Wednesday, June 29, 2016

For politicians, a better time to receive -- June 30, 2016 column


The Supreme Court on Monday gave public officials the green light to accept lavish gifts from people wishing to do business with the government – and then give their benefactors a leg up.

It’s OK for public officials to make phone calls, set up meetings and host events on behalf of goodie-givers – as long as they stop before taking any official acts. An official act is a focused and concrete exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit or a hearing, the court said.

The opinion, overturning the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on corruption charges, will make it harder for federal prosecutors to go after corrupt politicians, and it rightly outraged many who decry money and undue influence in politics.

In a few months, voters will choose between two presidential candidates most people distrust. It would be reassuring if tighter laws apply to presidents and the gifts they receive than to other public officials. Alas, that’s not the case. 

The president is subject to the same porous bribery laws at issue in the McDonnell case. Worse, the president is exempt from many Office of Government Ethics rules that apply to other federal officials and employees, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Federal officials, for example, are banned from receiving presents from “prohibited sources” – those doing business with, seeking action from, or regulated by their agency. No such rules encumber the president. The president is free to accept unsolicited personal gifts from any American.

There are limits: The president may not solicit the gifts. He or she must disclose in annual financial reports gifts over a certain amount. And, the Constitution prohibits all federal officials, including the president, from receiving personal gifts from foreign governments, without the consent of Congress.

So, when Donald J. Trump recently blasted Hillary Clinton for accepting “$58,000 in jewelry from the government of Brunei when she was secretary of state,” he failed to mention it was not a personal gift. Clinton accepted on behalf of the United States and transferred the baubles to the General Services Administration.

The hand-off is standard procedure; the United States doesn’t want to embarrass foreign countries by refusing their gestures of friendship. The president or official who takes a fancy to a foreign gift can buy it, at fair market value.

In the Virginia case, businessman Jonnie Williams wanted state universities to conduct research on a nutritional supplement he was promoting. He gave McDonnell and his wife Maureen a luxury watch, designer clothes, gifts and loans worth more than $175,000.

McDonnell argued he did no more for Williams than officials commonly do to help businesses. The Supreme Court agreed and said the instructions to the jury were so broad they could potentially make ordinary constituent service criminal.

A 1999 Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, foretold the court’s rationale. Writing for a unanimous court, the late Justice Antonin Scalia said a president’s hosting a championship sports team at the White House was not an official act. To think otherwise would invite the “absurdities” of corruption charges.

Even when legal, though, extravagant gifts can cause politicians heartburn.

In the 1980s, first lady Nancy Reagan was lambasted for “borrowing” designer gowns and jewelry for formal occasions. She stopped the practice. When the Reagans left office, undisclosed friends reportedly bought the couple a $2.5 million home in California. Nancy Reagan said the house was also a loan, paid back with interest.

President Clinton and Hillary left office in 2001 with gifts worth $190,027. When The Washington Post reported that $28,000 worth of furniture on the Clintons’ moving truck was intended for the White House, not as personal gifts, the Clintons returned those furnishings.

Their close friend Terry McAuliffe reportedly put up $1.35 million in cash to guarantee the Clintons’ mortgage in Chappaqua, New York. McAuliffe is now governor of Virginia.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, the court of public opinion takes a dim view of politicians’ getting and giving special favors.
The unfortunate McDonnell ruling reminds voters that we need stronger state and federal ethics laws. But foxes rarely pass laws policing henhouses.

So it would behoove us all this election year to vet the character of candidates and ask what they’ll do to restore integrity to government.

As Reagan said: Trust, but verify.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Pandering to religion, Trump style -- June 23, 2016 column


Before the 2012 election, businessman Donald J. Trump made wild, false accusations that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and not a citizen.

So it’s hardly a surprise that candidate Trump questioned Hillary Clinton’s religious faith.

“We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” Trump told evangelical leaders Tuesday. “She’s been in the public eye for years and years and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there.”

That’s ridiculous. Clinton, a church-goer, doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but she does talk about it.  

