Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gerald R. Ford

Over half of our nation's population was either not born or living somewhere else when Gerald Ford took office. By popular demand, therefore, here's a review of the whole saga, with an explanation of how he became known as an "accidental president".
Ford was already a veteran of the House of Representatives when 1973 began. He was House Minority Leader, a sometimes high profile spot, but not one from which Ford was gaining much satisfaction. He didn't see a way that the GOP was going to become a majority party any time soon, and was beginning to think about retirement, perhaps after one or two more two-year terms.
President Richard Nixon had thought that his first year following the 1972 reelection romp would be a good one, though his thoughts were, as usual, centered on the Vietnam War and the subtle changes always playing out in the complicated relationship with the Soviet Union. The problem was - this little scandal thing that people were starting to call "Watergate" just refused to disappear. But the minutia bubbling up from Congress seldom concerned him. A large body like that simply could not think or plan with precision. It took a man with vision at the top to make any REAL changes. The trick was to MAKE the changes, THEN present it to Congress as both whole and done.
And there was another item that slowly worked its way onto the White House agenda. Federal investigators on the trail of possible corruption in Maryland had made a discovery. Maryland's former governor, Spiro "Ted" Agnew had benefited mightily from highway construction contracts awarded to certain construction companies. In short, the Governor was on the take for thousands of dollars, all paid in cash. The problem? Agnew's CURRENT job was as Nixon's vice president. Not only that, but evidence showed that Agnew's payments had CONTINUED, though at a lower level owing to Agnew's reduced ability to "fix" things, AFTER he had become vice president.
As fall came around, Agnew shared headlines with the annual baseball playoffs. He used the latin phrase meaning "no contest" in his plea to a judge, and was almost immediately the FORMER veep. Nixon was obliged to replace the disgraced Agnew, and he had to get ratification from the Democratic-majority Senate for whomever was nominated.
The Democratic bigshots of the day weren't anxious to see the President bleed, and they knew there had been no Nixon tie to Agnew's corruption. But Nixon had also endured a bad summer, one in which the Watergate revelations brought the nation nearer to considering the constitutional procedure of impeachment, unused in over 100 years. The identity, therefore, of the next vice president was more significant than it otherwise would have been.
Ford's name came up prominently as a candidate. He was well known to both Houses, but even better, he was trusted as someone who was honest and square-dealing, if not brilliant. Nixon had never used his vice president as a policy insider, in the same way that Eisenhower had shut him out of his inner circle, and so he probably did not care deeply about Ford one way or the other. The Democrats could name the next vice president, but that didn't mean that Nixon had to actually use him in any important way.
Ford's nomination process was rigorous but friendly in tone, unlike some of the rows that erupt these days, even over positions of marginal importance. Ford settled in to the vice president's usual role, seldom used or heard from, strictly second banana. Did he believe his new position would lead to the presidency? He could not have been ignorant of Nixon's troubles, but if he discussed the possibility, it was very privately.
The rest, as I've always wanted to write, is history. By early 1974 the nation had passed a certain tipping point, with every new allegation a bombshell and more and more evidence pointing to Nixon himself. His Senate supporters dwindled to around a dozen, with even GOP icon Barry Goldwater leaning towards removal from office. The indictments mounted in both their number and proximity to power. White House Chief of staff Alexander Haig, a recent general and shrewd operator, saw the direction events were taking and used subtle persuasion to get Nixon to finally choose resignation as preferable to impeachment, which was about to be passed by the House. Ford took the Oath of Office on August 9th, 1974 following Nixon's helicopter exit from the White House to his eventual exile home in southern California.
So now you, ah, younger folks know the story a little better than when it came up (if it did at all) in History class. The books on Watergate alone would fill many shelves. Ford comes through the whole thing as a rare man who actually earned the good things said about him at his funeral.
He won't get much ink in the final reports of the 20th century, but he deserves credit for helping preserve our constitutional system. Thank you, Mr. President.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Style vs. Substance

