Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nelson Mandela Is Not Quite Dead

"Only free men can negotiate; prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated."

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized for about three weeks now. His ailment is a familiar one for him — respiratory issues that date to his decades in a South Africa prison.

In the last seven days, there have been heightened concerns about his condition, which was downgraded from serious to critical.

When a 94–year–old man is in the hospital, even if it is for something relatively minor, there is always a certain element of concern. Advanced age can cause complications, and it is over before you know it.

Last weekend, word came that Nelson Mandela was in critical condition. That isn't good news for anyone of Mandela's age, but the consensus seemed to be that, well, he always comes through. He always bounces back. I got the clear sense that the people of South Africa fully expected him to rally the way he always has.

But around midweek, as Robyn Curnow reported for CNN, "fear and resignation" gripped many South Africans "that ... Mandela [would] not be with them much longer." He was on life support. Family members said he was at peace.

A day or two later, though, the hospital announced that Mandela's condition, while still critical, was stable. And that is where things stand today.

I still remember the day in 1990 when Mandela was released from prison. It was a Sunday in February.

At the time, I was in graduate school (classes usually met at night and never on weekends) and working at an afternoon newspaper (which usually meant working in the mornings — except on Saturdays, when we were putting together the Sunday morning editions — and I never worked on Sundays in those days).

I remember switching on my TV and watching what must have been (considering the time difference) tape of Mandela's actual release earlier that day and his slow walk from the prison, holding hands with his wife and being followed by a large entourage.

I had heard of Mandela all my life, but he had been in prison, and all I had seen were pictures of a man in his late 30s or early 40s, not the 71–year–old man I saw on my TV screen that day.

On the day of his release, it was easy to see the deep reverence the people of South Africa had for him. It was reminiscent of other 20th–century leaders.

It is difficult, for instance, not to compare Mandela with Mohandas Gandhi, who was known to his followers as Mahatma ("great soul") or Bapu ("father"). At some point, South Africans began calling Mandela Madiba, which is his clan name — and, consequently, not the same thing as a moniker.

They also call him "tata," which means "father."

To Western ears, the words sound similar, and there are more significant similarities to be seen in both men's roles in their countries' evolutions — not the least of which is the fact that Gandhi's initial efforts as a human rights activist were in South Africa before Mandela's birth.

Anyway, I must admit that, on the day of his release, I thought Mandela had spent his most productive years in prison, that he would never be able to make a significant contribution at his age.

But I should have known, from the then–recent example of Ronald Reagan, that age does not have to be a limitation to service, and it certainly wasn't for Nelson Mandela. If Mandela lives for another 2½ weeks, he will be 95 years old.

In 1993, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South African President Frederik de Klerk for their work for a peaceful transition from apartheid. A year later, he became South Africa's first black president. He decided not to seek a second term, but that wasn't the end for Mandela. He remained politically active even as his health declined in recent years.

Whenever Mandela does die, it would be appropriate to say of him what Albert Einstein said following the assassination of Gandhi 65 years ago:
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

But I will know — and so will you — because we saw him.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ich bin ein Berliner

"All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "

John F. Kennedy
June 26, 1963

Most of the presidents who are remembered fondly by history were eloquent speakers, and most people, even those who don't know much about history, can tell you something about their greatest speeches.

Those speeches often were delivered before dramatic backdrops — like when Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery for those who were killed in that decisive battle. It's been more common in modern times, with the expanded ability to travel, for presidents to deliver their most memorable speeches on the very spots where important things had happened or were about to happen.

The backdrop can contribute much to the effectiveness of a speech, but it isn't as important as the message.

Some presidents, like John F. Kennedy, are remembered for several great speeches, and, while you will find many people who will say his "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." line in his inaugural address was his most memorable and you will find others who point to his commencement address at American University or his address to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis as being significant in other ways, I am inclined to think that the greatest speech Kennedy ever gave was the one he gave in Berlin 50 years ago today.

(I was both gratified and intrigued by L. Ian MacDonald's piece in the Ottawa Citizen. MacDonald wrote that, in "just seven paragraphs on the page and only nine minutes in a delivery continuously interrupted by cheering and applause," Kennedy "tautly defined the terms of the Cold War and correctly predicted the outcome.")

