2020 election, coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic

A pandemic diary: Die hard, live longer

June 24, 2021

We just bought a fresh batch of N95s. We’re not making travel plans. Takeout remains the order of the day (pun intended) and “eating in” means our own table. Actually, we often dine on the deck, looking out on a leafy street with bluebirds flying around and the temperature hovering in the 80s, which is unseasonably and pleasantly cool. But I digress.

What I’m getting at is that my wife and I are diehards when it comes to safety and are perfectly comfortable that way. Yes, we’ve been jabbed. We’re playing it cautious until we’re certain the virus has been beaten down. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, people, and it ain’t over yet, not with the Delta variant spreading faster than voter suppression. According to this article, “In early April, Delta represented just 0.1 percent of cases in the United States…As of a few days ago, the estimate hit 20.6 percent.”

Delta may make victims sicker than other strains, and since vaccination rates in the South are lagging badly, there’s bound to be more of it around here. Fully-vaxxed folks are believed to be well protected, but in our county, that’s only about a third of those eligible. It doesn’t make sense to be in crowds routinely, for no good reason.

Things came into focus the other night when I picked up dinner at our favorite barbecue restaurant. The place was packed to the gills with Republicans attending a campaign party for a U.S. House candidate who’s pushing Trump’s lies about election fraud. Of course, there wasn’t a mask in sight. Needless to say, I grabbed my order and got the hell out of there, stat.

Call me paranoid if you will. I’m content to be a passenger on the slow boat to normalcy, which is a lot better than riding the ferry across the Styx. Take care, y’all, and please stay safe.

2020 election, gun violence, history, U. S. Capitol

The Capitol I knew

January 7, 2021

US Capitol.

One afternoon in the summer of 1998 I was sitting in my cramped broadcast booth in the Senate Radio & TV Correspondents Gallery in the Capitol, where I spent my days reporting on Congress for listeners all over the world on the Voice of America. I had just filed a routine story when the gallery’s director came on the intercom: “We have a report of gunfire in the Capitol.”

I grabbed my tape recorder and ran to the East Front of the building, where the shooting took place. I quickly found and interviewed several tourists who’d heard the shots and witnessed the chaos, one of them telling me, “It was like a movie.” But it was real. A schizophrenic man named Russell Eugene Weston had walked up to a door and fatally shot the Capitol Police officer who tried to stop him. He then ran inside and mortally wounded a second officer who returned fire, which allowed others to capture him.

As people fled and police swarmed in, I did a live cellphone report, then raced down Capitol Hill to the VOA newsroom, where I threw together a story with tape of the tourists and my own observations. I was never in danger and think I sounded calm on the air, but I was still shaken. It felt even worse than 9/11, when I ran out of the building with everyone else because Flight 93 was inbound.

In those times, even cynical journalists and hard-edged partisans shared a feeling of respect for the Capitol, its history, and what it stood for, what President-Elect Biden called, “a citadel of liberty.” For many, the Hill was like a big, loud, sometimes dysfunctional family. That day, two members of the family died and our sense of comfort and sanctity was briefly shattered.

Yesterday, January 6, 2021, was flat-out horrifying. It was like watching your old house burn to the ground. I can’t imagine what it was like to spend hours sheltering from the president’s fascist mob. But I recognized the resolve in the faces and voices of the lawmakers who returned to the House and Senate to finish counting electoral votes. I saw the same resolve on the morning of 9/12, when a frail, 83-year-old Senator Robert Byrd stepped to the podium and brought the gavel down hard, a resounding signal that Congress and the nation would not be cowed.

The last time we had a disputed election, the 2000 race between Bush and Gore, it ended up across the street from the Capitol in the Supreme Court. While the justices were hearing arguments, I was outside talking to peaceful protestors on both sides. Like today, some were angry about how ballots had been handled, including the man quoted below in an excerpt from my story. But they all had the same answer when I asked how they’d react if the other side won the case.

“Another Bush backer, Mark Elrod, says he spent 28 years in the armed forces and was incensed when the Gore campaign challenged absentee ballots cast by troops stationed overseas. (Tape of Elrod) ‘It made my blood boil.  And I’ve been at just about every rally for Bush and Cheney ever since that I could get to here.’ Still, Mr. Elrod says he would accept Mr. Gore as president should he prevail in court.  The Democrats say they would also accept Mr. Bush, even though some say that might be difficult.”

