Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lessons we should learn from failed terror attack

By DeWayne Wickham

So where do we go from here? What should the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack teach us about keeping airplanes and their passengers safe?

The first lesson is that hardening our defenses at home ought to be a more important goal than nation-building in Afghanistan. While the Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan, al-Qaida is reinventing itself in places like Somalia and Yemen, where the Christmas Day attack was hatched.

Bogging down tens of thousands of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq siphons both troops and billions of dollars from the more focused effort needed to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida's far-flung operations.

Another lesson we should learn is that security at U.S. airports is porous. Despite creation of the Transportation Safety Administration and increased screening of air travelers since 2001, a 23-year-old wannabe terrorist nearly brought down an American commercial aircraft with 267 people aboard.

Body-scanning machines could have uncovered Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's evil intent before he boarded a Detroit-bound plane in the Netherlands, but few U.S. airports use them.

And then there's this lesson: Eight years after U.S. intelligence and security failures contributed to the success of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, similar glitches helped keep Abdulmutallab off this country's no-fly list and out of the cross hairs of the FBI's counterterrorism task force. Weeks before Abdulmutallab's clumsy bombing attempt, his father warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son, a devout Muslim, had been radicalized.

U.S. intelligence had information that a Nigerian was in Yemen preparing for a terrorist attack. Abdulmutallab paid cash for a one-way ticket to the United States and boarded the plane with no luggage.

U.S. intelligence agents not only failed to piece all this together until after Abdulmutallab failed to set off his bomb; they also missed another warning sign: Government officials in Britain refused to grant the Nigerian, who attended school in Britain from 2005 to 2008, a visa to return to the country after discovering he'd falsified information in his application.

"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said.

He's right, but fixing what's broken won't be easy. Part of the solution is better information-sharing and coordination among the State Department, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. That was promised after 9/11, but apparently it's still a pipe dream. Better coordination between U.S. and British intelligence agencies also is needed.

That fight has to be waged with the "new think" needed to defeat small pockets of terrorists in countries around the world — not the "old think" that has much of America's military might bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Joe Lieberman: Anti-hero of the year

By DeWayne Wickham

2008 was the year of the unlikely hero. It was dominated by the ascendency of Barack Obama, a slender black guy with a hip gait and a finely tuned political mind, into this nation's highest office.

But 2009 has turned out to be the year of the anti-hero. It is the year in which Joe Lieberman gets my nod - cynical though it is - as "American of the Year."

A Democrat of convenience, Lieberman has succeeded in doing what Benedict Arnold couldn't. In a masterful act of treachery, he retains a position of trust among the very people he betrayed.

By threatening to join a Republican filibuster, Lieberman forced Democrats to strip first a public option and then a Medicare buy-in compromise from the Senate's health care reform bill, provisions many experts and activists consider essential to reform.

Though political treason does not rise to the level of military treason, of course, it is treacherous nonetheless.

During the Revolutionary War, Arnold - a Continental Army general - plotted to turn over West Point to the British. When his scheme was discovered, he fled to Canada on a British warship appropriately called "The Vulture." Had he been caught, Arnold likely would have been court martialed and hanged.

Instead of suffering an equivalent political fate, Lieberman remains a member of the Democratic caucus and continues as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. With 60 members, which is the number needed to break a Republican filibuster, Democrats would rather keep a traitor in their midst than put him to flight.

This kid-glove treatment comes on the heels of the 2008 presidential campaign in which the four-term Connecticut senator campaigned for John McCain, Obama's GOP opponent. Yet during a speech to the Republican National Convention, Lieberman referred to himself four times as a Democrat - despite the fact that in 2006, this gadfly of political allegiance ran as an Independent. Why? Because he lost the Democratic primary, and this shift from D to I was the only way he could retain his seat.

But in working to strip the Senate's health care bill of the public option and Medicare buy-in provisions, Lieberman proved to be far from a loyal Democrat. Some critics charge that Lieberman, the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in 2000, was doing the bidding of the insurance industry in gutting the bill. He has received more than $1 million from insurance interests since 1990, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

According to supporters, the public option and Medicare buy-in would pressure insurance companies to hold down costs and provide better coverage. They believe Lieberman was voting to fill his campaign coffers, not stand up for his principles.

While Lieberman isn't the only Democrat who waffled in supporting the Senate bill, he was the most uncompromising - and appeared to take the greatest delight in tweaking the noses of his Democratic caucus colleagues. And for this you've got to admire the guy's shamelessness.

Somehow he has convinced Democrats they are better off with him in their ranks. They cling to Lieberman in the hope that he'll help them beat back a filibuster despite all that he exacts from them, and the little he gives in return.

While Benedict Arnold may be his equal when it comes to guile, Joe Lieberman is unmatched in his ability to convince those he betrays to treat him as a friend - instead of the enemy he really is.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is new passenger rights rule steak, or sizzle?

By DeWayne Wickham

On the day the Transportation Department announced it will begin fining airlines for subjecting passengers to lengthy ground delays, I sat aboard a plane for more than an hour-and-a-half before it took off from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The nearly full Southwest Airlines plane, which boarded passengers 30 minutes before its scheduled departure on Monday, didn’t pull away from the gate until nearly 70 minutes after it was supposed to depart for Orlando, Fla. The captain told us over the intercom that we were waiting for passengers stuck in long lines at the security check-in area.

Two days earlier, Baltimore — like much of the mid-Atlantic region — was hit by a blizzard that left 21 inches of snow on the ground, forcing many people to reschedule their flights.

To its credit, Southwest made every effort to efficiently unload the incoming passengers on my plane before loading the new passengers for the next leg. But that didn’t make it any easier to sit for about an hour and 40 minutes before the plane left the gate.

As flight delays go, this one was relatively minor. On Saturday, the morning of the snowstorm, an Air Jamaica flight got stuck on the Baltimore airport’s tarmac after its wings were de-iced. The 148 passengers languished in the cabin for eight hours before returning to the terminal. That’s the kind of nightmare transportation officials hope to prevent with their new rule, which takes effect in April.

Airlines that keep passengers on domestic flights stuck on the ground for three hours or longer could be fined $27,500 per passenger. When passengers are on a plane for at least two hours without taking off, the airline must provide food, water and a working bathroom.

“We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience,” said James May, president of the Air transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the new rules “President (Barack) Obama’s passenger bill of rights.”

I hope he’s right. I hope this rule’s good intentions aren’t undermined by the fine print. Airlines will be exempt from the new rule for security and safety reasons that aren’t spelled out. Also, a pilot won’t have to return to the terminal and let passengers off if air traffic controllers say it would disrupt the airport’s flight operations.

What exactly does that mean?

Is it a disruption for a plane to return to a gate that’s busy with arriving and departing flights? Does the clock stop on applying the rule if a safety or security concern is declared? When does it restart? Who decides?

By the time my flight left on Monday, I’d been in my seat for nearly as long as it took the plane to fly to Orlando. In such a case, does the clock start when the plane is boarded, or when it’s supposed to be airborne?

Like most frequent fliers — and millions of other people who fly only occasionally — I welcome this new rule. I just hope it doesn’t end up being more sizzle than steak.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

ABC can break Sunday morning talk show color barrier

By DeWayne Wickham

Stephanie Jones didn’t waste any time firing off a letter to ABC once she learned the musical chairs that followed the retirement of “World News” anchor Charles Gibson had landed George Stephanopoulos a promotion.

