Friday, October 25, 2013

The 'Strategic Importance' of Grenada



"The world has changed. Today, our national security can be threatened in faraway places. It's up to all of us to be aware of the strategic importance of such places and to be able to identify them."

Ronald Reagan
October 1983

When looking back at the invasion of Grenada — which occurred 30 years ago today — it is important to put it into historical context.

America was less than four years removed from the takeover of the American embassy in Iran that sparked a hostage crisis that lasted more than a year — and contributed to the election of one president and the defeat of another. It was understandable that both politicians and ordinary citizens were antsy about any situation in which Americans might be at risk on foreign soil.

And that is what was perceived to be the case in the Caribbean nation of Grenada in 1983 — at least by the general public. The public was told that American medical students at St. George's University were at risk, and Operation Urgent Fury was launched.

But the students were actually a cover for what those in the Reagan administration really wanted to do.

Let's back up a little here.

The history of just about any nation is too complex to summarize in a single sentence or two, and so it is with Grenada, which was ruled by the United Kingdom until a man named Eric Gairy led it to its independence in 1974. Gairy was Grenada's first prime minister, serving until 1979 when, while Gairy was out of the country, his government was overthrown by opposition leader Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement, a Marxist–Leninist group.

Bishop was prime minister until he, too, was overthrown in a coup in October 1983. He was placed under house arrest but escaped — only to be captured and executed. The army took over and announced a four–day total curfew. Anyone who was seen on the streets would be executed.

It was at this point that the Americans intervened.

As I say, the public was told that medical students were in danger, but it seemed to me, even at the time, that there was a lot more going on than citizens were being told. A Marine barracks in Lebanon was attacked by suicide bombers just a couple of days earlier, and more than 200 Americans were killed.

Reagan had not yet announced his intention to run for a second term in 1984, but my memory is that it was generally assumed by most that he would. History tells us that, when Reagan did seek a second term, the voters resoundingly gave it to him. But, according to Gallup, just under half of respondents (49%) approved his performance in office in October 1983. That was better than most of his approval ratings had been for the previous two years, but it was lower than any incumbent president wants to have when he is on the brink of a campaign for re–election.

Reagan already had a reputation for being a devout anti–Communist, but, in light of what had happened in Lebanon, he needed something to shore up his credentials. In addition to contending that Operation Urgent Fury was intended to rescue the medical students, the administration told the American people it was concerned about Grenada falling under Communist control — especially Cuban control.

That always seemed strange to me, considering that the government that had been overthrown in the coup in Grenada was Marxist–Leninist, that the administration was so concerned about events there, characterizing the group that engineered the coup as radicals — while Bishop was merely labeled a progressive. But the administration insisted the new regime was a danger to regional security and American citizens.

Thus, Operation Urgent Fury.

Apparently, it worked for Reagan. In the next Gallup poll, his approval ratings were in the 50s — and they remained in the 50s (if not the 60s) for the next two years.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Was Gained From the Saturday Night Massacre?



"Whether ours shall be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people to decide."

Archibald Cox

Of all the remarkable events that led Richard Nixon and the American people through the labyrinth of the Watergate scandal and coverup to Nixon's eventual resignation, the Saturday Night Massacre may have been the most astonishing.

The Saturday Night Massacre — in which the independent special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation was dismissed by presidential order and the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than carry it out — occurred 40 years ago today.

And it ignited a constitutional crisis — the very thing Nixon said he wanted to avoid. Of course, Nixon said a lot of things.

See, the special prosecutor was appointed by and operated under the auspices of the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, and could only be removed "for cause," which meant for improper conduct of some kind. In fact, when he was confirmed by the Senate in May 1973, Richardson specifically pledged that he would not dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor except for cause.

Nearly five months later, the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, issued a subpoena to the White House. The existence of the White House's taping system had been revealed in public hearings in July, and Cox wanted copies of certain tapes for investigators to examine. Nixon refused.

Instead, Nixon offered, on Oct. 19, 1973, to permit Sen. John Stennis (D–Miss.), who was in his 70s and hard of hearing, to listen to the tapes and sign off on summaries of them for the Watergate investigators. Nixon claimed that Stennis would be sensitive to national security issues raised in the conversations.

(I recall that TIME magazine, in one of its reports, ran a file photo of Stennis in some committee hearing cupping his hand to one ear. Stennis clearly had been signaling for whoever had been speaking to speak louder or repeat himself, but, given Stennis' known hearing issues, it was a clever illustration for the part of the story that dealt with what had been dubbed the "Stennis Compromise."

