Thursday, October 19, 2017

A museum for `slow looking' reopens in nation's capital -- Oct. 19, 2017 column

In a noisy, fast and often vulgar world, the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall is a refuge of quiet beauty.
Since it opened in 1923, the Italian Renaissance-style building with its lovely central courtyard and outstanding Asian and American art collections has invited visitors to slow down and look.  
That’s just what industrialist Charles Lang Freer intended.
“The interior of this building shall be arranged with special regard for the convenience of students and others desirous of an opportunity for uninterrupted study,” he wrote in his letter offering his art to America. “No charge shall ever be made for admission.”
Freer’s vision was extraordinary, especially because he had to leave school at 14 to work in a cement factory. He made his fortune in railroad cars and became a collector and a connoisseur of Asian art.
When the Freer Gallery closed in January 2016 for nearly two years of renovations, I worried the urge to modernize might ruin its timeless elegance.  
Happily, most of the $14 million in renovations were not visible when the Freer, and the Sackler Galley that adjoins it, reopened Oct. 14.
Such things as the heating, cooling and humidity control systems were replaced and the Freer’s auditorium updated for telecasting. Carpets were removed and floors returned to the original polished terrazzo. And, of course, there’s now an app.
The museum itself is a work of art “where we hope we’re encouraging slow looking,” Julian Raby, director of what’s now called the Freer/Sackler, told reporters earlier this month.
Not quite 400,000 people a year visit the Freer and fewer visit the Sackler, an underground trove of Asian art that opened in 1987. A visitor rarely feels jostled, though he or she may have to dodge selfie-takers in the Freer’s Peacock Room.
The lavishly painted and gilded room was once the London dining room of ship owner Frederick Leyland, who hired James McNeill Whistler to add a few decorative touches in 1876. Leyland then left town, thinking the work was nearly finished.
The artist painted the room to a fare-the-well, and the angry owner would pay only half the agreed-upon price. Whistler insisted on finishing the satirical mural on one wall -- a pair of fighting peacocks he called Art and Money that symbolized his rocky relationship with his patron.
Freer later bought the room and had it reassembled in his home in Detroit. At the museum, the Peacock Room looks as it did there, with Freer’s ceramics from China, Korea, Japan and the Muslim world on the shelves.
Freer wanted not just to show what he called the points of contact between art of the East and West but how they unite us in a universalist sense of beauty, Raby said.
“Art, in other words, as a vehicle for empathy.” he said.
Today we think of the Smithsonian and art as a natural combination, but when Freer offered thousands of art works to the Smithsonian in 1905, the Board of Regents balked. The Smithsonian was about science, not art.  
A committee of regents, including inventor Alexander Graham Bell, took the train to Detroit to see Freer’s collection. Bell brought along his daughter, Daisy, an art student. She was studying with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who later carved Mount Rushmore.
“The four regents are men of broad education, wide experience, and of unquestioned judgment, but what they do not know about art would fill many volumes,” Freer wrote a friend, according to “Alexander Graham Bell,” a biography by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Bell’s great-grandson, and Morgan Wesson.
Daisy helped convince her father Freer’s holdings were worth having. Then President Theodore Roosevelt intervened.   
“It is impossible to speak in too high terms of the munificence shown by Mr. Freer in this offer,” Roosevelt wrote the board. “The offer is one of the most generous that ever has been made to this government, and the gift is literally beyond price.”
After a year, Bell made the motion that the regents accept Freer’s gift, and, fortunately for us, it passed unanimously. The Smithsonian would have its first art museum.
There’s never been a better time for slow looking, and the renovations have only enhanced the experience. See you at the Freer.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Genius, Nobel prizes shine light, dispel gloom -- Oct. 12, 2017 column


For anyone who needed a shot of optimism, this was a good week.

Don’t get me wrong. The news – an acclaimed Hollywood mogul allegedly molested women for years, raging wildfires devastate California, the White House limps from tweet to tweet – has been depressing.

But there were bright spots in the gloom.  

The first encouraging words came from Sweden with the announcement of the 2017 Nobel prizes. The highly prestigious awards recognize often obscure scholars and others whose work has been of “the greatest benefit to mankind.”

The Nobel prizes also pull us back from our obsession with the day’s outrages to consider what’s going right in our world.