Since 2002, the former senior adviser the President Clinton had served as moderator of “This Week,” ABC’s Sunday morning political talk show. Earlier this month he was named host of “Good Morning America,” replacing Diane Sawyer, who got Gibson’s job.

“As you know, none of the major Sunday morning talk shows currently features a minority host and the lack of racial diversity is an ongoing concern we have urged you to address,” Jones wrote to ABC News President David Westin and Ian Cameron, executive producer of “This Week.”

Three years ago, Jones, who heads the National Urban League’s Policy Institute, criticized the “paucity” of blacks on TV’s five leading Sunday morning news talk shows — “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “Late Edition,”Fox’s “FOX News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”Next year she will issue a follow-up report that credits the networks for making some progress, Jones told me. “But they are still a long way from where they need to be,” she was quick to add.

In urging Westin to name a black journalist to host “This Week,” Jones wants to do more than simply break the Sunday morning talk show color barrier. She wants someone black to help frame the perception and coverage of issues that have a substantial impact on the American public.

Westin clearly understands the power that hosts of national news shows wield. In a tribute to Gibson Thursday he said: “The first rough draft of history over this generation has been seen by an entire nation through the eyes” of the retiring news anchor.

That’s heavy stuff. And so is the opportunity Westin now has to make history.
In a perfect world, picking a black journalist to replace Stephanopoulos would be a no-brainer. It’s hard to find anyone with a thicker resume — or a more commanding presence on television — than Gwen Ifill, the supernova of PBS’ crop of journalists. Ifill is both moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” and doubles as senior correspondent on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

She cut her journalism teeth working for a long list of daily newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, where she was a White House correspondent. In 1994, she moved to television as a Capitol Hill reporter for NBC News. In each of the last two presidential elections, Ifill has moderated the vice presidential candidates’ debate. “She’s a wonderful, classy lady and a great journalist,” Tim Russert once said of her.

And then there’s Michel Martin, host of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” a one-hour, daily talk show. Like Ifill, Martin is a veteran print journalist who migrated to television news. She worked for The Washington Post before becoming a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The broadcast journalism portion of her resume is equally impressive. Before joining NPR, Martin was a reporter on ABC News’ “Nightline.” For a time, she worked alongside of Stephanopoulos as a weekly contributor to “This Week.” While at ABC, Martin crisscrossed the globe covering a wide range of stories — one of which earned her an Emmy.

If Ifill and Martin aren’t on Westin’s short list there’s something terribly wrong with his selection process — and his news judgment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wrongfully convicted man deserves better treatment

By DeWayne Wickham

Where’s the justice in this?

Donald Eugene Gates spent 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Convicted in 1981 of the brutal rape and murder of Catherine Schilling, a 21-year-old Georgetown University student, Gates was given a 20-years-to-life sentence and imprisoned in a federal prison in Arizona.

Gates was released a few days ago after DNA testing proved he didn’t commit that crime. To help him restart his life, the government gave him some winter clothes, $75 and a one-way bus ticket to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The cab ride from the Tucson prison to the bus station cost $35.

Gates was forced to spend nearly half his 58 years behind bars after an FBI crime lab analyst linked two pubic hairs found at the crime scene to him. The reliability of the work of that man, FBI agent Michael Malone, was called into question in several subsequent cases.

A 1997 FBI inspector general’s report concluded Malone and other analysts in the bureau’s Washington crime lab had “made false reports and performed inaccurate tests” in criminal cases. In 2003, a forensic scientist found problems with Malone’s work in the Gates case but prosecutors never turned that information over to Gates’ lawyer.

Gates languished in prison for six more years until the District of Columbia’s Public Defenders Service succeeded in getting the judge who sentenced him to order a DNA test on the pubic hairs. An earlier test, using a less reliable method, proved inconclusive. The new, more accurate test, exonerated Gates.

Now, with what is left of the $75 he got from the federal government, Gates is expected to get on with his life.

When he went to prison in 1981, Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency; Dallas was the top rated television show; the Oakland Raiders recorded their last Super Bowl victory, and 5-year-old Tiger Woods made an appearance on the TV show, “That’s Incredible.” Motorola didn’t introduce the first commercial cell phone until two years later.

The world Gates has just entered bears little resemblance to the one he left behind when he was wrongfully convicted. The nature of work – and the skills needed to land a job – have undergone a drastic change over the past quarter century. There’s little chance Gates can find a job that’ll make him self-sufficient without special training.

And there’s little hope that he won’t fall back into the clutches of the criminal justice system if something isn’t done quickly to compensate Gates for his lost years.

Such an act of contrition shouldn’t be slow in coming.

The District of Columbia allows persons who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation, but why make Gates go through the motions? Why make him get a lawyer and go into court to litigate this matter? Why force Gates to sue for the help he needs to recover from the injustice he’s suffered? He was sent to prison based on questionable testimony of an FBI agent and stayed there longer than he should have when local prosecutors allegedly failed to share potentially exculpatory evidence with his lawyer.

In ordering Gates’ release, D.C. Superior Court Judge Fred Ugast said “we are fortunate…that the technology has been developed that permits us to at least try to right a wrong.”

But while setting Gates free may soothe the judge’s conscience, much more needs to be done to free Gates from the ravages of his wrongful conviction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Did Tiger Woods fall victim to arrested development?

By DeWayne Wickham

Tiger Woods set out to master what would become his life's work by swinging what must have been the world's tiniest golf club - at 10 months old. Some three years later he shot a score over nine holes that would be the envy of adult amateurs struggling to tame the impossible game of golf with its endless variables of earth, wind and ire.

Shooting a 48 at age 3 must have both pleased Tiger and wetted the voracious drive of his father, Earl Woods, to push the young Woods to reach golf's loftiest heights. At eight, Woods won the International Junior World Golf Championships. It was the first of a long list of amateur and professional titles that has ended, at least until Woods straightens out the interactive part of his life he was least prepared for by his father, or apparently, anyone else.

Unless one spent the last two weeks in a sand trap, it has been impossible to avoid media coverage of the disruption of Woods' marriage and career by what in politics is referred to as "bimbo eruptions." With so many women teeing off on Tiger's marriage with claims of infidelity, it may be understandable - given media's dwindling audience - why so much Peeping Tom attention is being paid to this matter by tabloid newspapers and their leering TV cousins.

These purveyors of "news" have aggressively reported unverified, titillating claims, some of which may be the work of gold-diggers panning for their 15 minutes of fame. Lost in the clutter are the details of the true triggering incident and the matter of how the golf superstar and his wife are really dealing with this crisis in their marriage, which - though not new to the institution - could be instructive.

One would think that the big tumble the world's greatest golfer has taken would merit coverage that's somewhat less breathless and salacious.

It does not take a psychiatrist to appreciate that a childhood spent under the iron fist of a determined father in obsessive pursuit of the mastery of sports, music, or other such parental passion, comes at a great cost. Such a Mephistophelean deal, even a benign one as it may have been with Woods, might arrest development in other areas - especially social.

As other kids his age were experiencing what life coach and best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant calls "the natural order of child development,"
Tiger's dad was subjecting him to subliminal messages from audiotapes and motivational videos, Golf Digest reported in 2000.

