Category Archives: Columns

My column on the flag in The State today


Tim Dominick/The State

A New South Carolina

We have come so far. We are so close. Let’s get it done.

That’s the litany I’ve been reciting this past week, as the previously unthinkable quietly became a matter of fact — at least in the S.C. Senate. To paraphrase a T.S. Eliot quote that Sen. Tom Davis cited after the Senate vote: This is the way the Confederacy ends; not with a bang but a whimper.

We now live in a new South Carolina. No, the flag’s not down yet, but the South Carolina I’ve known all my life is gone. In that late, unlamented version, that anticlimactic 36-3 vote in the Senate would have been impossible. And yet in this new world, it was so … matter of fact. Poetry aside, there wasn’t even a whimper.

How did we get here? Well, I wasn’t around for the start. But while some scoff at the ostensible reason for putting the flag up there — to mark the centennial of The War — I find it credible. I was in the second grade in New Jersey when the centennial observances began. Navy blue kepis — the hats we identify with the Civil War — were very popular among the kids who mocked my South Carolina accent. I searched everywhere and found a gray one. I wore it to school, daring the other boys to try to knock it off.

Innocent enough. But the centennial ended in 1965, and the flag stayed up. We know why. By that time, the civil rights movement was winning important national victories.

And what did the flag mean? We know. Oh, news reports will affect that priggish, pedantic neutrality peculiar to the trade: “Some people see the flag as meaning this; some see it as meaning that.” But we know, don’t we? It is a way white South Carolinians — some of us, anyway — have had of saying that, despite Appomattox and the civil rights movement: We can do this. We don’t care about you or how you feel about it.

It was a way of telling the world whose state this is.

My own involvement with the flag started in February 1994, about six weeks after I joined The State’s editorial board. I hadn’t planned to write about it. But my colleague Lee Bandy had asked then-Gov. Carroll Campbell about the flag. The governor had dismissed the issue as beneath his notice. He was too busy with the “big picture” to fuss about with such “temporal emotions of the moment.”

Carroll Campbell did a lot of fine things as governor, but on that day he really ticked me off. So I ripped out a short editorial — just 349 words — that said if the governor was serious about national ambitions (and he was), he needed an attitude adjustment. The “emotions” to which he referred arose “from a failure to resolve the central crisis of our history. That failure arises from many causes, but one of them is a lack of leadership. The rest of the nation can be expected to have little patience with a man who seeks to lead it into the 21st century, but can’t make a gesture to lay a 19th century conflict to rest.”

From that moment, I couldn’t leave the issue alone. I berated a series of governors, and Legislatures, on this failure of leadership. And what result did I, or anyone else calling for the flag to go, get? A hardening of attitudes. The Republican Party rose to power in the General Assembly after putting a mock flag “referendum” on its 1994 primary ballot, after which legislators moved to enshrine the flying of the flag into law.

The anti-flag movement grew, and reached its zenith in 2000, with a 60,000-strong demonstration on Martin Luther King Day, and a dramatic march from Charleston to Columbia led by Mayor Joe Riley. And still, what did we get? A “compromise” that moved the flag to a more visible location. After which the Legislature made it clear for 15 years that it had zero interest in revisiting the issue.

But that all happened in the old South Carolina, which ceased to exist not the night that Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his flock were murdered in cold blood. It ended two days later, when the families of the slain forgave the young man charged with taking their loved ones away.

The new South Carolina was born in that moment, in that courtroom. Hatred and death didn’t bring it into being. The love of the living did.

A chain reaction of grace started there, and its radiance shone forth from Charleston. The nation marveled: Why were they not seeing another Ferguson, another Baltimore? How can this black-white lovefest be?

A series of governors had, to varying degrees, brushed off the flag. (Although both David Beasley and Jim Hodges sought compromises.) And now here was one saying, without any mention of compromises, “It’s time to move the flag from the capitol grounds.” Period. God bless Nikki Haley for actively stepping out to lead this new South Carolina, a state that would be ashamed to engage in the games of the past — a state that couldn’t look at those victims’ families and respond any other way. A state that had grown up.

Standing behind her on that miraculous day, three days after the arraignment, was a cross-section of our political leadership — black and white, Democratic and Republican. The chairmen of the two parties, whose rivalry was defined by the division that flag represented, literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder.

Things like this don’t happen in South Carolina. Or rather, they didn’t happen in the old South Carolina.

Anything can happen now. Anything. Thank God. Now, on to the House.

Mr. Warthen is the former editorial page editor of The State and now director of communications and public relations at ADCO, a Columbia marketing agency. He blogs at

Thanks for all the kind words, folks

    Yes, blog regulars, you did read much of this piece earlier in the week. But people who don't do blogs (a much larger number among newspaper readers) missed it, and there is some new material in it, at the beginning and the end. Not much, I'll admit, but some…

Editorial Page Editor
ONE OF THE tough things about getting laid off in a very public way is that you can’t get your work done — you can’t even walk down the street — for all the wonderful people who come up to you and say kind things. (Never mind the phone calls, e-mails and letters.)
    Of course, it’s also the best thing about the experience, so don’t stop, folks. It doesn’t get old.
    I’ve heard from everyone from Gov. Mark Sanford (yes, he was very kind and cordial, despite all those things I say about him) to old friends I worked with decades ago, far away from here. And I appreciated every one of them.
    For those of you who missed it, I was in the news last week, along with a lot of my colleagues. To quote from

    The State Media Co. today announced the layoff of 38 people — 11 percent of its work force — and wage reductions ranging from 2.5 percent to 10 percent for the rest of the employees.
    Among those laid off were three vice presidents including editorial page editor Brad Warthen.

    My last day is March 20.
    For those of you who ask “why,” the answer is simple: The money’s just not there, and somebody had to go. I was one of the 38. You might say, to borrow a phrase from the Corleone family, this isn’t personal; it’s strictly business.
    I’ve tried to keep readers on my blog in the loop about the profound changes going on in the newspaper industry, which have been accelerating. I’ve written about everything from the departures of longtime friends and colleagues who are not replaced, to the horrific news sweeping the industry more recently, with some newspapers going under.
    This has not been a comfortable thing for me to do. For one thing, I always wonder how much my readers will care. Someone I respected in college — actually, he taught a course in editorial writing that I took — warned us that when one talks about one’s own industry, one runs the risk of boring one’s audience.
    (So, what I try to explain when I do talk about it is that this is about you, too. Newspapers reflect their communities in more ways than simply publishing news and commentary. We also reflect our surroundings economically. Newspapers went into this recession in a weakened condition, and now we’re like the canary in the coal mine. If you’re hurting, we’re hurting. And vice versa, whether you realize it or not.)
    For another reason, I recognize my own lack of detachment.
    Finally, there is such a delicate balance to strike between telling all that I know or imagine I know, which is my instinct as a journalist, and respecting the confidentiality of things I know only because I’m an officer of this company — which gives me both an unfair advantage and a responsibility to those I work with. It can be awkward.
    Anyway, in spite of that, I’ve tried to be frank about the situation whenever I’m asked — and on the blog, even when I’m not.
    I leave here with a deep love for this newspaper, which I hope has been evident over the past couple of decades. It seems to have been evident to my boss — President and Publisher Henry Haitz — judging by the kind and gracious things he had to say about my service in his note on this page on Wednesday. (Sample: “He is a remarkable journalist and writer, with keen understanding of the issues most vital to our community and our state.”)
    And I appreciate that.
    What will I do next? I don’t know. I’ll be spreading my resume around, online and otherwise. In the meantime, give me a holler if you hear of a suitable position. One advantage I have over so many people who are looking for work now — more than 200,000 in South Carolina, I heard last week — is that a huge portion of the state has watched me on the job and formed a pretty detailed impression of my capabilities. (Of course, whether that works for me or against me depends on the individual reader.)
    I can tell you this much — I have zero intention of “relocating,” to use an ugly word. When I came to the state of my birth in 1987 after years in this business in Tennessee and Kansas, I did so with the intention of staying for good. My days as a newspaper vagabond were over. Either things worked out at The State, or I would find some other line of work. And the thing is, things worked out very well.
    The day I was interviewed here (for the job of governmental affairs editor), I told then-Executive Editor Tom McLean that my ultimate goal was to become editorial page editor. I believed that position offered the greatest opportunity to serve my state, which I believed needed its largest newspaper to have a strong, frank, lively editorial page. Thanks to Tom, I got my chance to do just that 10 years later, and I could not be more proud of the team I have had the privilege of working with, or the excellent job they have done — and that those who remain will continue to do, if I know them. (And I do.)
    Obviously, this is a stressful time, but beneath it all is something that I don’t quite know how to describe, a sort of anticipation driven by curiosity. I wonder, with great interest, what will happen next. (That sounds either terribly trite or unintelligible; I can’t tell which, but I explained it as well as I could.)
    So much for this subject today. This will not be my last column. For one thing, I promised you last week to write something about U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett’s candidacy for governor. I was going to do that for today, but I got distracted again. I’m sure you’ll understand.

For now, please visit for more about this subject and everything else. Watch there to learn about my future blogging plans.

Brave new world of political discourse

ONCE, NOT so long ago, serious people decried the reduction and trivialization of political ideas to the level of a bumper sticker. Some days, I long for the coherence, the relevance, the completeness of bumper stickers.
    Let’s knit together a few of the unraveled threads that have frayed my mind in the past week, shall we?
    Thread One: A Colorado congressman who takes pride in his technological savvy claimed partial “credit” for the demise of a newspaper, saying, “Who killed the Rocky Mountain News? We’re all part of it, for better or worse, and I argue it’s mostly for the better…. The media is dead and long live the new media.”
    Thread Two: Last week, I started working out again. I can’t read when I’m on the elliptical trainer because I bounce up and down too much, so I turn on the television. This gives me an extended exposure to 24/7 TV “news” and its peculiar obsessions, which I normally avoid like a pox. I hear far more than I want to about Rush Limbaugh, who wants the country’s leadership to fail, just to prove an ideological point. The president’s chief of staff dubs this contemptible entertainer the leader of the president’s opposition. Even more absurdly, the actual chief of the opposition party spends breath denying it — and then apologizes for doing so. See why I avoid this stuff?
    Thread Three: Two of the most partisan Democrats in the S.C. Senate, John Land and Brad Hutto, introduce a mock resolution to apologize to Rush on behalf of South Carolina so that our state doesn’t “miss out on the fad that is sweeping the nation — to openly grovel before the out-spoken radio host.” The Republican majority spends little time dismissing the gag, but any time thus spent by anyone was time not spent figuring out how to keep essential state services going in this fiscal crisis.
    Thread Four: At midday Thursday I post on my blog a few thoughts about the just-announced candidacy of U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett for governor, and invite readers to share what they think of the Upstate Republican. As of mid-afternoon Friday, there were nine comments on the subject, and three of them were from me. By the same time, there were 66 comments about the Rush Limbaugh flap.
    Thread Five: A colleague brings to my attention a new Web site called SCTweets, where you can read spontaneous “Twitter” messages from such S.C. politicians as Anton Gunn, David Thomas, Bob Inglis, Nathan Ballentine and Thad Viers, with a number of S.C. bloggers thrown in. It’s the brainchild of S.C. Rep. Dan Hamilton and self-described GOP “political operative” Wesley Donehue (which would explain why Rep. Gunn is the only Democrat on the list I just cited). They see it as “a creative way to showcase SC’s tech-savvy elected officials.” It sounds like a neat idea, but when you go there and look at it… well, here’s a sample:

bobinglis Want a window into our campaign themes? Check out my recent letter at Join us if you can!

annephutto had a great lunch

AntonJGunn Having lunch with the Mayor of Elgin.

mattheusmei Prepare to have your mind blownaway #sctweets, simply amazing!!!

