Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Self-Absorbed Saga of Shea Allen

I think the thing that really bothers me about Shea Allen is her attitude.

That is a tough thing for me to say because journalism is my love. Well, I guess my love is really writing, but it led me into journalism as my college major and most of my professional activity.

And, believe me, I have known some reporters — some were colleagues, some were competitors — who had really atrocious attitudes.

But I would hire any one of them over Shea Allen, the former reporter for WAAY–TV in Huntsville, Ala.

Allen is an admittedly cute young thing, and, apparently, she had a pretty good following in the Huntsville viewing area, too, but she became an ex–reporter after her "tell–all" blog was — shall we say? — exposed.

Aww, that's way too easy.

It's dishonest, too, because Allen teased her readers with a confession about going bra–less during a broadcast, but the only thing she exposed was a misunderstanding of the First Amendment. When I was in college, my journalism professors always reminded me that there were limits to free speech. It is important to act responsibly. "You can't stand up in a crowded theater and yell, 'Fire!' " they would say.

And, in a figurative sort of way, that's what Allen has been doing.

And I think she is guilty of bad judgment — spectacularly bad judgment. As a journalist, I'm willing to accept a certain amount of bad judgment as being inevitable. But this goes beyond inevitability.

(Her undergarment revelation reminded me of an on–campus incident when I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma. The student newspaper staff, for whom I served as the unofficial adviser, was notified that an unidentified coed had been seen sitting on the steps of a building. She had been wearing a short dress and, apparently, nothing underneath.

(The newspaper, which published daily, ran a story about it, and the next day, traffic was nonstop for hours around the building, which normally sat on one of the quieter streets in town. I never heard if that coed returned to that building, but, apparently, quite a few of the young men on campus not only hoped she would but also hoped they would catch a glimpse of her — in the flesh, you might say.)

"I've vowed to always fight for the right of free expression," Allen wrote. "It's allowed, no matter what the profession."

Yes, Americans are entitled to freedom of speech, and I encourage that. There are many things that I want to write about, and I like the flexibility that the digital world gives me. I write more than one blog because there are so many things of interest to me, but Allen's blogging isn't a commentary on the important issues of the day or an homage to something she enjoys or someone she admires. It is high–tech exhibitionism.

And, while her brand of exhibitionism isn't against the law, it generally isn't acceptable behavior, either, especially when one shares one's heretofore secret tricks of the trade.

Actually, it isn't even exhibitionism. It's more like digital teasing. Using a blog to appeal to people's baser instincts rather than educate or enlighten strikes me as being no more of a contribution to the greater good than the text messages Anthony Weiner keeps sending.

And I find that especially egregious when the blogger is in the public eye — such as someone who is on the news every night.

After reading Allen's post, one realizes that, deep down, she's shallow. I mean, come on, this is a fight for "the right of free expression?"

She revealed, for example, that she is best at her job when she has no script to read "and no idea what I'm talking about."

I don't know. Maybe she was trying to be funny. Or maybe she likes that crawling–along–the–edge–of–a–knife feeling she gets from winging it and thinks she excels under those conditions. Personally, I preferred being better prepared when I went out on an assignment as a reporter.

It probably wasn't a reassuring feeling for her employers when they read that, though — nor, I'm sure, was it reassuring for them to read that Allen's best story ideas came from people "who secretly have a crush on me." (Can you say "stalker?")

Or that she "hate[s] the right side of my face." OK, most of the people I have known have had some kind of self–image issues, but few have felt the need to announce them to the world. Unless they wanted to encourage a cameraman to shoot their good side.

(Speaking of which, she also wrote that she had "mastered the ability to contort my body into a position that makes me appear much skinner (sic) in front of the camera than I actually am." I can't say that her weight appears to be a problem — but if you're a self–absorbed narcissist, I suppose it could be.)

If I had been in the position to decide whether she would remain at WAAY, I guess I could live with most of the things she wrote in her blog, even the confessions about doing a broadcast without a bra (borderline sleazy but mostly harmless) or winging it in some of her reports. I could probably even live with the knowledge that she has "taken naps in the news car."

Or that "[h]appy, fluffy, rainbow stories about good things make me depressed." I've never worked in broadcasting, but I assume the general rule there is about the same as it always was in newspaper newsrooms. Reporters write about what they're told to write about, and the boss doesn't particularly give a damn whether they like their assignments or not.

But there are a couple of items on her list that I just can't get around.

Professionally, it bothers me when she writes, "If you ramble and I deem you unnecessary for my story, I'll stop recording but let you think otherwise."

I believe that a reporter is entitled to have his/her own opinion, but most judgments are better left to the reader/viewer to make. A reporter should be neutral, a fly on the wall. I can understand if Allen has felt, on occasion, as if a source was wasting her time, but arbitrarily cutting off the recording is too judgmental for my taste — even if the source is unaware. A reporter is the eyes and ears of the community. That community is not served when the reporter chooses to be deaf and blind.

I understand about reaching conclusions on a source before the interview is done, but even if the source is rambling, he/she might still say something that is worthy of inclusion. (Perhaps that should be "especially if the source is rambling ...")

But the revelation about Allen that I find most troubling is this: "I'm frightened of old people and I refuse to do stories involving them or the places they reside."

OK, I get that our culture is obsessed with young people, and older people are looked upon as disposable. You can see it everywhere you look, and it's been that way as long as I can remember — the young are the face of everything.

But when I was growing up, there was still a healthy respect for older people, their lifetimes of experience, their accumulated wisdom. That seems to have disappeared at some point; now, older Americans are largely regarded as a nuisance. Why? I don't know, but I see it as a waste of a valuable resource.

Our politically correct (not to mention charged) culture is quick to pass judgment on racial comments that were made decades ago without bothering to find out the context in which they were made, but little is said about discrimination against older Americans, whether it is in the workplace or anywhere else.

I would consider it refreshing if Allen lost her job not because her breasts were roaming freely inside her blouse one day but because she so blithely dismissed one of the largest and most dependable segments of her station's audience.

Other than the increasing likelihood of dying soon, older people are reliable in just about every good way imaginable — including loyalty to local news shows. They vote, and they buy things.

Young people are more fickle, and that is definitely an age–related trait. Shea Allen and the rest of her generation don't realize it yet, but one day (much sooner, in fact, than they suspect) they will be part of that older dmographic, and they will want to be appreciated for what they have learned in their lives.

Right now, I'm inclined to think Shea Allen hasn't learned a lot.

I've heard some people spinning stories that Allen was fired because she is a woman. I'm not saying there wasn't an element of that involved. Perhaps there was. I have no knowledge either way.

But I do know she was a popular on–air personality, and broadcasters simply don't terminate popular on–air personalities without legitimate cause. I have to wonder if WAAY was concerned about losing older viewers. Maybe there were complaints. More than one–third of Huntsville's population is 45 or older (nearly 30% are between 25 and 44), and TV reporters — being as visible as they are — are representatives of their employers.

If Allen doesn't appreciate her older viewers, she can't be an effective representative. Hopefully, WAAY will replace her with someone who can appreciate older viewers — and won't be afraid of them.

And if Allen does get another broadcasting job, I hope she will enter it having learned something from this experience.

While social media is a great tool for writers, you really need to be careful about posting too much personal information — or too many incendiary opinions.

That's an important lesson for anyone who dabbles in the digital world to learn — but it is particularly important for young writers whose antennae aren't quite as sharp as older folks whose professional lives predate the dawn of the internet.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Richard Nixon's S.O.B.

"Every president needs an S.O.B. — and I'm Nixon's."

H.R. Haldeman

My family was still out of the country when former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman took the witness stand at the Senate Watergate Committee's hearings 40 years ago today so I didn't see him testify, but I'm sure he was quite a sight.

He always was in those days. He was kind of a Mephistopheles with a crewcut, I guess; with the German surname, he always seemed more sinister than the rest — to me, anyway. Maybe it was the influence of those World War II movies I watched as a child.

