New York Times/Siena College has Democrat Joe Biden at 50 percent and Republican President Donald Trump at 36 percent; CNN has Biden at 54 percent and Trump 36 percent; Fox News has Biden at 50 percent and Trump at 38 percent. These recent national polls have left Democrats almost giddy with anticipation. But before Democrats put the champagne on ice, they would be wise to remember the prophetic words of an authentically wise Texan. Former Gov. Ann Richards said, on July 3, 1988, on CBS's "Face the Nation": "July does not a November election make."
Pundit Mark Shields has been on the political playing field since Robert F. Kennedy ran for president in 1968. After years of managing campaigns from the courthouse to the White House, he is now one of the most widely recognized commentators in the United States.
Shields is best known for his work on CNN's "Capital Gang," where he debates policy issues with syndicated columnists Robert Novak, The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, and Time magazine's White House correspondent Margaret Carlson, and for his weekly appearances on the award-winning "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," where, since 1987, he has teamed up with conservatives such as David Gergen, Paul Gigot and David Brooks to provide the program's principal political analysis.
Shields grew up in Weymouth, Mass., and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1959 with a major in philosophy and a minor in history. In 1964, after serving in the Marines in Florida, Shields moved to Washington, D.C., to indulge his love of American government.
His first political assignment was as a legislative assistant to former Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.). From there, he launched into a career on the campaign trail.
Shields' first major campaign experience was during Robert F. Kennedy's bid for the presidency, for which Shields helped organize the California primary. He then went on to work for Sen. Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign in 1972, R. Sargent Shriver's bid for the vice presidency and Rep. Morris Udall's campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1976.
In 1979, Shields joined the editorial staff of The Washington Post and a year later started writing his column, which is now syndicated weekly by Creators Syndicate. In addition to written commentary, Shields began regular appearances on television and radio in the early 1980s, including a nightly piece on ABC Radio's "Look at Today."
Shields' book, "On the Campaign Trail," about the 1984 presidential campaign, has been praised as "funny," "irreverent" and "insightful" and for bringing that race "to magnificent light." As one reviewer put it, Shields "is the wittiest political analyst around, and he is frequently the most trenchant, fair-minded and thoughtful."
Now enjoying life as a full-time political pundit, Shields appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. He speaks to audiences often, sharing his firsthand accounts and impressions of the major political events of the past few decades. He has also taught courses on American politics and the press at Harvard University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Shields lives near Washington, D.C., with his wife, Anne, chief of staff at the Interior Department.
History can be cruel. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was unquestionably America's most prominent prophet and practitioner of nonviolence, was followed by riots, arson and looting in 168 American cities and towns. The numbers are staggering: 2,600 fires were set; 21,700 people were injured; 2,600 were arrested; 39 were killed. One city that was spared all that in the days following King's murder was Indianapolis.
Credit for that must be given to the citizens of Indiana's capital city and to its leaders, both black and white, and also to a remarkable American political leader, who, on that April night in 1968, delivered the news of King's death to an Indianapolis rally of mostly African Americans.
Here's the fail-safe test for whether a political party is growing and strengthening or shrinking in size and prospects: Is that party spending its time, energy and effort seeking, recruiting and welcoming converts to its ranks, or is that party instead hunting down heretics within its ranks and, in the name of political purity, banishing them to some outer darkness?
Because American politics is always a matter of addition, not subtraction, the convert-seeking and convert-welcoming party is healthier and almost always has the better prospects of winning the November general election. Republicans understood that well in 1980 when the GOP presidential nominee openly courted and embraced converts, even giving them very own designation as Reagan Democrats. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the future Democratic nominee told the nation: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America." Thus did Barack Obama become the first Democrat in 12 presidential elections to win 53 percent of the national Vote.
It is a common, if not especially honorable, practice in American politics for a candidate and her campaign to prefer to run not against their actual opponent on the ballot but rather against the most unpopular caricature of the opponent's party. That explains why Democrats, for close to three decades after the election of 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt crushed Republican Herbert Hoover by 18 percent in the popular vote and carried 42 of the then 48 states, continued to run against "Herbert Hoover Republicans." Ignored was Hoover's humanitarian record during World War I, when through his leadership, 7 million Belgians were rescued from certain starvation.
