Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Revival of the Gun-Control Discussion

It is hard to imagine anyone feeling anything but empathy for Richard Martinez, the anguished father whose statement following the murder of his 20–year–old son Friday night must have been the embodiment of every parent's fear.

I feel for him, I really do, just as I do for anyone who loses a loved one to random violence. And that is what Friday's killings were — random. I have seen no evidence that Elliot Rodger shot at anyone he knew. Apparently, he did stab three people to death, and he knew at least two of them because he lived with them, but the rest of his victims seem to have been strangers to him.

Just like the children in New Town were strangers to their murderer.

Just like the victims in the Colorado theater were unknown to their killer.

Just like most of the victims at Virginia Tech.

That seems to be a common link in these kinds of stories. The attacker is seething with rage over something, but rarely is that murderous rage aimed at the person(s) who committed the perceived slight.

Well, it should be obvious that if a person is irrational, he/she will take an irrational course of action.

Another common link between those cases and the one in Isla Vista, Calif., last Friday is this — mental illness. The perpetrators are almost always mentally unbalanced.

If the mentally ill are intent upon attacking others, they will use a gun if they can, but they will use something else if they must.

Rodger clearly demonstrated this. He stabbed his first three victims. He proceeded to shoot most of the others, but he also used his vehicle as a weapon.

He was clearly mentally ill. Could there be any doubt? Have you read his manifesto?

Or have you seen his "retribution" video, the one he apparently made about 24 hours before he went on his rampage? He was eagerly anticipating what he was about to do.

I suspect he would have used anything that was available to him to achieve what he wanted. If you're willing to stab three people to death — which is about as up close and personal as a killing can get — you wouldn't hesitate to choke someone or pummel that person to death with something that could be used as a club.

In the aftermath of something like this, there are always a couple of knee–jerk reactions with which I find myself losing patience.

I suppose it is only human to look for reasons why something like this happened, but among the usual scapegoats are violent movies and video games. Rodger apparently played video games as a form of escape, and he lived in the land of make–believe, the movie culture of southern California. Both his parents were connected to the entertainment industry.

Well, millions of people play video games, and millions of people watch action/adventure movies, but very, very few of them become multiple murderers.

When something like this happens, a cry goes out across the land to ban automatic weapons. That demand consistently ignores the facts that (a) none of these crimes in recent years has been committed with an automatic weapon and (b) it is possible to acquire an automatic weapon, but existing law already forces such a gun buyer to jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops.

Any gun legislation that would be proposed as a result of this would be feel–good legislation that would have no affect.

What would have an impact? Well, I think one thing that needs to be done is to evaluate the state of mental health in the United States — and start giving people the treatment they need.

That's not going to solve the problem — I don't know what the long–term solution is — but renewing our commitment to defeating mental illness will get us closer to solving it than we will ever get with more gun–control legislation.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Terrible With Raisins In It

"This wasn't just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it."

Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)

I was a child during the Vietnam War, and I remember being confused by the disgraceful way many Americans greeted their returning veterans.

I knew the war had not been popular. That was the reason why one president chose not to seek another term and his successor made so many poor choices to avoid his predecessor's fate that it cost him the job, anyway. They were the policymakers. Their policies failed, and they were held accountable.

But, even as a boy, I knew it wasn't fair to blame the soldiers for the war. They weren't responsible for the policy, only for carrying it out.

Nevertheless, they were treated shoddily when they came home. It was an embarrassing sight to witness on TV, the kind of thing that made one hang one's head in shame. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there.

It was more gratifying to see the way America's veterans were greeted after the Gulf War. It is how the veterans should have been treated after Vietnam. It is how they always should be treated because they risked everything to preserve this country. Some came back broken. Some did not come back at all.

Whether they came back broken in places you can see or places you can't see, they deserve the best we can give them, not the worst — which is what they have been getting in terms of their health care.

It is ironic, really, that an administration that has made health care its signature cause should be faced with the emerging scandal concerning the treatment — or, should I say, the lack thereof? — of veterans at V.A. hospitals, particularly the one in Phoenix although the problem appears to be systemic.

