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.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Senate filibuster dead and buried

The filibuster is dead. Long live majority rule.

Senate Republican leaders tripped the switch Thursday after Democrats vowed to filibuster the confirmation of Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and executed the rule that a super-majority will be required to end debate on the Senate floor.

The filibuster had been rarely used in Supreme Court nominations, but these are rare times, and Democrats had enough votes to stop the nomination with more than 40 votes pledged to force the traditional, 60-vote super-majority to end debate over the nomination. Frustrated by this barricade, Republicans vowed to destroy one of the most hallowed traditions of the Senate, the liberty to continue debate indefinitely so long as a substantial minority of senators allowed such a delay.

Republicans had a nominee in Gorsuch who was as moderate as any Republican nominee could be expected to be. He was well qualified and well respected. In an ideal world, judges like Gorsuch would be confirmed with minimal debate. But this is not an ideal world, and Democrats were united to fight the nomination. Republicans vowed to do anything to get Gorsuch seated on the Supreme Court, even if it meant tearing apart the Senate.

Democrats had some righteous indignation on their side. President Obama nominated a well-respected jurist, Merrick Garland, to replace Antonin Scalia a year ago. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, contending that the voters in the 2016 election should decide — a unique piece of illogical reasoning in the annals of American politics. Democrats argued that Republicans' refusal to even discuss Garland's nomination was even worse than a filibuster.

Democrats' record in defense of the filibuster has not been pristine. When Obama's federal court nominees languished for months because Republicans filibustered their nominations, Democratic leader Harry Reid pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster in federal judgeships not including the Supreme Court.

Now the filibuster is gone, and no one knows what its demise might mean in the Senate. The hyper-partisanship in Congress can hardly get any worse, and the 60-vote cloture requirement seems quaint in an era of non-stop debate and non-stop campaigning outside the halls of Congress. The death of the filibuster might mean little in the long run. Filibusters have not been what they originally were for years now. Rarely has a senator talked non-stop for days to block legislation as was done in the first 150 years of the Senate. For years now, only the threat of a filibuster was enough to stop legislation. We had filibuster-lite, a watered down, painless blocking movement.

What is being lost, and has been lost for years, is the sense of camaraderie, of principle above party, of public interest over partisan interest. The dead filibuster is just one more symptom of the disease.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Thirty years ago, a new title

On Saturday, April 1, I will observe the 30th anniversary of my promotion to editor of The Wilson Daily Times. I had been managing editor for seven years, and when Roy Taylor retired, he pushed for me to succeed him, rather than bringing in someone from outside.

With that 1987 promotion, I changed desks and earned an actual office with a door that could be closed, instead of a desk in a corner of the wide-open newsroom. My work changed relatively little from what I had done the previous seven years. I wrote editorials, as I had done part-time as M.E., and I hired a city editor to directly supervise reporters, but I still kept close tabs on local news coverage, editing and newsroom standards. I retained supervision of the sports and lifestyle departments.

The next few years were the most satisfying and rewarding of my three-decade career in newspapers. James J. Kilpatrick, the late Richmond editor and columnist, once wrote that being a newspaper editor was the best job in the world. I cannot argue.

At the WDT, we worked hard at giving our readers the best news coverage we could provide. We broke some good stories, and we covered two devastating hurricanes in 1996 and 1999, each of which was a "story of a lifetime." At the same time, we battled the readership and advertising changes that sent the newspaper industry into a near-death spiral. Consultants hired to "fix" the newspaper offered desperate and sometimes contradictory solutions that ultimately failed to repel the societal and technological trends that wiped out newspapers' long-successful business model.

Desperate to stay afloat, newspaper owners shed employees by the dozens at newspapers across the country, and tens of thousands of newspaper jobs disappeared nationwide. I became one of those statistics after 33 years in the business and 29 years at the same newspaper. I chose not to be bitter about that and to seek a new career rather than mope.

On this anniversary, I prefer to remember the good times, which were many.

