Friday, October 26, 2012

Ohio's electoral votes will decide election

Eleven days before the election, the outcome is beginning to take shape. The election will be close; that seems to be the one thing most everyone can agree on. President Obama appeared to be on a track to a convincing Electoral College victory a couple of months ago, but that's no longer the case. Mitt Romney's campaign has been revitalized, and he seems to be getting into a groove. He has even take a whisker-thin lead in national polls.

But the nationwide polls don't mean anything. The popular vote doesn't determine the election; the Electoral College does. And momentum, as one pundit put it this week, doesn't count; votes do. Romney seems to have the momentum, but, unless things swing dramatically, he doesn't have 271 electoral votes.

It appears more and more likely that the election will be decided in one state — Ohio. No matter how you do the math, it's next to impossible for Romney to win without winning Ohio. He can win Florida, which he very well might, but he'd still need Ohio to put him over the top. Obama badly needs Ohio, too, but he's significantly ahead there, according to the polls. Obama could lose Ohio and still win, if he took Florida, Virginia and a few other swing states. His electoral total is bulked up by the big electoral votes in California and New York, where he's not even being contested. Romney will carry Texas and a lot of smaller states, but he will need Ohio, even if he wins Florida.

So the election will likely be won or lost in Ohio, and right now, Obama seems to have the advantage. Both candidates have recognized the importance of Ohio and are spending their last days of campaigning there. Voting intentions can change, and polls can be flawed, but if the polls are right, Ohio will give the election to Obama, even if Romney wins the popular vote. (Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election via Florida in 2000.)

I predicted early on that Romney would take North Carolina, and recent campaign activities seem to confirm that prediction. Candidates are no longer making appearances here and are even pulling back on ads in North Carolina — actions that hint that the campaigns think the N.C. results are a foregone conclusion. N.C. Democrats are in such disarray with the Jim Black and Meg Scott Phipps scandals, Gov. Bev Perdue's unpopularity and untimely backing out of a re-election bid, and the GOP-ordered redistricting that the state's Republicans have a clear advantage. Regardless of which way Ohio swings the total electoral vote, North Carolina's electoral votes seem to be securely in Romney's column.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bad politics AND bad theology

Just when you think Republican candidates will run out of stupid things to say, along comes Richard Mourdock. What he said in a candidate debate was "Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

Mourdock will pay the consequences for the insensitivity of his remark and for the political foolishness of saying something days before the election that you know will raise the ire of large portions of the electorate. No matter how sincerely you hold this belief, a smart candidate will keep his opinion to himself until after the election.

Mourdock's remarks are not only politically suicidal, they are theologically unsound. God does not "intend" rape to happen. Just because something happened, it does not mean that the "something" was God's will. If you accept Mourdock's theology, then it was God's will that Hitler killed six million Jews, Mao killed untold millions, Hurricane Katrina killed hundreds, and Lee Harvey Oswald killed Jack Kennedy. This is the same distorted theology that prompts well-meaning Christians to say to a grieving parent, "It was God's will." A loving God does not intend for His children to suffer and grieve. Tragedy is not his intention for humanity.

Mourdock ignores the doctrine of free will. God gave it to humans. Humans use their free will, oftentimes to do foolish or evil things. 

If you accept Mourdock's reasoning that God is responsible for everything that happens on Earth, then we should be putting God on trial for murder, not the 15-year-old gang-banger who shot up the neighborhood playground. Must've been God's intention, right

Bad theology. It's a bad enough that stupid politicians say stupid things, but they shouldn't blame it on God.

Fifty years ago, annihilation avoided

Fifty years ago this week, my fellow eighth-graders were jolted out of our adolescent invincibility and apathy by the realization that we might all die with only a few minutes' warning. The Cuban Missile Crisis transfixed us in a way that is hard to imagine today. Every newspaper and television network provided constant coverage of the crisis and the anxiety in Washington and Moscow.

