Archive

December 12th

Godspeed, John Glenn

    We've lost the last of the Mercury Seven astronauts, the prodigious test pilots chosen to be the first Americans to fly into space. In the 1960s, nearly every American youth could list them: Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper and Slayton. Only Gus Grissom would die with his spacesuit on (during the Apollo program), but all were heroically willing to go into the unknown - not for themselves, not for scientific purposes, but for us, the American people, made fearful by a strutting Soviet Union not only armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons but also clearly intent on carrying its hammer-and-sickle philosophy to the moon and beyond. It was a scary time for Americans, but the Mercury men, with their swagger and big grins, projected a confidence that we could share. We reveled in their boldness, not to mention (especially for us boys) their fondness for gorgeous women, hot cars and speed.

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What does it take to get a police officer punished for killing an unarmed black man?

    Watch the video. Walter Scott, unarmed and slow of foot, tries to run away. Police officer Michael Slager calmly fires five rounds into Scott's back. Later, Slager approaches Scott's body, not to give first aid but apparently to plant evidence of a struggle that never took place.

    Now tell me: How cheap is black life in these United States of America?

    A jury in North Charleston, South Carolina, could not agree that Slager committed a crime, forcing the judge in the case to declare a mistrial. Prosecutors quickly announced they will try Slager again. In the optimistic view, this week's stunning result, or non-result, means justice deferred rather than justice denied. I'm trying to be an optimist, but at the moment it's not easy.

    Tell me: What does it take to get a police officer punished for killing an unarmed black man in cold blood?

    The whole thing is on video, people. A passerby named Feidin Santana used his mobile phone to capture Scott's final minutes. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Santana gave lengthy testimony at Slager's trial.

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If not on 'voter fraud,' when will Trump's inner circle stop going along with his false assertions?

    One would think that Reince Priebus, the guy in charge of the Republican Party's 2016 electoral efforts, would be unwilling to entertain the nonsensical idea that millions of people who participated in it voted illegally. After all, the Republicans did very well in 2016 - holding the Senate, holding the House and retaking the White House. And, after all, it would largely be up to Priebus as head of one of the two major political parties to maintain the integrity of the election - and up to the Republican attorneys general in the majority of the states to police things.

    That policing happens, of course. Any number of safeguards and protections are in place to ensure the integrity of the vote. Over the course of the election, we found a grand total of four proven instances in which someone was caught trying to vote more than once in person or by absentee ballot. The system works, and Priebus should both know and reiterate that point.

    Confronted by CBS' John Dickerson on Sunday morning, though, he didn't.

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Democrats have lost an entire generation of congressional leaders

    You might have missed the news this past week that Rep. Xavier Becerra will leave Congress to become California's attorney general. Becerra wasn't the highest-profile member of Congress. But his departure is a piece of a broader exodus of Democratic House members once regarded as the next leaders of the party in Washington.

    For Becerra, the move makes sense. His stock in Washington had fallen somewhat in recent months, and with Rep. Nancy Pelosi's reelection as minority leader last week - and the retention of the two other top leaders for House Democrats - it would be at least two more years before Becerra could move up the leadership ladder. Now he will be positioned to run for a statewide office (governor in 2022 or 2026, Senate in 2018) or be plucked by the next Democratic president as a Cabinet pick. Plus, he is being appointed to the job by Gov. Jerry Brown, meaning that he will run as an incumbent in 2018. (The job is open because Kamala Harris won election to the Senate last month.)

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Trump says he'll cancel Obama's 'unconstitutional' executive actions. It's not that easy.

    During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged to "cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama." The good news was that Trump did not simply use the phrase "executive order" to describe every administrative tool presidents can use. That simplification is inaccurate.

    The bad news was that it wasn't clear, then or now, which particular actions he deemed "unconstitutional." Many of those he complained most about on the campaign trail - about gun control, for instance - had little substantive impact on gun ownership or use.

    In any case, judging from his recent YouTube video announcing his own plans for "Day One" of his administration, Trump sees executive actions exactly as other presidents have: as a means to show leadership and to push forward his policy preferences fast, without the tedium of the legislative process. (In his two-and-a-half minute video, Trump never used the word "Congress," though other items from his campaign's "100-day plan" would clearly need legislative approval.)