I don't know all the details. I want to know them, even if they make me want to hang my head in shame because this really does touch everyone somehow. We all know people who have served this country. Some of us are related to veterans. Some of us are veterans.

One of the most inspiring moments I've seen in a movie was when Spencer Tracy, as one of the three judges in "Judgment at Nuremberg," spoke about survival.

"A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat," Tracy said. "Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: Justice, truth and the value of a single human being."

That takes my breath away every time I see it, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately because it sums up — for me, anyway — what our veterans fought for and sacrificed for. They stood for us. This is what we must stand for: Justice, truth and the value of a single human being.

Without truth, there can be no justice, and those human beings have been devalued by a cold, unfeeling and ungrateful system. It has nothing to do with political ideology. The abuses have occurred under presidents from both parties.

With this administration, the incessant drip–drip–drip of scandal is exhausting. Some of it has merit, some does not, but the V.A. scandal is nonpartisan.

I admire what Brent Budowsky has written for TheHill.com.

"[T]he president owes veterans more than another White House staff, spin and stall operation, which he offered on Wednesday with the same cast of characters waiting for yet another report," Budowsky wrote. "Congressional Republicans, who share responsibility for the VA scandal, owe vets more than another attack, deride and exploit operation that plays politics with the health of those who serve."

Barack Obama knew about the abuses when he ran for president the first time and promised to do something about them. In 2007, he spoke — almost a year to the day before he accepted his party's nomination — at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City and pledged, "We enter into a sacred trust with our veterans from the moment they put on that uniform. That trust is simple — America will be there for them just as they have been there for America."

We must confront this problem. We must be faithful to our promise. We cannot ignore it.

I fear, though, that is what will happen. Obama will speak the words people want to hear on Memorial Day, and they will feel better. He will say he is on top of the job — and, to use an expression of which he has been fond, he will kick the can farther down the road. Then, whenever he is asked about the matter, he will say the review is proceeding — and the issue will be squelched until after the election.

And nothing will be done.

I don't like to put things in political contexts, but the sad truth is that everything is viewed in a political context these days — by both the right and the left.

That, as Dorothy Parker might say, isn't merely terrible, it is fancy terrible, terrible with raisins in it — and maybe a dollop of whipped cream.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Journalism in the Digital Age

"I don't think a tough question is disrespectful."

Helen Thomas (1920–2013)
Longtime White House correspondent

Once, when I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, a student asked me what I thought newspapers would do about the then–emerging internet. Would newspapers survive?

At the time, I thought I gave a wise reply. I told the student that I thought newspapers and the digital world would find a way to peacefully co–exist, and I really did believe that.

I remember thinking of my first newspaper job. I covered the police and fire beats in those days along with a couple of reporters from two local radio stations. We were in competition with each other, but it was a friendly competition. We often helped each other in double checking our facts. I never felt that people who listened to either radio station did so instead of subscribing to my newspaper, and I don't think either of those radio reporters felt that people who read the paper did so instead of listening to the radio.

It was generally understood that many folks did both.

The manner in which news was delivered had changed when I had that conversation with my student — and it has changed even more since — but newspapers always existed alongside the newest technological advance, whatever it was, and I believed newspapers would find a way.

But nearly all newspapers failed to grasp the nature of the challenge they faced from the internet.

Initially, most newspapers treated the internet like some kind of commercial fad. They put the fruits of their employees' labors, their content, online because, well, positively everyone had a website. It was like an email address. If you didn't have one, you were not legitimate.

But newspapers didn't treat their websites like another part of their newspaper — for which a price must be paid — because it was online. They didn't take it seriously, and so they charged nothing. Like many people, they contended that home computers wouldn't last. Computers were novelties. It was only a matter of time. Funny. Folks said the same thing about radio and television.

To be fair, few, if any, people could foresee the changes that have occurred in journalism since I had that conversation with my student. In an ideal world, perhaps newspapers would peacefully (and profitably) co–exist with the digital delivery system; indeed, I believe there was a time, a relatively brief time as it turned out, when the proverbial window was open to such an arrangement, but it slammed shut without any warning.

One of the things that newspapers failed to understand was that folks quickly got the idea that, once you paid your admission fee (internet access), everything online was free. Copyright law magically stopped at the water's edge.