As you probably already knew, the next six months of 2020 presidential campaigning are going to be ugly. I do not say this happily, but I do so based upon a lifetime of watching candidates run for election and reelection. Almost invariably, politicians return to what worked successfully in previous campaigns.
Consider the most recent presidential election of 2016. When exit polls across the nation asked actual voters whether their opinion of the two candidates was favorable or unfavorable, their answers were Donald Trump 38 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable, and Hillary Clinton 43 percent favorable and 55 percent unfavorable.
Somebody close to President Donald Trump could, in a burst of candor, tell him that he does not know everything to be known about the history of the filibuster in the United States Senate — or even the origin of the infield fly rule in Major League Baseball.
But nobody, absolutely nobody, should ever dare to suggest that this president has not completely mastered everything there is to know about American popular television. Lest we forget, only one American president, before he came to office, was the host/star/dominant personality for 14 years of a network prime-time TV show, which, in its debut season, actually averaged 20 million viewers a show. That was Donald Trump's The Apprentice.
Democrats are beside themselves; after President Donald Trump's consistently inconsistent and uneven public pronouncements on the seriousness of the coronavirus, moving in one 24-hour period from "something we have tremendous control over" to our "toughest enemy: the invisible enemy" and limiting all crowds to fewer than 10, his poll numbers have gone up. How, they ask, could this be the case when the president's leadership of this "war" has been start-stop, don't-worry-be-happy?
The answer is found in history. At times of crisis — even crises in which the sitting president has seemingly made things worse rather than better — the natural American reaction is to rally to the flag, to support the commander in chief. Take the failed invasion of Cuba in 1961 ordered by President John F. Kennedy. It was a total failure. The Cuban expatriates leading the attack were captured as soon as they landed. Yet Kennedy's job approval rating in the aftermath, after he took responsibility for the failure, saying, "Victory has 100 fathers, and defeat is an orphan … I'm the responsible officer of the government," soared to 83 percent positive.
When President Jimmy Carter was in office, the shah of Iran was admitted to the U.S. for medical treatment, and Iranian revolutionaries took Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage and kept them there until Carter left office fifteen months later. And what happened in the polls? Jimmy Carter's job rating had been 31 percent positive and climbed in little over one month to 61 percent approval. Rallying to the flag is an established national impulse.
Even Ronald Reagan, who won election and reelection in successive electoral landslides, and whose approval rating was just 51 percent positive on inauguration day, watched — painfully — after he was gravely wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt as his job rating jumped up to 68 percent approval.
What ought to be surprising is the very small bump up in his poll numbers Trump has yet been given. One reason is that Trump, in the phrase of pollster Peter Hart, one of the founders of the Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll, has had "a trading range of low 40s to high 40s, with his average rating at 45." Other presidents have had their job ratings climb to the 60s during good times and then fall into the 30s when things went south. President George H.W. Bush was at 89 percent approval after the successful, short Gulf War in 1991 and then saw his job rating plummet to 29 percent positive — a fall of 60 — by the summer of 1992, the year he would lose reelection.
Donald Trump has not had the traditional public rallying to his side that previous presidents have enjoyed. But, let it be noted, that while Trump has a "low ceiling" in how high his numbers climb, he also has a very "high floor" to support him — beneath which he has yet to slip.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
My sainted mother was a public school teacher until she married my father and immediately, as a married woman, was forced by local Massachusetts rules then in force to leave the classroom. (My own grade school teachers included Miss Galvin, Miss Harrington, Miss Donahue, Miss Keohane, Miss Condrick, Miss Loud … you get the picture.)
One happy adult memory is a lunch with my then-90-year-old mother in the leading Italian restaurant in our hometown of Weymouth, Massachusetts. The world-weary expression on our waitress’s face, herself already a grandmother, brightened immediately when she recognized my mother from more than 60 years earlier: “Miss Fallon,” she announced, “You were the best teacher I ever had. Remember me from the Jefferson School … Marie?” My mother did in fact remember and later unsentimentally recalled Marie’s losing encounters with the eights table in multiplication.
