Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Miracles still happen in Raleigh

You can count this as a minor miracle: The North Carolina General Assembly has passed a budget before the new fiscal year begins. That has not happened since 2003. Gov. Bev Perdue signed the budget bill with hours remaining before the spending plan would take effect.

Despite an $800 million shortfall in revenues, legislators managed to pass a budget without major tax increases and without some of the dire scenarios predicted as negotiations percolated in legislative offices. There will be cutbacks all around. Public schools will be a little tighter. The UNC system will be trimmed, but not so much that it will have to leave buildings vacant. Out-of-state scholarship athletes will once again pay out-of-state tuition, or have it paid by boosters. Four million dollars in highway repairs will be postponed. And mental health services and in-home care will see reductions that will affect the quality of life and health of clients and patients.

Meanwhile, state ferries will get a big boost, adding $11 million in funding. To partly offset this increase, road repairs will be cut $4 million. I'm old enough that I've driven a lot of N.C. highways and roads; I've even taken rides on a state ferry. But in my 40-plus years of driving, my ratio of highway driving miles to ferry sailing miles is probably in the range of 200,000 to one. Some North Carolinians will have an even more skewed ratio. So why does North Carolina increase funding for ferries while reducing funding for roads? It has to be political clout. Outer banks residents have to have ferries, and the Coast Guard has recently increased regulatory costs for ferries, but ferry users could easily pay more of the cost of operating ferries. That cost now is almost entirely borne by taxpayers, most of whom rarely if ever take a ferry cruise.

Anomalies such as this will continue until North Carolina revamps the budget system, including state taxes. North Carolina needs a reliable means of earning revenue, and taxpayers want rational regulations. Legislators and legislative staff need to examine what this state really needs, and then appropriate that money, without any extras for local museums, redundant highways or unnecessary state employees. The state will never get out of budget crisis mode until genuine controls on spending and political ambitions are put into place.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Relief from heat needs to include rain

The cooler temperatures — all the way down into the 80s — promised for tomorrow will be welcome, but they won't fix the problem that is looming worse than the heat: a lack of rain. The weather radar the past couple of evenings has shown thick, rain-bearing clouds passing to the south of us but little or no rain falling here. A brief shower wet the leaves on trees and lawns but did nothing to replenish the soil.

On a trip through some of the remaining farmland in Wilson County today, I saw green fields of tobacco, corn, cotton and soybeans panting for rain. The local dams I have passed the last few days are not overflowing with water as they had been just weeks earlier, when a plenitude of water had soaked the soil and filled streams to overflowing through most of the spring. But this June we are bidding farewell to on Wednesday has been unseasonably hot not just for a day or two but for days and weeks on end. The "dog days" of summer are upon us already, more than a month too soon.

What these higher temperatures will mean for the summer and fall cannot be known, but many weather watchers are saying this month's heat and the resulting warmer ocean temperatures could mean a large number of especially strong hurricanes. These storms gain strength from warm water, and there seems to be plenty of that this year.

We are only a couple of years removed from one of the worst droughts in this state's memory. Rocky Mount's Tar River Reservoir dipped so low that Rocky Mount made a deal to buy water from Wilson. Raleigh, Durham and other cities began enforcing strict water usage rules. Atlanta's main reservoir turned into a mud puddle, causing near-panic in Georgia. That sort of crisis could return unless this hot, dry spell dissipates and we get some regular, soaking rains. At risk are gardens and lawns and the patience of gardeners who stand guard over their beloved plants but can't control the weather. July and August are usually hot, dry months. If this historical pattern continues this year, by September, we'll be deep in drought and, perhaps, hoping for a hurricane — just a little one — for relief.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hymns for a funeral

In church yesterday, I began thinking again about funeral hymns and the singing I'd like to "see me off." Here's one, a great favorite of mine and wonderfully appropriate for funerals. The video is from an All Saints Sunday at a Methodist Church in Arlington, Va.

The hymn should be sung by the congregation, all eight (or however many) verses. Other congregational hymn: "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "Immortal, Invisible" (with the lyrics "we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, we wither and perish but naught changeth thee."

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A little fiction

I haven't been able to interest any literary agents in a novel about the decline of newspapers, epitomized by a small N.C. daily that is sold abruptly out of family ownership and whose new publisher is entranced by consultants. Here is Chapter 27 of a 70,000-word novel:

The next Thursday, after three days of building bolder and bolder designs and scattering page proofs all over the desk he was using, Galen Gainey had the new Style page design finished. Style Editor Jill Fowler got a private audience with Gainey in the conference room to see his finished product.

