Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January 26, 2011

  There's an old joke:  "Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody was right."*  President Obama didn't use the joke as the theme of his State of the Union speech yesterday, but he could have. That seemed to be what the speech was all about.
     "Reforming the schools," the President said, "changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit, none of this will be easy.  And it wll be harder because we will argue about everything.  The cost. The details.  The letter of every law."  He got that about right.
     And on the same theme, "New laws will pass only with support from Democrats and Republicans.  We will move forward together or not at all."  Yes, but the Republican leader in the Senate,  Mitch McConnell, said last year that his main goal in this new Congress would be to make Obama a one-term president. That doesn't sound like a promise of a bipartisan, does it?
     Obama, for instance, wants to simplify the tax code for individuals.  "Members of both parties have expressed interest in this," he said.  Yes, but neither party likes the other's simplification plan.
     Maybe it all comes back to the old saying--may you live in interesting times.
* George Herbert Walker Bush - 1980

Monday, January 24, 2011

January 25, 2011

     President Obama will deliver his State of the Union speech this week.  Don't hold your breath or sit on the edge of your seat.
     It's not that Obama can't deliver a powerful, passionate speech.  He can.  He did so as recently as last week when he spoke about the shootings in Tucson. 
    You can, if you're old enough, remember a lot of eloquent presidential speeches – or at least parts of them.  John Kennedy:  "Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you  can do for your country."  Franklin Roosevelt:  "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself...."  Gerald Ford:  "Truth is the glue that holds government together."  Ronald Reagan (quoting poet John Magee after the Challenger disaster):  "They 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"  Trouble is, none of those come from a State of the Union speech.  As you'll have guessed  by now, there's a reason for that.
     You could argue some.  I mean, Bill Clinton said  "The era of big government is over" in a State of the Union speech.  I would argue that it's not really such a wonderful line,  we all knew he didn't mean it and, of course, it wasn't true.
     The difficulty is that great speeches tend to be about one thing--war, a depression, a tragedy.  State of the Union speeches, by their nature, are laundry lists. The president comes to Congress and says, in effect, "Okay, guys, I hope you'll pass bills A, B and C, and junk bills D, E and F."   It's a good idea.  Presidents should let Congresses know what they'd like them to do.  And we'll watch because we want to know that too.  It's an important speech.
     Just don't expect to laugh or cry much. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 20, 2011

      "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around then world."
     John Kennedy gave that speech fifty years ago today as he took the oath of office as our president.
     He didn't serve even one full term, of course.  He was murdered, like other presidents before him.   He had one embarrassing failure--backing the Cuban exiles who invaded the island trying to overthrow Fidel Castro, who's still there.   And he had one planet-saving success--persuading Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw the Soviet missiles in Cuba which were aimed at the United States--without starting World War III.  I suppose the fairest grade to give his presidency would be "incomplete."
     And yet the legend lives.  I heard that speech in London;  the Brits loved it.   I was still in London when he died--so pointlessly, it seemed.  British cab drivers, hearing your American accent, wouldn't take your money.  A lot of time's gone by;  we've fought a lot of wars.  But the trumpet he sounded still echoes, the dream still lives.
     "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
     Still true, I hope. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18, 2011

 Sarah Palin, for columnists, is the gift that keeps on giving.
     She's in the news this week for using the term "blood libel" to describe comments by those who tried to link conservatives to the Arizona shooting outburst that killed six and wounded thirteen, including Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Palin said it meant being "falsely accused of having blood on our hands."
 Well, no.  Wikipedia defines blood libel as "the claim that religious minorities, usually Jews, murder children to use their blood in...religious rituals," like making matzos for Passover.  This isn't true, of course, but it also isn't what Ms. Palin said it meant.
     Last year, I think it was, she enriched the language with "refudiate," a fine word except that it doesn't exist.
     Many politicians are dull.  Many political speeches are boring.  You surely can't accuse Ms. Palin, or her comments, of that.  I don't know that I'd vote for her but, if I were still a television news reporter, I'd make sure the cameras rolled every time she opened her mouth.    

