Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Don't let the impostors win -- Aug. 16, 2018 column


You’ve probably gotten calls like this. Someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service left me several urgent voicemails, threatening legal action if I didn’t call back right away.  

I pay my taxes, so I didn’t call. Sadly, many people fall for the scam.

More than 15,000 people – many of them elderly and immigrants -- lost “hundreds of millions” of dollars from 2012 to 2016 to impostors who claimed to be IRS or immigration officials, according to the Justice Department. The con artists also misused the personal information of more than 50,000 people.

But here’s the good news. The department, working with many other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, put some of the perps behind bars.  

Two dozen crooks around the country each have been sentenced up to 20 years in prison. The court also ordered millions of dollars in their assets seized.

In addition, 32 individuals and five call centers in India were indicted on conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering charges.

The case represents “the first-ever, large scale, multi-jurisdiction prosecution targeting the India call center scam industry,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said July 20 when he announced the sentences.

Details of the complex scheme came to light in statements by the defendants during plea deals. The call centers in India relied on a network of runners in this country to liquidate and launder the payments.

The good guys finally won, but the wheels of justice turn slowly. Charges were first brought in October 2016.

And, while it’s heartening to know one scam was scotched, others abound.
Fraud complaints of “impostor scams, many involving phony debts to the IRS or other agencies,” continued to grow last year, the Consumer Federation of America reported July 30 in its 2017 survey of consumer complaints.

For example, an Arkansas woman who received emails and text messages saying she owed the IRS complied with the demands and sent wire transfers totaling $170,000 to banks in China and a bank account in Texas.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office was able to get some of her money back – but the refund amounted to only $23,000.

The IRS scam takes place all year, not just during tax season, and con artists are nothing if not inventive. They program their computers to display real IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center phone numbers, so the number shows up on the taxpayer’s Caller ID, the IRS warned in April.

If the taxpayer questions the demands, the crook tells them to hang up and check the number on IRS.gov. Then he calls back and, able to “spoof” the real number, tricks the victim who has verified it.

To be clear, the IRS does not initiate contact with a call, email or text, nor does it demand immediate payment with a prepaid debit card, iTunes or Google Play gift card or wire transfer.

The IRS typically mails a letter or notice through the U.S. Postal Service, and the taxpayer has the right to question or appeal it.

The IRS does not threaten to take away your driver’s or business license, or have you arrested or deported.  

Impostor scams are not confined to federal offices. Crooks spoof numbers for local and State Police, Department of Motor Vehicles and other agencies, demanding payments for fines for missed court dates, skipped jury duty and other infractions.  

Scams threatening to shut off utilities are also on the rise, the Consumer Federation said.

A woman in Fairfax County, Va., received a call one Saturday from the electric company, saying her bill was overdue and her service would be disconnected if she didn’t pay right away, the federation’s report said.

She knew she’d already paid, so she reported the call to the Fairfax County Department of Cable and Consumer Services. The agency discovered the electric company doesn’t make calls on Saturdays or from the phone number used.

The woman was smart to hang up before she became a victim. If someone calls, claiming to be from the IRS or other agencies, don’t panic and don’t send money. Check first.

Learn more and report the IRS scam at Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

Don’t let the scammers win.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Social media wants your bank info. What could go wrong? -- Aug. 9, 2018 column


Someday you may click on Facebook and see your checking account balance.

The social media giant has talked with several large U.S. banks about getting their data on where their customers shop with debit and credit cards, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Why? So you’ll spend even more time on social media.

“Facebook increasingly wants to be a platform where people buy and sell goods and services, besides connecting with friends,” the Journal said. Naturally Google and 
Amazon also want in on your bank action.

Facebook denied it’s actively asking banks for customer data, saying in a statement, “Like many online companies with commerce businesses, we partner with banks and credit card companies to offer services like customer chat or account management.”

Facebook also insists it won’t use bank information to target advertising or marketing. 