Beautiful day in Columbia. #sctweets

just had lunch with little Joe at Jimmy Johns.

    Perhaps this will be useful to someone, and I applaud Messrs. Hamilton and Donehue for the effort. But so far I haven’t figured out what Twitter adds to modern life that we didn’t already have with e-mail and blogs and text-messaging and, well, the 24/7 TV “news.” Remember how I complained in a recent column about how disorienting and unhelpful I find Facebook to be? Well, this was worse. I felt like I was trying to get nutrition from a bowl of Lucky Charms mixed with Cracker Jack topped with Pop Rocks, stirred with a Slim Jim.
    Thread Six: Being reminded of Facebook, I checked my home page, and found that a friend I worked with a quarter-century ago was exhorting me to:

* Grab the book nearest you. Right now.
* Turn to page 56.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post that sentence along with these instructions in a note to your wall.

    I followed his instructions. The book nearest to my laptop was the literally dog-eared (chewed by a dog that died three decades ago) paperback Byline: Ernest Hemingway. Here’s the fifth sentence on page 56:
“He smiled like a school girl, shrugged his shoulders and raised his hands to his face in a mock gesture of shame.”
    Not much without context, but you know what? I got more out of that than I got out of that Twitter page. At least I formed a clear, coherent picture of something.
    I just remembered that I said I would knit these threads together. OK, here goes:
    It occurs to me that Twitter and Facebook are the bright new world that the Colorado congressman who claims credit for killing The Rocky Mountain News extolled. In this world, political discourse consists of partisans prattling about talk show hosts and elected officials casting spontaneous sentence fragments into the dusty, arid public square.
    I was going to write a column for today about Congressman Barrett’s candidacy for governor. As I mentioned a couple of weeks back when I wrote about Sen. Vincent Sheheen entering the race, I’m trying to get an early start on writing as much as possible about that critical decision coming up in 2010, in the hope that if we think about it and talk about it enough, we the people can make a better decision than we have the past few elections.
    But I got distracted.
    I’ll get with Rep. Barrett soon; I promise. And I’ll try to write about it in complete sentences, for those of you who have not yet adjusted.

For links and more, please go to

Much ado about photo ID (column version)

    Yep, you already read this here, back on Friday. But I post it not for you blog regulars, but for folks who saw it first in the paper today, and decided to come here for the version with links.

    And if you did that, welcome to the blog…


The photo ID bill that caused such a flap in the House Thursday is one of those classic issues that political partisans make a huge deal over, and that seems to me entirely undeserving of the fuss.
    It’s not so much an issue that generates conflict between Democrats and Republicans as it is an issue that is about conflict between the two parties, with little practical impact beyond that.
    The way I see it is this:

  • It’s ridiculous for Democrats to act like this is some kind of insupportable burden on voting, even to the point of walking out to dramatize their profound concern. Why shouldn’t you have to make the kind of basic demonstration of your identity that you have to make for pretty much any other kind of transaction?
  • It’s ridiculous for Republicans to insist that we have to have this safeguard, absent any sort of widespread abuse here in South Carolina in recent elections. Where’s the problem necessitating this big confrontation with the Democrats? I don’t see it.

    Some of my friends and acquaintances defend parties by telling me that they legitimately reflect different philosophies and value systems. Well, when you scratch the surface and get at the values that inform these two overwrought, pointedly partisan reactions, it doesn’t make me feel any better either way. In fact, it reminds me why I can’t subscribe to either party’s world view.
    Democrats believe at their core that it should be easier to vote. I look around me at the kinds of decisions that are sometimes made by voters, and it seems to me sometimes that far too many people who are already voting take the responsibility too lightly. Look at exit polls — or just go up to a few people on the street and ask them a few pointed questions about public affairs. Look at what people actually know about candidates and their positions and the issues, and look at the reasons they say they vote certain ways, and it can be alarming. Hey, I love this American self-government thing, but it’s not perfect, and one of the biggest imperfections is that some folks don’t take their electoral responsibility seriously enough. Why would I want to see the people who are so apathetic that they don’t vote now coming out and voting? Yet that seems to be what many Democrats are advocating, and it disturbs me.
    And beneath all that sanctimony from Republicans about the integrity of the voting process is, I’m sorry to say, something that looks very much like what Democrats are describing, although Democrats do so in overly cartoonish terms. There’s a bit of bourgeois disdain, a tendency among Republicans to think of themselves as the solid, hard-working citizens who play by the rules, and to be disdainful of those who don’t have their advantages — which they don’t see as advantages at all, but merely their due as a result of being so righteous and hard-working. There’s a tendency to see the disadvantaged as being to blame for their plight, as being too lazy or immoral or whatever to participate fully. The idea is that they wouldn’t have these problems if they would just try. What I’m trying to describe here is the thing that is making sincere Republicans’ blood pressure rise even as they’re reading these words. It’s a tendency to attach moral weight to middle-class status. Republicans seem to believe as an article of faith that there are all these shiftless, marginal people out there — relatives of Cadillac-driving welfare queens of the Reagan era, no doubt — wanting to commit voter fraud, and they’ve got to stop it, and if you don’t want to stop it as much as they do, then you don’t believe in having integrity in the process.
    Basically, I’m unimpressed by the holier-than-thou posturing from either side. And I get very tired at all the fuss over something that neither side can demonstrate is all that big a deal. Democrats can’t demonstrate that this is a great injustice, and Republicans can’t demonstrate that it’s needed.
    And yet, all this drama.
    While I’m at it, I might as well abuse a related idea: early voting.
    We’ve had a number of debates about that here on the editorial board, and I’ve been told that my reasons for opposing early voting are vague and sentimental. Perhaps they are, but I cling to them nonetheless.
    While Democrats and Republicans have their ideological reasons to fight over this idea, too, it’s a communitarian thing for me. I actually get all warm and fuzzy, a la Frank Capra, about the fact that on Election Day, my neighbors and I — sometimes folks I haven’t seen in years — take time out from our daily routine and get together and stand in line (actually allowing ourselves to be, gasp, inconvenienced) and act as citizens in a community to make important decisions.
    I’ve written columns celebrating that very experience, such as one in 1998 that quoted a recent naturalized citizen proudly standing in line at my polling place, who said, “On my way here this morning, I felt the solemnity of the occasion.”
    I believe in relating to my country, my state, my community as a citizen, not as a consumer. That calls for an entirely different sort of interaction. If you relate to public life as a consumer, well then by all means do it at your precious convenience. Mail or phone or text it in — what’s the difference? It’s all about you and your prerogatives, right? You as a consumer.
    Something different is required of a citizen, and that requirement is best satisfied by everyone getting out and voting on Election Day.
    With or without photo IDs.

This column is adapted from a post on my blog, which includes a lot of other commentary that did not make it into the paper. For the full experience, please go to

The blessing of a potential candidate

Editorial Page Editor
On a brilliant, warm February afternoon, I was holed up in a darkened booth in an Irish-themed pub talking local politics. Not exactly James Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” but a reasonable Columbia facsimile.
    Jack Van Loan was holding court at his “office” in a booth at Delaney’s in Five Points — files and organizer on the table before him next to his coffee, his briefcase opened on a nearby bench. From such locations Jack makes and takes his multiple calls getting ready for the big St. Patrick’s Day event March 14, and talks Five Points politics.
    Last year, he was blessing Belinda Gergel for the 3rd district City Council contest that she eventually won. This time, he was pushing someone for mayor.
    It was Steve Benjamin, whom I’ve known for years; we endorsed him for state attorney general in 2002. But Jack wanted to “introduce” him as his candidate for mayor, and I wanted to hear what Jack — a force in the Five Points Association since 1991 — had to say about him.
    Jack says the necessary ingredient in leadership is courage — something he knows about, having been imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” with John McCain. He says Steve Benjamin’s got it. “He’s not a Goldwater conservative,” which would be more to Jack’s liking. But “This is my guy.” If he runs.
    Mr. Benjamin says he’ll decide whether to take on Mayor Bob Coble “in the next couple of months.” No later, because he will need the full year running up to the April 2010 election. Jack agrees: “A year’s nothing.”
    What this would mean is that Bob Coble would face something other than the “usual suspects” opposition that has tended to characterize his re-elections. Last election, Kevin Fisher mounted the most serious race in a while, but that was weak compared to what Steve Benjamin would do. He wouldn’t just be a focal point for the discontented. He has the name, connections and credibility to challenge the mayor in the very heart of his political support.
    And now, confidence in Columbia’s leadership is at a low ebb. City finances are an inexcusable mess; the police department is reeling from a string of problems. The city manager has quit, after the council couldn’t get its act together to evaluate him. The seven elected political leaders seem incapable of summoning the will to cope with anything, from homelessness to closing a deal to provide more parking spaces in Five Points (a very sore point for Jack).
    “I have a great relationship with Bob Coble,” says Mr. Benjamin. “On my worst day, he’s been a great acquaintance.” Further, he says he doesn’t doubt the mayor’s dedication to the city.
    So, as he says the mayor himself asked him, why consider running against his friend Bob? While he still hasn’t made up his mind, “reasons become clearer every day — every morning after I read your paper.”
    If he runs, the campaign will be positive, and “aspirational.” He wants to grow old here. He wants his children to raise their children here.
    To hear his wife or law partners tell it, he’s already involved in “too many things:” Among them, he’s chairman-elect of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, and vice chairman of the Columbia City Center Partnership. I don’t find it unusual to run into him twice in the same day, at unrelated community events.
    “I think we lack a clear and cohesive vision about where this city needs to go,” he says. More than that, he understands that the city lacks the means for translating any such vision into effective action.
    In other words, he advocates replacing Columbia’s unaccountable, failed council-manager government with a strong-mayor system. A full-time mayor with responsibility for, rather than politically diffused detachment from, the day-to-day executive functions of the government is necessary “for a city trying to make the next leap — from good to great,” he says. “Some say it’s a third rail,” but “it’s hard to look somebody in the eye and say I want to run the city, and then say you don’t really want to run the city.” Under the current setup, not a lot of people would want the job — at least, not a lot of people a reasonable person would want to want the job.
    He mentions several important issues the city has yet to cope with — transportation, clean air and water. But it is on homelessness that he draws a sharp contrast. He says the proposal of the Midlands Housing Alliance to establish a multi-purpose center to fight homelessness at the Salvation Army site “is sound, is 95 percent of the way towards being funded, looks like a certainty and certainly fills a void.” As a former resident of the Elmwood neighborhood, he understands concerns, but believes “some strong, good neighborhood agreements” could reassure folks such a center would not be a detriment.
    Mr. Benjamin is a veteran of the last failed effort to establish such a center, which was undermined by the City Council. That experience “put us on notice that if something’s going to happen, it may have to happen in spite of elected city leadership.” Various stakeholders, from business leaders to service providers, came together in the Housing Alliance to provide that missing direction, and now Mr. Benjamin says the city should step up and do its part, which would include providing operating funds.
    “I don’t get the impression that the city leadership thinks it’s a problem,” says Jack Van Loan. Referring to Cathy Novinger of the Housing Alliance, he adds, “That gal would have made a damned fine general officer in the Air Force. She can make a decision without stuttering.”
    It’s a quality that the former fighter pilot values, and one he suggests that he sees in Steve Benjamin.
And while it’s far too soon to say wh
o should win, if Mr. Benjamin gets into the race, Columbia will have its clearest chance in a long while to pick a new direction.

