Monday, October 29, 2012


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

Lena Dunham
Obama campaign commercial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Death of a Good Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

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

Big Tex in happier times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Dawn of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Three Was a Crowd in 1992

In 1992, nationally televised debates between the major party nominees for president were still a fairly recent development in American politics.

Vice presidential debates were newer still. The first televised presidential debates were in 1960, and the first vice presidential debate was in 1976.

But, what happened in 1992 was a first that has been unmatched in presidential debate history. The debates that year featured three participants, not two.

And the debate that was held 20 years ago tonight on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta was even more groundbreaking. It was only the fourth time that vice presidential candidates had met in a debate (the vice presidential candidates did not debate in 1980), and it was the first (and, so far, only) time that the vice presidential debate featured three participants.

The Perot–Stockdale ticket really shook things up in 1992. In November, nearly 20 million people voted for it. (No state actually voted for Perot, although political historians will point out that the Perot–Stockdale ticket finished slightly ahead of the Bush–Quayle ticket in Maine that year.)

And it was kind of a weird night two decades ago — the night of the 1992 vice presidential debate.

In part, it was a vindication of the low expectations theory in which a debate participant is said to benefit from low expectations because just about anything good that happens for him/her during the debate will be seen as a triumph.

And, if enough good things — or, at least, enough not bad things — happen, an upset victory in the debate can be claimed — and accepted as plausible by most viewers.

For Vice President Dan Quayle, it probably couldn't have worked out much better. Widely viewed as a lightweight — and with the memory of his epic putdown by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in the vice presidential debate four years earlier still reasonably fresh in the public's minds — expectations were very low for Quayle.

In comparison to the public's pre–debate expectations, Quayle triumphed in his 1992 debate, and my memory is that a plurality at least saw him as the debate's winner.

But, in my memory and the memories of most observers, what lingers is not the image of an unexpectedly deft and skillful debate performance by Quayle but rather an embarrassingly poor one by Admiral James Stockdale.

To be fair to Stockdale, it wasn't really his fault.

A national three–person debate had only occurred once — a few days earlier, when the presidential candidates debated — and it wasn't even decided until roughly a week before the running mates debated that Stockdale would be allowed to participate.

Stockdale, one of the Navy's most decorated officers, was a rather late addition to Perot's campaign as well, but he was thought by many political observers to bring a certain amount of gravitas, at least in foreign affairs, to the ticket via his military career.

But he was still largely unknown to many Americans.

So, on this night 20 years ago, Stockdale sought to capitalize a bit on his status as the unknown candidate. "Who am I? Why am I here?" he began his opening statement, paving the way for a clever introduction of himself to the viewers.

The problem was that he sort of ran out of gas — or, to borrow a phrase Stockdale later used to explain the abrupt conclusion of one of his answers, he was "out of ammo."

Thus, a distinguished veteran with a lifetime's worth of service to his country was reduced to a punch line, and nowhere were the jokes more biting than on Saturday Night Live.

Practically since its debut in 1975, SNL has made a name for itself poking fun at political figures, especially in debates. In that category, I would say that SNL has established itself as the gold standard. For more than 35 years, a presidential election campaign has not been complete until SNL parodies at least one of its debates.

After Stockdale's performance, though, SNL's writers apparently decided to poke fun at it but not to mimic it directly.

The result was savagely funny.

Perot (portrayed by Dana Carvey) and Stockdale (Phil Hartman) were going for a post–debate ride in the country — a "joyride," Perot/Carvey called it.

But Perot's true objective was to ditch Stockdale out in the sticks.

It didn't work, however, as Perot learned, to his chagrin, "never try to ditch a war hero — tenacious with a capital T."

Admiral Stockdale died in 2005.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

When Vice Presidential Candidates Collide

Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in the first vice presidential debate in 1976.

History will be made tomorrow night in Danville, Ky., when Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan meet in the vice presidential debate.

This isn't the first time a debate has been held in Danville (population about 16.000). Nor will it be the first time vice presidential candidates have debated. In fact, it will be the ninth time.

It has been said that vice presidential debates have little, if any, influence on the outcome of a presidential election. But they have often been noteworthy.

The first time that vice presidential candidates debated was 36 years ago next Monday, when Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in Houston.

That night, Dole made a sneering comment about "Democrat wars" and Mondale called him on it.

The vice presidential candidates did not debate in 1980, but, on this day in 1984, the first woman on a major party ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, debated Vice President George H.W. Bush in Philadelphia.

