Saturday, May 30, 2009

Search for clarity will make Sotomayor's hearings must-see TV

(Originally published 5/30/09)

America, meet Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

In nominating her to the Supreme Court Tuesday, President Obama emphasized her personal story, her vast experience and past bipartisan support. He didn't say it, but it's just as important: She would bring badly needed gender and ethnic diversity to the Court.

For these reasons, Sotomayor was on the short list of potential nominees from the start. So once her nomination was official, journalists and legal observers needed only to grab their nearby notes.

Interest groups reacted similarly. Within an hour of her nomination, power players across the spectrum were reaching out to their supporters for money -– never mind that those supporters were just learning Sotomayor's name.

But as these few days have unfolded, the one thing that's become clear about Sotomayor is that there are a lot of things that aren't clear.

For example, pro-life advocates reacted negatively to Sotomayor's nomination because they assume that as a justice on the high court, she will reflect President Obama's views on abortion. One group put it (in bold font) to its members this way:

"Based on her judicial philosophy, we expect her to elevate unrestricted, unregulated, and taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand to a fundamental constitutional right by reading the sweeping Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) into the Constitution."


But then there's this, from Wednesday's New York Times:

"When (Sotomayor) has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents. Now, some abortion rights advocates are quietly expressing unease that Judge Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision."

The Times reports that officials with NARAL Pro-Choice America, this country's largest abortion-rights organization, don't fully support Sotomayor just yet. They are demanding that senators extract her views on privacy rights before getting behind her.

Sotomayor will be enlightening senators about her beliefs in other areas, too.

One is the now-famous "Latina woman" remark she made during a speech seven years ago. I found myself engaged with a friend in a debate about what Sotomayor must have meant by that statement. He gives her the benefit of the doubt that she was making a broader point about the need for diversity on the bench; I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I'd sure like to hear her clarify it.

And then there's the affirmative action case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn. You may remember a column I wrote last month on that case. As it turns out, Sotomayor was one of the judges to affirm the lower court's decision in favor of the city on appeal; however, her panel did so without substantive comment on the merits. One observer wondered online this week why Sotomayor, who doesn't exactly have a record of shying away from the controversial, would "punt" on such an important case. Interestingly, since the Supreme Court heard arguments in that case last month, there is an outside chance that justices could hand down their decision on it while Sotomayor is before the Judiciary Committee.

And there's more. Thanks to Arlen Specter's recent defection from the GOP, Alabama's own Jeff Sessions is now the committee's ranking member; as such, he'll play a key role in the hearings.

Sotomayor's confirmation hearings are going to be fascinating viewing, especially for political junkies like me.

I can’t wait.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Councilman Dowdell’s actions continue to be puzzling

(Originally published 5/23/09)

I just don't get the Rev. Arthur Dowdell.

Fresh from ripping the scab off of racial wounds by unilaterally removing decorative Confederate flags from the oldest cemetery in Auburn, the city councilman has now proclaimed that city officials should redraw ward lines to get more black residents on the City Council.

He says he wants this done "at the negotiating table" and not in the courts.

(Which, apparently, is why he already had an attorney working on it by the time he brought it up with the council Tuesday. But I digress.)

I've come to expect eccentric positions from Councilman Dowdell. I wish I could say that his irresponsible actions at and ill-conceived comments about the cemetery were a surprise.

But when he said Tuesday that his position as the only black resident on the city council equates to "taxation without representation," I was bewildered.

Does Dowdell believe that only black council members can properly represent black residents? He says no.

Why, then, would new wards be necessary?

Ward 6 councilman Dick Phelan had it right: Under Dowdell's logic, women in Auburn are even more underrepresented than black citizens.

But if that gender imbalance on the council resulted in inequitable city policies, the ladies and I would have organized by now.

I know I'm not alone in my disappointment that Councilman Dowdell is threatening the city with a lawsuit about this. While such a lawsuit would almost certainly be thrown out of court, the city would have to go to the time –- and taxpayer expense -– to answer it.

I know cities face lawsuits, even frivolous ones, all the time. But you don't expect them to be led by a member of city government.

But let's assume Dowdell really just wants to advance the admirable cause of finding ways to increase the voice of minorities in city governance. His approach is still based on several assumptions that are just plain wrong:

  • That minorities can only have a voice in city affairs through council.

  • That more minorities would like to run for the city council, but the current ward map in some unknown way precludes from doing so. (This ignores, of course, the fact that the current ward plan had to –- and did -– meet with the approval of the U.S. Department of Justice, which reviewed it for fair minority representation in a process known as "pre-clearance" before it was put before voters in August 2006.)

  • That minorities would be more inclined to support minority challengers over their current council member simply because they're minorities, regardless of the challenger's ability or experience.

  • That city policies would be substantively different with more minorities on the council than they are with the current council. This last point, sadly, assumes the ugliest things about those men and women with whom Dowdell currently serves.

    There are plenty of avenues for minorities –- and everyone else, for that matter –- to be involved with city government.

    In fact, since municipal elections are just over a year away, a diverse and robust field of candidates in Ward 1 would be a great place to start.

    Over the past two months, Dowdell has shown a disturbing proclivity to play the race card.

    By doing so, he's failing his constituents –- black, white and everyone else.

  • Saturday, May 16, 2009

    This Obama flip-flop in best interest of American people

    (Originally published 5/16/09)

    In a stunning about-face this week, President Obama decided that his administration will fight the release of more photographs related to allegations of torture by members of the U.S. military, after all.

    It is common knowledge that military commanders have serious –- and well-founded, if not openly voiced –- concerns about the impact those photos could have on recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations. But White House officials didn't want anyone to confuse strategizing with shot-calling. So in announcing the president's change of heart, they were quick to emphasize that although he had intently considered their counsel, military brass had not "pressured" him into the move.

    Those on the left reacted Obama's reversal with a level of scorn, disdain and fury previously reserved only George W. Bush. They say Obama is breaking a promise to hold culpable soldiers accountable for their conduct. But the military has already conducted investigations into these activities and punished those responsible. In this case, accountability does not require full public disclosure of all the evidence –- in this case, the photos –- because American soldiers would face very real risks if they were released.

    The left stubbornly dismisses this reality. Worse, they seem to tacitly consider those risks a tolerable cost, dead and wounded American servicemen and women collateral damage, in their reckless pursuit of a principle that has no basis in reality.

    But there is something else to note here: The growth that President Obama is showing in his ability to collaborate with, listen to and create effective policy with American military commanders.

    As a candidate for president, Obama showed little promise on military matters. His opponents seized on his lack of military experience, charging that Obama would be, at best, a weak and unpredictable commander-in-chief.

    Within 48 hours of becoming president, Obama kept a campaign promise to the left by announcing that he would close the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year. Since then, he has learned that signing that executive order was a lot easier than following through. Foreign leaders who denounced the detention facility are unwilling to accept displaced detainees; in addition, most lawmakers of both political parties want no part of those detainees reaching American soil.

    Perhaps that experience -– delivering the promise without developing the plan –- taught Obama to take a more deliberative approach to military affairs. He extended his timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq based on advice from military leaders, and White House officials announced yesterday that although they will be tweaked to include expanded due-process rights for detainees, Obama will retain the military tribunals begun by President Bush. Both of these moves stand in stark opposition to Obama's often-heated rhetoric against them on the campaign trail.

