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Voting Rights: Then and Now

Posted on 6/27/2013

On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, several hundred civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen viciously attacked them with batons and tear gas, driving the peaceful protesters back into Selma.

Two days later on March 9, Martin Luther King, Jr., led 2500 protestors peacefully across the bridge.

Next, civil rights leaders sought court protection for a third, full-scale march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson found, "The law is clear that the right to petition one's government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups...and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways."

On Sunday, March 21, over 3,000 marchers set out for Montgomery, walking 12 miles each day and sleeping alongside their route by night. 
When they reached Montgomery, on Thursday, March 25, the peaceful protest was 25,000-strong.

After the protestors' suffering was witnessed by our nation, President Johnson sent a voting rights bill to congress. He'd fought for, and won passage of President Kennedy's 1964 civil rights Act. The Civil Rights Act attempted to deal with the problem of African Americans being denied the vote in the Deep South, specifically stating that uniform standards must prevail for establishing the right to vote; but it failed. Schooling to sixth grade constituted legal proof of literacy, for example; and the Act gave power to the United States Attorney General was to initiate legal action in any area where he found a pattern of resistance to the law.

Yet, the March on Selma only confirmed what President Johnson already suspected -- that the voting provisions in the Civil Rights Act lacked teeth. Johnson would have to again persuade a resistant, and in many cases overtly racist congress to pass a Voting Rights Act. Johnson believed, "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes."
President Johnson sent the bill to Congress on March 17, 1965. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Act into law with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights leaders in attendance. Until this week, it was widely regarded as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation, in U.S. history.


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I was just a year old when all of this happened. If you are younger still, or pure of heart, or both you may think all of this is ancient history -- such laws would be unnecessary - that racial and gender discrimination are implicitly disallowed by the Constitution and that segregation would be disavowed by governments, state and federal. 
The Voting Rights Act was necessary and landmark, however, precisely because voting discrimination was widespread and, in many cases, sanctioned by law. This federal law ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and overt racial discrimination at the polls. The question for the U.S. Supreme Court in yesterday's newly historic ruling was whether racial minorities continue to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination.

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In 2005, I had the great honor of meeting John Lewis during my coverage of the fight for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. By law, certain provisions of the Act were set to expire, unless reauthorized by Congress. During my coverage, I traveled to Alabama, to walk with one of our greatest American heroes, John Lewis, who was one of the organizers and leaders of the March on Selma who was very nearly killed on that Bloody Sunday. Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, since then, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He has served our country as a member of Congress (D-GA), since 1986.

Every year he returns to Selma to march, and I was honored to march with him, as have been so many other Americans, black and white and brown and yellow, Democrat and Republican and Independent, young and old, over the years. As we walked, politics fell away, for we were reminded of our purpose as Americans, how far we have come in pursuit of our democratic ideals, and how far we have yet to travel.
During that commemorative march, which Alabamans call the Annual Jubilee I also met a dignified stately woman named Amelia Boynton Robinson who had marched 47 years before. I met civil rights pioneer Reverend F.D. Reese. And I met the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker gunned down by the Ku Klux Klan, just hours after participating in the 1965 March on Selma.
The annual march follows the route John Lewis took with Dr. King and other pioneers of the civil rights movement. 1965 was a long time ago, but not that long ago. In organizing the Freedom Rides, Lewis risked his life simply by sitting in seats reserved for whites. He was beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for daring to challenge the injustice of Jim Crow. During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities.

While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (together with Dr. King, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins). By the age of 23, Lewis was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the March on Washington in August 1963. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) once said, "I've seen courage in action on many occasions. I can't say I've seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis."

I have encountered Congressman Lewis on several occasions and have met many other congressmen and women, over the years. But no other honor has stayed with me, as has the meeting of congressman Lewis in that place, Selma - a place of honor, conscience, courage and change. 
After yesterday's ruling, John Lewis tweeted, "Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."


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In it's 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, the Court threw out Section 4 of the Act.

The holding voids a formula to determine which jurisdictions require "pre-clearance" from the federal government before they make any changes to their voting laws, effectively freeing officials to alter voting procedures at will until Congress authorizes a new formula.

Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act several times. The last was the reauthorization in 2006. At that time, a Republican House voted 390-33 and a Republican Senate voted 98-0 to send a renewal that authorized the law for 25 years to President Bush for his signature. Congress deciding that the Section 4 formula was still relevant seven years ago. Now a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has disagreed.

"In assessing the ‘current need' for a pre-clearance system treating States differently from one another today, history since 1965 cannot be ignored," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. He suggested that the current formula is based on "40-year-old data," and included a chart to demonstrate the success of the Voting Rights Act when it comes to increasing registration among African-Americans. The Court held that Congress "may draft another formula based on current conditions."

But Congress had already found the existing formula to be effective for determining which jurisdictions should require "pre-clearance." This it did after extensive reauthorization review.

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia are all covered under the current formula. It also covers some counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and local jurisdictions in Michigan, all areas that have demonstrated historic discrimination against African-Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaska Natives or Latinos.

The case brought by Shelby County was backed by "leading operatives and funders in the conservative movement along with Republican attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas."

Overturning Section 5 is in many respects the most important battle in the conservative war on voting. After the ruling in Shelby, Section 5 remains in tact. But without Section 4, Section 5 is dormant.

The immediate impact of the demise of Section 4 will lead to stricter voter ID laws, racially gerrymandered legislative maps and blocking of grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts.

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Justice Ginsberg wrote an impassioned dissent: "All told, between 1982 and 2006, DOJ objections blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory."

Pre-clearance had prevented discriminatory laws from taking effect.

Justice Ginsberg: "That determination of the body empowered to enforce the Civil War Amendments ‘by appropriate legislation' merits this Court's utmost respect ... In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress' decision."

Perhaps most profoundly, and reading her opinion from the bench, she quoted Dr. King: "[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." But as King prophesied and Justice Ginsberg reminds us, "there had to be a steadfast national commitment to see the task through to completion." The "sad irony" of the Shelby decision is that the majority sees a colorblind America that does not yet exist.

Memorial Day, This Year and Every Year

Posted on 5/26/2013

NEW YORK – Another Memorial Day is here: Cookouts, baseball games and parades. And that's okay; but let's not forget the real purpose of the day: To remember the men and women of our armed services who have died at war.

A soldier sits at a grave in Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2009

At Arlington National Cemetery, soldiers, sailors and marines from the U.S. Army Old Guard place flags at the grave stones there. It will take thirteen hundred soldiers three hours to place a flag at each of the more than 300,000 gravestones.

Thousands of visitors will pay their respects, not only at Arlington, but at the Long Island National Cemetery, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu and, of course, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.   All across the country, we will honor our war dead from the wars of the past twelve years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as wars we have fought since the founding of these United States.

There are even freshly placed flags flying over the graves of civil war veterans in Green Mount Cemetery in Montpelier and elsewhere. After all, this holiday was first enacted as Decoration Day, to commemorate Union soldiers from the Civil War, and later expanded to honor casualties of any military action.

But somehow Memorial Day has evolved to mark the unofficial start of summer. So, let us never forget, as we fire up the barbeque and head to the beach that, while we cookout and visit with our families, other families are separated by war. On Memorial Day 2009, members of our military deployed across the globe continue their service, in the knowledge that the next Memorial Day could also honor them.

That is why, when I put my children to bed at night, I tell them about the men and women who have died to protect their freedom. I tell them not just on Memorial Day, but often. I want them to honor those who have sacrificed their lives so that we can live ours in freedom.

A version of this post first appeared on CNN.com for Anderson Cooper 360, on Memorial Day 2009

The Trials of Boston: Massacre to Marathon and What it Teaches about Democracy

Posted on 4/23/2013

When the worst crime of 1770 occurred on a cold night in Boston — the “bloody butchery” of five patriots by nine British redcoats, no one would defend the soldiers accused of the crime.

Yet, John Adams took the case. “[N]o man in a free country should be denied right to counsel and a fair trial.” The young lawyer agreed to represent the men, in large part, on principle, to demonstrate the impartiality of our colonial courts – and the better nature of our colonial selves. Boston, after all, would become the birthplace of our democracy.

A famous depiction of the Boston Massacrewas engraved by Paul Revere.

The Boston Massacre trial, as came to be known, is our nation's famous example of a successful defense of person's charged with heinous crimes amidst popular suspicions and prejudices. Going into the case, the men were presumed guilty. But, as Adams instructed the jury, “facts are stubborn things,” and at the end of it, their captain was found not guilty of giving the order to fire. Of the remaining soldiers, six were acquitted and two were found guilty only of manslaughter, punished only with a branding of the letter “M” on their thumbs.  With his defense, Adams laid the groundwork for a criminal justice system rooted in the right to counsel, fair trial and the right against self-incrimination.

Despite this affiliation with the crown, John Adams of course went on to lead the colonies to separation, revolution and independence. Representing the soldiers he was standing for not just the men accused but the undergirding principles of our democracy, including the notion that the even the most reviled among us deserves full and vigorous representation.

In 2013, there can be little doubt Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the most reviled among us. He is has now reportedly admitted his role in planting and detonating an improvised explosive device that killed spectators at the historic Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day. For that, authorities have charged him with using a weapon of mass destruction. Tsarnaev is also charged with malicious destruction of property by means of an explosion that resulted in death. Both charges carry a potential death sentence.

Even thought Tsarnaev has been a U.S. citizen for a year, and has lived in this country for ten, some conservative lawmakers have been calling for him to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” under the 2001 resolution providing for the indefinite detention of non-citizens in the war against terrorism, specifically, “alleged members and supporters of al-Qaida or the Taliban.” The Obama administration has thus far rejected this notion (not surprising, given that the administration had previously announced its abandonment of the use of the term “enemy combatant,” in March 2009).

Tsarnaev, who is nineteen-years-old, apparently made his initial admissions without a lawyer present, under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, which requires police to advise suspects of their right to remain silent and have a lawyer present for questioning. Those admissions are leading to Tweets like this:

“Why does US taxpayer monies have to be wasted on defending Boston bomber. He did it, nuff said.”

And:

“…I hope those Boston terrorists burn in hell! :) ”

And:

“I will tell you right now. Boston wants him dead. So that’s what we already plan to do. The trial is just a waste of time.”

Those are not the principles that were celebrated on Patriots’ Day when the bombs went off, principles John Adams and our founders fought and, in many cases, gave their lives for, values for which thousands of American patriots have died defending for over two centuries. The right to counsel. The right to a fair trial. The presumption of innocence.

When our values come under attack, from any quarters, our response should be to defend them fiercely, not to sacrifice them in the face of fear. When we give in to our fears, and too easily let go of our most sacred democratic principles, the terrorists win.

Reporter's Diary: The Longview on Boston

Posted on 4/19/2013

Boston Marathon runner Ken Thomson, of Alpharetta, Ga, is interviewed by television reporters as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson airport after running in the Boston Marathon, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Photo: AP/ David Goldman

The professional life of a journalist is seeded with catastrophic events of the sort the country faced yesterday at the finish line at Copely Square. There are lessons we learn that can be helpful, as all we move forward with the telling of the story and the weeding through the facts, in Boston.

April 19 1995, a massive truck bomb exploded at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 children. It would become the first major news story of my career, followed by months spent in Denver covering the trials of the men responsible, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

I marveled as the nation came together around that tragedy. Then I covered the arrests, trials, and conspiracy theories, which persist to this day, interviewing the victims, their families and returning periodically to celebrate the rebirth of Oklahoma City.

But what did we learn from those tragic events and their aftermath?

In any fast-moving story, there is bound to be misinformation in the first 24-48 hour cycle – about the numbers injured or killed, about who did this and why.

In Oklahoma City, the context for speculation on the latter question was the first World Trade Center bombing that had occurred two years earlier. That led police, press and members of the public to suspect international terrorists, likely the same group that had carried out the bombing in New York. A man inconveniently named Ibrahim Ahmad, a Jordanian-American traveling from his home in Oklahoma City to visit family in Jordan on April 19, 1995, was arrested in what was described as an “initial dragnet.” But further investigation cleared Ahmad of any wrongdoing.

As luck would have it, a state trooper spotted Timothy McVeigh, driving on Interstate 35. He was not pulled over in connection with the bombing, but instead because he was driving without a license plate. He was then detained for illegal possession of a firearm. Soon forensics tied him to the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

McVeigh, and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, it turned out, were domestic terrorists — militia movement sympathizers looking for revenge against the federal government for its handling of the Waco Siege, which ended in the deaths of 76 people exactly two years prior. They hoped to inspire a revolt against what they considered to be a tyrannical federal government. Nichols was convicted in both federal and state court and is serving life with no possibility of parole in federal prison. I covered McVeigh’s execution in June 2001.

That September, however, came the story that would change everything. That’s when the planes hit. The first, then the second. So many people in Boston yesterday made the comparison to 9/11. The uncertainty, at first, about what was happening; and then, after the second blast, the powerful knowledge that something was terribly wrong. It was the same on 9/11. One plane, an accident perhaps. Two planes, certainly not.

I was born in the shadow of the World Trade Center. When I was a toddler, my father often took me to watch the construction of the two massive structures. I had never known a New York City without the Twin Towers, until September 11, 2001.

So, that morning, dispatched by ABC News to what would come be known as Ground Zero, as I approached that gutted and massive hole in the ground, I completely lost my bearings. I had no frame of reference without those towers.

I was at Ground Zero every day for two weeks. I reported on marines digging for survivors with their bare hands; volunteer fire fighters from all across the country joining the rescue mission; daycare workers who had saved scores of children before the towers fell. My crew was the first to gain access to what rescue workers called “The Pile” — bringing the world the very first images from within the smoking heap of rubble that was once Tower One. We also covered the last two survivors pulled from the rubble days after rescue workers had given up hope of finding anyone alive. That was September 14th. They had been trapped underground for days.

A journalist can never become a part of the story. But journalists do have the power to alter the course of events, if they lose their objectivity.

Which gets me to the story that reminds me most of what is happening in Boston today – the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in during the summer Olympics in 1996. I’ve covered that story three times in my career. First, when the summer Olympiad was disrupted by the explosion of a nail and pipe bomb at a concert there, killing a woman who had brought her daughter to hear the music and injuring more than 100 others, including a cameraman who suffered a fatal heart attack after the blast.

Within a few days, police charged Richard Jewell, a security guard at the concert. Jewell had initially discovered the explosive device on park grounds and alerted police. He had also helped evacuate the area, arguably saving lives and was initially hailed as a hero. I recall how quickly the media tide turned against him, however, as he became the prime suspect in the case. Jewell was never charged, but endured weeks of media coverage aggressively focused on him as the presumed bomber, labeling him with the term “person of interest.” We portrayed him as a failed police officer that may have planted the bomb to then “find” it and be hailed as a hero.

The actual evidence against Jewel was dubious at best, however. In October 1996, he was cleared of all responsibility in the bombing. But Jewell remained a suspect in the minds of many Americans. Attorney General Janet Reno later expressed regret that his name had ever been leaked to the media. “I’m very sorry it happened. I think we owe him an apology. I regret the leak.” That was in 1997.

In 1998, authorities tied a series of similar bombings across the country, to Eric Robert Rudolph. Rudolph was a 31-year-old carpenter with an anti-abortion and anti-gay agenda. I was one of many journalists who covered Rudolph, his agenda, and the extensive manhunt that finally brought him to justice. As part of an agreement to avoid a death sentence, Rudolph pleaded guilty to three bombings, including the Olympic Park bombing. He is serving four consecutive life terms in a maximum-security federal prison.

The third time I covered this story was in 2007. That was when Richard Jewell died of natural causes. He was suffering from severe heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. I felt it was important to take a look back at the case and reiterate, one last time, that he’d been innocent, all those years before. I wonder how many Americans still associate Jewell with the Olympic Park Bombing, how many Americans still think he’s guilty. Richard Jewell was 44-years-old when he died.

We got the Olympic Park Bombing case totally wrong. We accused the wrong person. And it literally took years to build a case against the right person, and finally find him guilty of the crime. This time around, in Boston we should take a step back – journalists, law enforcement, and members of the public — rather than make the same sort of mistake again. Given the depth and breadth of the evidence – hundreds of backpacks strewn about, a 15-block crime scene, tens of thousands of people in the vicinity of the blasts — this could, and should be the beginning of a very long process.

 

Our Greatest President

Posted on 2/12/2013

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

Today is the 104th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  More than 14,000 books have been written about Lincoln. Why the fascination? Simply put, Lincoln was the greatest president of the world’s greatest democracy.

