Sunday, March 15, 2015

History Is a Harsh Mistress

"Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

"And we shall overcome."

Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965

History is, indeed, a harsh mistress. She beckons to those who will follow her when she deems that a great moment is at hand — but she never mentions that the window of opportunity is slamming shut nor does she identify what it is that must be addressed. She just gives vague nods in a general direction and lets you figure out the rest.

In the context of history, you have only minutes — seconds, really — to act, too. Then that window slams shut, and a new one will open sometime in the future, but history gives no warning until the moment is upon us again.

Nor can you apply what you learned from the last time to the new one — like old generals who are constantly trying to fight the last war and neglecting the things that will enable them to win the current one. "History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain cautioned, "but it does rhyme."

Fifty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson gave what was probably the most inspiring speech of his presidency — his address to Congress advocating passage of the Voting Rights Act. It broke no new legal ground, really. It was designed to enforce what had been the law of the land for nearly a century in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. They were part of the Reconstruction Amendments that guaranteed rights of citizenship, particularly the right to vote, to minorities, but, as everyone knew, they had not been enforced in most parts of the South.

The voting rights legislation came at a time when LBJ was, arguably, at the height of his political power, prestige and influence. In the year following John F. Kennedy's assassination, Johnson's approval rating had been at its highest — in the 70s — and no president can sustain those numbers indefinitely, but Johnson was doing pretty well after nearly 18 months in the White House. Just a few months earlier, he had been elected to a full four–year term as president in a landslide of historic proportions, and, as he delivered his speech 50 years ago tonight, his approval rating, according to Gallup, was 68%.

Johnson wanted to do something about the situation, but he wanted to proceed slowly, possibly because he wanted to conserve his political capital — which, in hindsight, might have been a good thing to do. America soon soured on the war in Vietnam, and he needed that capital to keep his approval ratings above 50% — a point he dropped below almost permanently by the middle of 1966.

What Johnson told his allies was that he didn't think Congress would be eager to take on another civil rights measure so soon after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Johnson embraced the idea and enthusiastically pressed for the bill's passage in Congress.

As it turned out, his support for the Voting Rights Act appears to have had little influence on his approval ratings. He remained above 60% for the rest of 1965 — even managed to hit 70% in May. But, of course, that was still in the future; he was hesitant to move quickly in the early spring of 1965.

Perhaps the populist, liberal wing of the Democrat Party of 1965 knew what both parties seem to have forgotten in the 21st century — that history is a harsh mistress and one must act quickly to satisfy her. I have read that the liberals of the day were eager to capitalize on their sweeping victories in the 1964 elections, and history certainly indicates there was good reason for that. Following the 1964 elections, the Democrats had the greatest congressional majorities — in both chambers — that any party has had since the Republic's early years.

The lesson of history is that, when such extremes are reached, there is usually a correction that occurs, and huge majorities begin to dwindle. It is only possible in hindsight, of course, to determine when critical mass was reached. At the time, though, the temptation to believe that popularity has not peaked must be hard to resist.

In a democracy, political success is fleeting — and, in fact, Johnson's approval ratings did plummet in the second half of his term. The unpopularity of the war had a lot to do with it; likewise, the civil rights movement almost certainly had something to do with it. As his approval ratings fell, so did Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.

There is a steep price to be paid for failing to act quickly enough — or failing to recognize history's call when it comes. It was the populist, liberal wing that pressured Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Capitol Hill. The events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge accelerated the process.

In my lifelong love affair with history, I have come to appreciate its timing, its ironies. So it is with this moment in history.

Johnson delivered what many believe is the most powerful speech in presidential history only a week and a half after the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's masterful "With malice toward none" second inaugural address. History wasn't repeating itself, but it was rhyming.

Johnson's speech, of course, came a week after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama — an event that has been re–created recently in the movie "Selma."

