Thursday, May 31, 2012

Goodbye and Good Luck

Five years ago, I was a John Edwards supporter.

I had one of his bumper stickers on my vehicle, and I believed he was the best hope for the country.

The economic meltdown hadn't happened yet, and my assessment at that time, in the summer of 2007, was that the American public simply wasn't ready to elect a black president — or a female president.

I was a Democrat at the time, and I did not think either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was the answer for the nation.

I believed the time would come for that, but the time wasn't right. I still didn't think the time was right when the meltdown happened in the autumn of 2008, and the major parties had already nominated Obama and John McCain.

That meltdown completely changed the nature of the 2008 campaign — and I think it is clear that it will heavily influence the 2012 campaign as well. But that is another story.

The story today is about Edwards' acquittal on one count and the jury's deadlock on the other counts in his corruption trial in Greensboro, N.C.

Much of the post–trial discussion has concerned whether the prosecution will attempt to re–try Edwards on the other five counts.

I do not think that is going to happen. I mean, the prosecution spent a lot of money on this trial and came away empty–handed. Many of the jurors probably will be interviewed now, and the weaknesses of the case will be revealed — which could, conceivably, lead prosecutors to pursue a conviction again with a new strategy.

But a Raleigh defense attorney told the Greensboro News–Record that he, too, thinks that is unlikely — and for the same reason as I do.

"They got their best witnesses, their best evidence and the judge ruled in their favor on all major evidentiary issues," he said. "The jury didn't believe them."

The jurors clearly didn't go for the case presented on the third count, which dealt with money that was given to the campaign by a wealthy heiress. It was the only one on which they all agreed.

And the prosecution's case on that count was probably the strongest one it had — which really isn't saying much. I'm no lawyer, and I didn't watch and/or read every report on this case, but I never felt the prosecution established its case. And I'm dubious that it will be able to do so in a do–over.

When I was a reporter covering trials in the county where I lived and worked, I learned a lot about the judicial system, lessons that seem to be repeated over and over again.

One lesson I learned was that there is no reliable way to predict what a jury will do. Don't believe me? Ask the experts who believed O.J. would be convicted of a double homicide or who were convinced that Casey Anthony murdered her daughter and there was no way she would escape the long arm of the law.

But both were acquitted.

And there are other such cases, some that only get local attention and are not the subjects of national attention but are still astonishing when they result in unanticipated verdicts.

Veteran court watchers look at jurors' body language during testimony and closing arguments and try to interpret what they are thinking, whether they have made up their minds. And I remember that such veterans did not hesitate to tell me, when I was a reporter, what they thought a quick verdict meant or what one that took several days' worth of deliberations to reach meant.

But, at best, their conclusions were and are only educated guesses.

Prosecutors may one day bring Edwards before a new jury and charge him with the remaining counts, but don't look for that right away. Their gun is out of bullets and, unless they come up with a new bullet that is sure to bring down their prey, I don't expect to see him in court on these charges again.

Another thought struck me as I watched Edwards' press conference this afternoon.

He said all the right things. His problems were of his own doing, he said, no one else's. In spite of that, though, God is not finished with him yet, he said. "I really believe he thinks there's still some good things I can do."

Perhaps Edwards is right. Perhaps God is not finished with him.

But I am.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Open Up That Golden Gate

There are a handful of landmarks in the world that I can identify by sight, whether I have ever been near them or not.

For example, I know the Eiffel Tower when I see it. I think I was there once. I was born overseas, and my parents and I returned to the United States when I was about a year old.

I guess you could say we took the overland route back to the States. We traveled through Europe, and I think we were in Paris at one point. If we were, I'm sure we must have been in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower at some time.

But even if I have never been close to the Eiffel Tower, I know it when I see it.

I know the Egyptian pyramids when I see them, and I know we visited Egypt while we were making our way back to the States. I've seen pictures of myself in the Cairo Airport.

I probably saw the pyramids when I was small, but I have no more memory of them than I do of the Eiffel Tower.

Nevertheless ...

When I was 13, my family spent the summer in Austria, and, at one point, we rented a car and drove through Yugoslavia to Greece, where we saw the Parthenon.

With all the economic woes the Greeks are facing these days, I'm not sure I would want to duplicate that trip today.

But, even before I saw it, I could identify the Parthenon.

I also know the leaning tower of Pisa when I see it.

Of course, how could anyone fail to identify that?

I've never been there, but my father and my stepmother have. They even brought me a coffee mug — which leans, of course. I keep it on my desk to hold my pens.

I know the Gateway Arch in St. Louis when I see it. I've been to St. Louis on a number of occasions, and I have even been inside the Arch a time or two.

And I could identify the Twin Towers in New York — until terrorists brought them down more than a decade ago.

Why all this talk about landmarks?

Well, 75 years ago today, the Golden Gate Bridge was opened in San Francisco (although the finishing touches were completed the next day).

Frommer's travel guide calls it "possibly the most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world."

It is certainly one of America's most recognizable landmarks — if not the world's.

Before the bridge was built, the only way to cross San Francisco Bay was by ferry. Construction of the bridge began in 1933, but it was not a new idea then. People had been talking about a proposal to build a bridge for years, but the estimated cost of the project was prohibitive at the time. Also, until the plan that was ultimately adopted — which called for a suspension bridge — was proposed in 1916, it was believed that winds and currents would be too strong to allow construction of a bridge.

