Friday, August 31, 2012

The Shocking Death of Princess Diana

If you live for any length of time at all, there will be things that will shock you.

In my case, some of these things were private matters. At this point in my life, I have known several people who have died — some were old, some were young, a few were sick and their deaths were anticipated, but most came out of the blue.

I was shocked when my mother died in a flash flood in 1995. I was shocked a couple of years ago when an old friend and schoolmate died after being hospitalized with pneumonia. I was shocked earlier this summer when my father had a heart attack.

And, of course, I have been shocked by very public events — such as the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, the explosion of the Challenger. If I had been old enough at the time, I guess I would have been shocked by the JFK assassination.

But nothing has ever shocked me quite like the death of Princess Diana 15 years ago today.

There were all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating in the days and weeks after her death — a lot of finger pointing. There were also a lot of efforts to come to grips with a truly upsetting event. One of my most enduring memories is of Dan Rather getting choked up the following day during his televised retrospective on Diana's oh–so–short life and his observation that all Diana — who had more than her share of conflicts with the royal family (and knew she would never be queen of England) — really wanted was to be the queen of the public's collective hearts.

In the first week of September 1997, it would have been a pretty safe bet to say that she had succeeded.

I have seldom seen an outpouring of global grief comparable to what I saw when Diana died. There had been reports all that summer of Diana's blossoming love affair with Dodi Fayed, the son of a billionaire businessman. The two had been relaxing on the Riviera for about a week and stopped over in Paris on their way back to London.

In late August, the two had dinner together on a Saturday evening at a Paris hotel owned by Fayed's father, then they tried to give the slip to the photographers who had been hounding them, leaving from the rear of the hotel with the hotel's acting head of security at the wheel of the getaway car. Their destination was a nearby apartment also owned by Fayed's father.

They never got there.

Among the many tragic stories circulating after Diana's death was one that held that Fayed had an engagement ring waiting at the apartment — and that he planned to propose to her that evening.

At the time of her death, Diana was surely one of the most popular women on the face of the earth. I guess she had been ever since it was announced in the spring of 1981 that she would be Prince Charles' bride that summer, but her popularity seemed to take on a life of its own after Charles and Diana split up.

The paparazzi who followed her everywhere in the next 16 years — and played important roles in the accident that took her life — plunged her into the spotlight the day her engagement was announced.

In fact, they had been following her for nearly a year, ever since she and Charles started dating. Diana was a naive preschool teacher at the time and had no idea of the challenges her new status would bring.

I always felt Diana was a remarkable person, but she seemed to keep much of it under wraps during her marriage. It was really after her divorce from Charles was finalized in August 1996 that the world began to see how truly remarkable she was with her activism against landmines (for which she was branded a "loose cannon.")

Merely days before her death, she visited Bosnia. She was particularly concerned about the damage that was done to children by landmines long after a conflict had ended.

Her advocacy for children always reminded me of my mother.

She was said to have influenced, posthumously, the signing of the Ottawa treaty later that year. The Ottawa treaty imposed an international ban on landmines.

It was an appropriate tribute.

I will always remember the night Diana died. I had switched on my computer, and I was casually browsing the internet when I decided to look through some newsgroups. And that was when I stumbled onto a conversation in which someone was reporting to several disbelieving people that Diana had been in a crash and had died.

The crash occurred shortly after midnight Paris time, and Diana was pronounced dead around 4 a.m. Paris time. There is a seven–hour difference between Dallas and Paris, and I heard about Diana around 10 p.m. so it must have been about an hour after she was declared deceased.

It wasn't unusual to see Diana on the news. She had been in the news all year. She could draw attention just for being somewhere — anywhere. She didn't have to open her mouth, but she made headlines all the time in 1997 with her crusade against landmines, her romance with Fayed, even her visit to the United States a month before her own death to attend the funeral of a friend, fashion designer Gianni Versace.

Versace was murdered less than seven weeks before Diana's death. In my mind's eye, I can still see Diana mourning for him at the funeral, seated next to another Versace friend, Elton John, who rewrote the lyrics of his song "Candle in the Wind" in a tribute to Diana after her death.

Grief–stricken though she was, Diana seemed to be intent upon comforting the other mourners. In hindsight, I felt that was typical of her — selfless.

That stood in poignant contrast to Diana's funeral nearly two months later. There was no Diana to comfort the mourners on that occasion.

"Candle in the Wind" began its existence two decades earlier as a rather nice tribute to Marilyn Monroe, but it became a global sensation after Diana's funeral. It is the only single ever certified Diamond in the United States.

Another example of how unique Diana and her public appeal were.

I felt at the time — and I still feel today — that Diana's death at 36 was an appalling waste.

And I also felt her brother, Earl Spencer, summed up the sense of loss admirably in his eulogy.

I supposed he could be forgiven for being somewhat bitter. "It is a point to remember," he said, "that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age."

But he promised Diana's sons that her family would "continue the imaginative way" Diana had been raising them.

I don't know if that promise was kept — until Prince William's wedding last year, Diana's boys were shielded from public view — but the conclusion of Spencer's eulogy certainly suggested that it would be.

"[W]e give thanks," he said, "for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds."

