Thursday, September 17, 2020

Liking Ike at his memorial -- Sept. 17, 2020 column


One of the surprising things about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was formally dedicated Thursday, is that it exists at all.

In our time, many white American men once revered and honored by their country have been toppled – literally or figuratively – from their perches of prominence. 

The reputations of many presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson come to mind – have been tarnished.

And yet, the new Eisenhower memorial makes admiration not only possible but likely, even in 2020.

Renowned architect Frank Gehry elevates Eisenhower by focusing on his personal story, his ideals, his integrity and his lifetime of service to country.

The 34th president and five-star general is portrayed in the four-acre space at 540 Independence Ave., SW, in three separate, sculptural vignettes representing different phases of his life – boyhood, the military and the presidency.

But the memorial also includes two gigantic cylindrical pillars that look like smokestacks and a 450-foot-wide, 8-story-tall metal “tapestry” of woven stainless steel whose main purpose seems to blur the ugly federal office building right behind it. For that, the location is to blame.

The memorial sits in a new urban park across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. That modernist building, completed in 1961, is so charmless it was originally known as Federal Building #6.

The National Mall is nearly full, and this location does offer a view of the Capitol, where President Eisenhower respected and worked with Republicans and Democrats. It’s near buildings that house federal departments with links to his presidency. In time, when the trees grow, the location may feel less odd.

Creating a memorial to the man who led the troops that saved the world from Nazism and was twice elected president might seem straight-forward, but the process was mired in controversies that lasted far longer than World War II.

Congress authorized the Eisenhower memorial in 1999 and chose Gehry’s design a decade later. But the Eisenhower family was dead-set against having a statue of Eisenhower as a boy as the centerpiece as well as three huge, metal scrims. 

After congressional hearings and years of negotiations, the family came around when Gehry moved the boyhood statue to the side, dropped two of the scrims and changed what’s shown on the remaining one.

Instead of Kansas, it’s Gehry’s own sketch of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at Normandy, France, in peacetime. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs under German fire on D-Day, the air, land and sea invasion that changed the course of World War II and history.

The bronze statues depict Eisenhower first as a boy in Abilene, Kansas, dreaming of his future, then as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, boosting the morale of six paratroopers on the eve of D-Day.

Finally, he’s shown as president with three aides in the Oval Office. Seeing the office takes a bit of imagination, but the free audio tour, part of the E-memorial available on personal electronic devices, provides context.

The three aides are symbolic of the competing influences of domestic progress and strength abroad. Closest to Eisenhower is a Black man, carrying a briefcase. He symbolizes the work Eisenhower did to advance civil rights, the audio tour explains.

In 1957, he sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne to protect nine Black students as they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Etched into the reverse side of huge granite blocks behind the sculptures are excerpts from Eisenhower’s most famous speeches.

“I’m quite overwhelmed by it,” granddaughter Susan Eisenhower told CBS News as she toured the memorial for the first time this week. “I’m really thrilled.”

But the $150 million memorial has received mixed reviews. “Monumentally Mediocre,” pronounced The Wall Street Journal.

 The audience for the Eisenhower memorial is not art critics, of course. The main audience is children in grades K-12, who may be inspired to dream of greatness, as well as tourists and office-workers.

They are likely to visit the memorial in the daytime, but the better views are at night, when the sketch of the cliffs is illuminated.

I think children and their families will be grateful the Eisenhower memorial exists.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Scared yet? Fear again a campaign tool -- Sept. 10, 2020 column


Since businessman Donald Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president in June 2015, he has stoked fear.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said that day. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, Trump is running as the law and order president, claiming Democrats will tolerate lawlessness.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” he warns, raising the specter of anarchists running loose to loot, burn and obliterate American cities whose police have been defunded by Biden and “radical socialist Democrats.”

Former Vice President Biden does not support defunding the police and has made clear rioters, looters and arsonists should be prosecuted.

“Donald Trump keeps telling us if he was president, you’d feel safe. Well, he is president – whether he knows it or not,” Biden tweeted.

Fear is a time-tested campaign tool used by both parties to excite voters. More than half a century ago this week – on Sept. 7, 1964 -- perhaps the most effective presidential campaign ad in history aired on TV.

Known as “Daisy,” the 60-second, black-and white spot for President Lyndon B. Johnson shows a little girl counting as she picks petals off a daisy. An ominous male voice then counts down to a nuclear blast, and the camera focuses on the child’s eye, which transforms into a massive, fiery mushroom cloud. 

“These are the stakes,” Johnson intones in a voiceover. “To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

The Daisy ad was shocking at the time, but it’s more subtle than campaign ads we see today.

It didn’t even mention Barry Goldwater, LBJ’s Republican opponent, and it ran only once – although it aired repeatedly on talk shows and news programs.

