Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Old is new in partisan battle over Planned Parenthood -- Oct. 1, 2015 column


Leave it to House Republicans to turn an accomplished executive making $520K a year into an underdog. 

After they forced out House Speaker John Boehner, who refused to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood, conservatives turned their fire on the nonprofit’s president Cecile Richards. By attacking her personally, they made her an instant celebrity, a champion of high quality health care for poor women, and a hero to many.  

The government now has a lifeline until Dec. 11 and Planned Parenthood is still providing health care services with federal reimbursements. As for Richards, her marathon performance Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed why she earns the big bucks.

Bullied for more than five hours, she didn’t cave, get flustered or lash out. She calmly defended her organization. She kept her cool.

Which is more than you can say for members of Congress. They were as emotional as she was composed. Republicans were antagonistic and rude, Democrats apologetic and shocked, shocked.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, interrupted Richards 19 times in just five minutes. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., a nurse, insisted that, “Abortion is not health care.”

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said he hoped every American woman was watching the hearing.

“My colleagues say there’s no war on women. Look at how you’ve been treated as a witness -- intimidation, talking over, interrupting, cutting off sentences, criticizing you because of your salary. . . Lord almighty, what’s America coming to?”

Connolly railed about the “the disrespect, the misogyny rampant here today.”

But when Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., asked Richards if she should be treated differently than male witnesses who often face tough questioning, she responded in a flash:

“Absolutely not. That’s not how my mama raised me.”

Richards, 57, the daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards, is no stranger to toxic Washington. She worked years ago as a deputy staff director for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 2006, she has said, “We aim to be the largest kick-butt political organization.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said trying to “defund” Planned Parenthood is an “exercise in futility” with President Obama in the White House. For House Republicans, though, Planned Parenthood may be the new Obamacare – an object of disgust to be flogged and voted against repeatedly.

Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., led a symbolic effort to end funding Wednesday as the House passed the continuing resolution to keep the government open.

“I believe we have to fight until the very end,” she said.

Several committees are putting Planned Parenthood under a microscope, and Boehner agreed to create a select committee to investigate the nonprofit similar to the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

Republicans have battled Planned Parenthood for decades. It provides 327,000 abortions annually, and its separate political arm aids Democratic candidates.

In July, an undercover sting video surfaced, purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials cavalierly negotiating the sale of fetal tissue for research and discussing procedures to ensure intact fetal organs. Other disturbing videos followed.

Planned Parenthood says the videos were heavily and deceptively edited, and it denies any wrongdoing. Richards insisted that no federal funds are used for abortions except in the rare circumstances allowed under the law and that Planned Parenthood donates a small amount of fetal tissue to research in two states at the cost of its expenses.

About 2.7 million women and men a year, many of them low income, go to Planned Parenthood clinics for cancer screenings, birth control, tests and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and other services.

Planned Parenthood receives $450 million annually in federal funds -- $390 million in Medicaid reimbursements for services provided, less than $1 million in child health and Medicare funds and $60 million from the National Family Planning Program, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported.

Critics contend taxpayers’ money could be better spent on cancer research.

Yet strong majorities of Americans support funding for Planned Parenthood, four separate polls by news organizations and the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported this week.

“All women in this country deserve to have the same opportunities as members of Congress and their families for high quality and timely health care,” Cecile Richards said.

Her mama would have been proud.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hurray for long presidential campaigns -- Sept. 24, 2015 column


Brandishing poll numbers that still show him leading the Republican presidential pack, Donald Trump said in South Carolina Wednesday, “If we could call for the election tomorrow…Let’s do it! Do it tomorrow!”

In his dreams.

You can’t blame Trump for wanting the voting over already.  The Trump surge was the story of the summer, but there are signs it may have peaked. He still leads in the polls but isn’t gaining. His last debate performance was just OK. There are empty seats at some of his events. He’s thin-skinned about Fox News and conservative pundits. He bristles at questions about details of his plans.

Time is on the side of those who are waiting for Trump to self-destruct. His campaign of cuts – Carly Fiorina’s face, Hillary Clinton’s shrillness, Marco Rubio’s sweat – is bound to wear thin.

Democrats just hope he keeps talking. Every minute the media covers Trump or Pope Francis or anything else is time not spent on the troubles facing Hillary Clinton -- her own sinking poll numbers, the emails, trust, women, Bernie Sanders and maybe Joe Biden.

In a new book titled “Unlikeable – The Problem with Hillary,” former New York Times Magazine editor Ed Klein says Clinton suffers with headaches, insomnia and depression. A Clinton spokesman said Klein’s claims are bogus.

