Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gingrich and Trump at war with GOP

By DeWayne Wickham

When it became clear the Republican presidential debate for which he had been tapped to serve as ringmaster would have few participants, Donald Trump started plotting revenge.

Only two of the party’s seven top presidential contenders – Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum – agreed to show up for Trump's December 27 debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump blamed the unwillingness of the others to attend on their concern that he wouldn’t be a fair manager of the event. That’s a fear Trump has delighted in stoking.

"If they pick somebody who I think can't win and if they pick somebody who is, in my opinion, the wrong person … and if the economy continues to be bad, I might run as an independent," Trump told USA TODAY a few days ago, repeating the hollow threat he made in June, shortly after announcing he would not seek the Republican presidential nomination.

He’s bluffing. With an ego as big as his, Trump would never submit himself to the judgment of this nation’s voters. For all is tough talk, he can’t stomach the possibility of finishing a distant third in next year’s presidential contest. So instead he has burrowed his way into the center of a fight within the GOP that endangers the party’s chances of retaking the White House in 2012. This struggle is a battle between the GOP’s center-right and the senseless right.

The center-right is led by people like Republican political strategist Karl Rove, Sen. Tom Coburn, R- Okla., and Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who now cross-dresses as a morning talk show host. They are unnerved by prospect of the erratic Gingrich winning the GOP presidential nomination and then losing badly in the general election to President Obama. Such a defeat would likely drag a lot of other Republicans down to defeat.

Trump and Gingrich are the most visible leaders of the senseless right. They’re the GOP’s Harold & Kumar. They long ago overdosed on their inflated sense of self – and are intoxicated by their contempt for anyone who fails to acknowledge their greatness. Their brashness appeals to the Republican Party’s right-wing base but would almost certainly offend many of the swing voters who decide the outcome of general elections.

Early in the campaign members of the GOP’s center-right saw Trump as a political carnival barker who got people excited but would never be the main show. Gingrich was a gadfly with too many well-publicized bad acts to be a serious contender for the Republican nomination. But it seems members of the GOP’s senseless right see them as bare-knuckle fighters, who aren’t afraid of bloodying Obama’s nose.

Gingrich is their candidate for president. But to the Republican’s center-right, he is an ideological-loose-cannon whose only real commitment is to his own wealth and ambition, not the conservatism they champion – and to which he pays only lip service.

"The Republican establishment will never make peace with Newt Gingrich," Scarborough said on a recent airing of his MSNBC show Morning Joe. But with a growing lead over the other contenders in national polls – and the prospect of him racking up early victories in three of the first four states where the Republicans will hold caucuses or primaries in January, Gingrich is starting to look like the guy to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.

But to beat Gingrich, his center right opponents who have forsworn peace will have to make war on him. And to stop Trump’s troublesome grandstanding they must call his third-party bluff.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Would-be presidential assassin not ready for freedom

By DeWayne Wickham

John Hinckley may not be insane, but I think he’s still more than a bit crazy.

Insanity is a legal determination of mental unsoundness. Hinckley ambushed Ronald Reagan as he was leaving a Washington hotel 30 years ago. The hail of gunfire seriously wounded the president and three other men. A jury ultimately found Hinckley “not guilty by reason of insanity” and sent him off to a mental institution.

Crazy, to me, is a madness that falls short of the legal definition of insanity.

The government is trying to convince a federal judge that Hinckley, who was diagnosed as psychotic and narcissistic, should not be allowed to have longer, unsupervised visits to his aging mother’s Virginia home.

In 2009, that judge gave Hinckley permission to make 12 such visits of 10 days each. Now his doctors are asking approval for Hinckley to make two visits of 17-days; and six of 24-days duration. If they go well, they want the judge to give them the authority to permanently release him from the mental hospital.

But if what the Secret Service tells us about Hinckley’s recent behavior is true — he seems to be too disturbingly cunning to be set free. Instead of going to a movie as he was supposed to during a visit with his mother earlier this year, Hinckley slipped into a bookstore where Secret Service agents said they saw him looking at books on Reagan and presidential assassinations.

When his mother came back to pick him up, Hinckley was standing in the theater lobby as if he’d gone to a movie, according to the government’s account. Hinckley later compounded this deception by recommending the film he was supposed to have seen to hospital staffers, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Chasson said during the court hearing on giving him more freedom of movement.

That sounds pretty narcissistic to me. Sure some people who are judged mentally incompetent can, with medication and the proper therapy, experience an improvement in their mental health. His doctor says Hinckley’s psychosis and narcissism have been in remission for years.

But it is also the case that the insane sometimes can appear deceivingly normal — or at least not insane. I don’t know into which category Hinckley rightly falls, but given his violent history it makes no sense to take an even greater chance with him. Allowing Hinckley to spend time with his 85-year-old mother, who could hardly be expected to properly monitor the actions of her now 56-year-old son, is a questionable test of his mental fitness.

Was Hinckley’s bookstore detour the action of a rational man who wanted to connect with his troubled past, or proof that he is still not fully sane? Does it suggest that he continues to think of himself, even if only fleetingly, like the mentally ill character he was obsessed with in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver – who wanted to kill the president? I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does. Not those who clamor for him to be allowed to spend more time outside the mental institution to which he was committed; nor those who argue against it.

Hinckley's deceptive viewing of books about presidential assassinations when he said he’d be at a movie suggests he needs more supervision — not less, because his actions say he could very well be crazy like a fox.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yahya Jammeh is Africa's biggest psychopath

By DeWayne Wickham

It would be easy to dismiss the recent presidential election in Gambia, a sliver of a nation on Africa's west coast, as a matter of little concern to the United States.

But if we've learned any lesson from ignoring megalomaniac leaders of corrupt states, it is that their mischief has a good chance of eventually affecting America's national interest.

And Yahya Jammeh, who just won a fourth term as Gambia's president, could well be Africa's biggest psychopath.

Like the late Idi Amin, the former Ugandan president who generously proclaimed himself "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea," Jammeh has an otherworldly sense of self. Two years ago, he sent "witch doctors" and his security forces to round up about 1,000 people whom he believed to be witches responsible for the death of his aunt. They were taken to the president's farm and forced to drink a hallucinogenic liquid that left two people dead and many others with serious liver damage, according to a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph.

Claiming special powers of his own, Jammeh announced in 2007 that he had discovered an AIDS cure, which he said his ancestors gave him in a dream. Jammeh personally administered this cure to hopeful AIDS patients — but only on Thursdays. The Gambian president also says he has fixes for obesity and erectile dysfunction. Africa needs a fix for him.

More than the slapstick leader of the smallest country on the African mainland, Jammeh is a serious mischief maker. He is accused of condoning the shipment of Iranian weapons through Gambia to rebels in the Casamance region of neighboring Senegal. Crates of these weapons, marked as construction materials, were seized at a port in Nigeria last year.

Pressured to explain this discovery, the Iranian government has said that the weapons were products of a military assistance agreement it struck with Gambia — a deal that violated United Nations sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Jammeh denied any knowledge of the weapons shipment, but such talk rings hollow with a leading American advocate for Africa.

"The U.S. can't ignore what's going on in Gambia. It is a growing transshipment point for drugs to Europe and is on its way to becoming a destabilizing force for the western region of Africa," says Melvin Foote, president of the Washington-based Constituency for Africa. "A lot of people over there see him (Jammeh) as an instigator."

Foote, who was in Gambia last year on a State Department-sponsored trip to West Africa to help nurture democratic values among the area's emerging young leaders, told me that there's a lot of grumbling about Jammeh in the region — but so far, no action. That's too bad.

While the U.S. has an interest in seeing to it that Jammeh doesn't undermine Senegal or other neighboring states in West Africa and create a base of operation there for Iran's adventurism, the Gambian president is a problem Africans must be encouraged to solve themselves.

With drone bases in the African nations of Ethiopia and Djibouti — and military advisers on the ground in other parts of the continent — the U.S. doesn't need to enlarge its footprint in Africa. What it needs is for Africa's growing number of democratic governments to find a way to ensure that the leader of the area's smallest country isn't allowed to become one of its biggest headaches.

They have to police their continent or run the risk of it becoming, as Africa did during the Cold War, a bloody surrogate for the fights of others.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

GOP's Southern Strategy to blame for black legislators loss of political clout in South

By DeWayne Wickham

The lead to a recent Associated Press story about the declining influence of black lawmakers in the South reads like something written by the late Lee Atwater, the race-baiting former Republican Party chairman and GOP spin-doctor.

"(An) overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party has left them (black lawmakers in the South) without power in increasingly GOP-controlled state legislatures," the AP said, citing a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

In the early 1980s, Atwater was a master manipulator of the news media and crafty manager of the GOP's Southern Strategy, which uses racial fear to herd white Democrats into the Republican Party. He - like Richard Nixon before him - understood that a subtle appeal to racism would, over time, change the political landscape of the South.

