Thursday, May 27, 2010

On Memorial Day, Dixie and Obama -- May 27, 2010 column


Ah, Memorial Day--pools, picnics, parades, and everybody gets to weigh in on the Memorial Day controversy.

No, I don’t mean the dust-up over whether President Barack Obama should be in Washington Monday to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

His right-wing critics have fussed mightily over the president’s decision to spend the weekend in Chicago with his family. On Monday he’ll participate in a service at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill., and Vice President Joe Biden will lay the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Other presidents – including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush -- missed Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington without the collapse of the Republic. To me Obama’s absence is a non-issue. I can’t see how the president dishonors fallen troops or disrespects the military by commemorating Memorial Day in Illinois.

The controversy I’m referring to is whether Obama should continue the presidential tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day. His left wing critics are accusing Obama of being part of a “chain of racism stretching back to Woodrow Wilson.”

Last year, more than 60 historians and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson and former 1960s radical Bill Ayers, signed a letter asking the president to stop sending the wreath, which began when Woodrow Wilson attended the monument’s dedication in 1914. Every president since has sent a wreath, traditionally on the birthday of Jefferson Davis in June.

In 2003, then-President Bush switched delivery to Memorial Day. An erroneous report in Time magazine that Bush had reinstated delivery of the wreath caused a predictable uproar.

Last Memorial Day, Obama laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and had a wreath delivered to the Confederate memorial. He also sent a wreath to a memorial in Washington that honors African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The White House did not comment on the anti-wreath petition.

Chuck McMichael, commander in chief of Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., reportedly sent Obama a thank-you note. Foes say sending the wreath symbolically aids and abets the “neo-Confederate agenda.” They argue that the monument, which was built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, is less about honoring the dead than about legitimizing secession and glorifying the ideals of the Confederacy.

Last month, a smaller group of historians and scholars again wrote Obama, repeating their no-wreath request and asking that the federal government remove the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, the government’s equivalent of the United Way. The letter also asked that the Sons not be allowed to host events for the U.S. Army or participate in Junior ROTC programs in high schools.

Memorial Day honors all who died in the military, but it began to honor the sacrifices of the Civil War. The first National Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery was in 1868, although more than two dozen cities, some in the North but more in the South, claim they put flowers on Civil War graves before that.

Arlington National Cemetery began on 200 acres once owned by Robert E. Lee and, according to the cemetery’s Web site, “For many years following the war, the bitter feelings between North and South remained, and although hundreds of Confederate soldiers were buried at Arlington, it was considered a Union cemetery. Family members of Confederate soldiers were denied permission to decorate their loved ones' graves and in extreme cases were even denied entrance to the cemetery.”

Over the years, Congress set aside an area for the Confederate dead and later approved the Confederate memorial. In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. In 1971, Memorial Day became a federal holiday.

Obama was right to send a wreath to the African-American memorial if he wanted to continue the Confederate wreath tradition. Others likely will disagree, but a calm discussion of the issues will be good practice for the Civil War sesquicentennial.

To find common ground on the war’s 150th anniversary, we can start by talking about flowers.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Let scientists be scientists -- May 20, 2010 column


To try to keep scientific research free of politicians’ whims, the National Science Foundation is an independent government agency, not an arm of the White House. By design, NSF’s director has a six-year term that does not coincide with presidential election years.

Now celebrating its 60th anniversary, NSF has supported science and engineering research that has yielded innovations ranging from American Sign Language to magnetic resonance imagery and cloud computing. NSF grants have helped 187 Nobel Prize winners.

Of course, no entity that relies on elected officials could ever be free of political shenanigans. Two recent anti-science episodes are reminders that we should vote carefully.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are playing games with reauthorization of the America COMPETES law, which funds NSF and science programs in other departments. House Republicans derailed the bill May 13 by forcing a vote on an anti-porn measure attached to the bill. Democrats were faced with either voting against punishing federal workers who view porn on the job or for funding science at the full, $85 billion level.

Scared Democrats voted for the anti-porn provision, prompting the House leadership to pull the bill. On Wednesday, a second attempt to pass the bill failed, even though Democrats had agreed to the anti-porn measure and to curtail the reauthorization period to three years instead of five, slashing its costs.

Such election-year posturing is mild mischief compared with what’s happening across the Potomac.

In Virginia, a scientist’s ethics and motives are under attack. Among the researchers NSF has supported over the years is Dr. Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University who formerly was on the University of Virginia faculty.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who does not believe human activity causes climate change, is using the power of the state to investigate whether Mann used fraudulent data in seeking grants and conducting his research into climate change.

