Take the money and run

Stack Of CashLike a lot of other people, President Barack Obama has a New Year’s resolution.

This week Obama pledge to return his focus to the subject of “income inequality.”

According to a story in the Washington Post, the president was a bit short on specifics about how he might achieve his long-sought economic goals. Instead, the speech — coming at the end of a difficult and politically damaging year — was designed to help define a populist argument that he and other Democrats can carry into upcoming legislative battles and into next year’s midterm elections.”

While most everyone can agree that a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots presents serious problems for the country, the real battles will come as various factions argue about how to narrow the gap between the poor and rich. You can expect these battles to line up in perfect symmetry between the two major political parties.

This is the year that I will turn 50. This year is also the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty.”

This is where it gets tricky for Democrats. Five years into Obama’s presidency, and 50 years after our nation declared a so-called war on poverty, there is ample evidence that the war is failing and President Obama’s economic recovery measures are falling short. The poor are still getting poorer and the rich are getting richer.  This is why today’s political battles are about extending unemployment benefits, expanding Medicaid, etc.

An Inconvenient Truth

Republicans will have their own challenges in this debate.

They will be labeled, generalized and demonized as rich, fat cats. No one will talk about John Kerry, the Kennedys or the Roosevelt Family. We will ignore Nancy Pelosi’s wealth. This, as always, will be about politics . . . not about solutions. It will be about Republicans trying to beat Democrats by pointing to failures; and about Democrats blaming Republicans.

It’s just too easy for most Americans to get behind the Robin Hood concept of taking from the rich and giving to the poor without realizing that you are simply relocating wealth.

Since both parties have challenges in this mid-term election year, you can expect a lot of talk about the “top 1 percent.” But here is an inconvenient truth that I stumbled across on Twitter:

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO),  the top 1% of wage earners make 14.9 percent of all pre-tax income in the United States, yet pay 24.2 percent of all federal taxes.This is a conversation we must have. We should focus on making poor people richer, not on making rich people poorer.

The best way to achieve that goal is to 1.) Focus on educating the nation’s workforce. 2.) Stabilize family units 3.) Drive down health care costs and stop focusing on expanding insurance (make health care more affordable, efficient)

Since U.S. poverty rates continue to climb, maybe it’s time to admit we’ve lost the war on poverty. Maybe we need a new strategy and a little less politicking. But don’t bank on it.

If you would like to read or download the CBO report, you can find it here

Another Tricky Day

Angus King (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Angus King (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

It was — at best — a bit of a stretch.

The Maine Chamber of Commerce held its annual dinner and awards ceremony Friday and landed U.S. Senator Angus King as its keynote speaker.

Thus, the event’s theme was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

You probably remember the 1939 movie that made actor Jimmy Stewart a star, especially the famous filibuster scene that portrays the young and somewhat naïve Sen. Smith as an adorable champion of integrity, truth, justice and the American Way.

As the movie began production in 1937, Stewart was only 28 years old, two years shy of the minimum age requirement to be a U.S. Senator.  Angus King, on the other hand, will soon celebrate his 70th birthday.

In the movie, a young, ambitious and principled man from an unnamed western state is reluctantly chosen by a somewhat corrupt governor to replace a deceased senator.

Back here in Real-ville, King’s trip to Washington D.C. happened much differently.  He launched his campaign only days after Olympia Snowe abruptly announced that she would not seek another term in the senate.

King, a very popular, former two-term governor, instantly crushed the hopes of more than a dozen political hopefuls who all dreamed of sugar-plum fairies and huge PAC donations. He adroitly skipped the banality of the primary process by pulling his worn and tattered “Independent” card from his breast pocket.

He quickly raised $3 million, half of which probably came from the sale of a decked-out RV that he purchased to “tour the country with my family” after leaving the Blaine House.

Maine Democrats hung their heads in shame because they knew that they’d been beat. The state GOP, full of pride after taking back the Blaine House and the Legislature a year prior, hoisted up no fewer than four candidates, including three members of Gov. LePage’s cabinet.

Cynthia Dill, a far-left Democratic state senator from Cape Elizabeth — virtually unknown outside the three-mile perimeter that surrounds her home — bravely accepted her party’s nomination for Snowe’s seat and walked dutifully — with her head held high — toward a political slaughter.

Meanwhile, King coyly teased the Maine press corps, saying he wasn’t sure which party he would caucus with if he were elected. The gag order had been issued. The emperor had no clothes, but no one seemed brave enough to say: wait a second . . . dude is a Democrat!  Instead, we lathered ourselves in the premise that Governor King would be “independent” and fix all that was broken in DC.