This is what he said during a 1981 interview about how the GOP could marginalize blacks:

"You start out in 1954 by saying 'nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now (that) you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'nigger, nigger."

The AP story, which was published by news media outlets across the country, left out this critical context. The constant is the allegiance of blacks to the Democratic Party. That isn't news. It's the impact on these black lawmakers of the mass migration of Southern whites to the GOP that is the news.

David Bositis, a political scientist and the author of the Joint Center report, seemed to make just this point: "In most Southern states, the 46-year transition from a multiracial Democratic (Party) political dominance to a white conservative Republican political dominance is almost complete."

But while this change has taken place over nearly half a century, it has moved at warp speed over the past two years. Before the 2010 election, 51% of black legislators in the South were a part of a state legislative majority. After elections that year and this year, the number dropped to just under 5%, according to Bositis.

These changes have come in a political climate in which Republicans have craftily used the abstractions of "states' rights" and calls for lower taxes to bring more white voters into the GOP fold.

An even bigger missed story in the analysis of Bositis' report might be the connection between the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the increased pace with which Southern Democrats lost control of state legislatures - and nearly all black legislators in the old Confederacy became members of the minority party.

Instead of ushering in the post-racial era, the election of this nation's first black president has seemingly widened racial fault lines, most noticeably in the South. The Joint Center report is just the most recent evidence of this.

But just as the unchanged voting habits of black Southerners aren't responsible for the loss of political influence for black legislators in that region, Obama's election didn't forestall the end of the Jim Crow era that Republicans made an integral part of this nation's politics with their Southern Strategy - and which they continue to use as a political abstraction.

Somewhere, Atwater - who offered a suspect apology for his bad acts before his death in 1991 - must be smiling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Republicans couldn't find Obama foreign policy soft spot

By DeWayne Wickham

The most revealing moment of the Republican presidential debate in Spartanburg, S.C., came just after that political stage show lost a big chunk of its national television audience.

It was at the beginning of the final 30 minutes of the 90-minute debate (just the first 60 minutes was aired nationally) that the moderator, CBS News anchor Scott Pelley — in a pandering abdication of his role — gave Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a chance to lob a softball foreign policy question to his GOP brethren.

Graham wanted to know whether any of his party's presidential hopefuls would continue President Obama's policy of not using enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects; using civilian courts in some instances to try suspected enemy combatants; and not sending future captives from the war on terror to the Navy base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

That question was more of a GOP civics test than an attempt at serious journalism. Less than three weeks earlier, 45 of the 47 GOP senators voted to ban civilian trials for enemy combatants, an action that was narrowly defeated by the Democratic majority. Just as Senate Republicans had circled their wagons on this issue, Graham's question was intended to get all of the party's presidential contenders publicly inside that loop.

When it comes to the war on terror, the GOP has struggled to find an Obama soft spot. It was the president who ordered Navy SEALs to storm Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hideout — a raid that resulted in his death. And it has been on Obama's watch that the body count of al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorists has grown dramatically.

Obama ended the war in Iraq and has ordered all U.S. troops out by the end of this year. Al-Qaeda has been defeated in Afghanistan, and the Taliban is on the ropes. The president has wisely decided that most of the nation-building work that largely remains in Afghanistan must be done by that country's political leaders, police and military. He has ordered a steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from that quagmire that will bring most of them home by 2014 — an action that sits well with most Americans.

So when it comes to the war on terror, Senate Republicans have massed to attack Obama over the question of what this nation should do with terrorism suspects — something on which they haven't always agreed.

Before Obama won the presidency in 2008, two prominent Republicans — President George W. Bush and the man who tried to succeed him, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — both backed closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center. And just last year, Graham expressed reservations about a bill that would ban civilian trials for enemy combatants. "I just don't feel comfortable with it.

There is a role for the civilian courts to play," Graham said about the bill introduced by McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. But now that Republicans are in presidential campaign mode, they're all getting in lockstep behind a foreign policy issue they think might resonate with voters. It probably won't, but it did with most of the GOP's presidential wannabes.

Only Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, the irascible libertarian legislator, balked at the idea, reminding the audience that more than 300 terrorism suspects have been tried in this country's civilian courts and most of them were convicted.
But, of course, truth and reason are no match for the GOP's determination to make Obama a one-term president.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When it comes of GOP's outreach to Jews, it's bad acts speak louder than good words

By DeWayne Wickham

Just when it seemed that Republicans had a chance to break the Democratic Party's lopsided hold on the Jewish vote, Republicans started acting like, well, Republicans.

Democrats have been scrambling to shore up support for Barack Obama among Jewish voters whose backing for the president began to slip earlier this year when he said Israel's 1967 borders should be the starting point in peace talks between Palestinians and the Jewish state.

The depth of this slide became apparent in September when a politically unknown GOP businessman, Robert Turner, won a special election in New York's Ninth Congressional District - a seat that had been held by Democrats since 1923. That local contest was billed by Republicans as a referendum on Obama's support of Israel, not a voter backlash against the texting scandal that forced Democrat Anthony Weiner to resign that congressional seat.

Even a reasoned defense of the president in New York magazine, shortly after the special election, that called Obama "The First Jewish President" and Israel's best friend, didn't stop the bleeding. Obama's approval rating among Jewish Americans has slipped to 45%, a 12-point drop from 2010, according to a poll released in late September by the American Jewish Committee, which The New York Times branded "the dean of American Jewish organizations."

But instead of mining this advantage, Republicans trampled upon it. In a largely party-line vote, GOP House members blocked an effort by Democrats to scuttle a bill that would allow a company in Arizona to operate this nation's largest copper mine.

What's the connection between this mining company and the Jewish vote? The firm, Resolution Copper, is partnered with an Iranian government-owned firm that is mining uranium in Namibia. Connecting these dots, the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel - one fed by Tehran's access to enriched uranium - is of grave concern to American Jews. These strange bedfellows should at the very least give American Jews pause.

Republicans said their action is not just good for Resolution Copper; it's also good for this nation's ailing economy. They argue it will create 4,000 jobs and pump billions of dollars into Arizona's economy. They also say Rio Tinto, the London-based company that owns Resolution Copper, has assured them that its Iranian partner is banned from removing uranium from the African mine and says it is in full compliance with all sanctions and laws.

Most of the resistance to the deal, in fact, has been on the environmental front rather than over the Iranian connection.

But critics question why Congress should do anything that strengthens a firm in the uranium business with Iran, a sworn enemy of Israel and widely believed to be trying to obtain nuclear weapons in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Of course, none of this links the uranium mine in Namibia to such an effort. But if you believe Iran has a rogue weapons program, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't treat that uranium mine as low-hanging fruit.

By voting to pass this bill, which the Obama administration opposes and the president would likely veto, House Republicans are putting the economic interests of Arizona ahead of the defense of Israel.

That kind of shortsightedness not only puts Israel at risk, it almost certainly will cause a lot of Jews in this country to hew more closely to the Democratic Party - and to the Democrat who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Herman Cain is more lyrical than sensible

By DeWayne Wickham

What is the magnetism of Herman Cain?

How has this former pizza company executive with no prior political experience, relatively little campaign funds and a small staff of political neophytes been able to surge into the front ranks of the candidates vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination?

Nothing signals the GOP’s disarray more than the rise of Cain, a man whose confounding views apparently mean less to Republicans than his simple answers to complex questions. And nothing should worry the managers of President Obama’s re-election campaign more than the growing appeal of a would-be opponent whose solutions to this nation’s perplexing problems are more lyrical than sensible.

Cain is an anti-politician — a White House candidate whose greatest appeals seems be his pizza parlor view of the world. While such a description might appeal to those who think nothing short of a revolutionary change will make the nation’s capital more responsive to the needs of the American people, the possibility of Cain ending up in the Oval Office has to alarm thoughtful people on both sides of this country’s political divide.

Like any good salesman, Cain pushes what sells. To a nation frustrated by Congress’ inability to reform the federal tax laws, he’s offered his “9-9-9” tax plan, which would replace the current federal tax codes with a 9% tax on income, sales and businesses. That seems like a good idea to a lot of people frustrated by the federal government’s complicated tax laws.

Cain’s proposal to build an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexican border — which he has mentioned several times — had a similar kind of appeal. As far back as May, that pitch was a good applause line for Cain, who once said he’d put an alligator filled moat next to that barrier.

Cain, however, stumbled a bit following Israel’s decision to release more than 1,000 Palestinians for a single Israeli soldier held by Hamas. During a CNN interview, Cain said he would consider exchanging a large number of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp to gain the freedom for an American soldier.

