Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wendy Davis' heroic stand

In one of the more epic filibusters, Wendy Davis stood and delivered for 13 hours a filibuster that staved off a draconian anti-abortion bill in Texas.  This stopped the Senate from ram-rodding a bill pushed by Rick Perry, as the 30-day special legislative session expired at midnight and Ms. Davis was still standing in her now famous pink Mizuno tennis shoes.  These are one of the preferred shoes of marathon runners, and Ms. Davis stood for what would essentially be 3 marathons for most runners to stave off this measure.

She got help from some of her female colleagues, notably Leticia Van de Putte, who stood down a last minute effort by Republicans to force a vote over Wendy's filibuster.  Unlike other filibusters we have seen recently, this one had consequences, as this anti-abortion measure has been adopted in neighboring Oklahoma and Arkansas as well as other Southern and Plains states.  Hopefully, this incredible stand will call attention to the nation-wide effort of conservative groups to greatly limit a women's right to her own body.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

One special election down, one to go

No surprises in Massachusetts as former US Representative Ed Markey held off Navy Seal Gabriel Gomez by 10 percentage points.  Markey had the money and the clout to withstand the challenge.  The GOP offered little support for Gomez, who distanced himself from the Tea Party in presenting himself as a moderate in favor of gun control and supporting the Affordable Care Act and pending Immigration bill.  But, in most other respects Gomez was thoroughly Republican.

Scott Brown is now seen as  a "blip on the radar screen."  Remember when Republicans were so excited about his "surprise victory," hailing him as the 41st Senator in an effort to derail the ACA.

The surprise to me is that over 50 per cent of Bay State voters don't identify themselves with either party, although these so-called Independents tend to lean Democrat in Massachusetts.  This is well above the national average.  Seems fewer and fewer persons want to identify themselves with one party or the other.

Next up for the Democrats, the vacant Senate seat in New Jersey.

Jump Jim Crow

Jim Crow rears his ugly head again in a devastating Supreme Court decision that allows state voter ID laws and a number of other discriminatory state voting laws, after the federal government fought so hard to defeat these pernicious laws in the lead up to the 2012 election.  "Chief Justice" Roberts calls Section 4 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act "outdated," and that it needs to be modernized, yet cites examples where the section has helped many voters gain access to the voting booth where they otherwise wouldn't.  "Justice" Alito rolled his eyes when Ginsburg issued her statement in opposition to the decision.  The biggest surprise is Anthony Kennedy, who had what appears to be the deciding vote and voted for the repeal of Section 4.

Not surprisingly, this challenge to the Voting Rights Act came from Shelby, Alabama.  Congress had voted to uphold the Voting Rights Act in 2006, in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, but here is Roberts saying Congress needs to review the provisions of Section 4, which Southern states have repeatedly defied and challenged since 1965.

One can only shrug one's shoulders at the decisions that have been rendered by this Supreme Court ever since Roberts was confirmed as the Court's top judge.  At times, he has seemed impartial, as witnessed on his position on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, but when it comes to voting rights he has consistently voted the Republican hard line, making one wonder what, if any, impartiality this current court has.  It seems bought and paid for by conservative business interests, which want to skew the electoral process in their favor.  If Congress was so worried about an outdated electoral process, how about overturning the Electoral College.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Eulogy on King Philip

I finally finished Dan Richter's Facing East from Indian Country.  Very strong ending as he writes that the Revolutionary War was as much about nullifying the British treaties with Northeastern Indians as it was about taxes, illustrating how the Colonists felt that the Indians were allies with the British, and that the British treaties impeded Westward territorial expansion.  After the war, when some of the Northeast tribes were able to forge treaties with new United States, Jefferson and others undermined them by encouraging northeastern territorial governors, like William Henry Harrison in the Indiana territory, to encourage trade which would put the local tribes into debt, settled only by land acquisitions.  In this way the US was able to get Ohio and Indiana for roughly two cents per acre.

