Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Releasing John Hinckley

I felt torn — and still do — when I heard today that John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, is going to be released after being in custody for 35 years.

I'm torn because, on one hand, I believe that anyone who tries to kill a public official should spend the rest of his or her life in prison — until that life is ended by the state or nature. On the other hand, I believe in the jury system and that anyone who is accused of attempting to kill a public official — or any other crime — must be found guilty by a jury of his or her peers.

Everyone who is old enough to remember that day knows that Hinckley fired the gun that wounded Reagan and three others. The new president, only 10 weeks into his administration, had just given a speech, and a swarm of reporters and photographers were waiting for his exit. It may have been the most photographed presidential assassination attempt in history; there was plenty of photographic evidence of Hinckley's crime.

No one died that day — although when Reagan press secretary Jim Brady, who was critically wounded by a shot to the head and permanently disabled, died in 2014, his death was ruled a homicide, the ultimate outcome of the gunshot wound he suffered 33 years earlier.

Anyway, there was no question of Hinckley's guilt, but there was plenty of doubt about his sanity, given the paper trail he left behind.

And that was the question Hinckley's jury had to decide when he went on trial in 1982. Its verdict — not guilty by reason of insanity — was not a popular one. The laws concerning insanity defense were revised in many states; the defense itself was abolished entirely in three states.

But the point now is that Hinckley was not convicted. His verdict was conditional; he would be confined to a mental institution until it was determined that he was not a threat to himself or others. That was an ongoing struggle for about 25 years. From time to time he was given periodic temporary release privileges that were revoked when it was established that he was still obsessed with actress Jodie Foster — for whom he had attempted to kill the president.

It has now been determined that Hinckley poses no threat to himself or others, and he will be released on Aug. 6 — ironically, two days after the second anniversary of Brady's death. He is to live with his 90–year–old mother and have no contact with the Reagan family or Foster.

In case you're wondering, Hinckley could not face new charges in Brady's death because he had already been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the original shooting.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Citizen Kaine

The Republican convention has just concluded, the Democrats' convention is about to begin, and Hillary Clinton has named Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate.

The tickets are set for November — or, at least, they will be when the Democrats make their ticket official next week.

And thus the quadrennial angst over the identity of at least one running mate is behind us. But the angst over what it all means and how it will influence the decision America must make continues.

The idealized image of a running mate is someone who will help the nominee's cause, but the overwhelming consensus on both running mates from pundits to both the left and the right was that the choices were rather boring safe picks — picks who weren't likely to hurt the nominees.

Neither probably helped the presidential nominees much in their home states — although you couldn't have said that about a Tim Kaine when Bill Clinton was heading the ticket not his wife. In 1992, when Bill Clinton first won the presidency, Virginia was reliably Republican, having voted for every Republican nominee for nearly 30 years. But after the Clinton administration, Democrats did increasingly better in Virginia in national elections, and they broke a more than 40–year–old electoral drought when Barack Obama carried the state in 2008. He went on to duplicate the feat, albeit by a narrower margin, in 2012.

Most of the polls of Virginia's voters that I have seen this year suggest that Clinton has been enjoying a comfortable lead, but the Kaine pick may prove to be beneficial in Virginia after all. The most recent Virginia poll that I have seen, Hampton University's survey of likely voters, showed Clinton and Donald Trump tied at 39% apiece.

But that, as I say, contradicts the findings in other polls. The NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist and FOX News polls, which came out around the same time as Hampton's but surveyed registered, not necessarily likely, voters, showed Clinton with a larger lead over Trump than Public Policy Polling's June survey of more than 1,000 registered voters. That poll showed Clinton with a more tenuous three–point lead over Trump in Virginia.

Polls in the summer generally aren't too reliable, though. You really have to get into the fall campaign — and, in fact, get past the first presidential debate in late September — before the polls will give realistic readings on the pulse of the electorate.

Sure, they're fun to watch right now, like the initial phases of a horse race, but a lot can happen between the start of a race and the end of a race.

Polls in July usually can't tell you much about what to expect in November — except when those polls consistently show a landslide in the making, and it has been more than 30 years since America had a classic, textbook landslide.

Right now, it seems best to evaluate the running mate choices on how well they serve perhaps the most obvious need for both nominees — choices who could help heal fractured parties.

