Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More funerals, and then one final one

I attended another funeral Monday. As we age, we find ourselves more often seated in those somber services, bidding farewell to friends or relatives, people who have brightened and influenced our lives but will now be missing. I've resigned myself to the fact that these services and these losses will be ever more frequent portions of my life.

Each time I go to a funeral, I find myself thinking about my own funeral, an inevitability I can only hope will not take place for many more years. But my growing experience with funerals have persuaded me that certain rules should apply. A funeral should take place in the deceased's church, not in some sterile funeral home chapel (sorry, all you guys who have invested in these auditoriums). The church is where you came into this world of faith, and it is the place from which you should depart.

There should be congregational singing. I've persevered through operatic renditions of "The Lord's Prayer" and other solos, but it seems most appropriate to me that the entire company of believers should join voices to bid farewell to the departed. For me, sing "For All the Saints" and "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," two great hymns of faith. If you're in the mood for a third hymn, make it "Immortal, Invisible" (with the haunting lines, "we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree and wither and perish but naught changeth thee") or "Amazing Grace."

Scripture will be read, of course. When my father died, I asked his pastor to read from Romans 8:38-39: "For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." That would do nicely for my departing. Also read from Psalms 127: "Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them." Those words define my legacy, such as it is — children born when I was young, who gave my life purpose.

A eulogy would be offered. If someone wanted to add to what the presiding pastor has to say, that would be fine but not required. Depart not in mourning over loss but in thankfulness for a life full of abundance and joy.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hunt biography is an insider's view

The cover of Gary Pearce's new biography of Jim Hunt, appropriately titled "Jim Hunt: A Biography," is a flattering and beguiling photo of the four-term governor. The content of the "authorized" biography is just as flattering.

Hunt, who served as governor 1977-85 and 1993-2001 after a term (1973-77) as lieutenant governor, opened up to Pearce in a series of interviews and urged his friends to talk to Pearce as well. The author, a former newspaper reporter, had signed on as Hunt's press secretary at the beginning of his first run for governor and stayed on as adviser and consultant throughout Hunt's political career. He also advised other Democratic politicians. Pearce says he strived to be objective in this biography, but his book is clearly an insider's version of the Hunt years, and it's admittedly an admirer's version as well.

Pearce's main point, that Hunt, a rural farm boy without significant family political connections, transformed North Carolina and presided over the state during some of its most turbulent times, is accurate. In that, it's an amazing and tantalizing story. Pearce's perspective, unfortunately, is from inside the Hunt administration, and he fails to credit other forces that helped transform North Carolina during those years. If Hunt and his administration made mistakes or headed down the wrong path at times, Pearce fails to see those detours, and he has little patience for politicians who opposed Hunt initiatives.

Pearce accurately portrays Hunt as a man untiringly and relentlessly pushing his state forward with all kinds of new programs and initiatives. Hunt's enthusiasm, however, sometimes overlooked the long-term costs of his dreams, as newly elected Gov. Mike Easley found out in the budget crisis that greeted him in 2001. Pearce also fails to address the allegations of cronyism and political favoritism that followed Hunt through most of his career.

The crucible of Hunt's political career is the 1984 Senate contest against incumbent Jesse Helms. Had Hunt won, Pearce says, he might have been the Democratic nominee for president by 1988 or 1992, and he's probably right. Democrats nationwide would have owed Hunt a major debt for knocking off the conservative icon, and Hunt as a senator would have been just as hard-working, just as determined and just as persistent as he had been as governor. The 1984 election, Hunt's only defeat at the polls, was one he should have won. Pearce hints at the problem in 1984: The Helms people outsmarted and outplayed the divided Hunt contingent. Helms went all out, with biting television spots, veiled accusations and self-righteous contempt that convinced the electorate (or at least 52% of it) that Hunt was wishy-washy, untrustworthy and not genuine. Pearce is convinced that Helms was a racist and that racial appeals swayed the 1984 election. Helms undoubtedly manipulated racial prejudice with his vocal opposition to the Martin Luther King Holiday (which President Reagan supported) and was willing to use subtle racial appeals, but Helms was too complex to be dismissed with one word. He could be extremely gracious and courtly, but he had a mean streak that would lash out at opponents. Race played a role in the 1984 election, but Hunt's loss had more to do with errors made in the Hunt camp than with Helms' willingness to play the race card.