For links and more, please go to

Looking ahead to 2010: Are we hopeful yet?

Editorial Page Editor

the current occupant has sort of put the whole
being-governor-of-South-Carolina thing behind him — nowadays you have
to track national media to know what he’s up to — let’s follow his
lead, and look forward to the time when he no longer holds the office
even technically.

    In the spirit of getting us to that point as
quickly as possible, I spoke last week with the one declared candidate
for the 2010 gubernatorial election, Sen. Vincent Sheheen.

    If you
don’t know the 37-year-old Camden attorney, you might know his daddy,
former Higher Education Commissioner Fred, or his uncle, former House
Speaker Bob
. He is like them in his dedication to public service, yet
very different. His uncle was the last Democrat to run the House, while
the nephew has been shaped by having to get things done in a world run
by Republicans. It’s made him a consensus-builder, and he thinks that
has prepared him well for this moment.

    Not only does he think he
has a good chance of gaining the Democratic nomination among those who
have been mentioned — and his close allies who might have drawn from
the same base of support, Rep. James Smith and Sen. Joel Lourie, are
not running — but, “at this point in the state’s history, I have a good
chance in the general election,” whoever the GOP nominee is. Why?
“Because people are not satisfied.”

    He can identify with that: “I’ve reached this point out of frustration and hope.”

have been stuck in a rut for a long time,” he said, and “I am not
seeing things changing at all. And that’s very frustrating.” He senses
a similar frustration in the electorate. He thinks voters realize that
“if we keep… not doing anything, then we’re not going to improve.”

    So what does he want to do?

  • “Get
    real again about job creation and economic development.” He says the
    state needs a governor who will treat that as a priority, playing an
    active part in recruiting business, and working to see that the whole
    state, including the rural parts, benefits.
  • “Pulling
    South Carolina’s governmental structure into at least the 20th century,
    and maybe the 21st century.” Some of what he wants to do is what the
    current governor has said he wanted to do. But the plan that Mr.
    Sheheen has put forward (parts of which he explains on the facing page)
    actually has some traction — enough so that Mark Sanford mentioned it
    favorably in his State of the State address this year. Sen. Sheheen
    believes the time has come to move restructuring past the starting
    line, and he thinks he can do it: “I’m not knocking anybody; I’m just
    saying it’s time to have somebody who can build consensus.”
  • “Change
    the way we spend our money.” As he rightly describes the process, “We
    budget in the dark.” He wants to see a programmatic budget, followed by
    the legislative oversight that has been missing, to make sure the
    spending does what it’s intended to do.
  • Combine
    conservation with economic development. He thinks we need to move
    beyond setting aside just to conserve, but convert what is conserved to
    benefit “the humans in a community.” He points to the ways the Camden
    has been used to promote tourism.
  • Change
    the way we fund education. Make funding equitable, based on pupils, not
    districts, so that “a similarly situated student will have the same
    opportunities … regardless of where they live.”

    When I ask
whether there’s anything else, he confesses: “I’m a geek. I could keep
going, but … I’ve got to think of something that’s politically
catchy. I’m supposed to do that.”

    At which point he proves his
geekhood by mentioning comprehensive tax reform, which he’s been
advocating “since my first day in the House.”

    But while that
issue might not make voters’ hearts beat faster, he speaks again of
what he sees as “a growing consensus that we need to do something.”

he thinks the high-profile, counterproductive “contention between the
current governor and the Legislature” has created an opportunity for
someone who wants to move beyond that.

    But how would a Democrat
fare in that task in a State House run by Republicans? Quite well, he
says. He calls Republican Carroll Campbell “one of the most effective
governors,” a fact he attributes in part to the “constructive friction”
between him and the Democratic Legislature that his Uncle Bob helped

    Ironically, Vincent Sheheen seems to be suggesting that his
party has become enough of an outsider in the halls of state power that
a consensus-minded Democrat could be less threatening to, and more
successful in working with, the GOP leadership. “Someone who is not
jockeying for position within their own party could actually help to
bring together some of the different factions.”

    As a
representative of “swing counties” — Chesterfield, Lancaster and
Kershaw — he sees himself as having the ability to be that Democrat.

far — perhaps because he’s the only declared candidate in either party
— he wears the burden of this campaign lightly. At one point he asks
me, “Am I making you hopeful?” — then chuckles when I decline to answer.

I will say this to you, the reader: He’s talking about the right
issues, and he’s talking about them the right way. That’s a start.
Here’s hoping that the candidates yet to declare, in both parties, do
the same. Then perhaps we can have a gubernatorial choice, for once,
between good and better.

For links and more, please go to

Links about S.C. and the stimulus

Something I forgot to do with my column Sunday about Midlands efforts to steer stimulus funds this way was to link to these two items that also ran on our pages Sunday:

  1. Our editorial on what we think about Sanford's efforts against the stimulus (which you might I wrote, but I didn't). As we said in part, "Mr. Sanford has made his point about his disdain for federal borrowing
    and federal intervention. It’s time for him to return to reality and
    start acting like a governor."
  2. The governor's own arguments about the stimulus, which he wrote for the op-ed page in response to a piece we'd run earlier in the week from two Democrats, Boyd Brown and Ted Vick, headlined, "Our occasional governor."

Anyway, I think it helps to have those additional reference points.

Worrying about the stimulus

Editorial Page Editor

    “This is your bill; it needs to be America’s bill.”

            — Sen. Lindsey Graham,
         addressing Senate Democrats

worries me, after all the rhetoric, exhortation, accusations,
counter-accusations, fault-finding and blame-laying, is that the
stimulus bill that spent the week staggering its way through the U.S.
Senate might not work anyway.

     There was always
that very good chance. Several weeks back, Paul Krugman — who as a
Princeton economist is a Nobel Prize-winner, but as a political
columnist is a partisan automaton — said as much. He said it wouldn’t
be enough to give the economy the jolt it needs to overcome the lack of
activity in the private sector. He made a persuasive case.

last week, Mr. Krugman wrote that this bill just had to pass, that
those blasted Republicans opposing it were “putting the nation’s future
at risk.” Obama’s mistake, he now said, was trying “to transcend
partisanship” and work with the Republicans at all.

    I believe the
exact opposite to be true. I believe the chances of the bill doing any
good declined with each step into the thicket of partisanship.

never won so much as a Cracker Jack prize for economics, much less a
Nobel, but there’s one thing I think I understand: Whatever Washington
does in the way of stimulus — and it needs to do something (with the
private sector in paralysis, this is a job for the Keynesians) — it
won’t work unless America can believe in it.

    Just as Mr. Krugman
is right about some things, so is Phil Gramm. Remember how indignant
the Democrats got when the McCain adviser said, in mid-campaign, that
we were experiencing a “mental recession”? Well, he had a point. While
it doesn’t make the real-life pain any less, the mechanisms that get us
into a predicament like this have an awful lot to do with what’s going
on in our heads.

    When businesses think they have a chance to
grow, they invest and create jobs. When they’re scared, they freeze up.
When buyers and sellers believe home values will keep appreciating, the
real estate market is hot. When they start to doubt values, buying and
selling stop. When everyone believes a stock’s value will keep rising,
it does keep rising; when they don’t, it crashes. When you think the
lousy economy is threatening your job, you stop spending and stuff your
earnings, literally or figuratively, into a mattress, and the workers
who depended on you to buy what they produce lose their jobs, which of
course increases everyone’s pessimism.

    No, it’s not all in our
heads. At some point, certain things have real value. But we’re not
going to start buying and selling and hiring and investing and taking
risks at the levels needed to pull ourselves out of this tail-spin
until we reach a consensus that things are getting better, or about to
get better.

    You can argue about the specific provisions in the
stimulus all you want, and Democrats and Republicans have been doing so
enthusiastically. But I don’t think I’ve seen a specific idea yet that
couldn’t be argued both ways. Even the worst idea pumps some juice into
the economy; even the best one is no silver bullet.

    With private
sector leadership — especially on Wall Street — having failed us so
spectacularly, we need something intangible from our political
leadership every bit as much as we need infrastructure spending and/or
tax cuts: We need to look at what Washington is producing and believe
that it actually is for the good of the country, and not for the good
of the Democrats or the Republicans or this or that politician.

he entered office, I thought Barack Obama had what it took to lead us
in that direction — to pull us together and help us believe that we can
solve our problems. To persuade us, as FDR did, that we had nothing to
, that we were going to get through this, together.

    I still
think he can. But last week, I saw him stumble. I’m not talking about
the Tom Daschle business. As the stimulus package faltered, he reverted
to campaign mode, blaming Republicans who wanted to cling to those
failed policies of the past eight years we heard so much about in 2008.

him in this counterproductive effort were such Republicans as our own
Jim DeMint, who most certainly was clinging to the ideologies that have
failed his party and the nation — such as the stubborn idea that tax
cuts are the only kind of stimulus anyone needs.

    A far more
sensible position was taken by our other senator late Thursday. Lindsey
Graham grabbed headlines by saying “this bill stinks,” but he had
smarter things to say than that

    You know, my problem is that I
think we need a stimulus bill. I think we need to do more than cut
taxes. But the process has been terrible. The House passed this bill
without one Republican vote, lost 11 Democrats. Nancy Pelosi said, We
won, we write the bill…. (W)e’re not being smart and we’re not
working together, and people want us to be smart and work together, and
this has been a miserable failure on both fronts.

    As I wrote this
column, much remained unsettled. By the time you read it, something may
have passed. But as I wrote, I was sure of this: If the Congress gave
the president a bill that was pleasing only to the Harry Reids and
Nancy Pelosis, it wouldn’t help the president inspire the kind of
confidence that the whole nation needs to recover. (The same would be
true if Jim DeMint got all he wanted, but there was no danger of that.)

if the president has a bill that Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Ben
Nelson of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine all voted for, the nation
would have a chance of moving forward together. And together is the
only way we can recover.