People would use the Facebook Messenger app to communicate with their banks and make other transactions. More than 1.2 billion people use Messenger.

“The idea is that messaging with a bank can be better than waiting on hold over the phone – and it’s completely opt-in,” the statement said. “A critical part of these partnerships is keeping people’s information safe and secure.”

So is seeing your checking account balance on social media convenient or creepy?  

Your answer may depend on your generation. If you’re a baby boomer like I am, born between 1946 and 1964, you may find it creepy. We still believe there’s something called privacy and we ought to be in control of our personal information – although holding onto this idea in 2018 is like grasping Jello.

Facebook’s track record for safeguarding information is hardly inspiring. It’s still recovering from the fallout of 87 million users having their information improperly used by Cambridge Analytica in 2016. But banks and credit card companies have been breached as well.

I’d rather stash my cash under a mattress than trust social media to safeguard details of my personal finances.

Did I say cash? Cash is quaint. So last century.

One in four adults say they rarely or never carry cash, and the number jumps to one in three for millennials – those born between roughly 1981 and 1996, a survey by Capital One found in March. Many millennials consider paying with cash “inconvenient,” the company reported.  

And if you’re a post-millennial or member of Generation Z, born in 1997 and after, you use your devices all the time and have grown up paying by phone and plastic.

Teens use cash for only about 6 percent of their transactions, according to Current, a company that offers a debit card for teens. Parents load up the debit card to give their kids their allowance. 

There’s no doubt shifting attitudes toward money are affecting us all. Major banks have closed thousands of branches in recent years as more people choose to bank online, although some smaller banks have opened branches. Cashless restaurants and shops have proliferated.

Which brings us back to your checking account in the digital age.

For millennials and Gen Zers, seeing your bank balance on social media may seem a convenient no-brainer.

Millennials like the idea of using Facebook to access and manage their money – or they did in 2015 when Capital One conducted a survey. About 45 percent of millennials said then they’d use Facebook, more than other social media platforms.

Gen Z may be especially receptive to keeping tabs on their bottom line on social media. They may not remember pay phones, but many remember the Great Recession. They saw family members lose jobs and struggle financially, and it made an impact.

Studies show Gen Zers are more likely than millennials to save money, so they may want to check their balances often because they know how easy it is to overspend when paying with plastic and their phones.

But would young people think it cool to do their banking on Facebook or on another platform? They’ve been quitting Facebook for Instagram and Snapchat, leaving Facebook with a demographic no marketer prizes.

As The Guardian, a British newspaper, put it: “Is Facebook for old people? Over 55s flock in as the young leave.”

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Stateline story on financial literacy - Aug. 7, 2018

Best read at   https://bit.ly/2LWLwBT

It's Hard to Manage Your Credit When You've Never Heard of 'Interest'

