Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All hail the narcissist in chief

First of all, let's give President Donald Trump credit for holding a long, wide-ranging news conference in which he answered questions from reporters. That used to be something that presidents did regularly, but times have changed. On Monday in the White House Rose Garden, Trump did what he should do more often, answering questions for about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, one unnecessary and uncalled-for comment from the president overwhelmed the good vibes from the news conference. In answer to a question about the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger, Trump asserted that he had written letters to the families of the soldiers killed in an ambush and planned to call them next week. He said he likes to call grieving families "when it's appropriate" (whatever that means). Trump seemed to hedge on just what he had done to comfort families. He said he had written letters but had not mailed them yet. Huh? The ambush occurred two weeks ago.

From there, he claimed that he was doing something — comforting grieving families — that other presidents had not done, mentioning President Obama in particular but also berating other predecessors. Trump's remark, like many of his off-the-cuff comments, is provably false. There are news stories, photographs and video of President Obama greeting and speaking with grieving families of combat casualties. President George W. Bush also made it a point to extend condolences to the families of service members killed in action. Bush has extended his emotional connection to military members since he left the White House, hosting dinners at his Texas ranch for injured combat veterans and publishing a book of portraits he had painted of injured veterans.

This defamation of Obama and other presidents reminds Americans that narcissism is Trump's primary motivation for anything that comes out of his mouth. It is not enough for him to bolster his own image, no matter how false or misleading this effort might be (see inaugural crowds, Electoral College victory margin, legislative accomplishments in the first 30/90/100 days, and so forth). He also has to drag down others, dishonor their achievements and destroy their legacies. 

Trump seems especially obsessed with belittling Obama, whom he claimed for years was unfit for the presidency because he was "born in Kenya" (despite documentary proof of his birth in Hawaii to a mother who was a natural-born citizen). He has attacked every achievement of the Obama administration, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Affordable Care Act, sentencing reform and clean air regulations. His determination to obliterate these actions makes it clear that he cares more about wiping away all that Obama has done than about achieving policy goals. 

On Monday, Trump even had to lie about Obama's condolences to families of military casualties.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dragging your feet again?

"Boy, pick up your feet! You're wearing out your shoes."

That warning from my father some 60 years ago came back to me recently as I realized I was tending to drag my feet as I walked. I heard the scraping sound as the heel of my shoe met the pavement before my foot was fully extended into my stride.

When I was little kid, the concern about my stride was that shoes were expensive, and there was no point in wearing them out prematurely. Today, the concern is that the aging process may have resulted in a neurological issue known as "foot drag." When I worked for the Red Cross, a volunteer underwent spinal surgery to correct his foot drag. That's not what I want for my future.

I'm not a candidate for surgery, but I have become more conscious of my heel dragging into the ground when I step. The condition also manifests itself when my toe snags on the tread of steps as I rush upstairs. I've caught myself with my hands numerous times to avoid a far worse face to the stairs result.

I'm trying to be more aware of lifting my knees when I walk so that my heel does not drag the ground as I step forward, wearing out my shoes and worrying my father, dead 11 years. I'm also trying to pay closer attention as I stride upstairs, which I tend to do at a running pace.

All those years ago, I didn't take Daddy's criticism well. I thought he was being picky. If I did wear out my shoes, I thought, it would mean I'd get new shoes. I never imagined that 60 years later, I'd find the wisdom in his advice. 


Monday, October 9, 2017

In Defense of Taxes, Part 2

In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan famously said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He and his followers sought to "starve the beast" by cutting taxes and forcing the federal government to die from lack of funding.

It's hard to believe, however, that Reagan really thought government, on the whole, is "the problem." Conservatives had long contended that governmental regulations and federal overreach made it difficult for private businesses to operate and for individuals to achieve. But that's not the same as saying "the government is the problem." 

