Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy New Year: It's finally about the voters -- Dec. 28, 2011 column


President Huckabee.

Hold that thought when you see reporters all aflutter about the power of Iowa as Republicans gather in schools and firehouses Tuesday night to back their favorite presidential candidates.

Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the toast of Iowa Republicans – before he became just plain toast. John McCain limped to fourth place in the Hawkeye State.

It’s worth remembering that often when it comes to choosing presidential nominees, as Iowa goes, so goes Iowa.

In contested Democratic and Republican caucuses since the 1970s, Iowans have picked the eventual party nominees roughly half the time. In 2008, Barack Obama launched his flight to the White House by beating Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa.

The 2012 GOP contest already has gyrated more than a hoola hoop on a 8-year-old, and polls currently have Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battling for first place.

Mike Huckabee predicts a Ron Paul win – if the weather is foul. Paul’s supporters are “fanatical,” Huckabee says, and won’t let snow and ice derail their crusade.

Alas for Paul, the forecast favors fair-weather fans of Romney. Tuesday in Des Moines will be sunny with a high of 36 degrees, according to

A line from Winston Churchill in 1942 seems appropriate as we say goodbye to 2011 and welcome the new political year: “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

January marks the end of the 2012 presidential pregame show. For the last year, the focus has been on the collective “them” – politicians, pundits, pollsters and money men. The New Year is about “us” -- the voters.

“This election is really about you,” Rick Perry told young people in Muscatine, Iowa, the other day. “It’s not about me.” Now he tells us – after spending $2.86 million on TV ads in Iowa in December.

A so-called Super PAC that supports Romney poured only slightly less into ads in Iowa during the month, $2.85 million.

A week after Iowa, on Jan. 10, New Hampshire will vote in its first-in-the-nation primary. People in New Hampshire sometimes say that Iowa picks corn and New Hampshire picks presidents.

From 1952 to 1992, no candidate won the White House without first winning the New Hampshire primary. In ’92, Clinton declared himself the “Comeback Kid” after losing to Paul Tsongas and went on to the win the nomination and the presidency. In 2008, Hillary Clinton came back from her Iowa loss to win New Hampshire, but it wasn’t enough.

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts with a home in New Hampshire, is leading in Granite State polls. The question is how big a win he gets.

Should we care? Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly microcosms of the United States. Iowa skews older, and Iowa and New Hampshire are whiter than the country as a whole. New Hampshire is also richer and better educated than the United States.

Still, every four years the two states successfully battle to keep their roles as first deciders. They argue that their voters are more engaged and more knowledgeable about the candidates. Besides, someone has to start culling the field.

If Iowa and New Hampshire leave doubts, South Carolina and Florida follow with primaries on Jan. 21 and 31, respectively. Nevada’s caucuses are Feb. 4. And, on March 6, Super Tuesday, 10 states will hold contests, including Virginia, which has a primary. On March 13, Alabama and Mississippi weigh in with primaries.

And, in case you were worried, the candidates are slated to keep debating. Six GOP candidate debates are scheduled in January.

Some analysts predict the process for Republicans to pick their presidential nominee will be long and drawn out. Others say it will be quick work. And then comes the general election campaign.

If we learned anything in 2011, it’s that we don’t know – until the voters have their say.

Happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On politics, religion and the Jefferson Bible -- Dec. 21, 2011 column


Earlier this year, when presidential candidates claimed that God had “called” them to run for the White House, some people were offended. I couldn’t help thinking that God has a sense of humor.

But I wondered how people would react if the president – any president -- were sitting up nights in the White House, cutting out parts of the Bible he or she didn’t like. Many would find such handiwork a sacrilege and an outrage. I’d figure Thomas Jefferson had reached out for a chat.

Barack Obama is not busily reconstructing the New Testament, as far as we know. But in the White House in 1804 Jefferson started editing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with a pen knife or similar sharp instrument and carefully began pasting passages of Christ’s teachings by topic on paper.

Decades later, when he was 77 and living at Monticello, Jefferson produced an edited text of the Gospels. He created an 86-page volume of the life of Christ, parables and teachings by cutting and pasting passages from the New Testament in Greek, Latin, French and English. Jefferson left out the miracles and supernatural events, including the annunciation, angels, virgin birth and the Resurrection.

He titled his version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” had it bound in red leather and read it regularly.

The first volume Jefferson made has been lost, but the Smithsonian Institution bought the Jefferson Bible in 1895. It deteriorated over years, but after a year of restoration is on display at the National Museum of American History.

Like most people, I’d heard about the Jefferson Bible, but seeing the book that Jefferson himself made scrapbook style was a highlight of my museum experiences this year.

The exhibit, open through May 28, does what a visit to a museum should: It makes you think.

In our age, a presidential candidate’s ability to speak a foreign language is fodder for ridicule -- check out YouTube. Our politicians too often feel obliged to wear their faith on their sleeve.

Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain both claimed that God called them to run for president. Anita Perry, wife of Rick, said God spoke to her about a presidential bid, but her husband needed to see a “burning bush,” a reference to God’s first appearance to Moses.

Mitt Romney tells stories about his year spreading Mormonism in France. Newt Gingrich talks about converting to Catholicism after marrying his third wife, Callista, a Catholic. Gingrich admits to past extramarital affairs but says he has repented to God.

Gingrich even sent a letter to the head of a major evangelical group in Iowa recently, pledging “to uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse and respect for the marital bonds of others.”

All this likely would seem strange to Jefferson, who held his faith close. Lambasted as a “howling atheist” during the brutal presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson later described himself in a letter as “a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”

Scholars say Jefferson, like George Washington, was a deist who believed that a supreme being created the world and then stepped back. Jefferson called the Bible “the best book in the world” but believed its zealous authors had embellished the story of Jesus Christ.

Jefferson described his Bible project in a letter to John Adams as “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.”

The Smithsonian has published a facsimile edition of the Jefferson Bible, and versions are available from other publishers. The Jefferson Bible is available online at the Monticello site.

Jefferson’s views on religion were complex and he was reluctant to express them, says Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough in Smithsonian magazine. Clough quotes Jefferson: “I not only write nothing on religion,” he told a friend, “but rarely permit myself to speak on it.”

Smart man, that Jefferson.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Assuming the worst? It's not necessary -- Dec. 15, 2011 column


In a holiday mood, my friend Veronica called her brother who lives in another state. After they chatted a few minutes, he said he was “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He assumed she had bad news, even though Veronica makes a point of calling occasionally just to catch up.

“My own brother thought I had an ulterior motive for the call,” she exclaimed, adding, “Everybody assumes the worst.”

That got me thinking. Assuming the worst has become Americans’ default mode. Polls show we’re in the dumps about the country’s direction, the economy, the Congress, the greedy 1 percent – you name it.

Dwelling on negative thoughts has become a national pastime. News has always been about conflict, of course, but the relentlessness of the 24-7 news cycle accentuates the gloom. It’s always a good career move for politicians and talk show hosts to whip up the fear factor.

Good news exists, but we hardly recognize it. So, let’s reconsider three news stories from the past week.

First, the long war in Iraq finally ended – and our troops will be home with their families for Christmas and Hanukkah.

Second, the waves of people sneaking across the border from Mexico have slowed to a trickle.

And, third, a Democratic senator and a Republican House member actually have been working together on a plan to revamp Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying any of these stories is an unalloyed tiding of great joy, but each does provide a glimmer of hope as 2011 staggers to a close.

There was no dancing in the streets or kissing in Times Square at the end of the war in Iraq – for good reason. Iraq remains a tinderbox of terrorism, and nobody expects honey and harmony to break out anytime soon. Plus, critics complained President Barack Obama was playing politics with the war’s end.

Obama did oppose the war, but he never campaigned against the troops. The victory lap at Fort Bragg by the president and first lady did feel like a re-election rally, but Obama kept to President George W. Bush’s timetable for withdrawal.

Going forward, Obama promises to make sure Americans don’t forget the fallen or the veterans, reminding that more than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, more than 30,000 were wounded and 4,500 Americans died. The returning veterans need more than fine rhetoric; they need jobs.

The good news is our troops are out of Iraq, and nobody proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”

Immigration promises to loom large next year with the Supreme Court’s decision to take up Arizona’s tough immigration law, and campaigning politicians likely hanging onto the myth of surging undocumented workers.

But fewer Mexicans try to enter the country illegally, and more return to Mexico. Among factors at work: The U.S. downturn removes much of the incentive for coming here, and greater job opportunities are emerging in Mexico. Increased border enforcement and new state laws also discourage migrants.

Before states rush to enact more laws, it’s worth considering whether the illegal immigration problem may be solving itself. The trend may have shifted permanently, some researchers say.

“Even if immigration increases some after this recession, it won’t rebound to the levels we saw in the early 2000s,” Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California demographer, told The Wall Street Journal.

On Capitol Hill, Congress still looks like Humpty Dumpty – so broken nobody can put it together again. But against the odds, House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, and Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat from Oregon, got together to jumpstart debate on Medicare.

Their plan seeks compromise between traditional Democratic and Republican ideas. It would provide premium support for private insurance plans that would compete with traditional Medicare starting in 2022. People have plenty of time to digest the ideas; Ryan and Wyden say they won’t introduce legislation until 2013.

