Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Quest for a 'New Day for America'

"[M]ay we ... just quietly and silently — each in our own way — pray for our country? And may we just share for a moment a few of those immortal words of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi — words which I think may help heal the wounds and lift our hearts? Listen to this immortal saint: 'Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light.' Those are the words of a saint. And may those of us of less purity listen to them well. And may America tonight resolve that never, never again shall we see what we have seen."

Vice President Hubert Humphrey
Chicago, Aug. 29, 1968

Hubert Humphrey faced a difficult task 45 years ago tonight. In hindsight, it was probably an impossible one.

By nature a man of peace, the vice president had to deliver his speech accepting the Democratic Party's presidential nomination against the backdrop of chaos in the streets of the host city, Chicago, and the broader backdrops of a war in Vietnam that was growing increasingly unpopular and a crime–plagued nation.

"After its days of turbulence and excitement," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "no speech could have pulled the Democratic convention together except a masterpiece ..."

Humphrey, White observed, tried to do the impossible — rewrite his speech (which had been crafted in the weeks and months leading up to the convention) in the days and hours before he was scheduled to deliver it. The "Happy Warrior" wanted to offer a message of healing and unity, not merely rehashes of old talking points.

But even before the turbulence of Chicago, that was something that was easier said than done, given the fact that, as the vice president, Humphrey was expected to be supportive of the administration — even though he disagreed with the administration on several aspects of the conduct of the war. So, too, did many of the delegates — and millions of Americans watching on TV.

After the clashes between demonstrators and the Chicago police earlier that week, the task became even more daunting, but Humphrey knew that both the delegates in the convention hall and Americans watching on TV would expect to hear him speak about peace in a context that encompassed not only the war but deteriorating relations between and respect for fellow Americans.

"A man of more native eloquence than any of his advisers," White wrote, "Humphrey might, had he had time, have created the required masterpiece. But he had no time."

Ah, yes, time. It was running out on the Democrats. And Humphrey did not produce the necessary masterpiece.

In August 1968, Gallup reported for the first — but not the last — time that the share of Americans who responded "no" when asked if the United States had made a mistake sending troops to Vietnam was less than 40%.

Three years earlier, the share of Americans who said "no" to that question was 61%. The pro–war administration of which Humphrey had been a part for more than 3½ years was losing ground on war and peace — and that issue, more than anything else, would decide who won the election.

It was the growing opposition to the war that had sparked the riots in the first place. One can only wonder how much worse they would have been if Lyndon Johnson had been in town to accept the nomination. But he had withdrawn from the campaign in March, making it necessary to nominate someone else, and the logical someone else was Johnson's second in command.

But Humphrey's convention was being tarnished by violence in the streets. Was there anything he could say to erase that image from the voters' memories?

Humphrey had chosen as his second in command Ed Muskie, senator from Maine, and Muskie did his best to energize the delegates.

But Humphrey, who called for a "new day for America" in his speech, awoke the next day to more of the same.

"Whatever hope there was ... rested on the belief that words can soothe, that words can heal, that words carry a message," White wrote.

Actions speak louder than words, my mother told me when I was small, and the actions in Chicago spoke louder than any words Humphrey could speak.

At some point in the predawn hours of the final night of the convention, something apparently was thrown from one of the floors of the hotel where Eugene McCarthy's campaign operation was based — which led to an inevitable clash between the students who made up most of McCarthy's staff and the Chicago police, who were understandably weary from a week of confrontations and, apparently, acted independently of any chain of command.

What America saw on its TV screens was more of the same — young people being beaten by police — and America's voters would decide that they wanted a change.

"[W]hen Humphrey's campaign began with a sickening lurch," wrote historian William Manchester, "his admirers despaired."

Perhaps they knew what was coming.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Work That Remains to be Done

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Martin Luther King
Aug. 28, 1963

The headline on a recent Pittsburgh Post–Gazette editorial read: "Fifty years ago common Americans made history."

I know what the headline writer was trying to say, but, if I had been there, I would have suggested changing "common" to a different word — "average," perhaps, or "ordinary." Because what happened 50 years ago today was extraordinary. There probably isn't a better word to describe it. (Uncommon may be appropriate, but it doesn't seem adequate.)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial half a century ago today.

And, since last Friday or Saturday, there is no telling how many times portions of it have been cited by others — or, better still, the entire thing has been seen, thanks to the enduring miracle of film and video tape. There truly is a timeless quality to it.

Jenny Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison News writes that "it still has an impact" on listeners today, and I'd have to agree with that. On several occasions, I have watched film of the speech with people who had never seen it before, and they never fail to be inspired by it.

It has been quoted countless times, probably most often on King's birthday but on other occasions as well — and I'm sure it will be quoted in hundreds, if not thousands, of commemorations of the speech's 50th anniversary.

