Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Do Obama's Approval Numbers Matter?



As of today, we are less than 100 days away from Election Day. A little more than five years ago, Democrats were fawning over the first 100 days of the Obama presidency. Today, they are considerably less enthusiastic about the next 100 days.

Nothing is cast in stone yet, but the sands are running rapidly through the hourglass for the Democrats.

Over and over, I have been asked the same question: Why do Barack Obama's approval numbers matter in the 2014 midterms?

Usually, I am asked this question by folks who still haven't gotten over that "Yes, we can" mindset from 2008 — some things matter because we say they matter, and other things don't matter because we say they don't matter — and they can't comprehend what has changed.

Well, there's this matter of delivering on one's promises — and presidents always seem to get the short end of the stick on that one. Either they haven't delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that — or they have delivered on their promises, and folks are upset about that.

A voter's preference is a moving target. It all really depends on whose ox is being gored.

Some people don't understand that a single election never settles things, once and for all — and that no president can count on the same kind of support for his subordinates that he received two years earlier. Those subordinates are charged with implementing the president's policies via the legislative branch. When the policies ain't working, all involved are held accountable.

If the president isn't on the ballot, disgruntled voters will do as George Wallace used to encourage them to do — Send 'em a message. By proxy if necessary.

I'm sorry if this refresher civics course seems elementary. I mention it only to remind folks that this is a democracy, and people make no lifetime commitments to candidates, causes or parties. Well, some do, but many do not, and that really is perplexing for some.

They find the independence of the American voter bewildering.

Obama isn't on the ballot, they point out. He is barred by law from seeking a third term. The election isn't about him. It's about keeping the Senate and winning the House. (OK, even the diehards aren't mentioning that last one anymore. It's become one of those "in a perfect world" kind of things for modern Democrats. Holding on to the Senate is enough of a challenge.)

Well, technically, I suppose, that is true. We aren't electing a president in 2014. We are electing one–third of the Senate and all of the House, just as we do every two years. Every four years, we throw a presidential election into the mix — but not this time.

We're midway through the current four–year presidential term — hence, these are the midterm elections.

Historically, midterms have served as electoral adjustors. They almost always go against the party that occupies the White House, and that tendency is even more pronounced in a president's second midterm. In recent years, it has been referred to as a fatigue factor. There was talk of "Bush fatigue" in 2006 and "Clinton fatigue" in 1998. I can even remember talk of "Reagan fatigue" in 1986.

(If Watergate had not ended his presidency early, Nixon might well have encountered "Nixon fatigue" in November 1974. In hindsight, that might have been better for the Republicans. As it was, they lost five Senate seats and four dozen House seats in the Watergate backlash.)

I'm not really sure why it is that presidential fatigue seems to settle in at this point in a two–term presidency. I just know that it is so. Except for extremely rare circumstances, a president's party is radioactive two years after his re–election.

George W. Bush was extremely unpopular just before the 2006 midterms. Polls consistently showed his approval in the mid– to upper 30s prior to the election, and his Republicans lost six Senate seats and 32 House seats.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was very popular. About a week before the election, his approval rating was 63%, according to Gallup. His popularity took a major hit after the election — when the Iran–Contra scandal was in the news — but Reagan's party still lost control of the Senate for the first time in six years (as well as five seats in the House).

Bill Clinton's second midterm in 1998 probably should have been a disaster for the Democrats — after all, in Clinton's first midterm, his party lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in 40 years — but 1998 was one of those extreme circumstances of which I spoke earlier. Republicans were perceived as having overreached in their attempt to impeach Clinton, and voters gave Democrats a four–seat gain in the House.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans are more engaged than Democrats, but they aren't as enthusiastic as they were in 2010 — or as Democrats were in 2006.

There may be good news and bad news in that for both parties. If Republicans are not as enthused as they were four years ago, they might not be as inclined to show up at the polls. Good news for Democrats.

Pew also finds that, currently, there is virtually no difference in party preference. Forty–five percent of voters prefer Republicans, 47% prefer Democrats. More good news for Democrats.

The enthusiasm gap for the out–of–power party is not as great this year, Pew reports, as it was in 2010 or 2006.

But that is how it stands in July. Unfortunately for Democrats, the election isn't being held in July. Numerous surveys over the years suggest that most Americans don't start paying attention to political campaigns until around October.

More than three–fourths of Republican–leaning voters say they definitely will vote this year whereas about two–thirds of Democrat–leaning voters say they definitely will vote — but those numbers are slightly lower for Republicans and a little higher for Democrats than they were four years ago. Again, more good news for Democrats.

However, about half of those Republican voters say they will vote against any and all supporters of Obama's policies, which is not much different from this point in the election cycle four years ago.

People still point to polls showing record–high dissatisfaction with Congress, and that can't be denied, but it can be misinterpreted. Yes, the American people aren't happy with Congress. But they never are. Dissatisfaction was pretty high in 2006 and 2010, too, but most incumbents who sought re–election were re–elected.

Typically, when people say they are not satisfied with Congress, they mean other people's senators and representatives, not their own. Anti–incumbency is said to be running high today, but it hasn't shown itself much in this year's party primaries.

And conventional wisdom holds that undecided voters are more inclined to break for the challenger in the closing days and weeks of a campaign. Thus, the likelihood that the voters will throw the bums out in November is very low.

What can Obama do? Well, in some cases, the best thing he can do is stay away entirely. He will continue to be a factor in the midterms — presidents just are, that's all there is to it — so he needs to respect the wishes of Democrats who are trying (in some instances, desperately) to hold on to their seats in red states like Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina.

Observers are already referring to races in red states like Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, where Democrats are retiring, as sure things for the GOP — which would put Republicans halfway to their goal of six seats to seize control of the Senate. Defeating Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina would give them the majority — assuming Democrats don't win one of a couple of Republican–held seats in which they are perceived as competitive.

That kind of thing — where the party that is fighting the electoral tide succeeds — doesn't usually happen in midterm elections, but, as Larry Sabato reminds us, "every election is different."

Earlier, Sabato was inclined to think that 2014 would be another "wave election," like the midterms of 2006 and 2010, but so far, he writes, "this election hasn't gelled quite the way it earlier appeared on paper."

Republicans are also fantasizing about picking up Democratic seats in Iowa, maybe Michigan and Oregon, too. These were seats that, not so long ago, were regarded as safe for the Democrats.

The fact that they are no longer seen as safe should send a chill down every Democrat's spine.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking a Step Closer to Impeachment



For a student of history and politics, even one as young as I was then, the Watergate period was a fascinating time in America.

In hindsight, it seems so different than it did when it happened. It turned out to be a textbook example of how the system should work — a confirmation, really, of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

But at the time, no one really knew how it would play out. Right up until Richard Nixon decided to resign — a conclusion that, I believe, became inevitable when he lost U.S. v. Nixon — no one really knew what he was going to do. I don't think even he knew what he would do. Certainly, if his original plan had gone as he expected, the whole matter would have been a distant memory by this time in 1974. But my sense was that, after the existence of the White House taping system was revealed to the public, he was winging it.

Maybe that was appropriate. Nixon was such a loner, anyway. He never really seemed to take anyone into his confidence, and I have always believed that he came to the conclusion that he had to resign on his own, using whatever logic and reasoning had guided his steps as an adult.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress were put in an uncomfortable position — having to defend a president who was liked by few and increasingly appeared to be guilty. The anguish of Republicans was evident in the words of Rep. Lawrence Hogan of Maryland, the only Republican on the committee to support all three of the articles of impeachment that were approved.