Stateline Aug7
Credit card logos are posted to the door of a business in Atlanta. U.S. household debt reached $13.2 trillion in the first quarter of this year, the 15th consecutive quarter increase.
David Goldman/The Associated Press
When Kentucky state Treasurer Allison Ball and a colleague talked with high school seniors last year about credit cards and other pieces of the personal finance puzzle, something wasn’t right.
“We kept using the word ‘interest’ and we kept getting blank stares,” Ball recalled. Finally, she asked the students who knew what interest is. No one did.
“Here they were, about to be adults, two weeks before graduation — and they had no idea about interest on credit card payments,” said Ball, a former bankruptcy attorney. “That’s exactly how you get into trouble.”
Kentucky is the 44th most financially literate state, according to a WalletHub analysis based on 15 metrics, including the availability of high school financial literacy classes and the share of adults with rainy day funds. And the state has the eighth-highest personal bankruptcy rate, with 345 bankruptcy filings per 100,000 residents. But this year Kentucky launched a two-part initiative to help its residents better live within their means.
Beginning with ninth graders in 2020, Kentucky will require a financial literacy course before high school graduation. And assuming the courts allow its work-for-Medicaid plan to proceed, the state will offer financial literacy instruction to some Medicaid recipients who are required to work.
Kentucky’s focus on requiring financial education reflects a budding consensus among policymakers, academics, the finance industry and parents that states need to do more to ensure that students — and adults — learn how to manage credit, craft a budget, borrow for large purchases and save for retirement.
Three other states — Arizona, Iowa and Louisiana — also added financial literacy course requirements for high school graduation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
New Mexico, which already requires a high school personal finance course be offered, will study how to provide financial literacy training to foster care children and help them manage checking and savings accounts. Kansas, which does not require a course, passed a law this year requiring financial assistance for individuals receiving compensation for wrongful convictions.
Until this year, only 17 states required a personal finance course for high school graduation, according to the Council for Economic Education’s 2018 Survey of the States.
Stateline Aug7
Kentucky state Treasurer Allison Ball, a Republican, speaks to supporters in Louisville after being elected to the post in 2015. Kentucky has the eighth-highest bankruptcy rate, and Ball says the long-term answer to fixing this “crisis” is teaching the basic principles of money management before a person graduates from high school.
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

Deeper in Debt

The uptick in activity this year comes as Americans sink deeper in debt. U.S. household debt reached $13.2 trillion in the first quarter of 2018, the 15th consecutive quarter increase. That’s higher than in the third quarter of 2008 during the financial crisis. Student loan debt reached a record $1.5 trillion in the first quarter of 2018.
As students have taken on more debt, more state and private universities have started to offer them financial literacy workshops and counseling.
But Stacey Abrams — a Democrat running for governor of Georgia, and the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives —  knows firsthand that a top-notch education and a high-paying job are no guarantee against personal debt.
Owing more than $200,000 in credit card debt, student loan debt and federal back taxes, Abrams has a repayment plan with the IRS.
“I am in debt, but I am not alone. Debt is a millstone that weighs down more than three-quarters of Americans,” she wrote in an op-ed in Fortune, arguing that her indebtedness should not keep her from becoming governor.
“I had racked up student loans, and throughout college and beyond, I’d swiftly turned every credit card application into those magical slivers of plastic that allowed me to pay for daily necessities,” she wrote.
Even when she finished Yale Law School in 1999 and landed a job paying $95,000 a year — three times more than her parents ever made combined, she said — Abrams remained mired in debt because family members needed her help. She used her credit cards again.
If elected, Abrams says she will start a Georgia FinLit Initiative with instruction for kids in elementary school.
For states, pressing forward on financial education means a raft of questions and answers that are likely to anger one group or another. Do we make financial literacy a condition of graduation? Will it be a stand-alone class or covered with other subjects? And, of course, how will we pay for it?
In Kentucky, policymakers tried and failed for at least six years before enacting the financial literacy measure into law.
“The answer to fixing this crisis long-term begins in childhood,” Ball, a Republican who has made financial literacy a priority, wrote in an op-ed endorsing the measure. “The best time to learn basic principles of saving and money management is before a person graduates from high school and enters the workforce.”
Kentucky’s work-for-Medicaid plan is currently on hold. On June 29, a federal judge stopped the rollout scheduled for July 1 and sent the plan back to the federal government, which granted the waiver that allowed Kentucky to add the requirements. The state hopes the plan will be reapproved by fall, said Adam Meier, secretary of Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
If Kentucky proceeds, Medicaid recipients who fail to meet the work requirements will be offered a choice of online health or financial literacy classes. Members also will be able to take the classes to build credits toward dental or other benefits not included in their benefits package. They will learn such things as how to budget, open a bank account, balance a checkbook and deal with credit.
Nearly a third of Kentuckians receive Medicaid.
“Financial literacy is an issue across the board, but it’s particularly acute with low-income people, who are often unbanked and more vulnerable to payday lenders,” said Meier.
Stateline Aug7
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, left, is more than $200,000 in debt, but says her indebtedness should not keep her from becoming governor. If elected, Abrams plans to start a financial literacy program for elementary school students.
Stephen B. Morton/The Associated Press

Does It Work?

