Freedom Writing

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham Passes Away at 99

"When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost."

Billy Graham (1918–2018)

It has been more than a decade since Billy Graham's last crusade; consequently, there are many people living today who have no memory of the evangelist in his prime — when he routinely drew huge crowds to massive stadiums and counseled presidents at critical times in our nation's history.

There are people in our lives that we can't imagine living without. They tend to be people with whom we share some sort of personal connection — friends, parents, siblings, etc. My mother's mother was such a person for me. When I was little, I believed everything she said.

One thing she told me — many times and in many ways — was what a wonderful person Billy Graham was, how inspiring he was, how fulfilling it was to be in his presence. She went to a couple of his crusades, and I can recall her vivid description of the experience of a Billy Graham crusade at Texas Stadium.

My personal religious beliefs have been less certain than hers over the years. Let's be clear: I have never regarded myself as an atheist. For awhile, I looked upon myself as an agnostic, but now I tend to empathize with Timmy in "The Subject Was Roses" when he said, "I believe there is something bigger than myself. What you call it or what it is, I don't know."

There may have been a time in my grandmother's life when she had her doubts — most people do — but by the time I came along she was certain of things. She knew what was bigger than herself. I'm not there yet.

Billy Graham gave her that assurance — as he did millions around the world.

There was a time when I thought my grandmother liked Billy Graham because he was a friend of Richard Nixon. My grandmother was an admirer of Nixon, but I realized that her fondness for Graham was entirely separate from her admiration for Nixon. The fact that they were friends was, for my grandmother, a happy coincidence.

Those who were close to Nixon always seemed to suffer for it. I suppose Graham suffered for it, too, because, after Nixon left office, he tried to avoid the appearance of partisanship. He was mostly successful, too.

I have written before of people I thought would always be there. That was a foolish state of mind, and I guess I always knew that. Everyone dies. We all know that.

Still, I just always thought that Billy Graham would go on forever. His body did not. He passed away early today after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, pneumonia and symptoms of Parkinson's. I knew he had been sick, but I figured he was one of those people who would live to be 100. That would have been a suitably biblical age for him. It was not to be, though.

But he built a legacy that will live on — in his writings, recordings and videos — so that those who never knew what it was like at a Billy Graham crusade, even those who can remember when they were still being done but never had the first–hand experience.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Dilemma of Guns

The topic of conversation for the last few days has been the school shooting in Florida this week.

I understand that the process of burying the victims begins today. It's a necessary ritual, but it is sure to fan the flames awhile longer.

It is important for everyone to understand that, in the aftermath of such an event, we all want to feel safer, but individual definitions of safer tend to vary widely. Emotions dominate the discussion. That is precisely the time when cooler heads need to prevail.

I'm going to say something now that is sure to be ridiculed and misunderstood, but I'm going to say it, anyway.

We need to have a rational and logical discussion about this.

Both extremes on the political spectrum go into kneejerk mode when something like this happens, and that gets in the way of having a meaningful conversation. The extremes actually represent a fairly small portion of the population, but their arguments are so shrill and their insistence upon being heard is so dedicated that they drown out everything else. Talk about sucking the oxygen out of the room.

I don't really have to describe their by–now quite predictable arguments, do I?

Deep down, I often suspect that both sides secretly love it when children account for most of the victims of a tragedy like this because it magnifies both causes. Both would deny that, but it is surely true. Dead children give the extreme left a chance to trot out its favorite position — America must outlaw military–grade weapons in civilian hands (psst: That's already been done).

And they give the right a chance to argue that everyone should be armed because a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun. Like many things, that looks good on paper but not so much in practice.

Both extremes are uncompromising, and that is simply undemocratic, but it is the inevitable outcome of our tribalistic, polarized society. It is a clear indication of just how polarized we are that each side blames the other for this. The right blames Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. The left blames Ronald Reagan or the Bushes. The truth is that no one is blameless. This problem predates all of those presidencies. The buck has been passed for many decades.

This nation has faced many problems in the past, and it was through compromise that we found solutions. But sometime — and I am not sure when — it was apparently decided that compromise equals weakness. That is undemocratic.

No one is willing to compromise anymore. No one is willing to listen to the other side — or even to acknowledge that the other side might have a legitimate point or two to make.

We need to pull back from the extremes now and have this conversation from a more centrally located perspective. If we can do that, we will have taken the first crucial step to finding an answer instead of making the situation worse.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Turning of the Tide

In hindsight it is neat and orderly to say that the Tet offensive, which began in late January 1968, was the turning point in Vietnam.

And, strategically, perhaps it was.

But public opinion had been turning against the war for quite awhile. The escalation of the conflict in the mid–1960s had spawned Eugene McCarthy's insurgent presidential campaign that would force President Lyndon Johnson to abandon any plans he had to seek another term, and it would lead to Bobby Kennedy's campaign as well. There were protests — and chaos — in American cities. It was a turbulent and terrifying time in American history.

