Visit to a bird farm

USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)

I enjoyed watching the commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) on TV over the weekend. The news media consensus is… it’s big. Really BIG. President Trump’s commissioning speech showed uncharacteristic restraint by not calling the ship yuge.

One memorable episode in my Navy career was a visit to the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the 1980s. Carriers were a novelty to me because my sea duty was aboard one of the Navy’s smallest ships, a coastal minesweeper with a crew of 35. When I told people aboard the Vinson that my first ship displaced 400 tons, I was told: “That’s about how much we eat.”

Carriers, nicknamed “bird farms,” are as crowded as they are gigantic. Take a two-acre aircraft hangar, put a 4.5-acre airstrip on top and build a ship around it. Add all the equipment and supplies needed to operate the ship and its aircraft, and squeeze 5,000 people into whatever space is left.

Every deck, or level, is a maze of compartments and passageways. The Navy gives each compartment a numerical “address” that indicates its deck, fore-and-aft frame number and port-or-starboard location. Because it’s easy to get lost, floor-plan maps of each deck are posted prominently. When I visited Vinson some prankster had removed the “you are here” stickers.

President Trump described Ford as 100,000 tons of U.S. territory but carriers don’t operate alone. A carrier battle group includes cruisers, destroyers and submarines: not to protect the carrier, as they did in World War II, but to form an integrated system that can detect and defeat anything within a radius of several hundred miles, from the ocean floor to the stratosphere. Think of it as the world’s largest safe space.

The wonder of an aircraft carrier is its ability to launch and recover airplanes. I arrived aboard Vinson on the COD (carrier onboard delivery), a C-2 Greyhound turboprop transport with about 20 passengers. Before takeoff in San Diego we donned helmets and life jackets, and strapped into rear-facing seats in the windowless passenger cabin.

Landing on a carrier requires catching a cable stretched across the ship’s deck with a hook on the aircraft’s tail to drag the aircraft to a stop within a few hundred feet. It took us three tries. We were waved off the first time because the wingtip of a parked airplane was intruding into the landing area.  The second attempt was a “bolter.” The tailhook missed the cable – we could hear it bumping along the deck – and the pilot hit the throttles and took off again. The hook caught the third time and we were pressed into our seats as the aircraft went from 145 mph to a dead stop in a few seconds.

Landing on the deck of a ship is an unnatural act for both aircraft and aviator. Every pilot has to re-qualify at the beginning of every cruise, and every landing is recorded on video, critiqued and graded. Every landing is assisted by a landing signal officer (LSO), an experienced aviator who guides the pilot down or waves him off. LSOs stand on an open platform at the edge of the flight deck uncomfortably close to landing aircraft.

When I visited there my guide pointed out a padded ramp several feet below the platform, where the LSO’s can jump if an errant aircraft heads for them. “If you see the other guys jumping, you jump too,” I was told. “But if you’re the first one to jump the other guys will land on top of you.”

The orchestrated chaos of the flight deck, and the care and feeding of 75 aircraft, are only part of what goes on aboard a carrier. It’s a floating city with a hospital, a police force of Marines, food service, laundry, gym, brig (jail) and even a TV station. Not to mention advanced electronics and a nuclear power plant.

It’s a city of youngsters with an average age of 24. The men and women fueling and maintaining the aircraft are in their teens. The aviators are in their twenties, and the squadron commanders and senior enlisted people are in their thirties.

My tour of the Vinson included clambering down into the bowels of the ship to see a pump room of some sort. Ships have lots of places like this: neat, utilitarian arrays of well-oiled machinery. But in this one the sailors decided to polish the equipment to a parade-ground sheen and transform an ordinary pump room into an immaculate showplace. Because it was theirs.

Departing a carrier is just as dramatic as arriving. The aircraft is hitched to a catapult driven by a hydraulic ram, and is held in place as the pilot revs up the engines. When maximum power is reached the catapult yanks the aircraft forward and flings it into the air. As my transport flight was launched we levitated against our seat harnesses for a moment and two young crew attendants let out a joyful whoop. It’s a rush and yeah, it’s fun!

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My stuttering family reunion

Last week I spent four days reconnecting with an extended family of 700 people at the annual conference of the National Stuttering Association.

