Farewell To Fidel

Fidel Castro has died.  The cigar-puffing, fatigue-wearing Cuban revolutionary , who was a thorn in the side of countless American presidents, was 90.

The news of Castro’s death is weird, because he’s one of those figures who seems like he should have been dead for a long time already.  After all, this is a guy who first came to power when Dwight Eisenhower was President, TV was a new form of entertainment, and Chuck Berry and Elvis ruled the radio.  Castro became a geopolitical figure when he played a central role in the Kennedy Administration with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He seems like an anachronism from a long-dead era.

There seems to be no middle ground when you are talking about Castro.  He overthrew a corrupt and dictatorial regime, and some liberals tout some of his policies — such as the apparent quality and low cost of health care in Castro’s Cuba.  During the tumultuous ’60s, at least, he and his cohort Che Guevara had some of that revolutionary cachet and radical chic.  But Castro also was a died-in-the-wool communist, and there is no doubt that his regime was both brutal and repressive, clamping down on freedoms we take for granted and keeping Cuba in the dark ages economically.  People who have visited Cuba since the American embargo has been eased describe a struggling, impoverished country that seems to have stopped its progress in the 1950s.

Castro obviously was a significant historical figure, but how he will be perceived by history remains an open question.  Some of that perception will depend on how Cuba fares, now that some semblance of normal relations with non-communist countries is likely, and some of it will depend on what we learn about the inner workings of the Castro regime, and just how cold-blooded and terrible it was.

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The Pope And The Donald

While aboard the papal plane today, flying back from an appearance in Mexico, Pope Francis was asked about Donald Trump’s notion of building a wall between Mexico and the United States.  The Pope said that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”  When Trump heard about the Pope’s comment, he replied that it was “disgraceful” for “a religious leader to question a person’s faith.”

pope-mexicoI suspect that the Pope will soon regret his response, if he doesn’t regret it already.  It’s not that the Pope doesn’t have every right to give his opinion on what qualities or actions are “Christian” and what are not — of course he does, because after all this is the Pope we’re talking about.  As the head of a Christian denomination with millions of members spanning the globe, he obviously can, and regularly does, speak about such topics.

In this instance, though, I think the Pope’s comments were ill-advised, because they come in the middle of an American presidential campaign and obviously were directed at a particular candidate.  It seems to diminish the Pope, somehow, for him to weigh in on something so secular and tawdry as an American political campaign.  We’ve come a long way since the days of the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960 — when John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a big issue, because opponents whispered that he would be taking direction from Vatican City — but the Pope’s comments on a candidate still seem . . . unwise.  When most people associate the Pope with a focus on the spiritual, even a brief foray by him into an increasingly bitter, mud-slinging political campaign is a bit jarring.

And, of course, Pope Francis’ comments just serve to allow Donald Trump to mount his high horse, clothe himself in righteous indignation, and further burnish his reputation as the anti-establishment candidate.  I’m afraid that Pope Francis will learn that anyone who associates or interacts with Donald Trump ends up being tarnished by the experience.  Why stoop to comment about such a person?

 

JFK’s Last Speech

 I’m in Fort Worth, Texas for meetings and spent last night at the Fort Worth Hilton because it’s close to the meeting location.  When I learned the hotel also is the site of John F. Kennedy’s last speech, it gave me a chill.

JFK spoke here on the morning of November 22, 1963,  at a breakfast meeting of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.  For a man who was a forceful orator and turned many a memorable phrase, the speech is a thoroughly unremarkable effort, with a standard joke about Jackie Kennedy’s celebrity status, recognition of the politicians and dignitaries who were present, and then a discussion of Fort Worth’s contribution to the continuing need to maintain a strong defense against the Communist threat.  The speech, of course, gave no hint that the history of the country and the world would shift forever a few hours later due to an assassin’s bullet.

There is a little plaza next to the hotel that commemorates the occasion with a statue of JFK, some photos, and some quotes from his speeches.  One of them is:  “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”. With the red brick hotel looming in the background, it’s a sobering place.

Not Exactly Profiles In Courage

In Profiles In Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote of eight United States Senators who, at different times in the nation’s history, took brave stands against prevailing opinion, risking their careers by voting against popular causes or opposing what they believed was wrong.

Boy, things have really gone downhill since then.  Now the people running for the Senate seem to be more interested in demonstrating their cravenness than their courage.

Consider Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky.  In her meeting with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal she was asked repeatedly whether she had voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.  And she declined to answer the question — again and again and again.  It’s a pathetic performance by a candidate who is attempting to hide behind the “sanctity of the ballot box.”  And Grimes is not alone.  Other  Senate candidates this year also are declining to answer questions about whether they voted for President Obama.

