Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pushing the Panic Button

When I was a journalism student in college, one of my professors said something that remains with me today. "Use real quotes whenever you can," this professor said. "People like to read what other people have to say."

Unless the article is clearly a personal opinion piece, he continued, readers don't care what the reporter has to say about anything. They only want the reporter to give them an account that is as complete — and as completely neutral — as possible.

Readers are interested in opinions, of course — which goes a long way, I think, toward explaining the public's fascination with public opinion polling.

Public opinion polling is an emerging science, and I believe many (regretfully, not all, but many) of its practitioners do try to learn from mistakes, theirs and others'. Pollsters in the mid–1930s learned from the Literary Digest's mistakes when the Digest predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would lose his bid for re–election in 1936 (primarily car and/or home telephone owners were polled, and those were two things that only the affluent could afford during the Great Depression, so the poll was skewed ).

Pollsters learned from their experience in 1948 — when Dewey defeated Truman — that, if you decide a race is a foregone conclusion and stop polling two weeks before the election, you do so at your own peril.

That kind of stuff seems like common sense today, but there was a time when it was not obvious. I honestly believe most pollsters really do want to be right so they try to make adjustments that will improve the efficiency of their polling.

It is still important to remember that all polls are not conducted equally. You need to know who is behind a poll and whether that person or group has a reputation for leaning to one side or the other. You need to know how questions are worded — even the slightest variation can affect the results, and some pollsters do choose certain words that are likely to get the kind of response they want.

(For such people, I suppose, a good thesaurus is the most valuable professional investment they can make.)

Those are issues that have affected polling all along, but new issues always crop up. For example, American law prevents pollsters from calling phone owners who will be charged simply for answering the call so people whose only phone is a cell phone will be underrepresented — and that affects certain demographic groups (the young, the poor, etc.) more than others.

That's the thing about polling. It's a work in progress.

Personally, I tend to favor Gallup. Gallup has been around much longer, and it has more credibility than the others, more of a reputation for neutrality.

But I pay attention to the others as well. Even if they have a bias of some kind, they can still tell you things about the public mood.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of messages coming from two polls that have come out in recent days — particularly the Washington Post/ABC News poll but also the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

As usual, though, the two sides are only interested in hearing what they want to hear — or reacting (perhaps overreacting is the better word) to results that seem to jeopardize their agenda.

Well, here we are, six months before the midterm elections, and there is a lot in the Washington Post/ABC News poll to worry members of the president's party, especially those who will be on the ballot this year. After all, the Washington Post and ABC News have been friendly to the administration.

By and large, Barack Obama's agenda is the Democratic Party's agenda. That is usually the case with an incumbent president. His party is his army. It takes its marching orders from him. So, even though the president's name will not be on the ballot in the sixth year of his presidency, he still hovers over this election like a Shakespearean ghost. His approval will have a huge influence on the outcome — and, historically, sixth–year midterms have not been kind to presidents.

Dan Balz and Peyton Craighill of the Washington Post observe that Obama's current approval rating is the lowest it has been since the Post began measuring it early in his presidency — 41%. That was Harry Truman's approval rating in May 1950; that November, Truman's approval was unchanged, and his party lost 29 House seats and six Senate seats.

Truman's successor, Republican Dwight Eisenhower, is the only postwar president whose approval clearly went up between May and late October in his sixth year (from 52% to 57%), but his party lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats.

Since the end of World War II, there have been seven presidents (or presidential teams) who faced a sixth–year midterm. In almost every case, their approval in spring of the midterm year was higher than their approval shortly before the election in November.

And only Bill Clinton, whose approval ratings were in the 60s in his sixth–year midterm, avoided losing ground in Congress, thanks primarily to the backlash over the Republicans' attempt to remove him from office.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates there are a number of areas where work needs to be done.

Balz and Craighill speculate that Obamacare will be a major issue, as it almost certainly will. A plurality in the Washington Post/ABC News poll opposes Obamacare. Nearly 60% of respondents say Obamacare is raising health care costs.

But that isn't the only thing that has Democrats pushing the panic button.

Balz and Craighill also write that "[p]essimism about the economy also persists, with more than seven in 10 describing the economy in negative terms. Public attitudes about the future of the economy are anything but rosy. Just 28 percent say they think the economy is getting better, while 36 percent say it is getting worse and 35 percent say it's staying the same."

Part of that, I am sure, has to do with the increased costs of health care, but it also has to do with the recovery, which has been as tepid as a recovery can be.

Two–thirds of the poll's respondents say the country is going in the wrong direction — an ominous conclusion for a sixth–year incumbent's constituents to reach.

Strategists for both parties are certainly keeping an eye on the 2016 races for the party nominations, which is addressed in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That poll found that nearly 70% of respondents don't want either Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton to be the next president.

The news in that poll was slightly better for Obama — it showed his approval rating at 44%, but that isn't very encouraging. It is still lower than Obama's rating at this point in 2010.

