to be his running mate.

In those days, Ford was seen as a centrist, especially after winning a bruising battle with conservative Ronald Reagan for his party's nomination — and lots of folks believed he chose Dole to boost his credentials with his party's right wing.

Perhaps it was on that night in 1976, as he accepted the vide presidential nomination, when the idea of a Dole presidency took hold. Maybe, before that night, Dole was content to be a senator from Kansas.

But after Ford picked him to be his running mate, Dole must have realized that, if Ford won the election, he would be prevented by law from seeking another term in 1980 — and, as Ford's vice president, Dole would be the favorite for the nomination.

On the other hand, if Ford lost, Dole must have figured that it wasn't likely Ford would run again in 1980. The exposure of a national campaign would almost certainly benefit him under those circumstances as well.

But that isn't exactly how things played out.

Ford did lose the 1976 election, but, by 1980, Dole was not the frontrunner for his party's nomination. Reagan was.

Dole sought the nomination again in 1988 but lost to Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush. He sat on the sidelines in both 1984 and 1992 when Reagan and Bush sought re–election.

Then, in 1996, it was his turn.

There really never was any doubt Dole would be at the top of the GOP ticket that year. He was challenged in the primaries by Pat Buchanan's insurgent candidacy — and a few other more credible rivals — but he was always treated as the presumptive nominee. Sometimes the primaries or caucuses didn't turn out as expected, but those were regarded as temporary setbacks.

Eventually, Dole was the choice of more than 58% of the people who participated in GOP primaries that year. Buchanan got nearly 21% of the vote, and Steve Forbes got about 11%. Everyone else was in single digits.

But Dole, as I say, was dealt some early setbacks, losing the New Hampshire primary to Buchanan and the primaries in Delaware and Arizona to Forbes. He bounced back in late February, winning every remaining primary and losing only one caucus.

Then he resigned from the Senate, where he had served for 27 years, to focus all his attention on his presidential campaign. He didn't have to make such a dramatic choice. His term in the Senate had two years to go, and he had been routinely re–elected in the past, but he wanted to show the voters that he was completely committed to the presidency.

Dole always struck me as a rather plain–spoken — blunt at times — Midwesterner. He had a sense of humor that could be biting at times, and it often surfaced on the campaign trail.

But it was largely kept in check on this night 15 years ago. Dole's acceptance speech was mostly humble and direct — and one of the first issues he tackled was the issue of his age (73).

"Age has its advantages," he told the delegates, "and the first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he is wrong."

Whether one agreed or disagreed with him, one could not help but be moved by his devotion to his deceased parents in his defense of government's obligation to help those who cannot help themselves.

He recalled when his father endured personal hardship to visit him in the Army hospital after he was injured in World War II.

"My father was poor, and I love my father," Dole said. "Do you imagine for one minute that, as I sign the bills that will set the economy free, I will not be faithful to Americans in need? ... [T]o do otherwise would be to betray those whom I love and honor most. And I will betray nothing."

And he was eager to embrace the symbolism he saw in his candidacy.

"My life is proof that America is a land without limits," he said. "And with my feet on the ground and my heart filled with hope, I put my faith in you and in the God who loves us all. For I am convinced that America's best days are yet to come."

Dole's best days weren't ahead of him — at least, not in 1996.

But he may have delivered his best speech on this night 15 years ago.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

PDQ Bachmann

The last presidential election demonstrated rather vividly that growing portions of both political parties are embracing the idea of electing a woman to the executive branch of the federal government, as either president or vice president.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was narrowly beaten for the presidential nomination by Barack Obama in a race that came to be seen by many as a battle between historical guilt trips, misogyny and racism. And, on the Republican side, of course, Sarah Palin became the first woman nominated by the GOP for vice president.

But each party wants different things from its female candidates — and will tolerate nothing less from the other side. And both continue to hold female politicians to expectations they would never impose on men. In that regard, I suppose, women continue to be subjected to a political double standard if not a societal one.

As far as they have come in my lifetime — and that includes occupying seats on the Supreme Court, traveling in space, acting as diplomats on behalf of the United States and serving as speaker of the House — women are still expected to do things that no man is expected to do — like remain young and attractive long after it is natural for anyone to be young and attractive.

