Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scandal claims chancellor, too

Holden Thorp has submitted his resignation as chancellor of my alma mater, the latest victim of a sports-and-academics scandal that seemingly knows no end. I am saddened by his resignation because I had high hopes for Thorp, 48, who was young enough to lead the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for decades. An alumnus of UNC, a North Carolina native, an acclaimed faculty member and campus administrator, he seemed ideal for the position.

I had hopes that he would restore the relationships with the town of Chapel Hill, faculty and state legislators that had been damaged under Chancellor James Moeser's reign. Moeser, an experienced administrator, was "not from around here" and did not understand North Carolina's political culture or fully appreciate UNC's history and traditions.

When Thorp fired football coach Butch Davis, I was reminded of President Bill Friday's brave and bold decision to eliminate the popular Dixie Classic, which had been a part of a basketball point-shaving scandal. Other Carolina alumni did not see it that way and wanted Davis restored and Thorp's head on a platter. My only criticism was that he should have done it earlier and should not have allowed generous severance packages for Davis and John Blake, the defensive coach who was at the heart of the sports agent scandal.

But the Davis debacle was only the beginning. News media probing uncovered embarrassing problems in the Africa and Afro-American Studies Department. Athletes were signing up for these no-show classes and getting high grades, which kept them eligible to play sports. It's clear, even as this investigation continues, that academic integrity was sacrificed for football (and perhaps basketball) needs. And that's an embarrassment for all alumni.

UNC's faculty has rallied around Thorp and asked university president Tom Ross to not accept the resignation. The professors like having one of their own, a distinguished academician and proud alumnus, running the show. But it seems unlikely that Thorp will remain in his office past June 2013. He is burned out by the crises and the criticism, and who could blame him?

Thorp made some bad decisions. He championed Butch Davis' aspirations — spending millions to close in the end of Kenan Stadium (and destroy the iconic Kenan Field House in the process) — and gave too much leeway to athletics, until the tail was wagging the dog. He trusted other administrators and was not skeptical enough about some hiring and travel decisions. In his heart, it appears to me, he's always been on the side of academics and the faculty, but he had allowed himself to get too caught up in the excitement of college sports.

The whole darned Atlantic Coast Conference and most of the nation has made that same mistake.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney's 47 percent

A few observations on Mitt Romney's latest fumble:

1. Romney is largely right that a large share of the American electorate will not vote for him and can't be persuaded to do so. But the same is true for Barack Obama.

2. It's true that many Americans feel they are "entitled" to certain benefits from the government or from charities that help poor people, and it's true that these people are probably unlikely to vote for a Republican for president. But to say that all of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes are in this broader "entitlement" category is simply wrong. The 47 percent includes retirees who don't make enough money to be taxed. It also includes a large portion of the working class who have children and large deductible expenses resulting in an adjusted gross income of zero or near-zero. And there is a small portion of that 47 percent who are quite well off — Romney fans — who have deductions, non-taxable income and tax dodges that exempt them from the income tax.

3. Just because you don't pay federal income tax doesn't mean you don't pay taxes. All working people pay FICA, the payroll tax that goes to Social Security and Medicare. Even among people who pay taxes, for some working people, the payroll tax exceeds their income tax liability. These people who pay no federal income tax do pay sales taxes, payroll taxes and (sometimes) state income taxes. So it's not like they're complete freeloaders.

4. Romney's private-party comments suggest that he doesn't care much for the great unwashed masses, nor does he understand them. While some may be entitlement beggars, others are struggling, patriotic workers who are doing the best they can within the system. If he'd known his comments would become public, I doubt that he would have denigrated so many potential voters.