2020 election, Covid 19 pandemic, Family, Florida

A pandemic diary: Of times and lives

November 13, 2020

Genealogy is fascinating for a lot of reasons, and I don’t mean finding out that your ancestor stood with the embattled farmers at Lexington. (If all the people who claim their relatives were there on that day are telling the truth, the farmers would’ve outnumbered the redcoats by about a million to one.) With luck and a little research, you can go beyond names and dates to get a feel for the lives your people led, and the choices they made.

Faded family photo with couple and two children, taken about 1870.
Some ancestors on my mother’s side

Thanks to a diarist in the family, I know my great-grandfather was a teacher and farmer in northern Illinois, who was “excepted” from service in the Civil War and courted a few women before settling down. He and my great-grandmother had six children, two of them dying in infancy and only my grandfather Hoyt Swan living past age thirty. From an obituary my mother transcribed, I learned that her great-uncle had been “sidetracked” and “back-slidden” from his faith, but was brought back to church by his wife’s prayers. My mother told me some of her other relatives lived in a house where, it was sometimes said, “Nobody’s talking to anybody today.”

Today, the whole country seems to have a long-term lease on that place. And of course, the trouble with probing the past is discovering that Aunt Nellie was fond of laudanum and Colonel or Captain Somebody fought on the wrong side. Speaking of wrong sides, I recently found that some of my ancestors enslaved Black people in New England in the 1700s. According to family histories and a list of tombstones in a Connecticut cemetery, there were at least four of them, known only as Cato, Cuff, David, and Dinah. There could have been others. I’m pretty sure there are more enslavers whose crimes I haven’t documented yet.

These people never dreamed that future generations would reach back into their lives as easily as reading a newspaper. Because I don’t have children, nobody’s likely to be tracing me on some 23rd-century Ancestry.com. But 2020 will be a milestone for everyone.

Some of our descendants will find we wore masks, stopped hugging, stayed indoors, and generally took care of each other. Others will see their grandparents’ grandparents proudly packed like sardines into Trump rallies, bars, and college parties. Some will read “Black Lives Matter” in their forbears’ files; for others it’ll be “All Lives Matter,” which as historians will point out, means nobody matters unless they’re white. We’ll all be reviled for doing so little to stop climate change, which will leave Earth far different, far sooner than we think. But those who called it a hoax will earn a special place in our children’s vision of hell.

For anyone who’s looking me up a few centuries down the line: I hope you’ll give me credit for acknowledging some ugly truths about my heritage and keeping a sense of humor amid the pandemic. If it’s still the present, take care and be safe. (PS to the future: I loved my wife, music, and beaches. I hope the water in the Gulf of Mexico is still that color.)

Dave on Gulf beach, 2017.
2020 election, Covid 19 pandemic, humor, life, music

A pandemic diary: Letter to younger self

October 16, 2020

Message in a bottle.

You’ve probably heard of and maybe indulged in the exercise of writing a letter to your younger self. The idea is to take stock, reflect, set down the big lessons of the past, and promise to live by them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve already made a reverse bucket list of the dumb things I did and great things I didn’t at various stops on life’s elevator. (“First floor: Childhood. Watch out for measles, bullies, and sixth-grade math. Second floor: Adolescence. Eh, just forget it.”) My 20, 30, and 40-year-old selves were so hopeless that I don’t even want them in my head. Besides, all I could offer would be cliches: “Check your tires. Buy Microsoft stock (not Netscape).”

The only previous-edition Dave who could actually use my advice is the 65-year-old geezer who emerged last fall, and like all of us had no idea he was about to tumble into the slop. He’d wish he’d known these things, but maybe y’all can still appreciate some of them.

  • Rent a warehouse and fill it to the rafters with toilet paper. You’ll thank me in March.
  • Forget the wardrobe upgrade. Those sweatpants from the last millennium, the ones with the barbecue sauce and motor oil stains, will be just fine!
  • If you live with a spouse or partner, make a rule that only one of you is allowed to go bonkers at a time. (This comes from my brother-in-law, who learned it while cooped up on a bus with his band.)
  • You’ll hear a lot from a man named Fauci. Trust him.
  • When watching football, please don’t scream at the top of your lungs to make up for all the fans who aren’t in the stands.
  • FFS don’t shell out 70 bucks so your school will put your face on a piece of cardboard in a seat. You’ll be deeply, seriously embarrassed about that one when this is over. Give the money to a food bank instead.
  • Try not to get riled every time you see some nincompoop in public without a mask. It’ll happen a lot more often than you think. Just keep wearing yours.
  • There will be ways to vote and make your voice heard safely.

