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A Black Republican Tackles The Police ‘Trust Gap’

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina was still learning the ways of Washington, he says, when he saw a police officer following his car near Capitol Hill.

“I took a left…,” he recalled in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor, “and as soon as I took a left, a police officer pulled in right behind me.”

That was his first left turn. His second came at a traffic signal. The patrol car was still following him. Scott took a third left onto the street that led to his apartment complex.

It was his fourth left, turning into his apartment complex, that brought the blue lights on. “The officer approached the car,” Scott recalled, “and said that I did not use my turn signal on the fourth turn. Keep in mind, as you might imagine, I was paying very close attention to the law enforcement officer who followed me on four turns. Do you really think that somehow I forget to use my turn signal on that fourth turn? Well, according to him, I did.”

Oh, did I mention that Tim Scott is African-American? He’s the only black Republican in the Senate and the first to be elected from the South since 1881.

He did not get there by being a liberal or a Black Lives Matter radical. He’s a “pro-life,” anti-Obamacare and NRA-endorsed conservative.

He is also, whatever else you may think of his politics — which are more conservative than mine — a very likeable and thoughtful businessman from North Charleston whose family, as he likes to say with patriotic pride, “went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.”

Yet, issues such as police conduct and public safety have become personal for Scott. It was in his hometown, North Charleston, S.C., last year that a cellphone video showed Walter Scott (no relation), an unarmed 50-year-old black man, shot to death by a police officer from whom he was running away.

Two months later a gunman fatally shot nine people, including friends of Scott, at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Scott calls for a halt to abuses by police, but he also wants fairness for police and improved law enforcement.

One tragedy illustrated the dangers of bad policing. The other illustrated why we need good police.

So when Scott stood on the Senate floor to declare and decry a “trust gap” between law enforcement officers and black communities, he was worth hearing.

“Please remember that, in the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers,” Scott declared in the widely covered and retweeted speech. “Not four, not five, not six but seven times in one year as an elected official.

“Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.

“I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell,” said Scott, “no matter the profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life.”

A young former staffer of Scott’s grew so frustrated over being stopped by District of Columbia police, the senator said, that he replaced the car with “a more obscure form of transportation. He was tired of being targeted.”

“There is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul,” said Scott, “than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not.”

On that note, Scott asked for nothing in his speech, except empathy, a sincere effort to understand what others are going through — which in itself is asking a lot from some people.

“Today,” he said, “I simply ask you this: Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean that it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear. It simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.”

Well said. Folks who respond to complaints of racial discrimination by police by bringing up black-on-black crime need to hear what Tim Scott is trying to tell them. Fighting crime without fighting police misconduct leads to more crime. We need to get rid of both.

What Brexit Means To US? Another Trumpian Victory

Many people see striking similarities between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. One of those people is Donald Trump.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee just happened to arrive in Scotland to reopen a golf resort as the news of the “Brexit,” or “British exit” vote, came in. Unsurprisingly he took him no time at all to make the story all about himself.

“They took back control of their country,” said Trump when asked about the British vote. “It’s a great thing.”

“People are angry, all over the world, they’re angry,” he said. “They’re angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over. Nobody even knows who they are. They’re angry about many, many things.”

And Trump has been doing all he can to make them angrier by peppering his observations with outlandish exaggeration. But his notions that immigrants are “taking over” and “nobody even knows who they are” captures a widespread discontent that will not be constrained by mere facts.

Troubled by economic shocks in the Euro zone, waves of refugees from the Middle East, the resurgence of far-right xenophobic nationalism and resentments over seemingly being bossed around by the EU headquarters in Brussels, a new neo-tribal nationalism has boiled up in European politics and to a lesser degree in the United States since the global economic meltdown of 2008.

Trump’s signature issues (a wall on the Mexican border, higher tariffs and the expulsion of millions of undocumented immigrants, etc.) were widely viewed as loony beyond-the-fringe extremism when conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan voiced them in his 1992 Republican presidential campaign. Today, much to the consternation of the Grand Old Party’s more pragmatic leaders, the old Buchananism has become mainstream Republicanism — trumpeted by Trump.

What, we Americans wonder, does Brexit mean for us? Or for Trump or his presumptive Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton?

In the short term, expect the British pound to be buffeted amid global uncertainty, which financial markets hate. Flight from the pound inflates the value of the dollar, but that can dampen our trade advantage. The EU is like a marriage: hard to endure sometimes but also painful to leave.

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, a sign of how much they expected Brexit to hurt their economies. Prime Minister David Cameron, a strong opponent of Brexit, resigned after his anti-Brexit fight failed. He is expected to be replaced by another popular conservative, Boris Johnson, former mayor of London.

The former newspaper columnist raised a fuss in April with a newspaper column that described President Barack Obama as “the part-Kenyan president” who may have “an ancestral dislike of the British Empire.” That didn’t help his Brexit movement allies who were denying that racism had anything to do with their rejection of the EU. I am sure that Johnson and Trump would have a lot to share about race relations.

Economics matter, but racism and other xenophobia typically play a role whenever politics mix with questions of national ethnic identity.

Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right, anti-immigration National Front applauded the Brexit vote as signaling a “new air” of patriotism. She also called it a “springtime for the people,” which brings to my mind uncomfortable memories of Mel Brooks’ dark comedy “The Producers” and its signature song, “Springtime for Hitler.”

But if Boris Johnson does become prime minister, he faces big headaches from his fellow members of parliament who are furious with him and the Brexit movement for the economic chaos the vote is certain to bring. He also faces the demands of an impatient electorate that expects to see some positive long-term results from that short-term chaos.

We Americans look on, as the old understatement goes, with great interest. History often shows a remarkable similarity in the political trends of the U.S. and UK. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sounded like soulmates as they led conservative swings in the 1980s. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did the same in the other direction in the 1990s, promoting “third way” policies between the right and left.

Now we see Brexit rising simultaneously with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Both can be seen as reactions to a changing world. Both are supported mainly by voters who are older, whiter, less urban and more likely to have been buffeted by wage stagnation and economic dislocation.

Those are issues that we hope will be addressed by traditional sensible politicians, before it’s too late.

 

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he arrives at his Turnberry golf course, in Turnberry, Scotland, Britain June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Hot 2015 Words? A Political ‘ism’ Vision

What’s the word? The “Word of the Year” at Oxford Dictionaries is not even a word. It is an emoji, a digital image that is used in text messages to express an idea or emotion in a style that seems in my eyes to be aimed illiterates.

Oxford Dictionaries justified this selection by citing an explosion in “emoji culture” over the last year and not, as I fear, a collapse in the public’s desire to read.

“It’s flexible, immediate and infuses tone beautifully,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries in a statement. “As a result emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders.”

