Monday, November 20, 2006

Thanksgiving and America's early Puritans

We’re all political beings. It doesn’t matter if we’re an elected official or making our way through life far away from any legislative body. We’re more likely to make certain statements and take certain actions that will extend our influence, keep doors open, and give us future opportunities, than we are to acerbate anyone. Of course, there are always those exceptions but, more often than not, we want to get along with as many people as possible, even those we don’t know.

The Pilgrims, on that first Thanksgiving, were doing the same thing. Not only were they thanking God for seeing them through a brutal first year – about 50 of the original 100 settlers died during the first year – in the New World but they were also playing politics with the area’s indigenous people.

To survive, writes Nathaniel Philbrick in his new book, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” required a lot of help from the Pokanokets, one of New England’s native tribes. Their leader, Massasoit, decided his people should assist the Pilgrims and, while attending that first Thanksgiving, “could only hope that the Pilgrims would continue to honor their debt” to his people “long after the English settlement had grown into maturity.”

Of course, that first Thanksgiving wasn’t called Thanksgiving. To the Puritans, a true thanksgiving was very much a religious affair, “a time of spiritual devotion,” writes Philbrick.

This first Thanksgiving was more akin to an English custom that celebrated the fall harvest, writes Philbrick, “a secular celebration that dated back to the Middle Ages which villagers ate, drank, and played games.” William Bradford, the colony’s leader, ordered his men to kill ducks and geese; earlier, they had harvested their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley and peas. Massasoit and 100 of his people arrived with five deer they’d just killed.

The Pilgrims, while in some ways a stubborn people, were better diplomats than others who had previously surveyed and landed on the Massachusetts shore. They’d accepted the help from the natives and made it point to get along with them. There were a number of native tribes in the area but they got along best with the Pokanokets.

Nothing happens in a vacuum and the Pilgrims just didn’t show up on the Massachusetts shore. They were extreme Puritans who felt persecuted by the English establishment; wanted the Church of England cleansed, as they saw it, from all of its impurities; feared that England would revert back to Catholicism; and weren’t all that sure that the monarchy and the parliament were serving England well.

As life went in the 1600s, they were extremists. They separated themselves from civilization to create Heaven on earth. In fact, prior to their arrival in Massachusetts they’d spent 11 years in Holland because it was much more welcoming to the Protestant cause. And in spite of all of their concerns about England, the Pilgrims never stopped being English. They never saw themselves as immigrants to Holland and, for that matter, they weren’t about to take up arms against England.

By today’s standards, the Pilgrims don’t look at all like radicals. They were cultural conservatives: They were devout, disciplined, believed in marriage, condemned adultery, disdained public drunkenness, and educated their young (boys).

The Puritans didn’t have any issues with sex. This is a modern day misunderstanding. While the Puritans certainly wouldn’t approve of pornography, they believed that sex was a gift from God and was a means of showing love to their spouse.

King James and the government were prepared to let the Puritans immigrate because it was an easy way, nearly cost free, of letting people they didn’t particularly like leave the country. If they survived, wonderful. Then England would lay claim to the lands they were occupying in the New World. If they died, their problems were gone.

In many ways, the Puritans are responsible for what Americans have become. The notion of the “Protestant work ethic” comes from them because they didn’t believe in idleness. This made them that much more productive. Their worries about the Church of England and the government of England gave rise to the notion, now a Constitutional amendment, of the separation of Church and State; it also caused them to question whether governments had too much power.

Given their background of having lived in Holland, these early settlers were much more successful in their first year, in spite of all of their problems, than their fellow colonists in Jamestown, because they had experience living in a land that wasn’t familiar to them. Finally, they got along with the natives because they knew they needed them.

One of the biggest differences between the two colonies was that Plymouth Rock was settled by families. Jamestown was settled only by men. This likely made the Pilgrim men work that much harder to ensure the colony’s survival. One of the issues the leaders of Jamestown had was constantly reminding the colonists what needed to be done. It was akin to managing a group of free agents.

The reason we celebrate Thanksgiving these days has nothing to do with the Puritans who came ashore back in 1620. While we reference them through popular literature and crass commercialization, Thanksgiving has more to do with the Civil War than anything else. Abraham Lincoln was looking for a way celebrate the country and established, through a proclomation, that the United States should celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday.

