Thursday, December 29, 2016

What will we carry into 2017? -- Dec. 29, 2016 column


In the classic short story “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien writes about the weight of the things foot soldiers carried in Vietnam.  

These necessities and near necessities were as practical as mosquito repellent, as powerful as anti-personnel mines and as personal as memories.

Rereading the title story in the terrific book published more than 25 years ago, I started thinking about the New Year, what I want to carry into it and what I hope we can leave behind.

In the latter category is the 2016 presidential election. Yes, it was a shock, but we need to let it go. Unfortunately, talking heads aren’t alone in prolonging the agony.

President Barack Obama said this week he could have won the general election had he been able to run again. That’s the kind of wishful thinking Democrats should leave behind with 2016 – and not because the statement is untrue.

It’s unknowable, of course, which makes great fodder for late-night dorm sessions but not productive thought for the rest of us. 

Obama is still the “most admired” man in America, Gallup reports, and nobody worked harder on Hillary Clinton’s behalf than he and first lady Michelle Obama did, in large part because Obama’s legacy was on the line.

But the president’s confident assertion that his message of tolerance, openness, diversity and energy would have mobilized voters and defeated Donald Trump was a self-serving punch in the gut to Clinton and her supporters.

Naturally, though, it was Trump, not Clinton, who reacted.

“NO WAY!” would Obama have won, Trump tweeted. He returned to Obama’s remark in later tweets the way a tongue explores a sore tooth.

Obama, in the podcast interview with his old friend David Axelrod, also said Clinton was too cautious during the campaign because she thought she was winning, but she “performed wonderfully under really tough circumstances.” He blamed the news media for a double standard in reporting negative news about Clinton.

Basically, he did everything but say she pitched great for a girl.

It’s time to stop beating up on Clinton, stop second-guessing her campaign decisions and why she never matched her husband on the stump.

I’d also like to see politicians stop blaming the news media when things don’t go their way, but that’s not happening.

What-ifs keep us focused on the past when we need to be clear-eyed about the policies and ethics of the incoming administration. And there’s plenty for Democrats to do to prepare for the next congressional election. In 2018, Democrats have to defend 10 Senate seats in states Trump carried.

Trump won the White House, if not the popular vote, with promises to roll back the clock at least to pre-Obama days, maybe earlier. No wonder he wants the Rockettes at his inauguration. They performed at George W. Bush’s in 2005 and 2009.

One thing I’d like to see left behind with 2016 is Trump’s tweets. Complicated policies can’t be resolved in 140 characters.

But, says Sean Spicer, incoming White House press secretary and communications director, tweeting is “a really exciting part of the job.”

Trump has a combined total of 39 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and that, “allows him to add an element of a conversation that’s never occurred,” Spicer, a Rhode Island native, told a radio station in his home state.

Will Obama tweet? We’ll see. He plans to write another book, speak out when he sees Trump heading in the wrong direction and help develop the next generation of Democratic leaders.

One notion we can leave behind is that the Obamas will strew rose petals in Trump’s path to the White House. No big surprise there since Obama during the campaign called Trump “unfit to serve” and “woefully unprepared” for the job.

It was unrealistic to expect Obama, who sees Trump eager to dismantle everything Obama has done, to be as gracious as George W. and Laura Bush on their way out.

It’s been a tough year, and there aren’t many things I want to carry into 2017. Here’s one: “When they go low, we go high.”

More slogan than reality in 2016, “when they go low, we go high” is a worthy goal for the New Year.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Not overnight: Melania Trump had years to prepare as first lady -- Dec. 22, 2016 column


In the olden days before he let loose on Twitter, Donald J. Trump called Howard Stern’s radio show and let loose.

In June 1999, Trump confided on air that his daughter Ivanka, then 17, had made him swear he wouldn’t date anyone younger than she was.

“As she grows older, the field is getting very limited,” the twice-married billionaire joked.

A few months later, Trump, 53, was dating a beautiful Slovenian model named 
Melania Knauss, 26, less than half his age but old enough to meet his daughter’s rule, and he reportedly was “exploring” a White House bid.  

Bad boy Stern had Trump and Knauss by phone on his program and asked her what she was wearing.