Commemorations of King's speech have been under way at least since last weekend, and I am sure it already has been quoted many times in connection with that.

Thousands of people gathered to commemorate the occasion in Washington last weekend. I don't know if they listened to a recording of the speech or watched a video tape of it, but its message was very much on their minds.

On this day in 1963, King was the last of many speakers on what was a sweltering summer day in Washington, and he was introduced as "the moral leader of our nation." Most Americans probably knew who he was by the time he delivered that speech during the March on Washington. Those who didn't almost certainly knew who he was after he gave it.

I don't know how many people will be in Washington today. I do know that a lot will be going on there, and this milestone anniversary seems sure to draw a crowd at least as big as the one that heard King speak 50 years ago. As the Associated Press reported, "Marchers began arriving early Saturday. ... By midday, tens of thousands had gathered on the National Mall."

And that was more than four days ago.

The speech is known, as I say, as the "I Have a Dream" speech, and it is called that as if it was written and shaped and crafted lovingly for weeks, if not months, before it was given, which much of it was, but the truly remarkable thing about it is that the most frequently quoted portion of it was largely improvised. It was not part of the prepared text.

"That part of his speech was an idea King had used in previous speeches," writes the Washington Post. "King, an experienced preacher by then, added it as he sensed the crowd's mood.

"As the final speaker on the long summer day, King wanted to leave the crowd revved up. To do that, he began repeating himself again."

That, the Post informs readers, is a speaker's device known as anaphora, and it can be effective. In the hands of a gifted orator, it can be very effective.

After all these years, the speech really needs no additional hype. In the last half century, it may have been quoted more frequently than any other speech from any period in American history — more often than John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" or FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself" or even Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago."

As the century drew to a close, the speech was voted the top speech of the 20th century.

"For King," wrote Theodore White, "1963 was the year to move. ... [B]ecause it was a century from the Emancipation Proclamation and Negroes were still held in servile condition; because it was almost a decade from the Supreme Court's 1954 decision on school desegregation and the glacial pace of desegregation had been tragically disappointing; because all over Africa in the previous decade black men had reached self–expression under their own leadership; because ... the movement he led as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had found, as he call[ed] it, 'its undergirding philosophy' of nonviolence."

There was an interesting dynamic that could be seen at work in the black community in those days. Part of black America believed that patience really is a virtue, and patience would yield lasting results, but there were those who said patience had produced nothing, and they urged violence as a way of achieving what nonviolence seemed to have failed to achieve.

But King did not advocate violence when he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago today — or at any other time in his life. His towering oratory, both 50 years ago today and throughout his life, sought to elevate all who heard it.

And his words continued to elevate, even after, about five years later, violence took King's life.

That was a truly dark time in America's history — a time when, ironically, King's message of nonviolent protest was briefly eclipsed by greater violence in America's cities as black Americans, even many who had supported a nonviolent approach, reacted to King's murder by lashing out in a blind rage.

But, in many ways in the last half–century, things have changed. Probably not as quickly as many hoped, but that is simply human nature, which King understood. Change comes slowly but surely — or, as King himself put it, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Historians disagree over whether King or someone else said that first, but it probably does not matter. It was a reflection of what King believed and consistently advocated.

I grew up in the South, and, in my then–small Arkansas hometown, I remember seeing segregation. It wasn't as pervasive in Arkansas as it was in states in the Deep South, but it was there.

I was too young to read so I don't know if there were signs that said "white only" or "colored only" above drinking fountains or on restroom doors, but I remember seeing blacks confined to a single section in the balcony of the town's only movie theater, and, when I started school, my first–grade class was the first incoming group in the history of my hometown to be integrated, even though it was much more than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Change does come slowly; nevertheless, as the New York Post wrote in a recent editorial on the anniversary of King's speech, "There's no denying the progress that has been made since 1963 — beginning with the fact that a black man is now president of the United States, something King himself likely never expected to see."

With reservations, I agree with that, but I also believe that one of the great failings of the Obama presidency — and I think history ultimately will agree with me — is that he has been preoccupied with electoral success and has used race primarily for political gain rather than to unite alienated groups.

Perhaps that would have been an unintended consequence of electing the first black president, no matter who he/she turned out to be. Maybe the first black president needed to be re–elected to thoroughly establish the historical credibility of a black president — most presidents, after all, have not been elected twice, and re–election is generally regarded as one of the marks of a successful presidency — and that, once that particular color line or glass ceiling (or whatever the current popular terminology for it may be) was shattered, the next black president could get down to the serious business of leading.

Perhaps that is how history works. I don't know.

I do know that today, when a member of any group is not permitted to eat where others eat or shop where others shop, it becomes a national news story, and the owner of the business is targeted for public ridicule and shame.

That is progress. Or is it?

It is also a national story when a celebrity admits using a racial slur decades ago and is viciously attacked as a "racist."

