Bork hearings proved instructive

Former federal judge Robert Bork has died at age 85. He became something of a symbol back in 1987 when the U.S. Senate denied him a place on the U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s how it went down, as I recall it.

President Reagan nominated Bork to the court. He was a brilliant legal scholar. On paper, he seemed eminently qualified to sit on the High Court. One little problem emerged, though. It seems that Bork’s writings on a whole array of social issues caused big-time grief with many senators, who were empowered by the Constitution to “advise and consent” to any federal judicial nomination. Many liberals – led by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy – expressed intense loathing, for example, of Bork’s views on abortion. They fought Bork tooth and nail.

In the end, Bork’s nomination was voted down. Indeed, the treatment he received from the Senate turned his name into a verb. To be “Borked,” according to conservatives, was to be treated unfairly by one’s critics. What’s more, the bitter tone of that fight has set the stage for many similar battles in subsequent Supreme Court nominations.

Bork’s nomination came to symbolize something about presidential appointments.

I tend to endorse presidential picks on a single principle: the prerogative that goes with holding the highest office in the land.

Reagan had been re-elected in 1984. He ran then as he did four years earlier, by pledging – among many things – to appoint conservative judges. And oh brother, he picked a doozy of a conservative in Bork.

Would this judge have been my choice? No. But it wasn’t my call to make.

He was qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, but he didn’t get the nod because the same Constitution that gives appointment power to the president also gives the Senate the authority to reject an appointment whenever it sees fit.

A Justice Bork could have turned out to be quite different than the federal judge whose lengthy paper trail became such an inviting target for critics. It’s happened before, with presidents picking justices who built legacies no one would have expected.

Robert Bork’s nomination and its result has provided a graphic lesson on the complexities of our system of government. Somehow, it works.

Unspeakable tragedy makes everything else small

I cannot stop this nagging feeling in the pit of my gut that there may be some political good coming from the Sandy Hook school massacre.

The nation continues its grief over the unconscionable terror that visited the Newtown, Conn., school this past Friday. Twenty children died, along with six teachers in the slaughter perpetrated by a lone gunman, who then killed himself.

It will be a long time before we stop talking about those precious babies and those who sought to protect them from the madman. May their memories live forever in our hearts.

But is it interesting that in the wake of that horror, everything else seems insignificant? Even the so-called “fiscal cliff” talks in Washington now seem to be the stuff of petty petulance.

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are negotiating over tax rates for rich folks. Boehner is ready to consider boosting rates for those who earn a million bucks a year; Obama is sticking to his $250,000 annual income demand. They’re moving closer on a number of fronts … suddenly, as the nation turns its attention to matters of the heart and soul.

It strikes me today that differences between Democrats and Republicans no longer seem to matter as much as it did, say, the beginning of this past week. The gunman hadn’t yet done his evil deed and everyone in D.C. was focused on how to put one over on the other side.

Now it seems that everyone on both sides of the political debate seems small. And who among them – given what the nation is enduring in the wake of such profound tragedy – wants the public to blame either side for a failure to prevent fiscal catastrophe because of something called “political principle”?

Irrational acts prompt irrational ‘solutions’

One of the more troubling aspects of any tragedy must be the reaction of some leaders looking desperately for ways to prevent future tragic acts.

Twenty-six people – including 20 precious children – are dead at the hands of a madman who opened fire inside an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. A small fraction of the response has been politically motivated. We’ve seen some blame tossed around. Also some finger-pointing.

But the most idiotic response – in my view – has been the call by some elected “leaders” to arm school teachers and other educators with firearms. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, said he “wished to God” the Sandy Hook school principal – who died in the rampage – had been armed with an M-4 assault rifle so that she could have taken the shooter out before he did more damage.

The idea, according to Gohmert, is to turn our schools into armed camps. Arm the teachers, principals, assistant principals, maybe even the secretaries with firearms. Why not let the custodians pack heat too? Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson – the author of Texas’ concealed handgun carry law – said much the same thing. Indeed, Patterson is proud of his “Gun Guy” nickname. I was an early critic of the concealed carry law, but I’ve softened my view of it, given the absence of any random shootouts on street corners I envisioned when then-state Sen. Patterson proposed it in the mid-1990s.

But what kind of environment do these so-called “leaders” seek to create on our public school campuses by allowing teachers to carry weapons? They apparently intend to put everyone – students, teachers, parents – on edge wondering who’s packing a firearm.

It is absolutely the wrong environment.

We need calm, rational discussion of viable choices to a complex set of issues. Arming our teachers with assault weapons – which Rep. Gohmert and other blowhards are pitching – is a prescription for even more bloodshed, not less.

Lack of school prayer is no villain here

I no longer can stand by while some of my fellow Americans start laying blame for the Connecticut school massacre on the lack of officially sanctioned prayer in school.