He sat at the conference room table, which was littered with proof sheets lying beneath and around his MacBook laptop. As he was every time she had seen him, Gainey was wearing a vest. This one was gray with a chalk stripe. It obviously belonged to a three-piece suit, but Gainey was wearing tan dungarees and a burgundy shirt with it. His long shirt sleeves were rolled up above his wrists, and his glasses dangled low on his nose.

He greeted her warmly when she came in and smiled broadly. He invited her to sit close beside him so he could show her the page proofs while both could also look at his laptop’s screen.

She couldn’t believe the full-color proof when he showed it to her. The page was dominated by a four-column color photo of a painting. It was placed squarely in the center of the page with type running around all four sides, coming down the far left column, up to the top of the page and jumping across the photo to the bottom of the page and up again. The type continued all the way to the far right-hand column and ended at the bottom right corner of the page. A piece of artwork was at the top of the page, a color drawing of a beer tap, turned on and spewing out the type that flowed down the left-hand column. Jill had to admit that the type flowing out of the tap looked really cool. Incorporated into the beer tap, a label on the tap’s handle, were the words, in bright purple, “ON TAP.”

Jill realized that the river of type was her entertainment calendar, a weekly listing of plays, concerts, gallery exhibits and other events in the broadly defined category of entertainment. She ran it each Thursday. There were no news stories on the page and just that one huge, centered picture. The events were classified by date, and the type was in various colors — red, blue, green, gold, orange and pink.

“This is ... this is my Thursday arts and entertainment page?”

“No. This is your daily page. Same look every day.”

“This is my regular Style page?”

“I got rid of Style. Too cliché. Too plutocratic.

“Here’s the concept: Young people — your target audience, remember? — are interested in what can they do. You’ve been running daily themed pages, am I right?”

“Yes. Weddings and engagements on Monday, health on Tuesday, family on Wednesday, arts on Thursday, home on Friday and a weekly feature on Saturday.”

“That’s all wrong. That’s crap. The only people who read weddings and engagements are the families of the couples. Nothing there to interest anyone else. Young people aren’t interested in health stories; they’re healthy; they think they’re going to live forever. Family? Not everybody has warm fuzzies about their families, so that’s a negative. Arts might be fine for aristocrats, but not for our target audience. And home? Most folks in our target audience are living in an apartment, or they’ve moved back in with mom and dad; they don’t care about decorating and landscaping. They can’t even clean up their own bedroom. As for our Saturday feature, we can put that inside because on the front we’re going to give people what they want — a list of places to go, things to do, sights to see, all that. We’re going to make this section useful for a change.”

“You’re going to run this every day?”

“No. You are. Let me show you how this works. It’s ingenious. See we have all your events color coded: Green is nightlife — bars, restaurants, etc. Red is concerts. Blue is stage plays. Orange is movies. Gold is miscellaneous events, like street festivals or celebrations, and pink is causes, such as a Red Cross blood drive or an AIDS screening or a food giveaway. See, young people not only want to be entertained, they also want to be involved. This gives them a listing of how to get involved.”

Jill looked for a color key, something that explained what each typeface color signified. She found none. “I don’t see a key to these colors you’ve got. How will readers know the key?”

“They’ll figure it out. You have to give readers credit for some intelligence. It’s obvious; see Mick’s is in green, and everyone knows it’s a pub. The Jimmy Buffett concert is in red because it’s a ... concert! Simple as that. They’ll figure it out.”

“But do you realize that we’ll have a hard time filling this much space every single day? There’s just not that much going on in this area, especially during some weeks, such as holidays or the first of the year. There’s just not that much going on.”

“Of course there is. You’ll just have to work harder at collecting the information, and you’ll have to reach out a little farther to include more distant events.”

“That picture. Where is that from?”

“That’s an exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.”

“But that’s 60 miles from here.”

“Which means you can get there in an hour and take in a nice new art exhibit. Besides, it was the only good photograph you gave me. I would have preferred a concert picture or a bar shot, but you didn’t have any available.”

“I had used it as a thumbnail in last week’s listing. Are we going to run the same photo every day?”

“Oh no. Of course not. The photo will change every day, and the listings will be updated every day.”

