Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Obama not debating but in the debate -- Sept. 22, 2016 column


He won’t be onstage Monday night, but President Barack Obama likely will dominate the first presidential debate.

Republicans have hung “third Obama term” around Hillary Clinton’s neck as if it were an albatross, but Democrats believe the prospect of a third Obama term could be just the thing to motivate unenthusiastic, undecided voters to go to the polls for Clinton.

Obama’s overall job approval rating, in the low 40s a couple of years ago, is a healthy 50 percent. Among Democrats, a whopping 89 percent approve of the way he’s handling his job, according to Gallup.

“More Americans are working. More have health insurance. Incomes are rising. Poverty is falling,” Obama said last week at a rally for Clinton in Philadelphia. Someone in the crowd shouted that gas is $2.

“And gas is $2 a gallon,” he said. “Thank you for reminding me.”

So when Donald Trump promises to wipe out everything Obama has done, starting with the Affordable Care Act, he not only threatens Obama’s legacy but he gives Clinton an opening with uncommitted voters who like the improved economy and social progress of the last eight years.

Only 2 or 3 percentage points now separate Clinton and Trump, so both campaigns want to woo the 13 percent of voters who are undecided.

Some are “better-educated people who lean Republican, who don’t like Trump and have zero use for Hillary Clinton, and they’re sort of paralyzed and frozen right now,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff told The Wall Street Journal.

Others are millennials who lean Democratic, supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries and haven’t fallen in love with Clinton. Democrats also worry that black voters, who provided the margin of victory for Obama in several swing states in 2012, could stay home.

Obama has made Clinton’s election his mission, telling the Congressional Black Caucus gala Saturday that he would take it as a “personal insult” to his legacy if blacks don’t turn out for Clinton.

First lady Michelle Obama, one of the most popular people in America, also is campaigning for Clinton – and Obama’s place in history.
“Elections aren’t just about who votes, but who doesn’t vote, and that’s especially true for young people like all of you,” Michelle Obama said last week at a campaign rally at George Mason University.

On the stump, the president charges that Trump is “unfit to serve” and “woefully unprepared to do this job.” Trump in turn calls Obama a “disaster” and “the worst president.”

If you can’t remember a president and first lady being so involved in a potential successor’s contest, it’s because it hasn’t happened in our lifetimes. Most presidents end their time on the stage on a sour note with the public or with little love for the person itching to replace them.   

In 1960, when a reporter asked President Dwight Eisenhower to name a major contribution his vice president, Richard Nixon, then running for president, had made, Ike replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

John F. Kennedy used Ike’s words in a TV ad -- and won that November.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore – remember him? – kept his distance from disgraced President Bill Clinton, and it cost him.

But when the time came for President George W. Bush to endorse Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, Bush’s job approval rating had dropped to the basement -- about 30 percent. Even though Bush was still popular among conservatives, McCain chose not to ask Bush to campaign.

At this point in 2012, polls showed the race between Obama and Mitt Romney very tight with about 6 percent of voters undecided. On Election Day, though, the contest wasn’t as close. Obama won with 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 47 percent.

Democrats hope a similar scenario plays out this year for Clinton.

As much as she might like to win purely on her own merits, Clinton knows “It Takes a Village.” Her uninspiring campaign style and the reluctance of key demographic groups to back her means she will need the whole Democratic village at her side to win.

Fortunately for her, Democrats still believe in Obama, and he said last week, “I really, really, really want to elect Hillary Clinton.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Love story: Book festivals bring readers, writers together -- Sept. 15, 2016 column


We think of reading as a solitary pastime, but it’s often social and cultural as well.

Who wants to talk about a great book? Just about everybody, as the explosion of book clubs in recent years attests.

Bring writers into the conversation, and you have a book fair. Add more readers and writers, and it’s a book festival.

About 75 book fairs and festivals are now held in 43 states. More than 120 authors and illustrators and upwards of 100,000 people are expected to throng the 15th annual National Book Festival on Sept. 24 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital.

Stephen King, whose books have sold an amazing 350 million copies worldwide, is the festival’s marquee draw. If you didn’t snag a free ticket for his sold-out appearance, you can still visit with big names.

No tickets are required for the other speakers, who, unlike King, will sign their books. Among them: filmmaker Ken Burns, journalist Bob Woodward and authors from at least seven foreign countries.