What stands out in my mind about that debate was the blatantly obvious condescending tone of the vice president's remarks. He was a man with an extensive background in foreign affairs, and he appeared to feel that it was beneath him to debate Ferraro, who had a certain amount of knowledge about foreign policy acquired in three terms in the House as well as her experience dealing with appropriations on the House Budget Committee — but nothing remotely comparable to Bush's resume.

Ferraro was right to tell Bush that she "resented" his attitude, but my memory is that Bush was judged the winner that night.

The victory gave a much–needed boost to 73–year–old President Ronald Reagan's campaign for re–election. Reagan had stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale only four days earlier, and public opinion polls had begun to show some shakiness in his standing with the voters.

(In the aftermath of his widely panned debate performance last week, Barack Obama can only hope that Biden hands him such a gift tomorrow night.)

When Reagan met Mondale in their second and final debate a week and half later, he seemed energized, and he gave a much stronger performance, essentially locking up his 49–state landslide.

The vice presidential candidates debated early in October in 1988 — on Oct. 5, a date that has been chosen for vice presidential debates three times. It was on that first occasion — in Omaha, Neb. — that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen told Sen. Dan Quayle that he was "no Jack Kennedy."

Twenty years ago this Saturday, the first — and, so far, only — three–way vice presidential debate was held in Atlanta.

(The first–ever three–way presidential debate was held 20 years ago tomorrow.)

The vice presidential debate in 1992 was memorable for the things the third wheel in that debate — Ross Perot's running mate, Admiral James Stockdale — said.

I always thought that was something of a pity because Stockdale was an intelligent and exceptionally brave individual. He spent seven years in a Viet Cong POW camp and suffered severe physical injuries during his captivity.

He had earned the right to be treated with respect, but the fact that he was not a career politician worked against him in an arena where that kind of experience would have served him well.

After the debate, jokes were made about his halting and confused delivery, his opening statement ("Who am I? Why am I here?") and other nifty sound bites that, taken together, made Stockdale look old and foolish.

But the truth was that Stockdale did not know he would be participating in the debate until about a week before, and he got no advice from Perot. He was about as unprepared as a man could be for a nationally televised debate — and it showed.

Two days ago was the 16th anniversary of the debate between Vice President Al Gore and Jack Kemp in St. Petersburg, Fla., during the 1996 campaign.

On Oct. 5, 2000, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman debated in Danville.

Four years later, to the day, now–Vice President Cheney debated John Edwards in Cleveland.

Four years ago, on Oct, 2, Biden debated Sarah Palin in St. Louis.

If you have no real memory of those debates, don't worry about it. As I say, they don't seem to matter much when people make up their minds how to vote.

But they can be quite entertaining.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Brand New Ball Game?

I've heard the question asked by several people in the last 24 hours.

Is this a new race now?

The subject, obviously, is Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The Los Angeles Times reports that more than 67 million Americans watched it.

And I am — as the Batman character Two–Face said — of two minds on the question of whether things have changed. At least in a long–term sense.

On the one hand, of course, there is that election campaign.

If the polls have been correct (and I'm not convinced that they have been) and Obama's lead has been growing in recent weeks, then my answer would be "yes, it probably is a new race now" because Romney clearly and decisively won the debate. Virtually everyone is saying so. Even the president's staunchest defenders have conceded that point.

In the short term — and, with fewer than five weeks to go, short term is really all there is in this presidential election campaign — will it be enough?

To truly win the hearts and minds of the voters takes more than a single debate and longer than five weeks — but, if the viewership of this year's conventions is any indication (and I believe it is), way more than half of the electorate doesn't pay close attention to the campaign until only a few weeks remain.

And many, many more people are undecided — or at least willing to reconsider voting to re–elect the president — than we have been led to believe.

Candidates don't have much choice. They must first be elected before they can start doing the work of governing that will ultimately define them so they must go for the quick scores and hope that will be sufficient to win enough votes.

It's different for incumbents. They already hold the office they seek, and voters want reasons to justify re–electing incumbents.

There will be three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate before they count the votes on Nov. 6. Winning the election is what matters at this point, and Romney almost certainly could not have been seen as the debate's winner if the general perception had been that he had had a bad night.

Winning the debates — especially the first one — and winning the election are the immediate tasks. The hearts and minds can be won later.