Some news reports inevitably saw the plan through a political lens – as bad news for Democrats who might not be able to use Medicare as a campaign issue next year.

Here’s an alternative. We can see the bipartisan plan as a flicker of positive energy in a time when people assume the worst.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wealth, status help presidents live longer than most Americans -- Dec. 8, 2011 column


Like time-lapse photography, the president – whether it’s Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton – ages right before our eyes.

We look at pictures in the news and see the president grow jowly, worn and gray or white-haired in four short years. If we’re charitable, we may feel sorry for someone with so much on his shoulders and for the toll we imagine the nation’s highest office takes on his health

A new study suggests we should save our sympathy for people who deserve it.

Some doctors say a president ages two years for every year in the White House, but if that were the case, presidents would die sooner than other Americans. And they don’t.

Presidents actually live longer than most people, says S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose report on the aging of presidents appeared this week in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The haves – people who are wealthy, have better educations and better healthcare -- tend to live longer than the have-nots.

Presidents clearly benefit from their wealth and status, says Olshansky, who has studied how education affects longevity. He found that men with 16 or more years of education have a life expectancy seven to nine years longer than those with less education.

He became curious about presidential aging last summer when Obama celebrated his 50th birthday in Chicago. News reports gleefully noted how much grayer Obama’s hair and deeper his facial lines had become and quoted physicians who cited the two-years-for-one statistic.

There’s no blood test to measure how fast someone is aging, Olshansky explained in a university podcast, so he compared how long presidents would be expected to live after their age at inauguration with other people’s life spans. He subtracted eight or 16 years from expected life spans, depending on whether the president served one or two terms.

He excluded the four assassinated presidents and studied the longevity of the 34 presidents who died of natural causes as well as the life expectancy of the former presidents and Obama. He found 23 of the 34 lived longer and, in many cases, much longer, than would be normally expected.

The average age at inauguration was 55, and the mean age at death was 73. Had the presidents aged twice as fast while in office, they would have died several years earlier.

The first eight presidents lived to be an average of nearly 80 years old at a time when a man’s life expectancy was well under 40. John Adams was nearly 91 when he died.

Herbert Hoover was 90, and Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford both died at 93. Olshansky also looked at current former presidents and found they too are outliving their expectancy. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are both 87.

Obama’s life expectancy is 79 years, Olshansky says, but Obama’s wealth, education and access to quality healthcare likely will extend his life.

Lyndon Johnson was an exception to the trend to presidential longevity. He was 64 when he died of an apparent heart attack, about 19 years earlier than his projected life expectancy.

Dr. Michael Roizen, author of the New York Times bestseller “RealAge: Are You As Young As You Can Be?” promotes the idea that the president ages two years for every year in office. Roizen, chief of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic, contends that people have a calendar age and a “real age” that reflects diet, exercise, stress management and other lifestyle habits.

Olshansky’s study doesn’t disprove the “real age” idea, Roizen says. It proves only that “to run for president you tend to be incredibly healthy,” he told the Associated Press.

So does the presidency accelerate skin aging and hair graying? Olshansky says he doesn’t know.

“I do know that if you take any 50- or 40-year-old man and follow him for four or eight years, chances are they’ll lose their hair and what’s left will turn gray.”
But, of course, Olshansky says, nobody dies of wrinkles or gray hair.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pearl Harbor witnesses bring us into history circle -- Nov. 30, 2011 column


On the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, eye witnesses once again will tell their personal stories of Dec. 7, 1941.

Survivors will share first-hand accounts in Hawaii, the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and in countless cities and towns across the country.

Our time in the circle of living history is short, and the rest of us should treasure this moment. All too soon, the memories of the brave men and women who served in World War II will be available only on video, audio recording and written word.

Chapters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association are wrapping up their final meetings. Founded in 1958, the national organization will return its charter to Congress and close down at the end of the month because of declining membership.

“We’ve run a course and I think we’ve had a good course to run,” Bob Kerr, a director of the survivors group, told NPR.

We’re losing about 740 World War II veterans every day, and the Veterans Administration estimates that by Veterans Day 2036, not one World War II veteran will remain. The question arises how -- and whether – Americans will Remember Pearl Harbor and World War II after the survivors and we who heard them tell their stories are gone.

It may seem preposterous to think that Americans might forget Pearl Harbor, where 2,400 Americans died in the surprise attack that blasted the nation into World War II. Or that we might slide away from World War II, Everybody’s War, where 291,000 died in combat and 114,000 died outside combat theaters. Tom Brokaw has immortalized “The Greatest Generation” for all time, right?

And yet, do we “Remember the Maine”? Do we “Remember the Lusitania”? Cataclysmic events in their day, they no longer strike a chord with most Americans.

The Battleship USS Maine blew up Feb. 15, 1898 in Havana harbor, killing 260 American sailors. The cause of the explosion was unknown, but the masters of yellow journalism blamed Spain, and soon the country was fighting the Spanish-American War.

The cruise ship Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of England May 7, 1915 and sank in 18 horrifying minutes, killing 1,200 men, women and children. among them 123 Americans. American public opinion turned against Germany, and the United States entered World War I two years later.

America’s last surviving veteran of the War to End All Wars died earlier this year. Frank Buckles was 110.

When most members of Congress were veterans of World War II, we could count on them to remember – even though we didn’t need them to do so. Today, only one in five members of Congress has even served in the military.

The two House members who co-sponsored the resolution for this year’s National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, are both World War II vets -- Rep. Ralph M. Hall, R-Tex., 88, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., 85.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which would live in infamy,” but global politics quickly intervened.

Just 10 years after the attack, Pearl Harbor was downplayed in the news media, says historian Jon Wiener at the University of California, Irvine.

“In fact, on Dec. 7, 1951, Pearl Harbor wasn’t remembered, at least not prominently in the major newspapers and magazines,” Wiener wrote in The Los Angeles Times. The 10th anniversary received little commemoration for very practical reasons.

“In 1951, the U.S. was fighting a new war on the Korean peninsula, and had just signed a security treaty with Japan, which made it a crucial ally and staging base for the Korean War. Remembering Pearl Harbor could interfere with the nation’s new mission,” Wiener wrote.

Searching newspaper archives, Wiener found a 10th anniversary editorial in The Washington Post that encouraged Americans to look ahead, not back, to foster harmonious Japanese-American relations in light of the Communist threat in Asia.

It's astonishing, knowing how much newspapers like anniversary stories, but neither the New York Times not Los Angeles Times mentioned Pearl Harbor the front page on Dec. 7, 1951.

A column in L.A. Times began, “This is the day on which innumerable Americans…will be tempted to go about boring other Americans to death with their reminiscences of where they were and exactly how they heard the news” of Pearl Harbor.

That’s harsh. Fortunately, our attitudes have mellowed, and there’s still time to listen to history’s witnesses share their memories of 70 years ago.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trendy and valued? Look up the library -- Nov. 22, 2011 column


As eBooks nudge aside traditional volumes, brick-and-mortar bookstores vanish and Google makes memory obsolete, libraries are suddenly trendy.

In midtown Manhattan, a luxury boutique hotel called The Library Hotel has 10 floors, each dedicated to a different category of the Dewey Decimal System. The New York Times reports that “libraries are the new lobbies” in fashionable hotels around the world, and hoteliers believe that “books are the social lubricant of the future,” whatever that means.

The Occupy Wall Street encampments have set up libraries. The one in New York’s Zuccotti Park had accumulated more than 5,000 donated books before police removed it.

Ball State University has put up a database of the borrowing records of every Muncie, Indiana, library patron between 1891 and 1902 called What Middletown Read.

And in 2011 city and town libraries across America are busier than ever. People rely on libraries for Internet access, and reference librarians help researchers find accurate information amid the online dreck.

And here’s something that comes as a surprise in our supposedly tax-loathing culture: Voters are willing to pay for libraries.

On Nov. 8, voters in Pittsburgh, a city that has been ranked America’s “most livable,” approved 2 to 1 a referendum to raise the real estate tax rate. The beneficiary was the public library.

Cash-strapped Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh had said it would have to close five branches, lay off staff and cut service hours nearly 30 percent. The people said no, raise our taxes instead.

The vote was all the more remarkable because the city has long been in financial turmoil, its budget subject to state oversight through three mayors and eight years.

Politicians in Washington who believe voters would rather pepper spray themselves than pay higher taxes might learn from Pittsburgh – and from California, Colorado and Ohio.

California and Colorado defeated ballot measures last year that would have severely hurt libraries, Library Journal reported. And in Ohio, 80 percent of local library issues in 2010 were successful. The Ohio Library Council said the local library levies replaced state money lost to budget cuts.

In Pittsburgh, voters agreed to a .25-mill increase in the property tax. It’s not a huge investment for an individual taxpayer. The owner of a house valued at $100,000 will pay $25 more annually, $1,105 in taxes compared with $1,080. All told, though, the increase will produce $3.2 million a year for the library.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial page crystallized the issue this way: “The Post-Gazette is adamantly opposed to raising the city’s property tax rate, particularly at a time when it is trying to attract new residents, improve its attractiveness as a place for doing business and maintain the quality of life in its neighborhoods.”