If you were born after her death — or if you were too young to remember her — you really missed someone special.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

No False Notes

I guess one of the things that attracted me to the study of history was its little (and not so little) ironies.

Sometimes the ironies are poignant. Sometimes they are humorous. Sometimes they are, well, ironic (I just can't seem to think of an appropriate synonym).

Four years ago, it was ironic that Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech at his party's convention 45 years to the day since Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I don't think anyone believed Obama would be a failure if he did not surpass King's performance. In the long–term perspective of history, both men will stand as symbols of progress in America.

But there may have been certain expectations that Mitt Romney had for himself before his speech in Tampa tonight. And, while his address likely will not be remembered as one of the great speeches of the 21st century, it was a workmanlike performance for a country hungering for a workmanlike leader.

In 2012, I suppose the way — or even whether — one defines the irony of Mitt Romney's nomination for the presidency this week depends upon where one sits on the political spectrum.

You see, it was 45 years ago tomorrow that Mitt's father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, a candidate (temporarily) for the 1968 Republican nomination, made his infamous assertion that he had been a victim of "brainwashing" during his trip to Vietnam nearly two years earlier.

George Romney's intention was to make the point that he had been deceived, just as the nation had been deceived, on the subject of Vietnam. And, if he had put it that way, he might well have been his party's nominee.

But his selection of the word "brainwashing" doomed his candidacy. It made him appear weak, easily manipulated and ill–prepared to stand up to the bad guys of the world.

That really seems to be a problem for the Romneys, this tendency to insert a single false note into what would otherwise be, if not inspiring, certainly adequate and sincere discussions of the issues of the day — and some that became faux issues because of those linguistic shortcomings.

But, I must confess, I heard no false notes in tonight's acceptance speech by Mitt Romney. Perhaps he exorcised the ghost of his father's "brainwashing" remark. After all, if George Romney had not used that word 45 years ago, he, not Richard Nixon, might have been the GOP's standard bearer in 1968.

Just think of it. America might have been spared the Watergate scandal — if not for that word. Would George Romney have felt compelled to drop out of the race if he had claimed that he had been deceived by the administration? Or that he had been led to believe things that were not true?

That "brainwashing" remark ended forever George Romney's dream of being president.

Tonight his son may have reclaimed his father's dream.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Man on the Moon

"He was the best, and I will miss him terribly."

Michael Collins
Apollo 11 command module pilot

There may be no more vivid memory from my childhood than that of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon in July 1969 and declaring it "[o]ne small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Before his historic moon walk, I don't recall hearing Armstrong's name. I think he flew in space once before — one of the Gemini missions in the mid–'60s, I believe — but I don't think he did anything that was especially noteworthy.

Certainly not when compared to being the first man to walk on the moon.

Armstrong was an inspirational figure then, and he continued to be an inspirational figure throughout his life, largely because of the values he acquired in his youth in Ohio and carried with him as an adult.

He did not seek the spotlight and often appeared uncomfortable discussing his role in the space program. When the subject of his moon walk came up, as it inevitably did, Armstrong always seemed eager to give credit to all the folks at NASA whose collective efforts had made it possible.

"Those who know him say he is a smart and intensely private, even shy, man determined to live life on his own terms despite having floated down that ladder into the public domain," wrote Kathy Sawyer in the Washington Post Magazine on the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing.

I knew Armstrong was getting old, but I didn't realize just how old (82) until I heard the news yesterday that he had died of complications following heart surgery.

As many have already said, he was a genuine American hero. Forty–three years ago, he was the first man to walk on the moon, inspiring millions of American boys to dream grand and glorious dreams.

But I always believed Armstrong would have happily piloted the command module on that trip and never even walked on the moon if that had been what was asked of him. Instead, Michael Collins was asked to perform that solitary task while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps on the moon.

Armstrong was a team player — not unlike another pioneer from America's space program who died recently, Sally Ride.

Armstrong and Ride were good foot soldiers in the quest to conquer space. If they had been called upon to sweep up or fetch coffee, they would have done so.

But fate had much bigger things in store for them. Armstrong would be the first man to walk on the moon, and Ride would be the first American woman to fly in space.

At a time when positive role models are in shockingly short supply, we've lost two in the span of a single month.

We are much poorer for it.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nixon's Convention

"It was neither to the audience of the faithful delegates at the convention, nor to the press, that Richard Nixon was talking. He was talking, as he had for months, and as he had designed his convention, to the people Out There."

Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"

In modern times, with political conventions as meticulously scripted as they are, the proceedings are wrapped up in four days. Just like clockwork.

Before television began to dictate things, it often took delegates several ballots to agree on a nominee. Under such circumstances, a convention could go on indefinitely.

But, in 1972, the Republicans actually completed their convention business in three days. Of course, there wasn't much to do. The platform was decided in meetings that were conducted well before the convention began. President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, faced no obstacles to renomination.

There was no suspense of any kind.

Mostly, the convention was little more than a series of speeches. In fact, it was at the 1972 GOP convention that the tradition of the first lady addressing the gathering began.

Pat Nixon wasn't the first first lady to address a convention, but she was the first Republican first lady to do so, and her speech in 1972 established what is now a commonplace practice in American politics.