In our highly visual age, appearances have taken on more influence than ever before, but men are not subjected to anything like the scrutiny that women are. Gray hair on a man is seen as distinguished; it is a sign of advanced age in a woman. A few extra pounds have seldom stood between a man and electoral victory; on a woman, they can be politically fatal.

I suppose that accounts for the reaction to Newsweek's unflattering photo of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann on its cover.

Such negative stereotypes are offset, to a degree, by positive ones — such as the image of nurturer and healer — that make the idea of electing a woman president an appealing one for so many in these troubling times. They see a dysfunctional political system that needs a "woman's touch" after being taken to the brink of catastrophe too many times in recent years.

In Republican circles, Palin had that market cornered for a long time because she was really the only female whose name was being bandied about. But things have changed. While Palin has been motoring around the country, Bachmann jumped into the 2012 race and won yesterday's straw poll in her home state of Iowa — and some are wondering if Palin's moment in the spotlight has ended. She is supposed to reveal her 2012 plans next month.

(Personally, I would think that Palin — if she really does intend to run for president, and I am inclined to think she will not — would not mind relinquishing the spotlight for awhile.)

It's made me think about expectations, cliches and modern "firsts" in the American presidency in ways I never did before.

There is a desperation in people's expectations these days, I believe, born in part from a certain amount of disappointment in the policies of the current administration. Many of the president's supporters seem content to give him the benefit of the doubt — and additional time for these saplings to bear fruit. But not everyone, particularly the unemployed, is so generous — and patient.

This president was symbolic, of course, because of his race. He was the first black president. Whatever history may ultimately say about his tenure in the Oval Office, he will always be the first black to be nominated for — and elected to — the presidency.

When a female becomes president, she will be the first of her gender — and therefore will be symbolic as well.

Such distinctions may have made Barack Obama — and may someday make the first female president — sensitive (and vulnerable) to allegations of favoritism or preferential treatment. The religious issue presented similar challenges for John F. Kennedy half a century ago.

My experience is that, after a certain point, most historic "firsts" in the American presidency became isolated, no matter how successful the groundbreaking president may have been, and that the second of whatever it is hasn't come along rapidly.

Kennedy, of course, was the first Catholic to be elected president. He wasn't the first Catholic to be nominated, but he was the first in more than three decades. As president, his job approval ratings never fell below 56%.

Well, it's been more than 50 years since Kennedy was elected and nearly 50 since he was assassinated, but America still has not elected its second Catholic president. Catholics have sought the nomination, including JFK's younger brothers, but only one has been nominated for the presidency.

That's three Catholic presidential nominees in 83 years.

This applies to the vice presidency, too. Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman on a Democratic ticket. There have been half a dozen Democratic tickets since then, and none of the nominees was a woman.

I strongly doubt that Bachmann will be nominated in 2012, but if Republicans really are strongly considering nominating a woman for president, it may be largely because they and the voters who support her believe the kind of healing and nurturing the nation and its economy need can only be provided by a woman.

To meet the unrealistic expectations of the voters, that woman would need to revive this economy P.D.Q. — in an era long before texting, that was a well–known abbreviation for "pretty damned quick." Given the dire forecasts from economists, that doesn't seem likely.

With unemployment stuck in the 9% range and the stock market bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball, the experiment with a black president (whether it is acknowledged as such or not) may come to be widely regarded as a failure, and it may be as long before America elects its second black president as it has been between Catholic presidents.

Even if Barack Obama turns things around and manages to win re–election, my gut feeling is that it will be decades until another black candidate is nominated for the presidency. If he is replaced with a woman — Bachmann, Palin or someone else — this economy may prove too stubborn for her, and the next female presidency will be a long time coming as well.

I don't know what to expect in 2012. There are times when I think Obama is on the verge of righting the ship and really living up to the standards he set for himself and the nation — but then he does something that tells me that my original conclusion, that he is in over his head, was the correct one.

Sometimes, though, presidents rise to the occasion.

And if there is anything of which I am certain, it is that the next president, whoever he or she turns out to be, must rise to the occasion.

Or he/she seems likely to be the last American president.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."

