Can Sen. Ted Cruz make fun of himself? We’ll see

Ted Cruz has a pretty cool speaking gig on the horizon and it’s likely to test the man’s ability to make fun of himself.

The junior U.S. senator from Texas has been selected as the headline Republican speaker at the annual Gridiron Club dinner.

It’s an annual event that draws media and political elites from Washington, D.C. together to poke a little fun at each other — and at themselves.

Cruz landed in Washington with a serious boom — not just a bang — this past January after winning the Senate seat in November 2012. He established himself immediately as the tea party wing of his party’s go-to guy on all manner of policy issues. He’s hogged TV time, made Senate floor speeches — including his infamous 21 1/2-hour faux filibuster over the Affordable Care Act — and managed to inflame feelings among his fellow Republicans, not to mention among Democrats.

I’ll hand it to Cruz, though. He’s an entertaining guy. As the blog post notes, he’ll follow in the steps of some recent folks who’ve brought the house down: Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal this year.

The best part of all these speeches is when the speakers make fun of themselves, as Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have done over the years.

It’ll be interesting to see if Sen. Cruz has been given that self-deprecation gene that makes these events such fun to watch.

Why not put income tax to a vote?

This crazy idea has been rattling around in my skull for some time.

It involves a state income tax for Texas. The idea is this: If Texas legislators are so sure-fire certain that a state income tax never would be approved by rank-and-file Texans, why don’t they just put the issue to a vote and let them decide this issue once and for all?

My pal Enrique Rangel, writing for the Amarillo Globe-News, talked to some leading Texas pols recently to get their take on ways to improve the state’s rickety tax system. Tea party Republican comptroller candidate Debra Medina favors a consumption tax to pay for public education; state Sen. Bob Duncan, R-Lubbock, favors a statewide property tax to pay for schools; Fort Worth Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam wants an income tax.

Of the three ideas, I kind of like the idea of an income tax coupled with property tax relief.

Here’s the problem with an income tax: It requires an amendment to the Texas Constitution, which requires a statewide popular vote.

The Legislature, in a silly act of buck-passing, decided some years ago to require a constitutional amendment election, believing it didn’t have the votes in the body to approve an income tax by itself. Legislators figured that such a monumental decision needed voters’ stamp of approval.

They knew all along Texans wouldn’t approve such a tax, even if it could be structured with a serious offset somewhere else, such as local property taxes.

The state has been dancing all over this issue for as long as anyone can remember. Only lame-duck politicians — and a few active pols living in districts where they won’t be threatened with electoral defeat — have had the guts to talk openly about reforming the state tax system with an income tax.

It’s an open secret that an income tax would enable the state to keep its public school system from courtroom fights when judges rule the financing system to violate the state’s Constitution.

So, why not put the issue on the ballot. Burnam’s idea goes nowhere every time he pitches it to his legislative colleagues.

If it’s such a bad idea that’ll never fly with voters, put it on the ballot and let’s decide it.

Spitzer’s bad year just got worse

Eliot Spitzer’s year — which was a rocky journey to begin with — has ended with a crash.

The former New York governor and his wife, Silda, are divorcing. OK, so that’s not so uncommon these days. In Spitzer’s case, though, it’s a rather public parting of the ways.

Spitzer was governor of New York until 2008 when he resigned after admitting to fooling around with hookers. Silda stood stone-faced by his side when he quit. Then he had a brief fling as a CNN commentator. The network dumped him when his ratings tanked. This year, Spitzer ran for New York City comptroller and lost that race, too.

Then reports began to surface that Spitzer had struck up a relationship with an aide to New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. Sometime during all of this, Silda and Eliot separated and were living apart.

Christmas Eve wasn’t full of much cheer for the former New York power couple as they announced their pending divorce.

I don’t usually spend too much time hashing this kind of thing over, but Spitzer’s inability to bow out of the limelight after the hooker blowup makes him an easy target.

He should have just called it quits back then, retreated into private life and sought to restore his marriage behind closed doors. Spitzer didn’t do that. He continued to thrust himself into the spotlight, apparently forgetting that in this age of prying eyes and ears everywhere no one can escape public scrutiny.

Maybe now he’ll disappear from public view.

Commissioners asking: Show us the money

Potter County commissioners are asking some tough questions of a man who’s been raising money for a railroad museum in Amarillo.

The questions are valid and need an answer.

They involve an amount of money, $400,000, that the county has contributed to the creation of a Santa Fe Railroad museum. Walter Wolfram, an Amarillo lawyer who’s been leading the fundraising effort, has been asked by commissioners to give a full accounting of the money he’s raised. He spoke to commissioners recently and bristled a bit at the implication from the panel that he may have done something wrong.

I’m not going to second-guess or speculate on what’s happening here, but the commission is asking a legitimate question. It’s given a lot of public money for the past five years and wants to know the status of the contribution and wants to know the progress — if any — toward the creation of the museum.