"The thing that's so appalling to me," Hogan told his colleagues, "is that the president, when this whole idea was suggested to him, didn't, in righteous indignation, rise up and say, 'Get out of here, you're in the office of the president of the United States. How can you talk about blackmail and bribery and keeping witnesses silent? This is the presidency of the United States.' But my president didn't do that. He sat there, and he worked and worked to try to cover this thing up so it wouldn't come to light."

Hogan may have felt freer to vote his conscience than his other Republican colleagues. Although his district had given Nixon 57% of its vote when he sought re–election in 1972, it was and is a heavily Democratic district (Steny Hoyer has represented the district for more than 30 years and was the majority leader under Nancy Pelosi), and it seemed likely to vote Hogan out in what was shaping up to be a Democratic year.

Anyway, Hogan was leaving the House to run for governor; he was unsuccessful.

In the summer of 1974, he was the only Republican to vote for all three articles of impeachment that were adopted by the Judiciary Committee.

Forty years ago today, as the nation watched, the House Judiciary Committee approved an article of impeachment against the president of the United States. It would approve three articles altogether. On Saturday, July 27, 1974, the Judiciary Committee voted, 27–11, in favor of the first article of impeachment, charging Nixon with obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate coverup.

"It was almost 7 in the evening when [chairman Peter] Rodino called for the vote on Article One," wrote Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. "As the camera moved from one member to the next, down the order from senior to junior, each face was an emotionless mask."

On Monday, July 29, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 28–10, for an article of impeachment charging Nixon with abuse of power for his misuse of the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service and the Department of Justice.

On Tuesday, July 30, 1974, the members of the committee voted, 21–17, for a third article of impeachment charging Nixon with contempt of Congress.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Making a Name For Himself



"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There's the United States of America."

Barack Obama
July 27, 2004

Sometimes destiny is hard to recognize, even when it slaps you silly.

Until 10 years ago tomorrow night, no one knew who Barack Obama was. Well, some people knew who he was — but it is fair to say that most Americans, probably even most of those who did know who he was, did not know, when they saw Obama on their television screens, that they were getting a preview of coming attractions.

The keynote address he delivered 10 years ago before the delegates at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston has been credited by many with making him president. I disagree. It certainly contributed to his political rise, it gave him national exposure, but I think it is an exaggeration to credit the speech with making him president. He was just a state senator from Illinois trying to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Three years later, he hadn't distinguished himself in the Senate, and he was not the front–runner in the polls when Democrats began holding presidential primaries; Hillary Clinton was.

People often forget that she, too, spoke to the delegates in Boston, who had gathered to nominate John Kerry for president.

But her speech seemed to stir little in the way of enthusiasm. The audience cheered her politely — probably more in gratitude for her husband's presidency than for her contribution, at the time, as a U.S. senator. In a way, perhaps, it foretold what would happen in the Democratic Party when it chose its next nominee.

It is true, as David Bernstein wrote in Chicago Magazine in 2007, that the address "changed Obama's profile overnight and made him a household name," but it is also true that it was not a history–changing speech.

And I would also dispute that it made Obama a "household name" in 2004. That came later.

"It was good, but it was nothing awe inspiring," his press aide, Robert Gibbs, said of Obama's speech. It wasn't until Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 that opinion polling started to show movement in his direction — until then, Hillary Clinton was still the front–runner.

Obama's speech 10 years ago was greeted with enthusiasm, but I honestly don't recall the extent of the positive response that Bernstein did. I suppose there may be something to it; Bernstein's article, after all, was published several months before the Iowa caucus — long before the idea of an Obama nomination qualified as more than wishful thinking.

But I'm inclined to think Bernstein was looking at it from the perspective of sustained candidacy, not necessarily nomination.

"Before the speech, the idea of Obama running for president in 2008 would have been laughable; he was a lowly state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park, and while he stood a good chance at winning his U.S. Senate race, he would enter that powerful body ranked 99th out of 100 in seniority," Bernstein wrote. "After the speech, observers from across the political world hailed the address as an instant classic, and Obama was drawing comparisons (deservedly or not) to Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy."

Now, whether it is true or not, I do fancy myself to be current on politics and what journalists write about things like primaries and conventions and keynote addresses. In the summer of 2004, I did a lot of reading, and I remember reading many accounts of the speeches at both of the major parties' conventions.

And I simply don't remember the kind of reaction that Bernstein did. I mean, come on. King? Kennedy? Really?

Other black politicians have given speeches to national conventions — Barbara Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell — and they didn't make that kind of impression.

Well, except for one.

Jordan was the first black woman to give a keynote address. American Rhetoric ranked her 1976 speech fifth in its list of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century, behind only King, Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt (twice).

And, although the convention was already set to nominate Jimmy Carter that summer, Jordan did receive the support of one delegate in the nominating ballot. However, I don't recall reading any articles promoting her as a future nominee — in fact, she retired from politics a couple of years later.

Jackson's 1984 address was ranked 12th, and his 1988 address was ranked 49th. I do remember reading some articles promoting Jackson as a future contender for a presidential nomination, but I'm sure I read just as many articles arguing that he should not seek the presidency — not because he was black but because of concerns about having a religious leader in the Oval Office.

Jackson, of course, was not a keynote speaker.

Pundits often refer to keynote speakers as if they are future presidential nominees. In my experience, few have come close to that — so, while there probably were those who, swept up in the excitement of the moment, spoke of Obama as a future nominee 10 years ago, it is likely that most of the people who heard them did not really think it was possible.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Ted's Side of the Story



It has been 45 years since Ted Kennedy's car plunged into the waters of Chappaquiddick. A young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned that night. Kennedy himself has been dead for nearly five years, but the event is still capable of provoking passionate debates.

With only a few exceptions, Kennedy spent the seven days immediately following the incident in seclusion. When he was seen, he was wearing a neck brace, a silent reminder of the accident. He emerged 45 years ago today — sans neck brace — to deliver a national address on the matter.

Since Bobby Kennedy's assassination a year earlier, Kennedy was widely regarded as virtually a sure thing if he wanted the Democratic presidential nomination; after the accident, the conventional wisdom was that he was damaged goods — damaged beyond repair.

Before the Chappaquiddick incident, Kennedy was often mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for 1972. Even after Chappaquiddick, his name was still mentioned in connection with the 1976 race. He chose not to seek the nomination in either year, and it seemed his presidential ambitions really were behind him.

Incredibly, he did seek the presidency — in 1980 — but it always seemed to me he did so more out of a sense of personal obligation than anything else.

And he picked a year to run in which it was almost certain that he would not succeed. He ran against an incumbent Democrat, Jimmy Carter, in a year that was shaping up to be a Republican year. Running against an incumbent from one's own party has almost always been a "Man of La Mancha"–esque proposition — and, predictably, at least in the context of history, Kennedy did not defeat the incumbent.

But there was more to it than that. Early in the campaign for the nomination, Carter benefited from a rally–'round–the–flag mentality following the takeover of the American embassy in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

If Kennedy had beaten Carter, it is far from certain that he would have defeated the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan. In hindsight, it really seems the tide was running against all Democrats in 1980.

Before any votes had been cast, Kennedy's commitment was brought into question when he gave a rambling answer to a pretty straight–forward question posed by CBS' Roger Mudd — "Why do you want to be president?"

But on this night in 1969, he didn't speak about the presidency. He spoke about Chappaquiddick. Earlier in the day, he had entered a plea of guilty at the Edgartown, Mass., courthouse; he was given a suspended sentence and his driver's license was taken away.

