hard-hats

 

Last week a State Department spokesperson, in an interview about U.S. policy concerning ISIL, asserted that we cannot kill our way to victory over this depraved, ruthless terrorist organization. Instead, we should look over the near-and-medium term at the root causes for the disaffection of those who are beheading, burning alive, shooting, or tossing from tall buildings thousands of men, women, and children, many of whom are innocent non-combatants. The spokesperson went on to suggest that it was a lack of opportunity for jobs that contributed to the swelling ranks of the terrorists.

Soon thereafter, when pressed over the comments, the spokesperson admitted the painfully obvious—that a nuanced message of such depth was beyond the understanding of some, i.e., we coarse, countless, witless American rubes. You know, the very ones who cling to their guns and religion as if their lives and souls depended on it. The same ones the elites in Washington (or elsewhere) scoff at and hold in contempt for their simpleminded patriotism or their service in the armed forces or their belief in individual responsibility.

Despite my lack of erudition, now that I’ve given the matter a bit of nuanced thought, I see exactly what the spokesperson meant. With your indulgence, I’ll explain to my fellow unwashed the fundamental understanding of the issue by our United States Department of State. It is as follows:

  • Winning a war by shooting and killing the enemy is outdated. Besides, now that bin Laden is dead (I know, I know, he was shot and killed), “enemy” is a harsh and relative term, as is “war.” Besides, war means armies and killing, and we can’t win by killing. Besides, what is “winning” anyway? Besides, where there’s a winner there’s also a loser, and losing is demeaning. Besides, it’s really not our problem anyway. Follow the logic?
  • A root-cause analysis will show that a lack of economic opportunity is responsible for young men of Middle Eastern origin in the age range of 18-26 being enticed into joining terrorist organizations and beheading or burning people alive. This is the key element we must address. American business can play an important role here and at the same time make a fair profit (but what is “fair” anyway, and for whom?).
  • Religious ideology plays no part in any of this unpleasantness. It’s not driven by ideologues but by criminals, and that, my friends, is settled science. It is therefore a matter of law enforcement. Jobs training and rehabilitation are the critical needs here, and perhaps also James Taylor. The availability of good-paying jobs with medical, vision, and dental care, and free contraceptive care (failing that, good maternity-leave policies) will bring peace and goodwill to the region. The enormous union dues won’t hurt.

So, there you have it. Got it? Glad I could help.

ChurchillI had the rare pleasure yesterday in an Atlanta museum to get a close-up viewing of 30 paintings from one of the most consequential figures in modern history. No, his name was not Monet or van Gogh or Picasso, and he was not recognized as much for his art as for his political career, writing, and oratory. Many of the 30 paintings that I viewed have never before been on public display, comprising but a few of the 500 works he produced in his lifetime.

So who is this painter? Or, more aptly, who is this famous person?

He is Winston Churchill, and one could easily make the argument that he was not only a consequential figure of the 20th Century, but indeed the consequential figure of the previous century. He helped save the world from totalitarianism as a British politician, more specifically as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. His soaring oratory inspired not only the people of the British Empire and his close American allies, but freedom-loving people everywhere.

On painting, he was quoted as saying, “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind. Whatever the worries of the hour or the threats of the future, once the picture has begun to flow along, there is no room for them in the mental screen.” It was in his painting that he found relief from the strain of political life and the growing menace of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Many of his paintings are oil-based impressionist scenes of landscape, and many were painted while he vacationed in the South of France, Egypt, or Morocco. His easel and other artifacts were also on display and helped to personalize the exhibit all the more.

Churchill was not only a painter and great wartime political leader, but he was also a writer and historian. He was prolific as a writer, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.  In a BBC poll of the “100 Greatest Britons” in 2002, he was proclaimed “The Greatest of Them All” based on approximately a million votes from BBC viewers.

The paintings are good, much like the results Winston Churchill achieved in his many other endeavors. But what made the exhibit most enjoyable to me was that the paintings came from the head, hand, and brush of the incomparable Winston Churchill. For me, that was the treat that exceeded all else and made the trip entirely worthwhile.

