Monday, August 15, 2016

Missing in action.

This remains a most disconcerting election season.  Trump continues with his outrageous statements and the media — all of it — gives him far more space than he deserves or that can be judged informative, much less remotely evenhanded.  At this juncture, his prospects seem to be fading, but there are still months to go.  We dare not be complacent.  Once on the ballot anyone can win.  Hillary is running a seemingly effective, albeit predictable, campaign, but she continues to suffer an enthusiasm gap.   At this point in 2008 there were endless Obama bumper stickers and lawn signs around the Chapel Hill bubble where I live.  That’s not true now.  Even so, she is up in the high single digits here in North Carolina as is Roy Cooper running against Governor Pat McCrory.  Deborah Ross has taken a small lead against Senator Richard Burr.  A victory for all thee would be a really big deal.

Money continues to play alarmingly large in our politics.  It’s not only what is spent on elections but its corrupting influence on office holders at all levels.  For sure the Clintons are part of that culture having leveraged public office into what made 2015 a $10 Million income year.  It’s a factor in Hillary’s trust problem but, as Mark Leibovich wrote so compellingly in his 2013 book This Town, it is a corruption that is both pervasive and party agnostic.  In fact, it may be the only truly consistent bi-partisanship left.  No wonder so many Americans are turned off, or worse tuned out.  That’s likely the case for many who succumbed to “the Bern” but also for the Hillary followers who support her “despite” not necessarily “because”.

I’m appalled by the money, but truth be told it’s not what really concerns me most about this and other elections.  What bothers me much more is what our elections are not about — the missing conversation.  It’s what isn’t being discussed or, perhaps more to the point, isn’t honestly being discussed.  The Donald has built his campaign around the myth of straight talk.  He isn’t talking honestly about the real issues that confront us in the twenty-first century, and that’s being generous.  Sadly neither is Secretary Clinton or a host of other candidates for high office.  When it comes to campaigns and beyond straight, honest talk is simply MIA, missing in action.

Here money isn’t at fault, rather it’s that we have become so hyper partisan.  Trump loves complain about “political correctness”.  It may surprise you, but I totally agree that we do have a serious political correctness problem.  Of course, it’s not the one he dwells on — the one that concerns women, minorities, LGBTs, and immigrants — the one to which he responds with overt sexism, racism and xenophobia.  My problem is with the political correctness born out of our poisonous hyper partisan time.  Regardless of whether we consider ourselves liberal or conservative (however defined) we have all fallen victim to what may be more accurately branded “partisan correctness”.  Whether Republican or Democrat there are just things you don’t say out loud or with which you can’t agree or even consider.  In some cases, we dare not let ourselves think certain thoughts or ask even obvious questions.  We have become a divided nation marching in lock step to the “party (of choice) line”.  It’s bad enough that some people operate under the uncritical banner of “my country right or wrong”, much worse is “my party right or wrong”.  That doesn’t make for honest conversation, the kind that’s MIA.

During presidential campaigns we talk around subjects or reduce them to questionable sound bites.  Candidates carelessly attack trade as if there were any chance to avoid global commerce in our interconnected interdependent world.  They talk about restoring manufacturing as if the high employment factories of an earlier time even existed in 2016.  David Ignatius wrote an excellent column last week’s Washington Post entitled, “The brave new world of robots and lost jobs”.  He spoke to the truth of what not only manufacturing but other aspects of our current working world will be in the years to come, and often already are.   His underlying implied message is what we all know: technology changes everything.  You won’t hear that on the campaign trail.  It isn’t only climate change that’s subject to denial, so too is the reality about which Ignatius writes, the one that is full blown now not in the distant future.

It’s totally dishonest to say that manufacturing as we knew it is coming back.   But what’s most dishonest, and fingers need to be pointed in every direction, is that we really aren’t having a serious fact-based conversation about the many issues that confront and will directly impact upon us now and going forward.   The income gap between most of us and Bernie’s, “millionaires and billionaires” is real, unfair and socially unsustainable.   But more significant is the question of how the vast majority of us will be able to earn a living wage and hopefully enter/ remain in the middle class. That is a far more fundamental problem than income inequality.  

