Friday, November 22, 2013

Today’s political hatred, seen through an old book

Here's a column that I wrote back in 2003, the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination.

I’ve been told that a person should read a book three times: once when young, once when middle-aged and once when old — and if you do, you’ll read three different books.
The idea, of course, is that we look at the book through different eyes, from the unknowing youth to the old person, filtering the book’s message through one’s own life.
I’ve been doing a bit of that recently, after hitting both the University Women’s used book sale and the Brown County Library’s used book sale.
Some of what I picked up was, well, unusual. I found a paperback, “Baseball Stars of 1963,” that might just fetch something on eBay if I ever get around to it.
And somebody was selling an encyclopedia year book from 1961, covering the year 1960. More than you ever needed to know about that wonderful year. Did you know motels are becoming more and more popular?
And then there’s the unusually timely, something you don’t expect to find on a used book table. It was a copy of William Manchester’s “The Death of a President,” the story of the weekend 40 years ago when John F. Kennedy was killed.
I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been reissued to cash in on the 40-year anniversary. We humans do that; we like numbers that end in zero to remember things. Goodness knows, you found everything you’d ever wanted to know about JFK and his death on TV this week, from sober analysis to lurid autopsy photos to draw the “CSI” crowd.
But it was interesting to reread the book. The first time I read it, I read it as someone who was interested, wanting to learn about this piece of history.
Now, I look at it through other eyes, ones that have had to look at the modern political system.
The extreme right wing in Dallas in the early 1960s was every bit as virulent as it is today, if not more so. It’s doubtful today you’d have seen, say Madeline Albright getting hit on the head by a picket sign, as Adlai Stevenson was in 1963.
And while Ann Coulter — the conservatives’ pin-up girl — writes books about liberals committing “Treason,” a poster in Dallas the day before the assassination showed Kennedy, mug-shot style, with the line “Wanted for Treason.”
There were political dirty tricks then as well. Gov. John Connally, who later bolted the Democrats for Richard Nixon, got back at liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough by keeping him in the background at key events. (It was splits like this in the Texas Democratic Party that brought Kennedy to Dallas in the first place).
But overwhelming in the period was hatred. Kennedy was vilified by the right wing not only his politics, but his personality, his religion, his family. The publisher of the Dallas Morning News accused him of “riding Caroline’s pony” rather than serving as a leader — to Kennedy’s face. Even after his death, people cheered the attacker.
And, sadly, that hasn’t changed. It faded for a bit, in the horrors of the assassinations, of Vietnam, of Watergate. But then it came back, matched spit for spit by Democrats angry over the success of Ronald Reagan.
And that’s where we are today.
So things haven’t changed; that hatred has always been there, and I was reminded of that while reading the book.
Of course, the generally accepted view of the killing — Lee Harvey Oswald, the Book Depository, the whole bit — was light-years away from that hatred. But in a way, that hatred might have fed on it. Oswald was not sharp. He wanted to lash out, Manchester says, to prove himself after a lifetime of failures. Kennedy was the popular political target — why not make him a real one?
And the targets continue today. I just hope we can calm down the national discourse to save ourselves from another weekend like that one 40 years ago.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

And the choice is...

Since I started voting for presidents in 1976, there has been at least one good reason for me to vote for somebody.

Not this year. I want a do-over in the worst way.

We have two candidates who have as much business running for President as Honey Boo Boo. And they're almost as qualified. (Remember, Honey Boo Boo's only disqualification is that she is not yet 35 years old.)

Barack Obama is something of a fluke in high office, a one-term senator who caught a tailwind after a great speech back in 2004, then went through a weak field in 2008 because of his speaking skills, his novelty and the fact that most Americans wanted another Clinton in the White House about as much as they wanted another Bush. Still, his victory was not assured until John McCain bowed to the nutjobs who have taken over the Republican Party and picked their pinup girl, Sarah Palin.

Obama has proven to be ineffectual. He can point to two achievements - Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch, and he got a health care bill through. Both are mixed blessings. It would have been better to capture OBL and put him in a Nuremburg/Eichmann style trial, showing his evil to the world.

As for health care, the bill doesn't do what most Americans want - provide a safety net for those unable to afford or get insurance, and simplify everything surrounding it so that people can get the treatment they need. Instead of attacking those problems, the bill is a list of what one group of people wanted to see. It had good intentions but doesn't do the job.

Presidents don't fix the economy single-handed - not even FDR - and Obama has at least tried things. The last time we had a depression, Herbert Hoover just waited for things to right themselves, and they never did.

The true problem is that the economy today benefits only a small part of the populace - those who have advanced through office politics to run their organizations. Those who actually do the work - the employees - are considered to be liabilities rather than assets.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney.

His supporters call him a successful businessman; he isn't. He's a politician. His main business expertise was taking over failing businesses, wringing the remaining money off of them, and then killing them.  Yes, he ran the Salt Lake Olympics, but except for sprucing up the ski hills and building a couple of facilities, most of what was needed - arenas, a big stadium for the ceremonies and so on - were in place. Facilities have been the problem with most Olympic budgets; get those out of the way, and you can make money.

