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January 16th, 2013
07:44 PM ET

Letters to the President #1458: 'The gun fight'

Reporter's Note: President Obama has unveiled his plans for more restrictions on who can get guns and under what circumstances. I have unveiled my latest letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

So I saw you signing those new provisions to tighten up on existing gun laws, and proposing even more if Congress will join your effort; new restrictions on assault weapons, the size of clips, and more extensive use of background checks.

Considering the terrible shootings we’ve seen lately in Connecticut, Colorado, and elsewhere, I’m sure a great many Americans are happy to see anything happening on this front. On the other hand, as best I can read the polls, not many people have much faith that new gun controls alone will make much difference.

I know, I know, that the gun lobby has been railing about that very idea for some days now, suggesting that an effort aimed purely at guns is punitive and will be ineffective. I don’t mean to buy into their line, but then again I’m just telling you what the polls suggest: Many of our fellow citizens, while willing to consider new gun controls, really do want to see a much more comprehensive approach to tamping down violence.

Certainly it is a complicated issue. There are indeed a lot of guns in our country, but we’ve had a lot of guns for a long time. There are guns that look very menacing and have the capability of releasing a stream of shots very quickly, but we’ve had versions of that for a long time too. And there is a lot of violence in our movies and games, but we’ve had that for some time as well…maybe not in precisely the same form, but there nonetheless.

I think the key lies in figuring out what has changed. What is different about our culture? What alchemy has occurred between our guns, our society, our behavior, our demographics, our economy, and our health care? What tipped us over the edge so that massacres of innocent people became commonplace?

Those are not easy questions, I know, but I don’t suppose solving the riddle of how to stop gun violence will be easy either. And whatever you accomplished today…at very best…is likely to be just a start.

Hope all is well.

Regards,
Tom

January 15th, 2013
08:36 PM ET

Letters to the President #1457: 'The Sandy relief bill'

Reporter's Note: President Obama’s Democrats…and some Republicans…were arguing in Congress today about an emergency funding measure for Superstorm Sandy.

Dear Mr. President,

I spent pretty much the whole afternoon listening to the torrent of arguments in the House over this emergency aid bill for the communities hit by that big storm, Sandy. I must say it was enlightening. I’ve covered plenty of things like this before, but I was struck by how clearly I could hear both sides talking past each other. Over and over again they launched versions of competing views as if utterly deaf to what the other side had just said.

From the Republicans: “This bill should be solely about direct, emergency aid to the communities that were hit. Future funding may be needed. Future funding may even be wise. But Democrats can not use an emergency spending measure as a stalking horse to sneak funding to all sorts of pet projects. For example, money to improve the government’s hurricane predication capability should absolutely not be included.”

From the Democrats and Republicans who live in the storm area: “This bill should be about a comprehensive, long term recovery plan. Sure, some of these measures may not seem to be directly connected to the disaster, but they really are. For example, money to improve the government’s hurricane prediction capability should absolutely be included.”

Both sides, I firmly believe, have great majorities of members who care about what happened to the people when that storm hit, and who care about the recovery of their communities. Both sides had impassioned, clearly intelligent speakers. Both sides, seemingly, could have recognized the other’s concern and addressed it… reasonably …fairly. But neither side did. In the end, it came down to a vote, and the money was approved. There were winners and losers, but I think the public at large lost …because serious issues on both sides that deserved serious consideration once again were swept up in posturing that probably, in the long run, serves nobody well.

Hope all is good with you and the family. Excited about the Inauguration? Getting close…

Regards,
Tom

January 14th, 2013
07:01 PM ET

Letters to the President #1456: 'A new term's resolution'

Reporter's Note: President Obama held the last news conference of his first term today.

Dear Mr. President,

As you know, I tend to make more observations than suggestions here, but this time I am leaning toward the latter. I have an idea for your second term that I really hope you’ll consider. Hold more press conferences.

Despite all of your claims about the transparency of your White House, the evidence suggests you’re hardly been a model of openness up to this point. You’ve had question and answer sessions with the media less often than President Clinton, or either President Bush. According to The American Presidency Project, since Calvin Coolidge only Nixon, Carter, Ford, and Reagan were less inclined to talk to the press than you are.

