Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A lesson from Tricky Dick on taxes -- Aug. 1, 2019 column

“Make sure you pay your taxes,” former President Richard Nixon told David Frost in a television interview in 1977. “Otherwise, you can get in a lot of trouble.”
If Nixon were advising presidential candidates today, he might add: “And release your tax returns.”
Since President Donald Trump took office, dozens of states, including Virginia, have considered – and rejected -- requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on state ballots.
But California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, Tuesday signed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, which passed on party line votes in the legislature.
To appear on the Democratic or Republican primary ballot, presidential and gubernatorial candidates now must release five years of tax returns, which will be posted online.
“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said in a signing statement.
“The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing or influence from domestic and foreign business interest,” he added.
See you in court, replied the Trump campaign, which contends the new law is unconstitutional.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a very similar bill in 2017, warning of a slippery slope. Next time, it could be a red state demanding a birth certificate or health records, Brown warned.
If the law withstands judicial scrutiny, Trump must release his returns by November for the March 3 primary. The law does not affect the general election in November 2020.
Trump says voters elected him even though he refused to release his returns. He has a point. If voters cared, they could have flocked to rival Jeb Bush, who set a record by releasing 33 years of tax returns in 2016.
The Constitution lists only three qualifications for president: at least 35 years old, a citizen born in the United States and a resident in the United States for at least 14 years. So how did we get here?
The Constitution also gives states authority to decide how their electors are chosen. Each state writes its own laws setting the rules for candidates to appear on state ballots, such as petitions with signatures of a certain number of registered voters.
Federal courts have struck down several state laws involving congressional elections, including term limits. The California law raises questions about what restrictions states can place on presidential candidates.
We see the tax returns of presidential candidates and presidents because of a tradition that began after a scandal involving Nixon, according to Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the tax history project of Tax Analysts and author of several books on taxation, who appeared before a congressional panel in February. 
Newspapers published stories based on leaks of details of Nixon’s tax returns, showing he had paid just $792 in federal income taxes in 1970 and $873 in 1971.
“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” Nixon said at a newspaper editors’ convention in November 1973. “Well, I am not a crook.”
Three weeks later, he voluntarily released four years of tax returns to reporters and asked the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ nonpartisan tax experts, to examine them.
The committee’s audit identified an improper deduction for his gift of his vice presidential papers to the National Archives as well as incorrect capital gains treatment on the sales of his apartment in New York and part of his property in San Clemente, Calif. The president owed $476,451 in back taxes and interest.
To this day, no one knows if Nixon paid up. No check was publicly shown, Nixon resigned because of Watergate and President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon.
But since 1977, IRS policy has required an audit of every tax return filed by a sitting president and vice president, Thorndike said, and every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama has released his tax returns during audits.
California’s new law is partisan and punitive to the Trump fans, and it could backfire on Democrats.
But Nixon was right: Americans do need to know whether their president is a crook. Like his predecessors, Trump should have released his tax returns, and he should do so now.
©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Measure presidential age in ideas, not years -- July 25, 2019 column


How old is too old to be president? Ronald Reagan settled the question 35 years ago with a zinger.

President Reagan, a Republican seeking his second term, and former Vice President Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, met Oct. 21, 1984, for their second debate.

Reagan, 73, had not had a good first debate, and veteran Baltimore Sun diplomatic correspondent Henry Trewhitt raised the age issue:

You already are the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

“Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt,” Reagan smoothly replied, “and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Everybody broke out laughing, including Mondale, a mere lad of 56.

Mondale told his wife he lost the election that night. There were many reasons Reagan swept to victory, winning every state except Mondale’s Minnesota, but the much replayed “youth and inexperience” soundbite didn’t hurt.

It’s hard to imagine an elder candidate’s snappy comeback line having the same effect ever again, considering what we know now. Five years after leaving office, Reagan wrote a letter telling the world he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Critics questioned whether he had been slipping during his second term in the White House, though loyal staff said he showed no signs of dementia.  

Now, President Donald Trump, 73, is the oldest president ever. Age is again a campaign issue as several top Democratic presidential contenders are also septuagenarians. Former Vice President Joe Biden is 76, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is 77 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is 70.