For more, please go to

An intolerable failure to communicate

First, some sobering perspective: Some of you reading this will not have a job next month.
    As bad as things were through November, the bottom really dropped out in December. South Carolina lost another 22,000 jobs that month. Nationally, 2.5 million jobs were lost last year — the most since 1945 — and of those, 524,000 were lost in December alone. To do that math for you, if the rest of the year had been as bad as December, we’d have been down 6.29 million jobs. And to do the same for South Carolina: Our state lost 54,100 jobs in 2008. If the whole year had been as bad as December, we’d have lost 264,000.
    These things have a rippling effect — a business cuts back, more people lose their paychecks, they spend less in their community, so other businesses have to cut back, and so forth. So there is little reason to doubt that January (when we get those figures) will be worse than December, or February worse than January. Just as an early indication of that, the state Employment Security Commission said last week that in January it was paying out $19 million to $20 million a week, up from $13 million to $15 million a week in December.
    One more thing to note, in case you don’t know it: As bad as things are nationally, they are worse here. The national unemployment rate is 7.2 percent; in South Carolina it’s 9.5 percent.
    Got the picture? All right, then; let’s turn from tragedy to low farce — the ongoing spitting match between our governor and the aforementioned Employment Security Commission.
    You know how our Legislature likes to cut taxes? Well, back in the late ’90s, it cut the tax that businesses pay into a trust fund from which unemployment benefits are paid. It made sense at the time, given the fund surplus. But since 2001, the state has been paying out more each year in unemployment benefits than the trust fund has taken in. Only in 2006 was the amount taken in even close to the amount paid.
    So it is that, in light of the unemployment figures cited above, the ESC ran out of money and sought federal help to keep issuing checks. Unfortunately, the agency couldn’t get the money unless the governor signed off on the request. In most states, this would make sense, but in South Carolina — where only a third of the executive branch reports to the elected chief executive, with the ESC not being a part of that third — it can be awkward, especially with this governor.
    Gov. Mark Sanford said he wouldn’t OK the request until the agency provided him with certain information. The ESC didn’t provide the information, and things escalated. The governor claimed the agency was wasteful and incompetent, and demanded an audit. The ESC, absurdly, resisted. Finally, after fighting about this most of the month of December, everyone climbed off their high horses long enough for the governor to OK the request.
    Then, the ESC realized that things were getting worse and it would need even more money. The governor went ballistic. The commission resumed stonewalling him. The governor threatened to fire the commissioners.
    On Thursday, the commissioners — Chairman McKinley Washington, Becky Richardson and Billy McLeod — met with our editorial board, and said they would have 90 percent to 95 percent of what the governor wanted to him by Feb. 9.
    In the course of this interview, I asked: “Have y’all met as a group with the governor?” I got a chorus of simultaneous answers: “No.” “Absolutely not.” “Never.” (You can watch a video clip of this exchange on my blog.) Had they ever sought such a meeting? Oh, certainly, they said.
    “This is the only governor,” said Mr. Washington, “that never met with the Employment Security Commission that I know of; I’ve been there eight years.” Mr. McLeod said the same was true for his 20 years.
    As bizarre as this may sound to anyone not familiar with Mr. Sanford and his ways, it was believable. But Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor had met with them, and he produced a letter, from agency Executive Director Ted Halley, which began, “The Commission and I would thank you and your staff for taking time from your busy schedules recently to meet with us.” It was dated March 25, 2003.
    I asked Mr. Washington on Friday about this. He said that the meeting was actually with Eddie Gunn, then the governor’s deputy chief of staff. He said at one point “The governor stuck his head in the door, said hello… and that was it.” So why the letter? “That was just a courtesy statement, but he did not meet with us.” He added, “You try to be nice.”
    This, ladies and gentlemen, is pathetic. Let’s say the governor’s version of events is true and Mr. Washington’s is wrong: His defense is that he met with the commissioners once, almost six years ago.
    Bottom line: None of this idiocy would be happening if the governor were responsible for this agency, which he should be.
    What! you cry — give this governor what he wants? Never! And indeed, this governor who claims to want greater authority for his office is, by his actions, the worst argument for such change that we have seen in many a year.
    But consider: If he had been responsible for the agency and its mission all along, he never would have been able to play this blame game. As long as the agency is out of his reach, he can snipe at it, and gripe and complain, and blame those people over there, rather than take responsibility. He shouldn’t do that, and most governors wouldn’t. But since this one can, he does, and he gets away with it. (And by being so intransigent and defensive, the agency helps him.)
    Given the growing number of people in this state who rely on this agency to enable them to put food on the table in their hour of greatest need, this absurd failure to communicate is intolerable.

For video and more, please go to

An Edwards column I had forgotten

Looking in our internal database for something entirely unrelated (what I might have written in the past about Bill Clinton's Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, actually) I ran across a column from 2003 that I had forgotten about. It struck me as interesting for two reasons:

  • It's an unfortunate fact that if you search for "Brad Warthen" on the Web — I did it several days ago as a way of trying out the Grokker search engine — you run across a lot of stuff about a certain column I wrote in 2007 about John Edwards. That column drew 190,000 page views to within the first week (not to the blog version — unfortunately, since the blog version was better). If you recall, it was about three incidents that, taken together, had persuaded me that John Edwards was a "phony." I didn't think all that much of the column when I wrote it, but it looks like it's going to dog me forever in what we once called Cyberspace. Anyway, this previous, forgotten column was the first time I had written about one of those incidents.
  • Criticizing John Edwards was not the point of the column. Oh, I was fairly dismissive of him; he never impressed me all that much. But the point was to criticize some young Republican protesters who had come to try to disrupt his campaign event.

Anyway, it's a mildly interesting footnote to something that caused a lot of hoo-hah, so I share it.

You'll note that I mention the very moment I later cited in the "Phony" column, and call Edwards on it for its general bogusness, which shows even then what an impression it made on me. Of course, I don't zero in on it quite as harshly as I did later, and the reason why is fairly obvious: The other two incidents had not yet happened, so while I had serious doubts about him, and especially about his populism, I had not yet put it all together and made up my mind fully about John Edwards. My impression had not yet, as I later wrote, "been reinforced with steel girders."

Anyway, here's the forgotten column:

State, The (Columbia, SC) – Sunday, September 21, 2003
Author: BRAD WARTHEN Editorial Page Editor

I DON'T GET protesters.
    I'm not talking about political debate, or dissent, or seeking redress of grievances. Those things are part of what our country's all about. They're what my job's all about. We definitely don't want to curtail any of that.
    And I believe that there are rare cases when taking to the streets – in an orderly, peaceful manner – is perfectly justifiable, even imperative. Laws would not have changed in the United States if not for the forceful, nonviolent witness of Martin Luther King and thousands of others.
    What throws me is people who whip up signs and take to the streets at the slightest provocation – or no provocation at all.
    I've expressed my puzzlement about such behavior at the dinner table, only to have one of my children make the very good point that of course I don't understand; I don't have to take to the streets because I have my own bully pulpit on these pages. True enough. But everyone has available more constructive means of political expression than making a public spectacle of themselves.
    Even revolutions can be conducted with dignity. Compare John and Samuel Adams. John, who started as an unremarkable farmer and lawyer from Braintree, Mass., persuaded the Continental Congress to formally declare independence. Cousin Samuel, by contrast, preferred whipping up mobs in the streets of Boston. Who accomplished more? I would say John.
    All of this is on my mind because I went to hear John Edwards announce his candidacy at the Russell House Tuesday. What did I see when I was there?
    Well, a lot of silliness, mostly. But it was to be expected. There are few things more unbecoming than a millionaire trial lawyer presenting himself to a crowd as the ultimate populist. Huey Long could pull it off; he had the common touch. So did George Wallace. But John Edwards is one of those "sleek-headed" men that Shakespeare wrote of in Julius Caesar. He may be lean, but he hath not the hungry look. Mr. Edwards is decidedly lacking in rough edges. Not even age can stick to him.
    His entrance was predictably corny. Other speakers had unobtrusively climbed the back steps onto the platform. Mr. Edwards snuck around to the back of the crowd, then leaped out of his hiding place with a huge grin and his hand out, looking for all the world like he was surprised to find himself among all these supporters. He hand-shook his way through the audience to the podium, a la Bill Clinton , thereby signifying that he comes "from the people." Watch for that shot in upcoming TV commercials.
    His speech was laced with populist non-sequiturs. For instance, he went way over the top exhibiting his incredulity at Bush's "jobless recovery," chuckling with his audience at such an oxymoron – as though the current administration had invented the term. (A computer scan found the phrase 641 times in major news sources during calendar year 1993 ; so much for novelty.)
    Despite all that, I came away from the event with greater sympathy for the Edwards campaign than I might have had otherwise. That's because he and his supporters seemed so wise, thoughtful, mature and dignified – by comparison to the protesters.
    These were, I assume, members of the University of South Carolina chapter of College Republicans, based on that group's stated intention to be there in force. I suppose I could have confirmed that by asking them, but like most of the folks there – Edwards backers and disinterested observers alike – I tried to ignore them. It wasn't easy. When one speaker praised Mr. Edwards, they would yell, "Bush!" When another said Elizabeth Edwards would be a fine first lady, they hollered "Laura!" The signs they carried were equally subtle. Some called the candidate an "ambulance chaser." Two were held side by side: One said "Edwards is liberal"; the other, "S.C. is not." Deep stuff. It apparently didn't occur to them that conservative people don't act this way.
    They settled down noticeably when Mrs. Edwards politely called for a display of "good Southern manners." But the heckling resumed when her husband started speaking. I had made the mistake of standing near the back of the crowd, and some of the young Republicans took up position behind me. Therefore, when the candidate noted yet again that he was born in Seneca, South Carolina, and a heckler hollered a sarcastic "No kidding," it was right into my ear. I was similarly well situated to get the full brunt when someone started shouting some of Mr. Edwards' more well-worn stump speech lines along with him.
    What makes people behave this way? Yes, they were young; I understand that. But why is it that political dialogue has degenerated to the point that even young people find it acceptable to act like this?
    Agree with him or not, John Edwards is running for president of the United States. Why can't people just let the man have his say? What compels them to rush out into public and show their fannies this way?
    Not that anyone did that literally, although there was this one young man off to the right of me who did lift his shirt to flash his ample belly at the rostrum. I have no idea what that was about. Maybe he had something written there; I didn't look that closely.
    What I did see was the huge, cherubic grin on his affable face. He was having a whale of a good time. I suppose I should be glad that someone was.

Write to Mr. Warthen at P.O. Box 1333, Columbia, S.C. 29202, or

Change the system? ‘Aw, never mind …’

JUST IN CASE you were wondering, or knew and had forgotten, this is the way the political culture pushes back against change in South Carolina: Not with a bang, but with an “Aw, never mind.”
    Remember last week’s column, in which I offered, as a rare sign of hope, the gathering consensus that the state Department of Health and Environmental Control should be made more accountable by placing it directly under the elected chief executive? Well, ever since then, there’s been some backtracking.
Actually, it started even before that. While I was writing that column, I heard from my colleague Cindi Scoppe that Manufacturers Alliance chief Lewis Gossett was sending us an op-ed clarifying his position after The State’s Sammy Fretwell had reported that he and S.C. Chamber of Commerce president Otis Rawl were supporting legislative efforts to put DHEC in the governor’s Cabinet.
    Not having received that op-ed (and we still hadn’t received it a week later, when this page was composed), I just wrote around the business leaders, and focused on another Fretwell story that reported that the chairman of the DHEC board, Bo Aughtry, was supportive of the Cabinet idea. “It is worthy of serious consideration because I believe it would take some of the political influence out of decisions that really should not be political,” he had told Sammy.
    This was important because the board Mr. Aughtry chairs would be the very entity that would be surrendering power if the governor were in charge. I thought it reflected very well upon Mr. Aughtry.
On Wednesday, however, I began to worry when someone shared with me a memo that DHEC Commissioner Earl Hunter had sent internally on Friday, Jan. 16, which said in part (you can read it all on my blog):

On another note, several stories have been reported in The State newspaper and other media outlets recently regarding our agency being placed in the Governor’s cabinet. Two business organizations, the SC Chamber of Commerce and the SC Manufacturers Alliance were reported as being supportive. Information I have received from both of those organizations contradicts those storiesæ.æ.æ.æ. In addition, an article this week reported that our board chairman was also supportive. Chairman Aughtry has e-mailed and called me to let me know and let you know that he was misquoted. His statement to the media was simply that he felt that any change that would take politics out of the equation is worthy of consideration. He also let the reporter know that he was 100% supportive of the agency and its staff. As usual, however, that statement wasnt included in the report….

