Archive for June, 2014

Will Republicans repeat their mistakes of 1964?

Fifty years ago, the Republican Party dealt itself a nearly fatal blow. After eight years of peace and prosperity under Dwight Eisenhower and the narrow defeat of Richard Nixon by John F. Kennedy, delegates to the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco nominated as their presidential candidate the hard right libertarian Barry Goldwater.

Rand Paul, shown in Bardstown, Ky., in 2013, said recently moderates are not the future of the Republican Party, but conservative voice Joe Scarborough makes the argument in his new book, "Right Path," that only a moderate, principled conservatism and bipartisan approach to government, in the tradition of Eisenhower and Reagan can enable the GOP to win presidential elections.

Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, suggested Social Security be voluntary and advocated giving field commanders authority to use nuclear weapons. He rejected compromise with moderate members of his party and declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Republicans suffered humiliating defeat to Lyndon Johnson, losing all states but five in the Old South and Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Democrats also won two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, which enabled them to enact a host of liberal programs.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

In “The Conscience of a Conservative” — published by a small press in Shepherdsville, Ky., in 1960 — Goldwater argued that most Americans are conservatives, but Republicans lose elections because they nominate moderate candidates who are indistinguishable from Democrats, so people don’t vote.

How often have we heard that argument from the right?

We are a conservative country in the sense that we believe in conserving tradition and order. Radicalism of the left or the right hasn’t gained much ground here in the last 150 years.

For a brief time, though, radicals controlled the GOP. The John Birch Society, which has experienced a recent resurgence, was influential. Young Americans for Freedom, using subversive tactics learned from the Young Communists, infiltrated Republican groups on college campuses and purged moderates from the ranks.

After the 1964 rout, Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky spoke for the true party of Abraham Lincoln when he wrote: “I do not want to be in a position of saying ‘I told you so,’ but it is true that those of us who had served with Senator Goldwater and knew his views could foresee some of the problems we had during the election.”

Fortunately, the moderates returned to power under effective leaders, including Govs. William Scranton of Pennsylvania and George Romney of Michigan and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. In 1968 and 1972, the party reclaimed the White House with Nixon, although Gerald Ford had to finish his second term.

Recently, I read Joe Scarborough’s new book, “The Right Path.” The former Republican congressman from Florida and host of “Morning Joe” might seem an unlikely advocate for a moderate approach for GOP candidates, but he makes a good argument.

Thanks to gerrymandering, hardliners can capture congressional seats, but if they ever want to elect another Republican president, Scarborough contends, they must reject the rhetoric and ideology of the tea party and rediscover the legacy of Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan “which is one of principled conservatism combined with clear-eyed pragmatism.”

He makes the case that for 40 years, from 1968 to 2008, the Republican Party was the political mainstream. But since its base became captive to the likes of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul, the party has been losing.

So effectively has the right come to dominate the party that Mitt Romney, a moderate like his father, ran as a hardliner to win the nomination in 2012 and retain the base. He described himself as “severely conservative,” denounced Obamacare, which was modeled on his own program, and told donors that people who qualify for income tax returns are leeches.

In 2008, traditional conservative John McCain felt he had to put Palin on his ticket to satisfy the far right. Big fail.

Later McCain called Senators Paul and Ted Cruz “wacko birds.”

The libertarian message may excite the GOP’s base, but it doesn’t convince the Democrats and independents it needs to give it a majority.

“We Republicans have been at our best when we are true to one of the deepest insights of conservatism: that politics, like mankind itself, isn’t perfectible in a fallen universe. And if we continue to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, then we will continue to dwindle in influence,” Scarborough wrote.

That’s sound advice for a party that seems on the verge of making the same mistakes it made in 1964.

It’s true that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.

Politics and candor aren’t incompatible

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes are as different as apples and avocados.

The 72-year-old Senate Republican leader has evolved from Rockefeller liberal to Reagan conservative and is courting tea party libertarians in his toughest contest in 30 years. His 35-year-old challenger is a Clinton centrist like her daddy, a former Democratic Party boss.