Pearce has often been asked what Hunt is "really" like, the implication being that his goody-two-shoes earnestness and drive for improvement cannot be real. But, he says, it is. What you see is what you get. Although I was a skeptic when I first met Hunt about 35 years ago, I now have to agree that Pearce is right — Hunt really is the simple farm boy with a burning desire to improve his state and to help the people who cannot help themselves. He really is deeply committed to education and is willing to try almost any strategy to improve public education. He is earnestly and sincerely doing all he can, even in his 70s and 10 years out of office, to improve his native state.

Pearce's biography will be valuable because Hunt opened up to Pearce, revealing some inner thoughts and motivations, and so did some of his colleagues. But this short (297 pages) book is not the ultimate biography of Jim Hunt. It is not a historian's biography on the level of William Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur or Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. This book, and the transcripts of interviews behind it, will be a valuable resource to some future biographer who will take a wider view of the Hunt years. Until that lengthier biography is written, Pearce's book gives an insider's view of some of the most progressive and important years in North Carolina's history.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Easley gets by on one conviction

Former Gov. Mike Easley's attorney said the case against his client ended with a whimper, and that's basically true. Easley entered an Alford plea — admitting there was sufficient evidence to convict him but not admitting guilt — to one felony charge Tuesday.

Left floating in the ether are dozens of allegations against Easley and his administration — unreported free airplane flights, the free use of vehicles by his family, the securing of a plum job for his wife at N.C. State University followed by an extraordinary pay raise for her, the special discount on a waterfront lot, the repairs to his Raleigh residence paid for by his campaign and camouflaged as payment for air fare, and all the rest. Easley was not convicted on any of these cases, but ample documentation exists to show that the incidents took place and that Easley benefited from them. I had blogged about the Easley allegations before.

As a result of his plea, Easley will pay a $1,000 and might lose his law license. His legal bills will far, far exceed his criminal fine. And, as his attorney pointed out, his reputation has been besmirched. Attorney Joe Cheshire V attempted to lay the blame on the news media, particularly the News & Observer, which broke the news on the many questionable activities of the Easleys. Cheshire has a deserved reputation as a great criminal defense attorney, but he's wrong about who's to blame. Easley, as likable a politician as you'll ever meet, has no one to blame but himself. There was no reason for him to not report the airplane flights he took. There was no reason to finagle a contrived university job for his wife, who was already employed at N.C. Central's law school. There was no reason for him to accept a free vehicle for his son to drive; he could easily afford to pay like anyone else. There was every reason for alarm bells to ring when he was offered a sweetheart deal on a valuable coastal lot. But Easley, the former crusading district attorney, became blinded by the high office he had obtained, and his moral judgment failed him.

Easley will pay a relatively small price for his activities — one felony conviction with no jail time and a manageable fine. The larger price will be extracted from his reputation and his legacy as a two-term governor and two-term attorney general. His image is permanently tarnished. Like post-Watergate Richard Nixon, he may try to restore his reputation, but it will not be easy. The only path to that goal is through genuine contrition, rightful living and selfless public service.

Attacking the news media for accurately reporting his actions, as Easley's attorney tried to do Tuesday, will not restore Easley's good name.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Senate should stop stalling on treaty

Could there be any reason, other than wanting the Obama administration to fail, in Republican opposition to the new nuclear weapons treaty that President Obama is urging the Senate to ratify? Work on this treaty spans at least two presidential administrations, and one can contend that it really dates back to the Kennedy administration, which negotiated the earliest of the nuclear weapons treaties with the Soviet Union. President Reagan, although never a "dove," also was a believer in nuclear arms treaties. Another Republican, Richard Nixon, put a great deal of effort into nuclear arms treaties.

So what is the Republicans' objection? The treaty would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States and would provide for verification procedures for both sides. Neither of the former Cold War superpowers now sees the other as an imminent threat, but a negotiated reduction in weaponry is beneficial to both sides.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to ratify any treaty, which means Obama needs several Republicans to achieve the 67-senator approval margin. Some Republican leaders apparently believe that failing to gain ratification will make Obama look bad, but the opposite may be true: Opposing a treaty that is in the national interest will make Republican senators look like partisan snipers who are willing to sacrifice the national interest for their own partisan gain.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Look at the way we were in 1964

Go to iTunes, search for Beatles and click on the Beatles concert video (not the YouTube video above). It's a 40-minute video of the Beatles' February 1964 concert at the Washington Coliseum. For those of us who remember the early days of Beatlemania, this concert video is a reminder of the unprecedented excitement that surrounded the band from Liverpool. It's also a look at the relative innocence of the day, with only a handful of police protecting the stage, but the audience, some of them screaming hysterically in the throes of Beatlemania, keep their seats and breathlessly await the next note, the next word, the next shake of their idols' hair.

