Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reclaiming Declaration's promise -- June 24, 2010 column


Independence Day brings more than a long holiday weekend for cookouts and concerts, flags and fireworks. This year, especially, it’s a chance to step back from our cares and reflect on the inspiring history of our country.

Recent polls confirm a sobering fact: Americans are less optimistic than we were a decade ago or even last year. Nearly two in three Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. People are angry, and they want change. Generally viewed in political terms, the sour national mood affects more than the fall elections; it speaks to our national identity. We need a tonic.

On the 234th anniversary of our severing ties with Great Britain, we can reclaim the promise of the Declaration of Independence and savor its assertion of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We don’t need to shout, wave Old Glory or wear a flag pin – but we also need not take as gospel Samuel Johnson’s line that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Everybody loses when only the grumpiest speak out about what it means to love this country.

Negativity pays, of course. Commentators make a handsome living tearing down our leaders and dividing us from one another. And there’s no shortage of people to blame after years of recession, joblessness, housing and energy crises, and war on two fronts.

In April, 64 percent of Americans said they were optimistic about life for themselves and their families over the next 40 years. That number was down substantially from 1999 when 81 percent said they were optimistic.

Asked about the long-term future of the United States, in April 61 percent were optimistic and 36 percent pessimistic. A decade ago, 70 percent were optimistic.

The survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and Smithsonian magazine also found several upbeat predictions. People think that by 2050 we’ll find a cure for cancer, ordinary people will travel in space, and computers will chat like humans.

And yet, the future holds bleak prospects too. Many under 30 expect World War III by 2050. People expect a warmer planet, energy shortages and the risk of a major nuclear attack on the United States, the Pew survey reported.

As for the economy, 56 percent predicted it will be stronger in 2050. But that was down from 64 percent in 1999. Bear in mind that this recession began in December 2007. In 1999, we were enjoying the longest-lasting economic expansion in decades.

The Pew survey was taken just after the Gulf oil spill occurred. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted June 17 to 21 found majorities dissatisfied with the spill response by the federal government, Congress and BP. President Barack Obama’s job approval rating, 70 percent when he took office, dropped to a dismal 45 percent.

But tough times shouldn’t stop us from commemorating how far we’ve come.

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail from Philadelphia that the “Declaration of Independency” should be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great festival “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” I’ve modernized his spelling and punctuation.

Across the country, Independence Day means parades and patriotic music and readings. In Washington, the National Archives -- where the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights are on display -- will extend viewing hours until 9 p.m. on July 2, 3 and 4.

Adams, clear-eyed about the new country, wrote his wife, “You will think me transported with enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these states.

“Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”

In 2010, as we endure our own troubles, we could do worse than reread the Declaration and recommit ourselves its promise: “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Gulf Coast our 21st century Appalachia? -- June 17, 2010 column


Barack Obama was not yet born in 1960 when young John F. Kennedy, campaigning for president in West Virginia, saw hungry children, men without jobs or hope, and streets with boarded-up houses.

Stunned by the poverty and grateful for the landslide victory the state’s Protestant voters gave him in the primary, Kennedy never forgot. As president, he steered the nation on a path to boost economic development in Appalachia that’s still going strong after half a century.

Today, another young president’s eyes have been opened to devastation in a different region. Stung by criticism that he has shown too little emotion about the BP oil spill, President Obama is making the Gulf Coast his Appalachia. After several visits to the Gulf Coast to assess the widening damage, Obama Tuesday declared “a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.”

Beyond BP’s compensation for people whose livelihoods have been disrupted, Obama said in his Oval Office address, “it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.”

In April 1963, JFK created what became known as the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission and called for an economic development action plan. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act. Every president since has sent millions of dollars to the region to fight poverty and create economic growth.

Now comes Obama, who has named Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, to work with states, communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents to design a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan.

Few details of what Obama envisions have emerged, but one thing is clear. He’s setting a priority that could long outlast his time in the White House.

Obama says he wants to help Gulf Coast residents recover from the economic disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and to help people keep the way of life generations have enjoyed. The twin tasks of repairing the environment and the economy will be harder than fighting poverty in Appalachia.

A key difference between aid for the Gulf Coast and Appalachia is the source of the money. Obama insists that BP will foot the bills for Gulf Coast restoration. And yet, taxpayers often wind up footing bills they didn’t see coming.