One thing they have in common, though, is they’re intent on managing the message.

I became a reporter the same year McConnell became a senator, and I’ve been impressed and annoyed by his ability to stay on message. Ask him a question, and he’ll give you a scripted statement. Ask it in a different way, and he’ll repeat it.

That seems to be something Grimes has learned as well.

Grimes has been criticized for being short on specifics. So when she came to Bardstown a few days before the primary, I prepared a list of specific questions. Before I could question her, an aide, Preston Maddock, questioned me about what I was going to ask her.

I had only a moment, so I rolled two questions into one. I noted that she had been attacked in ads linking her to President Obama’s “war on coal” and “Obamacare,” so I asked her to tell me one thing she would do to protect coal jobs and one change she would make to the Affordable Care Act.

I wrote that Grimes “didn’t directly answer the question” about coal jobs. On health reform, I quoted her as saying Congress should allow people to keep their doctors and “streamline the enrollment process.”

Short on specifics.

Matthew Fogle, our PLG-TV reporter, didn’t get to ask a question. He also tried to video my interview, but Maddock thrust his hand into the lens and said they were out of time. Fogle tweeted that Grimes didn’t have time for him, and I got a call from the campaign asking that we take down the Twitter feed and Facebook post.

Later I got a call from campaign press secretary Charly Norton asking that I “tweak” the line about Grimes not answering the coal jobs question. Didn’t I receive a copy of her jobs plan? Well, no. But that isn’t how I operate. I’m a reporter. I don’t eat handouts.

Norton sent me a link to the jobs plan. It was boilerplate. As a senator, Grimes would “spare no effort to persuade Washington’s policy makers that a coherent, rational energy policy must have a meaningful, long-term place for coal,” and would call on the president “to do the right thing.”

Short on specifics.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the 1980s, politicians gave detailed policy statements. A few, like Senate mavericks Rand Paul of Kentucky and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, still do, but they’re the exceptions. They’re also respected and popular. Maybe there’s a connection.

It’s hard to imagine a time before social media and sound bites when candidates said what they meant and meant what they said. In his 1968 presidential campaign, Bobby Kennedy sought the antiwar youth vote but had the guts to tell college students their deferments were unfair to poor black kids who were fighting in their place. He even admitted his culpability in the Vietnam debacle, quoting Socrates: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.”

Admit mistakes? Repent of pride? Unthinkable!

Kennedy also talked to hostile medical students at Indiana University about providing health clinics for poor neighborhoods. When one student asked where the money would come from, Kennedy pointed his finger at him, and said, “From you!”

Specific, honest and to the point.

We need that kind of candor again.

Policing: ‘It’s not just a job, it’s a life’

Saturday, May 24, 2014

It was one year ago today on a Saturday morning that I got the call from my editor, Forrest Berkshire, telling me something terrible had happened.

I was awake but still in bed. Earlier, I had heard sirens, but that isn’t unusual where I live, near the intersection of two of Bardstown’s busiest streets and a short distance from the fire station. When the phone rang, though, I had an uneasy feeling.

A police officer had been killed on the Bluegrass Parkway, Forrest said. My first thought was that it was a car crash, but it was a shooting. Probably the result of an altercation between the officer and a disgruntled misfit, I assumed.

I had been through that scenario twice before. Once was when Irvine Police Chief Bob Walker was killed by a lowlife who had bragged to friends that he had shot Bob before and would kill him next time. The second time was 15 years later when two sheriff’s deputies I knew in Jessamine County, Billy Ray Walls and Chuck Morgan, were gunned down by an ornery old river rat who was known to be dangerous. A third deputy, Sammy Brown, killed the assailant, but not before being critically wounded himself.

This time, it was different.

At a press conference that morning, I learned that Jason Scott Ellis — a Bardstown police officer with an exemplary record, a former pro baseball player and a 33-year-old husband and father — had been executed. Someone who knew where he would be and at what time ambushed him with a shotgun from the top of a bluff overlooking an exit ramp when Ellis got out of his car to clear some brush from the pavement that had been placed there to waylay him, and make him an easy target.

