Friday, October 21, 2011

Sic Semper Tyrannis

"Sic semper tyrannis — Thus always to tyrants."

Latin phrase

When I heard the news that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had been killed, it came as no real surprise to me.

It's been this way as long as I can remember — and, according to the undocumented history of the Latin phrase, it goes back at least to the time of Julius Caesar, when he was killed with the words "sic semper tyrannis!"

Modern historians have suggested that phrase wasn't really spoken when Caesar was killed, that it was a literary invention that came into existence upon the re–telling of his assassination. To my knowledge, there is no record of what was actually said (if anything was) when Brutus stabbed Caesar.

There is no real record of what Caesar said as he was dying, either. According to the play that Shakespeare wrote about the assassination roughly 1,500 years after the fact, Caesar uttered a brief phrase — "Et tu, Brute?" (which, in English, means, "And you, Brutus?" or "You, too, Brutus?"), suggesting that he was acquainted with his assailant.

I have seen no evidence that Gadhafi knew his killer(s) so "sic semper tyrannis" may not be entirely appropriate to this particular case, but the people of Libya knew him all too well. There can be no doubt that Gadhafi's was a brutal regime, as brutal as any dictatorship in the memory of any living person.

It isn't always appropriate to apply that phrase. The most blatant example of that, I think, was when John Wilkes Booth spoke those words after shooting Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at point–blank range. Few people, even at the time, considered Lincoln a tyrant.

Also, I would argue that it is inappropriate as a state motto — which it is for the commonwealth of Virginia. But I guess that really isn't my business since I don't live in Virginia (neither, for that matter, do I live in New Hampshire, and I've never really felt that state's motto — "Live free or die" — was particularly appropriate, either — although a persuasive case can be made for its use since it is rooted in early American history).

There clearly are times, though, when "sic semper tyrannis" fits the circumstances. The phrase comes to mind when one hears of notorious dictators who have been killed or driven from power by the people who have been subjugated.

For example, opinions of the invasion of Iraq were sharply divided, but few people would disagree that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who deserved to be overthrown.

Likewise, it came to mind in the spring when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt. In the 1980s, when Ferdinand Marcos was driven from the Philippines, it came to mind.

I guess it even came to mind when Osama bin Laden was killed in early May — although "tyrant" and "terrorist" are not really interchangeable terms.

No, that phrase isn't always applied appropriately — like the modern tendency for followers of a political ideology to compare leaders of other ideologies to Hitler and the Nazis — but I suspect there are few who would disagree with its application to Gadhafi.

He ruled Libya for more than four decades, and violence was a way of life for him. He sought to give the world the impression that the Libyan people were really in charge via "a nationwide system of congresses and committees," as Ronald Bruce St John writes at, but, in truth, he controlled things with an iron fist.

Nearly all Libyans under the age of 50 have no memory of life under anyone but Gadhafi, but, on Thursday, they celebrated the opportunity to find out what that might be like. I saw footage on the news of Libyans celebrating in the streets, in their cars. Most looked like they couldn't have been born yet when Gadhafi seized power.

It will be the responsibility of the United States and the other republics of the world to help Libya take its first fledgling steps into freedom. That is going to be a considerable undertaking, considering the many crises facing the world's economies.

No one knows yet what forms this challenge may take in the coming months or years. It may require money or military support. At times, lip service may be sufficient. All that is certain is that such a transition will be bumpy. It always is. It will require a long–term commitment.

In the end, the world's republics, like parents watching their children grow, will have to let Libya make its own mistakes and carve out its own path. Libya's path will never be the same as the one the early Americans walked more than 200 years ago, and Libya's experiences with its new government almost certainly will not duplicate the experiences of any other existing republic in the world.

Parents are often regarded as tyrants by their children. Over time, most prove to their children that they are not tyrants by gradually giving them more freedom to make and learn from their mistakes. It is often painful for parents, but they know they must do it, just as they know their children will never be carbon copies of themselves.