But, said the paper, the referendum was “specifically about quality of life.”

That bears repeating: “specifically about the quality of life.” Improving the quality of life should animate every discussion we have about taxing and spending, deficits and budget cuts.

Many people will willingly pay higher taxes if they support where the money is going. The “if” is important. Nobody has patience with wasteful spending, and altruism is wearing thin. People have to believe tax dollars support programs that benefit them and their community.

For those who think libraries are relics of the past, the American Library Association has some stats: There are more public libraries than McDonald’s in the United States, 59 percent of Americans have library cards, and more than 65 percent of libraries offer services for job seekers.

In a 2009 survey for the library association, 96 percent of people said they believe libraries help give everyone a chance to succeed because libraries offer free access to materials and resources.

Tough economic times lead to tough choices. Nearly three-fourths of libraries that responded to a Library Journal survey last year said their budgets had been cut.

In his later years, the 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated more than $40 million and paid for the construction of nearly 1,700 libraries in the United States, including the one voters in Pittsburgh saved.

Libraries aren’t just trendy. They speak volumes about the quality of life.

©2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Splendid 'Splendor" exhibit tells White House stories -- Nov. 17, 2011 column


An angry email flew around last year, charging that President Barack Obama had changed the red, white and blue color scheme in the Oval Office to one of Middle Eastern décor.

It was totally false – the Oval Office hasn’t had anything approaching a red, white and blue color scheme since Bill Clinton, and there’s nothing Middle Eastern about Obama’s office. The bogus email was a reminder that presidents come and go, but controversies over White House décor, along with squabbles over spending, are forever.

Ever since President James Monroe sent his agents to Paris in 1817 to buy furnishings for the rebuilt White House -- the British burned it during the War of 1812 -- presidents and first ladies have taken heat for their decorating choices.
Monroe wanted mahogany chairs for the Oval Room, now the Blue Room, but his agents said mahogany was out of fashion in France and bought instead a 53-piece suite of gold-gilded beechwood furniture.

The agents snapped up ornate silver soup tureens, gold vermeil flatware and an elaborate gilded bronze and mirrored centerpiece called a plateau with classical female figures that hold candles as well as urns and baskets for flowers and fruit. With all seven sections in place on the banquet table, the plateau stretched 14 ½ feet. Just another night at home, sweet, home.

“Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery steps from the White House, displays two sections of the plateau and other jaw-dropping items seldom seen outside the White House. The exhibit runs through May 6.

On display are 95 pieces of ceramics, furniture, glass, china and textiles chosen for the stories they tell about the White House as a home for families, a venue designed to impress visitors and the office of the nation’s chief executive.

After Monroe’s high style and budget-busting overseas spending spree brought boatloads of criticism, artist Samuel Morse, who later invented the telegraph and Morse code, defended Monroe. Morse wrote in 1819 that “something of splendor is certainly proper…for the credit of the nation.”

Congress though passed a buy-American law in 1826, requiring that furniture bought for the White House be made in America.

A few decades later, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln stirred up a hornet’s nest when she spent money on furnishings for the White House during the Civil War.

“Something of Splendor” was organized as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who made restoration of the White House her project, formed the association to publish a White House guidebook. She also pressed Congress to pass a law making donations permanent White House property and created the curator’s office.

The exhibit uses a winning technique of pairing a chair, table or accessory with a picture or photo mural showing the item in use in a bygone era at the White House. Seeing the objects in context helps make them come alive.

A photo of Teddy Roosevelt’s elegant silver breakfast tray in 1903, decked out with a linen cloth, silver teapot and cut-glass jar, is next to the actual teapot and jar.

The breakfast tray picture provides “a rare glimpse into the more intimate side of living in the White House,” says the exhibit catalogue, which quotes a letter TR wrote his son Kermit on Nov. 1, 1905, about his morning routine:

“Of course I am up to my ears in work. The mornings are lovely now, crisp and fresh; after breakfast Mother and I walk around the grounds accompanied by Skip and Slipper, her bell tinkling loudly.” Skip was TR’s favorite dog and Slipper one of the family’s cats.

As for Obama, he did make some changes in the Oval Office. Every president does. He got new striped wallpaper from New York and a rug from Michigan. Fabric for new couches was woven in Pennsylvania and has red, white and blue threads.

Donations – not taxpayers -- paid for the new décor, the White House said.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cain, Perry wrecks prove early-warning system works -- Nov. 10, 2011 column


The first test of the nationwide Emergency Alert System this week revealed glitches and gaps in some parts of the country. That’s why we test the system before a real emergency happens.

Another test is taking place before the 2012 presidential election. The political early-warning system tests Republican presidential candidates with intense media scrutiny and fast-paced debates, and it too is revealing glitches and gaps, among the contenders.

Herman Cain and Rick Perry, are struggling, while more Republican voters are warming up to Mitt Romney. Gallup reports that 45 percent of Republicans say the former Massachusetts governor likely will be their presidential nominee.

Cain, former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, has blamed the news media, a Rick Perry aide, the “Democrat machine,” a “troubled woman” and Asteroid 2055 YU55 for the mess that has enveloped his campaign. OK, not the asteroid, yet.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in contrast, admitted right after the Michigan debate Wednesday night that he “stepped in it” when he couldn’t remember the third of the three federal agencies he wants to kill as president.

Perry’s memory lapse was a human mistake, but it also underlined his previous poor debate performances. He wasn’t trying to summon a huge list, like Romney’s 59 economic proposals, just three agencies.

Both Cain and Perry have enthusiastic supporters, and both vow to stay in the race. But running for president is relentlessly hard work, a long and grueling job interview for the nation’s chief executive. And that’s how it should be.

I don’t mean our system of testing presidential contenders is perfect. Debates rarely give candidates enough time to explain their policy positions, but they do provide a chance to see candidates unscripted and thinking on their feet. Unbiased fact-checking afterward lets us know who’s on top of the facts.

The alternative to debates would be a steady diet of political ads, which always play more on emotion than reason. We will get more than our fill of ads in coming months.

As for the media glare, some political news coverage is gossipy, as though directed by Alice Roosevelt Longworth. The daughter of Theodore Roosevelt famously said: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit by me.” And too often bad news comes scented with Schadenfreude – the German word for pleasure in other people’s misery.

All in all, though, the news media performs a valuable service when it provides the good, bad and ugly information voters need to make informed decisions. Politicians naturally blame the messenger.

At the Michigan debate, an indignant Cain said, “The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.” The Republican audience was wildly sympathetic.

Cain’s woes, though, stem from what was his strength – his past experience as a corporate executive and boss. Cain portrays himself as an outsider, but the allegations of sexual harassment when he was head of the National Restaurant Association remind that Cain was a Washington lobbyist.

Once the charges surfaced, other reports of Cain’s behavior started popping up. One online news organization even ran photos of the close body hug Cain gave Republican presidential rival Michele Bachmann and the polite handshake Ron Paul gave her.

His Republican rivals have avoided piling on.

“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these accusations,” Romney said at the Michigan debate. “And the people in this room and around the country can make their own determination.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told the Associated Press, “Only Herman Cain can address the issues before him.” And, Huntsman added, “In the meantime it’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room, depriving the people of this country from a conversation about the issues that really do matter.”

But it’s important to try to know whether Cain sexually harassed employees as a clue to what kind of man he is, just as whether Romney’s flip-flops reveal squishy principles.

Romney used the last debate to reintroduce himself as a steady-Eddy. Voters can decide whether the fact that Romney has stayed married to the same woman for 42 years and worked 25 years f0r the same company mitigate his policy shifts.

Perry has indicated he may skip future debates. That would be understandable but a mistake.

Hiding fails the test.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In God we trust -- Congress? Not so much -- Nov. 3, 2011 column


The numbers are stunning to everyone, it seems, except Congress.

Fourteen million Americans are still jobless. The ranks of the poorest of the poor have grown to record levels, with 20.5 million Americans living below 50 percent of the poverty line.

And what does Congress do? It, um, steps up to the plate and strikes out.
On Oct. 26, the House voted 416 to 3 to mint commemorative baseball coins.

Rep. Richard Hanna, R-NY, who calls himself “the congressman from Cooperstown,” introduced the measure. If the Senate goes along, sales of the coins will support the National Baseball Hall of Fame there.

Thank goodness, the coins will have “In God We Trust” on them – as all American money does.

The House is mightily concerned that some people – that means you, Mister President – don’t know “In God We Trust” is the national motto. More on that in a minute.

First, another number Congress evidently is in denial about. Only 9 percent of American adults approve of the job Congress is doing – the worst performance rating in the history of CBS-New York Times polls.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The day after the 2010 elections delivered the House to the Republicans, the new Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., set higher accountability standards he called the Cantor Rule.

Each day, Cantor said, he’d ask himself: “Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy; are they reducing spending; and are they shrinking the size of the federal government while increasing and protecting liberty? If not, why am I doing it? Why are WE doing it?”

And yet, the House voted 396 to 6 Tuesday to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as our official motto and to encourage “public display of the motto in all public buildings, schools and other government institutions.”