Perhaps we'll get a better idea of how the recovery is coming along when the latest jobless report comes out on Friday.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Releasing Nixon's Transcripts

"In giving you these — blemishes and all — I am placing my trust in the basic fairness of the American people."

Richard Nixon
April 29, 1974

Richard Nixon tried all sorts of strategies to keep the Watergate investigators' hands off the tapes of his Watergate–related conversations after their existence was made public in the summer of 1973.

Between February 1971 and the revelation of the existence of the taping system in 1973, Nixon secretly recorded more than 3,700 hours of conversations dealing with a wide variety of subjects. Not all of the tapes were relevant to the investigation into the Watergate burglary, but, once it was revealed that phone conversations and meetings involving Nixon had been routinely recorded, it was inevitable that members of Congress would demand to hear them. It was simply a matter of pinpointing which conversations were relevant and asking for them.

At the time, I felt Nixon had been very nimble in his strategies to keep the investigators' hands off his tapes. Of course, I was a boy, and it probably wasn't too difficult to impress me. If I had used logic to assess the situation, I would have concluded that an innocent man would not have resisted as long or as adamantly as Nixon did. The tapes could only vindicate such an individual.

By late April of 1974, Nixon was running out of options. He had consistently maintained that it was his right to decide the evidence that would be produced against him, but neither special prosecutor Leon Jaworski nor House Judiciary Committee counsel John Doar was buying it so he tried a different gambit. He offered a compromise in a speech to the nation on April 29.

Nixon released edited transcripts of the conversations that had been subpoenaed. The transcripts were not always of the complete conversations, only the "relevant portions," and profane expressions from Nixon and others were replaced with the rapidly recognizable phrase "expletive deleted."

Americans had to take Nixon at his word that all the portions of the conversations that were relevant to the investigation were included. He would not provide the tapes for the committee members to hear for themselves, but he did pledge to invite House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino and the committee's ranking Republican member to come to the White House to listen to the tapes in their entirety "so that they can determine ... that the transcripts are accurate and that everything on the tapes relevant to my knowledge and my actions on Watergate is included."

If either man found a discrepancy or inappropriate omission, Nixon said he would "meet with them personally."

Midway through his speech, which sounded earnest and sincere, as if he were really trying to cooperate while maintaining the privilege of the executive, I felt Nixon's tone seemed to shift to one of defensiveness. That wasn't new for him.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters whose coverage of the scandal precipitated the congressional investigations and ultimately led to this night 40 years ago, wrote that "even Nixon's most severe critics thought the speech a very good one, at the least artfully constructed. The admissions he had made in the address ... seemed to make his broader claim of innocence more believable. The speech was less strident than usual, and less self–serving."

I can't really agree with that. Virtually every word that came from Nixon's mouth seemed to be self–serving.

(Executive privilege, by the way, wasn't a new thing. Over the years, it has come to be associated with national security and the need to keep conversations and documents on national security confidential. It has its American roots in the presidency of George Washington but was not invoked by another American president after Nixon until Bill Clinton two decades after Nixon resigned. Both of Clinton's successors — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — have invoked executive privilege.)

"Ever since the existence of the White House taping system was first made known last summer," Nixon said, "I have tried vigorously to guard the privacy of the tapes. I've been well aware that my effort to protect the confidentiality or presidential conversations has heightened the sense of mystery about Watergate — and, in fact, has caused increased suspicions of the president."

He then touched on the point I just made.

"Many people assume that the tapes must incriminate the president," Nixon continued, "or that, otherwise, he wouldn't insist on their privacy."

Nixon claimed a greater principle was at stake.

"Unless a president can protect the privacy of the advice he gets," Nixon asserted, "he cannot get the advice he needs."

Nixon said it was his "constitutional responsibility" to defend the principle, which had been maintained by every American president and upheld in court cases — but it had been defended with more vigor by the executive branch once America became a world power.

But Nixon said that three factors had convinced him that an "unprecedented exception" had to be made.
  1. "[T]he House of Representatives must be able to reach an informed judgment about the president's role in Watergate."
  2. "I believe such action is now necessary in order to restore the principle itself."
  3. "I believe all the American people, as well as their representatives in Congress, are entitled to have not only the facts but also the evidence that demonstrates those facts."

About three months later, the "smoking gun" of Nixon's involvement was made known — after the House Judiciary Committee had already drafted and approved articles of impeachment.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Sound and the Fury

I grew up in Faulkner County in central Arkansas.

There was a time, when I was a teenager, that I liked to tell myself that the county was named after William Faulkner, a great novelist from Mississippi — but I knew (thanks to the Arkansas history class we all had to take in fifth grade) that it was really named after the man who composed "The Arkansas Traveler," which was the state song for about 15 years and has been the state historical song since 1987.

William Faulkner, with novels to his credit like "The Sound and the Fury," might be more appropriate today, considering the intensity of the tornado that ripped through the county yesterday and virtually demolished two towns, both only a matter of miles from my hometown.

My hometown, incidentally, appears to have been spared — but that wasn't the case when I was 5 years old.

