Is abortion the preeminent issue for Catholic voters?

Bishop Richard F. Stika, in a lengthy article in the East Tennessee Catholic, his diocesan newspaper, has posed for Catholics in the Diocese of Knoxville what he calls some “tough questions that you must answer.”

I have decided to try to answer some of them and also to pose a few to him as well.

Basically, Bishop Stika, without naming names of candidates or parties is urging his flock to vote based on a single issue: abortion.

He calls it the preeminent issue, noting that “19,000 unborn children are ‘surgically’ aborted” each week in the United States. His statistic is outdated. The latest statistic, according to the Guttmacher Institute shows that the number is about 16,500. Centers for Disease Control statistics show even fewer abortions than reported by Guttmacher. That’s still too many, of course,

But what he fails to mention is that since the 1980s, abortion rates in the United States have been in a steady decline. Nobody knows how many abortions were performed each year before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion as a woman’s right, but one indication of the difference is that more than 200 women died from abortions in the U.S. in 1965, only two such deaths were recorded in 2015.

So, my question to Bishop Stika is: Do you believe that overturning Roe v. Wade will eliminate or reduce the number of abortions in this country?

It is very likely that this Supreme Court ruling will be overturned by the new court with the three Trump appointees. What is likely to happen when that occurs?

First off, it will then be up to the states to pass their own abortion legislation, outright banning and legalizing with various variations. In those states where it is banned, women wanting an abortion will travel to places where they can get one. Poor women who can’t afford to travel will have to resort to other, illegal, methods. Many will die.

Or, it could be that Congress will pass a national law either banning or legalizing abortion.

Some other points in the bishop’s argument raise questions.

He suggests that Catholics should consider the party platform, not the personality of the candidate.

My question is: Do you believe that the Republican Party or the administration after four years in office followed the platform adopted in 2016?

Perhaps the only item that was achieved was getting justices on the Supreme Court who will likely overturn Roe v. Wade.

The administration lowered taxes, mostly for the rich. They pledged a balanced budget, but government data release Oct. 16 showed that the “U.S. budget deficit eclipsed $3.1 trillion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, … by far the biggest one-year gap in U.S. history.” I understand that part of this deficit was caused by measures to combat the Covid-19 corona virus, but it is also because of the uncontrolled spending of the administration.

They pledged immigration reform, but all we got was a ridiculous, billion-dollar piece of a wall. In the meantime, our treatment of those seeking to enter the country has been shameful and disgraceful.

They pledged to replace the Affordable Care Act with something better. They weakened it, but they have yet to come up with any plan at all to replace it. If the Court overturns ACA, that will leave millions without insurance.

Bishop Stika likens the abortion issue to the slavery question in the 1800s.

“Would you have voted for candidates of the pro-slavery political party of would you have voted for those of the anti-slavery political party?” he asks.

This is like comparing apples to cucumbers. Is he suggesting that the Democratic Party today would support slavery? Is he suggesting that the Republican Party is the party of virtue?

My question: Do you really think the Republican Party of Donald Trump is the same as the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln? Or Dwight Eisenhower?

Abortion is an important and controversial issue, but it cannot, in my opinion, be compared to the issue of slavery.

The preeminent issue is the right to life and all that entails, not just abortion.

The Republican platform endorses capital punishment.

“The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” the platform states. “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states. In solidarity with those who protect us, we call for mandatory prison time for all assaults involving serious injury to law enforcement officers.”

How does that support the right to life?

Pope Francis, addressing the International Commission Against the Death Penalty in 2015, said, “Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

He said further that capital punishment is an offense “against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

There is no greater opponent to abortion than Pope Francis. He has said that the right to life is the “most fundamental” of all and that is first a human right, not a religious issue.

The right to life also includes economic inequality, climate change that leads to more death from destructive weather, and policies that break up immigrant families and threaten the sanctity of life. And what about the kind of inept leadership and phony assurances that contributed to many of the 220,000 plus corona virus deaths? Is that not a right to life issue?

And racism? That’s another right to life issue because yes, black lives matter.

“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” the pope was quoted as saying after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May.

Not all bishops agree with Stika.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says:

“A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” (emphasis added) 

Here, from an article in the National Catholic Reporter, is what Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., had to say about it:

“For this president to call himself pro-life, and for anybody to back him because of claims of being pro-life, is almost willful ignorance. He is so much anti-life because he is only concerned about himself, and he gives us every, every, every indication of that.”

“Pope Francis has given us a great definition of what pro-life means,” Stowe said at a webinar. “He basically tells us we can’t claim to be pro-life if we support the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border, if we support exposing people at the border to COVID-19 because of the facilities that they’re in, if we support denying people who have need for adequate health care access to health care, if we keep people from getting the housing or the education that they need, we cannot call ourselves pro-life.”

My question to Bishop Stika: How would you respond the pope, the USCCB and to your colleague, Bishop Stowe?

 

 

 

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Some thoughts on growing old

You’ve heard old age called “the golden years.” Don’t believe it. That was an advertising slogan created for a nursing home back in the 1950s. There’s not much “golden” about old age.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming an old person sometimes isn’t all that bad, particularly if you still have relatively good health, a clear mind and reasonable mobility. For many people, old age can be a dreadful time of illness and suffering.