This is the world’s largest organization for people who stutter with about 150 local support groups, educational programs and a national conference. Stuttering was a problem for me when I was younger but is practically a non-issue in my life today, thanks in part to conferences like these.

We who stutter make up about one percent of the population. Stuttering is mostly neurological in origin and often genetic. (Short answer: Our brains process speech less efficiently.) It’s not psychological but comes with a lot of emotional baggage – particularly because stuttering is widely misunderstood and may be the only disability it’s still acceptable to ridicule.

Speech therapy helps, but overcoming the effects of stuttering requires attitude change and a lot of emotional healing: letting go of lifelong fear and shame, bringing your stuttering out in the open and accepting that it’s okay to stutter.

Many people who stutter have never talked with another stutterer about stuttering, and some have never met anyone else who stuttered. So walking into a gathering of hundreds of people who stutter – a place where stuttering is normal – is a new experience. Newcomers are accepted the moment they walk in the door and there’s an instant bond of kinship.

The kids are fun to watch. A child who is the only kid in the class who stutters suddenly meets dozens of new friends. I’ve seen a generation of these youngsters grow into confident young adults.

The conference has educational workshops, keynote speakers and a gala banquet. But the main attraction is a family reunion on a massive scale, where people reconnect with old friends and make new ones. People come back year after year, and some arrive a couple of days early just to socialize.

People who usually have difficulty talking are immersed in nonstop conversation. Groups form spontaneously for lunch or dinner, and first-time attendees (identified by a ribbon on their nametags) get special attention. Nobody is alone for long. For people who are still struggling with stuttering, the conference is a boost in self-confidence that carries over into their daily lives.

This year one of our long-time members was ill and could not make it to the conference. So another friend posted a video on Facebook with hundreds of people cheering for him. Another guy walked up to the stage during the conference and proposed to his girlfriend: one of several couples I know who met at these conferences.

This was my 22nd National Stuttering Association conference and I’ve made many friends over the years. It’s a varied group: Engineers, retail workers, college professors, accountants, a retired postal worker, a veterinarian. I’ve learned a lot from all of them.

I keep in touch with many of these people on Facebook and we frequently argue about politics, as practically everybody does these days. At the conference, the subject rarely came up because we had so many other things to talk about.

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Confessions of a Civil War addict

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few hours hiking around the Civil War site of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which ended an ill-conceived Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862. Last year I attended a Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Valverde.

I was always interested in the American Civil War, even as a kid. I spent summers with my grandparents in Corinth, Mississippi, where my father told of digging up Minie balls in the old fortifications when he was a boy, and visited the nearby Shiloh battlefield.

The Civil War is fascinating on a number of levels. The conflict defined and transformed the United States as a nation, and historians will make careers of studying the war for generations to come.

There is much to study. Because the American Civil War was the first conflict in which most soldiers were literate, a rich paper trail of letters, journals and memoirs is still being explored in scholarly works and TV documentaries. I renewed my interest in the Civil War a few years ago when I got a Kindle e-book reader and stumbled across an online treasure trove of Civil War histories and memoirs.

In addition to the massive human drama of the war, I’ve been fascinated by some of its military and political aspects.

Much of the Civil War was fought by amateurs because there were not enough professional soldiers to go around. Politicians and businessmen became instant colonels and generals and sometimes outperformed the West Point elite. Military leadership was a mix of tactical brilliance and tragic incompetence.

It was a war of technology. Accurate muskets made Napoleonic infantry charges a slaughter. Military campaigns incorporated railroads, the telegraph and the occasional observation balloon. The Navy improvised riverine warfare with a motley flotilla of ponderous gunboats that often ran aground and were inclined to blow up when a cannon shot hit the unprotected steam boiler. We had better technology when the Navy re-invented riverine warfare a century later in Vietnam.

The war was a political football with micromanagement from Congress, ambitious politician-generals and rumormongering newspapers. Grant was unable to dismiss an incompetent general whose support was needed for Lincoln’s re-election campaign. Inept generals who were Jefferson Davis’ favorites hastened the defeat of the Confederacy.

European military observers disparaged both armies’ informality and lack of discipline: the same American characteristics of irreverence and individual initiative that helped win World Wars I and II.

