Thursday, May 25, 2017

Remembering all the fallen on Memorial Day -- May 25, 2017 column


For most of us, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, a long weekend of cookouts, beach trips and sales. It didn’t start out this way.

On Decoration Day, as the holiday was first called, sorrow was still achingly fresh. We were a country of 31 million people in 1860 -- 22 million in the North and 9 million in the South, including 4 million slaves. Estimates of the lives lost in the Civil War range from 620,000 to 850,000.  

In the wake of the devastation, women in the South and in the North flocked to local cemeteries to decorate soldiers’ graves with spring flowers. Commerce ceased on Decoration Day as people took time to think and grieve. And yet the hard nub of bitterness persisted.

Arlington National Cemetery was founded in 1864 to bury Union dead on 200 acres at Robert E. Lee’s plantation on a hill overlooking Washington D.C. Although 

Confederate soldiers were also buried there, family members of the Confederates were not allowed to decorate their loved ones’ graves and sometimes even were denied entrance, according to the cemetery’s website.

Then, in 1901 in an attempt at reconciliation, hundreds more Confederate soldiers were reburied in a special section of the cemetery. Their headstones had an unusual pointed top to distinguish them from the rounded Union headstones. Southerners said the point would “keep Yankees from sitting on them.” 

A Confederate Monument was authorized, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and built by a prominent sculptor and Confederate veteran, Moses Ezekiel.

President Woodrow Wilson, first Southern president elected since the war, spoke at the dedication ceremony on June 4, 1914, a day after the 106th anniversary of the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

“My privilege is this, ladies and gentlemen: To declare this chapter in the history of the United States closed and ended, and I bid you turn with me with your faces to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire one another,” Wilson said.

The Virginia-born president’s words were more an aspiration than an accurate account.
The ornate monument extols a romanticized version of the Old South with 32 life-size figures, urns, shields, Biblical symbols and a Latin inscription – “Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Catoni.”

The phrase from the poet Lucan translates as “The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the losing side (or cause) pleases Cato,” roughly equating Lincoln with the tyrant Julius Caesar and the Confederacy with Cato who fought Caesar valiantly but lost.   

Americans are still struggling with how to remember the Civil War. New Orleans has taken the lead by removing four Confederate monuments. First to go was the most appalling – an obelisk to the Battle of Liberty Place, honoring a white supremacist group that killed members of the city’s integrated police force and state militia in 1874. 

Three other monuments -- honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis – were also removed until suitable locations can be found.

“There is a difference between the remembrance of history and reverence of it,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.

That distinction – that we can and should remember the past without idolizing it – is important as we try again as a country to move forward.  

One way may be to shift our focus from the famous figures on pedestals to the forgotten fallen, those whose names are inscribed on crumbling monuments on courthouse greens across the country.

On Memorial Day – a federal holiday since 1971 and the Vietnam War -- we honor all Americans who died in military service. Just as in the Vietnam era, during the Civil War a draft swept many into service. In the 1860s, those who could afford it could hire a substitute.   

This isn’t to say we overlook, or give a pass to, the Cult of the Lost Cause, the concerted attempt after the Civil War “to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity,” as Landrieu said. Not at all.

Communities need to decide which statues should be moved and where they should go. But cemeteries are a proper place for grandiose monuments to dead people and dead ideas. 

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Trump budget cometh -- May 18, 2017 column


In a time of nonstop surprises in Washington, we’re about to experience a reassuringly familiar ritual.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration will deliver to Congress the president’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 – and it will land with a thud.

“Dead on arrival,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in March.

Graham was reacting to Trump’s preliminary, so-called “skinny budget,” with massive hikes in defense and deep cuts in foreign aid and the State Department, along with other domestic programs.

Declaring the president’s budget dead is part of the familiar scenario on Capitol Hill.  

“We generally – no matter who the president is – we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the president’s budget,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Bloomberg News Tuesday.

The president’s budget does serve a purpose. As a blueprint of where he wants to bulk up or starve programs, it’s worth more than a thousand impulsive tweets about his values.

As a political document, it lets him say he has delivered on campaign promises – and blame Congress if his proposals go nowhere.

Trump’s first four months in the White House have been a brag, bumble and blame festival. His “America first” campaign has devolved into a “Trump first” presidency that has left in its wake disappointment, if not yet disillusionment, among long-suffering supporters.

“They are in a downward spiral right now,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said of the White House.

In Trump’s self-centered world, though, he’s always the victim.
“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately,” he told the graduating class at the Coast Guard Academy Wednesday, “especially by the media. No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon want to “deconstruct” Washington. To that end, the budget reportedly will call for $800 billion in entitlement cuts over 10 years, including to Medicaid, envision fantastic economic growth of 3 percent a year, and result in a balanced budget in 10 years.  

But it’s a starting point, not a road map.

“We share some of his priorities,” McConnell said. He and other Republicans favor spending more on defense, but they insist tax cuts must be paid for.

Tax cuts “will have to be revenue-neutral,” McConnell said.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan proposed higher defense spending, tax cuts and reductions in dozens of domestic programs aimed at shrinking the size of the federal government. Congress went along with about 60 percent of the proposed spending cuts, but the national debt still soared.

There already is push back on Trump’s proposals to cut the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health, public education, the arts, and safety net programs.

For example, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NIH funding, said at a hearing Wednesday he was “very proud” Congress approved a $2 billion increase, to $34.1 billion, in NIH funding in 2017. Trump had sought a $1 billion cut.

Cole and other lawmakers plan to fight Trump’s proposed $5.8 billion cut in NIH funding for fiscal 2018 as well.

With crises du jour from the White House dominating the news and Congress, Trump’s agenda seems to be slipping away.

His much-promised tax cut is somewhere over the rainbow, along with the $1 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. A GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare finally passed the House, but the Senate is proceeding slowly.

McConnell pointedly said he’d like less drama from the White House, although that seems unlikely, given the personality of the man in the Oval Office.

Still, the Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as special counsel overseeing the investigation into the Russian involvement in the election may tamp down the chaos.

In another ritual of Washington, Republican leaders will be working against the clock to wrap up budget negotiations and avoid a government shutdown when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

That’s a heavy lift, especially with the government running up against the debt ceiling this fall as well.

So watch for Republicans to ignore most of Trump’s budget proposals. He’ll win a few victories – and blame others for his defeats.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.