So if you’re prone to giving a toast or saying a prayer before eating Thanksgiving, make it a point to honor the Puritans this year. Their worries and concerns about government and religion would eventually be transferred to the people who would lead the American Revolution and then write the Constitution. They were a brave people prepared to give up everything so they could live as they felt was right. Would you make the same sacrifice?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veteran's Day 2006

Today is Veteran's Day. Salute all who have served. And all who are serving.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Donald: Rumsfeld & his way of thinking

Like a lot of people in the media and in government, I’ve shaken hands with Donald Rumsfeld, the departing secretary of defense.

He was on the board of directors of Tribune Company in the mid-90s, while I worked there, and the one thing that the higher ups always said about Rumsfeld is that he wasn’t likeable.

He asked a lot of questions that the senior executives didn’t want to answer. He challenged their assumptions and that made them uncomfortable.

But Rumsfeld took his job as a board member seriously. In fact, looking back on it now, Rumsfeld was ahead of his time as a board member.

Given all the corporate scandals that have been uncovered and adjudicated recently – Enron, WorldCom, Tyco – anyone who sits on the board of directors of a publicly held company knows that they’re going to be held far more accountable for their actions today than they were 10 years ago.

Rumsfeld knew that 10 years ago.

He made it a point, through his questions, to understand the plans and the marketplace. He likely signed off on a lot of actions that Tribune executives went on to execute but that didn’t stop him from gaining as much of an understanding as possible of these plans during a board meeting.

There’s likely no bureaucracy in Washington that’s more set in its ways than the Defense Department. Generals and admirals are often accused of using obsolete strategy and tactics to fight the war effort they’re leading.

Rumsfeld challenged his subordinates to think differently about how they’d fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than one senior officer likely didn’t appreciate these questions. They probably would have preferred a defense secretary that would rubber stamp their war plans.

That’s not Rumsfeld. He doesn’t rubber stamp anything.

The results in Afghanistan were startling. The United States was the first western army to conquer Afghanistan. Compare that to the British, who lost an entire army in Afghanistan in the 19th century and, later, the Soviet Union, which decided they couldn’t successfully occupy or pacify the country.

There are a lot of questions that need to be resolved about Afghanistan. But the victory orchestrated by Rumsfeld can’t be dismissed.

The same is true with the Iraq War of 2003. The basic tenants of the plan weren’t all that new – the British basically went in the same way in the early 20th century – but the results were no less outstanding. Even military historian John Keegan confirmed that.

The mistake that Rumsfeld made in Iraq was not planning for the postwar occupation. There’s every reason to believe that he never thought about an insurgency.

Still, in the course of executing these war plans, Rumsfeld forced the generals and the admirals to think about fighting wars far differently. For some of them, it was probably the biggest challenge they’d had since they attained their high ranks.

Some of the thinking that Rumsfeld instilled in his officers will likely remain around for decades, and, yes, it could, one day, be criticized as being obsolete.

Perhaps had Rumsfeld come across as a nicer man he wouldn’t have been forced out of his job. We’ll never know. And, yes, Rumsfeld does deserve a lot of the criticism he’s received. Even he would admit that.

And while I’m sure Robert Gates, the defense secretary-designate, is a capable executive, I wonder if he’ll bring the same level of intellectual energy to the job as his predecessor.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Morning After

Thank God the election is over.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I’d had my fill of phone calls from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, First Lady Laura Bush and others pushing the Republican cause in Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District.

Rudy called here about three times. The first time he called, I wasn’t home. So he was kind enough to leave a message. I didn’t erase it. Instead, when my wife got home from the office that night, I told her Rudy called, seeking her vote for Peter Roskam.

She didn’t believe me. Then she checked the messages and she couldn’t believe what she heard – a recorded political message from Rudy. That went on through the last four days prior to the election, with Rudy calling back three more times; Laura called only once.

I’m not sure I ever want to see another flyer ever again either. I’m not sure how many we received from the Roskam campaign, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was around six. Tammy Duckworth only sent one or two.