We should all feel for all the technology-displaced workers, but feeling is not enough.  I applaud Joe Biden’s effort to find a cancer cure, but what we may need more is a moon shot effort to get our workforce retrained, both the unemployed and the currently employed who will be made redundant by technology in the years ahead.  The unemployed and underemployed workers surely have good reason to complain.  But they also need to accept the reality they know is here to stay.  They must both pursue and demand the training required to compete in today and tomorrow’s workforce.  That conversation is MIA this political season, especially with rust belt and coal country audiences.

It’s very easy for us to blame the politicians for this evasion of truth telling.  To be sure, they often deserve it.  But they only tell us what we want to hear, what we’ve made clear we demand to hear.  So we need a little straight talk about ourselves.  You and I are equally to blame for this MIA conversation, this dangerous denial, and this refusal to get real or serious.  It’s easy to say we’ve not been properly prepared for the brave new world, but it would be more honest to admit that we citizens, like that famous monkey, have had our hands covering our ears, eyes and mouths avoiding the evil called unwanted truth.  In that sense, we play a significant role in corrupting the political class, threatening them with a withheld vote if they don’t tell us what we want to hear, make promises that we both know can’t be kept.

Candidates — the political class as a whole — and we the people conspire together to skirt or totally avoid a candid, truly relevant conversation.  What about the press?   I don’t want to be unfair and David Ignatius’ column cautions me not to paint too broad a bush here, but the media class as a whole is failing us miserably.  Our elections, especially those for high offices, are covered as little more than horse races and we consumers of content didn’t start that ball rolling.  Much of the coverage we see focuses, sometimes exclusively, on who is up and who is down.  Perhaps the candidates themselves take polls, but it’s the media that have made them the central story.  When interest in polls lag just a bit, there is always the gotcha story or, this year especially, the outrageous attention getting rhetoric.  Just look at the front/home pages of our newspapers, the stories given airtime on our TVs and the leads of our magazines, print or digital.   Ask yourself, is that really news, or as the NY Times would put it, is it really ”fit to print”?  Too often my answer is, “I don’t think so”.   Leave aside some opinion pieces and serious investigative reporting, how often do you really encounter something of substance as opposed to one of those unending horse race stories.  You can say that Americans are often uninformed, but is the media contributing to the conversation we need or are have they blurred, even forgotten, the line between entertainment and news?  You know the answer to that.  I think our public corporations have been undermined by Wall Street’s demand for quarterly earnings.  So, too, has our press has been compromised by an insatiable pursuit of ratings.  Both have left all of us in a very precarious state.

The crazy thing, and perhaps the conversation most avoided, is that a lot of people upon whom we rely are being paid and not doing their job, properly or at all.  Speak of MIA, Congress, many of whose members pontificate about fiscal responsibility, heads that list.  Harry Truman famously railed against the “do-nothing 80th Congress”, but we now know that “he ain’t seen nothing” when it comes to an abrogation of responsibility.  We may see them mouthing off on C-Span, but it’s a mirage.   When it comes to fulfilling their employment contract, they are nothing more than highly paid “no-shows”.  Serious talk being MIA is a failure on the campaign trail. But the lack or serious honest conversation and carrying out the duties for the Congress we have hired is nothing less than criminal — in my view, an indictable offense.  Not listening to one another is for sure disrespectful, but all of us are paying the price for a bunch of slackers who think they are entitled to the seats that they occupy.  And we the people aren’t talking about that, aren’t demanding that they simply do their jobs, holding them individually to task.

It’s an old cliché to suggest that we get the government, and relative to this post the press, we deserve.  I’ve made it clear that we are not total innocents in the avoidance of the conversations we so need.  True, but looking back at the primary season and the 2016 general election campaigns so far, I feel we deserve more, we deserve better.  I despair about the conversation that’s missing in action and the high cost of that silence.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Ah, the gender card.

