Government by the Informed

Whether you grew up in the Pioneer Valley, like I did, or arrived more recently your view of the world is likely to be skewed. By and large our fellow citizens are a caring lot who do for others year in and year out. It could be going on a charity walk or run or donations of time or money to the survival center, the homeless and every other good cause in between.

Community is not a swear word, and giving a hand doesn’t cost any one of us an arm or a leg.

When we disagree, it’s about candidates and their stands on policy. As a rule we resist the temptation to demonize those on the other side. Democracy demands elections by informed voters. In this new electronic age, more information is at our fingertips than a dedicated historian could assemble in years of study.

Consequently, when we encounter it, ignorance stands out in sharp relief with no excuses.

Therefore, when hate surfaces on the American landscape, I find it difficult to give stupid statements and action the benefit of any doubt. Today, as I compose these thoughts, all the prognosticators are forecasting a Republican Party about to return to power in the House of Representatives and maybe the Senate. I find either scenario abhorrent.

For both to occur would, in many ways, set aside 2006 and 2008 election victories by the progressives in our great country.

Eight do-nothing years when President Bush blew up the budget surplus in tax giveaways, and then blew up Iraq, which never attacked us, and then created a false government in Afghanistan, a country recently described as a 15th century society with no inclination toward democracy. The U.S., the British Empire and the Soviet Union have all tried and failed to conquer the Afghans. We could and should leave. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Just like during the Vietnam War era, when patriots protested long and hard before an awakened public caught up with the facts. In the end it didn’t matter that the protesters were often beaten and jailed for speaking truth to power. My country right or wrong is a grand if not grandiose thought, but it seems to deny facts in play.

Despite the progress made since Jan. 20, 2009, we have protesters who claim their taxes are too high, they’re not. That long-awaited government health care is a form of socialism, it’s not. And that President Barack Obama is a foreigner and a Muslim – equally not true!

Notwithstanding, any of the above stupidities, the dumbest thing I’ve heard from what used to be called “man on the street interviews” is that a shockingly large number of men and women, mostly young, but not all, are not planning to vote Tuesday.

As Jon Stewart jokes, painfully, when voters do something that thoughtless, “the terrorists win.” A little more thought and a lot more action is required to fulfill our compact with the country we live in.

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From today’s campaign, a look at Irish contests past

WILLIAMSBURG – Not a day goes by when I’m not quizzed about my surname.

It appears on hundreds of lawn signs up and down the Pioneer Valley. An equal number of red, white and blue signs promote my nephew Mike Cahillane’s opponent for Northwestern District Attorney, Hampshire County’s Register of Probate, Dave Sullivan.

To save suspense, I predict that the financial winner of this Democratic primary election will be … the guy who painted all those signs!

For the past 10 years my 40-year-old nephew has been a prosecutor and assistant district attorney. Sullivan and Cahillane are vying in the first contest for district attorney here in three decades. No Republican has announced, so Tuesday’s Democratic primary will pick the winner. Independents or the un-enrolled, as they’re now known, can vote and switch back to their original designation at the polling place.

Because my parents had 24 grandchildren, Michael and I are not close. Nor, truth be told, am I well acquainted with Mr. Sullivan. Now retired to Williamsburg, I’ve found that aging fosters separations.

My political education started in 1953 when I made my first trip to Ireland. I was on leave from the U.S. Air Force in England. Traveling by train and ferry I found my way to my Aunt Siobhan’s. I was 20 and green as can be; I’d failed to consider the impact of a Dublin postcard I sent to a Northampton girlfriend. The card pictured a hobo asleep on a park bench.

In a clumsy attempt at humor I mentioned that he looked like one of her relatives. The girl’s father was a prominent Irish cop with a large family. My father gave me a blast claiming that my joke had undercut his new campaign for mayor.

The Irish can be sensitive when it comes to politics. More proof took place 40 years ago one of my Irish uncles took umbrage at a Democratic event. The scuffle was more like a bench-clearing baseball fight than a real fight. I’m still glad that I was across the V.F.W. hall when that big Irish farmer decided to take a swing at a guy who was supporting the wrong candidate.

Mine, as it turned out.

At 77 I’m the eldest son of a former mayor of Northampton, one of only two Irish-born mayors in the whole U.S. during the 1950s. Dad emigrated in 1930. Within five years he became a citizen and an FDR supporter. Despite those hard times, Dad’s gas station was a success thanks to his ready smile and larger than life personality.

It was a combination that served him well in politics. Dad ran for mayor with the support of many working class Irishmen and women. His announcement headline read, “Cahillane # Champions Workers.” We had no lawyers in our family in 1953. Dad stood alone. His primary fight pitted him against three other Irishmen, including two of the city’s top lawyers. Dad’s win in a recount was a miracle that propelled him to a friendship with JFK, and a seat at the 1956 Democratic convention.

