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Obama: Time for “An Honest Accounting of History”

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

obamaIt’s been an amazing week of news: the Confederate flag lowering across the South, the Supreme Court upholding the rights of everyone, not only to have health insurance but also to marry.

Of all the millions of words written and uttered about events, however, none were more eloquent or emotional than President Obama’s eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight of his parishioners murdered at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Here is the transcript, as released by the White House.

The Bible calls us to hope.  To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.

“They were still living by faith when they died,” Scripture tells us. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.”

We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith.  A man who believed in things not seen.  A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance.  A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.

clementa-pinckney-800A burden of expectation. To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.

I cannot claim to have the good fortune to know Reverend Pinckney well.  But I did have the pleasure of knowing him and meeting him here in South Carolina, back when we were both a little bit younger.  Back when I didn’t have visible grey hair.

The first thing I noticed was his graciousness, his smile, his reassuring baritone, his deceptive sense of humor — all qualities that helped him wear so effortlessly a heavy burden of expectation.

Friends of his remarked this week that when Clementa Pinckney entered a room, it was like the future arrived; that even from a young age, folks knew he was special.  Anointed.

He was the progeny of a long line of the faithful — a family of preachers who spread God’s word, a family of protesters who sowed change to expand voting rights and desegregate the South.  Clem heard their instruction, and he did not forsake their teaching.

He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23.  He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth’s insecurities; instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years, in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity.

viewing05The best of 46. As a senator, he represented a sprawling swath of the Lowcountry, a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America.  A place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment.  A place that needed somebody like Clem.

His position in the minority party meant the odds of winning more resources for his constituents were often long.  His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded, the votes he cast were sometimes lonely.

But he never gave up.  He stayed true to his convictions.  He would not grow discouraged.  After a full day at the capitol, he’d climb into his car and head to the church to draw sustenance from his family, from his ministry, from the community that loved and needed him.  There he would fortify his faith, and imagine what might be.

Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean, nor small.  He conducted himself quietly, and kindly, and diligently.  He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone, but by seeking out your ideas, partnering with you to make things happen.

He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.  No wonder one of his senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as “the most gentle of the 46 of us — the best of the 46 of us.”

panthers21s-1-webDeeds and words. Clem was often asked why he chose to be a pastor and a public servant.  But the person who asked probably didn’t know the history of the AME church.  As our brothers and sisters in the AME church know, we don’t make those distinctions. “Our calling,” Clem once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the “sweet hour of prayer” actually lasts the whole week long — that to put our faith in action is more than individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.

What a good man.  Sometimes I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized — after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say someone was a good man.

You don’t have to be of high station to be a good man.  Preacher by 13.  Pastor by 18.  Public servant by 23.  What a life Clementa Pinckney lived.  What an example he set. What a model for his faith.  And then to lose him at 41 — slain in his sanctuary with eight wonderful members of his flock, each at different stages in life but bound together by a common commitment to God.

emanuel-church-trusteesHush harbors, praise houses. Cynthia Hurd.  Susie Jackson.  Ethel Lance.  DePayne Middleton-Doctor.  Tywanza Sanders.  Daniel L. Simmons.  Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Myra Thompson.  Good people.  Decent people. God-fearing people.  People so full of life and so full of kindness.  People who ran the race, who persevered.  People of great faith.

To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief.  Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church.  The church is and always has been the center of African-American life — a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah — rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement.

They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart — and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.

That’s what the black church means.  Our beating heart.  The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.  When there’s no better example of this tradition than Mother Emanuel — a church built by blacks seeking liberty, burned to the ground because its founder sought to end slavery, only to rise up again, a Phoenix from these ashes.

When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, services happened here anyway, in defiance of unjust laws. When there was a righteous movement to dismantle Jim Crow, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from its pulpit, and marches began from its steps.  A sacred place, this church.  Not just for blacks, not just for Christians, but for every American who cares about the steady expansion — of human rights and human dignity in this country; a foundation stone for liberty and justice for all.  That’s what the church meant.

roofUsed by God. We do not know whether the killer of Reverend Pinckney and eight others knew all of this history.  But he surely sensed the meaning of his violent act.  It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress. An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.

Oh, but God works in mysterious ways.  God has different ideas.

He didn’t know he was being used by God.  Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.  The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness.  He couldn’t imagine that.

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace.

The idea of grace. This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones.  The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons.

