Wednesday, December 26, 2018

A four-letter word summarizes 2018 -- Dec. 27, 2018 column


As 2018 heads for the exits – finally -- the annual exercise to wrap up the year in a single word is in full swing.

The estimable Oxford Dictionaries says it selects for its Word of the Year one that reflects “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the year and may be of lasting cultural significance. Oxford chose “toxic” for 2018.

Toxic is defined as poisonous. Not bad.

Toxic certainly was an improvement over Oxford’s resurrection in 2017 of the 1960s word “youthquake,” intended to show the power of the youth vote in Britain last year.

For its 2018 Word of the Year, Collins Dictionary chose “single-use,” which describes plastic bags and other items meant to be used once that are hurting the environment. 

That’s fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far.

Merriam-Webster chose “justice” to define 2018, saying the word was searched 74 percent more in 2018 than in 2017. That’s puzzling. It seems a good sign that people want to understand what justice means – but not if they think a dictionary definition will suffice. settled for 2018 on “misinformation” -- defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”

People often conflate misinformation with “disinformation,” said, but disinformation means “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”

A worthwhile distinction, but it still leaves something lacking to capture this tumultuous year.

For me, none of those words sums 2018 the way a simple four-letter word does.

That word is “wall.”

President Donald Trump’s wall has become the defiant symbol of his America first and only, us-against-the-world presidency.

He proudly shut down the federal government just before Christmas to try to force Congress to give him billions to build a wall on the southern border.

We’ve been hearing so much from him about the need for a wall to protect us from the others that many younger Americans may not know a Republican president once urged the leader of the Soviet Union to tear down a wall.

But Ronald Reagan was the president who in 1987 demanded Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany.

Trump claims -- falsely -- Reagan wanted a wall on our southern border for eight years.

In fact, Reagan said during a 1980 presidential candidates’ debate: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.”
And then Reagan added: “While they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.” Candidate Reagan, by the way, also called for statehood for Puerto Rico.
Contrast that with the harsh rhetoric presidential candidate Trump used about immigrants and his repeated promise to build a border wall to protect us and make Mexico pay for it.

Tearing down the Berlin wall was a symbol of Reagan’s presidency just as the border wall is the enduring symbol of Trump’s.

As the year ends, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are idle because the president and the Congress can’t agree on how much taxpayers should pay to build the wall Mexico refuses to pay for.

But what’s in a wall? Aware Democrats won’t go for the big, “beautiful” concrete wall he first promised, Trump lately has shifted to talk about a “steel slats” barrier you can see through.    

Beyond the border wall are the metaphoric walls that separate the president from many Americans and many Americans from each other. We almost instinctively wall ourselves off from those who hold different political views, watch different news shows and read different news sites.

Doubtlessly, the Russians and the Chinese have worked to sow dissension among us, to further wall us off from each other, with the goal of making the United States less united, more divided and weaker.

If Reagan were president, he might say to us: Tear down these walls.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A gift from the government. Really. -- Dec. 20, 2018 column


If the frenzied pace of life and the blitz of breaking news have left you desperate for a time out, there’s help from an unlikely source: the federal government.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, has a new podcast.

I hear you: “Oh, great, another podcast. Just what we need.” But wait. “The Slowdown” invites us to do just that every weekday – slow down.

It’s only five minutes, and you don’t have to be an English major to enjoy the experience.  

Smith starts each episode with a thoughtful meditation on something she has done or seen that connects to the poem she then reads. Her voice is calm and friendly, her insights are engaging and the poems she chooses are conversational and unfussy.

“The Slowdown” is a counterpoint to the constant clash and clang of everyday life. It provides a pause, time to step outside ourselves and think about something we normally wouldn’t.

“Life is fast, intense and sometimes bewildering. But poetry offers a way of slowing things down, looking at them closely, mining each moment for all it houses,” Smith said when announcing the podcast. It launched Nov. 26 and will air on public radio stations starting next month.

