Thursday, December 29, 2011

Edna Earle Boykin: One of a kind

The wind was brisk and unpredictable when a large crowd laid to rest Edna Earle Boykin Wednesday morning — an appropriate weather pattern for the feisty, determined, witty and wise 90-year-old who died Christmas Day. Gathered around the polished wood coffin in the old section of Maplewood Cemetery were scores of admirers, supporters and beneficiaries of her wise counsel and generous donations. The retired school teacher, school administrator, Wilson City Council member and arts and education advocate had preached education for children, care and concern for children, education for its innate value and arts for the health of the community. She gave generously to the Arts Council of Wilson, to Barton College and to other promoters of education and culture. She was quick to offer her opinion and adamant about the importance of art and education.

Jim Hemby, the retired Barton College president, had the crowd nodding and chuckling as he described Boykin's command to him about what he should say at her funeral.

The grave site where so many gathered in the chilly wind Wednesday stands within sight of Margaret Hearne School, where Boykin spent most of her career and where she ruled as queen of the roost and caretaker of thousands of impressionable children. She was my younger daughter's first school principal. When my wife was elected president of the Hearne PTO, she quickly found out that Miss Boykin really ran the organization; the president need not worry.

Soon after I came to Wilson in 1980, the Board of Education decided to demolish the 19th century Hearne School building and rebuild a "modern" one-story school on the same site. Miss Boykin went along with the decision, though it seemed obvious that she loved that old brick edifice that had once been the pride of Wilson's city school system. The public was warned that the building was so old that it was a hazard and might collapse anytime. When the bulldozers came, they found the 8-foot-thick walls much more of an obstacle than they'd thought. I'll bet Edna grinned wryly at the impotence of the bulldozers against her old school.

She used to tell audiences that "I am Miss Boykin, but I haven't missed a thing!" When she retired from the school system, she proudly boasted that she had just sold the car she had bought new in 1948 — a Lincoln — for more than she'd paid for it nearly 40 years before. She got enough from the sale to buy herself a brand new Lincoln. Her frugality and shrewd business sense served her well and allowed her to give large donations to her favorite charities. Her support of the Wilson Theatre renovations prompted the city and Arts Council to rename the historic building the Edna Boykin Cultural Center.

Her humor, experiences and well-honed sensibility helped her through her run for City Council. I clearly remember her defending the city's investments in downtown, citing other cities that had restored their downtowns and thrived while other cities had allowed downtowns to deteriorate, and that decay had metastasized to an ever-widening area of the city. She overcame my concerns that, as a large property owner, she might favor landlords over renters in city regulations, but she turned out to be a defender of the poor against those who would exploit their powerlessness.

For much of her career, Hearne School educated some of the city's poorest children, and that experience clearly influenced Boykin's judgments. She believed in education. She believed in the benefits of the arts. She believed in her hometown. And she didn't mind telling anyone how she felt. Just a couple of years ago, I ran into her at the theater that bears her name and had a spirited and delightful conversation with her as she sat (no longer able to stand for long periods) and gathered well-wishers and admirers.

She was one of a kind, a treasure and an inspiration.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

House Republicans just say no, no, no

What are they thinking?

Republicans in the House of Representatives have backed out on what was supposed to be a done deal to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for two months. Nothing doin', they say. They want a year-long deal or nothing at all.

Can they seriously be willing to settle for nothing and be portrayed in election campaign ads as the wackos who raised taxes on every working person in the country and cut off unemployment checks for millions of desperate, jobless Americans? Do they really think nothing is better than something? Do they really think compromise is a dirty word?

Regardless what you might think about the long-term wisdom of cutting payroll taxes (the 6.2 percent of your paycheck that goes to Social Security and Medicare), refusing to extend the tax cut at the beginning of an election year is political suicide. Yet, the Republican lemmings in the House are lining up to take a flying leap off that cliff. The tax cut to 4.2 percent for individuals was passed last year as part of a stimulus package. For a typical American worker, it amounts to about an extra $20 in each week's pay. Economists say that extra jolt has encouraged consumer spending and helped avoid a fall into another recession.

But the real jolt will come in early January, when the first paychecks of the year arrive and 160 million Americans see less money in their paychecks. House Republicans will bear the brunt of public anger over that short-changing. Inevitable GOP efforts to blame Democrats are unlikely to stick. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the tax cut extension, with broad Republican support. Only in the dysfunctional House were serious objections raised. There, the ideological principle was more important than pragmatic politics. Some among the true believers elected in 2010 seem to believe pragmatism is a dirty word, but it's what gets you elected, and it's what allows government to function.

Unless the House has a change of heart, the Tea Party partisans may have just sealed the 2012 election and opened wide a door for Democrats that just last year had seemed closed and locked.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Our pilgrimage to the "Holy City"

For 21 years, my extended family has spent a weekend before Christmas in Charleston, S.C., "the Holy City," as it's been called. It began a year after my brother moved there and months after he was able to return to his home after the damage from Hurricane Hugo was repaired. We went to see his house and the city and to have a meal together.

Twenty-one years later, we're still returning, eager to experience again Charleston's exotic charm and to see the family members we see only rarely now. Our pilgrimages have survived all the changes in our lives since 1990. When our parents missed the trip because they were in a nursing home, we continued to gather. We made four trips without them before they died. This year, we were without my sister-in-law, who succumbed to cancer just two days before our scheduled trip. But the reunion went on, despite those hollow places and mournful moments whenever we expected to see her turning a corner or to hear her laughter.

In 21 years, our children have grown from teens to parents, and our entourage has expanded to include new dates and spouses trying out this family tradition. A new generation of babies has learned to walk with the aid of cousins they didn't know they had. Our children's children have grasped the excitement of these weekends and look forward to Charleston almost as much as their grandparents do.

In the evening, and sometimes during the day, we sit and reminisce about how we lived growing up. We share stories about our parents and other relatives we can no longer ask for answers to our questions, and we talk about our own lives, sharing details lost in our daily routine.

In the end, it is not the beauty of the city, the cuisine for which Charleston is known or the tangible Christmas spirit there that keeps us coming back. It is this sharing of time and stories that makes the drive and the expense worthwhile.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The end of a relationship

A late-afternoon telephone call Wednesday ended a 49-year relationship. Karen was my first sister-in-law and the first new member of our family by marriage. Now she is the first of my generation to die of "natural causes," if you can consider cancer "natural."

Her terrible illness and the inevitability of its ending have stirred up memories long forgotten of the awkwardness of incorporating a new adult into the family and how she made the transition easy with her quiet tolerance and her quick laughter. I was 15 or so when she brought a newborn baby to our home and plopped my first niece into my lap one day with a laugh because I was the only family member who had not fought for a turn to hold the baby. I was 15 and too cool for that. When I married and had children of my own, she vividly enjoyed their presence and bonded with my wife, a decade younger than she. As her sister pointed out, Karen didn't like crowds of strangers but she reveled in gatherings of close family and friends, no matter how large. She never liked having her picture made, so we have few photos of her, just memories of her laughter and her softly worded advice.

The last weekend we had together, just five months ago, was before her diagnosis. It was obvious that she was not feeling well. Her laughter was not so quick and she was unusually reticent. I'll remember instead other weekends strung over 49 years of good times, good stories and good laughs. And the warmth of sibling love.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Two years and then a lifetime

A couple of months ago, I tripped past two years in my new job — an anniversary so insignificant that I had not noted it until my wife reminded me. Earlier in my life, two years would have seemed like forever. I spent three years in my first full-time post-college job (with the U.S. Coast Guard), then just over two years each in my next two jobs, laying the foundation for a career in journalism. Then I spent 29 years in my next job, ending in a layoff and a year of job hunting before landing my current gig.

Now, the past two years seem brief, but that may be only because those 29 years with one company skewed my average. Today's worker, labor statisticians tell us, changes jobs several times over his working life. A friend near my own age told me last night that he was embarking on a new career after eight years in one job. He was restless and wanted a new challenge. In contrast, I spent my early working years looking for a job with permanence, a comfortable situation that would give my then-young children stability and a sense of security and give myself the confidence of familiarity and detailed memory. A decade in which I moved six times was more than enough adventure for me. I had chosen to forgo the security and benefits of a Coast Guard career primarily because I knew it would entail frequent moves. So I left the Coast Guard and moved two times in the next five years.

The past two years were brief, a single tick, it seemed, in the antique clock we moved from one home to another. But in an earlier time, which also seems not long ago at all, my three-year military commitment had seemed to stretch forever ahead of me, just like my four years of college looked from the perspective of freshman orientation.

Now all those years have passed. My little children have children of their own, and time swoops past me like autumn leaves in the wind. So much has changed, yet I feel the same. I chase my grandchildren and tickle them into ecstatic squeals the same way I chased and tickled their parents. It is the same love and emotion and the same I. The years disappear like views in a mountain fog, briefly glimpsed, then gone.

Two years in a new job strobe past like a flash of lightning on a dark night. Whole decades slip away before a rumble of thunder startles me into present day.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas stockings from long ago

Maybe it was the two stockings my wife hung over the fireplace yesterday, but something got me to thinking about the Christmas stockings I knew as a child. Christmas morning always seemed like such a miracle — a roaring fire in the fireplace that illuminated the living room, a room closed off and unheated for most of the rest of the year; the sweet scent of a red cedar Christmas tree glowing with the old-style, large, hot, colored bulbs; the wonder of gifts left by Santa Claus, possessions far too costly for our parents to ever provide. The excitement as I waited with my brothers and sisters to enter the living room left me shaking and shivering.

