Monday, April 28, 2008

McCain's Still Stuck in a Primary Campaign

Much has been made of the possible damage that the ongoing intraparty slugfest has or has not done to the Democratic Party in general and the candidates in particular. That debate rages on, endlessly -- apropos given the topic. But, we likely won't know the actual extent of the damage or even the possible benefits of the extended primary until the Dems -- and voters -- can focus on one nominee, and truly take stock of that candidate in a matchup against Sen. John McCain.

The flip side of the damage/benefit argument is that -- because the Dems are so busy merrily lobbing grenades at each other -- the Maverick is either (a) getting a free pass to regroup and refill his campaign war chest, (b) is free to get a head start on a general campaign against the Democratic Party generally, (c) letting the Democratic candidates do the dirty work for him, or (d) all of the above. If he's both smart and lucky, it's the last option.

But is the senior senator from Arizona truly so well positioned to take the best advantage of the golden opportunity the Democrats have so generously handed him? I really don't think so. In fact, I think McCain is still engaged in his own primary campaign of sorts -- not only against Internet celebrity Rep. Ron Paul -- but against himself as well. Why? Because the Straight Talk Express has yet to find its way into the hearts and minds of the Republican base, and the Maverick doesn't strike me as the type of guy to stop and ask for directions.

As a result, while the Dems rock and roll towards Denver, McCain is actually still trying to solidify an evangelical base that is not at all enamored of him, his candidacy, or the idea of a McCain presidency. Their lack of enthusiasm at the polls and in the polls has been palpable. Meanwhile, McCain's also got the Ron Paul Revolutionaries to contend with -- an intractable contingent who are clearly not doing cartwheels at the thought of John and Cindy's Excellent White House Adventure, either.

McCain's challenge is to generate enough enthusiasm to keep these disparate factions interested enough to go to the polls and voting for him on Nov. 4th. The evangelicals may abstain all together -- unless the idea of the lesser of two evils provides electoral inspiration. As for Paul's people, well, most are up in arms about the Iraq War, and know just what a McCain presidency would bring on that score; they're more likely write-in Paul's name or may even vote for the Democratic alternative come November. But that doesn't mean Ron's Rebels can't make plenty of interesting mischief in the remaining Republican primaries if they're of a mind to.

McCain ignores the Ron Paul Factor at his peril. Pennsylvania saw the Texan representative getting his best primary finish ever at 16% of the vote -- and he made only a handful of stops in the keystone state in April. "Americans are hungry for leadership that will protect the traditions that made our country so great," according to campaign spokesman Jesse Benton. "Dr. Paul's grassroots supporters in Pennsylvania and across the country are doing a tremendous job spreading our message, winning votes and laying a strong foundation for the future."

While the mainstream media seems to have largely missed Paul's Pennsylvania finish, 16% is nothing to sneeze at -- especially in a closed primary where the party' nominee has already been selected. It's also a good illustration of the fact that various factions of the Republican base still are not so keen on the McCain candidacy.

But McCain's isn't likely to want to spend any of his small bank account to turn out voters in primaries that are no more than a formality -- and the job would be a heavy lift, anyway. Strangely enough, then, the Maverick is somewhat at the mercy of Paul's supporters, who have every reason to turn out en mass and continue to get their guy ink and money at McCain's expense. Indeed, Paul's campaign says that he "... is continuing his bid for the Republican nomination to spread the message of constitutional government and personal freedom, build the GOP back to its traditional roots and continue the grassroots activism his candidacy inspired." And in another stroke of not so great timing for McCain, Paul's new book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, is set for release April 30th.

So, the Ron Paul Revolution moves on to North Carolina and Indiana, and if he makes it into the 20% range -- which is certainly within striking distance -- McCain is not going to be a happy camper. And the press might actually perk up a bit and start asking questions about a nominee whose party appears to be having second thoughts -- or at the very least is deeply conflicted.