Wednesday night's debate was indisputably more important for Romney than Obama. The polls, whether they are accurate or not, were showing Romney behind Obama nationally and in nearly every so–called "swing state;" if he had been seen as the loser of this debate, I think it would have been almost impossible for him to bounce back and win the election — even if he won the last two debates.

But Romney wasn't seen as the loser in the immediate assessments of Americans who watched the debate.

Now, I am curious to see what the post–debate surveys, which are being conducted as I write this (and sampling probably will continue for a few more days), reveal about the voters' impression.

My gut tells me that, by Sunday or Monday, the overwhelming perception still will be that Romney won the debate with a president who was widely expected to win. I say that because Romney (who had been criticized for being too vague) provided as much detail as a 90–minute debate would allow, he was relaxed and smiling and he even managed to work in a few humorous comments (who woulda guessed that Mitt Romney had a pretty decent sense of humor?).

He made a favorable impression on many voters who had believed much of the negative stuff that was spread about Romney by Obama's campaign.

That may have been the thing that irked Democrats the most — that Obama never really used their favorite (albeit faulty) talking points about who Romney is. Those talking points were completely at odds with what viewers saw and heard.

And, in my experience, when people conclude that they have been deceived about one thing, they become suspicious of other things that are said by that person or whoever is authorized to speak on that person's behalf.

Now, that's largely what I believe happened last night. Conservative commentators had their own interpretations. I share some of their conclusions, and I'm lukewarm on others. Guess that's proof that I really am a centrist.

There have been many theories offered today by Obama's defenders about why the president was "off his game," if he was — and I am not convinced that he was.

Some have suggested that he was simply mindful of the need to uphold the dignity of his office — but, having observed this man in the presidency for more than 3½ years, I simply do not find that plausible.

Others have tried to put the best spin possible on an epically bad debate performance.

Aw, gee, folks, Gail Collins writes in the New York Times. Do debates really matter?

Until last night, my answer would have been "not that much." But, in fact, we don't really have that much to go on. Debates have only been regular parts of presidential elections since 1976.

And I have watched most of them. Believe me, I have seen some pretty bad performances over the years, sometimes by incumbents, but I have never seen an incumbent perform as poorly in a debate as Obama did Wednesday night.

It wasn't really as bad as your eyes and ears told you it was, Jonathan Chait suggests in New York Magazine.

Oh, yes, it was. For viewers who expected to see the scripted, teleprompter–aided president they've watched for the last four years, it was a shock.

Where was Obama, moaned a distraught Chris Matthews.

Former Vice President Al Gore — who knows a few things about presidential debates — theorized that Obama hadn't had enough time to adjust to the altitude of Denver.

I've been to Denver. Yes, the air is thin up there, but I wasn't light–headed or anything like that. It didn't affect my judgment or my coordination. I was able to function normally (of course, I didn't have 67 million people watching me do it, either).

I drove there from Oklahoma, where the altitude is about one–fifth that of Denver. If I suffered any ill effects physically, it probably was from such a long drive.

And I'm pretty certain that Obama didn't have to operate Air Force One when he flew to Denver.

I worked in the newspaper business for many years. I have a lot of experience as a professional journalist, and I know that post mortems on a debate are fun for journalists, especially since one person's theory about why such a gifted speaker as Obama should do so poorly in a debate is as good as another person's.

Frankly, though, I don't really think it was a matter of Obama losing the debate. I think Romney won the debate — substance over style.

No matter what the polls show in the next few days, however, there is still much work to be done by Romney.

But the thing I have been thinking about today is the role of the press in this disaster for the Democrats.

No, I am not going to suggest that there is some sort of liberal conspiracy within the media. I would guess that most of the employees of newspapers or magazines or radio stations or TV networks are liberals — but probably the majority of the owners of those media outlets are conservatives.

And it is the owners who have the real influence.

That leads me to the thing I've been wondering about all day.

When Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised a transparent presidency that would include regular press conferences. But he has delivered precisely the opposite. He seldom answers questions from the White House reporters in a press conference setting, preferring instead to have one–on–one interviews with journalists who could be counted upon to toss him softball questions:
Is the earth round, Mr. President? It is? You are truly wise, blessed with keen insight, Mr. President.

I'm not one of those who wails about media bias because it smacks too much of an allegation of conspiracy, and I don't believe a conspiracy on that kind of scale is possible.

But I do believe a kind of passive acceptance of the progressive narrative of the moment has been going on for the last 3½ years. Many (not all) journalists have treated this president with kid gloves. He has been pampered and has rarely, if ever, been challenged.

