Thursday, August 17, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville, destruction in Durham

The only thing more disturbing than the riot that broke out in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend was the American president's ultimate embrace of the neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, white supremacist mob that sparked the street fighting, injuries and at least one death Saturday.

President Trump first blamed "many sides" for the violence that erupted. The next day, he read a script that laid the blame on the right-wing extremists who came to Charlottesville looking for a fight and who marched through Mr. Jefferson's University chanting Nazi slogans, such as "Blood and Soil." But then, the Real Donald Trump came out the following day and again blamed "both sides" for the violence and defended those using shields, bats and other weapons to attack protesters opposing their march.

This is a free country. You have the right to speech. You have the right to assemble and to petition the government. You don't have the right to assault other people exercising those same rights. White supremacists, KKK and neo-Nazis are reprehensible. Their beliefs are repugnant and uninformed, but they still have the right to their beliefs. What they don't have is a right to force their twisted beliefs on others.

Days after the Charlottesville riot, a mob in Durham, N.C., climbed a pedestal topped by a bronze statue of a non-descript Confederate soldier, tied a rope around the top of the statue and helped mob members on the ground tear down the statue while police watched silently. The hooting as the statue crumbled to the ground was scary. This was mob mentality, spurred on, apparently, by anarchists in the crowd. The next day, police filed charges against the primary actors in destruction of the statue. I hope the leaders of this ugly mob are prosecuted for inciting to riot, destruction of public property and any other illegal acts. To allow this behavior to go unpunished would be an invitation to anarchy, which is apparently what some mob members want.

Confederate monuments have become symbols of slavery, segregation and racial discrimination to many people, but that was not the statues' intent. They were installed to memorialize Confederate soldiers' honorable service in defense of their homes and what they saw as their state's right to leave the United States. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many did not support the "peculiar institution." Slavery was the key consideration of the gentry that led the South into a destructive war, but the common soldier had other motivations than defending slavery from abolitionists. Lincoln's wartime goal was to keep the Union intact, with or without slavery (which remained legal in some Union states until passage of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War).

A discussion of Confederate monuments needs to take place. Shouting, violence and vigilante destruction of property will not resolve this issue. Many of the statues are magnificent works of art that should not be lost. Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., is one of the country's most beautiful boulevards with numerous statues of Confederate officials, who are no threat to African-Americans or anyone else. It would be a shame to lose Monument Avenue. But 150 years after America's bloodiest war, perhaps we have too many statues in too many places, and perhaps some people are intimidated or angered by those statues. Let's see what we can do together.

Across the street from the White House stands a magnificent statue of President Andrew Jackson astride a horse. Jackson was a southerner, a slave owner, a racist who banished thousands of Indians onto the Trail of Tears. Had he lived longer, he almost certainly would have sided with the Confederacy. Can the destroyers of Confederate statues stop with Lee, Stonewall, and the many unnamed, symbolic infantrymen who stand on courthouse lawns and cemeteries, and not also topple Andrew Jackson — and others?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

White nationalists came looking for a fight

Yesterday's violence in Charlottesville, Va., a quiet, sophisticated college town, is appalling, alarming and despicable. This is not the American Way.

Three people are dead (two state troopers in a helicopter crash and one individual on the ground) and dozens are injured. President Trump blamed "many sides," but the violence was between only two sides — the far-right, white nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi side and the individuals and groups who came out to protest the white nationalist rally. Photos and video from the scene show the far right side waving a variety of flags and symbols — the Confederate battle flag, swastikas and flags of various far-right, white-supremacist groups I'm not even familiar with. These flag bearers were also wearing helmets, carrying shields and wielding weapons. They clearly arrived looking for a fight. Some of the people protesting the rally fought back or actively went after the flag wavers.

Police failed to control the crowds. They were overwhelmed. 

About 25 years ago, when a Klan rally was planned in my hometown and grassroots opposition rose to protest the rally, I suggested in newspaper editorials that the best thing opponents could do to the Klan members was to ignore them. They were a pathetic little group of about a dozen white-haired old men, none of them, as far as we could determine, from the local area. They were outnumbered at least 25-to-one by protesters. Some of the angry protesters took out their frustration on innocent bystanders who had stopped to see the Klan march or had just happened to be downtown. Several people were injured or robbed, but no serious injuries were reported. The violence just helped to enhance the Klan's rhetoric about barbaric non-whites.

When a follow-up rally took place a month or so later, local police called in neighboring police departments, Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agents to make sure the protesters and the Klan were kept far apart. The rally again attracted only a handful of KKK folks and hundreds of protesters, but strong law enforcement prevented any violence.

The riot in Charlottesville was far more frightening than those Klan rallies a quarter century ago. The white nationalists were well organized. They were prepared for a fight. They seemed eager for it. Many adopted the swastika and the Nazi salute in disgusting demonstrations of hatred and ignorance of history.
How could anyone adopt the language and symbolism of a regime that murdered millions of innocent people and killed many thousands of U.S. and other allied troops in a six-year war that ended with the discovery of Nazi death camps, extermination facilities, cremation furnaces, mass graves and documents — irrefutable evidence of the inhumanity and total evil of the Nazi regime?

Even without the violence, the flags and other symbols displayed in Charlottesville were shameful and reprehensible. With the violence, the incident was a national disgrace.

Right-wing political groups have every right to protest, and I can understand their frustration over a politically correct world where you can have a Black Student Movement or a Congressional Black Caucus but not a White Student Movement or a Congressional White Caucus. Clashes over Confederate monuments are not all about racism or slavery. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and most Union soldiers did not accept racial equality (a radical concept in the 19th century). Resolution lies in reason and cross-cultural, multi-racial understanding, not in violence or challenges to fight.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Reader analytics fail to fulfill role of the press

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I grew increasingly concerned that the press was not living up to its responsibility to inform the public. Marginalized by radio and television, and then by online news sources, anguished publishers and editors tried to make news more interesting, more exciting, more appealing, more entertaining.

CBS, once the trusted leader in television news during the heyday of Walter Cronkite, put its news division under the direction of the entertainment division. Newspapers aimed to become more entertaining, too. Consultants advised against too much governmental coverage, international coverage, political coverage, Washington coverage or science coverage.

The one place newspapers could beat the competition, the consultants assured us, was in local coverage. So front pages that once carried the latest in national and international events shifted their sights to the new supermarket or the lost puppy.

A few days ago, John Drescher, editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, explained a new strategy at the newspaper I read every day. There will be more coverage of what they want to read, he told readers. N&O editors know what readers want to read because they have analytics that show what digital readers are actually reading — something they could only guess at when the N&O was a print-only publication. So if the data show that readers are reading more articles about area restaurants, the N&O will focus its coverage more on area restaurants, even if it means omitting an article on sea level rise or court challenges to new state laws.

Knowing what people are clicking on has worked great for Facebook and Google, so you can hardly blame the N&O and other newspapers for following their lead. But here's the problem: the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment to protect freedom of the press because they knew an independent, free press was the best defender of democracy owing to its ability to inform the public on the key issues of the day.

The United States has relatively lenient libel laws and strong public records laws based, in part on the First Amendment. But advocates of repealing or modifying the First Amendment have grown more aggressive recently, and President Trump has called for revisions to libel laws to make it easier for individuals, even celebrities and politicians, to win defamation cases.

When the news media come to the defense of the First Amendment, their argument about the importance of informing the electorate and being an essential, independent voice had better have more to back it up than newspapers full of entertaining stories about restaurants, puppies and recipes.

Unless the press is fulfilling its obligation to inform the public about important national issues, there is little reason for constitutional protection, and First Amendment opponents will have an easier argument.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A cool August afternoon

The calendar says August, the month of 'dog days" and sweltering heat, but the breeze from the north is cool and refreshing. I sit in the glider on the deck with a book in my hand, reading while the wind chimes play their tune and hummingbirds flit about, performing aerobatics with incredible speed and precision.

