public affairs

New African American Smithsonian Showcases Horror and Beauty

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, just before the first presidential debate in a contest in which charges of racial bigotry have been regularly tried.

President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has openly encouraged GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to visit the new Smithsonian museum before the November 8 election.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

Situated perhaps symbolically on the last available museum site on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the new museum traces the journey of a slice of America’s people who arrived in chains, suffered through segregation and still experience discrimination in the workplace and on the streets.

As the Museum celebrates its opening with a three-day Freedom Sounds Festival, protests continue in Charlotte and Tulsa over controversial police shootings of black men. Congress is hung up on a spending bill to keep the federal government running, in part because of a refusal to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, water users and Louisiana flood victims.

Backers were forced to raise private funds to build the museum because of congressional opposition. Senator Jesse Helms said if Congress funded a museum recognizing African Americans, other groups would demand equal treatment. Congress finally authorized the museum 13 years ago.

The building makes its own statement with a black-brown metal façade that contrasts sharply with the white marble sister Smithsonian museums surrounding it. The museum’s tiered design draws inspiration from African architecture, and the façade pays homage to the skill of black freemen metalsmiths in the Deep South. Architect David Adjaye, who designed the museum, said the architecture intentionally “speaks another language.

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

The exhibits and 36,000 displayed artifacts center on the life of black Americans from tiny plantation cabins and punishing neck chains to pioneering jazz musicians and Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac. However, exhibit designers sought to make the museum appeal to a wider audience by showing how African American culture has become embedded in all American culture.

“It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture,” the museum’s website declares. Designers also attempted to place the arrival of Africans in America as part of an ongoing global migration that at once has increased diversity and underscored human unity.

Parallel Press Conferences Posing as Debates

What if the debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was an actual debate where the candidates confronted each other rather than conducting parallel press conferences? Wouldn't that be nice. 

What if the debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was an actual debate where the candidates confronted each other rather than conducting parallel press conferences? Wouldn't that be nice. 

Presidential debates command attention even if they are just parallel press conferences, not real debates.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a real debate 150 years ago. They posited, rebutted and pontificated. Modern-day debates just skip to the pontification. They don’t answer questions. Instead, they speak over questions to appease their political base.

When contemporary debates were introduced in the 1960 presidential race, the news media urged candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to question each other, like Lincoln and Douglas. They balked, insisting the questions come from the news media. And thus the softball question was born.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 after insisting reporters ask the questions so they could avoid confronting each other in true debate style.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 after insisting reporters ask the questions so they could avoid confronting each other in true debate style.

Debate moderators can’t win. Their questions are questioned. When they challenge candidate deflections and dissembling, they are blasted as aggressive. When they throw darts at one candidate and marshmallows at the other, they are lambasted as unfair – or inept. Ask Matt Lauer – he just moderated a candidate forum that was supposed to be a parallel press conference.

Few people think presidential debates determine the outcome of the race. At best, a candidate can make a clever comment that defuses a potential issue. Like Ronald Reagan promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s youthfulness against him. Bingo. The Reagan age issue disappeared as fast as Mondale’s chances to win. Lloyd Bentsen cut Dan Quayle down to size by telling him he was “no John Kennedy.”

At worst, a candidate can make a fatal gaffe, like Gerald Ford insisting there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Luckily, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wasn’t debating when he responded to a question on MSNBC's Morning Joe about how he would handle the conflict in Syria. His clueless answer: “What is Aleppo?"

Debates can underscore candidate tendencies, such as Chris Christie sounding like a prosecutor in a televised courtroom. Or Marco Rubio drinking water and sweating, Bernie Sanders waving his arms and Richard Nixon scowling. Nixon wanted the debate cameras to stay locked on whoever was speaking, not the other candidate’s reaction. He lost that debate and his scowling image became his campaign likeness.

The 2016 presidential candidates broke new ground. The 17-candidate GOP primary required a much larger stage and a lesser-card warm-up debate. The Democratic debate often crept into the policy weeds, requiring viewers to consult a political thesaurus to understand what in the world the candidates were talking about.

