Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sometimes a Kiss is Not Just a Kiss

"You must remember this,
A kiss is still a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh,
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by."

Herman Hupfeld
"As Time Goes By"

The royal newlyweds are off on their honeymoon today, and, to be perfectly honest, I'll be just fine if I don't see or hear anything more about this royal wedding for awhile.

But I realize that some people are really into this.

It does appear to have drawn a higher audience (in England, at least) than Charles and Diana's wedding in 1981 — which makes sense, I suppose. The world's population is larger today than it was then. If the audience was higher in England, it would follow that it would be higher elsewhere.

I slept right through the whole thing, but I know some women who got up at 3 a.m. just to watch the royal wedding — and excitedly exchanged their thoughts via Facebook, where the first to post a picture of the couple kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace was hailed by her friends as some kind of conquering hero.

That was what they had been waiting for. Not the traditional bride and groom kiss in the church, but that kiss, the one at the palace.

"It's like a fairy tale," wrote one of my friends. I could imagine the others nodding in virtual agreement.

Anyone may kiss in a church, but only a few people get to kiss at Buckingham Palace on their wedding day.

I guess they were waiting for the same thing in 1981. There were very few personal computers in those days, no commercial internet, little in the way of cable news. It was, by comparison, a technologically primitive time.

But I'm sure that photos and video clips of Charles and Diana kissing at Buckingham Palace were what everyone was waiting for. And the couple obliged.

OK, I'm a guy, and most of the guys I know just aren't into that wedding thing. Guys know that weddings really aren't about them. They are expected to show up and say "I do" at the appropriate time, but no one really seems to care, for example, about what a groom is wearing.

And if a groom tosses his boutonnière, well, I don't think that would be received too kindly by the guests. My guess is it might be interpreted as a hostile gesture.

Unless, of course, the groom happens to be a member of the royal family.

Anyway, yesterday I sort of watched from the digital shadows as my female friends conversed excitedly, speculating about which of them would be the first to post a picture of William and Kate kissing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

And it occurred to me that sometimes a kiss ain't just a kiss.

I remembered an old episode from All in the Family, when Archie objected to neighbor Irene's gift of a reproduction of Rodin's statue "The Kiss" to Mike and Gloria.

Archie thought the statue was obscene because the two people in it were naked. As far as Archie was concerned, a kiss is not just a kiss.

Nor, I suppose, was a kiss just a kiss more than a century ago, in the early days of filmmaking, when a brief film called "The Kiss" scandalized folks in 1896.

The man and woman in that film were fully clothed, and the viewers saw them only from the neck up, anyway, but that 47–second film was considered indecent by many people in those days.

I doubt that anyone would feel that way now, and I can only imagine how the people of 1896 would react if they could see some of the things that are in movies today. Standards change, and, for that and many other reasons, I believe most of the people of the late 19th century would not be comfortable in the early 21st century.

But I suspect that one thing that has not changed much is the public's fascination with royal weddings. They were probably waiting eagerly for royal newlyweds to kiss on the balcony hundreds of years ago. We just don't have the photographs to prove it.

No doubt about it. Sometimes a kiss isn't just a kiss.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pain at the Pump

Economists believe the recovery slowed as gas prices jumped in the first quarter of the year, writes Timothy Horman for

I'm no economist, but I could have told you that. I've seen it before. The most extreme example, I suppose, was about three years ago, which was the last time gas prices were this high.

Barack Obama, as focused as he is these days on his re–election campaign, is clearly influenced by what is happening at the pump. His predecessor's approval numbers in his final year in office were never impressive, but they were at their worst when gas prices were at their highest.

I have no doubt that Obama remembers those days — and perhaps with some personal fondness. I don't mean that Obama was glad that prices went so high and, in the process, hurt so many people, but they did help him present himself as the anti–Bush during his last campaign — and Obama obviously would love to recapture the messianic feeling of that time. It propelled him to the presidency.

But now rising gas prices threaten to undermine Obama's re–election campaign, and he needs to project the image of a forceful president who is being proactive. Consequently, even though he himself has acknowledged that there is little, if anything, that a president can do to influence gas prices, he promised to form a task force to examine the situation and investigate whether something illegal was being done to take advantage of consumers.

Sounds good — except, of course, that it's nothing more than a P.R. stunt.

Obama is right when he says that out–of–control speculation is to blame. But excessive speculation is based on anxiety, not necessarily criminal intent.

In my opinion, a task force simply fuels (pardon the expression) the belief that someone out there is behind this.

The anxiety might ease if, as more and more people are suggesting, the situation in Libya is resolved. Libya itself produces a relatively small portion of the world's oil supply, but there are no oil producers who can make up even a small disruption in supply so, as long as the conflict in Libya continues, it seems likely to me that gas prices will remain high.

Some contend that America could make up for that disruption by drilling domestically — in Alaska or offshore. Again, I'm not an expert in these things, but there are at least two problems I can think of with that — there isn't enough oil in those locations to radically alter prices, and it would be years before the oil could be retrieved.

I've also heard talk of eliminating tax breaks for oil companies or adding a gas tax, neither of which seems likely to have much positive short–term impact.

If oil companies lose tax breaks, the most likely outcome, I believe, is that domestic production, not prices at the pump, will be reduced to make up for the lost revenue. And a gas tax is going to raise prices, not lower them.

Either of those (or a combination of the two) could provide funds for the development of alternative energy sources or mass transit expansion, but those are long–term solutions.

There are no simple answers in the short term.

The Royal Wedding

Tomorrow, England's Prince William will marry his fiancee, Kate Middleton.

The wedding will take place in Westminster Abbey, the same place where his grandparents (Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip) exchanged vows in 1947.

There is nothing special to be taken from that observation, I suppose. Westminster Abbey has been the traditional site for coronations, funerals and weddings for centuries, but Prince William's wedding will be the first royal wedding at Westminster Abbey since William's uncle, Prince Andrew, married Sarah Ferguson there nearly 25 years ago.

William's parents, Charles and Diana, weren't married in Westminster Abbey. They were married in St. Paul's Cathedral, one of the oldest and most famous landmarks in London.

That is where Sir Winston Churchill's funeral was held. It is where Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee was held. It is where celebrations marking the end of the two World Wars were held.

And three–quarters of a billion people the world over watched on TV as William's parents' "wedding of the century," as it was called, was held there.

I really doubt that tomorrow's ceremony will draw the same kind of audience that Charles and Diana did — even though Westminster Abbey is bound to be more recognizable to most Americans than St. Paul's. Nothing against William and Kate. But Diana was always a shining star, a charismatic figure who brought a breath of fresh air to the stuffy atmosphere of Buckingham Palace.

The world simply fell in love with her when Charles introduced her as his bride to be. Charles was much older and had been a bachelor all his life. His relationships with prominent women were frequently in the news. Diana was young, beautiful, seemed a bit naive and fragile.

She was still an unknown, yet the world fell in love with her.

She turned out to be a lot tougher than she appeared on first impression, too, and I felt that she must have passed along much of that toughness to her sons. They certainly needed it to hold up so well under such public scrutiny when their mother died in the tragic car crash in Paris in 1997.

(Diana didn't seem so tough on that July day nearly 30 years ago when she and Charles were married. In fact, to me she appeared rather small and frail. She had just turned 20, and she was being thrust into the glare of a spotlight that, tragically, would be her undoing.

(I felt, when I watched that wedding, that Diana was clearly nervous. Perhaps that is why, when she was asked to repeat her fiancee's names — he has four of them — she reversed the second and third names. It is, to be sure, a "gilded goldfish bowl," as Richard Quest writes at

She grew up a lot in the time between the announcement of her engagement and the wedding. When she was first introduced to the public, she was a young kindergarten teacher. The world bore witness to her transformation.

