Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

A t-shirt, a tweet, and history

Seen at a truck stop in Effingham, Illinois:

A grey T-shirt with the pictures of former Illinois Governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan and the words, “Illinois, Where our Governors Make Our License Plates.”

For historical accuracy, future t-shirts might include Governors Otto Kerner, Jr. (mail fraud), and Dan Walker (bank fraud) among those whose careers took them from having license plate number one to a place where they wore a number stitched onto their clothes.  Walker capitalized on his name by walking the state during his 1971 gubernatorial campaign, inspiring Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor Joseph P. Teasdale to become known as “Walking Joe Teasdale” during an unsuccessfully 1972 primary campaign for governor.  Teasdale didn’t walk as much during his successful 1976 campaign, but supporters wore lapel pins showing a shoe with a hole in the sole, an idea borrowed from a pin used by Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 Presidential campaign.  Stevenson was a Governor of Illinois who did NOT go to prison. Instead, he went to the United Nations as United States Ambassador during the Kennedy/Johnson administrations.  He is remembered for the dramatic moment when he unveiled aerial photographs of Russian missile installations in Cuba and directly asked Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin if the country was installing nuclear missiles there and proclaimed he would be waiting “until hell freezes over” to get an answer.

It was Stevenson who proposed the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—our removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey (they were obsolete anyway) if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, a deal that did not become public for many years.  He knew that some of President Kennedy’s advisors would consider him a coward for making such a suggestion, but he commented, “Perhaps we need a coward in the room when we’re talking nuclear war.”

Wonder how many people who see those t-shirts ever think about all the real history behind the sardonic message on them and the resonance some of that history might have in today’s world.

We stopped for fuel in Effingham on our way back from watching the first Japanese driver win the Indianapolis 500.  By then, a Denver sportswriter had taken to Twitter to say he was uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the race on Memorial Day weekend because of the death of one of his father’s Army Air Corps colleagues in the Battle of Okinawa.  He later issued a public apology and noted his father had flown many missions including unarmed reconnaissance missions over Japan during World War II.  But the Denver Post has fired him.

We resist today writing of Twitter’s capacity to bring out the worst in us—and the best although your observer considers it generally to be “The Theatre of the Inane”—and others have written about the decency of Takuma Sato (who is celebrating at the “Kissing the Bricks” post-race ceremony at the start-finish line) who has spoken of his concern about a quarter-million people in his homeland who are still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami a few years ago.  Instead we refer you to an entry in the old Missourinet blog that we posted three years ago about a place 225 miles or so southeast of Denver that tells a different story from the unfortunate Denver tweets.

http://blog.missourinet.com/2014/09/30/summits-sewers-and-students/

History has many parts.  As we see in this year’s story of the Denver sportswriter and in the 2014 stories of high school students and a high plains historical site, there often are shadows over it.

There is danger lurking whenever any of us try to distill the past or the present into 140 characters.

 

Who has left the stadium

No, there’s no question mark.  It’s a statement, not an inquiry.

I became worried as baseball’s spring training neared its end and fairly concerned when opening day arrived.  So, finally, I asked a friend at Downtown Book plus Toy if they had seen it.   Nope.  They handle so many books and magazines they hadn’t missed it. But I sure did.  So they tried to order it for me.

It’s not going to come in.  Maybe it’ll never be back.

And baseball won’t be the same.

One of the signs that winter can’t last forever has been the appearance on the magazine rack of my local book store of the red-covered annual publication with baseball players on the front and the team picture of the World Series winner on the back.  Who’s Who in Baseball, a publication letting readers immerse themselves in the career statistics of just about all the guys who put on major league uniforms each year, has gone away.

