The American Crisis

These are the times that try our souls. Thomas Paine’s words in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1776 apply today. Paine was rallying the country to the danger of apathy in the face of Great Britain’s military might.

We would do well to heed his message now.

“The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country,” Paine wrote. “But he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

While some may question whether today’s test is as severe as revolutionary times, there is no doubt that our national government is in crisis. Since Donald Trump occupied the White House, there has been a constant litany of chaos, corruption and cronyism. All governments have a few examples of malfeasance, but the Trump administration’s parade of plunderers has created a constant narrative of political scandal that is chronic, blatant and widespread.

Protesters at Missouri’s Capitol in Jefferson City on Dec. 19, 2016 as presidential electors cast their votes for Trump. Handmade signs said “Unfit to Serve,” “Save the Republic,” and “No Russian Manipulation.”

And now we have learned the truth about the meeting between Trump’s campaign staff and those connected with the Russian government who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump lied about the nature of that meeting when it was first disclosed. Can anyone doubt now that Trump’s people wanted Russian help to win the election?

When all the dots are connected, it becomes clear that Trump’s advisors were willing to work with a hostile foreign power to gain control of our government. An enemy aided in the election of Donald Trump by leaking stolen computer documents from Clinton’s campaign. Trump first concocted a false explanation for the campaign meeting and he has since tried to derail the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference. Moreover, he has attacked the free press that is disclosing the extent of his corruption.

Trump was elected by just about 29 percent of the country’s eligible voters. Perhaps more people would have paid attention if they knew the Russians were attempting to meddle in the election.

Protesters in Columbia, Missouri opposing Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 21, 2017. Will anti-Trump sentiment help oust Republicans in November?

Meanwhile, the Republicans in power have failed to exercise their constitutional duty of acting as a check on the executive. By their acquiescence, they are responsible for the deteriorating morals in the conduct of the government. Make no mistake, how a government acts filters down into the conduct of its people.

“Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher,” wrote Justice Louis Brandeis. “For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”

When I was growing up, children were taught that George Washington never told a lie. Now Trump keeps fact checkers permanently engaged, counting the number of lies he tells on a daily basis. What are we supposed to tell our grandchildren now?

It was unthinkable a generation ago that someone like Trump could be the President of the United States. The commander in chief is now the corrupter in chief–a philanderer connected to a porn star, who boasted of groping women, who laughed at the idea of disclosing his taxes, who avoided military service, who giggled when he talked about soldiers who were awarded the Purple Heart, who scoffed at a hero who had been a prisoner of war, who stiffed his contractors, who defrauded students of “Trump University,”  and who barred black people from his rental units.

Thousands of marchers took to the streets of Kansas City on March 24, 2018 to call for stricter controls on guns. What kind of political force will these people wield on Nov. 6, 2018?

The question that could be asked now of Donald Trump is the same question that was asked during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. “Have you no sense of decency?”

Since Trump’s election, thousands of people have taken to the streets in national demonstrations against him and in behalf of other causes. Perhaps more people are now willing to engage in democracy and to exercise their duty as citizens. Will the marchers who have chanted and carried signs show up at the polls to cast ballots?

Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators in front of Missouri’s Capitol on May 14, 2018. They were part of a national appeal for social change and overhaul of voting rights laws.

Maybe more people are paying attention now than before the 2016 general election. Perhaps more voters have been alerted to “The American Crisis.” We can only hope. Turnout during Missouri’s primary election indicates more voters are interested in who controls their government. On Nov. 6 the ranks will be counted. Some will stand with their country while others will be “sunshine soldiers and summer patriots.”


The Fat Cats Are At It Again

People across the country will be paying close attention to the election results in Missouri next Tuesday when the corporations’ latest attempt to crush union membership will be played out at the polls.

I’m referring to the misleadingly worded “right to work” issue, which big business wants enacted into law. The anti-labor proposal appears as Proposition A on the ballot Aug. 7.

The outcome of the vote could be viewed as a barometer on the status of the labor movement in the face of falling membership and unfavorable court decisions.

The issue confuses some people. My neighbor asked me about it a few days ago, and I tried to explain it to him.

I knew very little about unions when I first went to work for the Associated Press in St. Louis in 1972. After my first day on the job, at the end of my shift, I was walked back to my car by a new colleague who explained to me the benefits of union membership.

Stay in a union long enough, you get a lapel pin.

The dues members paid contributed to negotiating with management over issues like wages, overtime, working conditions, health insurance and pensions. Because of the union, all the workers had a contract under which, for example, you got paid a little bit more per hour if you worked nights.

I agreed to join the union and signed the dues check-off card the next day. Membership was voluntary. It was considered “an open shop.” Because the AP had offices in all 50 states, and some of those states had “right to work” laws, union membership in what was known as the Wire Service Guild had to be voluntary.