Anyone who thinks little progress has been made in racial relations in this country since Johnson gave his speech hasn't been paying attention. I was quite young when LBJ made that speech, and I wasn't aware of the historic events that were happening around me, but I had been to the single–screen movie theater in my hometown, and I had seen blacks being ushered into a corner of the balcony through a back door, and I knew that blacks were treated differently than whites. The public schools in my hometown didn't integrate until I enrolled in first grade. Mine was the first class in my hometown's history to go all the way from first grade through the twelfth integrated.

Since I wasn't old enough to read in 1965, I can't tell you if public drinking fountains and restrooms were still segregated in my hometown when LBJ made his speech, but if they weren't, they must have been at some time. I grew up in the South. Not the deep South where the worst things were happening, but it was still the South. In my home state, Orval Faubus led an ill–fated attempt to halt the desegregation of Little Rock Central years before George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and Bull Connor let loose the police dogs and fire hoses on civil rights activists in Alabama.

In those days, civil rights activists could be heard singing "We Shall Overcome." The phrase had become synonymous with "the movement," as I heard most blacks in my hometown call it, sanctified by the blood that had been spilled by so many. The casualties in Selma were only the latest, but they were the straw that broke the camel's back. Selma was too high profile for Johnson to ignore.

On this occasion, historian William Manchester observed, the president "concluded his speech with a phrase that had become hallowed by the blood and tears of a new generation of black Americans marching for justice. He said that their cause 'must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.'

"That was fine liberal eloquence,"
Manchester wrote, "but at times during the year it appeared to be a doubtful prediction. The eleventh anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education passed on May 17, and racism seemed stronger than ever."

My memory is foggy — I was, after all, a small child at the time — but I remember hearing the black ladies with whom my mother worked on our local Human Relations Council speaking of how great it was that the president had used that phrase.

It was more than symbolic to them.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Difference It Makes

"Tell people that there's an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority will believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."

George Carlin

Unless your lifestyle is a reclusive one, like that of the Unabomber — and, if it is, then you most likely aren't reading this, anyway — you're bound to have seen the TV commercial in which the deejay is posing as a financial advisor. He got his hair cut. He put on a nice suit, and he threw around some impressive–sounding financial terms. Then he asked some unsuspecting dupes if they would trust him to handle their retirement planning. They all said they would. Then he revealed the truth about himself. "I have no financial experience at all," he confessed.

The unsuspecting dupes really shouldn't have been all that unsuspecting, though. It's the kind of sleight–of–hand that magicians have been pulling for generations. Sometimes people really should be hesitant based on what they know — and what they don't know. Nevertheless, there are always people who fall for scams.

And there are those who make up their minds and won't change, come hell or high water. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

In my experience, people — particularly Americans — are too quick to give a second chance — and a third one and a fourth one and, well, you get the picture — to those of whom we have ample reason to be skeptical. Most of us have been guilty of it at one time or another. For some, it's just the way they roll — all the time.

Sometimes we are rewarded for giving a second chance; but just as often, if not more, we are disappointed.

Now, in the case of one Hillary Rodham Clinton ...

Most Americans think they have spent a lot of time observing the Clintons, but I've got them beat. I lived in Arkansas before Bill ever won an election. I wasn't familiar with Hillary when she was a legal adviser to the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry; it was after that that she agreed to marry Clinton and move to Arkansas. They were both in Little Rock by 1977; Bill was elected the state's attorney general in 1976. And that is when I — and, I suspect, most of the people in Arkansas — first became acquainted with Hillary.

From that point on, Bill was a fixture in Arkansas politics, and Hillary was often seen with him — not so much in his attorney general days but after that when he ran for governor. Statewide officials were elected to two–year terms in those days, and governors sort of lived with the fact that, unless they were stepping down voluntarily in the next election cycle, they pretty much had to spend half of each term running for office. There was no season for raising money for those campaigns, either; fundraising was — and, I expect, still is — an ongoing process.

