Sunday, July 31, 2016

An apropriate quote from 63 years ago

Donald Trump's latest exercise in egocentricity could be the moment that at last sinks his unprecedented campaign for the presidency. He was responding to the most moving and emotional moment of last week's Democratic National Convention, when a grieving father recalled the heroism of his slain son, an Army officer in Iraq taking the lead to approach a suspicious vehicle, which detonated as he was merely feet away.

The father, Khizr Khan, challenged Trump, telling him that he didn't know what sacrifice was, that he had never sacrificed anything while he and thousands of other fathers had sacrificed their sons for this country.

Trump, who could have safely no-commented or merely expressed sympathy and gratefulness for the Khan family's loss, chose to attack Khan and his wife while at the same time comparing their sacrifice with what he viewed as his own sacrifices. He worked hard, he said; he created jobs, he built companies. Yes, he insisted, those are sacrifices, implicitly, just like the Khans' sacrifice of their son.

One longs for a voice from the past, shouting indignantly, as in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, "Sir, have you no sense of decency?"

Contrast Trump's insensitive and senseless provocation with Abraham Lincoln's heartfelt, handwritten letter to the mother of five sons killed in battle. He offered his sympathy and praised her martyred sons as soldiers who "have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom." Trump can only imply, "Well, I have suffered, too!" Lincoln was humble and presidential, two adjectives that do not apply to Trump.

The attack on grieving parents and the conflating of his "sacrifices" to theirs could become the defining moment of this campaign. It might finally shock the electorate to abandon Trump once and for all. Or maybe not.

Will the Trump faithful overlook or dismiss yet another offense by the Republican presidential nominee? After all, his faithful have forgiven Trump other insulting, condescending, narcissistic comments in the past:

° He insisted that Sen. John McCain, who spent four years in a North Vietnamese prison and was permanently disabled by torture, was not a hero.
° In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary and no documentary support, he insisted that Barack Obama had been born in Kenya.
° He implied that Sen. Ted Cruz's father conspired with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
° He accepted the support of a Ku Klux Klan leader.
° He proclaims himself a Christian but shows little familiarity with the Christian Bible or what most Christians would consider a Christian lifestyle.
° He praises Vladimir Putin, who has returned Russia to dictatorial rule and dangerously provocative diplomatic and military steps.
° He ignores the seriousness of the "Brexit" vote to break up the European Union because he thinks it will be good for his golf courses in Britain.
° He has suggested that he could strengthen the U.S. economy by having the Treasury default on its debts.
° He has refused to release his income tax returns, which has been an unspoken rule for the past 40 years. Will American voters never find out what those returns would reveal?
° He has suggested that maybe the United States, under his reign, would not honor its 67-year commitment to NATO. 

If Trump supporters are willing to follow their leader regardless of what he does or says, perhaps that question from 1954 should be asked of them on election day: "Have you no sense of decency?"

Thursday, July 28, 2016

What's wrong with Washington and how to fix it

My wife purchased and I read (she is immersed in a novel and has not gotten around to it yet) the book by two former Senate majority leaders, Tom Daschle (D) and Trent Lott (R), "Crisis Point." I had heard about the book on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show" and in published reviews. 

Lott and Daschle lay out what's wrong with Washington, and there's plenty wrong. There is also plenty of blame to go around. Both parties over years of increasingly partisan politics have contributed to an atmosphere of obstruction, persecution, non-stop campaigning and other ills that have led to an inability to get anything substantive accomplished. Even passing a federal budget has become undoable.

Lott and Daschle, who got along well for being two antagonists in highly volatile times, point to the explosion of money in political campaigns and politicians' need to constantly raise money or lose to a better-funded candidate. But there is more. In the 1990s, spurred by House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, the House developed a calendar that is essentially a three-day work week, from Tuesday to Thursday. Gingrich claimed that would keep representatives closer to their constituents because they could "go home" every weekend. What they did on those weekends, however, was more about raising campaign funds than talking to constituents. It had another impact: Representatives were not in Washington with their colleagues. The collegial atmosphere of Congress was lost. The Washington social scene, which kept congressmen and their families together and built cross-party friendships, was no more.