A common comment on old age is, “It’s better than the alternative.” That also is not necessarily so. I’ve seen many old folks for whom death, the alternative, is a welcomed release.

In my own case, I have been very blessed. I’m in pretty good health at age 86. A pacemaker keeps my heart from going too slow and medicine keeps it from going too fast. A stent keeps one of my main arteries open for blood flow. Hearing aids help keep me in the loop when people are talking. I’ve got an incurable, untreatable abdominal condition called “sclerosing mesenteritis,” but it acts so slowly the doctors say that I’m likely to die before it causes me another major problem.

The good news: After you reach 80, they don’t submit you to the torture called “colonoscopy.” Whew!

I still get out and walk four to six miles a day. I eat well but try to keep my weight at a reasonable level.

I have a great wife who, even after 62 years, still puts up with me. So, life’s pretty good.

When you get old, people treat you differently.

I got my first taste of this when I was only 62. I was being introduced as a speaker to a group of journalists in Luanda, Angola. The managing director of the news agency, ANGOP, who said, “Our guest today is an old man. You can tell he is old by his white hair and the lines on his face.” At this point, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and asking, “Hey, who’re you calling old?” He continued, but what you can’t see is the intelligence, the knowledge and the wisdom that his age has brought him.” I relaxed a bit.

Later on, I mentioned this to the young Angolan newsman assigned to accompany me.

“Oh, he wasn’t insulting you,” he said. “He was praising you. You see, we don’t have many old people here in Angola and so they are revered.”

He was right. The average life expectancy for a male in Angola at the time was somewhere in the 40s, caused by years of civil war, disease and lack of good medical care in some areas.

Here in the United States, being old is not always respected as it is in Angola and elsewhere.

Sometimes younger people get impatient because you don’t react quickly enough. Sometimes people are patronizing or treat you like you’re an imbecilic child. Sometimes they are overly polite or act like you’re so fragile you might fall at any moment.

And waitresses, particularly in diners, are likely to call you “honey” or “sweetie.”

Young people also tend to talk so fast you can’t understand them. If you ask them to slow down and repeat, they say the same thing, only faster.

As to an old person’s wisdom, younger people often just brush it off.  They think you don’t know anything, that you’re stuck back in some ancient time, like the 1990s.

I don’t know how other old folks feel about it, but I don’t want to be treated any differently than everybody else, young or old.

I also, by the way, don’t like the term “senior citizen.” It originated in this country back in the 1930s as a euphemism for “old person.” I think if you need something other than “old person,” “elder citizen” might be better. When people refer to seniors, I think they’re talking about kids about to finish high school or college.

Also, I write these lines as an old man. Women of a certain age certainly view things differently.

My advice to those contemplating retirement: Have a plan, not just a financial plan, but an activity plan. Lying on the beach or just doing nothing sounds great while you’re still working, but it gets boring after a couple of weeks. The days get long when you have nothing to do. It’s good to at least have a hobby. A guy I know was at wit’s end until he started volunteering.

Even though I have been retired from more than 20 years now, I have never stopped working. I continued to teach part time at the University of Tennessee School of Journalism until 10 years ago. I also continued to do some professional editing and translating. Now I’m finishing my memoirs, the deadline approaching faster than I wish.

The best thing about retirement for me is that my time is my own. I do things, work, lunches, other social occasions, at my own choosing and at my own pace. I enjoy life more. Even my spiritual life has improved because my wife and I have time during the day for spiritual exercises we rarely did in earlier times. I also like being able to take an afternoon nap. It helps when you get up at 4 a.m.

I have lots of friends, many of them a little older or younger than I. But inevitably when we get together one topic of conversation, after sports and politics, is health.

Here are some things I don’t like about getting old:

  • Being told what we ought to do, such as moving to a nursing home or giving up driving. We’ll do that when we feel it’s time. (So far, our five children have refrained from doing this.)
  • Losing hair on my head.
  • Growing hair in places where I don’t want it, i.e., ears, eyebrows, and nose.
  • Forgetting people’s names.
  • Feeling stiff, particularly on waking up in the morning or trying to get out of a car.
  • Misplacing stuff. “Have you seen my glasses?” “Could you call my cell phone for me?”
  • Walking into a room to get something and forgetting what it was.
  • Learning of the death of another dear friend or relative and wondering why I’m still here when they’ve been called home. Not that I’m in any hurry to join them, you understand.

As Mark Twain said, “Do not complain about growing old. It’s a privilege denied to many.”

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The conspiracy theory virus

Marie Cahill Cox, one of my daughter’s high school friends from Our Lady of Mercy School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, commented on the conspiracy theories that are currently flooding the Internet. With her permission, I am passing her comment along:

“But seriously, spreading conspiracy theories is not a harmless and victimless pastime, there are serious macro and micro consequences.

“On a micro level, imagine being the parent of one of the Sandy Hook children, and being told you are an actor, your child never existed, was never murdered.