The 1972 GOP convention was also the first major party national convention to have its keynote address delivered by a woman. Others followed, but Anne Armstrong of Texas was the first.

The reason for the abbreviated gathering was simple, really. The convention originally had been planned for San Diego, but the location was changed at virtually the last minute.

The city had already been experiencing a number of problems, but then columnist Jack Anderson revealed that a memo written by a lobbyist for International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) recommended that the company make a substantial financial pledge to San Diego's bid in return for a settlement of the Department of Justice's antitrust case against ITT.

Because they were concerned about a scandal, Republicans decided three months before the convention to move everything to Miami instead. Ironically, around the time that the convention decision was being made, the seeds for a real scandal were being planted at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.

On Aug. 23, 1972, when Nixon delivered his acceptance speech, the Watergate break–in was barely two months old.

Less than a month later, the seven men who were arrested at the Democratic National Headquarters were indicted, prompting an Oval Office meeting in which White House counsel John Dean later claimed he first discussed Watergate with Richard Nixon.

There really were no indications on this night 40 years ago that Watergate was on Nixon's mind.

He was in Miami, where he was about to deliver his fifth acceptance speech to a Republican convention.

What I remember about that night is that my parents, my brother and I were in Washington, D.C., watching the convention on the TV in our motel room.

We were driving home to Arkansas after spending some time in Vermont visiting with some of my parents' friends. I suppose my brother and I were scheduled to start school the following week, and my best guess is that we probably spent the next two or three days on the road in order to get back on time.

We had spent a little time seeing the sights of Washington, but we were back in the motel room by the time Nixon spoke.

On this night, my recollection is of the four of us in those two beds, the sound of the air conditioning competing with the sound from the TV, a mixture of Nixon's voice and the roar of approval from the delegates.

Every once in awhile, my father would utter what the Nixon White House would later famously label expletives in transcripts of recordings of White House conversations. Dad despised Nixon so much that, when Oliver Stone released his biopic about Nixon in the 1990s, he refused to see it "even though they trash him in it."

Of course, Dad wasn't alone on that. Even many of Nixon's supporters despised him. There were many, many times in that 1972 presidential campaign when I heard Nixon described as "the lesser of two evils."

I frequently hear electoral choices described that way, but Nixon must have set some sort of record for it in 1972. I'm not exaggerating. No one seemed to like him.

Well, the Republican delegates seemed to like him well enough when he stood before them to give his final acceptance speech 40 years ago tonight.

"He had been around this track often enough to know the pace," wrote historian Theodore H. White, "and was hitting his adversary first with humor, then with scorn, before delivering the message."

Within two years, though, Nixon would return to California, a disgraced former president

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Best and the Worst in One Night

Twenty years ago tonight, the Republican Party put on public display both its best side and its worst.

Now, for quite some time, I have observed the evolution of the absorption of an incendiary term like hate in our national political discourse.

In my experience, political campaigns have always been contentious. I grew up in Arkansas, about a mile from a prominent political family. The patriarch was a well–known segregationist who was not above using fiery rhetoric in his speeches, and he sought statewide office a couple of times when I was a child.

But, even in that environment (and, admittedly, I was quite young so there may be things I do not recall), the word hate was seldom, if ever, used. Looking back on those days, I feel it would have been considered bad form to use that word, even if it really did describe how a politician felt about his adversary and vice versa (and, no doubt, it did).

That word is tossed around so casually these days. Both Democrats and Republicans regard people who disagree with them as haters, but I believe both sides make the mistake of confusing dissent with hate.

Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean that person hates you. Look up the words in the dictionary. You'll find that the terms are not interchangeable.

This really seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon — in the context of American history, at least. When I was growing up, I knew Republicans and Democrats disagreed on many things, but only the most extreme members of either party accused the other of hatred. At the end of the day, both sides made an effort to reach a compromise.

In that time, both sides seemed to understand the meaning of the word civility.

But politics has become so polarized in this country that, today, neither seems to know what civility is, even though they give lip service to the word. Neither side is willing to give an inch — and both sides are all too eager to accuse the other of hatred. Civility gets lip service and little else.

When did this transformation happen?

I have been unable to determine the precise moment when it became socially acceptable to accuse those with whom one disagrees of hatred. I can identify points in its evolutionary line when behavior that was once considered extreme became the norm, but I can't say exactly when that transformation began.

Some would say it started with Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," designed to exploit racial tensions and help him win the presidency in 1968. Others would point to Ronald Reagan kicking off his 1980 general election campaign with a reference to the racially charged code words states' rights in Mississippi.

And those were certainly covert points in the timeline of the acceptance of hate as a political argument. A more overt brand of political hate emerged in 1988, which is still regarded by some as the most mean–spirited campaign in American history — although, when all is said and done, the 2012 campaign may well exceed it.

It's already getting close to it, and we haven't even reached Labor Day yet.

(In case you don't remember, let me refresh your memory. 1988 was the year backers of George H.W. Bush's campaign unleashed the Willie Horton commercial against Michael Dukakis.)

Those were all significant milestones in the evolution of hate in American politics, and there certainly have been others since, but I always felt that the most blatant appeal to hate occurred 20 years ago tonight — when Pat Buchanan spoke to the Republican National Convention in Houston.