The tone of the debates this year has been decidedly uncivil. There was little love lost between Lincoln and Douglas, but they didn’t interrupt each other or hurl insults. That was reserved for the presidential primary debates. Policy discussions were a dreaded distraction. Viewership has never been higher as you pictured people leaning forward in their recliners waiting eagerly for another zinger. 

The bellicose theatrics of debates are egged on by social media. Millions of tweets are posted during debates that excoriate the candidates, the moderators and the crowd. The debates have become more like prize fights or celebrity survival races.

The first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is less than two weeks away and anticipation is building, while expectations continue to drop. Clinton reportedly has been boning up for weeks. Trump is expected to wing it. Many assume the debate will feature Trump dodging substance and Clinton wallowing in it.

Harvard history professor Jill Lepore laments the fallen state of modern debates. In a recent article, Lepore quotes Walter Cronkite, “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud our political campaigns have become” as candidates dictate terms that “defy meaningful discourse” and “sabotage the electoral process.”

Like presidential candidates before them, Clinton and Trump have circled each other to ensure the most favorable settings and least objectionable moderators. But Lepore has a plot with a historical precedent.

She suggests channeling Phil Donahue, who in the 1992 Democratic primary in New York introduced Bill Clinton and Jerry brown, then “sat back in his chair and never uttered another word. Under bright lights with no reputation-salvaging escape, Clinton and Brown were forced to address each other for an “unmoderated, uninterrupted” 90 minutes.

Can you imagine Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump asking each other questions and civilly talking about issues for 90 minutes? Interestingly enough, now Trump is also calling for a debate with no moderator. Maybe that's the format we should follow after all.

The Dog Days of Trustworthiness

Of all people, the Clintons know there are no mulligans in the game of politics. So why didn’t they act sooner to address what appears like conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and their government roles and ambitions?

Of all people, the Clintons know there are no mulligans in the game of politics. So why didn’t they act sooner to address what appears like conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation and their government roles and ambitions?

Questions of trustworthiness dog the Clintons, and they shouldn’t be surprised.

As the fall presidential election approaches with Hillary Clinton in the lead, the Clintons have begun to position themselves for returning to the White House. They have put someone in charge of the transition and begun to discuss separation from the Clinton Foundation.

The only problem is they are late to the party.

After questions arose about pay-for-play influence-peddling, the Clintons are talking about drastically shrinking the size of the Clinton Foundation if Clinton wins the election. Hillary, Bill and Chelsea would leave the foundation's board, and Bill Clinton says he will stop fundraising for the foundation.

Fine, but why didn’t these declarations come much earlier? Why didn’t they exist when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state? Instead, they came after big-headline stories about possible favors and special access for Clinton Foundation donors. There may very well be an explanation for the favors and access, but there is hardly an excuse for not anticipating this would be an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Worse, the allegations fit to a larger narrative of the Clintons as political insiders who play loose with the rules.

The Foundation flap overlaps Hillary’s Clinton's painfully chronic email fiasco. The latest twist involves former Secretary of State Colin Powell denying that he encouraged Clinton to use a private email server. He says he gave advice on managing private email after she already had set up hers. It’s not an indictment, just another off-center, not-quite-true explanation that inflames Hillary haters and creates a media feeding frenzy.

If Clinton was facing anyone but the unpredictable and inexplicable Donald Trump, she may find herself in a political free-fall. Trump has picked up the issue and could make it his comeback cause. Even if Clinton wins the presidency, these apparent ethical lapses and tone-deaf media responses could deny her a solid mandate and weaken her ability to govern.

James Carville, the hominy grits political guru who guided Bill Clinton, tried to explain the Clinton predicament in an interview on the Today show with little success. You have the feeling that in private, Carville scolded the Clintons for failing to vet their vulnerabilities a long time ago as opposed to allowing these stories to become the equivalent of slow-drip campaign chemotherapy.