The frustration among the indigenous tribes was best summed up in William Apess' Eulogy on King Philip, referring to the famous Metacom.  Apess, a metis who had skipped around from foster home to foster home as a youth, elevated the famous Wampanoag chief to an indigenous hero, far greater than George Washington and other heroes immortalized by the Revolutionary War.  Apess had been an itinerant Methodist preacher before organizing the Mashpee Revolt in Massachusetts in the early 1830s.  He essentially turned Daniel Webster's mythmaking about the Pilgrims on its head, offering a counter-version of the settling of America that went largely ignored in its time, but has since been resurrected in North American literature anthologies.  He was one of the few native Americans effectively able to convey his sentiments in English, and was quite prolific in his writings.

Richter does for Appess's Eulogy what Eric Foner did for W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction, restoring a famous narrative to its rightful place in history.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Burke's works

This new book on Edmund Burke by British MP Jesse Norman looks very interesting. The author, who is currently the number two man in the British conservative party, attempts to not only place Burke within the context of his times, but in the second half of the book illustrate how Burke's views have been co-opted for better and for worse, notably by American Republicans, who have drifted far from the intent, much less the meaning of Burke's works.

Burke was probably best known during his time for his repudiation of the French Revolution, which he compiled in his Reflections in 1790, before things turned sour.  Others, like Thomas Paine, extolled the Revolution, hoping that it would lead to a more egalitarian society.

For Burke, it didn't matter so much who ran government, but how it was run.  He was a conservative in the old sense believing in a free and open society, but one in which property rights were paramount.  He found the kind of "egalitarianism" being bandied about in France as nothing more than government usurpation, which is pretty much how things turned out.  Burke was against slavery and autocracies, believing that the best society was a stable society, grounded in British common law.

Norman considers himself the standard bearer of Burkian conservatism, and has at times schooled David Cameron on these basic principles, much to Cameron's chagrin. The interesting thing to me is that British conservatism hasn't markedly changed over the last two centuries, whereas American conservatism has morphed into a kind of theocratic thinking, which Burke would have very much abhorred.

Yet, you still see Burke's name bandied about in American conservative circles, particularly among neo-conservatives, which according to Norman, miss the mark as well.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Of Blue-blooded Kings and Redcoats

We all know the Revolutionary War as told by the victors, but here is an account that pieces together the stories told by the losers.  It is often depicted as one of the those events where the British snapped defeat from the jaws of victory.  Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy takes the British point of view in The Men Who Lost America, focusing on a number of factors that ultimately led to them losing the colonies.   We get the viewpoints of King George III, Prime Ministrer Lord North and military leaders like General Burgoyne, who led one successful military campaign after another, only to find distant factors result in a lack of British resolve against the upstart colonists.  But, in the end O'Shaughnessy, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, seems to give a greater amount of the credit to the colonists themselves than many historians, especially British historians, had been willing to concede.  Here's a review from the Examiner.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Scandalmongers

It is fast turning into the summer of scandals, much like 2009 when Obama found himself hopelessly entwined in one petty "scandal" after another, the most annoying was the so-called "beer summit" to ease tensions over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.  The Republicans were effectively able to deflect attention away from the health care bill moving through Congress by forcing Obama to explain himself when he rose to the defense of Gates.

As Yogi Berra would say, "it is deja vu all over again," as Republicans try to deflect attention away from the immigration bill and other pressing legislation in Congress.  Heritage Action for America, a toxic by-product of the Heritage Foundation, is apparently urging Boehner and House Republicans to focus on the scandals and avoid bringing any significant legislation to the House floor, which could highlight major schisms in the GOP.  In other words, beware of the Teabaggers!  Darrell Issa appears to be the Heritage Action's point man, continuing his investigation into the IRS scandal, even after Elijah Cummings called out Issa on the phony scandal, demanding full release of the transcripts.

