Thursday, December 30, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 3 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following column appeared in USA TODAY on April 29, 2004.

By DeWayne Wickham

I've always liked Colin Powell. Very soon, I will like him even more.

I liked Powell the day we first met on Aug. 17, 1989, shortly after then-president George H.W. Bush nominated him to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and, as the group's president, I introduced him that day.

In his speech, Powell made it very clear that he owed his success to the service and sacrifices of many unsung blacks. His "appointment would not be possible without the sacrifices of those black soldiers who served this great nation in war for over 200 years," he said.

I liked Powell even more in 1992, when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he interceded to get me on a military charter flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was a critic of the first Bush administration's policy of seizing Haitian refugees in international waters and interning them on the U.S. naval base in Cuba to keep them from reaching American soil.

While Powell surely knew I would not paint a rosy picture of what I'd find in Guantanamo Bay -- and I didn't -- he nonetheless got a reluctant military bureaucracy to allow me to make the trip. In doing so, he was probably mindful of his NABJ convention speech three years earlier, when he spoke of the special responsibility black journalists have.

"There's a dream in this land with its back against the wall," Powell had said, paraphrasing a Langston Hughes poem, "to save the dream for one, it must be saved for all."

My fondness for Powell turned to worry in 1995, when he came under a blistering attack from right-wing Republicans determined to keep him from becoming the GOP's presidential nominee.

"Colin Powell has the political convictions of Bill Clinton and the loyalty to the Republican Party of John Warner," said Michael Farris, one of a band of right-wingers who massed in Washington in November of that year to lob verbal shots at Powell from the safety of a National Press Club podium.

A few days later, Powell announced that he had decided against seeking the Republican nomination. I had mixed emotions. Powell would forgo the chance to become this nation's first black president, but he also would avoid being the standard-bearer of the party of Newt Gingrich.

My affection for Powell grew in 1996, when he gave a commencement address at Bowie State University. The speech made him sound like a Republican cut from the cloth that produced former Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, a liberal and the first black senator since Reconstruction, and not from the gunnysack that bore Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a right-wing conservative.

In that address, Powell made a spirited defense of affirmative action.

"We must resist misguided government efforts that seek to shut it all down, efforts such as the California Civil Rights Initiative, which poses as an equal opportunity initiative, but which puts at risk every outreach program" he said. "It sets back the gains made by women, and puts the brakes on expanding opportunities for people who are in need."

And then on Dec. 16, 2000, when President-elect George W. Bush nominated him to become this nation's first black secretary of State, my warm feelings for Powell helped simmer the rage that boiled within me over the outcome of that election.

Like President Truman's secretary of State, George Marshall, Powell gave new meaning to the term citizen-soldier. In the short span of 11 years, Powell went from being the nation's top military officer to its top diplomat. Though the election of 2000 didn't give me the president I wanted, it gave me -- and the nation -- a secretary of State who, I thought, would rise above the ideological bog in which so many petty politicians dwell.

But during the past four years, Powell has struggled to meet the challenge of my expectations.

His failure to attend the international conference against racism in South Africa and the role he played in the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president, have disappointed many blacks in this country. His mealy-mouthed defense of affirmative action, while Bush was using his bully pulpit to try to end it, exposed a frailty that Powell had not displayed earlier.

I like Colin Powell the soldier and statesman, but I have no fondness for Colin Powell the politician. That's why I rejoice at the news that he is leaving the Bush administration. Now, I think, I'll come to like him a lot more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An anniversary that looks to the future as much as the past

By DeWayne Wickham

I’m not a big anniversary person, but 2010 is a benchmark in my journalism career that has me thinking as much about the future as the past.

It was 25 years ago that I started contributing to the opinion page of this and many other Gannett newspapers – a job which has allowed me to occupy space in some of the most prized real estate in the newspaper industry. And over the past quarter century I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences.

And what a quarter century it's been.

I ate dinner with Fidel Castro in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution; had lunch with L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black elected governor, in a room where Confederate President Jefferson Davis used to eat his meals; and I sat in the cabinet room of the White House sipping soda and nibbling low calorie cookies with President Bill Clinton.

I flew with Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the Air Force plane that returned deposed Haitian President Jean Bertrand-Aristide to Haiti; was a member of the press corps that accompanied Nelson Mandela on an 8-city tour of the United States just a few months after his release from a 27-year imprisonment in South Africa, and flew to Montreal with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a conference on aid to Haiti after it was ravaged by an earthquake.

I was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show twice. And in 1991, I interviewed George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who proclaimed in his 1963 inaugural address “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever.” Wallace told me his racism was driven by the politics of his state, not a feeling in his heart.

I attended the state dinner President Clinton gave South African President Thabo Mbeki. I was in Paris the day White House candidate Barack Obama met with French President Nickolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace, and in the Denver stadium the night Obama went there to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

But with all the ringside seats I’ve had over the past 25 years, there remains much I want to see and do before my column is put out to pasture. Here’s my bucket list.

I want to interview O.J. Simpson, who is serving a 33-year sentence in a Nevada prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. I covered his 1995 double murder trial in Los Angeles. While others still debate Simpson’s guilt in that “trial of the century,” I want to talk to him about his penchant for whistling “If I Only Had a Brain” – a song for the “Wizard of Oz” – during subsequent scraps with the law. I suspect getting to the bottom of that question will reveal more about the former NFL superstar than all the books that have been written about him.

I want to spend a couple days with George W. Bush talking about the things that interest him now that he’s not “the decider” of this nation’s fate. I want to know what it’s really like to go from being the world’s most powerful leader to the afterlife of the American presidency. And I want to know what he worries about now that he no longer gets a daily briefing on the real and perceived threats to this country.

I want to interview Graca Machel, a leading African political activist and advocate for children's and women's rights, who married two African heads of state. Her first husband, former Mozambique President Samora Machel was the unelected leader of a one-party socialist state. Her current husband, Nelson Mandela, served two terms as president of a multi-party democracy in South Africa that he had a big hand in creating.I want to know what attracted her to each man – one of whom brutally suppressed his enemies while the other used a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal his country’s wounds.

These are the conversations that top of my “to do list” – the truth and understanding I want to pursue – as I begin this next phase of my journalism career.

Monday, December 27, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 2 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following Q and A with the nation's first black elected governor ran in USA TODAY on January 11, 1990.

L. Douglas Wilder, 58, is governor-elect of Virginia. On Saturday, Wilder will take the oath of office to become the first black elected governor in the nation's history. Wilder, a Democrat, has held elected office in Virginia for 20 years, the last four as lieutenant governor. Wilder was interviewed by DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY and Gannett News Service columnist.

USA TODAY: Is your election as the first black governor a sign that race is playing less of a role in politics?
WILDER: I think to put it in that context is a disservice to the seriousness of racism. Working to thwart, to defeat and to eliminate racism has been something fair-minded people have always tried to do. So it's never dead, it's never killed. It's a question of constantly working to overcome. I think my election is another instance of overcoming.

USA TODAY: There are many who point to you as the political opposite of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Does that make you uncomfortable?
WILDER: No, it doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it's not a factual appraisal. I have been in elected office for 20 years. I have chosen to hold elected office. I have chosen to effectuate compromises. I have tried to work to build coalitions to get things done. For the most part, Jesse, prior to 1984, has been an activist. There's plenty of room for the two kinds of thoughts, the two kinds of actions, to exist. I regard him as a friend.

USA TODAY: Your name is on the short list of blacks being mentioned as possible vice-presidential candidates in 1992. Do you discourage such speculation?
WILDER: Well, you've seen short lists develop before. It's always a speculation that people like to engage in. I don't discourage it or become upset by it. But I can tell you, I've got more to say prayers and grace over with reference to the issues confronting Virginia today and the leadership that's required to continue our momentum and to make sure that progress and prosperity aren't thwarted.

USA TODAY: Are there lessons to be learned by the national Democratic Party from your election?
WILDER: Oh, I think so. I think national Democrats have got to be more concerned with the perceptions. And the per-ception is that Democrats are soft on crime and weak on defense and will tax at the drop of a hat, and will spend quicker than that. I think Democrats will have to make that mainstream appeal. In the process of doing that, you might run the risk of losing some voters. You might have to lose an election in order to win one.

USA TODAY: Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who intends to run for governor of Georgia, points to your elec-tion as a model for his campaign. Is there a Virginia model?
WILDER: I don't know that there's a Virginia model. I've discussed with Andy a couple of times the race he's involved with, and I think you'll see him going out into rural areas. As I've said to him, Atlanta isn't Georgia. He must, of neces-sity, make an appeal to voters of every description and not be seen as the black candidate.