The United States will offer advice to Libya in the years to come, just as a parent would offer advice to a child, but Americans must be prepared to support Libya's maturation as a republic even if they don't always approve of the shape that republic may take.

Then, perhaps, Libya — and the rest of the world — will truly understand what has happened.

What is happening.

Sic semper tyrannis.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'I Still Laugh When I Am Able ...'

Today is the birthday of my childhood friend Phyllis.

It's the second one since she passed away in August 2010.

I still miss her, as so many others do, but the pain has been receding for me since this day last year. I guess I was more melancholy then. I think I'm doing better now. It was, after all, barely two months since my friend had died. I was still grieving.

I think of Phyllis nearly every day — which is the most I can truthfully say about almost everyone I have lost except my mother (I think of her every day) — and, on this day, I kind of feel the way a mutual friend of ours apparently does.

On Facebook earlier today, he posted this:
"I miss you so freakin' much. Got that clock fixed you and Hawk gave me. I still laugh when I am able ..."
That, as I have mentioned before, may be the most enduring memory I have of Phyllis — the laughter. Even at the most somber points of my life, she could make me laugh.

And she would join in with a laugh of her own that made you feel warm all over like hot chocolate on a bitter winter day.

There must be others on this planet who can make you feel that way, but, if there are, I doubt that I will ever meet them. I do not expect to have that kind of laughter in my life again.

Phyllis was a laughter enabler. She could coax it from you, whether you wanted it to be coaxed or not.

It was just one of her many talents.

I, too, still laugh when I am able. I'm just not able as often as I once was.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

'Democrat Wars'

Lately, a proposal that is usually made as a way to offer a glimmer of hope to an embattled president seeking re–election — dropping the vice president from the ticket — has resurfaced.

In the case of Barack Obama, the idea has been bandied about for more than a year now. The latest to bring it up is Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun–Times, who writes that "[t]he idea still has juice" and that Joe Biden's logical replacement would be Hillary Clinton, providing instant appeal to certain groups with whom Obama had problems in 2008.

Washington acknowledges, though, that, while the president "has been having a very bad year," her most reliable source in these matters, a political science professor with expertise in the American presidency, says changing running mates would be "admitting failure." It would smack of desperation, the professor says, and "I just don't think they're at a point of desperation."

I don't know if this White House has reached such a point of desperation yet — and I have my doubts about the mindset that suggests that dropping a vice president from the ticket is going to make up for any perceived shortcomings in the president — but I find the timing of all this to be ironic.

It is just about taken for granted these days that a presidential general election campaign is going to include televised debates.

The series of Kennedy–Nixon debates of 1960 has achieved a somewhat mythical status in American history. They were the first — and, for several years, the only — such debates. They blazed a trail that almost disappeared in the accumulated undergrowth of time and inattention.

The major–party nominees did not debate each other in the next three presidential election years, but, in 1976, they agreed to a series of debates.

And, in every succeeding presidential election year, at least one debate has been held.

As I say, presidential debates were not new in 1976, but they were exceedingly rare. A debate between the vice presidential nominees, however, was new, and the first one was held 35 years ago tonight in Houston.

Now, historically, the job description for the vice president is kind of sparse. Most folks think of the vice president as sort of a president–in–waiting, the first in line if the incumbent president is unable to serve.

But that particular role was not spelled out in the Constitution until the passage of the 25th Amendment — and every vice president who became president following the death of the incumbent between 1841 and 1963 (that is eight in all) did so based on an assumption that was made when William Henry Harrison died in 1841, not on any sort of constitutional provision.

Traditionally, the vice president serves as the president of the Senate, which means very little. It is the vice president's job to maintain order — and he may vote, but only in the event of a tie. The vice president has also served as the United States' representative at the weddings and funerals of foreign dignitaries.

For the most part, though, vice presidents have been, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, John Garner, the executive branch's "spare tire."

(Ironically, the 1976 Republican presidential nominee, Gerald Ford, was the first — and, so far, only — vice president who became president following the adoption of the 25th Amendment.)

