Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tour validates Wilson's artsy reputation

One transplanted Wilsonian proclaimed last Saturday's first Visual Arts Studio Tour "as good as anything we ever saw in New York." The day-long open house at the studios of dozens of artists was proclaimed a success, one that is likely to become an annual event.
This success enhances Wilson's status as an oasis for artists and bolsters Lindsey de Guehery's suggestion that Wilson promote itself as the "City of the Arts." If Durham can transform its image from rough-and-tumble Tobacco Town to City of Medicine, Wilson can effect a similar transition.
Saturday's tour truly did validate the art proponents' claim that Wilson is an art-friendly and art-supportive community. From Studio One, an artists cooperative in the Walston Center, to world-renown photographer Burk Uzzle's studio home on Vance Street to celebrated whirligig artist Vollis Simpson's whimsical creations near Lucama and in downtown Wilson and to the numerous other painting, sculpture, pottery, woodworking and fabric artists around town, local artists give Wilson a distinctive patina. One of the delights of last weekend's tour was that most studios were not crowded, giving patrons an opportunity to talk to the artists about their art. The Wilson Arts Council's holiday art reception is often so jam-packed that it's difficult to see all the art on display and for sale.
Wilson can leverage this acknowledgment among the arts community of the town's receptiveness toward artists by continuing to support the Arts Council (an object of frequent criticism among the angry philistines) and by promoting art on the city's, county's and Tourism Authority's Web sites.
Next month, the Theater of the American South makes its third run in Wilson, bringing top-rated professional theater, along with cooking demonstrations and lectures on Southern culture and literature, to Wilson. By the fall, Barton College should be ready to dedicate its Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre, giving a decisive boost to the college's drama program.
Promoting Wilson's artistic potential could pay big dividends for the city, but that promotion has been largely limited to local artists, such as Uzzle, who have been acclaiming this community to artist friends in places such as New York. Local organizations, such as the Arts Council, Downtown Development Corporation and the city need to take up the banner. The local Tourism Authority would ordinarily be a key promoter, but the tax-supported agency is ridiculously ensconced in a nondescript storefront next to a tobacco retailer off Interstate 95, miles from the artists who give Wilson a distinctive persona.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Specter's move is not a seismic shift

Arlen Specter's switch Tuesday to the Democratic Party gives Democrats a bullet-proof majority in the Senate, but let's not make too much of this bit of political theater. Specter has always been an ephemeral independent whose position on any number of issues was difficult to predict. Specter told the public that the Republican Party had abandoned him, not the other way around. It's true that the right wing of the Republican Party has often displayed a suicidal inclination, with its RINO (Republican In Name Only) epithet, but Specter's decision had more to do with electability than with party ideology.
Specter's Republican political base has shifted, making it more difficult for him to survive a conservative challenge in the primary next year. He sees brighter prospects in the 2010 Democratic primary and general election, and he's probably right.
But predictions that the Republicans are facing a permanent minority status or could go the way of the Whigs and the Fusionists are overblown. We've heard such predictions before. The 1964 Lyndon Johnson blowout left Republicans shattered, and the 1974 and 1976 post-Watergate elections led many pundits to predict the end of the Republican Party. But in 1984, it looked like the Democrats who were in danger of extinction.
Gaining a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate will not give Democrats a blank check in Washington. There's still the matter of the electorate who, while shifting toward the left the past four or five years (Republicans can largely thank George W. Bush for that), is still more conservative than most Democrats in Congress. Expect to see some defections from the Democrats' majority on some key votes.
One major test will be the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which eliminates the secret ballot in union elections and subjects workers to direct coercion. Specter has said he will vote against the top-priority union-backed bill, but don't bet the ranch on it; he has flip-flopped on issues before. When it comes down to the crucial vote, it will be hard for senators elected by secret ballot to deny a secret ballot to workers. And voters, with the exception of union loyalists, will have a hard time understanding what's so bad about a secret ballot.
The news of Specter's party switch was less than a seismic shift. One North Carolina Republican told the News & Observer that it would have been bigger news if Specter had decided to become a Republican.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Burglar disrupts signature fund-raiser

Tonight at Wilson Mall is one of the signature events of Wilson's civic life, The Arc's Taste of Wilson. Anyone who has ever attended — and there are hundreds of "regulars" who show up every year — knows what a "filling" event it is. Dozens of Wilson restaurants provide a "taste" of their cuisine for each of the 2,000 ticket holders. From 5:30 until 7:30 — or until the food runs out — customers line up to check off the 10 "tastes" to which their tickets entitle them.
The proceeds of this event go toward the work of The Arc, formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens. The charity provides a summer camp and other services for developmentally disabled children. It is by far the largest fund-raiser for The Arc. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the local Arc board and have volunteered with Taste of Wilson for years.)
The past several years, Taste of Wilson has included a silent auction for donated items, many of them the work of local artists. As The Wilson Daily Times reported Monday, three break-ins at the Arc's offices in the United Way building on West Nash Street resulted in the loss of equipment and dozens of items donated for the silent auction. According to the newspaper report, many of the items were not stolen; they were simply smashed and destroyed. Among the destroyed items was a local artist's painting valued at $400. Those items that were not destroyed were blackened with fingerprint powder (which is nearly impossible to remove) when Wilson police conducted their investigation.
I'm told that the fingerprinting succeeded in identifying the burglar. Let me suggest that the offender be sentenced to no less than 1,000 hours of community service. Tossing someone like him, who is so angry/destructive/disrespectful, into prison will only reinforce his anti-social behavior and will not help his victims. Force him to pick up trash, clear ditches, pull weeds, clean bedpans, etc. And let him see the needy children who are shortchanged by his vandalism. He should be severely punished for this wanton destructiveness, but I'm told one police officer predicted he'd be back out on the street five minutes after facing a magistrate.
Let me also suggest that the United Way install a burglar alarm in its building, which has been burglarized numerous times over the years it has served as the headquarters for several United Way agencies. It's hard to believe no burglar alarm has been installed.
Tickets are still available to the Taste of Wilson. They'll be sold at a booth near the mall's main entrance. Come and sample some of Wilson's finest restaurants, and support a worthy cause at the same time.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama wants to leave torture policy behind

