Thursday, February 25, 2021

When tweets fly in face of culture change -- Feb. 25, 2021 column


On his first day in office, President Joe Biden told White House staff to treat others with respect -- or else.

“I’m not joking when I say this: If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot,” the president said. “No if, ands or buts.”

A few weeks later, a deputy White House press secretary was forced to resign after reports he spoke abusively to a reporter who was writing a story about his romantic relationship with a reporter for another news organization.

“We are committed to striving every day to meet the standard set by the President in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility and with a value for others through our words and our actions,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.  

But where to draw the line? What about mean tweets?

Biden’s choice of Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget shows how challenging it will be to change the culture and tone of Washington in the age of political warfare on social media.

A former top aide to Hillary Clinton, Tanden is president of the liberal Center for American Progress. She stood to become the first woman of color and Indian American to lead OMB, the office that develops the president’s budget and sets out his legislative agenda.

She brings a compelling personal story and perspective. After her parents divorced when she was a child, her mother relied on food stamps and public housing.

"Now, I'm being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure, and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored," Tanden tweeted.

But her history of aggressive, political tweets apparently doomed her chances for the OMB job. The White House is considering her for other positions that do not require Senate confirmation.

Which job Tanden lands, if any, will test Biden’s commitment to turning the page and setting a new tone of calm and civility.

Tanden has tweeted more than 87,000 times since 2010 -- more than Biden’s predecessor. And like the former president’s, Tanden’s tweets often have been personal and scathing.

Social media encourages quick and nasty hits. Returning fire with fire seemed appropriate when the president was continually on Twitter to bash his opponents. Tanden, though, managed to antagonize those on the left as well as the right. Progressives and conservatives were her targets.

“Your attacks were not just made against Republicans. There were vicious attacks made against progressives. People who I have worked with – me, personally,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, now the Budget Committee chairman, told her at a committee hearing Feb. 10.

Sen. John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, told Tanden at a budget hearing Wednesday he was “very disturbed” by the personal nature of her tweets. “I mean you called Senator Sanders everything but an ignorant slut,” he said.

“That’s not true, senator,” Tanden shot back.

Some Democrats rightly argue it’s hypocritical for tweets to disqualify someone for a job after Republicans ignored the White House tweet storm of the last four years. In addition, several OMB directors have come from the political world.

Tanden said she regrets her tweets, deleted more than a thousand of them and promised a “radically different” approach.

It’s too late. With Democrats and Republicans tied 50-50 in the Senate, Biden must move forward to cultivate a new spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship. He has less than two years until the mid-term elections to get things done. Republicans already are working to regain the Senate and add to their numbers in the House.

No president should saddle himself with any appointees who have alienated half the Senate and much of the House. Democrats hold a razor-thin majority of just 10 votes in the House.

That said, there’s no guarantee ditching Tanden means Republicans will show up waving olive branches in support of Biden’s agenda.

But if the president genuinely wants a new era, he must live up to his own high standards. Keeping Tanden will make that impossible.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ninety-nine years well lived -- Feb. 18, 2021 column


“When you put your life on the line for other people, you become a hero & one day I truly wanna be someones hero like you are mine!” a girl named Jasmine wrote in red ink on pink construction paper.

I came across the note in stacks of thank you cards from school children who had heard Guy DeGenaro talk about his experience as a glider pilot in World War II.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 325,000 remain, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported last Veterans Day. Every day, about 300 veterans of World War II leave us.

I’d like to tell you about one of them.

On his 18th birthday, Nov. 20, 1939, with Europe at war, DeGenaro left his home in New Haven, Conn., and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was a sergeant major shuffling paper when he learned volunteers were being sought for a dangerous mission.

“Almost as a lark, I said I’d put my name down,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017. He became one of the first class trained in piloting gliders.

An Army website describes gliders as “the stealth technology of their day.” Lacking engines and unarmed, they were powered by air currents and the courage of their pilots. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland described glider pilots as “the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.”

On D-Day, DeGenaro piloted a British-made Horsa glider about 6 miles behind German defenses in the Normandy invasion. He hit the ground going 70 mph, slowed the glider by hitting two or three Rommel’s Asparagus, the tall anti-glider poles installed by the Germans days before, and finally drew the aircraft to a stop by steering the nose between two trees, sheering off both wings.