5. One measure of character is how one treats those people who can do nothing for you. Or how you think of people who aren't like you and can do nothing for you.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Claude Starling, 1947-2012

Claude Dees Starling, who died Saturday night, was a colleague, an explainer of Wilson history to this non-native, a lover of good puns and bad jokes, a storyteller and a genuine friend for more than 30 years. When I came to Wilson in 1980 as the new managing editor, it was Claude, along with editor John Scott, who showed me the ropes and told me the stories and warned me of the hazards in my new position. Like Hamlet's Yorick, he was "a man of infinite jest," whose stories could keep you chuckling for hours.

He was intelligent and well read but easily distracted and not well organized. He had no interest in administrative duties that were offered to him, and he saw technology the way the Luddites saw machinery. He hated each new version of software that he was forced to learn in the years after The Wilson Daily Times put away manual typewriters 29 years ago. "You have to think like a computer," I advised him, as I had advised others who railed against the arcane commands of software, but he wanted none of it. The linear, "if, then" concepts of computer codes were contrary to Claude's serendipitous nature. He liked finding things, not necessarily the things he was looking for.

He adapted, when he had to, first to tedious, DOS-based routines and later to point-and-click, WYSIWYG, GUI computers that challenged him without fascinating him. Claude had an obsessive streak, which led him to brag when I first met him, about the 10 times he had seen "Star Wars" at the theater (no home video in those days). He was so obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkein that he made it part of his email password. He would challenge new friends to trivia contests about any number of topics he knew a lot about — UNC basketball, "Star Wars," Tolkein, Civil War history, or The Beatles. He declared me "pretty good" on Beatles trivia. I played Trivial Pursuit with him a time or two, and he once refused to accept my "Never Land" answer for the correct "Never-Never Land."

He never married and rarely had a date, but he was surely attracted to women, even if women were not attracted to him. He never had children but loved them and could win their hearts in an instant because he communicated with them on their level. He was avuncular and funny. He played Santa Claus for the Arts Council a time or two, and had a great time. He was courteous, even courtly at times. He was a shrewd investor who studied the markets and made good decisions, and dozens of colleagues followed his advice.

After he was laid off and I was working for the Red Cross, I called to ask him if he would like to volunteer at the Red Cross office. He jumped at the opportunity, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, he thanked me for asking him. He admitted that he'd been bored to death in his apartment with no one to talk to. Volunteering gave him a purpose two afternoons a week, and the Red Cross got a needed but not budgeted receptionist.

All of us who loved Claude also saw his flaws and were frustrated by them because he had no intention of changing. He never cleaned his desk and would be upset when someone else, no longer able to stand it, cleaned it for him. He'd wear a badly stained sweatshirt that looked like a rag. He loved food and could describe meals with mouth-watering enthusiasm. In his final weeks, he entertained visitors with lists of the 10 or 50 best meals he'd ever had. If you asked him, "How was your vacation?" he would start by telling you about the restaurants where he ate. That love of rich food battled against his diabetic tendencies and ultimately did him in.

Years ago, I attended, along with several other newspaper colleagues, the funeral for Claude's mother. Claude arose for the eulogy and spoke with a clear, unbroken voice full of warmth, despite his grief. He began by saying that at some church occasions, you have a "family side" and a "friends side," but he wanted us to know, "you're all family today." I was so impressed that I told him after the service that I'd like to book him for my funeral.

That won't be. A few months ago, Claude told me his goal was to live to age 70, but he wasn't sure he'd make it. He nearly didn't make it to 65 and Medicare eligibility after going without insurance for months following his layoff after 41 years at the newspaper.

I wish he could have made it just another five years.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Foreign policy enters presidential campaign

This was supposed to be a presidential election built on the economy. Economic issues would triumph everything, including a war in Afghanistan that is still killing Americans on a near-daily basis. Foreign policy wasn't going to matter.

Then an American ambassador was killed by a mob in Libya, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney spoke before thinking, accusing the Obama administration of being apologetic to the Arab mobs. Suddenly, foreign policy is at the forefront. Obama's strategy of winning over Islamic leaders with compassion for their long-standing complaints and understanding for their beliefs has not reached the success he'd hoped for. Despite American intervention to help Muslims in Bosnia, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, the West Bank and other places, the United States is still despised by many who occupy the streets in Arab countries. Those who foment hatred for the United States retain an advantage and continue to pretend that the United States is the root of all evil in the world. An uneducated and largely illiterate population follow the Islamists' lead.