Who would've thought that President Obama would find himself backed into a corner over torture of "enemy combatants"? As a candidate, Obama was a critic of the Bush administration's contention that "harsh questioning" was necessary to squeeze information out of suspected terrorists and prevent a follow-up to the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush administration lawyers contended that harsh interrogation, formerly known as torture, was legal because the captives were not prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Accords but were essentially foreign criminals not covered by either international treaties or U.S. law.
Obama and other critics, including presidential foe John McCain, who has more personal experience with "harsh interrogation" than any other U.S. politician, complained that the interrogation techniques were not effective and egregiously harmed America's reputation as a nation that valued human rights.
Having disavowed harsh interrogation, Obama, it would seem, should be able to put this whole matter behind him. But not so fast. Some members of Congress and other critics want to prosecute CIA agents and Bush administration officials and/or launch a congressional investigation of the entire interrogation process.
Obama sensibly ruled that CIA agents, who had been advised by the U.S. government that it was legal for them to use any means necessary to ferret out terrorism details, should not be held liable for doing what the administration told them they should do. Prosecuting CIA agents for what they reasonably believed to be legal orders would be a sure way to ruin the intelligence community.
Well, if you're not going to prosecute the agents, then you ought to prosecute the Justice Department lawyers who issued the opinion, congressional critics said. This also looks like a slippery slope. Should we prosecute the solicitor general each time he loses a case in the Supreme Court? After all, his opinion has been declared unconstitutional!
Obama would like to put the previous administration's interrogation policies behind him. He has enough on his plate for the present and future. But some Democrats in Congress see whipping the dead horse of Bush administration policies as a sure way of extending their party's majority. Congressional hearings going back to Watergate and the Army-McCarthy hearings have focused public attention and swayed public opinion. They offer an opportunity for creation of new political stars.
But Obama knows they also distract attention from other issues, such as the recession, health care and energy independence, that are more important at the moment.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wildfires prompt long-distance worry

I've spent some time this morning looking at photos from the Myrtle Beach Sun-News of the wildfires in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area. Friday's news reports alerted me to the extraordinary calamity and prompted me to worry about my first cousin, who lives in the Barefoot Resort development, where 69 houses have been destroyed. A family e-mail went out asking, "Has anyone heard from Paula?" That was followed by an e-mail from another cousin saying Paula and her husband had been evacuated but didn't know whether their home had been damaged.
For the past three years, the Tarleton Family Reunion had been held at Barefoot Resort. Three generations of the descendants of my grandparents, not including my father's generation (now all deceased), gathered for lunch at the resort clubhouse. The resort location attracted some cousins who had skipped the more traditional covered dish meals in church halls and civic clubhouses, and the beach attractions made this a great place to get together.
Our only worry about the location was the possibility of October hurricanes. Who could ever expect wildfires in a locale so dominated by water — the ocean, canals, creeks, inlets, ponds, waterways, etc.? Yet, as the pictures show, wildfires can sweep across the creeks and ponds to torch the golf courses and homes that sprawl across the marshes and wetlands. This kind of disaster is associated with the arid areas of Southern California and the Southwest, not with the water-drenched South Carolina Lowcountry.
Looking at the newspaper's pictures, I recognized a number of landmarks and marveled that an area so inviting could suddenly turn so hazardous. I have no doubt that Myrtle Beach's tourist mecca will recover from this setback, and the devastated homeowners will rebuild. But the trauma will stay with them, and evidence of the disaster will linger through the tourist season. I'll pray that Paula and other relatives in the area have been spared.
As for the Tarleton reunion, it had already been decided to move this year's event back to Anson County, where my grandparents lived, died and are buried.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Job fair provides little encouragement

With low expectations, I went to a job fair Thursday at Wilson Community College. When I saw the military recruiters' cars in the parking lot, I knew my expectations were valid.
As I strolled through the employer exhibits, I was aggressively approached by a woman who directed me to an insurance company display and handed me some brochures. "I spent 33 years in the newspaper business," I told her. "Do you have any positions for editors or writers?" She asked if I ever considered being an insurance agent. "No," I said. "You don't understand; I worked for newspapers but I never sold anything. If I had had to sell, I would have starved long before now." "But all you have to do is show them this," she said, pointing to a presentation on a laptop computer. "It does the selling for you."
I talked to a Wilson County Schools official (who actually offered some useful and somewhat encouraging advice), someone from BB&T (who directed me to a Web site for a job application), and a representative from an Internet/phone/cable TV service out of Texas (who was really looking for technicians, not writers). I avoided the Marine, Army and Navy booths, which seemed to be doing a pretty brisk business. I was tempted to ask each of the military recruiters if his branch of service would take me as a lateral transfer at my old Coast Guard O-3 rank, but I didn't want to be laughed at.
I left the job fair without making a dent in my frustration. Finding a job, especially in this economy, is not easy. At the Wilson County booth, I pointed to a couple of the printouts of job vacancies, which I knew had been posted more than six months ago. "Why have these jobs gone unfilled?" I asked. "Is there a hiring freeze or you haven't found the right person?" "Haven't found the right person," the woman said. "Thanks," I said. I had applied for both of those jobs but wasn't "right."
Here's one lesson I've learned the past few months: Even if you find a job opening that looks like a good fit, you can be deemed unsuited for the job for any number of reasons — too old, too young, too experienced, too inexperienced, weak skills, wrong skills, under-qualified, over-qualified, too little education, too much education, etc., etc.
Once again, the odds of winning the lottery are looking no worse than the odds of finding a job.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Staying together after marriage

Before we had been married a year, a military commitment took me away from my wife for four months (though we did manage to work in some weekends together). When that was over, I promised her that we'd never spend another night apart.
Silly me!
We have, of course, spent some nights apart over the past 38 years, and this week we're spending a longer stretch apart than we've endured in many years. There have been brief hospitalizations, business trips (though I was fortunate enough to take my wife and children along to many of the newspaper meetings I attended) and family commitments that kept us apart. This week, my wife is helping out following the birth of our newest grandchild (number six, if you're counting), providing the invaluable help she never got because her mother died before our children were born. I know she's enjoying it far more than spending her days at work and her nights with an old man she can just barely remember as young.
I also spent some time there and tried to make myself useful, but there really wasn't much for me to do, and I returned home in the vain hope that I might be called for a job interview and with the knowledge that I could more readily job hunt and fill out applications from home. Besides, the dog was happy to see me.
The biblical description of marriage, that "the two shall become one flesh," can be read as good advice. Couples who match their schedules to each other's and spend the maximum amount of time together — eating meals together, getting up at the same time, going to bed at the same time, sharing chores, travels and hobbies — become a new creation, two lives merged into one. A friend from years ago described marriage this way, that it's not really two people becoming one but two halves, each incomplete without the other, becoming whole. Anyone who has been blessed with a good marriage knows what a miracle that transformation is. I have described it as the embodiment of divine grace, that is, an undeserved gift.
One phrase from a relatively unknown John Denver song ("Back Home Again") perfectly captures the rhapsody of marital life: "It's the sweetest thing I know of, just spending time with you." (Be patient, the quoted phrase comes more than three minutes into the song.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pulitzers show newspapers are indispensable