Historical analysis of the Civil War has evolved. Today’s consensus is that yes, the war was about slavery: It tied up a loose end in the Constitution and began a quest for equality that continues to be a work in progress. A war that divided the country ultimately strengthened the identity of a nation as men left home for the first time and served with soldiers from other states.

The Civil War is important because it was a transformative chapter in our history and raised issues that remain relevant today. It makes sense to remove the Confederate flag from government property. We probably can do without some of the Confederate monuments that attempted to falsely romanticize the “lost cause” in the decades following the war.

But wholesale elimination of every vestige of the Confederacy smacks of the Taliban’s destruction of historic Buddhist statues. If we truly intend to resolve the lingering vestiges of slavery, destroying the evidence avoids the issue rather than confronting it. Better to put history into context with explanatory plaques and monuments to civil rights heroes as well as military ones, as a few communities are doing.

Educating ourselves more fully about this chapter of history may reduce the risk of repeating it – and remind the folks in California flirting with secession that it did not end well the last time it was tried.

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Freedom of the press is alive and well

We’re hearing solemn pronouncements from prominent journalists that the freedom of the press is under siege. I’m not concerned – yet – because all I’m seeing so far is mutual sniping between a partisan press and a new administration responding in kind.

I can’t blame journalists for getting upset. It must hurt when the President says something like: “Nothing can now be believed which is to be seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.”

No, President Trump didn’t say that. (It’s more than 140 characters, after all.) The quotation is from Thomas Jefferson but the idea is the same: fake news. Presidents fought bitterly with the press for the first half of our existence as a republic.

What’s happening today is that the news media have returned to their partisan roots after roughly a century of attempted objectivity. Trust in the media has been diminishing steadily as Internet media outlets have proliferated and traditional news media have become politicized, and the election of Donald Trump brought this to a head.

When journalists announce that they are not going to “normalize” the president by covering him objectively, they forfeit any claim to the respect the media enjoyed when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.

Yet the media folks want to have it both ways. They’re hyperventilating because the President is calling them out as the opposition party they’ve declared themselves to be. It’s ironic (and a little sad) to see poor old Dan Rather stumbling out of retirement to preach about journalistic integrity in the hope that people have forgotten the fake news story that ended his career.

So far, the presidential assault on the media has been limited mostly to verbal insults and mean tweets. The only governmental action to date has been to invite more reporters to White House press briefings and pay less attention to previously favored media like the New York Times and CNN. This is not a First Amendment issue: There is no constitutional right to be called upon at a news conference or included in a press pool.

Freedom of the press will be a concern if the Trump administration blocks access to public information or uses government authority against journalists. If federal agencies refuse to honor Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for public records, that’s a problem. It’s also a First Amendment issue if the government launches criminal investigations against reporters for publishing information from whistleblowers. This bears watching as the new administration settles in.

Ironically, we did not hear sanctimonious speeches at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when the Obama administration denied 77 percent of FOIA requests, spied on reporters and named one journalist as an unindicted co-conspirator.

Another indicator of press freedom is the degree to which the President and key officials are accessible for media interviews. President Obama gave many interviews but often dodged serious news outlets in favor of friendly entertainment shows and online niche publications. The chatterbox currently in the White House is on track to surpass that record and appears willing be interviewed by anyone, though he may insult them in the process.

Much as I mourn the end of objective journalism, it’s refreshing to see an oppositional press after eight years of lapdog passivity. This administration will be the most transparent in history whether the President likes it or not. We can count on the news media to expose nine out of every five potential presidential scandals.

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Keeping up the brightwork at Great Lakes

Another story from my Navy days that is still mostly true.

Every so often the military personnel system puts a round peg in a round hole almost by accident. The Navy urgently needed a speechwriter at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. I had a journalism degree and was awaiting reassignment from a minesweeper in Japan. And the Navy would have to move me back to Chicago anyway when my hitch was over.

Great Lakes is the largest training installation in the Navy, located on Lake Michigan halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee. When I arrived in March of 1967, the Vietnam War military was pumping thousands of sailors through boot camp and specialty training.

110701-N-IK959-260I worked in a post-Victorian headquarters building with a tall tower.  The place exuded military formality: high ceilings, grand staircases and broad hallways lined with portraits of dead admirals. A formal rotunda was decorated in nautical rococo of polished brass and intricate ropework. An antique, highly-polished brass cannon guarded the entrance to the admiral’s office.

