Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Civil rights aren't mutually exclusive

If history has left any city in the entire country with lingering image problems that require vigorous, continual opposition to discrimination against minorities of all kinds, it's Birmingham.

Someone should remind the four city council members who did nothing to help that image Tuesday, when they voted to defeat an inclusiveness resolution containing language against intolerance toward gays. The measure's sponsor, Councilwoman Valerie Abbott, rightfully was "dumbfounded": "I'm always amazed there are people who stand up and say, 'I'm against being inclusive.'"

How could such a thing happen in a city at the heart of the civil rights movement? One councilman's remarks were telling: "I'm concerned with the lobby for gay and lesbian rights that somehow or another this group insists on equating their movement with the movement for civil rights. This is not to say that their movement is not legitimate, but it is to say that to equate it with the noble movement of civil rights does not compare."

In other words, the argument is that the gay rights movement is somehow in competition with the 1960s civil rights movement. And that would be logical if there were a zero-sum pool of civil rights in which one minority group's gain was another minority group's loss. However, that not being the case in the real world -- where fair treatment of gays doesn't detract in any way from fair treatment of blacks -- that idea simply makes no sense. The rejected measure doesn't judge the comparative importance of the rights movements; it simply affirms that gays are people, too.

Abbott plans to reintroduce her resolution soon. Let's hope Birmingham's leaders get it right the second time around.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

No, really, you shouldn't have

Another proposal in the Alabama Legislature to make it illegal for legislators to pass a law? An illogical gift just for us? Really, you're being too thoughtful again. It's OK to forget our anniversary now and then. We promise not to hold it against you.

Monday, March 26, 2007

No politician left behind

Considering how obsessed our country is with standardized tests these days, you'd think we'd demand elected officials who did a little better in the college classroom:
Today, they're three of the most powerful men in the world. This has been your comforting reminder of the day.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I'll analyze anything involving a bracket

The underdogs all received eviction notices from the NCAA Tournament last weekend, but Cinderella is still alive and well in The Birmingham News' showdown to decide Alabama's favorite pop culture figure. (The Internet voting started last week, and the field is down to the Sweet 16. You can vote here for the finalists in the television, music, books, and stage and screen regionals.)

The online bracket thus far has played out a lot like an average March Madness. All four No. 1 seeds -- director John Badham, actress Courteney Cox, author Harper Lee, and country legend Hank Williams -- made it to the second weekend. A vulnerable
No. 2 seed -- country band Alabama -- is living on a prayer against a tough draw. (Jimmy Buffett at No. 7? Seriously?) A No. 6 seed "upset" a No. 3 seed in a win you could see coming all along. And we have two potential George Masons: actor Orlando Jones and author Kathryn Tucker Windham, both underrated No. 13 seeds.

The most vulnerable No. 1 seed is Badham, the Saturday Night Fever director, who has the least name recognition of any top seed. To make the Final Four, he must overcome the youth support for the "Make 7 Up Yours" guy and then defeat either the Emmy-nominated Louise Fletcher or the notorious Tallulah Bankhead, who easily could have been the region's No. 1 seed.

None of the No. 1 seeds are locks for the Elite Eight, though. Cox's opponent, actress Sela Ward, has been a favorite of Alabama fans since her days as a Crimson Tide cheerleader. Meanwhile, Lionel Richie is a legitimate threat to Williams, and Windham's homespun ghost stories have made her a beloved Alabama folk legend.

In the end, Lee and Williams should meet in a hotly contested championship round. But March is well-known as a month in which what you think should happen often doesn't.

Wedge it between some bingo amendments

The U.S. Constitution, which has only 27 amendments, bars any congressional pay raise from taking effect until after the next election cycle. The Alabama Constitution, which has almost 800 amendments, doesn't. Perhaps one of the lawmakers not on this list could lead the charge to change that situation before the public's anger over legislators' 62 percent pay raise subsides.