Haldeman and former White House aide John Ehrlichman were known as Richard Nixon's "Berlin Wall" because of their Germanic surnames and their tendency to restrict access to the Oval Office.

They also had the shared trait of unquestioned loyalty to their leader — even when that leader had forced them to resign only a few months earlier.

Haldeman's testimony had been eagerly anticipated because of his special position in the Nixon White House as chief of staff. The job was still new and evolving when Haldeman became chief of staff, but he appeared to relish its reputation as a presidential "gatekeeper."

It was said Haldeman was closer to Nixon than anyone else in the White House (with the possible exception of Nixon's wife). The word around Washington was that he was the first person to see Nixon each morning and the last to see him each night — and, because of the nature of his job, he saw Nixon many, many times in between.

It was to be expected, therefore, that he would be a Nixon defender on the stand. And he was.

"I have full confidence," he told the Watergate committee 40 years ago, "that when the entire truth is known, it will be clear to the American people that President Nixon had no knowledge of or involvement in either the Watergate affair itself or the subsequent effort of a 'coverup' of the Watergate."

Ironically, the Watergate figure with whom Haldeman probably had the most in common 40 years ago today — at least on the surface — was John Dean, who had testified a month earlier.

Both men delivered lengthy statements on their first days on the witness stand and answered questions on the other days. But that was where the similarities ended. Their stories were quite different.

In his statement 40 years ago today, Haldeman insisted that he and Richard Nixon had no knowledge of the Watergate break–in and that Dean had "badly misled" them. He also said he had listened recently to the tape of the March 21, 1973 meeting between Nixon and Dean in which Dean warned Nixon that there was a "cancer ... close to the presidency."

Haldeman observed that he had participated in part of that meeting but had missed the first hour — and the edited transcripts that Nixon released the following spring confirmed that.

Dean, Haldeman told the committee, "[had], in a number of instances, misinterpreted the intent or implications of things that might have been said."

Haldeman went on to say that "[h]aving observed the president all those years, in many different situations, it was very clear to me on March 21 that the president was exploring and probing; that he was surprised; that he was trying to find out what in the world was going on; he didn't understand how this all fit together, and he was trying to find out."

However, "It is impossible," wrote Theodore H. White, "to misinterpret the flow of [Dean's and Nixon's] conversation; the president [had] ordered Dean to buy time for him ..."

On the stand the next day, Haldeman vigorously denied participating in a coverup, then he wrapped up his testimony on the third day by describing his proposal to link Communist protests to the campaign for the Democrats' nominee, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

But as each member of the committee took his turn questioning Haldeman, it was increasingly clear that Haldeman knew little (or said he knew little) of the important details of key events that other witnesses had described.

For example, Haldeman — a man known for taking meticulous notes on large legal pads — said he could not recall when he first heard of the Watergate burglary. Even Haldeman admitted that was "incredible."

Haldeman's opening statement may also have included the public unveiling of one of the most noxious justifications for Watergate that was offered by the Nixon White House. In an almost offhand kind of way, Haldeman alleged that the Democrats engaged in far more serious sabotage during the 1972 campaign than the Republicans.

Lowell Weicker, a Connecticut Republican (and an unsuccessful candidate for his party's presidential nomination in 1980) who loathed the Nixon White House and considered its behavior a betrayal of GOP principles, challenged Haldeman on that point. He produced a memo from Haldeman to Dean suggesting that Dean spread a story linking Communists to protests in which McGovern supporters also participated.

The inescapable conclusion — for anyone who had been paying attention to the hearings — was that the memo confirmed what Dean had said about paranoia in the White House in general and in Nixon's and Haldeman's minds specifically.

Perhaps the most astonishing revelation came when Haldeman spoke of the White House tapes.

In just a couple of weeks since they learned of the tapes' existence, the senators on the committee had clearly come to regard the tapes as crucial to their investigation, but they had been denied access to them. However, Haldeman spoke almost nonchalantly about keeping several of the tapes at his home in a 48–hour period earlier that month and listening to a specific tape at the president's request.

This was only a few months after Nixon had asked for and received Haldeman's resignation.

Haldeman's lawyer read into the record a White House letter instructing Haldeman not to discuss the contents of the tapes, but Haldeman seemed oddly eager to speak about them, anyway. He asserted that the tapes proved that Nixon did not know as much about the coverup as Dean had claimed.

Committee chairman Sam Ervin was skeptical, contending that the White House and Haldeman had done some "canoodling together" to leak a sanitized version of the tapes in the hearings while keeping the originals from the committee's scrutiny.

Weicker wondered aloud how the White House could justify letting Haldeman listen to the tapes while denying that privilege to Dean and the others.

Sen. Daniel Inouye was skeptical that anyone could be sure the tapes had not been tampered with while they had been unguarded in Haldeman's possession.

And majority counsel Sam Dash pondered the question of how Nixon could claim the tapes were confidential when he allowed Haldeman — a private citizen at that point — to keep some in his home.

There were no answers from Richard Nixon's S.O.B.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

They Call the Wind Korea

"Out here they got a name for rain
For wind and fire only
But when you're lost and all alone
There ain't no word but lonely"

They Call the Wind Maria
From Paint Your Wagon (1951)

Sixty years ago today, the final armistice was signed in Panmunjom, putting the Korean War (which had been labeled a "police action" by then–President Harry Truman) on hold.

As James Ragland of the Dallas Morning News observes, the war/conflict/police action in Korea is often called "the forgotten war." In fact, had it not been for the movie "M*A*S*H" and the long–running TV series it spawned, most people of my generation probably never would have heard of it.

It all ended long before my time, of course, but, based on my studies, Korea received far less attention than either World War II, which preceded it, or the Vietnam War, which followed it — so, in the context of history, I guess it really has been forgotten — or, at least, ignored.

It's been given a lot of names, too.

South Koreans call it "the 6–2–5 Upheaval" — like the American shorthand of 9–1–1 for the hijackings that occurred in 2001, it is a reference to the date of the North's invasion of the South (June 25, 1950).

The North Koreans call it the "Fatherland Liberation War." (Eric Talmadge of the Associated Press reports that the official commemoration in North Korea was a "painstakingly choreographed military pageant intended to strike fear into North Korea's adversaries and rally its people behind young ruler Kim Jong Un.")

In China — where the Communists won their clash with the Nationalists in the late 1940s with North Korea's help — it is called the "War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea." The Chinese returned the favor and lent support to the North Koreans in their battle with the South.

Battle, police action, conflict, war — whatever you want to call it, Ann Curry and Becky Bratu of NBC News report that it has not been forgotten where it was fought; there, the armistice's anniversary, they report, was observed "with pomp and massive celebrations."

As it should be. An estimated 2.5 million civilians were killed or wounded during the conflict. Its end was worth celebrating then as now.

Actually, though, the war never ended. Instead, an uneasy peace has descended on that trouble peninsula, and the uneasiness has only increased with the introduction of nuclear weapons into the equation.

See, what was signed 60 years ago today was an armistice, not a surrender.

An armistice is defined as "a temporary suspension of hostilities by agreement of the warring parties," and Curry and Bratu point out, "[A] peace treaty has yet to be negotiated."

Negotiations have been continuing between North Korea and South Korea in the same building where the armistice was signed 60 years ago today.

There were often jokes on M*A*S*H about the maddeningly slow pace of the peace talks.

But what hasn't been happening for the last six decades is no joke.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Force of a Different Color

"It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."

Executive Order 9981
Issued by President Harry Truman
July 26, 1948

Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces on this day in 1948.

Some people cite this as an example of true presidential courage. Truman was running for re–election in a nation that was only starting to deal with its racial problems. His electoral prospects had been regarded as dim for months — ever since Gallup reported his approval rating was 36%. The New Deal wing of the Democratic Party had been trying to persuade Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Democrat, but he declined, and Truman was nominated by his party in mid–July.

