Friday, March 30, 2012

John Calipari: A Crooked Cheater or Brilliant Coach?

About this time last year (in fact, it was almost exactly one year ago), I wrote a post about John Calipari and the widespread opinion, among college basketball fans, that he is a cheater.

As with my yearly posts on "Taking Christ out of Christmas," this is one of those popular notions that "pops up every year like an old fart wafting up from a basement couch," and thus requires a yearly smack down by yours truly.

Today, I was on a sports forum discussing the Final Four. One of the posters there stated that Calipari is "crooked," predicted that this season will end up vacated when it's all said and done, and implied that there must be something dirty going on, otherwise Calipari wouldn't be able to recruit so many top-level prospects.

There are a number of issues that have to be understood here, and the first is simply the background behind the accusations of Calipari being crooked.

Quite simply, Calipari is widely regarded as a cheater because he has had two different programs, at two different schools, accused, and ultimately convicted, of NCAA rules infractions.

The first case occurred in 1996, when Marcus Camby, then a junior and a soon-to-be NBA draft pick, accepted gifts, including cash and jewelry, from a lawyer in Connecticut who wanted to become Camby's agent when he declared himself eligible for the NBA draft later that year. The story came out, and UMASS was penalized for it by having their NCAA tournament wins that year vacated. They also had to pay a fine equal to the money they had received as part of their tournament earnings - about 150K.

John Calipari, as the head coach of UMASS, was never accused by anyone (either the NCAA, or the people convicted in the case) of having any knowledge or involvement in the situation, and was explicitly cleared of any wrong-doing by the NCAA. Even the lawyer involved in this situation never suggested Calipari had any knowledge of the transactions, despite the fact that the whole reason the story broke in the first place is because he threatened to go to the media after Camby decided not to hire him as his agent.

The second situation occurred in 2008, when the NCAA began investigating Derrick Rose's high school SAT scores. There had been some concern about his academic eligibility almost from the beginning, in 2007, because of some apparent abnormalities on his high school transcript. This was investigated by both the school and the NCAA, and Rose was cleared to play.

At the end of that season, in 2008, the case was re-opened, after the administrators of the SAT (the so-called "ETS") determined that the scores were fraudulent and threw them out. It turned out that Rose's brother had illegally taken the test on his behalf, because Rose, apparently, feared he couldn't score high enough to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. He had failed to meet the minimum score on three previous attempts at a different test, the ACT.

After the ETS threw out Rose's scores, the NCAA used that as all the evidence it needed to retroactively invalidate Rose's eligibility, and thus vacate Memphis's entire season, including its Final Four appearance that year. The NCAA, itself, did not actually investigate the case, but simply relied on the ETS ruling. Since the ETS had thrown out the score, Rose was automatically disqualified because he no longer had a valid SAT.

All of this happened when Derick Rose was in high school. It did not occur under John Calipari's watch, and the NCAA agreed that Memphis had done everything it was required to do in investigating Rose's credentials when he signed on to play for Memphis. The NCAA did not accuse either Calipari or Memphis of any wrongdoing.

How John Calipari can be held responsible for something that occurred with one of his future players when that player was still in high school is anybody's guess.

So these are the two instances that have caused the very common and even fashionable notion that John Calipari is crooked.

As I stated in the article I wrote about this last year, the very accusation itself is unfair. The fact is, there are numerous schools and coaches throughout NCAA basketball history who have had tournaments and/or seasons vacated because of rules infractions. Some of them are even well-known and widely respected, like UCONN's 3-time NCAA championship coach Jim Calhoun, and the widely-loved and regarded Jim Valvano of NC State.

When was the last time you heard someone call Jim Valvano "crooked"? Yet he was forced to resign from NC State amid an investigation into players receiving improper benefits, and, also....wait for it....a player with questionable SAT scores!

So the fact that Calipari is dragged through the mud over this is inconsistency, and selective memory, at its best. The simple fact is that this has happened to numerous schools and numerous coaches, and Calipari himself was never accused, and certainly never convicted, of having any involvement in either of these situations.

Now, with this in mind, there are still two things that many Calipari-haters will say. 1) Where there's smoke, there's fire; and 2) even if he didn't know what was going on, he SHOULD's his program, after all, and thus his responsibility.

On the first issue, I agree that, often times, where there is smoke, there is usually fire. In other words, Calipari has been at the helm of two different programs that have had NCAA infractions and vacated Final Fours; surely there is a common thread here?

In fact, there is a perfectly good explanation for why this sort of thing seems to follow Calipari around: namely, Calipari's ability to attract top level talent to his programs. Think of situations you hear about from time to time when some Average Joe wins the lottery, and then finds himself surrounded by sycophants greedy to get a cut of the winnings. This is sort of what Calipari has to deal with in regards to the high-level prospects he recruits. He manages to secure a lot of talented players and future NBA stars, but sometimes a few creeps come along for the ride too - creeps like crooked sports agents and high school administrators trying to circumvent the NCAA's rules (there was some evidence to suggest that Derick Rose's high school had actually been involved in not only helping him to cheat the SAT, but also in changing grades on his official transcript before it was sent to Memphis).

The simple fact is, when you have that kind of star power, all sorts of underhanded people like to creep out of the woodwork to get a cut of the pie - and they don't care at all, of course, for NCAA rules. And you can hardly blame a coach for not being able to fully control all possible scenarios with all players all the time. Calipari has had exactly two bad seeds in 25 years of coaching. That's not a bad track record at all.

On the second issue - about how Calipari SHOULD have known something was up: I tend to waffle on this one. On the one hand, I can understand this argument. It's Calipari's program, so it's Calipari's job to make sure it's clean. But on the other hand - as I said above - it's ridiculous to think that a coach can keep full control of every possible scenario with every player all the time, particularly when that coach routinely attracts top level talent, who bring with them a lot of baggage and sycophants. Calipari, for instance, is not involved at all in the admissions process of his university - neither is any other coach. Thus, if Derick Rose got into Memphis on shaky academic grounds, that's hardly Calipari's fault. Schools have liability and culpability in these scenarios too.

