Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Theme for 2012

"Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."

Eric Fehrnstrom
March 21, 2012

It isn't too surprising, really, that Mitt Romney's rivals for the Republican nomination — and his other critics — have been getting some mileage out of Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom's unfortunate Etch A Sketch analogy.

That analogy plays on what has been possibly the greatest concern conservatives have had about this particular candidate — that he isn't genuine.

And it might have worked in Obama's favor, too — if the election had been held today.

But when the voters go to the polls in November, my guess is that conservatives won't be persuaded to stay home because of it. And most are not likely to gravitate to a third–party option, either. Defeating this president is too important to them; by November, most will go ahead and vote for Romney, even if he isn't everything they would like in a Republican nominee.

By November, I expect most of this Etch A Sketch talk to have faded and the political conversation to focus on the economy, jobs, high gas prices (and the higher commodity prices they will no doubt spawn) and the other kitchen table issues that should take center stage in this campaign.

But what should be in American politics is not always what is. This Etch A Sketch stuff might turn out to have legs, and we might still be having this conversation in September and October — instead of having a national conversation about energy and jobs and the things that will affect all our lives for the next several decades.

If his foes are still talking about the Etch A Sketch comment this fall, I suggest that the Romney campaign compare the Etch A Sketch candidate to Obama's Silly Putty presidency.

I played with both toys as a child — most of my generation probably did. And, if I must compare my preference in the presidential race to either of those toys, I prefer Etch A Sketch.

Etch A Sketch encouraged originality and creativity. I was never much of an artist so my drawings weren't very good, but, as a child, I found it to be advantageous to be able to start anew and apply what I had learned. I found, as I got older, that real life doesn't allow for do–overs, but the real lesson of the Etch A Sketch was that you and your knowledge and your skills are evolving things.

And I have long felt that it is a clear sign of maturity when someone can conclude that he has been mistaken in his approach to a problem and makes appropriate adjustments.

My father summed it up in a conversation we had when I was in my teens.

When he was a young man, my father followed my grandfather into an occupation that was not his first choice. Young men of his generation were expected to follow in their father's footsteps, and that is what he did, I suppose.

But many years later, after both of my father's parents had died, he returned to college to pursue a degree in the field in which he had always been interested.

I asked him one day why he had decided to do that. He was, after all, at or near a point in his life when most men probably would opt to stick it out to their retirement age rather than embark on an entirely new career.

Dad said, "Why should I feel obligated to a decision that was made by an 18–year–old?"

In much the same way, I prefer a president who is willing to apply knowledge he has gained to new approaches to problems and doesn't have so much of his ego invested in one approach that he won't try something else when a policy proves to be unsuccessful.

As Harry Truman said, "It is amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."

Silly Putty didn't encourage creativity. It was parasitic, feeding off others. You could press it against a page from a book or a newspaper or a magazine and make a copy of someone else's creation — but you couldn't create anything with it yourself.

Silly Putty was — and still is, I suppose — a special substance with many unique qualities. It was whatever you wanted it to be — it could be rolled into a ball and bounced like any rubber ball, but then you could flatten it like a pancake, press it on a page and transfer the image it picked up to the substance.

It was flashy and shiny, but it mimicked others — at best.

Give me Etch A Sketch any day.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Seward's Folly

America has made some pretty shrewd land acquisitions over the years — Manhattan, the Louisiana Purchase and so on.

One of the best may have been the one that took place on this date in 1867 — when William Seward, secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, purchased Alaska from Russia for about 2 cents an acre.

That doesn't sound like much — and, in 2012 dollars, it isn't — but it was the equivalent of $95 million in 2005 dollars. Clearly, it was a considerable sum in 1867, nothing to sneeze at — especially the bottom line, which added up to $7.2 million at the time.

Critics called it "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox." They couldn't see the benefits of the acquisition, but Seward had the last laugh. Alaska has proven to be richly endowed with resources like gold, copper and oil.

Seward, who died in 1872, was asked once what he felt had been his greatest achievement as secretary of State. He didn't hesitate.

"The purchase of Alaska," he replied, "but it will take the people a generation to find it out."

Friday, March 23, 2012

'I Gave Them a Sword'

Thirty–five years ago today, journalist David Frost and former President Richard Nixon sat down for the first of the Frost–Nixon interviews in Monarch Bay, Calif.

The interviews were edited into four 90–minute programs that were broadcast in May 1977.

After Nixon's resignation in August 1974, he more or less disappeared from public view for the next couple of years. His presidency was the subject of many books and articles in that time. His successor, Gerald Ford, issued a controversial pardon to the former president about a month after he left the White House, allowing Nixon to avoid a trial, nearly certain conviction and a prison sentence.

But Nixon himself remained largely out of public view.

By March 1977, though, he was ready to give his side of the story.

He may have been about to finish writing his memoirs at the time — or perhaps a completed manuscript had already been delivered to the publisher. I don't know. What I do know is that Nixon's two–volume memoirs arrived in bookstores in 1978 and became huge bestsellers.

I don't recall whether Nixon ever mentioned the upcoming publication of his memoirs during those interview sessions — or whether Frost ever mentioned it, either. But I do recall that Nixon made some tantalizing remarks in the interviews themselves.

Not the least of which was his assertion that "if the president does it, that means it is not illegal" when Frost asked him about the legality of his actions in the aftermath of the break–in.