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Department of Education is drawing up standards for the high school financial literacy requirement. School districts will have wide latitude in deciding how to satisfy the requirement, Ball said. No statewide test is likely, nor is there a budget for the new requirement. She said she plans to form a public-private foundation to cover costs.
There’s no shortage of educational materials by financial institutions and other organizations, and some are free. But there’s a complication.
“People cannot find results that financial literacy education works,” said Lauren Willis, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a prominent critic of financial literacy education.
While it’s possible to test someone’s knowledge of financial concepts like compound interest or inflation, there’s no way to know whether he or she remembers and acts on the concepts over a lifetime.
“It used to be, the way credit was managed, if the bank gave you a loan, you knew you were credit-worthy,” Willis said, because banks wouldn’t make risky loans. “Now you have to decide for yourself whether to take a loan and what kind.”
Willis works with the FoolProof Foundation, a nonprofit based in Florida that provides resources to help students and adults become more skeptical consumers.
Some studies have failed to show much effect of financial literacy education even in the short term. Annamaria Lusardi, academic director of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University, said that’s likely because the programs were poorly structured and funded.
“Too few states consider financial literacy essential or rigorous or a scientific topic,” she said. “We see states that don’t require the student to pass the course, or they don’t train the teachers, or it’s an unfunded mandate.”
Other countries do better. The United States ranked 14th in the world for financial literacy in Standard & Poor’s 2014 Global Financial Literacy Survey of more than 140 countries. Only 57 percent of American adults were found to be financially literate.
Ideally, every state would require a financial literacy class with an exam for high school graduation, said Laura Levine, president of the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. That’s not likely anytime soon, so the coalition has a more modest aim.
The coalition, which has more than a hundred national organizations as members as well as affiliates in every state, launched Project Groundswell in April. The goal: to increase by a quarter the number of elementary, middle and high school students receiving “effective classroom-based financial education” by 2025. The coalition is working on specific goals and standards for effective programs.
Groundswell hopes to inspire more parents like Daniel Nestel in Montgomery County, Maryland, and grandparents to get involved.
Nestel, whose background is in financial education, was surprised when his 10th-grade daughter said she was learning about credit scores in her Advanced Placement government class.
“It seemed completely out of context,” said Nestel. “It’s too important to be taught at the end of the class at the end of the school year.”
Nestel started reaching out to local and state school officials and to financial literacy experts. He learned the Maryland Board of Education set financial literacy standards for grades 3 to 12 in 2011, but left implementing them up to each school district.
He wants a semester course on financial literacy with exams in high school.
“I’m trying to start the conversation,” he said. “Tell me what course is more important than personal finance? It touches every student.”

Thursday, August 2, 2018

August surprise: Congress does something -- Aug. 2, 2018 column


Headline writers wait years to write one like this -- “Not the Onion: Congress set to pass bills.”

The headline was on a Politico news story Wednesday reporting a circumstance so rare it seemed like satire.

The Congress is doing its job. In August. Even though it’s an election year. Make that because it’s an election year.

Congress traditionally flees the capital for the month, a holdover from the sweltering days before air conditioning and later when it became marginally more comfortable to stay in town.

In 1963, for example, the Senate actually worked from January to December with no break longer than a three-day weekend, according to a Senate history. Congress in 1970 mandated an annual summer break for itself.

The House is taking its typical August break, having begun a five-week recess and returning after Labor Day. The Senate was scheduled to leave Aug. 3 for four weeks, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., canceled most of it. The Senate is off next week, then expected back the rest of the month.

McConnell said the Senate needed to pass fiscal 2019 appropriations bills now instead of waiting until the last minute and lumping them into an omnibus package. President Donald Trump signed the last omnibus reluctantly and vowed not to sign another.
So Congress is actually getting some things done in August. 

