Category Archives: Politics

A statesman speaks

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)

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Moving on

On the road from Birmingham to the beach there’s a town called Lockhart a mile or so north of the Florida state line. In the early 1900s, it was home to a rich pine forest and what was then the biggest lumber mill in the country. Today the only thing a visitor might notice is the Confederate flag on a tall pole just off the highway, with a plaque to inform visitors about “Lincoln’s Tax War.”

This nonsense is part of the campaign by various troglodytes to cover up the fact that the Civil War was brought upon us by slavery. If your beliefs fall anywhere within this dark corner and you’re not willing to consider my side, go away. (PS: All comments are moderated.)

I wouldn’t be writing about this if I hadn’t recently learned about the Confederate Catechism,  which the bigots use to justify themselves. The booklet blames Lincoln and the anti-slavery forces for starting the war and rejecting what the booklet claims was the South’s legal right to secede. Though it’s still circulating, this little pile of crud was written back in 1929 by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, son of President John Tyler — and as I’ve just found out, a man with whom I share ancestors. His mother, Julia Gardiner, came from one of the families on my father’s side.

The connection goes back to at least the 1700s and I’m not descended from the Tylers. Still, it can really kill your day when a name from your family tree is associated with such an odious piece of history. Even more disheartening is that the war is a century and a half in the past, yet we’re still shouting and sometimes shedding blood over the issues at its core. Hatred and ignorance are values passed down through generations.

It helps to remember that our collective legacy also includes some great, inspiring stories. This year marks the bicentennial of one of those events: the founding of the Erie Canal, which the Swans traveled when they moved west in 1848. They took a canal boat or “packet” from Rome, New York to Buffalo, then went on through the Great Lakes to Illinois aboard a sailing ship.

My great-grandfather Adin Swan, then a young man of thirteen, recounted the journey to my grandfather. He in turn told it to my uncle, and my aunt left it written down for me. Though it was probably embellished over the years, it’s still vivid. These are excerpts:

Tomb of Adin and Achsah Swan

The long days on the packet got to be boring, but when the boat was close to shore, my brothers and I would hop ashore…We would look for wild onions for mother to use in cooking and found many berries, especially the wild strawberries.

We caught wild turkeys and at night after building a campfire on the land, mother would roast the turkeys on a spit across a fire pit for all of us to enjoy. These towns where we stopped each night were called “belt cities.”

At long last and after two weeks, our packet docked at Buffalo and we had our first glimpse of one of the beautiful Great Lakes. It was the Erie…I stood looking at this lake, the largest and bluest I had ever seen!

I remember that on Lake Huron we had a terrific wind develop. The wind howled in the ship’s rigging and the snap of the sails could be heard even below deck.

As we neared Green Bay we saw many Indians, for here were gathered many of the tribes of the Algonquins, among them the Potawatomi…At last our ship sailed into Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River.

I wouldn’t be here if not for the pioneer spirit and courage of my ancestors, the vision of the canal’s founders, and the sweat of the workers, many of them Irish immigrants, who dug it out of the wilderness. No matter how dire things seem today, these people overcame struggles we can barely imagine. Let’s hope that when our descendants look back on us, they’ll find we overcame the ugliness in our history, and our present.

I approved this message. Please listen.

A polarizing Republican, both loved and reviled for his views and his record, widely suspected of dark misdeeds. A game but weakened Democrat, lacking the passion and charisma of other Democrats and struggling to overcome campaign blunders. A young voter unhappy with those choices.

I know this sounds too familiar. But I’m not talking about Trump and Clinton in 2016. “Young voter” means me, and no one except a kindly 90-year-old would call me young anymore. This was another election year, when I made a decision that I regret to this day – which I hope with all my heart that no one who reads this will repeat in November.

