Friday, June 29, 2012

Read His Lips

"My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and I'll say, to them, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.' "

Vice President George H.W. Bush

Aug. 18, 1988

George Stephanopoulos: [Y]our critics say it is a tax increase.

Barack Obama: My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I'm taking over every sector of the economy. You know that. Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we're going to have an individual mandate or not, but ...

George Stephanopoulos: But you reject that it's a tax increase?

Barack Obama: I absolutely reject that notion.

Sept. 20, 2009

I remember the night George H.W. Bush made his famous "Read my lips" pledge to a convention hall filled with approving Republicans.

I had just moved to north Texas, where I had begun a new job at the local newspaper, and I had enrolled — that very day, as I recall — in graduate school. Settling in to my new apartment (i.e., unpacking boxes) had to be done incrementally.

It is safe to say I had several irons in the fire.

Anyway, I was unpacking some boxes that night, but I had the TV on so I could listen to Bush's acceptance speech. And, at first, I was inclined to dismiss that line as merely another political applause line — like when his boss, Ronald Reagan, appropriated Clint Eastwood's "Make my day" movie line for his own political purposes.

Reagan had a history of wrapping himself in socially popular phrases, sometimes to his detriment. Maybe it was the actor in him. When running for re–election as president, Reagan spoke of the "message of hope," a paean to patriotism, embodied in Bruce Springsteen's hit song, "Born in the U.S.A." when, in fact, the song was filled with images of gloom and despair.

But that was Reagan, the teflon president. He was always doing stuff like that, and people always let him get away with it, too. There he goes again.

I never really understood it. But I wasn't a Reagan fan, anyway.

I guess some politicians are like Reagan. They can get away with some of the most outrageous comments — and everyone seems to agree that they are outrageous.

But others can't get away with it.

Bush, for example. Lots of people probably responded dismissively to "Read my lips" as I did.

But there were plenty of folks who made notes of it and remembered it when Bush went back on his pledge in the 1990 budget compromise agreement.

In the storm of criticism that came Bush's way in 1992, I don't recall anyone pointing out that, in 1988, Bush faced considerable opposition from conservatives who had always doubted his commitment to cutting taxes, and many of his advisers thought a strong stand like his "read my lips" statement in his acceptance speech was needed to secure their active support in the fall.

To be fair, there were no new taxes in the budget, but, in his 1988 acceptance speech, Bush also drew the line against increases in existing taxes. That was a technicality as far as many were concerned. Agreeing to a budget compromise that raised existing taxes could only be seen as a broken promise.

And Bush 41 paid the price at the ballot box in 1992, first in a tougher–than–expected battle with Pat Buchanan for the nomination, then in his ill–fated campaign in the fall against Bill Clinton.

I thought a lot about Bush's famous remark yesterday after I heard that the Supreme Court had upheld the Obamacare legislation under congressional taxation authority.

The two situations are not mirror images of each other, but I suppose we won't really know that until after the voters have rendered their verdict in November.

Obama didn't break his promise not to raise taxes on anyone who made $200,000 a year or less; the Supreme Court decision did it for him.

As people absorb the court's decision and come to understand that the fee they will have to pay for noncompliance will amount to a massive tax increase on the very people Obama said had nothing to fear when he was running in 2008, their attitudes are likely to shift.

And, after watching him for four years, I have no doubt that Obama will spin it as something that was forced on him by the Supreme Court if it looks like there is going to be a huge backlash over it this fall.

Bush tried to spin his way out of trouble, too.

We'll see if it works any better for Obama.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Winning By Losing

Occasionally in the past, I've heard it said that, at times, it is possible to win by losing.

I heard that — or its equivalent — said a lot in the lead–up to today's Supreme Court ruling on the legal challenge to the so–called Obamacare legislation.

Initially, I was inclined to think it was pre–emptive spinning — to mitigate defeat, not boast of victory.

Because, you see, both sides seemed to be convinced — to some extent — that the High Court was going to rule against them. And, I suppose, in these times of incredible uncertainty, that was the prudent thing to do: Prepare for the worst.

Therefore, this was the logic — on both sides.
If the Supreme Court rules against us, it will mobilize our people in the fall, and we will overwhelm the opposition with the backlash.

Now, on the surface, I supposed, that is a reasonably effective case for making chicken salad out of chicken sh*t.

But it seemed to me that it perpetuated the mindset that believes in complacency politics — that success makes people complacent.

That has not been my experience.

In my experience, whether it is business or politics or whatever, success only whets one's appetite for more. I never expected the side that was perceived to be the winner today to sit back and relax.

Americans have always been competitive. Historically, success seldom makes people complacent. If anything, having acquired power, they put that power to work in an attempt to keep it.

Well, most do. Some don't, I admit. But those people don't tend to last too long.

Anyway, now that the Supreme Court has ruled the legislation to be constitutional — and in the most improbable way imaginable, by upholding the mandate as being within congressional taxation authority — I have been re–thinking my opinion on that.

And I'm beginning to think that, yes, there could be a considerable backlash on this at the polls in November.

In the first place, the introduction of that word tax is something the Democrats in Congress — and Barack Obama himself — sought to avoid when they were ramming through the health care reform act.

Legal defenders of the legislation only threw it into the mix in their Supreme Court arguments as a last–minute thing — yet that turned out to be the argument that the Supreme Court bought.

The High Court didn't go along with the commerce argument. It upheld the constitutionality of the legislation with that last–minute taxation argument — which, ironically, was never part of the original deal.

And it made things a bit sticky for the Obama campaign. Obama has repeatedly assured Americans that, during his presidency, there would be no tax increase on anyone making under $200,000/year.

Now, with the help of the Supreme Court, he has pulled off the greatest bait and switch in American taxation history.

And, if there are any folks who need a quick reminder of how the American people feel about anything that is labeled a tax, let me refer them to the election returns from 20 years ago — when President George H.W. Bush was defeated in large part for going back on his 1988 campaign pledge to resist any tax increases.

And make no mistake about it. This will amount to a massive tax increase — mostly on the middle class. Countless people will look at their annual incomes and do the math — and they will conclude that it will be cheaper for them to pay the tax than purchase the insurance.

That doesn't mean they will like it. It just means they will do it.

There's no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Court handed Obama a victory with today's ruling. It would have been indescribably embarrassing for the signature legislation under a president who was once a constitutional law professor to be declared unconstitutional.

Obama was spared that embarrassment — and, because of that, he has to be regarded as the winner of today's round. His signature legislation — virtually the only accomplishment he has to show for his 3½ years as president — survived.

Without it, he would have had no case at all for re–election.

