Thursday, September 22, 2016

Charlotte like I'd never seen before

I grew up about 40 miles east of Charlotte, which was the "big city" we would go to for serious shopping at Sears & Roebuck, Belk's and Ivey's. I learned to drive in heavy traffic in that city, and I lived in Charlotte for two summers in my early 20s.

When I go to Charlotte now, where my daughter and a few other relatives live, I don't recognize much of anything. I can travel streets I knew 50 years ago, but they are no longer familiar. New construction has changed the streetscapes and the skyline, and the roads themselves have been transformed.

What I recognize least about Charlotte this week are the scenes of mass rioting (there is no kinder word for the chaos two nights this week). Charlotte was always a place our parents would warn us to be careful about; big cities were not like the friendly small towns we knew. But I never saw any crime or felt endangered in all the nights we drove or walked Charlotte streets.

Video and still photos of gangs blocking Interstate 85 and looting big trucks, then setting fire to their loot in the middle of an interstate highway appalled me. It's amazing that more people weren't injured, that many of the pedestrians running onto the interstate lanes weren't run down by speeding vehicles (I've driven I-85 enough to worry about being inside a car on that highway), that so many people were focused on destruction, not protest; that police were not rounding up suspects by the dozen and charging them with blocking traffic and destruction of property; that simple, civilized decency seemed to have been abandoned. 

I know this began as a protest over the police shooting of a black man. Police say he was armed and posed an imminent danger. Investigators have recovered a firearm. Others say he was unarmed and harmless.

Regardless of how this investigation and inevitable court cases are resolved, a fatal shooting does not justify looting, burning and blocking interstate highways. None of the people on the highway the night after the shooting had anything to do with what transpired Tuesday afternoon. The scenes of the riots were reminiscent of the violence in Baltimore when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Ultimately, prosecutors could not get a single conviction against any of the officers (both white and black) who had been charged in Gray's death. Property owners who had nothing to do with Gray's death or with police procedure sustained losses because they happened to be within reach of mobs intent on stealing and destroying.

What do the protests leading to riots accomplish? Even if someone is charged with first-degree murder, the verdict won't come in minutes after the shooting. Do the rioters expect to have the shooter handed over to the mob in a new twist on lynchings? Vigilante justice is never just. The United States has a court system that is the envy of the world, but it takes time to reach decisions.

We can recognize the need for better police training and for accountability when law enforcement officers shoot a suspect, but stopping traffic, looting a Walmart and rioting does not bring about accountability, only destruction.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Counting the damage from HB2

It was bad enough when Pay Pal and other big companies revoked plans to invest in and bring high-paying jobs to North Carolina because of House Bill 2, which limited protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people and forbade cities from passing anti-discrimination laws of their own. HB2 also established a requirement that everyone use bathrooms and locker rooms conforming to the gender on their birth certificates, a law aimed at transgender people.

The national reaction against the law was overwhelming. Bruce Springsteen refused to play a concert in a state where HB2 rules. Other individuals, organizations and corporations followed suit. Gov. Pat McCrory and his Republican colleagues in the legislature complained that North Carolina was being singled out while other states with similar laws were not boycotted. McCrory's complaint had some validity, but North Carolina's HB2 went further than other states' rules, and GOP leaders in the state dug in their heels rather than seeking a compromise.

Now the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference have weighed in on the HB2 debate by pulling all NCAA and ACC championship events from the state. This is more than legal maneuvering or political correctness. This is basketball and football. This is a slap in the face of the state that birthed and reared the Atlantic Coast Conference. The conference's headquarters is in Greensboro, which is also the traditional site of many of its premier events. The cost to the state will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The NCAA contracts with venues for "March Madness" games years in advance. The loss of this year's games will affect tournament sites for years to come. More millions of dollars will go to other states.

McCrory's strong streak of self-righteousness has kept him from admitting that the hastily passed law he supported and signed might be wrong. He and other Republican leaders have "doubled down" on their insistence that HB2 is a privacy protection law.