While all of this has honed Tiger's physical and mental ability to dominate the global game of golf, it apparently did not prepare him to adjust well to life, love and marriage.

At a dinner honoring Tiger in 1996, his father - a former Green Beret who earned a degree in psychology and sociology from Kansas State University - prophesied that his son would one day transcend the sport and make the world a better place. But Tiger Woods is no Messiah, just the world's greatest golfer.

"He's probably profoundly traumatized. There's no way this is not a major catastrophe for him, too," said Harvard University psychiatry Professor Alvin Poussaint. "The big question is how Woods will be received back on the (golf) circuit ... because he will have to face the public again at some point?"

Woods' decision Friday to take an indefinite leave from golf may be an effort not only to save to his marriage but also undo the damage done to himself by his obsessive pursuit of the game of golf.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama lays out war doctrine at peace prize ceremony

By DeWayne Wickham

It was the incongruity of the moment — the leader of a nation at war receiving the world’s highest peace award — that may well make what Barack Obama said in Oslo, Norway on Thursday the most important speech of his presidency.

In accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize just nine days after ordering a dramatic increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Obama spoke of war as a necessary evil that sometimes offers the only chance for lasting peace.

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” Obama said. “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

While the notion of a just war probably dates back to first time cavemen used clubs to settle an argument, Obama doesn’t see its goal as conquest. War is justified, he said, when it is waged to end slaughter and preserve the peace.

But a just war has little lasting value if it doesn’t produce a “just peace,” the president said. Such a peace, he said, “includes not only civil and political rights, it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

Just as the Powell Doctrine, named after former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, prescribes how and under what conditions the United States should fight a war, Obama’s doctrine lays out a global rationale for going to war in the name of peace.

Back in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson laid out his formulation for peace in an address to Congress 10 months before the end of World War I. In his famous Fourteen Points speech, Wilson outlined what needed to be done at the conclusion of the war to produce a lasting peace. Most of his points had to do with restoring the sovereignty of countries caught up in the conflict.

But the last of his 14 points called for creation of “a general association of nations” to provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” That idea led to the League of Nations — the forerunner of the United Nations — which Wilson hoped would preserve peace around the world.

As subsequent events made clear, and as Obama acknowledged in his speech, war is not so easily eradicated.

“We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice,” Obama said. “We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”

And we must hope that he’s right in believing that the young men and women he’s committed to battle are fighting a just war — one that will produce a just and lasting peace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NATO's questionable contribution to Afghan war

By DeWayne Wickham

When President Obama announced last week his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he made it clear he expects this nation's European allies to also increase their commitment to that conflict. In fact, they need to do more to win the war and preserve the peace.

In his West Point address, Obama said the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda is an international effort to which NATO must contribute more forces because the alliance's credibility, the security of its allies and "the common security of the world" are at stake. That was a diplomatic way of telling Europe it has as much at risk as does the U.S.

Since the Sept. 11 strikes that sparked the fighting in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda-inspired attacks in London and Madrid have killed nearly 250 people and wounded almost 2,500. Many other attacks apparently have been foiled in Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

This, along with pressure from the Obama administration, no doubt contributed to NATO's decision last week to announce that 25 of its 28 member nations will send an additional 7,000 troops to Afghanistan. That's an average of 280 soldiers per country.

"Nations are backing up their words with deeds," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, amid reports that the alliance is using fuzzy math. Apparently, some of the NATO "increase" will come from counting international troops who are already in the war zone because their planned withdrawal will be delayed.

Europe can and should do a lot more than that. The U.S. share of the international force in Afghanistan will increase to 98,000 from the 68,000 servicemen and women in that war-torn country. The rise among the remainder of foreign troops will not be as sharp, climbing from 42,000 to 52,000 soldiers, if NATO ultimately meets the U.S. request for 10,000 additional troops.

Even more worrisome, more Americans are being sent to fight Islamic extremists in Afghanistan while anti-Muslim extremism in Europe threatens to fuel the growth of Islamic fanaticism.

Voters in Switzerland recently passed a constitutional amendment that bans the construction of minarets on Muslim mosques. Minarets are towers from which Muslims are called to prayer several times a day. Nearly 6 of 10 Swiss voters backed the ban.
The Swiss vote came a couple weeks after France backed away from banning Muslim women from wearing burqas. The issue heated up when French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "France is a country that has no place for the burqa."

Sarkozy's concern about the veil seemed misplaced, if not miscreant. Of his country's 5 million Muslims, just 367 women wear burqas, French police reported.Five years ago, France banned Muslims from wearing head scarves in public schools — an action that Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, called "another example of the Crusader's malice."

Add to all of this a growing call in Western Europe for the enactment of immigration laws that target Muslims, and it appears religious intolerance has become the continent's Maginot line against Islamic extremists.

But such acts not only won't make the European countries that embrace them safer, they'll also likely give rise to a new breed of homegrown terrorists — and swell the ranks of the radical Muslims who are fighting the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Black Caucus clashes with Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

This is a warning shot Barack Obama should not ignore.

Angered by a laundry list of perceived slights, 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also sit on the House Financial Services Committee boycotted a vote Wednesday on a financial regulation reform bill the Obama administration wants Congress to pass.

While the legislation cleared the committee on a 31-27 vote, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., made it clear that the 43 members of the black caucus — all Democrats — might join with Republicans to block other bills the White House is pushing if their concerns aren’t addressed.

I knew it would come to this.

Since Obama took office in January, his staff has tried mightily to keep him from being perceived as "the black president" — an effort that at times has made Obama seem indifferent to the concerns of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency.

The president didn’t meet with the black caucus until five weeks after moving into the Oval Office. That one-hour session came after he’d already met with Senate Republicans and with members of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats.

At their February meeting with Obama, black caucus members voiced their concern over the disparate impact unemployment was having on blacks during the economic recession. Back then, the black unemployment rate was 13.4 percent compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.

Since then, unemployment has gotten worse, and blacks and Hispanics continue to be disproportionately jobless, especially as manufacturing and construction industries falter.

A day after caucus members boycotted the Financial Services Committee vote, the Obama administration held a White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. The agenda did not include a discussion of unemployment’s disproportionate impact on blacks.

In an interview Thursday with USA TODAY, Obama rejected the idea of a targeted response to the problems that afflict blacks when he said: "I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again."

But that rising-tide-lifts-all-boats answer hasn’t sat well with black caucus members as unemployment among black men (17.1 percent in October) approaches a level not seen since the Great Depression.

The racial divide that Obama successfully straddled in winning the presidency now threatens to break apart the coalition that hoisted him into office. While polls show his biggest loss of support has occurred among independent voters, a growing frustration among blacks may yet become Obama’s downfall.

Obama must be as aggressive in working to reduce black unemployment as he was in giving billions in federal stimulus aid to collapsing financial institutions. A general approach to putting Americans back to work won’t close the yawning gap between black and white joblessness.

Of course, Obama isn’t the president of black America, he’s the president of all Americans, some of his most misguided supporters like to say. What they don’t seem to realize is that blacks are Americans, too, and their problems shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

The issues that black caucus members are raising with Obama deserve to be treated seriously. Not because Obama also is black. And not simply because blacks voted in historic numbers for him, though in politics there’s something to be said for letting the victors divide the spoils.