USA TODAY: Can black candidates successfully appeal to white voters without abandoning those issues most im-portant to their black constituents?
WILDER: Oh yes, without question. You can't be a black candidate and put limitations on yourself. Blacks have an obligation to be the best we can in what fields we choose. And, in that regard, we would become more sensitized to is-sues affecting African-Americans and should reflect that. This doesn't mean, however, that our thoughts are so colored that we would be other than objective.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a time during your campaign when you thought you might not win?
WILDER: Never. Absolutely never. From the time I announced, I never had any question as to whether I would win. I never thought it would be easy, I never thought it would be a cakewalk. But I never had any doubt.

USA TODAY: After your narrow victory in November, there were some who complained that you were slow to make appointments. Were you distracted at all by the recount?
WILDER: Not at all. What I was doing was getting the best possible people I could to serve.

USA TODAY: You come into office at a time when there are demands in Virginia for road construction and higher teacher salaries, but voters also expect you to hold the line on taxes. How will you juggle that?
WILDER: By making certain that we spend what we need to spend, and only that. I believe in fiscal responsibility. We're not in a crisis, we're in a crunch, and I intend for it to be a temporary, short-lived crunch.

USA TODAY: What will be your major priorities?
WILDER: I've dedicated my administration to youth and family. We've lost some family values, we've lost opportuni-ties for seeing young people develop. I will be attacking drugs. I want help in terms of education, reaching out to young people at risk. I want more opportunities for affordable housing, which will strengthen family ties. And I intend to broaden our economic expansion.

USA TODAY: What do you want historians to say about you?
WILDER: That I was governor at a time when I could make a difference, and I did.

USA TODAY: And what do you want historians to say about the people of Virginia who elected you to office?
WILDER: I think that to the extent that the reputation of a state precedes it by so many generations, the people of Virginia have been maligned. It's so fittingly ironic that the same state to which a Dutch frigate came with some 20 black slaves, could, 380 years later, elect a descendant of one of those slaves to be in a position of leading the state. A state that preached nullification and interposition, a state that seceded from the union, the capital of the Confederacy, known then as the mother of presidents, might very well be known as that again.
To see Reflection no. 1, visit my Facebook page.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In the "Year of the Woman" here's a woman to watch

By DeWayne Wickham

In the world of politics, this could be called the “Year of the Woman.”
From the rise of Republican Nikki Haley, who came from nowhere and fought off a scurrilous personal attack to win South Carolina’s governorship, to the surprising staying power of Barbara Boxer, the three-term Democratic member of the U.S. Senate who handily won reelection in California, women dominated the political landscape.

There was Sarah Palin, a darling of the Tea Party Movement, shooting moose on her own reality television show; and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand easily winning election to the New York U.S. Senate seat she was appointed to last year after Hillary Clinton resigned to become Secretary of State. Florida voters made Republican Jennifer Carroll their state’s first black lieutenant governor. And in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell – who once said she dabbled in witchcraft, but never joined a coven – captured national attention while being soundly defeated in her third attempt to win a Senate seat.

But the woman the 2010 election cycle might eventually catapult to the greatest heights is one who barely made a blip on this nation’s political radarscope this year. Her name is Kamala (pronounced Comma-la) Harris and on January 3 she’ll take the oath of office as California’s first female attorney general.

Some people have called the 46-year-old Harris, whose father is Jamaican and mother is from India, “the female Barack Obama.” But to see Harris as that would be to misjudge her badly. Obama was a Harvard-educated community organizer before he waded into the political arena. Harris, who graduated from Howard University – the Citadel of black higher education institutions – was a prosecutor for more than a decade before ran for office. Elected San Francisco’s district attorney in 2003, won a second term in 2007.

While many of the women who crowded onto the political stage this year fit comfortably into an ideological mold, Harris does not. A self-described “child of the civil rights movement” who was raised in Berkeley, the hotbed of California liberalism, Harris touts her record for putting violent offenders behind bars and getting tough on parents of elementary schoolchildren who are chronically absent from class. She also champions programs that offer non-violent first offenders job training instead of jail time and rehabilitation to people released from prison.

“I hope to serve this nation as the attorney general of California. I believe in that old adage that ‘as goes California, so goes the country,’ ” Harris said, rejecting my suggestion that she could be a new breed of national politician. Even so, I think she is destined to land in the nation’s other power center: Washington, D.C.

While O’Donnell writes a book about her most recent unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat (she lost earlier races in 2004 and 2006) and Palin morphs between her roles on a reality TV show star and a right-wing political operative, Harris is expanding her political base.

The transition team she named to oversee her move into the California attorney general’s office is headed by two former U.S. secretaries of state – Republican George Shultz and Democrat Warren Christopher. It also includes former Stanford Law School dean Kathleen Sullivan and ex-Los Angeles police chief William Bratton; and Connie Rice, a highly regarded civil rights attorney.

“It’s an incredible group of leaders and professionals and I’m really humbled that they’ve dedicated their time to work on the transition…I wanted to have people who understand California in the context of the globe,” Harris explained.

It is also the kind of team building that will lift Harris above many of the other women who are part of the political class of 2010. She’s too smart to acknowledge that her sights are set on anything other than the job she’s about to take on. She’s too politically astute to get caught looking that far ahead.

But Harris, I think, is destined to become a commanding presence in the political life of this country, and a major player in this nation’s other power center – Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Obama owes Democrats this much

By DeWayne Wickham

In that awkward moment when President Obama left the White House press room for a holiday party while former president Bill Clinton stayed behind to defend the tax extension deal Obama struck with Republicans, the Democrats’ most vexing problem became painfully clear.

“What we’ve got here,” in the words of the reprobate captain in Paul Newman’s 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, “is a failure to communicate.”

While ceding the White House press room podium was no outsourcing of his presidency, it was an admission from Obama that he’s having trouble communicating with key members of his own party at a critical time in his presidency.

Communication used to be one of Obama’s great strengths. It certainly was in 2004 when the then-Illinois state senator propelled himself into the national spotlight with a speech at the Democratic National Convention that stirred the imagination of those who yearned for an end to this nation’s partisan political bloodletting.

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said in the address that began his transformation from “a skinny kid with a funny name” to political rock star.

And four years later, when his presidential campaign was nearly derailed by some racially charged sermons by the pastor of his church, Obama gave a speech in Philadelphia that convinced millions of Americans he was a healer, not a divider. “I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction,” he said.

But now that he faces one of the toughest tests of his presidency selling the tax deal he brokered with Republicans to congressional Democrats — Obama seems unwilling to communicate directly with members of his political base. That’s a serious miscalculation.

The House Democratic Caucus has objected to the agreement, which gives the GOP a two-year extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Like Obama, House Democrats have long pushed for extending the tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 a year.

In return for giving in to Republicans’ all-or-nothing position, Obama won GOP support for a 13-month extension of emergency unemployment insurance and a college tuition tax credit, along with some smaller and less controversial tax breaks.

Obama should come up to the Capitol and look Democrats “dead in the eye” and explain the deal he made with Republicans, longtime Obama supporter Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told The Hill, a publication that covers Congress. Instead, Obama has used surrogates to convince congressional Democrats that his deal with the GOP is the best agreement he could get a month before Republicans retake control of the House and increase their minority in the Senate.

While Clinton is still a persuasive voice among Democrats, Obama, who met with Republicans on the tax-cut deal, ought to do the same with his own party. If you’re going to ask people to take a vote that might cost them their seats, you might be more persuasive if you look them in the eyes when you do.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Republican slams unemployed with voodoo economics

By DeWayne Wickham

Anyone who was watching when Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., tried to explain why extending jobless benefits to unemployed workers shouldn’t be Congress’ top priority has a right to fear the Republican takeover of the House. His answer was pulled right out of the voodoo economics playbook.

Shortly before the Labor Department reported the nation’s unemployment rate rose from 9.6% in October to 9.8% in November, MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle asked Shadegg, a leading member of the right-wing Republican Study Committee, if extending the unemployment payments that were about to expire would produce a more immediate benefit to the economy than extending a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans?

“It’s the creation of jobs that drives the economy” and it is the wealthy that create jobs, Shadegg snapped. If he’d stopped there Shadegg would have had at least one leg to stand on since an argument can be made in support of that position. But instead, the eight-term congressman pushed his argument beyond the limits of good sense.

“Actually,” he said, “the truth is the unemployed will spend as little of (their jobless checks) as they possibly can.” That’s right, Shadegg, who comes from a state that pays the second lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, said that. He thinks the nearly two million jobless Americans who will lose their unemployment benefits by Christmas if Congress doesn’t extend those payments are more likely to squirrel away that money than spend it.

