John Glen Was a True American Hero. Do You Know Who Was His Hero?

In the last few days many of us read about the death of John Glenn (1921-2016). His life embodied the best of the 20th Century. As a young man he joined the Marines and flew F-4U planes. He flew 59 combat missions in World War II. A few years later he flew an additional 63 missions in Korea.

He was also the first American to orbit the earth in space. He was the last surviving member of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, the first Americans in space. If you haven’t read Thomas Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff you should.

After his career with NASA ended he served his home state of Ohio as a U.S. Senator from 1975 to 1999.

By any measure he was an American hero. But his hero was his wife Anne.

You see, Anne lived much of her life with a stutter. Many of us learned about this from the brilliant movie The King’s Speech about King George VI.

Anne’s stutter was so severe that she could barely speak in front of others. You can read an excellent article from 2012 here. When taking a cab she would write the address on a piece of paper; at restaurants she would point to what she wanted on the menu. Time and again she sought treatments, but nothing worked until she found a doctor in Roanoke, Virginia.

For three weeks in 1973 she worked harder than I can imagine. And it worked. At the end of the program she called her husband. Hearing her speak he cried. And he dropped to his knees to thank God.

In the years since she has become a public speaker. She advocates not only for our brothers and sisters who stutter, but for all those who live with disabilities.

Full disclosure: I’ve always loved speaking in public and the fear of looking at a group of people and feeling paralyzed eludes me. That said, I can only imagine fearing the stare of a restaurant server and needing to point to my choice on the menu.

She’s my hero too.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 1: It's Time to Turn the Page

As I write this it’s been a week since President Elect Donald Trump won the Electoral College 290 to 232.

Many of us, including myself, have spent the last seventeen months telling ourselves and everyone else that this day would never happen. We believed that in the second decade of the 21st Century the American people would never support someone who was racist, misogynist and a xenophobe. Further we would never elect someone with no experience in governing.

We were wrong. We failed to recognize that a scary large percentage of our population had grown so angry at their perception that government doesn’t work for them that they would vote for Donald Trump. We fear that he will attempt to keep his promises and build a wall between the United States and Mexico, deport millions of immigrants, and ban Muslims from entering the United States.

And so what do we do? Many cities, including my own San Diego have seen protests. Much as I sympathize with the feelings of the protesters, I don’t see the point. Nothing anyone can do will change the fact that he will lead our nation from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021. Much as we disagree with the election result, we need to accept it.

But that doesn’t condemn us to our silence. This past May James Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic magazine, decided to chronicle Donald Trumps’s campaign. An admitted Democrat he decided that history would benefit from a “time capsule,” a diary of his campaign. He felt that when history is written about this time, historians will benefit from this type of diary.

I propose to do the same. I’ve been writing this blog since November 6, 2004 and it’s taken many paths. I’ve lived through (and voted for) several presidents. I’ve voted for both winners and losers. But I think this election is different. I think Donald Trump is bad for America and bad for our planet. I’ve created a new category, the “Trump Chronicles” where I propose to keep him honest. For the next four years I commit to regularly blog on his promises vs. his results. I don’t do this because I believe he cares about me and those like me, but because he can’t deny a simple fact: those who didn’t vote for him are still Americans and he is accountable to us too.

Stay tuned.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 39: What Happened?

Several of you noticed that after promising a long night of blogging last week, I stopped after 8PM.

This shouldn’t be a surprise but when the tide turned toward President Elect Trump I just couldn’t keep watching. I went to bed praying for a miracle that didn’t happen. Between then and now I’ve just not been able to sit down and write about it.

I know my experience isn’t unique, but I spent the days and weeks before the election convincing my friends and family that Don would never be elected and that the future looked bright. The fact that I’m joined by politicians, pollsters, and analysts gives me no comfort.

