The Column

Friday, January 23, 2009

If rough start, Obama's in good company

If nothing else, FDR looked and sounded confident. (Photo from

The pageantry is over, and it's time for Barack Obama to stand and deliver. It comes with the territory, as any new president comes in with a sack full of great expectations.

Obama may find it a rough go as he gets ready to start work. We're in two wars -- one of them more unpopular than the other -- and the economy is in the worst shape I've seen it in since the early 1980s. Rough times, and I don't envy Obama for all the stuff he has on his plate.

Writer/historian Mark Updegrove says eight presidents in particular were tested early and often when they took office. He outlines his thoughts in a recent book, "Baptism By Fire." I haven't read the book yet, but he discussed the topic on a recent radio talk show with Jim Bohannon.

Updegrove's choices for the Presidents with the biggest batch of crises when they came in were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford. Some of these choices are obvious while others are ... well, I wouldn't have thought of them. Just who is this John Tyler guy anyway?

Of the eight, Roosevelt's situation is probably closest to Obama, and the incoming president may well take a page from him. I'm not talking about the New Deal here, which not only did not solve the Great Depression (World War II was the final solution here), but throwing taxpayer money at a problem never did anything but make the problem bigger. But let's hand it to FDR; he was one confident guy. You can see it in just about every photo of him, and you can hear it in just about every taped radio address or speech. The photo that comes to my mind is one with Franklin D. behind the wheel of his hand-controlled car, cigarette holder poking upward upward, jaw out to here. Doesn't matter whether the man was full of it at that point; he looked confident enough to lead the public through anything.

The President can't really do anything to turn an economy around -- it takes sea changes on the business level and among the workers, and the 535 idjits in the legislative branch have more pull than the President there. But the President can set the tone, forge an example, urge, exhort, maybe even be something of a cheerleader. FDR did this, and so did Reagan.

Obama's hero Lincoln had a tough go early on. As soon as he was elected, South Carolina pulled out of the Union, followed by 10 other states. And Abe wasn't even sworn in yet. Things were so bad around D.C. that Abe had to be smuggled into the capital to be inaugurated. Quite a bit different from the love fest we saw during this recent inauguration, yes?

The old joke about Washington was that he couldn't blame his predecessor for leaving a mess for him to clean up. He had no predecessor; in fact the Constitution was still a little murky about what to expect from a President. Like, what do you call the guy? Mr. President, or George I? "He could have been the first monarch," Updegrove says. Although George wasn't exactly a man of the people, he wasn't about to wear any crown either. Had he opted for a third term (basically becoming president for life), I'm sure no one would have really minded. But his personal two-term limit created a tradition before FDR broke it, and now that limit is in the Constitution.

Jefferson's presidency was the first one that was really contested (his opponent was that lovable scoundrel Aaron Burr), and the election itself was decided by Congress. Jefferson was also the first chief executive not associated with the Federalist Party, which kicked open the door for the two-party system we still have.

Until President William Henry Harrison died a month into his presidency, Tyler was little more than an afterthought. Instead he was thrust into an unprecedented situation, and no one was sure what he was. Acting President, or the real deal? The Constitution wasn't real clear on that either, so it was up to Tyler to clear things up a bit. "He insisted he was the President," Updegrove says. "That strengthened the presidency."

If you want someone who was ill-prepared to take the job, how about Truman? Let's see ... we were in the mother of all wars. We had this new weapon that would change warfare. Truman didn't have the background. He was vice president for only a couple of months, and he wasn't very tight with his predecessor anyway. Plus there were questions about how to contain the Germanys and Japans in the future. Ol' Harry S. didn't look or sound much like a President. He wasn't real popular during his administration; he had to fight to be elected on his own and went out with an anemic 31 percent approval rating. But let history record that the ol' buckstopper did all right while he was in office -- especially for a guy who was flying blind.

When Kennedy was inaugurated, the Cold War was probably at its frostiest. The hard-line tough guys of the Communist world probably figured JFK as inexperienced, callow, a lot more sizzle than steak -- something Obama can probably relate to here. Kennedy didn't help his own cause much in the early going, though he did take the heat publicly for that train wreck called the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban Missile Crisis of '62 probably pushed us closer to a nuclear exchange than we've ever been, before or since.

In a lot of ways, Ford wasn't really President. He wasn't even elected as VP. Besides his sometimes brain-dead ways, he made sure he would never be elected President by pardoning Richard Nixon. A very unpopular move, but history is looking more kindly at that decision these days. Public trust was at an all-time low then, and the move did bring some closure to Watergate. It pulled one gigantic monkey from our backs. The pardon, Updegrove says, "helped in the healing process ... it put Nixon behind us."

