Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29, 2009

     Well, it's a hundred days and the President will celebrate or ask for sympathy by holding a press conference.  It's an old tradition.
     Woodrow Wilson held the first formal one (I read this;  even I don't go back that far) in 1913.  But you couldn't quote him;  it was off the record.  Herbert Hoover took written questions submitted in advance and answered only the ones he wanted to.  Sometimes reporters just got remarks, no answers at all.
     Franklin Roosevelt held the most press conferences--more than a thousand--but he was president longer than anybody else too.  It was very different from today, of course, a handful of reporters with notebooks in the Oval Office.  And again, you couldn't quote him;  you had to write, "The President thinks..." or "is known to believe..." or something like that.
     You could quote Dwight Eisenhower.  He had one almost every week, but there was a catch.  Radios could tape the press conference, cameras could film it, but then you had to wait for the White House to clear the tape and film to make sure the president hadn't put his foot in his mouth, said something he didn't mean to say.  
     John Kennedy was the first POTUS to hold live press conferences, a sign of his confidence on television.  He didn't have nearly as many as Ike, but they were live and added excitement to the show. Lyndon Johnson had press conferences in more different places than most presidents, including his Texas ranch.
      And now Obama.  Is the press getting bored?  One network, Fox, says it will carry regular programming, not the Prez.  But press conferences remain a good way of telling the country what you think about things.  Can you have one if Helen Thomas doesn't ask the first question?  I'm not sure.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28, 2009

     Big day tomorrow.  It's President Obama's 100th day in office, of course, but it's also the day the Supreme Court hears arguments on a section of the 1966 Voting Rights Act which helped elect him.
     The section being challenged is the one that requires "preclearance," meaning that states and localities which have discriminated must get federal permission to change their voting procedures.  But the question in a way is, because we've elected a black president, do we still need such a law?
     Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, the New York Times says, thinks times have changed.  In extending the Act in 2006, he says, "Congress wrongly equated Alabama's modern government and its people with their Jim Crow ancestors."  And he notes that voter registration rates for blacks and whites are almost identical.
     On the other side, Thomas Shaw, a law professor and former NAACP official says, "Race still plays powerfully in electoral politics in this country.  If it weren't for the Voting Rights Act, there would be no president Obama."
     The Court has upheld the Act in the past.  And, surprise surprise, Justice Anthony Kennedy is widely expected to be the key voter.  The Times quotes him as having written recently,  "Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.  Much remains to be done."
     Sounds good to me.  And if you don't want to discriminate, why object to a law that says you can't? 

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

April 25, 2009

     I am indebted to Colbert King for his column in today's Washington Post proving once again that supposedly grownup politicians often aren't.
     It's titled "In D.C., a Spat Among Spongers"  but I think I'd have called it, "Tacky Toys for Greedy Girls and Boys."  It's all about free tickets to Washington Nationals'  baseball games. These are, of course, pearls of great price.  The team lost 102 games last year and has the worst record in the majors so far in this young season.
     Anyway, during the negotiations with the city the team agreed to give the City Council 19 tickets to suite 61 in the ballpark, wherever thus.  The mayor, Adrian Fenty, also got tickets to a separate suite.  But the clever mayor apparently got hold of the tickets the Council thinks are its, and won't give them up.  Standoff! Confrontation!
    In the first place, of course, the team shouldn't have to give any politicians, Council members or mayor, free tickets.  It's a bribe.  If it were money, we'd all recognize that.  I have tickets to a few games this year and they cost me twenty bucks apiece.  The seats the mayor has are much more expensive, but he ought to have to pay for them.  Public officials shouldn't be on the take.  It's just that simple.  
     If the team wants to give away tickets, this far from perfect city has plenty of poor kids who'd like to go. Bribing well-paid politicians is different and wrong.  So thank you, Mr. King.  Your column made me angry, but in a good cause.  