That made it difficult to ask questions that were relevant to the constitutional definition of the job. Maybe that is why vice presidential nominees never debated before Oct. 15, 1976. I mean, no one would tune in to watch vice presidential nominees arguing about which one was more experienced at sitting through long meetings or handling jet lag.

So the emphasis was on the role of president–in–waiting, practically assuming that one, if not both, would become president eventually (and, in fact, both were nominated for the presidency in future elections, but neither was elected), and the nominees debated topics that were more appropriate for presidential nominees. They did not discuss the kinds of situations they were most likely to face as vice president.

That alone turned the debate into an exercise in the hypothetical — and then Republican nominee Bob Dole, who hoped to bail out President Ford following his unfortunate gaffe in his debate with Jimmy Carter a week before, compared the number of American casualties in "Democrat wars" in the 20th century to the population of Detroit.

Democrat Walter Mondale protested that the wars had bipartisan support, and post–debate surveys indicated that a majority of viewers felt Dole's comments were unduly harsh.

"Does he really mean that there was a partisan difference over our involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany?" Mondale asked incredulously, echoing the response of many viewers.

In his book about the 1976 campaign, "Marathon," Jules Witcover wrote:

"[A]s I sat at my typewriter at the Washington Post, watching the debate on television and writing the article about it against a late deadline, I thought of Richard Nixon," Witcover wrote. "It was reminiscent of Nixon's seesaw performance at his famous 'last press conference' of 1962 ... There was a nervous, erratic quality about Dole, a carelessness. He spun off snide remarks almost as if he were unaware of the huge television audience or, perhaps more accurately, as if he were intentionally disdainful of it."

I always felt Witcover was on target in his assessment of Dole, and the characterization of his comments during the debate as "snide" describes them perfectly.

As he got older, Dole's personality seemed to mellow, but, in 1976, his brashness simply rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

I never felt that he was much of a plus for the Republican ticket to begin with — and he certainly wasn't on this night 35 years ago.

In hindsight, Ford might have been better served by retaining the vice president he appointed when he succeeded Nixon — Nelson Rockefeller. But conservative Republicans, who were in the process of seizing control of the party, would not have stood for that — even if it could have been satisfactorily demonstrated to them that Rockefeller's more amiable personality went over better with mainstream voters.

I often think too much emphasis is placed on the vice presidential nomination — as if observers expect the running mate to become president automatically, but we've had seven vice presidents since Ford became president and only one has gone on to become president — and he did so mostly because he had the good fortune to run in the wake of a popular president who was prohibited by law from seeking a third term.

There is also too much emphasis on — and too little historical evidence to demonstrate — the running mate's potential to attract voters who have not been enthusiastic about the presidential nominee. In 1976, Dole was expected to help win over conservatives who opposed Ford in the primaries, thus uniting the party for victory in November.

But that didn't happen.

And I don't think replacing Biden with anyone, Hillary or anyone else, is the answer for what ails Obama.

Like the criticism that historians often have of generals, that they are guilty of fighting the last war, not the latest one. The groups that preferred Hillary over Obama in 2008 wanted her to be president, not vice president, and I've seen no evidence that those groups would be more favorably inclined to support Obama now than they were then.

When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom about running mates was that, at best, they should do no harm to the ticket. They were even expected to help the ticket, to a certain extent, but not to win the election for the ticket.

That was — and, as far as I can tell, still is — the presidential nominee's responsibility.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Remembering the Old Gray Lady

Next Tuesday — October 18 — probably won't have much significance for most people.

Oh, I guess they'll have a party of some sort in Sarah Palin's home. It's Bristol's 21st birthday, and Sarah will have no excuse not to be there since she isn't running for president.

Like any other day on the calendar, October 18 has had some noteworthy events, although most have been, to borrow Lincoln's phrasing, little noted nor long remembered.

But tomorrow, a group of my friends and former colleagues will gather in Little Rock in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the final edition of the Arkansas Gazette.

For them — and for those of us who cannot be there in person but will be there in spirit — it is like remembering a departed loved one.

