Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Treason" enters the political vocabulary

It's not often that the word "treason" is spoken in U.S. political conversations, but it happened yesterday in response to President Donald Trump's boot-licking press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump's admiration and adulation of Putin is well known. He thinks the guy is a great leader and a swell friend. Others, including the intelligence agencies and most public officials of western democracies, think he's a corrupt, murderous, empire-seeking, authoritarian, violent dictator focused on destroying western democracy and re-establishing the old Soviet empire, for which he used to toil.

Asked point-blank whether he believed the U.S. intelligence agencies, which all agree that Russia, at the direction of Putin, attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Trump chose his best buddy Putin, who assured him the U.S. intelligence community was mistaken. It's his word against theirs. Who you gonna trust?

That exchange, and Putin's admission that, yes, he wanted Trump to win the 2016 presidential election, led some people to use the T-word: Treason. Putin said he was pulling for Trump because he wanted a better relationship with Russia. That ignores the widely publicized effort of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "reset" relations with Russia to a more peaceful, cooperative relationship. Putin's government immediately rejected that overture. Both 2016 candidates claimed to want better relations with Russia.

Is "treason" or "treasonous" justified? The 115th chapter of 18 U.S. Code defines treason this way: "Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States." It would be up to a court (or Congress, in the case of impeachment) to decide whether Trump's obsequious cozying up to Putin amounts to adhering to enemies or giving aid and comfort to enemies. (Note that actress Jane Fonda was accused of treason during the Vietnam War for her siding with North Vietnam, but nothing ever came of it.)

In Trump's case, the issue is not so much whether he was guilty of treason but whether anything can be done about it. The candidate who bragged that he could shoot someone dead in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and not lose any support will be difficult to impeach or convict of treason. Most pollsters find Trump has a pretty solid base of 40% or so unflinching supporters. An impeachment trial would send that base into hysterics.

Here's a worst-case scenario of how an impeachment effort might unfold: An impeachment resolution is introduced in the House of Representatives. Committee hearings reveal numerous lies told by the president, numerous contacts between his campaign and Russians, money laundering schemes involving Trump and Russian oligarchs, secret deals in Syria and Crimea to leave Russia in charge, continued Russian efforts, through Trump, to break up NATO and the European Union. The committee passes the impeachment resolution, based on the president giving "aid and comfort" to enemies, but it fails on the House floor as Trump goes on tirade after tirade complaining about conspiracies against him, the "deep state" influence, the FBI, CIA and other institutions that have accused him of wrongdoing.

The mostly party-line vote in the House ends impeachment proceedings, but Trump is not through. Most members of Congress are afraid of crossing him. In retaliation for the impeachment hearings, he lends his heavy weight and unsettled anger to the effort for a Constitutional Convention. Such a convention (never held since the Constitution was adopted in 1787) has been a darling of right-wing groups for years, with an aim of banning abortion, requiring a balanced federal budget, or limiting federal powers.

The Constitution (Article V) provides that two-thirds of the states may call for a convention to adopt amendments. There is no limit on the topic of amendments, which could, conceivably, rewrite the entire Constitution. Such a convention could, for example, abolish Congress, eliminate federal courts, including the Supreme Court, and give the president absolute power to pass laws, interpret laws, enforce laws and eliminate elections at the president's will.

Treason is a "high crime," but its invocation will be meaningless unless a substantial majority of Americans agree that the offense has been committed.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The political worlds of 1860 and 2018

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals" about the selection of President Lincoln's Cabinet and the brilliance Lincoln displayed in bravely selecting his rivals for the Republican nomination to fill his Cabinet. This excellent, readable history has taught me much about Lincoln and the larger-than-life personalities who made up his Cabinet.

Many things about the rough-and-tumble fighting for the presidential nomination and the whole political system of the mid-1800s, when two political parties (Whigs and Know Nothings) expired and a new party (Republicans) was formed, are similar to today's sharp-edged politics. The difference is that men and women of the 19th century were unfailingly polite, self-effacing, deferential, and considerate. (Of course, sometimes they took grave offense and fought duels.) Americans of 150 years ago were also far better writers and more articulate than today's Americans. They wrote formal letters. They took the time to explain their positions in calm, rational language. There were no Twitter outbursts, no uncomfortable veiled insults in candidate debates, and no accusations of dishonesty or avarice among political rivals. 