In January, when a voter in Iowa asked Clinton about her faith, she began a lengthy response with, “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instructions and support I received, starting in my family but through my church…”

Courting evangelical leaders, Trump followed his slam on Clinton with a pander. He promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion. In a Trump administration, he said, department store clerks will say “Merry Christmas” again. And he will end the ban on political campaigning by tax-exempt churches.

“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity – and other religions – is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” he said.

Trump, who also wants to change the libel laws so he can sue news outlets, either doesn’t understand the Constitution or has little regard for it.

The ban against politicking applies to any tax-exempt charity -- secular nonprofits as well as houses of worship.

Religious leaders can and do endorse candidates – just not from the pulpit. They also can support ballot measures and take stands for or against issues. They can run non-partisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

Since Thomas Jefferson wrote approvingly on Jan. 1, 1802, that the First Amendment had built “a wall of separation between church and state,” Americans have been arguing over religion and government.

Conservatives have railed against the politicking ban for decades, claiming that it limits pastors’ free speech. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-N.C., has made repeal his pet issue, but his attempts have gone nowhere.

We have Lyndon B. Johnson to thank -- or blame -- for the ban. In 1954, the senator from Texas introduced the ban in an amendment to the IRS Code. The measure was so uncontroversial it passed by unanimous consent, reflecting agreement that tax-exempt groups should not be overtly partisan.

While historians disagree about Johnson’s motives, it seems clear he wanted to stop groups – not churches – that were critical of him as he ran for re-election from sending campaign materials to voters.  

Congress has strengthened the ban over time. To qualify for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status, a church or charity may not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Despite what Trump says, the ban has not stopped religious leaders from speaking up about their candidates of choice. Several ministers have endorsed Clinton.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late televangelist, endorsed Trump last January. But the nonprofit university, which calls itself the largest Christian university in the world, does not endorse candidates, Falwell says.

The IRS rarely has revoked a church’s tax-exempt status, but it did after Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York took out full-page ads in USA Today and The Washington Times four days before the 1992 election.

“Christians Beware. Do not put the economy before the Ten Commandments,” read the headline. The ad urged people not to vote for Bill Clinton and solicited tax-deductible donations to pay for the ad. A federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling backing the IRS.

There’s a simple solution for churches and other tax-exempt groups that want to electioneer, and it has nothing to do with Trump. They can give up their tax- exempt status.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Arlington Cemetery a living tribute -- June 16, 2016 column


When President John F. Kennedy visited Arlington House, the plantation home of Robert E. Lee surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery, in March 1963, he was so taken by the splendid views of Washington from the sloping hillside, a giant post oak in the foreground, that he mused he could stay there forever.

A few months later, JFK was laid to rest in the beautiful place. Landscape architect John Warnecke incorporated the Arlington Oak in his design for the gravesite, and special care was taken to protect the tree during construction.

Hurricane Irene in 2011 demolished the 220-year-old oak. The loss was devastating to tree and history lovers alike, but it wasn’t the end of the story.

Today, three post oaks grow in lush Kentucky bluegrass near the Kennedy gravesite. 

But they’re not just any trees, Stephen Van Hoven, chief of the horticulture division of the cemetery, said last week during a walking tour of trees.

They were propagated with acorns from the original Arlington Oak, a gift of American Forests, a conservation group.

While some areas, like the Kennedy gravesite, are formal in design and others more natural, the cemetery has visual and emotional impact by intention.   

“Nothing could be more impressive than rank after rank of white stones, inconspicuous in themselves, covering gentle, wooded slopes and producing the desired effect of a vast army in its last resting place,” said the 1901-1902 McMillan plan for the capital city. The nation’s first attempt at city planning, the plan was named for Sen. James McMillan of Michigan.

Almost nothing is left to chance. The cemetery’s contract for weekly grass cutting specifies that the grass may be no higher than 3 1/2 inches to 5 inches, Van Hoven said.

The cemetery has long invited visitors to imagine the stories the 400,000 people buried in the nation’s most hallowed ground could tell. Only recently, though, has it also encouraged visitors to look at the trees.

Last year, the Arlington National Cemetery, with more than 8,600 trees on 624 acres, became an accredited arboretum.

“The Arboretum serves as a living memorial to those who have served our nation and connects visitors to the rich tapestry of the cemetery’s living history and natural beauty,” the cemetery says.