One could hardly imagine a more tension–filled scene. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly West Berliners, many of whom had been separated from family and friends when the Soviets erected the infamous Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin nearly two years earlier, were there to hear him speak. Many became emotional upon hearing the president speak of their tragedies.

And when he said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," it was an expression of solidarity with those West Berliners, the kind of solidarity Germans had rarely felt since the wall went up.

Stephen Evans writes for BBC News that Kennedy "connected with a people under siege" and gave them hope. I think that is obvious, even when one watches footage of the speech half a century later — although it does help to know the context of the times.

But it was also a statement of American policy aimed directly at the Kremlin. Many of the world's leaders had chosen a safe, nonconfrontational approach in their dealings with and references to the Soviet Union.

But not Kennedy.

It seems to me that, for a speech to be considered great, it requires a certain amount of courage on the part of the speaker, and Kennedy displayed that kind of courage half a century ago today. Contrary to what many people believe today, Kennedy did not show that same courage in the civil rights struggles until he had no choice.

But, on this day 50 years ago, he took a courageous stand for freedom standing in front of the greatest symbol of oppression in the world.

In the early 1960s, there were those whose words and actions ignored the threat to freedom posed by Berlin and its communist occupiers. Kennedy refused to let the Soviets off the hook:
"There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin.

"There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.

"And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.

"And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin."

With each repetition of the phrase "Let them come to Berlin," the crowd's approving roar grew louder.

It grew louder still as Kennedy spoke about freedom.

"What is true of this city is true of Germany," Kennedy said. "Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice."

The Berlin Wall eventually did fall more than 25 years later. But I always found that remarkable because, in all the years I was growing up, I never heard Berlin referred to as simply Berlin. That sounded strange to my ear when East and West Germany were unified.

My parents had grown up calling that city Berlin, no East or West designation, but it was always East Berlin and West Berlin for my generation, and the city was divided by the Berlin Wall. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have always been that way.

I had no memory of anything else. The Berlin Wall might as well have been erected in the 18th century along with the Brandenburg Gate — which, incidentally, is where Presidents Reagan and Obama delivered their addresses in Berlin. (Obama, of course, could not give his speech in front of the Wall; it came down 20 years earlier. But Reagan could have spoken in front of it.)

So it was that, when the Berlin Wall finally came down, I watched the news reports in utter astonishment. I might as well have been witnessing the Second Coming; I fully expected to see neither in my lifetime.
"Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free."

When people speak of the Berlin Wall today, there is a tendency to give credit for its fall to Ronald Reagan, and I concede that he deserves his share of the credit — but not all of it. I believe that each of the seven American presidents who served during the wall's existence made his own contribution to the eventual outcome. Freedom and democracy prevailed over communism because, when all is said and done, that is the better way for man to live, and each of those American presidents were committed to that principle.

But it was Kennedy's speech 50 years ago today that truly set the tone for America's policy in that part of the world.

And it re–established America as a champion of freedom everywhere.

When Clinton Hit Back

"What we're doing is sending a message against the people who were responsible for planning this operation. ... [If] anybody asks the same people to do it again, they will remember this message."

Secretary of Defense Les Aspin
Washington Post
June 1993

Believe it or not, there was a time — not so long ago — when American presidents wouldn't hesitate to act if a single American was threatened, much less actually injured or killed.

Such a case occurred 20 years ago today.

To put it in context: A couple of months earlier, former President George H.W. Bush — the man Bill Clinton had beaten in the previous year's presidential election — was in Kuwait to commemorate the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War. Seventeen people were arrested and charged with conspiring to kill Bush with explosives that were hidden in a vehicle.

No explosions occurred. No one was hurt. But Clinton was convinced, largely because of information gathered and analyzed by American foreign and domestic intelligence operatives, that the plot originated in Iraq — and 20 years ago today, he used American military might for the first time, ordering nearly two dozen cruise missile strikes on Iraqi intelligence facilities.

The strikes were meant both as retaliation for the plot and warning not to attempt anything like it again. But Clinton didn't shoot first and ask questions afterward. He explored numerous options, even those he felt did not go far enough. Eventually he selected one on the recommendation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I felt we would have been justified in hitting Iraq harder," Clinton wrote in his presidential memoirs, "but [Colin] Powell made a persuasive case that the attack would deter further Iraqi terrorism and that dropping bombs on more targets, including presidential palaces, would have been unlikely to kill Saddam Hussein and almost certain to kill more innocent people."