To what do we owe this respite from summer? Autumn is still more than a month away. One branch of the dogwood thinks it's autumn already; its leaves have bronzed and stand out against the green forest curtain — willow oaks, a chestnut oak, a Bradford pear, pines and sweet gums — as the yard slopes away from where I sit. A few leaves have given up the fight for life and have fluttered to the ground to lie in the grass awaiting the rake I have not yet unsheathed. The pines know it's nearly time for fall; they are as far ahead as the stores' displays of Halloween and Thanksgiving wares. Pine needles litter the lawn and the driveway. I will collect them, heap them into a pile and use them for mulch in the plant beds.

But raking can wait. Let me savor this afternoon of low humidity, blue skies intersected by high, filmy clouds, and that breeze from the north that blows away all my worries for just a little while.

Monday, August 7, 2017

New sources feed the distrust of news media

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I was bothered by the distrust and even contempt many Americans felt for the news media. Journalists were perennially near the bottom of the "confidence" list, down there with used car salesmen and politicians.

As a child of what might be considered the golden age of print journalism, when most respectable cities had two or more newspapers, when many households subscribed to a morning and an afternoon newspaper, when it was claimed that a printing press amounted to "a license to print money" because newspaper advertising was so dominant and so profitable, when nationally syndicated columnists were closely followed, respected and even beloved nationwide, when Americans didn't believe news until they saw it in their newspaper, I embarked on what I thought was a secure profession. I watched as the Watergate scandal, ably and thoroughly reported by the Washington Post, New York Times and other newspapers, brought down a president.

The lack of confidence in the news media I saw 50 years ago has only gotten worse — much worse. Despite improved professionalism, strengthened professional standards, better journalism education, new codes of conduct and other efforts to improve journalism and the public's opinion of the media, things have only gotten worse.

Why? I've given this some thought through my days in the newsroom and since then about why the public so distrusts the news media. The election of a president whose favorite phrase is "fake news" and who excoriates the news media as "the enemies of the people" hasn't helped, but the problem goes deeper than Trump's tweets.

It seems to me that the advent of the 24-hour cable news format has been bad for journalism. CNN and its imitators have created new jobs in journalism, but they have also overwhelmed the public with information and analysis people have trouble digesting or accepting. Add to that social media and the internet-based news sites of varying degrees of professionalism, accuracy or factuaity. In that corner of the news business, "fake news" is a real thing — fiction created for (usually) political purposes. Beware the unknown "news" sources.

All news all the time requires an enormous amount of talking/writing. The 24-hour news cycle must be fed. "Dead air" cannot be tolerated. Someone must be saying something or showing something or shouting every second of every day 365 days of the year to feed these beasts. There is not enough "real news" of interest to most viewers to fill the 24-hour cycle, so the same news is recycled over and over, and guest commentators are offered to analyze the news and give their insight and opinions. This goes on forever, every hour, every day, every week, every year.

The result has been that cable stations have engaged in more partisan opinion in order to attract more viewers. The more slanted and more angry the commentary, the better for attracting viewers of a certain ilk. Like political candidates who have to "play to their base," cable stations seek out their right-wing or left-wing constituencies and feed them the slanted views they love. Finding opposing viewpoints requires switching channels. Fox News perfected this formula but is not alone in its use of the strategy.

Along with "Talk Radio," in which no claim is too outlandish and every claim evokes anger, cable news, social media and internet "news" sites have created a deeply divided American electorate. And these developments have created an even greater distrust of the news media. Both extremes of the political spectrum can complain about news outlets on the other side, leaving the journalism even more distrusted than ever before.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Escape from the "Dust Bin of History"

President Reagan once famously remarked that the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes were failing and would be consigned to the "dust bin of history." In the 1980s, it seemed that the "arc of history" was bending toward liberal democracy, the principles presented by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Enlightenment philosophies of freedom, independence, self-government, and the equality of all people. The easing of restrictions under Soviet Perestroika, the Solidarity movement in Poland and the overthrow of oppressive regimes in South America all pointed toward a more democratic future. Soon after, the Soviet empire collapsed.

This week's news, however, seems to point in the opposite direction. Venezuela appears to be falling headlong into authoritarianism, and Turkey, a member of NATO, is turning to mass trials and the abolition of dissent.

Venezuela has declared victory for a proposal from appointed president Modura that will dissolve the national legislature and replace it with an assembly selected by Modura himself. The Sunday referendum, which was nearly universally condemned as illegitimate, approved the sweeping powers and rewrite of the constitution. That was followed by the dark-of-the-night arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders. The nation is in turmoil after years of mismanaged, centralized economic policies. Basic necessities such as food and toilet paper are said to be unavailable in Caracas, the capital. The notion that a hungry, oppressed electorate would choose more of the same is a farce. Yet, Modura appears to be winning the battle against the public. The United States is imposing sanctions, but a collapsed economy can only be hurt slightly by economic sanctions.

In Turkey, President Erdogan continues a crackdown that has followed last year's unsuccessful coup attempt. Erdogan has used the coup attempt to justify his arrest of political opponents. Turkey had been one of the few democratic and secular Islamic majority nations, but the continuing crackdown has reversed hopes for a democratic, secular society. This week, mass trials began, featuring 500 defendants dragged into a courtroom for a prosecution with a result pre-ordained. European and American NATO members have to cringe at the obligation they have to defend this dictatorship should it be attacked by any other nation.

Since Reagan's "dust bin of history" remark, the United States has conducted a forceful foreign policy based on America's unchallenged global military power. But with Putin's Russia and Xi's China extending their reach and influence, the United States may no longer go unchallenged in a crisis. Putin is sowing seeds of discontent and doubt in democratic countries and trying to prove that a central authority is superior to a dispersed, federal, democratic system. If Venezuela and Turkey succeed in their transition from democracy to dictatorship, other countries, encouraged by Putin's conniving and China's economic successes, could be tempted to shift their allegiance from democratic ideals to authoritarian practicality. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Better Deal" may be a better strategy

An interesting article in The Atlantic reveals that Democrats have come up with a strategy to take back Congress (or at least part of it) in the 2018 elections. "Better Deal" appears to be a real step forward, one that could, conceivably, be successful.

In all of the post-mortems on the 2016 elections, the one aspect that has chimed true repeatedly is the Democrats' disconnect with working-class and lower-middle-class voters. Democrats did not even know Michigan and Wisconsin were vulnerable to GOP appeals until votes were cast. Too many Democratic political strategists never looked beyond Manhattan or the District of Columbia. 

"Better Deal" will offer a much more populist slant than Democrats have offered recently. Bernie Saunders, whose populism lapped over into socialism, sparked excitement among many Democrats in 2016, but the cards were stacked against him. Even Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" slogan is not populist in the way of "Better Deal," which hearkens back to FDR's "New Deal" and Truman's "Fair Deal." A more populist tone on health care, jobs, anti-trust legislation, fair wages, tax fairness and other issues could resonate with the mostly white, less-educated, hard-working but falling behind, largely forgotten voters who swarmed to Trump rallies with their empty promises and angry insults.

As Democrats such as Chuck Schumer have realized, Democrats need to appeal to that broad spectrum of the electorate who wanted what Trump was selling. Democrats can retake this constituency they once owned by adopting clearly defined principles and goals. Among these should be affordable health care (even if it means cracking down on excesses by the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers and hospitals); restrictions on the size and monopolistic practices of major banks and other corporations; tax law that is simplified and fair at all levels (not slanted toward the super rich and big corporations); public education within everyone's reach teaching history, civics and national pride; treatment for drug addiction (whether it is opioid pain relievers, marijuana or other drugs); strong but fair law enforcement, federal policy that respects science and research; and a return to federalism that respects state sovereignty but is unafraid to step in and to do bold things, such as the Interstate Highway system or the Apollo program.

In doing this, Democrats must steer clear of their tendency to over-regulate. They responded to the 2008 financial crisis by passing Dodd-Frank, which has made closing on a mortgage a paperwork nightmare with each little step strictly prescribed and backed by federal prosecutors. These regulations did nothing to prevent the big banks' gambles with mortgage securities and their no-document mortgages.