William and his brother Harry have grown up before our eyes as well. ("That is the way monarchy works," Quest reminds us.) William was barely 15 when Diana died; Harry was not yet 13.

Now, William is nearly 29, and he is getting married, almost 30 years after his parents were married — in a place that is probably more recognizable to non–Britons than the place where Charles and Diana tied the knot.

And there is much speculation about William's future. Most people assume he will one day sit on the throne. What seems to be uncertain is when.

His grandmother, the queen, is in her mid–80s. Charles, who is next in line, is in his early 60s. Common sense says William, who is next after his father, will probably be king by the time he is in his 50s — if not sooner. I have heard some people suggest, though, that Elizabeth might change her mind, buck tradition and designate her grandson to succeed her when she dies, bypassing her son completely, and the Washington Post says a recent poll indicates nearly half of Britons would prefer to have William as king.

(I wonder how Charles would feel about the designation of "King Father.")

That, though, is definitely not how things work in a monarchy, as Quest no doubt would tell you, and even those Britons who would like to see William leapfrog Charles to the throne must know there is simply no way it is going to happen. I have the feeling, though, that, regardless of his prospects, William's wedding won't draw the same audience his mother's did — although I have heard predictions that it will match, if not exceed, it in viewership. I have my doubts about that, but it might have — if Diana had lived to participate in it.

That's kind of an odd thought, isn't it? I mean, it's sort of hard for me to imagine Diana in her 50s — and, technically, she wouldn't be. Not yet. In the mind's eye, Diana will always be the young, vibrant, beautiful woman she was in life — not entirely consistent with the image one tends to have of the mother of the groom.

But neither her marriage nor the wedding day were consistent, either.

And she will be there, if only when others compare Diana to Kate or Diana's wedding 30 years ago to the one that will take place tomorrow.

Like so many of the things in her life, Diana would not have coveted that — and I don't believe it is the kind of thing she would have wished on anyone else, least of all her daughter–in–law.

Now, I never met Diana so maybe I am not qualified to make that kind of judgment. My only contact with her was the same as it was for millions. I saw her on TV. I read about her in newspapers and magazines. From those things, I formed my opinion.

Still, based on that, I honestly believe that Diana would never have wanted to take any attention away from her son on his wedding day — even if she felt (as I'm sure she did — and as I believe she was entitled to feel) that she was deprived of the royal treatment that just about every bride gets.

(It's ironic, isn't it? On Diana's wedding day, she actually was joining a royal family, but when I watch footage of that wedding now, I get the sense that most of the royals regarded her as an outsider, an intruder — that they felt they had a much better time a dozen years earlier at Prince Charles' investiture when it was exclusively the royals with no pretenders or wannabes.)

On that day in 1981, Diana was more of a prop than anything else. I think anyone who watched it would tell you that occasion had all the pomp and circumstance one could imagine. Diana wore a beautiful dress, she carried herself regally, and the rank–and–file adored her (and continued to adore her until the day she died).

She just wasn't accepted by British upper crust. Never was, really. She was only grudgingly accepted — posthumously — by the queen.

Perhaps there are lessons in that for Kate.

If Diana had not died nearly 14 years ago, I am certain she would have been content to remain in the shadows tomorrow.

But I'm equally sure she would not hesitate to share with Kate her thoughts and experiences in dealing with the royal family and the paparazzi — after being asked.

It was never Diana's style to intrude.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Stormy Monday

Perhaps I am too quick to see the ironies in things. Maybe that is a hazard when one has been a journalist and a student of history most of his life.

Nevertheless, I do find it ironic that, two weeks ago, I wrote about my memories of the abduction, rape and murder of a sixth–grade girl in my home county 35 years ago — and, this week, the same small Arkansas town in which she lived was devastated by a tornado.

At the latest count, there were four people dead in that small town — Vilonia. To me, that is staggering.

Four fatalities in a given storm is a pretty impressive number just about anywhere, but Vilonia is merely a bump in the road by almost anyone's standards.

Even though Arkansas' governor says everyone has been accounted for and the death toll is not expected to rise, that many deaths in a place the size of Vilonia remains significant.

Ghost towns have larger populations.

It's been a long time since I lived in Arkansas. When I did, I seldom heard much about Vilonia — even when I grew up a virtual stone's throw from the place. Frankly, when I left there, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have said that I didn't expect to hear about Vilonia again — unless I moved back to Arkansas.

Since the internet boom, I have been visiting my hometown newspaper's website to keep up with the news, and, from time to time, I see Vilonia mentioned — in city council stories, in school board stories. But I rarely give much thought to it.

It is unnerving now, to say the least, to hear Vilonia mentioned on the national news and to hear the names of places I haven't thought about in years — except, of course, in the context of the memories of which I wrote two weeks ago.

Speaking of my hometown newspaper, I was visiting that site a little while ago, and I was looking at the obituaries — as I often do (it's how I have learned of the deaths of many of my old friends, teachers and others). I saw someone of whom I never heard before, an elderly lady who probably (although I don't know this for sure) lived most of her life in that little country town.

She died on Sunday. I don't know much about her. The obituary didn't mention her cause of death, but it did say there were many children and grandchildren, even great–grandchildren, who survived her.

The obituaries of the four tornado victims were posted on the website, too, but they died on Monday.

Those tornado victims, I think, will live on in Vilonia's collective memory as the casualties of Stormy Monday. I'm guessing that the lady who died on Sunday will be long remembered by her family, but not by most others.

When she is remembered, it may be in a kind of "She died the day before the Twister" way. Doesn't seem fair, does it?

I have empathy for both sides.

When I was 5, a tornado ripped through my hometown. At that tender age, I saw what nature could do. When its fury is unleashed, no man and nothing made by man can contain it. The stories of the destruction it left behind live on today.

As a child, I did something that I'm sure Arkansas schoolchildren still do. I participated in tornado drills. They were the same as the "duck and cover" drills that were designed to protect us in the event of a nuclear attack — but, by comparison, ducking and covering seemed more likely to save my life if a tornado struck.

Next week will be the 16th anniversary of my mother's death in a flash flood here in Dallas. She was a first–grade teacher so there were many children and their parents who were affected at the time, but that memory faded. By the first anniversary of her death, few people still spoke of her outside the family.

The storm itself is still remembered by some, primarily because of when it happened — Cinco de Mayo. But, if not for that, it might be forgotten by nearly everyone today even though nearly two dozen people in the Dallas–Fort Worth area died.

It happened about two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing.

That's maybe the greatest of history's ironies — how some events are overshadowed by others. But that doesn't take anything away from their significance. One of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, once observed, "Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion, a child's loss of a doll and a king's loss of a crown are events of the same size."

Take, for instance, Nov. 22, 1963. History remembers that day as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — but it was also a particularly bad day for people who appreciate good and thought–provoking writing. C.S. Lewis, the author of the "Narnia" books, and Aldous Huxley, author of (among other things) "Brave New World," also died that day.

Lewis and Huxley were overshadowed at the time — and understandably so — by the events here in Dallas, but that certainly didn't lessen the loss to the written word.

It might have remained unnoticed by most, though, if not for Peter Kreeft's 1982 novel "Between Heaven and Hell" that explored a philosophical discussion between the three men in the afterlife.

That's another thing I've noticed about history. Sometimes scales that have been tipped noticeably in one direction for a long time may slip back into balance unexpectedly.

It's still true, though, that history repeats itself. Well, perhaps not word for word.

As Twain or Will Rogers or Artemus Ward or perhaps someone else said (I've heard it attributed to many people), history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Obama Shrugged

"Prosperity is just around the corner."