Buchanan, who had challenged Bush in the primaries and caused the president considerable discomfort when he was forced to work for a nomination he expected would be his for the taking, gave what has been dubbed his "culture war" speech, railing against the opposition with such venom that I am hesitant to quote it directly today.

(With Barack Obama's class warfare, I suppose things have now come full circle.)

But I will quote this much: Buchanan ranted, at length, about "abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat" — all things he said a Clinton administration would impose on America.

The speech, delivered early in the evening, probably had its desired effect. It stirred up the conservative base, which was considered shaky for Bush at best in 1992.

Now, I can tell you that Texas is a fine place to whip conservatives into a frenzy, and Buchanan clearly was working on it that night. But it was an appeal to the worst of Republican instincts.

However, the possibility of redemption was at hand. Former President Reagan was about to give his final national address.

At the time, of course, no one knew it would be his final address. He didn't reveal to the public that he was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease until a couple of years later.

After he left the presidency, Reagan made relatively few public appearances before sharing his condition with the public. Each time I saw him speak in those years, there was always the thought that it might be his last one. In fact, I remember having that thought 20 years ago tonight.

But, at the time, I suppose, I believed there would be another. There was always another with Reagan. He was less than four years removed from his presidency, and the memory of his administration still cast a warm glow over the Republican Party. He was its rock star, even at the age of 81. He was its elder statesman, its president emeritus. The night he spoke to the 1992 Republican convention, they passed out placards for the delegates to wave when he came out to speak.

I didn't attend the convention, but I remember seeing the placards — in the flesh, as it were.

I was about to begin my first semester teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Many staffers from the student newspaper had press passes for the convention, and they brought the placards back with them and put some up on the walls and file cabinets in the newsroom.

The placards said something like "Thank the Gipper for all he has done for our country!" — and, occasionally, on this night 20 years ago, the delegates burst into a chant of "Thank You, Ron!" and waved their placards.

Before he told the American public that he had Alzheimer's disease, Reagan was kind of like the Brett Favre of American politics. Most quarterbacks suffer a serious injury of some kind by the time that they're in their 30s, but Favre was different. He never got hurt, and he kept playing into his 40s.

Favre was the exception to the rule in football, and, I must admit, I believed Reagan was the exception to the rule in American politics. After all, three of the four men on Mount Rushmore died before reaching the age at which Reagan was first elected president. I saw no reason to think he would not be around for many more years — and, in fact, when he died, he had lived longer than anyone else who served as president.

As I have mentioned here many times, I did not agree with Reagan on most policy issues.

But it was not necessary to agree with Reagan on anything to understand that he was very effective as a public speaker. It was for that skill more than anything else that he was granted the rarest of tributes a president can receive — a moniker that is positive, not negative.

Even before he left the White House, Reagan was called "the Great Communicator."

That skill that Reagan had was on full display in Houston 20 years ago tonight. It was not what it once was. He was, as I say, in his 80s. But he could still bring the delegates to their feet and, at times, to tears. He spoke with optimism about America's future ("We were meant to be masters of destiny," he said, "not victims of fate"), and he brought the house down with a one–liner about then–Gov. Bill Clinton portraying himself as another Thomas Jefferson ("I knew Thomas Jefferson. He was a friend of mine. And, Governor, you're no Thomas Jefferson").

It was vintage Ronald Reagan, and modern politicians could learn from his example.

Take away the political philosophy, and you could sum up Reagan's approach in a song title — "Accentuate the Positive." That is what politicians of all stripes can learn from Reagan.

I don't know how Reagan felt about that song, but it perfectly describes his sunny disposition. That was what really appealed to people about Ronald Reagan. Even his political opponents had to concede that they liked him.

And, on a night when the worst of the Republican Party was presented to the American people, Reagan provided balance with its best.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Does Ryan Put Wisconsin in Play?

Politically, Wisconsin is a fascinating place.

(I'm sure it is fascinating in other ways, too. I have never lived there, but, in the interest of full disclosure, I have been a Green Bay Packers fan all my life.)

It is mostly regarded as a progressive "blue" state, having produced Robert La Follette, 1924 presidential nominee of the Progressive Party. La Follette got nearly 17% of the national vote that year, the best showing for a third–party candidate between 1912 and 1992.

La Follette began his political life as a Republican. Joe McCarthy, a controversial right–wing Republican senator, came from Wisconsin, too. In fact, although Wisconsin is often thought of as a Democratic state today, the truth is that the Republican Party got its start in a meeting at a school in Ripon, Wisconsin, in the mid–19th century. Opposition to slavery was the unifying theme at the time.

In 2008, Barack Obama won Wisconsin by more than 400,000 votes. Obama's 56% share of the vote was the highest in that state for any presidential candidate since 1964.

With the exception of the southeastern corner of the state (where Milwaukee is — although Milwaukee County itself voted 2 to 1 for Obama), the Democratic ticket cruised to victory in just about every county.

Based on that — and the fact that Democrats have carried Wisconsin in every election since 1988 — Wisconsin has acquired a reputation as a decidedly blue state.

But that six–election streak is a bit deceiving. Before 2008, Wisconsin was more of a purple state.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry beat Republican George W. Bush in Wisconsin by about 11,000 votes. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore beat Bush there by about 5,000 votes.

