Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recognition long overdue for Jackson's political trailblazing

By DeWayne Wickham

In a little noticed, long overdue act of acknowledgement, 12 members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood before a nearly empty chamber of the House of Representatives last week to give the Rev. Jesse Jackson the praise many would deny him.

Jackson's campaigns for the Democratic Party's presidential nominations "forever changed the political ... landscape of this country" and "laid the foundation" for the election of Barack Obama, Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said in a brief floor speech.

That was the recurring theme of the 12 black members of Congress and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the lone white representative, who spoke in tribute to the 25th anniversary of Jackson's 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Back then, Newsweek and the Village Voice proclaimed Jackson the candidate of "transformations" and "change."

In his presidential campaign last year, Obama promised to talk to America's enemies if he became president. But in Jackson's trailblazing campaign, he did just that when he persuaded Syrian President Hafez Assad to free Navy Lt. Robert Goodman, a U.S. pilot shot down over Lebanon by Syrian anti-aircraft gunners a month earlier.

Although his campaigns were far from flawless — Jackson's use of the pejorative "Hymietown" to describe New York Jews dealt his 1984 ambition a serious blow — his two presidential runs did more to change the face of American politics than anything else in the past 100 years. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act opened the way for more blacks to vote, Jackson was the political Pied Piper who drew them to the polls in record numbers.

Marjorie Fields Harris, a former executive director of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, said of Jackson: "His voter registration effort in previously overlooked and disenfranchised communities was historic" and helped lift "African-American governors, senators, judges and other elected officials into office. His run was iconic and — love him, or hate him — no student of history could ever argue that his campaign wasn't our first real glimpse of what an African-American president would look like."

That's no idle praise.

"Jackson brought about significant increases in black voter registration in '84 and '88. And Democrats made election gains that were very much tied to the turnout of these black voters," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

In fact, Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986 due in large part to that surge in black voter registration, the Joint Center has reported. And that wasn't the only ripple effect from Jackson's campaigns. Since 1984, the number of blacks in Congress has grown from 21 to 42 members. Many blacks who rose to prominent positions in the Democratic Party also had close ties to his candidacy.

Among them are Ron Brown and Alexis Herman, who served as the secretaries of Commerce and Labor in the Clinton administration. Brown also did a stint as Democratic Party chairman after serving as an adviser to Jackson. Donna Brazile, a manager of Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, also had close ties to Jackson's White House campaigns.

Those who forge change seldom benefit from it. The doors that Jackson opened made it possible for Obama to achieve Jackson's dream. And that's something those who write the history of these times shouldn't forget.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book launches Sarah Palin's second coming

By DeWayne Wickham

This is Day 2 of Sarah Palin's second coming.

Monday, she was on The Oprah Winfrey Show, an appearance that jump-started her return to the national spotlight. Today Palin's book, Going Rogue: An American Life, presales of which made it a best-seller more than a month before its release, will be in bookstores.

The former Alaska governor was first propelled into the national spotlight in August 2008 when Republican presidential candidate John McCain picked her as his running mate. But what started out as a rapid ascent onto the national political stage with her speech at the Republican National Convention quickly nose-dived three weeks later with her disastrous interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

When Democrat Barack Obama defeated McCain in the November election, Palin seemed destined to end up as a historical footnote: the first female vice presidential candidate on a GOP ticket.

Instead, Palin — the darling of many conservatives — seems to be in full dress rehearsal for the 2012 presidential election. Since resigning Alaska's governorship in July, she appears to have busied herself with plotting for a return to the big stage. Though most failed vice presidential candidates quietly exit the political arena, Palin will use her book to skirmish with those in the news media who crossed her and to complain loudly about how she was mistreated and mishandled by members of McCain's campaign staff.

The conventional wisdom is that Palin is wasting her time that this is not a path that'll lead her to the GOP nomination, or get her into the White House without an invitation. I'm not so sure.

Winning elections is about being able to campaign. It's not about whether you can govern. That's especially true of the quest for a party's presidential nomination. Palin's unannounced campaign for the GOP nomination begins in earnest Wednesday. She will depart on a three-week book tour that is scheduled to take her to at least seven battleground states to hawk her book and, no doubt, to test the presidential waters.

While a lot of news media folks, and members of Washington's elite, see Palin as a political lightweight who gets by on her good looks as well as the novelty of being a female first, to the GOP's social conservatives she is a favored standard-bearer for the next presidential race.

In a recent Gallup Poll about possible Republican candidates, Palin came in a close second to Mike Huckabee among GOP voters. When asked whom they would "seriously consider supporting" in the 2012 presidential election, 71% said they could possibly back Huckabee, while 65% said the same about Palin and Mitt Romney.

If these numbers hold or increase in the coming months, Palin will force other Republican contenders to move to the right to win a nomination process that's controlled by the GOP's right wing, even as the political middle has become the important swing vote in the general election.

While Palin is far from a shoo-in to lead the Republican effort to unseat Obama, she isn't a stalking horse, either. She has voter appeal, an underestimated savvy and now, thanks to her best-selling book, a level of personal wealth — something serious candidates must have.