Herbert Hoover
31st president of the United States

Sunny dispositions go a long way for a president, but they can't mask reality.

It probably says a lot more than most Americans would care to know (or admit) about just how shallow many of them really are, but whoever said it first probably was on to something when he observed that George W. Bush was the kind of guy with whom more folks would like to share a beer than Al Gore.

Dubya always had a partyin' frat boy approach to life, even after he stopped drinking and (allegedly) using coke. Given the choice, it came as no surprise to me to think that more people would rather sit down and drink a beer with Dubya and talk about — I don't know — baseball than would choose to sit down with Gore over a beer and talk about — I don't know — Social Security lockboxes.

It was pretty easy to make a voting decision on such superficial issues in 2000. There was a budget surplus, not a deficit that was already historic when Barack Obama took office. Wall Street was thriving, and Main Street was, too.

Remember the atmosphere when the year began? People weren't worried about their jobs. They were worried about how the four–digit year change on their computers might shut everything down in some kind of apocalyptic wave while people were sleeping off their New Year's Eve revelry.

There were no wars being waged by America, and domestic discussion centered largely on what was to be done with the surplus.

By comparison, it was a naive time.

Bush didn't win the popular vote, but he did seem, even to many of Gore's supporters, to project more of a sunny disposition than the often sour Gore — and that could have made the difference with many voters.

Ever since surveys in 1960 indicated that Kennedy had been perceived to be the winner of the debates by those who watched them on television — and Nixon was perceived to be the winner of the debates by the ones who only heard them on radio — presidential elections have been more and more about theatrics and less about reality.

I have often said: Perception is reality.

What the voters think is what matters.

And, when you acknowledge that, you really do have to start wondering if the truth has any value.

Actually, it does — especially when times are hard.

When times are good, people can muse about trivial things — such as with whom they would like to share a beer. When times are hard, they are obsessed with just putting bread on the table — and keeping a roof over that table.

Anyway, it strikes me as kind of ironic that Jonah Goldberg of the New York Post writes about how Obama seems to hate his job. Obama, after all, just announced his intention to run for a second term. That's bipolar behavior if the man hates his job.

OK, Goldberg is a conservative columnist, not exactly one of Obama's friends. And, if you are one of Obama's defenders, you may be inclined to say that Goldberg is putting the spin on the situation that benefits his side.

But he makes a good point. OK, occasionally, he lapses into the partisan language that surely is familiar to most of us by now. At times, though, he is better at it than most.

(i.e., "The president has always had a gift for self–pity. And blame–shifting. 'It's Bush's fault' could be the subtitle of his presidency.")

But Goldberg also has his moments that even Obama's most ardent supporter would be challenged to refute.

(i.e., "He demonized George W. Bush as an evil fool, but Obama has been forced to adopt many of the very policies he derided as evil and foolish. The 'change' candidate is now the 'more of the same' guy.")

And now, even though he has acknowledged that there really isn't anything a president can do about gas prices, Obama nevertheless took the opportunity to announce on what amounted to a campaign swing through hard–hit–by–the–recession Nevada that he will instruct the attorney general to appoint a task force to see if anyone is taking advantage of consumers.

That isn't a bad pledge for a Democratic president to make — particularly if he doesn't want to lose states like Nevada that voted for him in 2008 but have suffered disproportionately during his presidency — and have a history of supporting Republicans (between 1952 and 2004, Nevada voted for one Democratic nominee).

And it conveniently obscures other facts that a Democratic president wouldn't want observers to dwell upon too long — like the fact that unemployment in Nevada has been far higher — and for far longer — than any time in recent memory. But that kind of tactic can backfire on a president — and for the most unexpected reasons.

Actually, probably the less said in future speeches about that task force the better. I've lost track of the number of task forces Obama has appointed in 2¼ years in office, but I haven't seen any improvements because of them. Obama doesn't need to emphasize that fact, however indirectly.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Presidential Mistakes

"There are only two mistakes one can make on the road to truth: not going all the way and not starting."


I thought I was the only one who noticed.

Well, no, not really. I mean, I know there are always people out there who spend most, if not all, of their time waiting for the president — whoever he may be — to make a misstep.

And some presidents make it all too easy.

Seven years ago this month, in a nationally televised press conference, George W. Bush just never could come up with an answer to what should have been an easy out–of–the–park toss: "After 9–11, what would your biggest mistake be, and what lessons have you learned from it?"

Bush never could answer a question that should have been kind of a bonding experience between him and the electorate. Everyone understands what it is like to make a mistake, and even those who disagreed with Bush politically might have conceded — however grudgingly — that they could relate to that experience.

And most prudent people would say they at least tried to learn something from their mistakes.

But Bush never could bring himself to admit that he had made a mistake. He was ridiculed for that — and rightfully so.

I had seen presidents get defensive under similar circumstances (Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" moment comes to mind), but it was the first time that I can recall hearing a president essentially say that he couldn't think of a mistake he had made in office.

Honestly, I didn't think I would ever hear a president say anything like that again.

And then along came Barack Obama.

In his continuing effort to keep young voters enthused about his candidacy, Obama held a town hall meeting yesterday at the Facebook headquarters in California.

In the final question, he was asked if there was anything he would do differently. And, as Byron York wrote in the Washington Examiner, "Obama, it turns out, is no better at analyzing his own missteps than Bush."

I'll grant you, York is a conservative columnist. The fact that he is critical of Obama on this comes as no surprise to me. But he's fair about it. He's critical of Bush, too.

And York isn't the only one to call Obama on his lackluster response. Others in the digital world have been mentioning it today, too.

I'm not as anti–Obama as a lot of those guys are. But I only needed a couple of seconds to come up with an answer to that question — about as much time as it took me to answer that question back in 2004.

Obama should have said something like this: "If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn't have squandered that filibuster–proof majority in the Senate on a Supreme Court nomination and health care reform. I would have focused like a laser beam on job creation because millions of people were hurting when I took office, and they're hurting worse today because of my mistake. I deeply regret that and wish I had it to do over. I knew things were bad, but I didn't understand when I took office just how bad they were."

But Obama didn't say that — or anything like it.

Maybe he doesn't think he is capable of making a mistake.

I think most people, even those who disagree with him, would have accepted that. There is no occupation that can truly prepare someone for the presidency. Almost without exception, our presidents have had to learn the job as they went along. It was inevitable that they would make mistakes, even the ones who are regarded as great by history.

It's a very human thing to acknowledge, and I think it could have been a bonding experience for Obama and the segment of the electorate that doesn't trust him.

But Obama really does appear — at least at times — to be smug and to feel superior to those who disagree with him.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Those Prescient Polls

Public opinion polls aren't perfect. They never have been.

They are, as the saying goes, works in progress. Polling organizations are constantly tinkering, making adjustments in how they do their work.

When I was in college, I studied opinion polling, and one of the things we studied was the methodology being used by the earliest pollsters. In the dark days of the Depression, they did their polling based on automobile registration and residential telephone service records. At that time, many people owned neither — and thus were ignored by the pollsters.

But their votes weren't ignored on Election Day, and — contrary to the polls' forecasts — President Herbert Hoover was defeated in his bid for re–election.

Pollsters have been learning from their experiences in the last 80 years, which is why it is news today if they are way off the mark.

From time to time in my life, I have heard supporters of underdog candidates refer to Harry Truman's "upset" victory over Tom Dewey in 1948. It is the most notorious example of polls being wrong so it is the holy grail of the apparently doomed. I have observed that the greater the underdog, the more likely it is that Truman's triumph will be mentioned.

The truth is, though, that polls are right more often than they are wrong. That's something else I have noticed over the years. The margin is seldom on the nose, but the winner is usually the one who was picked by the polls.