Here’s why: Lincoln freed the slaves, including my ancestors, which, of course, makes me a bit partial. Lincoln, however, went beyond the Emancipation; he helped pioneer modern race relations by welcoming black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to the White House at a time when African-Americans were still less than full people as a matter of law.

Lincoln also represents the best of the American dream. Talk about bootstraps: Up from poverty all the way to the White House, a journey it would take most families generations to achieve, if ever they could, this extraordinary man managed it in a single, short lifetime.  Though Abe Lincoln received fewer than two years of formal education, he understood the power of the English language and used it change hearts and minds. He also knew when fewer words would serve well. The iconic Gettysburg address is just 10 sentences long. At Gettysburg, Lincoln brilliantly summarized the Civil War in two to three minutes.

Lincoln also understood the power of law to under-gird our democracy through changing societal norms, indeed great cultural shifts that would start at the grass roots level and work their way to Washington.  With his extraordinary understanding of our democracy, Lincoln bridged vision our founders – Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and James Madison, the father of our Constitution, to future leaders who we hope will continue in the understanding that "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth." 

Lincoln’s character was constant through America’s most difficult hour. Simply put, had the president been nearly any other than Lincoln at that moment in our history, the “United States” would likely not be.  As they say, the times make the man.  But the wrong man in a nation’s hour of need can be even a great power’s undoing.  As history has shown, in the worst cases, it can lead to anarchy or, worse, dictatorship.

Abraham Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth inflicted the mortal wound — a single shot to the head that would have killed most men instantly. Lincoln, however, held on for almost ten hours, and finally succumbed on April 15, 1865. He was 56-years-old.

Lincoln died just days after the Civil War ended. But our greatest president laid the groundwork for this to become the greatest of nations.

Taking a Pass on Football for the Next Generation

Posted on 1/31/2013

Last year, after Superbowl XLVI, I contributed the following post to WNYC radio's political website, "It's a Free Country," about football and my father.  I am reposting it now, as millions of American's gear up to watch this Sunday's big game.  As President Ronald Reagan once observed, "Football is the last thing left in civilization where men can literally fling themselves bodily at one another in combat and not be at war."  

Enjoy the game. If you can.

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On Sunday night, I watched the Super Bowl with a hundred million other Americans.  It was a better Super Bowl than most. Exciting to the end, even though the Steelers never took the lead. The ads, the halftime show. It has become part of American tradition. But I didn’t enjoy the game as much — or in the same way — as I used to.

I used to watch football with my father. He played football in college, for the University of Indiana, on a full scholarship. By the time I was born, he had long ago hung up his helmet in favor of a hardhat, but the television was always on for football. And very occasionally, he would scrape together enough money to take me to see the Giants or the Jets or even the Eagles at the stadium.

My father understood football as only a player can, from the field point of view — and he taught me the ins and outs of the game: the artistry of a good quarterback, the value of a good defensive playbook, when to run the ball, when to run the clock, how to slow an opponent’s pass rush and open up opportunities for wide receivers (the position my father played), and on and on. I was the son my father never had and that was fine with me.

This season, my father would probably say that the Eagles' Michael Vick is the best running quarterback in the NFL. I would have to stifle my inclination to bring up politics (you know, the thing about the dogs) and I would argue instead that the best running QB in the NFL is definitely the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. My father would probably see through this, remembering that I went to UC Berkeley. So did Rodgers. My father always said that I am loyal to a fault.

So, my father and I would have had some fun with this Vick/Rodgers debate while we watched the Super Bowl — especially, since neither of us would have cared that much. Vick wasn't even in it. And we are both Jets fans, anyway.

But we didn't watch the Super Bowl together. Instead, my father was tucked into his bed at his nursing home. My mother tells me he was already asleep when she left at 6:30 last night. I doubt very much my father even knew the Super Bowl was on.

My father suffers from Parkinson’s disease. The initial onset was slow. But the dementia that comes in the later stages of the disease has progressed rapidly in the last several months.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It impairs motor skills and cognitive processes. Famous people with the disease include Michael J. Fox and my father’s hero, Mohammad Ali (my father also spent some time in the boxing ring). That may help to bring to mind the awful symptoms: rigidity, slowness and the signature tremor. As you can imagine, for an athlete, these symptoms are terribly frustrating.

The disease usually appears around the age of 60. I guess my father got lucky. He wasn’t diagnosed until age 70. This is the first year we didn’t watch the Super Bowl together.

Parkinson’s is idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause, although some cases have a genetic origin. That’s why there is a huge political component to the disease. Michael J. Fox has been fighting hard for research that would include stem cell transplants, which conservative groups oppose for religious reasons.

In my father’s case, however, I believe — and his doctors do too — that repeated concussions triggered the disease, especially given no family history of Parkinson’s.

Which gets me back to football.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the sport. And for good reason. My father was born dirt poor. When I use the expression, I mean it quite literally. My father and his siblings grew up during the Great Depression, orphaned and in poverty, with dirt for floors.

He was black in a segregated state and had no money for college; he most definitely would not have gone but for track and football scholarships. Football paid for his room, board and books. It allowed him to travel to Mexico where he studied art and architecture and met my mother.

But my father paid a high price for that opportunity. He played in the days of leather helmets and his brain felt every blow. My mother, who grew up on football in Texas, stopped going to the games because she could not enjoy seeing my father and his friends brutalized, play after play.

Of course, fifty years later, the medicine, technology and equipment have improved tenfold. When he could still debate this issue with me, my father would say that the modern equipment like neck rolls, spider pads, elbow pads, and rib protectors (he called them flak jackets, harkening back to his army days, I guess) help against injury. But the jury is still out on whether the new equipment really can soften the blow of a brutal game.  I said to my father then, and I still say now, that football players pay a price for the opportunities they seek, even today.

Most of that equipment does not address the concussion issue. And even though players now wear padded plastic helmets (my father wore one too, in the later years of his career), their brains still roll around inside their skulls, sustaining injury, the very definition of concussion. Even now, players are sent back onto the field to play through concussions when we know very well they should not.

As much as I love the sport, I love my father more.  And I love my son. I always thought he would play football, like his grandfather. But then I did my homework.

You don't have to look far. They did a great segment not too long ago on The Takeaway. There are 41,000 concussions every year among high school players. As far as I’m concerned, you are lucky if your kid doesn’t make it out of high school to play in college. If he gets that far, pray he sits on the bench and the coach tells him he doesn't have enough talent for the NFL.

While the Concussions Committee of the NFL generally denies that concussions result in permanent brain injury, a 2009 National Health Interview Survey showed increased incidence memory loss and dementia retired professional football players related to the effects of concussion. More rigorous research is being conducted by Dr. Ira Casson, a neurologist, for the NFL.

But I don’t think I need to see more. I see my father. My son sees him too. We are grateful to football for the leg up it gave to our family. Without it we might never have had access to the American Dream. But I am resolved that my son’s next steps toward fulfilling his dreams will not be running down the field, looking for a pass.

 

 

 

 

 

My Afternoon with Petraeus

Posted on 1/30/2013

Jami Floyd interviews Gen. David Petraeus at the White House in October. (courtesy Jami Floyd)


Not two weeks ago, I met David Petraeus. I "interviewed" the general, in his capacity as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for the "White House Fellows" annual Leadership Conference in Washington. I write interview in quotes because the substance of our annual meetings is off the record; but the fact of our meeting is not. So, I can report that I spent well over two hours with General Petraeus, first in the so-called Green Room, and then on stage, in close proximity to this famous, and now infamous, man.

I make it a professional point not to make judgments about the people I am about to interview. I don’t like them or dislike them, as much as I can help it, until after our conversation. My job is simply to elicit answers to my pointed questions so that my audience can form an opinion. It is not for me to do the opining. 

But some things cannot be ignored. For one thing, General Petraeus did something few others do: He arrived on time. On the dot. He was very unassuming for so important a person, with a very small entourage. Just two secret service agents, a small number, I thought for Director of the CIA, post 9/11. No secretary, no aide-de-camp, no biographer.

Then demeanor. The general was more personable than other military men I’ve interviewed. It was as if we’d met many times before, though we never had. I thought to myself, This man could run for president, and made a mental note to ask him if he had that intention.

Of course, the retired general has long been known for his skillful courtship of journalists. Some would call it an affair with the press. That carefully developed relationship, I think it’s fair to say, brought him a career's worth of favorable headlines and has, perhaps, softened the coverage of his fall from grace. Petraeus accomplished this in part by granting reporters access. That is how he met biographer Paula Broadwell, after all, when she initiated a case study of his leadership.

A few days later, the news of their affair broke. Had there been a hint? I reflected. Agitation? None. Distraction? Not at all. If this scandal was brewing when we met, either David Petraeus knew nothing of it, or he’s the coolest customer around.

As for the affair itself, other than the fact that he’s a male, and he’s been married 38 years, there was nothing to suggest it. He’d seemed so disciplined. All that exercise. And he was not at all flirtatious in the way of most Washington men. He was crisp, focused, all business. In a word: military.

But here we are, with a baffling and bizarre turn of events, a Shakespearean scandal that now apparently leads to the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Most Americans are asking themselves, What on earth happened?! But not me. Because nothing surprises me anymore. Every few months, it seems, we hear of some politically powerful person caught up in a scandal:

Truly. How can one be surprised after we’ve lived through the sordid affairs of Bill Clinton. Eliot Spitzer. Mark Sanford. Anthony Weiner. John Edwards. Herman Cain. Arnold Schwarzenegger. DSK.

I mean, really. The list is so long that I can’t possibly name them all here. And just take a moment to recall the tawdry facts associated with some of these stories: The blue dress, Client No. 9, the underwear photos, allegations of rape in a hotel room, one baby born to the nanny and another born to a mistress while the cheating man’s wife is dying of cancer.

Then there are the institutions irreparably harmed by flawed leaders and their lapses of judgment: The Catholic Church. The Boy Scouts. Penn State. The U.S. Military. The White House.

As a journalist, I have covered countless cases of politicians brought down by scandal. In the last year alone, I have participated in myriad panels and have given several talks on the topic. The title changes slightly, with each new iteration; but the theme is always the same: Leaders losing sight of their mission, brought down because of sex, power and hubris.

An 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that people with power are more likely to cheat than the average person. In a large, anonymous survey of 1,561 professionals, the researchers found that power is linked to confidence, and those with high confidence tend to stray. Among the powerful, with more men than women in positions of power, most adulterers were male. But I have a different theory that goes beyond just the numbers. And it comes from my short time studying and reflecting on David Petraeus.

While the Petraeus story is still evolving and may turn out to be about much more than just good sex, the retired general himself may give us a window into of root cause of this recurring problem. As a boy, David Howell Petreaus was no doubt taught to be strong, tough, domineering and aggressive. These are the messages we give all American boys, first through Disney fairy tales and later in tales of war.

War stories and macho mythology would be better if tempered by the message that it is okay to cry, to feel vulnerable and to treat girls and women with respect. But we teach none of these things. Instead, boys with outsize talent – like David Petraeus -- grow into men who are emotionally unprepared for the kind of power they ultimately realize. 

As the mother of a young son, I believe we must redefine what means to be a man. We must dig deep into the American psyche to confront the old ways in which we have been raising our sons. By now, we should certainly understand that the bad behavior of these great men is painful not only to their wives and children, but to the constituencies they serve – constituencies in desperate need of leadership. And these are times that call for leadership. 

When I met General Petraeus I thought I was in the presence of a great leader. Perhaps I was. But that leadership has been entirely undone. Until Friday, Petraeus had a glittering career. He was a four-star general lauded as the architect of the US counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. Now he is disgraced and impotent. We’ve got to do better, for the sake of our country. It is time for us to grow up, as a country of boys, and men.

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This post originally appeared on WNYC.org.

How Far Have We Come Since Lincoln?

Posted on 1/30/2013

Lincoln


On this date, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. I did not know the date until yesterday, when my 10-year-old son proudly and loudly announced it, as we waited to purchase tickets for the new movie, Lincoln, which stars Daniel Day Lewis as our nation's sixteenth president. The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, opens with the powerful words of that speech, as memorized by Civil War soldiers, black and white. My son has memorized it as well. He is black and white, and Native American too.

He is also a bit of a geek. But memorizing it is not a huge task. The address is notable for its brevity as much as its brilliance. By most counts, Lincoln delivered only 263 words at Gettysburg that day (forty-six fewer than I write here). The president understood the limitations of language. He said so in the speech itself: "[T]he world will little note nor long remember what we say here." Perhaps no president understood more that it is a person’s actions that will define his legacy more than any words he utters.

My son gave a little lecture as we waited for the movie to start. The Gettysburg Address, he told me (and all within earshot), was not well received - a lukewarm reception, at best. (He nudged me when this historical fact was referenced in the film.) 

Over time, of course, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become a national treasure, a symbol not only of the great man, but also of the great nation we can be - if we appeal to our greater natures. 

It would take another year and a half of bloody battle to achieve the goals Lincoln outlined that day. Lincoln brokered peace, but did not live to shepherd the nation through Reconstruction. Nor could he envision amendments giving African Americans and women the right to vote, let alone a black man in the Oval Office.

All of that change is part of the promise of America, the equality of opportunity he envisioned when he wrote: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this content, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition all men are created equal." The speech that Lincoln described as a "failure" when he delivered it has been imbued with solemnity and import, over time.

Now, it is for us to ask, with all that we have achieved, have we yet reached the larger objective Lincoln envisioned for us, as a functional democracy in the 21st century. Leadership is difficult, especially in times of global change. Very few have the wisdom to lead a nation. The difficulties my son and his generation are confronting today will give them the insights, humility and humanity to open new paths for America. Leadership is most often made from hard circumstances, not abstract ideas in ivory towers. Our best policy at present should be to encourage the fastest and fullest involvement of young people in the political process. 

The ultimate meaning of the Gettysburg Address is the last line: A united “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That is what Lincoln stood for in word and deed, in life and death. And so should we.

 

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This post originally appeared on WNYC.org.

Why Roe v. Wade is not like a Typewriter

Posted on 1/30/2013


January 22, 2013

 

Forty years ago, The Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, with a 7-2 vote in favor of the plaintiff, Norma L. McCorvey, whose alias was Jane Roe.

It was a complicated ruling, with a companion decision in Doe v. Bolton, but ultimately the Court ruled that a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

Pro-choice rally, 1971

AP Photo: Demonstrators rally for a repeal of all anti-abortion laws in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 1971.

One in three U.S. women will undergo an abortion by the time she is 45 years old. Almost half of them are married or living with their significant other, and 73 percent of them are affiliated with a religion.

While Roe remains a controversial decision, women in this country pretty much take their right to an abortion, or at least their ready access to one, for granted. And none of us under the age of 45 remember the days of illegal abortion that predated Roe, the days of back alley abortions and the infamous “coat hangar” procedures that all too often resulted in loss of fertility and, in the worst cases, the life of the woman in question.

Life for women before Roe v. Wade

Dr. Waldo Fielding does, however, remember. He is a retired obstetrician and gynecologist. In a 2008 piece for The New York Times, he recalls those days with heartfelt professional insight.

The worst case I saw… and one I hope no one else will ever have to face, was that of a nurse who was admitted with what looked like a partly delivered umbilical cord. Yet as soon as we examined her, we realized that what we thought was the cord was in fact part of her intestine, which had been hooked and torn by whatever implement had been used in the abortion. It took six hours of surgery to remove the infected uterus and ovaries and repair the part of the bowel that was still functional.

The doctor offers such grisly detail for the essential context it provides. Conditions and results such as these were precisely what motivated the fight for the right to choose.

Demonstration protesting anti-abortion candidate at the Democratic National Convention, 1976, LOC, Photo by Warren Leffler

This is the painful landscape in which Roe v. Wade was rooted. In 1970, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, two women’s rights lawyers were looking for a plaintiff to challenge the nation’s laws limiting access to abortion.

They found their “Jane Roe” in a poor 21-year-old woman who was unemployed and pregnant. Norma Nelson was born in Louisiana, but raised in Texas in a single parent home by a violent, alcoholic mother. She dropped out of high school at the age of 14 to marry Woody McCorvey — but he was abusive and she left him, moving back in with her mother and giving birth to her first child at age sixteen.

The following year, Norma McCorvey became pregnant again. This time, she placed the baby with an adoption service. When Norma told her mother she might be gay, her mother disowned her and took custody of Norma’s first-born child.