By 19th century standards, today's Americans are coarse, unsympathetic, uncaring, angry, dismissive of other views, dishonest in describing viewpoints they disagree with, and willing to upend government institutions and the entire political system in order to win a few political points.

President Trump's behavior on his recent European trip would have appalled his forebears of 150 years ago. Calling out allies over their payments to NATO, casting doubt on long-established, essential institutions, confronting other leaders in a belligerent way, publicly telling an Ally's head of state that she is doing her job all wrong, threatening trade restrictions on nations whose leaders disagree with him, cozying up to the leader of an autocratic, expansive traditional enemy are exactly the opposite of 19th century diplomacy and rectitude. 

Diplomatic formality has been in decline for decades, but Trump's approach has sent the gradual decline spiraling into a black hole. Sadly, once good manners are trampled, they are nearly impossible to recover. The belligerent appeals to an angry voter base will almost certainly survive Trump's departure from the political spotlight, whenever that might be. Even without Trump, America in the next decade will be meaner, less sympathetic, less considerate, less reasoned, less decent than before.

I don't look forward to future elections or legislating.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Travel is fun but takes its toll

Humans were not made, I'm convinced, for frequent, rapid travel, but it's what most of us do on a regular basis. 

Most people are familiar with "jet lag," the difficulty one's brain and body have in adjusting to changes in time zones. You might be in Hawaii or France, but your body and brain are still on Eastern Standard Time. The "Jet Age" (a term that seems quaint more than a half century since it was coined) is not the only cause for human problems with travel.

I recently returned from four days and nights in the North Carolina mountains. I love the mountains and take vacations and short trips there regularly, but I realized as I returned home (some 300 miles away from our mountain rental) that I was a little discombobulated. I had spent four days getting accustomed to the layout of the rental house, the light switches, the path to the bathroom and the kitchen, the deck with the long view of mountain peaks, the furniture, the companions (my wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren) with whom I shared that space. I had to shake my head briskly to remind myself that I was no longer in that mountain cottage but back in the eastern North Carolina home where I've lived for 15 years.

Adjusting and readjusting is no crisis, but it does affect one's equilibrium and sense of place. On trips, we get accustomed to going out to eat more frequently than we do at home. There is no pressure to clean the house or do yard work when you're hundreds of miles away in a rental house that belongs to someone else. Going home is a return to reality, a reality we had ignored for several days. Getting back onto the reality path takes a little adjusting.

Air travel has its own set of adjustments to be made, from packing to meet the stringent TSA security requirements to sitting for hours in a tightly packed seat in an aluminum tube filled with strangers. But car travel affects one's body and mind, too.

There are few things more exhausting than driving for several hours in heavy traffic at 60 or 70 mph. The tension builds as cars and trucks jam the travel lanes, and, as driver, you are required to pay close attention to your speed, the vehicles on your left and right, as well as far ahead of you. You also have to be cognizant of your next stop or your next turn. When you're going 70 mph (103 feet per second!), you need advance warning of maneuvers that need to be made to reach your destination. All of this effort and tension is draining on the driver's mind and body.

If your itinerary includes several overnight stops over a several-day period, expect all the roads, all the restaurants and all the motels to run together into a confusing soup of flavors, sights and places.

Tension and stress limit the endurance of drivers. Long-haul truckers have regulatory limits on the number of hours they can drive. I have my own limits. I'm good for about four hours on the highway; then, I'm ready for a rest. I might make it five hours if I have to, but when we plan long trips, we try to break up the trip into digestible four-hour (or less) portions.

These portions do not eliminate travel's discombobulation and need for solid rest, but it does make the long-distance travel our prehistoric ancestors were never designed for more achievable.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Guns in newsrooms

In my more than an 33 years in newsrooms, I encountered an angry visitor with a gun only twice, and I survived both scares. Today's tragic murders of five people in the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, brought back memories of my experiences years ago.

News personnel are particularly vulnerable to angry, aggrieved people who don't like what you wrote or don't like what you didn't write. Newspapers have to be part of the community. Most smaller newspapers have little in the way of security, and members of the public can stroll in with a news tip, a tidbit of information or a complaint that can turn into a news story. Too much security can stifle news coverage. Jerry Bledsoe, who wrote a column for the Greensboro News & Record and has published several true-crime books, resigned at the Greensboro paper when it moved into a fancy new building with professional guards and other security. Bledsoe had relied on people to walk in off the street and tell him about wild and crazy things that he could write a column or a long news story about. The new security cut off his best news sources, so he resigned and went to work for the Charlotte Observer for a while.