Eight Americans won solo or shared the prizes in chemistry, medicine, physics and economics. Each prize comes with a $1.1 million check. We lost out on peace and literature, but President Barack Obama won the peace prize in 2009 and Bob Dylan for literature last year.

Then came the MacArthur fellowships, commonly known as “genius grants.” The awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognize residents or citizens of the United States with exceptional creativity.

Two dozen lucky souls won this merit lottery this year, and each will receive a $625,000 grant over five years with no strings attached.

Genius grants are meant to give promising thinkers and doers in a wide range of fields the freedom to pursue their work.

No one can apply for a grant; you must be nominated – and anyone who holds elective office or an advanced government post is automatically ineligible. Nominations and the selection process are hush-hush.

At a time when being smart seems less important than having a smart mouth, the Nobel prizes and the MacArthur awards are a gift. They remind us of the power of education, hard work and perseverance and of the vitality and rich experiences immigrants bring to America.

Two of the American Nobel winners immigrated from Germany decades ago. Joachim Frank, 77, a professor at Columbia University, shared the chemistry prize with scientists in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Rainer Weiss, 85, who is affiliated with MIT, was one of three American winners of the physics prize. 

Last year, all six of the Americans who won the Nobel prizes in economics or the sciences were immigrants, according to the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group. Of the 85 Nobel prizes Americans have won in chemistry, medicine or physics since 2000, 33 have gone to immigrants, the group reported.

Among this year’s 24 genius grant winners were Gabriel Victora, 40, a Brazilian-born immunologist with a Ph.D. from New York University who studies how antibodies fight infection. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, is a Nigerian-born painter who graduated from Swarthmore and Yale, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46, is a Vietnamese-American novelist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

One theme of the genius grants this year was social change, and several winners work to help improve immigrants’ lives directly or by telling their stories.

Cristina Jimenez Moreta, 33, a social organizer, is a former undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Ecuador as a child with her family. She is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, which advocates for immigrant youth.

“For me, this recognition is a recognition of the lives of undocumented people, of the work that we have been doing to advocate and create change,” she told The Washington Post.

Greg Asbed, 54, a Baltimore native with degrees from Brown and Johns Hopkins, is a human rights strategist who founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.

Rami Nashashibi, 44, of Chicago, a community organizer with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. It helps immigrants and people of color with housing, health and other necessities.

Anthropologist Jason De Leon, 40, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, founded the Undocumented Migration Project, which researches clandestine traffic along the border and collects artifacts, such as clothing and backpacks, left in the desert.

Describing this year’s crop of MacArthur fellows, Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the program, said in a statement: “Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all.”

Yes, it does. And these awards also remind us why America’s role as a beacon of hope for the world still matters.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Our 21st century normal -- the routine of mass shootings -- Oct. 5, 2017 column


Not even the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history surprises us.

Shocked, saddened, angry – yes, all three. But if we’re honest we aren’t surprised anymore when a monster with a high-powered weapon – or weapons -- kills many people he has never met.

We’ve developed a sickening ritual around mass murder. The news comes with horrifying images and the awful audio of staccato pops and screams. Then, inspiring stories of true heroes, the brave first responders, and heart-rending bios of victims whose lives are tragically cut short.

We pray and hold moments of silence and candlelight vigils. We ponder how someone could do the unthinkable.

Politicians play their assigned roles: The president makes somber remarks, congressional Republicans demand that Democrats stop politicizing the tragedy, and Democrats call for sensible gun control. The gun lobby hunkers down.    

And we go on to the next man-made catastrophe.

We’ve had more than half a century to learn the drill. On Aug. 1, 1966, a young man dragged a footlocker with three rifles, two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and provisions – including Spam, canned peaches, toilet paper and deodorant -- to the observation deck on the 30th floor of the University of Texas Tower.

He took aim from his high perch and started shooting. When the 96-minute rampage was over, 14 people were dead, and at least 33 others were wounded.

A campus became a killing field. Americans were shocked, saddened, angry – and, yes, surprised. How could this happen?

The shooter was a university student named Charles Whitman, 25, a former Eagle Scout, ex-Marine, sharpshooter. He had killed his mother and wife hours earlier.  
Whitman, it turned out, had complained of severe headaches and depression and had told a psychiatrist he fantasized about killing people from the Tower.

He left a suicide note asking that his brain be examined to “see if there is any mental disorder.”

Doctors found a malignant brain tumor the size of a pecan but were never sure if it affected Whitman’s behavior. Experts still don’t agree on his motive.