The fact is, in the case of Memphis in particular, that program - and thus, that school - has a long, and even sordid, history of NCAA rules violations. They had a coach in the mid 1980's who not only got fired amid an NCAA investigation, but also got brought up on federal charges of tax evasion, and ended up spending time in jail. Memphis had to vacate their tournament appearances for five straight years, from 1982 to 1986, and were actually lucky to avoid the so-called "death penalty" - the shutting down of the program. As it was, the program basically remained in shambles until Calipari arrived some 20 years later.

Perhaps we can agree that Calipari needs to be more discerning in who he recruits; perhaps we can agree that he has learned a tough lesson about keeping a careful eye on what his players are doing and in promoting a spirit of compliance with NCAA rules among his players and recruits. But ultimately, I can't find any reason to level vicious attacks against Calipari and call him "crooked."

But what about this common argument - stated by the above-referenced sports fan - about how Calipari manages to attract so many top level recruits? Surely there is something going on under the table, right?

Well, of course, this whole statement is just wild speculation. You might as well say that the New York Yankees only manage to get all the best baseball stars because they are providing them with prostitutes and cocaine every night. The fact is, there are a number of obvious reasons why Calipari can attract so many high-level players.

1) Calipari is particularly skilled in turning young athletes, with high-level potential, into NBA stars.  This gets into the whole "one-and-done" debate that rages every year in NCAA basketball.  Calipari has said openly that he does not like the rule, but the rule is there, so he does what he can to work with it.  And the simple fact is, he does it better than anyone else.  Highly-touted high school basketball players want to play for Calipari, not because he is paying them, or doing anything else illegal, but for the simple fact that he has the best track record for turning these guys into high NBA draft picks and future NBA stars.

2) Calipari is a good coach.  Say what you will about Calipari's personality or personal history, but there is simply no question that Calipari is a top-level coach.  He has taken three different teams to the Final Four.  He has taken a Kentucky program to the Final Four two years in a row, when it had failed to reach that position for the previous 12 years under two different coaches.  He is, quite simply, one of those coaches that has that "special something" that draws out the best from his players.  During the 2010-2011 season, for instance, his star center was declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA.  With virtually no one to fill the spot, Calipari took a bench-warmer named Josh Harrellson, who had virtually never played, and turned him into a star, making him one of the certifiable "feel good" stories of the season.  He is now under contract playing for an NBA team.  Basketball players want to play for coaches that can do things like this.

3) Calipari has charisma and is likable.  His players clearly like playing for him.  I used to always wonder how Bobby Knight could recruit anybody to Indiana, because who, in their right mind, would want to play for such an insufferable jerk?  The point, of course, is that Calipari is a personable and charismatic person, and people like playing for him.

4) Finally, at the present time, Calipari is the head coach of UK.  UK is one of the "blue blood" programs of NCAA college basketball.  Kentucky fans would certainly argue that UK is the premiere college basketball program.  The Kentucky Wildcats are basically the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys of college basketball.  High school basketball players dream of playing at a program like UK.  If you were a top-level high school recruit who could go virtually anywhere, would you choose Cornfield State, or a place like UK? You'd probably choose UK, and it wouldn't take any underhanded recruiting by Calipari for you to make that decision.

All these things together, plus half a dozen more that I've omitted, are the reasons why Calipari is able to attract such a large number of top-level recruits.  It has absolutely nothing to do with any illegal or unethical activities.

Now, having put this issue to rest again for another year, I can sit back and watch UK play UL in the Final Four on Saturday, and be at peace with the world.  :)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes From the Cave: Dining Room Edition Part II

Well, the computer is still in the dining room, so Notes From the Cave is still being sent to you from a cluttered dining room table with a bright window glaring the laptop screen.

I have been off work today, and will return tomorrow, working 2nd shift.  I'm off today because I agreed to work on Saturday morning, meaning I'm going to pull one of those 2nd shift/1st shift deals where you basically work two shifts in a 24-hour period, with just 8 hours in between to get home, sleep, get up, shower, and get back to work.  It's pretty crappy, but that's how it goes sometimes.

We took Syd to a follow-up appointment with a pediatric hand surgeon today and the news was all good.  He doesn't think her smashed finger is actually broken, and he does not see any evidence of infection, meaning there appears to be no reason for surgical intervention.  Everything seems to be healing up just fine, although the finger is still black with scabs and stitches and dried blood (despite our best efforts to clean it up).  In case you didn't read my last installment, Syd got the tip of her pinkie crushed on the inside (hinge side) of a self-closing door at school and had to go to the ER for stitches and X-rays.  

I have recently started a new Twitter account.  I haven't advertised this on my blog or Facebook simply because the account is solely for the promotion of my books.  @BScottChristmas is still my main Twitter handle, where I do my normal tweeting and chatting and goofing around.  I don't plan on doing much book promoting on that account anymore (although I will probably send out the occasional shout-out for one of my books).  @Scotts_Books is my writing account, where I basically promote my own books and the books of my fellow writers.  Friends and family need not follow that account, as it will simply result in an enormous amount of Twitter spam.  

I'm definitely feeling torn about whether the second Twitter account is really worth it.  I resisted doing it for a long time (I even commented on my blog about how annoying some of the Indie writers were who were constantly spamming about their own books), but I finally decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  It must work, or they wouldn't do it.  However, in the first few weeks (and I've already got as many followers on my new account as I do on my older one - about 600 apiece), I'm not sure that it's really doing anything to increase my book sales.  The books that were already selling pretty well are still selling at roughly the same pace, and the ones that weren't selling well don't seem to be getting any boost by the constant tweeting.  In fact, I can only identify a handful of actual sales that have come from all the self-promotion - either because it's a book that hasn't sold much lately and all of the sudden there is a sale or two, or because someone tells me on Twitter that they bought a book.  Of course, even a few extra sales is probably worth it, since it doesn't cost me a dime to do - just time, and it doesn't even cost me that much time.  