Monday, January 17, 2011

January 17, 2010

      Of course we honor his birthday.  Martin Luther King made America a better country.  How many of us can say that?
     You have to be middle-aged to remember what it used to be.  To remember when black Americans couldn't vote.  To remember the stark signs on the rest rooms in bus stations, at airports:  "white," "colored," a word still used back then.  All gone now.  Gone for good.
     Dr. King didn't do it alone, of course.  He had many helpers--John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and the nameless thousands who marched and picketed and, yes, finally, voted.  But King seemed like the leader back then, even among the many others. 
    I covered him some.  Most reporters did.  I remember just one personal conversataion--about how hard it was to be on the road all the time and not see your children grow up.  It worked  out, though. His have turned out pretty well.  So have mine.
     So we honor him today for changing our country, making it better.  We're not done, of course.  No one suggests racism has vanished. But we're a lot better than we used to be.  And Dr. King helped that happen.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 2011

Do we get  what we pay for?  Maybe.
     The suspect in the Arizona killings, Jared Loughner, certainly seems crazy to me.  The stories are full of incidents:  bizarre outbursts in class--one college expelled him on mental grounds--bizarre silences, strange comments to friends, and so on.  But no one turned him in.  How would you do that anyway?  Phone a hospital?  The cops?  The mayor?
     We have no tradition of requiring periodic medical checkups for our fellow-citizens.  I can't imagine Americans voting for any kind of compulsory mental exams for themselves.  Can you?
     It's the same with guns.  Sure, the National Rifle Association is a very professional, efficient lobby.  But it's also true that we as a country, as individual states, seem to favor making guns pretty easily available to just about anybody, except maybe convicted murderers.  That's what we seem to want, so it shouldn't shock us that it's what we have.
     We could change our laws in either of these areas, of course, but I see no evidence that we want to.   I suspect we'll keep things as they are and the occasional awful tragedy will be part of the price we pay for it.  Will that price ever seem too high?

Monday, January 10, 2011

January 9, 2011

     The killings in Arizona are tragic, of course.  They are also, sadly, very American.  We have a long history of nuts with guns.
     Was the suspect in Arizona, 22 year-old Jared Loughner, a nut case?  The news stories certainly suggest it.  One college classmate notes that he "disrupted class frequently with nonsensical outbursts."  College officials finally suspended him, told him he'd have to pass a mental exam to be readmitted.  In one video he reportedly says, "The current government officials are in power for their currency."  What on earth does that mean? 
     But this kind of thing goes way back with us.  Was John Wilkes Booth a nutter?  Or Lee Harvey Oswald?  Or James Earl Ray?  We can't be sure, of course, and Booth was certainly a long time ago. But probably.
     Laws have consequences.  We have laws which make it quite easy for people to buy guns.  Other countries make it harder--Britain, for instance, where I lived years ago.  So we have gun muders, sometimes by unstable people, by nuts.  It's as American, I'm afraid, as apple pie.   

Saturday, January 8, 2011

January 7, 2011

       A column today about the wisdom of leaving things alone.
     First, the U.S. House of Representatives, in its opening session, read the Constitution aloud.  But they didn't read the whole thing; they left out those parts that have been amended, that might seem offensive nowadays.  Left out the part where slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a person, for instance, or where they could gain freedom by escaping to a free state.  The effect was to suggest that the Constitution was created perfect when, in fact, like the country it governs, it changed and improved over time.
     Then there is Huckleberry Finn.  The New York Times reports that Alan Gribben, who teaches English at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, has produced a new edition of the book which replaces the word "nigger" with "slave".and the word "Injun" with "Indian."  Why on earth?
     It's probably ten years since I last read the book, but I remember that Twain worked very hard to get the regional accents and slang he used right--the way the people in fact spoke back then.  Nigger Jim, as best I remember, is one of the principal characters in the book, a strong, principled man who teaches Huck what it really means to be a man, a lesson Huck's own drifter of a father can't teach his son.  You finish the book liking and respecting Jim and that was a valuable lesson for Huck to learn in that time and place.
     Come on guys.  Leave well enough alone, please.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January 4, 2011

