Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Morning After

So how'd he do? Well, the new president seemed to take much of an expert on political rhetoric, Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson's, advice on inaugural speeches to heart. He kept his speech short, under 1,500 words with a run time of just over fifteen minutes. Although he trumpeted bullet points from the campaign, he refrained from reliving it, thank God. He also used the pronoun"we" instead of "I" so often that it seemed to be a parody of common sense. Of those 1,400 words, he uttered the word "we" over fifty times. "We will do this", "we will do that", "we are grateful to President Obama and the First Lady" and the ever popular "we will make America great again". Frankly it was difficult to tell if he was using we to mean "we the people" or "we" as in the regal we, the way a monarch uses the word "we" to actually mean "I".

He did manage to fulfill another of Prof. Jamieson's requirements of a good kick off speech, to get in this line:
We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.
In my opinion it's a good sentence, paying lip service to unification. But given his divisive history. frankly there wasn't much else in the speech pointing in the direction of bringing together the American people. He did keep mentioning something about returning the government back to the people, but he didn't clarify what that means or how he intends to do it. Given that his cabinet picks do nothing to indicate that the government under his watch will not be run by an elite oligarchy of billionaires, those words have a very empty ring to them.

As he did in the campaign, the new president took pains to paint an unrealistically bleak picture of this country. Here's the assessment of the state of the union vs. Trumpspeak reality courtesy of FactCheck.org. Not surprisingly, that organization found much of the president's descriptions of the state of the country at the moment to be sheer nonsense.

The phrase from the speech that stood out to me was this:
...an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge...
With a mother who is a retired public school principal and two children who are currently attending public school, I can personally vouch for the fact that our education system is NOT flush with cash. That having been said, I also know that simply spending more money won't fix the problem of educating the youth of this country. However the president's remarks clearly reflect the attitude of tax payers with no children in public school, resenting the fact that they have to pay money for those who do. His choice for Secretary of Education is a poster child for these folks, and will clearly not improve the lives of the children of the "mothers who are trapped in the inner cities", the rest of us who firmly believe in a public school education for our children, and ultimately of the whole nation whose children, aka our future, will be ill equipped to compete with those from countries around the world for whom the education of all its children is a top priority.

The one bit of advice of Professor Jamieson's that the president completely ignored was the one I felt was the most important, the part about affirming the limitations of his power. Nowhere in his speech does he refer to the constitution, or working within the rule of law to achieve his lofty, unrealistic promises to the American people. In Cleveland last summer he made the unbelievable remark that only he could fix the problems we face today, and in his inaugural address to the nation, he seemed to affirm that statement, despite his laughable overuse of the word "we".

I find this very disturbing.

I said in my last post that the president might do himself a favor by delivering a forgettable speech. As the FactCheck.org piece begins. like many of his predecessors, he did indeed serve up a "blend of broad platitudes and generalities to lay out (his) vision." In that vein it certainly will not go down in history as a high point in the annals of American rhetoric.

Yet by the dystopian picture of the America that exists in his dreams (and those apparently of  his supporters) that he insists on portraying, and in failing to mention the role of president as servant of the people bound by laws spelled out by our constitution, I can only describe yesterday's inaugural address, forgetable as it certainly will become, as, in one of the president's favorite terms, a disaster.

The good news is that today, on the morning after the first day of the new administration, hundreds of thousands, no check that, millions of people are marching in the streets of this country, and countless others around the world, letting the new president know they are watching his every move. This is democracy at work. If you don't like it, you'd better get used to it.

Yesterday may have been the dawning of the age of incompetence, but today marks the dawning of the end of complacency.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

Every four years, January 20, is a date of tremendous consequence to the American people. It is of course the date set aside after an election, for the inauguration of the president. It is of even more consequence on days such as today, when a new president of a different party takes the oath of office on the steps of US Capitol in Washington DC as it represents the peaceful transition of power, something we take for granted in this country, but shouldn't.

The first such peaceful transition of executive power from one party to another in the United States took place on March 4, (the date originally stipulated by the Constitution to be inauguration day), 1801. During the 1800 election, the Republican (in essence, today's Democratic Party) Thomas Jefferson, defeated Federalist John Adams in what many accounts tell us, was an even more contentious election than the one we just experienced.

In his inaugural address, Jefferson's first job was to heal a nation torn apart. while confirming his own convictions. In doing so, he defined the very essence of our democratic republic.  In that, his first of two inaugural addresses, Jefferson said this:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions... 
...every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. 
...Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.  
It's easy for us to forget today that the survival of the nation was very much in doubt in Jefferson's time, and those words, along with practically everything else the man ever said or wrote, went a long way to forge the bonds that tie this nation together to this day.

A new president, whomever that person should be, would do well to keep in mind the life and times of this nation, and the struggles of his (and eventually her) predecessors to create and sustain it.