In 1969, at the age of 21, while working low-paying jobs and living with her father, Norma became pregnant for the third time. Friends advised her to assert falsely that she had been raped. That would have made her eligible for a legal abortion, as Texas’s law allowed for abortion in cases of rape and incest. Due to lack of police evidence or documentation, however, the scheme was not successful. Norma then attempted to obtain an illegal abortion, but the authorities had closed all suspect clinics.

That’s when Norma found attorneys Coffee and Weddington, and their three-year odyssey to the Supreme Court began. (Norma’s third child, meanwhile, was born and adopted.) Days after the Roe decision came down, Norma McCorvey explained that she had wanted the abortion because she was unemployable and extremely depressed.

In recent years, however, McCorvey has converted to Catholicism, joined the pro-life movement and stated that she is “no longer a lesbian.” In the 1980′s McCorvey went so far as to state that she had been a pawn of the two lawyers in their search for a plaintiff through whom they could challenge the laws limiting abortion. No doubt the lawyers would have found many other women, similarly situated — unmarried, unemployed, emotionally unable to care for children — who could have been Jane Roe.

The abortion debate rages on.

Roe v. Wade was not the end of the debate over women’s reproductive rights, however. Women’s reproductive rights are still being challenged today.

Just this month, Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the issue on his still popular radio program:

“You know how to stop abortion,” he quipped in response to a caller who compared legalized abortion to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that happened just before Christmas. “Require that each one occur with a gun.”

Rush Limbaugh is not alone.

A group called Americans United for Life released its annual “Life List” this week. The list celebrates states with the greatest number of restrictions on abortion, states they see as the most protective of human life. The group named Louisiana as America’s “most protected” state, while Washington was deemed the “least protected.”

And it’s no wonder the Pelican State won those kudos from a pro-life non-profit. Last summer, Louisiana passed a law requiring women to wait 24 hours between the time they undergo mandatory ultrasounds and the time they terminate their pregnancies. This includes a requirement that the fetal heartbeat be audible unless the woman ask that it not be. And — unless the woman is a victim of rape, and has reported it — she must listen to a description of the ultrasound, as well.

The mission of organizations like Americans United for Life and other pro-life groups is clear: To defend human life from conception to natural death. Moreover, they are not a fringe minority. Twenty-nine percent of registered voters say they would like the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The real issue

Abortion is still what the pundits like to call a “hot button issue.” But Roe v. Wade and abortion are not interchangeable terms. The Supreme Court did not create, invent or even increase the rate of abortion with its decision in the landmark case. Abortion has been a reality since the beginning of human intercourse and ingenuity. By some accounts, the first abortion was performed as early at 1550 BCE in ancient Egypt.

Abortion was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived. Founder James Wilson explained it thus:

With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and in some cases, from every degree of danger.

Compare that to the language of Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade:

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the “compelling” point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulation protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justifications. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Justice Blackmun understood the evolution of the law in this area. In the mid-to-late 1800′s, states began passing laws that made abortion illegal. The motivations for anti-abortion laws varied from state to state, but one of the principle reasons included fears that the population would be dominated by the children of newly-arriving immigrants, whose birth rates were higher than those of native Anglo-Saxon women. Of course, the incidental cost was in the lives of women of all races, in the 19th and 20th centuries, who could no longer obtain abortions legally and were forced into primitive and suspect termination procedures.

Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority in Roe, did not manufacture a new medical procedure. He simply recognized a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy in a medically accepted setting, in consultation with a medical professional, and in constitutional privacy.

How quickly we forget

My childhood memories include images of women marching on Washington first to secure, and then to preserve the right to choose. Just as many people marched with pro-life signs painted mostly in red.

Now, a new Pew Research Center poll finds that just 44 percent of Americans between the ages 18-49 know that Roe v. Wade is about abortion. They do not know that it protects their right to privacy and their right to choose.

And those folks who do remember Roe (according to Pew, that’s six out of ten Americans) may not realize that things have changed since 1973.

New precedents have emerged from the Supreme Court (in 1992 and 2007) that have reinterpreted Roe v. Wade. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey upheld a central part of Roe v. Wade, saying that women were still allowed to make their own decisions, but at the same time allowed for more government regulation and less privacy. As long as state restrictions did not create “undue burden” on a woman, they were permissible. What constitutes undue burden is still being debated.

Then, in 2007, in a highly controversial decision, the justices upheld a ban on late term, or so-called “partial-birth abortions.” This procedure is performed later in pregnancy and involves delivering the fetus after collapsing its skull. The ruling was noteworthy because it did not include an exception that would make it legal to perform the procedure when a woman’s life was in danger and there were no other medical options.

The same Pew Research Poll found that, once young people understand what Roe v. Wade is, they want it to stand. Fewer than one-third — 27 percent — of that age group wants to see the ruling overturned. Young people seem to believe that the question of whether or not they are in charge of what they do with their bodies is settled law. But it’s not. We can never be complacent about our civil rights.

It may seem like a world without the right to self-determination about your body is like going back to a world with rotary phones and typewriters and diesel engines. But unlike the tangible, our civil rights can disappear if we are complacent about them.

It is time for us to remind our daughters (and sons) about the decision that came down forty years ago today. Because the next generation can’t discuss, debate or defend a woman’s right to choose if they don’t understand what it means to live in a world without it.

 

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This post originally appeared on pbs.org.

 

Update in the Voter ID Wars from the Battleground State of Pennsylvania

Posted on 10/8/2012

Six weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a wrongheaded ruling upholding that state’s new voter ID law. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the case back for further review. 

This time, the Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson, Jr., has arrived at a slightly more rational rationale. The decision he issued last Tuesday should greatly reduce the risk of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters—those who happen not to drive, for example, or have not otherwise needed a state-issued photo identification card before this election cycle.

Let’s be clear precisely which voters we are talking about: Poor voters. Elderly voters. Black and brown voters. Students. Voters who are ill or infirm. With Judge Simpson’s new ruling, these folks will not be forced to travel to state bureaucratic offices, simply to wait in line for hours, all for a card they will use only for one purpose – to exercise their right to vote. 

National Public Radio’s Pam Fessler explored the difficulties of obtaining a voter I.D. card in the state, in this eye-opening piece last month, in which she accompanied two women battling the bureaucracy as they sought to obtain the proper identification in advance of Judge Simpson’s decision to invalidate the requirement that they do so.

So what did Judge Simpson say? His ruling precludes election officials from requiring registered voters to show the new state photo identification card in order to get access to a regular ballot. That is because voter disenfranchisement was occurring -- and would have continued to occur -- had the new law been enforced in this election cycle. Like the law in South Carolina about which I wrote last week, the November contest is simply too close for comfort, he decided.

But don’t pop the bubbly, just yet. Because here is what the judge did not say? He did not say the voter ID law in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional on its face.  He did not say the measure illegally burdens voters. In other words, Judge Simpson’s ruling on Tuesday does not mean the fight in Pennsylvania is over for good.

Republicans are vowing to salvage the law. After Judge Simpson, a Republican himself, issued his decision, officials with the GOP immediately said they will continue to back the law, despite its undemocratic underpinnings and the obvious intent to keep certain kinds of registered voters from polls.

Every war is won battle by battle, however. And Pennsylvania just bought itself some time to fully litigate the effects of this law without the pressure of a national election hanging in the balance.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." The quote is widely attributed to that greatest of all Pennsylvanians, Ben Franklin and in this context means that true freedom requires the right to vote for all Americans be protected from the "wolves" of Democratic government and the majority.  

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This post originally appeared on WNYC.org.

Laws Restricting the Right to Vote are Wrong

Posted on 9/28/2012

With the presidential election just a few weeks away, a panel of federal judges this week questioned whether South Carolina should wait until 2014 to put its voter ID law into effect.

As attorneys for South Carolina delivered closing arguments in the trial over the validity of a new state law in the state, the three judges in the case pondered whether the law would discriminate against minorities.  Last December, the Justice Department refused to "preclear" the law — find it complies with the Voting Rights Act — so it could go into effect.

Voter identification laws have become a major point of contention in this year's presidential election, given the close race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, a Democrat.  These laws could prevent key constituencies from voting, making a difference for Democrats in tight races.

While supporters have pitched the laws as tools against voter fraud and to build confidence in the election system, the laws are in reality a Republican response to 2008's record turnout of African-American and Hispanic voters.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law in 2008, and Georgia's top court upheld that state's voter ID law. But a three-judge federal panel struck down Texas' voter ID law, and state courts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have blocked those states' voter ID laws  -- for now. The Justice Department cleared New Hampshire's voter ID law earlier this year.

The South Carolina law requires voters to show a driver's license or other photo identification issued by the Motor Vehicles Department, a passport, military photo identification or a voter registration card with a photo on it.

Asking questions from the bench, the judges pointed out that if they allow South Carolina to implement the law, voters in the Palmetto State would not have much time before the November 6th election to get the required forms of identification.

Democrats say the South Carolina law, and others like it, have a disproportionate effect on poor communities and among minorities and the elderly. Of course, these are voters who tend to vote for Democrats. But its interest in the case doesn't make the party wrong about these wrong-headed requirements.

Yes, we need to be concerned about voter fraud. At the same time, voter ID requirements are terribly reminiscent of literacy tests and the post-reconstruction requirement that African Americans, long denied an education in this country, sign their names before voting.  Any court that examines these requirements is right to question their intent and implementation to ensure comportment with the civil right to vote.

A decision in the South Carolina case is expected in early October and could have national implications; it is expected to continue up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This post originally appeared on WNYC.org.

Review | Power Play: Toobin’s Take on the Rocky Relationship of the Obama Administration and the Roberts Court

Posted on 9/26/2012

It is not just a title.  It is the beginning for Jeffrey Toobin.  He starts his new book with the oath.  The president's oath, that is:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Actually, Toobin starts one day after, that oath was administered to Barack Obama by Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts.  Thus, Toobin opens his new book, The Oath: The Obama White House and The Supreme Court, on January 21, 2009 with a constitutional question.

The Chief Justice had botched the oath during President Obama's inauguration. (Remember that?)  It makes for a light and entertaining start, but it also presents a constitutional crisis.  Is Obama the president?  Does anyone out there really think he's not the president?

"Out of an abundance of caution," the two men decided to execute a "do-over."

"I absolutely believe in belt and suspenders," Roberts said at the White House, just before he administered the oath for a second time.  "This is absolutely the right thing to do."

Nevertheless, Toobin suggests, the relationship between the Roberts Court and the Obama White House has been tense, if not downright confrontational, ever since.     

I have read all of Jeffrey Toobin's books:  From Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer's First Case, which is, in part, about an attorney I used to work with in the early days of my career; to The Run of His Life, about the OJ Simpson trial, which Toobin and I covered together (with every other television lawyer in the country); toThe Nine, about the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court and which many critics call Toobin's finest work.  But my personal favorite, until now, was Too Close to Call

It is an odd choice for a favorite, perhaps.  After all, who wants to tuck in with a book about the tedious topic of the "Tallahassee Recount?"  But leave it to Jeffrey Toobin to make even the counting and recounting of chads interesting.                               

In case you have forgotten, "chad" refers to the tiny paper fragment made infamous after the incalculably close presidential election between then Vice President Al Gore and then Texas Governor George W. Bush.  Back in the year 2000, the state of Florida used Votomatic punch cards.

The result was 175, 037 incompletely punched ballots. That meant no votes cast, but only partially punched cards, with tiny bits of paper — chads — still attached.  The Twentieth Century Votomatic machines couldn't count a chad.        

The result?  A presidential election potentially separated by only a few hundred ballots.   And the Tallahassee Recount:  Five weeks of human eyeballs examining all those:

  • hanging chads (attached to the ballot by a single corner),
  • swinging chads (attached to the ballot at two corners),
  • tri-chads (do I really have to define it?)
  • dimpled chads (a chat that has been punched, but all four corners are still attached), and
  • my favorite reference of all, pregnant chads (a more colorful reference for the "dimpled" chad.

But then, the counting suddenly stopped.  The Supreme Court essentially decided the outcome, instead. George W. Bush would be the 43rd President of the United States.  Al Gore would not. Game over.

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple and entire books were written about Bush v. Gore, but none better than Jeffrey Toobin's for its lucid, yet entertaining examination of that critical moment in jurisprudential history.  Too Close to Call, while it could have been boring, dry, dull, was anything but.  The writing was colorful, insightful and most of all, readable.

Now, twelve years later, different president, different Supreme Court, and Toobin picks up where he left off, with the delicate balance of power between the executive and judicial branches that undergirds our democracy.  He tells this story with the same fluidity and clarity. Yet, Toobin has matured as a writer, using his expert reportorial skills to compare and mostly contrast the leaders of these two branches in the new millennium.  Two of the most powerful men in the world, each in "robust middle age," brilliant and charismatic and each determined to change the course of American history. 

But as Toobin points out at the very start of the book, these men are completely at odds on almost every major constitutional issue.  And contrary to popular belief, it is the Chief Justice who is the activist and President Obama who is the constitutional conservative.  It seems an outrageous premise: Obama a conservative?  Roberts an activist?  Yet, this thoughtful analysis is precisely what makes Toobin the premiere Supreme Court observer of his generation.

As Toobin points out, the battle between the Court and the Executive branch often has been bitter.  But rarely has it been so public.  One example: President Obama's 2010 State of the Union address in which he broke with protocol to criticize the Roberts Court's controversial Citizen's United decision.  That case removed restrictions on political spending by corporations and freed them to flood the airwaves with (anti-Obama) advertising.  Yet, now the two men are linked in history because of Robert's astonishing vote to uphold Obama's controversial Affordable Care Act.

With the election just weeks away, The Oath, could not be better timed.  An Obama victory would mean conservatives could lose their 5-4 majority on the Court, especially given frequent speculation that some of the more senior Justices are likely to step down during the next term.  Meanwhile, the Roberts Court has accepted cases on many issues at the core of the conservative movement.  As Toobin deftly illustrates, never in so short a period have so many issues fundamental to the social fabric of the country come before the Justices:

  • Women's rights
  • The right to bear arms
  • Free speech
  • Church and state
  • The death penalty

Toobin's book comes out the same week we celebrate the 225th signing of the U.S. Constitution.  For all our jingoism in this country, few people took note of that anniversary. The framers envisioned law as having authority apart from politics. They gave Supreme Court Justices life tenure to eliminate the need to curry political favor and ensure their ability to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. In law school we learn that our legal system is designed to keep law and politics separate precisely because they are so closely linked in society.

At the same time, we learned that constitutional law is inherently political because it results from choices deeply rooted in social ideas: life, liberty and property (the happiness reference is in the Declaration of Independence, but never made it into the Constitution). So, when the Justices deal with policy issues, the law is inescapably political — which is why decisions split along ideological lines and Justices gain reputations as "liberal" or "conservative."                       

Ergo the brilliance of Toobin's book, at this time.  Among the Court's more than eighty rulings in the last term, 16 were split decisions, 5-4.  In ten of those, the Justices were divided along ideological lines, with Justice Kennedy providing the fifth "conservative" swing vote.

  • In the widely reported Wal-Mart case, the Court made it far more difficult for class action lawsuits to proceed;
  • The Justices wiped out the ability of citizens to hold prosecutors accountable even when they hide exculpatory evidence and send innocent people to prison;
  • They struck down public matching funds in Arizona's campaign finance system. 

The Arizona case reflects the same disdain for laws that provide balance to the unlimited amounts of money flooding the political system that we saw in Citizens United.  Indeed, many court watchers feel all of these rulings and suggest a trending to the right, led by Chief Justice Roberts, with the conservative majority further expanding the ability of moneyed interests to prevail against the interests of consumers and workers, and in electoral politics.                                                                              

Which gets us back to Bush v. Gore. The idealists among us, myself included, believe there remains a faint line between the Court and politics. I can still see that line, despite the decisions that remind me of that dreary December day in Tallahassee when the ballot counting stopped and a Republican-led Rehnquist Court decided Bush v. Gore.                                                                                                                        

When President Obama took office eight years later, he may have thought his greatest obstacle would be an obstructionist Republican led Congress.  Instead, The Oathreveals the greatest threat to the President's agenda is the Roberts led Supreme Court.  In The Oath, Toobin vividly portrays these two dominant personalities as they engage in a political battle to determine the course of American history.