What’s wrong with that? The problem is that the benefits obtained through the negotiations went to everyone, including those who didn’t pay for them. There was always an awareness, a division, that there were “free riders” in the office taking advantage of the sacrifices made by others. And the fact that not everyone belonged made the union weaker.

That’s why the corporations want “right to work.” It weakens the workers’ bargaining power. And it’s one of the reasons why average wages in “right to work” states are lower than in those states where unions have more bargaining power.

This is the ball hat I will be wearing to the polls Aug. 7, 2018 when I vote “no” on Proposition A.

In 1977, I went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where membership in The Newspaper Guild was required. It was a closed shop. Many years before, the employees voted to form a bargaining unit. And in an agreement with the Pulitzer management, all of the workers covered by the contract were in the union and paid the dues that went towards bargaining for pay, hours and job protection. You could not be fired willy-nilly by some sour ball on the city desk.

A few may have resented the requirement to join the union, but they were happy when the Guild fought for their benefits. This “closed shop” arrangement would be outlawed if “right to work” is approved.

A previous generation of Missouri voters defeated a “right to work” law on Nov. 7, 1978, by a vote of 929,705 “no” to 628,041 “yes.”

Dan Mehan, the head of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which pushed for passage of “right to work.” If voters reject Prop A, Mehan has refused to commit to respect that decision. The business group could try to get the Legislature to pass it again despite the public’s vote.

That issue came to a vote because a business-sponsored group paid for the circulation of petitions to put the proposition on the ballot. For years, the Legislature refused to pass “right to work,” but when corporations finally obtained control of the General Assembly, they managed to get the bill through the House and Senate. Some governors refused to sign it into law.

Finally, along came Republican Eric Greitens, who was elected with the help of millions of dollars in dark money, the source of which has never been identified. Did it come from people who wanted “right to work” signed into law? We don’t know, but when the Legislature again adopted the bill, Greitens was there to sign it. But it won’t become law if enough people vote “no” on Tuesday.

The same arguments that were waged against “right to work” 40 years ago are being made today. But the simplest one for me is that it would allow someone to enjoy the benefits of union membership without having to pay for them. It’s not fair.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

A newspaperman formerly based in Missouri paid a visit to the White House recently and told Donald Trump that the language he had been using about journalists was not only divisive “but increasingly dangerous.”

The man was A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times. A few years ago, Sulzberger was the Time’s bureau chief in Kansas City. While reporting from Missouri, he covered the Joplin tornado in 2011 and the drug-induced death of a model in the bed of August A. Busch IV.

Trump had asked for the meeting with Sulzberger, and it was supposed to be “off the record.” But a few days later, Trump tweeted about it, and what he had to say prompted the newspaper publisher to release a statement.

A.G. Sulzberger (photo by Todd Heisler/NYT)

“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,'” Sulzberger said. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

Sulzberger told Trump that his remarks were undermining the ideals of the nation, and that his rhetoric was being used by some regimes to justify crackdowns on journalists. Trump’s tweets criticizing CNN, the Times, NBC News, and other media organizations can be funny and weird, but they also do harm around the world.

Trump’s tweets about CNN were used in Libya last year to discredit a report by the network about slavery there. When the leader of a nation that historically worked to spread press freedom around the world now delegitimizes journalism, it gives dictators a reason to threaten reporters to protect their own power. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists are facing up to 14 years in prison for allegedly violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

In this country the drumbeat of Trump’s language is having a corrosive effect as well. Last week, he appeared before members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting in Kansas City and said, “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people,” pointing to the reporters in the room. Some in the audience booed.

Like the Boy Scout leaders who apologized for Trump’s remarks a year ago, the VFW later issued a statement saying it was “disappointed to hear some of our members boo the press during President Trump’s remarks.”

Trump’s attitude has infected the popular culture. Some people believe the news media is supposed to be applauding the things he does. But the news people who cover a government’s activities are not cheerleaders. Journalists monitor the power of government, and uncover injustice.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing. They list 10 principles to achieve this purpose.

  • Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  • Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  • Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  • Its practitioners must maintain independence from those they cover.
  • Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  • It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  • It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  • It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  • Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
  • Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.
A carved stone from the British House of Parliament sits outside a classroom building at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. At its base is an inscription that says the stone comes “from the birthplace of our common heritage” and “The Freedom of the Press.” It was presented to the school by the Reuters News Agency in 1937.

These were the principles that were included in a basic news writing and reporting course that I taught a few years ago at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. If any of my students later tackled a career in journalism, I have to say I worry about them in today’s climate. And I wonder if they still have jobs. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Labor Department figures, newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45 percent over the period from 2008 to 2017, from about 71,000 workers to 39,000.

