Archive for the ‘History’ Category

My latest piece for the Observer, about the dispute over renaming Simkins dormitory, is now online!

Two public forums to inform an advisory committee to make a recommendation to the actual decision-makers might be the university’s version of expedient action, or they might be looking for some bureaucratic intestine where they can send this controversy to wither and die. Even at its very best, though, the dispute is still just a pressure valve, one that takes the pressure that has built up against prolonged, sustained injustice and diverts it into purely symbolic measures.


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That whole “slave trade” thing? Don’t worry about it—United States didn’t have anything to do with that. The “Atlantic triangular trade,” on the other hand …

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During the past week or so, my work at the CPPP has been focused almost exclusively on projects relating to health care reform, and in between sending out the CPPP’s letter to the Texas congressional delegation and editing, posting, facebooking and tweeting Texas Voice for Health Reform’s daily Health Care Stories, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time poking around in this nifty graphic that the New York Times put together, “A History of Overhauling Health Care.”

In particular, I’ve been interested in the first entry on the timeline, a pdf version of the August 7, 1912 New York Times in which Progressive Party presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt laid out his platform, which included a proposal for universal health coverage and old-age pensions modeled on German insurance and welfare legislation passed by Otto Von Bismark in the 1880s.

The framing of health reform within Roosevelt’s presidential platform cements my impression of it as a long overdue progressive reform from a bygone era—it was put forward along with Roosevelt’s proposals for women’s suffrage, the abolition of child labor, and the direct election of senators. Other parts of the timeline make me realize the extent to which this reform is a barometer of the political times—a far cry from what might have been politically palatable in past decades that were more receptive to progressive change (proposals for health insurance reform during the FDR presidency were described—not pejoratively—as “socialized medicine,” and many observers have pointed out that, right-wing jeremiads notwithstanding, this legislation is less progressive that the health care reform efforts of the Nixon administration).

And, of course, the work of reforming health care is far from over—there is still the Senate reconciliation package to improve the bill, and state implementation of the bill over the coming years. That, particularly, promises to be thorny, especially here in Texas, where Attorney General Greg Abbot plans to join with a number of other state attorneys general in challenging the constitutionality of the bill.

It has taken us a long time, and we’ve come a long way, but at least we’ve cleared this hurdle.

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From the nytimes obituary of white house chief of staff and secretary of state Alexander M. Haig:

He had a unique way with words. In a 1981 “On Language” column, William Safire of The New York Times, a veteran of the Nixon White House, called it “haigravation.”

Nouns became verbs or adverbs: “I’ll have to caveat my response, Senator.” (Caveat is Latin for “let him beware.” In English, it means “warning.” In Mr. Haig’s lexicon, it meant to say something with a warning that it might or might not be so.)

Haigspeak could be subtle: “There are nuance-al differences between Henry Kissinger and me on that.” It could be dramatic: “Some sinister force” had erased one of Mr. Nixon’s subpoenaed Watergate tapes, creating an 18 1/2- minute gap. Sometimes it was an emblem of the never-ending battle between politics and the English language: “careful caution,” “epistemologically-wise,” “saddle myself with a statistical fence.”


his ambition to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan’s aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that “the third paragraph of his obit” would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot, on March 30, 1981.

That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. “The helm is right here,” he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, “and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.” His words were taped by Richard V. Allen, then the national security adviser.

His colleagues knew better. “There were three others ahead of Mr. Haig in the constitutional succession,” Mr. Allen wrote in 2001. “But Mr. Haig’s demeanor signaled that he might be ready for a quarrel, and there was no point in provoking one.”

Mr. Haig then asked, “How do you get to the press room?” He raced upstairs and went directly to the lectern before a television audience of millions. His knuckles whitening, his arms shaking, Mr. Haig declared to the world, “I am in control here, in the White House.” He did not give that appearance.

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Worth noting

Hendrick Hertzberg—who is always worth reading—has a new item up today that reiterates a point I’ve heard made many times before: If the health care bill that we’ve ended up with in 2010 isn’t worth the trouble anymore, neither was the Social Security bill that landed on F.D.R.’s desk in 1935. Or, as Hertzberg puts it: “Franklin D. Roosevelt. What a wimp.”