Most of the missiles hit their intended targets, but a few overshot, and eight civilians were killed.

"It was a stark reminder," Clinton wrote, "that no matter how careful the planning and how accurate the weapons, when that kind of firepower is unleashed, there are usually unintended consequences."

The occasion of this anniversary has led me to think about two recent events that tell me much of what I need to know about U.S. policy in the 21st century.

First, the evasive stance taken by Barack Obama and the members of his administration after the deadly attacks on the embassy in Benghazi last year tells me the executive branch is not willing to stand up for Americans abroad, be they dead or alive — unless there are clear benefits in doing so.

Second, Obama's recent argument in a speech at the National Defense University that the war on terror must end as all wars do shows a staggering naivete. Rhetorically, it sounds good, but the problem is that the war on terror is not a conventional war with armies and generals. It cannot be resolved in conventional ways — if, in fact, it can be resolved at all.

When you are dealing with terrorists, you are not dealing with anything as organized or concentrated as a single army or nation. Your enemies could be from anywhere on the globe — including your own back yard — and as long as even one is on the loose, so is the danger.

Sympathizers with the opposition have always been around — there were Nazi and Japanese sympathizers in America during World War II — but they weren't generally viewed as combatants unless they took some kind of aggressive action.

By the very nature of their activities, terrorists must be regarded — automatically — as combatants.

The idea that America can arbitrarily declare the war on terror over is as imperialistic as any I have heard, and it tells terrorists around the world, OK, we're going back to sleep now. It harkens back to a time when the prevailing attitude was that we were always in the right; therefore, we were entitled to impose our will on others. We — and only we — could decide when a war began and when it ended.

It was the same attitude — the concept of manifest destiny — that directed the westward expansion in the 19th century. America is entitled to seize what it wants.

American imperialism — as well as hubris — is what the terrorists really would like to see destroyed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Cancer Growing on the Presidency

"We have a cancer within, close to the presidency, that's growing."

John Dean to Richard Nixon
March 21, 1973

When the Senate Watergate Committee convened in mid–May 1973, wrote Theodore H. White in "Breach of Faith," the committee's vague objective was to investigate 1972 presidential campaign activities.

In five weeks of hearings, the committee had heard some intriguing testimony but nothing that could directly link Richard Nixon to the crimes that had been committed in his name.

That started to change 40 years ago today when former White House counsel John Dean began a week of testimony.

Well, actually, the tide began to shift a couple of weeks earlier when Jeb Magruder, a former special assistant to the president and deputy director of Nixon's re–election campaign, testified that the former attorney general and campaign director, John Mitchell, had authorized him to burglarize the Democratic headquarters.

That certainly ratcheted up the interest in Dean's testimony. Mitchell and Nixon were close. Mitchell, after all, had directed Nixon's campaigns in 1968 and 1972. In between, he had been Nixon's top law enforcement officer.

There was nothing very exciting about the testimony on the surface, though. As theater, it was tedious. Dean delivered an opening statement on the first day in a lifeless monotone, and he referred to many people with whom viewers weren't necessarily familiar.

While there may have been nothing exciting about his delivery, there was plenty that was exciting in his testimony. And a buzz of excitement preceded his appearance before the Senate Watergate Committee. His testimony became must–see TV long before the phrase was used to promote a network schedule.

Dean had a lot to tell the senators, and he used his entire first day on the stand to read a massive opening statement, pausing occasionally for a sip of water.

Dean told the senators that Nixon had been involved in the coverup all along. He also said he warned the president — prophetically, as it turned out — that "there was a cancer growing on the presidency and that if the cancer was not removed the president himself would be killed by it."

Looking back on that conversation, with the benefit of the transcript of the actual recording, White observed that Dean, in his choice of the cancer analogy, had "obviously thought through his briefing [for Nixon] carefully."

As the week went on, Dean told the senators that Nixon had misled the nation and insisted his accusations against Nixon were true. He revealed the existence of the "enemies list" and told the senators its purpose, and he told a story of a president who was obsessed with demonstrations and spoke of using IRS audits as weapons against his political foes.

Dean's testimony that week was often so detailed that some observers openly wondered how he could possibly have retained so much detail about conversations he'd had months earlier. To confirm what he said, it would be necessary to have some kind of corroborating evidence. But the conversations hadn't been recorded. Or had they?