In addition to my mother, my only sister was a public school teacher. My only daughter was a teacher. After leaving the Marine Corps, I, too, taught high school history. I agree with former Democratic Texas Gov. Ann Richards who, before seeking and winning public office, had been a junior high school teacher. She said, “Teaching was the hardest work I had ever done, and it remains the hardest work I’ve done.” Republican presidential candidate and former Sen. John McCain echoed the same sentiment when he argued that a good teacher should not be paid less than a bad congressman.
Former White House Chief of Staff and later Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel shrewdly noted, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” meaning, “the opportunity for us to do things you could not before.” The current national and international crisis has closed schools and required parents to share confined indoor space with their children for hours and days on end.
All over America, mothers and fathers who had not thought much about it have been forced to confront, understand and appreciate what the American public school teacher does every day of the school year: manage, inspire, organize, discipline, inform and educate not one or two children but 30 children, all day long — some, sadly, with the attention span of a fruit fly.
While safeguarding people’s health and providing treatment to all afflicted are our overriding priorities, it may also be time for us Americans, beginning with parents, to recognize just how demanding, difficult and indispensable the work of the public school teacher is and that a school teacher deserves to be paid much more than the median salary, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $58,230 for an elementary school teacher in the U.S. Recalling McCain’s rule, a congressman — bad or good — is paid $174,000 a year.
There is not a school board or state legislature in the country in the spring of 2020 that would not be overwhelmingly urged by parents everywhere to support a major pay increase for public school teachers.
And while we’re on the subject of salaries, all those captains of industries, such as the airline CEOs, who’ve been pocketing multimillion dollar salaries and who are now coming to the taxpayers tin cup in hand to secure a public bailout, are now effectively public employees and should not be paid more than a good — or bad — member of Congress. It only seems fair, if the public pays their salary, that the public is able to set the pay scale. But first, let’s agree to pay the teachers a helluva lot more.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
We're traveling in a crowded subway car somewhere under Manhattan when, without warning, the car comes to an abrupt halt in a tunnel in between stations. The subway car is plunged into darkness, and our own growing anxiety, along with that of our fellow passengers, is almost palpable. After a while, a measured, authoritative voice comes over the public address system and calmly tells all us stranded, semiscared passengers a) what has happened; b) what is now being done to fix the problem; c) that we will be safe and on our way within a finite amount of time; and d) what we can do in the meantime to help the rescue process along. That is what the voice of leadership sounds like.
That was what Americans heard on Jan. 28, 1986, when their president, Ronald Reagan, spoke the seven names — Michael Smith, Gregory Jarvis, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Christa McAuliffe — of the astronauts who had perished in the space shuttle Challenger explosion: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for the journey and waved good-bye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
The president alone can speak to all of us and for all of us. After the failed U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba he had authorized, the president of the United States took sole responsibility for the failure ("I'm the responsible officer"), adding "victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."
Thus spoke John F. Kennedy, whose epitaph may have been best written by a young man who explained why he gave up two years of his life and volunteered to join the Peace Corps Kennedy created: "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish, because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked."
Commanding five-star general of the victorious Allied forces in World War II that destroyed Hitler's Third Reich, Dwight Eisenhower warned against the militarization of America: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Ike refused to romanticize combat: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
President Gerald Ford, in hopes of healing the divided nation he had inherited and ending waves of political recrimination, ignored the political consequences and his own reelection prospects by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, the resigned Richard Nixon. That decision probably cost Ford the presidency, but he explained "The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take. … Political courage can be self-defeating, but the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all."
Then we have the words of a president who, speaking to a nation aware that the mysterious and deadly coronavirus is changing the way they live and work, said: "So, if we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work — some of them go to work, but they get better." Another presidential statement: "There's a theory that, in April, when it gets warm — historically, that has been able to kill the virus." He has called the outbreak "a hoax" and blamed it on the Democrats and the press. You really miss the voice of leadership when you don't hear it.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Historically, we Americans have been among the world's most optimistic people. Why? One reason could be that every American, with the exception of those whose ancestors were already here when Columbus arrived or those whose ancestors were brought here in chains, is either herself an immigrant or the direct lineal descendant of immigrants. To be an immigrant — to leave family, friends and familiar places; to dare to strike out across the sea or the continent to a foreign place; to live among people you have never seen; to speak a language you have never heard — is an act requiring enormous human courage. But being an immigrant is also a testament to optimism that here, in this blessed country, we are free to improve our lives and the lives of those who follow us.