You might think a good place to start one's study of the history of the presidency of the United States would be to look through the inaugural addresses of the presidents. One president, James Garfield, did just that before he took his oath of office on March 4, 1881. I have no idea if anyone knows for certain if our 20th president felt that was time well spent, but the general consensus of most historians is that the majority of presidents' first speeches to the nation are imminently forgettable. President Garfield probably could have done himself a favor by looking elsewhere for inspiration as despite addressing a few noble causes, his own inaugural address, does not rate very well. even among the generally low company it keeps.

Of course there are exceptions, addresses delivered to the nation by extraordinary men in extraordinary times, which constitute some of the most profound utterances in American history.

If I were about to become president, (something the entire nation and world should be deliriously happy will never happen), one of the things I would do to prepare myself before my inaugural address, would be to do something I've done quite often, take a stroll through our nation's capital. In the footsteps of every president who governed from there (with the ironic exception of the man for whom the city is named), inspiration to find the appropriate first words to the nation should be easy to find.

I'd start at perhaps the loveliest monument in town, at least from a distance, the Jefferson Memorial. There you can find inscribed many of the great man's words inscribed inside the Roman inspired temple designed by John Russell Pope. Unfortunately many of those words are taken out of context and made to fit in with the spirit of the time the monument was built. A better place to study the actual words of Jefferson would be a couple miles away at the Library of Congress. On our third president, our 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, while addressing an assembly of Nobel Prize winners said this:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. 
Jefferson's first inaugural address is on the short list of most historians' best of the best presidential inaugural addresses list. Here you can read the speech in its entirety.

Across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Monument, sits the new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a lovely park setting. This monument, designed by the esteemed landscape architect, Lawrence Halprin, true to the didactic nature of our modern national monuments, depicts many of the enormous historic events that took place during Roosevelt's presidency. I wrote in depth about the monument here.

One of the most famous catch phrases of any presidential speech, comes at the beginning of FDR's first inaugural address when he told a struggling nation well into the grips of the Great Depression on March 4, 1933 :
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. 
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
The whole truth be told, I've heard rumors that the "fear itself" line was lifted by Roosevelt's speechwriter from a newspaper ad. Nonetheless, FDR's first inaugural went along way to lift the spirit, if not necessarily the pocketbooks, of this nation's citizens.

Here is a recording of entire address:



Not too far from the Roosevelt memorial is a collection of the most enduring and powerful monuments to the American experience to be found anywhere. First you come upon two fairly recent war memorials, devoted to the Korean and Vietnam Wars. You can read about them here. Steps from there is the memorial to perhaps our greatest president (depending upon  the geographical region in which you were born), Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Memorial, designed by Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922,, is our nation's most recognizable, and thought provoking monument. More than a monument, the building has served as the setting for some of the most important gatherings of citizens since its nearly 100 years of existence. As such the building, and its environs, are for Americans, hallowed ground, the de facto hearth of our democracy.

A testimony to its enduring legacy, you will find four words chiseled into the top step of the Lincoln Memorial, that have nothing, yet everything to do with the 16th president. Those words are "I HAVE A DREAM." Those words refer to a moment in time, not an inaugural address, to a man, not a US president, and to a people, not the whole citizenry of the United States, but a group of people for whom the guarantees, privileges and promises of the US Constitution did not apply. It was from those steps that Martin Luther King demanded that the "promissory note" signed by the Founding Fathers in the form of the US Constitution be cashed in, exactly 100 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Inside the memorial is Daniel Chester French's iconic statue of the seated Lincoln. Flanking him on either side are the texts of two of his greatest speeches. To Lincoln's right, on the south wall of the monument is inscribed his Gettysburg Address, to his left, the text of probably the greatest inaugural address ever given, Lincoln's Second Inaugural.

Abraham Lincoln delivering his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

The speech was delivered precisely one month and five days before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Rather than gloating on an imminent magnificent victory, Lincoln's speech is one of sorrow and self reflection.  He spoke of suffering and the tremendous price both sides paid for waging war. He spoke of God's judgement on the American people, not just the Confederates, a result of subjecting one eighth of the entire population of the country to slavery:
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
Despite every indication that the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln resigned himself to the idea that we as a nation were helpless before God's wrath:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With that in mind Abraham Lincoln closes one of the shortest inaugural addresses in history with these most remarkable words of reconciliation and healing:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Reflecting his desire for reconciliation, Lincoln's Memorial is situated on the banks of the Potomac River which separates the District of Columbia, from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Just across the river atop a hill in Arlington, VA, sits the former home of none other than Robert E. Lee. During the Civil War, Lee's property and much of  the surrounding region were occupied by the Union and to spite the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, and chief general of the Confederate Sates, the federal government allocated his land to become Arlington National Cemetery. It would later become this country's premier military cemetery.

Today, to  reach Arlington National Cemetery from the Lincoln Memorial one needs only to cross McKim Mead and White's Memorial Bridge, a structure as symbolic as it is beautiful. Entering the cemetery you are confronted by tens of thousands of gravestones making the final resting places of men and women who served in this nation's armed forces. On each stone is carved either a cross, a Star of David, or a star and crescent, symbolizing the creed of the fallen soldier, sailor, airman or marine. Just below Lee's home is the final resting place of John F. Kennedy. The eternal flame marking his grave can be seen across the river from the Lincoln Memorial at night.