When someone is trying to be elected to a position that will make them one of only 100 members of the United States Senate, and if elected will be serving during the final two years of the Obama Administration, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask whether they voted for the President.  If a candidate running as a Democrat is unwilling to answer that question, what does that tell you about that candidate’s ability to be open and transparent, actually tell you what they believe, and let the chips fall where they may?  Why would anyone — regardless of their party affiliation or political perspective — trust a candidate who won’t directly answer a question about who they voted for in the last presidential election?

This is a big problem.  We don’t have candidates who actually believe in anything — other than getting elected.  In my view, if you’re not willing to simply answer the question Grimes was asked, and then add whatever additional caveats you think are appropriate, you are simply too gutless to hold a job that requires both responsibility and leadership.

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

My Thoughts On “The Age Of Innocence”

David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence is interesting, both for what it says and for what it means.  What it says is that the American political system is broken.  What it means is that even a columnist at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world lacks the gumption to make his point directly.

Rather than simply reaching conclusions about America, Brooks softens his views by addressing both the European and American democratic systems.  Does anyone actually believe there are similarities between these “systems”?  America has been a representative democracy for almost 250 years; Europe still had crowned heads leading it into a bloody war less than 100 years ago.  The balkanized, multi-party, coalition-dependent parliamentary systems in most European countries bear little relation to our two-party system, where nearly every election has a clear winner and loser and a ruling majority results.  Until recently, America had stoutly resisted the European socio-economic model, with its early retirement ages and short work weeks and months of paid vacation.  And no one in their right mind would equate the European Union with our Congress.  The ponderous bureaucrats of the EU will be there forever, impossible to root out; in America, in contrast, voters can easily — as the last three election cycles have shown — toss out incumbents and install new representatives who purportedly will better reflect their views.

Still, Brooks reaches the right conclusion.  America is on the wrong track because people have stopped viewing government as a necessary evil and have come to view it instead as a kind of personal gravy train.  John Kennedy’s stirring statement in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has been turned completely on its head.  Many Americans now just want to get government benefits without paying taxes.  They want the government to provide them with jobs, and “loans” that will ultimately be forgiven, and “free” health care.  And our poll-driven “leaders” are perfectly happy to encourage this dependency on government and are too craven to act responsibly, whether it comes to the federal budget or eliminating programs that don’t work well — and in some cases don’t work at all.

Brooks recognizes this.  Why, then, does he create a false equivalence between America and Europe?  I think it’s because simply stating that America is on the wrong track, and our politicians have led us there, requires more guts than he possesses.  He doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset any of the powerful inside-the-beltway types that he hobnobs with, so he writes something that makes it seem as though democracies, generally, are doomed to fail through the sheer force of greedy human nature.  That conclusion makes the bitter pill a lot easier to swallow:  it’s no one’s fault, really.

I strongly disagree with that.  America has been, is, can be, and should be different from Europe.  Our failure is the failure of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who want to hold on to the reins of power and have pandered to the worst instincts of people and corporations and interest groups rather than saying “no” and even requiring sacrifice.

Europe is probably doomed; with America, though, there is still hope.  We just need some leaders who will fight to get us back on the right track, rather than throwing up their hands and concluding that we and Europe are on the road to hell together.  It would help, too, if we had journalists who were willing to state that conclusion, sharply and plainly, as journalists are supposed to do.  One of the reasons our politicians have gotten away with their behavior is that the news media has for the most part failed to call them out for their irresponsibility.

“Anniversary Journalism” Is Lazy And Often Pointless

It seems like every day you hear news stories about the anniversaries of an event.  Recently, we were treated to stories about the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.  There have been countless others.

This kind of “anniversary journalism” is, in my view, lazy journalism.  The ingredients of these stories are always the same.  It has to be a round number anniversary — one year, 5 years, 10 years, 25 years.  If the news story is on radio or TV, you play a clip of the recording of the event, and then you interview people who give their recollections and perhaps add a few recollections of your own.  The stories are simple to prepare and simple to produce — and there are an enormous number of “round number” anniversaries of events to choose from.

In addition to being lazy journalism, I also think that, with rare exception, these stories are pointless because the events being remembered actually have no continuing cultural or historical significance.  John F. Kennedy gave a memorable inaugural address, but his challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ” obviously did not prevent the creation of our current political atmosphere that is so rife with pork barrel spending, earmarks, and special interest lobbying.  Why is it important that we relive the Challenger disaster and see, again, the ugly photos of the mid-air explosion that took the lives of its crew?  With all due respect to the crew members and their families, the reality is that the Challenger explosion did not change the focus or approach of the U.S. space program or have any other lasting impact.  It was just a bad thing that happened 25 years ago that I would rather not remember.  It has no more relevance to today’s America than the burning of the Hindenburg or the sinking of the Titanic.

We would be better served if our news media stopped its resort to these “anniversary stories” and instead focused on reporting the news about what is going on, today, in our country and in our world.