The general election is on, the one that counts, that will impact the four years ahead and beyond.  If part of what pertains this time around is playing the gender card, definitely “deal-me-in”!  

With all the Donald Trump bluster and nastiness, the import of having the first female nominee of a major political party may be lost in the noise.  We dare not let that happen.  Bringing a woman to the Oval Office is long overdue — an essential missing step in perfecting our democracy.  Barack Obama broke important new ground on the way to putting the sin of slavery behind us.  There is still a long way to go and he has paid a price for that audacity.  Remember, among others, Donald Trump’s relentless and disgraceful racist Birther attacks.  Hillary Clinton’s election will move us toward mitigating the different, but in some ways no less painful, sin of sexism.  She has been paying the price for challenging the all-male club since being vilified for not fitting into the “traditional” wifely role back in the early 90s.

Not since the days of Eleanor Roosevelt have first ladies been criticized as much as Hillary and, especially early on, Michelle.  That didn’t happen to Barbara, Laura, Nancy, or Rosalind.  Isn’t it interesting that the two accomplished attorneys — Yale and Harvard — who had established meaningful careers predating their husbands rise to the presidency, were the objects of resentment.  Hillary was considered an outrage for not being into baking cookies and Michelle was branded as an angry black for daring to say in 2008 that it was “…the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country”.  Hillary has been criticized for her voice; Michelle for wearing sleeveless dresses.  For Hillary it was not to have the vocal equipment to lead — read that not authoritative male voice to which we’re accustomed.  For Michelle, as a woman told NPR’s Ari Shapiro, in 2012 “…It’s about time we get a first lady in there that acts like a first lady, and looks like a first lady. …I mean she’s more about showing her arms off” — read that too much exposed, OMG, black skin.

Of course, Hillary Clinton committed the ultimate audacity in seeking to shepherd her husband’s healthcare initiative through Congress.  It was an unsuccessful effort, to some degree in how she handled it, but so too was it for all the men who tried it before her.  How dare she undertake a man’s work?  Perhaps she wasn’t given to sleeveless dresses (though Chelsea appeared in a red one last Thursday night), but those pant suits.  Oh, is that presidential?

Clinton’s greatest weakness as a candidate is that many people just don’t trust her.  It’s become a truism, one that is hammered home by the press in almost every mention of her name.  It would be foolish for her supporters to ignore it.  For sure part of that trust gap stems from her use of a private email server while at State, perhaps the dumbest and most mystifying decisions she ever made.  It is said that she guards her privacy, perhaps more than any other political figure.  Where might that come from?  Most of us are old enough to remember the invented scandal of Whitewater that plagued the Clinton’s during Bill’s first term.  It was a claimed dirty deal that just wasn’t.  Then there was the tragic suicide of Vince Foster — for sure he was murdered on orders of the First Family.  More recently, we’ve seen the trumped up Benghazi scandal on which malicious Republican Legislators wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on nothing short of partisan showmanship.  And so it has been throughout her career.  Perhaps what appears to be a bit of paranoia on her part is merited. 

The fact is that Hillary Clinton has had a long and distinguished professional career.  She was a partner of a respected law firm, was a widely esteemed United States Senator, (elected and re-elected) and a tireless Secretary of State.  As the president said last week, “there has never been a man or a woman -- not me, not Bill, nobody -- more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America.”  When I tell people it’s about time we had a woman president, some are quick to say, “yes, but she must be qualified”. Leaving aside that Obama put that to rest, hearing such comments always makes me mad.  It’s like those who feel they have to respond to “Black lives Matter” with “all lives matter”.  They just don’t get it.  Sadly, there are too many people left here and elsewhere that don’t think or act like Black lives specifically do matter.  Let’s be honest, we’re way behind the curve in having a woman leader.  Isn’t it the least bit embarrassing that we’re still playing catch up on gender equality at this late date?  Think of all the countries large and small that have elected female leaders, among them India and Israel in the 1960s, more than half a century ago.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as a woman is a very big deal.  It’s one of the reasons I’ll be excited to vote for her in November.   The idea that within a matter of eight years we voters have had the privilege of helping our country brake the race and now the sex barrier makes me proud.  I’m also humbled that it has taken us so long.  I wrote in my most recent post about the dreams that take hold during presidential campaigns.   2016 holds a dream to which many of us, women and men, can happily take hold.   Is Hillary an unblemished candidate, a woman who has accomplished but has also made mistakes?  Absolutely, but can any of us claim perfection?  Of course we can’t.  Like or not, imperfection is integral to the human condition.  I’d like to see us make history this November. That’s a big part of why I’m with her.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Dreams, myths and reality.