Monday, March 27, 2017

All Supreme Court nominations are divisive

"A pox on both your houses," Shakespeare might say, were he around to observe the U.S. Senate's "advise and consent" duties in recent years. 

The Senate is headed toward a filibuster over the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Democrats say they cannot in good conscience approve the nomination of such a man. The Republican leadership appears ready to eliminate the Senate's cloture rule, which has been around since the first years of the Republic, in order to get Gorsuch approved.

President Trump's nomination of Gorsuch came a year after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a year in which the Republican-controlled Senate refused to even hold hearings on the nomination by President Obama of moderate Judge Merrick Garland. The Republican rationale was that voters might elect a Republican to the White House in 2016, and that president might nominate someone more conservative and more to their liking. The reasoning they presented to the public was that the 2016 electorate should decide who fills that Supreme Court seat; it shouldn't be filled by the 2008 and 2012 electorate that chose President Obama or by a president who has held office for seven years. It didn't matter whether anyone accepted their thinking, the Republicans controlled the Senate and got their way.

My hope was that Hillary Clinton would win and take revenge by nominating someone far less to Republicans' liking, such as Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. (Check with William Howard Taft about the willingness of former president to accept appointment to the Supreme Court.)

(Not that I wanted Hillary Clinton to be president -- I simply wanted the GOP leadership to learn a hard-earned lesson. I thought voters might punish Republicans for obstinately blockading a qualified nominee, but I was wrong.)

What I've heard of Gorsuch's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and what I've read about Merritt persuades me to believe that both men are well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. A court with five Gorsuches and four Garlands, or five Garlands and four Gorsuches, it seems to me, would be a good, reasonable court.

Consider this: A recent poll found that more than half of Americans surveyed could name even one current Supreme Court justice. It's true that Supreme Court justices serve for decades and almost always influence events long after their sponsoring president has left office. But most voters don't know a single justice.

Judicial nominations have not always been so partisan. When Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan, it was assumed that the old rules would apply: a qualified nominee would be approved by the Senate in deference to the president's preferences, so long as no ethical or competency issues arose. But Bork's nomination unexpectedly faced a concerted effort by Democrats and interest groups to stop him. Hence, the verb "borked," meaning to be demonized unfairly by lobbying and media campaigns, was born. Suddenly, Supreme Court nominations became national elections without a popular vote (by people who can't name a single justice).

The nomination of Clarence Thomas by George H.W. Bush took a similar path, but he eked out an appointment, 52-48, after an extremely emotional and divisive hearing.

Since then, the partisanship has extended even to federal district court nominations, prompting Democrats, who then controlled the Senate, to change the time-honored rules and stop debate on lower-court nominations, but not Supreme Court nominations. 

Now Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears ready to use the "nuclear option" and halt debate with a simple majority vote on Supreme Court nominees. If that happens, the Republic will not fall, but this change will likely only make the nomination process more partisan and divisive.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Freedom Caucus sells out constituents

The House Freedom Caucus succeeded yesterday in stopping a vote on the Republican bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. Even after President Trump met with the coalition and begged them to come around and allow the bill to pass, the caucus refused. They wanted more concessions. Already, they had wrangled enough concessions out of the GOP leadership to frighten some more moderate members of the party.

The Freedom Caucus leaders criticized the GOP replacement for the ACA as "Obamacare Light." They wanted more than just a halt to some of the essential elements of the ACA; they wanted every vestige of the 2010 legislation ripped from federal law. A ban on pre-existing conditions as grounds for refusing coverage? Out! Allowing 26-year-olds to remain on their parents' insurance? Gone! Coverage of contraception? No! Coverage of mental health as well as physical health? Nope! Limits on higher premiums for older people? No way! Ending limits on lifetime coverage? Out!

The Freedom Caucus is getting its way (even as Republicans in and out of Congress work to find a way to shove their bill through the House), but Republican candidates everywhere might rue the day when the Freedom Caucus succeeded. For all the criticism of "Obamacare" and the GOP's ridiculously redundant votes to repeal "Obamacare," much of the legislation in the ACA has been quite popular. As Americans pay more attention to the details of the law that is being eliminated, it is growing in popularity, even as conservatives in Congress try to eliminate any clause that has any resemblance to the ACA. 