I find comfort in only this: The next four years are going to be difficult and painful for our country, but they are going to be particularly painful for Don. He’s going to find, to his horror, that he can’t fire Congress when they get in his way and that much of what he advocates will cost us dearly (both financially and morally). And he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

Some Days Are Hard to Love

I had plans to write today about the case of Loving v. Virginia. On this day in 1967 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states do not have the right to prohibit marriages between people of different races. It’s called Loving v. Virginia because the plaintiff was Richard Loving (1933-1975). He sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to be allowed to marry Mildred Jeter (1939-2008). Richard was white and Mildred was black and several states (including Virginia) prohibited their marriage.

Because June 12th commemorates the day people of all races could marry the person they love, it’s become known as “Loving Day” and I wrote about this in 2008 and 2012.

Several times I’ve drawn the line from Loving v. Virginia to Obergefell v. Hodges which was decided last June. In 1967 the justices allowed a person to marry whom he loves even if that person belonged to a different race; last year the justices allowed a person to marry whom he loves even if that person is the same sex.

That’s the essay I was going to write until I woke up today and saw the headline that earlier this morning a man walked into the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida and opened fire. By the time he was done, 50 were dead and 53 were wounded. The shooter was also dead.

Pulse is known as a gay club and the shooter recently made anti gay comments. It’s not a stretch to believe that the shooter chose this club because of his homophobia. The phrase “hate crime” finds no better home than this.

So how do we react? It’s not enough for us to call for an end to hate. We need to do more. These crimes continue, in no small part, because good people lack the courage to call out and condemn the hate we see and hear when we see and hear them. We live in a society that celebrates victimization and revenge, where it’s become fashionable to “take matters into our own hands” because “the government won’t protect us.”

From what we’ve learned in the last few hours, the shooter saw two men kissing each other a few weeks ago and became enraged. In his mind this gave him justification to engage in mass murder.

It didn’t. It’s not enough for the rest of us to not want to kill gay people. We need to embrace the fact that people like me (who married someone of the same race and different gender) don’t have the right to decide who is allowed to kiss or marry.

And it starts when people we know make racist or homophobic statements. We need to challenge them only because our silence falsely translates into consent. When the shooter made his homophobic comments I wish someone had called him out. I wish someone reminded him that people who offend him have the same right to love that he does.

And I wish that this Sunday morning had been another boring Sunday for 103 people in Orlando.

Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)

Saturday we received sad and unexpected news: Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep.

He leaves a clear legacy. He was nominated to the Court by President Reagan prompted by the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907-1995). President Reagan nominated Justice William Rehnquist to fill the Chief Justice’s post. He then nominated Antonin Scalia to replace Rehnquist; Scalia was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on September 17, 1986.

In the nearly 30 years since his appointment virtually all of us learned a few things: his views consistently skewed conservative and his intellect was second to none. We view each other across a long political divide (ie, I’m as liberal as he is conservative) but we actually agreed on how we interpret the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Among them is the case of Maryland v. King. This case, from 2012, questions whether law enforcement has the right to collect DNA through a cheek swab from someone who has been arrested (but not convicted). He and I believe this constitutes an unfair search and seizure and violates the fourth amendment.

That said, we have different philosophies on the Constitution. He considered himself an “originalist.” That means he believes that in interpreting the Constitution we should look only toward the intent of those who wrote the document.

I respect that, but I hold more to the philosophy of Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974) who felt that the Constitution was a “living, breathing document.” Earl and I hold that our basic understandings of truth, morality, and how treat each other, develop over time. Just as our understanding develops, so should our interpretation of the Constitution.

My best example lies in Justice Warren’s flagship decision: Brown v. Board of Education. In 1954 the Court held that schools could no longer segregate students by race. It overturned the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson that allowed “separate but equal” segregation.

Originalist arguments must hold that the Court has no right to demand integration because the authors of the Constitution included slave owners and likely none of them would have held that the races are equal. None of them would have supported a decision that virtually all of us find necessary.