Goldwater was already trailing Johnson, so it’s unclear how much the ad contributed to Johnson’s landslide victory of 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52.

To win reelection, Trump doesn’t need to scare vast numbers of people into voting for him – just enough to carry the battleground states, as he did in 2016.

But will it work? In 2018, Republicans wielded the cudgel of fear in congressional races, and Democrats still flipped about 40 House seats to regain control.

Trump’s strategy is to attack Biden with everything and the kitchen sink.

Biden wants to raise your taxes, offshore your job, throw open the borders, wage endless foreign wars, surrender to China and destroy the suburbs, Trump says. That’s a hefty agenda for someone Trump derides as “Sleepy.”

As technology accelerates, campaigns can target digital ads to individual voters through social media in record time.

Hours after news broke of journalist Bob Woodward’s bombshell book, “Rage,” a new Biden ad on Twitter played audio tape of Trump saying to Woodward about COVID-19: “I wanted to always play it down . . .  I still like playing it down.”

The ad faults Trump for failing to inform the public accurately and blames him for tens of thousands of lost American lives.

“It’s unconscionable,” Biden tweeted. Trump maintains he just wanted to avoid panic.

The anti-Trump Lincoln Project, founded by a group of Republican operatives, fills social media with ads attacking Trump and Republican senators.

A new Lincoln Project ad hits a new low. The ad shows hideous pictures of flesh-eating parasites and likens Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, to a parasite.

Still, the worst in negative ads and fearmongering may be yet to come.

Of the nearly 70,000 political television ads that ran in the final days of the 2016 campaign, fewer than one in 10 were primarily positive, according to a CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

The reason is both parties believe, as Richard Nixon did, that fear is a great motivator. Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire wrote in his book “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House”:

“People react to fear, not love – they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true,” Nixon said.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Election month? Buckle up for more 2020 turmoil -- Sept. 3, 2020 column


Ah, Labor Day, the last unofficial weekend of summer, the return of pumpkin spice latte and start of the sprint to the presidential campaign finish line.

We can hope.  

Election Day is less than two months away, but like everything else in 2020, election night may not be what it usually is: the end of the election.

There’s a growing consensus Americans need to get ready for a long goodbye to this election. 

“We may have to prepare for election week or even election month,” Democrat Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution wrote. “There will be more absentee ballots than ever before and it will take longer to count them.”

“This election will feature days – possibly weeks – of indecision, which invites chaos, and chaos invites greater division,” Republican Karl Rove wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Traditionally, the presidential candidate ahead on Labor Day could expect to carry the election. No more. In 2016, Labor Day polls showed Hillary Clinton running ahead of Donald Trump, but Clinton learned the bitter lesson that winning the popular vote is no guarantee of an Electoral College victory.

This Labor Day, former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Trump by 7 points – 49.4% Biden to 42.3% for Trump -- in the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls. But polls are tightening in battleground states.

Meanwhile, Trump is again provoking distrust in the electoral process. As he did four years ago, Trump claims the election may be fraudulent and rigged against him.

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” Trump says.

That’s nonsense. He can lose fair and square, but will he accept defeat?

Trump says the election will be rife with fraud because of mail-in voting. It’s true more voters than ever will be casting ballots by mail because of COVID-19, but mail-in ballots are not new and need not be risky.

One in every four Americans cast their ballots by mail in the last two federal elections. In Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, mail balloting is the primary method of voting – and reports of fraud remain “infinitesimally small,” reports the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a nonpartisan law and policy organization.

“It is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voter fraud,” the Brennan Center says.

But Trump wants to up the confusion ante. He urged voters to try to vote twice – absentee and in person – even though it’s illegal to vote more than once in an election.

“Let them send it in and let them go vote,” Trump said Wednesday in Wilmington, N.C. “And if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote” in person.

“Today, President Trump outrageously encouraged NCians to break the law in order to help him sow chaos in our election,” state Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, tweeted.

“Make sure you vote, but do NOT vote twice! I will do everything in my power to make sure the will of the people is upheld in November,” Stein said.

Biden Wednesday accused Trump of “trying to delegitimize” election results and urged people to “vote as early as you are permitted.”

By now, most Americans see Trump’s claims of voter fraud as an attempt to fire up his base to vote in person while egging Biden voters to stay home. Why bother to vote if the election is rigged?

Trump’s steady drumbeat casting doubt on the election results could have consequences beyond Election Day. There are signs the winner of the presidential contest – whoever it is – will be considered illegitimate by a good chunk of voters.

Some 28% of Biden voters and 19% of Trump voters say they’re not ready to accept the result if the other guy wins, according to a new USA Today-Suffolk University poll.