“Imagine being in that pizza shop when the gunman barged in brandishing a weapon.

“I invite you to come to my hometown [Boston] and tell Amy Sweeney’s children, or Phil Rosenzweig’s two boys that their parents didn’t really die on those planes 19 years ago. What are you going to say? Their parents are lounging on a beach somewhere?

“What will you say to the families of all those additional people that died from Covid because conspiracy theories made it out to be fake?

“On a macro level, our democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Conspiracy theories are like a cancer or a virus, and the Internet makes them exponentially easier to spread. As with many viruses, sunlight is the best remedy. Each one of us needs to be the sunlight, disinfecting information before sending it on, WE are responsible if we are to have any hope of having a functioning democracy. If we don’t disinfect before passing things on, we are collaborators, super-spreaders in the demise of our society.

“This is a tenuous time for humanity. We need truth, science and compassion to move forward. Disinfect your hands people! Disinfect your information. Your country thanks you!”

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Lida Margaret Lowrey, nee Miller (1934-2020)

In 1934, after a day of shopping in Knoxville, Louise and Mabel Miller, the wives of brothers Kyle and Hudson Miller respectively, were resting in the women’s shoe section of Miller’s department store on Gay Street before returning to Jellico.

Louise excused herself and rushed off to the women’s lounge on the store’s mezzanine. When she came back, Mabel urgently had to go to the same lounge.

The attendant in the lounge told her, “You’re the second pregnant Mrs. Miller that’s been up here this afternoon.”

That’s how my mother learned that her sister-in-law was also pregnant. Neither had told anybody.

On October 17, 1934, Mabel gave birth to a boy, Edgar H. Miller Jr., and on November 24, Louise gave birth to a girl, Lida Margaret Miller.

Austin and Lida Lowrey

From the beginning of our lives, Lida and I, along with another first cousin, Emma Jo Vaughan, daughter of the Miller brothers’ sister, Esther, and Lida’s older brother, Sheffy Miller, were almost inseparable.

We played together, often traveled together, and celebrated birthdays together. Lida, Emma Jo and I were in school together from Miss Reese Templeton’s kindergarten in 1939 until high school graduation in 1952. Sheffy attended the Tennessee Military Academy for high school. A younger brother, Jimmy, died in the 1970s just as he was reaching the top of his career as a TV news anchor in New York City.

After high school, our lives went in different directions, but we never lost touch with each other.

For me, it was first the Army, then a career in the news business that took me to various places, including 13 years in Latin America.

Emma Jo married and lived in Knoxville until her death May 14, 2009. Sheffy also served in the Army and later became a vice president of a large insurance company in Houston, Texas. He died March 11, 2002.

Lida got a degree in commercial art at Auburn University in Alabama and quickly landed a job in a New York City advertising agency. She rose quickly from the “bullpen” to become a top designer.

She later married her college boyfriend, Austin Lowrey, and they had two beautiful daughters, Sheridan and Elizabeth.

After many twists and turns in her life, Lida wound up in Los Angeles, pursuing her first love, art. She became known as a muralist and an artist whose works have been displayed in many galleries and museums.

Eventually, she and Austin moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico where they built a beautiful modernistic home that has been written about in architectural magazines.

Here’s how the architectural magazine Dwell described it:

“Within two days of their first visit to Mexico’s historic town, San Miguel de Allende, Austin and Lida Lowrey purchased a property with the intention to build their dream home.

“The retired art and design veterans visualized a larger space which incorporated personal studios where they could relax, paint, write and enjoy the laid-back Mexican lifestyle.

“The result is an incredible property driven by two creative minds. The three pavilions sit within the natural, landscape of cacti, wildflowers and native grasses.

“Lida’s studio is positioned on the north side and Austin’s on the south.  Sandwiched in between the two and accessed by an enclosed glass bridge, is a living area that open’s up entirely to the outdoors.

“‘We all decided we didn’t like front doors on houses because they were intimidating,’ Austin tells Dwell. ‘So as you come up, this cage envelops the house, and you see right into the living room, which opens up totally to the outside.’”

“Using organic materials, local artisans, and modern design methods, the couple have created a truly personal family retreat. The building and landscape are continually evolving as the artists experiment moving from canvas to sculpture and installations around the property.”

Casa de Lida in San Miguel

Lida insisted on remaining in San Miguel even as her health declined, and she died there Saturday, September 5, 2020.

I had not seen Lida since she and another childhood friend stayed with us when they came to Knoxville for Emma Jo’s funeral. Prior to that we had been together several times with other members of our kindergarten and high school classes in Charleston, S.C., where another Jellico High School alumnus, the late Dick Davenport, lived.

But, despite the separation of distance and time, that childhood bond between us has never been broken and soon will be restored on another level.

 

 

 

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Can Catholics vote for a Democrat?

For many U.S. Catholics, a single issue will determine their vote in the 2020 presidential election: abortion … or more specifically reversing Roe v. Wade which established the legal right for a woman to terminate a pregnancy.