Not quite two weeks later, he signed an executive order desegregating the military — and ushered in the modern civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement existed before Truman signed that executive order. While some may assign a different starting point, I have long believed that the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, which upheld segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine, is when the civil rights movement became more than a series of isolated acts. It was in the years following that decision that the NAACP was formed and the efforts for racial equality became more coordinated.

It is often implied, if not suggested outright, that segregation only existed in the South, but it was a national fact of life, and attempts to change that were largely symbolic until Truman desegregated the troops 65 years ago today.

Skeptics may observe — and with justification — that Truman's order was mostly symbolic as well, given the fact that it was not treated as seriously as it should have been for years. And, as I say, there also are those who believe it was an act of genuine presidential courage. It may have been.

But I wouldn't necessarily label it a completely altruistic act. In the context of the times, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss political influences.

At the Democrats' convention in Philadelphia earlier that month, the progressive mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey, gave a stirring speech that prompted the delegates to adopt a stronger stance on civil rights. Truman unhesitatingly endorsed the plank, but delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out in protest.

Prior to this date in 1948, there was a certain amount of concern among Democrats about the prospects for their national ticket — as well as rumors (which proved to be true) of a schism that might lead to a split in the form of a third–party challenge. In fact, from what I have read, the only Democrat who thought Truman had a chance to win was ... Truman himself.

In fact, there were two challenges to Truman in 1948 — aside from the challenge from Republican nominee Tom Dewey, who had lost to Franklin Roosevelt four years earlier. The challenge from the right came from South Carolina's Strom Thurmond. The challenge from the left came from Henry Wallace, Truman's predecessor in the vice presidency.

Recent Gallup polls still had Truman's approval lingering in the 30s. He may have felt he had little to lose — other than members of his base who might otherwise choose to stay home in November. That may have been at least part of his motivation for issuing the order.

He may also have felt that the current of history was moving in the direction of desegregation.

In many ways, it was a symbolic gesture. Although the order called for its provisions to be "put into effect as rapidly as possible," there was foot dragging in its implementation.

Because of that, many modern historians will say the modern civil rights movement began with 1954's unanimous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

I suppose that is hard to dispute. Segregation had been the virtually unchallenged law of the land since Plessy v. Ferguson, but Truman's order was the first real crack in segregation, and it set things up for Brown v. Board of Education to wedge it wide open — and, in the process, set up the ripple effect that transformed America from a segregated society to an integrated one.

That is the history of the American civil rights movement. I am often inclined to think that American segregation was destined to fall — like the Berlin wall.

But transformations of this magnitude are not historically inevitable, and even when the wheels are set in motion, they can be exceedingly slow to turn.

Truman got the wheels turning on this day in 1948.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Man's Home Is His Castle

Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia

There were many memorable moments during the Senate Watergate Committee's hearings in the summer of 1973. They call them "sound bites" today, which isn't a bad description since such quotes almost always bite someone.

If you talk to folks who remember the Watergate scandal, you'll get a lot of responses — but no clear consensus — to the question, "What was the most memorable moment (or sound bite) for you?"

That is kind of a difficult question for me to answer because my family spent most of that summer out of the country, and we missed seeing and hearing many of the iconic moments when they happened. We kept up with the news — as did most of the Americans we encountered — through foreign editions of the news weeklies (TIME and Newsweek) or, when my parents were especially eager to learn what was happening, through daily editions of the International Herald Tribune (which is published today — and, I suppose, was published 40 years ago — by the New York Times).

Over the years, I have seen video clips of most, if not all, of those moments — several times. And, although it is a tough choice, I have concluded that my personal favorite "sound bite" came 40 years ago today when Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia was questioning John Ehrlichman, a former aide to Richard Nixon.

It was the second of five days of testimony for Ehrlichman. On the first day, he had defended, on grounds of national security, the break–in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist — which, in fact, was intended to gather information that could be used to discredit Ellsberg in the eyes of the public. Ellsberg was a former military analyst who played a key role in the release of the so–called Pentagon Papers, an insider's history of American involvement in Vietnam.

Several senators objected to the break–in, but, as I say, Ehrlichman defended it. The next day, Talmadge was clearly wrestling with issues that had been raised earlier.

"Now, if the president could authorize a covert break–in [of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office] and you do not know exactly what that power would be limited," Talmdage said, "you do not think it could include murder or other crimes beyond covert break–ins, do you?"

"I do not know where the line is, senator," Ehrlichman replied.

"Where is the check on the chief executive's power as to where that power begins and ends, that is what I am trying to determine," Talmadge told him. "Do you remember when we were in law school we studied a famous principle of law that came from England, and also is well known in this country, that no matter how humble a man's cottage is that even the king of England cannot enter without his consent?"

John Ehrlichman testifies in July 1973.

"I'm afraid that has been considerably eroded over the years, has it not?" Ehrlichman asked with what could only be described as a snarky grin on his face.

That grin remained frozen as he listened to Talmadge's reply — and the thunderous ovation it received. Perhaps he knew the cameras were focused on him as Talmadge made his response.

"Down in my country we still think it's a pretty legitimate principle of law," Talmadge said as a wave of approving applause swept over the room.

All my life (which, I admit, was quite brief at that time), I had heard that "a man's home is his castle," but I never completely understood what it meant until I read this exchange in one of those periodicals I mentioned earlier.

It left quite an impression on me, formed the foundation of everything that I believe and hold dear as an adult.

A man must have some domain that is his and cannot be violated without his consent — unless a warrant is issued, and that requires pretty solid evidence that something illegal is going on.

That is freedom. No American citizen can be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. It is a privilege that cannot be found everywhere, but it goes with being an American. It is why so many people around the globe still want to become Americans — even when there are so many other people who would like to do us harm.

American citizenship is about more than a person's physical address. It is about being treated with common respect and dignity.

Even in America, though, there is not total freedom. There are rules we all must observe.

People like to believe they have unlimited freedom in America, but that is not, never has been true. With freedom comes responsibility.

When I am away from my home, I take it for granted that I will have to observe rules that are made by others. When the light is red, I have to stop and permit others to go past me, even if I am late for something. I must wait my turn for anything I want to buy — even if the people ahead of me showed no respect for the rules that restrict the number of items to be purchased in certain checkout lines. At work, I must follow whatever rules have been set by the boss — even if I think some or all of those rules are unfair and/or unreasonable.

But, when I am at home, I need only concern myself with my agenda. That can mean a lot of things, but mainly it means that I am in control of my particular patch of earth. It does not matter if I rent it or own it outright. It is my home.

I do have to be considerate of others. If I live in an apartment (which I do) and it is late at night, I can't play my stereo or my TV loud enough to keep people who are trying to sleep awake. But, as long as I do not intrude on other people's space — or break the law — I am free to do as I please in my own space.

A person cannot always explain or justify things he/she does in private, but it is someone's personal space, and justification is not necessary. Not even a king — or a president — may violate my personal space or demand justification of anything.

It was true in 1973, and it is still true today — even when surveillance is applied to things that didn't exist 40 years ago, like email and cellular phones.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Death at Six Flags

A Dallas woman was killed while riding a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Texas last Friday evening.

The investigation into the case is ongoing, and I prefer not to jump to any conclusions before all the facts are in, but it sounds like the woman's safety belt was not fastened correctly.

I have rarely been to Six Flags Over Texas — only once, in fact, since the Texas Giant, the ride on which the incident occurred, made its debut — and I do not know what kind of security precautions are in use on that or any other ride today. Seems to me that the last time I was there, people were held in place by some kind of metal bar, but published reports today suggest that something akin to a seat belt is in use now.

A photograph I found on the internet (at right) seems to show some kind of modified bar with some sort of padding around it, perhaps to protect the park goers from the bar.

