Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shooting Blanks

It's been more than a week since the school shootings in Connecticut, and, until now, I have remained mostly silent on the matter.

I saw enough of the initial coverage to know what had happened, and I've kept up with developments via articles online and in newspapers — so I feel pretty well versed in the basics of the case. I'm sure there are things I don't know, but I guess I know as much as anyone who is roughly 1,400 miles removed from the scene of the crime.

Anyway, if I am channel surfing and I land on a channel that is giving its attention to the shootings, I move on to something else. Doesn't matter who it is — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or one of the channels my mother liked to call "free world" channels (ABC, CBS, NBC).

It isn't that I don't care. I do care. Very much. Too much, probably.

But I've seen all this before. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Gabrielle Giffords. The theater in Aurora.

It was happening long before that, too. Between the time I enrolled in first grade and the time that I got my bachelor's degree, two presidents were fired upon (one was wounded), two presidential candidates were shot at (one died, one was paralyzed), a civil rights leader was killed, the pope was wounded and a former member of one of the most popular bands in history was killed.

And those were just the best–known victims of violent crime. The number of ordinary Americans — as the ones who died in Connecticut last week were — who were at least wounded by gunfire in that time must be in six digits.

Not much is said when the ordinary Americans are attacked — and that may be the most frustrating thing about all of this, that people are shot every day, but it takes something like a mass shooting or an attack on a prominent person to spark society's outrage.

When that does happen, the same things are said — and usually by the same people (or by people speaking for them or by people who have replaced them in high–profile positions) — and the same suggestions are made.

And, in the end, little or nothing gets done.

Why not?

Well, that is a complicated question.

Let's start with the typical knee–jerk response to ban automatic weapons. On the surface, that makes sense, and I supported that proposal when it was made during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s.

Problem was, it didn't work, mainly because most automatic weapons can be modified to meet legal requirements. Neither do proposals to tighten gun control laws. You see, unless we are prepared to ban private ownership of all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, guns will continue to be owned by law–abiding citizens, the vast majority of whom will never fire their guns at another human being.

The mother of the Connecticut shooter was, by all accounts, a law–abiding citizen. It was her guns, purchased legally, that were used to kill not only her but more than two dozen teachers and students at an elementary school.

That is an horrific crime, understandably repugnant to most of us. And there is an equally understandable desire to do something.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to press for tighter gun control. And it would make sense to propose it — except the gunman did not purchase the guns.

Stricter gun control laws might create more hoops for people like the gunman's mother to jump through to acquire a gun, and that might be emotionally satisfying, but it will never prevent a mentally disturbed friend or relative from taking guns that were legally purchased by someone else and using them the way Adam Lanza did.

Here's another fly in the ointment. I keep hearing all this talk about automatic weapons, which is irrelevant if you really want to talk about laws that can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

The weapons Lanza used were not automatic weapons. They were semi–automatic weapons. I have never owned a gun, but even I know there is a considerable difference between automatic weapons, which are capable of spraying bullets with a single squeeze of the trigger, and semi–automatic weapons, which fire one bullet every time the trigger is pulled.

Most privately owned weapons are semi–automatics — so calls to ban automatic weapons are pointless. That will do nothing about the kind of weapons that were used in Newtown, Conn.

As usual, there have been those who have indicted video games and violent movies and TV programs. Lanza reportedly played a lot of video games, and there is a case to be made, as there has been for a long time, that the entertainment industry, with its ready embrace of violence, bears a certain amount of responsibility for this kind of thing.

But there is no one–size–fits–all solution to the general problem of violence and the specific problem of guns.

This is mostly an exercise in primal group grief. I think there are some people (although they will never admit it, I'm sure) who simply live for the times when they can mourn loudly and openly on their favorite soapbox.

I'm sure they are sincere about their grief — so was I when I was younger and something shocking happened — but I can't help feeling that many are lashing out at something they can't understand.

At the same time, gun rights advocates are put on the defensive. I have known many gun owners in my life, and I'm sure that most of them would never even think of shooting at a bunch of first–graders — nor would most think of shooting at a bunch of theater patrons at a midnight movie — but they are made to feel as guilty as if they had pulled the trigger themselves.

So they feel compelled to make ludicrous counterproposals, like suggesting armed guards in every school — a good old–fashioned concentration camp atmosphere, I suppose, to go along with the traditional instruction in the three R's.

Or the suggestion is made that God needs to be returned to the classroom — as if this sort of thing didn't happen when schoolchildren recited the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of every school day and all we need to do to stop this is to start reciting the Lord's Prayer again.

These are variations on familiar themes, and they point to some unpleasant (and usually ignored) truths that, nevertheless, must be acknowledged.

The central truth is that there is evil — or whatever you choose to call it — in the world. How else can one explain an adult man walking into an elementary school and deliberately shooting at small children?

Because the very thought is so appalling, people assume that the weapons that were used must have been automatic weapons. That, at least, would explain why the victims suffered multiple gunshot wounds. In that scenario, the gunman pulled the trigger once and several bullets were fired at the target.

But the weapons were semi–automatic, and that means that the assailant had to fire at each victim several times on purpose. The medical examiner has confirmed that each victim was shot at least three times.

That is evil. There is no other word for it.

Another truth that needs to be acknowledged is the fact that mental health issues often go untreated in our society, and that needs to change. Inevitably, it seems, mental illness figures prominently in mass shootings.

From what I have read, Lanza was identified as an at–risk youth fairly early on. He came from a reasonably affluent family that was able to provide him with treatment that many families probably could not, and the educators in his life apparently made many efforts to help as well.

Those efforts, however, clearly — and tragically — failed.

There are no easy answers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Daniel Inouye

During the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, the attorney
for H.R. Haldeman called Daniel Inouye "that little Jap."

When I think of Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who died yesterday at the age of 88, I think of his soft–spoken dignity during the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings.

As Emma Brown observed in a Washington Post obituary, Inouye "rarely sought the media spotlight" in more than half a century of service in Congress. That seemed especially true during the days of Watergate,

In an age when bipartisanship is a popular buzzword, though, Inouye's absence is likely to be felt. He didn't just give lip service to such concepts, he lived them.

I didn't grow up in Hawaii, where Inouye was a well–known figure before Hawaii became a state in 1959. If I had, I would know more about his life than I do. But I still know quite a bit about him.

He served with distinction in World War II and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Clinton. He was a member of Hawaii's first congressional delegation as its representative in the House, and he became a senator in 1963. Only Robert Byrd of West Virginia served in the Senate longer.

When Byrd died in 2010, Inouye, by virtue of being the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate became its president pro tempore, a title he held until his death. Constitutionally, that made him third in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and the House speaker.

Most of what I know about Inouye I learned from watching the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. As a Democrat investigating the campaign activities of a Republican president and his staff, Inouye may have felt additional pressure to be fair, but my impression was that it was a genuine aspect of his personality.

Anyway, there were times when the testimony of the president's men offended him, and it showed. Another thing that showed was his eagerness to see the best in people.

"You are a wise man," I remember Inouye saying comfortingly to Watergate burglar Bernard Barker.

"If I were a wise man," Barker replied, "I probably would not be sitting here right now."

Inouye was the last surviving Democrat from the Senate Watergate Committee. Two Republican members survive him — Howard Baker of Tennessee and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Memories of a Mentor

It is my understanding that the word mentor has its roots in Greek mythology.

It was the name of a contemporary and friend of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) who befriended and advised Odysseus' son. Because of Mentor's relationship with the younger man, over the centuries his name has come to mean someone who shares what he has learned with a younger and less experienced comrade.