Obama's going to have a rough time, and you can bet the love affair will be over before the year is out. That is, assuming the populace uses the brain rather than the emotions, which can really be a stretch. But he'll have ample opportunity to tick everyone off.

He'll have company here, but at least Secret Service didn't have to smuggle him into D.C.

Q: How much does a house weigh?

Possible answers:

a) A lot, b) Just a tad more than a rural two-lane bridge can hold, or c) I don't know?

Thanks, Rick, for sending this! (Rick also wanted to know how something like this would be covered -- homeowner's insurance? Car insurance? Roadside assistance?)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

He's the only President we've got

Recently, about 60 percent of respondents to a poll by conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly said they were rooting for new President Barack Obama to succeed. This basically means the other 40 percent are, basically, hoping he falls on his face.

OK, this isn't a scientific poll, and admittedly O'Reilly's audience isn't representative of all America. O'Reilly himself isn't a down-the-middle guy, and he probably has more than a few crazies listening to him out there in radio and TV land. But these numbers are interesting.

Like him or not, Obama is the new President come Tuesday. And to steal a phrase from the Lyndon Johnson notebook, he's the only President we've got. This means that, for the next four years, his fortunes are our fortunes.

Got that?

The "other" 40 percent on O'Reilly's poll, I hate to say, are loons. To them, ideology is worth a lot more than making things work. Anyone who wishes our Chief Executive to fail doesn't have the nation's best interests at heart.

Hey, I don't like his politics. That share-the-wealth crap he was tossing out during the campaign doesn't bode well for our future. The economy can't withstand much more of the line he's peddling. I don't think he'll be strong on foreign affairs. Before his term is out he'll be indistinguishable from Jimmy Carter. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. But since he's in, yes, I wish him well.

That said, keep an eye on what he and both houses of Congress are doing for the next few years. You know the drill. If all these players are doing the Republic right, applaud. If not, let the fur fly!


Bush gets mixed marks for performance

The Bush Era officially ends at noon Tuesday, an event for which many have been counting the days as if it was a wedding or prison release. I can't tell you the number of personal Web sites I've seen that had a Bush countdown clock.

In truth, though, Bush is already gone. He might as well have been in hiding since the November election for all the good he's done since then. He's been a nonfactor for the past two months.

You can bet Bush won't go out with a splash a la Bill Clinton and his last-minute pardons of a questionable nature. There will be no burning of midnight oil as Jimmy Carter did over the hostages in Iran. Really, the country's been run by Bush's old staff and Obama's new transition team. Bush? He's been the lamest of all lame ducks.

Like his father, Bush has had a wildly schizophrenic term in office, with extreme highs and lows. Because of this, he'll be difficult for pundits to rate, and historians will certainly have a different view of him in 20 years, one way or another. This isn't unprecedented, either. Harry Truman's widely considered a hero now, but he was nothing but a goat when he left office in 1953. I'm sure people counted the days until ol' Buck Stops Here Harry was to leave office.

Bush will primarily be remembered for two things: the economy's collapse, and the aftermath of 9/11. Although Iraq rightly hurt him in the approval ratings, it's the economy that really did him in. In the past year your investment portfolio became a wallet, and Bush sat on his thumb watching this happen.

For the most part, though, Bush got a bum rap on the economy. The President's role is not as great there as it is in foreign policy or setting the tone for the administration. Besides, the seeds for disaster have been in the ground since the days of Carter and it took a whole lot of manure from a Democratic-led Congress over the past two years to really nurture our economy into the fiasco it is now. Having a bunch of guys like Barney Frank and Harry Reid in the legislative branch did more damage than a platoon of presidents could.

But the truest test of Bush's abilities lie in the 2001 attack on America, and in our response.

Give him some major credit here. The Bush response after the bombings was a whole lot more decisive than the mamby-pamby can-we-talk that had been part of our usual dealings with terrorists. The invasion of Afghanistan was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, the wheels came off due to the Bushian obsession with Iraq. Even the 9/11 Commission Report said Saddam Hussein's association with al-Quaeda was sketchy at best. While the earth is probably a lot better place without Hussein, the same can be said about many other heads of state and we're not making any effort to go after them.

Now, however, it would be a mistake to bail out of Iraq. The old souvenir shop rule applies here: You break it, you buy it.