I bet you missed one of those little things that give us a window into the workings of the political system as it unfolded last week. You could call it the underside of having a job which depends on majority approval.
Newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, is an African American convert to Islam from his college days. This is no secret to those who elected him, but Mr. Ellison made a little news when he announced that he would use a copy of the Qur'an at his ceremonial swearing in his new office (Note: the REAL swearing in takes place on the House floor and does not involve ANY scriptures). This produced a few mutterings from the Right side of the media (the ubiquitous Fox News), but not much more.
Then Congressman Virgil Goode (rhymes with "rude"), Republican of Virginia, entered the arena, uninvited, to offer his own unique take on the matter. In a message to constituents, Congressman Goode frowned on the Ellison matter and warned that there would be more Muslim members of Congress unless it adapted his anti-immigrant legislative proposals. More pointedly, when it was noted that Ellison's family goes back in this country over 200 years and that he's certainly not an immigrant, Goode insisted that no apology was due from him because he didn't follow the Qur'an, as if someone had suddenly fingered him as a closet mullah.
Here's why this is interesting, and my thanks for those of you who've gotten this far. To most of us, Goode sounds like Sheriff Andy Taylor's evil twin. But you also have to ask whom Goode's message was intended for, and why. I admit I've never been there, but I could guess that central and southern Virginia (Goode's district) wouldn't be confused with Manhattan when it comes to diversity. Goode, who has a law degree and has served most of his career in the state legislature, no doubt is smarter than he sounds. He has also been officially a Republican less than five years, and this little outbust, I would guess, is his way of solidifying the "Bubba" vote. So for every member of Congress who dreds working with this rube, there are two who wish they had done something similar in order to keep someone angry. The only flaw in the plan may have been in timing it too far ahead of the next election, but by that time the Congressman's staff could think of a dozen new ways of making Goode into the hero they'd like to have on the ballot. Stlyle, you see, has the power to trump substance if played correctly. That's a lesson that office holders forget at their peril. You could even argue that Ellison comes out a winner here as well, but I risk losing readers if I take up that prospect.

I've never tried obituaries in this space before, but this week merits two. Gerald Ford died yesterday at 93. His presidency ended almost 30 years ago, and so most folks could be excused for not remembering the details of the story. Ford took office upon Nixon's resignation, as mentioned in the blog recently. That was a dark time. Ford had to act in a way that would restore faith in the President, and so his actions were more cautious than bold. His pardon of Nixon was, he believed, the correct decision, though it cost him votes. He was the only president never to be elected as either president OR vice president, but he earned our respect by leaving the White House better than he found it, even though Cheney and Rumsfeld were both around that long ago.

You couldn't imagine someone less like Gerald Ford than James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. The guy was not really political, and his own life was too hot to make him any kind of candidate endorser. Even so, it was Brown who came up with, "Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud!" at just the right time, and for the right reason. His musical influence is pervasive, and his persona is unforgettable. Warts and all, he became part of the best that America offers the world, with style and substance..

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


I am writing this the same day that President Bush announced the "need" for larger armed forces. His apparent strategy for dealing with the Iraq Study Group Report recommendations is to basically say, "Screw them. I'm still the Decider, and I'm deciding that war's OK, just as long as I can have my vacations on schedule and not have to ask anyone to PAY for all this. I can just feel it. Mah luck's gonna change, and them A-rabs is gonna love me - maybe not for awhile, you unnerstand - but when they're free like I am, they'll know it was worth so many of them dying. As for Amurcins, hell, they'll forget pretty much everything as soon as the NFL playoffs start. Heh, heh."
And so it goes. Congress has for decades given up the power to require a declaration of war, and their remaining power, to de-fund ongoing operations, is about as likely to pass as Cheney winning the next clay pidgeon shootoff. They just seem unable to get through to the guy to say,"THE ENTIRE WORLD NOW THINKS YOU'RE WRONG". Heck, that's exactly what gets the guy's juices flowing.
It has gotten so that the news media has taken up another cottage industry - picking the location of the next war. I'm not kidding. You see columns with titles like "Actions of ---Government Merit Serious Attention" as though we were now officially the parent of the world, charged with enforcing good behaivior not only by the nations themselves, but by everyone within each country. I don't want to sound like an isolationist, but it seems that G.I. Joe is now our main export, replacing movies of debatable quality.
Here's the current list of enemy wannabes. I'm adding the odds of invasion within the next two years, as long as big W sits as Commander in Chief. No doubt there's something like this "for real" in London, where they're always making odds on something new and exciting:
1. Iran, 1-3 The Iranians themselves haven't attacked anyone in a thousand years, but there's all that money recycled from our gas pumps to various insurgencies. Besides, any country with a president who won't even wear a tie is just begging to be taught a violent lesson in proper respect. Regime change? Oh, yeah, baby.
2. North Korea, 1-5 That nasty Kim Jong Il thinks he's so smart just because he could press a button and do major damage to Seoul. We'll fix him. Today it's an embargo on DVD's. Next, it will be a bunker buster sent s.y.d. (see you dead).
3. China, 1-10 We've been thinking that sooner or later having free markets (sort of) leads to freedom itself, but things just aren't going fast enough. Sure, they make every item on the Wal-Mart shelf, but you can always find people who can work for cheap somewhere. Can you imagine the contracts Halliburton would get for rebuilding a country that big? Whoo-ee!
4. Syria, 1-12 We were hoping the Israelis would take them out earlier this year, but the old dictator's boy is still in charge. Maybe we should remind them of what it means to be on a Crusade.
5. Venezuela, 1-15 Sure, there's a place for a leader named Chavez, but it's working in the lettuce fields, not snubbing his nose at us at the UN. Now, remind me, just how much oil do those lucky folks have underground?
6. Cuba, 1-20 Well, they haven't actually asked us to come liberate them yet, but they're thinking about it, and when they ask, we'll be ready. Maybe even if they don't. We'll call it "Preemptive Freedomizing". Oh, I like that.
After that bunch of would-be victims, the odds get longer for places like Mexico, France, and Kazakstan (that Borat guy's so funny!), but you can be sure that if your country's name doesn't start with "United States of America" that there's a plan on a shelf at the Pentagon to turn it into high class rubble. Canada? Absolutely. The Vatican? Yup, but as part of the plan for Italy. New Mexico? Hey, now you're getting silly.
Peace on Earth? Hey, we're working on it. We just have to make sure it's on our terms, knowhutahmean?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Flubs: A Nonpartisan View