In essence, King won his election approximately 38 seconds after he called Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to tell her what was what.

Mr. Smith? Hardly.

One hit to the body

So, there we were on a Friday night: various members of Maine’s business community, mingling near the cash bar, sampling local foods and waiting to hear from Maine’s junior senator.

Regardless of how you feel about King’s political positions, no one can deny that he is an incredibly smart guy and a skilled politician. He exudes warmth and confidence. He is likable, smart and often — sometimes painfully so — very human; revealing an unabridged and honest insight of “how cool and fun it is” to be a U.S. Senator.

King is also an exceptional public speaker and usually a diligent student of history.

While working as a reporter, I had the pleasure of interviewing Angus King. I spent nearly 45 minutes with him, one-on-one; and it was damn hard to walk away unimpressed from that conversation. In the years that followed, I also greatly enjoyed hearing King speak at numerous public events.

Therefore, I was surprised on Friday when King — for the first time ever — didn’t mention his favorite historical figure: Civil War hero and Maine native Joshua Chamberlain. Instead, King ran through a laundry list of frustrations about the current dysfunction in Washington. And who could blame him?

Currently, public opinion polling of Congress as a whole is running just three points ahead of Osama Bin Laden’s popularity rating.

King led off his assessment of beltway politics – – quite surprisingly — by delivering a pointed jab to President Barack Obama and his signature legislation: the Affordable Care Act. It’s not like Obama needs another critic these days. The President’s own approval numbers are hovering perilously close to George W. Bush numbers.

As we feasted on our salads, King relayed an anecdote about a text message he sent to his chief-of-staff a few weeks ago, when the healthcare.gov site was rolled out.

“If you want to know what the Soviet Union was like in the 1970s, go to this website because nothing works like it should,” King said. There were a few nervous laughs in the room as people turned to one another with puzzled expressions.

“I’m a supporter of the Affordable Care Act, but boy, have they screwed up the implementation,” King went on to say. “It’s really frustrating that they can’t even do a website right.”

Someone just got themselves removed from the President’s Christmas card list.

Shiny, happy people

King continued his rather populist bashing of DC’s political climate, focusing most of his energy into the sometimes stunning changes of a hyper-partisan Congress.

He bemoaned a lack of civility and expressed frustration about his colleagues who are genuinely worried about re-election in 2014 because of an ever-increasing gap of political polarization on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum.

He relayed a story about his interaction with another member of his incoming senate class, Republican Ted Cruz, by saying he found the conversation “interesting and productive” but drew a laugh when revealing that his wife witnessed them talking on C-SPAN and immediately castigated him with a call to his cell phone. “She wanted to know, why are you talking to Ted Cruz?”

It’s easy to be a populist and a centrist, but King’s story revealed that it’s a lot easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. King seems sincere about his willingness and eagerness to find bi-partisan solutions to our nation’s problems, but his own wife went ballistic when he spent just a few moments chatting with someone from the other side of the aisle — albeit someone from way over on the other side.

King also shared insights about some fellow members of the senate, revealing the human side that is often missed by MSNBC, FOX or CNN. For example, King said he learned that Senator Orrin Hatch, a patriarch of the GOP, grew up literally dirt poor in Pennsylvania. Hatch’s family lived in a home with dirt floors and one wall in their home was erected from a salvaged billboard that Hatch’s father was able to drag home.

Of course, King spent a fair amount of time Friday evening rigorously patting himself on the back, portraying himself as the great white hope in the U.S. Senate. He’s a politician, so it’s to be expected; but he conveniently skipped over some remarks he made just a few weeks ago during the government shutdown.

King, who doesn’t hesitate to show his annoyance, told a reporter earlier this year that Republicans who were stalling implementation of the ACA are “guilty of murder.”

Apparently, King’s pleas for a more civil discourse are reserved for those who disagree with him. It’s also surprising, given his penchant for history, that King buys into the half-cocked notion that our Congress is more hyper-partisan now than ever before.

King didn’t win his landslide election because of money or better television ads. Maine voters are smarter than that, especially when they speak so loudly and clearly.

Maine’s voters sent Angus King to Washington simply because they knew he was the right guy for the job. Even King acknowledges that he has difficult shoes to fill, pointing out the state’s legacy in sending remarkable people to Washington: Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, George Mitchell and Bill Cohen.