Last but not least, music will help you through the rough days and make the better ones feel right. Since I’m writing to my younger self, I’ll close with these words: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Makes sense to me. Take care and be safe.

2020 election, Covid 19 pandemic, Politics, Trump

One man, one vote

October 14, 2020

1940s voting ad: Do your duty! Go to the polls and VOTE!

My voting is done. It felt almost anticlimactic, filling out my ballot at the dining room table, signing it, and slipping it into the dropbox, which I’m sure is secure. Many years ago I was young and dumb enough to sit out an election. But if I had to, I’d stand in line all morning, all day, and all night until Kingdom come to cast this vote.

There’ve been long lines all over Atlanta since early voting began. The pandemic isn’t stopping anybody. On the first day, the line at our local polling place stretched for a couple of blocks, which is a lot of determined voters even if they’re six feet apart. Today it was shorter but still ran from one end of the building to the other, everyone wearing a mask and keeping their distance, waiting patiently in the sun. The scene was civilized and for 2020 as normal as could be: no right-wing protestors, “observers,” or gun-toting goons in sight.

Here in the northern suburbs, the Trumpsters seem to be in retreat. Driving through our old neighborhood, which used to be solid Republican, we saw lots of Democratic signs and some for local GOP folks, but just one for DT.

Of course, the campaign’s not over, North Georgia is about to send a QAnon crackpot to Congress, and the presidential vote could swing either way. But it hasn’t been this close in Georgia since I moved here in 2001. There’s hope. Vote, spread the word, take care, and be safe.

2020 election, Clinton, history, Politics, Trump, War

A statesman speaks

Senator John McCain.

When you’re a reporter covering Congress, you listen to an awful lot of speeches. Many of these breathless bulletins concern vital issues like National Cub Scout Month and the renaming of post offices. Speeches can be pompous, sanctimonious, badly reasoned, highly partisan, dull, hypocritical, long-winded, or all of the above. They’re sometimes thoughtful or heartfelt. Once in a while they can be truly memorable.

I can count on about half of one hand the great speeches I heard in my six years of reporting on the Hill, but one was given by Senator John McCain, who was just diagnosed with brain cancer. It came in 1995, during a late-night debate on a resolution of support for the deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the former Yugoslavia. Their mission was to support the peace accords that had just ended a bloody, sometimes genocidal war.

Most Republicans strongly opposed President Clinton’s decision to put American boots on that ground. As McCain’s address made clear, he did too. But he believed that once the decision was made — even by a Democrat — Congress had a duty to stand behind the troops. He was also determined that the operation must not become another Vietnam.

I don’t agree with a lot of what McCain has done since. I didn’t vote for him for president. But what he said that night has stuck in my mind because of its depth of emotion, honesty, sincerity, and sheer eloquence. His words weren’t canned rhetoric or talking points; they were drawn from life and hard experience. When comparing Bosnia to Vietnam, the former prisoner of war spoke with unfiltered anger and sorrow, but also with pride.

I was once on the other end of the relationship between the military and their civilian commanders. I served with brave men who were sent by our leaders into a calamity–a war we would not win. We were ill used by our political leaders then. We were ill used by many of our senior commanders. I saw good men lose their lives, lives that were just squandered for a lost cause that the dying believed in, but that many of the living did not. Their cause was honor, their own and their country’s. And they found their honor in their answer, not their summons. I will never forget that. Never. Never.

He accepted responsibility for backing a mission that might cost American lives. I know what I am doing. I know that by supporting this deployment, if not the decision, I must share in the blame if it ends disastrously

He admitted feeling conflicted and anguished but concluded the United States can’t withdraw from the world, as the current president seems determined to do. We cannot leave the world alone. For the world will not leave us alone.

So I will support this mission, with grave concern and more than a little sadness. I will support my President. I will, I believe, support my country and the men and women we have asked to defend us. I give my full support, whatever my concerns. And I accept, fully, the consequences of what I do here today. I ask my colleagues to do so as well.

This is the kind of language we rarely hear in the Capitol, let alone on Twitter. The full text is below, with the quotes above and some other portions highlighted.

Mr. (Senate) President, like all other Senators who have spoken today, I wish this debate were not necessary. I agree with those Senators who have said that they would not have undertaken the commitment made by the President of the United States to deploy American ground forces to Bosnia to implement the tenuous peace that now exists there. But that is no longer the central question of our deliberations this evening. The President did so commit and our obligation now goes beyond expressing our disagreement with that decision.