The Pulitzer Prizes, which were announced Tuesday, shine a spotlight on the importance of professional journalism. The awards went mostly to reporters who uncovered scandals, investigated corruption and informed the public about important matters. Consider these examples from the list of winners:
• The New York Times for reporting on then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer's call-girl scandal;
• The Detroit Free Press for uncovering a secret (and very costly for taxpayers) between the then-mayor and the city manager;
• The Las Vegas Sun for investigating the high death rate among construction workers on the Las Vegas strip;
• The St. Petersburg Times for meticulously fact-checking the claims of the candidates in the presidential elections;
• Mesa, Arizona's East Valley Tribune for a report showing how a local sheriff's focus on immigration enforcement endangered other investigations;
• The New York Times for explaining the challenges the United States faces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
These high-profile prizes come at a low point for American journalism. Newspapers are laying off reporters and editors by the thousands. Some major newspapers have filed for bankruptcy. North Carolina's two largest newspapers, the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer, are being bled dry by parent company McClatchy's demands for additional revenue to pay off its debt. One telling remark in the Washington Post's announcement is that one of the award-winning East Valley Tribune reporters has already been laid off.
The St. Petersburg Times' Lane DeGregory won a Pulitzer for one of the most heart-aching news stories I've ever read about the adoption of a young girl who had been held captive and unloved for so long that she had become "feral." I had been sent a copy of the story last year and couldn't stop reading it. Warning: Be prepared to cry if you read this. It, too, is part of what makes newspapers great.
Meanwhile, some virulent newspaper haters (such as these) are cheering the bankruptcies and layoffs. In Internet postings, they express hope that newspapers everywhere will be forced to shut down, a development they claim will allow access to "unfiltered" and unbiased news coverage. But this year's Pulitzers show that good reporting can't be done by part-timers in their pajamas at the kitchen table. Good reporting requires huge investments of time and money. Sending reporters to Afghanistan or Iraq isn't cheap. Standing up to a powerful mayor and challenging his claims of confidentiality require a huge investment in legal fees. Gaining the confidence of key sources in an important investigation requires a career-long investment of time. Examining the records that back up a long investigation requires the full-time labor of professional reporters. Without newspapers, these important stories won't be reported, scandals will go unchecked and America's governance will sink into dishonesty, graft and depravity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mike Easley's latest explanation still smells

Looks like former Gov. Mike Easley is now saying, "No, no, what I meant to say was ... ." The News & Observer this morning has the goods on Easley's borrowing/lease/belated purchase/friendly arrangement of a personal/family/campaign vehicle. The N&O had previously reported a strange deal in which Easley's son and his wife were driving vehicles owned by auto dealerships, not by the well-paid former first family. When initially contacted by the N&O about the car deal, Easley claimed the car was a lease and that he had purchased the SUV, which his son had been driving, when the lease expired. Now, Easley has filed amended campaign reports indicating the vehicle was a political campaign vehicle since 2002 that subsequently became a family vehicle. You'll not be surprised to discover that a federal grand jury apparently is now looking into the cozy relationship between the Easleys and the car dealer.
Hasn't somebody told him: Mike, this just isn't worth it. You and the missus are raking in well over $200,000 a year. You can afford to buy a couple of cars! You don't need to risk prison to save a few hundred bucks a month! 
Easley, an amiable, likable, funny guy, can do dead-on impersonations of people, including former Gov. Jim Hunt. Now you have to wonder if he will be impersonating former Speaker of the House Jim Black, who went to prison over political corruption.
The car deal is not the only issue the former governor is facing. It was reported last week that a grand jury is looking into a land deal on the coast, which had been revealed by investigative newspaper reporters before Easley left office. Easley appears to have paid a below-market price for a valuable waterfront lot in a deal accommodated by some political supporters.
These questionable deals come atop published reports of Mary Easley's expensive tour of European museums at state expense, the Easleys' Italian vacation at state expense and Mary Easley's sweetheart deal of a non-competitive $180,000 job at N.C. State University. Despite all this, Easley remained popular to the end of his second term, and North Carolina voters gave his Democratic Party major victories up and down the ballot in November.
If Easley is indicted for either the land deal or the car deal, North Carolina will find itself on the level of Louisiana and Illinois, where imprisoned former governors are just part of the political facts of life. And the imprisoned governors' political party never seems to suffer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

As small towns struggle, people lose

I returned Sunday afternoon from what might be my last visit to Laurinburg, N.C., a pleasant little town that extols its Scottish heritage (the Mc--- section of the phone book goes on for pages and pages) and banks on community pride and civic involvement. My daughter and son-in-law have made their home there for seven years, and my wife and I enjoyed our visits. We met gracious and friendly people who made us feel welcome, and my daughter and her husband enjoyed a large network of close, dependable friends.
But now they're moving away, bidding goodbye to close friends and looking forward to putting down new roots in a place where they will raise their children.
Laurinburg was named an All-America City the same year that Wilson won the honor.
But like a lot of towns of its size (15,000),  Laurinburg is facing difficult times. Scotland County's unemployment rate led the state for months. A number of major industries closed, and some stores shuttered. The county was home to a thriving agricultural economy in the early part of the 20th century, and there's still a good bit of farming going on, but agriculture has undergone a drastic change.
The city still has its charm. Last weekend, the dogwoods and azaleas were all in bloom, and some quiet streets were ablaze with color. Residents strolled the neighborhoods and stopped to gab with neighbors. The downtown is still vital with some specialty shops, a successful coffee shop/luncheonette and the newspaper office. Still, it's hard to escape the shadow of economic foreboding. With agriculture withering and industries moving overseas, where will the jobs come from to maintain the stylish homes and pleasant gardens that dot the town?
Laurinburg is like a lot of other small towns — I'm thinking of Wendell, Farmville, Stantonsburg and others — that once thrived but now struggle. Unless these towns are close to a larger metropolitan area, as Wendell is close to Raleigh, and can take advantage of the spillover of residents and income, they will have a difficult time. Americans are not only moving from the country to the city, they are moving from small town America to metropolitan America. I cannot count the number of my high school classmates who moved quickly to Charlotte or the number of my children's classmates who made their homes in Raleigh. Small towns across North Carolina are struggling to retain their identity and their economic viability after being bypassed by new highways and having their most promising youth sucked away by larger cities. In the Midwest, I'm told, it's even worse as tiny farm markets shrivel out of existence.
The loss of small towns has an impact deeper than the disappearance of a few jobs. Small towns have nurtured American civic-mindedness, community pride, cooperative spirit, friendliness, patriotism, spirituality and creativity. They have given Americans a chance to slow down and enjoy the azaleas in the springtime or a maple-lined street in the fall, without the jangled nerves of a traffic jam or the bustle of an unforgiving, tight schedule. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Still a soft spot in my heart for newspapers