Arkansas changed that law in the mid–1980s. Statewide officers are elected to four–year terms today, but Bill and Hillary Clinton cut their political teeth on the old arrangement.

Anyway, having observed the Clintons for more than half my life, I've kind of gone beyond the point of being disappointed by anything they say or do.

Since we are all, to a great extent, the products of our experiences, it seems fair to assume that experience plays a significant role in the mindsets of both Clintons. Indeed, given their behavior in their political lives, it seems to be — to most reasonable people — a sight more than an assumption.
Hillary Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.

Sen. Ron Johnson: I understand.

Clinton: Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

In the matter of the Clinton emails, Mrs. Clinton and her supporters want the country to focus on the fact that her people have already gone through the emails and decided which ones to release.

Is that sufficient?

As I recall, it wasn't sufficient 40 years ago when the subject of the congressional investigation in which Mrs. Clinton took part — you know, the one involving President Richard Nixon — offered to release certain White House tapes after they had been screened or edited transcripts of the tapes themselves. I can't say that I know what Hillary Rodham said or thought about that, but I do know what just about every Democrat — and some Republicans — said when Nixon tried to pull that one. They didn't go for it. Nixon went ahead and released edited transcripts, anyway, but they were ridiculed to such an extent that no one really gave them any credibility.

As I recall, when the subject of edited transcripts was first brought up by the White House, special prosecutor Archibald Cox rejected it, saying that transcripts "lack the evidenciary value of the tapes themselves."

(There was something Nixonian in the way Barack Obama insisted he had learned of Hillary's private email through news reports. That, of course, is how Nixon claimed he had learned of the Watergate break–in.)

And now Hillary Clinton reaches into Nixon's playbook. But summaries of her email correspondences — or release of certain emails that were selected by Hillary and/or her staff — lack the evidenciary value of the emails themselves.

Of course, there is more to this than merely the resemblance to a long–ago scandal. There is the question of cyber security. In recent years, we have seen how easily the computer files of huge retail outfits can be hacked and private information can be compromised.

Doesn't that make it even more important that Americans be completely assured that the communications of the secretary of state — whose email correspondence may very well have contained sensitive classified information — cannot be intercepted?

What assurance can they have from a privately run server that sufficient security is in place?

We live in perilous times. It shouldn't be necessary to remind people of that, with all the grisly images we have seen on our TV screens — beheadings, people being burned alive and tossed from buildings — but, nevertheless, there are people who will ignore the facts.

Those are the people who will tell you that ISIS and its allies there in the Middle East are savages, primitive, medieval at best. And I will concede that they follow medieval texts and dress in medieval ways — and, most importantly, they think medieval thoughts. But that does not mean that they turn a blind eye to modern technology. They don't like the modern world, but they know that they must use the tools of the modern world if they are to defeat it. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants turned modern technology against America in 2001, hijacking airplanes and using computers for all sorts of purposes — communicating with each other, financial transactions, reserving seats on the doomed airplanes.

Why should we think that modern jihadists would behave any differently?

We've heard the stories of their active efforts to recruit people from the West. Doesn't it make sense that they would be looking for people who know how to hack computer systems? It wouldn't surprise me if they already have recruited such people.

It wouldn't really matter where they were, either — although I am quite sure there are already sleeper cells across this country waiting for their orders. Computer hackers can be anywhere. As long as they can connect to the internet, they can go about their business.

What guarantee do we have that Mrs. Clinton's emails, which were not under the protection of the government, were not hacked while she was in office? Oh, I know, there are no guarantees anymore. But it still seems — to me — to be an inexcusable temptation of fate to obsessively control one's email records instead of doing as the law requires.

Fact is, under the law, Mrs. Clinton's email correspondence while secretary of state does not belong to her. Regardless of what it was — a highly sensitive official email to a foreign ally or a personal email to an old friend — it is the property of the U.S. government.

Upon entering office, a president swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That means following the laws of the land.