Now comes the hard part – governing. The Democrats and President Bush must lead the country under a new set of circumstances. The smart thinkers among the Democrats will soon learn that skills required to be an administration’s constant critic are quite different than the abilities needed to manage, govern and lead. Smart Republicans, at the same time, are figuring out where they can agree with their loyal opponents, so they’re in a stronger position in 2008 and than they were this year.

For U. S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the next likely Speaker of the House, and President Bush, their challenge will be keeping their supporters on the extreme left and right under control as they find areas where they can easily compromise and pass legislation that benefits them both.

Pelosi is a smart political thinker. She knows her margin over the Republicans is thin. The same will hold for whoever is elected as the next Senate Majority Leader.

For that matter, President Bush and the Congressional Republican leadership know that while they’re not quite down and out, they need to play their cards smarter if they want to ensure their future.

Pelosi’s challenge will be to make sure this election isn’t a fluke. Her challenge will be to hold together moderates and extremes within her party, and it’s my prediction that she’ll temper her views, at least publicly.

Bush and Pelosi, in fact, may discover that sometimes there’s nothing worse than an ally with whom you share the same political affiliation.

This is one of these times in our political history when the goals of both the executive and legislative branch are just as equally aligned as they are opposed.

For the President, his goal over the next two years will be to secure a legacy that has him riding high in the polls by the time he leaves office. He will also seek to make Republicans far more palatable to the electorate, so he’s succeeded in 2009 by another member of his party.

The Democrats also want The White House. So they’ll do whatever is necessary to hold their position, so they’re perceived as elect-able and able to govern the country.

How will all of this turn out? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election Results 2006

The election results shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone. The Democrats were always favored to gain the House of Representatives while control of the Senate remained debatable.

Here's some quick commentary on some of the elections:

-- Illinois' Gubernatorial Election -- This was never in doubt. It was always Democrat Rod Blagojevich's election to lose. The larger question is will he survive a second term. The scandals involving some of his supporters may also hit the governor.

-- Illinois Sixth Congressional District -- Had Tammy Duckworth stayed focused on the district, and worked the campaign harder, she'd be the toast of the Democrats today. Instead, Peter Roskam, undeterred by all the attention Tammy received, kept his nose to close the ground, worked hard for every vote, and today is Henry Hyde's successor. Tammy's loss also begs the question: Did the Democrats do everything they could to help her? Answer: No!

-- Illinois Cook County Board President -- This is machine politics at its best, resulting in Todd Stroger succeeding his father as Cook County Board President.

-- New York's U.S. Senate Race -- Hillary wins and she's reported to have a campaign war chest of around $15 million. What's in store for 2008? I'm guessing it's a run at the Democratic nomination for president.

-- California's Gubernatorial Election -- Arnold owes this victory to his wife. When the polls were down, she did a complete makeover of Arnold's office, installing a Democrat as his chief of staff. This resulted in Arnold moving toward the center and securing his re-election.

-- Connecticut's U.S. Senate Race -- What were the Democrats thinking when they deposed U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman as their candidate? Joe proved he knows Connecticut voters better than his opponent, Ned Lamont, and the national DNC party. Now the Democrats are forced into making amends to Lieberman. And Joe's in a position to do pretty much whatever he wants in the U.S. Senate. How refreshing! Hats off to Joe!

-- Virginia's & Montana's U.S. Senate Races -- As of this writing, the results show that neither election has been called. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

American DNA: An Attempt to Define American People & Thought

With the mid-term elections underway, people around the world are wondering– once again! – what the United States is all about.

Are we a bunch of fire-breathing, church-going fanatics, war-mongers, money-hungry capitalists, pornographers, exporters of pop culture trash and fast food, and Fox Network viewers? Or are we, instead, a group of erudite, peace-loving, highly educated, New York Times-reading, wine drinking, brie eating liberals sporting a nuanced approached to all that we undertake?

Many Americans attend a religious service on the weekend, filling themselves up with spirituality only to trash it by 9:30 Monday morning in the name of the Almighty bottom line. And if someone gets hurt along the way, well, that’s just too damn bad.

