What about current defense issues?

I can’t stop thinking about the roughing up Chuck Hagel received when he testified this past week before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senators, led by Hagel’s fellow Republican John McCain, kept harping on statements the former Nebraska senator made about Israel, Iran, gays in the military and God knows what else. Hagel found himself rethinking many of those statements, expressing regret over poor word choices.

But here’s what galls me today: Why didn’t anyone ask Hagel about what he intends to do for today’s returning veterans? The hearing was long on gotcha and quite short on specifics related to the here and now.

Hagel will confront spending issues within the Defense Department. Among those expenses will be whether the Pentagon will be able to treat returning warriors suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, which is leading to a shocking level of suicides among these brave Americans. How will he deal with that?

He also faces issues relating to across-the-board cuts in defense spending. What are his plans for those upcoming cuts, which every responsible politician ought to know are needed. No, this man won’t disarm the United States unilaterally, as some of his chicken hawk critics have implied he would do.

I keep waiting for someone to explain why senators spent so much time grilling this decorated Vietnam War veteran on things he said years ago and spent so little time quizzing him on how he intends to deal with today’s defense issues.

I still believe Hagel is highly qualified to lead the Pentagon. As the first defense boss who comes from the enlisted ranks – he saw combat in ‘Nam as an Army infantry sergeant – Hagel has a special perspective on the consequences of sending young Americans into battle. His two Senate terms also count for plenty, as does his business acumen.

I am hoping he gets confirmed and serves his country once again with honor. I just wish senators who questioned him would have given him more of a chance to offer his vision for the future instead of harping on the past.

Are they friends … or enemies?

I’ll throw this one out there for others to ponder.

John McCain grilled his former U.S. Senate colleague Chuck Hagel hard recently on statements Hagel made about U.S. defense policy. Hagel wants to be the next defense secretary and apparently will be recommended for approval next week by the Senate Armed Services Committee on a party-line vote, with the full Senate likely to follow suit.

Sen. McCain’s intense questioning of Hagel got me thinking about these two men. I long have thought they are friends. They’re both Vietnam War veterans. They’re both Republicans. Hagel served as McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign co-chairman. But now he has been tapped to run the Pentagon for President Obama, who beat McCain like a drum in the 2008 election.

Are they still friends? Are are they now enemies?

I know that Capitol Hill politicians say some angry things to each other in public then retire to the back room, pour themselves a drink and laugh it off. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill did that in the 1980s. Former U.S. Rep. Larry Combest used to tell me about how Texas Republican John Tower (for whom Combest once worked) and Minnesota Democrat Hubert Humphrey would debate ferociously on the Senate floor then walk out of the chamber arm-in-arm.

So, did McCain give Hagel a heads up prior to stoking the Senate hearing coals the other day? I kind of think such a conversation could have gone something like this:

“Hey Chuck, this is John. Your appearance tomorrow is going to get tough. I’ll get rough with you. But you surely know why. I’ve got these tea party Republicans back home who’ll get steamed if I don’t stand up for them and question why you said those negative things about the troop surge in Afghanistan. I hope you understand.

“Sure thing, John. I get it. I know how the game is played here. I’ll take my lumps. I’ll even act contrite to you and your committee colleagues if that’s what it takes. Hey man, no hard feelings.”

Many observers think McCain is truly angry with Hagel over accepting the nomination by Obama. A few of my friends think McCain has just gotten to be a bitter old man who takes certain perceived slights a tad too personally.

But I also know that good politicians, like good lawyers, say things for show.

Any thoughts on this? I’m all ears.

Cellphone ban an act of courage


My pal Jon Mark Beilue once again has done a great job explaining what occasionally is the unexplainable.

In this case the issue the city’s ban on handheld cellphones while driving a motor vehicle. Some naysayers are circulating petitions around the city seeking to put the measure to a vote. They have until the middle of the month to get slightly fewer than 4,000 valid signatures.

My hope is that they fail and that the Amarillo City Commission’s decision stands on its own.

I was proud of commissioners for actually leading and deciding that, yes, driving while operating a motor vehicle inside the city limits is too risky an endeavor to tolerate. The best quote came from Ellen Robertson Green, who I’ve declared publicly to be my favorite city commissioner.

“As Americans, we love our cars so much that we forget driving is a privilege, not a right,” Green said. “But you have to get a license, insurance, an inspection and registration. You can’t drive drunk or have an open container and (must) wear a seat belt and follow traffic laws. We’re driving a missile, and that comes with responsibility. So often we think, ‘my car, my road, my right.’ It might be your car, but not really the other two.”

Green’s point, I think, is that when we take that “missile” onto our public streets, the drivers’ business becomes every other motorists’ and pedestrians’ business. They need to follow the laws set down to seek to ensure a safer driving environment.

The cellphone ban will take some time to embed itself in motorists’ minds. I’m still waiting for some visual evidence that the activity has subsided since the ordinance went into effect. I hope it comes, and I applaud city commissioners for forcing the issue on drivers.

Super Bowl? Who cares? Not me

The Big Game is coming up Sunday. I get asked all the time, “Are you ready for the Super Bowl?”

Well, yes and no. Yes because I’ve done no preparation for it, no because I really don’t care who wins it.

Why? Well, it has to do with this AFC-NFC alignment. I’m a long-time AFC fan, which dates back to the days of the old American Football League. Therein lies my lack of interest in this game. You see, the teams come from the same old National Football League. I’ll now explain.