The last thing we need is more distrust and division, so do what you can to make your vote count. If you don’t want to risk your health by voting in person Nov. 3, vote early or request and send in your mail ballot early.

Don’t procrastinate.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cause, effect and the need to test for COVID-19 -- column of Aug. 27, 2020


A wise editor of mine used to say, “Wet streets don’t cause rain.”

John’s point, of course, was not to confuse cause and effect. I’ve thought about his warning often since President Donald Trump began his counter-narrative about coronavirus testing.

As the number of positive cases of COVID-19 soared this summer, Trump repeatedly blamed the tests for causing the cases.

Testing “makes us look bad,” he tweeted in June.

At the Tulsa rally a few days later, he said, “I said to my people, `Slow the testing down, please.’”

His aides tried to pass that remark off as a joke, but Trump said, “I don’t kid.”

“Cases, Cases, Cases! If we didn’t test so much and so successfully, we would have very few cases,” he tweeted in July.

And, he told reporters, “When you test you create cases.”

That’s all wrong. Pregnancy tests don’t create babies.

Not only the number of cases but the positivity rate – the percentage of tests coming back positive -- also soared in many places.

“A higher percent positive suggests higher transmission and that there are likely more people with coronavirus in the community who haven’t been tested yet,” the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health says, noting it may be a time to add restrictions to slow spread of the disease.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly posted new guidelines on its website that likely will sow confusion and discourage people from getting tested.

“If you have been in close contact (within 6 feet) of a person with a COVID-19 infection for at least 15 minutes but do not have symptoms, you do not necessarily need a test,” the latest guidance says.

Previously, the CDC urged all people who had come in close contact with an infected person to get tested.

The timing could not be worse. Hundreds of thousands of children and older students are going back to school and college. To keep them, their teachers and other essential workers safe, people need to know if they’re infected so they can self-isolate.

The new guidance cites as an exception “vulnerable” individuals and advises everyone to listen to health care providers and local public health officials.

“I’m dumbfounded by this recommendation,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of infectious diseases research at the University of Minnesota, said on CNN.

It may take four or five days for exposure to show up on a test, he said, but people still need to be tested.

Trump and everyone who comes near him at the White House are tested repeatedly. He doesn’t need to wear a mask, he says, because everyone gets a test.

Good for them. But what about the rest of us?

Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of testing, denied Trump pressured the CDC and said the guidance had been updated to reflect “current evidence.” But he didn’t present any.

“All the docs” including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had signed off on the new guidelines at a meeting, Giroir said.

Not so, said Fauci. He had seen an earlier draft but wasn’t present when the final version was approved. He had a good excuse.

“I was under general anesthesia in the operating room and was not part of any discussion or deliberation regarding the new testing recommendations,” he told CNN. Fauci had surgery Aug. 20 for a polyp on his vocal cords.

“I am concerned about the interpretation of these recommendations and worried it will give people the incorrect assumption that asymptomatic spread is not of great concern. In fact, it is,” Fauci said.  

About 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, the CDC estimates, and the chance of people with no symptoms infecting someone else is 75%. That’s why knowing who is infected and having them quarantine for two weeks is important.

Trump has consistently attacked his own health experts, pressuring the CDC to rewrite guidelines for opening schools and businesses and rushing at “warp speed” to have a vaccine by Nov. 3.

Everyone wants to live in the world again, and most of us rely on science for the facts. 
That means we need to know more – not less – about the coronavirus, who has it and how it works.

For now, wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance, stay home if you’re sick, and remember: Wet streets don’t cause rain.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

What's your Pence-Q? -- Aug. 20, 2020 column

On Monday, the Republican National Convention opens four nights devoted to championing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. This election, with the oldest presidential candidates in history – Trump is 74, Democrat Joe Biden 77 – makes running mates more important than ever.

Pence has been No. 2 for nearly four years and in government for decades, but how much do you know about the man a heartbeat away from the top job in the land? Take our political trivia quiz below. And, if you missed last week’s Democratic Veep quiz, take the What’s your Kamala-Q? here.

1) Michael Richard Pence is the grandson of Catholic immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1923 from which country?
A. Germany
B. England
C. France
D. Ireland

2) Pence once voted for . . .
A. John F. Kennedy
B. Jimmy Carter
C. Bill Clinton
D. None of the above

3) Which club did Pence write he was a member of?
A. Failed Politician’s Club
B. Campaign Losers Club
C. Never-Give-Up Club
D. None of the above

4) Pence and his wife Karen have been married since 1985 and have three grown children. Which of these has Mrs. Pence NOT done?
A. Promoted art therapy as a mental health profession
B. Taught elementary school
C. Painted with watercolors
D. Sold real estate

5) Pence described himself as . . .
A. “A husband, father and small businessman – in that order”
B. “A Hoosier, an American and a fan of moose tracks ice cream – in that order”
C. “A Christian, a conservative and a Republican -- in that order”
D. “A child of God, of the heartland and, politically, of Ronald Reagan”

6) Who is or was Greg Pence?
A. Mike Pence’s son, a Marine
B. Mike Pence’s late father, who owned gas stations in Indiana
C. The online name Mike Pence used in the past
D. Mike Pence’s older brother and a U.S. House member from Indiana

7). How many times did Mike Pence run for Congress and lose?
A. One
B. Two
C. Three
D. None. He won the first time he ran.