Two PBS programs last night reminded me of just how close we came to nuclear annihilation. Even President Kennedy did not know how close we came. The Soviet Union's missiles in Cuba were equipped with nuclear warheads that could reach U.S. cities in minutes and obliterate them. Kennedy and U.S. military commanders assumed the warheads had not yet been added to the missiles. Four Soviet submarines headed to Cuba were equipped with nuclear-armed torpedoes. One submarine came within a hair's breadth of launching its nuclear torpedo against U.S. Navy ships that were harassing and tracking it. If that weapon had been fired, the United States would have had to respond, and then the Soviet Union would have had to counter. The result could have been the elimination of human life in the northern hemisphere.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the finest hour of John F. Kennedy's short-lived presidency. He won immediate praise as the crisis was disarmed, but Americans did not know just how close we had come to nuclear catastrophe. Kennedy's solution was to quietly and secretly work a deal with the Soviets, assuring them that he would not invade Cuba and that he would remove obsolete U.S. missiles from Turkey. Our youngest president stood up to the strong push by older, more experienced military personnel to strike Cuba immediately and take out the missiles before they could be launched. Had he followed that advice, a nuclear exchange was probably inevitable. Kennedy survived the crisis by being tough — quarantining Cuba with U.S. ships — and by being quietly willing to compromise and negotiate.

Because of Kennedy's skilled handling of the situation, we did not all die. But 13 months later, Kennedy himself was dead.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The importance of family gatherings

Last weekend, I did something quite rare for me: I flew to a distant city and returned two days later. Waiting in line to board, I tried to remember just how many airplane flights I had taken in my life — about a dozen was my initial estimate, and my counting and memory came close to that number. So I am not accustomed to flying and still feel a bit disbelieving and unnatural when the wheels lift off the runway. And the feeling of being packed like sardines in a narrow aluminum tube is still strange and a little claustrophobia-inducing to me. Still, my wife and I made our trip of some 400 miles in about an hour, did not fall from the sky and did not get arrested or too humiliated by the Transportation Safety Administration personnel. On Sunday, the process worked just as well in the opposite direction.

We did this because we are growing older and with age comes wisdom — the wisdom of knowing just how important family and family events are. We attended a wedding of the son of my wife's first cousin. This cousin, though not estranged by any means, was not exactly close. For most of their adult lives, my wife and he have lived 1,000 or more miles apart. He and his family visited our home 30 years ago; we have never visited his. The groom, this cousin's son, probably could not identify either of us in a lineup. Still, it was important to attend this wedding.

It was important because the only times we had seen this cousin or his wife or his son recently were at funerals. The wedding provided a reason for cousins to gather without there being a burial involved. The wedding rites were fittingly brief, but the conversations and the laughter were long. Six of the eight first cousins in my wife's family attended the wedding. They buried the ninth cousin two months ago, which gave the surviving cousins greater impetus to gather this time, on a happy occasion. These cousins have recognized, a bit unexpectedly, that we are now the Older Generation. It is our grandchildren who are scurrying all about, getting to know their cousins; it is our children who are supervising cooking, drinking and play. We have taken the roles of our parents, filling the vacuum their deaths have left — cautious, careful and nostalgic.

One of my regrets in life is that I did not attend the funerals of several aunts, uncles and cousins who died and were buried far from where I was living. I had plenty of excuses: We didn't have the money to go (which was very true) or we had to work and couldn't get away. But if you grasp the importance of family, you know that neither money nor time can substitute for the relationships you build with those with whom you share DNA and memories and love.

I did attend the wedding of one uncle, a gentle, faithful man who loved to laugh. I drove eight hours to the funeral and back in one day. This uncle once told me, "All we have in this old world is family." Spend all the time you can with your family; you won't get a second chance.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A vote for George McGovern

I will admit it: I voted for George McGovern in 1972. And I don't regret it. Given a choice between earnest, sincere, principled McGovern and devious, conniving, paranoid Richard Nixon, I stand by my choice. McGovern died Sunday at age 90.

Which is not to say that I agreed with McGovern's entire platform or that the world would be better today if he had won. McGovern had one central issue: End the Vietnam War. For millions of supporters, that was all that mattered. The war had gone on far too long, killed far too many people and represented a detour from American principles. Lyndon Johnson had dragged us into that war, which proved to be his undoing, and Nixon had shamelessly manipulated the war issue to win the close 1968 election. McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, had seen war close up, and he knew the Vietnam War was wrong from the start.

Beyond the war, McGovern's platform was a hodge-podge of liberal ideas. I blanched at the announcement that McGovern proposed sending every American a monthly check, establishing a guaranteed minimum income. McGovern apparently had never assessed the fiscal costs or the social impact of such a policy, but he never repudiated the idea. Only later, when he had left the Senate and was running a small business did he admit that he wished he had known the difficulties businesses faced. His overwhelming 1972 loss was a repudiation of his economic and social agenda, not his Vietnam policy. He also hurt his campaign with bone-headed strategy, such as his handling of the Tom Eagleton affair. McGovern's victory forever changed the Democratic Party, which required racial, age and gender quotas for convention delegates. Along with the rise in state primaries, these rules took the nomination process out of the hands of party bosses. It was McGovern's party committee that created the rules that gave him the nomination.