I definitely do not believe that is progress — I don't know anyone who can justify everything he/she said or did 30 years ago — and I don't believe King would think it was progress, either. His vision called for equal treatment for all, not preferential treatment for some and discriminatory treatment for others. He saw that all around him, and he knew it wasn't fair.

(Here is an example from my own life. It may or may not be relevant. I'll leave that to you to decided.

(My father went back to school at the age of 48 to study architecture. Up to that time, he had been fulfilling his parents' vision for him to be a teacher, but they were both gone, and he made the decision to study the subject that really had been his first love. I remember asking him about that once, and he replied, "Why should I commit the rest of my life to a decision that was made by an 18–year–old?"

(I think King would have a similar approach to someone who used a derogatory word three decades ago but has not made a habit of it.)

Regardless of which group benefits and which does not, any kind of preferential treatment contradicts the message of King's life. I think he would see swapping discriminatory treatment of groups not as moving forward but more of a lateral move — if not a step backward.

As a Southerner, I have frequently acknowledged the terrible things that happened here before I was born and even when I was a child, but I also know that many things have changed. There is still work to be done, but it was never the work of this region alone. Because of its more notorious past, the South repeatedly has been made the scapegoat for a nation's sins.

As the Post says of the changes in America since King gave his most famous speech,
"[he] would be pleased, but we doubt he'd be content to leave it at that. As he told those marchers: 'We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York has nothing for which to vote.' In other words, civil rights was not exclusively a Southern issue."

Over the years, I have had the impression that the South has been America's whipping boy for racism for which people in every region share guilt.

It is just (and I'm about to use a word here that one never hears associated with racism, but I'm going to use it, anyway, in the hope that you, dear reader, will grasp the meaning beneath the surface) a more honest kind of racism in the South.

I'll grant you that honest is a strange word to use in connection with racism, but, please, hear me out. I'm not saying that racism is, in any way, good or honest, but I am speaking about the ways racism is expressed.

My sense has been that there are many people in the North and the West and the East who are every bit as racist as anyone I ever encountered in the South — and I have been to most of the states east of the Mississippi River and several of the states west of it — but they keep their racism hidden, cloaked in the language they use and policies that they say are the same for everyone but really aren't.

I teach in a community college these days. I have many different kinds of students in my classrooms, and I can tell from what I overhear them saying to each other that they take it for granted that they will be allowed to eat in any eatery they choose or shop in any store they choose — or attend any school they choose.

I've been teaching at this community college for more than three years now, and, frankly, I originally expected to hear stories about students (or their friends or relatives) being denied the right to vote, but I haven't overheard anyone talking about that.

Perhaps, I have pondered, young people don't vote with any more frequency than they did when I was a young person. But then I think, that can't be true, not when you consider the credit that young voters received for the two Obama elections.

So maybe their silence on the subject means they take the right to vote for granted. If anyone was prevented from voting, that might spark a conversation, and, I conclude, if I don't hear anything, that must be seen as a sign of progress toward the fulfillment of the American vision, right? Well, perhaps, but, nevertheless, as the Post writes, "we still have a ways to go."

I still hear stories from some of my students about being stopped by the police for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin, and I know there is still work to be done. Profiling is only one aspect of it. As a crime–solving tool, profiling is essential, but, when misapplied, whether deliberately or not, it can breed distrust among people it is intended to protect.

"When we look at the high unemployment rates for African–Americans in our city, for example, or the way our public schools are failing our African–American children," says the Post, "we know the civil–rights challenges are real and continuing.

"Fifty years after King's dream, we should also have learned that none of these challenges are beyond the ability of an America serious about resolving them."

Joshua DuBois of Newsweek writes, "Instead of being in a state of perpetual struggle, an endless existential march, I believe there is far more evidence to support the idea that we are right on the verge of Zion. And the only thing that will stop us from getting there is the hopeless belief that we can't."

Here is what I believe: The reason why any progress has been made in the last 50 years was Americans were mostly united, not divided, when it happened.

It was with a shared sense of purpose that Americans have risen to any occasion and met every challenge — so far.

"United we stand, divided we fall" is as old as the Scriptures (albeit in somewhat different language), which may be why King, a minister, recognized its value for effecting true and meaningful change while most politicians do not.

King's dream is not dead. It has not been completely fulfilled, but enough of it has been accomplished to make Americans confident that we are moving in the right direction.

Yes, there is still work to be done, but America has always been a work in progress.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Chaos in Chicago

"The confrontation was not created by the police; the confrontation was created by the people who charged the police.

"Gentlemen, let's get the thing straight, once and for all. The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley
August 1968

I think it is fair to say that America in 1968 was a nation mired in a malaise.

It had not been an uplifting year. It began with the Tet offensive in Vietnam that showed everyone how easily the Viet Cong could penetrate the grounds of an American military post.