“But we don’t get that many photos. You’re talking about six pictures a week, twenty-four or more a month. We probably don’t get more than five or six a month.”

“Then you’ll just have to request more. Or you’ll have to assign your alleged photographer to shoot some for you. That’s not a big deal.”

“You’ve got — what? — eighty or ninety inches of listings here. We usually don’t have more than twelve to fifteen inches most weeks, sometimes as much as twenty-five or thirty, but never that much.”

“As I said, you’ll have to spread your perimeter and include events from farther afield. Research shows that young people are willing to drive a long way to go to a concert or to hear a band.”

“I don’t know if we could find that many events if we included everything in the state. Where did you get all these listings?”

“Oh, they’re just dummy listings. I made them up for visual effect, see? But you’ll have time to track down the listings and get them in the paper.”

“And they’re going to change every day?”

“Well, of course you’ll want to update them every day. You don’t want to give your readers yesterday’s events.”

“I don’t see ‘Style’ here anywhere.”

“As I said, ‘Style’ is not a good word with our target audience. Your new section is ‘On Tap,’ just as it says here. Don’t you just love my art work on that beer tap?”

She looked at him blankly, hoping that he was joking. He stared right back at her, until she looked back at the proof. “I don’t see a date on here. Don’t we need a date on the page?”

“Oh, it’s right here,” he said, pointing to type set into the edge of the handle of the beer tap. Sure enough, it was there: “September 1, 2006.”

“What about everything we’ve been putting on our fronts?”

“You’ll want to talk to Greg about that. I suspect that a lot of it, you’ll just eliminate altogether. But what you do continue will go inside. With the higher readership I’m expecting from this section front, I think you’ll find your inside readership will increase also. It’s a win-win all around!”

Gainey was willing to show her more of his pages, which were all the same except for the one big, centered photograph, but Jill had seen enough. “So this is it? This is what we’ll be doing in my department? Greg and Mr. Wright have signed off on this?”

“They gave me carte blanche, so yes, they’ve signed off on it.”

“When does this start?”

“I’ve still got a few more pages to design. I need to do an editorial page, a Sports front and a Sports scoreboard page and then I think I’m done. We’ll launch the redesign all at once, so readers will have a completely new, fresh newspaper. The Dispatch will never be thought of as that stodgy old paper again. We’re going to make some eyes pop!”

“But when?”

“Oh, I think we’re talking at least another month. Maybe two months. October first, November first, somewhere along in there. We’ll have a big launch party, like in Hollywood, and introduce the new product to readers. I’ll see if Mr. Wright will spring for lunch for all the employees.”

Jill went back to her department and sat, shell-shocked, at her desk. She looked at the “Style” logo on the door and contemplated having new business cards made proclaiming her as the On Tap Editor. “Oh my God!” she muttered and shook her head.

Doug Reason saw Jill going back into her office and walked over to ask how the redesign went. He had just stuck his head inside her door, seeing the anguish on her face, when his attention was directed elsewhere.

“What the hell is going on around here?” Billy Wright was screaming — screaming — loud enough to be heard out on the street as he strode across the newsroom like a fullback headed for the defensive line, his arms pumping at his sides as he held a crumpled copy of a newspaper in his right hand. “Greg! What the hell is going on here?”

Pilcher walked to the door of his office, where Wright had just arrived, still holding the remote for the television in his left hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Wrong? Have you looked at the editorial page today? Have you?”

Sheepishly, Pilcher wondered whether a yes or a no would be the worse answer, so he stood there mute while Wright waved the paper in front of him.

“Look at this! Just look at it.” He was pointing to the masthead that topped the editorial page. On it was The Dispatch logo, the date, the names of the publisher, editor and city editor, the paper’s street address, e-mail address and telephone number, and a slogan that had been part of the page for as long as anyone could remember: “Standing Up For Freedom Since 1899.” Edgar’s and Frank’s father had coined the slogan in the late 1940s or early 1950s. No one could remember just when. Originally, it had been part of the front-page nameplate, but Edgar managed to move it inside to the editorial page masthead in the 1980s — a change that gratified Dale Weaver, who had thought since the day he interviewed with the paper that the slogan was hokey.

“Read that!” Wright commanded Pilcher as he stabbed at the slogan just below the words The Dispatch. “Just read it.”