The cost was still pretty high when construction began in 1933, but it has proven to be a great investment. Tens of thousands of vehicles cross the bridge every day.

I've never been to San Francisco, but I have friends who lived there, and I have at least one friend who lives there today.

And at least one of my friends used to commute across the bridge to go to work in the mornings and to come home in the evenings. She drove across it on the day in 1989 when the "pretty big one" struck during the World Series between San Francisco and Oakland.

I didn't know about that at the time. If I had, I probably would have been extremely worried. I didn't hear about it until much later.

And, when I did hear about it, I learned that I had the World Series to thank for my friend not having plunged into the bay when the earthquake hit.

A lot of businesses closed early that day, she told me, so that people could either go to the game or get home (or go to a bar or whatever) in time to watch it on television.

As a result, traffic on the bridge was much lighter than it normally would have been during rush hour — and she had been off the bridge for about five minutes when the quake struck. If it had been an ordinary day, she once told me, she would have been in the middle of the bridge when the earthquake occurred.

Last Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle observed the many ways that the bridge has inspired inner poets.

For example, a San Francisco Examiner editorial in 1925 wrote that a bridge across the bay would be a "perpetual monument that will make this city's name ring around the world and renew the magical fame which the Golden Gate enjoyed in the days of '49."

"The Golden Gate Bridge's daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory is still the most provocative show in town," wrote Mary Moore Mason, editor of the British magazine Essentially America.

It's fair to say that the bridge, like most iconic landmarks, means different things to different people.

Paul Liberatore of the Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal writes that "[w]hen musicians look at its harplike towers and cables, they hear it as much as they see it.

"That's why Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart plans to celebrate the bridge's 75th anniversary by 'sonifying' the span."

Happy birthday, Golden Gate, and many more.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why We Can't Have a Serious Talk

Last night, I read an article in the Washington Post about the recent electoral embarrassments that have been handed to Barack Obama in Democratic primaries in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Obama, of course, is the incumbent, and he has drawn no serious opposition for the Democrats' nomination. Consequently, some people apparently believe, the Democrats in the primaries that are being held late in the process should line up like good Democrats and vote for the incumbent.

Even if they have objections.

But the voters in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky have thrown Obama an off–speed pitch when he was looking for a fastball. About two–fifths of the Democratic voters voted for token opposition — in West Virginia, that meant voting for an inmate who is presently incarcerated here in Texas — rather than for the president, who long ago secured his nomination.

The Post's Chris Cillizza writes that many Democrats have a ready excuse for the political resistance they have encountered within their own party — they "ascribe the underperformance by the incumbent to a very simple thing: racism."

Most Democrats speak disparagingly of George W. Bush. And I have no fondness for him, either.

But this is a tactic those Democrats share with Bush and his supporters — and they have been every bit as gleeful in its use and in anticipation of its power to squelch serious discussions.

Sure, it was disguised differently when Bush was president. In those not–so–distant days, anyone who disagreed with Bush on anything was labeled unpatriotic.

End of discussion. Once you have been tarred with that brush, you might as well stop trying.

No matter how strongly you may feel about the issue, no matter how many legitimate concerns you may have, no matter how many hours you may have spent arguing with yourself about it, if the other side has labeled you a racist or unpatriotic, there is nothing you can say to reverse that conclusion, no logic you can offer, no facts you can provide.

But that doesn't mean the allegation is true.

Oh, to be sure, there are people today who do permit race (or religion or gender or sexual preference or anything else) to determine how they will vote, just as there have always been people who were racist (or sexist or homophobic or whatever). And there are people among us who are not patriotic Americans — they have always been with us, too.

That's one of the drawbacks of living in a free society.

But it's not so easy to know who the racists and unpatriotic citizens are. In my experience, they usually don't advertise the fact or leave tell–tale clues behind. They might share their views with like–minded individuals, but they don't usually tend to share them with strangers.

"The problem with that theory," Cillizza writes, "is that it's almost entirely unprovable because it relies on assuming knowledge about voter motivations that — without being a mindreader — no one can know."

It's true that Obama lost all three of those states in 2008, and it is quite likely that he will lose all three in 2012. I don't see a racial backlash in these votes. I see a repeat of a phenomenon I have seen many times in the past — when a candidate locks up his party's nomination, disgruntled voters in the late primaries are emboldened to vote for any alternative on the ballot.

It's an electoral protest, and it should be taken seriously. My experience tells me Democrats shouldn't be dismissive about it.

In 1980 (when another Democrat president was running for re–election), I was living in Arkansas. Gov. Bill Clinton was seeking his second two–year term as governor. He looked like a sure thing. He was young and charismatic, and his only opponent in the party primary was a 77–year–old retired turkey farmer who barely scraped up enough money to pay the filing fee.

Clinton's opponent had no campaign staff or finances to speak of, but he received more than 30% of the vote when the Democrats held their primary.

The governor's staff and supporters insisted that it didn't mean a thing, and, in Arkansas, it was generally accepted that it really didn't mean much. Arkansans, after all, had elected only one Republican governor since Reconstruction.

