Saturday, April 28, 2018

A Blast From the Past

It occurred to me this week, when 72–year–old Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested under suspicion of being the infamous Golden State Killer of the 1970s and 1980s, that it was a lot like when Dennis Rader was charged in another cold case, the BTK slayings in Kansas, in 2005.

Rader's crime spree started roughly the same time as the Golden State Killer's — in the mid–1970s. He continued a few years after the Golden State Killer's known attacks ended. (I say known because more facts may yet emerge as this case unfolds.)

Both men were regarded as a bit quirky — even menacing — by others; they held positions of authority and lived for many years in the communities they terrorized.

If DeAngelo turns out to be the Golden State Killer — he entered no plea when he appeared in court yesterday — he had a slightly higher body count. Of course, that doesn't include the roughly four dozen rapes or the more than 100 burglaries that have been tied to the Golden State Killer. That makes him a far more prolific criminal.

The men are roughly the same age — and had no reason to be concerned about DNA evidence at the time they committed their crimes since the development of that technology was still in the distant future. They knew enough about contemporary forensic evidence to avoid the evidentiary traps of the times, but DNA, which played a role in their eventual captures, was not on their radar.

DNA was discovered in the 19th century, but how to apply it to criminal investigations evolved well into the next century. In the '70s, high school science teachers could tell their students about DNA, but they couldn't say how it would influence law enforcement — or anything else — in the years ahead.

It would be a couple of decades before most people would get that kind of exposure via the O.J. Simpson trial — and even then DNA was misunderstood by many.

Neither man said much during the arraignment phase. DeAngelo confirmed his name when asked; Rader said nothing during his arraignment.

All serial killers are not created equal, though. While DeAngelo apparently has kept mostly silent since being taken into custody, Rader seemed to derive pleasure in letting the authorities know how clever he had been, confessing to crimes in addition to the ones with which he had been charged.

It all comes down to what motivates a serial killer, and they are as individual in their motivations as people in any other walk of life. For those who study serial killers, it will be instructive to learn what motivated DeAngelo.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Death, Free Speech and Tenure

As a journalist, I am a lifelong advocate of free speech — well, the First Amendment in general. I guess it goes without saying that I am a supporter of freedom of the press.

It is very difficult to get me to speak against freedom of speech in any way.

But today I want to address freedom of speech because, contrary to what many people seem to believe, that freedom is not absolute. There are limits.

One of the most frequently mentioned is the one that says you can't yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — or any other public place — unless there really is a fire. To do otherwise is to invite panic that is apt to leave some people hurt or dead.

Another limit on freedom of speech is what I would label good taste. And Fresno State English professor Randa Jarrar, who self–identifies as an Arab–American and a Muslim American, crossed that line with her tweets about the late Barbara Bush, calling her an "amazing racist" and professing to be glad that Bush was dead. She also said she looked forward to the day when all the Bushes were deceased. That is disrespectful.

When others called her on it and called on the school to fire her, Jarrar fell back on the "I have tenure" argument and insisted she would never be fired — and posted a suicide hotline number as if it were her own. The number attracted a huge number of calls, the kind of calls the hotline was not designed to take, and gumming up the line may well have contributed to the deaths of others.

None of that is in good taste. In my book, it is reprehensible. But apparently, it is representative of the double standard of the modern political landscape. Canadian singer Shania Twain has been criticized mercilessly for saying in an interview that she would have voted for Donald Trump if she had been eligible to vote in an American election in 2016, and rapper Kanye West was similarly criticized as well.

The occasion of someone's death is neither the time nor the place for getting on a soapbox, and tenure was not designed to be some kind of Get Out of Jail Free card to keep people from being held accountable for incendiary remarks.

Tenure was intended to protect professors' freedom of thought from powerful donors and alumni. That is still a worthy and noble objective.

But, as is so often the case in this world, worthy and noble objectives can be easily corrupted.

This is not a free speech issue, and tenure should not prevent Fresno State's administration from doing the right thing.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Barbara Bush Dies at 92

Former first lady Barbara Bush, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was a remarkable woman, and her attributes are justifiably being remembered today. She said many things that should inspire the rest of us on our journeys through life.

I have felt considerable empathy for the Bush family, especially Mrs. Bush's children, who have had the pleasure of having their mother with them longer than most. I learned when my own mother died that, no matter how old we are when it happens, it feels strange to be a motherless child.

