Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Capital disgrace: Still no National WWI Memorial -- May 31, 2018 column


When you’re in Washington, you can visit memorials to veterans of Vietnam, Korea and World War II -- but you won’t find one for the veterans of World War I.   

“If all goes as hoped,” the National World War I memorial will open in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the Great War, I wrote in a column three years ago.

It certainly seemed doable. The last surviving World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, died in 2011, after devoting his last years to pushing for a memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

But all did not go as hoped. In a capital known for its dysfunction, the National World War I Memorial could be Exhibit A.  

For Americans, the Great War lasted one year, seven months and five days – but planning for this national memorial has dragged on more than five years.

The World War One Centennial Commission was created by Congress in 2013 to educate people on what it calls “America’s forgotten war, even though more Americans gave their lives during that war than during Korea and Vietnam combined.”

Nearly 5 million American men and women served and 116,516 died in the “war to end all wars.” 

Congress authorized building the national memorial in Washington in 2014. But squabbling over the design continues, and no opening date has been set. Planners now hope for 2021, Politico reported this week. 

Washington once again could learn from the people in cities and towns around the country, who gathered together to honor their World War I dead in their hometowns. Residents of the District of Columbia built an elegant memorial and bandstand in West Potomac Park in 1931 to honor the more than 26,000 district residents who served in World War I. 

Almost every city and county in Virginia has a memorial to the local men and women who served in the First World War. The 240-foot tall Carillon in Richmond’s Byrd Park is the state’s memorial to the 3,700 Virginians who died in or because of World War I.

In Lynchburg, a “doughboy” statue at the base of Monument Terrace remembers 43 casualties. A granite column outside Alexandria’s Union Station commemorates the city’s World War I dead.

There’s even a National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. But not to include World War I with the memorials to other 20th century wars in Washington would be wrong.

Congress has declared the National Mall complete, so the commission in 2014 chose for the memorial’s site Pershing Park, a 1 ¾-acre trapezoidal space on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets, N.W., a block from the White House.

The park opened in 1981 as part of a plan to spruce up Pennsylvania Avenue. Designed by noted architect M. Paul Friedberg, it was a quiet oasis with a large pool and a waterfall in the summer that became an ice rink in the winter. The pool, ice rink and the kiosk that served snacks have long been closed, and the park has fallen into disrepair.

A 12-foot bronze statue of famous World War I Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing shows him in uniform, his hat in his left hand, his right hand beginning to raise his field glasses as he looks to the west.

In January 2016, Joe Weishaar, an architect-in-training just 25 years old, won a design competition for the national memorial. Last November, bigwigs brought out the gold shovels for a ceremonial groundbreaking.

But there’s a complication. The National Park Service in 2016 designated Pershing Park eligible for the National Register of Historic Places because it once was a fine example of modern landscape design.  

The designation could greatly limit how much of the park can be obliterated to accommodate the new design, which includes a large bronze sculpture by Sabin Howard of the life of a doughboy.   

Every day the design dispute continues is a day school children and tourists can’t visit a national memorial in Washington to learn about the heroes who sacrificed so much in World War I. And that’s a capital disgrace.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Democrats double down on `A Better Deal' -- May 24, 2018 column


Last July, Democratic leaders unveiled “A Better Deal,” the party’s new slogan and agenda, with high hopes.

“Many Americans don’t know what we stand for,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, wrote in The New York Times. “Not after today.”

Democrats believe they lost the White House in 2016 in part because they failed to tell people what they stand for. So they piled on the B word. 

The full new slogan is “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future,” which “some have mockingly compared to the Papa John’s pizza slogan, `Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,’” the Associated Press reported.

Many Democrats feared their rebranding effort was just OK. It lacked the pizzazz of “Make America Great Again,” originally used by Ronald Reagan and revived by Donald Trump.

To reconnect with the working- and middle-class voters who flocked to Trump last time, the Democrats’ new economic plan includes such worthy, if familiar, ideas as infrastructure jobs, raising the minimum wage, paid family and sick leave and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

This week, for better or worse, Democrats doubled down on A Better Deal, with two new planks – one to drain the swamp of political corruption and another to help overworked and underpaid teachers.