In 1972, I was a young Coast Guard officer assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division in Washington, D.C. I rode to work in a car pool of Nixon supporters and tried not to argue politics on our 20-minute commute. It was the experience of working in Washington and observing the inefficiencies and outright waste of government resources that turned me toward fiscal conservatism and made me forever dubious of political promises. I was shocked, in my youthful naivete, at the extent of McGovern's loss, carrying only one state out of 50.

A year later, I would follow intensely the Washington Post's reporting of the Watergate scandal, stories that confirmed my skeptical view of Nixon, and I would see the mood of Washington change when the humble, earnest Gerald Ford took over.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

'Town Hall' misses and stumbles

I've never cared for the "town hall" debate format, and last night's entertainment did not change my opinion. The format emphasizes personality and an ability to connect with strangers rather than examining important public issues.

Regardless of my opinion, the format seems firmly planted in the American political landscape.  President Obama pretty clearly won last night's debate, but it was not so much because of his performance as it was Mitt Romney's weak showing and stumbles. The two candidates exchanged some sharp challenges and displayed more than a little irritation. Obama, however, seemed more comfortable while Romney got flustered and irritated by some of the comments by the president, who clearly enjoyed needling the challenger.

Neither candidate addressed the big issues they've been avoiding throughout most of the campaign. Neither has produced a coherent, passable deficit reduction and debt elimination plan. Despite his adamant insistence that his tax-cut proposal will reduce the deficit, Romney's plan doesn't seem plausible to most economists or to me. He failed, however, to point out that Obama doesn't have a workable plan either. If they were honest with the public and with themselves, they would admit that cutting the deficit will be painful. We've been spending wildly and will have to pay the piper. We will also face painful changes to Social Security and Medicare, which are headed toward insolvency.

Romney seems determined to cut taxes, even though tax cuts during wartime has helped get us into this mess. And Obama's claim that he would use money not spent on wars to rebuild American infrastructure ignores the fact that the wars were financed by borrowed money, so his spending plan would require more borrowing and more debt.

Both candidates flubbed the question on equal pay. Obama referred to the Lily Ledbetter Act, which Congress passed overwhelmingly and is the law of the land, as is the Equal Pay Act. And then he went off on a tangent about health care and contraception. Mr. President, the question was about equal pay!

But leave it to Romney to create the latest social media sensation with his story about getting "binders of women" when he was governor of Massachusetts. The question was about equal pay, not about job opportunities. What both men should have said was something like this: "It's true that women earn less than men, despite federal laws that prohibit discrimination on account of gender. But the gap between men's and women's pay is narrowing and will continue to narrow. More women than men are earning college degrees, and the recent recession resulted in more men than women being laid off, so that gender pay gap is likely going to disappear. At least some of the pay difference is the result of career or lifestyle choices. Many women interrupt their careers to care for young children, and this results in a loss of potential earnings. This, too, is changing as more and more men are staying home while their wives work. Some women have been reluctant to pursue some highly compensated vocations, but that, too, is changing. Pay discrimination is illegal, and it is being enforced, and as society changes and society's expectations of women change, the pay gap will continue to narrow and will probably disappear completely."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Bill Friday's handshake

Someone asked if I was going to the funeral today in Chapel Hill, and I said no, but I'd like to. I'd like to pay my respects and show my admiration for a man who was the greatest North Carolinian of his generation, William Friday. The president emeritus of the University of North Carolina did more for this state during the 20th century than anyone I can think of, and he did it while retaining the respect and admiration of almost everyone in the state.

He was ever the perfect gentleman and always the advocate and defender of education and ever the critic and enemy of ignorance and poverty. Friday could have had any number of jobs, including political offices (governor and U.S. Senate), if he had wanted them, but he saw his calling as leading the University of North Carolina through its most tumultuous years. And when he retired in 1986, he remained in the center of North Carolina civic and educational life, maintaining a university office and interviewing people weekly on UNC-TV.

I was a student at UNC in roughly the middle of Friday's tenure as president, 1956-1986, and I knew him only as the presiding officer at ceremonial events and the calming voice in times of crisis. I did not formally meet him until many years later, after the publication of William Link's biography, "William Friday: Power, Purpose & American Higher Education." Link and Friday spoke at Barton College's Friends of the Library event in 1995 or '96, and Jim Hemby, then the Barton president, introduced me to Friday (Hemby had worked under Friday during a sabbatical). Shaking my hand, Friday exclaimed, "Oh, I know Hal Tarleton!"

