Friday, October 30, 2009

Lieberman, Democrats and a Sense of Entitlement

Sometimes I think Democrats (keep in mind that I have considered myself a Democrat all my life) believe that their success in the 2006 and 2008 elections proved that they are entitled to be in charge indefinitely.

And then there are times — like today — when I am sure of it.

Alexander Mooney writes for CNN Politics that Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has said that he will probably campaign for some Republican candidates for the House and Senate next year.

Mooney reminds readers that Lieberman campaigned for John McCain in last year's presidential campaign, and he also campaigned for Maine Sen. Susan Collins and New York Rep. Peter King.

Lieberman, of course, once was a Democrat. He ran on the Democratic ticket as Al Gore's running mate in 2000 and, initially, sought re–election to the Senate as a Democrat in 2006. But he became an independent after he lost the Democratic nomination and was re–elected that way.

So he is not, technically, a Democrat, although many of the readers who left comments do not seem to be aware that he made that official during his last re–election campaign.
  • "Lieberman is a turn-coat, a traitor, to his Party and the state of Connecticut!" wrote one reader.

  • "Well, it is about time the Democratic Party let the good senator from NH go his way," wrote one reader who apparently doesn't understand that New Hampshire and Connecticut are two different states.

It is fascinating to read some of the comments that readers (many of whom appear to be Democrats) have posted with this article. Their comments clearly show a lack of understanding of how things are done. (By the way, misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors are reproduced as they appeared):
  • One reader wrote, "democrats should get rid of this moron asap. don't understand why obama let democrats let lieberman back on the committee."

    The way that the federal government is set up in our republic, the president, as the head of the executive branch, doesn't "let" the members of his party on the legislative side do anything. They are supposed to act (pardon the expression) independently.

  • "I wish the president would take this guy aside!" another reader wrote. As I was trying to say, the executive branch has no constitutional authority in this matter. We elected a president in this country, not a dictator.

  • And several wrote, either in these words or words to this effect — "Who needs him?"
Well, fact is, the Democrats need him to have their filibuster–proof majority. Having those 60 votes (even cobbled together with two independent senators) is so important to the Democrats that, in his last days, Ted Kennedy lobbied the Massachusetts legislature to make it possible for someone to be appointed to take his place after he died — instead of waiting a few months for a special election.

Kennedy, in case you didn't know, was behind the adoption of the law he sought to overturn. He promoted it in case the Democratic presidential nominee that year, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, defeated George W. Bush, leaving a vacancy that Republican Gov. Mitt Romney would fill. If that happened, Kennedy preferred the seat would remain vacant until a special election could be held instead of allowing a Republican governor to fill the vacancy with another Republican.

But when he was about to die, Kennedy didn't want the filibuster–proof majority to die with him.

No matter what the Democrats in D.C. say, next year's midterm elections are very important for them, precisely because no party is entitled to hold a majority. The Founding Fathers wanted to be sure that political power rested with the people and that they could change the balance of power if they wished.

I think it's a safe bet that none of the Founding Fathers possessed a functioning crystal ball. If they had, I suspect they would have written something into the law restricting the influence of lobbyists.

Some short–sighted readers flippantly dismissed the need for a filibuster–proof majority. These are Democrats, remember? In three–quarters of a century, Will Rogers' declaration that "I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat" remains valid.

And so does another observation: "The more you read and observe about this politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best."

In nearly every midterm election since Rogers' death in 1935, the party that was out of power was the winner. Sometimes its victories were narrow. Sometimes they were lopsided. But the president's party almost always took it on the chin.

The historical trend suggests that the Republicans will regain some lost ground next year — probably not enough to change the balance of power, although, as I recall, that's what they were saying in 1994, just before Newt Gingrich and the "Contract With America." I know Republicans would like to see massive gains next year, but if they just manage to gain a single Senate seat, they can break that filibuster–proof majority and kill just about any Democratic initiative.

Which shouldn't be too hard to do. Republicans prize loyalty. Democrats reward individuality, even though it frequently works against them. Already this year we have seen a handful of Democrats break ranks on various issues.

Loyalty has its good points, but when the party is marching in lockstep off a cliff, it takes on an unstoppable momentum of its own. Likewise, individuality is a good thing, but it can make the Democrats look disorganized, like ducklings scattering in all directions.

As you may have guessed, I'm a fan of Will Rogers. And today, almost a year before the 2010 midterm elections, it isn't a bad idea for everyone to remember one of his lesser known — but still pertinent — remarks:

"Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for."

The Envelope, Please

I've never been president, but I've been studying the presidency most of my life, and I know it is a tough job.

It is especially tough if you are Barack Obama, the first black American president who happened to be elected during the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Clearly, expectations were very high when he was elected just about one year ago.

But, as I have pointed out on several occasions, a president cannot choose the conditions that exist when he takes office. He (and, at this point, I want to make it clear for my female readers that I use that pronoun knowing that, technically, a woman could be elected president — but I use "he" for the sake of simplicity and accuracy since, in an historical context, a woman has not been elected president yet) knows the conditions that exist when he begins his candidacy — and, when Obama began his campaign for the Democratic nomination, the major issue at that time was the war in Iraq.

The economic meltdown did not occur until after Obama had been nominated, and it quickly became the focal point. He didn't anticipate it, but who did? (Nostradamus, perhaps?)

I have been dismayed — and I have said so, frequently — by the insistence of Obama and his supporters on blaming George W. Bush and the Republicans for everything. Throughout my life, it has been my belief that a president is elected to lead the nation and, if necessary, clean up the mess that was left by his predecessor. When he puts his left hand on the Bible and raises his right hand to take the oath of office, he takes ownership of what he finds waiting for him when he enters the Oval Office.

At that point, the book is closed on his predecessor, and the new president's meter is running.

It is unseemly, in my opinion, for a president and his supporters to constantly point their fingers at the previous administration, no matter how challenging the situation may be. Also, in my opinion, it has been unseemly for those supporters to play the race card when some people don't buy the idea of blaming the last president.

Back in 1982, Ronald Reagan and the Republicans tried to do the same thing (minus the race card) and blamed Jimmy Carter for problems they had been unable to resolve in Reagan's first two years in office. In the months before the 1982 election, bumper stickers began popping up that said, "It's getting harder and harder to blame Carter." And, lo and behold, when the voters went to the polls, they punished the Republicans. I always felt that they did so in part because they resented the way the Republicans had been passing the buck.

Today, I read a column that I encourage everyone to read. It was written by Charles Krauthammer for the Washington Post, and it speaks of this very subject.

Krauthammer opens with an "old Soviet joke" that I never heard before, but it is appropriate:
"Moscow, 1953. Stalin calls in Khrushchev.

" 'Niki, I'm dying. Don't have much to leave you. Just three envelopes. Open them, one at a time, when you get into big trouble.'

"A few years later, first crisis. Khrushchev opens envelope 1: 'Blame everything on me. Uncle Joe.'

"A few years later, a really big crisis. Opens envelope 2: 'Blame everything on me. Again. Good luck, Uncle Joe.'

"Third crisis. Opens envelope 3: 'Prepare three envelopes.' "

Then Krauthammer ties that joke to modern America.

"In the Barack Obama version, there are 50 or so such blame–Bush free passes before the gig is up," he writes. "By my calculation, Obama has already burned through a good 49. Is there anything he hasn't blamed George W. Bush for? The economy, global warming, the credit crisis, Middle East stalemate, the deficit, anti–Americanism abroad — everything but swine flu."

I don't want to steal Krauthammer's thunder. I'll just urge you to read his column.

I will simply add this.

Krauthammer's column is mostly about the Obama policy in Afghanistan. But his conclusion is applicable to the entire Obama presidency:

"[I]t is time he acted like a president ... He's used up his envelopes."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Little Night Music

How is the weather where you are?

