Friday, June 27, 2014

How the Great War Began


Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, shortly before they were
assassinated in Sarajevo 100 years ago tomorrow, triggering World War I.


Once when I was a boy, my family spent the summer in Austria, mostly in the city of Graz.

We were there for roughly six or seven weeks.

While we were there, we rented a vehicle and took a trip to Greece; to get there, we had to drive through Yugoslavia. As I recall, we stopped for the night along the way in Sarajevo, which is where Austria's archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were assassinated by a group called the Black Hand a century ago tomorrow. The Black Hand was a Serbian nationalist group.

That was the act that began the First World War.

I don't remember if we looked for the site of the assassinations when we were in Sarajevo. I also don't remember if we looked for Franz Ferdinand's birthplace. He was born in Graz.

My father was a religion professor when I was growing up. While we were in Austria, he made some day trips to sites of World War II concentration camps to take pictures and gather material for his lectures, but I don't think we ever spoke about World War I that summer, even though we drove through the city where it all began.

I guess it makes sense that we didn't focus on World War I. Religion was not an issue in World War I. Imperialism was.

That's about as direct as the story of the outbreak of World War I gets. Even after a century, it becomes increasingly complicated the deeper one digs into it. The Great War, as it was known until World War II, happened largely because of alliances that required certain countries to step in if other countries were attacked.

Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Austria–Hungary's emperor, who declared war on Serbia. Russia got involved because of its treaty obligations — and that meant that Germany had to declare war on Russia because of Germany's treaty obligations. Then France declared war on Germany.

From the tangle of treaties, two factions emerged — the Allies and the Central Powers. Britain, France and Russia were Allies; Germany, the Ottoman Empire and Austria–Hungary were the Central Powers.

World War I was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. All told, nearly 10 million people were killed. More than 21 million were wounded. Nearly 8 million were missing.

All because the emperor's nephew was killed 100 years ago tomorrow.

To a student of history, the odds that Franz Ferdinand would be the catalyst for a conflict the size of the Great War (a war that, Margaret MacMillan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "changed everything") were slim and none, to put it mildly. Frankly, I have never been able to figure out to my own satisfaction why he was targeted.

"The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand ... ensured his name has been enshrined in the annals of European history," writes Suzanne Lynch in the Irish Times. "But the archduke himself was not a particularly popular figure in the years preceding his death."

A German historian described him as "a man of uninspired energy, dark in appearance and emotion, who radiated an aura of strangeness and cast a shadow of violence and recklessness ... a true personality amidst the amiable inanity that characterized Austrian society at this time."

The anniversary has renewed a debate over the role of 19–year–old Gavrilo Princip. Princip was the man who shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie 100 years ago today. Of that, there is no doubt. What is far less clear, writes The Guardian, is whether he was a hero or a villain for doing so. The Associated Press wonders the same thing.

The assassination itself reminds me of the scene in "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" in which the world's greatest assassins converge on Oktoberfest with the intention of killing Inspector Clouseau but end up killing each other instead.

There were six assassins posted along the motorcade route, most in case the assassin(s) ahead of them failed to kill the archduke.

The first two assassins, armed with guns and bombs, did fail to act. The third assassin had a bomb, which he threw at the motorcade, but it bounced off the convertible cover of the archduke's car into the street and went off under another car. Nearly two dozen people were injured, and the assassin attempted to commit suicide by taking cyanide and jumping into the river — but the suicide attempt also failed. The assassin vomited and did not drown because, thanks to recent hot and dry conditions, the water wasn't very deep. He was taken into custody.

The motorcade proceeded to its next stop, a town hall reception, where the archduke gave his prepared speech and added a few remarks about the attempt on his life.

Considering what had happened, I think I would have insisted on alternate arrangements for my departure from town hall. In fact, city officials and the archduke's aides did discuss that very thing. The most sensible solution, from what I have seen, called for the couple to remain at town hall until enough soldiers could be brought in to secure the route.

But the governor–general rejected that suggestion — because any soldiers who came straight from maneuvers would not be able to dress in proper formal uniforms.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie agreed to a change in plans. They wanted to go to the hospital to visit the people who had been injured earlier in the bombing. A different route was agreed upon — but no one told the driver. The person who normally would advise him of such changes had been injured in the bombing. In his absence, Sarajevo's chief of police was charged with spreading the word of such a change to the drivers, but he failed to do so.

Anyway, the driver took the original route. The governor–general, who was riding with the archduke and his wife, called out to the driver to take a different route. The driver stopped the car — as fate would have it, near Princip, who fired two shots from a distance of about five feet. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were killed.

When he was sentenced, Princip made an apology of sorts. He said he did not intend to shoot Sophie. His intended targets were the archduke — and the governor–general.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Death of a Statesman



"What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

Sen. Howard Baker
While questioning John Dean
June 28, 1973

Howard Baker, who died today at the age of 88, might have been vice president. Or president.

When Gerald Ford won the 1976 Republican nomination, Baker reportedly was the front–runner to be Ford's running mate. But Ford chose one of Baker's colleagues in the Senate, Bob Dole, instead.

