Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What's Wrong With Voter ID Laws?

I've heard endless arguments about the voter ID laws, especially the one on the books here in Texas, and I must confess that I still don't understand the problem some people have with them.

I mean, what is wrong with proving that you are authorized to vote? You have to present such ID to buy alcohol or cigarettes. You have to present such ID when you apply for a loan or if you're going to rent a vehicle or an apartment — or a motel room.

The vice president has been beating that drum about voter ID laws being racist and fueled by hatred.

I am an independent, and I have found no compelling reason to vote in either party's primary this year (early voting here ends Friday; the primaries are next Tuesday) so I can't speak firsthand about experience with the voter ID law, in effect for the first time.

(Voters in Texas do not register by party so it's largely a personal affiliation kind of thing. When you go to the polls, you are asked in which party's primary you wish to vote.

(If there is a runoff, you can only vote in the party in which you voted in the original primary. But two years later, when the next primaries are held, you can choose the one in which you want to vote all over again. You are not committed to a party beyond the current primary.)

They've been issuing voter ID cards here in Texas for years — new ones are sent out every two years — and voters are supposed to present them when they vote. Now, apparently, additional ID is required as well.

I've heard it said that voter ID laws are racist, that they are intended to prevent minorities from participating.

But here's what it says at
Here is a list of the acceptable forms of photo ID:
  • Texas driver license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate issued by DPS
  • Texas personal identification card issued by DPS
  • Texas concealed handgun license issued by DPS
  • United States military identification card containing the person's photograph
  • United States citizenship certificate containing the person's photograph
  • United States passport
With the exception of the U.S. citizenship certificate, the identification must be current or have expired no more than 60 days before being presented for voter qualification at the polling place.
How does that prevent anyone from voting? And if a qualified voter doesn't have any of those, at the top of the website is this sentence: Qualified voters without an approved photo ID may obtain a free Election Identification Card from DPS. Look at the site all you want. It doesn't say anything about literacy tests or any of that other stuff.

And I haven't heard a single report of anyone being denied the right to vote in this primary season. I assume that, if someone had been denied the right to vote, that person would have been worth a lot to the anti–voter ID crowd, which is almost exclusively Democrats (who have been in the political minority in this state for decades) — and, consequently, we would have heard something about it by now. Early voting has been going on for more than a week now. Haven't heard a thing. So again I ask: What's the problem? Before he was elected vice president, before he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Joe Biden was a lawyer, a product of the Syracuse School of Law. He should know that, in the United States, the law requires evidence to prove guilt, that everyone is considered innocent until proven guilty.

Where is his evidence that voter ID laws are racist?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Broadcasting Milestone

It might seem like a betrayal to all my friends in print journalism, but today is an important milestone in the history of broadcasting that is worth mentioning.

For it was 90 years ago today that President Calvin Coolidge gave the first–ever radio address from the White House.

Silent Cal had a reputation for being — shall we say? — economical with words, but he really gave broadcast journalism a boost during his presidency.

The speech he gave on this day in 1924 was not his first on radio. Less than three months earlier, he had delivered his State of the Union address on radio. As nearly as I can tell, that was the first presidential address on radio, but it wasn't delivered from the White House.

("So clearly was President Coolidge's message broadcast by radio through half of the nation ... that while he was speaking KSD, the radio station in St. Louis, telephoned to the Capitol and asked: 'What's that grating noise?'," marveled the New York Times, "and the transmission experts at the Capitol promptly replied: 'That's the rustling of the paper as he turns the pages of his message'.")

But, considering that presidential addresses from the White House are considered routine today, it is worth reflecting on a time when the concept was new. So, too, was the medium of radio. Most of its applications were yet to be discovered.

Today, of course, presidential addresses from the White House can be seen and/or heard via radio, television and online video.

I'm inclined to think that, at the time, Coolidge understood the political implications of broadcasting, perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. If so, he must have realized that his rather strict, New England schoolmarmish demeanor wouldn't be appealing in all regions of the country so he used radio to build a relationship with the American people.

Presidential approval polls didn't exist in 1924, so it isn't possible to compare the findings of such polls to see if his approval went up when he started speaking to the country via radio after succeeding President Warren Harding in August 1923.

But we do know that, when the American people went to the polls in November 1924, they gave Coolidge a full four–year term in the White House by a wide margin. He swept every state outside the South except Wisconsin, which voted for third–party candidate (and native son) Robert LaFollette.