I grew up in the country on a man–made lake. When my parents wanted to go out, they drove to Little Rock, which was about 30 minutes away, and, on that particular evening, they went out, probably for dinner and a movie.

There was a high school girl named Gail who lived about a mile or so down the road from us. She was the usual babysitter for my brother and me, and I remember that she came over to watch us. Not long after my parents left, the storm started to brew up. My family didn't have a TV in those days so we must have been listening to the radio, and we must have heard that a tornado was headed our way.

Gail called her father and asked him to come get us in his pickup truck. There was a storm cellar at Gail's house, and she figured we would all be safe there.

But we didn't get there in time for it to help us.

As we were heading to her house, I remember looking up through the windshield — and seeing the tornado pass directly over us. It is a sight and a sound I will never forget.

Another thing I will never forget is the scene at Gail's house when everyone was sure the storm had passed us. We emerged from the cellar, and Gail and her siblings ran around their yard, grabbing scraps of paper that were swirling around in the tornado's tailwinds. I don't know what they were — maybe mailing labels or envelopes or pieces of telephone book pages or something else — but Gail and her siblings were calling out names and places when they could read them.

That whole scene is a bit of a blur for me now. I remember a lot of noise — some of it was the wind, some was the shrieks of the young folks as they deduced that pieces of paper in their hands could tell them how far the tornado had traveled. There was so little that anyone knew in those first minutes.

In the background, I remember the sound of Gail's family's TV and the updates on the storm's destruction. If we had been in town, instead of cut off by a line of hills and trees, we probably would have heard a lot of sirens. It was a cacophony.

William Faulkner wrote about the sound and the fury; I heard the sound and witnessed the fury.

It was hilly country where we lived, and the tornado must have bounced around it because there was little, if any, damage out there. We got to Gail's house and joined the rest of the family in the storm cellar — but, by that time, the tornado had passed us, crossed over the hills and touched down in town, plowing through the heart of the community. There were many casualties and a lot of damage in town.

Faulkner County was declared a disaster area after that tornado — and I have friends there who tell me that it probably will be declared a disaster area again.

The two towns that sustained the greatest damage and loss of life were Mayflower and Vilonia. Neither was very large when I lived there; I'm sure that little has changed, even though the town in which I grew up apparently has tripled, maybe quadrupled, in size since I was in high school.

If yesterday's tornado had hit my hometown, the loss of life probably would have been staggering, and the damage would have been almost incomprehensible. So I guess that is something for which we can be grateful.

But the damage and loss of life must seem incomprehensible to the residents of those two tiny towns as they try to carry on. A friend of mine says the estimate is that 85–90% of each community has been leveled.

Based on some of the pictures I have seen, that's probably correct. If you're reading this and, like me, you no longer live in the area — or even if you have no connection to the area and simply want to see what is happening there — you can see the latest photos and articles at the website of my hometown newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat, which is offering unlimited access to its material.

Arkansans are tough, and they're accustomed to dealing with tornadoes. The healing process begins almost immediately. I am already hearing stories of examples of the can–do spirit I saw in action so many times when I was growing up, and I know the survivors in those two towns will rise above this.

They will mourn their dead and clear the debris, and that will be painful, but they will be all right.

They've done this before.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Day of Four Popes

Today was an historic day at St. Peter's Square in the Vatican City.

Pope Francis presided over the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. Francis' predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was on hand for the occasion, thus creating an historic "Day of Four Popes."

John Paul II is the only one of the two who is familiar to many modern Catholics. John Paul has been dead less than a decade; John XXIII died more than half a century ago.

Both left their marks on the modern Catholic church. In fact, I have often heard it said that it was John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, who first made the church accessible to the masses.

The selection of John Paul as the first non–Italian pope in more than 400 years helped expand the church's reach, as have the elections of his successors, a German and an Argentine. John Paul's papacy was more than symbolic. His was the second–longest papacy in modern history, and he was one of the most widely traveled world leaders ever. He went to 129 countries during his pontificate, seeking to touch the faithful on every continent.

The movement for sainthood began almost immediately after John Paul's death in 2005.

I don't know when such a movement may have begun for John XXIII. His papacy was before my time. I vaguely remember his successor, Paul VI, but only because a lady who used to babysit my brother and me, Mrs. Strack, was Catholic and had his picture on the wall, and I remember that the first John Paul chose his names to honor his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. After John Paul I died a month later, his successor chose the name John Paul II to honor his predecessor.

And what I know of John XXIII is almost entirely what I have heard of him from others. My mother admired him, and so did many other people I knew. Strangely enough, none of them were Catholic. We did know Catholics when I was growing up — Mrs. Strack and several others in my hometown — but I don't recall ever hearing them speak of him.

I don't know why that was so.

I've been trying to read what I can about the two newest saints. I already knew quite a bit about John Paul and already regarded him as a saintly man.

From what my mother told me, John XXIII was a lot like Pope Francis. I also get that impression from what I read by Bill Huebsch in the National Catholic Reporter.

