Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trump's war on facts a losing gambit -- Jan. 26, 2017 column


I am 5’10,” speak French like a native and play the piano flawlessly. Oh, and Donald Trump just released his tax returns and resigned as president.

Not one of those facts is real. They’re falsehoods, fibs, fantasy. OK, whoppers.   

They would be lies -- and I a liar -- if I intended to deceive you. I don’t. Like most Americans, I respect facts, evidence and truth, which is more than you can say for President Trump.

Trump’s revolution showed its disdain for science by scrubbing the White House web site of all mention of climate change and gagging the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A president has every right to change policy, but stopping the free flow of facts is wrong. It goes against the grain of our history.

Long before the American Revolution, John Adams, later our second president, said in 1770: “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Americans have prized truth in our leaders, sometimes honored in the breach more than in the observance, since George Washington. The myth of the boy, his hatchet and the cherry tree -- “I cannot tell a lie” – gave generations a role model.  

In the 20th Century, Jimmy Carter won the White House promising: “I’ll never tell a lie.” People rolled their eyes, but Carter’s earnestness was refreshing after the lyin’ Nixon years and Watergate scandal.

Politicians and presidents do lie, of course, but we’ve never had a president like Trump, who wields fake facts as emotional prods to rile up his followers.  

Trump tried for years to prove the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and said Hillary Clinton and her 2008 campaign started the rumor – claims that were repeatedly debunked and yet built him a following.

He backed off last September when the lie began to impede his path to the White House, still insisting that Clinton started it.

Trump won despite his loose affiliation with truth during the campaign. As president, he has turned to alternative facts.

“Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts” that the crowds at Trump’s inauguration were the biggest ever, despite photo evidence to the contrary, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump aide, said last Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

Chuck Todd, the show’s moderator, replied, “Alternative facts aren’t facts. They are falsehoods.”

The phrase, alternative facts, was a chilling reminder of George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel published in 1932 that envisions a dystopian future where the Ministry of Truth subverts facts and history. This week, “1984” jumped to No. 1 on Amazon.

Sales of  “1984” have soared 9,500 percent since the Trump inauguration, and publisher Penguin is rushing out a reprint of 75,000 copies.

The Amazon Top 20 included “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis, about the election of an authoritarian president wonderfully named Buzz Windrip, and “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley, also a dark view of the future where an authoritarian regime quashes thought.  

If Trump’s alternative facts were as benign as his wish for longer fingers or thicker hair, we could ignore them. But he’s no longer a billionaire private citizen with kooky ideas or a candidate crying “rigged election” in case he loses.  

Unable to let go of his baseless claim that he would have won the popular vote were it not for up to five million people illegally voting for Hillary Clinton, the president tweeted his call for a “major investigation” into voter fraud.

No matter that state election officials insist there’s zero evidence of widespread fraud. Voter fraud is one of Trump’s unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

It’s “a longstanding belief he’s maintained,” Sean Spicer, White House Press secretary, told reporters.

It’s encouraging that some powerful Republicans in Congress want no part in investigating this particular longstanding belief of Trump’s.  

“I don’t see any evidence,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told reporters. “But the president has 100,000 people at the Department of Justice, and if he wants to have an investigation, have at it.”

Facts are stubborn things, and people want a president whose facts they can trust. Playing fast and loose with truth is no way to govern.

As someone who hates to lose, Trump should realize this gambit won’t win.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Beat the press? A new president arrives -- Jan. 19, 2017 column


In the lull before the inaugural storm, I walked around the Capitol and admired the refurbished dome gleaming in the sun.

School kids snapped selfies, guards chatted amiably among themselves and groundskeepers shoveled mulch. Except for cell phones and increased security, not much has changed on Capitol Hill since my first presidential inauguration five presidents ago.

Then as now many in the nation’s capital were apprehensive about an incoming 
Republican president with show business ties. The avuncular Ronald Reagan, though, had served two terms as governor of California.     

Avoiding school groups winding around the Supreme Court building, I ducked into the Library of Congress to visit America’s treasures. Thomas Jefferson’s library? Check. The Gutenberg Bible? Check.

The Herblock Gallery’s selection of 10 political cartoons reminds visitors that political and social conflict are not new. For more than five decades, Herbert L. Block, a politically independent editorial cartoonist, lacerated the powerful and championed the ordinary citizen. Block, who won three Pulitzer Prizes, died in 2001.

The Herblock exhibit changes every six months. The current exhibit, through March 11, shows cartoons from1966, during the Vietnam War. Some of the issues still resonate: gun control, electronic surveillance, the struggle between factions of the Republican Party and campaign finance.