Thoughts of the presidency probably were part of the equation, though, particularly when you examine the issues he chose to address when he spoke before the cameras:
  • His wife, Joan, had not accompanied him that weekend due to "reasons of health." Her absence had been frequently mentioned, and Kennedy apparently felt obliged to say that she was pregnant (she suffered a miscarriage shortly thereafter).
  • He denied the "widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct" by himself and Kopechne.
  • He denied that he had been under the influence of alcohol while he was driving.
  • He acknowledged that his actions after the accident "made no sense to [him] at all."
  • He said he had been told by his doctors that he had suffered a concussion and shock, but he didn't use that as an excuse for his actions.
  • He said it was "indefensible" that he did not contact authorities after the accident.
  • He told viewers that he had enlisted the help of two friends at the party to help try to rescue her.
  • He said that "all kinds of scrambled thoughts" went through his head that, in hindsight, seem like nothing short of denial — including the idea that Kopechne may have saved herself somehow and whether "some awful curse actually did hang over all the Kennedys."
"The speech was not a success," wrote William Manchester. "He answered questions that hadn't been asked ... He also seemed to imply that the damage to his career was more momentous than [Kopechne's] death." That, I suppose, remained to be seen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Supreme Court: The President Is Not Above the Law



For two weeks in the summer of 1974, the eight Supreme Court justices who were deciding on United States v. Nixon had been reviewing the details of the case and considering the lawyers' arguments.

Executive privilege was given as the defense's argument for not turning over the tapes that had been requested. But the real issue was: Is the president above the law?

The justices answered that question 40 years ago today.

And while the Supreme Court considered the matter, all kinds of things were happening in the Watergate case.

The day after the justices heard arguments, the House Judiciary Committee released its own versions of transcripts of eight conversations that had been released earlier by the White House. When the White House transcripts were compared to the Judiciary Committee's transcripts, it was clear that several long Watergate–related passages had been omitted in the White House version.

A week later, Nixon refused to comply with the House Judiciary Committee's last four subpoenas. In an interview that day, he called Watergate "the broadest but thinnest scandal in American history."

The day before that, the White House had furnished some John Ehrlichman notes to the Judiciary Committee, portions of which were blacked out. A few days later, Nixon attorney James St. Clair assured the committee that the deletions had been made by mistake, but the public relations damage had clearly been done.

The Judiciary Committee also made public five volumes of evidence that challenged the White House's argument that national security was the reason for the wiretaps. Without identifying which ones, Vice President Gerald Ford said he had listened to portions of two of the tapes and had reached the conclusion that it was "very understandable" that different interpretations could be made of words that were spoken on them.

Volume upon volume of evidence was released to the public, and both the majority and minority counsels on the Judiciary Committee urged a Senate trial on one or more of five impeachment charges: (1) obstruction of justice, (2) abuse of power, (3) contempt of Congress, (4) failure to adhere to the pledge to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" and (5) denigration of the presidency through underpayment of income taxes and use of federal money for personal purposes.

In California, the president's press secretary said the majority counsel, John Doar, was running a "kangaroo court."

The minority counsel, Albert Jenner, was replaced a couple of days later — after saying the case for impeachment was persuasive.

A couple of days before the Supreme Court announced its ruling, St. Clair declined to say whether Nixon would comply if the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes.

The next day, House Judiciary Committee member Lawrence Hogan, a Republican from Maryland, announced he would vote for impeachment. Hogan had already decided not to seek re–election to the House and was instead seeking the governorship of his state.

Forty years ago today, Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski told the Baltimore Sun that he was "appalled" by the White House's refusal to say whether it would obey a Supreme Court order to turn over the tapes.

And such an order was handed down later that day.

By an 8–0 vote, the justices ruled that Nixon had to turn over the records of 64 Watergate–related conversations. They acknowledged that there was a constitutional basis for executive privilege but said that, when such a claim is "based only on the generalized interest in confidentiality, it cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of justice."

"In careful but clear language," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote, "the Court ordered the president to turn over the tapes."

St. Clair, wrote Woodward and Bernstein, had been certain he would win the case. "He was shattered that he had lost. When he read the decision, it became clear to him that the tapes would have to go to [presiding Judge John] Sirica.

"'The president is not above the law. Nor does he contend that he is,' St. Clair had told the court. He hoped that the president understood what that meant. Nixon had never told him exactly what he would do if there were an adverse decision, but St. Clair knew that his own legal advice to the president had to be unqualified compliance.

"When St. Clair arrived at the residence, he told the president ... that he advised full compliance. The president was not convinced. He wondered if, in fact, to preserve the power of his office, he didn't have a constitutional duty to reject the court order."


Of Nixon's defenders, historian Theodore White wrote, "they were like German officers on the firing line in 1918 who knew long before the Kaiser that the time for surrender had come."

The president eventually agreed to a kind of compliance. He told St. Clair that he would need to time to review the tapes before turning them over — weeks, perhaps months. St. Clair wasn't sure he could arrange that. Jaworski was eager to get the tapes for use in the upcoming coverup trial.

Nixon also informed lawyer Fred Buzhardt that "there might be a problem with the June 23 tape."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Global Chaos



When I was a child, my parents told me many stories. I'm sure most of your parents were the same way.

Mostly, I think it was my mother who told me stories, but my father did from time to time. The story that I remember hearing from him most often was the one about Chicken Little — you know, the one about the chicken who was convinced the world was coming to an end and ran about proclaiming, "The sky is falling!"

I'm getting somewhat the same sensation these days.

Under Barack Obama, the United States' global reputation is leaning away from strength and closer to impotence. His supporters, like the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza, insist that "it's virtually impossible to be a successful modern president," which is a handy and much–used excuse. I heard it from Jimmy Carter's supporters in 1980. I heard it from George H.W. Bush's supporters in 1992. Nothing new about it.

They probably said it about Herbert Hoover in 1932.

But that's a copout.

Each of those presidents was said to have failed. I know for certain that Carter's backers and Bush's backers insisted that the presidency had become too big a job for any mortal man. And each of those presidents was beaten by a man whom history regards as far more successful than the president he succeeded.

"Being president is the most powerful job in the world. At which you will almost certainly fail," Cillizza writes.

I disagree. It's an important job, and sometimes it requires a lot of work for what seems like minimal gain, if any gain can be seen at all. But this assumption that a president will "almost certainly fail" suggests that, well, if the guy we've got can't do it, no one can. Not so. Presidents are not infallible. Popes, kings and dictators are considered infallible. But America is not ruled by a pope, king or dictator.When a president's failings become too great to ignore, his apologists immediately begin to defend him for fighting the good fight — and excuse him for falling short — for no one can juggle the duties of the presidency, especially if his skin is black and he has to deal with all those racists.

Never mind that those racists elected him president twice.

Early in his presidency, I heard Obama's supporters boast that he was opening a new era in global relations. In that first year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For what? I asked. Nobel Prize recipients typically have accomplished something for which the Nobel Committee is rewarding them.

He got it for what he will do, one of my friends assured me. What will he do? I asked. My friend did not respond.

OK, well, I've got a pretty good idea now. Russia's on the move, and we do nothing to stop it. There are at least two things I never ever expected to see in my lifetime that, apparently, I shall, nevertheless, see. The first was the breakup of the old Soviet Union. Once that happened, I never thought I would see the Soviet Union reunited. But Vladimir Putin appears determined to do that, and Obama has no apparent intent to prevent it. That is thing #2.

And that seems likely to lead us to a third thing I never expected to see — Cold War II.

All hell is breaking loose in the Middle East (OK, all hell is always breaking loose in the Middle East, only it seems more dangerous, more menacing today). Tens of thousands of children are being permitted to cross the U.S.–Mexico border illegally, most not accompanied by adults — along with who knows how many other adults, all of whom are in violation of U.S. immigration law. Many may be criminals in their native countries.

America has no foreign policy to speak of. There appears to be a perception that there is a new law in America, an open–border policy. There is no such law, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that people think there is and seek to take advantage of it.