The months of February, March, and early April had a big hole in them this year for people who love baseball.  During those last dark days of winter and through those first tantalizing days of early spring, baseball fans could immerse themselves in seeing who was close to a milestone.  Could somebody get to their 600th home run this year?   Or their 300th win as a pitcher?  Is there any pitcher close to 3,000 strikeouts?  In today’s home-run culture, how many guys have 300 or 400 stolen bases?  Who was traded for who in 1999?  What was the last year that aging pitcher had a winning record or a respectable ERA?  Who’s Who in Baseball was the annual hint that better days were coming even if you rooted for a team you knew was probably going to be one of the worst.  Now, apparently, it’s gone.  And at this house, baseball season is a little bit incomplete.

Maybe we should blame the Chicago Cubs.  Who’s Who in Baseball began four years after the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.  Could it be that the possibility of putting a picture of the Cubs on the back cover of the publication was just more than the publishers could bear?  Is publication death preferable to admitting the Cubs won the World Series?

Here’s what happened.

Last spring, about the time the 2016 season was starting, Harris Publications shut down. It’s official farewell statement talked about the struggles the magazine industry has had “in the face of the rapid ascendance of digital media, changing consumer content preferences, magazine wholesaler struggles and consolidation in the supply chain. We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

Last July, the assets of Harris Publications, including rights to seventy-four titles, were acquired by Athlon Media Group. That doesn’t mean those titles will survive. A company spokesman didn’t hold out much hope for Who’s Who in Baseball or many of the other Harris titles after the acquisition by putting out this statement:

“We’ll continue to evolve our content from print centric platforms into over-the-top (OTT) media to gain knowledge and strength in visual platforms. Vertical titles, such as Harris Publications, are a perfect venue for this space.”

Yeah, whatever.

Fact is, we can go to the internet and look up all kinds of stats on any player past or present.  But there’s something about browsing through a print version of WWIB as some call it (we think it’s kind of sacrilegious) just to see what catches the eye.  “Browse” shows up on web pages sometimes but it’s just not the same with a tablet or a smartphone.  At least not to this writer’s generation.  But this writer’s generation is kind of like the dinosaurs after the big meteor hit, aren’t we?

The oldest edition in my collection includes a player whose career began in 1942.  It includes people such as Hoyt Wilhelm, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Vic Davalillo, Mike Cuellar, Dick Hall, and Gaylord Perry.  Leafing through those old editions brings these guys back to life, back to a time when they were throwing smoke and spitters and dashing about the base paths and the outfields.  There’s something about looking at their stats when they were our heroes.

But it’s gone now.

February and March are going to seem a little colder from now on.

Jerry

We’ve lost a good guy named Jerry Nachtigal. 

Those of us who have spent a lot of time covering state government might be excused if we think of Jerry as the last of his kind, a press secretary who recognized that his job was to be an enabler, not a roadblock. 

Jerry was Mel Carnahan’s spokesman.  He was the one who made the official announcement that terrible night almost seventeen years ago that his boss and two others had been killed in a plane crash. Governor Carnahan, his son Randy, and the governor’s chief aide, Chris Sifford died in that crash.  Chris had been Jerry’s predecessor as the governor’s press guy.  

Jerry stayed on as Roger Wilson’s spokesman during Wilson’s two-month governorship.  And he remained in the position for a while for Bob Holden.  He always dealt with the press with high professionalism.  This reporter cannot recall ever having a cross word with him. If we needed a comment from Governor Carnahan, he always tried to connect us with him or at least was able to tell us what the governor was thinking—we recall several times when the governor had gone to Washington or somewhere else to conduct state business and Jerry always made sure we could get a long-distance call by the governor from the airport before takeoff on the return flight.

It helped that Jerry had spent almost two decades working for the Associated Press in Kansas City and Springfield as well as in Phoenix.  Unlike too many of his successors throughout state government, he knew the press and how it operates.  And he worked for a governor who was open about his actions and who was unafraid to explain and defend them. 