And I have learned that is a feeling that never really goes away.

I have no doubt that George W. Bush, who is now 71 years old, is feeling that way tonight — in spite of his insistence that "my soul is comforted" by his mother's certainty that there was an afterlife waiting for her.

The loss of a parent is a blow for most people, whether it is expected or not.

But it is also worth remembering that she, like all of us, was human and subject to the same shortcomings we all have.

For example, when her husband, then–Vice President George H.W. Bush, debated the first woman to be on a national ticket, Geraldine Ferraro, in October 1984, Mrs. Bush, when asked her opinion of Ferraro, replied, "I can't say it, but it rhymes with rich."

Well, we all have our shortcomings, as I said.

And most of the time Mrs. Bush was inspirational, reminding us of things that really count in life. But she wasn't perfect. None of us are.

We shouldn't lose sight of that fact as the accolades pour in.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thomas Jefferson's 275th Birthday

"I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

President John F. Kennedy
At a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere
The White House
April 29, 1962

It was 275 years ago today that my favorite president, Thomas Jefferson, was born.

Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and may well have been the most brilliant of the Founding Fathers — but he probably draws mixed reviews today.

A product of colonial Virginia, Jefferson benefited from the work of slaves on several plantations. He also, as Fawn Brodie's 1974 biography of Jefferson, "An Intimate History," revealed, fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave who was said to be the half–sister of Jefferson's deceased wife.

Critics of Jefferson contend that Jefferson's ownership of slaves is a clear contradiction of his assertion that "all men are created equal."

But to focus on that is to force Jefferson, in hindsight, to live according to standards that were in place nearly two centuries after the end of his presidency. Ironically, Jefferson might not be an especially popular candidate for president today. He was tall — 6 feet 2½ inches — and voters do tend to prefer tall presidential candidates, but he was perhaps a little too relaxed for many voters' tastes. Jefferson, a senator of the day remarked, "sits in a lounging manner on one hip, commonly." He wasn't a particularly finicky dresser, either. He paid little attention to fashion and preferred to dress in whatever was comfortable, resulting in frequent mixing of styles from different periods.

Most fair–minded historians prefer to focus on his advocacy of the principle of individual rights, his championing of religious freedom and tolerance and the Louisiana Purchase, which was made during Jefferson's first term as president and doubled the size of the United States.

Jefferson considered himself a Deist, and his thoughts on religious freedom stemmed from Virginia's laws that made it a crime "not to baptize infants in the Anglican church; dissenters were denied office, civil or military; children could be taken from their parents if the parents failed to profess the prescribed creeds," wrote Jon Meacham in "The Art of Power."

"Jefferson believed it unjust (and unwise) to use public funds to support an established church and to link civil rights to religious observance," Meacham wrote. "He said such a system led to 'spiritual tyranny.' In theological terms, according to notes he made on John Locke, Jefferson concurred with a Christian tradition that held the church should not depend on state–enforced compulsion."

As for the Louisiana Purchase, it is hard to imagine any acquisition by any country that has been as financially feasible. For about 3 cents an acre, the United States acquired all or part of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

Jefferson had authorized his negotiators to purchase only New Orleans and West Florida, but Napoleon, strapped for cash on the brink of war with Britain, offered the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had his doubts about the constitutionality of the deal but quickly agreed to it before Napoleon could change his mind.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Farewell to a Great Journalist

There was a time in my life when I was on the journalism faculty at the University of Oklahoma.

The director of the school of journalism was a man named David Dary. A native of Manhattan, Kansas, he began his career as a broadcast journalist (he introduced President Kennedy on CBS just before Kennedy delivered his Cuban Missile Crisis speech in 1962), then moved on to teaching and writing about "old–time Kansas," as he put it.

I just learned today that he passed away less than a month ago.

In Dary's obituary, Beccy Tanner of the Wichita Eagle called Dary "one of Kansas' best storytellers." I have no doubt about the truth of that statement.

I have read excerpts from his books — I have never read one of his books from start to finish, but I have long wanted to and may well do so — and, being something of a historian myself, I think his engaging storytelling style was made possible by his training as a journalist. He wrote more than 20 books, most of them focused on the old American West — and he did it well enough to be inducted into the Kansas Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2010 for his literary contributions to the history of the cowboy.