No, the most compelling reason why Obama should heed the warning shot the caucus fired across his bow is because many of the problems they want addressed are among this nation’s most vexing social and economic issues.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recognition long overdue for Jackson's political trailblazing

By DeWayne Wickham

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's no idle praise.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book launches Sarah Palin's second coming

By DeWayne Wickham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

For troop greeters every day is Veterans Day

By DeWayne Wickham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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

By DeWayne Wickham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Polanski's a victimizer, not a victim

By DeWayne Wickham

The important thing to know about Roman Polanski is that he is a pedophile.

Last week, the U.S. government filed an extradition request with Switzerland to have the 76-year-old Academy Award-winning director return to this country to faces charges related a sexual encounter he had with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

Since his arrest last month after he arrived in Switzerland from his home in France to attend the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski's supporters have mounted a campaign to keep him from the clutches of the U.S. justice system.

They circulated a petition that demands his release while decrying his detention by Swiss police for what they describe simply as a moral charge. Among those signing it are a who's who of movie directors, including Woody Allen, Jonathan Demme, John Landis and Martin Scorsese. While their hearts may be in the right place, their heads are in the sand.

Thirty-two years ago, Polanski plied a girl with champagne and Quaaludes to loosen her inhibitions. Then he sodomized her.

After listening to the girl's testimony, a grand jury issued a six-count indictment against the Polish-born director that included charges of rape, sodomy and lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14.

However, when the young victim's lawyer said the girl didn't want go through the spectacle of a Hollywood trial, Polanski got a big break. He was allowed to plead guilty to the single charge of "unlawful intercourse with a minor." But before he was sentenced, Polanski fled to France, where he had an affair with Nastassja Kinski. She was just 15.

Polanski is a pedophile, by any definition. Yet instead of snatching a child off the street or entering their bedroom late at night through an unlocked window, he used guile and his celebrity to have his way.

In the Los Angeles case, he wooed the young girl away from her mother with the false claim that he wanted to photograph the child for Vogue Hommes, a French fashion magazine. After feeding the girl alcohol and drugs, Polanski took partially nude photographs of the child before performing anal sex on her.

Afterward, he took the girl home and told her not to tell her mother what he'd done. But she did, and Polanski was arrested.

Polanski's supporters want us to believe his apprehension in Switzerland is a violation of some cultural code of conduct. "By their extraterritorial nature, film festivals the world over have always permitted works to be shown and for filmmakers to present them freely and safely, even when certain States opposed this," the petition states.

That's buncombe.

Polanski wasn't arrested because of his art; he was jailed because of the sexual offense he committed against a 13-year-old girl - a crime he admitted to before fleeing. They also claim Polanski was the victim of judicial misconduct. The judge, they say, was going to renege on a commitment to incarcerate Polanski for only 90 days. If he hadn't fled, supporters say he would have received a much longer sentence.

They want us to see Polanski as the victim, not a victimizer.

In a 1993 civil suit brought against him by the girl - who was then nearly 30 - Polanski invoked his right against self-incrimination when he was asked whether he fed her champagne and drugs before assaulting her.

Roman Polanski has evaded justice for 38 years. It's time he pays a price for the awful crime he committed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Obama's most loyal supporters are a problem

By DeWayne Wickham

Barack Obama has a simmering race problem.

The nation's first black president, who relied heavily on black voters to reach the Oval Office, is coming under increased criticism from blacks who think he's not doing enough to address their concerns.

So far, this talk hasn't gotten much national media attention. Obama's approval rating among blacks is still in the political stratosphere, and many of his black supporters have a low tolerance for blacks who publicly question the president's decision-making, even when they agree with the criticisms.

But the grousing continues.

Recently, some black activists formed a group to monitor how Obama deals with black issues. Called the Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission, the panel is headed by Julianne Malveaux, an economist and president of Bennett College for Women, and Ronald Walters, director of the University of Maryland's African American Leadership Center.

Panel leader Julianne Malveaux was asked during a recent interview in Essence magazine whether she should be more patient before taking the president to task.

"He's our brother ... but we're not his only constituency," the long-time Democratic activist responded. "He's not the president of black America. We have to make him do right. He's not going to do right just 'cuz. We've got to make him."

That's apparently what Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, tried to do when he broke his silence over the slow pace of Obama's efforts to fill about 90 vacancies on federal appeals and district courts. Henderson complained the president is kowtowing too much to congressional Republicans, who see his outreach as a weakness.

"I commend the president's effort to change the tone in Washington," Henderson told The Washington Post earlier this month. "I recognize that he is extending an olive branch to Republicans ... but so far, his efforts at reconciliation have been met with partisan hostility."

That public breach of the black community's "speak no ill of Obama" rule followed a festering rift over the Obama administration's decision to exclude from his budget $85 million for black college aid that was in the last two budgets of Republican President George W. Bush.

Outrage among supporters of the nation's 105 historically black higher-education institutions has been an open secret. Tom Joyner, whose syndicated radio talk show airs on more than 110 stations across the nation, wrote the president during the summer asking him to restore the funds.

So far, that hasn't happened. White House officials say the money was part of a one-time, two-year grant to black colleges. Critics said Obama should have continued the grant, which will be hard to replace for many financially strapped black schools.

"It suggests that HBCUs are not a priority," Lezli Baskerville, who heads the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, a lobbying group for black colleges, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

This growing discontent among black activists is compounded by political fissures dividing Obama and some black politicians.

Obama tried mightily to persuade former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to endorse Creigh Deeds, a fellow Democrat and the party's candidate for governor in Virginia's Nov. 3 election. But Wilder, the state's first black governor, recently announced he'll remain neutral. His refusal to support Deeds in the close race could cost Democrats the election.

In New York, black politicians reacted angrily to Obama's push to get black Gov. David Paterson to drop his bid for re-election and clear the way for a bid by the state's white attorney general.

Obama needs to get a handle on his race problem. Otherwise, he could be drawn into a very public feud with members of his most loyal constituency.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

One billion hungry people need action now

By DeWayne Wickham

If you didn’t know it, this past Friday was World Hunger Day. To make sure I knew it, a press aide to Hillary Clinton invited me to join a conference call with the secretary of State and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who touted the Obama administration’s commitment to reducing hunger around the world.

There are a billion people who are chronically hungry. That’s roughly one of every seven inhabitants of this planet. Hunger is a far greater pandemic than AIDS. Nearly 16,000 children die of hunger every day, according to Bread for the World, a Washington, D.C., faith-based organization that advocates for the hungry. That amounts to more deaths in a single year that the total of all the people who died violently in wars over the past 50 years.

“We are very pleased to be part of a commitment, along with other nations, of more than $22 billion over three years to spur agriculture-led economic growth,” Clinton said. That money will be used not just to the delivery of food to starving people but to pay for programs that provide food security for countries where hunger is widespread.

Food security is diplomatic-speak for what the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi said: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Helping poor countries feed their hungry masses is not just a grand humanitarian gesture; it is good diplomacy – a refreshing change from the jingoism and dollar diplomacy of previous administrations.

“Our goals should be to increase the availability of food by helping people in countries produce what they need, to make that food accessible to those who need it, and to teach people to use it properly so that they can make the most of it,” Vilsack said.

Understandably, it is the Obama administration’s efforts to keep Iran and North Korea from joining the world’s nuclear club and end the long-running conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East that grabs the headlines. But it is the shortage – or unavailability – of food that is the immediate threat to global security.

