Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kennedy-Nixon All Over Again?

I didn't watch the first presidential debate last night. I listened to it on the radio. And while I thought Barrack Obama won on points, John McCain came through as a reassuring elder statesman--a man who could soothe the public in spite of policies that promise to turn the current recession into a depression. (You don't slash government spending during a recession. By throwing more and more people out of work, such drastic cuts can cause a snowball effect. You don't tax employer-provided health insurance unless you want take away health benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.)

But Kathleen watched the debate. McCain, she said, came off as an "angry old man." The latest polls seem to bear this out, with Obama perceived as the winner by a skight margin.

It reminds me of another presidential debate, exactly 48 years before yesterday's debate, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. I was eight years old in 1960, so I don't have clear memories of it at the time. But I've seen and heard recordings of the debates.

In the first debate, held September 26, 1960, most listeners perceived Nixon as the winner, while Kennedy was the clear victor with television viewers. Here's a summary from the Museum of Broadcast Communication:

... In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.

In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.

I wish Obama had sounded less professorial ("He was a professor," Kathleen reminded me.) and McCain less reassuring. But if McCain came off as an angry old man on the small screen, he may just be 1960 Nixon Redux.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hurricane Ike Hits Indiana

We don’t have hurricanes in the Midwest. We get virtually every other form of natural disaster: floods, tornadoes, forest fires, snowstorms, hailstorms, ice storms, earthquakes (though the last Big One was in the early 1800s), droughts, and heat waves, but no hurricanes. Those are for people living near an ocean. The trouble is, we get the remnants of hurricanes, and they can be almost as bad as the real thing.

Last weekend northern Indiana got over a foot of rain. I should have realized that the Borman Expressway would be flooded when I started driving east from Galesburg last Sunday afternoon. The Borman (named after astronaut Frank Borman, not Nazi Martin Bormann, though sometimes I think it ought to be) is a six-to-eight-lane highway extending from the Illinois border to the Indiana Toll Road exit at Lake Station, a distance of about 15 miles. It funnels virtually all the auto and truck traffic coming from Chicago and points west to Indiana, Michigan, and points east. When it shuts down, it’s a traffic nightmare. The alternatives are to go south to U.S. 30 or to head north into Chicago and get on the Skyway.

I was blithely driving Interstate 80 (the Kingery Expressway on the Illinois side), listening to a fascinating public radio program, “To the Best of Our Knowledge” about Generation X and its resentments against Boomers like me and Millennials like my kids, when I encountered a jam blocking all but the left lane of traffic. I stayed on the right, as the left lane would take me to Wisconsin. When I got to the Lincoln Oasis (a rest stop built over the highway), I could see flashing blue lights down the road. An accident, I thought.

But when I got back on the road it was clear that it was more than an accident. I was diverted off the Kingery and headed south. There were no signs or warnings, and public radio wasn’t giving traffic updates. (I couldn’t switch to AM because the space-age radio in my car didn’t come with instructions, and there was nothing that indicated AM.) By that time, I knew I’d need to make a 50-mile detour, as truck traffic would make a shorter detour even longer.. I got back to Elkhart about 2 a.m. Monday. A little before ten that morning I got a call from my son, who said he was coming home from college. Hanover College had no electricity and no water. The school would be closed for a week.

Southern Indiana got high winds and even worse flooding. When Jim got home, he called it the Hanover Apocalypse. Students were walking around muttering, “What do I do?” First the school planned to have classes on Monday, but then realized that with the water tower empty and no power to pump water into it, Hanover would have to close. Luckily, Jim got a ride with a friend who was from Elkhart. Otherwise we would have had to drive down and pick him up.

I got back to Davenport Tuesday night with a minimum of delay, though the Borman was still blocked. Still, I’m not used to hurricanes, or the remnants thereof, causing so much damage in the Upper Midwest.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Original Maverick

In a new irritating advertisement, John McCain and Sarah Palin are described as "the original mavericks." Like so many of the other McCain ads. it's misleading. (An earlier ad proclaimed that Barack Obama was "ready to raise taxes," though McCain wants to tax employer-provided health insurance--a huge tax increase on the middle class.) But the innuendos about Obama and the half-truths about Palin's accomplishments are par for the course. But "original mavericks?" Whether the are mavericks in any sense of the word is problematic. But there's only one original maverick, and it's not John McCain or Sarah Palin.