Some of us, on the other hand, spend our free time attending a cultural outing; updating ourselves with a serious newspaper or magazine and then complimenting ourselves for being so damn smart; we then complete the weekend by downing a thick, succulent pork chop with a side of mashed potatoes, washed down, of course, with an appropriate libation that would meet the approval of the discerning editors of the Wine Spectator.

And that’s the problem with the United States. It’s a mix.

There are the extremes, like meat-eating conservatives and vegetarian liberals, along with every possible combination in between. We might ask a mathematician what the factorial is so we have an idea of just how many possible combinations exist. But, as those people around the world see it, if we Americans could just be one or the other, conservative or liberal, then they wouldn’t be so confused about our identity.

There have been numerous books and shows about the American state of mind. Each takes a different approach, thinking they’ve summed up pretty much how Americans think and then act. And, this week, if you have access to satellite radio, you can listen to a BBC program that attempts to explain America to its listeners around the world.

The foundations of American culture and identity are found within the two surviving, English-speaking colonies, Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. These two colonies, one about money, the other about religion, left ever-lasting impressions, determining, in many ways, U.S. priorities and concerns that continue to this very day. In many ways religion and money provide Americans a prism through which issues are interpreted, considered, thought about and often through which polices are created.

U.S. history pretty much leaves Jamestown out in the cold. But it is no less significant. In fact, the main crop of Jamestown, tobacco, remains with us today and causes legal and medical problems to this very day.

Jamestown is nearly forgotten because there are no national holidays which resulted from its founding. In comparison, Plymouth Rock and its Puritans have fared much better over time because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Settled in April 1607, about 13 years ahead of Plymouth Rock, Jamestown was all about cash. It was originally owned by the London Company, and its charter, granted by the British Crown, was to make a profit. It was to happen, the original managers thought, through the mining of precious metals.

Not much is known about Jamestown’s first settlers. Alden Vaughan, author of “American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia,” writes that the original settlers included “more than fifty gentlemen … one clergyman … four carpenters, twelve laborers, two bricklayers, a blacksmith, a mason, a tailor, a surgeon, a sailmaker, a drummer, and four boys.” The ships’ crews were not included in this original count. We don’t know much about the character of these people other than the London Company was looking for men “of skill, energy, and self-sacrifice.”

Unlike their fellow settlers in Massachusetts, the men of Jamestown were expected, writes Vaughan, “to meet the company’s demand for profits.” The London Company’s shareholders would earn dividends through the Colony’s successful mining of precious metals, farming and trade with Native Americans.

Jamestown’s managers and colonists quickly discovered that there were no precious metals to be found. Four years after the colony’s founding, John Rolfe planted tobacco. His first crop was harvested in 1612, Vaughan writes, and he was exporting it to England shortly thereafter. Three years later, he exported 2,000 lbs of tobacco to England; by 1620, he exported 40,000 lbs of tobacco; the amount exported increased, by 1629, to 1.5 million lbs.

Tobacco became the colony’s saving grace. There was a ready market in England for Virginia tobacco; and by consuming Virginia tobacco, England was no longer putting money into the coffers of their leading rival of the day, Spain. While tobacco certainly provided the colony with revenue, those running Jamestown became so concerned about the colonists appetite for growing tobacco that they had to force them grow corn (wheat) so they’d survive.

While he wasn’t the colony’s only leader, Captain John Smith personifies what Jamestown was all about. His dream, writes Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in their book “Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of The American Dream,” was to create a colony where men of limited means but great spirit “could prosper and, yes, grow rich.”

This desire to become rich is found throughout American history. And, as a result, Americans are concerned about pocketbook issues. The politicians know this which is why taxes and economics merit so much time and energy, especially during elections.

Are you better off today than you were four years ago, Ronald Reagan asked back in 1980 while running for president. The majority said no, tossing aside President Carter in favor of California’s former governor.

In 1620, a very different kind of colony was founded on the Massachusetts shore. The Puritans, the evangelical Christians of their day, first landed in what today is Provincetown, on the northern tip of Cape Cod, before forming a permanent colony in Plymouth Rock. They came to America, Paul Johnson writes, in his book “A History of the American People,” to create Heaven on earth.