John XXIII was an "accidental saint," Huebsch writes. "His personal gifts and weaknesses were ones that you or I might possess."

Apparently, one of his greatest strengths was his sense of humor. He had a razor–sharp mind and directed many of his wisecracks at himself.

"There are three ways to face ruin: women, gambling and farming," he wrote. "My father chose the most boring one."

Perhaps John's most memorable one–liner came when he was asked by a reporter how many people worked at the Vatican.

"About half of them," he replied.

John XXIII appears to have been a very accessible pope, just as Francis is perceived to be today. Upon meeting a young boy named Angelo, John said, "That was my name, too," which it was, and then he added, "But they made me change it."

In his lifetime, he was known as "Il Papa Buono""The Good Pope."

How appropriate that he should be canonized by Pope Francis.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Still in Nixon's Grip

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas eulogizes Richard Nixon on April 27, 1994.

I will always remember the moment when, 20 years ago today, I heard that Richard Nixon had died.

It wasn't one of those milestone moments people ask about decades later — like where one was when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Nixon had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. It was not unexpected, and, besides, at 81, he was nearly twice as old as JFK had been when he died.

Still, you must understand. Nixon was president when I was a child. I remember seeing war protests on TV in which hate and anger were mostly what were on display. Judging from the defensive responses I saw and heard coming from the Nixon White House, it was clear there was no love lost between the sides. I never really understood why so many people were surprised when the extent of Nixon's response came out via the secret tape recordings that ultimately destroyed his presidency.

It all was a logical reaction — from Nixon's paranoid perspective.

Anyway, Nixon really shaped and defined the times in which I grew up. When he was president, I honestly couldn't imagine a time when he would not be president. I could not imagine a time when America would be free of his grip.

And then he resigned. The unthinkable not only became thinkable, it became fact.

Nearly 20 years later, he was dead. I remember feeling astonished by the relentless passage of time.

There have been seven presidencies since Nixon left the White House. Five of them, including the incumbent in 1994, already had become entries in American history texts by the time Nixon died.

And now 20 years have passed since Nixon's death. Two more presidents have been elected; a third will be elected in a couple of years. I am humbled anew by the speed of the passage of time.

Five years ago, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Nixon's death, I wrote that he was "deeply flawed." I still believe that.

I believed that 20 years ago tonight when I heard he had died. I was living in Norman, Okla. It was a Friday evening, and I was watching my TV. Suddenly, the channel I was watching interrupted the broadcast with the news bulletin that Nixon had died.

He had been in the news all week — since suffering a stroke on Monday. At first, it seemed likely he would recover, even though his movement and vision were impaired, but he lapsed into a coma and died that Friday.

It was the first time a former president had died in more than two decades. It doesn't happen often. Only two former presidents have died since Nixon died, but it could happen at any time. The fact that two former presidents are in their late 80s (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, who will be 90 in June) makes the likelihood of another presidential funeral in the near future a distinct possibility; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are in their 60s and seem to be in good health, but they could be vulnerable as well.

In keeping with his wishes, Nixon did not receive a full state funeral, which would have called for his body to lie in state at the Capitol and probably some kind of funeral service in Washington. Everything was done in California. The five presidents who had succeeded him were there, along with many of his foes and allies from his years in Washington.

Both of his vice presidents were there. Gerald Ford, of course, had succeeded him when he resigned, but Spiro Agnew had been his first vice president, and he was there to pay his respects.

It was, I believe, the last public appearance by Ronald Reagan. His affliction with Alzheimer's was announced that year, and he was the next former president to die, a little more than 10 years later.

On the 20th anniversary of Nixon's death, it seems that no one is writing about him. He has been left behind with the other relics from the 20th century.

Ironically, Nixon's presidency continues to influence American policy and American spending in the 21st century. The president who sought "peace with honor" in Vietnam launched a war on drugs that America continues to fight and lose because it can't seem to find an honorable way out — and Americans continue to die because of it.

In so many ways, America is still in his grip.

Friday, April 18, 2014

More About the Midterms

We're roughly 6½ months from the midterm elections.

With a split Congress, the priorities for both political parties have been predictable, haven't they? I mean, the Democrats have the Senate and would like to have the House, too. The Republicans have the House, and they would like to take over the Senate. All things being equal, either could happen — and neither could happen.

CNN's Ashley Killough reports that the political terrain is getting worse for Democrats. Killough reports that five Senate races that were previously thought to be reasonably safe for Democrats have become competitive. That is based on information from a memo from the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — so take it with as many grains of salt as you wish.

Until the votes are counted in November, of course, anything (theoretically) is possible, but, as I have pointed out before, midterm elections don't usually work out too well for the president's party, especially in the second midterm of a president's tenure.

Historically speaking, therefore, since Democrats hold the White House, they are likely to experience setbacks in the midterms — unless something dramatic happens that has clear benefits for the president's party. How severe those setbacks will be is unclear.

With each passing day, the likelihood of something dramatic happening lessens.

