2 septuagenarians’ views of America

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 31, 2017.

There are two septuagenarians, both Americans, who know America and how to work an American crowd. I saw both on different stages in a single day.

On May 18 Arlo Guthrie ambled out slowly onto the stage of the old brick Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., a big shock of white hair and a droopy mustache. Gaudy painted figures festooned the ceiling, as white, blue and red lights shifted in steamed air among the four figures who moved with him. In blue jeans and without any discernible ceremony he sat on a stool in the middle of his countless precious guitars.

Around him were a middle-aged guy who played electric guitar like a bank teller working an adding machine and Arlo’s plump, shaggy-haired son, who beamed a smile down onto the keyboard. In back was a 50-some-year-old drummer and over his left shoulder was the woman who had been there 40 years ago playing a tambourine.

He mumbled something about playing their “stuff” and went right into some recent songs. The crowd, which did not completely fill the venue, did not wait until he started playing the old stuff to become enthusiastic. But when he started into “Coming into Los Angeles” it got warm. Holding a shiny blue 12 string guitar, he picked a tune while telling a story that mostly made fun of himself. He was passing the songs around. It seemed from his telling that he’d just been lucky. He pulled “Alice’s Restaurant” from some recess in his old white head, meandering through a convoluted tale of littering and the insanity of a Vietnam era New York draft station.

He took all of us right with him down along the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans, right through the middle of America. With every word and chord he told us about who we are. And we all knew it. He joined us together with a kind of gentleness. There was no welding going on, just a coalescence. We seemed to belong there and together. He brought out a little Bob Dylan and more than a little Woodstock.

He only got serious a few times, when telling the tale of a Chilean singer who’d been murdered by generals and whenever he talked about his dad. That’s the first time we opened up our throats and sang along with him. We’d do it again at the end of the show.

This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York Island From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me

And that’s when I really started thinking about what’s going on in the world right now. Woody Guthrie’s old song made me think about the only good solution to any kind of real trouble. When he wrote that song there were few reasons to be optimistic. The world was pretty messed up in 1940. But I think what Woody Guthrie said about us in that song had more to do than anything else with us getting through it.

After he finished his second set everyone knew we’d clap hard enough for him to give us one more song. He said it really didn’t count as a song, it was just some of Woody’s scribblings he’d found and set to some music. Arlo called it “My Peace.”

My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew I give my peace to green and black and red and white and blue My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you

Of course, we’re not always that good, no one is. I’m pretty sure neither Woody nor Arlo was always so good, maybe never. But sometimes we forget who we are, who we can be. We forget that we can be that good. Sometimes we’re scared and mean. Sometimes even worse. Sometimes who we are depends upon whom we listen to. Sometimes we’re listening to the wrong song. Sometimes we just need reminding.

I almost forgot to talk about that other old guy I saw on a different stage. He’s almost exactly one year older than Arlo. He has a head of carefully combed-over blond hair. He was on TV saying how hard he’s been working for us. He spends a lot of time in a place in Florida called Mar-a-Lago where he says he worries about the little guys, like you and me.

The difference is always the stand we take

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 15, 2017.

I have The New York Times from May 10, 2017 — the real print edition. I’m reluctant to throw it away. Mark you, I’ve trashed lots of newsprint: KU winning two national championships and even the Chicago Tribune the day after the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, but I’m reluctant to throw this one into the trash bin.

The headline reads (capitalized, bolded and italicized in the original): “TRUMP FIRES COMEY AMID RUSSIA CONTROVERSY.” I have fear — no that’s not true; I have hope, is more like it — that this headline will be remembered. There aren’t that many, really, that have been. The beginnings of wars and assassinations, mostly, but there is another: “The Saturday Night Massacre.”

“Nixon Discharges Cox For Defiance; Abolishes Watergate Taskforce; Richardson and Ruckelshaus Out.”

The common thread is that We The People have always been the difference. Each headline is the beginning of a story, but the outcome depended upon us. It always does.

Every year has its seeming crises, its tempests in teapots, but really it’s mostly stuff that comes out in the wash. Run it through an ordinary wash cycle and the stain disappears, completely forgotten only days later. That’s how most of history is, preserved only by historians. But not all of it, and if our national history began on July 4, 1776, how many events are there that even the least historical of us knows?

When Nixon ordered his own attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire the Watergate special prosecutor he was refused. The AG and the deputy AG, William Ruckelshaus, resigned rather than comply with the order. Nixon was trying to interfere with the legal process; he was trying to protect himself from investigation. Our representatives in Congress stood tall, and together Republicans and Democrats ignored party lines and joined together in their condemnation. The investigation of Watergate went forward and the result was that Nixon became the only president to resign his office. Congress knew it could not let Nixon get away with it. It knew it was accountable to us. It happened because of us and who we are.

