Anthony Wayne Webner

My other grandfather, Anthony Wayne Webner, was born on March 31. Oddly, one of my grandfathers was born on March 1 and the other on March 31.

I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know nearly as much about Grampa Webner as I should, probably because he died of lung cancer when I was young. As a kid, I thought the most interesting thing about him was that he was a painter. He painted landscapes, and portraits, and a kind of abstract depiction of piano keys in a blue swirling mist that he called “Rhapsody in Blue.” He set up an easel on their screened-in porch and painted out there while chain-smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes. The porch was a neat place to visit because it had lots of odd objects — a palette that he would let you pick up if you were careful, rolled up tubes of oil paint, a collection of pipes (which he also smoked) and a big ashtray with a knob in the middle that he used to knock the ash out of a pipe, a neat wooden Indian, pieces of driftwood, and other bric-a-brac that he used to make up still life scenes.

I was told that Grampa Webner worked for the railroad and then as a bookkeeper for Goodyear before he retired. His co-workers must have liked him, because they cared enough to give him a classic retirement gift — a cutout picture of his face on a drawing of a guy frantically pedaling a biplane that was signed by everyone in his department with the heading “Web Takes Off.” He was a distinguished looking man, with white hair and a neatly clipped white moustache, and my grandmother took great pride in the fact that people used to tell her that he looked like a doctor. He was meticilous about his painting — often painting and repainting portraits of loved ones — and meticulous about his personal appearance. He was attentive to other details, too. For example, he was disgusted by the way we kids sprayed the cake blowing out our birthday candles and (good-naturedly, but firmly) asked my mother to put wax paper on top of the cake and punch the candles through the wax paper, so he could have his cake without a coating of our saliva. Not a bad technique, actually.

A Disturbing Reminder

I saw on the RealClearPolitics website that today is the 28th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. It sent a shiver down my spine and brought back some weird memories. President Reagan was shot during the first week I was on the job as the press secretary and legislative aide for Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie. The shooting happened not too far from our offices at the Rayburn House Office Building, and I had to write about the shooting for the Congressman’s weekly radio broadcast. Fortunately, the President was not fatally wounded, and his brave and uplifting reaction to the shooting — I recall he told his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck” — helped everyone to get past a traumatic incident.

It seems odd now, but I grew up with political assassination attempts as a regular part of the landscape. President Kennedy was shot when I was in kindergarten; I remember the news coming over the loudspeaker system and my teacher crying. When I was 11, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Then George Wallace was shot, and there were two attempts on the life of President Ford, the killing of Harvey Milk, and finally the shooting of President Reagan. And then, seemingly as abruptly as they began . . . the shootings blessedly stopped. The worst incident that I can think of since the Reagan shooting was the recent Baghdad press conference where the Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at President Bush. This change obviously is a wonderful move in the right direction — but what caused it?

Jobs Well Done

I like doing little chores around the house — things like loading dirty dishes into the dishwasher, or picking up debris that has blown into our yard, or folding the laundry and putting it away. Yesterday morning, for example, I shined my shoes.

I find this kind of work both mentally relaxing and rewarding. You don’t have to think too hard about shining your shoes. It’s something that can be done by the reptilian brain, leaving the higher brain to wander into more creative pursuits. For those of us who have jobs that mostly involve working on long-term projects, where the effort can be months, or years, removed from the ultimate result, it’s very pleasant indeed to finish a chore and see an immediate result.

Uncharted Territory

Projected Deficit

Projected Deficit

This graph, taken from the Washington Post website and based on CBO and OMB data, tells several interesting stories. One is the impact of 9/11 and the recession and military spending that followed on the federal budget. Another is the clear trend in reduction of budget deficits from 2004 until the economy hit the wall and the first bank bailout legislation was passed in 2008. And the third is the order of magnitude difference between the actual Bush Administration deficits and the proposed Obama Administration deficits — a breathtaking fourfold increase in the deficit from 2008 to 2009 and then, even under the more optimistic White House projections, continuing deficits for 10 years that all are significantly larger than the largest deficit incurred during the Bush Administration.
It may be that the Obama proposal is what the economy needs — economists apparently disagree. What this chart demonstrates, however, is that if the Obama Administration budget is passed in anything close to its current form we are moving as a society into wholly uncharted territory. I doubt that anyone can predict with any certainty what the effect of such extraordinary deficit spending would be. It also is clear that, if the President’s proposed budget is enacted, considerable parts of the federal budget for years to come will be devoted to simply paying interest on our national debt — interest that will be paid to many foreign investors who purchase our debt instruments — rather than paying for infrastructure improvements, or military equipment, or health care, or other federal programs. I am sure that no one thinks that inevitable result is a good thing.

Dulce Pinzon

These are an interesting series of pictures from Mexican photographer Dulce Pinzon. It shows immigrant workers in the US dressed in costumes of super heroes. I just thought they were really great — kind of an expose of who the real superheroes are in our modern world? Then again, Pinzon decides to include how much money the ‘super heroes’ send home to their families in Mexico. So, through one lens they work and sacrifice for their family, on the other they undermine the American economy with a steady outflow of money. Oh, and the pictures are really great, too. The wonder woman one especially.


