Saturday, November 29, 2008

There are still good reasons for Americans to give thanks

(Originally published 11/29/08)

Things are tough in America right now.

Given the rocky economy, you may be a little further behind on your bills than you’d like. Maybe you’ve taken a pay cut or been told not to expect that Christmas bonus this year. Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you fear that you might.

In circumstances like these, a little perspective goes a long way. Here are some of the things for which I gave thanks this week:

  • Even though adult illiteracy still exists as America’s pervasive, silent secret, I am able to write these words – and you are reading them.

  • Folks still have at least enough money in their pockets to afford a newspaper subscription or a paper out of the rack.

  • We live in a country where newspapers are free to print whatever they like – even though we may not always like what we read.

  • We had the chance to vote in a free and fair election that determined the leaders of our local, state and federal governments, and if we don’t like their performance, we know we’ll have a free and fair chance to replace them in due course.

  • The transition our government is undergoing now is taking place without the bloodshed and chaos that marks such transitions in some other countries.

  • We don’t have to worry, as many in the Congo do, about armed thugs coming to our refugee camps in the middle of the night and raping and kidnapping our children.

  • We don’t have to spend the days wondering, as parents in Haiti do, whether our children’s schools will collapse on top of them.

  • We don’t have to worry, as parents in Afghanistan do, that religious extremists may attack our daughters and throw acid in their faces as they make their way to school.

  • We aren’t still living in tent cities this winter, as many earthquake-displaced Iranians are.

  • Our Thanksgiving dinners didn’t consist of the dried mud cakes that many poverty-stricken people in Haiti must eat.

  • If we choose to give thanks at a place of worship this weekend, we don’t have to worry whether government soldiers will come in and drag us off to prison, as believers in some other nations do.

  • We aren’t in the position of hundreds of thousands of other families across Asia, who will mark next month the four-year anniversary of the tsunamis that swept away their loved ones.

    As it has been observed, if you have something to eat in the refrigerator, can put on clothes, live under a roof and have a place to sleep, you are better off than 70 percent of the people living in the world. An estimated 500 million across the globe are dealing with dangers of war, imprisonment, torture or hunger.

    This holiday season may not be shaping up exactly as you had expected. But when you’re tempted to lament your circumstances, remember the reality of your good fortune.

    Then reach out to others, whether across the world or right down your street. You may end up being a reason for which someone else gives thanks.
  • Saturday, November 22, 2008

    Big Three bailout pursuit a rejection of capitalism

    (Originally published 11/22/08)

    The CEOs of the Big Three automakers and the president of the United Auto Workers are painting a Doomsday scenario similar to what financial leaders told Congress ahead of the first bailout fight back in September: Unmitigated disaster looms if Congress doesn’t fork over another $25 billion (or more).

    (The Big Three have already gotten $25 billion from the federal government for research and development this year.)

    I’m curious: Do the Big Three and the UAW chief also support a bailout for the newspaper industry? Journalism is the only constitutionally protected profession in this country. How about the construction industry? The contractors, their subs and suppliers comprise many more jobs than the Big Three. What about real estate professionals? They are completely at the mercy of the market.

    These are national industries. The Big Three is mostly a regional industry.

    But there is no bailout talk for journalism, construction or real estate.

    Their job losses are just as painful. So why should UAW jobs be insulated from the economic downturn and protected above and beyond other jobs?

    Complicating the Big Three’s quest for bailout is the relatively new auto industry in the South.

    At a news conference Thursday, UAW president Ron Gettelfinger took potshots at Southern success – specifically, Alabama’s Mercedes, Hyundai and Toyota operations:

    “We can help the financial industry and give incentives to let foreign automakers compete against us,” Gettelfinger said. “But at the same time, we’re able to walk away from the industry that is the backbone of our economy.”


    One, whatever incentives Alabama has offered any business – foreign or domestic – to locate here have been Alabama’s choice and sacrifice. No one from Montgomery went to Washington and begged federal lawmakers to pave the way. If Gettelfinger wants to compare Alabama’s state incentives with the Big Three’s bailout request, then he should be rapping on Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s door.

    Two, Alabama’s incentives total a fraction of the billions Gettelfinger and the Big Three seek.