In the months ahead, first Martin Luther King and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated and then, a week before the Democrats were scheduled to hold their convention and nominate their presidential candidate, Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia.

And through it all were the demonstrations. They never seemed to end. Most of the demonstrations were against the war in Vietnam, but others were focused on other things — racial injustice, sexual injustice, the "gap" between the generations.

If there was one thing on which the average American could depend, it was that each night's news report would have something about a demonstration for or against something somewhere.

There would be some uplifting moments later in the year, but 45 years ago today, there wasn't much for anyone to be happy about.

The Democrats were holding their 1968 national convention in Chicago. There was important business on the agenda — the nominations for president and vice president took center stage, but there was unrest in the land as well. A sizable portion of the population had soured on American involvement in Vietnam, crime seemed to be out of control, and racial discord could be seen in every major American city.

Perhaps no one summed up the scene better than historian Theodore H. White in his book, "The Making of the President 1968."

"A contagion of madness, a sense of helplessness, a sickening loss of control denying order and identity to all, had been spreading" prior to the start of the convention, he wrote.

By the second day of the convention — 45 years ago today — nearly all of Chicago "slept peacefully and went to work tranquilly," White observed, "[b]ut, politically, the contagion had begun to flush and agitate downtown Chicago with high fever."

Chicago, in August 1968, was about to put on display, for the whole world to see, a microcosm of the division that gripped America.

It was probably inevitable that there would be a clash between the dissatisfied (i.e., radical) elements of American society and the Chicago police, who represented (in the public's eyes) the establishment. Both were moving into place like planets forming a celestial line, the immoveable object and the irresistible force.

Something had to give.

I watched it unfold on TV, I heard Abraham Ribicoff accuse the Chicago police of "Gestapo tactics," and I asked my parents what was happening, but they never found the words to explain it all. I guess it was too complicated for a child to comprehend.

Actually, it was pretty hard for adults to comprehend, too. My parents had trouble explaining it to me, and I always figured that meant they didn't understand everything, either.

I remember that my father got frustrated and stopped trying to explain. In hindsight, it seems like that scene was replayed in many households around that time. And that was the thing that stood out about the Vietnam era, I suppose — very little seemed to make sense, and, consequently, very little could be adequately explained.

To be sure, it was a surreal scene. There was chaos outside the convention hall, but there was chaos within as well. CBS newsmen Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were roughed up by security guards on live television. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite observed, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here."

Viewers clearly got the sense they were watching actual muggings — in living color, to use the popular broadcasters' phrase of the time.

Outside the hall, police were beating demonstrators in the streets. There was a lot of what appeared to be smoke, but it was probably tear gas. There was commotion in Grant Park, where Barack Obama would celebrate his first election as president 40 years later.

While the nation and the world watched on TV, demonstrators retreated to Grant Park and re–formed, chanting "Sieg heil" or "Stop the war!" over and over as they protested under the watchful eyes of the broadcast media.

As Tuesday became Wednesday, other groups joined with the original group — and the folks watching at home saw total mayhem in the streets and at the convention hall, which journalist Terry Southern described as "a military installation; barbed wire, checkpoints, the whole bit."

The Walker Report described what took place in Chicago as a "police riot."

And the sight of the chaos in the streets of Chicago — compared to the relative calm of the Republicans' convention in Miami a few weeks earlier — may well have played an important role in Richard Nixon's eventual victory in November.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Passing of a 'Giant' Among Journalists

"Before politics was fed into computers and moveable maps came out, Jack Germond had it all in his head."

Walter Mears
Former Associated Press reporter

Journalist Jack Germond, who died last week, was, in the words of colleague Jules Witcover, "a giant" of American journalism.

Many years ago, I read — for the first time — "Marathon," the book Witcover and Germond co–authored on the 1976 presidential campaign. I have read it several times since, each time with greater admiration.

The task was something of a marathon itself. The campaign was legendary at the time because the eventual winner, Jimmy Carter, had been running for a couple of years and, in that time, had risen from virtual obscurity to the presidency.

But you couldn't really tell the story of that campaign without going into a certain amount of detail on the Watergate scandal and the resignation of the man who won the previous presidential election, Richard Nixon.

So, whereas historian Theodore White had the luxury of writing about a single year — and, perhaps, a portion of another — in his groundbreaking accounts of presidential elections from 1960 to 1972, Witcover and Germond had to write about virtually the entire four–year period between the 1972 and 1976 elections.

They also had to write about something that was new in presidential politics at that time. Carter rose to prominence in large part because, unlike previous presidential hopefuls who chose to enter some primaries but not others, Carter ran everywhere. Germond and Witcover chronicled that development meticulously.