8) In 2006, House Republicans chose John Boehner over Mike Pence to be minority leader. Of the 196 votes cast, how many did Pence get?
A. 17
B. 27
C. 37
D. 57

9) Esquire magazine in October 2008 included Pence in one of these groups. Which one?
A. Members of Congress most likely to run for president
B. 10 worst members of Congress
C. 10 best members of Congress
D. 10 most forgettable members of Congress

10) Who did Mike Pence initially back in the 2016 Republican primaries?
A. Marco Rubio
B. Ted Cruz
C. Donald Trump
D. Mike Huckabee

BONUS: How old is Pence?
A. 58
B. 61
C. 64
D. 66

1. D
2. B
3. A In his essay “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner”
4. D
5. C At a Values Voter summit in 2010
6. D
7. B
8. B
9. C Calling Pence “one of the most principled members, from either party”
10. B

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Test your Kamala-Q -- column of Aug. 13, 2020

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made history Tuesday when he picked Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket wins, Harris will become the nation’s first Black, female and Asian American vice president.

With the presidential candidates the oldest in history – Biden is 77 and President Donald Trump, 74 – running mates are more important than ever. So, how well do you know the people who could be a heartbeat away from the top job next January?

Today, before the Democratic convention opens Monday, test your trivia of Harris. Next week, before the Republican convention opens Aug. 24, take our quiz about Republican Vice President Mike Pence.

1) What’s the correct way to pronounce Kamala Harris’s first name?
A) Kuh-MAH-luh
C) COMMA-luh
D) I’m not sure

2) Kamala is the Sanskrit word for what?
A) Leader
B) Lotus flower
C) Sunshine
D) Fearless

3) Harris is the daughter of immigrants from which countries?
A. India and Africa
B. India and Ecuador
C. India and Trinidad
D. India and Jamaica

4) What were her parents’ occupations?
A. Mother a breast cancer researcher, father an economics professor
B. Mother a housewife, father a translator at the United Nations
C. Mother a politician, father a corporate exec
D. Mother and father both nuclear engineers

5) In another first for someone on a major party’s presidential ticket, Harris is a graduate of which historically black college or university?
A. Morehouse College
B. Howard University
C. Spelman College
D. Hampton University

6) True or false: Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris all failed the bar exam.

7) How old was Harris when Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate?
A. 4
B. 6
C. 8
D. 10

8) Which title did Harris say means the most to her?
A. The gentlelady from California
B. Momala
C. Madame Vice President
D. None of these

9) What is the name of Harris’s husband?
A. Douglas Emhoff
B. David Englehoff
C. Donald Epstein
D. Daniel Ellsberg

10) Which of these did President Trump NOT say or tweet about Harris?
A. She’s “risky”
B. She’s “nasty”
C. She’s the “meanest” and “most horrible” senator
D. She’s “pretty cute”

BONUS: How tall is Harris?

1. C. Harris put out a campaign ad when she ran for the Senate in 2016 with kids explaining how to pronounce it.
2. B
3. D
4. A. Her parents divorced when Harris was a child.
5. B. Class of 1986
6. True. They all went on to pass bar exams later.
7. C. She was born Oct. 20, 1964. Biden was first elected to the Senate in November 1972.
8. B. It’s the name her two stepchildren came up with.
9. A. They were married in 2014.
10. D
Bonus: She’s 5-feet-2

--Compiled by Marsha Mercer

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Honey, they shrunk the conventions -- Aug. 6, 2020 column


Both political parties are scrambling to put together national political conventions virtually, on the spur of the moment, after throwing out long-developed plans for the usual in-person gatherings.

What could go wrong?

The way 2020 is going, it’s not hard to imagine the conventions as more trial and tribulation.

Democrats will celebrate at a social distance Aug. 17 through 20, and Republicans with a hybrid of in-person and remote events, Aug. 24 through 27.

Democrats and Republicans each initially expected upwards of 50,000 delegates, media, elected officials and celebrities to converge as they formally nominate their candidates for president and vice president.

But the novel coronavirus upended the coronations. As few as a couple hundred people may attend each convention in person. There could be more protesters than conventioneers.