The celebration surrounding the opening of the Museum of African American History and Culture the same day likely will extend to the festival, where the roster includes basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, television producer Shonda Rhimes and novelist Colson Whitehead.

In addition, many readers may see Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress for the first time. Hayden, the first African American and the first woman in the position, was sworn in Wednesday.

Free and with programs for all ages, the national festival is the legacy of first lady Laura Bush, a former librarian with the lifelong mission of inspiring people to read.  

In November, the Texas Book Festival, which Bush started when she was first lady of Texas, will mark its 20th anniversary. She and the Library of Congress launched the national festival in 2001, just three days before the horrors of 9/11.

Bush didn’t invent book fairs, of course, but she did popularize them for modern readers.

Book fairs got their first 20th century boost in 1919, when a Chicago department store held Book Week. One hundred thousand customers poured into the store to shake hands with 14 authors and buy books from 60 publishers, Bernadine Clark wrote in “Fanfare for Words,” a 1991 history of book fairs published by the Library of Congress.

The Miami Book Fair started in 1984 and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 1989. The Tennessee festival takes place Oct. 14 through 16.

In Virginia, the Fall for the Book festival, sponsored by George Mason University, runs Sept. 25 to 30, and the Virginia Festival of the Book is next set for March in Charlottesville. The 2017 Alabama Book Festival will be held in April in Montgomery.

Festivals are quick-hit gatherings for readers and writers, but the nation’s first, permanent celebration of American writers past and present is in the works. The American Writers Museum is under construction on the second floor of an office tower in downtown Chicago and plans to open in March.

The idea for the museum came from Ireland, where the Dublin Writers Museum honors great Irish writers. In this country, the writers museum will fill a void, says Jim Leach, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes, artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers,” Leach said in a statement on the museum’s website.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that Laura Bush is among those supporting the writers museum.

Like the Texas and national book festivals and literary events around the country, the new museum will “celebrate writers of every era, every genre and every race,” she says in a video, and “inspire everyone to fall in love with reading and writing.”

I hope she’s right.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wisdom of the soap: Vote and Feel Good -- Sept. 8, 2016 column


A couple of election seasons ago, I brought home an oversized bar of soap that read VOTE on one side and FEEL GOOD on the other.

I put it in my guest bath, mostly as a joke, and after the election it went into a drawer. I came across the soap the other day and realized it had outlasted my enthusiasm for voting.

Pulling the lever for president has never seemed so much a duty and so little a pleasure.

In less than two months, millions of Americans will stay home on Election Day. After the hoopla of the 2016 primary campaign and amid tightening polls, many Americans won’t cast ballots for any presidential candidate. We know this from experience.

Four years ago, about 58 percent of eligible voters – citizens 18 and older -- cast ballots in the presidential election, lower than in both 2008 and 2004, an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center found. And presidential races draw our biggest turnouts. 

Voting long has been promoted as the top item on good citizens’ to-do lists. Now, though, some commentators say we should stop shaming people who don’t want to vote into doing so anyway.

In his new book, “Writings on the Wall,” basketball legend and cultural critic Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes: “In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 37 percent of eligible voters showed up, which left 144 million votes taking a pass on democracy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Best to leave nonvoting slugs alone, he says.

“Voters who don’t want to cast a ballot because they’re too lazy or uninformed should stay home,” he writes.

In an interview on NPR, he went a step further: “Ignorance is not something that lends itself to a meaningful discussion. Some of these people really shouldn’t vote because they don’t know what the issues are, and I think people that are, you know, voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country by not being better informed.”

Abdul-Jabbar spoke against Donald Trump at the Democratic National Convention in July, and, while he didn’t mention Trump in his book or the radio interview, the clear implication is that ignorant Trump voters should just stay home.  

No matter how dangerous we think a Trump – or a Hillary Clinton – presidency would be, telling voters with whom we disagree to stay home is an arrogant stand on a slippery slope.

Anyone can look at another voter and think he or she lacks the brainpower to cast an informed ballot. It goes against the small-d democratic grain to discourage people from voting simply because we think their choice of candidate proves they’re not smart enough.

That brings us to the age-old question of how to get voters engaged so they educate themselves on the issues rather than falling for appeals based on anger and anxiety.