    In short, the president is showing an admirable willingness to break campaign promises if he comes to believe he was wrong to make them in the first place. And that's good news; the only thing worse than a bad campaign promise is a bad campaign promise that's kept.

    Legal observers believe that the photos will eventually be made public anyway, so some observers are suggesting that the president is maneuvering -– enough to be able to say he opposed the release in case it does have lethal consequences for American troops abroad, but not enough, and not in time, to be able to stop it completely.

    That debate -– principle or politics -– will continue. But regardless of the motive or timing, President Obama has done the right thing on this issue. This is one case where a politician-s flip-flop was in the best interest of the people he serves.

    Saturday, May 9, 2009

    New Republican Party looks a lot like the old one

    (Originally published 5/9/09)

    The National Council for a New America was all over the news this week.

    Haven't heard of them? Maybe you know them by their informal name: The GOP Makeover Squad.

    OK, so that's just what I call them. But you get the idea.

    Anyway, the group held its initial event last week in Arlington, Va. I tuned in out of curiosity: Just how extreme might this makeover be?

    Let's put it this way: If this was a home project, it would be the equivalent of updating circa-1990 wallpaper with ... circa-2000 wallpaper.

    After repeated beatings at the polls over the past four years, Republicans —- well, the 21 percent of Americans who now identify themselves as Republicans, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll —- are setting about the unpleasant tasks of peering into the looking-glass, assessing the problems and figuring out how to fix them.

    They are wondering: Have they included too few, or have they included too many? Those who believe the former argue that the tent simply isn't big enough anymore to accommodate modern American political thought; those in the latter camp believe that even the biggest tent isn't worth much if it's full of philosophical holes.

    Enter the National Council for a New America.

    The effort is led by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who also serves as the House minority whip.

    Let's stop right there.

    First of all, House Republicans have made pitiful showings in the last two election cycles. Why would the GOP want anyone in their leadership as the new face of the party?

    Secondly, it is strange, to say the least, for a whip to be charged with ferreting out new ideas for the foundation of the remodeled party.

    Whips, as you may know, are responsible for keeping their members in line, especially on difficult votes. If you're a legislator planning to break with your party on a bill or amendment that's heavily supported by the other side, expect a call -— or, more likely, a visit —- from your whip. He'll share with you in no uncertain terms that he's no fan of your independent streak.

    And then there is the National Council itself.

    If you visit the group's web site (, you'll see a lot of familiar faces on the leadership team —- and by familiar, I mean that almost everyone there has an established national presence.

    Looking for new blood? Move along, folks; nothing to see here.

    You also won't find much diversity. Out of the 20 members pictured on the site, 16 are white men, and only three are women (and, yes, that includes the governor of Alaska).

    This confounds me. If national Republican leaders want innovation, energy, fresh leadership and a new direction, there are plenty of GOP leaders out there in local government —- and a few in state capitals around the country -— who have managed to govern successfully without betraying either their principles or their voters in the process.

    Where are they in this effort?

    Barack Obama won the presidency last year by telling Americans that it's unreasonable to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

    If they want to re-establish themselves as a viable alternative to the president's policies, Republicans would do well to begin their rebuilding process by taking his argument to heart.

    Saturday, May 2, 2009

    Specter’s switch illustrates two big problems in politics

    (Originally published 5/2/09)

    It's not often that one event encapsulates all the big things wrong with politics in Washington.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, former Republican, now Democrat, of Pennsylvania.

    Tuesday's news of Specter's party switch was greeted with breathless glee among Democrats in Washington. One pundit yammered on about how Specter's new party ID would "liberate" him to vote his conscience.

    My head actually hurt from rolling my eyes at that one.

    In his statement released Tuesday afternoon, Specter made continuing reference to his "independent" nature and his "independent" judgment.

    Sounds like he would make a pretty good independent, right?

    This brings us to big problem No. 1: Big money in politics.

    All his high-minded, philosophical protestations to the contrary, this move was all about power and the money it takes to keep it. Even Democrats accept as general knowledge that Specter's move was not nearly as much self-realization as it was self-preservation. Specter all but admitted that he can't win a Pennsylvania Senate primary as a Republican: In talking to GOP leaders and office-holders and supporters across the Keystone State, "it has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable," he said in his statement.

    But independents don't get party money, and it's going to take money -– a lot of money -– to win that Senate seat next year.

    Thus, Specter's sudden realization that he has so much in common with Democrats.

    But that's only part of the story. Specter's announcement commanded an entire day's news cycle and cast a long shadow over the 100-day mark of President Obama's administration. With Al Franken's win over Norm Coleman nearly finalized in Minnesota, Specter makes 60 -– as in, 60 Democrats in the United States Senate.

    Sixty: The magical, mystical supermajority that renders minority members powerless to filibuster.

    Specter was quick to point out that no one should consider him an automatic vote for cloture, though. You know, because he's ... independent.

    Pundits peppered their 100-day analysis Wednesday with speculation about what Specter the Democrat will mean for Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. How much will Specter assert himself and seek to impact policy? Will Obama lean on him as a matter of course, or will he try to convert other Republicans on individual issues?
    If it's the former, Arlen Specter has just become America's most powerful lawmaker.

    This brings us to big problem No. 2.

    I've written frequently in this space about this country's need for a genuine third-party. Because of America's either/or political system, Specter may now hold life-or-death power over some of the most profound legislation this country has seen in its modern age.

    The Founders didn't mind concentrating a lot of political power in one citizen. They just called him "president."

    Rich Galen is one of this country's foremost Republican pundits. He agrees that we need to have more parties at the party.

    "Perhaps it is time to form a real, no kidding around, third party ... A real third party would allow the Democrats to be the Liberals; the Republicans to be the Conservatives; and the Moderates to be everyone who does not believe that ideological perfection –- on the left or right –- is a prerequisite to holding public office," Galen wrote.

    A mechanism for ideologically imperfect citizens to participate in their government?

    Now that would be liberating.

    Saturday, April 25, 2009

    High court grapples again with race-based preference policies

    (Originally published 4/25/09)

    The national tug of war between affirmative action and reverse discrimination wound its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

    The case was filed by 20 New Haven, Conn., firefighters who were among dozens who took oral and written promotional exams for lieutenant and captain positions in the state's second-largest city in 2003.

    But when the test results came back, city officials threw them out –- not because no one passed, but because of who didn't: None of the black firefighters and only one Latino who took the exam made the grade.

    So ... no one was promoted.

    As CNN explains, "at issue is whether the city intentionally discriminated, in violation of both federal law and the Constitution's equal protection clause.

    "The high court is being asked to decide whether there is a continued need for special treatment for minorities, or whether enough progress has been made to make existing laws obsolete, especially in a political atmosphere where an African-American occupies the White House."

    The Court has staked out differing standards for race-based preference policies, generally protecting them more in higher education than in the workplace. And that is reasonable; profound resource and performance disparities persist along racial lines in America's schools, and the Court provides race-based preference policies to help ensure that every child has a fair shot at the advantages of higher education.