Here in Dallas, Texas, we seem to be going through a seasonal transition that is more extensive than usual. Ordinarily, my impression has been that we get about two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall, and the rest of the time it is either summer or winter. But the whole month of October seems to have been wetter and milder than usual, and I cannot tell if that means we can expect a colder than usual winter, one that is perhaps more prolonged than what we have experienced in recent years.

That might not be a bad thing if it meant some of the insects get killed off.

As I write this, we expect a shift of nearly 30 degrees, from around 76 during the afternoon to below 50 overnight. I am not sure what that says about what to expect. I just know it seems a little radical for my system.

Anyway, the weather has put me in a reflective mood.

And I thought I would share a few appropriate songs with you. I do not know what the weather is like where you are. And these are not all meteorologically inspired. But tomorrow is Friday, the last day of the week for those of you lucky enough to still have jobs. The day before Halloween, for those of you with children or plans to dress yourself up for some trick or treating.

This is not really in line with either of those moods. I guess this is a sort of stream of consciousness. And it is my gift to you.

Mixed Signals

The economy grew 3.5% in the third quarter, the Commerce Department reported today.

But the unemployed probably won't be able to tell that things are getting better for awhile — perhaps for a long while.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, the unemployment rate is how most people can tell if the economy is improving. And the unemployment numbers have not been improving. Optimists may be anticipating modest improvement when the next jobs report comes out next week, but I suspect that, if there is any positive news on employment next week, it will be temporary — as it has been on a few other occasions this year. Hopes may be raised a little — only to come crashing down a month later. Just in time for Christmas.

Silla Brush and Jared Allen are pretty blunt in an article in The Hill: "With the midterm election one year away, Democrats in particular are wary of crowing too loudly about good economic news when many of their constituents are struggling. Underlying that concern is the brutal reality that the nation's labor market is worsening with more Americans losing jobs. The unemployment rate, now 9.8 percent, is expected to continue rising. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the unemployment rate will average 10 percent throughout 2010 and will not return to pre–recession levels until 2014."

That certainly may be true, but it isn't encouraging.

The unemployed need reassurance that their elected leaders are trying everything that is humanly possible to, if not actually end their suffering, mitigate it as much as possible while an answer is sought. But no such reassurance is coming through.

Well, perhaps those who are recently jobless haven't yet lost their faith, but those who have been unemployed for a long time are a different story. Many feel forgotten, especially with their unemployment benefits being taken from them.

The humane thing for Barack Obama and the Democrats to do would be to extend unemployment benefits. They have the numbers to do it without their Republican colleagues, who probably would complain about the impact on the national debt.

Well, many people, on both sides of the political spectrum, now say that a small percentage of the billions that were spent to keep the banks and big corporations going will ever be repaid. The investment that is made in keeping millions of struggling Americans going until they can get jobs will be repaid — in the form of tax revenue.

If Obama and the Democrats truly are committed to the nation's health, they will extend the economic lifeline to the least of these.

Until they do that — instead of insisting on blaming the Republicans — the signals to the unemployed will continue to be mixed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

News You Can Use

Byron Acohido reports in USA Today that internet scammers — also known as "phishers" — are setting their sights on "Web mail, social networking and online gaming accounts."

I recommend reading the article because there is a lot of useful information, but let me just summarize for you — USA Today's headline urges readers to change their passwords. "[A] recent Sophos survey found 33% of the respondents used just one password online, while 48% used just a few different ones," Acohido writes.

"With possession of your Web mail user name and password, cybercrooks can carry out a matrix of lucrative online capers, made all the easier if you use just one or a handful of the same passwords."

His article includes a rundown on how and why scammers are trying to get the information to access your e–mail account.

Read it. And then routinely change your passwords. I know it can be a pain to try to keep track of them all. But it beats having your identity stolen.

A Case of Rape

I have to admit that I have struggled with the subject of the gang rape of a 15–year–old girl in Richmond, Calif.

It has been reported that the assault went on for more than two hours outside a high school homecoming dance. As many as 20 people may have watched or participated in the attack.

Crime is certainly a troubling topic, but there can be few crimes (other than murder) that are as troubling as that one. And I have wrestled with the issue. The law is fairly clear about how perpetrators should be punished. But what should be done about those who watched and did nothing?

It brings to mind the case of Kitty Genovese, a 28–year–old woman who was stabbed to death and raped near her apartment in Queens, N.Y., in March 1964. Rape, unfortunately, is not a rare crime in our country, and the attack on Genovese probably wouldn't have received much attention outside the New York area except for one detail — it was determined that 38 people witnessed the attack from their homes and, with the exception of one neighbor who shouted out at the attacker, "Let that girl alone," no one made any attempt to stop the attack or go to her aid.

This has come to be known as the bystander effect — or the "Genovese syndrome" — a social psychological phenomenon in which witnesses do nothing to stop a crime in progress or try to help the victim. It is also known as "diffusion of responsibility."

The Genovese case was not unique. In another highly publicized case nearly 20 years later, a woman was gang raped on a pool table in a Massachusetts bar while many of the bar's patrons watched but none tried to stop it. The case inspired a film, "The Accused," in which Jodie Foster portrayed the assaulted woman and received an Oscar for her performance.

Bystanders, experts say, often see victims as, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, unpersons. But that shouldn't be an adequate defense for doing nothing. In California, a 10–year–old law makes it a misdemeanor offense if a witness does not report a crime against a child. However, the law only applies to crimes involving victims who are 14 or younger.

Words cannot express how furious I am that this could happen. In the past, things were different. There are bound to have been instances when a person could not report a rape because there was no phone available. But today, in the 21st century, cell phones are widely used. Access to a phone should pose no barrier to reporting that a crime is in progress. I can think of no valid reason why at least one person in the crowd could not slip away and make a brief call to alert the authorities.

There may be no existing law in California that can be used to charge those who stood by while a 15–year–old girl was assaulted by several people for more than two hours. But perhaps California's lawmakers will be inspired to write a new law.

I know California's lawmakers have a lot on their plate right now, but they need to make room for this. They have a responsibility to the children of their state.

Changing the World

"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out."

John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Bob Herbert writes, in the New York Times, in his typically disarming way, about changing the world.

As I have said before, I think Herbert is a fine writer. And I sympathize when he writes that "Americans have tended to watch with a remarkable (I think frightening) degree of passivity as crises of all sorts have gripped the country and sent millions of lives into tailspins."

Perhaps it says something about me that I am surprised that Herbert is surprised. But I am. Herbert does seem to understand better than most what is happening, but he also seems to lament the fact that most people do not follow Gandhi's appeal to "be the change you want to see in the world."

Maybe running a campaign extolling both "hope" and "change" wasn't a good idea. Maybe Obama was urging people to do two things that cannot be done simultaneously. One may hope for something good to happen, or one may take things into his/her own hands and actively seek a change. Can one do both at the same time — and, because of the expectations Americans place on their elected leaders, not cause pain?

The people of whom Herbert writes — the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan — were proactive. But, while they lived in periods of social change that were probably greater than the one we live in now, there were still many who never got involved, who watched from a distance.

It can be argued, of course, that the changes that are the legacies of those pioneers took a long time to become realities. That is true. But, in a way, it seems to be understood that some changes are achieved gradually.

When the "deal," so to speak, is struck with a politician, the expectation is different. It's worth considering, since we're approaching the anniversary of Obama's historic election as president.

And USA Today is doing precisely that. Susan Page writes that views of Obama have changed in the year since his election. The numbers don't appear, on the surface, to be serious — yet — but they suggest that they could be by the time the 2010 midterm elections roll around — if real improvement isn't seen in some areas.

