Freedom Writing

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ronald Reagan's D-Day Speech

At his best, Ronald Reagan could redce an audience to tears with his speeches. I saw him do it on a number of occasions — when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1985, when Reagan accepted his renomination as the Republican standard bearer in the summer of 1984.

Speechwriter Peggy Noonan was often responsible for putting the words in Reagan's mouth that accomplished that. Noonan, more than anyone else, was responsible for Reagan&'s moniker

I'll be the the first to acknowledge that Noonan is a gifted writer. But few of Reagan's speeches could match "The Boys of Pointe du Hoc" that was delivered on the 40th anniversary of the D–Day invasion 40 years ago today.

That really wasn't surprising. D–Day was the turning point of World War II, and the men who fought in it truly could be said to have saved the free world. Reagan paid tribute to them when many were still living.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The RFK Assassination

"Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live."

Robert F. Kennedy

Today is the 50th anniversary of the fatal shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles after he had declared victory in the California presidential primary.

He didn't die immediately. He lingered for about 24 hours.

I have written on this blog before about my memories of that event. What I am thinking about today is the aftermath — when his body was brought back to New York for the funeral, then carried by train to Washington where he was buried next to his brother in Arlington Cemetery.

I remember watching the funeral service on TV — and seeing Sen. Edward Kennedy's moving eulogy to his brother. I remember the stoic demeanor of Kennedy's widow, Ethel. In the context of what had occurred in the preceding days, it was heart–breaking.

But I suppose my dominant memory is of the train making its way from New York to Washington. It is a distance of only about 200 miles — ordinarily a four–hour trip by train, historian Theodore White observed, but more than doubled by the crowds that came out to pay their respects. It seemed as if nearly everyone who lived between those two cities came out and stood beside the railroad tracks until the train carrying Kennedy's body went by.

At first, the crowds were mostly small groups, but as the train proceeded, the crowds grew larger, standing three, four, five rows deep, sometimes more. Every segment of the American population was represented — young, old, black, white, affluent, poor. Sometimes they spilled onto the tracks, forcing the train to slow down even more. My memory is that a handful of people may have been killed after being struck by the train.

There have been museum exhibits recently that sought to capture that experience for those who have no memory of that time, but the sensation is incomplete without knowledge of the signs that were always present during Kennedy's life — and followed him to his grave.

When Kennedy walked among us, those signs encouraged him to seek the presidency or demanded justice after he made his decision to run. After he was shot and his fate was still unknown but widely anticipated, the signs read "Pray for Bobby." Along the train route, they simply said, "Goodbye" or "So long."

White tried to describe the scene — but how do you describe the indescribable?

"There were the family groups: husband holding sobbing wife, arm around her shoulders, trying to comfort her," he wrote. "Five nuns in a yellow pickup truck, tiptoeing high to see. A very fat father with three fat boys, he with his hand over his heart, each of the boys giving a different variant of the Boy Scout or school salute. And the people: the men from the great factories that line the tracks, standing at ease as they were taught as infantrymen, their arms folded over chests. Women on the back porches of the slum neighborhoods that line the tracks, in their housedresses, with ever–present rollers in their hair, crying. People in buildings, leaning from office windows, on the flat roofs of industrial plants, on the bluffs of the rivers, on the embankments of the railway cuts, a crust on every ridge and height. Pleasure boats in the rivers lined up in flotillas; automobiles parked on all the viaducts that crossed the line of the train. Brass bands — police bands, school bands, Catholic bands. Flags: individual flags dropped in salute by middle–aged men as the train passed, flags at half–staff from every public building on the way, entire classes of schoolchildren holding the little eight–by–ten flags, in that peppermint–striped flutter that marks every campaign trip. He turned them on, black and white, rich and poor. And they cried."

No other politician in modern history could connect with as many disparate groups as Bobby Kennedy. It is something no one tries to do anymore because it is so difficult to achieve. And in the blink of an eye, he was gone.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A Look at the Midterms on Memorial Day

For quite awhile now, Democrats have been salivating over the assumption that they could win back the House in November. Nancy Pelosi has been speaking in public of becoming House speaker again. Just a matter of time.