Cantor didn’t comment, but sponsor, Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said it was necessary because, “Unfortunately, there are a number of public officials who forget what the national motto is, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”

He was referring to Obama who, in a speech last year to students in Jakarta, Indonesia, said, “In the United States, our motto is `E Pluribus Unum,’ out of many, one.”

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed the Latin phrase for the motto on the Great Shield of the United States in 1776. E pluribus unum is a wonderful concept, speaking to the challenge of forging one, unified country from many different peoples.

Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” the official motto in 1956.

Forbes, who founded the congressional Prayer Caucus, wrote Obama a letter, informing the president of his motto mistake and scolding him for failing to acknowledge God as the source of the rights in the Declaration of Independence.

“Omitting the word Creator once was a mistake; but twice establishes a pattern,” Forbes wrote. Forty-one members of the Prayer Caucus, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., now a presidential contender, joined in signing the letter.

Forbes then introduced the “In God We Trust” resolution. Not that it was needed. Congress has reaffirmed the motto repeatedly over the years.

Nobody is against the motto, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, said during House debate.

“Why have my Republican friends returned to an irrelevant agenda? Irrelevant because it does nothing. It simply restates existing law that no one has questioned. Why are we debating nonbinding resolutions about the national motto?” Nadler asked.

The short answer is that Republicans want to make Obama a one-term president. Democrats could hardly let Republicans out-do them on trust in God. And so the House showed overwhelming bipartisanship on a meaningless bill.

Obama meanwhile keeps pushing for his jobs bill. He gets knocked for his travels, but at least he has a bill.

On Wednesday, Obama stood near the structurally deficient Key Bridge in Washington to talk about infrastructure jobs. Nationwide, one in four bridges in the country is either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

“In the House of Representatives, what have you guys been debating?” Obama said. “You’ve been debating a commemorative coin for baseball. You had legislation reaffirming that `In God We Trust’ is our motto. That’s not putting people back to work. I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work,” he said.

I agree. Our national motto wasn’t at risk; our bridges are. I want to see people at work, making the bridges safe.

c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Will black voters save Obama in 2012? -- Oct. 27, 2011 column


During the 2008 presidential campaign, supporters of Barack Obama rarely mentioned race when they talked about their favorite candidate.

It was as though everybody -- black, white and brown -- agreed it was impossible even to acknowledge race without being thought a racist, so it was better to keep quiet. Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain steered away from race a campaign issue, and some commentators wondered if we’d entered an era of post-racial politics.

Election Day exit polls shouted a significant racial voting gap. McCain won among white voters by a 12-point margin, 55 percent to 43 percent, while Obama took 95 percent of the black vote.

Polls indicate that the race schism has widened since then. In hypothetical matchups between Obama and Republican contenders in the 2012 contest, black voters overwhelmingly support Obama, who has lost ground with white voters and independents.

If Obama’s triumph failed to make us a color-blind nation, it may have succeeded in making it easier to talk about race.

“Not only are we for Barack Obama because he’s a black man -- I’m proud of that -- but I’m also proud of America for electing a black man,” Dr. Brenda C. Williams, a black physician and activist in Sumter, S.C., told me this week.

I had called Dr. Williams, who is 59 and a child of the segregated South, on another subject, but she spoke easily about how race affects her politics. She used to vote Republican, she said, explaining her reverse psychology: “I figured if we get Republicans in there, they’re not going to do crap for black people. They never have and they never will. We will have to get up and help ourselves.”

She and her physician husband, Dr. Joe Williams, opened their medical practice in Sumter in 1982 and later founded a nonprofit anti-poverty organization, The Family Unit Inc., which was originally aimed at encouraging African-American couples to marry and form families. And, by the way, she said proudly, she hasn’t taken a dime in federal grants.

Williams sees doctoring as more than taking care of physical ailments. She looks at the whole person and even registers her patients to vote. When candidate Obama came along, Williams was impressed with his background as a community organizer and his commitment to helping the poor. During the 2008 campaign, she played videos of Obama’s speeches in her waiting room and expanded her voter registration drives to trailer parks and jails.

As Obama seeks re-election, unemployment rate among blacks is a devastating 16 percent, twice the rate for whites and far above the national rate of 9.1 percent.

Some prominent blacks blame the president for not doing more. Princeton professor Cornel West called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” West and talk show host and author Tavis Smiley went on a poverty tour to draw attention to rising poverty and joblessness.

Obama is “not perfect,” Brenda Williams concedes. “Nobody comes close to being perfect.”

But when black registered voters were asked earlier this month whether they preferred Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their next president, 95 percent picked Obama.

Among white registered voters, Romney beat out Obama by 20 points, 58 percent to 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center poll. Exit polls in 2008 found that Obama benefited from an 8 point lead over McCain among independent voters, but Romney held a 13-point lead over Obama among independents in the latest Pew poll.

“I don’t think his white supporters will come out as fervently as before,” Williams predicted. “They expected more out of him than they would have expected of a white person.”

The poll numbers suggest that Obama will need black voters more than he did last time, and his challenge will be turning them out. When he tried to gin up enthusiasm last month, some blacks objected to his scolding tone.

“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” Obama said at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner. “Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying.”

His re-election likely will depend on the dedication of people like Williams, who introduced Obama at a rally in Sumter before the primary in January 2008. Before they went onstage, Obama bent down and whispered in Williams’ ear.

“Pray for me,” he said. “Pray for my family.”

“Oh, we have you covered,” Dr. Brenda Williams assured Barack Obama. “We definitely have you covered.”

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Serial certainty in the age of flip-flop -- Oct. 20, 2011 column


The Republican presidential candidates’ debate Tuesday in Las Vegas was riddled with charges, contradictions and confusion. Here’s a snippet:

Mitt Romney: “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.”

Newt Gingrich: “That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

Romney: “Yes, we got it from you, and you got it from the Heritage Foundation and from you.”

Gingrich: “Wait a second. What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

After another volley of riveting verbal tennis, Romney: “OK, let me ask, have you supported in the past an individual mandate?”

Gingrich: “I absolutely did, with the Heritage Foundation against Hillarycare.”

Point for Romney, sort of. The exchange reminded Republican voters that Gingrich had been for the individual mandate – the requirement in the health care reform law that people purchase health insurance -- before he was against it. Flip-flop.

In the 1990s, Gingrich and the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated requiring people to purchase health insurance. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s health care plan lacked such a requirement.

Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, continued to back a mandate until he started running for president. In May, he told David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay—help pay for health care.”

And Gingrich said, “I’ve said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond.”

Naturally, a furor erupted among those on the right who now regard the individual mandate as an abomination. The next day, candidate Gingrich appeared in a campaign video, saying, “I am completely opposed to the Obamacare mandate on individuals.”

Serial certainty is hardly unusual in politics. Nearly every politician has changed sides on the requirement that people buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Hillary Clinton reversed course and as a presidential candidate in 2008 supported a mandate, which candidate Barrack Obama then opposed.

But as president, Obama made the mandate a central part of his health reform law, which was patterned after Mitt Romney’s health care reform law in Massachusetts, which did spring from the Heritage Foundation. The idea behind the mandate is to require nearly everyone, especially the young and healthy who are unlikely to need care, to carry insurance, spreading costs and risks, and making coverage more affordable and available for all.

Presidential candidates love to point out opponents’ inconsistencies and undermine their credibility. A winning candidate must inspire trust, and the last thing people want in these times of shifting economic and social sands is more uncertainty.

Claude S. Fischer, a sociology professor at University of California Berkeley, noted on his “Made in America” blog this week that, “Much of our civic and social discussions are dominated by the voices of people who are absolutely certain. The speakers brook no thought that their claims are provisional, that future evidence or future reflection might overturn them.

“Those who accept more ambiguity are at a disadvantage. Once these uncertain folks grant that their opponents just could be — perhaps in certain cases, perhaps partially — right, they have lost the initiative to the certain-truth warriors,” Fischer wrote.

In the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., sounded like a certain-truth warrior when she said, “Even the Obama administration chose to reject part of Obamacare...Now the administration is arguing with itself.”

She was referring to Obama’s pulling the plug on the CLASS Act, a long-term care insurance program, after studies found the voluntary program would not be solvent for many decades. Conservatives were gleeful, and many Obama supporters dismayed by what they saw as Obama’s surrendering on another principle.

The New York Times, though, editorialized that Obama’s decision to drop the CLASS Act “shows a welcome flexibility by the White House that bodes well for carrying out all provisions.”

To which, a cynic might add: unless it doesn’t.

What should a voter make of flip-flops? We want leaders who have principles and stick to them but are also thoughtful and willing to learn. We can admit more uncertainty; most issues are not black and white but shades of gray.

Voters can decide whether a candidate’s flip-flops are motivated by the desire to improve public policy or to shore up his or her political fortune -- and vote accordingly.

c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Citizen Cain and the perils of ice cream politics -- Oct. 13, 2011 column


Herman Cain denies he’s the ice cream flavor of the week, “because Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time.”

Enjoy such Cain one-liners while you can. Like ice cream, he’s bound to melt.