Groucho Marx

Peter Hamby of CNN reports that today's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, could make or break Republican presidential candidacies.

Well, perhaps. Frankly, though, I think it's a non–event. No delegates are assigned. Very few people participate in it (there are roughly 3 million people in Iowa, and fewer than 15,000 took part in the 2007 straw poll — the high water mark for the poll was in 1999, when just under 24,000 participated).

Over the years, I've heard a lot of people complain about the inordinate influence that New Hampshire has on the races for the nominations by holding the first presidential primary every four years — and at least the New Hampshire primary has the redeeming quality of allocating actual delegates, few though they may be.

Iowa's straw poll doesn't even do that. In fact, it doesn't have much of a record.

Hamby points out that, since the straw poll (which is conducted whenever the Republican nomination seems to be up for grabs) began in 1979, the winner has gone on to win the general election only once.

The poll's record in forecasting the eventual Republican nominee is only slightly better. Two of the winners of the previous five polls went on to be nominated the next year.

Most of the time, the winner of the poll means nothing. Mitt Romney won it last time; John McCain, the eventual nominee, was last among the active candidates.

In 1987, Pat Robertson won the straw poll. Vice President George H.W. Bush was nominated the next year; he finished third in the poll.

Bush was the winner of the first straw poll in 1979, but Ronald Reagan won the nomination and picked Bush to be his running mate.

The Iowa caucus is only marginally better. It does mean something in the pursuit of delegates to the national convention, but the winner of the straw poll and the winner of the caucus are not always the same candidate.

(Actually, Iowa had little, if any, role in choosing presidential nominees before 1976. Jimmy Carter finished first among the candidates — "uncommitted" received the most support — in Iowa's Democratic caucus, which received little attention prior to that year, and that gave him the momentum that helped him win early primaries and, ultimately, the nomination.)

George H.W. Bush did win the caucus in 1980, but Bob Dole won it in 1988. Dole was a particular favorite in Iowa, most likely because of his Midwestern roots; he won the caucus again in 1996 en route to the nomination after sharing the victory in the straw poll with Phil Gramm.

George W. Bush won both the straw poll (outright) and the caucus in 1999, the first to do so since his father 20 years earlier.

Four years ago, after Romney won the straw poll, Mike Huckabee won the caucus.

Romney is skipping the straw poll this year. Been there, done that, he says. He says he's focusing on winning the nomination this time.

So, too, apparently is Rick Perry, governor of my state, who will be in South Carolina this weekend, presumably to make his candidacy official. Jon Huntsman won't be participating in the straw poll, either. I'm not sure what he's doing this weekend.

For that matter, I don't know what noted political observer Stuart Rothenberg is doing this weekend, but he won't be in Iowa. He writes in Roll Call that it is "little more than an opportunity to consume large amounts of beef, gossip and alcohol with my fellow journalists."

He has no objection to that, Rothenberg writes, but it "wasn't enough of an incentive to schlep halfway across the country to cover something that is close to being irrelevant."

Rothenberg acknowledges that a poor showing in the poll could prompt a candidate to drop out — months before any delegates have actually been committed to any candidates. It has happened before.

"But, really now," he writes, "would a candidate who does so poorly in Ames that he drops out have had much of a chance anyway?"

Probably not. And my guess is that, at best, the Iowa straw poll might produce the dark horse that lasts into a few of the early primaries. But current surveys suggest that the top two candidates are Romney and Perry — and the only way they will get any votes in this grassroots organization–driven poll is if people write in their names.

Thus, that dark horse could make it a three–candidate race for awhile.

It's even possible that someone could emerge as a serious candidate — but we won't really know that until voters start going to the polls early next year.

Until then — and even, probably, thereafter — what happens in Iowa is, as Rothenberg writes, irrelevant.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Failure to Lead

"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

14th Amendment, U.S. Constitution
Section 4

Yesterday, I was talking on Facebook with a fellow I have known since we were children in Arkansas. He still lives there. I do not.

I have been in the habit, from time to time, of posting links to politically oriented articles on Facebook. If you've been reading this blog regularly, you probably have a good idea what kind of links I've been posting.