The day after the third anniversary of the first radio address from the White House, Coolidge signed into law the Radio Act of 1927, which gave regulatory powers to the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC was created by Coolidge in 1926; it was replaced in 1934 by the Federal Communications Commission, which still exists.

What was the subject of his first radio address from the White House? I wish I knew, but no transcript seems to survive. It was, however, something he did fairly frequently during his presidency.

The day before the 1924 election, Coolidge delivered a radio address from the White House on the duties of citizenship. In it, he urged American citizens to go to their polls the next day and "approach the ballot box in the spirit that they would approach a sacrament" and select their leaders "in the light of their own conscience."

"When an election is so held, when a choice is so made," Coolidge said in his conclusion, "it results in the real rule of the people. It warrants and sustains the belief that the voice of the people is the voice of God."

I don't know if President Coolidge was a visionary, but the speech he gave today paved the way for all the broadcast addresses that followed.

And, to the generations of broadcast journalists who followed, it must certainly seem visionary.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The State of Press Freedom in America

I'm a writer.

It is fashionable these days to say that one is predisposed to be something — that such a person was born a certain way. Usually, that applies to one's sexuality; in my case, I think it means I was born to be a writer. It is what I do. It isn't something I can change.

That has meant different things at different times, I guess, but most of the time in my life it has involved journalism. Journalism was my major in college. I worked for newspapers. I have taught news writing and news editing, and currently I advise journalism students producing a college newspaper.

Perhaps that makes me overly sensitive to issues involving press freedom. I've always believed that a press that is free to report the news is the pillar of a democracy. Without a free press, nothing else means anything.

I am a strong believer in the Bill of Rights, but I am especially partial, I guess, to the First Amendment. I always believed it set the United States apart from the other countries in the world. Maybe I believed it meant the press would have more freedom here than anywhere else.

If that is what I believed — and I'm not really sure if I did or did not, to be candid — Reporters Without Borders disabuses me of that notion in its World Press Freedom Index 2014. In it, the United States is ranked 46th in the world in press freedom.

Maybe that doesn't seem so bad to you, but look at it this way. The United States ranked 32nd in press freedom a year ago. That's a decline of nearly 44%.

I don't think that is an encouraging trend — especially since places like South Africa, El Salvador, Romania, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Botswana, Samoa, France, Latvia, Spain, Slovenia and Lithuania all pulled ahead of the United States in a single year.

Samoa was 16 places behind the U.S. last year; it is now six spots ahead. That is probably the most dramatic change, but the other shifts were dramatic, too. Trinidad and Tobago trailed the United States by 12 spots, now ahead by three. Papua New Guinea was nine spots behind the U.S. and now leads by two. Spain was behind by four spots, now leads by 11. Slovenia trailed the U.S. by three spots last year but now leads by 12. Lithuania trailed by a single spot and now leads by 14.

How is this possible?

I'm inclined to think the NSA surveillance scandal has had a lot to do with it. I also think the Justice Department's uncalled–for seizure of Associated Press phone records is to blame as well.

These were not "phony scandals," as the president blithely dismissed them. These were blatant assaults on freedom of the press in this country — and they should concern anyone who values freedom.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Writing

I read an interesting column today by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic.

Its headline tells you just about everything you need to know about the topic — except the details: "Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators."

I'm not sure how I feel about that. I consider myself a writer — I have written and edited professionally, and currently I teach writing at the local community college — and I also grudgingly admit that I am a bit of a procrastinator, but I don't think I procrastinate about writing — at least, not in the way McArdle suggests.

She says procrastination is an occupational hazard for writers. And that reminded me of something that Murray Slaughter said once on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Murray was the news writer on that show, and I recall that he was asked something like, "What do you like the most (or perhaps it was the least) about writing?"

Murray replied that he liked talking about his writing, and he liked being paid for his writing, and he liked reading his writing. "The only thing I don't like about my writing," he said, "is writing!"

Now, I will admit that I do procrastinate about a lot of things. I procrastinate about doing my taxes. I procrastinate about checking the job listings on a daily basis. I procrastinate about going to the grocery store. I procrastinate about taking out the trash and doing the laundry and other household chores.

But that is because those activities are generally low–reward activities for me. Writing, on the other hand, is usually very satisfying. Most days, the thing I feel excited about when I get up in the morning is the idea that I can do some more writing that day. Lots of times, I can hardly wait to get to it — although sometimes it is delayed by other things.

So I don't really feel that I fit McArdle's definition of a procrastinating writer.