The Clinton Foundation has indisputably done much good. As a former president, Bill Clinton has used his status and clout to good effect and worthy ends. Yet, Hillary Clinton’s ambition to become president, strongly supported by her husband and daughter, should have aroused the usually keen political instincts of this very political family. They should have looked forward to contemplate Hillary’s historical presidential quest and proactively recognized and removed obstacles and provided clear, accurate explanations for behavior that raises eyebrows, even among supporters.

Yes, right-wing critics have dished out disinformation – or at least information without any supporting data – about Hillary Clinton, most recently about her health. But all the more reason to have your guard up, not in hibernation. In the game of politics, the Clintons, of all people, know you can’t declare a mulligan.

Now Hillary Clinton is left with pulling a heavy ball and chain of suspicion through the final 75 days of what seems like an indeterminable presidential campaign. It didn’t have to be like this. And it would be a shame if the Clinton Foundation wound up paying the price.

The Trade Lesson the Wine Industry Taught

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Before last week's Democratic National Convention, Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, was best known for defending the auto industry and trying to give her in-state wineries an online edge.

At the convention, Granholm gave one of the most under-reported speeches of the week in which she identified herself with the frustration of dislocated manufacturing workers, but said they need a champion with plans, not promises.

Critics panned the part of her speech where she re-imagined lyrics from music legend Carly Simon with, "You're so vain, you probably think this speech is about you." But that missed the heart of the speech, which touched the national nerve about how to address the many people left behind by economic progress.

"I'm a fierce Democrat. But I know there are Democrats and Republicans across the country who want to create jobs in America. Liberals and conservatives. Public sector and private industry. Because we're not in this alone – we're all in this together."

Granholm recalled how Michiganders like her resented how globalization shifted good-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying nations overseas. Her response: Quit bitching and start pursuing advanced manufacturing opportunities.

Then the Great Recession hit and the U.S. automobile industry went into a death spiral. "In 2008, we elected a Democratic President for us to work with," Granholm said. "And you know what he did? He saved the American auto industry. And then that renewed auto industry paid America back in full. And that's what we can do when we work together."

In simple terms, the former governor of Michigan spelled out the plan to address the impact of global trade, international financial flows and technological innovation. Stop complaining. Don't yield to fear-mongering. Trust people with real plans and the guts to implement them.

"Some people are worried. Some people are angry. I get that," Granholm said. "But the answer isn't to tear our country down, it's to build our country up. Not to build walls that keep the rest of the world out but to keep building the industries and universities that the rest of the world wishes they could get into."

Hillary Clinton has stumbled in her attempts to deliver the message that Granholm capsulized in a paragraph. It was perhaps the best testimonial Clinton could have received.

Granholm learned about economic togetherness the hard way. During her governorship, Michigan enacted legislation to allow Michigan wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan residents, but it also prohibited out-of-state wineries from the same privilege. Wineries challenged the law, and one like it in New York, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing Michigan and New York argued in Granholm v. Heald that states had carte blanche authority to regulate liquor sales and distribution. A majority of the Supreme Court disagreed and said the dormant Commerce Clause prevents unfair restraint of trade between states.

The chastened former governor who appeared on the DNC stage in Philadelphia bore the scars of trying to give the home team an even greater home field advantage. "Our great country spans a continent," she said, "but we're all connected to each other, no matter where we live. When a miner in Virginia has the dignity of a new job in the advanced steel industry, we all have dignity.... When the autoworker in Detroit builds the electric vehicle, that drives all of us forward.”

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

'Obamacare’s Kindest Critic'

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Republicans are convening in Cleveland this week and can be expected to bash Obamacare nonstop, but constructive criticism of the Affordable Care Act came last week from an unanticipated quarter – Barack Obama.

Signing his critique as Barack Obama, J.D., the President described how his legacy achievement could be perfected by adding a public health insurance option and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug rates, which is currently prohibited.

The New York Times called Obama “Obamacare’s kindest critic” and said his suggestions have the appearance of a memo to his hoped-for Democratic presidential successor, Hillary Clinton.

“Presidents usually wait until their memoirs to review their work,” the Times editorialized, but in this case Obama used the sixth anniversary of the act to make observations about his handiwork in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Health care costs are still too high, he wrote, and 29 million people still lack coverage.”