I dunno, I'll keep doing it for a while and see what I think.  I may end up abandoning the account if I decide it's not worth it.  The problem with this whole scenario is that it is all a big community, and everyone follows everyone else - so when I have a follower who re-tweets one of my books to all their followers, it's still pretty much just going to all the same people.  Furthermore, all of us are competing for an audience, and everyone tweets non-stop about their books and blogs and everything else, so your News Feed is a constant stream of self-promoting tweets and re-tweets, so you don't read or pay any attention to 99% of them anyway, and you probably only buy 1/10th of 1% of the books that people are tweeting about.  For instance, after several months of being involved in this Indie Twitter crowd, I've bought a total of maybe 6 books, two of which were just short stories.  But I've had tens of thousands of tweets sent to me in that time advertising books and blogs and whatnot.  

The point in all this rambling is that it's a very difficult market to break into, and because there is so much spam, you can't really get noticed unless you, yourself, become a spammer.  It's like a race to see who can out-spam everyone else, in order to get noticed often enough to actually produce some sales.  

And on that note....I finally published my poetry collection :)  It's available now for Kindle readers and Kindle apps from Amazon.  Dear Author: A Collection of Poems.  It's only 99 cents.  There are, I believe, 52 poems in the collection, which I've culled from more than 500 that I wrote from 2004 to 2008.  I don't expect a collection of poetry to exactly tear up the bestseller lists, but for anyone who enjoys good poetry, I think you'll find that my poems are not half bad, for an Indie writer anyway.  Be forewarned that there is some explicit language in a few of the poems.  

For the remainder of the year, I have three more projects planned.  One is to finish re-writing and re-working my very first completed novel - The Pyrate Chronicles - which I wrote when I was in college.  I'm re-writing it in order to publish it on Amazon.  The second project is to complete my series on Presidential Facts, and publish them in a single volume.  The final project is a novella (a short novel) about a 1st century Christian text that gets discovered in the modern day, and the race to find out who stole it and why.  It's going to be a thriller in the vein of Dan Brown (NOT that it will be that good, of course, but a boy has to try).  :)   I don't know that these projects will necessarily be completed in this order, but my goal is to complete them all by year's end.  Let's see if I can stick with it.  Maybe putting it out there publically like this will spur me to action.  

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Notes From the Cave: Dining Room Edition

The computer is set up on the dining room table at the moment, because it is more convenient there for my wife and daughter, so this edition of Notes From the Cave comes to you from the Dining Room.  I'm seated in front of a large window with brilliant Spring sunshine coming in, even though it is still technically Winter.

As many of you know, I did a free promo on my short story Widow's Walk last month, and it was a resounding success.  I had more than 1,400 downloads during the 5 days it was free.  This was literally about 10 times more than what I had hoped for.  I would have been thrilled with 150.  Since it went to its normal price of 99 cents, I am still selling several copies per day, so it has become a boon for my publishing income as well, which is all just on-the-side income for me.  If anyone reading this has read Widow's Walk, it would be a tremendous help to me if you would put up a review on Amazon.  This is very, very important.  People are more apt to buy books that have lots of reviews (especially if they are positive!).  And thanks.

I also recently published a short historical essay on the Virgin Birth.  This is an essay I posted as a series on my blog a few years ago, and it was also included in my first book, Christianity is a Verb.  Like Widow's Walk (which was included in my short story collection, Serendipity), I decided to make this one available by itself, for 99 cents.  I haven't advertised this one at all, figuring it will garner more sales during Christmas time.

My next project will be a collection of poetry.  I don't expect to sell that many copies, but I figured I would put it out there for anyone who might be interested.  When my wife and I split up a few years back, I found poetry to be an effective catharsis for what I was going through.  As a result, I wrote hundreds of poems during that 18-month period, and continued writing them occasionally for several years afterward.  It took a lot of time to pick and choose which ones were good enough for publication, and which ones were appropriate for publication (if you've been fortunate enough to read any of my poetry, you'll understand why some of them are most definitely not appropriate for public consumption - ha!).  In any case, I will advertise it once I have put it onto Amazon.  I think most of the poems in the collection are pretty good.  So if you enjoy poetry, I hope you'll buy it.  I'll probably put it up for 99 cents.

There isn't much else to talk has been picking up lately, and I did a week of thirds a few weeks back.  I enjoy working third shift, but it is a total bitch going back to first shift after getting on that third shift schedule.  My first day back was last Tuesday and I was an absolute shithead all day.  The worst thing about third shift, for me, is the feeling of being totally disconnected from the world.  You are up all night, so you obviously sleep much of the day, and you feel like you have no idea what is happening in the world: sports, news, politics, your friends and family.  It's a very lonesome feeling in that regard, and I don't like it at all.  I guess you'd get used to it if you did it all the time.  It's sort of like being on vacation - you don't read the news and you don't know what's going on with your friends and neighbors, and you come back and have to get re-adjusted to normal life.

My 5-year-old broke her finger last week, getting it caught in a door she was trying to shut.  Broke the tip of her pinkie and cut it so badly her daycare called 911.  The EMT's bandaged it, and then we took her to the emergency room, where they had to stitch it.  She has since seen a hand surgeon who said he could not rule out possibly having to do surgery on it.  Here's to hoping that's not the case.

I'm ready to kill my dog.

I'm currently reading Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon.  It's a haunting novel set in 1699 and centered on a witch trial in the Carolina colonies.  It is absolutely wonderful.

I haven't watched any episodes of Lost recently, but I am up to the 4th season now.  It's not got quite the same je ne sais quoi as it did in the earlier seasons, but it is still very captivating.

