WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Retired Supreme Court justices don’t customarily second-guess their former colleagues. Former high-court justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010, broke with custom the other day when he wrote a searing critique of the court’s decision to invalidate the Voting Right’s Act’s requirement that states with a history of bias in voting had to obtain Justice Department approval of changes in their voting laws

Stevens registered his disapproval in a book review in the Aug. 15 issue of the New York Review of Books. The book: “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy” by Gary May.

The New York Review of Books has a small but elite readership. If Stevens wanted deliberately to provoke a storm, he’d have run his piece in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but the book review he wrote was sufficiently hard-hitting and out of the ordinary that it is bound to be noticed.

Among other things, Stevens accused Chief Justice John Roberts of selectively quoting history in his majority opinion for the court. “Nothing that happened before the 1890s is even mentioned in Roberts’s opinion for the court,” chided Stevens, noting it was in those years the Ku Klux Klan was organized and other measures flourished to deny blacks access to the ballot box. And he unfavorably compared Roberts’s description of Mississippi racial history to the more complete factual record included in Justice Abe Fortas’s opinion in the earlier voting rights case of United States v. Price.    

Should retired justices stick to their knitting and leave commentary about the court’s work to law professors and other academic critics? It would be a shame if the unique insight and perspective of a retired justice is withheld from public discourse for no better reason than custom. The public debate has been enriched by John Paul Stevens’s willingness to speak his mind.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Yes, the Iowa precinct caucuses for the 2016 presidential election are still some 30 months
away — January 2016.

But the zaniness of the caucus process and zealotry of the religious/political right in Iowa is in full flower — with all the quirks and folly that made the 2012 caucuses such a farce.

Despite one’s efforts to repress it, the 2012 process in Iowa was a time U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann was hailed as a front runner for the GOP presidential nomination, a time when Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses and two weeks later Rick Santorum won, a time when U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley said Herman Cain, Bachmann and anyone else willing to fork over thousands of dollars to the Iowa GOP was fit to be President of the United States, a time when — well, why not repress the rest of the folly.

May as well, because we have a jump start on the GOP follies for 2016, all in the name of Iowans proudly contemplating the months when Iowa is the “center of the political universe.” That’s the notion, even though most rational people — the press excluded, of course — think giving Iowa such status is either nonsense or alarming or both.

And for good reason.


• As a preview of coming attractions, David Young, a former Grassley aide, is seeking the Iowa GOP nomination to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014, given the retirement of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Young says being a U.S. senator gives him still another forum to share “the good news of Jesus Christ.” One person he wants to share the news with, he says, is U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D, NY), presumably because Schumer is Jewish. Perhaps back-pedaling on that, the Young camp says what he meant was sharing the “good news of Jesus Christ” as a way to develop friendship and collegiality in the Senate, which lord knows, or the Lord knows, we need. The Young “good news” candidacy is right up the alley of David Lane, an evangelical operative who wants to march an army behind Christian conservative candidates.

• Cue the organist for “Onward Christian Soldiers” because Lane says he is rallying millions of true believers to put their votes where their faith is to “re-establish a Christian culture” across the nation. The Des Moines Register reported he has been trying to rally the folks in Iowa for about six years, mostly behind the scenes, but now has come out of the closet to be even more effective.

• Meantime, Senator Grassley — sticking to his 2012 theme of anyone can be president — says there is no front runner for the 2016 nomination, although Santorum might have an edge in the caucuses, dominated as they are by the religious right. And the line-up is taking shape of would-be GOP candidates to bow and scrape below those folks for the next couple of years.

• Iowa Governor Terry Branstad contributes to the nonsense with his own version of the biblical chariot of fire, not having yet learned that trying to cover up mistakes usually creates more of a fuss than the mistake in the first place. Branstad’s SUV was clocked at well over 80 miles an hour on a state highway, with him and his dutiful lieutenant governor along for the ride. A law enforcement officer alerted the state patrol to an SUV doing “a hard 90” on a state highway. But the vehicle wasn’t stopped or encouraged to slow down because it was learned the guv was in it. The public safety person who alerted the state patrol has since been fired — for other reasons of course. Branstad and his minions say the guv did nothing wrong, that he doesn’t micro-manage his drivers and that he and the lieutenant guv had no idea the car was going fast. No apologies or contrite expressions at all. 

Branstad likely will be run for re-election again in 2014. (He served as governor from 1983-1999 and ran and won again in 2010.) If he wins, he’ll be on hand to assure that visiting candidates curry favor from the religious right and won’t be held accountable for reckless driving or reckless rhetoric — remember how Rick Perry just about likened President Obama to the Anti-Christ?