I argue for the “living breathing” interpretation because I value progress. I pray that whoever claims Justice Scalia’s seat also looks to progress.

That said, I was saddened but not surprised by the immediate response of the Senate Republicans. Seemingly before the mortuary arrived to pick up Justice Scalia, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that President Obama “had better not” nominate Justice Scalia’s successor because the “American people” should have a say in his successor.

He is delusional on several fronts. He claims that since President Obama’s Presidency is in its last year he is a “lame duck” and shouldn’t nominate anyone. This ignores the fact that President Reagan nominated Justice Anthony Kennedy who was confirmed in the last year of his administration. Furthermore, our Constitution claims nowhere that there are conditions on the President’s ability to nominate a justice. There is no “lame duck” exception.

Finally, and this runs through both terms in the Obama Presidency, the Republican leadership refuses to play by the rules. According to the Constitution the Senate is responsible for providing “advice and consent” of Court nominees. Mitch McConnell, et al, have announced that they will not fulfill their responsibilities.

Simply put, they are in contempt of the Constitution.

The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 4: Donald Trump Explores New Horizons in Offensive Speech

In a previous post I spoke about Donald Trump and the offensive remarks he made about immigrants. I hoped that either he would grow up or drop out of the race.

Oh well. On Saturday, July 18th he was being interviewed by Frank Luntz at the Family Leadership Summit. In the course of the interview Mr. Luntz referred to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) as a “war hero.” It’s kind of a throwaway line as I think most of us view Senator McCain as a hero. He was a Navy pilot who was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam. From then until 1973, when he was released, he endured horrific injuries, botched surgeries, near starvation, and torture. In 1968 the North Vietnamese offered to send him home but he refused to go unless all those who had been POW’s longer than him were also released. The North Vietnamese refused and he was a prisoner for another five years.

By any definition he was a hero. He was someone whose actions encourage others to serve and live with greater courage and distinction. Simply put, his actions made all of us better people.

Enter Donald Trump. For a full transcript of Mr. Trump’s remarks you can look here.

There’s enough offense here to go around but I want to focus on one line:

.. He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you that. He’s a war hero because he was captured, okay?

If Mr. Trump likes people who weren’t captured he’s telling us one of two things:

  1. He’s not a hero because heroes are those people who are smart enough or skilled enough to not get shot down. This is hard to stomach because it’s only the bravest enough among us to go that far into harm’s way. Senator McCain wasn’t shot down over friendly territory or even neutral territory. Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam and there wasn’t a more dangerous place in the war. He stood tall in Hell.
  2. He’s not a hero because he surrendered. American POW’s were treated harshly in World War II because the Japanese believed that honorable soldiers would kill themselves before allowing themselves to be captured. Japanese captors believed that American POW’s were the “lowest of the low” because they were too cowardly to take the honorable route and commit suicide.

So this is an open question to Mr. Trump: If you believe Senator McCain isn’t a hero, is it because of reason #1 or reason #2?

By the way there’s an excellent article in today’s Washington Post. It gives a timeline of both Mr. Trump and Senator McCain from 1968 to 1973.

In fairness to Mr. Trump, while Senator McCain was being tortured by the North Vietnamese, Mr. Trump spent countless hours collecting rent from tenants in his apartments.

It Was Seventy One Years Ago Today: D Day

June 6, 1944 is a day most members of the Greatest Generation will never forget. By 1944 everyone knew that Allied Forces stationed in England would need to make an amphibious landing on the coast of France. Nobody (or at least almost nobody) knew where or when.

The English Channel is a little over 20 miles wide at its narrowest (in the Strait of Dover) and Adolf Hitler, among others, believed the invasion would start there, in Calais. It didn’t.

The invasion instead was south of Calais, near the villages of Caen and Bayeux. They hoped to join their forces at St. Lo.

It was chaotic from the very beginning. The weather was not cooperative and many of the paratroopers were dropped far from where they were supposed to be.