That's the kind of comment that justifies any kind of behavior, even behavior that is clearly unjustifiable, from a public official, and the Watergate break–in — and the activities it was meant to conceal from public view — are among the most unjustifiable imaginable.

Knowing what kind of man Nixon was — a president who kept a list of his enemies — I have no doubt that he harbored many grudges, but when he spoke with Frost, he attempted to make it appear that he did not. What had happened was his own fault, he said.

"I gave them a sword," Nixon said, "and they twisted it with relish." Had the roles been reversed, he continued, "I'd have done the same thing."

After leaving the presidency in 1974, Nixon spent the last 20 years of his life waging a campaign to rehabilitate his image. Although Nixon spent every moment after he left the White House pursuing that goal, he did so visibly for about 17 — until his death in 1994.

But his P.R. campaign was really only partly successful.

If it had been possible, Nixon would have obliterated all memory of the Watergate scandal that pulverized his presidency and his legacy. But that could not be done.

Because you can't tell Richard Nixon's story without telling the story of Watergate — just as you can't tell the story of Lyndon Johnson without also telling the stories of the Vietnam War and all the men who were killed or maimed in it.

It was a tale that was almost Shakespearean — the man who achieved his greatest ambition and held it in the palm of his hand like a crystal ball and then watched it slip through his fingers and shatter on the floor.

Nixon began that rehabilitation campaign in earnest 35 years ago today.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wrong Man?

"Demjanjuk is essentially on trial not for anything he did, but simply for being at Sobibor. No specific criminal acts need be alleged, much less proved. Page through transcripts of previous Nazi trials and you'll find a rigorous focus on particulars, because that is what should be required to convict a defendant. No one in any such trial ever was convicted simply on the basis of being present at the scene."

Scott Raab
Esquire magazine
Aug. 11, 2010

In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock made a film called "The Wrong Man."

Like some of Hitchcock's films, it was inspired by a true story. But, unlike those other adaptations, Hitchcock didn't have to change the facts much. The real story was bizarre enough. Even someone like Hitchcock couldn't embellish it.

In the movie, a struggling musician (played by Henry Fonda) tries to borrow on his wife's insurance policy so she can have some dental work done. But the man is fingered as the suspect in a couple of armed robberies at the office, robberies for which he was not responsible.

In court, the man's attorney builds a pretty solid case for mistaken identity. The man had been on vacation with his family when the first robbery occurred, and, at the time of the second, he had been suffering from a swollen jaw (which the people in the office couldn't have helped but notice).

But the defense runs into problems trying to locate someone to testify that the man was on a vacation trip at the time of the first robbery, and, eventually, a mistrial is declared because of a remark made by one of the jurors. Before the re–trial can begin, the real robber is arrested, and the musician is exonerated — but considerable damage to his life has already been done.

There is a lot more to that story, of course, but I don't really want to get into that today. I bring it up only because John Demjanjuk died today.

You might not be old enough to remember when Demjanjuk first came to the public's attention. It was in the mid–1980s when Demjanjuk, a U.S. autoworker, was deported to Israel to face trial on war crimes charges.

Demjanjuk was born in the Ukraine and served in the Russian Red Army early in World War II, but he was captured by the Germans and was recruited to serve in the German army while he was in custody. After the war, he and his family emigrated to the United States.

His indictment alleged that he was "Ivan the Terrible" (his given name was Ivan, but he changed his name to John when he became an American citizen) and that he had been a particularly brutal guard at the Treblinka and Sobibor camps.

Demjanjuk claimed he was a victim of mistaken identity, that he was not "Ivan the Terrible," but he was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to death by hanging. While Demjanjuk was in solitary confinement for the duration of his appeals, Israel's Supreme Court overturned his conviction, finding that there were plenty of reasons to doubt whether he really was "Ivan the Terrible."

The Court also found that Demjanjuk had been a prison guard during the war but not at Treblinka or Sobibor. I suppose it is possible that some prisoners might have seen him somewhere else and thought they had seen him at Treblinka or Sobibor. He was released, and he returned to the United States.

I would hardly call myself an expert on World War II, but my understanding of the way things were done in Nazi Germany — with efficiency always one of the Nazis' objectives — is that prisoners ordinarily were not transferred from one camp to another, that when they arrived at one, that was where they stayed.

(The prisoners, after all, were not soldiers. They came from what the Nazis would have considered the dregs of civilian society — the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Communists. There may have been occasional logistical reasons for transferring prisoners, but my understanding is that it seldom happened.)

A decade after his first conviction, Demjanjuk was charged again and ordered deported. The new charges did not mention the earlier allegations that he was "Ivan the Terrible," but that continued to be the name that was used for him.

Nearly a year ago, Demjanjuk was convicted on more than 28,000 counts of being an accessory to murder at Sobibor. The number was determined because that is how many were killed while he was there. No evidence was presented linking him to a specific murder. His conviction has been under appeal.

When he died today at the age of 91, all of this ended for Demjanjuk — but there are questions that remain. And one of the most troubling may concern the apparent attitude that, because what happened in Germany was so heinous, someone must be held accountable for them, even if that person was not guilty or was coerced into cooperating with those who were.

Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer made a revealing comment in an interview with the Associated Press: "His case illustrates the principle that whenever even a very low–ranking Nazi criminal can be found and convicted, the importance is not in the sentence, not in the amount of time such a person may have to sit in jail ... the important thing is to bring the crime to the attention of the general public."

I know there are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened — in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. And I am not saying it didn't happen.