    But the workplace isn't school -– and a burning building isn't the grassy quad.

    We've all heard stories about public safety agencies that have lowered their standards to achieve racial, ethnic and/or gender diversity in enrollment or employment.

    And diversity isn't some feel-good, disposable luxury. Cohesion and confidence follow when the men and women of public safety reflect the community they serve.

    The problems occur when those elements -– high standards and pursuit of diversity -– get out of balance. Dropping standards to improve inclusion does a disservice both to the person seeking the position and the community that person seeks to protect: It dismisses the applicant's potential by assuming he simply can't measure up and endangers the community by assuming they don't need him to.

    The key to the New Haven case could be the justices' interpretation of a federal civil rights law known as Title VII, which requires employers to ban actions, such as promotion tests, that would have a "disparate impact" on a protected class.

    CNN notes that during arguments this week, Justice David Souter observed that a ruling against New Haven could leave city officials stuck in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation, subject to lawsuits from both minority and majority employees.

    This, along with the perpetuation of inequality and discrimination for new generations of Americans, is what happens when government "protects" some groups of its citizens over others.

    The Court has a chance in the New Haven case to poke a big hole in the misconception that exacting standards and diversity are incompatible.

    I hope, for the sake of safety and equality alike, that they do.

  • This week marks the two-year anniversary of my columns for the Opelika-Auburn News. Thank you to everyone who has written or spoken to me about a piece; I appreciate your comments, whatever your politics. And to all my readers, I know your time is valuable; thank you for spending a few minutes of your Saturday mornings with me.
  • Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Tea parties, dissent and political polarization

    (Originally published 4/18/09)

    You can learn a lot from a tea party.

    Organizers meant the parties, held nationwide on Wednesday, as a visible demonstration of taxpayer anger with massive government spending and mounting federal debt.

    But for me, the lesson was about unity –- and whether this country has any of it left.

    Tea partiers carried all sorts of signs, some witty, some profound.

    But others, including those with slogans rejecting President Obama as this country's leader, were downright disturbing. "Obama is not my president," they read.

    These Americans demonize and reject the leadership of the candidate for whom they did not vote -– ironically, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats throughout President George W. Bush's administration, especially after the 2000 election.

    It's disappointing to me that so many people who lamented that treatment of President Bush are now doing the same to President Obama.

    As I've discussed in this space before, there is a difference between disagreeing with someone politically and disrespecting the office that person holds. Yes, it's true that free speech protects both. But useful political discourse restricts itself to the former.

    Just as disturbing as those signs disowning the president was the media coverage of the tea parties themselves. Cable news anchors peppered their reports with barely-concealed sexual references and a disdain for the participants that they didn't bother to conceal at all.

    And liberals scoff at conservatives' outrage over mainstream media bias.

    How did it come to this?

    It's simple: Americans have forgotten how to respectfully disagree with each other.

    This is partially a function of the way we do elections. We start with two major parties, hold primaries that empower those on the edges of those parties and make it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to gain traction in general elections.

    And we wonder why governing is so contentious and why we have so many disaffected citizens.

    But the polarization of America is also a function of individual Americans who have determined that there is no value or truth in the arguments of those on the other side.

    This is dangerous territory, and not only because they're dead wrong.

    This is the thought process that opens the door for secessionists. Once the mysterious realm reserved only for obscure Alaskan ├╝ber-conservatives and extreme liberals in Vermont, the group was joined this week by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who used a tea party in Austin to remind everyone that the Lone Star State didn't have to stay a part of the USA if it didn't want to.

    But more disturbing than the movement of secession talk into the mainstream were the assents Perry's comments found among Americans left of center: "Let 'em go, and take the rest of the Bible Belt with 'em," one person in a chorus of others wrote.

    What if this had been Lincoln's attitude?

    History has shown us what happens when Americans lose confidence and give up on elections as the ultimate arbiter of ideas.

    But what if the only thing Americans on the left and right can agree on is that our Union isn't worth saving?

    Partisan arrogance is poisoning our people and tearing this country apart.

    Americans, do your nation a favor: Listen to your neighbor. Respect his opinion.

    You'll do your part to save this country, and you just might find that your "enemy" –- your fellow citizen –- can actually be your friend.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009

    Red-light cameras are important tools that save lives

    (Originally published 4/11/09)

    My parents offered plenty of instruction, pointers and tips when I was learning to drive. Most valuable, however: "Never be the first car through an intersection."

    Have you ever counted the cars that run red lights?

    I've counted as many as six at once. But I never thought much about red-light cameras –- never, that is, until Mark Wandall.

    I was living in Florida and working for the state House of Representatives in 2003 when Wandall, a Bradenton resident, left home to go to the store. His wife, Melissa, nine months pregnant with their daughter, stayed behind.

    Mark was killed just a few blocks away by a woman who ran a red light.

    Melissa began a tenacious public awareness campaign to get state lawmakers to allow the cameras.

    Six years later, she's still working on it.

    Red-light running is one of the worst public safety problems in America. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 800 people are killed and 165,000 are injured every year due to red-light running.

    Eight hundred deaths -– 800 senseless, completely preventable deaths. Eight hundred families who shouldn't be without their loved ones.

    My conservative friends recoil at the very mention of red-light cameras. It's an invasion of privacy, they say; Big Brother lurking on every corner.

    I don't get that. The cameras don't record every car coming through the intersection; they have to be triggered by the offending one. And even then, they can photograph only the license plate.

    But guess what? If you have a driver's license, Big Brother already has an awkward picture of you, anyway.

    Some legal analysts argue that the evidence collected by red-light cameras cannot be used to enforce criminal penalties. They cite the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the accused the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

    I don't buy it. Red-light cameras function as an extension of law enforcement, as sworn officers would if we had the human and financial resources to put a cop on every corner. They are electronic witnesses -– witnesses whose testimony can't be twisted or swayed.

    And evidence from unmanned surveillance cameras is readily used in criminal proceedings, sometimes as the only supplement to otherwise completely circumstantial cases. No apparent Sixth Amendment violations there.

    In 2006, Miami Herald columnist Larry Lebowitz addressed the "more substantive constitutional concern about due process of law" raised by civil libertarians: Citations are automatically sent to the registered owner of the vehicle -- not necessarily the driver who ran the light.

    Lebowitz noted, "The situation is akin to the citation that public agencies are issuing when drivers run through a tollbooth without a SunPass (an electronic transponder for tolls):" Either pay the fine, or rat out the offender.

    Opponents say cameras are municipal cash cows, advanced by the insurance industry as a way to collect higher premiums (based on tickets) without providing more services.

    So? The result -– safer roads –- is the same.

    Nick Adenhart spent Wednesday night pitching six scoreless innings for the Los Angeles Angels. Adenhart, the Angels' top pitching prospect, had beaten a shoulder injury. At 22, he had a bright future and his whole life ahead of him.

    Six hours later, he was killed by a man who ran a red light.

    Why shouldn't we do everything we can to keep this from happening again?

    Saturday, April 4, 2009

    Political labels convenient, but voters beware

    (Originally published 4/4/09)

    A fellow blogger this week asked readers to list "progressive politicians (or progressive folks who might/should be persuaded to run for office)."