Maine’s voters know that Angus King is stubborn, especially once he buys into an idea. They know who he is, and they respect his feisty temperament and keen intellect. They also know he’s a politician and will sometimes disappoint but rarely back down. King has a long road ahead. He’s not Jimmy Stewart.

King is a real person, complete with all the quirks and inconveniences associated with being human. He proudly led the charge to integrate technology into public classrooms, but yet goes old school with markers and an easel board to make his points. It’s damn hard not to like or respect the guy.

He’s human, and thus, flawed. And if you ask him, he will gladly tell you that being a member of the U.S. Senate is pretty damn “cool.”

Mr. King is not Mr. Smith, but if he wants another term in the U.S. Senate, all he has to do is call Chellie Pingree and tell her to wait another six years.

A whiter shade of pale

gun-k92I found it in the most unlikely of places. It was written by the most unlikely of authors. It intrigued me, and its aftermath terrified me.

It was a column headlined: “Let’s talk limits,” a well-written and balanced piece about the hype and rhetoric that surrounds our nation’s gun control debate.

It was published in Guns & Ammo, which describes itself as “the world’s most widely read firearms magazine.”

It was written by Dick Metcalf, a staunch Second Amendment supporter, who had the temerity to opine that reasonable gun regulations do not necessarily constitute an infringement on civil liberties.

“Way too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement,” Metcalf wrote in the December issue

“The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”

Gun advocates went ballistic. They felt betrayed by one of their own.

Jim Bequette, the magazine’s editor immediately apologized to readers for his goal of generating “a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights.”

But that did not calm the storm. Metcalf was fired, and Bequette resigned his post a month earlier than he planned.

Apparently, too many of those who so staunchly support the Second Amendment have little use for the First Amendment.

If gun advocates feel as is if they are being discounted by the so-called mainstream media as “unreasonable,” perhaps they should try listening to other points of view and refrain from shooting any messenger with a set of talking points that don’t align perfectly with their own script, especially when that message comes from one of their own.

.

If you believe in forever

US_CapitolAnd so it was — amidst all this talk of a government shut down, an “unfair” system of health care delivery and a skyrocketing national debt — that my youngest son was assigned to read Animal Farm.

As so many of us learned in high school, George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegorical reference to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Matthew finished reading the final chapter last night, and now it appears that our government is about to end yet another temporary shutdown.

Which political party will be blamed for this fiasco remains to be seen. We’ll likely have to wait a little more than a year for that answer.

Allow me to pause here for a moment to ask you a question. Are you surprised that our elected leaders have behaved so foolishly over the past several days? Really?

Maybe we shouldn’t be blaming Congress. Maybe we should be blaming ourselves.

Consider this. Americans elected a man (Republican) who believes that wind turbines “slow down” the wind. We also elected another man (Democrat) who believes that the island of Guam could actually “tip over.”

We have elected members of Congress who enjoy taking pictures of their own genitals and then sending those pictures to porn stars. We have elected members of Congress who believe the internet is little more than “a series of tubes.”

Take these people, put them together in a room with broad Constitutional powers and tell me that is not a recipe for disaster.

But a penchant for stupidity does not end at the DC Beltway. It extends into every nook and cranny of our great nation.

Despite all the rapid advances in technology, we humans have changed very little over the last 2,000 years.

The popularity of Wikipedia should have been a wake-up call. But still, so many of us keep doing the same things and yet expect different results.

YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. We have access to so much information, yet we operate politically as if children still learn on chalkboards

We all want a chicken in every pot and repeatedly fail to understand the consequences of actually believing political candidates who make such promises.

All politics is local

In my hometown we will soon be asked to choose a mayor and new city councilors.

The lawn signs have begun popping up all over town. The candidates are working their campaigns and making their promises.

This is where it starts. This is where the numbing process begins.

One of our mayoral candidates is promising “lower taxes” and “more jobs.” Although he is short on specifics, I’m almost certain that he also likes puppies, French fries and cold beer. Why wouldn’t you vote for that guy? Sounds good, right?

Most of us are too busy to peel back the layers of such a perfunctory campaign. We have jobs, families and the Red Sox are playing.

Some local folks are upset about property taxes. They are planning to take out their frustration on an incumbent candidate who is seeking re-election.

Sounds smart, right? Toss the bum out. Vote for one of his opponents.

There’s just a few things you should consider. The incumbent has only been the mayor for two years, and the city council decides the budget.