Well, that's my understanding, anyway. I really have only a modest background in mythology, and I could be wrong.

Nearly everyone has a mentor, I suppose — to some degree. A few of us thrive in spite of growing up in adverse conditions — including not having an older and wiser influence to keep us grounded and focused — but, thankfully, for most of us, there always seems to be a teacher, a minister, a professional role model.

Someone. Usually several someones.

In my case, it was a man named John Ward. He was the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark. I met him through my mother, who must have known nearly everyone in my hometown. I'm not sure when that was, but it was long before he actually became my mentor.

He actually became my mentor, I guess, when I was in high school. I had always been interested in writing, and my mother encouraged me to apply that interest to newspaper writing. As a result, she prodded me to seek John's counsel, and he was quite obliging.

Many were the days I spent in his newsroom office as a teenager, learning from him and soaking up the wisdom he had acquired. My memory is that John was a large, gregarious man, larger than life in many ways — although perhaps he only seemed so to me.

I know he was a presence in the community, helping to establish Toad Suck Daze, an annual festival in my home county that gets its name from an actual town along the Arkansas River. He was an accomplished musician and probably performed at the early Toad Suck Daze festivals although that would have been after I left Conway.

He was an admirer of Winthrop Rockefeller and played important roles in both his gubernatorial candidacy and statehouse tenure. John wrote two books about Rockefeller, the first of which I bought and gave to my mother. She enjoyed it so much that she asked me to get him to sign it, which I did.

After Mom died, I kept that book. John's inscription read, "To Mary Goodloe, a wonderful friend and a lady I admire very much. ... Glad you enjoyed this. I wish now I could write it all over again."

Those weren't empty words. When John said something, he meant it.

John gave me my first freelance assignments and showed me, when I brought him my earliest journalistic efforts, what I needed to do differently. Somewhere in some musty microfilm room — or wherever such data is stored these days — you can see (if you want to, that is) my first bylines.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first bylines in my high school newspaper followed by my first bylines in my college newspaper — and, after that, my first bylines as a professional writer. I like to think that the stories that followed those early bylines got progressively better; and, if that is so, it is in large part because of John's influence on me.

A life in writing had been launched, for good or ill, and John had been the one to smash the champagne bottle at its christening.

John died a week ago, and I have been trying to think of a way to honor him.

And I have concluded that the best way is what I've been doing.

For the last 2½ years, I have been an adjunct journalism instructor in the local community college system, sharing with my students what I learned in my years of newspaper work.

But I have come to realize that my students are getting more than that. They are getting the benefit of wisdom I acquired from John — and it is often shared, I have discovered, in the same words he used when he shared his wisdom with me.

Such are the often subtle ways a mentor influences.

For all I know, they may have been the same words that were shared with John many years before that. Who knows the lineage of a pearl of wisdom? My students don't know it, but what I tell them is never something that I was the first to discover. Journalism is like anything else. There are truths about it that remain constant.

Sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a bit of a plagiarist when I share things with my students that John or my college mentor, Roy Reed, told me — but I guess that's a reflection of my training. I always feel compelled to attribute that knowledge to my source (even if it wasn't the original source of the knowledge).

I feel I learned from the best. There are/were others almost as good — but none was better.

Thanks, John. Vaya con Dios, amigo.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Curse of the Second Term

Barack Obama and his supporters are jubilant these days, basking in the afterglow of their electoral victory. They haven't been terribly gracious in their victory, either, which I have long found to be a recipe for eventual disaster.

And many scoff at the lessons of history, having just turned conventional wisdom on its ear by successfully waging an entire campaign dedicated solely to smearing the opposition. That isn't really anything new in American politics, but, usually, when a politician is re–elected to office, his/her supporters have an idea what he/she intends to do.

But I spoke to many Obama supporters during the general election campaign, and I asked them sincerely — I asked some multiple times — what the incumbent wanted to do if given a second term. Not a single one could tell me what Obama's second–term agenda was.

Perhaps that was the prudent thing. After all, most presidents who win re–election do so after they have expressed some kind of a grand vision — and then they get shot down (often by something entirely unexpected).


(Sometimes, though, presidents just run out of gas long before their second terms are finished — having already used their first terms to present their best legislative ideas.)

In my lifetime, Obama is the fifth president to be re–elected, and the first four were stymied by serious problems in their second terms.

George W. Bush proclaimed on election night that he had "earned political capital" in the campaign that he intended to spend — and then the president who couldn't think of a single thing he would do differently in his first term got sidetracked in his second by an increasingly unpopular war and the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

Bill Clinton was impeached in his second term. No one had heard of Monica Lewinsky in November 1996.

Ronald Reagan's second–term agenda was derailed by the Iran–Contra scandal.

Richard Nixon resigned as Watergate blossomed from a "third–rate burglary" in his first term to a major scandal in his second.

It isn't a new phenomenon, either. For presidents who are re–elected, election night is frequently the high point of their second terms. It's mostly down hill from there.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term was bogged down by his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court.

Woodrow Wilson was re–elected by the slimmest margin of any president until Obama's re–election this week, largely because he kept the United States out of the war that was being waged in Europe — but America wound up in World War I, anyway.

Dwight Eisenhower had a series of problems in his second term. The United States fell behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The infamous U–2 incident embarrassed him in the final year of his presidency and raised tensions between America and the Soviet Union. And his administration lost the services of his trusted chief of staff and several Cabinet officers.

But Eisenhower managed to keep the peace between the two nations, and his second term was also marked by federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South and a memorable farewell address to the nation in which he warned against "unwarranted influence ... by the military–industrial complex."

Obama will face numerous challenges in his second term — the looming fiscal cliff gets all the ink right now, but then it will be the implementation of Obamacare and the probability that both will plunge the United States into another recession, as well as hearings on the terrorist attack in Benghazi — and the time may well come when the president will regret not having made a friend or two on the other side of the legislative aisle.

Trying to make some legislative friends from across the aisle now just isn't likely to work, given the venomous nature of Obama's campaign attacks.

It's a two–way street, though. Obama's short–lived filibuster–proof majority in the Senate is long gone and, most likely, won't be coming back since Democrats must defend 20 seats in the 2014 midterms. Few if any of the Republican–held seats look like they could be in jeopardy (right now, at least), but the Democrats must defend senators from Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota — among others.

But congressional Republicans, who famously said their top objective was to make Obama a one–termer, must reconcile themselves to the fact that, like Bush and Clinton before him, Obama has been re–elected, and it will be necessary now for both sides to work together in the best interest of the country.

That calls for skills that Obama has never really shown that he possesses, but that's the way the system is set up in this country. We have checks and balances built in to the system to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful, and we have regular elections so voters can at least feel as if they have some power over what happens — even if they don't have nearly as much power as they might like to think they do.

When Clinton was president, and he was forced to deal with a Republican Congress, he gravitated to the political center and worked out deals with members of the Republican majorities.

For the first two years of his second term, Obama must work with a Republican House (and cajole enough Senate Republicans to prevent filibusters from happening) to get things done.

That's going to be tricky. But it must be done. The alternative is a recession, if not a depression, with massive job losses.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Big Election About Small Things

"If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things."

Barack Obama
2008 Democratic National Convention

Presidential elections are seldom about what they should be about.

I probably should have learned that on this day in 1972 — or, at least, not long thereafter.

As I have mentioned here before, my mother was a huge supporter of George McGovern, the quixotic Democratic nominee who ran against President Richard Nixon that year. McGovern tried to run on the big issues of the day — the biggest of which was the Vietnam War, which had so divided America four years earlier when Nixon had been elected president.

