Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Heroes on a train: `Let's go!' -- Aug. 27, 2015 column

Three young Americans on vacation captivated the world last week when they risked their lives to save hundreds of train travelers in Europe from a terrorist attack.
“They are truly heroes,” said Jane Hartley, U.S. ambassador to France. “When most of us would run away, Spencer, Alek and Anthony ran into the line of fire, saying `Let’s go!’ Those words changed the fate of many.”
As we go about our ordinary days, celebrating the extraordinary acts of Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Anthony Sadler, 23, a question arises: Would I do what they did?
“I hope I would,” my dentist said as he cleaned my teeth. Me too, although I hope never to find out.
Nobody wants to think what might have happened had the three buddies not been aboard that particular car on the high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. The three acted instantly.
“It was either do something or die,” said Sadler, a student at Sacramento State University. The joyous news is that nobody died.  
Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard just back from nine months in Afghanistan, spotted the shirtless guy with an AK-47 rifle strapped to his chest.
“Let’s go!” he said. The three tackled the heavily armed Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani, 25, who viciously slashed Stone, an airman first class in the U.S. Air Force, with a box cutter. British businessman Chris Norman, 62, an IT consultant, heard “Let’s go!” and joined the three Americans. He tied up El Khazzani. 
Stone nearly lost his left thumb and suffered other wounds, but he still saved the life of Mark Moogalian, 51, a French-American professor at the Sorbonne. Moogalian, originally from Midlothian, Va., is also a hero.
Moments earlier, Moogalian tried to wrest the rifle from the terrorist and was shot in the neck. Bleeding profusely, he could have died but for Stone, an EMT who used his uninjured hand to apply pressure to Moogalian’s neck to stop the bleeding until help arrived.
“Let’s go!” reminds many Americans of other heroes. On Sept. 11, 2001, “Let’s roll!” was the rallying cry of Todd Beamer and other passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who tried to storm the cockpit, where terrorists had taken over the plane, rather than allow the terrorists to fly it into the U.S. Capitol. The passengers sacrificed their lives to change the fate of many.
The American friends were just 9 or 10 years old on 9/11 and have grown up under the constant threat of terrorism. The military men said their training kicked in on the train.
“It was not really a conscious decision,” Skarlatos told reporters. “We just decided to act … It was gut instinct.”
French President Francois Hollande, who presented the Legion of Honor to the Americans and Norman, said: “We are still vulnerable. This is further evidence that we must prepare ourselves for more assaults, and thus we must protect ourselves.” Moogalian and a Frenchman who confronted the gunman will receive the honor later, authorities said.
Not only France needs to be watchful.
U.S. government reports have warned for years that America’s passenger rail system is vulnerable to terrorist attack. Whether Congress should pour billions into tightening passenger rail security and whether passengers would put up with the time and inconvenience required is open for debate.
The busiest U.S. train stations do have armed guards, plain-clothes officers who watch for suspicious behavior, random passenger and bag checks and bomb-sniffing dogs, but Amtrak carries about 32 million passengers a year to 500 destinations in 46 states. Every day, more than 86,000 passengers ride more than 300 Amtrak trains. Most stations have minimal security.
Three times as many passengers take the train as fly between Washington and New York. Between New York and Boston, trains carry more riders than all of the airlines combined, Amtrak says.
For the foreseeable future, it’s up to passengers to stay vigilant. “If you see something, say something” still applies. But in a rare, horrifying moment, ordinary people may have to do something extraordinary.  
British businessman Norman, who lives in France and travels frequently, had thought ahead about the nightmare scenario.
 “My position was, I’m not going to be the guy who dies sitting down,” he told CNN. “If you’re going to die, try to do something about it.”

© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Trump's gift to Hillary is born in the USA -- Aug. 20, 2015 column


Here we go again. Donald Trump’s proposal to stop birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants is forcing Republicans into a debate they can’t win and should have ended decades ago.

In 1996, the Republican Party Platform called for a constitutional amendment to end automatic citizenship for children born to parents who are in the country illegally or are not long-term residents. The party's presidential and vice presidential nominees Bob Dole and Jack Kemp both rejected the plank. 

“Born in America, you’re an American,” Kemp declared.

But that wasn’t the last word.

Since 2007, as anti-immigrant sentiment has flowed, a few congressional Republicans have backed bills to stop birthright citizenship. A measure by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has 27 cosponsors, all Republicans. 

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing on birthright citizenship in April that he rarely has a conversation about immigration policy without someone asking about automatic citizenship. 