I am sure it will be a bittersweet occasion. Some of the folks who gather may not have seen each other since the Gazette went out of business, and others literally spent their lives in dedication to standards of excellence that had been long established.

For many who attended the University of Arkansas and majored in journalism — and studied reporting under the tutelage of Roy Reed, whose journalism career included tours of duty at the Gazette and the New York Times — we were prepared for eventual careers at the Gazette much like ball clubs groom ballplayers in the minors.

It never surprised me when one of us gravitated to the Gazette. Most of the time, it was more a question of when, not if.

I spent more than 4½ years of my life working on the Gazette's sports copy desk, but my memories of the Gazette go back even farther — to my childhood. I grew up reading the Gazette. It chronicled the events that shaped the world in which I lived.

I still have copies of the Gazette reporting that men walked on the moon and Richard Nixon decided to resign. My mother saved them for me in plastic bags to preserve them, but her strategy has had mixed results. The bags have failed to keep those papers from aging, but they have managed to slow the aging process.

I will always remember when I was offered a job at the Gazette.

It was a chilly, mid–December day. I had come in to take my editing test a few days earlier, and I was overwhelmed with awe at merely being inside the building where so many writers whose work I admired came and went every day. Working at the Gazette had been my dream, and — lo and behold — I found myself in its newsroom.

To say that I felt very small at that moment would be an understatement, but I pressed on and completed the test — although it was often tempting to look up and gawk at the reporters whose names I knew so well milling about. A few days later, after my test had been evaluated, I was asked to return. I was ushered into the office of one of the editors, who told me my editing had been unremarkable "but your headlines were exceptional."

He had to leave the office for a few minutes — I never found out why — and I glanced at the copy of the Gazette on the corner of the desk while I waited. Before long, I will be part of this newspaper, I remember thinking to myself. Nothing had been offered yet so I guess that was wishful thinking on my part — but it did come to pass a few minutes later.

When it did, I can honestly say I have never felt such jubilation in my life.

I raced to my car and drove home, eager to call my parents in Dallas and share the news. My mother was especially excited, having been an admirer of the Gazette at least since it publicly supported the integration of Little Rock's Central High School (and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service), and my memory of that conversation is that she finished my sentences for me.

"I was called in for a meeting with Mister ..." I began.

"Patterson!" she finished for me and literally squealed with delight. My mother actually squealed! On the other end of the line, I was grinning from ear to ear.

The time I spent on the Gazette staff was not nearly as important as when men walked on the moon or Nixon resigned, I guess, although those years did include some noteworthy things to which most people probably won't devote much, if any, thought until such time as they stumble on to the accounts they find in dusty archives or on microfilm (if it even exists anymore).

But they were important at the time.

And that was what drove us.

We who worked for the Gazette — in my day and, I suspect, well into the 19th century — gave little, if any, thought to how our words would be perceived in years to come by future generations. Our motives were more blue collar than that, I suppose. We sought to keep our readers informed of what was happening in their world at that time. The future would have to take care of itself.

The Gazette had a proud history, and I was proud to be a part of it. Until 1991, it was known as the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi.

It began its existence in a place called Arkansas Post, Arkansas' territorial capitol in the southeastern quadrant of the state, in 1819. A fellow named William Woodruff printed the first edition.

Woodruff, who was originally from New York, was always a pioneering sort, and, when the capitol moved to recently surveyed Little Rock a couple of years later, the Gazette moved, too. When Arkansas became a state in 1836, the Gazette was the first to report the news.

For more than half of the 20th century, the Gazette was published by a man named J.N. Heiskell. I don't know if it was because of Heiskell's influence or Woodruff's, but the Gazette sought to be the Southern version of the New York Times. It wanted to be the newspaper of record — and it adopted many of the Times' quirky style rules and peculiar spellings in its style supplement.

The Times actually was younger than the Gazette, having been founded in 1851, and had been nicknamed "the Gray Lady." Because the Gazette was older and openly tried to emulate the Times, it became known as "the Old Gray Lady."