But only after we ban gay marriage yet again. It's been almost a year since the last vote on it, and people may forget it's illegal.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Lessons relearned

The last week or so has been good for reinforcing preconceived notions. Here's a sampling of things we recently rediscovered.

The Bush administration has the reverse Midas touch:
The Iraq war was poorly planned, distracted from our mission in Afghanistan, and was launched based on assumptions that, at best, were incorrect. Many parts of the Gulf Coast still lie in disrepair a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina. The Fourth Amendment cries out beneath the crushing weight of widespread warrantless domestic wiretapping. Compared to those blunders and bungles, the growing conflagration over U.S. attorney firings seems, to borrow a term from (soon-no-longer-to-be?) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, downright quaint.

The Valerie Plame leak was as bad as you suspected: Now that both Plame and the CIA director have said Plame was an undercover operative, and now that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has said her job status was classified, can we finally stop pretending her outing was no big deal?

Not voting for Nancy Worley was a good idea: The former Alabama secretary of state's tenure was a lengthy litany of disappointments and missed opportunities. Another sad reminder of a term that's better off forgotten came last week, when she was indicted on five felony charges related to a letter she sent to several staffers during the Democratic primary season. Regardless of how the case turns out, perhaps state Democrats shouldn't have been so ready to give Worley a prominent position in the party.

The Alabama Legislature is macabre political theater: After a surprisingly productive 2006 session, it's back to normal for our esteemed legislators. The sneak-attack, voice-vote effort at a legislative pay raise has defined the session thus far, but state senators tried their best to one-up themselves last week when they found themselves at loggerheads over when to debate a school rebuilding measure for the tornado-stricken city of Enterprise. Not over the measure's substance or wording, mind you, but simply over when to talk about it. Simply amazing.

Alabama can't catch a break in the White House race: Sure, it was a great idea to enhance our say in the nomination process by moving our 2008 presidential primary from June to February. But then some other states started getting the same idea. And now pretty much all of them have that idea, including heavy hitters like California, Florida, Michigan, and Texas. We're on the road to a national primary in the years to come, and that means occurrences like this month's same-day Selma twin bill of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama soon may be things of the past for Alabama. Which is a shame, considering they so recently became things of the present.

John McCain is appealing a little too hard to the base: Sinking in the polls against former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Arizona senator is striving desperately to connect with the Republican base. His staunch support for staying in Iraq, a position that's growing more unpopular by the day, may be unwise, but at least one could construct a remotely plausible argument in favor of that stance. But McCain's recent coyness on the question of whether condoms help prevent AIDS is a step too far from reality and is entirely unbefitting of a man who calls his campaign bus the Straight Talk Express.

Alabama will always be a football school: With a hurting football program still reeling from probation this season, Crimson Tide coach Mark Gottfried had a chance to make Alabama fans stand up and pay attention to an underappreciated basketball team that marched to the Elite Eight just three years ago. Instead, one of the most talented teams in Gottfried's tenure -- a team some labeled a sleeper pick for the Final Four -- collapsed after New Year's Day and stumbled to a first-round NIT loss. As Roll Bama Roll suggested a while back, this year's performance may have cost Alabama its last real chance for decades to become a two-
sport school, especially after the football team starts roaring back with a vengeance under Nick Saban.

My bracket is perpetually busted: Granted, it's not as bad as 10 years ago, when I had South Carolina in the title game only to watch the Gamecocks flame out against Coppin State in the first round. But Cinderella didn't RSVP to the Sweet 16 this year, and that cost me a few of my bolder picks. I still feel good about my hackneyed pick of a Florida repeat, even with Butler determined to turn the vengeance meter up to 11.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Other than that, it's all good

One could choose not to have a big problem with the Justice Department's recent firing of eight U.S. attorneys in the middle of their tenures. One also could note, as many Bush administration defenders have, that U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time. But for this story not to be troubling in the least, one must be prepared to accept the following occurrences without any qualms:
To make a long post short: There's what's legal, and there's what's right. The two don't always overlap.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

As it ever was on Goat Hill

The Alabama Legislature was in rare form Thursday, even by its lofty standards. Sure, it's no surprise that lawmakers chose the worst of several possible approaches to the issue of legislative pay raises. But the impressive part is how they also handled the matter in the worst possible fashion.