I’ve seen it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. What happened in Newtown, Conn., was an evil act that utterly defies human understanding. Twenty-seven lives were snuffed out by what one TV commentator called an act committed by “Satan himself.” Indeed.

Would this have happened had the federal court system ruled in the 1960s that school-sponsored prayer didn’t violate the Constitution’s prohibition against it? My guess is that it would.

Let’s understand what the courts ruled. The Supreme Court – led by Chief Justice Earl Warren – did not ban prayer in school. It did declare that teachers, principals and other public school authorities – as agents of the state – cannot order kids to pray. The First Amendment lays it out clearly: There shall be no law that establishes a state religion and there should be no prohibition of the “free exercise thereof.”

The bottom line is that students are free to pray whenever they wish. And students do pray to whichever deity they worship. That is their right and no one can deny it to them.

No, blame for the hideous massacre in Newtown doesn’t belong to judges who ruled correctly on school prayer. It is infinitely more complex than that.

Many other things have occurred throughout our society in the five decades since the court banned mandated public school prayer. We need to examine all of them, collectively and individually, and search within our own souls on how to prevent recurrences of the tragedy that overwhelms us.

Time for ‘meaningful action’

I think I’ll let this editorial from the Eugene Register-Guard in Oregon stand as a commentary worth reading in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Connecticut.

I’ll just add one thought that’s been rolling around in my noggin this morning.

I cannot help but wonder what the nation’s founders had in mind when they crafted the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It declares that the right to keep and bear arms shall be a citizen’s right. Did they ever envision a nation that would grow through the course of two centuries into a place where mass murders break the hearts of hundreds of millions of Americans?

The nation governed by that Constitution is reeling – once again –  because of an insane act.

What would those founders be thinking today?

No more ‘go along to get along’

The late state Sen. Teel Bivins of Amarillo used to say that redistricting every decade was a time when “Republicans eat their young.”

It appears that the GOP cannibalism occurs every more frequently these days, such as every two years when the Legislature gets ready to convene. The 2013 session is set to begin in less than a month and Republicans are seeing another challenge to House Speaker Joe Straus’ leadership. Straus, R-San Antonio, is facing a challenge from state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who says the time for “go-along to get-along” leadership must come to an end.

Seems that Simpson doesn’t like Straus’ habit of cooperating with legislative Democrats to get things done for the state. Straus isn’t conservative enough for many members of his Republican caucus and once again they intend to show their distaste for Straus’ leadership by trotting out another challenger to his speakership.

Can they be serious? Apparently they’re as serious as the proverbial heart attack.

Republicans have seen their power increase for the past two-plus decades. Democrats cannot break the GOP vise-grip on statewide offices. The GOP has a near-supermajority in the state House of Reps, as well as a significant majority in the state Senate, which thankfully still is governed by the two-thirds rule that requires bipartisan support if bills are going to be put to a vote.

The House continues to be a more fractious body. Nothing wrong with legislators airing their differences. But what strikes me as weird is how the speaker – who’s supposed to lead the entire House, not just the segment of the body made up of folks from his own party – keeps getting these challenges from the hard-core wing of his caucus.

Texas is a wildly diverse state and its Legislature comprises individuals who represent that diversity. Whether it’s lieutenant governor (who runs the Senate) or the House speaker, the leaders of both legislative chambers – be they Republican or Democrat – need colleagues from both parties on board if they intend to help rank-and-file Texans.

Here’s hoping Joe Straus keeps his job.

Secession: The stuff of lunacy

All this talk of secession is making me more than a little bit crazy.

After a majority of voters – nearly 51 percent of them – re-elected President Obama on Nov. 6, petitions began circulating asking voters in several (mostly Southern) states if they wanted to secede from the Union.

Leading the way? Why, Texas – of course. We’re No. 1, apparently, in the number of goofballs who believe a better form of governance is to remove the state from the Union, start a new country and then try to become a part of the world community. Gov. Rick Perry opposes secession … now! Good for him.

Have you seen the bumper stickers popping up on motor vehicles in Amarillo? They make you swallow hard … you know?

I’ve been wondering for weeks now whether residents of, say, Maryland wanted to secede in 1980 after the nation elected Ronald Reagan overwhelmingly for president over the wishes of that state’s voters, who endorsed President Carter’s re-election. I surely don’t recall that kind of groundswell emerging then. Or how about when Texas Gov. George W. Bush was elected president in 2000 despite losing the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore. That election was settled eventually by a narrow U.S. Supreme Court decision to stop a recount in Florida, where Bush held a 537-vote lead and ended up winning with barely enough electoral votes to claim the presidency. Where were the secessionists then?

