Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Obama not debating but in the debate -- Sept. 22, 2016 column


He won’t be onstage Monday night, but President Barack Obama likely will dominate the first presidential debate.

Republicans have hung “third Obama term” around Hillary Clinton’s neck as if it were an albatross, but Democrats believe the prospect of a third Obama term could be just the thing to motivate unenthusiastic, undecided voters to go to the polls for Clinton.

Obama’s overall job approval rating, in the low 40s a couple of years ago, is a healthy 50 percent. Among Democrats, a whopping 89 percent approve of the way he’s handling his job, according to Gallup.

“More Americans are working. More have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling,” Obama said last week at a rally for Clinton in Philadelphia. Someone in the crowd shouted that gas is $2.

“And gas is $2 a gallon,” he said. “Thank you for reminding me.”

So when Donald Trump promises to wipe out everything Obama has done, starting with the Affordable Care Act, he not only threatens Obama’s legacy but he gives Clinton an opening with uncommitted voters who like the improved economy and social progress of the last eight years.

Only 2 or 3 percentage points now separate Clinton and Trump, so both campaigns want to woo the 13 percent of voters who are undecided.

Some are “better-educated people who lean Republican, who don’t like Trump and have zero use for Hillary Clinton, and they’re sort of paralyzed and frozen right now,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff told The Wall Street Journal.

Others are millennials who lean Democratic, supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries and haven’t fallen in love with Clinton. Democrats also worry that black voters, who provided the margin of victory for Obama in several swing states in 2012, could stay home.

Obama has made Clinton’s election his mission, telling the Congressional Black Caucus gala Saturday that he would take it as a “personal insult” to his legacy if blacks don’t turn out for Clinton.

First lady Michelle Obama, one of the most popular people in America, also is campaigning for Clinton – and Obama’s place in history.
“Elections aren’t just about who votes, but who doesn’t vote, and that’s especially true for young people like all of you,” Michelle Obama said last week at a campaign rally at George Mason University.

On the stump, the president charges that Trump is “unfit to serve” and “woefully unprepared to do this job.” Trump in turn calls Obama a “disaster” and “the worst president.”

If you can’t remember a president and first lady being so involved in a potential successor’s contest, it’s because it hasn’t happened in our lifetimes. Most presidents end their time on the stage on a sour note with the public or with little love for the person itching to replace them.   

In 1960, when a reporter asked President Dwight Eisenhower to name a major contribution his vice president, Richard Nixon, then running for president, had made, Ike replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

John F. Kennedy used Ike’s words in a TV ad -- and won that November.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore – remember him? – kept his distance from disgraced President Bill Clinton, and it cost him.

But when the time came for President George W. Bush to endorse Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, Bush’s job approval rating had dropped to the basement -- about 30 percent. Even though Bush was still popular among conservatives, McCain chose not to ask Bush to campaign.

At this point in 2012, polls showed the race between Obama and Mitt Romney very tight with about 6 percent of voters undecided. On Election Day, though, the contest wasn’t as close. Obama won with 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 47 percent.

Democrats hope a similar scenario plays out this year for Clinton.

As much as she might like to win purely on her own merits, Clinton knows “It Takes a Village.” Her uninspiring campaign style and the reluctance of key demographic groups to back her means she will need the whole Democratic village at her side to win.

Fortunately for her, Democrats still believe in Obama, and he said last week, “I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Love story: Book festivals bring readers, writers together -- Sept. 15, 2016 column


We think of reading as a solitary pastime, but it’s often social and cultural as well.

Who wants to talk about a great book? Just about everybody, as the explosion of book clubs in recent years attests.

Bring writers into the conversation, and you have a book fair. Add more readers and writers, and it’s a book festival.

About 75 book fairs and festivals are now held in 43 states. More than 120 authors and illustrators and upwards of 100,000 people are expected to throng the 15th annual National Book Festival on Sept. 24 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital.

Stephen King, whose books have sold an amazing 350 million copies worldwide, is the festival’s marquee draw. If you didn’t snag a free ticket for his sold-out appearance, you can still visit with big names.

No tickets are required for the other speakers, who, unlike King, will sign their books. Among them: filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Bob Woodward and authors from at least seven foreign countries.

The celebration surrounding the opening of the Museum of African American History and Culture the same day likely will extend to the festival, where the roster includes basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, television producer Shonda Rhimes and novelist Colson Whitehead.

In addition, many readers may see Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress for the first time. Hayden, the first African American and the first woman in the position, was sworn in Wednesday.

