Looking back at a local, international tragedy

Amarillo is going to spend the next few days looking back at an event that touched many residents here deeply, while also bringing tears to many others around the world.

It was a decade ago, on Feb. 1, 2003, that the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in the sky over Texas as it hurtled back to Earth after a 16-day mission. Rick Husband, an Amarillo native, was at the stick when tragedy struck. He and his six space-traveling colleagues perished at that moment. And the image of Columbia’s shattered pieces glowing in the sky en route to Florida are stuck forever in our minds.

Husband never left home, even though he and his family had moved to Houston, where he trained to fly into space. He came back often to visit his family and his wife Evelyn’s family. He is buried at Llano Cemetery. Husband was tied inextricably to this community.

But the tragedy that struck at the world’s heart a decade ago brings to mind two matters that have gone largely unnoticed in recent times … at least in my view.

One is that human beings are meant to explore space and the nation should recommit to a robust manned space program. NASA has what’s left of the shuttle fleet and as of this moment, American astronauts are hitching rides into orbit aboard Russian rockets. Imagine that: We’re now passengers on spaceships launched by a nation with which we had this intense competition to be the first to land on the moon. Americans got there first – and the Russians have yet to do so.

The second is that space travel never has been, nor ever will be, a “routine” endeavor. It’s like the so-called “routine traffic stop” that police officers perform daily. Every cop on the beat will tell you that something can go terribly wrong during one of those stops. Occasionally it does. The same can be said of space travel.

The mission Husband and his crew carried out was done under the immense threat of something going terribly wrong. They didn’t expect disaster to strike, but on that day it did. A piece of debris that flew off the shuttle hit the leading edge of one of its wings, damaging it and exposing it to the hyper-intense heat of atmospheric re-entry.

The result broke our hearts.

As President Kennedy said in 1961 while committing the nation to landing on the moon, “We don’t do these things because they are easy, we do them because they are hard.”

Space travel is hard, no matter if it’s to another celestial body or circling this planet. It’s dangerous and it is fraught with deadly peril.

But it’s something we must do.

Gridlock claims another Senate casualty


Now it’s Saxby Chambliss who’s tossed in the towel on his public service career.

The Georgia Republican has announced he won’t seek re-election next year to a third term in the Senate. His reason is sounding like a worn-out replay: gridlock and extreme partisanship.

Chambliss gave notice this week that he’s done, joining the likes of former Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine who last year was among the more notable retirees to lay blame on the Senate’s lack of compromise. Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson said much the same thing when he quit the Senate in 1997.

Republicans should have no fear, though, of Chambliss’s seat being captured by those nasty Democrats. Georgia is one of many solidly Republican Southern states that more than likely will keep the seat in GOP hands … and may in fact send another tea party ideologue to the Upper Chamber in 2014.

“This is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress, especially on issues that are the foundation of our nation’s economic health,” Chambliss said in a statement declaring his intention to step down.

This is too bad.

Texans last year jumped fully onto the tea party bandwagon by electing Ted Cruz to the Senate to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison, who gave up her seat to challenge Rick Perry unsuccessfully in the Republican gubernatorial primary. My sense is that Hutchison had grown weary of the Capitol Hill bickering, given her own record of working well with Democrats. She, too, might have walked away, citing the same frustrations as others in her party have noted in their departures.

Serving in the Senate or in any other public office shouldn’t become a blood sport. But it has, at least in the eyes of good men and women who no longer have the stomach for the never-ending fight.

Very sad …

John Kerry: cool customer

You’ve got to hand it John Kerry, the presumptive next secretary of state.

He was making an opening statement Thursday in front of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a panel he still chairs. Then a woman erupted in the back of the hearing room, shouting about needing to find peace with the Iranians. She yelled something about killing innocent people and how it must stop. She yelled her protest for perhaps about 30 seconds.

Then Capitol Hill security officers escorted her out of the room.

Sen. Kerry turned to listen to her and then, after she left the room, he turned back to the committee and recalled his first exposure to D.C. power, which was in the 1970s when he was protesting our nation’s conduct of the Vietnam War, in which he served in combat as a Navy officer. Kerry said his own protest in those contentious times underscored the American virtue of valuing dissent and said that is a quality that must exist to this day.

Thus, he said, the young woman’s protest on Thursday also was an appropriate expression, which he said served to punctuate perfectly his own appearance in front of the Senate panel.

That’s what I call a cool customer who thinks well on his feet.

And that coolness will serve John Kerry well as he takes over as the nation’s top foreign service officer.

Vetting failure brought back to life

I hate re-plowing old ground.

But …

A report out of Florida concerning a former top Amarillo municipal administrator brings to light the dangers of failing to screen applicants thoroughly for these jobs.

According to an Amarillo Globe-News story co-written by my friends Karen and Kevin Welch, Jihad El Eid has been charged with bribery and is being sought – along with his brother – by federal authorities who want to arrest them. El Eid is charged in Broward County, Fla., with taking $150,000 in bribes in exchange for landing construction contracts from a company also under investigation.