Now we have a president who is denigrating their work.

There are always going to be people who disagree with a reporter’s account of events. And sometimes newspapers make mistakes. But Americans should remember that despots do not like newspapers when they cannot be controlled.

Americans should be concerned about an occupant of the White House who confuses fact with fiction. An ignorant people cannot long remain free. In the lobby of the building that houses the headquarters of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch there is etched in the wall a statement from Joseph Pulitzer in the North American Review from 1904. Pulitzer’s statement may be more relevant today than ever:

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mold the future of the Republic will be in the hands of journalists of future generations.”


A Birthday on the River

My oldest son is celebrating his birthday today on the Missouri River.

David Ganey, and his wife, Gina, are among the hundreds of paddlers in canoes and kayaks who are making their way along the river’s 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles, Missouri. They are participating in the Missouri River 340, a paddling endurance race that attracts people from all over the country.

The event began Tuesday morning just above Kansas City, at Kaw Point, where the Kansas River joins the Missouri. The competitors are divided into two groups–solo paddlers and those with partners or in teams.

Gina Hale Ganey and David Ganey at the start of the MR 340 on Tuesday.

It’s possible to keep track of the participants because there are checkpoints along the river, and at each checkpoint those registered are required to notify the race organizers. The progress of the various teams can be tracked on a computer. David and Gina made it to Lexington around 4 p.m. and then Waverly at about 7:30 p.m.

The boats must reach each check point before a certain time, and those who can’t keep pace are out of the race. There is a pacing boat, known as “the grim reaper,” and many get the DNF (did not finish) designation if they fall behind.

Even for those who do not complete the race, the MR 340 is a chance to experience a water resource that is often overlooked. The bank-caving Missouri River once writhed across the continent like a brown serpent, playing a crucial role in the early development of the United States.

Teams and tandem participants get ready for the start of the MR 340 on Tuesday.

Trappers and fur traders used it as a highway to riches to be exploited, and later explorers traveled the river to map the national landscape. The Army Corps of Engineers has constricted the river with dams, rock revetments and levees to the extent that its former character is all but lost. In some places, however, the Corps has relaxed the straitjacket on the river in an attempt to restore wildlife habitat.

The start of the MR 340 in Kansas City was a welcomed diversion from the publicity surrounding the fact that Donald Trump had come to town Tuesday to speak at a VFW convention.

With the Kansas City skyline in front of them, paddlers begin their trip down the Missouri River in the MR 340.

There, Trump talked about “fake news” and pointed fingers at the hard-working journalists who accurately document his bizarre behavior. It’s hard to believe that “veterans of foreign wars” would applaud a man whose divisive rhetoric undermines the First Amendment principles for which they fought.

The MR 340 ends late Friday, but for the most competitive, it will be over long before that. Shortly after 5 a.m. today, a 5-member team known as “River Fitness” had already checked in at Jefferson City. At that rate, they will be done Wednesday night. In 2015, David Ganey, Nathan Redcay and Tod Wilson won the men’s team division, completing the race in 41 hours and 10 minutes. This year, David and Gina are simply trying to avoid showing up in the DNF category.

(Update: David and Gina successfully completed the 340 miles at 7:50 p.m. Thursday, July 26, completing the race in just under 60 hours.)



On my honor…

IMG_7640We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s speech to a national gathering of the Boy Scouts. With everything Trump has said publicly since his July 24, 2017 appearance at the National Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, it’s hard to recollect some of the controversial things he talked about then. Suffice it to say that Boy Scout leaders did not call Trump to praise his speech, although Trump made that claim.

In fact, Scout leaders had to apologize for Trump’s performance. Trump’s remarks were laced with braggadocio, political rhetoric and derision of some of his foes. Some of the boys who heard it, booed at the mention of former President Barack Obama. Trump talked about Washington being not a “swamp,” but a “cesspool” or “sewer.” And he talked about “fake media” and “fake news.”

Later, Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh issued this statement: “I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent.”

The Rev. John R. Shear of Bridgeton, Missouri, was among those offended by Trump’s speech. But he thought the scout leaders should have gone further than merely apologizing for Trump. “The executive board of the Boy Scouts should agree to never allow this bully to address a Boy Scout event again,” Shear wrote. Rev. Shear had been invited to speak at local scouting events in the past. When he did so, he emphasized the importance of living the Scout Oath and the Scout Law throughout life, not just when a person belongs to a Boy Scout troop.

The Scouts, as they are now called, encourage their members to “be prepared.” The Scout Oath demands adherents to help other people at all times, and to be physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight. I once belonged to this organization, and although I did not earn a lot of badges, I still recall its principles. And I still have the Boy Scout Handbook, copyright 1959, which contains a lot of useful information, even nearly sixty years later.