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The faux teacher shortage

    Here's something I've been struggling to understand: What makes the prospect of a national teacher shortage such an immediately compelling narrative, capable of spreading with the speed of a brush fire?

    With almost no real data - because neither states nor the federal government collects the information that would be needed to pronounce the onset of a true teacher shortage - we witness the press, school districts, state school boards and even Congress conclude that we are in the throes of a full-blown national crisis.

    At the root of this crisis is a New York Times news article published two summers ago reporting on six school districts that were having a tough time filling positions (though all but two ultimately started the year just fine). Whoosh! Overnight the teacher shortage became real.

    That early spark was then steadily fed by news articles reporting that teacher preparation programs were facing unprecedented enrollment drops.

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Raw emotions persist in run-up to Trump presidency

    Every four years, the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government assembles the managers of the presidential campaigns for a deep, post-election debrief. It is always illuminating and generally civil, with occasional fireworks. Because the 2016 election was unlike any other, this year's managers conference was also unlike any other.

    In the immediate aftermath of President-elect Donald Trump's victory over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, all the leading players said the right things. Trump called for healing and said that he would try to bring the country together. Clinton asked her supporters to give the newly elected president the space and opportunity to govern. President Barack Obama, despite harsh words for Trump through the campaign, said that he would assure an orderly transfer of power in the spirit of reconciliation.

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What it was like to look up to John Glenn

    John Glenn was one of my heroes. When I was a kid, we would learn about the exploits of the Mercury astronauts in "My Weekly Reader" and gawk at their photographs in "Life." Each of us had a favorite, and Glenn was mine. I was in second grade in February 1962 when he became the first American to orbit the globe, and like the rest of the country I was ecstatic.

    Glenn, who died this week at 95, was the rare public figure who was just exactly what he seemed -- the smiling, hardworking Presbyterian from a little town in Ohio who joined the Marines as an aviator after Pearl Harbor, won medals in two wars, and became the face of the U.S. space program. He was a genuine hero at a time when heroes were in short supply.

    It's hard to capture for the contemporary reader the extent to which the Cold War dominated public life in the early 1960s. This was the era of fallout shelters and air raid drills. Glenn's flight was sandwiched between the crises in Berlin and Cuba, either of which could have erupted into a conflagration. Children worried as much as adults about Armageddon. My friends and I used to bet nickels and dimes on when World War III would start.

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December 11th

Our Only Hope

    Following the election I expressed the hope that this President-Elect continuing to promote such extreme views would alarm even his Republican colleagues sufficiently to hold him in check. Alas, his pronouncements and actions have continued in the same vein with concern only being expressed by those Democrats smart enough to have opposed his election in the first place. The concern is more than normal political differences of how to run a nation. It is extremism in the extreme!

    To be sure there were many of his party members who did express opposition from time to time but when push came to shove they were right there at his side supporting his election. So much for responsibility! Yes, there is something to be said for joining him now that he has the office in hopes of mitigating his extreme stated policies. My referral is to the few who cautioned us regarding the candidate who are now under consideration for high posts. The appointment of agency heads whose purpose seems to be to dismantle the agency is a different matter.

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How to Win a Senate Race

    It takes a certain force of will to turn away, even briefly, from the burlesque of Donald Trump’s transition into the presidency. But that’s not the entirety of U.S. politics, just as his election wasn’t the lone political story of 2016. Other contests had important lessons. One especially draws my eye.

    It was a gigantic win for Republicans, who will use it as a model. But Democrats can learn as much from it, because it mirrored some mistakes they made nationwide.

    I’m referring to Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election in Ohio. His seat was one that Democrats identified early as a potential steal, and through much of 2015 and 2016, political analysts tagged the race as one of the most competitive in the country. But he ended up winning by 21 points.

    Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio by a smaller margin of 8 points, so Portman didn’t merely surf a Republican wave. And while the Democratic Party essentially gave up on the race two months before Election Day, diverting money elsewhere, that didn’t fully explain the size of Portman’s victory. Nor did his formidable war chest of funds.

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