My boss, a public affairs captain with a flair for wisecracks, retired from the Navy in a formal ceremony in the rotunda. He was ceremonially “piped ashore” and walked down the aisle of brass shell casings. Then he turned and proclaimed: “Damn the torpedoes. Keep up the brightwork!”

Cannon bang

The flag was a prank

My office actually was in the tower: a sort of penthouse at the base of the tower that housed my small group of enlisted journalists and photographers. We thought it an ideal location because the long flight of stairs to our office ensured that senior officers rarely dropped by.

In those days Great Lakes was long on military pomp and ceremony. Morning colors at the flagpole in front of the headquarters building was expanded several times a week from a color guard and bugler to a platoon of marines and a band. In mild weather the weekly recruit graduation took place on the parade ground.

The recruit training center was impressive in its sheer scale. Visitors were most impressed with a mess hall that served more than 10,000 meals a day – and watching a tattooed, tough-looking sailor expertly turning out delicate cake decorations. Elsewhere on the base, technical training took place in specialized facilities such as operating models of ships’ power plants, guns and missiles.

A large naval hospital trained the Navy’s hospital corpsmen, and was treating hundreds of marines who often arrived at Great Lakes within days after being wounded in Vietnam. When my son was born there a few months after we arrived, the young sailors who staffed the nursery got a kick out of caring for the babies. They probably became wonderful fathers because they could change a diaper in seconds.

Great Lakes was clean and well-maintained because sailors who were between schools or waiting for orders provided a steady supply of free labor. One building had two full-time crews – one mopping and scrubbing and another waxing and buffing – that followed each other up and down the corridors.

My chief petty officer was an expert at working the system. He arranged for a crew of prisoners from the brig to paint our office, and somehow got two enlisted people from a different command permanently assigned to our group.

The chief also operated a rescue mission for enlisted journalists. Every so often the journalist petty officer at the recruit center would alert him that a recruit with a journalism degree was getting orders to the deck force of a destroyer. The chief would get on the phone and work the chief journalists’ network to get the recruit assigned to a public affairs billet.

Great Lakes remained my home base during most of my career in the reserves. Over the years the headquarters building added more portraits of admirals and my old tower office was converted to a storage room. But they still kept up the brightwork.

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The old neighborhood

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

I’m a city kid. My childhood home was a three-room, third-floor apartment at 5025 Maypole Ave. in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. My brother and I slept on bunk beds in the bedroom, and our folks used a fold-out sofa bed in a living room that also housed a pull-down desk and an upright piano. The four of us could just fit around the kitchen table.

The location was ideal for a family without a car. Spencer School was across the street.  A store at the end of the block sold milk, bread and penny candy. My father walked to work at the Dowst Manufacturing plant a half-mile away. There was a movie theater five blocks away on Cicero Avenue, and we hauled groceries home from a nearby A&P supermarket in a little red wagon.

A Green Hornet at Madison and Crawford

A Green Hornet streetcar at Madison & Crawford

Public transportation took us everywhere, even after my folks bought a car in the early 1950s. The Laramie Avenue station on the Lake Street elevated line was four blocks away, with a 20-minute ride downtown to the Loop. A bus on Washington Boulevard two blocks away took me to Cub Scout meetings. The Madison Street “green hornet” streetcar three blocks away took us to Goldblatt’s department store at Madison and Crawford. I rode a “red rattler” streetcar on Lake Street to the library and the YMCA.

The neighborhood was a working-class mix of apartment buildings and two-flats with a few single-family homes. Our playground was the sidewalk in front or the alley in back. The front lawn of our apartment building was off limits: If we stepped over the low chain fence to play on the grass the janitor would yell at us. The nearest actual playground was blocks away, across two busy streets, and generally wasn’t worth the trek. The alley was more interesting than swings and monkey bars on bare gravel.

There were spontaneous games of baseball in the alley or, more often, bouncing a ball against a garage door. Girls played hopscotch and jump-rope. And there were things to explore: discarded furniture in an alley, nearby industrial goings-on and the occasional construction site. Our mothers taught us to always look both ways when crossing streets, and we developed the knack of judging traffic before dashing across. Kids grew up agile and smart and no one I knew was ever hit by a car.