The term maverick comes from Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), a Texas lawyer, politician and rancher. He fought in the Texas Revolution, first opposed, and then supported the secession of Texas from the Union, and was a major landowner. But his nickname came from his practice of not branding cattle. According to Wikipedia, "Maverick steadfastly refused to brand his cattle. As a result, the word maverick entered the English lexicon, meaning both an unbranded range animal as well as a slang term for someone who exhibits a streak of stubborn independence. Maverick's stated reason for not branding his cattle was that he didn't want to inflict pain on them. Other ranchers however, suspected that his true motivation was that it allowed him to collect any unbranded cattle and claim them as his own."

McCain isn't the original maverick, but his television ads--from the "Summer of Love" to the Britney Spears/Paris Hilton commercial to the current "Original Mavericks" ad demonstrate the kind of deception for personal gain that Samuel Maverick was accused of.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Vote Hasn't Counted

Lisa Kenney of Eudaemonia, in a very thoughtful post about presidential politics, admitted she hadn’t voted a lot in the past. Which brought the following response from Larramie of Sieze a Daisy:

Your admission, "I think I've only voted in one other Presidential election, which just goes to show how indifferent I've been in the past.," truly stunned me since your vote counts no matter who is running in what year.

For most elections, Larramie’s statement is true. But American presidential elections are a definite exception. While I expect to vote in the 2008 presidential election, I will do so with the firm expectation that my vote will not count, as it hasn’t counted in every presidential election I’ve voted in--and I’ve voted in every one since 1972.

The reason is, of course, the Electoral College. When I cast my ballot for Barrack Obama, I really won’t be voting for him, but for a slate of electors pledged to vote for him in December, when the real presidential election takes place. Had Obama chosen Evan Bayh as his running mate, my vote might have counted for something. But chances are, Indiana will go for McCain, and the electors from Indiana will go for McCain in the real election.

While I’m proud to say that I cast my first presidential vote for George McGovern, my vote didn’t count. Iowa went for Nixon. Four years later, Jimmy Carter won the election, but without my help. Iowa’s electors voted for Gerald Ford. By the time Iowa started voting Democratic, I was in Illinois, which went for Bush in 1988. And I’ve been voting in Indiana since 1992.

It seemed possible that we might change the presidential election process after 2000, when George W. Bush lost in the popular vote to Al Gore, and won the election by a five to four vote in the Supreme Court, which gave Florida’s electors to Bush. But it didn’t happen. For one thing, a Republican Congress wasn’t likely to support a constitutional amendment making a Republican victory more difficult.

One interesting idea to reform the Electoral College is one I believe was proposed by Curtis Gans, which would allot two additional electors from each state to the candidate who wins the popular vote. While it wouldn’t eliminate the Electoral College, it would make the travesty of 2000 a near-impossibility.

I encourage everyone to vote in the coming election. Even if you’re voting for Obama in Indiana or McCain in Illinois. There’s always hope. And then we should push for a constitutional amendment to assure that all of our votes will count in the future.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Chicago 10

I missed Chicago 10 during its theatrical realease, as it was shown only in large cities, while I was in Bloomington, Illinois and Elkhart, Indiana. It's out on DVD now, and it's well-worth the price. The film mixes actual footage from the demonstrations and the "Festival of Life" during the 1968 Democratic Convention with an animated re-enactment of the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial, in which eight members of the Yippies, the Mobilization Against the War, and the Black Panthers (Bobby Seale) were tried for crossing state lines to incite a riot. (When Seale was separated from the rest of the defendants, it was known as the Chicago Seven trial.) The name "Chicago 10" was taken from a quote from Jerry Rubin: "Anyone who calls us the Chicago Seven is a racist. Because you're discrediting Bobby Seale. You can call us the Chicago Eight, but really we're the Chicago Ten, because our two lawyers went down with us."

Brett Morgen's film was particulary impressive because it provided archival film not easily available, especially of the Lincoln Park police attacks. It gives me a much better idea of the actions of the crowds and the police, which until now, I've had to glean from books and newspaper articles.

Morgen was born in October 1968, after the police riots of August. Because he could look at the events without having lived through them, he gives us a fresh view. I was disappointed that the DVD did not have additional archival footage in the special features. Perhaps we'll get something like that in a subsequent DVD resease. But Chicago 10 is simply a fascinating movie, both in the use of archival footage and the brilliance of the voice actors. Roy Scheider as Judge Julius Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright as Bobby Seale, and Dylan Baker as David Dellinger stand out, but all the voice actors are thoroughly believable. According to the Wikipedia article, there will be two more Chicago 10 films. I'll be looking forward to them.