Those stockings that hang by my fireplace today are as different from the ones I knew as a child as our gas logs are from the wood fires of my youth. On Christmas Eve, we would search through a wardrobe's drawers for five old, woolen socks that our father never wore, but they were ordinary socks, not giant Christmas stockings. Each year, Christmas morning, those stockings would be stuffed the same treats: an apple, an orange, a tangerine, a handful of nuts (walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts), three or four packs of chewing gum, two Hershey's candy bars (milk chocolate and almond), another couple of candy bars (Baby Ruth and Butterfinger?), a few loose chocolate drops candies, and a peppermint candy cane. What made those treats special was not their volume or variety but the simple rarity of such special treats. It was the only time of year we ate Brazil nuts or walnuts; candy bars were rationed the rest of the year at the rate of one per week if we were lucky, and never, ever the succulent Hershey bars; Dentyne chewing gum was tasted only at Christmas; oranges and tangerines, it seemed to me, must only grow at the North Pole. One year, I mentioned to my mother that my cousin had a banana in her stocking. I couldn't understand why Santa Claus would provide different fruits for children only a few miles apart. Would I like to have a banana in my stocking, she asked. I said I would. The next year, my stocking contained a banana. Until dementia stole her mind, my mother had an amazing memory.

By Christmas sundown, I would have sucked all the juice from my orange and perhaps peeled my tangerine, too. I would have eaten at least half of my candy bars, chewed nearly all of the chewing gum and cracked all the nuts in my stocking. I would have managed all of this while playing with new toys and eating at least two huge meals with extended family. And I would have listened to my parents and their siblings talk about how much kids get at Christmas these days. In their day (the 1920s and '30s), they would have felt fortunate to receive one little toy (a ball or a doll, usually) and one piece of candy for Christmas.

But for me, Christmas was one amazement. With such a bounty of food and playthings amid a year of frugal existence, it was no wonder I considered Christmas an inexplicable miracle.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas parade from a different perspective

Walking down Nash Street in the Wilson Christmas Parade Saturday afternoon, I waved to crowds of faces I didn't know. Many of them returned my wave. "Merry Christmas," I said to many of them and heard their greetings in reply. One spectator yelled out to me, "I read your blog all the time! Wish you were still at the paper." Surprised at the greeting, I could only wave and reply, "Thanks!" Occasionally, I would detect a familiar face and try to catch her attention. All the while, I kept walking and waving. This mile-long walk was not a physical challenge. It was more of a pleasant stroll, made more enjoyable by the sight of so many happy faces.

For 23 years, I lived a block from the parade's route, and my wife and I would gather up our children and walk down to Nash Street to see the parade. Too often, we would grow tired of the parade and head home before its end.

The parade has a different look and a different feel when you're part of it instead of a patient watcher from the sidewalk. The variety the parade offers to the watcher is nothing compared to the variety of faces and expressions the participants in the parade see. And even when the parade's momentum stalls on occasion, the pace for someone walking the parade is so much more lively than the pace for someone watching it. When I watched the parade, I might catch a couple of hundred faces. Walking in the parade, I saw a few thousand faces, ranging from excited children to dutiful adults who felt obligated to attend an important civic event to curmudgeons who wouldn't smile or laugh no matter what passed by.

After 20-some parades as a spectator, this was my third parade as a participant. The latter role is much more satisfying.

666 posts are not a sign

This is the 666th post to this blog, but fear not ye fundamentalist biblical literalists and numerologists. This is the second Sunday of Advent, and looking around the nave of our small church, I felt a wave of love wash over me this morning. The blue paraments, the Advent wreath, the Scriptures, the Marty Hautgen liturgy, "Now the Feast and Celebration" (which we're using during Advent), and the familiar hymns "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Prepare the Royal Highway" set me in the mood for Advent, for drawing closer to God, for awaiting with anticipation the royal birth. It gave me a sense of optimism and relief that I had not felt recently, a confidence that all things would work for good.

At the communion rail, I felt the mood stronger still. "The body of Christ ..." "The blood of Christ..." A sense of humility warmed my clinched hands. "Amen," I said.

Six hundred sixty-six posts, but not a sign of the beast.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent has arrived

Last Sunday, with the pastor away on vacation, I preached the sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. Playing off the lectionary's warnings in the Gospel of Mark and Paul's letter to the Corinthians to be prepared for a day and a time you do not know, I talked about the need to observe Advent as a time of preparation before Christmas, a time to prepare and reflect for the coming of Christ. I recalled that 33 Advents ago, our pastor in Danville, Va., had written a letter to my pregnant wife comparing her pregnancy to Advent. Like Advent, a pregnancy is a time of preparation and anticipation. All of Christendom should be pregnant with anticipation and preparation during Advent, I suggested.

I don't know how well the sermon went or whether any of my fellow church members might be motivated to light an Advent wreath, read an Advent devotional or use an Advent calendar instead of rushing mindlessly into the commercialized Christmas holiday.

Yesterday, my wife found this video that explains Advent better and more entertainingly than I could, so I offer it as the message I had sought to deliver from the pulpit.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do nothing and fix the deficit

Here we are less than a week before the deadline for the Supercommittee to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, or else! Few people in and around Washington are holding out much hope for the partisan committee to agree on cuts that will prevent automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. This column by E.J. Dionne offers a different — and far more effective — solution: Simply let the Bush tax cuts expire and go back to the tax rates in place 11 years ago.

It seems like a different universe but was only just over 10 years ago. The Clinton presidency closed out with a budget surplus and a projection of budget surpluses as far out as budget writers could project. The U.S. Treasury would be flush with money. President George W. Bush pushed a solution to the budget surplus problem: Reduce taxes. His argument was that the government was taking in more money than it needed. Unless taxes and revenues were cut, he argued, Congress would just spend that excess revenue in worthless ways. I admit that I found the argument at least a little appealing at the time.

But guess what — it's no longer early 2001. We no longer have a budget surplus. We have a $1.4 trillion deficit. Even if the Supercommittee succeeds beyond expectations and enacts a $4 trillion budget cut over 10 years, the federal deficit will increase because we'll be cutting only $4 trillion from a 10-year cumulative deficit of at least $14 trillion. Doing nothing — letting the Bush tax cuts expire and tax rates rise to their 1990s level (a time of great economic growth, by the way) — is a far more effective and fairer way to reduce the federal deficit and debt. Yes, it would require sacrifice by all taxpayers, and sacrifice is a word that has disappeared from political discussions, but if we're going to correct our budget mess, we will have to sacrifice, like it or not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You can't escape television's grasp

Last week, I spent a couple of hours in the waiting room of two car repair shops while my car's oil was changed and four tires were replaced. I had a good novel to read, so two hours of being absorbed in reading should have been a treat, not a negative.

But there was a catch. In both places, a television blared from its corner throne, and all of us customers were expected to bow down and worship the inane proclamations from the idiot box. Although I was absorbed in my book, I could not escape the unrelenting chatter from the TV. The giggling talk-show panelists, the whining soap-opera stars and peripatetic advertisers kept inserting themselves into the book I was reading, leaving me discombobulated and disturbed. When a television is in the room, there is no escaping it. It overwhelms conversation and distracts reading. It disrupts rational thought.

Although I detest being forced to give attention to the television with its too-loud volume, there are fewer and fewer businesses whose waiting areas are without a television. I've even found televisions built into gas pumps so that even the five minutes of pumping gas cannot be a respite from the ubiquitous tube. I usually hunt for a seat facing away from the TV, but in many rooms, all the seats face the television ("pay attention!"). You are a prisoner, and you cannot escape your torture.

A video screen (not always broadcast/cable television) can be found almost everywhere now — waiting rooms, banks, restaurants, gas pumps. It should be no surprise that most of the population is distracted, confused and unable to focus on a single task. The insatiable video distraction will not leave us alone.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Veterans Day, I proudly wear the title

I was a reluctant veteran, but on this Veterans Day, I gladly share the spotlight with those who came before me and after — men and women who served their country, wore the uniform and sacrificed (even in small ways) for the nation's good.

Watching a History Channel documentary on the Vietnam War last night, I was reminded of why I was reluctant to fulfill my obligation. By the time I faced mandated military service (my draft number was 29), most of the American public had turned against the war in Vietnam. The carnage in that distant land seemed pointless; President Nixon was already withdrawing troops under his new "Vietnamization" policy. I chose an option that made it unlikely (though not improbable) that I would serve in Vietnam. I applied for and won a slot in Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.

In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I spent three years in Washington, D.C., at Coast Guard Headquarters. I worked for some amazingly efficient and dedicated senior officers. I met and got to know people from all over the country. My horizons expanded greatly. I experienced the metropolitan atmosphere of the D.C. area. My respect for those in uniform grew enormously. I developed great pride in the Coast Guard and its members.

I proudly claim the title of veteran, though I never faced combat, never endured an overseas deployment, never spent more than a couple of days at sea, and never had to work very hard after graduating OCS. At the same time, I learned what all service members learned — to focus on what's important, to obey orders, to respect those in authority, to work as a team, to be confident, to take pride in your work, to do things right the first time, to make sure there's "a place for everything and every thing in its place," to honor your oath to uphold the Constitution.

Most every veteran takes away these lessons from their years in uniform. Even 36 years after my active service ended, these lessons are still with me. I am a veteran.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An embarrassing exit for a legend

Penn State's board of trustees fire Coach Joe Paterno for failing to report an incident of child sexual abuse to police, and students riot in support of "Joe Pa"? If there's any doubt that big-time sports are running academia, it can be proven in the students' attitude: The big game with Nebraska is more important than protecting innocent child victims.