Legislators could have made many Alabamians happy by leaving their pay unchanged. They also could have accompanied a raise with a measure converting their jobs into full-time positions. Instead, they went for the third way, voting to give themselves a roughly 62 percent pay increase but doing nothing to alter the part-time status that allows them to hold outside employment and opens the door to all manner of accusations of conflicts of interest.

It'd be bad enough if lawmakers approved that plan after extensive discussion, but this resolution escaped both chambers without a word of debate. Even worse, the proposal passed on a voice vote, meaning legislators didn't have to state a public position on the measure. Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr., provided fodder for opponents in a prospective 2010 gubernatorial run, gaveling the measure through the Senate despite reports that six senators -- two more than constitutionally necessary -- requested a recorded vote.

To say the least, the measure's supporters could have done a better job on the public-relations end. Then again, the truth of the whole spectacle may well look something like this assessment by Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman: "I can tell you 90 percent of the Senate is for this. I just wish they had the guts to vote how they really believe."

Now that would be a surprise.

Friday, March 09, 2007

If you make it an issue, it's an issue

Any contrary sentiments in my earlier post aside, reporters are well within the realm of relevance when they note that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had an affair while spearheading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton after L'Affaire Lewinsky.

Why? One word: hypocrisy. As ABC News notes, Gingrich "constantly espous[ed] family values even while he carried on an affair" and "linked his party to wholesome family values and Democrats to, well, something else." In a similar vein, PoliBlog's Steven Taylor offers a more detailed explanation of the story's significance: "[W]hile I understand that the impeachment process aimed at President Clinton was itself about perjury and so forth, the underlying context was that of an extramarital affair. For Gingrich to see no hypocrisy in this overall situation is to be engaging in self-delusion and serious rationalization."

If politicians aren't lecturing voters about family values, they retain a legitimate argument for keeping their private lives private. But if they choose to portray themselves or their parties as defenders of personal moral virtue, it's only fair for observers to point out their potential shortcomings on that front.

A worthy candidacy

Apparently I'm not alone in being impressed by The Birmingham News' great investigative work on Alabama's beleaguered two-
year college system. Rumor has it that the series will earn the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize nomination in the public service category next month. The News' anticipated rivals for the award are The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

Focus on the family -- but how much?

As the presidential campaign heats up more than a year and a half away from Election Day, we continue to see extensive media coverage of the tumultuous personal lives of Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, and a host of other presidential candidates. Idle curiosity partially explains this trend, but at the root of the whole spectacle is the underlying assumption that, at least when viewed in a vacuum devoid of platforms, people with a history of instability at home tend to be less desirable for the job than people with one steady marriage.

Like it or not, politicians must accept that their personal lives will become open books whenever they seek the White House in the era of the 24-hour news cycle. Likewise, what a person has done in the past often is a good indication of the kind of things that person will do in the future. Still, a comment I stumbled across today at Lawyers, Guns, and Money offers some food for thought:

"I think it's safe to say that anyone who puts in the time and effort it takes to be as successful in politics, law, or whatever, to get to the point where you're a serious candidate for president, or you're nominated for a [S]upreme [C]ourt position, isn't a family person. They may love their spouses and children, but they ain't family people. If they were, they'd have focused on their families, and never reached the levels they have in their careers. Which is not to say that they're bad people, of course. Just not family people."

So is the public placing too much stock in candidates' home lives? Too little? Just enough?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Trying to be everything to everyone

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, offered a pretty fair assessment of Gov. Bob Riley's State of the State address Tuesday night: "When you listen to his speech, it's almost like you can't tell what is Democratic or Republican. I think he's been able to bridge that gap with a few exceptions."