My friend is an Obama defender (a rare breed in Arkansas), and I guess he's been feeling a bit put upon lately. (As you may have noticed, many Obama defenders have been on the defensive. Some feel Obama didn't receive enough credit for the mission that took out bin Laden. Others, no doubt, have felt that the debate over the debt ceiling undermined his authority.) He took exception to my posts.

Anyway, he remarked: "We get it. You don't like Obama."

That isn't really true. I don't have anything against the man personally. In fact, in an odd kind of way, I feel about him in much the same way I did about Ronald Reagan — on a personal, not political, level.

On that personal level, I liked Reagan. I rarely agreed with him on the issues, but I liked him personally. And, on that personal level, I like Barack Obama, too. I agree with his positions on issues more than I did Reagan, but I get frustrated at his insistence on not leading.

And I have been frustrated by Obama's supporters, who have frequently accused me of being a racist when the truth is that I have disagreed with the president — or criticized his failure to lead. I challenge anyone to cite a single example where I have said something that was racist.

A presidency is not, contrary to what Karl Rove once suggested, about with whom you would rather share a beer. (OK, maybe some people treat it that way, but I don't.) When I vote in a presidential election, I am not picking a drinking buddy. I am picking the person I want to lead my country in the next four years.

And even if I don't vote for the candidate who wins (and that has happened much too frequently in my life), I still expect the winner to lead. I may not like the direction, but at least I have a clear idea where we're going.

I prefer that to a rudderless ship of state.

Obama appears to want to run for re–election on his terms. He wants to be the outsider he was in 2008, free to criticize policy. But he isn't an outsider anymore. He is an incumbent and, as such, he is part of the process now.

The policies are his.

With outsiders, voters can only rely upon their gut instincts about whether the candidate would have what it takes to lead a nation of more than 300 million people. It is mostly hypothetical.

With incumbents, voters have had many opportunities to see for themselves. It is not hypothetical.

I suppose that, because of Obama's twin messages of hope and change, a majority of voters in 2008 believed he possessed those leadership qualities, that he had a definite idea where he wanted to take America. I never felt that way. I don't know why. It was my gut reaction.

I didn't vote for Obama in 2008 (actually, I voted for Ralph Nader), but if he showed even the slightest inclination toward leadership, I would consider voting for him in 2012. To date, he has not.

And that was the gist of my response to my friend.

I didn't want to say that I think Obama is a likable guy — because that isn't what the presidency is about to me. Obama's likability is not relevant to whether he can do the job.

I think it is important to like the president, but that is secondary to someone who has the courage to stand for what he believes is best for the nation.

"He isn't leading, Paul," I replied.

Paul's response? "I figure it's pretty difficult to lead a bunch of spoiled petulant whiney–assed teabaggers who operate under a 'Scorched Earth' policy. S&P stated that it appeared that the Bush II tax cuts would not expire, therefore no increased revenue. There's only so much that can be cut from a budget."

I replied that Obama could have invoked the Fourteenth Amendment.

When most people speak of the Fourteenth Amendment, they do so in the context of its provisions for citizenship, due process and equal protection, which are important, to be sure, but the amendment also addresses the subject of public debt. It was a little–known provision of the amendment until recently.

Legal scholars disagree over the powers that the amendment gives to the president. Some have said that it gives the president the authority to raise or ignore the debt ceiling and that, if challenged in court, the ruling likely would be in the president's favor — if the court agreed to hear it at all.

Others have said the amendment does not give such power to the chief executive.

In the legal community, it is seen as an unresolved issue.

Seems to me the debt ceiling debate of 2011 would have been a good time to test it — since it has never been tested before. Both sides mentioned during that debate how many times presidents from both parties had sought to raise the debt ceiling.

I figured this would be a good time to settle it — hopefully, once and for all.

But this was Paul's response: "Congress would promptly draw up impreachment papers."

"On what grounds?" I asked.

"They'd think of something," he replied.

Ah, yes, the infamous "they." Nearly every president in my memory — and/or his defenders/supporters — has fallen back on that one, in one way or another. They are always engaged in some kind of conspiracy against the incumbent.

Richard Nixon probably was the best at that claim. He always believed someone was out to get him — which may or may not have been true. But most of his predecessors have come to believe something similar.