Why is this important? Four years ago, under the leadership of a different mayor, the city’s voters overwhelmingly voted to approve a $35 million bond in order to finally complete a long overdue renovation at the high school. I supported that bond question but sometimes it feels like I am one of the few people who read the fine print on the ballot.

Yeah, taxes went up because we borrowed $35 million to finally fix a project we ignored for decades. Duh!

When I purchased my truck, I drove it off the lot with no money down. A few weeks later, the bank had the nerve to start asking for payments. How arrogant of them! I am going to get a new bank!

Voters are not blaming the former mayor for the tax increase. In fact, the former mayor is today hoping to get her old job back, a prospect made much easier by blaming the current mayor for a situation that happened on her watch.

Our city has several infrastructure problems that need to be addressed. For decades we have ignored and stalled many of these projects to keep taxes low.

The front stairs of our high school were literally crumbling and the gymnasium roof was leaking before we were willing to invest a dime. Stalling those repairs did not make them less expensive. In fact, we stalled right past the deadline to qualify for some state funding for those repairs.

But hey, let’s blame the guy who has been in the mayor’s office for 22 months. It’s all his fault, right?

For 30 years, our city bitched and moaned about a controversial trash-to-energy incinerator that was located in the center of our downtown area. The stench of burning trash became a humiliating calling card for our community. Merchants and businesses complained. Economic development was thwarted and diminished.

The city spent decades in court, racking up huge legal fees in fighting against the facility’s former owner. Every mayor in the last 20 years pledged to get rid of the facility. It was politically popular rhetoric.

Then, after 30 years of complaining and wringing our hands, our current mayor (the new guy) led a team that was able to negotiate the closure of the facility. The problem is now gone. No more wasted time, energy and resources will be spent on that particular problem.

Results matter. Talk is cheap and empty promises are politically convenient.

We have a responsibility to pay attention. Otherwise, the wind may begin to slow and islands could start tipping over.

Obamacare: Myths and Facts, Part I

health-care-debateSome say that the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act ( aka Obamacare) will provide the final nail in an already sluggish national economy, cost millions of jobs and further entrench every American into greater government dependence.

Others say the new law is a landmark piece of legislation that will literally save thousands of lives by making health care more affordable and accessible to all Americans.

Which argument is correct?

Given the hyper-inflated and strictly partisan rhetoric, it’s hard to know the answer and history will be left to judge the law’s merits and flaws.

In the meantime, I will attempt to examine the new law from both sides of the debate and offer some of the research I have conducted about the law. This week’s installment:

Comparison to Medicare: Myths and Facts

Supporters of the ACA enjoy pointing to the federal Medicare program as a primary defense of the new health care law.

This, in my opinion, is a dangerous proposition for several reasons.

1.) Medicare applies almost equally to all Americans, unlike the ACA, which primarily targets those Americans who do not have (by choice or income restraint) access to health insurance in the private marketplace. In fairness to the ACA, however, it’s important to note that the new law does offer universal protection to all Americans from rather abhorrent practices that were all too common in the health insurance industry, especially rescission clauses, coverage limitations and denial for pre-existing conditions.

The insurance industry argues those practices were necessary to stabilize costs, yet it remains difficult to assess how those savings were passed onto consumers. Thus, one of the more popular components of the new law requires insurance companies to direct a minimum 80 percent of premium revenue toward actual health care costs.

2.) Unlike the ACA, Medicare is not a mandate and you are not fined or otherwise penalized for choosing not to participate as a consumer in Medicare. Both programs, however, are supported by federal tax dollars. Supporters of the ACA argue that mandated participation is the only way to ensure an affordable marketplace. They also say that mandating purchase of health care coverage is no different from a state government mandating required liability insurance coverage on registered motor vehicles.

Comparing mandated auto liability insurance and requirements to purchase health insurance from the private sector is a seriously flawed rationalization that does not hold up under its own weight.

This is a matter of definition and it is outlined in law (both federal and state).

In the state of Maine, you are required by law to have liability auto insurance to drive a vehicle, as pointed out by Senator Angus King during his defense of the ACA on the senate floor earlier this week.

Senator King, formerly the governor of Maine, should know that both the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles and the Maine Legislature define driving as a privilege, not a right.

Maine’s law requiring auto liability insurance makes a lot of sense. It acknowledges and reinforces our shared responsibility to be accountable if we cause damage while driving, but it does not interfere with our rights to make choices, to exist as free people. We have the choice not to drive, whether we like to admit or not. Each of us has the option of walking, biking or using public or private transportation to get to and from wherever we want to go.