Indeed, I’m sure that’s true, provided that you can figure out what the darn emoji means. The emoji that Oxford Dictionaries happened to choose is hardly a model of simplicity or clarity.

Titled “face with tears of joy,” it depicts a gleefully cheerful smiley face with enormous water drops exploding out of its eyes. Cute, but it’s nowhere near the “rich form of communication” displayed by what has become known as the “poop emoji” in polite company. It depicts a steaming brown coil of the stuff with enough clarity to require no further translation.

But as an indicator of the social, political and economic world in which I usually work, a world that feels a lot less predictable than it did a year ago, I prefer the choices made by two other major dictionary companies.

First prize in my view goes to “identity,” the choice of Dictionary.com, a timely topic for the year that gave us Rachel Dolezal and Caitlin Jenner, among other challenges to our society’s conventional sense of selfhood and otherness.

Dolezal will be remembered as the Spokane, Washington, NAACP leader who passed for black, a complete reversal of the usual American tradition. This upset white conservatives who didn’t like the NAACP anyway. It also upset black traditionalists who felt Dolezal hadn’t paid enough dues to pose as an authentic African-American.

This conundrum proved to be remarkably similar to the dustup kicked up by Caitlin Jenner’s decision to emerge from the body of Olympic medalist Bruce Jenner. A few prominent radical feminists resented what they saw as Jenner’s EZ-pass around decades of struggle against institutional sexism.

Episodes like that, Dictionary.com CEO Liz McMillan said in a news release, sent enough people running to online dictionaries and other media to make identity “the clear frontrunner.”

“Our data indicated a growing interest in words related to identity,” McMillan said in the release, “as people encountered new terms throughout the year based on events tied to gender, sexuality, race, and other key issues.”

In a similar vein, Merriam-Webster.com named a suffix to be their Word of the Year: “-ism.” The website’s word watchers began to notice a surge in lookups that ended in those three letters. Of the thousands of queries seven with noticeably political themes rose to the top: socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism.

This was a year in which Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate and self-described democratic socialist, opened up a national dialogue of how socialism really works as something more than the epithet that conservatives like to fling at President Barack Obama. As Sanders’ crowds surged in mid-summer, so did lookups for “socialism” online.

Similarly billionaire showman Donald Trump’s calls for mass deportation of immigrants and praise for Vladimir Putin, among other comments, sent many rushing to their keyboards to look up “fascism.”

And racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism — among other popular “isms” — have been so bent out of shape by partisan and ideological accusations and counter-accusations that you need a dictionary just to keep score.

It is too early to say how much of an impact all of this chatter about identity and “-isms” will have on the 2016 presidential campaigns. We have elections to decide questions like that.

But as money, ideology and celebrity increasingly replace political parties as the pilots of national election campaigns, I am encouraged to hear that at least some people care about the words our political leaders use. I wish more of our political leaders did.

(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.) (c) 2015 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Photo: “Socialim! At least fascists can spell.” (Sarah Joy via Flickr)

A ‘Kill-And-Cover-Up’ Police Culture?

When public officials refuse to release a video that shows alleged misconduct by a police officer, you should only expect the worst.

That’s particularly true in Chicago, where one “bad apple” too often has signaled a bushel of cover-ups and other problems underneath.

Such are the suspicions that haunt the city’s stalling for more than a year the release of a dashcam video that shows white police officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into the body of black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel denounced the behavior as a case of one allegedly bad apple. Yet the video and various actions taken before and after the shooting point to systemic and institutional problems that extend far beyond one allegedly trigger-happy cop.

Why, for example, did the city sit on the dash-cam video for more than a year before a judge ordered its release on open-records grounds?

Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez have said the time was needed to conduct proper investigations. But compare that to the Cincinnati case last summer in which black driver Samuel DuBose was fatally shot on camera by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing during a routine traffic stop.

The video, which contradicted Tensing’s account of being dragged by DuBose’s vehicle, was released and Tensing was charged with murder and fired from the department in less than two weeks.

The Chicago video similarly refutes a police union spokesman’s allegation of McDonald lunging at police with a knife on the night of Oct. 20, 2014.

Instead it shows the teen, reportedly with PCP in his system, holding a small knife but moving away from police when Van Dyke opens fire — and inexplicably keeps firing at McDonald’s flinching body on the ground. Only Van Dyke fires his weapon and none of the estimated seven police officers on the scene moves to help McDonald. Van Dyke has been charged with first degree murder.

Then there’s the question of what happened to video from a security camera at a nearby Burger King. A district manager for the restaurant chain has said police visited shortly after the shooting and were given access to the surveillance equipment. The next day, he has said, a portion of the video was missing.

Witnesses to the shooting told Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist and human rights activist whose nonprofit called the Invisible Institute filed a FOIA request to have the dashcam video released, that police tried to shoo witnesses away from the scene after the shooting instead of collecting names and other information.

And why, many wonder, did the mayor persuade the City Council to authorize a $5 million settlement for McDonald’s family, which had not filed a lawsuit. Emanuel claimed a desire to avoid jeopardizing the case. But Chicagoans with long memories — like me — wonder whether the cash is reparations or a form of hush money.

The city fought to conceal the video, even after the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and a freelance journalist all filed FOIA requests for its release.

To Kalven, the most important issue here is not just the shooting but how governmental institutions — from the police to the mayor’s office — responded to it, he says.

“And at every level,” he told me in a telephone interview, “we can see they responded by circling the wagons and creating a narrative that they knew was completely false.”

Kalven’s institute worked seven years to open up police files and establish an online database of misconduct complaints against police officers — 97 percent of which resulted in absolutely no disciplinary action.

Among other issues, Chicago and other cities will have to determine, like the rest of us, how to adjust to the new video age, an age that exposes so much to public view that used to be swept under various rugs.

The McDonald video reveals the flipside of the so-called “Ferguson effect,” a widely alleged tendency by some police to hesitate before responding to crime scenes for fear of getting caught in a career-ending cellphone video. If fear of video can prevent atrocities like that revealed in the McDonald case, that’s not a bad thing.

(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

(c) 2015 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Demonstrators hold signs bearing the name of Laquan McDonald during protests in Chicago, Illinois November 24, 2015 reacting to the release of a police video of the 2014 shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a white policeman, Jason Van Dyke. REUTERS/Jim Young

A Fresh Voice For An Impatient Generation

Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His meditation on race in America has hit No. 1 in its first week on the New York Times‘ bestseller list. Race relations may still be a mess, as his book suggests, but at least people are interested in reading about it.

Good timing helps. In the age of smartphone cameras, police dashcams, and Twitter activism, the nation is abuzz with talk of minor encounters between police and black Americans that suddenly escalated into fatalities. Locations are as varied as Staten Island, New York; North Charleston, South Carolina; Waller County, Texas, and most recently, Cincinnati.

