Thursday, July 30, 2015

Giving the president the hook -- July 30, 2015 column


Good news: Barack Obama will not subvert the Constitution and grab a third presidential term.  

Most Americans never imagined that he’d do such a thing, but oddball doomsayers have warned for years that Obama was angling for a presidency for life.   

“I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t,” Obama said Tuesday in Ethiopia. “The law is the law.”

He was giving the hook to African leaders who sometimes govern for decades. In this country, though, his comments set off a Seinfeldian debate about nothing. Could he win a third term if he could run, which he can’t?

His comments about age and presidential term limits, though, are worth examining.

“I’m still a pretty young man, but I know that somebody with new energy and new insights will be good for my country,” said Obama, who will turn 54 Tuesday.

“In our world, old thinking can be a stubborn thing. That’s one of the reasons why we need term limits -- old people think old ways,” he said.

If Obama believes this country needs someone younger than he next time around, what does that say about the Democrats’ elderly team of rivals? Grandma Hillary, 67, the presumptive frontrunner, may have a golden resume but Clinton is hard to sell as a candidate of new energy and new insights.

Throngs of Democrats flock to hear Bernie Sanders, who has vinegar, but he is 73. Joe Biden’s humanity makes him the Democrats’ favorite potential presidential candidate who’s not in the race. He’s 72. It may take a Hillary implosion to bring him into the fray.  

Among Republican hopefuls, several are younger than Obama – and all can claim new energy and insight. Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz are 44, Scott Walker is 47, and Rand Paul is 52. But it’s an irrepressible old guy with no elective experience who’s leading the pack.

Donald Trump, 69, said he wished Obama could run again so Trump could beat him and everyone else. Trump has energy and unusual insights, all right, but he scares most Republicans. Also in their 60s: Jeb Bush, 62, Lindsey Graham, 60, John Kasich, 63, and Rick Perry, 65.

Setting aside the current competition, it’s worth asking: Do we need presidential term limits or should voters decide how long to keep a president?

"If they want to vote for someone, we shouldn’t have a rule that tells them they can’t.”

That’s not a wistful Bill Clinton. That’s conservative superhero President Ronald Reagan who said in 1987 that he hoped to “start a movement” after he left the White House to repeal the two-term limit on the presidency.  The change would not apply to him, Reagan said, but to his successors.

Since the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, people have been arguing about the wisdom of prohibiting someone from being elected to the presidency more than twice or serving more than 10 years. A vice president who serves more than two years of a previous president’s term and a full term may not run for re-election.  

For example, more than two years remained in Richard Nixon’s term when he resigned and Vice President Gerald Ford took over. Had Ford beat Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ford could have served only one full term and could not have run for re-election.

The Founders saw the presidency as a short-term gig. Delegates to the 1797 Constitutional Convention debated a six- or seven-year term and then agreed on four years. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson set the precedent of two terms, and the tradition stuck until the 1940s.

Only after Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won a fourth term did the rules change. Bills proposing a constitutional amendment to repeal the 22nd Amendment have died in Congress over and over.  

As they should. The Founders who feared a restoration of the monarchy had the right idea. No one person should dominate our highest office indefinitely. We should keep the two-term limit. Even Obama is fine with it.     

“You can see my gray hair – I’m getting old,” he said.         