The Ford–Dole ticket went on to lose to the Carter–Mondale ticket. It also lost Baker's home state of Tennessee — but, even if one assumes that Baker's presence on the ticket would have given Tennessee to the Republicans (which is not much of a stretch, given that Tennessee had voted Republican in five of the previous six presidential elections and was close on Election Night 1976), that wouldn't have been enough to change the outcome of the national race.

By itself.

In hindsight, though, it is possible that Baker could have helped Ford win a few more Southern states — such as Mississippi (which remained too close to call until nearly 3 a.m. on Election Night), Louisiana (which gave a rather tepid 51% of its vote to fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter, who won every Southern state but Virginia that year) and North Carolina (which was even closer than Baker's home state) — and claim a narrow victory.

Baker was considered the "safe" choice for running mate, journalist Jules Witcover wrote, but, in the end, Ford opted for Dole for a number of reasons: Surveys suggested that Baker didn't have as much name recognition as most observers thought, and the public's perception of his performance during the Watergate hearings was "fuzzy," which dramatically lowered his potential value to the ticket.

Another factor, wrote Witcover, was that "Ford did not feel particularly comfortable with Baker."

If Ford had won that election, he would not have been eligible to run in 1980 because he had served more than half of his predecessor's term — and if Baker had been Ford's vice president, he probably would have sought the nomination.

He actually did seek the 1980 nomination, but he fared poorly in the Republican primaries, and Ronald Reagan eventually won the GOP nomination. It seems likely that, as the incumbent vice president, he would have been in a stronger position than he actually was — and might well have been the nominee.

At the very least, he probably would have done better than he did.

Baker might also have been a Supreme Court justice. Richard Nixon reportedly wanted to fill one of two vacancies with Baker — but Baker apparently took too long to tell Nixon whether he would accept, and Nixon offered it to William Rehnquist.

Baker finally did make it to the White House — as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff.

He had the kind of biography that even a skilled fiction writer couldn't make up. Baker was married twice, both times to women with prominent ties to the Republican Party. His first wife, Joy, was the daughter of longtime Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. She died of cancer.

His second wife, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, was the daughter of 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alfred Landon. She survives him.

Howard Baker was the kind of man most people say they want in political office — a man of integrity. He was known as the "Great Conciliator" for his skill at brokering compromise agreements between seemingly irreconcilable groups while (usually) preserving civility.

He was also very personable, soft spoken, a political centrist. America always seems to have a shortage of genuine statesmen, but Baker was one of them. He always seemed motivated to unite, not divide.

I've heard it said that a reporter once told a Democrat senator that the reporter's informal survey indicated that more of the senator's Democratic colleagues would support Baker for president than anyone else.

It is hard to imagine anyone on either side of the political fence commanding that much support from the opposition party today.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fifty Years Since the Freedom Summer Murders



"Mississippi seems almost too small a state to torment the conscience of the nation so deeply. Two little communities live there, entirely separated, hating and fearing each other in a condition of total lawlessness and immorality. ... [F]or three centuries, they have had only animal relations with each other, and all politics, all decision, is magnetized by the primordial fact of race hatred."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1964"

In 1964, Ole Miss history professor James Silver labeled Mississippi the "closed society," and, as historian William Manchester observed, "it became clear as the 1960s progressed that an astonishing number of its people, white and black, were actually unaware of the civil rights movement. There were no attacks on the freedom riders there because the state police did not allow them the freedom of movement necessary to be mobbed."

As hard as it may be for most 21st–century people, even those living in Mississippi, to understand, Mississippi seemed to exist under a huge bubble in those days. If they weren't aware of the civil rights movement before, though, Mississippians started to become aware of it 50 years ago tomorrow.

It was on that day in 1964 that three civil rights activists — two Northern white men and a Mississippi black man — went missing in Neshoba County, Miss. After training in Ohio for what was being called "Freedom Summer" — and being given explicit instructions for what to do if they encountered any local resistance — more than 200 volunteers departed for the South on June 19 and arrived on June 21.

"Almost immediately," wrote Manchester, "three of them were reported missing."

In hindsight, the scenarios that were suggested while the three were officially missing — their bodies were found about six weeks after their disappearance — may seem outlandish, but, at the time, they probably seemed thoroughly plausible to white Southerners who were openly fearful of intervention by "outside agitators."

While the search went on, as lakes and rivers were being dragged and helicopters were doing aerial reconnaissance, rumors were spread that the three had actually gone to Cuba or Chicago, where they were laughing at all the fuss their "disappearance" had caused.

If only that had been true.

In reality, what had happened was that the three were taken into custody that afternoon for allegedly speeding. They were held for about six hours while the execution squad was assembled, then they were released after reportedly paying a fine. They were never seen alive again.

Here is what happened, according to the story that emerged after their bodies were found.

Shortly after their release, the men were stopped by the execution squad. They were taken to a remote location and shot at point–blank range; the black man was savagely beaten before he was shot. Their bodies were buried near the base of a dam and not found for weeks; their car was burned and left on an abandoned logging road. It was found the day after the three disappeared.

