Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tilting at Windmills

"There's not the least thing can be said or done, but people will talk and find fault."

Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote de la Mancha

I'm not privy to the conversations that take place in the halls of power in Washington so I have no idea what motivated Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to launch his filibuster against funding Obamacare.

I've heard a lot of smug and snide comments today about Cruz's use of Dr. Seuss and Star Wars in his filibuster. And I'll admit that I don't know everything that he said in his speech. I've seen video clips, and I've read articles about it, but I didn't sit and watch the whole thing — which ended after about 21 hours.

But, as long as he was quoting things, he should have quoted Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote de la Mancha," which is, of course, about a retired nobleman who set out on a quest to revive chivalry.

Then, as now, I guess that's a lost cause, and I couldn't help thinking, as I watched him speak — for I did watch some parts of it as it was happening — that he must have known this was a lost cause, too. Even those who supported him seemed to know it. How could he not know it?

And that, in turn, made me think of something Jimmy Stewart said in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" when he was delivering his own filibuster. It was about lost causes and how they were the only causes worth fighting for, worth dying for.

When a person is motivated by principle, everything else is secondary.

Don Quixote was known for tilting at windmills — admittedly a futile gesture. In his own way, I guess Cruz was tilting against a system he didn't like — and perhaps serving notice that this fight isn't finished yet — but he acknowledged defeat in this particular battle, voting for cloture when it was clear no one in the Senate would side with him.

Predictably, the New York Times said Cruz was an "embarrassment." GQ called him a "Wacko Bird." He was greeted with scorn and derision from others in the media who, just a few months ago, were praising the filibuster of another Texan, Wendy Davis, in the state legislature.

(To the credit of the Times, I must point out that what it published was clearly labeled opinion. And GQ doesn't pretend to be a legitimate deliverer of news. But, like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, GQ and other publications that are not news deliverers are mistaken for such by the uninformed.)

The difference between the two filibusters was the fact that the media liked Davis' politics and didn't like Cruz's — and because news writing these days means opinion to too many writers and does not mean objective reporting to enough.

A free press means a free nation — but a press that panders to power is no longer free, and neither is the nation it pretends to serve.

When I was starting out as a reporter, I remember conducting an interview with a local political candidate who made some statements that sounded pretty farfetched to me. Upon returning to the newsroom, I asked the managing editor about those statements. How should I write about them? I asked.

"I think they speak for themselves," he replied. "You should be like a fly on the wall. The reader shouldn't even know you're there."

That has been my yardstick as a writer throughout my professional life.

I understand the roles that opinion and news writing play in journalism, and it distresses me that far too many journalists — and I see this in my journalism students, too — cannot or will not differentiate between the two.

When I write my blogs, they are largely my opinion. I don't pretend to be writing news stories. Mostly, I comment on the news.

But there is an obvious bias in far too much of what is labeled news these days. It is evident in the media's different responses to the two filibusters.

I don't know. Maybe, like Cruz, I am tilting at windmills when I seek change in the news culture. Maybe it is a lost cause.

Like the implementation of Obamacare. Whether one thinks it will be a great thing or a disaster, it was passed by Congress and signed into law. One may have issues with how it was passed and signed. One may have issues with whether the money charged for non–compliance is really a tax or a fine. One may or may not believe the law will deliver what was promised.

Most of those who oppose it now seem resigned to waiting and seeing what happens. But a few are not content to do that.

A few insist on fighting for the lost cause.

On tilting at windmills.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Spinning Willie Horton

It is my opinion that what happened on this day 25 years ago was what drove a racial wedge into the heart of America that persists to modern times.

Well, that may be a little extreme. A lot of people and a lot of events over a long period of time have contributed to the polarized state of race relations in this country. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that what happened on this day a quarter century ago played a key role in the erosion of modern race relations.

On this day in 1988, the first of the so–called "Willie Horton ads" aired on TV.

If you're under 35, let me tell you who Willie Horton is/was.

Willie Horton is a black man, a native of South Carolina who was convicted of a 1974 murder in Massachusetts and sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

However, in 1986, he was released as part of a weekend furlough program, but he didn't return when the weekend was over. Less than a year later, he raped a woman in Maryland after attacking her fiance. He was captured and convicted, then sentenced to two consecutive life terms plus 85 years. The judge who sentenced him pointedly refused to return him to Massachusetts.

Horton is still incarcerated in Maryland.

Michael Dukakis, the Democrats' 1988 nominee for the presidency, was governor of Massachusetts when Horton was released. Dukakis did not start the furlough program, but he did support it.

The original policy began under a Republican governor in 1972, but first–degree murderers weren't eligible. After the state's Supreme Court ruled that the privilege should be extended to first–degree murderers, the state's legislature passed a bill denying furloughs to such convicts.

Dukakis vetoed the bill, and the furlough program remained in effect until 1988.