Motive is again the question as we desperately try to make sense of senseless carnage, this time on the Las Vegas strip.

Stephen Paddock, 64, had no police record. A high-stakes gambler, he checked into the Mandalay Bay resort and casino with 10 suitcases. On Sunday night, he set up guns at two windows in his 32nd floor suite. He rained bullets down on a country music festival, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500. He killed himself as police approached.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, a forensics expert at George Mason University, believes Paddock may have studied Whitman to prepare for his rampage. It’s possible. Paddock was 13 when Whitman made worldwide news. So far, though, there’s no evidence he did so.

Paddock reportedly had 23 guns and 12 “bump stocks” at the hotel. The device makes a semiautomatic rifle act like an automatic, so instead of having to pull the trigger time after time, he could spray bullets as if he had a machine gun.

Congressional Republicans insist it’s too soon to consider gun control legislation – but it always is. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced a bill Wednesday to make bump stocks and similar devices illegal.

Even before Feinstein introduced the bill, gun shops around the country reported a spike in sales of bump stocks. Banning the lethal device is eminently sensible, so it probably won’t happen.

“Nothing will change after the Las Vegas shooting” was the chilling headline in The New York Times on an op-ed by former Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat of New York.

The National Rifle Association used to support sensible measures but “now is forced to oppose them because of competing organizations,” Israel wrote.

Part of the blame goes to redistricting, which pulls Republicans farther right, making them more subject to the NRA’s score, he said, and part to Americans’ numbness to gun violence.

“You’ll watch or listen to the news and shake your head, then flip to another channel or another app,” Israel wrote. “This horrific event will recede into our collective memory.”

That’s what happened in 1966. It sadly has happened hundreds of times since and very likely will happen again. It’s the routine we have chosen. 


Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Supreme chance to cage the gerrymander -- Sept. 28, 2017 column


The Supreme Court convenes Monday after its summer recess and on Tuesday takes up a case that could end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

Justices will hear arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case from Wisconsin where, after Republicans took complete control of the state government in 2010, the state legislature redrew state Assembly districts, resulting, a federal court ruled, in unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

The plan purposely favored Republicans and hurt Democrats to such a degree that it violated the constitutional guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause and the First Amendment right of association, the district court ruled.

Wisconsin appealed, saying its plan does not violate the Constitution and, besides, partisan gerrymandering is nothing new. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and granted the state’s request to block the lower court’s order to create a new redistricting plan by fall.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says Gill could be the most important case of the entire term.

And she told CBS’s Charlie Rose Tuesday: “It’s drawing a map so people think, `Why bother voting? This is a secure Republican district or this is a secure Democratic district, so my vote doesn’t count.’ That’s not a good thing for democracy.”

Gerrymandering creates “safe” political districts that make general elections uncompetitive and give party insiders greater power than constituents, a bipartisan group of current and former members of Congress said in a friend of the court brief, one of dozens filed in the case. Rep. Don Beyer, Democrat of Virginia, was among the brief’s signers.

The Supreme Court, mindful that redistricting is a state responsibility, has been reluctant to rule on political gerrymandering disputes, although it has kept a watchful eye on racial gerrymandering.

A question for the court now is how much partisan gerrymandering is too much. 
Judicial tea leaf-readers say the Supreme Court, by putting the lower court’s ruling on hold, suggests it may side with the state. Much depends on swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy and whether a majority can agree on standards for judging whether redistricting plans are so partisan as to be unconstitutional.

Whatever the court decides, two things are clear: Gerrymandering has been with us always – and it erodes voter confidence and trust in government.  

Charles Ledyard Norton tells the story of the term gerrymander in his 1890 book, “Political Americanisms.”

Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill in 1811 that adjusted legislative district lines. When artist Gilbert Stuart took a look at the map, he penciled in a few lines and told a Boston newspaper editor: “That will do for a salamander.”

“Salamander?” the editor riposted. “Call it a Gerrymander.”

Poor Gerry has been carrying the gerrymander burden ever since. But should he?
One of the first gerrymandering episodes actually took place years before in Virginia.

An “atmosphere of bitterness” hung over the first federal election in Virginia in 1789, following Virginia’s unconditional adoption months earlier of the Constitution, the editors of the James Madison papers explain.

