Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts

"God only knows that we can do,
No more or less than he'll allow.
Well God only knows that we mean well
And God knows that we just don't know how."

Joe Henry

Thursday was Thanksgiving, a holiday that has always been special to me.

I suppose that is because I actually was born on Thanksgiving. When one is born on a holiday, I guess that holiday always holds a unique significance.

(On at least one occasion, an old friend of mine who died a few months ago was asked her favorite number. She said her favorite number was 16, the number of her birth date.

(She said it is hard not to like the number of the day you were born, and I guess that's true. I never really thought of it that way before.

(Using similar logic, I guess, it's hard not to feel partial to a holiday on which one is born. And, while I have never discussed this with my brother, my guess is that he feels the same way. He was born the day after New Year's Day.)

Well, my situation is unusual, I suppose. It wasn't Thanksgiving where I was born. You see, my parents were Methodist missionaries in Africa at the time of my birth. They were always American citizens, though, and back in America, my grandparents were observing the Thanksgiving holiday, probably with their friends.

I don't know if my parents had planned to observe the holiday with their American friends (I don't even know if traditional Thanksgiving foods were available at that time in that part of the world). I don't think I was due for another two or three weeks so it's possible that they had plans, but, if they did, I disrupted them. Clearly, my mother was in the hospital that day, and I guess my father was sitting in the waiting room.

No one ever told me the story of how that day unfolded, but I think it is safe to assume that neither of my parents ate any turkey and stuffing that Thanksgiving.

In spite of the fact that I was born on Thanksgiving, I've always had mixed feelings about it. I like the concept of being grateful for what you have, but that begs the question of "Grateful to whom? Grateful to what?"

I mean, does the very act of setting aside a day to express gratitude for what you have necessarily imply faith in a higher power?

For some, I suppose the answer is "yes" — albeit an indirect confirmation. As Meister Eckhart, a theologian from the Middle Ages, said, "If the only prayer we ever said was 'Thank you,' that would be sufficient."

For such people, the very act of being thankful is an acknowledgment of faith.

But doesn't that suggest that you are being rewarded for doing the things you are expected to do? And, if that is true, then the whole God–man relationship, from early times to the present day, is founded in a kind of performance–based agreement, kind of like the incentive bonuses that some pro athletes have written into their contracts.

It's the kind of thing I can equate to my own life.

As a child, I was always eager to please my elders so I tried to do the things they wanted me to do. I took certain classes because they were recommended to me. I participated in certain activities because they were recommended to me.

I went to college and graduate school for much the same reason, I suppose. There was more to it, of course, but it definitely played a role. When I look back on it now, I wonder if I did so with certain expectations of the outcome, that each of the "right" things that I did made the ultimate payoff more secure.

I guess I'm not so different from most people, even if I was born on Thanksgiving. I'm a seeker, a questioner, a doubter, a skeptic. That may be part of the reason I gravitated to journalism.

Then, again, it was hard not to be a seeker, a questioner, a doubter, a skeptic if you grew up when I did. It always seemed like those who were in charge were lying to the rest of us — Lyndon Johnson lied about Vietnam, Richard Nixon lied about Watergate and so on.

It was hard to know who or what to believe so I turned to my elders. I put my trust in them, and they told me to trust God.

I was brought up to believe in God, to believe in Jesus, to believe the Bible. But, in my experience, most of the people who were brought up that way went through their moments of doubt and pain as well.

Some of the people I knew when I was growing up lost their faith along the way. I still want to believe the things I was told when I was young are true. But many of the things I have seen contradict that, especially lately.

This isn't a new crisis for me. It wasn't brought on by Phyllis' death. Phyllis' death merely contributed to a pre–existing condition. She always seemed to understand things I don't understand.

Phyllis never lost her faith in God, and she suffered in her last years, which came far too early. There are many things about that experience that I don't understand. What was the purpose behind it?

When I was a child, I was told there was a purpose behind everything, a reason for every life. But I struggle when I look for the purpose.

Several friends have died this year. I expect that, of course. But the last few years have been brutal — this year in particular. Before Phyllis died, two of my friends killed themselves, and others (of varying ages) died of other causes.

And I have been without full–time employment for more than two years. I am doing some part–time teaching at the local community college, and I guess I am thankful for that this Thanksgiving. But it doesn't pay much.

There is still much uncertainty, a lot more than I ever dreamed there would be back when I thought I was doing all the right things to make my future a bright one.

I'm probably not the only one who has thought that, if there is a God and he really does have a master plan, this would be a good time for him to let me in on it — or at least let me in on enough of it to know things are moving in the right direction.

Things have been a bit chaotic for me in recent years.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Travel

I've been teaching a news writing class at the community college here in Dallas this fall.

It's been an interesting and challenging semester for me. I've been away from the classroom for several years, and I've been away from the newsroom for several years as well, and a lot of things have changed.

It is not my intention to recite all those differences here in some kind of "those were the days" rant. I expected things to be different. That's the nature of things. Nothing remains static.

Certainly, the relative health of the newspaper business hasn't remained static. As the economy has worsened, many newspaper subscribers have stopped subscribing in an effort to save a little money. That means that circulation numbers have dropped at most newspapers. And, as circulation has dropped, advertisers have been more reluctant to invest money in advertising that (presumably) fewer people will see.

Newspapers, in turn, are forced to take certain steps to save money because, as I have said here before, advertising revenue is the life blood of a newspaper.

It's a vicious circle.

I guess it always has been volatile, always vulnerable to economic downturns and technological shifts. Computers and the internet play roles today that my colleagues and I never could have imagined when I was on the copy desk or the last time I was in the classroom.

To say the least, it has been an educational autumn for me. But it has also reinforced my belief in certain things, one of which is that, no matter what kind of news delivery system comes along in the future, people will be needed who can exercise news judgment and apply it to that news delivery system in some way.

Not everyone can resolve technical issues. Many of the journalists I have known in my life probably couldn't balance their checkbooks, much less fix software problems. But most journalists can write, and if they know basic HTML or SEO stuff, they can apply it to their work and help prepare it for use on the internet as well as the publication for which they work.

Admittedly, HTML and SEO are mostly technical. But the skills I learned in college, polished in my work for newspapers and now hope to pass on to my students can, with modification, be put to practical use outside of newspapers. And such modification these days tends to involve adjustments that

I tell my students that the way to enhance their value as modern journalists is to be community–oriented. They should focus, I tell them, on giving their readers what they cannot get anywhere else

In hindsight, I guess, I have always felt that way, but the internet has made that even more relevant to the survival of journalism. And, in spite of its current problems, I do believe journalism will survive as long as it focuses primarily on the needs of its local readers.

I am guided in this by the knowledge that the New York Times is planning to start charging for access to its website. The Times tried this a few years ago, and it didn't work so it made its content available at no charge again. The poor economy apparently has prompted the Times to revisit that policy.

As tempted as I am to remind you of what Albert Einstein said about the definition of insanity, I will resist.

Instead, I simply want to point out that the Times' experience confirms what I believe — that newspapers (print publications of all kinds, really) were far too slow to recognize the role that computers and the internet would play in the dissemination of news.

By the time the owners of traditional newspapers realized that the internet was the wave of the future and, more importantly, there was money to be made in it, the public had grown accustomed to the idea that there were many free news sources out there.

Consumers like myself, who read the Times online, are not likely to pay for access to its content unless they live in New York and are looking for information they can't get anywhere else.

I do not live in New York, and I can find articles on just about any national or international news event on many other sites — so, when the Times starts charging for its content, I will simply stop visiting the site (unless I hear that, once again, it is making its content freely accessible).

Anyway, back to my news writing class ...

Earlier this semester, I concocted some scenarios and acted like a public information officer. In these scenarios, the students took on the roles of reporters and had to ask me questions to get important details. Then they had to write their stories based on the information they had gathered.

As the semester progressed, I wanted to combine some of the more routine tasks I often had to perform when I worked for daily newspapers with the internet environment and the work of internet research in our in–class simulations — so a few weeks ago, I cast my students in the roles of writers for a locally based internet site that emphasizes local news.