I think that’s nonsense. Marc Morial thinks it’s “hocus pocus” economics. “The marginal propensity for the unemployed to spend their unemployment compensation is very high,” the National Urban League president told me. “It’s pre-K economics that people will spend unemployment compensation payments on the necessities of life.”

He’s right. An extension of unemployment benefits will give jobless people some badly needed survival funds. That spending will buttress consumer demand for those essential services. And that demand will give employers an immediate infusion of money that will help grow their businesses.

Obama wants to permanently extend the 2001 Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year. Republicans want the tax cuts extended for everyone. To get that, GOP legislators are holding hostage Obama’s request for money to extend the unemployment benefits of people who have lost their jobs during this recession. While the two sides appear headed to a compromise that extends the jobless benefits and tax cut Republicans want, Shadegg’s disdain for the unemployed still makes me want to holler.

He justifies the Republican’s willingness to let the jobless benefits lapse with the nonsense he spouted. He apparently didn’t hear what the chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, the world’s leading provider of research and data to capital markets, told the U.S. Senate Finance Committee back in April.

“It is also important that policymakers provide emergency benefits to those who will lose their jobs this year. No form of the fiscal stimulus has proved more effective during the past two years than emergency (unemployment insurance) benefits,” Mark Zandi said. “This economic boost is large because financially stressed unemployed workers spend benefits quickly, as opposed to saving them.”

But, of course, that’s a no-brainer to just about everyone but Shadegg and his Republican colleagues who are playing political games with the lives of millions of unemployed Americans — and using voodoo economics to justify their callousness.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why lame-duck Congress will approve Obama's arms treaty

By DeWayne Wickham

Despite the public claims that it won’t happen, there’s a very good chance the Senate will approve the nuclear arms treaty during its lame-duck session.

Democrats want it done because President Obama believes America’s national security hinges on getting the agreement he struck with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ratified. Enough Republicans ultimately will vote for it because the quid pro quo Sen. Jon Kyl, RAriz., is squeezing out of the White House is a financial deal he can’t get once the newly elected Tea Party Republicans take office in January.

Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate to ratify the treaty. Democrats currently control 59 and will need the support of eight Republicans to approve the treaty during the lame-duck session. But in the next Congress, the math becomes more difficult when the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinks to 53.

As the GOP whip, Kyl is responsible for mustering Republicans to vote for or against actions that come before the Senate. For much of Obama’s time in the White House, GOP senators have mostly said “no” to anything the president has wanted, a recalcitrance that has helped brand Republicans “the party of ‘no.’ ” But as Obama presses senators to ratify the nuclear arms treaty, Kyl appears to be angling to give the president what he wants in return for something the senator craves.

“I think there is no chance that a treaty can be completed in the lame-duck session,” Kyl told MSNBC shortly after Obama hosted a bipartisan gathering of high-profile supporters of the new strategic arms limitation treaty.

The agreement would cut by nearly one-third the numbers of long-range nuclear warheads Russia and the U.S. can have. It also would permit each country to inspect the other’s nuclear arsenal to ensure compliance.

Kyl is withholding his support — and that of many of the Republican senators he commands — because he wants the Obama administration to guarantee that at least $185 billion will be spent over the next 10 years on modernizing what will remain of America’s nuclear arsenal along with the submarines, bombers and missiles that are used to deliver them.

This surge in spending is a nuclear earmark, the kind of federal spending increase that will be hard to broker when Tea Partiers such as Kentucky senator-elect Rand Paul join the next Congress. “I think we need to have more discussion on it, but it doesn’t sound like I’m probably going to be in favor of that,” Paul said of the nuclear arms treaty during an appearance on ABC’s This Week With Christiane Amanpour shortly after the midterm elections.

Like other Tea Party Republicans who helped the GOP win control of the House and sharply reduce the size of the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, Paul is determined to cut the federal budget, including military spending. While national defense is important, “there’s still waste in the military budget,” which has to be smaller, he said.

Tea Party opposition to earmarks has already forced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans to support a two-year ban on the funding of senators’ pet projects.

So, if Kyl is going to get the huge spending increase he wants in the nation’s nuclear weapons program, he’ll have to cut a deal to ratify the nuclear arms treaty during the lame-duck session, or risk having Tea Party Republicans scuttle such an agreement in the new Congress.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Left unfixed, problems of black males will hurt all Americans

By DeWayne Wickham

As I read the Council of the Great City Schools report on the problems of black males in urban schools, my mind raced back to a day in the fall of 2006 when I took my then-13-year-old daughter to her piano lesson.

Arriving early, we stopped at a Friendly’s restaurant to get ice cream. When the young black male who waited on us said the cones cost $3.32, I handed him a $5 bill. But as he tried to input this payment, his cash register malfunctioned and wouldn’t tell him the correct change.

The young man’s eyes glistened as he mumbled barely audible sounds of his struggle to manually compute the difference. Then, as customers in line behind us began to voice their frustration, my daughter threw him a lifeline. “You owe us $1.68,” she said softly.

Outside the store she asked quizzically: “What school does he go to? He’s a lot older than I am, and he couldn’t figure that out.” He could have gone to just about any school.

“Black males continue to perform lower than their peers throughout the country on almost every indicator,” the Washington-based Council of the Great Schools, which represents the nation’s 66 largest urban public school systems, said in a recent report.

While much of the news coverage of the council’s gut-wrenching report has focused on the failure of nearly all fourth- and eighth-grade black males to read and do math at proficiency levels, less attention has been paid to its conclusion that educational improvements alone won’t fix this problem. What’s needed, the council said, is a “concerted national effort to improve the education, social and employment outcomes of African-American males.”

If you think that’s just a warmed-over pitch for more funding of a liberal agenda, you’re being shortsighted. In 13 years, minorities will be a majority of this nation’s children younger than 18. In just 29 years, most working-age Americans will be black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American. This nation will be hard-pressed to remain the world’s leading economy if a sizeable — and growing — share of its potential workforce is slipping through the gaping holes in our education system.

“It has not become apparent to America yet that we are all in this boat together. In the past it was easier for people to think if something happened in that part of the boat occupied by blacks, it wouldn’t impact the whole ship,” Nat Irvin, a futurist at the University of Louisville, said of the council’s report.

“If people think the nation can continue to do well economically in about 30 years when minorities become the largest population group,” and nothing is done to address the black male education problem, “they’re kidding themselves,” he said.

A comprehensive plan is needed — one that recognizes the connection between the social and economic environment from which these underachieving students come and the educational setting into which they are sent.

The council wants a White House conference to address this crisis. People need to recognize this is a problem that can’t be solved with generalized education reform. It demands a targeted effort to help black males.

If the nation continues this neglect, underachieving black males will produce enough dead weight to sink the American ship of state.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obama should fight GOP, not cave in to it

By DeWayne Wickham

“Don’t wave a white flag, hoist the battle flag.”

That’s what Barack Obama should do in the wake of the drubbing Democrats got in the midterm congressional election. The president should ignore all the hand-wringing advice he’s getting from people who say he must move to the political center after Republican victories gave the GOP control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.

Republicans won by making a hard turn to the right. They excited their base with nearly two years of legislative guerrilla tactics that frustrated the efforts of Democrats to get much done in Congress. They were buoyed by the Tea Party movement, whose call for spending cuts and smaller government resonated with middle-of-the-road voters who saw Congress’ Democratic majority as ineffective.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that Democrats should surrender to the right wing. It is that they should put up a better fight to move their agenda.
Instead of giving in to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $32 million on issue ads that demonized him — and stigmatized congressional Democrats who didn’t distance themselves from the president. Obama should urge wealthy supporters to create a fund from anonymous donors, much like the one the chamber amassed, to challenge GOP dogma.

Rather than kowtow to Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who said the GOP’s top priority should be to keep Obama from being re-elected, the president should put the Kentucky senator in his crosshairs. McConnell will have his hands full trying to keep newly elected Tea Party senators from undermining his leadership. Democrats should do everything they can to pour fuel on that simmering fire.

Of course there are those who would argue that if Democrats follow this course of action, Congress won’t get much done over the next two years. But that appears to be what McConnell has in mind anyway. Scuttling the Democrat’s’ legislative agenda will be a major of part of McConnell’s campaign to unseat Obama in 2012.

To win a second term, Obama must begin now to reinvigorate his base. He has to show voters who put him in the Oval Office that he’ll fight Republicans, not appease them. Moving to the center won’t do that. The political center is pipe dream, a swamp into which the GOP hopes to trap Democrats as it moves farther further to the right. On Election Day, those voters who claim to occupy the middle ground of American politics cast their lot with leftist Democrats or right-wing Republicans, not some centrist political party.