Nixon probably was the last president to take the traditional route to the White House. His campaigns in 1968 and 1972 were the transition from old–style presidential politics, in which nominations were decided by delegates who were handpicked by party elites, to modern presidential politics, in which the popular vote in primary elections tends to determine how a state's delegation will vote at the national convention.

And Witcover and Germond were there to report on it — for their contemporaries and the generations to follow.

"Jack was a truly dedicated reporter and had an old–fashioned relationship with politicians," Witcover told the Baltimore Sun. "He liked them, but that did not prevent him from being critical when they did bad things and behaved badly."

Journalists like Germond achieved a new influence on American politics during the transition of which Germond wrote. He was, in the words of NPR's David Folkenflik, "one of the reporters who helped to determine presidential winners and losers."

Howard Kurtz echoed Witcover's sentiment.

"Germond ... was a throwback in more ways than one," Kurtz wrote for Fox News, "a poker–playing, racetrack–dwelling, Falstaffian figure who would close down the bar at New Hampshire's Wayfarer Inn, then be up at 7 the next morning interviewing county chairmen."

Ah, yes, the horse racing thing. That is another passion I shared with Germond. I don't know how Germond came by it.

I've always enjoyed horse racing, but I discovered a true passion for it when I worked as a copy editor for the Arkansas Gazette's sports department.

I don't know if Germond ever did any better than I did at the track. I hope he did.

I do know that he achieved things in journalism I probably will never achieve. And I'm all right with that.

Because there aren't many Jack Germonds — maybe one or two — in a lifetime.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Read My Lips

Twenty–five years ago tonight, George H.W. Bush delivered his first presidential nomination acceptance speech.

He had delivered two vice presidential acceptance speeches — when he was nominated to be Ronald Reagan's running mate. But this was his first presidential nomination acceptance speech.

He may well have won the presidency — and simultaneously doomed his re–election bid — with a single pledge he made in the convention hall in New Orleans — "Read my lips. No new taxes." The polls wouldn't reflect the shift in popular support until a few weeks later, but I have no doubt that what Bush said on this night 25 years ago played a significant role in his eventual triumph.

It clearly played a role in his defeat four years later.

I understood why he said it, and I understood why he broke his promise as president.

To put this into historical perspective, the American voters had not given the presidency to the nominees of the same party in three straight elections since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

Until that time, it happened fairly regularly; FDR himself was elected president in four straight elections. But since World War II, voters had not stayed with the same party in more than two consecutive elections — no matter how popular the incumbent was.

In 1988, the general consensus was that Reagan could have won a third term if he had been permitted to run. But he was limited to the two terms he had served.

That left the Republican nomination up for grabs, and Bush did as every incumbent president or vice president (when the president was prohibited from doing so) had done for more than 35 years — he sought his party's nomination. But so did others, including Sen. Bob Dole (who would be his party's nominee eight years later).

Although he had been vice president under Reagan for eight years, Bush had never persuaded the party's conservatives that he was really one of them. Not when Reagan — grudgingly — named Bush as his running mate in 1980.

Not even in his eight years of loyal service as vice president (during which Bush frequently supported policies he had opposed as a candidate for the GOP nomination in 1980) did he earn their support, let alone their respect.

He felt he had made a gesture to that wing of the party when, in what was widely called his first presidential–level decision, he chose Dan Quayle to be his running mate, but it had been met with ridicule.

So when it came time to deliver his acceptance speech, he needed something that would stir up the conservatives, a line that would remind them of Reagan and, at the same time, show them that Bush had learned some things as Reagan's apprentice and was ready to assume command.

"I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent now says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into. 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.' "

That "Read my lips: no new taxes" thing was a good line, written by speech writer Peggy Noonan, who had crafted some winning speeches for Reagan during his presidency.

"It was a strong, decisive, bold statement," wrote TIME in 2008, "and you don't need a history degree to see where this is going."

No, you didn't. After Bush made his speech, the poll numbers began to turn in his favor — and the previously unthinkable, that Bush would defeat Dukakis, started to seem possible.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dan Quayle's Coming-Out Party

Twenty–five years ago today, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana was introduced as Vice President George H.W. Bush's choice for a running mate.

And the focus at the Republican convention in New Orleans shifted almost immediately from speculation about the identity of Bush's running mate to skepticism of the choice.

"This was supposed to be his showcase week," lamented Ed Rollins, manager of the 1984 Reagan–Bush campaign that carried 49 states.

Rollins wasn't the only alarmed Republican. About a month earlier, just after the Democrats' convention, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis led Bush by 17 points.

By the time the voters went to the polls in November, Bush had overtaken Dukakis and wound up winning by 12 points, perhaps the most remarkable reversal in presidential politics in modern times.

But on this day in 1988 — and in the days that followed — there was considerable gloom in Republican circles and considerable glee in Democratic ones.

Most presidential tickets get some kind of bounce — even a modest one — from their party's convention, and the Bush–Quayle ticket did get a lift.