“I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer,” he said. But when Cain came under attack from fellow Republicans for this view, he said he misspoke. He would not negotiate with terrorists, Cain said later during a GOP presidential debate. Then in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Cain — who once said some people think he just has pepperoni between his ears — backtracked again. His talk about building an electrified fence to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, he said, was a long-running joke.

Even so, none of Cain’s backtracking has knocked him out of the front ranks of GOP presidential hopefuls. This may be because his retreat on the Mexican fence issue sounded more like waffling than surrender; more media-driven than heartfelt. His pullback on the prisoner exchange question — and from an answer he gave to a question about abortion in which he seemed to suggest it is OK for a rape victim to end a pregnancy — was an embrace of right-wing dogma.

For many members of the conservative rank-and-file, Cain is one of them. He’s a frank-talking, grass-roots guy whose best credential is that he isn’t a career politician. Of course, the nation could use a big infusion of people in elected office who aren’t career politicians.

But the lack of political experience can be a double-edged sword – one that makes a person appealing, yet unsuitable for the presidency.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Thanks to Obama, America is safer than it was four years ago

By DeWayne Wickham

Given the state of this nation's troubled economy — which has spawned a grass-roots movement against economic inequities and corporate greed — it's no surprise President Obama's economic policies have gotten more attention than his war on terrorism.

While a traditional reading of the political tea leaves suggests America's financial health will weigh more heavily on voters in next year's presidential election than the hunt for Osama bin Laden's linear successors, the president deserves a lot more credit than he's been given for the war he's waging.

No, Obama hasn't undone the economic mess he inherited from his predecessor, but he has decimated the ranks of the terrorist leaders who commanded the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, Obama has made America a lot safer than it was four years ago — which should also weigh heavily on voters' minds in 2012.

The pinnacle of the Obama-led war on terrorism (though the president pointedly avoids this term) has been the killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy SEALs who attacked his compound in Pakistan. Over the past decade, the near-mythical al-Qaeda mastermind taunted this country with video and tape-recorded messages that threatened more attacks.

And let us not forget that bin Laden was free to do so for a decade after the managers of George W. Bush's war on terrorism let him escape from Afghanistan in the battle of Tora Bora. Though the threats proved to be more talk than action, they elevated the fear level in this country.

In authorizing that attack on bin Laden, Obama made good on his presidential campaign pledge to strike our terrorist enemies wherever he found them — even in Pakistan, a conflicted U.S. ally.

In fact, since Obama took office, the body count of senior al-Qaeda leaders has grown dramatically, often from the president's weapon of choice, pilotless drones. This smart use of air power also puts fewer U.S. troops at risk.

While Obama has continued Bush's ill-conceived nation-building campaign in Afghanistan, he has not made that mistake in places like North Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia and other parts of Africa. Instead, he has wisely chosen to use drones and small units of highly skilled military advisers to combat terrorists that threaten America or its allies.

At the very least, Obama's relentless pursuit of these zealots has disrupted their ability to calmly plan the next hit. Understandably, the president might not get the full credit he deserves from voters more concerned about the nation's high unemployment rate. The stubbornly bad jobs market and their declining wealth are a far greater threat than the terrorist leadership Obama has turned into an endangered species.

Many Americans, I suspect, will take for granted the relative peace this country now enjoys. In a strange way that may be the only reward Obama gets from voters. Anything less parochial might have to await history's judgment.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why one woman overcame fear and anxiety to join Occupy Wall Street

By DeWayne Wickham

Stacey Patton knows better than most people who've joined the Occupy Wall Street protest about the perils of such a decision.

Eleven years before, she joined demonstrators in New York City's Foley Square to protest against corporate greed and wealth disparities, Patton was arrested while taking part in a march following the not-guilty verdict for the four New York policemen who killed Amadou Diallo.

The African immigrant was shot 19 times in the vestibule of his apartment after the cops mistook his wallet for a gun. That protest ended for Patton when she was arrested and jailed overnight after a clash with police that left her with a severely injured leg — and nightmares.

Back then, Patton was an idealistic 22-year-old undergraduate at New York University. Now 33, she recently earned a doctorate from Rutgers University and was reluctant to join the loosely organized protests that began Sept. 17 and have spread from Boston to San Francisco.

"I never thought I'd be a part of something like this," she told me. Not after the price she paid for her snap decision to join that protest in 2000. Though that past haunts her, Patton said she worries about the future.

"I got out there because I still believe in democracy," she explained. "I think this is a movement about economic justice. I think it's pretty obvious what people are protesting. They are protesting greed, recklessness, illegal behavior, home foreclosures and rising student debt. We can't get jobs, but we have mounting student debt."

Patton said the Occupy Wall Street protest is the counter-narrative to the Tea Party movement, which is demanding that government become smaller and less involved in people's lives. But many Wall Street protesters want government to do more to end home foreclosures, generate jobs and punish those whose greed brought this nation to the verge of economic collapse.

While it's not clear exactly what will satisfy this movement — or for that matter who its leaders are — this much seems certain: The Arab Spring has come to America.

Unlike the Tea Party movement that seeks to remake the political process through elections, Occupy Wall Street is more of a revolt than political takeover. The people who have taken to the streets under this banner are demanding a more responsive government, not plotting a government takeover.

For Patton, Foley Square isn't very far removed from Egypt's Tahrir Square as a staging ground for a second American Revolution — not a violent struggle, but one of ideas about good governance. For all this nation's greatness, too many Americans live below the poverty line. And for too many people who are unemployed, underemployed or about to lose their home, the American dream is a nightmare.

The protest has awakened in a wide swath of Americans the kind of passion for change that earlier this year drove millions of Arabs into the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Damascus. Ironically, Foley Square is just a short walk from a park named for Thomas Paine, a Revolutionary War leader who once wrote of that American crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls."

The same, it seems, can be said of the protests that forced Patton to suspend her fears and anxieties to join a street demonstration in New York City that threatens to engulf the nation.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Cain's attack on black voters gives GOP racial absolution

By DeWayne Wickham

Energized by his surprise victory in Florida’s GOP straw poll, Herman Cain quickly sought to strengthen his standing among conservatives by giving them something that no other GOP presidential candidate can — absolution on the haunting issue of race.

“Many African Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view,” Cain, the only black in the field of announced Republican presidential contenders, said during an interview on CNN.

By pinning the overwhelming support blacks give Democratic presidential candidates on some Svengali-like, forced manipulation of their minds, Cain relieves GOP conservatives of any responsibility for chasing the majority of black voters out of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

By blaming black mindlessness for this flight, Cain ignores the race-baiting “Southern strategy” that virtually every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon has used as a wedge issue to win the backing of Southern whites.

By suggesting that most black voters are herded to the polls like sheep by liberal Democrats, he leaves no need for the GOP to explain why blacks, who have a strong conservative streak, have largely abandoned the Republican Party.

Instead of telling the GOP voters he courts some hard truths, Cain courts them with doublespeak about black voters, who he later told CNN “more and more” are thinking for themselves and would likely vote for him in large numbers if he ends up in a general election showdown with Barack Obama.

The truth is, most blacks are conservative on issues of religion, education and crime. But for the vast majority of blacks, race is a survival issue that trumps all others. To most blacks, the GOP push for more “states’ rights” (a battle cry of the Confederacy) and a smaller federal government (which many blacks believe will threaten their hard-won civil rights protections) is an assault on them.

I suspect Cain knows this. But as with just about every Republican black elected official, he’s more interested in courting white voters than black voters. The last time a black Republican won election to a national office from a majority black district was in 1932, when voters in Illinois’ first congressional district re-elected Oscar De Priest to his third — and final — term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Most black Republicans elected to Congress since then have done so with the embrace of the conservative GOP voters they had to court. And most of those black Republican officeseekers, in one way or another, sought to immunize their party against the charge of racism — often in the face of compelling evidence of its intolerant treatment of blacks.

Cain is the latest in this long line of black Republicans. What distinguishes him from the rest are the impressive showing he made in an early voter test of the GOP’s presidential candidates and his claim that a sizable number of blacks would abandon the Democratic Party and vote for him in 2012. The first may say more about the weakness of GOP opponents than Cain’s strength. The other would be laughable if it were not beneath the dignity of satire.

Republicans who want their party to be more a part of this nation’s future than its past would do well to reject the absolution Cain offers them — and the self-denial that has plagued their relations with this nation’s black electorate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A reason why Democrats should turn out in droves for Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

When President Obama rose to address the mostly black crowd at the Congressional Black Caucus’ awards dinner on Saturday, he knew the damage he wanted to mend with his speech extended far beyond the CBC’s 43 members and their black constituents.

Hoisted into the Oval Office three years ago by a well-crafted coalition of black, Hispanic, Asian and white voters, Obama’s message to the large gathering at the convention center, a short drive from the White House, was the opening salvo of an effort to re-energize his core supporters.