“This really could be dangerous,” he later recalled thinking.

Miraculously, no one was hurt. He, the co-pilot and six 82nd Airborne troops clambered from the wreck and made a wild dash for the nearby hedgerow ditch with bullets flying in all directions. Later, a jeep and trailer were unloaded in usable condition.   

DeGenaro served on two other glider missions in Europe during World War II, then made a career in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. But he was always thinking ahead. He took advantage of educational opportunities in the military to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

After he retired from the Air Force in 1968, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Florida and became a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching for 26 years. He then started a management consulting firm and was still working in his 90s.

He married a Texan named Jennie Jennings in 1948. She became a teacher and administrator in Henrico County. When she died in 2014, he continued to live independently, with help from a support team that included a weekly cleaning lady, meals delivered by a catering company and help from a friend with paperwork, shopping and driving him to doctors’ appointments. 

In his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw praises its members’ common purpose and values -- duty, honor, courage, service, love of family and country, and self-responsibility.

The DeGenaros, characteristically of the generation, downplayed their individual roles in making their country and world better. As the generation’s numbers dwindled, he talked more about the war with school groups, in programs at the Virginia War Memorial and with reporters.

Last November, DeGenaro celebrated his 99th birthday with a small family gathering. He’d have a real party when he turned 100 and COVID-19 was in the past, the family agreed.

His mind remained sharp. He kept up with current affairs and the stock market, taking the conservative position in many spirited discussions about politics. His sly smile was a tip-off he was about to zing me. He learned to Zoom so we could talk during the pandemic.

For, you see, I’m Guy and Jennie DeGenaro’s only child. He was my No. 1 reader, always supportive, even when we disagreed. I wish he could read this column. He died Feb. 13.

Several years ago, a 7th grader wrote my dad: “Even though you think you are not a hero you will always be a hero in my eyes.”

Mine too.

(Marsha Mercer writes from Washington. You may contact her at

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 11, 2021

In the time of COVID, a shot of hope -- Feb. 11, 2021 column


I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this week and felt a surge of relief, gratitude and irrational exuberance.

Irrational because a first dose is just that. A second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is needed three weeks later for full effectiveness. Plus, we don’t know if someone fully vaccinated can spread the coronavirus.

I never expected to get misty over a shot, but I did. Months lost to waiting and worrying about COVID-19, the unpredictable, deadly disease that has upended all our lives, could be nearly over.

Millions of Americans are lining up every day and rolling up our sleeves to get something that literally could save our lives. We are so lucky.

Lucky all the pieces of the puzzle came together. Vaccines are available, and we trust them. We were able to sign up online, and we could get to a vaccination center at the day and time specified.

I pre-registered for a vaccination through the Alexandria Health Department one month and a day before I received the shot.

Yet not all Americans are lucky enough. People in rural areas who lack the Internet or transportation to a vaccination site can, and are, getting left behind. This must change.

At George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, kind and efficient medical staffers wearing masks and plastic shields took my temperature and asked the now-familiar screening questions about exposure to the coronavirus.

I received an orange slip of paper and stood in another short line in the gym until someone at one of the many tables waved me over with a green “READY” sign. After I got my shot, which I hardly felt, staff asked me to wait 15 minutes in case of allergic reaction. Like most people, I had no reaction at all.

“Your arm is going to be sore -- not right away. Probably tomorrow,” the nurse told me. “But that’s OK.” She was right. The soreness didn’t last.

The COVID-19 vaccination delivery system is finally working.

I also signed up online for my elderly dad who lives in Richmond. He got an appointment a couple of weeks later in January. The contact person said everyone on her call list was 88 to 99 years old.

I drove my dad to the center, and we were able to wait in the car until the shot came to him about 45 minutes after his appointed time. I was so grateful we didn’t have to use the wheelchair I’d borrowed – and grateful for the man who helped direct traffic and then went car to car, offering a prayer to each.

But vaccination delivery varies greatly depending on where you live. A friend’s mother has spent many hours on the phone, trying to book appointments for herself and her mother, who’s in her 90s. The experience left her in tears of frustration and anger.