Republicans have a quandary. They can vote to destroy every whiff of "Obamacare" and hope the electorate does not rebel against the loss of decent health insurance coverage, or they can leave the ACA or popular parts of it in place and face questions about why they wasted time voting against the ACA dozens of times but couldn't pull the trigger given the opportunity, at last, to destroy it.

The Freedom Caucus, a basically Libertarian organization, has taken an odd role as the defender of insurance companies' profits. Instead of quashing government intrusions into personal lives (the Libertarian philosophy) and cutting federal spending, the Freedom Caucus is demanding changes that hurt individual taxpayers and benefit wealthy insurance companies.

Have the high principles of the Freedom Caucus been sold out to the insurance industry's billions in campaign donations?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

House Committee begins search for truth

I listened to part of the House Intelligence Committee hearings yesterday as I drove back from a meeting in Raleigh. For a few minutes, dazed by the monotony of that familiar ribbon of U.S. 264, I imagined I was listening again to the Watergate hearings or the subsequent impeachment hearings.

The partisan divide was in place. Republicans seemed unconcerned about the apparent attempt of Russia to interfere with U.S. elections, just as their predecessors had been unconcerned about apparent illegal activities by the Nixon administration — break-ins, using federal agencies for political purposes, lying under oath, disregard for individual rights and so on. Democrats were more attuned to what they saw as the larger — much larger — issue. While Rep. Trey Gowdy listed the names of Democrats in the Obama administration who might have had access to information that had been linked — a suggested sort of guilt by awareness — some Democrats sought to pull the issues out of the partisan divide.

Rep. Adam Schiff offered a Barbara Jordan-like speech that urged the committee to get to the bottom of the Russian influence in the U.S. election. He saw this attack as a threat to democracy. Jordan, if you don't remember, was the Texas congresswoman who gave a galvanizing speech that laid out the absolute necessity for the House Judiciary Committee to bring a bill of impeachment against a president guilty of utter disdain for moral limits on his power.

Where all this will lead is unclear after one day of hearings, but it is encouraging to see the House tackle the matter and seek the truth, not the "alternative facts" that have twisted the nation's moral compass.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Health care for all has only one option

After dozens of votes to repeal "Obamacare," Republicans in Congress have gotten their wish. They have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they now face the reality that repealing the act does not improve health care. The repeal leaves huge gaps in health care and eliminates many popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act, such as protecting patients from being punished for having pre-existing conditions.

The reality has hit the GOP leadership: They can't just repeal Obamacare. They have to replace it. A proposed replacement was rolled out this week, but the Congressional Budget Office has found that the GOP health care plan leaves an additional 24 million Americans without health insurance. That figure frightened some less ideological Republicans, and votes to pass the GOP plan are dissipating.

The GOP plan is under attack from the left, as Democrats decry numbers of people who are left out of the new plan, and from the right, as far-right Republicans complain that the new plan is just warmed-over Obamacare.

Maybe this is an opportunity for a bold new approach. Both the Obama plan and the new GOP (Paul Ryan) plan are built on an inherently flawed premise — that America has to keep its network of employers paying premiums for employees and insurance companies paying the bills (or part of the bills) for U.S. healthcare. This system leaves out the unemployed, under-employed and just plain unfortunate. Obama's plan, like the one Hillary Clinton tried to push through during her husband's first term, tried to force the uncovered into buying insurance. Obamacare used tax penalties and government subsidies to make people get health insurance. It increased the percentage of people with healthcare but still left many people uncovered. The new GOP plan uses the same basic strategy but uses incentives to get people to buy health insurance rather than penalties and subsidies. It would leave even more people uncovered.