And, for awhile, that assumption included the possibility of flipping the Senate, too.

I tended to agree with the former, largely because the historical trend has been for the out–of–power party to make gains in the midterm elections. That doesn't mean the control of either chamber (or both) always changes hands. It just means the out–of–power party makes gains.

I have never been as certain that the Democrats could capture the Senate in this cycle. The 2018 map simply does not favor them for achieving that task.

Gains in the House happen whether the president is popular or not. Barack Obama was popular in 2010, the year of the first midterm of his presidency, but Republicans made huge gains in the House and seized control of that chamber. Nearly 30 years earlier, in Ronald Reagan's first midterm elections, Democrats already had control of the House, but they added 27 seats to their advantage and virtually ensured their dominance for the next decade.

Reagan, it is worth noting, did not enjoy the kind of approval ratings in 1982 that he did in the rest of his presidency, largely because the economic recovery that would propel Reagan to victory in his campaign for re–election in 1984 had not begun. In fact, his 1982 approval ratings at that point in his presidency resembled Donald Trump's, which is a compelling historical reason for thinking that the House may well flip. The Democrats need about two dozen seats to gain control of the House, and House districts are more compact than statewide seats (unless those statewide seats are in the smaller states — by population).

Midterms have often been referendums on the president — and, because Trump's approval ratings have been so lackluster, it has been only natural to expect that he would drag Republicans on the ballot down.

Clearly the cards appear to be stacked against the Republicans in the House in 2018.

For awhile, it seemed that was what was going to happen. Trump's deficit in approval polls was in double digits — but the enthusiasm gap has been narrowing in recent months. According to Gallup's most recent survey, the deficit is nine percentage points. Some polls even show Republicans pulling even with or ahead of Democrats in that generic ballot.

Likewise, the generic congressional ballot that had Democrats leading Republicans by double–digit margins only a few months ago has witnessed a decline to below 5% in many polls. A couple of weeks ago, CNN reported that Democrats held a three–point lead.

That's significant because a national margin of around 5% could be accounted for by vote totals on the East and West Coasts, where Democrats ordinarily prevail. In the Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump presidential campaign, the coasts voted heavily for Clinton, which predisposes them to vote Democratic this time, leaving little or no room for error in the interior states.

Given how the 2016 election turned out, it is not surprising that I have heard many Democrats wonder if they can trust the polls. I believe they can. The 2016 polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote by 2–3%, and that is roughly the margin she received.

Most polls did not, however, predict which states would vote for which candidate; consequently, there was no warning that the celebrated "blue wall" would crumble on election night.

Recent primary results indicate that a battle is being waged within the Democratic Party between its far–left wing and its centrist wing, and the outcome can have a profound effect on Senate races. Centrist Democrats stand a much better chance of winning Republican–held Senate seats in the South whereas the more leftist Democrats are more likely to prevail in Northern states.

Here in Texas, for example, an agenda that favors abortion and opposes guns is going to be a dealbreaker, even though Texas' share of the vote for the Republican ticket in 2016 was smaller than usual.

Numerically, the odds would seem to favor Democrats even more in the Senate, where flipping only two seats would give them control of the chamber. But many of those Republican–held seats are in the South and the same dynamics at work in Texas apply.

There are enough Republican–held Senate seats to give Democrats the majority if they can capture them. Two are open seats — in Arizona and Tennessee — and one is a Nevada incumbent, where Clinton won by more than 27,000 votes in November 2016.

But just winning those seats won't be enough for Democrats, who must defend seats in several states that voted for Trump, sometimes by wide margins. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, for instance, faces an electorate that gave Trump nearly 68% of the vote in 2016. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill must overcome Trump's half–a–million vote advantage.

Indiana is a traditionally Republican state that has supported only two Democrats for president (Barack Obama in 2008 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964) since 1940. Democrat Joe Donnelly faces challenging terrain there as he seeks a second term.

There are other seats Democrats must defend in states where they fared better in 2016, but the bottom line is that a great deal of time and money must be devoted to holding them.