It happened the first time I was eligible to vote. I had no intention of going Republican because of peer pressure from college friends and classmates, and because the candidate repelled me as he did millions of others. For reasons I can’t fathom now, the Democrat seemed flat, unimpressive, unlikely to deliver on campaign promises, and not worth my support. The nominees’ gaping differences – in policy, demeanor, integrity, and fitness for office – just didn’t register.

In a moment of 18-year-old smugness and blindness, I decided not to cast a ballot for either side. Though people I knew worked to register Democrats and get them to the polls, I didn’t join them. On Election Day I stayed home.

The year was 1972. The Republican was Richard Nixon and the Democrat was George McGovern. My one vote would’ve been buried by the 49-state tsunami that handed Nixon his abbreviated second term. But McGovern, rest his soul, was definitely the better man and despite his failings as a candidate would have been a far better president.

If you weren’t around back then, the legendary Hunter S. Thompson summed up the situation pretty well: “McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?”

I’m still embarrassed that I couldn’t figure this out. I wish I could say I stood for something and used my precious voting power to help my country. I can’t.

But I haven’t missed an election since. And I can say this: Whether you’re 18, 98, or somewhere in between, please, please, put down your phone and VOTE. Help us avoid a disaster worse than anything Nixon wrought.

Don’t be a self-righteous schmuck like I was in ’72. Be a mensch instead.

I’m David Swan and I approved this message.

Reds

Author’s note: This is the first time I’ve posted fiction here. None of the characters are based on real people, the setting is not a particular place in Atlanta, and the story is not based on actual events.

****************

Brianna was afraid she wouldn’t get to see the president. The principal confirmed the rumor right before school ended for the day, his usually grouchy voice on the intercom bursting with pride: “The President of the United States is coming to visit us, right here, because of what we’ve done.” Bree clapped and cheered along with the other kids. But now she sat on the bus with her good friend Val, heading home through the northwestern suburbs of Atlanta, thinking about what her parents would say.

Unhappily, she recalled the middle-school parents’ night a few years earlier, after the last election. Mrs. Nelson, who she loved, had innocently remarked to Bree’s mom that the kids had gotten a great lesson in democracy. Vickie Bailey’s smile vanished and Bree had to stand there, squirming, listening to her mom lecturing her teacher: “This election was stolen from us by the media. They never reported how he’s a Muslim and he rammed all this socialist healthcare down our throats. And they made up all those lies about Romney.” (Of course, her folks had voted against Romney in the primary, convinced he was far too liberal and that Mormons weren’t real Christians.)

“What are you gonna wear?” asked Val, sitting next to Bree.

“Wear to what?”

“The assembly. We might be on TV.”

Bree grimaced. “I might not even get to go. My parents hate him.”

“Mine do too but I don’t care,” Val replied. “They grounded me for skipping school. So what are they gonna do, ground me again for going to school?”

*****

Bree knew she’d be in for a battle. Her mother would have the TV on Fox News as soon as she got in from the bank. Her dad’s sales job with a chemical company kept him on the road all day listening to Rush, Hannity, and the others, and he usually came home stoked, eager to talk about the latest outrage.

She couldn’t get a break at other kids’ houses either. Bree and her folks had gone to a neighborhood cookout one time on a big-game Saturday in October. She sat near the grill and started texting friends while the men came to hang out with the host, Ward Pierce, as he cooked, and pretty soon the talk turned to politics.

“I hear they’re starting Obamacare. So what does that mean – Medicare covers crack and cheap wine?”

“Don’t ask me. I wouldn’t buy into that garbage if I was on my deathbed.”

“My brother says if they hadn’t delayed the small business part, he’d have had to lay off a third of his people. You believe that?”

“Yeah, and this guy keeps talking about how he’s creating jobs. Bull-shit.”

“What I still don’t get is how we elected him in the first place,” said Mr. Pierce, flipping burgers and chicken. “Somebody must’ve stuffed a lot of ballot boxes, ‘cause I’ve never met a white person who voted for him. Or at least who’ll admit it.”