Rightfully, both the Sullivan and Cahillane campaigns have striven for a sense of dignity commensurate with the power and importance of the district attorney’s office.

My dad’s experience was different as he ran to unseat incumbent Republican mayor, Pierre Drewsen. Their scorched-earth campaign screeds included the mayor calling dad “a howling cow that gives no milk.” Dad’s retort was to call the mayor a “would-be dictator.”

A subtext of that campaign was the previous one in which Pierre Drewsen had beaten City Councilor Francis “Tunker” Hogan, whose motto was “Hogan’s the Slogan.” Immediately following Hogan’s losing campaign a local wag rhymed this ditty: “Hogan’s the slogan, but Pierre’s the mayor.”

Will Rogers used to say, “I don’t belong to any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” Local Irish politics is always a few-rules game of musical chairs to the sound of a squeezebox, a tin whistle, and the beat of a bodhran. I favor Ireland’s identity as the birthplace of saints and scholars, with a nod toward political acumen.

The race between David Sullivan and Michael Cahillane carries the history of every contest before it. Earlier this year, my McColgan campaign buddy Bill O’Riordan visited me at Linda Manor when I was in post-hospital rehab. Bill began by noting that though he was supporting Sullivan, he had no animosity and hoped that there would be unity when the campaign ended. I agreed. I’ve long appreciated O’Riordan’s intensity, remembering when, to emphasize his Irish roots; he added the “O” to Riordan.

Which inspired in me a bit of verse:

Somehow, I don’t think that O’Cahillane sounds as right.
As John L. Sullivan’s “cousin” Dave’s glittering-prize fight
Between himself, without a second, against any brash foe,
Like upstart Michael a brainy young battler having a go.

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Recalling a Political Junkie’s First Fix

Exactly 50 years ago, I became involved in presidential politics. Massachusetts Sen. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a handsome war hero from a wealthy Catholic family, was boldly seeking the Democratic nomination.

I say boldly because he was only 43 years old and because a Roman Catholic had never won the presidency. Gov. Al Smith of New York was nominated in 1928; Smith’s loss to Herbert Hoover was blamed on his faith. Accepted wisdom became “Catholics can’t win.” Kennedy’s task was to prove that shibboleth wrong.

In contrast to Al Smith, Jack Kennedy appealed to many constituencies. His good looks didn’t hurt with women voters. Veterans liked him as one of their own. The Irish wanted the same. Harvard eggheads identified with Sen. Kennedy’s cerebral side, admiring his writing ability. Jack’s first book, “Why England Slept,” examined errors leading up to World War II; his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage” praised nine senators who voted against the pressures of party politics or public opinion to do the right thing for their country, a quality even rarer in our 21st century. Its title gave his political opponents this easy zing: “Kennedy should show less profile and more courage.”

In August 1960, I was a 27-year-old father of three boys; we lived at Hampshire Heights. I sold new and used cars at our family’s automobile dealership. Our son Chris was only three months old, business was moribund and my father had served his third and, as it turned out, last term as mayor of Northampton.

I was too busy working to get involved in dad’s 1959 re-election campaign, but enthralled by the prospect of a President Kennedy. To follow the action I began reading the New York Times. I found time to distribute colorful Kennedy brochures door to door, although his home state was a lock. All year long strong opinions rang out at Northampton’s Junior Chamber of Commerce meetings, which usually wrapped up over beers at Rahar’s Inn.

Winning the nomination required Jack to beat his Democratic opponents like Hubert Humphrey in primary after primary. When West Virginia, a heavily Protestant state, chose Kennedy over Humphrey the “Catholic question” was answered; Kennedy’s nomination was in reach.

However, the feasibility of electing a Catholic president still loomed large upon the land. Kennedy, like Obama did in his Philadelphia speech on race, resolutely decided to face the issue head-on by addressing the a ministers’ group in Texas in September.

In a serious dialogue he set forth his belief that no Catholic prelate should ever tell a president how to act, nor should any minister advise his or her congregation how to vote. Freedom of religion, to worship or not do so at all, Kennedy said was, “the kind of America in which I believe.”

Jack may not have converted many that day, but he earned respect for standing up to religious prejudice.

Kennedy’s energy, good looks and positive themes, “Let’s get America moving again” and “Leadership for the 60’s,” brought out crowds as he criss-crossed the country in “Caroline,” his propeller-driven plane. His brother, Bobby, managed each campaign day with an abrasiveness that saw him hated by many of the old pols he pushed around in the cause of “Jack,” but Bobby’s single-mindedness paid off as one by one the primary states fell to the Kennedy juggernaut.