The federal government does many things well. We have the strongest military in the world, though sometimes military leaders (all human) make mistakes, as do civilian leaders. America is a land of opportunity, which is why so many foreigners want to come here and seek their fortunes. The recently announced Nobel prizes show that America is also the land of innovation and creative thinking. In many ways, the federal government encourages this innovation society and makes it possible for start-up companies to thrive in a competitive marketplace. Despite some screw-ups, such as the Hurricane Katrina response, the feds do disaster recovery remarkably well, whether it's the 9/11 attack or Hurricane Nate. The government ensures the safety of food, drugs, toys, travel, construction and workers. Although complaints about over-regulation are common and sometimes justifiable, America has the best worker safety and water and air safety record in the world. Our universities attract students from around the globe.

Even Ronald Reagan would not suggest eliminating the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Labor or FEMA, so the indiscriminate charge to "starve the beast" by eliminating taxes is foolhardy. Rather than the annual efforts to cut taxes at the federal and state levels, political parties should work toward a consensus about what is a reasonable level of taxation and what does the federal government realistically need to do its job. Cuts that cripple essential agencies or eliminate portals of opportunity such as education should be declared un-American.

Let budget debates begin not with a demand for tax cuts year after year but with an agreement that essential government services must be funded even as redundant or anachronistic or infringing agencies or regulations are deliberately defunded. The devil will still be in the details, but at least the debate could shift from tax cuts to funding services.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

In defense of taxes

It seems to be true that nobody likes taxes. For nearly 40 years, the Republican Party has built its strategy and its appeal on promises of lower taxes and has largely succeeded with the tax-hating electorate.

But taxes, rather than a nefarious evil, are necessary. Without taxes, government on the local, state and federal level cannot function. Voter ire against taxes can easily be fired up over reports of fraud in federal contracts, bone-headed spending, such as the Internal Revenue Service's $7 million contract with Equifax to prevent hacking and fraud in IRS files. This no-bid contract came just weeks after a massive hacking of Equifax data that had endangered the financial security of millions of Americans.

Taxes need to be cut from time to time. Tax cuts can spur spending and help speed recovery from a recession. Fast-rising wages and salaries can result in surpluses in the federal treasury (but that is rare). John F. Kennedy bucked his own party to pass a massive tax reduction in 1963. Ronald Reagan's tax cuts 30-plus years ago spurred economic growth but also ballooned the budget deficit (because he didn't get the spending cuts that should have accompanied the tax cuts). Since Reagan, every GOP presidential candidate and most GOP candidates for lesser offices have touted tax cuts for whatever ailed the country.

Tax-cutting continues to be the signature policy of nearly all GOP candidates, and Democrats have learned that opposition to popular tax cuts can be politically suicidal. Like nearly all Americans, I wince each time I write a check to the IRS or look at the withholding in my paycheck, but I have to admit that I want those government services my taxes pay for. While tax cuts sound great, consider what things federal taxes pay for:

° National Defense. The United States has by far the largest military budget on Earth, but few taxpayers want to cut the military.
° Medical and health initiatives. Annual flu shots, research into causes of cancer and other diseases, epidemic controls, standards for medical professionals and facilities.
° Highways, airline safety, passenger trains, and other transportation initiatives. Without federal gasoline taxes, modern highways would not exist.
° Food safety. Federal inspectors assure that meat, vegetables and other food items are safe to eat and are properly labeled for buyer safety.
° Drug safety. Federal testing and inspections keep dangerous or bogus drugs off the market.
° Interstate commerce. Regulation of long-haul trucking, shipping, water-borne navigation and port safety are all paid for by taxes and save lives every year.
° Communications. Federal regulations provide the basis for modern communications from telephone wires to WiFi to the internet itself. Without federal rule-setting, these tools we depend upon would never have developed.

State and local taxes go to even more popular and essential services, including:
° Garbage pickup and recycling services.
° Streets, sidewalks, bikeways, hiking trails and parks.
° Regulation of development and construction to prevent annoyances such as a pig sty next door to a residence or disasters, such as a building collapse.
° Public education, paid for locally and statewide, to ensure an educated workforce and a knowledgeable citizenry who can make democracy work effectively.
° Police departments to protect individuals and property.
° Fire departments to prevent and put out devastating fires.
° Emergency medical services that improve chances for victims of accidents, heart attacks and other medical emergencies.
° Colleges and universities that open bright futures for young people, increase upward mobility and improve economic opportunities for the entire state.