Perhaps no inaugural speech was as moving or as inspiring as Kennedy's. The old world order was rapidly changing and Kennedy, the first president born in the 20th century, grasped that concept, as well as a deep understanding of where we came from, at the outset of his speech:  
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Kennedy pledged to break the bonds of oppression throughout the world...
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom-and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
...and took the moral high ground:
To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
All the while understanding the risks of all out war in the age of the atom bomb:
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction...
...So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
JFK's inaugural speech, while speaking of the past, continually looked forward:
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And instead of making promises, he made demands of selflessness and sacrifice:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Here's a video of the inauguration address of John F. Kennedy:




The remarkable thing about all great speeches is the way they speak to us today, decades or even centuries after they were crafted.

Here's an interesting piece from the online journal Vox, with a video featuring Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and author of the book: Presidents Creating the Presidency: Deeds Done in Words.

In the video, Professor Jamieson lists three aspects that make for a great inauguration speech. In that speech, the newly sworn in  president should aim to: Unify the country, share principles (rather than policy), and perhaps most importantly, affirm limitations.

Check, check and check for the speeches listed above.

Then she gives three pieces of advice to the speech givers: Keep it short, forget the campaign, and use the pronoun "we", rather than "I".

Ditto.

It would seem that her comments might be specifically directed at the man about to take the oath of office today. After some truly reprehensible behavior during the campaign, he showed some promise after the election, being conciliatory, and pledging to be the president of all Americans. Sadly he slipped back into his old, bad habits and spent most of his time as president-elect as if he were still on the campaign trail. Today he finds himself in the unenviable position of having a lower approval rate on the eve of his inauguration, than on the day after the election.

Despite the vast number of Americans who pledge to do anything but watch the inauguration today, the new president can do himself a huge favor by taking heed of Professor Jamieson's advice. No one expects him to deliver a speech of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy caliber.

The truth be told, his address today needn't be memorable, in fact, given his nature, and the history of presidential inauguration speeches, it would be far better for him if it were not memorable at all.

The good news for our future president is that he has set the bar remarkably low for himself. All he really has to do today is show a modicum of humility, make at least a token effort to bridge the tremendous chasm he has created between himself, his supporters, and the opposition, and for God's sake let the world know he intends to respect the rule of law and common decency as far as the next four years are concerned.

Now is that too much to ask of the President of the United States?

We've come so far low we cannot possibly accept anything less.


Monday, January 16, 2017

John Lewis

The current mantra among people who voted for the president elect is that we folks who object to his ascension to the highest office in the land are "sore losers". Other less than complimentary epithets thrown our way are whiners, babies, snowflakes, and hypocrites, among other names, many of them unmentionable. "We lived through eight years of Barack Obama,.." a recurring theme in their arsenal of parental admonishments goes, "...so you can live through this." 

Well you know what? In a sense, they're right. During the election, supporters of Hillary Clinton, including myself, were aghast by our opponents' claim that the election was somehow rigged. We chastised them for saying that if their man lost, they would not accept the outcome of the election.

More than once in this space I wrote about how our democracy depends upon the minority accepting the will of the majority in an election, and in return, the majority accepts the constitutional rights of the minority.

Of course I didn't account for the Electoral College which this year determined that the candidate with the fewest popular votes, almost three million of them, in other words, the minority, would win.

I also didn't take into account the truly bizarre behavior of the director of the FBI who just days before the election stated publicly that his department was re-opening its investigation of Hillary Clinton, even though he had to admit, after the damage was done, that there was no new evidence against her.

Nor did I know at the time that the Russian government was committing serious hanky panky, hacking into the election, and doing everything they could to ensure that the Republican candidate, whom they appear to have some control over, would win the election.

Since I have absolutely no evidence that the outcome of the election would have been different had it not been for James Comey and Vladimir Putin, and since I accept the Electoral College, at least on principal, despite its idiosyncrasies, I believe the man who is about to be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, will be the legitimate president.

In respect to semantics, and in that respect only, do I disagree with John Lewis, the Congressman from the 5th District in Georgia.

Representative Lewis you may recall, in response to an interviewer's question about why he plans not to attend the inauguration ceremony this coming Friday in Washington, answered that he did not accept the man to be inaugurated, as the legitimate president. The reasons he gave were the same ones I stated above, and a few others.

As you can imagine, our soon-to-be tweeter-in-chief was none too pleased by Rep. Lewis's remarks and had some choice words for him via his Twitter account. So upset was he that his comments exceeded the 140 character tweet limit, and required two tweets to do the job. Here's what he said tweet by tweet:

Tweet one:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......
Tweet two:
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!
I didn't think it was possible, but in those two tweets, our next president may have outdone even his own extraordinary capacity for pettiness, indiscretion, and sheer stupidity. Of course it should come as no surprise that his legendary thin skin would lead him to the safe zone of his Twitter account to express his hurt feelings over even the slightest of slights, just ask Meryl Streep. Despite being admired by millions as one of this country's finest actors, Streep is still merely an entertainer who it turns out, was reamed mercilessly by right wing fanatics for the audacity of expressing her opinion of our future president in a public forum, a televised awards show.

