Monday, September 17, 2012

Preserving, Protecting and Defending Our Constitution

It is ironic that we should observe the 225th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Constitution at this time.

I know some folks who think the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are one and the same. That simply isn't so. The Constitution was created in 1787 and ratified in 1788. The Bill of Rights wasn't even created until 1789. America was very much a work in progress at that time — as it still is.

The 225th is a milestone — even if it lacks the pizzazz of a centennial or bicentennial — which is always an occasion for reflection.

This particular milestone, however, is more than an occasion to pause and reflect on the past. It is an occasion to ask ourselves where we are going and if a Constitution that was written in the 18th century is the appropriate vehicle to take us there.

The Constitution is the document that spells out the powers and duties of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government.

And the president's #1 duty is ...
"The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States ..."

U.S. Constitution
Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1

When the president takes the oath of office, he swears that he will "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution (which does not mention things like education, health care, marriage law, etc., being presidential responsibilities).

In other words, national security and defense are the president's top priorities. Some would say they are the president's only responsibilities. I don't feel that way. The president clearly has important domestic responsibilities as well, but he is the face of American foreign policy

However, it is Congress, not the president, that is authorized to declare war.

That condition has eroded considerably since about the mid–20th century.

And it leads me to wonder sometimes if the Constitution needs to be overhauled. I'm afraid, though, that, as polarized as this nation is, no consensus could be reached.

To listen to the presidential candidates this year — at least until recently — one would think that foreign policy no longer had any relevance to American life.

But the events last week in the Middle East prove that is not the case.

So it is a good thing that this Constitution Day brings a fresh reminder that, while a sound economic policy is critical to the well being of the United States, a president has a sacred commitment to the nation's security and defense.

Until last week, the most I had heard from either side regarding national security and defense was Joe Biden's proposal for a bumper sticker: "bin Laden is dead and GM is alive."

That kind of attitude demeans the importance of this portion of the presidential job description. To be sure, the economy and jobs are the most important issues facing this country, in the minds of most Americans, but that does not mean national security and defense have stopped being important.

What has happened — and continues to happen — in the Middle East underscores the fact that no president can control what people in other countries do. Jimmy Carter could not control the radical Muslims in Iran, and Barack Obama cannot control the radicals in Egypt or Libya or Syria.

The best any president can do is insist that U.S. troops be prepared. It is an ongoing responsibility. It cannot be checked off one's presidential to–do list simply by eliminating Public Enemy #1 from the global terrorism roster.

It's not so unusual for Democrats to ignore national defense issues, but it is rather unusual for Republicans to do so. Yet, that is what they did in their convention.

Voters can be forgiven for wondering if either candidate is prepared to stand up for them against a hostile world.

All along, the Obama administration has pretended — to its peril as well as the peril of the rest of us — that the situation in the Middle East was not what the rest of the world could see it really was.

Which goes a long way toward explaining the administration's tepid response to the wave of overt anti–Americanism that is sweeping through the region like a roaring fire.

The administration is perplexed. It sincerely believed that being apologetic and accommodating to the Muslim world would herald a new relationship between America and the countries of that region.

But that has not happened. And now the administration has been forced to acknowledge that privately — it cannot do so publicly because this is an election year.

So the cover story of an objectionable video was invented.

Actually, that's a reasonably plausible straw man, and it seems to be fooling quite a few people. We've already seen how little tolerance countries in that part of the world have for concepts like dissent and free speech, but some simply will not see it.

It seems to me that one would have to be a dunce not to realize the significance of the date on which these protests began. It was the 11th anniversary of 9/11.

Why, you may ask, didn't the terrorists try something on the 10th anniversary? Well, I would say it was not because they didn't hate us. They have hated us for a long time. I think the spotlight was too bright. Security was beefed up everywhere for that anniversary.

But, apparently, no one was really paying attention on the 11th anniversary. The rituals of every 9/11 since 2001 were observed, but I heard no talk of how U.S. forces were on highest alert for the anniversary.

Perhaps the extremists gambled that, since nothing happened in 2011, our guard would be down in 2012. We Americans are notorious for our short attention spans.

Surely, if nothing else, we have seen that these Muslim extremists are extraordinarily patient. After all, they waited nearly 10 years after their first attack on the World Trade Center to launch their second. Why wouldn't they be willing to wait out the 10th anniversary of 9/11 — with the intention of striking on the 11th?

I can't understand why any U.S. forces in the Middle East or any other place in the world where there is a significant Muslim population would not be on their toes on every September 11.