In the early weeks of the search for the three missing civil rights workers, the prevailing opinion among white Mississippians, Manchester wrote, was that the searchers "had no expectation of finding the youths. They were there ... to win Negro votes for President Johnson" in his campaign against Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater.

(That wouldn't help in Mississippi. Comparatively few blacks voted in Mississippi in those days — but, since Mississippi gave Goldwater more than 87% of its vote, Johnson probably didn't expect to carry Mississippi, anyway.)

Eventually the searchers did find the bodies after the case had drawn national attention. In the account of the killings that emerged, the deputy sheriff addressed the men after the bodies were buried. "You've struck a blow for the white man," he said. "Mississippi can be proud of you." Then he warned them all to remain silent — or risk certain death.

Three years later, the case led to the conviction in federal court of seven members of the execution squad for depriving the men of their rights.

It was the first successful prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi.

If you're one of the so–called "millennials," that might not seem so special. But let's put it into some perspective.

When America was founded, the Founding Fathers wanted the states to have most of the say over how things were done within their state boundaries. Thus, most criminal charges, like homicide and theft, were — and still are — state charges. The federal courts get involved only when an alleged crime involves a federal law or cases reach the federal level in the appeals process.

These murders were committed at a time when juries in Mississippi — and most of the South, for that matter — routinely acquitted white defendants charged with killing blacks.

Federal authorities knew this so they used the strategy of prosecuting in federal court with the strongest charge in their arsenal — depriving the victims of their civil rights.

Compared to depriving someone of life, that may not seem like much, but it was that or nothing. Prosecutors operated on the belief that something was better than nothing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cut to the Chase



On this night in 1994, O.J. Simpson led the police on a slow–speed chase.

Many Americans were watching coverage of the NBA Finals. Houston and New York were tied, 2–2, when they tipped off Game 5 in Madison Square Garden that Friday night, and it was an exciting game. The score was tied at the end of the third quarter. On top of that, it had been a close series.

The NBA Finals were being carried by NBC, the network for whom Simpson had been an NFL analyst, and, when Simpson, a passenger in a white Ford Bronco driven by his friend and ex–teammate Al Cowlings, began leading the Los Angeles police on the chase on the freeway, NBC gave it split–screen coverage with the game.

Actually, the game got the short end of the stick while the chase was in progress. The game was shown in a smaller portion of the screen while the chase was in a larger portion of the screen.

NBC's affiliate in Los Angeles didn't even show the split screen. It just showed the chase — until after Simpson surrendered to police. Then it showed the split screen — when there really wasn't a reason to show what was happening in the yard of Simpson's estate.

By that time, the truly dramatic part of the chase was long over.

When the chase was in progress, though, there was a lot of drama. Viewers learned that O.J. had a gun with him.

June 17, 1994, would have been a rather dramatic day in sports even without the NBA game. The New York Rangers celebrated their first Stanley Cup in more than 50 years. Arnold Palmer played his final round at the U.S. Open. In baseball, Ken Griffey Jr. matched Babe Ruth's record for most home runs before June 30. But that Bronco chase is what people remember.

Shortly before, one of Simpson's defense attorneys appeared on TV to read a rambling letter from Simpson to the media, in which Simpson told those closest to him, "Don't feel sorry for me. I've had a great life." He urged them not to remember "this lost person." Many who heard the letter being read believed it was a suicide note. Simpson's lawyer urged him to give himself up, as he had promised (but failed) to do earlier in the day.

I have heard it said that the image of that Bronco was one of the most memorable moments on TV in the last half century — exceeded only by TV coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the scene of Simpson's eventual acquittal, the Challenger explosion and the death of Osama bin Laden.

The O.J. case polarized the nation by race. Whites overwhelmingly thought he was guilty of the crimes; blacks overwhelmingly thought he was innocent.

Twenty years later, blacks are more inclined to say he was guilty, CNN reported recently.

But 20 years ago tonight, the nation sat transfixed in front of its television sets watching the Juice's slow–motion run. Americans would take sides later. Twenty years ago tonight, they were wondering how it would end.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

All Politics Is Local



The late Tip O'Neill is often quoted as saying that. I don't know if he did or not — but he did write a book that had that as part of its title so I assume he must have said it at least once.

Whether it originated with him or not, it is about the truest statement about politics, particularly the care and feeding of House districts, that you will ever hear.

And I believe it holds the key to the historic primary in Virginia in which Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was beaten by a Tea Party–backed economics professor.

Clearly, when a seven–term congressman who holds the position of House majority leader and has his eyes on the House speakership is denied renomination, there will be many attempts to explain what happened. A House majority leader is not rejected by his constituents every election, and I believe this is the first time that a House majority leader has lost a party's primary.

It is historic.

In the last couple of days, the most prominently mentioned causes of Cantor's loss that I have heard are (1) the Tea Party is back and has seized the Republican Party, and (2) this was anti–immigration backlash.

Let's examine both of these suggestions — and, as we do, let's look at the results of another primary election conducted on the same day in South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham easily defeated six challengers.

First, the assertion about the Tea Party.