John Lewis is another matter. If anyone alive has the credentials to be called an icon of the American Civil Rights movement and a true American hero, it is he. Lewis was a participant, often a leader at many of the pivotal events in the movement since the early sixties. As one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,  in 1961, he was one of the original Freedom Riders, a harrowing journey of civil rights activists, targeting the illegal segregation of public conveyances in the South. The bus that Lewis boarded in Washington DC was bound for New Orleans where a major civil rights rally was to be held. The passengers were comprised of seven whites and six blacks who sat side by side as the bus made its way through the Deep South, where white folks didn't take too kindly in those days to white and black folks sitting together on a bus. Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, SC. while entering a Whites Only waiting room. During subsequent rides, Lewis and his fellow riders endured beatings, firebombings, and arrest. Despite dreadful atrocities committed against them by local residents, the Klan, and the police who looked the other way when they weren't taking part in the beatings, the indifference of the Federal Government, and the abandonment of the organization that sponsored the rides, Lewis and a handful of others persevered, and saw them through to their successful conclusion. 

Because of his remaining steadfast in his commitment to non-violence and reconciliation, not to mention his exceptional courage, Lewis at age 23 was named the head of the SNCC, and in that capacity he was invited to address a crowd of 100,000 at a watershed moment in civil rights history, the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs in August of 1963. Fifty years to the day, I was present at another gathering on the same spot in front of the Lincoln Memorial at an event that commemorated the march, known by all as the setting for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It was my privilege to have been present as John Lewis, the only surviving speaker from the original event, addressed the crowd.

Perhaps most famously, Lewis is known as one of the leaders of the Selma to Mongtomery marches, promoting voting rights for African American people in the South. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Lewis who was leading the march along with local activists, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama where they were met by state troopers. Holding their ground, the marchers began to pray. Incensed by their refusal to disperse, Alabama State Troopers tear gassed the marchers, then beat them with their night sticks. Local activist Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious, while Lewis remained conscious despite a fractured skull, and managed to appear on television to appeal to President Johnson to intervene, before heading to the hospital.

Lewis's political career began in the mid-seventies and he was first elected to his current position, representing the district that includes much of the city of Atlanta and its environs, in 1986. In that role he has held true to his convictions and to this day remains a strong advocate for human rights and racial reconciliation.

Despite holding a role in the political establishment for thirty years, Lewis isn't afraid to mix it up and get into trouble, most recently leading a sit in on the floor of the House of Representatives, demanding the Republican leadership allow a vote on gun safety legislation after the shooting at a Orlando nightclub where 49 people were murdered by a lone gunman. As congressman, he was arrested at least three times for his role in various protests.

Say what you will about Lewis and his politics and tactics, but anyone who knows the facts would be hard pressed to say that John Lewis is only "talk, talk, talk, - no action" As for the assertion that his district is in "horrible shape, falling apart, and crime infested", well I'm guessing that would be quite surprising news to the people who live in a city with several major corporations including Coca-Cola and CNN calling it home, and a metropolis that has a very diverse community including a thriving African American upper middle and upper class.

Oh and yes, Mr. Tweet chose to put down the most important living figure in the American Civil Rights movement coming at all times during the weekend when we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King.

Could this guy possibly be serious about being president for "all Americans"? 

If so, legitimate or not. he's got to be the most clueless person who has ever been elected to any office, ever, in the United States.

That's just one of many reasons why so many of us object to his becoming president this Friday.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Barack Obama

A friend of ours met last week with Barack Obama at Blair House in Washington DC. She was part of a contingent of folks who either themselves or their loved ones suffer from serious heath issues. They met with the president to discuss an uncertain future under a new president who made a campaign promise of repealing the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Without the ACA many of these folks believe, either they or their loved ones would not have been able to afford the medical treatments that have been responsible for keeping them alive, and any kind of repeal they believe, would do nothing less than put their very lives in jeopardy.

The president told those gathered that day, to fight the good fight, to never let down, and to make their voices heard, using the motto of the State of Missouri "Show Me" as a rallying cry to Congress, demanding they present the citizens of the United States with a comprehensive replacement plan, before they dare to repeal the ACA. Obama assured them that he will do his part, whatever good that will do, to be an advocate, not specifically for the health care program that bares his name, but for any system that ensures that health care is a right that everyone should enjoy.

President Obama obviously leaves behind a very positive legacy for these people. To others however, the word Obamacare is synonymous with government intrusion into the lives of the American people. In other words, Obamacare detractors are the folks who resent having to pay money out of their own pockets to insure that others less fortunate, might be covered.