I asked them to use the internet to gather information for their articles and provide a list of their sources so I could check on them. Their first such assignment was an article that would be "posted" all week, reminding visitors to the site to adjust their clocks when daylight saving time ended the following weekend.

A couple of weeks later, I asked them to write a similar story reminding readers that the annual Great American Smokeout was coming up.

I'm a "recovering smoker," I told my students, and there were many times when I heard the Smokeout was coming up and I made a mental note that I wanted to take part in it, but, when the time came, I was busy with my life and I forgot about it — so I went ahead with my daily routine, smoking while I got ready for work, smoking while I drove to work, smoking on my breaks — and I might not have heard that it was the Smokeout until the day was half over.

By then, it was too late for anything except maybe a symbolic gesture.

People need to be reminded of these things, I told my students, and smokers need to know if there will be any efforts locally to provide them with support while they try to go 24 hours without lighting up.

I reminded them that it isn't a matter of "willpower." It goes much deeper than that. Nicotine, we have long been told, is a tougher addiction to beat than heroin.

I was pleased that they found some noteworthy support services that were being offered locally but hadn't really gotten any publicity. I regretted that what my students had written had no website on which to be posted.

Then, this week, I decided to combine something that was coming up with something that has been in the news recently — the traditionally heavy travel that usually occurs on the day before Thanksgiving and the reports of overly intimate "patdowns" conducted by security personnel at airports and intimate X–ray images that were supposed to be destroyed when no longer needed but instead have ended up on the internet.

I told my students to write about anything that might influence a local reader's decision about any aspect of travel. DFW International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the country, but none of my students uncovered any recommendations from DFW's administrators that suggested that things might be easier for travelers if they came at particular times or took any other precautions.

At the time, I really thought there might be more problems than apparently there have been today.

Some things may yet surface, but right now — at least according to the Associated Press — things have been pretty smooth at the nation's airports.

Oh, there were some rumblings about a movement among disgruntled travelers to "opt out" of invasive procedures. And, apparently, there were some people who took that approach. But they didn't make a big show of it at the airports.

Most appeared to follow the recommendations of protest organizers and simply stayed home.

Indeed, inclement weather seems to be the most urgent concern for travelers right now.

If that's the worst thing that happens to the TSA this Thanksgiving, that should be something to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The JFK Assassination

I've been writing blogs for more than three years now, and I have written about the John F. Kennedy assassination every year on the anniversary of that terrible event.

Tomorrow will be its 47th anniversary, and most of the people who were in Kennedy's entourage in Dallas on that day are gone now.

When I was growing up, I often wondered if the mystery of who actually pulled the trigger — or who arranged for the assassination to take place — ever would be solved.

But as the years have gone by, I have become less convinced that that will ever happen.

I still believe there was a conspiracy, and I could recite my reasons for believing that, but I also believe that solving the mystery no longer matters.

As it approaches the half–century mark, the Kennedy assassination is the Great American Mystery. It has become a cottage industry of sorts, and solving the mystery would eliminate the goose that laid the golden egg.

Go into any bookstore. You will find shelves devoted to the Kennedy assassination. Look online. You will find site after site dedicated to someone's theory, no matter how outlandish it may be, of what really happened on Nov. 22, 1963.

Folks in Dallas long ago learned there was money to be made from the Kennedy assassination, even many years after the fact. Oliver Stone came here to make his film "JFK" 20 years ago, and many people in the area made money from the cast and crew, providing food and lodging.

Long before that time, the Texas School Book Depository — which the Warren Commission told America was the place where Lee Harvey Oswald fired all the bullets at the Kennedy motorcade — was transformed into a museum that primarily exists to promote the Warren Commission's version of what happened.

A few blocks away, a museum dedicated to alternative theories opened its doors.

But it's been years since anything resembling a serious investigation into the events of Nov. 22, 1963, was undertaken.

And today, on the eve of the 47th anniversary, the only thing related to it in the Dallas Morning News is an article that reports that the man who came across Officer J.D. Tippit's body and reported to the police that he had been shot will be publicly honored tomorrow for his actions.

The man's daughter told the Morning News that her father never spoke about that day in the years that followed. "Maybe this will finally be the end of it," the man told the Morning News' reporter.

Well ...

Ironically, the man once worked for Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed Oswald.

Everything connected with this case seems to go in circles.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Uncovering a Coverup

When I was a boy, the Vietnam War ripped apart the fabric of American life.

There was a time, early in America's involvement in the conflict, when the majority of Americans supported the U.S. effort. But public opinion gradually turned against the war and the president who oversaw it, eventually forcing Lyndon Johnson to abandon his pursuit of another term.

About two weeks before Johnson withdrew from the race, something happened in a tiny hamlet in South Vietnam that changed the dynamics of the public's perception of what was being done in its name halfway around the world.

I don't know if it played a role in Johnson's decision. I don't know if Johnson was even aware that it had happened. But it certainly played a prominent role in the first years of the next presidency.

On March 16, 1968, between 350 and 500 South Vietnamese civilians, most of them women, children and the elderly, were killed by members of a unit of the U.S. Army at a place called My Lai. Many of the victims were sexually abused. Some were beaten and/or tortured. Some were mutilated after they died.

It was not long after North Vietnamese forces had humiliated the Americans with their much–heralded Tet offensive in January 1968, which may explain, in part, the vicious nature of the Americans' attack, but it could never justify it.

I mean, how could anyone consider wiping out a tiny hamlet in South Vietnam any kind of payback for what the North Vietnamese had done? Only those, I suppose, who had been conditioned to regard all Asians as "gooks."

Initially, details were sketchy, as I recall, but I was just a child and not aware of much of what was happening in the world.

But the story that the American public was given was simply that — a story.

In fact, a coverup began virtually the moment the gunfire stopped on the day of the massacre. Official accounts spoke of a great victory, and Stars & Stripes said it had been a "bloody day–long battle" in which communist casualties outnumbered American, 128 to 1, but there were those in the Army who knew differently.

A soldier named Ronald Ridenhour who had heard of the massacre from friends gathered information on his own and sent letters about it to members of Congress and other officials about a year later.

In the annals of the My Lai massacre, It seems to me, that letter played much the same role as the letter from James McCord to the judge who presided over the original trial of the Watergate burglars a few years later.

Without that letter, the world probably never would have known the truth. It blew the lid off the coverup.

Journalist Seymour Hersh apparently got his hands on a copy of the letter and launched the investigation that would expose the dark side of the military's "body count" and "kill ratio" strategies. He published his findings with Dispatch News Service in November 1969.

About a week later, on Nov. 20, 1969, the media began to fill in the gaps. Time, Newsweek and Life gave considerable space to what Hersh had revealed.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer published explicit photos that had been taken at the scene — some of which can be seen in this post.

The coverup that had been successful for nearly two years came undone. And what had been originally praised by military leaders as an heroic chapter was transformed in the public's eyes into a despicable one.

It wasn't despicable because the media wrote about it. It was despicable because the media wrote the truth about what had happened.

It was a courageous thing to do, and I'm sure those who wrote for those publications faced their share of abuse for violating the code of silence that had kept well–connected violators from facing the consequences of their actions in the past.

Three members of a helicopter crew that had tried to intervene could sympathize.

They were denounced at the time by members of Congress. One died in Vietnam, but the other two received hate mail and death threats after they returned to the United States and were not recognized for what they had tried to do until three decades after the fact.

(I have often thought that it was such a cocoon of denial that must have permitted a serial killer nicknamed "Citizen X" to get away with his crimes in the Soviet Union as long as he did. Soviet officials refused to acknowledge that such a thing as serial murder was possible in their country, dismissing it as a "decadent, Western phenomenon."

(To their great chagrin, they learned that not only was such a thing possible in the Soviet Union but the killer actually had been in custody early in the investigation and was subsequently released. Based on the number of killings that had already been committed when he was arrested and the number with which he eventually was credited, it is possible that more than three dozen lives might have been spared if he had not been freed.

(We will never know if there were any other My Lais during America's lengthy involvement in Vietnam — although it seems to me there almost certainly must have been — or whether any might have been prevented if there had been a more forceful response from the U.S. government.)