Jerry was a native of South Dakota and the state eventually drew him back to it, first to be a spokesman for an unsuccessful candidate for governor and then as a spokesman for Citibank in Sioux Falls.   When he died, he was the Senior Vice President of Public Affairs.  He was a respected community leader, a trustee of the South Dakota State University foundation (he was a graduate of the school), a board member of the Sioux Falls YMCA, and a board member of the South Dakota Banking Association. He also ran most of Citi’s philanthropic efforts in the state. 

The CEO of the Sioux Falls YMCA was quoted in Jerry’s obituary saying Jerry was a powerful corporate executive but didn’t lord it over anyone. “He was just down to earth, great communicator, always open to talking about things…someone who believed in giving back.”

He and his family were the South Dakota State University Family of the Year in 2005.  He bled blue and yellow as he watched the Jackrabbits basketball and football games.  And there was some purple, too, for his Minnesota Vikings.  He loved baseball, particularly the Twins, he fished; he hunted; he looked at birds.  He once said that everybody in family but him and the dog played tennis—but he was one of the top leaders in efforts to build a major indoor tennis facility in Sioux Falls so people could play in the months when, as he noted, South Dakota is frozen. 

Cancer claimed him at the age of 57.  He leaves his wife, three children, and other family members.

We appreciated him and respected him when he was with us at the Capitol. That was, unfortunately, a far different time.  The press and the public here have not been served as well since he went back to South Dakota. 

He was a good man.  We are lucky to have been able to work with him.  And grateful that we did.

The press gang

The Capitol Press Corps swells when the legislature is in session when news organizations that cover government from a distance the rest of the year reopen their press rooms on the fifth floor for the duration or add employees at the capitol or a few months. In the off-session times, the on-site “gang” is smaller.

We use the word “gang” because the headline for this column is the same headline used by the Cole County Democrat, a weekly version of the daily Democrat, on January 3, 1907 when it told readers about the reporters who were arriving in town for the session that year.  The article was written, of course, by a member of the press corps, probably the guy from the Post whose name does not appear on the list, and it is clear there was good-natured camaraderie involved in what was then a pretty competitive bunch.  But the days of two-newspaper towns are pretty much gone—Columbia being the only one in Missouri that comes to mind.

This, though, is the “press gang” of 1907 as the article put it:

+++++++

As usual the best newspaper men in the State are here to cover the legislature.  They are selected because excellent qualifications are required for the positions.  Men who have been tried and not found wanting—men who never betray a confidence and above all tell the truth.

The Star and Times of Kansas city will be represented by Walter Evans, who with the probable exception of Charlie Oldham of this city, is the best posted man in the state on Missouri politics.  He will be assisted by Claud Johnson, a very clever writer, but not well posted in politics.

The Kansas City Post will be represented by Will Williams, a most capable man, who represented the St. Joseph Gazette at the last session.  Harry Edwards of this city will represent the Kansas City Journal. His ability as a writer needs no comment, as it is well known here. The St. Joseph News-Press will again be represented by the “Kid” reporter, but as he is young in years so he is old in experience and that is Bert G. Voorhees. This is the third general assembly that Voorhees has covered for the St. Joseph News-Press, which in itself stamps him as a most excellent reporter.

Rev. Ben Deering represents the St. Joseph Gazette this year.

Jos. J. McAuliffe will, of course, represent the Post-Dispatch. Joe is one of the newspaper men who has the happy faculty of both getting the news and writing.  Joe has been coming here to legislatures and on special work for the Lord only knows how long, and each time he comes he makes more friends and “binds those he has with bands of steel.”  He will be assisted by Curtis Betts, who has lived with us long enough for us to be glad he is here and to hope that he shall always live in Jefferson City.

The Star Chronicle will be represented by W. H. Quigley, who made a name for himself two years ago by his energies and reliable work on the St. Louis Chronicle, while the St. Louis Globe-Democrat will be represented by our own Sam Kellar, the immortal “S. K.” Nuf said.

The Republic will be represented by Chas. B. Oldham, who knows more politicians and political stories than any other writer in Missouri.  Tom Masterson said to be one of the police reporters in St. Louis will be associated with Mr. Oldham in the Republic work.