Granted, those of us in the mainstream media are not the only game in town. And sure, you’ve beefed up the White House website with a lot of features ostensibly to allow regular folks to find out information on their own. But honestly, I’ve looked over a lot of the information on your sites and most of it is thinly veiled political propaganda. I know that your fans would probably like to string me up for saying it, but your PR folks have just come up with smart ways to make press releases look like something else.

I know you’re always tweeting or popping up on social media sites and that’s part of your claim to transparency too, just like your appearances on talk shows. But you and I both know that as much as people may mistrust the MSM, all these alternative venues are custom made for avoiding tough questions. Rarely in such circumstances will you run into a cadre of well-informed professionals who know their subjects as well as you do, and who are ready and able to challenge your claims.

Hats off to you for the way your team has sold it. You’ve talked up the idea that you’re connecting directly to “real people” and not allowing the media to distort your message. You’ve convinced a lot of voters that they don’t need anyone to help them navigate the nuances of your policies or point out when you are…well, wrong. (Hey, it happens to the best of us.) Again, good for you. That makes your job a lot easier. But I am not convinced that it is better for America, or that it will be better for you in the long run.

Good ideas need robust challenges against which they can be tested. You should welcome voices of skepticism and dissent. You should, as Bill Clinton said, be grateful for your opponents because they point out the flaws in your position. Only by recognizing those flaws, can you address them.

So consider my suggestion. Hold more news conferences. Face tough questions from knowledgeable people more often. You don’t have to. You can meander along as you have if you wish. But the path to a great legacy can only be found through facing great challenges…even the kind you most dislike.

Meanwhile, give me a call if you have the time.

Regards,
Tom

January 13th, 2013
09:17 AM ET

Letters to the President #1455: 'Taking responsibility for gun violence'

Reporter's Note: Vice President Biden spent a fair portion of last week presiding over discussions about gun violence.

Dear Mr. President,

I suppose people have never been big on taking responsibility. Most of us don’t want to admit that we are wrong, let alone that we have done wrong. I certainly know that few of you politicians are very keen on it. Ha!

Still, it’s on my mind because I have watched coverage of Biden’s talks this week about gun violence, and once again I find myself thinking that as much as well–intentioned folks from many sectors may genuinely want to do something about this, it is just too easy to suggest someone else must act first; that the problem originates in someone else’s kitchen.

The gun lobby likes to point to weaknesses in our mental health systems. They’re right. We do have problems identifying, treating, and keeping track of the dangerously mentally ill.

The entertainment industry likes to point out that millions of Americans enjoy movies filled with gun play, and countless teens dive into first-person shooter games with no attendant savagery in real life. They’re right, too. Most people can separate truth from fiction pretty well.

Gun control advocates like to point to the successes of some gun laws in some places and explain away their failures in other places as unique to the particular terrain and demographics. They’re also right. What works in one town may not work in the next for a wide and complicated array of reasons.

Politicians blame the private sector for its irresponsibility, the private sector blames deranged individuals, institutions blame the families, families blame society, and the march of troubles goes on.

I guess I’ll never live long enough to see it, but I’d love to see a conference on any major issue that began with all the parties involved admitting and accepting what they’ve done wrong…or at least the possibility that they may have made mistakes along the way. Because, honestly, I think some issues…gun violence being one of them…are so complex, it is ludicrous to suggest they can be solved by requiring one giant change from one giant player. It is at least worth considering that gun violence may be about all of the things cited above. Only when everyone is ready to take responsibility and openly consider what changes are needed…whether or not those changes affect their interests…will we likely move closer to agreeing on a plan.

Hope everything is good for you and the family. Call if you’re around and want to go for a bike ride or something.

Regards,
Tom

January 12th, 2013
09:13 AM ET

Letters to the President #1454: 'Our troops in Afghanistan'

Reporter's Note: The president continues to push for bringing most if not all of our troops out of Afghanistan in the not distant future. I continue writing letters to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

You appeared a tad uncomfortable as you stood next to the Afghan president yesterday. Is everything ok? I assume it was just the subject matter that had you ill-at-ease, and well it might. It seems so very, very long ago that we stormed into that distant land following the attacks of 9/11, and I don’t think many citizens had any idea back then that we’d still have boots on the ground there now.