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23, 2009

     The United States tortured suspected terrorists during the George W. Bush administration.  This was wrong and shameful.  As an American it makes me ashamed for my country.  The practice has stopped now because President Obama has ordered it stopped.  That's good, of course.
     What we are hearing now is a chorus of demands for an investigation, to go back to those dark days in the torture cells and find out just who did what.  I hope we don't.   We don't need a lot of details;  we don't need a lot of names.  If Sgt. Smith was torturing some suspect, it was because  Lt. Jones told him to. And Jones was carrying out an order from Capt. Miller, who was carrying out an order from Col. Williams, and so on up the chain.  People, I'm sure, mostly did what their superiors told them to do.  If we want to punish someone, we should punish the man at the top of the chain. "The buck stops here," Harry Truman once said of the presidency.  And the blame for torture stops with the man who must have approved it, George W. Bush.
      Did torture work?  Probably not.  Different people say different things, but I've read that one suspect was waterboarded more than a hundred times.  Surely it didn't work with him, or they wouldn't have had to keep trying it.  Today's New York Times has an op ed piece by former FBI man Ali Soufan, who says that Abu Zubaydeh gave him and other questioners  "important actionable intelligence" when questioned by "traditional interrogation methods."   Soufan adds that throughout his intelligence career, these traditional methods worked.
     And torture?  If you're in pain you'll say something, no doubt.  I remember John McCain, who as a POW during the Vietnam war was tortured, saying that when his questioners demanded the names of the other pilots in his squadron, he gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line.  Who in Hanoi would have known the difference?
     Anyway, we did it and it's past.  Let's not go back and parcel out blame and accusations.  Let's look ahead and make sure we do better. 

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April 20, 2009

      Americans keep killing one another with guns.  That's not new, of course.  One recent survey I saw said we have 14.4 gun deaths a year per 100,000 people--the highest if any industrial country.  Japan had the lowest rate, .5.  It's been in the news a lot lately--stories today about a father who killed his wife, his three kids and then himself.
     President Obama, in Mexico, talked about American guns there and here.  He expressed hope that things would get better,  but he added, "None of us is under the illusion...that would be easy."  Well, no.  The problem is the Second Amendment to the Constitution which says:  "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."  Never mind militias, which we don't really have any more.  The Army or the National Guard will give you a gun if you join up.  But the second part of the amendment is pretty straightforward:  "The right...shall not be infringed." 
     Gun dealers run background checks on potential customers.  At gun shows, that isn't even done.  Your basic nut case can buy a gun there.  And there's no great chance of that changing any time soon.
     E J Dionne points out in his Washington Post column that President Obama wasn't elected by gun owners.  He cites an exit poll showing Obama carried 37% of the voters in gun-owning households, 65% in households that didn't own guns.  But does that mean the president is going to push hard for more stringent regulations?  Not that I've noticed.
     Congress is notoriously scared of the gun lobby.  Mr. Obama isn't picking a fight with it either. 

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 19, 2009

    We're coming up on Barack Obama's first one hundred days as president. There will, of course, be massed battalions of columns on how he's doing.  You probably don't need to read them.
     I don't think a hundred days is long enough to be a good measurement.  Sure, Franklin Roosevelt got the bank holiday through Congress quickly and, sure, they declared war on Japan and Germany the day after Pearl Harbor.  But that was then.  The country was simpler;  the emergencies were more urgent than today's recession, painful though it's been.
     And Congress has changed for the worse.  You have to go back to the 1960s--civil rights, the Vietnam War--to find Congress debating big issues--Democrats and Republicans on both sides.  More recently Congress seems to have specialized in petty partisan politics with not much substance involved.
     So a president who wants to change the country in big ways, as this president surely does, faces two challenges.  First, he has to see what the problems are and know what he would do to make things better. Mr. Obama, I think, gets good marks there.  He clearly sees areas, like health care, that need change and he has some ideas about what those changes should be.
     Second, he has to get the Congress to change its ways, concentrate on the issues and get stuff done. It's too early to know how successful he'll be at that.  Two years from now--the 2010 election season--might be a good time to think about that.
     That way, if we decide it's Congress's fault, those of you who have Congressmen (not me;  I live in Washington, D.C.) can vote them out.    

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14, 2009

     President Obama has lifted some of this country's sanctions against Cuba.  Americans with family in Cuba will now be able to visit there as often as they like and send as much money as they like.   American telecommunications companies can try to bring their technologies to the island.  Personally, I wish he'd gone further and lifted all the restrictions first imposed back when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Fidel Castro's revolution was young.