I was among journalists who interviewed Smith by phone last year soon after Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed her the nation’s 22nd poet laureate. I wondered if she was up to the post that’s been held by such distinguished poets as Robert Frost and Rita Dove.  

But Smith has proved to be an able poetry advocate, taking poems to rural places through her American Conversations tour and using today’s technology to summon us to “see the world more clearly through poetry.”

The poet laureate receives a $35,000 stipend and $5,000 travel budget annually, but, no, this is not your tax dollars at work.

The position is funded through a private endowment that established the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center in 1937 and contributions, as they say, from people like you. The podcast is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, and supported by the center.

The poet laureate post was officially called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress until 1985, when Congress dreamed up the clunky title Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Robert Penn Warren served under both titles, 1944-45 and 1986-87.

Smith, 46, earned a B.A. from Harvard and a master’s in creative writing from Columbia. She teaches at Princeton and is the author of four books of poetry and a memoir.

She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “Life on Mars,” which the Pulitzer jury called “A collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.”

The poet laureate is not political, and Smith believes poetry can bring people together.

“I dreamed of using poetry as a way of building a bridge between people in cities and university towns, where poetry festivals and reading series are quite common, and those in rural parts of the United States, where such programming doesn’t often reach,” she wrote in a blog post.

“Because poems put us in touch with our most powerful memories, feelings, questions and wishes, I imagined that talking about poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers,” she wrote.

Her travels to New Mexico, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alaska, South Dakota, Maine and Louisiana have included stops to read and talk about poetry at libraries, community centers, a veterans’ home and a women’s prison.

She edited “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” an anthology with work by 50 living American poets, published in the fall.

“Poetry invites us to listen to other voices, to make space for other perspectives, and to care about the lives of others who may not look, sound or think like ourselves,” she said.

So spend five minutes with “The Slowdown.” Let me know where it takes you.  

© 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Nobody wins shutdown smackdown -- Dec. 13, 2018 column


Oh, the drama! The intrigue! The suspense!

President Donald Trump threatens to shut down the federal government just before Christmas if he doesn’t get $5 billion to build his border wall.

“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” he said Tuesday during a testy, 17-minute, on-camera exchange with Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Trump orchestrated live reality TV from the Oval Office when he invited Schumer and Pelosi to negotiate, then argued in public and violated the cardinal political rule of a government shutdown: He owned it. 

“I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it,” Trump said.

After pledging to make Mexico pay for the border wall, Trump asked Congress for $25 billion to build it. Congress appropriated $1.6 billion for fencing. Senate Democrats have offered to extend the current spending, but House Democrats are balking at more than $1.3 billion.

Trump’s strategy, if he has one, is baffling congressional Republicans who would share blame if a shutdown occurs.

“I’m on the record saying numerous times I think a shutdown is a fool’s errand. Every shutdown we’ve been in, nobody wins. So I’m very discouraged by that,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, The Washington Post reported.

Schumer and Pelosi stood their ground at the meeting, a sign of the tempestuous times ahead in divided government.

“The American people recognize that we must keep the government open, that a shutdown is not worth anything, and that we should not have a Trump shutdown,” Pelosi told the president.

All this makes for riveting TV but terrible government. Funding gaps lead to shutdowns when our leaders fail to do their constitutional duty. 

“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law,” Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says.

Shutdowns literally show us a government that doesn’t work.

During the October 2013 shutdown, private citizen Trump tweeted: “Government is shut down yet Obama is now harassing the privately owned @Redskins to change its name. He needs to focus on his job!”

Shutdowns actually cost taxpayers. Agencies take their systems down and bring them back up. They send workers home on furlough but eventually pay them for the days they were idle. Millions of dollars in fees go uncollected.

After the 16-day shutdown in 2013, furloughed workers received an estimated $2.5 billion in pay and benefits, the Office of Management and Budget reported. The National Park Service estimated the shutdown cost $500 million in lost tourist revenue to the parks and surrounding communities, OMB said.

We shouldn’t be at the precipice again. Congress has passed and Trump has signed five of the 12 spending bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, funding about 75 percent of the government through next September.