But this time, apparently, they were not. If they had been, four Americans would be alive today.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

When Nixon and Dean Conferred

From the day in July 1973 when their existence was publicly revealed until the Supreme Court ruled against him a year later, Richard Nixon fought to keep the tapes of his Oval Office meetings and his telephone conversations private.

In the end, of course, he wasn't entirely successful. But none of that was known 40 years ago today.

My memory of the summer of 1972 is that very little was known by a public that, by and large, really didn't seem to care. Perhaps it was too obsessed with the war in Vietnam.

But, occasionally, I heard the word Watergate, and, from time to time, I saw articles in the newspaper that had been picked up from the Washington Post — which was, for the most part, out there by itself in practicing the art of shoe–leather journalism, the hallmark of the early investigation.

Most of the folks in the media of 1972 did not care for Nixon — although most of their employers either endorsed him or took a pass — but they tended not to make their feelings known, and many columnists did not challenge the president.

Perhaps they were intimidated by his big (and consistent) leads in the polls — and the knowledge that he was virtually certain to win a second term.

But the truth was that Watergate really didn't receive the kind of attention in 1972 that it did the following year. If it had, it might have been dismissed as politically motivated — and might not have gained traction until 1973, anyway.

(I don't really think it would have made much difference. The "dirty tricks" of the Nixon operatives had succeeded in sabotaging the candidacies of most of the Democrats, and George McGovern was well on his way to the Democratic nomination by the time of the Watergate break–in.

(Replacing McGovern as the nominee would have been a major headache that dwarfed the logistical nightmare created by the scandal that necessitated dropping McGovern's running mate, Tom Eagleton.)

Nevertheless, Nixon and Dean were aware of negative reporting from some journalists. In his testimony to the Senate committee in 1973, Dean seemed to be blaming Nixon for the toxic atmosphere in the White House.

With the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that almost nothing was done in the Nixon White House without the president's knowledge, that is a proposition that is easy to accept.

Their conversation, Dean said, "turned to the press coverage of the Watergate incident and how the press was really trying to make this into a major campaign issue. At one point ... I recall the president telling me to keep a good list of the press people giving us trouble."

Meanwhile, the wheels of justice were turning that summer — often silently, often slowly, but they were turning — and it was 40 years ago today that E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy and the five Watergate burglars were indicted by a federal grand jury.

In hindsight, that was an important turning point in the Watergate investigation. If there had been no initial indictments, the legal basis for continuing with the investigation would have been completely undermined.

And the hope at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was that the matter would stop there. History, of course, tells us it did not.

At the end of that Friday, White House counsel John Dean participated in a White House meeting dedicated to strategy on Watergate–related investigations. It was, Dean would later tell the Senate select committee chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin, the first time he spoke to Nixon about Watergate.

Indeed, Dean claimed, it was the first meeting he had with Nixon.

It's still unclear to me, after all these years, whether Nixon and Dean discussed the matter before Sept. 15, 1972, but the evidence is clear — via the president's own recordings — that they had access to the same sources for information.

At the time, the existence of the voice–activated recording system was known only to a select group — those who needed to know — and, in 1972, Dean was not among them.

Consequently, it was ironic when, the following year, Dean memorably told Republican Sen. Ed Gurney, a member of the so–called "Watergate committee," that "my mind is not a tape recorder."

Dean did not know until after his own testimony, when Alexander Butterfield revealed it under direct questioning, that a system for recording Oval Office conversations had been installed in 1971 — and it ultimately would confirm the credibility of his memory.

The recordings also proved Dean's memory was not flawless. But it was good enough that it earned the respect of investigators, even those whose loyalties were to the Nixon White House.

Dean said it was the very fact that he had been asked in to talk with Nixon that made the conversation so vivid in his memory. Even though he worked in the White House counsel's office, it was hardly routine for him to be invited to the Oval Office.

It's almost spooky now to read the transcript of the Sept. 15 conversation — as submitted by the White House in the spring of 1974 in a futile attempt to satisfy the subpoenas from congressional Democrats — knowing that the recording system was silently preserving everything.

As I re–read the transcript recently, I was struck, as always, by the casual way — visible even in the clearly doctored version — Nixon treated decisions that were intended to keep a lid on things. And by the anger — the raw sense of entitlement — that often flared when he believed others had not responded appropriately.

"You had quite a day today, didn't you?" Nixon said to Dean. "You really got Watergate on the way, didn't you?"

"We tried," Dean replied.

When Dean said that "some apologies may be due" — implying that further action could be avoided if such apologies were offered — chief of staff Bob Haldeman snorted, "Fat chance," and Nixon snarled, "Get the damn," the rest of which was labeled inaudible, although it doesn't take much imagination to complete the thought.

"We can't do that," Haldeman admonished the president.