On the other hand, no one has been convicted in this case. A prosecutor has brought charges against the alleged perpetrator, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, but Sandusky maintains his innocence and has not yet faced a jury. The charges against Sandusky have created a media sensation with many seemingly willing to forgo due process and fair trial. Paterno, as well, apparently will not get his day in court to defend his legendary reputation.

Regardless of the truth of the allegations, Paterno's departure is a sad ending for a storied career. He has won more college football games than any major-college coach, and he has avoided any hint of scandal. But if the allegations are true, he failed police his assistant coach and made only a minimal attempt to report the crime reported to him. Only a week ago, Paterno, 83, had seemed destined to walk away into history with insurmountable victories and a reputation without blemish. Now he may have only the victories.

But the students at Penn State who rioted on his behalf need a reality check. Big Ten football is one thing; child sex abuse is quite another. Hint: The latter is the bigger deal.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Obama missed deficit-cut opportunity

Barack Obama's greatest mistake as president is likely the opportunity he didn't take — the opportunity to endorse and push for the reforms proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission. The proposals, which went nowhere after the much-ballyhooed panel reported back to the president, would have reduced the federal deficit by $3.6 trillion or so. It called for some tough cuts, including reductions in Medicare and Social Security spending, and it called for new revenues. In other words, it was a bipartisan plan, which was devised by a bipartisan panel of smart, experienced and realistic committee members. It could have given the president some shelter from inevitable criticism — this is what the committee recommended. But Obama let the controversial plan wither without his endorsement and without any effort to follow through on the course he had initiated.

Now, another panel, this one composed of highly partisan members of Congress looking out for their own and their party's political future, is tasked with coming up with a deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving — or else. The "or else" is automatic spending cuts that would reduce government spending across the board, slashing essential spending as well as optional spending and entirely forgoing the option of raising revenues, which most Americans say they favor.

It's too late for Obama to go back and reconsider endorsing the Bowles-Simpson plan. His cowardly error has put us on this path that leads to potential chaos in only three weeks.

I can't think of a worse error in his presidency.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shakespeare controversy is not dead

Sarah Beckwith's op-ed piece in today's News & Observer, "Shakespeare was Hardly Anonymous," would have you believe there has never been a controversy over Shakespeare's authorship. But the authorship controversy is nearly as old as the plays themselves. Even some contemporaries of the actor from Stratford-on-Avon and some who came soon after raised doubts about who wrote the plays attributed to him.

I'm no expert on the matter, as Beckwith purports to be, but I've been reading about the controversy and have been intrigued by it for more than three decades. (I blogged about this matter more than two years ago: "Will the true Shakespeare please stand up?") A Washington Post article in the mid-1970s first introduced me to serious doubts about the authorship of the greatest set of writings in the English language. The Atlantic magazine devoted a cover story to the authorship controversy in 1991 and has looked back at the point-counterpoint arguments over the Bard in this post. (I think I still have that issue of the Atlantic squirreled away somewhere.) Neither the Washington Post nor The Atlantic can be accused of lacking seriousness. lists 166 results in a search for books on "Edward de Vere Shakespeare." Admittedly, that doesn't mean there are 166 different books available on this subject, but the controversy has generated dozens of serious books. One of the more recent is "Shakespeare by Another Name: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare." I checked that book out of the public library and found it quite persuasive in its argument that Edward de Vere should rightfully be credited for the authorship of the Shakespearean plays. Hank Whittemore has written a book titled "The Great Shakespeare Hoax," and there are others. To claim there is no controversy or that the argument is akin to flat-earth claims is ridiculous.

The contention of the Shakespeare debunkers boils down to doubts about the ability of the man William Shakespeare to write the plays attributed to him. He had little or no education — some even doubt that he could read and write. But the plays attributed to him expanded the English language with new words and metaphors that have become familiar parts of our conversations — "the milk of human kindness," "a pound of flesh," etc. His vocabulary exceeded that of the translators of the King James Bible. He was intimately familiar with the royal court, with foreign literature and classic tales and, perhaps most tellingly, with Italy, where several of his plays are set. But William Shakespeare, the actor, never traveled to Italy. Edward de Vere lived there for some time, in Verona. There were good reasons in Elizabethan society for an aristocrat to deny authorship of plays, which were considered debauched common entertainment unfit for royalty. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the logical answer to the question, "Who had the education, skills and life experiences to have written these plays?"

I know English professors who are steadfast in their faith that William Shakespeare, despite his lack of formal education, travel and worldly knowledge, wrote the plays attributed to him, and I respect their position. (I am an English major who took only one Shakespeare course.) I don't think the question is a closed book, but I do lean strongly toward the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays and an actor named William Shakespeare took credit for them.

We may never be able to satisfy this 500-year-old mystery, but it is a mystery, one of the greatest in literary history. If the mystery is not why de Vere denied his authorship, then it is how Shakespeare managed to write so magnificently about things he never experienced.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Saddam could have been another Qaddafi

The capture/killing/execution of Muammar Qaddafi by Libyan rebels occurred with no loss of American lives. That makes you wonder how different the world might have been if the NATO strategy in Libya had been applied to Iraq in 1991.

In 1991, the United States, having amassed a huge coalition army, attacked Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and stormed into the Iraqi desert, unimpeded by Saddam Hussein's once-feared military. American air strikes had obliterated the Iraqi air force, and American ground forces with air support had demolished the Iraqi army, sending remnants of it scurrying toward Baghdad in one of the most complete military victories in modern history. After 100 days of one-sided combat, President George H.W. Bush declared the war was over. Riding ridiculously high approval ratings, Bush seemed assured of re-election.

Bush and his advisers chose not to follow the panicked Iraqi troops into Baghdad and directly overthrow Saddam Hussein. They were convinced that the Iraqi people would rise up against the now-weakened tyrant and quickly be rid of him. His army was decimated, his air force crippled and the allies promised to keep his remaining fighter jets out of the sky. The oppressed Shiite majority should easily be able to overthrow the ruthless dictator.

That was the theory, but it didn't work out that way. Allies allowed Iraqi helicopters to fly, and those aircraft gave Saddam the advantage he needed to crush the rebellion. For 12 years, Iraq played cat-and-mouse with Allied fighter jets patrolling skies over Iraq while, on the ground, Saddam built an even more oppressive regime. In 2003, the first President Bush's son saw an opportunity to finish the job his father had begun. Using erroneous or fraudulent intelligence, George W. Bush declared that the world had to depose Saddam Hussein before he could use his weapons of mass destruction. It should be another cakewalk, just like 1991, the advisers said. Once again they were wrong, and 4,400 American troops would die in the invasion and the subsequent insurgency.

If the first President Bush had followed NATO's Libyan protocol of 20 years later and provided air support for Iraqi dissidents, Saddam Hussein might have been deposed 12 years earlier, the Iraq war would not have happened, the United States would not have spent trillions of dollars in an ill-conceived invasion and occupation, 4,400 Americans would still be alive, the federal budget would be far healthier, and America would enjoy far more support in Arab countries.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Helping a stranger while dodging traffic

I was stopped at a busy stoplight at the intersection of two four-lane roads one recent afternoon, about five vehicles back from the stoplight. More cars were behind me. I noticed a box truck pulled over to the curb of the intersecting street, its cargo bay open. A man was walking away from the truck, watching approaching traffic, as he stooped to collect something from the roadway.

It took a moment to realize that what he was retrieving was several folding chairs that had fallen from the open rear of the cargo truck. I couldn't tell how many chairs were in the roadway, but I could see enough, as I peered around the cars ahead of me, to see that it might take several signal cycles for him to clear the traffic hazards. There were enough chairs to stall traffic for a while, and, already, drivers were ignoring the traffic signal and looking instead for a path between the chairs lying in the road.

Then something surprising happened. First one driver, then another and another, got out of the cars waiting in front of me and, watching the oncoming traffic carefully, walked into the roadway to help the man whose chairs were in the road. With this additional help, the road was quickly cleared, the chairs were secured in the truck, drivers returned to their vehicles, and the stoplight began to matter again.

I don't know how many places something like this might happen. I don't know how many people would put their lives at risk on a busy street to help a stranger who either failed to secure his cargo or was the victim of an equipment failure. But I saw some brave and considerate souls do the right thing. In the process, they helped everyone waiting at that intersection get where they were going.

It happened in Wilson, N.C.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First impression of Cain plays out

Back in June, I wrote that after the first Republican presidential debate, Herman Cain came across as a serious, even viable candidate. It's amusing now to see that Cain, the unlikely politician, has risen to the top of the GOP field, at least in some polls. With another debate scheduled tonight, Cain will have another opportunity to live up to his newfound ranking.

Cain is still an unlikely candidate. With no campaigning or governing experience, he has a handicap vs. his more experienced opponents. Still, he has struck a chord with some voters. He comes across as folksy, jovial and avuncular. His 9-9-9 plan has taken off, despite the fact that it would shift tax burden to the poor and low-income and probably would not produce enough revenue, analysts say, to cover the federal government's expenses. Cain continues to pitch the plan with the fervor of a snake-handling evangelist and is not about to back down, even to questions about whether 9-9-9 might turn into 12-12-12 (percent sales tax, personal income tax and corporate tax).

What Cain's rise in the polls indicates is that voters are not particularly interested in a candidate's race or color. The GOP electorate is conservative and predominantly white, but a plurality of GOP voters polls say they like Cain and support him. If Cain's race has handicapped him in any way, it's not apparent.