I guess it is a natural progression for a president, often isolated in the White House, from the adulation of the campaign trail to a feeling of persecution once in office.

But a president's supporters are not isolated. They're outside the Beltway where they can see the effects of public policy on their friends, neighbors, co–workers (if they still have their jobs).

My friend's recitation of the company line suggests to me that Obama's failure to lead is beginning to wear on his supporters, and that does not augur well for his re–election campaign, no matter how much money he has raised.

I get the sense that Obama's supporters are becoming demoralized

I had to ask my friend, "Is fear of impeachment a valid excuse for a president not to lead?" He didn't reply.

Is leadership really that important? Well, it's definitely a component of job approval, and that, I believe, is a key figure, one that a president who is seeking a second term ignores at his peril. It addresses the general feeling people have about their president — and, with the exception of the brief bounce he experienced after the killing of bin Laden in early May, Obama's approval rating has languished in the 40s almost nonstop for two years.

At a comparable point in his first term, George W. Bush enjoyed approval ratings in the 50s.

President Clinton's approval ratings, like Obama's, were in the 40s in his third year in office. He went on to win a second term, the only Democrat to do so since FDR, so he is something of a motivational figure for this White House — but there were some important differences.

In 1995, Clinton's approval numbers were slowly beginning to move in an upward trajectory — and he achieved it largely because he demonstrated presidential leadership in the face of a Congress in which both chambers were controlled by the opposition party — which was every bit as committed to removing Clinton from office then as it is to removing Obama today.

Clinton, of course, eventually faced impeachment proceedings — which may be the reason my friend is skittish about impeachment, but he needn't be. Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, which would have to convict for the president to be removed from office. Two–thirds of the Senate would have to vote for conviction, and I don't think that is likely to happen with this Senate and this president.

Maybe my friend is concerned about the prospect of the executive branch of government being preoccupied with impeachment proceedings during an election year, and the Clinton experience is fresh in his mind. I suppose that is a legitimate fear — but there is more for Obama to learn from the Clinton presidency.

Clinton knew the importance of leadership. Maybe it was his extensive experience as a state governor, experience that Obama did not bring with him to the West Wing.

Clinton said he would not have hesitated to invoke the 14th Amendment, and I think its application would have shown, at the very least, that this president is engaged, that he is thinking beyond the next election and is concerned with how he can leave the presidency better than he found it.

And sparing future presidents the ordeal to which the debt ceiling debate — and the subsequent lowering of the national credit rating — subjected the White House and the American people is a good way to do that.

Instead, I have heard more and more people lamenting the absence of leadership in this White House. That affects a president's job approval — which will, in turn, affect his vote totals.

I ask again — "Is fear of impeachment a valid excuse for a president not to lead?"

Monday, August 8, 2011

What Might Have Been

I happened to overhear something last week that started me musing.

I was standing in line at the grocery store, and two women were ahead of me. I'm not sure what their relationship was — friends, neighbors, sisters? — but they appeared to be purchasing items for a summer cookout.

Anyway, they were talking about the debt ceiling debate while waiting their turn to check out.

It's such a shame, one said, that the two sides can't put aside their partisan bickering and put the interests of the nation first.

Yes, the other agreed. This would never have happened if Hillary Clinton had been nominated instead of Barack Obama.

The first one nodded. Hillary would have been a better president, she said.

I didn't hear the rest of the conversation. It was their turn to be checked out, and their attention turned to that. I presume the what–if discussion continued after they transferred their groceries to their car and began driving wherever the cookout was going to be held.

But I had started thinking about the proposition, and I am still thinking about it a week later.

If you recall, that was what the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination came to be about — when the only candidates still standing were Clinton and Obama. In the final weeks of the battle for the nomination, it wasn't about the economic collapse (which really didn't occur until after the party conventions) or six–digit monthly job losses. It was about misogyny vs. racism.

This much was certain. The Democratic ticket would be historic. It would be symbolic. But that was about all that was certain as the primary campaign entered the homestretch. Would the nominee be the first black or the first woman?

Racism won out — which, I have heard it said, was the reason why John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. He hoped to win the support of disaffected female voters.