The Puritans were about taking Christianity back to its roots. Purifying it, you might say. They interpreted the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament literally; and because there’s no mention of any kind of church hierarchy in the New Testament, it was their belief that the Church of England was fundamentally out of step with God’s will.

Puritan belief said that the Scriptures “were God’s direct way of communicating to mankind,” writes Neil Baldwin in his book “The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War.” This kind of thinking left no room for priests or bishops because their authority was considered “arbitrary and unwarranted.”

Puritans did not sing hymns because they were considered to be a “corruption of God’s word,” writes Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.” They did sing psalms; and they never knelt while taking communion because “there was no evidence that the apostles had done so during the Last Supper,” writes Philbrick.

The original settlers to Massachusetts were very much radicals of their day. They were “Separatists,” who left the Church of England, an illegal act at the time. They went to Holland before heading to America because the Dutch were far more tolerant of different religions. And, frankly, England was just as ready to rid themselves of them.

Prior to their actual landing in Massachusetts, 41 male settlers signed the Mayflower Compact, by which they agreed that “ … for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and country … (we) … solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another … combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation … constitute … just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

Today such a document is easily dismissed but when looked at more closely, and considering when it was written, this is the first example of average people signing a written pledge about how they’d behave within a larger political body. They pledged themselves to doing what was necessary for the good of the colony. So they’d subjugate their individual desires and needs for the greater good of the colony in order to ensure its survival. And, of course, as you’d have expected of those times, only the men signed the compact.

Both Jamestown and Plymouth Rock went through very difficult times. Colonists died due to disease, occasional fights with Native Americans and starvation. Life was hard. But the ones that survived, along with their descendents, determined the character of what was to become the United States. The turmoil produced a hardy people who conquered their environment, indigenous peoples, and the land that would become the United States.

Unlike other countries that were created by people sharing a similar background, ethnicity or geographic location, America is an idea. This means it accepts all who arrive at its shores. The two primary ideas that have driven people here, religious freedom and boundless economic potential, supersede, in many ways, political freedom. That would come much later, after the Revolution in the late 18th century.

It’s easy to dismiss people who are religious as fools. But one should keep in mind that the first politics of American settlers included religion. This was the way the Puritans distinguished themselves from the majority in England. Religion will always remain very important to Americans.

Henry Steele Commager, one of the 20th centuries brightest political thinkers, said Americans were defined by “the whole of the American environment – the sense of spaciousness, the invitation to mobility, the atmosphere of independence, the encouragement to enterprise and to optimism.” Europeans, wrote Commager, “lived so much in the past (but Americans) lived in the future, caring little for what the day might bring but much for the dreams – and profits – of the morrow.”

Commager said that Americans, while “often romantic about business … (were) practical about politics, religion, culture and science. He was endlessly ingenious and resourceful, always ready to improvise new tools or techniques to meet new conditions.” This American mind, which was the title of one of Commager’s books, borrowed freely from the natives as well as the other immigrants in order to survive.

Seymour Martin Lipsett, in his book “American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,” writes that there’s such a thing as an “American Creed.” It is described “in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” These values, Lipsett wrote, “reflect the absence of feudal structures, monarchies and aristocracies” within the United States.

Because the United States never experienced feudalism, it has always been a country whose people have never understood or accepted class divisions. But, writes Lipsett, “European countries, Canada and Japan have placed greater emphasis on obedience to political authority and on deference to superiors.”

The United States is one of the most religious countries in the world. “It has exhibited greater acceptance of biblical beliefs and higher levels of church attendance than elsewhere, with the possible exceptions of Poland and Ireland,” writes Lipsett. Church attendance in America is voluntary and churches are not state supported. This means that all denominations “must raise their own funds, engaging in a constant struggle to retain or expand the number of their adherents,” writes Lipsett.

Religion in America also defines how the country goes to war, writes Lipsett. “Americans must define their role in a conflict as being on God’s side against Satan – for morality, against evil,” writes Lipsett. He goes on to write, “The United States primarily goes to war against evil, not, in its self-perception, to defend material interests.”

So while many Americans took issue with how President George W. Bush took the country to war against Iraq, let’s consider for a moment how he defined the conflict. He said Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” Earlier, Bush defined Iraq, and Saddam in particular, has a nation that does “evil.” In many ways, President Bush used language that the American Heartland understood and, equally, how it defined America’s place in the world.