    Then, on Thursday, we received the op-ed piece from Bo Aughtry that you find on the opposite page. Please read it.
    He writes that “moving the agency into the governor’s Cabinet may be appropriate,” although “this is not my current position.” He does believe that “any move that will make DHEC decisions less subject to political pressures is worthy of consideration. Is this best accomplished by a move to Cabinet status? I do not know, but the objective is sound.”
    If that’s a denial, it’s a mushy one. But he delivers another message that I hear a lot more loudly and clearly: Earl Hunter is a great guy. His staff is very fine, too. The same is true of the folks on the governing board.
    And you know what? I agree. I don’t know all of those people, but I know Earl Hunter, and he is a great guy. He goes to my church. I truly believe he is a sincere advocate for the state’s health and environmental quality.
    But you know what else? This isn’t about how I feel about Earl Hunter. It’s about the fact that we have a system of government in this state that does not allow the public will to be expressed clearly and effectively through this or any other agency that does not report to the elected chief executive.
    Too often, the need for such accountability is expressed in punitive terms: A governor could fire an agency head who isn’t getting the job done. But an agency head who has the governor and his bully pulpit behind him will have a lot more political leverage for doing his job. Which is better: having the unelected board chairman “100% supportive of the agency and its staff,” or having the same support from the governor and his bully pulpit? As things stand, Mr. Hunter has no one at his back with any juice, but he does have to keep his board and 170 legislators happy, which is not a recipe for bold reform; it’s a recipe for caution.
    What I want is a system that gives South Carolinians someone to hold accountable for the fact that we take too much of the nation’s waste and are not as healthy as folks in other states. Such a system would also give the good, dedicated people at DHEC the political leverage to change the political dynamic in this state as it affects their mission.
    We’ve been here before. When this newspaper started pushing hard for a Cabinet system back in 1991, we ran smack into the fact that the then-commissioner of DHEC was also a terrific guy, named Michael Jarrett. He was enormously respected in state government circles, and rightly so. He spoke out strongly against making DHEC a Cabinet agency. He did so as he was fighting cancer, which took his life in 1992. Lawmakers listened, and did not make DHEC a Cabinet agency.
    We don’t need another reform debate based in how lawmakers feel about those serving in the current system, because in South Carolina, the reform argument always loses such debates. Once it becomes about ol’ so-and-so who has the job now, forget about change: Aw, never mind.
    The thing is, if Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aughtry were replaced tomorrow — something I am not advocating — it would not change one bit the fact that voters have no one they can hold responsible for improving our public health and environmental quality.
    Mr. Aughtry was right the first time, and he’s still right: Reform is “worthy of consideration,” because “the objective is sound.”

For more, please go to

Obama’s inaugural speech

This morning, I got a phone message from an acquaintance who thought my column today was great, which struck me as a little surprising since I know the caller to be of libertarian persuasion. Especially since it was about Obama's inauguration, and the WSJ reported this morning that — as I read it — his speech today will be of a communitarian bent (yes! thought I). Yes, I know libertarians claim "responsibility" as a theme as well, but they mean something very different from communitarians when they use the word. With Obama, it's more like:

"Given the crisis that we're in and the hardships that so many people
are going through, we can't allow any idle hands," Mr. Obama said,
taking a break from painting a dormitory at Sasha Bruce House, a
shelter for homeless teens. "Everybody's got to be involved.
Everybody's going to have to pitch in, and I think the American people
are ready for that."

As I said, the communitarian sense of responsibility. And to that I say, amen.

Anyway, the speech itself is beginning now, and I thought y'all might want a place to comment on it. So here you go.

Something completely different

Editorial Page Editor
Perhaps it would be a bit much to quote from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new!” How about Monty Python? “And Now For Something Completely Different….”
    There is a tension in the air today between two ways of viewing the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. On the one hand you have thousands upon thousands who have scraped and planned and arranged to be in Washington — or the millions upon millions who will be watching from a distance and with them in spirit — who are fairly vibrating, resonating with communal anticipation. This includes elderly black folk who are praising God because they never thought they’d see the day. It contains — just barely, given the magnitude of their excitement — young people of all colors who left school and jobs and suspended their lives for a year and more to work toward this day. And more conventionally, it includes Democrats who are as thrilled as any group of partisans have ever been that their guy is finally going to replace that other guy.
    On the other hand, there are those who think this is all a bit much, or more than a bit: Whoop-tee-do, they think. A guy won an election. He’s just this guy, you know. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Nothing changes: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
    Some of the latter, jaded, unexcited group are Republicans. Pretty much all of them are white. There’s not necessarily anything bad about them; they don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. They just sort of want it over with. As Kathleen Parker suggests in the column on the facing page, there’s just so much earnestness and idealistic hoorah that one thinking person can possibly stand as we stride forth into this new age. That doesn’t make Ms. Parker a bad person. And I know that neither she nor the others in the “this is all a bit much” set are bad people, because, well, I’m sort of one of them.
    Or at least, I was. In the last few days, I changed my mind. The cynics are wrong, and the folks who just can’t contain themselves have it exactly right.
    I wrote the editorial above. I went into it as a chore that needed to get done and out of the way — one of those obligatory editorials you sometimes do, not because you had something you and your colleagues on the editorial board were burning to say, but because the particular moment in history demanded that you take note and say something.
    You may think that writing an editorial is about figuring out how to say what you already know you think. And often it is. But sometimes, it’s a process in which you discover what you think. That’s what happened here. The more I looked and read and reflected upon where we are as a nation and how and why we got here, the more I realized how significant this inauguration is, and how it differed from the previous 13 of my lifetime.
    No, it’s not that he’s a black guy. Yes, that’s a huge milestone for the country, and worth celebrating, but if you focus too much on that you miss just how different this moment is. As I said in the editorial, the nation chose much more than a racial first in this election: “It chose youth. It chose intellect. It chose pragmatism over the constant ideological bickering of recent years. It chose the promise of action rather than stalemate. It chose, in a word, change.”
    Yes, any new president represents change. But this change is generational, and attitudinal, and fundamental. The closest thing in my lifetime was when the generation of Dwight Eisenhower handed off to the generation of John F. Kennedy, but even that falls short. In choosing Barack Obama, the nation really took a risk and got out of its comfort zone. For Democrats, the safe and obvious choice was Hillary Clinton, or someone like Joe Biden (a point that underlines Mr. Obama’s wisdom in choosing his running mate, a move that made the risk more palatable). In the general election, even the “maverick” opponent was the safer, more comfortable, more conventional choice.
    This country decided it had had enough of the kinds of politics and government that we’ve had up to now. It chose a man who was practically a novice in politics and government — which made him untainted, but also meant he had almost no relevant experience. And yet, he possessed the eloquence and demeanor and intellect and attitude that persuaded us that he could deliver on the promised change.
    And you know what? I think he can, and will. I’ve seen proof. One example, which speaks volumes: his decision to pull South Carolina’s own Sen. Lindsey Graham — John McCain’s closest acolyte, leading advocate of our nation’s presence in Iraq — into his circle of foreign policy advisers. By sending Sen. Graham with Sen. Biden to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then appearing with both men to draw attention to the fact, explaining that he was “drafting” Sen. Graham “as one of our counselors in dealing with foreign policy,” the president-elect charted new ground. He threw out the rule book of partisan and ideological convention, and he did so in the pursuit of the very best ideas, the ones most likely to serve the nation and its interests and allies going forward.
    I’ve never seen anything like this, and neither have you. This is something completely different, and yet something that, after today, we’re going to see a lot more of. And that’s a wonderful thing for this country. It’s worth getting really excited about.

For more that’s different, go to

Hope springs, even in S.C. politics

Editorial Page Editor
Last week’s column chronicled my rapid descent into a state of fuming impatience over the things that we simply refuse to do in South Carolina even though they would obviously, irrefutably make us healthier, wealthier and wiser. The proximate object of my frustration was our steadfast refusal to save young people’s lives by raising our lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax to the national average. But I could as well have fulminated about our fragmented, unaccountable governmental structure, or the crying need for comprehensive tax reform, or… well, there’s a long list.
    And if I wanted to shake my fist at our fate a bit more today, I would have no shortage of cause. I could, for instance, dwell on the discouraging hour or so I spent Wednesday listening to our governor talk about his 2009 agenda: Yes, he’ll back a cigarette tax increase — a third of the way to the average — but only if he gets the counterbalancing tax cut he wants. Otherwise, he’ll veto it, again, without compunction. And yeah, he agrees that consolidating some of our smaller and less efficient school districts would be worthwhile, but he won’t spend energy pushing for that; he prefers to waste what little capital he has in the education arena in another debilitating ideological battle over vouchers. And so forth.
    But that’s not what I want to do today. Today, I want to offer hope, and I’ve got some on hand. This past week, we saw some remarkable instances in which things that just were not ever going to change in South Carolina — not no way, not nohow, as they might say in Oz — suddenly change, and for the better.
    Let’s start with the sudden emerging consensus to place the Department of Health and Environmental Control — one of our biggest and least answerable agencies — under the authority of the governor. Set aside what I just said about this particular governor. The governor — this one or any other — is the elected chief executive, and far more likely and able to see that the agency is run the way we the people want and expect it to be than a largely autonomous, unelected board is.
    This is painfully obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of how politics works, and has been ever since my colleagues and I started pushing for it with all our might back in 1991. At the time, though, we had few allies other than a few wonkish good-government types and the occasional governor who wanted the power, while almost everyone else in a position to do something about it or with a stake in the system was ready and able to resist the change.
    All sorts of people had all sorts of reasons to fight reform. Environmentalists, for instance, knew how to game the complicated system and lay roadblocks to polluters and other adversaries, and feared that a more “efficient” system — especially one run by a governor enamored of economic development at any cost — would make it harder to block permits they opposed.
    And in South Carolina, the status quo always has the upper hand in the Legislature. So I despaired of seeing reform.
    Then one day, just before Christmas I think it was, I ran into Sammy Fretwell — who along with fellow veteran reporter John Monk had been writing a hard-hitting series about DHEC’s failures to do its job well — and he told me a remarkable thing: A key environmental leader who had long opposed making DHEC a Cabinet agency had become a convert to accountability.
    That was wonderful, but it was just the beginning. Other conservationists started working for, rather than against, a bipartisan bill backed by longtime restructuring stalwart Sen. John Courson and Sen. Phil Leventis in the Senate, and a similar bill in the House. The stunner, the coup de grace to my lingering doubts, came in Thursday’s paper: Bo Aughtry, chairman of the DHEC board, the man at the very center of the status quo’s sanctum sanctorum, called for making it a Cabinet agency. And several former board chairs agreed with him.
    Folks, stuff like this doesn’t happen in South Carolina. But it did, and is continuing to happen. And if it happened on this issue, it can happen on others. Such as, say, transparency.
    Remember what happened at the end of 2008 to Nikki Haley and Nathan Ballentine, two young GOP lawmakers who were innocent enough — and guileless, idealistic and dumb enough — to confront the leadership openly and directly on the need to have roll-call votes on important action? They got crushed, as one would expect. They were handed their heads. Advocates of reform were appalled, but expected nothing different.
    Then, on Wednesday, the House voted, unanimously, to do pretty much what Ms. Haley wanted. And the Senate did much the same. And all of a sudden, it was touted on all hands — by the leadership as well as by the governor and the long-suffering reformers — as just what everyone had wanted all along. And Nikki Haley, rising like a phoenix, is the heroine of the hour.
    Stuff like this doesn’t happen, not like this, not out of nowhere, not out of the mere fact that it’s the right thing to do and there are no good reasons not to do it, not in South Carolina. But it did.
    So now I’m just seeing hope everywhere. Such as in a poll released Wednesday that showed that 74 percent of S.C. voters support raising our cigarette tax to the national average. Sixty percent favor it strongly.
    Here’s the thing about that: As I indicated in last week’s column, the arguments for going all the way to the national average are so strong, and the arguments not to do so are so weak, that only the most perverse sort of resistance to rational change can prevent it from happening.
    In the past, such perversity has been richly abundant in South Carolina. But last week, we seemed to suffer a sudden shortage of it on two surprising fronts.
    So take hope.