They align themselves with the party they believe has the best ideas and the ability to get something done. Over the past two years, Democrats wasted the victories they scored in 2008 with infighting and a penchant for retreating when Republicans attacked. So while the GOP rallied their its base, Democrats disappointed theirs.

The election results show that “no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here, that we must find common ground in order to set — in order to make progress on some uncommonly difficult challenges,” Obama said at his post-election press news conference.

He’s wrong. What the election results show is that voters will reward a party that fights tenaciously for what it believes — especially when the opposition waffles in the face of such a challenge and appears to reach for a white flag.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Our democracy is threatened by low voter participation

By DeWayne Wickham

ORLANDO — Three days before Election Day, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson sent out an e-mail urging his supporters to place over 50,000 calls the next day to help him stave off defeat. With polls showing Grayson trailing his Republican opponent in the closing days of the campaign, the first-term Democrat was beating the bushes for votes.

Saying his backers had made 50,000 calls a week earlier, Grayson wrote: “Tomorrow, we’re going to top that.” But the great test for Grayson and Daniel Webster, his Republican challenger, was not how many people their campaign workers talked to, but rather how many of them they could get to actually vote.

In the 2008 presidential election that swept Barack Obama into the White House, just 63 percent of Americans who were eligible to vote cast ballots, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

And get this: 2008 was a good year. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1960 when a greater percentage of Americans of voting age – 64.8 percent – took part in a presidential election. Voter turnout in midterm elections, Gans told me, is usually a lot lower.

Despite the seismic shift in the political landscape that pundits predicted the midterm election would bring, Gans held out little hope for a corresponding increase in political participation in the world’s greatest democracy. That’s because one in four Americans hasn’t registered to vote, and more than a third of citizens who are eligible to vote have failed to do so in every presidential election since 1920.

When you dissect the numbers, as Gans does with great precision, it’s easy to understand why he worries about the balkanization of America’s body politic. “It suggests that as voter participation declines our politics becomes increasingly the providence of the interested and the zealous,” he said.

Gans worries about the fraying of the bonds that link this nation’s governed to our government. I worry that government will increasingly derive its powers not from “the consent of the governed,” but from the apathy and quiescence of non-voters. I worry that government by the fringe is fast replacing the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that Abraham Lincoln spoke of so eloquently in his Gettysburg Address.

I fear that as voter participation dwindles, America’s democracy will give way to a government that’s controlled by those who shout the loudest, are the most intimidating or angriest members of society. It’ll become the providence of the winners of an ideological tug-of-war that has little to do with democracy and a lot to do with uncompromising people wanting to have their way.

Sadly, there is no middle ground among American voters. There are just avowed liberals and conservatives and the so-called independents, who waver between these two poles until they pick sides on Election Day.

The outcome of this year’s midterm election, like that of the 2008 presidential contest, will produce short-term gain. But the warring between political parties that follows chips away at the underpinnings of our democracy — an erosion that threatens its collapse.

Greater voter participation can keep our democracy from imploding. It’ll bring more diversity — ideological, racial and cultural — to the voting booth. And it can force the extremes of the left and right to put the good of the nation ahead of their selfish quest for political gain.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tea Party may sink with Republican ship

By DeWayne Wickham

I just read the NAACP’s report on the links between racial and religious bigots and the Tea Party, and there’s nothing in it that makes my skin begin to crawl, but I still think there’s good reason for concern.

“We know the majority of Tea Party supporters are sincere, principled people of good will,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in the opening line of his forward to this 94-page report. In other words, the Tea Party is not the Ku Klux Klan.

Of course, it’s the job of the NAACP, which was created 101 years ago to combat racism, to keep track of things like this and to sound the alarm when it believes bigots have reached a critical mass anywhere in this society.

The Tea Party has some bigots in its ranks, the civil rights group’s report concludes, but there’s no evidence that they have a commanding presence in the group. In fact, Jealous said Tea Party leaders have taken welcome “first steps” to weed out racist images and actions at their gatherings.

That’s the good news about this fringe political movement.

The bad news is that it is less an independent voice for political reform than an appendage of the Republican Party, to which it has attached itself like barnacles to the bottom of a rusting ship. The Tea Party is the GOP’s life raft.

Don’t be fooled by the political gains Republicans are expected to make in the midterm elections. The GOP is on the critical list. The wins it will score, possibly enough to give it control of the House of Representatives, will be short lived. They are the dying gasp of a political party that has become too intolerant and too white in a nation whose population soon will be dominated by Hispanics, blacks and Asians.

Today’s Republican Party looks — and sometimes acts — more like the National Party that foisted apartheid on South Africa back in 1948, than the GOP that won 32% of the black vote in the 1960 presidential election.

It is the nation’s deep-seated economic problems that have given life to the Tea Party movement, which in turn has removed the “do not resuscitate” sign from the Republican Party.

The Tea Party didn’t start out as a wing of the GOP, but in aligning itself and its interests with the Republican Party in the midterm elections, it has effectively become just that. And once in office, Tea Party members (to be distinguished from Republican candidates who were backed by the Tea Party) will have no choice but to toe the GOP line in Congress — or become powerless backbenchers.

And worse, the efforts the Tea Party has made to bring racial and ethnic diversity to its ranks will be severely compromised by the movement’s alignment with a Republican Party that is widely rejected by black and Hispanic voters.

This is worrisome because, as Jealous points out in the NAACP report, “ties between Tea Party factions and acknowledged racist groups endure.”

It’s possible the Tea Party made a smart move in joining up with the Republican Party. As the GOP’s political partner, it could be in the best position to inherit the lion’s share of its followers when the GOP finally implodes.

Or it could have made a big mistake in hitching a ride on a dying star.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Obama's presidency, not Congress, is GOP's top target in midterm election

By DeWayne Wickham

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As I watched Barack Obama walk alone across the south lawn of the White House to his waiting helicopter, I had something of a political awakening.

It was in that moment, following the president’s one-hour meeting with me and nine other black columnists, that I understood the campaign strategy Republicans have cleverly crafted and their Democratic counterparts are struggling to counter. For the GOP, the central issue of the midterm election is Obama.

It didn’t start out that way. Early on, the Republican strategy was to avoid any mention of the president as they probed the political landscape for vulnerable House and Senate Democrats whose defeat would put control of the Congress in Republican hands. Back then Obama’s job approval rating was high and most Americans thought the nation was headed in the right direction.

But after months of withering, right-wing attacks on the Obama-led efforts to bail the nation out of the economic mess that took root when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, and a nagging concern about broken promises among elements of Obama’s political base, Republicans are using the president’s declining popularity to rally support for GOP congressional candidates.

They are buoyed in this effort by those on the rabid fringe of the right wing who chant: “I want my country back,” as if slaves have taken over the planation. And they are financed to a great degree by right-wing donors who pour money — much of it untraceable — into the GOP coffers.

“If the election is posed as a choice between Republican policies that got us into this mess and (my) policies that are getting us out of this mess, then I think we can do very well,” Obama said during his meeting with members of The Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists. “And, frankly, I would feel very confident about our position right now if it weren’t for the fact that these third-party independent groups, funded by corporate special interests and run by Republican operatives, without disclosing where that money is coming from, are outspending our candidates” by big margins.

Obama said the floodgates were opened for this massive infusion of money into political campaigns by what he called the Supreme Court’s “profoundly faulty” decision last year in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling. Now money, gushing in from right-wing donors who want their country back, is fueling Republicans’ hope of winning control on Congress this year — and the White House in 2012.

To stop them, Democrats must energize their base. They’ve got to get young whites and Hispanics to the polls in numbers that are not usually seen in midterm elections by making them understand what’s at stake if Republicans win the Congress.

And they’ve got to make blacks understand that while Obama is not on the ballot next month, he is under attack.

“Our numbers and our ability to organize the grassroots have to counter those millions of dollars” Republicans are using “to try to take this election,” Obama told the black columnists.

A day earlier, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies said a large black turnout could put a big dent in the loses Democrats are expected to suffer in the midterm election.

But that won’t happen unless Democrats make it clear that what is at stake in this election, more than the Congress, is Barack Obama’s presidency.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Obama rises above the racial swamp

By DeWayne Wickham

WASHINGTON — As I sat with a small group of black columnists a few feet away from the Oval Office waiting to meet with President Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but think about William Monroe Trotter.

The publisher of The Guardian, a black Boston newspaper, Trotter was booted out of the White House in 1914 after challenging Woodrow Wilson’s decision to permit the segregation of federal offices in the nation’s capital.