Cain remains highly unlikely to win the nomination, and as his platform comes under greater scrutiny and his foreign policy inexperience becomes more apparent, he is likely to slide in the polls. Still, his accomplishment as a businessman taking on the political establishment is impressive. He has livened up the GOP debate without venturing over the cliff with Ron Paul.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Returning to campus after so many years

My wife had this wild idea: Why not sit in the Carolina Inn bar and watch a football game on the big-screen TV instead of sitting in Kenan Stadium on a too-warm afternoon to watch the game from afar (assuming we could find tickets). We tried her idea on Saturday, when Carolina was playing Miami and the streets and sidewalks of Chapel Hill were packed with thousands of extra cars and people. On a gloriously beautiful autumn day, we sat in the bar, ordered $11 hamburgers and delicious draft beer and watched as the Tar Heels looked disappointingly inept on their way to a 17-0 halftime deficit.

By then, having consumed a hamburger and a couple of beers each, we'd seen enough of disappointment and decided to stroll down to Franklin Street, where my wife wanted to cash in a coupon at a store. First, we took a detour through campus, along the brick walks of the oldest portions of the now-sprawling campus — Memorial Hall, South Building, the Old Well, Person Hall, BVP, the Davie Poplar and the rest. Although portions of the campus are barely recognizable because so many new structures have been squeezed into formerly wooded or pastoral slices of ground, this part of campus is little changed from its 1790s origins and is nearly identical to its mid-1960s appearance. The old buildings are freshly washed or painted; the creeping ivy is missing from several buildings that now glow in the sunlight. All four of us, all Carolina alumni, strolled slowly through our memories of this place, picking out favorite spots and keen recollections, opening doors left unlocked and standing back to admire improvements.

You can say it about any university campus, I suppose, that it is a "special place," where teenagers tasted freedom, tested independence and learned maturity. It's a place of ideas and concepts formerly unknown and of interests explored. It is as well a place of romance — each of us had met our spouse at this place — and a foundation for later life.

On football weekends when I was a student, I would see the returning alumni and feel more pity than envy for them. They turned out in university-emblazoned finery and drove big cars at a time when ragged jeans and sweatshirts were normative student attire. I interpreted their presence as an attempt to relive their youth. My youthful analysis was flawed. Now I realize that returning to this place is not an effort to relive one's youth; it is a way of saying thanks for the glories of youth and, also, for the blessings of maturing years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why should we 'Occupy Wall Street'?

Although I came of age in the era of protests — the 1960s — and participated in a few myself, I am having trouble figuring out the Occupy Wall Street protests. These protests, which are proudly leaderless and disorganized, take aim at the big banks and other financial institutions on Wall Street and have spread to demonstrations in other cities, including Chapel Hill, N.C. (which has a long history of protests).

But it seems to me that the protesters are blaming the beneficiaries of policies when they should be targeting the creators of policies — Congress and the executive branch of government. The rich have gotten richer, the income gap has widened and economic wealth has become more concentrated not because banks and investors have taken advantage of opportunities but because the government has paved their paths to these new economic realities. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, deregulation of banking and forceful pushing of questionable home loans are all federal policies. Banks and investors have taken advantage of these policies, but who could blame them? The last thing this economy needs is a ban on taking on opportunities.

Wall Street — as a term meaning American corporate thinking — can be blamed for some policies that are not good for the nation as a whole and are particularly bad for certain segments of the population. Corporate policy has frequently been criticized as being too short-sighted, looking no further than the next quarterly report when wise business practices would be looking ahead to the next year or the next decade. Satisfying investors and the corporate board is not as important in the long term as satisfying customers as a whole. The short-sighted focus on the next earnings report also ignores larger economic good, such as environmental benefits and domestic employment.

So, yes, I see the anger at Wall Street and the frustration of young people with large student loans but no jobs, but the first policy change needs to come out of Washington, not out of Wall Street. Or so it seems to me.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Presidential primaries can't get much earlier

SOMEDAY SOON — The Florida Republican Party announced today that it will hold its presidential primary tomorrow. In response, New Hampshire, announced it was moving its presidential primary, traditionally the first in the nation, to yesterday.

These announcements follow a string of escalations in the Great Presidential Primary Wars that began when Florida announced it would hold its presidential primary in January. Refusing to be relegated to second place in the presidential sweepstakes, New Hampshire promptly moved its primary to December.

But the Christmas Primary was short-lived, when Florida proclaimed its primary day to be the Day after Thanksgiving. Then New Hampshire retaliated by declaring Halloween its primary day, despite a chorus of "how appropriate!" from cynical Democrats. Ultimately, that led to today's twin announcements of the Tomorrow Primary and the Yesterday Primary.

Asked how voters were supposed to arrange to vote tomorrow, much less yesterday, one New Hampshire party spokesman admitted, on condition of anonymity, "It's not the vote we're after. We just want the over-the-top publicity for an event that involves only a minuscule portion of the national electorate."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: One shock after another

Steve Jobs' death came as a shock Wednesday. He was a modern-day genius who changed technology and, by doing so, changed popular culture and society. (I wrote about this recently in this blog post.)

As we look back on Jobs' legacy, we get another shock: The iPod is only 10 years old. It's hard to remember a world without it. Not so long ago, my children were listening to music on a Sony Walkman, which seemed so compact and convenient, capable of playing 40 minutes or so of consecutive music on a cassette tape. The CD version of the Walkman seemed like the ultimate in personal listening. Now, I have hours of music on an iPod shuffle that is barely larger than a postage stamp. It was Jobs' visionary creativity that gave us these devices and others. The iPod led to the podcast, which makes all sorts of radio programs and other information or entertainment available at our convenience. The iTunes store revolutionized how we buy music, as well as movies and television shows.

I've been using Apple products for more than 25 years and have always found them preferable to the alternatives because Jobs demanded products that were not only technically competent but also easy to use, intuitive, practical and elegant. In the process, he created one of the most successful companies in American history. The company had its first office and manufacturing facility in the Jobs family garage.

Here's another shock: Jobs' genius was so little appreciated that he was actually forced out of the company he had co-founded. During his exile beginning in 1985, he went on to other imaginative ventures, including NeXT computers, which was later bought by Apple. When he returned in 1996, Apple was losing money, and consumers were leery of Apple products, fearful that the company might soon be bankrupt. But Jobs directed the development of the odd-looking iMac and then a whole range of new products, including the hugely successful iPhone. Jobs took big risks — the iMac was ridiculed at first because it had no floppy disk drive. Critics said consumers wouldn't by a computer without a floppy drive (Apple's original Mac had led the change from 5.25-inch floppies to the less floppy 3.5 inch disks), but the critics were wrong.

It seems doubtful that Apple will be able to maintain its creative boldness without Jobs, but I hope his sense of inventiveness, perfectability and user-friendliness has so pervaded Apple that the company will remain an innovation leader.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A chill in the air, and altered sunlight

I feel the chill in the air and welcome it after so many spring and summer afternoons working in the hot sun. Saturday's chill came unexpectedly simply because I had not looked at the forecast, somehow assuming that summer's warmth would continue through the weekend. I borrowed a jacket from my son for a chilly walk through his Greensboro neighborhood, reveling in the brisk breeze and the changing leaves. We needed only the aroma of a wood fire to think that winter had fully arrived.

The sunlight is different. After last weekend's dreary clouds and misty rain, the sunlight is back but no longer the same. Its obtuse angle gives a different feel to the daylight. It is the difference between a spotlight set too low and a broad-spectrum floodlight shining high overhead. Driving west in the late afternoon on Friday, I shifted my eyes and my whole body to take the glare out of my eyes and to avoid being blinded by sunlight on a plane with my face.

Light is quickly receding. Darkness slips in before dinner is done, and the night stretches out to cover more of every 24-hour span. The artificial creation of Daylight Saving Time will soon be repealed until next year, and the darkness will push out the light before the end of every workday.

Last week, walking out to the driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper, I looked up at the cloudless sky and saw Orion stalking prey across the black sky, the surest sign that winter is on its way. Nature's time cycle continues its revolution, and it is good.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Early warning signs I don't want to see

Jane Brody's New York Times article about cognitive impairment as a sign of impending dementia hit me like a water balloon dropped from a high-rise. If you're having a problem remembering things, such as simple, familiar words, or names of people you know, you might have only a few more years of functional living before Alzheimer's disease takes over your life.

What scares me is that I have had these cognitive impairments for some time. I've always had difficulty remembering names, even in my twenties. Something in my cognitive makeup doesn't latch onto names, so for years I've run into people whose faces I know but whose name I cannot produce. Words also escape me from time to time. The name of a flower I see by the walk just escapes me, as does the common noun that I know perfectly well but my brain just won't produce. I've learned to live with these frustrating and sometimes embarrassing impairments. If it gets no worse than this, I can take frustration and occasional embarrassment, but if these lapses are indicative of looming dementia, I don't want to face it.

In their declining years, my parents both exhibited mild to moderate dementia and confusion, which they tried to hide. Dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are diseases that have a genetic element, and that gives me more cause for concern. When my parents were spending their final years in a nursing home, I told my wife that if she suspected I was losing my mental faculties, she should sign me up for skydiving lessons. "If I can't remember to pull the ripcord, I don't want to live, anyway," I said.