But there were doubts it would happen while the convention was in progress. And even after polls began to report that the shift was occurring, there were those who believed it wouldn't last.

The Republican gathering in New Orleans was supposed to present the "real" George Bush to the American people. With his announcement 25 years ago today that Quayle would be his running mate, the "real" George Bush may well have been revealed — for good or ill.

It certainly showed his sensitivity to public perception.

By 1988, there were growing concerns about the age of the team leading the executive branch. Outgoing President Ronald Reagan was in his late 70s, and Bush was in his 60s.

There were those who said the Republican Party needed to present a younger face to attract younger voters. I always felt that Bush's selection of Quayle was a clear indication that the vice president was listening to those voices.

"I'm proud to have Dan Quayle at my side," Bush would say — and I am certain there were times in the next four years when Bush regretted making that statement almost as much he must have regretted the "no new taxes" pledge he made a couple of nights later.

Although I often disagreed with Bush, I had to admit that I admired the facts that he didn't pass the buck on his tax reversal, and he stood by his vice president in spite of frequent suggestions that what his campaign for re–election really needed was a new running mate.

When Quayle was introduced as Bush's running mate 25 years ago today — and two days later, when he accepted the nomination — he was whooping and hollering and bouncing around like a preschooler on a sugar binge.

His performances invited ridicule from the late–night TV guys and contributed to the general perception that he wasn't especially bright.

That perception hardened as the nominees entered the fall campaign. Quayle had his debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen for which to prepare; that debate is remembered, of course, for Quayle's comparison of his political experience to that of John F. Kennedy when he sought the presidency nearly 30 years before and Bentsen's rebuttal that Quayle was "no Jack Kennedy."

But even before that debate, Quayle was contributing to his own poor public image by making remarks like this — "The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. No, not our nation's, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century, but in this century's history" — at a mid–September press conference.

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine that Bush reversed his fortunes with that convention. But he did, or at least he began the process, and it really had nothing to do with Quayle. It had a lot more to do with the famous pledge not to raise taxes that he made in his acceptance speech. That was what the delegates wanted to hear.

It had a lot to do with the fact that Reagan was a popular president who couldn't seek a third term. As far as most of the voters were concerned in 1988, the lesser half of the Reagan–Bush ticket was better than nothing.

And it didn't matter to them who his running mate was. Sure, Quayle was a nuisance and a bit of an embarrassment, but that wasn't particularly important.

The Democrats tried to make Quayle an issue in the '88 campaign, but it didn't really take until four years later — after 3½ years of Quayle's verbal missteps in office.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

On Transparency and 'Phony Scandals'

"My [a]dministration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in [g]overnment. ... Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their [g]overnment is doing."

Barack Obama
White House memorandum

Mark this date in red — Aug. 9, 2013.

That was the day Barack Obama held his most recent press conference — and I'm talking about the kind of press conference where the president actually takes questions from the press instead of ducking in to pontificate about some topic that really is beneath the attention of the president and then ducking out before anyone in the press corps has time to ask a question.

When I was growing up, presidents used press conferences (and primetime speeches) to keep the American public informed — especially during national crises. Presidents didn't always hold them any more often than Obama does, but they dealt with substantive topics, and they didn't allow reporters who were perceived as friendly to the administration to ask all or most of the questions.

But Obama, who was pledging to have a "transparent" presidency before he took the oath of office the first time, doesn't have press conferences very often. Oh, sure, he appears in joint press conferences with foreign leaders and other dignitaries with whom he dined and/or conferred in private — in fact, so far, that accounts for more than half of the press conferences he has held since becoming president.

And he does appear to favor those who don't ask him the tough, watchdog–type of questions over those who do, granting access to the lapdogs.

According to the American Presidency Project, Obama averages fewer than two press conferences per month — a pace that certainly would be lower if his first year in office had been like the last four.

As it is, his average is far lower than any president in the last quarter century — and it is lower than any Democratic president (other than Jimmy Carter) since World War I.

Given the turmoil in the Middle East and the fact that the administration had closed more than 20 diplomatic outposts in the region, I would classify this as a crisis — although I'm inclined to think that most days under Obama's watch have been crises.

Consequently, it would have been a good time to explain to the American people what was going on.

It was ironic, too, that Obama should hold his press conference on that particular day — and in that particular location, the East Room of the White House. Thirty–nine years earlier — to the day and in the same room — President Richard Nixon made his farewell address to the White House staff, then departed shortly before Vice President Gerald Ford took the oath of office.

But it isn't so much the frequency (or lack thereof) of Obama's press conferences that concerns me as it is the content.

And that, I must conclude, is not so much the president's fault as it is the journalists'. I'm willing to concede the possibility that, in private, Obama encourages reporters to ask him tougher questions, but I do not get the sense that that is the case. Instead, I get the feeling that Obama rewards friendly journalists with access and denies access to the less–friendly ones.