Prior to that, Bill Clinton did win the state by comparatively comfortable margins, and Michael Dukakis did get a majority of the vote against George H.W. Bush (even though his margin was less than 100,000 votes).

But Republicans won Wisconsin in four of the five elections prior to the Bush–Dukakis race — and the only exception was a narrow victory for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Wisconsin's political allegiance seems to shift every couple of decades. The state often seems determined to march to the beat of a different drum. It even voted against Franklin Roosevelt the fourth time he sought the presidency in 1944.

There were indications in the midterms of 2010 that such a shift could be happening in Wisconsin now. Wisconsin's House delegation went from being majority Democrat to majority Republican, Republican Scott Walker was elected governor and survived a recall election in June of this year, and Ron Johnson upset three–term Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold, becoming the first duly elected Republican senator from Wisconsin in a quarter of a century.

Obama is still popular in Wisconsin, but consider this: Ryan's district re–elected him with 64% of the vote in 2008. In the same election, that district gave Obama 51% of its vote. Clearly, many of the residents of that district who voted for Obama also voted for Ryan.

In fact, even if one assumes that every voter in the district who voted for John McCain also voted for Ryan — and experience tells me that some did not — the conclusion that more than one–fourth of Obama's supporters must have voted for Ryan, too, is inescapable.

But Ryan has never been in a statewide race before. The elections of Walker and Johnson two years ago suggest that Wisconsin is receptive to the idea, but the most recent polls I have seen indicate that Obama is poised for a narrow victory in the state. Marquette University's latest poll shows Obama leading Romney, 50 to 45, which is about what most polls have been showing.

And conventional wisdom holds that, in an election involving an incumbent, undecided voters usually (but not unanimously) tend to break for the challenger. In that pre–Ryan environment, Democrats could anticipate a slim win in Wisconsin.

Of course, none of the polls were taken after Ryan was introduced as Romney's running mate.

Presumably, new surveys are being conducted now, which will give us some context for comparison as we get closer to Election Day.

If subsequent polls show the race tightening, Democrats may be forced to fight for Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Random Thoughts About Paul Ryan

The first thought I had this morning when I saw Paul Ryan being introduced as Mitt Romney's running mate was of Dan Quayle, vice president under George H.W. Bush.

Nearly 24 years ago to the day, Bush presented Quayle as his presumptive running mate at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Bush, of course, had been Ronald Reagan's vice president for eight years and was running more or less as the Gipper's substitute.

And, consequently, he benefited from Reagan's popularity.

But his choice of a running mate was widely criticized. Quayle, who was only about a year younger than Ryan is today, was bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm, yelping and squealing like a kid on a sugar high. Even some Republicans found it difficult to swallow.

In fact, none other than Ed Rollins, who managed Reagan's re–election campaign in 1984, lamented that the convention "was supposed to be [Bush's] showcase week," but that "got stomped on" by the selection of Quayle.

Initially, Ryan reminded me of Quayle, doing a little whooping and cheerleading as he walked to and then stood before a microphone. But, as he got into his remarks, it was clear that Ryan is no Dan Quayle. In comparison to Quayle, Ryan could be judged a success if he simply gets through his acceptance speech with a little maturity — and he showed more than a little of that in his introduction this morning.

In fact, Joe Biden is likely to realize rather quickly — probably well in advance of the vice presidential debate in a couple of months — that Ryan is no Sarah Palin, either. Palin's lack of knowledge on key issues was widely ridiculed, but nothing remotely like that could be said of Paul Ryan.

Ryan, wrote Michael Barone and Chuck McCutcheon in the 2012 Almanac of American Politics, "is regarded as an intellectual leader in the GOP for his unrivaled influence on fiscal matters."

Speaking of debates, Quayle made the observation in his debate with Lloyd Bentsen that his congressional career was as lengthy as John F. Kennedy's when he was elected president — which was almost, but not quite, correct and gave Bentsen the opening for his famous line that Quayle was "no Jack Kennedy."

(Ryan's congressional service actually does match Kennedy's in length.)

The Bush–Quayle ticket went on to win that 1988 election in spite of Quayle, but it was a different time, and no one yet knows the kind of impact Ryan may or may not have on the race. True, the Democrats led in the polls when both running mates were announced, but Bush overcame that during the general election campaign.

Romney doesn't face the kind of mountain to climb that Bush did, but he doesn't have the benefit of being a member of a successful lame–duck president's team, either.

Romney's task is just the opposite — to make the case that the Obama administration has been a failure — and Ryan seemed well qualified to make that argument.

No, Paul Ryan is no Dan Quayle. And he is no Sarah Palin.

Accept it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Arc of History

History really is a funny thing, isn't it?

I've been studying history all my life, but I have only recently (well, comparatively speaking) come to realize certain things about it.

I always realized those things, I guess, but in a compartmentalized sort of way. It is only recently that I have seen how subtly intricate is the link that binds them.

And I can say that it does help to connect the dots. It puts things in context.

See, I have always believed that history really does repeat itself. It doesn't do so precisely — well, not usually — but, at least in hindsight, it is possible to see the repetition.

