WHEN DID I GET SO OLD? (PART II)

In the last post, I talked about some of the things that have had a profound effect both on our society and on me personally during the first 30-odd years of my life.  With that as background, any reader should keep in mind that when I speak of the effects on me, what you read is the unvarnished truth.  What you read about society in general is subject to one’s point of view, to a degree, so you’re  reading my opinion, willingly labeled as such.  You may disagree.

The 80’s

By the advent of the 1980’s I was a full-fledged adult, with all the attendant ambitions, obstacles, and cares that afflict all of us.  The decade’s civic scene began to unfurl with the 1980 elections, pitting President Carter against the former governor of California, Ronald Wilson Reagan.  Carter had not had a “good” term as president.  The shadow of the Iranian hostage crisis, 444 days of American diplomats being paraded in front of TV cameras as props to Iranian “revolutionary” talk.  Carter at one point ordered a military rescue attempt, which failed.  Reagan railed all through the months of campaigning about how this should never have happened and wouldn’t, under Reagan’s leadership.

In the end, Reagan, with some help from Carter himself, succeeded in persuading many voters that Carter was simply not up to the job of running the country.  Stumbles over the Iran situation and the failed rescue attempt stacked the deck in Reagan’s favor.  Reagan also struck many as a very affable, though tough-minded, sort–one who would not let the United States be pushed around on the world stage.  He was seen as a strong backer of the US military forces arrayed around the world.  This appeal was aided by the impression that the US economy, which by the 80’s had begun losing jobs to cheap foreign labor markets, would thrive under his stewardship.  Millions of blue-collar voters who had formerly been staunchly Democratic flocked to this “feel-good” message.  Perhaps emblematic of Reagan’s overall philosophy was his enthusiastic peddling of something called the “Laffer Curve,” an economic theory that speculated that government revenues would rise if taxes were lowered.  Seemingly self-contradictory on its face, nonetheless, it received serious discussion.  David Stockman, the (then) young economic Svengali of Reagan troops, endorsed it, though he later was caught calling it “voodoo economics.”

The Reagan years were a mix of intervention abroad, a diminished economy at home, and an immune-to-blame president who smiled through it all.  Notable missteps during Reagan’s years included putting ashore several hundred Marines in Beirut, Lebanon,  at the time the scene of hot conflict among Israel, the stateless Palestinians, and shifting allies of both; almost 300 US servicemen died in a terrorist truck bombing of their quarters.  Also, his administration cooked up a complex three-cornered deal under which Iran (the same country which had seized US diplomats as hostages and was proclaiming everlasting hostility to US policy) would receive US weaponry in exchange for funds that would be funneled to the contras from Nicaragua (a group of Nicaraguans supposedly dedicated to the overthrow of the “socialist” Sandinista government of that country; their leadership lived principally in Miami, from where they gave rousing speeches to their adherents and collected aid from the US).  At the center of this quagmire was the bumbling Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who gained belated and unwelcome fame some time after the fact when it became known that he had traveled secretly to Iran as Reagan’s personal representative, bearing a cake shaped like a key.

The country passed through the Reagan years and his vice-president, George Bush, became the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1988.  Bush won in the reflected glow of Reagan, who was somehow now in the early stages of canonization by Republicans, and by Bush’s aggressive smears of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, who, as governor of Massachusetts, had permitted the early release of a criminal named Willie Horton, who then killed someone.  Thus Dukakis was never able to escape the label of “soft on crime,” and as in the Nixon campaign of 1968, it became a drag on the entire national Democratic slate.

Good things of the 80’s: little that I can remember.  The Soviet Union imploded, largely because its economy was too small for the arms race it was in with the US.  Republicans to this day and probably into the distant future claim that Ronald Reagan was solely responsible, but that seems to me to be a lot like saying a rooster is responsible for the sunrise.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is not always good logic.  Successive administrations since Truman’s had authorized and spent the huge amounts of money for the arms race that eventually bankrupted the USSR.

Bad things: an aggressive, poorly thought-out and poorly executed foreign policy on the part of the USA.  The rise of an economic school of thought that held that there were no proper constraints on acquisition of wealth, and that those left behind in this quest on the part of some were left behind strictly because they lacked ambition or the intention to work hard.  Oh, and taxation of profit was inherently evil.

