‘Chicken hawk’ label may stick to Cruz

Ted Cruz has been a U.S. senator from Texas for less than a month and he’s already earned an unfortunate label: chicken hawk.

The newly minted Republican lawmaker has criticized two decorated combat veterans, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, for being insufficiently appreciative of the military.


Why has he earned the “chicken hawk” tag? Cruz hasn’t served a day in the military. It’s a term usually applied to those on the right, from those on the left, when they espouse quick military action without ever having served in the military, let alone exposing themselves to combat.

Kerry was a Navy officer who saw combat in Vietnam and received three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star during that terrible conflict; Hagel was an Army infantry sergeant in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts and, as President Obama said while nominating him to the defense job, still is carrying shrapnel from that time. Cruz was one of just three senators to oppose Kerry’s appointment at State and plans to oppose Hagel’s appointment as defense boss.

Ted Cruz’s criticism of both men stems from differences over their views on Israel and Iran, or so he said. But then he entered that dangerous realm of being an armchair critic of two tested combat veterans when he never has donned his country’s military uniform.

Cruz is certainly within his rights as a senator to criticize others in public life. He just needs to take greater care in how – and at whom – he delivers such criticism.

Time to put up or shut up

Four of the five members of the Amarillo City Commission have filed for re-election, and the fifth one is expected to do so when she gets back into town.

Is this a critical moment? Sure it is. Elections always are critical for a community’s well-being. But this one might be more important than most recent elections. Commissioners have embarked on some big projects for the city and have made a few very tough calls. All of that has prompted some interesting gripes from the proverbial peanut gallery.

Thus, here is a perfect opportunity for some of the pot-shot artists to offer a change in direction, to campaign for an office with virtually zero material reward. Here’s the chance to offer oneself up for public inspection to have their ideas heard.

Mayor Paul Harpole and commissioners Ellen Robertson Green, Brian Eades and Jim Simms all have decided to fight for another two years in office; Commissioner Lilia Escajeda hasn’t yet filed, but my guess is that she will.

The city has made tangible improvements to its downtown district; it has strengthened its commitment to using cameras to deter red-light runners; it’s banned the use of handheld cellphones by motorists in addition to imposing a ban on texting in school zones.

Has the downtown improvement plan moved quickly enough? For my money, I am growing a bit impatient at the slow pace of progress. But that pace will pick up in due course, according to those who are working with the city on this endeavor. Time will tell if they are right.

The 2011 municipal election proved to be contentious. The 2013 election may prove to be equally so. But here is yet another opportunity for those who’ve been griping from the sidelines to step into the arena and provide some options for voters to consider.

Remember this, though. The job for which they would seek pays next to nothing: 10 bucks per weekly meeting. You don’t do this job for the money.

So, step up if you’re ready.

Look for middle ground in gun debate


What am I missing in this debate over guns?

It seems that whenever the subject of gun control comes up – as it has in recent weeks – the two extremes keep trying to outshout each other. Isn’t there some middle ground to be had here?

Former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., told a Senate committee today that the government must do something to stem the tide of gun violence. She knows of which she speaks: Two years ago, Giffords was wounded grievously by Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson, Ariz. He would a dozen others and killed six others, including a 9-year-old girl.

Gun control activists of all stripes want to make it more difficult for bad guys to obtain guns. Then we have the other side, saying the government cannot impose any additional restrictions because, they say, it would violate constitutional guarantees that give citizens the right to own firearms.

The two sides end up bickering.

My own view is that we can impose stricter rules without violating the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Background checks provide an example. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said background checks won’t work with criminals, who won’t submit to any kind of check. Interesting, right? As Sen. Dick Durbin noted, “that’s the point!” Criminals will be unable to purchase a gun if they’re required to submit to background screening, he said. True, they’ll likely get them illegally, but the threat of a background check would deter them from buying a firearm from a legitimate private party or a retailer.

I guess I fail to understand why we can’t reach a compromise on this matter while preserving the essential integrity of the Second Amendment. New restrictions shouldn’t prohibit law-abiding hunters, sports shooters or collectors from purchasing firearms. The rules would take aim – pun intended – at those who shouldn’t own guns in the first place.

If only the two sides would stop talking past each other …

Water needs state’s serious attention

Rick Perry comes from an agricultural background, which he’s touted in his endless campaigns for governor of Texas.

Thus, he needs to spend some political capital – if he can find any of it tucked away somewhere – on an issue of dire consequence throughout this vast state, and in West Texas in particular: water.

Perry’s State of the State speech this week touched on a lot of key issues: education, transportation, job creation and, yes, water. But the water problem is giving some of us here the most heartburn.

The Texas Tribune reports that lawmakers have proposed taking as much as $2 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund for water projects. Given the tight money supply, $2 billion amounts to little more than a nice down payment on what the state ought to spend on water-related issues.

The Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. It’s not at critical stage … yet. But it’ll get there in due course if we cannot find a way to get better yields out of non-irrigated farmland. All those irrigated corn and cotton fields out there are sucking many thousands of acre feet of water out of the ground each year and the aquifer isn’t recharging at nearly the rate it needs to keep pace.

What are we going to do about it?

Lake Meredith – or what’s left of it – is no longer of any use to us. Water authorities no longer pump water out of it. Its depth is about 28 feet, which is about one-fourth of its historic high. While the state is thinking about water management, it ought to examine how it could have built a dam to back up the Canadian River only to watch the water levels drop almost every year since the dam was completed in the mid-1960s.

