Sunday, May 31, 2009

A question the White House refused to answer

By DeWayne Wickham

It was, I thought, a fairly simple question — which threatened nothing more than the arrogance of the White House's Praetorian Guard.

I wanted to know how many black higher education institutions have asked Barack Obama to be their commencement speaker this spring.

Black voters, many of them students at historically black colleges and universities, turned out in record numbers to help lift Obama to the presidency. While overall voter turnout in 2008 was roughly the same as in 2004, the black vote rose 23.5 percent, and 95 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Obama, according to David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

So when the White House announced that Obama would give the commencement address at three schools this year, I wondered why none of them was black.

Whatever the reason, the White House doesn't want to talk about it.

My efforts to get the names of the black schools that invited the president to speak were rebuffed. "We don't give out that kind of information," White House press aide Corey Ealons told me.

Imagine that. The list of black schools that asked Obama to give a commencement address is a state secret. Press secretary Robert Gibbs didn't bother to respond when I e-mailed him to ask whether Ealons correctly stated the White House's policy.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to bring greater transparency to the White House. "The American people deserve to know what their government does and why," his campaign declared in an online policy position titled "Restoring Trust in Government and Improving Transparency." Obama, the presidential candidate, promised to end the "unprecedented secrecy" of the Bush administration.

But in refusing to release the names of the black schools that asked the president to give a graduation address, the Obama administration is being more than petty. It's behaving like its predecessor. The Bush administration refused to name the people who attended a White House meeting to help Vice President Dick Cheney formulate energy policy in 2001. Cheney even resisted revealing the names of visitors to his official vice presidential residence.

It was that kind of disregard for the people's right to know that moved Obama to issue a memorandum on open government a day after he was sworn in. "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," he said in that document.

For many people, Obama's election signaled a break with the small-mindedness of the Bush administration — an end to keeping secret those things that have nothing to do with our national survival.

Withholding the names of black schools that asked Obama to give a commencement address trivializes the president's commitment to open government and undermines his promise of change.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Defending America shouldn't be a spectator sport

By DeWayne Wickham

Near the end of his University of Notre Dame commencement address, President Obama urged graduates to make public service a way of life.

“Because when you serve, it doesn’t just improve your community,” he said, “it makes you a part of your community.”

A few hours later on 60 Minutes, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, — who aptly calls himself the Secretary of War — talked about the public service being performed by members of the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration is shifting troops from Iraq, where fighting is winding down, to Afghanistan, where the war is heating up. This summer the number of U.S. troops in that combat-ravaged country will nearly double to 59,000. The number of U.S. dead and wounded also will likely swell.

In a democracy, military duty is the ultimate act of public service. But while America has been waging war on two fronts since 2003, many Americans have left the defense of their way of life to the small group of people who make up this nation’s all-volunteer military. These men and women deserve more than just our gratitude.

Nearly 5,000 of them have given their lives in defense of this country — a sacrifice Abraham Lincoln called a soldier’s “last full measure of devotion.” More than 30,000 have suffered physical wounds. Many more have been injured psychologically by multiple war-zone deployments, the Rand Corporation reported last year in a study titled, “Invisible Wounds of War.”

Those who volunteered for military service during this time of war deserve to be treated like patriots, not mercenaries. We shouldn’t have to repeatedly deploy them to war zones while millions of young men and women do nothing that could remotely pass for public service.
When America goes to war, Americans — all of us — should be on a war footing.

But with a U.S. military force likely to remain in Iraq for many years and the fighting in Afghanistan about to become more lethal, most Americans treat our involvement in these conflicts like a spectator sport — the view for them is just fine from the bleachers. And as this passive public watches, the military is forced to keep thousands of servicemen and women on active duty beyond the end of their enlistment contracts.

In March, Gates announced a phase-out of this so-called “stop-loss” program, which as of January had 13,200 soldiers trapped in a military no-man’s land. But the finish line won’t be reached until March 2011.

The young men and women who are the backbone of this nation’s armed forces are the most selfless — and the most deserving — Americans. They have put their lives on hold, their marriages at risk and their trust in a country that too often treats them as an afterthought — except on Memorial Day, of course, when millions of Americans storm the beaches as many military families are making their way to the cemeteries.

Any war worth fighting is one in which a broad cross-section of Americans should bear the brunt of combat. Ideally the ranks of the U.S. military should be filled with volunteers. But, if necessary, this nation should resort to a military draft to spread the burden of war more fairly across the length and breadth of this nation.