"The televised hearings were already an unexpected hit that summer," wrote Matthew Cooper last month in the National Journal, "but the ratings soared with Dean's testimony. Still, when Dean finished, Nixon's defenders dismissed his account as one man's obfuscations and misinterpretations of what the president meant."

"Then, a few weeks later, a former White House aide named Alexander Butterfield testified before the committee that the president had installed a taping system in the White House," Cooper wrote.

And all bets were off.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paula Deen

Well, so much for tolerance and compassion.

The Food Network fired popular cooking show host Paula Deen after she admitted under oath that she had used the "N–word" at some time in the past, but "[i]t's been a very long time."

Deen apologized for having used that word however many days, weeks, months or years ago it was. In fact, she apologized twice. Apparently, that wasn't good enough for the Food Network, who fired her anyway and now must deal with the public fallout (and based on what I have heard so far, it could be considerable).

I'm guessing that the decision makers at the Food Network have never lived in the South — or they are no older than 30. Or both.

Or perhaps they saw an easy opportunity to score some points with a demographic group that seems all too eager to spread guilt wherever it can.

I grew up in the South, as Deen did. The "N–word" was used frequently — and not always, as the uninformed would have people believe, in a racist sense. My grandmother and others of her generation used the "N–word" as an adjective, the same as if someone was being described as "old" or "blonde" or by gender or something similar (i.e., "that old, bald man").

Today, I guess that is called profiling. But for my grandmother and those of her generation — or even someone of my parents' generation — it was a description. I heard the word used by people of my own generation, too — although probably not as frequently. There was a growing stigma about that word by the time I came along.

But Paula Deen is quite a bit older than I am. She probably used the "N–word" as an adjective when she was a child and began using different adjectives when she was an adult — which would have coincided with the peak of the sensitivity movement.

Or, as she herself suggested, the word may have been used in the context of a joke. And who among us has never told an off–color joke? I don't say that to excuse the use of the word, only to make the point that the use of it does not necessarily mean the user is a bigot. Context, as I tell my news writing students, matters.

I understand where the Food Network people are coming from on that, but folks on the left need to stop being so judgmental and keep things in context. People in the South (and elsewhere, I suppose) were wrong to use that word as an adjective, but I think it is worse to hold them to 21st–century standards when they were brought up on 20th–century ones ...

Or 19th–century standards.

Abraham Lincoln, who lived in the 19th century and is remembered as the Great Emancipator, used the "N–word" in ordinary conversation, as did many of the people of his time.

If that changes how you feel about his presidency, you are the one with the problem.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Ride, Sally Ride

Nearly a year ago, Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut, died of cancer at the age of 61.

It's a shame she couldn't have lived another year because today is the 30th anniversary of her historic trip into outer space, and it would be fascinating to get her perspective on how things in general have changed for women in the last three decades.

Things have changed for both genders in terms of space travel; actually, things have changed quite a bit for the space program in general. The United States put the space shuttle in mothballs a couple of years ago. Once in awhile, there is talk of reviving the programs of traveling to the moon or just into space — or beginning work on the much more ambitious goal of traveling to Mars — but little has come of such talk.

And, in spite of some protests to the contrary, it is plausible to argue — in some quarters — that little has changed for women since that time.

I guess it depends on what one considers progress and how long one thinks it is reasonable to wait for it.

A woman had already been appointed to the Supreme Court by the time of Ride's historic journey into space. No women had been nominated prior to that; three more have been appointed and currently sit on the Court today.

Since this day 30 years ago, both major political parties have put women on their national tickets — the Democrats were first a year after Ride's flight, it took the Republicans two dozen years to do the same.

There are arguments to be made about how women are portrayed in the popular media, whether they are given more or less respect as a demographic group. And there are certainly arguments to be made about inequities in pay — although, in the economy we've had for the last 5½ years, it may be more relevant to compare unemployment and underemployment rates for the sexes.

But I wonder if it is appropriate even to discuss those things on this day. Ride's achievement was her own. It was never suggested, never even implied, that her accomplishment would change the lives of American women.

It may have opened some doors in the space program for women, but it certainly wasn't why Geraldine Ferraro or Sarah Palin were chosen to run for vice president — and Sandra Day O'Connor had been on the Supreme Court for nearly two years when Ride went into space so it makes no sense to say that Sally Ride influenced Supreme Court nominations.