One of Obamacare’s “failings” is an incomplete expansion of Medicaid in 19 states that chose not to accept federal financial assistance to pay for expanded coverage.

But Obama points to the actual failure of providing coverage for 9.1 percent of the U.S. population. Obamacare reduced that total from 16 percent, but there are still people who can’t afford health care, often because they lack the money for co-pays and deductibles in addition to health insurance premiums.

Unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned hard on a Medicare-for-all health insurance plan that captured a lot of attention and rekindled interest in a single-payer system. Obama’s recommendation to add a public option to the health insurance exchange is a more targeted version of the idea, which possibly could win bipartisan support if aimed at rural areas with few private-sector health insurance choices, the Times said.

Clinton has expressed support for a public option. The Times notes Clinton has also voiced interest in allowing Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to enroll in Medicare.

The Obama view on Obamacare is that it isn’t going away any time soon, but it should be improved and perfected as part of a continuing drive to put a blanket of health insurance coverage over all Americans.

Not everyone agrees. Leading Republicans continue to call for repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with something else, which has largely been ill-defined. The Obamacare health care exchanges are under pressure as costs continue to rise and some insurers lose money. Efforts in Oregon and elsewhere to promote coordinated care and integration of physical and mental health care have registered some positive results, but are still in an extended trial stage. Employers have largely retained private health insurance coverage for employees, but have blunted cost increases by opting for plans with higher deductibles and co-pays and trimmer provider networks.

“What Mr. Obama has done is unusual – asking someone else to burnish a legacy of which he is personally proud,” the Times said. “If the candidates (and Congress) pay attention, his request may also do a world of good for millions of Americans for whom decent health care remains out of reach."

Hoyer Lays Out Congressional Reform Agenda

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

Lack of confidence in Congress is one of the biggest problems in the country that gets little attention on how to fix. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has offered up an agenda to address the perception that Congress is dysfunctional.

“It’s not an ideological agenda,” Hoyer says. “It’s a pragmatic agenda.”

In a speech to the Georgetown University Law Center, the Maryland Democrat called for an overhaul of the campaign finance system, enhanced voting rights, changes in the redistricting process and improvements in government technology.

“We can’t fully tap into our economic opportunities,” Hoyer said, “if we don’t make sure government works, too.”

A recent Rasmussen Report on national telephone and online poll revealed only 11 percent of respondents think Congress is doing a “good or decent job,” while 57 percent believe it is a doing a poor job. One reason for the lack of confidence is a prevalent view that most congressional representatives “sell their votes."

Hoyer pointed to the success in attracting large numbers of small donors by the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaigns as a model for campaign finance reform that places limits on how individuals can contribute and includes a discussion of public financing of campaigns. In addition to restoring voter trust in elected officials, Hoyer said campaign finance reform will result in a wider diversity of candidates.

Enhanced voting rights should include automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, vote-by-mail options and tools to combat voter suppression. “Every American who is eligible to vote should be able to vote. Period,” Hoyer said.

He said too much political influence in the redistricting process has led to a majority of safe Democratic and Republican House seats, which in turn has fueled increased polarization. Hoyer recommended “national redistricting standards” that reduce partisanship in drawing the lines of congressional districts.

Joining the 21st century in terms of technology would help federal agencies be as “connected and adaptive as possible,” Hoyer said, to create an “inclusive system of civic engagement.” Hoyer touted his bipartisan Information Technology Modernization Act, which would receive a one-time $3 billion investment to stimulate a wide range of technology improvement projects based on best practices in the private sector.

Hoyer added that more advanced digital systems must be “protected against cyber threats” so Americans have confidence government is “protecting their private data.” And he said a robust online presence by the federal government could allow for direct taxpayer rankings, like a “Yelp for government."

Hoyer lobbed in a couple of additional suggestions that include restoring congressional funding earmarks and removing the ability of a senator to put a hold on an executive branch nomination.

