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Entries for April 2009

Well, I guess, the book everyone’s been expecting me to write is about politics. And that book’s coming. But, in the meantime, I’ve just written a good old fashioned murder mystery – Spirits of the Air – that includes a blood feud, vengeance, a villain, hero and series of grisly murders.
It’s available, now, online (you can order a copy by clicking on the Buy Now, button on the right side of the blog).
Like with all books, I suppose, there’s a story behind the story. A few years ago, I read a book by a Jesuit priest, a professor who’d taught in Rome, who wrote a study of five American exorcisms that took place between 1965-74. Now, exorcism is a pretty hoary word. But the professor wasn’t sensationalizing or chasing hobgoblins.
The Catholic Church had made tapes of each exorcism – so, he listened to the tapes, interviewed the doctors and psychiatrists involved, talked to the victims and priests (who conducted the exorcisms) and wrote five studies – each giving a portrait of the raw violence, malevolence and subtlety of evil.
I set out to write a murder mystery – giving the murders (and murderer) the same violence and malevolence. I researched a series of murders that actually happened, put them in a fictional setting and added St. Paul’s warning to the church at Ephesus (beware “the prince of the power of the air”). Then told a story of what happens to a lawyer – a former district attorney – who runs head on into that kind of evil.
The book’s not about politics, but there’s a lot in it I learned in politics. And it’s not for the faint of heart. You can read about grisly crimes every morning in the News and Observer – but I picked these crimes because they were particularly brutal.
If you read Spirits of the Air, let em hear from you. Email me or post a comment here in the Talking About Politics Forum. I’ll reply.  
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Is Richard Burr determined to make his reelection even harder?


Why vote against Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services on the basis of an abortion bill she vetoed in Kansas?


Earth to Burr: We’re having a national flu emergency. We in the middle of a crucial debate about the future of the health care system.  And Obama won.


Yes, you might have a philosophical agreement with the President and his nominee. But you probably argued four years ago that George Bush had a right to pick his Cabinet, so long as the nominees appeared honest and competent.


Burr’s vote is the reason Arlen Specter abandoned the GOP. The party has become the captive of the litmus-test Religious Right – and the Tea Party Rebels – centered in the South.


Burr’s political career has been charmed so far. He got to the House in the 1994 anti-Clinton landslide. He won the Senate seat with Bush’s coattails in 2004.


Luck will get you only so far.


Burr’s is the Senate seat that has changed parties every year since 1974. Democrats appreciate all he’s doing to keep the streak alive.



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There was a letter in the New and Observer the other day that reminded me of a story from Jesse Helms 1978 election.
Back when the campaign was starting, I drove over to Greensboro to ask Ed Morris, the Chairman of Blue Bell, which was then one of the biggest textile companies in the world, to lead Senator Helms fundraising.
Ed started his answer by explaining the boards he was on and projects he was raising money for: A hospital, a college, a church and so on, then said he’d do it but he’d also need to do some juggling when it came to time.
I drove back to Raleigh and told Tom Ellis, Well, it looks like Ed’s got his hands full. He’s not the guy we need.
Mr. Ellis  said, You’ve got it backwards. He’s exactly the guy we need. Why do you think he’s on all those boards? It’s because he gets the job done.
Now, that’s counter-intuitive. You’d, naturally, think the best man to do a tough job is someone who has plenty of time on his hands. But Tom Ellis was right. Ed Morris was the best fundraising chairman Senator Helms ever had.
Now, some folks are grumping a bit, saying Erskine Bowles’s serving on several boards – while  he’s President of UNC – might turn out to be a handicap. But when it comes to taking on a tough assignment like heading UNC, being busy isn’t a disqualification – it’s a qualification.
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How can there be any question about whether Obama’s first 100 days compares with other Presidents’.


Only FDR’s and Lincoln’s were more significant.


Only FDR and Lincoln faced greater crises than Obama: a Great Depression that dwarfs the Great Recession and a civil war over slavery and secession.  (Take note, Governor Perry.)


Bill Clinton reportedly regretted that he didn’t govern in a time of major crisis. Obama will not have that regret.