Thus, while the odds still favor a Democratic takeover in the House, the Senate is likely to remain problematic for the Democrats in November.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Primary Day in West Virginia

Democrat Joe Manchin was a popular guy when he was West Virginia's governor.

But that was when West Virginia was still a Democratic state.

Now, as Manchin seeks his second full term as a U.S. senator from West Virginia, he is regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democrat incumbents in this cycle, and three Republicans are vying for their party's nomination to oppose him in the fall. West Virginia Republicans are going to the polls today to decided which one it will be.

President Donald Trump has already made it known which Republican he hopes will not be the nominee — Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who served time in prison. In a Tweet from the president yesterday, Trump urged the voters of West Virginia to reject Blankenship on the grounds that he can't beat Manchin in November and compared him to Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who lost an open Senate seat in a special election last year.

Trump recommended that the voters choose either Rep. Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the leading contenders for the nomination. Three other candidates are in the race, but they have been drawing only modest support in the polls.

The most recent poll I have seen had Jenkins in the lead with 25%. Morrisey was second with 21% and Blankenship was third with 16%. Polls have shown that anywhere from 12% to 39% of Republican voters are undecided so the race is essentially a tossup.

The race apparently has energized voters. The Charleston Gazette–Mail reports that early voting turnout was more than 50% higher than in the last midterm in 2014. Early voting numbers also exceeded the tally in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Polls close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Blast From the Past

It occurred to me this week, when 72–year–old Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested under suspicion of being the infamous Golden State Killer of the 1970s and 1980s, that it was a lot like when Dennis Rader was charged in another cold case, the BTK slayings in Kansas, in 2005.

Rader's crime spree started roughly the same time as the Golden State Killer's — in the mid–1970s. He continued a few years after the Golden State Killer's known attacks ended. (I say known because more facts may yet emerge as this case unfolds.)

Both men were regarded as a bit quirky — even menacing — by others; they held positions of authority and lived for many years in the communities they terrorized.

If DeAngelo turns out to be the Golden State Killer — he entered no plea when he appeared in court yesterday — he had a slightly higher body count. Of course, that doesn't include the roughly four dozen rapes or the more than 100 burglaries that have been tied to the Golden State Killer. That makes him a far more prolific criminal.

The men are roughly the same age — and had no reason to be concerned about DNA evidence at the time they committed their crimes since the development of that technology was still in the distant future. They knew enough about contemporary forensic evidence to avoid the evidentiary traps of the times, but DNA, which played a role in their eventual captures, was not on their radar.

DNA was discovered in the 19th century, but how to apply it to criminal investigations evolved well into the next century. In the '70s, high school science teachers could tell their students about DNA, but they couldn't say how it would influence law enforcement — or anything else — in the years ahead.

It would be a couple of decades before most people would get that kind of exposure via the O.J. Simpson trial — and even then DNA was misunderstood by many.

Neither man said much during the arraignment phase. DeAngelo confirmed his name when asked; Rader said nothing during his arraignment.

All serial killers are not created equal, though. While DeAngelo apparently has kept mostly silent since being taken into custody, Rader seemed to derive pleasure in letting the authorities know how clever he had been, confessing to crimes in addition to the ones with which he had been charged.

It all comes down to what motivates a serial killer, and they are as individual in their motivations as people in any other walk of life. For those who study serial killers, it will be instructive to learn what motivated DeAngelo.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Death, Free Speech and Tenure

As a journalist, I am a lifelong advocate of free speech — well, the First Amendment in general. I guess it goes without saying that I am a supporter of freedom of the press.

It is very difficult to get me to speak against freedom of speech in any way.

But today I want to address freedom of speech because, contrary to what many people seem to believe, that freedom is not absolute. There are limits.

One of the most frequently mentioned is the one that says you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — or any other public place — unless there really is a fire. To do otherwise is to invite panic that is apt to leave some people hurt or dead.

Another limit on freedom of speech is what I would label good taste. And Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar, who self–identifies as an Arab–American and a Muslim American, crossed that line with her tweets about the late Barbara Bush, calling her an "amazing racist" and professing to be glad that Bush was dead. She also said she looked forward to the day when all the Bushes were deceased. That is disrespectful.