And I frequently went with Mom when she was campaigning door to door for McGovern that fall.

She admired the fact that McGovern spoke about the difficult issues of war and peace, poverty and prosperity, and, while I don't remember McGovern's loss on this day being a surprise to her, as I mentioned on the occasion of McGovern's death last month, she must have known what was coming. Everyone did.

It was a different time, which is something, I suppose, that younger Americans simply cannot understand any more than they can understand how their elders used to listen to recordings on discs several times the size of modern CDs that were deceptively heavy and could only be played with — of all things — needles.

It was the last election in which the major party nominees did not debate at least once — Nixon had learned his lesson from the experience of debating John F. Kennedy and declined all such offers.

Such a move probably would be greeted by a huge public outcry today. Modern voters expect presidential candidates to debate each other, but it merited only a couple of references by most observers and then it was dropped when it drew no traction.

Neither, for that matter, did the Watergate break–in and coverup. Oh, Watergate was mentioned from time to time, but, as Jason Robards observed in the movie version of "All the President's Men""Half the country never even heard of the word 'Watergate.' Nobody gives a s***."

And that is my memory of the general attitude toward the break–in. It was one of those things that may happen in a political campaign. It was deplorable, everyone agreed; the people who participated in the planning and the execution of the plan should be brought to justice, but it wasn't the candidate's fault. The candidate, especially if he was an incumbent, could not possibly be expected to know everything that went on within his campaign organization and in his name.

People today — perhaps foolishly, given what we learned about human nature from that episode in our history — expect better than that from their candidates. They wouldn't stand for any of the old–school shenanigans and dirty tricks that, in hindsight, marked all of Nixon's campaigns in one way or another.

"It was customary, during and after the campaign, to say that the American people did not care," wrote Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972."

"Wise men agreed, and the polls supported them, that it meant little — that Americans had become callous, too cynical to worry about morality in government."

White was torn on the issue in what was the final volume in his "The Making of the President" series. Based on his observations from the campaign trail, White wrote, people were concerned about what they were hearing about the president's men and what they had been up to.

And, based on the number of voters who came to the polls compared to four years earlier, White concluded that Nixon "failed to maximize his potential support."

"[I]t is possible," White wrote, "that at least 3 or 4 million Americans were so disillusioned by both candidates that they chose not to vote at all."

For those who did vote, however, there was "an open choice of ideas, a free choice of directions, and they chose Richard Nixon."

And, while some people did try to make the 1972 election about the big things — the war, the economy, Watergate — my memory is that the Nixon campaign focused on small things — inconsistencies in McGovern's voting record or verbal missteps — and didn't spend too much time talking about what Nixon had done or what he hoped to do.

Nixon had told voters in 1968 that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in six months, a plan he could not reveal because of the sensitivity of the information and the strategy. The war was still going on in 1972. He had failed to achieve the thing that most Americans wanted more than anything else.

If the campaign had been about that, Nixon probably would have faced — in the words of one of his successors — a "one–term proposition." And, privately, Nixon was bitter about the war with which Kennedy and Johnson had saddled him.

There were arguments that Nixon could have made that there had been real improvements on long–term propositions — because ending the war and reviving a sagging economy that was just beginning to experience long–term issues on energy really were long–term problems. It was unrealistic to regard them as anything else.

Of course, promising to end the war in six months was unrealistic and probably ill–advised, but even more ill–advised was any decision to vote based solely on that remark. McGovern did mention that promise from time to time in 1972, but my memory is that most people were dismissive of it. I don't remember any fist fights breaking out over the pledge.

Nixon could — and did — focus on big accomplishments, like forging new relationships with the Chinese and the Russians. But, mostly, his campaign was about little things.

Much like the campaign that just concluded.

While their political philosophies were different, Mitt Romney reminds me a lot of George McGovern — a decent man who sought to speak about big things but was frequently mischaracterized and belittled, first in his own party and then in the general election.

Romney handled it better than McGovern did. He didn't have to drop his running mate, after all. But, nevertheless, his was the first major–party ticket to lose both its home states since the 1972 election.

(Paul Ryan, of course, is a native of Wisconsin, but plausible arguments could be made that Romney's home state could be Michigan, the state of his birth, or Massachusetts, the state that elected him its governor. For the purpose of the argument, though, it doesn't matter. The GOP lost both.)

And Romney didn't lose in a huge landslide. It was a squeaker by historical standards. Obama's successful re–election was the most tepid I have witnessed in my lifetime — and he is the fifth president in that time to be re–elected.

Of course, three sitting presidents (including Gerald Ford, who is an exception because he was never elected president or vice president) have been rejected by the voters, too.

I believed Obama would join them. I was wrong.

He may yet join Nixon. I believe there is a lot about the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi that has not been revealed. I don't know if it will be revealed before Obama's term is over. That may depend upon whether mainstream journalists are willing to explore the troubling questions that have been raised, no matter where those questions may lead them.

It should be a source of enduring shame to journalists the way they have often shilled for the administration and failed to act as the watchdogs of the truth they are supposed to be. (I see more egregious examples of this in broadcast journalism than I do in print — but, unfortunately, Americans seem less inclined to read than ever.)

It was the role of watchdog, perhaps more than any other, that attracted me to journalism when I was young — the dogged determination of the press to pursue Watergate wherever it took them. I hope American journalists will rediscover the value of that role.

Perhaps then, if we allow a big election to be defined by little things, it will not be because the press did not do its job.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Election of 1912

A century ago today, an incumbent president was rejected by the voters.

That might be a bad omen for the incumbent president whose name is on tomorrow's ballot, but, unlike the incumbent who lost on this day in 1912, at least he doesn't have to run against a former president who is running as a third–party candidate.

(If, on the other hand, Barack Obama is re–elected tomorrow, that might open the door to another possible scenario that was suggested in print by Michael Barone the day after the third and final presidential debate two weeks ago. More on that a bit later.)

Presidential elections usually have several "third–party" candidates, but, typically, only the two major parties (which have varied in the last two centuries, but, since the time of Lincoln, the dominant parties in the United States have been the Democrats and Republicans) receive enough support to make them factors.

Most of the time, third parties are, at best, distractions — and magnets for disgruntled voters who like neither of the major–party nominees. But, occasionally, the third–party candidate wins a large share of the popular vote — and a few even manage to win a state or two.

There have been several times in U.S. history when an incumbent president was defeated in a bid for another term; obviously, such elections involve both a past and future president.

But once — and only once — a three–way race involved three credible candidates who had been — or would be — president. That was the election of 1912. Those voters went to the polls a century ago today.

The incumbent president was William Howard Taft, the hand–picked successor for Theodore Roosevelt, who did not run in 1908 because he had served nearly all of William McKinley's second term plus a full one of his own and honored a pledge he had made in 1904 not to seek another one.

Taft had been Roosevelt's secretary of War, and they had been close friends, but a rift developed between them during Taft's presidency and, by 1912, Roosevelt was the acknowledged leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party while Taft was the leader of its conservative wing, setting the stage for a battle for the party's nomination in 1912.

Even before the presidential campaign, a deep divide within the Republican Party was clear when Republicans lost 10 Senate seats and 57 House seats in the 1910 midterm elections. The 1912 campaign for the Republican nomination merely put an exclamation point on it.

1912 was the first year that Republicans held presidential primaries, and Roosevelt was, by far, the more popular candidate among the Republicans' rank and file, winning nine of 12 primaries, most by wide margins.