Horticultural walking tours help educate visitors, as do about 300 aluminum labels installed on notable trees. Special screws were used to discourage theft.

One of the first stops on our tour was a Shumard oak and plaque to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, “In honor of the Redcatchers for their service and selfless dedication to duty in the Republic of Vietnam 1966-1970.” It’s one of 142 Memorial Trees in the cemetery, commemorating various groups.

The cemetery also has 36 trees honoring Medal of Honor recipients and three Virginia state champions and one co-champion trees. Champions are the largest of their species in the state.

Only three Memorial Trees have been added in the last 10 years, though, because planting a Memorial Tree now literally requires an act of Congress. The concern was that there would be too many. The cemetery also stopped accepting private donations of trees last year, Van Hoven said.

You can read more about the arboretum and see an inventory of trees in the Explore section of the cemetery’s website.

With Memorial Day behind us, Veterans Day may be the next time many Americans think of the cemetery, where national observances of the two holidays take place in the Memorial Amphitheater.

Another popular destination is Arlington House, the Custis-Lee Mansion that was the family home of Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee. The Union confiscated the property after Lee became the Confederate Army’s commanding general, and began burying war dead in the yard in 1864. It is a National Park Service site.

Behind the mansion is a stunning deodar cedar, planted in 1874 by David Henry Rhodes, landscape gardener of the cemetery for more than 50 years, Van Hoven said. Rhodes wrote about the cedar’s top being blown off in a hurricane in 1896, but the tree survives.

At Arlington National Cemetery, trees are a living tribute to veterans and all who are buried there.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Changing the way people think of the dreaded rattlesnake -- STATELINE story June 13, 2016

By Curbing Roundups and ‘Gassing,’ States Seek to Help the Hated Rattlesnake

  • June 13, 2016
  • By Marsha Mercer
State efforts to boost dwindling rattlesnake populations are threatening old traditions© Jacob Ford/Odessa American via AP
The skinning station at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas. Faced with a sharp decline in some rattlesnake populations, some states are trying to give the venomous pit vipers better odds of survival.
In the ceaseless war of man versus rattlesnake, the rattlesnake has long been the loser. Now, some states are trying to give the sometimes deadly pit viper better odds of survival.
The shift follows a dramatic decline in some U.S. rattlesnake populations, as habitats have been lost to development and the reptiles have been killed, accidentally and intentionally. And it is threatening old traditions and forcing people to come to grips with animals many would rather avoid.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife plans to establish a colony of timber rattlesnakes on an uninhabited island in hopes of saving the dwindling native species. Texas wildlife officials are writing a rule that could prohibit the use of gasoline to harvest Western diamondback rattlesnakes, a practice that is already banned in 29 states.
The rattlesnake roundups that were once common across the South and Midwest — in which the snakes are bought by the pound, displayed, decapitated, skinned, fried and eaten, or carted away to be turned into wallets and belts — have largely fallen out of favor. Today, rattlesnake events occur in only six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas — and some leave the snakes unharmed.
“In the past, the snakes were hated and exterminated,” said Collette Adkins, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates bans on gassing and rattlesnake roundups. “Ecological values change. Cultural values change.”
With greater recognition of the value of all species to the ecosystem, preservation has become a priority in wildlife management. Rattlesnakes play a role as a predator of rodents and food for top carnivores like hawks and eagles.
Minnesota, for example, paid a bounty for timber rattlesnakes until 1989. The state put the snake on its threatened species list in 1996 and in 2009 adopted a Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Plan, which involves habitat restoration and public outreach and education. Landowners who find a rattlesnake on their property can call a Rattlesnake Responder to have it relocated rather than killed.
Convincing people of the need for a hated species, though, is still a tough sell, wildlife experts agree.
“Very, very young toddlers are imprinted early on with phobias about snakes,” said biologist D. Bruce Means, executive director of the nonprofit Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy and an authority on the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
“State legislatures are faced with constituents who would be aghast at the idea of saving or protecting these creatures,” said Means, an adjunct professor at Florida State University. “If it was butterflies we were talking about, or birds, something cute and cuddly, it would be different.”
While the Western diamondback rattlesnake is plentiful, the Eastern diamondback and timber rattlesnakes need government help to avoid extinction in some parts of the country, advocates say. Washington state is among those attaching radio monitors to rattlesnakes to study their habits and habitat and plan for their management.
But listing a species as federally endangered takes years, and landowners often want to avoid that designation because it limits land use. Last September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a more modest step, proposing its first listing of a rattlesnake asthreatened — the Eastern massasauga, sistrurus catenatus, in the upper Midwest. And many states have listed species of rattlers as threatened, endangered or species of concern, which typically makes killing them illegal except when someone’s life is in danger.
Despite its fearsome appearance and reputation, rattlesnakes tend to be shy, docile creatures that stay away from humans and strike only when they feel threatened, herpetologists say. About 60 percent of bites occur on the hands and forearms, a sign that the person was reaching toward the snake.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes in the U.S. every year, but because of prompt medical care, an average of only five people die of poisonous snake bites each year.
“People want the outdoors to be as safe as their child-proof living rooms,” said John Davis, wildlife diversity program director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Outside is not as safe. As people urbanize they lose sight of that. It’s a cultural issue.”