Most impressive, however, is the simplicity of that concert. The four young men, all of them under 25, stride onto the stage, plug in their guitars, do a bit of tuning and launch into their repertoire, which seems largely unplanned, off the cuff. Their amplifiers and speakers are tiny compared to today's array of boulder-size speakers with stage monitors and huge soundboards to control everything. John, Paul and George tweak the sound a bit by twisting the dials themselves. Their equipment looks like something a middle school garage band might have, but they are the hottest musical act in the world at the height of their popularity.

Their concert was merely music and lyrics with a bit of chatter between songs. No one brought them freshly tuned guitars; they didn't switch instruments with each song as so many guitarists do now. They were only slightly removed from the amateur performers at The Cavern in Liverpool, where they had honed their sound. It's an amazing thing to see them as they were 46 years ago and to remember how we were and how much their music touched us and gave us happiness after that tragic November of '63, just three months before. And it's strange to remember their 45 rpm records and monaural LPs and the records that would sound scratchy and skip, but we didn't mind so much because their sound was so fresh and so original and was so exactly what we wanted to hear.

That 1964 concert had no special effects, no light towers, no smoke machines, no supporting musicians or vocalists — none of the things that make modern-day concerts more events or experiences at which the music seems to play second fiddle. Just four guys, three guitars, one set of drums, a couple of microphones to share and minimal amplification.

In the concert video posted free on iTunes, it's easy to see how much the four young men loved their music. John is gone now, the 30th anniversary of his murder fast approaching, and George is also gone. Ringo seems far removed from his drummer's throne; only Paul seems interested in music and performance, but it's only a hobby for him now; he doesn't really need it. But 46 years ago these four were something special, so special that it will never again be repeated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The next big thing drags down communication

I can hear it now: "He's so old-school, why, he's still blogging!"

That was what occurred to me as I read that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook were coming out with a new form of digital communication, which Zuckerberg and others said would make email obsolete. I'll admit that I'm an email junkie. I'd much rather email someone than call them on the phone. Half the time you don't get the person you're calling, so you leave a message and hope they call you back — you hope at a time when you can answer your own phone, or they'll have to leave a message. Email is simpler. Your message goes in their inbox; they read it; they reply. What could be simpler or more efficient?

Now they're saying email is passe, obsolete, so yesterday! As I understand it, what Facebook is offering is some sort of combination of email, instant messaging and text messaging. I've done all of those, including video chat, but I still find email the most efficient and effective means of communicating. I use group emails to convey information about upcoming meetings, to make announcements, and to keep colleagues or relatives informed. It's a lot simpler than individually calling people or sending separate postcards.

Of course, there are those who haven't quite gotten the hang of email yet. I still encounter people who have email at home but only check their inboxes once a week or so. I can only roll my eyes. "Didn't you get my email?" "Oh, I haven't checked my email in a couple of weeks?" Do these people not check their postal mailboxes but once a week? I can't imagine that Facebook's shorter, more instantaneous sort of messaging would be appealing to them.

Although I've sent and received text messages, I don't find them very efficient or even rational. You're sitting there with a phone in your hand, but instead of making a call, you type a short message on those teeny-tiny keys. There must be some thrill to it that I'm missing. So what is it that Facebook is going to do to make this email/texting hybrid communication the latest rage? It arranges your messages and allows you to block anyone who isn't your Facebook friend. OK. Any good email program can filter your email to achieve that goal. Just what is new here?

Perhaps a greater concern should be the way that email, texting and whatever is next is pushing out thoughtful communication — the kind that people used to exchange in long, handwritten letters, which would show up years later in "The Collected Letters of ..." That's not going to happen with emails. The cell phone calls that begin with "where you at?" and the Facebook status updates that say "At home. Eating baloney sandwich" do not constitute a conversation. Any "new thing" that encourages still briefer, less thoughtful exchanges of meaningless (and misspelled) words is a detriment to culture, courtesy and understanding.

So here's hoping that Mark Zuckerberg's big new thing doesn't catch on. It's not like he needs the money.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Deficit reduction plan takes heavy fire

That didn't take long.

President Obama's deficit reduction panel, chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, released an outline of its recommendations Thursday, and it immediately took heavy fire from left and right. Nobel economics winner Paul Krugman condemned the proposal and the co-chairmen in a New York Times column. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared the proposed fix unworkable.