“The question of whether our forefathers meant for birthright citizenship in all circumstances to be the law of the land is far from settled. In any event we must still determine if it is the right policy for America today,” Goodlatte said.

But there’s little appetite for the issue in the Senate, even among Republicans. A bill introduced by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana has zero cosponsors.

Now comes Trump and his extreme immigration plan released Sunday. He cited Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid as wanting to end birthright citizenship, which Reid did -- in 1993. By 1999 Reid called his own proposal an embarrassment, high on his “list of mistakes.”

“I didn’t understand the issue,” Reid explained, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in December 1999. “I’m embarrassed that I made such a proposal.”

Naturally, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was quick to criticize Trump’s plan.

“It is disturbing that Republican presidential candidates continue to embrace extreme anti-immigrant positions as core pieces of their immigration platform,” Lorella Praeli, Hillary for America Latino Outreach director, said in a statement.

If Democrats now are united behind birthright citizenship, Republicans are in disarray. Presidential hopefuls Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal support ending automatic citizenship. Others, including Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum have supported changing the law in the past.

Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush prefer sticking with the law.   

“Mr. Trump can say that he’s for this because people are frustrated that it’s abused. But we ought to fix the problem rather than take away rights,” Bush said on CBS. There must be ways short of a constitutional amendment to deal with the phenomenon of pregnant women entering the country to give birth so that their babies become citizens, Bush said.

Bush knows his brother George got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election, according to exit polls, a modern record for a Republican. In 2012, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, after his comment that undocumented immigrants should “self deport.”

The Constitution as originally written did not define citizenship, but since after the Civil War, anyone born in the United States has been a citizen. The 14th Amendment in 1868, a Reconstruction measure pressed by Republicans, overturned the Supreme Court’s odious Dred Scott decision that no black persons who had been “imported into the country, and sold as slaves” or their descendants could ever become citizens.

The 14th Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state wherein they reside.”

In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that a child born in San Francisco to Chinese parents was a citizen even though the parents could never become citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Changing the law would require passage of a constitutional amendment, a feat of bipartisanship nearly unimaginable in this era. Most legal scholars consider the 14th amendment settled.

So do pragmatic Republicans, those who actually want to win in 2016 – and not merely make debating points.

“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about immigration,” Trump bragged at the first Republican candidates' debate. He’s right. Most GOP candidates would prefer not to alienate a large swath of Hispanic and other immigrant voters with a plan that’s going nowhere.

But Trump might be making someone happy. Her name is Hillary.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Play ball! Hoping for Coolidge luck -- Aug. 13, 2015 column


Novelist Henry James said the two most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon. I’d say that on any summer afternoon, the two words that bring joy and hope are “Play ball!”  

What better escape from the bizarre 2016 presidential race and assorted national and international crises than an afternoon or evening outside at the ball park? In August, we may dream about October but we don’t fret. Much.

In the nation’s capital, baseball comes with a side of presidential history. At other major league ballparks, sausages or pierogies are racing mascots, but in Washington it’s the Racing Presidents who compete in a fourth-inning sprint down the warning track and foul line. They are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and, as of last month, Calvin Coolidge.

Silent Cal seemed an odd addition to the presidents, but he did attend 10 baseball games while he was in office from 1923 to 1929. He was the first president to attend a World Series opener and the first to throw out a first pitch at a World Series game.

Coolidge didn’t lose an election in 30 years in politics, so he was thought lucky. Fans credited the “Coolidge luck” with the Washington Senators’ winning two of their three pennants. They won the 1924 World Series and the American League championships in 1925, during his tenure. 

These days, a president who ventures into a stadium may get booed. That’s what happened when President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch of the season at Nationals Park in 2010. What did he expect when he put on a Chicago White Sox cap?

Coolidge wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but his wife, first lady Grace Coolidge, was.

Called the “first lady of baseball,” she kept a scorecard at games and when she couldn’t be there in person listened on the radio. The Coolidges were in the stands at the first game of the 1924 World Series, when the president decided it was time to go back to the White House. The score was 2-2 in the ninth inning.

“When he rose to leave, the first lady, resplendent in her `good luck’ necklace of seven ivory elephants, snapped, `Where do you think you’re going? You sit down,’ seizing his coattails to emphasize her point. Coolidge obeyed and stayed on to see the Giants win in extra innings,” William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association, writes in an essay. 

Grace Coolidge told a presidential historian that her husband never played baseball or any other sport, and “He did not share my enthusiasm for baseball,” John Sayle Watterson reports in his 2009 book, “The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.”