This, and the lingering concerns of the religious right, mean that McCain is still running his own primary of sorts -- to convince a party that has already selected him that he really is the right man for the job.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ledbetter Update: Test Vote Fails But More Votes to Come

So, once again, the Senate is the place where all good bills go to die -- for now. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act faced a tough cloture vote tonight, which fell just shy of the needed 60 votes to move on to final passage. The final vote was 56-42. All the Democrats stayed in line, which needless to say is a pleasant change of pace.

Some Republicans also saw the light: the enlightened included the two original co-sponsors, Sens. Olympia Snowe (ME) and Arlen Specter (PA), as well as a few folks in tough re-election races -- Susan Collins (ME), Gordon Smith (OR), Norm Coleman (MN) and the biggest surprise of the night, John Sununu (NH). These senators received the full court press from both advocates back home as well as DC-based lobbyists, and it paid off.

Of course, the business interests pushed just as hard, and were able to get enough Republicans to toe the line to block the measure. Aside from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), only one other senator didn't bother to vote at all: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) was apparently in the bathroom -- or somehow otherwise occupied -- when the critical civil rights bill came to the floor.

Both Democratic presidential candidates came to town for the vote, and spoke on the floor -- in fact, the vote was moved from Tuesday to Wednesday in order to get them back to DC and improve the chances for passage. Both Clinton and Obama also had photo ops with Lilly Ledbetter herself (above), who spent the evening in the Senate gallery and the Senate reception area, pigeon-holing senators as they walked in to vote. Trust me, it's hard to look this woman in the eye, hear her story, and not be moved.

McCain did not bother to come back to town for the vote, though his front desk staff was helpful enough to tell constituent callers that A) not only would he not be present for the vote, but B) he would not vote for it even if he was. Gee, thanks, Maverick. Reporters asked McCain about the legislation on the campaign trail, and AP wrote stories with headlines like "McCain Opposes Equal Pay Bill in the Senate" and "Senate Republicans Kill Pay Disparity Bill." This coverage is good for Big Blue, especially since recent polls show women -- especially young women -- really care about pay equity this election season. With the economy tanking and gas prices soaring, it's no wonder fair wages are on women's minds.

It should be noted that the pure vote on the cloture motion was 57-41, but in a procedural move Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) switched his vote to "no." This allows him to bring up the vote again at a later date. And Reid, as well as lead sponsor Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and women's and civil rights advocates, have vowed that they will bring this vote up again.

It's not over. The pay equity issue is too important, and the Supreme Court's decision in the Ledbetter case was just too damn dumb to let stand. And, oh yeah, it's an election year -- so this issue is another good way to hold elected officials' feet to the fire come November. No doubt that the Ledbetter vote will be showing up in a lot of congressional voting records very soon -- on both the right and left.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Something Clinton and Obama (and their supporters) Can Agree On: Fair Pay

In an unusual show of good timing, this week -- the week of Equal Pay Day -- the Senate takes up the House-passed Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831). It's only been sitting at the desk since July 2007, but better late than never. They'll debate the bipartisan bill, and the make-or-break cloture vote is scheduled for Wednesday (4/23) afternoon -- hopefully at a time when both Clinton and Obama, both original sponsors of the legislation, can get back to town for the critical vote. This civil rights legislation corrects one of the latest missteps of the Roberts Supreme Court – this one coming last May via their controversial split decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.

Color me surprised – the Court’s new majority got it wrong? You mean, they took the first available opportunity to turn a decades old civil rights law on its head? Gee, whoda thunk? (Sorry, I’m still a bit bitter after fighting so hard against the Bush nominees -- only to see the Senate Dems roll over and play dead.) Now, we all get to reap what President Bush and the Senate Democrats have sown by putting Roberts and Alito on the bench for life -- and we're faced with the cheery prospect of cleaning up the mess, decision by decision.

But I digress. Here’s the gist about the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. For more than 40 years, the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have followed the same precedents and policies when interpreting the statute of limitations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This practice became known as the paycheck accrual rule, and is the simple principle that each paycheck – itself tainted by a prior discriminatory pay decision – is in and of itself another discriminatory act. Thus, a tainted paycheck can restart Title VII’s 180 day clock.