And, in 1908, the Gazette moved to the historic building that was its home for the rest of its existence — and then served as the headquarters for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.

Just seeing pictures of that building today take me back over the years to the time when it was a huge part of my life. The memories are as thick as flies, as James Earl Jones said in "Field of Dreams," so thick you almost have to brush them away from your face with your hands.

I wasn't there at the end, when hundreds of Gazette employees lost their jobs, but I was there near the end, when the Gazette was struggling in vain to turn back its rival in a vicious newspaper war, trying to do everything it could — even though most of us, I think, realized that the Gazette had missed its opportunity several years before.

By the time the powers that be at the Gazette recognized the Arkansas Democrat for the threat it had become, it was too late. Not even the sale of the paper to the Gannett Co., with its "deep pockets" (the phrase that was always trotted out to appease Gazette staffers who were worried about the paper's future), could postpone the inevitable.

Gannett couldn't forestall the Democrat. It did drive many of us away, though — to other papers, other states, other cities, other endeavors.

I enrolled in graduate school, got my master's degree and wound up teaching editing on the college level for a time — even though I was told that my editing was unremarkable when I was hired to do precisely that at the Gazette (it is worth noting that I was in my 20s at the time).

I'm back in the classroom again, teaching news writing as an adjunct professor at the local community college — and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't refer to something I heard that was said or a decision I witnessed that was made at the Gazette.

Some of the people I worked with in those days are no longer living, but I'm sure that those who are still around, whether they are in Little Rock tomorrow or not, would say that their time at the Gazette has had a lasting influence on their lives, too.

It was special. It may be the most important work I will ever do in my life. I'm proud of that, and I'm proud of the people with whom I worked.

I wish I could be with them tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

He Said, She Said

Twenty years ago, the nation watched as the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — while outside opposition to his appointment was growing, based on his past positions on topics like affirmative action and abortion.

Many Democrats suspected that Thomas had been selected to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall solely because both were black and Thomas would maintain the Supreme Court's existing racial balance. But Marshall and Thomas certainly didn't share the same views, and groups like the NAACP and NOW feared a shift in the Court's ideological balance.

Absent something truly troubling, though, most presidents' Supreme Court nominees are approved, regardless of how they may affect things ideologically, so Thomas seemed sure to receive the Senate's routine blessing — until this day in 1991.

For it was on this day 20 years ago that something troubling did emerge that threatened to derail Thomas' confirmation.

On Oct. 11, 1991, University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill walked into the hearing room and dropped a bombshell.

As Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post recalled recently, it was "both riveting and horrifying."

A former colleague, Hill testified that Thomas made sexual comments to her on the job and pressured her to go out with him. She wasn't sure if his conduct would meet the legal conditions for sexual harassment, but she said that, in her opinion, it was illegal.

That wasn't the issue, though, she said. She wanted to focus on the nature of Thomas' behavior and the fact that it had been inappropriate — even if it was not explicitly illegal.

And, after she related her version of events, no one really knew what to expect. But everyone had an opinion.

If you believed Thomas, it followed logically that you thought Hill was lying. If you believed Hill, the logical conclusion was that Thomas was lying.

There was simply no way to reconcile the two as some kind of bizarre misunderstanding that could be easily clarified — as in, "Well, yes, senator, as a matter of fact I did make a rather casual remark about a pubic hair on a Coca–Cola can, but what I really meant by that was ..."

I was in graduate school at the time, studying journalism and working part time as a teaching assistant, and I remember watching my students, especially the girls, as they listened to the radio broadcasts of the hearings in the editing lab, where I worked on weekday afternoons.

It had been a newsy year, what with the whirlwind Gulf War and all that, but this was a different kind of topic for the girls in my news editing lab. They couldn't necessarily relate to the experience of fighting in a war on foreign soil, even though many people their age (and, almost certainly, people with whom they had been in high school only a few years earlier) were serving their country in that part of the world, but the hearing's subject matter was something to which they could relate, something with which many of them had dealt at one time or another and in one form or another, even at that tender phase of their lives.