When others called her on it and called on the school to fire her, Jarrar fell back on the "I have tenure" argument and insisted she would never be fired — and posted a suicide hotline number as if it were her own. The number attracted a huge number of calls, the kind of calls the hotline was not designed to take, and gumming up the line may well have contributed to the deaths of others.

None of that is in good taste. In my book, it is reprehensible. But apparently, it is representative of the double standard of the modern political landscape. Canadian singer Shania Twain has been criticized mercilessly for saying in an interview that she would have voted for Donald Trump if she had been eligible to vote in an American election in 2016, and rapper Kanye West was similarly criticized as well.

The occasion of someone's death is neither the time nor the place for getting on a soapbox, and tenure was not designed to be some kind of Get Out of Jail Free card to keep people from being held accountable for incendiary remarks.

Tenure was intended to protect professors' freedom of thought from powerful donors and alumni. That is still a worthy and noble objective.

But, as is so often the case in this world, worthy and noble objectives can be easily corrupted.

This is not a free speech issue, and tenure should not prevent Fresno State's administration from doing the right thing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Barbara Bush Dies at 92

Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was a remarkable woman, and her attributes are justifiably being remembered today. She said many things that should inspire the rest of us on our journeys through life.

I have felt considerable empathy for the Bush family, especially Mrs. Bush's children, who have had the pleasure of having their mother with them longer than most. I learned when my own mother died that, no matter how old we are when it happens, it feels strange to be a motherless child.

And I have learned that is a feeling that never really goes away.

I have no doubt that George W. Bush, who is now 71 years old, is feeling that way tonight — in spite of his insistence that "my soul is comforted" by his mother's certainty that there was an afterlife waiting for her.

The loss of a parent is a blow for most people, whether it is expected or not.

But it is also worth remembering that she, like all of us, was human and subject to the same shortcomings we all have.

For example, when her husband, then–Vice President George H.W. Bush, debated the first woman to be on a national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, in October 1984, Mrs. Bush, when asked her opinion of Ferraro, replied, "I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich."

Well, we all have our shortcomings, as I said.

And most of the time Mrs. Bush was inspirational, reminding us of things that really count in life. But she wasn't perfect. None of us are.

We shouldn't lose sight of that fact as the accolades pour in.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thomas Jefferson's 275th Birthday

"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

President John F. Kennedy
At a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere
The White House
April 29, 1962

It was 275 years ago today that my favorite president, Thomas Jefferson, was born.

Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and may well have been the most brilliant of the Founding Fathers — but he probably draws mixed reviews today.

A product of colonial Virginia, Jefferson benefited from the work of slaves on several plantations. He also, as Fawn Brodie's 1974 biography of Jefferson, "An Intimate History," revealed, fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave who was said to be the half–sister of Jefferson's deceased wife.

Critics of Jefferson contend that Jefferson's ownership of slaves is a clear contradiction of his assertion that "all men are created equal."

But to focus on that is to force Jefferson, in hindsight, to live according to standards that were in place nearly two centuries after the end of his presidency. Ironically, Jefferson might not be an especially popular candidate for president today. He was tall — 6 feet 2½ inches — and voters do tend to prefer tall presidential candidates, but he was perhaps a little too relaxed for many voters' tastes. Jefferson, a senator of the day remarked, "sits in a lounging manner on one hip, commonly." He wasn't a particularly finicky dresser, either. He paid little attention to fashion and preferred to dress in whatever was comfortable, resulting in frequent mixing of styles from different periods.

Most fair–minded historians prefer to focus on his advocacy of the principle of individual rights, his championing of religious freedom and tolerance and the Louisiana Purchase, which was made during Jefferson's first term as president and doubled the size of the United States.

Jefferson considered himself a Deist, and his thoughts on religious freedom stemmed from Virginia's laws that made it a crime "not to baptize infants in the Anglican church; dissenters were denied office, civil or military; children could be taken from their parents if the parents failed to profess the prescribed creeds," wrote Jon Meacham in "The Art of Power."