On an amusing note, John Oliver was having fun with these scandals, as he hosts the Daily Show this summer, calling Jon Stewart on his finger phone to avoid NSA detection.  Another story that has become completely overblown, fueled by the Wikileaks wannabe, Edward Snowden, who surreptitiously downloaded classified information while working as an independent contractor at NSA.  The Guardian is heralding him as the next Daniel Ellsburg, yet provides the same useless background information on Snowden you read everywhere else.  Snowden appears to want to maximize his new found celebrity by leaking his "secrets" out as slowly as possible.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are doing their damnedest to shy away from the controversial immigration bill, which is highly unpopular among their Tea Party constituency.  Marco Rubio finds himself at the center of this maelstrom, as he was chosen as the GOP front man in this bipartisan effort to reform a system that has about 11 million persons falling through the cracks.  If nothing else, having so many "illegals" in the country constitutes a security threat and I would think Republicans would be just as anxious as Democrats to have them documented.

Yep, nothing like avoiding such pressing issues, especially when you have pit bulls within your own political party biting at your heels.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Liberator

Sadly, we have not dealt much with history South of the Border, but we could rectify that with this new book on Simon Bolivar, the first great liberator of Latin America, launching an independence bid that led to the formation of Gran Columbia, rivaling the fledgling United States.  Bolivar has long figured heavily into Latin American history and fiction.  I remember reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The General and His Labyrinth, which was based directly on Bolivar, and Autumn of the Patriarch, which more loosely explores a similar theme.

Here is Marie Arana, a novelist and journalist taking her stab at the Generalissimo in a new book that attempts to put the man within the context of his time.  It seems she weaves in a lot of intrigue, notably attempts by the US to undermine his authority, as many felt (including those in Gran Columbia) that Bolivar was just another Napoleon.  But, Arana seems to focus on his liberal ideals with perhaps a bit too much veneration to read the NY Times review.

There is no question of Bolivar's importance in Latin America, which is why so many leaders have attempted to assume his mantle, most recently Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The God Vote

The Republicans still don't seem to have figured out that part of their problem is the voters they cater to.  This is a vote they have in their back pocket.  Who else are religious voters going to vote for?  Certainly not Democrats.  But, the Republicans only gut check seems to be to re-identify themselves with their own core constituency.

Joe Biden teed off on the Republicans this week, notably Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.  Not surprisingly, the veteran senator had a hard time understanding how Republicans and a handful of Democrats could allow two freshmen senators to bully them on the background checks bill.  But, these two senators appear to feel they have god on their side.  At least, Ted Cruz does.

It was great to see a leading Democrats finally come out and attack Republicans.  For the past two years the Dems seem to have been laying low, afraid to get in the fray, as they cater to social conservatives as well in many Congressional districts.  But, with the political lines growing ever more divisive it seems veteran Democrats are tired of all this filibustering and grandstanding and are making a big push to overturn the House in 2014, and hopefully get something accomplished in the last two years of the Obama administration.

Already, the Republicans are gearing up for 2016 with Mitt Romney (of all people) hosting a policy retreat in Park City, Utah.  He seems to think the Republicans have a chance, but I'm sure any potential Republican nominee will stay as far away from Mitt as possible.  This guy is damaged goods.

But in this strange world, new polls show that Americans now have a more positive impression than negative impression of George W. Bush.  See what a few dog paintings and opening a presidential library will do for you.  Probably no one did more than Dubya to make the GOP God's Own Party.

Daniel Williams further expounds on the making of the Christian Right in a book by the same title.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Never Cry Wolf

I noticed that one of the stories getting a lot of press these days is the proposal to take gray wolves off the endangered species list.  Most of the articles view this is yet another plot by the Republicans, and worse Obama, to vilify wolves.  Yet, this is a proposal put forward by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, not partisan lawmakers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service notes that gray wolves have made tremendous gains in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region.  Director Dan Ashe wants to call attention to a far more pressing problem in the Mexican gray wolf, which is struggling in the Southwest states.  Ashe feels that the northern gray wolf population can fend for itself.

To show how outdated these alarmist stories are.  The Rocky Mountain wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2011, which was supported by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, because the wolf was posing a threat to elk, moose and deer.