 

At the Intersection of Sports and Politics, My Father is Silent: Bad Call Goes Unnoticed by A Man Who Loved The Game

Posted on 9/26/2012

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My father loved football. I can't remember a weekend in my childhood that the television wasn't on, the sounds of football (complete with my father's play-by-play and color commentary) filling the living room. He enjoyed other sports too – baseball, basketball, track and field, boxing. In fact, my father never met a sport he didn't like. But football was his first love, because football paved his way from poverty, to college, to graduate school.

My father was born dirt poor. When I say “dirt” I mean “dirt.” The floors of his childhood home were literally dirt and nothing more. No shoes, tattered clothing, one meal a day. He was orphaned at age eight. 

At his segregated high school, in Gary, Indiana, however, he ran like a bullet for the track team and was fast enough that scouts passing by the track one afternoon spotted him and offered him a football scholarship to the University of Indiana. He played running back, tight end and wide receiver; and while he loved the game he was the consummate student-athlete, staying up all night to study, often falling asleep on his books.

He'd just graduated college when he was drafted for the Korean War. When it was over, he too old for the NFL, but still good enough to play overseas. So he went to Mexico to suit up for the Aztecas, which also allowed him to pursue a Masters in Fine Arts at the University of the Americas near Mexico City. This put him in contact with Diego Rivera, one of the greatest artist of the day. This is also where my father met my mother. Football made all of this possible.

But football did something else. It damaged my father's brain. I speak of my father in the past tense not because he is dead. But he is not the man he used to be. Far from it. He cannot speak. Most days he does not recognize me. I cannot watch football with him. Not like I used to. 

This week, when millions of "Monday Night Football" viewers saw the Packers intercept a Hail Mary pass in the end zone, a game-ending play in Seattle that clinched a hard-fought victory, my father missed it.

And when the replacement official closest to the play a winning touchdown by the Seahawks saw something else – a winning touchdown - I could not rant and rave with my father, the way I would have done, once upon a time. 

By Tuesday morning, the outrage surrounding the touchdown call — the most egregious of many gaffes by replacement officials during the season's first three weeks — had fans, players and even broadcast partners questioning the credibility of the nation's most successful sports league. President Barack Obama, a Bears fan slogging through a re-election campaign, took a moment to weigh in, "We've got to get our refs back."

Even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who Walker went after Wisconsin's public employees unions last year, then survived a recall election that arose largely from the union attacks, is wishing for the return of the union refs. He tweeted: After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs

But my father remains silent.

My father suffers from Parkinson's Syndrome. The initial onset was slow. But the dementia that comes in the later stages of the disease has progressed rapidly in the last several months.

In case you are unfamiliar with it, Parkinson Syndrome (related to Parkinson's Disease) is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. It impairs motor skills and cognitive processes. My father's hero, Mohammad Ali also suffers from the Syndrome, which may help to bring to mind the symptoms: rigidity, slowness and the inability to speak clearly. As you can imagine, for an athlete, these symptoms are terribly frustrating. For proud articulate men, they are emotionally devastating.

Parkinson's is idiopathic, meaning there is no known cause, although some cases have a genetic origin. That's why there is a huge political component to the disease. Michael J. Fox has been fighting hard for research that would include stem cell transplants, which conservative groups oppose for religious reasons.

In my father's case, however, I believe — and his doctors do too — that repeated concussions triggered the disease, especially given no family history of Parkinson's.  My mother says she stopped going to Azteca games because she couldn't stand watching my father passed out on the field. And this was back in the 1950s, long before we know what we know today about concussions. 

This week, when everyone is talking about The Bad Call by NFL replacement refs, a story that is at the intersection of sports and politics, my father's two favorite topics, I miss my father most of all. I am grateful to football for the leg-up it gave to my father and family. Without it he might never have had access to the American Dream. But it also robbed my grandchildren of their grandfather, too early.

This blog first appeared on the WNYC News website on September 26, 2012 at wnyc.org.

Reflections on 9/11

Posted on 9/11/2012
Anniversaries mean nothing if we don't take the opportunity to answer important questions for our community, and September 11, 2001 is a date that defines a generation.  Like the Kennedy assassination, and the Cuban Missile Crisis before that, 9/11 -- as it has come be known -- will continue to bind us for decades.  
 
After the planes hit, after the towers collapsed, after the great concussive force blew that giant plume of dust and debris across the island of Manhattan, showering the trees and the people in white ash, after eleven years, after the tributes and debates about how to rebuild, after the opening of a National September 11 Memorial and Museum, after all of it, 9/11 remains a singularly unifying event.  So why is our nation so divided?  
 
I was at Ground Zero on that day, as a journalist, covering the attacks and I returned for days and weeks, indeed months, covering the story with my colleagues.  But, even now, eleven years on, no longer on assignment, I continue go back every week.  In fact, I'm headed down today.  Not for the memorial service.  Instead, I go to Ground Zero because Ground Zero is home. 
 
I grew up in the shadow of the Twin Towers. A child of Lower Manhattan, my earliest childhood memories include visits to the construction site with my father, an architectural engineer. My parents live there still, 48-year residents of the same low-income housing development on the East River. They were among those who fled in the white ash.  Today, I will visit my mother and together we will recall the day.  My father, suffering from Parkinson's disease, will sit silently.  He can no longer speak or, seemingly, remember that day with us.  I don't know if that is a curse, or a blessing.
 
In 2001, he was early in his retirement and spent most early mornings sitting in the concrete jungle of the World Trade Center, having a cup of street vendor coffee, watching rush hour workers scurry through the maze and gazing upward to appreciate the towering heights planted by men whom he felt had achieved much greater professional heights than he.  
 
On September 11, however, he did not rise with the sun, as usual.  Running late, my father was not sitting there when the planes hit.  He was closer to home when the towers fell.  He turned and made it back safely, and we were, therefore, blessed to have a few more years with him before Parkinson's took his memory of the towers' rise and fall.  Still, like so many New Yorkers, we had too many friends and neighbors who died that day.  
 
Before his memory and speech faded,  we spoke often of the humanity, the blanketing sense of community that fell over the city and country, in the wake of   9/11 the mutual helping hand, the spirit of service. I remember talking with my father about how long it might last.  He'd seen it before, he said.  It would dissipate, he warned.  But I hoped (against hope) this singular moment in time that it would become a permanent part of American culture, the new fabric of our lives.  He was right.  I was wrong.
 
Consider how far we have strayed in the decade-plus, since that day.  Consider the petty, political and intolerant nature of the political process.  The political parties, it seems, are  fundamentally unchanged — selfish, shortsighted, partisan.    
 
Now that the conventions are over, now that the race for the White House is in full swing, pundits are predicting it will only get worse.  
 
Must it?    
 
What are the ties that bind us in America? Are they cynicism and skepticism?  Or is the greatest tie that binds America the belief that the United States can be as good as we were eleven years ago today.  
 
It should not take a tragedy like 9/11 to inspire our better natures.  Good leadership can show us the way.
Soundtrack to a Childhood (1977)

Posted on 5/21/2012


 

 

 

 

 

Tony Manero was a character in a movie.  But he wasn’t just any character in any movie.  He was the main character in the hottest movie of 1977. And the soundtrack from that movie redefined music for my generation.

The music was disco.  The beat was decidedly “urban” (code for black).  But Tony was white.  Specifically, he was Italian.  From Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, a part of New York most "black people didn’t slow down in," or at least that was the expression, back in the day.

The Bee Gees, who wrote the soundtrack, and performed most of the original songs for Tony’s struts, grooves and moves, were also far from black.  Barry, Maurice and Robin were three white Englishmen from Australia.  Still, The Original Movie Soundtrack for this particular motion picture was the bestselling of all time  (surpassed only by Whitney Houston’s soundtrack to The Bodyguard) and won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  The album stayed on the charts for 24 straight weeks and was certified 15x Platinum.

Robin Gibb died yesterday, after a bout with cancer.  He was 62-years old.  When my kids saw his obituary was in the paper, they asked (as they had just a few days earlier with Disco Queen Donna summer): "Who?"  

The Bee Gees may not seem all that significant in a world full of much more serious subjects than pop music.  Yet, as I reflected with my children, I realized the gift they had given to me, a street kid, trying to find her way between worlds.  That gift was music as a bridge between the Bowery and Bay Ridge, between hard rock and rhythm and blues, between black and white.  Saturday Night Fever was finally that place where my white friends from Catholic school and my black and brown neighborhood friends down on the Lower East Side could find some common ground.

Unfortunately, my parents and I could not.  I was strictly forbidden to see it.  For one thing, I was only twelve years old. Saturday Night Fever was rated R, and it should have been.  Strong language.  Sex. Nudity.  Drugs.  Here was movie about dance, disco and the drama of urban teenage life.   It was about New York City teenagers.  And I was one.  Almost.  I was desperate to go.  But my parents warned there would be severe consequences if I so much as set foot inside that theater.

In case you somehow missed this cinematic masterpiece of the 1970s, not to mention huge commercial success that launched the career of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, the main character is nineteen-year-old Brooklyn native Tony Manero, played with raw but earnest dignity by John Travolta.  He lives for Saturday nights at the local disco (what we then called the discothèque, a.k.a. disk-only venue), where he dominates the dance floor, losing himself in a life of glamour, girls and good times with his run-around gang from the neighborhood.

Life outside of the club, however, is dreary and unfulfilling, by comparison.  At home, Tony fights constantly with his father.  He works a dead-end job at a paint store. And to top it all off, he has to compete with the family's starry-eyed view of his older brother, Frank, who is (wait for it…) a priest.

But then, things begin to change.  Tony spies a new girl.  The two begin training for the disco's dance competition. This girl, Stephanie is different from all the rest. She’s elegant, Anglo, well dressed and slim.  Beyond that, she has big dreams of a world beyond Brooklyn. Her plans to move to the big city just over the bridge change Tony Manero’s life forever.

Of course, I lived in that world beyond Brooklyn, the “big city” just over the bridge.  Like Sarah Palin’s Russia, Brooklyn was visible from my back yard.  But I knew Tony wasn’t dreaming of a move to my subsidized housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Instead, this story was about a working class kid, his aspiration for class mobility and the very real obstacles to realization of that American dream that a kids like Tony Manero faced in 1970s New York.  His story was my story.  I saw our common struggle.

Of course, Tony was white.  I was black. Tony was male.  I was female.  Tony was six years older than I was at the time SNF came out.  But I identified with Tony, top to bottom.  He was a working class kid from a tough but loving family going struggling to survive.  Tony’s father was out of work, a cycle I certainly understood.  Tony was a loyal friend.  He was a sharp dresser, all qualities I imagined in myself.  He was ambitious.  Me too.  Tony was chafing to rise above his circumstances.  And so was I.

*          *          *

Somehow Robin Gibb and his brothers captured the urgency of our desperate situations with every pulse of every track in their Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, from Stayin’ Alive to You Should be Dancin’ to the gentler More than a Woman, which appears on the album twice, once performed by the Bee Gees themselves in their trademark falsetto, and then again in a cover by Tavares.  I determined not only to see but to hear this movie, in all its glory, big and loud and on opening day.

My super-sophisticated scheme to avoid parental detection involved taking in the opening day matinee.  And just my luck, school was dismissed early that day.  My best friends, Chi Chi and Mary were in on my plan, though they had permission from their cooler-than-cool parents to attend this once-in-a-lifetime motion picture event.       

We had it all figured out.  My mother was taking late-afternoon-into-the-evening courses, working towards her PhD; and my father worked all day, from sun-up, until sundown.  In my little brain, that translated to at least six PM, before anyone would home, in the Floyd household.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, this was opening day for a blockbuster movie.  In those days, that meant absolute craziness.  They were called “blockbusters” for a reason.  There were no preshow ticket sales.  No Moviefone or Fandango.  By the time my friends and I hooked up, at the neighborhood theater on Essex Street, the ticket-buyer’s line was literally around the block.  The matinee was all sold out.  Every kid on both sides of the East River wanted to see Tony Manero dance at Club Odyssey 2001 to the pulsing rhythms of the Bee Gees.  And none of them had parents as strict as mine.

We three approached the back of the line, hundreds of kids deep – brown kids, black kids and white kids; male and female; tall and short; most of them were younger than seventeen, and few were accompanied by an adult.

“Man, this stinks.” I was crushed, but also deathly afraid of my father.  “I really wanted to see this!”  My little heart was sinking fast.

“What?!” Chi Chi derided. “You are not going to miss this?” Chi Chi was short for Demancha.  Chi Chi’s family was from Brazil and she lived in Building 4 of my housing project.  She was one of my best friends in the neighborhood, but over the years, I came to understand that ours was a relationship based more upon proximity than anything else.  Chi Chi was not very supportive, especially when it came to the wrathful consequences of defying my parents.  Time and again, she urged me to disobey.

“Really,” Mary encouraged, more understandingly, her soft-spoken voice, faintly shaped by the accent of her native Ghana. “You will still get home in time.”

“Next!”  We three stepped up to the ticket booth.

The first show for which we could get tickets was the 430PM screening.  Peering through the little hole in the ticket-buyers window, I made the quick calculation.  Total running time 118 minutes.  I should be able to make it home by 6pm.  I made my near-fatal error.  I purchased a ticket.

*          *          *

The Essex was a real, old school theater, not a modern-day multiplex.  Instead of a shoebox-sized theater with a TV-sized screen, the Essex had plush velvet seats that rocked, a giant screen, Dolby Surround Sound, and fresh popcorn.  It was small compared to the Ziegfeld or the Paris or certainly the glory of Radio City, theaters I would experience in my teen years. There was no mighty Wurlitzer organ to accompany the movie.  But the Essex was one of the best things about the Lower East Side.  It was where my love of the movies was born, sticky soda floors and all.

But the Essex was a family-run business.  It ran on family time – not on studio time, not on mine, not on my father’s.  The fear of getting caught only fanned the flurry of butterflies in my stomach as that heavy red velvet curtain went up, twenty minutes late, at least.   Suddenly, the music was thumping, the house full of screaming teenagers, all clapping and stomping for Tony. And then: That unparalleled opening scene.

The feet.  The white shoes.  The white wide-legged pant legs, flapping like wings, with each step.  John Travolta in that now-iconic white three piece suit, strutting down the concrete boulevard, to the blast of the Stayin’ Alive.

To this day, I don’t quite know what it means to “Use my walk;” but I’ve been singing that lyric, ever since.  And whenever I sing it, I am smiling.

The smile was soon wiped from my little face, after the show let out because it was well after 630PM. My father was already home from work --  and he was looking for me – all over the neighborhood.

I remember it, as if it were yesterday, coming down Madison Street, clowning around with my friends, all laughing and singing, arguing about how could strut like Tony Manero the best, and then suddenly, turning the corner to confront the tall, broad imposing figure of my father, standing there, on Montgomery Street, like a sheriff, in an old western, waiting for me, as I came down the block with Chi Chi and Mary.  We stopped our clowning.

The other girls said, “Hello Mr. Floyd,” and dashed home.

I don’t remember if I tried to lie my way out of it, or make some excuse, or explain myself, or what.  I do know that, while I was at the movie, my father had worked his way around to Chi Chi’s house, and her mother had matter-of-factly informed him that we’d gone to the movies. And she’d told him which movie we had gone to see.  Yes, she’d explained, Chi Chi had been given permission to see it.  This, for some reason, made him all the angrier.  Fuming, in fact (that black-man-turning-red-thing again).

I will say now that my father believed in corporal punishment – with a belt.  So, I counted my last few minutes of life on this planet, as we made our way down the block, waited for the elevator (which sadly was functioning, on this particular day) and rode the ten flights to our apartment.  When we walked through that door, my father unleashed a rage I have rarely seen before, or since.  But Tony Manero was well worth it.  I never shed a tear.

Saturday Night Fever came out in December 1977.  I was grounded for the entire Christmas vacation and the following summer.  I am not exaggerating one little bit.  The Whole Summer.  Memorial Day, to Labor Day.  But I bought The Original Movie Soundtrack from the Velez twins at school and spent the summer, while my parents were at work, listening to that soundtrack, over and over and over again, memorizing the every last lyric, and practicing my moves, in front of the standing mirror, in our living room.

*          *          *

My parents were right, I know now.  I should not have defied their wishes, sneaking off to a dark theater to explore the darker side of teenage life, before I was ready for it. Saturday Night Fever was not a movie for a 12-year-old. 

The Essex Theater is shuttered now.  It stands empty, sandwiched between Kossar’s Bialy shop, the oldest bakery in the U.S., which is still going strong after 65 years (according to the salesman I asked on a recent visit) and an always jam-packed Donut Plant that opened in 2000.