“Not much,” she replied. The conversation went downhill from there. Trump bragged about their sex life.

Asked soon afterwards about her boyfriend’s comments on their relationship, Knauss told feature writer Joyce Wadler of The New York Times: “It’s the man thing, that’s how the man talks.” Sound familiar?

The prescient Wadler wrote:

“Is Mr. Trump a lucky billionaire or what? He’s got a woman who does not simply stand by her man but over him. (Five feet 10 ½ inches, but over six feet in her spiky Manolo Blahniks)...she has done Vogue covers in Europe. She also speaks four languages.

“Who she is, beyond that, is difficult to say, for speaking with Ms. Knauss is like speaking with a huge, shimmering bubble. She’s light, she’s fun, she’s exceptionally wonderful to look at; two hours later you walk away and the conversation disappears into the air. Pop! If anything substantial was said, it is difficult to recall. She might, in other words, be the perfect political spouse.”

The frothy story ended with what newspapers called a kicker – a surprise revelation. In this case, it was a preposterous question: What would Melania’s role be as first lady if she and her boyfriend ever did end up in the White House?

Knauss didn’t laugh or blow it off.

“I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy,” she said. “I would support him.”

Trump married his third wife in 2005, and their son Barron was born in 2006, the same year she became a United States citizen.

Most Americans trace Trump’s political debut to his escalator ride in June 2015 and fail to consider his long game, that he was turning over the possibility of the presidency, even as a lark, in 1999.

The Trump family will be White House-bound in less than a month. Well, he will be. Melania Trump and Barron are staying in New York until the end of the school year. Her full-time job is as mom, she says.

Daughter Ivanka Trump, now 36, and her husband Jared Kushner, parents of three, are house-hunting in Washington. She may have an office in the East Wing and may stand in as first lady on social occasions.

By any measure, the Trump presidency will be unlike others.

But Melania Trump and all first ladies must cope with one immutable truth: The presidency is hard on families.

“The next family that comes in here -- every person in that family, every child, every grandchild – their lives will be turned upside down in a way that no American really understands,” first lady Michelle Obama told Oprah Winfrey this week on CBS.

President President Barack Obama and Michelle were fierce warriors for Hillary Clinton, but they have shown extreme grace since the election, vowing to help the Trumps however they can. Donald Trump, rarely generous toward Obama, has praised the president and first lady for their kindness.

So, it was jarring to see Michelle Obama tell Winfrey: “Now we are feeling what not having hope feels like.”

That comment from an advance clip was newsworthy because she was speaking for millions of disappointed voters. When the full program aired later, however, it was clear that the current first lady has compassion for the next.

“You really don’t know what you don’t know until you’re here,” Obama said she told Melania Trump. “My door is open.”

As Democrats and Republicans criticize President Trump for his personnel and policies – that’s the American way -- it’s worth remembering that a first family gets dragged into the spotlight.

Michelle Obama said of first families: “It’s not for us to complain about it. So you don’t hear complaints. But it is a – a truth, an actuality, that there is a weight to it.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Stories of light help us weather winter's dark -- Dec. 15, 2016 column


At a holiday craft fair last weekend, a Christmas ornament made of wood caught my eye.

The hand-painted Canadian goose had a jaunty wreath around his neck – and a price tag of $14. I turned away.

Then the artist came over. 

“He has moonlight on his wings,” she said. I looked more closely, and sure enough, there was a faint dusting of glitter.

Suddenly, the goose had a story. That changed everything.

And, yes, he looks great on my Christmas tree.

We’re in a season of stories. In these, the shortest days of the year, we celebrate the winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa -- each with its own story of the triumph of light over darkness.

As seasons go, winter tends to get short shrift. No one ever said winter afternoon were the two most beautiful words in the English language, as Henry James did about summer afternoon.

While hardy skiers and sledders find joy in a bright, snowy landscape, for many of us the season brings more dreaded wintry mix than delightful winter wonderland.

Shakespeare’s play “A Winter’s Tale” is mostly remembered for its puzzling stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

Fortunately, though, this is also a season of music. Many of us grew up on the musical story of the underdog “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Johnny Marks and Tchaikovsky’s charming “Nutcracker” and find comfort as adults in Handel’s sublime “Messiah.”