I stand by that sentiment. It seems cruel to see someone who is intellectually sharp trapped in a body ravaged by MS or ALS, but it seems even worse to me to occupy a relatively healthy body but lose memories, reasoning and personality, leaving nothing but a shell. For the present, I'm hoping that Brody's early warning signs are, in my case, simply a case of brain overload, having retained more facts and memories than my brain can efficiently store and reproduce.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Penalize Congress for failure to pass budget

Ah-h-h-h! We've avoided another government shutdown. At least that's the hope — who knows for sure, these days? Even if the government doesn't shut down, Congress' track record on fiscal responsibility is abysmal. The dodging of a shutdown is being achieved via a stopgap funding bill, a continuing resolution that allows the government to operate even though no budget for fiscal year 2012 has been passed. FY2012 begins Saturday!

This is nothing new. Congress routinely fails to pass a budget before the new fiscal year begins. So year after year, no matter which party controls Capitol Hill or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the federal government survives through special measures forced upon Congress because it has failed to pass a budget. Federal fiscal years used to begin on July 1, but Congress said it needed just a little more time, so Congress changed the start of the fiscal year to Oct. 1. (I was a federal employee in Washington, D.C., at the time of that 15-month transitional fiscal year in the early 1970s.) It has done no good. Congress is no better at passing the budget by Oct. 1 than it was at passing a budget by July 1. When you consider that passing a budget is, arguably, the single most important task of Congress every year, that's a sorry track record.

My suggestion is this: Pass a law that cuts off the salary and expense accounts of all members of Congress when a comprehensive budget is not passed by the beginning of the fiscal year. Continuing resolutions or stopgap funding won't count; it has to be a full budget — the main job constituents sent them to Washington to do. Otherwise, their pay is cut to zero until the day both houses of Congress pass the entire budget for the fiscal year and the president signs it.

I think this proposal might give members of Congress some incentive to get their jobs done.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Where will we have these discussions?

Roaming the aisles of a closing bookstore for a few minutes earlier today, I ran into an acquaintance who wanted to talk books. Always a good topic, especially surrounded by so many of the topic.

She asked if I had read a couple of authors and was looking for a good book to buy at 20% off on this day before the store closed for good. She asked about John Irving, and I told her he and I share a birth date. I told her I thought "World According to Garp" was a great book. She said she'd read the synopsis on the book's cover and didn't think she'd like it. I told her it was not at all the kind of book I had expected from comments from some friends when I read it 30 years ago. I found it intriguing and affirming about relationships. She said she'd read "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and liked it. I recommended "A Widow for One Year," but she'd tried it and didn't like it. We both agreed "Hotel New Hampshire" was too weird.

Looking through the stacks of books, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini caught my eye. I handed the paperback to her and urged her to read it. "It's about Afghanistan, isn't it?" she said skeptically. Yes, I said, but it's a wonderful story and it teaches so much about Afghanistan. "Is it depressing?" Well, part of it is set in the Taliban era, so yes, but it's well worth the trouble. Hosseni's "A Thousand Splendid Suns" was lying on the next shelf. I recommended it also. She finally agreed to buy "The Kite Runner" but threatened to throw it at me if it wasn't good. I told her I had no worries.

I spent the next few minutes trying to remember the author and title of a book I've recommended dozens of times. Senior moment. By the time I remembered it, I was out of the store and halfway across the parking lot. I walked back to where she was sitting in her car and told her: "Magic Time" by Doug Marlette. She wanted to know the time period of the book. Marlette weaves together three time periods with the same characters — the civil rights era of the 1960s, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and present day (2008 or 2009). I've told other people that I thought it was the truest, most accurate fictionalization of race relations in the South during the early 1960s. "The Help," another book I enjoyed but didn't remember to recommend today, has more recently tackled the same era from a much different vantage point and with a less complicated plot. I'm saddened every time I recommend "Magic Time" that Marlette, the editorial cartoonist who created the comic strip "Kudzu," died in a car crash not long after "Magic Time" was published. A literary tragedy!

With Books-A-Million closing, where will people in Wilson have conversations like this?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When a town's bookstore closes

Wilson's Books-A-Million, the only bookstore in a town of nearly 50,000, is closing, the victim of a lingering economic downturn and a changed business environment for booksellers. First, it was the big-box bookstores that ran the little independents out of business. Now, it's the online retailers (Amazon, etc.) and the switch to e-readers (e.g., Kindle) that is forcing the big-box bookstores out of business.

Economic changes aside, can a small city claim any intellectual ranking without a bookstore? A bookstore is not just a place to buy books; it's a place to discover books, to talk to fellow readers and to luxuriate in the aroma and feel of freshly printed books. Bookstores are places where I can spend hours without realizing any time has elapsed.

When we moved to Wilson 31 years ago, a B. Dalton bookstore lured us out of Parkwood Mall's wide corridor into its cramped aisles. Now the store (part of a chain but with some helpful local clerks) is gone, and the mall is pretty much kaput, too. We mourned the demise of B. Dalton but were encouraged by BAM's opening. We could, at last, shop through thousands of books along wide aisles and refresh ourselves at the coffee bar without leaving town. Every Christmas season, we would hunt through the selections for books for young nieces and nephews because we knew there's no better gift than a good book, and we wanted to have a role in sparking these children's love of reading. Other gift-giving occasions for older relatives or friends also would bring us to the bookstore. On other occasions, we would simply drop by the bookstore to spend a half hour or so just looking to see what's new and to treat ourselves to a cup of coffee.

Now, we won't be able to do any of those things without going out of town. We can order books online, but it's not the same, especially when it comes to children's books. Without a bookstore, Wilson will be a lesser place.

BAM's closing will be an opportunity for an enterprising bibliophile to open an independent bookstore, perhaps combining used books with a few new printings. The business plan will depend on one's ability to get a business loan in this economic climate — and on local shoppers' willingness to support that increasingly rarity, an independent bookstore.

Monday, September 19, 2011

ACC gets bigger, not better

Size matters. That's certainly true on the offensive line in football and in the three-second lane in basketball. It also applies to collegiate athletic conferences, at least as far as the league executives are concerned. For the fans, I'm not so sure.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has announced an expansion of the 58-year-old conference to 14 teams, adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the 12-team roster. Two factors are behind this move: (1) Major conferences are falling apart or expanding — the Big 10, Big 12, Pac 10 (I have trouble keeping up with the numbers) are adding or shedding teams and (2) enlarging the conference and adding major television markets increases the conference's revenue from TV contracts.

If you haven't noticed, television controls intercollegiate athletics. That's why you have Thursday night and Friday night football games. That's why you have 9 p.m. start times for basketball games. Everything is geared toward maximizing TV audiences, even if the schedule is bad for the fans and the student athletes.

I am reminded of televised boxing, which had its heyday around the time the Atlantic Coast Conference was formed. "Friday Night Fights" was a staple of televised sports in the 1950s when college basketball and football got relatively little attention. Boxing fell from favor and disappeared as a regularly scheduled broadcast within a few years. One of the explanations for boxing's fall was that television demanded matches that were not good for the boxers or for the sport. (The brutality of the sport and some in-ring tragedies also contributed to its demise.) Feeding television's insatiable demand was not good for boxing. Collegiate football and basketball have not reached that tipping point yet, but concerns over television's influence are rising.

I am one fan who would prefer the early days of the ACC, when eight teams competed within a relatively compact geographic area, and almost every game was a rivalry. Each team played every conference opponent in football each season, and in basketball, each team played twice, one game at home and one game away. This made for wonderfully heated rivalries and great excitement among fans and alumni. The conference comprised North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Clemson. Stricter academic standards for athletes and other factors led South Carolina to (foolishly, it turned out) leave the conference in 1971. Georgia Tech was recruited to replace South Carolina, adding the Atlanta TV market. Since then, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College have enlisted, bringing their own TV markets and fan following. The home-and-away basketball games had to be dropped, and the football season was divided into two divisions. Rivalries waned.

The bottom line is nearly $2 billion worth of television contract. Forget about the fans; forget about the rivalries. Television rules.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gathering stirs newspaper memories

The memorial service Saturday in Maplewood Cemetery for Margaret Dickerman was cool and damp, but warmed by the renewal of relationships with former co-workers and others who had been part of Mrs. Dickerman's universe. She was remembered for her caring and concern, for her kindnesses, for her membership in "The Greatest Generation," for her faith and for her civic-minded philanthropy.

I was there to pay my respects to a woman who had been wonderfully considerate and kind to my family when we moved to Wilson 31 years ago. She took the time to find a house we could rent until we decided on a permanent home. She recommended doctors and a dentist, insurance agents and other resources for us, strangers in a new town. She drove my wife and small children around town, pointing out landmarks and neighborhoods. One day she brought a pot of hot soup for our lunch. She personified the graciousness of eastern North Carolina, and we were eternally grateful to her for making our difficult transition a little easier.

In my early years at the newspaper her grandfather had founded, her presence was obvious. She wanted everything decorous and proper, which wasn't always possible in a messy news environment. She knew the employees and cared about them. Frequent pot-luck lunches and a grand Christmas party created a genuine sense of unity and cohesiveness. We joked that you might not get rich working there, but you wouldn't starve.

Over the years, the newspaper business changed, that newspaper changed, and Mrs. Dickerman's influence faded as she aged and became less involved. Few recent hires knew her or even knew of her. Gathered beneath that funeral tent Saturday, the old-timers paid their respects and remembered the good times.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Obama is counting on North Carolina

President Obama was back in North Carolina Wednesday, an indication that he thinks he might be able to repeat his win in the state. His 2008 taking of North Carolina, the first Democratic presidential win here since Jimmy Carter in 1976, seemed miraculous and impressive at the time. Repeating that win might truly be miraculous.