Back in the 1980s, two young men barged into the Lumberton Robesonian newsroom and took the staff hostage. They demanded an investigation of alleged corruption in the Robeson County sheriff's office. Staff members, including at least one I knew, were held for hours and hours at gunpoint before the gunmen were persuaded to give up.

When I was editor of the weekly newspaper in Hamlet more than 40 years ago, I scheduled interviews with all of the candidates in a hotly contested city council election. In order to show that the paper was accurately reporting candidates' positions, I tape recorded all the interviews and printed the questions and responses verbatim. One candidate declined to be interviewed. I told him I was treating everyone the same, so either he would sit for an interview or we would not run an article about him. A few days later, the candidate walked into the newsroom with a lever-action rifle, the kind you've seen in Old West movies. He handed me several pages of paper with his responses to the questions I had asked the other candidates. (Note to self: Next time, complete all the interviews before publishing the questions.) I told him that letting him prepare responses at his leisure instead of responding on-the-spot in a live interview was not fair to the other candidates. He was angry but did not use the rifle he was carrying. Looking back on the incident, I'm amazed that I wasn't more frazzled than I was.

My next armed encounter was in Wilson. An obviously upset young man came into the newsroom and said he wanted to see me. I overheard the exchange and came out of my office, introduced myself to him and offered a handshake. "I ain't shaking your hand," he said, his face red with anger. I asked him what he wanted, and he gave me a prepared announcement saying that the newspaper was wrong when it published a brief item in the court news saying his case (I believe the charge was assault) had been dismissed with leave. He said his attorney had promised him it wouldn't be in the paper if he agreed to the plea. He demanded that we publish his announcement without editing. I explained that we ran all the court news, no exceptions, but the item about him simply said the case was dismissed. That just made him angrier. He stomped out, shouting, "You haven't heard the last from me!"

His anger and what looked like a pistol in his pocket worried me. I tried to keep an eye on the visitor to make sure he left the building and was not lying in wait or attacking someone else. I saw him circle the outside of the building ominously, but he left without further incident. I called the sheriff, who was quite familiar with the man. The sheriff said he'd ask the man's lawyer to explain to him that he got his case dismissed, as promised, but the outcome of the case is still a public document and can be reported by the newspaper.

The next time the man was in the newspaper, it was because his father had shot and killed him in an argument. It was ruled self defense.

I will vote no on state amendments

There likely will be six amendments to the State Constitution on the November ballot, and I intend to vote against all of them. Not all have made it through the legislative process yet, I might not get to vote no six times, but I'll vote no as often as the ballot allows.

Part of my distaste for these amendments is philosophical; constitutional amendments should be rare and thoroughly examined and should deal with major issues that cannot be settled by a simple legislative bill. The constitution is a permanent standard, and amendments become part of that standard forever unless repealed by another statewide referendum rescinding the previous amendment.

It's not the subject matter of the proposed amendments that bother me as much as the manner in which they are being placed on the ballot and the dishonesty, vengeance, and power-grabbing that are behind these permanent changes to state law. Some of the amendments deal with topics that need examination and perhaps change, but this legislature, with it veto-proof Republican majority gained through blatant and admitted political gerrymandering, would distort the balance of power among the three independent branches of state government by allowing legislators to control all three branches.

Take, for example, the proposals to take away the governor's authority to appoint members of executive-branch boards and commissions. The governor, elected statewide, would lose that authority, handing it over to the state Senate and House. Effectively, the change would give two members of the legislature, the speaker of the House and the president pro-tem of the Senate, the power to appoint officials in the executive branch. The leaders of both chambers enjoy nearly dictatorial powers over their partisan colleagues (similar powers have been wielded by leaders in both parties over the years). The effect is that appointive power would be taken from a constitutional officer elected statewide and given to legislators elected by constituents in gerrymandered districts.

Although none of the amendments are earth-shattering, they do deal with important issues. Voters will not see a full description of the amendment they vote for or against, only a very short (and incomplete) summary. It is not a stretch to say that voters in most cases won't know what they're voting on.

