Remembering Ken Reigner: A life of passion for politics, words and friends

Last Saturday, my good friend Ken Reigner died just a few hours before we were scheduled to meet for dinner. Ken was one of the first people Pamela Tobey and I met when we moved to Washington in 1984 and he was part of many of our important life events, including our wedding, family holiday gatherings and even Adirondack vacations at the Dunham family compound. Here is my tribute to Ken’s life, written with the indispensable reporting of Michael Gessel and John McDiarmid.

In the fall of 1983, Ken Reigner was shocked to learn that NBC News had canceled one of his favorite programs, the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged NBC News Overnight.

“It was just as if someone had shot me through with electricity,” the red-haired Michigander with insatiable energy and righteous passion told The New Yorker in December 1983. “I was dumbfounded. After that, it was like being in an accident. A couple of minutes went by before I knew where I was.”

Ken Reigner at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Ken Reigner at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

But while most people would have accepted the program’s fate with disappointment and sorrow, Reigner, already a veteran of four presidential campaigns, decided to fight back.

“Somebody had to start up a movement to save the show,” he decided.

In the days before the Internet, email and social media, Reigner led a crusade to save NBC News Overnight. He led a candle-light vigil in front of NBC’s Washington studios, shared his outrage by calling in to Larry King’s nationwide radio show, organized a letter-writing campaign to NBC Chairman Grant Tinker and even demonstrated his support by distributing campaign-style buttons to members of the show’s audience one night.

“We noticed yellow ‘Save NBC News Overnight’ buttons on an increasing number of chests as the night wore on,” James Lardner wrote later in The New Yorker, “and we traced them to a tote bag carried by a bright-faced man named Kenneth Reigner.”

That bright-faced man, who led a number of crusades during more than four decades as a political campaigner, congressional staffer, writer and editor, died in his sleep at his home in Greenbelt, Md., on Aug. 8. He was 66.

“Crusading was what Ken was best at and enjoyed most — crusading for political candidates in campaigns, crusading for NBC News Overnight, crusading to save Washington Independent Writers,” said John F. McDiarmid, his partner of 16 years and Professor Emeritus of British and American Literature
at New College of Florida. “He could build up tremendous energy and zeal for crusading.”

Described by friends as “naturally enthusiastic,’ Mr. Reigner was accomplished in both the political sphere and the world of Washington writers. He was a former congressional press secretary, presidential campaign radio specialist and Democratic National Convention media operations fixture. He also was the founder and owner of CompuMedia Business Services, a two-term president of Washington Independent Writers, a freelance radio producer for several segments aired on National Public Radio and a tireless advocate for health-care and social safety net services for freelance writers facing tough economic times. One of his proudest “achievements” was earning a spot on one of President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous “enemies lists” along with fellow staffers and contributors to 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.

“A remarkable person,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a prominent American author, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania who was a friend of Mr. Reigner’s for three decades after teaching him at the University of Maryland. “A sad loss.”

Paul Dickson, the author of more than 50 non-fiction books, called Mr. Reigner “a wonderful friend and a great person to work with when the going got tough. Watching him in action was to see a man of true determination working with the aid of a great smile and a deep sense of civility.”

Among Mr. Reigner’s ancestors was John Morton of Pennsylvania, a signer of the Declaration of Independence whose decision on July 1, 1776, to side with Benjamin Franklin against fellow Pennsylvanian John Dickinson cleared the way for final approval of independence. Two centuries later, Morton’s descendant entered the American political arena with the active encouragement of his family. Mr. Reigner always credited his mother Ann with instilling in him a keen interest in current events, politics and public service.

“I distinctly remember sitting with my mother when I was only three years old watching the 1952 Democratic and Republican National Conventions on television,” he recalled in 2004. “The message from my mother was loud and clear: this was important stuff that affected real people’s lives and I had better pay attention and learn about it.”

After decades of working on presidential campaigns, Mr. Reigner in 2000 helped his mother fulfill her lifelong ambition to attend a national convention by securing credentials for her to attend the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and hear the acceptance speech of party nominee Al Gore.

In a Washington culture often driven by ego and dominated by a lust for power, Mr. Reigner’s passion for life and his compassion for others made him an icon to many.

“Ken made life nicer for everyone he met,” said former National Press Club president Doug Harbrecht.

