Monday, May 29, 2017

Remembering JFK

It is hard to imagine John F. Kennedy at 100, but that is what he would be if he still lived on this day in 2017.

Of course, Kennedy is not still living. He has been dead nearly 54 years. He was assassinated in the streets of this very city.

His image is frozen in memory, a vivid yet moving figure for those old enough to remember him, a youthful image in the history books for those who are not. He is still 46 years old and will continue to be 46 years old for all who study history — even though all who are 46 now or will be 46 in the future were born after he died.

He will always be youthful, a naturally dark–haired president with two young children and a beautiful young wife. But that wife and one of those children are dead now, and the surviving child will be 60 later this year.

Time certainly does march on.

I observed on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination that so much has been written about that event in American history that it is hard to think of anything new to add. It is the same with the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth. (Excuse a little musing here, but since today is the centennial of JFK's birth, wouldn't it make sense, for consistency's sake, to call the 2013 anniversary of his assassination a semicentennial?)

Only a few months before her own death, Marilyn Monroe serenaded the president with a breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday." Even though he is not with us, perhaps that is the best we can do — wish him a "Happy Birthday" in absentia.

It is easy to think of the Kennedy highlights — his inspirational speeches, his vigorous and reassuring demeanor. It is tougher to challenge preconceived notions about Kennedy that have had decades to harden in the public mind.

So without wasting much time on discussions (bordering on debates) of his strengths or weaknesses, it is probably best to remember that John F. Kennedy was a man. He wasn't perfect and certainly didn't seem so to the people of his time, but no president has been, even those presidents we honor and admire today — like Washington or Lincoln. He had his flaws, like all of us, but he also had a moral compass, like most of us, and it was to the great fortune of this nation that his compass did not mislead either him or us.

As today is Memorial Day, I would just like to observe that all who serve our country are deserving of our gratitude — from those who serve in the Oval Office to those who serve on the battlefield and all those who serve and have served in between. Man of them are also in absentia.

To those presidents like Kennedy who served in both the Oval Office and the battlefield, we owe a special debt for their service.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

This Is Not Watergate Redux

People who compare Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey to the Saturday Night Massacre show a stunning lack of knowledge of history. Recent history, at that. This isn't ancient history.

If you want to talk about ancient history, let's go back a couple of centuries to the time when the Founding Fathers were designing the system of government for this new country. Chief among their concerns was due process for people who were accused of crimes. They realized that, no matter how utopian they believed their new land to be, people are still people, and some of them will commit crimes. They wanted a government that would treat all who were accused of crimes to be treated fairly.

There had to be an actual crime, not speculation about what may or may not have been done; there had to be evidence showing that a crime had been committed (if, for example, a person disappears under suspicious circumstances, that disappearance cannot be treated as a homicide unless a body has been found). Witnesses were probably considered the best evidence at first, and they're still valuable, but as forensic evidence gained credibility, its stock in criminal cases rose considerably. When I was in high school, DNA was still in a limbo state, legally speaking. Today it is the coin of the realm.

Fast forward to Watergate.

Where shall I begin? Well, let's start with the fact that the Watergate investigation really began when Bob Woodward was covering the arraignment of the Watergate burglars in June 1972 for the Washington Post — more than a year before the Saturday Night Massacre. Burglary is definitely a crime. Everyone knew a crime had been committed when five men were arrested in the Democrats' national headquarters in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. That was certainly a suspicious thing, but curiosity was really aroused when a paper trail revealed that some of the burglars were linked to Richard Nixon's White House.

That was the root of the investigation. A crime. Not speculation that a crime may have been committed but evidence of an actual crime. Just as the Founding Fathers intended. Facts were deciding the case. Not emotion. Not rumor. Not innuendo. Not hearsay.

And it was the question of how potential evidence in the investigation of that crime was to be handled that ultimately led to the Saturday Night Massacre.

Let's back up just a little here.

In July 1973, it was revealed during the Senate Watergate hearings that there had been a taping system in the Oval Office, a system that was activated by sound. Only four people, I think, knew of the existence of this taping system, and one of them was Richard Nixon.

Anyway, this system had been secretly recording conversations Nixon had with his top aides for a few years. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox issued a subpoena for tapes of conversations believed to be relevant to the Watergate investigation, mostly based on testimony from former White House counsel John Dean; fewer than 6% of the tapes related to Watergate — many of the recorded conversations, for example, dealt with plans for Nixon's trips to China and Russia — and thus were irrelevant to the investigation, but the tapes Cox sought were expected to prove or disprove Dean's testimony, which had been remarkably specific as to the dates of conversations and what was said in those conversations.

Until the existence of the tapes became known, there seemed to be no way to break the impasse, but the tapes could establish who was telling the truth, Nixon or Dean.

Nixon refused to comply and offered a compromise. Mississippi Sen. John Stennis — who was notoriously hard of hearing — would listen to the tapes and provide a summary for Cox. Cox rejected the compromise.

Nixon's attorney general, Elliot Richardson, had appointed Cox earlier in the year and was the only one who could dismiss him. At the time of Cox's confirmation Richardson had promised the Senate that he wouldn't use his authority to interfere; some five months later, Nixon asked Richardson to fire Cox, and Richardson resigned. Next in line was Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, who also resigned rather than fire Cox.