I really get tired of hearing the Tea Party referred to as if it is an actual political party. It is not. It is a grassroots movement, not really different from the "Occupy Wall Street" movement on the left.

In the aftermath of Cantor's loss, I have heard the Tea Party mentioned as if it had thrown its enormous political heft into the campaign and crushed Cantor. To be sure, there are some national Tea Party organizations that do promote certain candidates and make an effort on their behalf — but, from what I have heard, nothing like that happened in Virginia. Some Tea Party sympathizers favored Cantor's challenger, but there was no coordinated effort that I have seen.

Perhaps Tea Party groups wanted to jump into the race — but no one thought Cantor could be defeated.

The thing that seems to shock people the most is the huge advantage Cantor enjoyed in campaign funds. He spent millions; his opponent, it is said, spent about what Cantor's campaign staff spent in steakhouses.

My guess is that particular revelation sent shockwaves through Republican incumbents — but it should have been a cautionary tale for Democrats, too. Neither side is immune to the illusion that a monetary advantage will always win an election. This time, though, it wasn't about who spent the most.

Nor, I think, was it about immigration. Cantor is conservative, but he supported a pathway to citizenship, and some have suggested his loss was due to backlash on immigration.

It is true that some of the voters in Virginia's Seventh District voted against Cantor on the basis of immigration, but from what I have been reading and hearing from reporters on the ground, that wasn't the most significant issue for most voters.

That hasn't kept immigration reform from taking the blame.

The Breitbart News Network says it was a "referendum against amnesty."

The Washington Post and Miami Herald say Cantor's loss means the end of immigration reform in the foreseeable future. Halimah Abdullah of CNN writes that immigration reform already was a longshot before Cantor lost, and the campaign for it should continue.

The Chicago Sun–Times, too, says the campaign for immigration reform is separate from the campaign for Virginia's Seventh District House seat.

I agree, mostly because what O'Neill said is still true. All politics is local, especially in House districts, which are divided up based on population. Except for those rare cases in which a state's population is so low that it only qualifies for a single at–large representative in the House — and there are currently seven of those — House seats are about as local as it gets in Washington.

The House of Representatives is known as the "People's House" because its membership is intended to reflect the people's will and conduct the people's business — and what I am hearing from Seventh District residents is that Cantor essentially forgot the people he represented. He wanted to be speaker. He wanted to be a player on the world stage.

That is something that Graham did not do. Graham and Cantor are similar in their politics. In the past, they've had the support of self–described Tea Party voters, and there was talk that their support for immigration reform alienated Tea Party voters.

But on Tuesday, as I say, Graham easily won renomination. Every political analyst I have seen regards his seat as safe in November's general election.

I don't dismiss the influence of the Tea Party any more than I dismiss the influence of any other politically active group. What I am saying is that any incumbent — in either party — who is not perceived as a public servant is going to have trouble, especially in this political climate.

Cantor paid the price for that perception, and now Republicans will choose a new majority leader next week.

That is the lesson incumbents should be taking from this.

Remembering the Simpson-Goldman Murders



It is still vivid in memory.

It's been a couple of decades, but, in many ways, it seems as if it happened yesterday.

Sometime during the evening hours of June 12–13, 1994, the ex–wife of former pro football star O.J. Simpson, Nicole Brown Simpson, was murdered in the courtyard of her southern California townhouse. The body of a young man, Ron Goldman, was found a few feet from her.

They had both been stabbed repeatedly. Nicole's head had nearly been cut off her body.

The bodies were found shortly after midnight, about half an hour after a Chicago–bound airplane on which O.J. was a passenger left Los Angeles International Airport.

There were a lot of other details that emerged in O.J.'s trial, which came to be regarded as the trial of the century. It was also — as far as I can tell — the public's first real introduction to DNA evidence.

But, on that mid–June day in 1994, what was widely known was that Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were dead. From outward appearances, Goldman was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He worked as a waiter at the restaurant where Nicole had dined with her family that evening, and her mother had left her glasses there. Nicole called the restaurant and was told that they would be brought to her home. Goldman, who was working in the restaurant that night, apparently volunteered to take the glasses when he finished work.

The assumption at the time was that Goldman had interrupted the attack on Nicole.

It was revealed later that Ron and Nicole were friendly. They had been seen riding together in Nicole's car, and the exact nature of their relationship remains uncertain to this day.

As for the DNA evidence, people had to be educated about that by the prosecution when O.J.'s trial got under way in 1995. But all of that was still in the future on this day 20 years ago.

O.J., of course, was acquitted of the murders — but was later held liable in a civil trial. Years later, he was convicted of an apparently unrelated offense in Nevada and given a sentence that, while not a life sentence, was expected to wind up being a life term, given O.J.'s age. After recent legal rulings, though, O.J. could be released as early as 2017.

But that wasn't the end of it.

I guess it was to be expected that the 20th anniversary of the murders would bring new revelations, and it has. The National Enquirer, for example, recently published an article claiming to tell why O.J. killed Nicole.

Goldman's sister recently told the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles that forgiveness for the murder of the brother to whom she was especially close is not possible for her.