Why does this matter to us here in Amarillo? Because El Eid once was hired to be the city’s traffic engineer, a post that pays a handsome six-figure salary financed with public money. The problem with El Eid, though, was that he was under suspicion of bribery at the time he was hired in December 2010. El Eid was a traffic engineer in Florida, but had been demoted from that job. No one here at the time thought to inquire about the demotion and what led up to it.

Amarillo officials acknowledged this major hiring breakdown. El Eid left the city and eventually the country – ending up in his native Lebanon – while on the job in Amarillo. City Manager Jarrett Atkinson fired him when he failed to report to work.

To his great credit, Atkinson – who was fairly new in his own job at the time – called for a top-to-bottom review of the city’s hiring practices and has instituted a policy that requires background and reference checks on all applicants.

That revamped policy is the good news coming out of this embarrassing tale. The bad news is that the city is having to relive this nightmare all over again while authorities in Florida seek to solve a criminal act.

Full disclosure: I listened to Limbaugh

It’s time for me to come clean on something that happened this afternoon.

While driving home from a noon meeting in downtown Amarillo, I was flipping through radio channels when I came upon Rush Limbaugh’s AM radio gabfest. It didn’t take long to remind myself why I virtually never listen to the blowhard. (Note: I said “virtually never,” because the comments here disqualify me from proclaiming that I “absolutely never” listen to Limbaugh.)

He was bloviating about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance before two congressional committees Wednesday in which she explained what happened on Sept. 11, 2012 in that horrific fire fight that erupted at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed four heroic Americans, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. I read Wednesday that he described the hearings as a “pukefest,” apparently out of disgust over the way Democratic senators and House members praised Clinton’s service to the country.

For the record, I concur that she’s been a spectacular secretary of state.

Limbaugh noted that Clinton has this “aura of invincibility” about her, which he apparently doesn’t believe is warranted. And why not? “She’s never been elected to anything,” he bellowed.

Stop. Hold it. Time out.

My memory is clear on this. Hillary Clinton, after serving eight years as first lady of the United States, was elected to the U.S. Senate from New New York in 2000 and re-elected in 2006. Both victories were landslides. Thus, she has been elected to something … a pretty important office in fact. And if I remember it correctly, she won plenty of Senate admirers from both political parties for her work ethic, intelligence and her own ability to forge bipartisan compromises.

Is this a major point? Probably not in the grand scheme of things, but it does demonstrate how one individual continues to hold such sway with an adoring public that ignores his glaring aversion to the truth.

There, now I feel better.

Lock ‘n load, ladies


It’s going to happen, finally. Women will be allowed to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make the announcement later today in what figures to be the most talked-about policy overhaul since the racial integration of the armed forces in the late 1940s.

Yes, it’s bigger than lifting the ban on gays serving openly, given that everyone knew that gays were serving already.

But here’s the question: Aren’t women serving already in combat roles? Yes they are and they’re doing so with distinction. They’re flying combat aircraft – helicopters and fixed-wing; they driving truck convoys through hostile territory, and some of them have died as a result; they are serving with civil affairs units in combat zones, working with indigenous populations in what was called “pacification” during the Vietnam War.

What Panetta will announce is that women will be allowed to serve in the combat arms: infantry, armor and artillery. And that’s where some disagreement may emerge. I think it’s overblown, given the role that women have been playing already on the battlefield.

Will women be strong enough to walk on patrols carrying rucksacks full of gear? That seems to be the top concern among infantry personnel. What about handling artillery ordnance? And what about their skill at operating an M-1 Abrams battle tank? I understand the concern, but the Pentagon brass now believes female military personnel will rise to the challenge that is being thrown in front of them.

I’ll make this personal point of privilege. A cousin of mine is serving in the Army. She’s been ordered on several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the Afghanistan tours of late have been of relatively brief duration. She has worked in a civil affairs capacity and has been armed to the teeth while working with civilians trying to build infrastructure in their communities. She also has engaged in fire fights with enemy personnel. I have no doubt, none, that she can hold her own in any male colleague.

OK, I’m biased. I’m immensely proud of my cousin. But my sense is that she is just one of many thousands of women who can carry out any order given them.

Yet another new day is dawning at the Pentagon, and it will result in the strengthening of the world’s most powerful military force.

Time’s a wastin’, lawmakers


The Texas Legislature meets every other year for 140 days. That’s about five months’ time to get lots of business done for a state of 26 million inhabitants and one of the world’s largest economies.

Yet as it always happens, our 150 state representatives and 31 state senators lollygag around for far too long, getting into a rush at the end to try to wrap up the business for which they have so little time to complete.

It’s happening again in this session, apparently.

I have been watching this spectacle unfold since 1984, when my family and I first moved Texas, first to Beaumont and then to Amarillo. I simply don’t get it.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, given that we pay our “citizen” legislators so little money. They earn $600 a month. In addition, they get a per diem expense payment while the Legislature is in session. It’s less than $200 daily and it’s supposed to cover ancillary expenses related to the job, such as lunches with special interest representatives and the like, office supplies, staff expenses … those kinds of things.

