Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gloomy about USA? Visit a national park -- May 31, 2012 column


Roughly three in four Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

That means President Barack Obama faces re-election trouble. Or maybe not. A coin toss is as good as any poll at this point for predicting who’ll win in November, says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.

So let’s stop trying to handicap whether Mitt Romney or Obama is ahead in the horse race and consider how the rest of us are doing. Americans have been grumpy a long time, and it’s not healthy to live perpetually under a cloud.

Here’s an idea: The next time the state of the Union makes you feel blue, turn off the TV, unplug from the web and head for a national park. Oh, and it won’t kill you to leave your smart phone in the trunk.

I’ve tried this antidote myself recently, walking Civil War battlefields, historic sites and a national seashore. Each trip taught me something about our rich and quirky history. America has faced challenges before and triumphed over them. We’re stronger than we think we are.

I know, I know. Congress is dysfunctional, the economy fragile, the presidential campaign toxic, and the public discourse relentlessly depressing.

And yet, violent crime is down, marriage is up and at least one federal agency actually works. The rate of visitor satisfaction at national parks over the last several years is an astounding 97 percent.

There’s one thing even Obama and Romney, his Republican rival, can agree on. The national parks are beloved.

In 2008, candidate Obama promised to boost funding for national parks and national forests, and he signed a law in 2009 that did so, modestly. PolitiFact rated it “a promise kept.”

Romney talks fondly about boyhood vacations in which his family piled into the Rambler (his father ran American Motors which made the car) and toured national parks.

“We went from national park to national park,” Romney has said. “And they were teaching me to fall in love with America.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, I climbed the 248 iron spiral stairs at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s the equivalent of climbing a 12-story building, and I asked some people on their way down the narrow staircase if it was worth it.

“Oh, yeah!” they agreed, all broad smiles. And they were right. At the top, a wild, happy wind blew away cares and the coastal views were endless.

Built in 1870, the nation’s tallest lighthouse would have been lost to the sea had Congress not spent $10 million to move it half a mile inland in 1999. Engineers lifted the entire structure with hydraulic jacks, placed it on steel mats and slid it on rails, inch by inch.

The plan was fraught with controversy. Local people feared the engineers would fail, leaving a pile of bricks where a major tourist attraction once stood. But the amazing plan succeeded, and the beacon draws 3 million visitors a year.

The Hatteras lighthouse is safe from the encroaching ocean for another hundred years, if we’re lucky.

In Fredericksburg, Va., earlier in May, National Park Service historian John Hennessy led a walking tour that traced President Lincoln’s route around town in 1862. Lincoln met with his generals to plan what was to be a major assault on Richmond. As it happened, the attack was called off.

Lincoln’s visit was not unlike Obama’s recent trip to Afghanistan, Hennessy said, in that few in the Army and press knew about the visit. In Lincoln’s case, the occupied city refused to be impressed.

Fredericksburg’s Unionist newspaper, The Christian Banner, reported that, “There were no demonstrations of joy” among the citizenry – but neither had residents shown joy when Confederate President Jefferson Davis had visited the previous winter.

“The citizens of Fredericksburg seem to have little partialities for presidents,” the paper observed.

Some would say Americans haven’t changed much in 150 years.

So, before the campaign grows even more hateful and off-putting, take a clue from the men running for president. Visit a national park this summer and remind yourself why this country is special.

America’s national parks are waiting.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

At 150, taps links us to past -- May 23, 2012 column


I grew up hearing taps. My dad was in the Air Force, and on many of the air bases we temporarily called home, the mournful notes of taps were a steady punctuation, signaling the end of another day.

We were living in Japan when the bugler cracked a note of taps the day President Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Now as then, taps calls us to reflect on those who have given their lives for our country. Taps stirs patriotic feelings in the jaded; it wrings out every drop of cynicism I think I have.

Until a few days ago, though, I had no idea where taps began. On this, the 150th anniversary of taps, here’s its story.

One July day in 1862, Union Brigadier Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, commander of a brigade camped at Harrison’s Landing in southeastern Virginia, sent for his bugler.

It was just after the bloody Seven Days battles, where Butterfield was wounded and 600 of his troops were killed. In his tent, Butterfield showed bugler Oliver W. Norton some musical notes written in pencil on the back of an envelope and asked him to play them.