A brilliant cartoon titled “Backlash” represents President Lyndon Johnson unintentionally killing the Great Society by pursuing the expensive war. Herblock shows LBJ, wielding a large sword, labeled “War Costs” inadvertently lopping off the head of a man labeled “Great Society Hopes” standing behind him.

I was thinking of Herblock’s sharply drawn cartoons when President Barack Obama in his last presidential news conference told reporters: “You’re not supposed to be sycophants; you’re supposed to be skeptics.”

Perspective is often keen in retrospect. Obama’s relationship with the White House press corps over the years was civil but strained. He promised transparency, but his administration had an abominable record with Freedom of Information Act requests.

The administration stiffed one of every six FOIA requests, setting a record for the number of times an administration claimed it could not find documents requested, an Associated Press investigation revealed last year.

Obama preferred one-on-one TV interviews and speeches to news conferences. When he did have news conferences, he called only on reporters on a list. His long answers meant fewer questions could be asked.

Now comes billionaire businessman President Donald J. Trump, whose combative style toward the news media is legendary. No president likes negative stories, of course, but most have the self control to keep their anger under wraps.

Trump has been openly hostile -- calling out reporters and yanking their credentials during the campaign, dismissing reports as fake news and refusing to answer questions from news outlets he deems unfair.

Trump’s team is considering whether to evict reporters from the West Wing, where they’ve been working since the William McKinley administration. Also under consideration: dropping live TV coverage of daily press briefings, started during the Clinton administration. Critics say the format encourages grandstanding and posturing by reporters. Imagine that.

Most Americans probably have little sympathy for reporters being ousted from the briefing room, but Obama endorsed having reporters onsite and not across the street.

Offering indirect advice to his successor, Obama told reporters: “Having you in this building has made this place work better. It keeps us honest; it makes us work harder.”

It’s not as though reporters wandered around the White House at will, dropping into Cabinet meetings. They are on a very short leash, limited to the press staff area.

Obama recognized belatedly that part of the job as president is shaping public opinion.

“There were big stretches, while governing, where even though we were doing the right thing, we weren’t able to mobilize public opinion firmly behind us to weaken the resolve of the Republicans to stop opposing us or to cooperate with us,” he said in a recent interview with CBS.

Obama said he will be glad to be a consumer of news rather than its constant subject.
Trump has a knack for shaping opinion, although he succeeded in the election in gathering more people against him than for him.

And, though he complains he has received the worst media treatment in American history, Trump only now starts living in the media glare and intense scrutiny of the presidency.  

As Reagan would say, stay tuned.

(C) Marsha Mercer 2017. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Canaries, anyone? Our presidential inaugurations quiz -- Jan. 12, 2017 column

At noon on Jan. 20, Donald John Trump will take the 35-word oath of office and become the 45th president of the United States. The oath is prescribed in the Constitution, but much of what happens during the peaceful transfer of power is rooted in tradition. Get ready for the big show and test your H.Q. – Historical Quotient – with our 10-question quiz. Answers are below.

1             1) Presidential inaugurations used to be on March 4. Why are they on Jan. 20, a day that’s often snowy and bone-chillingly cold?
A.   Washington was rainy and muddy in March, and carriages got stuck.
B.   The Supreme Court picked it.
C.   The 20th Amendment says so.
D.   It’s when Jupiter aligns with Mars.

2)  Which president gave the longest inaugural address and what happened?
A.   Bill Clinton spoke so long that when he said “in conclusion,” everybody cheered.
B.   Despite a snowstorm, William Henry Harrison in 1841 spoke for an hour and 45 minutes without a hat or coat. He caught pneumonia and died a month later.
C.   Ronald Reagan told so many stories about his old Hollywood days that Nancy Reagan unplugged his microphone.  

3              3) Who gave the shortest inaugural address?
A.   Abraham Lincoln
B.   Franklin Roosevelt
C.   George Washington

                4) How did Thomas Jefferson at his 1801 inauguration break with his predecessors?
A.   Jefferson wore the clothes “of a plain citizen without any distinctive badge of office,” a newspaper reported, unlike the elegant suits with swords favored by Washington and Adams.
B.   Jefferson walked from his rooming house to the Capitol, rather than being driven in a liveried coach.
C.   Both A and B 

5               5) What do canaries have to do with Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration?    
A)  Canaries – roasted in cream sauce – were served at the inaugural luncheon.
B)   At the frigid inaugural ball, hundreds of canaries in cages were suspended from the ceiling as decoration. The birds froze to death and dropped onto the heads of dancers below.
C)   First lady Julia Grant’s hat was covered with canary feathers, setting off the first fashion trend by a first lady.