The ACA, however, requires, under penalty of law, every American to have basic health insurance. There is no choice. Either you have health insurance or the government is going to levy a fine upon you. Period.

Enter Chief Justice John Robert of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Bush-appointee who is considered a conservative. During a challenge to the ACA, Roberts tipped the scales of justice by opining that the ACA is a tax, and thus; the new law does not violate the Constitution because the power to levy taxes rests with the Congress and can be applied to all citizens.

ACA supporters, including President Obama cheered Roberts’ decision and validation of the new law. Strangely, those cheering previously argued that the new law is not a tax. But none of us should be surprised by the process of politics.

While participation in Medicare is voluntary, it should be noted that this federally subsidized form of health care is universally popular among both Republicans and Democrats.

3.) On a final note, Medicare was a bipartisan piece of legislation. The ACA was not. In fact, the ACA was passed via a straight party line vote only a few months before the Democrat Party was about to lose its majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the Senate, all eyes turned to the razor-thin party lines and the election of Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts  who would stunt a filibuster-proof majority.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, the Senate voted 60-39 in favor of the ACA. (Not a single Republican voted in favor, including Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who voted to approve a senate version in the Senate Finance Committee on the condition of subsequent changes she was promised in the final bill.)

The Senate version of the bill was approved in the U.S. House by a 219-212 vote on March 21, 2010 (Again, not one Republican voted in favor and they were joined by 34 Democrats in opposition. President Obama signed the bill on March 25, 2010.

Comparatively, there was a lot less drama regarding passage of Medicare in 1965. Of course, this happened before the internet.

In fact, Medicare was the result of much more compromise and its passage showed bi-partisan support.

In the Senate, 57 Democrats and 13 Republicans voted for passage of Medicare; seven Democrats and 17 Republicans voted against it.

In the House, 237 Democrats were joined by 70 Republicans in support of Medicare; 48 Democrats joined 68 Republicans in voting against it. The law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965.

Those who would say modern-day partisanship is to blame for the party line vote on the ACA, should be reminded that Democrats and Republicans have been able to hash out bipartisan compromises regarding updates and amendments to Medicare as recently as this year. Of course, this dynamic gives credence to Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s statement that the ACA can be “tweaked” as it moves forward.

Next: The financial implications and benefits.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

I don’t always agree with Oralndo Delogu, but when I do – – – I shout it from the rooftop.

Delogu is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a well-known policy wonk. He is also a frequent contributor to the Forecaster group of weekly newspapers in southern Maine.

With the increasingly controversial Affordable Health Care law looming on the near horizon, Delogu’s most recent column moneyraises a point that has been buried beneath the mounds of political rhetoric and stunning complexity of the new law.

In a nutshell, how do we make health care more “affordable” without addressing the skyrocketing cost of healthcare — even in the non-profit sector?

The first half of Delogu’s column focuses upon the fading memories of the Occupy Wall Street movement and all of its garbled rage toward corporate profits. But the second half focuses like a laser on the growing income disparity found in one of Maine’s largest non-profit health care providers. Delogu shares data he uncovered by Mainebiz about Maine Medical Center.

The state’s largest hospital, which is also Maine’s fourth largest employer, recently announced that it would be cutting more than 200 jobs. The hospital blames the usual suspects: uncompensated care, lower insurance payouts, etc.

But Delogu sniffs something else in the air.

According to Mainebiz, Maine Medical Center is the second largest nonprofit corporate entity in the state, with more than $1 billion in assets.

But here’s where it gets interesting:  Of the 27 highest paid health-care professionals in the state, 25 were associated with a “non-profit” hospital and seven of them are or were employed by Maine Med.

Delogu writes: “Based on 2010 salary data, the average annual salary of these seven physicians or executives was just under $1 million . . . one might ask how many hundreds of employees (at these 13 Maine non-profit hospitals) have annual salaries between $636,000 and say, $300,000?

Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest some outrageous behavior in the private-sector world of corporate America, it’s refreshing to see some analysis that is willing to examine other pieces of the puzzle.

Bravo, professor! Bravo!

40 Acres and a Mule

I am a racist.

Part of me is tempted to let that statement flutter alone in the social media stratosphere without context. I am curious about the the reaction, but I am not anxious to begin looking for a new job, new clients, new friends and a new wife.

Seattle Times photo
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.    Seattle Times photo

Of course, I’m talking here about degrees of racism. But isn’t that the way it usually goes with us garden-variety racists?