More than two dozen soldiers ultimately were charged, but only one, Lt. William Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted of murder. Calley was given a life sentence, but, in what was a controversial move at the time, President Nixon decided to have Calley released, pending his appeal.

Eventually, Calley's sentence was adjusted, and he served 4½ months in a military prison. He was sentenced to — and could have ending up serving — a life sentence.

Nevertheless, his conviction only served to widen the gulf that existed between those who supported the war and those who opposed it.

Last year, more than 40 years after the massacre, Calley publicly apologized for the first time.

The revelation that babies had been among the victims at My Lai led many antiwar activists to label all Vietnam veterans "baby killers." That wasn't fair, but I guess it was the unavoidable legacy of the event combined with the deception the American public had come to associate with the war in Vietnam.

Tales of murdered infants from that case were so abundant at the time one might have thought that "My Lai" meant "nursery."

I must admit that I have often wondered if the G.I. culture in Vietnam — as one soldier put it, "most people in our company didn't consider the Vietnamese human" — contributed not only to My Lai but other atrocities during the Vietnam era — like the napalm attack that led to the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of children fleeing from their burning village in 1972.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Vision Thing

"Oh, the vision thing."

George H.W. Bush

In the waning days of the 2010 midterm campaign, I found myself thinking a lot about Barack Obama's insistence that there was nothing wrong with the message, it just hadn't been conveyed properly.

Well, it seems the voters, in that time–honored way, shot the messenger. But was it fatal? Or was it, in the words of the Black Knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," merely a flesh wound?

From what I could see, the voters agree with Obama about many of the things that need to be done. But they elect presidents to make often painful choices between what absolutely positively must be done and what needs to be done but can be put on the back burner.

They did not believe that Obama has been making those tough choices so they tried to get his attention in the only way they could.

The resounding message from the voters on Nov. 2 was not that they had experienced a change of heart about Republican government. They are still wary of the Republican Party, still inclined to blame it for the policies that they believe contributed heavily to the economic mess we face today, and they are particularly concerned about its members who ran as Tea Partiers.

But they were willing to put all that to one side in this election and deliver an urgent message of their own to the Democrats.

The number of voters who told exit pollsters that jobs led their lists of concerns dwarfed everything else — health care, the environment, you name it. And those voters want to see improvement in that area.

Their message was clear — their expectations aren't being met.

What this means for the future of the Obama presidency is not immediately clear. I suspect much will depend upon what Obama does in the next couple of years. He must be a leader. He must bring diverse people together.

He will have to do things he has not had to do up to this point in his life — not just his political life but his life in general.

But Democrats in the House should have taken a long, hard, critical look at the leadership record of Nancy Pelosi.

The electoral defeat, the loss of control of the House was as much Pelosi's failure as Obama's. Yes, Obama is the president, the leader of his party. His support appears to have meant very little for embattled Democrats across the nation, and the Republicans' midterm triumphs are being interpreted as a rejection of Obama's leadership. Certainly, he deserves his share of the blame.

But a loss of this magnitude reflects poorly on the speaker, perhaps more than it does on the president. The president is the head of the executive branch of government; the speaker is the most visible leader of half of the legislative branch.

These were her people who got swept away in the Republican tsunami. Any serious evaluation of the reasons for this defeat must reach the conclusion that Pelosi failed to adequately defend her colleagues — and that is why her retention in a leadership role is so bewildering.

If I had been asked before the election, I would have said that no House speaker who presided over the loss of more than 60 seats in a single election would be kept in a leadership position.

I would have said that, it seems to me, the logical thing for a devastated party to do is seek new blood to lead it.

In fact, if it had been up to me, I would have chosen North Carolina's Heath Shuler over Pelosi.

Shuler, as you may know, spent a few years playing pro football, but he retired after injuring his foot, completed his degree work at the University of Tennessee (where he had been runnerup for the Heisman Trophy) and embarked on a new career in real estate. He was elected to the House in 2006, defeating an eight–term Republican incumbent in a traditionally Republican district.

Anyway, Shuler challenged Pelosi for minority leader and was defeated. The newspaper in the largest city in Shuler's district, the Asheville Citizen–Times, and its readers were not impressed. Leroy Goldman called Shuler's bid for the leadership role a "stunt," and Angela Leonard wrote in a letter to the editor that Shuler should go ahead and join the Republican Party.

Once again, a centrist takes the blunt of the punishment for the extremists' failures.

Pelosi has been speaker since Shuler came to Washington in 2007. In Pelosi's first election after becoming speaker, Democrats enjoyed gains that were primarily due to one of two things — the presence of Obama at the top of the ticket or the presence of George W. Bush in the White House for the previous eight years.

What happened in that election had little, if anything, to do with Pelosi.

But the 2010 election results had Pelosi's fingerprints all over them. She's a polarizing figure, and Republicans capitalized on that in advertisements from coast to coast.

Yes, it is true that this election was, in part, a referendum on Obama. But let's be clear here. They've been conducting presidential approval surveys going back to FDR's days, and what happened to Obama is nothing new in the American experience. It was a little more extreme than most, not new.

But there are certain warning signs Obama should heed as he prepares for his re–election campaign. When I see things like surveys that report that 42% of people under the age of 30 are familiar with the operating system for Google's smartphones but only 14% know who the speaker of the House will be in the next Congress — I have serious doubts about the stability of Obama's 2008 coalition.

That isn't an indictment of young voters only. It seems to me that more members of every demographic group could correctly identify some product than the incoming speaker of the House — and that isn't a very good commentary on the culture in general.

But, frankly, I find it hard to understand why a House speaker whose party has just lost more than five dozen seats, many in Midwestern states that are expected to play pivotal roles in the next presidential election, should be retained as her party's leader. Haven't congressional leaders been toppled for losing much less?

That, certainly, is what recent history has told us. Newt Gingrich, after all, lost his leadership role when the Republicans lost only a handful of seats after the 1998 midterms — but they had been expected to gain ground with Bill Clinton facing impeachment proceedings. I always felt Gingrich was ousted more out of disappointment than anything else.

Gingrich's successor, Dennis Hastert, remained in the House after Democrats reclaimed control of that chamber in 2006, but he did not seek a minority leadership role and retired two years later.

And the last Democratic House speaker before Pelosi, Tom Foley, went down in the Republican tidal wave of 1994. Would he have remained as minority leader if he had not been narrowly rejected? I doubt it.

Pelosi's main argument in favor of her retention seems to be the devout belief that, had it not been for whatever role she may have played in making the tough choices about which Democrats to throw under the bus so they could reallocate electoral resources from what had come to be seen as lost causes, the 2010 midterms would have been much, much worse.

Has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it? It certainly is an odd yardstick for success — "Things could have been worse ..." — but the White House uses it. We'll see how it works out in two years.

Actually, by choosing to keep Pelosi in a leadership position, Democrats seem to be taking their cue from the last time a party lost as many seats in the House as Pelosi's did. It was 62 years ago, when Joe Martin's Republicans lost more than 70 seats after controlling both chambers of Congress for two years.

The House speaker couldn't really take the rap on that one, though. It was a presidential election year, and Democratic President Harry Truman pulled off an unexpected victory over Tom Dewey. In the process, he swept some Democrats into office along with him.

Martin may have shared some of the responsibility for the 1948 losses, but most of it surely belongs with Dewey, the party's titular leader as its presidential nominee.

Martin was retained by the Republicans as minority leader. Then, a few years later, he was restored as speaker of the House when Republicans rode the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower back into congressional power. But they collapsed in the 1954 midterms and remained the minority party for the next 40 years.

So the back–to–the–future example of Martin and the Republicans of 1948 might not be the best one for Democrats to emulate — although, two years ago, I did write about speculation that Obama was following Eisenhower's lead.

If he was, somehow he must have wandered off the path — because, although Ike's Republicans, like Obama's Democrats, were reduced to minority status in the House in the midterm elections, Eisenhower's popularity rating always was greater than his disapproval rating. The same clearly cannot be said for Obama.

