Thursday, July 29, 2010

All we need is mojo -- July 29, 2010 column


If we Americans “get our mojo back over the next several months,” President Obama said on “The View,” “then I’m absolutely confident that we are going to be doing terrific.”

It may have been the first time a sitting president had visited a daytime TV talk show, but Obama was hardly the first to try to brighten a gloomy midterm campaign season.

During the dark slog of the 1982 recession, Ronald Reagan shined his famous optimism coast to coast on behalf of Republican candidates. A couple of weeks before voters went to the polls, Reagan conceded that Americans weren’t out of the recession yet, but he insisted things were looking up. There was no need to listen to the doom-peddlers.

After all, Reagan said in a radio address Oct. 23, “Yesterday, a leading bank lowered its prime rate to 11½ percent, and others will soon follow.”

That’s right: Eleven and a half percent. There you have it. Progress is a matter of perspective and presentation.

We may be struggling through our own deep recession and soaring unemployment, but the prime rate today hovers mercifully around 3 ¼ percent.

Obama is probably right that we need our mojo back, but the country needs more than talk of joie de vivre. Americans need jobs and a sense of security and possibility.

Mojo and momentum, like favorable winds, have been at Republican backs this year. Republicans benefit from the historical trend that the president’s party almost always loses seats in off-year elections. Democrats warn sourly of serious erosion in the House and perhaps loss of control to Republicans.

It’s worth remembering that in 1982, Republicans were in the minority and lost 26 seats in the House, and it was considered a victory of sorts, considering the dreary economy. The Great Communicator’s popularity plummeted below 50 percent during his first two years in office and yet he roared back to re-election. Obama’s approval ratings have nearly tracked Reagan’s. Democrats hope that means he could bounce back too.

In the 1994 midterm elections, President Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 52 House seats, and he too won re-election two years later.

To be sure, it’s a stretch to liken 2010 to previous years. Circumstances are always different. The economy is just one difficulty facing the country. Lasting wars on two fronts have alienated the Democrats’ core constituency.

Obama contends he’s doing what’s right and not necessarily what’s popular -- but he has done a poor job of making the case for a larger role for government. Critics have hammered the Obama-is-a-failure line.

Polls show a majority now favors Republican control of Congress. Six in 10 voters say they don’t trust Obama to make the right decisions.

Reagan, in contrast, struck a chord with Americans with his easy formulation that government is the problem -- not the solution. Naturally, it’s more popular to give people a tax cut than to take one away.

Some Republicans even suggest that people are nostalgic for President George W. Bush and his policies.

“President Bush’s stock is going up a lot since he left office,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a C-SPAN interview recently. People appreciate Bush’s resolve and commitment to national security after Sept. 11, Cornyn said.

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a TV interview that the country needs to “go back to the exact agenda that is empowering the free enterprise system rather than diminishing it.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seized on the Sessions sound bite for an ad charging that Republicans want to take the country backwards.

Praising Bush may be a Republican strategy to defuse bombshells from Bush’s memoir, to be published in November. Excerpts from “Decision Point” could be an October surprise. Obama is still running against Bush, even though neither is on the ballot.

Four days before the ’82 election, Reagan wowed crowds of Republicans saying, “This morning America awoke to see another patch of blue…” By 1984, he was talking of “morning in America.”

We’ll see if Obama finds the right words to help Americans rediscover their mojo.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A teachable moment on race -- July 22, 2010 column


Vilified, then vindicated, Shirley Sherrod did what Americans do in such circumstances. She made the rounds of TV and cable talk shows.

Unlike most people on the talk circuit, however, Sherrod actually had something to say – and teach.

Within about 24 hours, she had been accused of racism and fired from her Agriculture Department job, then bathed in apologies and offered a new job. Sherrod, 62, who is black, wanted to talk to President Obama and clue him in:

“He’s not someone who has experienced some of the things I have experienced through my life, being a person of color. He might need to hear some of what I could say to him,” she said on ABC.

“I don’t know if that would guide him in dealing with others like me…” she said. The implication, was that this embarrassing episode could be a teachable moment for the president.

Obama did call Sherrod Thursday, and he apologized. They talked for all of seven minutes.

If there’s one thing people didn’t expect in electing the first black president, it’s that he would need tips on understanding the African-American experience. But there’s a sense he is removed from ordinary experience.