Back home after four days away, I spent a good couple of hours reading the newspapers that I had missed and that had been dutifully stacked on the kitchen table by our faithful dog sitter. Regardless of what you may have read about the demise of printed newspapers, there's nothing that can beat a quality newspaper with your morning coffee — or a stack of newspapers waiting for your return. Although I had "kept up" with what was going on around the world, in the state and in Wilson while I was gone, it still took me a couple of hours to pore over the accumulated papers, scanning them more than reading them but still slowing down to catch the details in the stories I had not seen elsewhere.
Among the news was the fact that J. Peder Zane, the News & Observer's culture columnist and former book editor, had become one of my peers — a laid-off journalist. Zane wrote a final, farewell column for his N&O readers, which I found painfully honest and observant. I had considered writing a final column after being laid off and went so far as to ask if it might be published, but, in the end, decided to keep my "final column" thoughts to myself.
I was not entirely surprised to see Zane let go, given the pressures on the N&O to cut costs in order to feed McClatchy's debt payments. After his role was redefined from book editor to culture columnist (whatever that is) a couple of years ago, I thought the powers that be were just lining him up to shove him out the door. Unfortunately for readers, the N&O's book pages, once some of the best of any newspaper in the country, went sharply downhill. The focus changed from Zane's erudite literary analyses to whimsical shallowness. We went from Great Books to comics. Too bad for anyone who cares about literature and language.
As it adjusts to reduced advertising revenues, the newspaper industry is making the mistake of laying off solid old hands like Zane, who speak the language of readers, while retaining the video- and trend-obsessed cliche-repeaters in hopes of attracting the lowest common denominator of readers. It won't work. Dedicated readers who love the printed word will always be the heart off newspapers' circulation; other types can't be lured away from TV and video games.
I will continue to read what's left of newspapers, but the thrill of reading prose that soars to greatness or explanations that make me a wiser and better person is getting less and less frequent.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Stingy politicians' character shows on tax returns

The release of 2008 tax returns by President Barak Obama and Vice President Joe Biden does little to encourage charity among lesser Americans. The Obamas are wealthy, thanks to the sales of the president's two books (both of which I've read and recommend), but the Bidens, though well-to-do in terms of ordinary Americans, are relatively poor by Senate/vice presidential standards.

What I found interesting in the returns, and I've been noting this for 30 years, is our leaders' charitable giving. The Obamas donated $172,050 out of a gross income of nearly $2.7 million to charity, about 6.5 percent. In terms of national averages, the Obamas were much more generous than the average American. The Bidens, on the other hand, donated $1,885 out of an adjusted gross income of $269,256. That's way less than 10 percent; in fact, it's less than 1 percent. In fact, it's considerably less than my wife and I (on far, far less income than the Bidens') listed on our 2008 returns.

The White House, in releasing the returns, commented that the Bidens' contributions listed on their returns do not include all their charitable contributions, citing donations to church as not included in the returns. Huh? Do you mean the vice president is making charitable donations but not deducting them from his taxes? What would prompt him to do that?

Charitable donations by presidents and presidential candidates have disappointed me for decades. Ronald Reagan's contributions were stingy, as were the Clintons, if memory serves. The last time I recall being impressed by a president's charity was during the Carter years. Jimmy Carter, regardless of what else you might say, is a man who lived his faith.

Does charity matter? I think it says something about character. I know people with low income, perhaps poverty level, who are quite generous in their charity. We all know others, such as Joe and Jill Biden, who give minuscule shares of their blessings to charity. Charity is an obligation in my view and in the view of the world's great religions. Some years ago, when I was running a newsroom, I urged my colleagues to sign up for United Way payroll deductions. Despite a pay freeze that had eliminated pay raises at the newspaper for the past couple of years, I told them in an e-mail that we were far better off than those helped by the United Way and, despite our own fiscal worries, we could afford to help others immeasurably worse off than we were. I don't know whether my appeal improved the newspaper's embarrassingly low participation in United Way, but I know it expressed a sincere conviction.

If Joe Biden truly believes in helping the unfortunate, it should show in his tax return.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The answer, as usual, is 'no'

I was attending to my daily responsibility of walking the dog Wednesday when I came upon a friend who was also out for a walk. As many conversations have lately, ours came to the question of "Have you found a job yet?" The answer, from someone out walking a dog in the middle of the day, was pretty obvious: "No."
To my knowledge, none of my laid-off former colleagues have found work, either. Although I have diligently scanned employment web sites, attempted to network with people who might have inside information on job opportunities and filled out numerous (and often tedious) job applications, I've had no luck. I'm sure my former colleagues have worked as hard as I at finding employment.
It's depressing and disappointing. It's also increasingly common. Many thousands of former reporters, editors and other journalists have been dumped by their panicked employers, whose advertising revenue has plummeted. There are few opportunities for workers with our skill sets. Millions of workers across the country are unemployed, from assembly line workers in once-dominant industries to bankers and others in the collapsed financial industry. And while there are glimmers of an economic recovery, we all know that job creation lags in a recovery. Even if the economy gets healthy before year-end, it's unlikely that much new hiring will take place for months longer. Even government employment, once a haven in recessionary times, looks uninviting. Local and state governments are imposing hiring freezes or laying off workers.
Digging America out of this recession will not be easy. Even if the mortgage/lending crisis abates and consumer spending expands, placing the millions of former workers back into jobs will be difficult. Getting over the hump of disappointments and loss of self-esteem and personal purpose will be difficult for each of the millions of laid off workers, once they find a new job.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Get out and enjoy the colors

Take a look around, but do it quickly. Eastern North Carolina is at the peak of its spring beauty. The azaleas and dogwoods are in full flower. Enjoy them now before they're gone.
People take driving tours in December to check out the Christmas light displays. They should take a tour now to check out the dogwoods and azaleas that are in so many front yards all around town. Some of the mature azaleas are as tall as my head and are festooned with such bright colors that they dazzle the eyes. The dogwood blooms will soon fade to greenery, but now they give soft white or pink glows to the neighborhood. Better than a driving tour, take a walk, as I have done on recent days. Although today is cloudy with rain predicted, the azaleas and dogwoods still shine in the shadows, and a leisurely stroll allows time to truly enjoy the colorful blossoms against the newly greening lawns.
At this time of year, every azalea-clad town looks better than at any other time. Enjoy it while you can!

Protesters shamefully shut down speech

Shameful! The university that 45 years ago defied an unconstitutional infringement of free speech has now allowed the silencing of a former congressman who had dared to discuss his opposition to state and federal legislation granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. Former presidential candidate Tom Tancredo had been invited to speak in a small auditorium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but protesters first drowned him out and stretched a protest banner ("No one is illegal") in front of him and then broke out a window in the Bingham Hall auditorium. Campus police determined the violence and destruction of public property to warrant clearing the auditorium.
When the state legislature in 1963 passed the Speaker Ban Law, prohibiting any member of the Communist Party or anyone who had exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination from speaking on university property, students and faculty rose up in protest against the restrictions on free speech. A communist speaker who had been barred from campus set up a microphone on the Franklin Street sidewalk and had his say before a respectful audience of students and faculty. After negative court rulings and the threat of loss of the university's accreditation, the legislature repealed the law.
A generation later, protesters shouted down Tancredo who, despite his extreme views about illegal immigration, was calm, polite and rational. His opinions were the same ones he had expressed in last year's Republican presidential debates, but at Chapel Hill he was shouted down, often profanely, by those accusing him of "hate speech." After campus police hustled the invited speaker out of the building, according to the News and Observer, about 200 protesters gathered outside and chanted, "We shut him down; no racists in our town" and "Yes, racists, we will fight, we know where you sleep at night."
If that chant doesn't scare you, it should. It's a clear threat to anyone who disagrees with the protesters. Accusing Tancredo of "hate speech" also should give you pause. At a time when the state legislature is considering criminalizing "bullying" by public school students and the state university system is pondering punishment for "hate speech," Tancredo's reception shows just how broadly "hate speech" can be defined. Any opinion with which you disagree can be called "hate speech." Tancredo did not express hatred of anyone, nor did he utter racially discriminatory opinions. His position has been that the United States should enforce its immigration laws and squelch any policies that undermine those laws. But the shouting, stomping, window-breaking protesters remind him, "we know where you sleep at night." I would take that as a threat of more violence, perhaps even murder.
The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech does not categorize speech as "good" or "bad," as "loving" or "hateful." It guarantees free speech, the freedom to express opinions, even unpopular ones. Tuesday night's shouting-down of Tancredo is a shameful event anywhere, but especially on a university campus where, once, unpopular free speech was defended.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A retirement announcement, finally