The future will tell more about our domestic response to the 9/11 attacks, i.e. the advent of Homeland Security. Are we actually safer? Maybe a little. But at what price? Americans have again proved they're willing to trade off some of their rights for a little extra security. Do that enough, and the United States would be indistinguishable from a handful of other nations across the globe.

OK, we haven't had any further terrorist attacks. You can say it's from the enhanced security, but I don't think so. I really believe al-Quaeda shot its wad on 9/11, and it would take a long time to pony up enough resources to do anything significant again. Homeland Security had little to do with that.

OK, Bush wasn't the most intelligent guy to occupy the Oval Office. But then, Ronald Reagan didn't have the sharpest or most probing mind around either. But if sheer intelligence was overrated, Clinton and Jimmy Carter would be among our greatest presidents ever. Now Clinton, the Rhodes scholar, wasn't half bad when he was in even though he could have done a lot better at a) keeping pants zipped and b) convincing the public he was an honest guy. And Carter? It's a little hard to argue with a Nobel Peace Prize winner who studied nuclear physics in the Navy, but as President he was totally ineffective.

I guess hard work shouldn't be a criteria for judging a president, either. Carter was a legendary micromanager. Richard Nixon probably cracked under the strain of office, though most of his labor went into trying to keep from being indicted. Meanwhile, Reagan never let the rigors of the Oval Office get in the way of his nap, and Dwight Eisenhower didn't exactly kill himself with overwork either.

Without being a cloudy idealogue, you can't say Bush is a bad guy. By most accounts he's a good man, but so is Jimmy Carter.

My own grade for George Bush would be a low C. If it wasn't for his short-term response to 9/11, I'd have to give him a D minus. On the percentile scale, give him about a 32 or so out of 100. This is well ahead of the Fillmores and Carters, but put him at about the same level as the Hoovers and Tafts.

Now, don't even bother to ask me to rate Dick (Deadeye) Cheney. The scale only goes to F.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Amputate or bench these words, please!

For years I've made a living with words, and I've had a passion for them as long as I can remember.

And like many wordsmiths, I'm quick to express my opinion at the drop of a poorly-used word or phrase. It's like if you used a socket wrench as a hammer in front of a master mechanic. He will tell you what an idiot he thinks you are, and it's not even his socket wrench.

Words are special. words grouped in a certain way are also special. You can argue that they're just symbols, but then again so are things like a dollar bill, a property line, a flag, a religious icon. Wars have been fought over all of them, and a war could certainly break out if Barack Obama uses the wrong words to a foreign leader. Tell me if he can get away with saying to Iranian head Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "your mama eats bacon."

But some words and phrases sound brilliant when first coined, and are recycled to the point where they lose all meaning. And the more situations where they're applied, the more any meaning is diluted.

Every year, Lake Superior State University releases a list of words and phrases that have reached that fate. The school's website calls this the "List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.

OK, they're nutted out over capital letters and hyphens (there's no promise that those in the academic world are literate, as any editor who's suffered through press releases from an educational institution will tell you), but they mean well. The list does bring up valid points, and there are some good choices there. Here's the list. Unattributed comments are my own, and attributed ones are from the website:


Green - "If I see one more corporation declare itself 'green,' I'm going to start burning tires in my backyard." writes Ed Hardiman of Bristow, Va.

Carbon footprint, or carbon offsetting - Mike of Chicago says that when he hears the phrase 'carbon footprint,' "I envision microscopic impressions on the surface of the earth where an atom of carbon forgot to wear its shoes."

Maverick - I first heard this one applied to George Wallace in the 1968 election when he ran for president under a third party. It's a good word, but it is overused. Personal note: I've been called a maverick, even by those closest to me. Like the 100-year-old man said when he was named in a paternity suit, I'd be right proud to plead guilty.

First dude - "Skateboard English is not an appropriate way to refer to the spouse of a high-ranking public official." Paul Ruschmann, Canton, Mich.

Bailout - I guess your attitude depends on whether you're the getter or the giver of said bailout. Ben Green of State College, Penn. says this: "Use of emergency funds to remove toxic assets from banks' balance sheets is not a bailout. When your cousin calls you from jail in the middle of the night, he wants a bailout."

Wall Street/Main Street - Ugh. The recent presidential campaign got to where a speech wasn't official until this phrase was worked in there somehow. Whatever happened to "a chicken in every pot?"

-monkey, as in Internet and texting blues monkey - "Especially on the Internet, many people seem to think they can make any boring name sound more attractive just by adding the word 'monkey' to it. Do a search to find the latest. It is no longer funny." Rogier Landman, Somerville, Mass.