It has been a long, tough, and at times confusing struggle.

To say, as you did, that we’ve accomplished what we initially set out to do…meaning, I presume to strike at the heart of Al Qaeda and disrupt the Taliban government for harboring those terrorists…is true. What you added to that is also true: “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not.”

For all of your soaring speeches, that statement struck me as truly presidential. I admire any leader, any time that he or she can admit that life does not work out the way most of us wish, much of the time. Well placed plans can fall by the wayside. The battlefield devours strategies and disrupts marches to victory all the time. Great leaders know it, accept it, and adjust…and always remember that it is the struggle that matters most, not their generalship.

Afghanistan still faces so many difficulties and its future remains so murky, I suspect, it will forever be something of a question mark for America. In fifty years, I expect school kids will puzzle over not why we went, but why we stayed so long, and what we thought we would accomplish in all those years. Nation building? Yeah, I guess. Long term stability? Hmmm. Not betting on that.

Oddly enough, the on-again/off-again public and political confusion over what we are doing there has increased my admiration for our troops. After all, fighting is always hard, but it is arguably even harder when one has no idea what one is fighting for. And yet thousands of our smart, talented, brave young Americans have walked the hills of Afghanistan for years now doing their duty. Like Tennyson’s poem: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

This afternoon, as I wrote this, I read up briefly on the actual Charge of the Light Brigade that inspired the poem. Online I found a link to an 1890 recording of one of the old troops blowing the command to charge on the very bugle he used in that battle. It was recorded in London at one of Edison’s studios. More than a century later and a continent away, I listened and wondered at the amazing bravery of troops who fulfill their duty against sometimes impossible odds, in terrible circumstances, and with unstoppable courage.

I hope our fellow countrymen, in all the years that come, even though they may not understand what this war in Afghanistan was all about, still appreciate that our troops did a heroic thing for a very long time. They made sacrifices that deserve to be remembered. They kept the faith much longer than many of us even kept watch for their return.

Regards,

Tom

January 11th, 2013
08:00 PM ET

Letters to the President #1453: 'The pastor bows out'

Reporter's Note: The president’s team is preparing for his upcoming inaugural. I am too, by writing…as always…a letter a day to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been following the kerfuffle over the pastor who has withdrawn from the inaugural activities after gay rights activists voiced concern over his views. Specifically, everyone seems to be in an uproar over a sermon he gave 15 or so years ago in which he called homosexuality a sin.

Diversity has become a complex thing, hasn’t it?

On one hand, I understand gay rights supporters who would rather not have anyone involved in the inaugural who thinks they are in the wrong. On the other hand, I thought the whole point of diversity was recognizing that people come from many walks of life, with many points of view, and we should all respect and accept each other as we are.

And that, presumably, includes people of faith. Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and anyone else who, based on their honest beliefs, disagree with many of the aspects of what might be called modern morality.

I realize that this is a terribly sensitive subject and you are in a tight spot. You can’t very well appear callous to the feelings of the gay community. Gay voters did, after all, help you get re-elected. But is it right, or fair, to allow one group of your supporters to drive another group into retreat this way? Even as you speak up for gay rights and lend your support to the cause, do you also have a responsibility to defend the right of those who disagree?

I don’t have the answers, but I do think the issue is more complex than this latest dustup would suggest. If those who think homosexuality is wrong are not overtly welcome at the inaugural…meaning, your White House won’t defend their right to be there…then does that suggest about half the nation is not welcome?

Sure, public views on this are changing. We, as a people, are growing much more accepting of gays and lesbians. The questions remain: Does that mean we can no longer accept those who have not made that metamorphosis? Are they to be exiled within their own country? And how diverse will our nation ultimately be, if whichever side wins any argument is able to chase the losers from the public arena?

I know you’re in a difficult position on this one, and I’m eager to see if you have anything to say on the subject. Give me a call if you have a moment.