As a politician, he has shown no basic beliefs. He is a Clinton in Republican clothing, twisting with the wind. He has joined the right wing because they run the railroad he has to ride on to become president; had the right-wing suddenly decided to make gay marriage and abortion legal, he would have gone out and married Paul Ryan just to make them happy. He is a man without a compass trying to go in a winning direction.

So we have Mr. Ineffectual vs. Mr. Inconsistent. Add to that their VP nominuees - loopy Joe Biden vs. True Believer Paul Ryan - and you have four people who shouldn't be left near a lawn mower, much less The Button.

It is so easy to just want to crawl into bed and ignore the whole thing. But I care enough about living here in America that I cannot.

What bothers me is the hatred. Both sides do nothing but attack the other. This is an old complaint, as old as the Republic, but it seems to have reached new peaks. Many of the lawn signs I have seen don't mention the candidate the lawn's owner is supporting; they just say things like "DEFEAT OBAMA." Haven't seen any in the other direction, but I see enough in the posts on Twitter and Facebook to see it is the same over there.

A pox on both your houses (and their lawn signs).

All I can do is vote for the one who scares me the least. And Romney scares me the most, because of his lack of a basic belief. This is the same person who put a health care system in Massachusetts but is fighting against it to please his party sponsors. His ignorance of other countries is scary. In short, he believes in a ruling class - white, above-average wealth, businessmen (emphasis on men) only.

Obama, at least, seems to realize that the vast majority of Americans don't fall into any of those categories. We are struggling to make ends meet, working in jobs that are available rather than what we can do best, in part because the businesses who support Romney would rather make more profits by sending those jobs to China.

I don't know how sincere he is, but Obama at least makes a show of listening to those who can't do something for him other than vote. Romney doesn't.

And on that small ledge, I cast my vote for Obama on Tuesday.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Eight years later, it's still religion v. government

I did the following column back in 2004 - it's in the book - but it is active again because of a decision by the Bishop of Green Bay, David Ricken, to urge his parishoners not to vote for "evil" positions. It isn't a direct slam at one candidate and favoring another ... but it does feel like that.

I have no horse in this year's election - Obama hasn't shown himself to be successful in trying to turn around the epidemic of political plague (not to mention he's still from Chicago and a Bears fan), and Romney may change the White House to the Waffle House as he tries to woo conservatives without sounding like a sexist, hypocritical bigot - or worse, Sarah Palin.

Anyway, here's the column which I hope is self explanatory. Oh, and don't forget to buy the book.


Decree Ignores Constitution, Political Reality
January 16, 2004

  It's not often you can time something this exactly, but Bishop Raymond Burke, formerly of La Crosse, has set politics back exactly 44 years.
  By now, you've read about how Burke told Catholic lawmakers in his diocese that they could not receive Holy Communion if they supported abortion.
  It's the sort of statement that's going to raise debate. Many, including Warren Bluhm on these pages on Tuesday, believe the bishop is within his rights to make rules for those of his faith; that's what bishops do.
  Others believe, as I do, that for any religious leader to try to influence the actions of a lawmaker is out of bounds. We are not Iran or Israel; here, people, not clerics, rule.
  The bishop's actions have caused a stir in Missouri, where he will become bishop in St. Louis.
  "We as legislators have never faced anything like that from an archbishop or bishop in the state of Missouri," Missouri state Sen. Steve Stol told the Associated Press. "I think there are some citizens out there who would also look at it and question whether they want to elect someone who would change their stand because of certain religious pressure. Telling people they can't receive the sacraments changes the political landscape some."
  Rep. Tom Villa, D-St. Louis, said he votes against abortion but doesn't like the idea of a bishop telling him he must. He said he is concerned about the potential for a similar church policy to be adopted for other issues.
  "I happen to be right as far as the incoming bishop is concerned on the pro-life stuff. I am clearly wrong on capital punishment," Villa said. "I would have a problem with anybody telling me I can't receive Communion. Your faith is something that's very personal."
  Indeed. And to my mind - and I'm not Catholic, not much of anything when it comes to religion really - it borders on extortion, as much as if someone had threatened a legislator's family. "You vote my way, or you won't see your kids again."
  Or, in this case, "you won't see your church again."
Granted, it may be that the problem, as Warren suggests, is with the legislators, and that maybe it's time for them to switch. Still, it seems here that is quite a price to pay for voting in a manner that disappoints one man - and that's all a bishop is.
  For Burke's action was individual. Bishop David Zubik of Green Bay was closer to the proper way to handle it - talk to legislators you disagree with, try to get them to see the rightness of your cause. But threats? No.
  We have representative government in our land. Legislators must continually decide on how to vote, whether by following their beliefs or representing their district. Sometimes, they don't agree with their district.
Sometimes, they vote against their own beliefs for whatever reasons they choose.
  That's how government goes. It's human, and riddled with compromises.
Religion isn't. It's strict and inflexible, incapable of allowing another side might be correct. The two are bound to clash.
  And that's why the framers of our Constitution sensibly separated the two; Congress (and all lawmakers by extension) can't hamper religion; religion is not required as a test for office. In short, religion can say whatever it wants, but it has no special standing with government.
  John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected president, knew that. His campaign was targeted by those bigots who said he would make the United States a puppet of the Vatican, and other slanders. And he had to fight it until the day he was killed.
  He never did it better than in Houston, in a speech to a group of Protestant ministers:
  "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials - and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
  "For, while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that led to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today, I may be the victim - but tomorrow it may be you - until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped apart at a time of great national peril."