But last spring, the Supreme Court’s Ledbetter decision turned decades of legal precedent on its head and created a new standard: if an employee doesn’t know they’re being discriminated against in the first 180 days, and doesn’t file a pay discrimination claim in that period, then they’re shit outta luck – and the employer is forever immunized from any responsibility for that discriminatory pay decision. Yes, you read that right. The employer can then knowingly – even openly -- continue to pay the employer a less than fair wage, because the 180-day charge period has passed without the employee finding out and filing a charge about the inequitable pay decision. Welcome to civil rights on the Roberts Court.

This new, impractical standard makes it almost impossible for workers to seek justice for pay discrimination. Why? Think about it. The first six months on the job, most folks don’t exactly hang around the water cooler asking their co-workers the intimate details of their pay stubs. It often takes time for this kind of insidious discrimination to make itself known – particularly since so many employers still tell employees they're not allowed to discuss wage issues at work.

That’s exactly what happened to Lilly Ledbetter. She worked for Goodyear in Gadsden, Alabama, as a shift supervisor. Not long before she retired, Lilly discovered that all the other shift supervisors – all male, most of whom hadn’t worked there nearly as long as she had – were making a lot more money than she was. Her bosses wouldn’t talk to her about it, so on her first day off she went to the nearest EEOC office in Montgomery, and filed a claim. It progressed painfully from there – such lawsuits are never a cakewalk – but the system as it was then worked for Lilly. A jury of her peers in that company town decided Lilly had been discriminated against, and awarded her two years back pay (the limit under the statute) and a large punitive award, which was immediately reduced to $300,000 – the statutory cap for sex-based discrimination under Title VII. Lilly was vindicated.

But wait. Goodyear decided to appeal – oh, not based on the facts of the case. They admitted the discrimination – 20 years worth. Goodyear simply said Lilly Ledbetter had filed her claim too late, and thus had no recourse whatsoever -- tough luck. No matter that Goodyear forbade Lilly and the rest of its employees to talk about their salaries. No matter that Lilly worked for over 20 years before she first discovered the inequities that had begun decades before -- via an anonymous note in her mailbox, of all things.

The purpose of the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is to correct the Supreme Court’s blunder in Ledbetter, and return to the earlier, long established practices in employment law. This is, in fact, what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg asked Congress to do in her stinging dissent in Ledbetter -- a dissent she felt compelled to read from the bench to the Court, an unusual action that is a telling barometer of her ire. Critics such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business are throwing around all kinds of distortions, and lobby hard to block the bill. This despite the fact that the paycheck accrual rule wasn't something business groups were clamoring to change prior to Ledbetter. In fact, the issue wasn't even on their radar screen -- the precedent was that established -- but now they don't want to let this unexpectedly juicy plum go.

But don’t let anyone fool you. This bill is a reasonable, narrow fix. Truthfully, advocates could have gone after a bigger bite of the apple – we could have asked for language to increase the 2-year limit on back pay, for example, or to lift the caps on punitive damages. But when you're working in an environment where the Senate has become the place where all good bills go to die -- where it's 60 or bust -- advocates chose to literally just go after a bill that simply turns back the clock. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a time warp of sorts, taking us back to the practices and precedents as they were the day before the Ledbetter decision – no more, no less.

The vote also provides a good gauge of a legislator's position on pay equity issues this election year -- a year when several moderates are running scared of being scored on such votes. A year when pay equity is a top priority for women voters. This issue also is yet another illustration of the importance of judicial nominations and getting a Democrat into the White House. Advocates and Democrats are pretty close to getting the 60 votes we need to move to a final vote on the bill -- close enough to make the Republicans sweat. But it's touch and go, and several moderate and independent-minded Republicans are up for grabs. Also, more conservative Democrats always need shoring up.