These Catholics are part of the Right to Life movement, but it seems to me they ignore all the other right-to-life issues: the death penalty, limited access to health care which kills thousands of people each year, the opioid epidemic which takes thousands more lives, and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 lives largely because of poor national leadership.

They also ignore the lives of mothers and their unborn babies who will die if abortion is recriminalized, forcing them to turn again to the back-alley quacks, wire coat hangers and poisons.

The official position dictated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. (emphasis added)

The Catholic Church’s main response to abortion is a campaign to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1993 Roe v. Wade decision. That would allow states to make getting or performing an abortion illegal.

Do the leaders of the church really believe that the way to stop abortion is as simple as overturning Roe v. Wade?

It’s hard to know what will happened if Roe v. Wade is overturned, but likely we will wind up with a patchwork of states legalizing some or all abortions and others outlawing most abortions. Outlawing abortion won’t stop it, it will just put it back in the shadows and cost the lives not only of unborn babies but of many mothers. It will be especially hard on the poor in states where abortion is outlawed since they may not be able to afford traveling to a state where abortion is legal.

When abortions were illegal, one study indicated that more than 200 women a year died attempting to self-induce an abortion using poison or using various instruments.

Before the high court upheld a woman’s right to choose abortion of an unwanted pregnancy, thousands of illegal abortions occurred each year. Nobody knows how many, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps as many as 1.2 million a year.

Even though abortion on demand is now legal in most places, the number of abortions has been steadily dropping, going down 27.8 percent from 1998 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The total number in the United States is now under 1 million per year.

Although the bishops chose not to include it in its lists of “evil acts,” the Catholic Church, with the approval and backing of Pope Francis, now considers the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Use of the death penalty in federal cases was suspended in 1963, but reinstated in 1988 and first used in 2001 with the execution of Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the bombing of the U.S. federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 in which 168 people were killed and more than 680 people were injured.

That was one of three executions under President George W. Bush. Five men have been executed under President Donald Trump. Nobody was executed during the Obama administration.

It is noteworthy, in my opinion, that the bishops left some wiggle room for Catholics who are in doubt about how to vote with the line: “At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.”

In other words, make up your mind on the totality of the candidate’s worthiness on all issues, not just how he stands on any single issue.

In the August issue of America, the Jesuit magazine, Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor-in-chief of the magazine, dealt even more succinctly with the issue of how Catholics should approach the upcoming presidential election given the USCCB guidelines.

Here’s what he said:

“First, it is noteworthy that besides abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and gay marriage, the bishops also list as “intrinsically evil,” policies “deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions” as well as policies promoting “racist behavior.” A liberal interpretation of this text opens the door to a wider range of Catholic social teaching than just abortion and gay marriage.

“Second, the “if” clause is very important. A Catholic is in trouble only “if the voter’s intent is to support that position.”

“So, a Catholic Republican can vote for Trump, even if his policies promote racism or subject immigrants to subhuman living conditions, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

“And a Catholic Democrat can vote for Biden, even if his policies promote abortions and gay marriage, as long as the voter’s intent is not to support those positions.

“In Catholic theology, intention — why you are doing something — is essential to an understanding of the morality of an action.

“Paragraph 35 of “Faithful Citizenship” acknowledges the messy world of politics, where a candidate may disagree with church teaching on an important issue but a Catholic might still vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.”

 Personally, I feel that Catholic bishops should worry less about who Catholics are going to vote for and quit trying to criminalize abortion again. Instead, they should expand and give more support to existing programs such as Pregnancy Help Centers that help needy pregnant women get through not only the pre-natal and phases, but also support them afterward. That would do more than all the Right to Life marches and sign-carrying protests at abortion clinics to reducing abortions.

As Saint Teresa of Calcutta famously said: “We are fighting abortion with adoption.”

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Confession of a former Republican

   For many years I proudly identified myself as a Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and, more recently, Howard Baker. No longer.

   I don’t want to be associated in any way with the Republican Party. And it’s not just the president, it’s all those who toady up to him and do his bidding like puppets on a string when he goes about wrecking our country and trying to destroy our democracy.

   I grew up in a solidly Republican family. Our 2nd Congressional District in Tennessee has sent only Republicans to Washington since 1867, shortly after the party’s founding 1854. The party supported the Union and opposed slavery.

   When I worked for Sen. Howard Baker in Washington as his press secretary, the Republican Party had about as many liberal senators as it did conservative ones. Most, like Baker, were somewhere in the middle. Baker became known as the “Great Conciliator” because of his ability to bring the two parties and the factions within the parties together to get significant legislation passed.

   Baker considered what the country needed, not what the party wanted.

   But that is not the Republican Party of today.

   Normally sensible men who decried Trump as unfit before he won the 2016 election in the Electoral College have now become his sycophants, not only accepting his blunders and lies but trying to justify them.

   I am particularly disappointed in my old friend Lamar Alexander, the retiring senior senator for Tennessee. Lamar and I worked together in Baker’s 1966 campaign and in Baker’s Washington office. We even roomed together for a few weeks while I was getting settled in Washington. Our mothers, who lived withing a block or so on Ruth Street in Maryville, were close friends. I thought he had more spine that he has shown.