Bree felt uncomfortable. She was in plain sight, not snooping, but was this what they wanted their kids to hear?

Then Mr. Raney spoke up. He lived outside the subdivision in a house that had once been a farmhouse, but everyone in the neighborhood knew him. He was in his early forties with a scraggly brown beard and fierce eyes behind his glasses.

“That black sonofabitch isn’t fit to live,” he said slowly. “And mark my words, if he ever shows his goddamn face around here, he won’t live long.”

Some of the others chuckled a bit nervously. “Better watch out, Paul,” one man said. “Hope there’s no FBI here today,” another one cracked. But nobody really challenged or criticized what he’d said.

*****

The bus lurched to a stop. “Let me know what they say, ok?” Val said.

“I will. Later.” Bree walked to the door, stepped down, and adjusted her backpack. She’d take her time walking home so she could think about how to convince her parents. Maybe if she pretended to be even more excited than she was and talked about how all her friends and the whole school would be there…

She walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, you’re not going to believe this,” but Vickie interrupted her. “I already heard. You’re not going,” she said nonchalantly, as she sliced peppers for a pasta. “I don’t like it when anybody uses kids for props and I definitely don’t want him using you.

“And it’s not just you,” she added. “I talked to Richard and Marcia across the street and some of the other parents, and the school board is going to hear about this.”

*****

Bree didn’t argue yet. Her father got home late due to what the TV called “a huge Friday afternoon meltdown on the topside Perimeter.” If she waited until they were together, she might convince one and have more leverage with the other.

But when she came down for breakfast Saturday morning, Greg Bailey was already going on about ISIS and terrorism, his favorite issue. “We’ve got to go in,” he said, gesturing with a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Remember when he backed down and the French president got mad? When those people think you’re a wimp that’s pretty bad.”

Her mom laughed. “And now he wants to tell all our poor uneducated kids how brave he is,” she said, handing him his coffee. “Well, I know one girl who’s too smart for that.”

“He’s not going to be talking about terrorism,” Bree said. “He’s coming because the test scores are so high and the refugee kids are doing so well. That’s what the principal said.”

Her dad snorted. “Refugees? Probably the same people who are trying to kill us all.”

“Honey, this is a smokescreen,” Vickie said. “He’s trying to hide things. Because of him, we’re not safe anymore.”

Her father sipped his coffee and leaned across the table. “We have to stop this before we have another 9/11. You’re too young to remember that but it was horrible. We need to send soldiers, the NSA, whatever it takes.”

“So should I join the Army after I graduate?” Bree asked. “I read they’re allowing women in combat now.”

Her folks stared at her in surprise. Bree had surprised herself by saying it, but hearing her dad’s spiel again was more than she could handle. “Whoa. Whoa there,” he said.

Vickie jumped in. “Sweetie, you’re only in tenth grade. When you graduate you’re going to college and then you can do what you want but I hope it’s not the Army. Not for combat.”

“Absolutely not.” Her dad got up for more coffee. “That’s another dumb liberal idea.”

“But if the terrorists are so dangerous, shouldn’t we all be doing something?” Bree blurted, a little louder than she intended. “And how come you were never in the Army?”

Her dad’s face hardened. He banged his cup down, spilling the coffee, and walked swiftly toward Bree. She shrank back in the chair but he pulled her to her feet. “Greg!” her mother cried. He looked at her, then down at Bree, then after a moment let her go and walked out.

*****

“He’s really sorry,” her mom said. They were in Vickie’s Chevy Traverse on the way to Bree’s flute lesson. Looking out her window, she saw a few birds flying among tall pines against a pale grey sky.

“I know. He told me,” Bree replied. “But it scared me and I still don’t understand it.”

Vickie sighed. “He wanted to serve in the military but it just didn’t work out. It’s always been hard for him, because your grandfather was in Vietnam and his father was in World War II, in Italy. He was a real hero,” she said, shifting lanes. “That’s why he’s kind of sensitive about this.”