Regards,
Tom

January 10th, 2013
07:55 PM ET

Letters to the President #1452: 'Breaking up the boys club'

Reporter's Note: The president is under fire over a shortage of women in top spots in his second term.

Dear Mr. President,

The wonderful musician Todd Rundgren took heat from the politically correct crowd years ago over his song, “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” but I wonder if you might want to make that a theme around the White House for a while. Seriously.

I’m sure your team is not too happy about critics pointing out the dearth of women headed for top slots of your second administration. I’m equally sure you’ll take steps in the next few weeks to draw as much attention as possible to every woman you appoint. But the fact remains, it is unlikely that you’ll fill even half of your cabinet with females at any point. You could. You just won’t.

For all of that prattling during the election about a Republican “war on women,” it does not appear that you and your party are much more welcoming to women. A little more, yes, but hardly enough to brag about.

Think about it. How can you or anyone else justify the fact that women are always a minority in the top positions, whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge? There are 311,000,000 people in this country, and more than half of them are female. Certainly you could have found enough to take charge of half of the power positions in D.C. And yet, no president ever has, including you.

I can formulate no reasonable explanation other than this: You’re not trying. Like most presidents, you’ve cozied up to your cronies…people who you like, trust, or have known a long time…and they are predominantly men.

It’s your choice, of course. Who am I or anyone else to dictate whom you should rely on? But don’t expect women, or those who defend their rights, to appreciate what you’ve done. Whether you intended it or not, it feels like a bait and switch; like once you had racked up enough votes from women to secure your re-election, you…like Washington always does…went right back to ignoring them.

Maybe that’s too harsh…but just saying…

Hope all is well.

Regards,
Tom

January 9th, 2013
08:12 PM ET

Letters to the President #1451: 'Fighting close to home'

Reporter's Note: The president has initiated an effort to increase gun control. It is a difficult battle and the subject of today’s letter.

Dear Mr. President,

My father always said, “If you have to fight someone, make sure you don’t fight in his neighborhood.” The wisdom was driven by common sense. On another guy’s home turf you ran the risk of him having many friends who might step in to the fray even if you secured an advantage in the initial clash.

My brother experienced that first hand. One night after a football game at his high school, a bunch of kids in a hostile neighborhood began taunting and then attacking him on the way home. Now my brother is, and always has been, one of the single toughest and strongest human beings you’ll ever meet. He does not back down from a fight easily and seldom has cause to, but that night he ended up running for his life while pursued by a half dozen furious teenagers. When he thundered up the back steps into the house a hail of rocks cracked off of the siding and roof as they tried to get in some final shots.

So the point stands: Only the foolish wander into their enemy’s camp for fisticuffs.

Which is one reason I think your summit meeting on the issue of guns is tricky. At any given moment, both advocates for more control…and advocates against it…may well feel as if they are being lured into a trap. In the first case, there is history to consider. I can’t even count how often I’ve heard politicians rail about the need for new gun regulations, assemble committees to consider the options, and then quietly fade into oblivion a few months later when the noise quiets down. Understandably then, some of the people you may be counting on to push your latest effort may fear they are treading into politically hostile territory…that they will stand up and say bold things, only to have you and other leaders of their cause run away and leave them stranded as soon as the gun lobby punches back.

By the same token, I can imagine that some gun rights advocates and dealers are wary of what you are up to. Sure, you may invite them to the table to discuss these issues, but they may sense a snare in the bushes. To their minds, it is a reasonable suspicion that you might stand them up in a photo op to show how open you are to opposing views, then wallop them with fierce anti-gun legislation.

Like I said, there is reason for both sides to fear being caught in a hostile neighborhood on this issue. And I suspect your success, if there is any to be had, will start with addressing those fears…convincing supporters that you have the political courage to stick with your plans even if you and other Democrats start paying a political price, and convincing opponents that you will indeed consider their thoughts before moving ahead.

Just an idea or two. Hope all is well.