For more to be hopeful about, please go to

Regarding patience (as a virtue)

Among the things in my electronic IN box this morning was this forwarded message:

—–Original Message—–
From: Tom Fillinger
Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:10 AM
To: StateEditor, Columbia
Cc: Warthen, Brad – External Email; Scoppe, Cindi; Bolton, Warren
Subject: Sweet Irony

RE Fuming With Impatience
Brad Warthen's editorial, 01/11/09, p. D2 – Fuming With Impatience.
Food For Thought, 01/11/09, p. D3 – "Patience is the companion of wisdom" – – St. Augustine.
The reader may draw their own conclusions.
In Grace,

Tom Fillinger, CEO
IgniteUS, Inc.


… to which I replied as follows:

Thanks. So far my
wife, Robert Ariail and you have all pointed this out to me. So you're in good

Obama’s clean; let’s move on now

Editorial Page Editor
ALL RIGHT, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it is my firm belief that Barack Obama had nothing to do with the (alleged) sordid doings of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
    At this point (if you’re sane), you’re saying, of course he didn’t. But you just say that because you’re not a part of the narrow partisan universe of 24/7 TV news and blogs. Unfortunately, the president-elect himself ignores that world at his peril. Hence the statement released Monday from his transition office:

    At the direction of the President-elect, a review of Transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the President-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the President-elect’s staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as US Senator.

    Actually, that’s just the first of three paragraphs in the non-denial denial — a Watergate-era term that actually works better in this very different context: Obama has nothing to deny; there’s no reason for him to have to deny anything; and yet he knows that he must.
    Barack Obama is trying to organize an administration to govern in a time of war and serious economic crisis, and at least a portion of his staff is having to stop everything and investigate, in detail, whether anyone on the team ever had anything to do with that other Illinios Democrat that might in any way reflect badly on the president-elect, and then very carefully deny wrongdoing, being careful not to over-deny.
For instance, if the initial reaction of the transition had been to say “no one associated with Sen. Obama had any conversations with anyone in the governor’s office about the open seat,” they would already have to retrench — it was reported over the weekend that Rahm Emanuel talked with people on the governor’s staff about candidates for the Senate seat who would be pleasing to Mr. Obama. Which is a perfectly natural, innocent thing to do — but if your initial denial had gone too far, you’d be in trouble. You’d be having to retract, and then there would be blood in the water.
    That’s why, according to The New York Times’ Week In Review section Sunday, the Clinton administration veterans on Obama’s team (Mr. Emanuel et al.) “imposed a cone of silence on colleagues so they would not make a remark that could come back to haunt them…. Republicans were ready to pounce, rushing out statements linking Mr. Obama to Mr. Blagojevich within an hour or so after the governor’s arrest was reported. They too knew the script and that any opening must be exploited. Politics in this hyperpartisan age, after all, is the ultimate contact sport.”
    The Times piece was interesting, but it was flawed: It traced the atmosphere of reflexive defensiveness to the Clinton impeachment. The implication is that these Democratic veterans know to what lengths those dastardly Republicans will go to tar their guy. Let me explain the Clinton impeachment: It was related to what the president himself did, and what he said about what he did, in office. It was sordid; it was shameful; it was demeaning, and the president lied to us about it. Got the picture?
    Mr. Obama, by contrast, has done nothing. Nothing that is, except get elected president by running against the very culture of perpetual partisan character assassination, thereby creating a vacancy in the U.S. Senate that some sleazebag proposed (allegedly) to sell.
    The only thing the two incidents have in common is that in both cases, Republicans are poised to gleefully take advantage of the situation, to the Democrats’ detriment. Just as Democrats have used every sharp implement they could get their hands on (and more than a few dull ones) for the past eight years to rip and tear at George W. Bush and the horse he rode in on.
    And I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with it. We’ve got a president-elect who is an honest, decent man who wants to lead us beyond all that. And although I didn’t support him in the election — I liked the other honest, decent guy more — I want to say here and now that I stand ready and willing to follow him to that better place.
    The other day, my colleague Robert Ariail did a cartoon that showed Barack Obama walking across the surface of smelly sewage flowing from a pipe labeled “Chicago Politics.” A bystander remarks, “Walking on it’s one thing… not getting any of it on him — that’s the miracle.” Which is a good cartoon.
    The only problem is, it only makes sense within a context in which we assume that Obama has a problem when he hasn’t even done anything wrong. Ah, but you will say that man is born to sin, and wallows in it if he’s involved in Democratic Chicago politics.
    But here, too, is a difference. I point you to one of the editorials that prompted Mr. Blagojevich to try to get the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune fired. It invited the governor to come in and answer some questions about, among other things, his relationship with developer Tony Rezko. The editorial noted that when Sen. Obama was invited to do the same several months ago at a critical point in his candidacy, “He accepted the invitation and, during 92 minutes of questioning, answered literally every question put to him about his relationship with Tony Rezko…. With that interview session and a meeting at the Sun-Times, Obama largely put the Rezko issue behind him.”
    And, they could have added, it helped earn him The Tribune’s endorsement, its first for a Democrat for president in its 161-year history. The editors were able to tell the difference between an honest man and a crook.
    So can I. And since I see no reason whatsoever to doubt that Barack Obama is completely clean on this, I’d like to see him and his team spend their time on something more productive than this nonsense, from here on out.

For more, please go to

Getting into the proper spirit


Editorial Page Editor
EVERY YEAR AT this time, I have to admit that I have failed yet again to get into the proper spirit of Advent — that is, I admit that when I find time to think about it at all.
    This is not my fault. Advent — which the church tells us Catholics should be a time of quiet, contemplative reflection and anticipation — couldn’t possibly come at a worse time. I mean, it’s just before Christmas! I don’t know about you, but the month for me consists of longer hours than usual at work — backing up co-workers taking those vacation days they have to take or lose (and which they richly deserve, let me piously add) — with every minute of nights and weekends taken up with social obligations, pageants and other things you’re too harried to enjoy the way you should, and the patriotic imperative of shopping more than you do in all the other 11 months combined.
    When our kids were little, my wife would gather the family each evening — when I got away from work early enough, even I took part — for a little Advent wreath-lighting ceremony at our kitchen table. Just thinking about that, and how long ago it was, makes my heart hurt — which is not very descriptive, but I can think of no better way to put it. Sort of the way Scrooge felt witnessing Christmases Past. Lately, I have only been mindful of Advent during one hour on Sunday, with the church’s much-bigger wreath up there next to the altar. I think, one, two, three candles… must be the third Sunday of Advent… I wonder if I could swing by Harbison on my way home….
    That’s the extent of my mindfulness of the season.
    On Monday — as the U.S. economy continued spiraling downward, the University of South Carolina announced its plans for $39 million in budget cuts, a state panel called for K-12 teachers’ salaries to be frozen, Congress and the White House furiously negotiated a doomed bailout of Detroit automakers, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (in his last hours of freedom) dared the feds to listen in on his conversations, and the odiferous mess at the Columbia sewer plant continued to reek — it suddenly came to my attention that I had three weeks of vacation coming to me that I was going to lose, which happened to be more time than there was left in our fiscal year. Which was neither here nor there; I knew we were far too busy for me to take any of it off, so nothing to be done about it…
    … when suddenly, a voice somewhere deep inside me said, Dammit, I’m gonna have me some down time during Advent if it kills me — which is not exactly the attitude that the church prescribes, but it was as close as I was going to get. I saw that nobody else in my department was off on Wednesday and Thursday, so on Tuesday I whipped out an editorial against the Detroit bailout deal, told everybody I’d see them Friday, and took off before anyone had recovered enough from the shock to stop me.
    What did I do with the time? This is the good part: I spent the days taking care of my 11-month-old twin granddaughters. One of them had scared us with a bout of the croup earlier in the week (one visit to the doctor, another to the ER) and still had a raspy cough, their mother (my oldest) had to get back to work after taking off those days, my wife was jammed up with commitments and suffering from a bad cold herself, and my son-in-law was in a neck brace from falling off of scaffolding remodeling their house. I won’t tell you what was happening with the rest of our four kids, except to say everyone had a lot to deal with — some of it very painful and difficult, and too personal to go into. But for once, I was able to be there for my family for at least one of the many things they needed that week — which I think was a bigger shock to them than to the people at work.
    Here’s what I did on Wednesday: I got up earlier than I do on workdays. I took my older granddaughter, who had spent the night with us, to her house to change clothes, then to school. I picked up the twins and took them to my house. I fed them breakfast, one in my lap and the other sitting in the busy saucer play station thingy — one spoonful for you, and one for you…. I changed their diapers. We played with blocks on the living room rug. I changed their diapers again. I carried them upstairs for their naps. When they woke up, I changed their diapers again and took them on a quick walk around the block (the most exercise I’d had in weeks) before mixing up their lunch. My mom dropped by (normally, I never see my parents during the work week) and fed one while I fed the other. We played peek-a-boo, which convinces them I’m the world’s greatest wit for having thought it up. I fixed them some bottles, and my mom and I held them while they drank them dry (these are the world’s most cooperative babies; they eat what you feed them, and go to sleep at nap time). I changed their diapers again, and carried them up for their second naps, and then their mother came to get them.
    On Thursday, we did the same, with slight variations. Each time at the end of the day, my daughter thanked me for keeping them, which means that she had it exactly backward.
    No, it wasn’t a time of quiet prayer and contemplation. And yet, it was. Those two days grounded me in a kind of physical, emotional and spiritual sanity that was, for me in December, an altered state. I can’t really explain it. Let’s just say that when I got back to work and found that the world was still talking about Rod Blagojevich and the Detroit bailout, and our state budget was being cut another $383 million, with the brunt hitting education and health care, I longed to be doing something that made as much sense as changing a poopy diaper. Or better yet, two of them. Changing dirty diapers makes sense, to the changer and the changee, and the process is far less objectionable than looking at, or thinking about, Gov. Blagojevich.
    You know what? Nobody else is off this coming Tuesday and Wednesday. Don’t look for me here on those days.

Get into the spirit at


Inez Tenenbaum for Obama’s Cabinet?