Poor Citizen Cain. He’s so certain of victory in 2012 that he explains in his new book, “This is Herman Cain!: My Journey to the White House,” why he scrapped all but one of the inaugural balls.

Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, rode an ABM missile – Anybody But Mitt – to the front of the GOP presidential pack only to find party leaders lining up behind the former Massachusetts governor.

Cain led Mitt Romney 27 percent to 23 percent among Republican primary voters in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll with Texas Gov. Rick Perry a distant third, at 16 percent. Cain had a larger lead, 30 percent to Romney’s 22 percent, among registered Republican voters in a national Public Policy Polling survey.

The Cain surge in the polls follows the Perry surge that followed the Rep. Michele Bachmann surge that followed The Donald surge, as in Trump. Tortoise Romney has been stuck at 23 percent since August, unable to win conservatives who distrust him because of “RomneyCare,” his health care program in Massachusetts, and his flip-flops on abortion, gay rights, immigration and other issues.

The first voters won’t cast actual ballots for at least two months, although New Hampshire is making noises about moving its primary to Dec. 6 or 13. That’s enough time for Cain to prove how his 9-9-9 plan adds up, for Rick Perry to reinvent himself or another twist on the winding road to a GOP presidential nominee.

But no. Republican leaders want to end the suspense. A page one story in The Washington Post Thursday trumpeted “GOP views Romney as `inevitable’ nominee.”

``What’s the rush?” columnist Daniel Henninger asked the same day in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that Romney needs the experience of more competition before he takes on Obama and tries to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

For Republicans, this presidential campaign has been a tug-of-war between heart and head, between sentimental favorites and the pragmatic goal of making Barack Obama a one-term president. The head apparently is winning.

After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie broke GOP hearts by declaring he really wasn’t running and was endorsing Romney, prominent Republicans began flocking to Romney, including Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and former Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a former FBI agent who was elected to Congress last year thanks to tea party anger, endorsed Romney Sunday, acknowledging that tea partiers “may feel Governor Romney is not conservative enough for them. I would counter argue that he’s certainly more conservative than President Obama.

“Sometimes you don’t get everything you want, but if we want to save our country…what Republicans can’t do is turn this into a purity contest,” Grimm told ABC News.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while not formally endorsing Romney, certainly sounded smitten.

“I continue to be impressed with Mitt Romney’s performance,” Bush told CNN’s Piers Morgan Wednesday. “He’s cool, calm, collected. He’s quick; he’s agile.” Bush called Romney “very consistent and very disciplined.” And, he said, Romney would do well going against Obama.

Even right-wing commentator Ann Coulter is backing Romney – now that Christie is out. Her current dream ticket: Romney-Cain.

Another sign of Romney’s perceived inevitability: Team Obama is hitting him and ignoring the other contenders.

Speaking of which, as dumpy as his job approval ratings are, Obama remains a formidable favorite at the box office. During the third quarter, he raised $70.1 million, his campaign announced Thursday, including $42.8 million for his re-election campaign and $27.3 million for the Democratic National Committee. None of the Republican presidential contenders came close.

Perry was the top Republican fundraiser, bringing in about $17 million in six weeks. Romney raised $18 million in the second quarter and his campaign reportedly has said his third-quarter haul may be higher than $14 million.

Romney may never be conservatives’ favorite flavor, but ice cream melts.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Whose rights? Supreme Court tackles key church-state case -- Oct. 6, 2011 column


Does teaching kids reading, writing, arithmetic and some religion – even leading them in prayer -- in a religious school make a teacher a minister?

And, if so, does that prohibit her from suing under workplace discrimination laws if fired?

Not at all, says the Obama administration, which has landed squarely in the middle of a war between religious liberties and civil rights.

Yes, absolutely, say many religious groups, arguing that religious institutions should be exempt from laws that prohibit bias in hiring and firing decisions.

And so, on Wednesday, frustrated Supreme Court justices grappled with an odd question.

“What is the legal definition of a minister?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia, a query echoed by others on the bench.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock contended that anyone who teaches a religion class is a minister.

“We think if you teach the doctrines of the faith…you’re a minister,” said Laycock, representing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Michigan in the case of teacher Cheryl Perich who complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she was wrongly fired.

At the heart of the case is the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine that lacks sex appeal but is extremely important. Four decades ago, federal appeals courts accepted the idea that the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to make their own decisions about hiring and firing of clergy. Anti-discrimination laws that cover other employers don’t apply.

A woman who wants to become a Catholic priest can’t sue for gender discrimination, for example, because the church has the right to say who can and can’t be priests.

But just how far does the exemption go? Federal courts have ruled differently, and the Supreme Court may settle the matter. The ruling could affect millions of employees of religious groups across the country working in schools, colleges, hospitals and social service agencies.

Some federal civil rights laws do contain certain exemptions for religious organizations, but religious groups argue they should be exempt from all anti-discrimination laws as every employee is carrying on the ministry.

In 2004, Perich, who taught fourth grade, got sick and took medical leave. In time, her illness was diagnosed as narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, and she received medication to control the condition.

But when her doctor certified that she could return to the classroom after she’d been gone six months, the school refused to rehire her. Another teacher had been hired, and Perich was told to resign.

Perich refused and said she’d file a discrimination claim with the EEOC. She was fired, she says, in retaliation for threatening to file the complaint. School officials said she was a “called” teacher and under church teachings could not take her grievance outside the church.

Perich taught mainly secular subjects – math, reading, communication skills – and a religion class four days a week. Sometimes she led the class in prayer. Other teachers who were not Lutherans did roughly the same work.

The EEOC took Perich’s claim that that she’d been discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act to federal court. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich.

“The case is remarkable,” Vanderbilt University law professor Brian T. Fitzpatrick said in an interview, because the court could rule that religious institutions are shielded from all anti-discrimination laws.

The justices wrestled with whether the courts can interfere with religious organizations’ decisions without meddling in church tenets.

Arguing for the government and the EEOC, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger said, “This is a circumstance in which an organization is going into the public arena providing a public service, and in that situation, it ought to be governed by the same rules.”

The government has an interest in making sure citizens have access to the courts, he said.

Afterward, Cheryl Perich told reporters, “My situation really had nothing to do with religion.”

“I can’t fathom how the Constitution would be interpreted in such a way as to deny me my civil rights as an elementary school teacher, “ she said, according to a Religion News Service report. “I sure hope the court agrees.”

So do I.
(c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

AARP Bulletin: Supreme Court term preview

Far more people know that Randy Jackson is a judge on "American Idol" than know who the chief justice of the United States is. My "who's who" on the nation's highest court --

And a look at cases coming up that affect people 50-plus --

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book festival wastes taxpayer money? Not! -- Sept. 29, 2011 column


About 200,000 people thronged the National Mall last weekend -- not for war protests or to demonstrate against Congress or the president. They came to celebrate books.

In this time of dwindling bookstores, surging e-book sales and ever more virtual commerce and remote companionship, the 11th annual National Book Festival brought together more than a hundred authors, swarms of readers and stacks of old-fashioned books in print.

The festival, started by Laura Bush as first lady, is free, and generations of families showed up for readings, book signings and children’s programs. Among the preeminent writers on several stages -- Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, historian David McCullough, biographer Edmund Morris, humorist Garrison Keillor, poet Rita Dove, children’s author Katherine Paterson, and memoirist Dave Eggers.

I listened to a few authors talk about their work, wandered through a tent where state libraries gave out flyers on intriguing state and regional book festivals and state maps. I browsed the book tent and bought two and then stood in a long line to get one signed. There’s something you can’t do with a Kindle, I gloated. (Later I watched a YouTube video on how an author could digitally “sign” an e-book. Complicated is an understatement.)

It was heartening to see so many people enjoying themselves with books, but something nagged at me. How much was this feel-good event costing taxpayers? Could it be perceived as, horrors, a waste of money? Would the long knives of congressional budget-cutters slice out its heart?

Stan Collender, who has worked for both the House and Senate budget committees and is the author of a book on the federal budget process, raised questions about the festival on his blog on the Capitol Gains and Games website.

“It might be possible to achieve better results at a lower cost if the government distributed vouchers all over the country and let people get books from local stores,” Collender wrote after the festival a couple of years ago.

“Some might consider the program to be a waste because it directly benefits only a relatively small number of people and is held in only one city. Others might believe it’s a waste because they don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to promote reading over, say, movie watching. Some might think it is waste because they don’t like the authors whose books are featured or because the language in their books offends them,” he wrote.

Whoa. Don’t tell the tea party.

Me, I’m a soft touch for books and reading. Not only do I think the festival is not a waste, I’m fully prepared to argue that it’s money well spent. OK, it’s not as important as National Institutes of Health researchers’ searching for a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s, but it’s definitely worthwhile. The government should encourage literacy. How else will we compete in a global economy?

I’d read about the festival’s deep-pocketed corporate sponsors, including Target, Wells Fargo, AT&T and the Washington Post. In 2010, David M. Rubenstein, cofounder of the Carlyle Group, a global private equity fund, announced a $5 million gift over five years. But was it enough?

I called Jennifer Gavin, acting director of communications for the Library of Congress and the project manager of the festival.