Our much-maligned, seemingly endless presidential campaign season does work: It gives candidates plenty of rope.  In four months – only four -- voters will start having their say. The dates could change, but the Iowa caucuses are now set for Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9.

A disadvantage of the long campaign is the tight focus on the horse race. We know that poll numbers are not predictive; they’re a snapshot. But they’re news.

Trump may be a natural at campaigning, but even hot air balloons eventually come down. Yes, some mainstream Republicans fear that he could be a latter-day Barry Goldwater, who captured the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 only to lose 44 states that November. But he also could be a Rick Perry in 2011 or Rudy Giuliani in 2007.

In September 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was leading in the Republican presidential race. Four years earlier, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani looked unstoppable.  

Each election cycle is different, so we can’t rely on past performance as a guide. 
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looked strong early, but he may be a Bush too far. The outsiders – Trump, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Fiorina – are big now, but will voters really choose another president who lacks experience governing?

The two 2016 Republican candidates who have left the stage – former Gov. Perry and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin – actually had governing experience, a liability in this year of the anti-politician.  

Perry probably thought the statute of limitations had run out on his gaffe during a debate in November 2011 when he could not remember the third federal agency he would eliminate as president. It hadn’t.

Walker’s star faded as Trump’s rose. At 47, Walker could run again. He made his departure seem ordained.    

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field,” he told reporters. “I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same so that voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive, conservative alternative to the current front-runner.”

No one else seems so inclined. A Muslim civil liberties group urged Carson to give up his quest after he said that no Muslim should serve as president. He says he’s now raising money so fast it’s hard to handle it all. Carson since has retreated, saying he could support a Muslim president who put the Constitution before religion and rejected Sharia law.

The other GOP hopefuls are current and former governors and senators, able politicians who in most years would be contenders. Today they’re barely registering in the polls. But they’re hanging on, waiting and hoping that Trump’s train loses steam.    

The winnowing process has started and likely will last a while. We’ll all be better for the long, arduous, annoying way we choose our nominees for president. I’m just glad the election isn’t tomorrow.     

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The nutty professor makes the grade -- Sept. 17, 2015 column


In the first “Back to the Future” movie, time-traveling teen Marty McFly tells his eccentric friend Doc Brown, who’s living in the 1950s, that in 1985 Ronald Reagan is president.

“Ronald Reagan the actor?” Doc Brown asks incredulously. “Then who’s vice president—Jerry Lewis?”

That was a big laugh line 30 years ago. The former actor actually had become president, and everybody knew that funny man Jerry Lewis was unsuited to be vice president.

Those were the blissful days before Donald Trump. We’ll consider his comic possibilities another time.  

Today, many young people don’t even know that Reagan was an actor. Jerry Lewis, though, remains one of the most durable entertainers of the last century. Among his movie hits: “The Nutty Professor,” “The Errand Boy” and “The Bell Boy.”

The guy’s a survivor, literally. He has weathered two heart attacks, prostate cancer, diabetes and other health problems.

At 89, he’s still working, performing on stage and on screen. He plays Nicolas Cage’s dad in an upcoming crime thriller movie, “The Trust,” and recently signed on to appear in a National Lampoon flick, “Dead Serious.” He was the lead in “Max Rose,” a 2013 dramatic film. Critics say his stage show these days verges on the insulting, and they haven’t warmed to the serious Lewis. 

No matter. The Library of Congress announced Monday that it will preserve Lewis’ comedic contributions to American life in perpetuity. It has acquired more than 1,000 items -- films, TV clips and paper documents -- spanning Lewis’ career of more than 70 years.

“This collection will give the world a more complete picture of his life as a performer, director, producer, writer, recording artist, author, educator and philanthropist,” said James Billington, the Librarian of Congress.

The Jerry Lewis Collection includes films of TV and nightclub appearances with and without Dean Martin, home movies, 34-mm prints of his films and movie test footage. It will be in good company. The library has collections of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx.   

Collections are stored and preserved at the library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. To celebrate, Lewis will perform Oct. 9 at “An Evening with Jerry Lewis,” a ticketed show at the State Theatre in Culpeper.

Lewis still loves to perform. “If I get more than three people in a room, I do a number,” he said in a statement, adding, “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life.” 

Lewis met Dean Martin in the 1940s when both were performing separately in Atlantic City. They formed a duo club act in which Martin sang and Lewis interrupted with silly remarks. They became “the most popular duo in cinema” in the 1950s, according to the “Historical Dictionary of the Eisenhower Era,” which says that before the two went their separate ways in 1956, they had 17 comedy box office hits.  Martin died in 1995.