The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals — the one we all know:  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned.  Grace is not merited.  It’s not something we deserve.  Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God — as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.  Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind.  He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and shortsightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same.

He gave it to us anyway.  He’s once more given us grace.  But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

150620-confederate-flag-charleston-mn-0850_1f2694bbe7fd2c1305ef7c5a6442a7b2.nbcnews-fp-1200-800An honest accounting of history. For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders.  But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.  We see that now.

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.

It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.  It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.  By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

The subtle impulse. But I don’t think God wants us to stop there.  For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.  Perhaps we see that now.  Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system — and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it, so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs, but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.

NoGunControlFor too long. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.  By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American — by doing that, we express God’s grace.

For too long –

AUDIENCE:  For too long!

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.  Sporadically, our eyes are open:  When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school.  But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed — the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

The vast majority of Americans — the majority of gun owners — want to do something about this.  We see that now. And I’m convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country — by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.

We don’t earn grace.  We’re all sinners.  We don’t deserve it.  But God gives it to us anyway.  And we choose how to receive it.  It’s our decision how to honor it.

Charleston Shooting Attack on Mother Emanuel-2Refutation of forgiveness. None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight.  Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race.

We talk a lot about race.  There’s no shortcut.  And we don’t need more talk. None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy.  It will not.

People of goodwill will continue to debate the merits of various policies, as our democracy requires — this is a big, raucous place, America is.  And there are good people on both sides of these debates.  Whatever solutions we find will necessarily be incomplete.

But it would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again.  Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on, to go back to business as usual — that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.

To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change — that’s how we lose our way again.

It would be a refutation of the forgiveness expressed by those families if we merely slipped into old habits, whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.

The uses of history. Reverend Pinckney once said, “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history — we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.”  What is true in the South is true for America.  Clem understood that justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other.  That my liberty depends on you being free, too.  That history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past — how to break the cycle.  A roadway toward a better world.  He knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.

That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart.  That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

Newton-Amazing-Grace-171486_p53Amazing Grace. That reservoir of goodness.  If we can find that grace, anything is possible.  If we can tap that grace, everything can change.

Amazing grace.  Amazing grace.

(Begins to sing) — Amazing grace — how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.

Clementa Pinckney found that grace.

Cynthia Hurd found that grace.

Susie Jackson found that grace.

Ethel Lance found that grace.

DePayne Middleton-Doctor found that grace.

Tywanza Sanders found that grace.

Daniel L. Simmons, Sr. found that grace.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton found that grace.

Myra Thompson found that grace.

Through the example of their lives, they’ve now passed it on to us.  May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure.

May grace now lead them home.  May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.

 

Shocker: Oil Spill Spreads, Fouls Distant Beaches

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

oilspillsignThe oil company responsible for the recent coastline spill near Santa Barbara and a state agency both confirmed Monday that oil from the accident has traveled more than 100 miles to the south, raising the financial, legal and political stakes of the incident.

The finding that mysterious, large tar balls which have polluted beaches as far away from Santa Barbara as Manhattan Beach, a small Los Angeles County city 130 miles from the accident, puts the lie to spin from Plains All American Pipeline, the company responsible for the spill.

Plains, a multi-billion dollar company based in Houston, previously publicly belittled reports by environmentalists that the oil has widely dispersed as “incorrect concerns.”

The analysis of the direct connection between the oil spilled on May 19 and masses of tar balls as large as four inches in diameter found south of Los Angeles, which was conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and scientists at UC Santa Barbara, is significant for several reasons:

–The far-flung damage caused by the broken Plains pipeline ensures that the financial, and possibly criminal, liability of the company will be far greater than the several million dollars previously estimated. Both Attorney General Kamala Harris and Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley are conducting investigations into the shoddy maintenance of the badly corroded pipeline that ruptured.

–The spread of oil along the coast and underwater will buttress efforts in Sacramento to more tightly restrict and regulate production and transportation of offshore oil. At least three bills are pending in the Legislature on the issue, which would: crack down on slipshod practices in the large network of pipelines that line the coast; close a legal loophole that allows oil companies to extract oil from certain state-owned offshore sites within the California Coastal Sanctuary; beef up emergency procedures for oil spills while preventing the use of toxic dispersants.

–The new reports by Plains and California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife casts a harsh light on the federal agency responsible for inspecting pipelines,  strengthening efforts by Democrats in Congress to tighten safety policies and procedures, and to increase funding and staffing for the government’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, at a time when Republicans keep cutting regulatory agency budgets across the board.