Maybe there were too many complaints about how hot those bars were in the summertime. I don't know.

What I do know is that witnesses said the woman tried to tell whoever it was who seated her and fastened her safety apparatus that she wasn't secured correctly. The attendant's behavior was described as nonchalant, kind of dismissive.

Reportedly, it was her first trip to Six Flags, but she apparently knew enough about the ride's security features — perhaps from watching others while standing in line — to know that something was not right.

The woman who died was named Rosy Esparza. She lived in Dallas. I don't know how old she was or how many children she had. According to reports, two of her children were on the ride with her, and they were, as you might expect, in hysterics when the ride came to a stop, and they tried frantically to get someone's attention.

By the time their mother was located, it was not possible to resuscitate her — if it ever was. The Texas Giant has been known as the tallest wood–steel hybrid roller coaster in the world, more than 150 feet tall. That's roughly the height of a 14–story building.

It's hard to imagine a height from which a person could be thrown from the ride and be expected to survive.

Ever since I heard about all this, I have been thinking about the last time I went to Six Flags. It was right after I had moved to this area, and some friends of mine came to visit me from Little Rock. One of my friends, Mike, was an absolute nut about roller coasters. The three of us went to Six Flags one day, and Mike made a beeline for the first roller coaster he spotted.

And, I swear, he rode that ride over and over and over again — must have ridden it 10 or 12 times before he had finally had his fill (temporarily). My other friend, Steve, and I sat on a bench near the ride and watched him in utter amazement. After about the third or fourth time, we started joking about Mike and his infatuation with roller coasters.

He wasn't riding the Texas Giant. The Texas Giant didn't exist yet. But I have been thinking of that day so long ago — and wondered what I would have done if I had seen my friend get thrown from a roller coaster.

Roller coasters, of course, appeal to thrill seekers, but always in the backs of their minds is the assurance that roller coasters really are safe, that they are fast and exhilarating but not really dangerous.

For the most part, that's true. Friday's fatality was only the park's second in more than half a century of operation. And the website for the national organization of amusement parks has been running a message reminding people that the chances of anyone being killed while riding a roller coaster are extremely slim.

But, no matter how slim that chance may be, the fact is that there is that chance. It is not impossible, and no one seems to be pretending that it is — unlike the promoters of the Titanic a century ago.

It is my hope, however, that the investigation will be thorough, that no shortcuts will be taken. Public safety should be the top concern — if not the only one.

Certainly, if there was negligence on the part of anyone on Six Flags' staff, it should be uncovered. But that is not the only thing that investigators should seek.

If there is any kind of problem that caused this and can be corrected, it should be identified and corrective measures should be suggested.

Blame is not the only thing that needs to come from this.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Footsteps of a Pioneer

"I don't speechify. I know the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And that's what I ask. But they get mad at the straight line. I just want to ask a tough question."

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas died yesterday.

Many things were said about her during her lifetime. Many things have been said in the hours since her death at the age of 92.

To me, she has always been one thing — a journalist. You could modify that, I suppose. Make that a trailblazing journalist, a pioneer.

And, by the way, that is journalist in what I consider to be the truest sense of the word — a print journalist. Not a talking head — although young Americans can be forgiven for knowing her only from those televised presidential news conferences.

Lots of folks probably do associate her with those news conference — even though there really haven't been many of them in the last four years, and the memory of them tends to fade — until the current incumbent of the Oval Office decides to interrupt a news briefing and seize the lectern for as long as he cares to speak.

She was there from the start of the evolving presidential relationship with television, in the Kennedy administration. Actually, she was there before Kennedy — in the last months of the Eisenhower presidency.

And she did, indeed, ask tough questions.

But she seems to remain an enigma to many of the new generation of journalists — non–journalists, too, for that matter — which may explain my appreciation for what Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor had to say about her: "In the news cauldron that is Washington, there are journalists who are loved, there are journalists who are respected, and there are journalists who are feared. Over the course of a long, remarkable and ultimately controversial career, Helen Thomas was all of those."

Actually, though, I kind of preferred what the Monitor's Jimmy Orr wrote about her five years ago. Thomas, he wrote, was "outspoken, blunt, demanding, forceful and unrelenting."

My kind of journalist.

The longevity of her career was not its only distinguishing feature.

She was the first female officer of the National Press Club, the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents' Association and the first female member of the Gridiron Club.

Thomas was the only female member of the press corps to travel to China with Richard Nixon in 1972. Not long after that, she was frequently on the receiving end of Martha Mitchell's phone calls in which she complained that the Nixon administration was setting up her husband to take the blame for Watergate.

She often encouraged young journalists to "Get into the game!" but the game can be rough.

In 2010, when asked to comment on Israel, Thomas replied, "Tell 'em to get the hell out of Palestine."

When asked for a followup, Thomas, who was of Arab descent and said so, said, "Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land, not German and not Poland's." Where should they go? she was asked. "They could go home." Where is home? "Poland. Germany."

She was labeled anti–Semitic, and her career was over. It was unfortunate that this brief — and, frankly, ill–advised — segment of the interview sparked a controversy that ended an otherwise distinguished career.

I was especially disappointed that the Society of Professional Journalists, a group with which I was affiliated as both a student and a professor, chose not to consider the accomplishments of Thomas' lifetime and, on the basis of the interview, discontinued its Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement.

That can't erase the many achievements of her lifetime nor should it change the fact that she continues to inspire young people of both genders to get in the game.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The National Debut of the Comeback Kid

"I felt as if the speech was a 200–pound rock I was pushing up a hill. I later joked that I knew I was in trouble when, at the 10–minute mark, the American Samoan delegation started roasting a pig."

Bill Clinton
My Life (2004)

When this day dawned 25 years ago, it is probably safe to say that most Americans did not know who Bill Clinton was.

I did because I lived in Arkansas. I grew up there, and, on this day in 1988, Clinton had been governor of the state for a total of more than seven years (not continuously). He had been the state's attorney general for a couple of years prior to becoming governor.

But outside of Arkansas, most people, as I say, probably had not heard of him. That would change before this day was over, though — and not necessarily in a good way, either.

In his presidential memoirs, Clinton wrote that "[a] couple of months before [the Democratic] convention opened in Atlanta, [presidential nominee–to–be] Mike [Dukakis] asked me to nominate him."

(It is traditional for presidential candidates' names to be placed in nomination prior to the roll call of the states, even if the candidate has no chance of winning. It is a practice that goes back to a time in America when conventions really did meet to choose nominees, and no one knew who that might be.

(At most conventions since the end of World War II, there has been no suspense about who the presidential nominee would be. Therefore, being chosen to place the presumptive nominee's name in nomination has become quite a feather in the speaker's cap but hardly strategically important to the nomination process.)

Clinton went on to write that Dukakis felt that, although he was leading then–Vice President George H.W. Bush in the polls, it was necessary for Clinton to "introduce him" to the nation "as a leader whose personal qualities, record in office and new ideas made him the right person for the presidency."

A candidate whose name was to be placed in nomination was allotted 25 minutes for the nominating and seconding speeches, which typically were divided between two, three, sometimes four speakers.

"Because I was his colleague, his friend and a Southerner," Clinton wrote, "they wanted me to do it and to take the entire allotted time."

Clinton agreed but (perhaps with the benefit of considerable hindsight) wrote that he was "flattered ... but wary."

"Conventions are loud meet–and–greet affairs where the words coming from the platform are usually just background music," Clinton wrote, "except for the keynote address and the presidential and vice–presidential acceptance speeches."

In his memoirs, Clinton claimed that he explained to the people in Dukakis' campaign that a long speech was not likely to succeed "unless the delegates and the media were prepared for it." He suggested dimming the lights and having the campaign's floor operatives "keep the delegates quiet. Also [the delegates] couldn't clap too much or it would substantially increase the length of the speech."