Greg started reading it aloud but he stopped after one word. “Competence ... ,” he said and went silent. It didn’t say “Standing Up For Freedom since 1999.” It said, “Competence is Not a Requirement.” Greg looked around the newsroom for an explanation, but everyone, including Doug, who had rushed back to his own desk and grabbed today’s paper off of it, was looking for the editorial page masthead. Almost simultaneously, they all found what had turned Mr. Wright’s face so red. There were a few chuckles but more moans and groans. Greg’s face reshaped into an awkward grin, like a child caught stealing candy.

“Who lays out this page?” Wright demanded of Pilcher.

“I do,” Joe Lackey said, raising his hand and standing up at his desk to face in Wright’s direction. “But I never saw this. You ... you just don’t pay attention to static elements that are on the template. You assume they’re right.”

“Well, you assumed wrong! Are you saying you didn’t put this ridiculous slogan on this page?”

“No ... I only took the template that was in the system. I never changed anything in the masthead. I’m sorry. I should’ve noticed, but you just don’t pay any attention to static elements that are the same day after day.”

“Is this the first edition with this on it?” Pilcher asked, worried that the answer might be more bad news.

“No. I’ve gone back more than a week, and every damned paper has got this ‘Competence is Not a Requirement’ on it. A week! How does something like that go on and nobody sees it?”

“I’ll get to the bottom of this, Boss. This won’t go unpunished,” Greg said.

“I just checked, Mr. Wright,” Joe said, seated at his terminal again. “That slogan is on the template, and the template was last changed on the twenty-eighth. It looks like the new slogan has been on there since then.”

“Who changed the template?”

“The system doesn’t tell us that, just the date it was changed. There are, I don’t know, six or seven people with authority to alter templates, but it’s not something that gets done very much.”

“The twenty-eighth? That’s ... that’s ... eleven issues? How does something like this get past everybody?”

“How did you catch it?” Greg asked.
“I got a call from a reader a few minutes ago.”

“We’ll find the responsible party,” Pilcher assured Wright, “and we’ll make sure he regrets it. I think we can pursue legal damages.”

“Just make sure you get that goddamn slogan fixed. If it goes in one more edition, you’re all fired,” Wright said, stalking out of the newsroom the same way he entered.

Everyone sat silently for a moment, as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. Slowly, quietly, Joe Lackey walked over to Doug’s desk. “I’m sorry I didn’t catch it,” he said, “but I swear I did not change that template. I had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

“The scary part is that ‘Competence is Not a Requirement’ was printed for nearly two full weeks before anyone noticed,” Doug said. “Did you see the look on Greg’s face?”

Joe stifled a snicker. “You’ve got to believe me: I did not do this.”

“I believe you. You’re not the type. Any ideas who might have?”

“Needless to say, it’s an ‘inside’ job. You’ve got template authority; so do Jill and Tom and Greg ... and probably some others. But anyone could log in as any of us and get access to the templates, so the suspicion can’t be just on us. Anyone with just a minimal understanding of Quark — or not — could do it.”

Joe thought for a minute, then added sheepishly, “I guess I should add a confession here. You know how Greg insists on seeing my page proofs before I send a page back?”

“Yeah. He does the same thing to me.”

“Well, I had suspected for some time that he wasn’t really catching any errors on the page. He never pointed out any errors; he just wanted to rearrange the stories or change a picture. Well, I decided to test him. I started putting deliberate errors on the page — misspellings and transposed letters in headlines — to see if he’d catch them. He never did. I’d always correct the errors after he handed the proof back to me. None of the deliberate errors ever went to press, and my little test never had anything to do with this slogan change. I never changed anything on the template. Trust me on that.”

“I trust you, Joe. You know that.”

Doug thought for a moment and realized something. “Wouldn’t we be able to identify who changed the template if Greg hadn’t had the version history option removed from the system?”

“Yeah, we would. Or at least we’d know who the culprit logged in as, if that meant anything.”

“We’re not going to be much help to Greg’s investigation, I guess.”

“The big problem is, everyone here has a motive,” Joe said with a smile. “We all know the ‘new’ slogan is accurate.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Marshall wins but faces Burr next

Hand it to Elaine Marshall. She won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate by hard work and a solid record in elective office. In a few months we'll find out whether hard work and political experience are enough to unseat an incumbent Republican, Richard Burr.

