Jimmy Carter redux

By Christopher Harper

As a young reporter for Newsweek, I headed to Washington, D.C., during the administration of Jimmy Carter, the most ineffective president during my lifetime.

Almost every week, I was assigned to what became known as the Jimmy “f***-up” story. These missives included his administration’s failure to curb inflation rates and mortgage costs to problems with energy supplies and labor unions. At the end of the Carter administration, I reported on the biggest blunder of all: the Iran hostage crisis. 

It’s taken a few months, but the comparison of Jimmy Carter and Joe Biden is finally creeping into the media. 

In a column in The Hill, political operative Bill Schneider explained some of the similarities.

If Congress fails to pass the mega-buck omnibus bill to grant money to virtually every Democrat, Biden will look bad, Schneider argued. “Biden will look weak. Which is exactly the problem Carter had. Carter was called weak, ineffectual, and “’wishy-washy,’” Schneider wrote.

As history.com notes: “Despite Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Congress blocked Carter’s proposal for welfare reform, as well as his proposal for a long-range energy program, a central focus of his administration. This difficult relationship with Congress meant that Carter was unable to convert his plans into legislation, despite his initial popularity.”

Sound familiar? But the comparisons of the ineffectiveness of Carter and Biden go much further than passing legislation.

Carter sent special forces to Iran to rescue the American hostages in the U.S. embassy in Iran. Two helicopters crashed in the desert, leaving soldiers dead and a public relations disaster for the country. The withdrawal from Afghanistan under Biden provided the same type of victory to our enemies and an embarrassment for the United States.

Carter managed to send inflation and mortgage rates skyrocketing in an economy that fell flat during his tenure. Although mortgage rates are staying relatively low so far under Biden, inflation is rampaging to its highest rate in years. For example, the Social Security Administration recently announced that the cost-of-living increase will reach nearly 6 percent, a rate that will only exacerbate the already-weakened retirement system.

Inflation at the supermarket and the gas pumps is worsening under Biden as it did under Carter.

Labor unions picketed coal mines, steel mills, postal offices, and many other businesses under Carter. Replace that unrest with strikes at hospitals, cereal makers, and equipment manufacturers under Biden.

Even the families of Carter and Biden have created embarrassment for the country. Carter’s brother Billy got drunk with the Georgia locals and hobnobbed with dictators like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Biden’s son Hunter disgraced himself with cocaine orgies and China hijinks.

There may be one significant difference between the two presidents. Carter was a pretty decent guy. I’m not so sure the same can be said about Biden.

Help Wanted!

By Christopher Harper

As you drive throughout central Pennsylvania, it’s difficult not to notice something other than fall foliage: Help wanted signs abound throughout the region.

On Route 11, which snakes along the countryside near my home, more than 70 signs seeking employees dominate the highway. 

Fred Gaffney, executive director of Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce, told a local newspaper that he’s at a loss to say why. “This is a workforce crisis unlike anything I’ve seen in my years at the Chamber,” Gaffney said.

Recently, a local job fair featured more than 500 openings from 25 employers. But only 40 people attended, Gaffney said. Businesses in the area have raised their minimum wages to $15 an hour and higher. 

What’s happening near my home is occurring throughout the country. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, 67% of small businesses reported hiring or trying to hire in September, and 42% raised compensation. But a record 51% still have openings they couldn’t fill.

The Wall Street Journal postulated in a recent editorial: “So what’s causing the worker shortage? One possible culprit is government and employer vaccine mandates that set ultimatums for workers. President Biden’s vaccine order first applied to nursing homes, which lost jobs in the month. Many states and school districts have also imposed mandates, and state and local education employment fell 161,000. The White House claims its vaccine mandates will boost job growth, but not if unvaccinated workers quit.”

The lack of workers has clearly become a drag on the economy. Ships are backed up at ports partly because there aren’t workers to unload and transport goods to where they need to go. Labor and material shortages are delaying projects and increasing prices in the home-building sector.

Another factor is that it doesn’t pay to work in some cases when the government provides enough money to keep people off the job. 

For my wife and me, it’s meant postponing work on our new home because there aren’t enough painters and other tradespeople to perform needed maintenance. For example, we can’t get anyone to paint the exterior of our house until next spring.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration seemingly has no strategy to solve the problems.

In an interview with Business Insider, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has a lame analysis:

–People are afraid to go back to work because of the Delta variant.

–People have moved out of areas where employers are hiring.

–People are rethinking their attitude toward work—what one psychologist has called the “the great resignation.”