In the past, nominees often have sought to achieve party unity by offering the running mate slot to their closest competitors in the primaries. Sometimes offering an olive branch to the party's vanquished wing helps (i.e., Ronald Reagan's pick of George H.W. Bush in 1980), sometimes it doesn't (i.e., John Kerry's pick of John Edwards in 2004).

In Trump's case, he needed to shore up his credentials with conservatives, but the chances that he would pick the runnerup in the primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, were slim and none.

He came up with a conservative alternative, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who appears to be acceptable to most conservatives in the party and, with six terms in the U.S. House under his belt, has legitimate insider credentials to balance Trump's perceived outsider status.

One can argue, of course — and, no doubt, many will — whether Trump, with his business dealings, is truly an outsider. He has often bragged, in fact, of how intimately he knows the system. That can be a good thing if one's objective is to elect someone who can work within the system to change it, but it can be a bad thing for someone who believes a candidate with that much invested in a system will work to protect it, not change it.

It is difficult to make a plausible case that having Cruz on the ticket would have helped Trump much in November. The race between Trump and Cruz never was that close, and, historically, a party's base will unite in spite of differences on some issues even without the runnerup on the ticket — still Cruz's nonendorsement of Trump in his convention speech clearly shows division remains in the Republican Party.

Pence may be able to help with that, reassuring conservatives and potentially uniting the base. If he does, Cruz's nonendorsement may be all but forgotten by most Republicans in November.

There is division in the Democratic Party as well, but it seems less certain that Kaine will be able to help much with that.

Even though the Democrats will have a platform that is considerably more left–leaning than ever before, the leftist wing of the party heavily supported Sanders in the primaries, and many of those Democrats may not vote for Clinton. They probably won't vote for Trump, but they might vote for the Green Party's candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, or they might not vote at all.

All along, the Clinton general election campaign strategy has been counting on the help that young voters gave Obama in 2008 and 2012, but many young voters supported Sanders in the primaries, and it is questionable whether Tim Kaine can address their concerns.

It will depend on what those concerns are.

If Sanders' supporters are mostly concerned about social issues or foreign policy, Kaine might fit the bill. National Journal's most recent congressional rankings — which are based on 2013 roll call votes — indicated that Sanders and Kaine are pretty close in those areas. Kaine, in fact, was considered more liberal in both (68% to 66% on social issues, 71% to 61% on foreign policy).

But the Sanders campaign was based primarily on economic issues, and that is where a considerable divide exists between Sanders and Kaine. The Journal gives Sanders a rating of 82% on economic issues; Kaine receives a far more centrist rating of 53%.

As a result, many of Sanders' supporters may choose not to participate in the election at all if they do not feel another candidate adequately represents them.

(In the interest of comparison, here is how Clinton fared in the National Journal's rankings when Clinton, then a senator, sought the presidential nomination in 2008. She received an 84% ranking on economic issues, an 83% ranking on social issues and a 66% ranking on foreign policy issues. Sanders, two years into his first term as a senator, received a 94% on economic issues, a 77% on social issues and a 94% on foreign policy issues. Citizen Kaine was the former governor of Virginia.)

I have a feeling that, unlike just about every other presidential election in my lifetime, every single vote will matter this time, and the Clinton campaign, mindful of that likelihood, went for a running mate who could be an electoral firewall. The usual swing states will be swing states again — Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida — and each presents its unique set of issues and challenges.

In Ohio, Trump must overcome the resistance of the state's governor, former primary challenger Gov. John Kasich. Trump's economic message is resonating with Ohio's blue–collar voters; three of the last four polls there have shown Trump and Clinton tied. Pence, as the governor of a neighboring state, may help there.

I haven't seen a poll from Pennsylvania in nearly two weeks. At the time, one showed Clinton leading by nine points, the other showed Trump leading by two points. The most recent poll from Florida had Clinton leading by seven points.

Kaine probably can't help much in Virginia, although if the race is as tight as the Hampton University poll suggests, Kaine and his perfect electoral record in Virginia could help Clinton if she stumbles in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

To maintain historical plausibility with political scientists, the winner of the election needs to carry at least two of those three states. Recent electoral results indicate that Clinton might be able to win the presidency without winning any of them, but the fact is that no presidential candidate since 1960 has won the White House without carrying at least two of those states.

Will that be the case again in 2016? Or, as it has been with so many other things this year, will that tidbit of conventional wisdom prove to be invalid?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Of Glocks and Books and Computers ...