And they didn't like what they were hearing from someone who could serve on the Court for an indefinite period of time (in fact, Thomas is still on the Court nearly two decades after being confirmed and, at the age of 63, conceivably could be on the Court for two more).

When the full Senate voted on Thomas' nomination shortly after Hill's testimony, the girls in my lab listened intently to the radio. Nearly all seemed dismayed when the Senate approved that nomination by the closest margin in more than 100 years.

We never discussed that event in depth, but I overheard snippets of their conversations, and I have often wondered what kind of message that confirmation vote sent to the young women of America.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Herman Cain to Unemployed: Drop Dead

"Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

Herman Cain

OK, Herman Cain never told the nation's 14 million unemployed or underemployed Americans to drop dead.

Neither, for that matter, did President Ford tell New York City to drop dead — as a famous headline in the New York Daily News proclaimed during Ford's brief White House tenure.

But Ford might as well have told New York to drop dead, and the same applies to Cain and like–minded Republicans in 2011.

Ford was a Republican, and he was taking a stand against a federal bailout of a city that was struggling. I suppose modern Republicans — openly applauding, as they have recently, the refusal of medical care to someone because that person is not insured — would hail Ford as a visionary.

I have a feeling Cain would have liked the stand against bailouts — except, of course, for those cases in which he would be in favor of them. With today's Republicans — hell, with politicians in general — it's hard to say.

It all really depends, as an acquaintance of mine used to say, on whose ox is being gored.

Cain, of course, was defending New York — or, at least, Wall Street — against the angry protests from citizens who are understandably irked that the financiers have profited from their selfish practices that caused so much pain for many millions of Americans who, as a result of others' creative accounting practices, lost their jobs.

Whose fault was that, Mr. Cain?

Now, I'll be the first to admit that there are always a couple of bad apples in any given barrel. But, as a song from my youth reminded listeners in those days, "One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch." Prejudice is prejudice, whether it is based on race or religion or age or gender — or financial status.

The Great Recession has deprived America of the efforts of many creative, talented people, and it is simply wrong for anyone who knows nothing about individual circumstances to make a blanket assertion that the unemployed are to blame for not having a job.

The vast majority of the unemployed are not to blame for their plight, and it is to Cain's everlasting shame that he does blame them.

What's next? Will he blame the sick and the handicapped for their conditions? Will he blame the elderly for coming down with maladies that typically afflict older people?

America was once a country that offered a helping hand to those who were struggling, but, somehow, America has gone from being a place that sought to judge people on the content of their characters to a place that judges people on the content of their bank accounts. Well, most politicians do, regardless of party.

All the politicians, from the Oval Office on down, want money, lots of it. If they speak of encouraging job creation, it is mostly lip service, intended to gain votes but said in a kind of nudge, nudge, wink, wink sort of way to the money boys. We won't really hold you accountable, it implies.

No, they can't risk offending the money boys — or, for that matter those who have grown comfortable in their rapidly dwindling middle–class lifestyles and for whom the thought of being unemployed is like indigestion or the sight of a homeless person panhandling at an intersection — temporarily unpleasant, but, once gone from one's thoughts, it is forgotten, replaced by musings about this weekend's cookout or the impending release of the latest electronic gadget — and those who can afford it (and even some who cannot) will still contribute money to candidates who promise them they can keep what little they still have.

Money is power. Money is clout. Money buys advertising time. The unemployed can't afford to contribute much to political campaigns — their money is tied up in staying alive. But the financiers, the bankers, the Wall Streeters do have money, lots of it, and politicians in both parties shamelessly pursue it.

It's not your fault, Cain and others like him soothingly tell Wall Street. It's those greedy unemployed people. If they had any gumption, they'd go out and get a job or start their own business and make a fortune like Steve Jobs.

I share the rage that many people feel toward Wall Street, but I try to be rational about it. As I have observed so many times, things are rarely black and white. Most of the time, they are distinguished by subtle shades of gray.