    In reading through the list, though, I found that folks on the list stood for a lot of different things.

    What is a progressive, anyway?

    I had an exchange with another fellow blogger and self-described progressive who tried to define it for me. We both eschew labels, but he used Wikipedia's definition as a jumping-off point:

    "Progressivism is a political and social term that refers to ideologies and movements favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are."

    That didn't help much. I know that my friend and I both believe government needs reform, we have different ideas about how to do it. Are we both progressives? For that matter, I don't know of anyone who is completely happy with government as it is. We all want some kind of reform. But we're not all progressives.

    So the key to defining and understanding progressive political thought, then, is to pin down exactly what progressives consider "progress, change, improvement, or reform." Is it a standard set of beliefs and principles, or does it change in relation to the prevailing themes dominating the two major political parties? And what distinguishes a progressive from a liberal?

    My friend responded that for his money, there is a difference between "progressive" and "liberal," with progressives generally placing more emphasis on the pragmatic than the ideological.

    The Progressive, a magazine for the political philosophy of the same name, celebrates its 100th year in 2009. According to its web site, the magazine "has steadfastly opposed corporate power and reckless U.S. interventionism and has championed peace, women's rights, civil rights, civil liberties, a preserved environment, an independent media, and real democracy."

    That's more helpful than the Wiki definition, but you'd still have to define "reckless," "preserved" and "real" to get a firm handle on individual policies progressives could be expected to support.

    "Progressive" is going to be the buzz word of choice for the next few years in Alabama. U.S. Rep. Artur Davis is already embracing the label in his bid to succeed Gov. Bob Riley, and Democratic congressional candidates are likely to follow suit in challenging incumbent Republicans. As I told my progressive friend, I just want to know what those candidates are talking about -- and to know that they know what they're talking about -- when I start seeing their glossy mailers and TV ads.

    And this goes for all political labels. U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, are both Democrats -- but I'm sure the former would take great pains to distinguish his political beliefs from those of the latter. Likewise, there is great variety among Republicans who call themselves "conservative."

    Lastly, consider this: Labels that are misleading now might actually mean more under a true multi-party system. More fragmentation would mean less shading and greater homogenization within those groups.

    But it may not matter. GOP and Democratic legislators don't agree on much, but when it comes to ballot access for third-party candidates, they can be counted on to work together to keep the drawbridge up against the castle.

    How do progressives feel about that?

    Saturday, March 28, 2009

    Cardin's bill a good start but needs work

    (Originally published 3/28/09)

    U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) jumped into the fray over a new business model for the American newspaper industry this week with his introduction of The Newspaper Revitalization Act.

    The bill would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, giving them a similar status to public broadcasting companies. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt, and contributions to support news coverage or operations could be tax deductible, according to Reuters.

    Cardin's ideas have merit. But there are also problems.

    Non-profit newspapers would still be free to report on all issues, including political campaigns. But they would be prohibited from making political endorsements.

    Bad idea.

    Though they may infuriate many a politician, newspapers' editorial endorsements are an indispensible part of their mission to serve their communities.

    In his news release announcing the introduction of the bill, Cardin said:

    "While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds. In fact, most if not all sources of journalistic information -- from radio to television to the Internet -- gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities."


    By virtue of their work and professional training, newspaper reporters and editors should know their communities – and their leaders – better than anyone else. In news articles throughout the paper, they tell you about those public meetings and government contracts and how your tax money is being spent.

    The editorial page is where they analyze for you what they've found.

    Of course, newspapers must take great care not to color news coverage with political preferences. And, of course, some newspapers and reporters do this better than others. I have said here before that there is no such thing as an unbiased journalist; the good ones, though, are able to recognize and account for their bias in their news stories.

    And it is to newspapers' benefit to carefully maintain that bright line against bias. The weight of an editorial endorsement is affected greatly by how fair the newspaper making that endorsement has been in its coverage of the candidates or issues involved.

    Back to Cardin's bill: On its face, it appears that its proposed ban on editorial endorsements would pass the First Amendment test, because newspapers would have to opt-in to the non-profit program it would create.

    But could it be argued that the government is, in effect, creating a back-door abridgement on the freedom of the press by using these tough economic times to ban editorial endorsements, making help available only to those newspapers willing to drop them?

    The bill could also have problems with the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause.

    Cardin's measure is targeted toward "local newspapers serving communities and not large newspaper conglomerates." Newspapers serve the same function, regardless of their owners. Why should only community papers have access to the tax breaks of the non-profit option?

    I believe Cardin's heart is in the right place. But if he really wants to help the industry, he should protect newspapers’ functions -- all their functions -- and make his lifeline available to them all.

    Saturday, March 21, 2009

    Obama and Congress scramble on AIG bonuses

    (Originally published 3/21/09)

    AIG has paid $165 million in performance bonuses -- including 73 bonuses of more than $1 million each this year -– to its employees since U.S. taxpayers forked over $170 billion in federal assistance and took ownership of nearly 80 percent of the company late last year.

    The American public, most of whom are getting a $13/week "bailout" from Uncle Sam in return for their sinking savings and evaporating home values, pounced like angry piranha on this latest Wall Street affront.

    Federal lawmakers and stammered with incredulity. President Barack Obama was even caught up in the wrath, giving himself over to stronger-than-usual rhetoric: "Where's the outrage?" Lawmakers demanded to know, how this could happen?

    And that's where the story gets interesting. Journalists dug into the bailout bill and found language that answered their question: Lawmakers not only allowed those bonuses; they specifically protected them.

    U.S. Sen. Christopher "It wasn't-a-sweetheart-Countrywide-mortgage" Dodd (D-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Banking Committee and had a personal hand in writing the bailout bill, insisted for two days that he didn't write the language.

    Well, actually, he admitted later, he did ... but it wasn't his idea.

    It was all the Obama Administration, he said; it was all Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

    The rhetoric softened. The bonuses were still offensive –- even stunning, Obama said, but the government had to protect them because Treasury Department officials feared lawsuits if they weren't paid.

    Folks, I'm no economist. But it seems to me that if the government is forced to bail out your company to keep the entire American economy from foundering, your performance is less than bonus-worthy. But I digress.

    After realizing that they had no one to blame for the bonus mess but themselves, congressmen who voted for the bailout furiously haggled over whether it was better to sue to recoup the money or just to tax it at ... oh, say, 90 percent.

    SIDEBAR: Lawmakers supposedly allowed the bonuses to avoid getting sued, but now they want to sue to get it back. I love irony; don't you? END SIDEBAR

    Appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Thursday, Obama was charming and engaging –- so much so that most viewers probably didn't realize that he apparently opposes recouping the bonuses at all.

    "The immediate bonuses that went to AIG are a problem," the president said, "but the larger problem is we've got to get back to an attitude where people know enough is enough and people have a sense of responsibility."

    And as for taxing it?

    "I understand Congress's frustration," he said. "But the best way to handle this is to make sure you close the door before the horse gets out of the barn. What happened here was that the money's already gone out and people are scrambling to try to find ways to get back at them."

    In that analogy, the money is the horse, and taxpayers are left to clean up the barn.

    Obama told Leno that over the next several months, he wants to make sure "that we don't lurch from thing to thing" on the economy.