6) Who was the first president to ride to and from his inauguration in an automobile?
A.   Warren Harding in 1921, a Packard
B.   William McKinley in 1897, a Stanley Steamer
C.   William Howard Taft in 1909, a Pierce-Arrow

                7) Which president wore a ring containing a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s hair to his inauguration?
A.   Barack Obama
B.   Teddy Roosevelt
C.   Ulysses S. Grant
D.   Nobody. This is fake news.

8              8) Match the president with the theme of his inauguration -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
A.   “Celebrating America’s Spirit Together”
B.   “Crusade America”
C.   “An American Journey: Building a Bridge to the 21st Century”
D.   “Forward Together”

                9) Whose inaugural address was the first to be broadcast on TV?
A.   Dwight Eisenhower
B.   John F. Kennedy
C.   Harry S Truman

               10) When a citizen tried to wish this newly inaugurated president joy in the White House, the president smiled and said: “I would advise you to follow my example on nuptial occasions when I always tell the bridegroom I will wait until the end of the year before offering any congratulations.” Who was the president?
A)  John Calvin Coolidge
B)   Thomas Jefferson
C)   Franklin D. Roosevelt

1) C -- Ratified in 1933, the 20th Amendment states: “The terms of the president and vice president shall end at noon on the 20th day of January . . . the terms of successors shall then begin.”
2) B
3) C – Washington’s second inaugural address was the shortest in history at 135 words. FDR’s fourth inaugural address was 559 words, and Lincoln’s second was 700 words.
4) C
5) B
6) A
7) B – strange but true.
8 – A Bush, B Eisenhower, C Clinton, D Nixon
9       C – in 1949.
10   B
     SOURCES: National Archives, American Presidency Project,, Thomas Jefferson Foundation – Monticello, White House Historical Association

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer

Thursday, January 5, 2017

No joke: Trump will be oldest first-term president -- Jan. 5, 2017 column


Vice President Joe Biden quickened the pulse of some Democrats last month when he said he may run for president. In four years, he’ll be 78. Was he serious?

Die-hard Bernie Sanders fans want to believe he still has a shot at the White House. In 2020, Sanders will be 79.

In comparison, Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential possibility, is a youngster. She’ll be a mere 71 in four years.

Donald J. Trump enters the Oval Office at threescore years and 10, the age Mark Twain at his own 70th birthday party called the “Scriptural statute of limitations.”

Months older than Ronald Reagan at his first inauguration, Trump will be the oldest first-term president in history.

Most Americans don’t remember that even younger presidents have had serious health problems. Woodrow Wilson was 63 when he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919 and was gravely ill for the last year and a half of his term.

Dwight Eisenhower was 65 when he had a massive heart attack in Denver in 1955 and spent seven weeks in the hospital there. The White House kept the public in the dark about the severity of both cases. Eisenhower recovered and won a second term.

Age was hardly mentioned during the last campaign, which offered voters a choice between grandparents. Grandpa Trump is a year older than Grandma Hillary Clinton, but he gibed that she lacked the stamina to be president.

Clinton and Trump released letters from their doctors attesting to their health, with Clinton providing more details. Neither went as far as GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. To reassure voters about his physical fitness, McCain, then 71, released more than a thousand pages of medical records.

While Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is 57, most of Trump’s Cabinet picks are white males over 60, reflecting the growing trend of working later in life. Nearly 20 percent of Americans over 65 hold full or part-time jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year.

The Oval Office, though, has traditionally been a place for the middle-aged. The average age of presidents at their first inauguration is 55. John F. Kennedy was inaugurated at 43, Bill Clinton at 46 and Barack Obama, 47. Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president at 42, after the assassination of William McKinley.

When World War II hero Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, he had to put up with late-night jokes about his age – 72.

“Bob Dole is calling himself an optimist,” David Letterman said in a monologue. “I understand this because a lot of people would look at a glass as half empty. Bob Dole looks at the glass and says, `What a great place to put my teeth.’” Dole lost to the decades-younger Clinton.

Perhaps the all-time master at obliterating the age issue was Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan, 73, was running for a second term against Democrat Walter Mondale, a lad of 56. Asked during a presidential debate if he was up for another four years, the Gipper was ready.

“I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” Reagan quipped, putting away the age issue, at least through the election.

Reagan, who survived being shot and colon cancer as president, even dared to tell self-deprecating age jokes.

“One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that, I’ve stopped worrying,” Reagan told the National Alliance for Senior Citizens in 1984.

“When I go in for a physical now, they no longer ask me how old I am. They just carbon-date me,” he said at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 1987.

It was easy for Reagan to joke about getting older when he was often seen riding horses and clearing brush at his California ranch. He wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until several years after he left office.

So far, Trump – who boasts about his vigor and has a glamorous, 46-year-old wife -- has managed to avoid age jokes. We’ll see whether his age becomes a punch line in four years when he’s 74.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.