Unfortunately, Democrats in recent years have too often relied on dividing the electorate into special-interest groups and setting party agendas aimed at attracting as many interest groups as possible. Meanwhile, disenchanted voters watched big conglomerates destroy their small-town retailers and shut down the factories that provided a decent (but bare) living for generations. Stores disappeared, jobs disappeared, and self-respecting laid-off workers had nowhere go.

Democrats (in fact all of America) must not abandon civil rights and justice. They can still appeal to racial minorities, immigrants, gays, lesbians and transgenders. Political correctness has silenced any criticism or perceived slights of these groups. Thus, a candidate who responded to a Black Lives Matter question by saying "All lives matter" was booed vociferously. At some colleges, conservative speakers are shouted down or assaulted in the name of "free speech." Persons in this country illegally cannot be called "illegal immigrants," though, clearly, their status is illegal. A fair and reasonable immigration policy must protect U.S. jobs and culture while providing procedures for foreigners who wish to become Americans and can contribute to the American economy and security.

A "Better Deal" strategy can win, but it will mean making a sharp turn from Democrats' trajectory of the past few elections. Republicans, meanwhile, may help Democrats if the GOP continues on its trajectory of prescribing tax cuts for the wealthy for any problem the nation faces and ignoring the needs of the very people Democrats ignored in 2016


Friday, July 21, 2017

I am familiar with this killer

Glioblastoma, I know your name. In the past decade, you've taken away a close friend, a close relative, and two local acquaintances I had admired and respected. Getting to know your name was painful. Initial shock. Determination. Reason for hope, though minuscule. Dashed hopes. Final acceptance. Lives stolen away early.

Now Senator John McCain has the sobering, frightful diagnosis. He has survived so much — airplane crashes, a deadly shipboard fire, being shot down over North Vietnam. Five years of torture and mental, emotional, physical stress, permanent physical damage. The demeaning lies of political campaigns.

But now it's different. This is Glioblastoma. You killed Ted Kennedy and Beau Biden. Nothing stands up against you. Not wealth, not fame, not political power, not heartfelt prayers, not youth.

Glioblastoma, you are an accomplished killer. You defy surgery, chemo, radiation, herbal "cures." You may be diverted, but in the end, you win.

When you stole my brother-in-law's hopes and dreams and lease on life, his extended family gathered for a rally/fundraiser against brain cancer. Thousands came out to defy you at the Duke Brain Tumor Center. Many families posted photos and tributes to loved ones who had received the diagnosis and had pinned their hopes on this hospital acknowledged as the best there is against the killer you are. The steadfast love and determination were so inspiring until I noticed the most salient fact from all those posters: each one showed death had followed diagnosis by no more than about 18 months to two years; some much faster than that.

Glioblastoma, I know your name. And I am in awe of your power.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What if Republicans and Democrats worked together?

Republicans can't cobble together enough GOP votes in the Senate to pass a law to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something else. They can't even cobble together enough Senate votes to simply repeal Obamacare — a goal they've been boasting about for seven years. So the Senate's Republican leaders don't know what to do about it. They are at an impasse. Even though their party controls the House, the Senate and the White House, they can't pass legislation they've been promising for seven years.

What CAN they do?

Here's an idea: Instead of insisting on legislation that is supported only by Republican votes, what if they tried putting together legislation that could attract the requisite number of Republican AND (gasp!) Democratic votes? They'll need 51 votes, but Republicans have been able to hold onto about 47 or 48 GOP votes for whatever version of repeal-and-replace legislation they dream up. Suppose the GOP leadership approached the Democrats and asked for their support, with a willingness to compromise on some details of the health care legislation that would make the new bill palatable to conservative or moderate Democrats.

That's the way congressional legislation used to be passed. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the creation of the Interstate Highway system, the creation of NASA and the race to put astronauts on the moon, and the Voting Rights Act were all passed with votes from both sides of the aisle. Why not do it again?

It's possible that otherwise sympathetic Democrats will refuse to participate in any Republican deal. After all, the atmosphere has been so poisoned by harsh rhetoric that both parties are wary of any deal that might help the other side. But it's the only effective way to get legislation in the national interest passed. Democrats should have learned the dangers of partisan voting in the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the resulting nearly decade-long assault by the other party.

But bipartisan leadership and legislating has worked before. It can work again. Won't somebody give it a try?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Prayers and theological malpractice

The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, did not like the news photo of evangelical leaders gathered in the White House to pray for and "lay hands on" President Donald Trump. I can't really blame him. I found the picture of that scene disturbing, and I have found the evangelical support of Trump throughout the presidential campaign and presidency a mystery and an abandonment of Christian principles. Many evangelicals continue to support Trump, despite his habitual lying, his personal insults, prideful mendacity and his lack of Christian compassion and humility.

But Barber's reaction went beyond my own disgust and disappointment with Christian leaders who have forsaken Christian principles for political gain. Barber has declared praying for Trump to be "theological malpractice bordering on heresy." Barber seems to forget that Jesus urged his followers to "love your enemies" and "pray for those" who hate you or use you.

I don't know the nature of the prayers the evangelicals uttered in the White House, but I would hope that they prayed for divine guidance for the nation's leader. He needs all the divine guidance he can get, even though he shows little evidence of Christian devotion, humility or openness to change.

Is it wrong to pray for someone you disagree with or who has done wrong? Surely any Christian, evangelical or not, would agree that praying for others is a religious practice, if not an obligation. I think of the survivors of the Mother Emmanuel Church massacre who publicly declared that they had forgiven the racist gunman who murdered nine church members at a Bible study, and they would pray for him. Such forgiveness and compassion is a Christian witness.

Barber's wrapping of his own political agenda in a religious cloak is not surprising. It is his standard methodology. The protests against the Republican state legislators in Raleigh were not just a political statement; they were moral judgments. Barber named the weekly protests "Moral Mondays." Although I agree with the protesters' opposition to many of the actions of the General Assembly, I recognize that no political party or faction has a monopoly on morality.

I was introduced to Barber about a decade ago, when he was selected as keynote speaker at Wilson's annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. The breakfast enjoyed broad biracial support and had become a convivial celebration of community diversity. Speakers in previous years had praised King's nonviolent approach to racial equality and his principle of brotherhood all people.

Barber took a different tack. He angrily and loudly vilified the white community in general and specific white politicians (all Republicans). Before his speech ended, people began leaving. The joyful highs that had concluded previous MLK breakfasts were missing after Barber's speech. A member of the MLK celebration told me later that Barber had nearly destroyed the annual breakfast, causing it to lose much of its business and corporate support.

Barber's critique of his political adversaries is not heretical, but it does weaken the moral foundation of religion. If all morality is politically based, it is no longer morality. If religious principles are based on politics, it's not sound religion.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Meeting with a Russian lawyer, plus second thoughts

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Donald Trump Jr. had met last year with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who promised derogatory information about Hillary Clinton. The NYT has led the Fourth Estate in researching possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the Kremlin conducted a cyber campaign aimed at aiding the Trump campaign and denying the presidency to Clinton.

The only remaining major question for all but the most blinded Trump supporters has been whether there was collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin. That is, did the Trump campaign coordinate or conspire with Russians to hinder Clinton's campaign or reduce her vote totals?

Although the Trump Jr. meeting sounds a bit like collusion, the fine print is less provocative. Would Chelsea Clinton have accepted an invitation to meet with someone who promised negative information about Donald Trump? Would any political campaign operative decline such an invitation promising "dirt" against an opponent in this era of background research teams and negative campaigning? The meeting might be ill-advised but shouldn't be surprising.

Trump Jr. says the meeting was a bust. He says he received no negative information about Clinton. He says he was told that some Russians were secretly contributing to the Clinton campaign, and the Russian lawyer only wanted to talk about international adoptions. He says he received "no meaningful information."

Far from being a "smoking gun" proving collusion, this incident seems to be another example of Trump administration inexperience or delusion. Unless Trump Jr.'s account can be contradicted by other sources, there's not much smoke in this collusion gun.

Second Day Second Thoughts

 After I wrote the above post, Donald Trump Jr. gave more information about his meeting with a Russian official and released some emails that only raise more concerns about the Trump campaign's lack of caution and lack of any moral standards. The campaign that led chants of "lock her up" last year seems willing to accept derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from any source, no matter how suspicious or how tainted by its Russian origins.