The AFL and the NFL merged in 1970. When the leagues joined, the newly revamped NFL, under the command of Commissioner Pete Rozelle, got three NFL franchises to move into the AFC: Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Baltimore – and by Baltimore, I don’t mean the Ravens. The Steelers, Browns and Colts joined the conference containing some of my favorite teams, which included the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

Then the Baltimore Colts moved to Indianapolis, in the middle of the night, I should add. The Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, to become the Ravens; later, a new Cleveland Browns franchise was formed. Only the Steelers (my late father’s favorite team, owing to his birth in nearby New Kensington, Pa.) have remained intact.

But as a diehard AFL fan, I’ve always considered the Steelers, Colts and Ravens (the former Browns) to be interlopers. They aren’t really and truly AFC franchises. That label, in my mind, belongs to the AFL teams that moved into the NFL. My greatest joy was watching the AFL’s New York Jets defeat in 1969 the then-Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III; my next greatest football joy occurred the following year when the Kansas City Chiefs took down the Minnesota Vikings 23-7. The year after, the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys and my only joy there was that a team other than the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.

I’ll admit to being kind of old-fashioned in this regard. I cling tightly to my loyalties. The AFL remains a fond memory for me, as I watched the likes of Joe Namath, Daryle “The Mad Bomber” Lamonica, John Hadl, Lance “Bambi” Alworth, Lenny Dawson, Cookie Gilchrist, Abner Haynes, Buck Buchanan and, oh, I could go on forever.

If only the New England Patriots had beaten the Browns-turned-Ravens in that AFC championship game … then I’d have a reason to cheer.

But given that I have a sister who lives just south of San Francisco and who’s a devoted 49ers fan, I’ll cheer for her team. But I’ll do so with gritted teeth.

State of the City address, anyone?

Amarillo is a more sophisticated and complicated city than many of its residents care to acknowledge. They like the old days when it was a one-horse town fueled by farmers and ranchers’ income with help from the Santa Fe Railroad.

But it now comprises nearly 200,000 residents. City Hall’s budget – taken all together – runs about $200 million annually.

I’ve preached this before in a previous life, but the mayor ought to deliver an annual State of the City speech, giving residents a candid update on the condition of things at City Hall. I broached the subject publicly when Debra McCartt was mayor and she obliged by having some kind of Q-and-A on KACV-TV. It was a one-hit wonder. She didn’t do it again and her successor, Paul Harpole, hasn’t bothered to resume it.

The one particular problem I had with McCartt’s stab at offering a State of the City commentary was that the questions came from the likes of Gary Molberg, head of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce. Think about that for a moment. Molberg is a nice guy but he gets paid by the chamber to be the city’s leading non-governmental cheerleader. If you run into Molberg out and about and ask him how he’s doing, he launches immediately into “things couldn’t be going better for the city.” He recites all the positive business activity occurring in Amarillo, telling you how “diversified” we’ve become. That’s all fine.

But a State of the City speech ought to be a more comprehensive assessment of where we stand today, how we got here and where we’re going.

Mayors of comparably sized cities offer these annual speeches to their constituents. Lubbock is one of them. I think the head guy in the Hub City delivers it to an annual public meeting. I’ll admit I haven’t heard one of those speeches, and I can’t offer detail on the content.

But we ought to be brought up to speed many critical matters, such as: the specifics of: downtown revitalization and its progress; the future of water development and what the city plans to do to ensure we have enough of it for many generations; infrastructure improvements; whether the red-light cameras are here to stay; how the city plans to enforce several new bold ordinances, such as the ban on handheld cellphones; whether the city can keep its tax rate low.

There ought to be a singular event, kind of like what the governor provides at the start of every legislative session or what the president delivers at the annual State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill.

I submit that what happens at City Hall has much more direct impact on people’s lives than anything that comes out of either domed building in Austin or Washington.

And even though Amarillo’s mayor gets paid virtually nothing and serves the same citywide constituency as his or her fellow commissioners, the mayor is still the city’s front person. Speak up, Mr. Mayor, and give us a full report on the State of the City. Put it on the record and then let your constituents decide whether we’re meeting our goals.

Tough to watch Hagel hearing

I’ll admit it was difficult to watch former Sen. Chuck Hagel being grilled – or perhaps I should say “charbroiled” – by his former colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Hagel is President Obama’s pick to be defense secretary and he came under intense fire – some news outlets referred to it as “friendly fire” – over comments he has made in the past about Israel, Iran and gay people.

Particularly troubling was the bitter fusillade launched at him by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over statements Hagel made about the troop surge in Afghanistan. McCain insisted that Hagel give him a “yes or no” answer as to whether he still supported his stated view that Obama’s troop surge was a gross error. Hagel wouldn’t answer it the way McCain wanted. Instead, he preferred to explain himself in detail. McCain would have none of it.

The exchange was tense and it had an odd taste of bitterness coming from McCain.

The oddity of it stems from McCain and Hagel’s relationship. They’re both Republicans. They both are decorated veterans of the Vietnam War. They had been close allies while serving together in the U.S. Senate. What’s more, Hagel was McCain’s campaign manager when McCain ran for president the first time in 2000. I’ve noticed several pictures of the two of them during that campaign, with Hagel standing by his man as McCain was being pilloried in a ghastly attack launched by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign during the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary.

Hagel and McCain were thick back then.

Now, though, as Hagel seeks to become defense secretary in the Obama administration, we’ve heard McCain take a decidedly different tone when speaking to and about his former colleague and (presumably former) friend.

How can that be?

Well, it might have something to do with the individual who has tapped Hagel to lead the Pentagon. Barack Obama gave McCain a thorough drubbing in the 2008 election. I’m wondering now if McCain and other Republicans aren’t ticked off a bit more than usual because one of their own has agreed to work with a Democratic president who twice has kicked their backsides.