The Better Deal for our Democracy calls for voting rights protection, tighter laws on lobbyists and foreign agents, citizen commissions to redraw congressional districts, and even a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and rid politics of big money.  

A Better Deal for Teachers is a wide-ranging plan that involves spending $50 billion over a decade to help states and school districts raise teacher pay and recruit more teachers, and another $50 billion to pay for school infrastructure, including new classrooms and technology.

The plan offers a stark contrast with Trump, who proposed to cut federal education funds 5 percent in his fiscal 2019 budget.

But here’s the kicker: Democrats want to raise taxes. The plan takes what amounts to a Yes New Taxes pledge to pay for the education initiatives. They don’t want to raise your taxes – just roll back Trump’s tax cuts on the top 1 percent of the wealthiest taxpayers.  

And so once again a Democratic tax hike is center stage of a campaign. 

When Walter Mondale accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1984, he memorably declared: “Mister Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

Mondale’s point was the next president would be forced to increase taxes to reduce the federal deficit. It’s a quaint notion now, but in the last century people actually worried about ballooning deficits.

So much for honesty. Mondale got a one-way ticket home to Minnesota. But he was right: Reagan raised taxes in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987.

Trump grudgingly agreed to more federal spending than he wanted in the last omnibus spending bill passed by Congress, but he has often said he loves debt. He will not be inclined to raise taxes under any scenario.

Here’s a question: Is it still folly in an election year to promise to raise taxes – even if only on the rich and if the money goes to teachers?

We know Trump’s answer. He will propose more tax cuts before November. No Republicans running for Congress would dare suggest raising taxes and many may go along with more cuts.

Trump already is beating the tax drum.

“Nancy Pelosi and the group – you heard her the other day – she wants to raise your taxes. They want to get rid of the tax cut bill and raise your taxes. Somehow I don’t think that plays well, but you never know, right?” he told an anti-abortion rights fundraising gala Tuesday night.

Democrats believe voters will support tax increases for projects they believe in -- especially if someone else pays for them. Voters generally support higher taxes for the rich.

But Democrats may be making too bold a bet with their pledge to raise taxes in this political climate.

Middle-class voters could reward Democrats in November – but if Republicans can stoke fears Democrats will next raise their taxes next, it could be repeat of Mondale’s mistake.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What's your state doing to help gambling addicts?

Probably less than you think.
My latest on Stateline, the online news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

No bamboo: Commencement speakers need to `act boldly' -- May 17, 2018 column


The late Texas columnist Molly Ivins may have given the best commencement advice ever.

“They told me to give y’all some advice that will be useful in your future lives. This is mine: Don’t Plant Bamboo in a Small Backyard,” she supposedly said. 

Alas, the story is likely apocryphal.

But it’s just about perfect commencement advice: practical, funny and memorable.

Ivins, who died in 2007, was a sharp, witty political and cultural critic. I wish we had her folksy, liberal voice this commencement season.

Most big names chosen to sprinkle wisdom on the day of celebration resort to utterly forgettable platitudes.

“Give yourself permission to fail in order to experience the privilege of success,” actor Boris Kodjoe told Virginia Commonwealth University’s class of 2018.

“Act boldly,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe advised University of Richmond grads. “Be fearless,” Apple CEO Tim Cook urged at Duke University,

You can hear grads nudging each other and saying, “Wow, `act boldly’ – I never thought of that before!” At least such advice does no harm.

Nobody wants to be the commencement speaker whose remarks ignite a social media firestorm.

That’s what happened when Nella Gray Barkley, Sweet Briar College class of 1955, delivered remarks at her alma mater, one of the nation’s last remaining women’s colleges.

In one fell swoop, she seemed to belittle feminism and the #MeToo movement and waxed nostalgic about the days when an engagement ring was more prized than a college degree.

“I’m no raging feminist. I actually love men, and I married one,” she said.

“I have little patience with the woman who arrives breathlessly at her boss’s hotel room for a so-called conference,” she said in her speech. “What did she think was going to happen?”

