Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lives--and Libraries--of the Presidents

A couple of years ago on the way back from a vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, my wife Pam and I stopped at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. That visit inspired an item on our bucket lists: To visit all the existing presidential libraries, 20 at last count, 13 of them operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

On Tuesday, while returning from a family gathering in Texas, we stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas, and spent about three hours at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. It is housed in a splendid modern structure, situated next to the Arkansas River just outside downtown Little Rock. The building appears to have been designed to evoke one of President Clinton's favorite phrases--"building a bridge to the 21st Century." But in the end, I found myself as unmoved by the Clinton library as I was moved by Ford's, and it took me awhile to understand why.

The Ford museum (the Ford library is located in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan) had a funky feel to it. Touring it felt like going through a trove of old family photos and other memorabilia. While the place obviously followed a plan, it had a relaxed, serendipitous feel. It seemed as if the exhibits were telling a story--or a series of stories--about Ford and his life and times.

Touring the Clinton library, by contrast, felt like sitting through a political science lecture, with Clinton himself as the lecturer. The place seemed relentlessly planned, organized, ordered. At some point pretty early on, I quit listening to the audio tour device over which Clinton explained the displays and exhibits. Between the sound from the device and the sounds piped into each exhibit alcove through ceiling speakers, there was just too much audio. In fact, there was just too much of everything--documents, photos, explanations, placards. I found myself thinking, "What this place needs is a good editor."

Strikes me there's a lesson for journalists in these two different approaches. The Clinton library is like one of those long, ponderous newspaper series on an issue that has been researched beyond exhaustively, but that nobody can stand to read. The Ford museum is like a well-told story--one that is long and important, but engagingly told and full of life and people and color. I know which one I would read first.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Freezin' Season

It's the freezin' season. I suppose because it was May 1, air-conditioning was turned on in my office, in the classrooms at Loyola and on the CTA train I rode home today. Wouldn't have minded if it had been 80 degrees, but it was closer to 60 and rainy. I found myself having to put on a coat to stay warm in the classroom where I administered one of my final exams. Same thing in my office. But my coat did little good on the CTA, where frigid air issued from the AC vents and left me shivering.

No point complaining. This is the way it has become in modern America. We exult when we have a warm winter like the one just past. But the brains who have designed our modern systems have decided that, come spring and summer, we all must be kept refrigerated like so many sides of beef in a meat locker.

Final Exam Time

I am currently administering the final exam in my course in Ethics and Communication. This has been a difficult semester. Neither I nor my students seem to have been as sharp as in semesters past. I don't know why that was so for the students. For me, it was a matter of fatigue--I suddenly seem not to have the energy I used to have. Gotta find a way to get it back. Going to a part-time schedule in the fall should help.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dick Clark, R.I.P.

Owing to the stroke he suffered in 2004, Dick Clark hasn't been Dick Clark for some time now. Still, it saddened me to learn of his death. He was an indelible part of my life and the life of my generation. Thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ozzie the Liberator: Time for a Debate on U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

Something tells me Ozzie Guillen isn't going to survive the firestorm that he ignited last week with his complimentary remarks about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. And maybe he shouldn't. I don't have an opinion about what should happen to the Florida Marlins' manager.

But if Ozzie's remarks can ignite a conversation in this country about U.S. policy toward Cuba, his political misstep will have served a good and healthy purpose. Because the truth is that America's Cuba policy has for far too long been set with a view to what is acceptable to the most rabidly anti-Castro elements in the Cuban "exile" community, not what is most conducive to the interests of the United States and, for that matter, of Cuba.

Yes, Castro--first Fidel and now Raul--is a dictator and, yes, Cuba is a dictatorship. But the United States has found ways to deal with dictators in myriad other countries, to the benefit of the U.S. and, often, the benefit of the citizens of those countries. Cuba is the great, glaring exception.

Long since it made any economic or political sense, we continue to impose an embargo on Cuba and to isolate it in many other ways. And the reason: because that's what the Cuban exiles in Florida want. And because both major parties covet their votes and Florida's electoral votes, neither party challenges that domination of national policy by a small group.