But the Republicans have been given a huge banner to follow into battle this fall — and, with it, I think Romney may well win the war.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Choosing a Running Mate

With the primaries over and the battle for the Republican presidential nomination apparently decided, political writers find themselves in an historically dreary period until the parties gather for their conventions.

It is at this time when there is much speculation about the ultimate identity of at least one of the major parties' running mates.

Of course, in 2012, we already know the name of one of the running mates. That would be Joe Biden, the incumbent vice president.

Four years ago, it was a much less common situation — in which no incumbent was running — so there was a great deal of speculation regarding the identities of both party nominees' running mates.

But this year, as I say, we already know who will be the running mate on the Democrats' ticket — unless, as a few folks have predicted, Barack Obama decides to drop Biden and put Hillary Clinton on his ticket.

I have argued repeatedly that this is highly unlikely. In their zeal to whip up a discussion about a non–issue, such observers show an appreciation only for drama, not history.

Realistically, only Republican Mitt Romney will be selecting a running mate in this election cycle.

Recent speculation about Romney's eventual running mate has focused, as usual, on the most well–known names — but history tells us that presidential nominees, in what is often described as their first presidential–level decision, are likely to surprise just about everyone — perhaps spectacularly so.

I believe the reason for that is, while it is always possible that a vice president could become president at any time, presidential nominees don't tend to treat the decision with the kind of reverence it deserves.

Don't get me wrong; it's an important decision, but the overriding consideration is usually political — which potential running mate can give the ticket the most bang for the buck on Election Day?

Thus, the decision offers a fascinating glimpse into the logic of the nominee, but, as a barometer for the kind of decisions he might be likely to make in office, it is virtually worthless.

Like four years ago.

There was a lot of speculation about the running mates Obama and John McCain would choose, but, in the end, the selections of Biden and Sarah Palin were complete surprises — and seemingly motivated by entirely different considerations (even though both choices came down to politics — as usual — no matter how the campaigns chose to spin the decisions).

They addressed weaknesses — either real or perceived — of the presidential nominees.

Domestically, in 2008, there had been concerns about gas and food prices, but there were also international tensions that summer, and foreign policy was an area in which McCain, a Vietnam–era prisoner of war, was believed to have an advantage.

As a presidential candidate, Biden hadn't attracted much support, and he came from a tiny state that was already believed to be in the bag for the Democrats, but he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and, as such, he brought foreign policy credibility to the Democratic ticket.

So, while conventional wisdom holds that a running mate is chosen in large part because of the votes he can bring or the states he can help the nominee carry, that didn't appear to play much of a role in Obama's decision. The selection of Biden was praised because it was believed to have addressed an administrative need, not an electoral one.

But it was political in the sense that it was designed to reassure voters who saw the war on terrorism and border security as the most crucial issues in 2008 (remember, when the Democrats convened in Denver, the economic collapse had not yet happened.)

McCain's apparent motivation in selecting a female running mate, on the other hand, was to appeal to the millions of women who had supported Hillary Clinton's campaign and were said to be lukewarm on Obama.

It was an electorally motivated decision, and it was seen for the transparent maneuver that it was. The Republicans entirely overlooked the fact that women who participated in the Democratic primaries had an ideological agenda, too. Palin was simply too extreme for most of them.

In fact, after the votes had been counted, I heard several people second–guessing McCain's choice. They argued — correctly — that there were centrist Republican women who could have had broader appeal to female voters.

(Most of those people, it is worth noting, had nothing but praise for Palin when she was chosen and during the campaign.)

But, on the other hand, Palin had to be extreme to keep the conservatives in line. There was already a widespread perception of McCain as a "RINO" (a "Republican in Name Only"), and he needed to give the conservatives a reason to show up at the polls.

Also — although it was hardly mentioned — Palin was the only candidate who, as a governor, brought executive experience to the table.

Traditionally, there are many factors involved in choosing a running mate, most aimed at providing some kind of balance to the ticket. Everyone has shortcomings, and the philosophy behind running mate selection has emphasized minimizing them.

As I said, Palin's executive experience carried some weight with voters who saw nothing but legislative experience from Obama, McCain and Biden.

In 2004, John Kerry apparently felt party unity was the most important factor so he chose North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to be his running mate.

Edwards had been Kerry's chief rival and the second–leading vote getter in the Democratic primaries — even though he won only two. It must have been a disappointment indeed for the Kerry team when their candidate received virtually no post–convention bounce in the polls. I'm sure they expected something, if only from the disgruntled Democrats whom they sought to appease.

Party unity never seemed to be a factor when George W. Bush made his choice in 2000. In fact, he appointed Dick Cheney to lead his vice–presidential search committee, but then Bush took the remarkable step of asking Cheney himself to be his running mate.

Had party unity been at the top of Bush's concerns, he probably would have picked McCain, his main rival for the nomination, to be his running mate.

Party unity apparently was behind Ronald Reagan's selection of George H.W. Bush in 1980.

Things got a little out of hand at that year's Republican convention. A rumor that former President Gerald Ford would be Reagan's running mate swept through the delegations like wildfire.

The idea was that Ford and Reagan, who had waged a bitter campaign for the GOP nomination four years earlier, would be co–presidents.

But negotiations broke down, and the dream ticket never came to fruition. In the end, Reagan picked Bush, who had been his chief rival for the nomination that year.

One of the longest–standing considerations in choosing a running mate has been geographical. The idea was to attract votes in states and/or regions that the presidential nominee might not otherwise get. I'm inclined to think that was more important in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but, with the rapid emergence of technology in the last 50 or 60 years, geographical factors have become less important.

Certainly Bill Clinton, in 1992, did not feel it was necessary to select someone who would provide geographical balance.

He chose Al Gore, a senator from Tennessee, one of the states that borders on Clinton's home state of Arkansas. Perhaps Clinton wanted to double down on his Southern credentials; most Southern states, after all, had only voted for Democrats once, perhaps twice, in the previous 30 years.

Also, with two Southerners on the ticket, the Bush campaign could not portray either candidate as a Northern liberal like previous Democratic candidates (i.e., George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis), and Gore's military service negated criticism Clinton had received on that during the primaries.

In his memoir "My Life," Clinton said of Gore, "I liked him and was convinced that he ... would be a big addition to our campaign."

Sometimes personal chemistry trumps everything else.

Presidential nominees choose their running mates for reasons that probably wouldn't occur to most people.

In 1968, Richard Nixon reportedly was so impressed with Spiro Agnew's speech placing his name in nomination that he offered him the second spot on the ticket.

Agnew was virtually unknown outside his home state of Maryland, but Nixon believed Maryland could be his beachhead in the South.