“This is a game changer in terms of how you evaluate the damage,” said Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network. “This is perhaps the first time in California we’ve seen a spill in one location and impacts in locations as far as 150 miles away.”

Oil-Spill-Bird-lc-630x420Beach goers and environmental organizations have reported finding unusual deposits of tar on beaches as far away as Orange County and San Diego, and confirmation that the oil from the spill has spread also will increase pressure for more testing to determine the full extent of the damage, both on the coast and underwater, where the impacts are harder to discover and to measure.

“Since the initial report of oil on South Bay beaches on May 27th,” a coalition of high-profile California environmental organizations said in a statement, “oiled beach reports have come in from Oxnard, Leo Carrillo State Beach, El Matador, Zuma Beach, Surfrider, Sunset surf spot, Santa Monica, Venice, the entire South Bay, Long Beach, San Clemente and Laguna Beach.”

plains“Long Beach and seven miles of South Bay beaches experienced closures, all during unfortunate timing at the beginning of peak summer season,” the statement added.

For Plains, at least part of the bottom line message from the troubling reports is clear: ka-ching, ka-ching.

Call It Like It Is: Dylann Roof is a Domestic Terrorist

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

roofBy Dick Polman
Newsworks

ISIS death toll in America: 0. Domestic terrorist death toll in Charleston: 9.

Unless you’re totally clueless – unless, say, you’re a Fox Newsbot or a troll with sawdust between your ears – you’ll get my point. We spend so much time worrying about murderous foreign Muslims (Lindsey Graham says we gotta stop ISIS “before we all get killed here at home”) that we are routinely blind to the clear and present danger. I’m talking about the home-grown haters who marinate in the toxic American stew.

Dylann Roof – who has reportedly confessed -  is a domestic terrorist right out of central casting. As the Department of Homeland Security warned in a report six years ago, “white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat, because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized groups.”

He Meets the Definition Fueled by his hatred of black people, he’s a classic domestic terrorist as defined by the U.S Code of Federal Regulations: “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Yet, amazingly (OK, not so amazingly), some people can’t bring themselves to call this kid what he is. They don’t see the terrorism. They don’t see the racism. They won’t concede that, all too often in America, a twisted misfit can get a gun almost as easy as a candy bar. Instead of connecting the dots, they lie to themselves, like they did yesterday on Fox News. Big letters on the bottom of the screen: Attack On Faith. Because, you see, this was not a hate crime (no matter what the Charleston police said), this was just another attack on Christianity.

Let’s connect those dots The willfully oblivious are advised to follow my words with their fingers, and move their lips if need be:

roofjacket1. On his jacket, Roof wore flag patches honoring the old South Africa (the white racist apartheid regime), and the country formerly called Rhodesia (when it was a white racist regime). Both flags are popular on the numerous white supremacist websites.

2. Roof reportedly told a friend, Joseph Meek Jr., that blacks were taking over and that something had to be done to help the white race.

3. Another friend, Dalton Tyler, told ABC News: “He was big on segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war.”

4. John Mullins, another friend, says that Roof was known for his racist statements, “that kind of southern pride.”

5. Roof posed with a license plate honoring The Confederate States of America – the kind of “southern pride” that’s rampant in South Carolina, where the flag of treason flies daily on the State Capitol grounds. The flag, lest we forget, was founded by white supremacists who wrote in their manifesto that “the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

6. At the Charleston church, Roof told a survivor that he had come “to kill black people….You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

7. According to news reports this morning, Roof has told police that he wanted to start a race war.

Yup, Roof is a typical domestic specimen. As the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center documented in a ’12 report, right-wing extremists have averaged 337 attacks per year on American soil in the years since 9/11 – dwarfing the numbers attributed to left-wingers or American Muslims.

So let’s state the obvious: Roof should not be described as “a loner,” or “a disturbed individual.” He’s part of a pattern, an heir to the racist hatred that still stains our society, half a century after the civil rights movement. He’s a terrorist who committed violence against innocent civilians in furtherance of a political objective. The facts speak for themselves. And as the late southern historian Shelby Foote once observed, “Facts are just the bare bones out of which truth is made.”