Twenty–five years ago today, Clinton said he brought a copy of the speech to Dukakis' hotel suite and showed it to the candidate and his advisers. It would take about 22 minutes to deliver, 25 if applause was minimal, and Clinton promised to cut as much as the campaign staff thought was necessary. Clinton was told to "give it all. Mike wanted America to know him as I did."

Considering the results of that year's election, it is tempting to say "mission accomplished." But that isn't the whole story.

It could well have been the mother of all convention fiasco speeches.

Clinton's speech dragged on for more than half an hour with the delegates erupting into wild applause with every mention of Dukakis' name. Otherwise, though, they appeared to pay little attention.

Network observers made jokes at Clinton's expense that were punctuated by a technician making a cutting motion across his throat, apparently in an attempt to encourage Clinton to wrap it up.

"I had some good lines," Clinton recalled, "but, alas, the biggest applause line I got was near the painful end when I said, 'In closing ...' It was 32 minutes of total disaster."

I was packing to move to Texas when the Democrats convened in 1988, but I remember that, when Clinton returned to Arkansas after the convention, the people of Arkansas were quite warm and supportive. Even those who had disagreed with his politics over the years empathized with what he had been through in Atlanta. Some were even indignant about Clinton's treatment (although, privately, they weren't quite that upset).

Clinton, however, still held his White House ambitions, and he needed some way to overcome the image problem created by his nomination speech.

An appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was thought to be the answer.

Carson had been making jokes about Clinton's speech in his monologues. In his memoir, Clinton wrote that one of Carson's "more memorable lines was 'The speech went over about as well as a Velcro condom.' "

After negotiations between Clinton's staff and Carson's, it was decided that Clinton would be a guest, and he would bring his saxophone. The reasoning was simple: Carson had a policy of not having politicians on the show, and, by agreeing to play the sax, Clinton made it possible for Carson to continue to ban politicians (well, those who couldn't play a musical instrument).

Clinton had been playing the sax for years, but most Arkansans didn't know it. Turned out that he wasn't bad, either.

But first there were all sorts of gags that related to Clinton's speech.

Carson gave Clinton an introduction that seemed like it wouldn't end, then, when Clinton came out, Carson pulled out an hourglass and put it on the desk.

Clinton seemed to be a punching bag that was too big to resist.

Clinton did pretty well for himself, though. He explained to Carson that he wanted to make Dukakis look good, and "I succeeded beyond my wildest imagination!" Clinton also told Carson that Dukakis liked the speech so much he wanted to send Clinton to the Republican convention to nominate Bush.

My favorite line from Clinton, though, was when he told Carson he had blown the nominating speech deliberately.

"I always wanted to be on this show in the worst way," he said, "and now I am."

It was a public relations triumph. Clinton charmed Carson and earned his redemption with the voters. When he sought the presidency four years later, Clinton was seldom asked about his speech in Atlanta.

It was the night of the New Hampshire primary in 1992 when Clinton declared himself the "comeback kid" after finishing second when he had declined precipitously in the polls following Gennifer Flowers' assertions that she had an extramarital affair with Clinton.

Clinton's resilience was well known in Arkansas. Several years earlier, after he lost a gubernatorial re–election bid, he sought the office again and defeated the man who had beaten him in the previous election. From that day forward in Arkansas, he was the comeback kid.

(Actually, he was called Kid Comeback before he won that political rematch — as you can see in the above cartoon that was drawn by a college classmate of mine.)

But it was in Atlanta — and then Los Angeles — nearly 3½ years before the New Hampshire primary when Clinton first established himself nationally as the comeback kid.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Don't Apologize for Me

"I'll just tell you one thing and I'm speaking now for all white people but especially those who have tried to change in the last 50 or 60 years — and a lot of them have really tried to change — I'm sorry for this stuff. That's all I'm saying."

Chris Matthews

MSNBC's Chris Matthews took it upon himself Thursday to apologize for "all white people" for the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

Hey, Chris. Do me a favor. Don't apologize for me, OK? Leave me out of it.

Before I get an avalanche of racist accusations, hear me out.

I was raised by liberal Democrats. They were advocates of civil rights, which wasn't a very popular position to take in my Arkansas hometown. They participated in the local Human Rights Council, which was responsible for many changes in my hometown when I was growing up. They were activists on behalf of equal treatment under the law.

And I learned my values from them. For a long time, I was apologetic for truly terrible — and obvious — injustices against minorities. And, in my lifetime, I have witnessed many.

But I've grown weary from being beaten about the head repeatedly for things I had nothing to do with — like slavery. It was abolished a century before I was born. I'm sorry it existed, but what else can I do? I can't go back in time and change history. Heck, if I could do that, there are several decisions I have made in my personal life that I'd like to have a do–over on first.

But I don't have that time traveling kind of power. I'm sorry it happened, but it wasn't my fault, and I've never owned a slave. Neither did any of my ancestors (as far as I know) nor has any other living American — unless you want to include folks like that guy in Cleveland who held three women against their will for a decade or more, and that is really a different discussion, don't you think?

And I have never discriminated against anyone. On the occasions when I have been in a management position, I have not discriminated against anyone who was different from me in any way.

I have also taught journalism for a total of seven years, and I have never discriminated against anyone in any of my classes. My classroom policies are the same for everyone. My grade calculation method is the same for everyone.

Nor was it my fault that blacks and civil rights workers were murdered, primarily in my home region of the South. I'm not ashamed of the fact that I grew up in the South, and I won't apologize for it, either, but I realize and I regret that terrible things happened here. There are aspects of the region's history — even its recent history (comparatively speaking) — that I don't like — but isn't that true of most places?

I believe in justice for all, not justice for some. And justice means that the law (and the legal requirement to convict someone of something) is the same for everyone.

Sometimes the person who should be held accountable appears to escape justice. And, depending on whether one believes in the afterlife, there may be a tendency to believe the guilty did get away with something. That truly can be a frustrating experience. But I don't believe that is what happened in this case.

If the available evidence meets the standard required to convict that person, then that person must be found guilty. But if the evidence is not sufficient to meet that legal standard, the jury must acquit.

Outside the Zimmerman courtroom, a racism narrative was being presented, and guilty white liberals were lapping it up like kittens being presented with a saucer of milk. But inside the courtroom, the jury was being instructed to decide based on the evidence, and they were told what the law required for conviction.

Justice is supposed to be blind to everything — race, gender, religion, age, financial status. Only the facts are supposed to decide a case.

The evidence did not support the popular narrative, and, as the old saying goes, every person is entitled to his own opinion but not his own set of facts.

I believe in the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Zimmerman was not proven guilty. I know there are some people who want to believe he was guilty of something — presumably because the person who died was black — but the physical evidence supported his side of the story.

The jury made the appropriate decision — and when you speak of this case, please remember that Zimmerman was found not guilty, not innocent. Courts do not decide if a person is innocent. In our system, a defendant is presumed to be innocent, and it is the responsibility of the prosecution to prove the defendant is guilty of the charge. That is the question being decided — guilt, not innocence.

And the prosecution had a weak case.

I do not apologize for believing the jury made the right choice. And I don't need anyone else to apologize for me, either.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Born With a Silver Foot in His Mouth

"I'm a grandmother now. And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily. And when I hold that grandbaby, I feel the continuity of life that unites us, that binds generation to generation, that ties us with each other. ... And as I look at Lily, I know that it is within families that we learn both the need to respect individual human dignity and to work together for our common good. Within our families, within our nation, it is the same."

Ann Richards
July 18, 1988

It was on this night 25 years ago that I first heard of Ann Richards.

That was probably true of most Americans who lived outside Texas, and, frankly, I expected most Americans to be oblivious to things that were happening in Texas, but I really felt that didn't apply to me.

