Saturday, December 27, 2008

Politically, time will tell if new year will bring anything new

(Originally published 12/27/08)

Ah, the New Year ... time to resolve to lose those 15 pounds, get organized, quit smoking and make your life all you want it to be.

In other words, it's time to make all of last year's old resolutions new again.

For all the trite clich├ęs about the new year (a fresh start, a blank slate, etc.), the new year can sometimes bring more of the same.

That can be true in politics, too –- different campaigns, same dirt; different names, same scandals; different promises, same results (or lack thereof).

Will this year finally bring something new?

President-elect Barack Obama, who won the presidency on a promise of change, will come to the White House already having dealt with its first scandal in the mess surrounding Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. As the International Herald Tribune pointed out this week, every president for the past three decades has been interviewed by federal investigators at some point. And although he participated as a witness, not a target, of the probe, "Obama may have set a land speed record by giving his first interview to investigators even before taking the oath of office," the IHT said.

How long will the Blagojevich scandal drag on? Will Obama's chief of staff-in-waiting, Rahm Emanuel, emerge unscathed? And how will the scandal itself tarnish the bully pulpit Obama won on Nov. 4?

Turning to Congress, how will Democrats handle their expanded power? They won bigger majorities in both houses at least in some part by running more conservative candidates in predominately Republican districts (Bobby Bright in Alabama's CD 2 is one example). How will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid manage their bigger tents? Will the larger numbers shelter Obama’s initiatives to success? Or will the broader spectrum of political opinion in their party actually slow things down?

Most of Obama's biggest battles will be fought in the Senate. And although Democrats fell shy of the 60 seats they needed to avoid Republican filibusters, their lineup isn't final yet. The Minnesota grudge match between GOP incumbent Norm Coleman and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Al Franken enters its eighth post-Election Day week; meanwhile, in Illinois, with Blagojevich facing impeachment, state legislators split between appointment and a special election and the state Supreme Court unwilling to intervene, it's uncertain how long Obama's Senate seat will remain vacant. Every day it does, Illinoisans are being shorted representation in Washington -– and Reid has one fewer vote on the board.

Closer to home, the campaign to succeed Gov. Bob Riley will kick off soon. The state budget is in proration and funding is in short supply. Unfortunately, we can't say the same for ambitious, egomaniacal politicians. Budget woes plus political jockeying? Should make for an exceptionally disappointing legislative session –- even by Alabama's low standards.

We'll have plenty to discuss into the New Year and beyond. But time, and the performance of our elected officials, will tell whether it will really bring anything new.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Want a merry Christmas? Choose to have one

(Originally published 12/20/08)

We talked in this space Thanksgiving week about things for which Americans can be thankful -– even when times are tough, as they are now.

Christmas is now upon us, and although this season means joy for millions around the world, for many others, the holidays just exacerbate their pain and loneliness.

One of my favorite things about Christmas is Christmas music, and one of my favorite Christmas songs is "'Til the season comes 'round again." But it's a bit different than the tunes of gaiety that usually typify the season.

The song is permeated with an underlying feeling that its author had been through a tough year. Although he doesn't elaborate or in any way describe his struggles, it's clear from the lyrics that in his life, fellowship with family and friends is more than a holiday obligation: It is what's keeping him going and giving him hope for the coming year.

In short, he makes a conscious decision to celebrate the season, giving thanks for what is instead of lamenting what isn't.

I recently heard someone expound on the power of the will to affect the emotions. We don't have to surrender our state of mind to the volatility of our circumstances, he said; we can choose to make our emotional state the result of an exercise of our will.

This is an important message -– not only for the many people out there who are struggling through a difficult holiday season of their own, but also for those of us who are not.

We can make a conscious decision to celebrate what we have. And we have a lot. Even in a down economy, as I discussed last month, Americans enjoy countless blessings that we simply take for granted every day.

In addition, we have the opportunity to make blessings for others. We can make a conscious decision to embody the season through acts of service or generosity to our neighbors. Donate to your favorite charity. Give to those less fortunate -– and be assured, there is always someone less fortunate.

But sharing the spirit of Christmas isn't only about money. Smile at people you meet. Look them in the eye when you speak to them. Really listen when you say, "How are you?" Show kindness to those around you.

On Christmas Eve, as I wrap presents and listen to the classic Christmas carols that have delighted people for 60 years or more, I'll be thinking of my Christmas wishes, which I share here with you:

  • That every child throughout the world would be safe, happy and loved;

  • That every homeless person would find inviting shelter;

  • That every hungry man, woman and child would have a warm meal to warm their souls;

  • That everyone already blessed with these things would share them with others, not just on Christmas but throughout the year; and

  • That your home on Christmas morning will be filled with the music of the season: songs of faith, family and giving – and the greatest gift of all.

    Merry Christmas!

  • Saturday, December 13, 2008

    For Blagojevich, governing is all about No. 1

    (Originally published 12/13/08)

    An Illinois governor, the subject of a federal investigation, charged with corruption and urged to resign.

    Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

    Well, yes. But also Gov. George Ryan – the man Blagojevich replaced.