What can you do? Take a moment and call your senators. Urge them to vote yes on the Ledbetter cloture vote, and yes on the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831). Call this toll-free number (866-338-1015) to get the Capitol Hill operator, and you can ask for a senator's office. And then, speak your mind for pay equity – it’s Equal Pay Day (4/22), and there's no better day to do it.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain After an ABC Debate.

Philadelphia, PA (April 17, 2008) -- New research has provided scientific evidence regarding the damaging effects of non-substantive debates on the American viewing public.

According to a study released today by the Wonk's Television Forum (WTF), this week's ABC News debate between Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama temporarily lowered the IQs of the majority of viewers. WTF’s research also showed that the IQ damage was actually more acute for those debate watchers who were registered Democrats.

Conversely, registered Republicans experienced a slight increase in their IQs the longer they watched the debate; however, the data showed this anomaly was quickly mitigated when these same viewers were exposed to Fox News.

WTF study participants who were forced to watch the entire debate may have suffered a more lasting drop in IQ, although further analysis will be required to determine the full effects. Researchers would not comment on any unanticipated emotional damage the experience may have inflicted on study participants.

WTF's study director noted, however, that the IQs of most viewers who escaped during the first 15 minutes showed a quick recovery once their exposure to the ABC News debate was terminated.

Lastly, researchers also found that registered Independent voters who ceased watching the debate during the first 15 minutes and instead read experienced a marked increase in their IQ; whether these effects are permanent, however, will not be known until November 4th.

While study participants were not paid for their time, each did receive a commemorative flag pin.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Best Three Bucks You Don't Have to Spend This Tax Day

There were lots of media stories today about tax day: harried, last minute filers; savings tips for next year; the best excuses to get an extension, etc. Unfortunately, though, I didn't see much about one aspect of Uncle Sam's annual payday that I think is critically important, especially this year: the voluntary check-off program that finances the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

The presidential public financing system started in the early 1970s and is fueled by a simple, voluntary checkoff on our tax returns -- three bucks for individual filers, six bucks for couples. Sounds like a bargain to me. Actually, it enters no brainer territory when you consider that checking the “yes” box doesn't cost us a dime -- and it doesn't reduce our refund either. The checkoff actually redirects three bucks from general revenues to the Fund -- so yeah, I guess you could make the argument it "costs" us in the larger sense because our tax dollars underwrite the general fund. But the checkoff, as it's currently implemented, is financially painless -- and it's not like checking "no" gives you an extra three bucks. So it's a win-win, right?

Despite this simplicity, and lack of personal cost, participation in the checkoff program has fallen dramatically since the program's inception (27.5 percent participation on 1976 returns) -- although it has apparently leveled off at a whopping 11 percent in the last several election cycles. Wow. Color me underwhelmed -- although compared to other taxpayer checkoff or add-on programs, the Fund's checkoff has one of the higher participation rates around. Still, though, the abysmal support has meant that the Fund has faced chronic shortfalls since the early 1990s -- and the shortages are putting the whole public campaign financing system at risk.

Of course, another serious problem with the Fund has nothing to do with its structure or our apathy, and instead has to deal with the fact that leading candidates are opting not to take matching funds so they can avoid artificially low spending limits. This, of course, was one of the main points of the Fund -- to publicly support campaigns while at the same time capping them to keep a lid on runaway spending. But the Fund's contribution levels have not been indexed, and thus have not kept pace with the realities of today's campaign environment.

The Campaign Finance Institute's Task Force on Financing Presidential Nominations' issued a 2005 report, So the Voters May Choose... Reviving the Presidential Matching Fund System, offering a number of campaign finance fixes as well as recommendations to improve the Fund, especially in light of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). Among them were:
  • Increase the income tax checkoff to five bucks, then index it thereafter.

  • Expand checkoff participation by having the FEC invest some of the checkoff funds in public education about the Fund and the checkoff program.

  • Develop better IRS standards for tax preparation software so consumers can truly make an informed choice about the checkoff.