That special American optimism has influenced our political choices of national leaders. Even after a president sorely disappoints us, we somehow remain confident that we will find in the next leader the qualities missing in the flawed predecessor. Think about it: Richard Nixon, after serving in the U.S. House, the Senate and two terms as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, may have been our most experienced and credentialed president. After the criminality and corruption of Watergate and Nixon's resignation in disgrace, in the next election came former one-term Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, lacking in Washington experience and promising never to lie to the American people.
But Carter, a conscientious, intelligent and honorable man facing economic problems, seemed to change his mind a lot. So, in 1980, voters, looking for the opposite, chose the ideological leader of the nation's minority party, Republican Ronald Reagan, who had not changed his mind since 1962.
President George H.W. Bush, who essentially "won Ronald Reagan's third term," faced rough economic seas in his reelection, and when the president appeared confounded by an electronic scanner at a grocery checkout counter, voters doubted their president understood the hard times they were enduring. Enter Democrat Bill Clinton telling voters "I feel your pain." Voters found the empathetic, connected leader they were then looking for.
After eight years of Clinton, by a 2-to-1 margin, American voters judged their nation to be "headed in the right direction," and the president enjoyed a 65 percent favorable job rating. Yet an electorate, disappointed and angry by disclosures of the president's lies, self-indulgence and adultery in the White House, responded to George W. Bush's promise to "restore dignity to the Oval Office."
You get the point. So, what about 2020? When the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll asked Americans whether Donald Trump has "the right temperament to be president," by more than 3-1, voters said no. When asked whether Trump was "knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency," voters again answered no by 2-1. On being "steady and reliable," voters answered no by 2-1, and on "dealing with an international crisis," Trump received a 2-1 negative response from the voters. American voters are exhausted from the controversies, the outbursts, the haranguing and the intemperance which have characterized this presidency.
So, what do the Democratic candidates in their last debate before Super Tuesday do? They bicker; they shout; they talk over one another; they yell —- exactly what the voters do not want in 2020. The only two exceptions from this vantage point were the two former mayors, Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg, who lowered the emotional thermostat and spoke in audible but not relentlessly abrasive language. Believe me; voters in 2020 are not looking to replace Donald Trump with a Democratic version of the incumbent. We want someone who has demonstrated competence, knowledge and maturity. We want someone who does not need to be on Twitter, on TV and in our faces 24/7. We're looking for what's missing — not for more of the same.
In the seven presidential elections since 1992, the Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote exactly once. The lone GOP candidate to receive a majority of the national vote was George W. Bush in 2004. Bush’s election-day victory over Democrat John Kerry, who had, in most observers’ views, “won” the debates between the two, was explained by the respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart: “Voters preferred I Like over IQ.”
One test of deciding between presidential nominees is, “Who would you rather have a beer with?” which is another way of asking which White House challenger the voter personally likes more than the other. In short, our ballot for president is the most “personal” vote we Americans cast. Almost always, we pick the candidate with whom we are more comfortable and, more significantly, the candidate whose judgment and character we think we could depend upon in a personal crisis.
As evidence of the weight of the “I like” factor in presidential voting, let’s look at recent contests: In 2012, Barack Obama, the winner, was rated 52 percent personally favorable by voters, while Mitt Romney’s scores were 47 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable. In 2008, Americans had a rare positive choice. In the last Gallup poll before election day, John McCain was given a favorable rating by 57 percent of Americans and was barely eclipsed by Barack Obama’s 61 percent favorable score. In 2004, winner George W. Bush was 53 percent favorable among voters on election day, while John Kerry’s numbers were at 47 percent – 51 percent. In 1992 and 1996, voters liked Democrat Bill Clinton more than they liked both then-President George H. W. Bush and Sen. Bob Dole.
Of course, the outlier election was 2016, when both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump received historically low favorability scores. About one in five voters rated both candidates unfavorably but, when forced to choose between the two, voted for Trump with 3-2 odds.