I think that will change. In fact, it is changing already. Communications laws — i.e., copyright and libel laws — will be expanded via court rulings to apply to the digital world. That really is simply a matter of time.

Some of the more visionary operators of websites concluded early on that there was money to be made from charging for access to their wares, whatever they happened to be, and from hiring people who could position the digital arm of a newspaper to be on the cutting edge, but few of those websites actually were arms of newspapers.

By the time newspapers realized they were losing print subscribers — many of whom, no doubt, found they could get the same material from the internet for free — it was too late for most. Charging for access to online content was a lost cause. Savvy online news readers knew that, except for local news, they could find articles on just about anything anywhere else, and subscription rates plummeted.

Advertising revenue has paid the bills for newspapers for a long time, but advertising revenue declines when circulation declines. In the recoveries that tend to follow economic downturns, circulation usually rebounds. In the current economy, it has become a death spiral. The internet has advantages that newspapers are not likely to overcome.

If I could go back in time and re–live that conversation, I would tell my student to focus on small– to medium–sized newspapers because they were the ones uniquely positioned to provide news their readers could use.

I live in the Dallas area, and I tell my students the large city newspapers in the Metroplex — the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star–Telegram — will provide some but not all of the local news being generated in the smaller cities nearby. They simply don't have the manpower, and the tendency of some newspapers to rely on citizen journalists who can post their articles directly to the website overlooks the fact that trained journalists are much more likely to ask the questions that need to be asked and provide the information that readers want.

They're more likely to double check their facts. Their stories are likely to be better organized, and they are more likely to utilize little writing strategies that professors have been talking about in journalism school at least since I was a student. These tactics make articles easier and more enjoyable to read.

That part hasn't changed. Well–written articles make a news website stand out and have a greater tendency to make such a site a destination site that people will want to visit again.

People in those smaller cities around here can get some local news through radio stations and cable access channels, too, but the local newspaper is more likely to send a reporter to a city council meeting or a school board meeting. More detailed accounts of the high school football or basketball game can be provided by the local sportswriter. Local police and fire news won't make the big–city newspapers unless it is a really big story.

Writing for a small– to mid–sized newspaper isn't as glamorous as covering the White House or Capitol Hill, but it is the purest form of journalism remaining. Through it, journalists can serve the purpose they were intended to serve — being the eyes and ears of their community.

Not its conscience.

Too many journalists these days appear to think that they are expected to choose sides and belittle whichever side is opposite theirs. I'm not even sure that is what should be done when a piece is clearly labeled opinion; I'm absolutely certain that it should not be done in news coverage.

(When I was studying news reporting in college, I was told to present the facts as neutrally as possible — and let the reader reach his or her own conclusions. The professor who told us that once worked for the New York Times. I believed what he told me. I still do.

(Opinion writing was a different subject, and we were encouraged in that class to be sure that all opinions were confined to the opinion page[s].

(That's another problem with modern journalism. The line between news and opinion is blurry, indistinct — but that is really a topic for another discussion.)

In hindsight, I am inclined to think that I gave the concept of compromise more credibility than perhaps I should have in that conversation with my student, and, based on what I read in an article in the American Journalism Review, many in the business agree with me.

Speaking of the New York Times, Mark Potts writes in the American Journalism Review that a problem for the Times — which has dabbled over the years with a few ways of charging for access to online content — is divided manpower.

The priority at the Times, Potts writes, is the print edition. "As long as there are both print and digital products coming out of the same newsroom," he observes, "the natural internal tensions and conflicts may be too great to find a workable middle ground."

Especially when the same people are expected to perform both functions simultaneously.

Some newspapers have resolved that problem by hiring special staff to keep the website up to date while the other staffers work on the print edition. But that isn't feasible for most newspapers.

Potts argues that "the ultimate answer for the Times and other papers may lie in the nuclear option: ditching print — or greatly minimizing it — so that we're forced to deal with the digital issues as our primary concern, not a secondary annoyance."

I hope it doesn't come to that. But, to survive, newspapers will have to adapt.