By defining the conflict in terms that many Americans understood, Bush was able to receive the support he needed to conduct the war against Iraq. He used the same language and spoke to America’s patriotism to secure re-election 2004. Had Bush’s opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry used similar language to criticize President Bush, he might very well be sitting in the Oval Office today.

So what are we? Well, it’s hard to completely define in this blog or anywhere else. But to sum it up, we’re a people who savor their freedom, are highly religious, enjoy independence, and are wary of state control. We’re also very generous. And much of what defines America today can be found in the two English-speaking colonies that survived, Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. It was their descendents who put America on the path to independence and greatness.

Today’s election results will be interesting to learn about later tonight and tomorrow. Study the winners. It’s likely that they studied the American mind in order to win.

If you want to know more about the American way of thinking, here’s a list of books you should consider:

“American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword,” Seymour Martin Lipsett, W. W. Norton & Company: 1996. I’ve found this to be the best book that sums up all of the ideas that have created the American state of mind. Lipsett is a political scientist.

“American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia,” Alden T. Vaughan, Little, Brown and Company: 1975. I read this book in college while majoring in history. I’ve found this to be the single best book on the Jamestown colony.

“Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream,” Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 2006. A very readable book but it takes second place to Vaughan’s book.

“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War,” Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking: 2006. This is a great read. I just bought it without my wife’s permission. Yikes!!!!!

“The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character Since the 1880’s” Henry Steele Commager, Yale University Press: 1950. Commager was an American icon in political science circles in the mid-20th century.

“The American Political Tradition & The Men Who Made It,” Richard Hofstadter, Alfred A. Knopf: 1968. Anyone who has ever studied American politics has read something by Richard Hofstadter. I first came across him while studying U.S. History in high school, when I was expected to read his tome, “The Age of Reform.”

“The American Revelation: Ten Ideals that Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War,” Neil Baldwin, St. Martin’s Press: 2005. An excellent book but I keep wondering why he didn’t write about Jamestown.

“Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War,” E. Brooks Holifield, Yale University Press: 2003. This is heavy reading, especially if you’re not all that grounded in religious thought.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Supporting dictators

On rare occasion I've actually "voted" for someone. But usually, like most Americans I suppose, I've just voted against their opponent.

I can probably list on one hand the number of times I voted for someone. It includes the likes of John Anderson, a congressman from Rockford, Illinois, who ran an ill-fated independent presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan 26 years ago and Richard Daley, who first ran for mayor of Chicago back in 1989. I'm sure there are others but, for the life of me, I can't remember their names.

More often than not, I've gone into the voting booth, held my nose, and made my selections. It didn't matter if they were Republicans or Democrats. I haven't liked the candidates I've chosen.

Some of this is due to the way campaigns are managed these days. To be victorious in a presidential primary, for example, a candidate needs to appeal to their party's true believers. The result is that we get Republicans and Democrats who appeal to their party's extremists, leaving people like me, more oriented toward the center, feeling as if there's no one they really want to vote for during the general election.

On the whole, I've found Republicans to be usually far more conservative than I'd prefer and Democrats to be out of touch with reality.

In spite of these observations, however, it's never stopped me from voting. And it shouldn't stop you either. Even if you despise both candidates.

If you don't vote, you're supporting an argument made centuries ago -- that people are incapable of ruling themselves. This argument continues to have life to this very day in places like Africa, the Middle East, Asia and maybe a few other places I've forgotten about, where human rights are spit upon.

And I don't know about you, but under no circumstance do I want to find myself holding the same political position as North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il.

By voting, you're proving that people are capable of understanding the issues their community, state or country faces and selecting the candidate that is best suited to handle them.

So get out and vote!

You don't have to like every candidate you chose. But, at the very least, you should take the time to understand the issues and then vote for the candidate you think will do the best job.

By not voting, you're supporting the political positions of dictators and monarchs. Their argument goes something like this -- you're too stupid to govern yourself.

Have some pride, vote!

Friday, November 03, 2006

The U.S. Daily Newspaper earned its fate

If you're reading this blog, you may very well not be reading a daily newspaper, a course of action not even this correspondent would recommend.