But the rest of the 50–minute conversation focused on what they could do.

One such strategy revolved around the possibility of providing proof that a bugging device that had been found in a telephone in the DNC office had been "planted" by the DNC.

If such evidence could be found, Dean speculated, it could "reverse" the Watergate story.

When Dean testified before the Senate Watergate Committee the following year, he remembered that Nixon's primary concern was whether the trials would begin before the upcoming election.

Nixon also instructed him, Dean told the senators in June 1973, to "keep track" of those who tried to make Watergate a campaign issue "because we will make life difficult for them after the election."

According to the transcript of the conversation, which was released by the White House in April 1974, Dean was the one who first mentioned keeping a list of the president's critics in the press.

"[O]ne of the things I've tried to do," Dean was quoted as saying, "I have begun to keep notes on a lot of people who are emerging as less than our friends because this will be over someday, and we shouldn't forget the way some of them have treated us."

Knowing the lengths to which Nixon went to cover up his complicity in Watergate, it's certainly possible that the White House manipulated the transcript to make Nixon appear innocent — the transcripts were famously edited to delete the presumably off–color adjectives Nixon and his associates used in their conversations, and it was revealed after Nixon resigned two years later that roughly 17 minutes of the Sept. 15 conversation (during which Nixon was said to have threatened to fire Treasury Secretary George Shultz if he attempted to prevent the White House from using the IRS for political purposes) were missing from the White House transcripts.

(In the transcript, the absence of the remainder of the conversation was dismissed as being "unrelated to Watergate.")

But Nixon's dark side came through, in spite of any whitewash efforts that may have been made.

In the transcript, Nixon responded that "I want the most comprehensive notes on all those who tried to do us in. ... [T]hey were doing this quite deliberately, and they are asking for it, and they are going to get it. We have not used the power in this first four years ... but things are going to change now."

That strikes me as being pretty dark as it is. But what if that portion of the dialogue actually occurred before Dean spoke about keeping notes?

Wouldn't that suggest that Nixon gave Dean an assignment and Dean, in an attempt to butter up the boss in their first meeting, responded with, essentially, "Oh, yes, I'm ahead of you on that."

In the transcript, Dean certainly seems eager to occupy a spot on the president's good side. After Nixon spoke about using "the power" in his second term, Dean responded, "What an exciting prospect."

One can only imagine what might have been.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Life of Mother Teresa

  • "People are often unreasonable, irrational and self–centered. Forgive them anyway.
  • "If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
  • "If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • "If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
  • "What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
  • "If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
  • "The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
  • "Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
  • "In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway."
Mother Teresa (1910–1997)

Fifteen years ago today, the global grief over the untimely death of Princess Diana overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa.

I understood at the time why that was so. Princess Diana was young and beautiful. She seemed to have her whole life ahead of her, and she had already devoted much of her life to helping others. It was seen as a great loss.

Mother Teresa was in her 80s. She, too, had devoted most of her life to helping others, and her loss was considerable as well, but her life seemed to be mostly behind her. Consequently, most of the attention went to the loss of Diana.

Well, that was 1997. It is now 2012. People may look back at that time and think Diana's death was an appalling loss — and it was — but the shock and grief have faded. The memories of the lives and good works of both women are, justifiably, honored by those they left behind.

But, now that so much time has gone by, it seems to me that this is a good time to reflect on Mother Teresa's contribution to a better world.

For nearly half a century, she gave aid and comfort to the poor, sick, orphaned and dying.

She was recognized for her work in many ways — perhaps most notably with the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize (for which she declined the traditional banquet and asked if the nearly $200,000 in prize funds could be given to India's poor).

Mother Teresa sincerely tried to make her corner of the world a better place.

She didn't succeed in changing it. But, by the time she died, I believe she had made it a better place.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Three Years Later ...

Today is Labor Day. It is a holiday that has always been significant for me but for different reasons at different stages of my life.

When I was a child, it meant that the summer was over (even if the summer weather was not), and it was time to go back to the classroom. When I was 7 or 8, I grieved for the loss of my freedom.

As I got older, Labor Day became a three–day weekend, an opportunity to relax and take a day off — and, perchance, watch some football.

It took on a whole new meaning for me when I was terminated from my full–time job four years ago — especially after the economic collapse of September 2008, which followed a couple of weeks later.

The next year, in 2009, unemployment was on a steady upward trajectory. A few days before Labor Day, federal figures showed joblessness at 9.7%. Unemployment topped out a few months later at 10.6%.

All that day, I watched my TV, and I listened to my radio, and I waited for the president to say something — anything — to encourage people who had been looking for work throughout the first year of his presidency.