"[I]t's not just about being more creative digitally and spending less time worrying about what's on Page One," writes Potts. "[W]hat's needed is a top to bottom newsroom rethink of content forms, workflows, technologies and products to adapt to a rapidly changing world."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Paging Indiana Jones ...

As always, the world's attention has been on the present and the future, but knowledge of the past is important, too.

I know it sounds simple, but I have always believed that you have to know where you've been before you can decide where you're going, and discoveries that can provide valuable insights into the past have been occurring at a positively prodigious rate lately.

The discovery that probably would ring a bell with most Americans is the apparent finding of Christopher Columbus' sunken flagship, the Santa Maria, off the Haitian coast in the Caribbean.

As a child, I recall studying Columbus and the three ships in his fabled voyage across the Atlantic in 1492, but I don't recall hearing anything more about them. I don't think I ever heard what became of those ships.

Apparently, the Santa Maria ran aground on Christmas Day in 1492. Columbus must have known the ship could not be saved because he instructed his crew to strip timbers from it — which were later used in the construction of a fort. Today the Santa Maria's anchor is on display in a museum in Port–au–Prince (I have no idea why the anchor was salvaged).

When I was a child, I imagined all three ships as huge vessels when, in reality, they were very modest in size. The Santa Maria was roughly 58 feet long; the Nina and the Pinta were smaller.

Civil War buffs may be the only ones who recognize the name of the Planter. It was a Confederate steamer that was commandeered by a slave named Robert Smalls 152 years ago today, as a matter of fact.

Around 4 in the morning, while the captain of the Planter was ashore, Smalls piloted it out of the harbor. Once out of view of Confederate eyes, the ship's Confederate flag was lowered and replaced with a white flag.

Smalls turned the ship over to the Union and was chosen to recruit other slaves to fight for the North. He piloted the ship for the Union for the remainder of the war.

The Planter served several roles for the Confederates, including, for a short time, gunboat. When Smalls commandeered the Planter, it was found to have four guns in its cargo.

In addition to Smalls, the ship carried 15 other slaves to their freedom that day.

The Planter sank in a storm more than 10 years after the war ended. Researchers believe they have found its remains off the coast of South Carolina.

There may not be much to study. As I understand it, most of the ship's equipment was salvaged at the time.

But the discovery that promises to dig deeply into the past is one in Egypt. A tomb that has been dated to 1100 B.C. has been found at Saqqara, a burial ground near Memphis.

According to Egypt's antiquities minister, the tomb belongs to a guard of the army archives and royal messenger to foreign countries.

I'm not sure where that would fall on the ancient Egyptian social pyramid — probably the third level, just below priests and nobles but, perhaps, just above traders, artisans, shopkeepers and scribes.

Reportedly, the inscriptions and contents of the tomb are in excellent condition and, apparently, relatively intact. That may be more significant than you realize. The contents of tombs of more high–profile Egyptians have been vandalized and looted repeatedly over the centuries.

If its contents are largely intact, the study of such a tomb may help to fill in some gaps in mankind's knowledge and understanding of the world of 1100 B.C.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Great and Powerful Name Dropper

"You're out of the woods
You're out of the dark
You're out of the night
Step into the sun
Step into the light"

For as long as I can remember, someone has been running around and whispering names of potential presidential candidates in the ears of anyone who would listen — and even some who wouldn't.

The great and powerful Name Dropper probably predates me, which tells me there must be a family of Name Droppers, not one individual. Maybe it's kind of like a family business with the younger generation taking over at some point.

If that is so, then the family business has really been booming in the last couple of decades, thanks to the proliferation of cable TV and the internet. I doubt that we'll ever be rid of them.

But there is never a shortage of prospective nominees. Most never leap to the next level and become presumptive nominees. But they serve their purpose. They reinforce the credentials of the great and powerful Name Dropper.

Every time you turn around, someone is dropping someone else's name. Then, before you know it, there will be an article in a newspaper or a magazine or on the internet or on cable news proclaiming someone to be an up–and–comer, a rising star. The buzz builds.

Rising stars seem to flame out rather quickly, though. Sometimes it is more like the flavor of the month, falling from favor almost as rapidly as it ascended. When that happens during a presidential election, it can be a disaster for a party. But when it happens at this point in the election cycle, it really doesn't mean anything.