    In running to replace Ryan, who would later be sent to federal prison, Blagojevich promised in 2002 to clean up the governor’s office. On the campaign trail, he talked about how he had pledged to his mother that he would always be honest and never take a bribe.

    Six years later, it was common knowledge that Blagojevich was under investigation for corruption. But the governor’s quick arrest Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s explanation of why it was necessary and Fitzgerald’s presentation of evidence against Blagojevich left the grittiest, most cynical political reporters – even longtime veterans of Chicago’s rough-and-tumble politics – astonished and searching for words.

    Don’t worry. Fitzgerald had them covered.

    “This is a sad day for government,” Fitzgerald said; Blagojevich was in the middle of a “political corruption crime spree” and “has taken us to a truly new low.”

    He described five examples of Blagojevich’s alleged corruption. In addition to the most publicized allegation – that Blagojevich tried to “sell” Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder – Fitzgerald described how the governor was caught on tape allegedly exploring ways to pull back $8 million in reimbursement funds for Children’s Memorial Hospital because its CEO had not come through with an expected $50,000 campaign contribution.

    Blagojevich has apparently joined the ranks of so many other public officials who have spat in the eyes of those who elected them – not only engaging in illegal and/or improper behavior, but boldly defying anyone to catch them.

    Most politicians disgraced this way finally get the message. They resign their posts or drop re-election bids, withdrawing in shame.

    But not Blagojevich. This guy redefines overachievement.

    The state’s attorney general, the lieutenant governor, all 50 Democratic members of the United States Senate and the president-in-waiting are all urging him to resign. The State Legislature is organizing an impeachment effort while scrambling to pass legislation in a special session that would strip Blagojevich of his ability to appoint Obama’s successor.

    But Blagojevich ignores them all. He doesn’t care that he has become politically radioactive. Not even 24 hours after being released on his own recognizance, he went right back to work.

    How is this sort of aloofness, this level of personal unassailability possible?

    It’s easy to understand if you consider Blagojevich’s governing philosophy, revealed in a recorded conversation on Nov. 12. Prosecutors say Blagojevich told his chief of staff that his decision about Obama’s successor would be based on three criteria and in this order of importance: “Our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation. This decision, like every other one, needs to be based upon that: Legal. Personal. Political.”

    For Rod Blagojevich, governing has never been about anything but himself. We are the aloof ones if we expect that at this late date, even under fire, Blagojevich would actually do anything that is in anyone’s best interest but his own.

    In stubbornly clinging to power, he’s sticking right on script.

    Saturday, December 6, 2008

    Tuberville's departure confusing, sad and regrettable

    (Originally published 12/6/08)

    I wanted Tommy Tuberville to stay.

    Sure, it's been a disappointing year. But if you're wondering whether he could have turned things around, think back to what he inherited when he came to the Plains.

    Tuberville wasn't just a fireman. He has been a reconstructionist.

    And isn't it a testimony to Tuberville's success that 5-7 has been so painful? Thanks to Tuberville, we have had the luxury of forgetting the true despair of being 3-8.

    On Oct. 20, amid rumors that his job may be in jeopardy, Tuberville said he was "looking forward" to being in Auburn 10 more years. "I put my heart and soul in this thing and we ain’t going to stop now," he said.

    Sunday, Tuberville was similarly aggressive: “There's no doubt that we can get this thing turned back around ... I know what it takes ... I'm fully committed to doing it."

    Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs told reporters Thursday that as late as Monday, his goal was to fulfill Tuberville's desire to stay at Auburn for another five years.

    "Up until Tuesday, nothing was different," Jacobs said Thursday.

    But then, Wednesday, the coach who had never showed any signs of wanting to quit suddenly did.

    Why?

    "I don't know. You'd have to talk to Tommy about that," Jacobs told reporters, recounting in a curious news conference that produced more questions than it answered how he and Auburn President Jay Gogue basically begged Tuberville to stay.

    It is the newest and greatest mystery about what goes on behind closed doors in the Auburn Athletic Complex, how the coach who wanted to stay so much that he has said he will remain in Auburn for at least the foreseeable future couldn't work things out with the administration that wanted to keep him so much that it will continue to use him as an ambassador for the university.

    Asked whether he believes Tuberville really resigned, Auburn center Jason Bosley looked as confused as everyone else.

    "I just know what I'm told," he said.

    Eighty-five wins over 10 years. Winning the SEC West. A conference title. Bowl bids in eight of the past 10 years. Cherished wins over our rival in six of the last seven. An undefeated season. A team that should have played for the national championship but was denied the opportunity by the BCS.

    If that was all Tuberville had produced, it should have been enough. But there's more.

    Student-athletes who placed an increased emphasis on their studies, proven by rising graduation rates. A cleaned-up program that never found itself in trouble with the NCAA, a welcome change from what Tuberville found when he arrived. A program that cares in equal measure about developing the character and athletic abilities of young men.

    Tuberville leaves a record that stands for more than numbers -- though the numbers were great. He leaves a record of integrity.

    Word has it that Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach would "walk on water" to coach in the SEC.

    Given the curious circumstances of Tuberville's departure, Auburn's next coach –- whoever it is –- will likely find that skill handy.