In those places, video has validated much of what black communities have been complaining about for decades. Video has become what Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and a former prosecutor, has called “the C-SPAN of the streets.”

Amid this heightened conversation, Coates, a national editor at The Atlantic, offers a brief but elegantly provocative 152-page book, Between the World and Me. It could just as easily been titled The Talk. That’s what many of us black parents call the chat that we have with our children about how to behave on the streets — between the perils of armed gangbangers on one side and touchy police officers on the other.

Coates offers his searing reflections on race in the form of an open letter to his 14-year-old son, Samori. His approach, inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 classic, The Fire Next Time, and titled with a line from a Richard Wright poem, puts us inside the world of black parents and their children trying to navigate the world that, as Coates describes it, poses pervasive threats to the black body.

He describes the fear he felt growing up. Police, he cautions his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” and commit “friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.”

Street gangs — “young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage” — might also break your body or “shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”

The “need to be always on guard” can be exhausting, Coates writes, but death might “billow up like fog” on any ordinary afternoon.

I’ve been a fan of Coates’ work for years as a fresh voice in social commentary and he offers many valuable observations here. Yet I also was disappointed by the pervasive sense of pessimism in regard to America’s ability to redeem itself from past sins and provide opportunities for more progress — if we all work at it.

I heard in his impatience the voice of my own son, who tends to be far more eager to gripe about how far we have to go as a nation than to express appreciation for how far we have come. That’s OK, I have reasoned. It is the job of each new generation to express impatience with the present. It is up to us older folks who remember how bad things were in the days of Jim Crow segregation, for example, to tell the youngsters not to abandon hope.

To test my theory, I called Coates’ father, W. Paul Coates, a former Black Panther in Baltimore who now is founder and director of Black Classics Press. He was predictably proud of his son’s success with a book that was not expected to make him rich but mainly to “let what was inside of him out.”

But, unlike me, the elder Coates refused to acknowledge any daylight at all between his son’s outlook and his own. We may have moments of progress, including the election of an African-American president, Coates said he told his son, but “we must continue to struggle,” he said.

“Much of what he’s writing sounds like what I told him,” he said, “only less eloquently and with a lot more repetition. I don’t believe the arc of justice bends our way. I think we have to go out and bend it our way.”

With that, the father raises a good point. His son offers an eloquent diagnosis of what ails us about race and racism these days. But it mostly leaves prescriptions for the rest of us to find and to fill.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

Photo: Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking, January 21, 2015 (Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan via Flickr)

When Cheap Laughs Cost Too Much

Some people unfortunately think that the best way to respond to the intolerance of Muslim fanatics is to insult all Muslims.

That’s the twisted thinking behind professional Muslim baiter Pamela Geller’s ill-advised contest in Garland, Texas. Her organization, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, offered a $10,000 prize to a cartoonist deemed to have drawn the best mocking picture of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.

Most Muslims quite sensibly ignored the stunt. But when you bait enough people, somebody will rise to the provocation. Two heavily armed and armored Muslim men from Phoenix arrived to shoot up the contest, authorities say, but were blocked by the Garland police force. A traffic cop fatally shot both — and Geller succeeded in making her own organization sound no less reckless than the fanatics she baited.

Oh, sure, there are some people who buy into Geller’s insistence that she is only defending free speech. But that does not excuse her from criticism for expressing reckless speech.

As you probably know, Geller’s contest is just one of the more bizarre reactions to the murderous January assault on the Paris offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo by two French Islamic extremists who were offended by the magazine’s depiction of Muhammad.

For the record, Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Jean-Baptiste Thoret and Gerard Biard declared there was “no comparison” between the “equal-opportunity offense” in their criticism of all religions and the Islamaphobic slant of Geller’s stunt.

Yet Charlie Hebdo also has been sharply criticized by many who affirm their right to print what they print but sharply dislike some of what they’re printing.

For example, after the writers’ organization PEN announced that it was giving an award to Charlie Hebdo, six writers who had earlier agreed to be “table hosts” at the gala backed out. While deploring censorship and violence, a letter signed by dissenting PEN members said in part, “(In) an unequal society, equal-opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”

The letter echoed a criticism of Charlie Hebdo‘s humor in a speech by “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau at journalism’s prestigious George Polk Awards: “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”

Trudeau probes a central question in this debate: What is satire for? It is meant to be humorous, but it isn’t always. It should aim to “punch up, not down,” as the old saying goes, but sometimes even a seemingly disempowered minority group can exercise oppressive, lethal power when it runs amok with murderous fanaticism.

With this debate bubbling through the media community, I was not surprised to hear it pop up in a question to Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher, editorial cartoonist at The Economist and the Baltimore Sun. As he accepted the 2015 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning at the Library of Congress in Washington, he was asked, “Would he enter the Texas contest?”

No, Kal said, and he would not encourage any of his fellow cartoonists to do it, either. “It seemed to me to be a bit of a stunt.” Whatever the contest was trying to prove about freedom of expression, he said, it ended up “bordering on hate speech.”

As a board member of the Herb Block Foundation, which sponsors the prize, I have been in numerous discussions like this centering on an almost mystical question: “What would Herb do?”

Block, perhaps better known by his pen name Herblock, was a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post. Even as a student, I idolized the Chicago-born artist for his ability to reduce the powerful and pompous through the fine art of ridicule. His cartoons branded red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy with the term “McCarthyism.” He wore his place on President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” like a badge of honor.

Yet, as much as he championed speech and press freedoms, his work is worth our admiration because, among other distinctions, he’d rather sacrifice humor in a cartoon than paint his adversaries with too broad of a brush. Sometimes a cheap laugh isn’t worth the price.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is off today.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.) 

Photo: Fede Falces via Flickr

A Year That Took The Awe Out Of ‘Awesome’

It was an “awesome” year. In my annual search for a word that pretty much describes the past year, I have found that almost everything, everywhere, was “awesome.”

I am using the A-word in the sense that I have heard my son’s generation use it since he was in grade school in the 1990s.

To the new generation, I detected, the world boils down to two extremes: everything is either “awesome” or it “sucks.” No longer is “awesome” is reserved for those people or things that actually inspire awe. “Awesome” has grown like a grade-B movie monster into a universal sign of praise (“That’s an awesome necktie”), delight (“You live near here? Awesome!”), and gratitude (“You brought me a cup of coffee? Awesome!”)

But nothing marked 2014 as The Year of Awesome as profoundly as an early December tirade by Fox News co-host Andrea Tantaros against a Senate committee’s report on CIA torture. “The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome,” she insisted. “We’ve closed the book on [torture], and we’ve stopped doing it. And the reason they want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are. This administration wants to have this discussion to show us how we’re not awesome.”