How's it looking to observers so far?
  • Over at Sabato's Crystal Ball, the emphasis lately is on the House of Representatives, which Democrats had hoped (and, presumably, still do) to flip in the fall.

    At one time, the Democrats with whom I spoke expressed optimism upon hearing of the retirements of Republican incumbents. Based on my highly unreliable conversations, that mood has shifted. In more recent weeks and months, the Republicans with whom I have spoken have expressed the same sense of optimism regarding the retiring Democrat incumbents.

    Actually, writes Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor for the Crystal Ball, "the degree of turnover in the House this cycle is not unusually high." An average of slightly more than 70 House members leaves every two years, Skelley writes, "about one–sixth of the total House membership."

    So far, 50 members of the House are leaving for one reason or another. Some are retiring. Others are seeking other offices. The reasons for a member's departure can be many (including losing a bid for renomination) and additional retirements may be announced, but, considering we are now better than midway through April, you have to wonder if the number of retirements will even reach the average.

    Currently, the Crystal Ball anticipates a gain for Republicans in the House of 5–8 seats. That is roughly what the Rothenberg Political Report projects.

    To people who haven't been watching elections too closely until, say, the last 10 years or so, that may seem like a low number. In the context of other recent elections, I suppose it is. In the last five election cycles, either Republicans or Democrats gained at least 21 House seats three times.

    But those other two elections, in which one party or the other gained fewer than 10 seats, were more typical of American legislative elections.

    An election in which one party or the other wins as many seats as the parties did in 2006, 2008 and 2010 is seen as a transformational year by political observers.

    Charlie Cook's Cook Political Report finds 17 House seats up for grabs. If all those seats were held by Republicans and Democrats carried each, it would be enough for the Democrats to seize control of the House.

    The problem is that only four of those seats are held by Republicans. The rest are in Democrat hands. To win the House, it looks more and more like Democrats will need something dramatic to happen.
  • The latest Rothenberg Political Report finds Stuart Rothenberg obsessing over the rumor that outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius might challenge Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas.

    Rothenberg wrote that his initial response to a New York Times article that reported Sebelius, a former two–term governor of Kansas, was "considering entreaties from Democrats who want her to run" was that Democrats "had to be encouraged," given the difficulty they have had in recruiting quality candidates to challenge Republican incumbents.

    "After that," wrote Rothenberg, "I quickly came to my senses." He pointed out the things that occurred to me immediately upon hearing that Sebelius was considering making a run — things that should have given her pause if she really was thinking about it. Maybe they did.

    It is true that, at one time, Sebelius was a popular figure in Kansas. She was elected governor in 2002 with more than 53% of the vote, and she was re–elected in 2006 with 58% of the vote.

    But she was perceived as more of a centrist then.

    "I remember interviewing her years ago," Rothenberg writes, "when she was running for governor. She was all business. No chit–chat. Not much personal warmth at all. She was all about Kansas and managing things properly."

    That image has been transformed by the Obamacare experience. It is no secret that Sebelius' name is intricately tied to Obamacare, which is not popular in red–state Kansas. Her boss for the last five years, Barack Obama, got 41% of the vote in Kansas when he first sought the presidency in 2008, and that dropped to 38% of the vote when he ran for re–election in 2012.

    If Sebelius had run for the Senate, Obamacare would have been front and center, keeping the story in the headlines and benefiting Republicans elsewhere at a time when Democrats have been trying to change the subject to ... anything.

    Then there is Kansas' electoral history in Senate races. It hasn't been unusual for Democrats (even Democrat women) to be elected governor of Kansas — rare but not unusual — but Kansans haven't voted to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since (appropriately) the year before the premiere of "The Wizard of Oz."

    Rothenberg concluded that the Senate seat is safe for Roberts — and, apparently, so did Sebelius.

    Republicans need to win six seats to take control of the Senate. Rothenberg currently thinks a gain of 4–8 seats is probable. The Crystal Ball says Republicans appear likely to win four Senate seats with three more rated tossups. The Cook Political Report is a little more conservative right now, saying that three Democrat–held seats appear likely to flip and five more are up for grabs. But it also says two Republican–held seats are in jeopardy.
  • Those observers analyze politics professionally. I only do it on an amateur level.

    But, at this stage of a midterm campaign, I think it is useful to compare presidential job approval ratings for presidents in their second midterm election years.

    About a week ago, the McClatchy/Marist poll reported that Obama's approval rating was 45%. That's better than some polls, not as good as others, but it is the most recent one of which I am aware.

    How does that compare to other presidents in their second midterm election years?

    Well, Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, had an approval rating of 39% in a Los Angeles Times poll conducted in April 2006. Bush seldom enjoyed approval ratings of 40% or higher in 2006. His Republicans suffered, losing six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

    In April 1998, Bill Clinton had just survived an attempt to impeach him, and he was enjoying consistent approval ratings in the 60s. Thanks to the backlash against the impeachment attempt, the party division in the Senate was unchanged, and Clinton's Democrats actually gained four seats in the House.