I’ve voted in and closely watched a good number of presidential elections.  Okay I’m a borderline political junky.  The two candidates about whom I was most passionate — with whom I most identified — were John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.  No contest.  As it happens, they are a perfect duo when considering dreams, myths and reality.  Kennedy and Obama are connected in numerous ways.  While their family backgrounds are worlds apart, they are both examples of what Lyndon Johnson called “Harvards”: JFK the moneyed patrician, Obama the intellectual patrician.  But perhaps more than anything else they came before us voters at a young age.  In their time they personified youth, or to use one of Kennedy’s favorite words, “vigor”.  The youngest elected (TR was the youngest to take office) JFK was also the first president born in the 20th Century, our century.  Obama, the fifth youngest elected, built his campaign around enthusiastic young supporters.

Whatever the magic mix of their personas, these men as candidates evoked visceral emotion.  They made us dream in a special way.  Forgetting for a moment the adage that campaigning and governing are two entirely different things; what I’m thinking about here has to do with the measure of how presidencies are assessed.  In part that assessment involves how much of the dream going in translates into accomplishment.  It is also in that assessment where myth comes into play.  That is especially the case with Jack Kennedy.  Thanks to an assassin, his time in office was relatively short and in part because of how he died, myth took over almost immediately and has hardly abated.   Historians objectively assessing his stewardship of the office and his accomplishments would not include him in the pantheon of the greats, certainly no Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt.  Nonetheless he remains more than a half-century on an iconic figure, the kind that evokes in his countless fans, “don’t bother me with the facts”.   Why is that the case?

The early violent death is one reason, perhaps compounded and reinforced in brother Bobby’s poignant murder five years later.  Then too, there is that, despite a disastrous start, he ultimately successfully stood down Khrushchev averting a possible nuclear war.  Anyone who lived through those terrifying thirteen days will never forget the relief.  Cuba was the backdrop for both his gross misstep and then his most significant triumph.  Kennedy grew in the office, perhaps no more so than in how his views and actions on civil rights took a dramatic turn culminating in his afternoon embrace of the 1963 March on Washington, albeit after a cool and cautious morning start.  All of this is widely covered in the many volumes written about him.  I’d like to suggest that something else, perhaps more important is at play here: dreams.  Dreams precede a president’s taking of office and they linger on often in a most forgiving way when his candidacy evokes deep passion and emotion, especially when his espoused dreams coincide powerfully with our own.

One thousand days is a very generous period of grace, but coming off the depressing 1950s it’s not all that surprising.  We were all yearning for something different, and Kennedy’s ability to grow, indeed change, gave both him and us license.  We can legitimately argue about how much growth and change, but even critical historians tend to concede both were happening.  What I’m suggesting here is that Kennedy never moved from the glow of campaign mode — the dream stage — in his supporters and many in the greater public’s minds.  The foreshortened presidency never allowed for the usual transition to the post campaign reality by which we usually measure of the occupant’s tenure.  Left with only dreams a leap to myth is just a small step.