America has always been a compassionate country, but the current border crisis creates a no–win situation. There is validity to the argument from those who ask how the United States can, in good conscience, turn away children and send them back to possibly criminal and violent environments in central and South America.

I don't believe that anyone likes that idea. But as much as the United States might like to fling open its doors and be the sanctuary for all the oppressed peoples of the world, it simply cannot do so. America already admits more legal immigrants than any other country in the world — by far. It does not have the resources to support hundreds of thousands of new illegal immigrants (in addition to the millions who are already here), to provide food and shelter and health care for them all.

America might have had the resources if the Obama administration had focused from the start on resolving the economic crisis and putting America back to work, as it promised to do but did not do.

Well, that is a discussion for another time. The fact is that America does not have those resources now and must be careful with the relatively meager (by historical standards) resources it has, especially when the government is subsidizing health care policies for nonexistent applicants.

What is needed is a president who has diplomatic skills, who could talk to leaders of other countries about stepping up and helping with the immigrants who are currently flooding across our southern border — and will at least try to work with members of the opposing party.

And we need a president who will forcefully tell the world that the United States does not have an open–border policy, that no country can afford to have an open–border policy in these perilous times. But we will do everything we possibly can for all immigrants who enter the country legally and want to become citizens.

Americans are generous people; they want to see everyone succeed, but they expect everyone to play by the same set of rules.

The perception of an open border has been achieved largely through word of mouth. When word begins to spread that people are not being allowed across the border, I believe the crisis will subside. Then, hopefully, a meaningful discussion about immigration policy can begin.

Like it or not, America is a global power that other countries look to for leadership. Without it, the world will descend into greater chaos.

Some presidents have the skills that are necessary to lead a great power through times like these; others do not. And when those who do not are granted power and make decisions that weaken the United States, those who would harm us are emboldened.

My father once told me that the great thing about America is that there has always been someone, the right man for the times, who steps forward and leads.

I hope that leader comes along soon.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Dawning of a New World



"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Neil Armstrong
July 20, 1969

I've heard that astronaut Neil Armstrong, the man who took the first steps on the moon, was a modest man, not prone to hyperbole.

When he said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as he descended the ladder on the lunar module and planted his foot on the moon's surface, I believe he really did understand the huge implications of that single, simple act. Regardless of how educated they were, all people — and it was estimated that half a billion people worldwide were watching — could understand what it meant to put a foot on the ground, and most could probably grasp that it was merely the first step on a journey that would take mankind into an era of unimagined developments and changes.

But all would not be revealed at once. In a manner of speaking, it was the first day of school for the human race. Science continues to build on things that were discovered via NASA's missions to the moon.

I was a small boy at the time, of course, so I didn't understand everything. Nevertheless, for me, the most heart–stopping moment on Apollo 11's historic voyage was the descent of the lunar module to the moon's surface on this day in 1969. I understood enough to know there were risks in that procedure.

Earlier, the lunar module had separated from the command module, which was piloted by Michael Collins, and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their journey to the moon.

As the lunar module descended, computers were reporting lots of errors — which turned out not to be errors, after all, just computer miscalculations — and Armstrong and Aldrin reported back to mission control that they were passing lunar landmarks four seconds earlier than expected and would be "long" — landing west of their intended landing site.

The folks back in Houston would easily adapt their design for later flights — but nobody in the viewing audience knew that. Viewers were told that the lunar module might not have enough fuel to re–connect with the command module if it didn't land within a certain time. Turned out the astronauts were receiving premature low fuel warnings, and there was no crisis after all.

But no one knew that. I remember feeling a genuine concern for the men on board — and a genuine sense of relief when they reported a successful landing with a few seconds to spare.

I wasn't the only one who responded that way — but I was part of a decidedly smaller subset that may have felt such anxiety for the first time in their lives on that occasion.

"Tranquility, we copy you on the ground," came the reply from Mission Control. "You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot."

It was the first mission to the moon. The astronauts and the crew on the ground were learning things that would be adjusted on succeeding flights, but, in July 1969, it was all new.

The astronauts did not step out on the moon right away. NASA had scheduled a five–hour sleep period for them because they had been up since early that morning, but the astronauts apparently did not sleep. With an unexplored frontier waiting just outside their door, I guess that would have been like asking a kid to sleep late on Christmas morning. Anyway, Armstrong and Aldrin spent the downtime preparing for their historic moon walks instead of napping.

While not mentioned publicly at the time, Aldrin also took communion prior to going out on the moon's surface. He did so privately because, at the time, NASA was contending with atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lawsuit that demanded that astronauts abstain from religious activities while in space.

I think that originated when the crew of Apollo 8 read passages from the Bible on Christmas Eve.

So Aldrin took communion on the moon with a special kit that had been prepared by his pastor, but he drew no attention to it.

When he returned to earth, Aldrin gave the chalice he used to his church, which still has it. Every year, on the Sunday closest to July 20, the church commemorates his lunar communion.

Once the astronauts were on the moon, I figured the hard part was over. I mean, all they had to do was go out the door of the lunar module, climb down that ladder and walk around on the surface, right? Nothing to it.

I suppose I was much too young to understand that, until someone did get out and walk around, no one really knew what to expect. All kinds of possibilities went through people's minds — and it's safe to say that most, if not all, were not good.

Before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, there was still a kind of mysterious aura surrounding it. Astronauts had been close enough to the moon to peer at its surface from their space capsules, and they thought they knew what to expect — but no one was really sure.

The moon, Shakespeare said, "comes more nearer earth than she was wont and drives men mad." And there did seem to be a kind of madness settling upon the earth around the time of Apollo 11's journey to the moon.

Most of the madness at the time was brought on by the space race. At the height of the Cold War, Russia and the United States were driven mad in a desperate race to get to the moon first. America won that race 50 years ago today.

But the madness wasn't confined to space. There were times that summer when it seemed the world was on the brink of spinning out of control.

Less than 48 hours before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy plunged into the channel on Chappaquiddick Island, Mass. Kennedy survived, but a young woman who was riding in the car with him, 28–year–old Mary Jo Kopechne, perished.

And about three weeks later, the Manson Family would commit a series of highly publicized (for that pre–cable, pre–internet era) horrific murders in California.

Much of the world watched that night. It is said that more than 500 million people witnessed those first steps on the moon and heard Armstrong say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

And, from that moment on, it really was a new world — a world in which man could fly to the moon and back if he chose to do so.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The First Bump on That Glass Ceiling



Nearly 15 years earlier to the day, Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. On this night in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro took a giant leap for women.

She had been telling folks to "just call me Geri" since long before Walter Mondale picked her to be his running mate a week earlier. But somehow that just didn't seem right for a presumptive vice–presidential nominee.

It took her more than four minutes, but Ferraro finally said what thousands in San Francisco's Moscone Center and millions more watching on TV had been waiting to hear.

First, though, she reaffirmed that "America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us."

Exactly one week earlier, Mondale, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, had announced that he had chosen her to be his running mate — and now, it was her turn to officially accept the nomination (per political protocol) after the delegates approved Mondale's choice, which they did by acclamation.

It was a mere formality, of course. A rather quaint American tradition. No one thought for a second that she would turn down the nomination. And she didn't. Then after she had accepted the nomination, she spent about 25 minutes introducing herself to America. Other than her debate with Vice President George H.W. Bush three months later, it was about the most extensive exposure America would get to the first female on a major party's national ticket.

Not all Americans were watching, of course. They never are, but in a convention week that included soaring speeches from Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, Ferraro's speech clearly was the emotional high point.

American Rhetoric proclaimed the speech she gave 30 years ago tonight to be #56 on the list of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century. It carried unique challenges that neither Cuomo nor Jackson had to face.