Meanwhile dickpolman the Confederate flag is flying this morning on the South Carolina Capitol grounds. The American flag atop the dome has been lowered to half-mast, the state flag has been lowered to half-mast…but, under state rules, the governor is powerless to lower the stars n’ bars. So let’s sing it:

“…And the racists’ dead glare / Their hate spewing in air / Gave proof through the night/ That their flag was still there…”

Dick Polman, former political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, blogs at  www.newsworks.org, where this column originally appeared.

 

The Swami is Gone; Can We Kill the “Bradley Effect”?

Friday, June 12th, 2015

bradley_tomIn some of the tributes to our late friend and mentor Mervin Field (we name no names), the old, discredited “Bradley Effect” raised its ugly head, as writers sought to give context to Field’s most spectacular blunder as a pollster: calling the 1982 governor’s race for Tom Bradley over George Deukmejian.

As every California school child knows, Bradley, the black Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles held a slight lead over former Republican Attorney General Deukmejian in the final Field Poll before the vote for governor in November 1982.

But in the end, Deukmejian squeaked by with 49.28% of the vote compared to 48.09% for Bradley – fewer than 100,000 votes out of 7.8 millions votes cast.

George-Deukmejian“Bradley Win Projected,” cried the San Francisco Chronicle’s first edition – a bulldog run of 60,000 then shipped to some outlying, conservative counties back when newspapers were willing to lose money to build statewide circulation. This, of course, was based on Field’s confident prediction on TV on election night that Bradley would win.

Which he did. In the ballots cast in precincts on election day, upon which Field had relied for both his final survey and his election-day exit poll.

What Field had not seen was that the Republicans and especially the National Rifle Association – which had spent $5 million fighting Proposition 15, a handgun registration measure on the ballot — had racked up big early absentee votes that were already in the can but hidden from plain view. (Prop. 15 lost 63-37%.)

merv1After the election, but before it was understood what had happened, Field himself had suggested “race was a factor in the Bradley loss,” which it no doubt was. But there was no actual evidence to support what some analysts began calling the “Bradley Effect” – the false belief that voters had lied to pollsters before the election because they didn’t want to appear racist when being surveyed.

Lance Tarrance, Deukmejian’s Republican pollster, would later claim that his firm had the race much closer than the 7 points that Field had found in his final pre-election poll. But even Tarrance showed Bradley ahead 45-44% in his final tracking poll.

After Field — known among friends as “the Swami” — saw how he had failed to account for votes already cast, his polls from then on asked voters for whom they were going to vote or for whom they had already voted. And the Field Poll never made the same mistake again.

But the damn “Bradley Effect” concept refuses to die. It’s even in the Wiki on the 1982 election. It’s like a roach that refuses to be crushed underfoot.

Crunch.

A Great Man Passes: Merv Field R.I.P.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

mervAll you need to do to appreciate Merv Field’s legacy and lasting impact on California politics is to glance at the most recent survey his eponymous poll published about Jerry Brown, just two weeks ago.

Of course, you’ll find the latest favorable-unfavorable ratings, with cohort crosstabs, for the governor; you’ll also find, however, tracking of the same data back to 1975, the first year of Brown’s first incarnation as California’s chief executive.

There also are new measures of public opinion about the Legislature, as well as an analysis of how Californians feel about the future of the state – atop charts that show the equivalent information dating back more than 25 years.

“He was a real pioneer,” said longtime California-based media strategist Bill Carrick. “There’s nothing that compares with the durability of the Field Poll.”

Merv Field died on Monday. He was 94.

Field was an invaluable source, mentor, counselor and sounding board for your Calbuzzards during the several decades we spent working on the beat, as he was for political reporters and professionals, not just in California, but also across the nation.

pelosi“Merv is a walking encyclopedia of California political knowledge, and for nearly seven decades, the Field Poll has served as the gold standard of opinion research, information and analysis,” former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told us a year ago, when we published a tribute to Field, in celebration of his 93rd birthday.

Mr. Punch Line. Beyond his immense professional accomplishments, colleagues and the cognoscenti also knew the informal side of Merv: a fan of stand-up comedy, schtick, zingers, corny puns and brisk one-liners, his  performances as the Swami, at “The Party’s Not Over,” a hacks and flacks dinner he hosted for years at Bimbo’s nightclub in San Francisco, were iconic set pieces.

In his semi-retirement, he also conscientiously wrote an items column for The Ark, a Marin County weekly. His pieces arrived via email, every Sunday night, like clockwork. We’ve been saving them since 2009, sometimes stealing mining material for public appearances from his offerings, which offered a quirky combination of bad jokes, funny koans and statistical oddities he discovered in his reading, a weekly insight into the droll and entertaining mind of Merv. A sampling:

Researchers in Sweden found that children whose parents washed dishes by hand are more likely to be exposed to bacterial microbes, making them less likely to suffer from allergies than children who grew up with dishwashers.