(Reminiscent of Nixon's famed enemies list.)

In last week's press conference, somebody in the White House press corps should have asked Obama to identify which of the scandals that have plagued the White House in 2013 are "phony" and why he believes that is so? I think it is a legitimate question, given how often Obama has referred to "phony scandals" (and elicited wildly approving cheers from his supporters) in his never–ending campaign for Obamacare.

But no one asked the question.

Obama is entitled to believe that a topic being discussed in public is "phony" — but I do not believe that he or any other president should be allowed to make such an allegation without being held accountable for it.

That, unfortunately, is what is being allowed to happen. Everything that Obama says, no matter how outrageous it may be, goes unquestioned by the press, and, as a journalist, I am embarrassed by what I see.

Now, Obama isn't the first president to make outrageous statements — nor will he be the last — so I can't really fault him for that. And he isn't the first — nor will he be the last — to make outrageous statements that have gone unchallenged so I can't really fault him for that, either.

Nor can I fault him for not asking the press to throw him some fastballs when he was having so much success driving the softballs they kept lobbing to him out of the park.

But I can and do fault the press for utterly failing to do its job.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Introducing the 'New' Nixon

On this night 45 years ago, Richard Nixon delivered his second presidential nomination acceptance speech. He had been presenting himself as a "new Nixon" — which meant (presumably) that he had changed since the last time he sought the presidency in 1960 — and his speech on this night in 1968 was his opportunity to make his case to the American people.

Neither Nixon nor anyone who listened to him speak could have known that a burglary that wouldn't happen for nearly four years would lead him to make a very different kind of speech on precisely the same date six years later.

On this night in 1968, Nixon used the word "new" some two dozen times in his speech — most frequently with the word "leadership."

There was a genuine yearning for new in America in 1968. The war in Vietnam had been losing support steadily since Walter Cronkite delivered his commentary on the war in February (in which he famously declared that the United States was "mired in a stalemate" and could not win).

People on both sides of the fence were dissatisfied with how things were going in Southeast Asia. You could see the defections in the declining poll numbers — in support of the war and in support of the administration that was conducting it.

Just about every other policy was satisfying no one. Race riots had occurred in just about every major city. Crime was seen as out of control. Environmental policy was under fire.

Many people think America today is a polarized nation. But it really can't compare to the America of 1968.

Nixon told the Republican delegates — and the folks watching at home — 45 years ago tonight that it was time for "new leadership."

That kind of appeal — or something like it — is typically made by the nominee of the out–of–power party. But when Nixon ran in 1960, he represented the party that had been in power for the previous eight years, and he had no real choice but to defend the policies of the Eisenhower administration of which he had been (and still was) a part — even the policies with which he may have disagreed.

He couldn't very well appeal for new leadership when he had been part of the old leadership.

Nevertheless, defending the Eisenhower administration probably wasn't such a hard thing to do. In the fall of 1960, Gallup consistently reported that President Eisenhower's approval ratings were in the upper 50s.

In 1968, after eight years of Democratic rule, Nixon was running as the challenger. He was freed from the yoke that incumbency can be. He was his own man, a "new" Nixon, and he wanted everyone to know it.

Eight years earlier, Nixon had not taken advantage of the asset the popular Eisenhower had been until the final weeks of the campaign. It was believed by many that Ike made a difference, helping Nixon close the gap nationally and in several states. Had it not been for Eisenhower, the 1960 campaign might not have been as close as it was.

It was very close, one of the closest presidential elections in this country's history, but Nixon came up short.

In 1968, Nixon was destined for another cliffhanger, but he would face it as his own man, no longer beholden to Eisenhower although Nixon did make a personal appeal to the delegates on Ike's behalf. Eisenhower was in Walter Reed Hospital when Nixon delivered his speech, and the former vice president implored the delegates to "win this one for Ike!"

Nixon was already confident of victory — or, at least, he seemed to be. He assured the delegates there was a distinction between his 1960 campaign and his 1968 campaign. "This time we're going to win," he said.

I don't know if he truly believed that, but he was convincing — in his way.

Nixon went on to explain to the delegates and the viewers at home why that was so. "My fellow Americans," Nixon continued, "we are going to win because our cause is right. We make history tonight — not for ourselves but for the ages. The choice we make in 1968 will determine not only the future of America but the future of peace and freedom in the world for the last third of the 20th century."

As Nixon outlined what he saw as the challenges facing America, he said, "[L]et us begin by committing ourselves to the truth — to see it like it is and tell it like it is — to find the truth, to speak the truth and to live the truth — that's what we will do. ... The time has come for honest government in the United States of America."

Ironic, considering the legacy of lies the Nixon administration ultimately would leave behind.