He had it right 44 years ago, and the bishop has it wrong now.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Getting it right

I am not religious - too many untimely deaths of the good (including my brother), too many wars over who owns God, and simple lack of proof. (I have faith in nothing.) But this blog post by a Vermont minister gets it absolutely right. And then, just to hammer it home, a pair of vicious, racist cartoons about the Florida youth murder by a cartoonist who, somehow, is syndicated. And I'm back to being nonreligious, because if this ass is made in God's image, none of us should follow him.

Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, it is in ourselves. More's the pity.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A St. Patrick's sale

In honor of the land of my ancestors, I have a sale going on the e-book versions of Chronicles. It's been marked down from $10 to $7.50, so if you haven't purchased the e-version yet, now is the time! This is, for now, only good if you buy the book through so please go there today!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Where is this candidate? Do any like this exist:

My comment on this story (which is a very good summary of why everybody seems think this election stinks):
Let's face it - what is really turning people off can be found in the comments on this story. Neither side is willing to admit that the other side may have good points. We have all gone to the ends of the rope, and the middle is on the ground. We do need to cut government spending, but one big area to cut - perks for elected officials - is controlled by those officials and will never be cut. But the tax cuts should go to all Americans, not just the richer ones. When it comes to government, no citizen is better than another and no politician is better than anyone. What we need is a fiscal conservative who wants to help all the people, not just the rich, and a social liberal who wants to free controls on individuals, rather than mandating their lives from school lunches to the kind of light bulb we use. Show me one of those and I will happily vote for him or her.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some Leap Year Thoughts on Books

It was my first Leap Year. My second, actually, but at 3 years old, I couldn't count to 29. At 7, on Feb. 29, 1964, I got my first library card. Thanks for all the books, every librarian ever.

Now, I read them and more or less write them. (See for a Leap Year special!) And that's the end of book plugs for this post.

Recently, two books off the shelf of the Brown County Library came home. Strangely, both have time travel and presidential themes.

The first is a funny little volume called "Taft 2012" by Jason Heller. Its conceit is that William Howard Taft, after being president, disappeared off the face of the earth, only to reappear in 2011, unaged but unknowing of what had happened in the nearly 100 years since. It's big news, of course, but because all anybody talks about any more is politics, Taft gets mixed up in that - while still reconciling himself with the 21st century, his remaining family, and the biggest trial for the heavy weight champion among presidents - modern overprocessed food.

It's fun, if not entirely historically accurate (Taft, of course, later became chief justice, to his great joy, and died in 1930, and he does not have a great-granddaughter in the House). But, as Johnny Carson used to say, "you buy the premise, you buy the bit" and it's surprisingly easy to do so.

Not surprisingly, the other book is darker - it's by Stephen King. "Taft 2012" tells its story over the time it takes Big Steve to clear his throat. But then, King set himself a larger task - saving John F. Kennedy.

It begins, as every King story does, in Maine, where a former teacher is invited to visit the past by the dying owner of an old diner. Go down the stairs and you're in 1958 as your present self. Stay as long as you like, days, weeks, months ... but when you go back to the present, it's only two minutes later. And every time you go back to 1958, you start over again - any previous changes you made are erased.

Turns out saving JFK was the dying man's dream, but he knows he can't do it. So he tasks the new guy with the job.

Jake (the new guy) eventually gets to Dallas on the title date, but it's a long five years, and the bulk of the book is how he gets there. Indeed, you're almost 90 percent of the way through the book before the title date, and once it's all over, there's a surprisingly short (and in retrospect obvious) look at how things changed after the event. (It's interesting that King, at the end of the book, credits others including Doris Kearns Goodwin with helping with that part. It almost seemed like he was trying to blame others for a weak point in the whole thing.)

Still, Steve's got a way of making you want to see what happens next, and while it moves slowly, it moves. (I'm tempted to say it's a cross between "The Stand" and "24" but I won't. Of course.)

What is interesting is that in King's last two books - "11/22/63" and "Under The Dome" - he is going back to ideas he had long before but didn't feel he was ready to tackle. Both, it might be noted, are heavy on political thinking. In "Under The Dome," the book all but blames right-wingers for the problem; "11/22/63" is a bit more nuanced, but again, the liberal area is peaceful and serene; it's the right wing who causes the problems. Personally, I sympathize with that viewpoint; still, it's a lot more political than he had been in the past. Sadly, political venom seems to have seeped into our society - now THERE'S a horror story - and it is probably inevitable that it has even affected all those small towns in Maine where Stephen King makes bad things happen.