    Funny thing, that word "lurch." It means to roll or tip abruptly, or to stagger.

    ... Kind of like what lawmakers have been doing on AIG all week.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009

    Witherspoon’s movie wit is real-life wisdom in Auburn

    (Originally published 3/14/09)

    In the 2002 movie "Sweet Home Alabama," Reese Witherspoon's character, aspiring fashion designer Melanie Carmichael, happens into a high school friend at a local bar upon her return to the small town she had left for New York City.

    "Look at you," she cooed in disbelief, eyeing the chubby baby boy on her friend's hip. "You have a baby ... in a bar."

    The line is built on irony and was meant for laughs.

    Opelika-Auburn News reporter Katie Stallcup told you yesterday how the Auburn Planning Commission gave the green light to a new bar that would border a day care on two of its four sides.

    There's no shortage of irony. But laughs are in short supply.

    I attended the meeting on Thursday and listened as planning commissioners heard from Brandon Haynes, the Columbus, Ga., man who wants to nestle a Caribbean-themed bar up against Hardy's Creative Childcare in downtown Auburn.

    Martha Hardy stepped forward and delivered a measured but thorough and compelling case against approval. She asked commissioners to consider carefully the impact the new bar would have on the business that bears her name.

    Before detailing the many ways in which bar-patron passersby could compromise the safe environment she has striven to cultivate over the 30 years she has cared for children in Auburn, Hardy noted this line from the city's zoning ordinance itself:

    "The purpose of this Ordinance is the promotion of the health, safety, and general welfare of the present and future inhabitants of Auburn by (section 102.11) protecting landowners from adverse impacts of adjoining developments."

    Hardy asked commissioners to put themselves in a parent's position. Given the choice between two otherwise equal childcare centers, how many of them would select the one with a bar right next door?

    Her point: The commission would be hard pressed to find a type of business that would have a more adverse impact on her own than the one they were considering.

    Parent after parent, and even some concerned folks who don't have children at her daycare, lined up to illustrate Hardy's point: For reasons from safety to morality to just plain common sense, they pleaded with the commission not to approve the bar.

    For the record, my children don’t attend Hardy's. I’ve never even met Martha Hardy. And in fairness, Haynes seems like a nice enough guy. I appreciate several things about his interest in Auburn: He’s a small business owner looking to expand. He's interested in downtown redevelopment. And although his illustrations about how he and his wife seek to advance philanthropy and be good corporate citizens were overdone, I also appreciate their commitment in those areas.

    But Hardy is a small business owner, too. She is now serving a second generation of families in the downtown location she's had for 18 years. Now into her fourth decade of being a good corporate citizen, she is an Auburn resident herself. She is one of the Village's own.

    This issue will be before Auburn's city councilors in coming weeks. Between now and then, I hope you will -– respectfully –- ask them to protect Martha Hardy and her business by denying Haynes's application.

    Melanie Carmichael had it right: Children and bars don't mix.

    See also:

  • Sign the petition imploring the Auburn City Council to deny Haynes's application.

  • Saturday, March 7, 2009

    Sebelius pick shows Obama is no moderate on abortion

    (Originally published 3/7/09)

    After Tom Daschle's withdrawal from consideration to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I said on my blog that in selecting Daschle's replacement, President Obama would send a message to Americans about how moderate he really is. With health care reform behind only economic recovery on the president's agenda, the HHS chief will implement whatever changes Congress and the president enact.

    Enter Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

    In tapping Sebelius to lead HHS this week, Obama stoked the abortion debate and began what will likely be his most contentious Cabinet nomination fight.

    Kansas leads the country in late-term abortions, primarily due to the practice of Dr. George Tiller. Tiller advertises on his web site that his Wichita clinic has "more experience in late abortion services over 24 weeks than anyone else currently practicing in the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Australia."

    Not surprisingly, Kansas has been the site of some of the most contentious abortion debates, and Sebelius, supported by abortion providers Planned Parenthood, has been in the middle of the maelstrom. She vetoed abortion restrictions in 2003, 2005 and 2006; last year, she killed the Comprehensive Abortion Reform Act, which would have strengthened late-term abortion laws and clarified Kansas’s parental notification law.

    When Obama nominated Sebelius this week, CNN noted the "lightning rod" of controversy that erupted when Tiller and his staff attended a reception at the governor's mansion in 2007. Tiller reportedly "won" the reception at a charity auction. But it was hard to forget about when Sebelius vetoed legislation that would have severely restricted Tiller's practice –- and income.

    Pro-lifers had no illusions that Obama, a strong supporter of abortion rights, would nominate one of their own to lead HHS. But neither did they expect that he would appoint someone like Sebelius.

    But they should have. In his first week as president, Obama lifted the Mexico City Policy and cleared the way for American tax dollars to be used for abortion counseling and performance overseas. (Meanwhile, he's looking for ways to close the budget deficit.) No choice for American taxpayers there.

    Last week, he signaled that he would rescind the "conscience rule," which allows healthcare workers to deny abortion counseling or other family-planning services if providing them would violate their moral beliefs. Forced to choose between providing abortions and closing, many Catholic hospitals -– which make up 13 percent of the country’s nearly 5,000 hospitals, employ more than 600,000 people and care for one in six patients hospitalized in America –- would choose the latter. How does that improve access to quality, affordable healthcare? But medical staff would have no choice.

    This week, sponsors of the Freedom of Choice Act indicated that they intend to pursue the legislation, which would write into statute the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion and override state statutes regulating and restricting abortion. No choice for state lawmakers and governors –- or the citizens they represent –- there.

    Obama ran for president on promises to build consensus, move beyond the politics of the past and forge new alliances to get things done for the American people. Those sound bites earned Obama a reputation as a moderate.

    But in choosing Sebelius, Obama provided yet another exhibit in the case that on abortion, he is anything but.

    Saturday, February 28, 2009

    Speech showdown indicative of long-term political outlook

    (Originally published 2/28/09)

    Tuesday night was billed as the battle of the big speeches. In one corner, President Obama, the reigning heavyweight champion of oratory, would deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress; in the other, the GOP tapped super middleweight and rising party star Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to skip a few divisions and give the Republican response.

    Well, if we stick with the boxing analogy, this was Tyson-Saverese: It was over in a hurry.

    The pundits spent Tuesday describing the near-impossible bar Obama had to clear -- he'd need tightrope-walking acrobatics to balance the stark reality of America's economy against the hope that swept him into the White House. Be real, they said, but not too gloomy; be optimistic, but not out of touch.

    Obama answered the call with a typically superior speech that was more characteristic of his ability than the disappointing inaugural address he gave last month. For about an hour, he spoke about the economy, yes, but also about the rest of his ambitious agenda.

    Throughout the 20-minute delay between the end of Obama's address and the beginning of Jindal's speech from the Governor's Mansion in Baton Rogue, pundits marveled at the former.

    Jindal had been speaking about a minute when I realized that my face was contorted into an expression of confusion and bewilderment. The speech was so strange, its message so muddled and Jindal's delivery so amateurish, it was almost painful to watch.

    In reality, Jindal was the one with the nearly unattainable bar. Opposition responses to presidential speeches are usually wonkish, their settings comparatively poor.