To be certain, the proposal from the committee involves some painful medicine. To be certain, to do nothing about the $1 trillion-plus federal deficit and rapidly growing national debt means chronic economic illness and eventual collapse of the American economy. Bowles and Simpson attempted to address the problem by wounding everyone's sacred cows. They propose raising the Social Security retirement age and reducing Social Security cost-of-living increases; eliminating the mortgage interest deduction; reducing the costs of Medicare and Medicaid by updating the health care systems for the elderly and poor; raising taxes to increase revenue; and other solutions.

None of these proposals are inviting, but here's the rub: The alternative — doing nothing — is unsustainable. America cannot continue to run huge deficits and pile on debt that will cripple the prospects of our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Sooner or later, we have to reduce our expectations of government (and the cost of government) and pay for the government services we receive while we receive them. It can be done. Barely a dozen years ago, the federal government was running a surplus and projected budget surpluses well into the future. Since that time, we have reduced taxes and sharply increased spending.

We can't continue on the present course. Congress has to take action. If the Bowles-Simpson plan can't be passed, come up with a better idea; but eliminate the deficit.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Keep your political slant out of the news

I suffered no withdrawal pangs when MSNBC suspended host Keith Olbermann over his contributions to political candidates. I have watched MSNBC (usually while flipping channels on election nights) just enough to know who he is. I also don't watch his counterpoints on the right — Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and that crowd on Fox News. A pox on all their houses, as far as I'm concerned.

But the issue of political involvement among journalists is one that I gave a lot of thought over a three-decade newspaper career. My journalistic training came during the 1960s and '70s, when the industry standard was an absolute ban on any and all forms of gifts, memberships and affiliations — anything that might affect one's objectivity. The restrictions could reach the ridiculous level. I was told a story about the young female reporter at a metro N.C. newspaper who had returned from an interview with an elderly man for a story about his gardening hobby. He had given her a rosebud from his garden, which she placed in a Coke bottle on her desk. An older colleague advised her to get rid of it immediately; accepting such a gift from a news sources is a firing offense! I worried about the ethics of accepting a one-mile ride from a county commissioner who was going my way. Some ethics policies were very specific. Columnist Art Buchwald told of being given a case of champagne when he was a correspondent in Paris. His newspaper's policy was that you could only accept gifts that can be consumed in one sitting (i.e., you could accept a free meal but not a stack of money). He rationalized that, if he had to, he could consume all that champagne in one sitting, so he accepted it. Membership in civic clubs or involvement in charities were forbidden by some ethics policies. Some journalism ethicists even questioned whether reporters and editors should belong to a church.

I drew a sharper line on political involvement. Access to politicians and political events are dependent upon a reputation for fairness, so a reporter doesn't want to show up for a Democratic rally with a GOP bumper sticker on his car. Nor do you want your name to appear on a list of partisan donors or have a political sign in your front yard. Therefore, I understand MSNBC's standard that led to Olbermann's suspension. You can claim that this policy restricts his free speech rights, but it is a sacrifice one makes for the job. Military officers sacrifice their right to criticize the president; judges sacrifice their right to practice law; professional athletes sacrifice their right to engage in foolishly dangerous activities that could jeopardize their ability to play their sport (and earn millions of dollars).

Here's a standard: What would Walter Cronkite do?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chill, damp can't halt Whirligig Festival

The Wilson Whirligig Festival had a couple of firsts this year. For the first time in the event's history, it rained. But it didn't rain much, and nearly all of that occurred Saturday morning. The bigger issue was cold — it was the coldest Whirligig Festival yet. When the rain ended Saturday morning, the wind picked up, giving whirligigs a little rotation.

Every previous Whirligig Festival, if my memory serves me, was greeted by bright blue skies and cool but comfortable temperatures, just right for strolling down Nash Street and enjoying the exhibits. The cool temperatures had to hurt sales of ice cream and cool drinks, but the hot cider from the Wilson Woman's Club really hit the spot. The festival attracted the usual array of crafts and food vendors, many of them back from previous years. Nonprofits offered information from a number of booths, and the Wilson County Public Library bookmobile sold used books at a brisk pace. Strolling troubadours added to the festive atmosphere. Because the festival fell four days after the election, political parties were absent this year.