But they elected another one that November — narrowly.

Both political extremes use the term fascism almost casually in their references to each other, which I find to be alarming — as well as an appalling display of an absence of knowledge.

Neither side is truly fascist — at least, not yet. But, with their blatant use of what Adolf Hitler called "the big lie," it is clear that it probably wouldn't take much to push either one over the edge.

"Make the lie big," Hitler said, "make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it."

It was a lie when Bush's supporters accused his detractors of being unpatriotic. It's a lie when Obama's supporters accuse his detractors of being racist.

It has a chilling effect on dissent, and that makes it one of the most anti–democratic (that's democrat with a lowercase d) assertions imaginable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joe Biden Is Not the Problem

I first heard the rumblings nearly two years ago.

In August of 2010, I wrote about former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's suggestion that Barack Obama should replace Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton in 2012, but my tendency then was to dismiss it as idle talk by people who really didn't know what they were talking about.

The topic reappeared last fall, and, when I heard it said that good ol' Joe Biden had to go, that he was a drag on Obama, I responded by writing that "too much emphasis is placed on the vice presidential nomination."

I wrote that "I don't think replacing Biden with anyone, Hillary or anyone else, is the answer for what ails Obama."

And I still believe that, even though I read articles at least once a week now suggesting that Obama needs to drop Biden.

It seems to me that, whenever incumbent presidents have been preparing to run for a second term, this kind of talk always seems to surface.

Sometimes it makes sense. In 1992, for example, there was a lot of talk about how George H.W. Bush needed to replace Dan Quayle on his ticket. Quayle had gained a reputation, whether fairly or unfairly, for always saying something stupid, and some people felt he was a drag on the ticket.

Now, in 1992, I was never going to vote for Bush, anyway, but I could sympathize with the sentiment. Quayle was ridiculed so much in those days that it really didn't take much persuading to convince anyone that Bush was bound to do better with someone else on his ticket.

Bush wound up keeping Quayle on the ticket, though, and, in hindsight, it is hard to imagine anyone who could have helped Bush win more than 100 electoral votes from Clinton. I think the challenger was going to win that election.

Some years are like that. I have to say that 1980 was like that. President Jimmy Carter was on shaky ground in all aspects of his presidency, and the talk that surfaced during his battle with Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination about dropping Vice President Walter Mondale probably had a lot to do with strategy and little, if anything, to do with Mondale's actual performance in office.

Mondale remained on the ticket, and I can't see how any other Democrat could have helped Carter avoid his landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan.

Usually such talk is frivolous. I don't know where it comes from. Perhaps it is a trial balloon to see if there is any way the incumbent can ratchet up his vote total with a fresh face.

If that is what it is, the conclusion usually is that changing the running mate won't make that much difference. Voters judge incumbent presidents on their records, and the voters' sense of fairness (to which Obama ceaselessly, relentlessly, seeks to appeal) tells them that, unless a vice president is guilty of some egregious offense — that if he has been doing his job (which, constitutionally, only requires him to preside over the Senate and break ties when they occur) — he does not deserve to be dropped.

So Reagan kept George H.W. Bush in 1984. Clinton kept Al Gore in 1996. George W. Bush kept Dick Cheney in 2004. Each was, at some point in those re–election campaigns, the focus of a drop ______ movement.

If Obama does drop Biden, my sense is that the voters, many of whom have become super sensitive to workplace fairness in recent years, would demand to know the reason — and, of course, there are few things that the administration could plausibly blow out of proportion to justify such a move.

The truth is that there is precious little that Obama can point to that will validate his claim that he needs and deserves a second term.

He can't run on his economic record. Unemployment was 6.5% nationally when Obama was elected in November 2008. It has been well above that level throughout his presidency.

His signature achievement, Obamacare, is likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court in the next few weeks.

Instead of bringing people together, Obama has polarized this nation to a greater extent than it was before he was elected.

None of those things can be blamed on Biden. Democrats knew when he was chosen to be Obama's running mate in 2008 that he was gaffe prone — but, for the most part, he's been a good soldier, doing the heavy lifting when he was asked to do it and generally keeping his tongue in check.

Gallup reports that Americans are divided on Biden. The latest survey is, as Jeffrey Jones observes, "the first time opinions of Biden have tilted negative since he became Obama's vice presidential pick," but the numbers are "not materially different" from the public's assessment of him from 2009 to 2011.

And this survey was conducted after both Biden's comments about same–sex marriage on Meet the Press and Obama's comments in an interview a few days later in which he said he supported the legalization of such marriages.

In the week that has passed, Biden has been criticized for forcing the president's hand. But I think it was done deliberately. Obama knows that the polls have shown a general softening in public opposition to gay marriage, and I believe this was an excuse for Obama to give lip service to an issue that he believes will energize groups who helped him win last time.

And, with the last president's experience fresh in his mind, Obama is doing the same thing — he's using gay marriage to distract attention from the real issues.

I knew several women who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. When John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, it was mostly a ploy to attract Hillary's supporters, many of whom were thought to be up for grabs in the early fall of 2008.

That ploy failed for several reasons. Polls were showing a pretty close race between Obama and McCain until the economic collapse in September 2008. That, combined with Bush fatigue, pretty much assured that Obama would win.

Ironically, though, Obama had chosen his running mate in large part to bolster his ticket's foreign policy credentials. Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time he was chosen to run with Obama, and there had been some international tensions that summer.

But foreign policy is way down the list in 2012. And, even if it wasn't, Obama has been trumpeting his role in the killing of Osama bin Laden last year. He doesn't need Biden's help in that category anymore.

Of course, Hillary has been secretary of state under this president so her greatest selling point — other than her gender — is her expertise in foreign policy.

And foreign policy is not on most voters' minds this year.

All that Obama has left is class warfare, which is hardly the inclusive, hope and change banner under which he campaigned four years ago. It is the divide and conquer politics that people have been complaining about for years.

Changing running mates won't alter the fundamentals of this campaign. The voters will do what they always do when an incumbent is on the ballot — they will assess the incumbent's record and decide if they want four more years of it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The First Time

Eighty–five years ago, I suppose Charles Lindbergh may have been the most unlikely of the world's qualified pilots to complete the first nonstop transatlantic flight.

Lindbergh was virtually unknown, even though his father had represented Minnesota in the U.S. House for 10 years.

He flew for the first time — as a passenger — about five years before he flew from New York to Paris. Shortly thereafter he took his first flying lesson, but he would not be allowed to solo because he could not afford to post a bond that he was required to provide in case he damaged the airplane — it was the flying school's only one, you see.

Eventually, of course, he did solo, and that opened the door to his career.

Lindbergh delivered mail by air until a few months before his historic flight, when he went to California to oversee the production of the plane he would fly to Paris, the Spirit of St. Louis. He had been drawn into an international competition for the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize that had been offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig to the first person to complete a nonstop transatlantic flight.

It really was the great race of its day, but you couldn't tell that initially. Most of the contenders' planes had trouble getting airborne; the first that did, less than two weeks before Lindbergh's flight, made it from France to Ireland, but contact was lost, and no one ever heard from the pilot or his navigator again.

Half a dozen pilots, consequently, had perished in the attempt by the time Lindbergh was ready to take his shot, and he took off shortly before 8 a.m. on May 20, 1927. He had anticipated that his flight, if successful, would take about 40 hours; he completed it in 33½ — in spite of fog, storm clouds, icing and having to navigate by the stars when they were visible (and by dead reckoning if they weren't).

Lindbergh was an American pioneer. He didn't take on the challenge of flying nonstop across the Atlantic for the fame it would bring; he did it for the same reason other pioneers climb mountains that have never been climbed.

But it did bring him fame, as well as the Orteig Prize, and he used that fame to do things he probably never dreamed he would be able to do. He became a writer, an explorer, an inventor, a proponent of environmental causes.

It also brought some unwanted attention — in particular, from an immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the 1932 abduction and murder of Lindbergh's infant son and sentenced to death. Between the time of Hauptmann's conviction and execution, Lindbergh, his wife and their second son left America for Europe and remained there for the rest of the 1930s.

As I say, Lindbergh was a pioneer, but pioneers are people, and they have their flaws. Lindbergh is admired for his accomplishments in aviation, but he was far from perfect. His statements and writings suggested that he was a racist, and it was revealed, after not only Lindbergh but also his wife had died, that he had long–term affairs with three women, producing seven children.

Heroes have their weaknesses, all right, but they seldom take anything away from what a pioneer, mostly through courage, has achieved. And Lindbergh's weaknesses certainly don't take anything from what he accomplished 85 years ago today.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ronald Reagan vs. Robert Kennedy

In the 1980s, I had a Commodore 64 computer in my home, which I used primarily for two purposes — writing (using word processing software that probably can't be found anymore, even though, as I understand it, Commodore 64s and their accessories are still sold online) and playing the computer games of that time.

One of the games that I enjoyed playing was a presidential election game. You could use preprogrammed historical figures from 1960 to 1984, which meant you could re–create actual election contests or match other candidates in a kind of what–if scenario. You could also answer a series of questions on various issues and program yourself to be a candidate.

For that matter, you could alter the actual economic and foreign conditions. You could have a third–party candidate. It was really the ideal game for a political junkie like myself.

The computer could even manage any or all of the candidates.

Then, during the course of the game, you could budget your advertising and campaign appearances for each of nine rounds (weeks), followed by a realistic depiction of a minute–by–minute Election Night.

One scenario that I liked to play was a what–if scenario featuring New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and California Gov. Ronald Reagan as opponents in the 1968 election. Kennedy, of course, was assassinated while he campaigned for the Democratic nomination, and Reagan's 1968 campaign never really got off the ground.

But there was a time when a confrontation between the two was not only regarded as possible, it was even seen by some as probable.

I was an admirer of Kennedy, even though I really wasn't old enough in 1968 to understand much about him, other than, I suppose, the fact that I knew his name.

I didn't really know Reagan's name at the time, but a decade later, I sure did. And I had heard plenty of speculation over the years about how an election campaign between Kennedy and Reagan would have turned out.

So I often played the 1968 scenario managing Kennedy against Reagan. Sometimes I included George Wallace as a third–party candidate — as he was in real life.

Kennedy and Reagan tended to split the three–way scenarios. When it was just the two of them running against each other, Reagan won just about every time.