Now, 96 years later, our organization of black columnists — called the Trotter Group — carried the memory of this fiery black journalist with us to our meeting with the nation’s first black president. Trotter would be proud, and no doubt appreciate the irony of this moment.

This nation’s racial divide was a wedge issue for Wilson, a transplanted Southern Democrat who did a stint as president of Princeton University and New Jersey governor before making a successful run for the White House in 1912. He wooed blacks like Trotter and W.E.B. DuBois away from the Republican Party with a commitment to support their demand for racial equality. Back then blacks were wedded to the GOP in much the same way we now support Democrats.

But once he got into the White House, Wilson pandered to the other side of that racial divide by instituting Jim Crow practices for federal workers.
Obama on the other hand tries mightily to rise above this nation’s racial swamp. It was a remarkable coalition of blacks, Hispanics, young whites and Asians — a mix of people who look much more like this nation’s demographic future than its past — that put him in the White House.

Ever conscious of this, Obama refuses to see race — or racism — where so many of us think it can be found.

When I asked during our one-hour meeting with him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House how he thinks the nation should observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War next year, the president didn’t take the bait.

"I think it’s important for everybody to know that history," he deadpanned. "And if it’s presented in a smart and thoughtful and balanced way, I think it could be beneficial. And if it’s not presented in a smart and balanced way, it could end up being divisive."

Not satisfied with that answer, I tried to tie the old fight to one that rages now. "There are some who say when they hear people chant, ‘We want our country back, and they talk about states’ rights, that for them the Civil War is unsettled business," I told the president.

But instead of taking the path of a divider, as Wilson did with Trotter, Obama offered a bridge-building response.

"I think it’s important not to see race behind every disagreement with me. There’s a long tradition of federalism that predates the civil rights battles of the ’60s (and) of the Civil War. There’s a long tradition of suspicion of a powerful federal government that started with Thomas Jefferson and the founding of the country.

"And so, I think that my approach is always to take people at face value. If they say that they’re concerned about a government that’s grown too large and oppressive, then rather than suggest that they’ve got some illegitimate motives, I’ll take that at their word."

"I think that there’s a way of engaging people in their own terms about the things that they care about," he said. "I may not persuade them, but I continue to have faith that over time, if you make good policies and you try to explain to them as clearly as you can," the American people will understand.

I’m not sure he’s right about that. But I think there’s something to his determination not to give in to this nation’s racial demons the way Woodrow Wilson did.

And on this point, I’m sure William Monroe Trotter would agree.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Real life impact of social media bigger than movie

By DeWayne Wickham

If you want to learn something about the impact of social media, you might try discerning fact from fiction in "The Social Network," a new movie that purports to tell the story of how Facebook came into existence.

But if what you’re looking for is a quick primer on the real-life impact that social media have had on our society, you don’t have to spend two hours in a dark theater surrounded by people who may not be your (Facebook) friends. Just type the names Tyler Clementi and Anthony Graber into a search engine.

What happened to Clementi and Graber is a troubling commentary on an individual’s expectation of privacy in a world overrun by technology that all too often peers behind the curtains of our lives. But their stories also are proof of just how much social media have reinforced Marshall McLuhan’s prophesy that “the medium is the message.”

Sadly, Clementi committed suicide after his roommate and another student allegedly used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a sexual encounter the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman had in his dorm room with another male. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, then used his Twitter account to say he would broadcast another live sex act involving Clementi.

Apparently distraught by this humiliating invasion of his privacy, Clementi used his cellphone to make a final posting to his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Moments later he plunged from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

As tragic as what happened to Clementi is, his story has become an international cause célèbre, in no small part because it played out in cyberspace. Clementi complained about the video streaming of his sex act on a Yahoo gay message board, New York’s Daily News reported. And less than two weeks after he used Facebook to bid this life adieu, a Facebook page created in his honor had over 106,000 supporters.

Graber, on the other hand, wasn’t victimized by a peeping tom; he was accused of invading another person’s privacy. The victim in his case, prosecutors in Harford County, Md., said, was the state trooper who arrested Graber earlier this year.

Graber was stopped while popping wheelies and riding at 80 mph in a 65-mph stretch of Interstate 95. The officer who pulled him over, wearing civilian clothes, jumped out of his unmarked car with his gun drawn. Only after ordering Graber to get off his bike did he identify himself as a law enforcement officer.

All of this was captured on the helmet camera Graber wore that day. He posted the video on YouTube a week later. Soon after that, the 25-year-old Maryland Air National Guardsman was arrested and charged with violating the state’s arcane wiretap law, which prohibits recording a private conversation without the consent of everyone involved.

It didn’t take long for Graber’s case to be propelled through cyberspace — or for the Maryland attorney general’s office to say cops who perform their official duties in public shouldn’t have a legitimate expectation of privacy. Eventually, the charges against Graber were dropped.

Just as technology has turned our vast world into a global village, social media networks have given us access to a virtual town square. Clementi and his tormentors jockeyed for space there. Grab-er used it to rally people to his defense.

And because of this rapidly expanding medium, life for the rest of us will never be the same.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Will Obama's promise to talk to enemies work with Iran?

By DeWayne Wickham

It’s hard to imagine that when Barack Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to hold direct talks with America’s enemies he could have contemplated the back and forth he just had with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ok, the exchange between the American president and his Iranian counterpart fell short of a direct conversation. The two men talked at, not to, each other while in New York for the United Nations’ annual General Assembly. But their exchange of barbs came shortly before an expected high-level face-to-face encounter next month between Iranian and U.S. diplomats to discuss the contentious issue of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

It also followed rumored, under the radar, contacts between officials of the two countries’ embassies in Afghanistan that hold out the possibility of cooperation in finding a political settlement to the long-running conflict in that country.

So, while he actually didn’t go mano-a-mano with Ahmadinejad, Obama appears to be making good on his promise, at least in the case of Iran, to talk to this nation’s adversaries – a commitment that probably has him wondering at times: “What was I thinking?”

That question must have flickered through Obama’s mind when Ahmandinejad suggested the U.S. government might have orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people in this country to save a faltering economy and justify a military presence in the Middle East.

Then, Ahmadinejad added injury to insult by claiming a majority of Americans share that view. Nevermind there is no known polling data to support that charge – or even found more than 15% of Americans who agree with it – the Iranian leader didn’t waiver in espousing this idea.

And neither did Obama in rejecting it. “It was offensive. It was hateful,” Obama said of Ahmadinejad’s speech in an interview with the BBC that was broadcasted into Iran.

Ahmadinejad called Obama’s response “amateurish,” as if the two men were involved in a global game of trash talking.

“The power in Iran is segmented. He’s trying to placate the more right wing elements in Iran” by using the U.S. government as a straw man, said James Steele, a political science professor at North Carolina A&T State University.

That’s a plausible explanation for Ahmandinejad’s charge. Another is that he is a mental case.

I’m not talking about the kind of insanity that would get him a one-way ticket to an asylum. But he may well suffer from the kind of mental disorder that is driven by the fanaticism of a religious zealot or fervor of an unyielding ideologue. In fact, Ahmandinejad might actually fit both bills.

Since taking office in 2005, he has used the annual General Assembly as a staging area for his increasingly vitriolic attacks on the United States. Until now, his most confounding attack came when he accused this country of “nuclear apartheid” for trying to deny Iran the nuclear weapons Ahmandinejad has repeatedly said it doesn’t want.

It is the unsettled question of the intent of Iran’s nuclear program that leaves Obama little choice but to keep talking to Iran – at least for now. If the talks next month, which will include Germany, Britain, France, Russia and China, produce meaningful results the exchange he had with Ahmandinejad will a diplomatic blip.

If, however, no progress is made toward proving that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons Obama must decide what to do when talk fails with a nation that has Ahmandinejad at its helm.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Withers a bit player in FBI campaign against King

By DeWayne Wickham

Asked about the recent revelation that famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers spied on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the FBI, Andrew Young downplayed the significance of this betrayal. “The movement was transparent and didn’t have anything to hide anyway,” the King disciple and former Atlanta mayor told The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal.

It might not have had anything to hide, but it had a lot to protect.

From December 1963 until his assassination on April 4, 1968, King was the target of a secret FBI surveillance that, ostensibly, sought to determine whether his efforts to gain fairness and equality for blacks was influenced by communists. But it quickly became what the FBI would later admit was an “unjustified and improper” attempt to discredit King, according to the 1976 report of a U.S. Senate committee that investigated these abuses.

That effort took the FBI far afield of its mission. In 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover approved a plan by the bureau’s domestic intelligence division to replace King with “a new national Negro leader.” After approving it, Hoover said he was “glad to see that light has finally ” come to the unit, which was primarily responsible for uncovering spies and counterintelligence threats.