So Dukakis clearly bore some responsibility for the program, and the first to mention it during the 1988 campaign actually was one of Dukakis' rivals for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. Gore brought it up during a debate prior to the New York primary, but he asked a general question and never mentioned Horton's name.

The name was known to the Bush campaign, especially campaign manager Lee Atwater, who was responsible for most of the negative campaigning the Republicans did that year. Late that spring, a group of Republican consultants met with a focus group made up of Democrats who had voted for Reagan four years earlier, and they told the consultants they needed take a negative approach to Dukakis.

For Atwater, it was like a mandate to do whatever it took to win, but he needed the green light to proceed — and he got it but gradually. He wasn't the original spin doctor — that concept originated in the fields of public relations and advertising — but, in his lifetime, he was probably the most effective at applying the spin doctor's tactics to politics.

In June, Bush mentioned Horton by name in a speech to the Texas Republican convention.

And 25 years ago today, Americans for Bush, part of the National Security Political Action Committee, first aired a commercial called "Weekend Passes," which identified Horton and what he had done while free.

The ad was taken off the air two weeks later — on the day that Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen met in the vice presidential debate. The Bush campaign began running its own ad, "Revolving Door," which did not mention Horton by name.

But it didn't have to. His name was already pretty well known around the country by then.

Most of the "inmates" in the commercial were white — but there were a couple of strategically positioned black actors.

It was a not–so–subtle reminder of Horton and his criminal record.

Bentsen and civil rights leaders criticized Bush's campaign and called the ads racist. Bush denied the charge.

While I definitely think race was used by the Republicans in 1988, the fact is that it was only one aspect of the Bush campaign, which was very aggressive and extremely negative. The Bush campaign of 1988 was not above distorting the facts, any facts, and Dukakis was simply ineffective at countering.

For example, the Republicans ran a negative commercial about the condition of Boston Harbor, implying that it was Dukakis' fault when the truth was that the policies that created the situation were promoted by administrations of both parties.

In 1988, the Republicans had been on the ropes before the conventions, and they played hardball during the fall campaign — even after polls showed public sentiment swinging in their direction.

The turning point may have come a week before the first Horton ad made its debut, when the Republican campaign turned Michael Dukakis' ill–fated tank ride into a devastating commercial.

The Republicans held nothing back in 1988.

And Atwater especially wasn't above using anything to win. He insisted he would "strip the bark off the little bastard (Dukakis)" and "make Willie Horton his running mate."

Atwater certainly bears some responsibility for the state of modern race relations in America. And, near the end of his life in 1991, he did seem to be trying to make amends in a LIFE magazine article in which he apologized to Dukakis for the "naked cruelty" of the 1988 campaign.

But even then and under those circumstances, I was inclined to take anything that Atwater said with a grain of salt.

Ed Rollins, manager of the Reagan–Bush re–election campaign, confirmed the necessity of such a policy in a book about Atwater in which he said this about the last days of Atwater's life:
"[Atwater] was telling this story about how a Living Bible was what was giving him faith and I said to Mary (Matalin), 'I really, sincerely hope that he found peace.' She said, 'Ed, when we were cleaning up his things afterwards, the Bible was still wrapped in the cellophane and had never been taken out of the package,' which just told you everything there was. He was spinning right to the end."

Atwater probably would tell you that perception is everything.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In Pursuit of Peace in the Middle East

"The Framework for Peace in the Middle East and the Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel were two major steps forward. For a few hours, all three of us were flushed with pride and good will toward one another because of our unexpected success. We had no idea at that time how far we still had to go."

Jimmy Carter
Keeping Faith (1982)

It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the presidency of Jimmy Carter endured more bad days than good.

But today is the 35th anniversary of one of the good ones — maybe the best one — for it was on this day in 1978 that Carter, Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords.

Those accords led to a peace treaty the following year — the first such treaty ever signed by the still–new nation of Israel with any of its Arab neighbors in the Middle East — and a shared Nobel Peace Prize for Begin and Sadat.

Secretly, the three men had been engaged in nearly two weeks of negotiations at Camp David, Md., the presidential retreat. Their mutual suspicions required Carter to negotiate with each one separately, going from one cabin to another. At one point, I have heard, he even took the two men to nearby Gettysburg in the hope that they would be inspired by the story of America's civil war.

At the time the accords were signed, it seemed to the general public that the negotiations at Camp David were virtually spontaneous, but appearances can be deceiving. In truth, the Camp David Accords were the outcome of more than a year's worth of diplomatic discussions between the three countries that began after Carter became president in 1977.

What was unique was the fact that Carter managed to bring the two leaders to the same place at the same time.

But even that wasn't enough to ensure the success of the negotiations.

It required a lot of hard, behind–the–scenes work. The two nations had a brief but stormy history that aroused great passion on both sides — and erected often–enormous barriers between them.