Environmental damage to the fragile Gulf Coast region began long before the oil spill. Louisiana loses a football field of land every 38 minutes, the Associated Press reported. Obama proposed $40 million in his 2011 budget to begin restoring the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. Also under discussion is a massive, multi-billion-dollar project to redirect the flow of the Mississippi River and save wetlands.

In the days before 24-7 news and underwater Web cams, a book pricked America’s conscience. In 1962, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry M. Caudill about poverty in Kentucky shocked readers about life in the mountains. People found it unacceptable that Appalachians lived in deplorable conditions while many others basked in 1950s’ prosperity.

Typically, few people consider how much or how long we’ll pay to fix a problem. It’s safe to say nobody imagined millions of dollars would pour into Appalachia indefinitely. Obama in his 2011 budget proposed $76 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership.

To be sure, as agency budgets go, $76 million is small change. Nobody is suggesting it’s time to pull the plug on Appalachia. The regional commission gets good marks for administration, and there’s much work to be done. Appalachia, whose boundaries have been expanded over the years to include parts of 13 states ranging from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi, still has not achieved economic parity with the rest of the country. The recession has hit parts of Appalachia especially hard.

We will never know what would have happened in Appalachia had JFK not lifted up West Virginia and neighboring states. Conditions might be far worse than the double-digit joblessness that plagues many counties.

In 2010, a different region and a new crisis have captured our imaginations. Our hearts break over the plight of fishermen and sealife. Once again, Americans are compassionate. We’re emotional. We demand action on behalf of oil disaster victims.

But emotion is easy; accountability is hard. We need success.

Otherwise, Americans not yet born today will wonder in 50 years why Appalachia and the Gulf Coast are still suffering.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

So yesterday, that `year of the woman' in politics -- June 10, 2010 column


Commentators are trumpeting a “Year of the Woman!” in politics. Again.

This has less to do with the fact that several high-profile women won in Tuesday’s primaries than with the news media’s penchant for hanging labels on events. Not by chance have scandals since the 1970s been known as a –gate. It gives the news an easy story line.

The Year of the Woman recurs fairly regularly – see 1984, 1992 and 2008. Sometimes, there’s the Year of the Man – see Angry White. It’s always the Year of the Almighty Dollar, but you knew that.

For a while, 2010 looked like the year of the tea party activist, but a consensus is gathering around the women. Why?

Women no longer need their own political year. Women candidates generally avoid playing the gender card. It feels wrong to regard them as a surprising, new flavor of ice cream.

A woman’s political year is “so yesterday!” Unfortunately, “so yesterday!” is how would-be Republican senator Carly Fiorina of California described the hair of her opponent, the incumbent Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer. Fiorina was about to do a post-primary TV interview and thought the mic was off. Imagine that could happen.

OK, some things don’t change. The question is whether we now can retire the woman’s year cliché along with outmoded meow moments about hairstyles. And, enough already of speculation about Sarah Palin’s possible breast implants.

For evidence that women can play hard-ball politics, consider South Carolina. State Rep. Nikki Haley survived a racial slur and rumors of extramarital affairs to best three male opponents in the Republican primary for governor. She faces a run-off election June 22.

Currently, 90 women serve in Congress – 17 in the Senate and 73 in the House. The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center reports that 72 women hold statewide elected executive posts, and women make up 24 percent of the members of state legislatures.

It’s not parity, nor are we reliving 1992. That “year of the woman” followed the televised hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in which there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The number of women in the Senate jumped from two to six after that election.

Two women justices sit on the Supreme Court, and a third awaits confirmation. A woman is speaker of the House. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright likes to tell a story about women’s progress and attitudes of a younger generation.

A couple of years ago, Albright’s youngest granddaughter, who’s now 8, turned to her mother, Albright’s daughter, and asked what the big deal was about Grandma Maddie’s having been secretary of state.

“It’s a girl’s job, isn’t it?” the girl asked.

Albright served as the first woman secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Condoleezza Rice became the first African American and Republican woman secretary of state in 2005, and Hillary Clinton took the job last year.

Last fall, when Albright told the story at Harvard, she said she hopes we do have a man as secretary of state again sometime. “The question is whether a man can be secretary of state,” she said. Good one.

Senator, representative and governor are far from “girls’ jobs” yet, but nobody thinks they’re reserved for boys any more. The White House may have eluded Hillary Clinton in 2008, but her dogged pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination led John McCain to pluck Palin from obscurity in Alaska as the first Republican woman vice presidential candidate. Palin, who endorsed Haley and Fiorina, may be gearing up for a presidential run.