Ellis was off-duty at the time he was killed, having just finished his shift around 2 a.m. But a police officer is never really off the job, as Eric Johnson of Supporting Heroes made clear when he spoke May 13 at a local memorial for Ellis, at the same time Ellis was being honored along with 285 other fallen officers in the nation’s capital.

“The danger does not stop at the end of a law enforcement officer’s shift,” Johnson said. “It’s not a job, it’s a life. When officers take the oath of office, they do so knowing this, as well as the risks, and their families know it as well. They know the dangers, and they know by simply putting on a badge, they become a target, yet they do not waiver.”

It takes a special kind of person to be a good police officer. It takes someone who is brave and cares enough about those he has sworn to serve and protect that he’s willing to lay down his life for them, if necessary.

Unlike Bob, Billy and Chuck, I didn’t know Jason Ellis. But I know his kind.

When I slid off an icy road one evening in 2003, an off-duty Nicholasville detective risked his security to assist me.

When I was threatened by an informant in a murder trial, I was made aware that the police had my back.

I’ll always be grateful to them for what they do — even when they’re not on the job.

A year after the murder of Jason Ellis, police aren’t any closer to finding his killer. But they won’t give up until they do. Anyone who has information that could help them has a moral responsibility to come forward with it.

In the meantime, what each of us can do is what Jason’s widow, Amy Ellis, asked of us in a statement read at his memorial: Continue to remember her and her family as they try to put their shattered lives together, and “continue to pray for healing and justice.”

Remember, too, his fellow police officers who face risks most of us can only imagine. And say a prayer for them too as they watch over us day and night.

Journey through the past in Bloomfield

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Little towns can be the most delightful places or the most disheartening.

As the crow flies, Clay City is about 50 miles from Midway, but in the charm factor, they’re worlds apart.

There’s nothing in the Appalachian slum but rural blight, while the Bluegrass village is a treasure trove of antique shops and eateries one would expect to see on the cover of Garden & Gun magazine.

Bloomfield is somewhere in between. It’s more like Midway, but without the thoroughbreds and tourists.

Downtown Bloomfield, restored by the Bruckheimers.

Last Saturday, I spent two or three hours in Bloomfield and talked with locals who painted contrasting portraits of their hometown.

“I’m glad to see anything here,” Roger Elmore told me on the opening day of the new Bloomfield Farmers Market.

Elmore said the town is depressed and its leaders aren’t business-friendly. Pointing to the vacant building across the road, he mentioned that Bloomfield doesn’t even have a grocery anymore.

But that’s one reason Mayor Rhonda Hagan and others wanted a farmers market.

“It could be a charming little town,” Elmore said.

I later learned that it is charming in its unique way.

After talking with guests and vendors at the farmers market, I went to Bloomfield Baptist Church for An Afternoon with the Past, an annual homecoming for septuagenarian former residents and their spouses.

I met couples from as far away as Florida and Arizona who had returned to their roots.

“It’s beautiful,” said Gary Caggiano, a native New Yorker who had come back to Bloomfield by way of Phoenix with his wife, Nancy, when I asked him what he thought of this part of the country.

What was most enchanting was what I discovered when I parked my car on Main Street and took a stroll. I first went inside the Old Sugar Valley Country Store, which was like walking into Ike Godsey’s store in “The Waltons.”

It looked like a movie set for good reason. It is one of a row of 19th century downtown stores owned and restored by preservationist Linda Bruckheimer and her husband, Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who have a farm nearby. They also own both locations of Nettie Jarvis Antiques, one of which has a “Before I Die” chalkboard where people can record their most personal hopes, and Miss Merrifield’s Tea Room, where waiters were setting gorgeous table arrangements with old English china and fresh cut flowers.

“You don’t see tea rooms like this everywhere,” said Donna Cornell, an employee of the Bruckheimers.