Long before the Weather Channel told stories of frightful weather, music regaled us with stories of wintry scenes. Perhaps no other musical work evokes chill winds and ice as perfectly as Antonio Vivaldi’s “Winter.”

The 17th and 18th century composer wrote 500 concertos and dozens of operas, sonatas and cantatas in his 63 years on earth. But the masterpiece most people think of first is “The Four Seasons.” He paired the music with four sonnets he may have written himself.

I happened to be at the National Gallery of Art last Sunday afternoon when the Tempesta di Mare, the Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, performed Vivaldi’s “Winter.” The piece was part of a winter-themed concert in the West Garden Court, a peaceful indoor space with tall trees and statuary.

Vivaldi’s winter story unfolds in three movements, and the music to a remarkable degree tracks the story told in the sonnet.

The first movement portrays the sounds of someone shivering in biting, icy winds with chattering teeth and stamping feet. In the second we imagine someone sitting contentedly by a blazing fire at home, while people outside are drenched in pouring rain. In the third we are outside in the storm again, walking the icy path slowly, fearful of slipping and falling on the ice, but we crash to the ground anyway. Back inside, we still feel the cold wind.

“This is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights,” the sonnet accompanying “Winter” concludes. In Vivaldi’s hands, it does.

At a time when many think Washington can’t do anything right, it’s worth recalling the story of the National Gallery’s free Sunday concerts, now in their 75th season.

The museum had opened only the year before when the first concert in May 1942 welcomed wartime troops. The gallery’s director was inspired by the National Gallery in London, which held piano concerts during the Blitz of 1940 and 1941.

In Washington, the gallery has sponsored more than 3,000 free concerts. Performers come from all over the world. The concerts are scheduled from fall to spring, and start times vary. Seating is first-come, first served.

If we ever needed stories to brighten the mood and renew our faith, it’s now. In our deeply divisive presidential election, both candidates were selling their personal stories. Their narratives couldn’t have been more different, and voters, bless their hearts, chose the more entertaining one.

President-elect Donald Trump is building the story of his presidency with his Cabinet appointments, delighting some and horrifying others.

This winter will bring the Trump inauguration, protests and celebrations. In the meantime, enjoy the stories of the triumph of light over dark – winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Out with Obamacare, in with . . . Trumpcare -- Dec. 8, 2016 column


You’d think they’d be ready by now.

For nearly seven years, congressional Republicans have promised to “repeal and replace” Obamacare with something better and more affordable.

Repeal is easy. Since President Barack Obama got the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010 without a single Republican vote, the House has voted more than 60 times to repeal all or part of it.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump called the law “a total disaster” and vowed to repeal and replace it on Day One.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday repeal will be the first item of business in the New Year when the Senate returns Jan. 3.

Replace is hard. Republicans have yet to agree on a path forward for what inevitably will be known as Trumpcare. 

Even Trump now wants to keep two popular provisions of the health law. After he met with Obama in the Oval Office, the president-elect said he favors allowing children under 26 to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans and requiring coverage of people with existing medical conditions.

Trump’s a big-picture guy, so replacement details will fall to Congress, where, until the election, many were more interested in politics than policy. I know you’re surprised.

Only on Dec. 2 did House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy send a letter to governors and state insurance commissioners asking for their ideas about health care reform.That way, if Trumpcare goes bad, state officials can share the blame.

McCarthy said the two-step repeal and replace process could take much of next year and beyond. House Speaker Paul Ryan also lowered expectations of speedy action.

“Clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off,” Ryan said Monday in an interview with Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Ryan would not hazard a guess about how long the transition might take.

“It will clearly take time. It took them about six years to stand up Obamacare. It’s not going to be replaced come next football season,” he said.

One possibility is for Republicans to resurrect the repeal bill Obama vetoed last January. It called for a two-year delay in the effective date of replacement. Some Republicans say six months is enough.

Republican leaders invited Democrats to work with them, even though Republicans refused to cooperate with Obama. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer derided Republicans as “the dog who caught the bus,” saying, “They don’t know what to do.”
Repeal without replacement will cause “huge calamity from one end of America to the other,” Schumer said. “Bring it on.”