District Attorney Howard Boney, who has been in charge of prosecutions in Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties for 30 years, is going to retire. Hallelujah! Boney, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Frank Brown (who moved up to a judgeship), might be former Gov. Jim Hunt's worst appointment.
Not that you'd know that by his success at the ballot box. Boney cruised to re-election every four years, often with no opposition. While other judicial districts have featured lively, hard-fought elections for district attorney, Boney was never seriously challenged. Occasionally, an ambitious young attorney would test the waters but would back away. Observers suspected that Boney made sure that any criminal defense attorneys who dared to challenge him would find their ability to make a living sharply curtailed. District attorneys in North Carolina set the court calendar and can decide pretty much arbitrarily whether charges should be reduced or dropped.
In 1984, Boney decided he was ready to leap to the big time and announced that he would run for attorney general. He held an announcement at the Angus Barn in Raleigh and invited the press. I sent a reporter to cover the event, and she returned with her eyes glazed. This guy thinks he should be running law enforcement in North Carolina? A few days later, the Tarboro newspaper took a look at Boney's wife's divorce filing, in which she characterized him as a womanizer. The spicy details kicked the air out of Boney's balloon.
But his scuttled foray into statewide politics didn't hurt his electability in the 7th Judicial District. He kept getting re-elected, despite a very low-profile persona. He rarely prosecuted cases himself, and crime reporters quickly learned that it was useless to try to get a quote from Boney. He was almost never available.
Boney made one more appearance in the news several years ago when he landed in a Tarboro hospital after a traffic accident. He was the passenger in a car driven by another court official when the car went off the road and crashed. The driver was charged with DWI and, if memory serves, had a blood alcohol content in the 0.20s. The joke around the newsroom at the time was that if the "designated driver" was that drunk, imagine what the passenger's blood alcohol must have been. Boney left word at the hospital that no information on his condition was to be released to the public.
Many Wilson residents will associate Boney with the Brittany Willis murder case. Two years after the murder, one of the suspects was still sitting in Wilson County jail awaiting trial. Such a long delay was not unheard of during Boney's tenure, but the state NAACP and others brought pressure on Boney to turn the case over to the attorney general, which he finally agreed to do. The case had become too hot for Boney, and the long delays in the case could not be justifiably explained away.
A couple of years ago Boney announced he was being treated for some health problems. If his retirement plans are predicated on ill health, he has my sympathy, but I'll still be glad to see him retire.
When Gov. Bev Perdue appoints a replacement for Boney, it will be a new day in 7th Judicial District prosecutions. If Perdue chooses wisely, it could be a brighter day for criminal justice.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Amazing rescue in a difficult situation

The bold and dramatic rescue of U.S. merchant ship Capt. Richard Phillips Sunday brings an extraordinary end to an international crime that has become far too ordinary. Navy SEAL snipers picked off three pirates who were holding Phillips in a lifeboat being towed by the USS Bainbridge. The Bainbridge's captain, determining Phillips' life to be in imminent danger from the pirates aiming AK-47 assault rifles at him, ordered the snipers to pick off the pirates. President Obama had approved the action if it became necessary.
Consider the difficulty of those three shots: The snipers were firing from a rolling ship in heavy seas, aiming at men about 100 feet away in a small boat bobbing on the waves. They had to perfectly time their shots to the rise and fall of their own ship and the rise and fall of the small boat, and they had to synchronize their shots so that all three pirates would be hit simultaneously so that no pirate could shoot Phillips in retaliation. A fourth pirate, who was engaged in negotiations over the piracy of the Maersk Alabama, is in U.S. custody.
Last week's seizure of the Maersk Alabama is merely the latest episode in an epidemic of piracy off the coast of Somalia, which has been a lawless country since the early 1990s. Merchant ships and private vessels have been held for ransoms of millions of dollars. Piracy is driving the coastal economy of the region, and trading nations, including American, European and Asian powers, seem unable to do anything about the pirates, who are welcomed in Somali ports.
Sunday's U.S. actions, along with an earlier French commando rescue of a private yacht that had been hijacked, should mark the beginning of the end of this lawless piracy. The United States, which has a handful of ships patrolling off the Somali coast, has most of its naval assets tied down supplying and supporting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the United States and other world powers must take firm, coordinated action to end the pirates' rule of the high seas. The area where the pirates operate is a huge area, described as three times the size of Texas. A handful of pirates — just four captured the Maersk Alabama — operating off of small, speedy boats can seize multi-million-dollar cargo ships.
But if the United States could win the Battle of the North Atlantic at the beginning of World War II, escorting and protecting cargo ships against a determined onslaught of German submarines, it should be able to foil a few lightly armed Somali pirates. A real concerted effort will be necessary. Convoys, like those used in World War II, might be necessary. But the United States and other naval powers have the assets to patrol the Indian Ocean/Gulf of Aden area where the pirates operate. Combat ships can deploy fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aircraft to identify the pirates' small vessels and destroy them.
Fighting pirates is a dangerous business. A young United States sent its Navy to North Africa to fight two wars (1801-1805 and 1815) against the Barbary Pirates, who were disrupting international trade 200 years ago in the same way the Somali pirates are today. The May 1975 attempt to rescue the crew of the merchant ship Mayaguez, which had been seized by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, shows the hazards of combating piracy. Eighteen U.S. servicemen died in the attempt to retake the Mayaguez and rescue the crew, but the American crew had already been released before the rescue assault began.
Piracy can be a lucrative business when the pirates have a safe haven, as they do in Somalia. Ridding the Horn of Africa of piracy will take a coordinated effort by the international community, but failing to confront the pirates will only make matters worse.