Last year there were food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico and Pakistan. Since 2007, there have been more than 60 food riots around the world, Clinton said. That’s a warning shot that shouldn’t be ignored. The Obama administration’s effort – along with that of other members of the G-8 (the countries with the world’s eight strongest economies) is movement in the right direction.

I’ve seen what chronic hunger does to people in places like the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The long-term strategy for the reducing the widespread hunger there and elsewhere in the world poor nations the resources they need to sharply increase their production of food. That won’t be easy.

For example, there is little arable land in Haiti, a once lush-green Caribbean nation. Trees are used for fuel by that country’s poor, a vandalization of the landscape that robs the soil of vital nutrients needed for agriculture – and condemns millions of Haitians to a life of hunger and despair. A part of the answer to Haiti’s food shortage is the biotechnology (the use of scientifically altered seeds to improve food production) that Clinton and Vilsack said the United States will share with other nations to jumpstart their food production.

But as the deadly food riots in Haiti and other places last year indicate, there is an urgent need to feed hundreds of millions of starving people around the world now – and then teach them how to fish.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Flight attendant on hijacked plane says Hill is no killer

By DeWayne Wickham

The excited voice on my answering machine was that of a woman who had read my recent column about Charles Hill, an American who skyjacked a plane to Cuba 38 years ago.
Hill and two other black revolutionaries were driving from California to Mississippi with a trunk full of high-powered weapons and dynamite the night of Nov. 8, 1971 when they were stopped outside Albuquerque, N.M. by New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom. In the ensuing confrontation, the trooper was shot dead.

For nearly four decades, there was no information on which of the three men — Hill, Ralph Goodwin or Michael Finney — had fired the fatal shot. If the cops had an idea, they didn’t say. And from their self-imposed exile in Cuba, the three fugitives revealed little about the fatal confrontation.

But the 66-year-old former flight attendant who left the message on my phone believes she knows.

Elizabeth Walthall was working TWA Flight 106 the day the three men, members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group, stormed aboard the jet as it sat on the tarmac at Albuquerque airport.

They demanded to be taken to Africa, but the plane wasn’t equipped for a transatlantic flight, so they settled for Cuba, she said in a telephone interview from her home in Pinehurst, N.C.

Walthall said the skyjacking occurred the day before Thanksgiving. The plane was scheduled to fly to Philadelphia, where it was supposed to arrive in time for her to have dinner the next day in her hometown of Camden, N.J.

When the three men came aboard the plane, Walthall said, Hill brandished a knife, Goodwin carried a briefcase and “Finney had the gun.” It was that gun, and what Finney said he’d done with it, that convinced her he killed Rosenbloom.
“I’ve already killed somebody ... I didn’t like it, but I could do it again,” she said Finney told her at one point during the flight when he tried to silence her nonstop chatter.

At another point during the flight, Walthall said Goodwin, who seemed very remorseful, told her of Rosenbloom’s death that Finney “got crazy and he shot him and killed him.”

Why did Walthall want me to know this? Because I’d written that improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could prompt Cuba to send Hill back to the U.S. to be tried for skyjacking and murder. Walthall wants potential jurors to know Hill wasn’t the triggerman.

“I think I know enough that he didn’t commit that murder that it would be criminal of me not to say so,” she told me. “I’m in favor of capital punishment ... but I don’t believe in punishing someone for a murder they didn’t commit.”

When it comes to the death penalty, the passage of time probably will be a greater help to Hill — if he’s ever tried here — than any testimony Walthall might offer. Earlier this year, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill that abolished New Mexico’s death penalty.

But her testimony might help Hill , 59, get a lesser sentence than the life without parole that Richardson said will now be given to “the worst criminals.” With diplomatic contacts between the United States and Cuba on the rise, Hill could soon end up in an U.S. courtroom, where he will need a jury to hear what Walthall has to say about who killed Rosenbloom if he expects to ever see more than the inside of an American prison cell.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, ironic but not undeserved

By DeWayne Wickham

It is more than just a little bit ironic that Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just hours before he met with his war council to consider how many more troops the United States will commit to the 8-year-old war in Afghanistan.

Of the 120 men and women to receive this international honor since 1901, President Obama is one of a handful of heads of state to get it while still in office and the only one awarded that prize while leading his nation in war.

Just two other U.S. presidents received the Peace Prize while in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 for using his bully pulpit to end conflicts in Europe and Asia. Woodrow Wilson got his in 1919 - just months after the end of World War I - for his role in creating the League of Nations, the body he hoped would prevent future wars.

In 1990, a year after the Soviet Union ended it military occupation of Afghanistan, the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave it to Mikhail Gorbachev for permitting the political changes that ended Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe.

So, understandably, Obama was as humble in acknowledging the committee's action,. "I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations," Obama said in a hurried statement from the Rose Garden. I'm sure he knew critics would latch on to the Feb. 1 nomination deadline - when Obama had been president just days - while conveniently forgetting that the vote occurred in October.

But Obama's soft peddling of his honor didn't pacify critics. "I'm not sure what the international community loved best; his waffling on Afghanistan, pulling defense missiles out of Eastern Europe, turning his back on freedom fighters in Honduras, coddling Castro, siding with Palestinians against Israel or almost getting rough on Iran," harped Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C.

How about all of the above? While the decision reeks of irony, the recognition is hardly undeserved. He earned it by deciding to scale down and retool the missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. While the Bush administration said it was meant to shield U.S.allies in Europe and the Middle East from Iranian missile attacks, Russia saw it as a U.S. threat in its backyard.

Scrapping that land-based system for one that relies heavily on ship-board missiles makes Russia less jittery - and the world a safer place. Ensuring this nation is on the right path in Afghanistan before sharply increasing the U.S. presence there is not "waffling;" it's good leadership. It sends the right message about the Obama administration's intention to defeat the forces that attacked us on 9/11 and end as quickly as possible a war he inherited from his predecessor.

Increased diplomatic contact with Cuba, recognizing the Honduran president's claim to office after he was ousted by a coup and acknowledging that Israel isn't always right and the Palestinians aren't always wrong is a better road to a more peaceful world than the ones previously taken by other U.S. governments.

The Nobel Peace Prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses," Alfred Nobel said in his will of award he endowed.

By that standard, Barack Obama has done a lot in a short period of time to earn such a lofty honor.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

38 years later, Hill still struggles with demons

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — By his own admission, Charles Hill is a skyjacker. Prosecutors in New Mexico say he's a cold-blooded killer, too. They want to try the one-time member of the Republic of New Afrika, a Mississippi-based black separatist group, for the November 1971 killing of a state trooper.

Hill arrived in Cuba 38 years ago aboard a TWA flight that he and two other black activists allegedly commandeered at gunpoint from the Albuquerque, N.M., airport 19 days after prosecutors say one of them shot trooper Robert Rosenbloom on an isolated stretch of New Mexico highway.

Back then, Hill and his companions, Ralph Goodwin and Michael Finney, were foot soldiers in a movement that advocated the creation of a black nation — by ballot or bullet — in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The car they were in that night had a cache of high-powered weapons and dynamite in the trunk.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way," Hill told me. "He drew his gun and he was going to kill us."

That's Hill's version of what happened — one that New Mexico prosecutors would no doubt love to challenge in a U.S. courtroom.