The only smidgen of suspense is who Joe Biden’s running mate will be, and he’s likely to announce his choice beforehand.

President Donald Trump yanked the Republican convention from Charlotte when North Carolina’s sensible Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper refused to say Trump could fill up the convention hall.

Trump moved the shindig to Jacksonville, then canceled that “celebration” when COVID-19 cases surged in Florida.

Republican officials still plan to formally nominate Trump in Charlotte but are considering other cities for parts of their spectacle. Trump may deliver his acceptance speech from the White House South Lawn, in a huge break from tradition.

Congressional Democrats and even some Republicans say it’s possibly illegal and at least unethical to use the White House for political gatherings, though Democrats grumble Trump gives campaign speeches masquerading as news conferences at the White House nearly every day.

The pandemic has kept Biden close to home, but he was expected to break out and travel to Milwaukee to give his acceptance speech. He announced Wednesday he won’t even go to his own convention.

After consulting with health advisers, Biden decided the safe and responsible move was to give the most important speech of his life from Delaware. Other top Democratic speakers also will speak remotely.

The convention will still be “exciting,” Biden promised, offering no details.

Since COVID-19 has made 2020 one long root canal, it’s not surprising the national conventions would be strange. How strange? Even the police bailed.

In Milwaukee, more than 100 police agencies from Wisconsin and around the country that had planned to provide security quit after the Milwaukee police chief said they could not use tear gas or pepper spray to subdue protesters at the Democratic convention.

Before Trump pulled the plug on Jacksonville, the mayor as well as the local sheriff said Republicans lacked an adequate security plan for the convention and they couldn’t guarantee security.

So, what will the conventions look like? A few details are trickling out.

The GOP plans to rebrand as “the party of real, hardworking Americans.” A “nightly surprise” at 10 will feature guests and themes around “the forgotten men and women of America,” Axios reported, citing two senior Trump campaign officials.

Monday’s theme is America as “a land of heroes,” Tuesday “land of promise,” Wednesday “land of opportunity” and Thursday “land of greatness” with Trump’s plans for “the great American comeback,” Axios reported.

Democrats say they will have a “custom virtual video control room” designed to take in hundreds of live and recorded feeds from around the country at their Convention Across America that now will be “anchored” in Milwaukee.

Unlike previous conventions when speakers drone on day and night, Democrats plan only two hours of programming a night.

For decades, the value of the conventions has dwindled. Candidates clinch their nomination early, and the thousands of delegates and alternates in funny hats are little more than props for prime-time infomercials. That will be especially true for this year’s shrinking conventions.

But during the pandemic, with most of us stuck at home, Americans may enjoy watching makeshift political performances. Typically, voters watch only the party they already support, so no minds are likely to be changed.

What ultimately will be important is that the conventions signal the start of the fall campaign. No matter how jerry-rigged the conventions are, once they end it will be time to get serious.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Be smart. Mask up! -- July 30, 2020 column


Near a neighborhood park in Alexandria, a yard sign reads: “Don’t be Stupid. Make America Healthy Again. Wear a Facemask!”

The sign is bipartisan -- half blue and half red -- and diverse. At the bottom an assortment of faces wears masks.

Back home, Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, is on TV, telling me: “Wear a mask.”

“We have the power – the American people do – to slow the spread of this virus,” he said Thursday on NBC’s Today show.

All over social media, celebrities post selfies wearing masks and use the hashtag #wearadamnmask. It’s hard not to get the message.

More than 150,000 Americans have perished from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and more than 4.4 million people in the United States have been infected.

With the economy in distress, everyone wants to get to some sort of “new normal” life, whatever that may be, but the virus shows no sign of easing its vicious grip on the United States.

There’s no vaccine or treatment yet, and polls indicate many people worry a vaccine developed at “warp speed” may be unsafe. So states, companies and individuals hunker down.

Google announced Tuesday it would not bring employees back to their offices until next July at the earliest. It was the first big company to delay reopening that long but likely won’t be the last.

Meanwhile, the chasm grows between those who can safely work at home and those who must return to a dangerous workplace.

It would be easier to fight the disease if people broke out in a bright red coronavirus rash, but those without symptoms pass the disease to others.

And that’s why the tried-and-true advice for stopping the spread still holds. Wear a facial covering, keep six feet of social distance and wash hands frequently.

We know if we are asymptomatic and wear a mask, it helps protect others. If others also wear a mask, we protect each other.

Many stores, restaurants and other establishments now require customers to wear masks – for which millions of us are grateful. Don’t bother calling me a “sheeple,” easily led by the government. I’m not buying it.

Even President Donald Trump finally wore a mask. He says he usually doesn’t need one because he’s tested frequently, unlike most Americans. He and anyone he comes in close contact with receive their results quickly. Most Americans must wait days or a week for results, which renders contact tracing ineffective.