Think how different America will be as a result of this:


  • A black President and what that means to racial relations.
  • A President who has a chance to restore international respect and affection for America.
  • A fundamentally changed economy, with government’s role forever altered.
  • A transformed banking system, in some way, shape or form.
  • A reengineered automobile industry.
  • A significantly larger federal role in education.
  • The potential for sweeping change in the health care system.
  • Drastic action on global warming.
  • An end to one war and the ramping up of another uncertain war.

Agree with it all or not, the scope is breathtaking.


Things probably won’t turn out as bad as the rabid Obama-haters fear – or as good as his acolytes expect.


But the country will be different because of these 100 days.


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Former Governor Mike Easley has a reputation as a man tight with a dollar. That’s a good thing in a governor who had to balance the budget in tough times. Not so good if it gives the U.S. Attorney something to chase.


I have two names for Governor Easley to consider: Don Siegelman and Ted Stevens.


Both were done in – politically and reputation-wise – by zealous federal prosecutors. Overzealous, it turns out for Stevens. And defenders of Siegelman – from both parties – claim the same.


Easley has dug a deeper hole by stonewalling and changing his story to the press, which is already suspicious of him.


Now the prosecutors are digging.


When you’re in public office today, extremism in defense of your probity is no vice.


I’m reminded of two good pieces of advice when it comes to the automobile arrangement that has ensnarled Easley:


One, oft repeated in Raleigh, holds that: “Don’t do anything you don’t want to read about on the front page of The News & Observer.”


The other, less well known but just as reliable, is attributed to the wise old lobbyist Zeb Alley: “If you have to ask yourself whether something is ethical, you have the answer.”


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Sometimes little things can tell you a lot about a political campaign.


Tom Ellis, the Raleigh lawyer who ran Jesse Helms’ political campaigns, was a political genius: I can’t recall anyone else who directed six successful Senate campaigns for three different candidates and single-handedly turned a presidential election on its head (as Ellis did for Ronald Reagan in 1976).


Once, Mr. Ellis gave me a lesson about candidates speaking to civic clubs – like Rotary Clubs. His theory went like this: If a hundred people attended, part weren’t registered to vote, part were partisan Republicans and part were yellow dog Democrats. Both the Republicans and Democrats, he said, had already made up their minds.  Which left, he added, about twenty swing voters Senator Helms was going to spend half a day driving to and from Raleigh to speak too.


His point was Jesse wasn’t going to win the election speaking to civic clubs.


Today, in just about every way that matters in a political campaign, Democrats top Republicans. They raise more money, do more polling, run more ads and hit their target more often. This year it looks like our best hope of reversing that trend is Senator Richard Burr’s reelection campaign – since Burr is an incumbent. So the report in the newspaper the other day that Senator Burr -- campaigning for reelection -- was speaking to a Rotary Club in Raleigh sounds like bad news for us Republicans.


Maybe this event was an aberration. Let’s hope so. Senator Burr is staring down both barrels of the Obama-Charlie Schumer-National Democratic political machine; --- he’s in a political knife fight with a gang of pirates who thrive on ‘take no prisoners’ politics and he can’t beat them by speaking to a Rotary Clubs.


Using Tom Ellis formula Senator Burr could spend half a day every day from now to the election driving to Rotary Clubs -- and still only speak to about 1% of the voters. It’s hard to see that as a winning political strategy.


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Now and then – sometimes thanks to Jon Stewart’s show – I catch a snippet of Fox News. Last I saw, the commentators – who seem to fall into two groups: blonde babes and red-faced old men – were fulminating about Obama shaking hands with Hugo Chavez. Or, as one wit said, “playing kissy-face.” To which another raged, “Who knows what went on behind closed doors?”


(Hold on, boys and girls. Remember Reagan and Gorbachev? Nixon and Mao?)


I won’t accuse Fox of extremism in defense of liberty. As I recall, the commentators on MSNBC went just as far over the top about George Bush.


But there clearly is something loose in the land these days. And it’s not reasoned discourse.


It’s so bad even Carter and I agree it’s bad.


He and I had lunch this week with Daman Circosta from the N.C. Center for Voter Education. That’s a group that strives to be nonpartisan. They promote voter engagement and education.


We all agreed that we’re witnessing a revolution in how news is delivered. The N&O has to let go good people like Peder Zane. (And Joe Miller?  Is that right?  One of my favorites!)


Newspapers are challenged to provide quality journalism. I feel for John Drescher. You work hard to attain the peak of your profession, and you spend your days telling people you have to lay them off. And probably lying awake nights.


The cable channels, meanwhile, are replicating the old partisan newspapers.


Damon observed that it even affects where people live. They want to live near people like them. Including people who vote like them. Neighborhoods, precincts, even entire cities become more uniformly Democratic or Republican.


Tell me about it. For many years, I lived in Cameron Park – the most Democratic precinct in Raleigh. Now I live in North Ridge – the most Republican. It’s hard to find a good foursome of Democrats.


We’re not talking to each other. We’re not even talking at each other. We’re talking past each other.



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Now we may have a couple of good old-fashioned political donnybrooks over taxes and government – in Raleigh and in Washington.


In Raleigh, the Senate Finance Committee is taking up the Hunt plan. That’s the plan set out by former Governor Hunt and his bipartisan, business panel. The downside is it puts taxes on a whole bunch of services like building repairs, warranties, information technology, moving expenses and sales of downloaded music and software.


The political upside is a big cut in personal incomes taxes, corporate income taxes and the sales tax rate – plus repeal of the food tax.


The budget upside is that – combined with higher cigarette and alcohol taxes – the legislature gets $600 million more to plug the budget gap.


It’s a gutsy play by the Senate – especially when the GOP/Fox News Axis of Evil is stirring up tea-bag fever across America.


The fun comes in watching politicians and interest groups try to figure out where to land in this water.


Governor Perdue is steering clear. The state Chamber of Commerce hasn’t said where it is.


Politically, the question is whether history is getting ready to repeat itself.  Sixteen years ago, in 1993, Bill Clinton took on a gutsy fight by raising taxes to balance the budget. It paid off economically. Politically, it was a disaster. It fueled the Republican revolution of 1994.


As Ferrel Guillory pointed out at breakfast yesterday, there is a common theme to then and now. Plotting a Republican comeback – and a way to channel tea-bag fever – is that old revolutionary from 1994: Newt Gingrich.


Next year, Newt might be trying to start another political revolution at the expense of another Democratic President. Newt versus Barack. Put that on Pay-Per-View and you’ll make a dent in the deficit.


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The dramatic change in North Carolina that led to President Obama’s victory here is captured in the newest Datanet report from Ferrel Guillory’s group at UNC’s Program on Public Life (


The most striking number to me: 334,876.


That is how many more votes Obama got than John Kerry/John Edwards in the three big metro areas: Charlotte Metro, Piedmont Triad and Research Triangle. (Note: Half the state’s voters live in those three regions!)


Those voters carried North Carolina for Obama. And the 2008 result suggests there may be a fundamental political realignment under way here. Because the voters in the fastest-growing parts of the state are heavily African-American, young voters and suburban progressives.


Ferrel also told me that 70 percent of voters aged 18-29 in North Carolina last year voted Democratic. If they continue to vote in the future, they will become a generational bulge that chokes the Republican snake.


The numbers should give North Carolina Republicans serious indigestion. They should ask whether their focus on abortion and gay marriage is helping or hurting with the fastest-growing segments of voters. For that matter, how does the GOP/Fox “Tea Party” rage play with voters who want good schools, good health care and government that works?


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It seems during the 7th inning stretch at baseball games the New York Yankees have one of the Irish tenors sing God Bless America, and, during the song, they require fans to remain at their seats -- instead of, say, rushing to the men’s room.
Well, in their campaign to remake America the liberals mean to change that -- so the good ole ACLU has sued the Yankee’s saying it’s just plumb wrong of them to force anyone to sit and listen to God Bless America at a baseball game.
I used to marvel at how, back in the good old days when Republicans controlled the White House, every time some Republican knight errant stood up and criticized President Bush he promptly got pilloried by the Republican establishment.
But when it comes to marching in lockstep with their leaders Republicans can’t hold a candle to Democrats. After running up a bigger deficit than anyone in history, Obama is boasting he’s “identified $2 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade” – and not one liberal Democrat has said a skeptical word. Instead, they’re all singing in chorus, Amen.
It’s hard to tell what America is going to look like when the liberals finish redoing it but it is pretty clear they’re absolutely certain -- with a moral conviction that puts a Bible thumping Baptist to shame -- they have all the right answers. Right down to dictating the appropriate behavior during the 7th inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.
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