Cuccinelli is following up on “climate-gate.” Last November, hackers broke into the electronic files of the Climatic Research Center in England and posted private e-mails from scientists engaged in research, including Mann. Some e-mails scorned climate-change skeptics and others were frank discussions about global warming research.

Critics said the e-mails proved that the scientists were cooking their data to make it appear that humans were responsible for global warming. The scientists said the messages were taken out of context and were just honest exchanges.

Faking data is an extremely serious charge, and the British House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, Penn State and other scientific groups have looked into “climate-gate.” All have exonerated the scientists, including Mann. The findings from these and other investigations of Mann over the years have failed to satisfy critics; they always claim a whitewash.

To go after Mann, Cuccinelli is using a state law aimed at cracking down on contractors who provide false invoices to bilk the state. He has issued the equivalent of a subpoena, asking the University of Virginia to turn over a huge collection of Mann’s e-mails, notes and other documents relating to five grants he had there from 1999 to 2005. Two were NSF grants, two were from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one was a university Excellence in Science and Technology grant.

The university has engaged legal counsel. An array of prestigious, national scientific groups and more than 800 scientists and academics in Virginia have written Cuccinelli to protest his fishing expedition.

To be more than fair to politicians, part of the problem may be a misunderstanding of the scientific method. The Union of Concerned Scientists has explained that, “Any individual e-mail discussion or scientific paper may legitimately contain speculations or arguments that later turn out to be false. This is completely routine and should not be taken as evidence of fraud, much less evidence against climate change.”

So far, Cuccinelli has dug in his heels. In a statement Wednesday on the Mann matter, Cuccinelli declared, “This is about rooting out possible fraud and not about infringing upon academic freedom.” The university has until July 26 to turn over Mann’s notes and e-mails.

Sixty years ago, politicians had the wisdom to set science apart from politics. Now more than ever, politicians should set politics apart from science -- and let scientists be scientists.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Elena Kagan's New York story -- May 13, 2010 column


Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s latest choice for the Supreme Court, was the first woman dean of Harvard Law School and first woman solicitor general of the United States. By all accounts, she’s smart, good with people, open-minded and a bridge-builder.

Perhaps it’s progress that Kagan lacks one thing we’ve come to expect of women who make it to the Supreme Court: the compelling, personal story. She has worked hard, granted, but where’s her inspiring tale of triumphantly beating the odds – and should it matter?

Kagan is no Sandra Day O’Connor. The court’s first woman justice, tapped by Ronald Reagan in 1981, grew up on a ranch in Arizona 25 miles from the nearest neighbors. After she excelled at Stanford Law School, she looked for work at law firms only to be asked if she could type. She entered Republican politics instead and brought to the court the perspectives of a state legislator and county and state judge.

Then again, Kagan is no Sonia Sotomayor. Obama’s first pick for the Supreme Court grew up in the tenements of the South Bronx, where, watching “Perry Mason” on TV, she vowed to become a judge. She got a full scholarship to Princeton University, felt overwhelmed, found her footing, graduated with honors and went to Yale Law School. She became a prosecutor and later was named a federal district and appellate court judge.

Kagan, the daughter of a Yale-educated lawyer and a teacher, grew up in a third-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She attended an elite, public, all-girls high school, went to Princeton, received a fellowship to Oxford University, then chose Harvard for law school. She met Obama while teaching at the University of Chicago. She worked on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton White House.

Pragmatic, cautious, calculating and strategic – these are words often used to describe Kagan, by her friends. She plays her cards close.

After a summer of partisan sniping, she probably will gain Senate confirmation and become the third sitting woman justice from New York. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is from Brooklyn.

Obama said that with Kagan, the court will be “more reflective of us as a people than ever before.”

Kagan’s “appreciation of diverse views” may come in handy as a Mets fan serving with Sotomayor, a Yankees’ fan, Obama said.

Such comments may say more about Obama’s view of the country than about Kagan. There’s nothing wrong with a New York or an Ivy League tilt to the court – as long as the justices know not only the law but the struggles Americans face every day.

Trying to humanize Kagan, Obama said she sees the law “not as an intellectual exercise or words on a page, but as it affects the lives of ordinary people.” That, however, is hard to know.

She has never been a judge, and her academic writings are few. She has lived her professional life in an orbit Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas described as “Harvard Square, Hyde Park and the DC Beltway.”