You know how this works, don't you? The great and powerful Name Dropper mentions that [INSERT NAME HERE] is a possible presidential candidate — even if he/she is not really thinking about it. (Oh, I know, once they're in Washington, they all think about it at some point, even if only fleetingly, but they will really think about it when others start talking about them.)

When the buzz has been generated, he/she will be thinking about it, might even form an exploratory committee to look into it.

The formation of such a committee fuels more talk, and, before you know it, [INSERT NAME HERE] is showing up in public opinion polls. [INSERT NAME HERE] may have done little to encourage such talk and may only be generating a support level that falls within the poll's margin for error, but, as they say in show business, any publicity is good publicity.

Speculation always seems to be especially rampant at this point in the election cycle — the midterms — when all that the polls really reflect is name recognition, not whether Candidate A or Candidate B would be a successful nominee who connects with voters outside the party.

And that really is what both parties need, right? Their nominees can't win with their parties' votes alone, especially since more than 40% of voters self–identify as independent these days, so the parties need nominees with across–the–board appeal.

That doesn't mean that an insurgent can't win a party's nomination, but such nominees usually come from a party's extreme wing, and they take advantage of deep divisions within the party's mainstream to win the nomination. They seldom heal those divisions or win general elections. For every Ronald Reagan who wins in November, there is a Barry Goldwater and a George McGovern who got no traction after the convention.

There have been relative unknowns who went on to win the presidency — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama come to mind — but, usually, the Frank Churches and Gary Harts of presidential politics fizzle out long before they can start working on an acceptance speech.

Vice presidents often seem to think they will be anointed as the successor for the president whom they have served, but that isn't usually how it works — at least, not for a couple of centuries. After Vice President Martin Van Buren was elected to succeed Andrew Jackson in 1836, the only vice presidents who succeeded the presidents with whom they were elected were the ones who were in office when those presidents died or resigned — until George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Reagan in 1988.

Bush is still the only sitting vice president in nearly 180 years to be elected president — so, if I were Joe Biden, I don't think I would be looking to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January 2017.

Biden has another strike against him — his age. For a country that blatantly practices age discrimination in most professions, American politics does offer opportunities for older Americans. Many folks have been returned to Congress in their 80s and 90s, and Americans have valued seasoning in their presidents, too — up to a point.

Reagan was first elected president a few months before his 70th birthday, and he was re–elected a few months before his 74th birthday, but he was the historical exception. Since Reagan's presidency, only the first Bush, the one who succeeded Reagan, was over 60 when he was elected. The three presidents who have succeeded Bush were in their 40s and 50s when elected.

Hillary Clinton, too, will be pushing the historical age barrier if she runs in 2016. She will be 69 just before the election.

The great and powerful Name Dropper doesn't need to drop Clinton's name. After eight years as first lady, eight years as a senator and four years as secretary of State, she is familiar to Americans. She has sought the presidency before, and most people are assuming she will do so again, even though she has not made a formal announcement.

It does not benefit the great and powerful Name Dropper if there is no campaign, though, so Name Dropper has been trying to promote the idea that, whether Biden runs or not, Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat who took back Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in 2012, would make a plausible candidate.

A few problems, though. She is only a couple of years younger than Clinton so any age argument that could be made against Clinton could plausibly be made against Warren, too. The bigger problem, though, is that Warren doesn't seem to be interested in running — as Politico observed in a headline that said so many things.

For a long time, the pattern in presidential politics was that Democrats were more open to freewheeling races for their nominations than were Republicans, thus making it more likely that Democrats would nominate insurgents; Republicans had a tendency to award their nomination to "the next in line," whoever that was perceived to be.

These days, though, the parties have switched places. If Clinton does indeed win the nomination, she will be seen by many as being the next one in line.

Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to be setting themselves up for a Democrat–like free–for–all in 2016. Their 2012 standard–bearer, Mitt Romney, is mentioned by some as a possible candidate, but that can't be Name Dropper's doing. Romney is hardly an unknown.