Withers, who had nearly unfettered access to King and his small circle of advisers, was just a bit player in the FBI campaign. This doesn’t make the treachery Withers is accused of any less despicable, but history would not be well served if his actions weren’t framed in a broader context.

While the FBI never found evidence that King was being influenced by communists — which is what likely moved Young to say the movement had nothing to hide — the FBI’s push to undermine King’s leadership left the movement he led with a lot to protect.

Tipped off about his whereabouts , the FBI bugged King’s telephones and hotel bedrooms for years and tried to use the overheard conversations to pit other civil rights leaders against him, break up his marriage and to get journalists to expose his personal failings. And when the worst of what it got amounted to little more than salacious pillow talk, the FBI continued to press its attack on King — even after his death.

In 1969, the bureau discussed using information about King’s “personal behavior” ” to keep Congress from creating a national holiday in his honor.
All of this might come as a surprise to many people in this country, half of whom were born after King’s untimely death 42 years ago. After being stalled in Congress for 15 years, the King holiday bill became law in 1983. Cities large and small have enshrined his name — if not a memory of the FBI’s vendetta against him — to street signs and schools.

Today, people on the ideological left and right lay claim to the tenets of the “I Had a Dream” address that King gave during the 1963 March on Washington. But two days after King riveted the world with those words, William Sullivan, who headed the FBI’s domestic intelligence unit, called it “a demagogic speech.”

To the extent that Withers provided Hoover and his G-Men with information that allowed them to track King’s movements and peer behind the curtains of his personal life, he must be condemned.

But it is the FBI — not the black photographer who died in 2007 — that deserves the lion’s share of our outrage for what was done to King at its behest.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A civil rights victory Republicans won't claim

By DeWayne Wickham

You can bet it won’t take 142 years for Republicans to run away from this civil rights victory.

The recent ruling by a California federal judge that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is unconstitutional comes in a 6-year-old case brought by Log Cabin Republicans, a fringe group within the GOP that champions gay and lesbian rights. The policy, which allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep secret their sexual orientation, has been in place since 1993.

Shortly before this “don’t ask, don’t tell” decision was rendered, Republicans were consumed with talk of rolling back a civil rights victory they won in 1868 with ratification of the 14th amendment. Among other things, that constitutional amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” who are subject to this country’s jurisdiction.

For nearly a century and a half, Republicans took great pride in claiming this important addition to our nation’s founding document. But their rabid attempts to stem the flow of illegal aliens across our borders have pushed many leading Republicans to call for making the children of these people an exception to this amendment.

Now many of those very same Republicans might soon be doing battle with a wing of their party that has found little space for its members inside the GOP pup tent. But in celebrating his group’s legal victory, Log Cabin Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper directed his initial fire at Democrats, who overwhelmingly back congressional efforts to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The Senate’s Democratic leadership, he said in a partisan shot that seemed intended to forestall the inevitable GOP infighting, failed to schedule a vote on a repeal measure after the Senate Armed Services Committee passed it in May.

That was a weak attempt by Cooper to deflect attention away from the fact that 11 of 12 Republicans on the Armed Services Committee voted against the repeal measure and Arizona Sen. John McCain, its ranking GOP member, threatened a filibuster if it was brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. Cooper also failed to mention that when a similar bill was passed in the House, only five Republicans voted for it while 168 GOP lawmakers voted against it.

Ostensibly, Republicans say they oppose taking any action on “don’t ask, don’t tell” until the Pentagon completes a study on the impact of its repeal on the military. But that’s a smoke screen for their long-standing opposition to gays and lesbians serving in this nation’s armed services. If Republicans win control of either House of Congress in November, there’s little chance that a bill ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” will win final passage.

But even as the GOP lawmakers distance themselves from the federal court victory won by their Log Cabin colleagues, there’s a strong likelihood the question of whether gays and lesbians can openly serve in the military will be decided by the courts — not on Capitol Hill. Even so, a final adjudication of this matter could be years away.

In the meantime, Republicans will be forced to decide whether they want to wage a two-front campaign to deny birthright citizenship to children born in this country to illegal immigrants and fight a rear-guard battle to thwart the efforts of gays and lesbians to serve openly in this nation’s armed forces.

It’s times like these that the party of Abraham Lincoln seems to have lost its way.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Voters should send Tea Partiers to early political grave

By DeWayne Wickham

With Labor Day behind us, the nation’s voters now are expected to treat more seriously the election campaigns they thus far have given short shrift.

To say that up until now Americans have not paid much attention to the election process would be a reassuring explanation for the success of the Tea Party candidates who espouse views that threaten to turn this nation and its founding document upside down.

Tea Party-backed candidates who have won the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Kentucky, Alaska, Utah, Nevada and Colorado harbor views on a range of issues — like immigration, and the Second and Fourteenth Amendments — that ought to frighten thinking voters into the arms of their opponents.

Rand Paul, the Tea Party-backed GOP Senate candidate in Kentucky, blurted out during post-election interviews that he thinks Congress went too far in outlawing racial discrimination by owners of private property. He also said neighborhood associations and private business owners should be free to discriminate on the basis of race. He’s since backtracked on both of these positions with doubletalk that falls far short of what sounds like a true change of heart.

And Paul has yet to retreat from his support of a call for Congress to find a way to undo the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of birthright citizenship. In 1856, the know Nothing Party’s platform called for a waiting period of 21 years before an immigrant could become a citizen. Paul and other candidates, like Utah’s Tea Party-Republican Mike Lee, think children born in this country to illegal aliens shouldn’t automatically become American citizens.

Nevermind that the Constitution says “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” are citizens. They want to undo that constitutional provision. The Tea Party-GOP fusion candidates in Kentucky, Alaska, Utah, Colorado and Nevada back Arizona’s immigration law, which for them is an acceptable usurpation of the federal government’s authority.

And then there is Sharron Angle. In a throwback to the Wild West, the Nevada GOP Senate candidate has repeatedly talked about the possibility that people who dislike the actions of Congress might resort to a “Second Amendment (right to bear arms) remedy ” to assuage their discontent. It’s the kind of warped sense of entitlement that plunged this nation into a bloody civil war.

With the general election less than 60 days away voters ought to focus on reversing the meteoric rise of the Tea Partiers, who are the linear successors to the aptly named anti-immigration, Know Nothing Movement that flourished for a brief time during the 1850s. It elected eight governors, 43 members of the U.S. House and U.S. five senators during that time. But it ultimately collapsed from the weight of its own intolerance and blurred political vision.

The Tea Party Movement claims to be rooted in the traditional — but long compromised — Republican ideals of fiscal responsibility, small government and free markets. But its support of Arizona’s immigration law signals an intolerance of Hispanics that mirrors the Know Nothing Movement’s attempt to keep Catholics out of this country.

Left alone, there’s a good chance the Tea Party will sputter out of existence as quickly as the Know Nothing Movement did. But that may not be fast enough, given the stand Tea Party candidates are taking on issues.

Voters should speed up that process on Election Day.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Jackson, Sharpton, not Beck, have greatest impact with demonstration

By DeWayne Wickham

The important thing to remember about the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is not the debate over whether Glenn Beck hijacked the moment by holding a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

While the conservative talk host’s appropriation of the scene of King’s most famous address offends the spirit of the civil rights leader’s lifelong challenge to those whose lips drip “with the words of interposition and nullification,” it was just a noisy subplot. The day’s more important event came in two other acts.

One, which occurred a short distance from Beck’s rally at Washington’s Dunbar High School, was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The other, in Detroit, was headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Both, like the 1963 march at which King gave his famous speech, were primarily demonstrations for jobs and the dignity that steady work gives a person.

Then, as now, blacks were hardest hit by joblessness. In 1963, the civil rights movement was largely outside of the nation’s political mainstream. It didn’t come in from the cold until after passage of the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s. That’s when people like Andrew Young, Parren Mitchell, Richard Hatcher and Marion Barry traded their marching shoes for business suits.

In recent years, the civil rights movement has been more an appendage of the Democratic Party than an independent actor in the struggle for black enfranchisement. But the decision by Jackson, Sharpton and a supporting cast of civil rights groups, backed by organized labor, to “wave the bloody shirt” in their struggle for jobs for blacks, whose unemployment rate is double that of whites, signals a willingness to publicly pressure a Democratic-led White House and Congress.

“Many of us realize that without the real dramatic impact of some street demonstrations they (government leaders) don’t get it,” Sharpton said. “We’ve got to put some public pressure on them they’ll deal with our issues.”

Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally was a thinly disguised act of political chest-thumping by the “Tea Party” movement, which is a 21st century incarnation of the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Movement of the 1850s. Like its predecessor, the Tea Party will be short-lived.

More long lasting, I hope, will be the reawakening of this nation’s civil rights movement. The King anniversary demonstrations were a call for national action that organizers say will be followed up with other efforts between now and Election Day to rally blacks and their white supporters to the polls. That’ll do more to push this nation’s governing Democratic majority to attack the problem of black unemployment than quiet backroom negotiations.

“Congress — Washington must move from destruction and obstruction to the reconstruction of our economy,” Jackson said in his address at the Detroit rally. And Democrats in Congress have to do more to end the disproportionate impact of this nation’s ailing economy on its core constituency.

Coming as they do in an election year, the civil rights rallies have a greater potential to impact decision-making in Congress than Beck’s Lincoln Memorial appeal to the Tea Party movement. Sharpton and Jackson hope to use the momentum of their rallies to spur their supporters to the polls.

But if Democrats want this vote to hoist them into the winner’s circle — as it has done so often in the past — they must give blacks a compelling reason to do so.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dr. Laura's n-word rant a window onto her twisted mind

By DeWayne Wickham

I’m going to talk about the flap over Laura Schlessinger’s use of the n-word without once calling her the r-word.

The nationally-syndicated radio talk show host said the n-word 11 times during a recent program in response to a black woman who called in to complain about the racially-tinged things some of her white husband’s friends say around her.

The caller was looking for relationship advice. What she got from Schlessinger was a cacophony of the word many blacks consider a hate-filled pejorative, especially when used by whites. Schlessinger rattled off the n-word easily in suggesting blacks are schizophrenic when it comes to its use.

“Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger,” she said. “I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”

But to an advice expert that shouldn’t be any more confusing than women who recoil when a man calls them the b-word; but laugh it off when a girlfriend does the same thing. Or, more confusing than the outrage gays show when a heterosexual calls them the f-word; but treats it as a term of endearment when it comes from another homosexual.

Anyone smarter than a nitwit understands that words can take on different a meaning, depending on who uses them. But Schlessinger’s failure to acknowledge what most first-year psychology majors understand isn’t what makes me think she’s got some bigotry coursing through her veins. It is what followed her n-word rant.

“If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race,” Schlessinger said. That sounds to me like the good doctor is saying the caller should just grin and bear it when her white husband’s friends start talking like they’re at a Ku Klux Klan coffee klatch.

It is Schlessinger’s insinuation that blacks who spend time in the company of whites should expect to be exposed to the racial stereotyping the caller complained about that rubs me raw. And it is Schlessinger’s stereotyping of blacks that makes her vulnerable to a charge of racial prejudice.

Racism is a contorted value system that increasingly takes the form of something far less menacing, like advice from a radio talk show host. It can lurk just beneath the surface when someone says, as Schlessinger did: “a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply ‘cause he was half-black. Didn’t matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise.”

It is to me.

In every presidential election since 1964, “a lot of blacks” – in fact, the overwhelming majority –voted for the Democratic Party’s candidate. And in 11 of those 12 contests that person was white. So to say blacks voted in great numbers for Obama simply because he is black is not only factually wrong, it’s a crass, racial stereotype.

Even crasser is Schlessinger’s attempt to make herself the victim of her n-word rant. She’ll give up her show in December so she will be free to say what’s on her mind and in her heart, Schlessinger told CNN’s Larry King.

I think that’s exactly what she did when she offered that black caller a piece of her twisted mind.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Obama press secretary attacks president's liberal base

By DeWayne Wickham

A day after Robert Gibbs opened a second front in the Obama administration’s political warring, Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine was triaging the wounds inflicted by the White House press secretary.

Asked how the Democratic National Committee can rally Democrats to the polls in November — after Gibbs blasted party liberals for griping about what the president hasn’t done and for not giving Obama enough credit for what he has accomplished — Kaine offered a surgical response.

“On balance, I liked more than I didn’t,” he said, trying to put a good spin on the front page story in The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper that covers the federal government. In the article, Gibbs called discontented liberals the “professional left” and said some of them “ought to be drug tested” for comparing Obama with George W. Bush.

Kaine, who runs the political arm of the Obama administration, faced a tough job before Gibbs’ rant. With polls divided over whether voters are leaning toward Republicans or Democrats in November’s midterm elections, the press secretary’s fragging of some members of his party’s left wing has made it worse. Self-described liberals voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

“The rallying of the troops (Democratic voters) is ultimately a function of the troops understanding what’s at stake,” Kaine said, deflecting attention away from his party’s infighting and focusing it instead on the war Democrats are waging with Republicans. “Our job is to explain to people” why the midterm elections are important. That message, he said, will make the choices “plain and stark” for voters.

An early supporter of Obama’s presidential bid, Kaine cut his teeth in the rough-and-tumble world of Virginia politics, where sniping among Democrats has been something of a blood sport in recent years. Somehow he was largely unscathed. He served two terms as mayor of Richmond, and a single term as lieutenant governor and governor before being tapped by Obama to take on the largely thankless job of national party chairman. His selection might prove fortuitous for Democrats, who desperately need a calming influence at their political helm this election season.

“The nub of what he was trying to express is, we Democrats tend to be impatient people.  There isn’t a single constituency within the Democratic Party who says everything has been done” on the issues important to them, Kaine said. “I think Gibbs just expressed that natural frustration that while we’re impatient, let’s at least acknowledge the progress that’s been made.”

That’s the kind of soothing — though hardly exculpatory — explanation of Gibbs’ harsh words that gives Democrats reason to believe they can keep their coalition together long enough to fend off GOP efforts to win back control of both houses of Congress in November.

Kaine said the DNC will spend about $50 million to get out the party’s message that the nation was in a ditch when Obama took office and that the president’s policies are slowly lifting it out. Kaine points to the passage of the health care bill and financial reform legislation — talking points straight out of his party’s election campaign playbook — as proof of that movement.

That might be a good message in a one-front political war. But to make sure that message is heard, Kaine will have to drown out the sounds of the second front Gibbs opened less than three months before voters go to the polls.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Black movie star's daughter hopes porn film will make her famous

By DeWayne Wickham

While most aspiring actresses try mightily to avoid the casting couch, Montana Fishburne is jumping onto it, proving once again that fame is a drug far too many people seek at any price.

In this case, the 19-year-old daughter of Oscar-nominated actor Laurence Fishburne hopes to become a Hollywood A-lister by launching her film career among the industry's bottom feeders. Her decision to "star" in a pornographic movie being released this month will test whether the path she's taking could be the new low standard for celebrity stature.

Until now, that "honor" belonged to those whose home video of sex with a lover became available for public viewing, often just in time to hype a reality show or rejuvenate a flagging career. "I've watched how successful Kim Kardashian became, and I think a lot of it was due to the release of her sex tape. I'm hoping the same magic will work for me," Fishburne told

Kardashian catapulted to fame after the 2007 release of a sex tape she made with rapper Ray J, a onetime boyfriend. Though she tried to block the tape's release, Kardashian quickly benefited from the widespread distribution of the salacious video. She has appeared in Harper's Bazaar and on the cover of Playboy.She now has an online shoe company, her own perfume line and the top talent website.

But there's a big difference between the sex tape Kardashian made and Fishburne's purposeful venture into the underworld of porn.

Kardashian made a private sex tape with her boyfriend. Fishburne made a pornographic movie, with a male actor, that is specifically intended for mass distribution. Kardashian stumbled into the murky realm of sex tapes; Fishburne jumped headlong into adult moviemaking. Kardashian is a victim who turned her exploitation to her advantage. Fishburne is a troubled young woman who hopes people will see her as something more than a professional sex peddler.

"I'm impatient about getting well-known and have more opportunities, and this seemed like a great way to get started on it," Fishburne said.

Today, it seems - from YouTube to Twitter to the many faces of reality TV - too many young people will sacrifice their dignity and more for a fleeting shot at fame. This young woman is taking that well-worn path.

Understandably, Fishburne's father is devastated. Though he hasn't spoken publicly about her descent into the adult movie industry, he has apparently signaled his displeasure. "My dad is very upset" and "very hurt," she told

I understand Laurence Fishburne's pain. His daughter's movie puts her in league with porn stars Linda Lovelace and Jenna Jameson, not A-list actresses such as Angela Bassett, Glenn Close and Sandra Bullock. Montana Fishburne almost certainly will be best remembered for her public acts of debauchery, not the Hollywood career she hopes will follow.

Though the sex tape boosted the celebrity status of Kardashian, she didn't let it define her. But while Fishburne longs for that same celebrity magic, she is taking an even lower road.