But Romney's world view seems destined to only make matters worse. His comments after riots in Egypt and Libya seemed to suggest that the only way to communicate with angry Muslims is to ignore their complaints and strike them down. Another land war in the Middle East, anyone? Romney complains that the United States is not being strong and forceful in the face of Arab protests. How many American lives and how much American treasure will it take to impose Romney's will on the recalcitrant Arab mobs?

Obama's strategy hasn't transformed the Middle East, but the neoconservative strategy of invading countries to impose our will didn't work so well either.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Religious outrage can't justify murder

The murder of American Ambassador Chris Stevens in a Libyan riot sparked by an amateur video raises doubts about the suitability of Libya and other Islamic nations for the community of civilized countries. Stevens, who had served in Libya through the overthrow of Gaddafi and the establishment of the new regime, was a career diplomat and, obviously, had nothing to do with the offensive anti-Islamic video that sparked the rioting that killed him. Diplomatic principles require host countries to accept and defend their diplomatic guests and their sovereign property (embassy grounds).

U.S. officials have expressed outrage at the killing — though Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attempted to criticize the Obama administration for not being harsh enough — but can do little in a country like Libya, where an incendiary mob can sweep aside all reason and sensibility. The rioters, who likely had little knowledge of democracy or the principles of Western civilization, attacked the U.S. embassy, even though the United States had no connection with the video that angered them. The rioters' outrage over a bit of video justified, in their minds, murder and destruction.

The United States has aided and defended the new regimes in Egypt and Libya and has condemned religious intolerance in all its forms. But for the Islamist rioters, the United States' very tolerance of religious diversity is offensive and damnable. Until all governments are willing to defend religious diversity and free expression of religion (and this includes U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and others), the world will be unsafe and religious people, of whatever faith, will live in fear.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Get serious about federal debt

Deficit reduction isn't getting the attention it deserves in this year's presidential campaign. Both parties are too busy trying to carve out an advantage among targeted niche voters to address the big issues like the federal debt. But the coming of the "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, when the Bush tax cuts expire and the sequestration of spending that Congress agreed to earlier takes effect, should bring deficits back into the spotlight.

If anyone were truly serious about doing something about the federal debt and deficit — and neither the highly touted Paul Ryan plan nor the Obama budget results in a balanced budget, just more (but smaller) deficits and more debt — here's what I'd suggest:

Step one: Eliminate the $4 million funding for each of the party conventions. If there's a bigger waste in the federal budget, I can't think of it offhand. It's only a million bucks a year per party, but it's the principle involved. Wasteful spending should be eliminated.

Step two: Reduce congressional staffing by 25 percent over a two- to five-year period. All reductions should be at the GS 9 level or above (i.e., don't just lay off receptionists, ticket takers and security guards). As far as possible, let attrition take care of the reduction, hence, the long transition period.

Step three: Reduce White House staffing by 25 percent ... See above; same rules.

Step four: Reduce Executive Branch and Judicial Branch staffing by 25 percent ... see above; same rules.

Step five: Eliminate federal funding for charities and state agencies by 50 percent over a 10-year period with the aim of eliminating them entirely. 

Step six: If implementation of these cuts to the bloated federal bureaucracy is not sufficient to eliminate the deficit and begin paying off the federal debt, rewrite the federal income tax code to make it simple and fair with just two or three tax rates and deductions only allowed for charitable contributions and child rearing expenses. Simplify the tax forms so that an entire return can fit on one page. Set the tax rates so that sufficient revenue comes in to pay for the smaller government and for paying off the federal debt.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Conventions aren't what they were

I miss the old days.