NOW THAT HE’S got his economic and national security teams lined up, President-Elect Obama can turn to the “second-tier” Cabinet positions, such as Secretary of Education.
    Normally, I wouldn’t take all that much interest in the Education job. I don’t see education as a proper function of the federal government; it’s a state responsibility. And when the feds have gotten involved in K-12, they’ve generally mucked it up. I’m not a fan of Ronald Reagan, but he did get some things right, and one of them was proposing to do away with the U.S. Department of Education. You’ll notice, however, that after all that talk, he didn’t actually get rid of it. So the department is there, and somebody is going to run it.
    That being the case, I hope the somebody Barack Obama chooses is our own Inez Tenenbaum. At this point you’re thinking two things: First, “Does she really have a shot at that?” I don’t know. There are a lot of lists, short and long, floating around, and she’s on some and not on others. The Associated Press had her on a short list of five names (which also included Colin Powell) at the end of November, but when they moved the same list on Thursday, she wasn’t on it (nor was Gen. Powell). On the same day, MSNBC posted a long list on its Web site that included her (and Gen. Powell). Other names regularly mentioned include Arne Duncan, who runs Chicago public schools, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.
    Inez (disclosure here — I call her Inez because her husband, Samuel, is a friend) doesn’t make it on David Brooks’ short list in his column on the facing page. But we’ll see.
    Now for the second thing you’re thinking, especially if you’re one of those who buy into the notion that public schools in South Carolina are irredeemable, and anyone who has ever had anything to do with them is tainted. When I mentioned Inez as a contender for the job the other day, someone who should know better said it would be ironic for two Democratic secretaries in a row to be from South Carolina, since our schools struggle so.
    No, it wouldn’t. It would be perfectly fitting, especially given Inez Tenenbaum’s record as state superintendent from 1999-2007.
    There are achievements that can be quantified, such as South Carolina’s students scoring at or above the national average on nationally recognized standardized tests for the first time. Our fourth- and eighth-graders even scored at the very top in math and science on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
    But what of the SAT, the favored test of naysayers? During her tenure, our average rose 32 points, the greatest gain of any state where most graduating seniors take the test. No, we didn’t catch up — we just improved faster than anyone.
    But what impressed me most about her performance was that she took the situation she had and did the most she could with it. The most dramatic example: her implementation of the Education Accountability Act. The EAA was enacted the year she was elected, pushed by business leaders and a conservative Republican governor, and largely opposed by Democrats and professional educators. She might have dragged her feet, but instead she fully embraced the task of implementing accountability, in spite of institutional resistance.
    How did she do on that? The year she left office, Education Week ranked South Carolina No. 1 in the nation for accountability. The research organization Education Trust ranked our state as tied (with Maine) at No. 1 in the rigor of our proficiency standards; The Princeton Review rated our testing system 11th best.
    Our state’s leadership on this front ironically became a liability when No Child Left Behind came along. That’s because each state was judged by how well it met its own standards and expectations, and ours were higher than other states’.
    So as long as there is a U.S. Department of Education, and especially while NCLB remains law, I want the person in charge of administering it to know the reality here in South Carolina.
    But what makes Inez Tenenbaum, and Dick Riley before her, better suited than folks from other parts of the country at addressing the nation’s real K-12 problems? Consider the sheer magnitude of our challenges, based in generations of slavery, Jim Crow and abject poverty. Before the Civil War, our state had more slaves than free people. We integrated our schools 16 years AFTER Brown vs. Board of Education, even though the case started here. The achievement gap for poor and minority students is a national problem, but no one has more experience combating it than Gov. Riley and Inez Tenenbaum.
Inez isn’t talking about her candidacy, or non-candidacy. But she did say some things about Barack Obama and education that I liked hearing.
    She’s had time to think about this because she’s one of the experts who helped him draft his education platform (which you can read online, linked from my blog). Rather than talk about the federal government trying to run our schools, she speaks of the historic opportunity Mr. Obama has to lead by example.
    She remembers how John Kennedy got kids engaged in physical fitness when she was in school, mainly by talking it up. A president Obama can do the same with parental involvement, parlaying the excitement his election has generated into an ongoing movement. She has been deeply impressed by his own commitment to education, from seizing every opportunity offered in his own life to his involvement in his daughters’ schooling — she heard him, on the campaign bus here in South Carolina, talking to his girls on the phone about every detail of their day at school. He was engaged in the way all parents should be.
    Barack Obama, as she describes it, has the potential to lead on education without pushing coercive new laws or creating new bureaucracies.
    Now that’s a federal role in education I can get behind.

For more, please go to

‘Hyperbole’ and Iraq

The last couple of days I’ve broken my rule about not responding substantially to e-mails. In the interests of making the best use of my time for the readers’ benefit, I try to steer people to the blog so that everybody can join in on the conversation. Anyway, when I break my rule I try to do this, which is publish the exchange on the blog. This exchange started, of course, with my Sunday column:

From: Pat Mohr
Sent: Sunday, November 30, 2008 4:34 PM
To: Warthen, Brad – External Email
Subject: hyperbole

Well, Mr. Warthen, isn’t your respect for the language, as the SNL church lady would say, "special?"  I guess I’m just another bleeding-heart liberal because I did watch in horror as my country approved torture and suspended habeus corpus for prisoners. And I did watch in horror as people died after Katrina because we had incompetent ideologues in the White House who sat and watched that devastation because  they wanted to "reduce the size of government to the point that they could drown it in the bathtub."  And I’ve watched in horror as we waged a "war" (otherwise known as an occupation) in which thousands and Americans and even more thousands of Iraqis died because we made a mistake about Saddam’s intentions.

Now if those things don’t fill you with horror, you’re not the man I hoped you were.

Pat Mohr

On Dec 2, 2008, at 1:54 PM, Warthen, Brad – Internal Email wrote:

The NYT editorial in question wasn’t about the issues you mentioned. That was one of the bizarre things about it. It was about things like unauthorized wiretaps, and the operation of Gitmo. Hardly "horror" stuff.

I know lots of people look upon our involvement in Iraq with "horror." I don’t, but I know other people do. The NYT editorial wasn’t about anything like that.

You want to see what I look upon, with horror, read my blog.

From: Pat Mohr
Sent: Tuesday, December 02, 2008 2:24 PM
To: Warthen, Brad – Internal Email
Subject: Re: hyperbole
Importance: High

Thank you for responding. I understand what you’re saying about the other issues in the NYT editorial, but I do believe that Gitmo is a horror because of the torture that has been sanctioned there (and in other places because of rendition). If this torture was indeed not just the work of some bad apples, and we have some evidence to say that it wasn’t, then it does qualify as a horror.  Like many other Americans, i never thought I’d live to see the day that my country sanctioned torture—not for ANY reason!

And I will go look at your blog.  One reason is that I’d like to know why you don’t look upon Iraq as a horror. I don’t attribute intent, but I do believe that our government mistakenly believed the boasts of Saddam and ignored/demeaned reports that did not support their preconceptions. Then we refused to wait for the inspectors to go back & look further for WMDs or to go through the UN for assistance, coming up instead with our "coalition of the willing".  Meanwhile, Bush and Cheney deliberately conflated 9/11 with Iraq to justify our preemptive invasion. I still see polls that report that something like 40% of evangelicals believe that Iraqis attacked us on 9/11. So I’ll look to see why you don’t believe that the ensuing deaths of thousands was not indeed horrible….

I always read your column because even though I frequently disagree with you, you’re rational and provide reasons for your opinions. This is no small thing in an area of the country infested with ideologues!  I’ll always appreciate the work you do!

On Dec 2, 2008, at 3:14 PM, Warthen, Brad – Internal Email wrote:

Thanks for the kind words.

I doubt that I can explain my support for our invasion of Iraq in 2003 to your satisfaction. I can’t explain it to my wife’s satisfaction. I certainly can’t explain it to the satisfaction of people who disagree on my blog.

It has nothing to do with WMD. I realize it did for an awful lot of people, but not for me. So while I saw not finding the WMD (which we all know had been there, because Saddam had used it) as a big setback, it didn’t change anything about why I saw us needing to go in there.

It did have a great deal to do with 9/11, but not in some simplistic way such as you describe, the "hitting back at the people who attacked us" formula. I don’t think in those terms.

Either you look at the situation we had in the world at that time and agree with me, or you don’t. It’s very hard to bridge the gap. I looked at a lot of things, and that’s what it added up to for me. Other people look at the same things and don’t arrive there at all. Part of it is that I am by nature inclined to intervention. I think we were right to intervene in the Balkans, and wrong not to in Rwanda and Darfur. I think we were wrong to leave Somalia in 2003. I believe when you’re the most powerful nation in the world — economically, militarily, just about any other way — you have an obligation to act when people are suffering and being oppressed. Anti-war people think that’s arrogant. I think it’s cold NOT to want to do what we can. And the fact is, if we want to, we can do a great deal.

Here are two of those reasons, which make all the sense in the world to me, but not to antiwar people:
— Until 9/11, the U.S. policy toward the region had been maintaining the status quo. What that had meant was backing current regimes, however horrible — or at least leaving them alone — so as to keep the oil flowing. Don’t rock the boat. The 1991 Gulf War was a perfect example of this old strategy: Saddam had attacked Kuwait and was threatening the much bigger target of Saudi Arabia. We sent an overwhelming force to preserve the status quo ante — pushing Saddam back "where he belonged," and restoring the previous government in Kuwait, and protecting the Saudi regime. We didn’t want to take Baghdad then because that might have created a vacuum into which Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria and Turkey, might flow. That would upset the apple cart, and we didn’t want to do that. (We should have, because at that time we had something we didn’t have 12 years later — overwhelming force, enough to occupy and stabilize Iraq. I understand why we didn’t — but that calculation was based on the old, pre-9/11, policy of preserving the status quo.)
     9/11 changed this equation, because it showed us that preserving the status quo — one in which oppressive regimes produced political frustration and encouraged Islamic militantism — was extraordinarily dangerous to us. The 9/11 hijackers were the result of the old policy of supporting the status quo. We needed to begin the process of changing the region, and Iraq was a good place to start. Succeed there (and the problem in Iraq is that so many things were done wrong in the first years that it took far too long to succeed), and you encourage liberalizing, democratizing forces in all middle eastern countries. We saw the beginnings of that in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Libya — although much of it was set back by the increasing violence that was only quelled after the Surge began at the start of 2007. Much of that good effect has yet to be seen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still happen.

— Iraq was the place to start because we had every reason to go in and take out the regime there. Saddam had violated terms of the 1991 cease fire for 12 years. He was shooting at our planes enforcing the no-fly zone. In 2002, the UN passed the resolution authorizing force unless Saddam met certain conditions — which he failed to meet. Some significant UN members balked at acting upon the resolution — France, Germany, Russia — but plenty of others, including most European powers, actually joined that "coalition of the willing." And why not? Saddam had spent the last decade and more cementing his reputation as an outlaw regime.

Anyway, that’s PART of my thinking on the subject. It doesn’t make sense to people who agree. It DOES make sense to some who do, such as the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.

Hope that helps, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t.

From: Pat Mohr
Sent: Tuesday, December 02, 2008 8:27 PM
To: Warthen, Brad – Internal Email
Subject: Re: hyperbole
Importance: High

Hmm, I’ve gone back and read and re-read your rationales for going into Iraq. I’m still thinking—because you’ve made some good points. I do have to tell you, though, that I’m not anti-war; I just think it should be restricted to defense. However, many of your reasons seem to indicate that you truly believe that you are your brothers’ keeper, and that’s morality I share. I too think we should have gone into Darfur and Rwanda. We do have an obligation to help the oppressed—but not only the oppressed with oil under their land. I just don’t think that Iraq should have been singled out, even in the mideast.  What about the outrageous treatment of women in Saudi Arabia for example? And how can we be the world’s policemen? How can we ever fix it all?