Last month, Lili Anolik suggested in Vanity Fair that the Simpson trial was the first reality TV show. It was a point I hadn't considered before, but it made sense.

Or perhaps it was more like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The trial brought forth a string of witnesses for the prosecution who could have been a 1995 version of the cast of Desperate Housewives with all achieving a certain amount of rather short–lived fame. It was established during the trial that at least one of Nicole's friends/house guests had a cocaine problem, and it was suggested by the defense during the trial that drug dealers could have committed the murders and that their actual target had not been Nicole but rather her friend.

By the time the trial began, the murders themselves were almost afterthoughts; the human tragedy was mostly ignored. Ron and Nicole were vivid as people only in the memories of those in the court — and outside the court — who knew them. To everyone else they were props in a courtroom drama.

There was a wide range of human wreckage left in the wake of those two deaths.

The image that stays with me is of the streams of blood that could be seen on the pavement outside Nicole's townhouse in the news reports 20 years ago — and the children who were left without a mother. At some point, O.J. was awarded custody of his children, and they moved to Florida.

Those children are adults well into their 20s now. I often wonder what their lives were like after their mother was killed and their father was accused of the crime.

All I know is that the oldest, Sydney, was arrested in connection with a school incident nearly 10 years after her mother's death and sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Last I heard, she was waiting tables in Atlanta.

I think her brother is still in Florida.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Don't Think So



Hillary Clinton says the Clinton family emerged from eight years in the White House "dead broke."

Color me skeptical.

I grew up in Arkansas. I know what the pay was like for statewide officials there. Until the voters changed it, state officials were paid $10,000 a year or less. Clinton may have been paid at that level for awhile, but voters gave state officers a raise at some point, and his salary went up to around $30,000 a year.

That was a princely sum at the time, but it was still less than most state governors received. Today, it isn't even as much as the state's median family income.

Anyway, I don't doubt that the Clintons were low on funds when they entered the White House.

But Bill Clinton was paid $200,000 a year as president, and he served for eight years. While Clinton was president, the salary for the president was doubled, effective for the next president — so Clinton received $1.6 million while president. His successor served two terms and received $3.2 million, as will Barack Obama by the time his second term ends.

I know that Clinton didn't have all that money stashed away when he left the White House. He had to pay some tax on his income, of course, and Hillary was right about having to buy a house and pay for their daughter's education (although she could have found cheaper places to go to school than Stanford, Oxford and Columbia).

But she became a senator just before he left the presidency. Senators at that time made just over $140,000 a year. President Clinton's memoirs sold more than 2 million copies.

Like everyone else, the Clintons had expenses. I'm not saying they didn't, and, as I have already observed, no one has ever gotten rich on a public servant's pay in Arkansas — but, when they left the White House, the Clintons had sources and levels of income that are not part of the experience for most Americans.

To say they were dead broke upon leaving the White House seems like an exaggeration to me — not unlike Mrs. Clinton's '08 campaign assertion that she was better qualified to answer that infamous 3 a.m. phone call — and even if it was true, cash started flowing pretty quickly.

Well, if Mrs. Clinton seeks the presidency in 2016, as many people seem to think she will, she will have to release her financial information, and it will be subjected to considerable scrutiny.

As will her actions before, during and after the Benghazi attack.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Dangerous Precedents



Barack Obama's Taliban‐for–Bergdahl deal set some dangerous precedents — for the presidency, for the nation and for its people.

For as long as I can remember, the stated policy of the United States has been not to negotiate with terrorists — not for anyone under any circumstances. I always thought the reasons for that were obvious.

If, for example, you are a parent, there are certain behaviors you want to encourage in your children and certain behaviors you want to discourage. Right? If your child is doing something you want to discourage, is it better to punish him when he does it or to offer him something he wants in exchange for not doing it?

Logic tells me that it is better to punish bad behavior than to reward someone for not engaging in that behavior. The latter will only encourage worse behavior (requiring more and more generous rewards for stopping it). Children can be devious, more devious than some adults think, and, when they spot a weakness, they will seldom hesitate to exploit it.

Same thing applies to superpowers and their relationships with lesser powers since smaller powers do sometimes resemble petulant children throwing temper tantrums. I understand that Barack Obama is sensitive to the plight of third–world countries, but, as I presume most parents at least try to teach their children, there is a right way to do something and a wrong way to do something.

Parents learn not to respond to childish tactics like tantrums, crying, holding your breath and the like — and those are tame compared to the tactics that terrorists use.

There are lots of countries that engage in violent acts to get the attention of larger and stronger nations and, hopefully, gain some kind of advantage. American policy, up to this point, has emphasized that is the wrong way to do it. Fortunately, the policy against negotiating with terrorists is perceived as a policy of strength; while someone does see fit to test its resolve now and then, that hasn't been a frequent occurrence in the past.

Now that Obama has traded several high–profile Taliban leaders for one American prisoner whose loyalty is questionable, I'm afraid we may see more and more acts against Americans. Some may be civilians traveling abroad. Given the nature of the Taliban and the leaders we returned to it, I fear we will see Americans being killed at an alarming rate, possibly on American soil.