“Kind of? Mom, he was going to hit -”

“No, he wasn’t,” Vickie said firmly. “I wouldn’t have let him and he wouldn’t have done that anyway. He just lost his head for a second.

“But your generation doesn’t have to worry about things like mine did or our parents did,” she said. “Grandpa didn’t want go to Vietnam. He didn’t have any choice.” The Chevy sped up, not much, but enough for Bree to notice.

“And all the things you kids have, I swear,” Vickie continued. “Remember when your friend Katie was over the other day and was talking about how she just had to have all new clothes?” The car moved a little faster. “I wanted to talk some sense into that girl.

“I wonder how she’d like it if all her clothes, everything she had, came from the Goodwill.” A pause. “With her own cousin telling everybody you’re wearing what she gave away.”

Bree looked at her mom, startled. Vickie said, “I’ll bet she never has to rub her poor mama’s feet after she’d waited tables all day.” Bree had never heard that either.

The Traverse kept accelerating as Vickie seemed to forget she was behind the wheel. “And her daddy’s a good man,” she said, her voice suddenly cracking. “He’d never -” choking back a sob, “He’d never slap her face in a restaurant just for asking if she could have a piece of pie.”

One after the other, the tears appeared, trickling down Vickie’s face below her sunglasses. She stared ahead, not talking, as the trees rushed past and Bree looked fearfully at the speedometer. “Mom, are you all right?” she said. “You’re going almost 65 and this is a 45 zone.”

“Oh my gosh oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” Vickie said, quickly braking, then stopping at a light and dabbing at the tears with a tissue. “I got distracted. Don’t ever do that when you learn to drive.” She pushed the gas pedal, gently, as the light changed.

“You never told me any of those things,” Bree said. “It must have been awful.”

“Honey, it’s my cross to bear,” Vickie said. “And I’m out of that place, and I’ve got you and your father. I’m fine.

“But nobody ever gave us anything. I waited tables too and did lots of other jobs because I had to. Now everybody in the world just wants handouts, and the president will give them what I earned and worked for.” She looked closely at Bree. “That’s why you’re not going. We won’t have any part of it.”

*****

By Sunday night Bree was resigned to missing the assembly. After dinner, she sat by the window in her second-floor bedroom looking out over the front yard, reading her biology book. The window was open and a light breeze drifted through the screen, but with her earbuds in she almost didn’t hear the car pull into the driveway. Looking down, she saw Mr. Raney at the door as her father opened it. “Paul,” he said, sounding surprised.

“Hey,” said Mr. Raney. “Sorry to bother you but I need to ask you something. You used to work for Danielson Chemical, right?”

“Yes, I was there before I started with Chemico. Why?”

“You ever go up to that warehouse out at the end of Shallow Run Road?”

“Sure. But –”

“What kind of security they got?”

Her dad didn’t answer right away. Then as Bree listened intently, Greg said in a worried tone, “Why would you want to know a thing like that?”

Mr. Raney chuckled. “Just a little project I got going. Y’all will find out about it this week.” He lowered his voice but Bree could still hear him. “Let’s just say I’m giving our visitor a big welcome and he’s going from here straight to hell.”

Bree froze. It was several seconds before her dad spoke again. “Paul, I don’t believe this. I hope you’re not saying what I think you are, but I don’t want anything to do with it. You’d better leave right now.”

Mr. Raney didn’t move. “Look around,” he said in a low rasp, grabbing Greg’s shoulder and gesturing with his other hand. “Look at all those houses. You think there’s anybody in any of them that doesn’t want that bastard dead? Think you’re any different?”

Terrified, Bree looked down as Mr. Raney glared into her father’s face. “You’re just like me. Except I got the guts to do something.” He stepped off the porch, saying “Trust me, you’ll be happy and the kids won’t get hurt. But you better not say a goddam word.” He got into his car and drove away.