More than 470,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, among them about 100,000 in the last month. Millions have lost their jobs and businesses. And yet, with the rollout of vaccinations, there’s hope.

The number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations nationally is dropping, though it’s still high.

President Joe Biden appears likely to meet his goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days. About 1.5 million shots are being given daily, reported the White House, which is expanding doses and vaccination sites.

Experts say 70% to 90% of us need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, when most of the population is immune either through having had the disease or vaccinations. More outreach is planned to Blacks and Hispanics, who are wary of the vaccines.

As more people get vaccinated and tell their friends and family, others are more likely to want vaccinations, surveys show.

“Perhaps more important than any message is the impact of seeing a neighbor, friend or family member get their shots without any adverse effects,” Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman said, releasing a KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor survey Jan. 27.

About half those who want to get vaccinated as soon as possible know someone who has already gotten a dose.

I plan to get my second dose when I can. I urge you to roll up your sleeve, too. We can do this. We must.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



Thursday, February 4, 2021

What cows' legs have to do with economic stimulus -- Feb. 4, 2021 column


President Joe Biden wants Republican support for his economic stimulus package, but the clock’s ticking.

“We need to act. We need to act fast,” Biden said Wednesday in a private conference call with House Democrats, according to news reports.

To win Republican votes, the president is willing to negotiate on some parts of his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package, but he doesn’t want to talk endlessly.

He wants Congress to send him a bill to sign by March 14, when extended unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans.

Biden met Monday with 10 Republican senators whose $618 billion counterproposal is one third the size of Biden’s plan. Among GOP provisions -- $1,000 checks to individuals, instead of Biden’s $1,400 checks, and no $15 minimum wage.

Biden wants to “go big,” as do House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and even West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican.

“We need to quit counting the egg-sucking legs on the cows and count the cows and just move,” Justice said in TV interviews Wednesday. In other words, pass something and not worry about the cost.

Biden’s choice: Make good on his promise of bipartisanship by watering down his plan to appease Republicans or deliver on the promise of meaningful help to millions hurt by the pandemic.

Biden believes in compromise, but compromise requires both sides act in good faith. As usual, each side is accusing the other of playing a crass political game.

But the wide gap between the packages raises the question whether Republicans seriously want bipartisanship – or just talking points for the next campaign.

We’ve been here before. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009 with Biden as his vice president, the country was sliding into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Obama wanted Republican support for his economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“There was a pervasive nostalgia in Washington, both before I was elected and during my presidency, for a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill,” Obama writes in his memoir, “A Promised Land.”

To court Republicans, he shrank the stimulus package – and, many economists believe, made it much less effective, slowing the recovery.

Obama hoped he might “catch GOP leaders by surprise and ease their suspicions, helping to build working relationships that could carry over to other issues. And if, as was more likely, the gambit didn’t work and Republicans rejected my overtures, then at least voters would know who was to blame for Washington’s dysfunction,” he writes.

None of that happened. His $787 billion recovery act passed – without a single Republican vote. Republicans then obstructed his subsequent initiatives at every turn. Congressional Democrats later pushed through the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare -- again with zero Republican votes.

But, voters didn’t blame Republicans for dysfunctional government. To the contrary, in the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans, fueled by the Tea Partiers, captured dozens of seats and control of the House and gained seats in the Senate.

Biden and congressional Democrats know what they’re up against. So, they again are pressing forward with a plan to pass the economic stimulus with only Democratic support by using a budgetary tool known as reconciliation.

If no Republicans join, Democrats could pass the bill with 51 votes in the Senate, bypassing the usual 60 vote requirement. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.

Republicans are crying foul, of course, but they used reconciliation to pass the 2017 tax cuts without any Democratic support.

In his memoir, Obama recounts a story Biden shared about his run-in as a senator with Mitch McConnell. After the Republican leader blocked a bill Biden was sponsoring, Biden tried to explain its merits. McConnell held up his hand like a traffic cop and said: “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care.”

Biden is not na├»ve. He knows who and what he’s up against. He believes he can round up a few Republican votes and call the package bipartisan. But Republicans may just keep counting the legs on the cows.

© 2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.