    Ronald Reagan was facing his second midterm election in 1986. In mid–April of that year, Gallup reported that his approval rating was 63%. Reagan's Republicans lost eight Senate seats and five House seats.

    The circumstances of the midterm election of 1974 were unique in American history. Richard Nixon had been re–elected in 1972, but he resigned about three months before the midterm election of 1974. His successor, Gerald Ford, had to face the wrath of the voters in the grip of Watergate backlash.

    Nixon was still president in April 1973, and Gallup reported his approval rating at 26%. Republicans lost five Senate seats and 49 House seats.

    Dwight Eisenhower faced his second midterm election in 1958. In April 1958, Gallup reported his approval rating at 55%. 1958 was a tough year for Ike. His approval dipped below 50% in late March for the first time in his presidency. In November, Eisenhower's Republicans lost 13 Senate seats and 48 House seats.

    Harry Truman wasn't elected president, but he wound up serving most of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth term, and he presided over the midterm elections of 1946. The midterms of 1950 were the second midterms of his presidency, and, in the spring of 1950, his stunning victory in the 1948 presidential election was a distant memory, and he was fluctuating from the 30s to the 40s in his Gallup job approval ratings. Democrats lost six Senate seats and 29 House seats.

    Roosevelt had his own troubles. In the spring of 1938, with the second midterm of his presidency approaching, FDR's approval rating was 54% less than two years after he was re–elected in a landslide. In November, Roosevelt's Democrats lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Not Quite an Ordinary Armed Robbery

Forty years ago today, heiress Patty Hearst popped up in a surveillance video of a bank robbery in San Francisco.

It was and remains one of the most famous photographs of her.

Until February of 1974, Hearst had been a relatively unknown newspaper heiress. If she was known at all, it was as the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, supposedly the model for "Citizen Kane." She leaped into national headlines when she was kidnapped by a self–styled revolutionary group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

The kidnapping thrust her into the spotlight, and, at that time, the most famous photograph of her, the one that showed up on the cover of every news magazine and in every crude broadcasting graphic of the day, was the one at right.

It showed her as she apparently was before she was kidnapped — a naive heiress, apparently uninvolved in political causes of any kind, living in an apartment with her fiance.

For awhile, she communicated with her parents and the world via cassette tapes. The tapes were clearly propaganda statements that Hearst's captors forced her to read. In one such tape, Hearst said her captors wanted food delivered to the poor in California as their ransom, but, when Hearst's father, William Randolph Hearst Jr., complied in part with the demand, Patty still wasn't released because the SLA felt the food that was delivered was not very good.

Then the tapes stopped coming, and nothing was heard from Hearst until April, when she popped up again, first in a picture that her captors sent to the media and then in an armed robbery a couple of weeks later.

The picture of her that was released to the media, accompanied by a tape in which she announced that she had joined the SLA and would henceforth be known as Tania, quickly replaced the first as the most recognizable picture of her. That, too, wound up on the covers of news magazines and in broadcasting graphics.

It is the picture you see to the left — Hearst wearing revolutionary garb and holding a weapon. When that picture hit the news, I heard many adults speculating that the SLA would never allow her to hold a loaded weapon. Then, she was photographed participating in the robbery of a branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, carrying a weapon and making no apparent attempt to escape her captivity. After she and members of the SLA were taken into custody in 1975, law enforcement treated her as an accomplice rather than a victim.

After she was taken into custody, it was determined by some of the folks who examined her (as well as some who did not examine her) that she was a victim of the so–called Stockholm syndrome, in which a captive bonds with his/her captor(s).

At the time, I have to admit that I didn't really understand that. The news reports talked about the abuse she had suffered in captivity, and I couldn't reconcile that with the idea that she willingly joined the SLA — unless she had done so with the belief that it would prevent future abuse.

Perhaps it was a self–defense mechanism, but my memory is that any such reference was thinly veiled as something else.

Anyway, the jury believed she had joined the group willingly and convicted her of robbery. She was pardoned by President Carter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Defense of Press Freedom

I confess that I have mixed emotions about the case of Sharyl Attkisson, formerly an investigative reporter for CBS.

As I have written here many times, I am a First Amendment advocate. Well, actually, I believe in the Constitution — always have — and I am as apt to quote passages from it as other people are to cite quotations from the Bible, but everything comes back to the First Amendment. I don't believe any of the other freedoms we enjoy (and, in many cases, take for granted) would be possible without it.

I have worked for newspapers and a trade magazine, and I can sympathize with Attkisson's apparent frustration. She has said her reputation within CBS was that she was a "troublemaker" for pursuing leads on stories that were at odds with the White House's policies/stated positions.

I'm sure that much, if not all, of what she says is true. When she submitted the results of her investigations to the decision–makers in CBS' news division, she probably did receive many compliments for her work, which has always been solid, and she probably was told, from time to time, that there wasn't sufficient time to run it in its entirety.