Our immediate neighborhood was mostly Irish-Catholic, and most of the neighbor kids went to St. Thomas Aquinas School a few blocks away. (We envied them a little because saints’ days were school holidays and they seemed to have lots of saints.) Many of my classmates at Spencer School were Jewish kids who lived in slightly nicer apartment buildings on Washington Boulevard, and I attended Cub Scout meetings in a synagogue.

Spencer School

Spencer School

Spencer School was a massive, red-brick edifice with stout doors and dim hallways. It’s still there and the exterior looks pretty much the same. Chicago schools were on a semester system that graduated two classes a year and enabled bright kids to skip half a grade at a time. I skipped the first half of fourth grade (after being reprimanded for reading two chapters ahead of the class) and the first half of sixth. Because two half-grades shared a classroom, skipping a grade was merely a move from one side of the room to the other. All the kids walked to school and went home for lunch. After school I had a paper route, delivering the Chicago Daily News from a pushcart.

Free-range kids were the norm in those days. Our neighborhood had its share of tough kids but I don’t recall feeling particularly unsafe. My folks turned us loose but set limits. They were displeased one Halloween when one of my friends suggested trick-or-treating in the taverns along Cicero Avenue and I came home with a pocketful of change. Parents generally didn’t drive kids around: I walked or took public transportation to Boy Scout meetings and activities at the Y.

Lake Street El

Lake Street El

In my middle-school years my parents let me ride the El to the Loop alone to wander around State Street and Marshall Field’s. When we moved to a suburb a few years later, I was appalled to learn that one of my high school friends was not allowed to go downtown by himself because his mother thought it was unsafe.

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Being a savvy news consumer

We’re a nation of smart consumers. We kick the tires on a used car, check restaurant and hotel reviews on TripAdvisor and read food labels.

Now we need to wear our consumer hats to follow the news. That’s because the era of objective news coverage is all but over, at least for national news, and the credibility of the news media is at an all-time low. Everyone is concerned over fake news because it’s getting harder to tell what’s real.

biascartoon2In a politically divided nation it’s easy enough to find news that matches your political inclination and, unfortunately, that’s what most people do. Liberals watch the major TV networks and read the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Conservatives watch Fox News and read The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Getting both sides of the story requires venturing outside your echo chamber.

Full disclosure: I am a news junkie. I have a journalism degree, worked as a newspaper reporter in college and worked with the news media during my public relations career. Even in retirement I read two newspapers a day, follow news online and rarely miss the evening TV newscast.

The profession I entered in the 1960s was obsessed with objectivity and accuracy: Check the facts, get the quotes right and cover both sides. I learned that objectivity is hard to achieve because reporting and writing a story requires a cascade of judgment calls on whom to interview, which quotes to use and what facts to highlight or omit. And then some bonehead editor slaps a misleading headline on it. So I consume news with a reporter’s skepticism.

I don’t rely on a single set of news outlets. A personal dashboard on my Internet home page enables me to browse a cafeteria of online news organizations (mostly free of charge) that represent a variety of viewpoints such as the Daily Beast, Newsmax, the Daily Caller and Real Clear Politics. If I’m interested in a story I look at how competing news outlets cover it. If a story shows up only in left-wing or right-wing media I’m a little suspicious. I mostly trust the economic news on the business channels and in the Wall Street Journal and ignore the “news” on Facebook.

My operative question is “Says who?” If the author of an article is a liberal such as Paul Krugman or a conservative such as George Will, I know where they’re coming from. If a reporter quotes only the Sierra Club in an article on the environment, that’s just one side of the story.

Economic pressure to disseminate more news with fewer reporters means that national newspapers no longer have correspondents in Boise or Berlin, and cable newscasts have fewer on-scene reports and more pundit panels. Less reporting and more analysis inevitably blurs the line between news and opinion.

Ironically, the political divide has made the news media more transparent. Because some news outlets have abandoned objectivity to openly declare war on the Trump administration, consumers know what they’re getting and no longer need to look for subtle bias. It would be even easier if commentators on the TV networks wore red or blue jerseys. We’re seeing a return to the roots of American journalism: the partisan press of the early Nineteenth Century.