It's an evolving science. Until actual votes are counted, nothing is certain, but polls provide a glimpse into what the electorate is thinking.

And sometimes those polls can be positively prescient.

About this time four years ago, as Julian Borger wrote in The Guardian, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were shaping up to be the front runners in a Democratic field that included the party's most recent vice presidential nominee.

Borger's article didn't go so far as to predict that Obama would win not only the nomination but the election as well. It did, however, observe that polls at that time were suggesting Clinton would win the nomination "with ease" — which, of course, did not happen.

Consequently, anything the polls tell you must be taken with at least a grain of salt.

On the other hand, the findings of a poll — any poll — cannot be taken lightly.

Polls today are telling us that:
  • Obama would have the advantage against any potential Republican challenger, and his widest margins, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, are against the women who are mentioned most frequently.

    Perhaps that is an indicator that Americans are not yet ready to elect a woman president. Or perhaps it means the right woman for the job simply hasn't come along.

  • Republicans are less satisfied with their choices for the nomination than they were four years ago.
That sounds good — at least by default — for the Democrats.

But there's another interesting point in Borger's article.

Well, it wasn't really his point — it was a point that was made by unnamed Democratic strategists — but it may have a great deal of relevance to 2012.

In the 2006 midterms, you may recall, Democrats took narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress after being in the minority for more than a decade. Borger quoted a Democratic strategist as saying that winning one chamber would have been the ideal way to set up the party for the coming presidential election.
" 'One third is ideal,' one said. The wife of another top party fixer was heard saying her husband would rather the Democrats just won the House, in the interests of winning the big prize, the White House, in 2008."

To bolster the argument, Borger quoted David Corn, Washington editor of The Nation: "Had the Democrats won only the House, they could have positioned themselves as the insurgents of Washington, running against the sclerotic, corrupt Republicans in the Senate and the White House. But now they have the Senate and the House, they are 50–50 partners in governing."

Of course, the Democrats went on to win the 2008 election, anyway. But the same logic could apply to the Republicans of 2012.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Trumping the Presidency

I've seen this before.

Nearly 20 years ago, the economy was in a bad way. Not as bad as it is now, but still bad by contemporary standards, and many Americans were desperate for a president who could restore economic equilibrium.

I don't know if many of the people who voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988 did so because they believed he could handle an economic downturn. In fact, my memory of the 1988 campaign is that the economy really wasn't discussed at length — and, when it was, it was mentioned in terms that were favorable to Bush, who, as the incumbent vice president, sought to share in the credit for the things that were perceived as good about the Reagan presidency.

And one of those things was the strong economy.

Things turned sour during Bush's presidency, though, and, by 1992, America was caught in a recession. Americans were looking for a president who understood that "it's the economy, stupid" and would govern accordingly.

The person to whom many Americans turned in 1992 was a man who had demonstrated his ability as a businessman — Ross Perot.

Perot didn't take the nomination away from Bush. He didn't even try.

He did run as an independent. He didn't win the election, of course. He didn't carry a single state. But he captured nearly one–fifth of the popular vote. It was the highest share of the popular vote taken by a third–party candidate in 80 years.

You can still find some people who will tell you that Bush would have been re–elected if Perot had not been on the ballot — even though every exit poll I saw in 1992 said that about 20% of Perot's supporters would not have participated at all if he had not been a candidate and the rest would have been divided about evenly between Bush and Clinton.

Those numbers never added up to a Bush victory if it had been a two–man race.

I didn't vote for Ross Perot in 1992, but I always felt that I understood the reasoning of most of those who did. They believed that someone who had been a success in business would have special insights for dealing with a recession.

I didn't disagree that Perot had been remarkably successful in business, but I never felt that his business skills were applicable to the presidency. An entrepreneur does not have to at least try to resolve conflicts to everyone's satisfaction; his word is law. If two of his employees don't get along or if they disagree, he can reassign — or dismiss — one of them. Problem solved.

That isn't how it works in a democracy. A president who blithely dismisses Congress' input does so at his peril — particularly when one of the chambers just flipped decidedly to the opposing party.

Until last November's midterm elections, Barack Obama's party controlled both chambers of Congress. For awhile, the Democrats' margin in the Senate reached the elusive filibuster–proof 60. But that advantage disappeared more than a year ago. That makes compromise a necessary skill.

In a divided government, the ability to compromise is crucial, and Obama brought no relevant experience with him to the presidency. But neither would this generation's Ross Perot — Donald Trump — whose name is on everyone's lips, it seems.

After Perot ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992 and 1996, Trump toyed with the idea of running as an independent in 2000. But he didn't — ostensibly for several reasons, but I think just one was decisive. The economy in 2000 wasn't bad enough. The Clinton presidency had produced a budget surplus.

I think that tells you everything you really need to know. Still there are people who speculate about why Trump might get into the race this time.

At The Daily Caller, John Ziegler writes that Trump's rise in the polls is the result of a "celebrity–obsessed culture."

And Eugene Robinson's column in the Washington Post says the "birther" issue is fueling the Trump–for–president movement.

It's true that Trump has said he won't disclose his tax returns until Obama discloses his birth certificate — but, frankly, I don't think the "birther" issue is what's driving people to promote Trump for president. Nor do I believe a celebrity fetish is behind it.

It's the economy, stupid.

The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, predicts gas prices will be up 40% over last year during the summer driving season. That isn't good news for folks who wanted to hit the road and get away from it all, at least for awhile, this summer — or the people who depend on summer tourism to carry them through the cold and bleak months of winter.

If there is good news to be found in that, it may be that gas prices are already up by about 33% over their level at this time last year — so the increase isn't likely to be as severe as what motorists have already experienced this year.

But no increase will be welcome. You'd think that Obama would be doing anything he can to boost the economy under these circumstances — a Washington Post survey shows that twice as many respondents say they "strongly disapprove" of Obama's handling of the economy as say they "strongly approve" — but he isn't, at least not with the sense of urgency one might expect.

Things are a lot worse in 2011 than they were in 1992, and a lot more voters may be receptive to what Trump has to say.

Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner warns that Trump is no Perot.

But to stressed–out consumers who are weary of waiting for the economy to turn around, it may not matter.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fifty Years After the Bay of Pigs

It was 50 years ago today that the ill–fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was launched.

A bunch of Cuban exiles, who had been trained by the CIA, attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro in a plan that had been hatched in the last year of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency. In the spring and summer of 1960, while John F. Kennedy was wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination and Richard Nixon was doing the same on the Republican side, the CIA recruited and trained anti–Castro exiles in south Florida.

Kennedy, I have heard, was not told of the plan until sometime in July 1960. As Ike's vice president, I presume Nixon already knew of it — but the relationships between presidents and their vice presidents were much different then than they are now so Nixon may well have been as much in the dark as Kennedy.

Yet the final decision rested with Kennedy, who ultimately approved the plan even if he wasn't as well informed as he would have liked, and it was carried out 50 years ago today. When it failed, some critics blamed the absence of adequate air cover. Others said the invasion never should have occurred at all.

Kennedy didn't blame the previous administration, although it always seemed to me he had a legitimate case for doing so.

Instead, he took responsibility, observing, "Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan."

That was not the end of it. The cumulative effect of the Bay of Pigs and other operations undoubtedly played a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro became more paranoid about U.S. attempts to overthrow his government, and Cuba entered into a partnership with the Soviets, building the bases that would house the missiles.

That event required delicate negotiations before it was finally resolved in the United States' favor.

What began today definitely did not end in America's favor — and, I suppose, whether what has happened in the last half–century has been to America's benefit is a matter of opinion.

Cuba, after all, still exists. The men who invaded the Bay of Pigs on this day 50 years ago failed in their mission, and most paid for that with their lives — some right away, others after lengthy captivity.