Everybody doesn’t love Lewis – except for the French, who may be his biggest fans. 

The French government gave “the French people’s favorite clown” the Legion of Honor medal on his 80th birthday. Lewis went tie-less, wore slippers and hammed it up with “a virtual slapstick routine,” the Associated Press reported.

In this country, though, he alienated about half the population in 1998 when he said that women can’t be funny.  A woman comic sets him back, he said.

“I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world,” he said. He and his first wife had six sons before he divorced her. Lewis later said women could be funny – but not if they were crude.

Lewis and Martin hosted the 1956 Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon, and for the next 55 years Lewis volunteered as the event’s national chairman, raising nearly $2 billion. The association announced the telethon’s end in May.    

To us, Lewis may seem silly and dated, but Americans still desperately need a laugh. Even the Founding Fathers recognized the power of laughter.  

“Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away,” Benjamin Franklin said.

Thanks for the laughs, professor.   

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Crooked Road leads to music -- Sept. 10, 2015 column


“Loitering allowed,” the sign outside The Floyd Country Store in Southwest Virginia reads, and that’s good because nobody is going anywhere.  

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, 45 minutes until tickets for the store’s Friday Night Jamboree go on sale at $5 a pop, and people are itching to get in line. Every porch chair is taken. Inside, people sit in worn wooden booths, eating sandwiches, ice cream and slabs of carrot cake. Others fill paper bags with hard candy from barrels and browse bluegrass CDs, goat milk lotions and Carhartt work pants.  

Floyd, population 432, on the Blue Ridge plateau about an hour’s drive southwest of Roanoke, may have just one stop light but it’s a major venue on the Crooked Road, Virginia’s musical heritage trail. On Friday nights and other times a week, Floyd blossoms with bluegrass and old-time music.

“Floyd on Friday nights is transcendent,” said my friend Mary, who made the trip from Pennsylvania to Floyd last year. I was skeptical, but Mary was right.

Something extraordinary is happening in Floyd and other out-of-the-way places as the world beats a path to see people play traditional tunes on instruments they love. Appalachian music, crafts and outdoor recreation are helping to build a new, creative economy in a region that no longer can depend on coal, furniture and textiles.

“This is a place where there’s indigenous music alive in just about every community,” said Jack Hinshelwood, executive director of the Crooked Road, a 330-mile route from Rocky Mount to Breaks Interstate Park with eight other major venues, including the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, and 60 affiliated festivals and venues.

The Crooked Road was incorporated a decade ago to support tourism and economic development around the region’s musical traditions. A sister operation, Round the Mountain, supports crafts. Local, federal and state officials, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and business leaders are scheduled to speak Sept. 21 and 22 in Abingdon at a conference aimed at celebrating the creative economy.

Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky also have strong musical traditions. In Alabama, the Muscle Shoals area is called the Hit Making Capital of the World and in May the birthplace of W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues, in Florence received a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

I met Hinshelwood at a Thursday night open bluegrass jam session at Heartwood artisan gateway in Abingdon. The non-profit center opened four years ago to showcase regional crafts, foods and wines, including home-smoked meats, and music. An accomplished bluegrass musician himself, Hinshelwood explained that most players on the Crooked Road never had formal music lessons and most have day jobs.

“This is a place where music by and large is recreational and cultural. It’s not about people who make their living from music. It’s very much about a recreational way of life,” he said.

Rarely have I seen shows where the musicians and the audience have such good clean fun. The Floyd store operates on “Granny’s rules”—no smoking, no drinking alcohol, no bad language and no conduct unbecoming a lady or gentleman.

At 6:30, the evening begins with a prayer and gospel bluegrass. Recently, Janet Turner & Friends – among them her daughter Leona – played for the gospel hour. Turner, who is from Floyd, is a tiny woman with a froth of white hair and a strong voice. Her Facebook page – yes, she has one – says she has been playing bluegrass music more than 30 years.

Everyone sat quietly on folding chairs until 7:30, when the Friday Night Old Time Band took the stage. Little kids, their parents, grandparents, couples and singles practically ran to fill the wood floor, all flat-foot dancing, some with taps on their shoes, some barefoot.  A third band, 2 Young 2 Old, kept the crowd on its feet until 10:30 p.m.

In fine weather, fiddlers, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players spill onto the streets of Floyd, playing impromptu concerts on street corners and alleys.