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate revealed Kennedy to be far from the novice the GOP had portrayed. He came through as a candidate in tune with the issues and eager to debate Vice President Richard Nixon toe to toe. Oddly, those who heard that debate on radio pronounced Nixon the winner, yet television told another tale. Kennedy was cool, calm and unflustered. Nixon’s makeup was poor; he perspired and looked nervous. We Democrats thought Kennedy won, Republicans chose Nixon. Independents luxuriated in having it both ways with plenty of time to make up their minds by November.

After Kennedy defeated Nixon by the narrowest of margins, one tenth of one percent in the popular vote, everyone could relax and contemplate what had happened.

In 1961, Theodore White’s “The Making of the President, 1960” set a new standard of political inside-baseball and won the 1962 Pulitzer for non-fiction. All election books that followed owe much to White’s innovative look into the gamesmanship of politics.

Which brings me to the book I’m reading now: “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. The hard-fought 2008 primary campaigns of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama are revealed. We lived through it not all that long ago. Hillary was the confident candidate who promised us she’d be the Democratic nominee; Edwards was John Kerry’s hair-apparent who lived two hopeful years in Iowa; Barack Obama was a first-term Illinois senator who’d made a Kennedyesque impression with his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston.

Just like Yogi Berra says of baseball games, elections are not over until they’re over, and a terrific reporter writes the book. I always look forward to the next chapter.

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The recent Advertiser story (200 homes planned for sports ground 27 July) took me back to 1953 when as a twenty-year-old Airman 1st class stationed at nearby RAF Fairford I started dating a Swindon girl who lived off Shrivenham Road. Maureen Stone was a dedicated tennis player whose every free hour was spent playing on the BR Sports Ground courts; she reminds me that her annual club dues were exactly ten shillings.

We were introduced at the Majestic’s Saturday dances, with a live Big Band, at the bottom of the town. In minutes we discovered a number of common experiences and location names. I was but two years out of St. Michael’s High School in Northampton, Massachusetts and Maureen had recently graduated from Notre Dame High School in Northampton, England. More Saturday dances followed before we met, outside Holy Rood church, for our first date, which, as it turns out, hasn’t ended.

At any rate my nearly two-year courtship of this tennis player greatly revolved around meeting her at the BR and watching her matches. I didn’t play tennis at the time so was reduced to the role of spectator. It’s not totally in jest that I describe those days as her enjoying herself on court while I viewed the world through a chain link fence.

In time I ingratiated myself with her folks to the point that I attended other events at the BR Ground. My future father-in-law, Eddie Stone, bowled there; mum Evelyn took me to a meal in the main hall, and all of us putted around its golf greens. Many years after his retirement from his electrician job at the GWR, Eddie worked part time at the Sports Ground and invited me to join him for skittles and beer. That may have been the moment that he and I bonded forever.

Our visits to Swindon over the decades often saw us playing tennis and having a drink at the BR. It was the only “pub” in walking distance. In 1994 we visited because, as a writer, I was heading down to the South coast before ferrying to Normandy to take in the preparations for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Over at the BR we ran into Roy Ferris who, like Maureen, was still playing tennis. On a whim Maureen asked Roy if he knew the whereabouts of Joan Burroughs, her Euclid Street Secondary School classmate. Roy did, and Joan rang us the next day.  Joan and Maureen connected like they’d never been apart; she and her husband Les Morris of Bishopstone are our fast friends to this day.

Those are just a few reasons why we fondly remember the salad days of the BR Sports Ground. Its planned redevelopment into housing will be a boon for newcomers as it also closes the gate on thousands of memories like mine, and maybe yours.

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Finding a New Spiritual Home

“It took a few months for people to decide where they would find their spiritual home.” So said Mark Dupont recently, speaking for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield on what parishioners do when churches are consolidated.

I wouldn’t take Mark Dupont’s job on a bet. We wordsmiths are a singular lot paid to make silk purses out of pig’s ear situations with the aid of computers, thesauruses and otherwise useless English degrees. The concept of public relations is asking folks to accept today what they hated yesterday.

The decision to consolidate all five of Northampton’s Roman Catholic churches, each with a unique hold on their ethnic and local communities is a test of both individual and collective faith. I, for one, was baptized, confirmed and married at St. Mary of the Assumption on Elm Street. For anyone with similar longtime memories, it’s difficult to comprehend that their home parish is due to close on Jan. 3, 2010.

A trendy if condescending term, Cradle Catholic, applies to my co-religionists of America’s prewar generation. Shortly after birth we were baptized “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” confirmed around our 12th year, then let loose to find our way in the world, but buttressed by the Socratic queries of the Baltimore Catechism: “Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”

Early on you knew where you stood in relation to the world, body and soul. Your life’s purpose was to contribute with the promise of a heavenly reward. As new adults we realized that life was complex. Yet, as true believers we had a faith foundation on which to stand, and an endless resource in daily prayer. Also, praying didn’t require a venue. As a children’s hymn has it, “We are the church, happy to be the children in God’s family.”