Through it all, I suppose, a majority of Americans continued to believe that victory was still possible in Vietnam — until the Tet offensive revealed the weaknesses of America's war effort. While the Tet offensive failed to meet its military objectives, historian Theodore H. White called it "the shadow on the walls."

Again, in hindsight, it was. But no one really recognized the shadow for what it was — at least at first.

Two days into the offensive — 50 years ago today — one of the most famous photographs of the Vietnam era was taken. It would lead to a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Eddie Adams of the Associated Press, who snapped a picture of the execution in Saigon of Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Viet Cong operative who had been involved in the slayings of a South Vietnamese officer's wife and children.

It was a powerful picture, powerful enough to mobilize opposition to the war even — or, perhaps, especially — if the person looking at the picture did not know the details behind it. To the uninformed, it could well appear as if Vietnam was like the lawless old west with people being randomly murdered in the streets. The picture did not say why the man was being executed.

The executioner was Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of South Vietnam's national police. He shot Nguyễn Văn Lém in front of Adams and a TV cameraman for NBC News. According to Adams, the shooter walked up to him and said, "They killed many of my people and yours, too," and walked off.

Film footage of the shooting was subsequently broadcast worldwide, invigorating the antiwar movement and providing the first of many shocking, unexpected and critical moments in what would be a thoroughly unpredictable year, filled with riots in the streets and assassinations.

But it could really be said to have begun on this day with the shooting of one man in the streets of Saigon.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lessons From the Past

Our political system is an amazing thing.

It really is. Oh, I know we all complain about things that government does or doesn't do, and we get mad at our elected officials from time to time — but nearly without exception our system has permitted us to make peaceful periodic changes in our elected leadership. We take that for granted, but we wouldn't if we lived in many other places in the world.

But our system also has its idiosyncracies.

The pendulum is always swinging, and the out–of–power party always has plenty of reasons to be energized by midterm elections, starting with the clear historical trend that favors the folks who are outside looking in. This time it is the Democrats' turn as the out–of–power party, and everything seems to point to a big year for them. The president's approval numbers remain low, and Democrats continue to hold a lead in the generic congressional ballot.

Along with that, nearly three dozen Republicans in the House have announced their intention to retire, and more seem likely. The terrain certainly looks favorable for Democrats in 2018.

But history has some cautionary tales.

Let's start with the most recent history that Democrats ignore at their peril.

In 2016 polls showed Hillary Clinton with the lead over Donald Trump — and, indeed, Clinton did win the popular vote by a considerable margin.

But the United States has never elected its presidents by popular vote. It has always elected its presidents by electoral vote, and Clinton's popular votes were too heavily concentrated in the coastal states to influence the Electoral College. (In fact, if you took California's vote entirely out of the mix, Trump would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote; Clinton's margin in California was about 3.1 million whereas her margin nationally was 2.86 million.)

The same thing appears to be likely in this year's congressional races. Democrats are concentrated in urban districts, and the Democrats' nominees in those districts are likely to pile up impressive margins. Nancy Pelosi, for example, routinely rolls up incredible margins in her Bay Area district. It's even likely in some places here in Texas, where Clinton carried the metropolitan counties of Dallas, Travis, Bexar and Harris by wide margins.

But all you need to win an election is a single vote. You'd like to do better than that, of course, but some Democrats are likely to roll up huge margins in some districts — when many of those votes would be more beneficial elsewhere.

In Texas, outside of the metro counties and the ones that border Mexico, Republicans still dominated in 2016 — and likely will continue to do so. Some Democrats are salivating at the thought of the open seats that have been held by Republicans, like the South Texas district that has been represented by Republican Lamar Smith for more than 30 years. Smith is retiring, and there have been rumblings of how Democrats think they have an opportunity there, but one of the Democrats seeking the seat once served on Pelosi's staff. That might help win the Democratic primary, but it isn't likely to be a general–election winner in a district that voted for Trump by 10 percentage points.

That brings me to another point. The Democrats, like the Republicans in the first midterm of the Obama years, are engaged in a battle from within. The battle is between the establishment and the extremists. At stake is the direction of the party.

As the battle plays out, the establishment will prevail in some places, and the loose cannons, who are typically the most energized in the midterms, will prevail in others.

Democrats are certain to try to nationalize the campaign, but midterms are not national campaigns. They are held in every state and every House district, but the issues and candidates vary. It is tempting to vote for the loose cannons because they typically oppose everything the in–power party does, but Democrats need to remember how some of those loose cannons worked out for Republicans in the past.

In 2012, Missouri Republican Todd Akin made his widely reported remarks about "legitimate rape" that helped politically endangered Sen. Claire McCaskill win a second term by 16 percentage points. McCaskill is back, still politically vulnerable and running for a third term in a state that voted for Trump by nearly 19 percentage points.