In 2006, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Reps. Marty Meehan (D-MA) and Christopher Shays (R-CT) introduced legislation to address several campaign finance issues, including shoring up the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. However -- surprise, surprise -- their Presidential Funding Act didn't budge in the 109th Congress. They reintroduced the bill (S. 2412/H.R. 776, though Meehan retired from Congress later in 2007), but even if it passed it would not take effect until 2009 -- and thus effect the 2012 presidential campaign. These bills would change the primary match ratio from 1:1 to 4:1, raise the spending limit for primary candidates from about $45 million to $150 million, and raise the income tax checkoff from three bucks to ten, among other items.

Public Citizen has also recommended some structural improvements to improve the Fund that merit consideration:
  • Increase the checkoff from three bucks per taxpayer to eight bucks per taxpayer.

  • Index the tax checkoff for inflation to keep the Fund solvent.

  • Return any unused public funds, repayments of public funds, interest, and fines collected for violations of the presidential public financing system into the Presidential Election Campaign Fund as a way to increase its revenues. (Currently, most of these refunds or fines are turned over to the general fund.)
So, I hope you checked the box, people. If not, well, I won't hold it against you -- this year! But I hope you seriously ponder that checkoff next year. We need the help to keep the Fund solvent, and to show the support for public campaign financing. We also need commonsense reform to make public financing attractive to candidates again -- reform that both allows candidates to be competitive but still gives the public a chance to get a handle on runaway campaign costs and diminish the influence of big money in politics.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Okay, I Admit It: I'm Bitter

Much has been made about Barack Obama's now apparently infamous "bitter" comments about rural Pennsylvanians. The candidate made them at what was supposedly a closed-door fundraiser in San Francisco -- which just goes to show the concept of "private" doesn't exist in the political lexicon.

Much ado has evolved around the statements -- pro and con, wrong and right, and Obama has clarified and re-clarified his remarks and completely eliminated the word "bitter" from his vocabulary. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, called him elitist and downed a shot with voters to show how simpatico she was with the common man. Of course, John McCain is using the whole thing to fundraise and further capitalize on the disarray of the Democrats and their marathon intraparty bashfest -- a.k.a., primary.

As a result of all this fuss, I'm compelled to tell you -- to share -- that I, too, am bitter. I admit it.

I'm bitter about gotcha politics that delight in tearing down rather than building up and making progress.

I'm bitter about ready-fire-aim rhetoric that blows away the possibility of productive debate on policies that might actually improve the lives of working Americans.

I'm bitter about 24-hour news outlets that gnaw on the latest "fill-in-the-blank-gate" story like a Rottweiler with a juicy bone, overlooking real news stories in the process.

I'm bitter about how these same 24-hour news outlets amplify and elevate these empty, manufactured controversies in order to feed their insatiable appetites for more -- and more base -- content.

I'm bitter about talking heads that gleefully dissect the mundane details of inane incidents, puffing up their own importance with their pundit hot air.

I'm bitter about tabloid-style reporting that denigrates the public discourse so thoroughly that good people disengage in simple self-defense.

I'm bitter about a primary that has devolved so completely that Democrats vilify other Democrats, jeopardizing the party's chance to win the White House and putting the entire country in jeopardy of four more years of narrow-minded Republican leadership as a result.

I'm bitter about a Democratic Party that often takes some of its core constituencies -- women and African Americans -- for granted, trading away or simply folding like a house of cards on our issues, always based on the cynical calculus that we'll stick with them because they're the lessor of two evils.

I'm bitter about the shamelessness of one political party and the spinelessness of the other.

Yeah, I admit it, I'm bitter -- sometimes. But I'm not giving up -- and I'm not going to quit bitching about what's bad, either. Sometimes, the bitterness is what gives us the courage to speak truth to power -- which in turn fuels the drive to make change. We need that now more than ever.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

This April, We Need Child Abuse Prevention Month More Than Ever

I asked for some suggestions for the blog, and got several good ones -- thanks, and keep them coming. People definitely seemed interested in the policy stuff, too. So here's comes another one -- but I'm afraid it's not a happy issue. Be warned: if you're already having not the greatest of days, this blog likely won't improve things. But on the cup half full side, there are some options for action.