Personal: I left teaching to enter the US State Department’s Foreign Service, to the consternation of many family members.  I can still recall my beloved grandmother asking me sternly, “Why in hell would anyone want to go and live in those damned foreign countries?”  I didn’t try to change her mind.  I took my own skill set (passable knowledge of two foreign languages; a lot of curiosity) off to Washington and became an FSO (Foreign Service Officer).

The 90’s

I was outside the country for the entire decade except for short visits to the US for vacation or training, so I will concede that I am not the best person to evaluate what was happening in the United States, but it seems evident that the 90’s were the decade of Clinton, for good or ill, love him or hate him.  He defeated President George H. W. Bush in 1992, and a substantial part of the US public lost its connection to reality.  Polarization not only continued but deepened as talk radio saw the advent of Rush Limbaugh and several like-minded talkers who labored incessantly to convince John Q. Public that Clinton was evil incarnate and guilty of basically anything they could think of.  The Republicans went so far as to impeach President Clinton on flimsy, unserious charges.  The impeachment effort failed, having wasted countless legislative hours and millions of dollars.

I did, however, see firsthand  how other countries see us.  It  is practically an article of faith in the Dominican Republic that in one of the several interventions there by US Marines in the early 20th century, the Marines found large deposits of oil, and capped them to wait for a US takeover when necessary.  The Democrats’ loss of their Congressional majorities in 1994 was reported in Zaire (now Congo again) as the result of Clinton’s Zaire policy.  I personally think that roughly 75% of the American public would be hard-pressed to find Zaire/Congo on a map.  There are more, but…some other time.

Bad things from the 90’s: the appearance of Fox “news,” which loves to proclaim “We report, you decide.”  Translation “We editorialize, you repeat.”

Good things: Not all that much, but Wall Street largely slipped its leash and started playing games with the nation’s money.  The boom was good while it lasted.

Good things and bad things: widespread use of computers and cellphones.  Too much exposition for  a brief blog post.

Personal: I advanced in my career and my kids grew up.  Pretty boring stuff for the reader.

The 21st century

You know, I can’t go on with this; it’s too much for a blog, I’m tired, and I’m sure the reader is bored. We’ve seen two presidential administrations this century, one glaringly incompetent, the other unable to gain any support from the opposition party for any action, because, you know, the President is a Muslim or a foreigner or a socialist.  Or something.  You could look it up.  On Breitbart.  Or somewhere.  Or tune in to Fox News.  Yeah, that’s it, Fox News.

Bad things: too many to list, but Dick Cheney is enough for a lifetime of nightmares.  The internet, where suddenly millions of people with nothing intelligent to say spend all day saying it.

Personal: I’m now retired and I have time to write a blog!  I promise I’m not one of those with nothing intelligent to say.

 

WHEN DID I GET SO OLD? (PART I)

In recent  months, and in a phenomenon that I am sure is not unique to me, I have been flooded with things (say, a new Star Wars movie) that cause a flood of memories as this reminds me of that which was happening at the same time as that other thing and pretty soon I am pondering a slew of happenings that were the focus of my life, even if briefly, oh, so many years ago.  Things like these…

Childhood: the 1950’s

When I was four, Americans elected as President a man millions had called “General Eisenhower” a few years before.  Now they called him “Ike” and it seemed the adults “liked” him, but a little bit the way we “like” things on Facebook today.  They didn’t really know him, but it seemed they trusted him with the country.  That all worked out OK, I guess; he got us “out” of Korea, or at least out of the shooting war that was Korea at the time.  Another good thing: he warned as he left office of something he called the “military-industrial complex.,” a prophetic utterance if there ever was one.

He forfeited, in retrospect,  all the good will, though, by reaching down into Republican ranks to get a little-known Republican senator from California, Richard Nixon, as his vice-presidential running mate.  We’ve been paying for that one for decades.

Good things about the decade: cheap gasoline, full employment, the start of the interstate highway system, the WWII veterans moving into positions of responsibility and visibility.  A country not of 48 states any more, but 50, adding Alaska and Hawaii.