Mr. Reigner was born in Detroit, Mich., on May 20, 1949, to Mollie Ann Pocock Reigner and Hal Morton Reigner, a Ford Company engineer. He grew up in Battle Creek and Farmington, Mich., as the only son in a family with three sisters. As a boy, he was in a Battle Creek Cub Scout troop led by his mother. He once contemplated a life in the clergy and graduated from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit in 1967.

Educated at Wayne State University and later the University of Maryland at College Park, he worked for four years as a retail sales manager at the J.L. Hudson Company in Detroit before moving to Washington in 1972 to pursue his passion for politics.

He worked in five presidential campaigns, starting as a volunteer for anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and ending as a volunteer for anti-war Democrat Howard Dean in 2004. He was employed as a radio press assistant three times: for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, 1976 nominee Jimmy Carter, and Carter’s 1980 Democratic challenger, Ted Kennedy.

In the days before digital broadcasting, Mr. Reigner was a master of the radio actuality, a short recording of a presidential candidate’s speeches, press conferences or interviews that Mr. Reigner taped, edited and then trained an army of volunteers to transmit by telephone to more than 2,000 radio stations and broadcast networks across the United States for use in their news programming. He produced audio commercials for the Democratic presidential candidates and assisted with distribution of video spots. During his decade of presidential politics, he estimated that he recruited, trained and supervised about 500 volunteers and staffers.

“I knew no one in the campaign more exacting, dedicated and passionate about his work than Ken,” Carter Radio Director Robert W. Maynes said.

Mr. Reigner was a seasoned spokesman for Democrats on Capitol Hill, serving as press secretary to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson of Washington and Representatives Bob Matsui of California, John Burton of California, Mickey Leland of Texas and Mike Barnes of Maryland. He was employed as radio press assistant for Brendan Byrne’s 1973 campaign for governor of New Jersey. He also worked as Director of Public Information for the National Credit Union Administration and Communications Director at the Center for Environmental Education.

The devoted Democrat worked with the media at every Democratic national convention from 1976 to 2012, the last seven times as one of the managers in the convention’s office handling printing and distributing of advance speech texts, schedules and news advisories to the thousands of members of the press corps covering the convention.

“Ken loved politics,” said John McDiarmid. “He was passionately and intelligently committed to liberal political causes.”

The Nixon

The Nixon “Enemies List” through the pen of legendary Los Angeles Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad.

Mr. Reigner’s top political heroes were South Dakota Senator George McGovern and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, both unsuccessful presidential candidates. He considered Richard M. Nixon the nation’s worst president—and earned a spot on one of of Nixon’s enemies lists.

“Not the first-string list, he would modestly point out, but the longer list that he got on by working for the McGovern campaign,” added Mr. McDiarmid.

Although he made rather a bad enemy of the president known to many as Tricky Dick, Mr. Reigner also had friends in high places. Among those who agreed to serve as job references for him were Vice President Walter Mondale and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James B. King.

In 1986 Mr. Reigner founded his own writing and editing business, which he operated in suburban Maryland until his death. Over three decades, he edited hundreds of books, articles, academic papers, theses and dissertations, and wrote countless résumés.

“He was passionate about the use of the English language,” said Mr. McDiarmid. “He was knowledgeable and judicious about grammar and style, a hard-working, meticulous editor.”

Mr. Reigner was active in the independent writers movement in the national capital region, working to strengthen networking among freelance writers and editors and to help writers who faced financial or medical crises. He joined the Board of Directors of Washington Independent Writers (WIW), then the largest regional writers’ organization in the United States, in 1997. (WIW was renamed American Independent Writers in 2008, then dissolved 2011.)

When first elected to the WIW board of directors, he was named chairman of the WIW Technology Committee. In that position, he organized annual technology conferences at Washington’s University Club. He chaired technology panels at WIW’s annual Spring Writers Conference at the National Press Club and George Washington University.

Mr. Reigner received the Philip M. Stern Award, WIW’s highest honor, in 2000 “for his exceptional service in bringing WIW into the Electronic Age.” The award is named for the investigative journalist, author, early benefactor and founder of WIW.

A year later, in response to a move to dismantle the WIW main office, he ran for WIW president at the head of a “Save WIW” slate including well-known writers Paul Dickson, Beryl Benderly and others. Swept into office in a landslide, Mr. Reigner served two terms before retiring in 2003.

“For hundreds and hundreds of us, WIW was pivotal to building our careers, and Ken, by leading the ‘Save WIW’ ticket to resounding victory over a board that wanted to dismantle the downtown office, allowed it to continue prospering for an additional decade,” said Ms. Benderly.

