Thursday, February 24, 2022

Stakes high for Biden in State of the Union address -- Feb. 24, 2022 column


When President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he’ll almost certainly start a sentence with: “The state of the union is . . .”

But how will he end it?

Presidents long have struggled to find the right word. In 1949, Harry Truman said the state of the union was “good,” which sounds like a gentleman’s C.

“Not good” Gerald Ford said in 1975, a few months after Nixon resigned. A year later, Ford said it was “better . . . but still not good enough.”

And a few months after that, voters sent Ford packing, in favor of a peanut farmer from Georgia who later described the state of the union as “sound.”

In 1983, Ronald Reagan – or a clever speechwriter -- found a model way to end to the sentence. “The state of our union is strong, but our economy is troubled,” he declared.

Ah, positivity and empathy. Good balance. Almost all presidents in the decades since have echoed Reagan that the state of the nation is strong and putting their spin on how to make it a “more perfect union.”

Biden’s address, delayed by COVID-19 protocols, comes at a perilous time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless invasion of Ukraine this week threw the world into chaos. But even before the invasion, Americans were in a sour mood. Inflation, soaring gas prices, supply chain disruptions, the lingering pandemic, the fall of Afghanistan and other woes have dampened, if not extinguished, the hopeful flame that accompanied Biden’s inauguration last year.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls Jan. 14 to Feb. 22.

Biden’s job approval rating is in the low 40s, and Congress’s is worse. Only 21% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing.

Gallup’s Mood of the Nation Survey last month found deep dissatisfaction with democracy itself. Only 30% of those surveyed said they were somewhat or very satisfied with our system of government and how it works.

No one wants to hear the president say the state of the union is grim and distressing. This is one of those times when such candor is not reassuring. We don’t need to be reminded about what we know all too well.

This State of the Union address is Biden’s opportunity to showcase his perspective and long experience -- in the Senate, as former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as vice president – on the world stage. He needs to use the bully pulpit calmly.

The White House still believes it has done a poor job of accentuating the positive accomplishments of the last year. So Biden is likely to tout more than 6 million jobs created, the drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2% to 3.9% and plunging unemployment rolls – from more than 18 million to 2 million.

He also is likely to praise his new Supreme Court nominee, which he has said he will name by the end of February. Biden has more class than to turn the announcement into a reality TV moment in which the cameras pan to the winner. Please.

As the midterm elections loom, some will urge Biden to do what many of his predecessors have done: appease various constituencies with a laundry list of legislative items that have little chance of seeing the light of day.

If Biden resists that temptation and says something like the union is “strong, but . . . ,” and focuses on his priorities, he could strike a tone that is at once optimistic and realistic. Times being what they are, some Republicans will guffaw no matter what he says.

The world’s precarious situation may draw more viewers to Biden’s speech than in less stressful times. They want to hear the president address the international crisis and the economy with a thoughtful, steady voice.

He needs to explain why what happens in Ukraine is important to the United States, his sanctions and why they will succeed. On the economy, he needs to explain how his strategy will address the sectors that have not yet recovered.

This is a high stakes moment for the president and the state of the union.

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

 Hands off our Wordle! -- Column of Feb. 17, 2022


“Well, I thought I might be above fads but I was wrong,” my friend Larry, a physician, wrote on Facebook. “I’m addicted to Wordle.”

Who isn’t? The wildly popular word game has many of us hooked.

Wordle is fun, and it’s a friendly challenge. It transports you from everyday cares.

Worried about the high cost of, well, everything? Wordle is free, at least for now. Worried about the state of American politics and culture? Wordle is a politics-free zone.

Solving Wordle brings people together in a shared activity that makes each of us think for ourselves.

I bet if Putin played Wordle, he wouldn’t need to amass Russian troops on the border with Ukraine to feel like Somebody. He’d get a sense of personal accomplishment -- without starting a war. And, yes, there is a version in Russian.

Wordle, in case you’ve not played yet, is simple. You get six tries to guess a five-letter word. With each try, if the correct letter is in the right place, the letter turns green. If it’s the correct letter in the wrong place, it turns yellow. Letters that are not in the word are gray.

The game has a charming back story. Josh Wardle, a software engineer in Brooklyn, created it as a gift for his partner, who loves word games. Wardle named the game Wordle as a play on his last name.