But this country has always stood for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty — and tangible evidence of guilt must meet certain standards. Circumstantial evidence alone is not adequate.

I didn't participate in either of Demjanjuk's trials so I don't know all the evidence that was presented, but it seems like most, if not all, of the evidence against him was circumstantial.

For that matter, one of the reasons why the war crimes trials in Nuremberg were discontinued was because the defendants largely became enlisted men who could plausibly claim that they were following the orders of their superiors.

Ask any American veteran what kind of punishment he could expect if he refused to obey such an order — and then try to imagine how it must have been for someone like Demjanjuk, who has been described as a watchman, "the lowest rank of the 'Hilfswillige' prisoners who agreed to serve the Nazis and were subordinate to German SS men," according to AP.

Demjanjuk's son said today that his father had been "a victim and survivor of Soviet and German brutality."

We'll probably never know the truth of the matter. But one thing is clear in the hours since Demjanjuk's death.

Time is running out for the Nazi hunters. The war ended nearly 67 years ago, and anyone who was at least 18 at that time would be in his mid–80s today.

It may no longer be possible to find the real "Ivan the Terrible." It may not be possible to hold the people who truly were responsible for the deaths at Sobibor accountable for their acts.

Even the scapegoats are dying.

Was Demjanjuk the wrong man?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Five Smoke-Free Years

Nearly 3½ years ago, the Montgomery County, Maryland, government officials observed the fifth anniversary of a policy banning smoking in the county's restaurants and bars.

It's been a long time since I was in Maryland, but I'd like to have that banner today. I'd hang it from my balcony, where it would be clearly visible to the cars that pass by.

You see, I smoked my last cigarette five years ago today.

I must say that I am proud of that achievement — I'm almost as proud of it as I am shocked by it. I honestly thought I was a lifer — however long my smoking addiction would permit me to live. I never expected to give it up, not for five hours, much less five years. That is a milestone that I never thought I'd reach.

Nevertheless, here I am, five years later, still smoke free.

It hasn't been easy, and I sincerely sympathize with anyone who may be taking his/her first steps down that long, often dark road today. There are still times when I miss it, when I crave it — there have even been a couple of times when I damn near pulled in to a convenience store parking lot, planning to buy a pack, and I had to talk myself out of it — but those times aren't as frequent or intense as they were and they don't last nearly as long as they did.

A friend of mine told me long ago that those cravings would become less intense as the nicotine left my system. I had my doubts at the time, but it really is true. They haven't gone away — I'm told they never really will — but they are easier to ignore.

If I could, I would tell this to someone who is attempting to quit smoking — If you stick with it, it will be worth it.

It will be worth it in many ways, some you probably can't even imagine today — and there may be benefits to come of which I still am not aware. But, after five years, I can tell you this:
  • Not having to pay for cigarettes put a dent in my monthly expenses in these last five years — and that has meant a lot in this economy.

    I mean, by itself, my cigarette purchases probably didn't amount to a massive chunk of my monthly budget (although I noticed recently how much cigarette prices have risen since the last time I bought a pack), but when you multiply the savings over five years, well, it has become a tidy sum.

  • I don't cough when I get up in the morning, anymore — unless I am congested from a cold. I've discovered that I really like breathing — and I want to keep doing it.

  • My home, my clothes and my vehicle don't reek of smoke anymore.

  • Food tastes better. In fact, I find myself discovering all sorts of flavors now. Where has this been all my life? I often ask myself. The answer is quite simple. It's been there all along. It just couldn't get through the smoke to my taste buds.
And here is one for parents.

I don't happen to be a parent so this has not been a benefit for me. But if you are a parent, this is one that you cannot ignore.

You will no longer expose your child(ren) to second–hand smoke.

Actually, come to think of it, I was a parent (in a way) when I was smoking. I owned a very lively dog for about 5½ years, and we were a family, the two of us, until he got loose from me one night, ran into the street and was hit by an oncoming vehicle.

After he was killed, I thought, from time to time, of the occasions when I had seen him cough, and I did wonder if he was affected by second–hand smoke. If he was, I deeply regret reducing the quality of his life. (For all I know, if he hadn't been hit by that car, he might have died prematurely from some smoke–related illness.)

Of course, there are other, more cosmetic benefits. One such benefit is that my fingers were stained yellow from all the nicotine but no more. That stain has disappeared.

Little by little, my body seems to be reclaiming what it lost to my years of smoking — and I sincerely wish I had given it up earlier. I did try, from time to time, but, while the spirit was willing, the flesh was always weak.

The time was right five years ago, I guess, and I am proud to be able to say today that I am still smoke free. It hasn't been easy. It still isn't easy.

But it's been worth it.

And I urge every smoker reading this to make the attempt.

Even if you fail.

Keep trying.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Politics of Rage

"Wallace was getting 50 percent in the first scattered returns; the lead shrank in the first half–hour to 47 percent, then to the low 40s, and then stabilized at 42 percent. But the 42 percent had a profile — it was not simply the north and the piney woods rednecks that were voting for George Wallace."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

The history books tell us that George McGovern was nominated by the Democrats to run against Richard Nixon in 1972.

And, in fact, that is what happened.

Things tend to look a lot more cut and dried in history books than they did at the time, though. We have the advantage of hindsight. We know what the outcomes were — in the primaries that were held that spring, in the conventions that were held that summer and in the general election that November.

But 1972 was a funny kind of year. It was a year when a win wasn't really a win — and a loss wasn't really a loss.