Marshall got no respect from the Democratic establishment. The national party strategists didn't think she had what it takes to take on Burr. They tried to talk Bob Etheridge into the race (this was before he manhandled some rude questioners with a video camera on a Washington street), but he wasn't interested. Other "name" Democrats were reportedly asked to jump into the ring, too, but declined. Cal Cunningham, a former state senator with youthful good looks and a compelling history as an Iraq War veteran, got the national backing but finished second in the first primary. In Tuesday's primary, he was not able to turn the tables on Marshall, who used traditional political tactics to motivate and turn out voters in the low-turnout election.

Marshall has an impressive record. She cleaned up the Secretary of State's office when she took it over from Rufus Edmisten. She earned a reputation as a good administrator who ran a clean office and clean campaigns. And she even managed to toil onward in her campaign after the death of her husband, Bill Holdford of Wilson. But no one ever accused her of being dynamic, charismatic or a stem-winding speaker. She's an old-style politician who tends to win votes one at a time.

Interestingly enough, so is Burr. He's a low-key campaigner who is unassuming and not in the least "full of himself" as many politicians are. In the 30-plus years I covered political campaigns, I don't think I ever met a politician who traveled solo the way Burr did. Every candidate from gubernatorial and senatorial down to state House candidates all had a press secretary, a chief of staff, a driver, a strategist, or somebody traveling with them as they dropped in on key leaders, donors and news media. But Burr drove himself and was ready to answer questions without any whispers from any strategists or media handlers. Burr has not set the public opinion polls on fire, perhaps for that very reason. Democratic strategists see his mediocre approval ratings and think he's vulnerable, but he might just be too low key to register in polls taken a year before an election.

If Marshall loses to Burr, the national party strategists might tell N.C. Democratic primary voters, "We told you so (you shoulda voted for Cunningham)," but the problem might not be Marshall. It might be that Burr is a more formidable candidate than he appears from the Democratic side. He's a cautious, conservative candidate who is neither the darling of nor the enemy of the Tea Party wing. And he's a better campaigner than most people give him credit for — just like Marshall. Burr's secret weapon is that in this anti-incumbent year, it's better to be a Republican, the party that is not in charge of both the executive and the legislative branches of government. Working against him is the jinx attached to the seat he holds. No one has held the seat for more than one term since Sam Ervin retired. It's been an endless loop of six years for a Democrat, then six years for a Republican, then six years for a Democrats ... Burr has perhaps the best opportunity yet to end this rerun.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Goodbye to the longest day of the year

It's the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. At quarter to nine, there was enough light to see clearly and walk outside. A quarter moon was high in the clear sky, still blue from the hot midday, not yet given up color for blackness. I thought of the telescope I got for Christmas nearly 50 years ago, packed in its box in a closet. I should get it out and look at the long shadows cast by the sunlight on the hills and craters of the moon, but unpacking the scope, setting it up, then taking it down, would take too long. I settled for a long, bare-eyed look at the moon floating high in the sky.

Today's heat was a reminder of solar power. The aluminum knob atop my car's shift lever was blistering hot when I left the office. Stepping from the cool office to the late afternoon heat made me gasp, and the enclosed car sitting in the sun was hotter yet. Temperatures in the 90s are predicted all week. Although on this day the sun takes its most direct aim at this place, late June is usually not the hottest time of year. Usually that comes in July or August after the Earth's surface and atmosphere and cloak of seawater have had a few months to absorb and store the sun's heat.

But even now, even as the afternoon temperatures climb higher for the next few days, we are already headed for a rendezvous with darkness and cold. Even on this longest day of the year, the twilight approaches. These long afternoons will grow shorter until the evening meal is surrounded by darkness. The lower sun will lengthen shadows; bright sunlight will evolve into an annoying glare. The nights will become as long as this day. Six months from now, in deepest, dark December, the sun will halt its southward dip and head north again, a simple phenomenon of planetary physics, a fact of living on a planet whose axis is tilted 23 degrees.

This summer solstice marks the day when Earth's axis leans farthest toward to sun; the winter solstice is the day that axis points farthest away. On this day, we celebrate the longest daylight of the year and head, inexorably toward the twilight.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Here's another card to carry around

When buying a couple of cans of mixed nuts that were advertised in the sales flier inside the Sunday paper today, I was told that the price was good only for customers with a preferred shopper card from the store. It was in the fine print on the flier. So, to get the price, my wife and I applied for and received, on the spot, a card to add to the five I'm already carrying on a key chain in my pants pocket, plus the three or four more that are stuffed in a drawer somewhere that I use too seldom to carry.