    But in retrospect, Jindal's poor performance had more to do with the message than the messenger. Tuesday's mess notwithstanding, Jindal is an intelligent, articulate politician with a national future. But he had little raw material to work with. The GOP is still searching for its new center -- an authentic, credible message that can counter Obama's political agenda without alienating the swing voters who elected him.

    The post-mortem on Obama's speech was all about the breadth of his agenda. Pundits wondered whether he would be able -- or whether it is even appropriate -- to tackle behemoths like health care and energy reform while trying to right America's foundering economy.

    At the start of the 1995 movie, "The American President," President Andrew Shepherd and his staff discuss his 63 percent approval rating and whether to leverage that high public support to pursue a particularly controversial tenet of his crime bill (coincidentally, a handgun ban).

    The president's domestic policy adviser encourages the president to go for it: "Let's take this 63 percent out for a spin and see what it can do," he says.

    President Shepherd passed on the "spin." But in laying out his agenda Tuesday, President Obama left no doubt that he won't.

    At least for the foreseeable future, the new president and the expanded Democratic majorities in Congress are going to have their way with domestic policy in this country.

    Because, as they showed this week, Republicans are still down for the count.

    Saturday, February 21, 2009

    Shelby can be powerful agent of constitutional change

    (Originally published 2/21/09)

    U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby thinks Alabama should have a new constitution.

    He told me so in a quick conversation we had as he left his town hall meeting in Auburn on Tuesday.

    But our short exchange on the sidewalk in front of his waiting car left me with mixed feelings.

    On one hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find not only that he supports the constitutional reform movement, but that he is passionate about it.

    "Oh, we should have done that a long time ago," Shelby said. "That thing is this big," he said, raising his right hand and stretching his thumb and index finger apart to illustrate the massive size of the 108-year-old document and its 800-plus amendments. He reached into his jacket for the pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution he had been carrying for comparison.

    But when I asked him if he would support the joint resolutions pending in the State Legislature that would allow Alabamians to vote on organizing a constitutional convention, I was disappointed that he took a pass.

    "That's a state issue," he said, delivering the line politicians give when they are simply trying to steer clear of someone else’s mess.

    Richard Shelby has spent nearly 40 years in politics. He served in the State Senate before being elected to the U.S. House in 1978 and the U.S. Senate in 1986. He's established a national profile on financial issues and brought billions back to this state in education and infrastructure funding.

    He is perhaps this state's most prominent conservative, with the possible current exception of Gov. Bob Riley. He has contacts and influence with conservative groups that is unmatched by any other GOP leader.

    Imagine the difference Shelby's persistent, public support for constitutional reform could make.

    If Shelby believes in reform so strongly, why won't he throw his full political weight behind making it happen?

    I suspect it's because he doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of influential conservative groups that oppose constitutional reform.

    But the reality is that, his political prominence aside, Shelby is an Alabamian, too. He is underserved and misrepresented by the shortcomings of the current constitution as much as the rest of us.

    I hope that as reform proponents continue to spread the word about the need for a new constitution, Shelby will have a change of heart and decide to lend his significant political clout to our efforts. He is uniquely equipped to assuage the fears of many new-constitution opponents -- individuals, not special-interest groups, who oppose reform for their own reasons –- who misunderstand the reform movement. He could play a unique and irreplaceable role in reshaping state government.

    He could leave a legacy beyond Washington by making Montgomery more accountable to the people.

    As we parted, Shelby apparently felt that he needed to clarify himself, so he added one last comment.

    "I trust the people," he said, raising his voice above the noise from the street.

    He can demonstrate that trust by supporting the joint resolutions that will empower them to decide for themselves whether their governing document should be rewritten.

    Sen. Shelby, be a leader on this issue. Trust the people. Help us get the vote.

    Saturday, February 14, 2009

    Mock convention will put pressure on reform opponents

    (Originally published 2/14/09)

    At 9 a.m. today in Prattville, former Alabama Chief Justice Gorman Houston will swear in the 105 delegates to the first session of Alabama's mock constitutional convention, sponsored by Alabama Citizens for Constitutional Reform.

    Yes, the convention is only for show. But it is a powerful visual symbol that the constitutional reform movement, nine years in the making, is getting some serious legs.

    It's about time. Alabama's current constitution, ratified in 1901 even though almost half of the state's counties opposed it, is riddled with historical anachronisms, racist language and inefficiencies. It strangles local governments and restricts the ability of our city councilors, county commissioners and anyone else outside Montgomery to respond to local needs.

    In his column last week, Anniston Star editor Bob Davis adapted the Facebook "25 things about you" phenomenon to the Alabama Constitution. As with those ubiquitous notes authored by my friends, I learned some things.

    For example, did you know that in the original state constitution, American citizenship was not an absolute requirement for voting? One's "intention to become a citizen of the United States" was enough.

    Did you know that the rallying cry for the 1901 document was, "White Supremacy, Honest Elections and the New Constitution, One and Inseparable"? Talk about your political sound bites.

    Did you know that three Black Belt counties voted 17,475 to 508 for the new Constitution? Never mind that the three counties' combined eligible-voter population at the time was 5,623.

    And what about the 800-plus amendments to the 108-year-old charter? In the 2008 general election alone, Alabamians approved 25 amendments –- almost as many as the 27 amendments that have been ratified over the entire 220 years of the U.S. Constitution.

    Reform opponents use fear tactics and slippery-slope arguments to defend the woefully inadequate status quo. A new constitution would bring increased taxes! Gambling! Haphazard government land grabs!

    Well, local governments are having to raise taxes and fees anyway to make up for the state's antiquated tax structure that is, among other things, simply starving schools of the resources they need. I don't know if reform opponents have driven down I-85 toward Montgomery lately, but gambling is already here –- and it's expanding. And as for government land grabs, have they heard of Kelo v. City of New London?

    Reform opponents embrace a high-browed skepticism of the convention process. Delegates would surely be unduly influenced and the new constitution permeated with special-interest giveaways if we were to rewrite it, they say.

    Really? If they oppose a constitutional convention on those grounds, do they also support the immediate and indefinite suspension of all activities of the Alabama Legislature? Because if the final products of any place are infected with favoritism, influence-peddling and special-interest taint, it's Goat Hill.

    State Sen. Ted Little (D-Auburn) and State Rep. Demetrius Newton (D-Birmingham) filed bills this week that would allow Alabamians to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention to write a new legal document and clean up this mess.

    Your legislators presumably trust your judgment to elect them to office. If they won't trust your judgment when it comes to the State Constitution -- if they don't support these resolutions -- you should demand to know why.

    Saturday, February 7, 2009

    Difficult week serves up important lesson for Obama

    (Originally published 2/7/09)

    Last week I told you that idealists scored a victory with the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

    I also mentioned how idealism often struggles in the ugly muck of Washington.

    President Obama got a sobering lesson this week on the latter.

    Remember just after the election when Obama's transition team made waves with a detailed, 63-item questionnaire required of all potential appointees and job applicants? Nine questions –- a whole section –- dealt specifically with taxes; four concerned domestic help. And just in case they missed anything, the final question of the application was a catch-all: "Please provide any information, including information about other members of your family, that could ... be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect," it read.