Critics question Trump’s mental health, although he insists he’s “a very stable genius.”

Attacking Biden, Trump says he himself looks younger and is more mentally sharp than Biden.

For his part, Biden said if Trump doesn’t stop making cracks about his age, he’ll challenge the president to a push-up contest. I’d watch that.

Age inevitably factors into the Democrats’ nomination process. Pete Buttigieg, 37, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, likes to say he won’t reach the age Trump is now until 2054. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, 50, plays up skateboarding. 

If Democrats choose the safe and experienced Biden to go against Trump, Biden will need to project youth and vitality through his appearance and, more importantly, through his ideas.

It’s possible, as Sanders showed in 2016, for a party elder to attract a youthful following with bold, new ideas.

But first Biden must deal with his past, and when the Democrats meet for a second round of debates Tuesday and Wednesday, his record will also be on display.  

In the first debate, Biden seemed flummoxed by the attack by California Sen. Kamala Harris on his opposition to federal busing decades ago. Biden also has been criticized for pushing, as a senator in 1994, a crime bill now seen as draconian.

Setting a new course, Biden Tuesday proposed a sweeping plan to eliminate the death penalty, decriminalize marijuana and stop putting people in prison for drug use alone.

But New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, 50, tweeted: “It’s not enough to tell us what you’re going to do for our communities, show us what you’ve done for the last 40 years. You created this system.”

Sanders and Warren each have plans to erase student debt, which plagues millions of Americans, and provide free higher education.

Such policies are good politics. More younger voters turned out to vote in 2018 than in previous midterms, the Census Bureau reports. In 2020, one in 10 eligible voters will be members of Generation Z – born after 1995, the Pew Research Center projects.  

Young voters tend to vote Democratic. If they turn out strongly, as they have in recent presidential elections, they could make a difference for Democrats.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Trump tweets and plays us `like a Stradivarius' -- July 18, 2019 column


For an apt description of President Donald Trump’s shrewd use of social media, you need look no further than Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Missouri.

“He’s playing us like a Stradivarius,” Cleaver, a United Methodist minister, said Wednesday.

A day earlier, the House voted 240 to 187 to strongly condemn as racist Trump’s tweets aimed at four members of Congress who are women of color. Cleaver had been presiding officer during the acrimonious run-up to the vote.

As Democrats and Republicans feuded, Cleaver grew frustrated, put down the gavel and walked away, abandoning the chair.  

“My suggestion to the House and the Senate and the people of the country is to forget the man’s tweets. . . He knows that there will be a reaction, and he also knows that a portion of his base is OK with him insulting people.” Cleaver said Wednesday on CNN.

We know the pattern. Whenever Trump feels threatened, he goes on the offensive with his Twitter account -- and Democrats reliably take the bait.  

If former special counsel Robert Mueller is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill about his investigation into Russians helping Trump win in 2016, Trump tweets – and changes the subject. Mueller’s appearance was postponed until July 24.

If the news focuses on deplorable conditions on the border or on a gazillionaire child predator Trump partied with, Trump tweets – and changes the subject.
Outraged Democrats always respond, but should they?  

“He’s going to insult some others, he’s going to speak some untruths and so forth – we need to just let him hang out at the White House and do that,” Cleaver said.

It’s not easy to let a president’s untruths and malicious tone go unchallenged.

Trump claimed falsely the four representatives “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” If they didn’t like it here, they should go back where they came from, he said.

The tweets were directed -- not by name -- to freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

All are fierce Trump critics and American citizens born in the United States -- except for Omar, who was born in Somalia and is a naturalized citizen.

When House Democrats rightly defended their colleagues, Trump triumphantly tweeted: “The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four `progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for Democrats!”

That’s absurd, of course, but it’s a sign of what’s ahead. Trump’s strategy is to hurl personal insults and racially infused, “love it or leave it” rhetoric while insisting he’s not racist.

“Those tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” he tweeted.

The House resolution condemning his tweets quoted Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan in praise of immigrants and under House rules avoided calling Trump himself a racist.