The most captivating experience was across the street at the Olde Bloomfield Meeting Hall, with its vintage four-lane bowling alley, Ernie’s Tavern, with its bar and billiards, and the most eclectic décor I’ve ever seen in an arcade.

Jody Bartley, who manages the place, said aloud what I had heard others allude to — that the Bruckheimers had practically saved Bloomfield’s historic Main Street.

“She did a tremendous job of restoring this town,” he said of Linda. “She’s tried to put it back the way it was.”

As Bardstown, Georgetown, Danville and other small cities have shown, the way forward often involves looking back and reviving the best of past.

Bloomfield is off the beaten path, but so is Midway, and I think it has the potential to be the same kind of attraction for tourists and history enthusiasts with the right planning and the caring contributions of the Bruckheimers and others.

A fine restaurant similar to Tony York’s in Glendale or Boone Tavern in Berea could do wonders for the city’s economy. So might an independent grocery that sells Kentucky Proud products and garden-fresh produce — sort of like an indoor farmers market.

Maybe I’m dreaming, but there’s often a thin line between the dream and the reality.

Just ask Jerry Bruckheimer.

Prayer doesn’t have to be private

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Forty years later, I can still hear Tom Williams’ deep cadences as he opened the Irvine City Council meetings with prayer.

Everywhere I’ve worked as a reporter, with the notable exception of Nelson County, I’ve heard ministers and local officials open public meetings with entreaties to the Almighty, usually ending with, “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

I can’t recall ever hearing a complaint about the practice in local government, but I know Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, who is Jewish, has objected to opening legislative sessions with invocations.

When I covered the legislature for the AP in 2012, Catholic Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville once gave an invocation. And Baptist preacher Hershael York prayed in Hebrew. Although I never heard a rabbi pray in the Capitol, the most beautiful meditation I heard at Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon’s prayer breakfast that year was given by a rabbi. I led with it.

It is common practice, not only in Kentucky, but also around the country, for government bodies to open their sessions with invocations. Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that prayers before public meetings do not violate First Amendment requirements regarding separation of church and state.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated: “Willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent” with brief acknowledgement of “belief in a higher power.” In Greece, N.Y., the prayers of the town board serve a ceremonial purpose and thus “are not an unconstitutional establishment of religion,” he concluded.

The opinion also makes it clear that prayers do not need to be nonsectarian to be constitutional.

I think the justices got it right, and I’m pleased they ruled the way they did.

Prayers before public meetings differ from prayers in public schools, where attendance is mandatory and children are told what to do by their elders. Still, governments should practice diversity in choosing the prayer leaders, and the prayers should be broad enough that they don’t denigrate anyone else’s religion.

Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, and asking for his guidance shouldn’t offend anyone.

As a society, we’ve gone so far in trying to avoid violating the establishment-of-religion clause that we ignore the more basic constitutional and God-given rights of free speech and freedom of faith.

Many mayors and county judges choose to open meetings with prayer because they acknowledge the biblical truth expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the church of Rome: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

One can choose not to believe that everything is under God’s authority (or even that there is a God), but that doesn’t make it less true. Secularists say, “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” but they’re wrong. Truth is truth. It is absolute and eternal.

We should respect the rights of others to have differing beliefs, but we shouldn’t require Christians to keep their beliefs to themselves. That’s something Christ explicitly told his followers they should never do.

Christian faith isn’t personal and private. It’s communal. One cannot be a Christian on one’s own, and true believers don’t separate their spiritual values from their daily lives.

That doesn’t mean a disciple should be a “Bible thumper.” The fruits of the Spirit include kindness, gentleness, patience and self-control. If any Christian beats you about the head with a Bible, figuratively or literally, he isn’t a mature Christian.

But wearing a cross, using the G-word in casual conversation (in a way that isn’t blasphemous), offering to pray for a friend or coworker who’s going through some difficulty, or bowing one’s head during an invocation isn’t forcing one’s faith on anyone else. It’s a voluntary exercise of the most fundamental freedom on which our republic was founded.

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