As WIW president, Mr. Reigner worked with leaders of other writers’ groups and journalism organizations, particularly future National Press Club President Rick Dunham, to offer first-rate training programs for Washington area writers that focused on technology skills and job opportunities.

Ms. Benderly recalls—“vividly”—meeting Mr. Reigner at the National Press Club on a Friday night in April as dissatisfaction with the incumbent WIW board festered.

“The question arose of who would lead the campaign and take on the onerous and time-consuming role of the president who would have to rebuild the shattered organization,” she recalled. “We were all freelancers, so time was very important to us. Nobody came forward to do that.

“Eventually, Ken stepped forward to take on the burden. I don’t think that most people in the crowd knew him. I know that I didn’t. He was younger than most of us and hadn’t been that active. But that didn’t matter, because he seemed sincere in his outrage and his affection for [former staff director] Isolde [Chapin] and, mainly, he was willing to do it. So the ‘Save WIW’ slate was born that night.”

As a candidate, Mr. Reigner brought his organizational and messaging skills to a much smaller electorate.

“To the shock of our adversaries, who had absolutely no idea what was afoot, we put the plan into effect, completely blindsiding them,” said Ms. Benderly. “Ken, of course, knew what to do and relished the fight, as did we all. We raised money among ourselves to send a letter (by mail) to every member–about 1,500 as I recall. And we divided up the telephone directory—literally gave out pages to different people — and together our group and our supporters personally phoned every member to ask for their vote.

“When the votes were counted, we utterly crushed them, electing our entire slate by huge margins.”

George Bailey's in trouble. With WIW, like Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, the good guys won in the end.

George Bailey’s in trouble. With WIW, like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the good guys won in the end.

Ms. Benderly calls the “Save WIW” campaign her “Frank Capra moment,” like the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life in which the community unites to the cry of “George Bailey’s in trouble?”

“I keenly feel the loss of my partner in those glorious days of doing the right thing for our fellow writers simply because it was the right thing,” said Ms. Benderly. “Ken had such a big heart and because of it played an absolutely crucial role in WIW at an absolutely crucial time.”

As passionate as he was about politics, Mr. Reigner was equally passionate about words and music. His favorite entertainers—David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Garrison Keillor—were masters of intelligent conversation and piercing wit. His favorite authors—including the historians David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin and the journalist and biographer David Maraniss—are masterful storytellers with an eye for detail.

His musical tastes ran the gamut from Rosemary Clooney to Janis Joplin. He loved theater and was a volunteer with the Ushers group in the Washington area. He also was proud to be a member of MENSA. For years, his Maryland license plate was “HIGH IQ.”

Always on the cutting edge of technology, Mr. Reigner was among the first Washingtonians to have a car phone, a cell phone, a personal computer, an email address and an Internet access account. But his first love was always radios.

“He was interested in computers but loved radio technology,” said Mr. McDiarmid. “He was the first person I have ever traveled with who pointed out different kinds of radio towers we passed. I gave him a radio towers calendar one year.”

Mr. Reigner died of natural causes on the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. A year earlier, he and longtime friend Rick Dunham had toasted the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s disgrace.

Mr. Reigner is survived by Mr. McDiarmid, a resident of Falls Church, Va., and three sisters, Judith A. Crowe of York, Pa; Susan M. Justice of Seal Beach, Calif., and Beth Reigner of Garden City, Kan.

A memorial service is planned for later this year.

His ashes are likely to be interred alongside his parents in the suburbs of Detroit, a city he loved faithfully even after it hit hard times.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Reigner’s family asks friends to consider donations to two organizations that provide financial support to freelance writers in financial crisis: the Author’s League Fund and the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ Writers Emergency Assistance Fund.

American Society of Journalists and Authors, Writers Emergency Assistance Fund

Donate online at http://www.asja.org/for-writers/weaf/weaf-donations.php or mail a check made out to the ASJA Charitable Trust to:

Writers Emergency Assistance Fund

IN CARE OF ASJA:

355 Lexington Ave, 15th Floor

New York, NY 10017-6603

or

The Authors League Fund

Donate online at http://www.authorsleaguefund.org/donate/ or make checks out to The Authors League Fund and mail to its office:

Attn: Isabel Howe, Executive Director

The Authors League Fund

31 East 32nd Street, 7th Floor

New York, NY 10016

– 30 –


Ten things I really miss living in China — and ten I definitely do not

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kreitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food and chocolate cake at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kneitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.

It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.

A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.