Ferraro was the first woman on a major–party ticket. It was historic, and all eyes would be watching her closely. Her detractors would be looking for anything to criticize, and her supporters would be looking for anything to praise.

Ferraro simply seemed to want her opportunity to tell the country what she could do.

"The promise of our country is that the rules are fair," Ferraro told the delegates. "If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America's blessings."

That is pretty standard political rhetoric, but it seemed more convincing coming from the first woman on a major party's national ticket.

And, taking a page from John F. Kennedy's political playbook, Ferraro said, "The issue is not what America can do for women, but what women can do for America."

Reactions to the speech were generally good. Pundit reactions to the selection of Ferraro as running mate were decidedly mixed, although Ferraro initially proved to be an asset. Mondale's campaign had been far behind Ronald Reagan's in the polls before the convention; after the convention, the Democratic ticket enjoyed a nice bounce and even managed to pull roughly even — for awhile.

But the Democrats came back to earth in a hurry. By the end of July, questions came up about her finances, her husband's finances, their separate tax returns, etc., and the momentum came to a screeching halt.

No one knew any of that 30 years ago tonight, of course, when Ferraro stood before the delegates to the Democratic convention and accepted the vice presidential nomination.

It was a legitimate nomination, but it was still mostly symbolic. Nearly everyone watching probably realized, on some level, that she would not be elected.

Nevertheless, the euphoria inside the convention hall was unmistakable, and Ferraro was almost giddy at times.

"By choosing a woman to run for our nation's second–highest office," Ferraro said, "you sent a powerful signal to all Americans. There are no doors we cannot unlock. We will place no limits on achievement.

"If we can do this, we can do anything."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Will She or Won't She?



I grew up in Arkansas. I lived there during most of Bill Clinton's tenure as governor.

And I feel as qualified to say this as anyone who lived in Arkansas when I did: Hillary Clinton has always been a perplexing person. (Well, at least as an adult. I can't say what she was like as a child.)

During her time in Arkansas' governor's mansion, she often took stands or made statements that cut against the grain with average Arkansans. She was a traditional feminist in most of her views, and she was unapologetic for it — which produced kind of a strange dichotomy. I knew people who frequently disagreed with her yet still admired her determination to stand up for what she believed.

Would those same people have voted for her for anything? I doubt it. To my knowledge, most never supported her husband when he ran for governor.

But they admired her integrity — and, like all first spouses, she had no legal authority in that role. She was part of the deal if they voted for Bill — even if they would not vote for her.

Two for the price of one, as Bill liked to say during the '92 presidential campaign. That seemed to upset some folks, but I barely noticed it. I had heard it before.

And I have heard what she has been saying lately before, too.

She had a conversation with PBS' Charlie Rose the other day, and she was asked about 2016.

"I'm about to have my first grandchild, which I'm thrilled about," she replied. "I can't wait. I want to see what that feels like. I'm not going to skip over it. I want to really be present, as I meet this ... new person in our family."

Can't blame her for that. I know several people who have become grandparents, and they all speak of how rewarding that relationship between grandparent and grandchild is.

I have also known many people who did not live to become grandparents. It is a privilege to live that long, and it certainly should not be taken lightly.

So Hillary's desire to be with her family is completely understandable. It is an excuse I have heard before, though.

John Mitchell served as Richard Nixon's attorney general and, for a time, as Nixon's re–election campaign manager, but he left when the Watergate investigation got too uncomfortable for him.

He gave as his reason for stepping down a desire to be with his family. That was hard for some people to swallow, given that it meant being with his wife, Martha, who had made several phone calls to reporters about the emerging scandal and alleged that political pressure was being applied to her husband and others in the administration.

That was sure to be uncomfortable to say the least, I heard many people say.

I don't think it would be that way for Hillary — except, perhaps, for those times she might have to spend alone with Bill. But Hillary would have the benefit of knowing what it feels like to be a grandmother — and sharing a new relationship with her daughter.

Well, that's a pretty good reason for not seeking the job. But Hillary didn't stop there. She spoke about the negative side as well.

Speaking as one who observed the presidency from close range as both the first spouse and the secretary of state, Hillary told Rose that the job has "gotten tougher."

Well, it always has been a big job — but I can see how it could quickly become overwhelming for anyone. A president has to be better than competent in many different areas.

The economy is still sluggish, just not quite as sluggish as it was five years ago.

Her husband's presidency was relatively peaceful, but, with terrorists and Russians on the march, who knows what kind of foreign environment she would inherit?

And then there are all those social issues that divide Americans' loyalties — guns, contraception and abortion, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, the list goes on and on. I don't think anyone will ever be able to bring Americans together on those issues, but a president is obligated to at least try. Good presidents will try to fashion some kind of compromise that, in the end, pleases no one. Not–so–good presidents won't try to do that. But the issues will still demand a lot of their time and attention.

Seems to me it would be a lot more relaxing — and a lot more fun — to play with her grandchild(ren). She and Bill have that nice big place in New York with that nice big yard that they bought back when they left the White House dead broke. Sounds like a great place to be a grandparent and play with the grandchild(ren).

Plus, if Hillary does not run, she will be able to preserve her integrity.

Just about five years ago, when NBC's Ann Curry interviewed Hillary, she asked her about 2016.

It was a direct question. "Will you run for president again? Yes or no?"

And it got a direct answer. "No."

Curry asked again and received the same response.

For someone who has always argued — albeit in a different context — that no means no, this is a good time to drive home the point.

Of course, the problem is that, when someone prominent rules out a run for the presidency, he/she experiences a spike in his/her favorability ratings.

And the whole thing begins all over again.

Staying a Step Ahead of the Stalkers



It is hard to remember Rebecca Schaeffer. I can look at a picture of her today and be unable to place where I saw her — or if I saw her or what her voice sounded like.

When you look at her picture, you can see that she had an appealing smile, a generally engaging demeanor. (Yes, I do think you can tell that from a picture.) But there have always been many of those in the entertainment world.

Of course, it has been more than 25 years since she graced our television screens in My Sister Sam, a sitcom that lasted a couple of seasons in the 1980s. She had a small part in Woody Allen's "Radio Days," but those scenes were cut. Otherwise, she hadn't made much of a dent in her field — yet.

She was 21 years old, still new on the entertainment scene, seemed to possess some star quality. I was aware of her name, but I can't say that I watched either My Sister Sam or the handful of movies she made, a couple of which were released after her 1989 murder — when, I suppose, her commercial appeal was at its height.

But we know that at least one person, 19–year–old Robert John Bardo of Tucson, Ariz., was watching.

He became obsessed with her after the first object of his obsession, a child peace activist named Samantha Smith, died in a plane crash. Bardo stalked Schaeffer for awhile; he even tried to gain access to the studio where her TV show was filmed, but he was kept out by security. For awhile, it seems he lost interest in her and fixated on others, but he zeroed in on her again after watching one of her movies and seeing her in bed with an actor.

Bardo hired an investigator to find Schaeffer's home address, which he did through Department of Motor Vehicles records. Bardo then confronted Schaeffer at her home 25 years ago today. Schaeffer answered the door, gave Bardo an autograph and went back to her apartment. She thought he had gone away when her doorbell rang a second time. She went to answer it, and Bardo shot her in the chest.

Who knows what goes through the mind of such a person? Does he think of the consequences of his crime? If Bardo bothered to think at all about how his act would be perceived by anyone — and, based on my experience as a police reporter, I doubt that he gave any thought to it, especially how it would be perceived by the media or social activists — he probably thought it would be treated like one of thousands of murders that were committed that year.