*****

Carefully, Bree stepped back from the window, her heart pounding and her brain feeling like it was caught in a tornado. After what happened on Saturday morning, she didn’t want to tell her dad she’d been eavesdropping. But she’d heard some neighborhood whispers about Mr. Raney having spent time in jail. And she couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.

She went to bed early that night but barely slept. The next afternoon, she sat silently on the bus. When she got home, both cars were in the driveway, and as she came in she heard low, urgent voices upstairs. She started up the steps, changed her mind, and walked out to the deck.

Standing in the cool afternoon, hands in her sweatshirt pockets, she rehearsed what she’d decided to say to her dad. Suddenly she heard sirens, then with no warning the roar of a helicopter right overhead. Running to the deck rail, she watched the sleek black chopper land in Mr. Raney’s yard as a silver Hummer barreled into his driveway. Five helmeted figures with rifles jumped out and ran through the door, followed by three more from the helicopter. A moment later they led Mr. Raney out, struggling, handcuffed behind his back.

Bree heard more copters. Running back through the kitchen, she saw BREAKING NEWS on the TV as a reporter said, “Law enforcement sources tell us the suspect was stockpiling chemicals for a bomb plot directed against the president, who’s scheduled to visit this area this week. We don’t know if anyone else is involved but our sources say this was a credible, serious threat.”

Bree raced up the stairs, then stopped outside the bedroom as she heard her dad say in a hushed, pleading voice, “What was I supposed to do? He was here at our house! We’d all be in jail!”

“It doesn’t matter!” her mom screamed. “You don’t call the police on a neighbor! And we could’ve been rid of Obama! How stupid can you be?”

*****

Bree stood there, stunned, as her father yanked open a drawer and stuffed the contents into a gym bag. “Oh, that’s good,” Vickie snapped. “You’re running away. You’re such a coward, just like in R.O.T. -”

Greg grabbed something off the dresser. An instant later, the heavy antique ashtray flew across the room. Vickie shrieked as it smashed into the mirror behind her and the glass shattered. Not even looking at her, Bree’s father charged downstairs and slammed the door hard enough to rattle the whole house. Her mother stood, her eyes wide and her body shaking, as the last few shards fell off the wall. Outside, tires screeched as Greg’s car roared out of the driveway.

*****

Later, as they sat in the kitchen, Vickie told Bree how her dad washed out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college after failing a bayonet drill, in which he not only couldn’t skewer a dummy but nearly got sick to his stomach. “I shouldn’t have called him a coward,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have said any of those things. I know that. But that’s no excuse. I still can’t believe it.”

Vickie buried her face in her hands. She sat for a long moment as Bree waited, not knowing what to say, while the TV described Mr. Raney’s plan and his crude map of the presidential motorcade route. Finally her mother raised her head.

“My dad threw a whole stack of plates at my sister once,” she said. “I thought all that was over. You try to forget the hurts and hold onto the good things and what you’ve always believed, and it seems like the whole world’s against you.”

“Is he coming back?” Bree asked.

“I don’t know. I’d have to forgive him but first he’d have to answer his phone.” Vickie looked sadly at Bree. “Lord, I’m so sorry we put you through this.”

“I’m okay. And they’re not cancelling the assembly. I just got a text.”

“Oh no. Don’t even think about that. Nothing has changed.”

“Mom, are you kidding?” Bree cried. “Everything has changed! Do you want me to be the only one who doesn’t go?”

*****

“So what’s going on with your dad?” Val asked. “It’s been three days.”

They were in a long line inching toward the gym for the assembly. Bree checked her texts; nothing from her mom. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “They were up late talking on the phone last night, but I guess they’re still mad.”

“At least you got to come.”

Bree sighed. “I’m so not used to this.” They were close to the gym now and could hear the band playing inside as the kids around them talked and laughed excitedly. Just then her phone buzzed. He’s back. Please come home as soon as you can. Love, m.