The festival is estimated cost $2.2 million this year, she told me, and there’s good news.

“We aren’t financing this with taxpayer dollars. It’s financed through private donations.” Gavin said.

None of the corporate sponsors get in the door for less than $30,000. This year, Rubenstein offered to spring for another $300,000 above his announced gift so that the festival could expand from one to two glorious days.

A few Library of Congress employees – about 20 -- devote about 15 percent of their time overall to the festival, Gavin said. Other than that, it’s paid for with donations. That’s a relief.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington thanked the corporate sponsors, supporters and more than 1,100 volunteers at this year’s festival. Because of them, he said, “We can look forward to this beloved celebration of reading and literacy for years to come.”

See you there next year?

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Math is scarier than class warfare -- Sept. 22, 2011 column


Feisty Barack Obama tried to bluster his way to Democrats’ good graces by confronting the Republican whine about class warfare.

“This is not class warfare,” the president lectured Monday in the Rose Garden. “It’s math.”

Rather than blaming the rich, Obama argued for fairness in a tax system that lacks it. Most people approve of higher taxes for the wealthy, and they’re fine with corporations paying more, polls show.

Political campaigns are about contrasts. After capitulating to congressional Republicans after the 2010 election, Obama has turned toward his liberal roots.

Conservative Republicans meanwhile are doing their own math. Playing to tea party anger and alienation, Republicans propose to slash and burn federal programs they never liked while cutting taxes for “job creators.”

We have plenty of time to weigh these competing visions before November 2012. My guess is that despite the evidence of rising inequality, most Americans still want to believe we’re a small-d democratic, open, optimistic society. They’re deeply unhappy with the country’s direction but hope government can work again.

It’s worth remembering that the last two winning presidential contenders did so with pledges to bring the country together. As president, Obama and George W. (“uniter, not a divider”) Bush demonstrated how difficult it is to deliver on the promise.

Republicans like to say liberal Democrats are forever fomenting class warfare, but Democrats did learn something from the wretched John Edwards. Long before his personal and professional life imploded in scandal and federal court, Edwards proved that pitting the haves against the have-nots is dumb politics.

Edwards during the 2004 Democratic primaries presented a sharp view of “two Americas…one privileged, the other burdened…one America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks.”

The Democrats rejected Edwards’ glass-half-empty populism, although the patrician John Kerry then picked him as his running mate.

Obama specifically shielded the poor and middle class in his proposal to tame the federal deficit through $4 trillion in cuts and revenues over 10 years. It’s about math, yes, and it’s also about choosing which services should be cut and whose taxes should be raised.

Republicans who cry class warfare don’t see their own choice to favor the rich with tax breaks as a form of class warfare.

Nobody wants to be one of the chumps Leona Helmsley disparaged in her famous remark that “only the little people pay taxes.” Even big people sometimes do go to jail for tax evasion, she learned.

Obama used the bully pulpit to float the principle that billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his kind should pay more in taxes than their secretaries – a no-brainer – but, disappointingly, the president didn’t send Congress a plan for accomplishing the goal.

Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, told reporters, “Now there are lots of different ways to achieve that principle. We’re not going to give the Congress a detailed proposal for how to meet that specific principle now because there’s lots of different ways to do that.”

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates are working the other side of the street. They are making political hay of the 46 percent of people who didn’t pay any income taxes at all this year.

What Republicans don’t explain is that two-thirds of people who pay no income tax do pay the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare. Only about 18 percent pay neither income nor payroll taxes. Of these, more than half are elderly and more than one third are non-elderly with incomes under $20,000, according to the Tax Policy Center, which is run by two Washington think tanks, the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

And even the poorest of the poor pay state and local sales taxes.

The American dream holds that anyone who works hard can climb the ladder and become rich. People who see themselves on the ladder are more agreeable to tax breaks for the wealthy.

These days, though, the poor and the middle class are losing ground. One in six Americans – 46.2 million -- live below the poverty line, the most since 1993. Almost 50 million Americans lack health insurance.

Americans also lack confidence that wealth is in their future. About eight in 10 people surveyed last month said it was unlikely their net worth would reach a million dollars in the next 10 years. Only one in five surveyed thought it was likely, the Associated Press-CNBC poll reported.

That math should trouble politicians of both parties.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why 'Buy American' isn't the answer -- Sept. 15, 2011 column


I snagged a patriotic, giveaway T-shirt at a Washington Nationals baseball game the other day. Stars and stripes decorated the team’s curly W logo, but the tag inside said “Made in Mexico.”

Visiting Ocracoke, N.C., this summer, I stopped by a National Park Service shop and got a souvenir shirt -- made in India. The flagpole I bought at the neighborhood hardware store so I could fly Old Glory outside my house? It was from China.

Like most people, I’d rather buy American, and I’m willing to pay a little more for the privilege. Reports say if each American spent an additional $64 a year on American-made goods, we could create 200,000 new jobs. That sounds good, if the jobs are decent. I’m inclined to let China keep the crummy ones and for us to create jobs with a future.

Politicians tend to go for the easy fix. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, shopping at a Smithsonian Institution museum shop last year, was distressed to find miniature busts of the Founding Fathers and other trinkets made in China. He pressured the Smithsonian to sell more items made in the USA.

In June, the Museum of American History opened The Price of Freedom shop on the third floor. The shop’s name isn’t a snide comment about higher prices, although American-made coffee mugs cost about $20 each, compared with $10 to $12 for mugs made overseas, a museum spokeswoman told USA Today. “The Price of Freedom” is the name of a nearby exhibit.

In July, the Senate passed a measure requiring that all American flags purchased by the federal government be entirely American-made. Previously, flags with 50 percent foreign content were OK. The House likely will wave the flag bill through this fall.

Such moves are dandy symbolism, and they play well politically. When President Barack Obama hit the road this week to sell his $447 billion package to create jobs, he made restoring the nation’s manufacturing base sound simple.

“We’ve got to start manufacturing. We’ve got to sell more goods around the world that are stamped with three proud words – “Made in America,” the president told a cheering crowd in Columbus, Ohio.

Applause greeted a similar Obama line in Raleigh, N.C., the next day. “We’ve got to start manufacturing and selling more goods around the world stamped with three proud words: “Made in America. Made in North Carolina. Made in Raleigh,” he said.

But a Buy American provision in Obama’s bill has ruffled relations with Canada.
Obama’s American Jobs Act would require that only iron, steel and manufactured goods produced in America be used for public buildings and public works. More than $100 billion could be made available for projects renovating schools and building roads and bridges and other transit projects.

The Buy American rule seems sensible, considering that the bill’s purpose is to create American jobs.

Unacceptable, says Canada’s trade minister. Canada plans to fight, as it did a similar provision in the 2009 economic stimulus act. Canada won an exemption that time.

A nationalist group called the Council of Canadians is calling for a “Buy Canadian” movement to freeze out American firms, the Toronto Sun reported.

In Washington, the unfolding Solyndra scandal comes at the worst possible time for a president trying to pry funding from a reluctant Congress.

The FBI launched a criminal investigation and Congress held hearings about the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar-panel manufacturer that received a $527 million federal loan guarantee as part of the 2009 stimulus package. When it shut down, the company laid off about 1,100 workers.

Congressional Republicans charge that the administration hurried the Solyndra loan guarantee so it could show that the stimulus worked in creating jobs. The administration denies it rushed and insists that the 2009 stimulus package is helping create a viable American solar industry.

Solyndra was the third American solar company to declare bankruptcy in the last few weeks. Corporate executives and federal officials blame China’s aggressive efforts to dominate the solar industry. China reportedly has plowed $30 billion into solar subsidies in the last year and is flooding the market with cheap solar cells.

Too bad the Smithsonian stopped buying those trinkets. China will never give up on that solar thing now.

(c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Judge voids military pension buyout scheme -- AARP Bulletin

Military retirees should think twice before getting involved in pension buyout plans.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Four more years? Not exactly -- Sept. 8, 2011 column


There’s no way around it. The chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” at President Barack Obama’s Labor Day rally in Detroit were unsettling.

Obama grinned as the cheers erupted, but he’d have to be delusional to think people really want to stay on the current path for four, or any, more years. And that presents a challenge for his re-election. A president always runs on his record, and his report card shows he needs improvement.

“Four more years!” also inevitably evokes a period in American history most Democrats, indeed most Americans, would rather forget. It was Richard Nixon’s rallying cry in his 1972 re-election campaign. After his landslide victory, he was gone in less than two years, swept out with the Watergate scandal.

And in case anyone is wondering, this also is no time for “Obama’s the one!” or for substituting jobs for peace in Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 slogan, “peace is at hand.” The columnist Russell Baker observed wryly in the New York Times in June 1973 that “peace is at hand” meant, “as events demonstrated, `We will still be bombing them in the summer of ’73.’”

“Jobs now,” though, could work -- real jobs, that is, not just as a slogan.
Historians tell us no president since FDR has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent. Unemployment was 7.8 percent when Obama took office and held steady at 9.1 percent in August with 14 million Americans officially out of work.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts joblessness will remain above 8 percent until 2014. While there’s no science about 8 percent, Obama needs to be able to show improvement by Election Day.