In other news, the CPPP is publicizing a study on food hardship by the Food Research and Action Center, and I wrote the press release.

My first feature (really just a collage of quotes) for the Observer is in its second round of edits: should be out soon. I’ll post it here when the time comes.

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Yesterday was the final meeting of Politics and the Press, which is one of the most enjoyable courses that I’ve taken, without a doubt. This is mainly because of the impressive lineup of guest speakers that we’ve had: Reporters, pollsters, politicians and PR people from some very high places indeed. Capping things off for us was a visit with Karen Hughes, a former campaign adviser and communications officer in the George H.W. Bush and Reagan presidential runs in 1980 and ’84, a former executive director of the Texas Republican Party and a communications director and deputy undersecretary of state under George W. Bush.

She went through the usual routine: A summary of her career with a few colorful anecdotes thrown in, her story about writing her book, the things she has enjoyed/not enjoyed in her various jobs so far, what she is up to these days. Her most serious complaint about working in the Bush White House, she said, was that the national media instantly solidifies a first impression of someone, and never coveys a comprehensive understanding of the person. For an example, she offered that the national media had never bothered to challenge the perception of Bush as unintelligent, and noted that, in personal encounters with Bush, or encounters with him in small group settings, reporters were consistently surprised to see an articulate, probing Bush asking tough, incisive questions and displaying a capacity for empathy that did not match the emotional immaturity that Hughes alleged the media had unfairly pinned on him.

“After all,” she insisted, “he’s just a really good, good, kind person.”

It bothered me that she seemed to so readily conflate the two — “kind” and “intelligent.” It seemed just a tad too reminiscent of the which-guy-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with school of campaigning, the combination of a commonsense anti-intellectualism with a phony folksy charm that has lured us to disaster time and time again. It brought two items to my mind: The first by po-mo essayist, author and all-around contrarian Cutris White, who argues that the ascendancy of politicians like Bush indicates that “the most meaningful political alliance in this country is between the rich and the chronically stupid.”

Most importanly, though, White reminds us that nice and kind do not always equal good, or rather that being nice in the abstract does not preclude one from surrendering to self-interest that can manifest itself as obscene cruelty. White writes about an exiled member of the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, which was ousted in the CIA-backed overthrow in the mid-1970s that led to the kidnapping and murder of thousands. “You know, traveling in your country, a person cannot help but be impressed by your kindness,” he says. “But you do not understand how cruel your government is. You do not understand what you do to the rest of the world …”

It is ever-tempting to think of Bush’s kindness, or generosity, or folksy “authenticity” (also, we can’t forget his boastful humility) as a factor that can redeem the missteps of his presidency. Washington Post writer Marjorie Williams recalls a scene from the 2000 presidential debates between Bush and Al Gore, after Gore unleashed an attack on Bush’s record as governor of providing health care for women and children. Bush’s response, Williams notes, was calibrated to deflect a substantive criticism of a failed policy, and its human cost, with “an invitation to admire his heart in lieu of examining his head.”

“You can quote all the numbers you want,” Bush said, “but I’m telling you, we care about our people in Texas  . . . If he’s trying to allege that I’m a hardhearted person and I don’t care about children, he’s absolutely wrong.”

Williams writes:

Conservatives love to decry the mushy, “values-oriented,” standards-free educational habits that the ’60s supposedly loosed upon the land. So it is a delicious irony that they have elected a president who is so inclined to fall back on the marshy counsels of emotion. In so many other ways — his scorn for the protesters who surrounded him at Yale, his coat-and-tie-in-the-Oval-Office ethos of respect — Bush is a man consciously at odds with his own generation.

But in this one way, in his easy claims for the primacy of the heart, he is the genial boomer personified, ever ready to flash a feeling in place of a fact.

Bush is probably every bit as kind, and generous, and thoughtful and intelligent as Hughes says he is. But a much harsher calculus inevitably must come into play, one which Bush’s personal appeal is designed to deflect: judgement by results rather than by intentions. It isn’t the responsibility of the media to tell us how likeable, or charming, or sincere our leaders are: It is their job to give us a critical account of the sort of job they are doing, Hughes’ pouty, Palinesque complaints notwithstanding.

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