Unfortunately, tax-cut fervor at the state level has led to sharp cuts in K-12 and higher education. Damage from these cuts might not be apparent for a generation but could be disastrous.

A quarter-cent decrease in the sales tax or a 0.2 percent cut in the personal income tax will hardly be noticed an individual taxpayer but can make a huge difference in the state's ability to provide services needed and wanted by taxpayers. The cumulative effect of a fraction of a tax can help all residents, including those who are not directly affected in particular government services. All benefit when services help build a caring, upwardly mobile society.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The high school reunion speech never given

Before I went to my 50th high school reunion three weeks ago, I had composed in my mind what I would say to my classmates when the microphone was passed to me in our traditional individual updates. Because I left early in order to get home to my wife, who was convalescing from a broken shoulder, I used my moment with the mic to explain why I wasn't hanging around.

Here is what I would have said if I'd had the time:

At the last several of our reunions, I bemoaned the fact that, unlike a great many of you, I had not yet retired. I blamed my poor career choices made almost 50 years ago. If I had remained in military service or if I had chosen to teach in public schools, I could have retired with a generous pension as many of you have.

Well, now i have joined the rest of you in being retired as of about 40 days ago, and that makes me think back to the best college graduation speech I ever heard. My oldest daughter was graduating from Appalachian State University in 1993, and the speaker was Orson Scott Card, the science fiction writer. He made a few remarks about careers and jobs, as nearly all graduation speakers do. But then he cautioned the graduates not to put everything into their work lives. "If your job is what you are," he said, "what are you when you no longer have that job?"

For 33 years I was the editor. When that job ended, I became the executive director of two nonprofits. Now I am no longer the editor or the executive director. My titles now are more important than those past titles. I am now known as husband, father, grandfather, citizen, child of God. I am not so much retired as taking on more important work.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Vietnam War documentary tells it straight

For the second time, Ken Burns had me transfixed. The first time was his "The Civil War" documentary. The second time was "The Vietnam War." I watched at least some of his others documentaries on baseball and jazz, but I was never addicted to those films as I had been to "The Civil War."

"The Vietnam War" is a fitting sequel to his civil war documentary, and it is just as emotionally draining and factually revealing. Long before Burns began doing his magnificent video documentaries, I had been a student of the Civil War and had read extensively about the war. The difference in his latest documentary is that I lived through the Vietnam War.

The filmmaker had no video or live interviews with participants from 1861-65, but he managed to capture the mood of the era through skilled use of 19th century photographs and sympathetic readings of letters and speeches of participants in America's most tragic war. Using David McCullough as narrator was inspired. His deep, knowledgeable voice set the tone for all of the visuals, and Burns used historians to explain the war and the people. Shelby Foote, a historian and novelist, became a celebrity with his insightful explanations about the war.

"The Vietnam War" includes video shot by news photographers and individuals. Some of the video might spark memories from evening news broadcast 50-plus years ago. Others are less well known, including video shot by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese photographers. For this war, many participants are still alive to tell their stories, and Burns and Lynn Novick found some interesting, experienced veterans of that experience to explain what the war had meant to them and to America (or to the Vietnamese). They wisely did not shy away from veterans who became disenchanted with the war or protested against the war. The participants include black and white, rich and poor, gung-ho and anti-war, a balanced presentation.

A few surprises are included, such as Lyndon Johnson catching Richard Nixon blatantly lying about interference in the peace talks (to benefit Nixon's candidacy) and a U.S. general's admission that the Viet Cong were excellent soldiers. The difference in the war, it seemed, was that the Vietnamese were willing to fight for generations or centuries for their dream of an independent Vietnam.