North Carolina not so long ago enjoyed its success as a job-creating economic engine. Manufacturing and high-tech companies came here for the state's low taxes and low unionization rates. But since the recession began in 2008, North Carolina has trailed the nation as a whole in jobs and economic stability. The state's downward economic spiral seems likely to continue with Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte, announcing 30,000 job cuts earlier this week.

Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), the president and his party get blamed for economic misery, so Obama's effort to keep North Carolina in his camp will be especially difficult unless the economy turns around. An economic boost seems unlikely in the next year. Forecasts are for weak growth, at best. The unemployment rate seems likely to remain stubbornly high, and that rate is worse than in recent past recessions because so many of the unemployed are mid-career or older breadwinners. The housing crisis, which sparked this recession, will not be solved soon because so many mortgages are delinquent or in foreclosure.

To win in North Carolina and nationwide, Obama will have to hope for mistakes on the other side. If Republican primary voters nominate a Tea Party favorite who appears to threaten the existence of Social Security and Medicare or who suggests continuing war in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, Obama's task will seem more manageable, though still an uphill slog.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Toppled trees should be replaced

You would think that, after the devastating hurricanes of 1996 and 1999, Wilson would have few trees left for high winds to topple. But everywhere I go now, I see trees down and damage to homes that stood in the falling trees' paths.

I spent the day that Hurricane Irene struck and several days thereafter in Rocky Mount and did not get to see much of Wilson's damage. In terms of damage to the electrical grid, Rocky Mount clearly had it worse. There were still hundreds of Rocky Mount customers without power days after Wilson Energy announced its lines were fully restored. But that doesn't mean that there weren't many, many trees down on Wilson houses or across Wilson streets. Stately old willow oaks were twisted and wrenched from their trunks in many Wilson yards. Or big trees were ripped from the ground, their monstrous root ball exposed to the air. Some pines were snapped off high above the ground. In my yard, we had limbs and branches down, but the trees somehow managed to withstand the wind. We are worried about one sassafras, however. Its roots were lifted and partly exposed, and we could not pull the tree back to a fully upright position. I used an electric chain saw to trim back the tree and bring it more upright. We're hoping it will survive.

We want these trees to survive because they provide shade and charm to a neighborhood. That's why older neighborhoods, with stately trees and canopied streets look so much more appealing than stark new streets without a tree in sight. But there are dangers. Trees have a life span, and they incur diseases that leave them hollow and brittle. Add a little wind, and you can have a 70-foot obstruction in the street or a cleaver that chops off a roof gable. Still, if you look at Wilson from the seventh-floor board room of the BB&T Towers, you see green trees stretching to the horizon with a steeple or roofline here and there. The carpet of treetops seems as impenetrable as a shield. Those trees of our urban forest are our best antidote to the pollution created by our cars, trucks, power plants and furnaces. Without them, our streets would be barren, our yards inhospitably hotter and our air dirtier.

That's why I hope all of the trees lost to Hurricane Irene, as well as those toppled by Floyd and Fran, will be replaced with healthy, long-living and beautiful trees so that our landscape will always be charming and inviting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The (Sunday school) lessons of 9/11

Today's 10th anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 attacks are more interesting than the NFL games on this first weekend of the season. The anniversary and the 10-year-old event were the topics of an adult Sunday school discussion this morning. Blame me for that. Asked to teach the class and given the freedom to choose whatever material I wanted, I settled on the anniversary as a discussion starter. I downloaded some material from several religious websites, including some National Council of Churches material.

Ten years later, some of the shock and anger have abated, but the grief and the determination remain. A statement signed by thousands of religious leaders issued days after the attacks condemned the terrorists' strategy of using any grievance as an excuse for violence and mass murder. But it also called for a response of love and understanding instead of more violence. Ten years later, our primary response is still violence against violence.

And where has it gotten us? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars in U.S. wealth. Our troops are still trying to pacify cities in Afghanistan, and our scheduled departure from Iraq could result in civil war in that former dictatorship. Osama bin Laden, who planned and gloated over the 9/11 attacks, is dead, shot by a Navy Seal in a daring nighttime raid. But American troops remain bogged down in his former sanctuary.

In a CNN interview today, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to concede that the Iraq war was a foolish and costly mistake, but the question clearly made him uncomfortable as he hedged his answers. The invasion that led to the aptly named book "Fiasco" was sold as a means of stopping the spread of "weapons of mass destruction," but it turned out Iraq didn't have any. Instead, it had hundreds of thousands of mines and artillery shells that were easily converted into "improvised explosive devices" that proved perfect for killing and maiming American troops.

The attacks of 10 years ago will be judged in history as an act of infamy at least as brazen as Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attacks. But America's response to the latter attacks were clearly not as effective as the response of December 1941 and following. World War II lasted less than four years from the date of America's entry. The response to 9/11, dubbed a "war on terror," has lasted 10 years — and counting, in time, lives and treasure.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Fixed income" complaint lacks firepower

You used to hear it all the time: "I'm on a fixed income and ... ." The complaint came almost exclusively from retirees commenting on some new tax increase or price hike.

That complaint is less common now because most people can claim to be on a "fixed income." Over the past five years, annual pay increases have disappeared for large numbers of workers. Even some government workers, who once could rely on a 3 to 5 percent pay "cost of living" increase or a "merit" raise, are now facing flat wages or even reduced take-home pay as cities, counties and states begin charging employees for part of the cost of health care or retirement reserves. Many private industries have imposed a wage freeze as a means of reducing costs while avoiding layoffs. Other industries have resorted to layoffs to cut costs, and some unionized companies (look at the auto industry) have actually reduced pay rates.

So the complaint that "I'm on a fixed income" no longer generates the sympathy it once did. The "fixed income" assertion was often not accurate anyway. Since the 1970s, Social Security has incorporated an automatic cost-of-living increase that, in most years, increased monthly benefits. Only when inflation was very low were Social Security benefits "fixed" from year to year. Some pension plans and annuities are truly "fixed" — they pay the same monthly rate year after year, but Social Security has been annually adjusted to match the rate of inflation and eliminate loss of "real" income.

The "fixed income" complaint has lost steam largely because there are millions of unemployed workers who would love to be on a "fixed income" or any other kind of income. Millions of others have taken lower-paying jobs in order to escape unemployment. As one of the latter category, I would love to have had my income "fixed" at what it was five years ago, when it was capped by a company wage freeze.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Travel is exhausting but worth it

Here are a few observations from our quickie weekend trip to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the wedding of nephew Mark:

• Airport security is pretty ridiculous. You have to be at the airport two hours before the flight. Even on Labor Day weekend Friday at RDU, a very busy airport, we ended up with more than an hour to kill after getting through security. On our return flight on Sunday, the airport was nearly deserted. The Transportation Security Agency agents outnumbered passengers by about eight-to-one. Apparently just to amuse themselves, an agent announced that he needed to open my bag and look inside. He opened the bag, took out a container of talcum powder and announced he'd have to test the powder. He shook some powder out of the original manufacturer's container, releasing enough powder to kill everyone in the airport if it had been anthrax, and carefully dropped two liquids onto the powder he had captured on a little square of paper. "Looks good," he said, then took a plastic probe and ran it through my suitcase before sending the bag back through the X-ray machine again. The whole process must have relieved their Sunday morning boredom.

• We tend to think of where we live or where we were reared as the best place to be, but I found myself intrigued with the Grand Rapids area. Major roads have no development — commercial or residential — abutting the roadway. It's all set back behind trees and other greenery. A wide sidewalk paralleled the road, even rural roads, giving people a place to walk or bicycle. What a great idea! Michigan seems designed for outdoor activities — kayaking, canoeing, biking, running, etc. And the topography is beautiful — forested rolling hills similar to what you might find in the Morganton or Mount Airy area. Of course, we were there in September, not February. I suspect the winters are brutal.

• When first invited to the wedding in Grand Rapids, my first thought was "home of the Gerald Ford Presidential Library." We didn't make it to the presidential library, nor did we make it to the famed gardens my wife wanted to visit. A two-day whirlwind trip left almost no time for personal activities.

• For the first time in more than 15 years, I rented a car. The agency gave us a "free upgrade" to a larger sedan instead of the compact we had reserved. I got to drive a Hyundai Sonata, which was roomy and drove beautifully. From my couple of days' experience, I'd say the Sonata is a rational alternative to an Accord or a Camry.

• Trips are exhausting and discombobulating. The rush to get to places on time, the unfamiliar surroundings, the anxieties, the scheduled activities all combine to tire you out. Being one place one minute and a thousand miles away three hours later plays tricks on your brain and your body. I'm convinced that humans were not meant to travel like that. Even a weekend car trip of a couple of hundred miles wears me out.

• There are occasions when it's important to "be there." Saturday's wedding was one of those occasions. Although I gulped at the distance and expense when I first learned of these wedding plans, there was never any question that we would go. Weddings are joyous occasions for bride and groom, and it is essential for them to be launched into their new life by those who have played important roles in their original, separate lives. You need to be there to see them off and to keep them close for the rest of all of your lives. Some of my greatest regrets in my life have to do with the funerals I missed. They were too far away; I had too many other things to do; the timing didn't fit my schedule. I missed final goodbyes to beloved aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandfather. At the same time, I missed helping support and feeling the love of grieving family members. It has been said that distant family members too often only see each other at weddings and funerals. Don't miss any opportunities.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rocky Mount, Wilson weather storm

I spent almost all of Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Rocky Mount as Hurricane Irene blew through eastern North Carolina. Unlike some members of the response team, I was able to spend the night in my own bed each night, although the days were long. Observing damage and emergency response in both Rocky Mount and Wilson gave me an opportunity to compare the two.