There wasn't really anything new in Nixon's speech, historian Theodore H. White wrote. "[T]hose who had followed [Nixon] could transmit, at the end of every 10th sentence, the tested punchline. What was new was context and frame. He was saying exactly what he thought: it was to be the campaign of a conservative but not the radical conservatism of Barry Goldwater driving from the party all those who disagreed; it was a centrist conservatism, inviting both extremes to a unifying moderation."

The American people, desperate for honesty in government after being repeatedly deceived in the Vietnam years — and some, perhaps, believing Nixon when he said he was a "new" Nixon — responded to Nixon's call.

And that, too, is ironic because, six years later — to the day — Nixon announced that he would resign, revealing that there never was a "new" Nixon — just the old one in disguise.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Mysterious Death of Warren Harding

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence

Today is a milestone anniversary of a presidential death that is still shrouded in mystery.

No, I am not speaking of the Kennedy assassination.

Here in Dallas, we know (or most of us do) that this year is the 50th anniversary of that assassination — which is, of course, still a subject for debate, but this year it seems to be even more of an industry than usual (until just recently, the city was taking applications for free tickets for people who want to be in Dealey Plaza at the precise moment on November 22 — 50 years later, of course — when the president was shot).

Before we turn our full attention to that anniversary, let us pause for a minute or two to think about another presidential death that happened 90 years ago today.

I'm speaking of Warren Harding, America's 29th president, of whom H.L. Mencken wrote
"He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Based on what I have read of President Harding, he was an amiable, well–meaning individual, but he was also someone who was easily manipulated.

He was a journalist by trade and had a relaxed management style as publisher of a newspaper in Marion, Ohio. It has been said that, in some 30 years as the newspaper's publisher, Harding never fired anyone. He seemed to like people, and they liked him. But, as I say, there were those in his administration who took advantage of him.

On Aug. 2, 1923, President Harding died of an apparent heart attack in San Francisco. But there were suspicions at the time of other causes — and those suspicions have lingered. It might have been a stroke, some thought, or it might have been ptomaine poisoning.

Or it might have been a deliberate act.

Harding had been on a speaking tour of the western United States that summer. It could have been anything, people said at the time — heat, food, whatever — and an autopsy would have clarified things considerably. But, as Kennesaw State professor Russell Aiuto observes at Crime Library, there was no autopsy. The president's widow, Florence Harding, would not allow it.

"Within an hour of [Harding's] death, he was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed and in his casket," Aiuto writes. "By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C."

That got suspicious tongues wagging. Think the Kennedy assassination is awash in conspiracy theories? For nearly a century now, Harding's death has variously been attributed to natural causes, negligent homicide, suicide and murder. There is a solution to suit every taste.

President Warren Harding and
Vice President Calvin Coolidge

Natural causes is supported by the knowledge that, as Aiuto observes, Harding "lived the fat–filled, tobacco–infused and alcohol–drenched life of early 20th Century America with gusto." There are indications that Harding suffered from coronary artery disease that went undiagnosed and, consequently, untreated.

Negligent homicide had its defenders, too — like one of Harding's physicians, who believed Harding could have been saved had it not been for medical treatment he had been given, treatment that would have been effective if Harding suffered from indigestion but not effective for angina.

Then there have been suggestions that Harding may have killed himself.

It seems to be beyond dispute that Harding was despondent, presumably about Cabinet members whose conduct was under fire, during his tour of the West. And his behavior during that time prompted questions at the very least. He had made out a new will before leaving Washington in June. He sold his newspaper, which he had owned and published for decades, a few weeks earlier — and for far less than its value.

But suicide seems less likely when one considers that the signs pointed to his intention to seek re–election the next year.

That brings us to the last prospect, murder. Like the current occupant of the Oval Office, Harding's administration was beset by numerous scandals, any one of which could have led to homicide.

Even Mrs. Harding has been mentioned as a suspect. A book that was written by a man with a checkered past and published several years after her husband's death alleged that Mrs. Harding had two motives: 1) to save his reputation by having him die while he was at his most popular, and 2) to get even with him for his extramarital affairs, especially one that supposedly produced an illegitimate child.

Mrs. Harding died a year after her husband so it wasn't possible for her to defend herself against the charges — which don't seem to have been given much credibility.

Aiuto describes Harding's life and presidency as both comic and tragic. "Harding had many admirable traits — kindness, charm, generosity — but he was basically an inept man, without many talents," Aiuto writes.

"Besides the buffoonery of his days in the Senate and the White House," Aiuto goes on, "there is the tale of a man in over his head, trusting of untrustworthy associates, trying to do his best."

It's possible that one of those untrustworthy associates — with unguarded access to the president — poisoned him. It's just as possible — maybe even moreso — that Harding's lifestyle or medical malpractice hastened his demise.

After 90 years, though, it seems highly unlikely that the truth of the matter will ever be known.