This latest documentary's answer to Shelby Foote, as the most knowledgeable and persuasive of the characters, is not one person but several. I found myself awed by Marine Karl Marlantes, West Point graduate Matt Harrison, Marine John Musgrave, Army doctor Hal Kushner, Navy pilot Everett Alveraz and Carol Crocker, whose brother "Mogi" did not survive the war, among others. All told their compelling stories eloquently.

Burns and Novick did not ignore the leadership in Washington who pulled America into the war and then kept us there, despite knowing that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and unsustainable. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon knew they were fighting the wrong war in the wrong way, but they kept at it to save their egos and marks in history.

The documentary also shows how shamefully Americans greeted returning veterans. Some spoke of being spat at, bullied and shouted down profanely. That treatment of Vietnam veterans remains a shamefully disgusting black mark against the anti-war movement. Even in a horrific and wasteful war, the vast majority of American soldiers and sailors served honorably and decently.

They deserve this unflinching look at my generation's war.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Protesting the national anthem

I did not watch any NFL games yesterday. My schedule did not allow it. I have followed the disagreements over players' actions during the playing of the national anthem in news reports, so I'm aware of the controversy.

My initial reaction is that I have always objected to the use of non-political public events to promote political views. I have sat through stage productions, fundraisers, school events and, yes, sporting events that were used to promote political viewpoints. My objection is not to the political views themselves but to the exploitation of a captive audience to promote those views. The innocently trusting audience had no way of knowing they would hear a political spiel and had no way of escaping. Welcome to "bait-and-switch."

NFL players have demonstrated their objections to the killing of African-Americans by police (or associated issues) by refusing to show respect to the United States during the playing of the national anthem. Instead of standing silently, hats off and hand over heart (as etiquette prescribes), players have knelt on one knee, turned away or simply ignored the anthem. The protests began with one player and has spread to others.

President Trump greatly magnified the protest when he called on NFL owners to "fire" any player who failed to show respect to the flag. The president's disrespect of players' concerns turned other players and NFL owners against the president and multiplied the number of protesters

Although protests are protected by the First Amendment, this is not so much a legal issue as a respect issue. Football players — or teachers, entertainers or celebrities — should respect the audience that came to see them play or sing or dance. They should exercise their First Amendment rights in a manner that respects others while still getting their message across. Modern media offer multitudes of opportunities for free expression. Millionaire football players have even greater opportunities to claim the spotlight without disrupting events people have paid dearly to watch.

You would think that the powerful and wealthy NFL Players Association could find a reasonable compromise for this issue before more fans are alienated. Let protesting players pass out leaflets at the stadium; let players address issues after the game is over. The NFL could even eliminate the playing of the national anthem, which, until recently, had received little attention. The old baseball joke went like this: "What's the last two words of the national anthem?" "Play ball."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Civil War history is full of tragedy and nuance

Thanks to historian Philip Gerard for providing some historical context to the debates over Confederate monuments. Gerard's op-ed piece in Sunday's News & Observer was about a new Civil War museum planned for Fayetteville. The museum is to be housed on a historic site where a key U.S. and (later) CSA arsenal had stood.

This museum will be about more than the battles and about more than slavery or states' rights or any of the other issues involved in the war. As Gerard points out, North Carolina's Civil War history "is complicated and full of nuance." Many, probably most, North Carolinians see the Civil War as a struggle between slave-owning aristocrats on their plantations vs. enslaved African-Americans and the northern liberators who sought to free them.

In fact, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, and many were little better off economically than some slaves or free blacks. As N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance admitted, the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” The aristocrats could buy their way out of military service. Even among that elitist population, not all were die-hard supporters of slavery. Many North Carolinians, especially those in the mountainous western part of the state, opposed secession and fought either a guerrilla war against the Confederacy or enlisted in the Union Army.

The stated purpose of the Lincoln administration was to preserve the Union. Only near the end of the war did Lincoln add abolition of slavery to his war goals.