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

A new era of monument men and women in the South -- July 23, 2015 column

Walking in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., last week, I passed two young men, probably in their 20s.
“They’re talking about taking that down,” one said, pointing to a statue in the middle of the busy intersection of Prince and South Washington streets. The other fellow squinted into the morning sun at the bronze figure.
“Who is it – Eisenhower?” he asked.
I laughed. It’s worth remembering that not everyone follows the news closely.  
Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever suggested removing a statue of Dwight D.  Eisenhower. People may argue about what the national Eisenhower memorial in Washington should look like, but we all agree that our 34th president is monument-worthy.
The American appetite for war memorials and monuments to presidents and generals seemed boundless -- until the killings last month of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., prompted a reappraisal of Confederate symbols and monuments.
The prominent statue in Alexandria whose future is in question is a Confederate monument, but it’s not a tribute to a general. “Appomattox” – nicknamed “Appy” -- shows an unarmed Confederate soldier, head bowed, arms crossed over his chest, hat in hand, facing the battlefields to the South where his comrades fell.
Appy has lent its sorrowful presence to the intersection since 1889. Drivers occasionally crash into the statue, but Appy has always been restored to his perch.
As in countless other communities in the South, though, Alexandria is weighing whether to move the Confederate sculpture to a museum. City Council is expected to take up the issue in the fall.
Such decisions evoke strong emotions and protests. Vandals in several states have spray-painted the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” on monuments, action that further divides communities when they need to be united.
My guess is that a year from now we’ll see fewer Confederate monuments on Southern streets, squares and parks and more in museums. That’s a step in the right direction, but we should do more.
Communities will miss the moment if they put Confederates in the attic, figuratively, but fail to think of all that’s happened in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War. Surely, we can find more recent heroes and stories to pass to future generations.    
Americans traditionally have focused on presidents, generals and victims of disasters for our memorials and monuments. We’ve slighted our rich and diverse cultural history – the artists, athletes, composers, explorers, inventors, musicians, scientists, writers and others who have contributed to the American spirit.
I read recently that there are 94 statues in Russia to literary giant Alexander Pushkin -- 94! Russians are not content with promoting Pushkin in Russia alone. A full-length statue of Pushkin is on the campus of The George Washington University – a gift in 2000 from the city of Moscow to the city of Washington.
You probably can count the statues to Mark Twain in this country on one hand.
The South has a strong literary history, and some cities have immortalized authors. In downtown Jackson, Miss., are statues of Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and William Faulkner. 
We can and should do more to recognize the contributions of women. The Virginia Women’s Monument Commission is raising money and seeking names of Virginia women for a monument on Capitol Square in Richmond. A dozen figures will be cast in bronze and names of other notable Virginia women will be inscribed on a Wall of Honor.
Farther afield, so to speak, few of us might think an agricultural pest worthy of tribute, but the Boll Weevil Statue in downtown Enterprise, Ala., tells the story of the community’s resilience.
Local cotton farmers, their crops devastated by the boll weevil in 1915, turned to growing peanuts and thrived. The monument, dedicated in 1919, is a thank you to the pest for the lessons it taught.
Rather than focusing on the Civil War, Southern communities can use the opportunity of moving Confederate statues to tap the imagination of residents and find new heroes and stories to immortalize. It’s time we moved on.  
To whom -- or what -- would you like to see a monument in your community? Send me your ideas. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Summer 2015 -- brought to you by the 1960s -- July 16, 2015 column


I have a word to describe the summer of 2015. It’s groovy. Make that neo-groovy.  

Yes, children, Groovy is now a programming language, but in the 1960s groovy -- lower case -- meant wonderful or cool. Simon and Garfunkel sang “Feelin’ Groovy” (“The 59th Street Bridge Song”) on their 1966 album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.”

Over the last few weeks, nearly every major news event – whether it came from the heavens, the political mud or a cultural landmark between the two – has had ties to the 1960s. This may be the summer the Sixties built.

Everybody was feelin’ groovy when the New Horizons spacecraft finally flew by Pluto on Tuesday. After traveling nearly a decade and 3 billion miles, the spacecraft about the size of a baby grand piano made its one and only flyby of the former planet.

President Barack Obama tweeted his congratulations. 

Everybody loves Pluto. Images of the dwarf planet with its heart-shaped region charmed the world 50 years to the day after the first mission to Mars, Mariner 4, explored the red planet on July 14, 1965.

The space program didn’t just happen. President John F. Kennedy feared that the Soviets, having launched Sputnik and then the first human into space, would win the space race. On May 25, 1961, he addressed a joint session of Congress with a stunning proposal.   

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” JFK said.

Just eight years later, on July 20, 1969, the first two humans -- American astronauts -- walked on the moon. It took them 76 hours to travel the 240,000 miles.

To compare, when New Horizons launched Jan. 16, 2006, it passed the moon nine hours later.

In another sign of how the 1960s are informing our lives, Obama this week drew from Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address to argue in favor of a nuclear deal with Iran.

