Thursday, May 17, 2018

What's your state doing to help gambling addicts?

Probably less than you think.
My latest on Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

No bamboo: Commencement speakers need to `act boldly' -- May 17, 2018 column


The late Texas columnist Molly Ivins may have given the best commencement advice ever.

“They told me to give y’all some advice that will be useful in your future lives. This is mine: Don’t Plant Bamboo in a Small Backyard,” she supposedly said. 

Alas, the story is likely apocryphal.

But it’s just about perfect commencement advice: practical, funny and memorable.

Ivins, who died in 2007, was a sharp, witty political and cultural critic. I wish we had her folksy, liberal voice this commencement season.

Most big names chosen to sprinkle wisdom on the day of celebration resort to utterly forgettable platitudes.

“Give yourself permission to fail in order to experience the privilege of success,” actor Boris Kodjoe told Virginia Commonwealth University’s class of 2018.

“Act boldly,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe advised University of Richmond grads. “Be fearless,” Apple CEO Tim Cook urged at Duke University,

You can hear grads nudging each other and saying, “Wow, `act boldly’ – I never thought of that before!” At least such advice does no harm.

Nobody wants to be the commencement speaker whose remarks ignite a social media firestorm.

That’s what happened when Nella Gray Barkley, Sweet Briar College class of 1955, delivered remarks at her alma mater, one of the nation’s last remaining women’s colleges.

In one fell swoop, she seemed to belittle feminism and the #MeToo movement and waxed nostalgic about the days when an engagement ring was more prized than a college degree.

“I’m no raging feminist. I actually love men, and I married one,” she said.

“I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room for a so-called conference,” she said in her speech. “What did she think was going to happen?”

And, it’s “only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.”
Barkley, a career coach in South Carolina, received the “distinguished alumna” award in 2002. She's touted on the college website for taking out a life insurance policy with Sweet Briar as sole beneficiary.

When students and grads took to social media to complain about her speech, college president Meredith Woo sent an email.

“You don’t have to accept or refuse her perspective – that is not the point – but I ask you to think about it,” Woo wrote, Inside Higher Ed reported.

I suppose there are worse ways to launch one’s post-college life than having to listen to someone say things that infuriate you. If nothing else, it’s good practice for conference calls at the office. (Remember the mute button.)

But just as commencement isn’t the ideal venue to knock a social movement embraced by many in the audience, it also isn’t the place for a speaker to begin settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his commencement address at Virginia Military Institute to encourage cadets to remember the importance of truth, ethics and integrity.

In normal times, such advice would be typical inspirational fare, but Tillerson spent 14 months in the Trump administration, where President Donald Trump is known for his estrangement from facts. 

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson warned.  

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil did not call out Trump by name, but there was no doubt who he meant when he said: “When we as a people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

He told cadets integrity “is the most valuable asset you have,” and urged them to seek out employers who set high ethical standards.

“Blessed is the man who doesn’t blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is,” Tillerson said.

Critics complained he waited too long to speak out and didn’t go far enough.

Maybe in the future Tillerson will follow other commencement speakers’ advice and “act boldly” and “be fearless.”

Molly Ivins would. And that’s no bamboo.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Gina Haspel's secrets need sunlight -- May 10, 2018 column


As Gina Haspel tells it, her life was “right out of a spy novel.”

Haspel, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, joined the agency in 1985 and worked undercover for more than 30 years.  

“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she told senators Wednesday at her confirmation hearing. “I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops or in meetings in dusty alleys of third world capitals.

“I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I had never met. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of.”

It sounds like fiction all right, and that’s the way Haspel, 61, wants it.

There’s much the public doesn’t know about her career because the records are classified, and Haspel herself, as acting CIA director, decides how much – or, in this case, how little -- to declassify.

Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have read the classified material about Haspel but can’t divulge what they’ve read, are frustrated.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, said Haspel has the knowledge and experience for the job, but “many people – and I include myself in that number – have questions about the message the Senate would be sending by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the counterterrorism center during the time of the rendition, detention and interrogation program.”

Haspel would be the first woman CIA director, and she has bipartisan support from former CIA directors. 

But  more than 90 former U.S. ambassadors and diplomats and more than 100 retired generals and admirals have signed letters, raising concerns about her nomination and the extent of her role in “enhanced” interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, as well as destroying evidence of the activities many call torture.

Most Senate Republicans support Haspel but Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who suffered torture for five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, issued a statement Wednesday night urging the Senate to reject Haspel.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” McCain said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

In 2002, Haspel ran a CIA “black site” detention facility in Thailand where at least one suspected terrorist was waterboarded repeatedly.

In 2005, as Congress was about to launch an investigation, she advocated destroying more than 90 videotapes of the suspect’s interrogations. At the request of her boss, she drafted a cable ordering the destruction. He sent the cable himself.