These men and the members of the legislature are to be our guests for the winter; let’s show them a good time.

+++++++

We don’t know if Ben Deering really was a minister although there are some contemporary accounts from that era of a minister by that name in St. Louis and in Indiana.

Joseph McAuliffe is the reporter who stirred up the great legislative Baking Powder Scandal of 1903 that forced a Lieutenant Governor out of office and led to the indictments of four state senators for bribery.

A photograph in the press room showing Governor Donnelly meeting with the press corps in his office (this was before Warren Hearnes turned the Governor’s Waiting Room into The Office) includes Curtis Betts, still on the job in about 1947.  Also in the picture, by the way, is Bob Holliway, who arrived on the scene a few years after this 1907 article was written, and who spent time in the Cole County jail in 1917 when he would not reveal who on a county grand jury had told him a series of indictments would be issued against the former Commissioner of the Permanent Seat of Government (the equivalent of today’s Commissioner of Administration) who was indicted but never convicted for selling state-owned coal to other state officials or private citizens.

Today’s press corps is far different but no less committed than these jolly fellows of 1907 to telling readers, viewers, and listeners important things those citizens should know about what their elected legislators and state officials are up to. It’s a harder job than it was then because of the pressures technology puts on them in the form of constant minute-by-minute deadlines. And today, as then, some of the things they write are resented by those they write about—although their stories are unlikely to land them in jail. But the press corps remains an important link between citizens and those they elect to make the laws and regulations. It’s too bad there aren’t more of them.

The cowboy code

In the gentler time in which your observer of the passing scene grew up, when most matinee movie heroes were clean-shaven, wore white hats and rode Palomino horses while villains were facially grubby, wore black hats and rode dark horses, when people were killed without huge doses of blood, guts, and brain matter being sprayed about, when nude scenes were those showing the hero’s horse without a saddle, three good guys set a tone for their young admirers to live by.

Oh, there were others on the screen and on the radio—and later on television (although this young viewer was always disappointed that Clayton Moore’s television Lone Ranger lacked the authoritative deep voice of  Brace Beemer’s radio Lone Ranger), but Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger were the ones who not only exemplified by their actions what good people were supposed to be but who also had written codes of conduct that might seem quaint today but were—it seems through the tinted glasses of nostalgia—part of the upbringing of a few generations that seemed more—-well, courteous.

loneroygene

We know society in those days had its dark sides—-we don’t recall any black cowboy heroes on the movie screens of our childhood movie houses, for example, and the Lone Ranger was the only movie hero that had a minority sidekick—unless you count the Cisco Kid and Pancho.  But in our insulated world, our radio and movie heroes told us how we should behave.

In these days when language is loose and clothes are sometimes even looser, when too many movies and TV shows are a series of explosions around which is stitched a weak plot, when our politics have become crude and our policies have tended toward narrowness, perhaps a reminder of what our cowboy heroes expected of us is in order.

Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code said:

The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.  He must never go back on his word, or trust confided in him. He must always tell the truth.  He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas. He must help people in distress.  He must be a good worker.  He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.  He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.  The Cowboy is a patriot. 

Your correspondent was a proud member of the Roy Rogers Riders Club and as I recall, my membership card had ten rules:

Be neat and clean.  Be courteous and polite.  Always obey your parents. Protect the weak and help them. Be brave but never take chances.  Study hard and learn all you can.  Be kind to animals and take care of them. Eat all your food and never waste any.  Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.  Always respect our flag and our country.

Fran Striker, who created the Lone Ranger for Detroit Radio Station WXYZ in 1933, composed the Lone Ranger’s creed:

I believe that to have a friend, a man must be one; that all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world; that God put the firewood there, but every man must gather and light it himself; in being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right; that a man should make the most of what equipment he has; that “this government, of the people, by the people, and for the people,” shall live always; that men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number; that sooner or later…somewhere…somehow…we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken; that all things change but the truth, and the truth alone lives on forever. I believe in my Creator, my country, my fellow man. 