Gov. Patrick Henry, a leader of the anti-Federalists, wanted revenge on the Federalists, so he changed voting lines to make Federalist James Madison run against anti-Federalist James Monroe for a seat in the U.S. House. Henry made Orange County part of an eight-county district that was strongly anti-Federalist and had opposed ratifying the Constitution.

Madison campaigned hard, and in the end he beat Monroe by 336 votes out of 2,280 cast.

In his biography of Henry in the late 1890s, Moses Coit Tyler wrote: “Surely it was a rare bit of luck in the case of Patrick Henry that the wits of Virginia did not anticipate the wits of Massachusetts by describing this trick as `henrymandering,’”

Henry “thus narrowly escaped the ugly immortality of having his name handed down from age to age in the coinage of a base word which should designate a base thing -- one of the favorite, shabby maneuvers of less scrupulous American politicians,” Tyler wrote.

Yes, Henry was lucky, but American voters are still victims of the shabby maneuver.

Gerrymandering may be as American as Patrick Henry, but if voters are lucky, the Supreme Court will agree with Ginsburg that extreme partisan gerrymandering is bad for democracy -- and end it.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Earthquake reveals heroic Mexico -- Sept. 21, 2017 column


The nation watched with hope as Mexicans struggled together in the aftermath of a violent earthquake Tuesday that killed at least 250 people.

A doctor volunteered to climb through the ruins of the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City, risking his life to search for children trapped in the rubble.

Dr. Pedro Serrano crawled on his stomach in crevices to a classroom, only to find a girl, a woman and a man dead, he told The Associated Press.

Then Mexico’s elite volunteer rescue team Los Topos, the Moles, combed through the school’s debris by hand, carefully removing pieces of concrete and lumber in their search for survivors.

Los Topos raised fists to command silence in hopes of hearing faint sounds of life. More than 25 people died at the three-story school when a wing fell onto itself.

As anguished family members waited, strangers rushed to the school and to similar scenes around the capital, bringing water and food and staying to pray. The 7.1-magnitude quake toppled dozens of buildings in the capital alone.

“This is the spirit of Mexico,” a volunteer in Mexico City told CNN. “That’s our community in general; it crosses classes – if you are rich or poor – and any other divide.”

The images were heartbreaking and heroic, just as they were after hurricanes in Houston, the Keys, along the East Coast and Puerto Rico.

Sadly, heroic is a word we seldom associate with Mexico.

Our politicians for generations have promoted a dark cartoon version of our southern neighbor.

Since after World War I, some politicians have blamed Mexicans for bringing crime and drugs into the country, although most Mexicans come to work and employers rely on them.

In 1919, a page-one headline in The New York Times warned: “Anarchists Flood Here from Mexico – Dangerous Aliens Smuggled Across Border at Rate of 100 a Day – Stricter Laws Needed.”

“During the 1920s, politicians and pundits in the Southwest made the eugenic argument that Mexican immigrants would `destroy white civilization,’” historian Neil Foley writes in his 2014 book, “Mexicans in the Making of America.”

During the Depression, the United States deported half a million Mexicans when jobs here were scarce, but during World War II, the U.S. welcomed tens of thousands of “braceros,” mostly farm workers, from Mexico.

In the 1950s, Operation Wetback again deported Mexicans, writes Foley, chair of the history department at SMU. A Mexican American, he received his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia.

The latest politician to malign Mexico and Mexicans to his benefit is Donald Trump. 

“They are not our friend, believe me,” Trump said when he announced his candidacy for president in June 2015 at Trump Tower. He blamed Mexico for stealing our jobs, hurting our economy in trade and exporting its problems.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he said and added, grudgingly, “And some, I assume, are good people.”

His vow to build a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it was a centerpiece of his campaign, and he still says that will happen.

After Mexico suffered an earthquake Sept. 7 that killed at least 90 people, Trump was criticized for his slow response in offering sympathy and support. This week, though, he quickly extended a hand, tweeting a couple of hours after the quake: “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.”

He called Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto Wednesday to offer condolences, assistance and rescue teams, the White House said.

The snapshots from earthquake-devastated Mexico and the hurricane-ravaged United States show that more unites than separates us. As humans, we all suffer from the capriciousness of nature.

The president is right to stand with Mexico in its hour of need. We’ll see how long the era of good feeling lasts, but it’s a start.