On the other hand ...

She makes an intriguing observation when she explains the evolution of her theory about writers — "We were too good in English class."

This thought has crossed my mind. When I was a boy, I seldom studied for spelling or English tests, but I always did well. When I took my college entrance exam, I scored in the top 5% nationally in English.

I don't know why it came so easy to me.

I mean, how'd that happen?

All I've been able to figure is this:

I've always believed my paternal grandmother had a lot to do with it. She was an English teacher before my father and my aunt were born — and I think she more or less retired from teaching to be a full–time stay–at–home mother — but she proved that, while you might take the girl out of the classroom, you couldn't take the classroom out of the girl.

My grandparents lived in Dallas. My family lived in central Arkansas. It was a six–hour drive after the interstate linked us, but when I was little, a trip to Dallas required going through a lot of small towns with all that stop–and–go driving you experience in populated areas. In those days, the trip probably took eight or nine hours.

Anyway, we didn't always see my grandparents on my birthday or even on Christmas so their gifts were often mailed to me. Mom made sure that I sat down and wrote thank–you notes immediately — she made my younger brother do the same thing after he learned to write.

My paternal grandmother always wrote back thanking me for my thank–you note. She also included the note with her letter — with my mistakes marked. It wasn't like a paper that has been graded by a teacher. The notes that she wrote on my thank–you letters were very loving, very grandmotherly, but they still pointed out that I probably meant to use a different word or a different tense or a different spelling. Or perhaps I used a plural pronoun in reference to a singular noun.

I still remember many of the lessons she taught me. As I say, I always figured that she had a lot to do with my ease in English.

And, sometimes, especially in recent years when I have reconnected with so many old friends via social media like Facebook, I wonder why I didn't get caught in the quicksand of communication mediocrity.

Then again, maybe I didn't dodge that bullet as neatly as I thought. Every day, I see examples of misspellings and atrocious grammar that I assure myself I would never allow into something I wrote.

Sure enough, something just as egregious — if not worse — pops up in something I write in one of my blogs! Usually, it doesn't take too long, either. That knowledge usually keeps my ego in check, regardless of what I have written.

Anyway, let's get back to McArdle's article.

As I say, McArdle writes about how easy English was for some people, how they got by on "natural talents" — only to advance to college or perhaps the professional level where they found themselves "competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes."

This encourages procrastination.

"If you've spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are," McArdle writes.

She's probably writing tongue in cheek, but I think there is a certain amount of truth in her observation that "[a]s long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you're finished, you're more like one of those 1940s pulp hacks who strung hundred–page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end."

They don't procrastinate because they are lazy, she argues. "Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn't very good."

I can't say that I have ever felt that way. There have been many times when I had to write about a topic with which I wasn't very familiar, but I worried more on those occasions about inaccuracy than I did about the quality of my writing. I have always been confident in my ability to write.

McArdle talks about the need to learn the lesson that comes from failing with grace, and I agree.

Perhaps I have been luckier than most — although I would be inclined to say I have had my share of practice at failing with grace!

The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and apply the lessons to future situations. That's all anyone can do in any endeavor. Writers are not special in that regard.

Maybe she is right. Maybe some writers do put off writing because they fear that they aren't good enough — so they set themselves up for failure by putting off their writing until they are faced with an absolute choice of writing something (that may be good or may be bad) or writing nothing. The relentless pressure of deadlines makes the choice inevitable.

And then, the rushed final result is usually inadequate in one way or another.

That is a very different thing from the tendency of some writers to write, then get up and walk around for a few minutes while they consider different ways of expressing something. I do that when I get stuck on which word or phrase I want to use.

When I smoked, I would light a cigarette. Smoking was part of my creative process. It helped me break through whatever obstacle was in my way.

Since I no longer smoke, other things have become part of my creative process. It's a different thing each time now, I suppose.

But I don't leave my keyboard for hours to mop the kitchen floor, vacuum in the living room, play with the PlayStation and do whatever else I can do until the clock forces me to write something.

For me, writing is fun. It is a challenge to express things in just the right way. Sometimes I do manage to do that, and it's quite a rush.

The ongoing challenge of writing, though, is making that happen every time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Evolution of a Massacre

While you're munching on your Valentine's Day candy, it's worth remembering a Valentine's Day that wasn't so sweet — at least for some folks.