Some, like me, had been looking for work since before he took the oath of office. And I know I needed encouragement.

But it never came.

So I wrote this.

Barack Obama was more interested in stumping for his health care act and then secluding himself to work on the televised address he planned to give to the schoolchildren of America the next day.

I will never forget the feeling of utter abandonment that I felt on that day. I did not vote for Obama in 2008, but I hoped for his success — because I knew that, if he succeeded, I would succeed, too.

There was a lot of fear and anxiety in the land in September 2009.

But Obama cared more about adolescents than out–of–work Americans.

He lost me — permanently — on that occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if he lost a lot more folks that day. Guess we'll find out in nine weeks.

And now, here we are, three years later. And the president wants to make a big show of how concerned he is with the plight of the unemployed.

But what he really wants is our votes so he can keep his job for four more years. That would give him more flexibility — and those inconvenient unemployed and underemployed Americans can be forgotten once again.

Today I watched — with something of a sense of bewilderment — as the president told people at a campaign rally in Ohio that things were better for the unemployed under his leadership.

As if 8.3% unemployment — and it might be higher when the report comes out on Friday, less than 12 hours after Obama delivers his acceptance speech (for which the NFL moved its season opener so as not to cause a conflict) — is something to brag about.

Well, I guess it is — if you have nothing better.

And, apparently, Obama does not.

I guess things have come full circle — because, once again, I find myself grieving my lost freedom.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Clint Eastwood

Let me be very clear about this.

Clint Eastwood has never been my favorite actor.

I've seen many of his movies over the years. Some I have liked better than others.

But that is the thing, you see. I've never regarded Eastwood as anything other than an actor. Oh, I know he was mayor of a small town south of San Francisco for a couple of years in the 1980s, but he's not an actor/entertainer/politician like George Murphy or Arnold Schwarzenegger — or Ronald Reagan.

Politically, Eastwood has always leaned toward the Republican Party, but he has often taken positions that were at odds with the GOP. In 1974, he told Playboy that he was a "political nothing ... a moderate," and, 23 years later, he told Playboy he was a libertarian.

He supports a number of things that most Republicans do not — he's pro–choice and a supporter of same–sex marriage. He has endorsed Democrats and liberals in the past.

In 2008, though, he endorsed John McCain for president so it really shouldn't be surprising that he has endorsed Mitt Romney this year. (It may be disappointing to some diehard Democrats, but it really couldn't be surprising.)

Politically, I suppose, Clint Eastwood is a bit of an enigma to many people — and his "speech" to the Republican National Convention last week is something of an enigma as well.

Before that performance, I guess a lot of folks expected him to be the tough guy he has often been in his movies when he came out on the stage. Instead, what they got was something of a comedy routine.

To be honest, the thought that went through my mind was that only Eastwood could do this and get away with it — kind of like when Henry Fonda played the really bad guy in "Once Upon a Time in the West."

Fonda had always been the good guy, never the villain. The role was such an extreme reversal that Fonda made the character seem even more menacing, more terrifying than he would have been in anyone else's hands.

For many moviegoers, it was as if Fonda had been captured by the body snatchers, and a mean, vicious person who looked and sounded like Fonda had been left in his place.

Even before Eastwood took the stage, I had decided not to judge his performance as I would a career politician. Consequently, I was not expecting him to deliver a traditional convention speech.

But, apparently, some folks were — and I've been amused to watch their horrified responses.

The usually verbose Rachel Maddow was, seemingly, at a loss for words, finally labeling Eastwood's presentation as "the weirdest thing I've ever seen at a political convention in my entire life."

And MSNBC's uber leftist evening anchor Ed Schultz moaned sanctimoniously about how Eastwood's routine was "demeaning" to the presidency.

Seems to me Schultz really ought to be more concerned about what demeans journalism.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience

That is said to be writer Samuel Johnson's assessment of a man who married for a second time after the death of his first wife ... to whom he had been unhappily married for many years.

I have come to the conclusion that it has many potential applications to Barack Obama and his campaign for a second term — but I'm having some difficulty narrowing it down to the best one.

You see, I have long felt that it is an accurate appraisal of any voter's decision to vote for Obama.

Based on his record in office, it's hard for me to see how anyone who did not vote for Obama in 2008 would be inclined to vote for him now.

2008 was when his appeal was at its zenith, when his soaring rhetoric reminded many people of American presidents from the past who are still admired today.

And, perhaps more than any other presidential election in my memory, 2008 was a choice between a candidate in whom voters saw themselves as they wished to be — and a candidate in whom voters saw themselves as they really are.