“I think a lot of people are re-imagining or rethinking about what’s next for them,” Walsh said. The pandemic has changed people’s views about work, causing them to “ask existential questions about their purpose and happiness,” Business Insider noted. 

Whatever the case, it would appear that the labor conflagration won’t be solved anytime soon, particularly under this administration.

I guess I may have to get out the work clothes and ladder to ponder the existential question of whether to paint or not to paint.

The Supremes are back

By Christopher Harper

This term for the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened yesterday, may be the most compelling in our lifetimes, particularly for conservatives.

Poised with a relatively solid five-vote majority, the justices have an opportunity to make some significant changes in the law. Please note that I have excluded Chief Justice John Roberts from this majority.

At the center of this new-found power, Justice Clarence Thomas came out firing rapid questions in a case involving a dispute between Tennessee and Mississippi. Justice Thomas had been known for saying few words during oral arguments, mainly because he was often a sole voice of reason in years past.

It will be refreshing to see Justice Thomas at the forefront of arguments.

On its first day, the court sent a clear warning to the left when the justices issued a terse decision NOT to grant congressional voting rights for the District of Columbia. The ruling was clear: DC isn’t a state!

The court has agreed to hear appeals that explicitly call for overruling Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that women had a constitutional right to end pregnancy.


The case surrounds Mississippi’s “Gestational Age Act,” which was passed in 2018 and allows abortion after 15 weeks “only in medical emergencies or for severe fetal abnormality.” If doctors perform abortions outside the parameters of the law, they could have their medical licenses suspended or revoked and may be subject to additional penalties and fines. The state’s attorney general has argued that Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong” and should be overturned.

In September, the court declined to block an even more restrictive Texas abortion law, on a 5-4 vote. Chief Justice Roberts found himself in dissent along with the three liberal justices.

Another case, which is set for arguments in November, challenges a New York state law limiting concealed weapons permits. The court could expand Second Amendment rights to allow handguns in public. In 2008 and 2010 decisions, the court recognized a constitutional right to keep a handgun at home for self-defense.

Several cases reflect the court’s concern for religious expression. In November, the justices will consider a condemned Texas inmate’s claim that the state must let his pastor lay hands upon him while he is executed.

A December argument challenges Maine’s public education system, which relies on state tuition vouchers for private schools. Half the state’s school districts don’t have enough students to justify schools of their own, so the state reimburses tuition at secular private schools. Parents who prefer religious schools argue that the program is discriminatory.

The court also agreed recently to consider whether the city of Boston, which allows outside groups to fly their banners from flagpoles outside City Hall, violated the First Amendment by rejecting a cross-bearing “Christian flag.”

The hollering from the left started even before the court convened, with abortion advocates protesting in front of the court’s building. Moreover, the media have renewed their rumblings about the rightward tilt of the court. For example, The News York Times has declared that the court is “off the rails.”

I guess it’s time buckle up for what is likely to be an interesting year!

Musings about 7-0

By Christopher Harper

As I celebrate my 70th birthday this week, I was reminded of a social media question: What would I tell an 18-year-old me?

Here goes for that young version of myself and maybe others:

Listen. You might be the smartest person in the room, or at least think you are. But you already know what you know. If you listen rather than speak, you will learn.

Pride. Keep it in check! You can be proud of your accomplishments, but humility is usually better.

Jealousy. Keep it in check, too!

Be less judgmental. People who are old, overweight, slow, or plain have contributions to make.

Work and home. Maintain a balance between your work life and your home life. Unless you absolutely need a specific job for the money, make sure you enjoy what you are doing.

Drink less. You’ll act like a moron more times than you can remember. Moreover, you may hurt yourself and others.

Watch less sports. Participate more. Even if you just walk a lot, you’ll be better off for it.

Think about college. The cost of a college degree has become burdensome for many people. When I went to school, tuition was less than $1,000. Maybe take a year off and work to determine what you want to do. Think about the military. Think about whether you really want to go to college.

Learn about building, plumbing, and electricity. I wish I had.

Hobbies. I wish I had more of them.

Appreciate the goodness of the United States rather than its flaws.

Use computers and cellphones less.

Read more.

Complain less.

Save more money. Make a balance sheet of your income and your expenses. It’s likely that Social Security and Medicare will be bankrupt by the time you retire.

Learn grammar, punctuation, and style.

Find an ethical or spiritual guide. You need it BEFORE you face a crisis.

Keep mentally fit. Talk to specialists rather than friends about your problems.

Ignore celebrities and their political and social views.

Find a way to express yourself.

Try to fix today and tomorrow rather than yesterday.