Easter Monday is not a holiday

Easter Monday, which used to be a state holiday, arrives cool and cloud-masked after a glorious but slightly chilly Easter Sunday. At sunrise service, worshippers huddled and shivered in the faint light with a quarter moon gliding toward the western horizon. I wondered at the church organist's ability to keep her frigid fingers flexed and nimble on the electric keyboard that had been hauled outside for the service.
After a hearty breakfast in the church fellowship hall, my wife and I went home to read the paper and enjoy more coffee. Another joyful church service at 11 punctuated a day of quiet, sleepy reading, a brisk walk and gardening in the yard, where flowers and weeds are both springing to life. And, oh yes, I clicked on the television to see who won the Masters golf tournament, remembering that a year ago the final round of the Masters was the last time our television was turned on for nearly two months. Just nothing worth watching or other things to do.
Although Monday is no longer a state holiday, the city of Wilson has canceled garbage pickup, and many workers can't get used to the idea of a Friday holiday instead of a Monday holiday. Since the 1960s, most federal holidays, including President's Day, Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Holiday, fall on Mondays, giving federal workers a much-desired three-day weekend. But now Good Friday, which is not a federal holiday, is a state holiday.
Although I am neither trudging off to work nor savoring a three-day weekend on this Monday, I do have a long to-do list, including a job application to complete, some volunteer work for a nonprofit organization, errands to run and preparations to make. It's a Monday like most Mondays these past six months.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday 2009

It is Good Friday, and the forecast is for a warm spring day. Last night, my wife and I attended the somber Maundy Thursday service, receiving communion before the stripping of the altar and the covering of the sanctuary cross with a black shroud. The rubrics say the congregation "departs in silence," which we did, exiting into the cool dark night. Tonight, the Good Friday service will be conducted in mournful shadows.
This Holy Week, I've been reading Marcus Borg's "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time," an intriguing approach to the Bible that advocates seeing the Bible as largely metaphorical rather than historical (in the modern sense). Borg, who spoke last year in Barton College's Sprinkle Lecture series, distinguishes between what is actually true and what is factually true. Parables, allegories, poetry and fiction can be actually true; that is, they can convey lessons that are entirely true, without being factually true. When such literary devices contain such truth, it doesn't matter whether they are factually true. Was Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan based on an actual incident, on historical fact? It doesn't matter (and we have no reason to think it was) because the parable conveys the truth Jesus intended, the truthful answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Borg's approach renders irrelevant arguments over the six-day creation of the world or the biblical miracles. I had previously read Borg's "The Heart of Christianity," which has a similar theme. Whether you agree with him or not, Borg's perspective (he counts himself a Christian and sees Jesus of Nazareth as truly the son of God, though he has doubts about many of the supernatural feats the Gospels attribute to Jesus) is interesting and enlightening.
This Good Friday is also my mother's birthday. Had she lived, she would have been 91 today. She died three years ago the day after her birthday. I clearly recall her explanation, when I was 8 or 10 years old, why the day of Jesus' execution would be called "good." April 10 and April 11 shall never pass without my remembering her.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Internet can be a nasty place

There's a lot of nastiness out there, a relentless tide of vicious insults and negativity borne across cyberspace on the magic carpet of anonymity. The irrational anger this week prompted me to stop "following" a blog that had initially intrigued me a few weeks ago. A friend tipped me off to the McClatchy Watch blog, and I began following it. I read the e-mails and explanations for all the layoffs at McClatchy papers across the country and about the continuing fall of McClatchy stock, which had gone from more than $50 a share when the California company bought Knight-Ridder's newspaper chain in 2006 to less than 50 cents a share.
With thousands of layoffs in the company, I expected some anger and bitterness, but the most vindictive comments (nearly all anonymous) were not about newspaper layoffs but about alleged bias in news coverage. Comments accused the Miami Herald (a former Knight-Ridder flagship) of being a communist organ. Others accused newspapers in general of promoting a socialist or communist agenda. Several comments relished the thought that newspapers would go out of business, leaving thousands and thousands more journalists out of work.
The final straw, after I had tolerated these misinformed rants while seeking the occasional news about McClatchy papers, was an attack on an ad created by the N.C. Press Association. NCPA and its member papers (of which I used to be a part) have been waging a campaign against a bill in the General Assembly that would eliminate the requirement for public notices to be published in general circulation newspapers, allowing governments to post notices on web sites instead. The ad that McClatchy Watch found offensive depicted an older woman who complained that she didn't surf the net for notices about zoning or public meetings. She wanted the notices to remain in her newspaper, and she reminded legislators that she and her friends voted. The blog post ridiculed NCPA for stereotyping senior citizens, for attempting to hang onto profitable public notices and for standing in the way of progress.
I responded to the blog with a comment (using my Erstwhile Editor nom de guerre), saying that I thought the blogger was being too harsh. The ad was politically savvy because older Americans are more likely to vote, and it was only one of four ads NCPA had designed and the only one that addressed the older readers aspect.
Well! Anonymous commenters accused me of being a McClatchy toady, of owning worthless McClatchy stock, of discriminating against the elderly, of being stupid, of being part of the leftist conspiracy to overthrow America, of being part of the dead trees plutocracy, etc., etc. I could have responded that I own no McClatchy stock (and never did)  and never worked for a McClatchy newspaper, but what would be the point?
I just quit following the blog. A generation schooled on cable televisions screamfests have forgotten how to listen to other opinions and how to show respect to those who disagree with them. Political discourse may never recover.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Class sizes turn into state budget battle

The state Senate is challenging Gov. Beverly Perdue, the N.C. Association of Educators and conventional wisdom with  its budget bill. While closing a $3 billion hole in the state budget, Perdue increased state spending on education, and she pointedly said the state shouldn't save money by increasing class size. The Senate said "not so fast."
Increasing class size by just two students, to 20 children in kindergarten through third grade and to 22 students in fourth through 12th grade would save the state $320 million. Senate Democrats (in the same party as Perdue) decided that was a good way to save $320 million. The state has been reducing class size for more than a decade. Smaller classes were a favorite promise of Govs. Mike Easley and Jim Hunt. It seems reasonable that smaller classes would mean better learning because teachers could give each child more attention, but research shows that reducing class size has little impact on student achievement. The primary beneficiaries of smaller class sizes are teachers. Smaller classes require more teachers to teach them, so it's no surprise that the NCAE, which derives member income from teachers, strongly supports smaller classes. And NCAE has been a major supporter of Perdue.
Local school systems, on the other hand, have borne the burden of implementing reduced class sizes. The state provided additional funding for teachers but not additional funding for classrooms. So local school boards had to find the money to add onto schools, which might shift from 50 classrooms of 22 students each to 55 classrooms of 20 students each. Where are you going to put those extra classes? In a closet? In a corner of the gym? Or in a costly mobile unit?
If the Senate's plan to temporarily increase class sizes goes through, school superintendents won't be particularly relieved. They've already expanded facilities to accommodate the added classrooms as smaller class sizes were mandated over the past decade. The state will save on the salaries of  an estimated 6,200 teachers, but it's the local principals who'll have to tell teachers they're being laid off.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