It was 85 years ago this morning in a garage in Chicago. Here's how John O'Brien of the Chicago Tribune sets the scene:
"On this frigid morning, in an unheated brick garage ... seven men were lined up against a whitewashed wall and pumped with 90 bullets from submachine guns, shotguns and a revolver."

Chicagoland was gangland in those days, and Al Capone's henchmen, disguised as policemen, were on a mission to eliminate Bugs Moran, Capone's last competition for the designation of top gang boss in Chicago.

Ironically, none of the men who died 85 years ago today was Moran. He wasn't there. Nor was Capone among the gunmen who participated in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

My understanding is that the reason Moran wasn't in the garage was because he slept late that day. When he arrived, there was a lot of activity outside the garage, so he left the scene.

Capone had an airtight alibi for his whereabouts during the killings — he was more than 1,000 miles away in south Florida. He insisted that he wasn't involved. I don't think that many people believed him.

The fellow who assembled the hit team, Jack McGurn, had an alibi as well. He was with his mistress (later wife), having devised a plan and turned it over to his hit team.

The hit team lured the victims to the warehouse with the promise of very good whiskey at a low price. Prohibition was still in effect, and Moran's people couldn't resist.

Capone figured to gain from Moran's death, and, even though Moran was not among those who died 85 years ago, he was finished. Capone and his organization ruled the roost for years to come.

As a student of history, I think that garage should have been preserved as an historic site, but it was leveled nearly 50 years ago. Now its memory inspires marketing themes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beating the Rap

"The vote itself was anticlimactic, coming three weeks after the close of my defense. Only the margin of defeat was in doubt. I was just glad the ordeal was over for my family and my country. After the vote, I said I was profoundly sorry for what I had done to trigger the events and the great burden they imposed on the American people, and that I was rededicating myself to 'a time of reconciliation and renewal for America.' I took one question: 'In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?' I replied, 'I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.' "

Bill Clinton
"My Life" (2004)

On this day in 1999 — 190 years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln — the U.S. Senate acquitted President Bill Clinton of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

It was the first time in more than a century — since Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, survived by a single vote — that an American president had been impeached by the House and then managed to be acquitted by the Senate. Articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon were approved by the House Judiciary Committee 40 years ago this summer, but Nixon resigned before the House could vote on them. Obviously, Nixon never faced trial in the Senate.

A year earlier, in January 1998, Clinton famously declared that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss (Monica) Lewinsky." He also insisted that he never instructed anyone to lie.

But it was later revealed that Clinton did have an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

And that was a big part of his detractors' case. From that act of deception sprang everything else.

Ultimately, they failed to persuade two–thirds of the Senate to convict, which is what the Constitution requires for the removal of a president. They fell short by a considerable margin. Clinton was correct when he wrote that the outcome was never in doubt. The bar was too high.

That was the calculating way that Clinton looked at things. It was something I picked up on when I covered one of his gubernatorial campaigns in Arkansas. I sat in on an interview with Clinton one day during his runoff with a former Arkansas lieutenant governor. It was observed to Clinton that supporters of the candidate who ran third in the primary were making noises about sitting out the runoff; Clinton, in effect, said he didn't care.

That may be hard to reconcile with the "I feel your pain" image that Clinton cultivated, but it represents merely one side of his political personality. That was the pragmatic, politically savvy Clinton, who understood that, in the most basic terms, if you took a voting bloc that large and that unpredictable, given the indifference most of that candidate's supporters had for both Clinton and his opponent in the runoff, he was better off if they chose not to participate. There was no telling which way they might go.

Clinton ran first in the primary, but he didn't quite reach 50%, forcing a runoff with the runnerup. The third–place finisher had received a lot of votes, but he didn't get enough to make the runoff. As I recall, there was only one other candidate in the primary; he ran fourth and attracted a relative handful of votes.

Therefore, if nearly all the people who voted in the runoff had voted for either Clinton or his opponent the first time, Clinton knew he would win — which he did.

In the Senate 15 years ago today, Clinton knew that the Republicans held the majority in the Senate. But, in order to reach the two–thirds threshold, they needed 12 Democrats to vote with them — and that wasn't going to happen. In fact, while Senate Democrats voted unanimously against conviction, some Republicans voted not acquit as well so the Senate's Republicans finished even farther from their goal than if the vote had been strictly along party lines.

After the vote, a number of Senate Republicans and their aides were quoted as saying they resented the fact that House Republicans had put them in that position. Perhaps they were right to feel that way. The next time the voters went to the polls, Republicans lost ground in the Senate but the numbers remained virtually unchanged in the House.