The voters selected the idealized version — and many have been disappointed. Clearly. Only 45% of Americans approved of the job he is doing in a recent poll on the subject. That's quite a tumble from the 70s and upper 60s of the early days of his presidency.

But 2012 is a different election. Ultimately, Obama will be judged on whether he has delivered on his promises — as is every incumbent president.

Thirty–two years ago, Ronald Reagan summed it up for fence straddlers who were trying to decide whether to give President Jimmy Carter a second term: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked, and a majority of voters decided the answer was no.

Reagan the challenger was elected.

This is the eighth election since Reagan asked that question in his debate with Carter (ninth if you count the election in which Reagan defeated Carter). It is the fifth election in which that question has been relevant to one of the candidates (again, if you include 1980, it is the sixth such election).

When the answer has been yes, as it was in 1984 when Reagan sought a second term and in 1996 when Bill Clinton sought a second term, the incumbent has won a resounding victory.

When the answer has been no, though, incumbents generally lose (i.e., Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992) — although they have been known to pull out narrow victories once in awhile (i.e., George W. Bush in 2004).

I have no doubt that many of those who voted for Obama four years ago expected more from him than has been delivered.

Some probably feel obliged to support him now because they share the same party affiliation. For others, he pushes the right buttons when he speaks, whether his actions in office have matched his rhetoric or not.

Still others, I have concluded, feel compelled to support Obama — even if they are not satisfied with his performance in office — because they have decided that it would look bad to the rest of the world if the first black president is rejected by the voters.

Those people, I have noticed, are the first (but hardly the last) to point fingers at Obama's critics and label them racist — whether the label is deserved or not.

Now, I know that there are some people who will vote against Obama because of his race (which, as Morgan Freeman rightly pointed out recently, is not black but, rather, biracial). But far more of those who dissent from Obama do so from deeply held personal convictions.

I learned a long time ago that voters evaluate political candidates on the basis of what matters to them. Politicians (and their most devout supporters) do not get to choose what voters use to make their evaluations.

For some voters, what matters is a candidate's race (or gender or religion or sexual preference). I pity them because they are blind to the experiences and talents that many people bring to the table.

But we have been conditioned to assume that racism only works one way.

Lately, I have been wondering something: If we acknowledge that a certain portion of the vote that will be recorded against Obama in November will be due to his race, shouldn't we also acknowledge that a certain portion of the vote for him will be because of his race?

I know there are people out there who support Obama solely because he is black. I know some of them personally, and I know others from their arguments.

Arguments like ...

"Well, I know he isn't perfect, and I disagreed with him when he did W and X, and I didn't approve when he said Y and Z. And I don't feel comfortable with his positions on A, B and C.

"And he could have done more than he's done, but I'm going to vote for him, anyway."

These are the enablers.

And then there are excusers:

"None of this is his fault. He inherited a terrible mess that was years in the making, and it's going to take years to clean it up."

Perhaps, but recent polls I've seen say that about three–quarters of the voters believe the economy and jobs are the most important issues facing this nation.

That really isn't new. A majority of Americans believed that the economy and jobs were the most important issues facing us in 2008.

Or they will say, "We're screwed either way," and then they will tell you that they will vote to keep the guy who is in office.

I've asked some people if they would be inclined to re–elect a white president under these circumstances. They all said no, but they all said they would vote for Obama.

Four years ago, I told anyone who would listen (and even some who didn't want to) that whoever was elected, Obama or John McCain, his urgent mission would be to put America back to work.

If he did not, I warned, he would pay a severe price when he sought re–election.

Well, here we are, four years later. Obama has done little, if anything, to promote job creation. His policies have, in fact, restricted job creation.

And he continues to blame his predecessor — who certainly deserves his share of the blame for what he did in office but not for decisions that have been made since he left the White House.

This is pass–the–buck politics. It used to stop at the president's desk but no more.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Ronald Reagan didn't continue to flog Carter after he had been in office for 3½ years. Nor did Clinton continue to flog the first George Bush when he had been in office for 3½ years.

But Obama feels entitled to play by different rules, and some of his supporters — in what must be the ultimate example of the triumph of hope over experience — are willing to permit him to do so in spite of mounting evidence that points to the folly of such an approach.

I guess those people never watched a carnival shell game — because that's how it works. The guy who is playing the game keeps talking and keeps distracting, and the mark loses track of where he thinks the pea is.

We are about to embark on a week of shrill, unfounded name calling and mudslinging at the Democrats' convention in Charlotte, N.C., on behalf of a man who hasn't been able to bring unemployment below 8% in the entirety of his term.

That must be evidence of reverse racism.

Certainly, it is proof that Samuel Johnson was right.