She also has enough time to crash and burn, or to be shot down by enemies. But the attention Sarah Palin is generating this week leaves little doubt that she has undergone a political resurrection.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

For troop greeters every day is Veterans Day

By DeWayne Wickham

While the nation pauses tomorrow in annual observance of the patriotism of this country's servicemen and women, nearly every day is Veterans Day at Bangor International Airport.

It is through this small American portal that many of the troops who are dispatched to, and return from, Afghanistan and Iraq travel. It's at this airport in Maine that a small band of senior citizens have greeted every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman who traveled through its corridors since May 3, 2003. They're called "troop greeters," but in essence they serve a much greater purpose. They are the heart and conscience of a grateful nation.

For far too many Americans, Veterans Day - Nov. 11 - is simply a day off from work with pay that is barely distinguishable from any other holiday. But for Maine's troop greeters, who have seen more than 4,300 flights with nearly a million U.S. troops come and go, Veterans Day is almost a daily event - one they treat with great reverence.

"Our boys got a raw deal when they were over in Vietnam. ... We wanted to make sure that the government would not send our boys into battle, or to defend our country in any way, without giving them credit for what they're doing. We made up our minds that that would never happen again," 87-year-old Bill Knight said in the opening scene of The Way We Get By, a documentary about the troop greeters that airs tomorrow on PBS.

While most Americans view the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq with great detachment, the troop greeters take it personally. A contingent of them goes to Bangor's airport at all hours of the day and night to meet every plane that ferries troops into that facility. They welcome the troops with a handshake or embrace; they comfort them with simple words of appreciation, some snack food and the free use of cell phones.

That might not seem like much of a sacrifice until you consider that the troop greeters do this over and over again, as if each time they are there for a member of their own family.

"Once you start going to the airport to greet the troops, if you stay home you go through withdrawal," Joan Gaudet, 76, said in the film that her son, Aron Gaudet, directed.

If this film were only about what these aging patriots do for the morale of the young people this nation sends to war it would be worth watching. But it's about more than that. It's also about how these people's lives are made better by the sacrifices they make for the troops - a story that makes it compelling viewing.
At home, Joan Gaudet uses a walker to get around and is afraid to go out of the house, especially at night in the slippery snow of a Maine winter. But her gait stregthens when she enters the airport. The place has the same effect on Jerry Mundy, a 74-year-old retired ironworker.

"Jerry lost one of his sons at an early age," Aron Gaudet told me. "He can't connect with his son anymore but the thing he loves the most at the airport is to give these cell phones to the troops so they can connect with their parents."

That how they get by. They get past the pain in their lives by bringing some small pleasure to the troops America sends to war. And by doing so, they give new meaning to poet John Milton's words: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Those responsible for "failed school" must share blame for rape

By DeWayne Wickham

The early reports of a horrific crime are often so sensationalized that the truth is slow to emerge. Sometimes it takes years before fact is separated from fiction.

But in the case of the 15-year-old girl at California's Richmond High School who allegedly was gang raped on campus late last month, this much is certain: What happened gives new meaning to the words "failed school."

Those words used to describe a school whose students did poorly on standardized tests, had high absenteeism and low graduates rates. But the conditions at Richmond High that created the environment in which the girl was savagely attacked expand the definition of a "failing school."

The first priority of any public school should be the safety of its students. Sure, education is their primary purpose, but it's hard for serious learning to take place in a school where violence, or the fear of violence, goes unchecked.

The attack happened in a corner of the school's sprawling campus as a homecoming dance took place nearby. Police have arrested six of the 10 young men they think might have taken part in the sexual assault. They also are trying to track down as many as 20 others believed to have watched the rape. Some onlookers, cops said, used their cellphones to take pictures of the attack.

"I think we have become a country of spectators. The violence many young people see just doesn't reach the area of their humanness that says there is a real person being treated that way," Saundrea Young, the co-founder and former clinical director of Loved Ones of Homicide Victims, a Los Angeles group that offers counseling to relatives of murder victims, told me.

There were four police officers at the homecoming dance, which attracted about 400 students. The school's principal, Julio Franco, told the Contra Costa Times that he believed the police officers would "do the perimeter checks" of the campus. But Richmond's police chief, Chris Magnus, said that wasn't the officers' job. They were there to provide security inside the gym, where the dance took place, and a nearby parking lot. It was the school district's responsibility to make sure other parts of the campus were safe, he said.
However, a spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District said it wasn't the school system's job to safeguard students outside the dance. "Once the child leaves the dance, we don't take them home," Marin Trujillo told ABCNEWS.com.

But it should ultimately have been the school's responsibility to make sure the campus was a safe place to be that night.

The young men who attacked the girl did so in the school's courtyard, not off campus. For more than two hours, they continued their assault without once being interrupted by the cops, administrators, teachers and site supervisors who were there to provide security at the dance.

The job of these people might have been a lot easier if the school district had moved more quickly to install the security cameras, better lighting and improved fencing that Richmond High had sought for years. Last November, an investigative report by San Francisco's CBS.5 revealed that only seven of the school's 16 security cameras worked. New cameras and fencing would be installed by the summer, a school board member said back then.

That didn't happen. But the rape did. Now, more than those who committed that awful crime must be held accountable.