Nixon didn't carry Maryland in 1968, but he did carry five Southern states as he introduced the Southern strategy to modern American politics.

And, in 1964, Barry Goldwater picked New York Rep. Bill Miller to be his running mate because Miller was known to be the congressman who annoyed Goldwater's opponent, President Lyndon Johnson, the most.

There will be a lot of talk in the next two months about who will run with Romney in the fall, and the names you're likely to hear the most are the rising stars in Republican circles — Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and others.

But don't be surprised if, when the smoke clears, someone you never heard of is standing on that podium with Romney in late August.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Smoking Gun

In an historical context, it's ironic that Barack Obama should claim executive privilege this week.

For two years, Richard Nixon got away with telling the American people that he was not involved in the Watergate coverup.

As time passed, fewer and fewer Americans believed what Nixon said, but his story (until he was forced to acknowledge otherwise) was that he hadn't known of the involvement of high–ranking White House officials until long after the break–in — and he stuck by that story.

Until the summer of 1973, when the existence of Nixon's White House recording system was revealed, it was Nixon's word against former White House counsel John Dean's. The knowledge that there were tapes of Oval Office conversations meant there was evidence that could prove which one was telling the truth.

Nixon resisted all attempts to force him to relinquish the tapes; he insisted they were protected by the principle known as executive privilege. But, in August 1974, the matter was before the Supreme Court, which ruled that Nixon had to turn over recordings of Oval Office conversations that Congress had been demanding and that Nixon had been trying to keep confidential.

The tapes included a conversation Nixon had with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, 40 years ago today — less than a week after the break–in — that clearly showed Nixon's complicity.

Earlier in 1974, Nixon agreed to release edited transcripts of certain conversations that had been subpoenaed — and those transcripts included conversations that occurred long before the one in which Nixon claimed to learn of the involvement of the higher–ups, but the earliest conversation in those transcripts had taken place in September 1972.

But as I wrote a few days ago, taped evidence of the first known conversation about Watergate in which Nixon participated was tampered with. No one will ever know what was really said on that occasion.

The tape of the June 23, 1972, conversation came to be known as "the smoking gun" because it proved that Nixon was an active participant in the coverup long before he acknowledged learning the details.

But it revealed more than that. It exposed aspects of Nixon's personality that had been hidden from public view.

In fact, the real smoking gun may have been destroyed in the mysterious "18½–minute gap" in a tape of a conversation between Nixon, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman three days earlier. Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, took the fall for that one, claiming to have erased it by mistake while working on the transcription, but it remains suspicious.

The meticulous notes that Haldeman always took at such meetings suggested that the conversation dealt primarily with Watergate, and electronics experts concluded that the gap was the result of at least four separate erasures — not one long one.

Consequently, the conversation that took place 40 years ago today may not have been the first time that Nixon and Haldeman spoke about the matter. But it's the first one of which evidence is known to exist.

Nixon's "initiating personal crime" came about "casually," wrote Theodore H. White in "Breach of Faith," when Nixon blithely "authorized use of the CIA to halt the FBI in its investigation of the Watergate break–in."

That was what always struck me as ironic about the Watergate scandal — a decision that had such profound repercussions on people's lives and careers, not to mention a nation's relationships with its leaders, was made in such an offhand fashion.

It's hard to tell just from the transcript of the conversation, but my best guess is that the Watergate–related exchange couldn't have taken more than five or 10 minutes, then it was on to something else.

Discussing what he called the "Democratic break–in thing," Haldeman told Nixon that "we're back in the problem area because the FBI is not under control, because [FBI director] Gray doesn't exactly know how to control it ... and their investigation is leading into some productive areas — because they've been able to trace the money ... through the bank source."

That was certainly a telling comment.

As anyone who ever read Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's account of the Watergate investigation knew, the money was what their source, known as Deep Throat, advised them to follow. The money would lead them to the heart of the conspiracy, he said, and it did.

Nixon and Haldeman conversed for an hour and half that day. They had been away from Washington at the time of the break–in and in the days immediately following, when the president's lieutenants tried to control something that was already beyond their control.

Yet the transcript of their June 23 conversation suggests, as I say, that they spent little time on Watergate. Nixon instructed Haldeman to "Play it tough. That's the way they play it, and that's the way we're going to play it."

And it was on to other business. When I read the transcript of that conversation, I could imagine them speaking as casually as they would have if they were talking about sports.

In retrospect, maybe it was treated more as one item on the agenda for a single day — of no more significance and no more memorable than selecting the menu for a state dinner.

"Therefore," wrote White, "the matter had become an administrative matter for the underground, which successfully contained the scandal until after the election."

That was, after all, the supreme objective — the re–election of the president. No real thought ever seemed to be given by the conspirators to what they would do after they won the election and Nixon was inaugurated for a second time.

Those involved seemed to believe — at least, at this point — that Watergate would go away and cause no more trouble for them.

And, for awhile, it didn't seem they needed to worry about it. When the nation prepared to go to the polls in 1972, surveys indicated that a majority of Americans knew little or nothing about Watergate. To anyone who was paying attention, it seemed that Nixon and his co–conspirators would get away with it.

But that would change.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rose Mary's Boo-Boo

Rose Mary Woods re–enacts the "Rose Mary Stretch" for photographers.

The official accounts of the Watergate break–in and its subsequent coverup all say that the Oval Office conversation in which the so–called "smoking gun" was found to be in Richard Nixon's hand occurred 40 years ago Saturday.

But it's possible — if not probable — that the gun had been smoldering for a few days.

Actually, all the evidence and testimony suggest that the Nixon White House's damage control machine was humming the day of the break–in, but Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, were in Florida. There were things that could not be done until they returned.

On this day 40 years ago, the men who were ultimately held accountable for the coverup conspiracy held a series of meetings that were dedicated to damage control. The first newspaper story that linked White House operative Howard Hunt to the Watergate burglars had been published that day, and the president's men were determined that culpability for the break–in would stop with Hunt.

In mid–morning that day, Nixon had a phone conversation with his campaign director and former attorney general, John Mitchell, then he met for an hour with Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, a top adviser. The burglary was only three days old at that time, but Ehrlichman already had met with just about all of the principals by that time.

Nixon and Haldeman, as I say, had been out of Washington at the time of the break–in. On Tuesday, June 20, 1972, they were back in the White House and allegedly being brought up to speed on what had happened in their absence — and there may have been no one else who knew as much about Watergate at that point as Ehrlichman did.

Consequently, it made sense to many observers that Nixon learned many of the details of the break–in from Ehrlichman on that occasion, but the evidence that might support that theory was incomplete.