But Cuba's former communist ally, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. Someday in the future, some (or all) of the small countries that once formed the Soviet Union may re–group — but today (and for the last two decades) that menacing presence half a world away that forced generations of Americans to go through "duck and cover" drills in their elementary schools is not there anymore.

There have been other changes since the invasion.

Michael Vasquez of the Miami Herald observes that Miami's St. Thomas University came into existence because the Universidad Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Havana closed down the day of the invasion.

Back in Havana, ABC News reports, the emphasis is on how the tiny island of Cuba stood up to the big, bad United States — and has continued to do so for half a century.

Prensa Latina, Cuba's official news agency, says the "mercenary aggression" at the Bay of Pigs exposed American "lies" for what they were.

Outside of Cuba and south Florida, though, I haven't heard of much being said on this occasion. Communism long ago stopped being perceived as a global threat, and modern attention is on Islam and the Middle East, dirty bombs (not missiles).

I'm not really sure what to make of that. Does what happened at the Bay of Pigs on this day in 1961 have any meaning anymore?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Candor in Politics

Walter Mondale knows something about being candid with voters.

For one thing, he knows it can backfire on you. In a piece in the Washington Post, Mondale recalled that, in his acceptance speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, "I told the truth" when he promised to raise taxes.

He was ridiculed for that promise. Critics did, as Mondale writes, describe it as "exemplifying the folly of proposing tax hikes during an election" and not without justification, either. Ronald Reagan won the election, carrying every state except Mondale's home state of Minnesota.

"[B]ut I won the debate," Mondale observes. "Reagan ended up increasing taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987."

On the face of it, it does seem like a counterproductive thing to do — proposing that voters pay more in taxes. It's like any time in your life when you had to choose between something that was fun and something that was good for you.

Many more people would lose weight or quit smoking or accomplish something else equally desirable ... if only it wasn't so damn difficult.

It is not my intention to advocate or oppose Mondale's position on raising taxes in 2011 — but, rather, to agree with his observation that there are "political lessons" to be learned from his experience: "avoid generalities, and clearly link taxes to addressing concrete national needs."

It reminded me of a time when I was a young reporter fresh from college.

The newspaper where I went to work after graduation served a county that had approved, in a special election just a few months earlier, a one–year, one–cent–on–the–dollar sales tax to finance the construction of a new county jail.

The old county jail really was a cracker box — in fact, some prisoners escaped from it and were at large for a couple of days not long after I started working for the paper, reminding everyone of the need for a more secure facility.

I wasn't living there during the special election campaign, but I gathered that no one really disputed the claim that a new county jail was desperately needed. The only questions were whether this temporary sales tax would be adequate and would it be the best, most equitable way to raise the funds.

The voters decided the answer to both questions was yes and gave the proposal a big thumb's up.

It was a fair tax, same amount, applied to every purchase within the county, large or small. And it turned out to be more than sufficient to cover the cost of building a new jail.

Matter of fact, the tax raised enough money to cover the cost of the new jail in nine months. The last three months of the tax were going to be a windfall for the county.

That got some folks in the county thinking. If they could get the voters to approve a permanent one–cent–on–the–dollar tax, they could create an all–purpose fund to be used in any way that county officials saw fit.

I heard some of the early musings — at county meetings and in behind–closed–doors conversations — about creating a fund that could be used in the event of a tornado or a flood (both frequent threats in central Arkansas).

But they encountered unexpected resistance this time. At first, people were showing up at county meetings to request that funds be allocated for this project or that one, for this purpose or that one, and county officials kept reminding them that this fund was supposed to be along the lines of an emergency, all–purpose fund.

That wasn't good enough for the voters. They wanted specifics. And, when county officials wouldn't commit to specific purposes, the voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal to make the tax permanent.

I remember how shocked the county officials were on Election Night. It had all been so easy for them only a year earlier. What went wrong?

They didn't get it then. Some of them probably never did get it.

They had been specific about a need the first time. They had been vague the second time. To the voters, it smacked of a slush fund, and they weren't going to authorize anything like that.

Things really haven't changed that much. Voters still want honesty from their leaders — however remote that prospect may seem at times.

Asking people to pay more in taxes is never a popular thing to do. But people can be a lot more reasonable than many politicians tend to think.

Try some honesty ... for a change.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Independents' Day

Barack Obama's job approval has matched his presidential low, according to Gallup's three–day tracking poll.

As Michael Memoli and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times, that could be attributed to "gas prices, the budget debate, or simply the usual ups and downs of public opinion polling."

And it is true that some presidents receive something of a "bounce" in popularity after their parties experience a "shellacking" in the midterm elections. It is usually understood that the recipient of such a bounce will come back to earth.

That bounce comes around at different times for different presidents. But there have also been those presidents like Lyndon Johnson who won by wide margins, then saw their parties go down in flames in the midterms and ended up not running for another term.

In Johnson's case, he was elected by a landslide in 1964, but his party lost a ton of seats in Congress in 1966, in no small part because of the public's souring on the Vietnam War. Shortly after the midterms, LBJ's popularity was a respectable 48%, but it seldom got that high again, and he dropped out of the race in 1968.

Obama's bounce came shortly after the midterms, but it seems to have peaked rather quickly and is making its way back to earth.

There's a cautionary tale in there for the president, I think. A president must seize his opportunities while he can.

In those roughly six months in late 2009 when the Democrats held a filibuster–proof majority, they chose to wield their power on behalf of a Supreme Court nomination that was in no way threatened and the health care reform bill — and alienated, I believe, many Americans who may have, at one time, identified with one of the parties but now call themselves independents.

Independents have been part of the political landscape all along, but most of the time they have represented a fairly small portion of the electorate.

Many of those independents, especially the newer ones, had misgivings about Obama but were willing to give him a chance because they were disappointed in (or discouraged by) Republican leadership. And many independents opted to give the Republicans a chance in 2000 because they were disappointed in (or discouraged by) Bill Clinton's leadership.

If their numbers are growing, it is because they are increasingly disenchanted with all politicians.

Now and in the future, it seems to me, presidents can be less certain of the continued support of those who voted for them in the last election. For many more people than was true when I was a child, the last election simply does not equal a long–term commitment.

Be that as it may, Gallup says Obama's decline in job approval is most pronounced among those who call themselves independents. Gallup doesn't discuss the portion of the electorate that says it is independent. But it reports that Obama's average in that group was 48% between 2009 and 2011.

Thus far in 2011, his approval among independents stands at 44% — and, even more ominously, Obama's approval among independents between Tuesday and Thursday of this week (a period that includes Obama's speech on fiscal policy on Wednesday) is — wait for it — 35%.

A president who has recently launched his campaign for re–election (nearly a year before the first presidential primary) should sit up and take notice of numbers like that.

Gallup's raw numbers underscore the polarized political climate in which we live. A Democratic president enjoys high approval numbers from Democrats (although they aren't as high as they were). He also receives low approval numbers from Republicans (lower than they were, but, frankly, they couldn't drop too much).

Everything hinges on the independents.

The situation was the same for Republican George W. Bush, who emerged the winner of two close presidential races, and Democrat Bill Clinton, who never got a majority of the popular vote in spite of winning by landslides in the Electoral College, as it is now for Obama.

The faithful in both parties give their knee–jerk approval to and march in lockstep obedience behind their leaders, defending the indefensible.

But they can't win by themselves.

And, as Charlie Sheen could tell you, it's all about winning.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Real Domino Theory

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the "domino theory."

It was the justification that was most frequently given when someone wanted to defend American involvement in Vietnam.

The belief was that, if one nation in that part of the world fell to communism, the others would follow in rapid succession, the same as what happens when one domino falls into another domino, which falls into the next domino, which falls into the next one ...