Originally, I was going to write this post after speaking with an African-American “acquaintance” of mine, a woman I have long admired from a safe and comfortable distance. We have tentatively scheduled a cup of coffee — or maybe a pint of beer sometime in the next few days, when her schedule settles down.

I know of this woman only through third parties. Recently, we have become “connected” on a few social media platforms. I find her writing haunting and jarring.

So why did I deviate from my original plan?

1.) I am intimidated by this woman; and

2.) This week is so timely for this discussion, this musing of mine.  For one, this week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the stirring and famous speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  We also have all the fallout from Gov. LePage’s latest verbal snafu; but more importantly . . .

3.) I am afraid that I would be less than honest if I met her before writing this. Meaning: I would try to be more careful, bend to my “white-man guilt” by being overly empathetic and trying desperately not to offend. In summary, I would probably open the flood gates of bullshit.

A garden-variety racist

Some racists go all in with their prejudice. David Duke comes to mind, and so did the recent antics of a cranky and seriously disturbed retired cop in Sabattus, Maine.

Others take a shot at redemption in their later years. They either soften or gradually see the light; or — more appropriately  — begin smelling the rot of their own garbage. Strom Thurmond comes to mind, here.

I fall asleep at night comforted that I am not David Duke, David Marsters or even Strom Thurmond. I am more like Governor LePage, and more like most people I know.

I am a tiny bit racist. So I get to skate with the hip, the self-aware and the all-so-cool white folks who either ignore their racism or make excuses for it.

It is not excusable.

Physician, heal thyself

I had this race epiphany a few days ago while reading a media report about Governor LePage and his attempt to “clarify” and explain allegations made by anonymous members of his own party. Essentially, LePage denied ever saying that President Obama doesn’t like white people.

The governor’s defense centered upon his assertion that President Obama has repeatedly missed opportunities to heal our nation’s racial tensions, fumbling or ignoring golden opportunities to bring white and black people closer together.

For just one bat-shit crazy second, that explanation almost made sense to me. It was then that I could no longer deny that I was a racist.

Now, before I bring down the full weight and wrath of those ultimately loyal to LePage, allow me to back up.

Maine%20Governor%20Paul%20LePage(1)The governor was a little bit right in his criticism of President Obama on this front. But here’s the problem, LePage almost three years ago abdicated the moral high ground when it comes to easing racial tensions.

Most of us remember that cold day in January 2011 when local and national media went into overdrive regarding LePage’s alleged racism. He didn’t just decline an invitation to attend the annual Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Portland. Instead, he proudly (with what would become his trademark bluster) told reporters that “the NAACP can kiss my butt.”

If LePage is worried about missed opportunities to heal racial divides, he’s got a damn funny way of showing it.

Consider what he could have said. “I’m not sure why you folks in the media are making such a big deal about this. I simply declined an invitation because my schedule is full, but lets all remember that I consistently attended local MLK breakfast events in Waterville during my tenure as mayor. I also have taken a young African-American man into my home and helped raise him as a member of my own family. I strongly resent any implication that I am a racist. Let’s get busy talking about the important issues we are facing in Maine government.”

Nope, LePage could not resist coming on strong, full of sound, fury and arrogance. He began a path of allowing his pride to trump his greed.

How do we move forward?

I do not think our governor is a more successful version of David Duke, but I do think he has missed plenty of opportunities to talk in a meaningful way about an issue that is still very relevant in today’s world — even 50 years after the delivery of the I Have A Dream speech.

So, I am also a little bit racist, but I am also a little bit greedy, a little bit of a misogynist and a little too quick with anger.

Unless I am willing to look at these things, to painstaking examine my own heart, I have no authority to opine on these issues. We must be willing to confront the things we don’t like . . . even those things that lurk in the darkness of our own souls. Otherwise, the garbage festers and it can grow and infect other parts of our being.

As I said before, these things are not excusable but there are reasons for their development in even the best of people. Part of it is our cultural and genetic pre-disposition to assimilate within the familiar.

In this way, I suspect strongly that I am not alone; that the majority of folks I know are just a tiny, tiny bit racist. We can work on it if we can be honest about it. If we start with the man in the mirror.

White-man guilt

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States embarked upon a period of “Reconstruction.” Today, we would call in FEMA and lease some trailers.