Sometimes, as we watch campaigns and legislatures, it seems that our cowboy heroes aren’t the only things that have ridden off into the sunset.

Sigh.

(About the picture:  It was taken November 29, 1981 at the Hollywood Christmas Parade.  Left to Right:  Iron Eyes Cody, Clayton Moore, Roy, Gene, and Pat Buttram.  The picture was taken at a time when Jack Wrather, who owned the rights to The Lone Ranger, got a court order barring Moore from appearing as the Masked Man.  Moore wore the wrap-around sun glasses until Wrather relented in 1984. http://www.westernclippings.com/treasures/westerntreasures_gallery_10.shtml)

Blaming Grandpa

We live in a time when we have “friends” throughout the world but we don’t know our next door neighbor. 

 We wave at our neighbors but we don’t talk to them very much and certainly not about anything significant. But we’ll text people in other cities. We’ll link in with them or we’ll book our faces with them or we send them an Instagram.  Some still twitter to share things with people we’ve never met.  But we just wave at our neighbors—-and what was their name again?

My grandfather didn’t invent the internet but he might have set in motion the sorry state of affairs outlined by Media writer Eric Burns almost thirty years ago when he wrote, “Every improvement in the technology of communications during the last century has led to greater isolation among people. It is a remarkable paradox, as if every improvement in the technology of hygiene had led to greater illness, every improvement in the technology of transportation had led to greater distance.” 

 If you need proof, put your cell phone away when you’re walking along a busy street and watch the crowd and see how many people are walking while they’re talking on the phone or texting or checking emails, never looking at the people around them, not even talking with friends or associates walking with them.   

“It began with Rural Free Delivery that brought the mail to the person,” wrote Burns.  

One of my grandfathers was a rural mail carrier in Mitchell County, Kansas in the 1920s and 1930s, delivering mail to people such as my other grandfather, a farmer. 

“Before RFD, the person had to come to the mail, which was deposited for him at a centralized place.  Usually the place was a general store; usually the person was a farmer who would kill two birds with one stone, picking up his mail at the same time he shopped for groceries and supplies,” wrote Burns, who noted the farmer also would “socialize, visit with the other farmers and their families who were at the general store for the same reason.  And this was one of the few chances such people had to pass time with their neighbors; their farms were many miles apart and their days too busy with chores to allow for casual dropping in.  It was a lonely life. Ironically, the inefficiency of the postal system made it less so.”

But, he says, when people like my one grandfather started delivering the mail to farmers like my other grandfather, the farmers had more time to farm and the general store as a social institution died.  He cites one of this writer’s favorite historians, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote, “From every farmer’s doorstep there now ran a highway to the world. But at the price of dissolving the old face-to-face communities.”  

Then along came radio to make things worse.  It brought entertainment and information into the home.  It wasn’t necessary to go to town for those things.  And it killed the Chautauqua movement and eliminated more face-to-face interaction.

The telephone system had improved to the point where—as NYU Professor Neil Postman put it–
“a strange world of acoustic space in which disembodied voices exchange information intimately and in specially developed personas” developed.  The telephone did not require face-to-face communication.  Then television. Then home video. Then computers.  And e-mail.  Burns quoted Henry David Thoreau: “Lot! Men have become the tools of their tools.”

The progression suggested by Burns in 1988 was continued in 2012 by Dr. James Emery White, the former President of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts and senior pastor of the Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He wrote of “hyper-connectivity” in his blog, saying analysts are split on this “bane of the so-called millennials, the generation born from 1981-2000.” 

 “Some feel it will make millennials ‘nimble analysts and decision makers.’ Others feel it will mean an inability to retain information, a tendency to be easily distracted, and a lack of ‘deep thinking capabilities’ and ‘face-to-face social skills.’”  White leaned toward the latter and cites a UCLA study in 2007 that showed “the internet is weakening our comprehension and transforming us into shallow thinkers.” 