In the years since his flight to Cuba, Hill has been a "fixer" for Americans who come to Havana. Fluent in Spanish, he prowls hotels looking for people from the States who need help navigating their way through Cuban society. He knows all the best restaurants and bars. He knows the best places to buy cigars, to rent a car or to satisfy a visitor's offbeat requests.

When a New York lawyer in the hotel where I was staying told Hill she wanted a reading from a Babaloo, a high priest of the Santeria religion that is widely practiced among black Cubans, he arranged it in a couple of hours. This is how Hill makes a living. The money he earns gives him a standard of living higher than that of most Cubans. But his life in Cuba is no paradise.

Hill is a tormented man — tormented, I believe, by what happened on that lonely stretch of New Mexico highway 38 years ago. He doesn't say as much, but it doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out he has demons.

"I'm a part-time alcoholic," he told me when he showed up in a drunken stupor an hour late for a meeting with me. "I'll be drunk for a week and then sober for three or four months."

During my talks with him over the past two years, Hill's alcohol binges always followed talk of Rosenbloom's killing. But when I asked Hill if there was a link between the shooting and his bouts of heavy drinking, he denied it.

"I started drinking because of me," Hill said, slurring his speech and pursing his lips as if to punctuate his words.

I don't buy it.

Hill yearns for the life he left behind. Whenever someone from the U.S. visits Cuba, Hill asks for any newspapers, magazines, movies or music CDs they might have brought with them. Every day, he gets up around 5 a.m. to listen to American radio broadcasts that overcome Cuba's efforts to block radio signals from the U.S.

Hill yearns to return to a place he knows he can't go. He would likely spend the rest of his life in prison if he ever goes back to the U.S.

Hill says he won't do that willingly — and doesn't believe the Cuban government would force him to return.

So he spends his days here in limbo, haunted by the memory of the crime that bought him to Cuba and the knowledge that he can never go home.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Skyjacker says he's in Cuba to stay

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA - When you talk to Charles Hill, you sense that he knows more than what he says about how his time in Cuba will end.

A wanted man who has spent nearly two-thirds of his 59 years on the lam, Hill and two other men skyjacked a plane from Albuquerque, N.M., to Cuba in November 1971. They fled the country after one of them (Hill won't say who pulled the trigger) killed New Mexico state trooper Robert Rosenbloom during a highway confrontation.

In the years since the three fugitives - members of the Republic of New Afrika, a black separatist group - arrived in Cuba, Ralph Goodwin drowned while trying to save another swimmer and cancer took the life of Michael Finney. Hill is the lone living member of the trio wanted for Rosenbloom's murder - a crime for which he thinks he's done his time.

"I paid my price for that. I paid for that with the 38 years that I've been here in exile," he told me Saturday.

The murder and skyjacking charges he faces won’t be satisfied that easily.
In fact, the FBI and New Mexico prosecutors, no doubt, hope the thawing relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro will cause Cuba to ship him back to the United States.

At first, Hill told me he doesn't think that's going to happen. "Cuba is now my home and the Cuban government won't turn its back on me after all these years. I have no worries about that," he said during an interview outside the Hotel Nacional, which was once a favorite haunt of the Cuban elite and American mobsters before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

But Hill has good reason to worry. Late last month, Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, headed a U.S. delegation that was in Cuba for a one-day meeting to discuss re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries. Instead of returning to the U.S. after the talks ended, Williams quietly extended her stay for five days and held unannounced talks with a senior official of Cuba's foreign ministry - the first such high-level talks in seven years.

Despite his denial, Hill knows movement towards normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba doesn't bode well for him and dozens of other American fugitives in this Caribbean Island nation. It'll ratchet up the pressure for his return to the U.S. to face murder and skyjacking charges.

"If it happens, it happens," he said, just moments after assuring me that Cuba won’t return him to the U.S.

"I need someone to write a book about my life,' Hill said.”I need someone to tell my story who understands what could happen back then when a cop stopped a car with three black men wearing Afros.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way. He drew his gun and he was going to kill us," he said of the deadly encounter with Rosenbloom. That's his version of what happened, which New Mexico prosecutors would love to challenge in court.

I don't know if they'll ever get that chance, but I think Hill does. I think, in his mind, he's already written the final chapter of his life. I think he's scripted his ending and is prepared for whatever will come.

"I'll be here forever," he said, with a glassy look in his eyes. "This is where I live and this is where I'll die."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Change is mantra of Cubans, too

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — The anticipation of change here is as thick as the air that drenches a body in sweat in the time it takes to walk a single block in this sprawling city.
Change was the mantra of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign — and it’s the hope of virtually everyone in Cuba these days.
For some, the change they seek is geopolitical.
"We are ready to sit down with the United States to have a discussion about everything," said Josefina Vidal, director of the North American division of Cuba’s foreign ministry.
Vidal, inspired by stepped-up diplomatic contacts with the U.S. since Obama took office in January, told me her government is anxious to broaden its dialogue with the Obama administration.
"We have noticed with the Obama administration that there has been a change in tone," she said.
She cited a long list of what her government wants from America, beginning with an end to the economic blockade imposed nearly half a century ago.
Others hope to achieve change through art, not politics.
Gloria Rolando is a small, soft-spoken Cuban filmmaker who believes Cuba must confront its past before it can secure its future. She recently returned to Havana from Santiago de Cuba, a city in the southern region where she was doing research for a film about one of this nation’s darkest chapters.
"This is a story too many people don’t know about, but it must be told," she said in a barely audible voice of determination.
She was talking about the massacre of members of the Independents of Color, a Cuban political movement wiped out in 1912.
The group, created in 1908, consisted mainly of black veterans of Cuba’s war of independence, which Americans call the Spanish-American War. They pressed the Cuban government for racial equality and protested the mistreatment of blacks across the island. Urged on by the United States — which had occupied Cuba twice between 1898 and 1909 and threatened to reoccupy the island if the protest movement wasn’t crushed — the Cuban government responded with brutal force.
Over a few days in the spring of 1912, the Cuban army hunted down and killed more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color. Successive Cuban governments have largely suppressed the history of this awful event. But Rolando’s effort to make a movie about what happened recently won the backing of the current Cuban government, whch will make it easier for her to finish this film.
Digna Castaneda, a senior history professor at the University of Havana, is more contemplative about the idea of change — but no less hopeful.
"This is an important moment for both the United States and Cuba," she said. "No one ever thought a black man could be president of the United States. That’s a victory your country must share with us. It has brought change to your country and I think it will help bring change to mine."
Cubans are ready for change. What form it will take is still unclear — and less important than its anticipation.
Change is in the air in this country. It’s a subtle breeze that stirs the imagination of Cubans about the possibilities for a better life here and improved relations with its American neighbor.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A ground-level view of economic recovery

By DeWayne Wickham

WINDERMERE, Fla. — A day after leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies met in Pittsburgh to fashion a plan to hasten recovery from the global recession, Stefano Tedeschi, a recent transplant from that city, sat outside his new restaurant greeting a procession of customers.

Located in a strip mall in this western suburb of Orlando, the month-old business — Stefano's Italian Grille — might be a better gauge of how the economy is doing than the recovery plan hatched by the G-20 nations. "I see a steady flow of people going out to places, but they just don't want to spend as much," said Tedeschi. "I have 5-star dining at 3-star prices. That's our economic stimulus package."