The paintings are on display at the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta, through February 1, 2015.

Sgt. Walker and me

Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, United States Marine Corps, was my Platoon Sergeant when I entered Officers Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, in March, 1970. He was a career Marine, tested in combat and serious about his role of teaching (and screening) young officer candidates. Sgt. Walker was tough, smart, and fair. He was determined to give everyone an equal chance to succeed, but early on he told us that, if history held, fifty-percent would likely not make it through the ten-week program.

We began with 54 and finished with 27.

The very first night at OCS, after a day of shouting, processing, and more shouting, I still remember Sgt. Walker telling us that we were now in a state of culture shock, and he then ordered us to write a letter home and tell our loved ones that we were okay, and that we “wanted for nothing.” I wondered if the other candidates felt as I did, that is, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Sgt. Walker pushed us hard during those ten intensive weeks. He evaluated our academic progress, our military and physical skills, and especially our leadership abilities. He bluntly informed us that he would not recommend a candidate for commissioning as a Marine second lieutenant unless and until, in his professional judgment, that same candidate could lead him in battle. That seemed an impossible standard, but as we learned over time, impossible standards are rarely impossible; they just take a little longer. Marines have a long history of doing the impossible, which was precisely Sgt. Walker’s teaching point.

Sgt. Walker was the best Marine non-commissioned officer I came across in my three years in the Corps. I never saw him again after leaving Quantico, but I thought of him often. I still think of him. And so on 10 November, the birthday of the Marine Corps, I think of all the Sgt. Walkers over all the years who have trained Marines to become the finest fighting force in existence. They trained those Marines, as Sgt. Walker trained us, by demanding excellence, and commitment, and sacrifice. No shortcuts, no coddling, no excuses. They trained those Marines to go and do the impossible, if necessary.

And for 239 years, that’s exactly what Marines have done. And still do.

Sgt. Walker’s salute was the first I received the day of our commissioning. In the above picture. Sgt. Walker (at left) is holding a folded handkerchief containing 27 silver dollars which, by tradition, the new officers gave him after that first salute. Thank you, Staff Sergeant Floyd Walker, for what you did to enable me to earn that salute. And thank you for giving me an example of everything a U.S. Marine should be.

I wish all Marines a happy birthday!

Semper Fi.

 

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What makes a great communicator? What separates the best from the rest? What is it about their persona or message that moves people and creates action?

I would suggest that it all starts with a mastery of and a comfort with the spoken word, along with the ability to express ideas clearly. I would also suggest that a high degree of sincerity and trustworthiness is likewise applicable. Finally, it’s always helpful to know what you’re talking about.

Here is a list of 10 people from the 20th and 21st Centuries whom I would suggest belong on any list of great communicators. They are in no particular order:

  1. John Wooden. One of the most decorated coaches of any sport, Wooden helped transform the lives of hundreds of young men that came into his basketball program at UCLA. He is remembered not only for winning 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, but for the discipline he demanded from himself and his players.  Wooden was renowned for his short, simple inspirational messages to his players, including his “Pyramid of Success” book.
  2. Winston Churchill. At the onset of World War II, England was in very real danger of being invaded and overrun by the seemingly invincible Nazi war machine. Churchill inspired his island nation not only with his memorable, magnificent words, but with his stubborn determination and indomitable courage to repulse the Germans and see the war through to a successful conclusion. And in the end, he was the leader who prevailed.
  3. Billy Graham. This Southern evangelistic preacher has taken his uplifting message of the Gospel to the world’s masses, in the most literal of senses. Dr. Graham has spoken to and influenced millions of people, of different cultures and faiths, of all ages and backgrounds. He has been friend and counselor to presidents and paupers, and has often served as a steadying, comforting influence during times of national tragedy.
  4. Ronald Reagan. The 40th President of the United States was often referred to as The Great Communicator. A trained actor, Reagan served as Governor of California before seeking national elective office. His wit, humor, and insight were used to great effect in his speeches, and his personal charm played no small role in many of his legislative successes. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” is one of his more famous quotations.
  5. Jack Welch. One of the Captains of Industry, this Chairman and CEO of General Electric took his famous company to record levels of growth in revenue and profits. Welch’s messages were replete with references to the need for unremitting continuous improvement, and his successful Six Sigma initiative within GE was, among other processes, copied by many business leaders around the world. He earned a reputation for his brutal candor in meetings with executives.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Dr. King’s message of nonviolent social change brought to the American public’s consciousness the pressing need for equality of all people, regardless of race. Dr. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial has been elevated to one of the great pieces of oratory in American history. His ability to articulate the desires of minorities for social and economic justice, and the rightness of the cause, became the pivotal driver of the 1960s civil-rights movement.
  7. Walter Cronkite. Journalist Cronkite was often described during his days as evening news anchor at CBS as “the most trusted man in America.” From his nearly tearful reporting of the news of JFK’s assassination to his eventual description of the war in Vietnam as unwinnable, Cronkite served as a primary source of weekday news to millions of Americans. “And that’s the way it is,” was his trademark sign-off at the end of his newscast.
  8. Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli Prime Minister is a strong, passionate leader with an unwavering commitment to the survival and strength of the Jewish state. Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister born in Israel after the establishment of the state. His oratory skills are considerable, as is his ability to argue a point gracefully while pointing out the errors of those with whom he disagrees.
  9. Oprah Winfrey. According to some sources, media-icon Winfrey is the most influential woman in the world. Her self-improvement and self-help themes often characterize her talk-show content, much like group-therapy sessions. She has overcome adversity at many points in her storied life, and her often emotion-centered show content has dwelt with her many struggles.
  10. Mrs. Margaret Davis. My wonderful high school English teacher. She was simply the best. Do you have a memorable teacher you could add to this list?

 

Kelly Tough

September 4, 2014

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With all that’s going on in the world today, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to reflect upon and appreciate the struggle of a man who is tough, Kelly Tough actually, and who has been in the fight of his life. He has battled cancer and won, and he did it with a faith and bravery that those of us in good health can only hope we would exhibit were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. He has been an inspiration to others throughout most of his adult life, but now he inspires in a different way. Now he inspires not as a high-profile professional athlete, but as a decent, caring, all-too-mortal human being who gets dealt a difficult hand and does his best to deal with it.

His name is Jim Kelly.

You may remember that name. He is the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who was enshrined in 2002 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Kelly guided his team to 4 Super Bowls, and in 11 seasons in the NFL he passed for 35,467 yards and 237 touchdowns. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to see Jim and his Bills face the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Ironically, Jim played his college football at the University of Miami where Mark Richt, the current coach of my beloved University of Georgia Bulldogs, played backup quarterback to Kelly.

In 2013, Jim was diagnosed with cancer in his upper jaw. He had surgery and was pronounced cancer-free thereafter, only to have the cancer recur in March of this year. He then began a debilitating regimen of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, and his survival was anything but assured. But in late August, doctors announced that Jim was again without any trace of cancer.

Cancer isn’t the only tough blow Jim Kelly has endured. In 2005, Jim and his wife Jill lost their 8-year-old son Hunter to Krabbe disease. Kelly established the non-profit Hunter’s Hope to increase public awareness on behalf of Krabbe patients. As well, The Hunter James Kelly Research Institute was founded at the University of Buffalo in 2004 to study myelin and its diseases.

Professionally, the public Jim Kelly has always graciously dealt with the fact that his Buffalo Bills appeared in 4 Super Bowls without a victory. He would have preferred a different outcome—of course, he’s a fierce competitor—but the plain fact is that Kelly got his team into the sport’s biggest game 4 times. Not one and done; not twice; not even thrice. But 4 times! Similarly, some have scoffed at the fact that the Atlanta Braves won only 1 World Series in their 14 consecutive division titles. C’mon, man. How many pro athletes never get a chance at a single Super Bowl appearance or a postseason chance at a World Series? Kelly’s NFL career was one of achievement at a consistently high level, sustained over time, and well enough regarded to have earned him a place in the Hall of Fame.