“I did this several times, playing the music as written,” Norton wrote long after the Civil War. “He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for taps thereafter, in place of the regular call.”

The regulation call for “lights out” was a tune borrowed from the French that Butterfield found too formal. That night, bugler Norton played taps.

“The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our brigade,” Norton wrote in a magazine in 1898. “The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring brigades, asking for copies of the music which I gladly furnished.”

And so taps spread, not by directive from Washington but by commanders along the James River and farther afield who heard the haunting melody. It was soon played at the burial of a cannoneer killed in action in Virginia.

Jari A. Villanueva, a retired Air Force bugler and the nation’s leading taps historian, tells the history of taps in his booklet, “Twenty-Four Notes that Tap Deep Emotions,” and his website.

Villanueva, who has devoted many years to taps history research, concluded that Butterfield did not compose taps but revised an earlier bugle call.

No matter, the melancholy music also caught the ear of Confederates. Ten months after it was composed, taps was played at the funeral of Confederate Lieutenant Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Taps was made an official Army bugle call after the Civil War. Today taps is played at the end of the day on most military bases and at funerals of military personnel and veterans.

On its 150th anniversary, taps is getting fresh attention. About 200 buglers from around the country gathered at Arlington National Cemetery Saturday to play taps. Taps is being remembered this week at the Trumpet Guild Conference in Columbus, Ga.

A commemoration of the first taps is scheduled for June 22 through 24 at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City, Va., where Civil War re-enactors will portray the Union Army camped at Harrison’s Landing. A rededication of the taps monument there is planned for June 23.

In case you’re curious, the Army says that taps – and reveille – are not capitalized or put in quotation marks because they are bugle calls, not songs or official titles.

The name taps is thought to be shorthand for a “tattoo” or signal that soldiers should quit carousing and return to quarters, according to the Veterans Administration. The Dutch word “taptoe” is a command that means shut the tap of a keg,

Villanueva scotches as myth the oft-repeated tale that Robert Ellicombe, a captain in the Union army, found the music for taps in the pocket of his dead Confederate soldier son on the battlefield and then had the notes played at the boy’s funeral.

“There is no evidence to back up the story or the existence of a Captain Ellicombe,” Villanueva says.
The spirit that prompted Civil War commanders to embrace taps also animates buglers in the 21st century. Buglers Across America was founded in 2000 to ensure that veterans’ funerals have taps performed live.

Congress decided in 1999 that most veterans should get a two-person military color guard at their funerals to fold the American flag and to play taps. There are too few military buglers to go around, so Congress also said playing a recording of taps was acceptable. An enterprising company came up with an electronic gizmo that fits into bugles and plays taps digitally.

No, the nation’s buglers said, that’s not good enough. More than 7,500 buglers around the country now volunteer to play at veterans’ funerals. Bravo.

Thank you, buglers, for finding the time to honor our veterans with taps.

And, thank you, General Butterfield and bugler Norton, for giving us a melody that connects America’s past and present.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Scariest words in politics: If the court... -- May 17, 2012 column


For a politician, nothing is worse than yanking away someone’s benefits in an election year.

It’s always easier to give than to take away, even if the budget is strained or the goodies are part of a health care reform law many Americans love to hate. It’s fine to hate a law as long as it’s in place, however tenuously.

With the Supreme Court expected to rule on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, by the end of June, the scariest word in politics is If.

If the court overturns the law, what then?

The court has many options, and the consequences are uncertain. It could blow up the entire law, although most analysts think not. It could scrap the “individual mandate,” which requires almost all Americans to have medical insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty, and leave the rest of the law intact. It could strike the mandate and other provisions as well. It could let the law stand, as is.

Americans by substantial margins say they favor repeal, mostly because of the hated mandate. No matter that only 7 percent of Americans actually would be required to buy insurance and 93 percent would be covered through employer-sponsored plans and other exemptions, according to a study the Urban Institute released in March. The idea that Congress can compel the purchase goes against some grains.

At the same time, people love allowing children under 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, closing the “donut hole” that requires some seniors on Medicare to pay more for their medications, and ensuring that people with pre-existing medical conditions get coverage.

The White House’s official position is that the court will uphold the law, so it’s making no contingency plans. Congressional Republicans have managed so far to play to both sides.