You see, Texas was always a second home to me when I was growing up. It is where my grandparents lived, and my family came here two, three, sometimes four times a year. When we were here, I read the local papers. I watched the evening news. I listened to the adults' conversations about current events. I always felt like I was on top of what was happening in Texas.

Then, after I finished work on my bachelor's degree and began working for newspapers in Arkansas, my parents returned to Texas, and I continued to visit the state two, three, even four times a year.

I believed I had been keeping up with developments in Texas pretty well — until this night in 1988. That was when I realized that I really didn't know as much about what was going on here as I thought.

It was on this night in 1988 that Richards delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention. She was the two–term state treasurer in Texas, and word was that she was planning to run for governor in 1990. The keynote address was intended to give her some additional exposure in her buildup for the campaign.

This was of interest to me because, by mid–July of 1988, I had made the decision to move to Texas and work on my master's degree at the University of North Texas. If Ann Richards was going to be a candidate for governor, I decided, I wanted to see her in the national spotlight. It would tell me a lot about her ability to handle pressure.

What did I think?

Well, I thought it was one of the finest convention speeches I have ever heard. There were a couple of times when Richards appeared a little shaky, a little nervous, but she shook it off and, more often than not, delivered an effective zinger.

Like this one about patrician (and somewhat gaffe–prone) Vice President George H.W. Bush: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Only Richards — who earlier told her audience she was especially happy to be speaking that night "because after listening to George Bush all these years, I figured you needed to know what a real Texas accent sounds like" — pronounced the word help as "hep."

And can't became "cain't" when Richards spoke.

Take it from me. That is authentic Texan.

It was an important speech, more crucial to Richards' political career than it was to the success of the Democratic ticket that year. But, looking back on it, I am struck by how much her complaints about the incumbent administration sound like the complaints from subsequent keynote speakers in both parties — and, consequently, both by how much and how little has changed in the last quarter of a century.
"They've tried to put us into compartments and separate us from each other. Their political theory is 'divide and conquer.' They've suggested time and time again that what is of interest to one group of Americans is not of interest to anyone else. We've been isolated. We've been lumped into that sad phraseology called 'special interests.' "

Richards was a true Texan. She reminded me of my mother, who was a native Texan as well, and she used the kind of phrases my mother used — such as "tell how the cow ate the cabbage."

(I'm not sure of the origin of that one, incidentally. I can say only two things: 1, I believe it began as a Southern expression although it may be in use in other regions as well, and 2, based on how my mother used it, I concluded that it means the speaker is telling the absolute truth about something.)

I liked Richards' plain–spoken nature. She kind of seemed like a female Harry Truman, someone who wasn't afraid to say what she believed. She was blunt. She just wasn't as salty as he could be.

When she ran for governor a couple of years later, she was elected. I was proud to vote for her. I wasn't living in Texas when she sought a second term and lost (to George W. Bush) in the Republican wave of 1994, but I would have voted for her again.

All of that was still in the future on this night 25 years ago. In 1988, Ann Richards spoke to a TV audience in the millions with poise and charm. If she was nervous, she didn't show it. And she had plenty to be nervous about. She was only the second woman to give a keynote address at a Democratic convention, as she herself observed.

(In so doing, she borrowed a six–year–old line from a comic strip — "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels!")

There was a real honesty in her words, the kind of honesty we could use today.

"[W]hen we get our questions asked, or there is a leak or an investigation," she said of the incumbent administration, "the only answer we get is, 'I don't know,' or 'I forgot.'

"But you wouldn't accept that answer from your children," she said with a sly grin. "I wouldn't. 'Don't tell me you don't know or you forgot."

(That's the kind of response I could have expected from my mother if I tried to get away with saying I didn't remember or I forgot something.)

Then she cut to the chase. "We're not going to have the America that we want until we elect leaders who are going to tell the truth; not most days but every day; leaders who don't forget what they don't want to remember."

When she spoke, she had the same kind of character that all the women in my family had. She said that she was glad the young people of that time didn't have to experience the hardship and sacrifice of the Depression and World War II. It was the kind of thing I could hear my own mother or my grandmothers say, and I agreed with her; I, too, was glad that most of the people who were under 50 at that time had no memory of those things.

"But I do regret that they missed the leaders that I knew," she said, "leaders who told us when things were tough and that we'd have to sacrifice and that these difficulties might last for awhile. They didn't tell us things were hard for us because we were different or isolated or special interests. They brought us together, and they gave us a sense of national purpose."

I'm sorry we missed those leaders, too.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spilling the Beans

A pretty convincing case can be made that what happened 40 years ago today was what marked the beginning of the end for Richard Nixon.

Three weeks earlier, Nixon's claim to have been uninvolved in — in fact, to have been unaware of — either the planning of the Watergate burglary or its coverup took a severe (but hardly lethal) blow when his former counsel, John Dean, spent a week testifying before the Senate Watergate Committee.

Nixon's defenders insisted that it was the word of only one man against the words of everyone else. Had it remained that way, Nixon might well have weathered the storm and limped through his second term. I'm sure there would have been lingering suspicions about Nixon's guilt or innocence — but no evidence to elevate those suspicions from whispered rumors to criminal accusations.

But what happened 40 years ago today changed things.

I'm speaking of Alexander Butterfield's revelation of the existence of a White House taping system that had been recording all of Nixon's meetings and phone conversations. Butterfield was a deputy assistant to Nixon, having gotten that position through an old college friend of his, Bob Haldeman, the president's chief of staff.

(I always thought that was historically significant, but the only mention I have seen of it — other than an opinion piece that, appropriately, ran in the Washington Post a month ago — has been in the form of rather brief entries in "Today in History" type columns.)

Butterfield's job in the White House never struck me as being particularly glamorous — but his duties did differ from those of his colleagues in at least one important regard. He was responsible for maintaining the taping system, and very few people knew about that.

But everyone knew about it on this day in 1973.

Butterfield was called in to testify in public after undergoing pre–testimony questioning from the committee's staff three days earlier.

In his testimony three weeks earlier, Dean had suggested that Nixon's behavior had led him to believe conversations might have been recorded, and the committee had been following up on that in routine pre–testimony questioning of witnesses. Butterfield later said that he had decided not to voluntarily disclose the existence of the system, but he would truthfully answer any direct question that was put to him.

It turned out that Butterfield was asked a direct question in that pre–testimony session — by the counsel for the minority, Donald Sanders — and he confirmed that such a system did exist. This put him at the head of the line for witnesses who would be called the following Monday — when the chief counsel for the minority, Fred Thompson, asked him the now–famous question, "Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"

Butterfield replied that, when he was working at the White House, he had been aware of the presence of listening devices and that they had been installed about three years earlier.

After describing the extent of the taping system and identifying who had knowledge of its existence, Butterfield was asked if either John Ehrlichman or John Dean would have known about it.

"It would be very unlikely," Butterfield replied. "My guess is they definitely did not know."

As I have written here before, my family was out of the country in the summer of 1973 so I do not have any firsthand knowledge of what the atmosphere was like on that Monday in July. But my guess is that, after watching extensive testimony from the former attorney general and the former counsel to the president, viewers couldn't have been enthusiastic when Butterfield, the former deputy assistant to the president, was called to testify.

He sounded like something of a nuts and bolts guy when he described his duties in the White House.

"I was in charge of administration," Butterfield told the committee, "that is to say that the staff secretary, who is the day–to–day administrator at the White House, reported directly to me. And, of course, I reported to Mr. Haldeman, as did everyone.

"I was responsible for the management and ultimate supervision for the Office of Presidential Papers and the Office of Special Files ... I was in charge of security at the White House insofar as liaison to the Secret Service and the Executive Protection Service is concerned and insofar as FBI background investigations for prospective presidential appointees is concerned."

Even after hearing a rundown on his duties, viewers had to wonder who this guy was and what he could possibly contribute to the discussion. They were about to find out.

It was a critical moment in the evolution of the Watergate scandal. Of that, there can be no doubt.