Though I don’t know Jim personally, I am inspired by his dignity and his courage. Kelly Tough is his family motto and it’s no misnomer. My son and his family live in Buffalo and are friends with the Kellys. My grandson played quarterback in youth football for Jim’s brother Dan, and attended Jim’s football camp. There is a connection between Jim’s family and mine, a connection based upon friendship, faith, and, of course, football.

I’m pulling for Jim Kelly to remain cancer-free. He has a terrific family, the adoration of his cherished city of Buffalo, and plenty of work left with Hunter’s Hope. He has much to live for.

Way to go, Jim. Stay Kelly Tough. Stay an inspiration to so many of us. Stay Jim Kelly.

 

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An investigation led by a former U.S. Attorney has revealed that General Motors knew about a safety defect in its ignition switches for a full decade but did nothing to fix the problem. Thirteen people died in accidents related to the defect. This is the same General Motors that American taxpayers lost over $11 billion from the 2009 federal bailout. An issue of ethics or negligence? Or both?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has come under intense scrutiny after reports uncovered the deaths of dozens of veterans who died waiting for care. The VA has allegedly been manipulating data to meet performance goals, and the resultant payment of hundreds of thousands in bonuses reflects a systemic deterioration in the culture and performance of the organization charged with caring for the nation’s veterans.

News from Atlanta revealed that 35 teachers, principals, and other education leaders of Atlanta Public Schools have been charged with being part of a cheating ring where test sheets were altered or fabricated and test scores were inflated. It is one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history.

Lance Armstrong admits he cheated, lied, denied, and bullied during his career as a cyclist in which he was the winner of seven Tour de France titles. He has since been stripped of those titles.

The Internal Revenue Service has selected conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny in what appears to be a partisan political use of the IRS. There is considerably more than a scintilla of evidence to make Americans rightfully uncomfortable with this dangerous abuse of power.

A search of the internet finds that there is no shortage of lists of the Most Corrupt, to include states, governors, congressman, cities, and companies. Americans are fast losing confidence in such long-standing institutions as federal and state governments, the press, the church, and business.

Are these ethical lapses a reflection of a corrupted and value-diminished culture? Only to a limited degree, in my opinion. Our capitalist system with its large sums of money has, and always will, attract criminals and rogues. Our nation is divided politically, and a win-at-all-costs mentality seems to exist. These issues are not unique to these times, however.

Have Americans become too cowardly or disinterested or disenfranchised to smoke out those of low ethics? I don’t believe so, as evidenced by the whistleblowers in the VA and other scandals.

Are the ethics problems seemingly so widespread in the public and private sectors that a feeling of powerlessness among ethical, law-abiding Americans has come to prevail? Perhaps, but Americans also know they have the power of the ballot box or the power of the consumer dollar.

So, are the ethical lapses in America the new normal, or is it just an aberration?

It’s an aberration, in my judgment. I suggest that the heart of the problem is an abject failure of American leadership. Our elected officials are viewed negatively in near-record levels. Our current president is on a pathway to being viewed as the most incompetent in the nation’s history. His credibility as a truthful, skillful executive barely registers any signs of life whatsoever. The person at the top in any government, business, or military organization sets the example. And it’s a better example this nation very badly needs, across the board.

Leadership may not solve all of America’s ethical problems, but an absence of leadership will certainly compound them.

 

Cruising in Alaska

June 23, 2014

Tail of a Humpback Whale in Frederick SoundMy wife and I were joined last month by my uncle and aunt (and several thousand others) on a cruise to Alaska. We boarded the Celebrity/Solstice in Seattle and spent a week in what can only be described as a grand adventure. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, and the quantities and assortment of fine foods was very near to being otherworldly. Speaking of otherworldly, I’m fairly certain that if I had been confronted with such a near-obscene array of good-looking food as a young, working-class Atlanta boy, I would have looked around for St. Peter to be sure I was where I thought I was.