I guess, though, it's always possible that Obama knows what he is doing and, in time, he will be vindicated.

Call it that vision thing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Time to Lead

"There go the people. I must follow them for I am their leader."

Alexandre Auguste Ledru–Rollin

In the aftermath of what Barack Obama generously called a "shellacking" in the midterm elections, there has been no shortage of advice for Democrats who are understandably staggered by the greatest loss of House seats by one party in one election in decades.

In this corner ...
  • E.J. Dionne writes in The New Republic that Democrats need to stick to their guns (so to speak), just like the Republicans did after their rejection in 2008.

    They should not listen, he says, to those who advise them to move more to the center.

    "Why should Democrats take Republican advice that Republicans themselves would never be foolish enough to follow?" he asks.

    Food for thought.

  • From the "What? Me Worry?/Collateral Damage" Department:

    Bob Shrum concedes, in The Week, that Obama made some mistakes in his first two years as president.

    But unless you've been mainlining the Kool–Aid as Shrum seems to have been doing, you won't so easily shrug off the lessons that are there to be learned from this experience.

    Shrum insists that, not only has Obama been doing the right things, it will be clear to all by 2012 that they were the right things to do, that it wasn't a case of overreaching or ignoring the jobs issue. No apology is necessary.

    What's more, Obama's much–criticized trip to India right after the election will be vindicated as the right course of action instead of remaining in the U.S. to pick up the pieces. Remaining here, Shrum suggests, would have been a sign of weakness. The blood would have been in the water.

    And Obama, he says, will be re–elected in 2012. No problem.

    Oh, and if any of the folks who voted for him in 2008 go under because they lost their jobs and couldn't get new ones while Obama obsessed over health care, well, they're just collateral damage (see Timothy McVeigh).

    (By the way, it was Shrum who, only a month before the just–concluded midterm elections, confidently asserted that "the Democrats will hold the Congress — yes, the House as well as the Senate."

    (More than 82 million Americans voted in the election. If fewer than 60,000 people — 8,000 in Colorado, 21,000 in Nevada, and 27,000 in West Virginia — had voted for Republicans instead of Democrats, the Senate would have been a 50/50 split, and all the talk today would have been about whether independent Joe Lieberman could be persuaded by the Republicans to caucus with them, giving them the majority.)

  • Ezra Klein at Newsweek metaphorically shrugs his shoulders. Sure, the Democrats lost the election, he writes, but they accomplished such great things.

    Great things that are likely to be overturned — if not in the newly elected Congress, almost certainly in the one that looks likely to be elected two years from now.

    But I'll get to that in a minute.

  • At the New York Daily News, Steve Benen says Obama should call the Republicans' bluff.

    Benen recommends turning the tables on the Republicans, proposing things their own people have proposed in the past. For example, he could take a page from the McCain–Palin playbook from 2008 and advocate "establish[ing] 'a cap–and–trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions' and pursue 'alternatives to carbon–based fuels.' "

    What's more, Benen writes, "if the president were feeling particularly mischievous, he could endorse the tax rates adopted by Ronald Reagan, who oversaw rates considerably higher than the ones in place today. Would Republicans really condemn Ronaldus Magnus' tax policy?"

And in this corner ...
  • There's something vaguely unsettling (not to mention unseemly) about Karl Rove using the lyrics from a popular singer who is about half his age to make his point about Obama.

    But that's what he did — and fairly effectively, too — in the Wall Street Journal when he asserted that the president has a tin ear.

    Personally, I think Rove is right about that, but you have to consider the source. Rove clearly has an axe to grind.

  • So, too, does Peggy Noonan, a writer whose work I have admired since she wrote Ronald Reagan's memorable speech following the Challenger disaster nearly 25 years ago.

    Noonan observes the volatility of the electorate and reminds Republicans, flush with victory, that "things could turn on a dime," as they did with Obama.

    Obama's problem, she suggests, is that he did not hold the political center that played a vital role in his election in 2008, and that's a hard argument to deny following an election in which independents so visibly abandoned the Democrats and voted for Republicans. "To hold the center you have to respect your own case enough to argue for it," she writes, "and respect the people enough to explain it."

    Noonan's had some experience with the fluidity of the electorate, and she remembers the days in the mid–1990s when the Republicans took control of Congress. She tells Republicans that the right wing's favorite whipping boy, the media, "had a storyline" it was eager to sell — "[t]hese wild and crazy righties who just got elected are ... wild and crazy," and the media will try to sell it in 2011 as well.

    There is an impression among many voters — one that is a half–truth at best — that all the Republicans who have just been elected are extremist Tea Partiers. The media will seek to exploit that, Noonan warns. The media, Noonan says, will try to portray all newly elected Republicans as extremists so she urges incoming Republicans "to keep in mind the advice of the 19th century actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who once said ... that she didn't really care what people did as long as they didn't do it in the street and frighten the horses."

    And that is what Noonan tells new Republican lawmakers: "Stand tall, speak clear, and don't frighten the horses."
As an amateur historian, I appreciate Noonan's knowledge of great quotes and how she skillfully weaves them into what she writes.

I seldom agree with her, just as I seldom agreed with her boss, but, as a writer, I give her credit for the things she can do with words.

I've never really bought into this media bias stuff that she and the other right–wingers like to peddle. Oh, sure, I'll concede that there is some bias in the media, most of it in broadcasting. Perhaps that is at the heart of my problem. My experience in journalism has been confined to print — well, except for a couple of years that I spent appearing on a weekly cable access sports program as a representative for the newspaper for which I was working at the time.

But mostly I get the sense, from reading what I have read lately, that most people are looking at raw numbers and simply trying to reconcile those numbers with what they see on the ground. Obama insisted, in his post–election press conference, that the fault was not with the agenda but with communication.

That has a nice "shoot the messenger" sound to it, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the president — except that this president, like his predecessor, won't take responsibility for his errors in judgment.

So who does Obama suggest we blame?
  • If there isn't an answer to that by November 2012, the messengers who seem likely to get blamed, along with Obama, are the Senate Democrats who must face the voters in that election.

    Jack Kelly of the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette — who, incidentally, disagrees with Shrum about Obama's trip to India — is one of those to write recently about those senators.

    "Democrats who didn't drown in the Republican wave had to be dismayed by the news conference President Barack Obama held Wednesday before jetting off to India," Kelly wrote. "Particularly unhappy, I suspect, are the 12 Democrats in the Senate from states that voted Republican Tuesday who are up for re–election in 2012.

    "In essence, what the president said (in many, many more words) is that he heard what the voters were saying, but would ignore it."

    Those 12 Democrats — Bill Nelson of Florida, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Jim Webb of Virginia and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin — are clearly at risk in 2012.

    Now, the Class of 2006 was always going to be at risk, simply because of the numbers. Only about one–third of the Senate's seats is on the ballot in any election year. There are more in some years because senators die or resign, and special elections must be held to choose their successors.

    Because 2006 was such a good year for Democrats, that means more Democrats will be defending their seats in 2012. The same, actually, will be true of 2014, when the Democrats who were swept in on the Obama wave are up for re–election.

    These politicians — the president and these 12 senators — are going to have to unite behind a message. They need to be laying the foundation for that message now and building their cases, as individuals and as a group, for another term.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, though, and those Democrats simply cannot afford for the president, the man at the top of their ballot, to be their weakest link. In 2012, Obama and the national Democrats may well find themselves stretched too thin as it is by the endangered Senate seats they must defend and the Republican–held House seats they must pursue in hope of either reducing the GOP's advantage or eliminating it altogether.

Since he was elected two years ago, pundits have compared Obama to the most successful presidents in American history — and some of the least successful as well.

Where Bill Clinton stands on that scale is, of course, a matter of opinion, but the fact remains that he survived a disastrous midterm in 1994 to win re–election two years later — and eventually turned over a budget surplus to his successor. He just might have some useful insights for the current occupant of the White House.

In his memoir "My Life," Clinton recalled that the Democrats "got the living daylights beat out of us."