By the end of this ill-begotten war, the South's economy was utterly destroyed. Farms were burned, livestock was claimed as bounty of war, industrial sites were destroyed, wealth in the form of Confederate dollars became worthless. It would take the seceding states most of the next 100 years to catch up with other states in economic health.

The war settled issues that had been simmering since the founding of the republic — slavery and the sovereignty of member states. While slavery was widely viewed as evil and inhumane, it was widely practiced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

The question of secession had never been settled in federal courts. The Constitution does not forbid states from resigning from the Union, and those states were less than 100 years from the precedent of the United Colonies' decision to secede from British rule.

The debate over Confederate monuments ignores these nuances and paints everything related to the Confederacy as reprehensible. While some Confederate monuments extol individuals whose views on slavery and the "brotherhood of man" may be repulsive to 21st century minds, other monuments offer gratitude for people who made America's most devastating war less awful. Among these is the monument on the N.C. Capitol grounds honoring Southern wives and mothers who endured incredible hardship, tragedy and sacrifice during four years of war, which included a strategy of destroying the Confederacy's ability to wage war, meaning the destruction of anything of value in Southern hands.

Many other monuments address the sacrifices of nameless Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a cause they had little stake in and hardly understood. Slavery hung in the balance, it is true, but slavery was not the motivation of most of these poor unfortunates.

Destruction of these monuments will not provide context for a tragic war, nor will it improve the plight of descendants of slavery and segregation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Trump the Democrat

Suppose Donald Trump runs for re-election on the Democratic ticket!

After yesterday's new coalition of Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer plus Trump's indication that he might eliminate the debt ceiling altogether, Trump seems more Democratic than some Democrats. And he clearly left some Republicans (Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) miffed by the Republican president's detour around the party's congressional leadership.

The Trump-Pelosi-Schumer triumvirate got together on a legislative plan that appears to be counter to the Republican Party's interests. Ryan and McConnell wanted to put off debt ceiling and 2018 budget decisions until after the 2018 mid-term elections. Making painful and controversial decisions after the election instead of before would be in the best interests of the majority party. Democrats wanted action sooner rather than later, giving them the opportunity to force Republicans to state where they stand on controversial but essential legislation before Americans go to the polls.

Some Republicans have complained that Trump is not really a Republican, which is true. He is Trump, and what is good for him and his friends is his policy, regardless of partisan concerns. Bipartisanship, if that is what Trump is able to bring about, would be welcomed by many Americans and by some members of Congress in both parties.

Bipartisanship would be helpful in repairing Trump's initiative on immigration. Trump was prompted (by Pelosi) to say some nice things about young immigrants while his attorney general announced the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy of the Obama administration. Trump tweeted (how else would he make an important announcement?) that the "Dreamers" protected by DACA would have nothing to worry about in the six months before DACA expires under the new policy.

Critics are portraying the administration's decision as a cruel betrayal of these young immigrants brought here illegally as children. But what the administration is doing is forcing Congress to pass DACA-type protections into federal law. It gives Congress six months to pass legislation. There is no guarantee that Congress will do its duty, but there seems to be overwhelming support for providing a means for these innocent young people to avoid deportation. Members of Congress who fail to support a fair and reasonable bill to protect "Dreamers" will face political consequences. A long-sought comprehensive immigration overhaul might even come from this motivation.

Both of these actions this week by the president relates to his impatience and impulsiveness. Trump has been critical of Congress for its failure to pass health care legislation and other important measures. He has accused his own party's leadership of dragging their feet. Most successful businessmen have an impatient streak, and Trump's streak is long and deep. If his impatience gets Congress to start things moving, he could salvage his own failing presidency.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three books about death and dying

You might say I've been on a binge lately. In the past few months, I've read three books about death and dying. Twenty years ago, I might have thought of this as a premonition, but I no longer trust in premonitions, and I feel fine, really, for someone my age.