There was a recording of that conversation, and investigators subpoenaed the tape when the existence of the White House taping system was revealed in the summer of 1973, but, in November, it was learned that a portion of the tape had been mysteriously erased before Nixon's lawyers first listened to it.

The White House's position was that Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who had been with Nixon for more than two decades and was decidedly loyal to her boss, had accidentally erased about five minutes of the tape.

According to her account, Woods had been transcribing the tape when the phone rang and she reached to answer it. Her feet controlled basic functions like stop, play and record with pedals that left her hands free for typing; she insisted that, somehow, while she was answering the phone and then carrying on a five–minute conversation, she stepped on the record pedal, erasing that section.

Her side of the story was met with quite a bit of skepticism. A rather short woman, there was no conceivable way that Woods could comfortably pull off the maneuver that she described (dubbed the "Rose Mary Stretch") — even if she was a contortionist.

But things were considerably worse than that.

The actual gap turned out to be more than three times as long as the one for which Woods claimed responsibility, and she denied that her erasure was anything like the 18½ minutes it turned out to be.

Because the pitch of the buzzing noise that was made by the erasure changed several times, the unavoidable conclusion was that several separate erasures had been attempted.

Privately (and, in some cases, not so privately), it was suggested that the tape had been deliberately erased. Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff at the end of his presidency, openly suggested Nixon may have erased it himself, either accidentally or intentionally.

Nixon, he said, was never comfortable with mechanical devices, and he might well have erased a portion of the tape when he was trying to listen to it.

That provided a possible, unintentional explanation, but unless that can be proven, the alternate possibility — that someone, possibly Nixon himself, deliberately destroyed evidence — cannot be dismissed.

The tape of the June 20 conversation has always intrigued me. Of all the tapes of White House conversations, it is the only one that was destroyed — at least in part.

Ultimately, it was a tape of a conversation between Nixon and Haldeman on June 23, 1972, that came to be known as the "smoking gun." That was the tape that caused Nixon's base in Congress to crumble — and led him to conclude that resignation was his only option.

What must Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman have said to each other 40 years ago that prompted whoever it was to repeatedly record over the tape until that portion of the conversation was entirely erased rather than risk having it revealed to the public?

Was it worse than anything else that was revealed in those tapes?

Could it have done any more damage to the relationship between the American people and their government?

Twenty years ago, in a TV program that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Watergate break–in, I heard Woodward talking about the 18½–minute gap.

With all the evidence of a huge criminal conspiracy that went deep into the White House, Woodward said, Nixon would have needed something like an 18,500–minute gap to successfully conceal his involvement.

I believed that when I heard it. Twenty years later, I am even more convinced that is true.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Goddaughter's Birthday

This is a special day.

Today is my goddaughter Nikki's 25th birthday.

I never had a sister, but I know from my experiences with my mother and my grandmothers that ladies don't like to disclose their ages — so I figure this is probably the last time Nikki will let me get away with that.

But I want to mention it for two reasons really — a person's 25th birthday is an important milestone, one that I want to be sure to observe, and knowing how old she is kind of puts things in perspective.

The year before Nikki was born, her father moved back to the St. Louis area where he had lived as a child. For a long time, he lived in Arkansas, where I grew up and lived until about a year after Nikki was born.

Nikki's father and I were close friends in high school and remained close afterward. We're still close.

And I remember being asked to be Nikki's godfather. I just don't remember when (except in a general sort of way) or how.

Her mother, Tammy, has told me many times that, when she and Randy discussed who should be their daughter's godfather, my name was the only one they considered.

I may have won that election by a landslide, but I was nevertheless humbled by the honor.

A quarter of a century later, I am still humbled by it.

And I suppose the natural inclination would be to assume that the date that I was asked to be her godfather would be one of those dates that lives forever in my memory. But I couldn't tell you what the date was — or even how they asked me, whether it was by letter or by phone.

Perhaps they asked me in person. I made an annual pilgrimage to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play the Dodgers in those days. It may have been on such a visit that they asked me. I really don't remember.

I just remember that it wasn't long after Nikki was born — sometime in the summer of 1987, I guess, maybe later.

I also remember joking with Tammy that I wanted a bumper sticker that said "Ask me about my goddaughter!"

(Actually, I think I was serious about that. Just never found one. Seems to me that you could only find "Baby on board" products in stores at that time.)

And now, she's all grown up with a young son of her own.

I keep up with her life these days via her Facebook status updates. And her mother frequently posts on Facebook about the grandson Nikki gave her.

So I have a pretty good idea of what is happening in their lives.

I never married, never had any children of my own, but I am very proud of Nikki — as proud as I would be, I suppose, if she were my own daughter.

Unfortunately, I only saw Nikki a couple of times when she was still a toddler. I wish I had been around for more of her childhood, but we lived in different states. Even so, she made me proud from a distance, and she makes me proud today.

And so, on this, her special day, I just want to say a few things to her.

Nikki, I love you very much. Each day, you redeem my own existence in ways I never would have imagined. May your life be filled with the same pleasure, wisdom and sense of purpose you have given mine.

Your love for your son reminds me so much of my own mother's love, there are times when I feel that some of her blood must flow through your veins. But maybe that is simply being a mother. Maybe it comes with the territory.

I know that can't explain it entirely, though. Not all mothers are as loving and nurturing as my mother was — and as you clearly are.

You must have inherited that from your own mother. You could not have inherited it from mine.

But that doesn't change how proud I am of who you are.

That will never change.

I hope you have a wonderful birthday and a long and happy life.

And I promise never again to tell anyone how old you are!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Forty Years Since the Watergate Break-in

"The absurdity of the idea still appalls in retrospect — the idea that there were secrets of value to anyone in the brawling, boisterous, open Democratic Party, whose appeal to the American people for so many generations had come from its air of humanity, its common vulgarity. The national Democratic Party is not a conspiracy; it is a continuing commotion, baffling to all logical, managerial–minded men. But the buggers and their superiors were insisting on penetrating what they thought must be a conspiracy. ... The conspiratorial theory of history was about to destroy its true believers."

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

Even after 40 years, the burglary of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington defies logic and understanding, just as it did at the time.

No one really knew what to make of it in 1972. By Election Day, not quite five months after the break–in, much of the country had never heard of the word Watergate. My sense is that relatively few Americans have much better understanding of it today.

And, to be fair, it was — and remains — a far–reaching, complex scandal. Some people have been studying it for 40 years, and there are still things about it that they are learning. There are still layers to be peeled away.