The good news for consumers is that we no longer need to rely on traditional media as information gatekeepers. A growing number of Internet newsrooms are producing solid journalism, and nonprofit organizations have taken over the investigative reporting the news media used to do. Former President Obama bypassed the news media by appearing on entertainment shows and President Trump has taken this to a new level by using Twitter as a bully pulpit.

Much as I miss the objectivity I learned in journalism school, it’s easier than ever to stay well informed. All we have to do is kick the tires.

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How to drain the swamp

What’s most appealing about Donald Trump’s victory (with apologies to my friends who believe he’s the incarnation of evil) is the prospect of long-overdue government reform. His “drain the swamp” campaign pledge resonated because 75% of Americans believe there’s widespread corruption in the federal government.

'Hi - I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help you.'

The deepest swamp in Washington is not politicians and lobbyists, but an unelected federal bureaucracy that writes and enforces thousands of regulations. Term limits for Congress aren’t the answer. That would make it even easier for entrenched bureaucrats to outlast the people’s representatives.

Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have an opportunity to disrupt the executive branch, and that’s a good thing. My corporate career made me a big fan of disruption. Companies re-invent themselves regularly to stay competitive, and bring in new management to take the enterprise in a new direction.

In the federal government, however, every Trump cabinet appointee will inherit hundreds of executives who may oppose the new administration and are virtually impossible to fire, even for misconduct. In some cases political appointees “burrow” into permanent positions with civil service protection. Politicians are even urging federal employees to actively resist the Trump administration’s policies. No private enterprise tolerates this. When a company changes direction, executives who don’t get on board go out the door.

So Congress needs to reform the civil service system to give federal agencies the same capability for change as private companies. Folks like payroll clerks and wildlife inspectors must be protected, but government executives should be as accountable as their private-sector counterparts. Government agencies need the authority to fire executives (above GS-15) for poor performance, policy violations or criminal behavior without going through years of civil service reviews.

Private companies often cushion major shake-ups with buyout offers that make it easier for managers to leave. Congress should enact a short-term program to offer a graceful exit to federal managers who disagree with their agencies’ new policies.

Conflict-of-interest rules need to be tightened. Environmental Protection Agency employees should not be in cahoots with Exxon Mobil or the Sierra Club, and we don’t want Treasury Department officials to help their Wall Street cronies. Yet it doesn’t make sense to bar experts from government positions just because they used to work for a private company or association. We need a thoughtful solution to enable talented industry professionals to serve the public without corrupting the fairness we expect of government.

Congressional oversight of federal agencies is broken. Democrats fought investigations of the Obama administration, inspector general positions were left vacant and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute corruption. There is nothing to prevent Republicans and a Trump administration from doing likewise. We need something like a bipartisan commission reporting to Congress to hold the administration accountable.

Reforming federal agencies may be the most daunting challenge for the new administration because public employee unions finance all Democrats and some Republicans. In recent years legislation to give the Department of Veterans Affairs more authority to fire employees was blocked or watered down by Congress.

With a Congressional majority and overwhelming public support, the opportunity has never been better to reform the executive branch. It will be a tough fight because every new policy direction will meet with stiff opposition from special interests and howling outrage from the celebritocracy and the news media. But if President-elect Trump is serious about draining the swamp, this is the place to start.

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Family stories: They met in the bargain basement

Note to readers: This exploration of my family history is primarily for my kids and kinfolk. I’m posting it in my blog because I’m too cheap to set up a separate website. If you are not among my relatives you probably won’t be interested in this stuff and that’s fine with me.

My parents met in the bargain basement of Goldblatt’s department store on State Street in downtown Chicago. They did, really.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

My father in his younger days. The pipe may be hereditary.

Allan McClure, my father, arrived in Chicago from his hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, in the late 1930s to study voice at (probably) the American Conservatory of Music in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. He lived at the downtown YMCA at 820 S. Wabash Ave., where he shared a room with an aspiring artist, Charles Banks Wilson, who was studying at the Art Institute of Chicago: a little like a Chicago-Depression version of La Boheme.

Wilson later became famous for works depicting American Indians. I have a lithograph of an elderly Indian for which Wilson used my father’s hand as a model. The button on the Indian’s overall is inscribed “McClure.”

Dad had a scholarship but had to support himself. He told me his father would have contributed to his education if he had chosen to study a respectable profession such as law or medicine, but if he wanted to become an opera singer he was on his own. So he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including working as a longshoreman on Chicago River barges.