Since Israel was established in 1948, there had been three armed conflicts between Egypt and Israel by the time of the Camp David Accords. Israel won them all and, as a result of the 1967 war, controlled the Sinai Peninsula that connects Africa and Asia.

But Sadat, who probably deserves more credit for the Camp David Accords than he received, traveled to Jerusalem in late 1977 to speak to Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Less than a year later, he joined Carter and Begin at the presidential retreat.

At the time of the accords, Sadat was widely praised outside the Arab world — within it, though, he was roundly condemned. Three years later, on the eighth anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists while he watched a military parade in Cairo.

The peace process continued.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Day a Birmingham Church Was Bombed

A couple of weeks ago, the nation paused to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech that was given at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

That was certainly a great moment — an uplifting moment — in American history. But 2½ weeks later, in the truest sense of Sir Isaac Newton's laws of physics, there was an equal and opposite reaction.

Fifty years ago today, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. — which had been used as a meeting place for King and other civil rights leaders (and a gathering place for civil rights rallies) — was bombed during the Sunday School hour. Four black girls were killed. Three were 14 years old, and one was 11.

As much credit as one may be tempted to give King for the legislative and judicial triumphs of the civil rights movement of the '60s, it is my opinion that what happened 50 years ago today was the movement's critical moment.

There were still a few places in America in 1963 — as there are today — that were thought to be safe places to be — home, school, church. To attack one of any of these was to attack all such places in America — and thus it was an affront to nearly all Americans, whether they supported or opposed the civil rights cause, because nearly all Americans have homes (however modest), attend school and/or frequent a house of worship.

Martyrs are often necessary for truly transformational movements to achieve their objectives, and I think it was that way with the civil rights movement. King's speech was a tremendous high for supporters of the movement, but, as such things often do, it seems to me that it may have created a sense of complacency. The momentum of the movement may have stalled.

I don't know. It was before my time.

But, based on what I have read, in books and newspaper accounts, it was far from certain, in the aftermath of King's speech, that the Civil Rights Act would pass. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church restored the movement's momentum.

Sympathetic Americans were probably tempted to believe, after seeing King's speech, that the movement's triumphs were coming at an historically rapid clip, which may have led many to assume that supporting civil rights and voting rights legislation were no–brainers — while unsympathetic Americans may have felt a sense of urgency to stop what was perceived as a threat to a way of life.

In the aftermath of the bombing, many newspapers in the North lamented that they hadn't taken the movement as seriously as they should have. The Milwaukee Sentinel, for one, wrote in an editorial that "the hour is late and the situation is critical."

The bombing had the effect of ratcheting up sympathy and support for civil rights. On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was enacted, winning congressional approval by better than 2–to–1 margins in both the House and Senate.

It probably wouldn't surprise many 21st–century observers to know that most of the opposition in both chambers came from Southerners.

But it might surprise those observers to know that most of those Southerners were Democrats.

And it might also surprise those observers to know that, outside the South, nearly as many Republicans as Democrats supported the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Will We Ever Know the Truth About JFK?

President and Mrs. Kennedy disembark in Dallas.

In a little more than two months, it will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy here in Dallas.

It goes without saying that it was a traumatic event for this country — particularly so for this city (my grandmother always regarded it as a black eye for Dallas) — and I suppose many people have lived for years, probably decades, with a desire to know the real story of what happened that day. Perhaps they, like my grandmother, believe that whoever pulled the trigger couldn't possibly be local because, well, everybody knew that folks from Dallas wouldn't do that kind of thing — even though Dallas in general was known to be hostile to the administration.

Initially, I guess, a majority of Americans accepted the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. That was how most Americans were raised in those days — to respect authority and accept its word on everything (the deceit of the Johnson and Nixon presidencies would go a long way toward eroding that inclination).

At the dawn of the 1960s, conformity was in fashion in America, just as it had been (and still was) in the European cultures from which many Americans' ancestors had come — and they, like all other immigrants before and since, brought their values with them.

After the home movie that Abraham Zapruder made that day went public a few years later, suspicions rapidly grew among Americans that the Kennedy assassination had been part of some sort of conspiracy. America had been souring on the Vietnam war, and the pump was primed for conspiracy theories to flourish.

A general consensus arose that the true story had not been told, either by omission or commission, and that view gained some momentum in the mid–1970s when a special congressional committee evaluated the evidence from prominent assassinations in the 1960s — President Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King — and determined that it was probable that there had been more than one gunman in Dealey Plaza that day.

I guess that is the only thing that many Americans agreed on — and, I will admit, I was one of them. There is little agreement about who was responsible — some say the CIA, some say organized crime, others say Cubans, still others say right–wing extremists. Some of the more elaborate scenarios combine two or more.

I use the past tense — was — for myself not because I now believe the Warren Commission (I don't), but because I believe that, whether the Warren Commission was right or wrong, it doesn't matter now. Too much time has passed, too many material witnesses are deceased or suffering from dementia, and we will never know what the truth is.