Abdul-Jabbar also says we should stop encouraging people to vote out of civic duty but rather “show them the wisdom of voting based on economic self-interest in order to give themselves, their families and their communities more opportunities.”

Poor people would have more clout if they voted in greater numbers, he says.

But many Trump voters think they are voting in their economic self-interest.

Trump’s unorthodox campaign brought voters into the system who felt ignored by Democrats and Republicans. They believe this GOP nominee speaks for them when he promises to bring back jobs and stop illegal immigration.

Whether he could deliver on those promises is another story, but Trump has struck an emotional chord.

To boost voters’ intelligence, Abdul-Jabbar proposes a federal initiative to teach more about critical thinking and logical fallacies in public schools. It’s an idea worth considering – and a nonstarter in the current climate.

Until voters demand more thoughtful, substantive discussions on issues, we’ll continue to have celebrity-driven campaigns punctuated by amateur personality analyses, name calling and fear mongering.

And we’re left with the choice – to vote or not. Once again, I’m putting out the soap to give my guests and myself a nudge.

VOTE? Yes, we should. FEEL GOOD? We’ll see.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Are 'Instant Runoffs' a Better Way to Vote? -- on STATELINE 9/2/16

Go To

Are 'Instant Runoffs' a Better Way to Vote?

  • September 02, 2016
  • By Marsha Mercer

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Homework for parents a lesson for all -- Sept. 1, 2016 column


Nearly six decades ago, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, and for a generation of American children school nights would never be the same.    

Many school systems had dropped homework in the 1940s, but after the satellite crossed overhead on Oct. 4, 1957, Americans struggled with the idea that the commies had beaten us into space.

One way to help close the education gap with those over-achieving Russian kids was for American boys and girls to concentrate on math and science and take home extra schoolwork.     

The homework pendulum has always swung between pro and con. In the 19th century, American students spent hours at home memorizing and reciting their lessons. The 20th century rebelled against rote and repetition.

Homework fell out of favor in the Age of Aquarius along with most things Establishment.

In the 1980s, though, a major government report said “a rising tide of mediocrity” was to blame for the ailing U.S. economy and the nation’s very future was threatened. Homework was back.

But by 1999, a Time magazine cover story -- “The Homework Ate My Family” – painted a bleak picture of the stresses that homework was adding to already overworked and overscheduled families.

Last month, a second-grade teacher became an Internet sensation when she announced she would not assign any homework this year. If children brought work home, she said, it would be because they didn’t finish it at school.

But Brandy Young of Godley, Texas, didn’t stop there. She assigned homework to the parents.

“I ask you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early,” she wrote in a note to parents.

After a happy parent posted the note online, others around the country reposted it, and the news media started calling.

“I’m trying to develop their whole person; it’s not beneficial to go home and do pencil-and-paper work,” Young told CBS News. Students have other things to learn at home, she said.

Young’s homework assignment sounds like old-fashioned good parenting. It also dovetails nicely with recent academic research about rising academic skills of both poor and affluent children.

Between 1998 and 2010, the gap in school readiness skills between students in low-income and upper-income families entering kindergarten narrowed 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading, a team of academic researchers reported. The improvements lasted at least into fourth grade.

The change, a sharp reversal of decades of trends, reflected improvements in the skills of low-income students, not a drop in upper-income students’ skills, they said.

Why? “It may be changes in children’s homes that have mattered most,” Sean F. Reardon, education professor at Stanford; Jane Waldfogel, social work professor at Columbia; and Daphna Bassok, education professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in an op-ed Aug. 28 in The New York Times.

“Tracking the experiences of young children over time, we found that both rich and poor children today have more books and read with their parents more often than they did in the ‘90s,” they wrote.

“Their parents are more likely to spend time with them, taking them to the library or doing activities at home,” and poorer kids also are more likely to have computers and access to the Internet and computer math games than in the past.

The researchers believe a powerful idea is getting through: “the first few years of a child’s life are the most consequential for cognitive development.”

The researchers warned that it’s by no means certain that narrower skills gaps for fourth graders will translate into higher achievement in high school. Still, this is good news.

It just so happens that September is Library Card Sign-up Month. Libraries across the country are encouraging children and their families to come in and get their library cards.

It’s an excellent opportunity for parents and grandparents to model the reading and study habits that can make a big difference in young lives. And the adults just might find something fascinating to read as well.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.