And yet 57 percent of Americans think Trump is a racist, a poll conducted last year by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reported.

His tweets and policies put him on the wrong side of history and demography. The United States is inevitably becoming more diverse.

In 2013 for the first time, most infants under age 1 in the United States were nonwhite, the Census Bureau reported. In 2016, more non-Hispanic whites died than were born in 26 states, an analysis of Census data by the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin found.

The United States is projected to become majority minority by 2045. That is, blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities will be a majority and whites will be in the minority.

But almost half of white Americans say the country’s becoming majority nonwhite would “weaken American customs and values,” a Pew Research Center survey in March found.

Make no mistake, Trump knows his tweets and anti-immigrant policies tap into and feed those fears about the future.

If Democratic presidential candidates ignore or fail to take the fears seriously while responding to his every hateful tweet, Trump will keep playing us.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Americana -- Preserving history on Virginia's Eastern Shore -- July 11, 2019 column

Visitors look at displays at the Eastern Shore Watermen's Museum in Onancock


A summer Saturday morning in Onancock, Virginia, might go like this:

Stand in line for donuts at the Corner Bakery, pick up peaches at the farmers market and swap stories of the community’s colorful past at one of the local museums.

A town of 1,215 residents may seem an unlikely place for one museum -- let alone three. But Onancock is home of the Eastern Shore Watermen’s Museum and Research Center as well as Ker Place, a Federal-style mansion built from 1799 to 1801, and Hopkins and Bro. Store, which operated from 1842 to 1966.

As economic mainstays agriculture and seafood fade from the shore -- replaced by tourism, poultry factories, government and the service industry -- more communities off the beaten path want to capture their memories and heritage before they are lost forever.

Museums have popped up in tourist favorites Cape Charles, Chincoteague and Tangier Island, but also in Eastville, Harborton, Locustville, Machipongo, Parksley and Saxis. A tractor museum in Nassawadox is open by appointment.

The watermen’s museum at Historic Onancock School – an old high school turned into a community center – preserves the stories of generations of local men who made their living harvesting fish, crabs, clams and oysters.

Less than 5 percent of jobs on Virginia’s Eastern Shore are still in agriculture, forestry, fishing or hunting, according to state figures.

“It’s a dying way of life,” said Paul L. Ewell, the museum’s executive director, told me, adding, “We’re telling a story no one had told, and no one was telling.”

Last Saturday, Lucy Shea, who was about to turn 86, brought in photos of her father in his boat, the Lucy Irene, and her grandfather’s boat, the Hattie B, for Ewell to scan into the museum’s growing digital collection.

“I’m just so glad they started this,” Shea said. “I’m so interested in the past now – so many things I wish I’d asked my daddy and my grandfather.”

Ewell will be the first to say, “We’re not the Smithsonian. We’re you.”

The museum – two rooms in the basement -- includes photos of watermen and their vessels, vintage equipment and oyster cans, boat models, old signs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other memorabilia.

A third room houses the office of the Watermen’s Heritage Foundation of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and some of the 900 books donated for a used bookstore aimed at helping support the foundation.

Ewells settled on the Eastern Shore in 1639. Growing up, Ewell loved working on the water with his dad and brother, even though it was hard physical labor. But he chose a different career.

The first in his family to go to college, he earned a Ph.D. and is chairman of the Department of Management, Business and Economics as well as dean of the University College at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach.

But Ewell, 53, also keeps his waterman’s licenses up to date and drives 75 miles to the shore weekly to welcome folks to the museum, open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he raved about the bountiful waters. By the early 19th century, many creeks on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a 70-mile peninsula that adjoins Maryland, had communities with a Methodist church, a store and families who worked on the water.

The railroad came in the 1880s, and by the 1910s watermen and farmers grew rich selling seafood, potatoes and other produce to cities on the East Coast and beyond.

Among the bustling towns on the rail line was Parksley, with Victorian homes on streets named after executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

But the rise of trucking and other factors took a toll. Today the two Eastern Shore counties – Accomack and Northampton -- are among the poorest in Virginia. Freight trains no longer rumble on the shore, and the tracks could be pulled up for a rails-to-trails path.