There is so much about Saturday Night Fever that made it wrong for me at twelve.  The attempted rape scene, in the back of Tony’s car; Bobby’s quasi-suicide, off the Verrazano; the constant talk of abortion; the overriding theme of sexual aggression.  The entire film was inappropriate for a kid.       

Hollywood has since retooled and rereleased a PG-version of the film. But to see Saturday Night Fever, as it was then constituted – as it was meant to be seen -- I had slink off to the Essex, behind my parents’ backs.  My plan wasn’t to lie, exactly.  My plan was simply to not mention it, that night.  Or ever.

As you can imagine, this was a bad moment for my relationship between my parents and me.  The whole trust thing, had to be worked on, for years to come.  But there were huge dividends, too.  Thanks to my early encounter with Tony Manero, I was very careful about skirt-chasing boys, sex before marriage, climbing into the backseats of cars with aggressive young men, drinking and driving, and dancing on the edge of the Verazano Narrows.

And thanks to Robin Gibb and his brothers, Saturday Night Fever – and Disco – from my black and Puerto Rican world on the Lower East Side to my Italian and Irish classroom in Greenwich Village.  Bridges figure so prominently in the movie; and the music was the bridge through which we started a new cross-cultural dialogue about lifestyle, about religion, about race, about life.

Thanks to the Brothers Gibb, for beginning the cross-over, for kids like Tony and me.

Remembering Selma: From Bloody Sunday to Super Tuesday

Posted on 3/7/2012

 

Forty-seven years ago today, a multiracial contingent of about 600 civil rights activists attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, across the Alabama River, in Selma, Alabama. They were marching for voting rights, but they never made it across. Alabama state troopers and local police officers, upholding the racist laws of that time and place, met the peaceful marchers on the bridge with brutal force - clubs, attack dogs, tear gas.

It took two more marches— a second effort two days later saw 2,500 marchers crossing the bridge and turning around, and a third march had the federal protection of 2,000 soldiers and 1,900 National Guard members—for the civil rights activists to finally succeed in their journey from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama state capitol.

Ultimately, the Selma to Montgomery marches were, in fact, three marches in 1965. They marked the political and emotional peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Today marks the anniversary of the first Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday – the day on which those first 600 Americans, fighting for civil rights were attacked by their fellow citizens with clubs and dogs and gas.

After the protestors’ suffering was witnessed by our nation - and the world - Congress responded by passing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a companion to others of that era, to grant African Americans full citizenship rights. Now, nearly 50 years later, it’s a cause for inviting tourists to Selma, to celebrate.

The Annual Bridge Crossing is held every March to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the March from Selma to Montgomery and the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Several years ago, I traveled to Alabama, to walk with one of our greatest American heroes, John Lewis, who was one of the organizers and leaders of the March on Selma who was very nearly killed on that Bloody Sunday. Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, since then, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He has served our country as a member of Congress (D-GA), since 1986. 

Still, every year he returns to Selma to march, and I was honored to march with him, as have been so many other Americans - black and white and brown and yellow, Democrat and Republican and Independent, young and old - over the years. As we walked, politics fell away, for we were reminded of our purpose as Americans, how far we have come in pursuit of our democratic ideals, and how far we have yet to travel.

During that commemorative march, which Alabamans call the Annual Jubilee, I also met a dignified stately woman named Amelia Boynton Robinson who had marched 47 years before. I met civil rights pioneer Reverend F.D. Reese. And I met the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker gunned down by the Ku Klux Klan, just hours after participating in the 1965 March on Selma.

This week, Congressman Lewis is marching again. They began last Sunday, with the commemorative march across that bridge. Today, as the 50-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery enters its third day and twentieth mile, many are protesting to demand civil rights for immigrants and people of color. Many walk in response to Alabama’sharsh new immigration law, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, H.B. 56, which is among the toughest in the nation. This year’s march also comes on the heels of the introduction of strict voter identification laws in many states that would make is more difficult for people of color to vote. For many, they are reminiscent of the poll taxes of the 1960s.

After all, voting was always the core issue. As every year, the 2012 march is following the route John Lewis took with Dr. King and other pioneers of the civil rights movement. 1965 was a long time ago, but not that long ago. In organizing the Freedom Rides, Lewis risked his life simply by sitting in seats reserved for whites. He was beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for daring to challenge the injustice of Jim Crow. During the height of the Movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form. SNCC was largely responsible for organizing student activism in the Movement, including sit-ins and other activities. 

While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement (together with Dr. King, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins). By the age of 23, Lewis was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the March on Washington in August 1963. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) once said, "I've seen courage in action on many occasions. I can't say I've seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis."

I have encountered Congressman Lewis on several occasions and have met many other congressmen and women, over the years. But no other honor has stayed with me, as has the meeting of congressman Lewis in that place, Selma – a place of honor, conscience, courage and change. I have heard many other people, of all political stripes, say the same. Instead of watching the horse race of election cycles, perhaps March 7 would be better spent reflecting on our collective conscience.

Remembering a Problematic Pundit

Posted on 3/2/2012

 So many people are dying, it seems. Christopher Hitchens, just before Christmas. Whitney Houston, on the eve of the Grammy Awards. The brilliant and courageous war correspondent Anthony Shadid, last month. Wednesday, Davy Jones, prefab pop icon of my youth.

These people had little in common, of course.  But for one thing:  They were all relatively young. 

So today, I stepped it up on the Stairmaster, at my gym, in an effort to avoid my own early demise.  As I did, yet another name flashed across the screen. 

Andrew Breitbart.  Conservative commentator.  Dead at 43. I stopped in my tracks.  This time I didn’t know what to say.

I’d had plenty of words for the others on my Twitter feed:  Davy Jones, “super-talented and underrated;” Whitney, a “tragic, from jump;” Hitchens a “brilliant writer, thinker and social critic whose death leaves a vacancy in our profession;” Anthony Shadid, a “pioneering journalist who reminds us of the risks reporters take every day to keep us informed.” 

But with the death of Andrew Breitbart, I didn’t know quite what to say.

Don’t mistake me.  I am no longer stunned by loss of life, however young the deceased. Fifteen years of reporting on crime and violence has inured me to that. Any remaining vulnerability was wrenched away on 9/11, when I was dispatched to Ground Zero for ABC News.  I stayed on the story for weeks. I lost friends. Friends lost friends. And family. Many of them very young.

Still, Andrew’s death is dreadful.  That I knew him, knew something of his life, makes it sadder still. He is a father, a husband. There are four little children, of no particular political persuasion, who will be without his presence, his care, his guidance, his love, forever.  That is terrible, whatever we may think of his politics.

And I did think about his politics.  I didn’t like  his brand of politics or the way he practiced it.

I often wondered just what Andrew was doing.  What was the point of it all.  For, it certainly was not civil discourse.  In a world that is complex and complicated he presented things a simple and absolute.  He was clearly gifted, talented, fiercely dedicated to his point of view.  And while I often shared his jumping off point – that the news media is broken – his fix for that dysfunction was to retaliate with propaganda of his own making – right-wing paranoid conspiracy theories.  

Like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other ideologues who prowl the airways and World Wide Web, fueled by outrage at a democratic system that he perceived to be working against his white male privilege, Andrew would simply make up the facts he needed to support his outrageous theories when there was no substantiation for them.

 He happened to get it right with Anthony Weiner (the congressman had been sending salacious photographs to women online. At first, Weiner said that his Twitter account had been hacked. He later admitted his misbehavior and apologized to Breitbart).  But Breitbart was dead wrong his posting of a deceptively edited video purporting to show racist statements by Shirley Sherrod, then an obscure African American official in the Obama Administration. Sherrod, whose story actually illustrated how she overcame feelings of racism to help a white farmer save his land, was fired.  Embarrassed, the Agriculture Department offered her a new job.  Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation and the case is ongoing.  (Now, it seems, Sherrod will have to proceed, if at all, against his estate.)

But I also saw another side of Andrew.  The so-called Green Room, in media organizations, is a funny place.  People get along there, whatever their political point of view.  They are civil, at least, and more often than not, friendly.  I saw Andrew there many times, over the years, most often at Fox, but elsewhere, too.  He was an extreme extrovert, always openhanded, gregarious before an appearance.  Then, he would be cutting, biting, ferocious on the air.  Which may say as much about our little game of political punditry as it does about Andrew Breitbart.

Why the GOP Lost Black Voters

Posted on 1/18/2012

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Only four days left until the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. As we head into what everyone seems to agree will be the defining contest for the GOP, I find myself wondering whether African Americans have a reason to vote Republican.

After all, the Grand Old Party is linked, historically, to black folk. The party was co-founded by blacks, among them Frederick Douglass. The Republican Party had a hand in forming the NAACP. Yet many African Americans feel the GOP has abused that relationship. One has only to look to the last of GOP debate, held disrespectfully on our national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Consider also the views espoused in the run-up to that debate.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has been calling President Obama “the food stamp president” for weeks; after finishing fourth in Iowa, however he decided to take it up a notch last Thursday, in New Hampshire:

"I’m prepared, if the N.A.A.C.P. invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

Then, last Sunday, former Senator Rick Santorum expressed what sounded to most African Americans like something along the lines of: "I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."

Of course, both men should have known better, and have since backpedaled, trying to amend their statements to suggest they are advocating for African-Americans, rather than disparaging us. But given the overall record of the GOP, the mea culpa is difficult to swallow.

Also still in the GOP mix: Ron Paul, whose famously controversial newsletter said of the 1992 Los Angeles unrest: “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began.”

And Herman Cain wonders why “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.”

It is simply wrongheaded to say that “[I]t's just brainwashing and people not being open-minded, pure and simple.”

Since the 1960s, the GOP's strategy of appealing to white, male voters in the South has alienated black and other minority voters, and it ultimately proved ineffective when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.

Democrats have successfully highlighted the GOP's lack of diversity and recently and rightly criticized Republicans for not having many strong black (not to mention female) candidates for this year's midterm elections.

As the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and the first African American to serve in the post, Michael Steele said, “Black folks haven’t left the Republican Party; the Party left us, a long time ago.”

On MLK Weekend, Remembering the Quiet Soldiers

Posted on 1/17/2012

 

In 1964, the year I was born, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave was largely and overtly segregated by law. My kids like to tell me I’m old; but I’m not that old; and 1964 was not that long ago. Water fountains were designated “White” and “Colored.” All “public accommodations” in southern states were so divided: lunch counters, public transportation, and, perhaps most famously, pubic schools were all carefully delineated to keep the races apart. Conditions were surely better here in the North; but that does not mean they were good.

The forces against injustice were on the rise. Segregationists were clinging desperately and violently to their traditions rooted in slavery and white supremacy. Just months before I was born, one of the South’s favorite sons stepped to a podium to make clear, to the rest of the nation, what Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the rest of the South stood for and would be fighting for, in the coming months and years.

George Wallace was the newly elected governor of Alabama. He had made his career as an ardent segregationist. As governor he would challenge the federal government’s attempt to enforce laws prohibiting segregation in Alabama’s public schools and other public institutions. On a cold January morning, he spoke in broad strokes. The speech became most famous for the single line: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” It was a rallying cry for those opposed to integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and the vision of the man we celebrate this weekend, Martin Luther King, Jr.

As for any generation, time and place are major factors in how we come to understand our world. It was true for George Wallace and it is true for me. Governor Wallace was reacting, in his inaugural address and in every stroke of his pen while in office, to one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in our nation’s history. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white children are unconstitutional, came down in 1954. The case overturned an earlier decision from 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, which had previously allowed state-sponsored segregation in all contexts.

In those tumultuous times, the real power of the Brown decision was in its unanimity. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The result: segregation de jure (legal segregation) was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling paved the way for integration and the Civil Rights Movement and is one of the most significant cases in American jurisprudential history.

Although Brown came down ten years before I was born, it established the broad parameters of my childhood and informed my sense of self. I recognized, going as far back as I can remember, that my schooling, my educational opportunities, from my kindergarten years at the Henry Street Settlement to my post-graduate study at Berkeley and Stanford—indeed, my every chance in life—would be entirely different from that of children who looked just like me, born only a generation before.

We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the team of lawyers who fought in Brownand the cases that followed. One of those attorneys, Robert L. Carter, a leading strategist and a persuasive voice on Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense Fund, later went on to serve as a federal judge. Judge Carter passed away just last week. His finely-tuned argument that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional on its face became the Supreme Court’s own conclusion in Brown. The Court’s opinion unraveled decades of legal precedent that previously supported the “separate but equal” doctrine.

My father, a news junkie, saved old newspapers from every important moment in history; they cluttered his workspace, an architectural table that sat in the middle of our small living room. I grew up with the ever-present image of a large group of handsome black attorneys standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, after their victory in Brown, Robert L. Carter among them. I knew then, and I know now, they were fighting for me.

 

Two Anniversaries, One Vision of Nonviolence

Posted on 1/13/2012

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) smiles during the 'Remembering January 8th Candlelight Vigil' held at the University of Arizona Mall January 8, 2012 in Tucson, Arizona. (Getty)

Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance on Sunday, one year after a shooting spree that claimed six lives and left her gravely wounded.

Giffords is still recuperating from the head wound she suffered in the shooting; but she topped off a daylong series of anniversary tributes and remembrances by attending a candlelight vigil with her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.

Survivors and relatives of the victims took turns lighting 19 large candles, one for each of the six people killed and thirteen wounded when an assailant opened fire at the congresswoman's meet-and-greet for constituents on January 8, 2011.

The dead included a 9-year-old girl, a federal judge and a member of Giffords' staff. The accused gunman, Jared Loughner, a college dropout with a history of mental illness, is charged with 49 offenses, including first-degree murder and the attempted assassination of Giffords. (Loughner was found by two medical experts to have schizophrenia, disordered thinking and delusions, and the 23-year-old was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial at a May hearing.)

The anniversary of the shooting spree comes even as we prepare to celebrate the life and vision of a man who preached non-violence. This Sunday, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Brian Lehrer and I will co-host an event at the Brooklyn Museum, “In MLK’s Footsteps: Education as a Civil Right.” Our purpose is to examine that part of Dr. King’s vision that embraced equal education for all, including the historic victories in the courts that desegregated public schools and universities.

Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, at the Great March on Washington, he outlined his vision with historic eloquence:

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

Of course, the African-American Civil Rights Movement was first and foremost about race. But as the years went on, the Movement grew. It became about poverty, employment, housing discrimination, even the war in Vietnam. In short, Americans looked to the Movement and to Dr. King for hope, change and the promise of equality for all Americans. They joined hands—black, brown and white; Jews and gentiles; men and women, all working toward a better day for their children and their children’s children.

So when Representative Gabrielle Giffords reached out to her constituents for a “Congress on Your Corner” event a year ago, it was precisely the kind of moment Dr. King envisioned for this country.

Dr. King knew, however, he would not live to see the day that a Jewish and female congressional representative would stand on a street corner to solicit ideas from Arizona voters. While he believed that sort of change would come, he also understood, all too well, the violent undercurrent that runs through our culture. He understood America’s history of settling disputes with guns, not words. He knew the history of political assassination in this country. The day before his death, he spoke these words:

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to…talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me...? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. … And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed.

I was just a toddler when Dr. King was assassinated, but everything about that day has informed my life since. I was one of those children who believed in the dream, believed we might one day live in a country in which we would not be judged by the color of our skin, or by any other immutable characteristic. With his death, I feared, dreams of equality would be lost, as well. But they were not.

Dr. King had a voice so full of hope, so powerful that it shattered the chains of oppression, even after he was gone. Thanks to the power of that voice, even after his death, we have come a long way: women in the Senate and House, like Gabrielle Giffords; representation (women and justices of color) on the Supreme Court; three women have served as Secretary of State for the U.S. overseas, one of them African American. Her predecessor, a black man as well, served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before that. Blacks are also represented in the highest sectors of business, academia and the arts. And of course, arguably most significant: the first African-American President. It is good. But it is not good enough.

For being Dr. King’s greatest message—the one he preached first and foremost—the message of nonviolence seems to have been lost. The dream of nonviolence very nearly died with Dr. King on the day he was shot and killed. And his dream has died a little bit with each day thereafter, as we struggle to find leadership to fill the void.

King witnessed the murders of Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. He’d suffered, with the rest of the nation, the assassination of a President John F. Kennedy.