Gender politics are not on the radar screen this year. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.., survived a tough primary battle that tested the power of the incumbency and the clout of labor unions, which supported her opponent.

In Nevada, Republican Sharron Angle, a tea party-endorsed activist who is running against incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, has called for privatizing Social Security, eliminating the education department and dumping nuclear waste in her state.

In California, which has had two women senators since 1993, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina won the GOP Senate primary as an outsider and tough business person. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman whipped Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the Republican gubernatorial primary. To do so, billionaire Whitman spent nearly $80 million, much of it her own money.

It would be so yesterday to think of this as just another “year of the woman” in politics.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Our days of woes and roses -- June 3, 2010 column


By now, most people would agree that the most beautiful words in the English language are two we won’t hear anytime soon: pipe plugged.

Efforts nearly a mile under the surface of the Gulf of Mexico focus on containing the oil spill, not stopping it, while relief wells are drilled. It may be Labor Day before the wells are finished and Deepwater Horizon finally stops gushing oil. That’s if government officials are correct that this solution works.

A few Americans with legitimate claims for damages against BP will read what Dorothy Parker, the literary wit, said are the two most beautiful words in the English language: “check enclosed.” In this context, though, a check will be cold comfort for the families of the 11 men who died in the explosion, as well as for the fishermen and other businessmen and women whose livelihoods blew up with the rig.

The rest of us are passive victims of the oil disaster. Angry and sad, we have nowhere to turn for redress. Even if we could file a claim, we don’t want a check. We want to turn back the clock. We want what we wanted after 9/11 – to change the course of history so that the awful event never happened.

With the oil disaster, we would return to April 19, the day before the oil rig exploded, or long before that. We want a government that works on behalf of people and the planet, not corporate profits. We want effective safety rules and regulators who do their jobs. We want oil rig engineers who pay attention to warning signs.

We want what we’ve lost -- 11 lives, fairly clean seas, thriving sea life. And we want to give back our new-found, overarching sense of dread. That’s impossible too.

So we rail against BP, Transocean, Halliburton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the Minerals Management Service and, of course, President Obama. But, frankly, it’s hardly worth the breath. Spewing oil is poisoning our waters and fish, wetlands and beaches. We take it personally, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Most Americans are fed up. A friend wrote me the other day, “The oil spill is really getting under my skin.”

The president is angry and frustrated too. He keeps traveling to the Gulf Coast to show he cares. It may not be enough. He’s starting to look like the unlucky Jimmy Carter.

A wise man – my dad – often tells me not to worry about the things I can’t control. Like a lot of good advice, it’s hard to follow. We can’t control the woes that beset the globe, but that doesn’t mean we accept them. We make choices every day, and there we have some control.

Our choices won’t solve the world’s problems, but they can help us lead happier, healthier lives. Many Web sites offer tips for individuals who want to improve the environment or help others by volunteering. We don’t have to wait for Congress to pass an energy bill or for the next election. We can choose our path in the world.

Even small acts count. Before 6:30 on a lovely June morning, the radio newscaster warned that next up would be a disturbing news report about prison rape. That’s a terrible problem and one I don't need to know about before coffee. I turned off the radio. My choice.

It’s easy to become obsessed with BP’s live Web cam of the oil spill. I found myself returning to the vision of the fouled and murky netherworld, but why? I clicked away. My choice.

The novelist Henry James said the two most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon.

Our days of woes and roses are a good time to rediscover the simple pleasures of a summer afternoon. Maybe you choose to leave the car at home and ride a bike to the grocery store. Plant a tree. Join a walk or run for a good charity. Toss a ball in the back yard with a child. Go to the ball game and cheer the home team. Play croquet. Visit a cool (in both senses of the word) museum. Sit outside and listen to a concert. Most beaches are not oil-spoiled yet; walk barefoot walk in the sand. Make choices.

What’s your favorite way to a spend summer afternoon with family or friends? Write me and I’ll share some ideas in a future column.

© Marsha Mercer 2010. All rights reserved.

Food banks need your help -- AARP Bulletin

Times are tough for our neighbors who rely on government assistance and private food banks. Check out my story about Virginia food banks in the June AARP Bulletin.
Every state has similar stories.
Virginians: You can donate food items now -- and during AARP's Sept. 11 drive!
-- MM