And so on and so on.

The domino theory is no longer used to justify American military activity. But, in the present economic circumstances, the theory might be due for a comeback.

Unless something really dramatic happens between now and November 2012, I think it is obvious that economic issues will dominate the next presidential campaign.

Possibly to the exclusion of everything else.

The evidence is all around us, and it just continues to accumulate. Gas prices are up roughly 25% in the last few months alone. When gas prices go up, the cost of everything else will go up, too, because gas prices affect the cost of transportation.

(Ordinarily, I like to include links to back up my observations — but I don't really have to do that on this one, do I?)

Sure, Americans still care about the war in Afghanistan — and American military activity in Libya. Yes, they still care about education and health care and all that stuff.

But the bottom line — in more and more households, even the ones that have not been touched by unemployment — is economic. Surely the recent battle over the budget that threatened to shut down the government was proof of that.

The last time gas prices were this high in America, in the summer of 2008, you could actually feel whatever political advantage the Republicans may have had up to that point slipping away.

You can make whatever argument you like about how much responsibility George W. Bush and the Republicans bore for the gas price increase. The fact remained that the Republicans were in charge when it happened, and their policies — rightly or wrongly — got the blame, especially after the economy collapsed and jobs were lost by the hundreds of thousands every month.

(Perception is reality.)

I hope that doesn't happen again. But, if it does — and even if it doesn't — the results of a recent Gallup poll suggest to me that voters may be inclined to make a different kind of decision in 2012 than they made in 2008.

And one thing I think voters will be looking for in their president is someone who has experience — and, preferably, a record of success — in dealing with budgets.

That may be a tall order in 2012 when practically every state has had to do some budget cutting, and it may be awhile before we know if those cuts have helped or hurt. But most modern governors can legitimately claim to have presided over the budget processes in their states from start to finish.

When the economy imploded in the fall of 2008, the presidential nominees were set. They were both senators. In fact, the only candidate on either major ticket with any executive experience in budgetary matters was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

I'm not saying that she
  • was qualified to hold national office, nor am I saying

  • she was qualified to be a "heartbeat away from the presidency."
But she was the only governor in the bunch.

According to Gallup, governors and business leaders are the ones Americans trust the most these days on economic issues.

That could be good news for Mitt Romney, who happens to have both on his resume.

Well, he isn't a governor now, but he was governor of Massachusetts for four years, and he organized the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He's exploring the possibility of a run for the GOP nomination and is widely expected to be a candidate.

It might also be good news for Donald Trump, who was said to be "seriously" considering entering the race last October.

That doesn't necessarily mean either man is qualified to be president. But it is not too outlandish to imagine that an electorate that apparently thought less than four years in the U.S. Senate was adequate preparation for the presidency for Barack Obama, that a few years as governor of Texas (which, for the most part, is a figurehead position) was enough for George W. Bush, that a career mostly spent in front of movie cameras was enough for Ronald Reagan and a career mostly as a peanut farmer was enough for Jimmy Carter could be persuaded to give either man a shot.

There are other governors who have been mentioned as potential candidates, some of whom may be more likely to enter the race than others. But those findings could be encouraging for the likes of Palin, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and others.

I'm sure there will be additional issues to consider, but here are some of Gallup's findings that jump out at me:
  • Nearly 60% of respondents said they had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence in their state governors on economic issues.

  • Two–fifths of respondents said they had "only a little" confidence in their governors or "almost none." That seems like a high unfavorable — until you look at the unfavorables for the others. Then it doesn't look so bad.

  • Business leaders got high marks from 54% of respondents and low marks from 43%.

  • Obama broke even, 50–50, mirroring his approval ratings.
The rest came in under 50% in the "great deal" and "fair amount" of confidence rating — and a majority of respondents gave them high unfavorables. That isn't a very promising combination for other potential candidates, especially those from Congress.

Americans tend to put a lot of faith in governors. Four of the five men who were elected president between 1976 and 2004 had been governors, and nearly half of the men who were president in the 20th century had been governor.

The American experience with governors has been pretty good. They're familiar with the demands of an executive job, and they understand the need for leadership and compromise skills.

The big drawback for governors tends to be that they don't usually have much experience with foreign or military matters, but, as I say, it doesn't appear (right now) that foreign policy will play much of a role in 2012.

Of course, that could change if another Egypt or Libya pops up. With 19 months remaining before the voters go to the polls, anything could happen to change the dynamics of the race.

But, whatever else may be introduced into the mix, it seems all but certain to me that the economy will be the #1 concern for most voters. And Obama will be judged on how things look compared to when he was elected.

Pretty slogans worked in the last election. It's going to take more than that to persuade the voters this time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Death of Innocence

Today is an odd day for me, a day that brings back a mixture of memories.

It was on this day 35 years ago that a sixth–grade girl from a small town in my home county vanished in broad daylight. Her body was found a few days later. She had been raped, murdered and left in a stock pond.

Her name was Dana Mize. Few of the people I knew had any idea who she was — until she was abducted. And, initially, that was newsworthy because her father was a candidate for county office in the upcoming primary.

I never met her. But I knew people who knew her fairly well. Her family attended First Baptist Church in my hometown, and "FBC," as it was called, was the biggest church in town. Still is, I imagine. And the congregation always has been tightly knit. A few days ago, I mentioned this upcoming anniversary to an old friend of mine who was a member of that church at the time, and he said he remembered feeling a terrible sadness for the family.

That was the prevailing emotion — at FBC and throughout the county and its communities.

It wasn't long after she disappeared, though, that the whispers began. Her abduction, people were saying, had nothing to do with local politics. If it had, the abductor(s) almost certainly would have contacted someone with a demand that her father withdraw from the race or something similar. But no such communication had been received.

It must have been sexual, so the reasoning went — and, it turned out, the reasoning was right on the money.

I didn't want to believe that. I guess most of the people in the area didn't want to believe it, but I had to admit that it made sense.

It's hard to describe what a shocking time that was. One of the reasons why it was so shocking, I think, was the fact that my hometown was still somewhat innocent and naive when it happened. The place often seemed to exist in a bubble. For whatever reason, people in my hometown seemed to believe they were immune to the tragedies of the world.

That conviction never really made much sense to me because tragedies happened there all the time.

Before I was in grade school, a girl I knew was diagnosed with cancer and died a short time later. When I was in third grade, a classmate of mine died of leukemia. A few years later, the son of some family friends was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A tornado ripped through my hometown when I was 5 and leveled several homes (took a few lives in the process).

And those were just a few of the tragedies that touched me personally. In the years when I was growing up, there were other tragedies that affected other people — like any other place.

I guess what made the Dana Mize episode unique was the fact that criminal intent was behind it. The other tragedies could be written off as being caused by disease or random acts of nature or perhaps sloppiness or stupidity. But this was deliberate.

In a large city, the disappearance of a young girl — and the subsequent discovery of her dead and sexually abused body — wouldn't have raised any eyebrows in those days.

But it was different in my hometown. Everyone who lived there had to accept a previously unthinkable truth: Sexual predators must have been living among us, as they do in any other city or town — and, based on statistics, I can only conclude that some of the girls with whom I attended school must have been abused — by their fathers, by cousins, by family friends, who knows?

In my hometown of Conway, Ark., it seems to me that there must have been sexual predators around — even in that seemingly innocent time.

There was nothing terribly special or unique about my hometown. It was a town much like any other town, I suppose. It was mostly a blue–collar town in a mostly blue–collar county. I'm sure young girls were molested, abused, even assaulted there when I was growing up, but those cases were usually handled quietly, away from the public eye.