In creating the first Memorial Day in 1868, Gen. John Logan said, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

Nor should we forget in a time of war the defense of freedom should be the duty of the many, not the few.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A "Love Land" that will make you blush

By DeWayne Wickham

How’s this for a biting example of what goes around comes around?

Communist China, which used to delight in accusing Western societies of decadent behavior, is now struggling to deal with its own debauchery.

A few days ago, government officials in Chongqing, a city of more than 5 million people, ordered the demolition of the country’s first sex-themed amusement park.

Called “Love Land,” the park was scheduled to open in October. But after pictures of some of its attractions made their way around the Internet, government officials sent in wrecking crews to tear down the place.

Lu Xiaoqing, the park’s developer, said “Love Land” was created to improve sex awareness and to better people’s sex lives. Just how it was supposed to do that is unclear. Surely not with an oversized mannequin of a woman’s body from the waist down covered only in a red thong. But that’s what he placed atop the rotating “Love Land” sign at the park’s entrance.

And Lu couldn’t have had better sex on his mind when he put up a display of giant genitalia. Nor could he have been thinking wholesome thoughts when he affixed restroom sinks to brightly colored replicas of naked derrieres atop bare legs in high heels.

Lu said there was a lot of good stuff to see and do at his sex park, like exhibits about sex history and sessions on sex practices in other countries. But when communist officials took a close look at “Love Land,” all they saw was red (pun intended).

When it comes to decadence, China seems to be on its way to overtaking the West.

Students in the university district of Beijing, China’s bustling capital, openly line up to get three-hour time blocks in “no-tell” motels, USA TODAY reported earlier this year. The spread of these sex dens would probably prompt a blush even from Mao Zedong, China’s sexually prolific revolutionary leader who died in 1976.

Sex is the driving force of China’s latest Cultural Revolution. And with this sexual awakening has come a myriad of problems, from an increase in sexually transmitted diseases to a growing number of abortions and an increase in sex crimes.

Two recent stories in China Daily, the country’s leading English-language newspaper, highlight how China is struggling to deal with prostitution. One article reported that Yuan Li, a 37-year-old woman accused of forcing girls as young as 11 to have sex with men, faces the death penalty. But the men involved get only a slap on the wrist if prosecutors can’t prove they knew their victim was under 14.

That’s what happened to Lu Lumin, a 47-year-old a tax official in Sichuan province. He was fined $730 recently after convincing legal authorities that he didn’t know the girl he paid to have sex with was only 13. If that doesn’t make you want to holler, this should: The sentence for rapists in China is just three to 10 years if their victim is 14 or older.

China has become a major political and economic force on the world stage. But with its ascendancy, China has developed some of the same problems that afflict nations that have long shunned totalitarian government and the suppression of individual liberties.

Now, as China becomes a more open society – though hardly a bastion of democracy – it must find the social and moral balance it needs to avoid the rot that destroys countries from within long before they are toppled by outside forces.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Give Cheney what he wants - and more

By DeWayne Wickham

C'mon, Mr. President, do the right thing. Dick Cheney, a late convert to open government, demands that you release secret documents he says support his contention that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration did more good than harm.

The irascible former vice president, who largely shunned journalists during his eight years in the White House, now busies himself attacking you in the media. He claims your decision to stop government agents from using interrogation methods that you've branded as torture puts the nation at risk of another terrorist attack.

And that's not all. Cheney argues that your administration's release of the legal authorization for those techniques, written by Bush administration political appointees in the Justice Department, is an act of petty, partisan politics.

Cheney says there are documents that prove the interrogation techniques you outlawed produced information that helped thwart terrorist plots against the United States after 9/11 - and he wants you to release those papers.

I say do it. Give Cheney what he wants. After all, Mr. President, your position on this issue is quite clear. Waterboarding and other so-called "harsh" interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration amounts to torture - and torture is illegal. Besides, as an FBI interrogator told a congressional committee the other day, there are better, legal methods to get information from terrorists.

So, in the name of open government, let's see those documents Cheney wants you to release - and let's also see a few things he'd hoped would never see daylight.

Release the logs of the visitors to Cheney's vice presidential residence. Give us a list of those who stayed overnight there and dined at taxpayers' expense with Cheney.

Cheney had little regard for the people's right to know when he refused to make that information public. But now that he sees value in releasing government documents to the American people, you should release this information, too.