I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.

What I miss:

1. My wife and family

2. The National Press Club

3. Live NHL hockey

4. Hummus

5. My good friends back home

6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York

7. Trader Joe’s

8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources

9. Good wine at good prices

10. Target

What I Don’t Miss:

1. CNN

2. American cable news in general

3. The newspaper world I left behind

4. Cable TV

5. Congress

6. Driving

7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)

8. The Washington football team with the racist name

9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy

10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination


Top ten losers — and a few winners — in the DC debt ceiling debacle

We're THIS close to a solution, folks.

We’re THIS close to a solution, folks.

As the newest American political analyst on Chinese national television, I’ve been asked to explain the U.S. government shutdown and default showdown.

It’s not easy.

How do you explain the farce that Washington has become? Lawmakers shutting down the government because of an issue not directly related to spending. Hostage-taking is for terrorists, not for Republicans.

International observers are even more baffled by the brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. Why, I am asked over and over, would congressional Republicans threaten the full faith and credit of the United States, risk a relapse into recession and jeopardize a very tenuous economic recovery around the world? Why would they, through their illogical enterprise, encourage other nations to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency, which will do nothing but create inflation at home, make borrowing more expensive for the American government and American consumers, and stifle foreign investment in the United States? And why is President Barack Obama incapable of rescuing the nation from the tar pit of Capitol Hill.

It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Are there any winners in the Washington wackiness? Not really, though there are some short-term gainers. Here’s my long list of losers and short list of winners in the continuing congressional catastrophe.

John Boehner

The House Speaker looks like a hostage being forced to read a script by his radical captors. He looks weary. He looks very, very sad.

Barack Obama

He looks weak.

House Republicans

They look extreme. Actually, they look beyond extreme. And incompetent.

The Tea Party

Did we mention extreme? The current situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era saying, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Senate Republicans

They look weak, too, as the Tea Party tail continues to wag the Republican dog.

The Republican Party

The Grand Old Party is lurching toward the political cliff in the 2014 midterm elections. Its best asset: gerrymandered House districts. Its best ally: discombobulated Democrats.

Joe Biden

Who? Nonexistent.

The United States.

Forget partisan politics. Congress has made the U.S. an international laughingstock. The double showdown has led to grave global doubts about the reliability of the United States and the leadership skill (and power) of its president. So this will hurt the country for a long, long time and its president — whoever that may be, Democrat or Republican.

The U.S. economy

In the short run, thousands of Americans are without paychecks, tourism revenue has plunged and consumer confidence has taken a hit. Businesses have another reason to hold off on hiring. In the long run, interest rates will be higher and loans will be even harder to obtain for individual Americans and corporations alike. And they call Republicans the pro-growth party?

The global economy

The self-induced crisis in Washington has shaken global confidence in the United States If American lawmakers blunder into a default (still unimaginable from my distant vantage point), it would almost certain trigger an international recession as China, Japan, Brazil, the EU and other leading U.S. creditors take a massive hit. The consequences would be so severe that it’s not even worth contemplating.

The U.S. Congress wouldn’t do something so wantonly self-destructive, would they?

Would they?

Remember Smoot-Hawley? Call this modern-day version Cruz-Boehner.

“Winners”

Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell

There really are no winners in Washington, but the closest thing to it are the Senate leaders. Instead of acting like squabbling partisans, they are playing the role of sober cops coming to restore order after a frat party has descended into anarchy and drunken debauchery. Officers Reid and McConnell, your country needs you. Now.

Ted Cruz

In the short term, the freshman senator from Texas has become the hero of the ultraright, the face of Fox News, the Earl Grey of the Tea Party. In the long run, he will have to overcome the first impression of two-thirds of Americans (who know who he is) that he is a right-wing ideologue. Polls show that he’s poison among independent and swing voters outside of the Lone Star State.

House Democrats

They are only winners because House Republicans look so, so bad. The Dems haven’t won any awards for profiles in courage or bipartisan bridge building. Except another Bridge to Nowhere.

C-SPAN

Ratings are way, way up at the nation’s favorite cable channel for nerds and policy wonks. Heck, it’s the most bizarre reality show on television. And, unlike the Kardashians, it has real-world consequences.

China

The government in Beijing has won in two ways (so far). First, President Obama canceled his Asia trip, allowing first-year Chinese President Xi to be the star of the show at APEC. And China-bashing Washington Republicans have succeeded in making Beijing the victim of irresponsible fiscal policies in free-enterprise America that could lead to default. A bizarre lesson in capitalism.