However, Dr. King did not live to see the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He did not witness the attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan or the murder of John Lennon. And he missed the bizarre national phenomenon of gun violence that spawned the expression, Going Postal: citizens killing their managers, co-workers, fellow students, police officers, and members of the general public in acts of mass murder.

Dr. King did not live to see the day that Congresswoman Giffords nearly lost her life, the day that a sitting federal judge, nine-year-old girl and four others were gunned down. He did not live to see the day that sixteen of her constituents were shot, at an event meant to bring them together for community dialogue.

The ugly violence continues, whether with legally obtained weapons, as in Tucson last year, or with the saturation of our urban centers with illegal firearms.

A national holiday for Martin Luther King is nice, but it is not enough. To honor and respect the memory of Dr. King, those killed in Arizona, and all Americans who have lost their lives to senseless violence, we must show courage on the issue of gun control. On this day, let us pick up the true mantle of Dr. King’s movement: nonviolence.

Old Skool Star Shines in New Memoir

Posted on 11/28/2011

    

Before I write a single word, I should disclose that I have been a fan of James Garner's work, since I was a little kid.  I used to watch The Rockford Files with my own Jim, my father, every week, unfailingly trying to guess the storyline, before it would unfold on NBC.  We never could get ahead of the show's clever writers.  But we tried. We would also (can't believe I'm admitting this publicly) speak out loud, along with the answering machine that picked up at the start of every episode: This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you.Hey, this was new technology, back then.  For my father and I, this was a form of early rap.  We were excited.

But most of all, we loved the characters.  I loved Angel (played by Stuart Margolin, who also directed a lot of the time).  My dad loved Gandolph Fitch (played by Isaac Hayes).  My dog is now named Gandolph Fitch, in honor of that character.  And together, Dad and I both shared a love of Garner's character, Jim Rockford.  I mean, who can't get behind an ex-con, private eye who never sees a payday and never fires his gun? 

I should also disclose that I  am good friends with Jim Garner's daughter, Gigi Garner, though this is quite by coincidence.  In fact, some time went by before I made the connection.  After all, California is a big place, I am far from a celebrity seeker, and Garner is hardly an uncommon name (though I will admit now that I was more than a bit tickled when I figured it all out).

These two factors make me a more critical reader, however, than not.  I have countless friends who written every variety of book - memoirs, novels, exposés, histories and even sexual how-to guides (I am not making that last one up).  Some of these works have been outstanding.  Most have not. Which leaves me in the rather uncomfortable position of telling folks the truth.  Because, I refuse to do otherwise. 

I have also had occasion, in my line of work, to meet many of my Hollywood heroes and it is, more often than not, a disappointment. They turn out to be too short, too skinny, too full of themselves, too stupid for a meaningful conversation, too famous for any real intimacy or simply trying too hard to live up to their larger-than-life image.  I have been pleasantly surprised by some - character actors, or those superstars whom I have been least excited to meet.

James Garner would not be among those.  He is as far from a character actor as they come.  Garner is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, with longevity to rival Eastwood and Redford.  He has always had the easy good looks of a man who is not vain (for precisely that reason).  He has been willing to change with the times, where other actors simply fall out of our consciousness. 

As for being excited to meet him, I have deliberately avoided it, precisely James Garner stands at the very top of my list of Hollywood icons.  And I am one of those rare Americans who doesn't much get excited about celebrities.  There aren't many people on my list.

So when it was time to review The Garner Files, I cringed, fearful that yet again, I would be disappointed.  And that, if I was, I would have to tell the truth about it. I would rather watch Maverickand the Rockford Files (my father-in-law and I actually own all 122 episodes, between us) or download The Americanization of Emily from NetFlix, take in Garner's cool charm and leave the rest of his personal storyline to my imagination.

Wouldn't you?

Well, don't. Because if you do, you will miss a memoir of honesty and depth - the story of Hollywood's Golden Age told with grace and clarity.  These days, when things are dreary and downtrodden, it is lovely to be carried back to a time of style and romance.  My kids actually go out and walk the streets in their pajamas; I've been known to do it too.  But Garner takes us back to a time - not so long ago  - when men were men and women were both Glamorous and tough. 

I like the way he writes about the women in his life.  His daughters, his wife, but also his co-stars, Rita Moreno, Mariette Hartley and Julie Andrews, who, in turn, writes a heartfelt introduction to the book.  These are the women who inspired me in my girlhood, and they clearly inspired Jim Garner, too.  And why not?   These were women who didn't get all bent out of shape, if a man held the door for them; because there were bigger issues worth fighting over and for.

In fact and surprisingly, the most moving part of the book (and there are many) is the chapter entitled simply "Politics."  Garner, it turns out, is cut from the celebrity cloth of "Do Something" rather than the other more familiar swatch: "Lay Low, Lest Political Action Hurt Me At The Box Office."  This dichotomy still exists, though now celebrities are more skilled at selecting safe pet causes to avoid seeming self-absorbed. 

And, to be fair, the world is more complicated.  In Garner's day, the choices were presented starkly - literally, in black and white (Garner is pictured, at right, hand in hand with the entertainer Diahann Carroll at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963). Garner he made the courageous choice, every time. 

Garner also served his country:  He served 14 months in the Korean War in the US Army and was wounded twice, for which he was twice awarded the Purple Heart.

As I was writing this review, my hairdresser - a strong, handsome, straight, African-American fifty-something man - looked down at the book jacket and immediately recognized Jim Garner.  I mentioned all those traits above to emphasize Garner's cross-over appeal.

"Hey," he exclaimed, "That's James Garner! The Rockford Files.  I used to love that show!  ...  And Maverick..."

He trailed off, remembering the good old days.

Then he said, "They just don't make ‘em like that anymore."

And he was right.




 

 

 

 

Garner & Sidney Poitier 

Duel at Diablo (1966)
The Ides of March

Posted on 11/1/2011


“The Ides of March”

Written and Directed by George Clooney

Saw George Clooney’s new film, “The Ides of March,” last night. Waited a couple of weeks to see it, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to live through that experience, all over again.

 

You see, I went to work in Washington, nearly two decades ago (yes, Iam that old, though I like to think I don’t look it). And like Clooney’s main character in the film, I was wide-eyed and idealistic. I believed in Bill Clinton and Al Gore (not to mention Hillary Clinton) and their plan for setting American back on track, after 16 years of Reagan/Bush trickle down economics and hawkish foreign policy.

 

I worked tirelessly on “Health Care That’s Always There” and “Reinventing Government.” I wrote speeches about putting “100,000 new police officers on the streets” and decreasing the digital divide. I even wore a “NAFTA ‘Cause we Hafta” button on my overcoat. (Loser, I know.)

 

When I landed my coveted spot as a White House Fellow in 1993, I thought it was the beginning of the end of my search for professional meaning. Within six months, my idealism was crushed, however. Not by the politicians, but by the process.

 

If only I had seen George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” I could have learned in less than two hours, what it took me months (and all told, over two years) to learn in our nation’s capital: That politics is an ugly business; that the ideas and the issues, time and again, take second place to more sordid business; and that the most powerful people behind the scenes too often forget why they came to the business of politics and policy in the first place, so consumed are they with winning.

 

Director and star George Clooney, who I have had had the pleasure of meeting on more than one occasion, and who I have often thought should stop making films about politics and just get in the game, given his abiding interest the subject, has instead offered the American voter a bracingly cynical portrait of a our system, through the prism of one US governor’s campaign for the White House. Given his view of our system, I can see why he doesn’t want in.

If you are expecting “The West Wing,” or “The American President” or even something as honest but uplifting as the recent HBO series “John Adams” (and yes, Paul Giamatti shows up here too, brilliant, as always), forget about it. Clooney, and co-writers Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, who wrote the play “Farragut North,” on which the movie is based, strip their screenplay of the usual over-the-top melodrama. We are left with a cold assessment of the political process — the true-to-life story of an idealistic campaign man Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), forced to trade his moral code for his very professional survival. (Well, he’s not exactly “forced.” He makes a choice, as he will painfully learn. But you get the idea.)

Mike Morris (Clooney) is the candidate and the young press secretary makes the age-old mistake (think Brutus) of confusing a leader’s political rhetoric for true idealism. The kid is heading for a fall, but first he falls into bed with pretty young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), who herself is strangled by circumstance (don’t want to give too much away here, but let’s just say that the intern gets around).

Soon the kid finds himself in conflict with Morris’s campaign manager Paul Zara (the ever-talented Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Tom Duffy (Giamatti), the strategist on the other side. The plot unravels as our hero’s moral compass goes haywire. (Our hero, by the way, is the kid, not the candidate.)

I’ve seen all of the films Clooney has directed and was a devoted fan of his short-lived (with Steven Soderbergh) show on HBO, “K-Street,” which had the same cynical edge as this film. “The Ides of March” is, without doubt, the most well crafted and polished of them all.

Gosling is especially good as his character morphs so subtly, from youthful idealist to cynical top dog. I won’t name names, but I saw the same thing happen in real life, and it’s not pretty – less so, when the real-life press secretary is not as pretty as Gosling.

For most who don’t want to labor through Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, this will serve as a good reminder that politicians are fundamentally human and handlers are at least half of what goes into a campaign. For me, it was just a stressful reminder of why I left that ugly business. But it is also inspired me to think about going back. We need more Mr. Smiths in Washington. Or maybe Mr. Clooneys.

 

“The Ides of March” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or other adult guardian). Bad language, sex, dirty politics.

Learning the Lessons from the Last High Tech Lynching

Posted on 11/1/2011

Twenty years ago, last week, Clarence Thomas took his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court although, as I have suggested on this page before, he was not at that time, qualified to do so.  The hearings on the matter of his qualification had been derailed by allegations of sexual harassment.  Instead of focusing on the candidate’s substantive qualifications, the Senate Judiciary Committee had found itself talking about pubic hair and pornographic movies.  The nominee had successfully accused the senators of conducting a high tech lynching.

Now, in the context of presidential politics, we face the same sordid situation – a choice between the important question of a candidate’s qualification to hold the office he seeks and allegations of sexual harassment.  This time, of course, the candidate is Herman Cain and the office is the presidency of the United States.  The charges surfaced Sunday and the comparison to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair are flying fast and furiously; already I have heard or read the phrase “high tech lynching” at least fifty times. 

Herman Cain is certainly not the first political figure to face allegations of sexual impropriety since the Hill allegations surfaced two decades ago; but the analogues to Thomas/Hill are nearly palpable:  The two men are both black.  The alleged victims are reluctant (remember that Hill did not come forward willingly; a private report of Hill’s interview with the FBI leaked out to the press).

The allegations date back to careers held by each candidate in a previous professional life.  And the issue is sexual harassment in the workplace rather than an extramarital affair (Arnold Schwarzenegger); sexually inappropriate Internet activity (Anthony Weiner); or illegal activity with a prostitute (Eliot Spitzer).  I won’t even mention presidential impeachment (well, I guess I just did).

Most significantly, the allegations have been timed, in both cases, to derail each man’s candidacy, beforehe secured the office sought.  In Thomas’ case, the hearings were nearly completed, with Thomas’ good character being presented as a primary qualification for the Supreme Court, because he had only been a judge for slightly more than one year.  There had been little organized opposition to Thomas’s nomination and his confirmation seemed assured, until the report of the Hill interview surfaced.  The hearings were then essentially reopened, and Professor Hill was called to publicly testify.

Many on the right suggest the intent in publishing these kinds of allegations is to undermine strong black male aspirants to higher office.  True or not, the immediate effect of such allegations is clear: Damage. 

Let us consider the secondary effect, however. Where forty-hours ago we were talking about the validity (what many would call absurdity) of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 flat tax plan, we are now entirely focused on whether the candidate was guilty of sexual harassment when he was President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.

Instead of discussing whether Cain is ready to lead our country during one of the most difficult periods in our history, we are now focused on who his accusers are and whether they were telling the truth when they filed claims against him back in 1990s.  Instead of discussing the relative merits of the candidate’s position on abortion, an issue he was discussing on “Face the Nation,” moments before he was accosted with the sexual harassment allegations, we are instead parsing Cain’s non-denial denials made on the sidewalk outside the CBS News DC bureau, last Sunday morning when confronted with those charges. 

Politico, which reported the story for several weeks, before confronting Cain, asked “Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?”

According to Politico, Cain breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was reportedly repeated three times, Cain responded by asking, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”

Cain was President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association from late 1996 to mid-1999. Politicosays it learned of the allegations against him and gathered accounts of what happened from former board members, current and past staffers and others familiar with the workings of the trade group at the time Cain was there.

Politico has reportedly seen documentation describing the allegations and showing that the Restaurant Association formally resolved at least one of the cases. Both women reportedly received separation packages that were in the five-figure range.

Today, Politico is reporting that The National Restaurant Association was considering endorsing Cain’s presidential campaign just weeks before Politico reported the story.  But in response to the surfacing of these allegations, the Restaurant Association is reportedly trying to tamp down on any discussion of Cain and his tenure.

The rest of the country, of course, is focusing on the details of Cain’s allegedly inappropriate behavior with the two women. And don’t get me wrong.  What happened is appropriately part of the character question especially for a candidate who is he is running first or second in most polls for the Republican presidential nomination. 

Within reason.

Let us not make the same mistake we made twenty years ago with now Justice Clarence Thomas, however.  How close Herman Cain stood next to these two women, in the 1990s, should not crowd out a larger and, frankly more important conversation about where Herman Cain stands on the issues. 

So let’s start with abortion, the topic Cain was addressing on “Face the Nation,” immediately prior to facing these allegations on the sidewalk outside.  Cain originally claimed abortion should be the individual’s choice – then said he misunderstood the ground rules of the conversation.  On Guantanamo Bay, Herman Cain has said he would negotiate a swap of terrorists at Gitmo; then he claimed he misunderstood the question. When asked about energy policy, Cain told British reporters he’d get to it on Day Two of his administration. “Day One, I’m going to take a nap.”

Cain wants to privatize Social Security. But has little more to say on the subject.  When asked about his signature policy proposal 9-9-9, he fares little better:

“How did we come up with 9-9-9? Why not 10-10-10, why not 8-8-8?), he mused at the National Press Club, yesterday.   He went on to suggest (as he does often) that life imitates the pizza business. “The way we renewed Godfather’s Pizza as a company is the same approach I will use to renew America.”  Sounds good, but when one reporter asked Cain to go beyond slogans, Cain used the game show stunt of calling a friend; he asked campaign advisor Rich Lowrie to answer the question for him.

Reporters, being reporters, (and because Cain really wasn’t answering any of the other questions) did ask Cain about the new allegations.

 “I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he insisted. If the trade group paid a settlement, “I hope it wasn’t for much.” (Later in the day, at another event, Cain did remember one of the settlements.)

Would he ask for records of the investigation to be released in order to shoot down the allegations? “No, there’s nothing to shoot down,” he rebuffed, and “the policies of the Restaurant Association is not to divulge that information.”

Fine. Fine. But what about foreign policy? 

He believes that “extensive foreign policy experience” is not something a president needs, since when he was named chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, “I had never made a pizza — but I learned.”

Cain has proposed an electrified border fence to kill immigrants coming from Mexico – then said he’d just been joking.  But this is a presidential election.  It’s not a joke.  

No woman should be harassed in the work place and, in this day and age, no sexual deviant should sit in the Oval Office.  But with Herman Cain we should never have to reach the question of whether he fits that definition.  He has not even come close to proving he is qualified to sit there, in the first place. 

Cain’s policy proposals (to the extent he has them) range from ignorant to absolutely unworkable. He brags about his complete lack of government experience. He trumpets his ignorance of foreign policy. These are supposed to be a selling point; but if through he were actually elected president, the real result would surely be disaster.  And the American people would learn that, like his now famous campaign manager in the political advertisement that has gone viral, Herman Cain is blowing nothing more than smoke.

Republicans Should Thank Sarah Palin for Leaving the 2012 GOP Field

Posted on 10/7/2011

This is a sad day in the Obama White House. Last night, Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin announced, once and for all, that she would not be running for president in 2012. On the Mark Levin radio show, Palin said she believed she would have more impact outside of the race, ending over a year of speculation about the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee’s plans.

Why a sad day for President Obama? Surely, the president and his supporters have been hoping for Palin at the top of the GOP ticket; Palin as an opponent would have all but assured his victory.

This is not to suggest that we do not take Palin seriously. Even now that she has chosen not to run, her influence on her party, politics, indeed American history, is undeniable. More than any other woman of our time, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, Palin has been able to galvanize a base, raise outsize sums of money and articulate a political vision. She is, in short, a leader.