According to police, six-year-old Anthony, four-year-old Austin and two-year-old Athena were drowned by Mark Castillo -- their father -- in the bathroom of a 10th floor hotel room. It happened on March 30th, in the shadow of Camden Yards in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Afterwards, the murderer tried unsuccessfully to take his own life as well.

If you thought that was devastating, here's a downright scary part of this whole sorry ordeal. Court documents show that the children's mother, Amy Castillo, repeatedly tried to revoke her ex-husband's visitation rights. She even filed for a protective order, saying the kids' father had threatened to kill the children: "He has never actually hurt [the children], but did tell me that the worst thing he could do to me would be to kill the children and not me so I could live without them," she wrote in the petition. But despite Mark Castillo's history of mental problems, her request was denied by the Montgomery County District Court.

Sadly, this is an all too common tale. But don't be so sure that a different outcome other than the outrageous denial of Amy Castillo's protection order would have made a difference. Well, it might have -- battered women and their kids need to use every means available to them to try to improve their safety. But a protection order doesn't ensure protection. Just ask Gail Pumphrey and her kids.

Last Thanksgiving, David Brockdorff used a .22 caliber rifle to kill Pumphrey -- his ex-wife -- her three children and himself; their bodies were found in a Montgomery County park. Pumphrey had gotten a protective order in April 2007 against Brockdorff.

This is just one county in Maryland, folks, in roughly a four month period. ONE COUNTY IN MARYLAND. And these are just the crimes that were publicized. The sad fact is that domestic violence and child abuse are alive and well and living next door to you, me -- all of us. It's an equal opportunity crime, now matter how nice or "safe" your neighborhood. And while the system is better than it was in addressing this complicated issue, there are still huge problems -- and women and children fall through the gaping cracks.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. The cycle of violence that begets more child abuse and domestic violence begins here -- it is a sad fact that children from violent homes are more likely to be violent themselves once they reach adulthood. While we seem to have commemorative months for just about everything, and they may sometimes feel trite, they do serve an important purpose. They give advocates an opportunity to focus attention and -- hopefully -- grassroots efforts that impact our policy makers on issues we care out.

So April is as good a time as any to start the discussion with your elected officials as well as candidates for public office. Ask them what they might do to improve public policies on preventing child abuse and neglect -- and its companion crime, domestic violence. According to Every Child Matters, "[t]hese discussions are a necessary first step to develop better conditions for children and promote the information parents need to be the parents they want to be. And that first step belongs to each of us." I would add that it's also a critical step if we are to hold our policy makers accountable to enforcing existing laws, allocating necessary funds to social programs that both prevent the problem and deal with their aftereffects, and passing additional legislation aimed at curtailing these debilitating crimes.

Here's some more food for thought. A study released in January by Prevent Child Abuse America calculates that a solid investment child abuse and neglect prevention could potentially save the nation over $100 billion per year -- a kind of "stitch in time saves nine" idea that makes sense to most rational folks and should motivate even those who are most moved by the bottom line (sadly, in politics, this is often true -- we give lip service to the heart wrenching stories, but it's the money that often motivates action). This brief document very clearly shows the long-term adverse consequences and economic impact of child abuse on children, their families and the nation.

If that's not enough, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, about 905,000 American children were victims of maltreatment -- 91,278 of them were infants -- from October 2005 to September 2006. Even more scary, 19 percent of all child maltreatment deaths happened to babies under one year of age. Apparently, an infant's greatest risk of death from maltreatment is during their first week of life -- a time when you'd think they'd be especially protected, especially cherished. Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.

Speak your mind, people. Prevent Child Abuse America has a list of advocacy initiatives designed to address these issues -- you can even write a letter to your member of Congress about some of the bills they list. That seems like the very least we can do to "commemorate" Child Abuse Prevention Month. You can also stay up-to-date on the latest domestic violence policy efforts through the National Network to End Domestic Violence -- but go ahead and write those letters now, too; don't wait until October, which is (yes, you guessed it) Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Of Kings and Kennedys: Wistful Thoughts of What Might Have Been...