Like all the other what–ifs of history, the outcome of such an electoral confrontation will forever be a mystery. No one knows, for example, if Wallace would have mounted a third–party candidacy if Reagan had been the Republican nominee.

If he had, would he and Reagan have split the right–wing vote, permitting Kennedy to take a razor–thin victory?

And if Wallace had chosen not to run, would Reagan have won?

Forty–five years ago today, voters got a taste of what it might have been like.

On Monday night, May 15, 1967, Reagan and Kennedy met in a one–hour debate about the Vietnam War. Approximately 15 million Americans watched it on CBS.

Footage from that occasion is fascinating to watch today — in no small part because, even though there have been many books written about both men, I have seen very few references to that debate.

In fact, the only article I have seen about that debate — which was really more of a global town hall meeting — was Paul Kengor's piece in the National Review five years ago.

Kengor observed that the consensus that Reagan "won" the debate was virtually unanimous, and I have found no reason to dispute that.

If they had been their respective parties' nominees and had met in a series of debates in the fall of 1968, it seems logical to me that Reagan might have prevailed. He had a very folksy way of speaking when he was president that endeared him to people, even those who disagreed with him. Kennedy, on the other hand, had a reputation for being "ruthless" that turned off even those who supported him.

(In the debate 45 years ago tonight, however, the two seemed to switch roles. Reagan came across as the more ruthless while Kennedy seemed more amiable. At least, that is my impression from the clips I have seen.)

Also, the Democrats had held the White House for eight years, and the incumbent was very unpopular. On this occasion, though, as Kengor points out, Kennedy and Reagan "ended up debating the group of students" who questioned them, "not one another." A panel of "extremely rude" international students served as the questioners, and they "seemed to bask in their big chance to unleash their torrent of anger on the two available representatives of the country they despised."

Even if Kennedy and Reagan had run against each other, the debate in which they participated 45 years ago today might have been vastly different from the ones they would have had in their campaign.

If debates in 1968 resembled the ones that have been held since, the panel of questioners wouldn't have been students intent on challenging authority but professional journalists with expertise in the subjects about which the candidates were asked.

But it's difficult to say that because, in 1968, presidential debates were not the campaign fixtures they have become. The only models at the time were the debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Who knows what the organizers might have done to the format in 1968?

And who knows what America would be like in 2012 if either Bobby Kennedy or Ronald Reagan had been elected president in 1968?

That would have meant that Richard Nixon probably never would have been elected president — hence, there would have been no Watergate. Would either Kennedy or Reagan have been finished in national politics if one had lost to the other in 1968 — however narrowly?

Would the winner have ended the Vietnam War years before it actually ended?

To be sure, it would be an alternate reality.

The Day George Wallace Was Shot

There were quite a few assassinations — and assassination attempts — when I was growing up.

But I believe the one that occurred 40 years ago today — in which Alabama Gov. George Wallace was shot while campaigning in Laurel, Md., for the Democratic presidential nomination — was the first to show both the assassin and his would–be victim together in the same photos and film sequences.

It was a Monday, and school was going to close for the summer in another week or so. Everyone was eager for summer vacation — the students, the teachers, everyone, I guess, except the mothers who would soon have their children under foot 24 hours a day.

Otherwise, it was just an ordinary Monday — and, sometime that afternoon, I learned that Wallace had been shot. I don't remember now if word spread while I was still in school that day or if I learned what had happened when I got home, but, when I did get home, it was all over the television stations, wiping out the cartoons I usually watched after school.

So I got on my bike and rode over to the home of two guys who were in my grade in school, Danny and David Johnson — and, as I often did in those days, I stayed for supper.

I've written here before about that occasion. Danny and David's father was a well–known Arkansas segregationist who managed Wallace's independent presidential campaign in Arkansas in 1968, and the attempt on Wallace's life earlier that day inspired political reporters in Little Rock to seek his reaction.

They got a quick response from him — he called it a "dastardly act" — and my memory of that day is that nothing else was said about the shooting around that table that night — other than Mr. Johnson's wry comment to his sons and me that his remark "sounded like a bad word."

He grinned his trademark grin when he said it, and, even though I was a small boy and didn't understand all the things that were happening in the world, I felt confident that Gov. Wallace would not be like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, that he would survive the shooting.

Which he did. But he never walked again.

It was the end of an era, and, historian Theodore White asserted in "The Making of the President 1972," his book on the 1972 election, Richard Nixon's re–election was assured thanks to the Wallace shooting.

In his paranoid way, Nixon feared Wallace, who nearly succeeded in his quest to deny both Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey a majority in the Electoral College in 1968. If Wallace won the 1972 Democratic nomination, Nixon reasoned, he might win outright.

"For two years, George Wallace had haunted the planning of the White House," White wrote. But, after Wallace was shot, "it was all over. Only the question of margin remained; whether the president could get that mandate for which his lonesome soul so longed, that landslide authority which might let him act with the largeness of the great presidents of the past."

Nixon did, indeed, win a landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972. A few years later, when White wrote his thoughtful examination of Nixon and the Watergate scandal, "Breach of Faith," he credited Wallace's influence for many of the decisions and actions of the Nixon White House.