I don't fault the Florida Cubans for using their muscle on behalf of their cause. I do fault the politicians who are supposed to represent the United States of America for allowing the exile tail to wag the national dog. It's time this foolishness was ended.

With any luck, Ozzie Guillen will have given us the opportunity we desperately need to have a long-overdue conversation about our Cuba policy. Ozzie may not be salvageable, but American policy toward Cuba may be.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Go Irish!

I'm watching the Notre Dame women's basketball team dismantle the University of Maryland's Terrapins. An awesome display.

Go Irish!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Proud Dad of a New Grad

As of today my older son Matthew is a college graduate. He finished the last of the coursework for his bachelor's degree in accounting at California State University at Los Angeles. Hail, hail, Matthew! I couldn't be prouder if I had just won a Nobel Prize.

Matt has come a long way. He took some detours after high school, but finally found his direction. He not only has earned a college degree, but he also has become a mature, educated person who thinks seriously about important issues. I love talking with him. He is going to do great work for whoever is smart enough to hire him.

I love you, Matt.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lawless Florida and the Rule of the Gun

The newest descriptions of the killing of young Trayvon Martin remind me of nothing so much as the scene in the movie "Shane" in which the gunfighter Jack Wilson, played with exquisite menace and malevolence by a young Jack Palance, stalks and kills the sodbuster "Stonewall." Wilson took care to make it look like self-defense, but it was murder, simple and premeditated.

In the case of Trayvon, he didn't even have a weapon, unless you count a can of iced tea. George Zimmerman, the newest evidence suggests, stalked him, probably provoking Trayvon to turn, confront him and "threaten" him--perhaps with a lethal squirt of tea?

In the stories I've read about this case, Florida sounds like the Old West of Shane's day, where the law might as well be a three-day horse ride away. In "Shane," the result of that lawless situation was that people resorted to engaging gunfighters. Hope it doesn't come to that in Florida--for George Zimmerman's sake.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rebutting "The Stone"

Michael Tomasky has written an excellent rebuttal on the Daily Beast website to Gary Gutting's critique of big-time college athletics last week on The New York Times' philosophy website, "The Stone." I heartily commend it to everyone's attention.

Yes, there are abuses in college athletics. But if these programs did nothing more than offer the student-athletes the opportunity to work their way through school, they'd have justified their existence. Obviously some of the athletes elect not to avail themselves fully of the opportunity, but that happens in every field of endeavor. Wasn't it John Thompson, the former coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, who would tell his players, "If you leave here without a degree, you've been underpaid."


I drove back to Evanston from South Bend on this eerily warm late winter evening. The bright orange sun was beginning to drop below the horizon as I was leaving South Bend. Around LaPorte, the playlist on my iPod reached Betty Buckley's "Memory," the iconic song from the musical "Cats." The song put me in mind of my trip with my son Grant to New York for what must have been his tenth birthday. Thanks to my friend Buzz Palmer, we got a tour of the United Nations and had lunch in the delegates' dining room. We went to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. And on a Saturday night we went to the Winter Garden Theatre and saw "Cats."

I had ordered tickets far in advance and Grant was eager to see the show. I played a little joke on him by suggesting a couple of hours before the show that we sell our tickets on the street and just spend the evening seeing the bright lights of New York City. Grant thought about it for a few seconds and then replied almost sheepishly, "No. Let's not."

So we went to the show. We arrived about half an hour early, found our seats and waited for the show to begin. At 8 p.m. the house lights went down and the theatre was totally dark. Then, gradually, lights began to twinkle above us, creating the effect of stars in the night sky. It was a magical moment. Grant leaned over to me and whispered, "Aren't you glad we didn't sell the tickets?"

Every time I think of that, tears well in my eyes. Tears of joy, of course, that I was able to experience such a special moment with my child. God has been good to me.

It's hard for me to believe that Grant is now almost 24 and is about to take off on a trip of his own to Turkey. And a few weeks after that, he'll head to Mississippi for his first teaching job.