These latest revelations (from Trump Jr. himself, lest anyone claim that it's all "fake news") show just how naive and trusting Trump officials have been about Russia's interests and actions in the 2016 campaign. They were willing to meet with and believe any intermediary who had "dirt" on Clinton. They knew the promised information was coming from inside the Kremlin — confirmation that a foreign power was attempting to influence and subvert a U.S. presidential election. 

A year later, Donald Trump, the candidate the Kremlin was attempting to assist, continues to deny that the Russian government was trying to subvert the vote of the American people. Trump Jr.'s "I love it" (from his own email, released to the media by himself) may be the closest we've come to proof of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

If Trump Jr. is being truthful about the lack of useful information from his meeting with a Russian lawyer — a dubious proposition about the Trump administration — it might not matter. Trump Jr.'s enthusiasm for the derogatory information, acknowledged to be from a foreign power, may be all that is needed to show collusion.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller still has a long way to go with his investigation, but Donald Trump Jr. is making his task a little easier.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Time to end the longest war

The Afghanistan war (2001-present) is not the longest war in American history. The United States has been at war in Korea since 1950. An armistice was signed in 1953, putting an end to large-scale military conflicts, even though sabotage, artillery duels, raids and unprovoked attacks continue. No truce treaty has ever been signed. A state of war — undeclared and unofficial because the "Korean War" is officially known as a United Nations "police action" — has existed ever since.

Attention has turned to this unending war recently because of North Korea's launch of an ICBM and its possession of nuclear warheads. Generations of American presidents have attempted to rein in the Kim dynasty that has ruled North Korea for three generations without result. North Korea continues to pursue a highly militarized, very aggressive and extremely dangerous policy of confronting and threatening the United States, South Korea and Japan. Offers of food for its starving population, fuel oil to fuel industries and other assistance have not resulted in policy change in North Korea.

Author Mark Bowden's cover story in this month's Atlantic offers four options for dealing with North Korea, each of them fraught with catastrophic dangers and slim chances of success. The options range from a pre-emptive strike to take out North Korea's leadership along with its missiles and nuclear warheads to an acceptance that North Korea isn't going to change and can't be defeated without a war so intense that it threatens civilization and humanity. Bowden concludes that there are no good options and worries that President Trump, nearly as bombastic and unpredictable as North Korea's Kim Jong Un, could misjudge the situation and unintentionally start a war that would kill hundreds of millions in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Start with this premise: Diplomacy is preferable to war. North Korea might be uninterested in more food, more fuel or more cash, but it might be interested in a truce that ends the nearly 70-year state of war. Offer that as an incentive to halt ICBM development and deployment and an end to nuclear weaponry and cross-border raids. In exchange, vow to reduce U.S. presence in South Korea, sign a treaty between the two Koreas (without merging the two), increase trade and visits between North and South Korea, reduce the size of both nations' military, and "normalize" relations between North and South.

Kim might not agree to these provisions, but they can be a starting point for negotiations. The other impetus in this negotiation would be the certainty that, even if Kim develops a substantial nuclear threat, any use of nukes would result in a counter-attack that would turn the northern half of the Korean peninsula into a radioactive and burning wasteland — the equivalent of the "Mutually Assured Destruction" that avoided nuclear devastation during the Cold War.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A book about life from a dying woman

In the past month, I have recommended Nina Riggs' book, "The Bright Hour," to a dozen or more people. Each time, I told the story of this brilliantly talented woman, a close friend of my son and his wife, who had breast cancer and chronicled her bout with the "one small spot" that turned into a metastatic aggressor in her blog, an article in The New York Times' "Modern Love" section and, finally, in this book.

The topic is not one that most people care to read about. It's sad, and it strikes too close to home for most of us. But Nina achieves something with this book that transcends her personal experiences and the sadness of a young woman with two young boys facing her mortality before the age of 40. Her NYT article, "When a Couch is More Than a Couch," opened the door for the book. Literary agents and book publishers saw the finely tuned article about Nina's quest to buy the perfect couch — one that her husband and her sons could enjoy after she's gone — and wanted her to write an entire book.

In his review of the book, which was released this month, Drew Perry, a novelist and close friend of Nina, said he had a habit of turning down the corner of pages with especially good quotes or lovingly tuned sentences. With Nina's book, he said, he was turning down almost every page. Her prose is poetic and immensely insightful and quotable.

The book is full of quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, an ancestor of Nina's, and the French philosopher Montaigne. She relies on the wisdom of others to try to make sense of her own life, and she brings her own wisdom.

Nina pulls readers into her world of hope, despair, sickness from chemo and radiation, optimism and depression, how to tell young boys that their mother has terminal cancer, how a loving husband tries to sustain his wife through the worst of times. As Nina is fighting her own illness, her mother is dealing with another cancer, myeloma. A close friend with breast cancer carries on a profane and sarcastic comic dialog with Nina, whose mother doesn't live to see her daughter's book published or her grandsons grown up.

In this worst of times, Nina finds goodness and brightness and love and laughter. She finds that "When you fall in love with your kids, you fall in love forever," a realization taken from a song from her childhood, "When I Fall in Love." Seeing Benny riding his bicycle without assistance for the first time is a thing of sublime beauty, even as Nina's back has just broken because cancer has attacked her vertebrae.

From her time studying in Italy, she recalls "memento mori" — "Remember, you will die." Nina faces her own death and all that she will miss with her husband and her sons. She sees the beauty of the days we have for as long as we have them: "We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other."

Two bits of irony struck me about this book. The "About the Author" page says Nina "lived with her husband and sons and dogs in Greensboro." She died weeks before publication, requiring the startling past tense, a book about life about a woman who has died. The other irony comes from Nina's book of poetry, published in 2009. It's title: "Lucky, Lucky."

Friday, June 23, 2017

Campaign promises get in the way of legislating

When you stake your entire political being on the repeal of one legislative act, and you keep banging that drum for six or seven years, you paint yourself into a corner. 

The Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, have come to this: With control of the White House and majorities in both the House and the Senate, Republicans can do what they have tried to do dozens of times since 2010 — repeal the Affordable Care Act. Doing so, the GOP leaders remind their colleagues persistently, carries out a long-standing campaign promise repeated during four congressional elections. Failure to keep their promise about repeal would reveal them as ineffective, or as Spiro Agnew might have said it, "effete snobs."

The problem, which the GOP leadership ignored for seven years, is that American voters care more about their health care than they do about campaign promises. And many Americans, despite Republican attempts to persuade them otherwise, liked the ACA. It made it possible for them to have health insurance for the first time in years. The percentage of covered Americans topped 90%.

So the GOP leadership backed off a little. Instead of just repealing Obamacare, they shifted their rhetoric to "repeal and replace" Obamacare. Replacing the expansive law was not so easy. As President Trump confessed, "who knew" health insurance could be so complicated?

Republicans now have two Obamacare replacement bills, one in the House and one in the Senate. Both would sharply curtail the ACA promise to make it possible to get insurance coverage if you have a pre-existing condition. Both would knock down the fiscal underpinning of the ACA, the taxes on medical devices, insurers and others, and both would sharply cut Medicaid, which millions of Americans depend upon.

Republicans may have the votes in the Senate to pass their replacement legislation, but they don't have the magical ability to persuade Americans struggling to find medical coverage that they are better off with the Republican solutions to that campaign promise the GOP had kept making over and over like a mantra. Because of those promises, the GOP could not do the sensible thing, which would be to make adjustments to Obamacare so that it is more fiscally stable and practical.

Promises, promises.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Retirement beckons and also lurks

My imminent retirement has been in the newspaper. It's official. Some people congratulate me. Some warn me — "You better find something to do."

"After we retire ..." is how numerous conversations over the last 10 years began. My wife and I had things we wanted to do but little time to do them. We looked forward to trips longer than one week. We looked forward to events that ended after 9 p.m. on a weeknight. As long as we were working 50 weeks of the year and arising at 5:30 a.m. to get to work, those trips and those events were out of reach. After we retire ... we might be able to do those things.