My comment: Fear not, Ms. Tantaros. America is still awesome. In fact, I think we look even more awesome for arguing our torture policy openly and honestly, instead of sweeping the issue aside — which would be the opposite of awesome.

But failure could be as awesome as success in 2014. For example:

Awesome Fails, Political Division: This will be remembered as the year when President Barack Obama’s approval ratings slipped so low that, as one friend of mine quipped, even the Thanksgiving turkey wouldn’t take his pardon. Nervous Democrats in red-state midterm re-election contests tried to behave as though they’d never heard of him. Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes memorably refused repeatedly to say for whom she voted for president in 2008 and 2012, citing her right to privacy as “matter of principle.” Right. After a strong start, she lost handily to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. An awesome fail. As the late Molly Ivins memorably advised, “You got to dance with them what brung you.”

Most Awesome Fail, Entertainment Division: Bill Cosby faced and survived public allegations a decade ago that he had drugged and raped women. But this was the year when cellphone video of a monologue in which rising comedian Hannibal Buress mocked Cosby as “a rapist” went viral in ways that devastated Cosby’s reputation as he refused to discuss the matter. What changed? The new “awesome” generation. Post-boomers like Buress, 31, are too young to have witnessed Cosby’s heyday as a breakthrough multimedia entertainer. Knowing him better as a preacher over the past decade for pull-up-your-pants conservative moral values, they hold him to a different standard. As Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che, also 31, put it in one of the year’s most awesome quotes, “Hey, Bill Cosby, pull your damn pants up.”

Awesome Banking: Lenders have become so tight-fisted since Wall Street’s 2008 crash that even former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was turned down for a loan. “I recently tried to refinance my mortgage,” he said during an October conference in Chicago, “and I was unsuccessful in doing so.” When the audience reacted with laughter to that awesome revelation, Bernanke added, “I’m not making that up.” Maybe lenders “have gone a little bit too far on mortgage credit conditions,” he observed. Gee, d’ya think?

A Retreat from Awesome: Remember when military operations in the Middle East rolled out under such awe-inspiring, take-charge names as Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Fox, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn? Half the battle seemed to be won by attaching a snazzy name to it.

Yet in labeling the October intervention against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, military brass chose the awesomely underwhelming “Operation Inherent Resolve.” As a seasoned broadcaster advised me when I was learning to write for television: “Never use a $100 word if a $5 word will do.”

Will 2014 be the year that buries the overuse of “awesome?” I hope. For now, have an awesome New Year.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

Racial Strife Can Lead To Progress

Big city mayors have to stay as neutral as possible when asked about disputes between their citizens and the police. But New York City mayor Bill de Blasio found his voice in a profoundly moving way when he responded not as a mayor, but as a parent.

His sentiments came out in a news conference and an ABC-TV interview after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in the video-recorded choking death of Eric Garner, a black suspect in Staten Island.

The mayor, who is married to an African-American woman, described his own warnings to his biracial son, Dante, about making any sudden or otherwise suspicious movements in an encounter with police.

“What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have … an encounter with a police officer,” de Blasio said on ABC’s This Week.

Asked if he felt his son was at risk from his city’s own police department, de Blasio responded: “It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country. And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cellphone,’ because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”

Although the mayor expressed “immense respect” for New York’s Finest, police union officials fired back. The cops felt “thrown under the bus,” said one.

But I appreciated de Blasio’s remarks. We have something in common. We are both fathers of handsome young African-American males with conspicuous hair.

Dante’s explosively huge Afro made headlines during his dad’s campaign last year as a major asset, especially with young voters. My son has long dreadlocks, today’s version of the big Afro and mutton-chop sideburns with which I upset my own parents. “Grandma’s revenge,” I call my kid’s hairstyle.

I appreciated de Blasio’s remarks because one does not often hear a prominent white official speak candidly about “The Talk,” which is what many black parents call the painfully necessary conversation they have with their kids about how to behave if stopped by police.

The Talk has slipped into more widespread conversations with the recent wave of controversial police killings of black men and boys, some of which — like Garner’s — were captured on video.

Besides Garner, who died this summer when a police officer put him in an alleged chokehold after stopping to arrest him for selling untaxed “loosie” cigarettes, there was 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, after a struggle.

More recently, a Cleveland cop fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a fake gun. Video of that shooting has run repeatedly on TV, along with the shooting of unarmed Levar Jones, 35, who reached into his car for his license too quickly in a Richland County, South Carolina, according to the officer, who has since been fired. Jones fortunately survived.

Is this why a narrow majority of Americans in a new Bloomberg Politics poll say they think racial interactions have gotten worse under President Obama? I think things only seem worse, especially to those who didn’t want to face the persistent canyon of our racial and cultural differences.

Racial discord in my view is a lot like sex: We may not be having more of it than we used to, but we’re talking about it more than ever.

In that way, we’re learning more — whether we intended to or not — about how race is experienced by different people and families in our very diverse society. Part of the thanks goes to modern media that, depending on how they are used, can shed light or more heat.

But those who expect to reach a “colorblind society” without a lot of effort and occasional setbacks are, as Frederick Douglass — one of the 19th century’s most important African Americans — said, are “people who want crops without plowing the ground.” We have many miles to go before we reap.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

AFP Photo

Obama’s Second-Term Slide Mostly About Us, Not Him

As President Barack Obama heads into the final half of his final term, many of us Americans wonder whatever happened to the fresh promise of that cheerfully charismatic optimist who dominated the political stage back in 2008.

Some of those who voted for him now say they’re sorry they did. A poll by USA Today/Suffolk University finds, among those who say they did vote for him in six states that have key Senate races this fall, as many as 1 in 7 say they regret it.

Of course, it also is significant to note that some of those folks are liberals who think Obama has been too conservative. I am thinking, for example, of Cornel West, the celebrity activist-intellectual who told Time magazine he didn’t vote for anybody in the 2012 presidential election. To me, that was essentially a vote for Mitt Romney, but I don’t expect Professor West to brag about that.

Obama’s slump isn’t all that special. Every two-term president in recent decades has suffered a dip in approval halfway through his second term. But Obama’s slide is startling for a man who, only two years ago, became the first Democrat since FDR to win a majority of the popular vote in two elections.

That’s why you won’t see him campaigning alongside Democratic candidates in close Senate races. They’re delighted to receive the money he helps to raise but they don’t want to be seen with him.

Why has the thrill gone? I can think of three big reasons:

One: Public impatience. After six years in office, any president has been seen and heard too many times to satisfy the public’s relentless appetite for something fresh and new.

“We claim that a president is tired or looks tired,” wrote presidential scholar James Mann in a recent New York Times op-ed, “when what we really mean is that we are tired of him.”