Every presidential election year seems to inspire articles from people that demonstrate the similarities between that year and some year that preceded it — which, in turn, provides some kind of predictive advantage.

See, all this happened in the year XXXX. That means it will happen again this year. That is the logic of such people, and it is flawed.

For some reason, the 2012 campaign seems to have inspired more than its share of such historical speculation, which seems rather odd because we've never had a non–white incumbent seeking re–election before. From that standpoint, it seems to me that we're really in uncharted waters here. Whatever Obama has done or not done as president, it seems he is always being judged in a racial context — by both his supporters and his foes.

But it isn't just the racial element that makes this campaign different. The fact is that no two elections are the same. There might be similar factors, but there are always differences. Different times, different candidates, different issues.

For awhile, when Barack Obama was frequently being compared to FDR, I heard his supporters arguing that his bid for a second term would be a lot like Roosevelt's campaign for a second term in 1936.

They continued to make the case for that scenario even when Obama's approval ratings slipped well below the level most political scientists consider viable for electoral success.

There has been no real way to compare pre–election job approval numbers for Obama and FDR because such surveys were not being conducted in 1936.

However ...

FDR overcame bad poll numbers, too, I have heard Obama's supporters argue, which is true — but it is also misleading. Polling really was embryonic in those days, and pollsters only sampled people with access to telephones or cars.

Millions of Americans could afford neither and, therefore, were not polled — but they showed up to vote on Election Day.

More recently, I've heard the 1936 analogy used to explain why Obama, in spite of a jobless rate that historically means sure defeat for an incumbent, will win. With an unemployment rate that is currently 8.3%, Obama faces the kind of obstacle that only one president in modern times has been able to overcome.

That president was FDR in 1936, but it is important to remember that, when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, roughly one–quarter of working–age Americans had no jobs. The unemployment rate was still in double digits when Roosevelt won his second term — but it was dramatically lower than it had been when he took office four years earlier.

The unemployment rate under Obama has been worse — at times, dramatically so — on every day of his presidency than it was the day he took the oath of office.

The comparison to Roosevelt simply isn't plausible.

I've also heard the 2012 campaign compared to the 1948 campaign, in which an unpopular president, Harry Truman, defied the polls and won an upset over Republican Tom Dewey.

But polling wasn't much more sophisticated in 1948 than it was in 1932. Pollsters saw a significant lead for Dewey in October and stopped polling under the assumption that the election was a done deal.

Thus, they missed the surge in Truman's direction late in the campaign.

I've been intrigued by how both Obama's campaign and Mitt Romney's campaign have drawn inspiration from successful campaigns run by the opposition in modern times.

Obama, for example, undoubtedly would like for 2012 to resemble 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re–elected by a landslide in spite of a jobless rate that exceeded 7.0%, but I have heard no economists who believe there is a chance that something like that could happen this year.

If that outcome isn't likely, Democrats probably would settle for a narrow victory like the one George W. Bush enjoyed eight years ago.

And that does seem like the playbook they're following.

Bush achieved his victory with a series of negative ads that raised doubts about John Kerry's greatest strength, his service during the Vietnam War. Obama already has spent millions of dollars on negative advertisements intended to raise doubts about Romney's greatest strength at a time of economic distress, his success in the business world — but with little movement in the polls to show for it.

(That scenario, I expect, has additional significance for Obama — an incumbent running for re–election against a bland, wealthy candidate from Massachusetts.)

Romney would like for 2012 to be more like 1992, when an incumbent president was defeated by another governor. The economy is worse now than it was 20 years ago, but there was a very popular independent candidate in that race, a factor that — so far, at least — has not materialized this year (and we're running out of time for it).

(Frankly, I have always wondered if Ross Perot's campaign really made that much of a difference in the ultimate outcome. Exit polls at the time indicated that, if Perot had not re–entered the race that fall, 40% of his supporters would have voted for President Bush, 40% would have voted for Bill Clinton and 20% would not have voted at all.)

Mostly, though, Romney and his people seem to draw inspiration from 1980, when Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. There was a third candidate in that race, too, but he didn't draw nearly the support that Perot did and had no real influence on the outcome.

That scenario may be possible, although there are still a few noteworthy differences.

For one, Carter was beset by both economic adversity and a hostage situation. The anniversary of the takeover of the American embassy in Iran happened to fall on Election Day, which may well have pushed some fence–sitters into Reagan's column at the last minute.

Obama has plenty of economic issues working against him, but he seems to be on reasonably stable ground with voters on his foreign policies. Something could happen to make voters question the wisdom of those policies, but, right now, Obama is highly unlikely to face the same kind of double whammy that Carter did.

And there is another factor about 1980 that must be considered. Many people romanticize that time and confuse the Reagan of the campaign trail with the Reagan he became in office.

I am really not certain how that kind of variable might be applied to this year's campaign, if at all.

In 1980, the popular impression of Reagan was that he was a crazy old man who would start a nuclear war with the Soviets, and the Carter campaign used that relentlessly.

The record shows that, in eight years as president, Reagan never fired a single nuclear weapon at anyone. True, he was a hawk on military matters, and he favored a strong defense, but he launched no nuclear wars.

