Sunday, January 20, 2013

Inaugural Day 2013

According to the 20th Amendment, today is the day the president takes the oath of office.

And Barack Obama did take that oath today. But he did so in private.

I suppose that is a fitting metaphor for a president who prefers to bypass the constitutionally prescribed system of checks and balances, but this is done with the blessing of American tradition, if not the Constituton itself.

The 20th Amendment, which was ratified 80 years ago this Wednesday, changed Inauguration Day from March 4 to Jan. 20. That was a necessary change. When the country was founded a couple of centuries ago, it made sense to have the inauguration in March. It was likely that a newly elected president would need all that time to tie up any loose ends in his private life and then travel to Washington to begin his presidency.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the trip to Washington could be long and arduous for a president—elect. But in the 20th century, with the train and the automobile already established as means of transportation and the airplane emerging as one, it wasn't necessary to wait an additional six weeks for the new president to take office.

Especially if the new president was taking office during an economic or international crisis.

The 20th Amendment doesn't mention anything about what is to be done when Inaugural Day falls on a Sunday. I presume that is a tradition dating to the 18th century that continues today.

And, although I consider myself well–versed in American history and traditions, that was a tradition of which I was unaware until 1985. That was the first time in my lifetime that Inaugural Day fell on a Sunday.

Ronald Reagan had been re–elected a couple of months earlier so he took the oath of office for the second time. Nevertheless, I began thinking of how awkward it could be for an outgoing president to have to watch an incoming president take the oath of office twice.

After all, the outgoing president must be on hand for the transfer of power — if at all possible. If the outgoing president is leaving because he has served his two terms, that is one thing, but if the outgoing president was defeated in the most recent election, that is another.

The outgoing president must greet the incoming president at the White House and then ride with him to the Capitol for the public ceremony. It's a short ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, but it could seem interminable if the two are still angry at each other over things that were said during the campaign.

And, for an outgoing president who has been rejected at the polls, it may seem like cruel and unusual punishment to have to stand by and watch his successor take the oath twice.

I don't know if that has ever happened. This is only the third time since the ratification of the 20th Amendment that Inaugural Day has fallen on a Sunday. Each time, the president being sworn in was the incumbent who had been re–elected a couple of months earlier.

If that tradition of a private ceremony on Sunday and a public one on Monday was being observed prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment, the last time that March 4 fell on a Sunday was in 1917 — when Woodrow Wilson was taking the oath of office for the second time.

I suppose I began thinking about this in 1985 because I had been a supporter of Reagan's opponent in the 1984 election, former Vice President Walter Mondale (who lost in a 49–state landslide).

Maybe I was indulging in a little wishful thinking. It's not as if Mondale was ever really in that race.

But Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, was in the 2012 race. Some people think he had the momentum until Superstorm Sandy halted it in the final week of the campaign.

If Sandy had not been a late factor in the race, Romney might have won the election.

And, today, Obama would have been forced to stand by while Romney took the oath of office — and then he would have been forced to do so again tomorrow.

Obama was spared that, however. Time will tell if that was a blessing — or a curse.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Paradoxical Century of Nixon

"The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes; because only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain. ... Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember: Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win, unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

Richard Nixon (1913–1994)
Farewell address, Aug. 9, 1974

Today is the centennial of Richard Nixon's birth.

That is an odd thing to realize, remembering the Nixon years as I do. I was only a child at the time, but I was old enough to understand that America's young people were protesting being sent halfway around the world to fight in a war that few of them seemed to support.

Or that blacks were rioting in all of the major cities in the United States.

It was a strange and confusing time, an unsettling time in America and the world when Nixon finally won the presidency 45 years ago — and the American people probably couldn't have elected a stranger man president.

Nor, I suppose, could they have elected a more intelligent president.

Nixon was an enigma during his life. He remains so nearly 20 years after his death.

"Do you want to make a point, or do you want to make a change? Do you want to get something off your chest, or do you want to get something done?"

Nixon campaign speech, 1968

In the years that have passed since the end of the Nixon presidency, I have often reflected on him and wondered which of the Nixons the public saw was the real Nixon — the one who seemed to so earnestly pursue the label of peacemaker or the often–crude, conniving Nixon of the White House tapes.

I'm inclined to think that, somewhere in between, the truth lies.

But one thing of which I am certain at this time, when Nixon's Republican Party is looking for a way to recapture the U.S. Senate and the White House, is that the GOP can learn some important things from Nixon's career.

Nixon wasn't quite the right–winger that modern political observers may think of when they think of the Republican Party. In his day, right–wingers could be found in both parties, but even then, Nixon wasn't a conventional Republican.

For one thing, he wasn't exactly an advocate of smaller government. Well, not entirely. He founded the Environmental Protection Agency. He was also behind the federal government's first affirmative action program.

During the Nixon presidency, "liberal" and "conservative" were not the most popular terms that were used to describe the existing political divide. "Hawk" and "dove," which were really more about military/foreign policy, were heard more frequently in those days.

That's because everything, it seemed, was seen through the prism of international conflict — in much the same way, things today are seen through the narrow prism of social issues.

Things are interrelated, though, which is what I often think modern politicos overlook. Nixon didn't. He was a true centrist, and the proof, I think, can be found in the fact that he often drew fire from both liberals and conservatives.

The nature of politics is that if a decision is made that will benefit one group, it must affect another group in an adverse way. If something is given to someone, it must be taken from someone else. Nixon sought to be at the center of the imaginary scale, where losses could be minimized.

But it also minimized the gains. Nixon won re–election by one of the widest margins in American history, but he was forced from office less than two years later. His majority was not permanent.

Nixon was a proponent of the triangulation theory long before it was applied to things like the assassination of President Kennedy. It was at the heart of his famous trips to Russia and China in 1972.