Many of us did disagree, as is abundantly evident by the number of Senators who support the resolution offered by Senators Hutchison, Inhofe, Nickles, and others, yet we all recognize that the President has the authority to make that decision.

The troops are going to Bosnia, and any prospect that Congress could prevent that deployment disappeared in the overwhelming vote in opposition to prohibiting funding for the deployment, the only constitutional means we have to reverse the President’s decision.

Our troops are going to Bosnia. Congress should do everything in our power to ensure that our mission is truly clear, limited, and achievable; that it has the greatest for success with the least risk to the lives of our young men and women. That is our responsibility, as much as the President’s.

The resolution that the majority leader and I have offered does not ask Senators to support the  decision to deploy. It asks that you support the deployment after the decision had been made. It asks you further to condition your support on some important commitments by the President which I will discuss in a moment.

I intend to give that support, and I commend the majority leader for exercising extraordinary leadership in trying to influence both the nature and security of our mission Bosnia as well as the outcome of the peace process there, to which we have made such a profound commitment.

I believe Senator Dole has significantly helped to improve both the security of our forces and the likelihood that the cause they have been asked to serve–peace in Bosnia–will endure beyond the year our forces will be stationed in that troubled country.

He has accomplished these important objectives by securing assurances from the administration that our soldiers will only be expected to perform those tasks for which they are trained, and will not be ill-used in nation-building exercises. Moreover, he has secured the strong commitment from the President that the United States will lead efforts to establish a stable, military balance in Bosnia which is the only undertaking that can be realistically expected to secure a lasting cease-fire there. Those commitments were well worth our efforts, and, again, I am grateful to the distinguished majority leader for his honorable and effective statesmanship in this effort.

Mr. President, what we should all strive to avoid is giving anyone–anyone–in Bosnia the idea that the American people and their elected representatives are so opposed to this deployment that the least provocation–violent provocation–will force the President to withdraw our forces. I do not want a single terrorist, a single Mujaheddin or Bosnian Serb sniper to think that by killing an American, they can incite a political uproar in America that will compel the President to bring our troops home.

That is my first reason for supporting this deployment. I want our enemies to know that America–not just the American force in Bosnia–but all Americans are in deadly earnest about this deployment. Attacks on the safety of those troops should, and I believe will, be met with a disproportionate response. That response will not include abandoning the mission. We must begin now to impress upon all parties in Bosnia that any assault on the security of our soldiers would amount to nothing more than an act of folly on the part of the assailant.

Mr. President, opponents of the President’s decision often claim that there is no vital United   States security interest in Bosnia that would justify the risk of American lives to defend. I have long agreed that there was no such interest. But there is now. There are the lives of 20,000 Americans to defend. And anyone who thinks they can achieve their own political ends by threatening our troops should be forcefully disabused of that notion, and should not be encouraged in their action by the misperception that the American people and the U.S. Congress are not united in steadfast support of our troops, their safety, and the mission they are now obligated to undertake.

There are other important American interests involved in this deployment. All the parties to the Dayton agreement have stated unequivocally that should the United States renege on its commitment, the peace will collapse and hostilities will resume. We will then watch Bosnians suffer again the mass murder and atrocities that have repulsed all people of decency and compassion.

Moreover, Mr. President, abjuring our commitment now would do considerable damage to NATO, the most successful defensive alliance in history. Many Americans may wonder why we need to be concerned about NATO in the wake of the Soviet Unions’s collapse. But, Mr. President, the world still holds many dangers for our security, and our enemies are far less predictable than they once were. We will need our friends in the future, as much as they need us now.

Lastly, Mr. President, I want to talk about the relationship between the Nation’s credibility and the credibility of its chief executive. In an earlier statement on this question, I asked my Republican colleagues to place as high a premium on this President’s credibility abroad, as they would place on a Republican President’s.

I asked this because the reliability of the President’s word is of enormous strategic value to the American people. The President’s voice is the voice of America. When the world loses faith in the commitments of our President, all Americans are less safe–and somewhere down the line American vital interests and American lives will be lost.

The credibility and authority of the President of the United States, and the security of American soldiers, compel our support of their deployment. They are vital interests worth defending whatever our current political differences may be with the President.