Similarly, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock's remark that "even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Mourdock won the nomination by defeating six–term incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary.

Indiana has only voted for a Democratic presidential nominee once since 1964, but it voted for the Democrat in that Senate race, Joe Donnelly. He, too, is up for re–election — in a state that supported Trump by slightly more than 19 percentage points.

McCaskill and Donnelly were originally expected to lose in 2012, and their victories are big reasons why, when Democrats need to win only two seats from Republicans to have a majority in the Senate, they must defend more than two dozen Senate seats in November.

Democrats have a rare opportunity in 2018, but it is not a slam dunk.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Taking Back the House

Democrats face a similar situation to the one Republicans faced eight years ago. In 2010 Democrats held the White House and both chambers of Congress. Today Republicans do.

Granted, the Democrats had larger majorities in both the House and Senate — and they had a more popular president, too — in 2010. Yet they still managed to lose their advantage in the House when Republicans gained a net of 64 seats that year. They lost ground in the Senate and eventually lost that majority as well.

Today many political observers are convinced that the tables have turned — which is based on solid historical data. This is a midterm year, and midterm years almost always go against the party in the White House. That has been true whether the incumbent was popular or not.

Indeed, presidential approval ratings play an important role in midterm elections, but the responses have become increasingly polarized over the years. In the 1950s, for example, an average of nearly half of Democrats said they approved of the job Republican Dwight Eisenhower was doing as president. In the 1980s, an average of less than one–third of Democrats approved of the job Republican Ronald Reagan was doing, and in the 1990s, slightly more than one–fourth of Republicans approved of the job Bill Clinton was doing.

Clinton's successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, failed to average even that much support from the opposing party.

But Bush's Republicans benefited electorally from the terrorist attacks of 2001. They might have been expected to lose ground in the midterm elections of 2002; instead, they gained ground in both chambers, the first time a president's party accomplished that in a midterm election in nearly 70 years.

(It is unwise to ignore the influence that circumstances can have. At the same time, though, it is not wise to expect too much from things like scandals. The Iran–Contra scandal dropped Reagan's approval rating below 50% in January 1987, but he rebounded to higher than 60% by the time he left office two years later.)

I have a theory about that trend. When it is a president's first — and, in many cases, it has been a president's only — midterm, that president is two years removed from winning the presidency, and his supporters are complacent while his foes are energized. When it is a president's second midterm, his supporters are generally demoralized by something, a scandal or whatnot, and the rest of the country, from those who are indifferent to long–time detractors, is just weary.

It takes truly unusual circumstances for any incumbent to overcome that, and so far such circumstances have not materialized in this election. But it has been observed frequently that the 2016 elections rewrote the rules so I wouldn't rule it out.

In 2018 Democrats need fewer than half as many seats as they lost in 2010 to claim a paper–thin majority in the House. That sounds plausible — and it is — but there is something that is worth remembering.

Unlike Senate seats, which are decided every six years, House seats are on the ballot in every election. There have been 22 elections since Watergate, and a single party has gained that many House seats (or more) in four of them. The rest of the time the gains were less than 24.

It's a tall order — but not one that is impossible to fill.

As Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball recently noted, there is already an unusually high number of House incumbents not seeking re–election — twice as many Republicans as Democrats.

In fact, there are enough open seats in Republican–held districts for Democrats to entertain thoughts of capturing the majority in the House by winning most of them — but that would be a foolish strategy. It ignores the fact that not all districts are created equal.

Some districts have long histories of voting for one party or the other. Like mine, for instance. I live in Texas' Fifth District. It has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since 2003. The only time he was held under 60% of the vote was when he was originally elected in 2002 — and he received 58% in that election. He announced a couple of months ago that he would not seek re–election.

Hensarling is not leaving because he anticipates a tough election. He is highly regarded here and would be sure to win another term if he wanted one. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will be a heavy favorite to win the general election — if he/she is even opposed.

If the voters in this district elect a Democrat to succeed Hensarling, it will be a clear indication that a wave election is underway.

Democrats are more likely to gain ground in districts like Arizona's 2nd District, which was represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords before she was shot in 2011 and had to retire. One of Giffords' aides was elected to fill her vacancy in 2012. Voters narrowly chose the loser of the 2012 election — Martha McSally — in a rematch in 2014. McSally was re–elected with 57% of the vote in 2016 and now is running for Jeff Flake's Senate seat.

Democrats are favored to win that House seat this November.

Other open districts are just as evenly divided — and could be prone to flip in the next election with no incumbent on the ballot. The power of incumbency, as I have noted here before, is considerable.

But it is not absolute.

Open seats do present opportunities for the party that does not occupy the White House, but Democrats have to be selective about which ones they pursue. Kondik says they need to net at least half a dozen Republican–held open seats to be on track to seize the majority in the House. The rest, he wrote, will need to be taken from the officeholders. His estimate is that Democrats will need to beat 15 to 20 incumbents head to head.