But three–fourths of the state delegations were chosen in state party conventions run by the party's establishment, which strongly favored the status quo, and Taft, along with Vice President James Sherman, was renominated when Republicans convened in Chicago in June.

(Sherman's nomination wasn't the slam dunk that 21st century observers might assume. He was actually the first sitting vice president to be renominated in more than 80 years.)

Roosevelt and his followers held their own convention, and Roosevelt was nominated to run as the standard bearer for the new Progressive Party. When asked by reporters about his physical condition, the 53–year–old Roosevelt responded that he felt as strong as a "bull moose."

It was kind of an odd question, I suppose. I mean, since leaving the White House, Roosevelt had been on an African safari and had suffered no ill effects on it, but he had been stricken with malaria during the Spanish–American War so the question was relevant. From that point on, the new party was known as the Bull Moose Party.

All that sounds like a huge gift for the Democratic challenger, doesn't it? Well, since the Democrat eventually won the election, I suppose it was — except the nominee was not clear when Democrats convened in Baltimore at the end of June.

In those days, a simple majority of the delegates was not sufficient to win the Democratic nomination. The support of two–thirds was required, but no one could even get a majority until the ninth ballot.

In an ironic twist, the initial frontrunner, House Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri, was hurt when the infamous Tammany Hall political machine from New York backed his candidacy. Although it boosted Clark past the 50% mark on the ninth ballot, Tammany Hall's support had the reverse effect, earning the wrath of three–time nominee William Jennings Bryan, who had been officially neutral up to that time and was still the darling of the party's liberals despite having lost all three elections.

Denouncing Clark as the Wall Street candidate (that has a familiar sound to it, doesn't it?), Bryan threw his support behind New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, a centrist, and Wilson gradually gained momentum, finally winning the support of enough delegates to claim the nomination on the 46th ballot.

Perhaps the greatest irony of that election year was the fact that Wilson, who had been finishing second to Clark in the previous ballots, was on the brink of withdrawing and releasing his delegates to vote for someone else when the schism between Bryan and Clark occurred.

If Wilson had given up a ballot or two earlier, Clark might have won the nomination — or Bryan might have boosted the candidacy of someone else.

And the course of American history would have been altered.

It was a different time, of course. There was no internet, no television, no radio to rapidly distribute images and information; news traveled long distances by telegraph. It was relatively early in the industrialization of the United States. The railroad had opened up the West, but the automobile was still new, and commercial air travel was still many years away.

Those who thrive in our instant information era would feel wholly out of place if they could be magically transported back 100 years.

It was, as I say, a different time. Titanic sank nearly seven months earlier — man flew to the moon and back half a dozen times before his technology permitted him to probe the ocean's depths and find Titanic's remains.

It was a different political time, too. It was, in the estimation of many, progressivism's plateau. A fourth candidate for the presidency, Socialist Eugene Debs, made his fourth run for the office and received 6% of the national vote — his highest share ever of the popular vote.

A labor organizer at heart, Debs had little interest in the American electoral system, and he spoke disparagingly of the so–called "Sewer Socialists" who had made political deals to win low–level elections.

The 1912 campaign would have been one for the books if only because three men who had been or would be president were on the ballot.

But there were other things about the 1912 campaign that were significant.

For one thing, Roosevelt was the target of an assassination attempt about three weeks before the voters went to the polls.

While campaigning in Milwaukee on Oct. 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a former barkeeper from New York, John Schrank.

Schrank claimed to have been visited in a dream by McKinley's ghost, who had urged him to avenge his death and pointed to a picture of Roosevelt. He apparently had been stalking Roosevelt from New Orleans to Milwaukee, where he confronted and shot the former president in his chest at a hotel where Roosevelt was to deliver a speech.

Roosevelt was not killed. The bullet struck Roosevelt's steel eyeglasses case and a 50–page copy of his speech. The ex–president concluded that, because he was not coughing up blood, he was not seriously wounded, and he proceeded to deliver his speech (which took 90 minutes).

Roosevelt's diagnosis was confirmed later by doctors, who decided that it would be more dangerous to try to remove the bullet from his chest than to leave it where it was. Roosevelt carried the bullet inside his body the rest of his life.

An attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate has been rare in American politics. Only two men (Robert Kennedy and George Wallace) have been assassination targets in the last 100 years — and no major–party presidential candidate had been similarly attacked on the campaign trail before.

(Schrank was declared insane and was sent to the Central State Mental Hospital in 1914. He died there of natural causes in 1943.)

Another thing that made 1912 different was the death of Vice President Sherman.

Sherman suffered from kidney disease — in fact, he had delivered his renomination acceptance speech against his doctors' wishes — and he died at his New York home about a week before the election.

In America's history, half a dozen vice presidents had died in office before Sherman did — including Roosevelt's predecessor, Garret Hobart, in 1899 — but no incumbent vice president has died in the century that has passed since Sherman's death, not even Harry Truman's veep, Alben Barkley, who was elected when he was 70 years old.

So, by 21st–century standards, I suppose, it would have been shocking if, say, Vice President Joe Biden had dropped dead last week.

But voters in 1912 probably weren't too shocked. Vice presidents' deaths were more common than presidential deaths in the second half of the 19th century.

Sherman's death was unique, however, in that it left President Taft without a running mate a week before the election. The president of Columbia University, Nicholas M. Butler, was designated to take Sherman's place, but Sherman's name remained on the ballot.

In the long run, I guess, it didn't matter whose name was on the ballot. The Taft–Sherman ticket ran third and received the electoral votes of only Utah and Vermont. That was not attributable exclusively to Sherman's death, but it could not have helped Taft's cause to have such uncertainty about his running mate just days before the election.

Taft's loss, however, turned out to be the Supreme Court's gain, as Claude Marx observes at

And now, back to Mr. Barone's observation a couple of weeks ago.

In 2008, he noted, Obama "got a higher share of the popular vote than any other Democratic nominee in history except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson."

But most political analysts, including Barone, are convinced that, if Obama is re–elected, it will be by a considerably narrower margin. Only one president in American history, Barone observed, was re–elected by a smaller margin than the one by which he was elected originally.

That would be Wilson, who was "re–elected in 1916 by 49 to 46 percent in popular votes and 277 to 254 in the Electoral College," Barone wrote.

"If California, which then had only 13 electoral votes, had not gone for Wilson by 3,773 votes," Barone continued, "the incumbent would have lost."

Barone pointed out that Obama has not been definite about his plans for a second term.

"Presidents who get re–elected," he wrote, "usually offer second–term agendas. Obama hasn't, especially on the economy. As a re–elected president, he will be as free of constraints as Wilson was."

Just one thing stands between Obama and that second term — tomorrow's election. (And, for the record, Barone doesn't believe Obama will be re–elected. But Larry Sabato does.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

And the Winner Will Be ...

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by presidential elections.

Mind you, I'm not talking about election campaigns. Modern experience is that political campaigns are nasty, dishonest and undignified — although American history does have a few inspiring tales of elevating campaigns that go a long way toward redeeming the rest.

No, I have never been fascinated by the campaigns. I covered some political campaigns when I was a general assignment reporter, and I know that one political rally is pretty much the same as the next. In fact, with their scripted messages of the day and their identical backdrops, any rallies that take place on the same day really could substitute for any of the others on that evening's news broadcast — and hardly anyone would be the wiser.

What has fascinated me is the numbers that come in on election night, what they say about who we are and what we care about — and the most important numbers of all, of course, the tallies in the Electoral College.