Previously, my cruise log had only a single entry—aboard a U.S. Navy ship en route to mainland Japan from Okinawa (and then back) when I was a Marine in the 1970s. Nothing against Navy chow, but it could hardly compare to a Solstice spread and the impeccable service that accompanied it. It was also pleasant that on the Alaska cruise I was responsible for, and in charge of, exactly nothing. All I had to do was show up when and where my wife directed me. I do that well.

I can’t say that I’m suddenly a cruise convert, but I have to admit that sitting on our balcony and watching the deep-emerald islands and the rugged, snow-capped mountains pass in front of me was one of those matchless experiences that escapes adequate description. The big ship moved along effortlessly most of the time, and that small balcony became a place of solitude and reflection for me, even in the dark of night. Seeing a whale was also an exciting first.

The Alaskan towns we visited were quaint and interesting, but only for as long as my uncle and I could locate a saloon and get to know some of the locals. Seaplanes were everywhere, buzzing like mosquitoes, and if I go back I will take a tour on one. The fiord and glacier and blue ice were all breathtaking, but when you finally did breathe you were inhaling some of the freshest air on earth. The Alaskan wilderness, like the sea that borders it, is an awesome yet somewhat intimidating marvel. Its arresting beauty combined with its power and strength and timelessness makes a mortal human feel small and fragile in comparison. Nature is indeed forceful, and in its untouched, undiminished form, it is, again, indescribable.

Now I know why I’ve never heard anyone who has taken an Alaska cruise say anything but great things about their experience.

Add me to that list.

GeneralDavis2Gen. Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, is one of the more legendary figures in the fabled history of the Corps. He was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was awarded virtually every decoration this nation can bestow for acts of gallantry, including the Medal of Honor. And he attained four-star rank when he was named Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps near the end of his illustrious career.

His Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “Always in the thick of the fighting Lt. Col. Davis led his battalion over 3 successive ridges in the deep snow in continuous attacks against the enemy and, constantly inspiring and encouraging his men throughout the night, brought his unit to a point within 1,500 yards of the surrounded rifle company by daybreak. Although knocked to the ground when a shell fragment struck his helmet and 2 bullets pierced his clothing, he arose and fought his way forward at the head of his men until he reached the isolated Marines.”

The temperature that night in Korea was 30 degrees below zero. He rescued his Marines and opened up a critical mountain pass.

When I was a Basic School student at Quantico, Virginia as a Marine second lieutenant in 1970, Gen. Davis attended a formal dinner for our class, by tradition referred to as Mess Night. I knew of his exploits in combat, and I saw the Medal of Honor around his neck and the Navy Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and numerous other decorations on his chest. He was soft-spoken, of average height and build, but he had the unmistakable presence and aura that great leaders exude, all without a trace of vanity or condescension.

When I mentioned to Gen. Davis that I was from his home state of Georgia, he asked what school I had attended. I knew the general had graduated from Georgia Tech, and when I mentioned that I had attended his school’s chief rival, he smiled and said, “Ah, a Georgia Bulldog.”

The years passed, and I now wish that I had arranged to visit him before his death in 2003, at age 88. I could have taken along the three novels I’ve written and we could have talked about the football fortunes of Georgia and Georgia Tech. And I’m sure we would have talked about the Marine Corps. What a rich wellspring of Marine history he would have been.

Thank you, Gen. Davis, for the remarkable service you rendered this nation in its times of need. You will forever be remembered by your fellow Marines.

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I’ve been contemplating a new book idea. In my most recent novel Dare Not Blink, the protagonist Dave Paige is a young business executive who by and large behaves ethically and honorably, even when he’s faced with a nasty power struggle within his own firm. Paige isn’t perfect by any means, but he does understand that there is a relationship between integrity and trustworthiness, and he attaches great worth to that relationship. His colleagues can count on Paige to do the right thing, even when others around him are playing by looser, more accommodating rules, if indeed they play by any rules at all.

So, for my new book I’m considering a sequel to Dare Not Blink and having my guy Dave Paige run for public office. Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to have someone elected to high office who tells the unvarnished truth and is thereby trusted by the American public for doing so? Even if it’s fiction?

Considering what we currently have in our elected officials, values like integrity and trustworthiness are largely fictitious anyway. So why not have my already larger-than-life fictional character come to the rescue of an entire nation which now places precious little of its abiding trust in government. Who knows? The new book might even become a blockbuster bestseller.

So, instead of Paige’s Laws of Business we could now have Paige’s Tenets of Good Governance (or some such). Here might be a few of his entries:

  • I will not lead from the rear. As a matter of practical fact, it can’t be done anyway.
  • Liars will be summarily terminated from my administration. My own lying will be an impeachable offense. Throughout government, I will smoke out those of low integrity and boot them to the curb.
  • I will not make vague threats about “consequences” and then do nothing.
  • I will direct and then ensure that the politicization of any federal agency resulting in the unwarranted harassment of any American citizen will result in the immediate transfer of the agency head (and any accomplices) to the Bureau of Prisons to await trail and the booking of a room therein.
  • I am a businessman and as such I will create jobs and get Americans back to work again.
  • I will balance the federal budget and keep it balanced throughout my term.
  • I will represent all Americans.
  • I will remind the world of what President John F. Kennedy said, “On the presidential coat of arms, the American eagle holds in his right talon the olive branch, while in his left he holds a bundle of arrows. We intend to give equal attention to both.”
  • I will give equal attention to both.

Man, I do love fiction.

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Has creative writing sparked an interest in you that you can no longer ignore? Are you attracted to the art of transforming an idea into a vibrant, coherent, imaginative stream of well-chosen words? Do you have the motivation to grow and to learn, the drive to push yourself to improve each day, and the mettle to take a shot at success when the risk of rejection might be lurking on the other side? If you can answer Yes to the foregoing, then the challenge and rewards of creative writing await you.

The below suggestions might be worthwhile as you begin charting your course:

• Capture your ideas. Keep a notepad handy to write down your observations. Worthwhile ideas can present themselves at any given moment. You may find that fresh material comes to you in the dead of night, or early morning, or perhaps as you’re driving or riding as a passenger. Inspiration can’t always be predicted or manipulated, so stay ready.

• Paint pictures with words. Instead of writing about a character involved in a motorcycle accident, describe the smell of the slick, wet pavement, the length and violence of the skid, the panic of the character as he/she realizes that control has been lost and some degree of unpleasantness now awaits. Don’t just tell, show. There’s a potential reader on the other end of your creation, so provide enough sustenance to keep that reader involved and turning the pages.

• Unleash your imagination. Your characters can become whomever or whatever you so desire. The scenes are yours to devise, the plot yours to construct. The story develops from an idea into a short story or novel based upon the power of your own imagination. You can make your main character larger than life, strong and determined, heroic yet flawed. It’s your choice. And don’t be afraid to take risks. Since it’s your story, your creation, tell it like you want it.

• Write every day. Writing is an acquired skill, and thus should be diligently practiced. The skill development, discipline, and dedication necessary to become an effective writer require continuous practice. It’s not always easy, but your writing should improve over time if you write, write, and keep writing.

Learn from others. Your writing style should be your own. But you can learn from reading the works of other writers. Read an array of material, from poetry to novels to blogs to journals of opinion. It’s okay to borrow from others, but you’ll need to develop a comfort with your own voice and words.

• Have fun. Make your characters come alive. Discover the unanticipated twists and turns that the writing process often takes once you have begun. And by all means enjoy yourself. It will reflect in your writing.

So, find your voice. Learn and practice your craft. Read, write, and write some more. You’ll be pleased when you find the high satisfaction that creative writing offers.

Good luck and good writing!