I smiled and brushed off the greeting, assuming Friday probably said that to everyone he met. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps he did know my name and face. For three or four years in the 1990s, I was a member of a panel of newspaper editorial writers who appeared on UNC-TV's "North Carolina This Week" program. Friday was likely a regular viewer of the show since he was also a UNC-TV personality, and perhaps he did remember me from that show.

I'd like to think so, anyway.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Night sky puts on a show for free

When I walked to the end of the driveway to retrieve the morning paper a few days ago, a celestial light show greeted me. Just above the eastern horizon, the crescent moon and the planet Venus aligned on a perfect plane just a few degrees above the treeline. The moon's crescent tips pointed upward, looking like the bright rim of a water basin against the black sky.

As I turned back toward the house, I looked to the south and found Orion, the hunter, stalking game across the celestial plains, followed by his loyal hunting dogs, always just a few degrees east and south of the hunter's belt. Above and facing Orion was Taurus, with bright stars outlining the bull's horns and one additional jewel in the constellation. Directly overhead, Jupiter had settled in its wanderings between the tips of Taurus' fearsome horns.

Soon, as the morning's chill seeps into the daytime and the nights go from chilly to frigid, Orion and his dogs will confront Taurus in the evening sky. Then the winter sky show will be available for all to see, not just those who rise before sunrise. The dry, clear winter sky will sparkle with the fabled characters' bright jewels, and I will stare in appreciation as human eyes have stared — and human brains imagined — for thousands of years at the wonder of the universe displayed in points of light.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In this debate, there's no clear winner

After the presidential debate, my wife, who had gone to bed long before it ended, asked me, "Who won?" I said I thought Romney had clearly won, and I was gratified later to see that the national pundits, and even the Obama-Biden operatives, agreed with me.

The outcome of last night's vice presidential debate was less clear. It was more of a draw with both candidates winning some points and committing some errors. Vice President Biden did not commit any of his famous verbal gaffes, and he stayed aggressive throughout the night. Maybe too aggressive. He repeatedly interrupted Congressman Ryan and often came across as a spoiled bully who refused to play by the rules. His eye-rolling, grinning, and guffawing at Ryan's comments made him seem condescending and contemptuous. Credit moderator Martha Raddatz with keeping control of the discussion and asking thoughtful questions. Maybe she should be on somebody's ticket.

Ryan committed no major unforced errors, and his quiet, highly focused demeanor was in sharp contrast to Biden's chuckling and bombast. Ryan came across as what he's been subscribed to be: a smart, deliberate, organized, cerebral policy wonk. That might be reassuring to some voters, but it's not charismatic. Simply put, Biden came across as a politician accustomed to rowdy debate while Ryan came across as a technocrat who can explain complex issues but can't make them sexy.

Ryan seemed to hold his own on tax issues, about which Biden frequently rolled his eyes and threw up his hands, and he made points on the Libyan consulate murders and the administration's changing explanations. The best Biden could do was to promise to get to the bottom of it. Ryan was less convincing about other aspects of Obama's foreign policy, and Biden defended the administration well. It came down to two views of foreign policy, neither of which is provably wrong. Ryan scored some points on the jobs issue, and Biden had little but his own assurances that the economy has improved and things would be better — soon.

In one of the final questions, Raddatz challenged the two Catholics to explain how their faith affects their position on abortion. Ryan responded clearly why his faith and his experiences have made him "pro-life." Biden said he accepted the church's teachings (without personally endorsing them) but said he did not believe government should impose his views on women who do not share his position.

In the end, Ryan did not hurt the GOP ticket, and Biden did not hurt the Democratic ticket. The presidential race has tightened and will likely be decided on the basis of the next two presidential debates and on events beyond the control of the candidates.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The decline and fall of American religion

A new study finds that 20 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, a percentage that has soared dramatically in the past two decades. This is a seismic shift in American society with ramifications for politics, social policy, economics, education and ethics — in short, for every aspect of American life.

To measure the dramatic shift, think back 50 years to the presidential campaigns and the manned spaceflight program. The religious affiliations of the presidential candidates — a Roman Catholic and a Quaker — were large issues in the 1960 campaign. The seven Mercury astronauts were quizzed regularly about their religious faith and how it affected their preparations for space flight and for potential tragedy. Church affiliation was an important aspect of a businessman's resume just a couple of decades ago. Major banks and other institutions expected their top executives to belong to churches and civic clubs and to be involved in the religious and secular institutions of their communities.