Another factor was redistricting, which is required by the Constitution every 10 years. But the increased capabilities of computerized redistricting made it possible to create congressional districts that sliced voter populations down to a single Democrat or Republican. That created all kinds of mischief. Democrats and Republicans created districts that made their incumbents virtually challenge-proof. In the past few years, most members of Congress had to worry more about a party primary challenger than about the general election opponent because one party's voters dominated more and more electoral districts.

Lott and Daschle offer some recommendations for improving Congress and the election process, which could at least improve productivity on Capitol Hill.

This election year, with a candidate promising to overturn all that's wrong with Washington with the stroke of a pen or a dictatorial edict, the Daschle-Lott book may seem to complicated for the electorate, but it's worth a read. The authors are guys who have been inside the machinery of government. They know how it works, and they have some good suggestions for fixing things without resorting to one-man rule.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Hot enough for you?

This week, the temperature is expected to be in the mid-90s or hotter. On Saturday, I worked on painting the interior of a house in the morning and worked in my own yard in the afternoon. My sweat soaked through my clothes twice and dripped like raindrops as I walked along. Standing in the shade was tolerable, but barely, while direct sun made me feel like a piece of meat in an oven set to "broil."

Heat like this saps your energy. It hurts. It exhausts you.

Finding an air-conditioned space — and an excuse to be inside it — filled my consciousness. At the end of the day, after taking a shower and putting on fresh, dry clothes, I still felt exhausted. The heat would not let me go.

Every day has been hot for a couple of weeks now, and there is no relief promised in the 10-day forecast. I know there were spells like this when I was growing up, when no one I knew had air conditioning at home, when a single electric fan provided the only hint of relief, pushing the hot, humid air around the house. The grown-ups would grab a ladder-back chair and take it out in the yard underneath the big shade tree to escape the heat inside the house. My Vacation Bible School work was ruined in that upstairs classroom at the church. Perspiration from my face dripped on the drawing paper, leaving big, round splotches that multiplied and grew until the entire paper went limp with moisture. When we came in from recess at my elementary school, the boys would ask the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom to retrieve a few of those rough, brown paper towels to wipe our faces.

How did we tolerate it? How did we manage to work and to sleep through such strength-sapping heat and humidity? And what will it mean in future summers if global temperatures continue to rise, if two-week heat waves turn into two-month heat waves?

The "Sunbelt" (also known as The South) was transformed by the invention of air conditioning, but more intense heat could make the region less attractive (because of higher cooling costs) and the debilitating effects of unremitting heat. This current heat wave might be more than just unbearable heat; it may be a glimpse of what is to come.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fix the presidential nomination system

This week and the next, the two dominant political parties will nominate the least popular major-party nominees in modern political history. Many Republican leaders are appalled that their party's nomination has been hijacked (legally and within the rules but hijacked nonetheless) by a man with no electoral experience and no real allegiance to his party's principles and viewpoint. Democrats next week will nominate Hillary Clinton, who is despised by many Americans and distrusted by a majority of the electorate.

A majority of Americans wish they had some other options on election day.

Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps it's time to reconsider the steady shift from party elites making the rules and picking the nominees to a series of party primaries illustrated by numerous nationally televised candidate "debates." This new system was born out of efforts to correct the excesses within both parties in the 1960s. Republicans wanted to avoid another debacle like the 1964 election, when Lyndon Johnson, one of the least likable candidates of the century, swamped the GOP's Barry Goldwater in the most one-sided election in modern history. Democrats wanted to involve the masses and avoid the violent demonstrations that wrecked the 1968 Chicago convention and handed the election to Richard Nixon.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could win the nomination without even entering a party primary. Most delegate votes were decided by party officials, not by rank-and-file voters. Reforms enacted for the 1972 election reversed that. Primaries would determine the party nomination, so the Democrats got George McGovern, a one-issue candidate who motivated primary voters to his cause but had little appeal in the general election.