He, too, quotes Boorstin: “The greatest menace to progress is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge,” which leads him to compare the words “hyper” and “hypo.”   HYPER means “above,” or “over,” he says.  HYPO means “below” or “under.” 

He concludes, “So while it is an age of hyper-connectivity, perhaps we should also acknowledge the inevitable result.  Hypo-intellectualism.”  

Other analysts can cite other reasons for our contradicting lifestyles that isolate us from those next door to us but bring us influences from far away.  This observer, for instance, thinks the window screen, not the rural mail carrier, is a major factor in this social, and therefore political, decline in thought.   And the contradicting effects of the debilitating involvement in Vietnam and the glorious success of the Apollo space program changed out national outlook to inward thinking.  But screened windows, a war, and a space program are discussions for another time. 

Why go through this pondering?

Because something has to explain why this nation is in the political mess it is in, particularly at our state and our national levels. Self-absorption is one thing.  But self-absorption about our self-absorption can only make the situation worse because studying our navels only drives us further inward and farther away from the general store and the Chautauqua.  

Even this entry is an example.  We could be having this discussion around a table at the general store if such a thing existed. Or in more contemporary times, the coffee shop (free Wi-fi available).  But instead, we are connecting hyperly.  

I think that today, when I see my neighbor, I will cross the street and talk to him, not wave. 

Donnie and the press

(An Elton John tune has been going through your observer’s mind for the last few days)

Donald Trump doesn’t like reporters. “You know my opinion of the press—very low,” he said at a recent press conference. “The media is among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” he has said. “Seventy-five percent is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum, scum,” he has proclaimed.

“The media frankly is made up of people—in many cases, not in all cases—who are not good people,” he said. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever known…I find the political press to be unbelievably dishonest.”

Just to set the tone of this entry early, let it be known that this observer is proud to have been “scum” for more than a half-century. It is, believe it or not, a strange badge of honor given by people such as Donald Trump to carry the label of not being “good people.”

One might be tempted to respond, “That’s true. Of course, do not forget that people are known for the company that they keep. And guess who we’ve been keeping company with.”   But that would be snarky and unprofessional and will be left unsaid.

Trump’s attitude means we are doing our jobs. And people like Donald Trump don’t believe we should do our jobs, which is questioning the honesty and credibility of people such as Donald Trump.

Trump seems to think his characterizations of the press will (a) make his followers love him even more without reservation and (b) intimidate the press.   We don’t know if any of his most loyal adherents will ever be bothered by the things they are learning from those of us whom Trump despises but we do know that efforts to intimidate the press don’t work. Good reporters don’t back off, especially when people such as Trump have no responses to their questions beyond name-calling.

Trump has threatened to change libel laws if he’s elected President so he can sue reporters more easily. He regularly ignores the fact that he is not running for dictator, but is running for an office that is only one-third of government and that he cannot by himself determine what the law is.

One thing journalists know above all else about libel law is that truth is an absolute defense. That standard is terribly unwelcome to people such as Donald Trump who seem to think truth should be defined as whatever falls from their lips.

What triggered the newest broadside was solid reporting by David Farenthold of the Washington Post. You recall Trump bragged in January at an event he held when he skipped an Iowa Caucus debate that he had raised six million dollars for veterans’ groups in one hour, including one-million dollars he personally donated.

He lied.

He and his campaign have now admitted, in fact, that the total amount raised in the last five months is not six million dollars but 5.6, even with the million dollars Trump finally did contribute—late last month.

The Post did a lot of spade work to discover only half of that amount had been distributed to veterans’ groups by early May. And Trump had NOT contributed one-million dollars in January. He wrote a check May 24th, the day more distributions were made—after Farenthold started asking questions that Trump’s people either refused to answer or tried to squirm out of answering. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks retorted, “If the media spent half as much time highlighting the work of these groups and how our veterans have been so mistreated, rather than trying to disparage Mr. Trump’s generosity for a totally unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation, we would all be better for it.”