(To emphasize the point, TIME's caption read: "Technical assistance needed.")

Sens. Sam Ervin and Howard Baker of the Senate Watergate Committee agreed to the Stennis Compromise. But it was unacceptable to Cox, and he turned it down that evening. (I've always liked historian Theodore White's description of Cox's demeanor when he faced the press the next afternoon — "[g]angling, gentle and firm, combining the qualities of old Mr. Chips and Joan of Arc" — and tried to explain why he could not accept the president's offer.)

That Saturday, Ervin said a summary of the tapes would not be acceptable, that he had understood that he would receive verbatim language from the tapes (presumably a transcript).

Government offices were closed for the weekend, and my memory is that no one really expected any further developments until the next week.

Wrong.

Forty years ago today, after Cox's appearance before reporters, Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused and resigned in protest. Thus, the order fell to Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus. He, too, refused and resigned.

Third in line was Robert Bork, the solicitor general and, now, acting head of the Justice Department. His predecessors had promised during their confirmations that they would not interfere in the Watergate investigation, but Bork had made no such pledge so he carried out Nixon's order.

Shortly before 8:30 p.m. Washington time, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler told reporters that Cox had been fired and the special prosecutor's office had been abolished. He also announced that Richardson had resigned and Ruckelshaus had been fired (Ruckelshaus' side of the story was that he resigned before he could be fired).

Cox's office had been sealed off by the FBI, Ziegler said, to prevent any files from being removed. In what was almost an afterthought, Ziegler announced that Bork, as acting attorney general, had fired Cox.

"Nixon's move to block the special prosecutor was for most Americans their first up–close look at what the Watergate fuss, by then more than a year old, was all about: naked presidential power," wrote Susan Brenneman this week in the Los Angeles Times.

Fourteen years later, when Ronald Reagan nominated Bork for a Supreme Court vacancy, Kenneth Noble reported in the New York Times that Bork said of his role in the Saturday Night Massacre that "I get a little tired of it being portrayed as the only thing I ever did."

I'm sure there were those who knew that — among them Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were Bork's students. For most people, though, I would say that Bork first came to their attention as a result of the Saturday Night Massacre. He was in his mid–40s at the time. He had been a practicing lawyer for nearly 20 years and a Yale law professor for more than 10. Clearly, he had accomplished things before being thrust into the national spotlight.

Supposedly, he was torn. He said that he believed Nixon's order was appropriate; nevertheless, he considered resigning as Richardson and Ruckelshaus had so he would not be "perceived as a man who did the president's bidding to save my job."

That was, in fact, a popular conclusion.

Roughly 3½ weeks after Cox's dismissal, a federal judge ruled that it was illegal because there was no evidence of "extraordinary impropriety," as was specifically required when the position was created.

Nixon's lawyers were not eager for a repeat of the Cox episode with Jaworski. When Cox was fired, it produced an avalanche of letters and telegrams to Congress calling for Nixon's impeachment, and the president's approval rating slipped below 30%.

Only a few days after the Saturday Night Massacre, 44 Watergate–related bills had been introduced in the House, and nearly two dozen resolutions called for Nixon's impeachment. A dozen called for the appointment of a new special prosecutor.

Nixon did precisely what most people probably didn't expect. He decided not to abolish the office of special prosecutor after all and agreed to release the subpoenaed tapes. Leon Jaworski was chosen to replace Cox. Speculation at the time centered on whether Jaworski would confine his investigation to the Watergate burglary or try to expand it, as Cox had, to include other White House activities. As it turned out, Jaworski followed Cox's lead.

So it is fair to ask: What did Nixon achieve with the Saturday Night Massacre?

The special prosecutor still existed. The only real change was that a different person held the title.

(Upon reflection, I am inclined to wonder if perhaps that was the point. Nixon always felt snubbed by the Eastern establishment, and "intellectuals" from Harvard definitely were on that list. Maybe all he really wanted to do was replace the Harvard law professor with the Baylor law graduate.)

Nixon still had to give up the tapes — eventually. He tried numerous tactics to avoid handing them over, all of which failed, and the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against him. When members of Congress heard what was on those tapes, even Nixon's most ardent supporters on the Hill were persuaded to support his removal.