Barack Obama gave his farewell address to the American people last night. He gave that speech here in Chicago, his adopted home town where he famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), worked as a community organizer before becoming an Illinois state senator, and later a United States senator. It may not have been a speech for the ages like the address he delivered before the Democratic National Convention in 2004, four years before he was nominated as his party's standard-bearer. In that speech he professed his deep belief in the promise of America, and the basic goodness of its people. Asserting in no uncertain terms what drives progressive ideology, he said this:
It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.
We often think that the crux of the dispute between Republicans and Democrats these days, is the argument over the size of government, but that's not really true. There are in fact very few honest to goodness Libertarians around, that is to say people who whole heartedly believe that government should play as small a role in the lives of its citizens as possible. Conservatives who call themselves Libertarians are all for big government when it comes to issues close to their hearts such as national defense, immigration control and law and order, including the enforcement of laws regarding things they don't like such as abortion and flag burning. Sad to say, many Republicans today strongly oppose government handouts to individuals or groups, that is unless those handouts directly benefit themselves. A good example is transportation. Republicans will fight tooth and nail against the funding of public transportation, which they typically don't use, but have absolutely no problem with government funding of our nation's outrageously expensive highway infrastructure.

The real divisive issue separating Democrats and Republicans today is the question, "to what extent am I my brother's keeper?" To Democrats, the answer on the other side would be: "to no extent whatsoever." In contrast, most Republicans would say that your average Democrat favors the assurance of cradle to grave care for all, regardless of need, courtesy of the taxpayers.

Yet there are actually few of us who would go to either extreme; the staunchest conservatives (I would hope), believe that we should care for the most vulnerable in society, while even the bleedingest of hearts appreciate at least to some degree, the value of work and personal responsibility.

But in recent years, we, (myself included), seem to have become ever more entrenched in our own ideological bubbles, scarcely giving folks on the other side the time of day when it comes to expressing their views and logic (flawed as it may be!).

Addressing the perceived ideological rift in this country, Barack Obama gave us this bit of hope, the most memorable line from that speech twelve years ago:
The pundits, like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
Obama's speech last night didn't have any take home lines like that one, rhetorical flourishes meant to garner attention. That was after all the speech that put him on the national map. Instead last night's speech was an effort to cement his legacy, but more importantly, a thinly veiled warning of the administration that is about to take over, and an admonishment for all who despair of the upcoming four years, to work for a change.

The premise of this Obama speech was the four biggest threats, as he saw them, to our democracy. His first point directly addressed the president elect's campaign rhetoric, targeted at white underemployed blue collar workers who came out in unprecedented numbers to support the Republican candidate. Recognizing the vast number of people for whom the American Dream has become a nightmare, President Obama said:
To begin with, our democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.
But his answer to the problem was much different from his successor's who campaigned tirelessly on the issue of bringing back jobs that were lost to other countries due to bad trade deals. Obama instead emphasized education and the encouragement of involvement in 21st century enterprises such as new technologies, health care and alternative energy, rather than raising unrealistic hopes that long lost industrial jobs will magically reappear. Obama stuck a dagger into the heart of his successor's basic premise by giving us this reality check:
...our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
Obama's second stated threat to democracy was racism. His detractors have labeled Obama the great divider, especially when it comes to race issues. He certainly made those people chafe yesterday when he pointed out quite rightly that:
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised. 
Obama also brought up the vital role immigrants have played in the history of this country, pointing out that the same words used to describe Mexicans, Muslims and other ethnic groups trying to enter this country today are the exact words that were used to describe Irish, Italians, and Poles immigrants over a century ago.

Conservative critics of the president's speech were quick to point out their perception of Obama's anti-white sentiment in those statements, but somehow seemed to miss this prescient bit of self reflection:
For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face -- not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
Bringing us back to his theme of our lack of national solidarity, President Obama pointed out that:
For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. 
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That's how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter -- then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible.
Notice that at no point here is Obama pointing fingers at any single ideological group. These same criticisms can be leveled at liberals as easily as conservatives. 

To both groups, Obama gives us this simple and brilliant solution:
If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.
President Obama's final stated threat to our system of government, perhaps the most insidious, is the taking of our democracy for granted. To that point, the president quoted from George Washington's own farewell address where our first president warned of the many forces that will conspire to weaken our conviction that our democracy "is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty."

If we are to lose our integrity and values, Obama implies, all else falls by the wayside. Here in perhaps his most ominous warning about the coming administration, Obama brings up American values that in our history, resisted facile solutions to difficult problems:
It's that spirit -- a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might -- that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles -- the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press. 
While he trumpeted the gains made during his administration, Barack Obama took pains to make sure the credit for those successes went to the people of the United States, not to the guy sitting in the White House or the members of his administration. Compare that to the words we heard in Cleveland this summer when the Republican nominee for president proclaimed that only he, and he alone could "fix" this nation's problems.

In my book, there in a nutshell is the difference between the president of a republic and a dictator. Not one word out of the mouth of the president-elect has convinced me that he understands the difference, or cares.