“Change,” was the mantra of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. But for many who voted for him then, the change hasn’t come fast enough — or has been missed by those who expect trumpets to blare every time Obama moves this nation closer to his goal of a more just society.

With a recent CBS News/New York Times Poll showing an 18 point gap between the enthusiasm of Democrats (26%) and Republicans (44%) for next year’s presidential election, Obama used his address to tout some of the things he has done for blacks, who have been hit hard by the current economic downturn. He pointed to the impact on blacks of the payroll tax cut he pushed through Congress for all workers; the Department of Education’s “Promise Neighborhoods,” an education-centered, community-based approach to ending poverty, and the ripple effect of his efforts to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.

And then, invoking the memory of the civil rights struggle that made it possible for him and thousands of other blacks to obtain political office, the president told CBC members — some of whom have criticized him for not doing more to reduce a black unemployment rate that’s double that of whites — to help him beat back Republican opposition to his administration.

“Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We’ve got to work to do,” Obama said in a rousing charge that he’ll probably repeat to other wavering supporters. And he should, if for just one compelling reason.

The president’s greatest accomplishment, which he ought to mention in every speech to his core supporters, is what he’s done to reshape the federal judiciary. Nothing is likely to have a longer lasting impact on the interests of the people who put him in office than his appointments of federal judges. Nearly half of his nominees who have been confirmed to federal judgeships are women; 21% are African American; 11% Hispanic and 7% are Asian. Less than 30% of his judicial appointments have gone to white men, who hold the lion’s share of federal judgeships.

In the more than two centuries since the U.S. Supreme Court was created just four women have won confirmation to a seat on the nation’s highest court. Half of those women were nominated by Obama. He’s put the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court and doubled the number of Asians who are currently sitting on the federal bench.

This far exceeds the percentage of women and minorities George W. Bush put on the federal bench during his two terms in the White House and increases the chances that more balanced federal courts will protect civil rights gains, abortion rights and give a fairer hearing to immigration issues.

All of this, and the fear of a Republican president watering down these important gains, should be enough to get Obama’s core constituents to stop whining and turn out in record numbers on Election Day.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Obama is a smart, not weak, politician

By DeWayne Wickham

For much of his time in the White House, the rap against Barack Obama has been that he is a weak leader — a man who is a much better talker than doer when it comes to managing the nation’s affairs.

Don’t believe it.

For many of his critics, this knock against the nation’s first black president stems from his low-key approach to combating Republican opposition to virtually everything he does — and his passive response to the disrespect of GOP members, like those who called him a liar during a speech on the House floor, who wouldn’t take his call in middle of the debt ceiling crisis, and who referred to him as a “boy” and “tar baby.”

But while Obama ducked these skirmishes, he’s a more tenacious — and smarter in-fighter — than a lot of people think. Proof of this can be found in his recent address to a joint session of Congress, in which the president spelled out his plan to combat this nation’s painfully high unemployment rate.

Obama’s proposal — called the American Jobs Act — is good policy and a smart political tactic. In a disarming move, he took elements of the tax cuts Republicans obsess over and blended them in with an aggressive plan to spend $447 billion to help put people back to work.

Among other things, his plan calls for a payroll tax cut for small businesses, a tax credit for firms that hire military veterans and people who have been looking for work for more than six months. All of which will be paid for, Obama said, by federal spending cuts.

“There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America,” he said of a major rebuilding project that needs to be done on a road that connects the states of Congress’ top Republicans — House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

And there’s a “public transit project in Houston that will help clear up one of the worst areas of traffic in the country,” Obama said in urging Congress “to pass this jobs bill.”

How petty — and uncaring — will Republicans be if they block the president’s proposal from getting a fair hearing and a vote in both houses of Congress? How much harm will they do their party if they try to extract an ideological victory from Obama’s push for passage of his jobs bill? That’s the trap Obama has set for his foes.

While Obama hasn’t always fought the battles some of his constituents wanted him to wage, his reluctance — I’m convinced — has been a matter of strategy, not weakness. He ran as a candidate of “change” and once in office tried to temper the political backbiting in the nation’s capital.

But the GOP’s intransigence during the recent debt ceiling crisis has forced the president to be less conciliatory and more strategic in his dealing with congressional Republicans. Now Obama is taking the fight to them. And the contest for the hearts and minds of a nation frustrated by the partisan war in Washington is being framed by his plan to put America back to work.

“Regardless of the arguments we’ve had in the past, regardless of the arguments we will have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it,” Obama told Congress.

Like a commander who has outflanked an advancing enemy army, the president now waits to see if his opponents will seek a truce, or fight a suicidal battle.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

U.S. should cut deal for return of man tricked into being a spy

By DeWayne Wickham

When the FBI arrested 10 Russian spies last year, this country quickly traded them for four ailing men held by Russia and accused of being espionage agents for the United States and Britain.

It took just over a week for the U.S. government to cut the deal that sent the Russian agents, who had been in this country for more than a decade, to Moscow. After a brief appearance in a federal courtroom to plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring “to act as an agent of a foreign country” the Russian spooks were whisked from the country.

Of the four men who were released to the U.S. — all of them Russians — in return for this grand gesture, two were taken to Britain; the others landed in Washington and then disappeared in a caravan of black SUVs.

The U.S government should do the same for Alan Gross.

Seven months before the U.S.-Russia spy swap, Gross was arrested in Cuba and charged with committing “acts against the independence and territorial integrity” of that Communist nation. Gross worked for Development Alternatives, Inc., a U.S. State Department contractor. The charge against him stems from his efforts to provide satellite phones and unrestricted Internet access to some people in Cuba, whose government the United States has tried for more than half a century to topple.

Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Gross told an appeals court he had been a “trusting fool” and didn’t know his actions violated Cuban law, according to a transcript released recently by his American lawyer.

Maybe he didn’t, but the State Department must have.

By engaging the company that hired Gross to help implement its “Cuba democracy program,” the diplomats in Foggy Bottom surely knew the risks they were running in privatizing a portion of their efforts to bring regime change to that island nation. They had to have known, if caught, Gross would be treated like a spy.

Now, nearly two years after his arrest, Gross — reportedly in poor health — languishes in a Cuban prison. But he could be home in a few days if the U.S. will exchange the five Cuban spies it imprisoned 13 years ago for the 62-year-old Gross.

The so-called “Cuban Five” — espionage agents that Cuba had sent here to spy on Cuban exiles that want to overthrow the Castro regime — received sentences ranging from life to 15 years. One of them was accused of conspiracy in the 1996 shoot down of two U.S.-based civilian planes by Cuban MIG fighters. Cuba says those planes violated its air space — a claim that is denied by Brothers to the Rescue, the Cuban exile group that operated those flights.

Spying is a nasty business that, unfortunately, produces a lot of collateral damage. Keeping the Cuban Five in prison won’t bring back the lives lost in that shoot down. But swapping them for the ailing Gross could spare the life of a man who says he was tricked into the spy game.

Such a humanitarian gesture, probably, will only generate widespread resistance from those Cuba exiles who clamor for the U.S. to do for them what dissidents in Syria and Libya have taken to the streets of those countries to do for themselves. They mount their attacks on the Castro regime from trendy clubs in Miami Beach and the coffee shops of Miami’s Little Havana.

Gross should not be left to suffer a long prison term for their sake. He should be swapped for the Cuban Five with as much dispatch as was used to get those ailing spies out of Russia.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Florida's justice evading governor treats welfare mothers like criminals

By DeWayne Wickham
During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Rick Scott – who many think is a criminal who evaded justice – promised to keep drug abuse lawbreakers off of Florida’s welfare rolls.

Scott, who on the stump called for drug testing of welfare applicants with Elmer Gantry-like fervor and credibility, got his way earlier this year when the state’s GOP-dominated legislature passed a law requiring such examinations.

“Studies show that people on welfare are using (illegal) drugs much higher than the population,” the Florida governor said on CNN shortly before the law took effect in July. While there are also studies that dispute Scott’s contention, his push for drug testing has inspired copy-cat efforts in a growing number of states.

It has also hit an unexpected snag.

So far, just 2% of Florida’s welfare applicants have tested positive for illegal drug use, 2% failed to complete the application process and 96% were found to be drug free. While every applicant is required to pay for their drug test, the state must reimburse those who pass.

Even so, Scott — who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times during a 2000 civil suit brought against him and Columbia/HCA, the troubled company he led — has shown no misgivings about treating poor Floridians like criminals. That’s what happens when ideology overtakes good sense.

Scott’s drug testing program, like those being pushed in other states, is part of a right-wing effort to reduce the size and role of government. It is a fishing expedition to find a reason to cut the welfare rolls. It's premised on little more than just a hunch that women with children who are destitute enough to ask a state for temporary cash assistance are more inclined than others to abuse drugs.