The Republican majority in the House has voted 29 times to repeal the law, knowing that the votes are all theater because the Senate would never go along. The Republicans insist they intend to “replace” the law but never explain which provisions they’ll keep beyond the most popular, including children under 26.

How the court’s ruling may affect health care is anybody’s guess, but the politics are clear. Come November, no one running for office wants to explain to the parents of a jobless college grad that their son is going to lose his health insurance.

No politician wants to tell Grandma she has to dig a little deeper for her meds or that her grandchild with a pre-existing condition may lose coverage because insurance companies can again deny coverage.

No one wants to tell some 32 million people near the poverty line who were in line for coverage under Medicaid that they won’t be covered after all.

The court could leave all this up to Congress to sort out. And that would put House Speaker John Boehner in a ticklish spot, trying to win House seats while appeasing the Tea Party set.

News reports say Boehner is quietly making plans for the Republicans’ next step, post-Supreme Court. He told the House Republican Conference behind closed doors Wednesday, “When the court rules, we’ll be ready,” Politico reported, relying on tidbits gleaned from those in attendance.

“If all or part of the law is struck down, we are not going to repeat the Democrats’ mistakes,” Boehner told his party, according to Politico. “We have better ideas on health care – lots of them. We have solutions, of course, for patients with pre-existing conditions and other challenges.”

Really? Let us see the solutions.

Ah, but that was in private. A day later, for public consumption on his House speaker blog, Boehner declared, “Anything Short of Full ObamaCare Repeal is Unacceptable.”

Once the court rules, Boehner said, the House will “work on step-by-step, common-sense legislation that will help lower health care costs for families and small businesses, and protect American jobs.”

It was a familiar refrain. He didn’t say what any of those steps might be.

It’s spring, and politicians tremble for what may come this summer. If the court overturns…

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Family values, fundraising, fairness -- and Obama's stance on same-sex marriage -- May 10, 2012 column


To those who were shocked, shocked to hear that campaign politics might have figured into President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, I have bad news. It was ever thus.

Obama fired off a fundraising email the day after he said he personally supports same-sex marriage. Unseemly, yes, but hardly surprising. Political strategizing has been at the heart of the war over marriage equality since the Defense of Marriage Act was a glimmer in Bob Dole’s eye 16 years ago.

As President Bill Clinton ran for re-election in 1996, Dole, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, co-sponsored the Senate bill that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Dole wanted to stir the “family values” pot, but Clinton grabbed the spoon.

As Dole shepherded the bill banning same-sex marriage through Congress, with the help of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the White House announced that yes, indeed, Clinton would sign it. And in September he did so, ignoring the outrage of gay supporters. The re-election campaign soon ran ads on Christian radio stations, lauding the president for fighting for “our values.”

Clinton sanded the edges off what Dole had hoped would be a wedge issue in that campaign. But the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, lives as the law of the land. Obama disavowed DOMA and has refused to defend it in court – but the law still blocks thousands of lawfully wedded same-sex couples from receiving benefits available to heterosexual couples. We’ve yet to hear how Obama proposes to change that.

In 1996, no state had legalized same-sex marriage. Today, six states and the District of Columbia permit it, but under DOMA no state must recognize same-sex marriages that are performed in another state.

Section 3 of the law specifies that for federal purposes ``the word `marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

The law effectively cuts out same-sex married couples from more than 1,100 federal benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

Married same-sex couples cannot file joint tax returns, take unpaid family leave, receive surviving spouse benefits under Social Security or receive family health and pension benefits as federal civilian employees.

Obama told Robin Roberts of ABC News Wednesday that, “For me, personally, it is important…to go ahead and affirm that I think that same-sex couples should be able to get married.” But he dodged questions about what he will actually do, saying the issue should be left to the states.

A day earlier, North Carolina became the 30th state to ban same-sex marriage, reinforcing current law with a constitutional amendment.

It’s difficult to imagine how Obama can stick to the stance that his views are merely personal when he says fairness and justice are at stake. He stood for fairness when he backed repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that prevented gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

The main rationale for not defending DOMA in the courts was Obama’s determination that the law was unconstitutional, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote House Speaker John A. Boehner in February 2011. Nevertheless, law is law, and the president ordered his attorney general to continue enforcing it.

House Republicans hired a lawyer to defend the law in the courts.