“It’s now more than 50 years since President Kennedy stood before the American people and said, `Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,’” Obama said.

In politics, the big news this summer is a brash Republican candidate in the populist tradition. Some commentators liken real estate mogul Donald Trump to George Wallace “without the charm.” Wallace, a former Alabama governor and segregationist, ran for president four times from the 1960s to 1980s. 

Trump’s propensity for harsh rhetoric – he has called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers -- and loose use of facts worries the GOP establishment. In early polls of likely Republican voters, though, he leads the pack of GOP presidential hopefuls.

The book of the summer is a novel written more than half a century ago. Readers dreamed for decades that Harper Lee would publish another novel after her perennial bestseller “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. The 1962 movie based on the book starring Gregory Peck was a classic.

Lee finally released another novel this month, but it confounded readers. Written before Mockingbird but set 20 years after it, “Go Set a Watchman” altered the character of saintly Atticus Finch into a cranky, racist coot.

Readers will long debate the merits of Watchman and whether Lee, 89, should have allowed it to be published. Her “new” novel brought back the dark side of the 1960s – but this summer also saw South Carolina give the decade the boot symbolically.

After 54 years, the Confederate battle flag came down from the statehouse grounds in Columbia on July 10. Raised over the capitol dome in 1961 during the civil rights era, the flag had been moved to the grounds in 2000. It was taken down permanently after the murders last month of nine black worshippers at a prayer meeting in a Charleston church.

This summer we also saw the 1960s as a selling point. Jaguar has come out with a new Lightweight E-Type racer that only looks like it was built in 1964. It can be yours for a cool one million British pounds, or about $1.5 million.

That must be one groovy car.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Innovation does exist in Washington -- July 9, 2015 column


If you fear for America’s future, do yourself a favor and visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

I hear you -- you’ve already seen the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen and the first ladies’ gowns. Great!   

To restore your faith in the future, though, walk downstairs to the new Innovation Wing on the first floor. Opened July 1, the 45,000-square-foot space houses 12 exhibitions that explore American invention, creativity and business.

The new exhibitions will make you proud of American ingenuity in solving the world’s problems big and small with such inventions as the light bulb, telegraph, the button stitch machine, the Apple 1 computer, hip-hop, Weight Watchers and Technicolor.  

What will renew your hopefulness for the future – as it did mine on a visit over the July 4th weekend -- is something the museum’s talented professionals can’t curate: enthusiasm.

Visitors of all ages, but especially children, mostly enjoy themselves as they tour the exhibits. One area – the Draper Spark!Lab – invites kids six to 12 to explore things that roll, from rolling pins to skateboards, and make their own creations.

At times, the exhibits teach by shining a light on the dark parts of our past. A display about the Business of Slavery in the American Enterprise exhibition features the statue of a family of three—husband, wife and their son – standing on a base that is splitting apart to represent the rending of families by the slave trade.

The Object Project exhibition -- “everyday things that changed everything” -- encourages visitors to walk around and often touch inventions ranging from the refrigerator and other household items to bicycles and ready-to-wear clothes. In so doing, we are reminded that today’s shiniest new thing one day will be quaintly old fashioned.

A woman and her teenage daughter paused before a black, candlestick telephone that looked like something from Downton Abbey. 

Mom explained that someone would lift the separate earpiece to the ear and talk into the round mouthpiece at the top. So far, so good.

“It’s a dial phone,” Mom said. 

The teen expertly tapped her fingertips on the numbers.  

“No, you have to dial it,” Mom said, demonstrating.   

The girl gingerly extended an index finger into a slot but quickly pulled back. Laughing, she tried again. Eureka! She dialed a phone. Hello, 20th century?

Nearby was a customized interactive version of the old TV game show, “The Price is Right,” in which visitors compete by guessing the total cost of three items from selected years.

The Object Project also shows us that extravagance in America is nothing new. Tiffany & Co. in 1896 customized a bicycle with nickel- and gold-plating, diamonds and emeralds. It bears the initials in gold of the owner, Mrs. M.N. Wiley of Montgomery, Ala.