Regards,
Tom

January 8th, 2013
07:23 PM ET

Letters to the President #1450: 'The discipline of champions'

Reporter's Note: The president is preparing for battles over his latest cabinet choices and the debt ceiling. I am, on the other hand, peacefully writing my daily letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

As I predicted, Alabama whipped Notre Dame badly last night to seize the national championship. Hand over the trophy, drop the confetti, let the seniors dash off to the NFL, it’s done.

Like many Americans, I had anticipated the game for weeks only to realize it was pretty much over in a matter of minutes. From the first drive it was clear that the Tide was going to wash over the Irish like a rogue wave. I was rooting for Alabama, but by the start of the second quarter my wife and I were both squirming. It was just that painful to watch Notre Dame suffer such a drubbing. If it weren’t for Brent Musburger’s wildly amusing musings about A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend I might have turned the game off.

Now certainly there were sports analysts who thought the contest would turn out differently. They predicted that Notre Dame’s heart, passion, and desperation would somehow come together in a magic alchemy that would overwhelm Alabama’s discipline, talent, and virtually seamless teamwork. Their prognostications were wrong, just as such predictions almost always are when built on hope and fanciful thinking rather than a bedrock of facts.

This is worth keeping in mind as your second term moves forward. Buoyed by your re-election success and some of the seemingly hapless mistakes of the Republicans, you may well imagine yourself to be poised for greater victory. Many of the Democrats who support you clearly think that is the case. Talk to them, read their comments online, listen to them on NPR call in shows, and you’ll hear endless optimism about all the great things you can accomplish now that the Republicans have been routed.

While I would not presume to dictate your plans or policies, I would urge you to be careful about such “rah rah” calls to attack. Remember what happened to Notre Dame’s football players as you proceed. They were and are a good team. They enjoyed an excellent season, and rolled over one opponent after another. It was not beyond comprehension that they might find a way to beat Alabama. But they did not. In the end, Alabama proved a superior power in every way. All the fire and passion of Notre Dame’s players and fans were not nearly enough to make their championship dreams come true.

So if you aim for big goals in your second term, you may be well advised to shut the doors against the cheers and enthusiasm. Once the Inaugural is over, your strength will not come from the screaming fans, but rather from hard, unblinking, pure politics; from your team’s ability to play the game. Feeling good about your cause will not get the job done. Thinking you are right won’t do it either. Indeed, the danger of Democratic enthusiasm right now is that it could easily make you think victory is easily in your grasp…when history shows it may yet be very hard won.

Regards,
Tom

January 7th, 2013
07:45 PM ET

Letters to the President #1449: 'The national championship'

Reporter's Note: The president is trying to line up his new cabinet, amid…as is typical…a lot of conflict. In the meantime, I am writing another letter to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

Happy Monday and a happy start to the Mardi Gras season! I realize that not everyone pays much attention to the passage of Kings Day, but we certainly do around our house. Tonight, however, our celebration will take an unusual turn as we focus on the national college football championship.

And let me say, with precious little hesitation, that I think Alabama is going to romp on Notre Dame.

I’m sure fans of the Irish hate to hear that, but it seems almost inevitable. Over the past few years, the Crimson Tide has turned into a team that goes beyond any normal description of a college sports franchise. Their discipline is becoming the stuff of legend; college kids standing as calmly as seasoned professionals even when the score board swings against them, confident in their ability to storm back before the final second ticks away.

Their depth is awe inspiring. Mow down the top player in almost any position, and someone nearly as strong and talented steps right into the gap.

And their tenacity is just unstoppable. Ask LSU.

Sure, they can be vulnerable. Texas A&M managed to spin up just the right combination to take down the Tide, but that lightning seems unlikely to strike again.

Bottom line: It is nice to watch the underdog wage a good fight, and fun to watch them win. And make no mistake, Notre Dame, despite being ranked higher, is the underdog. But part of what makes that fun is that it rarely happens. When the kickoff comes in little more than an hour, I imagine the kids from South Bend will have all they can do to standup to the team from Tuscaloosa. And the mighty SEC will roll on…

Thought you might be interested in chatting it all over since you’re a sports fan, so I’m around if you want to call. But…uh…wait for halftime, ok?

Regards,
Tom

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