The Florida law offer’s poor mothers with needy children no “Fifth Amendment” opportunity to avoid being tested for illegal drug use. And it gives those who are found to be drug users no chance to enter a drug treatment program to keep from being denied the financial assistance they need for their children. So, in essence, Florida’s law punishes children for the sins of their parent.

Scott says his law is meant to prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money. But he makes no allowance for the fate of those needy children to whom it denies welfare assistance.

Drug testing that is not based on reasonable suspicion smacks of an unconstitutional search, the kind of government intrusion upon an individual’s rights that conservatives usually rail against.

But Scott’s assault on welfare mothers plays to an ever bigger right-wing obsession: that big government is the playground of left-wing radicals – and a crutch for shiftless people. Scott rode this position to victory in the governor’s race in the Sunshine State, which will be a key battleground in next year’s presidential election.

By treating mothers who apply for welfare benefits as a criminal class who must disprove a suspicion of drug abuse before obtaining badly-needed support, Scott panders to the soft bigotry of class warfare.

And he becomes an integral part of the rot that is eating away at this nation’s body politics.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Voters should make Rick Perry "inconsequential"

By DeWayne Wickham

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the day he entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination that he’d “work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can,” did he mean he wants the presidency to be as powerless as the job he now holds?

When Perry lobbed this pot shot at President Obama: “You can’t win the future by selling America off to foreign creditors,” was he thinking of his own failed attempt to use foreign investments and tolls to finance a controversial $175 billion road project in the Lone Star State?

When he said at the end of this speech that “the people are not subjects of the government,” government “is subject to the people,” was Perry channeling the rage of the Texas farmers who successfully fought off his effort to seize their land to build that 4,000-mile Trans-Texas Corridor?

The newest addition to the long list of Republican presidential wannabes, Perry is the longest serving chief executive of Texas, a state in which the lieutenant governor and House Speaker, arguably, have more control over the economy than does the governor. This unusual distribution of power is the product of a state constitution that was written in the wake of the Reconstruction period when governors, often chosen by the federal government, ran Texas and other former Confederate states with a heavy hand.

If he wins the presidency, Perry wants us to believe, he’ll strip that office of some of its power. Don’t believe it. Perry wants us to think that if he ends up in the Oval Office he’ll usher in an era of smaller government. That’s probably not going to happen.

What’s more likely is that he’ll roll back those federal government roles he objects to and expand federal authority in areas that will advance his personal right-wing rights agenda.

How might he do this?

In his 2010 book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, Perry abandons the “strict constructionist” view of the Constitution many Republican cling to by arguing for an amendment that strips federal judges of their lifetime appointments. He also wants to tip the constitutional balance of power in favor of Congress by tweaking the Constitution to give federal lawmakers the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

If you think this makes Perry a champion of those who want to bring the reins of power closer to this nation’s people consider this: the tough talking Texas governor wants to repeal the constitutional amendment that made it possible for voters of every state to elect their U.S. senators. Until the 17th amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures.

And remember, it was Perry who wanted to use his state’s power of eminent domain to take land from Texas farmers to build the Trans-Texas Corridor. Also, in an act that many right-wing advocates of individual rights saw as political blasphemy, Perry issued an executive order in 2007 mandating that all sixth-graders in the state to get vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus), which is a sexually transmitted disease.

While he seeks to portray himself as a Tea Party devotee, Perry is more of a have-it-my-way conservative who’s committed to nothing so compelling as his own mixed messages on the role of government in people’s lives – and nothing more worrisome than the degree to which a Perry presidency would be consequential to the life of this nation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Obama should say to Bachmann: "Bring it on!"

By DeWayne Wickham

Michele Bachmann’s win in the straw poll of Republican Party faithfuls in Iowa — the first voter test of the 2012 presidential campaign — had to be good news to a White House battered by a downturn in the economy and an uptick in war casualties.

The Minnesota congresswoman’s victory in the nonbinding contest, which historically has not been a major factor in picking the GOP nominee, increases the possibility that she will be her party’s standard-bearer, given the Tea Party’s muscle flexing in this political season. Bachmann is leader of that kamikaze wing of Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Although the Tea Party’s approval rating has been in a steady decline, it still holds great sway over the GOP. The no-compromise stance that it forced on congressional Republicans during the debt limit debate has pushed the Tea Party onto the tundra of American politics, a position from which Bachmann cannot mount a successful assault on Obama’s presidency.

If the Tea Party’s stranglehold on the GOP propels Bachmann to the party’s presidential nomination, something many pundits think is still a long shot, Bachmann will be soundly defeated in the general election and drag other Republicans down to defeat, as well. In such a campaign, voters will be constantly reminded that Bachmann opposed raising the debt ceiling at a time when many Democrats and Republicans said doing so would court economic catastrophe.

“It was very important (to me) that we not raise the debt ceiling. The worst thing that you can do is continue to borrow money and spend money that we don’t have,” Bachmann said during a televised debate. While Bachmann endears herself to the Tea Party crowd with talk like that, she mortally wounds her chances of ever being more than a footnote of presidential election history.

A former Jimmy Carter Democrat, Bachmann is an unwavering social conservative whose faceoff with Obama would energize black voters, whose support for the president has waned. This drop is probably spurred by the nation’s high black unemployment rate (nearly double that of whites) and the failure of the president’s communications team to get the word out about the things he’s doing to better the lives of disadvantaged blacks for fear of a white backlash.

Black rage over Bachmann’s assertion in January that the founding fathers ended slavery — which they didn’t — would help get disillusioned blacks back into the Obama fold and to the polls on Election Day.
So, too, would another Bachmann faux pas.
In a mindless attempt to win over right-wingers in Iowa, Bachmann signed a Marriage Vow document that suggested black children were better off when they were born into slavery “and raised by (a) mother and father in a two-parent household” than are black children who were born after Obama took office.

Both the premise and accuracy of that claim were debunked in Wilma Dunaway’s 2005 book, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. But even if there were more intact black families during slavery, it takes a callous disregard for the brutalities of that “peculiar institution” to believe that life for blacks was somehow better then than it is now.

While all of this has made Bachmann a Tea Party favorite, it won’t win her enough support beyond the trench lines of that right-wing clique — surely not enough to defeat Obama. And that’s got to have Democrats rooting for her to become the GOP standard-bearer.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Obama can turn around falling poll numbers: tout education record

PHILADELPHIA — Russlynn Ali came here to the National Association of Black Journalists convention to talk about the black-white achievement gap in public education, but what she had to say could also help close the achievement gap that worries Barack Obama's key supporters.

Ali has spent most of her professional life on the front line of the struggle to improve educational opportunities — and results — for poor and minority schoolchildren. As the top civil rights enforcer in the U.S. Department of Education, she's the cop on the block when it comes to making sure state and local school districts don't violate anti-discrimination rules.

In the little more than two years she has been on this beat— once patrolled less effectively by Clarence Thomas — Ali has amassed an impressive record.

"We have launched more investigations than ever before. Much broader, bigger investigations" into whether school officials are unfairly disciplining black kids and shoving them "into the cradle-to-prison pipeline instead of the cradle-to-career pipeline," she told me.

By that she means the Obama administration is robustly challenging school systems that deny black and Hispanic high school students access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses that would improve their chances for college admission. It's also questioning disciplinary practices that treat black students more harshly than whites for similar offenses.

In fact, the Obama administration has launched more than 70 Title VI investigations (for race, color and national origin discrimination) in a little over two years, according to Education Department data. That's more than the Bush administration did in the prior eight years. And while it has stepped up probes in this long-neglected area, the department has not wavered in its pursuit of sex and disability discrimination cases, Ali said.

This impressive performance is something Obama's communications team has failed to trumpet. The biggest hurdle for the president to overcome en route to a second term isn't the Tea Party-led Republican scorched-earth attempt to unseat him; it's the erosion of support for him among members of his political base.

Obama won the presidency with the overwhelming support of black voters (95%), the strong backing of Hispanics (67%) and a sizable minority of whites (43%). Surprisingly, despite the withering right-wing attacks on his policies, his religion and birthright, Obama's approval rating among whites is just 4 percentage points lower than the white vote he received in 2008.

But the falloff of support among blacks and Hispanics has been much steeper. Obama's approval rating among blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) is significantly lower than the vote percentage these groups gave him in 2008. Much of this decline, I suspect, is due to the failure of his administration to tout the good things it has done for them for fear of a white backlash.

This silence — especially in the area of education, where the potential results can improve the lives of millions of blacks and Hispanics — has produced a loss of confidence among this vital core of Obama's political base.