How long will it be before every national chain requires a shopping card to get the best deals? Retailers have jumped aboard this system, which was pioneered by grocery stores, because it allows them to track purchases. Your supermarket receipt shows each item you bought, along with your preferred shopper card number. All of this information is also stored on computers, and that information can be used by the store to target specific promotions to your interests. Do you buy dog food? Then you're likely to receive dog food coupons. Buy canned fruit? Look for those coupons, too. And if a company is initiating a new type of canned fruit or dog food, it might want to send promotions to you. This information can be sold to other retailers or marketing companies. "Information just wants to be free" might be the Internet mantra, but information about what you buy is valuable, and it's not free.

We are witnessing a conversion from broadcast advertising, that is, advertising that is addressed to the entire community or entire population, to advertising that is individualized and personalized. Marketers say this individualized approach is more effective because advertisers only pay to address customers who are interested. We are losing our sense of community and commonality in so many things, and advertising is aiding and abetting this loss of community.

Marketers knowing what I buy does not bother me as much as the bother of producing that card each time I check out in order to get the best prices. And the sheer burden of carrying around a half dozen or dozen store-specific preferred shopper cards also wearies me. When these cards first came out, I placed a grocer's card in my wallet. But when the cards proliferated, they began taking up too much room in my wallet, so I switched to the smaller, key chain cards. Now, they have multiplied to the point that their bulk is noticeable and annoying.

But I don't want to pass up a half-price deal on mixed nuts, so I'm stuck.

Friday, June 18, 2010

All those nice buildings, and no money to open them

It's not that the state of North Carolina has been "penny wise and pound foolish." It has been penny foolish and pound foolish.

Today's News & Observer reports that the state might not have the money to operate all the new buildings it has built on university campuses. Anyone who has visited a University of North Carolina campus in the past few years has seen the transformation that has taken place throughout the system. Bolstered by a $3 billion bond issue passed a few years ago and additional capital spending, the university's 16 campuses have been transformed. New buildings have been wedged into seemingly every nook and cranny of the campuses. South Campus at UNC-Chapel Hill has gone from an outlying suburb to a megalopolis in the past couple of decades. Construction at Appalachian State has overwhelmed sleepy little Boone. N.C. State has created a whole new university at the Centennial Campus. And these are just three examples.

Now, it seems, the state can't find the money to use the new buildings that are coming on line. Not only is the state saddled with debt, it is saddled with operating costs it either did not anticipate or assumed economic growth would cover. Wake up! The economy isn't growing; it's shrinking, and so is state tax revenue.

More conservative budgeting would have anticipated operational costs and would have been more cautious about capital expenditures. Revenue streams change. When the state commits to debt for the next 10 or 20 years, it is gambling, and while some gambling might be advisable (we all gamble on our home mortgages), caution should be the watchword. Don't borrow more than you can afford to pay back in a worst case (or at least bad-case) scenario.

The state may have little choice but to raise taxes or fees in a bad economy or to mothball these expensive buildings, gaining no return on our investment, until state revenues revive. And we don't know when that might be.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Presidential speech has a familiar ring

President Obama's speech last night seemed presidential in an ordinary sort of way. He had the Oval Office backdrop (unusual for him), the prime-time slot and the campaign-style analysis, cheer leading and goal-setting. I thought it was a good speech but not a great speech — typical, ordinary.

Some analysts have panned it altogether. Substance? Not a whole lot. Surprises? Not really. We all knew that Obama would come down hard on BP, but no one expected him to announce a resolution to the problem of spewing oil. We all expected he would try to turn this episode to his political advantage (he is a politician, after all). And the moralizing over America's thirst for foreign oil should have been no surprise from this president. He's right that our hunger for energy, especially overweight vehicles to haul our overweight bodies, vehicles with an abundance off excess hip room for our abundantly excess hips, is a big part of the energy problem. But his vague references to new jobs in the "green economy" were not especially convincing. Sure, we're offering incentives for these alternative-energy jobs, but we've still shed far more jobs than we've created these past two years. And of course, we're going to do everything we can to restore the Gulf Coast, but exactly how are we going to do that?