<3 - This isn't a word, but is an Internet symbol for love. And you should know how I feel about this kind of crap by now. Sorry, folks, I send text messages, but I use real words in them. If you love someone, just say so. Nothing wrong with that.

Icon, iconic - I used this one earlier in this column, but correctly. An icon is something to be venerated. A cross may be an icon, but Britney Spears sure isn't. Even though I'll get real combative if you besmirched the memories of John Wayne, Hank Williams, Dale Earnhardt, or John Coltrane, they don't qualify as icons either.

Game changer - Another sports term that made its way into the mainstream. Send it to the showers.

Staycation - This becomes a feelgood word. If you spent a week sitting on the front stoop in your underdrawers drinking beer, you used to be a lazy bum. Now it's staycation. Somehow it sounds better.

Desperate search - as in, I'm on a desperate search for some of that there bailout money. Does that mean anyone will listen? Or care?

Not so much - I've probably used this at least once, and if I did I probably should be hosswhipped. From David W. Downing of St. Paul, Minn: "Do I like concise writing? Yes. Do I like verbose clich├ęs? Not so much."

Winner of five nominations - I see versions of this, and let's get something straight right now. Anyone who has cleared third grade without political influence can get nominated for anything. Now, if he actually wins something, then let's talk.

It's that time of year again - Is it? OK. Can I go back to sleep now?


That done, here are more words and phrases that make my own list. Some are a little more dated than others, but that just means they've stood the test of time:

State of the art - An oldie, but it's held up well. It meant nothing back in the 1980s and means nothing now. There are a few other phrases from the same quarters:

Cutting edge - Again, like "new and improved," means nothing. I did like "bleeding edge" when I first heard it, but that's mostly because it's so fraught with mental imagery. That was then, and it is now ready for a good amputation.

__ is the new __ - I think I first heard this when someone said, "50 is the new 30." Or something. What with my own age I hope that statement is true, but it still had me scratching my head. Now you'll find this expression everywhere, including in the Lake Superior press release. Christy Loop of Woodbridge, Va. said 'leaving a carbon footprint' has become the new 'politically incorrect.' " Enough said.

Back in the day - I first heard this one in an old stoner movie, and I'm guilty of using it myself, even in this column. Time to leave this phrase back in the day. And if you're younger than say, 50, you probably have no business using that expression.

__-friendly - Computers are user-friendly. Good and consumer products are environmentally friendly. The more I hear or read this one, the less friendly I feel.

__gate - We had Watergate, which started this mess. Several other -gates since then. Every time there's a scandal, someone's got to stick a -gate at the end of it. Sarah Palin took some heat for "troopergate," her own political mini-scandal. Let's give this one the gate, shall we?

Hands-on experience - As opposed to ...? It's kind of like your favorite newspaperman writing about a brutal murder, to distinguish it from a gentle murder.

__holic - I've been called a workaholic, but the person saying it was living off a trust fund. Consider the source. You also have chocoholics, coffe-holics, and who knows what else. The great Associated Press editor Rene Cappon once commented on this linguistic travesty, too: "I need a drink."

Annual event - One of my old photographers knew how I felt about this one, so when he took a picture of something that happened once a year he'd tell me "it's an anal event." What's worse is when someone calls something the "first annual" whatever. Now, how presumptuous is that?

Enough already! Back to my Elements of Style ...

Cashless society comes to post office

So here's what happened:

I stopped by the post office on the way to work, about 6:30 a.m. I needed to mail a letter and needed stamps. The office itself wasn't open, but there is a 24-hour section where you can check your post office box, something, and allegedly get stamps.

In the foyer of the post office there is one vending machine for postage stamps. It doesn't accept cash. Credit cards or bank cards only.

It's coming. Cash may soon go the way of your old 8-track tapes. It's not something I want to see.

An unpaid ad from a non-sponsor

New toys make me miss C:\

I got my first home computer in the early 1990s, and it took me at least a couple of weeks to get past C:\.

It wasn't like I was a total newbie. I'd used computers at work, but all of them were set to boot up directly into the program we used. Never had to start from a cold start before.

While my then wife threatened to put my picture on a milk carton, I swore I was going to break down this whole mystery. And of course I had to do this the hard way, true to my nature. No way was I going to ask anyone for help. That's a guy thing, and of course I don't ask for road directions at gas stations either.

Eventually, in a fit of madness, I typed in my first command:

C:\Bite me.

Back to the drawing board.