At that point, I suppose, the editing process in broadcasting may well have subjected her work to, as she has put it, "the death of a thousand cuts." That's the kind of thing that can easily happen when one is trying to put together a page in a newspaper and space is limited — and the article is reviewed by several sets of eyes. Cuts are made, words are changed. Things happen. It isn't a conspiracy.

I am sure it was frustrating. I have seen people on the print side — I have even been one of them myself — who put a lot of time and effort into their work, only to have it diced up before it ended up on a page.

I'm sure the same thing happens in broadcasting.

In my own experience, I can say that it is beyond frustrating to have your work shredded in such a way, and, when it is, you find yourself open to any and all suggestions for why it happened. If, as is the case with Attkisson, your politics differ from your employer's, you may wonder if that explains what happened.

Fact is, things happen. As hard as it may be to accept, it probably wasn't intentional. It's too easy — and unfair — to blame the media. But, even if it is true, it is probably going to be too hard to prove. That's how our system is set up. The burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused.

That's in the Constitution.

The accusations of media bias by both sides have never been as shrill in my lifetime as they are today. There have been times in my life when I worked for employers who did not share my views, and it did cross my mind, when something I wrote was severely cut, that politics may have had something to do with it.

(I occupied a much lower rung on the journalist's ladder than Attkisson, though.)

But the media cannot be as conveniently labeled as paranoid extremists on both sides would like the rest of us believe. The media in this country are not as monolithic as that. Not even close. Journalists really are like any other demographic group; they do not have the same mind, and they do not think the same things — but many do share the same motivations.

I hear conservatives accusing the media of being liberal, and I hear liberals accusing the media of being conservative — both are correct, and neither is correct. Political leanings certainly play a role in the running of media outlets. It would be naive to presume that they do not. But politics is not the whole story.

The media operate the way everything else does in a free–market society. Individual decisions are made. Some are good. Some are bad. Individual decisions on the upper level have an impact on everyone below.

Profit margins have a lot to do with those decisions. In my work for newspapers, I was always aware of the importance of circulation and advertising revenue. Given a choice between their principles and their financial security, my guess is that most journalists will opt for security — even if that means they must stand up for their principles in less overt ways.

But I was also aware of the fact that journalists are eager to cultivate favor from their sources — and that can make things complicated if the reporter doesn't maintain a certain distance from the source.

Those ratings and profits rely on access to the influential and the powerful. It has been alleged as long as I can remember that there have been reporters — at the White House, on Capitol Hill, etc. — who become a bit too chummy with their sources.

And, when I hear Attkisson speak of the chilling effect that experiences like hers can have on this profession, it strikes a nerve with me. I worry about the same thing.

How does all this relate to the Attkisson situation? I don't know. I just know that profit is always a factor in a business decision, and news outlets may be particularly vulnerable; when times have been hard, newspapers traditionally are among the first to feel the influence of a bad economy and among the last to recover from one. In my own experience, when newspapers have had to make tough decisions under such circumstances, it is easy for the workers to misinterpret things that are said and/or done. Human nature, I suppose.

(I have never worked for a broadcasting outlet, but I assume that profit would be defined, in part, by ratings.)

Attkisson was with CBS for more than two decades. There have been some rocky economic years in there — as well as some boom times — but CBS never fired her. The quality of her work was not an issue.

Given that, I guess, if I had been in Attkisson's position, I might be inclined to think what she apparently thinks.

The press is free, like any other business in America. The owners of a particular newspaper or TV station may have a certain set of principles that differs from their employees, just like owners and employees in other fields can and certainly do disagree.

And Atkisson is free to take her stand, which she does at her website. If you go there, you will find this, her statement of principle, I guess: "Resisting undue corporate, political and other special interests."

Because of the nature of this business, it may be easier to suspect that politics is behind certain decisions — but suspicion is not the same as proof of guilt, in a courtroom or a newsroom.

In fairness to Attkisson, she has not accused CBS of anything resembling a conspiracy. She has merely suggested that there was a pattern in the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken. But that cannot be accepted as proof.

A person cannot be found guilty of something because of a guess or a hunch. That's in the Constitution, too.

Freedom of the press can be a complicated, sometimes fragile, thing, but its preservation is essential in the existence of a republic.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Looking Out for Number One

"Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it."

Mark Twain

I'll be the first one to tell you that I was never very strong in certain subjects in school.

I knew a few people who got terrific grades in just about everything — there was one in particular who made it look stupefyingly easy, but she was such a sweet person that no one held it against her when she messed up the curve for the rest of us — but I'm sure they would tell you there were subjects at which they had to really work to keep that grade–point average up.

There may be some people in this world who do have a natural aptitude for just about every scholastic subject, but I have yet to meet one — just people who have successfully cultivated the appearance of brilliance.

And that is probably almost as good as if they really are brilliant. What people believe to be true tends to trump whatever is true.

That's what makes the art of spin so important in the world of politics. Even if they don't know much else, politicians do know a lot about the image–reality dynamic. When it is working in their favor, they ride the wave. But when the tide goes against them, they need the professional spinmeisters to turn things around.

