Friday, January 27, 2012

Gov. Perdue pulls a surprise

Bev Perdue did what's hard to do these days: She shocked the political establishment. Perdue announced Thursday that she would not run for re-election as governor, and that took both Democrats and Republicans by surprise. They had expected her to run, and many, if not most, had expected her to lose.

Perdue said she decided to devote her time to improving education, her pet policy priority throughout her years in the Governor's Mansion. But she also must have decided that she was likely to lose and didn't want to go out a loser. Who could blame her.

Bev's surprise opens doors for plenty of Democrats. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton has already thrown his hat in the ring. Richard Moore, former state treasurer who lost to Perdue in the primary four years ago, might be interested. Erskine Bowles, who lost two bids to be U.S. senator and settled for a much better job as president of the UNC system, has been touted as a potential candidate. Others have taken themselves out of consideration. Attorney General Roy Cooper says he likes the job he has. Four-term Gov. Jim Hunt, who was as intense as ever when I saw him this week, says he's not interested.

Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor who lost a hard-fought battle with Perdue in 2008 and has been running for the same office ever since, might be tempted to send a thank-you note to Perdue. Running against nobody or against a gaggle of little-known Democratic hopefuls, should prove even easier than running against Perdue. He was far ahead of her in the polls.

President Barak Obama offered conciliatory remarks about Perdue's decision. He undoubtedly knows that without his get-out-the-vote effort in '08 and the surge in African-American voting on his behalf, McCrory would have whipped Perdue. Perdue owes Obama, and her getting off the Democratic ticket might do Obama a favor. Perdue was not increasing Democratic turnout with her below 50 percent favorability rating, so if Democrats can come up with a more popular candidate, it might help Obama hold North Carolina in the fall. He'd like to hope so, anyway.

Perdue's problem has been that, although she is the state's first woman governor, she is not much of an innovator. She has been a traditional, old-time Democratic politician. She harped on education, and she embraced most traditional Democratic causes. But can you think of a single original, innovative idea she has put forward?She has been a foot soldier for the party, and she kept marching until it became her turn to head the ticket. It was her misfortune to face a new Republican legislature that didn't much care for her priorities. Perdue's proposal earlier this month for a sales tax increase — just for the chil'ren, you understand — hit the ground with a thud and didn't bounce at all. If Perdue intended to hang her re-election on that proposal, it was smart of her to bail out.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Voters look for meanness

"I want somebody who's mean."
— S.C. voter explaining his support for New Gingrich

This is what we've come to — that a significant number of Americans want a president who's mean? Should we be electing an Adolf Hitler or a Josef Stalin? They were plenty mean. They didn't let other countries push them around. They didn't mind starting a war or turning the government upside down or eliminating a few million enemies.

Fifty years after America elected a president who inspired young people to engage in public service and who strove to make politics an honorable career option, we have presidential candidates who try to impress voters with how belligerent and ill-mannered they are. President Kennedy jousted with the press by disarming reporters with his quick wit and self-deprecating humor. Asked about how the news media were treating him, he mimicked the current cigarette commercial, replying that "I've been reading more now and enjoying it less." He said it with a smile because he genuinely enjoyed matching wits with reporters, maybe because he was wittier than the best of them.

Now we have Newt Gingrich attacking the media for daring to ask about the recent allegation of his ex-wife, castigating the media for their "despicable" question. This from a man who led a congressional effort to impeach President Clinton over his extra-marital affair even as, it turns out, Gingrich was having an affair himself. Now candidates address the press with a scowl and bitter words and interrupt those who disagree with them.

But "mean" goes beyond attacking the media. A segment of the electorate seems to want a president who will launch wars around the world over whatever disrespectful comment any foreign leader might make. They're ready to go to war over Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and on and on, as if wars have no consequence except to teach those foreigners a lesson. That same segment is prepared to round up more than 10 million illegal immigrants, load them onto buses and drive them back where they belong, even if it means leaving their dependent children to fend for themselves on American streets. And, while they're at it, they would cut off food stamps to the hungry, housing to those who don't have rent money, heat to those without fuel for the winter and public assistance for those who have no jobs.

They want a "mean" president because they're tired of seeing America get pushed around, and they're tired of paying taxes that go to programs supporting those who pay no taxes. They want the United States to be mean, but they can't mean it, can they?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Paterno, rest in peace

Rest in peace, Joe Paterno. I'm sad to see you go, especially in the manner that your death came.