UNC championship is a victory for many

If you're not a college basketball fan, you can skip this post, but I'm elated about UNC's NCAA championship last night. I've been cheering the Tar Heels for about 50 years, in good times and bad. I was overjoyed in 1982 when Dean Smith finally got the "can't win the big one" monkey off his back. I felt the same way in 2005 when Roy Williams got that same monkey off his back after turning a group of disgruntled, self-centered boys into a team.
This year's championship was special, too, not for the coach, who had the team extremely well-prepared for the final game, but for the players who dedicated themselves to winning the national championship that embarrassingly eluded them last year. Monday night vindicated Tyler Hansbrough's decision to return for his senior year, even though he could have been an instant millionaire as a first-round draft pick last year. Danny Green also decided to come back after flirting with the NBA, as did juniors Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. I've rarely seen a happier young man than Hansbrough was as the seconds ticked down last night. Lawson's and Ellington's tournament performances certainly boosted their draft standing.
I hope Hansbrough, last year's Player of the Year, will be like Peyton Manning, who chose to put off a pro career to return for his senior year of college. After becoming an All-Pro NFL quarterback, Manning made a commercial for the NCAA explaining how much that final year of college meant to him and encouraging students to remain in school. Hansbrough might not become the professional star that Manning has been, but I think he'll be a reliable, journeyman player in the NBA. His determination alone will take him that far.
One more thing about last night's championship: It proved to me the value of print. Although I watched every minute of the game last night, I couldn't wait to sit down with this morning's paper (thank you, News & Observer, for moving back your deadline to get the complete game package into the edition sent to Wilson) to read every detail. That is where print newspapers excel. They provide information, detail and insight that you don't catch as you watch the game on TV or listen to play-by-play on the radio. And they do it without interrupting to promote tomorrow night's TV show, which the TV announcers do continually and maddeningly.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Computer glitch brings household to a halt

A simple glitch late Saturday afternoon almost brought our household to a grinding halt. My wife noticed that our Internet connection was down. No e-mail. No Web surfing. No connection to the "outside world" — unless you count the telephone and cable television, which we weren't. She walked her way through the diagnostics to check the computer's Internet connection to no avail. I also checked the connection without finding the problem, and I went upstairs to check the other computer to see if it might still be connected. It wasn't, so the problem was not just in our "main" computer but had to be in the cable modem or the wireless router that kept our two household computers, plus my wife's work laptop that she uses more and more often at night to complete job-related tasks, connected to the world.
With a nice dinner with our son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren and a national basketball semi-final game awaiting us, we decided to wait until morning to try to fix our computer problem. But it nagged at me through the night and was among my first thoughts on Sunday morning. We keep our downstairs computer going 24/7. No one walks past the computer (in a high-traffic corner) without checking to see if any e-mail has arrived. We habitually check the weather (our browser's home page), and my wife will check for any activity on her social networking site. I check for any comments posted to this blog several times a day. And I do nearly daily searches of job listing in my search for a new career.
We're hooked on high-speed Internet. We might be able to give up cable TV (now that college basketball season is nearly over and college football hasn't begun). We might even get by without a land-line telephone. I might even give up my cell phone. But not high-speed Internet. We use it to send and receive photos, to communicate with children and other relatives in distant locales. When we can't remember something or don't know the answer or want to know more about anything, we "google it." And there are a gazillion YouTube videos I haven't seen yet (I was just watching the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Unsquare Dance").
Our computers have been reliable. We bought a cast-off Macintosh from my newspaper employer 10 or 12 years ago and have been Mac people since then (though my wife works in Windows at her job). The computer on which this is being written is 7 or 8 years old and has never given us any trouble. We bought our "new" computer about five years ago to get the new features (a DVD burner and faster processor) that we wanted. I added a wireless card to this computer and bought a wireless router so that we could have Internet access on both computers. It's not unusual to find both of us on the Internet at the same time. 
Sunday morning I sat down at the computer and called our Internet provider. Because it was before 7 a.m., I was quickly connected to a tech person, who began walking me through the diagnostics. As I was about to follow her directive to restart the wireless router, I found the trouble: The ethernet cable from the modem to the router had come loose. Although I had checked the connection before, the looseness had gone unnoticed. I reseated the cable. Problem solved.
We are connected again. Hallelujah!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Electric cities seek federal relief

Eastern North Carolina's vexing burden of high utility rates is finally getting some federal attention. U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson has vowed to try to give some relief to customers of North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency cities, who are paying several cents per kilowatt more than customers of Progress Energy or Duke Energy. It won't be an easy fix.
The problem goes back about 30 years, to the late 1970s, when both Duke Power and Carolina Power and Light sought financing to build new power plants to meet soaring demand for electricity. At the same time, municipalities selling electricity were looking for a reliable, economical source of electric power to resell to their customers. The result was two power agencies, NCEMPA and Power Agency 1. The two agencies pooled the electrical demand and financial resources of about 60 cities (32 in eastern North Carolina) to invest in new power plants being built by Duke and CP&L (now Progress Energy). The power agencies would receive the portion of power generated from the new plants equal to their share of ownership. Additional power would be sold at wholesale rates. Municipal officials expected to be able to sell electricity at a rate lower than CP&L. Wilson actually set its retail rate slightly lower than CP&L's for a brief time.
Two things went wrong: Interest rates hit a century high with the prime rate topping 20 percent at one point, and the Three Mile Island nuclear accident soured the public and the government on nuclear power. The high interest rates increased the financing costs for the municipalities, and the Three Mile Island incident brought new regulations for nuclear power plants, which sharply increased the costs of building the new plants CP&L and Duke were constructing.
The bottom line is a continuing NCEMPA debt of $2.5 billion some 30 years after the bonds were originally sold and retail electric rates that are significantly higher than those charged by the investor-owned companies. Compounded by some bad decisions and questionable spending by power agency officials and inattention by city officials, the high electric rates have sparked a rebellion by captive  customers.
The state considered a radical type of relief in the form of electricity deregulation in the late 1990s, but the failure of deregulation in California, where rates soared and shortages caused blackouts, put a stop to the deregulation fervor. The deregulation plan would have forced municipalities to sell their electric systems, but the cities strongly objected. A forced sale would have minimized the value of their assets (power lines, substations, poles, trucks, etc.) and would not have generated enough money to pay off the municipalities' debt. Cities who had pioneered municipal electric systems would have been left with a crushing debt and no means of paying it off, except for property taxes and water/sewer rates.
Cities who went into this venture 30 years ago in good faith have found themselves in a terrible dilemma. Paying off their debt forces them to maintain high electric rates, but the high rates cause residents to rebel and also hurts economic development.
The only short-term hope might be some form of federal relief. If that relief involves the sale of cities' electric assets, however, the cities will object. They want to keep their valuable electric systems. The only way to give both cities and customers the relief they want would be some form of federal program to reduce or eliminate the debt. If Congress can salvage banks and automakers, it's not too far-fetched to hope for relief for cities who made a bad bet 30 years ago.
That won't be easy to do, but at least NCEMPA cities and customers have the attention of Congress. That's a start.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Acquittals don't restore a reputation