Nixon played one against the other that year. He certainly appeared to be motivated by a desire to "get something done," to be, as he said in his first inaugural address, a peacemaker.

But his motives weren't always clear. And, while I realize Nixon's flaws were many, that may have been his greatest — that he was self–centered.
"He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time."

Hunter S. Thompson

Perhaps, in the 21st century, Nixon would be regarded as a RINO by members of the Republican Party. Then as now, there were members of each party who despised members of the other party on principle, but Nixon had his share of detractors within his own party as well.

Nevertheless, he knew how to win, both elections and legislative battles, and his knowledge came from having to adapt to changing conditions. As president, he promoted things like environmental protection and affirmative action as much to pre–empt his rivals as anything else.

It seems to me from what I have read that, if Watergate had not interfered, Nixon might have pursued policies in his second term that, in effect, repealed many of the more liberal policies of his first term.

His performance on the foreign stage was filled with contradictions, though, and I haven't a clue what a Nixon unencumbered by Watergate might have done in that arena.

When he sought his second term, after failing to end the Vietnam conflict as promised in the explosive year of 1968, he often spoke of seeking "peace with honor" — an objective he pursued with an apparently contrary expansion of the war to neighboring countries.

Incredibly, he won re–election by seizing the reputation of peacemaker from the Democrats, who fancied themselves the party of peace.

That was the tightrope Nixon walked as a centrist, and that was hard to do then, but it is even more difficult now.

For the most part, Republicans have nominated presidential candidates who were center or right–of–center in their politics since Nixon's day (and even before), but, increasingly, those nominees are expected to pass a right–wing litmus test that only extremists can truly pass.

That is something Republicans are going to have to give up if they hope to continue to be one of the parties in our two–party system.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, I heard many Republicans bemoaning their performance with minorities and discussing ways to appeal to those groups. Forty years ago, Nixon received more than one–third of the black vote, about six times the share of the black vote that Mitt Romney received two months ago.

Romney, of course, had a black opponent, and Nixon did not. Nevertheless, there are lessons for modern Republicans to learn from Nixon about adjusting to a changing political landscape.

But Nixon was a flawed man, and, thus, it was ironic that he was struck by an almost blinding moment of clarity in the very last moments of his presidency. As he gave his farewell address, he advised the White House staff, "Others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

That was Nixon's story. He had achieved what he set out to achieve, but he was undone by his own hatreds and insecurities.

It was almost Shakespearean. Nixon held what he most desired in the palms of his hands, but it slipped through his fingers and shattered on the floor.

The century of Nixon stands as a cautionary tale. It offers guidance in how to cobble together a political coalition, and it offers guidance in how not to lose what you have won.

A century after his birth, Richard Nixon remains a paradox.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Sonny Side Up

"Keep your sunny side up, up,
Drown a frown with a smile.
If you think it's raining for you,
Just remember, others are blue."

Lew Brown

The timing was ironic, I suppose, for Mary Bono Mack's defeat in her bid for another term in the U.S. House last November.

She has represented that California district ever since she was elected to succeed her late husband, Sonny Bono, who died in a skiing accident 15 years ago today.

Whenever I think of him, I mostly think of him as an entertainer, primarily in his musical partnership with his second wife, Cher. They recorded a few hit songs together, the most noteworthy being "I Got You, Babe," which was their signature song.

Nearly all of my exposure to Bono was the result of his entertainment career. And I always made a mental connection between him and the song "Sunny Side Up," even though it wasn't one of his compositions — and, to my knowledge, he never sang it in public.

Sonny was an appropriate name for him. I don't know how he acquired that nickname — it certainly wasn't his given name — but it described his personality.

I can still remember the first time I saw Sonny Bono in a non–entertainment context. (Well, it was kind of entertaining, in its way.)

It was during TV coverage of the 1976 Republican National Convention.

Bono had been invited to sit with President Gerald Ford's family, and TV cameras frequently showed his image as he hobnobbed with the president's wife and children.

The most comical moment came when Bono and the first lady disco danced after Ford had secured the nomination.

Until I saw Bono at the Republican convention, I had no idea what his political leanings were.

And I might never have known his political views if he had not encountered a mountain of red tape when he tried to open a restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif. Largely because of that experience, he ran for — and was elected — the mayor of Palm Springs in 1988.

Six years later, he was elected to Congress. It was a couple of months after he had won his third term that he hit a tree while skiing near Lake Tahoe.

Sonny was a character, but he understood public relations in a way that few do. After the Republicans had seized control of both houses of Congress in 1995, he reportedly observed that Republican leader Newt Gingrich had gone from being regarded as simply a politician to being a celebrity.

And that was a game changer.

"The rules are different for celebrities," Bono told the authors of "Tell Newt to Shut Up."

"You need handlers. You need to understand what you're doing. You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities."

Bono always seemed to handle himself just fine, and it might not be a bad idea for today's politicians to follow the example he set. He was humble, a carryover, perhaps, from his entertainment days when he always used to say Cher was a better singer.

(She was, but that was beside the point.)

He brought a common–man approach to his work in Washington. A member of the House Judiciary Committee even though he held no law degree (he didn't even finish high school), I recall that Bono complained that the lawyers on the committee were fond of rhetorical games and did more to restrict law enforcement than empower it.

Sonny might not fit the modern Republican Party. He was, reportedly, more accepting of his gay daughter (who redefined herself as a transsexual after his death) than Cher, the more liberal of the two.

He was something of an environmentalist, and he was always a patron of the arts. While mayor of Palm Springs, he helped create the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

He was often put down by his congressional colleagues and the media that covered him. He was called a "dim bulb" and an "idiot savant from way beyond the Beltway," but he had common sense that many of today's lawmakers could use.