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.