And, it’s “only natural for men from Mars to follow the shortest skirt in the room.”
Barkley, a career coach in South Carolina, received the “distinguished alumna” award in 2002. She's touted on the college website for taking out a life insurance policy with Sweet Briar as sole beneficiary.

When students and grads took to social media to complain about her speech, college president Meredith Woo sent an email.

“You don’t have to accept or refuse her perspective – that is not the point – but I ask you to think about it,” Woo wrote, Inside Higher Ed reported.

I suppose there are worse ways to launch one’s post-college life than having to listen to someone say things that infuriate you. If nothing else, it’s good practice for conference calls at the office. (Remember the mute button.)

But just as commencement isn’t the ideal venue to knock a social movement embraced by many in the audience, it also isn’t the place for a speaker to begin settling scores.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used his commencement address at Virginia Military Institute to encourage cadets to remember the importance of truth, ethics and integrity.

In normal times, such advice would be typical inspirational fare, but Tillerson spent 14 months in the Trump administration, where President Donald Trump is known for his estrangement from facts. 

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” Tillerson warned.  

The former chief executive of Exxon Mobil did not call out Trump by name, but there was no doubt who he meant when he said: “When we as a people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

He told cadets integrity “is the most valuable asset you have,” and urged them to seek out employers who set high ethical standards.

“Blessed is the man who doesn’t blame all of his failures on someone else. Blessed is the man that can say that the boy he was would be proud of the man he is,” Tillerson said.

Critics complained he waited too long to speak out and didn’t go far enough.

Maybe in the future Tillerson will follow other commencement speakers’ advice and “act boldly” and “be fearless.”

Molly Ivins would. And that’s no bamboo.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Gina Haspel's secrets need sunlight -- May 10, 2018 column


As Gina Haspel tells it, her life was “right out of a spy novel.”

Haspel, President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, joined the agency in 1985 and worked undercover for more than 30 years.  

“From my first days in training, I had a knack for the nuts and bolts of my profession,” she told senators Wednesday at her confirmation hearing. “I excelled in finding and acquiring secret information that I obtained in brush passes, dead drops or in meetings in dusty alleys of third world capitals.

“I recall very well my first meeting with a foreign agent. It was on a dark, moonless night with an agent I had never met. When I picked him up, he passed me the intelligence and I passed him an extra $500 for the men he led. It was the beginning of an adventure I had only dreamed of.”

It sounds like fiction all right, and that’s the way Haspel, 61, wants it.

There’s much the public doesn’t know about her career because the records are classified, and Haspel herself, as acting CIA director, decides how much – or, in this case, how little -- to declassify.

Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who have read the classified material about Haspel but can’t divulge what they’ve read, are frustrated.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, said Haspel has the knowledge and experience for the job, but “many people – and I include myself in that number – have questions about the message the Senate would be sending by confirming someone for this position who served as a supervisor in the counterterrorism center during the time of the rendition, detention and interrogation program.”

Haspel would be the first woman CIA director, and she has bipartisan support from former CIA directors. 

But  more than 90 former U.S. ambassadors and diplomats and more than 100 retired generals and admirals have signed letters, raising concerns about her nomination and the extent of her role in “enhanced” interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, as well as destroying evidence of the activities many call torture.

Most Senate Republicans support Haspel but Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who suffered torture for five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, issued a statement Wednesday night urging the Senate to reject Haspel.

“I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense,” McCain said. “However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”

In 2002, Haspel ran a CIA “black site” detention facility in Thailand where at least one suspected terrorist was waterboarded repeatedly.

In 2005, as Congress was about to launch an investigation, she advocated destroying more than 90 videotapes of the suspect’s interrogations. At the request of her boss, she drafted a cable ordering the destruction. He sent the cable himself.

Haspel proved a wily witness at her confirmation hearing. Often evasive, she repeatedly said she has a strong moral compass. She dodged questions about her role at the detention center but insisted the techniques were legal and approved by President George W. Bush.

She said she would not restart the “enhanced” interrogation program, even if Trump, who said during the campaign he might bring back waterboarding, ordered her to do so.

“We’re not getting back into that business,” she said.