We need each other – as heroes more than scapegoats.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved,


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Not dead, poetry due for a comeback -- Sept. 14, 2017 column

Have you read a poem in the past year? If so, you’re in the minority.
Just seven in 100 Americans read poetry even once in the past 12 months, government figures show, down from 17 percent in 1992.  
“Poetry is going extinct,” a headline in The Washington Post lamented in 2015, after the 2012 statistics, the latest available, were released.
But wait. Sometimes called the Cinderella of literary forms, poetry isn’t dead; it’s not even asleep.
I won’t go as far as a British newspaper, which earlier this year heralded a “genuine renaissance” in poetry in the United Kingdom. But, in the United States, poetry, like an endangered species that’s been protected, is showing signs of life.
Poetry Out Loud programs in all 50 states invite students in grades 9 through 12 to compete in contests by memorizing and reciting poetry. The Library of Congress this year named the first national youth poet laureate.
A new book, “Why Poetry,” urges people to stop thinking of a poem as a riddle or code to crack and read what the words say to them.
“Like classical music, poetry has the unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which makes us feel (unnecessarily) as if we haven’t studied enough to read it,” Matthew Zapruder, a poet and former poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, writes in “Why Poetry.”
Tracy K. Smith is the new poet laureate of the United States, the 22nd in a line of literary legends that includes Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur and Rita Dove. Dove also served as poet laureate of Virginia and holds the Commonwealth chair at the University of Virginia.

The author of three books of poetry, Smith, 45, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012. Her 2015 memoir, “Ordinary Light,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. She and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar, teach at Princeton University and have three children.  

Smith said a few months ago that as poet laureate she would take poetry beyond the ivy walls of universities and urban literary festivals to places where it is seldom heard or read. She received invitations from communities struggling with addiction as well as from nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.
“Nursing homes are often overlooked” when we think of poetry, she said in a telephone interview Wednesday, before her inaugural reading at the Library of Congress. “Poetry can be very useful at the end of life.”
The U.S. poet laureate, who is chosen by the Librarian of Congress, has few duties beyond fostering a national appreciation of the reading and writing poetry. And, if you’re wondering, no, this is not a case of your tax dollars at work.
The poet laureate’s stipend is privately funded through an endowment created in 1936 by Archer M. Huntington, a philanthropist whose mother was from Richmond. Among Huntington’s many gifts was the money to start the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News.

The title originally was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1985, Congress changed it to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

When he had the job in 1963, Howard Nemerov was only half joking, the library says in a history, when he wrote, “The Consultant in Poetry is a very busy man, chiefly because he spends so much time talking with people who want to know what the Consultant in Poetry does.”

For Smith, who still remembers the thrill of discovering Emily Dickinson in fifth grade, her job will be to make poetry less stressful and more enjoyable.
“People have anxiety about poetry,” she said. They see a poem as an object “that must be analyzed to death to be enjoyed or understood.”
But there’s no need to feel obliged to wrestle hidden meaning from poems. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from taking a few minutes from our busy, tech- and information-overloaded days to let poetry speak to us?
“Poems teach us how to read them,” Smith says. So, when her students read a poem for the first time, she starts with a simple question: “What do you notice?”
It’s a good question, one I plan to ask myself more often – and not only when I’m reading a poem.   
© 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 7, 2017