We are finally doing our taxes - probably the latest we've ever done them.  If the return is substantial enough, I am hoping to get a new laptop for myself, so the kids and the Wife can have this one, and we don't have to compete for it.  It's a major crimp to my writing endeavors.  :)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States

1. Born in Iowa in 1874, Herbert Clark Hoover would become the first U.S. president born west of the Mississippi River.  His mother was Canadian by birth and his father worked as a blacksmith - his father died when he was still a toddler, and his mother died when he was 9 years old, making him an orphan.  After living for a short time with his grandmother, and later an uncle, in Iowa, he was sent to live with another uncle - a frontier doctor - in Oregon.  He never attended high school, although he learned enough on his own to enroll in the brand new Stanford University.  As a member of Stanford's first class, Hoover would later claim to have been the actual first Stanford student, saying he was the first in his class to room in the school's dormitory.  He graduated with a degree in Geology.
2. In 1897, Hoover got a job with a London-based gold mining company that operated out of Australia.  He would live in Australia for the next three years, later becoming the lead engineer for the company's China operations.  In 1899, he married Lou Henry, and the couple had two sons.  His wife had also graduated with Stanford with a degree in geology, the only woman in her class.  By 1901, Hoover became a partner in the corporation and moved back to the United States.  In 1908, he sold his shares and set out on his own.  He quickly became an enormously wealthy mining magnate, with operations on every continent in the world.    
3. After the start of World War I, Hoover found himself becoming heavily involved in civilian humanitarian aid.  He became a chief organizer of getting food and rations into war-ravaged Europe, and was eventually named by Woodrow Wilson to lead the U.S. Food Administration, which worked to ensure that enough foodstuffs could be sent to American soldiers overseas.  His efforts included widespread domestic programs to encourage Americans to eat more frugally, so there would be plenty left to send to Europe.  These promotions included things like "Meatless Mondays" and "Wheatless Wednesdays."  His efforts succeeded; the U.S. never had to institute domestic rationing, and American soldiers overseas remained well fed.
4. After the war was over, Hoover dedicated himself to aiding the millions of Europeans, particularly in Germany and Russia, who were left in poverty by the war.  Criticized by some for "aiding Bolshevism" in Russia, Hoover refused to back down, arguing that regardless of political differences, starving people deserved to be fed.  During the height of the Russian famine in 1921 and 1922, his organization helped bring food to more than 10 million people every single day.  He was later recognized in Russia for his humanitarian efforts, and was named one of the Ten Most Important Living Americans by the New York Times.
5. Following his rise to prominence, Hoover was courted by both parties as a potential candidate.  Woodrow Wilson, under whom Hoover had obtained his first political appointment, wanted Hoover to run on the Democratic ticket in 1920 to succeed him to the White House.  Hoover, however, had long been a registered Republican, and felt that the Republicans had a better chance of winning the White House in 1920 than the Democrats.  As such, Hoover ran as a candidate in the Republican primary in California.  Failing to win his home state, however, he backed out of the race, and later endorsed Warren G. Harding, who would go on to win the nomination and later the general election.
6. After winning the presidency, Harding rewarded Hoover by naming him the head of the Department of Commerce.  He remained in this position throughout the 20's, serving under Harding, and later Calvin Coolige.  As Commerce Secretary, Hoover instituted drastic changes in the department, turning it from a small, relatively new cabinet post with ambiguous responsibilities, to one of the most prominent and politically-active departments in the entire cabinet.  Throughout the 20's, Hoover was jokingly referred to as the "Secretary of Commerce," and the "Under-Secretary of Everything Else."  Among other things, he promoted home ownership and the budding Hollywood film industry.
7.  In 1927, Hoover appeared on the first television broadcast in U.S. history.  Standing before a camera in Washington, his image and words were transmitted to an AT&T laboratory in New York.  Newspapers all over the country reported on this new invention, with the New York Times stating that it was as if a photograph of Hoover had come to life and begun to speak and smile and move. 
8. In 1928, Hoover's boss, President Coolige, opted not to run for re-election, and Hoover became the immediate front runner, easily winning the Republican nomination, and then defeating his Democratic challenger in a landslide, garnering 58% of the vote.  He became the only president in U.S. history who had never held an elected or executive political office, or held a high military ranking (William Howard Taft also never held elected office or high military rank, but he had served as the governor of both Cuba and the Phillippines, a position to which he was appointed).  His campaign platform had included pointing to his own success in business and humanitarian efforts, as well as a promise to continue the policies of his predecessors.  He famously stated, during the campaign: "...Given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years...we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this Nation."  Famous.  Last.  Words.
9. Shortly after taking office in 1929, the stock market crashed, and the United States was plunged into the worst economic disaster in its history.  Though this was certainly not the direct fault of Hoover, the existing policies he supported were, in many ways, partially to blame for the collapse, and Hoover's efforts to bring the country back to prosperity fell short of the goal.  Hoover effectively became the face of the Great Depression.  Shantytowns that sprang up among out-of-work laborers were called Hoovervilles.  "Hoover Blankets" were newspapers used by poor people to keep warm on the streets.  If someone turned their pockets out to demonstrate their poverty, they were called "Hoover Flags."  "Hoover Wagons" referred to the numerous rusting, broken down cars that people could no longer afford to maintain.  With his party in tatters, Hoover was able to secure renomination in 1932, but lost in a landslide to newcomer Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Hoover's loss was the most lopsided defeat ever suffered by an incumbent president.  He won only 6 states, and failed to gain even 40% of the popular vote. 
10. Hoover is the only president in U.S. history who has two celestial bodies named after him - Herberta, an asteroid, and Hooveria, one of numerous minor planets orbiting the sun.  The Hoover Dam was also named after him, as its construction was begun during his presidency.  When the name was made official in 1935, it brought a significant amount of controversy.  After his presidency, Hoover lived for another 31 years, the longest-serving ex-president in history.  Later this year, he will be surpassed by Jimmy Carter.  Carter and Hoover also have several other similarities.  Both were engineers by trade (the only two engineers to ever reach the White House), and both presided over economic woes that ultimately cost them re-election.  Both are also widely known as unsurpassed humanitarians, but poor presidents.  Finally, Carter and Hoover are the most prolific writers among American presidents.  To date, Carter has written more than 20 books, while Hoover published 16.  Hoover died in October, 1964, having outlived his wife by more than 20 years.  They are both buried in Hoover's hometown of West Branch, Iowa.       

Monday, March 12, 2012

10 Fun Facts About William McKinley

William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States

1. William McKinley, Jr., was born in Ohio in 1843, the son of a businessman who owned several iron mills.  McKinley was a devout Methodist throughout his life, and volunteered as a teenager at his local church.  He attended only one year of college, returning home due to depression and illness.  Afterwards, he worked briefly as a schoolteacher. 
2. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, 18-year-old McKinley volunteered for the military and served under Major Rutherford B. Hayes, who would, of course, go on to become president in the 1870's.  They remained close friends and political allies for the remainder of their lives.  McKinley eventually earned the rank of Brevet Major.  
3. After several years of law school and training, McKinley set up a small practice in Canton, Ohio.  In 1869, he was elected District Attorney of Stark County, Ohio, but was defeated in 1871 in his bid for re-election. That same year, he married Ida Saxton, and the couple had two daughters.  Their second daughter, Ida, died in infancy in 1873, and the eldest daughter, Katherine, died of typhoid fever two years later.  The couple never had anymore children.  Her daughters' deaths devestated Ida McKinley, and she began to develop pscyhological and physical health problems, including epilepsy and debilitating anxiety.  She remained a recluse for the rest of her life, including during her husband's presidency.   
4. In 1875, McKinley famously defended a group of striking coalminers who had been arrested for rioting after strikebreakers attempted to penetrate their line.  McKinley managed to secure acquittals for all but one of the coalminers, and this greatly raised his notoriety around the state.  Following this, McKinley ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1876, also campaigning for his old friend and comrade-in-arms, Rutherford B. Hayes, in his run for the presidency.  Hayes won a narrow victory to become president, and McKinley easily won a seat in Congress.  
5. From the start of his first term in Congress, McKinley proved himself to be independently-minded, frequently voting across the aisle and event voting once to override a presidential veto from his friend and fellow Republican  Hayes.  
6.  By the late 1880's, McKinley had become a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and after failing in a bid to become Speaker of the House in 1888, he instead was appointed as the chairman of the committee.  As chairman, he was instrumental in passing a new tariff that greatly increased the taxes levied against foreign products entering the country.  This was designed to promote American businesses, and the tariff became known as the McKinley Tariff of 1890.  
7. The McKinley Tariff went over like a lead balloon.  Domestic prices shot up throughout the early 1890's as demand for them increased, and the economy delved into the worst economic depression of the 19th century.  Numerous Republicans lost seats around the country, including McKinley, who was defeated for re-election in 1890.  The recession peaked in 1893, thus becoming known to history as the Panic of 1893.  In 1894, the McKinley Tariff was repealed and a new, lower, tariff was put back into place.
8. Finding himself out of a job in 1891, McKinley ran for governor of Ohio and won, taking office in 1892.  He proved a popular governor, and was re-elected in 1894.  Despite his involvement in the unpopular tariff that was named for him, McKinley managed to maintain a prominent profile in Republican politics, and was nominated for president in 1896.  He continued to support high tariffs, denying that they were to blame for the recession, and took a compromise position on the issue of the gold standard, which was a hot-button topic at the time.  
9. McKinley instituted an effective "Front Porch Campaign," opting to meet with voters and journalists at his home in Ohio, rather than touring the country giving speeches, as his Democratic challenger (William Jennings Bryan) was doing.  It paid off.  McKinley won the election in a narrow victory, winning 51% of the popular vote.  His inauguration was the first in U.S. history to be videotaped.  At least one of his campaign speeches was recorded on audio as well.      
10.  McKinley's presidency was widely viewed as a successful one, with the economy improving and American businesses growing larger.  McKinely was also given credit for America's resounding victory in the Spanish-Americacn war, which resulted in territorial gains for the U.S.  In 1900, McKinley again faced William Jennings Bryan in the election, and this time defeated him handily.  Six months after his second inauguration, McKinley was shot twice by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz while shaking hands at a public appearance in Buffalo, New York.  One bullet was stopped by a button and only lodged in McKinley's clothes; the other, however, entered his abdomen.  The only doctor in the vicinity capable of performing a surgical operation was a gynecologist named Matthew Mann.  He was unable to locate the bullet.  As days passed, the president's condition seemed to improve, and the news media was assured that he was in no mortal danger.  However, seven days later, he took a sudden turn for the worse and died, on September 12, 1901.  The bullet had gone through his pancreas and kidney, and gangrene had formed along its trajectory.  He was buried in Canton, Ohio. 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Can Mitt Romney Win in November?

With Mitt Romney's win in the "Super Tuesday" primaries, it seems all but inevitible that he will become the Republican nominee in this year's presidential election.  Putting politics and ideologies and partisan loyalties aside, what can historical trends tell us about his chances of unseating Barack Obama this fall?

Before I begin, let me go ahead and deflect one very easy and obvious criticism: namely, that past trends don't necessarily predict future results.  This is a situation we find in virtually every presidential election - commentators and journalists and political pundits talking about "past trends" in previous elections that may give viewers and readers and listeners an idea of what to expect.  One recent situation comes to mind: prior to 2008, Missouri had voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election, except for one, going all the way back to 1904 - that's 100 years.  And in the one election where they voted for the eventual loser (1956), the vote was separated by just a few dozen ballots - less than 1/4 of 1% of the votes cast in the state - a virtual dead heat.  Thus, as Missouri goes, so goes the country.  Well, that "past trend" failed to predict future results in 2008.  Missouri voted with McCain, but Obama won the election.  The moral of the story is obvious: you have to take great care when assuming that a past trend has any bearing on what will transpire in the future.

So with that caveat in mind, what do history and past trends tells us about Romney's chances of winning this November?

To begin with, it's important to understand one undeniable fact about presidential history: it is extremely difficult to unseat a sitting president - even an unpopular one.  It's only happened five times in the last 100 years; more than twice that many have secured re-election.  It's a simple fact that being an incumbent president gives you a distinct advantage: recognition, familiarity, a prominent position from which to launch your campaign, a well-known record to point to.  Many people are simply willing to stay with what is comfortable rather than take a chance on something new.  This always gives an incumbent president an edge, no matter how popular or unpopular he may be.

In addition to this very general trend, of course, there are also a number of much more specific trends to take into consideration.  All of them bode poorly for Romney's chances of unseating Obama in November.   

The last time a sitting president lost his re-election bid was 1992 with George H.W. Bush.  Prior to that, it had occurred in 1980 with Jimmy Carter.  There are a number of similarities between these two elections.  Both Carter and Bush had entered office with a relatively prosperous and stable economy.  By the end of their first terms, however, the economy was in a recession.

Both Carter and Bush presided over unpopular foreign policy situations: Carter had the Iran hostage crisis, Bush a widely criticized war with Iraq that the general public felt had been left unfinished.

Finally, both both Carter and Bush had famously broken prominent campaign promises: Bush had infamously declared "No new taxes," then later raised taxes anyway, while Carter had promised to eliminate Executive office corruption in the wake of the Watergate scandal, but then steadfastly supported his good friend and appointee to the head of the Office of Management and Budget - Bert Lance - after Lance became embroiled in a financial ethics scandal; Lance eventually resigned in disgrace.

As a result of widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle, both Bush and Carter faced uphill battles to secure the re-nomination of their respective parties.  Carter faced a strong challenger in the Democratic primary from Ted Kennedy, while Bush was forced to contend with prominent political pundit Pat Buchanan in the Republican primary.  While Bush still managed to win every state in the primaries, Buchanan won about 25% of the total primary vote - a very strong showing against a sitting president.  Carter, for his part, only managed to win 37 states in the primary, losing 12 to Kennedy and 1 to Jerry Brown of California.

Obama, however, does not have any legitimate contenders for the Democratic primary, and is on pace to win all 50 states and about 95% of the primary vote. 

History has shown that when a sitting president faces a significant battle in his own party's primary, this spells doom for his re-election bid.

In fact, throughout the history of the presidency, virtually every incumbent who faced serious re-nomination challenges went on to lose in the general election.  Likewise, virtually every incumbent who faced no serious contenders within his own party's primary (like Obama this year), went on to win the general election.

In fact, the last time a sitting president faced no serious challenges to re-nomination, but still went on to lose the general election, was 1932.  Prior to that, it was 1888.  And those two instances - Hoover in 1932, and Cleveland in 1888 - are the only two times in U.S. history that a sitting president has faced no serious re-nomination challenge, but still gone on to lose re-election.

History would suggest very strongly that this is a good indicator of Obama's chances to win against Romney in November.  Incumbent presidents with strong support from their party's base simply do not, very often, lose re-election bids.  In fact, it almost never happens.  And the two times it has happened, it has involved unique and unusual circumstances.  

Cleveland, in 1888, actually won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote.  The reason he lost the electoral vote is because he lost his home state of New York.  The reason he lost New York is because New York's powerful Democratic political organization - Tammany Hall - campaigned for the Republican Harrison because Cleveland had attempted to reform Tammany Hall's corrupt politics, and they never forgave him for it.  (Cleveland, by the way, defeated Harrison 4 years later in a rematch.)  

Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland
And Hoover, of course, was blamed for the worst economic disaster in U.S. history and lost in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history to Franlkin D. Roosevelt. 

Herbert Hoover
Hoover's loss to Roosevelt in 1932 segues into yet another historical trend that bodes well for Obama, and poorly for Romney.  Throughout U.S. history, particularly since 1900, when incumbent presidents have lost re-election bids, it has almost always involved a very strong and charismatic opponent who was able to sweep the primaries and unite his political base.  This was seen in 1932 with Hoover and Roosevelt, 1980 with Carter and Reagan, and 1992 with Bush and Clinton.  

As this primary season has shown us, the only thing uniting Republicans right now is their desire to unseat Obama.  Even though Romney appears now to be on the verge of securing the nomination, the Republicans have been largely split on who they most want.  To date, three different candidates have won states, and four candidates have won delegates.  At one point or another, six of the seven original candidates have led in national polls.  The Republicans simply are not united behind any of their candidates, and this has led most commentators to agree that none of the candidates has won the heart of the Republican party.  The Republicans simply are not unified behind any of their candidates.  And while most blue-blooded Republicans will vote, in the general election, for Romney (or whoever wins the nomination), many of them will vote only grudgingly.  This does not bode well for the Republican party.

Since 1900, exactly five incumbent presidents have lost their re-election bid.  Let's look at each of them a bit more closely.

In 1912, William Howard Taft ran for re-election.  That year saw a major split in the Republican party, with Taft leading the so-called "conservative" Republicans, and former president Teddy Roosevelt leading the "progressive" Republicans.  Roosevelt ran on a third-party ticket.  This, of course, effectively split the Republican vote, and newcomer Woodrow Wilson won a landslide victory, winning 40 states.  Taft actually won fewer states, and less of the popular vote, than Roosevelt did.

In 1932, as we have already seen, Herbert Hoover lost his re-election bid to Franklin Roosevelt.  Hoover had presided over the worst economic collapse in U.S. history.  Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a prominent and widely known figure in the Democratic party, was charismatic and trustworthy, and was able to unite the Democrats behind him.  He swept to victory in a landslide, and most historians would agree that virtually any Democrat in 1932 could have defeated Hoover.

Not until 1976 did another incumbent lose his re-election bid.  That year, Gerald Force ran against newcomer Jimmy Carter.  Ford was one of the most widely criticized presidents of the 20th century.  The only president in history to never win a presidential election as either a president or vice-president, Ford had been the House Minority Leader before ascending to the vice-presidency upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973.  A year later, when Nixon resigned, Ford became president.  Serving during a turbulent two years, which included an infamously unpopular pardon of Richard Nixon, Ford just barely managed to secure re-nomination by the Republican party in 1976, beating challenger Ronald Reagan by only a few percentage points and carrying only 27 states.  With Republican loyalty so obviously split, Ford had very little chance in the general election against Jimmy Carter.  Carter had charmed the nation with his genteel southern mannerisms, and had come to be viewed as the upstanding, morally-centered Washington outsider the country needed after the corruption of the Nixon years.

Richard Nixon was a crook

Four years later, after a tumultuous presidency that saw many in his own party abandon him, Carter faced an uphill battle for re-nomination in 1980.  He fought long and hard to beat down a challenge by Ted Kennedy, but once he had secured the Democratic nomination, he found himself pitted against Ronald Reagan, a charismatic and energizing figure who charmed and wowed his Republican base - and had nearly unseated his fellow Republican Ford four years earlier.  Reagan, of course, won in a landslide.

And finally, in 1992, George Bush found himself stinging from an infamously broken campaign promise about taxes, an economic recession, an unpopular war left unfinished, and a general feeling, among many Americans, that Bush was certainly no Ronald Reagan.  He too had a fight on his hands for renomination, then faced off against the charismatic and popular Bill Clinton.  In addition to this, Clinton was helped by a general negative feeling towards the Republican party, due to 12 straight years of Republican leadership, and 20 out of the previous 24 years.  Finally, much of the Republican vote was split by the first major third party candidate in several decades, Ross Perot.  Perot did not win any electoral votes, but he did take almost 20% of the popular vote - a significant number of which would almost certainly have gone to George Bush.  What it boiled down to was that the country was simply ready for something new.  Bill Clinton proved to be it.

Ross Perot would like to know if he can finish now.

In the end, when you take all of these historical trends together, even while keeping in mind that past trends don't necessarily predict future results, it would seem that Romney's chances of unseating Obama this fall are very slim indeed.  

Obama has the support of his own party and his own base.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are fighting internally and are, in many ways, in disarray as they seek to find an alternative to Obama.  History shows that without at least one of these trends being reversed, Obama will retain his seat.  

The situation we have this year, in fact, is not unlike the last time a sitting president ran for re-election - 2004.  That year, George W. Bush, though not widely popular and even regarded somewhat drearily by his own base, managed to win re-election, and it was largely due to the fact that the Democrats simply couldn't find a really charismatic, strong, and trustworthy candidate to run against him.  John Kerry was nominated, and Democrats voted for him, but the party enthusiasm was simply not there.  Many votes for John Kerry were no doubt given grudgingly.  The same thing seems to be afflicting the Republican party in 2012.

Short of an unprecedented historical situation, I believe these historical trends and patterns indicate that Obama will remain in the White House to serve a second term.  

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

10 Fun Facts About Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States

1. James Earl Carter was born in Plains, Georgia in 1924, the eldest of four children.  The hospital he was born in now bears his mother's name, and is today a mental hosptial.  Carter was the first U.S. president born in a hospital.  An ancestor of 17th century English settlers, Carter's great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

2. Carter played basketball for his high school team, and was a member of the FFA (Future Farmers of America).  June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash, was a distant cousin.

3. Joining the Naval Academy in 1943, Carter served on ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and later served in nuclear submarines.  Following a meltdown at a reactor in Canada, Carter was part of an elite team that entered the reactor and sealed it off.  Following his father's death in 1953, Carter - now married to Rosalynn Smith - resigned his commision in the Navy and returned to take over his father's peanut farm in Georgia.  For a short period of time, the Carters lived in public housing, making Carter the only president in U.S. history to have done so.  The Carters have four children.  Carter is also the only president in U.S. history to have graduated from the Naval Academy. 

4. After successfully turning his father's farm into a thriving business, Carter entered politics in 1961 by winning a seat in Georgia's state senate.  He served two terms, but declined running for a third term in 1966, and instead contemplated a run for the U.S. House of Representatives.  Shortly into this campaign, however, he turned his sights on the Georgia gubernatorial race, and instead ran for the Democratic nomination there.  He was ultimately defeated, and therefore returned to his peanut farming business, although he continued to make public political appearances for the Democratic party. 

5. Carter ran again in the Georgia gubernatorial election of 1970, and this time he pulled out a victory over Republican opponent Hal Suit.  In his inaugural speech, he openly condemned discrimination against blacks, making him the first major office holder in the South to publically do so.

6. In 1973, while governor of Georgia, Carter filed a report with the International UFO Bureau, reporting a UFO sighting in 1969 that was also witnessed by several other people.

7. In 1976, Carter ran for the presidency, hoping to capitalize on his status as a Washington outsider in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the public's negative opinion of the Republican party.  Initially considered a longshot, he became the front-runner and eventually gained the Democratic nomination.  During this campaign, Carter was interviewed by Playboy magazine and famously admitted to being guilty of lust.  He won the election by a slim margin over incumbent Gerald Ford, with the results split largely West to East, with Ford taking virtually all of the western states, and Carter taking most of those east of the Mississippi.

8. Carter's presidency was characterized by rising energy costs, trouble in the Middle East, and the Iran Hostage Crisis, which played a significant role in Carter's re-election bid in 1980.  While Carter was able to broker peace between Israel and Egypt, the economy was largely flat during his presidency, and the public very quickly lost confidence in his leadership.  In 1980, he faced an uphill battle for re-election, having to stave off a significant run by Ted Kennedy to replace him on the Democratic ticket, before facing off against a surging Ronald Reagan in the general election.  Accused of being too moderate by the Democratic base, and too liberal by the Republicans, Carter lost in landslide, winning only 6 states, and losing by nearly 10% of the popular vote.