For example, a USA Today/Gallup poll finds that, whereas 84% of Americans were not happy with the way things were going a year ago, 72% are not happy today. Looking ahead three or four years, 65% of Americans thought things would be better when asked about the future last November. Fifty–eight percent feel that way today.

Lawrence Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, told USA Today, "There's a kind of realism that's taken over, that 'the change you can believe in' — people have woken up and seen that as kind of a talking point, and I think there's some disappointment, some deflation. On the other hand, when you take into account he's been president during the sharpest economic decline since the Great Depression, it's astounding that his support is not weaker."

You say you want a revolution?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Nagging Unemployment Problem

Are you tired of reading and hearing about the unemployment problem?

Rest assured, the unemployed are tired of it, too.

I know I am. I'm tired of living with it. I'm tired of it slapping me in the face from the time I get up in the morning until the time I go to bed at night — and then returning to invade the one place where I thought I could escape from it, my nocturnal visits to dreamland. It is an unrelenting crisis, a nightmare from which no one — seemingly — can wake up.

But Christina Romer, chairwoman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, predicted recently that joblessness probably will "remain at its severely elevated level" through 2010. It ain't going away any time soon.

Today, the New York Times made the case, on its editorial page, for more stimulus.

"Washington is not providing a coherent plan for effective stimulus," writes the Times.

Early this year, the White House naively asserted that unemployment would not go above 8%, but it went racing past that mark only a few months later. Then, during the summer, as the administration went into its full–court press for health care reform, the president and vice president effectively abdicated responsibility by arguing that they "misread" the economy — even though, if you go back and read the texts of Barack Obama's pre–inaugural speeches, you cannot help but conclude that he knew how dire the situation was even before he took office.

Now the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers says the rebound in hiring could be slower than the comparatively sunny forecasts from the White House and economists.

And historian Julian E. Zelizer wonders where is the "recovery" with no jobs?

There will be a price to be paid for this dithering in next year's elections.

"The Senate has been hamstrung for nearly a month over the most basic relief–and–recovery boost: an extension of unemployment benefits," says the Times.

When one takes into account those who have given up actively searching for work and those who are "under–employed," to use the popular word for it, nearly one–fifth of American adults are affected.

It's safe to say that those who manage to survive until November 2010 won't be hamstrung when they cast their votes.

Since politicians in both parties only seem to really care about people when they need their votes, that should provide enough incentive.

But don't count on it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Whistling Past the Graveyard

I guess I've become numb to all the forecasts this year (and late last year) that erroneously suggested that the end of the recession was at hand — or at least in sight.

Consequently, I am not terribly impressed today with's report that "U.S. companies are planning to hire and invest more in the near future."

That conclusion is the result of a National Association for Business Economics survey.

Hold on for a minute or two! Don't start popping those champagne corks just yet. also says the survey revealed a conviction on the part of the economists that "another 175,000 jobs were lost in October." That seems like a key component to me — even though doesn't mention it until several paragraphs into the story. I know I'm not an economist, but if the economy is still losing jobs, how is the jobs situation getting better?

The jobs loss may be less than anticipated, but haven't we been down this road before? On at least a couple of occasions this year, jobs losses were lower than expected — and there was much rejoicing. But the economy more than made up for it the following month.

In short ... it may well be true that jobs losses won't be as severe as had been expected/feared when the next jobs report comes out next week. But, at this time of the year, that could be due to employers hiring seasonal workers in (perhaps unduly optimistic) anticipation of the holiday shopping season. So let's be patient this time and wait a couple of months before we proclaim that the economy has turned the corner.

We all want things to get better. But many members of the press seem far too eager (to me) to embrace any modest tidbit of seemingly good economic news as evidence that Barack Obama's policies are working and the recession is over.

Sometimes it seems to me that these things are balanced precariously against other opinions on an invisible scale.

The best example I can think of is an e–mail message I received from a friend. Faced with these optimistic reports, my friend told me that she has always believed that America would face another Depression in her lifetime and she thinks this is it.

So which is it — a recession from which the economy may now be emerging or a Depression that will suck up even more lives and dreams?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Crimes of the Century?

TIME has compiled a list of the top 25 "crimes of the century."

Such a list is, of course, bound to spark arguments because people always believe something obvious has been left off the list.

I don't have too many qualms about TIME's list, but there are a few things that didn't make the list.

And their absences are conspicuous enough that I don't think I would recommend regarding TIME's list as the last word.

Before I get to that, I'll point out that I think most of the entries on the list do deserve to be there. Like, for example, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. And the Manson family murders. And the Patty Hearst kidnapping. And Ted Bundy. And John Wayne Gacy. And Jeffrey Dahmer.

Likewise, the Unabomber case belongs on the list. So does O.J. Simpson.

And I definitely feel that the Columbine massacre belongs on the list. But if Columbine is there, why isn't the Virginia Tech massacre? Is it because Virginia Tech actually occurred in the 21st century? Well, the theft of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" took place the year before the shootings at Tech (2006), yet it made the list. And Andrea Yates killed her children in 2001, but those killings made the list, too.

If notorious killings and their perpetrators qualify as crimes of the century, why didn't the Boston Strangler make the list? Or the Hillside Strangler? Or the Night Stalker? Didn't all of those killers terrorize entire cities? How about BTK? Or Charlie Starkweather?

How about Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer who was executed a few years ago and was the subject of an Academy Award–winning film starring Charlize Theron?

Any of them would make more sense to me than including Andrew Cunanan's murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 ... or the still unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

I'm thoroughly baffled as to why the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which took 168 lives, wasn't on the list.

And shouldn't the September 11 terrorist attacks be on the list?

If the list is expanded to include foreign events, the murders of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics deserve to be recognized.

For that matter, it seems to me that the Watergate break–in should be on the list, given all the things it put into motion.

Here's one that definitely took place in the 20th century but did not appear on the list — the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Nearly half a century later, that event still seems to call out from the recesses of history — never satisfactorily resolved, drawing renewed attention to unanswered questions.

Last week, I watched the premiere of a new documentary on The History Channel about the 24–hour period immediately following the shooting. It capped a week of Kennedy documentaries on The History Channel. I haven't seen any viewership numbers, but, folks, TV channels simply don't devote a week's worth of primetime programming to anything unless their programming directors have a pretty good idea that it's going to attract a lot of viewers.

As I watched that documentary, I was reminded of how that assassination changed TV broadcasting and the way it covered breaking news events. TV news coverage was still somewhat primitive six years later when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but, if you compare footage of the JFK assassination coverage to footage of Apollo 11, you can see how much things had changed since the Kennedy assassination.

Everything was different after Kennedy was killed. Doesn't that make it one of the crimes of the century?

I'd like to think that it would. I'd certainly like to think that it ranks ahead of Mary Kay Letourneau and her forbidden love — which, by the way, did make the list.

Nearly a Year of the 'PDQ Presidency'

Jonathan Alter contends, in Newsweek, that Barack Obama's presidency actually began early last November, when the election results confirmed that he had beaten John McCain, not in late January.

The "PDQ Presidency" began on Nov. 5, 2008. In Obama's eyes, Alter writes, that was "another workday — or, more precisely, the first day of his presidency." Alter acknowledges that Obama could not "sign bills or issue executive orders. He and his family couldn't sleep in the White House. Having resigned from the Senate, he was technically a private citizen — a man with no constitutional authority. But these were formalities. For the first time in modern American history, an incoming president made some of the most important decisions of his term."

I think most Americans can sympathize with the task Obama faced — and the sense of urgency he felt to take on everything.
"But the breakneck pace carried a price. Many so–called shovel–ready construction projects often weren't actually ready to go. Had Obama taken a bit more time, he might have been able to think harder about job creation, which has become the big economic challenge of late 2009. During the transition, Obama officials failed to persuade congressional Democrats to offer tax credits to employers for each new person they hired. And his economists rejected WPA–style government hiring programs out of hand. So when unemployment later approached double digits, they were caught without a backup plan."