What did make the Dana Mize case unique was the fact that the perpetrator didn't live nearby. Turned out, he had flown to Arkansas from his home in New Jersey, committed the crime and flown back.

I still don't know what drew him to Mize's tiny hometown of Vilonia — which was much smaller than Conway. To my knowledge, he had never been to that area before.

I have tried, many times over the last 35 years, to reconstruct his movements, and I have tried to figure out how he could just stumble onto Vilonia. I don't know what the odds would have been, but I keep coming back to the idea that — somehow — he must have known that Vilonia was there.

His plane had to have landed in Little Rock. He could have rented a car at the airport and easily driven to Conway, which is along the highway outside Little Rock.

If the trail stopped in Conway, you could chalk the whole thing up to randomness, I guess. But Vilonia is one of those out–of–the–way country towns. You don't just stumble onto it. You have to be going there on purpose.

And the stock pond where the body was found was, as I recall, even more remote.

A complete stranger to the area would be almost bound to get lost after being, to say the least, distracted by a life–and–death struggle, either before or after the sexual assault, and a search for a suitably secluded spot to drop the body.

It seems likely to me that he would have had to ask for directions back to the highway. And someone almost certainly would have remembered giving directions to a disheveled stranger in a rented car whose clothes may have been dirty and/or wet.

Yet my memory is that the perpetrator did all this in a single afternoon, returned to the airport and caught a flight back to New Jersey — and he didn't ask for directions and apparently wasn't connected to the crime until a few days later, when he confessed to his psychiatrist.

He's still alive, I hear. He was convicted of capital felony murder, which often carries a death sentence, but his jury sentenced him to life without parole. He was 34 at the time he committed the crime so he is about to turn 70.

I've heard he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, the same mental illness that afflicts the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords back in January.

That would answer a lot of questions, I guess. But not all.

I suppose some questions will never be answered.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War

It was 150 years ago today that the Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter.

In hindsight, it was probably inevitable that a civil war would occur. There were simply too many issues that had to be resolved — and they had to be resolved before the young nation could begin its maturation process.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860 led to South Carolina's decision to secede on Christmas Eve, and half a dozen Southern states followed in the next six weeks. Four more states seceded after the attack on Fort Sumter.

Folks have been anticipating this anniversary.
  • Mike Litterst of the National Park Service wants people to know that what will take place today and over the course of the next four years, as the 150th anniversaries of everything that happened during that time are observed, are "commemoration[s], not celebration[s]," writes Jay Clarke in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    I guess it's crucial to make that distinction in today's politically charged, politically correct atmosphere.

  • It could be a little hard to discern, given the somewhat romanticized approaches that have been taken to the anniversary of the first battle of the war by outfits like MSNBC and NPR.

  • The Americans of 1861 had been anticipating the start of hostilities for some time, but they had no idea, as I wrote a few months ago, what their future held.

    If they had, I rather suspect they would have made more of an effort to avoid the whole thing.
There really was very little that the Americans of the mid–19th century knew, to be honest about it.

Southerners knew who their general was going to be — Robert E. Lee — but he was seen as old and not necessarily in touch with developments in modern warfare — kind of the John McCain of his day.

In the heat of battle, though, Lee won the respect of his men and the confidence of the Confederacy. To this day, he is admired and remembered for both his military knowledge and his integrity. He could have been the general of the Union forces — Lincoln wanted him — but he declined, choosing to fight for his home state of Virginia, even though he disagreed with its decision to secede.

Well, that's been the official story for quite some time now. But, as Elizabeth Brown Pryor wrote in American Heritage in 2008, it may have been a lot more complicated than that.

Lincoln went through several generals before deciding on Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union forces. In the course of that journey, Lincoln relieved the man who would run against him in 1864, George McClellan.

Frustrated with McClellan's rather plodding approach to warfare, Lincoln, in what may be my favorite example of his unique wit, said to his general, "If you don't want to use the army, I should like to borrow it for awhile."

Grant had served in the Army during the Mexican–American War, then abruptly resigned in 1854; several biographers have written that Grant had been drunk off duty and had been told by his commanding officer to resign or face a court–martial. He was not in the service when the Civil War began on this date in 1861, but he re–enlisted shortly thereafter.

Initially assigned to recruiting and training, he performed so well he was rewarded with a field command and eventually given command of the entire Union army.

As America pauses, from time to time, in the next few years to re–examine that pivotal period in the 19th century, I hope we will re–examine the people who fought in it and their reasons for doing so.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Budget Deal

I really have to believe that news of the budget compromise that was reached late last night — and, presumably, prevented a government shutdown — is being welcomed enthusiastically by the members of the National Park Service.

This would have been an astonishingly poor time for such an impasse to occur because it would have kept the employees of the National Park Service from observing an important date.

Tuesday will be the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumer, S.C. — the event that the history books tell us was the first clash of the Civil War.

A federal shutdown would have closed the National Park Service, which is responsible for Civil War battlefields as well as places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon — and, as a consequence of that, it would have shut down Fort Sumter, too.

But it doesn't appear that will happen now.

After the fuss that was made over the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth two years ago — and the sesquicentennial observations of every major Civil War battle that will no doubt occur between now and 2015 (culminating with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination) — it seems to me it would have been embarrassing if nothing had been done on Tuesday — the anniversary of the day it all began.

But now, as I say, that possibility seems to have been eliminated.

Temporarily, anyway.

I'm not sure what to think of the compromise itself, though — and about the only other thing I can say with any certainty is that this matter is not resolved. This was only the first skirmish.

The compromise only resolves conflicts over some small, rather inconsequential cuts (compared to the amount of money we're talking about here). It does not address much larger issues that are sure to provoke even greater arguments in the near future.

It sweeps those issues under the rug, but I suspect that doesn't really bother either side. The Democrats clearly demonstrated when they controlled enough seats in Congress to do whatever they wished that they have no taste for tackling really tough questions, and the Republicans probably are content to give the Democrats just enough rope to hang themselves with as 2012 draws ever closer.

So I think both sides are glad to have avoided a shutdown and put off the important decision making for another day.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Political Correctness

"Now the objections center on the language of another time, the context of another era, because the values of today are uncomfortable with the values of yesterday. Well, that isn't enough for me."

Birth of a Notion
Jan. 7, 2011

Sometimes I get really frustrated with political correctness.

I mean, I understand the objective — which is to, ultimately, rid the culture and the language of things that are offensive to demographic groups that have faced discrimination in the past (and some continue to face it in the present) — and I applaud those efforts.

Those efforts are sincere and well–meaning, if misguided at times.

One such misguided effort was addressed today in a column by Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post–Dispatch.

I don't read the Post–Dispatch regularly, but I have read it on the occasions when I have been in the St. Louis area, and I have always been impressed with the quality of its writing.

(Of course, as someone who has not only worked for newspapers but also studied their history in pursuit of my bachelor's and master's degrees, I am also influenced, I suppose, by the knowledge that the paper was founded by Joseph Pulitzer, who established the prestigious Pulitzer Prizes for exceptional journalism.)

It's been awhile since I've been in St. Louis, though, and I have heard that some things have changed. My friends who still live in the area tell me that, in addition to being printed on smaller pages, the newspaper relies much more on advertising and wire copy than it did.

But, in spite of all that, the writers at the Post–Dispatch still practice good, solid journalism, as far as I can see, and a good example of that is McClellan's column.

Apparently, he wrote a column last weekend about American military involvement in Libya. Originally, he had compared American military activity to a "tar baby" and was informed by an editor that the term was considered racist. The editor recommended changing the comparison to "swamp," presumably to prevent the message from being lost in a debate over semantics.

McClellan acknowledged that he understood why his editor felt the change was necessary, and he was glad that his point could be preserved without being lost in a distracting — and, frankly, irrelevant — argument.