The Supreme Court likely will decide the issues at some point. For now, Obama has a campaign to run and pay for. One in six of his top bundlers, who have brought in $500,000 or more, have publicly identified themselves as gay, The Washington Post reported.

Obama is trying to walk a line between voters with strong feelings. He stressed in the ABC interview that he deeply respects pastors and others who believe in traditional marriage, and he indicated that same-sex marriage isn’t a current priority.

“I’m not gonna be spending most of my time talking about this, because, frankly, my job as president right now, my biggest priority, is to make sure that we’re growing the economy, that we’re putting people back to work, that we’re managing the draw-down in Afghanistan effectively,” he said.

But he’s not shy about using the issue to bring in campaign cash. For now, Obama’s strategy is to describe himself as a practicing Christian who believes in the Golden Rule.

“Treat others the way you’d want to be treated,” he said before boarding Air Force One for a trip to the West Coast for fundraisers, where his support of same-sex marriage could boost his haul.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The fight against fat: You ain't seen nothin' yet -- May 3, 2012 column


Few things rattle the Obama haters more than first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity.

For some conservative pundits, any government effort to encourage Americans to eat less and move more is an attack on personal freedom. They fulminate on the nanny state, busybodies and the food police, as in, how dare they tell me to put down my salty-fatty-sugary treat and go for a walk?

And they especially resent the first lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative.

Perhaps that’s because unlike most people in Washington, she actually gets things done.

Mrs. Obama announced last fall that the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster has agreed to add healthier choices for children by this July and to reduce sodium and fat 10 percent in five years and 20 percent over 10 years. Darden Restaurants is the country’s largest full-service restaurant chain, serving 400 million meals a year.

She also persuaded retail giant Wal-Mart to reformulate thousands of packaged foods by 2015, reducing sodium 25 percent and added sugars 10 percent and by removing remaining trans fats. Wal-Mart also agreed to reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables.

If the planet’s biggest retailer demands packaged food with lower sodium and sugar, producers will comply and make changes across the board. We all could benefit.

Life is about to get a lot more annoying for the french-fries-are-my-friend crowd. More companies are charging penalties or higher insurance rates for employees who smoke and are overweight. About 40 percent of medium-sized and large companies reportedly plan to start charging penalties this year.

PepsiCo -- the company that brings us such health foods as Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, Lay’s, Ruffles and Tostitos chips, as well as Pepsi and Mountain Dew – is charging employees who smoke or have weight-related health problems like hypertension or diabetes $50 a month.

Workers who agree to participate in programs to stop smoking or manage their conditions don’t have to fork over the pictures of Ulysses S. Grant.

Angry Teamsters at a bottling plant in upstate New York complained to the National Labor Relations Board, which is negotiating with the company on the workers’ behalf.

And there’s more bad news for those who want to be left alone with their Twinkies: It will be hard for anyone to miss the government’s new multimedia campaign against obesity.

Four documentaries aimed at turning the obesity epidemic around will air May 14 and 15 on HBO. “The Weight of the Nation” films are a collaboration of HBO and the Institute of Medicine in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

There’s also a companion book, a three-part HBO Family series, a dozen short films, a website, a presence on Twitter and Facebook and outreach to more than 40,000 community organizations.

A two-day Weight of the Nation public health conference opens Monday in Washington. Plus, the Advertising Council and Clear Channel Media and Entertainment have launched a three-month series of radio ads about childhood obesity on 850 radio stations.

Some argue that Americans already know what to do to lose weight. It’s certainly true that the federal government has been urging healthy eating and exercise for decades. And it’s also just possible that the obesity crisis has peaked. Obesity rates in children and adults appear to have leveled off after steadily rising for 20 years.

Still, about 36 percent of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, according to the CDC. Even if obesity rates stop climbing, we’ll suffer with associated health issues for decades. The rate of type 2 diabetes in children – the condition that used to be called adult-onset diabetes – has soared. The CDC estimates that obesity contributes to about 112,000 deaths annually.

Michelle Obama should be commended, not criticized, for planting a garden at the White House, making exercise cool, borrowing the presidential bully pulpit – and admitting that she, like millions of Americans, has a fondness for french fries.

“I don’t believe in absolute ‘no’s’ to anything, because that wouldn’t make life fun,” she told an 11-year-old reporter for Scholastic News.

But we don’t have to say yes all the time either.