Nevertheless, there was a nugget or two of truth in the charge that he would be a reckless commander in chief. Reagan did have something of a history of being defiant when challenged. He could be angry at times, as he was when he protested at the debate in New Hampshire that he was "paying for this microphone."

Republican primary voters responded to that kind of show of strength. It contrasted with Carter's apparent timidity. But Democrats and independents had to be won over. At a time of tension with the Soviet Union, Reagan frightened many voters.

How well did Reagan succeed in neutralizing those fears? Well, his aw, shucks approach to his one and only debate with Carter — and his "There you go again" response to the president's insistence on repeating his negative charges — reassured voters that Reagan was not the loose cannon they had been told he was.

The popular image of Reagan today is of an amiable, kindly man whose presidency produced a booming economic recovery, which was what most Americans wanted in 1980 — along with the release of the hostages.

But there probably will be no similar foreign crisis this year — unless it is of an economic nature.

However, I have heard talk from some people that an October surprise is already planned — in Iran. Oh, the irony!

History does not repeat itself, Mark Twain supposedly said, but it does rhyme.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Job One

When I was growing up, I remember my father telling me he believed the best thing about America was that the right person always came along to provide the leadership the nation needed at the time it needed it.

Dad isn't a classic historian. He taught religion and philosophy at one of the local colleges (there were three) in my rather small hometown so, certainly, biblical history was part of his courses. And he did study history in general to a certain extent — and on certain sub–topics that were of interest to him — but he has never been the go–to guy to put things into historical perspective.

Nevertheless, I had to admit that he was right. America's had its share of incompetent leaders in the last two centuries, but, when the chips have really been down, usually someone steps forward — Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts — to keep the country from veering too far off the path.

Kind of smacks of predestination or manifest destiny, doesn't it? Well, maybe it is a variation on the theme of American exceptionalism, but I think that, given our history, Americans have earned the right to see themselves as exceptional.

You can always find scabs to pick at in American history. This nation isn't perfect. It is a work in progress. We acknowledged that from the beginning, yet we asserted our exceptionalism, in the preamble to the Constitution, when we spoke of seeking to be a more perfect Union.

(Barack Obama used this phrase himself in a speech during the 2008 campaign. You may remember it. It was given amid the controversy brought on by Rev. Jeremiah Wright's infamous "God damn America" remarks.)

It is a nation that was founded on faith. Even if a person has no real religious faith, most Americans do have faith in their country and the concept of limitless opportunity here. We have tried — not always successfully but we have tried — to change those things about ourselves that are contrary to our lofty self–image.

That faith has been severely challenged in the last four or five years by an economic crisis unlike any since the Great Depression. For a president who was elected on the strength of voters' belief in hope and change, it can be staggering when you talk to those who have completely given up hope during his tenure.

Their ranks are likely to swell, I am afraid, with today's jobs report. The economy did add 163,000 jobs in July, and the average monthly jobs gain in 2012 has been 151,000, which is adequate to keep up with population growth, observes Christopher Rugaber of the Associated Press, but it isn't enough to bring unemployment down.

And that was really Obama's mission when he was elected. He made a lot of other promises to a lot of other groups, but the economy and joblessness were the two dark clouds that hung over the Republican–held White House and truly made it possible for a black man with limited political experience to be elected president by an electoral vote landslide.

Until that implosion, the race was neck and neck. Many Democrats openly wondered if Obama had made a mistake in picking Joe Biden as his running mate. Hillary Clinton would have united the party, many said.

The economy's implosion was a very recent development when voters went to the polls in November 2008. It certainly wasn't the reason that either Obama or John McCain got into the race to begin with, but righting the economic ship had become the #1 concern that September.

That hasn't happened, and a recent Gallup poll shows voters want the next president to make the economy and job creation his top — if not sole — priority.

Indeed,through most of Obama's presidency, poll after poll has indicated that it is still voters' top concern. But good news from the Labor Department has been rare. In fact, the unemployment rate went up — to 8.3% — in today's report.

Which puts the president in a position — historically — that makes his re–election prospects seem weaker each day.

With about three months left before the election, Barack Obama faces some pretty steep historical mountains to climb — and not much time to conquer them.

The most ominous is the fact that, when the unemployment rate has been 7% or higher on Election Day, practically no incumbent presidents have won. Ronald Reagan, in 1984, was an exception, but Reagan had a steadily improving economy working in his favor. Obama doesn't have that.

Conventional wisdom also holds that, if a president's approval ratings are below 50% on Election Day, that president is toast. This president, who entered office with three of every five Americans approving (when, technically, there was nothing to approve), hasn't received the consistent approval of a majority of respondents in more than a year.

Recent polls show Obama's approval in the 40s, and today's jobs report isn't likely to help.

Another rule of thumb is that right track/wrong track question that pollsters ask. Essentially, voters are asked if they think the country is on the right track or the wrong track. When the majority say the wrong track, that isn't a good sign for the incumbent.

The latest poll results I have seen on that question were reported by Rasmussen Reports. Only 29% of respondents said the country was heading in the right direction.

(The good news in that for Obama is that the number is up from this time last year, when only 14% believed the country was going in the right direction.)

Rasmussen's figure is a little lower than the others I have seen, which are typically in the 30–36% range, but even the most positive of them has no good news for the administration.