I rather liked what Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic: "There are honest and dishonest people on Wall Street, sensible and absurd people in the Occupy Wall Street, accurate and inaccurate critiques of American finance."

It is counter–productive to obsess about blame as we have a tendency to do in our culture these days. After all, Democrats promised to close Guantanamo and bring the troops home. I have Democrat friends who insist that these steps, along with taxing the rich, will put the economy back on track.

And I have Republican friends who blame excessive regulation and Obamacare for restricting job creation.

And neither side will concede that the other might have a good point or two.

We also have a tendency to rush to judgment. When Bush was president, critics were dismissed as unpatriotic. During Obama's presidency, critics have been dismissed as racist. Neither side cared about legitimate concerns that were raised. That's no way to build a consensus.

It's been easier for both sides to adopt a take–no–prisoners–all–or–nothing approach to governing — to rely on shaming the other side.

Well, the shame is on the politicians. And a good place to start is with Herman Cain.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ford's Self-Inflicted Wound

On this night in 1976, President Ford and Jimmy Carter met in the second of their three televised debates.

Ford had been making gains on Carter since their first debate. He still trailed Carter in the polls by a considerable margin, but that margin clearly was narrowing. And Carter, who was known to be a "born again" Christian, received negative publicity for an interview he gave to Playboy.

In early October 1976, things seemed to be moving in Ford's direction.

However, Ford himself froze his momentum in its tracks with what can only be called a self–inflicted wound.

When the candidates met in San Francisco 35 years ago tonight, the subject was foreign policy, which was generally regarded as a strength of Republican nominees during the Cold War.

Carter, perhaps feeling particularly vulnerable after surveys had indicated that more people thought Ford won the first debate than thought Carter did and his interview with Playboy drew a sharp response from feminist leaders and Christian evangelicals, went on the offensive from the start.

Ford retaliated gamely, and the tone of the second debate was established. This would be a bare–knuckles brawl.

In their first debate, Carter seemed intimidated by Ford's office. "[T]his time, the aura of the presidency was no shield for Ford," wrote Jules Witcover in "Marathon," his account of the '76 campaign.

Carter was not as timid as he had often appeared in the first debate. He was aggressive, hammering away at every opening, and I recall thinking, about 10 or 15 minutes into the debate, that Ford seemed almost shocked. This wasn't the Jimmy Carter he had expected.

But that hardly explained what happened next. Max Frankel of the New York Times, in a question about U.S.–Soviet relations, observed that "[w]e've virtually signed ... an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe" and proceeded to ask Ford, "Is that what you call a two–way street of traffic in Europe?"

Astonishingly, Ford replied — as he concluded a rather routine recitation of "several examples" in which his administration had negotiated with the Soviets "from a position of strength" — that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."

The remark was patently ridiculous.

Some of Ford's defenders — and the president himself — later tried to put a positive spin on the remark. They would claim that Ford was really saying that his administration had never acknowledged Soviet domination of eastern Europe.

And that had a defiant, almost revolutionary, sound to it — except that wasn't precisely what he said.

When NPR's Pauline Frederick, the moderator, tried to go to Carter for his rebuttal, Frankel interjected with a followup for Ford.

"[D]id I understand you to say, sir," he asked in disbelief, "that the Russians are not using eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it's a Communist zone?"

Given an opportunity to explain himself then, on the spot, Ford further muddied the waters, saying this instead:

"I don't believe ... that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous: it has its own territorial integrity and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."

The damage had been done.

James Naughton of the New York Times observed an "audible intake of air" in the theater that night, Witcover wrote. Even more tellingly, Ford committee director Stuart Spencer, who was watching the debate with security adviser Brent Scowcroft, remembered that "Scowcroft went white. Right then I knew we had problems."

In hindsight, I suppose, Ford's remarks could almost be regarded as prophetic, considering the events that unfolded in the decade to come. But, on this night in 1976, it was nothing less than ludicrous to suggest that Poland and the other countries in eastern Europe were not dominated by the Soviet Union.