Our country is trillions of dollars in debt, and the number increases every day.  Which denomination comes after a trillion? A Vanity Fair nationwide survey found only 40% of all Americans knew it was Quadrillion.  The other answers:  Gazillion (12%), Bazillion (7%), Quintillion (4%), Decillion (1%) and 36% don¹t know.

Siegfried Meinstein, a 94-year-old World War II veteran, has been unable to file his tax return because the IRS insists that he is dead. Despite his repeated attempts to prove that he¹s alive, Meinstein has received three letters from the IRS insisting he¹s “deceased.” Meinstein said that his son told him not to let the IRS upset him, noting philosophically, “Eventually, they¹ll be right.”

Ba-da-bum: “Graffiti in ladies rest room:  ‘Better to have loved and lost than to have spent your whole damn life with him,’” he once reported. “Where are the Virgin Islands?  Far from the Isle of Man,” he wrote in another. “Can placebos cause side effects?  If so, are the side effects real?” Ba-da-bing.

mervin_field-210x300Thoughtful and civil, cordial and cultured, affable and warm, Merv Field was, quite simply a great man. An erudite guru of California’s historic trends and campaign minutiae, he always had time to help journalists, from cubs to wizened veterans, navigate the political landscape, or just to gossip like the political junkie he was, through and through.

John Myers did a nice job on Merv’s obit, while Mark DiCamillo, the late Mr. Field’s longtime protégé and partner, put out the most comprehensive recounting of his life, written by lifelong Merv friend Jerry Lubenow.

 

Here we republish the Calbuzz homage, published March 10, 2014, and headlined “Merv Field at 93: A Tribute to California’s “Swami.”

Mervin Field, a pioneer in using non-partisan public opinion research to analyze and interpret politics, will be feted, honored and gushed over by friends, colleagues and neighbors on his Marin County hometown turf tonight.

On the eve of Field’s 93rd birthday, we enthusiastically join the Town of Tiburon — which is to host a community celebration of his life and work in its council chambers this evening — in lauding Merv and the 67 years during which nearly 2,500 Field Poll reports have helped explain the Golden State to its citizens and to the nation.

jerrynew1“In my lifetime,” Governor Jerry Brown told Calbuzz, “the use of political polls has dramatically increased. This sea change – to no small degree – has been due to the work of Merv Field. As a longtime consumer of these polls, I salute Merv and his dedicated life of service to California.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in an email that, “Merv Field’s name and work are synonymous with civic engagement and public opinion in the state of California.

“Merv is a walking encyclopedia of California political knowledge, and for nearly seven decades, the Field Poll has served as the gold standard of opinion research, information, and analysis,” Pelosi added.

For many years, Field has been not only a go-to source, but also a counselor, mentor and sounding board for both the vast, far-flung Calbuzz editorial team, and for public affairs reporters and political professionals throughout the state.

He is known to insiders as “The Swami,” a nickname bestowed when he performed as a turban-topped soothsayer at “The Party’s Not Over,” an annual hacks and flacks bash, led by a “semi-steering committee” (whose membership included Field and Pelosi, among others) which had a long run during the 1980s and ‘90s at Bimbo’s in San Francisco.

galekaufmann“I clearly remember the first time I met the man who to me was a superstar,” recalled now-superstar Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman. “It was one of the political dinners at Bimbo’s and he was just so charming, funny and smart. He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall and yet he and I had a thoughtful intense conversation. His analysis of California issues has always been a cut above. He was always willing to talk to those of us coming up in the profession, to answer questions and share insights.”

Field meets Gallup: Field’s passion for polling political, policy and marketing issues began in 1937, when he got the chance during high school to meet George Gallup, America’s vanguard pollster, who had started his company two years before.

Field began in the profession when survey takers went door-to-door with clipboards and results were hand-tabulated. Establishing genuine random samples was a challenge until the telephone became ubiquitous. By the 1970s, it became easier for pollsters to create random samples of the population, whose opinions could represent the views of the whole population in much the same way a blood sample tells physicians what’s going on in the body without testing all of a person’s blood.