I say this, despite having been a very vocal critic of Sarah Palin, over the years. My own detractors (mostly in the conservative blogosphere) have accused me of discounting her abilities, discrediting her credentials, even of being jealous. All nonsense.

My criticism of Palin is very specific. It is based on substance - or her lack of it. Sarah Palin is many things, but she is not destined for the White House.

In late fall 2010, when asked about the subject, Barack Obama was quoted as saying "I don't think about Sarah Palin," and I believed him. First of all, he had a country to run, a devastated economy to recover, and two wars to fight overseas. But more to the point, Obama knew then, what we all know now: In the Republican field, Palin would be the easiest of opponents to beat.

For her part, the turning point probably came when Palin realized that the people she would have to fear most, if she ever got serious about a run in 2012, were the people in her own party. Party stalwarts like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were not about to hand the GOP nomination over to a loose cannon like Palin -- especially not when they blame her for their loss in ’08, and especially since they actually think they have a real chance of winning back the White House in 2012.

Karl Rove, the former senior adviser to George W. Bush, was among those to send up the smoke signals, publicly casting doubt on Palin’s viability as a White House contender.

When asked by the British press whether the 47-year-old would be a wise choice to help the GOP seize the White House from Obama, Rove replied: “You can make a plausible case for any of them on paper, but it is not going to be paper in 2012. It’s going to be blood, it’s going to be sweat and tears and it’s going to be hard effort.”

He said Sarah Palin had done a “terrific job” in 2008 when Senator John McCain found her in obscurity and unleashed her on the country. But he added: “Being the vice-presidential nominee on the ticket is different from saying 'I want to be the person at the top of the ticket’.

“There are high standards that the American people have for it [the presidency] and they require a certain level of gravitas, and they want to look at the candidate and say 'that candidate is doing things that gives me confidence that they are up to the most demanding job in the world’.”

After losing with John McCain, Palin resigned as governor to write books and become a TV pundit (on the same “fair and balanced” news network where Mr. Rove is an analyst).

She is an influential supporter of Tea Party-backed Republican candidates in the mid-term elections. She delivered a speech in Iowa, where the first caucuses are held; she quietly accumulated a potential staff and she has raised a sizeable pot of money.

Yet, thanks to her staunchly conservative views, Palin has remained a highly divisive figure with high negative ratings, leaving many Republican strategists to surmise that her nomination at the top of the ticket would have all but guaranteed President Obama a second term. No major figure in the party came out in support of Palin. That includes Senator McCain, who specifically refused to endorse her.

It’s not just about the strategists. In the end, it’s about the base. And, when you get beyond the true believers and you look to the Republican primary voters, most of them are still watching and waiting in this race. For them, the decision will ultimately about which candidate is up to the challenge. They are going to pick the person they believe is most presidential, the man or woman who they feel is ready for the job.

So, what is the evidence that Palin is ready for the job? There really isn’t any. And that’s why she’s not running for it. Sarah Palin is fundamentally unqualified to be President of the United States.

This should not require repeating, but somehow it does. Something has happened to our collective memory of Palin, her candidacy, and her utter lack of qualification, between 2008 and now. We seem to have forgotten the pang of fear we felt when we thought about what would happen if President McCain were to die an early death.

We've been treating this woman as politically viable, when in fact she should not be. Why won't anyone call it as they see it? Why doesn't somebody just say what we know we are all thinking? I never thought I would say this, but is Karl Rove the only person with access to a microphone that will speak the truth about this woman?

Too many of us have lost sight of our reasons for rejecting Palin, in the first place. Vice President Palin was difficult to digest, and she was difficult to digest for a reason. Those reasons haven’t gone away.

After the election, I was willing to give her another chance. I believed she was open to doing the hard work required of her. I said so on national television (on The O’Reilly Factor, no less.) If Sarah Palin wanted to go back to Alaska to do what was necessary to become president in 2012 – delve into policy, become a serious thinker, study the Constitution, read the newspaper, prepare for the office - in four years time, she could be ready.

After all, Palin already had intangibles you cannot teach: Name recognition, camera appeal, charisma, star-power.

But did she do the things necessary to become a statesperson, presidential material? No. Instead, she quit her job as governor, before her term, was over - and launched a reality TV show. That may be the road to fame and fortune in America, but it is not the road to the White House.

As John Adams so wisely instructed at the founding of our country, great leaders are not those who simply “pull down” the institutions with which they disagree. "Then what?" he warned. Great leaders must have some plan for what they will build up, once elected.

What is Palin’s plan for America? If she were to run and win, then what? She doesn’t know the answer to that, and she knows she doesn’t know the answer. At least she’s smart enough to know that much.

First Monday and the Silent Justice: Twenty Years of Clarence Thomas

Posted on 10/4/2011

Tomorrow is the First Monday in October, which officially marks the beginning of the 2011-12 term for the U.S. Supreme Court.  This year, everyone will be watching (if not hearing from) Clarence Thomas, on the twentieth anniversary of his ascension to the highest court in the land.

 

Last term, Thomas marked another anniversary — the five-year anniversary of his silence — not a single question, from the bench, in 1,825 days.  A former girlfriend emerged to confirm Anita Hill’s story.  And a watchdog group filed a disbarment complaintagainst him, claiming improper financial disclosure.

 

Now, before the current term could even begin, twenty House Democrats (on Thursday) asked for a federal investigation into the disclosure matter, charging that Thomas may have violated the court’s ethics rules. And, Jeffrey Toobin, of The New Yorker, is also sounding the alarm with, “Partners: Will Clarence and Virginia Thomas succeed in killing Obama’s health-care plan?”

 

Toobin’s New Yorker piece was certainly prescient.  It ran on August 25; and, just this week, the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to hear a major case concerning the 2010 health care overhaul law. The development, which came unexpectedly soon, makes it all but certain that the Court will agree to hear one or more cases involving challenges to the law, with arguments by the spring and a decision by June – right in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign.

 

Toobin, a long-time student of the Supremes, rightly scolds the left for its simplistic assessment of Thomas as a do-nothing, write-nothing, say-nothing lackey of arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.  Toobin sees Thomas as the sleeper justice, an ultra-conservative thinker who threatens to undermine any interpretation of the constitution as a living, breathing, evolving document, through his stealth, behind-the-scenes leadership.

 

If Toobin is right in his assessment, “[t]he implications of Thomas’s leadership for the Court, and for the country, are profound. More than virtually any of his colleagues, he has a fully wrought judicial philosophy that, if realized, would transform much of American government and society.”

 

I agree with Toobin, in part; we have failed, to answer the bottom-line question:  Is Clarence Thomas an intellectual to be reckoned with, on the court, and off? That is the fundamental question from which we veered, two decades ago, so distracted were we by what came to be known as, The Anita Hill Question.  By the time we reawakened to the underlying inquiry, the point was moot; Thomas was, and will be a justice — for life. (Hill, by the way, has a new book out, this month, entitled “Reimagining Equality,” and has timed her book tour to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the hearings.)

 

My feeling at the time of his nomination — before Anita Hill surfaced — was that Clarence Thomas was not qualified for the post, not because of anything Hill alleged, but because Thomas had not yet proven himself a jurisprudential thinker of the caliber required for service on the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

Thomas was a black man in America, however; and Americans were afraid to call it as we saw it. Within the African-American community, we were divided over whether to claim him as one of our own. Our division arose from color affinity, pride and the fear of losing our coveted seat on the nation’s highest court.

 

Meanwhile, the rest of America, especially the white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee, were in an even less tenable position — how to call into question the qualifications of an African-American nominee, yet not appear racist in doing so.

 

It was a question committee members would never have to answer, however. Suddenly (and mercifully for the Senators), the proceedings were sidelined by Hill’s allegations that the nominee had made unsolicited sexual comments while she was working for him as a young lawyer, first at the Department of Education and later at (of all places) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

 

Instead of a rigorous review of the nominee’s intellectual preparedness, now we were talking about a subject we could all get our minds around:  Sex.  The Anita Hill Question distracted the Judiciary Committee and the public from the fundamental issue at hand — whether Clarence Thomas was qualified for the job.

 

Political pundits who continue to focus on Thomas’ lack of questioning prowess, activists who file disbarment petitions about Virginia Thomas’ financial disclosure forms, and ex-girlfriends who rehash the old sexual harassment complaint that failed to undermine his credibility the first time around, all continue to miss the critical point: The nature and quality of the justice’s jurisprudence.

 

By any account, his back-story is impressive. The first President Bush nominated then Judge Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall. Thomas is only the second African-American ever to serve on the court.  He was born in 1948 in rural Missouri and overcame extreme racism, poverty and countless other obstacles to be educated at Holy Cross and Yale Law School.

 

In 1974, he was appointed an assistant attorney general in his home state. He later practiced law and served as a legislative aide to then-Missouri Senator John Danforth. In 1981, President Reagan appointed him assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education and in 1982 moved Thomas over to chairman of the EEOC where he served until President H. W. Bush nominated him for a seat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

 

Thomas had served there for only one year and four months, however, when Bush cherry-picked him to fill Marshall’s seat. Was he too green?

 

The Senate Judiciary Committee was drilling down on that very question when someone leaked the FBI interview with Anita Hill. Instead of questions about Thomas’s intellectual readiness to serve, the conversation shifted suddenly to pubic hair on coke cans, “Long Dong Silver” and high-tech lynching. The hearing became about race, sexual harassment and feminism – all critically important issues but not the primary issue in contention.

 

Of course, intellectual distinction is only one criterion for judicial appointments; the other, unfortunately, has become legal orthodoxy. Justice Thomas is, is a strict constructionist when it comes to the U.S. Constitution.

 

Strict construction requires a judge to apply the text only as written. Once the judge has a clear meaning of the text, no further interpretation is required. Judges like Thomas avoid drawing inferences and focus only on the text of the Constitution itself.

 

It is a conservative view because it disallows for the further reading of rights and liberties into the Constitution where they are not expressly drawn there.  That Thomas clings staunchly to this approach is enough to justify his place on the court for most conservatives.

 

The real test of Thomas’s effectiveness as a jurist, however, must be made after considering his opinions – his use of precedent, understanding of the Constitution and how often he has been given the lead in opinion for the majority. Anything else is just more of the same old character assassination.

 

While others may prefer to focus on the silence of the judge from the bench, the more salient point is the silence of his pen. Like the late Chief Justice Rehnquist before him, Chief Justice Roberts rarely assigns majority opinions to Thomas. Whether this is because of Thomas’ lack of intellectual heft, or because of his staunchly conservative views, the result is the same: Thomas does not write for the majority very often because he cannot persuade a majority of justices to join him.

 

Toobin suggests that, with more experience and with Roberts as Chief, “the Court will start to come to Thomas – that Thomas’ views are now being followed by a majority of the Court in case after case.”   Only time will tell.

 

My own view is that the sheer extremity of Justice Thomas’ views hampers his ability to garner a majority for his opinions.  That renders him an ineffective justice.  When we are judging a jurist who sits on the nation’s highest court, a great legacy will requires more.

Rick Perry's Racist Rock

Posted on 10/4/2011

Over the weekend, a front-page article in The Washington Postrevealed that Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s family hunting lodge was formerly known by a racially charged epithet.

First things first: As I’ve listened to the coverage, since last Sunday, I’ve sensed most news organizations struggling with how to cover the story - dancing around the word "nigger," and instead using all sorts of tortured euphemisms. As a black person, I appreciate their efforts at sensitivity. 

If he hadn't run for president, perhaps it wouldn't have been a headline in newspapers across the country, this week; but he did, and it is. The simple and ugly fact is this: Rick Perry's family hunting lodge in Throckmorton, Texas, was once known as "Niggerhead."  

However, I refuse engage in the same softening of the story.  It is important, in reporting on racial history and hostility, in this country, to say the word, with all of it’s demeaning and degrading connotations.

As the Washington Post piece carefully and correctly points out, “Niggerhead” is not just some childish phrase coined by Perry and his people.  The name, and others like it (Nigger Rock, Niggerville, Nigger Creek, Nigger Point) has a long history that predates Perry and this particular piece of property.  It is most often applied to geographic markers, like hills and rocks, in areas where African Americans are few.

As for the Perry property, the family now reportedly calls the hunting lodge and the land upon which it sits “North Camp Pasture. By some accounts, including the governor’s, the family has painted over the welcome rock that displayed the ugly epithet.  

By other accounts, the rock has even been rolled over, to completely hide the offensive word.  Some say that wasn't recently enough, however. These are details the Perry presidential campaign will seek to elucidate (or obfuscate, as the case may be) in the coming days and weeks.

The underlying question, however, is whether Rick Perry has been a responsible steward of fundamental racial decency in America. The story implicitly raises, therefore, larger questions.  Reports about the Perry property just scratch the surface of an important dialogue about race and public policy we need to have in America. It is a conversation we started before Reconstruction, but have never completed.    

During the Civil War, President Lincoln opened the dialogue, inviting black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass to the White House, on more than one occasion. The men corresponded, as well, throughout the war, and Douglass attended Lincoln’s second Inaugural address and party, the last occasion on which the two would speak.  Their dialogue – and friendship -- ended abruptly with Lincoln’s assassination.  

The discussion was reinvigorated during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, under the leadership of Dr. King, when whites and blacks joined together in the fight for equality. Dr. King and President Kennedy continued the dialogue, in another historic White House visit between the president and civil rights leaders in August 1963. Dreams again were shattered, however, the dialogue again silenced by assassins’ bullets. 

President Johnson continued the conversation, pushing for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The fight for civil rights waged on, but the war in Vietnam ultimately distracted our leadership, even as the rank and file was called from the frontlines of the struggle, to fight in another war, overseas.

Since that time, our presidents have been largely silent on race politics and policy. Even President Obama has been curiously quiet on the subject, perhaps because of his skin color, not despite it. His address last week, before the Congressional Black Caucus raised as many questions as it answered.  

Would, then, a president Perry, with a past linked to "Niggerhead," be the man to pick up the mantle of Lincoln and Kennedy, to move the dialogue forward, into the 21st Century? I think not. Perry's performance thus far, even before the current dust-up, certainly suggest otherwise.  Specifically, his answers during the debates suggest not only a man struggling with how to live in a multiracial country, but also a man struggling with how govern in one.  

In 2011, this is not just about black and white. Governor Perry has been criticized for his approach to the Dream Act, for example, which he supports.  At the same time, he has been disparaged for his suggestion that the .U.S send troops into Mexico, which most analysts, on both sides of the aisle, think irresponsible. (To be fair, Perry is not the first politician to suggest sending troops south of the border; but it is certainly a radical position.)  

Perry’s positions indicate that he is grappling with how to message to his Republican base and still exist politically in a diverse, multicultural society - one in which the GOP presumably continues to be interested in attracting a multiracial voter base.  Any use of the word “nigger,” it seems, would fly in the face of the latter.   

In light of this political reality, what should Governor Perry have done?  Truth be told, the average person cannot make it to middle age without some secret in his closet, some detail in his past, of which he is not proud.  As Obama adviser David Axelrod so smartly put it, “Campaigns are like an MRI for the soul—whoever you are, eventually people find out. Time will tell whether this comes to reflect him or not.”  No one is asking Mr. Perry to be perfect. But no one is asking him to run for president either. 

Which gets us to the question of judgment. Politicians are people; they will have occasional lapses of judgment. In the end, the voters will decide which lapses matter most: The extramarital affair, the college plagiarism, the tweeting pictures of oneself in one’s underwear, the free Yankee tickets, or racism. 

The Washington Post stands by its story (the rock was not painted over until after the Perry family started leasing the property.)  But the question of just when the rock was painted over may not matter very much, in the end.  What matters more is the fact that Rick Perry, when he was a political force in Texas, commonly hosted friends, fellow lawmakers and other supporters at his property. This was a place that he displayed proudly. It suggests questionable judgment to take political supporters to a place that was once called "Niggerhead" and is still known as "Niggerhead," amongst locals.

It raises questions of power and access.  At these “meet and greets” about the future of Texas politics, were people of color present?  Did they feel comfortable at "Niggerhead?" Did they feel they could really participate, as fully integrated members of the political process?  In the Washington Post piece one visitor is quoted as follows:

“I was just so taken aback that it was so blatant, so in your face...It was a big rock, big enough to write that whole thing out.”

I would have been have been taken aback, too.

One question everyone has been asking me, since the story surfaced, is whether this story is a death knell for Rick Perry with black voters? Honestly, I don't think Rick Perry was counting the black vote. 