   Although I haven’t seen him in several years, I still consider him a friend. I don’t let politics interfere with friendship. Lamar is a very intelligent and thoughtful man. So why hasn’t he stood up to Trump? After announcing that he was retiring, what did he have to lose by voting to at least hear the testimony against Trump in the impeachment trial?

   For the record, let me state that I also don’t identify myself as a Democrat. I will vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the upcoming election, but I remain an independent.

   Prior to Baker’s election, a Republican had never been popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. Tennessee was a one-party state controlled by Democrats from West and Middle Tennessee.

In arguing for two-party rule, Baker often said that the ideological diversity of parties in those days was a healthy thing. He predicted that if the parties became split along conservative-liberal lines, it would be the end of the two-party system. Thanks to Baker, Tennessee became a two-party state. Now it is a one-party state with the Republicans in charge and doing, for the most part, a lousy job, in my opinion.

   I think Baker’s prediction that the polarization of the parties on liberal and conservative is coming true today.

   To many GOP leaders, you’re not a Republican unless you are fall in line on gun control, abortion, health care, immigration, gay rights, and a host of other issues.

   A party leader here in Knox County has raised a stink because a candidate who won the party’s nomination for state representative once voted in a Democratic primary. Never mind that in Tennessee, where party registration is not required, almost everybody has crossed over to vote in the other party’s primary.

   The Communist Party also has always demanded blind allegiance to the party line.

Even while still identifying myself as Republican, I long ago quit following the party line, voting for the candidates on all levels I felt were the best qualified and would do the best job for our city, state or nation.

Any remaining allegiance I had to the GOP ended when President George W. Bush launched the unjustified war against Iraq.

   I was pleased and relieved when the Democrats nominated Joe Biden and that he chose Kamala Harris as his running mate. I can support them enthusiastically. Had it been one of the more liberal candidates, I would have had a harder time.

   My hope now is that they can beat Donald Trump and Mike Pence by such a huge margin that there is no doubt about the outcome.

As H.L. Mencken, the famous journalist, essayist and English language scholar, wrote in the Baltimore Evening Sun (July 26, 1920):

   “As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”

   I think his description fits the present occupant of the White House, and I don’t think the country and world can stand four more years of his irresponsible governing.

   We must restore sensibility and decorum to the presidency. We need to get a national direction based on science not whim or wishful thinking to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. We need to mend our fences with our allies. We need to adopt an even better health care plan that covers every citizen in the United States. We need to restore the protections to the environment dismantled by Trump. We need to end the systemic racism everywhere in the country, but particularly in the police departments. We need to ensure that a good education is available to all, not just a privileged few.

   These are just a few of the things that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will have to do. It’s an enormous task. I hope we will get a Congress composed of men and women who will put national interest above partisan and personal interests and get these things done.

   If this happens, we can move away from the politics of fear and intimidation to a period of hope and progress at home and abroad.

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Deadlock in the 2020 Presidential Election?

By Thomas Murphy, guest blogger

Americans could wake up on January 20, 2021, to witness the inauguration as the next president of the United States … well … no one.

Twice in the last 20 years — 2000 and 2016 — American presidential elections were distorted and endangered by the antiquated institution known as the Electoral College. What Americans don’t know is that the system reserves even worse outcomes, including an electoral deadlock, a situation in which no one is elected president. Then, the only way to avert crisis is good-faith bargaining. And good faith is in short supply nowadays.

A deadlock in the Electoral College is unlikely. Deadlocks have occurred only three times in the more than 200-year history of presidential elections. All three times, the issue was decided through negotiations but only just in the nick of time.

An Electoral College deadlock would leave it up to the House of Representatives to choose the president. But the Constitution doesn’t make it that easy because each state gets only one vote. That vote is decided by a majority of each state’s congressional delegation. An absolute majority of the states is needed to win. Should the House balloting also end in deadlock, no president would be elected. As shown by previous close calls, it could happen.

The United States came close to a deadlock in 2000. Had Florida failed to report its electoral votes, because of vexing and unresolved recount disputes, neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore would have had the requisite majority of 270 electoral votes to become president-elect. Similarly, had Florida sent disputed slates of electors to Congress, a nasty congressional battle over certification might have ensued, with attendant recriminations, delays and dangers.

Similar conflicts occurred in the 19th century. Electoral slates in three southern states were disputed after the voting in the 1876 election, leaving certification to a Congress not only bitterly partisan but still reeling from the emotional fissures opened by the Civil War and the divisive Reconstruction that followed it. Months of noisy legal maneuvering, machinations of a controversial special commission and back room dealings followed. Americans were only assured that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and not Democrat Samuel J. Tilden would be their next president two days before the March 4, 1877, inauguration.

Elections in 1800 and 1824 failed to produce the necessary absolute majority — one half plus one — in the Electoral College, sending the choice to the House of Representatives.

America came close to another such electoral crisis in 1968, when a third party candidate, George Wallace of Alabama, walked away with 46 electoral votes. The shift of just a few thousand votes in a couple of states might have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, with unpredictable consequences since some of the southern delegations might have supported Wallace.

