Thursday, November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007

     They've started fighting.  I didn't watch all of Wednesday night's CNN debate among the Republican presidential candidates, but the parts I saw had, for a change, some genuine arguing.  Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney, for instance, scuffling over who was tougher on illegal aliens.  Giuliani chiding Romney for having illegals work at his house;  Romney saying, reasonably, that if you hire a contractor to do work, you're probably not going to check his employees' papers.  Or Romney talking about illegals in the public schools in New York, and Giuliani asking, reasonably, should we have put 70,000 kids out on the streets in the middle of a crime wave?  Some in the crowd booed Giuliani during this exchange, but I think it was more for his calling Romney "holier than thou" than for anything he said on the actual issue.
     Then there was gun control, with the questioner firing his rifle and getting a lecture on gun safety from, I think it was, Fred Thompson, who's pro-gun, of course.
     But torture was the best.  Romney, in effect, imploded.  He was against torture, he explained, but it would be wrong for him as a presidential candidate to say whether waterboarding was torture and whether, as president, he'd authorize its use.  Huh?  Surely presidential candidates ought to be willing and able, if they're against torture, to say what it is.  John McCain, who was tortured while a prisoner in North Vietnam, owned this issue.  He said waterboarding was against the Geneva Convention and against existing U.S. law.  The consensus, anyway, seems to be that torture doesn't work very well.  McCain himself, tortured to reveal the names of the other pilots in his squadron (and how that would have helped the North Vietnamese anyway is a good question) named instead the members of the Green Bay Packers offensive line that year which, as a fan, he happened to know.  No one in Hanoi, presumably, was any the wiser.  Romney repeated that he was against torture but wouldn't define what it was.  Didn't sound very presidential, somehow.  But he has a nice smile.
    Anyway, they're finally really arguing.   And the best news of all--actual vote counting is just over a month away.  Can't wait.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November 27, 2007

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is very simple: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Very simple, except that it isn't, of course.

The argument through the years has been over the relationship between the militia clause and the "right of the people" clause. A scholar named Tench Coxe wrote in 1788 while the states were considering ratification of the Constitution, "the people are confirmed by the...article in their right to keep and bear their private arms." So we know where he stood. Alexander Hamilton: "Little more can reasonably be aimed at with respect to the people at large than to have them properly armed and equipped," though he also wanted them to prove this by being assembled once or twice a year--like a militia. But he also wrote that if the government usurps power, "the citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system," which doesn't sound much like a militia.

The Supreme court wrote in 1876 that the second amendment indicated the right to bear arms "shall not be infringed, but this...means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress." So the states could presumably do whatever they wanted. But the Court wrote is 1939 (U.S. v. Miller), "In the absence of evidence tending to show that... a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length...has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, it cannot be said the Second Amendment....guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument...." So, gun control. But sensible scholars like Justice Hugo said later that the amendment's "prohibition is absolute."

Are you confused yet?

And now another Supreme Court, this one, is going to take another look at the amendment.

It's a terrific case--you can argue what the men who wrote the Constitution meant, back when militia men probably did show up toting their own weapons. You can argue about what a militia is today, about what the Founders would have made of our society (now there's a reverie), and about all sorts of related issues.

I have no idea how they'll rule, but there is one sure bet--we'll still be arguing the issue even after the rulng has come down.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Taking a nap

Ann Hawthorne, who edits this column, is out of the country for a couple of weeks.The column will take a nap until she returns.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

November 13, 2007

     New York Times columnist David Brooks quotes a political consultant as saying, "You know, there's really only one great man running for president this year, and that's McCain."  He's right.
     It isn't just the biography, though that's impressive:  combat pilot, shot down, imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese (he still is awkward signing autographs because of injuries suffered then);  it's just who he is.  I realized how different he is when he was running in 2000 and I interviewed him for the CNN profile that was to air on the day he announced.
     We went through the war and the torture.  And then I said something like--Senator, a lot of us reporters admire and respect you, but there's one question I have to ask that you won't like--what about that tasteless one-liner of yours about Chelsea Clinton at a Republican dinner the other day?   And no, I won't repeat it here but it was truly ugly.  McCain looked me straight in the eye and said, "I suppose we've all done stupid and cruel things in our lives.  I hope that's my last one."  Well, have you ever heard a presidential candidate say something like that?  I hadn't.  Still haven't.
    And we reporters liked him because he, like we, took our job seriously and answered our questions.  On his bus, the Straight Talk Express, he answered so many questions I was sometimes tempted to ask, "Senator, could we maybe have the Straight Silence Express for fifteen minutes?  I have to figure out what my lead is."  He'd have said no, of course.  He answered questions.
     He was a rebel at the Naval Academy and part of him, I think, is one still.  I've always thought that if he and Bill Bradley had been the nominees in 2000, we'd have had an unusual election--two honest, decent, thoughtful men arguing issues.  Wouldn't that have been something rare and swell?
     He's less glamorous this time and less popular with the press.  He supported the war in Iraq when most of us didn't.  But it was what he believed and he said so, of course.
     Should he be president this time?  I don't know.  He's older;  he'd be, at seventy-one, the oldest president we ever inaugurated if he won.  I'm in my seventies, and I wouldn't feel up to the job.  But a fine man?  Oh yes, indeed. 