An Island Refuge

The timber rattlesnake, whose scientific name crotalus horridus comes from the Latin words for rattle and dreadful, once was found in 31 states. But its numbers have declined precipitously in the East, as construction has destroyed its habitat and people have killed it, sometimes inadvertently by running over the snake on the road. Today, the timber rattler is no longer found in Maine and Rhode Island. And Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Virginia list it as threatened or endangered.
In Massachusetts, the timber rattlesnake has been a symbol of strength since colonial times. There's a coiled timber rattler on the yellow Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag first used in the American Revolution. 
Today, only about 200 timber rattlesnakes survive in five scattered sites across the state. Besides human predators, the timber rattler faces another threat: fungal infection. With the help of a $500,000 federal grant in 2013, the state is working to boost the number of timber rattlers in the wild while trying to fight the disease.
MassWildlife chose Mount Zion, a 3 1/2-mile-long, forested island that’s supposed to be off limits to people in the Quabbin Reservoir in the central part of the state for the effort. The state proposed moving up to 10 rattlesnakes to the island each year starting in 2017. 
“It’s important that we stand up for endangered species,” Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters in May.
But public hearings on what became known as the Snake Island plan drew angry, emotional crowds who worried that the snakes could easily leave the island — they’re good swimmers — and attack nearby residents, pets and tourists. Wildlife officials said the snakes would have what they need on the island and were unlikely to leave. Besides, biologists plan to attach radio transmitters to the snakes and could track any that got away.
State officials apologized for poor communication and pledged to restart the planning process.
State Sen. Eric Lesser, a Democrat who represents Belchertown, a main visitor access point to the reservoir, introduced an amendment to the state budget that would impose a one-year moratorium on the plan. It has been approved by the Senate and goes to a conference committee with the House this summer.
Despite claims that the island is remote, Lesser pointed out that it’s connected to the mainland by a short, narrow causeway, and an outhouse on the island is used by boaters and fishermen. Plus, he and his constituents worry that the presence of snakes will hurt tourism in the area. 
“It’s not exactly the best publicity to have news article after news article about breeding poisonous snakes,” he said.
There’s also lingering animosity toward the state about the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, which provides drinking water for the city of Boston, Lesser said. Residents of four communities were relocated and their towns flooded when it was built.
“We were merrily going on with the science, and we neglected the social,” said Jack Buckley, head of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “We have to work to get this right.”