Less than a year later, Nixon resigned and went into virtual exile in California — and spent the rest of his life rewriting history.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Democrats Not Likely to Catch a 'Wave' in 2014



The federal shutdown ended this week — just in time to avoid default.

As the government shutdown dragged on, I heard some Democrats gleefully anticipating a "wave" election next year that will restore a Democrat majority to the House of Representatives.

With public opinion polls showing Congress' approval at record low levels, I suppose that is a normal reaction, even one to be expected, but history simply doesn't support it. Frankly, it sounds a lot like the talk that was prevalent four years ago, just after Barack Obama took office, that held that Democrats would be in charge of things for a generation, at least.

Of course, history has been turned on its ear in the last two presidential elections. A nation that had never so much as nominated a black man for president before 2008 has now elected a black president twice. With Gallup reporting that, less than a year after Obama's re–election, congressional approval is at 11%, doesn't it follow that Republicans in Congress are in, to use a George H.W. Bush expression, deep doo–doo?

Well, that assumes that a midterm election is really no different than a presidential election — and that simply has not been true historically. It wasn't even true in the first midterm election of this president's tenure. Less than two years after he took office with stunningly high approval ratings (when there was literally nothing of which to approve or disapprove), Obama saw his party lose more than 60 seats in the House.

Democrats regained eight seats in 2012, but that was achieved with the president's name at the top of the ballot. Having Obama on the ballot brought out many voters who typically do not vote, just as it did four years earlier. But, without him on the ballot, those voters reverted to historical form and did not participate in the 2010 midterms.

At best, Obama will be an advocate for others in 2014 — that is, when he chooses to participate. He didn't tend to lend much support to Democrats who were on the ballot in 2010 until it was too late to make much difference.

The great unknown about 2014 is the impact that Obamacare will have. In the first 2½ weeks, there have been conflicting accounts about the success or failure of the initial efforts, mostly focusing on the woes of the websites being used to enroll people. In a year, it will be clearer how the system is performing, whether it is delivering everything that was promised, and that is sure to influence the election.

But this year's shutdown will be forgotten. After all, another one is looming in just 90 days.

The midterms in the sixth year of a presidency have been, historically speaking, brutal for the president's party. The exceptions to that truly are few and far between.

No doubt, Democrats will recall that they fared all right in the midterms that were held in Bill Clinton's sixth year in office, but that was more backlash against the Republicans for going ahead with unpopular impeachment proceedings than anything else.

Sixth–year midterms typically go poorly for the party in the White House. Recent history tells the tale. George W. Bush's Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in 2006. Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost the Senate to the Democrats in 1986. In the sixth year of the Nixon–Ford presidency, the Democrats (helped in no small measure by the Watergate scandal) padded their majorities in the House and Senate — by nearly the same number of seats they lost in 1966, the sixth year of the Kennedy–Johnson presidency.

Sixth–year midterms almost always go badly for the president's party, no matter how popular the president may be. Reagan's approval rating was in the 60s in October 1986. Dwight Eisenhower's approval rating was in the 50s in his sixth–year midterm in 1958.

The more unpopular the president is, though (and it is worth noting that, while approval for Congress currently is historically low, Barack Obama isn't doing terribly well, either), the greater the challenge for his party.

There have been only two real exceptions to that in midterms in general in the last 80 years — 2002 and 1998 — and both could be said to have been due to unique (or almost unique) circumstances.

In 2002, the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bush and the Republicans were rewarded for their efforts to stop terrorism with gains of eight House seats and two Senate seats. Four years later, in the "wave" of 2006, they lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats.

In 1998, Clinton's Democrats benefited from backlash against Republicans for their insistence on pursuing impeachment proceedings. They didn't really gain much, just four House seats and no Senate seats, but that's better than parties in their sixth year of occupying the White House typically do — and it was a whole lot better than Democrats did during the first midterm election of Clinton's presidency — when they lost 54 seats.

It's possible, of course, that 2014 will turn out to be a rare wave midterm that benefits the occupant of the White House, but, at the moment, it appears to be lacking the catalyst that could make that happen.

Even under the most advantageous midterm conditions, an incumbent's party hasn't won more House seats than Bush's Republicans did since 1902, exactly a century earlier, when both parties gained more than a dozen seats following the 1900 Census and the creation of 29 House seats.