That may seem like a challenge, but Kondik insists the number is not too high by historical standards.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Losing Another Part of My Childhood

A snowy day in another January many years ago. Matt is second from right.

Life happens in waves.

Life is also, as John Lennon observed, "what happens while you're busy making other plans."

With that in mind, I have been writing a lot about death lately. I didn't plan it that way. It's just how it has worked out.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I wrote about the death of my favorite journalism professor.

There have been other times when I have been touched personally by death but not lately — until this week. Death is a topic no writer can avoid for long, though. Shortly before Thanksgiving Charles Manson died. A few days ago the mastermind of the notorious 1964 triple slayings in Mississippi died.

As I say, I have enjoyed a respite from personal experience with death — but that never lasts.

And my vacation from the deaths of personal acquaintances ended this week when I learned that a fellow who grew up near me in Central Arkansas passed away. I don't know the specifics, but I have heard it was heart related.

We were friends. I can't say we were best friends or anything like that. He was about six months older, which isn't a lot, even when you're kids and months seem like years — but, because of when our birthdays fell on the calendar, he was a year ahead of me in school, and so he graduated the year before I did. I always felt like that was a bit of a barrier between us as we got older. We went to school each day with different classmates. We had different teachers.

Still we were practically neighbors. We lived in the country — where neighbors has a different meaning than it does in a city or town. We didn't live in houses that were so close that we could see each other's front doors. You had to do some walking through tree–filled hillsides to get from one to the other.

But we were neighbors. My brother and I played with Matt and his younger brother in the afternoons. Our parents socialized regularly.

Would we have done that if we had lived in town? I don't know. Options tend to be much more limited when you live in the country.

But what might have been is speculation. What was — well, that is a matter of fact.

And since I learned of Matt's death, my thoughts keep returning to memories of my childhood — and what was.

Matt's father built a treehouse that we kids used a lot in the summer. It gets hot and humid in Arkansas in the summer, but we spent many summer nights in that treehouse, playing card games and doing things that kids do when the seemingly limitless free time of summer stretches out before them. Heat and humidity was a small price to pay for all that freedom.

Sometimes the four of us would spend the night in that treehouse. We would lug our sleeping bags up there, then we would sleep on top of them because it was too suffocating to try to sleep inside our sleeping bags.

That treehouse was kind of like a junior frat house, though. We didn't do much sleeping there, and things tended to get broken. Mostly we played cards — and Monopoly — by the light of a lantern or told ghost stories.

When it was quiet in the treehouse, I would sit and let the light summer breeze wash over me, and I would look at the stars sparkling in the sky and the shimmering moon.

We all learned to ride bicycles at about the same time, and that really was like being set free. That was the first time that we were truly mobile, and from that moment on if we were going anywhere we were on our bikes. No longer did we need someone to take us to a neighbor's house a couple of miles down the road. We could get on our bikes and take ourselves there.

Later on, of course, cars replaced bikes, and our journeys took us even farther from home. But that came later.

Our parents and their vehicles still had a place in our lives. We rarely got snow in Central Arkansas, but when we did, we usually needed Matt's father's truck to take us to school. I remember all of us piling into the small cab of that truck (this was before the days of club cabs) on winter mornings and listening to his tape of Charley Pride's greatest hits as we rode into town.

Matt's family moved to Arkansas from Texas when he was in elementary school, and there was always friction between us when the Arkansas Razorbacks played the Texas Longhorns in anything — but especially football. Both our loyalties were to the places where our roots were.

So it was ironic that Matt stayed in my hometown the rest of his life — and I moved to Texas.

Sports always played a prominent role in our relationship. When we were about 8 or 9, we collected and swapped baseball cards and football cards — as many boys did (and, I presume, still do). We usually watched major sports events together, and we played the games as best we could.

Folks in town had the advantage over us in the latter. They had empty lots and open fields in which to play. We lived in the country, which was rocky and hilly. If we wanted to play touch football, we had to do it in the dirt road that slithered past our homes. That was not a problem, though. People seldom drove along that road in those days, and we could usually hear cars coming long before they reached us, giving us time to clear off the road until they went past.

I remember one unusually snowy winter that brought a significant snowfall, not just the usual dusting, and we couldn't wait to play football in it — because we could actually play tackle football for a change.

We soon learned that playing football in snow is a lot colder and wetter than it looks on TV. But when we had had enough, we went to one of our homes — where there would be tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches to warm us up.

Matt was a much better athlete than I was. He played youth baseball with my brother (who was also a better athlete than I was), and I remember watching his games with a touch of envy. Matt looked like a big–league ballplayer in his Little League uniform, whether he was playing in a game or getting a snow cone between games.

As I understand it, Matt coached youth baseball after he grew up.

Matt and I seldom saw each other as adults. The news of Matt's death, consequently, triggers no memories of my adult years — it seems to me that the last time I saw Matt was at my high school class' fifth reunion (Matt wasn't in my class, but his wife was) — but plenty of memories of my childhood.