It was reported that the White House justification for President Trump’s firing FBI Director James Comey was his “atrocities.” Really, atrocities? What does that word mean? I’ll leave it to you to look up. Let’s not strip our language of its meaning. Whatever Comey did, there were no atrocities. In apparent agreement with the White House, Kansas GOP Sen. Pat Roberts says the firing was justified. But, should it end there? If Trump is able to appoint the person who will investigate Trump and the actions of his campaign, how can we ever know the truth? Roberts’ eager complicity wouldn’t have been acceptable in 1974 because that is not who we were then. Is it what we’ve become? We are at one of those moments when we will discover who we are.

Whether you think the Russians interfered in our election isn’t the question. Even if you doubt the Trump campaign was involved, you should want the truth to come out. You should want the process to work and to take its due course. Faith in the process is all that stands between us and anarchy. Freedom depends upon it.

Reflecting on The New York Times headline, as I began to throw it into the recycle bin, it occurred to me that this headline would only be remembered, would only be historically significant, if we are as good as we were in 1974. Whether the firing of Comey becomes the dust of our history or one of its turning points depends upon who we are. Wars and catastrophes thrust themselves into our memories regardless of outcomes — Pearl Harbor is as much a part of the national memory of defeat to Japan as it is of victory for us. But the Saturday Night Massacre is remembered because, and only because, we rose to the occasion, we stood tall, we acted courageously, with honor and virtue.

If a Democrat had done this, do you imagine for one single minute that Roberts would give it a pass? This is not about politics, it’s about something much more important. The power is in your voice.

Let’s have good reasons for good laws

This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 8, 2017.

The headline read “Governor tightens waterslide regulations” (Lawrence Journal World, April 25).

Caleb Schwab, the son of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, was killed last summer riding a waterslide at the Schlitterbahn waterpark in Kansas City, Kan. Less than a year later the “anti-regulation” Kansas Legislature passed a bill regulating waterslides, and “anti-regulation” Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law. The vote was overwhelming, in the House 124-1; in the Senate, 35-2.

I’m glad we passed a public safety law; though, I don’t know why it was not already on the books. Maybe with good laws that child would be alive today. But does a child need to die before we recognize the need to create, or tighten, safety standards? It’s not like amusement park rides are something new.

The argument against regulation is that it distorts free markets; markets, the argument goes, naturally punish bad actors. The argument continues that government regulators are inept and that when the “nanny state” intervenes to protect us, it does the opposite by interfering with the market and in the process, “kills jobs” and punishes “job creators,” actually hurting far more than it helps.

The news article reported:

“The death of a colleague’s son spurred the governor in anti-regulation Kansas to toughen the state’s inspection requirements for amusement parks on Monday.

“[Bill sponsor, GOP Rep. John] Barker described Kansas’ current amusement park regulations [as] some of the loosest in the country.

“Brownback had promised to follow [Rep.] Schwab’s lead. Schwab didn’t comment on the bill until he gave an emotional speech in support of it last month in the House. He told fellow House members that he didn’t come to the Legislature to increase regulations and he wouldn’t hold it against anyone who didn’t vote for the bill.”

So, I’m trying to follow the logic here. The “regulations” need to be made tougher to “protect the next kid,” but the father of a child who unnecessarily died feels he needs to apologize for supporting tougher regulations?

Apparently 98.1 percent of our legislators recognize that regulations are necessary. Safe elevators, for example; should there be a law requiring elevator inspections? Or how about food? Should there be health standards for food? We’re not China, after all. How do you think cars got safer or Lake Erie got cleaned up? The answer: regulatory laws. Regulation created safe workplaces and stopped child labor. It wasn’t market-place innovation; it was government regulation.

What’s also clear is that everyone involved ­­­— Rep. Schwab, Brownback, everyone — understood that recognizing the need for safety regulation conflicts with Republican political orthodoxy. Big business doesn’t like it. So much so that Schwab felt obligated to tell his fellow legislators he would not “hold it against anyone” who voted against tightening regulation of amusement park rides, even though he might very reasonably believe the loosest laws in the country led to the death of his child.

And, only three actually voted “no,” then, as Brownback made clear he was “following [Rep.] Schwab’s lead,” regardless of his well-known stance against any kind of regulation.

So, it boils down to this: It seems that regulations are OK when something bad happens to — and here’s the critical point — not just anyone, but to someone who matters. Caleb Schwab mattered to the Kansas Legislature. Do you imagine this law would have been passed had Caleb not been a child of a legislator? Do you imagine the bill would pass with 98.1 percent of the vote, and be immediately rubber-stamped into law had the victim not been a member of the legislative family?

The problem is that if we pass laws in response to something bad happening to special people, what will happen when something bad happens to forgotten people? Lady Justice wears a blindfold because law should not be about “who” but about “what.” Someday the tragedy of this young boy will pass from the memories of legislators, and to those who did not know him this safety law may become just one more job-killing, nanny state regulation. What then? Does someone new need to die in every generation?

That’s not how good government works — fixing problems one at a time when someone special is involved. What happened to this family was awful and unnecessary. Had adequate safety regulation been in place, rather than the “loosest” in the country, Caleb might be alive today. Let’s make preventing unnecessary tragedy for all of us a goal of good government.