Some people will never believe that. They will keep searching for the truth, and I do hope they find it, but I have strong doubts that anyone ever will.

Some people will insist that they already know the truth. I have dealt with such people all my life — on some subjects, I must admit, I am one of those people — and I have learned that it is usually futile to attempt to change their minds.

And who knows? They might be right — as one of my favorite journalists, H.L. Mencken, liked to say in letters to angry readers.

Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald did shoot Kennedy. Perhaps he did act alone. I don't know. What I do know is that there have been unanswered questions from the start. Granted, some of the questions eventually received plausible answers, but it has often seemed in the Kennedy case that, whenever a single question has been answered, it has raised two new questions, and we seemed to drift farther from the truth than we were before.

Not even the best mystery writer could invent as many red herrings and dead–end leads as there have been in this case over the years. It is alleged that many of these were the results of sloppy investigative work or human error or even coincidence.

If Oswald really did act alone, it is hard to imagine the investigation into the murder of any president being handled as sloppily — or as many coincidences occurring. There has been plenty of doubt about the number of shooters — heck, even the number of shots — in Dealey Plaza that day, and it did take the Dallas police an inexcusably long time to seal off the Texas Schoolbook Depository after the shots were fired and the consensus among witnesses was that at least some of those shots had been fired from that building.

Maybe there are simple explanations for things that appear to be so clearly sinister. I am a defender of our legal system in spite of its flaws, and I know things are not always how they seem — but, really, so many? It defies logic and common sense.

Suppose Oswald had not been killed but had lived to face trial. America's legal history is filled with cases where juries acted differently than many observers expected. How many times in your life have you heard of a verdict that was contrary to public opinion? That was one of the things I learned during my days on the police beat. You can never tell what a jury will do, but you can be sure that someone won't like it.

No one knows what a jury might have said about the case against Oswald. The closest we came was the case brought by Jim Garrison in New Orleans that was re–enacted in Oliver Stone's "JFK." That trial was only a few years after the assassination, when the trail presumably was still warm, and it resulted in an acquittal.

In 2013, it is a decidedly cold case, and I believe it will remain so.

In (almost) the words of a once–popular TV show, the truth may be out there. I just don't think that, at this stage, anyone will find it.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Ride in a Tank

The Saturday Night Live parodies of presidential debates sometimes seem like they've been a part of presidential campaigns forever — even though the SNL parodies, like the debates themselves, haven't been regular parts of presidential campaigns for quite 40 years yet.

Twenty–five years ago, the debate parodies were still evolving, but they had already established themselves as truly (and humorously) insightful. And I thought one of the best examples came in a 1988 parody when, after Dana Carvey gave a spot–on impression of a typical George H.W. Bush meandering, cliche–ridden response, Jon Lovitz (as Michael Dukakis) shrugged his shoulders on rebuttal and said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

There were times that fall when I couldn't help wondering the same thing.

And then there were days like this one when I knew why he lost. For it was on this day in 1988 that Dukakis took his ill–advised ride in a tank, presumably to show the voters he was tough, not a wimp, but he only managed to look ridiculous.

It happened at the General Dynamics Land Systems plant in Sterling Heights, Mich. Dukakis came to participate in a photo opp in an M1 Abrams tank.

As I say, the idea probably was to make Dukakis look tough and assertive, but he never really looked comfortable — sort of like Calvin Coolidge when he did a 1920s photo opp in a Native American headdress.

It was a disaster for Dukakis but a bounty for Bush. The Bush campaign of 1988 — under the leadership of Lee Atwater — never hesitated to exploit a perceived weakness in the opposition.

And, to misquote a memorable line from Saddam Hussein, Dukakis' tank ride was the mother of all political weaknesses.

The Willie Horton–inspired commercials (of which I will have more to say next week) get most of the attention in the accounts of that campaign, and they certainly deserve their own chapter in the history of race relations in America, but the Dukakis–in–the–tank commercial may have been the most effective of the campaign because it so neatly capitalized on everything that made voters uneasy about the Democrats' nominee.

He was perceived as stiff and passionless, a typical wishy–washy, appeasing liberal when it came to things like national defense.

At a time when voters were having to select the successor for Ronald Reagan (who, even in his late 70s, was perceived as being macho, a cowboy, standing tall on the world's stage) being tough and assertive was a clear plus — but being a phony was a definite minus. Dukakis came across as being phony, as not being a genuine leader.

And Dukakis' photo opp wound up reinforcing the negative image the Dukakis campaign intended to disprove.

In other words, you can't smear lipstick on a pig and call it a trophy wife.

George Wallace: No Middle Ground

"There's some people who've gone over the state and said, 'Well, George Wallace has talked too strong about segregation.' Now let me ask you this: how in the name of common sense can you be too strong about it? You're either for it, or you're against it. There's not any middle ground as I know of."

George Wallace

There are many people who, regardless of almost anything else they ever did or will do, will forever be linked to the American civil rights movement.