"I am not in porn to get into acting," she told People magazine. "I am in porn because I wanted to be in porn."

Fishburne might, for a time, become the darling of the adult film industry. But precious few women who enter that swamp emerge from it unscathed. Sadly, I suspect, Montana Fishburne will be no exception.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Obama goes on The View, bypasses "serious journalism"

By DeWayne Wickham

The simmering debate over whether Barack Obama did the right thing by going on “The View” centers on whether his foray into the murky ground of daytime television besmirches the dignity of the presidency.

But this concern is a shallow one that turns our attention away from an issue that is deeper and far more troubling.

Nearly 7 million people watched Obama wedge himself onto a couch between Barbara Walters, the show’s creator, and the program’s four co-hosts. The five women, an irascible, eclectic mix of estrogen, didn’t make him squirm during an hour of questioning on the popular program, which resembles more of a coffee klatch than a news show.

Of course, that’s why Obama decided to go on “The View.” With his approval rating sagging badly and his Democratic party hoping to stave off a drubbing in the mid-term congressional elections, the president needs to rally female voters, a critical part of his political base. And “The View” is a good place to go hunting for their support. Women are nearly 80% of the show’s audience.

Obama won 56% of the female vote in the 2008 presidential election. But recent polls show his approval rating among women has dropped below 50%. So as a matter of political strategy, it makes sense for the president to try to reverse this slide on “The View,” rather than on a TV news show.

I know coming from me such an acknowledgement sounds like treasonous talk to those who think presidents should regularly subject themselves to the questions – and judgment – of serious journalists. Even Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former Democratic Party chairman, objected to the president going on the show.

“I think the president should be accessible, should answer questions that aren’t pre-screened, but I think there should be a little dignity to the presidency,” he said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Rendell compared “The View” to “The Jerry Springer Show,” and then added: “I think the president of the United States has to go on serious shows.”

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find truly serious journalists to populate television news shows. The lines between “serious” journalism and news-entertainment has been blurring for years.In 1994, while promoting his latest book, then-CBS news anchor Dan Rather went on the ”Late Show with David Letterman” and exhibited his tobacco spitting skills.

Before being picked to anchor the “CBS Evening News” in 2006, Katie Couric was a guest host of the ‘Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” After taking the job she went on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central faux news show and joked about giving a free colonoscopy to viewers of her CBS show to beef up its audience.

In 2007, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams hosted “Saturday Night Live,” the network’s long-running comedy show. And earlier this year, Christiane Amanpour played a TV journalist in the movie “Iron Man 2.” This month she takes over as host of “This Week,” ABC’s real-life Sunday morning news show.

Given this cross-dressing, it’s not surprising that Stewart, the comedian, was ranked right alongside “serious” network anchors in 2008 when Americans were asked which journalist they admire the most.

You can expect the confusion over who’s a real journalist – and what’s a serious news program – to grow as more and more news organizations try to do journalism on the cheap. Using untrained people to provide video to broadcast news outlets and newspapers’ reliance on “citizen journalists” to help fill the void created by the downsizing of their news staffs blurs the line even more.

The short-term financial gain news organizations get from this watering down of the practice of journalism will, in the long run, make it harder for Americans to distinguish the difference between programs like “The View” and a network newscast.

And it will make it increasingly easy for savvy politicians like Obama to avoid answering tough questions from this nation’s dwindling number of truly serious journalists.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Race issue is kyptonite to Obama White House

By DeWayne Wickham

This never would have happened on Louis Martin's watch.

The political "prestige and the stature of the president of the United States among blacks" was his business, Martin told a senator who in the early 1960s resisted his attempt to get John F. Kennedy to appoint a black to the federal bench.

Helping presidents navigate racially sensitive issues was what the one-time black newspaperman did for Democratic Oval Office occupants from Kennedy to Jimmy Carter. He was their "go-to" guy. Martin had deep roots and was well-connected to civil rights activists as well as black politicians.

It was Martin's job to keep the presidents he served from stumbling into a race-baiting ambush like the one Andrew Breitbart sprung on the Obama administration and the NAACP. The right-wing blogger set off racial shockwaves when he released a 2-minute, 38-second video clip from a nearly hour-long speech that Shirley Sherrod, a regional USDA official, gave to a Georgia NAACP branch back in March.

This craftily selected excerpt, which Breitbart says he got from an unnamed source, left the impression Sherrod bragged about withholding assistance from a white family facing foreclosure on their farm. That was enough to cause the Obama administration to demand Sherrod's resignation - without giving her a chance to defend herself. The full version of the speech showed Sherrod actually went out of her way to help save the white family's property.

But this revelation came too late to save Obama - who apologized to Sherrod days later during a 7-minute telephone conversation - from an embarrassing racial episode that left his administration scrambling to explain why it had been so quick to throw her under the bus. The most likely reason is that when it comes to issues of race, the Obama administration is a basket case.

Its racial paranoia, though not without provocation, is exacerbated by the absence of someone in the president's circle of advisers who has the job - and connections - to protect Obama's flank on matters of race. This is a troubling omission that leaves the president vulnerable to the racial portion of the guerrilla warfare right-wingers are waging against him. Many black politicians and civil rights activists whose concerns get short shrift are frustrated by a White House that handles racial matters like they're political kryptonite.

Obama can't expect his civil rights allies to buffer him from such attacks. The NAACP blamed Fox News for snookering it into calling Sherrod's words in the truncated version of the speech "shameful." That knee-jerk response came before the civil rights group bothered to view the entire video of Sherrod's address to one of its own chapters.

For years Martin helped Democratic presidents avoid such missteps. But in an administration that believes simply repeating that Obama "is not the president of black America" keeps him from hitting the racial tripwire, there is no one in the West Wing with Martin's portfolio.

That's too bad - and might be politically fatal.

In the multi-front war Obama's political enemies are forcing this nation's first black president to fight, he has left his most vulnerable flank lightly guarded. From the moment he emerged from the pack to become a viable candidate his party's presidential nomination, the race issue has been his Achilles' heel.

And if Obama doesn't get someone on his staff soon who knows how to protect it, it'll be his undoing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NAACP should pressure Obama to help jobless blacks

By DeWayne Wickham

GREENSBORO, N.C. — A day after the NAACP passed a resolution calling on the "Tea Party" movement to condemn unnamed racists in its ranks, I stood inside this city's old F.W. Woolworth, the scene of a truly important civil rights battle.

The lunch counter inside the old department store — now the focal point of Greensboro's International Civil Rights Center and Museum — was the scene of a sit-in demonstration 50 years ago that sparked the greatest chapter of this nation's civil rights movement. The protest led to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The effort to end the store's refusal to serve blacks at its lunch counter was launched by four black college students.

They didn't issue a formal statement condemning the act of bigotry enraging them. They didn't try to fight their battle in the press, though their cause was certainly aided by the news coverage it got. Instead, they did something of substance: They walked up to that segregated lunch counter, sat down and requested service. Within days hundreds of people, black and white, joined their effort — a campaign that pushed Congress to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations.

Of course, if there are racists in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP should track them down and call them out by name — not inference. Ferreting out the racists among us is still important work. But the most important civil rights work the NAACP needs to do is in the economic arena.

Two years ago while campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama told the NAACP's convention that the federal government has a responsibility to provide employment opportunities for struggling families.He reminded his audience that Martin Luther King Jr. once said the inseparable twin of racial justice is economic justice.

Back then, black unemployment was 9.9%. Today it's a whopping 15.4%. Joblessness among black teenagers in July 2008 was 27%. Now, 39.9% of black youth can't find work. For most of the past decade, black unemployment has been double that of whites.

But 10 months into his presidency, Obama told USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press he wouldn't do anything special to address the unemployment problems of blacks. "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 to get the economy going again and get people hiring again," Obama said.

When black unemployment rose while the Reagan administration gave federal aid to troubled American businesses, the NAACP said the Republican president's economic policies were a "virus" that would set back blacks for generations.

So far, the NAACP hasn't challenged Obama's refusal to make a targeted effort to close this nation's black-white jobless gap while he has used federal funds to rescue failing corporations. Instead, the civil rights group announced that it will march on Washington in October to pressure Congress — not the president — to create jobs.

Joblessness is certainly a greater threat to blacks than the bigots who show up at Tea Party movement events. But the NAACP is apparently unwilling to push Obama, whom blacks played a big role in electing, to do what they asked of Reagan — so the organization will pressure Congress instead.

That makes no sense to me. The four students who challenged Woolworth's whites-only lunch counter focused their efforts on the root of their problem — and the NAACP should do the same.