No, this idiocy is a recent phenomenon. What’s driving it? The secession crowd says it’s the president’s policies. They say the country is heading in the wrong direction. They want to “take the country back.” But from whom? The majority of Americans who preferred on Nov. 6 to keep the president we have rather than replace him with someone else?

I believe in majority-rule government, even if an election doesn’t go the way I prefer. The secessionist loons ought to sign on to that notion, too.

Jobs report looks good … but where are the critics?

This thought just occurred to me.

On Friday of this past week, the Labor Department released some jobs numbers: The economy added 146,000 jobs in November; the unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent, the lowest jobless rate in four years.

Good numbers, yes? Sort of. The dip in joblessness seems to be a function in part of people no longer looking for work. The addition of 146,000 jobs is good news in any context, although some “experts” say we need to add about 100,000 more than that figure to make substantial progress on an economic recovery.

The thought that occurs is this: During the presidential campaign, the Republicans were like ugly on an ape when figures like this were released, telling all who would listen that the “dismal” numbers were proof that President Obama’s policies aren’t working. Indeed, when the September jobs figures came out, some blowhards – such as former GE boss Jack Welch – accused the White House of cooking the books to make the president look good. These latest job numbers look much as they have done for many months in a row … but the critics have been virtually silent.

The election has ended, the Democrats won. Obama has been re-elected. No need now, apparently, for the “loyal opposition” to put negative spin on positive news.

Why did GOP lose? It doesn’t get it

One of premier political commentators of the age, Maureen Dowd, hit it out of the park with her column in today’s New York Times.

She noted how the Republican Party – or what’s left of it – can’t yet grasp how it lost the White House to an incumbent president who is struggling with a massive national debt, a trillion-dollar annual deficit and an economy that just refuses to snap out of its doldrums. Her take? Republicans managed to antagonize just about every demographic group it needed to defeat President Obama.

Dowd writes the following.

“Who would ever have thought blacks would get out and support the first black president? Who would ever have thought women would shy away from the party of transvaginal probes? Who would ever have thought gays would work against a party that treated them as immoral and subhuman? Who would have ever thought young people would desert a party that ignored science and hectored on social issues? Who would ever have thought Latinos would scorn a party that expected them to finish up their chores and self-deport?”

Her full column is attached to this link:

One of these days the Republican Party will pull its head out and realize that it cannot depend on its fringe to carry the day. The Democratic Party tried it in the early 1970s, remember? Democrats came out of the 1968 election that it lost for a variety of reasons. A leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Sen. Eugene McCarthy carried his anti-Vietnam War crusade to the convention, but lost the nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey – who then lost narrowly to Republican nominee Richard Nixon.

Democrats then turned to its anti-war leftist base, nominated Sen. George McGovern in 1972, and got wiped out in a 49-state landslide against President Nixon.

Republicans are wrestling now with the reverse of the Democrats’ dilemma. They need to relearn how to compromise with the other side, just as Democrats learned it in 1992 by nominating Bill Clinton, who was elected twice with near-landslide vote margins.

They cannot keep kicking dirt on growing blocs of voters.

Professor Lugar lands new gig

I almost wish I could attend school next year at the University of Indianapolis.

Why? The U of I has a new professor by the name of Richard Lugar. At the end of the year he’ll be stepping down from his U.S. Senate seat. He’ll be teaching students about history and politics, the mix of the two, and perhaps he might be able to tell them what has happened to a once-great political party.

Lugar is a proud Republican. President Nixon once called Lugar his “favorite mayor,” who at the time was mayor of Indianapolis. He left city hall for the Senate in the 1970s and forged a career as a great statesman and GOP wise man. Lugar ran for president in 1996, but fell far short of being nominated. I had the pleasure of shaking his hand at a conference I attended in D.C. early in that election year.

But the Republican Party to which he belongs has become something quite different. Lugar lost his party’s primary this year to a guy named Richard Mourdock, a favorite of the tea party wing of the Republican Party. Mourdock said he didn’t care to work with Democrats, thinking that the only “compromise” he favored would be if the Dems saw the world the way he saw it.Then Mourdock declared it to be “God’s will” if a woman got pregnant while being raped.

Mourdock lost the election in November to a Democrat. Thank goodness.

Lugar has plenty of knowledge to pass on to young students attending the University of Indianapolis. I urge him to explain to them what has become of a great political party, which gave the nation the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. I’d throw Ronald Reagan into that mix as well, given that I am not sure The Gipper would like what has become of the party that its current leaders keep invoking his memory.

Rock-solid mainstream conservatives no longer seem welcome in the Grand Old Party, which has been hijacked by its lunatic fringe. I hope Professor Lugar is ready to trace that journey to young minds willing to listen to his wisdom.

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