But what about the 2020 outsider who’s on our living rooms TVs at every timeout of every game, at every commercial break between weather reports, news coverage and even during the Super Bowl? Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, an authentic billionaire, is spending at a rate unprecedented in American politics. And it is paying off. In most recent national polls, Bloomberg — on the strength of his wall-to-wall media campaign — has risen to double digits and as high as third place in some surveys.
We know that Michael Bloomberg has supported and spent generously to back candidates and initiatives that reflect his own priorities of gun control and climate change. In the eyes of some Democrats, Bloomberg’s political history — his quarter-million-dollar gift to South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham; the more than $11 million the mayor donated in 2016 to Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, whose narrow win secured Mitch McConnell as senate majority leader; and his endorsement of George W. Bush for reelection — suggest his commitment to the Party in 2020 is more convenience than conviction.
But we do not know who Mike Bloomberg really is. Does he have a temper or a sense of humor? Can he laugh at himself? Would we want him as a neighbor? Can he personally ask the machinist in Dayton and her husband for their votes? Or is he a billionaire who, like so many people with money, is most comfortable surrounded by high-priced, professional bootlickers who tell him how much smarter, more successful and more qualified he is to be president than anyone else?
Through his sophisticated and expensive TV and internet campaigns, we are learning what Mike Bloomberg wants us to know about him. What voters have yet to find out — and will not know until he’s in the arena, mixing it up with the other Democrats and on the debate stage — is whether we will like Mike.
We have reached that time in every presidential nominating year when distinguished, national opinion leaders beat up on Iowa and that admirable state’s influential role in determining the two major parties’ eventual presidential nominees and, therefore, the next president. The USA Today editorial board indicts Iowa for being “one of the least ethnically diverse states in the country” and its status as the first-in-the-nation presidential test every four years as ” un-American,” while Paul Waldman writes in The Washington Post that the Iowa caucuses “are a crime against democracy.”
It is time someone stood up for Iowa and Iowans. It’s true that Iowa is neither very representative of the entire nation nor very average. Scholarly studies have ranked Iowa as tied for first place in percentage of the adult population who are high school graduates. Iowans are fourth highest in access to health care (more “representative” Florida and Texas rank 46th and 47th respectively in citizens’ access to health care); first in broadband access; and third highest in public libraries per capita. True, the Hawkeye State leads the nation in production of corn, soybeans and pork, but Iowans are at the top of the nation in literacy, and the state has the U.S.’s 14th lowest murder rate.
But Iowa remains a small, rural state in the middle of the country. How representative can its voters be of the nation at large? The answer: amazingly so. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won 43 percent of the national vote and the White House; in Iowa, Clinton won 43 percent of the vote. In 1996, winner Clinton carried 49 percent of the national vote and 50 percent of the Iowa vote. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the national vote by one-half of 1 percent and Iowa by one-third of one percent. Republican George W Bush won reelection in 2004 with 51 percent of the national vote and 50 percent in Iowa. Democrat Barack Obama, in 2008, got 53 percent of the national vote and 54 percent of Iowans. In 2012, Obama was reelected nationally by a margin of four percent and in Iowa by five percent. In 2016, the exception: Donald Trump, who lost the national vote by two percent to Hillary Clinton, carried Iowa by a solid ten percent.
Yes, Iowa’s 2008 Democratic caucuses were 93 percent white, and those mid-American Caucasians made history by giving legitimacy and momentum to a freshman senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. In Iowa, the African American underdog won an upset victory over the heavily favored former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was propelled to the top of the national polls.
In fact, the rest of us owe Iowa our thanks. Iowans faithfully and earnestly fulfill their civil responsibilities by showing up at campaign town halls and listening and questioning the men and women who seek the White House. They take their responsibility seriously and then, on a cold winter night, hundreds of thousands of Iowans leave their homes and go to the local church hall, firehouse or school gym and spend a couple of hours declaring and defending their presidential preference openly in front of neighbors and friends. In the caucus, firefighters join shoulder-to-shoulder with nurses, teachers, retirees, students and small businesswomen in truly vibrant democracy. Here in Iowa, because Iowans give them a full and fair chance, the underfinanced, underdog candidate has a real chance. It was in Iowa that Jimmy Carter broke through and where George H.W. Bush’s upset win would lead to his being chosen vice president.
