Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Another Day, Another Non-troversy in the Presidency of Barack Obama

I’ve purposefully avoided discussing the Eagle’s hiring of convicted felon (and phenomenal quarterback) Michael Vick for one simple reason: I am hopelessly, irrationally biased against anyone who harms dogs or cats. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say I have an utterly irrational love of them. Dogs and cats, that is. Always have, always will, and I make no apologies for it. So, I knew that I’d be skating on some pretty thin ice, bias-wise, if I were to say what I really felt about the matter. Which is: That it bothers me that someone who committed such God-awful acts of cruelty could return to his position as a highly paid celebrity athlete, even though he’s done his time.

But try as I might to avoid saying what I just said, the universe has once again conspired to force me to address a matter I’d had the good judgment to know to avoid for months now. Because this being the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day – the week when positively nothing happens, except for really mediocre bowl games that nobody in their right mind cares about – the media has to find something meaningless to invest with Great Meaning.

And so, there’s this:

Peter King of NBC reported on Sunday that President Barack Obama recently called Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, to praise the organization for giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance.

According to ProFootballTalk, Obama told Lurie that “a level playing field rarely exists for prisoners who have completed their sentences.”

King also tweeted that Obama “said too many prisoners never get fair 2d chance.”

The Eagles signed Vick after he spent 18 months in prison and two months of home confinement for being convicted of running a dogfighting operation.

Cue the outrage …

For example, take a look at the comment thread on the Huffington Post article cited above. The comments rage from things like (I’m paraphrasing here) Pres. Obama could’ve picked a better example of an ex-con getting a second chance (not a bad suggestion, by the way), to Obama’s wrong because Michael Vick is the moral equivalent of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and cannot be forgiven – let alone employed – under any circumstances (dubious, even to an animal lover like me). Elsewhere, commentators from Ann Althouse (who cares) to Allahpundit were nonplussed by the President’s apparent praise of Lurie for giving Vick a second chance. And I even went so far as to unfollow a fairly prominent left wing blogger over on Twitter who quipped (paraphrasing again) that Obama only cares about the human rights of prisoners when a guy like Michael Vick needs a job. (I won’t give that person the satisfaction of my linking to her, thereby promoting the cheapest of cheap shots. Nope, not this time.)

Okay, but, anyway, the criticism directed at the President over his Michael Vick comment seemed to focus on two things: The horrific nature of the crimes themselves, and the fact that Vick, being a celebrity, is a poor example of someone in need of a second chance. As to the first argument, biased as I am in favor of dogs and cats, I’m going to weigh in nonetheless. Because even though I have a profoundly visceral reaction against the kind of thing Vick did, I’m constrained to acknowledge that if a person has been convicted of a crime and has served the amount of time the law prescribes for the crime he committed, he ought to be able to get back into society, to go back to work, and to live more or less a normal life. For the most part, that’s true of all convicted felons, regardless of the nature or severity of the crime – once their sentence is up, they are free to live where they choose and ply their chosen trade, more or less without restriction. Unless they’ve committed certain sexual crimes; but that’s a subject for another day.

The second argument, though, has some traction. Because although I agree that everyone deserves a second chance after serving time in prison, I tend to think that having a second chance means having the chance to work for a living and get back on your feet – not returning to the limelight as a highly paid celebrity athlete. Why, in Vick’s case, should a “second chance” mean “return to being a multi-millionaire with a cushy life”? Of course, the answer is, because he can. He has the skills to be an outstanding quarterback in the NFL, he’s done his time in prison, and there’s no legal reason why the Eagles or any other NFL team can’t hire him and pay him handsomely.

That’s called capitalism, my friends.

More to the point, as unsavory as it may be for Michael Vick to go from being in jail for hideously abusing dogs to potentially being the league MVP (and likely signing another, bigger, more lucrative contract after this season), the general point Pres. Obama was making is, in fact, a really important one. As Ezra Klein noted in today’s Washington Post:

Patting [Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey] Lurie on the back for playing Vick might give the White House communications shop some headaches, but it’s also worth doing: About one in 100 Americans are currently behind bars, and more were behind bars at some other point in time. And as this Pew report (pdf) shows in grim detail, the punishment doesn’t stop when convicts leave prison:

“Serving time reduces hourly wages for men by approximately 11 percent, annual employment by 9 weeks and annual earnings by 40 percent.” And those numbers hide a serious racial tilt: “Incarceration depresses the total earnings of white males by 2 percent, of Hispanic males by 6 percent, and of black males by 9 percent.”

Then there’s the downstream effects on children and families (“Even in the year after the father is released, family income remains 15 percent lower than it was the year before incarceration”), and on cities with a high population of ex-convicts, and so on. As you might expect, the recession is making all this even worse.

Why Mr. Klein thinks it’s odd or, to use his term, “Carteresque,” for the White House to explain that Pres. Obama made the Vick comment during a conversation about the Eagles’ use of alternative energy sources in their stadium, I cannot say. The conversation between Pres. Obama and Mr. Lurie was a private telephone call; it only became public when Mr. Lurie disclosed it to NBC’s Peter King. But anyway, Mr. Klein is correct to say that the underlying issue – giving ex-convicts second chances – is a real issue and one which the President should be talking about.

So, whether or not Michael Vick is the best example of a guy deserving a second chance – he’s not – it’s an issue about which President is correct. And it’s an issue about which this President is, and his predecessor was, quite passionate, even when the media isn’t listening:

That President Obama called Lurie to gush about Vick shouldn’t be surprising. Since George W. Bush’s presidency, the White House has strongly supported prisoner re-entry programs. Noting that 650,000 people are released from state and federal prison annually, Bush thought that the need for re-entry programs was so great that he mentioned it in his 2004 State of the Union address.

“America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should be a better life,” Bush said in advocating for his four-year, $300 million program that helped expand job training and placement services, transitional housing and other help to newly released prisoners.

Obama has sought to expand prisoner re-entry efforts, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in his first term on prisoner re-entry programs and on the government’s Second Chance Act.

(You can read more about the Second Chance Act here. Impressive stuff, actually.)

In other words, while there are better examples than Vick to illustrate the point, the President was making a point worth making. Yet the story, predictably, became not Hey, the President’s talking about something important, like giving people second chances, which is something we should, you know, do; but Hey, the President gave us another reason to complain – this time about that jerk, Michael Vick.

Another day, another hypersensitive overreaction that misses the point.

© 2010 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. I fully agree with you on all points. Vick is a very poor example, but he did the time, and somebody gave him a job he can do. This is a better fate than most of the parolees in Oakland get. And everybody is missing the President's point - so what else is new??

    Happy New Year.

  2. hedera, I'd say his friends are missing his point, while his enemies are happy to misconstrue it.

    Boesky and Milken's sentences included terms saying they could no longer work on Wall Street, as I recall. Vick's had no such prohibition, so he was able to go back to doing what he'd been doing. If he'd been a sanitation worker and gone back to work as that, nobody would have noticed. Because there are only about 30 NFL QBs . . .

    'Course, if he was a third-string backup on a mediocre team nobody would be paying attention.