Attorney General Eric Holder's decision this week to drop all charges against former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who had been convicted by a jury and subsequently lost his 2008 re-election bid, reminded me of the comment made in 1987 by former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan: "Which office do I go to (to) get my reputation back?" Donovan, Ronald Reagan's Labor secretary, was indicted on charges that he defrauded New York City while he was part-owner of a construction company before taking a public office. A Democratic prosecutor in New York brought charges against Donovan and others just before the 1984 election. When the case went to trial in 1987, the defense presented no witnesses, confident that the prosecution's weak case needed little rebuttal. The jury returned all not-guilty verdicts in short order. That's when Donovan made his iconic remark.
Holder's review of the conviction, which Steven's attorneys had appealed, discovered numerous instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including failure to inform defense attorneys of an exculpatory interview with Stevens' primary accuser. The trial judge had admonished the prosecutors and threatened to declare a mistrial because prosecutors had withheld evidence. Stevens only narrowly lost his re-election bid and almost assuredly would have won had it not been for the highly publicized conviction.
Lest anyone think the prosecution was politically motivated, Republican Stevens was charged by a Republican U.S. attorney.
A Republican Party official has called on Stevens' successor to resign from the seat he won dishonorably (though not dishonestly) because of the misconduct  of Republican prosecutors. That's not going to happen, but one could hardly blame Stevens for quoting Ray Donovan's remarks from 22 years before.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

District of Columbia grabs for political power

The new Democratic Congress seems hell-bent on granting a congressional seat to the District of Columbia, no matter what the Constitution says. A bill before Congress would add a 436th seat to the U.S. House, the first time since 1911 that the number of House seats has been altered (the original House had 65 representatives). Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a reconsideration of an original Justice Department analysis that found the bill unconstitutional.
The problem with this legislation, and of other, similar legislation over the years, is that the Constitution limits representation in Congress to the states. The District of Columbia is not a state; therefore, it cannot have a voting representative in the House, nor can it have two senators, as all states are allowed. And don't doubt that, if this bill passes, Senate representation will not be far behind. Previously, advocates have proposed statehood for the District of Columbia, but it is obvious that statehood for a city of a few square miles was never envisioned by the Constitution.
The Constitution, in Article I, clearly states that "the House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen ... by the people of the several states" and members shall be "an inhabitant of the state in which he shall be chosen." The Constitution also refers to vacancies "in the representation from any state." "State ... state ... state" — it's abundantly clear that the Founding Fathers were establishing a legislature composed of representatives from the states.
In Section 8 of Article I, the Constitution gives Congress "exclusive" authority over a "district" that might be ceded by the states for a seat of government. This is an area ceded by the states but is not, by definition, a state. It's a district.
But what of the civil rights of residents of D.C.? Some proclaim that they are suffering "taxation without representation." That is only partially true. Since 1960, D.C. residents have counted in presidential elections, and they have had a non-voting representative in the U.S. House for decades. But their voting power is less than that of citizens of the states.
There's a simple solution for this slight, however. Congress can exercise its exclusive authority to shrink the size of the District of Columbia, to limit this seat of government to no more than the Capitol and its accessory structures, the Supreme Court building, the White House and executive offices, the National Mall and the national museums and monuments nearby, and the Executive Branch buildings and offices. The remainder of the district could be returned to Maryland, which ceded it to the federal government 200 years ago. Virginia had given a similar size parcel to the feds at the same time but took it (present-day Arlington) back when the government built the Capitol, White House and other structures on the Maryland side of the Potomac. As residents of Maryland, the former D.C. residents would have full voting rights, a voting representative in the House and two U.S. senators. Problem solved.
But this controversy is not really about civil rights, it's about political power. Adding a new reliably Democratic representative to the House (and eventually two new Democrats to the U.S. Senate) would give Democrats greater power on Capitol Hill. And let's not let the Constitution get in the way of a grab for political power.

Job search might clash with involvement

This morning, I'm headed out for a meeting of a local charitable organization. Next week, I'll have a lunch meeting with another charity and an evening meeting of a church committee. In between, I'll be job hunting and filling out applications for any openings I might find. Although I am submitting applications for jobs within a 50-mile radius of Wilson, I am concerned about what a job in another city and a long commute would mean to my civic involvement.
Soon after I was laid off last fall, my wife and I concluded that we would stay in Wilson, meaning I would search for jobs only within Wilson or within a reasonable commuting distance. But commuting to another city or taking a job that allowed no flexibility would mean that I could no longer be involved in the charitable organizations to which I've given my time over the past several years.
When I first entered journalism, ethics and behavior codes were as prevalent in discussions as layoffs are now. At the time, conduct codes prevented a reporter from accepting a rose from the garden of a man she was interviewing. Newspaper editors were urged to seal themselves off from civic involvement so as to prevent any bias, actual or perceived, in news coverage. So I refrained from joining charitable organizations' boards or even civic clubs. Over the years, I and some of the navel-gazing philosophers of the business concluded that sealing oneself off from the community made it made it difficult to cover the news of that community. I eased into involvement in a few charities, such as Red Cross and United Way. More recently, I have been involved in other charities.
When I left the newspaper business, thinking I'd never return, I realized that I might have no more restrictions on being involved in the charities and nonprofits I  believed in. But as my job search has faltered, I now realize that a new job might mean the end of my involvement in all those organizations that meet at lunch or anytime during the normal work day.
Although I'll regret giving up that involvement, that contribution to the community to which I've hitched my future, a job is a job, and a job is increasingly hard to find.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Blossoms herald arrival of spring

It's official. Spring has arrived in eastern North Carolina. Forget the calendar. I'm not referring to the Spring Equinox, which came almost two weeks ago, or to Good Friday, a traditional green light for planting flowers and vegetables, which is more than a week away. Around here, the heralds of spring are the azaleas and the dogwoods. I'm happy to report that both are proclaiming the arrival of spring.
The dogwood, North Carolina's state flower, is a beloved enhancement to any lawn or forest. The dainty tree with its colorful flowers and deep red fall colors stands out in the spring and in the autumn. What's not to love?
Azaleas, properly cared for, can produce banks of color in an extraordinary spectrum of hues from white to dark red. In every home my wife and I have ever owned (not counting that second-floor condo we lived in for a couple of years), we've had azaleas. Some were legacies from other owners, big, rounded, fully mature bushes that demanded little care. Others were scrawny new plantings we brought home and planted, never sure whether they would produce hundreds of delicate, small flowers or scores of the much bigger, older variety. In the South, a house just isn't a home without a few azaleas.
Dozens of cities across the South have azalea festivals and dogwood festivals, linking festivities to the uncertain blooming of these flowers. Golf's Masters tournament may be the tour's most popular event because of the beautiful azaleas that line the fairways in Augusta and brighten every fan's television screen.
Like other things that can never last, dogwood blooms and azalea blossoms are treasured because they are so ephemeral, producing flowers that last only a week or two (I haven't yet invested in Encore azaleas, which bloom twice a year). So this week, and maybe the next, take a stroll around the neighborhood and soak up the colors of springtime.
Poet T.S. Eliot proclaimed April "the cruelest month." He must not have had enough azaleas and dogwoods around to cheer him up.