Free and with programs for all ages, the national festival is the legacy of first lady Laura Bush, a former librarian with the lifelong mission of inspiring people to read.  

In November, the Texas Book Festival, which Bush started when she was first lady of Texas, will mark its 20th anniversary. She and the Library of Congress launched the national festival in 2001, just three days before the horrors of 9/11.

Bush didn’t invent book fairs, of course, but she did popularize them for modern readers.

Book fairs got their first 20th century boost in 1919, when a Chicago department store held Book Week. One hundred thousand customers poured into the store to shake hands with 14 authors and buy books from 60 publishers, Bernadine Clark wrote in “Fanfare for Words,” a 1991 history of book fairs published by the Library of Congress.

The Miami Book Fair started in 1984 and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 1989. The Tennessee festival takes place Oct. 14 through 16.

In Virginia, the Fall for the Book festival, sponsored by George Mason University, runs Sept. 25 to 30, and the Virginia Festival of the Book is next set for March in Charlottesville. The 2017 Alabama Book Festival will be held in April in Montgomery.

Festivals are quick-hit gatherings for readers and writers, but the nation’s first, permanent celebration of American writers past and present is in the works. The American Writers Museum is under construction on the second floor of an office tower in downtown Chicago and plans to open in March.

The idea for the museum came from Ireland, where the Dublin Writers Museum honors great Irish writers. In this country, the writers museum will fill a void, says Jim Leach, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes, artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers,” Leach said in a statement on the museum’s website.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that Laura Bush is among those supporting the writers museum.

Like the Texas and national book festivals and literary events around the country, the new museum will “celebrate writers of every era, every genre and every race,” she says in a video, and “inspire everyone to fall in love with reading and writing.”

I hope she’s right.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wisdom of the soap: Vote and Feel Good -- Sept. 8, 2016 column


A couple of election seasons ago, I brought home an oversized bar of soap that read VOTE on one side and FEEL GOOD on the other.

I put it in my guest bath, mostly as a joke, and after the election it went into a drawer. I came across the soap the other day and realized it had outlasted my enthusiasm for voting.

Pulling the lever for president has never seemed so much a duty and so little a pleasure.

In less than two months, millions of Americans will stay home on Election Day. After the hoopla of the 2016 primary campaign and amid tightening polls, many Americans won’t cast ballots for any presidential candidate. We know this from experience.

Four years ago, about 58 percent of eligible voters – citizens 18 and older -- cast ballots in the presidential election, lower than in both 2008 and 2004, an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center found. And presidential races draw our biggest turnouts. 

Voting long has been promoted as the top item on good citizens’ to-do lists. Now, though, some commentators say we should stop shaming people who don’t want to vote into doing so anyway.

In his new book, “Writings on the Wall,” basketball legend and cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes: “In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 37 percent of eligible voters showed up, which left 144 million votes taking a pass on democracy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Best to leave nonvoting slugs alone, he says.

“Voters who don’t want to cast a ballot because they’re too lazy or uninformed should stay home,” he writes.

In an interview on NPR, he went a step further: “Ignorance is not something that lends itself to a meaningful discussion. Some of these people really shouldn’t vote because they don’t know what the issues are, and I think people that are, you know, voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country by not being better informed.”

Abdul-Jabbar spoke against Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention in July, and, while he didn’t mention Trump in his book or the radio interview, the clear implication is that ignorant Trump voters should just stay home.  

No matter how dangerous we think a Trump – or a Hillary Clinton – presidency would be, telling voters with whom we disagree to stay home is an arrogant stand on a slippery slope.

Anyone can look at another voter and think he or she lacks the brainpower to cast an informed ballot. It goes against the small-d democratic grain to discourage people from voting simply because we think their choice of candidate proves they’re not smart enough.

That brings us to the age-old question of how to get voters engaged so they educate themselves on the issues rather than falling for appeals based on anger and anxiety.

Abdul-Jabbar also says we should stop encouraging people to vote out of civic duty but rather “show them the wisdom of voting based on economic self-interest in order to give themselves, their families and their communities more opportunities.”

Poor people would have more clout if they voted in greater numbers, he says.

But many Trump voters think they are voting in their economic self-interest.

Trump’s unorthodox campaign brought voters into the system who felt ignored by Democrats and Republicans. They believe this GOP nominee speaks for them when he promises to bring back jobs and stop illegal immigration.

Whether he could deliver on those promises is another story, but Trump has struck an emotional chord.

To boost voters’ intelligence, Abdul-Jabbar proposes a federal initiative to teach more about critical thinking and logical fallacies in public schools. It’s an idea worth considering – and a nonstarter in the current climate.