Take the Voter ID amendment. It makes no sense to put this requirement in the state Constitution. A simple legislative bill would have the same impact — requiring a photo ID at the polls. The legislature's prior effort to pass this requirement was struck down by a federal court because it was found to violate voting rights laws. Putting the requirement in the state Constitution won't change the court's authority to strike down the requirement. State laws or state constitutional amendments are both subject to federal court review and rejection.

The real reason for this amendment? Republican officials think having the amendment on the ballot will bring voters out to vote for it. If the amendment passes, the legislature will have the authority to pass a law with all the details; voters won't know what's in the implementing legislation until sometime later. If you vote for this amendment, you're buying a pig in a poke. (Personally, I do not oppose a voter ID law if it provides assurances that every eligible voter can obtain an acceptable photo ID without unreasonable cost or difficulty.)

Another amendment restricts the state personal income tax rate from going above 5.5 percent. The constitution now limits the rate to 10 percent. This bill may be popular, like the voter ID bill, but it could have unanticipated consequences. The state has huge needs in infrastructure (highways, bridges, parks, schools, building repairs, etc.). By restricting the income tax, this amendment would force the state to look to property taxes, sales taxes, fees and other revenue sources to meet the state's needs. Is a 5.6 percent tax rate all that bad? How about a 15 percent sales tax?

Other proposed amendments would enshrine a constitutional right to hunt and fish in North Carolina, would install a second victim's rights amendment to the state Constitution, would upend the traditional means of filling between-elections vacancies in state judgeships through gubernatorial appointment based on recommendations from the local bar, giving legislators a role in the process; would end the governor's authority to appoint members of the state Elections Board, which would become the Elections and Ethics Board, giving legislators a role in the process.

Voting for these proposed amendments would endorse a power grab by legislative leaders, who have already grabbed all the power they could get away with.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The treasures of handwritten letters

When my wife and her sister cleaned out the lake house their parents had built in 1960s, they found a trove of old pictures and letters.

Many of the pictures are mysteries, taken decades ago of people my wife and her sister don't recognize. Other photos are affirmations of vague memories of events from long ago.

The letters are more precious. Most are of fairly recent vintage, as early as the 1950s or '60s and as recent as the close of the 20th century. My father-in-law kept all the letters he received, most of them in the envelopes in which they came. I've read a number of the letters my wife had written when our children were small or yet unborn. Her salutation was often "Dear Family," as she intended the letters for her parents and her siblings, passing along news from her way station hundreds of miles distance.

Several letters are from our time in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where we lived while I fulfilled my military obligation and she doted over our first-born child, who was enjoying the benefits of being cuddled and entertained by her young parents. Later letters were postmarked in places like Hamlet, N.C.; Danville, Va.; and Wilson, N.C. as I followed the opportunities in my newspaper career.

Much of the "news" in these letters was mundane, pertaining to our daughter's development, our tight budget, car troubles, and recent purchases for our nearly empty apartment. There were also stories of visits from my wife's siblings and occasionally from my family and friends. These letters refreshed vague memories of what our lives were like long ago.

Later in our life's journey, we began communicating with my in-laws (and most everyone else) via email. My father-in-law printed out each email from us and filed them away to be found years later. Those old email copies were passed around while we were clearing out the house for sale. Some sparked guffaws or sad sentiment, but we all agreed not to keep the paper copies of emails.

Those emails just don't have the appeal of a neatly penned letter. Handwriting adds a personality to a letter that is not present in a typewritten or computer-generated letter, which was my preferred means of communicating during those years. We found some letters I had written on my old typewriter or on a computer, but they lacked the intimacy of my wife's handwritten missives.

My mother (born 100 years ago) was also a good letter writer. When my oldest brother joined the Air Force and was stationed far away, she would write to him every Sunday night, sketching her neat penmanship on a pack of lined writing paper from the dime store. Later, when I left home for college, I received weekly letters in that same neat script and on that same cheap writing paper.

Regrettably, I did not save my mother's letters. A few may be boxed away in the attic, but I did not treasure them the way I should have. I would like to recall her thoughts on the various happenings in her life, tales of visits to relatives or church friends, funerals for neighbors and church members I barely remembered, and, always admonishments to be on good behavior and work hard.

I have never developed the habit, which I much admire, of sending short notes to people who have won success or endured misfortune or grief. I have been the recipient of such notes, which always impressed me but I never emulated. I have sadly concluded that I might have run out of time to nurture such a habit. Both my wife and I have vowed to be better about sending notes, and we've encouraged our grandchildren (still young enough to develop good habits) to write letters and notes, too.