As I write this, a consumer electronics expo is going on in Las Vegas, with all the latest and greatest toys on the market. If there's a special section in Heaven for geeks, it's probably something like this expo. Needless to say, my technical knowledge has grown considerably, and I would feel right at home there.

One of the real gee-whiz products at the expo is a Sony Vaio mini-notebook weighing in at a little more than a pound. With all the trimmings. It has Bluetooth, GPS, and your standard wireless Internet package. I'm drooling.

Of course, I'm cheap. For me, the ultimate computer is a few steps behind the top of the line. What you'd call a bare-bones package, and of course I'll wipe that hard drive clean and install my own operating system anyway. And tweak it to my specs.

Meanwhile, my first home computer is in a landfill somewhere. I don't understand such wastefulness. It had serious power -- a screaming 512K (not megabytes) of RAM, and a 42-megabyte (not gigabyte) hard drive. With a Hercules graphics card and 2400-baud modem that made a whole bunch of noise when you dialed with it. The rig had DOS 5 under the hood, and was enough to get me on line when I discovered the Internet in 1995.

It took me a long time to get to Windows when it came out, and for a long time I kept going back to alt-F4, which put me back to the DOS prompt. And when I saw someone wearing a shirt reading, "C:\Real men use DOS," I wanted one.

The computer I have now is a golden oldie. A puny 1.3-gigabyte processor, 256 megabytes of RAM, and an 80-gigabyte hard drive. And a gigantic monitor, not one of those thin LCD jobs. It had Windows XP, which I removed in favor of my own system. The hardware is old. The software is very up to date -- much of it is in beta.

I've come to love my electronic toys. The computer is a must-have, and it even drives my stereo. I have about 250 albums (yes, I still call them that) in .mp3 format on the hard drive, so the computer acts as one beast of a jukebox. It's always on, because with the Linux system I can get away with rebooting once a month or so.

Oh, yes. I have my other electronic gadgets. A thumb drive, eight gigabytes, with my favorite programs loaded on it so I can use them on anyone's computer. My mp3 player (two gigabytes, carrying about 25 albums, and it doubles as a voice recorder. My cell phone -- a basic version, but most of the Twitter dispatches you see in this blog are sent from that. And an old Sony Clie PDA, which needs a sync cable but makes a nice quick-and-dirty laptop when I can get all the parts. I'm loving the wired life.

My Dad is in his 80s and Mom will be there this year. They both have their toys, a lot more so than you'd expect for folks their age. Both have cell phones and their own email addresses. When they travel they swear by their GPS. They're the type that would rather send a letter than talk on the phone, so we keep track of each other (not often enough) via email.

But thinking about that electronics expo for a moment: It doesn't really matter how bad the economy is, we must have our toys. Folks are holding on to what little job they have left, but they have their smart phones (another toy that intrigues me; the a PDA, cell phone, and Internet rolled into one). They have their mp3 players. They have all that good stuff. I can understand that. I dare say I may take bread out of my own mouth just to buy some new gadget, and it sure looks like I'm not alone there.

Even in my 50s, I have a myspace page, though I haven't maintained it in a while. As I mentioned, I have Twitter. And linkedIn. I use instant messaging, and I do send text messages.

I could say "I text," but I refuse to turn a noun into a half-breed verb. I do have my scruples. My IM's and texts also stand out because I use complete sentences, proper spelling and punctuation, and none of those LOL or ROTFL abbreviations. My texts and IM's are in English.

All of these toys are fun, they're great tools, but they're no substitute for real life. Virtual reality can not touch the real thing. You can probably go on line and simulate any experience you want, but I'll take the real thing.

And while text messages and instant messages are a great tool, they don't beat real conversation. I've seen folks sitting in the same room, not making a sound, but sending texts to one another. They're still having a conversation. Allegedly.

I'll take eyeball-to-eyeball contact any day, with real voices being used. So call me a Neanderthal.

Although I have a decent digital library, I'd rather read a real book than download the e-text version.

OK, I miss my old Underwood typewriter.

And vinyl records.

And clocks with hands.

And TVs that run with rabbit ears, and don't require the use of remote control to change the channel.

I miss C:\.

Sanford: Federal money doesn't help the problem

The Charleston Post & Courier ran this guest editorial by Gov. Mark Sanford Friday. It's excellent.

Some background: Sanford is frequently mentioned with the Sarah Palins and Bobby Jindals as the future of the Republican Party. But he's not a pure Republican. He's really a libertarian in GOP clothing, which is probably why I like him.

Here Sanford argues that throwing more government money into the economy does not save it, but aggravates the problem instead. Well, read the article.