    Three, Alabama’s incentives have created new American jobs in a new industry and spawned new suppliers that employ American workers in just the past 15 years. The Big Three, by contrast, have been in business for a combined 288 years. Shouldn’t the more established automakers be better equipped to weather the downturn?

    Finally, and most disturbingly, why does Gettelfinger believe that Alabamians and Georgians and Tennesseans are somehow less entitled to jobs in the auto industry than Michiganders or Ohioans or Indianans or Pennsylvanians? I know the answer to this, and you probably do, too. I just wish he would admit it.

    A compromise might allow the Big Three more latitude with the R&D money it secured earlier this year. And they can always file for bankruptcy, reorganize and return stronger – like regular Americans do with their businesses every day.

    No company is "too big to fail." Every company can fail, just as every company can succeed. That’s the hazard, and the promise, of capitalism.

    But the Big Three CEOs and Gettelfinger need to ask themselves: If they happily enjoy their profits but refuse to take responsibility for their failures, are they even capitalists anymore?

    Saturday, November 15, 2008

    The rehabilitation of Sarah Palin

    (Originally published 11/15/08)

    This week was all about Sarah Palin.

    The Alaska governor who spent her early days as the Republican VP nominee on a virtual media lockdown has spent the last seven submerged in a sea of interviews, striking back against disgruntled GOP aides who have grumbled to the press that she is a “diva” –- and worse.

    Fox News Channel’s Greta van Susteren opened the media blitz with a two-part interview in Alaska. She chatted with the governor as Palin prepared moose chili in a three-piece suit.

    Freed of the shackles of her tag-team role, the difference in Palin was apparent. It was hard to believe that the woman who sat down across from Wolf Blitzer was the same woman Katie Couric had befuddled.

    Fortuitous timing was on her side. She wrapped her press push around the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association, where she delivered a speech on the values and future of the Republican Party.

    Yes, she still had to answer those exasperating questions about the wardrobe and the tension within the presidential campaign. But the tie-in naturally led interviewers to refer to her as a party leader and ask her about her plans in 2012; this, in turn, gave Palin a natural opportunity to demur but leave her options open.

    Behold, the rehabilitation of Sarah Palin.

    I’m split on Palin’s full-court media press. If she wants to be taken seriously, she should stop making herself the story and just do her job. It’s how Hillary Clinton polished her policy chops when she was elected to the U.S. Senate. But I understand why Palin feels compelled to address the stories those GOP aides are lobbing out there: If she wants to debunk them before repetition alone buys them credibility, she has to do so now.

    This week taught us two things about Palin:

    One, she would have run a far different campaign than the one the McCain campaign charted for her. Palin said she would have sought more media exposure, not less; mistakes and warts and all, that's who she is, and she says she wants authenticity with voters above all else.

    Two, Palin doesn't tolerate incompetence well (ironic, I know). She noted during one interview this week that her frustrations are sometimes obvious. And they were during the campaign, as she struggled to abide by the tight parameters McCain's advisers set for her.

    Both are for better or for worse. Authenticity isn't always pretty, and it's usually preferable for elected leaders to hold their tongues in difficult situations. But in a political system rife with made-for-TV candidates who wouldn't know to tie their shoes if their scripts didn’t order it, there are plenty of voters out there who happily prefer the refreshment of the unvarnished truth to the same cold gruel they've been digesting for years.

    She may not be able to see Russia from her house. But this week’s media blitz proves that Sarah Palin is keeping a close eye on Washington –- and she intends to be around a while.

    Saturday, November 8, 2008

    From aspirant to executive: Change comes to Obama

    (Originally published 11/8/08)

    Almost two years and $700 million removed from the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., the triumphant junior senator from the Prairie State stood Tuesday before a sea of supporters as President-elect Barack Obama.

    Borne to the stage of victory on a wave and a promise of change, his journey was fueled by soaring oratory that has already made some grade-school textbooks.

    But as change has come to America in the form of the nation’s first black president, so has it come to Obama himself. The man Colin Powell called a “transformational leader” has begun a personal transformation –- from candidate to commander, from dreamer to doer. And he’s likely finding out that achieving the change he has promised will be tougher than delivering the speeches in which he described it.

    Even as he anticipated victory and planned his transition to power, Obama began tamping down supporters’ expectations that change would come quickly. Indeed, Obama noted Tuesday night that change may not be accomplished “in one year or even in one term.”