Nevertheless, McClellan wrote, "I found the whole thing unsettling and sad."

I understood immediately what he meant. It's the same thing I wrote about earlier this year.

I've always been a writer, and I am against the needless, unjustified intrusion of 21st century sensibilities on 19th century writings (and, in my opinion, it is always unjustified).

McClellan's column ought to be read in full, but still I feel compelled to quote him — because he makes his point so well.

The Tar Baby story, as McClellan observes, "was an African–American folktale, part of a series of such tales collected by Joel Chandler Harris and published in 1881. And when I say African–American, I mean the original African–Americans, the slaves. "

Those slaves, he continues, were storytellers. "Their slavemasters kept them illiterate, so they developed an oral tradition." And there was wisdom in those stories.

McClellan speculates that those slaves would be pleased to know that we still tell their stories.

"Except we don't," he writes. "We're censoring them now, and we're doing so on behalf of the descendants of the storytellers."

McClellan asserts — correctly — that there is nothing racist about the term "tar baby," that it is a much better, much more accurate analogy for what is happening in Libya than "swamp" is.

"It describes a matter in which you thoughtlessly but intentionally involve yourself and from which you cannot extricate yourself," McClellan writes. "There is nothing quite like the term. You can wander into a swamp, or stumble into quicksand, but you don't do so willfully."

There's nothing even remotely racist about it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

You Can't Please Everybody

"I truly wonder how you can trust a leader who carries no compunction to keep his promises or his word — whether those words and promises were made in support of gay rights, to not start or perpetuate illegal/useless/costly military campaigns (or wars), in support of environmental causes even to the detriment of big business, to put an immediate end to torture and unlawful detainment, to rein in the bloat and greed of Wall Street, to oppose gun control, or to correct the broad overreach of a previous administration."

Kristen Breitweiser
Huffington Post
April 4, 2011

Life is never easy when you've lost someone you love — and, politics aside, most people, I suspect, sympathize with people like Kristen Breitweiser and the other spouses and children of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Not Ann Coulter. In her book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," Coulter criticized Breitweiser and the other so–called "9–11 widows" (whom she dismissed as "Democrat ratpack gals") for "enjoying their husbands' deaths."

That always seemed more than a bit harsh to me — and to lots of other folks — but I'll say this for Coulter. She doesn't retreat after she's taken a stand. In spite of intense criticism, she stood by what she wrote.

(She kinda reminds me of Bush in that respect. Even if everyone told Bush he had made a mistake, he wouldn't acknowledge it. One of my co–workers even told me that he admired the fact that Bush wouldn't back down once he had taken a position on something. I've never really been sure how I felt about that.)

In fact, considering the criticism Breitweiser and the other "Jersey girls" got from the right in general and Coulter in particular, it must have been like a slap in the face (at least) when a clearly left–leaning administration announced this week that it would not prosecute the 9–11 conspirators in civilian courts and would, instead, turn the matters over to military tribunals — where things will be handled in considerably more secrecy.

Breitweiser, a lawyer, didn't hesitate to say what she thinks in a piece she wrote for Huffington Post titled "The Sad Defeat of Our Constitution."

She urged her readers to "take a second to contemplate this decision and recognize what it says about President Obama, the Department of Justice, and the United States."

I've done that, and still I wonder: What does it all mean? What does it say about Americans, what they all experienced on 9–11 and what they think of it now, nearly 10 years later? Many Americans still give lip service to a desire for justice/retribution, but are they really committed to it?

I think I can guess how Breitweiser feels. She feels betrayed. She earned the wrath of the right when George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, and she expected better from his successor.

"At least when President Bush was in office, he was candid about his feelings regarding the alleged 9/11 conspirators in our custody," she writes. "He didn't care about them. He allowed them to be tortured. He was fine letting them rot in the heat of Guantanamo for all of eternity. They were less than human to him and he certainly was never going to afford them the benefits of our U.S. Constitution or the Geneva Conventions. That was President Bush. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you, at least, knew where he stood. And you could, like it or not, rely on his word."

But she doesn't feel she can rely on Obama's pledge.

He "gave us ... his golden word," Breitweiser writes, that Guantanamo would be closed down and the conspirators would be tried in open court. Yet Guantanamo remains open, and the announcement that the trials now will be held in secret was announced the same day the president announced he would seek a second term.

Can you say "appeasement?" Breitweiser certainly can, although she does so in somewhat different words.

The announcement concerning the military tribunals "acknowledges the sad defeat of our U.S. Constitution when it comes to 9/11," she writes. "How truly tragic in my eyes. And you would think that a man who was once a constitutional law professor might feel the same way. Yet, not so much for President Barack Obama who has chosen this great day to announce his billion–dollar campaign for re–election."

It's hard for me to tell how this will affect what Breitweiser — or anyone else who suffered such a loss on 9–11 — will do on Election Day next year. But I can see a cumulative effect that is building, and it isn't encouraging for the president.

Four years go by so quickly, don't they?

Four years ago, Obama wasn't even the front–runner for his party's nomination, and his campaign rhetoric focused primarily on the war in Iraq.

But today, slightly more than halfway through Obama's term, the war that began as a result of the attacks that killed Breitweiser's husband continues (in fact, a young man who attended the school where I earned my master's degree was killed in Afghanistan a few days ago).

The issues changed and evolved in the 2008 campaign and, by the time Obama had been nominated to run against John McCain, the focus had shifted from the wars to the economy — and Obama ran as the anti–Bush, promising to change the policies that had led to so much suffering at home.

And many people forgot about the wars, about the 9–11 attacks. But not Breitweiser.

Obama, I think, suffers from an irreconcilable mental conflict. He thinks the presidency should work in one way when it actually works in another.

He'd like to be the Obama who ran in 2008. Obama the Outsider could rage against injustice and present himself as the defender of the oppressed, opponent of needless wars and wasteful energy policies.

But Obama the Insider has a record from which he cannot run away. The subject of the military tribunals is only the latest example. The administration capitulated, then pointed fingers. "Yes we can" has increasingly become "No we won't because they won't let us."

That's not a winning strategy. The voters were given a chance a few months ago to reject them in the midterms — but the voters embraced them instead.

Obama continues to do things his way — even though his way shows an appalling absence of leadership.

At this point in their first (and, in some cases, only) terms in office, previous presidents hadn't announced whether they would run again. They were too busy being president.

At this point in Bill Clinton's first term, the Oklahoma City bombing had not yet occurred.

At this point in George H.W. Bush's term, the Gulf War had just come to a whirlwind conclusion.

At this point in his first term, George W. Bush had not yet landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier where he declared that the mission had been accomplished in Iraq.

Yet, at this point in his term, Obama has begun his campaign for re–election by retreating on an issue that is of such importance to many of the people Obama will be counting on next year.

I can hear the rationalization from the Obama camp. Where are they going to go? his advisers must be asking themselves. Where, indeed, will the Jersey girls and their ilk go?

That isn't really the issue, though. They don't have to go anywhere. In fact, that should be the administration's real concern — that they won't go anywhere, that they will stay home on Election Day.

That's what happens when constituencies become demoralized, disenchanted, disappointed. It's what happened to the Republicans after the Terri Schiavo episode and Hurricane Katrina (and then the economic implosion in 2008). It's what happened to the Democrats in 1994 when they lost complete control of Congress for the first time in four decades.

Those voters had no enthusiasm, no motivation. They didn't participate. And many of the voters who were part of Obama's coalition in 2008 are in danger of not participating in 2012 because they believe — whether rightly or wrongly does not matter — their concerns have not been addressed by this president.

It might be different if the military tribunal matter was an isolated case. But it isn't.

Decisions are made by those who show up.