Rocky Mount seems to have suffered more damage than Wilson did from the hurricane's high winds. Both cities had trees down in the road and a widespread power losses. Rocky Mount reported more than 15,000 customers without power at one point Saturday. Late Sunday, large areas of that city were without power, and many intersections had no working traffic lights, which made travel a little more scary. At my home in Wilson, we lost power for less than two hours on Saturday, and our Greenlight service also stayed on. The highest power outage total I saw in Wilson was less than 4,000, and all of the stoplights I encountered on my commute were working (admittedly, this is a small sample).

Wilson utility crews did a phenomenal job following the April 16 tornado getting electricity restored in only four days to areas that were obliterated by that storm, and it looks like they've done a good job again. Somewhere in my neighborhood, I've heard a generator humming, but it appears that only a few people have had to resort to gasoline for electric power.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Apple computers, Steve Jobs and me

I've been using Apple products since the mid-1980s, only a few years after the first, boxy little Macintosh came out. I've personally owned five Macs (three bought second-hand) over the years. In fact, I had some experience with an Apple IIe computer that I used in taking a BASIC programming course in about 1981. I've always enjoyed the intuitive, simple interface of the Macs I've used. Jumping from a Microsoft DOS-based computer at my office to the Mac's graphical user interface with point-and-click selections and simple commands in the early 1990s was like going from doing algebra in Roman numerals to using a calculator.

When the newspaper I was editing faced a decision on a new production system in the late 1990s, it was at Apple's low ebb. Some forecasters were saying that Apple would soon be bankrupt or would get out of the computer business altogether. It's recent innovations (remember the Apple Newton?) had flopped, and its personal computers had performance and reliability problems. I remember calling a trusted consultant who advised sticking with Macs; he thought Apple would dig its way out of that hole.

Did it ever! Only a few years later, Apple introduced the iMac, which took the computer world by storm. Following quickly were the iPod and iTunes. By the time he iPhone and iPad came along, Apple's ascendancy to the top of the innovations market was complete.

I have no doubt that the credit for this remarkable turnaround belongs to Steve Jobs, the Apple founder who left the company only to return years later to resurrect his baby. Jobs has demanded creative thinking, simplicity of design and reliability. I am writing this blog on a Mac that is about 10 years old but still reliable (although slow by today's standards). At work, I now use a Windows computer, which I have become accustomed to and don't think much about its differences. But occasionally some task will emphasize to me how comparatively simpler and more intuitive Apple's interface is.

Steve Jobs announced Wednesday that he was stepping down as Apple CEO. He has had serious health problems, including pancreatic cancer, for years. The news can't be good for Apple; one doesn't replace such an innovator so easily. I hope the culture that Jobs created at Apple will live on and that Apple will continue to create dazzling new products that make me say, "Wow!" and "I want one!" I just wish I could afford more of those toys. I might start by replacing my old Mac.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tea Party attacks the bird problem

Here's where we're headed:

Tea Party officials today urged Americans to stop feeding birds at their homes. Two hundred Tea Party members held a protest at a local hardware store, urging that sales of bird feeders and bird seed be banned.

"Americans are running the risk of creating a generation of soft, dependent, lazy welfare birds," spokesman I.M. Looney warned. "The strong, self-sustaining, independent, entrepreneurial birds on which this great nation was founded are being enticed into dependency by the handouts of a few well-intentioned bleeding hearts who don't realize what they're doing to the bird nation. Our research shows that birds have given up foraging and are becoming increasingly reliant on handouts from homeowners. They're changing their diet from worms and grubs and grass seeds to organic sunflower seeds piled in overly generous amounts in bird feeders at fully a third of American homes. We're even seeing evidence of inter-generational dependence as parent birds pass on to their chicks the habit of relying on handouts from humans."

Looney noted that there was even evidence of environmental degradation as worms and grubs become overpopulated and dropped sunflower seeds litter the landscape. "Not that we give a damn about the environment, though," he said.

The bird-feeding problem even touches the economy, he said, because people are spending exorbitant amounts on gourmet bird seed that has no benefit to the economy. When taxpayers buy seed to feed birds, it's like throwing money down the drain because birds do not participate in economy. "All that money just goes in the beak and out the tail, and all you get is bird poop on your car," Looney said. "Anyone can see that's an economic detriment." If it weren't against the Tea Party's core principle, he said, the party might call for a bird seed tariff to discourage wasteful bird feeding.

The Tea Party called for a program aimed at weaning birds off of seeds left in bird feeders and reteaching them the foraging techniques that used to come natural to birds. "Do we want an America where all the birds are strong and independent, able to take care of themselves, or do we want an America where birds are sitting around on their fat tails chirping for another handout from the welfare state?" Looney concluded.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

President always gets blame for economy

The caller to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" last Thursday was dripping with sarcasm about the man in the White House he referred to as "Barry" or "this administration." The caller said he had decided to cancel a planned expansion of his business because of the economic ineptness of "this administration," which, he said, had never had to meet a payroll or look at a monthly P&L statement. "This administration" had never had a real job, never managed anything, he said.

The president, no matter who he is, gets the blame for a lousy economy or plaudits for a good economy, despite the fact that the president has little control over the economy. Congress controls spending. The Federal Reserve controls the money supply. The president, most often, is left to a role as a cheerleader when the economy needs a boost.

The critical caller got me to thinking, though, about presidents with business experience vs. those without it. In the past 50 years, only a handful of presidents have had meaningful business management experience. Jimmy Carter ran a family peanut warehouse business. George H.W. Bush was in the oil business in Texas. George W. Bush helped manage a baseball team for a while. All three of these men saw the economy turn sour on them and got the blame.

Presidents who had little or no business experience fared better in the economic sweepstakes. Bill Clinton's only occupation has been politics, except for a brief stint practicing law after losing an election; Ronald Reagan was in the acting business, but as an employee, not a decision-making manager; Richard Nixon practiced a little law but mostly practiced politics; ditto for Gerald Ford. Lyndon Johnson claimed to be a gentleman farmer and executive, but his only real interest was politics. All five of these presidents enjoyed better economic results than "this administration" is experiencing today, but their better fortunes could not have been the result of their business management experience.

Economic upswings and downturns are almost never the result of presidential action. They are usually the result of factors beyond a president's control, such as the bursting of the housing bubble and the international debt crisis that plague us today. A president can have some influence over the economy, as Franklin Roosevelt did in his first term by pushing stimulus spending and reassuring the public, or as John F. Kennedy did by proposing a dramatic cut in the maximum tax rates. Even then, however, Congress must act to approve a president's proposals.

Whenever the economy founders, from whatever causes, "this administration" will always get most of the blame.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Historic home will soon be gone

I may be the only one who thinks so, but I think it's a shame that efforts to save the home of former Wilson Mayor and County Commissioner John Wilson have fallen flat. Preservation of Wilson is handing the property back to United Way, which received the property after Wilson's death. The United Way will almost certainly raze the house to create more parking.

The house on a tiny lot behind the United Way building, 509 W. Nash St., intrudes into the United Way parking lot and is, quite frankly, an eyesore. It was an eyesore the last several years that Wilson lived there because he never made repairs or renovations to the old cottage and allowed the house to nearly fall in around him. He lived there nearly his entire life.

Despite what you might think of Wilson — and most people considered him a slightly loony eccentric — he held political office from the 1950s, as mayor, into the 1980s, as county commissioner. His tenure was not progressive or transformative like the terms of long-time Rocky Mount Mayor Fred Turnage, who died recently. Wilson was a true believer in all manner of conspiracy theories, from European bankers controlling U.S. presidents, to United Nations' secret "black helicopters," to abundances of oil secretly hidden away to drive up prices and so on. You never knew when he might interrupt a board meeting with an off-the-wall observation about international intrigue.

As editor of the local paper during Wilson's final decades, I was often bemused by his wild theories and sometimes challenged him to document accusations he made in letters to the editor. He read articles from fringe publications that claimed all sorts of Nazi/Communist/international banker conspiracies to rule the world. When I told him I doubted the veracity of some of these charges and asked why they never appear in any mainstream publication, Wilson always had a ready answer: "They're afraid to publish the truth." Only the periodicals to which he subscribed had the courage to tell the truth about the Bildeberg gang, the Trilateral Commission, the Swiss bankers, the oil fat cats and so on, he claimed. Still, he was an unceasingly polite and courteous man.

He never seemed to have a job. Once, when asked about his occupation in an election campaign interview, he responded, "Now that's a good question." I assumed he received enough inheritance to live on, but not enough to keep his house repaired. He hoarded those fringe publications, along with other reading material, in stacks all over his house, which he heated with a wood stove fueled by rolled-up newspapers. He drove old cars or rode a bicycle and never passed up a free meal. He was a character we're not likely to see the likes of ever again.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Parents have a responsibility, too

A letter to the editor in this morning's N&O addresses a seldom-discussed public policy issue: the responsibility of parents to raise their own children. The letter pertains directly to Judge Howard Manning's ruling that the state is obligated to provide preschool for North Carolina's children. Manning's reasoning is that the state constitution requires the state to provide a "sound basic education" for all children, and that, he says, includes preschool that will prepare them for kindergarten.