And that brings us to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. The anti-masker was tested Wednesday before he was supposed to fly on Air Force One with Trump.

When his test came back positive, Gohmert said he “can’t help but wonder” whether wearing a mask and taking it on and off somehow caused him to breathe in the virus.

“We don’t have any evidence that’s the case,” FDA’s Hahn said. “Our data show people should wear masks.”

Gohmert said he’s “all in” on hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug Trump has again been touting, despite it’s having been discredited by medical experts as a treatment for COVID-19. The drug can have serious side effects, affecting heart rhythms.

In the wake of Gohmert’s potentially infecting his staff and other members of Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered members to wear masks on the House floor except when recognized to speak.

I get that Americans hate being told what to do and masks – or their lack -- have become a political statement. We’ve seen the videos of unhinged people in stores going ballistic when asked to put on a mask.

But there’s no constitutional right to infect the front-line hero who rings up your chips and beer. It’s no show of personal liberty to infect your grandmother. Remember, 80% of the people who have died of COVID-19 are over 65.

Not wearing a mask is almost as dumb as attending a COVID-19 party because you think COVID is a hoax, as a 30-year-old man in Texas reportedly did. Shortly before he died of the disease, he told his nurse he’d made a mistake.

So, please be smart. Wear a mask. You might save someone’s life – and someone else might save yours.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 30

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Summertime when ice wasn't easy -- July 23, 2020 column


Of all the momentous issues with which the founding fathers had to grapple, one of the most perplexing was ice.

In his letters, George Washington often expressed his frustrations about being unable to preserve ice, historians at Mount Vernon tell us.

Writing his friend Robert Morris from Mount Vernon on June 2, 1784, Washington confided the ice in his icehouse is “is gone already,” and asked Morris to send a description of the size, manner of building and management of his icehouse in Pennsylvania.

“My house was filled chiefly with Snow,” Washington added, asking Morris if he had tried keeping snow and if he thought snow was key to Washington’s defeat.

Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, quickly obliged. From Philadelphia on June 15, he wrote nearly 600 words of detailed description of his icehouse, which, in case you’re wondering, was 16-feet square and 18-feet deep, with two sets of stone walls, wood and straw above and gravel below.

Morris tells Washington he tried saving snow one year and “lost it in June,” but he can keep ice from winter until the next October or November. If the icehouse were bigger, ice would last until Christmas, he thinks, and if the walls were lined with straw, even longer.

Morris further recommends ice be broken into small pieces and pounded with heavy clubs so it consolidates into a mass so solid it requires a chisel or axe to cut off pieces.

So, Washington had his slaves rebuild his icehouse on Morris’s model and kept tinkering with the design. If you visit Mount Vernon, you can see his icehouse cut into a hillside.

Slaves also did the hard and dangerous work of hauling large blocks of ice from the frigid Potomac River in the dead of winter, pulling the blocks to shore, dragging them to the icehouse and soaking them with water, so they’d freeze into a mound, historians tell us.

And that is how the father of our country and his wife came to enjoy cool drinks and iced cream, as it was then called, long after winter had passed.

“In the warm season, ice is the most agreeable thing we can have,” Martha Washington wrote in 1793. (I’ve updated 18th century spellings and punctuation for clarity.) She loved entertaining women friends at weekly parties with ice cream and lemonade.

Washington’s icehouse was for his personal use as were icehouses built for later presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but only the very rich could afford their own.

In 1793, an enterprising tavern owner built an ice well in Alexandria, a few miles from Mount Vernon. City Tavern, now known as Gadsby’s Tavern, at the corner of Royal and Cameron streets, offered the finest accommodations of the era, so, of course, it needed ice for guests.

That ice well could store as much as 68 tons of ice, enough for the tavern and local people who wished to buy it. In 1805, tavern owner John Gadsby sold ice for 8 cents a pound.

Magnificently restored a few years ago, the ice well has received several preservation design awards and is a magnet for visitors who peer for free into the subterranean well from the city sidewalk.

Today, we can’t help being struck not only by how much colder winters were in the 18th century but also by the amount of thought, labor and perseverance needed to thwart the process of melting.

In the past, the stories of early achievements of our young country failed to recognize the work of enslaved people. Times have changed, and we now understand much of our celebrated progress was won through the muscle and backs of the enslaved.

Preserving ice enabled the fortunate few to keep fresh meats longer and have more variety in their diet. In time, the treat became an expectation.

Ice is still transitory, of course, but these days we hardly worry about it melting. More cubes are always popping out of the icemaker in the fridge -- until the icemaker stops working and human intervention must once again be employed, in the form of low-tech ice trays.