Wolfram initially sought to put the museum on the second floor of the Santa Fe Building on Ninth Avenue, between Tyler and Polk streets. He gave up on that idea and apparently has targeted the old Santa Fe Depot just east of the Amarillo Civic Center.

The commission is wanting to know what’s happened to the money the county has given. It’s a simple query, right?

Didn’t wait on history to carve TR into stone

One of this year’s Christmas gifts, from my older son Peter, got me thinking about how quickly history is able at times to judge someone’s greatness.

Peter gave me a book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” It’s the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest tome chronicling the lives of great Americans.

What intrigued me is that of the two men mentioned in the title, one of them is memorialized on Mount Rushmore. Then something occurred to me.

Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt, who was 42, was the youngest man ever to assume the presidency; John F. Kennedy in 1960 became the youngest man, at 43, ever elected to the office. TR was elected in his own right in 1904. He left office in early 1909, turning the presidency over to Taft. Roosevelt then became so let down by Taft’s presidency that he sought the office once more in 1912, running on a progressive platform under the label of the Bull Moose Party.

The result of that campaign produced President Woodrow Wilson.

What does have to do with Mount Rushmore? Well, Gutzon Borglum began carving out the faces on the South Dakota mountainside in 1927, just 15 years after Roosevelt’s last run for public office and only eight years after his death in 1919. The other three men honored on that mountain are George Washington, the father of our country; Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln, who fought successfully to preserve the Union during the Civil War. Their greatness was long established by the time Borglum’s crews began blasting away on Mount Rushmore.

TR’s legacy, it could be argued, had yet to be finalized, as he in effect was a contemporary of the sculptor.

My thoughts have turned to whether someone could undertake such an project in that context today. I do not believe we’ve had a president since Roosevelt who’s quite measured up to any of the four men whose faces are carved into the mountain. Some have argued for Franklin Roosevelt, TR’s cousin, while others have said Ronald Reagan deserves to be added to the sculpture.

I prefer to leave the mountain as it stands.

Still, it strikes me that Gutzon Borglam took a gamble when he included Theodore Roosevelt in that pantheon of great Americans.

I’ll look forward to reading one more historian’s take on how he earned his place on the side of that mountain.

Person of the Year: an outstanding choice

The year 2013 could have produced a number of stunners for Time’s Person of the Year honor.

You had Edward Snowden, the former NSA leaker who’s now in Russia and hiding from U.S. prosecutors for leaking highly classified information. Snowden’s mischief changed the course of national security debate in America this year.

You also had Ted Cruz, the fiery freshman Republican senator from Texas who went to Washington promising, in effect, to shut down the process of governing. Has he sponsored any key legislation? No. But in keeping with my vow of Christmas kindness, I’ll refrain from any direct criticism until after the holiday.

Those are just two examples of individuals who changed the trajectory “for better or worse.” Hey, the magazine has named Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and the Ayatollah Khomeini as its people of the year, for crying out loud.

Instead, the magazine went with Pope Francis I.

Great choice, given the context of his ascendancy.

Francis is the first pontiff to succeed a living predecessor in more than four centuries. He not only succeeded Benedict XVI, he has supplanted Benedict’s strict enforcement of Vatican policy with a much kinder, gentler approach to pastoring to the masses.

He’s taken the church to task for not doing enough to care for the poor; he has criticized capitalism as being too beneficial to rich people while continuing to ignore the plight of others; Francis has spoken out aggressively about how the church must cope with the child abuse scandal among Catholic clergy.

Francis lives in humble quarters, rides around in a humble car and has eschewed many of the trapping used by the earthly leader of the Catholic Church.

Francis has done all this while washing the feet of the poor, embracing — quite literally — the disfigured and the maimed among his flock.

He has brought humanity back into style as the leader of one of the world’s great Christian denominations.

Pope Francis I is the Person of the Year … without a doubt.

It’s a white Christmas … sort of

For reasons that defy my meager knowledge of science, the snow that fell on our yard nearly a week ago has remained while others’ yards are clear of the white stuff.

It’s not much snow, mind you, but it’s out there this Christmas morning before the sun is up.

This is a usual event at our home at this time of year. We live in southwest Amarillo. Our house sits on the south side of the street, facing north. That means the sun that crosses the sky this time of year casts a our house’s shadow over most of the front yard during the day. The lawn is shaded. So is everyone’s lawn along the south side of the street, for that matter.

But when the snow starts melting, everyone else’s snow disappears more quickly than ours.

My wife’s theory on why this happens is plausible: Our home is at the end of a street that T’s right into our two-block-long street; thus, the front yard is exposed to the chilly wind that blows from the north onto our front yard, therefore keeping the temps down just enough to preserve what’s left of the snow long after most folks’ yards are clear.

Makes sense to me.

So, on Dec. 25, 2013, we awoke to a white Christmas.

At least that’s what I’m going to call it.