    Obama received his first complete intelligence briefing on Thursday, so the perspective he had on world affairs that morning had likely changed a bit by afternoon. He heard everything we know about those who plot against America, including details about covert operations and tips provided by American spies tucked away in plain sight around the globe.

    During the campaign, Obama pledged to create a new tone in Washington, an atmosphere of cooperation among public officials who could “disagree without being disagreeable.” On Thursday, he hired U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton Administration, as his chief of staff. Emanuel -– a man political observers have called “ruthless” -– has West Wing experience, but his appointment is a disappointment for those who had hoped Obama’s administration would transcend the very unapologetic partisanship and fierce rhetoric that Emanuel embodies.

    Obama spent nearly two years decrying the “Karl Rove-style politics” of the Bush Administration. But given the opportunity with his first and most important non-Cabinet appointment to un-Rove the White House, he chose in Emanuel a Rove all his own.

    On Election Night, Obama assured Americans who did not vote for him, “I hear your voices ... And I will be your president, too.”

    Ironically, while Obama made hope the handmaiden of his message of change, it is Americans who supported John McCain who are now left to haltingly, if skeptically, hope – hope that a man whose economic motives they mistrust and whose experience they question will be able to govern with the same singular focus and determination to succeed that won him the White House.

    Much of Obama’s executive destiny will be determined in the Senate, where Democrats await final word on their swelling majority. Democratic wins in just two of the four outstanding races will render GOP filibusters impracticable and likely deliver to Obama his signature proposals –- and a large portion of the federal judiciary –- on a silver platter.

    Faced, then, with pursuing change in a system that was built to resist it, Obama’s biggest challenge to change may be practicing his politics-above-partisanship promise when the only check on Obama’s power is the president himself.

    Saturday, November 1, 2008

    Take your place in history's parade: Vote

    (Originally published 11/1/08)

    Over the past 21 months, have you fallen into a lull and let all the political noise fade into the background?

    Considering the commercials that have blanketed television over the past four weeks, tuning out is more of an adaptive survival skill than anything.

    But this campaign, which feels like it’s been going on forever, will end –- and it will end in something very concrete.

    The winner of next week’s presidential election will hold your lives and your livelihoods in his hands for the next four years.

    Americans of all stripes, with backgrounds as diverse as we are, will join Tuesday in one of the common civic duties that ensures the survival of our way of life: We’ll go to the veterans’ halls, recreation centers, churches, temples, schools and other polling locations around our communities to choose the leaders we wish to serve us in local, state and federal office.

    It all comes down to this. I hope you’re planning to take part.

    On past election days, I have occasionally encountered people who shared with me that yes, they plan to vote, as long as they have time/there aren’t long lines/it isn’t raining/they can get a good parking spot, etc.

    In short, they are willing to cheapen -– or throw away altogether –- their right to vote based on convenience.

    I struggle to understand people like this.

    Barack Obama’s historic candidacy has amazed many older African-Americans who remember the time when they were refused the ballot.

    If you read Mary Belk’s column in this paper on Wednesday, you know what the women of the suffrage movement paid for their rights –- and the rights of their daughters and granddaughters and all who came after –- to have a say in the stake of their future.

    White men aren’t immune from being denied their constitutional rights. Not so long ago and just 30 miles from where the Opelika-Auburn News was printed this morning, men were beaten and bloodied for daring to show up at the polls to support candidates who spoke out against the corruption and graft that was swallowing Phenix City whole.

    It wasn’t convenient or easy for them, but people in each of these groups stood up and fought in their time so that you can stand up without a fight on Tuesday.

    Vote. Don’t let anything get in your way. Take your children with you if you can. Talk with them about the process and why your vote matters.

    And yes, it does matter. When you lean over the sacred luxury that is your secret ballot, secured for you by those patriots who gave of themselves so you would have the ability to express your desires for the leadership of your country, do not dishonor their sacrifice by casting a throwaway vote. Your vote is only one, but it is yours. Do not compromise your principles for the sake of party or cast your ballot out of disgust more than desire. You control the validity of your vote; don’t dilute it for any obligation beyond your own civic responsibilities as an American.

    You owe your forebears and descendants -– and yourself -– that much.