Obama's Democrats need to win more than twice as many House seats as Bush's Republicans did 11 years ago merely to earn an extremely narrow edge in that chamber. To achieve that, it seems to me, Obama's agenda will need to gain some serious traction in the next year, but the steam seemed to have left that engine before the shutdown. There was already talk of how lame–duck status had been settling in even before Obama began his saber rattling over Syria. It might be set in stone by now.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Failing to Seize the Momentum



If Dan Quayle's debate with Lloyd Bentsen a week earlier was the low point of the 1988 campaign for the Republican ticket, what happened 25 years ago tonight may have been the low point — certainly, it was one of the low points — for the Democrats.

The presidential nominees, Vice President George H.W. Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, met in Los Angeles' Pauley Pavilion for their final debate 25 years ago tonight.

And CNN's Bernard Shaw started things with the only question that anyone would remember: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

No one would remember Dukakis' answer, only that it was delivered in a flat monotone that seemed to lack the emotion most people would have expected of someone who was speaking of the (hypothetical) rape and murder of a loved one.

For the record, Dukakis' answer focused on statistics that were relevant to capital punishment — and showed why, he believed, it was ineffective. There were no gaffes, no sound bites that could be played endlessly.

It was all a matter of perception.

Like Richard Nixon in his first debate encounter with John F. Kennedy nearly 30 years earlier, Dukakis came into the debate on the heels of an illness. Dukakis was sick with the flu and actually spent much of that day in bed. His debate performance was generally poor, and it reinforced the impression that many voters had of him as cold and distant.

But, even though his performance was not particularly good — the consensus was that Dukakis simply failed to seize the momentum in the debate — there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his responses, no glaring faux pas. Read it for yourself:
"No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state. And it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America; why we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state in America. But we have work to do in this nation. We have work to do to fight a real war, not a phony war, against drugs. And that's something I want to lead, something we haven't had over the course of the past many years, even though the vice president has been at least allegedly in charge of that war. We have much to do to step up that war, to double the number of drug enforcement agents, to fight both here and abroad, to work with our neighbors in this hemisphere. And I want to call a hemispheric summit just as soon after the 20th of January as possible to fight that war. But we also have to deal with drug education prevention here at home. And that's one of the things that I hope I can lead personally as the president of the United States. We've had great success in my own state. And we've reached out to young people and their families and been able to help them by beginning drug education and prevention in the early elementary grades. So we can fight this war, and we can win this war. And we can do so in a way that marshals our forces, that provides real support for state and local law enforcement officers who have not been getting that support, and do it in a way which will bring down violence in this nation, will help our youngsters to stay away from drugs, will stop this avalanche of drugs that's pouring into the country, and will make it possible for our kids and our families to grow up in safe and secure and decent neighborhoods."

Bush, on the other hand, didn't perform particularly well that night. But that didn't matter. The post–debate conversation focused on Dukakis' passionless response to a question about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife — and little else.

It is ironic that the fatal blow to the Dukakis candidacy came in the form of a fictional attack on his wife. Truly irresponsible — and false — stories were spread about Kitty Dukakis during the campaign, including one that held that Mrs. Dukakis had burned an American flag in a Vietnam War protest. That one supposedly was spread by a U.S. senator, but Republican strategist Lee Atwater reportedly started it.

The Dukakis campaign had survived it all — not always well or gracefully — including self–inflicted wounds like Dukakis' tank ride in September, but the question about Kitty Dukakis sealed the deal.

Before the debate, it was often said that Dukakis needed a dramatic debate performance to swing the momentum his way. His performance was decidedly not dramatic, at least not in a positive way, and the polls reflected it — not immediately, but within a week — and the momentum moved irreversibly away from the Massachusetts Democrat.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The First Unelected Vice President



On this day 40 years ago, the vice presidency had been vacant for only a couple of days.

The former vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned, and there was much speculation about the identity of his replacement.

My family, as I have mentioned here before, was living in Nashville. My father was on a four–month sabbatical, and, on this day in 1973, we were roughly halfway through our time there. My parents decided that the family needed to get away for the weekend, and Oct. 12 in 1973 was on a Friday so, when my brother and I finished school for the day, my family loaded up our car and went somewhere that was about a two–hour drive from Nashville.

I don't remember where we went. It was some sort of rustic lodge–like compound on a body of water, probably a lake, and I seem to remember you could fish there, but, even though my father knew how to fish, I have no memory of him fishing that weekend.

That may have been because it rained most of that weekend. And my memory is that my mother and father and brother and I spent most of the weekend in that cabin watching TV when we weren't at the window watching the rain.