I was never a Penn State fan, but I was always a respecter of Joe Paterno. Unlike most of his college football coaching colleagues, he seemed genuinely concerned, first and foremost, with the character, education and success of his players. He could have worked his way up the coaching ladder, going to ever-larger schools until he reached the pinnacle, the football factories of the NCAA. He eschewed the showboating and grand spectacles of win-at-any-cost football programs. He insisted on plain uniforms without player names on the jerseys. He lived in a modest house, by coaching standards. He gave generously to charities. He went to Penn State and stayed there until they kicked him out.

The kicking out was the saddest part of Paterno's story. He was summarily fired by Penn State after it was revealed that he had been told that Jerry Sandusky, his former trusted assistant, had sexually abused a young boy in the Penn State football complex. Paterno reported the incident to university administrators. Police were never called. Sandusky is now accused of abusing several boys over a period of years, both during and after his Penn State coaching career. In his only comments about the incident, Paterno said he did what he was required to do. He reported the accusation to his superiors (who have also been fired). He also said he had only vague information about the incident and has trouble imagining that sort of conduct. It's easy to believe that Paterno was naive about child sexual abuse. It's easy to believe that he could not conceive of his old friend doing anything so despicable.

Paterno accepted his dismissal as gracefully as anyone can accept being fired after 41 faithful, successful years. One mistake can wipe away all those successful years, and that incident (which is thus far only an accusation; Sandusky has not been tried or admitted guilt) will undoubtedly taint the stainless legacy Paterno had built at Penn State.

Paterno's legacy will survive his error in judgment relating to Sandusky. His 400-plus wins will be an insurmountable peak to conquer. His insistence on education and sportsmanship will endure. In 1968, he explained his philosophy to Sports Illustrated's Dan Jenkins: “We’re trying to win football games; don’t misunderstand that. But I don’t want it to ruin our lives if we lose. I don’t want us ever to become the kind of place where an 8-2 season is a tragedy. Look at that day outside. It’s clear, it’s beautiful, the leaves are turning, the land is pretty, and it’s quiet. If losing a game made me miserable, I couldn’t enjoy such a day.” That sort of clear thinking is needed in sports.

If only he had never hired Jerry Sandusky.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gingrich, audience pounce on media

It didn't take long in last night's Republican debate for Newt Gingrich to pounce. Moderator John King began the Q&A with a question to Gingrich about his ex-wife's report of marital infidelity. Gingrich was appalled. He found the questioning "close to despicable." He attacked ABC News for airing an interview with the former Mrs. Gingrich two days before the South Carolina presidential primary. When King attempted to justify the question as one raised by another network and the topic of national discussion, Gingrich pounced again. CNN (King's employer) had aired the accusations, too, he said, and King and his staff had chosen to open the debate with a question about Gingrich's failed second marriage.

Anyone who has watched the GOP debates could not have been surprised at Gingrich's sanctimonious, condescending tone. After all, he's the guy with all the answers, the one with all the brains, the lecturer who understands history, the outsider who knows how Washington works, the smartest guy in the room — or any room at any time in history. That Gingrich would turn a question into an attack on news networks and on the news media in general should not have been a surprise. The only question might be whether he had rehearsed his shock in advance.

And maybe the reaction of the crowd should not have been a surprise: The more that Gingrich lashed out at the media, the louder the cheers from the audience became. The "mainstream media" has been a convenient whipping boy throughout the GOP debates. Gingrich has criticized the media before. Herman Cain, before dropping out, blamed his troubles on the news media. It seems to be a fundamental doctrine of the Republican Party that the news media are evil — and on the side of whatever Democrat is around. But the hooting from the Charleston audience was particularly vociferous, nearly matching Gingrich's obvious contemptuousness.

I'll agree with Gingrich on one thing: The ex-wife question was no way to begin a presidential debate (can you imagine that question coming up in the Lincoln-Douglas debates?). The timing is improper, bordering on silly, given the important issues of the day. But "despicable"? The professor is lapsing into hyperbole. A candidate's moral underpinning is a fair topic for voters to consider, and Gingrich knows his personal history is filled with blemishes, so he'd rather dodge the question and blame the media for his past lapses. The question put to Gingrich is wrong, at least in its timing, because it's sensational rather than substantive. The biggest problem with the national media is not that it's "mainstream" or biased but that the media have turned to sensationalism, sex, blood and hype and has turned away from substantive, in-depth reporting. You can blame the media's consultants who (led by television viewership numbers) care more about attracting eyeballs than serving the public interest.