As an aging male who remembers what it was like to be a15-year-old boy and as a father of two daughters, I have a certain empathy for parents who recoil at the thought of boys sharing the shower room with their middle-school or high school daughters after phys ed class. A narrowly structured law could address this concern without the ban on anti-discrimination laws and other portions of HB2. Likewise, the bathroom issue can be resolved by admitting that transgender people — a minuscule subset of the population — have been using the bathrooms of their choice for years.

Some Republicans now appear willing to reconsider HB2, but the damage to North Carolina's economy and pride has been done. Pay Pal isn't going to reverse course. Springsteen won't give a "make-up" concert. The NCAA is accepting invitations from other states to play post-season events there. North Carolina, the home of the ACC, will likely be on the outside looking in for years to come. You might even have to worry about the ACC headquarters. If ACC teams can't play tournaments in North Carolina, can the conference keep its headquarters in Greensboro without being accused of hypocrisy?

Even people who support HB2's provisions have to admit that the law has hurt the state in economic, cultural and prestige measures. The Republican General Assembly will have to undo this error as soon as possible, like it or not.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Politicians get sick, and some make mistakes

Politicians get sick. Just like people do.

Hillary Clinton got sick. Her physician told her last Friday that it was pneumonia, told her to take some time off and rest. She didn't. She had a presidency to win. She couldn't let up. So that's what led to the eerie Sunday incident when the Democratic presidential nominee left the New York City 9/11 memorial service.

What made it weird was her clandestine departure. No announcement, no apology, no news reporters. She was simply whisked away. Hours later her campaign announced that she had gotten overheated at the ceremony and had to go to her daughter's apartment. Later still, the campaign announced the three-day-old diagnosis of pneumonia. Was she ashamed of getting pneumonia, as if it were a sexually transmitted disease?

It's not as if campaign trail illnesses were unheard of. Richard Nixon famously had been ill just before the 1960 presidential debates. Being sick didn't help his performance or his appearance, but he got through it. Lyndon Johnson showed off the incision from his gall bladder surgery. George H.W. Bush vomited at a state dinner in Japan. Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack before his 1956 re-election bid. Jack Kennedy had a persistent, chronic illness most of his life, in addition to the back injury he sustained in World War II. FDR was deathly ill when he won re-election to a fourth term in 1944, only to die a few months later.

Illness is not a disqualifying factor in presidential politics. Clinton's stumble and near collapse getting into a waiting van should not be a factor in her presidential chances. But her penchant for secretiveness might hurt her electability. A smarter, less secretive, less controlling politician would have issued a statement last Friday. "I have pneumonia. The doctor says I have to take a few days off. See you next week." She didn't do that, prompting David Axlerod, who ran Barack Obama's campaigns, to tweet: "Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?"

What Clinton and her campaign staff should be worrying about is not her bout with pneumonia but her insensitive and incendiary comment about Donald Trump's supporters. She said half of Trump's supporters were "a basket of deplorables," then went on to describe them — racist, sexist, anti-gay, etc. She had to apologize for generalizing so badly. Trump wasted little time in telling supporters that "she thinks you're deplorable. I think you're hard-working." She gave him what might be his best line of the entire campaign. Few people disagree that Trump supporters include some racists (some of them proudly racist), sexists, anti-gays, misogynists and so forth, but that's no reason to insult "half" the Trump supporters.

Her remark is reminiscent of Trump's comments early in the campaign about Mexican immigrants being rapists, murderers, etc. Trump is shrewd enough to use her remarks to his advantage, and her words might turn away the more moderate of Trump's followers.

Clinton's secretiveness and her insulting categorization of blocs of voters have delivered two self-inflicted wounds to her campaign.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Presidential election system is broken

It's no longer news that something like 60% of the nation's voters have negative views of both major party presidential nominees. Never before have two presidential candidates gone into an election disliked by so many voters.

We have to ask: Is the American presidential nomination process all wrong? Reforms over the last 50 years have given individual voters more influence in the nomination process. Nominees are selected now primarily by voters in the party primaries. Primary votes are translated into delegates, and delegates affirm the primary results at the party conventions. Before these reforms, party nominees were elected primarily by political power brokers in each party and by delegates to local, state and national party conventions. Reforms have shifted power from the "party bosses" to the broader electorate.

See how well that's worked out?