If the people are the church, church buildings are disposable, aren’t they?

Well, yes and no. A family needs a home. In church we join a fellowship of believers. Jesus said, “Wherever two or more gather in my name, I am there.”

We need companions on our journey.

Unforgettably, the Sisters of Saint Joseph taught their students at Saint Michael’s in Northampton that the Church was universal. As one of those students, I learned that we belonged to an exclusive club with a membership in every country, where Catholic priests celebrated the Mass in a common language, Latin.

Our travels challenged old assumptions when Latin changed to the vernacular.

In Rome for the Holy Year in 2000 the local parish Mass was said in Polish, which was a surprise. In Bermuda the barrier rose higher as that Sunday’s sermon was in Portuguese. In London, an order of service in various languages was handed out to aid worshippers from around the world. At any rate, in each one of those churches the canon of the Mass was identical.

A simple measure of any church is when you’re greeted warmly at the door, and can recognize a few of the hymns. Gaining friends during potluck suppers is gravy.

Looking ahead, thousands of Pioneer Valley Catholics will be making decisions on where to worship. A serious dilemma demands a thoughtful response, one equal to what’s at stake: leaving the familiar behind and choosing a new spiritual home.

As Garry Wills states in his book “Why I Am a Catholic,” “An unexamined faith is not a faith. It is a superstition.” Author Wills is a professor, historian and layman who has justified his faith by facing up to the failures of its clergy, including Popes, before concluding, “I am not a Catholic because of the Pope. I am a Catholic because of the (Apostles’) creed.”

My experience within the Catholic Church mirrors writer Wills in that teachers, priests and fellow believers repeatedly nurture my faith when it falters. As 2009 winds down, every Catholic in the Springfield Diocese shares the duty and the right to ask what’s happening in their church. At some point each of us must find our own answer to Garry Wills’ question:

What do I believe? Is it the Apostles’ Creed, or something less?

Issues of money, tradition, acoustics, history and spires cause anxiety that, in time, will surrender to a new reality. In temporary shock, God’s people are hurting.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross laid out the path grief follows after a sudden death or loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Kubler-Ross’ stepping-stones are far apart. Our Catholic faithful will also trod a Via Dolorosa as they strive to, “Love and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”

Ergo, we live in hope. Last fall at UMass, the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and best-selling author, used both stories and statistics to explore prayer in America. Smiling, he summed up his talk by inviting his audience of believers and doubters to: “Go ahead, pray for your every wish. It can’t hurt!”

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Pay homage to those who keep soldiering on

Honor – Definition: High respect, esteem, deferential admiration; an expression of this; glory, credit, reputation, good name. (Oxford English Dictionary.)

Two military news items recently caught my eye. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen’s visit to the Valley to learn from and honor the good work of Soldier On at our Veteran Administration hospital in Leeds. Groups like Soldier On are dedicated to finding solutions to our national scandal of a quarter million homeless veterans, helping people one at a time, which is the right approach. Another notable event was President Obama’s late-night trip to honor returning war dead.

My memories extend to the millions of World War II vets who came home with a golden eagle pin in their buttonhole. The eagle represented an Honorable Discharge and was dismissed as a “ruptured duck.” The focus then was to forget the war, find a home, start a family, get an education, get a job, or all four.#

Let me count the ways we made and are making military veterans: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the cold war, Lebanon, Grenada, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s off the top of my head. Your list may be longer.

President Barack Obama left the White House at midnight. His secret mission became known on the morning news. The president had flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to personally honor the latest group of casualties returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As their nation’s leader, the president met with the families to provide what comfort he could. Also, one photograph showed him lined up with the honor guard and saluting as caskets were transferred from the rear of a C-17. Of 18 heroes flown home that night only one family gave permission for their son’s casket to be pictured.

America’s all-volunteer servicemen and women are, as the saying goes, in harm’s way. But, theirs is no gung-ho John Wayne movie where, mostly, it’s the extras that die. To watch the nightly news is to confront reality, as is reading in-depth newspaper articles and books that pull no punches on this nation’s policy errors during the last eight years.

Thousands are dead, tens of thousands remain maimed in body and in mind; our economy has been in freefall and no one of us sleeps comfortably in our beds.

War’s drumbeat has become day-to-day background noise for the majority of American families without someone in the service.

To anyone paying attention, President Obama has been accused of “dithering” by former Vice President Dick Cheney.

His charge is slanderous because this president hasn’t had a knee-jerk reaction to requests that he send more troops to Afghanistan. During George W. Bush’s two terms, Cheney was wrong so many times that his Monday morning quarterbacking should be read as an endorsement of reasoned caution. “Our troops will be greeted with flowers” in Iraq is just one awful example.