For sure, Riley's roughly 45-minute speech included something for everyone. For education backers, there were the proposals to give teachers a 7 percent pay raise and to issue $850 million worth of bonds (better described as the "buy now, pay later" plan) to build and repair schools. For tax reform advocates, there were the calls to eliminate the sales tax on over-the-counter medicine and to raise Alabama's income tax threshold again. And for advocates of lower taxation, there were the plans to offer tax incentives for small businesses and to slash income taxes for everyone making under $100,000.

The speech's bipartisan elements also extended beyond budgetary issues. Riley challenged lawmakers to put their money where their mouths are by passing a badly needed ban on transfers between political action committees, which make it impossible to trace the source of millions of campaign dollars. (The plan, which Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, has introduced annually for the last half-decade, once again escaped a House committee today, but as in the past, members of both parties want to add amendments.)

Riley also walked a narrow partisan tightrope in discussing the Iraq war. Careful not to denounce or alienate war critics, he nonetheless threw a chunk of red meat to war supporters by asking the Legislature to register its opposition to cutting Iraq war funding. The resolution would be non-binding, of course, but Alabama lawmakers are known for a willingness to pass measures that serve no practical purpose.

In all, Riley's speech was a solid one, commendably heavy on substance. The governor's second term, though, will be judged not on rhetoric but on results. Promising signs emerged near the end of his first term, when he worked with a Democratic Legislature to pass some needed progressive measures, including sentencing reform and a higher income tax threshold. Still, the comity only goes so far in a deeply political town.

The key battle in Montgomery this year, as it was last year, will be between Riley and education lobbyist extraordinaire Paul Hubbert, who opposes many of the tax cuts because they would take away money that would go to education instead. Just like last year -- and many years before -- expect Hubbert to get most, if not all, of what he wants.

How to help in Enterprise

It's going to take a lot of work to get the people of Enterprise back on their feet. Below are some ways you can help. This March 1 post is postdated and will remain at the top of the page for one week.

Post last updated March 3 at 5 p.m.
Please post information in the comments if you learn of any other relief efforts. I'll update this post as needed.

Think they're digging hard enough?

The presidential election is still more than a year and a half away, but already Americans have begun to learn valuable life lessons from the vetting process. In the last week or so, for instance, we've discovered that presidential candidates apparently should:
It also helps if a presidential hopeful doesn't have a surname easily spoofed in skits featuring an insurance company's spokesduck, but of course, that's been clear from the very beginning.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Punch the clock

The Birmingham News has done outstanding work in the past year documenting the web of connections between Alabama legislators and the state's junior colleges, and Sunday's piece on the saga of Rep. Sue Schmitz, D-Toney, was no different. Her employment with the two-year college system also is nothing unique; almost a third of all Alabama lawmakers, their kin, or their businesses have received money from the system in the last five years.

The raw number of legislators who work for an entity funded by the Legislature has led some commentators to propose a blanket ban on legislators or their relatives working for the two-year system. But I'm uncomfortable with that idea as applied to all relatives, because it seems unfair to foreclose the job prospects of potential teachers or administrators just because they happen to share blood with someone who decides to serve on Goat Hill.

A better approach would be an ethics reform package that heightens reporting requirements and provides for paying legislators as full-time employees. Full-time status would greatly reduce concerns about potential conflicts of interest, and it also could attract good candidates who otherwise wouldn't run due to worries about how to balance their work schedule and lawmaking duties during legislative sessions.

Whether it'd be good to have the Legislature actually meet full-
time is, of course, a question for another day.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Round one is in the books

Today's four-count felony conviction of Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, has rightly dominated the airwaves. But it may come as little more than a nominal victory for Fitzmas' most vocal advocates, who craved prison time for everyone who's anyone in the White House. As special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's post-verdict remarks indicate, the criminal side of the Valerie Plame affair is probably over: "Fitzgerald said he did not 'expect to file any further charges' ... [but] held open the possibility that 'if new information comes to light that warrants taking further action, we will do that.'"