Before his economic speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress, Obama’s job approval had sunk to the lowest levels of his presidency. Only about 40 percent of people approve of the way he’s handling his job. People are even more disgusted with Congress.

Obama’s decline has precipitated a wave of voters’ remorse and second-guessing. Hillary Clinton warned us, commentators say, as they dream of what might have been had she won.

I went back to re-read some of Clinton’s campaign criticisms of Obama, and they were eerily fresh and on point.

“It’s time we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions,” she declared in February 2008. People “need a president ready to manage our economy,” who’s “ready on Day One,” who won’t need “on-the-job training.”

Ah, but Clinton’s cogent arguments couldn’t hold a candle to Obama’s word castles.

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University and “messaging consultant” to Democrats, wrote in the Times magazine last month:

“Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted ‘present’ (instead of ‘yea’ or ‘nay’) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”

Voters hoped that Obama would use his gift for words to turn the country around.That may have been naïve. In any case, the country’s mood is bleaker than ever.

Still, Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter, whose job approval rating in September of his third year plummeted to 32 percent. And, anything can happen in the next 14 months. For one thing, congressional Republicans are making noises of cooperation. Then, too, the GOP could put up an extremist who is unacceptable to the independent voters who decide elections. Obama could yet be Bill Clinton who recovered handily from a job approval rating of 46 percent in September of his third year.

One could argue that nothing can prepare anyone for the challenges of the Oval Office. The president with extensive domestic experience gets hit with global crises, while the internationalist finds the country beset by domestic problems and natural disasters.

So, let’s stipulate that Hillary was right, and Obama arrived woefully unprepared. But she’s not running this time, and he’s neither delusional nor dumb.

After four years of trial by fire, he will know what he didn’t know then. Obama may be able to argue that it’s the Republican who will need on-the-job training, while the sitting president is ready for the next four years.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hey, Rick Perry, keep on talking -- Aug. 31, 2011 column


Two years before the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” landed in bookstores. Its subtitle: “Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.”

Two years before the 2012 election, Rick Perry’s “Fed Up!” hit bookstores. Its subtitle: “Our Fight to Save America from Washington.”

Both politicians addressed the sense Americans had that the political process had gone wrong and offered their own policy solutions. But where Obama, then a senator from Illinois, built on his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, writing about “just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break,” Perry, the governor of Texas, attacked the capitol.

“America is great,” he writes.“Washington is broken.” Perry also opines that “Cynics will say that I decided to write this book because I seek higher office. They are wrong: I already have the best job in America.”

Oh, Lordy, that man can talk.

You don’t have to be a cynic to think the author of “Fed Up!” is rounding up voters outside the Lone Star State. As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, though, Rick Perry thrives on extravagant speech.

When he’s not warning it would be “treasonous” for the Federal Reserve chairman to stimulate the economy in a presidential election year, and if he did, “we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” Perry is dismissing evolution as “just a theory” with “some gaps in it.”

And, speaking of cynicism, Perry claims research scientists manipulate data on climate change, “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Social Security is a “monstrous lie,” he says, “a Ponzi scheme.”

And, while insisting that “most Americans do not yearn to be dependent on government subsidies” like food stamps or want Washington as “caretaker,” he conveniently forgets tens of thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies he and his father received while farming.

He jumped into the presidential race Aug. 13 and already has talked his way to the head of the class of Republican contenders.

A Quinnipiac University poll Wednesday found Perry the favorite for the GOP nomination, confirming recent findings by CNN and Gallup. If one poll is a fuzzy snapshot, two begin to bring the picture into focus, and three or more sharpen it.

Yes, Perry may be enjoying a temporary boomlet in popularity as a newcomer running against the establishment. No matter that he’s a lifelong politician, having held public office since 1984.

Or, he may have ridden onto the presidential rodeo with his cowboy boots and bluster at the right moment. Many Republicans are hankering for someone who talks like they think.

If Obama has been inscrutable and Ivy League, Perry is Texas A&M, a yell leader as emphatic as an exclamation point. Perry’s promise to work every day in the White House to make Washington “inconsequential in your life” goes down like sweet tea with the tea party crowd.

And here’s the cherry on the Perry sundae: He irritates progressives, intellectuals and liberal commentators no end, which adds to his luster among people who have no use for so-called elites.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Perry’s comments on climate change “vile.” A news story on this week asked, “Is Rick Perry dumb?”
The consensus of political watchers was that while he’s no pointy-headed intellectual, he is a smart politician. Dumb like a fox, several said.

After Karl Rove helped Perry win an election as Texas agriculture commissioner in the 1990s, Perry said his own mind was like a chicken pot pie while Rove’s was a well-organized refrigerator, “pickles here, salad there.”

Perry, 61, a fifth-generation Texan, not only has rugged good looks, a folksy manner and the gift of gab, he lovingly evokes bygone days. In his 2008 book “On My Honor,” about scouting, the Eagle Scout wrote about his childhood:

“Our spot of farmland was perched along the rolling plains of West Texas. Dad called our area the Big Empty. I called it paradise. I had thousands of acres to explore, a dog I called my own, and a Shetland pony. We had every amenity a boy could need: electricity because the Rural Electrification Agency, REA, had made its way out our road…”

Whoa, pony, hold on there. The REA is a federal agency, born of FDR’s New Deal. Washington doesn’t get any more consequential in people’s lives than when it brings the lights.

Even a man who wants to be president ought to know that.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Standing tall, King memorial opens, at last -- Aug. 24, 2011 column


On a breezy August evening in the nation’s capital, a mother and daughter linger before a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. engraved in granite.

With some help from her mom, the little girl reads: “If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

“What does it mean?” her mother asks. The daughter shakes her head. Mom reads the quotation slowly, and then they talk quietly, heads bent together, still points in a swirling crowd.

Young and old, black and white, locals and tourists have come out after supper on this week night, drawn to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with its larger-than-life depiction of the slain civil rights leader. Some can remember King, most remember what their parents and grandparents said of him, and everybody wants the children to know about the man who changed America forever.

We look up, up, up to the granite head against a cloudless indigo sky, to the resolute eyes and mouth, the veins in the left hand, the crossed arms. Thoughtful and yet joyful, we snap pictures. Couples hug, and kids laugh. Some people push old folks in wheelchairs or give toddlers rides on shoulders.

President Barack Obama and other dignitaries were scheduled to dedicate the memorial on Sunday, the 48th anniversary of King’s “I have a dream” speech, but an approaching hurricane forced a postponement until September or October.

The memorial belongs to ordinary Americans, a reminder sited between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials of our nation’s struggle for freedom and equality.

Facts tell part of the memorial’s story. The statue of King is 30-feet high, about 11feet taller than either the Lincoln or the Jefferson. Lei Yixin, who is Chinese, sculpted it of shrimp pink granite from China. Flanking the statue are curved walls with 14 quotations from King’s sermons, speeches and writings. The granite for the inscription walls came from Canada.

I’d read about the California NAACP’s protest that an African American sculptor hadn’t been chosen and how members of Congress had asked that American granite be used. The private foundation that envisioned and raised most of the $120 million for the monument had its own ideas.

Some critics say a visitor would never know about the civil rights movement by visiting the memorial. It’s true there’s no mention of the Montgomery bus boycott or the fire hoses and dogs that were unleashed on the nonviolent protesters in Birmingham, although one of the quotations is from King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail.

There’s also no mention of the 1964 Nobel peace prize King won for his non-violent tactics, although there are two quotes from Norway, 1964.

For me, visiting the memorial swept criticisms aside. Like the nearby memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the King memorial calls out to be walked, touched and shared.

The power of language looms large, for King had only the power of words -- and not the power of the presidency -- to make his voice heard. Most important, the memorial reflects King’s vision of how he wanted to be remembered.

On Feb. 4, 1968, he preached what became known as the “drum major instinct” sermon in which he talked about the desire everyone has for praise and to be first, a drum major, in life’s parade. He also imagined his own funeral. Don’t mention the Nobel Prize or the hundreds of other awards I’ve won, he said.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice…say I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter,” he said.

Two months later to the day, King was killed by a gunman in Memphis.

And that’s why on the side of his monument is the phrase, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

The words make us all stand a little taller.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dylan, Obama and the summer of disappointment -- Aug. 18, 2011 column


Talk about hope. A retired postal worker named Todd drove 170 miles from his home in rural West Virginia to Maryland the other day to see Bob Dylan perform.

Todd was eager for Dylan’s autograph, and he carried three of Dylan’s earliest record albums for his signature.

“I’ve been waiting 50 years to see him,” he said. “I hope he’ll play some of these early songs.”

Alas, that didn’t happen. It figures. This has been a summer of disappointments, large and small.

Dylan signed no autographs that night – he didn’t speak except to say thank you and introduce his band – and he played none of his earliest songs. Even if Dylan had played an oldie, Todd might not have recognized it right away. The Dylan repertoire sounds nothing like it once did. His voice is gravelly and guttural; he keeps his music “Forever Young” through changing arrangements that challenge memories.