On Wednesday, Congress sent Trump a $717 billion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2019, which starts Oct. 1, and he is expected to sign it. It includes a 2.6 percent military pay raise, the largest in nine years, and authorizes Trump’s military parade in November.

The House passed the same measure last week. It usually takes months of negotiations between House and Senate to work out differences in defense policy bills, but this one sailed through with bipartisan support. 

Also on Wednesday, the Senate passed a $154.2 billion spending package that combined four spending bills. It provides funding for interior and the environment, agriculture, transportation, housing, treasury and the federal courts. The measure goes back to the House for reconciliation with a similar bill it passed last month.

The Senate has passed seven of the 12 spending bills so far, which McConnell said was the most by early August in nearly 20 years. 

If this sounds like good government is bustin’ out all over, don’t get all dewy-eyed about it. Remember we’re talking about Washington. This is also about hard-edged politics. 

Republicans want to prove they deserve to retain Senate control, especially as their majority in the House is in jeopardy. Their big job is confirming Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

By keeping senators in Washington, the crafty McConnell is also keeping off the campaign trail 10 Democratic incumbents in tough re-election fights in states Trump won. In contrast, only one Republican senator is running for re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. That’s Dean Heller of Nevada.

Congress can’t ignore the hyperactive tweet machine in the White House, but the GOP leadership is keeping its powder dry as Trump repeatedly threatens to shut down the federal government if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall with Mexico.

Trump reportedly agreed in a meeting last week with McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to delay until after the midterm elections a fight on spending for the wall. 

“I’m optimistic we can avoid a government shutdown,” McConnell said diplomatically.

But Trump sees a shutdown as a dandy political tool that would help him with his base in November. 

“I happen to think it would be a good thing to do it before” the midterms,” Trump told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh Wednesday. “I happen to think it’s a great political thing because people want border security.”

Trump’s latest belligerence came as Republicans and Democrats are actually working together to pass the spending bills by the Sept. 30 deadline.

“The fly in the ointment here, of course, is the president, who keeps threatening,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Whenever he gets involved, he seems to mess it up.”

That was Not the Onion.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Trump energizer in chief -- for Democrats -- July 26, 2018 column


As the midterm elections draw closer, prospects are improving for Democrats to retake the House.

If that happens, Democrats can thank President Donald Trump in part.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball political newsletter at the University of Virginia said this week Democrats now have a better than 50-50 chance of regaining control of the House.

It was the first time Sabato has gone above 50-50 this cycle, though other political analysts have said a Democratic win of the House is likely. It’s still possible something could happen before November to change that scenario, but the trend favors Democrats.

Historically, the party out of power does well in midterms, as the Crystal Ball summarizes:

“The president’s party has lost ground in 36 of 39 House midterms since the Civil War with an average loss of 33 seats. In the more recent past, since the end of World War II, the average seat loss is 26 seats, or right on the borderline of the 23 net seats the Democrats need to elect a House majority.”

Trump is making the minority party’s task easier by energizing Democrats. To borrow a phrase from the past, they’re “fired up,” motivated to contribute to campaigns and to vote.

More significantly, Trump is losing favor among independents. Trump’s job approval among independents was just 40 percent and 36 percent, according to the most recent Fox News and NBC-Wall Street Journal polls.

He’s unpopular overall as well. His approval rating languishes in the 40s, and a record number of voters see this election as a vote for or against Trump, a survey by the Pew Research Center found.

Many analysts expected him to track toward the center after he took office but instead he stayed in campaign mode, attacking Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats.

He reneged on his promise to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare with something better and cheaper. Instead he used his executive power to weaken the Affordable Care Act’s coverage for tens of millions of Americans, raising costs and presenting Democrats with a potent issue.  