The new Congress hasn't taken office, the presidential race is yet to take shape and the President has postponed the inevitable public rethinking on Iraq. That makes it a good time to go nonpartisan and examine recent presidential goofs in the cold light of history.
All presidents make mistakes. Domestic issues are hard enough, but adding foreign policy to the mix just about guarantees that some decisions at the top level are going to be clinkers. Voters don't rethink their views of a president consciously, but what they SHOULD be thinking is: Does this particular screwup HURT the country, or is it something we will forget in six months with no major consequences? As you would guess, major errors have major consequences (and should!) when the next election rolls around.
But ALL presidents are prone to foul up sooner or later. Let's review the goofs of the last few presidents starting with Ford. Why Mr. Ford? He followed Nixon, whose mistakes were so fabulous and major that complete review here would be impossible.
Ford wasn't president even 2 1/2 years. He did things cautiously, trying to regain the trust which the nation had lost in its CEO over Watergate. Nevertheless, the public howled when Mr. Ford issued a presidential pardon for Richard Nixon. Ford felt it was the right thing to do, and I tend to agree, though I may not have said so at the time. Nevertheless, a newly distrustful public didn't see the pardon as compassion for the nation. It smelled a deal. I don't recall Ford's election opponent, Jimmy Carter, trying to exploit the pardon as an issue. He simply promised never to lie, and that was barely enough to get him elected in 1976, one month after the birth of our daughter #2.
The public soured on Mr. Carter pretty quickly when it became clear that he was not above asking Americans to make sacrifices for the common good. To his credit, he tackled tough issues head on and was pretty blunt about making changes. Too bad he seemed to feel that moral superiority alone would carry the day with his proposals on things like energy. His biggest mistake? He let events control him during the almost interminable Iran Hostage Crisis. In the process, our country ended up looking kind of helpless. Carter seemed too holed-up in the White House and came across as kind of a scold. The public didn't like it, and couldn't act fast enough to put in the smiling, grandfather-type Ronald Reagan in his place.
Lots of people loved the Gipper. He gets credit for helping Americans feel better about themselves, and he juiced our entrepreneurial instincts by dropping taxes for the rich. Did he help end the Cold War? They're still hashing that one out at the "think tanks", but he sure set a high bar for military spending which, in the end, the old Soviet Union just couldn't match. Mistakes? The deregulation of the savings and loan industry was catastrophic financially, and Reagan's budgets brought new meaning to the word "deficit". But personally, I believe his worst legacy was the justification on the part of a growing part of the public sharing his view that not only was the federal government a poor venue for problem-solving. It shouldn't even TRY to help people at the bottom. They'd have to wait for good things to "trickle down" in order to solve their OWN woes. As a result, Reagan gives cover today to those who don't want to do something (anything, really) because they just don't care.
George Bush the elder succeeded Reagan. He liked being president, but didn't take office to change things. It just wasn't his nature. He reacted pretty well to some problems, especially the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. When it was over, the first Gulf War, financed largely by other countries opposing naked aggression, left Iraq and Kuwait pretty much as they were before the war took place. Iraq even got to keep their dictator. But sometimes REacting isn't enough. History counts Bush I's biggest mistake the ignoring of an economic recession. That little event he DIDN'T react well to, and he lost enough votes to upstart Ross Perot to lose the election to a guy the country didn't really know well, Bill Clinton.
Clinton deserves to be remembered for more than one thing, but the one-issue-per-prez crowd will go no further than his fooling around with a White House intern. Bad mistake, though not the kind which really hurts the country (in my humble opinion). He would tell you that the biggest error of his administration was reacting too slowly (actually hardly reacting at all) to the Rwandan genocide, taking place in a faraway country in which we had no real interest. Who could have known that deaths (mostly by machete) would total in the hundreds of thousands? It's one event Clinton today admits should have been handled differently, but it happened.
Bush II took office under a bit of a cloud from strange events in Florida and Washington. But let's just skip to his biggest mistake. The greatest good or evil from one nation to another comes through war. You don't undertake it lightly, or start it, then look to new reasons to justify yourself. Without going on and on, I (and plenty of others) think invading Iraq was a stupendous error, and I said so before it happened. This issue deserves more discussion in future entries, so let's just leave it at that for now.
We don't have the presidential issue in front of us again for quite awhile unless you live in New Hampshire or Iowa. But when it does arrive, the question of future mistakes (and I don't know how you would know them) deserves.....some thought. Happy Chan, Han, how do you spell that Jewish holiday? Anyway, Happy Kwanzaa.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