9.  Jimmy Carter is the only president in U.S. history to serve a full term as president, but never get to nominate a judge for the U.S. Supreme Court.  Together with his vice-president, Walter Mondale, they set the record for the longest living former presidential team in U.S. history, surpassing John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  In September of 2012, Carter will become the longest surviving ex-president in U.S. history, passing Herbert Hoover. 

10. Carter has become one of the most publically active ex-presidents in U.S. history.  In 2002, he became the only former U.S. president to earn a Nobel Peace Prize for work performed outside the office of the presidency.  He is also the only president to publish a novel.  His post-presidential career is widely viewed as far more successful than his presidential career.  In 2000, Carter and his wife surpassed John and Abigail Adams as the second longest married presidential couple in U.S. history, behind only George and Barbara Bush.  Both plan on being buried in their hometown of Plains, Georgia.           

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

10 Fun Facts About James K. Polk

James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States

1. James Knox Polk was born in 1795 in North Carolina, very likely in a log cabin.  His mother, Jane, was descended directly from a brother of John Knox, leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church.  As a child, Polk suffered from a number of illnesses.  At the age of 17, he underwent a surgical procedure to have kidney stones removed.  The surgeon who performed the procedure was Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky, who had performed the first successful removal of an ovarian tumor just three years earlier.  A hospital in Danville today is named after him.
2. Polk earned a degree from the University of North Carolina, before settling in Tennessee to study, and later practice, law.  In the early 1820's, Polk served as the clerk for the Tennessee State Senate, and was later elected to the Tennessee legislature.  In 1824, Polk married Sarah Childress, who would go on to become the longest living former First Lady in U.S. history - surviving until 1891.  The Polks never had any children; it has been suggested that Polk's surgery as a teenager may have rendered him sterile. 
3. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a staunch supporter of Andrew Jackson, who was seeking the presidency.  In 1835, near the end of Jackson's second term, Polk became Speaker of the House, a position he kept until 1839, when he became governor of Tennessee.  Polk remains the only Speaker of the House in U.S. history to later become president. 
4. Polk served only one term (a 2-year term) as governor of Tennessee, before being defeated for re-election in 1841, and again in 1843.  In 1844, he gave up on Tennessee and ran for vice-president.  The incumbent president was John Tyler, who had gained the White House upon the death of William Henry Harrison.  Tyler was a Whig, but the Whigs had expelled him from their party shortly after he became president because they were unhappy with his policies.  As a result, the Whigs nominated Henry Clay for the presidency, leaving Tyler to form a third party; he later dropped out of the race.  The Democrats, on the other hand, found themselves embroiled in a nomination battle between Martin Van Buren - who had served as president from 1837 to 1841 - and senator Lewis Cass of Michigan.  Van Buren initially garnered a majority of the primary votes, but the Democrats required a 2/3rds majority to win the nomination.  When it became apparent that Van Buren could not get that many votes, the tide turned towards Lewis Cass.  Cass, however, was also unable to secure 2/3rds of the vote.  As a result, James K. Polk was put forth as a compromise candidate, and on the 9th ballot, he won the necessary majority to win the nomination.  As a result, he became the first "dark horse" candidate in U.S. history (a candidate that seemingly comes out of nowhere at the last minute to secure a nomination).
5. The 1844 election was primarily about slavery and the annexation of Texas.  Texas had applied for annexation in the late 1830's, but the U.S. had not moved on it and they had withdrawn their request.  It was resubmitted several years later, and a treaty for annexation had been approved.  The question during the 1844 election turned on whether Texas should be immediately accepted into the Union, or whether annexation should wait.  Pro-slavery advocates favored immediate annexation because it was believed that Britain was attempting to encourage Texas - which, at that time, was an independent nation - to end slavery.  Getting them into the Union, then, was seen as vital in order to preserve slavery there.  Abolitionists, and those who did not want slavery to be expanded into new states, favored waiting for annexation, in the hopes that Texas might decide to end slavery first.  They also feared a war with Mexico, who did not support the annexation of Texas.  Polk's position in the campaign was for immediate annexation.  Clay, on the other hand, was initially vague on the issue, and only later grudgingly promised to accept annexation under the right conditions.
6. The election was a nail-biter.  In the end, Polk lost his home state of Tennessee, but managed to win in New York.  A third-party candidate, abolitionist James Birney, took 15,000 votes in New York, the majority of which would likely have gone to Clay had Birney not been in the race.  Those votes would have been more than enough to give New York to Clay, and thus the presidency.  Instead, Polk won the state and won the White House.  Polk won the overall popular vote by a mere 40,000 votes. 
7. Polk's presidency is widely considered one of the most successful in history among "forgotten" presidents.  Because of the competing factions within the Democratic party, Polk promised not to run for a second term, and this helped to solidify his support among legislators and prominent politicians.  As a result of this promise, Polk became the first president in U.S. history to voluntarily retire after one term.
8. As promised, Polk backed the immediate annexation of Texas.  As feared, this precipitated the Mexican-American War.  The war, however, was a resounding success for the U.S., and with the treaty came not only Texas, but all of the modern U.S. southwest, including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.  Polk was also able to pass a substantial new tariff on manufactured goods, and he overhauled the U.S. Treasury, creating a system that remained in place until the early 20th century. 
9. As an expansionist, Polk brokered a deal with Great Britain for the Oregon territory, which, at that time, included all the Pacific Northwest, from California to the southern part of modern Alaska.  The deal effectively divided the territory between the two countries, helping to create the modern day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and giving territory now in Canada to Great Britain.  Polk also created the Department of the Interior.
10. After taking office as the youngest president in U.S. history, Polk had the shortest retirement of any president in history.  He survived only three months after leaving office, dying in 1849 from cholera contracted while on a farewell tour of the South.  His wife would live another forty years after he died, and both are now buried in a tomb at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.