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.