     I'm prejudiced, I admit.  I like the place, the people.  The first time I went doesn't count.  Mikhail Gorbachev, I think it was, was going to visit so a lot of American reporters went.  But Gorbachev canceled; there'd been an earthquake back home.  We each filed one story which began "Had he come he would have seen...." and then went home.   The second time was when Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, and that was better.
         I got to do several stories, got to get out of Havana and see some villages, and I learned some things. The first was that the Cubans had figured out their government and how to work around it.  Lobsters, we'd been told, were strictly a government crop--no private selling.  But several of us went to supper at one the family restaurants--Cubans run them in their homes and are limited to a dozen or so guests.  The entree was lobster, of course, and yummy.
     Another time we were in a rural market and they were auctioning some farm animal--pig, cow, whatever.  The farmers politely asked us not to shoot that;  it was illegal.  We politely agreed.  They had learned, obviously, to get around the rules.  They didn't hate us either;  they seemed to like Americans.  I have no idea why.
     That visit was cut short too.  I remember coming back from a shoot and being told, "Get on the next plane back to DC!! There's this White House intern...."  Hi, Monica.  Thanks a bunch.

     Still, I came away liking the Cuban people after a week in their country.  It's hard to see why having normal relations with them,  exchanging ambassadors and tourists and all that, would hurt either one of us.  The sanctions go back almost half a century to the height of the Cold War, fear of Communism and all that.  It was a long time ago, and the Communist Empire no longer exists.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12, 2009

     Well, the First Family has done one thing right--they've gotten the dog.  Cute little fella.  With small kids you probably don't want a Great Dane, although we had one years ago and she was so gentle the kids used to climb on her.  Good name for the new guy too--Bo.  I think it was James Thurber who wrote that dogs should have simple, one-syllable names.  Bo works.
     The Prez has some other problems, of course.  He came into office hoping for bipartisanship and that hasn't happened.  The Washington Post's wise David Broder points out that not a single Republican in Congress voted for the President's budget.  The gap between Obama's approval rating among Democrats--88% and Republicans--27% is 61 points, higher than it was for George W. Bush or Bill Clinton at this point in their first terms.
     Still, Broder thinks that swing voters--a key element in many states--want action on things like energy and health care and will probably support the President as he pushes in these areas.  If that happens some Congressional Republicans will probably get the message too.  They do, after all, want to get reelected.
     Then there are the wars.  President Obama has now visited Iraq.  When Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, was running in 1952, he promised, "I will go to Korea" where the U.S. was fighting the China-backed North.  When he came back, he said, "Every gun that is fired signifies a theft from those who are not fed," and he told his press secretary, James Hagerty, "The war is over. I hope my son is going to come home soon."  The war was over;  the son did.  So, there's an example, if Mr.Obama chooses to follow it.
    None of this will be easy.  But he's done one very important thing.  President Harry Truman said one, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."  Obama has.  

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

April 9, 2009

     Lots of worrying aloud these days about why Iran mustn't become a nuclear power, let alone a power with a nuclear bomb.  Well, why shouldn't it?
     The United States, of course, is the only country that's ever used nukes in a war.  It was World War Two, a long time ago, and then-president Harry Truman had good reasons for using it against Japan:  he'd been told that a regular invasion--landing craft, troops on the beaches--might cost a million American casualties.  The bomb seemed better than that, and in fact, it ended the war.
     The nuclear club has grown since then.  Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan--a mostly Muslim country, it's worth noting--have all joined and I've probably left someone out. Dangerous?  Of course.  A Roman Catholic cardinal named Joseph Bernardin noted a generation ago that man, for the first time, had the power to destroy God's created order.  He was quite right. But we've managed not to do it.
     I'm not quite sure how;  our record of restraint and prudence in other areas leaves much to be desired.  But we haven't blown up the planet.  It's entirely possible the Iranians won't either.
     In any case, it's very hard to limit technology.  If Iran wants the bomb enough, it can hire or bribe it way into getting it.  Our best hope is probably to talk to them, try to understand them and help them understand it so that, if and when they do get the bomb, they won't be an more inclined than the rest of us have been to use it. 