While I am mourning the loss of my childhood friend, I am also mourning the inevitable loss of my childhood. Matt wasn't my first childhood friend to die — and, unless I'm the next one to go, he certainly won't be the last.

But it is a stark reminder of the constant state of change in which we all must exist.

It is also a reminder that life is short, much too short to not do the things you love. Matt's life was shorter than I ever would have expected when we were growing up. I hope he spent it doing things he loved to do.

And I hope I do the things I love to do before my time on this planet runs out.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

One Man's Death

As I wrote here when Charles Manson died less than two months ago, I get no joy from hearing that another human being has passed away, even one who caused great pain and suffering.

That, essentially, is how I received the news yesterday that Edgar Ray Killen, the mastermind in the conspiracy to murder three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, died in prison a few days shy of his 93rd birthday.

By modern standards, plotting to murder three people usually merits little attention outside the community where such an act occurs.

But the '64 murders were different. Everyone from the president on down was watching developments in Mississippi. A priority was given to finding the missing civil rights workers; then, when their bodies were discovered, the emphasis shifted to bringing their killer(s) to justice.

Killen, an organizer for the Ku Klux Klan, was not present when the workers were abducted and murdered, but he was the one who coordinated everything — then made sure he had an alibi.

Homicide is usually a state charge, and juries in the South of the 1960s tended to be all white — and to acquit white defendants in the slayings of blacks. It was believed the only way a conviction could be obtained was through the federal judicial system, and Killen was among 18 men who, in 1967, faced federal charges of violating the civil rights of the three young men.

Seven of the defendants were convicted and sentenced to from three to 10 years in prison, but the jury couldn't agree on Killen. Eleven voted for conviction, but one refused, saying she did not believe a man of God could participate in something like that.

Killen was a part–time Baptist preacher.

He was convicted of participating in the murders in 2005, 41 years to the day after the triple slaying that inspired the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," and spent the rest of his life in prison. But he was convicted of manslaughter. So much time had passed since the murders that many witnesses had died, and the jury did not have enough evidence for a homicide conviction. Still three consecutive 20–year sentences were likely to be more than the 80–year–old Killen could survive.

And, indeed, he did not.

Since Killen's death, the only things I have seen written about him were news accounts of his demise. I have seen no columns, no editorials, no commentaries of any kind about him or the era in which he lived — and that he influenced.

I'm not sure what to make of that because I certainly expected to see something, particularly in a polarized time like this. It was only a few months ago, after all, that statues of Confederate soldiers were being brought down from coast to coast — and the Confederacy ceased to exist more than half a century before Killen's birth.

Killen was from the 20th century, about the same age as a fellow who lived down the road from me in central Arkansas. He wasn't, as far as I know, a member of the Klan, but he was a segregationist and an unsuccessful candidate for first governor and then U.S. senator when I was in elementary school.

Well, that was what the public saw. I saw a man who was kind and treated me like a member of the family. In fact, I spent many of my waking hours outside of school at his house, playing with his twin sons.

When he committed suicide eight years ago, I was stunned by the hateful comments I saw on social media sites where folks from my home state tend to congregate.

It was probably because of that experience that I anticipated an equally rabid reaction to Killen's death. Once again, I am stunned — but happily so.

I am inclined to think that maybe that is a good thing. Maybe the fact that a notorious Klansman like Edgar Ray Killen can die in prison and cause barely a ripple is a sign of a maturing society.

That is a welcome development when words like racist, sexist and Nazi are thrown around almost casually.

It is important, once in awhile at least, to be reminded of what those words really mean — and for whom the label is appropriate.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Minnesota Two-Step

Let's start with some stuff that is important to understand, although not enough people do:

U.S. senators are elected to six–year terms, and the terms are arranged so that one–third of the Senate is on the ballot in any given election. In 2018 the electoral map has few Republicans facing the voters as the senators who are up for re–election won their current terms in 2012, the year Barack Obama was re–elected. That was a pretty good year for Democrats.

If those senators were re–elected in 2012, their previous election would have been in 2006, which was a big year for Democrats. That was the year they seized control of both chambers of Congress for the first time in more than a decade.

The Democrat senators who are on the ballot in 2018 had favorable winds at their backs the last two times their seats were on the ballot. Their party gained two Senate seats and eight House seats in 2012 — five Senate seats and 34 House seats in 2006.

The political terrain wasn't as favorable for Republicans in those years as it was in others, and fewer were successful. As a result, fewer Republicans hold the Class 1 seats that will be on the 2018 ballot.

Senate terms are also staggered so that no state must elect both its senators in the same election year — unless there is a midterm vacancy that needs to be filled.

Sen. Al Franken's stated intention to resign in January puts Minnesota in that comparatively rare category in 2018.

Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota's senior senator, is seeking a third six–year term in her Class 1 seat. Franken's seat is a Class 2 seat that would be slated to face the voters again in 2020, but because he is leaving the Senate, his appointed successor will be on the ballot in the next election. The voters will decide who will represent them until 2020 — at which time the winner of the 2018 race will have to decide whether to seek a full term.

Such two–fer Senate elections are rare — some states have never had one — but this will be the second time for Minnesota. The first time was 40 years ago — in 1978. Then, as now, both seats were held by Democrats.

Does that 40–year–old election have any relevance to 2018?

One of the seats had belonged to Sen. Walter Mondale, who was elected vice president in 1976. Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson resigned so his lieutenant governor could become governor and appoint Anderson to fill the Senate vacancy for the last two years of the term.

The other seat had belonged to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was elected to the Senate after leaving the vice presidency and then re–elected in 1976; then he died of cancer in January 1978. His widow was appointed to the seat until an election could be held later that year. The winner would hold the seat until 1982. Muriel Humphrey chose not to run, and Minnesota Democrats selected a rich trucking firm owner to be their standard bearer.

Minnesota has a reputation as a deep blue state in 2017, and it was quite blue in the '70s, too, although it did vote for Richard Nixon in 1972 and had voted for other Republicans for president in the first half of the 20th century; still it hadn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1952.

Republicans used that to their advantage. They made the point that Minnesota's leading statewide offices were held by people who had not been elected to them — and the seats would all be on the ballot in 1978. That was the voters' big chance, the Republicans said, gleefully asserting that Minnesota's Democrats would face "something scary" in 1978 — "an election."

That wasn't entirely fair. Democrats had been elected to all those offices the last time they were on the ballot, and Democrats were appointed to fill the vacancies. It wasn't as if someone was circumventing the political will of the voters.

(The party affiliation may have been the same, but the philosophy wasn't always. That trucking firm owner who was nominated when Mrs. Humphrey decided not to run was more conservative than most Democrats were then or are now.)

In 1976 Minnesota gave the Carter–Mondale ticket nearly 55% of the vote. The voters knew that, if the ticket won the election, someone would replace Mondale in the Senate. They voted for the Democratic ticket, anyway. When Humphrey was re–elected that same year, it was no secret that he was sick; nearly three–fourths of Minnesotans voted for him, anyway.

What hurt the Democrats in 1978, though, was Anderson's blatant move to gain Mondale's seat. I suppose it hinted of entitlement to many, and the voters clearly didn't like that. Only 42% of them supported Anderson in November.

Muriel Humphrey, by her own admission, was no politician. She was a politician's wife, and she played that role graciously for decades, then dutifully kept the seat warm until the election. Would the magic of the Humphrey name have carried the day and kept the Senate seat in the Democrats' hands if she had not decided to step down?

We'll never know, but that businessman who won the party's nomination when Mrs. Humphrey declined to run only got 36% of the vote in November.

When the Senate convened in January 1979 Minnesota was represented by two Republican senators for the first time since the Truman administration.

Republicans completed the sweep by winning the governor's office as well, and the 1978 election came to be known as the "Minnesota Massacre."

Now, to an extent, voters throw tantrums in these special elections and vote contrary to their usual patterns. Like a fever, though, it passes, and voters return to their roots by the time the next election is held. We saw this in the early part of this decade when Massachusetts elected a Republican to serve the remainder of Ted Kennedy's term, then chose a Democrat when the seat was on the ballot for a full six–year term.

I suspect we will see that same phenomenon — albeit in reverse — in Alabama in 2020, when Democrat Doug Jones must decide whether to seek a full six–year term.

The dynamics were different in Minnesota 40 years ago, though. The Republican who was elected to complete Humphrey's term, David Durenberger, went on to win two full terms and then retired after 16 years in the Senate. Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican who defeated Anderson, was re–elected once.

If Minnesota threw a tantrum in 1978, it had staying power. It remains to be seen whether the voters of Minnesota will throw a similar tantrum in 2018.

Political tantrums require catalysts, and those catalysts vary from state to state. The circumstances that led to Scott Brown winning Ted Kennedy's seat in 2010 were different from the ones that propelled Doug Jones to victory in the race for Jeff Sessions' seat or led to the Minnesota Massacre.

At present there appear to be no storms on the horizon for Minnesota Democrats, but as I observed more than a year ago, in spite of voting Democratic in 10 consecutive presidential elections, deep–blue Minnesota wavered a few times and was a candidate for flipping to the other party in 2016.

It didn't, but it came close. A week after I posted that, Minnesota voted Democrat for the 11th straight time — but Hillary Clinton's share of Minnesota's vote was the smallest for a Democrat since her husband in 1992.

And Bill Clinton could point to the presence on the ballot of a credible third–party candidate who took nearly a quarter of Minnesota's vote.