Invading or occupying forces are unwelcome in any country whose citizens have a sense of national pride. Afghanistan, where we’re taking most of our losses today, has a long history of ousting foreign troops. Just ask the British and the Russians. Our leaders will lose whatever credibility we have left if they do not honor history’s lessons.

Back to Dover AFB: The casket photographed was that of Sergeant Dale R. Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind. Sgt. Griffin was 29, a high school and college wrestler described by friends as “tough and resilient.” Griffin was killed by an IED. Every time I read of lost youth I recall John F. Kennedy’s words on military deployment complaints during his presidency, “Life is unfair.” ABC’s Sunday morning’ program, “This Week,” has an “In Memoriam” segment showing the Pentagon’s listing of names, hometowns and ages for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s always hard to watch.

Honor, dishonor, and respect are the freighted adjectives of the military and of America’s mean streets. We dare not feel superior when shots ring out in Holyoke or Springfield and blame’s given to bad drug deals. Denial serves as a weapon of choice.

It’s not only veterans becoming homeless during this down economy. Bumper stickers don’t cure ills. As Shakespeare wrote, it is “Perseverance, dear my lord, (that) keeps honour bright.” Yes, he spelled it the English way, with a “u,’ which, to me, rings truer than our shorter form – honor’s a word never long enough – if justice be served.

Veterans Day today brings a time to honor those who loyally soldiered on.

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Deep roots of American racism

In the space of a half hour last week I noticed three black people on the streets of Northampton. This caused me to mention to my companion that that was more black people than I’d seen when I was growing up here in the 1930s and ’40s.

I wondered, does even noticing make me a racist?

A Northampton, Mass., upbringing never prepared me for the world beyond its borders. Blacks were not a minority; they hardly existed in our consciousness. Therefore, we didn’t know enough to be considered racist in its commonly accepted sense. My dad’s 1940s gas station had a couple of black customers from Amherst. The Pettijohn brothers were brimming with personality, non-threatening to a fault, and rare in their visits across the Coolidge Bridge. I enjoyed their company and probably reveled in my youthful sophistication in knowing and serving exotic people like them.

Eighteen years would pass. World War II was in the rear-view mirror, but all of a sudden Korea shone in my headlights. What to do? Wait for the draft call that was sure to come, or join my high school buddies in the Air Force. Off we went, not into “the wild blue yonder” of its song, rather, to experience a crash landing in reality. The only world of racial difference that I knew was on the radio.

Amos and Andy’s two white comic actors spoofed black people in every insulting way possible. Conversely, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson gave as good as he got to Jack Benny every week. Benny’s writers, like Goodman Ace, lived up to America’s ideals. Sadly, Hollywood’s images failed our fellow African-American citizens in film after film.

Therefore, just about everyone in mid-20th century America was a closet racist. We couldn’t help it. Our indoctrination was a CIA- or KGB-quality brainwashing. We lived in a sci-fi Ray Bradbury world where everything seemed normal, but was anything but normal to the descendants of slaves who lived here, nearby us in space and time, but non-existent to the majority. We were we, they were they, and the twain seldom met.

My own distance between the ignorance of my upbringing, and the stark reality of a lower class black existence lasted just the few hours that it took our troop train to travel from Springfield to Philadelphia, Pa. It was January 1951. Shockingly, our youthful eyes took in scenes of people, black people, staring back at us from unpainted shacks that backed up to the tracks. We quickly realized that we were traveling far from New England, and that the grown-up world was going to test everything we thought we knew. The aftermath of America’s Civil War, which to us had been settled by “Gone With The Wind” in 1939, was a story in progress and not consigned to history books here, or where we were heading, Texas, where separate and unequal was the way of life.

Our stunted educations about racial differences and opportunities were not helped by World War II movies. Every military outfit’s white guys included a city-wise guy from Brooklyn, an innocent Midwest farm boy, and a tough sergeant who kept them together. A Hispanic heritage soldier was rare, and often mistrusted.

No blacks appeared as heroes, although we now know that most drivers for the “Red Ball Express” were black soldiers from segregated units who drove trucks to the front so that our army had supplies, ammo and food. In the air the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in red-tailed fighters, flew escort for bombers, and had a sterling record of bringing them home. Neither group made it into wartime movies.

The Army Air Force became the U.S. Air Force in September 1947. One year later, in 1948, and against advice, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the services. My foray down South in 1951 taught me that military desegregation was still a work in progress. Again, being brought up in Northampton, and clueless to racial differences put neophytes like myself in the crosshairs of cultural change. When I made friends with a barracks mate from Chicago, Bill Carter, I came under suspicion. Bill was friendly, a basketball player like myself, and an all-around good guy. We had to live with a redneck bully who called me a (n-word) lover to my face and threatened violence for treating Bill as an equal. Actually, Bill was smarter than I was, and braver too. We survived.