That — and not any perceived bias — should be what gets the public's blood boiling. From my own experience in more than three decades in the newspaper business is that news reporters, on average, tend to lean leftward but make conscientious efforts to separate their personal views from their reporting. I've also known my share of right-wing news people. The national media are not monolithic. Even with recent consolidation in the industry, dozens of corporations are in the news business, and there is no secret collaboration among them. In fact, they are viciously competitive. On cable news, you can find right-leaning Fox News, left-leaning MSNBC, and (mostly) balanced CNN. Intelligent people can digest news from several sources and make their own judgments.

But the audience in Charleston last night played into the hands of demagogues who would stifle the free press with threats and anger. Vigorous, independent news media are as necessary to the democratic process as the secret ballot.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If photo ID is not needed for voting, then ...

If a photo ID is such an onerous and detestable requirement for voting, perhaps Congress should consider passing a ban on such a discriminatory requirement in other transactions. The U.S. Justice Department has blocked South Carolina's implementation of a voter ID requirement, and lawsuits are challenging voter ID laws in other states.

If photo ID is such a terrible thing, maybe we should forbid any requirement for a photo ID for such transactions as cashing a check, using a credit card, obtaining a library card, taking a college entrance exam, renting a car, or boarding a commercial airliner. Opponents tell us that the incidence of voter fraud is near zero, but, then again, very few checks are forged, and only a tiny percentage of credit card transactions are fraudulent. And of all the people boarding airline flights every day, far less than 1 percent are trying to blow up or hijack the plane. A photo ID is required for these transactions partly to avoid a terrible outcome but also to keep people honest. If an obstacle stands in the way of a crime, most people will avoid trying to cross that barrier. See if the Transportation Security Agency will let you on a plane without an ID because you think photo IDs are discriminatory.

I'm not persuaded that the people pushing voter ID bills are entirely forthright in their insistence that they are merely trying to prevent election fraud. It does seem likely that a voter ID requirement will hurt Democratic candidates worse than it will hurt the Republicans who are pushing the bills. But provisions can be made to ensure more equitable application of the law. ID cards can be made free or at very low cost for those (the elderly and poor, primarily) who are most likely not to have an ID card.

For me, as it did for many of my peers, it came as a shock to realize that I could go to vote without ever having to show proof of who I am. The nice ladies at the polling place would ask me to state my name, and then they just took my word for it and let me vote. Wasn't voting just as important as getting a library card or renting a video — actions that required a photo ID?

Monday, January 16, 2012

44 years pass quickly away

I was reading a story about a couple who were reflecting on the meaning of Martin Luther King Day. They were in their early 40s and late 30s and were talking about passing along King's principles to their children.

Then it struck me: They had not been born when King was assassinated in 1968. I did the math. It was 44 years ago this April that King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. King was 39. He has been dead longer than he had been alive.

Two generations have passed since the assassination. Only those of us near 60 or older can remember King as a controversial figure on the evening news. Only those of us of that age can remember the segregation laws, the societal prejudices and the quiet indignities that ignited the protests that motivated King's remarkable leadership, his personal bravery and his inspiring rhetoric. My own children, born in the decade following King's martyrdom, grew up in a society where integrated schools, restaurants, jobs and hotels were as normal as sunsets. They could not fathom a society that created separate school systems for black and whites or that refused service to customers because of their race.

King's life, and the lives of many others like him, transformed our society and made America better. Forty-four years after his untimely death, as we celebrate King's legacy, it's hard, even for those who lived through it, to explain the injustices he set about to change.

Friday, January 13, 2012

International sanctions 70 years apart

Nobody, least of all the people of Israel, wants to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but a look at recent events and 20th century history would caution us against backing Iran, or any powerful nation, into a corner. The United States and the European Union are backing harsh restrictions on Iran's ability to transfer money internationally. This could result in Iran being unable to sell its oil on the international market. The move by Western nations is aimed at discouraging Iran's apparent development of nuclear weapons, though Iran insists unconvincingly that it is developing its nuclear power for peaceful purposes only.