Barack Obama, like all good presidents, all good leaders for that matter, has a strong understanding and appreciation of history, which made it possible for him to lead us eight years ago into an uncertain future. He inherited challenges that few of his predecessors faced, namely a war on two fronts and a tremendous economic crisis, not to mention a completely intransigent Congress who from the outset was committed to nothing other than his downfall.

Like all administrations, Obama's had it's successes and failures. You wouldn't know it from listening to most of his detractors who fed by whatever bug is up their ass, refuse to see the Obama administration as anything but an abject failure. Some would suggest that the irrational animosity toward Barack Obama is fueled by racism. I for one have not seen any evidence to dispute that claim. Regardless of one's personal ideology, whether you agree with President Obama's policies or not, and yes, there is plenty to criticize, any rational judgement of the man would have to conclude that he performed his job with insight, integrity, intelligence, grace and eloquence that few of his predecessors could match. Most important, I can't for the life of me believe anyone could seriously question his commitment to make life better for all Americans, regardless of their race, creed, or ideology.

I stated before in this space that Obama's legacy most likely will be split along ideological lines, but it's not that simple. People will judge Barack Obama largely on the basis of self-interest. They will ask themselves as Ronald Reagan asked the American people in 1980. "am I better off today than I was at the beginning of this administration?"

Clearly the majority of folks who voted for the Republican candidate this past election, answered no to that question. No one should be surprised by that fact alone, seldom in this country's history has one party controlled the White House for two or more subsequent administrations.

What's different of course is the man for whom they voted. With practically zero understanding of history, the next president promises to bring this nation back to a glorious past that never really existed. It's hard to tell right now whether he will lead this nation to ruin or he will merely be an insignificant burp in history.

In his speech last night, Barack Obama let us know in no uncertain terms that the work of government is the work of the people, not the work of one man. And that one man cannot destroy our nation and our democratic republic, unless of course, we let him.

Barack Obama reminded us last night that while we have a lot of work to do in the coming four years, in the end we'll be OK as a nation.

Thank you Mr. President. You have made me proud to be an American.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Photographs of the Month



December 6, Light Modulator, Lazslo Moholy-Nagy, Art Institute of Chicago

December 11, Evanston, Illinois


December 13, Modern Wing, Art Institute of Chicago


December 14, Macys Department Store, State Street

December 14, Washington Avenue

December 14, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center 

December 16, Santa Train, Howard Station

December 19, Belmont Red Line Station

December 21, State Street Subway

December 22, Wabash Avenue

December 23, Lincolnwood, Illinois

December 26,  Laughing Kookabura, Brookfield Zoo

December 27, Wilson Red Line Stop

December 30, Purple Line, near Wilson Avenue

2016, The Reaper's Bumper Crop

As I walked into work yesterday morning, I wished a friend a happy new year. He said 2017 had to be better than this year which began with the death of David Bowie and ended with the election of Donald Trump.

It's only natural this time of year to reflect upon the past 365 days. For my family and me, 2016 was actually a pretty good year, my boy and I traveled to New York, and all four of us had a lovely summer vacation which included the cities of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, as well as a memorable visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's magnificent Fallingwater, the home he built on top of a stream for the Kaufmann family in Southwestern Pennsylvania. We even managed to sneak into West Virginia, a first for all four of us.

Both kids have been doing well in school, despite not necessarily liking it one hundred percent of the time, and have been involved in other activities that give them great pleasure and keep them out of trouble. My wife and I both managed to devote time to our artistic endeavors, not an easy thing when combined with the responsibilities of working for a living and raising a family. Knock on wood, while there have been health issues here and there, nothing earth shattering thank God, and a double knock on wood, we didn't lose any loved ones this year.

And yes the Chicago Cubs won the World Series which was great news for everyone except for fans of the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox, well actually only a handful of disgruntled ones that is.

In short I'd say my family has much to be grateful for at the close of this year.

Yet many people will recall this as a year that particularly sucked.

Another New Years tradition is the reading of the passing year's necrology, the list of notable people who died. Sadly, 2016 proved to be a bumper crop for the Grim Reaper at least as far as famous people were concerned, especially musicians. In some circles, particularly at home, I'm known for my morbid fascination with the obituary pages, but this year even I couldn't keep up.

Every year has its Abe Vigodas, and Zsa Zsa Gabors, those celebrities whose death inspires the inevitable remark, "Really? I didn't know he or she was still alive."

But this year seemed to have a disproportionate number of unexpected celebrity deaths. I learned that David Bowie was seriously ill at the beginning of the year. He was not a young man, but coming through his creative spirit there was still an eternal, timeless youth about him and I was blown away at the news of his passing, coming as it did on his birthday, January 8th. Like mostpeople, I was blindsided by the death of Prince. It's disconcerting when I hear of someone who is exactly my age, as Prince was, suddenly dropping dead. I'm not proud to say I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned that his death was attributed to the pain killers he used to alleviate the agony resulting from the many years of unbelievably athletic dance moves he used in his performances. He literally gave his life for his art. Poetic and romantic as it may be, I simply can't relate.