The concept of giving former slaves 40 acres and a mule as reparation for their slavery was short-lived. Much of that land was eventually returned to its antebellum owners. From time-to-time, some guilt-ridden white folks and a lot of still angry black folks talk about the concept of ‘reparations” as the only way to heal the racial divide. Affirmative-Action programs were apparently a lot easier to digest.

Only weeks before being sworn-in, President Jimmy Carter granted an interview to Playboy magazine. It was the November 1976 issue. I know this because I was 12 years old and was an avid reader of my father’s hidden stacks of Playboy magazines.

Patty McGuire was that month’s centerfold. She was later named Playmate of the Year in 1977. She liked CB radios. I desperately wanted a CB radio back then. I saw Patti, and I knew it was a match made in heaven . . . but I digress.

Carter was trying to heal the cynicism of a post-Watergate nation by being painfully honest. In that issue of Playboy, he confessed to “having lust in my heart.”

Unfortunately, Carter had a lot of other tasks at his feet, many of which did not work out so well. But confessing lust in a Playboy interview is sort of like criticizing missed opportunities for racial healing after telling the Maine chapter of the NAACP to kiss your butt.

The message gets lost.

Bury my heart

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
 
407838_583866058296151_931822225_nA Facebook friend reminded me that it was 122 years ago today, on December 28,1890, that more than 300, unarmed  native Americans were slaughtered in South Dakota by U.S. Forces. The dead included women and children, and this travesty is recanted in horrific detail through the pages of  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
 
Colonel James Forsyth was later charged with The Killing of Innocents, but was exonerated and promoted. 22 of the soldiers that day were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Do you remember being taught that lesson in public school? Probably not. It’s a piece of American history we like to forget.
 
 “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. My people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” -Black Elk (1863-1950); Oglala Holy man.
 
The Lakota and other tribes were labeled as terrorists in Washington, DC, long before we created the Patriot Act to keep ourselves “safe” from terrorists.
 
As we once again debate how to keep American citizens safe, many people dismiss the quaint notion of government tyranny. Tyranny happens in other places, not here…not now…they say.
 
Generally, these believers in government authority and the government’s sole discretion in keeping us safe are white folk who rarely consider the downsides of an unbalanced distribution of force and power. These believers in government sanctity forget about the rather recent atrocities in Dafur, Serbia, Libya or Nazi Germany.
 
I spent the summer of 1987 working on the Cheyenne River Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Back then, I thought  wanted to be a priest.
 
I was 23 and full of my self as most 23-year-old men are. I strived to be sensitive, to be politically correct. The wise Lakota who surrounded me would gently smile when I used the words, “Native American.”
 
kidsOne night, while assigned to sit with a critically ill man (DeSmit Holy Bear) in the reservation hospital, I sensed his nephew needed someone to talk to, someone to work through his grief. John and I were about the same age. He appeared to be struggling with the pending loss of his beloved uncle.
 
I tried my best to be empathetic, compassionate. I desperately wanted him to know that I was enlightened and not a typical white man; someone who could listen and console him without judgment or prejudice. “I have no idea how hard it must be to be a Native American,” I offered. “To see your entire culture decimated, to face daily discrimination and humiliation.”
 
He slowly turned to me and paused before replying. In a low voice and with clear eyes, he said: “Give me a fucking break. We are Indians, and don’t you ever forget it. If you think you can assuage the sins of your past with a couple of words, you are even dumber than I previously thought.”
 
He stepped outside to have a cigarette. His uncle died two days later, and I will never forget that conversation.
 
So here are two pictures. One is from 122 years ago; the other is from 1987.
 
Take a good look, and you tell me… have we learned anything from history?

Time out

mourningWe are all, it seems, struggling to come to terms with what happened yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut.

As the awful news began to unfold, I urged friends and family members to pause and refrain from using this tragedy to further support political/policy agendas. I was unable, –am still unable — to comprehend what happened. It seems impossible to shoulder the weight of this horrific tragedy.

“Today is not the day to have these conversations,” I wrote on my Facebook page yesterday. “Today is a day to grieve and to support one another.”

Those words strike me as empty, hollow. . .meaningless. Over the last 24 hours, our nation has experienced a range of emotions: rage, grief, shock, fear and despair.

So, how do we move forward? How do we reconcile those feelings, the raw emotions that carry us into another day?

Understandably, many of us are searching for answers, for meaning. We have different opinions, and I submit that those opinions are all vital, all necessary for the larger conversation that we can no longer ignore.

The response to my Facebook post was generally respectful. Some people, however, chided me..saying yesterday, the day before, last year was the time for that conversation. I agree with those well-intentioned Facebook friends of mine. I only wonder if they will now join me in that conversation.