But it wasn't. It was a landmark legal event that made government acknowledge stalking for what it was. Prior to Schaeffer's murder, my impression is that stalking was treated as a "boyfriend/girlfriend" thing. Even if the two were not lovers, even if one was a total stranger to the other. Those were merely details.

It wasn't taken seriously. It wasn't treated like a real crime. Of course, it was and is a real crime. Schaeffer's death was a flashpoint for that realization. A public epiphany.

Laws were changed to protect the privacy of citizens, prohibiting state Departments of Motor Vehicles from releasing personal information about licensed drivers.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. The advent of the internet, with its online address search services, significantly eroded that law's impact. Today, anyone with access to a computer and the know–how to use it can do what that investigator did for Bardo 25 years ago.

Evolving technology has changed most things, and those who would rather such private information is not so readily available to potential stalkers need to be steadfast in their resolve.

For all the Rebecca Schaeffers out there, we must stay a step ahead of the stalkers.

The Death of Mary Jo Kopechne



Mary Jo Kopechne was, by all accounts, a serious and hard–working member of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's staff. Apparently, she seldom drank or got involved with men.

To say she was merely a secretary would belittle her contribution — for she did much more than type letters and fetch coffee. She was an important member of the team, staying up all night once to retype a speech Kennedy was going to give on Vietnam while Kennedy and his advisers made alterations.

A product of parochial schools, she taught for awhile after earning her degree from a Catholic liberal arts college in New Jersey, but her passion was for politics, originally working for a senator from Florida but quickly moving on to Kennedy's staff.

During Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, she was one of the so–called "Boiler Room Girls," an affectionate nickname given to six young women on Kennedy's staff. Perhaps more than any, Kopechne was devastated by Kennedy's assassination in June 1968 and temporarily left political campaign work shortly thereafter, vowing not to return to Washington because "I just feel Bobby's presence everywhere."

But she returned to Washington before the year was out.

Fast forward to Friday, July 18, 1969. It was the weekend of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was also the weekend of a regatta in Edgartown, Mass., in which Sen. Edward Kennedy was competing.

Kennedy hosted a reunion for the "Boiler Room Girls" at Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., that Friday evening.

"Among the many responsibilities Ted had inherited from his brothers," wrote historian William Manchester, "was one for lifting the morale of the family's loyal campaigners." That was the objective of the gathering that night.

Actually, it wasn't as if the girls hadn't seen each other since the assassination. It was the fourth such reunion in a year's time, but the girls all seemed to enjoy being with each other — and a group of men who were there, too. Among them were a Kennedy cousin, one of his school buddies, an attorney and Kennedy's driver.

By 11:15 that night, Kennedy later told authorities, he decided to leave, and Kopechne asked him for a ride to her hotel. Kennedy agreed and told his driver to stay where he was since he seemed to be having a good time.

Kopechne didn't tell anyone she was leaving with Kennedy — and left her purse and hotel key behind. Odd behavior for someone who supposedly wanted to return to her hotel.

Accounts of what happened after that vary.

Kennedy later told local authorities that he made a wrong turn and went off a bridge. He said the car turned over and landed on its roof under water. Kennedy couldn't recall how he got out of the vehicle, only that he did and that he made repeated attempts to rescue Kopechne but was unsuccessful.

He returned to the party on foot and told authorities he saw no houses with lights on between the accident scene and the party, but it was established that Kennedy's route back to the party would have taken him past four houses, at least one of which had a light on all night.

Kennedy would have found a working phone at that house, as well as the one where the party was being held, but he didn't contact authorities until the next morning. Instead, he and two of the men at the party returned to the accident scene, where both of the men reportedly made several attempts to reach Kopechne.

When those attempts also failed, the men parted company. Kennedy's companions later said they assumed Kennedy would contact authorities, but he did not. Instead, he returned to his hotel, where he nursed the fantasy that Kopechne had, somehow, managed to escape the vehicle — and that he would learn she was all right the next day.

The next morning, however, two fishermen found the submerged vehicle, and the authorities were summoned. A scuba diver was dispatched, and he was the one who located the body. Upon hearing that a corpse had been found, Kennedy turned himself in to the local police.

The diver who found the body said she did not drown but, rather, died of suffocation. The position of the body suggested she had found an air pocket and had been trying to breathe. It was estimated that it took her three or four hours to die.

The diver was convinced she could have been saved. "I could have had her out of that car 25 minutes after I got the call," the diver said. "But he [Kennedy] didn't call."

A week later — and only a couple of days after Kennedy (wearing a neck brace) and his wife attended Kopechne's funeral — Kennedy spoke on national television. Of that I will have more to say next week.

There was considerable uncertainty about the timing of the accident. Based on Kennedy's version of events, it could have happened any time after 11:15 p.m. on July 18, but a deputy sheriff who had been working at a regatta dance that night said he encountered a dark car containing a man and a woman that appeared to be lost between 12:30 and 12:45 a.m. on July 19. He said he got out of his car and approached the other vehicle, intending to offer assistance, and the car drove off.

The inquest report only said the accident happened sometime between 11:30 p.m. on July 18 and 1 a.m. on July 19.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Somewhere Over the Rainbow



"This is not a perfect party. We are not a perfect people. Yet we are called to a perfect mission. Our mission: to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to house the homeless; to teach the illiterate; to provide jobs for the jobless; and to choose the human race over the nuclear race."

Jesse Jackson
July 18, 1984
San Francisco

Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow Coalition, wasn't the first black to seek the presidency, either in a fringe party or a major party. Nor was he the first black to address a national convention.

But the speech he delivered 30 years ago tomorrow night was better than any speech ever given by a black person to a national convention, according to American Rhetoric. With one exception — Barbara Jordan's keynote address to the 1976 Democratic convention.

Both were spellbinding orators — which is a pretty good trait to have if you are a lawyer (as Jordan was) or a preacher (as Jackson is). Preachers may have an advantage because the public's general impression of preachers is that they are more sympathetic to people's plights than lawyers are.

Jordan's speech was very lawyerly. "I could easily spend this time praising the accomplishments of this party and attacking the Republicans," Jordan said, "but I don't choose to do that."

And she went on to deliver a very solid, very literate, very lawyerly kind of speech that was, deservedly, praised. Admiration for Jordan's speaking skills probably couldn't have been any higher than it was on that July night in 1976.

Unfortunately, she never chose to work in any homilies that could have endeared her to her listeners. They admired her, but she seemed far away, personally inaccessible as she spoke in soaring language about concepts like liberty and justice.

For most people, I think, Jordan was like the sun. People feel warmed by the sun, they extol its brilliance, but they can't get close to it.

Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition could connect with people on a personal level. Thirty years ago tomorrow night, he spoke of the just–concluded, hard–fought campaign for the Democratic nomination and the need for Democrats to unite.

"I went to see Hubert Humphrey three days before he died," Jackson told the delegates. "He had just called Richard Nixon from his dying bed, and many people wondered why. And I asked him.

"He said, 'Jesse, from this vantage point, the sun is setting in my life, all of the speeches, the political conventions, the crowds and the great fights are behind me now. At a time like this you are forced to deal with your irreducible essence, forced to grapple with that which is really important to you.

"'And what I've concluded about life,' Hubert Humphrey said, 'when all is said and done, we must forgive each other and redeem each other and move on.'"


Jackson disputed the Republicans' claim that an economic recovery was under way.

"There's some measure of recovery," Jackson conceded. "Three and a half years later, unemployment has inched just below where it was when [Reagan] took office in 1981. There are still 8.1 million people officially unemployed; 11 million working only part time. Inflation has come down, but let's analyze for a moment who has paid the price for this superficial economic recovery."