Both men were extraordinarily talented and had they lived, they would have continued to produce remarkable music. But those two only scratched the surface of losses that the world of music suffered in 2016. Here's a woefully incomplete list in no particular order, of musicians we lost in 2016: Ralph Stanley, Buckwheat Zydeco, Pierre Boulez, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake. Glenn Frey, Sharon Jones, Neville MarrinerDan Hicks, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Scotty Moore, Guy Clark, Mose Allison, Vanity, Billy Paul, Nikolaus HarnoncourtGato Barbieri, and Merle Haggard.

Although he was less known as a musician than as perhaps the most famous music producer the world has ever known, in 2016 we also lost George Martin.

Indeed, heaven's chorus added greatly to its ranks this year but it will have to wait at least a while longer for Keith Richards who remains at this writing, probably to the surprise of no one more than himself, not only merely, but really and most sincerely alive.

The sports world lost at least four remarkable legends this year: Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history, and of course, Muhammad Ali.

They say that deaths come in threes but this year proved there is no limit to the number of celebrity deaths that can occur over a short period of time. As I remarked when Vaclav Havel and Kim Jung Il died, one right after the other a few years ago, death makes for strange bedfellows, in that case, two national leaders who were the polar opposites in everything else. The most absurd celebrity death matching I can recall was the quintessentially elegant and proper Katherine Hepburn, and the crude actor/comedian Buddy Hackett who died within a day of each other in 2003. I can only imagine the conversation that took place when the two of them marched up the steps to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Just this week we learned of a trio of deaths with an unusually strong connection. revolving around the passing of the actress Carrie Fisher, best known known for her recurring role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars film series. Much was written a few days ago about that role and her portrayal of it, unique for its time, as being a female hero and role model "in a male-dominated genre."

Well it so happened that real life female hero-role model in a male dominated profession that also dealt with intergalactic space, died this week. Her name was Vera Rubin, and she was the astrophysicist who proved the existence of dark matter.

Of course the other, more tragic connection to Carrie Fisher was her own mother, singer and actress Debbie Reynolds, who passed from this world one day after her daughter.

I could go on and on listing the famous people, the pioneers, politicians, playwrights and poets, the authors, artists, athletes, actors and astronauts, who died this year, but the time remaining in this year is short, so I'll just take the easy way out by linking to the New York Times list of the Notable Deaths of 2016.

Whether we heard of them or not, they all touched our lives and shaped our world in one way or other, some of them in good ways, some of them in splendid ways, some of them in inspirational ways, and some of them, quite the opposite.

But the world would be a much different place without them and tonight at the stroke of midnight, let us all raise a glass to the lives that were lived by the people we lost in 2016.

Happy 2017.

Stay healthy my friends!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Genius

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously said: "I love the poorly educated."

Here's the quote, really just an aside, in its proper context, which came at the end of one of Trump's victory speeches, as he read through a laundry list of the demographic groups he won in the Nevada Republican primary last February:
We won with highly-educated, we won with poorly educated, I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.
That last sentence would imply that Trump may love the poorly educated, but certainly doesn't equate himself with them. In fact, our president-elect seems to be obsessed with his own IQ, allegedly in the neighborhood of 156, or so he says, well into genius territory. If it's true, that would place him (according to estimates of the IQs of all the presidents) at number two, behind John Quincy Adams and just above Thomas Jefferson.

But with all else in the Trumposphere, claims he makes about himself must be taken with at least a grain of salt, more likely a truckload. To my knowledge, proof of Trump's advanced intelligence does not come from any standardized test, rather the assumption that he must be a genius because he attended a prestigious college, Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Needless to say, dummies need not apply to Wharton, that is unless they have friends in high places or a rich daddy. Trump had both. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from that school, not too shabby.  Still, nothing in his records would indicate he was an exceptional student. He also enrolled at that Ivy League school as a junior after spending two non-incredible years at Fordham University in New York City. Entering Wharton when he did meant he was not subject to the same rigors he would have had as a freshman.

This certainly does not mean that Trump is not a genius, all it means is that unless we believe Trump's word, a shaky proposition at best, from the information we have, the facts about his intelligence are inconclusive.

Genius or not, clearly the guy has some smarts, after all he is very successful at what he does. He also got himself elected President of the United States, doing so using a strategy never attempted before.

Is that remarkable success a result of his staggering intelligence? One of my all time favorite quotes (used in this space before), from one of my all time favorite movies, sheds some light on the issue. In pursuing the life story of the recently departed newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in the movie Citizen Kane, a reporter interviews Mr. Bernstein, Kane's business manger. The reporter brings up the name of Wall Street tycoon Walter Parks Thatcher, Kane's adopted father/caretaker. Of Thatcher, Bernstein comments: "That man was the biggest darn fool I ever met." to which the reporter quips: "(but) he made a lot of money." Bernstein responds: "Well it's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money."