Bad things: the “Red” (i. e., Communist) scare, which propelled another obscure Senator (Joseph McCarthy) to prominence, largely for seeing Communists all around him, and coincidentally had my schoolmates and me practicing surviving a Russian atomic attack by hiding under our desks and covering our necks.  The Cincinnati pro baseball team went from the nickname of “Reds” to “Redlegs.”  No, no, Senator, no godless Commies in this dugout.

Later childhood and early adult years: the 60’s

Where do we start?  Americans chose the first President who had been born in the 20th century and one of the youngest ever in John Kennedy.  He also had a wife with movie star looks who spoke French.  The pair were American royalty while Camelot lasted: Kennedy had feet of clay, or maybe just a common eye for the ladies, but he was new and exciting.  He stared down the older and more experienced Nikita Khrushchev to conclude the Cuban missile crisis.  He also became the first example for me and my same-age cohort of an assassinated leader in 1963.  Lyndon Johnson took over, and in about a year and a few months, had committed thousands of young Americans to jungle warfare in far-off Vietnam.  Not good.

1968 was perhaps the most pivotal year of my life.  I passed a draft physical as thousands shouted “Hell, no, we won’t go.”  I went a little crazy for a British blues trio called Cream (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce).  A different Senator McCarthy (Eugene) decided to challenge President Johnston in the Democratic primaries and drew enough support that Johnston decided to leave office at the end of his one elected term.  The election of 1968 saw the return of Nixon (yes, HIM again) vs. Hubert Humphrey and the third-party candidacy of former Alabama Governor George Wallace.  Nixon won and then began courting the racially tilted Wallace voters for next time.  As the year closed, I had entered the military–the Navy, in my case, after a family tradition .

The decade’s “good” things: The music!  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Zombies, Kinks, and more rocked from Britain.  Protest music (Dylan, The Eve of Destruction) answered from this side of the Atlantic and the Beach Boys showed a Pacific Coast sound.  The beginnings of a true diversity in public life.  The advances of the civil rights movement.  The Voting Rights Act.  A vigorous reaction to Soviet adventurism.

Bad things: The real beginnings of our current polarization in politics.  The apex of the military misadventure in Vietnam, which would eventually claim 55,000 American lives while our political leadership dithered, with no one wanting to be responsible for the first war the U.S. ever lost.  The assassination of John Kennedy’s brother, senator Robert Kennedy, and of prominent African-American civil rights advocates Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, and African-American icon and firebrand Malcolm X.

Coming of age: the 70’s

Late in this decade, I left my 20’s behind and began my 30’s.  I heard myself called “Dad” for the first time (a very sobering experience), and the country, similarly, continued through tremendous changes.

The 70’s, probably more than  any other time in the country’s life, was characterized by crises, one after another, and by leadership that proved not to be up to those crises. In the 1972 election campaign (which Nixon won overwhelmingly), operatives of something called “The Committee to Re-Elect the President” were paid to commit breaking and entering at the Democratic National Headquarters to plant listening devices.  A long series of lies and distortions designed to insulate Nixon from anything so tawdry eventually led to articles of impeachment passing the House; finding that conviction in the Senate was virtually inevitable, Nixon resigned in disgrace rather than face the music.

Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, had earlier been investigated by the FBI on charges that he had accepted graft from his days as Governor of Maryland through his term as VP; he was charged and pled nolo contendere, a nice way of avoiding trial by accepting a punishment but “admitting” no wrongdoing; he had been replaced as VP by Gerald Ford, who had never run nationally at that point, but was the sitting VP, and so succeeded Nixon in 1974.

So we had the first ever president who had never run for either president or vice-president; he was well-known to the country as the Speaker of the House, and got an enormous dose of good will upon ascending to the presidency, after two years of investigations, testimony, and sordid revelations.  Within a few days, Ford had squandered that good will by pardoning Nixon before the latter could be charged or tried for any crime.  Saying “Our long national nightmare is over,” Ford apparently thought he had relegated the whole affair to the history books.  He was wrong.  He kept most of Nixon’s cabinet and served an undistinguished couple of years as president, though he did preside over the end of US involvement in Vietnam; despite years of slogans centering on “peace with honor,” Americans were, in 1975, treated to television news footage of the US Embassy in Saigon’s evacuation by helicopter as the city was overrun by Viet Cong forces.