Which brings me to today’s question. Is President Jimmy Carter correct when he claims that a great deal of the mindless abuse being heaped on President Obama, and his policies, is that a minority of citizens from all parts of the country refuse to accept the fact that America has elected an African-American president?

Carter is being heavily criticized for his statements, but they have the ring of experience behind them. Jimmy Carter was born and raised in Georgia, trained for the U.S. nuclear-sub Navy, and witnessed the last 85 years of American history up close.

The times may be changing, but prejudices run as deep in our veins as the oceans where competing submarines prowl.

Sooner or later, subconsciously, they may rise to the surface

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Faith in a Resilient Obama

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Disclaimer: I have never questioned the American citizenship of Barack Obama. If this admission makes you think that I’m a relatively sane person, good for you.

My latest nonfiction read was “Renegade” by Newsweek writer Richard Wolffe. Its subtitle, “The Making of a President,” recalls Theodore White’s ground-breaking volume authored after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign, which he covered as a reporter. I read Ted White’s book in the afterglow of Jack Kennedy’s great effort to win the Democratic nomination, going on to defeat President Eisenhower’s vice president, Dick Nixon.

That I’ve lived long enough to get involved in both elections gives me pause and, for better or worse, experience.

The parallels between the Kennedy and Obama campaigns are many. Both were sitting U. S. senators when they ran, both comparatively young, and both happy warriors whose stature increased in the cauldron of a presidential campaign. The essence of any campaign is the candidates themselves who must deliver boundless energy, commitment, and the ability to out think, outwork and outsmart their opponents.

That religion touched – and nearly torched – both men says as much about hard-to-kill prejudices than anything. Our promised freedom of religion doesn’t guarantee freedom from wrong or misguided thoughts about the other person’s faith. Kennedy addressed his Catholicism before Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. Obama spoke to the nation’s race issue from the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. Both men chose the route of explanation even as they asked voters to judge them on their character and policies, not by a narrow religious test. America responded accordingly. That we’ve elected two such resilient presidents inside 50 years is a blessing and boon to our evolving democracy.

President Kennedy addressed hard issues like Communist expansionism abroad and civil rights for minorities and women at home. JFK also challenged us to reach for the moon, a technological leap that pushed the nation’s engineering envelope to create a near magical modern world that most of us carry in our pocket.

America was a different place in 1960. Brown vs. Board of Education won in the Supreme Court in 1954, but the principles its espoused lost in state after state as educational equality was ignored or bypassed by local officials. President Johnson’s prediction on signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was that “Democrats would lose the South for a generation,” which turned out to be optimistic.

In 1992, former Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, with an “It’s the economy, stupid!” internal campaign slogan won the day, defeating George Herbert Walker Bush. At the end of Bill Clinton’s second term the nation’s budget was in balance with a surplus of $559 billion. Sadly, the last gasp of LBJ’s fear was one George W. Bush.

In the disputed 2000 election Vice President Al Gore got the most votes, but a conservative United States Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, presenting “W” with leadership of the free world. As is the case with many sons, he tried to outdo his father by renewing the 1991 Iraq war, which in the view of neo-conservatives had ended badly. “W” then took the economy from surplus into a trillion-dollar deficit. Along the way people lost their jobs, homes and businesses. However, the rich among us got a lot richer thanks to Bush tax cuts tilted in their favor. His disastrous presidency ended Jan. 20. Coming to its senses at last, America voted in Barack Obama over John McCain. In his first six months Obama has tackled a myriad of festering national problems: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed to put the nation back on track toward recovery. Its initial effect is lower middle class taxes plus aid to help states, schools, and communities deal with the worst recession since the 1930s. This huge program is set to expend funds over three years. Crassly, its GOP doubters complain that it hasn’t worked yet. Obama’s critics are many, but as he notes “they have short memories.”

Bush’s laundry list of disasters is going to take some time to fix.

The crazies from the right are using tactics not seen since 2000 when hired goons flew from Washington, D.C., to Florida where they banged on windows demanding that the recount stop. National Health Care is the August 2009 hot topic and a lot of folks are acting stupidly. Take the woman who demanded of the president, “No government health care, and don’t mess with my Medicare.” Silliness abounds, and deserves a strong rebuttal.

Not to worry, here’s Richard Wolffe quoting Obama in the heat of the 2008 campaign: “You can walk into a room with a sunny disposition. You can smile and say yes sir, no sir, yes ma am, no ma am. And if they don’t agree with you, you’ve got the votes and you will beat them and you can do it with a smile on your face. That’s how we’re going to win an election. That’s how we’re going to bring change to this country and we are happy warriors for change.”

The Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress. Obama has the votes. America will soon join the world’s industrialized nations by providing national health care insurance to make American workers and their employers more competitive.

Better late than never!