No need to dig out such repressed memories, a harvest of folly awaits.


Detroit helped save the country in World War II. It’s now the country’s turn to save Detroit. The term “Arsenal of Democracy” was an apt description of wartime Detroit as it turned its manufacturing might from producing autos to production of everything from tanks, anti-aircraft guns, marine engines and planes to parts for the atomic bomb.

Not enough has been said about the huge debt the country owes to its manufacturing sector. Veterans Day celebrates the men and women who served in uniform. A day should be set aside as well to commemorate those who engineered the country’s factories and weapons; they served the nation in overalls.

I paid silent tribute to them at Okinawa as I landed in the third wave to hit the beach Easter Sunday in 1945 in an amphibious craft that clambered over reefs and carried us to shore. I marveled at the time that that craft probably did not even exist on paper at the outset of the war. But here we were knocking on Japan’s back door a few short years later in the company of a vast armada of ships of every description.

A Detroit factory at its peak built one B-24 Liberator bomber every hour around the clock for a total of 8,000 aircraft. In all, 17 U.S. plants built tanks; half of all of the tanks produced in the U.S. in World War II were made in Detroit.

The city has since fallen on hard times and is heading for bankruptcy. Once known for its productive might, Detroit is now famous for its blight, a city that takes forever to respond to 911 calls and that can’t even make many street lights work.

The country owes it to Detroit to get it back on its feet. It will be a big undertaking. So was rallying the country from near-defeat in World War II. Detroit, including many of the retirees whose pensions are now threatened, played a key part in that effort. The country can and should do whatever it takes to repay the debt owed to Detroit.

Friday, July 19, 2013


Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower currently without a country, has plenty of time on his hands as he awaits, at a Russian airport lounge, a decision about his future. My advice: he should spend the time doing due diligence on possible havens.

That should include obtaining English translations of the equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights in each of the countries being considered. He should also get on the phone with the heads of the counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union in each place.

Since Snowden is likely to have to earn a living where he lands, and he is reputed to be a computer whiz, he’d be wise to check out computer-related jobs. An obvious candidate would be the government of the country that opened its doors to him. That government might well want to exploit his expertise in surveillance. It would be prudent then for him to examine his potential host’s penalties for spilling state secrets.

While amassing all of this information, Snowden would be remiss if he didn’t also check out the likely outcome if he faced the music at home. It’s possible that a repentant and cooperative Snowden would find prosecutors receptive to a generous deal.

As Snowden weighs his options it is conceivable that he would look at his country in a new light and realize that giving up his citizenship would be a fateful step he is not prepared to take.

Snowden made a possibly rash decision when he broke his oath to his employer and took flight. He ought to reconsider and the U.S. government should give him every encouragement. If he honestly examines alternatives, he can count himself lucky that a future in the U.S. is among them.


David Brooks is one of the more conservative contributors in the New York Times stable of regular columnists. So why did Brooks in his July 12 column take such a hard crack at the GOP for its performance on immigration reform? Because Brooks, unlike a lot of columnists, refreshingly departs now and then from knee jerk right-wing positions.

Some columnists believe they should be predictable. They seem to think they fill a niche that either readers or editors who buy the columns have come to expect. Others, a distinct minority, either tire of repeating themselves or believe readers deserve a change of pace or are entitled to intellectual honesty. I don’t know what motivated Brooks when he wrote his July 12 column; whatever it was, he deserves credit for his willingness to attack the status quo on immigration as a “tragedy for the country and political suicide for Republicans.”

For years, my two favorite columnists were Mary McGrory and William Safire. They were poles apart ideologically but both had in common an appetite for reporting. You could always count on them to dig into their subjects and back their opinions with fresh information. If you disagreed with their policy positions, you at least came away from their columns better informed because they were reliable and conscientious reporters. I miss them both.

I define opinion writing as reporting plus. The plus is the point of view expressed. Pure opinion in my view is essentially worthless as journalism. Unless the writer supports opinion with facts, the effort might be clever and entertaining but ultimately unpersuasive.

Cramming a piece with facts is not necessarily good journalism or a service to readers. If the facts are cherry-picked, readers can be left with a wrong impression. They need to be wary of journalism that is true but false -- that is, journalism that fails the test of accuracy by what is withheld from readers. Unfortunately, journalism is not without its unscrupulous practitioners.

Friday, July 12, 2013


What do baseball and the Second Amendment have in common? Well, shooting people and the game both are national pastimes. Collecting guns and baseball cards also are popular hobbies.