Perhaps the time is right for a new strategy — one that was rejected in earlier debates, but the only one that will truly cover "all Americans," which President Trump promised the GOP plan would achieve. That option is "single-payer," which is the model nearly all Western democracies use to provide truly nationwide coverage. In this option, all Americans would pay into the system, just as we all pay into Social Security and Medicare, and a federal agency would disburse payments to health care providers. Overhead would be sharply cut with just one agency handling accounts payable rather than hundreds of insurance companies, many of whom pay their CEOs multi-million salaries.

Taxes would rise, but health insurance premiums would be eliminated for both employees and employers. How much does the average worker pay for health insurance? $500 a month? $1,000 a month? How much do employers pay? That amount (or less) would be collected in taxes and used to pay for health care of everyone. The uninsured, who are a drain on the system now, would be eliminated. Taxation could be designed to be fair to all, with the lowest-income paying lower taxes and the most affluent paying more. Making the healthcare tax a separate form of tax on both employees and employers just like Social Security and Medicare, would keep the system transparent. Some co-pays would be appropriate to keep the public from abusing the system.

This is the only way everyone would be covered. Everyone would share the risks in a risk pool of 300 million-plus people. Insurance companies would fight for their survival, but the advantages of this system is too great to allow one interest group to sabotage it.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Fake news" comes from an official source

"Fake News"? It's a real phenomenon — inaccurate, misleading, outlandish, incredible, mendacious — but out there.

Where does it come from? Turns out it's not just from frustrated, anti-social millennials sitting in their parents' basement in their pajamas or entrepreneurial Macedonian techies making a lucrative living by dreaming up wildly enticing stories that lure people to click on their social media posts. Fake news also comes from ... the majority leader of the N.C. Senate.

Phil Berger, the majority leader, has posted grossly exaggerated and mean-spirited headlines on his official Facebook page with links to actual news stories from legitimate news sources, including the News & Observer. Caught and challenged about his practice, which violated Facebook's terms of use policy, Berger was unrepentant, accusing Facebook of misinterpreting its own terms of use.

Any astute user of social media should recognize Berger's wildly accusatory headlines as unprofessional and beneath the standards of the news organizations his posts link to. But Berger knows that many people won't click on the link or read the actual headline, much less read the straight-news story without Berger's partisan twist to it. He knows the headline does its damage, accusing Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, of all sorts of malfeasance.

What is most disturbing to the legitimate news sources, such as the N&O, the Charlotte Observer and WBTV, is that they are listed as the source, the link, below the misleading headline. Experienced Facebook users will often check the source before clicking on a link. Berger's fake headline makes it look as though honest-to-goodness real news organizations (the "mainstream media") have the goods on the Democrats. Berger's fake news make its Democratic target and the news media both look bad.

For Berger, that's a perfect combination, a two-for-one score. No wonder he sees nothing wrong with fake news.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Trump presidential mask doesn't last

Whatever good President Trump had done for himself in his speech to Congress last week abruptly fell apart early Saturday morning, when he tweeted angry, unsupported accusations at former President Obama. Trump claimed, without any evidence or even any rational strategy, that President Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.

Government officials quickly pointed out that the president does not have the authority to order wiretaps. That action has to go through the Justice Department and a federal court established to review and limit wiretapping of American citizens. FBI director James Comey and others treated the accusations with the lack of credibility it deserves, as the equivalent of claiming Obama was intercepting Trump's brain waves through telepathy.

Trump was his old self Saturday morning, lashing out incoherently at perceived enemies. But his target, Obama, made the irrational claims even more distasteful. Since his election, Trump had praised Obama for his cooperation and advice as America transitioned from one administration to another. Obama, who strongly opposed Trump during the campaign, was overwhelmingly gracious and graceful toward the president-elect, promising him full cooperation from himself and everyone in his administration and offering insights and advice Trump. Trump thanked Obama with apparent sincerity for his cooperation and advice.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress six days ago, Trump carefully read from the teleprompter and appeared more presidential than at any time during the campaign and presidency. Then, four days later, it all imploded as the Twittering Trump lowered the boom on his predecessor without any evidence or corroboration but with plenty of malice and mendacity.