Jonathan Alter

Maybe Alter is right. Maybe the tax credit plan got the kibosh from congressional Democrats, not Obama. But it's a promise Obama made when he was running for president. And classifies it as a broken promise, whether Obama or congressional Democrats were responsible for breaking it.

That's a distinction, frankly, that is lost on long–term job seekers.

It's extremely frustrating, as Anthony Balderrama writes for, when job seekers don't hear back from employers.

It's understandable, of course, that, with so many people looking for work, hiring managers easily can be overwhelmed by applications. I sympathize with their situation.

But how are job seekers supposed to react to the sense of rejection that comes with this scenario? Especially now that so many unemployed people are losing their jobless benefits. The lifelines that keep them and their families going. I've heard that 7,000 Americans are losing these benefits each day.

I have to wonder about the logic — not to mention the sanity — of a culture that cares so much about health care but not, apparently, about whether people can pay for it.

I have often asked others a simple question for which no one has been able to provide a satisfactory answer — if I am in the position of having to choose whether to pay for my rent or my health insurance, which one do you think I will choose?

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Mystery That Remains Unsolved

I had high hopes for the movie "Amelia" that opens today in theaters across the country.

I've always enjoyed a good "biopic," as such films are called — as long as they have something meaningful to say or to contribute to discussions about their subjects. And Amelia Earhart was probably one of the first historical figures I heard anything about. But I never learned as much about her as I would have liked.

I have a vague memory from my childhood of luggage that belonged to my grandmother that bore Earhart's name. In hindsight, I suppose the luggage was some sort of line that was marketed for women. In my grandparents' day, that may have been what luggage makers did — perhaps there were other luggage lines that were named after pioneering pilots.

For all I know, Granddaddy may have had luggage that was named for Charles Lindbergh. Or the Wright Brothers. I don't know. I don't recall looking at his luggage. I might have more of a memory of that if he hadn't died when I was in first grade.

But my vague memory includes a brief conversation I had with my grandmother. I was about 8 or 9, I guess, and she had come to visit us. I remember looking at the label on her suitcase, and I asked her who Amelia Earhart was. I probably thought it was the name of the person who designed the luggage.

Grandmother simply replied, "She was a pilot." Nothing else was said because, at about that moment, my mother appeared in the doorway to tell us that dinner was ready. And I don't recall ever discussing it with her again.

When I got older, the name came up in history class but only briefly. And I was never able to get any of my teachers — whether in high school or college — to say much more than Earhart disappeared while flying around the world. It's been 72 years now, and Earhart's disappearance is still a mystery.

Anyway, when I heard that a film about Earhart was going to be released this fall, my curiosity was aroused again. But I realized that anything that the movie had to say would be speculative in nature. I'm certain that, if the filmmaker had uncovered some information that could answer the enduring question of what happened, it would have been the subject of numerous articles and documentaries. But nothing like that has happened.

Speculation is OK with me, though. If it makes people think about what may have happened and they start asking questions, that's fine. "JFK," after all, didn't definitively answer the questions that have swirled around the Kennedy assassination for decades, but it prompted people to ask them.

Unfortunately, from what I've been reading, "Amelia" doesn't seem to contribute anything to the discussion of what happened when she disappeared in July 1937.

Earhart's destination on July 2, 1937, was a sliver of an island in the Pacific Ocean called Howland Island. There are plenty of theories about what happened:
  • One theory, which has been popular with quite a few researchers, is that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and was ditched at sea. The "crash and sink" theory certainly would explain why no wreckage has ever been found, although many deep sea expeditions have tried to locate the plane.

  • Another theory holds that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed on another island and eventually died. Searchers on the island never found any plane wreckage, but they did discover some items, like improvised tools, an aluminum panel and a piece of plexiglas, that encouraged none other than Earhart's stepson to believe the mystery of her disappearance had been solved.

  • Other theories, which have been mentioned in documentaries, have suggested that Earhart was a spy who was captured by the Japanese and either executed or forced to make propaganda broadcasts as "Tokyo Rose." It has even been suggested that Earhart survived, returned to the United States and assumed a new identity, but that claim, which originated in a book titled "Amelia Earhart Lives," was refuted.
An exploration of an existing theory — or, perhaps, the presentation of a new theory supported by new technology — would have been an acceptable reason for a film about Earhart.

Lisa Schwarzbaum of writes that "Amelia" is a "frustratingly old–school, Hollywood–style, inspirational biopic."

"The mystery we ought to be paying attention to is: What really happened on the legendary American aviator's final, fatal flight in 1937?" Schwarzbaum writes. "But the question audiences are left with is this: How could so tradition–busting a role model have resulted in so square, stiff, and earthbound a movie? Why present such a modern woman in such a fusty format?"

Similarly, Manohla Dargis writes, in the New York Times, that the movie is an "exasperatingly dull production."

And Claudia Puig writes, in USA Today, that "it's too bad that a film about a daring and audacious woman taking on staggering challenges plays it so safe."

Of course, those are critics' opinions. And I'm usually the first to say that people should form their own opinions and not take a critic's word for it.

It may well be an entertaining film. Hilary Swank certainly bears a striking resemblance to Earhart. So perhaps there are worse ways to spend a few hours.

But I think I'll pass on it. If The History Channel chooses to take this opportunity to show some documentaries on Earhart, I'd like to see some genuine footage of her achievements.

She was certainly a remarkable figure, and her accomplishments are worth retelling — even if we don't know what became of her.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Great Disappointment

Over the years, countless people have tried to interpret the writings in the Bible — usually in an attempt to understand the meaning behind apocalyptic prophecies.

The Second Coming of Christ usually plays a role in these interpretations. In 2,000 years, though, every calculation that was intended to pinpoint when the Second Coming would occur has been wrong.

Those who have believed these miscalculations — and, in many cases, made great sacrifices because of them — have been profoundly disappointed. But perhaps none have been as disappointed as the followers of a Baptist preacher named William Miller in the mid–19th century.

Based on his studies of the Bible, Miller determined that, in biblical terms, a "day" did not mean a 24–hour period but rather a calendar year. Daniel 8:14 stated that the "sanctuary" would be "cleansed" after 2,300 days. Miller interpreted that to mean the cleansing of the sanctuary — purification of the earth by fire upon the Second Coming — would occur in 1843. He reached this conclusion based on his assumption that the 2,300–day period began in 457 B.C. with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem.

The "Millerites," as his followeres were called, believed Miller's prediction in spite of the fact that there were a few false alarms. Miller told his followers that Jesus would return between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, but March 21, 1844, came and went without Jesus' return and so did Miller's revised prediction of April 18, 1844.

Miller was unfazed, writing that "I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door."

Thus, the stage was set for a Millerite preacher named Samuel Snow, who calculated that the exact date of the Second Coming would be Oct. 22, 1844, and many Millerites gave away their belongings in anticipation of the event. Then, on this day 165 years ago, thousands of Millerites gathered together to wait for Jesus, but he did not return, and the day went down in history as "The Great Disappointment."

Miller, who died in 1849, is remembered as the man who began the Advent movement. One of its spiritual descendants, the Branch Davidians, made headlines in 1993, first for the siege of their compound in Waco, Texas, by federal agents and then for the compound's fiery destruction more than seven weeks later.

Breaking News

The dire situation facing newspapers in America these days is every bit as severe as the unemployment problem.

In many ways, it is worse, I think, because a free press is so important in a democracy. Without it, I see no way for a free nation to remain free because there is no one to fill the watchdog role that literally keeps an eye on what elected officials do — or do not do.