The View

One morning when we were down in the Bahamas, after having eaten one of Laura’s very fine breakfasts, we watched a bit of The View. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that show.

During the roundtable discussion we watched, Barbara Walters made a comment criticizing Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Governor Palin had reacted negatively to President Obama’s ill-considered remark about the Special Olympics during his appearance on The Tonight Show, and Barbara Walters faulted Governor Palin for being too quick to criticize the President. In short, the President said something insensitive, and people who comment about it are the ones who get admonished! Although the four of us occupy different points on the political spectrum, we all agreed that Barbara Walters’ observation aptly illustrates how many members of the “mainstream media” are wholeheartedly riding the Obama bandwagon. In this era of political correctness, is there any other politician who could make an insensitive remark and be defended from criticism about it?

I think this kind of evident bias will not be good for the President in the long run for at least two reasons. First, eventually everyone will get fed up with it and begin to attribute every positive comment about the President or his policies to bias rather than objective consideration. Second, it isn’t good for us to have a President who isn’t used to being harshly criticized. Although many members of the news media may treat the President with kid gloves, foreign leaders and the foreign media clearly won’t. If there is any good thing about the American process for picking a President (and there aren’t many) it is that anyone who makes it through that process is toughened up and becomes used to criticism. Unfortunately, I think President Obama missed some of that toughening up process. It’s too bad, because we need tough Presidents who know the press is going to jump on any mistake — not Presidents who are used to having the news media make excuses for them.

A Break-Even Buck-Back

Well, I’m out of the Buck Back. This year, I drafted last, which means the first-round pickings are slim. After the first two days of the tournament, however, I looked very strong. Each of my first six draft choices had won their first game. Unfortunately, those six teams won only two more games, and with Kansas’ loss on Friday my last team was drummed out of the tournament. So, I put in $8 and won $8, and now I’ll sit on the sidelines until the tournament ends. Eight bucks is not a bad result in the Buck-Back, but it is tough to see such a promising start end so quickly.

TMI, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, hit the news. I was a college student at the time, and I recall that the stories about the incident had a very panicked, sci-fi quality to them. The nuclear core could reach extraordinarily high temperatures and melt down, burning through the concrete bed and tunneling into the bowels of the Earth, to spread radiation everywhere! Or, radioactive steam could spew from the cooling towers and be carried on the winds, to spread radiation everywhere! Or maybe both of those things could occur and other bad things, too! The TV reports always seemed to show the worried reporter a great distance from the Three Mile Island facilities, with the massive cooling towers looming ominously in the background. Given the alarmist nature of the reports, you almost expected the reporter to suddenly grow a third arm or develop superpowers. Of course, none of that happened — and it is not even clear if what did happen had any discernible health-related effects on anyone exposed to any emissions from the Three Mile Island facility.

Viewed from the perspective allowed by the passage of three decades, it seems clear that the Three Mile Island incident had good and bad effects. No doubt it caused government regulators and industry groups to examine nuclear facility procedures and processes and to introduce additional safety steps, devices, and checks. In the 30 years since Three Mile Island hit the news, there has not been any significant nuclear power mishap in the United States (Chernobyl is another story, of course). At the same time, the quasi-hysterical reaction to the incident made such an impact on those who lived through it that many people have an almost instinctive belief that nuclear power is extraordinarily dangerous — notwithstanding the safety experience of European countries, which rely much more heavily on nuclear power than we do, or that of the U.S. Navy, which relies on nuclear generators to power many of its warships and submarines. As a result, in the United States we have built very few nuclear power facilities in the years since Three Mile Island.

If our country hopes to move away from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels for its energy, nuclear power clearly must play an increasing role. Perhaps this 30th anniversary will cause people to take a new and dispassionate look at the Three Mile Island incident and nuclear power power generally, and we can move forward with a more mature approach to our power generation needs that welcomes nuclear power as part of the solution.

In the Neighborhood

The problems in Mexico, with thousands of people being killed in horrific drug-related gang violence, much of which is occurring in towns bordering the United States, is a real concern. Such violence could easily spill over into the U.S., or cause more Mexicans to come illegally into the U.S., or both.

For many years, I think, people haven’t paid much attention to Mexico as a subject of foreign policy. We’ve lived with illegal immigration and the drug trade issues for decades, and Mexico therefore hasn’t been as high a priority as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, North Korea, the Mideast peace process, a resurgent Russia, and an increasingly powerful China. I think the Obama Administration is properly recognizing that our attitude needs to change. Close proximity should magnify concerns. Common sense tells you that your next-door neighbor’s problems can have a more immediate impact on you than the problems of a person who lives five blocks away.

Why Newspapers Are Dying . . . .