As Trump himself would say: "Sad." 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Trump who stays on message

President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night surprised me. He seemed rational, even thoughtful. A few times during the speech, he reached out to Democrats and others with promises to protect clean air and water, to provide paid family leave, and to allow at least some of the 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. He even channeled John F. Kennedy with his reference to a torch of liberty handed down from generation to generation. Kennedy in 1961 had said, "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, ..."

What he didn't do is even more important. He didn't lead his supporters in the chamber to shout "Lock her up" or "Build the wall." He didn't insult and call names the members of the press covering his address. From my observations of Trump's administration so far, none of these repulsive actions would have surprised me. In the past year, he has dismissed or insulted members of the military and their families. He called the press "enemies of the people." Tuesday, he led an extended applause for the widow of an American sailor killed in a raid. The lingering focus on her and her grief must have been agonizing for this widow of only a month, tears streaming down her face, which was contorted by grief.

Trump demonstrated that he could stick to a script, that he could use a teleprompter without wandering off message or striking out at perceived enemies or distorting some perceived slight. This was Trump's best, most presidential speech. It will help him with independents and Democrats without hurting his standing with his loyal base.

The question for the next few weeks will be whether the president has turned over a new leaf. If he has, a Trump presidency might not be nearly as bad as so many detractors (as well as mainstream Republicans) have feared. If not, if Trump reverts to his campaign mode, it will be a long four years.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Other worlds are beyond our rreach

For all the folks excited about the discovery of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, or those folks who are hoping to live long enough to join the crew of the Starship Enterprise, please curb your enthusiasm. Getting to exoplanets is a lot more difficult than just calling out, "Warp speed!"

Take the latest discovery, touted by NASA in a press release complete with artist renderings of the surface of these planets that have not been actually seen by the human eye but only surmised because of the planets' darkening of their star's light. Before you buy your tickets to travel to these new worlds, know that this solar system is 40 light years away. That's 235 trillion miles! It takes light from that star 40 years to reach Earth. Given that accepted science contends that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and current space vehicles travel just a few thousand miles an hour, sending a space capsule to these new planets could take longer than modern man has existed on this planet. Even supposing that great advances will be made in interplanetary speeds, a capsule traveling at half the speed of light would take 80 years to arrive in the solar system and another 80 years to return. Anyone want to volunteer for that assignment?

Some science fiction dreamers suggest that we are wearing out good ol' Earth, and we should find us another place to homestead for the survival of the species. But even sending a manned craft to Mars, our nearest planetary neighbor, risks killing all crew members from exposure to interplanetary radiation. That's a problem that hasn't been solved even for "short" trips in the neighborhood. If astronauts can't survive a two- or three-year trip to Mars, how would they survive an 80-year trip to exoplanets?

These "astronomical" distances even present a problem for the highly touted efforts to contact extra-terrestrial life in other solar systems. Any speed-of-light communications we might receive and reply to would require a response time of many years, even centuries. Would civilization and technology last that long?

Rather than focus on the fascinating but rather pointless search for exoplanets and intelligent life beyond our solar system, humanity would be better served concentrating on repairing the damage being wrought on Earth, the only place in the universe we know is capable of supporting human life — if we don't destroy it. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Facts and truth are at issue, not leaks

President Trump and his defenders, clobbered by news reports showing dishonesty and infighting in the White House and the firing of the president's national security advisor, are attempting to change the subject. To hear Trump tell it, the secret (and lied about) conversations between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador, as well as other contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign and transition teams, are nothing. What's important, Trump claims, is the fact that the actions he and his minions have been trying to cover up were leaked to the press and broadcast to the public.

What could be worse than a fully informed electorate? 

In a rambling press conference Thursday, Trump attacked the news media with his usual accusations of dishonesty and "fake" news. Nowhere did Trump explain or excuse the contacts with the Russians.

Trump defenders have claimed that Flynn's discussions with the Russian ambassador were not only legal but routine. If that's the case, why did Flynn find it necessary to lie to the vice president about his conversation? After Flynn was fired, the New York Times reported the discovery of frequent contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. Trump has branded those reports as "fake news" but has not addressed the issues involved.