Monday, November 12, 2007

November 12, 2007

News reports this Veterans' Day week remind us that this year has been the costliest so far in our two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. But these wars don't touch us the way, say, Vietnam or Korea did. I think the reason is that we don't have a draft. The armed services are all-volunteer.

Back during those earlier wars, you or your kids might get drafted and sent to fight, and we know that can't happen now. People think Iraq was a dumb idea or they don't, but there's not a lot of passion either way. And that may be part of a larger phenomenon--what New York Times columnist David Brooks recently called "the happiness gap."

All sorts of polls and surveys show that Americans are pretty satisfied with their own lives, but really mad at their government. 76% of Americans told a Pew Research Center survey they were satisfied with their family income; 65%, satisfied overall with their lives. But only 25% told Pew they were satisfied with the country. All the polls give President Bush really low marks. And all the polls give Congress really low marks. It's race between the two.

It's easy to see why. The president seems stuck in his war in Iraq, certainly in no hurry to end it, and thinking about maybe starting another one with Iran. That would be three for one president - a record. And Congress? What has it done about Iraq? The answer is, essentially, nothing. Has it passed any of the thirteen appropriations bills this year? No.

That's mostly because Congress keeps trying to figure out ways to stuff earmarks into bills the President won't veto. You know, "If we put all the new post offices and statues of us in the defense bill, he'll have to sign that, won't he?" That kind of thing.

All this would seem to call for presidential candidates demanding big, radical changes. Barack Obama and John Edwards do call for change, but there's little of the fire that marked, say, Robert Kennedy or Jesse Jackson's campaigns in years past. But again, maybe that's because the voters aren't as angry now as they were back then. Their own lives, they say, are going along pretty well.

It's a funny year.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

November 7, 2007

     Well, the frontrunners may be getting farther in front.  Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gets endorsed by Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson?  Oh wow!  How often does a bigtime televangelist endorse someone who's for gay rights and abortion rights?  I don't know, but it doesn't happen every week.
     The other startling, recent GOP development came when Carl Cameron, chief political correspondent at Fox News, was trying to hurry his studio along so he could start his interview with former Senator Fred Thompson. "The next president has a schedule to keep," Cameron reminded the studio.  And Thompson piped up, "And so do I."  Well, was that a concession, or what?
     And Hillary Clinton?  I had started to worry that she was getting the frontrunner syndrome where your advisors keep telling you, "You're ahead, now just don't make a mistake!"  The result is you retreat into caution and vagueness--no specifics,  no controversial stands on tough issues.  I can remember Ed Muskie, the Maine senator who was the Democratic frontrunner in 1972, putting aside undelivered, perfectly sensible speeches his writers had given him and saying things like how much he wanted to help his neighbor or, "Let me live in a house by the side of the road/ And be a friend to man." That undistinguished line from a 19th century poet, Sam Walter Foss, didn't, somehow, seem to have much to do with running for president.  And there was Clinton in a recent debate coming out for and against driver's licenses for illegal aliens.        
     But a senior Clinton aide insisted the other day that frontrunner syndrome won't happen, that Clinton has real positions on the issues.  Well, she may be a bit inconclusive about Iraq, but so are they all, just about.  It is tempting to waffle when you're in front, but Clinton is a very disciplined candidate, I think, and she may resist that.
     The only really unpredictable factor is, of course, the voters themselves.  Unlike most voters, those in Iowa and New Hampshire have already thought a lot about this election. They know they come first and they take that role seriously.  Four years ago Vermont Governor Howard Dean was the favorite early on.  But he finished third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and gave up his bid shortly thereafter.
     One role that doesn't change:  it ain't over 'til they count the votes.  

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

November 6, 2007

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is twenty-five years old this week. That's hard to imagine. The war itself ended in 1975. The Memorial opened seven years later and thousands of people came to the ceremony. I remember walking among the crowd with CBS cameraman Mike Marriott, looking for the perfect face to show at the moment of the dedication. He found it--a young man with shoulder length hair, in fatigues, with tears streaming down his face. The story I wrote that day began, "This was a day when it was absolutely okay for grown men to cry." After it aired Mike, who like me had covered the war, went home and cried. So did I.

The Memorial wasn't popular with everyone at first. Not heroic enough, some said, just a black wall with all those names--58,256 service members who died in the war. People will be reading those names out loud at The Wall this anniversary week, reading them on Wednesday and on Thursday and on Friday and on Saturday. So many names. A generation of Americans have visited, wept, made rubbings of the names they knew, left mementos of the ones they lost--a locket, an old snapshot, maybe a ring.

The Memorial isn't controversial anymore. And the war? I don't know. The country was bitterly divided back then--hawks and doves yelling at each other in the street, returning soldiers sometimes jeered. We've learned better than that now; no one blames the warriors for the mess in Iraq.

Vietnam was supposed to be about containing Communism. According to the domino theory, which the hawks believed, if Vietnam went Communist so would the other countries in the region--Thailand, Malaysia and so on. Vietnam did go Communist, of course. None of the other countries followed. And we have diplomatic relations with Vietnam now. While they still talk Marxism, the last time I was there they were hotly pursuing joint ventures - projects with some capitalist country or company. And the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union imploded, one more proof that Marxism is terrible economics.

Did we learn anything? Maybe, but looking at Iraq, maybe not. The Memorial isn't for that anyway. The Wall, Maya Lin who designed it wrote, is "for those who have died, and for us to remember them." I go once a year or so. It works.