    A lot of good that did.

    As of this writing, five of Obama's nominees have had confirmation problems. Four of the five (or their spouses) admitted to not paying taxes, including the man who now heads the Treasury Department and is charged with ensuring that you pay your taxes; three of the five dropped out; and confirmation hearings for one are on hold pending "further investigation" of allegations involving her spouse.

    What did this mean about the vetting process? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs scrambled to assure the public that none of these revelations came as any surprise to the president. And given the scope of the questionnaire, I'm inclined to believe him.

    But if Obama was aware of his prospective nominees' various tax issues and chose to nominate them anyway, then that leaves only one explanation: He didn't think the tax issues were serious enough to scuttle their confirmation bids.

    This is what led the president of the United States to face cable news anchors on Tuesday and say repeatedly, "I screwed up."

    I watched several of those interviews, and every one left me with the same feeling: How positively curious to see someone of such power admit an error so plainly.

    So it was against this backdrop that the Senate received the stimulus package from the House with something less than exuberance.

    In the House, the president had tried gentle prodding. He'd courted Republicans. He’d leaned on House leadership to drop provisions targeted by the GOP.

    As the bill went on life support in the Senate, Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric and even sounded an alarum bell or two, using words like "catastrophe" to describe what awaits the economy if the bill fails.

    Yawn, they replied.

    At some point, Obama remembered the definition of "bully pulpit." His speech Thursday was sharp and unapologetic, spiked with urgency and peppered with sarcasm.

    There were even hand gestures.

    "Tensions running high, patience wearing thin," observed CNN's Anderson Cooper.

    By the time you read this, the fate of the stimulus package will likely be sealed. Whatever happens, Obama will keep plugging away on the economy, most notably with a rollout of a revamped TARP program Monday.

    And he will do so having learned an important lesson over this difficult week: He'll face plenty of political slings and arrows as president without inflicting them on himself.

    Saturday, January 31, 2009

    Ledbetter's journey should inspire jaded Americans

    (Originally published 1/31/09)

    A friend of mine once joked about beating the idealism out of me.

    I'll admit that there are days when it could be done more easily than others. Idealism sometimes struggles in the harsh reality of politics.

    But this week, it would have been tough.

    Thursday morning, I watched on television as President Obama signed his first bill -– the Lilly Ledbetter Act -– into law.

    We talked last fall about the bill, an equal pay measure designed to put the courts squarely in the corner of those whose employers have discriminated against them in pay. All three of my federal representatives opposed it; it might increase lawsuits against businesses, they said.

    (This just in: Employers can avoid pay discrimination lawsuits by –- GASP! –- not discriminating against their workers.)

    Lilly Ledbetter was a factory worker in Gadsden. She had put in nearly 20 years and was preparing to retire when someone tipped her off that she was making less than men in her position. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she should have sued when she was first discriminated against; it was just her bad luck that she didn't know about it until it was too late.

    The new law fixes that. It extends the statute of limitations on discrimination claims by clarifying that each inequitable paycheck is a new incident.

    The discrimination she suffered affected her salary, which then cost her in Social Security and pension benefits. She couldn't get what she had rightfully earned.

    But she "decided that there was a principle at stake, something worth fighting for. So she set out on a journey that would ... lead to this bill which will help others get the justice she was denied," Obama said.

    That principle? Equal pay for equal work.

    Yes, this country might have just inaugurated its first African-American president. But women are still making only 79 cents on the dollar to men.

    On Thursday, as Obama signed the bill that bears her name, Lilly Ledbetter stood over the president’s right shoulder. I thought about how she must have felt when she read that anonymous note stuffed into her locker at work, how her face must have flushed with embarrassment, then anger, as she came to the dark realization of what had happened to her over two decades of her life. I thought about how she must have spent agonizing nights pondering her work and doubting herself. I thought about the disappointment and disgust she must have felt when judges told her that justice has a deadline. And I thought about how easy it would have been for her to give up.

    I thought about how, because of this grandmother from North Alabama, my three daughters won't have to face what she did.

    I watched the president turn to embrace Lilly Ledbetter. I thought about how, for all its warts and failings and frustrations and scandals, the legislative system had worked for this ordinary American who had been wronged and turned to her government for help.

    Yes, I am an idealist. And Thursday was a good day to be one.

    Saturday, January 24, 2009

    100-day benchmark looms for Obama

    (Originally published 1/24/09)

    I heard an historian on television the other day lamenting the Hundred Days benchmark made famous by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of the Great Depression. It is looked upon as an initial indicator, the first real measure of a president's success, he said, even though success by the standard FDR set is nearly impossible to achieve.

    Roosevelt's early New Deal wins basically doomed future presidents to relative failure, the historian said; it's unlikely that any other chief executive could produce such major accomplishments in such little time, because quick legislative action was predicated on the extraordinarily dire circumstances facing the nation.

    There is no question that President Obama is attempting to fashion his administration's first steps in 2009 after Roosevelt's efforts more than 75 years ago. And these times certainly bear similarities to those: Politicians aren't at all shy about invoking the Great Depression to fans the flames of Washington's legislative engine; in addition, there is unrest throughout the world, and millions of anxious Americans are looking to a popular new president for hope and help.

    In his book, "Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America," author Adam Cohen writes that "after assuring a despairing nation that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,' Roosevelt promised 'action, and action now.'"

    For President Obama, action there has been. In the first 48 hours of his presidency, Obama hit the ground running: He held meetings with key administration figures on his economic recovery plan, established a "daily economic briefing" as part of his standing schedule, signed an executive order to close the controversial terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year and announced the appointments of special envoys to deal with ongoing issues in the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    But there are notable differences between Roosevelt and Obama. Cohen writes that "a remarkable inaugural address" underpinned and paved the way for FDR's early moves in Congress, and desperate lawmakers gave FDR everything he wanted in those first 100 days. There was little remarkable about Obama's speech Tuesday, and by the time he delivered it, he had already fought his first tough –- though successful -– economic battle with the Senate.

    The period between election and inauguration allows the president-elect time to get his sea-legs, as it were. And Obama took full advantage of the transition, alternately flexing his political muscle and staying on the sidelines when he saw fit. He took a strong and visible role on the economy, making public statements about daily indicators and actively and personally participating in negotiations about the release of second half of the congressional bailout. But as Israel undertook military action in Gaza, Obama demurred, repeatedly repeating the mantra that there is "only one president at a time."

    All that changed at noon on Tuesday, when the affairs and safety and future of this country were entrusted in their entirety to President Barack Obama.

    Three days down ... 97 to go.

    Saturday, January 17, 2009

    Obama bears heavy burden of advancing King's dream

    (Originally published 1/17/09)

    Every presidential inauguration is an historic event.

    But Tuesday offers us history-plus, if that's possible, in a chance to bear eyewitness to an event that millions in this country never dared to imagine: A black American sworn into the presidency.

    History has an interesting way of weaving things together. Barack Obama's inauguration will take place the day after the United States celebrates the 80th anniversary of the birth of its foremost civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Race will figure prominently in events throughout inauguration weekend. There will be no end to the comparisons between Obama and President Abraham Lincoln and even to King himself.