I enjoy analyzing the vote by various demographic groups because it tells us a lot about our priorities, but I guess I have always been more intrigued by the raw state totals that usually determine how each state's electoral votes will be cast. Generations come and go, the faces in the voting lines change but political alliances seldom do.

I suppose that explains why certain states always vote for one party or the other. And I have a healthy respect for the lessons of history.

In the lead–up to this year's elections — in large part, I'm sure, because of our national experience with the recounts of 2000 — some have been openly worrying about the possibility that the popular vote winner will not be the electoral vote winner.

Paul Brandus, for example, recently wrote in The Week about nail–biters in American presidential election history.

And he pointed out something that no one else, to my knowledge, has in this election cycle — the possibility that the electoral vote would be inconclusive and the matter would have to be decided by the Congress.

Brandus wrote about the slim mathematical possibility that both Obama and Romney would finish with 269 electoral votes — one short of the required 270. (Personally, I'm more inclined to believe that a "faithless elector" — or two or three — would prevent a candidate from winning in the Electoral College.)

If that happened, the House would select the president, and the Senate would select the vice president. That is how such an impasse is to be resolved, according to the Constitution.

The catch is that the newly elected Congress — not the one that is presently in power — would make the decisions. Congress has adjourned and is not scheduled to be in session again until January, when the newly elected members will be sworn in.

And their first order of business, in the event of an Electoral College tie, would be to choose the president and vice president.

Most people expect the House to remain in Republican hands — the GOP would have to lose about two dozen seats to lose control of the chamber, which is something that almost never happens (historically), but, in the last three elections, we have seen double–digit seat shifts in the House so it is possible.

However, the fate of the Senate, which is narrowly held by Democrats (who must defend about two–thirds of the seats that will be voted on Tuesday), has been less certain for many observers, but the emerging consensus seems to be the Democrats will hold on to their majority in that chamber.

If that turns out to be the breakdown of the next Congress, Brandus observed, the House would be expected to elect Romney president — and the Senate would be expected to re–elect Vice President Joe Biden. Talk about gridlock.

It's a season for silliness, I suppose. Most of the time, the electoral vote winner is the popular vote winner so, historically speaking, talk of such a split belongs under the heading of worst–case scenario. It is possible but not probable, even in a very close race.

And, usually, a candidate's share of the electoral vote tends to mirror that candidate's share of the popular vote (if not exceed it) as well. But not always. The only requirement for winning a state is to get more votes there than the other guy. It can be by a few hundred votes (see Florida in 2000) or by a million or more (see California, Texas, New York in just about every election in the last 30 years).

For that reason, many political scientists have observed, Democrats (like Al Gore in 2000) may be more vulnerable to a popular vote/electoral vote split because — in recent elections, at least — they have been winning heavily populated states like California and New York by wide margins.

The flip side is that most of the states that are popularly labeled red states these days are primarily smaller states (with the noteworthy exception of Texas) — so if a Republican is winning a majority of the popular vote, recent history suggests that he must be winning (perhaps handily) in the Electoral College because his margins in most states will appear tiny when compared to the Democrat's margins in the larger. more urban states.

(While we're on the topic of silliness, I feel torn between hilarity and horror at the suggestion that the president could postpone the election because of the recent hurricane that devastated the East Coast.

(The Constitution spells out when a federal election is to be held, and only an act of Congress — which is not in session, as I mentioned earlier — could do that. Lawmakers from the interior U.S. almost certainly would sympathize with the plight of the folks in the Northeast but would not see any reason to inconvenience their own constituents, many of whom have already voted early, anyway.

(So I find it hilarious that people even suggest this. It may be in jest or it may be serious. I think both may be at play here because I am sure that at least some are being facetious. But I am inclined to feel horror at the thought that there are citizens out there who not only believe the president possesses such sweeping powers that he can reschedule a national election — but are actually comfortable with one individual having such totalitarian power in a democratic republic.)

Speaking of history, I can't recall a week preceding a presidential election that was quite like last week.

I didn't have access to a wide range of news sources when I was growing up, but I've been online for about 15 years now, and I have witnessed all sorts of columns and articles prior to presidential elections during that time.

And, frankly, I was astonished at the number of post–mortems for the Obama campaign that were appearing in print and online editions of publications last week — almost as if the votes had already been counted.

Steve Huntley of the Chicago Sun–Times wrote that Obama has "eroded" the American dream.

Foremost in these post–mortems was a column by Richard Cohen, who wrote in the Washington Post of watching a documentary about Ethel Kennedy that showed her husband on his trips to Appalachia and Mississippi and how he "brimmed with shock and indignation, with sorrow and sympathy" over the plight of the poor.

Kennedy "was determined," Cohen wrote, "you could see it on his face — to do something about it. I've never seen that look on Barack Obama's face." He lamented that "I once wondered if Obama could be another RFK."

But, Cohen wrote, undoubtedly echoing the thoughts of many, "I wish he was the man I once mistook him for."

Anyway, let's get back to the business at hand.

Back in April, I examined the "emerging electoral map" and tried to explain historical voting patterns.

I started off by dismissing nearly half of the states as sure things for one side or another — and, with only one real exception, I'm standing by that forecast.

Of the sure things, Mitt Romney has 14 states — Alabama (9 electoral votes), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (5), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), Wyoming (3). Total = 120 electoral votes.

Barack Obama has 10 states (and D.C.) — California (55 electoral votes), Connecticut (7), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12). Total = 145 electoral votes.

The wild card in that group, I feel, is Oregon.

Yes, I know that Obama carried Oregon by more than 16 percentage points in 2008. And I know Democrats have carried Oregon in six straight presidential elections.

But I'm still doubtful about the state.

Last Monday, The Oregonian reported a six–point lead for Obama in its latest statewide poll.

That may sound good to Obama supporters, conditioned as they have been lately to disappearing leads in states they were counting on carrying, but it actually represents a decline from findings in polls taken in the last three or four months. It isn't a huge decline as these things go — and it falls within the typical margin for error so things may not have changed in Oregon.

But slippage would be in keeping with the apparent pattern in most states.

And, even though seven electoral votes from a single state doesn't mean much when there are 531 electoral votes in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, seven electoral votes might make all the difference in a race that is expected to be as close as this one is believed to be.

(Personally, I don't think it will be as close as many people do.)

So, while I still predict that Oregon will vote for Obama, I also say that, if it is a very close race, Oregon will bear watching in the late–night hours when the votes on the West Coast are being counted.

I'm still inclined to keep Oregon among the sure things — but, in the shifting political climate, I'm not as sure of it as I was.

I labeled the next group of states the probables — states that are likely to vote in a certain way but, for one reason or another, their eventual leaning will remain unclear until the votes are counted on Tuesday.

Romney had nine states in this group: Arizona (11), Colorado (9), Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Montana (3), North Dakota (3), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), West Virginia (5). Total = 70 electoral votes.

I'm inclined to leave those states in the Republican column — including Colorado. Many observers have been listing Colorado as too close to call — but Colorado usually seems to be close. (Well, Obama did carry the state by about nine percentage points in 2008.)

It also seldom votes for Democrats. In the 14 presidential elections before 2008, Colorado only voted for Democrats twice. And it hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since it supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936.

Most recent polls show either candidate with a one–point lead or the two candidates tied. I expect it will be close on election night, but I'm sticking with my original prediction that Romney will carry the state.

Obama has five states among the probables: Delaware (3), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14). Total = 51 electoral votes.

