Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Honest Abe's Madison Adventures

Abraham Lincoln seems to be popping up all over.

Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” seven years in the making, is cleaning up at box offices in theaters across the land. Preparations are under way for a big 150th anniversary celebration of The Great Emancipator’s Gettysburg Address, a bit of rhetoric we had to memorize in grade school. My local newspaper chimed in the other day with a full-page description of Abe’s 1856 visit to Kalamazoo, the only time he set foot in Michigan.

And the University of Wisconsin issued various news stories describing its relationship to the famous president.

UW band members ham it up with Abe
“Honest Abe” has been something special on the Madison campus since 1909, 100 years after Lincoln’s birth. To mark the anniversary, university officials unveiled a large statue on Bascom Hill of a sitting Lincoln. Today Abe still sits squarely in front of the old administration building atop the hill. Over the years, he has been subjected to numerous student pranks and the subject of several fanciful stories.

Many believe the UW statue is modeled on the more-famous seated Abe at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Not so. It is a replica of a statue erected in Lincoln’s hometown of Hodgenville, KY. A Wisconsin alumnus bought the farm where Lincoln was born and commissioned creation of the original.

A frosty Abe got student help
Wisconsin students have done their best to make Lincoln feel at home in Madison. They’ve decorated him with various hats and costumes. During one especially cold winter, a pair of earmuffs helped Abe survive. Of course, the earmuffs were cardinal, one of the school's colors.

Politics on at least one occasion got into the decorating act.  Back in the 1950s infamous Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy placed the university among the institutions he accused of harboring communists (without citing any evidence). Someone gave Abe a coat of red paint, either in sympathy with or protest of the charges.

Wisconsin historians cite several connections to Lincoln and his political associates. Ripon is just 75 miles from Madison. The small city claims to be the birthplace of the Republican Party. It hosted an 1854 meeting of the group that founded the party.

The university, and many others, got a huge boost from the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which Lincoln approved. It allowed the school to buy a 195-acre “experimental farm” in 1866 for $28,000. That land now is the major part of the campus. The site of the university’s football field, Camp Randall, was a Union soldier training camp during the War Between the States. It also served for a time as a camp for Confederate prisoners.

A new grad courts Abe in front of the balcony made famous by a long line of fraternity Firemen.
Recent university stories emphasize two Bascom Hill statue traditions. New graduates believe they will fulfill career goals if they climb onto Lincoln’s lap and whisper their aspirations into his ear. Some think a little kiss on his cheek will help their cause. Alums and students alike visiting the hill believe good luck will be theirs if they rub Abe’s left foot.

Understandably, university accounts omit some of the racier myths involving the statue. In my day, students understood that Abe would leap to his feet if a female virgin walked in front of him. The coeds outwitted the perpetrators of that legend. During four years of regularly plodding up Bascom Hill I never saw a girl in front of Abe. They always were careful to walk behind him.

One fraternity (not mine) once or twice a year pulled off the most well-known initiation stunt on campus right behind the sitting Lincoln. From the group of would-be members the actives selected one “Fireman.” Around noon when crowds of students were on the hill, the brethren somehow sneaked the Fireman onto the Bascom Hall balcony directly behind the Lincoln statue. Wearing an appropriate red hard-hat, the Fireman pretended to crank a siren while he wailed siren-like sounds at the top of his voice.

The fraternity’s pledges were eager to earn the Fireman designation. Active members conferred the “honor” after measuring the length of the initiate’s . . . (you know what).

Abe is said to have grinned when the Fireman sounded his siren. Honestly, Abe, did you?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Chevrolet Unseats Romance

General Motors recently closed a chapter in automotive history that provided more than one thrill for young Americans. It announced from Detroit that the 2013 Chevrolet Impala will be the last sedan to feature a front bench seat. Chevrolet’s first sedan, built in 1911, had a three-across front seat, and that design has been available ever since.

Over the years, bench front seats gradually became so uncommon that recent car buyers had to pay a premium to get them. Last year, GM said, only one in 10 Impala buyers was willing to pony up an extra $195 for the flat seat.

“A lot of people prefer bucket seats because they’re sporty, even in models that aren’t sports cars, the Associated Press quoted Clay Dean, GM director of design, as saying. “Our customers also appreciate the center console as a convenient place to store their phone and other personal items.”

Farewell, bench seats.
Convenience be damned, I say. I owned a sleek black-and-silver 1957 Impala sedan with a front bench seat while courting a pretty young lady who later became beautiful wife Sandy.

Those bench seats were good for lots of more interesting things than serving as a place to park your sunglasses. Dean admitted as much: “There is certain nostalgia for bench seats, like being able to snuggle up with your date at a drive-in movie . . . “

The announcement of GM’s intent to make Chevrolet sedans a lot less fun observed that they and other automakers will continue to offer front bench seats in pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. In recent years sales of these vehicles have boomed while GM sedan sales declined.  I always wondered why, because many owners of the more-rugged vehicles are never seen hauling anything or traveling on backcountry roads. Now I think I know.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

After the Vote: Nothing and Everything Has Changed

“We went through all that, and nothing has changed.”