Dylan is still the master, and he puts on a good show, despite turning 70 in May. These days he’s less prophet than front man.

Dylan recorded his first album the year Barack Obama was born. Both men are enigmatic and cool, and both know something about disappointed fans.

For Obama, this summer’s debt ceiling debacle and stock market rollercoaster have been devastating to his public standing. Only one in four Americans now has a favorable view of his handling of the economy, Gallup reported Wednesday. The president’s overall approval rating is an underwhelming 40 percent.

During Obama’s campaign-style tour of farm country, many who came to see the president said they were disappointed that he hadn’t laid out a plan to fix the economy and create jobs. Obama, sensing the frustration, has said he will do so in a major speech – but not until next month.

Obama’s brilliant campaign slogan from 2008 -- “Yes, we can!” -- always was a Rorschach test, open to each voter’s interpretation. Trouble is, governing is more than affirming; sometimes it’s saying no. It requires skills that come with experience. It doesn’t help that congressional Republicans have devoted themselves to the mantra, “No, you won’t!”

Obama, like Dylan, captured the feelings of a generation. Dylan was hailed as the voice of the protest generation of the 1960s, although he bristles at that, saying he saw himself as “more a cowpuncher than a Pied Piper” of the anti-establishment.

“I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” Dylan wrote in his autobiography, “Chronicles.”

As much a commercial success as a musical one, Dylan allows advertisers to use his songs and sells his artwork online. A rumor swept the Internet in 2009 that he was negotiating terms for his voice to be used for GPS directions.

On a concert tour of Asia earlier this year, he was roundly criticized for allowing the government of China to pre-approve his playlist.

But for the fans who tuned in to see him sing “The Times They Are a-Changing” at his first White House appearance last year and for those who attend his ubiquitous concerts this summer, none of that matters.

At Merriweather Post Pavilion, Todd had the seat next to mine. A Vietnam veteran, he worked for Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and voted Republican for 30 years. He now considers himself an independent.

He was excited to vote for Obama, he says, but the president’s performance has been, well, disappointing. And yet, he plans to vote for Obama again next year. The Republicans have moved too far to the right, he says, and the Tea Party scares him.

After Dylan left the stage, Todd said that even though he didn’t get what he came for, the trip was worth it. He had seen the musical legend at last.

Obama and his team have to hope that millions of Americans weather this summer of disappointment, that they listen to and like Obama’s new arrangements of his policies in the fall and that they choose to stick with him in 2012.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Waiting for the Supreme Court -- AARP Bulletin

Now that two federal appeals courts have considered the same law and have come to opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court almost certainly will have to decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act. But when?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Coping with chronic illness -- AARP Bulletin

Almost everybody has a friend or family member struggling with a chronic illness. A free program developed by Stanford University that's going nationwide can help. Here's my story in the AARP Bulletin.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

'Temple of Invention' reminds us who we are -- Aug. 11, 2011 column


At a stylish Spanish restaurant in the Washington suburbs, the sangria flowed and luscious plates of food landed with the usual flourish before appreciative patrons. But Jim wore a glum expression as he looked around the bustling dining room.

“I’ve been downgraded,” he said.

Not exactly. Jim and his wife Sandy live in Chicago, where they both have good jobs and are far from hurting financially. But Jim, like many Americans, took personally Standard & Poor’s recent decision to drop the United States’ credit rating from AAA to AA-plus.

The downgrade was a public humiliation, a psychic slap, another sign – as if anyone needed it -- that this country isn’t what it used to be. The nagging doubt we try to keep at arm’s length crept a little closer. Is this the beginning of the end of the American age?

Maybe Joseph Heller had it right in “Catch-22”: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Whoa. Let’s step in off the ledge. Two other agencies – Moody’s and Fitch -- have left our sterling credit rating in place. Maybe S&P did use faulty math, as the administration says. In any event, S&P didn’t blame the American people for the mess we’re in; it blamed reckless politicians and policies.

“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed,” S&P’s analysts said in their report. They don’t trust the politicians to make the hard revenue and spending choices needed to get the country on solid ground. This isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of America.

Trying to show he was unconcerned, President Obama waited a weekend before offering tepid reassurance that “No matter what some agency may say, we have always been and always will be a triple-A country.” As he spoke, though, the stock markets were engaged in ritual blood-letting on their way to losing 450 points that day.

Amid the chaos of a broken government, teetering economy and stomach-churning financial markets, questions naturally arise. Among them: Who are we Americans and where are we headed?

As it happens, such soul-searching about the national identity is not new. America began as a Great Experiment for promoting human happiness, and after Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers died, 19th century Americans worried constantly if they would be able to keep the experiment going, says Claire Perry, guest curator of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“They began to call themselves ‘an inventive people’ as they pondered the question: What, exactly, should their democratic nation be?” Perry writes in “The Great American Hall of Wonders,” the exhibit’s fascinating catalogue.

The “Hall of Wonders” exhibit, which runs through Jan. 8, showcases American imagination and ingenuity from the 1820s to 1870s. The 161 items include paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, illustrations and patent sketches and models.

The American Art Museum is housed in the first Patent Office building, which was constructed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836. By the 1850s, more than a hundred thousand people a year flocked to see models and drawings of the newest gizmos in what became known as the “temple of invention.”

Imagination so bubbled in the 19th century that even politicians were creative.
Years before he occupied the White House, Abraham Lincoln saw the difficulty boat captains had maneuvering the untamed rivers of the Midwest. He was 40 and had just ended his term in Congress when he received a patent for his “Device for Buoying Vessels over Shoals” in May 1849. The drawing submitted with his patent application is displayed. The device involving bellows was never manufactured. Lincoln is the only president with a patent.

The 19th century was a time of many wonders but it was not wonderful. The Civil War was catastrophic, and the exhibit reminds us of the decimation of the buffalo by gun and train, the tyranny of the clock on human sleep and work schedules, and the widespread destruction of nature.

Being downgraded from AAA status is no fun, but we Americans have weathered far worse.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Strange case of Dr. No and his RX for compromise -- Aug. 4, 2011 column


For years, Sen. Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, has been sand in the gears of Washington’s well-oiled spending machine.

His straight talk, independence and relentless pursuit of what he considers the wasteful use of taxpayers’ dollars have alienated many in both parties, earning him the nickname “Doctor No.” Coburn is an M.D. family practitioner.

It’s a sign of how bizarre things have become in the nation’s capital in 2011 that some of his former allies, including Grover Norquist of no-tax-hike pledge fame and Tea Party groups, are now kicking sand at Coburn. His unpardonable sin is he’s sometimes willing to compromise.

A few years ago, Coburn signed Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes or revenues. He since has untied his hands.

“Which pledge is most important…the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States or a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don’t?” he said in April on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

And so, the man who tried to block spending for the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and countless other pet projects of lawmakers, the foe of what he considers silly research programs at such revered institutions as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, is on the outs with the Republican right.

For his part, Coburn, 63, has said the Tea Party is one of the best things to happen to the country, and it’s great that the American people have forced a shift in the Washington debate from where to spend to where to cut. That’s not enough for those who call him traitor.

In normal times, Coburn would be a logical choice for one of the three Senate Republican slots on the new joint, bipartisan committee, a.k.a. “Super Congress,” that will be charged with reducing the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion later this year. Coburn told Politico he’ll never get tapped by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican has vowed not to pick anyone who favors revenue increases as part of a deficit-reduction deal.

Coburn is open-minded, at least on some taxes, sometimes. As part of the Gang of Six negotiating a debt-ceiling deal, he said he’d consider an increase in tax revenues if tax rates were cut.

While President Obama was dickering with House Speaker John Boehner over a “grand bargain” to cut deficit by $4 trillion – but still not bringing the federal budget into balance -- Coburn released his own, 614-page plan. He outlined ways to cut the deficit by $9 trillion over 10 years and balance the budget.

Coburn’s plan includes a variety of proposals, among them slashing pay for members of Congress, cutting Congress’ budget 15 percent and closing tax loopholes and breaks. Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, attacked Coburn’s plan as a trillion-dollar tax hike.

Coburn walked out of the Gang of Six talks when he failed to get Democrats to agree on Medicare and entitlement cuts. He later returned to the Gang, but voted no on the debt-ceiling compromise that Obama signed into law.

“In spite of what politicians on both sides are saying, this agreement does not cut any spending over 10 years. In fact, it increases spending by $830 billion,” Coburn wrote Tuesday in The Washington Post. “It eliminates no program, consolidates no duplicative programs, cuts no tax earmarks and reforms no entitlement program.”

He said he believes no substantial spending cuts will happen until after the November 2012 election, if then. As for the trigger mechanism that’s supposed to make $1.2 trillion in Pentagon and domestic cuts if the 12-member “Super Congress” deadlocks, Coburn says he doubts the cuts will ever happen. Congress will just wave them away.

Coburn has resisted Washington’s siren song. When he promised to serve just three terms in the House, he actually went home to Muskogee after six years. Elected to the Senate in 2004, he considered not running again. He did win re-election last year but has announced he won’t run again.

“Washington has imposed (the debt crisis) on the American people through laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and political expediency,” he wrote in the Post.

That’s strong medicine from Doctor No.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.