Many Americans, and especially elected officials and foreign policy specialists, are uncomfortable with the Trump administration's cozying up to Vladimir Putin's Russia. To have Russian contacts shrouded in secrecy and lied about only raises the level of discomfort.

Soon enough, Trump will find that he can rant all he wants about the "dishonest media" and "fake news," but, as Ronald Reagan once said, "facts are stubborn things," and in a free marketplace of ideas, truth will eventually win.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump's presidential action: playing golf

It was a quiet weekend, relatively speaking. It was a weekend when President Trump acted more presidential than he had the past three weeks of his presidency. What did he do that was so presidential? He played golf with Japanese premier Shinso Abe.

The guest at Trump's golf resort in Florida said he and the president spent time getting to know each other and discussing worldly matters on the luxurious lawns of the golf course. Trump refrained from attacking anyone on Twitter while he kept a golf club in his hand instead of a smart phone. That made him seem presidential.

Ever since President Eisenhower played golf at every opportunity, hitting the links with golfing greats such as Arnold Palmer and with members of Congress or foreign visitors, forging those bonds that are needed in Washington and in the diplomatic world, presidents have played golf with people they needed to schmooze or ask favors of. News reporters were kept at a distance, far out of hearing distance from the golfers but still breathlessly reported the president's day on the links.

A president did not have to be as accomplished as Eisenhower to engage in golf diplomacy. John F. Kennedy explained why he didn't release his golf scores, as Eisenhower sometimes did; he said, unlike him, Eisenhower had never beaned a Secret Service agent with a tee shot. Richard Nixon was too intense to relax on the golf course, but he played anyway. Bill Clinton played often and invited celebrities to join him. George W. Bush played but preferred running or biking. Barack Obama loved to play golf and managed to work in outings for business or pleasure.

Donald Trump used to complain that Obama spent too much time playing golf, but now he's discovered that golf can have a presidential purpose. He flew hundreds of miles to reach a course of his choosing with his Japanese guest and spent the weekend on a golf vacation. It was the most presidential thing he's done so far.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Betsy DeVos confirmation educates voters

Opponents of the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education can take one benefit from Tuesday's vote: It taught us what really counts in the U.S. Senate.

It is not the opinion or desires of constituents exercising their right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances." Nor is it the outrage of so many American voters who are astounded that a woman with no experience in public schools — as a student, parent, employee, administrator, elected school board official or any other direct contact with public schools — would be nominated to lead public education in America. Switchboards on Capitol Hill were overloaded with phone calls from upset constituents telling their elected representatives not to confirm DeVos. Voice mail systems in congressional offices, both in Washington and in district offices, were overloaded with pleas from voters opposed to DeVos. Complaints about DeVos' nomination jammed email systems in congressional offices. Constituents who could get to their representatives' offices expressed in person their opposition to someone who denigrates public education and seems intent on destroying public schools by whatever means necessary.

No, none of that counts. All that matters in this information age, when it is so relatively easy to send a message or make a phone call to an elected representative, is not the voters' petitioning of elected officials; it is the money that the ultra-rich can bestow on political candidates. DeVos' one great qualification for her office is the millions of dollars she and her family have donated to (mostly Republican) candidates and elected officials. In North Carolina, where grassroots voters stormed the phones, email systems and mailboxes of their senators, DeVos had already made up the minds of Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis with more than $100,000 in recent campaign contributions. A siege of the senators' offices, which is nearly what happened, would have made no difference. DeVos had those two votes paid for and locked down.

The First Amendment guarantees the right "to petition the government," but when the government is bought and paid for by wealthy donors, petitions are not worth the paper or the email application or the recorded voice mail they're written on.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Books are made for reading

I have difficulty understanding or even conceiving of someone who doesn't read books. Our house is filled with books, books in every room, some neatly decorating bookshelves, some stacked in baskets beside comfortable seats, some lying patiently on bedside tables — books ready to be picked up and read. I read every day, and almost every day from books. On days when I don't read a book, I read magazines, which are also prevalent around our house.