I still think Obama will win those five states, but I'm a little dubious about Minnesota and New Jersey.

Minnesota has a long history of supporting Democrats. It hasn't voted for a Republican since Richard Nixon's 49–state landslide in 1972.

A week ago, though, rumors were rampant that Obama was planning a visit to Minnesota, sparking speculation that Democrats were in trouble there. Obama, preoccupied with Hurricane Sandy, didn't go to Minnesota after all, but former President Bill Clinton came instead.

Minnesota voted for Obama by about 10 percentage points four years ago, and it is hard to imagine that it would flip to the Republicans. But Clinton's presence there about a week before the election can only be interpreted as a sign that Democrats are worried.

My next category was the leaners. Like the probables, they can be expected to vote in a certain way — but the chances that they actually will are less than they are for the probables.

Romney has two states in this group: North Carolina (15), Virginia (13). Total = 28 electoral votes.

They were both regarded as too close to call a few months ago, but I felt Obama effectively lost North Carolina when he announced his support for gay marriage the day after North Carolina voters resoundingly rejected it.

Virginia is still considered too close to call by many. But its support for Obama in 2008 was the first time it had voted for a Democrat in more than 40 years — and Virginia hasn't voted for Democrats in back–to–back elections since the 1940s — all of which leads me to believe Virginia will vote — albeit narrowly — for Romney. Especially if George Allen's Senate race is successful.

Obama also had two states among the leaners: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5). Total = 21 electoral votes.

New Mexico looks like it will remain in the Democrats' column, but I'm not so certain about Michigan. That, after all, is where Romney was born and where his father served as governor. Obama did win the state by more than 800,000 votes in 2008 — and a recent Detroit Newspoll showed Obama in the lead — but that lead, which has been cut in half since early October, was within the margin of error.

Ramussen recently found Obama leading in Michigan with 50%. I think Obama can count on it — but it may be late in the evening before he can secure Michigan's electoral votes.

That gives the following electoral vote totals: Romney = 218, Obama = 217. And it leaves eight battleground states — Florida (29), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10) — worth 103 electoral votes.

I designated these states as battlegrounds back in April. Most are still regarded as battlegrounds today; a few are considered reasonably safe for one candidate or another, but I think all are in play to an extent.

Recent polls indicate that Missouri is likely to vote Republican, which would boost Romney's electoral vote total to 228. And, in fact, polls have been suggesting a Romney victory in Missouri was increasingly likely ever since I posted my first glance at the Electoral College.

But the other seven states still are generally regarded as too close to call — even if some polls suggest that one candidate or the other has a modest lead.

So let's look at them, one by one:
  • Florida — The race appears close in Florida, with recent polls showing one– or two–point leads for either candidate. Florida voted for Obama four years ago, but the state hasn't voted for Democrats in consecutive elections since the days of FDR and Harry Truman.

    I think it will be close – no surprise there — but I think it will be in the Republican column. (Romney = 257, Obama = 217)
  • Iowa — The Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Romney, reported Saturday that Obama leads by five points, but he is still below 50%.

    It will probably be tight in Iowa, but I think Obama will carry it. (Romney = 257, Obama = 223)
  • Nevada — With one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, Nevada seems like fertile ground for Romney, and perhaps it will turn out that way on Tuesday.

    But even though the Las Vegas Review Journal, in a sharply worded editorial, endorsed Romney last Thursday, Obama's lead in Nevada appears to be growing.

    So I will pick Nevada to vote for Obama. (Romney = 257, Obama = 229)
  • New Hampshire — New Hampshire was once considered reliably Republican, but it has voted Democrat in four of the last five elections.

    A recent University of New Hampshire poll found the candidates tied at 48–48. Since undecided voters tend to break for the challenger, I will call this state for Romney. (Romney = 261, Obama = 229)
  • Ohio — It is an article of faith among political observers that no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. Sometimes Republicans have lost the national election in spite of winning Ohio (Richard Nixon in 1960, Tom Dewey in 1944).

    Most recent polls — MSNBC, CNN, — show the president at 50% or better in Ohio. And, without the auto bailout, it is hard to argue that Ohio would be doing as well as it is in the current economic climate.

    It is worth noting that Rasmussen says the race is a dead heat. Perhaps it is.

    But, right now, I'm inclined to pick Ohio to vote for Obama.

    Does that mean Romney will lose? Not necessarily. Twenty years ago, when George H.W. Bush sought a second term, polls showed him leading Bill Clinton in Texas — and political observers pointed out that no Democrat had won the presidency without winning Texas.

    But Clinton was elected president twice — and Obama was elected president once — without the support of Texas. A U.S. presidential election is actually 51 individual elections (50 states and the District of Columbia). If Romney loses Ohio, it is only 18 electoral votes — the fewest Ohio has been worth since the days of Andrew Jackson — and that loss can be made up with victories elsewhere. (Romney = 261, Obama =247)
  • Pennsylvania — I'm sure no one in the Obama campaign thought Pennsylvania would be up for grabs in the closing days of the election, but I predicted it would back in April — and my reason was the strong Republican showing in the state in the 2010 midterm elections.

    Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat and the statehouse.

    Recent surveys by Franklin & Marshall and the Philadelphia Inquirer have Obama leading but with a plurality, not a majority.

    And, since Pennsylvania was assumed to be a lock for Obama, it was spared the barrage of anti–Romney commercials that flooded other battleground states in the spring and summer — so the voters there had few preconceived notions that Romney had to refute

    To be fair, that wasn't an unreasonable conclusion. Pennsylvania voted for Obama by a 10–point margin in 2008, and the state hasn't voted Republican since 1988.

    In a close race, Democrats usually hope for a strong turnout in Democrat–leaning Philadelphia to help them win Pennsylvania. But I wonder just how strong the turnout in Philadelphia will be, given its close proximity to the area that was most directly affected by Hurricane Sandy.

    I believe few, if any, Americans hope that the pain and suffering caused by the hurricane will influence the election in any way, but, if turnout in Philly is lower than usual — and I'm inclined to think it might be — that could tip the balance of power to Romney. And that is what I think will happen. (Romney = 281, Obama = 247)
  • Wisconsin — Usually, Wisconsin could be expected to be even more Democratic than Michigan, perhaps about as Democratic as Minnesota.

    But a couple of things make me think Wisconsin will vote for Romney.

    For one, Wisconsin has been the site of many recent Republican victories — the 2010 election of Scott Walker as governor and the rejection of the recent recall effort, the 2010 election of Republican Ron Johnson to the U.S. Senate, and the shift of two of its eight House seats from Democrat to Republican hands.

    For another, Wisconsin does not usually have a candidate on the national ticket. But this year it has one in Rep. Paul Ryan, who ran 13 percentage points ahead of Obama in his southeast Wisconsin district in 2008.

    I think Wisconsin will vote for Romney. (Romney = 291, Obama = 247)

Monday, October 29, 2012


"Your first time shouldn't be with just anybody. You want to do it with a great guy. It should be with a guy with beautiful … somebody who really cares about and understands women."

Lena Dunham
Obama campaign commercial

It's amusing to me, the outrage that has greeted the Lena Dunham commercial for the re–election of Barack Obama.

It's amusing because those who are outraged act as if this was unexpected. But how could it be unexpected when the Obama campaign has spent most of its time and money this election cycle pursuing irrelevant arguments — the most recent examples being the president's indignation over Big Bird, binders and bayonets — when there are so many more urgent problems in this country?