The nexus between baseball and the Second Amendment received a kind of boost recently when the Class A team in Huntsville, AL staged a Second Amendment Night promotion at which National Rifle Association members were admitted free by showing their NRA membership cards. Some of the edge was taken from the promotion when a planned gun raffle was canceled after Minor League Baseball officials advised the local team that giving away guns likely was not in the franchise’s best interest.

Baseball fans who visit the AAA ballpark in Des Moines, IA are greeted by a sign that recites the First Amendment. That makes sense since free speech and baseball go together like hotdogs and beer. What would baseball be without cries of “Throw the bums out” or “You call that a strike?!”

Besides, the owner of the Des Moines team, Michael Gartner, is a former newspaper editor and president of NBC News who recites the First Amendment when he wakes up each day and goes to bed at night.

I asked Gartner if he had permission from organized baseball to hang his First Amendment sign. He replied, “I didn’t ask for any permission…and I have never gotten any grief. In fact, one of the great satisfactions I get at the ballpark is walking down the concourse and watching a dad explain to his son what that sign is. It happens almost every night.”

Gartner added: “You can learn a lot at a ballpark, and it’s not always about baseball.

“My dad told me that he was about 8 or 9 when he skipped school and went to his first professional baseball game with a buddy – it was the Hannibal Cannibals (really) against someone – and when one of the Cannibals hit a long ball my father said to his pal, ‘Where’d he hit that to?’ At which point my father says a well-dressed man behind him tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Son, don’t ever end a sentence with a preposition.’ My dad remembered that all his life.”


The path to sainthood has been cleared for the late pope John Paul II now that he has been credited with the miracle cure from Parkinson’s disease of a French nun, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, who is said to have been cured after she had prayed to the pope after he died.

I had a personal interest in this particular miracle because I, too, was declared free of Parkinson’s disease. Not that the pope had anything to do with it. Nor, in truth, was it much of a miracle, unless you consider modern medicine somewhat miraculous.

A flock of neurologists, all heavily credentialed, concurred that I had Parkinson’s after observing my gait and ruling out other possibilities. When a couple of years passed, and I saw no change, I began to question the diagnosis. I wondered, to one of my specialists, whether there was a more objective way to diagnose Parkinson’s than something as subjective as an impression of my walk. I was told that there was a reliable new test, called a DaT scan, that measures dopamine in the brain.

I arranged for the test, which was non-invasive and painless. It took about an hour. When the physician who ordered the scan read the results he announced that I had no sign of Parkinson’s. He declined to schedule a follow-up exam, citing the DaT scan. I stopped taking the medication prescribed years ago for Parkinson’s and noticed no change.

“Miracle: an extraordinary event taken to manifest the supernatural power of God fulfilling his purposes.” Had my experience with Parkinson’s been a miracle or simply a misdiagnosis? Would Sister Marie-Simon Pierre have flunked a DaT scan?

My advice: if you are told you have Parkinson’s, get plenty of other opinions and take whatever tests are available to verify the diagnosis. Also pray that any physician who claims you have Parkinson’s is mistaken.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Linda Greenhouse for years covered the U.S. Supreme Court knowledgeably for the New York Times. She still writes occasionally, and perceptively, about the court. Her advice to Times readers in the June 30 edition: “follow the docket.” Each case, she wrote, “is intended to accomplish something: to clarify the law, interpret an ambiguous statute, resolve conflicting decisions among the lower courts or…to change the status quo.”

In the high court’s most recent term, it decided 73 cases. Those were selected from 8,000 requests for review.  The votes of at least four justices are required for the high court to add a case to the docket. Despite its significance, how justices vote on whether to review a case is almost always shrouded in secrecy.

My guess is that the high court does it this way out of custom. Several years ago I wrote to each justice to inquire why they don’t disclose the reason when they decline to participate in a case. Six of the nine justices responded. The reasons they offered for their secrecy about recusal revealed that no deep-seated principles were at stake. For the most part, the reason they didn’t explain the basis for recusals was because that’s the way they and their colleagues usually did things. 

Their mindless custom had a serious consequence: it barred scrutiny of the extent to which the justices adhere to the ethics rules. Those rules are strict, prohibiting participation in a case if a justice has a financial interest, “however small “, in a party to the proceeding. When justices don’t disclose their votes on whether to add a case to the court’s docket, it becomes impossible to know whether a justice had a conflict of interest on some of those votes. 

Linda Greenhouse’s advice to “follow the docket” is sage. The Supreme Court now needs to make it possible to do that by fully disclosing how the justices vote on such a consequential court action as which cases to accept for review.