That view keeps popping up among the myriad analyses of the interesting, and frequently annoying, election campaign just completed. The Geezer, months ago, predicted four more years of Washington gridlock should President Obama be reelected. I’ve changed my mind.

Yes, the arithmetic in the political landscape changed only slightly. Republicans lost some seats in the House (they may well regain them in mid-term elections, as often happens) but retained a majority. Democrats gained only a couple of seats in the Senate, keeping a majority, but falling well short of the 60 needed to be able to easily push legislation through that chamber.

However, the legislative power positions changed dramatically. There are reasons for confidence that some useful things will get done in the months ahead

Perhaps most important, the Republicans took a real shellacking in areas that bode ill for the future of the party. President Obama won handily among young women, and barring major changes in Republican approaches those voters are likely to be Democrats in the future. Hispanics turned out in large numbers. Just a few years back, 44 percent of them voted for George W. Bush. This time, 70 percent backed President Obama. The Democrat even was favored by Cuban-Americans, who previously were pretty solidly in the conservative camp.

Why the big shift in the Hispanic vote?  I became acquainted with many Hispanics in contacts with workers and contractors in 11 years of serving as a homeowner association accountant. We also had several Hispanic neighbors. With few exceptions, these folks were hard-working, religious, family-oriented, and quite conservative on social issues. They were as likely to vote for Republicans as Democrats, and some did in the recent election.

My Hispanic contacts also were proud people with a low tolerance for insults. Governor Romney should have realized that when he talked about “self-deportation.” Republicans should have been aware of it when they opposed the “Dream Act.” Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the American population. If the Republicans don’t clean up their act in relations with them, the party is doomed. Republican leaders know that.

So we will not see gridlock blocking reform of our antiquated immigration policies, something President Obama promised before his first term and was unable to deliver. Now it will happen, either in one big package or in pieces of new legislation.

There will be some form of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, although the Republicans will call it something else. It would not be surprising if Republicans introduce all or several reform bills. They need to claim credit for positive actions that might help them get back into the good graces of Hispanics.

Women gained representation in Congress. This development coupled with the clear message from female voters that they want to halt attempts to roll back women’s rights should put a stop to right-wing proposals on abortion and contraception, issues thought to have been settled long ago. Those issues have diverted Congress from tackling current problems.

Tea Party arch-conservatives lost ground and influence in this election. The most extreme of them (think Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock) failed to win seats Republicans normally would win.

President Obama gained power well beyond what the arithmetic shows. After his first election he decided to use Democratic Party majorities in Congress to win passage of the Affordable Care Act. He spent a lot of political capital. That almost cost him reelection, as the adverse reaction obviously was greater than he expected. All that is behind him now.

Now the candidate who vowed to dismantle Obamacare “on my first day in office” has been soundly defeated. Romney and other Republicans admitted along the way that Obamacare includes provisions they support. It also has some problems that need fixing. We can expect compromise here. Obamacare will stay, and the parties will work together to repair flaws in it.

Of course, the crisis of the moment is the possibility the nation will “fall over the fiscal cliff” at the end of next month as Congress and the President refuse to work out a new compromise to curtail the federal deficit. That is very unlikely to happen. President Obama phoned House Speaker John Boehner soon after the election ended. They are said to have agreed to be cautious about public pronouncements that would make fiscal negotiations very difficult. The rhetoric has been rather mild.

One action may simply be a postponement of legislation until the new Congress convenes in January. Worry warts might find that frightening.  It would be a positive act. The longer we wait for financial actions that reduce government spending the more time the economy has to continue recovering. The federal budget is not like a household budget. Governments should cut spending when times are good, not when they’re tough.

Pre- and post-election polls showed who has the power. The American public gives Congress a scant 10 percent approval rating. President Obama won about 53 percent of the popular vote and a landslide in the electoral count that really matters. If the Republican-controlled House fails to propose or approve a way to step back from the “cliff,” the blame will fall squarely on them.

Another reason for optimism about dealing with the deficit is that the heavy work has been done. President Obama and Congressman Boehner were close to a deal 18 months ago. It was said to have been killed because of Tea Party opposition that Boehner could not overcome.  Now the Tea Party types are much less likely to block constructive action.

Considerable analysis of alternatives preceded the Obama-Boehner deal that almost became reality. Many ideas came from the Simpson-Bowles Commission, a nonpartisan group whose leaders offered many sound proposals, including tax increases as well as spending cuts. Lots of data are already assembled to guide budget and deficit decisions.

He now has the power to move ahead
In his first term, President Obama had to move with caution after his party lost big in the mid-term elections. The economy, which is well on the way to righting itself as economies do when they emerge from down cycles, was very slow to gain ground. Mr. Obama could ill-afford any rash actions that would end his days in office.

Some say the President now must take some sort of heroic action to “create his legacy” or “become a significant president.”  Nonsense. Mr. Obama already is assured of an important place in the annals of history.

Firsts are the stuff of historic presidencies. Mr. Obama, of course, is the first African-American president. He will be credited with being the first president to end two wars. And, he succeeded in moving the nation forward on the path to universal health care, something Democratic Party leaders have tried and failed to do for more than 80 years.