"Jefferson believed it unjust (and unwise) to use public funds to support an established church and to link civil rights to religious observance," Meacham wrote. "He said such a system led to 'spiritual tyranny.' In theological terms, according to notes he made on John Locke, Jefferson concurred with a Christian tradition that held the church should not depend on state–enforced compulsion."

As for the Louisiana Purchase, it is hard to imagine any acquisition by any country that has been as financially feasible. For about 3 cents an acre, the United States acquired all or part of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Jefferson had authorized his negotiators to purchase only New Orleans and West Florida, but Napoleon, strapped for cash on the brink of war with Britain, offered the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had his doubts about the constitutionality of the deal but quickly agreed to it before Napoleon could change his mind.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Farewell to a Great Journalist

There was a time in my life when I was on the journalism faculty at the University of Oklahoma.

The director of the school of journalism was a man named David Dary. A native of Manhattan, Kansas, he began his career as a broadcast journalist (he introduced President Kennedy on CBS just before Kennedy delivered his Cuban Missile Crisis speech in 1962), then moved on to teaching and writing about "old–time Kansas," as he put it.

I just learned today that he passed away less than a month ago.

In Dary's obituary, Beccy Tanner of the Wichita Eagle called Dary "one of Kansas' best storytellers." I have no doubt about the truth of that statement.

I have read excerpts from his books — I have never read one of his books from start to finish, but I have long wanted to and may well do so — and, being something of a historian myself, I think his engaging storytelling style was made possible by his training as a journalist. He wrote more than 20 books, most of them focused on the old American West — and he did it well enough to be inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2010 for his literary contributions to the history of the cowboy.

From what I have read, his research was impeccable and his style was entertaining — which, frankly, I would expect. During my time at OU, I spent many hours in his office, discussing all sorts of journalism–related topics and learning more from him than I ever learned in a classroom.

At the beginning of my first semester at OU, Dary and his wife hosted a dinner for the journalism faculty. I became acquainted with most of my new colleagues on that occasion, but what I really remember is looking at the bookshelves in his home, where he kept copies of all the books he had written up to that point. I was mesmerized. He walked up behind me and said something — I don't remember now what he said — and I told him how impressed I was. He smiled and said something typically modest — probably "thank you" — and then he asked me if I was getting settled in to my new job all right.

I once served on a search committee with him to find a new professor for the print journalism department. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

A family crisis prompted me to leave Oklahoma and return to Texas a few years later, but I never forgot his kindness to me while I was there.

He was a dedicated journalist, having rebuilt the OU journalism program during his tenure — and I know he inspired the students who took his classes.

Rest in peace, sir.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Since the Death of Martin Luther King

"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 3, 1968

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.

Many articles have been written recapping that event for those not old enough to remember. It is not my intention to add to them. If the reader wants to know what brought King to Memphis, there are many sources for that information.

Nor is it necessary for me to discuss the aftermath of the assassination. Dr. King was the face of the civil rights movement. When that face was taken away, it sparked predictable violence across America — sadly, that violence also led to widespread looting, prompting Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, to lament that "Martin's memory is being desecrated." It was more than that, really. It was a violation of the concept of home and the security that word implies.

"For home in America is as much home to blacks as to whites," historian Theodore H. White wrote at the time, "and violence menaces them as much as it does Americans of any color."

The night before he died, Dr. King said something that could just as easily have been said yesterday: "Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

Trouble is in the land today. One need look no further than San Bruno, Calif., or Austin, Texas, to see that.

Sometimes there is a racial aspect to the violence, but to focus on that alone is to miss the point; the truth is that race relations have improved in half a century. Segregated schools still existed in 1968. If they exist today, it is in the form of private schools to which only affluent families have access. Laws protect Americans from racial (and sexual) discrimination in the workplace.

Are there areas where improvement is needed? Of course. Wholesale change does not happen overnight — or even over decades. America has always been a work in progress. But there can be no denying that the America of 2018 is better than the America of 1968.

So on this day I would say that Dr. King's dream is partially fulfilled. Much work has been done, and much remains to be done.

The work will not be finished until all Americans, regardless of their color — or gender or age, for that matter — enjoy the same rights and privileges of citizenship.

Then the dream will be fulfilled.