It was part of the steady drip–drip–drip of history that signals an inevitability of some kind.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was like that. It didn't cause immediate change, but, little by little, attitudes were changed and barriers were torn down.

That is often how history works. Change rarely comes as quickly as some people want, but eventually it comes.

Sally Ride made her contribution to the evolution of women's role in our culture 30 years ago.

But she was a very private woman. Few people knew of her long–term same–sex relationship or of her eventually fatal illness until after she died.

I don't feel she was motivated by a desire to be a role model at anything other than being a good and dedicated astronaut — which she was.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beneath the Dignity of a Great Nation

I really don't know — as I have said here before — when I developed my personal fascination with history, especially American history.

But whenever I did, I certainly reached the conclusion at roughly the same time that America was a great nation — or, at least, a great idea for a nation.

It isn't a perfect nation, but it has always aspired to be one. When its faults have been brought to the attention of its people as a whole, sincere efforts have usually been made to correct them. And I have always drawn inspiration from that.

There have been complaints, from time to time. The complaints are not always warranted, but sometimes they are — the FEMA foot–dragging after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans eight years ago comes to mind — but, for the most part, this nation and its leaders have honestly striven to keep promises to the people.

Again, there are exceptions to that, one of which has been on obvious public display in the last few months.

Barack Obama came here to Dallas in April to participate in the opening of the library dedicated to the presidency of his immediate predecessor. When that was over, he and his entourage traveled roughly 70 miles southwest of here to the town of West, Texas, which is near Waco, to mourn the deaths and injuries that were suffered in an explosion at a fertilizer plant.

(The plant, it is always worth mentioning, produced the kind of fertilizer that was used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.)

Lots of people think it is a constitutional duty of the president to mourn with and to comfort Americans who have been affected by a disaster, but it isn't. You won't find a single word about it in the Constitution or its amendments. It's one of those things that has evolved over time.

"Though the non–administrative capacities of the commander–in–chief were not set out in the Constitution," wrote Dan Fastenberg in TIME two years ago, "the tradition of forging an intimate relationship with the American people goes all the way back to George Washington."

President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, producing perhaps his most memorable speech as president. President Harding and two of his predecessors attended the dedication of Arlington National Cemetery.

In my lifetime, I can recall a few instances of presidential participation in moments of great sorrow. Ronald Reagan appeared at a ceremony honoring the astronauts who were lost in the Challenger explosion, greeted the family members, embraced some of them. Bill Clinton came to Oklahoma City (when I was living in nearby Norman) to share the grief over the bombing of the federal building there.

Less than a year into his presidency, George W. Bush comforted a grieving nation after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Obama has attempted to comfort Americans on several occasions since becoming president — at Fort Hood following the 2009 shootings, in Arizona following the shootings in 2011, in Boston earlier this year after the explosions at the annual marathon there.

The trip to West wasn't anything unusual.

But it is worth remembering the words he spoke that day — his pledge that the federal government would be there to help the people of that small town long after the attention it was receiving at the time had disappeared — in light of the decision by FEMA to deny additional funds to help West's recovery.

Now FEMA says it won't provide additional funds to the people of that small town.

FEMA may well be correct when it says that the death and destruction "is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration."

But the fact is that, when the president was here in April, he made a promise to the people of West. He didn't carry Texas in either of his presidential elections, but my memory is that West was glad he came to the memorial service to share the town's grief and grateful for his promise of continued support even when no one was paying attention anymore.

Can they be blamed for feeling abandoned by their government now?

When the president makes a promise to a constituency, that is a solemn oath — not all that different from the oath Obama has taken twice except that he didn't place his left hand on the Bible when he took it. A president's word is his bond with the people, and all the agencies in the government that are required to fulfill his promise are honor bound to do so.

Failing to do so is far beneath the dignity of a great nation.

The Peaks in a Scandal Investigation

"Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass."

Jeb Magruder

More than a quarter of a century passed between our births, and I was still a boy when he appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago today.

It's fair to say I didn't completely understand what was happening. Nevertheless, I understood enough that I must say I kind of empathized with Jeb Magruder. I couldn't really help it.

He had had a meteoric rise. He started out as a salesman, then, when he was 34, he was appointed to the White House staff. For one so young, it must have been mind–boggling.