Two: An anti-incumbent reflex in news media. The most powerful media bias, I often have argued, is our bias against any political narrative that sounds like old news. Our current president looks less exciting than the menagerie of wannabes on the horizon.

Three: Obama’s own distaste for the politicking that is an inevitable and, in many ways, essential part of presidential leadership.

Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary and CIA director under Obama, added fuel to this long-running narrative in recent interviews to promote his new memoir.

“I think the difference is that [President] Bill Clinton [for whom Panetta also worked] likes politics, likes the engagement in politics,” Panetta told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “Barack Obama does not like that process of engaging in politics, and I think that hurts his presidency. It hurts him in terms of getting things done.”

Yet as a fair historical accounting will show, Obama did get some things done. He reversed the recession with a stimulus that injected billions into the economy. Recovery has been sluggish and low-wage workers have not benefited as much as upper-income earners. But unemployment is down, so is the deficit, and the stock market, for all of its bounces, has hit record highs.

The president’s health care plan still suffers in the polls, but not enough for Republicans to carry through with their plans to make attacks on “Obamacare” a central theme of their midterm campaigns.

As for social issues, the Obama era has reversed the conservative culture wars, particularly in women’s rights, same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, among other issues.

Yet there’s little doubt that he could have done more had he engaged his relentless opposition more effectively early on. He still has two years. He still faces such weighty issues as immigration, Ebola, the Islamic State, Iran nuclear talks, new trade agreements, federal budget disputes and who-knows-what crises that we have not even imagined yet.

Gary Younge, at Britain’s liberal newspaper The Guardian, observed that Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can,” seems to have become, “At least he tried.” The next two years offer him a big opportunity to try harder.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.

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What Matters Most: Bringing Bowe Bergdahl Back

Those who object to President Barack Obama’s recent prisoner exchange raise a bracing question: How many Taliban terrorists is one freed U.S. soldier worth?

That question lies at the heart of the backlash that President Obama has received after doing what many of his critics have been urging him to do: take action to free U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held prisoner by the Taliban for the past five years.

The objections come mainly over the way he did it: He traded five high-ranking Taliban detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, whom many sources call the most dangerous U.S. detainees on the island.

Yet the president makes no apologies, he says, for following the time-honored American military ethos: Leave no man or woman behind. The big dispute, his opponents fume, is over the price.

But what, I ask, is the alternative? When a civilized country is drawing down a military action, as the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan, it does not leave its soldiers behind, even if big questions surround them like the current uproar around Bergdahl.

We are not, for example, like Joseph Stalin. After beating Adolf Hitler’s army in the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russian dictator was offered a high-value POW, his own eldest son, in exchange for a captured German field marshal. Yet Stalin refused. “I will not trade a marshal for a lieutenant,” he is reported to have said. The son, famously unloved by his father, would die in a German prison camp.

At the other, more honorable extreme, it’s hard to beat the risks taken by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he approved the release three years ago of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — including convicted terrorists responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths — to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli sergeant who had been held captive by Hamas for five years.

It was perhaps with that in mind that the Obama White House appears to have underestimated the political blowback that they would receive for the Bergdahl swap. Team Obama was ready for questions about the likelihood that the five released detainees would return to battle in Afghanistan, after a year under the supposedly watchful monitoring of Qatar’s government. The risk is real. But after a dozen years in custody at Guantánamo, their ability to return to command positions has been weakened by changing times, drone strikes and other military actions — some of which could be taken against the former detainees if they return to their old jobs.

Where Team Obama appears to have been caught off-guard is in the furor against Bergdahl. Otherwise, for example, National Security Advisor Susan Rice probably would not have gone on Sunday morning talk shows describing Bergdahl as having served with “honor and distinction.” Too many questions surround his record, as a media feeding frenzy soon exposed.

He was called a traitor and deserter by members of his platoon, whose rage is not hard to understand. Walking away from your fellow soldiers violates more than written military law. It breaks the crucial bond of mutual trust, reliance and interdependence that is at the core of military culture and the “warrior brotherhood,” for men and for women.

Yet not being liked by your fellow soldiers is damaging, but not illegal. By most accounts, Bergdahl did his job and performed like a quirky, adventurous oddball who kept to himself in a culture that can be unforgiving to nonconformists.

He also walked away twice before, once during training in California and once in Afghanistan, but he returned both times on his own. Was he on another one of his dangerous walkabouts in 2009 when he walked into the arms of the Taliban? Was he AWOL, which is a minor offense, or a deserter, meaning he did not intend to return?

GI Bowe is coming home. Perhaps now he can tell his side of the story. If he broke laws, he should be prosecuted. If a real court martial is necessary, it would be better than his current court martial by news media.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

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Why The Right Should Support Boosting Minimum Wage, Too

I’ve heard a lot of goofy arguments against raising the federal minimum wage. The silliest goes like this: “You want to raise the minimum wage to $15? Why not $50? Why not $100?”

Of course, that’s not a real argument. Yet I hear it a lot, which means it probably originates somewhere in the nation’s vast menagerie of conservative talk-show hosts.

The answer, if this pseudo-argument deserves one, is that $15 is at least where the current minimum hourly wage of $7.25 would be if it had kept up with worker productivity since the 1960s, according to various experts.

For example, the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimates that, if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth since 1968, as it did for the two decades before, it would now be $18.67 per hour. Ah, the good old days.

That figure makes President Barack Obama’s request for a raise to $10.10, after asking for $9 earlier in the year, sound modest.

Yet at the other end of the political spectrum you have conservatives like Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, who told National Journal that he would rather just get rid of the federal minimum wage altogether. “I think it’s outlived its usefulness,” he said, although he acknowledged that “it may have been of some value back in the Great Depression.”

No minimum wage? It seems to me that America tried that before. It’s called slavery.

But whether Barton’s fellow Republicans share his extreme view or not, a minimum wage increase isn’t likely to have any easier time in the current Congress than most of this president’s other requests.

That’s a tragedy for millions of hard-working Americans who are having an increasingly tough time making ends meet — even as stocks soar to record highs on Wall Street.

Does it sound like I’m talking class warfare? Americans didn’t think so in the three decades after World War II, when the idea of wages keeping up with productivity had much more bipartisan support.

In the years from 1947 to 1969, the minimum wage actually did keep pace with productivity growth, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, another liberal-leaning Washington think tank. As recently as President George W. Bush’s administration, Congress passed a bipartisan minimum wage increase in 2007 that included tax breaks for small businesses. That’s not class warfare. It’s legislating.

Yet not all conservatives are opposed to raising the minimum wage. While Washington sounds gridlocked, the issue has produced productive alliances in various states and municipalities.

