Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Capitol Time

How I spent my summer vacation.

We found ourselves in Washington, D.C., recently on a trip to the East Coast to visit family and friends. This was not a new experience. We visit our nation's capitol often. We have a daughter there and both my wife and I used to live in Washington pursuing wildly divergent careers.

She worked for the CIA. I was in the military. But that's a story for another day.

No matter how many times we visit D.C., we never tire of visiting the museums, galleries and monuments. This time was no exception.

The weather, usually approximating high noon in Borneo, was mild. Tourists were plentiful, mostly gawking parents with bored kids in tow, although seemingly in smaller numbers than we've seen in the past.

Blame the economy, which seems to be the whipping boy for everything from job loss to ear wax.

Conventioneers were visible. The Islamic Society of North America and the Christians United for Israel were meeting at approximately the same time. No incidents were reported.

Also on scene were the Romance Writers of America, the Texas Bandmasters Association, the American Bridge Teachers Association and something called the Magic Lantern Society. Is this a great country or what?

Contrary to what you may have read on the Internet, I didn't see any roving bands of Socialists, loudly promising equitable distribution of the nation's resources. That's not exactly true. I did see a few. Albert Einstein, Hellen Keller and Susan B.Anthony, socialists all, stand etched in stone here.

I expected to see a gaggle of protestors and/or supporters in town for the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor. But there were none, reflecting the often boring nature of the hearings despite the cable TV networks' attempt to present it as edge-of-the-seat excitement.

I did see one kid in front of the Supreme Court building hawking "Sonia" T-shirts.

We visited the new Washington Visitor Center, which extends beneath the U.S. Capitol building. It is spiffy and efficient. It should be. It cost $621 million to build, $360 million over original estimates.

Now a group of congressmen want to inscribe "In God We Trust" on the walls of the center which will cost another $150,000. This, of course, is pitting religious types against church/state separation advocates. Maybe the California legislature can them help reach a speedy resolution of the problem.

We took a guided tour of the capitol, something I haven't done in 40 years. The tour hasn't changed much. You visit the rotunda, the old Senate Chamber and the crypt beneath the Rotunda. I noticed that guarding the entrance to the Senate chamber is a large statue of James Garfield. I though it odd that Garfield would occupy a room peopled by the likes of Eisenhower, Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King. It would be like finding Gerald Ford in the pantheon of American heroes.

Garfield's main claim to fame is that he was assassinated, the second president (after Lincoln) to be killed in office. Later, I saw an ornate statue of Garfield near the Potomac River. Quite a tribute for a guy who served six months in office.

Not all was well in Washington. The National Mall, which runs 1.9 miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and is often referred to as "America's front yard," was in appalling condition.

Most of the grass is dead or dying. Reflecting pools are filled with putrid water. Sidewalks are crumbling.

An Associated Press analysis of congressional spending since 2005 found the mall has been at a disadvantage in competing for extra funds doled out by lawmakers, compared with sites that are represented by powerful members of Congress.

Because the mall is in Washington, D.C., it has no vote in the House or Senate.

Last year, when dozens of ducks and ducklings died of avian botulism because the water in a mall pool near the Capitol was so fetid, and as urgent repairs were needed to stop the Jefferson Memorial's sea wall from sinking into the mud, the Senate killed a $3.5 million earmark for the mall, according to the AP. Instead, funding went to projects back home.

The Obama Administration recently steered $55 million in economic stimulus money toward repairs, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says that's only a down payment on the nearly $400 million needed to fix things up.

It's a hell of a way to run a capitol.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Breaking News

There were times in my newspaper career when I would work a shift so devoid of news, I went home exhausted just from being poised like a puma waiting to jump on the breaking story that never happened.

Then there were periods like the last few weeks when every hour sent a shock wave through the newsroom.

A near revolution in Iran. The deaths of Michael Jackson, FarrahFawcett, Ed McMahon, yes, and even pitchman Billy Mays.

Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to a term so long we may be colonizing Mars when it expires. Ditto the California budget crisis. The governor of South Carolina opts for tan lines over family values. And the Supreme Court tinkers with the Civil Rights Act.

We were promised long hours and lousy pay but this is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is that all of us who get involved in this business are basically adrenalin junkies for whom a good story is its own reward. Fueled by pots of coffeeand the best of intentions, no day is too long, no quest too impossible in pursuit of a story.

What's interesting about this mega outbreak of news is that is occured in an era of cut-to-the-bone reporting ranks, shrunken budgets and reduced pay, making it an unprecedented challenge.

For the most part, our bruised and battered media rose to the challenge.

Farrah Fawcett was remembered as a pin up girl who did for curling irons what Elizabeth Taylor did for diamonds. More importantly, she didn't just stand around looking beautiful. She could act.

Ed McMahon couldn't act, sing or dance. But he found fame as the perennial sidekick, a sort of Gabby Hayes to Johnny Carson's Hopalong Cassidy. Despite his booming laugh, I always thought Ed looked a little uncomfortable in his role. I mean, here was a former Marine Corps aviator pitching dog food and making small talk with ditzy actresses. But in the end, he was front page news.

Bernie Madoff got 150 years. I hope he serves every minute. Yet his lawyer, interviewed on TV, said he thought the punishment was too harsh because Bernie surrendered instead of fleeing. Well, so did Al Capone. But the interviewer didn't pursue it.

Then there is Michael Jackson.

His death was Princess Di, Anna Nichol Smith and OJ all rolled into one. It blew every other story off the front page.

Michael was an artist, no doubt about it. Although he hadn't been in the spotlight musically in recent years, he has sold an estimated 750 million records.

But there was more at play here. Jackson's bizarre life-style and appearance, the accusations of pedophilia, the never ending fiancial problems, held the public's rapt attention as much as his music.

He was fragile. He was ill. And watching Michael Jackson's life unfold was like watching a slow motion train wreck. You couldn't avert your eyes.

It was a wreck we've seen before. We've watched Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis unravel in public.

We weep and wait for the next generation of tragic heroes.

And they come. Kurt Cobain. Chris Farley. Heath Ledger.

And when they die, especially under mysterious circumstances, it's a big story.

Maybe too big. About two-thirds of the public (64%) say news organizations gave too much attention to the death of the 50-year-old performer. About three-in-ten (29%) say the coverage was the right amount. Only 3% say there had been too little coverage, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

We weren't united in our grief. Blacks followed the death of the African American singer more closely than the population as a whole, the Pew survey found. Eight-in-ten African Americans say they followed news about Jackson's death very closely, compared with 22% of whites.

Despite these finidings, ratings for the cable networks and web site traffic was at an all-time high.

When it came to Michael, we were all Paparazzi.