That bicycle is in a glass-fronted case, but the days are gone of museums keeping all the good stuff behind glass. The Innovation Wing has many hands-on exhibits. Where else can you learn turntable scratch like a hip-hop DJ in the 1970s – thanks to video tutorials from greats of the genre?

Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and the Bronx is one of six creative hotspots featured in the Places of Invention exhibition. Others are Hartford, Conn., where precision manufacturing got its start in the late 1800s; Hollywood, where Technicolor ushered in the movies’ Golden Age in the 1930s; Minneapolis-St. Paul, which advanced cardiac care in the 1950s; Silicon Valley, Calif., home of the personal computer in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Fort Collins, Colo., a college town that fosters clean energy innovations.

Conventional wisdom holds that we Americans are blasé and world weary, but I’m not so sure. I lost track of how often people said:  “Wow!” “I’ve never seen anything like that!” and “Look at this!”

The American history museum welcomes four million visitors a year. When people flock to the new Innovation Wing, they renew their gusto.  

And they can impress their children with their knowledge of ancient times. One dad pointed out a boom box and said: “People used to carry those on their shoulders.”

His little boy gazed doubtfully at the huge contraption and had a question. “Why?”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where there's smoke -- July 2, 2015 column

Nearly two decades ago, news that more than 30 suspicious fires had damaged or destroyed black churches in 18 months in the Southeast prompted President Bill Clinton, Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and work together.

Clinton brought Southern governors to the White House and also set up a national task force to investigate the fires.

The House and Senate passed – unanimously, no less -- and Clinton signed, on July 3, 1996, the Church Arson Prevention Act. The law made it easier for federal officials to prosecute those who torch churches, lengthened prison sentences and provided loan guarantees for church rebuilding.

“Keep in mind, so far there’s no evidence of a national conspiracy,” Clinton said a week later. But, “we cannot…let significant numbers of the American people turn into cowards acting in the dark of night on racial, ethnic or religious bigotry.”

The horrific bombings and burnings of churches and homes during the 1960s still haunts America, and the idea that low-life scum again would set fire to houses of worship disgusted and united the political left and right.  

The good news, investigations by the task force as well as news organizations found, was that there was no conspiracy to set fire to black churches. Reports of an epidemic of racist arsons were overblown. Juveniles set 42 percent of the church fires, the task force reported in 1997. 

Racists had set some fires in black churches, but the incidence was less than breathless news reports had made it seem. Authorities keep better records now, and we know the number of church arsons has dropped over the years. Most church arsons are vandalism, revenge or to cover up other crimes and are not racially motivated -- but even one racist burning of a church is too many.

Since a white supremacist shot and killed nine black worshippers June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., a string of nighttime fires at black churches in the South has awakened old fears. Three fires likely were arson, authorities have said, the rest probably caused by electrical wires or lightning.

None of the fires has been designated a hate crime. Investigations are continuing.

The fire Tuesday night that consumed Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., was eerily reminiscent of a blaze 20 years ago that leveled the historic church. That fire was set by two former Ku Klux Klan members.

The church was rebuilt, and at the dedication in 1996, Clinton said, “We are not slipping back to those dark days.” 

When Mount Zion burned again just days after the Charleston massacre, the news resonated deeply. Had we slipped back into those dark days? A white pastor in Nashville tweeted, “Hey racists, come burn our church too. We stand for Jesus too. We oppose racism too.”

This time, though, authorities said the fire at Mount Zion did not appear to be arson and may have been caused by lightning.

As investigators from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other law enforcement agencies comb through the ruins, we all hope no fires are arson. But where there is arson, we want speedy justice.

In 2006, nine church burnings in rural Alabama raised fears of racism and calls for President George W. Bush to make stopping church fires a priority.

It turned out that three white college students from a Birmingham suburb set five fires as a prank on a deer hunting trip and then set four others four days later to divert law enforcement. No racial motive was found. Five of the churches were predominately black and four were white. One man was released from prison in 2012; the two others were released this year.

Where there’s smoke, sometimes there are youthful misdeeds or lightning -- and not hatred.

In any case, the remarkable coming together of people of good will after the killings in Charleston carries great promise. We must not allow this moment of hope to be lost in flame.

Clinton’s words in 1996 still ring true: “Our job is not done.”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.