In a letter to Trump, the American Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals urged him and Congress not repeal Obamacare without a replacement. If that happens, Congress should restore funding to hospitals that was cut by Obamacare, the groups said, so hospitals can defray some of their costs.

The nonpartisan but left-leaning Urban Institute warned in an analysis this week that repeal without a clear replacement could throw into chaos the private health insurance market. Millions of Americans buy insurance directly rather than through an employer.

The number of uninsured could rise to 59 million by 2019, the study said. That’s far more than the 41 million who lacked insurance in 2014 when major provisions of Obamacare went into effect. About 28.5 million remained uninsured last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Trump’s pick to lead Health and Human Services, House Budget Chairman Tom Price, wants to replace Obamacare with modest tax credits pegged to age, not income, to help people buy insurance on the private market.

Price’s proposed Empower Patients First Act also calls for grants to help states create “high-risk” insurance pools and expands health savings accounts.  

Republicans have not rushed to embrace the plan. Critics say it’s woefully underfunded and millions of Americans would lose coverage.

Taking time is not necessarily bad. Rushing could be worse.

But if members of Congress are going to blow up Obama’s signature legislation, they should be held to their promises and do no harm to the more than 20 million people who have insurance because of Obamacare.

To do anything less is to risk disappointing and disillusioning more Americans at a time when trust in government and politicians is badly frayed.  

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Monday, December 5, 2016

On Stateline, online news service of Pew Charitable Trusts -- Dec. 5, 2016

Locked Up for the Holidays

  • December 05, 2016
  • By Marsha Mercer
Juvenile Detention Center
A juvenile resident sits in a classroom at a detention center in Atlanta. In many places, juvenile justice officials or nonprofits provide small gifts or holiday meals to young offenders who spend the holidays in custody.
© The Associated Press
The “most wonderful time of the year” may be the hardest for tens of thousands of young people locked up for the holidays.
But many states try — within the confines of security rules, budgets and protocols — to make the season a little brighter for youthful offenders, who often are housed far from home.
As it has every year since 1937, the Oklahoma Santa Claus Commission will spread cheer with presents. Each of the 400 offenders in the state’s residential detention facilities and group homes will receive a Kelly green duffle bag, a holiday stocking with candy and stationery, body wash (Dove for girls and Axe for boys), and a $9 gift card.
Staff will also distribute holiday cards, and the facilities will throw holiday parties.
“These are children who made a mistake,” said Tierney Tinnin, chair of the commission and deputy communications director of the state Office of Juvenile Affairs. “They’re working through the program to understand why they made a mistake. For us to provide a sense of normalcy in the holiday season helps put them on the path to right decisions, so they will be a great asset to the community when they come out.”
Many youthful offenders have a parent in prison, while others were raised by grandparents who physically aren’t able to make the trip or can’t afford to, Tinnin said.
The gift-giving in Oklahoma and other states fits with a broader trend in juvenile justice: replacing the adult-style prison model with a more positive culture in state facilities.
Research has shown that incarceration of lower-risk teens leads to higher recidivism rates, so incarceration is increasingly seen as a last resort. The number of youths held in residential facilities around the country has dropped by more than half, from 108,800 in 2000 to 50,800 in 2014, according to one-day counts by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“The more we try to normalize these kids, the better the outcome,” said James Bueche, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice, which will distribute holiday gift bags to about 235 incarcerated youths, ages 13 to 20. “If you treat them as less than human, that’s the way they’re going to be.”

Shackles and Handcuffs

Around the country, state, local and private detention and residential centers, as well as faith and local support groups, provide small gifts or holiday meals to juveniles who spend the holidays in custody. What makes Oklahoma’s gift program different is that it’s required by law and funded by the state. 
The state budget dedicates $10,000 a year to the Santa commission, which also collects private donations. The commission had about $75,000 in its account going into the holiday season.
“I have never been able to find anybody who does it like we do,” said Paula Christiansen, a nine-year veteran public information officer at the Oklahoma juvenile affairs agency.
In Maryland, youths can earn a pass for good behavior to go home to celebrate Christmas. Last year, when the family of a girl who’d earned a pass could not come pick her up, a Department of Juvenile Services staff member drove her home.
But first, two staff members, one wearing a Santa hat, put the girl into shackles and handcuffs that were fastened to a belly chain with a black box, and attached a GPS monitor to her ankle, according to the state Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit 2015 annual report, which includes photos of the preparations.
Some residential facilities put up holiday trees and let the juveniles make decorations and toys to use as gifts. Others have religious services and serve holiday meals.
“I think the facilities around the country do a really good job of trying to create a supportive atmosphere,” said Wayne Bear, CEO of the National Partnership for Juvenile Services. “But it’s not home.”
“As you can imagine, these are kids who typically have not experienced the family traditions other kids have on holidays and birthdays,” said Bear, who is also executive director of the Juvenile Detention Centers and Alternative Programs in Pennsylvania.