I doubt that Obama ever believed he would be challenged within his party for renomination so there was no reason to think he would have to debate anyone the way he had to debate Hillary Clinton. And the debates with John McCain were pretty easy because they were held a few weeks after the economic implosion, and the voters were turning from the party that had been in power for eight years.

The president often complains about the lousy hand he was dealt, but the truth is that the road to the White House would have been a lot rockier for Obama without that implosion. Polls just before the implosion indicated that Obama and McCain were running neck and neck, and there had been symptoms of buyer's remorse among Democrats over the selection of Joe Biden as running mate.

So it had been close to 4½ years since Obama had participated in a debate, and many of his supporters have been pointing that out today. He was simply out of practice, they say.

I think there is some truth in that, but I also believe the give and take of regular presidential press conferences keeps a president on his toes. Apparently, Obama simply decided not to hold press conferences, and the press acquiesced.

The press should have protested this — vigorously. Not because being able to question those in power is essential to a free society — although it is.

And not because regular press conferences would have benefited a president trying to win re–election with a bad economy that was bad when he took office but was made worse when he failed to turn it around in his first term — although they would.

But because many of those in the press have abdicated their responsibility to be the public's watch dog. The press' allegiance is to the citizens of the United States — not to any president, regardless of party affiliation or political ideology.

It is my deep hope that, whoever is elected president, press conferences will become commonplace at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue once again.

The press should insist on it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ike and Joe

It is ironic, in its way, that President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney will meet in the first of three presidential debates tonight.

A debate, I have heard people say, is the one setting in which voters can see candidates for office as they really are — not as their campaigns wish them to be seen.

Some people would have you believe that politicians are different today than they used to be, that a system in which politicians will do or say anything to be elected is some kind of recent phenomenon.

But that is not the case.

If you read the history books, Dwight Eisenhower comes across as a wise leader, reasonable, above the pettiness of traditional politicians, a man whose experience as a warrior sharpened his principles. To an extent, all that is true, but it is not the whole story.

With the considerable benefit of historical hindsight, we know that Eisenhower was elected president in 1952 with more than 55% of the popular vote and more than 80% of the electoral vote. We also know that Eisenhower won Wisconsin with almost 61% of the popular vote.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable that Ike would win — and by a significant margin.

But, on the ground in the fall of 1952, before anyone had cast a ballot, all political observers knew was what had happened in recent years. After two decades of Democrat control of the White House, no one knew what to expect even though the Truman administration was deeply unpopular, and the state of Wisconsin, once a mostly reliable Republican state, had voted Republican only once in national elections since the stock market crashed in 1929.

State elections were a different story. In the race for the U.S. Senate in 1946, Republican Joseph McCarthy had been elected. In the course of that six–year term, McCarthy launched his search for Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the U.S. government, and he was seeking re–election in 1952.

The Eisenhower campaign apparently felt it would be a good idea to have Ike align himself with the popular McCarthy, but the problem was that Eisenhower's basic philosophy and McCarthy's differed wildly.

They were not, to put it mildly, compatible. Yet Eisenhower chose not to use the occasion to come to the defense of his friend and colleague, General George C. Marshall, who had been frequently criticized by McCarthy.

(McCarthy had often spoken of the "20 years of treason" of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies, and he didn't hesitate to label Marshall a traitor.

(McCarthy later amended his timeline to include the early years of Eisenhower's administration.)

A defense of Marshall had been part of the initial drafts of a speech Eisenhower was to deliver in Green Bay, but he left it out of the final draft at the urging of supporters who were afraid he might lose Wisconsin if he was seen as quarreling in public with McCarthy.

A New York Times reporter discovered what had been done, and an article appeared in the Times, prompting considerable criticism of Ike for abandoning his principles — and his friend.

Most of the time, Eisenhower treated his allies and adversaries the same — respectfully — but McCarthy's approach was to intimidate his foes via accusation. Absence of proof — and there was a lot of that — did not deter him one bit.

Eisenhower went on to receive even more votes in Wisconsin than McCarthy did, and many Republicans hoped McCarthy would be muzzled by the GOP's new authority in Washington, but Eisenhower, never one of McCarthy's admirers, declined to confront him.

Supposedly, Eisenhower didn't want to "get down in the gutter with that guy" because he felt that a public rebuke by the president would be giving McCarthy precisely what he wanted.

But if he had shown the political courage to confront McCarthy, he might have spared the nation McCarthy's later excesses on the national stage.