He released the game free to the public in October. It caught on as players shared their winning Wordle diagrams on social media.

The New York Times, which offers games in print and by subscription, bought the rights for Wordle for a price in “in the low seven figures” Jan. 31 and says it is keeping it free for new and existing users “initially.”

It didn’t take long for players to begin griping. Some complain the game is more difficult now with words like cynic and caulk.

Originally, there was one word of the day for everyone worldwide, which meant everyone could compare scores and strategy. On Feb. 15, though, two words were winners. Depending on the platform, the winning word was either agora or aroma.

On the original U.K. site, the winning word was agora, while on the Times site aroma won. This reportedly was a temporary glitch caused by moving to the Times platform. The Times is also removing offensive and obscure words from the game’s dictionary.

Part of the genius of Wordle is its limits. You can play only once a day, with a new word coming at midnight.

For the truly addicted, however, there are many knockoffs. Some free versions allow you to adjust the number of letters and to play endless rounds. It’s very possible to waste a lot of time on Hello Wordl (no e), said the voice of experience.

Another version is Absurdle -- fiendishly difficult because you’re playing against artificial intelligence that changes the five-letter target word as you play. It gave me a headache.

For the high brow, the Folger Shakespeare Library unveiled Prattle. Players can choose to guess words ranging from four to 11 letters, each from one of the library’s Shakespeare texts.

A joy of Wordle is touching base – commiserating or celebrating – with friends and family via Wordle scores. For Denyse Holt, 80, of Lincolnwood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Wordle became more than a diversion.

Holt awoke in the middle of the night on Feb. 6 to find a bleeding, naked man holding scissors standing over her. The man would hold her hostage in her home for more than 20 hours.

When Holt didn’t text her older daughter her daily Wordle score, and when she didn’t respond to texts or calls, her daughters, who live in California and Oregon, got worried.

The family contacted police for a wellness check. Police found Holt locked in a basement bathroom. The intruder, who had broken in through a window, was still in the house. He was subdued, arrested and taken to jail on several charges.

So, the Times may think it bought a fad that it can monetize, but it also bought a way millions of people connect with each other in a crazy, fractured time.

Don’t mess with our Wordle!

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.








Thursday, February 10, 2022

Confused about masks? Join the club -- Feb. 10, 2022 column


We went to dinner indoors at a restaurant last week.  

It was a milestone -- the first time in ages we hadn’t gotten carryout or sat outside, and we met friends we hadn’t seen in months. We were all vaccinated and boosted.

Life seemed almost normal. Except that the reservation was for an early 6 p.m. on a Friday, I asked for a table away from other diners and the restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived wearing masks.

We were told we could take off our masks while seated, but the menu requested we wear them when talking with the wait staff, all of whom wore masks.

We enjoyed a leisurely meal and put on our masks to leave, this time passing a boisterous crowd of customers packed in booths. All the customers were maskless, even around wait staff.

This new normal was mildly confusing. We were glad to see the locally owned business with a good crowd, but . . . While we were happy to comply with the restaurant’s rules, others evidently were not. And why wear masks standing up but not sitting down?

It’s not as though the pandemic is history. While numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide have fallen, an average of more than 225,000 new virus infections are reported daily and an average of 100,000 people are hospitalized daily with COVID-19. On average, about 2,600 people die of COVID every day in the United States.

We all yearn to get on with life, and politicians are responding. California, Illinois, New York and other states with Democratic governors who once were wary about lifting restrictions now race to drop various iterations of statewide mask mandates.

But more people are rightly confused and frustrated. Those who have followed public health guidance to get vaccinated and boosted wonder what we should do now to keep safe ourselves, friends, family members and those whose jobs require them to meet the public. Mask or no mask?

It should be easy to find out, but when I searched the Virginia Department of Health site for guidance, I found the experience frustrating. Clicking on tabs often brought me right back to the same page. A friend had the same experience.

I had better luck with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention site, which is sticking for now with familiar guidance. Those up-to-date on COVID vaccinations should wear a mask indoors in public “if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” That includes all of Virginia

And almost everywhere else: 95% of U.S. counties have high or substantial virus transmission, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, told reporters Wednesday. High transmission is when there are 100 positive cases per 100,000 people per day, and substantial is 50 cases per 100,000.

