03 Jul

July 4 has its own timeless traditions, including protest

Like Ashland on the map of the state, the Southern Oregon city’s July 4 parade is on the edge. It’s an all-comers occasion, with marchers including service organizations, folks from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, religious groups, the occasional drug treatment program, trick bicycle riders, classic cars, politicians and, at least one year, a woman who insisted, despite a court order, on roller-skating the parade route topless.

Because it’s in Oregon, the day begins with a run, and because it’s in America, it ends with fireworks.

Right now is a tricky time for any national celebration, with chaos in Washington and fighting in the streets of Portland, and free speech morphing into free screaming. We the people seem as polarized as a car battery, and public opinion researchers who used to ask Americans how they would feel about their children marrying someone of a different race now ask their subjects how they’d feel about their children marrying someone of a different party.

(Short answer: Not good, which suggests either some awkward family dinners or some sharply narrowed dating options.)

But it’s still a time to shoot off fireworks, to mark the place we are and the place we want to be. July 4 – or as any self-respecting 19th century political orator would say, “the Glorious Fourth” – has its own deep roots in both time and localities, blooming above today’s contemporary political unpleasantness. If the last thing you want to hear on this occasion is a speech from our current leaders, it’s not necessary.

Nobody signed the Declaration of Independence with a D or an R after his name. Celebration of independence goes back a long way, not just before political parties but before the United States even had a president. Americans started holding public readings of the Declaration of Independence back when its author was still alive.
Fireworks go back to before Europeans even came across America.

Even though the day comes in the summer, so it doesn’t provide time off from school, July 4 has deeper roots than other holidays, which often hang on cues from politicians or advertisers. Thanksgiving was started by a presidential proclamation – Lincoln didn’t tweet – and has featured one ever since. (The current White House occupant may well issue a Thanksgiving proclamation urging Americans to be thankful for him.) Labor Day, at least in even-numbered years, is an occasion for campaign speeches, not to say back-to-school specials. Presidents’ Day, having lost any connection with Washington’s cherry tree or Lincoln profiles cut out of construction paper, is now mostly a moment for mattress sales.

But as the Ashland grass-roots celebration points out, American places have their own events and meanings for July 4. Portland has a blues festival, and this year the blues might have even deeper significance. St. Paul has a rodeo, a tradition that endures whoever is in office, and transcends any passing arguments about grain-fed or grass-fed livestock. Estacada has a Timber Festival, with a much healthier rendition of log-rolling than typically seen in Washington, D.C. Bend, since the 1930s, has had a Pet Parade (“No rabbits, cats or aggressive dogs”), making it the rare spot where independence from Great Britain is celebrated by llamas. The biggest fireworks show west of the Mississippi explodes out of Fort Vancouver, a fort in operation since 1825, or long before televised Senate hearings. Ulysses S. Grant was once stationed there, although he probably didn’t have a holiday cook-out.

So Oregon has reason to celebrate the Fourth, and ways and means to celebrate the day, regardless of who’s watching the national fireworks show from the White House lawn. It’s also true regardless of who inhabits the state capitol or any city hall, although those folks are more likely to march in local parades – hopefully not behind the llamas.

Around the country, and in Portland particularly, there are newer traditions on July 4 and other holidays: massive expressions of free speech that fill up the streets and lead to considerable police overtime. This is maybe more related to today’s news, although in Portland those kinds of demonstrations have been a tradition for decades, since before the current president ever fired anyone on television.

The Portland holiday tradition definitely needs to cut out the broken windows, fires, stopping freeways and MAX, and throwing things at police and other demonstrators. It’s wrong, and it rightly angers people, and it overcrowds the Multnomah County jail.

But it’s worth remembering, despite any current political conditions – or sometimes especially because of current political conditions – that July 4 is celebrating a seditious uprising, a group of angry Americans getting together to protest about politics, and to sign Thomas Jefferson’s list of complaints.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1938, after noting the war record of his own 18th century ancestors, “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

It’s an idea that provokes fireworks.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/2/17.