Clinton's recollections sound eerily familiar to what Obama and other Democrats said both before and after the election: "The Republicans were rewarded for two years of constant attacks on me," he wrote. "The Democrats were punished for too much good government and too little good politics.

"... Moreover, the public mood was still anxious; people didn't feel their lives were improving and they were sick of all the fighting in Washington."

Has a familiar sound to it, doesn't it?

But the setback of 1994 reminded Clinton of 14 years earlier, when he was defeated for re–election as governor of Arkansas. "I felt much as I did [then]," Clinton wrote. "I had done a lot of good, but no one knew it. ... I had forgotten the searing lesson of my 1980 loss: You can have good policy without good politics, but you can't give the people good government without both."

And Clinton went about adapting himself to the new political landscape.

It is something other presidents needed to do midway through their terms in office, but not all have.

Will Obama have the wisdom to see what he must do?

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Mother of All Cliffhangers

Back in January, I observed the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's announcement of his candidacy for president, and I called it "The Birth of Camelot."

But that wasn't really accurate.

It probably would have been more accurate to say that, in early January of 1960, Camelot was conceived — although experts on Kennedy's life and presidency probably would tell you that the idea of that Kennedy — or any Kennedy — seeking the presidency was conceived many years earlier.

But the idea didn't bear fruit until 50 years ago today.

Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say 50 years ago tomorrow because it wasn't until Wednesday, Nov. 9, 1960, that Kennedy was declared the winner of the closest presidential election in more than a century.

But it was 50 years ago today that the voters went to the polls.

"It was invisible, as always," wrote historian Theodore H. White of the process of democracy. "[I]t is the essence of the act that as it happens it is a mystery in which millions of people each fit one fragment of a total secret together, none of them knowing the shape of the whole."

In the end, it was closer than anyone could have expected — out of approximately 69 million votes, about 100,000 separated the two men.

It was excruciating, for the winners as well as the losers. In his book "The Making of the President 1960," White wrote of observing Kennedy as Nixon addressed his supporters late in the evening, steadfastly refusing to concede. Kennedy, he wrote, bore an "expression showing faint distaste" at the spectacle of the "twisted, barely controlled sorrow" of Nixon's wife at his side.

That was the kind of thing the sophisticated, elegant Kennedy would never allow, White wrote.

In an election that close, it should surprise no one that there were accusations of irregularities.

I guess there will always be those who will dispute the results in some of the states — at least until the time comes when no one still living is old enough to remember that night.

My grandfather, for example, a Texas Republican at a time when that was still something of a rarity, always insisted that Kennedy "stole" the 1960 election — or, more accurately, his daddy "stole" it for him, pulling some strings in some key places.

Well, Grandpa was biased. He never cared for Kennedy's running mate, Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson. He called him "Landslide Lyndon" — a derisive nickname hung on Johnson after an extremely narrow victory in the 1948 runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination.

There have always been rumors about that election, too.

But Johnson's victory was certified, in keeping with state law, and history tells us he served in the Senate for the next 12 years — until Kennedy chose him as his running mate, in large part, so they say, because it was believed Johnson could deliver Texas to the Democrats.

And, if that was the reason why Kennedy chose Johnson as his running mate, LBJ held up his end of the deal. The Democrats won Texas (and its 24 electoral votes) by 45,000 popular votes out of 2.3 million cast.

In his book, White protested that he didn't know the truth, that it appeared that even those closest to Kennedy did not know the truth, about Johnson's selection. At the 1960 convention, White wrote, Kennedy's advisers were under the impression, when Kennedy went to bed the night before giving his acceptance speech, that the two men at the top of his list were Stuart Symington of Missouri and Henry Jackson of Washington, senators from two other states that were expected to be evenly divided, as indeed they were.

But emphasis on electoral considerations ignored — as White did not — the fact that, weeks before the convention, Kennedy had told an interviewer that, other than himself, he thought Johnson was the man most qualified to be president.

It cannot be dismissed that Kennedy made his choice based not on what his running mate could do for him but on what his running mate could do for the country if he became president.

Many things (most of them unpleasant) have been said about the vice presidency over the years, and most of them have been true.

John Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, famously said the vice presidency was "not worth a bucket of warm ****." Garner, who served as speaker of the House before accepting the second spot on the Democratic ticket in 1932, also said, "I gave up the second most important job in government for eight long years as Roosevelt's spare tire."

But, for Johnson, it was not an eight–year detour to the trivia books. It was a stepping stone to the presidency. He succeeded Kennedy when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

And, ironically, exactly five years later, on this day in 1965, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen was found dead in her apartment. To this day, it is rumored that she was murdered to prevent her from revealing what she knew about the assassination of President Kennedy.

It is one of the many enduring mysteries of the 1960s.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Election That Wouldn't End

If you're over 20 — and you weren't stranded on a desert island 10 years ago — you must remember what happened on this day in 2000 — or, at least, the series of events that were set in motion on this day.

I am speaking about the 2000 presidential election — the closest election, at least in terms of the electoral vote, in more than a century and, ultimately, one of only a handful of presidential elections in American history in which the winner of the popular vote was not the winner of the electoral vote.

In the history books, it all comes down to the dispute over the state of Florida. I guess it is accurate to say that although there were some smaller states that remained too close to call for another day or two. The fight for the Florida electors was the one that decided the election.

After most states had been called for either candidate on that Election Night, Vice President Al Gore was only a few electoral votes away from victory. But one big state, Florida, remained too close to call. If it went to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the son of the former president, he would be the president–elect.

The initial count gave Bush a narrow lead, and the networks declared the state — and, consequently, the election — in Bush's favor, but the networks soon withdrew their projections when the outcome proved to be inconclusive.

It turned out the vote was close enough that a state–mandated recount was necessary, and that led to a bizarre parade of almost surreal images from Florida — of poll judges meticulously examining paper ballots for "hanging, dimpled or pregnant chads" that might provide some clue as to the intentions of the voters.

About five weeks after the voters went to the polls, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that the originally certified results, which had narrowly favored Bush, should hold. Consequently, Bush won the state's electoral votes and the election, but Gore won the popular vote.

As I say, the history books give Florida center stage in the drama, a slot it certainly did occupy throughout November and into December in 2000, but it is erroneous to believe that Florida alone decided what happened.

In no particular order
  • Ralph Nader was blamed by some for Gore's defeat, particularly in Florida.

    As Columbia University's Dr. Manning Marable observes, most of Nader's support was thought to have come at Gore's expense. In Florida, where Nader received nearly 100,000 votes while Gore lost the state to Bush by a few hundred, that prospect was particularly tempting for the role of scapegoat.

    In Florida, Democrats muddied the waters by alleging that the combination of Nader's presence on the ballot and some confusing voting procedures in some counties, like the "butterfly ballot," produced unique problems.

    But Marable observes that Nader received most of his votes in states that were not competitive, and Marable asserts — correctly — that Gore was largely responsible for his own defeat.

    Gore's home state of Tennessee voted for both him and his father in Senate races, and it voted for the Clinton–Gore ticket twice in the 1990s. But, in 2000, Gore lost Tennessee by four times as many votes as Nader received there.

    It was the first time in nearly 30 years that a major party's presidential nominee had failed to carry his home state.

    Gore also lost the state of West Virginia, which had not voted for a non–incumbent Republican since it voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928. It has now done so twice in the last 10 years, but, in 2000, the only Republicans who had carried West Virginia in the previous 72 years were incumbents seeking re–election — Eisenhower in 1956, Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984.

    As Marable pointed out in 2001, "Had Gore carried either his own home state, or even West Virginia, he would be president today."
  • I'm not sure, however, if I agree with Marable's assessment of the three things that were at the heart of Gore's defeat — his decision to distance himself from Bill Clinton, his inability to address the concerns of those who voted for Nader and what Marable called "the bankruptcy and failure of the 'New Democrat' strategy."

    On the first point, I definitely agree. Gore declined to use what may have been the most valuable campaign asset he had — his boss, President Clinton.

    A decade later, Clinton is still second to no one, not even the current president, at energizing a Democratic crowd — but, in 2000, he was still the president. He had presided over a budget surplus. He had a 60% approval rating.