The response is a cheap and completely unoriginal one that is not uncommon when reporters start pressing candidates for the truth. Attack the questioner for asking the question. Ms. Hicks conveniently ignores the reams of stories that have been written about mistreatment of veterans, whether by the VA or even in Arlington National Cemetery, and more reams of stories written every year about the work of local and national veterans’ organizations. Mr. Trump’s “generosity” was not expressed in January, when he said it was, but was only expressed (for lack of a better word) in May after Farenthold started asking questions and others started picking up the story. An “unsolicited gesture for which he had no obligation” is a curious phrase, certainly. Was it an “unsolicited gesture” or was it a well-staged event to take the spotlight away from a debate he dodged with his opponents? Is there no obligation when one says in January that he has contributed one-million dollars—but he hadn’t?

There is every indication that questions about Trump’s character (and Hillary Clinton’s character as well) will only intensify, not because the press has a vendetta against them (some undoubtedly do, as some undoubtedly are apologists) but because the stakes are high and the spotlight must be harsh.

So let’s be clear. To Donald Trump, fair press coverage is any coverage that lets him spout, unchallenged, anything that he says as gospel.   Those who don’t believe that is the role of the press are “scum.”

Forty years ago, when the Arab oil embargo drove up energy prices and inflation was leading to home loan rates of almost twenty percent, Joe Teasdale won the Missouri governorship by promising to lower utility rates and fire the Public Service Commission, which sets the rates for state-regulated utilities. He knew it was economically impossible to lower utility rates and legally impossible to fire the members of the PSC. But it was a populist message that resonated just enough for him to get into office. He referred to those of us in the Capitol press corps who had questioned him repeatedly on the issue as “jaded.”

At his first press conference after his election, he found himself facing several Capitol reporters wearing pins reading “Jaded J. C. Reporter.” It was a pin reporters were proud to wear and some of those reporters, now long gone from the Capitol, still have those pins.

Perhaps it’s time the reporters covering the Trump campaign started wearing pins with the word “scum” on them.   It would be an honor to have one.

And it would be a message to the man on the stage that name-calling will not stop fact-checking, and will not give a free pass to demagoguery.

Tearing up the Senate

Work crews have started tearing seats out of the place where visitors to the state Senate have watched floor activities since 1919 so the Senate can get those pesky reporters farther away from being able to see and hear what is going on. Or not.

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Seats installed during the restoration of the chamber in 2001 were stacked along a fourth floor hallway wall when we dropped by the other day.  We haven’t heard what will be done with them although it seems the most sensible thing would be to store them somewhere safe so they could be put back in place when a less-vindictive mood runs the place.  We won’t rehash what that’s all about here.  We’ve flailed at that subject in earlier entries that you can find in the archives.

We have preserved a historic moment in this process—the last time (for now, we hope) that members of the Capitol press corps were allowed to sit at what has been the press table since the earliest days of the building.

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That’s Bob Watson of the Jefferson City News Tribune, the senior Senate reporter, in the blue suit on the right.  Summer Ballentine of the Associated Press is on the other side of the table, in the orange jacket.   Most of the others are Senate staff members except for the fellow next to Summer.

That’s Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, who decided earlier this year that people such as Bob and Summer are so undeserving to cover the Senate from that table anymore that the Senate will spend $12,000 for each of the ten positions around the table to move them and their colleagues to the gallery on the other side of the chamber.

Senator Richard lectured his colleagues during the session about honoring Senate traditions and rules.

One of the Senate rules is that Senators will not sit at the press table when the Senate is in session.  We think it was in session when this picture was taken.  Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe was in the Chair.

Will the Senate behave any better or any worse now that the scourge of the Press is removed from its sight?   Will the reporting of the actions of the Senate be better or worse because reporters now will occupy space where spectators have been able to sit for 97 years?