The big news out of the Pittsburgh gathering last week is that the near collapse of world economic markets caused governments to promise better financial behavior by their countries. China, Japan and Germany, which sell far more stuff to other nations than they buy abroad, promised to try to reduce their dependence on exports. In return, the U.S. agreed to slash its trade and budget deficits, and try to persuade Americans to save more money.

These and other deals made by the G-20 nations are supposed to speed up the economic recovery — and lessen tensions between the world's dominant economies and those of emerging financial powers. But even before these measures have time to take effect, Tedeschi said he and his wife, Mary Caprino, are already seeing signs of recovery — and indications of changing consumption habits.

Middle-class customers are being lured into his restaurant, Tedeschi said, with novel promotions and good pricing.

"Mary came up with the idea for our 'Girls Gone Wine' night," he said of the promotion that drew more than 200 customers Thursday. For $20, women got unlimited wine and food, served butler style, from 8:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. Guys who came also got the same deal, the savvy restaurateur said.

His menu also lists 25 wines that each sell for $25. "People are spending again, but they want value," said Tedeschi. "I always ask customers what they think of the value they get here. Acknowledgement of the value is a big deal. When you get them to say it, they'll repeat it to others."

Of course, Tedeschi's reading of the economy falls far short of a World Bank analysis. What he says doesn't have the impact of the musings of Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman. But Tedeschi's assessment of the economy is the kind of ground-level view of this nation's return from the brink of financial collapse that too often is missed by the news media — and too little valued by economists.

His restaurant is not part of a national chain. It isn't a regular haunt of Washington insiders, Hollywood moguls or network anchors. It's a neighborhood eatery with a posh look and attractive menu offerings that may have more of a future than the high-priced restaurants that attracted the well-to-do before the bottom fell out of the economy.

It's the middle class that will drive this nation's economic recovery. When these people start spending again — not just on big ticket items but also in neighborhood restaurants like Tedeschi's — that's when the signs of recovery will be most pronounced.

The changes the G-20 countries have committed to are macroeconomic measures that could fix what's broken with the world's economy. But it's in small businesses like Stefano's Italian Grille that the truest measure of this nation's economic well-being can be found.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some attacks on Obama are racist

By DeWayne Wickham

Jimmy Carter is getting a bum rap.

The former Democratic president is being derided for saying racism is the driving force behind the mounting personal attacks on President Barack Obama.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is black... racism still exists and I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this country,” Carter said during an interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams.

Carter was quickly accused of generally branding opponents of Obama’s policies as racists, but he made no such blanket assertion. His slam was directed at a much smaller group of people — those who have made Obama the target of personal attacks.

Carter was talking about the knuckleheads carrying signs that say, “The zoo has an African and the White House has a lyin’ African,” or “‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!” — or the morons who sent out post cards showing the White House lawn as a watermelon patch, and those who created images suggesting Obama is a monkey.

If Carter didn’t make this distinction clearly enough to Williams, he addressed the issue a day later during an appearance in Atlanta, Ga.

“When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States of America as an animal, or a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or when they wave signs in the air that say we should have buried Obama with Kennedy... I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American.”

On this point, Carter is right.

Too many of his critics were quick to say he was generally condemning most whites as racists, when in fact his condemnation was very narrowly drawn. Too many people were quick to all but dismiss race as a factor in the attacks Obama has weathered.

Too few of Carter’s critics were willing to concede that while most of those who differ with Obama do so for strongly held-ideological reasons, some are cold-blooded racists who simply can’t stand to have a black man at this nation’s helm.

Had the former president, who will soon be 85, chosen his words better, the racial flap he unleashed might have been avoided. It also could have been averted if Williams had asked a follow-up question to elicit a more precise explanation of what Carter meant.

But in this supposed “post-racial era,” the most damning thing someone can do is call someone else a racist. Such talk makes people uncomfortable, even if it rings true. Asked by The New York Times to react to Carter’s allegation, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that while the nation is not “racially pure,” he thought that “constantly talking about (race) and reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of restoring civility to our public dialogue.”

Powell’s position seems to reflect the national mood, which Carter breeched when he called the racists among Obama’s critics what they really are — racists. And for this, Carter has gotten a bum rap.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Conservatives attack Obama and slime themselves

By DeWayne Wickham

As President Obama fired up a crowd of nearly 17,000 in Minneapolis Saturday with tough talk of his determination to win passage of a universal health care bill, tens of thousands of conservatives took to the streets of the nation’s capital to protest that legislation.

Obama told his audience the bill is needed because tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance and “live every day just one accident . . . away from bankruptcy.” Many of the people who showed up at the Washington demonstration say a government-mandated national health insurance program is socialism.

The war of words between these two groups is the latest salvo in a conflict whose outcome will define this nation for generations to come.

This country is now at war on three fronts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 200,000 U.S. troops are fighting to rid those places of despotic rulers and install democratic governments. The other battle pits the rear guard of this nation’s badly wounded conservative movement against the nascent coalition of Americans that hoisted Obama into the White House.

Once a powerful political force, conservatives now hold sway only in some Southern and Western states — and even in these places their influence is shrinking. They hope the fight they now wage with Obama will win them a new following of national consequence. It is also just one of the arrows in their quiver.

Some conservative leaders, or their minions, are behind the “birthers,” who argue that Obama’s presidency is illegal because he is not a natural-born citizen, as the Constitution requires. Never mind that even Hawaii’s Republican governor says there is irrefutable proof that Obama was born there. Yet the birthers pander to the fringes of the antiimmigration movement by persisting in their claim.

And Republicans have cynically embraced the Tea Party movement, which objects to the spending policies of the Obama administration and Democratic majority Congress. But it is the fight over a national health insurance program where conservatives hope to reverse their slide.

“I may not be the first president to take up the cause of health care reform, but I am determined to be the last. We are going to get it done this year,” Obama said to his Minneapolis audience, invoking words he used a few days earlier in his nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress.

Sensing that the health care fight could produce a big victory for right-wingers, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, a leading Republican conservative, told some supporters in July: “If we are able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

But the multifront battle conservatives are waging is about more than breaking Obama. It’s about political resurrection. It’s about turning back the clock — stopping the multiracial, multiethnic coalition that put Obama in the White House from ushering in a new, and commanding, U.S. political force.

Conservatives want to keep Obama from making health coverage a basic right because that will strengthen his political standing and hasten their demise.

And, as in all fights for survival, the rules of engagement in this contest would make Attila the Hun blush. So in the days ahead, you can expect that conservatives will find new ways to challenge Obama’s legitimacy and slime themselves in the process.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson: the liar who cried foul

By DeWayne Wickham

The thing that bothers me most about Joe Wilson is not that he interrupted President Barack Obama’s nationally televised address on health care reform to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday with the shrill charge, “You lie.”

The GOP backbencher’s exercise of free speech, for which he quickly apologized, didn’t upset me as much as his arrogance. The odor of mendacity wafting through the chamber came not from Obama, but from the mouth of Wilson, a five-term South Carolina representative.

Wilson’s outburst came in response to Obama’s assertion that “the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” That was a direct rebuttal of a major talking point for congressional Republicans: the claim that Obama’s proposals would insure illegal immigrants.