Then came the debates. Kennedy and Nixon held the first presidential debates in 1960, then the format was abandoned for several years. Only in the 1980s did candidate debates become standard fare. Ronald Reagan thrived in the debates while his opponents stumbled. Voters swooned. The precedent was set.

This year's crop of 17 GOP candidates made candidate debates a three-ring circus, not a debate; nevertheless, the candidates and the networks promoted the events, and voters watched. The staged free-for-alls handed the party a leading candidate who was not informed on major national and international issues and whose debate style was insults, bombast and bragging.

On the Democratic side, potential candidates declined to take on Clinton, the presumptive party nominee since 2009. But Clinton was a weaker nominee than potential challengers realized. Only Bernie Sanders, a socialist with little allegiance to the Democratic Party, was willing to reveal Clinton as an unlikable and untrustworthy candidate.

No matter how the general election turns out, both parties should be willing to rethink the nomination process. There has to be a better way. Primaries that begin nearly two years before the election are not useful, especially when the first primaries are in states with demographics unlike the nation at large. Debates among a dozen or more candidates aren't helpful in determining who is best qualified to run the country, especially when questions to candidates are more focused on personal traits or foibles than national issues. The parties should retake possession of the debates. They should find a better way to hold primaries. A single, nationwide primary has been suggested. That might help. Primaries that go on week after week for more than a year are guaranteed to put short-attention-span voters to sleep.

This election year may have to be a write-off, but let's fix this mess before the next presidential election.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A new era of protests and violence

Twice inside of a week, police officers are ambushed and killed by disgruntled criminals. This is the sort of things that doesn't happen in America or in any civilized, responsive, democratic society. But, suddenly, it is happening here, and there is no reason to believe that similar ambushes won't happen again. The ploy — call 911 to ask for emergency response then gun down the public servants sent to answer the call — conceivably become commonplace. Already, police officers are thinking twice about calls for assistance and are taking precautions against potential traps.

What is different this year from previous incidents of anti-police violence is the ready access to all sorts of military-style weapons, from long, rapid-fire, high capacity guns to explosives. Militant groups or individuals can amass arsenals of deadly weapons the police have difficulty matching.

Although there is little solid evidence to explain what motivated the shooters in Dallas and Baton Rouge, it is widely assumed that these assassinations were staged as payback for the recent deaths of black men in encounters with police. The Baton Rouge ambush occurred only blocks from where Black Lives Matter stage protests almost nightly following the fatal police shooting of a black man in the Louisiana capital.

As any number of saner commentators pointed out, it makes no sense to attack police officers and other law enforcement out of anger over the actions of a single officer in some other place in some other circumstances. For a segment of the population, however, payback is more important than justice, and protest is more important than judicial process. A few individuals turn words of protest into violence.

If America is turning a corner toward total distrust of police and the criminal justice system and toward vigilante actions, chaos and anarchy can be the result. As the Republican National Convention opens this week, I fear for the worst in Cleveland, where concealed carry and open carry of firearms on the streets will make it extremely difficult for law enforcement officers to tell ambush conspirators from Second Amendments stalwarts. Anti-Donald Trump protesters promise disruptions as intense as the 1968 Democratic Convention. Clashes between anti-Trump and pro-Trump factions could easily dissolve into violence.

Distrust of police and criminal justice emanating from the convention protests could usher in waves of violence against police and other pillars of American civilization.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Getting pulled over and livng to tell about it

I've had some experience with being pulled over by law enforcement, but not recently, thank goodness. My pullovers have resulted in tickets for speeding and in kind warnings to get that taillight fixed or pay closer attention to my driving. But never did I fear being beaten or shot by an officer who pulled me over.