Despite the chill that dampened attendance a bit, the Whirligig Festival showed once again that Wilson is onto something with this gig. Most any town can hold a barbecue festival, spring festival, tobacco festival, bird festival, dogwood festival or collard festival, but few have a connection with and an international audience for whirligigs, the whimsical creations of internationally acclaimed folk artist Vollis Simpson. Vollis had a booth at the festival, and Downtown Development was promoting the Whirligig Park, which will collect, restore and erect the whirligigs now on Simpson's farm, saving them for future generations to enjoy.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

GOP earthquake shakes legislature

It's a historic moment: Republicans will control the N.C. General Assembly for the first time since the 19th century. The only comparable state political earthquake was the 1972 election of Gov. Jim Holshouser, the first Republican governor of the 20th century. Holshouser's victory was more of a singular achievement, and, unable to succeed himself, his triumph was relatively short-lived. Holshouser's success did, however, encourage up-and-coming Republicans to continue to strive in North Carolina.

But taking over the entire legislative building, both House and Senate, is a remarkable achievement. Republicans had held a majority in the House for a few years but could accomplish little of their agenda against a well-established and disciplined Democratic majority in the Senate. Democrats had fought off Republican efforts by directing party money to key races where threats arose. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight raised tons of money, despite having a secure seat, and was able to spread those donations around to other Senate districts where Democratic incumbents were endangered. The retirement of several Senate leaders and the GOP wave on Tuesday will cost Basnight the post he has held for record years. And perhaps voters at last paid attention to the number of Democrats convicted of political crimes and the ongoing investigations of former Gov. Mike Easley and others.

What's more important this year is the timing: Controlling the General Assembly will put Republicans in control of the redistricting process. Like party leaders across the country, N.C. Democrats have used the redistricting process to protect their incumbents. Now Republicans will have that advantage, unless they choose to assign the task to a nonpartisan panel, as many people have urged for years. Republicans are not likely to forgo their chance to get their share of the redistricting spoils.

The new Republican leader in the Senate, Phil Berger, and other Republican legislative leaders have said they will work with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Berger set a generally moderate and conciliatory tone in his Wednesday remarks. Republicans need to do well and to be transparent and public in tackling the state's budget deficit, estimated at more than $3 billion. Instead of complaining of Democrats' tax hikes and fiscal disguises, Republicans will get their chance to actually balance the budget. A lot rides on their success. With 2008 gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory already campaigning for a 2012 rematch, Republicans will have a solid chance at the governor's mansion if they can show themselves as competent fiscal managers and legislative achievers.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The votes are in; now what?

Tuesday's election went about as predicted with Republicans taking over the U.S. House of Representatives and narrowing the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. America once again will have a divided government. The question before the newly elected representatives and before the American people is whether America will have a more effective government.

Voter anger, which led to many of the Republican victories, was aimed, according to exit polls, at both parties. Voters recognized that both parties were at fault for the partisan attitudes in Washington, the nasty campaign advertising and the lack of cooperation in the public interest. Some of last night's victors set a conciliatory and humble tone. New Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in particular, offered an impressive victory speech, recalling the struggles of his Cuban parents to create a better life for their children in this, "the greatest nation in human history." Likely Speaker of the House John Boehner chose conciliation over gloating in his remarks, reminding followers that there an be little call for celebration when unemployment is so high and the national debt so mountainous.

All elections present opportunities, and this one is no exception. President Obama should try again to reach out to Republicans, as he did at the beginning of his presidency when he was rebuffed. The Tea Party candidates who have vowed to "repeal" the president's health care legislation should take a gulp of reality: With the Senate still in Democratic hands and Obama wielding veto power, that cannot be done. Don't waste America's time. There should be opportunities, however, to address the budget deficit, tax policy, infrastructure needs, climate change, perhaps even the looming insolvency of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats must be willing to put aside some of their pet projects, and Republicans must be willing to consider recovering some lost tax revenue.

After so deep a debacle — losing more House seats than in 1994 — Democrats should take a fresh look at their leadership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, was a lightning rod for GOP criticism. Electing her minority leader would show America that the Democrats haven't learned much from the public's outcry. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should resign his leadership post for the good of the party. Reid was so unpopular in his home state of Nevada that few analysts thought he could win. A combination of an ill-qualified opponent and a solid grassroots organization with strong union support allowed Reid to eke out a win. Keeping him as the party's Senate leader, however, would extend Democrats' negative public image.

One hopeful sign in this election is that some political moderates survived strong challenges. North Carolina Reps. Heath Shuler and Mike McIntyre are examples. A coalition of moderates willing to consider compromises and cooperation with the "loyal opposition" could bring real progress on major issues confronting this nation. It is doubtful, however, that any action taken by Congress or the president will bring about a quick economic recovery. Global economics plays by rules not set on Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue.