DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Month: July, 2014

Obama Acts on Discrimination

President Obama’s decision to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors is a significant step towards a broader ban than only Congress can establish. As the President noted, Congress has failed to do just that … for decades … and unless voters turn out in massive numbers this fall to cast votes reflecting their anger at Republican lawmakers, it will be a while before the Legislative Branch catches up with the Obama Executive Branch. 

Some supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) may fault Obama for some perceived weakness in the Order.  And needless to say, opponents of ENDA, including virtually the entire Republican Caucus in the House and Senate as well as their “pro-family” activists around the country who fundraise on their bigotry, will huff and puff about misuse of Executive authority. Expect Speaker John Boehner to issue an addendum to his recent (and absurd) taxpayer-funded lawsuit against President Obama for … doing his job (and, not incidentally, doing the job Republicans in Congress are spectacularly failing to do).

Here are a few observations about the Obama decision:

Most important, of course, is that blatant discrimination in employment by those profiting from federal contracts will be prohibited. It seems difficult to believe, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Right Act, that employers are still free to fire (or not hire) qualified men and women because they don’t approve of their private and personal behavior. The President’s action today should not be surprising to anyone. As he noted in his 2013 Inaugural, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”   Republicans may not like the fact that the President acted, but they can’t pretend they were not on notice that eventually, he would counteract their inaction and indifference.

In addition, the Executive Order is noteworthy as another illustration of Obama’s newfound willingness to employ Executive authority when Congress fails to act on urgent priorities. As with his initiatives under the Affordable Care Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and his DREAM initiative under current immigration law, the President is doing what he promised he would do in the 2013 State of the Union message: not allow Republicans to continue to pour sand into the gears of government, complain the transmission doesn’t work, and refuse to take it to the shop to get it repaired. Eventually, Speaker Boehner’s loony lawsuit against presidential initiatives will be heard in a court and thrown out, probably long after Barack Obama is golfing in Hawaii as the former President, but in the meantime, Obama seems intent to utilize the authority Congress regularly gives to presidents to issue regulations to enforce laws, often because legislators don’t want to make the tough implementation decisions.

Obama’s action is also noteworthy because the Order illustrates something which I observed while working with the White House, but which is often overlooked, and that is Obama’s obduracy. True, his willingness to engage in extended and often counterproductive negotiations with implacable enemies can be exasperating, and he should have developed more effective strategies for dealing with GOP nihilism some time ago. But contrary to the popular notion, including among many Democrats, Obama is no pushover. I saw that during the health care negotiations in 2009, after Ted Kennedy’s death cost us our 60 vote majority in the Senate. Some in the White House and Congress argued for abandoning the broad coverage of the proposed law – perhaps limiting it to children (what Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively termed the “namby panby” option). The popular lore is that Obama waivered and considered diluting the proposed bill to secure passage, but at least from my vantage point, and it was a pretty good one at the time, Obama was dug in and never vacillated. Similarly, he rejected those who argued, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, for a religious cutout from the new Executive Order on contracting. Obama knows his decision to keep the Order broad will result in a court challenge, but he also knows that even a weaker Order would have similarly been challenged, and he rejected the “namby pamby” approach once again.

Still, some will second-guess the precise language and scope of the Executive Order, and predictably, their criticism will be aimed at Obama and liberal Democrats whom they demand approve a tougher policy. We have seen the same syndrome among climate change activists, for example. Obama seemed to recognize this inevitability, noting “I’m going to do what I can with the authority I have to act [and] the rest of you, of course, need to keep putting pressure on Congress.” That doesn’t mean pressuring Pelosi and other ENDA backers to pass legislation they don’t have the votes to pass. It means doing the hard work of organizing the electorate and motivating turnout to punish those who prevent broader policies from being debate. Criticizing Democratic leaders in Congress is a pointless act of political self-indulgence. When progressive voters are organized and vote, the culture in Washington and the work product on Capitol Hill will become more sympathetic. Standing back and clucking that the current effort is insufficient does not contribute to greater success, which will remain elusive until the caucus of progressives is substantially increased. That work needs to be done in the communities of America (which, incidentally, agree with anti-discrimination policies).

There is one area of caution worth noting. As one who spent nearly 40 years working in the Congress – the first branch of government under the Constitution – I am predictably wary of the potential for the resurrection of the Imperial Presidency. Among the most important congressional reforms of the 1970s were those constraining the President from the unfettered exercise of authority that distorted the balance of power that is, for better or worse, the cornerstone of our constitutional system. Angered by the heavy handedness of Lyndon Johnson on foreign policy and Richard Nixon both internationally and with respect to budget and impoundment over-reach, Congress on a bipartisan basis enacted important steps to constrain an over-eager White House and re-inject itself into critical decision-making. Caution is needed to ensure that, in the desire to facilitate policy initiatives, the proper role of the Congress is not undermined by a White House that can inevitably move more quickly and decisively than a diverse legislative body. However, until Congress proves that it can move at all, its members are hard-pressed to chastise the President for employing the powers he has been given both by the Constitution and by statutes approved by the Congress.

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The Port Chicago Disaster — 70th Commemoration

A ceremony was held at the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Park on July 19th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster and the ensuing events which have such great significance in the history of the U.S. military and the evolution of the struggle for civil rights in mid-20th century America.  I received the Commemorative Hero’s Award for my work on creating the Port Chicago National Memorial and my efforts to secure exoneration for the sailors wrongly charged, by a racist judicial system, with mutiny.  Below are my remarks at the ceremony:

I would like to thank the Friends of Port Chicago for honoring me with this year’s Commemorative Hero’s Award, particularly our chair, Rev. Diana McDaniel, my fellow board members, and Superintendent Tom Leatherman and his outstanding team form the National Park Service. And especially, I want to acknowledge Congressman George Miller without whose leadership and determination, there would be no Memorial, no pardon of Freddie Meeks, and far less understanding of the significance of the events of July 17, 1944 and their aftermath.

We meet here at a time of momentous milestones. Not only is 2014 the 70th anniversary of the events that led to the de-segregation of the military and helped fuel the modern civil rights movement, but also of D-Day – June 6, 1944 – that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Just 16 days ago, I walked on the beach at Normandy, and I brought back a vial of red sand that I deposited on the shore at the Port Chicago Memorial on Thursday to symbolically link these two places that share such historic significance.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, during which more than 370,000 African Americans served in combat, as well as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

These are important moments in our national history, and they require recognition and solemn celebration. They changed our country, and they changed the world.

We recall them not simply for reasons of sentimentality but because they compel us to think about something more than our own times and our own struggles. They challenge us to consider how we arrived at this place, the sacrifices that were required, and who we are as a result of these shared experiences. 

These events marking the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster are a good example of why we need memorials and commemorations.

For decades after the war ended, few knew anything about Port Chicago, or the racism that pervaded the military during the War. Apropos of our presence here today, few understood the crucial, changing role of women on the Home Front during the war – not just the Rosie the Riveters who built the Victory ships and tanks right here in Richmond, but also the unprecedented role that women began to play in the nation’s economy.

These events also serve as a reminder that it can be time-consuming and frustrating to challenge old stereotypes and erroneous records. It took an Act of Congress in 1992 to compel the Navy even to review the shameful prosecution of the sailors convicted of mutiny after the explosion. Unfortunately, the Navy refused to overturn the convictions.But as a result of the determination of Congressman Miller, with strong support from other Californians like Barbara Boxer and Ron Dellums, legislation was soon passed creating the Port Chicago Memorial.

Yet even military has begun to revise its views of the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath. It is worth noting the remarks at the memorial service on Thursday of Lt. Colonel Timothy Zetterwall, the new commanding officer in Concord, which included unprecedented recognition of the Navy’s serious shortcomings in the handling of both the Port Chicago facility and the prosecutions that followed the disaster. That acknowledgement is a very important step.

When I began researching Port Chicago back in the mid-1980s, I remember calling an African-American veteran who had served there at the time of the explosion. Like many others, he had put the memory of that terrible night far behind him. He had rarely discussed his experiences even with his own family. Yet, when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of July 17, 1944, he quietly said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this phone call.”

My work on Port Chicago conjures up a number of such vivid scenes for me:

  • Percy Robinson, Robert Routh and Yale Lewis telling me of having to write home for gloves to prevent their hands from being cut in the loading of weapons — because the Navy would not supply them;
  • how a trumpet, sent by a worried parent, resulted in a fortuitous assignment to the base band instead of an assignment loading the E.A. Bryan on that night 70 years ago.
  • the unapologetic testimony of the purported “ringleader,” Joe Small at a congressional hearing when we began the effort to create the National Memorial;
  • the quiet dignity of Freddie Meeks when Rep. Miller and I visited him shortly after the issuance of the pardon by President Clinton in 1999 – the aging photos of him in his Navy uniform still proudly displayed in his living room.

After the story of the pardon appeared in the newspaper, many people wrote to Mr. Meeks to share their own recollections and emotions. One told Mr. Meeks, “Your fight is not just for you, or just for black people, but for all people. The United States is still on the path to Freedom and Equality. You have helped us stay on that path.”

Out at Normandy last month, I saw a few of that Greatest Generation wearing their veterans’ caps, carrying canes and riding in wheelchairs pushed by children or grandchildren. They had brought their families back to France, to that hallowed beach, to create a personal connection to that shattering experience – to ensure that they would always remember the sacrifices that were made for future generations.   It is in that same spirit that we continue our efforts to explain the significance of Port Chicago to our children and grandchildren.

When I wasn’t working late nights in the Congress or helping my wife raise our two sons, I also composed and recorded songs, including “The Ballad of Port Chicago.” I’d like to close by reciting to you the last verse and the chorus, which seem appropriate to today’s celebration. It goes like this:

And out in California, a flag still flies today,

Right where old Port Chicago stood

Before it blew away.

It waves there to remind us brave men served there once and died

And we must fight for justice still

That’s why they gave their lives.

Chorus:

Oh, my, what a terrible sight

The sky blew apart with a thundering light

And all those boys were blasted right

To Kingdom Come on that terrible night.

Their legend lives on and it’s quite a tale.

Half a hundred went to jail.

They took a step down freedom’s trail

Those Port Chicago boys.

When the National Anthem was played at the Port Chicago Memorial during Thursday’s memorial service, a flock of pelicans appeared from nowhere and suddenly formed a perfect “V” for “Victory,” hovering high over the fluttering flags until the song ended, and then disappeared, as did the 320 victims of the Port Chicago explosion.

I am very grateful to you for recognizing my work for this important cause, and I salute all those committed to telling the story of Port Chicago.