Haspel proved a wily witness at her confirmation hearing. Often evasive, she repeatedly said she has a strong moral compass. She dodged questions about her role at the detention center but insisted the techniques were legal and approved by President George W. Bush.

She said she would not restart the “enhanced” interrogation program, even if Trump, who said during the campaign he might bring back waterboarding, ordered her to do so.

“We’re not getting back into that business,” she said.

The committee is expected to vote next week, with a full Senate vote in a few weeks. It appears Haspel may squeak through.

Republicans hold a 51 to 49 Senate majority, but McCain is battling brain cancer in Arizona. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he will vote no. But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will vote for confirmation, and a couple of other Democrats also facing tough re-election bids may do the same.

Haspel portrayed herself as “a typical middle-class American,” although one with no social media accounts.

It’s time she put more on the table than her spy novel stories. Haspel needs to declassify records of her career, so everyone can judge whether she’s fit for the job.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Primary campaigns battle over guns -- pro and con -- May 3, 2018 column


A Virginia man made news doing something utterly legal and routine.

Dan Helmer, an Army veteran, went to a gun show in Northern Virginia and bought a semiautomatic rifle similar to the one he carried in Iraq and Afghanistan in under 10 minutes -- without a background check.

He could have been someone with deadly intentions, but Helmer was making a point about lax gun laws.

He’s one of six Democrats competing in the June 12 primary for the prize of competing in November against Rep. Barbara Comstock, the Republican incumbent representing the 10th District.

Helmer demonstrated how easy it is for someone showing only a Virginia ID to buy what he calls “an incredibly dangerous piece of weaponry that’s meant for war,” adding the gun show in Chantilly was less than two miles from a school.

It took him less time than buying a cup of coffee.

Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, but the “gun show loophole” allows non-licensed sellers or private sellers to bypass background checks.

Helmer’s campaign surreptitiously recorded the transaction and posted the video online. It promptly went viral.

“Weapons of war don’t belong on our streets,” he says.

 Comstock was a top recipient in the House of National Rifle Association contributions in 2016. Election trackers say she’s vulnerable in a district where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 10 points.

The primary campaigns of 2018 increasingly are a battle over guns. Democrats fight among themselves over who’s tougher on gun control while Republicans go after each other on who’s stronger on the 2nd Amendment. 

Democrat Karen Powers Mallard, a reading teacher from Virginia Beach making her first bid for Congress, used a video to show her commitment to ridding the streets of assault weapons. 

She took a saw to her husband’s AR-15 – and videoed its destruction. Her husband dropped off the gun pieces at the police station -- but not before gun rights advocates blasted his wife online.

Mallard’s competitor in the 2nd District Democratic primary is Elaine Luria, a Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy commander, who, like Mallard, favors tougher gun control.

But Rep. Scott Taylor, the Republican incumbent, is a former Navy SEAL who opposes stricter gun control laws. The race leans Republican, election trackers say.

Sometimes contests get nasty. Helmer criticized state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, the only Democratic candidate who has elected office experience, for supporting a legislative compromise that expanded the rights of people with concealed-carry handgun permits.

Wexton has an F rating from the NRA. She said Helmer doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the legislative trenches. She has raised more money than others in the race and has more endorsements from fellow lawmakers, including Gov. Ralph Northam.  

Primary season begins in earnest this month with contests in 11 states. Virginia is among 17 states with primaries in June, the busiest month. There are none in July, 14 in August and five in September, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.

The gun issue cuts both ways, as Trump’s fourth appearance before the NRA in four years indicates. The NRA invested $30 million in Trump’s 2016 campaign, and despite his pledging to “do something” to stop gun violence, he hasn’t. His frequent campaign rallies keep his base motivated to vote in November and in 2020.

One of the more interesting gun-centric GOP races is the gubernatorial primary in Georgia. Secretary of State Brian Kemp just released an ad in which he sits surrounded by guns, rubbing a cloth over a shotgun, while he quizzes a teenager named Jake, “a young man interested in one of my daughters.”

Kemp then points the shotgun in Jake’s direction. It’s supposed to be funny.

Last month, another would-be governor, West Point grad and Army combat veteran Hunter Hill, aired an ad called “Liberals won’t like this” that showed him loading an assault rifle.   

He’s surely right, but will they vote?

In off-year elections, people tend to snooze through primaries and don’t bother to vote. This year could be different, with Democrats energized and Parkland students keeping the issue alive. But only those who actually cast ballots have a say in who wins.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

`Hie thee hither': Shakespeare's best onstage, not on the page -- April 26, 2018 column


Poet Ben Jonson wrote in his tribute to William Shakespeare: “He was not of an age but for all time!”