Four days after the Tuscon shootings, I penned an op-ed that was published in the Portland Press Herald. I got lots of supportive feedback and some nice comments for my willingness to speak publicly about my own mental health issues and how those issues affect each and every one of us, but we all moved on to more important things . . . like arguing about Rick Santorum, Wal-Mart and Honey Boo-boo.

On July 23, I wrote another blog post about the peril of ignoring mental health issues and focusing on gun control in response to the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. But we quickly moved on . . .

As I struggle to find light in this time of darkness, there is only one small measure of comfort: for the first time, I am seeing and hearing numerous people address mental health as one of the core issues for that conversation. More people, it seems, are ready to have “that” conversation.

But it is not the only issue we must be willing to confront. I consider myself an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, but today I am left with questions for which there seem to be no easy or convenient answers. I loathe knee-jerk reactions, but I am willing to reconsider all of my opinions so that I can join that larger conversation in a meaningful and productive way.

Ironically. as we all began dealing with the tragic fallout from yesterday’s rampage, another new story from half way across the globe was unfolding.

Questions about China’s inadequate mental health system are increasing in the wake of multiple incidents of school children being attacked and killed by knife-wielding, mentally ill people. Over the last few years, numerous school children have been killed and scores more injured by knife-wielding mad men.

That is not an argument against gun control. That is an argument that shows gun control is not the entire solution.

News commentator Bob Costas didn’t hesitate to offer his opinion about gun control less than 24 hours after an NFL player shot and killed his girlfriend before shooting himself in front of his coach. Just one week later, another NFL player was killed because he was riding in a car with a drunken teammate. It’s no surprise that there was no call for tighter alcohol controls.

Railing for gun control may help us feel a bit safer; but if we don’t have that conversation across a larger context then we can expect more of the same . . . senseless violence that shocks and angers, but then slowly fades away into distant memory.

On a final point. How do we ensure better background checks to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing or obtaining firearms?

Should someone like me, someone who struggles with depression and has been hospitalized sacrifice our privacy and have our health care records disclosed? Should family members of mentally ill people lose or sacrifice some of their rights under the Constitution?

I do not know the answers to those questions. But I do know, there is no way to guarantee safety. We live in a dangerous world, and if we are willing to sacrifice liberty for security (and considering the Patriot Act, Department of Homeland Security, and long shoeless TSA lines, we are) we may end up with something we never bargained for.

The Crying Game

A couple of days ago, an exhausted and emotional President Obama visited privately with some of his campaign workers and reportedly got pretty choked up. At one point, the president’s tears began to flow.

For some reason, the White House decided to release this rare footage, despite the fact that it was recorded at an event the media was not allowed to attend.

The reaction? Pundits across the globe praised the president’s candor, his show of genuine appreciation. In fact, President Obama’s crying video has gone viral, attracting more than 1.7 million hits on the campaign’s You Tube channel.

Now let’s compare this to the public reaction from just two years ago, when Republican House Speaker John Boehner cried while being interviewed on 60 Minutes about his new role as Speaker of the House…..well, you remember, right?

Here’s what Bill Maher had to say:

“Did you see the new speaker of the House John Boeher cry? He cries a lot. Mr. Boehner you’ve got to stop crying. For one, your tan is going to run. And what’s he going to do if he loses next time? Put on a Bjork record and cut himself?”

Over the last few days, media pundits and amateur pundits on Facebook have been telling us that it is time for cooperation. It is time for the GOP to brush off its brutal losses and begin working with the Democrats. To steal a phrase, It’s time to put people before politics.

For my part, I am trying. I really am. Check the letter I wrote to President Obama on the day after the election.

But it’s damn hard to accept the media’s blatant hypocrisy. Furthermore, why is it so bad for a man… a strong man, or any man for that matter– to cry? Is it a sign of weakness?

Both Obama and Boehner were captured in honest moments of raw emotional expression. The ability to appropriately express your emotion…whether it’s grief, joy or some hidden pain is generally a sign of good mental health. Do we really want our nation’s leaders bottling up their emotions?

Now, here’s a test. Watch this video and see if it makes you cry….even just a little. I dare ya.

My friends and family know that I cannot watch this scene without crying like a baby. If I were a Democrat, I suppose that would be an endearing quality. But if I am a Republican, I best prepare for some intense criticism.

It will be a lot easier for our nation to heal, if we can just move beyond some of the hypocrisy.