Funding for Presents

No general or taxpayer funds are used in Louisiana’s program. The money to pay for the gift bags — with pajamas, body wash, candy and chips — comes from fees collected from movies that were made in state facilities and youth canteens in the detention centers, he said.
The gifts are “not anything extravagant,” Bueche said, adding that the state correctional system does not usually issue pajamas, and the kids like special soap.
“They get excited about getting the gift bags,” he said.
In Oklahoma, the price tag for each gift will be about $30, and with related holiday expenses the fund will pay out about $15,000 in all, Tinnin of the Santa commission said. The duffle bags cost $12 apiece, she said.
The state polled the managers of the facilities to find out what the teens wanted. When released from custody, the young people usually leave for home straight from court, and they carry their possessions in a trash bag, she said. The duffle bags are a way for the state to give kids a positive send-off for the next phase of their life.
Oklahoma’s Santa Claus Commission goes back to 1935, when a state budget officer named R.R. Owen and his wife visited an orphanage in Helena and learned that the orphans would not receive any Christmas presents.
The next year, Owen collected donations for gifts, and in 1937 the Legislature created the commission, which is required by law to provide Christmas presents to every child in state custody. The 1937 law authorized $2,000 a year in state funds to buy gifts.
Nearly nine years ago, then-Juvenile Affairs Director Gene Christian wanted to stop giving gifts and redirect commission funds to scholarships.
The original goal of the commission was laudable, he argued, but the program was outdated. “We are talking about … people who committed criminal acts,” Christian said. But the Legislature wouldn’t kill the Santa commission.

Playing the Long Game

Advocacy groups that once made holidays brighter with holiday gift bags for incarcerated youth now devote most of their time and energy to lobbying to reform the juvenile justice system.
“Groups are fighting for the closure of institutions, to make states realize prisons for kids are not effective,” said Tamar Birckhead, a juvenile justice law professor at the University of North Carolina and visiting professor at Yale University.
Instead of focusing only on the long game of prison reform, she said, nonprofit juvenile justice groups could devote some of their budget to “doing something for the truly unfortunate youth who are locked up.”
Ideally states would release the youths, she said.
But failing that, she said, states should ensure that families have transportation to visit their incarcerated children, and schedule a holiday party for youth and their families at institutions.
For the teens, a party with family “would feel ‘normal’ to them and not reinforce that they have in essence been exiled from the community,” she wrote in an email.
Penelope Spain, CEO of Open City Advocates, formerly called Mentoring Today, said her group collected items from the public for holiday gift bags for three years in Washington, D.C., but stopped about six years ago.
“It’s silly how many snags can go wrong,” Spain said. “People are trying to do good things but they don’t realize how secure the facilities are.”
For example, hardcover books are banned from many juvenile and adult corrections facilities because they are heavy and can be used as weapons. Bubble gum is often prohibited because it can be used to block locking systems in doors.
“We love it when people care about our kids,” said Brenda Padavil, public affairs specialist with the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, which operates the 60-bed New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Maryland.
“We allow gift bags,” she said, but staff goes through each bag to make sure the contents meet security standards. The long list of unacceptable items includes perfume and cologne, hats, watches and hoop earrings larger than a quarter.
At New Beginnings last year, a Christmas meal was catered by a local restaurant. This Thanksgiving, incarcerated teens had an in-house dinner with their families.
“It’s important for people to remember these kids are also citizens,” Padavil said. “They’re members of the community.”