It seems you really have to dig through the news today to find the original sources.  What's worse is that the stories are often truncated into memes and spread across facebook by political activist organizations.  I'm sure there are a lot of Republicans who would like to see wolves removed from the endangered species list all together, since in general they are against any form of regulation, but in this case the proposed removal was the result of careful study, not political wrangling.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Time to call in the Dogs

Darrell Issa has been doing his damnedest to try to drag Obama into a scandal, but so far has only looked like the Congressional version of Glenn Beck with all his half-brained conspiracy theories.  Issa simply won't let go of  Benghazi, calling Jay Carney a "paid liar" the other day,which brought condemnation from within his own ranks.  But, the GOP mostly stays mum about their McCarthyite pit bull, thinking if he digs around enough he might actually find something that they can all gnaw on.

Meanwhile, Obama pretty much defused the "Verizongate" scandal, noting that they only tracked phone calls, not listened in, which the Patriot Act allows the administration to do.  For that matter, all the police needs is a court order to do the same, and the Obama administration has that too. But, the media-generated scandal does call attention to the fact that the Patriot Act was renewed for the second time, which Obama signed onto in 2011.  So, if Americans are that concerned with unwarranted eavesdropping then they better urge their Congresspersons to not renew it again in 2015.

Still, there is this overall impression by those on the Left that Obama is continuing many of the same policies initiated under Bush, resulting in this caricature, while the Right continues to vilify him any chance it gets.  David Frum effectively argued in his last piece on The Daily Beast, that the GOP would be wise to refrain from shibboleths about Obama and focus more on strategy in the coming months, because the midterms currently favor the Democrats.

Obama's "middle of the road" approach seems to infuriate persons on both ends of the political spectrum.  Yet, his approval rating holds steady in the face of all these faux scandals, which I imagine is why Republican leaders would like to see Issa back off. The GOP runs the danger of being viewed purely as scandalmongers.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Life of John Hay

In search of a new book for our reading group, I found this interesting new title, All the Great Prizes, which chronicles the extraordinary career of John Hay, who served presidential administrations from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt.  You'd be pretty hard pressed to find another figure in American history who had this much access to political power, yet few persons know him or have paid much interest in him since he passed away in 1905.  Hay is probably best known for the biography he wrote of Lincoln.

Of course, the blog is open to other suggestions, so please feel free to present books you think would make for a good discussion.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Morning After

It took some time but the Republicans were finally able to cash in on Reagan's 1985 vision of American life in the 1994 midterms, overturning the House and splitting the Senate as America saw a profound demographic shift take place.  Bill Clinton exacerbated the situation by bringing up dreaded health care reform and a rather modest push for an open policy toward gays in the military.  Newt and the GOP seized on these issues in the midterms, putting forward their Contract with America, which was largely based on Reagan's 1985 State of the Union address.  Of course, conveniently forgotten was that all that deregulation Reagan championed led to the collapse of the Savings and Loan Associations across America.  A lot of persons woke up in a deep funk, having lost their life savings.

No matter, it was a new era of optimism.  Even our sense of military prowess was restored when George H.W. Bush successfully led an international mission to restore Kuwait's independence from the evil tyranny of Saddam Hussein, reputed to have the fifth largest military in the world.  But, the Persian Gulf War turned into a rout and the media became more interested in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, this was taken as a second great victory, as American values and democracy had triumphed over communism in an epic Cold War.  This seemed to justify America's unprecedented military build-up over the previous 10 years, as the United States became the world's lone super power.  Dixiecrats no longer identified the GOP as the Party of Lincoln, but as the Party of Reagan, flocking to the Republican Party in record numbers, which set the stage for the political rout in 1994 that saw Republicans not only retake the House for the first time in 40 years, but capture many traditional Democratic state legislatures and gubernatorial seats, with the Bush brothers winning Texas and Florida.

Yep, it was definitely a new morning that seemed to catch Democrats completely by surprise, and one they weren't able to recover from until 2006 when they retook the House as the "Dubya" Bush administration began to unravel.  But, the Republicans dusted off the contract again in 2010, bathed it in the same Reagan glow, and regained the House.  As, dear Ronnie would say, "there you go again."