Given the openness of America's borders, what is to stop them from bringing the fight here? If we fence off our southern border, what is to prevent terrorists from entering the country somewhere along our coasts — or perhaps our northern border?

There are groups in the world — the Taliban among them — that are intent on causing damage and pain to the United States. I have no doubt that the five men who were released in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl will try, at some point, to kill Americans. How and where they will do so is, at this point, anyone's guess, but their histories suggest no other possibility to me.

The president's arbitrary deal has put hundreds of millions of Americans at risk, and I am absolutely convinced that some will die as a result. How many? It could be one big event, like Sept. 11, or it could be a series of smaller events that may seem unconnected at first.

Whatever it is, it might be preceded by a series of abductions that are intended to exploit this new American policy and lead to deals for imprisoned terrorist leaders.

That is the most deadly precedent in this deal, but there are other precedents that I think are almost as dangerous over the long haul.

In this country, we have many elected officials, all of whom are supposed to represent the people. Some are local. Some are state. Some are federal. All are elected to do the people's will.

When the president takes it upon himself to make a deal and doesn't even consult the leaders in Congress, presumably because the majority in one of the legislative bodies is not from his political party, that defeats the purpose of democracy.

Some may say, "Well, the president is chosen by all the people." Such logic suggests that the president will represent all Americans in every decision he makes.

What about the concerns of the people who did not vote for the president? Nearly 61 million Americans voted for Obama's Republican opponent in 2012. No other losing presidential candidate has ever received the support of so many ballots.

Obama is openly disdainful of those Americans and encourages his supporters to dismiss the concerns of their countrymen.

So, rather than consult with congressional leaders, Obama chose to act on his own.

That is a dangerous precedent for the American system of government. From the start, members of Congress were intended to play a big part in national policy decisions. A president who acts on his own like this — routinely — is acting like a monarch, which was the very thing the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid.

It can be a messy business, having to work out compromises, but the presidents who are successful at it have the longest–lasting positive influence on their country.

Obama's actions are setting dangerous precedents.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

We're Five Months Out ...



... and the landscape is looking pretty good for the Republicans.

There was a time when Democrats believed — or said they believed — that they could recapture the House and hold on to the Senate in 2014, giving the president a Democratic Congress with which to work in the final two years of his presidency.

But that idea seems to have disappeared. (I have a Democrat acquaintance who would call such a statement "rabid right." I think he's been drinking a bit too deeply from the left–wing Kool–Aid.) Presidential approval numbers have been stuck in the low to mid–40s for a year, and a president's party almost never fares well in midterms when the president is struggling.

That's from the lofty perspective of history, which is not infallible. Conventional wisdom said a black man could not be elected president, yet one has been elected president — twice. Conventional wisdom once said a woman could not be elected president, but two women have been nominated for vice president, one in each party, and it appears likely that, at some point, probably in the near future, a woman will be nominated as the standard–bearer for one of the parties.

The conventional wisdom is that midterms are difficult for every president, even the popular ones, although there have been cases in which the president's party did well in a midterm — and it is the hope for that miraculous victory, like Truman's upset win over Dewey in 1948, that always encourages losing candidates and parties. Typically, though, a political miracle like that in a midterm requires some sort of backlash against the other party or some other unusual circumstance (like the September 11 terrorist attacks) that prompts voters to rally around the flag.

Realistically, such a thing is still possible — and will remain possible until the votes are counted — but we're only five months out ...

... and, on the ground, the Rothenberg Political Report currently sees anything from no net gain to the gain of a few seats by the Republicans in the House. Sabato's Crystal Ball sees Republicans gaining between five and eight seats. The Cook Political Report doesn't see a great likelihood of a shift.

The Republicans already hold a 33–seat advantage; Democrats, as I say, believed — at one time — that they could wrest 17 seats from the Republicans and claim a slim majority. The closer we get to November, though, the more it looks like the Democrats will be lucky to avoid losing ground.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been keeping their eyes on the Senate, where flipping six seats would give the GOP a slim majority. Numerically, it seems like an easier task, doesn't? Truth is it's more of a challenge when you look at it as a percentage of the legislative body. Seventeen House seats represents less than 4% of the membership; six Senate seats is 6% of that body's membership.

Democrat–held Senate seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana currently are expected to flip, according to the Cook Political Report, Rothenberg Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball.

That gets the Republicans halfway to their goal. Cook sees seven tossups, only one of which is held by a Republican. Sabato sees four tossups, all held by Democrats. Rothenberg sees two pure tossups, both held by Democrats.

That suggests that the Republicans are in a good spot — and, if things proceed in this manner, they could start focusing on second–tier seats, the ones they probably never dreamed they might be able to win — until recently.

Like Tom Harkin's seat in Iowa.

Harkin is retiring after 30 years in the Senate. Alex Roarty writes in National Journal that Democrats need to be concerned about Harkin's seat. State Sen. Joni Ernst won the Republican nomination there this week; she still needs to demonstrate that she is a tough candidate, Roarty says, but she is facing a mediocre Democrat in a year that looks more Republican with each passing day, and she doesn't look like the kind of candidate who is likely to shoot herself in the foot.