We moderns worry about many things, but ice isn’t one of them. And for that we all can be grateful in the sizzling summer of 2020.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Vote by mail -- yes, but . . . July 16, 2020 column


The old adage about voting “early and often” may be half true this Election Day.

With more voters than ever likely to cast absentee ballots Nov. 3, more will be relying on the U.S. Postal Service. Voting early is advisable.

Major operational changes the new postmaster general is making that could slow mail service are disconcerting, especially as problems with undelivered absentee ballots already have popped up around the country during primary season.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told postal employees Monday in memos obtained and verified by The Washington Post the agency must operate more like a private business, would prohibit overtime and curtail other measures post offices use to deliver mail when understaffed.

Traditionally, the postal service has been run as a service, going the extra mile, so to speak, to make multiple trips to deliver letters and packages rather than leaving them in distribution centers overnight. No more.

“If plants run late, they will keep the mail for the next day,” a memo titled “New PMG’s [Postmaster General’s] expectations and plan” said, the Post reported.

Congressional allies of the Postal Service were quick to criticize the changes.

“If these reports are accurate, Trump and his cronies are openly seeking to destroy the post office during the worst public health crisis in a century,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said in a statement.

“With states now reliant on voting by mail to continue elections during the pandemic, the destabilizing of the post office is a direct attack on American democracy itself,” said Pascrell.

DeJoy, a North Carolina businessman and Trump mega-donor, took over as postmaster general in June at a critical time. President Donald Trump in April called the Postal Service “a joke” and said it should quadruple its package delivery fees, a move apparently aimed at Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who owns the Post.

The beleaguered Postal Service is actually faring better financially during the pandemic because of the strong demand for package deliveries. Companies often use the postal service for “last mile” local deliveries.

But even before the latest cost-cutting measures, the Postal Service has struggled to adjust to a surge in absentee ballots. In 2020, many more voters are choosing to vote from home rather than stand in long lines.

In Dallas, some voters who had mailed in their absentee ballots for Tuesday’s elections unaccountably received them back only a day or two before the election, The Dallas Morning News reported.

In Wisconsin, three tubs of absentee ballot were found at a Milwaukee post office after the polls closed for the April 7 election. In addition, absentee ballots requested were not delivered and hundreds more mailed by voters were not postmarked.

Requests for absentee ballots in Wisconsin have soared 440% since 2016, a Postal Service inspector general report found, adding that date changes for mailing and completing ballots due to the coronavirus also complicated the spring elections.

The IG report identified potential nationwide issues it said could affect future elections. Among them: Some states set too-short deadlines to request absentee ballots, ballots lack mail-tracking technology and poor communication between the Postal Service and election offices.

About half the states have deadlines to request ballots of less than a week before Election Day. These deadlines “put ballots at high risk of not being delivered to voters before an election,” the report warned.

In Virginia, the deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail is 5 p.m. Oct. 23, but a voter can request an absentee ballot online or vote in person at their local registrar’s office 45 days before Election Day. You no longer need a reason to vote early in person or to cast an absentee ballot.

If you’re returning your ballot by mail, it must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by your registrar by noon on the third day after the election. Rules are slightly different for first time voters. See Virginia rules.  

No one knows what the novel coronavirus will be doing Nov. 3. So, don’t wait until the last minute. Vote early. America needs every ballot to count.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Reopen schools? Washington doesn't know best -- July 9, 2020 column


When it comes to managing schools, Thomas Jefferson had it right when he said: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”

One size doesn’t fit all, especially during a raging pandemic. 

And yet, President Donald Trump and his allies are pressuring schools across the country to do things Trump’s way.

The president wants all schools to fully open in person this fall. He has threatened to withhold federal funds from school districts that take a more cautious approach.

Democrats and teachers’ groups say they want to reopen schools but do so safely, perhaps with some online classes.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of playing politics. In an election year? Say it isn’t so.

Whatever happened to local control?

Trump was all-in on local control when it came to making hard decisions about shutting businesses down or even wearing face coverings to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. He left it up to governors and local officials.

Had he articulated a national strategy of testing, contact tracing and treatment, we might have contained the virus, as some European countries have done.

Instead, because Trump believes his re-election depends on a recovered economy, he urged states to reopen, disregarding federal guidelines for doing so safely. This, sadly, led to a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in states that followed his edicts.

Now, he has both feet in local schools.

Trump again refuses to listen to public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control, which issued guidelines for reopening schools.

“I disagree with the @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.

Vice President Mike Pence then announced the CDC would issue “a new set of tools” in a few days.

I’ve taken a look at the existing school guidelines, which set out three levels of risk. You don’t need a medical degree to know the lowest is virtual-only classes and events, highest is full-sized, in-person classes and events, and the middle involves students staying with the same teacher all day.