This article — – is a good example of why large, daily newspapers face an almost impossible task. Michael Totten has been doing very good traditional reporting — that is, observing something newsworthy and then writing a story where the reader feels like they are almost hard-wired with the reporter’s eyes and ears and brain, which are simply recording what has happened, good and bad, without much interpretation or reflection. It is immediate, and interesting, and gives the reader a strong sense of what it was really like for the reporter as, in this case, he walked the streets and entered the homes of Baghdad with U.S. troops, smelling the garbage, feeling the fear, tasting the dust in the air. There are still some newspapers that publish this kind of story, but not many. And, those newspapers that do must bear enormous fixed costs to bring the story to the public, whereas Mr. Totten needs only to convince enough readers of his blog to make enough individual contributions to defray his travel and living expenses. Economically, the newspapers just cannot compete.

I like stories like this, where they report the facts that the reporter perceives and really leave it up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what it all means, as opposed to articles that rely heavily on armchair experts who presume to tell you what it all means. When I read this story, I draw the conclusion that we are making progress in Iraq, but still have a long way to go.

Drunken Sailors

I like the phrase “spend like a drunken sailor” because it conjures a powerful mental image of the inebriated swabbie, staggering through a red-light district, recklessly blowing his money on wine, women, and song during shore leave. These days, if you are someone like me who believes that the government should not spend like a drunken sailor, you really have nowhere to turn. The Democrats are poised to spend at outrageously high levels and incur mind-boggling deficits for the foreseeable future. The Republicans, on the other hand, demonstrated that when they were in power they had no fiscal discipline and they accordingly racked up enormous deficits. Even now, some Republicans Senators are happy to vote for the most reckless spending bills so long as a few pork-barrel projects come to the Senators’ home states.

Right now, the President and his party seem to be struggling a bit, and their willingness to immerse this country in red ink is turning off some voters, like me — but Republicans should not celebrate. I don’t trust them, either. The only reason Republicans didn’t spend as profligately as the Democrats plan to is that the Republicans lacked the imagination to think it was possible.

The World Is Changing

This story — — aptly demonstrates how the world is changing. With the splintering of the establishment media, the demise of newspapers, and the growth of alternative media like YouTube, it is getting harder and harder for politicians to retain control of a “story.” This is a good thing in some ways, and a bad thing in others, but it is mainly different.

Bad Religion

Religious people clearly take great comfort in their faith. They are certain that their beliefs are the way to salvation and a better life, here and in the hereafter. Because their beliefs are such an integral part of their lives, they often can’t understand why non-religious people don’t (and won’t) accept those beliefs.

Recently a close friend lost one of her parents, and in talking about her loss I was reminded of an incident that, I think, helps to explain why I am not now a church-going person. It happened years ago, after my father died. His obituary appeared in the newspaper and, because he was not a religious person, it made no mention of a church affiliation. A few days later, I received a crudely lettered, anonymous postcard in the mail. Dad’s obituary (with his picture) was glued to one side, with a message that read something like: “Seems like a good man. What a shame he didn’t go to church. Too bad! So sad! By now your father is burning in hell.”

This postcard was sick, creepy and infuriating all at once. Who was this person, who was willing to consign my father to eternal flames but too gutless to sign his name? And why would his religious beliefs motivate him to send such a mean-spirited, intentionally disturbing note to a complete stranger at a time of great loss and sadness?

I’m not suggesting that all religious people would do such a thing. What did trouble me, however, was that this sanctimonious jerk apparently felt compelled by his religious beliefs to do such a thing. I think one of the reasons I am not a conventionally religious person is that am not eager to give myself over to a belief system so powerful that it could convince someone to do such an obviously inappropriate thing.

Bratty Kid

Yesterday we returned home from our trip and witnessed a little family drama. We boarded our plane from Freeport to Charlotte and sat in the last row, next to the toilets. (What great seats those are!) As we were sitting in our seats, we watched a family that included a mother, father, and two kids come up the aisle. One of the kids was a classic disaffected teenage boy — all full of slouchy insolence and world-weary fatigue from having been separated from his friends for a few days, pimply and unkempt, wearing a Megadeth or Metallica t-shirt. He had a large suitcase-type carry-on and when he put it in the overhead it didn’t fit. Rather than trying to move it so it did fit, the kid shrugged. His mother said, “turn it sideways” and moved to do so, and his father said, “let him do it.” The kid responded, with some asperity: “Shut up, Dad.” His mother then fit the suitcase into the overhead, and they all sat down.

Shut up, Dad! I can’t imagine saying anything like that to my father, and if I had the consequences would have been extreme. In the situation we witnessed, there were no good immediate choices open to the father. Telling the kid to get off the plane and buy his own ticket wasn’t a realistic option, nor was getting into a full-fledged family row prior to take-off. I’m not sure what I would have done, but it was infuriating to watch the bratty kid sit down with a smug attitude, having manipulated and insulted his parents yet again.

No doubt there was a significant back story to this little family drama, but it isn’t too much to expect that children teach their parents with respect and deference in public places. I hope that when that family got home the father sat down with the kid and began the process of getting him straightened out, and not just by sharing the Dad’s “feelings” about it.