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Don't burn the flag or First Amendment -- Dec. 1, 2016 column


My guess is that few demonstrators who burned American flags to protest the election of Donald J. Trump have attended a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

Had they watched honor guards in white gloves neatly fold and present to the next of kin the flag that covered the coffin of a fallen service member, they would see the flag as personal.

A powerful and poignant symbol of sacrifice and honor, the American flag should never be torched to make a political point. The very idea is repugnant. 

This is not to say, though, that someone who burns the flag in protest should be jailed for a year or stripped of citizenship, as Trump suggested.

“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail,” the president-elect tweeted at 6:55 on Tuesday morning.

The tweet seemed to come out of the blue, but Fox News reportedly had just aired a segment about a dispute at private Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where a flag was burned in an anti-Trump protest.

“Flag burning should be illegal – end of story,” Jason Miller, Trump transition spokesman, insisted later that day on CNN. “The president-elect is a very strong supporter of the First Amendment, but there’s a big difference between that and burning the American flag.”

No, actually, there’s not.

The Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson in 1989 that flag burning was “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment and invalidated laws against flag burning in 48 states. 

“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable,” the court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision.

Among those in the majority was Justice Antonin Scalia.

“If I were king, I would not allow people to go about burning the American flag,” Scalia later told a TV interviewer. “However, we have a First Amendment, which says that in particular to speech . . . burning the flag is a form of expression.”

That likely would surprise Trump, who has joined the ranks of politicians who periodically fulminate against flag burning. By doing so, they draw attention to an exceedingly rare act that ought to be tolerated -- and ignored.

Perhaps no First Amendment issue is thornier. The American Legion applauded Trump’s tweet and urged Congress to prohibit flag desecration, something Congress has tried to do repeatedly over the years.
Everybody should take a deep breath and remember the wisdom of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, who received the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II, even as fellow Americans of Japanese descent were incarcerated in U.S. prison camps.

“This objectionable expression is obscene, it is painful, it is unpatriotic,” Inouye once said. “But I believe Americans gave their lives in many wars to make certain all Americans have a right to express themselves, even those who harbor hateful thoughts.”

Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York co-sponsored a bill in 2005 that would have punished flag burning by a fine up to $100,000 or a year in prison, or both. Her idea was to find common ground between veterans groups and free speech advocates.

“Senator Clinton, in Pander Mode,” The New York Times opined in an editorial 11 years ago this week, saying flag burnings had largely disappeared since the Vietnam War.

“Flag-burning hasn’t been in fashion since college students used slide rules in math class and went to pay phones at the student union to call their friends. Even then, it was a rarity that certainly never put the nation’s security in peril,” the editors trenchantly observed.

It’s still true that flag burning is rare and has never imperiled national security. Criminalizing flag burning might be politically popular, but the last thing we need is to make martyrs of publicity seekers with lighters who want their 15 minutes of fame.

Trump soon will fill the court vacancy caused by Scalia’s death. He has promised to name a justice who thinks like Scalia, and he should -- on flag burning and the First Amendment.

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Now, more than ever, it's time for newspapers -- Nov. 24, 2016 column


It’s the holiday season, so here’s a suggestion for your shopping list: Give a newspaper subscription. Better, give two – one local and one national.

To me, getting the newspapers – yes, two -- off the sidewalk in the morning and sitting with them and a cup of coffee is one of the joys of life. People who read newspapers prefer to read them in print, studies show, but fewer people are experiencing that joy.

It’s an irony of our time that newspaper circulation continues to decline when we need to know more than ever what our elected officials are doing. Our democracy needs voters who can distinguish between truth and lies.

We need real news, reliable information from sources we can trust. Real news is the antidote to toxic fake news, click-bait stories that deliberately mislead readers for fun and profit.

Average weekday newspaper circulation fell 7 percent last year, the most since 2010. Sunday paper circulation also declined. Both were because of fewer print sales. Digital circulation rose 2 percent, according to the Pew State of the News Media report in June.

For newspapers to survive and do their watchdog work, they need advertising revenue, which also is in decline.

I recommend giving the print product because we all spend too many hours in front of screens. If your friends and family prefer getting their news digitally, by all means give them a digital subscription. Three-fourths of newspapers now require a subscription to read online. 