    And Air Force One — and all the other props that come with the presidency — were still his to use.

    Gore may well have been squeamish about utilizing Clinton so soon after his impeachment trial, during which his relationship with a White House intern played an unseemly role, but he was not the pragmatic politician that Clinton was if he failed to recognize Clinton's value on the campaign trail.

    And, as a result, I tend to think he may never have had the qualities of a good president to begin with.

    Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate the day after the election, agreed it was a mistake not to "embrace the accomplishments record of the Clinton administration."

    Weisberg also criticized the Gore personality, which was criticized earlier in his political career as wooden. To me, he seemed more relaxed as vice president, but, when he sought the presidency in 2000, Weisberg wrote, "There's something about Gore's public personality that's just plain hard to take."

    While I supported Gore in that election, I have to admit that there is a certain amount of truth in that. If nothing else, it seems to explain Weisberg's third criticism, which was "[i]n the wake of a successful centrist presidency and the best economy in memory, Gore adopted an angry populism as the tone of his campaign. Michael Kinsley aptly characterized this stance as 'You've never had it so good, and I'm mad as hell about it.' "

    It did seem uncomfortably inappropriate, Gore's justification for distancing himself from a president who brought prosperity to the nation but set a bad example in his personal behavior.

    I'm also inclined to agree with Marable that Gore failed to address the concerns of the Nader constituency. He largely underestimated it and, as Marable observes, ignored it.

    But I'm not sure I agree that the "New Democrat" strategy was bankrupted by 2000, merely eight years after it was unveiled. Perhaps it depends on your perspective.

    I don't think the message was faulty. Perhaps it was the messenger.
In hindsight, yes, the Bush administration was a disaster for this country.

Was Gore at fault? Yes, to a certain degree.

Was Nader at fault? Not as much as some would have you believe.

More than anything, it seems to me the 2000 election was an argument against the continued use of the Electoral College.

If the president had been chosen strictly on the basis of the popular vote in 2000, Gore would have won. He received more than half a million votes more than Bush — and joined a rather exclusive club of presidential candidates who won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pink Lady and Tricky Dick

"There's not much to say about the 1950 campaign except that a man ran for Senate who wanted to get there and didn't care how."

Helen Gahagan Douglas
A Full Life (1982)

Do you think the just–concluded midterm election campaign was vicious, mean–spirited, polarizing?

Well, it was. And it was expensive, too.

But, from what I have read and heard, you shoulda seen the California Senate race 60 years ago. That was a costly one, too. The amount isn't eye popping by today's standards, but in 1950 it was a fortune.

Tomorrow will mark 60 years since Republican Rep. Richard Nixon defeated Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Sheridan Downey.

Some people say Nixon won because he smeared Douglas that fall, accusing her of being, at the very least, sympathetic to communist causes. The repeated accusations gained credibility when Douglas was slow to respond, in spite of the fact that former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose son was running for governor, urged her to respond more decisively.

If Douglas had been quicker to retaliate, some say, Nixon would have lost that Senate race, and he would have been a man without an office, having abandoned his House seat. He would have been a has–been in California politics, never would have been chosen to run on Eisenhower's ticket two years later and, in the long run, the nation would have been spared his presidency and the Watergate scandal.

I have written here before about the "what–ifs" of history. They're certainly fun to think about. They make great topics for speculation, and I think we're all curious about the road not taken.

But I am doubtful about whether it is true that Douglas could have beaten Nixon. Even in a fantastical alternate reality. And thus it is wrong to give her too much credit/blame for what happened in the next quarter of a century.

It all probably would've happened, anyway.

Nixon and Douglas both entered the race in 1949; at the time, no other politicians were willing to take on Downey. But polls indicated that, when people were asked to choose between Downey and Douglas, Downey came up short, and the incumbent withdrew in March 1950, claiming that his health was not good.

Nixon and Douglas won their primaries, setting up one of the nastiest campaigns in American political history.

Actually, the campaign got nasty in the primaries, which, it should be noted, were handled considerably differently then — in some places — than they are today. The campaign Nixon waged was merely a continuation of the one against Douglas in the primary.

In 1950, the practice of cross–filing — in which a candidate ran not only in his/her own party's primary but the opposing party's primary as well — was permitted. California abolished the practice in 1959, but both Nixon and Douglas ran in each other's party primary, and both finished third.

The runnerup in each primary was a newspaper publisher named Manchester Boddy, a Democrat with no political experience who entered the race after Downey withdrew (and with Downey's blessing) and cross–filed in the Republican primary.

You have to imagine the atmosphere in which the campaign was conducted. It was early in the Cold War. The Russians had only recently successfully detonated a nuclear weapon. Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his anti–communist rhetorical powers.

Boddy never really provided much explanation for his candidacy, as far as I can tell. He had been approached by Democrats in the past to run for office, but he had declined, protesting that he had no interest in elected office. And his reasons for deciding to enter the 1950 race remain unknown.

But, once in the race, he apparently decided he wanted to win.

Unfortunately for Boddy, though, he appears to have had little charisma or flair for public speaking. The only other way to make his campaign competitive appeared to be the use of the smear.

Such McCarthyesque tactics already had been fairly successful that year, resulting in the primary defeats of two Southern senators, so Boddy tried to link Douglas to a congressman named Vito Marcantonio, a notorious New York radical who was said to be a supporter of communist causes. Boddy circulated the accusations in pamphlets printed with red ink.

Picking up that theme, Douglas was labeled "decidedly pink" and "pink shading to deep red" by Boddy's newspaper and others that were affiliated with it. She was called "the pink lady," and Boddy alleged, in his newspaper column, that Douglas belonged to "a small minority of red hots" who were determined to "establish a beachhead on which to launch a Communist attack on the United States."

About two weeks before the primary, Downey re–emerged and made a speech in which he said he did not believe Douglas was qualified to serve in the Senate.

Boddy wasn't successful in winning the nomination, but he did succeed in dividing the party and severely weakening Douglas, whose reluctance to retaliate to the smear campaign encouraged the Republicans to expand on the theme in the fall.

Nixon had been building his anti–communist credentials in his two terms in the House, and he wasted little time linking Douglas to communists.

I guess one of the "highlights" of the Nixon campaign — if one can call it that — was the "Pink Sheet," a flyer printed on pink paper that suggested that sending Douglas to Washington to serve in the Senate would be no different than voting for Marcantonio.

Douglas, the Pink Sheet alleged, had voted with Marcantonio on national security issues. Is that what Californians wanted? the sheet asked.

Eleanor Roosevelt recognized what the Pink Sheet meant and advised Douglas to respond without delay, but Douglas did not. Not long after the debut of the Pink Sheet, an alleged whispering campaign was launched, in which it was said that Douglas' husband, actor Melvyn Douglas, was a communist. His Jewish heritage also was mentioned.

The Pink Sheet appeared to be paying off for Nixon about six weeks before the election when 64 prominent Democrats endorsed him, ostensibly because Douglas' voting record so closely resembled Marcantonio's.

Nixon said Douglas was "pink right down to her underwear."

On Election Day, Nov. 7, 1950, it wasn't even close. Nixon received 59% of the vote, which seems like a pretty impressive achievement for a Republican in a state where voter registration was 58% Democrat and only 37% Republican — except for the fact that most of the statewide officeholders, including the state's popular governor, Earl Warren, were Republicans who had won Democratic support in the past.

But Douglas, too, was deceived by the numbers, and she apparently believed that most Democrats would vote for their party's nominees.

It's hard for me to understand why she might feel complacent. The 1950 midterms — conducted at a time when Gallup reported that the Democratic president had an approval rating of 41% in late October and 33% in early December — would have been difficult for Douglas, anyway, and she must have known it. The Korean War, suspicion of the administration's foreign policy in general and inflation made the electoral environment a hostile one.

Democrats lost ground in both chambers of Congress that November — not as much as they did in this year's midterms but enough to set the stage for Republicans to seize control two years later.

Democrats complained, in the aftermath of the election, that Nixon was another McCarthy and Douglas had been crucified, and there was certainly some truth in that.