Some made only brief contributions to the movement's history; others were a part of the conversation for years.

George Wallace, who died 15 years ago today, was one of the latter.

Earlier this year, MSNBC's Chris Hayes asserted that Wallace had been a Republican. Hayes and I don't always see eye to eye on issues, but ordinarily we do agree on historical facts. This time? Well, I'm sorry, but he had his facts wrong.

His was an understandable assumption, I suppose. Most Southern states have been solidly Republican for many years, and Wallace probably would be a Republican if he was living and running for office.

(Wallace's son and namesake was elected state treasurer in Alabama as a Democrat, but he switched to the Republican Party a decade later and was elected to the Alabama Public Service Commission.)

But George Wallace's time was the middle of the 20th century. Most successful Southern politicians were still Democrats, as they had been for more than a century.

If that sounds strange to 21st–century ears, remember that it was a time that was significantly different from today. In those days, both parties had liberals, conservatives and moderates. The parties are far more polarized today.

(I noticed in yesterday's Dallas Morning News that editor Sharon Grigsby wrote about "sorority racism" at the University of Alabama.

(With a black man in the White House for nearly five years now, it's been fashionable to toss around the accusation of racism at anyone who so much as disagrees with the president. I grew weary of that long ago. But that doesn't mean that I deny the existence of racism. I just think there are more important battles to fight than the ones that have been waged.

(This sorority thing falls in that category. I appreciate, as does Grigsby, the work that went into the Alabama student newspaper's article that exposed sorority racism on campus, but if the exclusive nature of the Greek system is the most egregious offense that one can find on the 'Bama campus, things are a lot better than they used to be.)

Wallace was probably best known for seeking the presidency as the nominee of his own political party, the American Independent Party, in 1968. Well, Wallace wasn't actually the founder of the party. That was Bill Shearer, a right–wing political activist who, along with his wife, founded the party to give Wallace, by that time the former governor of Alabama (existing state law prevented him from seeking re–election in 1966), a platform from which to campaign for the presidency.

But his political story actually began some 30 years earlier when, as a 19–year–old, he contributed to his grandfather's campaign for probate judge. Seven years later, he was appointed one of Alabama's assistant attorneys general. About a year after that, he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives.

Ironically, considering the tone of his later political career, he was considered a moderate on racial issues in those days. But he shifted his politics after losing the Democratic nomination for governor to an avowed segregationist in 1958.

"I was outniggered," Wallace reportedly told Seymore Trammell, his 1958 campaign director, "and ... I will never be outniggered again."

(Such a pivotal moment in a politician's life story always sounded like satire to me — sort of like Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind.")

He gained national notoriety in 1963, when he pledged, in his inaugural address, to "toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny" as a tireless advocate of segregation. About six months later, he made what was largely a symbolic gesture when he made his "stand in the schoolhouse door" in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.

As I say, the value of the stand in the schoolhouse door was largely symbolic. There was Wallace, small of stature, trying to stand up to the big guys who were assaulting the beliefs and values of his state. He lost, but he was able to take credit for the attempt to defend the little guy.

"There was always a grand sense of persecution among the Wallace workers," wrote political historian Theodore H. White of the 1968 campaign, "a nearly religious faith that everyone was against them but the people, and that the saving of white America from the pointy–heads was a cause greater than politics."

And in the cauldron that was 1968, there was a time when Wallace was a serious contender for the presidency. Like Ross Perot in 1992, though, Wallace did best in the national polls when he said the least. But it simply wasn't in Wallace's nature to remain silent.

Thus, it was probably inevitable that he tumbled in the polls the more he opened his mouth.
"Why does the Air Force need expensive new bombers? Have the people we've been bombing over the years been complaining?"

His rhetoric was incendiary, and, ultimately, it appealed to only a small minority of American voters — too small even to force the race into the House of Representatives, where Wallace hoped to play kingmaker.

Nevertheless, his campaign was the most successful third–party effort in nearly 60 years; forty–five years later, he is still the last third–party candidate to win at least one state (he won five — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi — worth 45 electoral votes).

His national ambitions were dealt a permanent blow in 1972 when he was shot while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Wallace tried to win the nomination again in 1976, but by that time, another Southern politician, Jimmy Carter, had overtaken him in his regional base. Wallace's day had ended.

My memory is that, at the conclusion of the 1976 primary season, Wallace gracefully accepted the voters' verdict and told the nominee–to–be that he would support him in the general election campaign.

"It must have been one of the most difficult conversations Wallace had ever had to conduct, this telephone call to the man who had dashed his own presidential hopes and replaced him as the South's political hero," wrote Jules Witcover and Jack Germond in their book about the 1976 presidential campaign, "Marathon."

Wallace returned to Alabama. In 1982, after apologizing to the black voters of Alabama for his racist past, Wallace won his final term as governor. When that term ended in January 1987, he retired from public life.
"I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor."