Lucky guess.   

More than 400 years later, we’re still reading, watching and arguing over Shakespeare. Most of us are, anyway.

High school students continue to struggle over the Bard, thanks to the Common Core standards, but most major universities long ago dropped the requirement that English majors take even a single Shakespeare course.

Two years ago, students at the University of Pennsylvania removed a large portrait of Shakespeare from the English Department and replaced it first with a picture of Audre Lorde, an African American writer, feminist and civil rights activist, and later with a collage of 88 writers and filmmakers.

Last June, a production of “Julius Caesar” in New York’s Central Park became a conservative cause célèbre when Caesar was depicted as a Trumpian with blond hair and a red tie, “whose bloody stabbing is seen as offensive and inappropriate to some who have seen it,” The New York Times reported. 

Defenders countered the tragedy shows the consequences of violence and its disastrous effects.

Shakespeare was born in April 1564, so before the month slips away, let’s give him props. Bob Dylan did. 

When the great Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he asked Patti Smith to deliver his speech at the awards ceremony in Stockholm. Here's an excerpt:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure.

I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read.

When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?"

His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?"

Leave it to Dylan to imagine Shakespeare not as highfalutin artiste but a playwright juggling his words and picky details. Dylan has it right, of course. Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, not the page.

I know this after seeing three Shakespeare plays in two weeks. It was the first time, but won’t be the last, I sorta-binge-watched the Bard.

First was “Romeo and Juliet” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a good warmup for the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, where “Macbeth” played one evening and “The Taming of the Shrew” the next afternoon.

Shakespeare’s themes generally are timeless, though modern sensibilities do prickle occasionally. Juliet’s marrying at age 13 is disturbing, and so is Taming’s last scene when Kate, starved and sleep-deprived into submission, says: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign . . .”

Despite such quibbles, I enjoyed the plays immensely.

There’s hardly a better place for Shakespeare than the 300-seat Blackfriars Theater at the ASC. Opened in 2001, it’s a recreation of the Jacobean playhouse in London’s Blackfriars neighborhood. Blackfriars was the indoor theater where Shakespeare put on his plays, the Globe his outdoor venue.

The ASC’s repertory company delivers three or four well-staged productions a week. The versatile actors also dance, sing and play instruments in acoustic musical performances before the shows and during intermission.

“We do it with the lights on,” the theater brags, because Shakespeare produced his plays in what’s called universal light. That means the audience and actors not only can see each other but also interact. You don’t need to understand every archaic word to follow and enjoy the plays.

It’s improbable to find a first-class Shakespeare theater in a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, but like Shakespeare’s work, it’s an enchanting experience.

Take a cue from Lady Macbeth and “hie thee hither” to see Shakespeare onstage.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Fighting hunger or the poor? Political battle over SNAP resumes -- April 19, 2018 column


Long before President Donald Trump bestowed a lavish tax break on the rich and proposed “harvest baskets” for the poor, another president said:

“That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable.”

Name that president. Was it Democrat FDR, JFK or LBJ?

Guess again. Republican Richard Nixon sent Congress the optimistic message in May 1969 that “the most bounteous of nations” should expand food stamps as part of an array of approaches to beat hunger. The program grew dramatically in the 1970s.

Back then, fighting hunger – not the poor -- was a bipartisan cause.

Then, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan reaped political hay by demonizing “welfare queens.” In office, he slashed the social safety net, including food stamps.

When Republican Newt Gingrich ran for president, briefly, in 2012, he called President Barack Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.” It wasn’t a compliment.

More than 46 million people received food stamps that year. As the economy improved, food stamp rolls dropped. About 40 million participated in January 2018, the lowest level since 2010. 

But, to borrow a Reagan phrase, here we go again.

It’s an election year, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, as food stamps are officially called, is a political flash point.

Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee were in open revolt Wednesday over a bill by Chairman Mike Conaway, Republican of Texas, that cuts spending and imposes new work requirements for almost all SNAP participants.  

Conaway contended his bill provides participants “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”   

But Democrats, while supporting current work requirements, condemned the new rules, which were formulated without their input.

“Let me be clear: This bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the committee’s top Democrat, who called it an “ideological attack” on SNAP. It would create “giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level” lacking the money needed for meaningful job training, he said.

About 2 million people — particularly in low-income working families with children — would receive less or lose benefits altogether, the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in an analysis. A few would receive higher benefits, due to changes in how earnings are counted, but the net effect would still be a significant cut overall.

At $70 billion a year, food stamps are about three-quarters of spending in the Farm Bill, which also pays for crop subsidies, farm credit and land conservation. The bill cuts food stamp spending by $17.1 billion over 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The committee approved the bill on a party line vote, but its future is murky. Even if the full House approves it, the Senate Agriculture Committee plans to write a bipartisan bill. In the past, an alliance of rural and urban lawmakers with different priorities has pushed the Farm Bill through Congress.