Newspapers have been tumbling like dominoes in the last year or two, and, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, that should be a cause of concern for all of us.

A friend of mine sent me an e–mail this week. He observed that the New York Times Co. has decided not to sell the Boston Globe because its financial prospects had "significantly improved."

My friend concluded that this was a sign that the economy is getting better. From a business perspective, I suppose that isn't an unreasonable conclusion.

Unfortunately, his e–mail arrived in my inbox the same day that reports were circulating that the New York Times plans to eliminate 100 newsroom jobs by the end of the year.

So what is one to make of this?

I've heard many theories about the decline of newspapers. As someone who studied journalism in college and worked for newspapers for many years, I suppose I am naturally drawn to this subject. I have written about it in the past, in part to help me understand what is happening, and I see a certain amount of logic in each point that is raised.

I've heard it said, for example, that newspapers are struggling because the quality of writing has fallen. In turn, that has led to a drop in paid circulation.

There's no doubt in my mind that there is a relationship between writing that is weaker (or perceived to be weaker) than it used to be and decreased demand for the product.

But the thing that newspaper people understand that people outside the industry do not is that a drop in paid circulation is like a symptom of a disease. The disease that is killing daily newspapers is the decline in advertising revenue.

It never has been possible to pay all the expenses involved in running a daily newspaper with the revenue of a product that sells for 25¢ or 50¢ a copy. Even if a newspaper could sell its product at the Sunday rate seven days a week, it wouldn't be possible.

But the income from advertising is a different story. When advertising dollars begin to dry up, that's when the writing is on the wall for a newspaper, no matter how good (or bad) its writing is.

I was reminded of this today when I read the latest installment at a blog called The Arkansas Newspaper War. It is devoted to a topic with which I am familiar — the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat that raged when I worked for the Gazette in the 1980s.

Today, the blog gives grades to the different departments at the Gazette, and the one in which I worked — news — gets an A+. If any of my former Gazette colleagues read this blog — and I know that at least one does — I'm sure that is a source of pride for them, as it is for me.

But then the author of the blog makes an important observation: "The Gazette ... was both weak and strong. Unfortunately, her weakness was in an area vital to success. If the well of ad dollars dries up, a daily newspaper cannot survive."

As the crisis in the newspaper industry has worsened, I've seen and heard a lot of talk about the rise of citizen journalists and internet news coverage taking their toll on daily newspapers. But, like declining paid circulation, they are only symptoms of a much larger problem for daily newspapers.

The real problem is the loss of advertising revenue. Unless newspapers can find someone with really deep pockets to pick up the slack — and it is worth noting that, in its final years, the Gazette's ownership, the Gannett Co., had pretty deep pockets — they cannot continue to exist.

And that is the kind of news that breaks a journalist's heart.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Quest for Inspiration

I was chatting online last night with an old friend of mine. At one point, she misunderstood something I wrote, and I tried to clarify it for her.

I pointed out to her that it can be difficult to communicate in writing. So many things that people rely on to correctly interpret what someone is saying are missing — tone of voice, facial expression, body language. It's got to be the main reason why "emoticons" were created.

"Emoticon" is the fancy word for those smiley faces people make with the parentheses and the colons and the semicolons to indicate that they were smiling or winking (or whatever they were doing) when they wrote the sentence that preceded. And if they're used appropriately — and sparingly — they really can help the reader better understand what was written.

But they seldom are used sparingly. Many people use them excessively, like internet acronyms (i.e., "LOL"). And anything that is used excessively tends to lose its value.

Things like emoticons and acronyms strike me as lazy devices that are used by people who either have nothing to say or no clue how to express what they want to say. When I receive an e–mail from someone who punctuates every sentence with an emoticon or an "LOL," I don't think that person is smiling or laughing constantly. If I did, I would probably think that person was an airhead.

I've had the misfortune of crossing paths too often with people who believe — mistakenly — that anyone can write. It's all just stringing a bunch of words together.

Well, I studied writing in journalism school, I've written for newspapers and a trade magazine and I've taught writing to undergraduates. And I can tell you that there is a whole lot more to it than that.

And sometimes, even people who have been writing for years and years fall victim to what is known as "writer's block." When you're stuck in "writer's block," you might as well be mired in quicksand — and freeing yourself can be hard. A skilled writer can make it look effortless, but it isn't.

That reminds me of a story.

When Johnny Carson was the host of "The Tonight Show," the show continued to have original programs in his absence because he arranged for someone to fill in for him. Today's late–night hosts don't do that, but in Carson's day, getting a gig as the guest host was quite a coup for a rising comedian. In fact, Carson's successor, Jay Leno, was a guest host on several occasions.

The guest hosts often came through when given their moments in the spotlight, but sometimes they bombed out. I don't remember if I read about this in a book or an article or if I saw someone talking about it in an interview, but once, when the guest host really bombed, Carson called him when the show was over and said, "It ain't as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

That's the deceptive thing about writing. It looks easy, but it really isn't.

Take this blog, for example. I've been writing it for more than two years now. Three weeks ago, I wrote my 1,000th post, and I shared that milestone with my readers.

My objective, when I started writing this blog, was to write at least one item every day. You don't have to be a math major to figure out that 1,000 posts in two years averages out to about 1½ posts per day so, on the surface, I have met my objective, but, in reality, there have been days when I posted two or three items, and there have been other days when I posted nothing.

Sometimes, I just can't think of something to say. But lately, my problem hasn't been thinking of something to say. My problem has been that I find myself writing about the same topic — unemployment — too much. I guess that's what you might call an occupational hazard, except that, at the moment, I have no occupation. I'm one of the millions of jobless Americans, and, the longer this drags on, the more I find myself fixating on job creation.

Joblessness seems to be the only thing that really matters to me these days. That's not really true, of course. I care about many things. I'm interested in many things. But they seem to get blocked by this void in my life.

I know this guy who lives in North Carolina and writes a blog. (Well, I say that I "know" him, but we have only communicated online.) He does a lot of things with his blog that I would like to do. We were chatting one evening, and I mentioned that I'd like to write some humorous posts or flex my storytelling muscles more than I do, but I can't seem to get into it mentally right now.

I hope to do something like that later on, I told him. I'd like to write some light–hearted things.

"When you get a job?" he asked.

Yes, I replied.

We said no more about it, but I think he understood. And I hope you do, too.

Don't get me wrong. I want to write about serious topics, and it doesn't get any more serious than feeling that you are self–sufficient and that you have a purpose.

This experience has shown me the toll that joblessness can take on someone's self–esteem so I've learned something I would like to apply to my work when I become a productive member of the economy again.

But, at the same time, I would like to write about things I see that amuse me or intrigue me.

It ain't as easy as it looks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If This Was a Football Game ...

The calendar says there are 378 days remaining until the midterm elections of 2010. That's 54 weeks. Many Democrats will tell you there is still plenty of time before the next election.

But there isn't as much time as they want to believe.

As you have probably noticed, politicians like to use sports analogies. You will often hear them say things that suggest a struggling campaign is at halftime or gaining momentum for a fourth–quarter comeback. A candidate who forces a heavily favored opponent into a runoff may say that the race has gone into overtime.

Continuing with such an analogy, most Democrats who must face the voters in 2010 will tell you that, if this was a football game, we haven't even had the opening kick yet. But this game's farther along than they would like to think. And they're losing. Big time.

A political rule of thumb is that voters' attitudes about the party in power and its handling of the economy and foreign affairs and, well, everything harden about six months before the election. After that, very little — short of the Second Coming — will alter those perceptions.

I resisted that nugget of wisdom when I studied political science in college, but my observations since then have convinced me it is true.

So, for Barack Obama and the Democrats, the window of opportunity is not the 54 weeks that remain until the midterm elections of 2010. It is roughly 28 weeks.