My take on the dysfunction in DC

I’m still getting used to be the interviewee and not the interviewer. Here’s a recent Q&A with me conducted by Katie Perkowski, a super-talented former Texas on the Potomac intern who now works and lives in Bratislava.

Katie’s piece first appeared in WBP Online.

—–

Behind Capitol Hill: Q&A with long-time Washington watchdog

Rick Dunham has had eyes and ears on Capitol Hill and in the White House for three decades, giving him a unique view into US politics. In an interview with WBP Online, the former Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle explains how dramatic political party transformations have led to the dysfunction in Congress we are seeing today.

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

By Katie Perkowski
WBP Online

Few people understand the inner workings of US politics quite as well as Rick Dunham, who covered the White House and Capitol Hill for three decades, during which time he served as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek and board president of the National Press Club.

In a Q&A with WBP Online, Dunham explained the dramatic transformations of the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that he saw during his time in Washington, and why those shifts have led to an ever-dived Congress seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The latest evidence of that now all-too-familiar phenomenon? The federal government’s shutdown, now on day four with no sign of stopping.

Here’s what Dunham had to say:

Q: Can you describe the shift in dynamic you noticed in both the Republican and Democrat parties during your time in Washington? What do you think brought about this change in the way things get done (or don’t)?

There has been a tremendous shift, both culturally and politically, over my three decades in Washington.

One is ideological. Both parties’ representatives were far more diverse in the past. Democrats ranged from far left to far right. Republicans ranged from liberal to very conservative. Now there are no liberals and very few moderates left among Republican lawmakers. And there are very few Democrats remaining who are right of the political center. The party is pretty well split between far left, left and center. Republicans are pretty well divided between right and far right, with a tiny group of centrists. The key Republican division is establishment and insurgent. The establishment Republicans still are in the majority but the radical right Republicans control the agenda through mastery of tactics and willingness to “do the unthinkable.”

Culturally, there has been an even bigger shift. When I arrived in Washington in 1984, Congress was controlled by “doers” and not “talkers.” The goal of lawmakers was to make laws. Legislators used to legislate. Now, the vast majority on both sides of the aisle want to posture and play to their ideological core rather than to get things done.

The great lawmakers I have covered were often very liberal or conservative – Ted Kennedy was hard left and Bob Dole was very conservative – but they believed in moving things forward for their country in the end. There are almost none of those left now, and certainly not enough to get things done.

Q: Covering Texas, you followed Ted Cruz in his rise from solicitor general to senator. What kind of change within the Republican party does Cruz represent? There have been numerous reports out about how senior members of his party, like McCain and Graham are not happy with the way he’s doing things. Do you think there could be a party split among Republicans in the near future? What is the Tea Party’s role in all of this?

The key figures representing the three strands of the Republican future are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. All are ultraconservative but only Rubio among them is pragmatic and willing to cut deals. The other two are ideological purists who would rather lose than compromise. Rand Paul is the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He is anti-government. Period. Ted Cruz is an ultraconservative in the mold of the 1964 version of Barry Goldwater, who believed that extremism in the defense of liberty (as he saw it) is no vice. Cruz is against government unless government will help him accomplish his ideological ends. He also is against (almost) anything Barack Obama is for. I call him the leader of the nihilist strain of the modern Republican Party.

That’s why old-fashioned conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like him. They are very conservative – I don’t buy into the revisionist view of McCain and Graham as moderate because they are willing to cut deals and occasionally act like mavericks.

McCain took an instant dislike to Cruz because Cruz has such an authentic dislike for the institution. McCain respects the institution. Cruz despises it. They are both strong personalities, so it is natural that they will clash. Neither of them is phony. They genuinely dislike each other.

McCain and other Republican leaders believe that Cruz is leading the party on a political suicide mission. They believe he is hoping to burn down the village and then claim to be king of the ashes.

Cruz represents the socially conservative strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Rand Paul represents the pure libertarian strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Both are ideologically pure and strongly “pro-liberty” but both philosophies are distinct and different. They have a slightly different definition of what liberty means.

Q: What kind of precedent do you think it would set if Republicans hold to their current stance and hold the debt ceiling “hostage” as some are calling it in an effort to repeal or delay a law that’s already been passed? Could that lead to similar actions by Congress in the future, or even “revenge” acts of a similar manner by Democrats?