Besides, once–beaten presidential nominees have rarely attempted it a second time, no matter how close they came to winning the first time. My guess — and I am sure it is Name Dropper's guess, too — is that Romney won't run.

Many of the names being mentioned on the Republican side are reasonably well known — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush. At least one prospective candidate, outgoing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sought the GOP nomination in 2012.

Some of the others from that campaign — Rick Santorum comes to mind — as well as other prominent Republicans are said to be considering a run in 2016. Name Dropper has had his/her hand in that, too, I am sure, but Name Dropper really excels when dropping names that few have heard.

As we embark on the 2014 primary season, there may well be candidates who spring from virtual anonymity and articulate the popular mood strongly enough that they win their party's nomination — and then the election — launching them into the 2016 conversation.

Then the great and powerful Name Dropper, fresh from a few months of restful observation, will leap into action and begin whispering in the ears of party leaders that so–and–so is an alternative to Clinton or that so–and–so can unite Republicans.

And the influence continues.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

If Wishes Were Fishes

"If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets."

Frank Herbert (1920–1986)

I've been thinking lately of decisions I wish I could be allowed to make again — because I know I would make different choices.

It's that old "if I knew then what I know now" thing. I remember hearing that when I was a teenager and giggling at it the way teenagers do, in their way of making you aware that they are merely humoring you — but, in fact, they don't appreciate the irony and probably can't until they've put on more mileage. I realize now, as I reflect on it, that I knew a lot less then than I thought I did. (I like to think I know more now.)

Another way of putting it was "You can't go home again" — and that is something else at which most teenagers would probably smirk because they know it is rubbish. They think that because most teenagers have experienced time, but few have experienced space, and it is only after experiencing both that you can grasp that concept.

It is only after you have experienced an extended distance from the only home you may have had that you can appreciate the truth of that cliche. In one's absence, the memory of home becomes romanticized. You forget the bad things — and there were bad things because there are always bad things — and you idealize the good.

I think that often plays a role in the difficulties that some soldiers experience when they come home from a war. It isn't the only factor, of course, but I do believe it is one of them. Expectations are raised to a level that is simply unrealistic.

Still, I suppose most people have the inclination to look back wistfully on their youths. I know I do.

If I knew then what I know now, I'd treasure the time I had with friends who are no longer with us even more than I did. There were some friends whose deaths were anticipated, so I had time to reflect on how much they meant to me before they died. Others died unexpectedly; those are the ones who haunt me. I miss both sets of friends equally, but there is a sense of unfinished business with one group.

I feel that with my mother. She died in a flash flood 19 years ago this month — on Cinco de Mayo, as a matter of fact. Since the anniversary is always so close to Mother's Day, that holiday is always a reminder.

As if I needed one.

I've lived with many regrets. I regret the times I didn't tell her I loved her. I made a fatal mistake — I took her for granted.

Well, I made that mistake repeatedly when I was a teenager, not so much later. We had a good relationship, and I'm sure she knew I loved her — mothers usually do. I did tell her that often, as a matter of fact — but not the last time I saw her.

Next year, Mother's Day will fall on the 20th anniversary of her funeral. That's a date I will always remember as well. I lived in another state in those days and couldn't be in Dallas until the evening of the 9th. Arrangements were made for the funeral to be on the 10th.

For the first few days after the flood, it was easy to fool myself into believing that things weren't really as I had been told. Oh, I knew that wasn't the case, but outwardly my life had not changed. Everything was exactly the same ...

Until I arrived in Dallas. I got here late on the night of the 9th. My father had already gone to bed, so no one greeted me. I went into the dining room, fully expecting to see Mom come through the door at any minute. Instead I saw all the tell–tale signs of a death — flowers and cards on the dining table, flowing into the living room, and lots of covered dishes in the refrigerator.

I remember getting something to drink and just sitting in the dining room, looking around at a room that was so familiar and yet seemed so alien to me. I wish I could have a do–over for those moments. I would do a better job of preparing myself for what was to come in just a few hours.

The next day, at the funeral, everything hit me at once. I felt like Indiana Jones getting crushed by the big ball.

Yes, sir, if I had to go through that experience again (and I might have to; my father is still living), there are a lot of things I would wish for. I would wish to be better prepared this time. I guess the end result is no better, but it beats being blindsided.