In my experience, most politicians weren't the brightest bulbs in the box when they were in school. In fact, many might have been the polar opposite of that girl I mentioned earlier.

But the successful ones always seem to have known when it was time to trust their futures to the professional spinmeisters — who could, as I used to hear the adults in my world say from time to time, make chicken salad out of chicken s**t. In some circles — and depending upon what was being said — I guess that was/is called bluffing.

Sometimes, though, even spin won't work. That's when the strategy seems to be simply to change the subject.

And this year, with the party primaries in the midterm election campaigns now in full swing, a news event seems to have been made to order for changing the subject — the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is a story that has been going on for nearly a month, much of it spent watching search parties fly over the Indian Ocean.

As I write this, the searchers apparently are no closer to learning the flight's fate than they have been in the last four weeks — but they continue to chase every lead, no matter how unlikely it may be. And news networks are lampooned for labeling a 4–week–old story breaking news.

But for politicians, particularly Democrats and most especially those in federal office, it means attention is taken away from the facts about Obamacare and the economy. For them, that is almost certainly a good thing.

Now, economics was one of those subjects I took in college because I was required to do so, not because I had any special understanding of the material. It was like a foreign language to me, and I never had much success learning a second language, either.

I have friends who were and still are fluent in economics. I have always freely admitted that I am not. I sure did try to be when I was in that class. I spent hours reading and re–reading the chapters of my ECON textbooks, hoping some of it would stick, but I regret to report that little, if any, of it did.

(Well, as Will Rogers used to say, we're all ignorant. We're just ignorant about different things.)

And today, most of my understanding of economics is based on my understanding of logic. That normally helps me in unfamiliar territory — but economics really is another matter. It has a logic all its own.

I don't understand the whimsical nature of the stock market or the prices of gold and silver — or, to be honest, monetary policy in general.

But I do have a basic understanding of natural law. See, I took physics in high school. I didn't do very well at it, but I understood enough about motion and similar principles from my own observations of the world that I wasn't completely lost in that class.

I knew that every action has an equal and opposite reaction — from something as simple as playing baseball. To hit a ball a great distance, it was necessary to swing with as much force as possible. You don't hit the ball out of the park by squaring up to bunt.

And I knew from basic math that if you have a certain quantity of something and you give up a portion of it — through commerce or consumption or whatever — you are left with less to consume or trade for other things.

It isn't rocket science. And, for me, that is definitely a good thing.

Back when Barack Obama ran for president the first time, I freely acknowledge seeing logic in some of his objectives, but the recession and the economic implosion left what I thought was an unavoidable conclusion. The jobs crisis had to be met first — before any of the other objectives could be met.

Yes, I said, the health care system needs to be reformed. But not trashed — and certainly not while this nation is on its economic knees. Put America back to work so there is a solid economic foundation upon which to rebuild health care.

If we didn't do that, I warned, we would see premiums and deductibles go up, policies canceled, existing full–time jobs downgraded to part–time ones, and existing part–time jobs eliminated.

Yes, I said, the minimum wage should be higher. But we shouldn't forget that it was really only intended as a minimum entry–level wage. Over time, as the individual gains experience and knowledge, that individual will receive raises, bonuses, all sorts of additional incentives.

And I was also uncomfortable with the idea of raising the minimum wage by nearly 40%. It was unrealistic to think that businesses could give their current workers that kind of raise and be able to increase their workers' hours, much less create new jobs.

The economy is not one big faceless entity in spite of what we hear about a handful of massive corporations that monopolize everything. Yes, there are huge corporations that do control an ever–growing segment of the U.S. economy, but much of America's economic activity is still in the hands of small business owners. There may not be as many mom–and–pop shops as there once were, but they still drive the American economy.

Except for the newcomers, I guess nearly all small business owners have been in business for awhile. They're bound to have a pretty good idea what kind of annual profits they can expect from their businesses, and they budget accordingly. When their incomes don't meet their needs because of added financial demands, they have to make adjustments. Maybe minor adjustments in the prices being charged or the products/services being offered will bring things back into balance. Sometimes they have to cut employee hours. They may have to cut some jobs.

If you own your business and the math isn't balancing, you look for ways to make it balance. If you are required to meet new guidelines that take money from your budget, you have to compensate for that. If you are required to pay your employees more, you have to compensate for that as well.

You do what you have to do. Same in your personal life. If you are spending more than you're taking in, you have to find ways to economize. You have to function within your means.

It's physics. It's the law of survival — looking out for number one. And you can't blame anyone for that, can you?

If someone tries to sell me on the idea, the image that America can do things that I know in my heart are at odds with natural law, I resist. Because reality tells me otherwise, and I have to ask:

Why should the United States be immune to natural law?

That is the great unasked question in America today. But I get the feeling that more and more Americans are asking it in their hearts and minds.

The latest Associated Press-GfK poll indicates more movement away from the Democrats. That is bad news in the midterm election year.

I believe it is due, in part, to the fact that more people are realizing that, without a sound foundation, no lasting achievements are possible.