Then it fell to Solicitor General Robert Bork, who carried out the order.

One thing that is not mentioned today — but was mentioned in Theodore H. White's book on Watergate, "Breach of Faith" — was the concern about Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was meeting with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. In the Cold War atmosphere of that time, perceptions were critical on both sides, and a presidential order had been defied. Many in the federal government worried about what the Soviets would think.

That does not justify anything, but it helps to put the decision process into context.

That was the Saturday Night Massacre. If there is a comparison to be made between the Saturday Night Massacre and the firing of James Comey, certain facts must be addressed.

In October 1973 everyone knew a crime had been committed. What was the crime in this case? I'm not talking about speculation. I'm talking about anything that would stand up in court.

That is due process, and every American citizen is entitled to due process.

Even the president, whether you like him or not.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Will Control of the House Flip in 2018?

I've heard a lot of talk recently — mostly from hopeful Democrats — that control of the House of Representatives will flip next year after eight years of Republican rule.

Given the current party division in the House, that would require the Democrats to make a net gain of two dozen seats.

Can it happen? Historically speaking, yes, of course. It has happened before. It is mathematically possible that it could happen again.

But will it happen again? Ah, that is a different question. To answer that question in May 2017 when the election won't be held for another 18 months requires a crystal ball — after all, who, at this point in the last election cycle (i.e., May 2015), predicted that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States?

No one knows in which kind of world voters will be living when they go to the polls 18 months from now, and that will play an important role in the elections.

Now, it is true that, historically, a president's party loses ground in Congress in a president's first midterm elections, but all midterms are not created equal. Sometimes a president's party loses ground in one chamber but not both — Richard Nixon, as disliked as he was even by many who voted for him, lost ground in the House but not in the Senate in the midterm elections of 1970. In fact, Nixon's Republicans actually gained a couple of Senate seats but remained in the minority.

Four years later voter backlash over Watergate led to a loss of 48 House seats for the Republicans.

And, while sometimes presidents lose House seats in bunches, as Obama did in 2010, other times presidents lose only a handful of seats. In 1990 George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost only eight House seats. Four years earlier Ronald Reagan's Republicans lost only five House seats.

One–term presidents — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are recent examples — only have one midterm election. For presidents who have been elected to two terms, second midterm election results have been decidedly mixed. Barack Obama's party lost control of the Senate in his second midterm after losing control of the House in his first. George W. Bush's Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than a decade in his second midterm. But Bill Clinton's Democrats picked up seats in the House and saw no change in the Senate in the midterms of 1998.

Clinton's experience was rare for presidents and seems to have been fueled by voter backlash over the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. That is what seems to be necessary for a president's party to gain ground in the midterm elections — extraordinary circumstances that offset the natural enthusiasm that comes from being the party that is outside the White House looking in.

Prior to the Clinton years double–digit losses in the House — at least at the level that Democrats need next year — were uncommon in American politics. They did happen from time to time but not as regularly as they have since Clinton came to power.

Reagan's party lost 26 House seats in the midterms of 1982, but the party of his predecessor lost only 15 seats four years earlier. In between Reagan defeated Carter by 10 percentage points.

American democracy is a dynamic thing, always shifting in response to economic, social and political conditions — and the elected officials' responses to those conditions.

Such conditions are always changing. That is why it is a disaster waiting to happen if a candidate campaigns on the assumption that simply because a party has been winning for years in a state or district it will continue to do so. History is a pretty good indicator, but it is not foolproof, as Hillary Clinton should have learned on election night.

No modern president has faced an economy as horrendous as the one Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited in 1933, but the conviction that he was trying to right the ship enabled his party to make gains in both chambers in the midterms of 1934.

It runs deep in the American DNA to reject the notion of single–party rule in which one party controls all the levers of the federal government. Such a situation existed in the first two years of Obama's presidency — Democrats even held a seldom–seen veto–proof (and also filibuster–proof) majority in the Senate.

But the passage of Obamacare led to the voter backlash that resulted in Republicans seizing the majority in the House.

As much as Americans tend to reject the concept of single–party rule, though, it is important to remember that House races usually favor the incumbent. Congressional districts are concentrated, as small constituencies are wont to be, and tend to be the perfect examples of Tip O'Neill's pearl of wisdom that "all politics is local." Most House incumbents, regardless of party, keep their fingers on the pulses of their districts — if they don't they are almost sure to lose in the next election.

A few states have populations that are small enough that they are entitled to only one member of the House; in those instances, the House members are, essentially, statewide representatives like the state's two U.S. senators. But most states have more than one House member, thus concentrating the constituents' interests. A largely rural district can co–exist next to a largely metropolitan one — and, thus, different issues will matter to the constituents in each.

Even within districts, there can be pockets where the prevailing interests are different than in the rest of the district.

Currently Charlie Cook, perhaps the foremost observer of House politics, says Republicans hold 197 solid seats. That leaves 44 Republican–held seats, of which Democrats need to win 24 to seize a slim majority, that represent far more plausible takeover opportunities.

Of those 44 seats, though, Cook says 19 are likely to remain in Republican hands, which trims the Democrats' margin for error considerably.

Based on that, if the elections were being held today, Republicans most likely would hold on to a majority in the House.

But the elections are not being held today.

Stay tuned.