Thank you, Iowa, for serving the nation so well.
Is anyone here old enough to remember the urgent warning issued in a speech to the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 2002 by an American vice president who had artfully avoided the military draft during wartime? Dick Cheney, after acknowledging he was convinced that Saddam Hussein would “acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon,” went on to beat the war drums: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.”
There was not then, and there never would be, any stockpile of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs to be used against us. It was worse than “fake news”; it was taking his country into war under false pretenses, leaving as its legacy death, disillusionment and, yes, despair. But let us also recall the wise, if unheeded, words of a former Marine Corps company commander in Vietnam who there earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts; he posed the consideration the Republican administration sending American troops into Iraq refused to broach with the American people: “whether we as a nation are prepared to physically occupy territory in the Middle East for the next 30 to 50 years.”
That was Jim Webb, who would later be elected to the U.S. Senate from Virginia as an anti-war Democrat. He warned, “wars often have unintended consequences — ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days.” Today, 75 years after World War II, the U.S. still has troops stationed in both Germany and Japan, and 67 years after the Korean War ended, American soldiers remain on dangerous watch in Korea.
Does anyone else remember the young Army captain in Vietnam who had held in his arms a young soldier who had stepped on a landmine and was dying? Colin Powell knew firsthand how painful it was to write condolence letters to the grieving next of kin. That led directly to the doctrine that would carry his name; it says that the U.S. should commit men and women to combat only as a last resort and after policy options have been exhausted — and then only 1) when a vital national security interest of the nation is at stake, 2) when the U.S. force employed is overwhelming and disproportionate to the force of the enemy, 3) when the mission and military action are both understood and supported by the American people, and the mission has international support, and 4) when there is a clear and plausible exit strategy for the U.S. troops sent into harm’s way.
Maybe you recall the gentle rebuke Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had for the fawning flatterers who lionized him after his successful leadership in the Persian Gulf War. He said: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.” These thoughts all come back when an American president, our only chief executive never to have served a single day in either public service or military service before coming to the White House, again confronted a hostile Iran by sending more American troops into harm’s way in Iraq. Now is the time to be sure to remember.
The American president, in addition to serving as commander in chief, is expected to be this nation’s consoler in chief, as well as the nation’s teacher and even preacher. Who alive on Jan. 28, 1986, does not remember the words of then-President Ronald Reagan from the Oval Office following the explosion of the Challenger that killed all seven astronauts on board, seen live on television by millions? Reagan reminded the country that “the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave” and closed with the words of a 19-year-old American pilot who perished in World War II and had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and “touched the face of God.”
We know the president is the head of government, but the president is also the head of state, expected to speak to and for all of us when the occasion demands. That is precisely what then-President Barack Obama did so well in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 26, 2015, at the service for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims executed by a terrorist at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Obama dared to lead the congregation in singing: “Amazing Grace/ How sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me/ I once was lost/ But now I’m found.” He comforted the nation.
It is not only the remembered eloquence of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which he gave as the Civil War, the nation’s bloodiest war, was coming to an end (along with Lincoln’s own life). “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive on … to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan,” he said. It’s also the largeness of spirit then-President George W. Bush showed at the Islamic Center of Washington following the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. He reminded us: “The face of terror is not the true face of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.”
Contrast these presidential examples of seeking to unite the country at times of genuine crisis with President Donald Trump’s inability to rise to the challenge. Sadly, we remember the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, specifically organized by a group of white supremacists to celebrate the white nationalist movement and protest the planned removal of the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E Lee. The “warm-up” had featured a torchlight parade with marchers chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” which echoed Nazi Germany. The president insisted, “I think there’s blame on both sides … very fine people on both sides,” and that he had not been aware of former Ku Klux Klan David Duke’s prominent presence.
Here is former Vice President Joe Biden’s opening. Alone among American political leaders, Biden has been asked time and again by grieving families to give the eulogies at memorial services of Americans both famous and not. The family of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern asked Biden to speak at the South Dakotan’s funeral, as did the family of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. So, too, did the families of two South Carolina giants, Republican Strom Thurmond and Democrat Fritz Hollings. Biden comforted Ted Kennedy’s mourners just as he did Michigan’s John Dingell’s and Alaska Republican Ted Stevens’.