He “hasn’t lived the kind of life I’ve lived,” Sherrod said on CNN. “He’s part African American … (but) he really, where the rubber meets the road, needs to understand what life is really like.”

Obama was born in Honolulu and grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii. His age – he turns 49 Aug. 4 -- and his Ivy League education also set him apart from many who lived through the civil rights era.

So far, hopes that he would usher in a post-racial era haven’t materialized. Speeches aside, he has been less than sure-footed on race.

Last summer, Obama stumbled when his friend and black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested – “stupidly,” the president said -- by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer. A “beer summit” photo op at the White House followed.

This week, the administration jumped to conclusions and fired Sherrod after viewing a 2-minute video clip from a 43-minute speech Sherrod gave in March to an NAACP group in Georgia. The clip, posted on the Web by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, seemed to show Sherrod describing a time in the 1980s when, working for a non-profit agency, she had done less than she could to help a white farmer facing foreclosure.

No one at the NAACP, the White House or Agriculture bothered to watch Sherrod’s entire remarks before concluding she was a racist and had to go. The news media and bloggers ran to keep up with events without checking into the facts.

Spurred by fear that Fox News host Glenn Beck would take up the story, the administration pushed out Sherrod, the first black director of federal rural development efforts in Georgia.

Her speech in its entirety shows a woman whose personal story of forgiveness and redemption is interwoven with the nation’s civil rights struggle. Growing up on a farm in Georgia in the 1960s, Sherrod dreamt of leaving the fields and heading north.

Then, in June 1965, when she was 17, a white man murdered her father, shooting him in the back in a dispute over cows. Her mother was seven months pregnant with her sixth child. Sherrod said she vowed that night to stay in the South and devote her life to working for social change.

Her father’s death went unpunished. Despite three witnesses, the Grand Jury refused to indict anyone. White men burned a cross on the family’s lawn, Sherrod said.

After college, she began helping black Georgia farmers keep their land. She discovered after helping a white man save his farm that the true fight was not between blacks and whites but between haves and have nots. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now in his 80s, is still grateful.

“It’s not just about black people; it’s about poor people,” she said in the speech. “I’ve come to realize we have to work together.”

With the full content of the speech known, the NAACP said it had been “snookered” by the reports, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack apologized. Vilsack offered Sherrod a job in race relations, but she was skeptical. She said she doesn’t want to be the one person charged with cleaning up discrimination at USDA.

But she could use her moment to teach the president about race.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the FCC, indecent speech and the pig -- July 15, 2010 column


Dear Big Brother, thanks for your help keeping the pig out of the parlor all this time, but we aren’t living in 1978 anymore. You’re excused.

That was the gist of a federal appeals court ruling Tuesday on the government’s power to police indecent speech on TV.

This, as Joe Biden might say in the East Room, is a big _____ deal.

The court struck down a Federal Communications Commission policy that allows the agency to fine broadcasters for “fleeting expletives,” those stray curse words that spring spontaneously from the mouths of celebrities.

The court said the FCC’s policy was unconstitutionally vague and could chill free speech by causing broadcasters to limit what people say on TV. The ruling likely will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The federal government has been struggling with what’s unfit for American ears at least since 2 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1973, when an FM radio station in New York played a recording of George Carlin’s 12-minute monologue, “Filthy Words,” about the seven words you couldn’t say on television.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC could fine the station’s owner for the broadcast. The high court, emphasizing the narrowness of its ruling, used a quaint and telling analogy.

“Nuisance may be merely the right thing in the wrong place – like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard. We simply hold that when the Commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene,” the Supreme Court wrote.

Part of its rationale was that TV held “a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans” and was accessible to children, even those too young to read a newspaper.

As part of its ongoing efforts to keep the pig out of the parlor, the FCC tightened its rules following Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” and several incidents of unscripted profanity. The new rule threatened "the heart of the First Amendment," the appeals court ruled.

"By prohibiting all `patently offensive' references to sex, sexual organs and excretion without giving adequate guidance as to what `patently offensive' means, the FCC effectively chills speech, because broadcasters have no way of knowing what the FCC will find offensive," the appeals court wrote in the decision in Fox Television Stations v. FCC.

The court noted how much has changed in three decades.