Sometimes they were, though — and, in the traditional ways, a win was still a win and a loss was still a loss. But, in the Democrats' primaries (and there were far fewer of them in 1972 than there are in 2012), there didn't seem to be anything resembling momentum.

McGovern was, as I say, the eventual nominee, but he didn't win any of the first four caucus/primary contests. He performed better than expected in New Hampshire when front–runner Ed Muskie appeared to implode, but he hardly made a ripple in Florida a week later.

Nothing was clear as Florida prepared to hold its primary. People often forget that the charismatic George Wallace was a formidable foe in the primaries in the spring of 1972, and he looked quite imposing in Florida, receiving more than twice as many votes as anyone else.

I wasn't yet a teenager when Wallace sought the 1972 presidential nomination — but, while I suppose I was seen as a bit precocious at the time with my knowledge of history and the presidency, one thing about the Alabama governor was clear to me in spite of my youth.

In fact, I remember thinking that, if it was clear to me, it had to be obvious to everyone else — but I am far from certain that it was.

It probably goes without saying that Wallace had a reputation for being a racist and perhaps he was — but there is a difference of opinion as to whether he really was a racist or a racial opportunist (after all, Wallace apologized to the black citizens of Alabama in his later years and wouldn't have won his final term in office if it hadn't been for the support of black voters).

Not that there is — necessarily — much of a difference between the two. But Wallace's 1972 campaign showed that he was really more about the politics of rage than he was about the politics of race.

At times, yes, it was a racist rage. But most of the time it was a populist rage.

And that is the thing that was clear to me at the time. I think it must have played a significant role in the thought processes of those who worked for Richard Nixon.

The Nixon White House feared George Wallace. He had carried five Southern states as an independent in Nixon's narrow win in a three–way race four years earlier, and Republicans were concerned that he could do considerable damage to Nixon's campaign for re–election if he won the Democrats' nomination.

At the very least, they were worried about a possible rerun of 1968, with Wallace being the spoiler again. The last time, it had been to the benefit of the out–of–power Republicans.

But, in 1972, the Republicans had held the White House for four years. They had inherited Vietnam, but it had ceased to be Lyndon Johnson's war and was now Richard Nixon's war.

In the rear–view mirror of history, it's hard to imagine anyone defeating Nixon in 1972. His approval ratings were consistently in the 50s and were on an upward trajectory after his trip to China in February; in November, he received more than 60% of the popular vote and carried 49 states.

Just a year earlier, though, he had been struggling in the polls, and the possibility that he might be denied a second term seemed very real. A Harris Poll in August 1971 suggested that Muskie would beat Nixon if the election had been held at that time.

I remember that a political board game was developed in 1971 called "Who Can Beat Nixon?" It was designed much like "Monopoly," and several people could play — but no one could be Nixon.

It was mostly meant as a novelty, I think, but the parents of one of my friends had it, and I do remember my friend and I tried to play it a few times. My memory is that the cards were stacked heavily against Nixon — and it probably should have been called "Can Nixon Win?"

Anyway, that was the political atmosphere in 1971 and, to an extent, early 1972 when George Wallace was campaigning for president — and he found a receptive audience in Florida. His victory there didn't really surprise people, but the margin did.

And it scared some people, too. Wallace got 42% of the Florida vote, more than twice what the runnerup, Hubert Humphrey, received. Humphrey, it should be noted, specifically targeted the labor vote, the black vote and the Jewish vote. Wallace focused on the broader theme of alienation.

For some voters, that was expressed in anger over busing. That may well have been based in racism, but the arguments against it sounded reasonable. Many parents protested that they weren't against integration, but they were against busing their children long distances from their homes to achieve it.

Wallace told the voters that he was on the side of the little guy. It was the "feel your pain" message of its day, I suppose.
"The average man was being gutted by government. Taxes were important in George Wallace's message. ...

"But, above all, busing. Busing was what really got to the average man. ... This was 'social scheming' imposed by 'anthropologists, zoologists and sociologists' (Wallace loved to draw out the word 'sociologist') ...

"It was clear for the last three weeks before primary day that George Wallace would lead in the spread–eagle Florida primary. ... But it might be close."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

In the end, though, it was far from close.

And, for awhile, there was some real anxiety in Democratic circles about the possibility that Wallace would develop some momentum that could carry him to the nomination.

But that didn't happen — at least, not outside the South.

Wallace chose not to compete against Muskie and Henry Jackson in the Illinois primary the following week, and he edged out Humphrey for second place against McGovern in Wisconsin three weeks after the Florida primary.

The air was escaping from the balloon he grabbed in Florida.

Wallace finished a distant fourth in Massachusetts in late April, and he ran second to Humphrey in Pennsylvania but still lost by a mile (if you consider 14 percentage points a mile in politics).

In the two–month interval between Wallace's victory in Florida and the attempt on his life, Wallace won only two primaries — Tennessee and North Carolina.

No one realized it in March 1972, but Wallace's apparent ascendance in national politics would end well before the convention.

Outwardly, it ended on that day in May when Arthur Bremer tried to kill Wallace in a shopping center parking lot in Maryland.

Realistically, it reached its peak 40 years ago today.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Awkward Southerner

Four years ago, I remember Mitt Romney taking a lot of grief from Southern journalists, both broadcast and print, over his efforts to appear to be one of us.

I always felt that was a mistake on Romney's part. I didn't think it cost him the Republican nomination because I never really felt he was in the running for the nomination, anyway. But I felt it was a mistake that cost him some votes in the South.