The other truism of American politics has to do with personal income. People vote their wallets. I have always believed it is the reason why Reagan's question at the end of his debate with Jimmy Carter — "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" — resonated the way it did.

Personal income is a little harder to boil down into easily digestible numbers, like the unemployment rate, presidential job approval and right track/wrong track, but the Commerce Department reported recently that personal income was up modestly in June. A troubling side note was the decline in personal spending; in a consumer–based economy, that is definitely not a good sign.

Those four historical factors — frequently cited by historians, pollsters and political scientists as the most reliable predictors of an election's outcome — are all working against the incumbent.

And it doesn't seem likely to me that he can reverse those trends in three months.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Farewell, Eleanor

I was looking at the obituary section of my hometown newspaper's website, and I saw that an old friend of the family passed away this week.

Her name was Eleanor Opitz, and she was one of my mother's closest friends. They were community activists together in the central Arkansas town where I grew up. They frequently supported the same political candidates and volunteered in the local campaign headquarters, giving out pamphlets and bumper stickers and buttons and answering phones.

Even though I was quite young, I put in some time with them at the campaign headquarters. I learned a lot from both, and it was from Eleanor that I learned much about people and politics.

I have always thought Mom was the most knowledgeable person I ever knew, but Eleanor was a close second. And I'll tell you something that is funny.

My mother died more than 17 years ago (that isn't the funny part). But ever since I saw Eleanor's obituary, I've had the same thought bouncing around in my head. I have to tell Mom that Eleanor has died. She would want to know.

And then I remember that, of course, I can't tell Mom.

I haven't had that feeling since the Christmas after Mom died, when I went through the stores and saw all kinds of things that I would have given Mom if she had still been around. And I had to remind myself that, of course, she wasn't around anymore.

There aren't many people in this world — outside of my father and brother — I associate that closely with my mother.

Once, I recall chatting with Eleanor on a primary day.

In those days, you practically had to have sworn affidavits in your possession affirming that you really would be out of town on Election Day in order to cast what was known then as an absentee ballot. Otherwise, you had to vote on Election Day. No exceptions.

Today, early voting periods are commonplace, and no one has to jump through hoops to vote early.

Anyway, Arkansas held its primary in June in those days so I was out of school and I had gone early that day to the headquarters for whichever candidate it was that Mom and Eleanor and I were supporting.

Eleanor wasn't in the office when I got there around 9 a.m. She showed up a few minutes later and explained that she had been voting. I didn't think much about that, and I didn't ask her why she had gone to the polling place in the morning, but she told me, anyway.

"I always vote early in the day," Eleanor told me. "That way, if I get hit by a bus or something in the afternoon, I know my vote will be counted!"

The more I think of it, she may have told me that on the day in 1974 that Bill Fulbright lost the primary for his Senate seat to Gov. Dale Bumpers. Mom and Eleanor and I were supporters of Fulbright, and the outcome wouldn't have been affected if Eleanor had been prevented from voting. My memory is that Bumpers won by a 2–to–1 margin.

But Eleanor impressed on me the importance of showing up. On one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing, the point was often made that "decisions are made by those who show up." Eleanor was a believer. She made me a believer, too. It's probably why I always vote in the early voting period.

The other memory of Eleanor that stands out probably was from around the same time.

Mom and I were visiting Eleanor one day, taking advantage of her swimming pool on a hot summer day. I brought along a book I had just started reading — a paperback copy of the edited White House transcripts that Richard Nixon hoped would satisfy congressional investigators who had been trying to gain access to the tapes of Oval Office meetings and telephone conversations.

And I read it between dips in the pool.

When Nixon released the transcripts, they only succeeded in re–igniting a debate over executive privilege, supplemented by discussions about the content of the transcripts. A lot of people criticized the frequent "expletive deleted" labels that were inserted to hide Nixon's private swearing from public view, but many others read them more critically — including Eleanor.

Eleanor compared the transcripts to what had been said in congressional hearings and took a pretty even–handed approach to it all. Mind you, she loathed Nixon, but she was nothing if not fair. She wouldn't kick a man when he was down unless she had been given ample reason.

"There are times," she told me, "when I read the transcripts and I am inclined to say, 'Hang him!' But then I will read something else and I will think that, just maybe, his story is plausible."

If you are old enough to remember Nixon, you may agree that that is about the fairest thing anyone could say about him.

(I learned something ironic from Eleanor's obituary. Her birthday was August 10 — which was the day after Nixon resigned.)

I don't know what caused Eleanor's death. Her obituary didn't mention a cause, but my guess is that she had some sort of illness — and that, at some point recently, she knew that she was going to die.

I say that because the obituary explicitly stated that Eleanor asked that anyone who would be attending her graveside service wear casual clothing. She wanted everyone to "be comfortable," the obituary said.

That really was typical of Eleanor. It's supposed to be 104° in my hometown Saturday. The graveside service will be in the morning, but it is sure to be in the 90s by then.

Yet, even with her own mortality staring her in the face, Eleanor's thoughts were of those who would be left behind.

Eleanor was a remarkable woman, an inspiration to me when I was young and I'm sure she was every bit as inspirational to others in her last years.

Rest in peace, Eleanor.