I guess that was the great irony of George Wallace.

Nationally, I guess he was the poster child for bigotry and intolerance, but, in his judicial career before he ran for governor, Wallace was known as a liberal judge who treated everyone the same, regardless of race.

Wallace was an enigma in life, and he remains one 15 years after his death.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Myth America

I think the origin of the phrase "women's liberation" can be traced back 50 years, maybe more, but it may not have been widely used until this day in 1968 (I was a child in 1968 so there are certain to be things of which I knew little and understood even less).

Forty–five years ago today, hundreds of women staged a protest in Atlantic City, N.J., home of the annual Miss America Pageant. They were protesting what they saw as the meat market atmosphere of the pageant.

And women's liberation joined all the other groups of that day that demanded to be treated better than they had been treated up to that time. As I say, I was just a child, but the logic of the argument did not escape me. My parents had always taught my brother and me that a principle upon which this nation was founded was simply this — all citizens should be treated the same.

Now, at a time when there were protests for and against just about everything by just about everyone, it was necessary to stand out in some way. As much as it was anything else, the '60s was a very theatrical decade, and you had to be entertaining to gain attention. The protest at the Miss America Pageant found its dramatic hook — so to speak.

Into a barrel labeled "Freedom Trash Can," the protesters dumped such symbols of domestic oppression as makeup, pots, mops, high heels, girdles, false eyelashes — and bras, lots and lots of bras.

But, contrary to what rapidly became urban legend, the trash can's contents were not set ablaze.

(I will admit that, as a writer, I appreciate the dramatic side of that tall tale. But that doesn't change the fact that it simply is not true.)

That was what mainstream America thought, however, and "bra burning" became synonymous with the women's liberation movement.

I heard the phrase, but I had little idea what it meant. I only knew that the idea seemed alien and, in some ways, frightening to the adults in my world. Actually, fire was a frightening thing for me as well. It was frightening for anyone who had seen uncontrolled fire — and you could see it on the news every night — although I have to admit that I didn't fully understand things from the adults' point of view. Now that I am an adult myself, I think I can understand the confusion my parents, my grandparents and their peers felt.

They had seen the war protesters burning their draft cards so the idea had some legitimacy. They had just witnessed riots in the streets at the Democrats' national convention in Chicago; a few months earlier, they had seen race riots in nearly every major American city following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a confusing, frightening time in America. Traditional roles — gender, racial, you name it — were under assault. Those roles may have been — well, they were — based on unfair stereotypes, but they gave most Americans a guide for who they were and what their role in the culture was.

I don't have a vivid memory of the things my elders said, but my impression was that they were fearful of the violence, the aggression — and, also, probably, the threat posed to that social yardstick — that was implied by the idea of women burning their bras in protest. It was almost as if women were seen as the last friendly, traditionally nurturing demographic group in America. If the idea of their violent revolt was true, no hope was left.

And that is all it was, really — an idea, an idealized image, not a fact.

As I say, there were other items that were trashed during the protest, but nothing was burned. No fires were started.

In fact, according to the story I heard, that whole rumor started when a reporter who was covering the protest compared (I presume in conversation with other reporters) the women protesters to Vietnam War protesters burning their draft cards.

And a myth was born.

Nevertheless, I can remember hearing my mother, my grandmothers and the other women of their generations speak disapprovingly of what they thought was going on in Atlantic City.

After the fact, I wondered if, secretly, my grandmothers and the women of their generation weren't a bit envious of those younger women who were asserting themselves so publicly, perhaps expressing what my grandmothers and their friends had long believed but had never had the nerve to say.

My grandmothers were young when American women won the right to vote, and they may have thought that was as much liberation as they could expect in their lifetimes. Then, as they were approaching the end of their lives, the younger generation was doing things my grandmothers never would have dreamed of doing.

The times really were a–changing.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

There were times — not many but a few — in my college days when I played some poker with my friends.

I was never very good at it, especially the art of bluffing — and I say that with all due respect because I'm sure those guys who were good at bluffing have gone on to enjoy great success in whichever career paths they followed.

Especially if their career paths were political. Politics frequently requires good bluffing — in other words, having what is known as a "poker face." I've heard it said that Richard Nixon developed quite a poker face from playing poker in the service during World War II. Apparently, it served him well in negotiations he had as president with the Russians and Chinese.

I believe effective bluffing can be boiled down to two parts — 1) plausibly asserting that something is true, whether it is or not, and 2) successfully backing it up when challenged (i.e., when one's bluff is called).

I'm no lawyer, but, in my mind, I equate it with the legal distinction between assault and battery. It's been my experience that a lot of people think assault and battery is a single crime. It isn't.

I don't remember now when I first heard this explained, whether it was during my reporting days when I covered the police beat or on some occasion when I reported for jury duty and a lawyer was questioning prospective jurors.