There is now an obvious, gaping vacancy in the important role of consoler in chief, and in Joe Biden we have someone to fill it.
Although I qualify for the senior discount at the movies, even I’m not old enough to have met Heraclitus, the wise Greek who lived some 25 centuries ago and whom we can thank for the timeless wisdom “Character is destiny.”
Here in Washington, one elected national leader commands the affection and the respect of her constituents. That leader is Washington’s one certified grown-up, the former Nancy D’Alesandro from Albemarle Street in the Little Italy section of Baltimore, the wife of one man, the mother of five children and the grandmother of nine who has represented California’s city of Saint Francis for 32 years in the U.S. House and has continuously been elected since 2001 to be a leader of her party by her U.S. House Democratic colleagues.
Democrats are chronically quarrelsome — any time you get three Democrats together, you can almost guarantee their finding four issues on which they hold 11 opposing positions. When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the essence of sobriety, openly shushed from the House podium some of her Democratic members who started to applaud the conclusion of the House vote to impeach President Donald Trump, reflecting the gravity of the occasion, she proved herself once again to be the grown-up in the room.
To even his most uncritical admirers, it must be obvious that Donald Trump, not alone among powerful males, is severely uncomfortable dealing with women of power. Pelosi gives Trump the hives, as evidenced in his six-page screed written to her, the speaker of the House, by him, the president of the United States, which was just below the quality and thoughtfulness of a not particularly gifted third-grader’s scribbled rant against a classmate who put a mouse in his lunch bag. You can be sure that 23rd-century graduate students will be studying in disbelief in the Trump Presidential Library the diatribes, public and private, of the president against and about Speaker Pelosi.
How tough is Nancy Pelosi? In the last national election, according to the Wall Street Journal, there were nearly 136,000 paid television commercials attacking the Democratic speaker, both personally and politically — far more than the number run critical of President Trump, who told us repeatedly that no one had ever been treated as badly as he was savaged by his political opponents. And never once did she utter a syllable of self-pity. Speaker Pelosi is the grown-up; character is destiny.
To put this in some perspective, even the most ardent intimates of former President Barack Obama acknowledge that Obama’s Affordable Care Act never would have become law if not for the intelligence, skill, commitment and toughness of Speaker Pelosi. Last year, because of the relentless attacks by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, for the first time since 2008, fewer Americans had the protection of health insurance. In fact, in the struggle between Pelosi and Trump, 2 million fewer Americans had health care than the year before.
Here’s my advice heading into 2020: Don’t bet against Tommy D’Alesandro’s daughter. She’s smart as a whip, more disciplined than an Olympic gold medal winner and tougher than nails. And, most important of all, character is still destiny.
Donald Trump Jr., in his better-selling book, Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us, writes of his reactions to visiting Arlington National Cemetery and driving “past the rows of white grave markers.” He explains: “In that moment, I … thought of all the attacks we’d already suffered as a family, and about all the sacrifices we’d have to make to help my father succeed … Frankly, it was a big sacrifice, costing us millions and millions of dollars annually …”
Forget that President Donald Trump and his family — in spite of their self-proclaimed “sacrifice” — continue to profit from the family’s hotel and real estate holdings and dealings since Trump, unlike previous presidents, retained ownership of his business and the Trump Organization, and has continued to make money from deals around the globe. In comparing the scrutiny and criticism Donald Trump Jr. has received in the press to the ultimate sacrifices of the 400,000 American fathers, brothers and sisters buried beneath the green hills of Arlington, he can be accused of callousness and egocentricity. But while perhaps extreme, his ignorance of American tradition and history is not uncharacteristic of the Me Generation, which he sadly represents.
It once was an unassailable American value that “war demands equality of sacrifice.” An 18-year-old George H.W. Bush believed that and left the comfort and prestige of Yale to become the Navy’s youngest fighter pilot in combat in the Pacific War. And a sickly young Harvard graduate used family influence to pull strings and have the Navy allow him to go to war, where he would captain a PT boat in the Pacific but survive to, 18 years later, become President John F Kennedy.