There was a memorial service here in Dallas earlier this week for the five police officers who were gunned down by a young black man who was reportedly upset over the shootings of black suspects by white policemen in Louisiana and Minnesota.

I wasn't able to watch the service on TV because I was at work, but I read the text of Barack Obama's speech online when I got home that night. And I have watched video clips on TV and online.

As I have acknowledged here before, I have never been an admirer of Obama, but even I must admit that the speech started out to be perhaps his finest oratorical moment — comparable, in my mind, to the speech Ronald Reagan gave to the nation the night of the Challenger disaster.

He was mindful of the fact that he was speaking at a service that was showing its respect for five public servants. But then he veered off into ideological territory. Such a thing would be inexcusable, anyway, but Obama made it worse by appearing to justify the actions taken by the angry, apparently mentally disturbed young man.

Obama lamented the fact that it was easier for a young black man to get his hands on a Glock than a computer or a book.

Now, to me, this said everything one needs to know about Obama's mindset. I have concluded that he believes racism only has a white face because whenever a white person kills a black person, he decries it as racism. But when a black person kills a white person, if the case gets any media attention at all — and, of course, the shootings here in Dallas were widely reported — Obama blames it on easy access to guns.

Someone needs to tell the president that guns are not cheap. A library card, on the other hand ...

Sunday, July 10, 2016

My Friend the Hall of Famer

Dr. Donna Lampkin Stephens, a friend and former colleague from my newspaper days in Arkansas, was inducted into the Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame during the weekend.

It was the 10th induction class and the first to include a woman.

Donna's a trailblazer, all right, but I find myself thinking of her as a girl — not because I am sexist (I don't think I am) but because, darn it, Donna was a girl when I first knew her. I suppose I will always think of her that way.

We both graduated from the University of Arkansas with degrees in journalism and went to work for the Arkansas Gazette's sports department. I got there a few months before she did after I spent a year and a half at a smaller newspaper in central Arkansas. I think she came to the Gazette straight after her graduation from the University of Arkansas.

I worked on the copy desk. Donna wrote articles. I know she covered other sports because all of our writers had to cover sports other than their specialties, especially during football season, but she was primarily a golf writer. I edited her copy on many occasions. She was not only a good writer, she was a meticulous reporter.

I came to realize during my time as a sports copy editor that some sports are more difficult to make exciting in print than others. Golf seems especially stuffy in print. The fact that the TV announcers providing commentary for tournaments speak in a virtual whisper doesn't help — whereas a story about a home run or a touchdown and the accompanying roar — or deafening silence — of the crowd can almost write itself.

As the great Red Smith once observed, people go to or watch a sporting event to have fun, then they pick up the paper the next day to read about it and have fun all over again.

If the tournaments Donna covered were banal, it was hard to tell from her reports.

Donna isn't the first of my former colleagues to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. She isn't even the second — or third. We had a very talented staff at the Gazette. Sometimes I feel like the third baseman of the '27 New York Yankees. I mean, the '27 Yanks are remembered as one of the greatest baseball teams of all time, and everyone remembers the stars, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, from that team. But who remembers the third baseman? (It was Joe Dugan, by the way. He had a great reputation as a defensive player, but he hit fewer home runs in his career than Ruth did in the '27 season.)

I understood my role, though. As a copy editor, my job was defensive in nature. It was up to me to prevent mistakes from getting into print. If my work didn't attract attention, I figured I had been doing my job. A reporter's job, on the other hand, is to attract attention. If people don't read what a reporter has written, he/she is not getting the job done — even if the copy editor does a first–rate job of catching misspellings and keeping factual errors from making it into the morning paper.

Donna and I worked together for four years before I left to pursue my master's degree. Donna remained with the Gazette until it finally lost its war with the crosstown rival Arkansas Democrat. Since then she has earned her Ph.D. and become a successful journalism professor. She has also done a lot of freelance work for my hometown paper — a paper for which I wrote some freelance articles when I was in high school.

And she has written a book about the demise of the Gazette.

Very accomplished — and thoroughly deserving of this honor.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Uniquely American Friendship of Jefferson and Adams

"Adams and Jefferson could hardly have appeared less alike. Adams was eight years older and about five inches shorter, as thoroughgoing a New Englander as Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams had difficulty holding his tongue or his temper; Jefferson was a master of keeping his emotions in check. Yet the two men — and, in time, Abigail, Adams' wonderful wife — were to forge one of the greatest and most complicated alliances in American history."