Appeals will keep the Libby trial in the public subconsciousness, but the real show, as long has been the case, is likely to be Plame's and Joe Wilson's lawsuit against a host of Bush administration officials. The defendants would have to testify under oath at trial regarding their roles in the whole sordid affair, providing historians valuable information about the Plame outing scandal, about which, as a Libby juror suggested today, the story remains incomplete: "[I]t was said a number of times, 'What are we doing with this guy here?' Where's [Karl] Rove, where's -- you know, where are these other guys?" For the growing number of Americans who are uneasy about how the White House sold the public on the Iraq war, that suit may be their best shot at getting some answers to the questions foremost on their minds.

Still, one shouldn't underestimate the noteworthiness of today's verdict. Libby was the main aide to perhaps the most powerful vice president of all time, and that made him one of Washington's most powerful politicos. His perjury and obstruction of justice convictions have delivered a heavy blow to what remains of the Bush administration's pledge to restore integrity to the White House, and they have reinvigorated the public debate over why we're in Iraq in the first place.

She's distinctly not eneagled

It's hard to be more outlandish as a real conservative pundit than Stephen Colbert is as a fake one. But Ann Coulter's trying.

Coulter renewed her long, proud tradition of raising the maturity and intelligence level of public discourse last weekend at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington: "Coulter used an anti-gay slur to describe John Edwards (the line drew applause) and asked: 'Did Al Gore actually swallow Michael Moore?' When a questioner asked Coulter why she praises marriage but broke off so many engagements, she responded by calling the questioner ugly."

The enlightening commentary continued a few days later, when Coulter accused Edwards' campaign manager of "fronting for Arab terrorists" (offering no evidence to substantiate such a serious accusation) and then denied on live national television that an anti-gay slur is offensive to gay people.

Your serve, Mr. Colbert.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

What nature can't destroy

It's Oak Grove all over again.

The twisted wreckage. The mounting death toll. The soulless combination of natural disaster and unnatural chaos. The lack of rhyme or reason. The unspeakable horror visited upon a close-
knit small Alabama town left to piece itself back together after the sort of utter destruction that one can comprehend only through direct personal experience.

They were all present in Oak Grove nine years ago on a terrible April day when 32 people in western Jefferson County (and two elsewhere in the state) lost their lives. Today, they've reared their ugly heads again in Enterprise.

Enterprise's high school, like the one in Oak Grove, was reduced to rubble. But one key distinction led to today's tragedy on the Wiregrass. Perhaps the only aspect of fortune that smiled on the tiny Birmingham bedroom community on April 8, 1998, was that the Oak Grove tornado came at night and leveled a mostly empty school. Enterprise's tornado, though, cruelly hit during the heart of the school day, claiming at least five lives (out of the seven confirmed to have been lost statewide at this time) and deeply scarring the entirety of southeast Alabama.

For the family and friends of those killed today, those scars will never heal, and my thoughts and prayers -- and no doubt those of many thousands of others -- are with them. But no matter how deadly and horrific, no tornado can kill Enterprise residents' sense of community, of shared duty to help each other, of determination to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. Mother Nature can destroy all manner of things, but one thing she can't touch with wind or rain is the human spirit.

Enterprise is heartbroken, and many dark days still lie ahead. But the city can take some small comfort from the example of western Jefferson County, which felt similar pain almost a decade earlier. Today in Oak Grove, streets once devastated beyond the point of recognition once again are lined with houses. A proud new high school stands in place of the wrecked one. The town's spirit, as ever, remains indomitable.

Life was never the same again for the survivors of the devastation of April 8, 1998, and it will never be the same again for today's survivors. But as it did in Oak Grove, the human spirit -- a spirit of hope and determination -- will live on in Enterprise. And as it did for Oak Grove, that spirit will ensure that Enterprise rises again.

There's a reason we made you the shortest

If it's solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short you're looking for, then you'd be hard-pressed to find a better month than February. In the last week alone of this year's installment, we learned that:
Good riddance to February, and may the rest of March be better than its first terrible day.