Folks from outside the South often make fun of Southerners. They think we're stupid and backward — and, OK, some of us are, but the region is not disproportionately so, and we're smart enough to know the real thing when we see it.

I grew up in the South, and I think the thing that probably matters more to Southerners than any other quality in a politician is authenticity. Is he what he seems to be?

Southerners are as susceptible as anyone else to the appeal of those with whom they believe they have the most in common, I suppose, and that would go a long way toward explaining some of their past primary preferences.

(When Jimmy Carter was elected president, I remember thinking that it would be refreshing to have a president who spoke the way most of the people in my world spoke.)

But, in the end, I don't think Southerners particularly care whether the candidate is from the South as long as they get the sense that he is genuine, that he shares their values.

The way some journalists are covering the campaign in the South — Steve Holland of Reuters, for example, writes that Romney "is laying it on as thick as a syrupy Southern drawl as he tries to court the South" — practically sneers "Insincerity!"

But that isn't really fair — either to Romney or Southerners.
"Morning, y'all," Romney told a campaign rally on Friday in Jackson, Mississippi. "I got started this morning right with a biscuit and some cheesy grits," he joked.

Steve Holland

I'm sure that gets a lot of laughs from Northern elitists, but I prefer Romney's way (and so do many of the people I know) to the condescension of a real elitist who comes here in the heat of the campaign and acts as if he is intimately acquainted with us and our ways.

That was essentially what Romney did in 2008. Most of the Southern states had primaries that year, but Romney exceeded 20% of the vote in only three and exceeded 30% of the vote in only two — although many Southerners would argue that Florida, which was one of those states that gave Romney more than 30% of the vote, didn't qualify then (and doesn't qualify now) as truly Southern because so many of its residents migrated there from other regions of the country.

But, in 2012, Romney is not trying to come across as the long–lost prodigal son. He acknowledges that his roots are elsewhere. If Romney seems disingenuous to non–Southerners for joking about eating biscuits and cheesy grits for breakfast, it's different with Southerners.

"I realize it's a bit of an away game," Romney said in Alabama the other day, and Southerners are OK with that. We know the rest of the country doesn't eat grits and that it will usually eat biscuits (or cornbread) only if nothing else is available (or it has something else wedged in the middle, like a sausage patty) — so we get the joke when a candidate from someplace else makes a point of telling us that he ate those foods. We know he doesn't eat that every day.

(Actually, in my experience, cheese is added to grits mostly to make the dish more palatable to non–Southerners. A real Southerner will eat grits with a little salt and a little butter — and come back for more. Cheese adds a little flavor, but it isn't essential.)

It's a regional point of pride, kind of like a Philly cheesesteak. It isn't to everyone's taste, and we don't expect a candidate to pledge to eat nothing else if we give him our votes. We just like to know a candidate is willing to try it when he's asking us for our support.

Let me tell you a true story.

It was a tradition at the school where I began my college career to hold a goat roast every spring. It was mostly an excuse to have a big keg party where local bands would play for hours, but one of the features was the roasting of an actual goat, and the meat was served between two slices of white bread.

I think you could add ketchup or mustard or mayo if you wished, but I don't really remember which, if any, condiments were available.

The admission price entitled one to partake of the food being offered, and attendees had the option of eating more mainstream fare if they wished — but most people opted to eat goat. My memory is that it didn't really have much flavor, and it wouldn't be my choice for a meal, but I ate it, anyway.

It was expected.

Local food specialties and politics go hand in hand in the South. I went to catfish fries and all sorts of similar gatherings when I lived in Arkansas. The food is part of the event, and guests are expected to at least try it — and, once they do, folks will sit back and listen to what they have to say.

A savvy politician will try it and, even if he doesn't like it, he will fake it.

That isn't being dishonest — or even disingenuous.

It's being a smart politician.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday

Republicans in one–fifth of the 50 states voted in primaries or caucuses yesterday.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times insists that no "knockout punch" was delivered — and that may be so, but it is hardly surprising that someone at the Times, given the overwhelming advantage that left–leaning columnists enjoy there (and the fact that the Times' general editorial policies have favored the left for a long time), should feel that way.

The Wall Street Journal, which is not a left–leaning publication, also is not convinced that Super Tuesday has given anyone the momentum he needs to win the nomination. The Journal says Super Tuesday was a "split decision"While Mitt Romney had a good night and stretched his lead among delegates, Rick Santorum did well enough to more than justify staying in the race."

The fact remains, though, that Mitt Romney finished first in six of those 10 contests. His margin of victory ranged from impressive to slim, but he can claim to have beaten party rivals in two of the biggest prizes that are likely to be up for grabs on Election Day in November — Florida and, now, Ohio.

Three if you include Romney's victory in Michigan (which hasn't necessarily been in doubt in recent elections, but, because it has been through such a difficult time in this recession, it could be a swing state in 2012).

The win in Ohio was particularly impressive, I thought. Santorum led Romney there by double digits a few weeks ago, but he finished second to Romney there yesterday.

True, Santorum did win three contests (North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee), but they were in states the Republicans are sure to win in November, anyway — and only the win in North Dakota was unexpected.

And Newt Gingrich won Georgia, the state he represented in the House for 20 years, but Georgia, too, is all but certain to be in the Republican column.