"[T]o eliminate the threat of Wallace in the future," White wrote, "[Nixon] was to use, in 1970, trickeries against the Alabama governor only slightly less dirty than those he used against Democratic candidates in 1972."

And, as we all know, Nixon ultimately was forced to resign because of the dirty tricks his 1972 campaign used against the opposition.

But that was still in the future on this day in 1972. Forty years ago today, the shooting of George Wallace was a cause for somber reflection on both political extremes.

Although not as polarized then as they are today, the right and the left were forced by the shooting to examine their own philosophies and their attitudes about George Wallace and his role in the political debate.

For voters on the right, Wallace was the spokesman who articulated their hopes and dreams — and fears. For those on the left, he was symbolic of everything they believed was wrong with the nation.

He was both — at the same time — I suppose. And he was neither.

I'm inclined to think Wallace was a politician — and, like most successful politicians then and now, a panderer.

Early in his political career, when he was a circuit judge, Wallace had a reputation for being fair and impartial. Race did not matter in his courtroom. But then he lost a governor's race in which he had been endorsed by the NAACP and the winner had enjoyed the support of the Ku Klux Klan.

Wallace claimed he had been "outniggered" and that it wouldn't happen again. He kept his word. When he ran for governor four years later, he took a solidly segregationist stand and won by a landslide.

"I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened," Wallace said. "And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Wallace shooting for many was the fact that, like the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords last year, the assailant had no real political motive.

Had there been one, it might have been easier to accept. But when the diary of Arthur Bremer, Wallace's would–be assassin, was published, it indicated that his only real objective was notoriety — not unlike the would–be assassin of Ronald Reagan, who wanted only to impress an actress.

There was nothing that could elevate the intended sacrifice, not even a biblical sense of justice.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Romney Report

I grew up admiring the work of the Washington Post.

The Post's investigation of the Watergate break–in and coverup inspired me to study journalism in college, work for newspapers and, ultimately, teach and advise journalism students.

But I find little to admire in Jason Horowitz's lengthy article about Mitt Romney's alleged misbehavior in high school.

To be sure, there is nothing to admire about the incident that is described in detail in Horowitz's piece. A young man was horribly — inexcusably — mistreated by a group of high school tormentors, a group of which Romney apparently was the leader.

And I feel qualified to make that assessment because I was a victim of a similar act when I was in junior high. In my case, insult was added to injury by the fact that the leader of the group had been one of my closest, most trusted friends. I don't know if Romney and the victim in 1965 were ever friends.

But what most of these cases seem to have in common is that the victim is usually perceived to be different from the attackers in some way. The only real difference, I suppose, between my attackers and the group Romney allegedly led in 1965 is Romney's group was a few years older.

But, in both cases, the acts were, as one of the participants told Horowitz, "senseless, stupid, idiotic thing[s]."

They were also the behavior of the immature — and that is something of which we all have been guilty at some time.

That isn't meant to excuse these acts. It is only meant to explain them.

Some, if not most, immature actions don't cause lasting damage. Regrettably, some do. And it is impossible to know if the victim in 1965 suffered a permanent scar. He died in 2004.

Thus, it is impossible for Romney to make amends to him.

Which brings me to my primary question: What is the point in publishing this story?

Is it to irrefutably expose the fact that what is now considered hazing and bullying went on 50 years ago as well? I thought we established that in TV shows like Happy Days and movies like "National Lampoon's Animal House."

Is it to establish that a presumptive nominee for the presidency was guilty of immature behavior in his youth? I don't really think it is a good idea to start judging presidential candidates by what they did in their teen years, do you?

Besides, Americans have been pretty lenient about that kind of stuff in the last 20 years. After all, Bill Clinton (gasp!) smoked marijuana and Barack Obama acknowledged using cocaine in their teen years. And George W. Bush struggled with alcohol (and, reportedly, other things) well beyond his teen years.

As someone who worked on the copy desk for many years, I can only conclude that the Post's editors must have figured there was some value in running this report.

But what was it?

If it could be shown that this was some kind of indicator of what turned out to be a lifelong pattern of indifference to others, that would be one thing. But evidence of such a pattern is conspicuously absent.

In fact, Horowitz's article quotes classmates of Romney's who spoke of how he matured when he met his future wife. That is not an uncommon influence. And Romney's behavior as an adult stands in stark contrast to his behavior in prep school.

This is not, after all, like 2006, when a video camera caught Virginia Sen. George Allen using an ethnic slur at a re–election campaign event, and it was established that it was representative of things he had been saying and doing for years.

Patrick Pexton, the Post's ombudsman, insists that the story "holds up to scrutiny."

I guess it did — if the objective was to blow the lid off high school hijinks.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Hindenburg Milestone

It is, perhaps, appropriate that a milestone anniversary for the Hindenburg disaster comes less than a month after a milestone anniversary for the Titanic disaster.

In April, of course, we observed the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. Twenty–five years later, on this day in 1937, the German airship Hindenburg met a fiery end as it tried to land in New Jersey.

Everyone knows the story of how the Titanic was regarded as unsinkable before it struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic. I don't know if people felt the same way about the Hindenburg in 1937 — if there was a widespread conviction that the Hindenburg would arrive safely at its destination.