It might have been something I heard when I was studying communications law in college although that is probably unlikely since neither legal term would have had much to do with communications — directly, anyway.

In case you don't know, an assault is basically a threat, presumably of physical harm (although, in the modern world, I guess you would have to define a threat of computer hacking as an assault as well — not necessarily a physical threat but a financial one, which can, in due course, threaten life).

If the person who is being threatened believes the other person is capable of carrying out the threat, that is assault. If the threat is actually carried out, that is battery.

Barack Obama did the bluffing part last year when he declared that there was a "red line" in Syria — no chemical weapons use would be tolerated.

Now there are reports that Obama's bluff has been called. Apparently, Syria has used chemical weapons on its people. Recently.

Tom Foreman of CNN writes that this has left Obama with three options: "Bad, worse, and horrible."

Actually, Foreman outlines more than three options, but, at the end of his piece, he acknowledges that, for a variety of reasons, it all comes down to one — firing cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean.

Such missiles, he writes, "are magnificent, virtually unstoppable weapons capable of pinpoint, devastating strikes." But the delay in using them complicates matters. The Syrians have had plenty of time already "to hide their own weapons, secure their airplanes and disperse critical command and control assets."

That sounds like what some of George W. Bush's defenders still say about the invasion of Iraq. That invasion, if you recall, was predicated on the belief that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction it would use against the United States, and it was necessary to eliminate them.

To many people, that sounded plausible in the immediate aftermath of 9–11, but no such weapons were found.

Supporters of the invasion insisted Iraq's leaders had moved the stockpiles of weapons. If they did, those weapons still have not been located.

Anyway, at that point, the objective changed from rooting out dangerous weapons to nation building, which was not an original objective of the mission.

In recent days, I have heard supporters of this president justify his taking unilateral action in Syria because other presidents have been launching undeclared wars (and conveniently bypassing the Constitution in the process) since the end of World War II.

But let's get back to our current predicament. I can't speak for anyone else, but I do not blame Obama for this mess — well, not entirely.

Any president who faced these circumstances would be between a rock and a hard place. There are no good options to take, only bad ones and worse ones. I realize that the option I advocate is a bad one, but, in the absence of any good ones ...

At least a portion of these circumstances, however, is Obama's fault. He is the one who drew the red line and told Syria not to cross it. He did that a year ago.

A prudent president would have devoted the past year to building a congressional consensus to authorize him to attack — just in case. Instead, he spent much of that time demonizing the opposition party rather than seeking common ground, knowing full well that he would need the cooperation of the Republican–controlled House to do anything if Syria called his bluff.

None of the polls I saw last year — including the most important one, the one on Election Day — suggested that Obama's party had a prayer of retaking the House. He must have known long before the election that, if he did win, he would have to deal with a Republican–controlled House for at least the first two years of his second term.

As a former constitutional law professor, he should have known that he would need to curry favor with influential Republicans in the House.

And a prudent president would have been building a coalition of American allies. This president has not been doing that, and now it appears we must do whatever we are going to do alone — or practically so.

He says he will consult Congress when it returns from its Labor Day recess, but Congress won't be in session again for a week. That is even more time for Syria to prepare for missile strikes.

Obama is more concerned, it seems, with public opinion polls that suggest that, by margins of 39% to 52%, a majority of Americans opposes military intervention in Syria.

If at last Obama is paying attention to the concerns of the voters, that isn't a bad thing. The American people have witnessed a decade of war that has cost them much but gained them little. The president should consider them, the sacrifices they already have made and the additional sacrifices they are being asked to make, before taking any action — assuming that Congress gives him the green light.

But he should have been laying the groundwork for this for months. He and his secretary of state made naive, false — and dangerous — assumptions about the people with whom they were dealing, and now the global credibility of the United States is at stake. If we do not enforce Obama's red line, what does anyone else have to fear from us?

Polling data suggest that most Americans oppose the idea of an attack, but a majority would support a limited strike.

I think that would be worse than doing nothing (which I believe is the least bad option). A limited strike, lasting a day or two — or perhaps an hour or two — instead of a few weeks (or even months) would be symbolic at best, a virtual slap on the wrist.

Syria (and others like it, in the region and elsewhere) would be emboldened. They would know that there is a price to be paid for using chemical weapons — but that price would be negligible, one that they would willingly pay.

For a missile strike to be more than symbolic, for it to inflict a lesson on Syria that will be felt throughout the region and beyond, it cannot be a limited strike. It cannot be a slap on the wrist that is really intended to give Obama political cover.

To be effective, it must be relentless. It must be decisive. And I don't believe the American people have the stomach for that right now.

I am inclined to sympathize with Obama. He is truly between a rock and a hard place.

But he got there mostly on his own — and now, after nearly five years in the White House, it is high time he learned what leadership is about.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When the Cold War Got Hot

What would your answer be if you were asked to name the hottest moment of the Cold War?