But Carter, sensing a vulnerability that he could exploit, said that Ford must have known about the presence of Soviet troops in eastern Europe. If he did not, he was incompetent. If he did and ignored them, pretended they did not exist, he had been dishonest. That was about as blunt as the choice could be. The president of the United States was stupid or a liar. There was no third alternative.

Asked later by Witcover about his reply, Ford admitted he had been "a little careless" but doggedly continued to stand by what he had said.

But it was no temporary storm that had to be ridden out. For Gerald Ford, it was much worse than that. Even before he became president, Ford had been ridiculed by Lyndon Johnson, who suggested that Ford, a star football player at Michigan, had played football too often without a helmet in the years before he was elected to the House.

(LBJ also once said that "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time" — which reporters cleaned up to read "Ford can't walk and chew gum at the same time." I've never been sure which comparison was more damaging.)

In short, it was the resurrection of the ghost that Ford's staff feared the most — the impression that he was dumb. It had plagued him since his career in the House. It had been a national joke when he stumbled a couple of times in front of TV cameras, launching some of Chevy Chase's most memorable skits on Saturday Night Live.

Ford never recovered.

Some people thought at the time — and some people still believe — that Ford's gaffe in the second debate kept him from winning the election, but I disagree.

I believed then — and I still believe today — that Ford was going to lose, anyway, because of the pardon of Richard Nixon. He needed everything to go his way from the time of the Republican convention to Election Day if he was to have even the slightest chance of winning. What happened 35 years ago tonight didn't help his cause.

My personal view of that decision has evolved over the years, and I have reached the point where I am partially inclined to agree with Ford, who argued that issuing a pardon was the only way to put Watergate behind us and refocus on the issues the nation faced in the mid–1970s.

But, in 1974, the majority of Americans were so angry at Nixon that, when Ford pardoned the former president, he sealed his fate with them.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Role of Government

An important intangible in the presidency is what George H.W. Bush once breezily dismissed as the "vision thing."

That is the sort of attitude that presidents who lack such a vision — and their supporters — tend to have about it. They treat it as if it isn't important, as if competence alone is all that is necessary.

(But the voters don't see it that way. Competence is kind of a relative thing, don't you think? What strikes one person as competent may well strike another as incompetent.)

I have heard defenders of Barack Obama saying much the same thing. Vision — and leadership — aren't so important, they will say. Ah, but they are important. Ask the first President Bush how important he now thinks those qualities are. Or ask President Carter.

Or ask Barack Obama in about 13 months (although my sense is that, if Obama loses — as I expect — he and his supporters will blame it on everything but his performance in office).

Based on what I have seen so far, I expect the 2012 presidential campaign to be about the weaknesses of the other side, not the strengths or achievements of a particular candidate or his vision for the future.

It will be like most of the presidential campaigns in my lifetime — voters will be easily distracted from truly pressing issues by irrelevant ones, and once again America will be deprived of the frank discussion it so desperately needs as its people decide who should lead them for the next four years.

For most voters, the choice will be which candidate to vote against, not which candidate to vote for. Not terribly inspiring.

Someone will win the election because somebody must, but the voters will be no more united than they have been after most presidential elections in my life and the direction will be no clearer.

It isn't always that way, though. Fifteen years ago tomorrow night, when President Clinton and Bob Dole squared off in Hartford, Conn., in the first of their two debates, the president opened his remarks by pledging "to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults."

And the debate began with a question that went to the heart of the candidates' visions for the nation — what they saw as the role of the federal government.

It was a question that was designed to explore the candidates' ideas in depth, and it succeeded.

"[T]he federal government should give people the tools and try to establish the conditions in which they can make the most of their own lives," Clinton said. "That, to me, is the key."

"I trust the people," Dole said. "The president trusts the government. ... Where possible, I want to give power back to the states and back to the people."

It was the start of a mature and rational discussion about issues that were important. It wasn't resolved on that night — or in the election the next month. In fact, Americans debate it still. But the discussion of the role of government was a welcome change from what had come before and the kind of thing we haven't seen since.

Those were the days.