Nevertheless, this day was ultimately successful. The Allied troops were able to claim a beachhead and begin the march toward Berlin. Ten months later the Nazis surrendered and Europe was once again free from tyranny (at least those countries not conquered by the Soviet Union.

I’ve spoken with several of the troops who landed at Normandy that day. Their memories continue to move me to tears. I can’t help but know that the first few waves landed and understood that their jobs were to use up all the Nazi bullets. I remember one man telling me that they were told to get off the transport boat and start marching: if the man next to you goes down, don’t try to help him. Just keep marching. He defied that order when the guy next to him walked off the transport boat and stepped into a divot in the ocean and fell in over his head (and was in danger of drowning). This man told me he defied orders by grabbing the collar of his buddy and dragged him back up.

He also told me that during the transport he saw the soldiers doing several things. Some were praying the rosary, some were staying silent, and some were playing dice. It’s hard to imagine being on a transport, as a teenager or young adult, knowing this may well be the last day, or the last hour of your life. By sunset on this day, 71 years ago, they were all grateful to be alive.

I’m grateful too.

On This Day 150 Years Ago: A Bad Day

My last post celebrated a good day: the day the Civil War ended. Our newly reunited nation rejoiced and nobody was more grateful than our President, Abraham Lincoln. Even before the war ended he was outlining the plan to bring back the states that wanted to secede. He articulated a process that would echo the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son.

In one of the cruelest twists in American history, a man who hated Lincoln killed him 150 years ago today. John Wilkes Booth first devised a plan to kidnap the president as a bargaining chip to force the Union to ransom him in return for Southern emancipation. When the South surrendered on April 9th, Booth’s plan lost its purpose. Booth, a frequent actor at Ford’s Theater, found out on the morning of April 14th, that President Lincoln would attend the play This American Cousin that evening. He took that opportunity to kill Lincoln instead of kidnapping him. The plan was greater than that. He devised a plan where he would kill President Lincoln. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of State William Seward.

George Atzerodt got drunk and didn’t attempt to kill Johnson, Powell was able to wound but not kill Seward, and only Booth carried out his mission.

Booth was shot to death on April 26th. Azerodt and Payne were executed on July 7th (along with Mary Surratt and David Herold)

On This Date 150 Years Ago the Civil War Ended

On April 9, 1865 two men met at Appomattox Court House and signed a document that silenced thousands of guns and ended possibly the worst era in our history.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (1807-1870) surrendered the forces of the Confederate States of America to Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and the Grand Army of the Republic.

Four years earlier the nation was torn apart when eleven states succeeded from the union in an effort to preserve states’ rights and slavery. Neither side expected the other to last long and both expected to win the war handily. The union didn’t think the confederates had the resources or commitment to fight a long war and the confederates didn’t think the union had the desire to preserve the union. They were both wrong.

By the winter of 1865 the nation was in shambles. About 620,000 soldiers died from combat, disease, or starvation. The confederates suffered the lion’s share and its troops were starving. General Lee recognized that he had no choice and asked for terms of peace. He had no idea what that would mean for him or his troops.

General Grant rose to the occasion. He told General Lee that his troops could go home (and not be prisoners). His officers could keep their sidearms. And the union troops fed the starving confederate troops. You can read more about this in an article written by Douglas Brinkley.

In fairness this was not their first meeting. They were both graduates of West Point (Lee in 1829 and Grant in 1843). They fought together in the Mexican American War from 1846 to 1848. As a matter of fact when they met at Appomattox they began to talk about that war.

Libraries have been written about this day but I have two recommendations. Bruce Catton (1899-1978) wrote several books on the Civil War and his last volume recounts the last days of the war. It’s called A Stillness At Appomattox. My next recommendation is a work of fiction that details a man who is walking home from the war. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier gripped me from page one.

We Are All Ferguson

Today is Thanksgiving Day, but many of us can’t shake the images we’ve been seeing from Ferguson, Missouri.