More interesting to me is the subtle way in which the story reflects on another GOP contender, Herman Cain.  He happens to be black and has been recently quoted as saying, “[Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.”

Maybe so; but the Perry story raises the same old chicken and egg problem vis-a-vis black voters and American politics.  If African Americans don't feel respected by a certain political party, then why should we join them?  

A related question that arises from the Perry story is the Latino vote, which is much more in play for the GOP.  The word “nigger” may not speak directly to most Latinos. Latino voters may be watching, however, to see how the GOP responds.  How does the GOP want to represent itself to people of color? 

When the story broke over the weekend, Herman Cain told Fox News on Sunday, "I think it shows a lack of sensitivity."  Too many Republicans, however, are sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see how this goes down. Instead, we should be hearing a much stronger response from the party of Lincoln, especially from its leadership.

Palin & the Player: Why Should We Care? Here's Why...

Posted on 9/21/2011

Glen Rice, former NBA player and leader of the University of Michigan's 1989 NCAA championship basketball team, is back in the news with a different kind of score—with Sarah Palin. The salacious rumor is part of a new book due out this week that promises to reveal the real Sarah Palin to readers. Whether or not the Rice rumor is true, the book may well be worth reading.

Before I write another word, I should say, at the outset, I am no fan of Ms. Palin. My feelings about her are no secret. Last primary season, I made headlines when I called Palin an “ass” on MSNBC, thereby securing enemies on the right, and fans-forever on the left. I have often questioned the qualifications of the former Governor of Alaska to be president; and I have even poked fun at the presidential hopeful for Halloween. Simply put, I feel Sarah Palin is not equipped to lead us into the future and that she is foolish to think she can.

Of course, I am not alone in this opinion. And while anti-Palin sentiment runs deep among Democrats, many of those most passionate, in their skepticism of Palin are members of her own party. Yet, since her failed vice presidential candidacy, I have noticed a retrenchment in critical coverage of Palin, with fewer and fewer of my colleagues in the news business willing to take a cold hard look at the potential presidential candidate, for fear of being called sexist, anti-feminist, anti-populist, out-of-touch, or all of the above.

But now comes Joe McGinniss with The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin. This is not just some Joe Schmo political hack, piling together a bunch of blogs and calling it a book. McGinniss is a veteran political writer. He became an overnight success when his first book, The Selling of the President 1968 landed him on the New York Times bestseller list. He was just 26 years old, the youngest living writer with that distinction.

That book described the marketing of Richard Nixon during the presidential campaign. And before you think that McGinniss was hired, back in ’68, as a left-wing democratic operative, think again. He had first tried to get access to Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s campaign, but Humphrey turned him down. So Joe called up Nixon’s people and they said, yes. Then, as a reporter, he simply published what he observed. The book is now considered a classic of campaign reporting—the first honest look at what we all now know to be the stage-managed world of political campaigns.

McGinniss gained additional renown for his true crime writing, and that is how I met him. In 1994, we both sat through the OJ Simpson criminal trial. I was working as a freelance journalist out of San Francisco. He was writing a book about the case. But when Simpson was acquitted, Joe somewhat famously returned his $1 million advance, calling the trial "a farce."

Seventeen years and a half-dozen books later, McGinniss is under attack by the right-wing blogosphere, which has started a campaign against him and his latest endeavor, even before The Rogue is due to hit bookstores. Passages that have been leaked, in advance of The Rogue’s Tuesday release, allege more than the one-night stand with Glen Rice, dating back to 1987 (Rice was a college basketball star, visiting Alaska for The Great Alaskan Shootout and Palin, then Sarah Heath, was a sports reporter for KTUU-TV).

The book also alleges Palin had an affair with her husband's business partner and has used cocaine. All of this, if true, would directly contradict her image of the traditional family woman, striking a devastating blow to her hopes of joining the 2012 presidential race. If it’s not true, Palin has one helluva lawsuit.

In fact, McGinniss has faced such a lawsuit once before—but not for libel. The subject of his 1983 bestseller Fatal Vision, Jeffrey MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud, alleging that McGinniss had pretended to believe he was innocent of murder, in order to secure MacDonald's cooperation. The case settled out of court.

Before that, even with the phenomenal success of The Selling of the President 1968, conservative stalwart William F. Buckley claimed McGinniss had relied on “elaborate deception which has brought joy and hope to the Nixon-haters.” But that complaint was about unnamed sources, and having an agenda. No one sued. And Buckley even admitted he liked the book.

Truth will always be a defense to libel. And political agenda and unnamed sources aside, the real value in any book about Sarah Palin will be in the study of her character and characteristics as a leader. For too long there has been reluctance, in the press, to talk about her qualities and qualifications, with any real clarity.

So effective has been the mainstreaming of Product Palin, so deliberate the rebranding of her brand of populism, that we seem to have forgotten with whom and what we are dealing. The magazine covers, the TLC reality show, two book tours, not to mention Bristol Dancing With the Stars, and mainstream USA has become so dazzled celebrity Palin that we have lost sight of why we rejected candidate Palin, in the first place. Insofar as The Rogue can remind us of the real Sarah Palin, the book will be valuable for that, if for nothing else.

As Court Weighs Perjury Retrial, Clemens Defense Needs a Demure Rocket

Posted on 9/2/2011

 

Whenever I write about a doping case, I'm tempted to use a lot of baseball language - a temptation I cannot resist and today is no different.  This morning, prosecutors find out whether they get another go ‘round with the Rocket.  The Rocket, of course is baseball great Roger Clemens, and today he learns whether he will be retried for perjury.

Retried, because Clemens's first case ended in mistrial when prosecutors Daniel Butler and Steven Durham introduced evidence before the jury that had already been excluded by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton. 

I also made more than a few baseball references, last spring, when writing about BarryBonds (Bonds was convicted last April, of the obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury about taking steroids; and just last Friday, the federal judge in his case ruled that Bonds' conviction would stand.)

The judges in these cases are the umpires. Judge Walton, the ump in Clemens, called a foul on federal prosecutors, and it was the right call. 

Trial watchers know Judge Walton well and we know he doesn't mess around.  This is the same judge who tried the Scooter Libby case. In that intensely high profile and highly charged case (which was also fundamentally about lying) there was no doubt about who was in charge. 

So, too, in Clemens, where federal prosecutors made a misstep any "first year law student" should have avoided, as Judge Walton said. At the time, the judge called it as he saw it.  Clemens "is entitled to a fair trial, and, ... He can't get it now, and that was caused by the government."

It was bad news for a prosecution team that had already spent millions just to get to the courtroom.  

So, in a desperate bid to save this thing, the feds just added a designated hitter to their team. This week, the government informed Judge Walton, that David Goodhand would now serve as co-counsel. 

Good move.  Goodhand is an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. But that's not all. Goodhand is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law.  He clerked for federal judge Amalya Kearse at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  Currently Goodhand oversees the Eastern District of Virginia's criminal appellate work for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Perhaps, with Goodhand in the line-up, prosecutors won't repeat the same sloppy mistakes, that led to July's mistrial. 

Indeed, Judge Walton may feel reassured enough by the presence of Goodhand to give prosecutors another chance.

If so, what's the best defense strategy?

Lay low. 

There is no doubt that the Roger Clemens we saw in court last month is the man defense attorneys want to have show up for trial.  

Folks don't much like Clemens.  Even in his heyday as one of baseball's all time greatest pitchers - long before his current troubles - he had a reputation as a hot head, blowhard, and a Jerk.  

Still, lots of Americans (baseball fans and just regular folks) wonder about the pursuit of these doping cases.  I asked NPR's Mike Pesca about this on the Brian Lehrer show, on the eve of trial.

Mike pointed out the difference between the hue and cry about steroid use - that motivated the 2008 congressional hearings - and this trial, which is about lies the former Cy Young winner may have told before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  

Whatever your opinion on whether prosecutor's should spend taxpayer resources pursuing doping-related cases, like Clemens', I think we can all agree that the man who showed up at the hearings did not do himself any favors.  

He took on Chairman Henry Waxman (somebody no one would ever want to cross). And then there was that memorable moment, when Clemens tried to explain away the sworn statement of his friend, baseball choirboy, Andy Pettitte:

Mr. Congressman, Andy Pettitte is my friend ... I think Andy has misheard.

Yet, this is not The Clemens who came to federal court.

In Walton's courtroom, he was quiet, even demur. There were no outbursts, no grimaces, no mouthed profanities. 

When judge Walton declared the mistrial, Clemens did not pump his fist.  He did not high five his attorneys.  He seemed not to react at all.  And when he left the courthouse, he just said, "I'm not going to say anything."

Clemens even hugged a fan. That's the guy the defense team want to see show up today - and for the rest of the trial.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.

Rape Shield: For Better or Worse? The Media Should Stop Shielding Names of Rape Victims

Posted on 8/22/2011

What's in a Name? For the Accuser in the Strauss-Kahn Case, the Answer is Power

Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel housekeeper accusing French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault (Getty Images)

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Despite our efforts to keep secret her identity, the hotel worker who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault has come forward, making her name and her facepublicly known two months after she says he attacked her in the Manhattan hotel where she worked as a chambermaid.  The alleged attack occurred on May 14.  She came forward on July 27, making a public appearance at a cultural center in Brooklyn and thanking her supporters.

It was the 32-year-old's first public appearance since breaking her silence, in interviews with ABC and Newsweek.

It's nearly unheard of for an alleged sex assault victim to speak publicly and it's not clear what effect her decision to come forward has had on the District Attorney Cyrus Vance's view of the case.  Strauss-Kahn is due back in court tomorrow and it is being widely reported today that Vance will to dismiss the case, at that time, given the issues that have arise with Diallo's credibility, since she first leveled her charges against Strauss-Kahn.

Whatever the outcome, Diallo's decision to come forward raises an important question for those of us who cover these cases and choose to shield the identity of adults who allege charges of sexual assault: Should we protect their identity?

Of course, every victim is unique, which makes the impact of crime unique. A major concern of rape and sexual assault victims is having their identity exposed through the news media. Confidentiality is important to victims and many don't report rapes and sexual assaults for fear of others learning about the crime. That is why most media have policies to protect the identity of rape victims, and some states have even passed laws that prevent anyone from publishing or broadcasting information that identifies sexual offense victims. 

Recently, when I appeared on the PBS program Need to Know to discuss the Strauss-Kahn case, I was roundly criticized by at least one viewer for suggesting we reconsider this policy. 

I could not disagree more with her. Rape makes you even more aware of

gender imbalance of power in our world. Please think it through again.

One "uncredible" witness does not make rape less ghastly. Nor does it

mean it didn't happen. Surely, as a lawyer, you don't believe that the

truth comes out in court? It is, sadly, just the best we can do in our

society. Many innocents get convicted, many guilty get set free, as you

know.

It is precisely because I am a lawyer, and after many years of practice and observation of our system, that I suggest we reconsider.

First, as the viewer correctly points out, we often get it wrong.  We convict the innocent and while the guilty go free.  Why, then, should we presume the guilt of the accused? Should we presuppose the accuser is, in fact, telling the truth, when she says she has been sexually assaulted?  Of course, not. Yet, when we decline to name a rape victim that is precisely what we are doing.  We are accepting that she is in fact a victim.  And, therefore, the accused is the rapist.

Second, rape is not a sex crime.  It is a crime of violence.  Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in America. Only 18 percent of forcible rape cases are reported to law enforcement, and only 16 percent of forcible rape cases among college students are reported.  In some cases it is because of fear of retaliation.  But by and large, victims don't report sexual assault because they don't want family, friends or co-workers to know about the crime, or because they are concerned about being blamed. 

Why is this?  There is still a societal stigma associated with these crimes that can result in blaming the victim.  Sex crimes occupy a unique place in the criminal justice system. It is the only criminal category that casts harsh judgments on the accused and the accuser. When we keep secret the victims' identities, we may mean well; but, in my view, we only contribute to the cycle of stigmatization by suggesting there is something of which to be ashamed. It is time to treat these crimes like any other acts of violence.  When a woman is sexually assaulted, she has nothing to be ashamed of.  We need not shame her all over again.

Finally, we in the news business are not supposed to take sides in a story.  When we name the accused, but not the accuser, we are taking sides, plain and simple.  Even the most dedicated of victims' rights advocates must be able to see this dilemma for the journalist working on these stories.  

The Duke Lacrosse case is, perhaps, the best recent example.  We never knew the name of the accuser in that case.  Most of us still cannot name her. Would you recognize her, if she walked into your living rooms?  Yet, day in, and day out, we heard the names of the three young men accused of brutally raping a stripper in their bathroom.  We saw their pictures on the front pages of our newspapers, and on the nightly newscasts, for more than a year.  Their lives were turned upside down.  Of course, we know now, they were innocent. DNA proved it. The District Attorney in that case has since been disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct in the case.   

For the course of our coverage, however, the news media (confused and conflicted by the complicated issues of race, gender and class in the case) essentially endorsed one side of the story, through our choices about who we would name - the alleged perpetrators -- and who we would not - the person who alleged the charges against them - delivered a narrative that sided with her version of the facts.  Better to have named nobody. 

The Strauss-Kahn case presents similar issues of race, gender and class and again we struggle with how to present the facts.  But here, the woman at the center of the case has taken control of her own story.  As she told Good Morning America:  "I have to be in public. I have to, for myself. I have to tell the truth."

Perhaps Nafissatou Diallo understands our system of justice - and about human nature - better than we do.  Perhaps it is time we move forward in the way we think about adult victims of sexual assault.  After all, these women must ultimately stand up and name their accuser in court.  Like Diallo, they can find their voice and tell own their story. They don't need us to tell it for them.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.

 

Casey Anthony Walks, The System Works, But Who is the Biggest Loser?

Posted on 7/17/2011

Casey Anthony listens to testimony during her murder trial at the Orange County Courthouse on June 30, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. (Red Huber-Pool/GettyIt's A Free Country ®

Read. Argue. Listen. Act.

Today, after three long years, and an acquittal on the most serious charges leveled against her, Casey Anthony is free. In a free country, a person is innocent until proven guilty. We cherish that right, yet we don't much seem to like it when prosecutors fail to make their proof. By "we" I include those of us who cover these cases for a living.

I became television journalist, during the OJ Simpson trial, in an effort to recalibrate the coverage of criminal cases, defendants and the lawyers who represent them. As a woman of color, I am particularly troubled by the exploitive coverage of African Americans, Latinos and women caught up in the criminal justice system, and have worked for over a decade to affect a correction.

When I was a kid, my favorite movie was To Kill a Mockingbird and I grew up watching reruns of Perry Mason, media portrayals that celebrated the important work that criminal defense attorneys do. In recent years, I had become hopeful that the pendulum of pro-prosecution bias in media was beginning to swing back, from "Law and Order," to center.

With the coverage of Casey's case, however, my hopes have been dashed. I have been dismayed to see my colleagues, many of them lawyers who certainly know better, prosecute this case in the media, without full respect for the system, the evidence or the purview of the jury. The grossly exploitative nature of the coverage, in the name of journalism, has been nothing short of shameful.

There have been a few analysts - most of them criminal defense attorneys - who have tried to raise the public consciousness of the detriment not only to Casey Anthony's case, but to our larger legal system and to all our of constitutional rights. There have been some reporters who have labored to cover the case objectively. But the steady drumbeat, day after day and night after night has been raucous, reckless and relentless, motivated, in my professional opinion, not by a search for the truth, not by a desire to serve justice, not by a desire to educate the public about the legal system, but by the hunger for ratings. The public may not realize this; but anyone inside the business of broadcast journalism does.

While I continue to have great respect for many of my colleagues, too many who claim privately to share my view remained publicly silent while their news organizations participated in the daily crucifixion of Casey Anthony. Guilty or not, this young woman was entitled to a presumption of innocence. In the end, she received a fair trial, thanks to the firm hand of the judge, the fierce advocacy of her defense team, the courage of the jury, among many other factors.

Since the verdict, however, we have not been chastened. Instead, in response to comments made by defense attorney Cheney Mason, on the heels of the verdict, we have come back swinging, fiercely defending the media against Mason's thoughtful criticisms. Perhaps we should, for one moment, stop talking and reflect.

I, for one, am so disturbed by what has occurred that I propose removal of cameras from courtrooms in all criminal cases, where the camera threatens to undermine the sixth amendment right to a fair trial. The right to a public trial belongs to the defendant alone. It is time for the circus to pack up and go home.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.

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