Until voters demand more thoughtful, substantive discussions on issues, we’ll continue to have celebrity-driven campaigns punctuated by amateur personality analyses, name calling and fear mongering.

And we’re left with the choice – to vote or not. Once again, I’m putting out the soap to give my guests and myself a nudge.

VOTE? Yes, we should. FEEL GOOD? We’ll see.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Are 'Instant Runoffs' a Better Way to Vote? -- on STATELINE 9/2/16

Go To

Are 'Instant Runoffs' a Better Way to Vote?

  • September 02, 2016
  • By Marsha Mercer

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Homework for parents a lesson for all -- Sept. 1, 2016 column


Nearly six decades ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and for a generation of American children school nights would never be the same.    

Many school systems had dropped homework in the 1940s, but after the satellite crossed overhead on Oct. 4, 1957, Americans struggled with the idea that the commies had beaten us into space.

One way to help close the education gap with those over-achieving Russian kids was for American boys and girls to concentrate on math and science and take home extra schoolwork.     

The homework pendulum has always swung between pro and con. In the 19th century, American students spent hours at home memorizing and reciting their lessons. The 20th century rebelled against rote and repetition.

Homework fell out of favor in the Age of Aquarius along with most things Establishment.

In the 1980s, though, a major government report said “a rising tide of mediocrity” was to blame for the ailing U.S. economy and the nation’s very future was threatened. Homework was back.

But by 1999, a Time magazine cover story -- “The Homework Ate My Family” – painted a bleak picture of the stresses that homework was adding to already overworked and overscheduled families.

Last month, a second-grade teacher became an Internet sensation when she announced she would not assign any homework this year. If children brought work home, she said, it would be because they didn’t finish it at school.

But Brandy Young of Godley, Texas, didn’t stop there. She assigned homework to the parents.

“I ask you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early,” she wrote in a note to parents.

After a happy parent posted the note online, others around the country reposted it, and the news media started calling.

“I’m trying to develop their whole person; it’s not beneficial to go home and do pencil-and-paper work,” Young told CBS News. Students have other things to learn at home, she said.

Young’s homework assignment sounds like old-fashioned good parenting. It also dovetails nicely with recent academic research about rising academic skills of both poor and affluent children.

Between 1998 and 2010, the gap in school readiness skills between students in low-income and upper-income families entering kindergarten narrowed 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading, a team of academic researchers reported. The improvements lasted at least into fourth grade.

The change, a sharp reversal of decades of trends, reflected improvements in the skills of low-income students, not a drop in upper-income students’ skills, they said.

Why? “It may be changes in children’s homes that have mattered most,” Sean F. Reardon, education professor at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel, social work professor at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok, education professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in an op-ed Aug. 28 in The New York Times.

“Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than they did in the ‘90s,” they wrote.

“Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home,” and poorer kids also are more likely to have computers and access to the Internet and computer math games than in the past.

The researchers believe a powerful idea is getting through: “the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development.”

The researchers warned that it’s by no means certain that narrower skills gaps for fourth graders will translate into higher achievement in high school. Still, this is good news.

It just so happens that September is Library Card Sign-up Month. Libraries across the country are encouraging children and their families to come in and get their library cards.

It’s an excellent opportunity for parents and grandparents to model the reading and study habits that can make a big difference in young lives. And the adults just might find something fascinating to read as well.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

At 100, National Park Service celebrates diversity -- Aug. 25, 2016 column


With his signature, President Barack Obama in June made the Stonewall Inn in New York City a national monument with the protection of a national park.

“Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights,” the president said in a White House video announcing the new monument.

“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country – the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us,” he said.

Decades ago, the Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village at a time in the city when serving alcohol to gay people was illegal. Police raids were frequent, but in June 1969 a raid led to riots and then to protest marches. The Stonewall Uprising was a turning point in the gay rights movement.

Not everyone was thrilled with the designation of a gay bar as a monument. Evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham, called the Stonewall recognition “unbelievable.”

“War heroes deserve a monument, our nation’s founding fathers deserve a monument, people who have helped make America strong deserve a monument – but a monument to sin?” Graham wrote on Facebook.

Graham has a right to his opinion, but I’m with those who celebrate our nation’s diversity and the fights by racial, ethnic and other groups for equality.

From now on, Stonewall will be recognized as a watershed for gay rights the way Selma, Ala., is for voting rights for blacks and Seneca Falls, New York, is for women’s suffrage.

Congress authorized the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1980, commemorating the first Women’s Rights Convention there in 1848, and created the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in 1996. The 54-mile trail tells the story of the 1965 march that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.