Like, for example, the war on women. With so much attention being paid to contraceptives and whether taxpayers should pay for the availability of contraceptive devices for women, with the Obama campaign shamelessly running advertisements that focus on women's "lady parts" as the only factor in a woman's voting decision, it can't surprise anyone when the campaign unveils, in the waning days of that campaign, an advertisement that compares voting to losing one's virginity.

It doesn't surprise me. I understand what's going on. Obama's support among women is slipping, and he wants to prop up that part of the winning coalition from 2008.

But, historically speaking, that was always going to be a tough coalition to keep together.

In a vain attempt to prevent the inevitable, the Lena Dunham commercial is designed to appeal not just to young women but young people in general. They're all part of that 2008 coalition — but, while women's participation rate has been consistent over the years, participation of the young has been spotty.

Until the Obama campaign of 2008, young people (generally described as those between 18 and 29) didn't have a strong record when it came to voting. It went way up in 2008 — much to the astonishment of longtime political observers — but no less than NPR and the Los Angeles Times report a decline in interest among young voters.

That surge of young voters who pushed Obama over the top four years ago? It ain't gonna happen again. But the Obama campaign insists that lightning can strike twice in the same place — you just have to help it along a little.

Presidents are notoriously slow to recognize when they have lost the consent of the governed — so I don't know how much input Obama has in all this, especially with that nasty storm churning along the East Coast and forcing him to do his job.

But I gather that Nolan Finley of the Detroit News may be on to something when he opines, "[T]he president's campaign is now driven by desperation. ... Vulgar is part of the repertoire; Obama called Romney a 'bullsh—er' in an interview. Very presidential."

Actually, that language is mild compared to the language some of Obama's surrogates have been using. Still, I have trouble imagining any president in my lifetime — other than, perhaps, Richard Nixon — using an expletive to describe his political opponent in an interview setting.

It is beneath the dignity of the office — if not the man who occupies it.

But apparently it isn't beneath the dignity of this president's surrogates.

Like Samuel L. Jackson, for example, who recently implored the audience, in an Obama commercial, to "Wake the f*** up!"

I understand why some people find Dunham's commercial offensive. It encourages women to vote for the candidate who makes them tingle between their legs above all else.

"Before, I was a girl," says Dunham — who, in the interest of full disclosure, is 26 but sounds like a teenager — of that first vote experience. "Now I was a woman."

Nearly 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment gave women — not girls — the right to vote. It is a responsibility that should be taken seriously.

Perhaps someday science will give us effective means to test people — both men and women — for emotional and psychological (not just chronological) maturity before they can be registered and allowed to vote.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Death of a Good Guy

I knew when I heard that George McGovern was in hospice care that he was not long for this world.

According to reports Wednesday afternoon, the 90–year–old was "unresponsive" at a hospice center in South Dakota, the state he represented in Washington.

He lingered for a few days — never, to my knowledge, regaining responsiveness — and died earlier today.

History — or destiny or fate or whatever you want to call it — had an unusual plan for George McGovern's life. He was a real long shot to win his party's nomination, but he did — albeit with the help of Richard Nixon's "dirty tricks" squad.

But then he went down in flames in the 1972 general election. He lost every state but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia for a total of 17 electoral votes. It was the most one–sided election in 36 years — and, frankly, I doubted I would ever see its like again.

Twelve years later, though, Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale. Reagan didn't receive as much of the popular vote (percentage–wise, that is) as Nixon did, but he held Mondale to fewer electoral votes than Nixon did against McGovern.

I heard that Mondale spoke to McGovern after the 1984 election and asked McGovern how long it took to get over a landslide loss. "I'll let you know when I get there," McGovern assured him.

(I don't know if McGovern kept that promise, but Bob Greene writes at that he did overcome that massive landslide loss — although perhaps not in the way one might expect. Greene covered McGovern's 1972 campaign as a young reporter. His assessment of the man? "[H]e was an awfully good guy.")

Whenever I heard about McGovern over the years, I always thought of Mom. She was a diehard supporter of McGovern — in part because she agreed with him and admired his stance against the Vietnam War but also in part, I'm sure, because she despised Nixon.

In the fall of 1972, Mom went door to door in our county in central Arkansas, ringing doorbells for McGovern. I went with her on several occasions. Many doors were slammed in our faces so I guess she wasn't surprised when Arkansas voted better than 2–to–1 against McGovern that year.

Mom followed the news so I'm convinced she knew McGovern wouldn't be victorious. She had seen the public opinion polls.

(And, even though Greene recalled that McGovern confessed to being baffled by the discrepancy between what the polls were saying and what he was seeing on the campaign trail, I always thought McGovern must have known. My memory of that time is that everyone knew how the election was going to turn out.)

Mom never spoke to me about it, but I'm quite sure she knew what was coming. Hell, even I knew what was coming, and I was just a young boy.

I've been reliving those days this year. 2012 is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break–in and McGovern's improbable march to the Democratic nomination.

I shook hands with McGovern twice that year. He made airport stops in Little Rock a few weeks before the Democratic convention that summer and again a few weeks before the general election that fall, and Mom and I were there on both occasions.

I worked my way up to spots where I was sure to be able to shake his hand when he came through — and I did, both times, but we didn't exchange any words other than cursory greetings.

Twenty years later, though, we did. I was in my first semester of teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and McGovern came to the campus to deliver a speech about two weeks before the 1992 election.

When he finished speaking, I practically sprinted from my seat to greet him as he stepped from the stage.

"Senator," I said to him, "I'm sure you don't remember me, but I shook your hand at the Little Rock airport in 1972."

McGovern smiled and nodded. "I remember stopping in Little Rock," he replied, "and I remember that your governor, Dale Bumpers, told me we were going to carry Arkansas in the election!"

And we chuckled. We both knew how far he had been from even thinking about the possibility of winning Arkansas — much less actually winning it — even if he never said so publicly. Bumpers was one of McGovern's colleagues for the last six years of his Senate career. We both knew what a spin artist he was.

At that point, McGovern's attention was drawn away from me to others who wanted to shake his hand and speak with him briefly. I never spoke to him or shook his hand again.

As an adult, I didn't always agree with McGovern, and, on the occasion of his death, it has been mostly the notable figures from McGovern's own party who have offered tributes to him, but even Newt Gingrich had something nice to say.

McGovern was, he said, "[j]ust a great guy."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Nothing Can Go Wrong ... Go Wrong ... Go Wrong

Big Tex in happier times.

Back when I was in high school, I attended a weeklong journalism workshop on the SMU campus. Several non–journalism activities (more of a social nature) were scheduled that week as well, including the showing of the movie "Westworld" after the workshop concluded.

I was reminded of that movie when I first saw video footage of Big Tex in flames at the Texas State Fair — or, to be more precise, I was reminded of Yul Brynner, the evil robotic gunslinger, and "Westworld"'s tagline — "Westworld — where nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong."

These days, I teach journalism in the Dallas community college system, which includes advising the students on the newspaper staff.

The paper is published weekly, and each edition is completed on Friday. (The paper is then distributed the following Tuesday.) The advisers have to be there until the last page is done, which is actually a lot of fun for me. It reminds me of the days when I used to work on newspaper copy desks.

It also reminds me of what working for a newspaper is like, the nightly challenge of playing beat the clock. There are things you expect — like deadline pressure — and things you don't expect — namely, the news.

Well, of course you expect news! It's your business, after all. But it is often a reactive sort of business. Sometimes you do know what to expect, albeit in a general sort of way, like when a trial is scheduled at the courthouse or a big game is about to be played at the high school. You don't know what the outcome will be, but you know the trial — or the game or whatever — is coming up.