Most of all, I guess, I would wish to not have to go through it again.

But that isn't how life works, is it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Blaming the Victim

I've been following politics most of my life.

I understand how the game is played and how one side or the other is apt to use things — appropriately or inappropriately — to score points in political campaigns.

That is how it was with the alleged "war on women" that the Democrats used — admittedly, effectively — against the Republicans in 2012.

Sexism is like racism — in the sense that it really does no good to deny that it exists. Clearly, it does exist — but it isn't the exclusive domain of one political party. That's where propaganda comes in.

To assert that it is the domain of one side or the other renders the accuser no better — indeed, probably worse — than the accused, for the accuser gives in to the very prejudice that supposedly is being decried.

Right here in Dallas recently, we had a blatant example of how sexism is not limited to a particular party — or, for that matter, a particular gender.

A district judge — a Democrat named Jeanine Howard who is unopposed in her bid for re–election this year — issued a ruling in a rape case that was nothing more than a case of old–time victim blaming and shaming. Howard sentenced the defendant, now 20 (18 at the time of the assault), to probation.

"He is not your typical sex offender," she said.

The victim, a 14–year–old girl, "wasn't the victim she claimed to be," Howard said and imposed an incredibly light sentence on the girl's rapist, who had confessed to the crime.

Howard also suggested the crime was not a rape because the victim apparently was not a virgin, that she had been promiscuous and had given birth to a baby. Really. The judge might just as well have said the victim asked for it.

By Howard's logic, any female who has had sexual intercourse cannot possibly be raped — even if she says "no," which, apparently, the victim in this case did. Several times.

(The victim did consent to intercourse away from the school grounds, but the young man attacked her at school.)

Also, the victim and her mother both say she has never been pregnant. Not that that should matter — except, apparently, in Howard's courtroom.

Meanwhile ...

In Montana, an astonishingly lenient sentence for rape handed down by a district judge in that state has been overturned. G. Todd Baugh sentenced a former teacher to one month for raping a 14–year–old student — who later took her own life.

Baugh said the victim was mature for her age and asserted that she was "probably as much in control of the situation" as her attacker.

CNN's Carol Costello wrote an opinion piece on the two cases that was posted on CNN.com (she may have delivered it on the air, too; I seldom watch CNN anymore so I don't know). She wondered — a bit naively, I thought — "Is America really clueless about the meaning of rape?"

I think the answer to that is that a certain portion of America has always been clueless about sexual assault — and probably always will be. Costello never mentioned Howard's political affiliation; the Dallas Morning News did. She never mentioned Baugh's political affiliation, either. I tried to find it, but I couldn't.

Perhaps Montana is one of those states where judicial candidates run nonpartisan campaigns. That really isn't the point, though.

The point is that, regardless of what Americans may have thought would be the outcome of electing the first nonwhite president in the nation's history, a post–partisan America is one of those achievements that is easier said than done.

America has always been a nation of laws, but it is a lot easier to change laws than to change minds. It takes time, and I'm not speaking about the inevitable disappearance of a generation because attitudes tend to be handed down from one generation to the next.

I don't know how old Howard is, but I have seen pictures of her, and I know she isn't of Donald Sterling's generation. Hillary Clinton is much closer, I'm sure, and we heard allegations today from Monica Lewinsky that the former secretary of State blamed the women around her husband — herself included — for the affair.

As long as offenders are given that kind of pass, any improvements in gender relations (and racial relations, for that matter) will be cosmetic at best.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Through the Looking Glass ... Again

"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Mark Twain

Forty years ago this summer, the Watergate scandal swallowed the presidency of Richard Nixon.

I was a boy when that happened, and I'll admit that I didn't understand all the issues involved, but there was one very simple fact that seemed obvious to me.

When Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of the White House taping system in July 1973, it was obvious that there was a completely neutral eyewitness to the White House conversations about which lawmakers were asking — the tapes that had been made of those conversations.

Congressional investigators did not have to rely on flawed human memories. They could listen to the tapes, and those tapes could verify what was said and by whom. Anyone who had answered truthfully when asked about his involvement in the coverup would be exonerated. Anyone who had not answered those questions truthfully would be exposed as dishonest.