In California, fast-food workers and others who have been rallying nationwide for minimum wage increases, have found an unusual ally in Ron Unz. The conservative Silicon Valley businessman probably is best known for backing Proposition 227 in 1998, a ballot issue that eliminated bilingual education as it had been practiced in California schools.

Now the former publisher of The American Conservative magazine has submitted a ballot initiative to the California secretary of state that would raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour in 2016 from the current $8.

His reasons? Strictly conservative, he points out. He sees it as an economic growth measure. It would put $15 billion a year into the pockets of workers who would spend it as “one of the largest economic stimulus packages in California history,” he told KQED radio. And it would be funded entirely by the private sector, he pointed out.

More controversially, Unz hopes that raising the minimum wage would help slow the flow of illegal immigration. “In effect, a much higher minimum wage serves to remove the lowest rungs in the employment ladder,” he wrote in the magazine he used to publish, “thus preventing newly arrived immigrants from gaining their initial foothold in the economy.”

That may be asking too much, in my view. History shows that immigration, legal or illegal, rises or falls according to how well the U.S. economy is doing.

But there’s no question that raising wages would make work in this country even more attractive, particularly to Americans who already toil on the bottom rungs of the income ladder. They deserve a raise.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com)

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Will Supreme Court Endow Corporations With A Soul, Too?

Private businesses are trying to block Obamacare on religious grounds? What do companies worship besides, perhaps, the almighty dollar?

That’s the question at the heart of two conflicting rulings from lower courts that the Supreme Court has decided to take up in its second constitutional showdown over President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Since the law also known as Obamacare was passed, dozens of Christian employers have challenged its birth-control mandate that requires employers to provide health insurance coverage for FDA-approved contraception.

Abortion rights opponents believe some of the allowed contraceptive methods block fertilized eggs from implanting in a woman’s uterus. That’s disputed by other research findings that the methods in question actually work before fertilization occurs.

To placate such objections, the Obama administration has changed the requirement to allow explicitly religious organizations and some other nonprofits to opt out of paying for insurance directly, passing the costs on to their insurance provider instead.

But that doesn’t apply to the big for-profit corporations at issue in the two cases that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear.

In one of them, the 10th Circuit Court upheld the argument of Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a chain of 500 arts-and-crafts stores with 13,000 full-time employees, that the mandate would violate the rights of owners David and Barbara Green under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. That law says that a “person” can seek to opt out of a law under some circumstances if obeying it would “substantially burden” the exercise of his or her religion.

But is a corporation a “person?” Yes, says the 10th Circuit, under the Citizens United decision, which holds that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individual people to spend money as a form of speech in political campaigns.

Not so, says the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, in the second of the two decisions the justices will review. In rejecting the arguments of Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania manufacturer of wooden cabinets owned by a Mennonite family, the appeals court wrote that corporations “do not pray, worship, observe sacraments or take other religiously motivated actions separate and apart from the intention and direction of their individual actors.”

That sounds right to me. Even if the corporations qualified as “persons” under the 1993 law, which I am sure would surprise many of those who voted for it, the law cites a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion.

If any “burden” is imposed on the employers in these cases, it hardly can be called “substantial” any more than the burden government routinely imposes on taxpayers to fund overseas wars or domestic social programs to which they personally object.

But if the high court grants corporations a religious license to pick and choose whichever government rules they want to follow or taxes they want to pay, a substantial burden would be imposed on the ability of the health care law to work — which would be just fine with some of its critics.

The impact of such a decision would reach far beyond Obamacare. That’s why the Supreme Court has drawn boundaries around the First Amendment’s “free exercise of religion” clause since its ruling in the 1878 test case of the bigamy conviction of George Reynolds, the personal secretary to Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Reynolds contended that his bigamy conviction violated his First Amendment rights as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which would not renounce bigamy until 1890. He lost, mainly because of legal reasoning drawn partly from a letter by Thomas Jefferson in which he drew a sharp distinction between religious belief and religiously motivated actions.

Because belief “lies solely between man and his God,” Jefferson wrote, “the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.” In that spirit, the Supreme Court’ wrote, “Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice?”

One hopes not. Government should not intrude on religious faith, but for the sake of the common good, it occasionally must intervene in acts that are motivated by religious belief.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

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GOP Divided By Immigration Debate

“I’m seldom accused of being too nice,” writes Rep. Luis Gutierrez in his lively new autobiography. Yet the feisty and frank Chicago Democrat has been sounding a lot like Mr. Nice Guy these days as he tries to salvage immigration reform in the GOP-controlled House.

His book, Still Dreaming: My Journey from the Barrio to Capitol Hill, stirred considerable buzz for its less-than-flattering portrayal of President Barack Obama, of whom Gutierrez was an early supporter, for failing to push immigration reform during his first term as he had promised.

But on the heels of the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling showdown, the second-term president and both parties have new incentives to pass immigration reform — with less than a month left on the congressional calendar before the end of the year.

“I feel very, very optimistic,” Gutierrez told me in a phone interview between meetings on Capitol Hill. In spite of Washington’s bitter partisanship on full display in recent weeks, “quiet diplomacy” and “dialogue” about immigration reform “continued during all of that time.”

Not everybody shares his optimism. Immigration has long divided House Republicans and the rest of the Grand Old Party. Amid changing times and demographics, the party faces a dilemma over how it can polish its brand and expand its reach without losing its conservative base.

Pragmatic moderates in the GOP leadership want to fix our broken immigration system to spur economic growth and broaden the party’s ethnic diversity after last November’s presidential election loss. The only specific policy recommendation in the national party’s post-election “autopsy” called for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

But conservatives oppose anything that resembles “amnesty,” including the “pathway” to legalization and ultimately citizenship that Gutierrez and other Democrats want for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented workers.

Conservatives would rather emphasize border enforcement, even though more than half of the undocumented are estimated not to have entered over the border, but to have overstayed their visas.

The pressure is so fierce that Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio sounded this past weekend as though he was turning against the immigration bill he co-wrote and helped to persuade his fellow senators to pass in June.

In statements released by his spokesman Alex Conant, Rubio proposed a piece-by-piece approach to immigration reform instead of the comprehensive bill favored by the Senate. “(A)t this time, the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills,” the spokesman said.

Pessimists say Rubio, a possible presidential hopeful, is knuckling under to pressure from the Tea Party right. But reformers argue that his support for scaled-back immigration reform is not a deal-breaker, since the Republican-led House was never going to pass the Senate’s comprehensive bill anyway. Since Rubio already lost credibility with House conservatives when he helped to author the bill with the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” his latest move can be seen as a gesture to meet House Republicans halfway.

Among Democrats, Gutierrez has tried to stay upbeat and keep talking to key Republicans, which is not always easy. For that unease, he didn’t let his own party off the hook, either. After all, he pointed out, President Obama and Democrats didn’t push comprehensive immigration reform when they ran both houses of Congress.