The dream phase of Obama’s presidency, now winding toward its constitutionally mandated end, is long since over.   This is not to suggest that it is no longer in the minds of those whose votes elected him.  Indeed, he continues to be measured against those dreams brought on by promises made or perceived.  Dreams are wonderful and can, often do, contribute to victory.  They also embody some hazard.  Some of Obama’s strongest critics have been supporters who have been disappointed with his translation from dreams into the necessary reality.  It’s that difference between campaign “poetry” and the “prose” of governing.  Governing is the reality that follows the grace period and then dominates.  It’s what Kennedy never had and on which Obama in the fullness of his presidential time will be judged by history.   Sure those who continue to be fans, myself included, will never forget the dreams, the “yes we can”, but that particular glow will diminish with time.   It may be recognized as an important part of his biography, but won’t have the emotional pull of “now”.

In that sense the Obama presidency will be ordinary in that historians will weigh its accomplishments against what he promised and, to some significant degree, what was achieved relative to the records of the forty-three presidents who came before him.  As said in my previous post, presidential assessments are tricky.  I firmly believe Obama will fair well — he certainly will always be remembered as our first African American chief executive — but it’s far too early for history’s retrospective judgment.  Many factors will go into that judgment mix including his extraordinary gifts as an orator.  A number of his speeches will assuredly be judged as classics and thanks to contemporary technology future generations will be able to hear and see them as well as read their well-crafted texts.  They will hear his campaign speech on race, his singing of Amazing Grace in Charleston his stirring words at the foot of the Pettis Bridge, and of course the one that brought him to national attention at 2004’s DNC convention.

I’ve been contrasting campaign dreams and reality to governance suggesting why Kennedy’s lingering dreams morphed into myth while reality will define Obama.  This is not to suggest that myth does not attach itself to other presidents, perhaps most of all to Lincoln another fallen hero.  FDR certainly basks in the glow of some myth and in the near term, for Republicans at least, so does Ronald Reagan.  There’s always been the myth of George Washington and his fictional cherry tree and the myth that makes us overlook Thomas Jefferson’s human frailties.  Fact is, we humans need myths and always have.  We need myths and equally so we need dreams.  They sustain us when we’re overcome by reality and they arm us with the will to move forward.  That’s always been true, perhaps all the more so this election year.  

Monday, July 25, 2016

Transient color.

I have been reading historian William Leuchtenburg’s excellent The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.  It’s a hefty meaty book and a good read.  I’m purposely taking one president at a time, pausing between them to read something else while considering their individual legacy.  Being born into and raised in the twentieth century, the book covers a good chuck of my lifetime.  So it’s familiar territory put in perspective by an astute observer.  Professor Leuchtenburg, in his vigorous 90s, is hard at work (mostly here in Chapel Hill) on a Washington to McKinley volume.  I look forward to it.

Assessing presidencies is tricky business.  Who were truly the best, who the worst, requires some time and distance. It also involves, even for the historian, a dose of subjectivity.  What strikes me in reading of their collective tenures is how imperfect, even flawed, each of them were.  Faced with momentous decisions, they often made significant steps forward, but at times each also made disastrous mistakes that took decades, if ever, to set right.  We like to think of our leaders, particularly the ones for whom we have voted and supported, as something special.  Some of them are, of course, but always in the context of being human.  They may play on history’s stage with breathtaking brilliance but at times with dazzling ineptness.  Of course, while in hindsight we may see their missteps clearly, they were often far from self-evident at the time.  They could lead us to victory but could also snatch defeat out of a victory that had been it hand.   One prime example was when Harry Truman, after successfully achieving his stated goals in Korea, disastrously extended the war into what remains an unresolved stalemate.  We still suffer the consequences.

To be sure times change and with them our view of things, sometimes leading to some ironic twists even in how we add color to the scene.  Reading about the 1950s under Truman and then Eisenhower brought back especially vivid memories.  They were my formative school years.  For today’s nostalgia buffs, let me tell you that the 50s were not a great time in American.  They were dominated in large measure by an obsessive fear of communism.  That obsession impacted both our foreign and domestic policy for decades to come.  Communism had a color: red. 