For those living under a rock, take heart: almost none of us had heard of this suburb of St. Louis before August 9, 2014. On that date police officer Dennis Wilson responded to a call of a young black man stealing cigarillos from a local store. Arriving on the scene Officer Wilson found two young men walking in the street, one of whom (Michael Brown) fit the description of the man who stole the cigarillos. Two minutes later Officer Brown had redness and swelling on his right cheek and Mr. Brown was dead from at least six gunshot wounds.

Protests began almost immediately. Many in Ferguson, and elsewhere, believed Mr. Brown was killed by law enforcement because he was a young black man. Had he been white he would still be with us.

This perception was exacerbated by the fact that the city of Ferguson is 69% black (according to the 2010 census) while the police force is 6% black. This is due, in no small part, to the changing demographics in Ferguson. In 1980 the population of Ferguson was 85% white, but by 2010 it had plummeted to 30% (I got this from a New York Times article).

This led to a perfect storm where the majority of the population was black while the majority of law enforcement was white. I call this a perfect storm because it brings back reminders of the history of slavery. From 1630 to 1865 the majority of Africans experienced America as a place of enslavement. From 1865 to the present day many of them have experienced America as a place of discrimination.

This is not universal and the fact that our President is African American gives us proof that we live in a nation that accepts people of different races.

That said we should never forget that discrimination continues to exist and seemingly random events focus us toward this reality.

The events of August 9th gives us just this reality. In the last few days I’ve read some of the testimony of the grand jury (and I encourage you to do the same. You can access much of the testimony on this New York Times article).

It’s a complicated series of events but after reading Officer Wilson’s testimony I believe he acted properly. I think he had a reasonable fear for his life and did what he had to do.

At the same time I continue to understand that much of the protest is justified. This isn’t about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson: it’s about the state of race relations in the United States. And it has to be talked about.

All of my experience of law enforcement have been positive but mine is not everyone’s experience. People of color (of all ages) recognize “the look.” They know that they come under extra scrutiny when they walk into a convenience store and countless of them have had experiences with law enforcement that I would find more bewildering than offensive.

And when someone like Michael Brown is shot to death it feels like an attack on an entire community. I briefly lived in Memphis several years ago, less than a mile from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. I remember speaking with people from the neighborhood who lived there then. They felt that his assassination was the first shot in a war against them and this feeling was exacerbated when they saw National Guard troops in tanks rolling into the neighborhood. The residents of Ferguson certainly had the same feeling when they saw the National Guard roll into their town with weapons from the 1033 program. The 1033 program provides local police departments with weapons designed for warfare. If you’re in law enforcement it’s free stuff; if you’re a minority it looks like you’re unarmed and at war with someone who wants you dead.

We also need to view these events against another reality: race relations in this country are riddled with crimes against people of color where justice was promised but not delivered. In 1963 the civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers was shot to death in his own front yard. His killer was not convicted until 1994. That same year four young girls were killed when dynamite was placed under the washroom of their church. The first of the bombers was not convicted until 1977; two more were convicted in 2001 and 2002 (a fourth died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial). In 1964 three civil rights workers were slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1967 seven men were convicted but none of them served more than six years.

All these cases involved lies from law enforcement that these crimes would be investigated. I ambivalent about this, but I’ve been reading about the charge that the district attorney in Ferguson convened the grand jury with no interest in indicting Officer Wilson.

I write this with a certain amount of discomfort, and maybe that’s the point. The events of Ferguson in the last three months has shown a light on a topic many of us would like to ignore: we’re not done working to achieve true harmony of skin color.

As long as I don’t get “the look” when I walk into a store but someone else does, we’re not done. As long as I see a peace officer and feel protected while another looks at the same peace officer and feels unsafe, we’re not done. And as long as anyone believes the end of slavery 149 years ago means we’re done, we’re not done.