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A number of you have told me that you don’t look forward to reading the column on your computer screen. That’s not necessary if you have a printer. Print out the column and take it with you to the breakfast table or wherever else you choose to read printed material. (You can also call up past columns in case you missed them.)
And, if you haven’t already done so, let us know your e-mail address so that we can send you a weekly reminder when a new column is available.
May 28, 2008
At last, some political comment in which The New York Times and I might be in at least partial agreement.
I’m referring to an article to which The Times gave major play in a recent Sunday Week in Review section, a story which carried this headline: “She Just Might Be President Someday.” The article began:
“If not her, who? Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton may or may not become the first female president of the United States, but if fate and voters deny her the role, another woman will surely see if the mantle fits.”
The article suggests that if Hillary throws in the towel, some other women will scramble for it as though it were a bridal bouquet. Mentioned as possibilities are Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.
On the Republican side, names mentioned included Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and Missouri State Treasurer Sarah Steelman.
The Times article prompted me to dig into my file of material which I had drafted but had not decided when or whether I would use it. That material goes like this:
If Barack Obama, to any significant extent, is considered to be entitled to the presidency because black Americans deserve to have one of their number sent to the White House, how do you respond to those Americans who argue just as hard that “it’s time” for a woman to be elected president?
After all, it was 130 years after our constitution was adopted before American women were assured the right to vote through the women’s suffrage constitutional amendment enacted in 1919.
If the qualifications of candidates are to be considered in any significant measure on the basis of race or gender rather than merit, might we see some pressure for a sort of rotating presidency? A black candidate starting in 2009, a female candidate next, then an Hispanic candidate (Hispanics by 2032 will surely be an even larger percentage of the American population), with perhaps a white candidate’s turn again in 2042.
But how about settling for simply electing the most qualified candidate—black, white, brown, male or female?
* * *
Speaking of the support which Obama is receiving in substantial degree because he is black and because black Americans, as well as some younger people and other liberals, feel that we are overdue to have a black president:
Obama and his supporters apparently are beginning to see that “black America deserves a president” is a risky strategy.
In response to his continuing poor showings among older Americans and working-class whites, even liberal columnists are pointing out that Obama can’t depend on black voters, youthful voters and other liberals to send him to the White House.
Maureen Dowd of The New York Times pointed out that more than half of West Virginians leaving the polls said they would be dissatisfied if Obama is the Democratic nominee. Two of 10 white voters said race is important, and more than eight of 10 of these voters voted for Hillary Clinton.
So how does Obama connect with voters who have indicated that a charismatic personality and a generalized promise of “change” are not enough to win their support?
A news report says that Obama campaign advisors will try to depict him in more “one of the guys” modes, drinking beer in a bar with blue-collar workers—that sort of thing. Clearly, it hasn’t been enough for candidate Obama to make occasional references to the fact that his mother had to apply for food stamps and that his grandfather went to college on the GI Bill of Rights. (If those are qualifications for high office, there are an awful lot of potential presidents across the United States.)
It will be interesting to see if this charismatic, sometimes almost glib product of a prep school and Harvard education can shed the image of an elitist who is trying to find the common touch.
There is a fine line here—to be an uncommon individual but still with a common touch, a feeling that he or she may not be one of you but that he or she understands your problems and truly enjoys sharing time with you. Leaders from the past like Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton come to mind.
Whether Barack Obama and his attractive but occasionally waspish wife, a fellow Harvard graduate, can bring it off remains to be seen.
Bottoms up, Barack.
* * *
It was sort of a win-win double-barrel pleasure for me to be invited to speak at the annual luncheon meeting of the “General’s Council” of the Douglas County Historical Society.
After the annual “officers mess”—if that was typical of an officers mess, the officers who served at the former Fort Omaha ate very well indeed—I had the pleasure of telling the audience of my admiration for the way that the Douglas County Historical Society is performing. Executive Director Betty J. Davis and her staff and volunteers are doing an excellent job.
Second, I had the pleasure of being able to focus attention again on the person whom I consider to be the true hero of the historic Standing Bear trial.
Standing Bear was an imposing and courageous figure around whom the famous Standing Bear trial revolved in 1879. But the real hero of that case, in my judgment, was Brig. Gen. George Crook, in whose home, today called “The Crook House,” on the Fort Omaha campus, the annual meeting of the Historical Society’s “General’s Council” was held.