Ali's aggressive efforts to close the achievement gap and combat discrimination in the nation's schools ought to help reverse this downslide. But that won't happen if the president's image managers don't get over their fear of touting the good things his administration is doing for this long-suffering, educationally disadvantaged part of the coalition that put him in office.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Republicans' disrepect for Obama is palpable

By DeWayne Wickham

What should be clear to the whole world watching the debt-ceiling battle is that the Republicans are far more intent on taking the president's scalp than balancing the nation's books. They had ample opportunities to do the latter during the eight years of George W. Bush.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader with the greatest cunning and sharpest knife, signaled his party's true purpose last year when he proclaimed: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." It was not to undo the health care legislation Obama signed into law, or to block another debt limit increase. Even then, two years out from the next presidential election, the Alabama-born senator said the top goal of GOP lawmakers to oust Obama.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been especially relentless in the debt-ceiling fight. He attacked this first African-American president with a palpable disrespect not only for Obama personally, but also for his esteemed office.

Following what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Cantor's "childish" display during a meeting with Obama, the House majority leader complained that the president had cut short the meeting and stormed out of the room. "He shoved back and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow' and walked out," Cantor snidely told reporters— as though the president needs his permission to end a White House gathering.

That encounter might have reminded Obama of the open letter Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and abolitionist who became one of this nation's first black diplomats, wrote to his slave master.
It would be "a privilege" to show you "how mankind ought to treat each other," Douglass told the man who had badly mistreated him. "I am your fellow man, but not your slave."

Douglass' words might have prompted another reflection when, during a critical point in the debt negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, contemptuously waited more than half a day to return a call from the president.

Or, Obama might have heard Douglass' words ringing in his ears after acting House Speaker Steve LaTourette of Ohio had to warn his GOP colleagues during a heated debt-reduction debate on the House floor to stop making disparaging remarks about Obama.

This total lack of respect is downright contemptible — if not unpatriotic. Such contempt, I'm convinced, is rooted in something other than political differences. In their actions you might not see the overt actions of 1960s racist southern governors Ross Barnett or George Wallace. But the presence of Jim Crow, Jr. — a more subtle form of racism — is there.

Douglass viewed such behavior as "an outrage upon the soul." In this present case it is the soul of our nation, which still struggles to get beyond the awful ripple effects of its haunting history of human bondage.

McConnell, Boehner and Cantor are the vanguard of a political force of a dying era — one that looks more like the nation's past than its future.

Obama is the second president of this millennium, but the first chief executive of the America of new possibilities — a multiracial, multicultural nation whose emergence the old order is working mightily to forestall in its desperate attack on his presidency.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To fix Washington's troubled schools, try combat pay

By DeWayne Wickham

What would think if the person tapped to replace Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus announced he was firing scores of officers, in a part of that bedeviled country where the fighting is fiercest, for poor performance on the battlefield?

How would you react if he said he’s giving medals to officers in another part of Afghanistan , where the fighting was never as intense, for doing an outstanding job – but rejects the idea of sending some of these medal winners to replace those who were sacked?

What would you say if I told you such a scenario is actually unfolding in Washington , D.C. , not Kandahar and Kabul ?

A few days ago, the school system in the nation’s capital announced it fired 206 teachers for poor performance, using an evaluation system that had the biggest negative impact on teachers at schools in the city’s most poverty-ridden neighborhoods.

And disproportionately those teachers who were recognized for being “highly effective” in the classroom were in schools located in the toniest sections of Washington , according to The Washington Post.

While “good” teachers are allowed to transfer out of low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods, The Post reported back in November, reassignment to those troubled schools in the past has been used as a way of punishing some teachers.

Maybe that’s true; maybe not. What’s certain is this: the fight in Washington – and other urban school districts – to educate children needs our best field commanders in those places where the problems are most intense.

But Kaya Henderson, the head of Washington ’s school system said she won’t reassign top performing teachers against their will to troubled schools.

The battle plan Henderson is using to reward some teachers and punish others was written by Michelle Rhee, the controversial educator who preceded her in the job. Rhee, the darling of a long list of right-wing Republican governors and education reformers who believe the increases in student performance on standardized tests during her stormy tenure at the helm of Washington ’s schools is proof that her tactics work.

Far less attention has been paid to a USA TODAY investigation of the rise of those test scores on Rhee’s watch. More than half of Washington ’s schools had an abnormally high “erasure rate “resulting in answers being changed from wrong to right. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” statisticians told this paper.

Instead of clinging to Rhee’s questionable strategy – and results – Henderson needs a better war plan.

She should reward good teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools in much the same way the military gives combat pay to soldiers who serve in war zones. While bonuses up to $25,000 are paid to “highly effective” teachers, too few of them teach in the neediest schools.

The incentive pay should go to those who are willing to make the biggest sacrifice – to good teachers who are willing to brave the toughest assignments. Teachers who excel in schools where the job of educating students is not negatively affected by external factors are simply earning their pay.

Those good teachers who take on the job of educating young people in neighborhoods where the body count of underachieving students rivals that of Afghanistan ’s killing fields deserve combat pay.

As their commander, Henderson has to find a way to get her best troops into the fight, or risk defeat in her part of a war America can ill afford to lose.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On South Sudan feuding sides got it right, maybe?

By DeWayne Wickham

Finally, Republicans, Democrats and the religious right have come together and gotten something done. Now the question is whether they will work together to keep the breakthrough they helped create from unraveling.

What I’m talking about is not the warring in Washington, D.C. over raising this nation’s debt limit, but rather the peace that has a chance of emerging from the creation of a new nation on the African continent.

South Sudan officially joined the ranks of the world’s nation states on July 9 with an independence ceremony in Juba, the capital of that war-torn, poverty-ridden country that was forged from the southern tip of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation. It was 50 years in the making and is the direct result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement the Bush administration helped broker in 2005 – and the Obama administration’s determination to see that the six-year power sharing deal spelled out in that agreement resulted in South Sudan’s independence.

South Sudan also has Franklin Graham to thank for its emergence as the world’s 196th nation. The right-wing clergyman’s has played an important role in supporting the secession of South Sudan, whose 8 million people are mostly Christians, from Muslim-dominated Sudan.

“We must stand with South Sudan as this infant democratic nation struggles to secure its own,” Graham, whose organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has built schools and churches in South Sudan, wrote for FoxNews.com shortly before leaving to attend the independence ceremony.

He’s right. But if those who clamored for South Sudan’s creation don’t put as much effort into nurturing this new nation as they did in creating it, the world’s newest country may turn out to be stillborn.

Already, along the border that divides the two Sudans the half-century civil war, which took the lives of millions of people, continues to fester. Even as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attended the independence ceremony of his nation’s breakaway region and declared support for the new state, rebel forces believed to be backed by his government have sparked violence. More than 2,300 people have been killed in that region this year.

“Is the U.S. going to stay engaged? Is the West going to stay engaged? If they don’t, I think they have created the potential for two failed states,” Mel Foote, president of the Constituency for Africa, a Washington-based organization that lobbies for the empowerment of African nations and their people.

Foote’s pessimism comes, in part, from the unfinished business of deciding how revenue from the region’s oil will be divided. Most of the oil fields are in South Sudan, which is landlocked. The pipelines used to export it run to a Sudanese port on the Red Sea. Also, the border that separates the two countries still has not been finalized and some oil fields lie within contested areas.

The economic survival of both states could depend on a peaceful – and equitable – resolution of this issue. But to play a meaningful role in the outcome of these disputes, the Obama administration will need the support of congressional Republicans whose obsession with spending cuts may undermine the president’s ability to give the fledgling nation the economic support it needs to weather any struggles that come from it tug-of-war with Sudan over oil revenues.

And Graham, the evangelical preacher, who earlier this year scurrilously charged that the Obama administration has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, may have to swallow hard and join with the president in trying to convince reluctant Republicans the U.S. has to help South Sudan survive its infancy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jacksonville's first black mayor plows road to new political heights

By DeWayne Wickham

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Alvin Brown, the Democrat who will be sworn in as mayor of this longtime Republican stronghold on July 1, is a political enigma.

He beat the Tea Party’s candidate in the runoff for the job with the help of more than $500,000 from Florida’s Democratic Party and $300,000 that was raised for him by Peter Rummell, one of this area’s most prominent Republicans fund-raisers.

Brown brandishes his faith like a card-carrying member of the religious right. He wouldn’t move into the mayor’s office he won last month until his pastor went there to bless it and pray with him. But on the issue of crime — which he wants to fight with education and after-school programs — he sounds more liberal than conservative.

Brown shuns tax increases like a disciple of Grover Norquist, but says he is committed to “closing the poverty gap and the opportunity gap” even as he works to balance Jacksonville’s budget that’s due two weeks after he takes office.