It also led him to do things in his service to Richard Nixon that he almost certainly never imagined he would do. But I always admired the fact that he never tried to pass the buck.

After informing the senators of his work for the Committee to Re–Elect the President (in which he participated in Nixon's 49–state triumph, at the time the second–largest electoral vote margin in history), he said, "Unfortunately, we made some mistakes in the campaign ... For those errors in judgment that I made, I take full responsibility. I am, after all, a mature man, and I am willing to face the consequences of my own acts."

In hindsight — and even at the time — most people would say they were more than errors. But perhaps that is semantic quibbling. Magruder did confess to his own guilt when he testified before the Senate Watergate Committee — which is more than can be said of Nixon.

Magruder's testimony was the first, really, to put the coverup conspiracy inside the walls of the White House, but he was careful not to implicate Nixon when he did so. (He reversed that in a PBS documentary in 2003, nearly a decade after Nixon's death.)

"These mistakes were made by only a few participants in the campaign," Magruder insisted 40 years ago today. "Thousands ... assisted in the campaign to re–elect the president, and they did nothing illegal or unethical. [A]t no point ... did the president have any knowledge of our errors in this matter."

Magruder did assert, however, that John Mitchell, John Dean and Bob Haldeman were involved. That wasn't exactly news in June 1973 — but now it was on the record. That was an important legal step.

In his book "Breach of Faith," Theodore H. White wrote of how the committee's investigation had moved slowly at first and likened its progress to hiking up a trail and reaching peaks along the way.

With his testimony, White wrote, "Magruder made the first peak — publicly, under oath, he said the authority to burglarize Democratic headquarters had been given him directly by the former attorney general, John Mitchell."

Magruder went on to write a book titled "An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate," but he followed a rather different path to his testimony before the Watergate Committee.

In "All the President's Men," Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote that Magruder, initially reluctant to say anything, had been regarded as a "super–loyalist" — but he went to the prosecutors in April of 1973 when the house of cards that was the coverup was collapsing around him.

One of Woodward's sources within Nixon's re–election campaign organization told him Magruder would be "the next McCord" — a reference to Watergate burglar James McCord's letter to Judge John Sirica in early 1973 just before the burglars were to be sentenced. It prevented the sentencing from being that last act in the Watergate drama — and was, in White's words, a "peak" in the Watergate scandal.

Much like Magruder's testimony 40 years ago today — although I don't think I would call it a game changer.

The Nixon White House had kept the Watergate scandal under wraps for nearly a year — until McCord began talking about things like perjury and hush money — and they managed to keep a lid on things for awhile longer.

But the peaks in the investigation were coming more frequently now. The next one would come within two weeks when John Dean took the stand.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Good Riddance to the Night Stalker

"I love to kill people. I love to watch them die. I would shoot them in the head and they would wiggle and squirm all over the place and then just stop. Or I would cut them with a knife and watch their faces turn real white. I love all that blood."

Richard Ramirez

Ordinarily, it is not my habit to rejoice upon hearing that another human being has died.

But there are exceptions to that rule. And Richard Ramirez is one of them.

If you are under 35, you might not know who Ramirez, who died of natural causes today, was.

He was known as the "Night Stalker," a brutal serial killer who absolutely terrified southern California in the mid–1980s. In 1989, he was convicted of 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults and 14 burglaries. He was given the death penalty but remained on Death Row nearly 25 years later because of California's lengthy appeals process.

Frankly, I was never quite sure what there was to appeal. From everything that I read, the case was a slam dunk. But appeals are mandated by California law.

(Since California reinstated the death penalty in the late 1970s, it has been more likely that an inmate who was sentenced to be executed would die of other causes.

("Ramirez is the 59th inmate condemned in California to have died of natural causes since the state reinstated capital punishment," reports CNN. "Twenty–two others committed suicide, and six died of other causes. The state ... has executed 13 inmates since 1979; one other California offender was executed in Missouri.")

The name "Night Stalker" was given to him in a newspaper report because his crimes always took place at night. It was inspired by the name of a TV movie from the 1970s starring Darren McGavin as a newspaper reporter.

McGavin was the original night stalker, but he committed no crimes — so, in that sense, the name was a misnomer. Ramirez was named after a fictional character who tried to prevent people like Ramirez from committing violent acts.