“These are not places where one learns how ordinary people live,” Cornyn said in a statement.

But Cornyn isn’t necessarily right. To be sure, Kagan’s experiences are different from many Americans. At Hunter College High School, located on two floors of a midtown Manhattan office building, “There was no driver’s ed, there was no home economics, you didn’t learn to type,” a former student told the New York Times. “You were reading great books and you were going to college.”

Kagan dressed in judge’s robes for her high school yearbook picture. And, she wrote after the 1980 elections: “Where I grew up – on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans.”

But parochialism isn’t disqualifying.

Still, it would be reassuring to know that Kagan is wise as well as smart, that she knows life is about more than ambition and goals. Sotomayor, 55, who is divorced, likes parties and Salsa dancing. Little is known about Kagan, 50, who is single. A flurry of news reports that Kagan might be gay was knocked down by her friends. The Times reports that she loves opera, plays poker, has a wry sense of humor and used to smoke cigarettes.

Kagan will have ample opportunity in confirmation hearings to share her personal thoughts and world views, but don’t count on it. She’s a woman who apparently has spent her life walking through Central Park without disturbing any leaves.

Elena Kagan already may understand and appreciate the vast American experience. If not, she may have decades on the court to explore the country’s rich variety. I hope she sees value in doing so.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The blame game lives -- May 6, 2010 column


“They always blame America first,” Jeane Kirkpatrick said in 1984, describing Democrats.

With those five words at the Republican National Convention, Kirkpatrick, the United Nations representative, gave the GOP a shorthand way to express a cultural divide. Democrats were all too eager to find fault with the country, while Republicans were patriotic and true.

Like all slogans, the phrase over-simplified reality, but it worked.

Today, Republicans describe the us-versus-them divide in two words: Blame Obama. The idea is that a president who is not “like us” – born where? -- is leading “our” country in the wrong direction.

A headline on the Opinion page of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal read, “Blame Obama. Why Not?”

Don’t get me wrong. Democrats blamed President George W. Bush. Presidents can rely on hearing two things: “Hail to the Chief” and criticism.

In retirement, Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the Kansas City Star of May 7, 1918: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

But Roosevelt didn’t stop there. He set a higher standard for presidential criticism, and this is where it gets interesting.

“Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else,” TR wrote.

Nothing but the truth about the president? Is that even possible? In the early 20th century, truth in politics evidently seemed absolute, knowable and certain. A century later, truth is like beauty or pornography: It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Obama has been criticized for failing to make good on his campaign promises – and for delivering on them. Opponents attack from all sides. He reached too far to overhaul the nation’s health-care system -- and not far enough to achieve a public option. He overspent on economic stimulus -- but created too few jobs. He bailed out the banks – but wants to re-regulate the financial industry. He failed to act to curb illegal immigration – and caused Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law.

Rush Limbaugh even blamed Obama for South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s disappearance last June to Argentina while claiming to be on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t ask; it was silly.

The latest Blame Obama attacks are the BP oil spill, a.k.a. “Obama’s Katrina” and the successful, but just barely, capture of the alleged would-be Times Square bomber. Details of both events are still unfolding, but the Blame Obama game is going full throttle.

In the case of Faisal Shahzad, critics say Obama nearly let the suspect slip out of the country -- and that authorities read him his Miranda rights too soon.

In the oil spill incident, Michael Brown, who did a heck of a job as FEMA director during Hurricane Katrina, has surfaced to blast Obama for what Brown claims is a slow response. Republican congressional leaders are calling for an investigation of the administration’s response -- not that the probe would have anything to do with the midterm elections. Some say Obama dragged his feet responding to the spill on purpose -- to torpedo his own policy of expanding off-shore drilling.

The White House vigorously denies any delay and has posted a lengthy spill response timeline on the White House blog. It depicts a struggle to keep up with a gathering storm that began with a search-and-rescue mission and became an environmental disaster.

Facts form the truth, but which facts? In our hyper-wired age, other people’s ideas and interpretations of facts bombard us. The meaner and nastier the spin, the more authority it claims. We seem determined to believe the worst about each other.

It wasn’t always so. Here’s another quaint idea from Roosevelt: “The average American knows not only that he himself intends to do what is right, but that his average fellow countryman has the same intention and the same power to make his intention effective.”

If we all believed that our fellow countrymen shared our good intentions and had the same power to make them real, we wouldn’t need to divide ourselves with tired slogans like Blame America First or Blame Obama.

(c)2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.