That’s about all unless I forgot something. Yes, keep hold of your memories through a diary, photographs, and mental exercises.

Liberals vs. the left

By Christopher Harper

Even classic liberals are starting to understand just how dangerous the left has become.

In a recent cover story, the classic liberal magazine, The Economist, raised comfortable questions about the “illiberal left.”

For more, see https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/09/04/the-threat-from-the-illiberal-left

The analysis takes a few jabs at Trump and the right, but the central thesis focuses on how liberals and leftists have less and less in common.

“As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business, and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling ‘unsafe’ and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and canceling allies,” the magazine notes.

“Superficially, the illiberal left and classical liberals like The Economist want many of the same things. Both believe that people should be able to flourish, whatever their sexuality or race. They share a suspicion of authority and entrenched interests. They believe in the desirability of change.

“However, classical liberals and illiberal progressives could hardly disagree more over how to bring these things about. For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up—and it depends on the separation of powers so that nobody nor any group is able to exert lasting control. By contrast, the illiberal left put their own power at the center of things because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual, and other hierarchies are dismantled.”

The magazine chooses Ibram X. Kendi, a self-proclaimed “anti-racist,” as the poster child of what’s wrong with the left. Kendi, a National Book Award winner, is the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.

“[H]is blunderbuss approach risks denying some disadvantaged children the help they need and others the chance to realize their talents,” the magazine argues. “[I]lliberal progressives think that equity requires the field to be tilted against those who are privileged and reactionary. That means restricting their freedom of speech, using a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice.”

The Economist makes no bones about its call for liberals to battle leftists. 

“The ultimate complacency would be for classical liberals to underestimate the threat. Too many right-leaning liberals are inclined to choose a shameless marriage of convenience with populists. Too many left-leaning liberals focus on how they, too, want social justice. They comfort themselves with the thought that the most intolerant illiberalism belongs to a fringe. Don’t worry, they say, intolerance is part of the mechanism of change: by focusing on injustice, they shift the center ground.”

It’s noteworthy that these classic liberals see the problem. Is Joe Biden beholden to the center or the left? As he gets shouted down from the left, it seems he shifts more that way than to the center.

I hope the liberals ignore the entreaty to push back the leftists. To me, liberal or leftist has become a distinction without much of a difference. Both philosophies are bankrupt.

Covering the cop shop

By Christopher Harper

Over the past few years, my students’ attitude toward the police have changed dramatically. Even though a few of the students still profess some trust in cops, the vast majority have a distinctly hostile attitude, primarily based on recent reports about brutality rather than first-hand experiences.

“It doesn’t take much to see the absolute racial injustice with the police, so, if I were to cover a story with the cops, calling out that racial injustice might seem biased because I would be highlighting the negative, but it really is just shining some light on the cruelty and brutality that has been caused by the police,” one Black woman wrote on the class discussion board. 

A white woman responded: “I hear a lot about the ‘bad apples’ metaphor or people stating that there are good cops. My question is, if there are these good apples, what’s eventually going to happen to them when they are hanging around the bad apples? You turn into the people you surround yourself with. Again, the whole system is corrupt. There are no good cops in a racist system.”

Interestingly, a Black woman from an affluent neighborhood was one of a few students who defended the police. “My attitude towards cops is respectful. In general….I think highly of police because they have made it their purpose in life to protect others and to uphold the law. I know that at the end of the day if I am in trouble, I am calling 911 to help me.” 

Not only is it troubling that many of my students don’t respect the police, but somehow the budding journalists think they can get past their biases if they had to report about crime. Nearly all of the students think they should be fair and balanced in their reporting except when it comes to the police.

One woman justified her bias. “I would be reporting on police-adjacent topics through the lens of historically documented racism, corruption, and hyper-toxic masculinity,” she wrote. 

Historically, cops and journalists haven’t mixed well together. Cops don’t trust reporters to get the story right; journalists think the police try to cover stuff up. 

Now, however, a new chasm has occurred—one that I have been unable to bridge despite my best efforts. In the past, I’d bring in a police officer to talk to the class. But few students no longer want to listen.

9/11/1981

By Christopher Harper

My 9/11 story started 20 years before the attack on the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11, 1981, President Anwar Sadat expelled me from Egypt because I reported about his troubles with Islamic fundamentalists.

After he signed a peace treaty with Israel, Sadat faced various threats from his fellow Arabs, but the most serious one came from the mosques in Egypt.

Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the “blind sheik,” issued a fatwa against Sadat, who imprisoned about 1,500 of the sheik’s followers from a group known as Al-Jama’s al-Islamiyya, or “The Islamic Group.”

As a reporter for ABC News in Cairo, I interviewed some of Abdel-Rahman’s followers, who began widespread demonstrations after the arrests in September 1981. At a news conference shortly after that, Sadat told me, “If this were not a democracy, I would have you shot!”

The next day, I was ushered to the airport, where I boarded an Egyptian Air flight to Rome. I was the only passenger.

Less than a month later, Sadat died in an assassination carried out by Islamic fundamentalists.

The Egyptians arrested a lot of bad guys but eventually left them go free. Among the Islamists jailed after the Sadat assassination was Ayman al-Zawahiri, a confidante and colleague of the blind sheik. Together, he and Abdel-Rahman, who spent three years in Egyptian jails, spread the beliefs to the prisoners of what would become al-Qaeda.

Although many of al-Qaeda’s followers came from the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan, many more came from the prisoners held for the assassination plot against Sadat.

Al-Zawahiri received a three-year sentence for dealing in weapons and left prison in 1984. As a top leader in a key Islamist terrorist organization in Egypt, al-Zawahiri eventually joined forces with bin Laden and served as the second-in-command of al-Qaeda. He rose to head the organization when bin Laden was killed in 2011.

After Abdel-Rahman was found not guilty in the trials that accompanied the investigations into the attack on Sadat, the sheik made his way to Afghanistan, where he became a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden. In 1990, Abdel-Rahman set up shop at a mosque in New Jersey. There, he helped plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center for which he was convicted and spent the rest of his life in a U.S. prison.

I saw the 1993 attack as a significant escalation of radical Islam, and I tried to convince my bosses at ABC News to create an investigative team to look at the bombing. “Only four people died,” the executive producer of 20/20 told me. That disconnect between my analysis and that of ABC started me thinking that it was time to leave journalism, which I did a few months later.

As it turned out, the organizer of the 1993 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was so frustrated by the mission’s failure that he became obsessed with trying again. That’s one of the reasons he chose the World Trade Center on 9/11.

I often wondered if it would have done any good if ABC had backed my desire to investigate the 1993 bombing.

So, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” At least my little piece of the story.  

More friends gone too soon!

By Christopher Harper

I never really understood why my father turned first to the obituary page in his later years.

Now I get it.

I have seen many friends die in the past few months, including four remarkable women who played significant roles in my youth. It’s worth noting that none died from COVID-19. Although I don’t have any proof, it’s conceivable that they couldn’t get the proper treatments because so much of the medical community focused on the pandemic and not other illnesses.

Lynn Langway served as my teacher at Northwestern University and helped me get a job at Newsweek. She worked Newsweek for more than a decade, rising to the level of senior editor. Later, she became executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. Although we kept in touch over the years, we parted company over the 2016 election. I’m sorry that politics stood between us upon her death. https://www.linkedin.com/in/lynnlangway/

Ann Bartsch, the wife of the best man at my wedding, was among the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University—an honor I also held from a far less competitive university. Ann attended law school at the University of Chicago, where he met Doug Blomgren, my roommate in Chicago. 

Ann worked mainly with low-income and elderly clients in Oregon, her home and where Doug also practiced law. She served as the chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Legal Services for the Poor. See her obituary here.

I wrote about two others who died recently in my 2011 book, Flyover Country, which chronicled the lives of my high school class, which graduated in 1969 from Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Barbara Sidlo Hughes was my first girlfriend. We dated in our sophomore year, but she tired of my endless weekends on the road with my rock ‘n’ roll band. 

Upon graduation from Drake University, Barbara became a flight attendant for TWA, where she met her husband, Don. Eventually, the couple and their children moved to California, where she cared for her daughter, whose health issues kept her in a wheelchair much of the time. When her daughter was able to attend college, Barbara started teaching elementary school, where she helped students—many the sons and daughters of immigrants–for more than 20 years. See her obituary here.

Mary Hrdy Kaczmarek was my second girlfriend. We dated in our senior year and later at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. We broke up after two years—a parting that angered Mary for many years. Alas, that divide never narrowed, and I blame myself that we never reconciled. 

She met her husband Norman, a physician, in Danville, Pennsylvania, which ironically is about a 30-minute drive from where I now live. 

Mary first worked as a medical social worker, then helped establish and manage her husband’s medical practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico. See her obituary here.

All of these talented women are gone far too soon! 

The ‘time tax’ of Social Security

By Christopher Harper

Over the past few months, I have tried and failed to get a check from Social Security, a system I’ve paid into for 52 years.