(We probably called that the "Goodloe luck," of which I have written before. It was our version of Murphy's law, I suppose; most of my memories of the "Goodloe luck" do seem to include rain spoiling camping trips and weekend getaways. So it was on that day in 1973.)

My most vivid memory is of that Friday night — 40 years ago tonight — when President Nixon came on TV to announce that he was nominating Gerald Ford to fill the vice presidential vacancy. And I remember the four of us watching him make that announcement.

It was an historic occasion, the first time the 25th Amendment, which clarified presidential succession, was invoked. It was also, as historian Theodore H. White wrote, "a ceremony marked by a tasteless cheerfulness." With so much suspicion and uncertainty swirling around him in October 1973, Nixon seemed oddly detached when he announced Ford's nomination. I honestly think that, on that day, he believed that he would serve the rest of his term, that he would beat the rap.

As I wrote here a couple of years ago, the language of Article II of the Constitution was ambiguous on the subject of presidential succession, saying that, in the event of a vacancy (either temporary or permanent) in the presidency, the vice president should "act as [p]resident ... until the [d]isability be removed, or a president shall be elected."

Presidential succession apparently wasn't a pressing concern for the Founding Fathers. It was first put to the test about half a century after the Constitution was written when President William Henry Harrison died and his vice president, John Tyler, interpreted the Constitution and determined that he should be the actual president, not an acting president, and he took the oath of office, setting a precedent that was followed for more than a century.

But in 1967 the 25th Amendment was ratified, establishing a clear line of succession. And one of its provisions was that, in the event of a vacancy in the vice presidency, the president had to nominate a successor whose name would be sent to Congress for its approval.

Agnew's resignation was the first opportunity for a president to nominate a vice president under the amendment. When Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the vice presidency was vacant for more than a year, but then it was filled by Hubert Humphrey, who was Johnson's running mate in the 1964 election — and, thus, the office was occupied when the 25th Amendment was adopted.

And, on that night, we watched as all three networks covered Nixon's announcement that he wanted Gerald Ford to be his new vice president.

Only one other time since that day — nearly a year later, when Ford had to choose his own successor following Nixon's resignation — has a president been called upon to nominate someone to fill a vice presidential vacancy.

As unpopular as Nixon was at that time, I really believe that few, if any, people who watched him introduce Ford as Agnew's successor realized they were looking at the man who would be president within a year.

Fewer still probably realized we would witness the nomination of another unelected vice president within a year — and then not see it happen again for at least four decades.

That is how history works sometimes, with similar events lumped together in one short period of time, then nothing like it again for decades. Kind of like horse racing's Triple Crown.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Day Spiro Agnew Resigned



In the fall of 1973, my family was living in Nashville while my father was on a four–month sabbatical.

We spent the previous summer in Austria. While we were there, we tried to keep up with what was happening in the Watergate hearings through the international editions of TIME and Newsweek, but the reports were not as complete as what Americans were getting here at home — and, of course, there was no way for us to monitor the Watergate hearings that were taking place that summer.

I knew that President Nixon was under mounting public pressure over his involvement in activities related to the Watergate break–in, but I had no idea where it would go. And there must have been news reports about Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, and the problems he was having with those who were investigating his activities as governor of Maryland — even if most of the activity was conducted in secrecy.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in "The Final Days" that "[b]y August, the details of the Agnew investigation were all over the newspapers," and the following month "plea–bargaining with the vice president's attorneys" had begun.

With everything else that was going on in my life at that time, I suppose I was oblivious to what was happening with Agnew.

Maybe most Americans were, too. Maybe the plea negotiations were conducted in relative secrecy as well. Anyway, I have no memory of anything being said about Agnew's legal problems. (Of course, I was quite young at the time.)

It came as a surprise to me when, 40 years ago today, on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, I walked into the apartment in which my family was living after school had dismissed for the day and found my mother watching news reports on TV. Mind you, this was in the years before cable's explosive popularity, before cable news networks came along. A news report in the middle of an ordinary Wednesday afternoon could only mean that something serious had happened.

And it had. Agnew had resigned.

He wasn't the first vice president to resign. And, clearly, it wasn't as spontaneous as I naively thought it was at the time.

Agnew submitted his letter of resignation to Nixon, officially saying only that "I hereby resign the Office of Vice President of the United States, effective immediately."