Get your curiosity on! -- Sept. 7, 2017 column

About 2,500 book lovers erupted in sustained applause when author David McCullough talked about a mantel in the White House. But this was no ordinary hunk of cold marble.
The audience at the National Book Festival in the Washington Convention Center Sept. 2 applauded the hopeful words inscribed in the mantelpiece:  “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”  
McCullough was doing what he’s done for half a century: telling America’s stories so we will remember who we are as a people and the values we share.  
He explained that John Adams, the first president to live in the White House, wrote the sentence in a letter to his wife, Abigail. Franklin Roosevelt had the words carved into a wooden mantel in the State Dining Room, and John Kennedy later had them carved in marble so they’d last forever.
“And I think it’s very important to understand . . .he (Adams) put honesty first, ahead of wisdom,” McCullough said. “Honesty.”
The redoubtable McCullough, a vigorous 84, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, didn’t utter the name Donald Trump. He didn’t need to.
The audience also applauded warmly when he said, again without the name, “None of our great presidents has ever been one who didn’t have any interest in history.”
Trump proudly says he doesn’t read books – history, biographies of presidents or anything else – because he’s so busy. Besides, his brain is so big he doesn’t need to read. He reaches the right decisions because he has a lot of common sense, he says.
With the help of ghostwriters, Trump has published about 10 books, mostly about his business acumen and success.
Not every president has been an intellectual, and some readers and deep thinkers in the White House have been accused of dithering instead of acting. During the campaign, McCullough was among historians who warned voters that the vulgarian Trump was a clown, unsuited for the job.
Pulling back from direct criticism of the sitting president, McCullough now reminds people of the strain of intellectual curiosity that has run through the White House:
John Quincy Adams spoke many languages and may have had the highest IQ of any president. Jefferson was a genius in many fields. The brilliant Theodore Roosevelt wrote many books, including a definitive history of the Naval War of 1812.
Woodrow Wilson was a professor of history at Princeton. Dwight Eisenhower himself wrote every word of “Crusade in Europe,” a classic about World War II, without the help of any ghostwriter.
McCullough, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “Truman,” praises Harry Truman, who lacked a college degree but loved to read, including Latin.  
John F. Kennedy wrote three books of history, including “Profiles in Courage,” which is still read.
“Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages” is one of McCullough’s favorite lines. But our educational system is letting us down.
“We are raising several generations of young Americans…who are by and large historically illiterate, and it’s not their fault,” he said. “We have to stimulate curiosity.”
McCullough’s latest book, “The American Spirit,” is a collection of speeches he’s given around the country over the years. He wrote it mindful of Trump, but it’s aimed at helping readers gain perspective.
At an immigration and naturalization ceremony at Monticello July 4, 1994, McCullough said Thomas Jefferson “was an exceedingly gifted and very great man, but like the others of that exceptional handful of politicians we call the Founding Fathers, he could also be inconsistent, contradictory, human.”
So Jefferson wasn’t perfect, but his “absolute belief in education” is part of his lasting legacy. Jefferson “said any nation that expects to be ignorant and free . . . never has been and never will be,” McCullough said.
For many of us, the start of the school year feels like New Year’s without the hangover. Fall is a time of possibilities and a second stab at resolutions.
No matter our politics, it’s time to rev up the curiosity that separates us from cabbages. What are you reading this fall?   
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

How parades, poitics and beer shaped our Labor Day holiday -- Aug. 31, 2017 column


At the first Labor Day parade on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, about 10,000 working men carrying banners marched alongside musical bands through the streets of New York City.

The workers were orderly and cheerful, “having the recreations of a beer garden in prospect,” The New York Times reported. Among their long-term dreams that day was something we take for granted: an eight-hour work day.

The size of the crowd was disappointing – union leaders had predicted 20,000 or more would show up – but Labor Day caught on. Unions in other cities sponsored Labor Day parades and speeches to air their grievances. The first state to declare an official Labor Day holiday was Oregon in 1887. Other states followed.

Were it not for President Grover Cleveland, though, many of us still might be toiling the first Monday in September.

Cleveland, you recall, was our 22nd and 24th president, the only one elected to two non-consecutive terms, in 1884 and 1892. The first Democratic president since the Civil War, he was the first to have a White House wedding. His bride was the beautiful Frances Folsom, 21 years old, 27 years his junior.

Politically and socially conservative, he opposed women’s suffrage on the grounds that God created men and women to have different places in the world and women’s didn’t include voting. But I digress.

He was also no fan of the turbulent labor movement, so it’s ironic that we have him to thank for the federal Labor Day holiday.

In 1894, the Pullman Palace Car strike paralyzed the nation. Workers who made the luxury sleeper cars walked out after they suffered a severe pay cut but no reduction in their rent on company-owned homes in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, outside Chicago.

The workers appealed to the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs, who asked his members not to handle Pullman cars, which were in passenger trains all over the country.

The strike spread to 27 states and 150,000 workers. Strikers derailed and burned rail cars, hobbling rail service. When the U.S. mail was stopped, Cleveland stepped in.

Over the objection of the Illinois governor who wanted no federal troops, Cleveland ordered 12,000 armed federal troops to Pullman to break up the strike. In the riots and chaos that ensued, it’s not clear how many people were killed. Estimates range from about a dozen to more than 30.

Cleveland was running for re-election in 1896 and wanted to make amends with  union members and other angry voters. A bill to create a federal Labor Day holiday had languished in Congress for years. He rushed it through Congress in six days. It passed without a single objection.

“So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as a useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen,” said the House Committee on Labor’s report on the bill.