The musty, crumbling letters from long ago offer glimpses and reminders of what our lives were like. When our children and grandchildren clean out the drawers and boxes we've squirreled away, they won't find many handwritten letters. If they look on the hard drives of our computers, the artifacts they find won't be as interesting or as intimate as the letters we rescued from a landfill.

Ours is the last generation to cherish the handwritten word. I have a photocopy of a letter written in the early 1900s from my great-grandfather, whom I never met, to my grandfather, who was then a young man. The one-page letter reveals much about these two ancestors and the world they inhabited. A generation earlier, a better-educated population indulged in long conversations in stilted language about all manner of events, politics, science and philosophy. Two hundred years after their letters were posted, the conversations between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are still being studied.

None of our 21st century substitutes for the handwritten letter can provide the insight into and understanding of long-ago lives. Our world has substituted efficiency for intimacy.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Immigration reform amid crying children

By wide margins, Americans are appalled by the policy that removes immigrant children from their parents at the border. Americans across the political spectrum are upset by a policy change that went into effect earlier this year and has resulted in more than 2,000 immigrant children being held in makeshift shelters, apart from their parents.

President Trump blames the problem on Congress and previous presidential administrations, but the heart of the issue lies in his own administration's decision to enforce a "zero tolerance" rule against anyone crossing the U.S. border illegally. All adults caught crossing the border without permission are charged with illegal entry into the U.S. Children are not charged, and, therefore, are not jailed with their parents. While this can sound reasonable, the result of this policy is heart-wrenching and has been called "un-American" and "immoral."

By attempting to shift blame for the problem to Congress Democrats in Congress — who control neither the Senate nor the House and cannot pass any legislation without Republican assistance — Trump is setting up a false culprit — Democrats and past administrations — when the separation of children from parents is the result of his administration's decision to unleash a "zero tolerance" policy and let the chips fall where they may. The Castigator-in-Chief takes a "Not my fault, not my problem" attitude toward the crying children and sobbing parents. There is a "serves 'em right!" aspect to this policy and attitude. If you don't cross the border, you won't lose your children.

Liberals on immigration issues have worked hard to make immigrants of all types seem sympathetic, non-threatening, benevolent, admirable, and wonderfully American. Most immigrants are non-threatening and benevolent and seek only a better life in the United States, but their arrival on our borders are creating problems. A small minority are criminals. Many others — "good people," as Trump would say — take desperate measures, such as identity theft, faked documents, "borrowed" Social Security numbers, all of which create criminal, business and personal problems.

Liberals deny these problems exist and see only the positives of immigration, legal or illegal: they pay taxes, they work hard, they do the work most Americans refuse to do, they send money home to families across the border, they contribute to America's vibrant culture. Their defenders have proclaimed that there is no such thing as an "illegal" immigrant and have made the less offensive "undocumented" the only politically correct way of referring to people who break the law by crossing the border without permission.

The surge in illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico has been a political problem for decades. In 1986, Congress passed and Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law provided a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. They had to fill out some paperwork, document that they had been in the country a minimum number of years and were productive. Churches and other organizations rallied to assist illegal immigrants in completing the paperwork required by the new law. Businesses would be forbidden to hire illegal immigrants (except that part of the law was never enforced).

There was a sense that "this is the solution" to the whole illegal immigration problem. The estimated 3 million or so immigrants in the country illegally would fill out the paperwork and would be granted legal status. Restrictions on hiring would reduce the incentive for others to come to the United States illegally.

It didn't work. Millions of immigrants who had been here for years were granted legal status, but that only encouraged others south of the border to sneak in and wait for their opportunity to earn citizenship. The numbers of illegal immigrants continued to grow and now is estimated at 11 million, a three-fold increase. Many Latino immigrants showed little interest in assimilation into American culture. Many never learned the English language or American history.

Congress tried again in 1990 and 1996 to fix the immigration problem, but the problems remained and were compounded by the arrival of desperate people after the collapse of economies and rise in crime in Central America.

President Trump and Congress have an untenable situation with a long history. Voters will not stand for policies that result in the family dismemberment taking place along the border. The caustic political culture makes it much harder than in 1986, 1990 or 1996 to find a workable solution.

Republicans in Congress will need to champion reasonable, workable, enforceable immigration reform, and Democrats will need to help their colleagues across the aisle.