I watched snippets of the Republican and Democratic conventions the past couple of weeks. Let's face it: Neither convention was very exciting. In fact, in this age of primaries that settle the nominating process long before the convention convenes — delegates are obligated to a candidate by the primary rules, leaving no room for the wheelin' and dealin' that characterized conventions in the old days.

And both parties have become so cognizant of the impact of convention themes and presentations on voters, that they carefully script every minute of the conventions, intent upon putting on a good show for the electorate rather than settling intra-party disputes or establishing a strategic vision for the country. So what we have is a dog-and-pony show (or maybe an elephant-and-donkey show) designed to inspire the faithful and attract the undecided.

Conventions weren't always this way. Presidential nominations used to be decided after multiple ballots, with negotiating and swapping going on between ballots. The first convention I remember watching was the 1960 Democratic Convention. John F. Kennedy came to the convention with the largest number of delegates but not a majority. It took some trading (Lyndon Johnson became the vice presidential nominee) for JFK to get the first ballot victory.

And no convention has been as exciting or as exasperating as the 1968 Democratic Convention with the protests in the street, the arrest of a reporter on the convention floor and all the rest of the uncertainty about what might be said or done next.

So why are we still having conventions if the nomination is predetermined by the primary results? They are now intended solely to build up public support for the Republicans and Democrats and have no other valid purpose. Why then is Congress giving $4 million in taxpayer funds to each party for holding its convention? Neither the Republican budget cutters nor the Democratic deficit hawks have proposed ending this waste!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bill Clinton, masterful orator

Thanks to You Tube, I've just watched Bill Clinton's speech, about 22 hours after the event, and I have to say it's one of the most masterful speeches I've ever heard. The former president was extraordinary in multiple ways — his arguments, his timing (including comic timing), his rhetoric, his command of facts, and his ability to excite the partisan crowd. If he'd been passing out Kool-Aid at the end, everyone would have drunk it. He looked better than he had as president. Post-heart problems, he's lost weight, and his face is leaner and smoother; I'd almost bet he's had plastic surgery or some fancy facials.

Clinton, who is probably the best American politician (i.e., campaigner, negotiator, deal maker) of the last 30 years, maybe 50 years (which would rank him ahead of Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, two very different masters in their own right), hit all his marks in Wednesday night's nominating speech. He was droll; he was funny; he was philosophical; he was inspiring. He offered an encyclopedic memory for facts and numbers (mostly all true or mostly so, the fact-checkers have said), and he had the delegates leaping to their feet and shouting for more.

I've always contended that the great speeches of my lifetime were Kennedy's inaugural address, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, Kennedy's Berlin Wall speech, and Reagan's Pointe du Hoc speech commemorating D-Day. I have to consider Clinton's speech Wednesday night on the same plane as these others. In effectiveness — getting the audience fired up — Clinton may have exceeded them all except King. Clinton's speech was long, about 50 minutes, compared to Kennedy's five minutes at the Berlin Wall, and that was always Clinton's weakness. He would drone on for an hour for a State of the Union address, but at the convention this week, he kept your attention, and the 50 minutes passed quickly.

Obama fans proclaim him as a great orator, and he's had his moments of greatness, but Clinton, his senior by a few years, took him to school on rhetoric and argument and holding the audience in the palm of your hand Wednesday night.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Persistence in blogging

I've never made any money from writing a blog (it still amazes me that some people do!), and I've attracted only a few "followers," but I felt a bit of encouragement recently when I checked on the blogs I had been following. With the exception of what you might call "national" blogs affiliated with major websites, none of the blogs I had been following were active. The last post for one was nearly a year ago, for another, several years ago. None of the blogs had a post less than several months old.

When I spoke at a blogging conference arranged by the N.C. Press Association several years ago, I said that the most important thing about a blog is consistency — blog every day so that your readers will always have something new to read or look at. I've fallen behind on my daily blogging, but I've rarely gone a week without a post or two. I'm keeping it going, though I often wonder why after looking at my dismal page views statistics!