Although I have maybe another month or six weeks of earning a paycheck, I have no firm plans for just what I'll do once retired. I will volunteer, I've told people who asked, though my commitment is not final. I will write, though I don't know what my first project will be. There are ideas I've had and unsuccessful fiction I can rework and improve. In a 30-year-old house and a half-acre yard, there are always things to do. Books I haven't read or want to reread line bookshelves upstairs and down. I don't think I'll run out of things to do.

My wife will work another year. That puts me in charge of all the housework she usually does. I long ago took grocery shopping and most of the cooking off of her agenda. I'll add dusting, vacuuming, laundry, window-washing and cleaning to my to-do list.

We'll set aside a few minutes before dinner as "grateful hour" — grateful for a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator, a yard to care for, our wonderful children and grandchildren, the opportunity to sit quietly and reflect on where we've been, where we are and where we might go; grateful for each other.

Our adjustment to retirement will, no doubt, have some bumps in the road. I worry about having enough money to keep us "in the matter to which we've become accustomed." Being together all day every day will not be the same as setting aside an hour in the early evening to talk about our days in separate jobs with different problems. In 46 years we've never run out of things to talk about, but we've also never tired of simply sitting quietly together and enjoying the silence.

In another year, we will put one phrase to rest: "when we retire ..." Then what?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Reader wants news, not what he or she said

A recent post on a current events/politics website prompted an angry reply from someone who blamed the news media for the current difficulties with public discourse. This person was tired of reading news stories that contained the terms "he said" or "she said." The commenter, apparently, wanted reporters to own up to their own news stories instead of dodging responsibility by referencing someone else.

That commenter has never spent any time in a newsroom or a journalism class and never gave any serious thought to how news stories are generated or written. In 33 years as a newspaper editor and as an occasional college-level journalism teacher, I consistently emphasized to reporters that they are not news sources; they have no authoritative knowledge; they should have no opinion on a subject, even when they might have some personal opinion on the subject, as reporters, they have no opinion and no real knowledge. Their job is to interview those who do have knowledge, whether it is a witness to a traffic accident, a scientist involved in research that is of public interest, or a legislator pushing a bill through legislature. Their job is to accurately report what that source knows. This process should be done at least twice in every news story because almost every story has two sides; interview people on both sides of controversial issues and report what both sides have said, with as fairly equal treatment as practicable.

Facts or opinions that are not attributed to the source are like information in an academic paper that is not footnoted. The reader should ask, "where's the reference?" As a newspaper editor, I often asked, "where's your source?" Occasionally, I'd be told, "I saw it myself," and I'd tell the reporter, only a little facetiously, "you need a better source! Who else saw this? Interview them."

So the person who wanted to do away with "he said" and "she said" in news stories wanted something other than journalism. He/she wanted unsourced opinion, a personal perspective, not news. I suspect the angry commenter suspected reporters of dishonesty, of collusion with unseen puppet masters of journalism, of nefarious, insidious conspiracies against the public weal.

Some people seem to believe that American journalism is monolithic and all-powerful and that news reported in newspapers or in broadcast media has been prescribed and pre-written by a vast hierarchy of news dictators. Any rational examination of the U.S. news media reveals the silly impossibility of this conspiracy theory. There are many hundreds of newspapers across the country and thousands of news outlets, including television, cable, radio and websites. It would be impossible to control or dictate to those many thousands, serving constituencies from small towns to large cities to professional associations. In the heyday of newspapers, when most respectable cities had at least two newspapers, those newspapers often represented different perspectives — liberal and conservative or Democrat and Republican. The demise of daily newspapers has left most cities with only one newspaper, and it might present just one editorial viewpoint and endorse only one party's nominees. But the essential need to sell newspapers to a broader population means most newspapers now take a more nonpartisan editorial stance.

Regardless of the leaning of the editorial page, however, respectable news sources mandate that news coverage be transparent, fair and non-partisan. Even the appearance of political bias could harm the public's perception of a newspaper's fairness. I had to threaten to fire a reporter who wanted to keep an outdated campaign bumper sticker on his car. I pointed out that his coverage of any political news would be seen as prejudiced as long as he had that sticker on his car. For that reason, I have never put a political sticker on my car or sign in my yard.

Concerns about citing news sources ("he said") is something new. In years past, concern within and outside the news business had to do with anonymous sources, which are less trustworthy than named, clearly identified sources. Some newspapers tried to ban anonymous sources altogether, but that proved to be extremely difficult. Most anonymous sources are people who have clear, even unique, knowledge of a matter but cannot afford to be named because they would lose their jobs. This is especially common in the federal government, where clandestine plots are kept secret for fear of alerting opponents.

Most news organizations adopted a policy of requiring a second or even a third source for information from an anonymous source. The initial bombshell had to be verified by someone else with direct knowledge and with no direct ties to the original source. In hyper-partisan Washington, anonymous sources appear more frequently than ever.

A rogue reporter would have a hard time getting false or distorted news into a traditional publication exactly because of the "he said," "she said" news style. A false report would have to get past one or more skeptical editors (and anyone who has spent much time in a newsroom is a skeptic). Then it would have to withstand the barrage of criticism from the sources themselves. No one likes to be misquoted, and most will demand a retraction, correction or the keys to the company as a defamation judgment.

At one time, bad reporting would not be tolerated. A news company had a reputational and financial interest in ensuring news is reported accurately. Bad reporters would be fired, or never hired. Editors and publishers kept close watch on news coverage. Facts had to be referenced and provable, thus the "he said," "she said" requirement and editors asking, "How do you know this?" The proliferation of news sites made possible by the Internet gives readers access to more viewpoints and more sources for unvetted, unsourced, misleading news. The sad thing is that too many news consumers discern no difference between the reliability of the 150-year-old New York Times or Associated Press and the upstart Alt-Right or Democrats United.

On a Facebook feed, they all look about the same, so they must have the same reliability, right?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

45 years later, Coast Guard still shapes me

June 9th was the 45th anniversary of my graduation from Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. In dress whites, I sat in the hot sun with about 100 fellow OC's, soon to be commissioned as ensigns, and waited for our names to be called so we could walk across the stage.

My journey to that point was not a straight line. The Vietnam War and the military draft shaped politics and the thinking of every young American male during those years. They certainly shaped mine. When my birthday came up as number 29 in the 1969 draft lottery, I knew I would either serve in the military or try to find a way to dodge the draft. I talked to peers who opted to join the National Guard or the Reserves, thinking weekend soldiering and summer camps would be better than dodging bullets on the other side of the world. I talked to a friend who had served a tour in Vietnam. I became convinced that the Vietnam War was a horrible and tragic foreign policy mistake, a mistake that young men like me would have to pay for. I participated in some anti-war demonstrations and wrote a letter to my congressman after the invasion of Laos. But the draft number still hung over my head.

I was called for my draft physical and passed, despite my complaints about knee pain and a heart murmur the doctor detected. They were considered NCD, "Not Considered Disqualifying." As I walked across campus the day after passing my physical, I stopped at a table set up by a Coast Guard officer recruiting for OCS. I submitted the application and was selected for interviews and another physical, this one in Norfolk, Va. I passed again and was told I'd be called for the next OCS class in the fall. Meanwhile, Congress had let the draft law expire and couldn't get together on the wording for a new draft law. That kept the draft board off my back long enough for me to complete the Coast Guard application. On the day that I drove to Greensboro to be sworn in to the Coast Guard Reserves, pending admission to OCS, Congress passed a new draft law.

I found OCS uncomfortable and oppressive with officers barking orders and laying traps for little errors that could wash you out. But I gave up my stubborn independent streak and submitted to the reshaping of discipline, teamwork and order. By the end of the four-month school, I had a new set of habits: Everything in its proper place, jobs done right the first time, serious attention to detail, promptness, respect for authority, teamwork and discipline, always discipline. 

I won the assignment I had asked for, as a correspondent for the Enlisted Personnel Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The job was simple and easy. I took over responsibility for answering letters from members of Congress and the public about Coast Guard enlisted assignments, often from mothers who wanted their sons posted closer to home. As a journalism and English major, I could knock out stacks of letters every day, tasks that had been torture for crusty sailors in the office.