Someone, somewhere, has some explaining to do on that one.

Meanwhile, officials in cities and towns in the Panhandle are telling us to water our lawns on certain days during the summer, encouraging us to go without washing our cars, fix leaky faucets and do other things around the house to save water. Yes, every little bit helps. But the real culprits are out there on thousands of acres of irrigated farmland.

And the drought? Never mind the wee bit of snow we got here overnight. The drought hasn’t left us and it’s looking like we have another dry year coming on.

Gov. Perry, our water is running out around here. We need some help.

Anti-cellphone law tough to enforce


Texas lawmakers are considering whether to make another run at enacting a state law banning texting while driving.

I wish it would happen. But based on some highly unscientific evidence I’ve been able to gather since the start of the new year, it could be a tough law to enforce.

How do I know this? I don’t know it as fact, but here’s what I’ve noticed around Amarillo: The number of motorists I’ve witnessed talking while driving seems to have diminished very little since a city ordinance banning the activity took effect.

I’ve swung three ways on this issue: undecided, to opposing the ordinance and finally to favoring it.

The City Commission showed some guts in voting 4-1 to enact the ordinance. The police department has begun issuing warnings to motorists. But as I sit in my car at intersections watching motorists drive by in other directions, I continue to see many of them yakking on the phone as they whiz by.

What will it take to ban this activity? Time might have to lapse. There might have to be – God forbid – a horrific accident caused by some idiot motorist dialing a cellphone while driving through heavy traffic. The city might have to kick off an intense public-relations campaign to inform motorists of the new law and warn them in stark terms what happens if they break it by operating a handheld cellphone while sitting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

I’ll concede that my findings aren’t fool-proof. But I do pay attention to these types of things.

I just wish we had enough traffic cops to catch all the violators.

Legislators gaming the system?


The Texas Tribune has an interesting analysis of a quirk in state law that enables state legislators to obtain personal gain from legislation they carry.

What a crock!

I’ve long had this notion that the term “government ethics” is a bit of an oxymoron as it relates to Texas. There ought to be stringent prohibitions against any whiff of personal gain from legislation in Texas. But those prohibitions don’t exist.

The Tribune reports that the Texas Constitution contains no such ban as long as others in Texas can benefit from the same legislation. So, if a lawmaker authors a bill that benefits his or her company, it’s all right as long as others who work in the same field reap an identical benefit.

The term “public service” lacks a certain altruistic quality in Texas.

I recall a time years ago when a state lawmaker from the Gulf Coast got entangled in a situation that raised this kind of question. It turned out to be all right, in some folks’ eyes. I had a problem with it.

Then-state Rep. Mark Stiles, D-Beaumont, worked for a company that sold concrete. He then lobbied the state corrections department to build a maximum-security prison near Beaumont. The state agreed to build the prison, but then it needed to seek bids from contractors and subcontractors to provide material to build the lockup. Stiles’ company submitted a bid to provide the concrete for the prison. It was all done according to state law, meaning that Stiles had no direct hand in the bid or the state’s consideration of it. The state awarded the bid to the company that employed Stiles. The firm made a ton of money by selling the concrete to the state.

And then, astoundingly, the state named the prison unit after Mark Stiles.

I saw a problem with it at the time and said so publicly in my role as an opinion journalist. The entire transaction simply didn’t pass the proverbial smell test.

The state should toughen its rules governing personal gain, and restore a purer meaning to the term “public service.”

Fox says, “So long, Sarah”


Howard Kurtz is a pretty savvy media critic, but I think he touches too briefly on an essential element of why Sarah Palin and the Fox News Channel have parted company.

Fox had grown tired of Palin’s look-at-me persona. She had become bigger than her bosses in the eyes of many of her adoring fans.

Let me stipulate that I am not one of them … but I digress.

Fox decided to cut Palin loose because, in my view, she embarrassed her network employers. And for my money, that’s really saying something. The 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee turned into something of a cartoon character and it became impossible to take her seriously.

Look at just a bit of the record:

* Daughter Bristol got embroiled in a seamy relationship with some goofball named Levi Johnston; they had a child together and that in itself became fodder for late-night comics. Then Bristol showed up on “Dancing With The Celebrities/Has Beens,” er “Stars.” As any national political figure will attest, their adult children became fair game rapidly when the media and the public start prying.

* Sarah launched her own TV “reality” show on The Learning Channel in which we got to watch her doing whatever she does in Alaska, a state she governed for half a term before quitting not long after she and John McCain got thumped in 2008 by Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

* “Sarah Barracuda” got caught in some silly televised mishaps. The most (in)famous of them perhaps was the time just after the 2008 election when she was being interviewed while in the background turkeys were being slaughtered – as they were shoved into some kind of decapitation machine. Happy Thanksgiving.

* The book “Game Change” and the film of the same title reported that Sen. McCain and his staff did next to zero vetting of Palin before choosing her as his running mate … and it showed. She was ill-prepared for the national spotlight and the public, as Kurtz noted in his essay (see attached link), lost interest in her.

How does one take an individual like this seriously. Indeed, Palin was, as liberal critics noted, an “empty vessel” devoid of serious principles or ideas.

Does any of this mean she’s going to disappear? Hardly. Social media will provide her with all the forum she needs or desires.

My hunch – and my hope – is that her once-adoring public will tune her out. Like the proverbial tree that falls in the Alaska forest, she won’t make a sound because no one will be listening.

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.