If unemployment isn't going down by May 4 ...

If real health care reform — not the watered–down kind that Obama, in his wishy–washy appeasing way, is willing to accept — isn't enacted by May 4 ...

If it isn't clear that America is removing its troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by May 4 ...

And if all the other promises that were made have not been kept by May 4 ...

Democrats can kiss their huge majorities in Congress goodbye.

Do I think they will lose their majorities? At this point, it is hard to say. But I do believe they will be dramatically reduced.

In the Senate, it will be possible to derail Obama's proposals with filibusters. All it will take is the loss of a single seat.

Don't think it can happen? Three Democratic senators who represent states that voted for John McCain in 2008 will be up for re–election in 2010 — and that doesn't consider Democratic incumbents who are facing electorates that have been hit especially hard by unemployment (i.e., Barbara Boxer in California) or who are unpopular for other reasons (i.e., Harry Reid in Nevada and Chris Dodd in Connecticut).

Now, before I proceed with this, let me say that I don't think Boxer is in serious trouble right now. A recent poll suggests that she is "comfortably ahead of her Republican opponents," writes Joe Garofoli in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"But Boxer, who was viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of the Republicans in the survey ... does not have an easy path to victory," he writes. "The support of barely half the voters 'is not great' for an incumbent, Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said."

I can almost hear the protests from Democrats: But this is California we're talking about — the state that hasn't voted for a Republican candidate for president since 1988. That's true. But a recent poll showed that only 34% of Californians approve of the job House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done.

California is the largest state in the nation. It has huge employment and budget problems. Pelosi's job performance may only be of concern to people in her district, but the poll results imply the serious problems many incumbents will face in California next year. If the speaker of the House — a left–leaning Democrat from left–leaning San Francisco — gets a thumb's up from slightly more than one–third of the state's voters, how will they vote when Boxer's name is on the statewide ballot?

If things don't get better, the unemployed across the nation will be very unhappy in 2010. Unhappy voters are not stupid. They know that the bad things began when George W. Bush and the Republicans were in charge. But they already punished the Republicans last year. They will be unhappy if they see no evidence that the people who were elected to clean up the mess have done so.

And they will take out their frustrations on the incumbents.
"Remember the fierce urgency of now, the audacity of hope and change we can believe in? Even passing unemployment benefits became a life crisis for politicians in a town that gets little done.

"There is pain and suffering in the heartland but little urgency, audacity or change in Washington. Democrats move from being rolled to giving in.

"Do–nothing Republicans, acting like they are bought and paid for by the status quo, are joined by a handful of Democrats who negate the 2008 election.

"The public burns, Washington fiddles, the president campaigns, Congress dithers, Democrats waver, Republicans obstruct, business as usual continues.

"The result is a Golden Age for Wall Street bonuses, a Gilded Age for insurance profits and a Grapes of Wrath for American workers."

Brent Budowsky
The Hill

It's "showtime for Democrats," Brent Budowsky writes in The Hill. "If the president fights as he promised to fight, and Democrats stand as they promised to stand, we will make some history. Nobody will ask whether the president is tough enough for the job."

Right now, there are a lot of questions. Obama and the Democrats have until May to provide satisfactory answers.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Love Field

Today, if you fly into Dallas, you probably will arrive at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which is the third–busiest airport in the world in aircraft movement and the seventh–busiest in passengers.

With the exception of a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when commercial airlines were grounded, it is a rare experience for someone to scan the skies over Dallas and not see a plane landing at or departing from DFW.

But before DFW, as it is known locally, opened for business in 1974, the airport serving Dallas was Love Field, which opened on this day in 1917. It was probably unknown to most Americans until Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy and his entourage arrived there and embarked on the motorcade that ended with Kennedy's fatal shooting.

The reception of the crowd at Love Field, like that of the city's residents along the motorcade route into downtown Dallas, was friendly and offered no hint of the horror that was to come. In the years that followed, Love Field was seldom mentioned, except as the place where Air Force One landed on that fateful day.

As the years passed, Love Field probably faded from memory outside of north Texas. It was revived in the public memory in the early 1990s when its name was used as the title of an independent film starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Dennis Haysbert (you may not recognize Haysbert's name, but, in recent years, he has been the spokesman for Allstate in its TV commercials).

Love Field is still in operation, but most major airlines land and depart from DFW. Primarily, Love Field serves business travelers making day trips. Its future probably is uncertain.

But its spot in American history is secure.

Takin' It To the Bank

Paul Krugman has an interesting column in today's New York Times about the state of America's banks.

Without a doubt, the economy is complicated. And there were several factors involved in the meltdown in 2008.

To a certain extent, I guess, everyone was culpable. But some played a greater role than others.

And I don't think there can be any doubt that the banks played a huge role in what happened. Whether one is an economist or an innocent bystander, I think that much is clear.

Given the fact that the financial institutions received so much bailout money from America's taxpayers — a down payment, as it were, on the expectation that banks would, in turn, make loans available that would keep businesses afloat and help create jobs — the news that they have been rewarding their top dogs with massive bonuses (or, in the case of Citigroup, proceeding with plans to purchase a brand–new corporate jet) while, as Krugman puts it, "the rest of America, the victim of a slump made on Wall Street, continues to bleed jobs" has provoked anger and resentment.

Clearly, the nation's financial future depends upon the solvency of the banks. It would have been reckless and irresponsible to allow them to go under.

But it seems that the banks have forgotten to whom they owe their continued existence.
Ask the people at Goldman, and they'll tell you that it's nobody's business but their own how much they earn. But as one critic recently put it: "There is no financial institution that exists today that is not the direct or indirect beneficiary of trillions of dollars of taxpayer support for the financial system." Indeed: Goldman has made a lot of money in its trading operations, but it was only able to stay in that game thanks to policies that put vast amounts of public money at risk, from the bailout of A.I.G. to the guarantees extended to many of Goldman’s bonds.

Paul Krugman

It's a complicated matter, this sour economy. There are no easy answers. But Krugman's New York Times colleague, Frank Rich, lent a little perspective to things in a recent column, in which he reminded readers that John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was known as "the Octopus" early in the 20th century.

"Goldman is this century's octopus," he wrote, although there are differences, most notably that Goldman Sachs was not a monopoly.

But he proceeds to observe that "the tone–deaf Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, never ceases to amaze. His daily calendars reveal that most of his contacts with the financial sector in the first seven months of 2009 were limited to the trinity of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan. ... It's hard to see how any public official can challenge a culture that he is marinating in, night and day."

It's a complicated mess, all right. And Krugman's column should be read in its entirety, but his conclusion is worth jumping to.

"The main thing for the time being is probably to do as much as possible to support job growth. With luck, this will produce a virtuous circle in which an improving economy strengthens the banks, which then become more willing to lend.

"Beyond that, we desperately need to pass effective financial reform. For if we don't, bankers will soon be taking even bigger risks than they did in the run–up to this crisis."

Someone — if not the president, who appears to possess principles but has not clearly demonstrated his commitment to most of them, then someone like a Treasury secretary, although it is far from clear that this Treasury secretary has the cojones for the task — must insist that the financial institutions understand that things are different now.

And if, as Krugman writes, they feel it is no one else's business what their earnings are, they need to be reminded, in no uncertain terms, why they are still in business.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What a Country

Today, I'm sort of feeling like I'm at the apex of a perfect storm.

In many ways, it's a logical extension of something I wrote about yesterday. My article began as a discussion of something that was published in The Hill last week, and it evolved into, in my own words, a pondering of "the gap between 'the idea' of Obama and his actual accomplishments."