If Gingrich had lost in Georgia, that could have been a game changer. Without a win in his home state, Gingrich's best move probably would have been to fold up his tent — leaving the ultra–conservative vote to Santorum, who could have re–focused his efforts on winning the support of Republican centrists and right–of–center voters.

Instead, the fight for the extreme right will go on — to Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas next week.

Romney also won a few states that will probably vote Republican in the fall — Alaska and Virginia (which voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but are likely to be in the Republican column this November) — but he demonstrated an ability to win in states that will be important to Republican hopes for recapturing the White House.

No one is suggesting, of course, that Romney can win in Vermont or Massachusetts. But the voters there are more centrist than the Republican voters in general, and being able to win their support is going to be an important element in what is likely to be a complex and extremely tight campaign this fall.

There are still serious issues to be discussed — and, hopefully, they will be discussed between now and Election Day. Hopefully, this campaign will not prove to be like so many in recent times — in which minor distractions have been given most, if not all, of the attention.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Anticipating Super Tuesday

There's always a Super Tuesday in America's presidential politics — at least in modern times.

Presidential primaries are, as I have mentioned here before, relatively new phenomena in American politics — historically speaking.

Before Jimmy Carter made a point of entering every primary that was being held in 1976 (which caused a bit of a fuss back then), candidates would choose to enter some primaries and not to enter others.

After Carter was elected president, more states opted to hold primaries in both parties, and candidates felt obliged to enter all or most of them.

Somewhere along the line, each party's leadership happened on to the notion of holding several primaries on a single day, creating a Super Tuesday that would unofficially separate the presumptive nominee from the pretenders.

There are both pros and cons in this, and it is not my intention, on this occasion, to argue in favor or against having a Super Tuesday. That decision has been made for this presidential election cycle, for good or ill, and we're going to have one tomorrow.

So my objective is to anticipate what is likely to happen. More delegates will be up for grabs on Tuesday than have been committed so far:
  • Georgia (76 delegates): Newt Gingrich represented a House district in northwest Georgia for 20 years, and he appears to have an unshakeable lead among the Republicans there.

    If Gingrich wins his home state, it will be only his second win in the primaries — and both will have been in the South. He won't have established himself as a vote getter in any other region.

    I don't know if his campaign will continue after tomorrow, but even if it does, I really don't think he will be much of a factor the rest of the way.

  • Ohio (66): This is really the big prize. Although Ohio is not the most delegate–rich state that is voting on Tuesday, people pay attention to the results there because Ohio is a large state and what happens there is often seen as a national barometer.

    And, in fact, Ohio does have a reputation for being a national bellwether. What's more, no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio.

    Thus, it is an attractive target. Victory there could have significant implications for the rest of the GOP race.

    As late as last week, polls showed Rick Santorum with a narrow lead over Mitt Romney. But I'm inclined to think that Romney's win in Saturday's Washington state caucuses — a state in which Romney's campaign didn't expect to do well originally — could give him the momentum he needs to win Ohio.

    Romney seems to sense as much. As CNN reports, the former Massachusetts governor appeared confident as he campaigned in Ohio during the weekend.

  • Tennessee (58): Santorum may lose Ohio — I think he will — but his message is stronger than Romney's in the conservative South, and my sense is that he will win the Volunteer State handily.

    If Romney is the Republican standard bearer, though, I see most, if not all, the states in the South voting for him — as they did when John McCain — and, before him, Bob Dole — was the nominee. Romney will need to work to win over Southern Republicans, but he won't have to work too hard to get their votes this fall.

  • Virginia (49): With only two names on the ballot — Romney and Ron Paul — this could be a deceptively lopsided primary.

    I was discussing this with my father the other night, and he observed that Paul would win his usual 10% of the popular vote. That's probably an exaggeration. I expect Paul to be a little more competitive in Virginia than that — I mean, there must be some voters in Virginia who would like to be voting for Santorum or Gingrich, but neither is on the ballot so they have no alternative but to vote for Paul if they wish to record their dissatisfaction with the apparent nominee.

    Nevertheless, I do expect Romney to win by a wide margin in Virginia.

  • Oklahoma (43): I grew up in the South. Most of the time, I lived in Arkansas, but I also lived in Tennessee (briefly). As an adult, I have lived mostly in Arkansas and Texas, but I lived in Oklahoma for four years.

    Many people consider Oklahoma a part of the South, but I don't. To me, a Southern state is any state that was part of the United States when the Civil War occurred and chose to fight on the side of the South. Oklahoma did not join the Union until the 20th century.

    Oklahoma is every bit as conservative as any traditional Southern state, though, and that could certainly be bewildering at first glance. There are, after all, more registered Democrats than registered Republicans in the state. But, in many cases, Democrat has a more middle–of–the–road definition in Oklahoma than it does anywhere else, and the truth is that Oklahomans have only voted for the Democrats' presidential nominee once in the last 60 years.

    Sometimes their support is a bit tepid, but more Oklahomans vote for the Republican than the Democrat. Every time.

    Consequently, if Romney wins the nomination, I think he can count on Oklahoma's support in November — but I don't think he can count on Oklahoma tomorrow. Only registered Republicans will be voting, and they are a decidedly conservative bunch in Oklahoma.

    There was a definite evangelical influence in Oklahoma politics when I lived there, and I have no reason to think that has changed. My sense is that Santorum's anti–abortion, anti–contraception fervor will resonate with Oklahoma Republicans, and I expect him to win the Sooner state.

  • Massachusetts (41): I've heard nothing to indicate that Romney won't win the state where he served as governor.