This year’s election is unlikely to produce a credible third party challenger; however, in recent years a new threat has crept into the system — the figure of the “faithless elector.” Initially in 2016, 10 of the 538 electors attempted to cast ballots for candidates other than the major party nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Three of the 10 were forced by electoral officials in their respective states to back down; but, in the end, seven electors bolted their party and, disregarding the will of voters, scattered their ballots among several candidates, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who receiving three votes, referred to the incident, in a recent interview, as “amusing.”

Less amusing is the exercise of overlaying the 2016 onto the 2000 results; with George W. Bush achieving only a bare majority at 271 electoral votes but with seven of the votes going astray, including three for fellow Republican Colin Powell, no one would have been chosen president in November 2000.

Thomas Murphy is author of the novel Deadlock: What happens if no one is elected president? available on Amazon.com. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Murphy is a long-time journalist and foreign correspondent. Now semi-retired, he worked for Knight-Ridder, Associated Press and Dow Jones, among other news-gathering organizations. He lives in São Paulo, Brazil.

 

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Trump’s Greatest Ally: The Media

If you watch the news on TV, read it in a newspaper, access it on a website or just hear it from a friend, what name do you see or hear most often? Trump.

Every time Trump tweets, the national media are all over it, the more absurd and ridiculous the better. Every time he tells another lie or repeats the ones he’s already been telling, the media give him full coverage, and almost always with a full color picture or video.

Despite his disparagement of the news media, calling any reports not 100 percent favorable to him “fake news,” Trump’s greatest ally is the news media, and I don’t mean just Fox News.

After the announcement that Sen. Kamala Harris would be Joe Biden’s running mate, one news portal I looked at gave Trump more space bad mouthing Harris than it did to the announcement itself.

And Trump continues to dominate with his very unpresidential slurs and insults, calling Harris “nasty” and suggesting she wasn’t born in the United States. I was surprised to learn that Trump thinks Oakland, California, is a foreign country.

Forget the polls. He was behind in the polls during the 2016 campaign. Trump knows how to get millions of dollars worth of free publicity. Never mind that much of it is negative or downright insulting. It gets his name out there. And a lot of people actually believe the things he says.

While his goal in discrediting the media would seem to be aimed at preventing negative coverage of his actions, the result has been to give him almost total dominance of the political news.

During the campaign, the media, convinced apparently that Trump was a passing diversion, relished his antics. Each time he did something ridiculous many pundits foretold his quick elimination from the race. But it didn’t happen. He stayed in and won the presidency even though he didn’t win the popular vote nationwide. Apparently, Trump was as surprised as anybody that he won.

Why? In my opinion, based on more than 50 years as a working journalist and journalism educator, it was because the media were enamored with his clownish antics, his disregard of convention, his brutal attacks on his enemies, and barrages of unedited Tweets that he almost totally dominated the press coverage. Everything he said and did made the news. His picture was on the front pages of newspapers, videos of him topped the national news broadcasts, social media spread his absurdities around the world.

Margaret Sullivan, media columnist in the Washington Post, recently wrote a column analyzing how the media failed to their job in their coverage of the last election campaign.

“News organizations,” she wrote, “failed to understand the tear-it-all-down mood of large segments of the voting public, or the racism and sexism that often fueled it.

“They let Trump, the great distractor, hijack news coverage and play assignment editor. He became the shiny new toy that they couldn’t take their eyes off.

“They glossed over, or didn’t understand, Facebook’s monumental influence on the vote, and how what appeared on social media was so deeply affected by forces outside the United States.”

Sadly, Trump succeeded, with the help of the media, in convincing people that the media, with the possible exception of Fox News, are not credible.

I sometimes wear a ball cap that bears the slogan: “A Free Press is Essential to Democracy.” A friend of mine, an intelligent man, questioned that slogan.

“The press is biased,” he said. “It slants the news. You can’t believe anything the news says.”

My response to that is that since the news is reported by mere mortals, some bias will always creep into news reports. Most of what we see on social media is opinion, not news.

However, anybody who has ever lived in a country, as I have, where the government censors the press knows the importance of press freedom, even with all its flaws.

Now, in the midst of the pandemic and the run-up to our presidential election in November, once again it’s all about Donald Trump.

Yes, a lot of the coverage is negative, not because the press is lying but because of Trump’s bungling of the national pandemic response, his still unexplained affection for Vladimir Putin and Russia, his refusal to show the American public his income tax returns, his repeated lies about almost everything, and on and on.

Unless the media wise up, and stop giving Trump all this free publicity, he will be president for another four years … at least.

The way the media could really enrage Trump would be to ignore him, at least his more absurd things. He needs the media attention and thrives on it, no matter what he says to the contrary. The public doesn’t need to see headlines about every single thing he Tweets about in the middle of the night.

Trump is a master at distracting the media when things aren’t going his way. And the media keep falling for it.

As the famous 19th century showman P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He also said, “The bigger the humbug, the better people like it,” and “The common man, no matter how smart or tough, actually enjoys having the wool pulled over his eyes, and makes it easier for the puller.”