“We can’t cut our way out of” the city’s budget woes, Brown told leaders of non-profit organizations shortly before the mayor’s office was blessed by the Rev. Henry T. Rhim. “We’ve got to grow our way out of it” with new jobs and the economic activity they spawn, he said.

In a political world in which the divide between Republicans and Democrats has turned many politicians into stuttering, ideological parrots, Brown is neither fish nor fowl. He’s a new breed of elected official — one who has improved upon the multiracial, multiethnic coalition that hoisted Barack Obama into the White House three years ago.

Obama, the nation’s first black president, built his coalition with talk of change that energized his liberal base and won him a strong following among independent voters — but alienated congressional Republicans. Brown, 48, the first black mayor of Florida’s largest city, won election with a surprising fusion of Democrats and Republicans.

He won the support of influential Republicans like Rummell and Adam Herbert, who Brown called Florida’s Colin Powell. And while he claims race never surfaced as an issue in the mayoral campaign, Brown — who was a finalist for the NAACP’s top job in 2008 — said he’s never been accused of not being “black enough” because he has “always stayed connected to the black community.”

Winning the support of a sizeable block of white voters while holding onto a black base is a difficult political balancing act. But getting leading Republicans to publicly champion such a campaign is something even Alvin Toffler, who authored Future Shock — the 1970 book that envisioned the societal changes the new millennium would bring — never contemplated.

It may not be long before we know if Brown can take full advantage of the groundbreaking political alliance he’s forged. He’s appointed Audrey Moran, one of the Republican candidates in the mayoral race, and Democratic state Sen. Tony Hill, as co-chairs of his transition team.

“My campaign wasn’t about Democrats or Republicans. And it wasn’t about me. I made it about Jacksonville: one vision, one city, opportunity for all,” he told me, using words that were the mantra of his successful campaign to become mayor of the nation’s 11th largest city.

If Brown is able to make what he’s trying to do work; if he succeeds in creating a new governing alliance in a city that was once deeply wedded to partisan firefights, he will have plowed a road that can transform American politics — and carry him to an even loftier political height.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Obama: Don't let Afghanistan become your Waterloo

By DeWayne Wickham

Afghanistan isn’t Barack Obama’s war, but it might well be his Waterloo.

While campaigning for the presidency as a candidate of change, then-Sen. Obama’s position on the Afghan war was closer to that of the neocons than the progressive Democrats who hoisted him into the White House.

But that war was launched by George W. Bush, and there was always a belief among Obama’s supporters that he wouldn’t succumb to the jingoism that made his predecessor see war as the first, instead of the last, resort in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since taking office, Obama has dramatically increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and spent billions of dollars rebuilding that war-ravaged country and Iraq, while this nation's economy teeters on the brink of a double-dip recession.

If you think that’s left-wing heresy on my part, consider this: A few days ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa backed a call from a group of mayors for Congress to redirect the billions of dollars being spent every week on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to domestic priorities. “That we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind,” Villaraigosa, the new head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said at a news conference during that organization’s annual meeting.

In 2008, Villaraigosa rallied Hispanics in support of Obama’s presidential campaign. Now, he is asking Congress to cut off the flow of dollars to wars Obama has made a higher priority than helping the nation’s ailing cities.

GOP sets election trap

It is among congressional Republicans that Obama’s war policies have the most support. But in what appears to be a political pincer move, several GOP presidential candidates expressed doubt about those wars and Obama’s leadership of them during the first Republican Party presidential debate last week.

Obama shouldn’t let Republicans use this political trap to defeat his re-election bid. Instead, the president ought to withdraw to a more defensible position.

On Iraq, Obama should say we went there to uncover weapons of mass destruction and didn’t find any. Mistakenly, we stayed around and got drawn into a bloody civil war. It’s now time for the U.S. to withdraw completely from that still-simmering conflict.

On Afghanistan, he should remind Americans that we went there to get the people who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks and have pretty much done that. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of that awful crime, is in a U.S. military jail cell awaiting trial; and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, was killed during a raid of his Pakistani hideout by Navy SEALs. With fewer than 100 al-Qaida members remaining in Afghanistan, according to the CIA, Obama should declare victory there and bring home all U.S. servicemen and women. American drones and the threat of international isolation should be used to deal with any residual force of enemies that surface there.

This won’t make the neocons and other members of the GOP pincer happy, but it will give Obama and this nation’s mayors a chance to reap a “peace dividend” from the end of our central role in two wars. It will also put Obama on the right side of history, and in a good position to win re-election.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New York City's schools need a revolution, not just a revolt

By DeWayne Wickham

The NAACP is being attacked by parents of New York City schoolchildren who are angered by the civil rights group’s support of a lawsuit that seeks to keep 20 charter schools out of buildings that already are occupied by traditional public schools.

The suit also attempts to block the closing of some of the city’s underperforming public schools, the kind of schools that make many parents clamor for a way out. In the 20 years since Minnesota enacted the first law allowing this hybrid approach to public education, charter schools have become an increasingly popular escape hatch, especially for black students.

While blacks are 30% of New York City’s 1 million public school children, they are 60% of the youngsters enrolled in the Big Apple’s 125 charter schools. So, black parents of charter school students in the city think the NAACP’s support of the lawsuit, which was filed last month by the United Federation of Teachers, amounts to an act of racial treason.

But it’s not. It is an act of revolution. In his 1957 book, The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi explored the injustices of colonization and concluded that it would take a revolution, not just a revolt to end this form of human oppression.
Charter schools in New York City — and elsewhere in this country — are a revolt against public school systems that fail to properly educate black and Hispanic schoolchildren. While revolts bring about reforms, Memmi explained, revolution is needed to wipe out a system of oppression.

For far too many black children, public school systems oppress more than they educate. They place these students in underachieving, poorly funded schools. And when parents demand better, what they get is steam control — a way to vent their anger, not fix the problem.

In New York City, charter schools — where only 4% of its 1 million public school students can get in — are steam control. They keep the revolt over poor performing public schools from becoming a revolution by distracting parents with the slender reed of hope of getting their child into a better school.

In New York, the choice of who gets in the city’s charter schools is made by lottery — which is to say the luck of the draw. Notwithstanding the indignity of the selection process, there are more than 50,000 students on the waiting list to get into a charter school.

In suing city school officials, the NAACP has a better idea. It wants New York to improve all of its schools, especially its most troubled ones. That’s a revolutionary idea that will require the state of New York to take the lead in meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide “a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

The civil rights organization doesn’t want an escape hatch for 4% of New York City’s schoolchildren; it wants a high-quality education for all of them. It rightfully opposes a two-tiered system of public education that pits charter schools against traditional schools and demands instead better schools for all the children in New York’s school system.

What the NAACP wants is a revolutionary change, not the incrementalism — and misdirections — that offer black students the kind of meager educational gains that were a staple of the colonialism Memmi said colonized people the world over must struggle against.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In South Africa, Michelle Obama can teach young Americans an important lesson

By DeWayne Wickham

First lady Michelle Obama is going to South Africa and Botswana later this month to tout the value of education and promote her worldwide campaign to encourage young people to assume leadership roles in their countries.

This is the kind of good work that Obama, who overcame the perils of poverty to earn degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School , is well suited to do. She knows better than a lot of diplomats what it takes to scale the hurdles too many young people face.

This trip is an opportunity for Obama “to teach her daughters about how we survive or fail based upon our global connectedness,” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who taught both President Obama and his wife, told me.

It’s an opportunity to do that and much more.

A few days before Obama is scheduled to arrive in South Africa, the most important stop of her six-day trip, that country will observe the 35th anniversary of what was arguably the most important moment in the struggle to end apartheid — the brutal system of white-minority rule that lasted more than four decades.

What happened in South Africa on June 16, 1976, is now acknowledged there with a national holiday that is innocently called “Youth Day.” It was then that a spasm of violence by government forces erupted, taking the lives of more than 700 black South Africans, most of them schoolchildren.

These killings in Soweto, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, were sparked by the government’s decision to force black children to learn Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch descendants who were oppressing the country’s black majority.

The students regarded English as a passport to higher education and the world beyond South Africa, investigative reporter Les Payne wrote in an 11-part series that Newsday published in 1977. They learned the value of education through the depravation they were forced to endure; outdated textbooks, unqualified teachers and inferior school facilities taught them that lesson.

And it was out of a determination to get a better education that many young black schoolchildren joined a protest whose violent suppression fueled an anti-apartheid movement that eventually sapped the life out of South Africa’s pigmentocracy.

The story of the willingness of these students to risk their lives for a better education — and their courage to challenge the armed goons South Africa’s apartheid-era government sent into Soweto to silence them — is a history lesson every generation of American children ought to be taught. It’s also something Obama should acknowledge during her visit.