As I said, Jackson wasn't the first black to speak to a national convention. Nor was he the first black to seek a presidential nomination — but he was the first black candidate to exceed electoral expectations. Jackson won five primaries and caucuses in 1984 and received nearly one–fifth of the popular vote.

I think it is safe to say that no black politician did better on the national stage than Jackson — until Barack Obama more than two decades later.

Jackson also brought 2 million new voters into the process. As one who has observed politics for most of my life, I know that many of those who register in voter registration drives do so in the passion of the moment and cannot always be counted upon to continue showing up at the polls after that moment has passed.

But many appeared to continue to participate when the midterms rolled around two years later, and Democrats recaptured the Senate after six years of Republican majority by taking eight seats from the GOP. Whatever Jackson's contribution to that may have been — and it seems beyond dispute that he did contribute to it in some way — it was an impressive achievement.

His accomplishments notwithstanding, on that night in 1984, Jackson addressed the delegates with humility.

"I am not a perfect servant," he admitted. "I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient: God is not finished with me yet."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

To Boldly Go Where No Man Had Gone Before



"The mission was Apollo 11. It was the capstone of an extraordinary effort ... and while men could argue endlessly over whether it had been worth the cost, its success was undeniably an American triumph."

William Manchester

When this day dawned 45 years ago, many things were true that would not be true anymore when the sun went down.

July 16, 1969 was a Wednesday. I don't know if Wednesday was known colloquially as "Hump Day" then as it is today, but millions of Americans got up that morning and went to work, just as they did every weekday morning. Some commuted great distances — as some do today.

It was summer, which meant that some families were on vacation road trips to landmarks, beaches, amusement parks or baseball games.

Wanderlust is deeply embedded in the American DNA, but, no matter how far any other Americans traveled in July 1969, the concept of travel would be forever changed by three men. Travel generally implies a destination of some kind, and those three men gave that word a makeover on this day.

Those three men — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — were the crew of Apollo 11, NASA's fifth manned space mission of the Apollo program.

In recent years, Americans had seen many manned space missions lift off in the Mercury and Gemini programs as well as the Apollo program. They knew the risks all too well, having witnessed the fiery deaths of three astronauts during a ground test for Apollo 1 a couple of years earlier. They knew there was nothing routine about space travel.

Except the destination.

"Apollo 11, with its 36–story–high Saturn 5 rocket, was fired at Cape Kennedy's launch complex 39A at 9:32 on the morning of July 16, 1969. ... The Saturn's third stage put them into an orbit at a height of 118 miles. After a 2½–hour check of all instruments systems, they refired the third stage. This gave them a velocity ... sufficient to throw them beyond the earth's atmosphere and on their way to the moon, a quarter–million miles away."

William Manchester

The eventual destination for Apollo 11 would be — as it had been for all space missions that had gone before — a splashdown. American missions splashed down in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and Apollo 11 was scheduled to complete its mission with a splashdown in the Pacific.

But in between the liftoff 45 years ago today and the splashdown eight days later, Apollo 11 did something that no other mission had done. It stopped somewhere — the moon. Two members of the crew descended to the moon's surface and walked around. They planted a flag to show they had been there.

And they left the first of several piles of space–travel debris.

On this anniversary, I suppose it is appropriate to wonder what kind of future, if any, America's space program has.

Aldrin has been an advocate of one–way missions for the first travelers to Mars.

And recently he revealed that he saw a UFO during Apollo 11's journey to the moon.

If that one–way trip to Mars materializes, the first travelers might expect to encounter a UFO as well — although Aldrin conceded that it could have been sunlight reflecting off panels from the spaceship. Since he does not know which panel, it qualifies (technically) as unidentified, and it was a flying object — just not, apparently, a flying saucer.

But Aldrin has also said that he believes there must be life somewhere else. If that is true, it seems at least possible that a spaceship from earth bound for Mars could encounter a UFO.

No one knows how long it will take a manned rocket to make the journey. So far, only unmanned probes have been sent, but it typically takes six months to a year for them to cover the 55 million–kilometer distance.

Surely they will bump into a real flying saucer during that time.

Extremism In the Defense of Liberty



"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Barry Goldwater
July 16, 1964

He was called Mr. Conservative when he sought the presidency 50 years ago. Sixteen years later, when Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination, he was called a "voice in the wilderness." Barry Goldwater's presidential nomination in 1964 was a "precursor" to Reagan's triumph in 1980, writes the Arizona Republic.

Fifty years ago tonight, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination to run against President Lyndon Johnson. As the Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News–Miner wrote recently, "The Goldwater nomination, with its conservative revolution, pulled the GOP clearly to the right on the political spectrum. No more hanging at or near the center."

Until eight months earlier, he and everyone else expected the Democratic nominee to be President John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

1964 was "the year of Goldwater," historian William Manchester wrote. "In seven consecutive national conventions of the past ... Republican conservatives had suppressed their yearning for a presidential candidate from their own ranks. This time they did not suppress it. ... They wanted A Choice, Not An Echo, as their placards proclaimed, and on July 15 they nominated Barry Morris Goldwater, Arizona's senior senator and a denizen of deep right field."

The next night, when Goldwater was about to deliver his acceptance speech (which was ranked #62 of the Top 100 speeches of the 20th century by American Rhetoric), he was introduced by former Vice President Richard Nixon. 1964 would be the only time between 1952 and 1972 that Nixon was not on the Republican ticket. In fact, it would be the only time between 1952 and 2004 that a Nixon, Bush or Dole did not appear on the GOP ticket.

"Proclaiming himself 'a simple soldier in the ranks' of the party he had led four years before," historian Theodore White wrote, "Nixon pointed to the uplands where the Republicans must go, urged them to follow their new and great American leader, and concluded as he pointed, turning to the flag–draped catwalk that led to the speaker's rostrum, 'Down this corridor will walk a man into the pages of history.'

"For a moment, the thousands gathered in the Cow Palace held themselves in check," White wrote, "like a wave curling to surf. And then, as Barry Goldwater appeared, the surf burst."

"From this moment, united and determined, we will go forward together," Goldwater told the delegates after acknowledging the prominent guests, Nixon among them — many of them had not supported him as he sought the nomination — "dedicated to the ultimate and undeniable greatness of the whole man. Together we will win."

The Republicans did not win that election, of course. "It was over before it began," White concluded in his book about the 1964 presidential campaign. "The issue had been decided long before — perhaps within minutes of the fatal shot at Dallas."

But, as insurgents always do at conventions when they have succeeded in toppling the establishment, the delegates in San Francisco cheered wildly for Goldwater and his conservative vision.

And, on this night 50 years ago, Goldwater may have reached his rhetorical peak.

At times, Goldwater was almost evangelical. "Our people have followed false prophets," he told the delegates at one point.

At others, he was pragmatic about what he perceived as the failures of the administration and the risks of those failures. "During four futile years," he said, "the administration which we shall replace has distorted and lost that vision. It has talked and talked and talked and talked the words of freedom, but it has failed and failed and failed in the works of freedom. ...

"Failures proclaim lost leadership, obscure purpose, weakening will and the risk of inciting our sworn enemies to new aggressions and to new excesses,"
he said.

"And the speaker was leading his audience way out there into a new world, a crusader's world unexpressed in American politics for generations — the visionary prophet and the martial patriot alternating, first the prophet, then the patriot, over and over again," observed White.

"The good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free," Goldwater said, "not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bullying of communism."

At the end of his speech came the "final, unforgettable thrust at the party moderates," wrote White.

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

When he had finished, the 1964 Republican convention came to its conclusion.

It did not nominate a president, but it was historic in some ways.