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The first test will come during the September veto session.  It would be good, however, for the Senate to remember that the Press might now be out of sight—-but it shouldn’t be out of mind.

 

 

Capitol credits

If politicians weren’t so self-contradictory, political reporters would have no fun at all.  Saying one thing and doing another, saying different things in different places, taking positions that seem opposite from similar positions provide fodder for those in the press or in the citizenry at large who hope for stability in the political system, particularly stability based on the highest ideals of service to all of the people.  That’s an awfully high bar and probably an unrealistic one but without expecting the highest levels of commitment and service, the alternative can too easily become  the lowest level of results.

The leader of the Missouri Senate, Senator Ron Richard, loves the Capitol.  Even before he became Speaker of the House in 2009, Richard was aware of the building’s deteriorating condition and was looking for a way to restore and maintain the state’s greatest symbol.  We talked during his time as Speaker of his hopes to establish an endowment program, an idea that was worthy but not likely to attract the kind of money that, instead, flows too easily to those who want to hold office in that building.

But what a wonderful thing that would be!   Imagine the endowment that could be established if, say, Rex Sinquefield and the Humphreys family—two entities that throw millions of dollars at candidates every election cycle—would make the same kind of commitment to the Capitol in just one off-year.  It’s not fair to single them out so imagine the endowment that could be created if all of the other special interests and individuals who underwrite campaigns wrote comparable checks to the Capitol endowment fund just once.

But that’s one of the contradictions of our political system.  Restoring and maintaining the building where policy is enacted is always going to be much less important than influencing the people who enact the policies and maintaining that influence.   What value is there in making sure the state’s most powerful symbol of democracy crumbles when money can be better invested in making sure democracy itself, as an institution for the benefit of all, crumbles in the face of protection for the few?

Senator Richard thinks he finally has found a lever that can move his idea for restoring and preserving the State Capitol.  A tax credit program.

About fifty million dollars is being spent fixing some horrible leaks under the south front Capitol stairs.  The water running into basement spaces is causing numerous problems for those who work or store things there.   The money is provided by a bond issue and is therefore limited and has to be paid back out of the general tax collections.  Richard’s plan would provide some ongoing funding without lowering the amount available to pay for state operations.

Richard proposes changes to the present Historic Preservation Tax Credit program that’s important in communities throughout the state.  Some of Richard’s conservative legislative colleagues have a low opinion of them regardless of the value they have to their home towns.  He suggests reducing the historic tax credits by ten million dollars and shifting twenty million dollars into a special fund that could be grown to restore, repair, and maintain the Capitol.

It’s kind of complicated but some of the proceeds from the program would be spent to solicit donations into the Capitol endowment fund.  He thinks his plan would encourage people and trusts and foundations to contribute to the fund, which also would support ongoing needs of the Executive Mansion, the Transportation Department building—which the legislature wants to take over as a Capitol office annex—and, maybe, the Supreme Court Building.

A Senate committee has held a hearing on Richard’s proposal to give it a first public airing.  Richard knows the idea won’t go anywhere this year but he’s gotten it on the table and hopes it can be passed next year.  Some fine-tuning is likely because it seems to raise some concerns in the local historic preservation movement.

But it’s a good start for a proposal to preserve a symbol of the best that Missouri can be.

It’s interesting that Senator Richard wants to raise millions of dollars to preserve and protect the Capitol at the same time he is insisting the Senate spend thousands and thousands of dollars to tear up one of the architectural treasures of the building—the Senate visitors’ gallery—so he can kick the press off of the floor of the Senate where they have sat at a table since the building was brand new, all because of a complaint that grows more petty with the passage of time.

Contradictions.  Reporters love them.  In this case, though, it appears that those who live by the contradiction will suffer by one of them.   Too bad the money earmarked for the effort against legislative reporters couldn’t be invested, instead, in Richard’s more praiseworthy effort to preserve and protect the building—including preserving the Senate visitor’s gallery.