(Editor’s note: “media” is the plural of “medium.” I know many editors and writers now accept “media” as a singular noun, but I still prefer it as a plural)

 

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Is the United States a modern democracy?

By Thomas Murphy, guest blogger

If the United States were a Third World country would it pass basic tests for democratic best practices?

Probably not.

When international observers watch on the sidelines of elections in Africa, Asia, or Latin America they look for two things: commitment to democracy and the transparency of the electoral process.

The United States would be in trouble on both counts.

Turnout in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was only 55.7% of eligible voters. By contrast, in the final round of France’s 2017 presidential race, 74.6% of those eligible came out to the polls; in Brazil’s 2018 presidential contest, 78.7% showed up.

Low turnout raises a number of issues. If only 55.7% vote for president, how many turn out in off-year and local elections? The answer: not many. A multitude of America’s “elected” officials are, in fact, being chosen by a small minority of voters.

Americans should be asking themselves why. Is there intimidation? Excessive bureaucracy? Voter cynicism? Why the lukewarm commitment to the democratic process?

The Latinate word “transparency” suggests two elements: clarity and credibility.

According to the criterion of clarity, voters should know exactly what their ballots stand for. But clarity is lacking in any U.S. presidential election. Most voters think they are choosing between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, for example, but they’re not.

Actually, they’re voting for a group of electors who promise to vote for Trump or Biden at a series of secretive conclaves held at state capitals about six weeks later. Twice in the past 20 years this process has led to election of the candidate who received fewer popular votes than his rival.

Nor is the Electoral College itself very transparent. While many voters have some general ideas about it, almost no one understands fully the many nuances of its functioning. Even scholars disagree on key points, such as the powers of state legislatures over electors, the role of Congress in choosing between competing slates, or the degree of independence electors have in departing from the expressed will of the voters. Indeed, in 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for candidates other than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

When it comes to credibility, there are abiding concerns, ones made increasingly urgent by systematic efforts in recent years at voter suppression. In most U.S. localities, the process, including voter registration, rules and restrictions on voting, ballot box accessibility and the vote count itself, is managed by elected officials, in other words, the politicians themselves.

The most glaring example of this conflict of interest was the disputed Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election in which the highest elections official, state Secretary of State Katherine Harris, also served as co-chair of the George Bush presidential campaign. This would be roundly, and rightly, condemned in any Third World election.

A similar abuse involves politicians drawing the lines of their own election districts. Known as gerrymandering, this is an ancient art designed to produce legislative majorities from a minority of votes. The most egregious recent example is Wisconsin, where the Republican Party gerrymandered itself into a near permanent State Assembly majority. In 2018, for example, Republicans won 64 of the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 99 seats while garnering only 45% of the popular vote.

What to do?

  • Scrap the Electoral College. It serves no useful purpose. It distorts the popular will and can endanger democracy itself by producing a deadlocked election (this has happened three times in American history, 1800, 1824 and 1876; it almost happened in 1968).
  • Put elections in the hands of civil servants. No one with a partisan affiliation should get close to any ballots. In Brazil, for example, a specialized branch of the judiciary is responsible for managing elections. Their job is to facilitate voting, resolve disputes objectively and produce a timely, accurate vote count.
  • End gerrymandering. The House of Commons in the United Kingdom is comprised of 650 members elected from single-member districts. The districts are drawn by four independent Boundary Commissions. In the United States, only six of the 50 states have established such commissions for drawing up congressional districts.
  • Separate federal from local elections. Voters in most countries are not faced with a myriad of local offices and complicated referenda when they vote in national elections. France, for example, even separates presidential from parliamentary elections. A separate federal election would make it possible to adopt a uniform national ballot, easy to cast and easy to count.
  • Facilitate voter registration. Excessive bureaucracy is one of the reasons for low turnout in the United States and is one of the chief instruments of voter suppression. In many countries, citizens are invited to register to vote any time they come in contact with a government service. Buy stamps and register to vote. Renew a driver’s license and register as a voter. In some countries, citizens are even obliged to register and vote under penalty of a fine.
  • Vote on Sunday. The Tuesday election day is a bitter reality for those Americans who hold minimum-wage jobs, rely on public transportation, and lack child-care facilities. To cast ballots when schools, factories and offices are open shows a fundamental disrespect for the public and is one of the reasons for low turnout. Most countries hold elections on Sundays. Some countries reserve two or more days for voting out of consideration for religious observances.
  • Such recommendations are not revolutionary. On the contrary, they represent best practices in most democratic countries today. Their aim is simple — to make the United States as democratic as other Western, and increasingly many Third World, nations.

Thomas Murphy is a long-time journalist and foreign correspondent. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Government and a master’s degree in Comparative Government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Now semi-retired, he worked for Knight-Ridder, Associated Press, Dow Jones, and other news-gathering organizations. He lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He is author of the novel Deadlock: What happens if no one is elected president? available on Amazon.com.

 

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Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Revisited

Reading about World War II recently, I came across a reference to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.”