While you're at it, order the release of all records related to meetings Cheney had with energy industry insiders shortly after he and President George W. Bush - both former energy industry executives themselves - took office in 2001.

Cheney objected to a Freedom of Information Act request for the names of the people who attended those meetings. His legal challenge lasted for years and went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Washington Post ultimately revealed who attended the energy task force meetings. But Mr. President, you can give the nation a more complete understanding of the role those people played by releasing the minutes of those meetings. Many of the attendees were big financial contributors to the Bush-Cheney election campaign.

Since Cheney is urging you to release classified information, he shouldn't object to you also throwing in some documents whose only real secret might be his incestuous relationship with the oil industry.

Now that Cheney is out of office - and on the defensive about his role in authorizing waterboarding and other forms of torture on terrorism suspects - he has a better appreciation for open government. Now that he thinks such methods can be justified by the results they produced, he's a champion of transparency.

So, Mr. President, give the public a look at the documents Cheney wants revealed - and at those he fought so hard to keep from the American people.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Germans give Obama high marks

By DeWayne Wickham

BERLIN—It didn't take long for me to understand why Mo Asumang gives Barack Obama such a high grade for his first 100 days in the Oval Office: The German filmmaker and U.S. president are kindred souls.

Like Obama, Asumang, 45, was born to a white mother and black African father. Each was also were raised largely by a doting, white grandmother. And each, eventually, undertook a journey of self-discovery. Obama's was chronicled in his best-selling 2004 book, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race of Inheritance.” Asumang's awakening came in the form of a 2007 documentary, “Roots Germania,” in which she set out to confront a Neo-Nazi who threatened her life. But instead, she ended up exploring her dual identities.

"I think he has been a great president for America, and the world," she said of Obama. "I see myself in him; through all the things I had to manage while growing up in Germany, all these things about integration, about communicating with people, about identity — all these issues must have been his issues, too. ... So I know when he talks about these things, he's not reading them in books or seeing them on television. I know these things are in his heart."

Not since John Kennedy came here at the height of the Cold War and proclaimed himself a Berliner has a U.S. president been so revered in Germany. Obama is especially popular among this country's small but culturally influential population of people of African descent. During his 1963 visit, Kennedy said: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Now, Asumang said, blacks in Germany claim a linkage to America's first black president with these words: "Wir sind präsident" — we are president.

Of course, if Obama's popularity in a nation not easily moved to adulation of foreign leaders was just a matter of race pride, his first 100 days in the White House might be seen differently. But he is by far the most popular political leader on either side of the Atlantic. An average of about 80% of the people in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Britain and the United States have a good opinion of Obama, according to a recent poll by Harris Interactive.
That reality minimizes the judgments political commentators will make about the early days of Obama's presidency — and shows that his race, for many people, is far less important than his ability to inspire people.

"For many of us, it was that he said, 'I'll try my best and I will make some mistakes.' He gave us a sense of a totally different American president,' " said Dagmar Meister, a white, 48-year-old artist who lives with her husband and daughter in the Nikolaiviertel, the historic center of Berlin. "Nobody expects that he will change things in just 100 days, but we feel he is opening doors to change," Meister said Sunday afternoon as she sat at an outdoor restaurant table.

For Meister, one opening came during the recent meeting of the Group of 20 economic powers, when Obama talked about his desire for a nuclear-free world. "He dares to say something like this (in) a way that makes it sound realistic," she said. "So he is not just good for the United States; he is good for the whole world."

That's great praise — and a daunting challenge. Now, Obama's biggest challenge from at home and abroad will be to make good on his presidency's promise of good things to come..

Friday, May 8, 2009

Is Specter a Lieberman Democrat?

By DeWayne Wickham

When Arlen Specter announced he was quitting the Republican Party to become a Democrat, who knew he would be joining the Joe Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party?

Well, that is apparently what he's done. While the Pennsylvania senator's decision late last month to switch parties brought great joy to the ranks of congressional Democrats, some of his actions since then have made a lot of Democrats wonder where his loyalties really lie.

Lieberman is a faux Democrat who lost his party's nomination in Connecticut's 2006 Democratic primary. He ran in the general election as an independent and won a third term in the Senate. Lieberman, who remains a registered Democrat and continues to caucus with Senate Democrats, calls himself an "independent-Democrat."

Last year, Lieberman campaigned for Republican John McCain - and against Democrat Barack Obama - during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"Sen. Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But my friends, eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America," Lieberman said during a campaign speech.