And when he and Rep. Paul Ryan made two joint appearances in Chicago in April on behalf of immigration reform, Gutierrez reminds us, he took heat from Democrats for palling around with the enemy. Outreach, he insists, has to work both ways. “Wash D.C. is a place where bipartisanship is always lauded but never rewarded,” he said.

With non-Hispanic whites expected to become a minority by the mid-2040s, the future of the Republicans as a national party is at stake. Opponents of reform complain that new immigrants would be a gift to Democrats, since they have tended to vote that way. But experience shows Hispanic immigrants and others can be very persuadable, when parties show that their votes are wanted.

(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

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Shakespeare Echoes In Today’s Politics

Observing Washington politics close-up has given me a new appreciation of Shakespeare. Now I see where he got his ideas.

“Today, you could say that almost all of our political rhetoric, comes from two books from the 16th and 17th centuries: the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays,” Michael Witmore, director of Folger Shakespeare Library, told me last year.

I recently talked to Witmore again at the 71-year-old independent research library and theater, which sits only a block east of the Capitol.

What, I wondered, would Shakespeare say about today’s era of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling showdowns and Obamacare website meltdowns? He wouldn’t be surprised, Witmore said with a smile, “After all, he wrote the script.”

Indeed, after perusing some of the Bard’s most famous quotes, it is not hard for me to look at today’s headlines and imagine, say, President Barack Obama confronting congressional Republicans with, “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” (Hamlet).

Or Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reporting on job growth: “We have seen better days.” (Timon of Athens)

Or House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) looking over his shoulder at Tea Party rivals: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.” (Julius Caesar).

Or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) defending his ill-fated push into the partial government shutdown: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” (Hamlet).

Or maybe Health and Human Services Secy. Kathleen Sebelius as Lady Macbeth dealing with Obamacare’s website woes: “Out! Out, damn glitch…!”

But Witmore called my attention to As You Like It, a comedy that in Act 5, Scene 4, delivers “one of the great comic treatments of the politics of brinksmanship (that) we in the capital know well.”

In the scene, a jester named Touchstone instructs us in the etiquette of giving “the Lie with Circumstance,” a gesture to soften disputes — of which today’s Capitol Hill has many.

To express disagreement, he recommends the little word “if” in a way that almost sounds like you are conceding agreement — as in, “If you said so, then I said so.”

“Your If is the only peace-maker,” Touchstone concludes. “Much virtue in If.”

Brilliant. Cut through the Elizabethan English and one hears Shakespeare capturing what I call the essence of passive-resistant diplomacy. The “if” accepts the validity of the other person’s judgment without closing the door on the possibility that the other person is wrong.

President Obama offered an excellent example, in my view, when he recently was confronted in an Associated Press interview with a controversy that he did not need, yet could not easily avoid: the long-building uproar over the racial slur that the Washington’s pro football team, the Redskins, uses as their name.

In May, the current team owner Dan Snyder told USA Today, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

No matter how much some well-meaning fans try to sugarcoat it, the name is a slur and needs to go. But how does a president make that point without sounding like a hater of the team? How about a virtuous “if?”

“If I were the owner of the team,” the president said in a fatherly tone, “and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.”

That’s about as forceful as anyone can call for banishing a racial slur without giving anyone a good reason to feel offended. Snyder responded with an open letter to fans that defended the name, although this time he didn’t say “NEVER,” all caps or not.

If the name’s days are numbered, as I suspect they are, Obama helped move the ball down the field.

Germany’s first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, called politics “the art of the possible.” Such is the magic of the Shakespearean “if,” I believe. Leaders need to think not only about how bad things are but also how good they could be.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

Image via WIkimedia Commons

D.C.’s New Three-Party System

Why another shutdown? Our government has three parties these days: Democrats, Republicans and the new radical Republicans.

That “radical Republican” label has some history. The old radical Republicans were the Grand Old Party’s progressive wing. They were opposed during the Civil War and through Reconstruction by the party’s liberals and conservatives.

They strongly opposed slavery, demanded harsh policies against ex-Confederates and pushed civil rights and voting rights for newly emancipated slaves. Abraham Lincoln and other moderates sought compromise and unity for the party and the nation. Today’s radical right would probably call Lincoln an appeaser or a “RINO” — Republican in Name Only.

Today’s radical Republicans are quite the opposite in ideology, if not in temperament, of the originals. Today’s Tea Party-era radicals call themselves “conservative” but they radically challenge, block and overturn established laws, policies and traditions that get in the way of their ideological goals — even if it means a federal government shutdown or a possible default on the nation’s debt obligations.

Long-running partisan battles over taxes, spending, deficits, the debt ceiling and other fiscal concerns have come to a head this season in pitched, last-ditch battles by Republicans to block, repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”

Democrats believe that their hard-won Obamacare law — having survived congressional opposition, the Supreme Court and a presidential election in which it was a central issue — should be given a chance to work.

Republicans like Texas senator Ted Cruz fear that once Obamacare kicks in, as he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in July, it “will never, ever be repealed” after Democrats “get the American people addicted to the sugar.”

In other words, if people get a chance to try Obamacare, they might like it as much as they like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs long decried by conservatives as socialistic.

They have a right to hold objections to programs they don’t like. But conservatives do their country a disservice by holding the normal functions of government hostage to their tests of ideological purity. That’s not just coming from me. It also comes from many of their fellow conservatives.

Some of the party’s best known conservatives have come under attack from the GOP’s Tea Party wing for failure to be conservative enough. The Senate Conservatives Fund, for example, has been running ads that attack Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Their sin: reluctance to support their party’s self-destructive strategy against Obamacare.

“Tell Senate Republicans to stand with Ted Cruz and [Utah senator] Mike Lee,” says the group’s website, “not [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell [of Kentucky] and [Senate Minority Whip] John Cornyn [of Texas].”

Other conservative groups, including the Tea Party Patriots, For America and Heritage Action have mounted ads attacking Republicans in both houses who don’t rigidly support their efforts to defund Obamacare.

Over on the House side, Cruz has thumbed his nose at traditional protocols by plotting strategy with Tea Party House members — against Speaker John Boehner’s wishes.

But what is Boehner to do? He’s been warned by the Tea Partiers that he’ll be voted out of his speakership if he passes any major legislation with less than a majority of House Republicans. The radical right may be a minority of the House but they appear to leverage a majority of the power against Boehner’s lack of a counter-strategy.

Cruz has taken de facto leadership of the new radical Republican assault on Obamacare, most visibly by speaking for more than 21 hours in a pseudo-filibuster about his objections to the program. This has won soaring support for him in the party’s right wing, setting him up for what most likely will be a presidential run in 2016. One wonders whether he cares more about Republicans or the Ted Cruz Party.