1976 saw the nearly unknown ex-Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter smile and “plain folks” his way to the Democratic Presidential nomination and then to victory over Ford in November, but not before Ford was significantly weakened by a challenge to him as the party’s choice as nominee.  The challenger: the former B-movie star and California Governor, Ronald Reagan.  We’ll talk about him (a lot) in the next decade.

Carter was honorable but not seen as strong by many, and was unfortunate enough to be in office at the time of a convergence of events in far-off Iran that eventually tarnished and ended his presidency.  A shah had ruled despotically there for over 20 years after seizing power in a CIA-backed coup designed to make Iranian oil safe for Western oil companies during Eisenhower’s presidency.  The shah’s favored methods for maintaining control included an active domestic secret police who were experts in torture, maiming, and political intimidation through murder.  The Iranian in the street never forgot US interference in placing the shah in power, and when he sought cancer treatment in the US and other countries, a coup overthrew him and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini in the seat of power, as a mob stormed the US embassy and took the diplomats hostage in 1979, holding them until Carter left office following his loss in the presidential election of 1980.  The electorate, as usual, wanted Carter to “do something” and felt the US had been humiliated.

During this decade, I entered, and graduated from, college, and entered a career in teaching.  Events just kept on washing over me.  I started to think about another career, but at this stage it was only a thought.

Good things in the 70’s: Continued great music.  Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rush, and others, despite disco.  The beginning of the Star Wars phenomenon.

Bad things: Political messes, widespread drug abuse, the Japanese near-takeover of the US car industry, the beginning of the “Rust Belt” depopulation phenomenon.  And many more.

In Part II, I’ll talk about subsequent decades.

PRIMARIES ARE REALLY SECONDARY

I promised to say how I thought we might do better…

In my last post, I advanced the idea that primaries were not a very good way to choose party candidates for president, but I also said that we could do better.  Here are a few thoughts on how that might be the case.

Primary elections have become a way for the media to present the major parties’ choosing candidates as if the whole thing were a horse race or the NFL playoffs, complete with scores, substitutions (on the candidates’ management teams), and even talk of upcoming crucial contests.  After the early “Big Two” of Iowa and New Hampshire, all media eyes will shift to South Carolina.  Later major coverage will be devoted to other states, all of which will be described by some talking heads as “crucial tests” for one candidate or another.  Maybe.  But then, not likely.

South Carolina makes a very illustrative case study.  Care to guess how often since 1960 a Democrat has carried that state in a general election?  Twice: in 1960 (Kennedy) and 1976 (Carter).  The former was the last election before the South in general realigned Republican in a spasm of reaction to Civil Rights legislation, and the latter was the election of a Southerner who was a professed “outsider” to the ways of Washington, D. C.–which had recently included Watergate and a President (Nixon) who resigned rather than face certain impeachment and removal from office.  What would you call the eventual Democratic nominee’s chances of winning South Carolina’s nine electoral votes in 2016?  As my late grandmother was fond of saying, two chances: slim and none.

So why have a contested Democratic primary election there at all?  It is not required by federal law–it’s not an election at all, but a preference poll, the winner of which will get some delegates  pledging to support that nominee at the party convention, the place where the real party choice is  made.

Need another example?  Let’s pick a state just as out-of-reach for Republicans as South Carolina is for Democrats.  A state like Hawaii.  Since Hawaii has been a state (1959) it has voted for a Republican president twice, in 1972 and 1984.  In both instances, this was a second-term landslide in favor of the incumbent President, the former for Nixon and the latter for Reagan.  To its credit, Hawaii does not put on a Presidential primary at all.

It is a waste of time, money, staff, and energy to have a primary in these two states, as well as in others.  Democrats in Wyoming?  You could get them all in one hotel lobby.  Republicans in Vermont?  They used to win, but have not done so in the general election since 1988, and indeed, their best showing since then was in 2000, when George W. Bush polled 40.7%.

The party elders from each major party should decide in any given year whether any single state should host the quadrennial circus known as a Presidential primary,  Certain states–currently, say, California, New York, Florida, and maybe Texas probably should have them just to test the candidates’ appeal in a large-scale vote.  Others–Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, for example, carry enough allure as bellwethers to merit the bother of primaries.  Otherwise, state party committees should be doing the picking of delegates to the national convention, and their choices will have less to do with passionate commitment than with the effect a particular candidate will have “downticket”–on the party candidates in other elections that take place concurrently with the Presidential.