Perhaps there was. The Hindenburg had been flying for little more than a year, and it had been used for propaganda purposes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It had crossed the Atlantic earlier in the year and was making the first of 10 round trips between Europe and the United States.

The Hindenburg set no speed records. Even in their relatively developmental state 75 years ago, airplanes could still get people across the ocean faster than airships like the Hindenburg — but airplanes couldn't come close to matching the creature comforts available on the airships. The people who traveled in them were paying for amenities, not speed — and they paid a lot for the privilege.

They were not unlike the first–class passengers on board the Titanic, who were pampered in every imaginable way. The Titanic could cross the ocean as fast as or faster than any other ship on the sea, but a huge ship like that simply couldn't slither through an ice field the way a smaller ship could — and that was its fatal flaw.

No conclusion has ever been reached about the cause of the Hindenburg disaster — but it seems to me that a significant contributing factor would be the fact that, in the 1930s, highly flammable hydrogen was the fuel being used on airships. In the last half–century, airships have relied on the far less flammable helium.

That might not have made a difference, though, if the talk of sabotage that has persisted for 75 years is true. Surely, a saboteur would have found another way to accomplish his objective, and the landing that was scheduled for 75 years ago tonight would have been far too tempting to pass up. Heavy preflight publicity virtually guaranteed that the Hindenburg's arrival would be extensively covered by the press of the day.

In spite of the huge fireball that erupted, more than half of the passengers and crew survived. Proportionately, that was far better than the survival rate on the Titanic although the passenger manifest on the Hindenburg was far shorter.

There was never a chance that the fatality rate on the Hindenburg would come close to that on the Titanic. The numbers just weren't there.

Part of it may have been the shock value that comes from an outcome that simply isn't possible. And part of it may have been the experience, the immediacy of seeing it happen on newsreels.

Whatever it was, the Hindenburg deserves its spot in history the same as the Titanic disaster 25 years earlier — or the Challenger disaster nearly half a century later.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Randomness of Life

I took this picture of Mom's grave this morning. See that
dark marker in the center? That's where she is buried.

A couple of days ago, Stan Musial's wife, Lil Musial, died at the age of 91.

I think it is fair to say hers was a storybook life. The Musials were married for more than 70 years, and they raised four children, who gave them 11 grandchildren, who have given them 12 great–grandchildren so far. Stan is remembered as one of the great hitters of all time — unorthodox in his stance and swing but very effective — and Lil is remembered as his constant booster, his #1 fan.

Mrs. Musial passed away at 6 p.m. on Thursday — "her favorite number," one of her grandchildren told the St. Louis Post–Dispatch, as her husband's uniform number was 6.

Her grandson also said she had been sick recently, and the family had been been aware that her death was imminent — so many family members were at her side when the end came.

I guess that's the way most of us hope to make our exits — with the people who mean the most to us at our side.

And I wish life was fair that way. But it isn't.

Today, I have been thinking of a song that Paul Simon recorded in the mid–1970s. I think it was called "Some Folks' Lives."

The refrain of the song, as I recall, went like this: "Some folks' lives roll easy / Some folks' lives never roll at all."

I'm not sure why that song is in my head today. Perhaps it is because today is the anniversary of the day my mother died. Thoughts of Mom often bring thoughts of Paul Simon to my mind. She was a fan of Simon & Garfunkel, and many of my childhood memories include her and the Simon & Garfunkel records she frequently played. On such occasions, the music literally filled the house.

But why that song?

I'm not really sure — except that the manner of Mom's death (she drowned in a flash flood) was so sudden and shocking. It's been exactly 17 years since she died, and I can still remember how I felt each day for a long time thereafter and the general melancholy that lingered much longer.

Perhaps thoughts of that song are more about my own life, not Mom's.

There are only two things of which one can be absolutely certain in life, I have been told — death and taxes.

There are some things that folks tend to take for granted — for example, that parents will not outlive their children. And that's usually the way it works. But sometimes children die before their parents do. There have been people with whom I grew up who died while their parents were still living. Nothing fair about that.

So, while people may think, may even expect, that they will die before their children, there are no guarantees.

Neither are there any guarantees that there will be enough advance notice of your approaching death that the people in your life can be assembled and at your side when the time comes.

Even that taxes thing isn't absolute. That part presupposes that everyone will (at least) live to adulthood — and participate in that annual ritual of paying income taxes. But I've known people who died when they were still children, still totally dependent on their parents — and did not yet file tax returns..

If they were old enough, of course, they paid sales taxes. I guess my first real experience with sales tax was when I would buy gum and candy with my weekly allowance when I was about 4 or 5, but it sometimes happens that small children die so even that sales tax thing would not be something they would experience.

Death is the one constant. It's the one thing that everyone will experience. But the experience is different for everyone.

Parents tend to assume that their children will have to bury them — just as most of them had to bury their own parents. It's the natural order of things, and most people probably expect that they will die relatively peacefully in their beds of some disease that tends to afflict the old, surrounded by the people they love. Much like Lil Musial.

Odds are, anyway.

But it isn't always that way. People don't always outlive their parents. Sometimes people die young, and sometimes people never find a significant other and wind up dying alone. It's different for everyone.