Douglas "had been crucified, all right," wrote historian William Manchester, "but the worst spikes had been driven into her by fellow Democrats." Boddy's smear campaign, he said, guaranteed she would lose before the Republicans ever nominated Nixon.

It was suggested that sexism played a role in the vote, and perhaps that was true as well. There was certainly a greater reluctance to elect women to statewide office in 1950 than there is today — when California is represented by not one but two women in the U.S. Senate.

But I also think it was a time when the Cold War/Red Scare was at its most effective as a political wedge in the United States. Boddy and his newspaper made another contribution to American politics in the form of nicknames hung on Douglas and Nixon. In his newspaper column, Boddy dubbed Douglas "the Pink Lady," and someone at the paper called Nixon "Tricky Dick" during that campaign.

Douglas is an interesting figure in American political history. There is a kind of bipolarity in her treatment of that election. She insisted, in her posthumously published memoirs, "Nixon had his victory, but I had mine ... He hadn't touched me. I didn't carry Richard Nixon with me," but she seems to have carried a grudge for the rest of her life.

She campaigned for John F. Kennedy when he narrowly defeated Nixon for the presidency 10 years later, and she campaigned for George McGovern even though he was on his way to a landslide defeat when Nixon sought re–election as president in 1972.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Day She Whupped Him

"The public does not like you to mislead or represent yourself to be something you're not. And the other thing that the public really does like is the self–examination to say, you know, I'm not perfect. I'm just like you. They don't ask their public officials to be perfect. They just ask them to be smart, truthful, honest and show a modicum of good sense."

Ann Richards

It was 20 years ago tomorrow that Ann Richards won a wildly improbable victory in her campaign to be Texas' governor.

I didn't grow up in Texas, but I was living here during that election.

If I had grown up here, I might have studied Texas history when I was a boy. And I might be acquainted with other gubernatorial races in Texas that were more noteworthy, more memorable, more historic.

In 1990, after all, Texas had been a state for nearly 150 years. There must have been some wild, if not notorious, gubernatorial elections here in all that time.

Nevertheless, I will always remember the 1990 campaign — for many reasons.

First, I had been living in north Texas for a couple of years, residing in Denton and working on my master's degree. I wasn't living in Texas when Richards burst onto the national scene with her keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Like most Americans, it was the first I had heard of her.

But, when I had the chance to vote for her for governor, I didn't hesitate.

And while I wasn't always happy with the campaign she ran, I always felt Richards was the best choice for the job.

That brings me to my second point. The campaign for the 1990 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Texas was, perhaps, the nastiest I have ever witnessed — and I witnessed some pretty nasty campaigns when I was growing up in Arkansas.

Richards' main rival for the Democratic nod that spring was a veteran politician named Jim Mattox, and, in the runoff for the gubernatorial nomination, he accused Richards — who had acknowledged being treated for alcoholism 10 years earlier — of having had problems with other substances in the past as well.

He made the accusations in ads and on Face the Nation.

"[Richards] avoided answering the charges and began to slip in the polls," wrote Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in "The Almanac of American Politics 1992."

So she questioned the integrity of her rivals. "I have been sober for 10 years," Richards said. "Have Jim Mattox and (former Gov.) Mark White been honest for 10 years?"

"[H]er feminist base was enough to enable her to lead the first primary," wrote Barone and Ujifusa. "Her support in cities, where liberal women cast far more votes than ever before in Texas, was critical in the runoff against Mattox where she won 57%–43%."

In hindsight, I guess, Richards' race for her party's nomination was a picnic, a stroll in the park, compared to her general election campaign against the Republican nominee, Clayton Williams, a successful businessman but a political novice who quickly earned a reputation for making offensive comments.

Yep, Williams was really an amateur at politics. Mattox, on the other hand, was a pro. He'd been around the block a few times, and he knew all the tricks, both clean and dirty. But Williams had something in his favor that Mattox didn't have. He was the Republican nominee.

The general election campaign against Williams was quite different, really, from the party primary and runoff campaigns against Mattox.

While Richards was fending off Mattox and White on the Democratic side, Williams cruised to the GOP nomination against several high–profile rivals. He told voters he was running because his son had had a drug problem, and he promised drug offenders that he would "introduce 'em to the joys of bustin' rocks."

Texas voters were extraordinarily tolerant of Williams, though. At one point, for example, he likened bad weather to rape, saying, "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it."

When I think of that general election campaign, I think of my mother, a Democrat throughout her adult life who always intended to vote for Richards, never considered voting for Williams yet she seethed, usually quietly and privately, whenever he opened his mouth.

Always an optimist, I think Mom would have been disheartened if Williams had won — and I think she, like most people in Texas, expected it. I believe she, and many others, thought Williams' election was inevitable — but they couldn't see how they could possibly relax and enjoy it for the next four years.

Yep, Texas voters were very tolerant of Williams — until, shortly before the election, when he and Richards bumped into each other on the campaign trail and Williams refused to shake her hand.

It was a defining moment, and it was memorably captured on film and replayed on newscasts across the state.

You see, even in 1990 — indeed, still, into the 21st century — Texas lived by an old–fashioned code of conduct. In Texas, a gentleman simply does not refuse to shake a lady's hand, no matter what he may think of her. It is rude, uncouth, socially unacceptable.

Richards, who always seemed to have some sure–footed political instincts, even if she didn't always follow them, "responded with just the right mixture of regret and toughness," wrote Barone and Ujifusa.

And it was the last straw for the sensitivities of many centrist Republicans in Texas. On Nov. 6, 1990, some crossed party lines to vote for Richards. Some simply couldn't do that and chose instead to stay home or not vote in the governor's race.

Whatever they did, they did not vote for Williams.

They had been nudged in that direction for weeks. Richards ran some effective commercials that cast doubt on the ethics of Williams' business practices. And Williams didn't help his own cause when he admitted he didn't know what the only constitutional amendment on the ballot was about or when he confessed that he paid no income taxes four years earlier or when he spoke of his sexual experiences as a youth when he was south of the border.

Until that Kodak moment, when Richards offered her hand to Williams and he refused to shake it, Williams was a tolerable mixed bag for many voters. He was regarded, even by his Republican supporters, as unrefined, boorish, rough as a cob; when the chips were down, though, he was considered acceptable, not exactly the picture of a gentleman ... but close enough.

But refusing to shake Richards' hand was ungentlemanly. And that was unacceptable.

I really believe that, if Williams had shaken Richards' hand, he would have won that election, warts and all.

And, as a result, George W. Bush might never have been elected governor of Texas, giving him a springboard for his presidential ambitions. Because I'm sure that Bush wouldn't have challenged a sitting Republican governor in 1994.

But I suppose that is neither here nor there at this point. Williams lost and has never, to my knowledge, run for office in Texas since. Bush, of course, went on to defeat Richards when she sought a second term in 1994. After being re–elected in 1998, Bush was elected president (in the Electoral College) in 2000 and re–elected in 2004.

Richards, of course, was elected governor in 1990. No Democrat has been elected governor of Texas since that time.

It was not completely clear that a shift was occurring within the electorate in the final weeks of the 1990 campaign. But such a shift was, indeed, taking place. That silent snub was more devastating to Williams than all of his ill–advised comments rolled into one.

When the votes were counted, Williams (who had led Richards in polls by up to 20 points) lost by nearly 100,000 votes.

It may have been the most astounding reversal in Texas' political history.

The Dallas Morning News ran a rather blase headline the next day, something along the lines of "Richards Defeats Williams." I never felt that the headline in the Morning News adequately summed up the enormity of what had happened.

But its competitor, the Dallas Times Herald (which ceased publication about a year later), ran a more appropriate headline — "She Whups Him." I always thought it captured the spirit of the race.

To some, Richards always was an enigma, a contradiction. In many ways, I have to admit that Barone and Ujifusa were correct when they wrote of Richards, "Texas has a governor who is nationally familiar but whose position on issues is not widely known in Texas, a candidate who conducted for months a dismal and sometimes scurrilous campaign and once in office has shown a sure instinct for setting the right tone."