So far, the strident GOP push to overturn Obamacare, even as Americans in need of health care sign up for its state insurance exchanges, shows Republicans to be holding on to the same self-defeating strategy that lost the 2012 presidential race: Talking ceaselessly to themselves.

Worse, they’re arguing among themselves, battling for their party’s political soul instead of real solutions to the problems that voters sent them to Washington to solve.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Growing Numb To Mass Violence

What if we had a mass shooting and nobody noticed?

That gloomy thought came to mind as I listened to the unsettling sound of silence that followed the September 16 Navy Yard shooting in the nation’s capital that killed 12 people, plus the shooter.

Three days later it came to mind again as a shooting spree in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood made national news. Thirteen were injured, including a 3-year-old boy who was shot in the face. Four people have been charged in the reportedly gang-related incident.

President Obama eloquently expressed the grief, outrage and frustration that every decent American should feel about “yet another mass shooting” at the Navy Yard.

But overall reaction to the workplace slaughter by a reportedly deranged gunman was sadly and noticeably subdued compared to the national outrage that reignited the national gun debate following the massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.

That’s because after all the anguish, debate and proposed legislation that emerged from the Newtown tragedy, the legislation was voted down in the Senate and everyone returned to other matters — like House Republicans voting uselessly to repeal Obamacare more than 40 times. Opposition to even modest measures was too strong, especially from rural centers of pro-gun culture.

If even the massacre of children and the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, could not move Congress to pass new gun safety measures, it’s no wonder that the energy for gun safety seems to have drained out of Capitol Hill.

But that doesn’t mean that we Americans can’t do anything but wring our hands over the continuing carnage. As even mass shootings lose their ability to shock us, both sides of the gun debate need to face a bracing reality: The gun violence problem is not only local and it’s not only about guns.

Those points were urgently expressed by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter in a joint speech in Washington last Thursday. They called for a new “surge” in attention and national action to the “virus” of gun-related violence.

Calls for national action are hardly new, but I was encouraged by the mayors’ refusal to be, as Landrieu put it, bogged down by the “seemingly mind-numbing debate about gun control.”

Instead they emphasized remedies everyone should be able to agree on. They included more cops on the street, as in a stronger COPS program — Community Oriented Policing Services — passed by Congress under President Bill Clinton; stronger cooperation with the federal government to target criminals with illegal guns and stronger measures against straw purchases and interstate gun traffickers.

Yet the two mayors also called for more personal responsibility and engagement by parents, pastors, coaches and neighbors. “Babies having babies just doesn’t work,” Landrieu said.

I’ve heard Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who reportedly left some scheduled meetings with members of Obama’s cabinet in Washington early after hearing of the mass shooting back home, express a similar agenda in his slogan: “Policing, prevention, penalties and parenting.”

Bottom line: A problem as complex as urban violence must be pushed back the same way it emerged: in every sector of community and political life.

But first we have to care. Citing the number of black men killed by homicide in his city in 2012, Nutter observed: “If the Ku Klux Klan came to Philadelphia and killed 236 black men, the city would be on lockdown.”

The same would be true if “international terrorists killed 236 Philadelphians of any race,” he said. “And, yet, 236 African-American men murdered in one city — not one word. No hearings on the Hill, no investigations … nothing but silence.”

We need to end the sound of silence. It was easier to take national political action in the ’90s. The economy was doing well and Congress was not as fiercely divided as it is today. But, as the two mayors said in Washington, we should not be more willing to pay for safe streets in Afghanistan than to make our streets safer at home.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.)

AFP Photo

We Still Need To Talk About Race

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New polls tell us that the public’s attitudes about race relations have taken a bad hit since President Barack Obama’s historic election. Can we all get along? Obama’s election was a marvelous measure of how far we have come in race relations. His taking office revealed how far we still have to go.

It didn’t help the public’s optimism that the poll was taken days after the racially divisive acquittal of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in a confrontation last year as the teen walked home in Sanford, Florida.

The poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, which has tracked race relations since 1994, found only 52 percent of whites and 38 percent of blacks have a favorable opinion of race relations in the country.

That’s a big drop from the beginning of Obama’s first term, when 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks held a favorable view. It also marks a bigger drop than the 70 percent level found by the same pollsters in 2009 and 2011.

I, for one, am not surprised. We had no reason to expect any further magic from Obama, a wizard of oratory, without doing our part to continue the fabled “conversation on race” that liberals have called for since the 1960s.

It is a call that today’s conservatives tend to deride as an excuse for liberals to harangue conservatives. As Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly commented in responding to the president’s speech on race after the Zimmerman verdict, “When you hear a pundit or politician saying we should have a quote, ‘conversation’ about race, that means you are in for a sea of bloviating which will likely lead nowhere.”

Obama acknowledged as much in his speech, which he delivered from notes. However, he wisely encouraged conversations “in families and churches and workplaces,” where “there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest.”

Good idea. Americans seem to be getting along increasingly better across racial and cultural lines in their day-to-day lives than their so-called elite opinion leaders do.

Politicians and the rest of the chattering classes too often profit from inflaming conflict. It raises campaign funds — and audience numbers.

Less celebrated are the points of light I find in surprising places, like the new working relationship forged by a couple of famous Illinois foes, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush.

It began in the worst way, after Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was mistakenly gunned down in an attempted gang hit just days after she’d returned from performing with her high school at the presidential inaugural festivities in Washington, D.C.

Kirk was so outraged that he promised without much consultation with city residents to propose an ill-advised $30 million effort to round up all 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples, Chicago’s largest gang.

Rush was so outraged by that ill-advised plan that he imprudently denounced it as an “upper middle-class, elitist, white-boy solution.”

But, as a predictable array of critics, including me, denounced Rush’s racially inflammatory rhetoric, he quietly invited Kirk to a meeting. You also might call it a “conversation.”

Although details of that closed-door meeting are not widely known, Kirk has since revised his proposal. On July 18, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave bipartisan approval to a $19.5 million bill he is sponsoring to fight street gangs that have a “national profile,” like the Gangster Disciples, with more of a scalpel than the meat cleaver he originally proposed.

And Rush, along with other Congressional Black Caucus members, held the first two meetings in Washington and Chicago this past week of a National Emergency Summit on Urban Violence that they plan to take to other cities, too.

The agenda predictably includes racial profiling and gun control, but also efforts to restore family life, youth mentoring, education, job training and other ways to address the root causes of urban violence.

I don’t expect miracles. There’s no quick fix for problems as daunting as race relations and urban violence. But the search for solutions begins with honest conversations between opposing sides. In this one promising episode, Kirk and Rush show how shared outrage, like love, can bring us together — if we let it.

(Email Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com)

Photo: Martin Cathrae via Flickr