Moreover, I think our presumptuous invasion has brought us so much international ill will that it will be years before our reputation is restored. And then there’s the billions and billions of dollars that have been squandered in this war.  I wonder if Iraqis think it was worth it because I don’t think most Americans do. And now we’re in greater jeopardy in Afghanistan—and we still haven’t found Osama.

All that said, in the light of your comments, I intend to start reading your blog as I continue to think about my position.  I like to think that I’m open-minded enough to change my mind given additional evidence.  I wish I could come back in fifty years and see what verdict history renders on this war….

Thank you again for engaging in this dialogue with me.

On Dec 3, 2008, at 10:54 AM, Warthen, Brad – Internal Email wrote:

All I can ask for is to get people to think about the points I make, so I thank you for that.

In answer to one point you made, let me point out that we did not have an acceptable rationale for invading Saudi Arabia. Remember the 12 years of defiance of the ceasefire agreement, and all those UN resolutions that gave us authorization to go into Iraq. We had nothing like that in the case of Saudi Arabia, or Iran or anyone else. Just Iraq.

Also, the reference to oil is a non-sequitur. We kicked Saddam out of Kuwait for oil. The policy of supporting the status quo was about oil. Invading Iraq actually endangered the flow of oil by upsetting the status quo.

You might be interested in a column I wrote before the Iraq invasion, about why we needed to go in:

Published on: 02/02/2003
Edition: FINAL
Page: D2
Editorial Page Editor

AMERICA SEES ITSELF, quite admirably, as a nation that doesn’t go around starting fights, but is perfectly willing and able to end them once they start.

Because of that, President Bush has a tall hill to climb when it comes to persuading the American people that, after 10 years of keeping Saddam Hussein in his box, we should now go in after him, guns blazing.

In his State of the Union address, the president gave some pretty good reasons why we need to act in Iraq, but were they good enough? I don’t know. Probably not. It’s likely that no one outside of the choir loft was converted by his preaching on the subject. And that’s a problem. Overall, while there have been moments over the last 16 months when he has set out the situation with remarkable clarity, those times have been too few and far between.

He has my sympathy on this count, though: His efforts have been hampered by the fact that the main reason we may need to invade Iraq is one that the president can’t state too clearly without creating more problems internationally than it would solve. At the same time, it’s a reason that seems so obvious that he shouldn’t have to state it. We should all be able to figure it out.

And yet, it seems, we don’t.

I hear people asking why, after all this time, we want to go after Saddam now. He was always a tyrant, so what’s changed? North Korea is probably closer to a nuclear bomb than he is, they say, so why not go after Kim Jong Il first?

We left him in power a decade ago, they ask, so why the change?

The answer to all of the above is: Sept. 11.

Before that, U.S. policy-makers didn’t want to destabilize the status quo in the Mideast. What we learned on Sept. 11 is that the status quo in the region is unacceptable. It must change.

Change has to start somewhere, and Iraq is the best place to insert the lever, for several reasons – geography, culture, demographics, but most of all because Saddam Hussein has given us all the justification we need to go in and take him out: We stopped shooting in 1991 because he agreed to certain terms, and he has repeatedly thumbed his nose at those agreements.

Iraq may not be the best place in the world to try to nurture a liberal democracy, but it’s the best shot we have in the Mideast.

I’m far from the only one saying this. The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, who has more knowledge of the region in his mustache than I’ll ever have, has said it a number of times, most recently just last week:

"What threatens Western societies today are not the deterrables, like Saddam, but the undeterrables – the boys who did 9/11, who hate us more than they love life. It’s these human missiles of mass destruction that could really destroy our open society. . . . If we don’t help transform these Arab states – which are also experiencing population explosions – to create better governance, to build more open and productive economies, to empower their women and to develop responsible news media that won’t blame all their ills on others, we will never begin to see the political, educational and religious reformations they need to shrink their output of undeterrables."

Journalists can say these things, and some do. But if the president does, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Syrians and just about everybody else in the region will go nuts. In European capitals, and even in certain circles here at home, he will be denounced as the worst sort of imperialist. Osama bin Laden’s followers will seize upon such words as proof that the West has embarked upon another Crusade – not for Christ this time, but for secular Western culture.

None of which changes the fact that the current state of affairs in Arab countries and Iran is a deadly threat to the United States. So we have to do something about it. We’ve seen what doing nothing gets us – Sept. 11. Action is very risky. But we’ve reached the point at which inaction is at least as dangerous.

Should we go in as conquerors, lord it over the people of Iraq and force them to be like us? Absolutely not. It wouldn’t work, anyway. We have to create conditions under which Iraqis – all Iraqis, including women – can choose their own course. We did that in Germany and Japan, and it worked wonderfully (not that Iraq is Germany or Japan, but those are the examples at hand). And no one can say the Germans are under the American thumb.

But that brings us to a problem. The recalcitrance of the Germans, the French and others undermines the international coalition that would be necessary to nation-building in Iraq. It causes another problem as well:

Maybe we could accomplish our goal without invading Iraq – which of course would be preferable. By merely threatening to do so, we could embolden elements within the country to overthrow him, which might provide us with certain opportunities.

But the irony is that people aren’t going to rise up against Saddam as long as Europeans and so many people in this country fail to support the president’s goal of going after him. As long as they see all this dissension, they’ll likely believe (rightly) that Saddam might just hang on yet again.

If the United Nations, or at least the West, presented a united front, the possibility of Saddam collapsing without our firing a shot would be much greater. But for some reason, too many folks in Europe and in this country don’t see that. Or just don’t want to.

Maybe somebody should point it out to them.

Write to Mr. Warthen at P.O. Box 1333, Columbia, S.C. 29202, or

By the way, do you mind if I post our exchange on my blog? Whenever I spend this much time writing about a subject, I try to share it with as wide an audience as possible…

From: Pat Mohr
Sent: Wednesday, December 03, 2008 11:06 AM
To: Warthen, Brad – Internal Email
Subject: Re: hyperbole
Importance: High

Certainly, you may share it.

That’s it. Join in, if you got this far…

Some things that I ‘watch with horror’

First, a warning — I’ve posted some disturbing images at the bottom of this post. They are painful to look at. If you wish to avoid them, do not scroll down!

Following up on my Sunday column, it occurs to me that it might be helpful to elaborate a little more on the proper meaning of "watched with horror." If you’ll recall, the NYT used that phrase to refer to such practices as scanning telecommunications for terrorists without proper authorization, and imprisoning supposed terrorists at Guantanamo.

In the column, I gave examples from history of things that are more properly "watched with horror," if the words are to mean anything — the Holocaust, the firebombing of Dresden, and the like. I included some from recent years — genocide in Darfur and 9/11 — but perhaps not enough. I can make it much more immediate than that.

The terror attacks in Mumbai are certainly something I "watched with horror," both from a personal and geopolitical perspective. Just days before it happened, my Dad had been reminiscing about having Shore Patrol duty in Bombay during his Navy career. That meant digging sailors out of some pretty sleazy dives, but it also meant staying at the Taj Mahal hotel. It was a shock to have that place suddenly in the news, and for something so horrific.

Two weeks ago, my brother was over there on business — and of course, he would have been a target had he been there still. As my father would have been, long before. That was underlined for me in a sidebar piece the WSJ ran Friday, accounting for the employees of various international firms in Mumbai.

Stan Dubinsky from over at USC sent me an e-mail that had been sent out by Hesh Epstein, the Chabad rabbi here in Columbia, about the young Chabad rabbi and his wife killed by the terrorists — presumably for the "crime" of being Jewish. I took a lecture course a couple of years back given by Rabbi Epstein (about Jewish beliefs regarding the Messiah, it was fascinating), and was deeply impressed by his devotion and scholarship. If it had been Hesh over there instead of that young man and his wife… the tragedy would have been far more personal. As it is, it’s bad enough.

Too much personal? Then consider the overall death toll, and the geopolitical implications — India is blaming Pakistan, and both countries have nukes.

I think what got me to thinking about the personal angles was Nicholas Kristof’s column yesterday (beware the image if you follow the link!), which I chose this morning to put on tomorrow’s op-ed page, and which started like this:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Terrorism in this part of the world usually means bombs exploding or hotels burning, as the latest horrific scenes from Mumbai attest. Yet alongside the brutal public terrorism that fills the television screens, there is an equally cruel form of terrorism that gets almost no attention and thrives as a result: flinging acid on a woman’s face to leave her hideously deformed.

Here in Pakistan, I’ve been investigating such acid attacks, which are commonly used to terrorize and subjugate women and girls in a swath of Asia from Afghanistan through Cambodia (men are almost never attacked with acid). Because women usually don’t matter in this part of the world, their attackers are rarely prosecuted and acid sales are usually not controlled. It’s a kind of terrorism that becomes accepted as part of the background noise in the region…

This is something I "watch with horror," without even having to see it. Unfortunately, I DID see it, in a photograph with Kristof’s column online. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen such images. I had run across the ones you see below (with their original captions) a week or two ago when I was looking for something to go with a previous Kristof column, and had searched the AP archive for "Pakistan" and "women." The images all moved on the wire earlier this year.

This is the kind of thing that I believe the phrase "watched with horror" should be reserved for. And that’s my point in posting these images. I almost put them in the paper, but I thought Kristof’s column communicated the horror fully enough. As you know, one thing I use the blog for is to post things I don’t put in the paper. Maybe I was wrong to balk at doing that. But as hardened as newspapermen are supposed to be, I hesitate even now to post them here. And yet, these pictures aren’t as bad — that is, the injuries aren’t as recent — as the cases Kristof wrote about.

Kristof and his wife received the Pulitzer for reporting on the democracy movement in China years ago. He deserves another one for telling these women’s stories — as he has done for the powerless (so often women) in Darfur and elsewhere. By horrifying decent people everywhere, he performs a great service.


Irum Saeed, 30, adjusts her scarf as she poses for a photograph at her office at the Urdu University in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday, July 24, 2008. Irum was burnt on her face, back and shoulders with acid thrown in the middle of the street by a boy whom she rejected for marriage 12 years ago. She has undergone plastic surgery 25 times to try to recover from her scars with the help of Depilex-Smileagain Foundation in Lahore. Smileagain is an organization that helps burn victims to reintegrate into society through medical and psychological support, sometimes employing them as beauticians at Depilex beauty centers. Irum is one of the 240 registered victims of Smileagain’s help list in Pakistan. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)


Shameem Akhter, 18, poses for a photograph at her home in Jhang, Pakistan, Wednesday, July 10, 2008. Three years ago three boys threw acid on her. Shameem has undergone plastic surgery 10 times to try to recover from her scars with the help of Depilex-Smileagain Foundation in Lahore. Smileagain is an organization that helps burn victims to reintegrate into society through medical and psychological support, sometimes employing them as beauticians at Depilex beauty centers. Shameem is one of the 240 registered victims of Smileagain’s help list in Pakistan. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)


Attiya Khalil, 16, poses for a photograph at her home in Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, July 9, 2008. Attiya’s face was burnt with acid thrown by relatives of a neighbor boy whom she rejected for marriage around 3 years ago. She has undergone plastic surgery three times to try to recover from her scars with the help of Depilex-Smileagain Foundation in Lahore. Smileagain is an organization that helps burn victims to reintegrate into society through medical and psychological support, sometimes employing them as beauticians at Depilex beauty centers. Attiya is one of the 240 registered victims of Smileagain’s help list in Pakistan. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)