At least one observer has noted an uncomfortable resemblance to President Carter's famed "malaise" speech — one he preferred to call "Crisis of Confidence" (he never actually used the term "malaise" in the speech). Carter's 1979 speech made many of the same points that Obama made last night — we're buying too much foreign oil, and this has to stop. Carter swore that America would cap its thirst for foreign oil. By executive order, he was going to limit oil imports at 1978 levels, and he was going to find new energy sources. America would conquer this crisis through ingenuity.

Carter's solemnly presented promises about oil imports have never been met. Carter didn't survive the next 18 months in office, and his successor had a much more loving attitude toward fossil fuels. A Washington Post columnist suggests that the BP oil spill could become Obama's Iranian Hostage Crisis, and his oil spill speech could be Carter's "Crisis of Confidence" speech. The parallels in the two speeches' main themes are eerily similar, though separated by 31 years.

What Obama delivered was not a bad speech, but it was a speech that gave some people an eerie feeling that they'd heard it all somewhere before.

Monday, June 14, 2010

'Gotcha' journalism leads to fisticuffs

I've always hated "gotcha" journalism, evoking scenes of Geraldo Rivera chasing some poor bloke down the sidewalk, shouting, "Why won't you answer me?" But even "gotcha" journalists should not be assaulted by their targets.

It's hard to explain how U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge got himself into this pickle. A You Tube video, which has been picked up by news organizations, shows Etheridge confronting a couple of young men who were ambushing him with a video camera.

After greeting him as "congressman," one of the men asks, "Do you fully support the Obama agenda?" That, by the way, is not a journalistic question. It is unanswerable; just what is the "Obama agenda"? Instead of recognizing an ambush when the shooting starts, Etheridge grabs his questioner and demands to know who he is. The two men don't identify themselves — another journalistic no-no (you must always identify yourself) — and respond that they're students or they're working on a project.

Etheridge doesn't like the answers. He grabs one man by the wrist and won't let go. He then pulls him close and puts him in a sort of headlock, all the while demanding to know who they are. I suspect many of Etheridge's colleagues are congratulating him for doing what they have wanted to do many times to impertinent journalists and other questioners. But they didn't. They took the wiser path and just walked away. Etheridge could have and should have done the same.

Etheridge has since apologized for his behavior, but he did a poor job of explaining his actions (I had a hard day"). This episode might be more explicable if Etheridge, who reportedly turned down an invitation to run for the Senate against Richard Burr, were in a tight re-election race, but he's not. He has only token Republican opposition. Why ambush a congressman who has no real opposition? He can't explain his bullying as a result of re-election stress.

I've interviewed Etheridge a few times, and he always struck me as a little haughty but never as a potential assailant. Maybe it's time for Bob to find a less confrontational line of work, or at least remember that anything you say or do these days might end up on You Tube.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Coming soon to a beach near you

On a business trip to "Little Washington" Thursday, I squeezed in a five-minute visit with former colleague Ray McKeithan at his office at the Washington Daily News. Ray and I had worked together about 20 years ago when he was ad director at The Wilson Daily Times and I was editor. We've reconnected occasionally in the time since he left for greener pastures, and I was sorry I had only a few minutes to catch up. I'll have to drop in on him again sometime.

Topics at my business meeting ranged far and wide, but one topic of concern drew gasps — the likelihood that oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico could wind up on North Carolina beaches. This has been speculated in some news reports and scientific modeling, but to hear coastal residents discussing this as an issue we'll have to prepare for and face brought the topic close to home. One apparently knowledgeable participant in my meeting said oil was approaching the Florida Keys, and once it got that far, it would be only a matter of days before it flowed into the Gulf Stream and hurdled toward the North Carolina coast. Oil sheens and tar balls could be lapping up onto North Carolina's precious beaches before the summer's over, but that's not all. The oil could easily find its way into the Intracoastal Waterway. A hurricane or a smaller storm could push the oil even farther inland, up estuaries and tidal streams.

If the news from the Gulf and the apparent helplessness of the best petroleum engineers BP can hire were not enough to sour America on offshore drilling, the desecration of beaches in 10 or more states could alter the entire national attitude toward offshore drilling and petroleum in general. This incident — drilling for oil in mile-deep water while cutting corners on safety precautions with the complicity of lax or incompetent federal regulators — could become the Three Mile Island or the Love Canal of the oil industry. An overheated reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant soured the country on nuclear power, even though the environmental damage was minimal. A chemical company's uncaring poisoning of residents at Love Canal shocked America and led to stricter controls on chemical companies and the dumping of poisons.