     House Republicans plan to schedule a vote next week on repealing the health care law Congress passed last year.  I can report, without doing a lick of original reporting, that this will fail.
     It's just arithmetic.  Republicans have a majority in the new House, so repeal could pass there.  The Democrats still control the Senate, so it probably won't pass there.  Even if it did, President Obama could veto the bill.  It takes a three-quarters vote in both Houses to override a veto.  No way.
     That leaves a larger question:  what will the new, divided Congress do?  The GOP Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, says his overriding goal will be to make sure Obama is a one-term president.  This would mean voting "no" on just about everything, I guess.  It might shut down the federal government--we had one of those back in the 1990s--but it wouldn't necessarily mean a loss for Mr. Obama.
     I mean, the voters might decide they liked a crippled government. You wouldn't have to pay taxes, I guess, though you might miss things like an Army and Social Security.  Or maybe not.
     You never know what these politicians will come up with next.  Close Washington and this column might move to Vail, Colorado.  Gerald Ford liked it there.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

January 2, 2010 correction

As much as Mr. Morton's editor would like to pretend that the column today included a test of your political memory – it didn't.
Of course Al Haig said "I'm in control here" after Ronald Reagan was shot.
Who was thinking that during Watergate is another question.
Please accept a humble apology – and let me blame the champagne.

January 2, 2010

      As always in a new year, this column remembers some who died during the old one.
     We lost Don Meredith, a wonderful quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who threw fast balls faster than just about anyone.  And George Steinbrenner, the imperious owner of the imperious New York Yankees.
     We lost Robert Byrd, longest serving senator ever, a West Virginia Democrat who once endorsed racial segregation but mended his ways;  lost John Murtha, a Congressman from Pennsylvania who understood the politics of pork much better than most.  We lost Alexander Haig, who announced from the White House, "I'm in charge here," as Richard Nixon was resigning the presidency.  We lost Elizabeth Edwards, who battled an unfaithful husband and cancer, and, sadly, lost.
      We lost Daniel Schorr, a gifted reporter who made Nixon's "Enemies List;"  lost J.D. Salinger, a gifted writer;  Lena Horne, a gifted singer;   Billy Taylor, a pianist who helped give birth to modern jazz;  and Tony Curtis, whose name graced movie marquees for many years.
     Lost John Wooden, perhaps the most gifted basketball coach ever;  Bob Guccione who have us Penthouse, a magazine only some of us wanted. 
Oh--and we lost Paul, the octopus who correctly predicted all those World Cup soccer matches.  He was two.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

January 1, 2011

show details 2:49 PM (3 hours ago)

      Democrat Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose term in office ended this past midnight, made news his last day on the job by something he didn't do--he didn't pardon the outlaw Billy the Kid.
     Billy, aka William Bonney, aka Henry McCarty, lived in New Mexico in the 19th century.  He's supposed to have killed 21 people, one for each year of his short life.  The Washington Post quotes the New Mexico Tourism Department as saying the total was really probably closer to nine.
     Anyway, the story is that the then territorial governor, Lew Wallace, offered the Kid a pardon if he'd confess what he knew about various killings.  But Richardson's people told him there were no documents "pertaining in any way"  to a pardon among Wallace's papers.   Wallace and the Kid did have one secret meeting, it seems, but no one knows what happened.  Wallace wrote the Kid, "I have authority to exempt your from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."  Apparently there was never a deal or at least not one that can be proven today.
     Oh, well.  We need one unreconstructed bad guy out there, don't you think?
     Happy New Year.