I guess most people, given a choice, would prefer the way my grandfather died — in his sleep with plans to go fishing with one of his buddies the next day. There was no lingering illness that forced him to spend his final days, weeks, months in a hospital room. When he died, he may well have been dreaming of a day spent dedicated to one of his passions in the company of one of his closest friends.

Perhaps, in his last moments, he dreamed he was reeling in the biggest fish he had ever caught.

Not a bad way to ease out of this world and into what, if anything, comes next. But people who don't take their own lives have no real say in how or when the end comes.

Most people probably only think of death in general terms — an event that will happen sometime in the future, presumably the distant future — and they don't think at all of how their deaths will affect those who are left behind. When people have children, it has been my experience that they give little, if any, thought to that day when they will die and their children will have to cope with a new reality — and any unpleasant memories from the experience.

(When my mother died, I was living in another state, and my father had been injured in the flood. It fell to my brother to identify her body. I have always tried to remember that he must carry that memory.)

If people do give it any thought, it is the kind of thought that usually goes unexpressed until circumstances make it necessary.

My mother, I'm sure, rarely gave any thought to the eventual circumstances of her death or how it would affect her family and her friends. She probably never gave much thought to which friends and relatives would outlive her — except that she probably assumed she would outlive my father. Both of my grandmothers outlived my grandfathers, and I think that was the pattern in the previous generations although you'd have to confirm that with my father. He's the genealogist in the family.

It is an ironic story, an irony she might have appreciated if she hadn't been the casualty.

In the last decade (or more) of her life, my mother was greatly influenced by the sight of my grandmother slipping deeper into dementia. Mom always called it "hardening of the arteries," and I am no doctor so that may well be a sort of layman's way of describing an actual medical condition, but, for the last 20 years or so, I have believed that what my grandmother really had was Alzheimer's disease.

I think Alzheimer's was first identified more than a century ago, but I don't recall hearing much, if anything, about it until after my grandmother died. I was young, though. Perhaps I just wasn't paying attention.

She lived with my parents for a couple of years before the burden of meeting her needs became too great for my working mother, and she was put in a series of nursing homes before Mom finally settled on one that she believed had an honest staff that would provide the best of care for my grandmother.

My grandmother lived into her 90s, and my mother, who believed (as I did) that she would live a long life, too, eagerly absorbed every tip — be it from a study in a medical journal, a newspaper article or word of mouth — that promised to enhance mental acuity, even to advanced age. Through diet. Through exercise. Through whatever.

If Mom was going to live into her 90s, by golly, she was going to make sure that she was mentally engaged to the end. She wasn't going to spend year after year sitting in a chair and staring vacantly out the window of a nursing home.

Mom feared an end like the one she saw her mother go through. She didn't want her children's last memories of her to be of an old woman who didn't know them, wasn't even aware when they were in the room with her.

Turned out, that wasn't in the cards for her. And, not long after her death, I remember a family friend observing that "she went out at the top of her game." I suppose it would have made her proud that she was forever frozen in people's memories as a vibrant life force.

But I think I speak for just about everyone who knew her when I say that we could have lived with her in a diminished state if it had meant we could have another 25 or 30 years with her.

She outlived her mother by about six years. I know it wasn't what I expected — and I am about as certain as I can be that it wasn't what she expected, either.

But that is how it worked out. Some folks' lives roll easy. Some folks' lives never roll at all. My family's lives, I think, fall somewhere in between.

I've been musing a lot about how the future plays out. Maybe it's the influence of that TV commercial where the little boy and his grandfather are sitting on the front porch of the grandfather's house, and the grandson is talking about how much he loves to be there.

"I'm going to have a house just like this when I grow up," he says confidently.

"I hope so," replies his grandfather as the narrator starts to speak about future prospects for home ownership.

That commercial never fails to make me think about things that go far beyond real estate. No one ever seems to think about those parts of it. (Well, I do, but, perhaps, as George Carlin said of himself, that is the kind of thought that kept me out of the really good schools.)

Yes, it would be nice if we always got some advance warning that someone we loved was about to die — but, if we did, it might suggest that we have more control over things than we actually do.

Because today is Cinco de Mayo — a fairly prominent holiday here in Texas — I've been thinking about a particularly touching Christmas episode of M*A*S*H in which the doctors tried to keep a mortally wounded soldier alive (technically) until after midnight so the date on his death certificate would be Dec. 26, and his children would not have to think of Christmas as the day their father died.

Soldiers have a pretty high rate of unexpected deaths, and most of those deaths probably occur with no relatives and few, if any, friends nearby.

But the soldiers' relatives probably treated their last moments together as if they really would be the last ones — ever. They knew that death was a real possibility.

That's something we all should realize. The last time I saw Mom, the thought that it would be the last time never entered my mind. In hindsight, I have told myself that, somehow, Mom may have sensed it was the last time, and I have told myself that I remember a little something extra in her last embrace.

But then there are times when I think that is something I must have dreamed up, that there was nothing unusual about our parting embrace, nothing that hadn't been there a thousand times before. Mom always hugged me when we said goodbye.

That was on an Easter Sunday. Mom was killed less than three weeks later.

Maybe it was for the best the way it turned out.

But I will always wish I told her all the things I wanted to tell her. They all came down to one simple sentence. It was one I said to her often, and I always meant it. I just wish I could have told her one more time.

I love you.