    Obama won't shy from these comparisons: He'll swear in on the Bible that Lincoln used to take the oath of office and will likely borrow from King, as he did during the campaign, by invoking "the fierce urgency of now."

    Just about every journalist with a microphone or a laptop will gush about how President Obama is living proof of how far we’ve come on race relations in this country.

    Yes, Obama's election is progress. But a black president is not in itself the embodiment of King’s dream.

    On a sweltering August day in 1963, King told 250,000 Americans gathered on the Washington Mall about his dream for this country. In equal parts eloquence and passion, he described a nation where citizens of every color could live and work side by side; where character, not color, mattered; where social justice thrived and where no one is left "languishing in the corners of American society."

    Yes, the new president is surely incontrovertible evidence that the down payments of blood that were paid on a bridge in Selma and in the streets of Birmingham and in jail cells and busses and schools all across the South are paying their dividends of equality.

    But in looking at the country itself, we find new barriers –- social and cultural lines that have been drawn since King's speech –- that are incontrovertible evidence that his dream remains unrealized.

    King dreamed of a homogenous culture even in the face of racial diversity. He dreamed that one day, race would dissipate, then disappear altogether, as a driving factor in American culture –- even he supported race-conscious social policies like affirmative action as a means to achieve that end.

    I often wonder what MLK would have thought of our culture today. I like to think he would have concerned himself a lot more with the social realities of black Americans than how many black Americans coach college football teams.

    Obama's candidacy exposed the uncomfortable racial divide that continues to persist in America. He gave a powerful and poignant speech about it back in April, when white Americans struggled with what to make of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

    On Tuesday, Obama will take his place in the landscape of King's dream, but that dream will remain unfulfilled. As the scaffolding and bunting come down, and as cherry blossoms bloom and winter returns and midterms advance and Obama begins to run for re-election, it will fall to him to set an example and pursue public policies that will move that dream toward reality.

    Saturday, January 10, 2009

    Fed up with Legislature's jail food law

    (Originally published 1/10/09)

    Did you hear the one about the Alabama sheriff who was locked in his own jail because the food was so bad?

    Unfortunately, it isn’t a joke.

    Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett spent about 18 hours in county lockup Wednesday and Thursday after U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon found that Bartlett had failed to abide by a 2001 directive to provide more adequate meals for inmates.

    Morgan County’s nutrition consultant testified that the food on the menu was adequate for the prisoners. But The Huntsville Times reports that Bartlett admitted to modifying and making substitutions in the jail's typical weekly menu, which is designed to provide between 2,500 and 3,100 calories a day.

    In one instance, the sheriff got a good deal on corn dogs, buying an 18-wheeler load of them for $500. Inmates ate the fair food every day for months.

    Actually, I don't mind that arrangement. This is jail, after all, and food variety isn't part of the deal.

    My problem is with the incentive that drove the corn dog purchase.

    The state provides counties with jail food funds of $1.75 per inmate, per day. That isn't a lot for one meal, let alone three. But since 2006, Bartlett has fed prisoners for even less.

    The balance (or "leftovers," for those of you with dark humor) amounted to $212,000 -– and Bartlett took it home.

    Now, before you get all outraged at the sheriff, consider this: It's legal, thanks to your Alabama Legislature.

    Bartlett was jailed for the quality of the food, not for making money off the arrangement. That's because a 1939 state law allows sheriffs in 55 of Alabama's 67 counties to keep the money that's left after the inmates are fed.

    Given the cost of food these days, I suspect that Bartlett's cash cow is unique. I would guess that more sheriffs are struggling to meet their obligations with $1.75 per inmate per day than are walking home with what amounts to six-figure bonuses.

    But even if inmates aren't being systematically underfed to pad the pockets of their jailers, the principle behind the law that allows it remains a problem.

    Legislators who wrote this law probably considered it an incentive for law enforcement officials to be frugal with taxpayers' dollars. (Either that, or a bunch of them later became sheriffs.)

    But those are still taxpayers' dollars, regardless of whether they're spent for their intended purpose. If sheriffs can meet their obligations with less than what the state provides, the remainder should be redirected to some other public need. And considering the sorry state of public funding these days, there are plenty of worthy public needs.

    In his get-out-of-jail agreement with Clemon, Bartlett agreed to use all the money he receives to feed prisoners for that exclusive purpose. But this overreaching heavy-handedness holds Morgan County to a different standard than the rest of the state.

    Lawmakers can easily fix this in the coming legislative session by simply requiring either the return of remainder funds to the state or their reinvestment into local law enforcement budgets.

    If they fail to do so, the joke will be on us.

    Saturday, January 3, 2009

    Government bailout of newspapers tempting, but dangerous

    (Originally published 1/3/09)

    Bristol, Conn.: Home to ESPN, The Bristol Press and Ground Zero in the fight to save American newspapers.

    Like every other media company, The Press's owner, Journal Register, is drowning in rising newsprint costs and declining circulation and ad revenue, factors magnified and multiplied by the tanking economy. As a result, JR owners say they can't afford to keep The Press and its nearby counterpart, The New Britain Herald, open.

    Enter Connecticut state assemblyman Frank Nicastro.

    Reuters reported this week that the lawmaker and some colleagues don't want to see the newspapers founder, so they're asking the state government for help. In response, the state's economic development arm is offering tax breaks, training funds, financing opportunities and other incentives for publishers, but not cash.

    Supporters of the move say there is precedent for government action to protect newspapers: The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 paved the way for joint operating agreements to help competing dailies in metro areas, and the U.S. Postal Service offers discounted postage rates.

    Likewise, Nicastro says, Connecticut's assistance is being offered to protect newspapers' ability to serve as taxpayers' advocates, not to usurp it.

    As newspapers continue to hemorrhage people and cash, a few folks in the industry are considering the government lifeline. Yes, newspapers jealously guard their independence from government for the sake of their sacrosanct mission. But how noble is that commitment, they ask, if no newspapers are left to fulfill that mission?

    I've struggled with this issue all week. I'm the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers; I don't want to see them die. They serve an oversight purpose that no other organization can -– or will. If newspapers die, who will dig out the connections between legislators and the state two-year college system? Who will keep an eye on City Council for you? Who will examine that new garbage contract for possible conflicts of interest, tell you about new business openings and what caused that fire down the street?

    But I can't make myself believe that a government lifeline is the solution. If newspapers take a government bailout, how can they report on those bailouts -– or anything else the government is doing?

    As Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch told Reuters, "You can't expect a watchdog to bite the hand that feeds it."

    As much as I hate to see newspapers go under –- and many probably will in 2009 -– I have to believe, as I did with the Big Three bailout, that bankruptcy won't kill the product. It will simply regenerate in a different –- and better –- form.

    I hope industry bankruptcy will bring an eventual return of the locally owned and operated daily newspaper. No one knows your community like the people who live there, and your need for news won't die with the corporate media conglomerate. So when the corporate media conglomerate goes under, your neighbors will be there to pick up the pieces.

    Yes, the newspaper industry is worth saving. But as I said on the blog last month, as other industries clamor for government bailouts to ensure their survival, it is actually the procurement, not the denial, of government funds that would seal the American newspaper's demise.