My mother, Vilma Gasperik, applied for a job as a telephone operator after she graduated from high school but was rejected because she was too tall. (The Bell System’s approach to ergonomics in those days was to hire operators to fit the switchboards instead of vice versa.) She wound up working at the day-old bakery counter in Goldblatt’s basement, where discounted bakery goods were popular during the depression.

My father also worked at Goldblatt’s demonstrating electric shavers: a job for which he was suited because he had a heavy beard and could shave several times a day. Among other things, they had a common interest in music: My father sang and my mother played the piano.

My folks came from different backgrounds. My father had to assure his parents that my mother was not Catholic even though her family came from Europe. And my mother’s folks wanted to know whether my father was part Negro because he came from the South. They were married at City Hall August 22, 1941.

When they were first married my parents lived with my grandmother on the South Side, and moved to an apartment on the West Side before I was born two years later. By that time my father had abandoned his opera career and was working as a machinist. He said he had been offered a scholarship to study opera in Italy but World War II intervened.

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The national civics lesson

Americans may be deeply divided by the 2016 presidential election, but we’re getting one helluva civics lesson. Until this year, most of us gave little thought to the Electoral College,  the Federalist Papers or even the Constitution. Now we’re getting a crash course on the stuff we ignored in high school civics class (if we even had a civics class).

constitutionThe post-election campaign to defeat Donald Trump has been educational. We learned that when recounts fail to change the vote totals, the Electoral College can theoretically overturn the election in the name of democracy.  So hitherto anonymous electors were targeted with email, letters, phone calls and noisy demonstrations demanding that they vote their conscience by defeating Donald Trump. This was promoted by scholars of the Federalist Papers such as Martin Sheen, and suddenly every activist was quoting Alexander Hamilton (or maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda). And we were outraged by the Russian hackers who threatened our democracy by exposing the dirty tricks of the Clinton campaign.

There never was any chance that party-loyalist electors would betray the voters, despite the wishful-thinking media hype, but the browbeating campaign offered a shred of hope to Democrats going through stages of grief. Diehards still may cling to the fantasy of Vice President Joe Biden refusing to certify the Senate’s endorsement of the Electoral College vote Jan. 6, or the Supreme Court declining to administer the oath of office at the inauguration. Maybe someone will hide the Bible.

We haven’t heard the last of the Electoral College. There’s bound to be yet another movement to abolish it in favor of a nationwide popular vote. The latest argument is that the Electoral College is based on racism, though nobody mentioned this in 2008 and 2012. A straight popular vote would require presidential campaigns to focus on big states like California while completely ignoring places like New Hampshire, Iowa and most of flyover country. A constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College would require two-thirds of  the states to approve their own disenfranchisement. So it’s not going to happen.

Federalism is coming back into vogue. For decades progressives have pushed to expand federal authority and diminish the power of state and local governments. Now sanctuary cities like New York and Santa Fe are claiming the right to block federal deportation of illegal immigrants. This harks back to a Nineteenth Century controversy in which states claimed the right to nullify any federal law they deemed unconstitutional. Nullification had a brief revival in 1963, when Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to block federally mandated school desegregation.

Some folks in California are even talking about seceding from the United States. I’ll bet South Carolina will give them a deal on gently used Confederate flags.

This is a role reversal because it’s usually conservatives who want to shift power from the federal government back to the states. If Democrats are embracing the principle of federalism to defend sanctuary cities, it’s logical that they also will support Trump’s proposals to put states in charge of Medicaid and environmental regulation. Unless they’re just fair-weather federalists.

We’re also seeing a role reversal on the Constitution. For the past eight years Republicans have claimed President Obama’s executive orders and regulatory actions were unconstitutional. The courts often agreed but Democrats cheered every stroke of the executive pen. Now the Dems are telling us that Trump should be barred from the presidency, or immediately impeached, because he is violating the Constitution (by his very existence, apparently).

Expect a lot of activists and pundits to invoke the Constitution with claims that owning real estate (as Washington did), appointing billionaires to the cabinet, holding rallies or sending insulting tweets are unconstitutional and/or grounds for impeachment. The good news is that the political noise may get more Americans to actually read the Constitution. Perhaps universities will even allow its distribution on campus.

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