Field was a pioneer in scientific polling using the telephone and, in the 21st Century, with Mark DiCamillo directing survey operations, has overseen his firm’s transition to the use of voter lists and cell phones as a means of fully reaching the voting population. While most of the Field Institute’s income is derived from complex polling for governments, civic groups, corporations and educational institutions, its timely political surveys are what catches public attention.

All of which has helped make polling – and especially the Field Poll – ever more popular and influential.

trippi“When Merv Field’s polls differed from our campaign polls I always believed his,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, who helped Brown return to the governor’s office in 2010. “He was that good. For a pioneer who measured the ups and downs of campaigns and issues, Merv Field rose to the top and stayed there — a giant.”

From button-down to bedlam:  For many years, California political reporters were pestered and harassed by campaign operatives (and, in big races, by East Coast colleagues) to disclose the dates and times when the Field Poll would be released.

It was closely held information known only to news organizations that paid for subscriptions to the poll — because of its influence in informing and influencing the pre-election opinions of voters.

Field’s once-singular position in the marketplace, however, today has been lost to the nihilistic bedlam of countless polls pushed out non-stop by news outlets, campaigns and cheap, quick-buck artists. Polling pandemonium now blares and echoes across the 24/7 cable and internet news cycles, broadcast, published and ignorantly discussed without regard to quality, methodology or statistical validity, amid the second-by-second eyeballs race to be first, new and buzzworthy.

(Which makes our blood boil).

The down side: Not only do news organizations often mischaracterize poll findings, frequently lending significance to differences that are within the margin of error, but they often use polling as a substitute for more serious reporting of candidates’ stands on issues, their backgrounds, the veracity of their arguments and the quality of their campaigns. Instead of examining these kinds of issues, some news organizations rely almost entirely on horse race reporting of candidates’ standings.

This, according to many in the political world, has not been an improvement in political coverage. And while he remains perhaps the most influential pollster in California (the free-to-all Public Policy Institute of California polls overseen by Mark Baldassare, and the USC/Los Angeles Times poll also have substantial weight and reach), Field comes in for his share of criticism for the current state of affairs.

“Merv’s impact on California politics has been profound, but not all for the better,” Republican consultant Ray McNally told us. “Unquestionably, his polling has brought insight and excitement to political contests. But it has also been a major driver behind how the media cover campaigns, changing the focus from issues and substance to campaign mechanics in which the breaking news is who’s ahead.

“Instead of debates, we have horse races and bolstered mediocre ones based solely on name ID, often months before the race begins. And that’s not healthy for democracy.”

mark d“The Field Poll opened the door for every other California public poll to exist and for private polling to emulate — so many polls, such different methods and so much hype,” noted Kaufman. “(But) Merv is a class act whose love for politics, accuracy and professional ethics I believe we all respect.”

Bottom line. From Leader Pelosi: “Californians understand our state, our communities, and our political issues and leadership better thanks to Merv Field.”

More Field Notes Five things you may not know about Merv Field:

1-He played football with Albert Einstein. Sort of. During the Depression, he caddied at a golf course in Princeton, New Jersey, where he and his colleagues sometimes played touch football. As Princeton professor Einstein walked by one day, the ball sailed over Merv’s head; the great man returned it to Field with a soccer-style kick.

2-He cheated death in the Merchant Marine. Merv served three years on transport ships during World War II and survived Nazi U-boat attacks, as well as collisions at sea. When he was off-duty, such incidents annoyingly interrupted his off-duty hours reading about survey research.

3-He is a Herb Caen-style three-dot columnist. For years Merv has written “Merv Field’s File,” an items column for The Ark, a paid subscription weekly paper serving Tiburon, Belvedere, Strawberry and East Corte Madera. Quick sample: “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’  Then a voice says to me, ‘this is going to take more than one night.’” Ba-dum-dum.

4-He has a close connection with Lawrence Welk. Merv was born on March 11, 1921, the same day as the great American mathematician Frank Harary, who helped invent graph theory. He also shares a birthday with Shemp Howard, Rupert Murdoch and the iconic late bandleader and accordionist Lawrence “Wun’erful Wun’erful” Welk.

field5-He’s one of the top 30 of the 20th.  In its last pre-millennium issue, the late, lamented California Journal listed the 30 people who most influenced California government and politics in the 20th Century, including Merv: Over the past half century, Field and his poll have defined California politics…In the national media, the myth grew that if you want to see America tomorrow, look at California today. And Field became the lens through which most of the nation viewed California.

That’s -30-