In our three years in D.C., we grew accustomed to the traffic and visited the museums, monuments, parks and highlights of the capital. I considered requesting that I be "integrated" into the regular Coast Guard but decided I wanted to get back to small towns, to journalism and to more certainty for my small family.

I look back now on my Coast Guard days with some nostalgia. We had some very good times and got to know some good people and at least one truly outstanding officer whose skills and abilities still shape my thinking about management and leadership.

In the beginning the Coast Guard was my way of avoiding the jungles of Vietnam. In the end, it became a major shaper of my world view, my self discipline and my respect for those who defend our nation.

It was one of the most fortuitous segments of my life. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parallels with hearings from 45 years ago

From 1972-75, I worked in Washington, D.C., subscribed to the Washington Post, and watched the Watergate hearings on television as much as I could. Like much of America, I was mesmerized by the hearings.

Watching, reading about or listening to the testimony before congressional committees this year takes me back to the Watergate era. So much is the same — the setting in ornate hearing rooms before scores of staff members, media representatives and other officials are interchangeable between 1973 and 2017.

As I listened to testimony from fired FBI Director James Comey, I was transported back to the testimony of John Dean, the White House counsel before the Watergate Committee. Both witnesses spoke in carefully, cautiously measured phrases. Both demonstrated uncanny recall of events. Both men's testimony had the ring of truth.

Tuesday's testimony by Attorney General Jeff Sessions recalled another similarity to Watergate: partisan attacks against the witness were unbecoming and contrary to the Senate's courteous traditions. That is true about both political parties. Democrats tried to interrogate Sessions and force him to admit to wrongdoing. Chairman Richard Burr had to remind one senator to allow the witness to answer her question. Republicans sought to defend the president by shifting the focus of the inquiry or adroitly denying generally accepted facts.

Sessions tried to be the courtly southern gentleman, but it was difficult when he was interrupted by aggressive questioners before he could complete his answer in his slow drawl. Sessions, the administration's "top lawyer," however, refused to answer some questions on the basis of executive privilege even while admitting that he could not invoke executive privilege. Only the president can do that, and President Trump had not invoked executive privilege over his conversations with Sessions. Thus, Sessions said he was reserving the president's right to invoke executive privilege at some time in the future. That strikes many people as stretching a constitutional privilege complete out of shape. By his standard, every conversation with the president would be privileged until the president declares it is not covered by executive privilege. That leaves no room for balance of power and the authority of Congress to examine the executive branch's performance.

As the hearings continue and the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections continue, parallels with Watergate will keep popping up. What is unlikely to pop up is a presidential resignation. While President Nixon was a paranoid egotist who could not admit to being wrong, he at least had the interests of the country foremost in his mind. What is foremost in Trump's mind is Trump himself.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A box of memories, dusty and badly faded

A friend alerted me to the finding of a box of my newspaper clippings. There being no reason for the newspaper where I had worked to keep them, she invited me to come by and pick them up. Even after picking up the box, noting my handwriting on the file folders and reading a few of the clips, I have no memory of how that box ended up in the now-vacated newspaper office. The clippings were divided by year and by type (editorials, columns or general articles).

A few of the clippings I've read so far brought back memories of plays I had reviewed, experiences I had shared with readers and my defending of the newspaper's policies and decision making. One lengthy column was devoted to a phone call from an upset reader that turned into an explanation of the federal system of government and the education of the reader who didn't know that states have constitutions and legislatures and their own laws — all news to her.

My wife asked me what I planned to do with that dusty old cardboard box and its yellowed newsprint clippings. I told her, optimistically, that I might read through the clippings and set aside the better pieces. I could publish a book of those selected writings, a little book that might someday mean something to my children or grandchildren. Online publishing makes that possible today. It might even be a reminder of nearly 30 years of N.C., U.S. and Wilson County history, at least as seen by one journalist.

Finding the time and the motivation to tackle that project and wipe away all the dust — literal and metaphoric — will be a challenge.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Not a dictatorship but a dissoution

The most distraught opponents of President Donald Trump worried about all sorts of "worst case scenarios" — a declaration of martial law, dissolution of Congress, illegal firing of federal judges — in other words, establishment of a dictatorship.

These worried Americans can feel a little more optimistic. Trump has not done any of those things and has, at times, seemed reasonable, even presidential. He visited Saudi Arabia and Israel without a conflagration. But his first overseas trip ended with a harsh, ill-tempered speech to European allies in which Trump accused U.S. allies of failing to live up to their defense commitments. Given the opportunity to reaffirm the United States' commitment to NATO and NATO's foundational concept, that an attack on any NATO member will be treated as an attack on all NATO members, Trump refused to endorse the key clause that had been the heart of U.S. foreign policy for more than 50 years.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel interpreted the omission as a warning that Europe can no longer depend on its strongest and most important ally. In not so many words, Merkel told European democracies that they could no longer count on the United States to defend their democracies against existential threats.

Trump had previously declared NATO to be obsolete. The alliance designed to protect Europe, the United States and Canada against aggression by the Soviet Union no longer mattered, in his view, after the demise of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago. But Europeans and most American foreign policy specialists had a different view. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has become as threatening and nefarious as the Soviet Union, going so far as to meddle in U.S. elections, invade Ukraine and Georgia and generally undermine democracy around the globe. Trump seems blind to Russia's clandestine aggressions.

The greatest fears of Trump opponents might never come true. We might never end up with a Trump dictatorship or dynasty. But Trump's election has already resulted in the dissolution of alliances and international security that took decades to establish and nurture.

In one ill-worded and belligerent speech, Trump has undone generations of post-World War II security.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Trump's most vile insult: "LOSER!"


Is that all you've got, Mr. President? The worst thing you can say about someone is to call them a "loser"?

President Trump used that vile word to describe the person or persons who killed two dozen people in the Manchester bombing last. "You are losers!" Trump said. Few Americans would dispute the claim that people who strap explosives to their bodies for the purpose of killing other people are losers, but, really, is that the worst thing you can say about them?

How about "misguided," "depraved," "fanatical," "murderous," "malevolent," malicious," "execrable," "heinous," "diabolical," "deranged," "demonic," "heinous," "iniquitous," and others. None of these, apparently, are in Trump's vocabulary, so he relies on "LOSER," like an angry 8-year-old on a playground.

The president uses a term to refer to murderous terrorists that he would also use to refer to Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney. The equivalency is startling but revealing. In Trump's mind, there is nothing worse that being a loser. This explains why he claims wins in contests that no one else knew was a contest, such as how many people came to the inauguration or how large his political rallies were. The fear of being a "loser" requires him to claim victory in these contests and to assert that he didn't lose the popular vote because "three million" illegal immigrants cast fraudulent votes against him — despite the lack of any substantiation.

This "loser" fixation not only reveals the president's distorted way of keeping score against the world. It also belittles the United States of America as if Americans believe losing an election or losing a race is the equivalent of murdering dozens of innocent people. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Trump's overseas trip starts well, then falters

President Trump's first overseas trip as president began with glimmers of hope and amazement, but as the week wore on, familiar problems arose.

In Saudi Arabia and in Israel, Trump refrained from tweeting (glory, hallelujah!) and thereby avoided any insults and offensive remarks as he stuck to prepared remarks. What was most interesting in both countries was the apparent warmth and friendship between Trump and the Israeli and Saudi leaders. Nothing tangible was accomplished in these first visits to a region that has provided the spark for much of the world's violence and animosity over the past half-century. Nevertheless, the seeming camaraderie among the leaders of the United States, the Jewish state and the Islamic holy land was refreshing and hopeful.

Supporters of President Obama had to be confounded by the Israelis' and Saudis' declarations of friendship with Trump. It was clear that both countries preferred Trump to Obama, despite the fact that Obama is as personally charming, knowledgeable and cautious as Trump is offensive, unknowing and bombastic. In his determination to let the Middle East adversaries work things out on their own, Obama apparently offended both sides in the conflict, something that Trump has thus far avoided.