With “Medicare for all” no longer a fringe idea, the Trump administration has revived charges of socialized medicine. Worried House Republicans passed several measures that would rein in health-care costs, but none is expected to pass the Senate.

Trump’s ongoing war with his own Justice Department and his embarrassing behavior with Russian President Vladimir Putin make him appear guilty of something involving Russia.

He continues to prop up straw man foes for his culture wars, such as the NFL players’ protest of taking a knee during the National Anthem.

And he has nominated a slew of conservative judges to lifetime appointments, further inciting concern among Democrats and independents about the future of Roe v. Wade.

Democrats need Senate control to stop Trump’s judicial juggernaut, but with Democrats defending more than twice as many seats as Republicans, so many things have to go right for Democrats, change is unlikely. 

Trump’s constant pandering to his base is paying off – with his base. His job approval among Republicans is sky-high -- 84 percent and 88 percent in the Fox and NBC-Journal polls, respectively.

“Stick with us,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention Tuesday. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people – the fake news,” he said.

Trump may think he can hold the House by turning out his die-hard supporters, but polls suggest that’s unlikely, because of independents.

Independents by more than 20 points now favor a Congress controlled by Democrats, 48 percent to 26 percent, the NBC-Journal poll reported. That’s up from 7 points in June, when the spread was 39 percent to 32 percent. 

And so the election approaches, and day by day Trump becomes more shrill, a tactic likely to turn independents away even more.

“Just remember,” he told the VFW. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Trump probably had no idea Orwell wrote in “1984”: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was the final, most essential command.” 

You can be sure social media will let voters know about such eerie Orwellian echoes. Democrats may well may say, keep talking, Mr. Trump, and thank you.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Conservation president's legacy ours to enjoy -- July 19, 2018 column


It’s hard to escape distrust of the nation’s capital -- even at a rodeo in a little town in South Dakota.

I was learning about calf roping and steer wrestling from a former rodeo prize-winner – he had the big, silver belt buckle to prove it -- until he asked where I was from. I told him I live in the Washington area.  

“You aren’t from the government, are you?” he asked.

No, I’m a journalist, I said. That was worse.  

He peppered me with questions about fake news, news organizations’ “agendas” and why the TV networks – except Fox -- won’t give President Donald Trump a chance.

I defended my media colleagues but knew we’d be better off talking about bull riding in the ring than about bull slinging in Washington.  

I wasn’t surprised on my trip around the Dakotas that Trump is popular, but I found it ironic he’s popular among people who also revere a very different president.

Theodore Roosevelt is close to being a native son of North Dakota. He was an intellectual, a voracious reader, prolific author and historian, a believer in physical activity and the great outdoors. He was our conservation president. And he loathed incivility.

Roosevelt was vice president when he first used the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick” in a speech in 1901.

“If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble; and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power,” he said.

Four days later, President William McKinley was shot, and Roosevelt soon became president.

Long before that, though, Roosevelt, at age 24, made the long train trip to the Dakota Territory for the first time in 1883. He wanted to hunt bison before they became extinct.

Enchanted with the land and the life, he bought an interest in a ranch during the trip.

The next year, he returned to the wild, vast, silent country for solace after he suffered heartbreaking loss. His wife, who had given birth to their first child just two days earlier, and his mother died hours apart on Valentine’s Day in the same house in New York.

In his diary that day, he wrote a large X and only one sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”

He raised cattle on the Little Missouri River, enjoying “the strenuous life” alongside cowboys he admired for their strength, work ethic and character. You can see the rugged North Dakota badlands much as he did by visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947 to honor the 26th president.

He used whatever spare time he had to sit in his rocking chair and read and write history. Then drought and a blizzard decimated his herd in 1886, and he went back East.

But his experiences in North Dakota changed him for good. His exposure to those cowboys led to an appreciation for the common man that would serve him well in politics and the White House.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” Roosevelt wrote.