It was a time when the president’s sons all went to war: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son Elliott Roosevelt became an Army Air Force pilot and flew over 300 combat missions. Jimmy Roosevelt enlisted in the Marine Corps and, in fierce combat against the Japanese, earned both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star. Navy Lt. John Roosevelt eared the Bronze Star in war, while Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was awarded the Silver Star for bravery under heavy enemy fire.
Americans once lived by the principle that we all are required to sacrifice. The federal income tax was first championed by Republican President Abraham Lincoln in order to pay for the Civil War. The income tax was made permanent by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson to pay for World War I. After Pearl Harbor, Americans on the home front accepted the rationing of meat, alcohol, cigarettes, liquor, sugar and butter. War demanded equality of sacrifice.
All of that changed, tragically, with Vietnam. The sons of affluence and influence gamed the system to avoid serving. That was followed by the all-volunteer military, which guaranteed that instead of three out of foir male high school graduates and three out of four college graduates serving in the American military, the sons of privilege would be spared the burden of fighting for their country.
The late Sen. John McCain was the last American presidential nominee to wear his nation’s uniform and go to war. Let us not blame Donald Trump Jr. No one in his family had ever been seen fit to sacrifice for his country by serving. His father famously compared his avoiding sexually transmitted diseases during the ’90s to his “personal Vietnam.”
War truly once did demand equality of sacrifice. But no more in 21st-century America.
In listening to the Democratic presidential debates, we might conclude that “Medicare for All” is a legislative possibility. It is not, and any presidential candidate with a scintilla of self-respect must admit that fact. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that just 30 percent of Americans “strongly favor” a plan in which all of us get medical care from a single government plan, while 33 percent of us “strongly oppose” such a major change. Moving public opinion and persuading a deeply divided Congress to enact life-altering changes, the prospects of which understandably scare many congressional constituents, is tough, controversial, politically hazardous and even a career-threatening challenge. It will not be magically achieved — in fact, it is made less likely — by its advocates’ regularly asserting their moral superiority over those not on their side.
A quick review of post-World War II American health care reform efforts might be helpful. President Harry Truman advocated universal health insurance coverage, but opponents, led by the American Medical Association, branded it “socialized medicine.” President John Kennedy unsuccessfully backed legislation to provide health insurance to those over 65. President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory gave him the congressional muscle to pass both Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. The most ambitious efforts of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to expand coverage to all Americans were defeated, and it was not until 2009 — some 60 years after Truman pushed it — that President Barack Obama, over all-out partisan resistance, was able to sign the Affordable Care Act passed by Democrats in the House and the Senate — a vote, let it be noted, that cost the Democrats their congressional majorities in the very next election. It would take a full nine years — when a new Republican president pledged to repeal the Obama-era health law — before a majority of Americans registered their approval of that controversial Democratic law.
Don’t pretend changing the law on health care is going to be easy or painless. Where is the 2020 reincarnation of Bill Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and Princeton All-American? History will show that he was the architect-engineer and father of the memorable 1986 Tax Reform Act that dramatically lowered American tax rates while abolishing most deductions and loopholes. Bradley had begun four years earlier, by relentless study, to seek out experts in order to master the tax code.
He wrote a well-received book on his Fair Tax idea. He spoke to hundreds of business, civic and university groups on the decidedly unsexy subject. He did interview after interview with editorial pages and reporters (I can attest) and radio stations. He proselytized Republicans as well as Democrats, and the tax plan he co-authored with then-Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri grabbed the attention of then-President Ronald Reagan, who announced a presidential task force to respond to Bradley’s tax reform. Bill Bradley persisted. Without fanfare, away from the spotlight and the cameras, he did the hard work of going to House members’ offices; answering questions one-on-one; and courting, with candid information, Congress’s two chief tax writers: Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the tough Chicago Democrat, and Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon maverick Republican. Thus was born tax reform.
Where is the Bill Bradley of Medicare for All or Medicare for Some who is willing to do the tough, tiresome, painful, unapplauded work of reaching out, enlisting supporters, answering doubts and being the workhorse instead of the show horse? I haven’t seen him or her on the debate stage yet.
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