“Indeed, we face a media landscape that would have been almost unrecognizable in 1978.” The Internet was known only to a few guys at the Pentagon; YouTube, Twitter and Facebook weren’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Since January 2000, every TV 13 inches or larger has contained a V-chip, which enables parents to block TV programs based on a standard rating system. Digital converter boxes also contain the V-chip.

The Supreme Court had sent Fox Television v. FCC back to the 2nd Circuit after ruling that the FCC had not acted capriciously in changing its policy. The Supreme Court did not address the rule’s constitutionality.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps blasted the appellate court’s decision as “anti-family” and said the court focused on the policy’s chilling effect on broadcasters when it should have focused on “the chilling effect today’s decision will have on the ability of American parents to safeguard the interests of their children.”

The 32-page decision, however, portrays the FCC as wrestling over when a word is OK and when it’s indecent. Different standards prevailed for different circumstances. Words deemed OK in a news interview or a war movie like “Saving Private Ryan” would be unacceptable in a music documentary about “The Blues” or an awards program.

The appeals court cited that uncertainty in its ruling. It left open the possibility that the FCC might be able to craft a rule that is constitutional.

The case raises questions about the role of government in the 21st century. We don’t need a Big Brother censor in the world of the V-chip, numberless Web sites and cable TV stations. And many who want TV language policed also decry the nanny state and insist they want a less intrusive federal government

The pig may be in the parlor to stay, but we still have the power to turn off the TV.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Frustrations spew in oil-spill summer -- July 8, 2010 column


She was on Metro after work, heading home, when a complete stranger got in her face and blurted, “Why aren’t you in the gulf? Why aren’t you guys doing anything?”

The target of the verbal attack was a young woman whose mistake in this summer of the oil spill was wearing her federal I.D. card. It identified her as working for the Environmental Protection Agency.

No matter that she’s a gentle scientist whose area of responsibility is far from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

With up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day still spewing and no relief from the environmental crisis in sight, some people are so frustrated they’re venting their frustrations on random bureaucrats they see in Washington’s subway system.

“They take it out on the low-level people who have nothing to do with the oil spill or the clean-up,” the woman told me.

Confrontations are rare, thankfully, but without doubt the worsening oil disaster has shaken people’s confidence in government. There’s an eerie, anxious similarity to the Iran hostage crisis, when another president was tested. Jimmy Carter’s powerlessness to bring the hostages home proved to be his undoing.

Starting in November 1979, the news media began counting the days Americans were held hostage in Iran. The crisis dominated the news for 444 days and helped make Carter a one-term president. Today, media outlets count off each day of the oil disaster. President Barack Obama vows to kick someone’s ass, and oil still poisons the water and coats defenseless waterfowl. Tar balls soil beaches.

More than half of Americans disapprove of Obama’s response to the oil spill, and more than eight in 10 think BP is doing a poor job responding, an Associated Press-GfK poll found last month.

The AP also reported that some BP employees have stopped wearing the company’s green-and-yellow logo. A BP security official sent a memo warning workers to keep a low profile, watch when walking to their cars at night and avoid conversations that could turn nasty.

Taking frustration out on workers – whether for BP or the government – is senseless, of course, and won’t plug the leak. But what can we do? Jesse Jackson and others proposed a boycott of BP gas stations, but the idea turned out to be counterproductive. A boycott would hurt individual franchisees and their employees, not BP.

People expect, at the least, that the White House will fight for a cleaner environment. A report by House Republicans charged that the administration cared more for favorable public opinion than about cleanup.

A report by Republican staffers of the House oversight committee said the White House’s oil spill PR campaign had hurt the cleanup. After interviewing local officials and reviewing documents, the staffers said “the situation in the Gulf is actually more dysfunctional and dire than what has been portrayed through official reports and press accounts…This blurring of reality is exacerbating problems with the clean-up effort.”

The report said “local officials describe White House outreach efforts as more focused on stopping bad press than on addressing the disaster at hand.”

It’s an election year, and the White House dismissed the GOP report. Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, insisted that the oil spill information he has given in numerous press briefings was accurate.

For its part, the government honed its PR efforts. Allen launched a new Web site Wednesday. describes itself as the official federal portal for spill response and recovery. It provides information about state-specific cleanup efforts and a place to file claims and submit suggestions.