Much of the time, though, you cannot anticipate what the news will be. You simply react to whatever happens.

Which brings me to yesterday.

I was driving to the campus Friday when I heard on the radio that Big Tex, the iconic figure from the Texas State Fair, had burned.

I didn't grow up here, but I know many people who did, and I knew Big Tex was special to them. He's been greeting visitors to the Texas State Fair with his robust "Howdy, folks!" since 1952.

Any journalist in this area — and, for that matter, in neighboring areas — ought to know that. And I was pleased to find out, when I walked into the newsroom, that the student newspaper staff was on top of it. A photographer was on the scene (and came back with some great photos), and one of the reporters was trying to reach a professor on the faculty who is something of a Texas State Fair historian (and has written a book or two on the subject — or so I am told).

The professor couldn't be located, but the reporter uncovered some interesting facts that I didn't know.

I didn't know, for example, that Big Tex started as Santa Claus in a town southeast of here called Kerens.

And then a mayor of Dallas, R.L. Thornton — whose name adorns a stretch of road here that is always jammed. It is always mentioned whenever the TV or radio stations report about traffic problems — purchased Big Tex, and he's been greeting visitors to the fair ever since.

The folks at the fair swear he will be back next year, presumably with a more current wardrobe and some new boots, but it didn't look too promising when he left Fair Park in what looked an awful lot like a body bag.

As the afternoon wore on, I felt more and more like Murray, the news writer on the Mary Tyler Moore Show who kept coming up with sick jokes about a colleague at the TV station, known only as Chuckles the Clown, who had been killed at a circus parade when he dressed as a character named Peter Peanut and a rogue elephant shelled him to death.

(When Lou Grant observed that it was a good thing more people weren't hurt, Murray agreed and said, "You know how hard it is to stop after just one peanut.")

Since I first saw that episode back in the '70s, I've discovered that there was a lot of truth in it. I spent many years working in newsrooms, and they are breeding grounds for gallows humor. Virtually nothing is sacred.

And I've lived in Texas long enough to know that Big Tex is sacred — or, at least, semi—sacred — to many.

But I really had no idea just how sacred he was until yesterday.

In the reporter's article, there was a quote from a girl who said she had been to the fair just a week ago and shot some video footage of Big Tex for a project on which she was working in school. "And now he's gone," she said to the reporter.

As I read it, I could imagine her eyes welling up with tears.

Then, as I was driving home from the campus around 8 p.m., I heard someone on one of the radio stations doing a tribute program to Big Tex.

"We've lost a friend today," the host said somberly as the song "My Heart Will Go On" (from "Titanic") played in the background.

Maybe it was all done tongue in cheek, but it sounded deadly serious to me.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Dawn of the Cuban Missile Crisis

President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will meet in their second debate tomorrow night.

It will follow a "town hall" format in which members of an audience made up entirely of undecided voters will ask the questions. I suppose the general idea is that the audience will ask the questions that are of the most concern for undecided voters, which should be instructive.

In fact, it should be interesting, but I kind of wish tomorrow night's debate was the one on foreign policy instead. It would be much more appropriate, given that half a century ago today, the Central Intelligence Agency's National Photographic Interpretation Center identified what it believed to be missiles in surveillance photos of Cuba.

The State department was notified that evening, as was Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. National Security adviser McGeorge Bundy decided not to inform President Kennedy until the next day.

Consequently, on the evening of Oct. 16, after confirming to his satisfaction that the photographs did indeed reveal the presence of missile sites in Cuba, Kennedy called the first meeting of what came to be known as the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) — the nine members of the National Security Council and five other advisers.

It is almost a cliche now to say that the Cuban Missile Crisis — which really can be said to have begun 50 years ago today because that is when the Photographic Interpretation Center first spotted missiles in Cuba although the president wasn't informed until the following day — is the closest the world has come to a nuclear war.

But there is certainly a lot of truth behind that assertion.

I suppose it seems anticlimactic to people who study that period in school today. Heck, it seemed anticlimactic to me when I studied it, and I can only imagine how it must seem to young people in 2012. When historic events are studied, it always seems the outcome was inevitable.

But the men who participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis did not know how the situation would play out, and it was in large part because of the lessons that were learned 50 years ago that the leaders of the larger governments of the world forged foreign policies that showed the proper respect for the truly awesome power that had been unleashed at the end of World War II.

They had stared into the abyss, to use language and imagery that became fashionable after the fact, and had resolved to do whatever was necessary to avoid a similar confrontation in the future.

It quickly became conventional wisdom that Harry Truman's decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved hundreds of thousands of lives because Japan promptly surrendered, sparing the Americans and their allies from a possibly prolonged invasion of Japan.

And, if the reports that the Nazis were on the brink of developing nuclear weapons and the Americans beat them to it are correct, then perhaps it is a good thing that the genie was let out of the bottle.

It was not a good thing that tens of thousands of civilians were killed on both occasions — but perhaps those sacrifices were necessary to impress upon those who had unleashed the power exactly how mighty was the power they held in their hands.

But the issue was not resolved in 1945. After the end of the war, the United States, the world's only nuclear power, chose to disarm, naively believing that merely having the most destructive weapon known to mankind would be enough to prevent acts of aggression.

America, to put it mildly, was caught with its pants down when it was revealed that the Soviet Union had developed the technology for assembling nuclear weapons.

Although most nations appear to recognize and respect nuclear power — and, to be fair, the world has seen no nuclear attacks in more than 65 years — the threat is very much with us today — in the form of terrorists who only want enough nuclear material to spread fear from sea to shining sea.

Reducing cities to piles of rubble is not in their plans — as far as we know.

Perhaps the greatest problem EXCOMM faced when it met for the first time 50 years ago tomorrow was that American naivete had backfired again. In spite of the fact that we had been involved in a Cold War since before the revelation that the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, the Americans foolishly believed the Russians would never put missiles in Cuba.

So, when the Russians did put missiles in Cuba, EXCOMM and Kennedy had to decide how to respond. There was no plan in place for such a situation.

For awhile, some members of EXCOMM probably felt that an invasion of Cuba was inevitable. The advocates of an invasion told Kennedy — forcefully — they believed the Soviets would do nothing in retaliation. Kennedy disagreed.

"If [the Russians] don't take action in Cuba," Kennedy reportedly said, "they certainly will in Berlin."

Fifty years ago, cooler heads prevailed. While diplomatic discussions, both formal and informal, went on, the Americans opted for a blockade in which the Navy would block any more shipments of missiles to Cuba.

Thankfully, things worked out in 1962. And one of the biggest reasons why things did work out was because Kennedy trusted the people of America enough to be honest with them about what was happening and what the risks were.

His actions were not guided by his memories of failure at the Bay of Pigs the year before.

But here we are, more than a month after four Americans were slain in a clearly coordinated attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya — and it is hard to tell if America has any friends left in the Middle East.

It is hard to tell because we get so much conflicting information from the administration that was going to be the most transparent in our history.

Even after the whopper that a video allegedly sparked a spontaneous demonstration that (allegedly) got out of hand had been discredited, U.N. ambassador Susan Rice continued to insist that it was true, as did the president.

My guess is that political considerations have been key factors in deciding what the president will or will not tell the American people — but I don't know that for certain. I'm simply acting on the old "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ..." rule of thumb.

I do know that jobs and the economy make everything else pale in comparison in this campaign, but I'd like to think that someone from the audience of undecided voters will ask the candidates about Libya and the four Americans who died there on the 11th anniversary of 9–11.