President Obama by nature seeks compromise with his political opponents, but he now can be very selective about making concessions to the Republicans in Congress. All he really has to do is say “Yes” or “No.” He’s in the catbird seat.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Serving (Some) Veterans

Yesterday I received what has become an annual gift in recognition of my two years of honorable service in the U.S. Army. A few days earlier I received my annual insult from the American Legion.

The gift was a delicious free meal at Applebee’s. The place was packed with veterans and their families.  Every vet who entered was presented with a nifty little red, white, and blue lapel button. The air was filled with “thank you for your service” wishes courtesy of the restaurant staff. 

Veterans young and old were having a ball. Some wore caps identifying their service. Not surprisingly, a few brought along a little barracks humor. We overheard one old geezer greeting another with, “Tom, I didn’t know you were in World War II.”

“I sure was,” Tom said. “And I even was on our side.”

On Tuesday, a thick packet of information, including a dozen free address labels, arrived from American Legion headquarters. The package also had a temporary membership card, a “certificate of nomination,” and a personalized letter. The letter congratulated me for doing military duty and said if I “qualified” I could become a member of the organization and receive numerous services.

To “qualify” all I had to do was certify that one day of my two years in the Army fell within certain time periods dating back to April 6, 1917. I already knew there would be no fit.  My two years of active duty don’t count, because the U.S. theoretically was not at war. Some of the guys from my unit who were sent to Viet Nam as “advisors” probably would be amused, or perhaps enraged, to learn that.

Once again, the Legion had the audacity to remind thousands of us “peacetime soldiers” that we are considered second-class vets. (for some details about this outrage, click on “Upon Further Review” under Most Popular Posts in the right-hand column on this page.)

Applebee’s considers every honorably discharged veteran a first-class vet. They serve all of us on Veterans Day. May the restaurant chain grow and prosper.

May the American Legion leaders, who sign their letters “serving veterans,” march straight to . . . .

Thursday, November 08, 2012

My Election Forecast--Right and Wrong

Early this year (see Jan. 11 post, “A Fearless Forecast”) the Geezer went out on the proverbial election forecasting limb. The limb remains intact, but it’s a little shaky.

I said after Mitt Romney’s early primary win in New Hampshire he would be the Republican candidate for president. Right.

I said President Barack Obama would win a close election. Right, but it wasn’t as close as I thought it would be.

I said Democrats would hold a majority in the Senate and fail to win enough seats to wrest House control from the Republicans. Right.

Because Libertarian Ron Paul finished second in New Hampshire with a hefty 22.8 percent of the Republican vote, I predicted he would run a strong race as a third party candidate. I said the Libertarian presence would take enough votes away from Governor Romney to reelect President Obama. Wrong.

Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson picked up the Libertarian banner when Paul declined to run. Although Johnson became the first Libertarian to get more than a million votes in a presidential election, they were fairly well spread out across the country and did not hand President Obama any states. Florida, where Libertarian views are strong in a few counties, may prove the exception when all votes are counted there. However, Florida became a nonfactor when President Obama clearly won a return to office well before Sunshine State votes mattered.

I made a major miscalculation thinking the election would be closer. I erred in assuming that Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory quite possibly was a one-time event motivated by strong demands for change from large segments of the public disenchanted with President George W. Bush and his policies. Results in 2012 show 2008 was no fluke. They proved that the white male establishment no longer will be dominant in American politics.

The 2008 election signaled a trend; it was not an outlier in the world of political statistics.

(I also said in January, “We will be in for another four years of frustrating stalemate in Washington.” That remains a popular viewpoint following this week’s election. However, I’ve come to believe we self-appointed seers are dead wrong about that. A post on the topic will be coming soon.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

At the Finish, Wonderful Words

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama gave beautiful speeches when it was all over—about the strengths of this nation and how we could work together for a brighter future.  It’s too bad they came at the end instead of throughout the campaign.

Let us hope those who were elected to serve us heard those messages.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Worthwhile Tradition

Back in the late 1950s when the geezer edited the De Pere Journal-Democrat, a weekly paper in a small city near Green Bay, patriotism ran rampant at election time. De Pere billed itself as “The All-American City.”  The self-conferred title resulted from the amazing rate of voting by citizens.

In the election year I lived in De Pere, 98 percent of the eligible voters in the population of about 9,000 cast a ballot.

I don’t recall getting an “I voted” sticker at the polling place, but they weren’t needed. People, some perfect strangers, asked me throughout the day whether I had voted.  A standard comment was, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” Voting simply was something everyone did in De Pere. There was no tolerance for those who skipped their civic duty.

At Journal Publishing, the owner toured the printing plant early in the day and told every employee to make sure to take the time off needed to go and cast a vote. Other business owners throughout the city were known to do that.

I don’t know if De Pere has maintained the “All-American City” tradition. I hope so. I do know only about half of the eligible voters in the U.S. are going to bother to cast a vote in our current very important presidential election.

Perhaps some friendly competition among cities to see which one can claim the voting title might do all of us a favor.