Americans are angry over the apparent inability of BP and the government to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and are worried about the long-term environmental damage of this spill. The longer the oil continues to billow and the more oil that washes ashore or kills marine wildlife, the more willing Americans will be to clamp down on the powerful oil industry. They might even be willing to curtail their own use of oil by finding alternative energy supplies. Until they take that final step, oil sucked from underwater wells or delivered by huge tankers will remain a hazard to plants, seafood, animals and people.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A shady spot has lost its value

"He's got it made in the shade." That old expression came back to me as I was mowing the lawn in 90-degree midday heat. Part of the lawn was in bright sun. Part was in shade. The sunny portion of the yard was unbearably hot in my dark T-shirt and shorts. The portion shaded by a big chestnut oak was pleasantly comfortable with a soft breeze stirring the leaves.
I was reminded of youthful days before air conditioning, when summer Sunday afternoon visits often retired to the screened porch or to a couple of chairs dragged beneath a sheltering tree. Windows were thrown open to catch whatever breeze might stir. A shady tree provided quiet relief from the heat you could not otherwise escape.
People still complain about the heat on days like this, but those complaints carry less weight when the heat can be so easily escaped by simply walking into an air-conditioned house or turning up the AC in the car. And shade means so much less to us when there are better, more convenient and more liberating escapes from the midday heat. A big oak or maple that would have been a cherished asset 50 years ago has become an object of suspicion and doubt these days. There are the leaves that fall and must be raked. The tree's thirst for water competes with the fescue in the lawn. And a big tree can fall in a storm and destroy a house. Or so the thinking goes these days.
Many grand shade trees have been toppled as a prophylaxis against some future storm. What these timid homeowners are losing is the comfort of shade that can provide a quiet respite from outdoor heat and reduce the cost of air conditioning by reducing heat buildup on the home. And they might never understand what a cherished sanctuary a shady spot can be. They will never have it "made in the shade."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If Gores can't stay married, who can?

Al and Tipper Gore's announcement this week that they are separating after 40 years of marriage shouldn't bother me, but it does. I have not been a big fan of Gore, whom I met briefly in 1987 or '88 when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination (he dropped out not long after I met him at a campaign speech at Barton College). Nuclear disarmament was his cause then, and he was as earnest about it as he is about global warning now.

It had appeared to me, through Gore's vice presidency and the 2000 presidential campaign, that Gore had a solid, stable marriage with a good woman. They had faced some adversity in their lives and had been each other's support in crisis. They had enjoyed some success as well. The famed kiss when Tipper introduced Al at the Democratic Convention in 2000 seemed overdone but somehow endearing as well. The Gores were close in age to me and my wife, and they had married just a year before we had.

While political and celebrity marriages often aren't meant to last, the Gores' seemed to be the exception. Some analysts are saying their separation is typical of the difficulty of maintaining a relationship over a period of decades. Even couples who get through the early years of adjustment, frustration and temptation might not be able to swim the latter years when marriage might seem less purposeful and goal-oriented. The Gores said they had "grown apart."

I find myself still looking forward to a future that is tied inextricably to the togetherness we've known for 39 years, but maybe I'd better be cautious about any signs of divergent interests and emotional detachment. I'd like to get beyond whatever it was that tore the Gores apart.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israeli effort is left at sea

That didn't go well.

Israel stopped a flotilla of ships bound for Gaza, using what appears to be an overkill of naval commandos to board and take over ships loaded with supplies for Hamas-ruled Gaza. A gun battle erupted as Israeli commandos rappelled onto the ship from helicopters. The Gaza activists say the Israelis came out firing; Israel says its troops were attacked with metal rods, knives and pistols. Whoever made the first hostile move, Israel comes across looking like a bully.

Free Gaza, the pro-Palestinian group that had organized the flotilla to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza, had trumpeted its effort for maximum publicity. Israel had done a less effective job of offering to accept the tons of aid bound for Gaza, inspect it for weapons and other banned materials and deliver the goods to Gaza. With yesterday's naval gun battle, world opinion has turned against Israel for its disproportionate use of force and has turned attention away from the repressive and militant regime in Gaza, which routinely allows missile attacks on Israel.

Free Gaza is reveling in its publicity coup as Israel tries to be heard above the din of international condemnation. The flotilla didn't reach Gaza and didn't pierce the Israeli blockade, but it did achieve its objective of embarrassing and isolating Israel.