Already up are spill-oriented Web, Facebook and Twitter pages run by EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies. The new site will replace, jointly run by BP, Transocean and 14federal agencies and departments.

A new, “streamlined” Web site may look good, but it will do little to restore public confidence. Americans won’t begin to relax until oil stops gushing, but even then, we’ll face years of cleanup.

For now, people count the days of the disaster, and one EPA employee takes off her ID card and shoves it in her purse before she gets on Metro. She doesn’t want strangers to know where she works.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

SPICES for health -- AARP Bulletin

AARP and the Baptist General Convention join forces in Virginia to improve health for African Americans. Read my story on the SPICES program in the AARP Bulletin:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More freedom today or less? -- July 1, 2010 column


Senate confirmation hearings often show us more about senators and the state of the country than about the nominee. The Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Elena Kagan was no exception.

While not suspenseful – everybody agreed Kagan’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was inevitable – the election-year hearings gave Democrats and Republicans a chance to remind core supporters why they should care.

Democrats posed questions aimed at letting the first woman Solicitor General and first woman dean of Harvard law school shine. Republicans tried to provoke her into saying something – anything! – revelatory of her political or personal views.

Kagan, though, wasn’t into confession. Through 500 questions during 17 hours on the hot seat, she remained calm, confident and deft with a quip.

But the hearings did reveal a sharp contrast in views about a quintessentially American theme: freedom.

An exchange involving Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Amy Klochubar, D-Minn., exposed a fault line around the question: Are Americans freer today than 30 years ago?

Coburn, a physician from Muskogee who is 62, thinks not. He waxed nostalgic about Americans’ freedom in 1980 and asked Kagan how her freedom three decades ago compares with her freedom today.

Kagan stalled. She hadn’t really thought about that before, she said. “How old was I 30 years ago?”

“You were 20,” Coburn supplied helpfully.

Coburn argues that health-care reform, with its requirement that individuals purchase health insurance, impinges on personal freedom. He likened the health-insurance requirement to a hypothetical congressional mandate that people eat three fruits and three vegetables a day. Would such a law be constitutional? he asked.

That would be a “dumb law,” Kagan said, sidestepping.

Coburn and other conservatives blame overreaching government programs for Americans’ waning confidence in government. Only 22 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress, he said.

“A lot of Americans are losing confidence because they’re losing freedom,” Coburn opined.

Enter Klochubar, who like Kagan was 20 in 1980. She called Coburn out on the freedom question.

“Were we really more free, if you were a woman in 1980?” Klochubar asked.

In 1980, there was only one woman in the Senate and no women on the Supreme Court. A woman senator did not get a seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee until after Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

Freedom, Klochubar said, is in the eye of the beholder.

And Kagan, who hadn’t answered Coburn directly, allowed that women do have more freedom today.

Klochubar asked Kagan about progress toward women’s equality. Women make up 50 percent of law school students around the country, but very few have attained leadership roles, Kagan said. There’s also not enough diversity in law firms, said Kagan, who avoided blaming anyone but cited structural obstacles, such as how to balance work and family.

We hear little today about government’s role in achieving women’s equality or freedom. These days, most of the loud talk about freedom comes from the political right. Polls find that large groups of voters are frustrated and fear their rights are being eroded. Republicans and tea-partiers decry President Obama’s policies as usurping individual rights. Talk show hosts dine regularly on the demise of freedom.

“We’re watching freedom evaporate and erode every day right in front of our eyes,” Rush Limbaugh declared the other day.

Nearly half of Americans – 48 percent -- see the government as a threat to individual rights rather than as a protector of those rights, according to a new Rasmussen Reports survey.

And yet, the survey shows a sharp partisan divide. Among Republicans, 74 percent consider government a threat to individual rights. Among Democrats, however, 64 percent regard government as a protector of rights.

Notably, Democrats see Arizona’s anti-immigrant law as eroding civil rights. The American Civil Liberties Union, whose slogan is “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself,” urges supporters to donate because, “The need has never been greater for freedom-loving people to support the ACLU.”

Those who decide elections are split too. The Rasmussen survey found 51 percent of independent or unaffiliated voters believe government is a threat to individual rights.

Interestingly, “men strongly believe it is more important for the government to protect individual rights, while women are almost evenly divided on the question,” according to the survey.

Here’s a question for your next backyard barbecue: Are Americans freer today than 30 years ago?

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.