Rattlesnake Roundup

In Texas, the Parks and Wildlife Commission last month directed the wildlife department to draw up a rule by November to ban the “gassing” of rattlesnakes, which could mean the end of a major way rattlesnakes are hunted in the state.
Hunters typically use a common garden sprayer containing a few ounces of gasoline to spray gas or fumes into a den, wait half an hour and collect the rattlesnakes that emerge. Wildlife officials say the practice harms 130 species of rare invertebrates that exist only in Texas and 26 federally listed invertebrates that coexist with the rattlers in crevices and caves.
But people in Sweetwater, Texas, who bill their Rattlesnake Roundup as the world’s largest, say that without gassing, the number of rattlesnakes collected would be drastically reduced.
At the most recent roundup in March, organizers bought a record 24,262 pounds of Western diamondback rattlesnakes at $10 a pound. About 25,000 people attend the roundup last year, more than doubling Sweetwater’s population and providing $8.4 million in economic impact.
“It’s easy to sit in Austin and throw out rules,” said Leah Andrews, executive vice president of the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce and a member of the wildlife department’s Snake Harvest Working Group. “We’re the ones who’ll pay the price.”
Dennis Cumbie, who has run the venom milking pit at the roundup for years, says the fact that hunters continue to harvest so many pounds of snakes from the same dens year after year proves that gassing doesn’t harm them. He disputes studies that show the invertebrates are harmed, saying they were conducted in the wild elsewhere around the country, not in arid Texas, and in labs.
One alternative to gassing is trapping. But hunters in Sweetwater don’t want to change their methods because gassing is cheaper and easier, Andrews and Cumbie said.

Shifting Gears

Faced with changing attitudes toward roundups, rising environmental concerns and more state rules on collecting rattlesnakes, a few rattlesnake roundups have become wildlife festivals.
In 2012, the Evans County Wildlife Club in Claxton, Georgia, stopped buying and selling Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. The state agreed to provide at least 40 live rattlesnakes, work with Georgia Southern University to bring in a birds of prey show, present environmental education programs in local schools and promote the new wildlife festival through the state tourism office.
The change made ecological and practical sense. The roundup was struggling to find rattlesnakes anyway, and the state was about to ban gassing rattlesnakes because they live in gopher tortoise burrows. The gopher tortoise is the official state reptile of Georgia and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing it as threatened in the state.
“I got a lot of hate mail,” said Bruce Purcell, who was president of the club at the time of the switch. “People thought I was buckling under pressure from environmental groups — and we were under pressure. But we could have gone on like we were.”
After the roundup converted, though, Purcell got mail from around the world applauding the change.
“I personally feel like we’re serving the community better,” Purcell said.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

'Feel the Bern'-- yes, millions did -- June 9, 2016 column


In the rush to coronate Hillary Clinton, let us take a moment to consider the extraordinary accomplishment of Bernie Sanders.

No, he didn’t win, but he’s anything but a loser.

Barring something unforeseen, Clinton will make history next month as the first woman presidential nominee of a major political party. Hers is a major achievement and she deserves the acclaim she is receiving. But almost since the day she lost to Barack Obama in 2008, most Americans expected this outcome from the 2016 Democratic primary process. It was her turn.

Nobody expected how hard she would have to fight to secure her prize. That an obscure, elderly, Jewish, Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont could inspire a generation of young Americans and millions of others, threaten the Democratic Party establishment’s choice and raise enough money in small donations to become a viable and formidable challenger is nothing short of remarkable.

Now, everyone in the Democratic Party from President Barack Obama down is urging Sanders and his supporters to get in line with Clinton and unite for the fall campaign.

As they do, though, everyone should remember that Sanders was correct: Clinton doesn’t have enough pledged, elected delegates to win.

She has won 2,203 elected delegates through the primary and caucus season. The District of Columbia primary Tuesday offers 45 more. That’s not enough for her to reach the magic number of 2,383 to claim the nomination with elected delegates alone at the convention in Philadelphia July 25.

Because of Sanders, Clinton must rely on superdelegates. Those are the mayors, governors, members of Congress and party leaders who are free to support any candidate.

But Clinton has 574 superdelegates in her corner, many more than she needs, according to the Associated Press, which surveyed superdelegates and counted those who said they are committed to Clinton. That’s why news outlets declared her the presumptive nominee on Monday.

Superdelegates make up about 15 percent of all Democratic delegates. Officially unpledged, they conceivably could change their minds – and that has been Sanders’ forlorn hope. He has won 1,828 elected delegates and has 48 superdelegates on his side.

There’s nothing nefarious about Clinton’s using superdelegates to put her over the top. She’s playing by the rules. Plus, she won 3 million more votes than Sanders in the primaries and was victorious in 32 states and territories to his 23.