    He beat McCain in the 2008 primary, and I expect him to win easily tomorrow.

  • Idaho caucuses (32): This one bewilders me. Idaho held a primary four years ago but switched to a caucus, which tends to appeal to party activists more than casual participants.

    The 2008 primary offers no clues to how Idahoans might vote. McCain won it with 70%. Paul received 24%.

    But Idaho is a rock–ribbed Republican state. Three–quarters of its state senators and more than 80% of its state representatives are Republicans, as are Idaho's governor and both of its U.S. senators.

    No Democrat has won Idaho since 1964, and, in most elections, Democratic presidential nominees cannot count on the support of as much as 40% of the voters on Election Day.

    I feel confident in predicting that the Republican nominee will win Idaho this fall, but I don't have a clue who will win there tomorrow.

  • North Dakota caucuses (28): North Dakota is as much an enigma to me as Idaho.

    It has roughly the same history of supporting Republican candidates — albeit not as decisively — although, to be fair, it was fairly competitive in 2008.

    Nevertheless, I am inclined to think that the Republican nominee will win North Dakota in November. Who will win it tomorrow is less certain.

  • Alaska district conventions (27): I haven't heard any poll results from Alaska, and I am unaware of any campaign appearances that any of the Republicans have made there.

    But Alaska is like North Dakota and Iowa. It is likely to vote Republican in November. Of the 13 presidential elections in which it has participated, Alaska has voted Republican in 12.

    Alaska does seem to have something of a libertarian streak so it wouldn't surprise me if, in a four–way race, Paul might be able to win Alaska.

  • Vermont (17): Vermont was once a reliably Republican state.

    In the 19th century, Vermont routinely gave at least 70% of its votes to the Republicans. In the 20th century, it never voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt, even though it had four opportunities.

    But the Democrats have carried Vermont in the last five presidential elections, and they probably will again. Vermont leans to the left these days — it gave two–thirds of its ballots to Obama in 2008. Even its Republicans, who have a lot more in common with retiring Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe than they do with most of the Republicans who are seeking the presidency, are more centrist than most.

    My guess is that Vermont's Republican primary will have a fairly low turnout and that Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, will finish on top.
If one of the candidates can win half of the states that are holding primaries or caucuses tomorrow, that candidate can claim to have won Super Tuesday.

But if no one wins more than three, it will be inconclusive.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

When the Wheels Came Off for Ed Muskie

"It changed people's minds about me, of what kind of a guy I was. They were looking for a strong, steady man and here I was weak. I doubt whether I'm a candidate who could ever have won in this country this year. I'm a man for a country looking for a healer, not a country in protest."

Ed Muskie
As quoted by Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1972"

Accounts of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon presidency provide ample evidence of how the most prominent candidates for the Democrats' presidential nomination self–destructed, one by one, in 1972.

Or, at least, that is how it seemed at the time.

As we learned later, those apparent implosions were helped along considerably by Nixon's "dirty tricks" gang, the ones who saw to it that Nixon would run against the weakest possible foe that fall, George McGovern.

In hindsight, their pattern of complicity was all too obvious — as soon as one Democrat would emerge as the new front–runner, something would happen and his campaign would be, essentially, over — but it wasn't nearly as clear to see then as it seems to be today.

I suppose that is testimony to the initial effectiveness of the Committee to Re–Elect the President (or CREEP, as it was unofficially known) in its attempts to deflect investigations that never got off track for too long.

Even today, though, some people won't acknowledge what even the blind should be able to see — that, with perhaps one exception, the big names who stumbled on the '72 campaign trail probably would not have stumbled and paid such heavy prices without the Republicans' behind–the–scenes assistance.

Anyway, I guess the first real casualty in the political war of 1972 was mortally wounded on this day.

His name was Ed Muskie, and he was a senator from Maine. In recent years, Democrats have carried Maine in presidential elections, they have won gubernatorial elections and they hold both House seats, but, in Muskie's day, the state was true to its Republican roots.

Muskie was the first Democrat Maine sent to the U.S. Senate in nearly half a century, and, in the cauldron of 1968, he was seen as a principled man, an almost Lincolnesque figure, who always sought to do the right thing. He was chosen to be Hubert Humphrey's running mate, and he was a breath of fresh air for a party that had grown increasingly stale.

The Humphrey–Muskie ticket lost a squeaker to the Nixon–Agnew ticket, but Muskie's stock was rapidly rising in Democratic circles and, by 1972, he was the front–runner for the party's presidential nomination.

I suppose there are numerous comparisons to be made between the Muskie campaign of 1972 and the other big–name presidential hopefuls who crashed and burned during the primary season. Did his own actions contribute to his fall from grace?

I can't say that I definitively know the answer to that today. I certainly didn't know the answer at the time. But one thing I did know then was that Muskie had help — courtesy of the conservative Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader.

On Feb. 24, 1972, the Union Leader published a letter to the editor that alleged that Muskie, in a conversation with staffers in Florida, laughed when one referred to French–Canadians as "Canucks" — a derogatory term that was widely used in Muskie's home state.

Since a portion of New Hampshire's population was of French–Canadian descent, the impression was that such a revelation could hurt Muskie in the March 7 primary.

(That letter was later revealed to be a fake, authored by someone in Nixon's campaign.)

A few days later, the Union Leader published an article alleging that Muskie's wife had been drinking and using similar offensive terms during Muskie's presidential campaign. It reinforced a growing perception that Muskie was prejudiced.