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How the ‘Big Three’ lost their way

The great American humorist Will Rogers began his stage act by cracking open a daily newspaper and commenting on our human follies, especially the political ones. He said, “It’s not so hard to be a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”

Leaving politics aside for the moment, I’m here to tackle a subject equally close to my heart, the automobile business in its decline, and my own hard knock experiences from inside Detroit during the 20th century, when things started to fall apart.

Another apt quote from Will Rogers applies, in my mind, to the former Big Three: “Everybody’s ignorant. Only on different subjects.”

Let’s begin with the postwar year of 1947. Building on his success of running a gas station since 1934, my dad decided to become a new car dealer. I was a teenager and overly enamored of the flashy new models that were beginning to arrive at our local dealerships.

Gone were the prewar clamshell fenders above each wheel; in were the slab-sided, sleek Ford, Mercury and Lincoln from Ford. General Motors’ lineup was even more stylish, with Buick’s portholes and exquisite chrome grille declaring that wartime dullness was a thing of the past.

GM had a size and a price for every class of buyer: Chevrolet for dependable transport. Pontiac with similar “Body by Fisher,” but chromed to a fair-thee-well for the up-and-comer. Oldsmobile was a Buick clone, yet flashier. Its Rocket V8 set young hearts aflutter as it burnished Olds’ reputation as GM’s technology leader. And Cadillac, well, what can you say about Cadillac that wasn’t said first by its advertising copywriters: “The Standard of the World.”

Last but not least in the “Big Three” was Chrysler. It had a softer-edged Plymouth lineup to compete with Chevy and Ford. Dodge cars offered a slight upgrade in trim from Plymouth, but in nearly identical body styles, a la Chevy and Pontiac. Dodge trucks were unsophisticated workhorses with a military resume. A leap upwards from Dodge took buyers to DeSoto, which shared bodies and engines with Chrysler but with slightly lower price and prestige. In those more humble days a successful doctor or business owner could luxuriate in his Buick or DeSoto, avoiding the neo-wealth boast of a new Cadillac or Chrysler.

Yes, the Big Three had a car for every pocketbook. Or, as one of my top salesmen used to confidently say regarding certain slow-selling models, “there’s a rear-end for every seat.” If his theory lived in dealerships of the day it was likely born then nurtured in Detroit.

Complacency breeds contempt for the customer and hubris for the world. It permeated Detroit and especially the bigwigs of GM, Ford and Chrysler. The we-know-best answer came down quick and hard when dealers would ask Chrysler, for example, “why don’t we build more compact station wagons?” Dodge 1980s Aries K-Car wagons accounted for a solid 40 percent of sales in New England. The model was dropped soon afterward. Subaru, another compact station wagon, is now New England’s volume sales leader in its class.

Getting back to the sales heyday of the 1940s and ’50s, there was enough business overall to support a number of independent makers: Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, Packard, Willys-Jeep and Kaiser-Fraser come to mind. Pent-up demand from the war years could only last so long, and by the time that I left the Air Force in 1955 the mergers had begun. Nash and Hudson became American Motors, which enjoyed great success under the leadership of George Romney, who parlayed business success into the governorship of Michigan and a run for the presidency. All the other independents, except Jeep, fell by the wayside as sales dwindled due to competition and the cost of developing new models. Automobiles are a volume business, and when volume drops by 40 to 50 percent as it has in the past year, even well-managed companies like Honda and Toyota lose money.

Romney had an argument and a concept that American cars as built by the Big Three were too big, absorbed too many of the world’s resources, and could only be described as “gas-guzzling dinosaurs.” An American Motors Rambler compact car delivered up to 30 miles per gallon, had room for six in its sedans; its Cross Country station wagons with built-in roof racks anticipated the green movement and minivans decades before their arrival.

In the 1960s Romney even initiated a modest incentive program to reward dealers for junking old, out-of-date, gas-guzzling trade-ins. This idea has just been adopted in Europe, and there’s a bill in Congress to soon give thousands of dollars in tax breaks to buyers who upgrade to the American-built electric and hybrid cars of tomorrow.

American Motors/Jeep merged with French automaker Renault in the early ’80s, which didn’t work out as hoped. Renault left the U.S. market when it sold AMC/Jeep to Chrysler in 1987. Germany’s Daimler-Benz spent $28 billion to acquire a profitable Chrysler in 1998, only to sell it back to Cerberus Capital, for peanuts, in 2007. Let’s hope that this week’s Fiat and Chrysler merger ends a whole lot happier.

That our world is changing is beyond dispute. The “Big Three” of my youth contributed greatly to the growth of the American middle class. Their sudden collapse in the deep recession of 2008 came as a shock to me and to many. The average driver must be equally mystified at the recent news stories detailing a huge industry’s crash and burn. We want to look away, but cannot. President Obama has committed his administration to rescuing the American auto business from itself by insisting on new management and a quick downsizing of GM, Chrysler and their dealer networks to reflect market realities. To paraphrase Will Rogers: “Obama never met a headache he didn’t face head on.”