I vaguely remembered the phrase, but I was curious to know more so I looked it up.

In his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearly Harbor catapulted the United States into what became World War II, Roosevelt was urging Congress away from a policy of neutrality in the war in Europe and the Japanese advances in the Far East.

It’s a great speech, worthy of a re-reading in its entirety. He could have used it to brag about how he had gotten America out of the Great  Depression, or how his administration gave us Social Security, made the 40-hour week the standard, established the national minimum wage and guaranteed overtime pay. Roosevelt’s administration also saw the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Smoky Mountains National Park. But he didn’t crow about past achievements. He focused on getting the nation ready to get dragged into the wars in Europe and the Far East.

At the end of his speech he stressed that the people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship God in each one’s own way; freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

These days, most of us take the cherished freedoms embedded in our Constitution for granted. But as I read Roosevelt’s words, I wondered how our country is doing today in defending these freedoms, particularly the four he listed.

Freedom of expression is being attacked viciously by those who label unfavorable stories in the media “fake news,” attempting to undermine the credibility of professional reporting when it is critical or runs contrary to their own positions. Freedom of expression is attacked when government officials are fired from their jobs because they dared to tell the truth in Congressional hearings. Freedom of expression is attacked when the president of the United States attempts to bar publication of books that might be critical of him. The list could go on and on.

Freedom of religion is threatened by those who would force school children to pray in a certain way. Freedom of religion is threatened when religion becomes politicized. Freedom of religion is threatened when places of worship are vandalized or burned down or people of a certain religion are singled out for ridicule and unfounded accusations.

Freedom from want has never happened, even in this country. Today millions still live in poverty, millions still have no health care, millions are homeless, millions are jobless. For Roosevelt freedom from want meant that every person should have the opportunity to work. If a person could not work for some reason, it was up to the government to make sure that person’s family had enough to live on. Over the years, we have attempted repeatedly to deal with the problem and have made great advances, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare initiatives. But these haven’t been enough. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater. Despite the great advances in race relations, racism is still a cancer in this country.

Freedom from fear also has not happened. On the contrary, politicians from the president on down use fear as a political weapon. Fear of foreign immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of “socialism,” fear of taxes, fear of our allies and enemies alike in foreign policy, fear of illness, etc. This kind of fear begets racism and police brutality and helps polarize the nation.

Roosevelt took office in 1933 at a time when our country, in the midst of the Great Depression, was gripped with fear, fear of the present and fear for the future. As president, his became the voice of calm as he rallied the country to accept the drastic measures he knew were necessary to restore the nation’s economic health.

“The only thing we have to fear,” he said in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, is fear itself.”

Roosevelt was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had. His leadership brought us out of the Depression and guided us to victory in World War II.

In both instances, he unified the nation, got the politicians to rise above narrow partisan interests and rallied the people to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve success.

In World War II, the entire nation went to war. The “home front” was as vital as the battle fronts. When the men went off to war, women put on work clothes, rolled up their sleeves and went to work in the factories and shipyards and wherever else they were needed.

Even though we had very little chance of being attacked, particularly in the heartland, we had air raid drills, kept our windows covered at night and learned to recognize enemy aircraft. We recycled everything we could for the war effort. School children bought war stamps and adults bought war bonds. Food and gas were rationed. The entire nation was mobilized and we all knew it.

We were in that war only four years before the Allies achieved total victory, the unconditional surrender of the enemies.

Roosevelt had many critics who called his programs “socialism.” Certainly, Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority and some other programs could be labeled socialistic, as can the later additions of Medicare and Medicaid. But they have improved our country, not destroyed it.

Today, the country has never been so divided since the Civil War.

The a few of critical issues now are:

  • First and foremost, a national plan and direction based on science to combat the Covid-19 coronavirus. Making a pandemic a political issue has not only further divided the country, it has cost many people their lives and millions of others their livelihood.
  • A national health care system that works for all people. That includes making health insurance and health care available to all people in this country, not just a privileged few.
  • A living wage for all people. While top executives earn millions or billions, workers on the bottom rung can barely scrape by on what they get. The federal and the Tennessee minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. Twenty other states use the federal minimum. Some other states have higher minimums and the national average is $11.80. Imagine trying to feed a family pay the rent and other expenses on $290 a week.
  • A sensible and workable national plan to reform our police departments to stop police brutality, particularly against minorities. This would never include defunding police departments.
  • A coherent foreign policy that cooperates with our allies and encourages the four freedoms throughout the world.
  • An immigration reform program that is compassionate, actually gets the job done and includes a path for long-time residents to obtain citizenship. Building a border wall is not the way to get that done.

Roosevelt in that 1941 address stating his opposition to isolationism said: “What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained clear, definite opposition, to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall while the procession of civilization went past. … ” I think the same words could apply to today’s immigration policies.

These should not be partisan issues. It’s not a question of who gets the credit or the blame. It is a matter of bringing the country together to solve national problems.

What is lacking on these and other issues, in my opinion, is a strong, coherent national leadership that can bring the country together as Roosevelt did in the Depression and in World War II.

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