03 Jul

Merkley role in “hell, no” caucus raises national possibilties

As Oregon’s junior senator, Jeff Merkley is a member of the world’s greatest deliberative body, even if these days that title tends to come in ironic quotation marks.

He is also part of the Democratic Senate leadership, and on the vital Appropriations Committee.

But the must-read political web site Politico.com has detected Merkley’s membership in a smaller but very active group:

The “hell, no” caucus.

And people say politicians can’t take clear positions.

Politico.com noticed six Democratic senators – Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Merkley – who voted heavily against confirming Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees.

“Right now, I feel that we are on the brink of a constitutional crisis. We’re staring into the abyss, and we shouldn’t just be treating it as business as usual, confirming people,” Merkley told the on-line magazine. “So I’m lodging a bit of a protest against the Republicans’ desire to just pretend there is no issue here.”
Politico.com also reported that all six senators have been mentioned for the 2020 Democratic ticket. The announcement of the membership produced a CNN story last week about the prospects of Merkley as a national candidate, which noted that last year The Nation magazine declared Merkley “the most valuable senator.”

Merkley does not deny membership in the group, but he says it’s not like the caucus holds meetings and has a secret handshake.

“The Politico article laid out something that we didn’t know existed,” he said in a recent interview about the hell-no caucus, the senators in consistent opposition to Trump nominations.

“I don’t vote against people without a reason. The president keeps nominating people who are deeply flawed.”

Merkley ran through a list of some of the people he’s voted against: for attorney general, Jefferson Sessions, with a lifelong opposition to civil rights; for secretary of the treasury, Steve Mnuchin, from a business that made a bundle out of foreclosures; for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who showed no sign of ever having set foot in a public school.

When the writers of the Constitution gave the power to fill jobs to the president, Merkley points out, they gave right of approval to the Senate. Now, he says, “I’m trying to exercise my responsibility.”

While none of Trump’s nominees have been defeated in the Senate – although confirming DeVos required both a delay in Sessions’ resignation from the Senate and Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote – Merkley points to the withdrawal of Trump’s first nominee for secretary of labor after a focus on his fast-food labor practices. “As long as he nominates unfit people,” he says of the president’s choices, “we will oppose his nominees.”

And, Merkley notes, he has voted to confirm some Trump nominees, such as ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue – which is more than most members of the “hell, no” caucus can say.

Merkley might even have voted for more if the president had nominated more officials, but five months into the Trump administration, hundreds of administration jobs remain empty with no nominees – including all U.S. attorney slots and key ambassador slots, despite Trump’s insistence that all Obama incumbents in those jobs resign immediately. Leaving those jobs unfilled seems to be an actual policy position.

“The secretary of state is in no particular hurry to nominate people” to fill dozens of high-level jobs in the department, reports Merkley. “That’s very concerning to those of us who serve on the Foreign Relations Committee,” who actually believe in diplomacy. Scott Pruitt appears to think that not filling jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency is a way to keep the agency from regulating anything.

On when all those jobs might be filled, “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
The process also seems to be slowed by a rising reluctance to take jobs with the administration.

There hasn’t been much legislation to oppose, either. Five months in, “We haven’t even had a major bill before the Senate yet,” points out Merkley. “There’s been nothing to do week after week. There’s been an occasional vote on a nominee, and that’s it.”

Last week, Trump claimed to have passed more legislation than any president except Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he appeared to be counting largely post office namings.
When’s there’s nothing to do, or even when there’s a lot to do, Washington talks a lot, and Politico.com finds that all six members of the caucus come up in conversations about 2020. Merkley was occasionally mentioned in the vice-presidential talk in 2016, and his being the only senator to endorse Bernie Sanders last year could make him a link to that wing of the Democrats next time around.

“It’s a compliment when people bring that up,” responds Merkley, “but I’m focused on taking back the Senate in 2018.”

Which is exactly what anybody would say.

And he didn’t say “hell, no.”

NOTE: this column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/18/17.