I often think what a different morning we would have had if Carter had been re-elected, but the failed mission to rescue the hostages in Iran pretty much killed any chance he had.  His administration was already mired in economic woes and his battles with fellow Democrats split the party in 1980.  Granted, Carter wasn't a very effective leader, but as Douglas Brinkley noted in his book, The Unfinished Presidency, Carter had set one of the most ambitious executive agendas since FDR, with his signature legislation being a new energy policy that would have greatly reduced US dependence on foreign oil.  He even had solar panels installed on the White House roof to signal this change in environmental awareness.  He also had the White House switch to more fuel efficient Chrysler K-cars, after bailing out the auto manufacturer.

Not surprisingly, one of the first executive actions Reagan did was to remove the solar panels and restore the fleet of limousines.  Having been part of the gilded era of Hollywood, Reagan knew that appearances count, and he couldn't possibly restore optimism in America, without making the White House look like a Presidential Palace, not an experiment in solar energy.

Obama, who himself offered a bold new energy policy in his 2008 campaign, vowed to restore the solar panels on the White House, but here we are five years later and no solar panels and no energy policy, thanks largely to an obstructionist House which refuses to fund such initiatives.  It looks like we woke up from that "Morning in America" with a pretty bad hangover.


If Historians are looking for a key moment that redefined the American political landscape, the election of George W. Bush as governor of Texas has to be it.  Nearly 20 years later, it remains a mystery to me how "Boy George" beat a very popular incumbent governor.  Texas Monthly sized up the situation by saying that Ann Richards underestimated Bush, waiting until it was too late to go after him.  She seemed to think that her record spoke for itself.

She was also the victim of a profound demographic shift in Texas, which turned what had been a traditional Democratic state into a solid Republican state virtually overnight and the legacy lives on with Rick Perry in his 13th year as Governor.

It was also a signal change in Republican campaign tactics, spearheaded by Karl Rove, which used "character assassination" to undermine a much stronger candidate.   A technique Rove would use mercilessly in the subsequent presidential elections.  The most amazing being the attempt to discredit John McCain's Vietnam war record in the 2000 primaries, and later the Swift Boat ads he helped choreograph to undermine Kerry's Vietnam war record, when it was Bush who skipped out on Vietnam by joining the National Guard, which he infrequently attended.

At the same time, Rove presented Bush as a "compassionate conservative," appealing directly to conservative religious voters without turning off mainstream voters.  The result was that half-million new Republican voters pitched up in 1994, who hadn't voted in 1990, turning a gubernatorial election that was too close to call into an 8-point rout.

Of course, Molly Ivins did a great job of reporting on Bush as governor and later president, summing her thoughts up in Bushwhacked.  But, it seems a forgotten chapter in the meteoric rise of the least promising of the Bush sons.

Monday, June 3, 2013

First Pets

Ever since getting a dog, Animal Planet has become one of our favorite channels.  Not so long ago, there was a special on Presidential Pets.

It seems the White House isn't complete without a dog to help deflect unwanted attention.  Barack Obama, who apparently never owned a dog before, found himself having to keep a promise to his daughters when he won the 2008 election, and so we have the most recent entry to the canine hall of fame, Bo, a Portuguese Water Dog, that came from the same litter as one of Ted Kennedy's prized "Porties."

Everyone has their favorite "DOTUS" or "First Dog."  I particularly enjoyed the segment on LBJ's favorite pooch, Yuki, who often stole the show at White House meetings and gatherings, especially when the two decided to do a sing-a-long.

Dogs haven't been the only White House pets.  Socks, the Clinton's cat, is probably the most famous feline to grace the presidential palace, although he too found himself upstaged by a chocolate lab in the Bill Clinton's second term.  One has to wonder how the two got along.

My favorite story is that of Alice Roosevelt's pet grass snake named "Emily Spinach."  According to Edmund Morris, Alice took this snake pretty much everywhere she went and would have it coiling around her wrist at White House functions, distracting guests.  The Theodore Roosevelt White House probably had the greatest menagerie of all, also including a pet rabbit, pig, lizard, badger and even a small bear named "Jonathan Edwards."  Anything to please his kids.