In fact, recently, the one doing such shooting was her rival, who seems to have fired a machine gun at himself.

Persons who are unacquainted with Iowa's history may be inclined to look only at the returns in presidential elections; Iowa has voted for Democrats in six of the last seven, including two (Dukakis in '88, Gore in '00) who lost. But in eight of the nine elections before 1988, Iowa voted for the Republican nominee.

But what about the midterm elections since 1988? Well, Harkin was re–elected twice in midterm election years, and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley was re–elected in two midterms as well.

The governor is elected to a four–year term every midterm election year, and Democrats and Republicans have split those, 3–3.

That sounds to me like a state that really could go either way. It is also a state that seems to be quite comfortable with its incumbents. Harkin survived in years when it was risky to be a Democrat elsewhere; Grassley, who was elected in the Reagan Revolution of 1980, won his second term in the decidedly un–Republican year of 1986. The popular Republican governor is now the state's longest–serving — and the second–longest serving governor in the nation's history

Iowa has four representatives in the U.S. House. Two are Democrats, two are Republicans.

Recent polls show Ernst leading — by six points in the latest Loras College survey, by one point in the latest Rasmussen survey. Her Democratic opponent was leading in surveys held before the June 3 primaries.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tank Man's Victory for Humanity



No one seems to know for certain who he was — or is — after 25 years.

He has come to be known as "Tank Man"TIME magazine dubbed him the "Unknown Rebel."

It was a Sunday morning in Beijing in early June 1989. It was Saturday night in Texas where I was working for a daily newspaper.

My memory is that it was around 9 or 10 at night, a couple of hours from our deadline for the Sunday morning press run — which would have made it 10 or 11 on Sunday morning in Beijing.

In China, it was the day after the Chinese military forcibly suppressed the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations. That was the lead story on the front page of our newspaper, as it probably was for nearly every paper, but, considering the time difference, it was also a developing story, and we were trying to keep an eye on it.

Back in that newsroom in Texas, most of the pages were done, and we were sort of killing time while we waited for whichever articles we were expecting locally — but we knew that, if events began to unfold rapidly in China, we might need to substitute a revised version of the wire story we had on our front page — possibly at the last minute.

That's how it is sometimes in the news business. Well, actually, that's how it always is. The nature of news being what it is, anything could happen at any time, and a newspaper's editors have to be ready for the unexpected.

With Tiananmen Square, we had the luxury (if you want to call it that) of knowing where to watch for dramatic events to unfold — but we didn't know the when part, and that is just the way it is. Most of the time, when you're working the copy desk, you just have to hope that, if something dramatic does happen, it happens before your deadline.

Well before your deadline.

And a major event did unfold that night.

As we watched the TV in the corner of the newsroom, "Tank Man" walked out into the middle of the avenue and confronted a column of Chinese tanks. I watched in stunned silence with the rest of my colleagues. If someone had asked me about it at that moment, I would have replied that I expected to see the tanks roll over that man live on TV.

It had already been a bloody weekend in Beijing.

But the lead tank tried to go one way, then another, rather than crush the man. The man moved each time so that he remained in the tank's path. Eventually, the tanks' crews shut off their engines.

Tank Man then appeared to scold the tanks and their crews.

In the aftermath of the event, some people identified Tank Man as being an individual named Wang Weilin, a resident of Beijing, but that has never been confirmed, and no one seems to know what became of Tank Man after he was taken away. Some say he was executed; others say he is alive and well.

Back in Texas, we had to remake the front page to run a picture taken by Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener. Turned out to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

But it was one of those events that can't really be captured in a single photograph. You have to see the video; in 1989, that could only be done via television. The advances in technology in the last quarter of a century have revolutionized the news business. In the 21st century, a newspaper can post a video to its website that expands on articles and photos in its print edition.

Tank Man carried no weapons when he confronted the tanks, just two shopping bags. I couldn't tell what they contained.

It was almost comical at times, the way he chided the tanks. I was reminded of a father bawling out misbehaving children.

But the Chinese military was hardly made up of children, and I suspected at the time that Tank Man probably would be taken into custody and executed.

I hope he is still alive.

But, even if he is not, Tank Man was a reminder of words that were spoken by educator Horace Mann 130 years earlier: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."

On this day a quarter of a century ago, Tank Man did win a victory for humanity.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Day Reagan Died



"I was friends with President Ronald Reagan, and he once said to me, 'I don't know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.'"

Warren Beatty

Ten years ago tomorrow, Ronald Reagan died at the age of 93.

I remember when I heard the news. It was a Saturday afternoon in early June — kind of hot, too, which isn't unusual in Texas — and I was watching TV. All of a sudden, there was a news bulletin announcing that Reagan had died.

A press statement made on behalf of Nancy Reagan was read on the air: "My family and I would like the world to know that President Ronald Reagan has died after 10 years of Alzheimer's disease at 93 years of age. We appreciate everyone's prayers."