The primary selection system looks good on paper, but there are some flaws. State primaries that stretch across six months or more are influenced by "momentum" — candidates who do well in the early voting gain an advantage in publicity and in fundraising. Those who falter early usually drop out. But the earliest primaries are held in smaller, less diverse states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. States that are more representative of the nation's demographics as a whole — California, Texas and others — hold primaries later, oftentimes after the nomination has been settled. A single nationwide primary or a series of closely scheduled regional primaries might give truly national candidates a better chance.

Obscene amounts of money are poured into the primaries, to the point that the contests are often more about fundraising ability than about issues or governance. Reducing the influence and mandate of fundraising would make the primaries more about issues and governing ability than about money. Curtailing money's primacy might take a constitutional amendment, or maybe just a limit on presidential campaigning before a certain date, say May 31 of an election year. I'm reminded that John F. Kennedy did not announce his candidacy until January 1960. Today's presidential candidates are announcing at least a year earlier.

The news media and the modern 24-7 news cycle are partly to blame for the mess we've made of the most important decisions in American politics. Entertainment-based political coverage ignores difficult issues and focuses instead on the sensational, the personal and the provocative. This year's presidential season has focused on hand size, marital fidelity, emails and name-calling, all abetted by news media that blare the irrelevant while ignoring the important. Broadcast media, which are licensed by the government to use the public airwaves, should lose their licenses for failure to make political coverage about issues rather than sensationalism. Print media should use its First Amendment protections to deliver information that is truly important, not just spectacular. Broadcast licenses and the First Amendment are public trusts, which carry an obligation to deliver important information to the public.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the voters to reject the hype and the focus on things that don't matter and demand more coverage of what does matter. But like the high schoolers who can name all the winners of the Grammy awards but cannot name their state's governor or senators, too many voters don't have the knowledge to discern what is important.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Million Dollar Quartet" entertains

"Million Dollar Quartet" packs as much fun and rock-and-roll music into 90 uninterrupted minutes as you'll likely ever see on a stage. A special preview performance Wednesday night at Barton College's Kennedy Theater had the audience tapping feet, clapping hands and cheering the music of a magical episode in 1950s Memphis.

The quartet comprises Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The play dramatizes a brief meeting of the four rising stars at Sun Records, owned by rock music midwife Sam Phillips. The four legends had their starts at Sun Records but drifted away from Phillips, who had molded their musical styles.

With narrative from Phillips, played ably by David McClutchey, the play describes the beginnings of rock-and-roll, when a young, post-war generation hungered for music faster, sassier, more raucous than their parents' mellow Big Band sound. Phillips recognized that hunger and found musicians to fill the void.

That story is familiar to rock historians and to aging baby boomers, but the cast of "Million Dollar Quartet" put flesh and sound to the bare bones of the story. Each of the quartet legends took his turn at songs that are modern classics, and, to the cast's credit, they captured the sounds, the gestures and the excitement of the characters.

Joe Boover as Elvis copied "The King's" swaying hips and insouciant look. Ted Bushman as Johnny Cash swung his guitar like a pendulum in the Cash style and found Cash's deep voice on "I Walk the Line" and "Folsom Prison Blues." Ian Fairlee as Jerry Lee Lewis pounded the piano like the original "Killer" and exuded his character's wild sexuality.

It was Michael Kennedy's guitar playing, more than his imitation of Carl Perkins, that set him apart and carried the musical numbers. It's hard to imagine the play being a success without his electric guitar playing lead. His lines remind the audience that, except for an unfortunate accident, he might have ridden the crest of popularity that carried Elvis to superstardom, partly on the strength of Perkins' song, "Blue Suede Shoes."

Taylor Kraft as Dyanne, girlfriend of Elvis, takes a turn at the microphone and belts out a memorable "Fever," then provides a sensual background by swaying and swinging as others sang.

Much credit has to go to Jon Rossi's work as drummer and musical director. The drumbeat leads the way in many of the songs, and Rossi makes sure the drums are heard. Jason William Steffen, as Carl Perkins' brother, keeps the beat on the upright bass and also dances with and climbs on the big bass as the music inspires him.

This entire play is an ode to the early days of rock and roll, and if you lived through it, or if you've tapped your feet to the music, you'll love this play. It's 90 minutes of history set to music.