culture pacifist

One of the people mentioned last week in regard to radio talk shows, Bill O'Reilly, has a new book out entitled "Culture Warrior". I know this because I've heard him talk about it - several times. The subject of "culture wars" is kind of a touchy one for me because I have so many friends and family who think of themselves as enlisted in the army of good guys arrayed against the hordes representing bad taste, vulgarity, sleaziness and debasement. And I'm right there with them on a number of things: Children should have active fathers, tatoos on women are kind of scary, much of hiphop should hop back into its hole, illegal drug use is dangerous to society, and certain athletes really ARE just immature, self-centered dopes. You get the idea. Common complaints you hear from common folks who can't help thinking that somehow things used to be better, or at least safer.
Do I stand when the roll of culture war combatants is read? Ah, I don't. My fear of being numbered in the American Taliban of the self-appointed culture cops still overpowers my sense of wanting everything to be "nice". Once you get on the side of the Enforcers, you can never be satisfied. Sooner or later you want Big Government (or new draconian rules of some kind) to make sure you never see a lewd ad, a sick laugh-track sitcom, a tasteless end-zone dance or someone ignoring the national anthem. I believe instead that it's just as the old song said: "No two ways about it, people got to be free." When there's a better way, we need to show it and invite others to join, but we can never force people on things as subjective as good taste, even when we "know" what's best.
One thing I know I'll NEVER join is the thing cooked up by FOX News having to do with the season. It's the "right" to demand to be greeted with "Merry Christmas!" as opposed to "Happy Holidays". The latter phrase, according to (there he is again) Bill O'Reilly constitutes a "war" on Christmas, even though people have used it in stores for decades.
Just as everything was economic to Marx, everything is political to the grouchy white men at FOX and their White House allies. Are they doing this to promote Jesus and His message of peace, love and understanding? Not on your life, baby. Not when there's anger to be stirred up that can be exploited somehow in the next election. Heck, I doubt that O'Reilly has ever been IN the local Wal Mart roaming the aisles looking for just the right cordless drill. He (and I admit I'm guessing here) gets someone ELSE to do the mundane errands of life that most of us have to put up with ourselves. I sure don't drive down the street choosing the stores with the most p.c. conservative greeting. I bet NO ONE does, which is what makes the whole thing a non-issue no more meaningful than flag-burning. But making someone ELSE squirm in their presence is the goal of the American Taliban Right. They do it because they CAN. And the hyperbole ("Christmas Under Attack!") is meant to anger people enough to get them to vote against their own interest. Yes, you CAN fool some of the people all of the time.
But not me. With all due respect to my conservative pals, I'm a culture pacifist.