Watterson knocks Coolidge as “athletically challenged,” the worst natural athlete in presidential history from 1901 to 2005.

The new focus on Coolidge and baseball is the result of an unusual partnership. For the first time, the historical association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the White House and educating the public, has joined in a multi-year agreement with a sports team, the Nationals.   

The 30th president is also the subject of the association’s 2015 official Christmas ornament, which celebrates Coolidge’s lighting in 1923 of the first national Christmas tree on the Ellipse. The ornament is itself a Christmas tree with 14 decorations that commemorate events in Coolidge’s life, including a baseball. An LED light is incorporated in the design, another first. 

Racing Presidents make personal appearances outside the ball park, and Coolidge likely will be in demand. While most historians rank him among our worst presidents, blaming his policies for the start of the Great Depression in 1929, Coolidge is the darling of Tea Partiers and right-wing talkers, who love his disaffection for big government and taxes.

Ronald Reagan put Coolidge’s portrait in the Oval Office and praised his policies, and several books recently have tried to put Coolidge’s policies in a better light.

Today’s Washington fans hope for a revival of the Coolidge luck when they hear those magic words: “Play ball!”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Readers have their say about new monuments -- column of Aug. 6, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the opportunity cities and towns in the South have as they weigh moving Confederate monuments from streets and parks to museums.  

If cities relocate the statues, as I believe some will, they then can move on to consider new monuments that reflect modern sensibilities. Surely, 150 years after the Civil War we can think beyond the bronze hero on a horse and find other men – and women – whose accomplishments and stories we want to pass to future generations.

Traditionally in this country we have memorialized presidents, generals and victims of disasters. In the 21st century we can widen our horizons and honor the artists, athletes, composers, entrepreneurs, explorers, scientists, writers and others who have contributed to America’s rich cultural history.

I asked readers to email me their answers to the question: To whom – or what – would you like to see a monument in your community? Today I share your ideas.

This is nothing close to a scientific sample, but several people who wrote me objected to my guess that a year from now we’ll find more Confederate statues in museums and fewer in streets and parks. They made it clear they want the Confederate statues to stay right where they are, thank you.

“We are remembering our Confederate ancestors who fought in a long and brutal war for a wide range of reasons – and not necessarily for slavery,” a reader from Richmond, Va. , wrote.

He insisted that Confederate memorials are no more backward-looking or divisive than memorials to black soldiers who fought for the Union.

“`Moving on,’ as you recommend, should not mean taking down or hiding away all things Confederate. Rather it should mean constructively adding to that national memory and narrative – not destructively subtracting from it,” he said.

Another reader wrote: “I don’t want to change my American history. For better or worse, it is what it is. You want to add to it, fine.”

Neither offered any names for new monuments. One even defied me to find a leader “who doesn’t lie to us every other day. Someone who cares about this country and not his party. I cannot.”

Whoa.  The last thing we need is a monument to a living politician.  

But my correspondents raise an excellent point. Even if Confederate statues stay in place, this is a good time to consider adding to the mix of outdoor memorials.

A supporter of a proposed Fallen Heroes Monument in Richmond told me about a campaign by local veterans to honor on Monument Avenue the collective sacrifice of Richmond’s citizens in foreign wars. 

While many other communities have memorials commemorating the generations that have answered the call to military service overseas, Richmond does not.

First, though, supporters need funds and approval to build the monument.  

Most Confederate monuments were paid originally by private funds. In our time, too, individuals are stepping up to contribute.

For example, in New York’s Central Park, there are 22 statues honoring men but not one honors a woman. Instead, there are statues of fictional characters -- Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, Juliet (with Romeo) and various nymphs and angels. A fundraising campaign is underway to build a monument to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, along with other pioneers of women’s rights. 

Several readers suggested a monument honoring Maggie L. Walker, the Virginia civil rights activist and entrepreneur. Walker was the first African-American woman to found and be president of a bank. Her childhood home in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood is a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.

Walker deserves “a statue or some sort of memorial, if not on Monument Avenue, then in a prominent place,” wrote one woman, who called the Confederate statues along Richmond’s Monument Avenue “great examples of civic art of the times” they were built.

“I don’t want the city to spend any money removing them but if private groups want to do this, I’d enjoy a discussion of this idea,” she said.

And she proposed something we all may be able to agree on that could be done soon: Rename Jefferson Davis Highway, as parts of U.S. Route 1 through the South are called.  

“If another name is needed, how about Reconciliation Highway?” she said. It’s a good start. 

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.