Of course, at the time, no one realized that the burglary was merely scratching the tip of the iceberg. The coverup had little to do with the break–in, as Robert Redford summarized in his portrayal of Bob Woodward in the Hollywood version of "All the President's Men". It was intended to keep all the other illegal activities of the president's men secret.

The coverup, which is probably seen by most as Richard Nixon's most grievous offense, had little to do with the actual break–in that occurred 40 years ago today. It was mostly about continuing to conceal all the other, more serious things that had been going on in the Nixon White House.

And, as most such conspiracies do, that one failed to meet its objective.

But, on this day in 1972, no one knew where the road would lead when Woodward, a young reporter for the Washington Post, took the first tentative steps that eventually led America to its first presidential resignation.

Initially, the break–in wasn't considered a priority for the political writers, all of whom were busy on election–related stories. The assignment fell to Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Woodstein, as the pair became known, built the story into the most compelling domestic political story of my life. When they had done that, other newspapers began picking up their articles from the news wire, and the investigation began to gain momentum. But, in the early days, few newspapers were printing them.

The story was just too preposterous. All of Nixon's potential rivals were imploding, and it was coming down to the weakest candidate in the field, George McGovern, to carry the banner for the Democrats in the fall.

There was no obvious reason for Nixon and the Republicans to sabotage the Democrats. The Democrats appeared to be doing a dandy job of sabotaging themselves.

(To put it in proper perspective, imagine if Barack Obama's Republican opponent this year had turned out to be someone with extremely limited national appeal, even among his/her fellow Republicans — a Newt Gingrich, perhaps, or a Pat Buchanan. Even if the White House had done nothing to engineer such a nomination, it would probably seem to most observers that the president had the election locked up.)

But, as more became known about the break–in and the reasons for it, the national perception changed dramatically.

Today, Woodward and Bernstein have concluded that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that emerged in the last four decades, the coverup was not worse than the original crime.

The Nixon White House, Bernstein said, "became, to a remarkable extent, a criminal enterprise." The coverup was business as usual.

Woodward concurred. For Nixon, he said, the presidency was about retribution, and he had launched five wars for that reason: "The first against the antiwar movement, the second against the press, the third against the Democrats who threatened to take over the White House from him and deny him a second term.

"And then the fourth when there was the Watergate burglary, the coverup, the obstruction of justice. And then interestingly enough, Nixon never stopped the fifth war, which is against history, to say 'Oh, no, it really is not what it shows on the tapes and all the testimony and evidence.' "

In a damning indictment of modern journalism students, Dan Zak wrote in the Washington Post in April that Woodward and Bernstein are skeptical that aspiring journalists could uncover something like Watergate today.

A big part of the problem is their misplaced faith in the internet, according to Woodward, who was asked to read papers by journalism students at Yale on investigating a Watergate in the digital age and then speak to the students via speakerphone.

Woodward said he "came as close as I ever have to having an aneurysm, because the students wrote that, 'Oh, you would just use the Internet and you'd go to 'Nixon's secret fund' and it would be there.' "

Woodward tried to explain to the students how naive that is.

But that is a long and, in many ways, separate discussion that would all but surely distract us from the subject at hand if we dwelt on it too long.

The Nixonian White House was adept at legal double talk, which prolonged the investigation in the 1970s. Just about everyone was educated in the law, political science or advertising.

If a Richard Nixon occupied the Oval Office in 2012 and was involved in similar activities, my guess is he still would surround himself with people with those backgrounds, but he also would include in his inner circle people with expertise in computers.

Nixon had a truly adversarial relationship with the press, and modern media goes well beyond the traditional print media. It includes things that were still evolving in Nixon's day (television) and things that were not yet conceived (the internet, which, by extension, includes things like blogs).

The actual Nixon was concerned almost exclusively with the print media. His hypothetical 21st century equivalent would have had far more to worry about.

Even Nixon's critics would have acknowledged, if asked, in 1972 that he was an intelligent man — his greatest flaw, most people have agreed, was his deep insecurity — and he would have been smart enough to surround himself with experts in the dominant news delivery system of the time.

My take on it is this: The Watergate scandal that began 40 years ago today was, ultimately, a triumph both for the fundamentals of good, solid journalism in its role as public watchdog and for the relatively smooth operation of the American system.

It all worked pretty much as the Founding Fathers intended.

Read the book Woodward and Bernstein wrote about their investigation — "All the President's Men." Or watch the movie that was based on it.

You won't read about or see journalists as rock stars. It could hardly have been less glamorous. Woodward and Bernstein embarked on a long, arduous road in which doors were slammed in their faces, and they must have often felt as if they were at the end of a long branch and their colleagues in journalism were furiously sawing away.

Their survival was remarkable, and their work deserves to be remembered on this day.

Personally, though, I will settle for a time when every scandal that comes along does not have the suffix "–gate" added to it.

That has led to some pretty clever — and awkward — phrasings over the years.

For example, when Ronald Reagan's policy of selling arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and to raise funds to support the Nicaraguan Contras was publicly revealed, I saw/heard it referred to, alternately, as Irangate or Contragate.

And when Bill Clinton's relationship with a White House intern was revealed, it was referred to by some as Zippergate.

Watergate was an important event in this nation's history — it helped to establish limits on presidential power — but it was not this nation's first presidential scandal, nor was it the last.

Before Watergate, I was a young boy, but I have no memory of any public scandal being called whatever–dome, after the Teapot Dome scandal of the Harding years. Perhaps there were "–domes" in the half century between Teapot Dome and Watergate, but, if there were, they have all receded into the long shadows of ancient history.

Each scandal is different and deserves to be remembered (or forgotten) on its own merits.

When future scandals are no longer referred to as a gate, I suppose it will be a signal that our culture has grown and matured.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Challenge to 'Tear Down This Wall'

"General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Ronald Reagan
June 12, 1987

Presidents are remembered for saying many things.

In what tend to be their more honorable moments, presidents are remembered for statements they make in speeches.

In what tend to be their less honorable moments, presidents are remembered for things they say in more private and confidential settings or in off–the–cuff remarks they apparently think no one else can hear and often regret.

Perhaps it was that way with Ronald Reagan's remark about the "evil empire." Well, it may have been the kind of thing Reagan said only to confidantes and advisers at first, but by the time he was president, I think he believed the Soviet Union was an evil empire.

And he wasn't bashful about saying so.

Whatever else Reagan accomplished in his life, one must remember that his early training involved acting on the stage. The nature of acting is persuasion.

He often told a story about his early days as a sportscaster on radio. In those days, radio stations received the play–by–play of sports contests on the wire, and the station's own on–air talent would read it.