It’s worth remembering that 43 percent of SNAP participants live in a household where someone works. Rules already require participants to meet work requirements unless exempt because of age, disability or another reason. Able-bodied adults without dependents – ABAWDs in government jargon -- 18 to 49 can receive benefits for three months but after that must work or be in training. 

The House bill requires all work-capable adults aged 18 to 59 who are not disabled or caring for a child under 6 to demonstrate every month they are working or in job-training 20 hours a week.

Critics see punitive and racial overtones in the bill.

“The images of `able-bodied’ men not working are of African American men,” Rep. David Scott, Democrat of Georgia, said at the hearing.

“I guarantee you, if all the people who were on food stamps were white, there wouldn’t be this,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The House bill is an embarrassment, as was the Trump administration’s plan to begin distributing non-perishable items in “harvest boxes” to replace some food stamp benefits. That plan was widely panned as unworkable and seems to have been scrapped.   

The House bill should meet a similar end. In this “most bounteous of nations,” the Senate should start over with a bill Democrats and Republicans can support.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Ryan's choice good for him -- and Democrats -- April 12, 2018 column

Normally, when a big-name public official announces he – it’s usually he -- is quitting his job to spend more time with his family, it’s a dodge.
Heads nod, knowing he’s in trouble and has no cushy job waiting on the outside. Few feel his pain.
For members of Congress, the family excuse often means the politician faces a tough re-election or must relinquish his committee chairman gavel because of House term limit rules. Or both.
Some go out complaining about the capital’s toxic atmosphere, the dysfunctional Congress and the never-ending quest for campaign cash.
A few members this year are also leaving Congress under the cloud of sexual harassment accusations.
In contrast, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s surprise announcement Wednesday he won’t seek another term in Congress was Dad of the Year material. He spoke about going home to Janesville, Wisconsin, to his wife Janna and children Liza, Sam and Charlie.
“This is my 20th year in Congress. My kids weren’t even born when I was first elected. Our oldest was 13 when I became speaker. Now all three of our kids are teenagers. And one thing I’ve learned about teenagers is their idea of an ideal weekend is not necessarily to spend all of the time with their parents,” Ryan told reporters.
And here’s the kicker: “What I realize is, if I’m here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad. I just can’t let that happen.”
You don’t have to be in Congress to know what Ryan is talking about. Many moms and dads in demanding careers have similar nagging guilt.
Perhaps more than most 48-year-olds, Ryan feels his own mortality. Both his father and grandfather died of heart attacks before they were 60. At just 16 and a high school sophomore, Ryan found his father, an attorney, dead in his bed at 55.
Ryan has always seemed apart from most ambitious politicians. After being GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, he was widely expected to run for president in 2016, but didn’t. He was drafted as Speaker, an increasingly thankless job, in 2015, after John Boehner resigned from Congress.
As Speaker, Ryan travels the country extensively, fundraising and campaigning for GOP candidates. He often sees his kids only on Sunday, he told Fox News.
But if Ryan’s choice is good for him, it’s also good for Democrats.
By retiring, he signals the House may be lost and Democrat Nancy Pelosi will return as Speaker next year. Naturally, Ryan insists the GOP is in great shape and he’ll still campaign for Republicans. But a lame duck can’t talk convincingly about the future.
The customary route would have been to run and then retire after the election. The former altar boy considered doing that.
“But just as my conscience is what got me to take this job in the first place, my conscience could not handle going out that way,” he said.
As it is, Ryan is the most prominent in an army of incumbent Republicans beating a retreat from Washington. More than 40 House Republicans are either retiring or running for another office.
In Virginia, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte announced his retirement two days after a Democratic tide in last November’s state election swept many Republican incumbents from the legislature. Goodlatte is prohibited under House rules from staying on as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. 
Ryan wasn’t even the only Republican to announce his retirement Wednesday.
Rep. Dennis Ross, Republican of Florida, was announcing his when he looked at Fox News and saw Ryan was leaving, he told his local paper.
The filing deadline hasn’t passed in 19 states, so more retirements are possible.
As if the November election weren’t campaign enough, a battle now kicks off for Speaker, with Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana leading contenders.
Democrats, who need a net gain of two dozen seats for control of the House, were delighted by the unexpected turn of events.
“With his retirement announcement Speaker Paul Ryan becomes the first casualty of the 2018 midterm election,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, tweeted.
The Republicans’ nightmare in April seems like a dream come true for Democrats, but they shouldn’t celebrate just yet. 
It’s a long, long way to November – and victory has previously eluded their grasp.  
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.