The name of Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine was placed in nomination. It was the first time a woman's name had been placed in nomination at a major party's convention. She only received the support of 27 delegates (out of 1,308), but she has that distinction in the history books.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cuomo's Tale of Two Cities



"So, here we are at this convention to remind ourselves where we come from and to claim the future for ourselves and for our children. Today our great Democratic Party, which has saved this nation from depression, from fascism, from racism, from corruption, is called upon to do it again — this time to save the nation from confusion and division, from the threat of eventual fiscal disaster, and most of all from the fear of a nuclear holocaust."

Mario Cuomo
July 16, 1984
San Francisco

The keynote speaker at a convention is expected to establish the theme to be built upon.

In 1984, the Democratic Party was still demoralized from its loss of the presidency in 1980. The task facing New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, as he prepared to deliver the keynote address at the Democrats' convention in San Francisco, was twofold: to make the delegates feel better about themselves and to define their mission in 1984.

That was really a fine line to walk. At the same time Cuomo was building up his party and its presumptive nominees, he had to tear down an administration that had been getting approval ratings in the 50s since before Thanksgiving.

He succeeded on both counts with a speech that is rated the 11th–best speech in the 20th century by American Rhetoric. It really was one of the best rhetorical performances you will ever witness, and it was especially impressive given that his message was not the one that the majority of Americans wanted to hear — and it was one of several impressive speeches delivered at that convention.

At the time, Cuomo's address propelled him to the front of the pack of would–be candidates for the 1988 and 1992 presidential nominations, but he declined to run both times. There were even those who said — as people often do after hearing an inspiring convention speech — that Cuomo should have been on the national ticket in 1984, even though few outside New York knew who he was until 30 years ago tomorrow night.

Cuomo began by challenging President Reagan's assertion that America was a "shining city on a hill."

"[T]he president is right," Cuomo said. "In many ways we are a shining city on a hill, but the hard truth is that not everyone is sharing in this city's splendor and glory. A shining city is perhaps all the president sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well. ... Mr. President, you ought to know that this nation is more a 'Tale of Two Cities' than it is just a 'Shining City on a Hill.'"

As I say, Cuomo's speech catapulted him into the lead in polls of Democrats just before the official starts of the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, but Cuomo was reluctant to enter either race — to the point that his indecision led to his being nicknamed "Hamlet on the Hudson." Actually, Cuomo's dawdling was a familiar refrain by 1992, but, in 1988, I knew many Democrats who fretted (perhaps correctly) that their party would lose the presidency for a third straight time because Cuomo would not seek the nomination.

His hesitance was baffling. The nomination seemed to be his for the taking — and I believe that one of the great what–ifs of history is the one about Mario Cuomo and the presidential campaigns of 1988 and 1992. I don't know anyone who thinks that George H.W. Bush — no matter what one may think of him in general — could have come close to matching Cuomo's eloquence in the debates in either campaign.

But there came times in both campaigns when his diffidence was too frustrating for Democrats who craved a leader.

Cuomo certainly was assertive 30 years ago. He sounded like a man warming up for the general election campaign as he criticized the Republican deficit.

"The president's deficit is a direct and dramatic repudiation of his promise in 1980 to balance the budget by 1983," Cuomo declared. "How large is it? The deficit is the largest in the history of the universe. ... It is a deficit that, according to the president's own fiscal adviser, may grow to as much as $300 billion a year for 'as far as the eye can see.' ... It is a mortgage on our children's future that can be paid only in pain, and that could bring this nation to its knees."

Speaking of children, there has been talk that Cuomo's son, Andrew, who now holds the office his father once held, may be angling to give the keynote address at the 2016 convention.

If he gets the assignment, will he do as well as his father did not once but twice? To be sure, if he does get tapped for the keynote job, he will face a far different set of challenges than his father did.

I imagine, though, that Andrew Cuomo wouldn't be likely to criticize the deficit spending of a president from his own party — unless, by 2016, deficit spending has fallen far from the voters' grace, and fiscal austerity is in style.

If that is the case, he can probably borrow very — pardon the pun — liberally from his father's speech 30 years ago, and few, if any, of his listeners will know that he didn't think of it first.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Attempting to Address a 'Crisis of Confidence'



"I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

"The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence."


Jimmy Carter
July 15, 1979

Sometimes it is difficult to ignore Mark Twain's still–relevant observation that history doesn't repeat itself — but it does rhyme.

Recently, Josh Lederman of the Associated Press compared Barack Obama's presidency to Jimmy Carter's when he delivered his famous "malaise" speech 35 years ago tomorrow.

As I observed five years ago, Carter never used the word malaise when he addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He spoke of a "crisis of confidence."

The Republicans used the word malaise, and it stuck. When I heard people speak of malaise, it sounded like they were describing the Carter administration, not the American people. That was an interesting spin, given that many people complained that Carter was blaming them for what was wrong.

People sneered at Carter as if he were spinning his wheels in a muddy ditch. I really got the impression that summer that the voters were concluding that they had to make a change in the White House in 1980. The guy who was in there didn't seem to get it.

And, with Obama, it is hard not to see parallels when, as Lederman writes, "both parties have essentially written off prospects for any major legislation for the remainder of Obama's presidency. Obama's attempts to circumvent Congress to get things done have drawn rebukes from the Supreme Court and a threatened lawsuit from the House, casting a bright light on the state of Washington dysfunction."

As Yogi Berra said, "It's like deja vu all over again."

This is what I think happened in 1979: Democrats couldn't believe the country would turn things over to the Republicans in the next election — less than six years after Nixon's resignation. Besides, the Republican front–runner, Ronald Reagan, would be nearly 70 by the time of the next election. Democrats either assumed — or persuaded themselves — that they would survive the 1980 elections. Many, including Carter, did not.

I've been observing American politics most of my life, and I don't fully understand the ebbs and flows of presidential popularity. It is truly a bewildering (yet fascinating) dynamic, this relationship the American people have with their presidents.

Initially, Carter's speech was a hit with the public. His message of austerity in energy consumption appeared to resonate at first, but public approval came crashing down within a few days after pundits sliced and diced it. Clearly, there was a backlash — but was it genuine or had it been manufactured?

Carter's speech, of course, was given long before the internet, even before cable was present in most American homes. There were no all–news networks and relatively few radio stations that carried straight news, let alone programs hosted by left– or right–wing ideologues. Many of the things that shape and direct the course of public opinion today did not exist in 1979.

I didn't pick up on it at the time, but many people who watched the speech seemed to feel Carter was blaming them for the energy crisis instead of trying to resolve the problem. I guess it didn't help when Carter said things like "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close–knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self–indulgence and consumption."

That does seem a bit preachy, huh? I mean, he might as well have said, "You're greedy and self–centered." In many ways, I guess that was true, in some ways I guess it still is, but it's a truth that requires delicacy in the telling.

When I was growing up, I heard people who were there tell of the spirit of generosity and sacrifice that permeated Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Maybe that's true, or maybe it was a case of folks remembering things the way they wanted to remember them and not the way they were; but if even a fraction of it was true, the Americans of that time were more generous than the Americans of the '70s and '80s — or, for that matter, the Americans of the 21st century.

Carter told people a harsh truth that many probably did not want to hear — that a way of life was at the heart of the problem — and Carter wasn't as diplomatic as he fancied himself to be. "We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose," Carter said.

It wasn't really surprising that, when Carter wrote his presidential memoirs a few years later, he focused most of his attention on his foreign policy record in office. Other than the 14 months–plus that he spent trying to get the hostages back from Iran, his foreign policy performance included triumphs like the Camp David Accords whereas his domestic influence was summed up in the public mind by the "malaise speech."

In the long run, it might not have been any better if people had remembered it as the "crisis of confidence." Neither that nor "malaise" is a rousing endorsement of a president's stewardship.