Specter was officially welcomed to the Democratic Party's ranks by President Obama, who promised to support the senator's 2010 reelection campaign. It was the prospect of being challenged in the Republican primary by a staunch conservative that pushed Specter, a political moderate, to switch parties.

So how did he respond to Obama's welcoming embrace? Four days later, Specter tried to put some distance between himself and his new party during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"I did not say I would be a loyal Democrat," he said sternly to David Gregory, the show's host. "I did not say that."

And as if to punctuate those words, Specter quickly began to behave like a disloyal Democrat. He voted against a Democratic budget resolution and helped defeat a White House-backed bill that would permit bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of a homeowner's mortgage.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Specter told The New York Times that Minnesota's Supreme Court should "declare Norm Coleman the winner" of the state's still unresolved 2008 Senate race. The outcome is expected to be decided this summer by Minnesota's high court. After a statewide recount, Democrat Al Franken emerged with a 312-vote lead over Coleman, who is appealing that decision.

If the court affirms Franken as the winner, Democrats will have the 60 votes they need to stop Republicans from using filibusters to block legislation. So why would Specter - a newly minted Democrat - want Coleman to prevail?
"In the swirl of moving from one (party) to another, I have to get used to my new teammates," Specter said.

His retreat came amid a howl of protests from Democratic Party operatives and reports that he had been taken to the woodshed by Obama aides.

What's certain is that Specter will have to decide very soon if he wants to run for re-election as a loyal Democrat, or as a Lieberman Democrat. Having just shed his Republican cloak, it may be tempting for him to stake out a position of independence within the Democratic Party - but it wouldn't be wise.

Given the choice between a real Democrat and one who joined the party just to keep his re-election hopes alive, Pennsylvania's Democrats may bring Specter's tenure as a Senate Democrat to a screeching halt.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Black expatriates not ready to come home

By DeWayne Wickham

BERLIN – When Barack Obama triumphantly came to this city 10 months ago – his selection as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate all but certain – Kevin Booker, like African American expatriates in many other parts of Europe, swelled with pride.

Obama’s speech from the base of the city’ historic Victory Column to more than 200,000 people, and the looming possibility that he would be the United States’ first black president, cast a new light on the country Booker left 16 years ago.

But Obama’s ultimate victory and the generally good reviews he’s gotten for his first 100 days in office are not enough to get him to move back home, Booker told me.

“Yes, it’s a new day, a remarkable thing has happened, but I don’t think America has changed that much for the average black – not enough for me to give up my good life here,” said Booker, a singer, actor and producer.

For many people in America, Obama’s election ushered in a post-racial era that was expected to push race to the back burner of our national consciousness. But for a lot of blacks who moved abroad in search of a better life – and found it – going back to the land of their birth is a chance they’re unwilling to take.

“The ability to be an American first and then a black woman,” keeps Connie Jackson in London nearly seven years after she moved to England where she works as a management consultant. “I’m hoping against hope that Obama will bring back ‘smart’ and help expand the country’s perspective and understanding of the world,” said Jackson, who gave Obama the maximum financial contribution in his primary and general election campaigns.

Ricki Stevenson hopes Obama can changed America too. She moved to Paris 12 years ago, trading a career as a broadcast journalist for a job as a tour company operator. Her Black Paris Tours takes visitors to many of the places where some of the city’s most famous black expatriates lived, worked and played. Disillusioned with life in the United States during the Jim Crow era, people like singer Josephine and writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin made their home in the City of Lights.

Stevenson went to Paris to see more of the world and stayed because it offered her a better life – and an escape from America’s racial problems. But Obama’s election to the nation’s highest office isn’t enough to get her to return to the United States for more than a visit.

“I don’t like the violence in America. I love the safety here. And until Obama does something about gun violence in the U.S., I would rather be here,” said Stevenson, an active member of Democrats Abroad, who actively campaigned for Obama.

To be sure, the America that put a black man in the Oval Office is marked different from the country blacks fled before Nov. 4, 2008. It is more accepting of the Harvard-educated Obama, than it was for more than half a century of W.E.B. DuBois, the first black to earn a doctorate degree from that prestigious school.

DuBois – who also studied at Berlin’s Humboldt University – was a “race man” who correctly predicted that “the color-line” would be America’s biggest problem in the 20th century. Obama, it is thought by many of his white supporters, transcends race.

But many of Obama’s black supporters on this side of the Atlantic, while overjoyed by his election, believe there is much more than America must do to become a better place for them.