The New Yorker who went west to hunt bison before they vanished from the West also developed something else in those wild, open spaces. Long a student of animals, he became outspoken in his desire to save them.

“The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” he wrote.

He signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906 and protected about 230 million acres of public lands – establishing five national parks, 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon, 51 bird reserves, four national game preserves and 150 national forests.

Since then, 16 presidents of both parties have used the act to enlarge the nation’s store of protected lands. Critics, however, say the presidential power to restrict land is too great. Trump is rolling back designations President Barrack Obama made under the act.

One can only wonder what the originator of the Bully Pulpit would think of that.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Everything I thought about Mount Rushmore was wrong -- July 12, 2018 column


Like most Americans, I’ve seen Mount Rushmore all my life -- in photos but not in person.

If I had a bucket list, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t have been on it.

I love the noble monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, but 60-foot tall presidential heads on a mountain in South Dakota? Why?      

This month I found out.

“You are going to Mount Rushmore,” friends said, before we left for a fly-drive around the Dakotas.

But passing through Keystone, S.D., closest town to the site, I had doubts. Keystone is a kitschy little tourist trap with Old West-ish d├ęcor and entertainment, T-shirts and trinkets.

Would Mount Rushmore National Memorial itself be a crass, commercial disaster?

Would making the trip to the presidents be like fighting crowds at the Louvre to glimpse the Mona Lisa – only to have the unbidden thought: “It’s small”?

President Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton by 30 points in South Dakota, says his dream is to be on Mount Rushmore. Would we see swarms of Trumpians in red MAGA hats, scheming where to add his face? 

No, no and no. Mount Rushmore literally rises above. It did not disappoint.

As often happens when traveling, I learned by going my preconceptions were wrong. And, for the record, there’s no room to add another face.  

The monument is huge, majestic and serene in its stark beauty. It’s not tacky; thank you, National Park Service. Souvenirs are only in the gift shop, and some were actually made in the USA. 

The carved granite faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln have noses 20 feet long, eyes 11 feet wide and mouths 18 feet wide.

Mount Rushmore in the Ponderosa pines of the Black Hills is remote. You have to want to go there, and last year about 2.4 million people did. That’s more than twice as many as visit Shenandoah National Park annually.

Like most of America history, though, the Mount Rushmore story is complicated.

Start with the name. Charles Rushmore was a New York City lawyer who came to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims. The story goes that he asked a local guide what the mountain was called and the man replied, “Never had a name but from now on we’ll call it Rushmore.”

In fact, the Lakota people called the mountain the Six Grandfathers. They still believe the Black Hills sacred and the monument desecration.

South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson had the vision in 1923 of colossal figures carved on peaks. He thought people would drive their new cars to see carvings of heroes of the American West.   

But sculptor Gutzon Borglum had a grander plan. Borglum, son of Mormon Danish immigrants, was talented, flamboyant and temperamental. He had started work on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s dream of honoring Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain, Ga., where he may have joined the Ku Klux Klan.

He fell out with the daughters and quit in a huff, freeing him for the Rushmore project.

Mount Rushmore should honor American heroes, Borglum said, and chose the four presidents.  

Exhibits at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center under the Grand View Terrace explain 90 percent of the carving was done with dynamite, the rest with jackhammer and by hand. From 1927 to 1941, about 400 men worked on the project – and not one died during the construction.

Workers climbed 700 stairs to punch a time clock. They sat in “bosun chairs” dangling by 3/8-inch steel cords hundreds of feet up and chipped away rock to reveal the famous faces. They earned $8 a day.

On a sunny July afternoon, throngs of tourists were respectful and quiet, patriotic and apolitical.

It was refreshing after the toxic atmosphere in the nation’s capital to see people of all ages and races, from all over the country and the world, snapping selfies and admiring the labor of many to honor our democracy’s heroes.

I know now why I wasn’t impressed with Mount Rushmore before. Photos can’t capture its spirit. This memorial you need to experience in person.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.