Who knows which issues may emerge in 2018 to help or hurt Tina Smith, Franken's appointed successor? Smith, who was once regarded as a gubernatorial prospect, will become a senator as an indirect result of the emergence of sexual harassment as a political issue and a direct result of credible accusations that were leveled at her predecessor.

But what if not–so–credible accusations are made that cast a shadow over the issue? That could lead to voter backlash.

Are there any Tawana Brawleys lurking out there in Minnesota?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Noteworthy Day in American History

Today is the anniversary of two noteworthy events in American history.

They are noteworthy for different reasons — and, on the surface, appear to have little, if anything, in common. But bear with me.

Now, something has happened on every day in the calendar — even if it was nothing more than people were born on that day and people died on that day. For a long time I believed that nothing of note ever happened on the day of my birth — other than the fact that a few famous people were born on that day and a few died — but I later learned that there were some historic — albeit minor — events on my birthday.

There are 365 days in a year (366 in Leap Years); in a few thousand years of recorded history it stands to reason that something, however great or small, must have happened on each at some time.

Dec. 19 is the anniversary of two significant events in American history, separated by nearly two centuries, but they both speak to the purpose of America.

The first event was on this day in 1777. Gen. George Washington and his men began to set up their winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pa.

Even if you never learned the specifics when you were in school, you almost surely learned of the Continental Army's struggle to survive that winter. They had been engaged in a battle with the British in early December, and Washington sought some place where his men could spend the winter.

There were several considerations — Washington needed a location that would support wartime objectives. Valley Forge was far from ideal, but it was easy to defend and had plenty of timber that could be used to build huts.

Everything was in short supply — food, clothing, shelter.

As for shelter ...

It was on this day 240 years ago that construction of the first hut at Valley Forge began. It was completed in three days. By February, 2,000 huts had been built.

Having shelter against the elements helped, but it did nothing for the food and clothing shortages. Contrary to popular belief, Valley Forge had comparatively little snow that winter, but the conditions were still frigid, the men were ill–clothed and underfed.

Why did they endure such hardship? Because they believed in the concept of freedom.

Fast forward 195 years.

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17 returned to Earth. It was a little more than three years since Apollo 11's historic voyage to the moon.

Consequently most Americans probably expected to see men walking on the surface of some other object in the heavens — even though Apollo 18 had been canceled more than two years earlier and no further space landings of any kind were on NASA's schedule. No such missions have been launched in 45 years, and no such missions are planned although the notion has been given plenty of lip service.

Most people probably didn't recognize it at the time, but America was in a truly transitional period. The idea of American exceptionalism had been taking a beating due to the Vietnam War and Watergate. There was a crisis in American confidence that continues to this day.

After Richard Nixon cruised to re–election as president in 1972, things began to change in American politics. In the next two decades, three incumbent presidents would be rejected at the polls by the voters (for comparison purposes, three incumbent presidents were rejected by the voters in the previous 80 years), and the only destinations for American space travelers were space stations.

If they could visit America today, the veterans of Valley Forge might wonder what has become of the country for which they sacrificed so much. What has happened to the courage that sustained them through Valley Forge and the seemingly impossible revolution against British rule? What has become of that "what's next" spirit of exploration that led Americans from the eastern shores of the continent to the western shores — and from there into space?

While it is true that President Donald Trump recently signed Space Policy Directive 1, which provides for a return to the moon — and beyond — Ethan Siegel writes for Forbes that ain't happening.

"With no plans for adequate, additional funding to support these ambitions," Siegel writes, "these dreams will simply evaporate, as they have so many times before."

Perhaps Siegel is right. Perhaps the objective needs to be more targeted. The scattershooting approach of returning to the moon then jumping to the next goal (Mars) and beyond may not be the way to go, as Siegel suggests.

"If we want to go to Mars, we should make that our goal and invest in it," he writes. "If we want to go to the Moon, we should make that our goal and invest in it. Pretending that one has anything to do with the other is a delusion."

Maybe so. But it also seems to me that the spirit of Valley Forge has taken a beating since the days of Apollo 17.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What Does It Mean?

Barring a reversal by recount, it appears that Democrat Doug Jones has defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions' appointment as attorney general.

Jones did not win a full six–year term. He was only elected to finish the unexpired portion of Sessions' term. If he chooses to seek a full term, he will have to do so in 2020.

In that regard, he is much like Republican Scott Brown, who won a special election in Massachusetts in 2010 to complete the term of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy died in office in August 2009, and Brown was elected to serve the last two years of his term.

The dynamics of the elections differ, but the overriding similarity is the fact that both states elected nominees from the parties that had not been successful in those states for a long time. It was especially shocking in Massachusetts, I suppose, since that Senate seat had been held by Kennedys for more than half a century — and Massachusetts had given nearly 62% of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 — but it is no less shocking in Alabama, where Donald Trump received 62% of the vote in 2016.

Pundits are looking for clues to the political future, just as they did in 2010. I am inclined to reach the same conclusions now as I did then.