On one occasion, the wire machine stopped working in the middle of a baseball game, and Reagan had to ad lib. He came up with numerous creative ways for the batter to keep fouling off pitches until the machine was repaired and began providing the play–by–play again — at which point Reagan discovered that the batter had popped out on the first pitch.

His listeners would read no riveting accounts of the batter's dramatic duel with the pitcher in the next day's papers. No doubt many were disappointed.

When he was running for president, Reagan came across as being devoutly anti–Soviet Union. I must admit, though, that I often wondered just how much of that was for show and how much of it was genuine.

Some of it may well have been an act, but I was inclined at the time to believe most of it was genuine. While I seldom agreed with Reagan, I felt compelled to conclude that his rhetoric was more extreme than most mainstream establishment Republicans of the day embraced — at least, with any enthusiasm.

And Reagan's public speeches early in his presidency clearly indicated that the Reagan of the campaign trail was the same one who occupied the White House.

However, a lot changed while he was president. The Soviet Union's leadership was far more hard line when Reagan became president than it was at the end of his presidency, and, on this day 25 years ago, Reagan stood in front of the infamous Berlin Wall and called upon Mihail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's moderate leader, to "tear down this wall."

Considering that is precisely what happened shortly after Reagan left office, his words on that occasion seem positively prophetic — even though it was his successor, George H.W. Bush, who presided over its collapse.

His most devout admirers will tell you that it happened because of Reagan's policies. Perhaps it did. Or perhaps it would have happened anyhow. Reagan himself said communism would collapse under its own weight. It was just a matter of time.

It's fair to wonder, as Peter Robinson does in the Wall Street Journal, if "mere talk," as he called Reagan's speech, "made any difference."

Robinson, a former Reagan speech writer, concluded that the speech was a catalyst that changed the world. Well, perhaps it influenced the communist world, the world that existed behind Winston Churchill's famed iron curtain.

As far as I could tell at the time, the free world was unaffected. The free world paid attention to what was happening, but daily life went on.

Still, when the wall came down, I must admit that I wondered if there had been more to the speech than met the eye — or ear.

The call to "tear down this wall" had powerful emotional imagery behind it, imagery that was even more powerful when it actually came to pass.

Some people say it was Ronald Reagan's finest hour. Personally, I felt his finest hour was when he comforted a grieving nation following the Challenger disaster. At the time, I guess I dismissed the Berlin Wall speech as grandstanding.

But I'll grant you that Reagan's speech 25 years ago today was probably his presidency's most memorable moment.

If that was grandstanding, it was grandstanding with endurance.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Age of Miracles

My father had a heart attack on Sunday.

There was a time in my life when a heart attack or a diagnosis of cancer was the same as a death sentence.

But, in my lifetime, I have seen so many conditions that conventional wisdom once regarded as terminal reduced to survivable by the march of medical science.

My father is a prime example of that.

He had his heart attack on Sunday. On Tuesday, he had bypass surgery, after which he was taken to intensive care, which is SOP. Tonight, he is in his room — apparently, he's been sleeping all day — and his doctor has said he could be released and sent home as soon as Saturday.

It really wasn't so long ago that even if a person had what was considered a mild heart attack, he or she could expect to spend weeks in the hospital before being allowed to go home.

The thought that my father could be home a week to the day after his heart attack astonishes me. For that matter, it astonished me when I listened to Dad's surgeon talking to him about his upcoming bypass surgery on Monday night. He was so nonchalant about it — as if he was talking about taking out Dad's tonsils.

It is truly a miraculous time in which we live.

When I was a child, I used to watch The Jetsons on Saturday mornings. There was a time when it was probably my very favorite cartoon, the one I absolutely would never miss, and much of the attraction, I suppose, was the glimpse into the future that it supposedly offered.

We haven't achieved most of the things The Jetsons told us were in our future. There are no flying cars yet, and the household appliances I saw on The Jetsons still are far more impressive than anything in the 21st century — so far.

I don't recall if The Jetsons ever mentioned medical advances, but it's hard to imagine their world being more advanced than our own. (In fact, I believe the show was set in the year 2062.)

For that matter, I have heard of miracles in biblical times all my life. If they happened, though, it was way before my time.

But I have borne witness to all the medical miracles of our time.

And I have a lot of gratitude for that right now.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Operating Without a Net

I realize it is foolhardy to make blanket assertions, but I feel relatively safe in saying that most Americans have probably been to a circus at some point in their lives — or at least they have seen video clips of a circus on television.

There are all kinds of attractions at a circus. Some are relatively benign, but some of the most enduringly thrilling acts ever seen involve tightrope walkers and trapeze artists. Over the years, the phrase "death defying" has become something of a hackneyed cliche, I guess, but when you see those performers doing their acts high in the air, it's really the only phrase that seems adequate.

Of course, most of them never have really been defying death. Most of the time, there has been a safety net in place to catch them if they fall.

It isn't an absence of faith in their abilities. It is recognition that, well, we all make mistakes.

That's kind of how I have always felt about newspaper copy desks. I have devoted a large chunk of my adult life to both the practice of copy editing and teaching it in college classrooms. I know there were many times when I personally prevented embarrassing errors from slipping into print.

A copy desk is a newspaper's safety net. More than two years ago, I wrote about the value of proofreading, and errors that have found their way into print in the last few months alone — on both sides of the political spectrum — tell me it isn't just journalists who need that safety net.

(Sad to say, though, many journalists are losing that safety net. When economic conditions are bad, one of the first cost–cutting measures at many newspapers is to cut back on the copy desk. Reporters aren't really conditioned to monitor themselves, but they are told they must now do that very thing. Maybe some will, but, in my experience, most will not so whatever their weaknesses are — spelling, punctuation, fact checking — rapidly become the newspaper's weaknesses, too.

(As a result, the newspaper's reputation suffers, producing a domino effect — lost circulation followed by lost advertising revenue ... followed by more staff cuts — or, perhaps, reductions in publication dates. Maybe both.)

Earlier this year, the White House announced via a press release that the vice president would attend a campaign event in Road Island. That mistake was widely reported by the wire services.

(I spoke to several people at the time who observed that anyone who aspires to be president — especially someone who is president — should know how to spell the names of the states. You could point out to them that Barack Obama went to college and almost certainly does know how to spell the names of all 50 states — even though he once said there were 57 of them, not 50 — maybe he was thinking about the steak sauce? — and that it was almost certainly someone who worked for him who made that mistake.

(But the point is that the mistake was made on his behalf. And it could not be excused as what the Nixon administration used to call misspeaking yourself. It was in print.)

And then, last week, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney's new campaign app misspelled America.

Likewise, I guess, anyone who aspires to be president — or already is the president — should know how to spell the name of the country he wants to lead.