It would have been more appropriate to name him after the title of one of the songs ("Night Prowler") on his favorite record album, AC/DC's "Highway to Hell."

An avowed satanist, Ramirez's reign of terror began in 1984 and ended in 1985 when, the day after his picture had been made public, he was cornered and beaten by a group of angry Los Angeles residents. They held him until police arrived.

His trial began in 1988; he was convicted the next year and had been in prison ever since.

Because he had been in custody for nearly 25 years, Californians almost certainly gave him no thought anymore — until today when they learned he had died.

No doubt, there are some for whom his death will be the closure for which they have been waiting — perhaps some of his victims who were not killed (and there were a few of those).

For those people, I am happy — especially if the knowledge that Ramirez was behind bars all these years brought them no peace.

Perhaps they will find peace now.

As for Ramirez, well, I'm just glad he's gone.

If he, too, has found some measure of peace, I'm glad.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Shooting of Robert Kennedy

Five years ago, just a few days before the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, I wrote of my memories of that time.

Today is the 45th anniversary of that event, and I have no new revelations about it to share. Neither, it seems, does anyone else, although I have been fascinated by the articles I have found on the subject.

Five years ago in Newsweek, for example, Evan Thomas wrote about the looming "what if" from 1968: What if Kennedy had not been killed? Would he have spared the nation the agony of Watergate?

Thomas never really answered that question. He wrote of the pros and cons of Kennedy's personality and candidacy — and he did point out some inconvenient historical truths. For example, Americans in the 21st century are conditioned to believe that presidential candidates win their party's nominations via the primary route, and Kennedy won many primaries in the spring of 1968 — but choosing delegates in primaries is a fairly recent political phenomenon.

In 1968, most convention delegates were still selected by party bosses, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the choice of the Democratic Party's establishment. It is by no means certain that Kennedy would have prevailed at the party's convention later that summer in Chicago.

To me, though, the fact that Thomas' question was even asked in 2008 seems to be proof of what Theodore H. White wrote in "The Making of the President 1968":
"The gash that Robert F. Kennedy tore in the story of 1968 aches still — aches in personal memory, but more in history itself. Of all the men who challenged for the presidency, he alone, by the assassin's bullets, was deprived of the final judgment of his party and people."
Clearly, the "gash," as White put it, still ached after four decades.

A year earlier, in The Independent, Liz Hoggard recounted the event as Emilio Estevez's movie "Bobby" was in theaters. That was interesting, but it really added nothing to what was known about the shooting.

Last year, Michael Martinez and Brad Johnson of CNN reported that a witness had told them there was a second shooter in the pantry that night.

To date, nothing seems to have come from that assertion.

An interesting addition to the story came from CBS recently. CBS reported the story of a black doctor who did what he could to save Kennedy's life.

That is interesting, as I say, but it really adds nothing to the tale. The doctor wasn't successful, and it provides no evidence of who else might have been involved.

A few days ago, Gina Logue of the Murfreesboro (Tenn.) Post wrote that Kennedy's assassination was the end of our national innocence.

I'm not so sure I buy that one, but I will agree that it was a traumatic event for the country.

A lot of things have been described as the end of our national innocence, but I'm inclined to think that there is some event like that for every generation.

I really began to think that five years ago. At the time, I was working for an online study guide. Two young women in their 20s were working with me. We wrote history and civics questions and lessons for students in subscribing school districts to use.

Around this time, I recall hearing one of them ask sort of general questions about Bobby Kennedy that told me she knew nothing about him — other than the fact that he had the same last name as the president who was killed here in Dallas nearly 50 years ago.

She had been affected more by Princess Diana's untimely death 10 years earlier. That was probably the major innocence–robbing event for her generation — at least until 9–11.

Folks in that age group really can't understand how different it was for my generation, who had only three TV networks (and no internet) — nor can my generation truly understand what it was like for our parents, who grew up with the radio and nothing else, not even a landline phone, in many homes.

There's no question that the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, like the shooting of Martin Luther King a couple of months earlier, had a profound effect on everyone. But, in a culture that had been rocked by the killing of a president, the murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, race riots, a seemingly never–ending war, the fiery launching–pad deaths of three astronauts and King's shooting within the previous five years, it's hard to justify regarding it as a generational flash point.

More like one in a series of flash points.