In 2010 I wrote the following: "I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year." I feel that way today — but I have no more of an idea of the extent than I did then.

The circumstances could hardly be more different. A cloud of controversy hung over Moore in the last month of the campaign; the extent to which that contributed to his defeat remains to be determined, but its influence cannot be denied. There was no such cloud hanging over Martha Coakley when she lost to Brown in 2010; apparently she simply took victory for granted. She tried unsuccessfully to correct her shortcomings a few years later when she sought the governor's office and lost to the Republican nominee. Was Coakley the problem? Or was the party the problem?

The same question could be asked about Moore and the special election in Alabama.

As a harbinger of things to come, the Massachusetts election may have given Democrats — who had been anticipating seizing full control of the government after Obama became the first black man to be elected president and they achieved filibuster–proof status in the Senate with the election of Al Franken in Minnesota and Arlen Specter's party switch in Pennsylvania — a glimpse into a grim future.

The Democrats didn't lose control of the Senate in 2010, but they came close. Going into the election, the party held 58 seats (which, when combined with two independents who caucused with them, provided them with their filibuster–proof status) and emerged from it with 51 seats — still a majority but greatly diminished — and fully vulnerable to a Republican filibuster.

The 2010 midterms are not remembered in history for the outcome in the Senate races, though. What is remembered is the fact that Republicans turned a 79–seat deficit in the House into a 49–seat advantage. They have held the majority in the House ever since.

As a harbinger of things that may be yet to come, the Alabama election may have done the same thing for Republicans. The question is whether the GOP will be wise enough to heed its warning.

I don't know if Democrats can be competitive in enough House districts to pull off the kind of wave the Republicans achieved in 2010. Based on what I have seen, they may be fortunate to grab a narrow majority if they claim one at all.

Republicans don't need to lose as many Senate seats in 2018 as Democrats lost in 2010 to lose control of the chamber — and, as I have mentioned before, the historical tide of midterms runs against the party in the White House.

But until Tuesday, the Democrats faced an uphill struggle in trying to capture the Senate. Only one–third of the senators are on the ballot in a given election year — unless a special election has been called because a senator died or resigned before his/her term was completed. In this cycle, the vast majority of senators whose seats are on the ballot in 2018 are Democrats. Of those senators whose seats must be defended in 2018, only one incumbent Republican senator comes from a state that voted for Hillary Clinton whereas 10 incumbent Democrats must face the voters in states that supported Donald Trump.

With their upset victory in Alabama Democrats need only two more seats to claim a majority in the Senate for the last two years of Trump's term. That is more plausible now — but not necessarily more probable.

Regardless of whether Democrats can seize a Senate majority next year, even a short–term one, the Republicans' agenda is in jeopardy. If American politics has made anything clear in the last decade or so, it is that the voters want a change; as Republicans seemed to offer what they wanted, the voters gradually turned over the levers of government to them.

But the political pendulum is always moving in America. The Republicans' already slim majority in the Senate will shrink in January when Jones is seated, which gives them a few weeks to accomplish whatever they can with the seats they currently hold. Given their track record this year, though, getting anything done seems unlikely.

Voters seem to have developed a rather limited tolerance for political performance in recent years. Nonperformance may fare worse.

Until Tuesday, I had not seen anything in any of the special elections that surprised me. All the House seats that were vacant because their representatives had been appointed to positions in the administration were in red states. Democrats made a lot of noise about being competitive in those districts, but ultimately they lost every special election.

Then in November the first statewide races in the Trump era were held — in New Jersey and Virginia, states that elect their governors in the years immediately following presidential elections. After decades of voting for Republicans, Virginia (where governors are prohibited by law from seeking re–election) has been trending blue. Three of its last four governors have been Democrats, and it has voted Democratic in three consecutive presidential elections. Even though Republicans put up a good front about being competitive in the governor's race, I wasn't surprised when the Democrat won.

Nor was I surprised when the Democrat won in New Jersey. Term–limited Republican incumbent Chris Christie is about as popular as Richard Nixon was just before he resigned the presidency, and the Republican nominee had to carry that toxic baggage. No, I wasn't surprised by the outcome there, either.

But Tuesday's special election in Alabama did surprise me.

I realize that the circumstances had a lot to do with it. The decades–old charges of sexual harassment against Moore appear to have done enough damage to permit Jones to win by about 20,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast — even though no charges were substantiated and most were suspect.

Perhaps, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter observes, this outcome opens the door for Rep. Mo Brooks to reclaim the seat for the Republicans in 2020.

That wouldn't be unprecedented. Two years after Brown won Kennedy's seat, he was defeated in a bid for a full six–year term — by Elizabeth Warren, who is now considered a leading contender for the Democrats' next presidential nomination.

I'm not saying Brooks is a future presidential prospect. But in 2020 he would have Trump's coattails to ride in the general election — and that will almost certainly help in Alabama.