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

April 4, 2009 (Out of order due to Technical Glitch)

(Apologies, this was sent to the blog page on the 4th but doesn't appear to have posted.)
Dr. Martin Luther King was killed forty-one years ago today. By the time he died, he had changed America. He used to preach that he might not live to reach the Promised Land, but he had seen it. And of course he had.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of '65 changed America more than any legislation I can think of. I am old enough to remember the bus station with two waiting rooms, the restaurants with signs that said "whites only." I can remember once, a year or two after those laws had passed, going to a restaurant in the South with a group of reporters which included a black or two. The owner wouldn't admit us; we then explained which news organizations we worked for and asked if he really wanted to be on the front page and on netwotk TV. He let us in.
So Dr. King changed America, which only a few of us manage to do, and lived to see those changed taking hold. Racism in America has lessened since his death--not vanished, but diminished.
You have to wonder, though, what he would make of America today--a black American president and his black wife touring Europe to thunderous applause. The French, who can be a picky bunch--loved her style, her clothes, and indeed she and France's First Lady looked just terrific in the pictures I've see. Talk about style!
And President Obama is smart and suave and well-spoken--and that shows too. It's been quite a week for Europe, quite a week for America. If Dr. King's spirit is somewhere that lets him see what's going on, I'll bet he's smiling.
We're not there yet, but we've traveled far.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 6, 2009

It isn't our national pastime anymore, of course. Football might be, or maybe NASCAR. But there's something about Opening Day all the same, "such stuff as dreams are made on," the notion that your team, no matter how awful it was last, might just do it, might just win the World Series. People in a dozen different cities can believe that.

It's partly that the season is so long--162 games. Sure, you can say, we've been terrible so far, but it's only June, plenty of time to come from behind. Sometimes they do.

And sometimes it's fun to be wrong. Dave Sheinin, who writes about baseball for the Washington Post, notes that last year, "I had the Mariners winning the AL West (they finished last) and the Tigers winning not only the AL Central (they finished last) but the World Series as well." Eight teams made the playoffs, Sheinin notes, and he picked only two. Well, that's about how well I did, but it's part of the charm of it.

This year? The Yankees acquired a couple of superstars, a pitcher and a hitter, but they're always doing that and they haven't won lately, not the way they did in the glory days of DiMaggio and Mantle, anyway. I think I'd pick the Red Sox--maybe to go all the way and win the Series. But I don't know for sure, of course, and that's why I like it so much.

I have, I admit, a special problem. I grew up in and around Chicago; I'm a Cubs fan. Talk about losers! The Cubs last won the Series more than a century ago, in 1908. They won their division last year but were promptly blown out of the playoffs, losing three straight. Could they do that again? Sure. Could they lose for a second century? Of course.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Have a great season.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 2, 2009

The West Michigan Whitecaps are a class A minor league baseball team. They play their home games in Comstock Park, in a suburb of Grand Rapids. But I'm writing about them because they are clearly a team which thinks big. Really, really big.

How else to explain the new addition to the ballpark menu--a 4800, yes that's 4800, calorie burger. The monster costs twenty bucks and weighs four, count 'em four, pounds. It consists of five beef patties, five slices of cheese, nearly a cup of chili and liberal lashings of salsa and corn chips. It comes on an 8-inch bun.

Needless to say, the forces of good have attacked the monster. A group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based of course in Washington, has asked the team to label the burger a "dietary disaster," which increases an eater's risk of cancer and heart disease.

A team spokesman says it's a gimmick and is being promoted as unhealthy.

But I don't know, there's something very American about it. We love big--biggest car, biggest bucks, biggest...whatever. I have no idea what it would be like to try to eat one. Could you hold it in one hand, for instance? If you drop it, could it crack your knee?

Lots of misgivings. Lots of questions. But there's a small, guilty part of me that would kind of like to try one. Rare, please.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1, 2009

John McCain is a happy warrior when he has a good cause. He has one these days. He thinks the President should pardon Jack Johnson, who was America's first black heavyweight boxing champion a very long time ago.

Johnson won the championship in 1908 when the referee stopped his fight with the Canadian champion, Tommy Burns. This lead, in those more racist times, to a search for a "Great White Hope" to beat Johnson. A former titleholder, Jim Jeffries, came out of retirement, but Johnson beat him in a fight called "The Battle of the Century." Riots followed.

Johnson finally lost the title in 1915, but he'd held it for seven years. In 1913, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which outlawed transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. The woman involved was white. Johnson fled the country, then came back and served ten months in prison. His conviction, then and now, was widely regarded as motivated more by race than by evidence.

"I had admired Jack Johnson's prowess in the ring," McCain said, "And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done." Representative Peter King and filmmaker Ken Burns are also calling for a pardon.

Presidential pardons of dead people are rare, but there is much to suggest that the case against Johnson was rigged. Justice late is better than justice never. Relatives of the old champ are still alive, and I'm sure they'd agree with that.