But it seems appropriate at this point to mention something.

I have heard some people complain that it is an urban myth that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters responsible for the early coverage of the scandal, brought down the Nixon presidency. I'm willing to concede that point to a certain extent.

Woodward and Bernstein alone did not bring down the Nixon presidency. It was the accumulated weight of the various investigations, like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill, that brought Nixon down — along with his own hubris and paranoia.

Woodward and Bernstein kept the story alive when virtually no one else in the Fourth Estate was willing to take the chance. Nixon, after all, enjoyed approval ratings in the upper 50s, even lower 60s, in the summer of 1972, and he wielded enormous power. No one wanted to offend him. No one wanted to challenge him. The existence of the "enemies list" was not acknowledged publicly until after Dean testified, but many in the press had long suspected that there was such a thing — if not on paper, certainly in the minds of Nixon and his minions.

By this day in 1973, plenty of questions had been raised but practically no answers had been given. In the minds of most — and in spite of mountains of apparent evidence to the contrary — it was still seen as one man's word against another's.

But when Butterfield told the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago today that a taping system had been recording every Oval Office meeting and conversation that involved the president, everyone knew that there was a witness, a silent witness, that would verify whether Nixon or Dean was telling the truth.

In short, it was now possible, everyone knew, to get an answer to Sen. Howard Baker's memorable question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

This witness was not vulnerable to accusations of faulty memory, but it could be tampered with — as America would discover in a few months.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Politics and Justice

Trayvon Martin makes his purchase minutes before his death.

From the start, I have felt that the Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman matter was being made into much more than it was.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not being flippant. A young man is dead, and that is a terrible thing — on several levels.

But legally the prosecution had no case. The whole thing was driven by politics.

What it is is a situation in which things rapidly got out of hand. That happens sometimes, usually because people are human. They are flawed. And they let matters get the best of them sometimes. That is sad.

But anyone who thinks George Zimmerman is racist either is having a knee–jerk reaction or must know something that no one else knows. The FBI, which operates under the Department of Justice, investigated Zimmerman following the shooting and found no evidence to support the claim that he was a racist.

The only racial epithet that apparently was used that night was when the victim said he was being followed by a "creepy–ass cracker." But he did not call the defendant that. He used that language in a phone conversation with a friend.

No testimony suggested that racial language played any role in the shooting.

No one — outside of the two people who were directly involved, and one, of course, is deceased — will ever know the whole truth about what happened that rainy night in February 2012. But I think a reasonable guess can be made based on even a casual understanding of what most people are likely to do under certain conditions.

According to Zimmerman's statements, he was in his vehicle running some personal errands when he observed Martin walking inside the gated community where he was a volunteer neighborhood watchman. He called the police to report observing an individual who was behaving suspiciously. Zimmerman said Martin, whom he did not recognize, had been walking behind the homes, not on the street or sidewalk.

It's a judgment call whether Martin's actions were suspicious. The police who were called to the scene after Martin was shot reported finding no evidence of anything like burglary and found no evidence of stolen property on Martin's body.

But Zimmerman knew there had been many break–ins of late. It's reasonable to believe his senses were on heightened alert so when he saw Martin, he called non–emergency police to report what he had seen. During that conversation, he said Martin approached his vehicle "to check me out." He said he rolled up his window because he did not want a confrontation with Martin.

At that point, Martin apparently ran away from the vehicle, and Zimmerman told the dispatcher he was following. The dispatcher told him he didn't need to do that. Zimmerman said he was returning to his vehicle; that is when he was confronted by Martin, and that is when the fight began.

And in the course of that fight, as nearly everyone must know by now, Martin was fatally wounded.

Zimmerman never denied shooting Martin, but he claimed he did so in self–defense. In such a case, it doesn't matter if the defendant sustained life–threatening injuries. During my career as a reporter, I covered enough trials and spoke with enough lawyers to know that, if someone claims to have been in fear for his/her safety and uses deadly force against his/her attacker — and if the jury believes that he/she believed that he/she was in danger — it was self–defense.

I understand the frustration of those who feel Zimmerman's acquittal fell short of being justice for Trayvon. But that is the thing, you see.

Justice was done. Martin's side was presented by the prosecution to a jury in an open court. Zimmerman was permitted legal defense, as any person who is charged with a crime in America is entitled to have. A jury that was approved by both the prosecution and the defense listened to the testimony, observed the evidence and rendered its verdict.

Anyone who thinks justice was not done has a skewed view of what justice really is.

"Justice" is having a fair trial. Does anyone think the trial was not fair? If so, speak now and be prepared to defend your conclusion with facts, not emotion.

"Justice" is having the opportunity to present your case to a jury — ideally, one that is made up of residents of the area who know neither the victim nor the accused and have nothing to gain or lose by their verdict. Does anyone have proof that this jury did not act in good faith?

"Justice" is the promise that, if you are accused of a crime, you will have your day in court, or, if you are the victim of a crime, your accusations will be heard. It is not a promise that your side will win.

The founders of this nation had experienced judicial systems that did not have things like open courts and trials by juries, prohibitions against things like double jeopardy and concepts like innocent until proven guilty. They knew that freedom would be a hollow claim without a judicial system that protected the rights of all the citizens.

Sure, there was a time in America's history when the judicial system fell far short of that lofty goal. During the time when slavery was legal in this country, blacks had no legal rights. For a long time, women had few, if any, legal rights. Even after many of those laws were changed or repealed outright, some things didn't change right away.

And there have always been times, from the earliest days of the republic to the present day, when guilty people went free and innocent people went to prison. That's the price we pay for safeguarding everyone's rights — or, at least, trying to.

Slowly but surely, the flaws in the judicial system are being corrected. It is not perfect. It will never be perfect — because laws are written by humans, and trials are conducted by humans. But it is the best system man has devised for administering justice.

I have seen graphics popping up on Facebook that complain about the verdict using totally irrelevant points — and, in the process, showing a shocking absence of understanding of how the law works.

For example ...

I've seen graphics that imply that miscarriage of justice is a fact of life in Florida. A similar case involving a black woman who supposedly fired a warning shot and wound up getting jail time is frequently cited as proof of the racism within the system — as if the two cases had the same set of facts, the same attorneys and the same jurors.

Well, let's look at the facts.

Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she called a "warning shot" into a wall during a confrontation with her abusive former spouse. Alexander had gone to her ex–husband's home to retrieve some belongings, believing he wasn't home, but he was and they got into a fight. When the argument became heated, Alexander went out to her car, got the gun that was there, returned to the house and fired a shot into the wall.

Alexander was offered several plea bargains, including a three–year sentence and then a probational sentence with time served, but she decided to proceed with a stand–your–ground defense.

The jury in her trial decided that the shot was not fired in self–defense and convicted her of aggravated assault. This triggered provisions of the state's "10–20–Life" law, which set mandatory minimum sentences for crimes committed with firearms.

Under that law, any crime committed with a gun receives a minimum of a 10–year sentence. If the gun is fired during the crime, that receives a 20–year sentence. And if anyone is injured or killed, the sentence is 25 years–to–life.

As someone who has covered many trials, I can tell you that each case is unique. All that those cases have in common, aside from the racial aspect, is the law, which is the same for everyone.

Well, not quite. Does the name Angela Corey ring a bell? It should. She's the state attorney in Florida's Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. She was in charge of the investigations and prosecutions in both the George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander cases, and she defended how both were prosecuted.

Different sets of facts, different juries, different interpretations of "stand your ground."

Along the same line of thought, I have seen a graphic that asserts that Florida stole the 2000 election for George W. Bush. It's irrelevant to the point of law, of course — unless one is making an argument for the elimination of the Electoral College, and that is an entirely unrelated issue — but, as long as it is being brought up, Florida voted for Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.

The same graphic asserts that Florida is where "kids can be murdered without question."