Bashing the news media is always in fashion for politicians. President-elect Donald Trump has said about the news media: “They are so dishonest…70 to 75 percent are totally dishonest. Absolute scum. Remember that. Scum. Scum. Totally dishonest people.”

He has said he wants to open up the libel laws so he can sue newspapers, although he had second thoughts when someone told him he might get sued more as a result.

Trump, who rarely mentions The New York Times without the word “failing,” is thin-skinned. He doesn’t like news stories that are critical of him and his policies.

With 13 million followers on Twitter and 12 million on Facebook, he prefers to bypass the media. On Monday, he put out his plans for his first 100 days as president in a YouTube video.

But who broke the story of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server? The Times in March 2015 ran a page one story that led to the FBI investigation.   

And it’s not just the big, national newspapers that do excellent work. Reporters for the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune devoted 18 months to a project that uncovered a pattern of violence, neglect and 15 deaths in state mental hospitals in Florida.

The Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a six-part series documenting severe ecological changes in the warming ocean from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod.

Newspapers and the news media are not perfect, of course. The botched prognostications of the presidential election results hurt credibility. Reduced budgets have led to staff cuts and curtailed coverage.

Trump is the latest in a line of presidents and presidential contenders who have used the news media for target practice. Lyndon Johnson scolded the media that criticized his Vietnam policy. Richard Nixon had journalists on his enemies list. 

During the 1992 campaign, President George H.W. Bush loved the bumper strip that read: “Annoy the media. Re-elect Bush.”

Bush, though, distinguished between the reporters covering him and the talking heads he thought unfair. Trump has shown universal disdain, although he cares deeply what’s said about him.

Trump reportedly rises at 5 a.m., reads several newspapers, including The New York Times, and watches the morning TV shows – and then he tweets.   

For all his bluster, even Trump recognizes the value of newspapers.

At his meeting with the Times’s reporters and editors Tuesday, he called it “a great, great American jewel, a world jewel.” And he said. “I hope we can get along.”

Right. We’ll see how that works out.

But reading a daily newspaper -- or two -- will give you the best chance of knowing what really happens around the corner and in the nation’s capital.   

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Grateful for this Thanksgiving -- Nov. 17, 2016 column


A friend tells me she’s still very sad. The election was a “slap in the face of decency,” and she can’t forgive her sisters and their husbands for voting for Donald Trump.

Another friend has trouble sleeping. A third said she’s stuck in election denial.

“It cannot be as bad as we can imagine,” she wrote in an email, adding, “Yes it is.”

Nearly 62 million Hillary Clinton voters are as gloomy as the nearly 61 million Trump voters are jubilant. 

Into this maelstrom of emotions comes the holiday devoted to carbs, calories – and gratitude. What -- now?

Yes, bring on Thanksgiving. We have rarely needed it more. 

We can’t always agree about politics, and shouldn’t. But we can use the pause in our daily routines to gather together, give thanks for what we have and share love with family and friends.
We’ve been giving thanks since before we had a president or a country. Massachusetts and Virginia still squabble over where the first Thanksgiving occurred. The Pilgrims’ celebration of the harvest and survival with about 90 Wampanoag Indians was in 1621, two years after Virginia colonists marked their safe arrival with a day of prayerful thanksgiving.
In 1789, George Washington signed a proclamation declaring a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer” for the new government. Other presidents followed, with a few interruptions. Thomas Jefferson refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation because he saw it as a conflict of church and state.

It took a decades-long crusade by Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, to bring the national holiday into being. She wrote her first editorial on the subject in 1837.

Thanksgiving “might, without inconvenience, be observed on the same day of November, say the last Thursday in the month, throughout all New England; and also in our sister states, who have grafted it upon their social system. It would then have a national character, which would, eventually, induce all the states to join in the commemoration of `Ingathering,’” she wrote. 

With foresight, she added: “It is a festival which will never become obsolete, for it cherishes the best affections of the heart – the social and domestic ties.”

After many more editorials and through Hale’s persistent appeals, more than 30 states and territories had Thanksgiving on their calendars by the 1850s.

Because Hale never gave up, our national Thanksgiving holiday was created at a time even more divisive than ours. She finally persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation in October 1863, as the Civil War raged.