Today, religion gets little notice, and when it is noticed, it is usually in a negative light. Pin some of the blame on religious extremists who wish to impose their views on others, but more broadly, religious affiliation just doesn't matter much any more to voters or to business customers.

American religious history is not one smooth, linear trajectory. There have been various periods of religious fervor interspersed with growing secularism in the past 300 years, but the sudden rise in non-affiliation is unprecedented. Even during earlier periods of less religious fervor, church affiliation filled social as well as religious needs. Today's more insular social style and the spread of electronic social media have reduced the need for churches as a source of personal interaction and friendship.

Americans of the 21st century are among the most religiously ignorant and biblically illiterate in history. A passing knowledge of the Bible and of biblical stories was necessary to understand American literature and literary allusions, but today's generations, as studies have shown, are largely ignorant of biblical stories and biblical characters. They also have little appreciation of the role religion played in the decision making and the personal ethics of people such as Washington and Lincoln.

For many Americans of this century, Sunday is just the second day of the weekend, and churches are an impediment to residential or commercial development.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A country that's not so great

"This is the greatest country in the world."

You hear that sentiment all the time, especially during election season, and the statement comes from both ends of the political spectrum. It's a given, a cliche so expected that no one notices it any more.

But is it true? Can it be true when Congress, the highest legislative body in the country, the organization that is supposed to be setting a course for the nation, is widely described as dysfunctional? Congress still has not passed a budget for the current fiscal year. On Jan. 1, the nation reaches a deadline contrived to get the country past a crisis manipulated for political purposes. The solution was not to resolve the differences among elected representatives but to avoid taking action of any kind for several months. Recent reports indicate that Congress is unlikely to take action on this "fiscal cliff" before the deadline arrives.

Congress, by the way, is already on vacation from its appointed duties, having clocked out in September until after next month's election. Congress is in session and at work only four days a week when it is in session, and its recesses have grown longer and longer over the past several years.

In session or out, congressional leaders spend most of their time criticizing members of the other party and contriving legislation whose only purpose is to provide more criticism of the other party. Truly important legislation, such as the budget, never gets enacted or even debated. For 20 years, Congress has recognized that the nation's Social Security and Medicare systems are fiscally unsustainable. Social Security can be repaired through relatively minor changes in benefits and/or contributions, but neither party wants to face the criticism the other party will unload upon anyone who suggests corrective changes. Likewise, Medicare needs practical revisions, but political considerations keep changes bottled up.

The nation's debt ($16 trillion) presents an imminent threat to the economic health of the nation, but Congress seems incapable of dealing with the matter because both major parties are so fixed on their own political interests that they will neither adopt practical solutions nor allow the other party do it. Congressional leaders would rather win the next election than solve the country's problems. Despite the fact that Congress is one of the most reviled institutions in the country (16 percent approval rating), nearly all of the incumbents will be re-elected because computer-assisted manipulation of congressional districts give incumbents a huge advantage over challengers.

How can we call this "the greatest country in the world"?

Monday, October 1, 2012

In autumn, our lives change

In the nearly two weeks since I last posted, something has changed. The morning is dark. My walk down the driveway is now in nighttime. My eyes search for the rolled-up paper in the faint shadows of a streetlight. Stars and a bright Venus sparkle in the morning sky, or dark clouds hang like blindfolds in the sky.

Autumn has arrived. We open windows to pull the cool air inside. The dogwoods have turned from green to red and gold. Fallen oak leaves litter the lawn and driveway. The lawn has gone unmowed for two weeks, and the lapse is not apparent.

This is my favorite time of year, when the chill in the air invigorates me, when the clear sky develops a deeper shade of blue, when summer's oppressive humidity relinquishes its bodily squeeze. My thoughts turn to mountain escapes and apples and the scent of burning leaves. My mind recalls Saturday afternoons in a college football stadium and my little children, parents themselves now, giggling in Halloween costumes. The harvest celebrations of our agricultural past linger in these traditions of decorated pumpkins, Indian corn decorations and Thanksgiving. But we are as far removed from harvest fields as we are from the horse-drawn plow.

One evening soon, we will sit before the fire fueled by natural gas and imagine the aroma of burning oak and the crackle of pine knots bursting into flame. Winter will envelope us, and we will snuggle for warmth and light candles through the long hours of winter darkness as the sun rises late, rides low through the day and sets early. In the dark night we will celebrate the light and the warmth, and we will wait for the days to grow longer once again.