Four years later, Richards lost her bid for re–election to Bush — not because voters were displeased with her job performance (in fact, polls at the time indicated she had the approval of a majority of Texans) but because she had the misfortune of running against the son of a former Republican president in a Republican state in a decidedly Republican year nationally.

I wasn't living in Texas at the time, but I knew many people who were, and they told me the general attitude of the voters toward Richards was "She's done a good job, but let's give him a chance. He's the Republican."

In hindsight, it is hard to imagine any Democrat doing any better in Texas than Richards did in 1994. She got 46% of the vote; no Democrat who has been on a statewide general election ballot has performed better in the last 16 years, and most have fared much worse.

She never ran for office again. She campaigned for many Democrats after leaving office in 1995 and died of cancer in 2006.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Reagan Revolution

"As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people."

John Adams

Today, less than 48 hours after a crimson tide swept over the land, it seems appropriate to recall the events of Nov. 4, 1980.

Some called it the Reagan Revolution.

But that was an analogy, of course. There was no revolution as we understand the word. No Paul Revere's ride. No Old North Church. No Lexington and Concord. No Valley Forge. No Redcoats. No Minutemen.

Just millions of Americans armed with nothing more than a ballot.

But it is often mentioned as a transformational election, and there seems to be no doubt that it marked a departure from the past. Two years ago, Kenneth Walsh of U.S. News & World Report said the 1980 election was one of the 10 most consequential elections in American history.

Walsh's conclusion seems beyond dispute. The 1980 election had a profound influence on how things have been done in America for the last 30 years.

In 1980, most Christian fundamentalists were conservative, but neither party had really tapped into their potential at the polls — in large part, I suspect, because their conservatism was rooted more in social than economic issues or foreign policy. They responded to subjects like abortion and prayer in school — and, later, gay marriage and flag burning — but they didn't concern themselves much with trade issues or foreign relations.

Until 1980, it seemed, no one thought to exploit Christian fundamentalists for political purposes. Then Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority joined forces, and American politics would be different for the next quarter of a century.

Speaking of analogies ...

In politics, sports analogies abound. Always have.

So I guess it is only appropriate that the 1980s — the decade in which Mike Tyson became the poster boy for the quick knockout — began with a decisive — and controversial — presidential election.

The 1980 campaign was bizarre from the beginning. Even before the beginning. Precisely one year before the voters went to the polls, the hostage crisis in Iran began as Islamist extremists took over the American embassy in Tehran and proceeded to hold 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

And the worst economy in my lifetime — until the last three years — complicated matters for President Carter.

I always believed the hard times of the late 1970s and early 1980s were brought on by the adjustment from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. I felt Carter had the misfortune of being in the White House when the chickens came home to roost — and he paid the price for policies that were not his.

I was never an economics major, but I still believe that.

Anyway, Election Night 1980 is burned into my memory.

I was in college at the time, majoring in journalism at the University of Arkansas. I was enrolled in reporting, which was taught by a man named Roy Reed, whose professional experience included years of writing for the New York Times and the Arkansas Gazette.

As Election Day drew closer, Roy apparently was approached by someone in county government who needed some college students to come to the county courthouse on Election Night and help compile the vote totals that came in via telephone from the polling locations in the county.

My memory is that state law required polling places to close at 7:30 p.m., but anyone who was still in line at that time could be allowed to vote so there was a 30–minute window between the state–mandated closing time and the time when polling places could begin tabulating their votes. That was to allow those last voters to vote without seeing or hearing any results — and thus being unduly influenced in any way.

Well, the volunteers (of whom I was one) were told to arrive at the courthouse by 8 p.m. and take their places (as I recall, we had gone through a dry run a few nights before so everyone knew where he or she needed to be). I was living about a 10–minute drive from the courthouse, but I wanted to get there early so I planned to leave home around 7:30.

Astonishingly, at 7:15 p.m. Central time, as I was finishing my dinner and preparing to change my clothes before leaving for the courthouse, I saw NBC projecting victory for Ronald Reagan.

That was controversial (dare I say revolutionary?) at the time because NBC took the unprecedented step of using exit polling data to make its projections — and decisively beat the other two networks to the punch in calling the race that night.

About an hour and a half later, as I sat in the courthouse, taking calls from polling places, I could see a TV set in the corner of the room and I could hear Carter conceding defeat.

I can't tell you how amazed I was. As John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw recall in the attached clip, the presidential race went late into the evening four years earlier before any of the networks projected that Carter had defeated Gerald Ford.

That was the nation's most recent national experience in electing a president, and that had been a drawn–out Election Night. Everyone was expecting the same four years later; after all, opinion polls through most of the 1980 campaign had shown a tight, volatile race.

The lead fluctuated that fall, and there was a general sense, in that last week of the campaign, that Reagan had helped his cause with his debate performance against Carter and that Carter had not helped his cause in their debate, but no one — not even the most optimistic Reagan supporter or the most pessimistic Carter supporter — anticipated what happened 30 years ago tonight.

I recall seeing the latest news magazines a few days before the election, and they were focused on what might happen if, because of the presence of independent candidate John Anderson on the ballot, no one received enough electoral votes to be elected president and the matter had to be decided by the House of Representatives.

That didn't happen, of course. Anderson didn't receive a single electoral vote, but he did affect the 1980 campaign in unexpected ways.

Originally, the League of Women Voters intended to sponsor a series of debates like the ones between Carter and Ford in 1976, but problems arose with Anderson, who was turning out to be an attractive option for Republicans who weren't sure about Reagan and Democrats who didn't care for Carter. He was polling quite well in the early fall, and many states were considered too close to call as a result.

Because Anderson appeared to be so popular, there was a movement to include him in the presidential debates. Carter refused to participate in a three–person debate; Reagan refused to participate without Anderson.

Anderson and Reagan met in a debate in September, when Anderson was drawing a Perot–like 20% in public opinion polls. Observers thought Anderson would outshine Reagan, but his performance fell far short of expectations, and he plummeted in the polls.

A couple of weeks before the election, the Carter and Reagan camps agreed to a single, one–on–one debate, and the two met in Cleveland about a week before the voters went to the polls.

Reagan was generally regarded as the winner of the debate, but polls continued to show a tight race.

(Anderson, incidentally, was kind of a cross between Barack Obama and Ross Perot. A Midwestern Republican who ran against Reagan in the primaries, his independent candidacy energized young Americans, particularly many of the college students I knew, who were alienated by Carter and distrustful of Reagan, and he attracted liberals who had supported Ted Kennedy against Carter in the primaries and just couldn't support the president in the general election.)

No one was prepared for a 44–state landslide, and I got the sensation that evening — although I was busy with other things and could not devote as much attention to the TV coverage as I would have liked — that lots of people were making things up as they went along.

"Carter did not have a good job rating and was not personally popular," wrote Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa in "The Almanac of American Politics 1982."

"[B]ut no one expected that he would be beaten by 10% by a 69–year–old former governor; no one expected that the Democratic Party would lose control of the Senate."

Carter's decision to concede so early was criticized by many Democrats afterward. Some suggested that, by conceding so early, Carter discouraged late voters in the West (where the polls had not yet closed) from voting, possibly depriving some Democrats of votes that could have enabled them to win races they ultimately lost.

(In my personal research of the vote totals in the races in the West, I found little, if any, indication that this was true.)

But Carter defended his decision in his White House memoir, "Keeping Faith."

"I did not want to appear a bad loser," he wrote, "waiting until late at night to confirm what everyone already knew."

It wasn't immediately clear that night, but it was the worst defeat for an incumbent president since Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932. And it was the most one–sided loss for any incumbent in a race where only two candidates received electoral votes.

The Republicans, apparently sensing victory, began warning voters early that fall of an "October surprise." I guess they were fearful that the Democrats might work out a last–minute deal with the hostage takers in Iran and secure the release of the Americans in time to reap some political benefits.

Perhaps such suspicions were based on rumors from seemingly reliable sources, but, in the end, no "surprise" occurred. The hostages remained in captivity until January, after Reagan took office.

The very suggestion of an "October surprise" seems to have struck Carter as ludicrous. He never mentioned it in his memoirs.