He admitted bringing back earmarks isn’t popular, but he said resumption of the practice would restore congressional decision-making over spending decisions that affect local communities. Hoyer cited an editorial by the Houston Chronicle that said, “A Congress without earmarks doesn’t spend less money. It just means that the executive branch has more control over taxpayer dollars."

Donald Trump and Political Realignment

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The prosperity of Pittsburgh contrasts sharply with the poverty in Western Pennsylvania towns such as Hazleton, creating an economic schism that is driving a a right-left populist movement and political realignment throughout America. (Photo credit: Steve Klaver/AP)

The 2016 presidential election will set records for outrageous remarks and insulting tweets. It also may realign the American political structure.

New York Times columnist David Brooks credits the campaign of Donald Trump with teeing up political realignment, less to satisfy ideologues and more as a desperate attempt to win the White House.

In a traditional right versus left alignment, Brooks says odds are against Trump winning over Democrat Hillary Clinton. But in a realigned political landscape, where Trump embraces a mish-mash of right wing and populist causes, Brooks speculates the New York billionaire may have a narrow path to victory.

“His only hope,” Brooks writes, “is to cast his opponents as right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture and global intervention” while “standing as a right-left populist who supports closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture and an America-first foreign policy.”

The notion that this is fantasy was shattered when Britons voted to exit the European Union based on arguments not that different than the ones Trump intones at his American political rallies.

The chaos and economic certainty resulting from the prospective pullout from the EU may give people pause, but chances are that views have already hardened among those who feel left behind or betrayed by 21st Century America.

Brooks openly wonders whether Trump is the leader with the capability and discipline to achieve the political alignment his presidential campaign has lurched toward. “I personally doubt that Trump will be able to pull off a right-left populist coalition,” he says. “His views on women and minorities are unacceptable to nearly everybody on the left. There’s no evidence that he’s winning over many Sanders voters or down-scale progressives.”

“But where Trump fails, somebody else will succeed. And that’s where he is substantively revolutionary,” Brooks concludes. Trump has liberated Republicans from an obsequious reverence to smaller government and put them on a track to support a different kind of government that is more inward-looking. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” could be translated as “Put America First.”

It is hard to know whether Trump is a political savant who conjured this political line on his own or borrowed it from Europe’s cast of right-wing nationalist parties. Maybe it just came to him as the equivalent of a business opportunity to be exploited.

Whatever the source, Trump’s emergence has confused political pundits and confounded political elites because it doesn’t color within the lines; it creates new lines with bolder, shocking colors.

Brooks predicts the rubber will hit the road on the issue of trade. People in the upper layers of the U.S. economy see trade as good, creating consumer benefits, market efficiencies and new-age jobs in fields such as logistics. People in lower layers of the economy blame trade and immigrants for job displacement, loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs and regional dislocation.

Brooks said this isn’t an abstract difference, but a tangible one, which can be seen by traveling from Pittsburgh, which is flourishing in the new economy, to Western Pennsylvania where small town storefronts are boarded up. This world reality isn’t newly exploded, but it now has been irrevocably stamped onto the political culture of America.

Clinton may win this fall because of her wider appeal and voter disgust over some of Trump’s egregious views and comments. But she and the Congress, whether still in control of Republicans or not, will face the challenge of governing outside the old political lines and within a realigned political structure.

Creating Echo Chambers for Issues

Advocacy campaigns have become battlefields for issues such as restricting use of the chemical BPA in plastic containers.Terms such as "lobbying," "advocacy" and "public affairs" are used commonly – and not always flatteringly – when discussing influencing Congress. NPR's Morning Edition ran a piece this week that gave a glimpse of what those terms mean on the ground.

"The art of public affairs," says Anne Womack-Kolton, a vice president of communications for the American Chemistry Council, "is telling your story as many ways as you can to create that echo chamber around whatever target you are trying to reach."

The NPR story centered on the congressional debate over restricting use of bisphenol A (BPA) in manufacturing hard-plastic drinking bottles, including baby bottles. Chemical companies insist BPA is safe, while consumer activists say it interferes with reproductive development in animals and has been linked to heart disease and diabetes in humans.