The death and dying books were not part of a plan; they simply came my way in nearly sequential time. Most recently, I read "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe. The book is not so much about books or book clubs as it is a memoir of the author's time spent with his terminally ill mother. They decided that reading books together and discussing them would be a great way to pass the time while she was undergoing chemo treatments for Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The book discussions fade in comparison to the plans made and the things done as Mom dealt with the aggressive cancer and the extensive treatments to forestall its inevitable outcome. She traveled extensively to visit her children and grandchildren, to be with old friends from around the world and to strengthen relationships with friends and family. Fortunately, she was given time for all of that. Despite pancreatic cancer's three- to six-month average survival rates (my sister lived just 30 days after her diagnosis), Ms. Schwalbe survived more than a year with good "quality of life" for much of that time.

Previously, I had read Nina Riggs' "The Bright Hour," a book that is excruciatingly sad and at the same time positive and beautiful. Riggs, the mother of two small boys, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. What should have been just a "one small spot" that could be easily removed and destroyed turned out to be highly aggressive and ultimately fatal. Riggs spent the last few months of her life writing this memoir filled with the insights and beauty of a poet. She finds humor in the midst of pain and despair. She celebrates every minute of time she has with her sons and her supportive and brave husband. "The Bright Hour" deserves all the accolades it has received, and I've recommended it to dozens of people. Riggs died only weeks before her book's release.

The first book in my trilogy of recently read death-and-dying books was Atul Gawande's "Being Mortal." Gawande, a medical doctor, examines the way we die in this "civilized" modern world, and he concludes that we are often doing it all wrong. Instead of fighting death, as if it were a foreign invader, he recommends seeing death as both inevitable and part of life. The extreme measures to keep a terminally ill patient alive often result in pain, discomfort and a terrible "quality of life" for the patient and for loved ones. Modern medicine can keep many patients alive but cannot make them well and cannot restore their enjoyment of life. Accepting the inevitability of death can be the first step toward a more humane, less painful and less costly manner of death.

Of these three books, I would recommend that "The Bright Hour" and "Being Mortal" are definitely worth a second reading.

I should probably be looking for some humorous books to relieve the sadness of the last three books. Instead, I'm rereading "The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Ecco, which I read about 25 years ago. It's about a series of mysterious deaths in a 14th century abbey. The nice thing about a well-aged memory is that I remember almost nothing of the plot, only that I thought it was a great book when I first read "Name of the Rose." We'll see how a more mature reader likes it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Silent Sam honors students who died as soldiers

For as long as I have visited or lived in Chapel Hill, nearly 60 years, "Silent Sam" has been a part of the University of North Carolina campus. In all those years, I never thought of the bronze Confederate soldier as a reminder of slavery or as an intimidation of anyone. In fact, I rarely even thought of Silent Sam as a Confederate soldier. Like most students and visitors, I saw Silent Sam as a decoration and a landmark. I suspect most students thought of Sam's reputation (every time a virgin walks by, he fires his musket) far more than they thought of his symbolism.

If I took the time to think about his presence, I thought of the UNC students who dropped their books and took up arms to defend their homes, their university and their state from a threatening military force. The statue was dedicated as a memorial to those students who fought and died in the Civil War. Sam was erected as an expression of grief by a population that suffered more casualties in the Civil War than any other state. UNC students were among those casualties, and Silent Sam honors the sacrifice of those families.

Although one speaker at the 1913 dedication, made tasteless and off-message boasts at the dedication, the solemn intent of the Silent Sam statue was to remember the UNC students who died in the Civil War, as Ed Yoder states in an excellent column in the News & Observer.

Andrew Young, the civil rights hero, confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., former congressman, former mayor of Atlanta, told an NPR reporter recently that removing Confederate monuments, as advocated by Black Lives Matter and other groups, is the wrong fight at the wrong time.

"I'm saying these are kids who grew up free, and they don't realize what still enslaves them — and it's not those monuments," Young said. He worries that the next time the political winds shift, crowds may be advocating tearing down monuments to Dr. King and other civil rights icons.

I hope, before the mob psychology takes hold and sweeps away every offending, misunderstood or uncomfortable vestige of the Civil War, the public and elected leaders will listen to voices of reason like Ed Yoder and Andrew Young.

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.