Take page 438, which is loaded with wisdom that is badly needed today. Under “Becoming a Voting Citizen,” there’s advice for everyone to be thinking citizens rather than thoughtless ones. “Keep yourself informed on the happenings of the day–in your own community, your country, and throughout the world,” it says. “Learn how your country, your own state, your city, town or village are governed and find out how you fit into that government. Discover where that government is strong and where it is weak. Do your part as a citizen in the big task of upholding its strength and overcoming its weaknesses.”

This section of the book calls for civic engagement, a level of involvement, and voter participation that seem badly lacking today.

“Find out about our political parties and what they stand for–all of them, not just one. Study all sides of a question that concerns the welfare of your community, your state, your country. Then take your stand and vote as your conscience bids you. Vote those people into public office you feel best fitted to do what you think is right.”

This section of the handbook concludes that a nation is only as strong as each of its citizens. “America is as strong as YOU are!” The message between the lines of the Boy Scout book is that it’s not enough to wear an American flag on a lapel to demonstrate patriotism. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or standing for the National Anthem are mere public demonstrations. True patriotism stems from community involvement. It takes work.

Trump could have brought the Boy Scouts this message. But he didn’t.


Mrs. Ganey’s Pupil

There was a time when my wife taught 7th and 8th grade English at a Catholic school in Missouri’s state capital, Jefferson City. Judy was so good at it that for many years, when we’d encounter her former pupils or their parents, she would be told how the grounding she provided in language skills meant so much in later life to those who had her for a teacher.

Judy Ganey
Judy Ganey as an 8th grade teacher

Some of them went on to become professionals in various fields, and in one case, a university English professor. One of her better students, now a lawyer, was in the news recently in Missouri: State Rep. Jay Barnes, a Republican, who chaired the special committee that investigated Gov. Eric Greitens.

Jason Barnes
Jay Barnes as an 8th grade pupil

Barnes was known as Jason Barnes when he undertook Judy’s capstone writing assignment in the 8th grade. Each student had to write and illustrate a children’s book, that she would edit and grade. I can still see her laboring long hours over a Christmas vacation, reading through stacks of something like fifty books. At the end of the assignment, the student author would be responsible for reading the finished book to a child in one of the lower grades.

I like to think that Judy’s writing assignment might have helped Barnes in some small way with a 25-page paper he recently filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. The paper is entitled “Complaint against Greitens for Missouri, and A New Missouri, Inc. for violations of Missouri Campaign Finance Law.” Barnes’ paper is clear in its writing and spare in its word usage, delivering facts with names, dates and evidence. It’s a well-organized treatise. The conclusion any reader would reach after going through it, is that when Greitens ran for governor in 2016 he violated the law.

The law requires that once someone decides to run for public office, begins hiring people and organizing a campaign, that candidate has to form a public campaign committee so people aren’t kept in the dark. According to Barnes’ findings, Greitens didn’t do that. At the same time, the people who staffed Greitens’ campaign were careful to keep secret the identities of donors who gave him millions of dollars through shadowy third party storefronts. Reading Barnes’ well-reasoned complaint, one concludes that Greitens put together a well-organized sneak attack on Missouri’s political system.

Among the names in Barnes’s report is Nick Ayers, now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. According to the complaint, at the time Ayers was giving advice to Greitens’ campaign, money was being solicited from “restricted donors” whose contributions were funneled through nonprofit organizations that didn’t have to disclose who was behind the money. The complaint also reports that an entity named “LG PAC” spent more than $4 million in 2016 on ads attacking Greitens’ political opponents. It also reported Greitens’ campaign received nearly $2 million from a group called SEALs for Truth. According to Barnes’ complaint, based on evidence assembled by the Special House Investigating Committee that he chaired, Greitens’ campaign received about $6 million from sources that were never identified.

The Missouri Ethics Commission is supposed to act as the voters’ watchdog in these kinds of cases, and it’s up to its members to decide what to do about Barnes’ complaint. Right now, he might be alone in his quest to get answers. Greitens resigned, and many Republicans are hoping the whole thing goes away and people forget. Who were Greitens’ big donors? Wealthy business owners who wanted him to sign the anti-union law known as ‘right to work’? Perhaps they were well-healed powerbrokers placing their bets on a man who might some day call the shots from the White House. Maybe the money came from a foreign country, seeking leverage with a future leader.

We don’t know and perhaps we never will know, depending on what the Missouri Ethics Commission can do. I can only conclude that if Barnes were back in Judy’s classroom, she’d probably give him an “A” on this paper.