Trump could not, however, get through an entire week without saying something inappropriate or potentially destabilizing. In speaking to NATO leaders later in the week, Trump took on the tone of an angry teacher or coach, telling the allied nations that they weren't fulfilling their obligations. They were not spending enough on defense to meet their NATO obligations, he said. At the same time, he avoided any definitive endorsement of NATO's Article 5, which obligates each NATO country to come to the defense of any other NATO country if it is attacked by outside forces. Article 5 is the heart of NATO; without it, NATO would be as weak and helpless an OPEC without oil.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up Trump's failure to say what NATO allies wanted to hear by clearly committing the United States to Article 5, but Tillerson's commitment could not erase Trump's overbearing lecturing of allied nations.

Trump's first overseas trip as president proved he can, when necessary, behave in a presidential manner. But he needs more practice at the craft.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Absent fathers the root of many problems

There's an elephant in the room. No one will admit it's here, right in front of us. Social scientists, policy wonks and politicians walk all around the elephant without ever acknowledging it. They make policies and rules and advocacy organizations to address the symptoms caused by that huge pachyderm that's taking up all the space, but they don't even acknowledge it's there.

The elephant in the room is fathers — the absence of fathers in the lives of millions of children, particularly boys. This absence of fathers is the root cause of many of the social pathologies we see today, particularly in communities with large numbers of fatherless households. The absence of a father can lead to young boys without guidance and discipline. Many of them become angry, violent, disrespectful, depressed and misogynistic. They fail in school and in the workplace. Look at the discipline problems in public schools; you'll find the absence of a father in the home. Look at the school dropout rate; you'll find many in that statistic without a father. Look at the unemployment list — or the unemployable list. Again, no father present.

A few ambitious nonprofits have attempted to provide surrogate fathers, mentors who will work with young men, teach them the importance of being kind and respectful, of working hard in school and staying away from the "wrong crowd." These mentors can demonstrate some successes, but mentors can never fully replace a father — a man who will love the boy's mother and be at home every night, not just a few hours a week.

A Wilson audience learned of a frightening situation that is all too common but, since it's the elephant in the room, is rarely discussed. The Wilson Times reported:  

The keynote speakers at the annual meeting, Ben David and Kip Blakely, spoke from their experience in Wilmington and Greensboro respectively in terms of programs they were a part of implementing to address workforce development.

David, the district attorney in New Hanover and Pender counties, acknowledged the multi-faceted cause of poverty and crime, noting they found only four dads for 253 kids in 87 homes in their target area of Wilmington.

Scary enough for you?

For half a century, the federal government has tried to solve the problems in households headed by single mothers. While some of these brave women manage to be both mother and father to her children, more of these single mothers are too young to make wise decisions about their own lives and cannot offer a successful role model for their children.

If we choose to face the elephant in the room, we should do several things:
  1. Redouble efforts to teach young women good decision making, especially when it comes to having children. Emphasize the marriage-first, babies-later path to a more successful and fulfilling life.
  2. Mentor boys, teach them in school, inspire them in church, but get the message through to them: Real men care for their girlfriends, and that means making their welfare more important than your own. It means avoiding pregnancy by whatever means necessary — abstinence, contraception, fear of failure — until both of you are ready to support and raise children.
  3. Re-emphasize the Protestant Work Ethic. Go back to "idle hands are the devil's workshop;" make sloth and lack of ambition traits to be avoided, not emulated.
  4. Make it clear that school is important, and hard work at school pays better rewards than a shot at a lottery drawing. Many single mothers are dropouts who did not have a good experience in school, and their anti-school attitude gets passed to her children and her grandchildren.

America has a crime problem, an educational problem, an employment problem, a morality problem, a violence problem. But at the bottom of all these problems is a problem in the home, where all of us learn what the world is like, how to treat other people, how to live, how to be responsible adults. Even the best school can't accomplish those goals in a few hours a day, especially if what is taught in school is contradicted at home. What almost nobody is talking about is the elephant in the room: there is no father in the home.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Watergate and showing Comey the door

I was working in Washington when the "Saturday Night Massacre" shocked and appalled America in 1973, creating a volcanic reaction against President Nixon.

President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey seems less volatile and less shocking than Nixon's firing of Archibald Cox, but the similarities cannot be missed. Firing an FBI director is within a president's prerogatives, but firing an FBI director, or anyone else who is directing an investigation of the president's actions, makes the firing suspicious and shocking.

The rationale for firing Comey was odd and somewhat contradictory. He was fired, it was said, for his poor performance in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server. This is the investigation that candidate Trump glowingly praised during the presidential campaign. The firing also comes many months after Comey's alleged missteps. And it comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation by the FBI into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign with targeted leaks, planted false "news," and other conniving.

Jeffrey Toobin, the Supreme Court journalist and author, compared the Comey firing to Third World dictatorships, where investigations of the ruler or ruling family inevitably led to the firing of investigators. "What kind of country is this?" Toobin asked on CNN.

Comey made some mistakes as FBI director. His press conference to announce that no charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton over her email practices, followed weeks later by an announcement of the reopening of the investigation (and subsequent closing without new findings), led to harsh criticism from Democrats.

If you stretch credulity and assume Trump had legitimate reasons to fire Comey, the timing is still troubling. The Russia-Trump probe continues, at least for now, and it should gain greater urgency. Trump's unctuous and misleading compliment to Comey in the letter firing him attempts to portray Trump as innocent but just raises suspicions more.

Trump's readiness to fire the FBI director should lead to a special prosecutor, one outside of the Jeff Sessions Justice Department and the White House, one with independence and authority to subpoena and bring criminal charges. Congressional investigations into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign should gain importance and greater bipartisanship. Trump's bold timing and vague rationale surely raise suspicions.

This national crisis has not risen to the level of Watergate (where are Sam Ervin, Judge Sirica and John Dean?), but it does show that an independent investigation is warranted.

Monday, May 8, 2017

It's complicated ... so let's simplify

Republican members of Congress are catching hell from constituents after their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with ... well, something different. The bill that eked through the House made a lot of changes in federal health care regulations. One of the most significant of the changes eliminates the guarantee that a pre-existing condition will not prevent you from getting health insurance. Instead of Obamacare's blanket prohibition against discrimination against people for pre-existing conditions, the new GOP rules would make insurance available to people with epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, etc., but only after a waiting period and only at much higher costs, if at all. An estimated 20 million-plus people would die in the next decade because of these changes.

"Obamacare" was passed on a party-line vote seven years ago in an attempt to standardize health insurance nationwide by setting standards that health insurers were required to follow -- free birth control and other services; pre-existing conditions could not be excluded from coverage, all policies had to cover maternity care; health insurers could make only so much profit; etc. Meeting all the requirements of the ACA strained health insurers, leading many to forgo writing policies in some states or to pull out of some places after finding their premiums did not cover costs.

As new-President Trump admitted, "Who knew health care could be so complicated?" Well, the Democrats who tried to pass health care mandates in 1993 and finally succeeded in 2010 knew. Health insurance is an arcane, complicated business. Throwing government regulation into the equation made it more so.

My prediction is that the health care plan that comes out of the Republican-led Senate will not satisfy consumers. The Affordable Care Act tried to make the system work by mandating coverage, penalizing with tax penalties those who refused to sign on and subsidizing those too poor to afford premiums. Doing all that requires a lot of regulations and a lot of monitoring. Mandating coverage creates a large enough pool, most of whom are healthy, that the costs are evenly and fairly distributed.

Instead of increasing the complexity of health insurance, why not simplify it? The way to do that is though a federally run health insurance program (like Medicare). Every employee and every employer would pay into the system, but every employee and employer would no longer have to pay private health care premiums. A single-payer system would enjoy great economies of scale and could operate more efficiently than the hundreds of scattered insurance companies and agents across the country.

Everyone would get the same coverage and pay a standard amount with the wealthiest and/or most unhealthy paying more. This system works well in England, France, Canada and most western nations. It works because if the entire population is in the "pool," the healthy can help pay for the care of others without exploding premiums.