"Murder" is a legal term. Unless a court has convicted an individual of a murder charge, there has been no murder.

In the Zimmerman case, the jury concluded that no murder had taken place. It's true that someone died, but the jury believed Zimmerman was in fear for his life and did what he had to do to protect himself.

Those who protest the verdict distort things by labeling Zimmerman a child killer.

The "child" in this case was no toddler. He was less than a year from being old enough to enlist in the Army if he had so chosen, and he was four inches taller than Zimmerman. Technically, he may have been a child, but physically, anyone who saw him, especially on a dark and rainy night, would not say he was one.

It was clear to me — from the persistent media outcry that lifted the case from local to national to the president sticking his nose into it — that it was politicized.

And politics has no place in a courtroom.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Centennial of a 'Humble Healer'

"I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln's. But I will do my very best to equal his brevity and his plain speaking."

Gerald Ford

Today would have been Gerald Ford's 100th birthday. He didn't miss being here for it by much, either. He was 93 when he died in December of 2006.

He lived longer than any other president. So far.

As nearly as I can tell, not much of a fuss is being made about the centennial — except maybe in Ford's hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Grand Rapids Symphony planned a Ford tribute in its Independence Day "Picnic Pops" performance — with the focus being on a special composition written in Ford's honor titled "One of Us, Portrait of A Humble Healer."

This weekend, there have been all sorts of activities in Grand Rapids, and the Vail Daily News in Vail, Colo., where Ford took his ski vacations, says "[t]he valley will stop for a few moments" in Ford's honor.

Other than that, though, there doesn't seem to be much of a fuss, as I said earlier.

In Omaha, Neb., the town where Ford was born, the Omaha World–Herald reports that, while the occasion "will be marked with no pomp and circumstance ... America's 38th president won't be forgotten."

A recent Pew Research Center article observed that, in a Gallup poll last year, a majority of respondents said Ford was an average president, neither above nor below average.

Those who remember the Ford presidency are bound to have differing opinions of him — and that is true of all presidents, even those who have been judged by history to be among the greats. Most folks probably would say Ford was humble. Fewer probably would call him a healer, but I think nearly everyone would agree that Ford was a decent guy.

He was what people of my parents' generation called a "stand–up" guy.

Rarely is there that kind of agreement on any president. But, when compared to the dark, dour and paranoid presidency of Ford's predecessor, Richard Nixon, I guess just about anyone would look like a decent guy.

Ford really was. But he is primarily judged for what was perceived at the time to be a decidedly indecent act — his pardon of Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974, about a month after he took office. Regardless of the general decency of the man, he continues to be judged by many on the basis of that single act.

And that was/is understandable. Nixon's popularity had dropped into the 20s by the time of his resignation. Most of Nixon's fellow Republicans in Congress — on whom Nixon had been counting to keep him from being convicted in an impeachment trial in the Senate — turned on him when the Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes he had been refusing to surrender for months, and the "smoking gun" that proved his early involvement in the Watergate coverup was revealed.

There was a lot of bitterness in the country over the fact that Nixon had dragged the nation through a two–year investigation, protesting his innocence all the while, only to be indisputably shown to be a liar, and, even though there were those who believed an ex–president should not be sent to prison, many more Americans wanted Nixon to stand trial in a court, where he would have to tell the truth or face additional criminal charges.

When Ford pardoned Nixon, it removed any possibility that Nixon would have to face the legal music. That made many Americans angry — enough, some political analysts would say, that it cost Ford election to the presidency in his own right two years later.

Until the end of his life, Ford would say — and not without some justification — that pardoning Nixon was the only way for the country to put Watergate behind it and focus on the sputtering economy.

It was the kind of remark a decent, stand–up kind of guy would make — as were Ford's remarks in his first State of the Union speech in January 1975.

"I must say to you," Ford said, "that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year’s federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual."

Tell the truth. Can you imagine any other president in your lifetime being quite that blunt with the American people?

I have often reflected on Ford's decision in late 1973 to accept Nixon's nomination of him to fill the vice presidential vacancy left by the resignation of Spiro Agnew. I have wondered what it was like. In hindsight, it seems somewhat inevitable that Ford would become first vice president and then president. But there must have been a time — however brief it may have been — when Ford's decision had not been made, and it still was possible that he might turn Nixon down.

I always wonder to whom Nixon might then have offered the vice presidency — and how that might have changed America and the world.

Some 16 months earlier, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern had to do something similar when his running mate was dropped and a new one had to be selected. He offered the spot to just about every prominent Democrat, and they all turned him down — until he got to Sargent Shriver.

McGovern never made his offer in public so there are no recordings of those Democrats turning him down — but they always wound up in the news. The details were only made public — if at all — in books or interviews long after the fact.

I have no memory of anyone other than Ford being offered the vice presidency in 1973, but I can imagine a few of the thoughts that must have gone through his mind when the offer was made. And, based on what I know of Ford, I'm sure he consulted his wife, Betty, before giving Nixon an answer.

He always claimed he expected to be something of a place filler for the rest of Nixon's term, and then he would retire to Michigan when it was over. He apparently accepted the vice presidency with no expectation that he would be president. He figured Nixon would ride out the storm.

Well, that was his story. And maybe that really was what he believed. But my memory is that Nixon's approval ratings took a serious hit when it was revealed in the Watergate hearings (coincidentally, a couple of days after Ford's 60th birthday) that there had been a secret taping system in the White House.

That meant that there was a witness that could verify what Nixon and his associates had said in their meetings after the Watergate break–in. The only real question at the time was whether the witness' account would be heard. Would Nixon be able to run out the clock on his term before that account was heard?

Although Nixon and his lawyers tried every legal trick in the book, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in the summer of 1974 — several months after Ford's confirmation as vice president and more than two years before Nixon's term was due to end — that Nixon had to relinquish the tapes to the investigators.

In those tapes was the "smoking gun" that ended Nixon's presidency.

At that point, most people seemed to realize that it was just a matter of time — and not much of that — before Nixon would be leaving office. By then, Ford must have been anticipating the massive changes that were about to take place in his life.

Ford certainly didn't give the country politics as usual, even though one of his earliest acts was dismissed as such by many Americans. He was like a breath of fresh air when he became president, which is no doubt why so many Americans felt betrayed when he pardoned Nixon.

To continue with the breath of fresh air analogy, it was like breathing fresh oxygen for four weeks after a steady diet carbon dioxide — only to suddenly inhale carbon dioxide again without warning. There was a national coughing spasm.

There was a lot of raw emotion in the Watergate era, and I have often wondered if Ford might not have encountered such a hostile reaction had he waited longer to issue the pardon.

Some economists of the time felt it was urgent to put Nixon and Watergate behind the country so full attention could be given to the economy. But if their counsel prompted Ford to issue the pardon when he did, those economists did both the nation and the new president a disservice.

Although I disagreed, I always felt Ford truly believed it was essential for the country to move forward, and pardoning Nixon was the only way to do that — while he never managed to completely regain the trust he lost when he pardoned Nixon, Ford was an upfront kind of guy, determined to press on no matter how great the adversity.

And the adversity for Ford in the 1976 presidential campaign only got worse when John Dean, the man who first exposed the Watergate coverup, wrote in his book about the scandal that he had heard from another source that Ford had been involved in efforts to postpone a congressional investigation into Watergate until after the 1972 election, which would have made him an accessory.

I came from a family of Nixon haters, but I was willing to give Ford the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was sincere when he said his motivation was to move the country forward. Perhaps it was that quality that made him an All–America center/linebacker and the acknowledged team leader at Michigan in the 1930s. (It was said Ford "would stay and fight in a losing cause.")

Perhaps that trait was honed even earlier, in his days as a Boy Scout.

Whatever the origin may have been, it forced even Ford's political adversaries to admit to a certain amount of admiration for the way he carried himself before, after and during his presidency.