Mrs. Clinton asks her audiences these days, "Don't you want to see a woman president of the United States?"

My answer to that is — yes. But I want it to be the right woman for the job. Not just any woman.

And the right woman for the job will not have a history of playing by the rules of her choosing, thoughtlessly putting others at risk. It is the same standard I apply to any man seeking the presidency.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

'With Malice Toward None:' Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

President Abraham Lincoln (bottom circle) delivers his second inaugural address
while the man who would assassinate him six weeks later listens (top circle).

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Abraham Lincoln
March 4, 1865

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.

As I have mentioned here before, I have been studying the presidents and the presidency most of my life — and that is not a joke. I really have. And in the course of my life, I have read the texts of many presidential inaugural addresses. I have watched all or part of most of the inaugural addresses that have been delivered in my lifetime.

And the one Lincoln delivered 150 years ago today may be the best ever given. Its words adorn the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Lincoln's first inaugural address is considered one of the great speeches in American history — and rightfully so — with its oft–quoted passage about "the better angels of our nature."

But imagine, if you will, Lincoln's state of mind when he prepared to give his second inaugural address. On the occasion of his first inauguration, Lincoln and just about everyone else knew that war was a foregone conclusion so that was Lincoln's focus. It was obviously going to be the priority of the new administration, and the status of the war was going to be critical to his re–election bid four years later.

For a time in his re–election campaign, Lincoln was convinced that he would be defeated. The war news in the first half of 1864 had not been good for the administration, and Lincoln had resolved that, if he did lose, he would see to it that the North won the war before he left office — because he knew the Democrat who defeated him would be committed to ending the war, not winning it or preserving the Union — but things were looking up in the second half of the year. General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in his famed march to the sea, and David "Damn the torpedoes" Farragut captured Mobile Bay, Alabama. After that, it was all good news, and Lincoln was re–elected in a landslide. By the time he took the oath of office for the second time, the war was almost won.

I don't know if the weather in Washington was as severe 150 years ago as it has been recently, but historical accounts do tell us that it had been raining quite a bit in Washington in the days leading up to Lincoln's inauguration. On the day of the inaugural, though, the skies cleared, and the sun came out, bringing tens of thousands of people out to witness the historic event. After all, Lincoln was only the sixth president to give a second inaugural address.

"Abraham Lincoln, rising tall, gaunt and outstanding, stepped forward to read his inaugural address," Carl Sandburg wrote in his biography of the 16th president. "Applause roared, again and again was repeated, and finally died far away on the outer edge of the throng. In a silence almost profound the audience now listened. Seldom had a president been so short–spoken about the issues of so grave an hour."

The reconstruction of the Union was on Lincoln's mind, and that called for a brief speech, Lincoln told his listeners, and he reminded them of the circumstances four years earlier when he took office. "Both parties deprecated war," he said, "but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

And it had gone on far longer than either side had expected.

"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God," Lincoln observed, "and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."

"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray," Lincoln said, "that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Sandburg wrote that "[a] subdued handclapping and occasional cheers punctuated the address. Reporters noticed at the final paragraph many moist eyes and here and there tears coursing down faces unashamed."

Frederick Douglass reportedly told the president, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort."

Douglass was there. He heard the speech when it was given. What a privilege that must have been — especially when you consider that modern presidents seem to feel obliged to speak interminably. Lincoln gave the greatest speeches in the nation's history; frequently, they lasted only a few minutes. His Gettysburg Address was written on an envelope, and his second inaugural address might as well have been.

And the significance was in the eye — or, rather, the ear — of the beholder.

"Like the Gettysburg Address, and more particularly the House Divided speech, the second inaugural took on varied meanings," Sandburg wrote. "To some it was a howl for vengeance, to others a benediction and a plea — with deep music."

Lincoln was re–elected with 55% of the popular vote four months earlier on Nov. 8, 1864, defeating his former general, George McClellan.