Lincoln put out a call to “fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

Secretary of State William H. Seward, not Lincoln, actually wrote the proclamation, although Lincoln signed it. Seward’s original manuscript was sold a year later to raise money for Union troops, according to Abraham Lincoln Online.
The holiday was celebrated on the last Thursday of November by tradition – until President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought he’d boost retail sales by moving Thanksgiving up a week in 1939, from Nov. 30 to Nov. 23. An uproar ensued, and some states celebrated two Thanksgivings. Two years later Congress set Thanksgiving in law as the fourth Thursday.
Today we know that practicing gratitude – and not just on Thanksgiving -- is good for us. Hundreds of academic studies have found physical, psychological and social benefits in gratitude – from lower blood pressure to less loneliness to more optimism.

Gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received,” Robert A. Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an essay for Greater Good, a University of California, Berkeley, website.

Emmons, a leading authority in the study of gratitude, said by practicing gratitude, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”

Some things haven’t changed in 400 years. Happy Thanksgiving.

©2016 Marsha Mercer


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hillary Clinton's quest ends as it began, with Bill -- Nov. 10, 2016 column


Hillary Clinton will never be just an asterisk of history.

She’s no Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale, failed Democratic presidential nominees who fell to obscurity.  

And yet, one of the many ironies of the 2016 election is that Clinton’s marital status and gender may define her place in history – as former first lady and first woman presidential nominee of a major political party.

She won the popular vote, but because she did not win the White House, she will always be seen as the wife of a president. Because of the Electoral College, she will never have the chance to prove herself as president.

For all her subsequent accomplishments, marrying Bill Clinton was Hillary’s best career move, her ticket to the national stage.

As his wife, she became first lady of Arkansas and the first lady of the United States.

She, an ambitious Yale law graduate surely would have succeeded in life on her own, but we’ll never know if she would have become a U.S. senator, secretary of state and a presidential contender – twice – had she not first risen to prominence in the role of Mrs. In this way, the Hillary Clinton story is more 20th century than 21st.

The Clintons’ marriage, like most relationships, is unfathomable to those on the outside. When her husband was accused of womanizing during his bid for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton proved her loyalty by dutifully standing by her man -- even as she denied she was doing so.

She later showed her strength by enduring the public humiliation of his philandering in the White House.

So it seems a particularly cruel twist of fate that, after she built her own president-ready resume with Senate and State Department posts, her husband may be to blame for Donald Trump’s decision to enter the 2016 presidential race.

Strange as it now seems, both Clintons formerly were friends with Trump, who donated to the Clinton Foundation and played golf with Bill.

Bill Clinton called his pal Trump in May 2015 and encouraged him to play a larger role in Republican politics, The Washington Post reported.

What exactly was said in the private phone conversation isn’t known. A few weeks later, Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower and began knocking off GOP presidential contenders, one by one.

And so, Hillary Clinton who in 2008 lost to a Democratic outsider promising change, lost Tuesday to a Republican outsider promising change.  

As the 2016 campaign tightened at the end, Clinton relied more and more on President Obama and his popular wife, Michelle, to make the case for her. Days before the election, the president conversationally asked men about their resistance to a woman president.

“I just want to say to the guys out there . . . there’s a reason why we haven’t had a woman president before . . . I want every man out there who’s voting to kind of look inside yourself and ask yourself, if you’re having problems with this stuff, how much of it is that we’re just not used to it?” Obama said at a Clinton rally in Columbus, Ohio.

“So that, like, when a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well, that’s OK. But when a woman suddenly does it, suddenly you’re all like, well, why is she doing that?” he said.

Obama was onto something. Trump won white males’ votes 63 percent to Clinton’s 31 percent, exit polls found.

But Trump also won the votes of white women 53 percent to Clinton’s 43 percent.
When Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, introduced her at her concession speech Wednesday, he said: “She has made history. In a nation that is good at so many things, but that has made it uniquely difficult for women to be elected to federal office, she became the first major party nominee as a woman to be president and last night won the popular vote of Americans for the president.”

Minutes later, Clinton, with her husband standing behind her, said:  

“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but some day someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.”

Yes, but that woman will not be Hillary Clinton.  

(c) 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.