Most people would probably say the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and they'd get no argument from me — but my choice would be the event that happened 30 years ago today.

I'm referring to the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

It was a Thursday, the first day of September. Labor Day was coming up, which meant a three–day weekend, and football season was about to begin. With the exception of the stubborn summer heat, it was the time of year I like best.

But when I got up that morning, I was greeted by the worst possible news — a Korean commercial air liner traveling from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska, had been shot down by the Soviet Union over the Sea of Japan.

At first, the Soviets denied any knowledge of what had happened to the doomed airliner, but they eventually had no choice but to admit their complicity. However, they insisted the plane had violated Soviet airspace and was on a spy mission.

The Soviets said it was a deliberate attempt by the Americans to test their readiness or even to start a war — an accusation that was perceived as plausible in some quarters because of Ronald Reagan's rhetorical history. The United States accused the Soviets of hampering search–and–rescue missions.

All the while, the world saw friends and relatives of the victims on the scene, sobbing and demanding their loved ones' remains.

At first, the Soviets were blase about what happened, saying only that an unidentified aircraft had been shot down in Soviet airpsace. The United States reacted in horror, and the State department alleged that the Soviets knew all along that it was a civilian airliner.

Ronald Reagan described what happened as a "massacre." He issued a statement at the time in which he contended that the Soviets had turned "against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere."

That morning I went in to the newsroom of the newspaper where I was employed, and I had a conversation with the managing editor. It just so happened that Arkansas' junior U.S. senator, David Pryor, was speaking to a local group (the Lions or Rotary or Jaycees or something like that) at lunch that day, and I sensed an opportunity.

I was an eager young reporter, and I thought it was a golden opportunity to get some quotes from a U.S. senator about a developing international story. And it was.

But Pryor was either very cautious or very ill informed. Granted, I didn't have much of a chance to ask many questions — and even less of a chance to absorb what had happened, so little was known in those first hours — but the senator managed to avoid saying much of anything except "Let's see how this plays out."

In hindsight, that was sage advice — and characteristic of the David Pryor I knew. He was never a shoot–from–the–hip type, not brash or impulsive. He wanted to know as many of the facts as he could before he reached a conclusion.

So, as I recall, I wound up with a pretty dry article that really didn't add much to the wire coverage that thousands of papers across the country would be running. Nevertheless, I wrote a short sidebar. It localized the story, I suppose, but it didn't add a lot to it.

A resolution that was satisfactory to all sides was never reached, which permitted several conspiracy theories to flourish, the most prominent, I suppose, was one that held that Korean Air Lines 007 was on a spy mission that involved Rep. Lawrence McDonald, a conservative Democrat from Georgia who was a passenger on that flight.

Thirty years later, there are still advocates of that one.

I guess that isn't surprising. McDonald was the kind of Democrat who could be seen routinely in the South in those days — conservative, even extreme. He was a member of the John Birch Society. He was also a member of the House Armed Services Committee and an outspoken anti–communist. I've heard that former President Richard Nixon was supposed to be seated next to McDonald, but Nixon decided not to go after all.

Thirty years ago, McDonald was on his way to attend a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in Korea. He was supposed to travel with two senators and another representative, but his flight from Atlanta was delayed by bad weather, and he missed it.

Consequently, he wound up on the doomed Korean Air Lines flight instead — and perished with the crew and the rest of the passengers.

McDonald's political leanings and the fact that the Soviet Union had shot down his plane made it inevitable that conspiracy theorists would say he was the target of an assassination plot.

But that never did make much sense to me, given that McDonald's presence on that plane was a last–minute thing that no one could have predicted and for which no assassination team could have prepared.

I think the story that eventually emerged is pretty close to what happened.

The flight was diverted from its intended course by what was apparently a faulty autopilot setting and steadily drifted into Soviet airspace.

Soviet military leaders, no doubt feeling the stress of the heightened Cold War tensions of the early 1980s, ordered the plane to be shot down. All 246 passengers and 23 crew members were killed.

There was a lot of posturing, and, for awhile, I honestly believed a war was about to begin.

A few days later, the Soviets conceded what the rest of the world already knew — that a civilian airliner had been shot down. At least one high–ranking Russian official insisted the plane was on an espionage mission. The Americans suspended all Russian air travel to the United States.

In the end, I think most people agreed that it was a case of a misunderstanding that had the worst possible consequences. The flight that went off course happened to be following a flight path that had been followed recently by a known U.S. spy plane, and the Russians happened to be planning a missile test in that vicinity that very day.

(That's one of life's mysterious ironies, I suppose — sort of like the fact that slow communication between the FAA and NORAD, coupled with an emergency exercise that had been planned for that day, delayed their responses on Sept. 11, 2001.)

Combine that with the fact that old guard Cold Warriors were running things in both the Soviet Union and the United States 30 years ago and I suppose it was inevitable that something would happen.

The world was fortunate it didn't escalate into something worse.