On Saturday, March 4, three days before the New Hampshire primary, Muskie appeared in front of the Union Leader's offices and publicly called the newspaper's publisher a liar.

"By attacking me, by attacking my wife, he has proved himself to be a gutless coward," Muskie said, acknowledging that "it's fortunate for him he's not on this platform beside me."

Sixteen years later, such a spirited defense of one's spouse probably would have served Michael Dukakis well when he was asked in a debate with George H.W. Bush what his response would be if his wife was raped and murdered.

But, in 1972, it was seen as a moment of weakness because Muskie was reported to have cried while speaking.

There was always considerable doubt about what really happened. Snow was falling while Muskie was speaking and what was taken for tears by some observers was said by others to be snow flakes glistening on Muskie's cheeks as they melted in the fading light of the day.

But the general impression was that Muskie had been crying, that he had shown weakness at a time when voters were looking for strength in their leaders, and it doomed his candidacy.

(As far as Muskie was concerned, my memory is that he vehemently denied the allegation that he cried, but his comment to Theodore White, which is cited at the start of this post, implied otherwise.)

It is mostly forgotten now that Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, receiving 46% of the vote. McGovern finished second with 37%.

But that was below expectations, and, like Lyndon Johnson four years earlier, his performance was judged against those expectations, not by the outcome.

In 1972, the momentum was with McGovern after the New Hampshire primary, as it had been with Gene McCarthy in 1968, and Muskie's campaign collapsed.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

That is what Sigmund Freud allegedly wrote or said to explain that not everything has a deeper meaning behind it.

I haven't studied psychiatry in depth — just what I studied in college — but I know enough about it to know that an article of faith among practicing psychiatrists is the belief that there are no accidents in life, that there is always a profound reason for anything that happens, no matter how innocuous it may appear on the surface.

I haven't been able to locate a definitive source for that quote about a cigar being a cigar so I can't verify that it actually came from Freud. But it makes sense to me — in terms of both my life's observations of human nature and within the context of modern times.

And, from a psychiatrist's perspective, the cigar analogy is ideal. Psychiatrists are known to see sexual implications in darn near everything, and cigars were responsible for a lot of phallic imagery long before Bill Clinton dallied with a White House intern.

I understand the logic of psychiatrists, but I don't always agree with it. There are exceptions to every rule. Always.

Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. (Or, to quote Rudyard Kipling, "... a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." But I digress. Free association, don't you know!)

Anyway, I don't doubt that sex is a strong influence in many of the things people do, but, as I tell my Developmental Writing students at the community college where I teach, things are not always absolute in life.

My students want black–and–white answers, which means I have to explain (sometimes repeatedly) that words that are usually verbs can, under certain circumstances, be nouns. It is not a black–and–white thing, this study of written language, I tell them. Context matters.

I guess that's kind of a roundabout way of getting to what is really on my mind these days.

I've had conversations by e–mail and on Facebook with a fellow with whom I worked and went to graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When we knew each other, we were both Democrats.

Life has taken us in different directions in the last 20 years — in more ways than one. For one thing, we live in different time zones now, but that is only geographically.

Politically, he has remained with the Democrat Party and is a reasonably enthusiastic backer of the president (although he admits having his differences with the administration at times). The Democrats have veered too far to the left for my taste, though, and I now consider myself an independent.

My friend has had trouble accepting that, I suppose. He's adopted the them vs. us mentality that he so loathes in the opposition.

I find it disturbing that, like the supporters of George W. Bush, who suggested that those who disagreed with his policies were not patriotic, Democrats have concluded that the route to re–election is unfounded inflammatory accusations against dissenters.

In online conversations we have had, I've made it clear to my friend that I am an independent, although he has insisted on acting as if independent and Republican are the same things.

They are not.

I have also made it clear that I am basing my vote this year on the so–called pocketbook issues. That is what affects my life. Frankly, I feel the president has had plenty of time to at least give me the sense that things are moving in the right direction, that things are on a solid footing — but I don't get that sense.

But my friend insists on utilizing emotional arguments and has taken this approach — since I am not supporting President Obama's policies, that means that I hate him (which is not true) and, therefore, I am a racist (also not true).

I don't hate anyone. If I have written anything in my blogs that was interpreted as prejudiced against any race or religion or anything else, I sincerely apologize. That was not my intent.

No, I don't hate Obama. I disagree with many of his policies, but I don't hate him.

I didn't hate Ronald Reagan, either. I didn't agree with many of his policies, but I didn't hate him.

My friend makes the same error that folks on the other side make. He confuses dissent with hate. The terms are not interchangeable.

Voting against a candidate (incumbent or not) or speaking/writing against that candidate's policies is not evidence of hatred, even though both sides in our polarized political process love to accuse the other of hate.

It is evidence of the relative health of the concept of freedom of speech in this country, and each day I find a new reason to fear for the future health of that concept.

In my opinion, no other freedoms can long exist in this country if we lose our freedom of speech. It is critical to our way of life.

Politically, I have long felt that I am a centrist. There is logic to be found on both sides, and I lament the fact that centrists are a vanishing breed.

But any doubt that I am a centrist has completely disappeared in recent years. My conservative friends think I am a liberal, and my liberal friends think I am a conservative.

I am neither. I am me. And maybe my views don't make sense to the extremists. But they make sense to me.

If the extremists prefer to pigeonhole me, whether they know anything about me or have taken the time to speak with me, so be it. Doesn't mean it is true.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.