The committee is expected to vote next week, with a full Senate vote in a few weeks. It appears Haspel may squeak through.

Republicans hold a 51 to 49 Senate majority, but McCain is battling brain cancer in Arizona. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he will vote no. But Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will vote for confirmation, and a couple of other Democrats also facing tough re-election bids may do the same.

Haspel portrayed herself as “a typical middle-class American,” although one with no social media accounts.

It’s time she put more on the table than her spy novel stories. Haspel needs to declassify records of her career, so everyone can judge whether she’s fit for the job.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Primary campaigns battle over guns -- pro and con -- May 3, 2018 column


A Virginia man made news doing something utterly legal and routine.

Dan Helmer, an Army veteran, went to a gun show in Northern Virginia and bought a semiautomatic rifle similar to the one he carried in Iraq and Afghanistan in under 10 minutes -- without a background check.

He could have been someone with deadly intentions, but Helmer was making a point about lax gun laws.

He’s one of six Democrats competing in the June 12 primary for the prize of competing in November against Rep. Barbara Comstock, the Republican incumbent representing the 10th District.

Helmer demonstrated how easy it is for someone showing only a Virginia ID to buy what he calls “an incredibly dangerous piece of weaponry that’s meant for war,” adding the gun show in Chantilly was less than two miles from a school.

It took him less time than buying a cup of coffee.

Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks, but the “gun show loophole” allows non-licensed sellers or private sellers to bypass background checks.

Helmer’s campaign surreptitiously recorded the transaction and posted the video online. It promptly went viral.

“Weapons of war don’t belong on our streets,” he says.

 Comstock was a top recipient in the House of National Rifle Association contributions in 2016. Election trackers say she’s vulnerable in a district where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 10 points.

The primary campaigns of 2018 increasingly are a battle over guns. Democrats fight among themselves over who’s tougher on gun control while Republicans go after each other on who’s stronger on the 2nd Amendment. 

Democrat Karen Powers Mallard, a reading teacher from Virginia Beach making her first bid for Congress, used a video to show her commitment to ridding the streets of assault weapons. 

She took a saw to her husband’s AR-15 – and videoed its destruction. Her husband dropped off the gun pieces at the police station -- but not before gun rights advocates blasted his wife online.

Mallard’s competitor in the 2nd District Democratic primary is Elaine Luria, a Naval Academy graduate and retired Navy commander, who, like Mallard, favors tougher gun control.

But Rep. Scott Taylor, the Republican incumbent, is a former Navy SEAL who opposes stricter gun control laws. The race leans Republican, election trackers say.

Sometimes contests get nasty. Helmer criticized state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, the only Democratic candidate who has elected office experience, for supporting a legislative compromise that expanded the rights of people with concealed-carry handgun permits.

Wexton has an F rating from the NRA. She said Helmer doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the legislative trenches. She has raised more money than others in the race and has more endorsements from fellow lawmakers, including Gov. Ralph Northam.  

Primary season begins in earnest this month with contests in 11 states. Virginia is among 17 states with primaries in June, the busiest month. There are none in July, 14 in August and five in September, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports.

The gun issue cuts both ways, as Trump’s fourth appearance before the NRA in four years indicates. The NRA invested $30 million in Trump’s 2016 campaign, and despite his pledging to “do something” to stop gun violence, he hasn’t. His frequent campaign rallies keep his base motivated to vote in November and in 2020.

One of the more interesting gun-centric GOP races is the gubernatorial primary in Georgia. Secretary of State Brian Kemp just released an ad in which he sits surrounded by guns, rubbing a cloth over a shotgun, while he quizzes a teenager named Jake, “a young man interested in one of my daughters.”

Kemp then points the shotgun in Jake’s direction. It’s supposed to be funny.

Last month, another would-be governor, West Point grad and Army combat veteran Hunter Hill, aired an ad called “Liberals won’t like this” that showed him loading an assault rifle.   

He’s surely right, but will they vote?

In off-year elections, people tend to snooze through primaries and don’t bother to vote. This year could be different, with Democrats energized and Parkland students keeping the issue alive. But only those who actually cast ballots have a say in who wins.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30