A highlight of the evening is seeing who has traveled farthest. A pull-down map magically appears and Stewart Scales, who teaches geography at Virginia Tech and plays banjo with Turner, determines the winner. The other night, a young man from Paris – France, not Texas – edged out contenders from England and Wales. It’s not unheard of for travelers from China to find their way to Floyd.

Along the Crooked Road, musicians jam in barber shops, cafes, grocery stores and festivals. Free Midday Mountain Music performances take place every afternoon on the breezeway at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Galax. Nationally known bands play in the amphitheater.

The center’s Roots of American Music Museum, whose exhibits were curated by the late folklorist Joe Wilson, author of “A Guide to the Crooked Road,” includes historic audio and video clips and is first class. The center is open May through October.

Several veteran pickers entertained on the breezeway the other day, links in a musical chain that began years and years ago.

“You rosin the bow the same way and play the same tunes your great-great granddaddy played,” Hinshelwood said. “In this fast-paced world, there’s something anchoring about that.”

And, yes, transcendent.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Retirement -- obsolete, too early or just right? -- Sept. 3, 2015 column


As Americans enjoy the Labor Day weekend, some workers also dream of labor-free days – also known as retirement.

Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich, 63, is not among them.    

“What do you do?” Kasich, the governor of Ohio, asked a man at Dunkin’ Donuts.  

“Well, I’m retired,” the man said.

“OK, but what are you doing?” pressed Kasich, who recounted the conversation at a town hall Aug. 19 in Salem, N.H.

“He may have recently retired, because he says he’s now working for his wife, taking care of things around the house,” Kasich said. “But we should never retire, never.”

We are put on this earth for a purpose, Kasich said, and we should use our gifts to make a better world.

That’s lofty, but there’s also a down-to-earth public policy question: When should Americans in the future retire and collect Social Security benefits? Social Republicans and Democrats in the 2016 presidential contest disagree.

Kasich and other GOP candidates are betting that younger workers will willingly wait longer than their parents and grandparents for their labor-free years -- if they’re convinced they’ll actually receive benefits. Most young people now think they’ll never see a dime.

Democrats contend that raising the retirement age is an unnecessary, back-door benefit cut. Some even say it’s time to expand Social Security benefits.

The split illustrates a shift in Americans’ attitudes toward retirement. Healthier as they age, people seem increasingly resistant to putting their feet up – or to admitting they’d like to. Many can’t afford to quit working, others fear too much leisure time and a few are blessed with work they love. It helps to be the boss.

Former President Jimmy Carter, 90, said he and his wife, Rosalynn, talked several times over the years about pulling back from the Carter Center.Not until he received a diagnosis of brain cancer after having surgery for liver cancer did Carter turn over the reins to his grandson, Jason.

Carter still hopes to go to Nepal to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in November, if his treatment schedule allows, he said last month.

Garrison Keillor, 73, announced (again) that he will retire from “A Prairie Home Companion.” Keillor has said for years he wanted to step back from the radio show he started in 1974. He said in 2011 he would retire in 2013, but didn’t.  

This time, though, Keillor said his last show as host would be in July 2016 and named a successor, musician Chris Thile.

“I have a lot of other things that I want to do,” Keillor told the Associated Press in July. “I mean, nobody retires anymore. Writers never retire.”

After nearly 40 years in Congress, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland decided not to run for re-election in 2016. Mikulski, 79, said: “Do I spend my time raising more money or, do I spend my time raising hell?”

Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem, 81, has the same idea. She continues working to promote social justice and equality.  

“The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting,” Steinem says.

People can collect Social Security at 62, and most do so, even though they would get larger benefits if they waited until the full retirement age of 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954. Those who can delay receiving benefits until 70 get the largest checks. 
For those born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67.

Nearly all the GOP presidential candidates say people in the future should work longer. 

“We need to look over the horizon and begin to phase in, over an extended period of time, going from 65 to 68 or 70,” to save Social Security for those under age 40, Jeb Bush said on “Face the Nation” in May. 

Chris Christie proposes to raise early retirement to age 64 and full retirement to 69. Rand Paul says retirement should start at 70. Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker all favor hiking the retirement age.

Democratic contenders Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both want to keep the retirement age where it is. Hillary Clinton has said we shouldn’t “mess” with Social Security but hasn’t given details.

Any permanent fix of the Social Security system likely will include raising the retirement age in the future. Your presidential vote in 2016 may help determine how long young workers wait for benefits. Whether you’re still laboring or labor-free, speak up.

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.