It’s probably unrealistic, then, to expect our legislators to hit the ground at a full sprint when they’re sworn in at the beginning of the session. I don’t doubt that our state lawmakers – Reps. John Smithee and Four Price, and Sen. Kel Seliger, all of Amarillo – work hard while they’re in Austin.

It’s just that the collective legislative body seems to cram so much work into so little time. Do they have time to read at the last minute the volumes of text contained in legislation? I suppose that’s why they have staff members and chiefs of staff. It’s their job to do the heavy lifting, which includes plowing through those gazillions of words.

Still, a part of me wishes the Legislature could get down to serious business earlier than it does. The result might be thoughtful laws that make sense, which is a key component of good government.

That assumes, of course, that Texans still believe in such a thing.

Playing the race card

Some folks on the right have taken to accusing those on the left of playing the race card too frequently to explain the ideological chasm that exists among Americans in these contentious times.

But that criticism occasionally ignores an unmistakable truth, which is that righties have their own racial burdens to bear.

Witness the recent rant by Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly, one of the premier right-wing loudmouths on TV. He accuses President Obama of wanting to take down Republicans because, according to Bill O, he thinks the GOP is the party of “white privilege.”

I’ll stand aside for now. Take a look at this link. I wonder what others think of O’Reilly’s comments.


Yes, he should swear on a Bible

Dean Obeidallah has this idea that presidents should not take their oath of office with their hand on a Bible.
In an essay he wrote for CNN.com, Obeidallah says the Constitution is the document to which the president swears and that is where his hand should rest. It’s also interesting to note that this man is a former lawyer and a “political comedian.” When I read the essay I kept looking for a punch line. I didn’t see one, so I’m assuming he’s making a serious point.
Well, President Obama has just taken his second inaugural oath and it has been reported by various media around the world that he took the oath with his hand on an old Bible once used by President Abraham Lincoln.
I got to thinking about what the CNN essayist said and wondered for a moment what kind of firestorm would erupt in the conservative media had this president taken his oath on a volume other than a Bible.
Every conservative political commentator’s head would explode. Heck, many of them already have accused the president of being a closet Muslim who sympathizes with terrorists … despite his many declarations of his Christian faith. That doesn’t matter, they say. The president is lying and he really hates Christians, the nuttiest among them say.
An acquaintance of mine once said the president took his fist oath with his hand on a Quran – Islam’s holy book. I looked at him, stunned to say the least. “How do you know that?” I asked. “It’s all over the Internet,” he said with as straight a face as I’ve ever seen someone utter such bilge. I told him – in not-very-polite terms – that what he had just said was nothing but unadulterated bull corn (or a term to that effect). We haven’t spoken to each other since.
The president takes what’s been viewed commonly as a sacred oath. Thus, in my view it is appropriate for him to place his hand on a Bible if that is what he prefers. The Constitution does not require it of presidents. But I see nothing wrong with him using the Bible as an affirmation of the oath he takes to serve the United States of America.
And, let’s not forget, presidents have the option of ending the oath with the “so help me God,” which Barack Obama has done twice.
Congratulations on your second inauguration, Mr. President. God bless you.

Fresh start is the order of the day


I am heartened by what’s being reported about Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

It is that the Republican senator wants a fresh start with President Obama. No more talk, apparently, of making Obama a “one-term president.” Indeed, with the president’s second inauguration on tap this weekend, the single-term wish never will be fulfilled.

This bruising campaign that ended with Obama’s re-election – with a substantial Electoral College majority to boot – is history. It was a rough first term for the president and for the 112th Congress, which has made way for the current crop of lawmakers to try to solve the problems their immediate predecessors left unsolved.

The initial signs don’t look promising, with talk of impeachment over the president’s gun policies. Then again, the impeachment talk is coming from a couple of nut jobs, one of whom hails from Texas, freshman Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, who one commentator this week described as the House’s new “Allen West.”

But let’s set that silly stuff aside.

McConnell wants the president to talk about deficit reduction and spending cuts in his inaugural address. That’s a reasonable request. The good news, though, is that it comes with no outward threats. That could be a harbinger of the fresh start McConnell seeks.

It’s also instructive that as the fiscal talks reached a climax at the end of 2012, McConnell turned to his former Senate colleague, Vice President Joe Biden, for help in breaking the logjam. He gave up trying to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and sought help from the schmoozer in chief of the Obama administration. That outreach also could be seen as the opening of a new chapter.

One final note: Both sides of this ongoing argument need to bury the hatchet – and not in each other’s back. My own hope is that President Obama can learn how to schmooze as well. Lyndon Johnson knew how to talk to the other side, as did Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, Obama is fond of invoking Reagan’s name when it benefits his own agenda. He also ought to adopt some of The Gipper’s inherent good cheer in working with Republicans.

With no more personal campaigns to wage, now is the time for a fresh start.

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