Parksley remembers its glory days with the Eastern Shore Railway Museum, which includes exhibits and a 1927 Diplomat parlor car, 1949 caboose and 1950 sleeper car.

In Onancock, Ewell said, “We’re all about keeping it real. Our stories are real. Our history is real. You won’t see dinosaurs here to draw the kids.”

On a Saturday morning, you will see local moms and dads, often with grown children and grandchildren who have moved away, poring over exhibits, telling stories – and proving museums in small towns keep history alive.  

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Summer pleasure: staying cool -- July 4, 2019 column


When the afternoon summer sun beats on the thermometer outside my kitchen window, the red liquid in the gauge shoots all the way to the top -- 120 degrees.

The radio and TV report it’s only in the mid-90s, but I feel the thermometer’s pain.

“It’s HOT out here,” it seems to scream. “HOT, HOT, HOT.” I take it seriously -- not literally.

At least we’re not in France, where the recorded temperature reached 114.6 degrees – the highest ever -- the other day. At least we have air conditioning.

Europeans have always felt superior to Americans for our wimpy reliance on artificially cooled air.

“People here don’t like air conditioning. They think it’s a waste of energy, it’s bad for the environment, and people say it makes them sick,” a Californian who has lived abroad for a decade, the last four years in Berlin, told The Wall Street Journal.

When it rarely got too hot for comfort, Europeans closed up shop – and schools and offices, too. Don’t laugh. Remember what happens when an inch of snow falls on Washington. 

But early summer heat waves have swept Germany, France and Spain -- countries that have traditionally coped with summer heat with electric fans.

Only about 5 percent of European households have air conditioning, compared with 90 percent of Americans, according to a report last year by the International Energy Agency.

That worked when the temperature rose above the mid-80s only a few days a year, but as 100-degree days become more frequent, Europeans are questioning whether they can continue their holier-than-thou attitude toward mechanically cooled air.

You never think you need the Klimaanlage – the German word that literally means climate apparatus – until the temperature hits triple digits.

The worldwide demand for air conditioning will soar in coming years, the energy agency says. It predicts 10 new air conditioners will be sold every second for the next 30 years. The number of AC systems installed in buildings is expected to rise from 1.6 billion in 2016 to 5.6 billion in 2050.

And that raises “an urgent need for policy action to improve cooling efficiency,” the agency said. Unfortunately, the Trump administration doesn’t see the need.

It stopped enforcing the 2015 rule that prohibited use of HFCs or  hydrofluorocarbons, powerful greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change, in air conditioners and refrigerators, and is rolling back scores of other environmental rules.

Meanwhile, it’s hot out there.

Naturally, sweltering Europe has made dandy fodder for reporters writing for the American audience.

The Washington Post’s man in Berlin reported: “Residents are sharing maps on social media of air-conditioned buildings and cafes in their area, fans and portable cooling systems are sold out, employers are worried the lack of cooling is killing productivity, and at least one Berlin air-conditioning installer suspended its phone service because of a flood of calls, according to a recorded voice message.”

German authorities, worried the surface of the famous Autobahn will melt in the heat, has set speed limits in some areas. France barred cars over 10 years old from some city centers to curb pollution.

A fellow in Germany caught riding naked on a motorcycle said it was too hot for clothes, and women in Munich were told to put their bikini tops back on.

In the United Kingdom, SkyNews advised Brits to stash their pyjamas and pillow cases in the freezer before bedtime and, of course, to carry an umbrella -- the British answer for any weather emergency.

Sizzling Europeans might learn from orator, Secretary of State and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who, in America’s pre-AC era, had a secret, low-tech technique to keep cool on the summer lecture circuit:

“I take a small piece of ice . . . I put it in the palm of my right hand and hold it tightly. Then I shift it to my left hand, holding it in either hand for about five minutes. Then I pass my cold hands over my forehead. I have always found this very effective,” Bryan said, according to an article on the White House Historical Association site.

As for me, I’d rather keep cool with the ice in a drink and the AC cranked up.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All right reserved.