I didn't expect it. Often, it seems, famous people get sick and then linger for awhile before they die. You get some warning. That's how it was with Richard Nixon. He had a stroke, then he lapsed into a coma, and then he died.

But I don't remember being aware that Reagan had been sick. Oh, I knew, like everyone else did, that he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years, but, as anyone who has watched a family member with Alzheimer's can tell you, that can go on for a long time.

I learned later that he had been suffering from pneumonia in his final days. (I didn't know that at the time, but I had no trouble comprehending it. Much the same thing happened to a good friend of mine years after Reagan's death. My friend had cancer, which seemed to be in remission, but the aggressive treatment she had received had compromised her immune system, and pneumonia finished her off.)

At the time, no president had lived longer; Gerald Ford has since replaced Reagan as the longest–lived president. (Reagan's vice president will turn 90 a week from tomorrow — and that will be a first in American history, a president and his vice president both living into their 90s.)

There is a certain irony in that since Reagan was the oldest person to be elected president when he won the office in 1980 — and, before he became president, I had often heard it said that the presidency was a man–killing job, that those who held the office tended to have shorter lives than most of their contemporaries after they left the White House.

When Reagan became president, I was convinced he would not live to the end of his four–year term, that the presidency would crush him, and his vice president, George H.W. Bush, soon would be our next president.

Yet, Reagan lived more than 15 years after serving two complete terms as president. Bush did become our next president — but not right away.

Reagan was always defying my expectations. I wasn't one of his fans when he was in office so my expectations for him usually weren't too high to begin with, but he not only exceeded them, he did so with considerable room to spare on many occasions.

I'm not speaking of policy. I'm speaking about those times when Reagan really earned his reputation as the Great Communicator because he communicated with everyone — not just those who were his admirers.

On those occasions that called on his communication skills — two of the most noteworthy, I suppose, were when he spoke on the 40th anniversary of D–Day (just about 20 years to the day before his death) and when the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986 — he made just about everyone, even those who frequently disagreed with him, feel a little bit better or a little prouder.

I considered myself a Democrat during Reagan's presidency. (I now regard myself as an independent.) And, when I look back on his presidency, I remember being envious of his speaking skills. He was able to reach out to those with whom he disagreed — without feeling compelled to belittle them. When he did poke fun, he did so with a gentle kind of wry humor that he often aimed at himself.

That's always been a rare trait, I guess. It seems to be in particularly short supply today.

Ten years ago, the television coverage — of Reagan lying in repose in California, then being transported to Washington where he would lie in state, then finally his return to California for one last memorial service prior to his burial at the Ronald Reagan Library — was pervasive. After awhile, it all looked the same — except for the backdrops and the faces in the crowds. There were processions and eulogies and a flag–draped coffin.

If you weren't paying close attention, it could be mistaken for footage from previous days.

I'm sure it was all a blur for the Reagans. I remember watching Ron Reagan being interviewed later about the funeral and observing that it occurred to him, as the motorcade made its way through the streets of Washington, that there were two people being mourned — the private Reagan, the one he knew, and the public Reagan. He said he saw someone holding a sign that said, "Now there was a president" and realized what his father meant to the people of his country.

Even his detractors.

The most memorable moment — for me — came at the end of the final service, which came at the end of what must have been a very long week for the Reagan family.

Nancy Reagan, who will never be on my list of favorite first ladies, was given the folded American flag that had adorned her husband's coffin, and she was escorted to the casket to pay her last respects. She placed the flag on it, then rested her head on the lid of the coffin and whispered to it. A thought that flashed through my mind as I watched was that she must have placed her head on her husband's chest at times when he was alive.

She remained that way so long that, finally, her children, Ron and Patti, came to her, embraced her and whispered to her, apparently nudging her away from the casket. She seemed hesitant to leave her husband. I'm only guessing now, of course, but it's a guess born from experience. I've been in similar situations in my life — although not with hundreds of people, most of them dignitaries, watching in person and millions more watching on TV — and I think I can imagine what her children said to her.

"We can come back later, maybe tomorrow, when no one else is here, and we can stay as long as you want."

As they spoke to her, she kept rubbing the lid of the coffin, almost as if she was dusting it, which makes no sense, but it was clear from her face that she was not focused on what she was doing, anyway. It was an absent–minded sort of thing, a reflex.

I remember my grandmother doing something like that after my grandfather died.

Whatever was said, it coaxed Mrs. Reagan away from the casket. She nodded at something her daughter whispered in her ear, bent to kiss the coffin and allowed herself to be led away.

After she had gone, I kept watching — and I saw members of the Reagan family who were seldom, if ever, seen during his presidency. I guessed, based on those I could identify, that we were looking at Reagan's grandchildren, some nieces and nephews, perhaps, maybe some close friends.

It was a reminder that, when someone dies, many people are affected. When that person has been president, regardless of politics, the sense of loss is even greater.

It was a poignant scene.

Mrs. Reagan recently said that she finds it difficult to believe her husband has been gone for a decade.

"I still feel his presence every day," she said, "and often find him in my dreams at night."