Of course, Romney didn't input any of the words in the app's text any more than Obama was personally responsible for mistyping the name of Rhode Island on that press release. But they're the guys at the top. The ones whose names are on the letterhead.

Spelling doesn't matter if only one person — a narrator, for example — is going to read what you write. It may even be helpful to write everything phonetically to make sure the narrator's pronunciation is right and there aren't any awkward gaps in the narration — because that is all that really counts in TV or radio script writing.

But in a newspaper or a magazine — or a web site or a press release — or anything else that many people will read, spelling counts.

I know it doesn't count for some people. I see some truly alarming mistakes in posts on the internet — and in papers that are turned in to me in the writing classes I teach. Some people clearly don't know any better — or, worse, don't care.

But when you write something that many people will read, there will be some who will recognize a spelling error when they see it — even if most who read it do not. And there will be some who do care.

I guess politicians on the lowest rung of the political ladder can get away with spelling mistakes or typographical errors. The text of any speeches they give probably will not be archived anywhere, and few local officials tend to put out press releases or anything else in print.

But Mitt Romney and Barack Obama really should see to it that they have at least one competent copy editor on their staffs (the more the better) — especially in the digital age, when you can be sure that virtually anything presidents or would–be presidents have said in the past can be found somewhere on the internet.

Romney especially should be cognizant of that. About two months ago, he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention that "in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control."

Based on that new campaign app, Romney could use some "quality control."

But so could the White House. Two years ago, the following appeared on the White House web site prior to the G–20 meeting in Toronto. (What follows was copied and pasted directly from the White House web site in the summer of 2010. All spellings and spacings are as they appeared. I intended to use it in my news writing classes, but I haven't done so yet ...):
Dear G-20 Colleagues:
When we met in London in April of2009, we were facing the worst worldwide economic financial crisis since the 1930s. We acted with unprecedented speed and aggressive action to boost demand and repair our financial systems. It worked.
In Pittsburgh, with recovery beginning to take hold, we agreed to work together to achieve a more balanced pattem of global growth and financial reforms to strengthen our financial system and protect our economies from instability.
In Toronto, we meet at a time of renewed challenge to the global economy. We must act together to strengthen the recovery. We need to commit to restore sustainable public finances in the medium term. And we should complete the work of financial repair and reform. Our highest priority in Toronto must be to safeguard a)ld strengthen the recovery. We worked exceptionally hard to restore growth; we cannot let it falter or lose strength now. This means
that we should reaffirm our unity of purpose to provide the policy support necessary to keep economic growth strong. It is essential that we have a self-sustaining recovery that creates the good jobs that our people need. In fact, should confidence in the strength of our recoveries diminish, we should be prepared to respond again as quickly and as forcefully as needed to aveli a slowdown in economic activity.
A strong and sustainable global recovery needs to be built on balanced global demand. Significant weaknesses exist across G-20 economies. I am concemed by weak private sector demand and continued heavy reliance on expolis by some countries with already large external surpluses. Our ability to achieve a durable global recovery depends on our ability to achieve a pattern of global demand growth that avoids the imbalances ofthe past. In Pittsburgh, we agreed that countries with extemal surpluses would need to strengthen domestic sources of
growth. Leaders and governments will need to decide for themselves how to achieve that objective. In some countries, strengthening social safety nets would help boost low levels of consumption. In others, product and labor market reforms could strengthen both consumption and investment. I also want to underscore that market-determined exchange rates are essential to global economic vitality. The signals that flexible exchange rates send are necessary to support a strong and balanced global economy.
We need to commit to fiscal adjustments that stabilize debt-to-GDP ratios at appropriate levels over the medium tenn. I am committed to the restoration of fiscal sustainability in the United States and believe that all G-20 countries should put in place credible and growthfriendly plans to restore sustainable public finances. But it is critical that the timing and pace of consolidation in each economy suit the needs of the global economy, the momentum of private sector demand, and national circumstances. We must be flexible in adjusting the pace of
consolidation and learn from the consequential mistakes of the past when stimulus was too quickly withdrawn and resulted in renewed economic hardships and recession. For our part, we will pursue measures to SUppOit the recovery in private demand and return the unemployed to work. At the same time, we recognize the impoltance of setting a credible medium-term fiscal path: that is why my Administration will cut the budget deficit we inherited in halfby FY 2013 and work to reduce our fiscal deficit to 3 percent ofGDP by FY 2015, which will stabilize the
debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level in that year.
To support the recovery and strengthen the ability of our financial systems to deliver needed credit, we must maintain the momentum of financial repair. Resolving ongoing uncertainty about the transparency of bank balance sheets and the adequacy of bank capital, patticularly in Europe, will help reduce financial market volatility and the cost of borrowing. We should SUppOlt efforts to enhance transparency and increase disclosure by our large financial institutions and to act, where necessary, to strengthen the capital position of our banks. Our ability to grow
without the excesses that that put our economies at risk two years ago requires that we accelerate our efforts to bring needed financial refolIDs to completion. In the U.S., both houses of Congress have passed comprehensive financial regulatory refOlID bills. We must reiterate our commitment in Toronto to a common framework for reforms that provide:
0. more stringent capital and liquidity requirements: We want our negotiators to reach agreement on a new capital framework we can endorse in Seoul that will include higher common equity requirements, tighter definitions of capital, a simple mandatory leverage ratio, and appropriate liquidity requirements. While we consider reasonable transition measures, we must not lose sight ofthe need to make sure our financial institutions have the capital needed to withstand future stresses;
0. stronger oversight of derivatives markets: We want our negotiators to reach agreement to put in place across the major financial markets a consistent framework for oversight of derivatives markets. We should subject all dealers and all major participants in the derivatives markets to supervision and regulation, including conservative capital and margin requirements, disclosure and reporting requirements, and strong business conduct standards to mitigate the potential for systemic risk and market abuse.
0. more transparency and disclosure to promote market integrity and reduce market manipulation; and
0. more effective ji'Qlllework for winding down large global firms, along with principles for thefillallcial sector to make afair and substantial contribution towards payingfor allY burdens it creates in a way that protects taxpayers, creates a level playing field, and reduces risks to our economies.
In Toronto, I also look forward to working on our action agendas on issues ranging from energy and development, to governance reform of intemational financial institutions.
Together, we designated the G-20 as the premier forum for intemational economic cooperation. It is important that the G-20 demonstrates its continued determination to work collectively to address the renewed challenges facing the global economy. I look fOlward to seeing you in Toronto and reaffhming our unity of purpose and resolve.


Clearly, Obama and Romney need copy editors.