Critics saw the new holiday as nothing more than a sop for unions, but it was popular.  
“Labor unions in cities such as Boston, Nashville and St. Louis celebrated with parades and picnics. Large turnouts in Chicago (30,000) and Baltimore (10,000) underscored the holiday’s popularity,” according to a House history.

But it didn’t help Cleveland. He lost his re-election bid.

Much has changed over the years. Unions have been in decline for decades. Only about 11 percent of American workers belonged to labor unions last year, down from 20 percent in 1983.

In Virginia, about 4 percent of workers were union members last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Conservatives aim to curb union power further. Republicans in the House Education and Workforce Committee unanimously approved three bills June 29 they said would bring fairness to the workplace. Democrats said the bills would make it more difficult for unions to organize workers.

For us, Labor Day weekend is less to honor the working man and woman than to celebrate at the unofficial end of summer, although, we too may have “the recreations of a beer garden in prospect.”

Happy Labor Day.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Boycotts rarely work -- but we love 'em anyway -- Aug. 24, 2017 column


When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem last year, some conservatives boycotted the National Football League.

Angry at what they saw as unpatriotic behavior, veterans and others rallied around the hashtag #BoycottNFL. Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, tweeted: “Here’s a peaceful protest: never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey of rich spoiled athletes who dishonor our flag.”

Now the tables have turned.

The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP recently asked fans to boycott the NFL and a group of black pastors in Alabama released a video calling for a blackout of NFL games until a team signs Kaepernick.  

Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem to protest police brutality against blacks. Other athletes joined in, and the protests have continued in the pre-season, with white players taking part. A free agent, Kaepernick hasn’t been signed for the season that begins Sept. 7.

A huge crowd of Kaepernick supporters protested outside NFL offices in New York Wednesday, contending owners have blackballed him for his activism, which the league denies.

This is the age of voting with our wallets.

Fans of Donald Trump boycotted Budweiser over its inspirational Super Bowl ad praising immigrants. Trump’s foes boycotted L. L. Bean after the granddaughter of the company’s founder contributed to his campaign and Trump urged people to “Buy L.L. Bean.”  

People similarly shopped or stayed away from Macy’s and Nordstrom after the stores dumped some Trump merchandise. Social media and sites like, which lists stores that carry Trump merchandise, give boycotts more exposure.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many boycotts announced in a short period of time,” says Brayden King, professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University.   

Boycotts -- more than marching in the streets or firing off an angry screed on social media -- make us feel powerful. There’s something immensely satisfying about just saying no and walking away.

Only one problem: Boycotts typically don’t accomplish much.

Not all are failures. The Montgomery (Ala.) bus boycott started in December 1955 and lasted 13 months. It ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses unconstitutional.

Viewership of NFL games on TV networks dipped last year, but the national anthem protest was only one reason, a J.D. Power survey of fans found. Off-field domestic violence and the presidential campaign were also factors.

Experts say boycotts fail because there are too many of them, our attention span is short and we simply don’t like to be told what not to do or buy. A boycott perversely can generate more sales for the item being boycotted.

Despite Uber’s many PR catastrophes and boycotts, its gross bookings and number of trips taken have risen, according to news reports.

Rather than judge a boycott’s impact on sales, it may be better to judge its media attention, King said.

Several Kennedy Center Honors award winners announced they’d boycott the pre-ceremony reception at the White House or the event itself. They include hit singer Gloria Estefan, TV producer Norman Lear and dancer Carmen de Lavallade.

The president and first lady announced they’ll stay away “to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

At least 20 charities reportedly have dropped plans to hold galas at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort in Florida. Among the big names that have canceled: American Red Cross, America Cancer Society, Cleveland Clinic and the Salvation Army.

Charities hosting large galas can pay Trump's club between $125,000 and $275,000 for a single night's revelry. Even lunchtime events can cost charities between $25,000 and $85,000,” The Washington Post reported.

Why charitable organizations choose such pricey locales for their fund-raising events, even if they do raise big bucks, is a question for another day. But the cancellations do send a message of disapproval to others inclined to book Mar-a-Largo.

“If you have a conscience, you’re really condoning bad behavior by continuing to be there,” Laurel Baker, executive director of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, told the Palm Beach Post.

The boycott affects a prized Trump property, and that’s a sure way to grab the businessman’s attention. 

But will it change the president’s policies? That will be the true measure of the boycott’s success.

 © 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.