I'm still blogging. Whether anyone is reading may be another matter. It seems likely that Twitter has taken the place of blogs for many people. I started this blog before Twitter heard its first tweet, and my writing habit just won't let me stop now. I've outlasted at least some of my competition.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Romney gains lead in North Carolina

Labor Day marks the traditional start of the presidential election campaign. The Republicans have departed Tampa, and the Democrats are arriving in Charlotte, so the campaign is about to shift into high gear.

A headline in today's News & Observer notes that Republican Mitt Romney has received a boost from his party's convention (although you have to wonder what kind of boost there was in Clint Eastwood's rambling, disjointed monologue and Chris Christie's "look at me, me, me" speech) and now leads President Obama in North Carolina polling.

This new poll affirms the feeling I've had for months that Obama would not be able to duplicate his showing in North Carolina. His 2008 victory was an aberration, not a new trend. Obama put extraordinary resources into North Carolina and ran a brilliant grassroots campaign to cinch the state's 15 electoral votes, but things have changed since 2008. The Obama excitement ("Yes, we can!") is missing this year, and some N.C. voters are suffering from buyer's remorse. In 2008, Obama was able to overcome North Carolina's 32-year history of going Republican in the presidential race, regardless of how the rest of the ticket went, but it will be harder this year.

Here's my bold prediction (and I've seen enough political races to know not to do this, especially this early in the campaign): Romney will win North Carolina's electoral votes on Nov. 6. This prediction is based more on a feeling, a reading of the electorate, than on any scientific analysis. It just looks harder for Obama to win than it does for Romney.

I've said before that the 2012 race reminds me of the 1980 race — an incumbent Democrat presiding over a faltering economy amid popular anguish — but Obama is no Jimmy Carter, and Romney is no Ronald Reagan. So I'm not willing to stick my neck out and predict a national winner. I think the race is a toss-up that will be decided in the next 60 days. But if Obama is to win, I think he'll have to find the 270 electoral votes needed without counting North Carolina's.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A sermon for an election year

Today, our pastor was on vacation, and I was asked to provide a sermon, or at least a message. This is what I came up with, based on the Standard Lectionary for the day:

Sermon for Sept. 2, 2012
14th Sunday after Pentecost

            When I first took a look at today’s Scriptures, my reaction was: What appropriate lessons these are for an election year!
            This 14th Sunday after Pentecost is also Labor Day Weekend Sunday, the final holiday of the summer, the demarcation point between summer and autumn, and the official beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign, which has actually been well under way for nearly four years. One party held its convention in Tampa last week, and the other party will hold its convention in Charlotte this week. What an apropos time this is for today’s lessons about rules and laws and customs and governance.
            We begin in Deuteronomy. In verse 5, which immediately precedes today’s lesson, Moses tells the Israelites, “I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.” “Statutes and ordinances” are the stuff of legislatures and governance. Moses warns that Israel “must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” Surely a great nation needs wise and discerning people today, when our leaders are chosen by popular vote, unlike the monarchies and judges of the Old Testament. Moses further tells them to “make them known to your children and your children’s children,” which takes us from governance into childrearing — but can childrearing and governance ever be entirely separated?
            The writer of James, who is believed by some to be the brother of Jesus, is most often remembered for his defense of good works, writing, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” It is little wonder, then that Martin Luther, who proclaimed “Sole Gracia, Sole Fide, Sole Scriptura” — Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone — had no use for James’ epistle. But James is persuasive in arguing that telling a brother or sister who is naked and hungry to go in peace and rejoice in the Grace of God does not meet that person’s needs. Perhaps the lectionary will tackle those verses in the next few weeks.
            Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, is a follower of James’ “good works” doctrine. He wrote about what he called “the theology of the hammer.” “Everybody can use the hammer as a manifestation of God’s love,” he said.
            In today’s lesson, James tells us clearly that “Religion that is pure and undefiled … is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Surely, this definition addresses the current political movement that would eliminate food, shelter, medical care and other basic needs from the responsibilities of society and of society’s fundamental organizational unit, the government. In ancient Israel, orphans and widows were the obvious underclass of society, people who could not care for themselves and who had no family to support them. Today, we would add the physically and mentally handicapped, the unemployed and uneducated. James would tell us that if we do not care for the “least of these” (as Jesus described them), then our religion is not pure.
            I would take this argument no further than this. I do not believe the Bible speaks to specific legislation or laws or court decisions. I cannot tell you with certitude by reading the Bible whether the federal budget should be two trillion or ten trillion or whether the state should build toll roads or light rail. What I can tell you is that government is made of people, and if we the people are not concerned about widows, orphans and others struggling in a world far more complex than it was in first century Israel, then we need to re-examine our religious standards.
            James’ greatest gift to us this Sunday 64 days before a national election might be his admonition to stop yelling at each other. That’s not exactly how he put it. He wrote, “”Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” A few verses later, he says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
            Wouldn’t you like to post that on the screen the next time a political ad pops up on the television or the computer screen or a billboard? Anyone who has been on Facebook — and about a billion people are on Facebook — has probably been offended by some political slogan posted by one of their “friends.” Those of my generation on Facebook are there mostly to see pictures of their grandchildren or to catch the latest development in whatever their passion is — the Carolina Panthers or bee keeping or poodle rescue — and not to read political diatribes. So let me suggest that the next time you see one of these partisan political rants on Facebook, don’t get mad, don’t un-friend the perpetrator, simply quote James, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19)” I look forward to the day when it’s safe to go back on Facebook again.
            James’ advice is solid. We should all be less vocal and more attentive to others. One of my favorite quotes in the world of journalism is from Anders Gyllenhaal, the former News & Observer editor who is now director of news for McClatchy Corp. He said, “You never learn anything when you’re doing all the talking.” If you follow James’ and Anders’ advice, you might learn something.
            Today’s lectionary becomes complete, as it so often does, in the Gospel lesson. Here, Jesus and his disciples are confronted with what might be described as a political situation. His disciples have been observed eating their food with unclean hands. This is not a Scripture you want to read to small children who have enough excuses for not washing their hands already.
            The Pharisees and Scribes, who might be described as the political power brokers of their day, had seen some disciples eating without washing their hands first, and they confronted Jesus with this violation of law and tradition. But the defiled hands they mentioned had nothing to do with hygiene. These ancients knew nothing of bacteria or viruses; they were cleansing not to avoid spreading disease but to fulfill a rule imposed by religious authorities. So if you want to discreetly squeeze a little hand sanitizer on your hands between the Sharing of the Peace and Communion, that’s OK. Jesus was not talking about that.
            Jesus saw their holier-than-thou attitude for what it was and insisted that cleanliness of hands is no substitute for cleanliness of heart. He cited Isaiah in saying this adherence to cleanliness rules was like honoring God with lips but not heart and teaching “human precepts as doctrine.”
            He then goes on to expound upon the cleanliness rules and dietary rules of ancient Judaism. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him but what comes out. Those who declare that consuming beer or wine will lead to damnation overlook these verses, for Jesus makes it clear that what you consume does not make you evil; it is only what comes from within you that is evil. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” Jesus said.
            It is unfortunate that in an election year, a lot of evil thoughts are coming from within the politicians who would lead our government, and we have difficulty avoiding the ill will of political campaigns. Mark does not tell us how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus’ correcting of their “politically correct” rules about cleanliness. Perhaps they went away chagrined that what they thought was a lawful rule was completely backward. Mark simply writes that Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre, where, perhaps, he was able to avoid the Pharisees’ questions the way we’d like to avoid politicians’ advertisements, speeches and phone calls.
            Peace to you on this day, in this year and always. Amen.