“Our hospitalizations are still high; our death rates are still high,” she said. “We are not there yet.”

Oft-changing messages have led many people to tune out public health guidance, leading to more confusion.

“Confusion is now the most common reaction to shifts in public health guidance: 60% of U.S. adults say they’ve felt confused as a result of changes to public health officials’ recommendations on how to slow the spread of the coronavirus, up 7 percentage points since last summer,” the Pew Research Center reported Wednesday in its latest survey.

About half those surveyed said the CDC and other agencies are doing a good or excellent job responding to the pandemic, but half said they are doing a fair or poor job.

It shouldn’t be this way. The CDC has changed its recommendations as the pandemic has changed, but its messaging hasn’t been clear.

For people to make wise decisions, the CDC, state and local health agencies need to ensure their guidance is easily available, science-based, understandable and up to date.

As politicians sprint toward normalcy and a mask-free society, no matter the science, we can still choose to wear masks indoors to protect those who are immunocompromised or have other health conditions that preclude vaccination.

Don’t toss your masks just yet.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Whoopi's bad history a teachable moment -- Feb. 3, 2022 column


Loose talk often rules the day, but what we say and how we say it still matter.

Just ask Whoopi Goldberg, who, while talking about a graphic novel about the Holocaust that was banned by a Tennessee school board, asserted a stunningly wrong view of history.

The Holocaust was “not about race” but about “man’s inhumanity to man,” she said Monday on ABC’s “The View.”

When her co-hosts pushed back, she insisted: “But these are two white groups of people,” she said. “This is white people doing it to white people, so ya’ll going to fight amongst yourselves.”

Her comments were ignorant or misinformed and led to immediate and widespread condemnation.

“Racism was central to Nazi ideology. Jews were not defined by religion, but by race. Nazi racist beliefs fueled genocide and mass murder,” the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington responded to Goldberg in a tweet.


Goldberg quickly apologized. “My words upset so many people, which was not my intention,” she said. “I misspoke.”

But Kim Godwin, ABC News president, while acknowledging Goldberg’s apologies, suspended her from “The View” for two weeks, saying Goldberg needed to think about the impact of her “wrong and hurtful comments.”

Goldberg, a longtime ally of the Jewish community, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in 1955. The origin of her stage name is hazy.

“The true story is that my family is Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist and Catholic – none of which I subscribe to, by the way, as I don’t believe in man-made religions. . . So I took the last name from a Jewish ancestor. And I happen to be gaseous, which explains the first name, short for whoopee cushion,” she told Reuters in the 1990s.

But subsequent research by Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed Goldberg’s roots traced to West Africa, and she had no Jewish forebears, Gates wrote in his 2009 book “In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past.”

Goldberg’s recent comments seem to reflect an evolving definition of race and racism as relating only to people of color, some Jewish scholars said.

“What she said was really horrendous, but it’s not her original idea,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in an interview on Talkline with Zev Brenner, a radio program and podcast. “I don’t think she has a bad bone in her body, but she’s parroting now a new definition that’s wrong.”

This “woke definition” of race as exclusively pertaining to Blacks and other people of color, Cooper said, is repeated over and over, taught in schools and has been adopted by some in the Jewish community.

But “Adolph Hitler and the Nazis were all about race,” he said. “We were the ultimate inferior” race.

Polls show Americans in the 21st century may be losing the shared memory of the horrors of the Holocaust, when about one third of the world’s Jews were murdered.

Only 45% of American adults know 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a Pew Research Center survey reported in 2020. In a separate survey at the same time, only 38% of teens know 6 million Jews were killed.  

The banned book that sparked Goldberg’s comments, “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of his parents in Nazi death camps. The book depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. “Maus” won a Pulitzer Special Award in Letters in 1992.

The McMinn County School Board in southeast Tennessee voted last month to ban the book from the 8th grade language arts curriculum because of “inappropriate language” – eight curse words -- and a drawing of a naked female mouse, thus missing the point of the work altogether.

“This is not about left versus right,” Spiegelman told The Tennessean newspaper. “This is about a culture war that’s gotten totally out of control.”

Nothing spurs readership like censorship. The “Maus” books have sold out on Amazon and won’t be available for weeks.  

For her part, Goldberg got a history lesson from which others may learn.  

“It is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race,” she said Tuesday. “Now, words matter, and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected.”

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.