I don't know if that is true or not, but, if it is, I suppose that, by the same logic, McCain would have chosen a minority (a black man or, perhaps, an Hispanic) if Hillary had been the nominee.

That's speculation, of course — a little gentle musing — just as it is speculation, at this time, knowing what we know in 2011 that none of us knew in 2008, to suggest that someone else would have done better than the president who was elected.

We'll never know, of course, because Hillary and John Edwards — and all but one of the others who sought the '08 Democratic nomination — didn't win the prize. Obama did.

Yet, it does become progressively more difficult to rationalize what has happened during this presidency — and, as it does become more difficult, I guess it is only natural to think of the paths that were not taken.

A different president might have faced different conditions by this time, but the conditions upon entering the presidency would have been the same for anyone — and a different president might still have called for some sort of economic stimulus.

There was a lot of pressure at the time for the new president to do something to give the economy a boost, and I think it is reasonable to assume that the new president would have pressed for a stimulus package. The amounts and priorities probably would have been different under different presidents, and it is a matter of speculation how those differences might have affected the economy of 2011.

As I have written here before, I was a supporter of Edwards early in the campaign. Given the revelations about him that have surfaced in recent years, it is hard not to imagine him being a weak chief executive at this point in his term.

I don't know what kind of stimulus package he might have pressed for, or what kind of bargains he might have been willing to make to get them — but, considering the kind of information about his private life that he almost certainly would have wanted to keep from the voters, I can't help thinking he would have been vulnerable to considerable manipulation in office.

Hillary would have been a different matter. Her life had been an open book in America for more than 15 years (and in Arkansas for more than a decade before that). She had been first lady for eight years. She didn't need to introduce herself to the American public.

Maybe what she would have needed to do in the general election campaign is re–introduce herself to the public — as a potential president.

One of the concerns about Hillary's candidacy that I heard expressed time and time again in 2008 was the suggestion that electing Clinton would mean that, from 1988 through (presumably) 2012 (at least), the United States would be governed by two dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons. It was time for a break from the two families that had been running the country for the last two decades, I heard Hillary's critics say.

I suppose that Hillary would have had to constantly reassure voters that she, not her husband, would be setting policy.

And there was a segment of the electorate that was worried about former President Clinton being on the loose in the White House with no responsibilities, free to approach any intern in the West Wing at any time.

Issues about being the first woman president might have come up as well, but my memory of the 2008 campaign is that little was said about Obama's race. Most of the attention was on the economic disaster. Perhaps the gender issue wouldn't have been raised.

One thing that seems sure to be mentioned, at some point, is the squabble over the debt ceiling limit that appears to be the main reason why S&P lowered the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+.

Some people have mentioned the 14th Amendment and asserted that Obama should have invoked it to end the impasse, thus avoiding the impression that S&P got that Americans have allowed their politics to run wild, creating an unstable economic environment.

Perhaps they have, but that is the kind of thing a leader is supposed to prevent from happening. And a lot of people think Obama could have done that by invoking the 14th Amendment — which most people may remember for being the post–Civil War amendment that overruled the Dred Scott decision on citizenship, but, in fact, it also stated that the public debt, duly authorized by Congress, "shall not be questioned."

Legal experts disagree over the powers that clause gives a president. There are those who felt a demonstration of firm presidential leadership was what was called for while others contend that anything Obama did would have been overturned as unconstitutional.

Although he taught constitutional law before being elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama appears to be in the latter camp, convinced that the issue is resolved — although it really isn't.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, said he wouldn't hesitate to use it — and, if a similar debt ceiling debate had occurred in a Hillary Clinton presidency, one can logically assume that he would have urged her to do so as well.

Obama could have helped better define the role of the president by invoking the 14th Amendment, as well as possibly sparing the nation the first decline in its credit rating history. Eventually, it might all have been overturned by the courts, but there is nothing, beyond some legal opinions, to suggest that is absolutely what would have happened.

If nothing else, Obama might have shaped the rules for the next debate on the debt ceiling, possibly saving himself or his successor another long, destructive legislative battle in the near future.

Sometimes presidents must be creative, must think outside the box.

They must be leaders.