In response to the sanctions, Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance point to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Iran claims the strait as its territorial waters, but it is the passageway to ports in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and other Persian Gulf nations. Closing the strait, through which passes about 20 percent of the world's petroleum supply, would immediately push oil prices sky-high and could push the world into economic panic. The United States is committed to free navigation through the Strait of Hormuz and has the power to pulverize any attempt by Iran to close the strait, but it would be a very nasty fight.

This standoff is reminiscent of a decision the United States made more than 70 years ago to close off a bellicose nation's access to the world market. The hostile nation then was Japan. In an effort to curb Japanese aggression and its dream of a Pacific empire, the United States cut off supplies of petroleum and rubber to Japan's war machine. Japanese leaders at the time would argue that this action constituted an act of war and forced the Japanese military to make a risky and fateful decision. The Japanese Navy would cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, leaving the Japanese free to capture oil fields and rubber plantations in Malaysia. Japanese strategists misjudged their ability to destroy U.S. naval power and the reaction of the U.S. government to their infamous attack.

Iran in 2012 is not comparable to Japan in 1941, which had a proven army and powerful navy, but in both cases, the nations' leaders feel backed into a corner by international sanctions. Like Japan in 1941, Iran appears to be ready to fight rather than comply with the wishes of the international community. And, as in 1941, the ensuing fight could lead to an international conflagration.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Political slogan harks back to JFK

Lay aside for the moment any consideration of the policy positions of the remaining Republican candidates for president. One candidate has found what should be a winning slogan. The candidate is Jon Huntsman, whose 17 percent third place in New Hampshire was by far his best showing thus far but was not good enough to pull him out of the long-, long-shot category. His slogan: Country First.

It has a John F. Kennedy ring to it. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Huntsman has taken some heat from die-hard Republican voters for serving as President Obama's ambassador to China. He has defended his decision to leave the governorship of Utah to serve in Beijing as an obligation, a duty when country calls. He also reminds voters that two of his sons are active-duty military personnel.

I'm not suggesting that Huntsman is more patriotic than his more popular and better-funded rivals. Ron Paul and Rick Perry are both military veterans, for example. But Huntsman's slogan has raised a point that has too often been ignored in recent political races — politics is about more than which party has the power or who can win the next election. The slogan turns back the calendar 50 years to a time when Washington was less partisan and more respectful of differences of opinion.

What candidate, if any, will put the interests of the nation above personal or partisan interests?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Presidential debates serve voters well

The first voting of the 2012 presidential election cycle comes Tuesday in Iowa, and the competition only escalates from there.

This nomination cycle has been different from past years in an important and, it seems to me, beneficial way. The eight candidates for the GOP nomination have met in an unprecedented number of debates, giving voters nationwide (not just in Iowa or New Hampshire) a look at the candidates and an opportunity to hear their views and see how they handle questioning. Debating is not managing the government, but the process does give some insight into the candidates' demeanor, intelligence and personalities. Overall, it's been a positive experience for the electorate. Although I have watched only segments of several debates, I have seen enough to form opinions about the candidates. In the 24/7 cable news universe, it has been impossible to escape talk about and analysis of the Republican debates, and that's a good thing. The more voters know about the candidates, the better they will be able to cast wise votes.

There has been another benefit to the increase in debate dates: Candidates have spent less money on campaign advertising. Compared to earlier nomination cycles, campaign spending is way down. Candidates have relied more heavily on what publicists call "free media" — the publicity you don't have to pay for. This should be a plus for voters, who will get more balanced information about candidates from their debates and less misinformation from misleading campaign advertising.

Whoever gets the Republican nomination (and we might know who that will be by the end of this month) should challenge President Obama to a series of debates, similar to the GOP debates we've witnessed through the latter half of 2011. Debates between the presidential nominees have been rare, one to four per election in recent years, and these have mostly been inconclusive debates in which both candidates resolutely sought to avoid mistakes. Ten or 20 debates would serve the electorate better and would reduce the need for campaign advertising. The president will say he doesn't have time for so many debates (no incumbent would admit to having time to spare), but both candidates should make time within their campaign schedule to provide American voters the opportunity to assess the differences between the candidates. If they can't do that, they shouldn't be running.