The greatness of a leader and the greatness of his/her country tend to be subjective evaluations. It has always fascinated me how many different attitudes about a leader may be found in a random survey of people who all watch the same speech. Pollsters may be able to group responses together and say that XX% approve and XX% disapprove, but the intensity of those responses can vary widely.

It is this way with every president but especially the charismatic ones. There are the truly extreme supporters, who embrace all the positive P.R. and believe that everyone who supports the president sees everything the way they do. In their eyes, he represents what they believe he represents — and everyone who supported him in the election sees it.

But that doesn't take into account that every president who has been elected to the job has been supported by some more casual supporters. Often, they are reported to be "undecided" the weekend before an election — or they are categorized as "leaning" in one direction or another.

In the modern vernacular, I suppose they would be called "swing voters." They have no apparent heartfelt commitment to principles of economics or social issues or international relations. They blow with the wind. In 2008, the prevailing wind came from the Democrats. If the prevailing wind is coming from the Republicans in 2012, they will gravitate in that direction.

They haven't forgotten that, as Obama's most ardent supporters insist upon reminding them, the recession and the monthly parade of job losses began under George W. Bush. They have simply moved on. Their calendar tells them it is October 2009 — not January 2009 or November 2008.

As far as they are concerned, the election wasn't about punishing anyone for the past. It was about making the best possible choice from the available options to lead the nation into the future.

I have never been a "swing voter," but my guess is that, for most of them, if they happen to help elect a president whose actions turn out to be historically important, that's a happy by–product. If they help elect a president who comes up short of expectations, it is a mistake that can be corrected in the next election.

And the wind starts to shift.

But, in spite of winds that seem to be shifting, the myth of the symbolic significance of Obama's persona persists — although, if his persona really was that important, would the doubts endure? Would Saturday Night Live's recent skit alleging the gap between the promises and the achievements have struck a nerve the way it did? Would it have been as difficult to defend the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Today, the lead singer of perhaps the most popular band in the world, Bono, wrote an article in the New York Times in which he said, essentially, that the idea of Obama is the idea of America.

For some, that idea is visible in the symbolic value of a black man being president of a predominantly white nation in which most blacks (but not the president) are descended from slaves. For others, it is the difference in political philosophy that Obama brought to the Oval Office and how it is received globally.

"The world wants to believe in America again because the world needs to believe in America again," Bono writes. "We need your ideas — your idea — at a time when the rest of the world is running out of them."

Before you get carried away with the glowing terms Bono uses about the image — the idea — of America, it is worth noting that there is a reminder today of how easily the nation can be hoodwinked.

Last week, millions of Americans were transfixed by the flight of a balloon believed to be carrying a 6–year–old boy. Authorities now believe the flight of the runaway balloon was staged by the parents, who hoped to parlay the event into a reality show.

It reminds me of 15 years ago, when a young mother named Susan Smith fooled the nation into believing her small children had been kidnapped — and then it turned out that she had been responsible for their drowning deaths because the man she was interested in didn't want children.

Or five years before that, when Americans were easily persuaded that a young man and his pregnant wife had been carjacked and shot. The husband's 9–1–1 call was replayed over and over again for TV viewers, who proved only too eager to accept his version of events — until it was revealed that he had shot his wife himself so he could collect the insurance money and open his own business.

What a country.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mr. Deeds

Fast becoming one of my favorite writers on the political scene is a fellow named Brent Budowsky, who writes for The Hill.

A few days ago, in The Hill, Budowsky wrote about the gap between "the idea" of Obama and his actual accomplishments.

Many of Obama's adoring supporters see no gap. But Budowsky does. And he is right. And he is unflinching in his assessment.

"Voters may vote for an idea," Budowsky writes. "Prizes may be awarded for an idea. But war and peace, prosperity and joblessness, legislation and treaties, illness and health, are not decided by the idea of the candidate but the actions of the president who is elected."

Budowsky makes an observation that could so easily have been made about Jimmy Carter in the first — or maybe the second — year of his presidency:
"It is time to worry when 'Saturday Night Live' makes fun of the president for achieving so little. It is time for alarm when so many power players believe this president can be rolled. Even a Senate where Democrats have 60 votes shows an almost daily disrespect for the president."

Budowsky believes he has identified the cause.

"The reason so many power centers, at home and internationally, say no to the president is that they do not know his bottom line," Budowsky writes. "They believe he may shift with the winds. They know he accepts a tiny loaf while claiming a big victory. They believe he can be rolled."

And he makes an observation that shows an understanding of the presidency that transcends the times.
"The history of successful presidents is clear: They fight for major change. They battle complacency and resistance. They risk losing tactical battles for greater victories. They challenge and inspire supporters to fight great battles for great deeds and inspire fear in opponents who resist."

Think of any great president you admire. You will see many parallels between that president's record in office and Budowsky's words.

It is clear in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, whose "team of rivals" approach Obama has tried to emulate. But comparing a 19th century presidency to a 21st century one can be awkward.

So Budowsky spells out a few 20th century examples. "Compare the way Johnson fought for Medicare with the way Obama equivocates on the public option. Compare Roosevelt's 100 days with the lack of financial reform under Obama. Compare Reagan pushing through huge economic policies early in his term with Obama delivering little more than a stimulus written by others."

Obama's supporters can continue to occupy the fantasy world in which they currently live. From now until Election Day 2010, they can protest, to their hearts' content, that all the bad economic news, the escalating jobless rate, the two foreign wars, is the fault of others — and not internal shortcomings.

But history suggests that voters will be unimpressed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom can be a useful thing, but it isn't infallible.

It's generally well–informed speculation. It tends to be based on historical experience, which is particularly relevant to students of history. History students have learned that history does repeat itself.

In December 2007 — just prior to what has since been acknowledged as the beginning of the recession — conventional wisdom said the war in Iraq would be the big issue in the 2008 campaign. This was the same conventional wisdom that was sure the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton and wasn't sure whether the Republicans would nominate Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani but was pretty sure the GOP wouldn't nominate John McCain.

About the only thing that was right about that forecast was that the Democratic nomination would be groundbreaking. But Hillary wasn't the groundbreaking nominee.

It's been interesting to watch the evolution of conventional wisdom in the first nine months of the Obama presidency.

Last spring, conventional wisdom painted a bleak picture for Republicans for the third straight election cycle. But as the year has progressed, the outlook for the midterms of 2010 has gradually improved for Republicans.

And this week, Charlie Cook asked, in the National Journal, "Are The Democrats Ready For 10 Percent Unemployment?"

As a student of history, that seems like a loaded question to me. The obvious answer appears to be "No."

Historically, midterm elections have almost always been rough for the incumbent party. The reasons vary, but generally the exceptions to the rule have been years in which the focus was on international crises.

When things are bad domestically, voters hold the incumbent party responsible, especially in the midterm elections. That is the lesson of history. In the last half century, the exceptions were 1962, when Democrats benefited from Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 2002, when Republicans benefited from a surge in public support in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

In today's world, it certainly isn't inconceivable that an international crisis could occur in the next 12 months. But without one it seems the Democrats are likely to sustain some losses.

Oh, no, I can almost hear my Democratic friends protesting. All this was Bush's fault.

Cook has the answer to that:
"Polls may show a majority of Americans understand that this recession started under President George W. Bush, but every day, President Obama, and inferentially his party, take on a bit more ownership. By the 2010 midterm elections, the economy will completely belong to Obama and Democrats."

Over the years, Cook has proven himself to be a generally reliable political forecaster. He's been as nonpartisan in his predictions as anyone I've seen, and his reasoning tends to be sound.

In the spring, he anticipated a difficult midterm election for Republicans. But, as job losses have mounted, his opinion has changed. And today he see the dire state of unemployment as the critical element in next year's elections — even if the most optimistic predictions of economic growth turn out to be on target.