There's no question that many children arrive at kindergarten woefully unprepared. Ask any elementary school teacher. Over the years, I've repeatedly heard of preschoolers' homes that contain not a single book of any kind. (Of course, there is a television that is on 20-plus hours a day in many cases and feeds a $100 a month cable bill.) Some children arrive at kindergarten having never been read to, having never turned the pages of a book, never learned words by looking at pictures, never pointed at letters and pronounced them, never recognized one-digit numbers or counted. It's tragic and shameful, but is it the state's fault?

The letter writer has a good argument that it's not the state's fault that parents are irresponsible or incompetent. Too many children are born into single-parent homes, and too many mothers are barely out of childhood themselves. Too many do not have good role models as parents, and too many never learned the joys of reading and learning. At least one charitable organization I'm aware of (St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Wilson is a participant) buys books for children who do not have any in the home, but that's not a total solution to the problem.

It's not the children's fault that their parents are too irresponsible or unprepared to nourish them intellectually and encourage their innate curiosity. Preschool programs can help these children and perhaps turn them away from a pathway toward failure. But it's not the state that set them on a path toward failure in the first place. The problem did not begin in kindergarten or in preschool. It began in the home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book spreads blame for economic collapse

Financial markets are reeling, and it's not just from Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. bonds. The wheels are coming off the economic bus all around the globe — national debt crises in Europe, stagnating markets in developing countries, famine in Africa, and the lingering aftermath of the housing crisis in the United States.

The best explanation of how and why our economic foundations began crumbling is found in "Reckless Endangerment" by Gretchen Morgenson and Justin Rosner. The subtitle is "How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon." The authors trace the beginnings of the 2008 economic meltdown to the 1980s and '90s, then walk the reader through the incompetence and corruption that steadily increased the danger factors until the whole flimsy structure collapsed.

Morgenson and Rosner find plenty of blame to spread around. Greed and ambition play major roles as Fannie Mae, the guarantor and financier of most mortgages, became increasingly politicized and self-serving, cooking the books to maximize executives' bonuses and making political contributions to powerful members of Congress who obediently did Fannie Mae's bidding and ignored the fiscal hazards. Almost all members of Congress ignored the warning signs of endangerment and corruption and blindly supported Fannie Mae and its cousin Freddie Mac as they made increasingly risky investments and put the national mortgage structure in danger.

Every political sector can find a villain in this book. For conservatives, it is the hell-bent determination to increase home-ownership rates during the Clinton administration. Riskier mortgage-writing rules began with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which required banks to pro-actively seek out mortgages in poorer neighborhoods and to lend to poorer borrowers. Those mortgages carried greater risk, but Congress and federal regulators ignored these risks for the "greater good" of turning lower-income renters into homeowners. But these riskier borrowers in the emerging "sub-prime" market ended up as the worst-hurt when the financial markets collapsed and mortgages went underwater. No-interest loans, no-documentation mortgages and "liar loans" became parts of the banking landscape.

Liberals can point to the slack regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as federal agencies ignored the higher risks these mortgage giants were taking. They can also point to the changes in bank regulation, eliminating Depression-era reforms that limited banks' services and the riskiness of their investments. In the post-Reagan anti-regulation climate, banks got a blank check to delve into all kinds of riskier investments. Among those investments were bundled mortgages put together by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, commercial banks and others that could be sold to investors like municipal bonds. But the sub-prime mortgages hidden in these derivatives wound up dragging down the whole package and leading to global economic collapse. Ratings agencies, such as Standard & Poor's, also share the blame because they ignored the riskiness of these bundled mortgages, awarding them AAA status when they were really junk bonds. Powerful politicians who sold their principles to bankers and others in exchange for political contributions also are responsible for the financial morass.

"Reckless Endangerment" is a sobering look at how ineffective and even corrupt our political and regulatory systems are. Even now, Congress concentrates on political gotcha battles over the debt ceiling or gay rights instead of addressing the systemic problems that are destroying our democratic process. If every American could be required to read "Reckless Endangerment," Washington might be forced to reform.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wow! We avoided default!

OK, so we beat the debt ceiling deadline by a few hours and will cut spending by more than $900 billion over the next decade. Problem solved? Not at all.

The debt ceiling agreement, which President Obama signed Tuesday, calls for a 12-member commission to cut another $1.2 trillion from the next decade's deficits. But here's the problem. Our annual deficit right now is more than $1 trillion. Cutting a trillion over 10 years amounts to cutting one tenth of the deficit each year. That's the equivalent of paying the minimum payment on a credit card that you've just used to buy a $10,000 vacation. You'll never pay it off!

The commission, to be composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, will have to tackle some spending that no one wants to touch — Social Security, Medicare, federal pensions (including military), defense spending, ethanol subsidies, farm subsidies, federal salaries and other big, popular programs — and it will have to address revenues. There is no way the United States is going to dig its way out of the hole it's in with spending cuts alone. We could eliminate the Defense Department or decimate Social Security and still not have a balanced budget. Increasing revenues will be a necessity, and the Tea Party conservatives have to realize that, regardless of how many "no new taxes" pledges they might have signed.

Revenues can be raised with minimal impact on the middle class. Tax reforms, eliminating some wasteful business deductions and expanding the tax base can generate some additional revenue. Increasing the tax rate for the highest earners can also be done without touching 95 percent of all earners. The home mortgage deduction can be modified so that it doesn't apply to vacation homes or to $1 million mansions.

Perhaps the biggest challenges will be Social Security and Medicare. These popular programs have strong lobbying support, but you cannot effectively reduce the deficit without addressing the programs that consume more than half the budget. These issues should have been addressed 20 years ago; each passing year makes resolution more difficult. Whether the solution is higher payroll taxes, higher full-retirement age, adjustments to cost-of-living increases or some combination, the issue will have to be faced.

Washington's goal should be to eliminate the budget deficit. That won't be done by a couple of trillion dollars in cuts over a decade, and it won't be done without increasing revenues. Rep. Paul Ryan's austere budget proposal does not eliminate the deficit, nor do any of the other plans currently being discussed. A balanced budget amendment will not achieve that goal without monstrous cuts in spending or large tax increases. But unless the goal of eliminating the deficit is addressed, the current $14.3 trillion federal debt will keep on growing.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Jihadists of the right in Congress

Osama bin Laden always said he wanted to destroy America's economy (presumably to set it back to the seventh century, when Islam began). While he never achieved that goal in his lifetime, he'd probably take some pride in the work of the Tea Party conservatives in Congress. These yahoos are so determined to make their point about government spending that they're willing to risk economic catastrophe for the federal government, state and local government, domestic and foreign investors, car makers, home buyers and ordinary consumers. Enough of them are willing to allow a historic government default on its debt that they are rejecting not only the Democrats' proposals to raise the national debt ceiling but even their own party leadership's plans.

Call them "enablers" of al-Qaida or "fellow travelers" or whatever the operative phrase is in this post-Cold War world. They are making themselves the jihadists of the right wing. They can destroy the American economy without blowing up any skyscrapers or hijacking any airplanes, but their impact on the economy could be worse than anything that happened 10 years ago on 9/11. They even share some traits with the Islamic terrorists who wish to destroy us economically or any way they can — zealotry for their cause, unwillingness to compromise, contempt for their opponents and blind allegiance to their vision for the world.

The American military finally got bin Laden, who had threatened to destroy America. Now this country faces destruction from another group vowing to "save" America by pushing it off an economic cliff.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

'Why now?' is the question at Chapel Hill

The question I have about UNC's firing of head football coach Butch Davis is not "Why?" but "Why now?" Chancellor Holden Thorp said there was nothing new in the year-long NCAA investigation of the football program, just cumulative damage to UNC's reputation as a quality educational institution that plays by the rules. So he chose to fire Davis a week before football practice begins.

Why now? Although Davis asserted his innocence in a written statement issued after his surprise dismissal, UNC had grounds to fire the coach a year ago. That was when it was revealed that assistant coach John Blake, whom Davis had hired and supervised, was acting as an agent in an unseemly scheme to connect UNC players with a sports agent friend of Blake. The bad situation unraveled from there. The NCAA investigation happened upon academic problems with a tutor hired by the university, and about a dozen players were withheld from one or more games. A couple of players' actions were so egregious that they were banned from college football. One player's lawsuit against the NCAA led to the revelation that he had heavily plagiarized a term paper, and the student Honor Court had failed to discover the obvious violations. You can complain with some justification that NCAA rules are too picky and its disciplinary actions too inconsistent, but the activities revealed by the NCAA probe and news media investigations have been embarrassing to the university. That cumulative embarrassment apparently is what led Thorp to fire Davis.

But in the weeks and months leading up to Wednesday's announcement, Thorp and athletics director Dick Baddour had repeatedly vouched for Davis, missing every opportunity to hang the responsibility around the coach's neck. By reversing himself days before practice begins, Thorp has not only shown himself to be inconsistent, but he has badly damaged UNC's ability to field a competitive team. And if Davis is responsible, so is Baddour, who selected Davis and started UNC on this path of embarrassing surprises.

The football scandal at UNC goes back further that Wednesday's announcement or last year's NCAA probe. The university's decision to hire a big-name coach with Football U. and NFL experience paved the way for the embarrassment UNC is trying to purge now. Under Davis, venerable Kenan Stadium has lost its iconic and charming tile-roofed field house to be replaced by fancy wrap-around lounges for well-heeled donors. Die-hard fans had hoped Davis would bring top-five national rankings, even a championship, to Chapel Hill, but that hasn't happened. Davis has brought a megalomaniacal super stadium, some talented teams and exciting games. But his four years as head coach will be remembered mostly for the embarrassment of the NCAA and academic investigations.