Our ears and eyes were exposed to scarlet words, attributes and slogans.  There was red by itself, “the Reds”, “red states” (especially Red China), “red bating”, the “red scare” and, of course, the “red menace”.  The Cold War was in its infancy in 1950 and Truman himself submitted to the hysteria.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities (first established in the 1930s) infamously grew in reckless power running roughshod over individual rights.  Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin became a national largely unchallenged finger-pointing figure.  The lion’s share of this terrible decade was presided over by war hero Dwight Eisenhower supported by fellow Republicans an right wing Southern Democrats (who would switch over to the GOP a decade later).  

That history brings me back to the color red.  It’s no wonder that in reading about those years in a current context I couldn’t help but think of a supreme irony.  While the GOP in the 1950s derisively referred not only to communists as red and liberals as at least “pink”, today’s Republican dominated states are, of all things, labeled red.  They wear the red designation with pride hoping to spread it across the land.  How times change us and how we talk.

I am not of the “history repeats itself” school.  That said, it’s not surprising that echoes of other ages — of human behavior — find their way into the present.   The Soviet Union is no more and the meaning of “red” has clearly taken a sharp attribution turn, but there is something of the 1950s in our present discourse.  And it’s something no less disturbing or, if it gets out of hand, threatening to our democracy.  Today Islamophobia has replaced our 1950s irrational fear of Communism and people who sound increasingly like the purveyors of a “red scare” are seeking to fill us with twenty-first century terror.  The idea of barring Muslims from entering our borders or seeking that citizens who happen to follow Islam should take some kind of loyalty oath or disavow tenants of their faith and practice are chilling reminders of past trumped-up bad times.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking but “trumped-up” is the good English language term to describe what happened during the late Truman and Eisenhower years.  It fits again.

This is the year of an appeal to fear.  It’s what we heard or read about all last week.  And it’s not over.  Just as Trump and the Republicans stoked up fear of the Other whether an implied Islamic “third column” or its equally dangerous Mexican criminal immigrant counterpart, Clinton and the Democrats are sure to invoke the fear of what his presidency would bring.  Now don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t a matter of being even handed — there is no moral equivalency in these two candidates or their present party configurations — but to state how things are likely to go down between now and November.   Objective reasoning will probably go out the window because it simply won’t work in the present national mood.   Lyndon Johnson’s infamous 1964 “Daisy Commercial” was the ultimate presidential election appeal to fear.  It helped bring down Barry Goldwater.  And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that going viral is something new, the exclusive domain of our digital age.  Daisy aired only once, but its power reverberated to such a degree that it remains controversial more than fifty years on.  Despite a lack of social media and instant communications everyone knew of it and even those who didn’t see it aired in real time can still picture that little girl picking daisy pedals in a countdown that ends in a mushroom cloud.  Some version of Daisy is likely to raise its ugly head during the current campaign.

I know what I’d like some future historian to be writing as the 2016 election.   My only hope is that a majority of Americans feel the same.  I think my hope will be fulfilled, but there is no guarantee.  Absolutely none.  We have had demagogues on the scene throughout our history and some, like Huey Long and Joe McCarthy, were elected to statewide public office.  We’ve had bitter campaigns with poisonous rhetoric since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson contended in the early days.  But we’ve never had the likes of Donald Trump nominated for the presidency by one of our two major parties.  Nothing is sure in elections and his being on the ballot represents a real and meaningful risk.  He appeals to those who want a return to an America that once was.  That’s impossible.  So his big lie is that his victory will almost certainly insure an America that neither they nor we have ever seen before.  And looking at what happened in Cleveland last week, it will be a very dark America.

The color red was considered dangerous to America in the 1950s.  As things have evolved since the 1980s its morphed redness, most especially since John McCain brought the person and ilk of Sarah Palin to the national ticket, seems no less so.  At least that’s how I see it and hope a majority of my fellow citizens will as well.  We’ve taken down the demagogues and fringe politicians in the past.  Hopefully, we will have the will, the courage and most importantly that we will make the required effort, to do so again.