"What should concern Democrats is that while there is a diversity of views about just how much the economy will grow next year, the views of both optimists and pessimists converge on the politically important question of unemployment," Cook writes. "The consensus is there will be very, very little job growth next year."

It is logical to anticipate that. It has happened before.

I think Cook is right when he says, "The distinct possibility, and maybe even probability, that unemployment will be hovering around 10 percent for a solid year should petrify." It is based on historical experience.

But that only tells half of the story, I think. Perhaps the other half is best described as the history of inexperience.

It was a unique coalition that elected Obama. It included some groups — young people, blacks and other minorities — who haven't been electorally active in the past. Many were drawn into the process by Obama's charisma, not unlike millions of Americans who participated in the 1992 election solely because of the charisma of independent candidate Ross Perot.

I've seen no numbers concerning what the Perot supporters did in 1994. How many went back to their old ways and didn't participate because Perot wasn't on the ballot? How many continued to participate? And which party won their support?

The answers to those questions might provide some insight into the behavior of voters who are attracted to charismatic candidates. But Perot was an independent candidate. Obama was a major party's nominee.

Many of the same questions that could have been asked of Perot's supporters could be asked of some of the untraditional voters who helped Obama win — and then some. Their party preference was clear enough in 2008. Has it changed? Why?

If they still support the Democrats' objectives, can they be lured back to the polls when Obama is absent from the ballot?

The City of New Orleans

I haven't been in New Orleans in a long time. The last time I was there was many years before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and officially — and, apparently, irretrievably — turned public opinion against George W. Bush.

When I was there, the emphasis was on good food, good drinks and fun (good or otherwise). Live jazz was playing in the French Quarter, French–style beignets with powdered sugar and chicory–laced coffee were being consumed with reckless abandon every morning at Café du Monde, and New Orleans generally lived up to its nickname, "The City that Care Forgot."

But New Orleans — and the rest of Louisiana — couldn't hide away from care forever. After Katrina, the national spotlight seemed to shine ever brighter on the Big Easy.

Judging from the home page of the New Orleans Times–Picayune this morning, things haven't changed that much, though. There is still an emphasis on good food, good music and good times. At this time of year, "good times" means football, and two of the NFL's unbeaten teams, the New Orleans Saints and the New York Giants, will square off Sunday afternoon in the Superdome that once housed — temporarily — Katrina's refugees.

Barack Obama probably could have picked a worse time to make his first presidential visit to New Orleans. Granted, his pledge to rebuild New Orleans stronger than before is one that should have been made — and kept — on the federal level four years ago. But that wasn't Obama's fault. He was barely in the U.S. Senate at that time.

As much as Obama and his supporters may have wanted to believe his election nearly a year ago demonstrated that America was a "post–racial" society, events this year have shown it is not true. Both sides have been culpable to a degree. Some — but not all — of Obama's critics have injected race into the conversation, and some — but not all — of his supporters have been far too willing to point the finger and accuse critics of racism — to the detriment of arguments on both sides.

Neither the right nor the left seems to be truly at fault for an issue that has emerged recently in Tangipahoa Parish, just north of New Orleans. But that hasn't kept either from taking sides.

Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell refused to marry an interracial couple. "I'm not a racist," he claimed. "I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."

He said he was concerned about the children that could be produced from such a union and, for that reason, he has declined to marry about four interracial couples in his career as a justice of the peace.

Now the ACLU of Louisiana is attempting to have Bardwell removed from office.

I'm not an authority on the law, but it does seem to me that, since the Supreme Court's ruling in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, marriage restrictions based on race have been illegal in the United States. Consequently, a public official who has the authority to marry couples and refuses to do so because the couple in question is interracial is in violation of the law.

But I grew up in the South. And, while laws have changed, it does not surprise me that attitudes have not — at least not to the extent that many people seem to have presumed.

What does surprise me, I guess, is how surprised others are by this. Last night, on Facebook, the pastor of my church pondered this development and asked, rhetorically, "It's 2009, not 1959, right?" Many people — too many to count — chimed in indignantly.

My knee–jerk reaction was that many of those people must not have grown up in the South — and then I remembered that my pastor did grow up here in Texas. But he, like many people, seems to have fallen under the spell of the post–racialists.

Be that as it may, it doesn't change the fact that a public official who refuses to marry an interracial couple is violating the law. As a public official, his personal opinions do not matter — even if he believes his motivation — the well–being of any as–yet unborn children — is noble.

(If his only concern is the children, has anyone asked him if he has performed marriage ceremonies for interracial couples who are past their child–bearing years?)

The left gets particularly agitated about racial implications, but the liberal lion, the late Ted Kennedy, seems to have understood that racism in America did not disappear because Obama was elected president.
"Ted Kennedy believes that race in America is, as he sometimes puts it, 'a–burning,' by which he means that it bubbles just below the surface of the American psyche and it takes little to bring it out."

Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
The Battle for America 2008

I don't know how long it will take for those on the left to recognize that the election of the first black president didn't eliminate race as a factor in American life. It merely turned up the heat and it has bubbled past the surface in Obama's first year in office.

The real test of how much progress America has made in race relations was not — contrary to popular opinion — the election of the first black president. The real test will be whether, three years from now, Americans decide to re–elect him, knowing it will mean four more years of focusing on racial issues — often at the expense of issues that affect Americans of all races.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No More Hurrahs for Hillary

Some people refuse to take "no" for an answer. When a politician says he (or she) has decided never to seek a particular office, some people regard it as code language that really means something like "I probably will, but I'm not ready to make that announcement."

In the case of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I think you can take her at her word.

Recently, Clinton told NBC's Ann Curry that she will not seek the presidency again.

It seems like a safe bet.

It's hard for me to imagine a scenario in which Clinton would seek the 2012 Democratic presidential nomination. So many other things would have to happen first:
  • Barack Obama is eligible to seek a second term, and all indications are that he will do so.
  • Obama is personally popular, even if many of his policies are not. If he is challenged in the primaries, it is hard to imagine that he will be challenged by someone from his own Cabinet — even in the "team of rivals" atmosphere he has promoted.
  • Of course, 2012 is still a few years away, and many things could happen between now and then. As unpleasant as the prospect is to contemplate, Obama may not be president when the next presidential election rolls around. He could be assassinated. He could get sick and die of natural causes. He could be impeached. Or, like Richard Nixon, he could resign.

    The future is uncertain. But the line of succession is clear. There are three other people in line for the presidency before the secretary of state — Vice President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd. It would be unprecedented in American history to go that far into the order of presidential succession.

    Indeed, considering the fact that the 25th Amendment allows a president to nominate someone to fill a vacancy in the vice presidency, it is hard to imagine a scenario — other than one in which the president, vice president, speaker of the House and Senate president pro tem are eliminated simultaneously — that would permit a secretary of state to become president.
Thus, it appears that the next realistic opportunity for Hillary to seek the presidency would be in 2016. She will be 62 in less than two weeks. In 2016, she will celebrate her 69th birthday shortly before the presidential election. Only one president — Ronald Reagan — was elected president for the first time at that age, but he won re–election and lived for more than 15 years after leaving office so it has been done. What about Joe Biden? If the Obama–Biden ticket is re–elected in 2012, Biden would be 73 by the time of the 2016 presidential primaries — older than John McCain was when he was nominated by the Republicans in 2008, older than Bob Dole was when he was nominated in 1996 and the same age Reagan was when he was nominated for a second term in 1984. It's possible that Biden might run — but it isn't probable. That would seem to make Clinton the most obvious choice to carry the torch for the administration in 2016, but "I'm looking forward to retirement," she told Curry. Much can happen in seven years. And Clinton may well be persuaded to run for the presidency again.

But I'm inclined to believe that she will not be the first woman to be president.