My sympathies lie with thousands of independent franchised dealers who, like my late dad, his sons and his grandchildren, invested their lives, fortunes and reputations to serve an industry that let them and our nation down. Thousands of hometowns are losing locally owned dealerships, vendors and suppliers along with thousands of good jobs and the positive economic impact inherent in small businesses from coast to coast.

All thanks to a once great automobile industry that lost its way, and like many of us drivers, refused to seek or respond to new directions.

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Taking an afternoon break from a writing project I switched on my television to discover President Barak Obama leading a seminar among Democratic and Republican Congressmen, Senators, Chamber of Commerce officials and other concerned experts at a White House meeting. The topic of the day was the country’s economic mess.

The conferees had spent the day broken into various groups: health care, social security, the budget deficit, Pentagon purchasing practices, etc. The president took the podium to ask for feedback from the various panels.

The first person he called on was Senator John McCain from the Pentagon group. McCain brought up the cost of the controversial program to replace the presidential helicopter fleet, noting that it would end up costing more than Air Force One. Unfazed, President Obama agreed with McCain, remarking that he’d already asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to look into the matter. Obama added that as far as he could determine the present helicopters seemed fine to him, adding with a smile that as this was his first helicopter ever and that, “maybe I was deprived without knowing it.”

Topic after topic was addressed with the knowledgeable president seemingly in control of each subject.

His fearlessness came through when one respondent, talking about health care, warned that public discussion should avoid certain buzzwords that may prove toxic to progress. “You mean like socialized medicine,” interjected the president.

Cable TV’s talking heads are coming around to agreeing that Americans want to hear the truth, rejecting former President Bush’s Jack Nicholson-like evasions that, “you can’t handle the truth.”

For example, Obama’s new budget will forswear the off budget “trickery” of the Bush years by including the cost of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As one more retiree who’s watched his life savings of pension and 401k plans melt in half over the past 16 months, I’m paying extra attention to the new administration.

I’m recalling the quietude of the Eisenhower administration to Kennedy-era excitement, Lyndon B. Johnson’s brave social progress offset by his quixotic pursuit of victory in Vietnam; nailing Nixon’s paranoia and price controls, Ford’s word-fight against inflation, then Carter’s: malaise, oil embargoes, and very expensive 20 percent interest rates; Ronald Reagan’s cheery unfounded optimism as he doubled America’s national debt, followed by George H.W, Bush’s first Iraq oil war and five hundred billion dollar savings bank bail out.

Next came Bill Clinton’s focused rescue of the American economy putting the budget in surplus until the Supreme Court gave us George II. This accidental presidency of a Texas tyro did us in altogether by replicating Reagan’s doubling of the national debt all the way to 10 trillion dollars. His “leadership” was so lacking that I don’t have space here to list all of his failures.

Let’s just agree that we’re not better off today than we were eight years ago.

Now come President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden. Two true Democrats who believe in and respect the intelligence the people of America enough to actually address the nation’s ills.

The Middle Class, for starters, has been getting the short end of the stick for a decade. Family incomes are down, expenses are up and the fat cats on Wall Street have run away with everyone’s money. You know that things have gone haywire when the granddaughter and heir of the Bank of America’s founder calls its management “idiots” who have abandoned the founder’s moral approach to serving customers by keeping their trust. Her stock’s value has disappeared, and she’s mad as hell. Why we don’t have riots in the streets is a mystery to me.

The American public, to our credit, is slow to anger, but patience has its limits. Trust engraved on the side of a big bank building means nothing when it’s absent from management’s greedy heart. Better: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa! Just in time for Lent, too.

The conspiracy theorists have it right: Humpty Dumpty (i.e., America’s economy) was pushed. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men are names we’re beginning to know all too well: Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Paul Volker are charged with the greatest reconstruction of wealth in history. Trillions in value has been shriven from markets from New York, to London, to Mumbai. Confidence in the world’s economies has gone from riches to rags, from millionaires to slumdogs, 401k’s to 201k’s.

As a Yellow Dog Democrat I have faith not only in Barack Obama’s intelligence, but also in his instincts to do right by the great majority of hard working Americans.

He’s the change we’ve long been waiting for, and have been missing for so long that many voters may not believe it at first.

Instead of a poseur as nominal president and “decider,” we now have a thinking person willing to debate the issues before unfriendly crowds, able to argue his points, and demand “constructive” criticism from the minority party.

His urgent attitude of “lead, follow or get out of the way” is what works in the military and is what we again have in the White House.

And, it’s not a moment too soon. Thank God!

Jim Cahillane is a freelance writer and poet. He lives in Williamsburg.

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