In a more personal letter to the president that was submitted at the same time, Agnew observed that "the accusations against me cannot be resolved without a long, divisive and debilitating struggle in the Congress and in the courts." He had concluded, he wrote, that it was in America's "best interests" for him to resign.

He never addressed the question of whether he was guilty, either in his communication with Nixon or in his actual court appearance, in which he pled nolo contendreno contest.

In his reply, Nixon didn't address that side of it, either.

Nixon, who also would resign about 10 months later, said he knew Agnew's decision to resign "has been as difficult as any facing a man in public life could be," and it left Nixon "with a great sense of personal loss," but he said he respected the decision.

Nixon commended Agnew for his "courage and candor ... strong patriotism and ... profound dedication to the welfare of the nation," and he thanked him for his service as vice president.

And then, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment — and with everything else that was vying for his attention — Nixon had to choose Agnew's replacement. This was something no other president had ever had to do, and no one knew how long it might take.

Turned out it didn't take too long.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Plague on Both Your Houses



When I was a small boy, my mother told me that a few things were true about the United States and the people who live here and those things always would be true, no matter which political party was in control of things.

And I still believe what she told me even though it is more difficult with each passing day.

Americans, she said to me, always tolerate more than one opinion. Americans are respectful of each other, she said, even when they disagree.

And Americans are fair.

She told me these things when there was a lot of polarization in America. Americans were polarized by race, by gender, by religion, by age. There were riots in the streets of every major city. America in 2013 is a day at the beach compared to that.

Mom was a Democrat. Until recently, I considered myself a Democrat, too, but I have come to realize that, if Democrats ever really were what Mom believed they were, they ain't that anymore.

I've never been an advocate of federal government shutdowns as a tactic, and I've seen quite a few in my life. They have occurred during Republican administrations and Democrat administrations alike. They have been engineered by both parties in Congress. Neither side is guiltless.

And, as far as I can tell, all that shutdowns do is impose unnecessary pain and suffering on average Americans while politicians in both parties use them as pawns.

In a way, shutdowns are like filibusters — desperate measures that are doomed to fail. A shutdown is more of a strongarm measure than a filibuster, though. It has more of a thuggish feeling to it whereas a filibuster is often idealized as a lone man — or woman — taking a stand against an unbeatable foe.

In Hollywood — "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," for instance — filibusters can alter outcomes. In real life, they seldom do.

I suppose the same is true of shutdowns. I don't recall any movies about shutdowns — unless you want to count something like the general strike in "Gandhi," which, in reality, was a "day of prayer and fasting" during which no work was done and really only represents a few paragraphs, not even a whole chapter, in his life's story.

Perhaps someday — maybe even someday soon — there will be a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind of movie that idealizes — even romanticizes — a shutdown and its objectives. Perhaps it will be presented as a noble, selfless, last–ditch effort to right a terrible wrong.

But I digress.

I'm not a supporter of Obamacare for many reasons, but, at this point, I'm just about resigned to the fact that it will be implemented regardless of how I feel. I've decided not to enroll, to just go ahead and pay the fine and see how it works out for others in the first year. I have a pretty good idea what is going to happen, but I'm not going to tell anyone else whether or not to enroll.

I wrote here the other day that I thought Ted Cruz's filibuster was a lost cause — and I did think that and I still do — but I admire him for taking that stand, anyway, ostensibly on behalf of those who have no voice in Washington — even though most of it probably was political posturing.

(Everyone claims to know what a politician will do, but, in my experience, that is seldom true. Some thought Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2008, and she did. Others thought Sarah Palin would run in 2012, and she did not. Likewise, there are those who think Cruz is setting himself up for a presidential run. I don't know if he is or not. Time will tell.)

Anyway, in the last few days, I have been contributing my thoughts to a thread posted on Facebook by a local minister with whom I am acquainted. I guess that was a mistake.

I found out pretty quickly that the contributors to the thread — Democrats all, apparently — had no interest in hearing dissenting opinions on Obamacare. They would only tolerate those who agreed with them, and when they found out that I didn't, they turned on me like a pack of savage, snarling dogs.

I was accused of racism (even though I never mentioned race until it was used against me) and I was actually accused of denying health care to millions of Americans.

(For the record, that is something else I never said.)

Imagine that! I haven't been giving myself nearly enough credit for the influence I wield.

I thought I was an underpaid adjunct professor in the local community college system — but apparently, my belief that a one–year extension should be available to anyone who wants it is enough to bring the whole Obamacare house of cards tumbling down.