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was standing on the balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee (shown at right), and in a heartbeat one of the most profound voices of a generation -- indeed of the 20th century -- was gone. King was cut down the day after he gave a prophetic address that came to be known as his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech.

"...And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"

Riots and fires, death and destruction followed in the wake of King's murder, in major cities all across the country. To this day, many urban areas still bear the scars -- visually and psychologically. But one city notably escaped that fate -- thanks perhaps in part, history tells us, to what was supposed to have been a routine campaign stop for a junior senator from New York who happened to be running for president in 1968. Somebody who knew better than anyone what it was like to watch a dream fall victim to a coward's gun, and knew the necessity of carrying the torch forward.

The nation had lost President John F. Kennedy five years earlier, and the dreams of Camelot with him. And that day in Indianapolis, JFK's little brother, Bobby -- who to many had become a powerful and moving prophet of change in his own right -- together with a very well organized black community in the city, helped to bring some desperately needed sanity to a nation gone temporarily mad with grief and fear.

The police chief told RFK not to make the campaign stop, but Bobby went anyway -- and his police escort left him when he entered the largely black neighborhood. And when he found out the crowd gathered to hear him had not been told the horrible news, he made a short speech announcing the tragedy himself -- standing in the back of a flatbed truck. His extemporaneous remarks saying so simply what needed to be said.

"...Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. ...

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people...."

Just two months later, Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, an assassin's bullet once again extinguishing the best and brightest of a generation. I was less than a year old -- I have no real memory of these events. But to have two such magnificent voices snuffed out so summarily, so closely together -- I cannot imagine how it must have felt, the chaos. Even today, the "what-might-have-beens" play through my own mind -- where would King's path have taken him? Would his increasing outspokenness about the Vietnam War -- a war that was disproportionately killing black soldiers -- have brought a halt to hostilities that much sooner? What other civil rights victories were at hand for this man who could use both reason and faith to inspire so many?

And what of Bobby Kennedy? Just think if he had been elected president instead of Richard Nixon, and all that would have meant -- for peace, civil rights, women's rights. Watergate would still be just a hotel in Washington, and Jerry Ford would likely have gone done in history as one of the most congenial House Speakers in history.

While I was not old enough to have experienced the lives of these men first hand, history can still teach me well enough to leave a sense of loss and regret. And my generation has our own "what ifs" to deal with as well, albeit perhaps of a slightly different sort. I wonder where we'd be if my hero, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and his amazing wife Sheila, as well as their daughter and key aides, had not died in a plane crash six years ago. Certainly we would have been spared the ridiculousness of Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) making a mockery of that seat -- which Hubert Humphrey also held. But in the Bush years, having a man like Wellstone speak truth to power -- not just to the shameless Republicans but to the spineless Democrats as well -- may have made a difference in any number of debates. I have a signed letter from Paul and Sheila on the wall in my office, and it reminds me everyday about what's important.

And then there's the what-might-have-been's of the 2000 election. If the Supreme Court had got it right. If the butterfly ballot hadn't ever been printed. If Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader hadn't run for president that year. If Gore had run a better campaign, and if the Democrats had fought the election in Congress -- as was their constitutional right. Who knows -- imagine eight years of a President Gore versus the two disastrous terms under Bush and his chicken hawk pals.

But in the end, what-might-have-beens don't get us very far, and no one ever disagrees on what might have been anyway. But I do know this: anniversaries like the one we observed this week make me want to work even harder to avoid other circumstances that carry harsh regrets, bitter disappointment and what-might-have-beens. The 2008 presidential election is one such circumstance that is in the forefront of my mind these days. And the legacies of men like King and Kennedy should inspire and unite us. We Democrats need to get our act together, settle on a candidate, and stand up to John McCain and his swift boat cronies. I refuse to be spending Nov. 5 on useless what-might-have-beens. No, not again, my friends. I can't bear it, and the country can't afford it.

Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.