The current guidelines prescribe cleaning, physical distancing and planning protocols with at least a dozen instances of wiggle words like “if feasible” and “when possible.”

For example, “Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students) as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.”

The first paragraph of the seven-page guidelines emphasizes: “These considerations are meant to supplement – not replace – any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply.” (Bold-face words are in the original.)

Trump still could take the lead in insisting that more federal funds go to schools so they can buy the electronic devices needed so kids don’t have to share as well as cleaning and other supplies.

Schools also may need to hire staff. It’s not fair to ask overworked teachers who are risking their lives in the classroom also to disinfect the playground equipment.

House Democrats included $100 billion in funding to support schools in the relief bill that passed in May, but Senate Republicans nixed the money.

New York City and other school systems have decided full, in-person education is too risky.

Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos specifically scorned Fairfax County Public Schools, one of the largest in the nation with 189,000 students, for offering parents a choice of fully remote instruction or two days a week in the classroom.

Most of Virginia’s cases and deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, have occurred in Fairfax and other Northern Virginia counties.

But other parts of the state have had few, if any, virus deaths. Decisions about 
reopening schools likely will differ, and they should, depending on risk to public health.  

One size doesn’t fit all for the entire country nor is it a good idea for a whole state.

Let local school districts decide how to reopen without undue pressure from Washington. They know best their local needs.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A terrible idea gets worse -- July 2, 2020 column


President Donald Trump has devoted much of his 3 ½ years in office to painting over the name of Barack Obama.
Trump has sought to wipe out Obama’s efforts to de-nuke Iran, fight climate change, protect the environment, help the young Dreamers, and regulate Wall Street, among other things.
But nowhere is Trump’s obsession with obliterating his predecessor’s legacy more mystifying and confounding than with Obamacare. His mania to undo all things Obama could cost upwards of 20 million Americans their health insurance during a pandemic.
Trump repeatedly has promised to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act and replace it with a better, cheaper plan that retains its popular provisions.

For example, in June 2019, Trump said in an ABC News interview he’d propose “in about two months, maybe less” a “phenomenal” health plan that would be “less expensive than Obamacare by a lot.”

We’re still waiting.  

Obamacare is not perfect, and supporters want to mend it. Critics complain premiums are too high. Some people get subsidies to help defray the cost, but not all.
On the plus side, the 2010 law protects women from being charged more than men and people with pre-existing conditions from being denied coverage. It provides free health screenings and allows children up to age 26 to be covered under their parents’ plans.
The Trump administration filed a brief June 25 in the Supreme Court, saying the entire ACA “must fall” because Congress in 2017 eliminated the financial penalty for those who fail to buy health insurance.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are surging around the country, and hospitals in some states are filling up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Tuesday the number of cases could soon jump from 40,000 a day now to 100,000 a day.
Fortunately, Obamacare remains in place. About half a million people have signed up for coverage in special enrollments as they’ve lost their jobs and their health insurance.
The court will hear oral arguments in California v. Texas in October at the earliest, so Obamacare could loom large just before the election. A ruling is expected by next spring or early summer.
Democratic candidates who rode the health care horse to victory in 2018, gaining control of the House, are saddling up again. The House Tuesday approved an Obamacare expansion in a vote largely along party lines. It was symbolic as the measure is dead in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Democrats remind voters if they contract and survive COVID-19 in a world without Obamacare they could lose their health insurance or it could be priced beyond their means – because they’d have a pre-existing condition. COVID-19 survivors often have impaired lungs and other organs. Survivors of cancer and other diseases could face a similar crisis.
Trump’s base, including the 18 red states hoping to overturn the ACA, are delighted Trump is still sticking it to Obamacare, but Republican candidates, especially in key Senate races, are being left high and dry.
Democrats need only three seats to retake the Senate if  Democrat Joe Biden wins the White House, four if Trump is re-elected. Some Republican candidates are scrambling to position themselves as defenders of health care.
Analysts on the right concede the timing of the administration’s brief and Supreme Court action on Obamacare is terrible for GOP candidates. The Trump re-election campaign hammers on Democrats’ “Bernie Sanders-inspired, socialist health care agenda,” and barely mentions Obamacare.
Don’t expect a Trump plan before November. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Sunday there would be none until after the court rules and a new Congress is in place.
What the court will do is anyone’s guess. Chief Justice John Roberts saved Obamacare in 2012. He wrote the 5 to 4 majority opinion saying the individual mandate, a requirement that most Americans have insurance or pay a penalty, was within Congress’s power to tax.

The Republican-controlled Congress in 2017 eliminated the penalty, which the law’s opponents contend makes the law unconstitutional.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to push to eliminate a law that guarantees millions of Americans health insurance, no matter whose name is on it.  
 ©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.