Crook had earned a reputation as a great Indian fighter, having, for example, brought Cochise and his Apache band to peaceful negotiations and reservation life in Arizona. He also had a reputation as humane in his treatment of the Indian tribes after he had carried out his orders to negotiate, or subdue them with force, when bringing them to reservation life.
Nowhere was his concern for fair treatment of the Indian tribes more evident than his handling of the Standing Bear case. The story is well known. Having been driven from their reservation in northwest Nebraska, Standing Bear and other Poncas walked a “Trail of Tears” to reservation life in what is now Oklahoma.
Following the death of his teenage son, Standing Bear and a band of about 30 followers headed north towards their former home on the Niobrara in Nebraska, intent on carrying out Standing Bear’s son’s wish that he be buried where he had grown up.
The Interior Department, of which the Bureau of Indian Affairs was a part, asked the Army for cooperation in finding Standing Bear and his followers and confining them at Fort Omaha, presumably before ordering Crook to return them to Oklahoma.
Crook followed his orders and had the Poncas brought to Fort Omaha. Then he set out to find a way to avoid being ordered to send the tribe back to Oklahoma. With the help of an Omaha editor, Henry Tibbles of The Daily Herald, two leading Omaha attorneys, John Webster and Andrew J. Poppleton, were recruited. At Crook’s request, the attorneys found a way for ordering the general into court to explain why he should not free Standing Bear.
A writ of habeas corpus was served on Crook—at his own request—and there followed the famous trial in which Judge Elmer Scipio Dundy held that an Indian is a person entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Judge Dundy ordered that the Poncas be allowed to return to their homeland on the Niobrara.
So Gen. George Crook, described by Gen. William T. Sherman as America’s greatest Indian fighter, proved that he was also worthy of what great Sioux Chief Red Cloud said of him when he learned of Crook’s death: “He at least never lied to us. His words gave us hope.”
* * *
Three words of advice for journalism practitioners: Precision, precision, precision. Journalism needs a lot more of it.
I’m talking about avoiding the kind of journalism which takes small samples and generalizes, for one example, to say flatly that an exact percentage of black families in Omaha live in poverty.
Estimates should be described as such and, frequently, not given such hard-news prominence, especially when, as with a recent case in Omaha, statistical sampling from one year to the next produced an unbelievably large year-to-year swing in the number of families reported as living in poverty.
Often we see that a study or survey or sampling “found” certain facts or trends. More likely, the study “indicated” or “suggested” certain possibilities.
Careless use of numbers is a continuing bane of the journalistic craft. For example, I recently read a report that some 4,500 people were involved in some kind of a field day. No suggestion of any kind as to the source of the 4,500 figure. Did the reporter count them? Crowd estimates from sponsors of various events—definitely including political rallies—should be treated with caution.
Frequently, a reporter’s own observation is a better estimate of how many people were in attendance.
Speaking of numbers, a recent story reported that more than 1.3 million people visited Omaha’s world-class Henry Doorly Zoo in 2007. More than 1.3 million people did not visit the zoo. The total number of zoo visits—a goodly number of people, after all, visited the zoo more than once—was more than 1.3 million.
Readers should be alert to journalistic efforts to write more human interest into a story than the facts justify. I think of a recent story which said an elderly driver, unable to avoid a collision, courageously turned his vehicle in a way that the driver took a fatal hit, sparing his passengers.
There is simply no way that any living person could know the reason the driver instantaneously swerved the vehicle. It could have been a reflex designed to avoid the crash altogether. We’ll never know. You can’t interview a dead man.
* * *
I’m pleased to report that after a very thorough checkup by experts at Gentle Doctor Animal Hospital, our eldest cocker spaniel, Sarah, continues in what Dr. Pete Bashara described as “amazing” good health for a 13-year-old.
I pass this information along to those of our readers who have become acquainted with Sarah and her younger sisters, six-year-old Claire and four-year-old Charlotte—and have indicated that they enjoy occasional reports on the dogs and their mistress—a mistress who, it will not surprise you to be told, continues to think of new terms of endearment with which she greats them each morning.
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