Merry Christmas. Enjoy the day.

See? NORAD is still a viable agency

To those who think the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union rendered the North American Air Defense Command irrelevant … I’ve got a flash for you.

It’s tracking Santa Claus as I write these words.

The time is about 10:15 p.m. Central Standard Time and Santa is somewhere en route to wherever he intends to go. NORAD is on him.

A Facebook friend noted — incorrectly, I must stipulate — that the now-infamous National Security Agency is tracking. However, a FB friend of his set him straight, that it’s NORAD doing the tracking. My friend’s watchdog said the NSA is checking off Santa’s “naughty list.”

The NORAD tracking is an annual rite of Christmas. The agency puts out “intelligence reports” on Santa’s flight plan from the North Pole. These are highly declassified, as NORAD tends to give up Santa’s location at almost any given moment.

He gets to his destination — wherever it is — right on time every Christmas. That makes it one of humankind’s most enduring mysteries. How does the Jolly Old Man do it?

Bigfoot? The Loch Ness monster? Area 51? Who shot JR? Forget about them.

Santa’s on-time record is spotless. He might not grant every single child on Earth his or her Christmas wish, but he cannot be faulted for trying.

And NORAD is on his tail every mile of his journey.

I’m glad these folks are still on the job.

Candlestick Park goes out with flair

The San Francisco 49ers played their final home game at Candlestick Park on Monday night.

Soon, the old stadium will be relegated to … whatever. Trash. Dust. People’s memory.

I hate seeing these old parks going away. The Houston Astrodome is likely to be demolished. I saw a couple of football games there: a high school playoff game and an NFL game between the Houston Oilers and the Cincinnati Bengals. The Oilers won big.–nfl.html

Yes, I have a Candlestick Park memory. It’s a good one.

I went to San Francisco in August 1964, having won a trip there by selling enough subscriptions to my hometown newspaper, the Portland Oregonian. It was a huge deal for me. I was 14 and had never been to California. The trip seemed like it took forever. I think we rode the bus for 12 hours.

Part of the trip involved seeing a baseball game at Candlestick.

The game would be between the SF Giants and the Cincinnati Reds. It was before they enclosed the stadium with seats. The outfield was exposed to the bay — and all the wind that blew in from the water. I’m telling you, the place used to be a wind tunnel in the old days.

Well, the game was a pretty cool thing for a teenage baseball fan to see. I saw three Hall of Famers that windswept afternoon: Willie Mays and Willie McCovey played for the Giants. McCovey hit a home run into right field, straight into the teeth of the wind.

The third HOFer, though, stole the show. Frank Robinson of the Reds hit three dingers out that day. The Reds won the game; I think the score was 7-1. Robinson would be traded two years later to the Baltimore Orioles, where all he did was win the Triple Crown in 1966.

Oh, the memories.

So long, Candlestick.

Bethlehem at once sad and thrilling

Bethlehem, the one in the Middle East, is a must visit for anyone who ventures to the region.

Getting inside, though, is a challenge for which you must be prepared.

It’s walled off from Jerusalem. The city is governed by the Palestinian Authority and sits on what is called the West Bank.

I’ve had the honor of being able to walk through Bethlehem. I did so with my wife in June 2009, but our entry into the city served as a serious wakeup call to the tensions that exist in that tinder-box region of the world.

I had just finished a four-week Rotary International Group Study Exchange. My wife arrived at David Ben-Gurion International Airport — between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I greeted her with flowers and an “I Love You” balloon. We set off for our digs in the Bakah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

We decided we wanted to go to Bethlehem. As people of faith, we couldn’t let pass a chance to visit the birthplace of Jesus Christ, correct? So we booked our tour and waited for our guide to arrive at our bed-and-breakfast. Our guide arrived and we drove to the entrance into Bethlehem and were startled to see a huge wall with barbed wire strong across its top. Sentries were posted at the gate.

We had to show them our passports, answered a couple of questions about our purpose for visiting Bethlehem and then we were let in.

Another guide greeted us on the other side. We were pleased then to learn that our Palestinian guide is a fellow Christian who spoke of the joys of taking us to visit sites associated with “my Lord and Savior.” I’ll admit to a kind of surreal sense in hearing it in this place that has known so much violence.

We visited the Church of the Nativity, the Shepherds Field and walked along some streets looking for things to purchase and bring home.

Our visit to Bethlehem was much too brief. Both of us would have loved to stay longer, just to take in what we felt was a much calmer ambience and atmosphere than we felt on the other side of the wall, in Jerusalem. Yes, the Old City was charming. We were thrilled to see the Church of the Sepulcher, to walk along the stations of the cross, to see where Jesus was imprisoned, to peer down on the Old City from the Mount of Olives, to sit in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Bethlehem seemed oddly peaceful behind those high walls guarded by soldiers with deadly weapons.

It saddened and thrilled me all at once.

We’re looking forward to returning someday.