It didn't matter to them that their accusations were false. When I pointed out what I really said and, at times, tried to explain myself more clearly, not only did no one apologize for making the original false accusation, they repeated it over and over.

As Hitler said, if you repeat a lie often enough, it will be accepted as the truth. The more outrageous the lie, the more people will believe it. Hey, I have a bachelor's and a master's in journalism. I know about propaganda techniques.

Democrats wanted people to believe they had learned from their many years in the legislative wilderness when they recaptured control of Congress in 2006. But all they really learned from the Republicans was how to slander those with whom they disagree.

Yes, I know about propaganda. I also know my Shakespeare.

There are no good guys or bad guys in this impasse. There is no compassion or tolerance on either side.

In Shakespeare's words, a plague on both your houses.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

'You're No Jack Kennedy'



"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Lloyd Bentsen
Vice presidential debate
Oct. 5, 1988

In the annals of vice presidential debates, there are few chapters — so the competition for the most memorable moment isn't too great.

But if I had to choose the most memorable moment in a vice presidential debate, I would have to pick the moment 25 years ago tonight when Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas told Republican Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana that he was no Jack Kennedy.

As I say, there isn't much competition for most memorable moment from a vice presidential debate. I suppose you could include some moments from the 1992 debate — but they were really more noteworthy for what they said about the ill–prepared Admiral Stockdale, who mused, "Who am I? Why am I here?" and muttered something about a "ping pong match."

Otherwise, though, there really isn't much.

The Bentsen–Quayle debate remains famous — or infamous, depending upon one's point of view — because of one line — Bentsen's famous putdown of Quayle.

It was devastating.

My memory of that debate is not of the pre–debate expectations. Bentsen, more than a quarter of a century older than Quayle, had more than 20 years of congressional experience under his belt (and went on to serve as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton); it was believed by many that he compensated for Michael Dukakis' relative lack of experience.

Quayle, on the other hand, had a little more than a decade of congressional experience, and there was a perception that he lacked the maturity to take over as president if necessary.

It was generally treated as a given that Bentsen was more qualified to be president than was Quayle. That was the elephant in the living room on this night 25 years ago. It made expectations impossibly high for Bentsen and absurdly low for Quayle.

Based on pre–debate comments I heard, all Quayle had to do was show up to exceed expectations while Bentsen needed to do something almost messianic to avoid being perceived a failure.

From the very start, Quayle was put on the defensive when he was asked why he had "not made a more substantial impression" on voters.

It was clear at times that he had prepared statements in advance that he planned to use when the topic of qualifications came up, and he used one early: "If qualifications alone are going to be the issue in this campaign, George Bush has more qualifications than Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen combined."

Of course, both candidates had lines they had been working on for their single debate. Quayle's qualification to be president had been a subject of discussion since Vice President George H.W. Bush chose him to be his running mate. Everyone knew that the issue of experience would dominate the questioning. And it did.

Bentsen was eager to fan the flames. "This debate tonight is not about the qualifications for the vice presidency," he said early. "The debate is whether or not Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen are qualified to be president of the United States."

The memorable moment came about halfway through when Tom Brokaw asked Quayle to "cite the experience that you had in Congress."

Quayle said he had as much congressional experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960, which was technically correct, but it set up Bentsen better than he probably ever dreamed during his debate prep. In hindsight — possibly as soon as that moment — I concluded that Bentsen had that line ready, that it was not spontaneous, and he was planning to spring it — or something similar — when the time was right.

Quayle's comparison of himself to Kennedy was the right time. And Bentsen jumped on it like Babe Ruth swinging at an underhanded pitch. He probably couldn't believe his good fortune.

"You're no Jack Kennedy." The mind recalls the image of Quayle's face on the television screen as Bentsen's voice could be heard delivering the line. Quayle had that "caught in the headlights" look on his face — or, at least, that is how it was perceived at the time. My own opinion is that it was the look of one who knows the die has been cast.

Quayle protested that Bentsen's comment was uncalled for. Bentsen replied that it had been Quayle who invited the comparison.

Nothing else that was said that night mattered. Bentsen had won the debate. Print journalists had their lead paragraph, and broadcast journalists had their sound bite.

And Bentsen had his triumph, but it was Quayle who had the last laugh. A month later, the Bush–Quayle ticket defeated the Dukakis–Bentsen ticket in a landslide.