The reason to pass a single-payer health-care plan is not because there is a "right" to health care (the Constitution is silent on this issue). It should pass because anything else is either too complicated or too controlled by a greedy health-care and insurance industry that sees sick patients as sales to be maximized.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Funerals are celebrations of life

The older you get, the more funerals you attend. It's a fundamental rule of this life. As you age, your friends, relatives and acquaintances reach the age of mortality, and funerals follow. Your time will come.

I attended another funeral Sunday, and I found it unusually uplifting and spiritually nourishing. The music and the liturgy of funerals usually are not — and should not be — mournful and despairing. Christian theology speaks of conquering death, and gerontologists speak of death as a phase of life. So it is appropriate that funerals are often called "celebrations of life."

As I sat in the balcony among the capacity crowd in the large church sanctuary, my mind turned to the stirring music from the organ and the carefully chosen readings from Scripture, as well as the praise and humorous eulogies offered by the decedent's grandchildren. I left the church not depressed but uplifted, fulfilled in a way that my heart needed.

After attending funerals that were like yesterday's — uplifting and positive — and others that were sad, mournful, despairing and even accusatory, I began thinking of my own funeral. I have become keenly aware as I read the obituary columns that the majority of the obits are for people younger than I. I have made a list of Scripture to be read and of hymns to be sung, including "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" and "For All the Saints." The hymns should be sung by the congregation, not by a soloist, I decreed, because a funeral, like other worship, is a corporate experience in which all should participate.

 A well-done funeral is an uplifting spiritual experience, so it was only in partial sarcasm that I suggested years ago that someone start a new cable channel, The Funeral Channel, which would cover live and rerun funerals of celebrities, statesmen and others, funerals of people like Edward Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, Prince, Robin Williams, and all the others, perhaps even well-planned, uplifting funerals from Wilson, N.C.

It would beat most of what's on cable TV.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

1960s visions of the future of newspapers

When I was a student in the School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina, professors and textbooks talked about the future of newspapers with wildly futuristic visions. Some sources proposed newspapers that would be delivered to your house via telephone wires or broadcast frequencies and printed out in your home on some sort of personal printing press. Others envisioned a newspaper that would appear on your television, and you would be able to read the newspaper by sitting in front of the TV.

All these fantasies were widely dismissed by students and professors alike. The public would not want to give up the printed newspaper that had been part of American life for 200 years. How would you divide up the sections of these news platforms with each family members getting to read a section at the time? That home printing press would be expensive and would fill an entire room. Current technologies couldn't possibly handle the abundance of information contained in newspapers to squeeze that info onto a home printing press or a TV screen. The broadcast or wire transmission of this volume of news would clog the air waves and phone lines and make them collapse from the volume.

The traditional printed newspaper, available for hundreds of years, should be good enough for another few hundred years, most everyone thought, perhaps until messages can be transmitted directly to the brain by brain waves or thoughts transmission.

Earlier this week, I decided not to trudge through the rain to the end of the driveway to pick up my copy of the Raleigh newspaper. Instead, I sat comfortably inside, drank my coffee and read the News and Observer online version on my antiquated, first-generation, hand-me-down iPad.

This technology, far superior to anything the textbooks and professors of the 1960s ever dreamed of, is satisfying and near-perfectly replicates the print version of the newspaper. I see each page as it appears in print. I click on a story I want to read, and it enlarges to a comfortable reading size. I tap to turn the pages. I get to see every story that's in the print edition but without getting soaked while walking to the end of the driveway.

This technology and its cousins have given us a parallel means, arguably a better means, of reading the morning newspaper. At the same time, technology has destroyed the business model of traditional newspapers. Classified advertising, which once consumed a dozen or more pages of high-dollar income for newspapers every day, has now retreated to specialty websites that are searchable and cheaper than anything print newspapers could offer.

As a member of the last generation raised on print newspapers, I am often shocked that young people don't feel a need to read a newspaper, in whatever form. Television and the internet, including news sites on that phone in your pocket (I have one of those, too), have made information more accessible but, often, less enlightening and less reliable than traditional newspapers. Younger generations seem less connected to local, national and world events because their exposure to "news" is selective and often slanted.

Journalism professors of the 1960s were wrong about the future of newspapers. The great cataclysm came sooner than expected and in a way no one could have imagined 50 years ago. Many thousands of newspaper jobs, including one I held, have disappeared. No home printing press, no TV newspaper but a different medium has disrupted newspapers, which are still trying to find a means of providing information to the public in a profitable, reliable way.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Abraham Lincoln and Civil War memories

A North Carolina legislator has compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler, calling our 16th president a tyrant and holding him personally responsible for 800,000 deaths. People like him are running this state's education system?

First, some admissions: Many southerners reviled Lincoln, partly because he threatened the economic system of the South, which was based on slave labor, but also because of his decision to forcefully prevent the Confederate states from leaving the Union. The Civil War wreaked horrendous damage upon the South, where nearly all of the battles were fought, and where federal policy called for destroying the ability to wage war, which included destroying crops and farmland that could support armies and civilians.

An elderly teacher from my childhood told about a Confederate veteran she had known when she was a child. Given change at a store, the old man refused to accept pennies because they bore the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, a man he hated. That is how ingrained and intense feelings toward Lincoln were.

News coverage of the Lincoln-Hitler analogy raised the question of whether secession of states was constitutional. Some "experts" said the states' ratifying of the Constitution made secession unconstitutional. That, it seems to me, is a stretch. There was nothing in the Constitution that forbade secession or made a state's ratification irrevocable. Secessionists claimed, with some validity, that their decision to leave the Union was no different from the Continental Congress' decision to leave the British Empire.

Even if we assume secession was a legitimate course, it need not lead to Civil War. This disagreement could have been fought in the courts instead of on the fields of Manassas, Gettysburg, Shiloh and other places. Secessionists in South Carolina are primarily responsible for turning the disagreement into armed conflict. They fired the first shot, bombarding Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in an effort to unseat the Union garrison. Lincoln responded by attempting to reinforce and resupply that garrison and by raising an army to enforce Union authority throughout the seceded states.

Small miscalculations often lead to tragedy. The secessionists were certain they could expel federal troops from the South. Lincoln was certain that a show of force would bring the secessionists to their senses. Both were wrong. What followed was the greatest tragedy in American history, but it came with one benefit: It ended slavery decades before that economic system would have died from its own shortcomings and the public's revulsion.

Lincoln did cancel habeas corpus and jailed people without trial, but he was facing imminent assassination and sabotage by Confederate agents and sympathizers. For any errors Lincoln might have made, he gets a pass based on his soaring rhetoric that defines American principles of "government of the people, for the people and by the people," and "malice toward none and charity for all."

His assassination denied the nation an opportunity for more peaceful and amicable reconciliation, with charity for all.

Lincoln as Hitler? Ridiculous! A shameful analogy!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Why the years go by so fast

It's an accepted fact that as one grows older, the years go by faster and faster. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, seasons all come faster than they did a few decades ago, when it seemed Christmas would never arrive. Now, a new Christmas season comes before the detritus from the last one is cleared away. Birthdays click by before you can do the math on the last one.

My wife and I have discovered a complement to this accepted fact about years: as we grow older, there is less time to do the things we have to do, need to do and want to do. Keeping the house clean, keeping the yard mowed, keeping the garden weeded and pruned, keeping the laundry done, preparing meals, shopping for groceries — the time to do all these things gets more difficult to find as the years rapidly pass.

If the years are flying past, I suggested to her, then the hours of each day must also be speeding by like a meteor flashing across the night sky. Look aside and you miss it.

We are trapped in this vortex of continuously shortened years. These shortened years require shortened months, which require shortened weeks, which require shortened days, which require shortened hours, and, therefore, we cannot find the time in these perniciously shortened hours to do the things we need to do and want to do.

We cannot slow down the passing years, no matter how much we'd like to freeze time at moments with our children and grandchildren or with siblings, parents and friends. We can only accept the loss of time and the rapidly compressing windows of opportunity to go to the places we want to go, see the people we want to see, do the things we want to do. We can only live in the moment and accept the unmowed yard, the disheveled house, the unweeded garden. Concentrate instead on what is most important, what is most precious, what matters most, and reserve your shortened hours for those times. Time flies, so grasp it while you can.