Bree clutched the phone tight, closed her eyes for a second, and started to turn away, then stopped and walked forward toward the Secret Service agents at the door. She was in the bleachers when a flourish of music quieted the crowd and a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

This land is their land

The Saturday after the Paris attacks I watched football as usual, but also for a little normalcy, a break from apprehension and sorrow. The game I saw was ideal for that purpose: Michigan vs. Indiana, taking me back to my home turf and calling up memories of football Saturdays in Ann Arbor 40 years ago.

Both schools are part of the Big Ten, which is as American as they come, being the oldest Division I athletic conference in the country.* Some people claim its brand of football is stodgy and boring, but this one was, as they say in Middle America, a barn-burner. Michigan won it 48-41 in double overtime, with the quarterback tossing six touchdown passes. One of them went to tight end Jake Butt (yes, the joke potential is limitless), who’s from Pickerington, Ohio.

But four of those TDs were caught by a lightning-fast wideout named Jehu Chesson, who was born in Monrovia, Liberia during the first Liberian civil war. The final, game-winning touchdown was scored by Amara Darboh, born around the same time in Freetown, Sierra Leone amid that country’s civil war. Chesson and his family moved to Ivory Coast before going on to St. Louis. Darboh’s parents were killed, but he escaped on foot with relatives to Gambia, Senegal, and finally, with sponsorship from a Christian group, to Des Moines. He’s now a U.S. citizen.

These young men came from places that many Americans would find obscure, like Raqqa. They fled bloody conflicts that dragged on for years, killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced millions. Would we be safer or stronger if we’d arbitrarily locked them out, as various politicians say we should do with the Syrians?

I know: Liberia and Sierra Leone didn’t breed terrorists who plant bombs in other places. But (1) the ones flooding Europe are trying to get away from the bombers themselves. (2) Refugees don’t just waltz into the USA through customs; the existing screening can take months or years. And (3): They’re less likely to be radicalized here than in some European slum.

I’m not blind to terrorism. I was among those who had to evacuate the U.S. Capitol on 9/11 and I spent the day a few blocks from there, wondering if another plane was coming at us. I’m absolutely not excusing extremism either. But Jeb Bush, who I rarely agree with on anything, committed common sense in talking about Paris and, “the despair and the hatred that has built up over time…where people may have a French passport, may be a French citizen, but they’re not really French.”

Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are sociology majors at one of our great universities. They perform the ritual of running under and touching the Michigan banner at home games, and they play those games under the Stars and Stripes. Even the people in Indiana can be thankful and proud that they’re here. We can all be proud if we reject ignorance, fear, and hatred, and welcome the Syrians to come.


*The Big Ten actually has fourteen teams, having extended its Midwestern roots to Penn State, Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. It’s also one of the most tradition-bound conferences in the country, but that’s another story.

Their past, our present

When a movie star lies about his past to protect his image, it’s usually a non-story. In fact, in Hollywood, it’s probably considered PR 101. But Ben Affleck went way over the line when he persuaded the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” not to mention an ancestor who owned slaves. As a result, PBS has suspended the next season of the show.

Affleck says he was looking for “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.” As anyone who’s ever spent five minutes on Ancestry.com could have told him, digging into your past can bring both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, especially on this issue.

I learned a lot about my own roots from my wonderful aunt Rowena Swan, who spent years researching and writing a family history book. (She did it the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way too, walking around cemeteries and poring over files in courthouses.) As far as I know, none of the Swans in my line were slaveholders. Those who were alive during the Civil War were Union, including my great-great uncle, who died in Grant’s army.

However, another branch of the family, my great-grandmother’s forebears in Worcester, Massachusetts, had slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s, including an elderly woman named Silvia. Yet another limb of the tree produced Julia Gardiner Tyler, who married President John Tyler in 1844 and joined him in fervently supporting the South after he left office.  According to Wikipedia, she got accustomed to owning slaves and enraged Union war veterans by flying a Confederate flag at her home on Staten Island.