That's why the shooting death of Philandro Castile during a traffic stop is so shocking to me. I would never imagine that an officer would pull his weapon and shoot me as I sat in the driver's seat. Yet, it happened to Castile. It was captured on video. It inspired scores of protests. But the end result was this: Castile died after being pulled over because of a faulty taillight.

Righteous protests after the shooting devolved at times into a fiction that cops are fighting a war against black men. That is as false as any other racially charged conspiracy claim. There is no war, but there appears to be a lack of understanding and a lack of communication.

Castile was licensed to carry a firearm, and he told the officer that he had a firearm in the car. He may not have provided that explanation, however, in the manner prescribed in concealed-carry classes. The officer apparently heard the weapon explanation as a threat and saw Castile's reaching for his identification as reaching for a weapon. Was race — and perhaps fear of black males — a factor in the cop's misinterpretation? Probably.

This is a shooting that never should have happened. It is a situation when the service weapon never should have been drawn, unless, as some have suggested, the officer thought Castile was the armed robber he had been alerted about. But that scenario would have triggered a different protocol involving calling for backup and requiring the driver to exit the vehicle with his hands up.

The last time I was pulled over, the Wilson officer approached my car, touching the left rear fender as she walked to my window. (I assume she was marking the car with her fingerprint in case anything went wrong and my car had to be identified by her fingerprint.) She asked if I knew one taillight was out. I respectfully told her I didn't (which was the truth). She told me to get it fixed as soon as possible. I promised her I would, and she returned to her vehicle and drove on.

I went home, then to the store and bought a taillight bulb and replaced the burned-out bulb.

End of story.

But had I appeared threatening or belligerent — even short-tempered — things might have ended differently. Had my skin been darker AND my demeanor had been more confrontational, things almost assuredly would have ended differently.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Best qualified presidential candidate ever?

President Obama said it during the Hillary Clinton campaign stop in Charlotte Tuesday. He said Hillary Clinton is the best qualified person ever to run for president. That sort of thing has been claimed before with surprisingly little contradiction -- No one has ever run for president, they've claimed, with more experience than Hillary Clinton.

I beg to differ, not to dispute that HRC has experience or that she is qualified for the presidency, at least in terms of experience. But the most qualified ever? Really?

A few candidates from the not-too-distant past had experiences that could match or surpass the former one-term senator and secretary of state. Franklin Roosevelt had been governor of a large state (New York) and had served as secretary of the Navy. Lyndon Johnson had served in the House and the Senate, had been on congressional staff, and had been perhaps the most effective majority leader of the Senate in the upper chamber's history. He also served nearly four years as vice president. George H.W. Bush had been a member of Congress, ambassador to China, director of the CIA and vice president for two terms. Dwight D. Eisenhower was light on Washington experience, but he had successfully managed the largest, most complex and probably most difficult military alliance in history. Richard Nixon had been a member of the House and the Senate and held key congressional leadership posts, and he served two terms as vice president. (All of which goes to prove that experience isn't everything.)

Some presidents' successful terms help prove that experience isn't everything. Harry Truman had little to recommend him in 1945, when he inherited the presidency after FDR's sudden death. He had been a machine politician from Missouri with a slim record of congressional accomplishments. He had served only a few months as vice president and had been so out of the loop that he didn't even know about the atomic bomb. He was not a college graduate. But many historians now consider Truman one of our best presidents.

And then there's Abraham Lincoln, a one-term congressman and failed candidate for Senate. He was elected president only because of a catastrophic split in the Democratic Party and was so detested by many of his countrymen that they withdrew from the Union before he was even inaugurated. His strategy to keep the country united failed and resulted in a tragic, four-year war that killed 600,000 or more. He second-guessed his generals and frequently fired them. He was expected to lose his 1864 re-election bid (against a general he had fired) and was saved only by a change in battlefield success. Despite all the failures and lack of solid experience, Lincoln is considered one of the two or three best presidents in history.

Let's grant Hillary Clinton the fact that she has experience as a cabinet secretary, a senator and as first lady (which should count for something). But is she the "most experienced ever"? Not by a long shot.