I don’t think it will lead to a “tit for tat” reaction from Democrats in the future. Democrats never held the government or the country hostage during George W. Bush’s administration. I’ve always said that the Democrats’ big problem is that they are too “responsible.” I’m not talking about being ideologically moderate. I mean that they won’t take extreme measures in order to prevail.

Filibusters are another matter. Both sides are irresponsible and hypocritical when it comes to filibusters. That’s another big change in the Washington culture. But that’s another story.

In some ways, Democrats are to blame for all of this. It started with the defeat of Robert Bork, who was very qualified for the Supreme Court (in terms of legal qualifications) but was defeated for ideological reasons, because he was out of the judicial mainstream. That has led to the political equivalent of an arms race where each side is willing to become more and more virulent in order to make political points. It’s gotten to the point that Republicans will block Democratic nominations just because the nominees exist, not even for reasons of ideology or the nominee’s personal issues. That is utterly irresponsible and, I am sorry to say, bipartisan.

Q: Do you think the current party structure in Washington can survive, or should it be changed to prevent the type of mess we’re seeing now?

I see the party structure surviving because that is the history of American representative democracy. We have always had two main parties. The two parties have not always been Republican and Democrat. Since we entered the R/D era, the two parties have changed radically. Now, just about anyone who would have been a Republican at the time of slavery and the Civil War is a Democrat, and anybody who would have been a Democrat at that time is a Republican. The two parties have reversed regional bases. One of the only common threads is that immigrants still tend to be Democrats.

I see the Democratic Party becoming more “moderate” in coming years as more disgruntled former Republicans and moderate young people join the party. I see the Republican Party finally having a showdown between the establishment right and the hard right. It probably will take the nomination of a far-right Republican for president and an overwhelming defeat for the party to move back toward the center. The last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not purists. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the last hard-core conservative to be a presidential nominee. And Reagan would be considered a pragmatic moderate by today’s standards.

One last thought: If the Republicans are to have a future at the presidential level, they cannot afford to continue to lose immigrants, minorities and young voters. Those three blocs are the future. Republicans not only need to maintain their current levels of support, they need to increase them. A similar fate befell Democrats during the 1980s as Ronald Reagan cut into the blue-collar Democratic base, young voters went Republican and old New Deal Democrats died off rapidly. Democrats won just once in 24 years before Bill Clinton started to redefine the Democratic Party with his “New Democrat” movement. We’re at a similar point in reverse now. But I suspect we’ll need a disaster like the Democrats faced in 1980-1984-1988 to convince Republicans to rethink Cruz-ism.

Dunham is now based in Beijing, where he is a professor of multimedia journalism and co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. You can follow him at https://rickdunhamblog.com/.

To contact the author of this story, e-mail katherine.perkowski@wbponline.com.


An American in Tiananmen on China’s National Day

An indelible image that changed world history -- October 1, 1949.

An indelible image that changed world history — October 1, 1949.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong read a statement before a bank of microphones and hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Tiananmen Square declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

Sixty-four years later, I was one of the perhaps dozens of “westerners” visiting Beijing’s most famous landmark on China’s National Day holiday. It is a festive celebration, with special decorations, tourist-friendly hats, face painting, parades and family pilgrimmages.

The Lion and Mao. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

The Lion and Mao. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

The scene, I thought, was very much like the Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall in Washington. Patriotism, pageantry, family, country.

My small group of three Americans (thanks, Caroline and Sara) tried to blend in with the hundreds of thousands — more probably, millions — of Chinese tourists. Well, we were never going to blend in. Caroline and Sara are striking young blondes, and perhaps a dozen Chinese families asked to have their photos taken with them. (Nobody asked me.)

We walked around Tiananmen, headed inside the main gate toward the Forbidden City, and then wandered through the historic core of old Beijing.

I hope this photo essay gives you a sense of the grandeur and the scope of the day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Rick’s Rules: Ten basic reporting errors

With this post, I am introducing a regular feature to RickDunhamBlog: Rick’s Rules.

Rick’s Rules will highlight best and worst practices in modern multimedia journalism and offer tips to improve your skills — whether you are one of my graduate journalism students at Tsinghua University, a veteran journalist in Washington, D.C., or a normal everyday “civilian.”

I also will try to experiment with innovative storytelling techniques. Today’s “Rick’s Rules” uses infogr.am.

TEN BASIC REPORTING ERRORS

| Create infographics

UPDATE: Due to technical difficulties on the WordPress site, I am forced to link to the graphic on infogr.am. Please follow this link to the graphic.