Again, by supporting the deployment, I do not confer my approval of the decision to deploy. As I have already stated, I would not have committed American ground forces to this mission, had that decision been up to me. But the decision has been made, by the only American elected to make such decisions–the President of the United States. And I have construed my responsibility in these circumstances as requiring my support for efforts to maximize the prospects for success of the mission and minimize its obvious risks.

My support, and the support I urge my colleagues to give this deployment by voting for the resolution before us, has been characterized by the media as grudging. Fair enough. But let me be clear, I do not want to feed the cynicism of the public–or any members of our free press who might succumb to cynicism from time to time–should they conclude that by our resolution, and our votes preceding this one, that we are trying to avoid speaking clearly in support or opposition, and evade any responsibility for our own actions. I know what I am doing. I know that by supporting this deployment, if not the decision, I must share in the blame if it ends disastrously. I will accept that responsibility–not happily, but honestly, just as Senators who supported the prohibition on funding for the deployment would have had to accept the blame for the problems that would have occurred if they had been successful in preventing the deployment.

The President will be accountable to the families of any American soldier who dies in service to his country in Bosnia. He will have to answer for their loss. But so will I. I fully accept that in my support of the deployment, and my efforts to influence its conduct and its termination, I incur this obligation.

Beyond offering expressions of sorrow and regret, we will have to tell those families that they bear their terrible loss for the sake of the country. Nothing–absolutely nothing–is harder than that. Just contemplating such a responsibility makes me heartsick.

This may be the hardest vote I have cast as a Member of Congress. It may be the hardest vote I will ever cast. To send young men and women into such evident danger is an awful responsibility. I don’t envy the President. Nor do I envy the Senate.

I was once on the other end of the relationship between the military and their civilian commanders. I served with brave men who were sent by our leaders into a calamity–a war we would not win. We were ill used by our political leaders then. We were ill used by many of our senior commanders. I saw good men lose their lives, lives that were just squandered for a lost cause that the dying believed in, but that many of the living did not. Their cause was honor, their own and their country’s. And they found their honor in their answer, not their summons. I will never forget that. Never. Never.

If I have any private oath that I have tried to abide by in my public service it is that I would never ask Americans to serve in missions where success was not defined, the commitment to achieve it uncertain, and its object of less value than its price.

I pray today that I have kept my oath. I will pray so every night for as long as this mission lasts. I wish the people of Bosnia peace. I wish them peace because they deserve that blessing, but even more importantly because the lives of many fine young Americans have been ransomed to that peace. I know that these Americans will perform magnificently, under very difficult circumstances, to secure the objectives of their mission. They will reflect, as they always do, great credit on themselves and on the United States, as they seek again to secure the peace and security in which another people may secure their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Mr. President, I learned about duty, its costs and its honor, from friends who did not come home with me to the country we loved so dearly, and from friends who overcame adversity with far more courage and grace than I possessed. I have tried to see my duty in this question as they would have me see it.

In the difficult decision–and it is difficult for reasons greater and more honorable than political advantage or disadvantage–our sense of duty may lead us to different conclusions. I respect all of my colleagues for seeking to discharge their solemn responsibilities in this matter after careful deliberation and with honest reasoning.

But I want to make one last point to those Americans–and I do not include any of my colleagues in this category–who oppose this deployment and this resolution because they resent the costs of America’s leadership in the world. The burdens that are imposed on the United States are greater than the burdens borne by any other nation. There is no use bemoaning that fact or vainly trying to avoid its reality. This reality will be so for as long as we remain the greatest nation on earth. When we arrive at the moment when less is expected from our leadership by the rest of the world, then we will have arrived at the moment of our decline. We should accept that burden with courage. We cannot withdraw from the world into our prosperity and comfort and hope to keep those blessings. We cannot leave the world alone. For the world will not leave us alone.

So I will support this mission, with grave concern and more than a little sadness. I will support my President. I will, I believe, support my country and the men and women we have asked to defend us. I give my full support, whatever my concerns. And I accept, fully, the consequences of what I do her today. I ask my colleagues to do so as well.

I ask all Senators to support the Dole resolution, irrespective of their views over the policy that brought our soldiers to Bosnia. I ask for your vote as an expression of support for the American soldiers who, summoned to duty in Bosnia, will find their honor and ours in their answer. I ask for your vote to help reduce the threats to their welfare, and increase the chances that the cause for which they risk so much may succeed, and endure long after they have come home to a grateful nation.

And I ask God to bless the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who will render their Nation this great service; to bless the President; to bless the Congress; and to bless the United States. We are all in great need of His benevolence today.

(text from the Congressional Record)