Jon Meacham, "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power"

I have always been fascinated by the stories in American history, and there may be no more intriguing story in the history of this great nation than the relationship between two of its Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. For several reasons, their friendship is worth reflecting on as we celebrate the nation's 240th birthday — and observe the 190th anniversary of both Adams' and Jefferson's deaths.

Bearing in mind that political labels of the 21st century are wholly inadequate for describing the politics of 18th– and 19th–century men, they are still useful in enabling those of our time to get an idea where those men might stand on the modern political spectrum. It really isn't that much different from comparing baseball players of different eras — i.e., Babe Ruth vs. Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. They played in different ballparks against a different caliber of competition. Ruth didn't play as many games in a season as Aaron and Bonds did, nor did he play when there were playoffs other than the World Series (unless two teams were tied atop their league standings at the end of the regular season).

And they didn't play night games during the Bambino's career. They did play quite a few doubleheaders, which were increasingly rare in Aaron's day and virtually nonexistent in Bonds'.

But, anyway ...

I would describe Jefferson as something of a libertarian, perhaps even a bit radical for his day. Adams was more of a strait–laced conservative — and the more emotional of the two.

Now, I must caution the reader that these labels must be seen in the context of the times. We have conservatives and liberals and libertarians today, but the issues are different — and America is different. Today the United States is a superpower. In the 18th century, it was small and fragile. In 1790, there were fewer than 4 million people living in the United States. There are more than 320 million today, and the Census Bureau projects a population of 417 million by 2060.

There is always a lot of rhetoric in modern political campaigns — sometimes it is justified, most of the time it is not — that the times are fraught with peril and disaster will strike if the wrong choices are made. In Adams' and Jefferson's day, that was no exaggeration. They knew the stakes were always high. The threat of attacks from enemies foreign and domestic was as constant a fact of life in 18th–century America as it is in 21st–century Israel.

From the time they met at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 until they were driven apart by the politics of George Washington's first term as president (during which Adams was vice president and Jefferson was secretary of State), Adams and Jefferson worked together frequently — and quite well at that. In 1784, roughly five years before Washington became president, Adams said of Jefferson, "He is an old friend with whom I have often had occasion to labor on many a knotty problem and in whose abilities and steadiness I always found great cause to confide."

For his part, Jefferson said of Adams, "I never felt a diminution of confidence in his integrity and retained a solid affection for him."

The men signed the Declaration of Independence — of which Jefferson was the principal author — 240 years ago today and were allies in nearly everything. But they came to a parting of the ways over the size and scope of the federal government. Adams was a devout believer in a strong, centralized government. Jefferson favored a hands–off approach and a deference to the rights of the states to conduct business as they saw fit.

Adams, who was the nation's first vice president, was elected to succeed Washington in 1796 — at a time when the runnerup in the presidential election became vice president. Jefferson, as Adams' runnerup, became the second vice president and called on the president–elect the day before his inauguration. History professor Fawn Brodie wrote, in "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate Biography," that Adams suggested that Jefferson go to France to mend relations between the two countries. That was something that desperately needed to be done, but that, apparently, was not the whole story.

"Had Jefferson been anything but vice president," Brodie wrote, "the offer would have been an act of statesmanship. But Adams, disarmingly tactless as only he could be, betrayed his real feelings in a single sentence. Jefferson reported him as saying 'that it would have been the first wish of his heart to have got me to go there, but that he supposed it was out of the question as it did not seem justifiable for him to send away the person destined to take his place in case of accident to himself nor decent to remove from competition one who was a rival in the public favor.'"

Having been Washington's vice president, Adams was also aware of the threats that were made to the president's life, even in those nascent days of the republic. He may have feared a plot against his life from Jefferson's supporters or perhaps even Jefferson himself.

Four years later, Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency. They did not switch places, though, as Adams finished third. Aaron Burr became vice president.

After he became president in 1801, Jefferson trimmed the powers and expenditures of the federal government but also was known for acquiring the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the United States.

Adams and Jefferson died exactly 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence, on this day in 1826, having resolved their differences after Jefferson left the presidency in 1809.

As he died, Adams seemed to draw comfort from his belief that Jefferson would survive. What he did not know was that Jefferson had died some five hours earlier.

It is the only time in American history that two former presidents died on the same day. And how much more appropriate could it have been — two old friends who signed the Declaration of Independence dying on the document's 50th anniversary?

It was a uniquely American story.