Trump made a lot of money being ruthless and unscrupulous. by not playing by the rules. Prudent business men and women learned early on that if you did business with him, make sure you got the cash up front. Unfortunately a lot of people never learned that lesson because they were swayed by the Trump brand, which Trump the man, tirelessly promoted, despite much of it being little more than smoke and mirrors. If Trump has a genius, it's for self promotion, driven by a superhuman ego, fueled by a pathological sense of self-importance, and his legendary narcissism.

I'm reminded here about jury duty. If you've ever had the privilege of the experience, you no doubt encountered folks incensed at the inconvenience. who talk openly in the jury room about how they plan to get up in front of the judge and tell her or him in no uncertain terms that they have much better things to do than spend precious time performing their public service. But when the time comes to actually face the judge and all those assembled in the courtroom, these folks usually turn out to be sheep in wolves' clothing, trembling and mumbling "no sir" or "no ma'am" when asked if there is any reason they feel they shouldn't serve on the jury, rather than being publicly humiliated by the judge.

But not somebody like Trump. He's the guy who tells off the court then sits there stone faced while the judge reprimands him for being a cad. In the end he wins, as no lawyer or judge is willing to put up with a hostile juror, and he gets sent home.

Long before he ran for president this time around, Donald Trump understood that the key to getting votes was to set himself apart from the other candidates, and the way to do that was get his mug on the airwaves more than they did. Most candidates get attention buying broadcast time to get their point across. Needless to say that costs a lot of money. Trump did an end run around that by understanding that any free media attention, be it positive or negative, worked to his advantage. I needn't go into all the stupid, asinine, and hateful things he did or said during the campaign, it's on record and I'm sure you've heard it all. No matter how pitiful he was, it didn't matter, it got his face on the tube. And for every American who was horrified by Trump and his indiscretions, there was almost another American cheering him on. To the latter group, Donald Trump was the man who would make this country great again by leading it out of the morass of so called "political correctness". To them, his pronouncements, whether they were about Mexicans, Muslims, women, or African Americans, struck a chord, as he was saying exactly what they felt, but wouldn't dare say, before Trump came along that is.

To the other side, that is to say the majority of Americans who didn't vote for him, Trump sounded as if he were running for Doofus-in-Chief.

What ultimately set Trump apart from his opponents, was his willingness to play the role of the fool. The bigger the fool he was, the more media coverage he got. That was the key to his victory. It turned out that all he needed to win the presidency was the vote of a minority of Americans (who lived in the right places), who may not have exactly approved of him, his actions or his lifestyle, but were convinced that if nothing else, he was at the least better than "that lying bitch."

The truly difficult thing for me to understand about this election is the overwhelming willingness of so many Americans to believe every single bad thing they heard about Hillary Clinton, no matter the source. It's true that Mrs. Clinton was not entirely up front and sometimes even blatantly careless with the truth about her own indiscretions. But on the whole, every credible source points out that she was no different in that regard and certainly no worse than other politicians, better than most, and without a doubt light years more open and honest than Donald Trump.

The thing that stands out for me perhaps more than anything else these last several months is the disregard for and utter contempt of reason and facts on the part of Trump's supporters. Despite Trump's obvious character flaws, his lack of understanding of the basic functions of government, and his blatant pandering to the basest of human instincts and values, his supporters without any substantive information to back it up, insisted that Hillary Clinton was much worse. It was like someone convincing himself that the car he just bought, despite an oil leak, cracked engine block and blown transmission, was infinitely superior to the car he didn't buy because of its less than appealing color. 

I think his real draw was the way he presented his message. Hillary Clinton to many, represented the snobbish moneyed cultural elite, and the way she presented herself (especially compared to Trump) emphasized that point. Not that her speeches were exactly college dissertations. but they were substantive to a point. and did contain on occasion, bits and pieces of policy, as well as multi-syllabic words.

In stark contrast, the language of Trump's speeches, actually stream of consciousness rants, were rated at about a fifth grade level, placing him hardly in the Adams-Jeffersonian stratosphere, but bringing up the rear as far as the sophistication of presidential speech making is concerned, that is to say, more in the league of George W. Bush, and that's giving Trump the benefit of the doubt.

Personally I think that fifth grade assessment is a bit of an overreach as my fourth grade daughter uses a broader vocabulary and unlike Trump, has the ability to speak in complete sentences.

It makes one wonder if Trump dumbed down his language in order to better appeal to his beloved uneducated crowd, or did we actually see the real Trump on the stump and he is in fact, not quite as smart as he claims. 

In either case, it's clear to me that rational thought and discourse, self-reflection, honesty, truth and integrity took a real beating in this election. Through whatever force he used, Donald Trump convinced just enough Americans that he, perhaps the most unqualified person ever to be elected president, was more deserving of the job than the person who was, at least as far as experience is concerned, by far the more qualified.

In a sick and twisted way, you kinda have to hand it to him.

This is the dawning of the age of incompetence and Donald Trump is about to be ringmaster and head clown, no easy feat. Maybe he is a genius after all.