So, if there is a shutdown, only 25 percent of the government would be hit. Defense would be unaffected and Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid recipients would get their benefits. But Congress still must pass the remaining seven bills by midnight Dec. 21 or risk angering millions of Americans deprived of services.

The way out is through old-fashioned, unsexy, effective compromise. Trump should agree to a path to citizenship or legal status for more than 1 million “dreamers,” young people who were brought to this country illegally as children.

Democrats, despite their hatred of the wall, need to show they care about border security with increased technology and personnel and even building segments of the wall -- in places that are not environmentally sensitive.    

Polls, unsurprisingly, show people polarized on the issue. Fifty-seven percent of Americans overall want the president to compromise and avoid a government shutdown, but two-thirds of Republicans want him to stand tough, an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist Poll reported this week. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters he’s “hoping for a Christmas miracle” to end the standoff and avoid a shutdown.

We don’t need a miracle. We just need Congress and the president to do their jobs.

(C)2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

After George H.W. Bush, focusing on what matters -- Dec. 6, 2018 column


The National Day of Mourning, the state funeral and the private burial are over, but let’s not tuck away the shared experience of celebrating former President George Herbert Walker Bush’s life.

If we take nothing from the week’s events, the pause in our toxic partisanship will be just that: a pause.

Indeed, TV commentators in recent days kept assuring us our national dyspepsia will be back before we know it. Some seemed to almost relish its return, perhaps because meanness and name-calling animate the airwaves and Internet.

I don’t doubt they’re right. There’s little appetite for civility, the conventional wisdom tells us. But if that’s so, why were millions of Americans mesmerized by the farewell to a president whose calling card was gentlemanliness?  

Even those of us who were not fans of some of Bush’s politics and policies – the Willie Horton campaign ad and his choice of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court come to mind -- were drawn to his life’s lessons.

It would be a shame to waste this moment of reflection.  

Bush, who was 94 when he died, orchestrated his funeral at National Cathedral from words to hymns. He chose as speakers those who would talk about his roles as father, friend, patriot, president and parishioner.  

His biographer Jon Meacham explained in his eulogy that after Bush’s near-death experience as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, “To him, his life was no longer his own. There were always more missions to undertake, more lives to touch and more love to give.”

In death, Bush fulfilled one final mission: He reminded us what matters in life.

“His life code, as he said, was `Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course,’” Meacham said. “And that was and is the most American of creeds.”

When Meacham read his eulogy to Bush, the former president came back with typical humor and humbleness: “That’s a lot about me, Jon,” he said, according to Bush spokesman Jim McGrath.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a close personal friend, called Bush a man “of such great humility,” adding dryly, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.”

Bush’s simple credo was: “What would we do without family and friends?” Simpson said.

Former President George W. Bush said his dad was genuinely optimistic, “And that optimism guided his children and made each of us believe that anything was possible.” 
His father “looked for the good in each person and usually found it,” the 43rd president said.

The implicit comparison with President Donald Trump, who sat on the front row with every other living president, was stark. Trump did not speak, although he’d already said plenty about Bush and the former presidents, several of whom were frosty towards him.

When Bush died Nov. 30, Trump put out a glowing statement and was by all accounts very gracious to the Bush family, sending his plane to transport the casket and family to Washington, inviting the Bushes to stay at Blair House and paying a sympathy call there. He was acting the way a president should act.

But he and Bush were far from close. Trump had gutted the presidential campaign of Bush’s son Jeb with the epithet “low energy.” The elder Bush was quoted as calling Trump a “blowhard.”

As recently as July, Trump mocked Bush’s “thousand points of light” concept of volunteerism, saying at a campaign rally in Montana, “Thousand points of light – I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”

When the elder Bush was president, Trump said he liked and supported him but blasted Bush’s goal of a “kinder, gentler” country.

“I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump said in a Playboy interview in 1990.

That was absurd then and even more so now.

But if we want a kinder, gentler America, we have to start acting like it.  And that would truly make America great again.     

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.