So when the president of the United States says boastfully that he doesn't read, my mind is flummoxed. It's inconceivable. I'll admit that I'm not a great reader. I can't check out 10 books from the library and return them all in a week or two, fully consumed, as some people I have known can. I am a slow reader, perhaps in part because of the years I spent editing newspapers, parsing each word and punctuation mark for misuse or error. And my reading tends to be at night, an effective sleeping pill that allows me to put aside the tensions and worries of the day and relax until my eyelids fall closed and I lose my grip on the book I've been reading. Many nights I've awakened, the lamp still on, my book in the floor, my stopping place a mystery. The next night, I hunt for my stopping place and pick up the narrative again.

I also tend to feel obligated once I've begun a book to stay with it to the end, whether it is a novel with a beginning, a plot (or two) and an ending, or nonfiction that may only be a series of facts or arguments. I recently finished a book that I found engulfing. I could not get William Kent Krueger's "Ordinary Grace" off my mind and kept the novel close by my side to snatch a few minutes to dive back into the immersing plot.

But now I'm reading a novel (I won't mention any names) that I find a bit plodding and confusing. There are time shifts and new characters and plot shifts that fail to keep me interested. But I've devoted the time to get more than 100 pages into the book, and I won't give up yet. Still, that non-fiction book that is next on my bedside table keeps enticing me. Surely it's better than this bland and skip-about novel.

Even when I hit the inevitable bumps in the literary road, I cherish my books and my time to read. Even not-so-good books are better than not reading. With all due respect, you should try it, Mr. President.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Travel ban and border wall are aimed at Trump support

President Trump's temporary ban on travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries has filled the news space today. There have been suggestions that Trump is in retreat under a barrage of criticism from Democrats, civil libertarians, refugee advocates, employers of foreign-born workers, protesters and others. Don't believe it.

Trump is not losing much, if any, support with his executive order. Trump's base, the people who gave him his victory three months ago, are not crying over travel bans that target Muslims or Muslim countries, any more than they are crying over the border fence Trump says will be under construction soon.

The question is why all the critics who are filing lawsuits and staging protests are surprised by this action. As someone in another Muslim country said 70-odd years ago, "I am shocked! Shocked!" at gambling in Casablanca. Keeping Islamic terrorists out of this country and building a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants were two of Trump's most frequently repeated campaign promises. Why is anyone shocked that he is doing what he said he'd do?

Opponents may complain, but Trump's supporters will cheer. Their man has carried out two of his key promises. That means their support for him is stronger than ever.

The ban on persons from seven predominantly Muslim countries may be un-American, ill-conceived, offensive to European allies and Middle Eastern governments, and it may condemn former U.S. government employees to remaining in their native countries at great danger to their lives and their families. But the Trump supporters don't care about the tears shed by separated family members or the betrayal of interpreters for the U.S. military or the condemnation of other governments. They won't even notice that Islamic countries that were not included in the order included countries where Trump had business interests. After all, Trump said he was going to put America First, and by golly, he's doing it. So the rest of you can go to hell.

Besides the facts that the travel ban is totally lacking in compassion and will likely encourage radical Islamists to attack U.S. interests, its issuance reveals a more surprising fact about the Trump administration. News reports show that the executive order was issued after being drafted by a small cadre of Trump's close advisers without input from the agency heads and cabinet members who are in charge of homeland security, immigration and international diplomacy. 

Furthermore, Trump seems to be drawing the leash around his inner circle tighter and tighter so that he is getting advice from fewer and fewer people. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, who famously appointed a "Team of Rivals" (Doris Kearns Goodwin's book) composed of former opponents and antagonists, Trump is building a Team of lackeys who will not disagree with the president on anything. He has banished the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Security from a key advisory committee to make room for his political adviser, Steve Bannon. Trump, it appears, is incapable of leading a team of rivals, only a team of sycophants who will hail whatever the Great Man does.

And that is more worrisome than either the travel ban or the border wall.