It’s rare that I agree with The Atlantic, but a story in the magazine caught my attention. In a recent edition, writer Annie Lowrey described the “time tax” of the federal bureaucracy that angers and exhausts many Americans. See https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/07/how-government-learned-waste-your-time-tax/619568/

“Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the ‘time tax’—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.

“The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people.”

I’m one of those entangled in that red tape. 

As I neared 70, I decided it was time to ask for my check. I tried to fill out the lengthy questionnaire on the website at ssa.gov. The questionnaire refused to accept my wife’s birthdate.

Therefore, I had to schedule a telephone appointment. The next available one was in two months. 

I spoke with a friendly fellow in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and I felt good about the conversation except that he told me I had to provide a marriage certificate.

Couldn’t he check with the IRS, where my wife and I had filed a joint tax return since 1979?

Nope, he told me. I had to get one from Chicago, where we were married. Knowing that Chicago is far from the most efficient city government these days, I momentarily wished for the days of Richard J. Daley.

The Cook County office, where Chicago is situated, told me it would take as long as 90 days and cost about $50. Fortunately, it took only about a month. 

I sent the document to my Social Security adviser, and all seemed to be going well until I didn’t get my check in mid-August as expected.

After several messages, I finally got a return call from my adviser. No one else could help me.

Alas, he told me, there was a problem with my application. I would have to start the process again. That process is expected to take two to four months. 

I guess I am a prime example of the “time tax” in inaction.  

-30-

By Christopher Harper

When I joined the Associated Press in Chicago, “-30-“ signaled the end of a story. Depending on the source, the designation apparently began in the Civil War as a typesetter’s code. In recent years, it has been the name of a movie starring Jack Webb and even the title of the final episode of The Wire.

After 50 years as a reporter and a journalism educator, I have decided to place a -30- on my career and hang up my green eyeshade, pica pole, and glue pot. I’ll retire on July 1, 2022.

I joined the academy after more than years in journalism at the AP; Newsweek in Chicago, Washington, and Beirut; and ABC News in Cairo, Rome, and New York.

A couple of years after I started in journalism at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Watergate was reaching its crescendo, and I had an opportunity to do some reporting on the events that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. After that, I covered the deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, the Iran hostage crisis, three wars, numerous terrorist attacks, and several investigations into major corporations, such as Federal Express.

When I started in the academy in 1994 at New York University, the internet played virtually no role in journalism. The internet had virtually no penetration until AOL marketed its service. People reached the internet via what was called a “handshake,” a ka-chunk-chunk sound that screeched through telephone lines.

A few years later, I wrote a book that looked at the future of online journalism. Few journalism educators and working editors paid much attention to the implications of the internet, although I was able to teach some of the first classes in multimedia design and journalism at New York University, Ithaca College, and Temple University. At the latter, I helped start a journalism website in 2007, www.philadelphianeighborhoods.com, which reported on low-income and minority locales that got little positive attention in the mainstream media.

Today, however, the state of journalism and journalism education are far less rosy than in my days as a reporter and my days as a teacher.

First, most people don’t trust journalists anymore. Reporters have always been nosy sorts and not well-loved. But many people saw a role for journalists to keep tabs on government actions.

The reappearance of the partisan press, particularly during the Trump years, has left many with a negative view of what the media do.

I don’t see much journalism can do about the lack of trust. I think the only possibility is to emphasize accuracy above all else—as well as to incorporate as many voices as possible into the debate about the country’s future. Even so, the media are so badly broken that I’m not sure that any new bridges can be built between journalism and its public.

Second, the media failed to respond to the massive intrusion of the tech companies—Google, Facebook, and others—into the news business. Again, it may be too late to force these companies to pay for the news and information that should be a violation of copyright. But the media companies have failed to press their case in the courts.

Third, although some of my students have gone on to excellent careers in places like ESPN, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and various local news organizations, the number of people interested in journalism has plummeted.

When I started at Temple in 2005, more than 800 students majored in journalism. Today, that number is roughly half. I can’t say I blame students who face limited job prospects and mediocre salaries. But no one ever went into journalism to become wealthy.

Moreover, the number of educators who practiced journalism for more than a few years has been declining dramatically over the past decade or so. As a result, students learn more about social issues than storytelling.

I’m thankful of all the opportunities I’ve had to travel the world on the bank accounts of news organizations and universities and the ability to witness important events throughout the world. But as I mosey off into the sunset, I wish I could be more optimistic about the craft I plied for more than 50 years. Alas, I cannot.