I can’t run from, disown, or deny any of this. These are hard facts, just as it’s a fact that Washington and Jefferson had slaves. That doesn’t change their standing as founders of our country — but neither do their achievements make their slaveholding any less reprehensible.

Even in Silvia’s time, there were people who were affluent and powerful like her owners, but made different moral choices. My mother’s father, Thomas Walter Simpson, made that kind of choice when he hid his black workers from the mobs in the terrible Springfield, Illinois race riot in 1908. Ben Affleck had some noble ancestors too. But how many white families that came here before the Emancipation are completely pure?

We’re not our ancestors. But trying to hide their actions and our common history will only make things worse.

One nation?

The Second American Civil War began not with a cannonball but with a tweet. In the early morning of November 9, 2016, the defeated right-wing Republican presidential nominee called on his followers to “Resist this socialist plague by any means necessary. Be ready to quit these ‘United States’ to build a new nation where we can be free again.”

Mainstream Republicans, pundits, bloggers, and ordinary Americans of every stripe agreed that, as they’d suspected all along, the ex-candidate was, quite simply, as crazy as a loon. But within days, a Dallas-based “grassroots” movement, funded by billionaires’ money, was urging Americans to renounce their citizenship, cut all ties with the federal government, and give up their Social Security, Medicare, military pensions, VA benefits, and much more.

In a few months, fully 75% of Texas Republicans joined the “renouncers,” and the idea spread over the land like a spring flood. In Mississippi, the state legislature declared every federal law since 1865 null and void within the state’s borders (though for the moment it didn’t try to stop Mississippians from receiving SBA loans, tax refunds, or crop subsidies). In Athens, GA, a mob of university students, most of them too young to legally renounce anything, burned the Stars and Stripes and screamed for the death of the new president.

As one of the organizers explained, “We could’ve gone out to West Texas right after the election and planted a flag for the new independent republic of whatever, but we would’ve been laughed out of town. We knew we had to get the numbers first and show that plenty of people were really serious about this and then make our move.”

The move came at high noon on July 4, 2017 when the Texas legislature, after revising its rules to head off another filibuster by someone like Wendy Davis, voted to formally sever the state’s relationship with the other states. The White House planned to just ignore the noise out of Austin, believing itself on solid political and constitutional ground. Even Justice Antonin Scalia had declared years earlier that, “If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.”

But no sooner had the gavel cracked down on the final tally when the cameras cut to a park in San Francisco, where a half-million people had suddenly gathered to demand a new independent nation called Free California. “Why should we not reap the same benefits, and use our freedom to take real action to save our earth from climate change?” one speaker asked, to loud cheers. “Why only them? Why not us? Why not us?”

In what historians now agree was a cataclysmic blunder, the White House blinked. Instead of standing on the Constitution and telling both sides, in effect, “Are you fucking shitting me?”, the president invited the separatists to a “summit” to “reaffirm and recommit to our shared American values.”

By the time the summit was held, Texas and California had been joined at the table by more than a dozen other states and one peninsula – the Upper one in Michigan, where the “Yoopers” were now ready to part ways with not only the Lower Peninsula but the rest of the country. By the next year, Texalina stretched from New Mexico to the Outer Banks, Oregon and Washington had joined California in Pacifica, New York and New England had formed their own republics, and Florida was still debating whether to go solo or remain tied to what was left of the USA (a decision complicated by the prospect of issuing visas and passports to snowbirds).


This was inspired by recent events in Ukraine and Crimea. Obviously there are differences: Russia’s actions were outrageous and clearly illegal under every relevant international law and convention. But the way our politics are heading, are we any less volatile? Could we decide someday that we’re just a bad patchwork and we might as well ditch the whole thing?

I still doubt it. But I never thought my uncle’s satirical predictions about traffic would come true either.