One of the great tragedies of the modern world is that daily newspapers in the United States, which remain the single best source for staying informed on current events, whether they're happening around the globe, the country or in your very own backyard, are in a precipitous decline.

To be blunt, the U.S. newspaper industry is sucking wind. And that's putting it mildly.

Earlier this week, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which measures the number of copies that newspapers sell (as well as some weekly newspapers and magazines), reported that the U.S. daily newspaper industry, on average, is selling 2.8 percent fewer newspapers this year than it was last year.

In some cases, the drop is extraordinary. The Los Angeles Times is selling 8 percent fewer newspapers this year than it was a year ago. It wasn't all that long ago that the Los Angeles Times boasted a daily circulation in excess of 1 million.

But, recently, top executives of the paper cut back on some of their circulation drives and, as a result, the paper now sells 775,766 copies, on average, during the week. That's a drop of between 300,000 - 400,000 copies since 2000, when the paper was purchased by Tribune Company.

This story is seen all around the country. Newspapers are losing ground as print products.

In fact, of the top 10 newspapers in the United States, only two, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, reported circulation gains.

Unlike their brethren in the daily newspaper industry, these two newspapers are tabloids. They tend toward using sensational headlines, which capture their readers' interest and, as a result, are purchased, usually at a convenience store or in a box or at a newsstand.

The way they present the leading issues of the day -- whether it's a national or international story or just a local, juicy crime article -- bothers their colleagues at more sedate newspapers -- to no end.

People who work at tabloids, the purists among journalists will say, are not real journalists. They're all about hype just so they can sell an extra copy of their paper.

And that criticism might actually be justified. But at least the editors and reporters at the New York Post and the Daily News are doing something to ensure their future.

As New York Post editor Col Allen said recently, American newspapers, if they're not the Post and the Daily News, are "boring as bat shit."

About a year ago, American daily newspaper executives began to wake up to the fact that fewer people were reading them -- at least as print products. While their Internet sites were gaining traction, they still weren't covering their paper's costs.

This circulation decline is attributable, in many ways, to the fact that few, if any, top newspaper executives have a background in circulation. Publishers and their bosses tend to come up through the advertising and editorial ranks. Sometimes they'll come up through the finance or company's legal ranks.

But rarely, if ever, is someone anointed a publisher who has a background in selling the newspaper. Which is tragic. Because if there's any one individual at the newspaper who is cognizant of how the paper is received in the community it serves, it's the executive carrying the title of Circulation Director.

As a result, the people running daily newspapers in the United States haven't a clue as to what their readers are thinking. Oh, they might have some idea because they've asked their circulation director for information about their readers and non readers, but they don't carry their knowledge in their gut -- like their circulation director does.

The great tragedy of the American newspaper industry, if it were to disappear one day, is that there's no one who will cover a community, a nation and the world with as much depth as it does.

The television and radio networks, their affiliates, and independent radio and television stations, can only skim the surface of the issues. That's not a criticism of how they do their job. It's reality. Magazines only come out once a week and they tend to cover large geographic areas.

I grew up in the New York metropolitan area and became a daily New York Times reader when I was 15. I'm still one to this very day. My dad also read the Times as well as The Wall Street Journal; on the evening train home from New York, he'd purchase the the Post and bring it home. We always had fun laughing at the Post's headlines.

One of the things that my dad noticed on the train was that, in the morning, people tended to buy The Times and The Journal and read them cover to cover. In fact, the morning train was as quiet as a library because people were devouring every sentence published in the Times or the Journal.

But in the late afternoon or evening, when these people were coming home, they bought the Post or the Daily News. They were stock brokers, investment bankers or leading executives at Fortune 500 companies. A well-educated, high-income, sober group.

I still recall learning about the appeal of the New York Post from my dad. He asked an investment banker why he bought the Post every evening.

"Easy," he said. "I read the Times and the Journal in the morning. At 10 am I've made a deal. At 2 pm I've lost a deal. At the end of the day, I want to read about the nigger in Queens who's got it worse off than I do."

Say what you will about the New York Post. At least the editors know their audience.