Sadly, Payne’s groundbreaking stories on the Soweto student uprising didn’t get the recognition they deserve. In 1976, he spent nearly three months in that township. He eluded his government handlers to interview student leaders who were in hiding — and went from funeral homes, to churches, to gatherings of grieving families to document a level of carnage much higher than what the South African government claimed.

For his efforts, Payne was the first choice of the judges to receive the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. But in a controversial act, that decision was overridden by the Pulitzer’s ruling body and given to the judges’ fourth choice.

Obama would do much to inspire young people here and abroad by acknowledging the heroic sacrifices South African students made in 1976 — and the great effort Payne made to tell the world their story.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

U.S. Cuba policy is stuck in the past

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — Hillary Clinton should have dinner with Jony Jones. I did.

Shortly before I arrived in Cuba’s capital, the U.S. secretary of State dined with six former Latin American presidents in Washington to discuss what it will take to fix what’s broken in America’s relations with its hemispheric neighbors. For half a century, a major stumbling block to this repair job has been the United States’ obsessive efforts to topple Cuba’s communist government.

Soon after I got here, I had dinner with Jones at La Moneda Cubana, a new, privately owned restaurant in the old colonial section of this city. She’s a 38-year-old biomedical researcher whose father fled Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The restaurant is an inviting symbol of Cuba’s movement away from a rigid Communist economy. Both are part of a Cuba that the Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand.

Our meal came at the end of a day in which I’d spent several hours trolling the impoverished Central Havana neighborhood of La California. The place is made up of 32 apartments that have been carved out of an old rectangular-shaped building with an ignominious past. Once slave quarters, it was later a military barracks for the regime that Fidel Castro ousted from power in 1959.

It is from places like La California that the foot soldiers of rebellions that overthrow governments usually come. But like Jones, the people who live there say they only want the kind of change Barack Obama promised American voters in 2008, not the regime change his administration has in mind for Cuba.

“It’s complicated,” Jones said of what Cubans crave for themselves — and their country. “There is a dichotomy between the sense of belonging to Cuba and with being personally satisfied. Maybe all Cubans aren’t revolutionaries, but most Cubans love Cuba,” she told me.

Back in April, Cuba’s Communist Party Congress announced a series of economic reforms that permit self-employment in 178 areas of work, including restaurants, carpentry, barbers, hair dressers, electricians and taxi drivers. In 83 of these jobs people will be allowed to create small businesses and hire workers. Under the announced reforms, Cubans also will be able to buy and sell cars and homes for the first time in half a century.

For most Cubans, this is a long-awaited movement in the right direction. But instead of applauding it, the U.S. State Department criticized Cuba for not making improvements in other areas. “We remain focused on getting Cuban people more access to freedom of information and other aspects,” spokesman Mark Toner deadpanned. That’s another way of saying, when it comes to Cuba, the State Department remains stuck in the past.

In conversations with Cuban government officials, members of this country’s emerging middle class and people on the lowest rungs of its economic ladder, I got repeated acknowledgements of the failures of the economic system and a determination to overcome the country’s most daunting problems.

“In Cuba we have to hope that things are going to change, but nobody knows how,” Jones admitted.

Still, like so many others here, she welcomes the changes that have occurred, even if they don’t go far enough. The Obama administration can help increase the pace of change in Cuba by moving aggressively to end the embargo.

What’s clear is that there is no widespread support here for a “Cuba spring” — no looming upheaval like those that toppled a government in Egypt and threatens to do the same in Libya.

If Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe me, she should come here and have dinner with Jony Jones.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Obama should give tough love response to Netanyahu's arrogant lecture

By DeWayne Wickham

Putting aside Mark Twain’s sage observation that “no nation…occupies a foot of land that was not stolen,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to let a return to his country’s 1967 borders become the basis for a peace settlement is foolhardy for another reason.

It sees the future as the past.

Netanyahu’s objection is stubbornly rooted in a belief that the Jewish state and its neighbors will be forever in a perpetual state of war. That myopia is a prescription for continued stalemate, and more conflict, not a meaningful peace agreement.

This intransigence is exactly what Netanyahu signaled when he arrogantly lectured Barack Obama before television cameras during his recent White House visit. The president’s call for a return to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, as a starting point for a renewed effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors, is unacceptable for two reasons, the Israeli leader said.

One is because Israel’s old borders are “indefensible,” and the other is that it “doesn’t take into account…demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years,” Netanyahu said.

But, as Obama surely understands, peace is the best protector of any country’s borders, not some sort of geographic Maginot Line – which the katyusha rocket and Arab sappers have shown to be no less impregnable than the physical one France built to stave off World War II.

The other reason for Netanyahu’s unyielding position on Obama’s peace proposal is Israel’s longstanding policy of building Jewish settlements – in violation of United Nations resolutions – in territory it seized during the 1967 war. Those old borders, Netanyahu told Obama, “were the boundaries of repeated war.” These settlements are a human buffer that Netanyahu thinks will ensure Israel’s survival – and the real flashpoint of any effort to end the quasi war that now exists.

“The Obama administration has been encouraging Netanyahu to give them something to work with” in its effort to broker a peace deal. Netanyahu gave them nothing,” Daniel Levy, a senior research fellow and co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, told me.

The president’s call for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians based “on the 1967 (borders) with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both sides is a laudable attempt to break new ground that takes Netanyahu “out of his comfort zone,” said Levy, who was a special adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

That’s because Netanyahu is a war leader for whom peace is an armistice, not a quest for harmony.

To allow Netanyahu’s uncompromising position to prevail is to permit the egrat to command the rhinoceros. It is a longstanding American policy, as old as the Jewish state itself, that Israel has a right to exist. Obama has reaffirmed this commitment to Israel’s survival. “Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable,” Obama said in a major Middle East foreign policy speech at the State Department shortly before Netanyahu arrived in the United State.

But Israel undermines this commitment with its settlement program and its refusal to even contemplate a peace agreement that recognizes the pre-1967 territorial borders of Palestine as the beginning point of the search for a lasting peace.

On this issue Netanyahu has dug in his heels. Obama must respond with a tough love insistence that the Israeli prime minister ensures Israel’s future by giving peace a chance now.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sophia Nelson's book a NeNe Leakes antidote

By DeWayne Wickham

I really hope what Sophia Nelson is saying will muffle the voice of NeNe Leakes, whose growing presence on TV surreality shows sullies the image of black women.

A former stripper, Leakes is a hulking, loud-mouth whose profanity-laced outburst on a recent episode of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice was the most APPALLING of her bad-girl acts on a genre of TV shows that falsely claims to reflect real life. She’s also a mainstay of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, where she regularly behaves like an overgrown schoolyard bully on estrogen.

Nelson is the author of a new book that seeks to debunk the image of accomplished black women as angry and unfulfilled —a stereotype that Leakes feeds. While Nelson doesn’t say her book is the antidote to Leakes and the proliferation of other dysfunctional, angry black women who populate TV surreality shows built around black female characters like her, I hope it is.

In a recent Celebrity Apprentice episode, Leakes, who rose to TV fame as a well-to-do Atlanta housewife in the Bravo show, confronted fellow black contestant Star Jones with an expletive-laced tirade that had to make a lot of television viewers cringe.

“You talked a good game. Now bring your street game, because that what I’m bringing,” Leakes said to Jones in a ghetto bravado that she flashes just about every time a camera focuses in on her. And usually for no good reason, Leakes threatens to pounce upon someone.

In her book, Black Woman Redefines: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama, Nelson holds out the nation’s first lady as someone who is dispelling the stereotypes about black women. “You humanize us. You soften us … You make us approachable, feminine, sexy, warm, compassionate, smart, affirmed, accomplished, and full-filled all at once,” she writes about Obama in the book’s prologue.

Her point, of course, is not that the wife of this nation’s first black president possesses positive qualities that few other black women have. It is, instead, that her husband’s elevation in the White House has put a spotlight on Michelle Obama — who is a high-profile, counterbalancing image to people like NeNe Leakes.

More than anything else, Nelson’s work is a how-to book, a feel-good tome that offers black women prescriptions for personal and professional success that empower them without tearing down someone else. For her, the president’s wife is the most obvious and inspirational example of a successful black woman who refuses to be negatively defined by others. But, as Nelson points out, she is by no means the only one.

Black women have long struggled to define themselves in ways that others would understand and respect. From Sojourner Truth’s 1851 plaintive “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, to Zora Neale Hurston’s reporting on the 1953 murder trial of Ruby McCollum (a married black woman who killed a white doctor that fathered one of her children), to the Agriculture Department’s controversial dismissal of Shirley Sherrod, this fight has taken many forms.

Nelson’s book is another skirmish in this battle — one she hopes will bring about a transformative victory. She wants it to help black women be defined by something more representative of them than NeNe Leakes. Because as Hurston — the most prolific black female writer of the first half of the 20th century — once said, “All of my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk.”