But, like so many others, they are working without one.

National politics, like high–wire acts, is a high risk–reward proposition.

It doesn't make sense to operate without a net.

Even considering the potential rewards, the risks simply are too great.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Silver Lining

As I have observed here before, I grew up in Arkansas.

And when I was growing up, there was a saying that nearly everyone around me could be heard to utter, at one time or another: "Thank God for Mississippi!"

I don't know how long they were saying that in Arkansas — and it's been awhile since I lived there, so they may well be saying it still ... for all I know. But it was always an article of faith, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it still is.

It stemmed from the fact that Arkansas usually ranked 48th or 49th in nearly every category — but Mississippi was usually 50th.

That was the silver lining for Arkansans — who weren't proud of the fact that the state lagged so far behind the others in nearly every meaningful category but who were grateful for the existence of Mississippi, without whom Arkansas would have been dead last in so many important things.

In the wake of yesterday's abysmal jobs report, supporters of Barack Obama have been grasping at anything that can give the news a positive spin. A negative jobs report at this stage of the president's re–election campaign cannot possibly help his cause, but that hasn't stopped his backers from trying to give the news a positive spin.

Call it their "Thank God for Mississippi" moment.

As usual, the White House got its rah rah from the New York Times. But it didn't strike me as being quite as enthusiastic as it usually is.

"The slow economy is getting slower," wrote the Times, apparently ignoring the influence of public policy while seizing the opportunity to criticize the president's congressional critics.

"Republicans in Congress seem more determined not only to block any boost that President Obama wants to give the economy," opined the Times, "but they are preparing to take the nation's credit rating hostage again over the debt ceiling. Mitt Romney, the Republican presumptive presidential nominee, has no new ideas."

The Times did acknowledge, however, that the numbers were "daunting." Unemployment went up (0.1%, to be sure, was not an astonishingly high number by itself, but it was alarming and disappointing for an administration that saw much more robust job creation a few months ago and was hoping for clear evidence of steady improvement); weekly wages went down (thanks to a drop in average hours worked); and nearly 5½ million Americans are now regarded as long–term unemployed.

The hardly unexpected news caused a chain reaction, along with Europe's economic woes, on Wall Street as each of the stock exchanges lost more than 2% of its volume.

But the Times chose to blame congressional Republicans, who have controlled only the House (and that for barely more than a year) since the 2006 midterm elections — "There's no sign that Washington is prepared to shoulder this responsibility," said the Times, declining to hold the president accountable — although it did acknowledge that, "[i]n the meantime, millions of Americans need jobs."

The Philadelphia Inquirer blithely called the jobs report a "letdown" that "baffled" economic experts who had anticipated better. I can assure you of one thing: When the experts are baffled, the rank and file become jittery, and they express themselves at the ballot box.

Many experts suggested that a (temporary) scapegoat is the fact that many of the unemployed who had given up the search were encouraged by job gains earlier this year to re–enter the workforce. The jobs still aren't there, but more people are actively looking for them.

Obviously, most of us would like to see those who have given up find a renewed resolve within themselves to seek employment. But, when they do, they can be so darned inconvenient.

I don't know if it was all those formerly discouraged job seekers jumping back into the far from tranquil employment waters, but few of the president's usual defenders have had anything to say about the latest job report. I guess they couldn't find a silver lining.

Jimmy Carter has been an unapologetic supporter of Obama, but, after he lets the news sink in and he reviews the unambiguous election returns on November 7 — and recalls how he has been reviled for more than three decades as the worst modern American president (which lets some rather notorious 19th–century chief executives off the hook) — he may be the only Democrat who can truly find a silver lining ...

What will Jimmy Carter say on that November day? Thank God for Barack Obama?

Friday, June 1, 2012

You Can't Spin This

I've seen this countless times before — and, as Weird Al Yankovic put it in his parody of MC Hammer's hip hop song, I can't watch this. I feel as if I have seen this before, and I don't want to watch this again.

But I don't really have a choice.

The monthly jobless report was released today, and, in the wake of recent economic reports, it came as no surprise to learn that unemployment went up to 8.2% in May. It was, however, a bit of a surprise that only 69,000 jobs were added to the economy in May — and, considering the fact that job gains in recent months were revised downward, it may well be that, when the dust finally settles, there may be no net job gains in May — there may even be net job losses.

Sixty–nine thousand jobs doesn't even cover average monthly population gains — let alone make a dent in the number of long–term unemployed.

Barack Obama's re–election campaign has been banking on continued evidence of an economic recovery — even the 0.1% gains that have been witnessed in some recent months would be preferable to the loss that was reported today. Economic experts have been saying for several weeks that they think the jobs situation will deteriorate this summer.

In other words, the worst is yet to come.

If a gain of any kind had been registered in May, it might still have been possible (if the economy managed to lower the unemployment rate by 0.2% per month) for the rate to be as low for Obama this November as it was when the voters re–elected Ronald Reagan in 1984.

And that is what the Obama campaign craves — an opportunity to run for a second term with a jobless rate equal to the one that existed for the Gipper.

Ain't gonna happen.

The first half of Reagan's first term resembled Obama's, with unemployment rates in double–digit territory. But the economy began to recover in 1983, and Reagan was re–elected, even though the unemployment rate was higher than it had been for any incumbent seeking a second term since the days of FDR.

However, the recovery of 1984 was more sustained, far more robust than this one, which has gone in fits and starts, like all the other "recoveries" since we were told the recession ended three years ago. Where Reagan sprinted to the finish line under the "Morning in America" banner, Obama is limping in that direction.

And jobs reports like the one that came out today are pressing the president into the "stay the course" mode that Reagan followed in the 1982 midterm elections — and resulted in the loss of 26 House seats for Reagan's Republicans — which doesn't have the inspirational quality of hope and change.

"Obama sees the glass as half full, arguing the economy is slowly improving and asking voters to trust him to help nurture a full recovery," writes Tom Raum of the Associated Press.

"No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression has won re–election with an unemployment rate as high as it is today," continues Raum.

"It was 7.2 percent when President Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in 1984."

That doesn't inspire confidence, especially since Obama has shown a marked inclination to lecture people (one of the prominent criticisms of Jimmy Carter when he ran against Reagan in 1980).

Even the New York Times, normally a cheerleader for the Obama administration, has found it hard to put a positive spin on this.

"Economists can explain away a month or two of disappointing numbers," writes the Times' Shaila Dewan. "But this was the third consecutive disappointing monthly performance by the job market, following a winter of solid gains, convincing many that the economic recovery has, for the third year in a row, lost momentum."

Three strikes and you're out.

I can't watch this.