The Stonewall National Monument includes the bar, a triangular park across the street and nearby streets – 7.7-acres in all – and, managed by the park service, will preserve the stories of the gay rights movement for future generations.

It’s fitting as the park service celebrates its 100th birthday that its centennial mission is “a promise to America that we will keep not only its sacred places, but the memory of its most defining moments,” Jonathan Jarvis, park service director, said at the National Press Club this month.

Besides Stonewall, Obama has authorized the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, among others.

Obama’s protection of lesser known historic sites ensures that some details of the American experience we might sweep under the rug will be remembered. The new monuments build his legacy as a champion of diversity and provide a way for him to honor key Democratic constituencies.

While only Congress can create a national park, the president and Congress have the authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

National parks were never about scenery alone. History was always part of the picture.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the National Park Service 100 years ago this week, Aug. 25, 1916, he brought together in the new bureau 35 parks and monuments and those yet to be established.

The purpose was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife . . . by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today we’re all better off because we have more than 400 national park areas.

We’re fortunate Congress thought to preserve historic objects and places as well as beautiful vistas. And we can thank the National Park Service for finding ways to help us understand all aspects of the American experience and reinterpreting historical events as times – and passions -- change.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Read now, live longer -- and more good news about books -- Aug. 18, 2016 column


A young woman walking in my neighborhood the other morning had her eyes not on her phone, playing Pokémon Go, but on the page of a book.

“Must be a good book,” I said as we passed, catching a glimpse of the cover. “Oh, it is!” she assured me.

It was a romance novel – but no judging. It cheered me immensely to see a millennial so engrossed in a physical book that she couldn’t bear to put it down.

Evidently, she’s not alone. There’s good news, finally, about books. We can stop writing the obituary for the physical book.

Retail sales at bookstores were up 6.1 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of last year, according to the Census Bureau.  

And 2015 was healthy too, with bookstore sales up 2.5 percent over 2014, the first annual increase since 2007, Publishers Weekly reports.

Spurring sales in 2015 was the No. 1 bestseller “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s first book since “To Kill a Mockingbird.” People had been waiting 55 years.

This year’s presidential election has juiced bookstores with political tomes. The top four non-fiction books on this week’s New York Times best seller list are anti-Clinton or anti-progressive. 

Physical books outsold ebooks last year for the second consecutive year, with revenue from hardbacks up 8 percent, the Association of American Publishers reported last month in its annual survey.

People are also listening to more books. Revenues from downloaded audio books have nearly doubled since 2012, the publishers’ survey found.

Even more surprising in the era of modernistic temples to Apple: Dusty, used bookshops are a hot new retail venue. Among the cities where used bookshops are making a comeback are New York, Washington and Richmond, Va., according to news reports.

“There’s a used bookstore renaissance going on in New York City right now,” Benjamin Friedman, co-owner of a bookstore café in Queens, told The Wall Street Journal, whose reporter Anne Kadet last month counted more than 30 used bookshops in the city, and more than 50 when she included rare-book dealers.

For me, few pastimes are more enjoyable than browsing books, new or used, in bookstores. I recently was in a used bookstore in Staunton, Va., where an old – make that classic -- jazz record was playing on a turntable. Perfect!

If “vinyl” can be cool, why not books with paper pages? The White House said President Barack Obama took five books with him on vacation.

For the first time, The New York Times devoted a special section of the full-sized paper to an excerpt from the acclaimed new novel, “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, and said it was the first of an occasional series of long excerpts from new books.

“Though we are excited by innovations like virtual reality and digital storytelling, we also recognize the lasting power of the broadsheet,” the editor wrote. The section was “a special ink-on-paper product, one not available in digital form. It is finite and tactile; to read it you must have gotten your hands on the Sunday paper.”

Think about that. The Times made something available only in the newspaper, making paper more valuable than digital. Brilliant.

Here’s another bit of good news about books: People who read books live longer than those who don’t, a Yale study reports.

The study of 3,635 people 50 and older over 12 years found that book readers lived longer than non-book readers. Those who read books for three-and-a-half hours a week or more – half an hour a day -- lived on average almost two years longer than those who didn’t read books or just read newspapers and magazines.

Reading books promotes “deep reading,” engaging the brain more than newspapers or magazines do, and can foster empathy and other traits that lead to greater survival, Avni Bavishi, Martin D. Slade and Becca R. Levy wrote in their study, “A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity.”

“We also found that any book reading gives a survival advantage over no book reading,” Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, said in an email.

There’s never been a better time to crack open a book – and you may live longer to read more.  

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.