Undoubtedly, you have some better idea.  Put it forth, please.  I don’t relish one more election cycle with 100 appearances per candidate in Iowa.

PRESIDENT OF IOWA? NEW HAMPSHIRE?

The current system used by both political parties to choose a Presidential nominee is both wasteful and unrepresentative.  We can do better.

I promised my wife–and any readers–a break from politics this time.  So this post is not about politics.  It’s about civics–how the election process has become a cash cow for political consultants, advertisers, media, and the hospitality industry, while accomplishing little of use in choosing national candidates.

The media are full of stories about how one candidate or another is “polling well” or “lagging” in Iowa, in reference to local party caucuses that will be held in that state two months from now.  Here’s a primer on that event: we’ll look at the Republican side here.  The Democratic side is similar in outline, although even more complex in some ways.  The Republicans meet voluntarily in local gatherings, and, starting in 2016, must declare a preference for, and are then bound to, a particular candidate.

The local caucus (there are over 1000 of these) meet only to choose delegates to district or county conventions, held at a later time.  Iowa has 99 counties.  The county or district conventions, in turn, choose delegates to a state convention, which is held months later.  So you can speechify all you want at your local caucus in favor of Congressman Windbag, but unless your candidate is still showing a pulse later, much nearer to the national convention, you will have wasted your time in a preliminary to the preliminary which is a preliminary to the national event, where the news might be someone who was not even a candidate when the local caucuses took place.

New Hampshire?  Media cover this as if it were a do-or-die event, but New Hampshire votes in its primary in early February, when conditions might well resemble those of Antarctica.  Say what you like about how seriously New Hampshire voters take their outsize “responsibility” toward both national parties and turn out to vote; this is not a recipe for “participatory democracy,” as we often hear.  We also hear how important it is for each New Hampshire native to meet each candidate personally at some point at some rustic diner for pancakes and sausage.  Is this a serious recipe for voters to inform themselves about candidates, or candidates (as they often insist) who want to “get to know” the voters?

Need more?  Let’s look at some demographics, just to see if one of these states is some microcosm of the country at large.  The US is estimated today to have a population of 320,000,000.  Iowa has 3,107,000, or less than 1% of the US total.  New Hampshire has 1,327,000, or less than half of 1%.  Urban areas where many federal programs are most important?  Iowa’s biggest is Des Moines, at 207,150.  Manchester is New Hampshire’s largest at 110,448.  The foreign-born population of the United States stands at 12.9%, while in Iowa, it’s 4.1%, and in New Hampshire, 5.4%.  African-American population?  US, 13.2%, Iowa, 2.9%, and New Hampshire, 1.1%.  (Note: all figures quoted here are drawn from Wikipedia and are estimates from 2010 to 2014.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not putting together a Ph.D. thesis here!)  So while there’s nothing wrong with being more native-born, and more white than the country at large, these facts and more mean that these two states are not a microcosm of the overall electorate. While New Hampshire has come down in primary elections in favor of the eventual nominees recently, Iowa went to (wait for it…) Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008.

So why are these two states holding political contests before anyone else?  Glad you asked.  Pay attention to how many field campaign operatives are quartered in each of these two states for the next year, as well as the number of consultants, spin masters, and media representatives file reports from Dubuque or Keene.  Then pay attention to how often you hear of these places after the event is over.  Each one of these folks are paying for lodging, food, and incidentals and each one is pumping that revenue from a national campaign or a news organization into local coffers, most of which will dry up soon after.

So why doesn’t another state try to get in on this gravy train?  Ah, but they have.  Florida recently moved its primary up to an early date, and the national Republican organization reacted by sanctioning Florida and taking away some of its representation at the summer convention.  Why?  You can guess– people who own hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that profit from the coverage and competitiveness of the early contests set up a howl with their state party organizations, who  in turn set up a howl with the national organizations.  And the national organizations do not want to anger business owners/voters/ contributors.  They gave in, and the status quo ante prevailed.  In politics as in life, money talks.  In fact, it talks louder in politics.

How can we do better?  That’s the subject of another day.  Soon.