From what I have read, his research was impeccable and his style was entertaining — which, frankly, I would expect. During my time at OU, I spent many hours in his office, discussing all sorts of journalism–related topics and learning more from him than I ever learned in a classroom.

At the beginning of my first semester at OU, Dary and his wife hosted a dinner for the journalism faculty. I became acquainted with most of my new colleagues on that occasion, but what I really remember is looking at the bookshelves in his home, where he kept copies of all the books he had written up to that point. I was mesmerized. He walked up behind me and said something — I don't remember now what he said — and I told him how impressed I was. He smiled and said something typically modest — probably "thank you" — and then he asked me if I was getting settled in to my new job all right.

I once served on a search committee with him to find a new professor for the print journalism department. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

A family crisis prompted me to leave Oklahoma and return to Texas a few years later, but I never forgot his kindness to me while I was there.

He was a dedicated journalist, having rebuilt the OU journalism program during his tenure — and I know he inspired the students who took his classes.

Rest in peace, sir.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Since the Death of Martin Luther King

"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
April 3, 1968

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn.

Many articles have been written recapping that event for those not old enough to remember. It is not my intention to add to them. If the reader wants to know what brought King to Memphis, there are many sources for that information.

Nor is it necessary for me to discuss the aftermath of the assassination. Dr. King was the face of the civil rights movement. When that face was taken away, it sparked predictable violence across America — sadly, that violence also led to widespread looting, prompting Roy Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, to lament that "Martin's memory is being desecrated." It was more than that, really. It was a violation of the concept of home and the security that word implies.

"For home in America is as much home to blacks as to whites," historian Theodore H. White wrote at the time, "and violence menaces them as much as it does Americans of any color."

The night before he died, Dr. King said something that could just as easily have been said yesterday: "Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars."

Trouble is in the land today. One need look no further than San Bruno, Calif., or Austin, Texas, to see that.

Sometimes there is a racial aspect to the violence, but to focus on that alone is to miss the point; the truth is that race relations have improved in half a century. Segregated schools still existed in 1968. If they exist today, it is in the form of private schools to which only affluent families have access. Laws protect Americans from racial (and sexual) discrimination in the workplace.

Are there areas where improvement is needed? Of course. Wholesale change does not happen overnight — or even over decades. America has always been a work in progress. But there can be no denying that the America of 2018 is better than the America of 1968.

So on this day I would say that Dr. King's dream is partially fulfilled. Much work has been done, and much remains to be done.

The work will not be finished until all Americans, regardless of their color — or gender or age, for that matter — enjoy the same rights and privileges of citizenship.

Then the dream will be fulfilled.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

What Will It Take to Flip the House?

The Democrats are going against the tide of history in this year's midterm elections, which are now slightly more than seven months away.

Conventional wisdom says the out–of–power party outperforms the in–power party in a midterm, and that is likely to be the case in 2018 — but conventional wisdom says nothing about whether the former is likely to win control of either chamber of Congress.

And that is the prize the Democrats really seek. It would nice to narrow the gap, but it wouldn't be the same as seizing control of the chamber and being able to block any White House initiatives in the next two years.

Doing well on the state level is vital for the Democrats as well for it is in the state legislatures that most of the district boundaries for the 2020s will be drawn. High turnout for Democrats running for federal office may help with this farther down the ballot.

In the House, the Democrats need to flip roughly two dozen seats, and the ever–increasing number of Republican House retirements may very well make that a possibility. But the odds are that Democrats still will need to defeat some Republican incumbents to achieve their goal.

It's a tall order, but it can be done. There have been 16 midterm elections since the dawn of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, and Democrats have flipped two dozen or more House seats in four of them. They did it one other time, too, in a presidential election year — 1964, when Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in a landslide.

Historically, Democrats need some kind of catalyst to flip seats at that rate. The main catalyst in 1958 was a recession, which contributed to the flipping of 49 House seats.

In 1974, Democrats flipped 49 House seats again, thanks primarily to the fallout from the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation that summer.

Democrats flipped 26 seats in 1982, Ronald Reagan's first midterm, when the recession that began under Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, continued.

In 2006, Democrats flipped 31 seats, thanks to a lowered national opinion of President George W. Bush, the war in Iraq and congressional scandals.

Democrats' distaste for President Donald Trump likely will not be enough by itself in 2018, and the economy is not doing them any favors.