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.