They reach this conclusion based not on what’s in the health care reform legislation pushed by Democrats, but on what they say isn’t in the bill. They say the president and his fellow Democrats, by not mandating that everyone who gets health care coverage be required to produce proof of citizenship, would open a back door to cover people in the country illegally.

Never mind that federal law already requires employers to verify the legal status of all new hires. Wilson and other Republican naysayers persist in saying the sky is falling because Democrats wouldn’t require federal officials to duplicate that verification process.

And they appear oblivious to language in the House bill that would bar illegal immigrants from getting coverage through a proposed health insurance exchange. The exchange would offer coverage to people who aren’t part of an employer’s plan and aren’t covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

But Section 246 of the House bill makes clear there’s no opening here for illegal immigrants to slip through.

“Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States,” the bill reads.

If you still accept Wilson’s charge that the president lied, consider this: A few days before Wilson’s rant, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, released an analysis of health care legislation moving through the House. It concluded that only U.S. citizens and legal residents could get federal health care subsidies.

So what motivated Wilson?

It’s a good bet his outburst was something akin to the flailing of a drowning man. But it’s not Wilson alone who’s at risk of going under, it’s the entire Republican Party. The GOP seems to stand for nothing more these days than opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency.

To call it simply “the party of no” is to assign a fairly benign reason for its demise. Republicans stumbled to the precipice because they ran out of ideas. But the GOP movement dominated by right-wingers like Wilson is much more nefarious.

It’s the rear guard of the “states’ rights movement” that was the political arm of the Jim Crow era, and the linear successor of Dixiecrats who broke with the Democratic Party in 1948 and found a home in the GOP. At a time when America is becoming more diverse, the GOP looks like — and sometimes behaves like — the White Citizens’ Council that once dominated Southern life.

These are desperate times for the GOP, and desperate people do desperate things — like hurling an insult at the president of the United States from the floor of Congress.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Get bin Laden, then get out

By DeWayne Wickham

"Don't go down that rabbit hole." That's what the voice of reason inside Barack Obama's head should be shouting as pressure grows for the president to sharply increase American military forces in Afghanistan.

There are already 68,000 U.S. troops - and an even larger number of quasi-military contractors - in that war-torn country. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the American commander there, is expected to ask for between 10,000 and 45,000 more troops.

He says they're needed to help stabilize Afghanistan's government and military. That's a nation-building subplot which diverts resources from what ought to be the Obama administration's primary mission: hunting down Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda.

That's the job the Bush administration set out to do. But, it got bogged down trying to punish the Taliban, botching a mission that started as retaliation for al-Qaeda's attacks on 9/11.

Taliban leaders were chased from power shortly after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001. In the years since, first Bush and now Obama have used U.S. military power to prop up the corrupt but pro-American government of Hamid Karzai.

Keeping Karzai in power - and the Taliban at bay - has become an increasingly demanding job for American forces. This side mission has also clouded the judgment of a lot of people who have a hand in defining the role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Instead of committing this nation's military to a generational war against a religious sect over control of a distant land, Obama should give American forces in Afghanistan a single, clearly stated mission: Get bin Laden and his top aides and then come home.

This is an approach that most Americans would back, and it comports with the Powell Doctrine. That's the strategy - first articulated by soldier-turned-diplomat Colin Powell - of using overwhelming military force against a threat to our national security. Such a mission must also have popular support and a well-defined exit strategy.

What Obama shouldn't do is commit more troops to what amounts to a fight to decide who will govern Afghanistan. That shouldn't be America's war because there simply aren't any good guys in that battle. Though the Taliban would reinstate a misogynistic rule upon the Afghani people, it does not differ dramatically from the current government.

Earlier this year, Karzai signed a bill into law that permits Shiite men to starve their wives if they refused to meet their husbands' sexual demands. Under this legislation, women must also get their husband's permission to work outside the home and give guardianship rights of children exclusively to men in the family.

And then there's last month's "democratic" election. Karzai's supporters were widely reported to have made a mockery of the democracy that his government was supposed to have ushered into Afghanistan. According to various news reports, widespread ballot box stuffing plagued the presidential contest.

Some of the cases were so flagrant that the ballot boxes at one empty polling place were full of completed ballots just an hour after it opened.

This is the democracy that American troops are fighting for in Afghanistan, while bin Laden and his top advisers continue to elude capture.

Obama should leave it to Afghanistan's warring factions to decide who will govern that forsaken land, and he should use the sizeable force of U.S. troops already in Afghanistan to wage a war of necessity - against Osama bin Laden.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A bad time for defenders of abused women

By DeWayne Wickham

This has not been a good stretch for defenders of abused and battered women. First, they learned of Phillip Garrido. Then they heard from Chris Brown.

Garrido, a creepy 58-year-old sexual predator, was arrested recently on charges that he held Jaycee Lee Dugard prisoner in his back yard for 18 years. During that time, police say, he fathered two children with Dugard, who was just 11 when he allegedly snatched her from a bus stop in South Lake Tahoe, Calif..

Those children, both girls, are now 11 and 15.

Police say Garrido pulled off this heinous crime while on parole after serving 12 years of a 50-year-to-life sentence for kidnapping and raping a 25-year-old woman in Nevada. And they say that, with help from his wife, he was able to keep Dugard captive even after being sent back to prison for five months for a parole violation.

Garrido's ability to prey upon Dugard even while under the supervision of a parole officer — and, for a time, having to wear an ankle bracelet — has to be disconcerting to those who advocate on behalf of abused women.

And then there's this.

Not long after Garrido was arrested, Chris Brown turned up on CNN's "Larry King Live." The 20-year-old R&B singer was there with his mother and lawyer to try to repair his damaged image and resurrect his faltering career after pleading guilty to brutally beating his girlfriend.

The victim of Brown's attack was Barbados-born singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty, known as Rihanna. According to a police report, Brown bashed Rihanna's head into the window of the Lamborghini he was driving and beat her bloody after she questioned him about a text message he had received from another woman.

Brown copped a plea to stay out of jail. A Los Angeles judge sentenced him to five years of probation and six months of community labor, which she generously allowed him to do in his home state of Virginia. But to get back into the good graces of the radio stations that had stopped playing his songs — and of the fans who had abandoned him — Brown needed to offer up a convincing apology for his bad behavior.

The CNN show gave him that opportunity. But even with his mom and lawyer at his side, Brown made a far-from-convincing pitch for absolution. For all of his efforts to sound contrite, Brown had difficulty admitting to the stark details of the physical abuse he had inflicted on Rihanna.

At one point during the interview, Larry King asked Brown what he thought of the picture of Rihanna's battered face that found its way onto the Internet.

"When I look at it now, it's just like, wow, like, I can't — I can't believe that — that actually happened," he answered. "It's — it just really like took a toll on me."

Oh, really? So who does he want us to think is the real victim here, the young woman he beat to a pulp, or him — for having to see the damage he did to her?

When King asked Brown if he remembered attacking Rihanna, the R&B singer stumbled badly.

"No. I don't — I don't — it's like — it's crazy to me," Brown said. "Like I was just — I'm like, wow."

Wow is right.

Those answers must have made advocates for victims of domestic abuse cringe. Brown sounded more confused than repentant, more startled over what was happening to him than sorry for what he did to Rihanna.

All of this must leave a lot of women wondering what it takes for men who batter women — and for the criminal justice system — to understand the seriousness of this crime.