When the taping system's existence was revealed, I heard many of Nixon's defenders say that they wished he would release the tapes. They would prove he had been telling the truth, and the Watergate scandal would go away.

Well, that was the thinking, but Nixon steadfastly refused to release the tapes — and the longer he did, the more his support tended to erode. Then as now, perception was reality, and the growing perception was that Nixon had something to hide.

That perception turned out to be correct, but the American people, the vast majority of whom had voted for Nixon's re–election two years earlier, were hesitant to believe it. At the time — and still today — I believed that hesitance enabled Nixon to drag the scandal out a few more months.

If Nixon had been blessed with an engaging personality, like the present occupant of the White House, he might have been able to drag his feet long enough to finish his term. But Nixon's was a dark, brooding kind of personality, cold and prickly, not warm and fuzzy. He didn't inspire much loyalty — except from those who, for whatever reason, did his bidding (and paid for it).

Barack Obama, however, does have a warm and fuzzy personality. That is the real secret of his success. His ratings on that question about whether a president (or presidential candidate) cares about people like the respondent are always through the roof. That's what Obama's 2012 campaign was about, wasn't it? It was designed to persuade swing voters that Mitt Romney and the Republicans were elitist snobs who didn't care about ordinary folks — or, to be more precise, blacks, women, gays, immigrants, the poor.

Re–election campaigns tend to be about achievements, those that are finished and those that are works in progress. Well, that's the way they used to be.

While the fact that Obama made history as the first nonwhite president was a pleasant bonus, it wasn't the main reason why most people voted for him in 2008. He was elected mostly because of the terrible economy and the escalating jobs crisis, and Americans wanted to be out of two wars that were sucking up American lives and treasure at an alarming rate.

When times are bad, voters go for the other option.

In short, there were serious problems that needed to be resolved. Certain expectations came with the job, and voters decided, as they almost always do in such a situation, to go with the other party's nominee.

Economists later told America that the recession actually ended after about six months of Obama's presidency, and some kind of recovery should have taken place — but, if asked about it today, most Americans will say that they don't believe the recession ever ended — or, if it did, they don't believe there has been a recovery.

Obama couldn't run on his economic record. He had a more stable foreign policy record in September 2012 — and he may well have intended to run on that record — but then there was that attack on the embassy in Benghazi, and four Americans were killed, including the ambassador. He and Joe Biden continued to mention the fact that Osama bin Laden had been killed on his watch, but the race was close in the autumn of 2012.

Perhaps the Democrats felt the truth about Benghazi would undermine the case they had been making that Obama's foreign policy was succeeding. That is the argument the president's detractors have made, anyway.

That didn't work too well in 2012, but a lot has happened since then. Obama's second–term agenda hasn't been getting any traction — whether that is due, as the president contends, to obstructionism or his administration's own shortcomings, as in the rollout of Obamacare, is a subject for a different debate — and his party already is facing mounting problems in what always (from the perspective of history) figured to be a problematic sixth–year midterm election.

And now the release of emails from September 2012 have raised new and troubling questions about the administration's actions on the night of the attack — and how those actions may have been motivated by domestic political concerns.

House Republicans want to assemble a select committee to investigate, to ask the questions that the emails have raised, but their Democratic colleagues are not sure they will participate.

Seems to me that would be a lot like when Nixon refused to release the tapes.

My understanding is that the Democrats cannot be compelled to participate in the committee's hearings, but the Republicans still would hold them. Do the Democrats really want to let every assertion that is made go unchallenged? And in a midterm election year?

As I understand it, a select committee does not have the authority to charge anyone with anything, but, like the Senate Watergate Committee 40 years ago, it can call witnesses and issue subpoenas.

If no one is there to defend the administration, it will feed a perception that can only add to Democrats' electoral woes.

On the other hand, Republicans need to be careful. The wind is at their backs on this one, but they need to avoid appearing too political. If they make their argument about transparency and good, law–abiding government, it will help their cause.

As will Nixon's true legacy in all of this — the case of United States v. Nixon.