To win at the convention what he could not win in the states, Sanders would have to change the minds of more than 400 of Clinton’s superdelegates. That won’t happen unless calamity befalls Clinton, such as an indictment for her use of a private email server at the State Department.

In a year in which the news media arguably engineered the success of the bombastic billionaire Donald J. Trump through slavish coverage of his every offensive comment, Sanders created a movement.

Trump, ironically, will go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland July 18 with 1,447 elected delegates – 210 more than he needs to be the nominee. Nobody else is close.  

Sanders’ claims that the system was rigged against him is true in the sense that the Democratic Party establishment was backing Clinton long before the process began.

More than 400 superdelegates had endorsed Clinton 10 months before the first caucuses and primaries. The party canceled some debates and scheduled those that did occur at times when most people weren’t watching, which hurt viewership and denied Sanders the chance to gain national attention.
Despite obstacles the party put in his way, Sanders caught fire.  

Here’s President Obama Wednesday on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: “I thought that Bernie Sanders brought enormous energy and new ideas, and he pushed the party and challenged them. I thought it made Hillary a better candidate.”

It would be wrong for the Democratic establishment now to deny the strength of Sanders’ agenda or the weaknesses Clinton has going into the fall campaign. Voters face a choice between two presidential candidates with startlingly high negative ratings. Neither is seen as trustworthy.

Clinton needs Sanders and a large share of his supporters if she is to beat Trump. They could make the difference.

So, don’t discount Sanders’ achievement. He won’t be the Democratic presidential nominee but he has accomplished something almost as remarkable as Clinton has.

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

What's luck got to do with it? -- June 2, 2016 column

President Barack Obama’s pet peeve: “People who have been successful and don’t realize they’ve been lucky. That God may have blessed them. It wasn’t nothing you did, so don’t have an attitude.”
When he urged Howard University graduates last month to be grateful, Obama reopened an old argument. Four years ago, he ran into a buzz saw of criticism when he strongly suggested that successful people don’t get ahead by hard work alone.
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” the president said in a campaign speech in Roanoke, Va., in July 2012.
Republican rival Mitt Romney jumped on the two sentences, using the scathing sound bite in ads against Obama, who claimed his words were taken out of context. They were. Obama was trying to make a point about community, government and even luck playing roles in an individual’s success, but he phrased it horribly.
Eleven days later, Obama spoke directly to voters in his own TV ad: “Of course Americans build their own businesses. Every day hard-working people sacrifice to meet a payroll, create jobs and make our economy run. And what I said was that we need to stand behind them, as America always has, by investing in education and training, roads and bridges, research and technology.”
How people see luck is a dividing line between conservatives and liberals, Robert H. Frank writes in his new book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.”
Surveys show wealthier people overwhelmingly think their success is a result of their own hard work rather than other factors, such as luck or being in the right place at the right time, says Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University.
People who believe luck plays a role in their success are more empathetic toward the less fortunate and that has tax and social policy implications, studies show.
When successful people believe there are others who also are smart and work hard but don’t strike it rich, they’re more generous and public-minded and inclined to approve of more spending on things like education and infrastructure, polls show.
Americans have always had a rocky relationship with luck. In the second half of the 19th century, Horatio Alger Jr. built his writing career with a series of novels about poor but plucky young fellows who were honest, worked hard -- and got rich through strokes of luck.
But in the 1940s, E.B. White observed, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”
Donald J. Trump, who got his start in business with a million-dollar loan from his father, concedes a little of his success to luck.
“There’s a certain amount of luck,” Trump told students in Wisconsin earlier this year. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
That’s a paraphrase of the line golfer Gary Player made famous: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
In his campaign book, “Crippled America,” published last year, Trump writes: “I know how lucky I am. The day I was born I had already won the greatest lottery on Earth. I was born in the United States of America.”
Trump, though, may be more optimistic than most. Less than half of Americans agree that “anyone who works hard still has a fair chance to succeed and live a comfortable life in today’s America,” according to the latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, released in January.
It’s odd that Obama’s talk about luck angers people when his overall message is uplifting. He told the Howard graduates:
“We must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and, yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it.
“You got to get in his head too,” he said. And that could bring us all better luck.  
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.