Tom Jackson - SaintPetersBlog

Tom Jackson

Recovering sports columnist and former Tampa Tribune columnist Tom Jackson argues on behalf of thoughtful conservative principles as our best path forward. Fan of the Beach Boys, pulled-pork barbecue and days misspent at golf, Tom lives in New Tampa with his wife, two children and two yappy middle-aged dogs.

Will Weatherford’s timing off, but only for the moment

Like comedy, politics is most often all about timing. No one knows this better than Will Weatherford, who at the age of 26 rocketed from obscure legislative aide to Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives because of unanticipated, but perfectly placed, events (more about which in a moment).

Now, arguably, this once-rising star of the Republican Party has fallen victim to his breathtaking start. In short, two years after he surrendered the gavel as America’s youngest state House speaker, Weatherford has nowhere to go.

The man said so himself Thursday afternoon:

“While I’m compelled at some point to re-engage in the political arena, I just think the timing right now is not right,” he told the Miami Herald.

At least, nowhere to go that strikes him as being worth the harrowing trade-offs. Thus, shall Weatherford, not so long ago included in everybody’s lists of top politicians under the age of 40, apparently skip the inviting 2018 races, ostensibly to concentrate on business opportunities with brothers Drew and Sam, leadership development within the Florida Republican Party, and — most important — join his wife, the redoubtable Courtney Bense Weatherford, parenting their four young children in their Southern-Living designed neighborhood in Wesley Chapel.

It’s not like Weatherford’s preferences for 2018 haven’t been an enticing target. As recently as Thursday morning, “The Fix,” a Washington Post politics blog, listed him prominently among probable candidates for Florida’s open gubernatorial seat.

Now, despite having jammed his chin into the mix last summer — “Don’t count me out,” he said on the podcast hosted by fellow SaintPetersblog contributor Joe Henderson and me — Weatherford has audibled out, perhaps sensing the defense was stacked against him.

He would, of course, be right. By training — he was a Jacksonville University linebacker — and instinct, Weatherford knows when a play won’t go.

Polk County’s Adam Putnam, the Agriculture Commissioner and presumed GOP frontrunner, opens with better name recognition, a wider base of contributors and the advantage of having twice won — handily — statewide races.

Moreover, if he has flaws, they are less obvious than those of Bill McCollum, the last Central Florida GOP frontrunner in a race for an open governor’s seat. And Weatherford lacks Rick Scott’s self-funding prowess.

Ah, yes. Rick Scott. And his enormous pile of campaign cash left over from 2014.

If he didn’t seek the Governor’s Mansion, conventional wisdom went, Weatherford surely would chase the Republican nomination to sideline Democrat Bill Nelson, Florida’s senior U.S. senator. Republicans had to like the prospects of a Weatherford-Nelson tussle, which would have contrasted the challenger’s youth and conservative bona fides against the septuagenarian representative of an increasingly hard-left partly

But there’s Scott, the two-time governor and early ally of President-elect Donald Trump — whom Weatherford prominently opposed — who’s widely rumored to be angling for a shot at Nelson. And did I mention his enormous pile of leftover campaign cash?

So here is Weatherford, still just 37, deciding to bide his time. Yes, his announcement Thursday cited specifically only the contest for governor, but there was a blanket nature to it as well:

“My focus right now is on raising my family, living out my faith, and growing my family’s business. I look forward to supporting Republican candidates that share my conservative convictions and can keep Florida headed in the right direction.”

Show of hands. Who else detects the careful phrasing of someone who has spent the last two years learning about how to invest?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the arc of Weatherford’s political career has, to now, suggested, if not impatience, then at least alacrity.

After all, things fell just so to get him launched: Then-Gov. Jeb Bush nominated state Rep. Ken Littlefield to the Public Service Commission after the ballots were printed in 2006, leaving the Pasco County Republican Party to identify Littlefield’s stand-in and successor.

Several prominent east Pasco volunteers were passed over in favor of Weatherford, who grew up the oldest of nine children in Land O’ Lakes but, with college and assorted jobs in the Legislature, hadn’t lived in the district in years.

On the other hand, he had the benefit of being Speaker Allan Bense’s top lieutenant and son-in-law. One thing led to another and — badda-bing — there was Weatherford, winning election under Littlefield’s name one day and rounding up the commitments from fellow House freshmen to become speaker-designate-designate-designate the next.

So fast. So very, very fast.

Still, the Sunshine State politician to whom Weatherford has most often been compared — Marco Rubio, Florida’s once-and-still junior U.S. senator — learned a tough lesson about being a young man in a hurry earlier this year. Sitting out 2018 might well mean Weatherford spent the autumn channeling Yogi Berra, who famously noted “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

So, 2018 isn’t Weatherford’s time. That doesn’t mean his time won’t come.

Tom Jackson: Topsy-turvy election seen from bottom of the world

A ritualistic subplot of virtually every election organizes around announcements by those who threaten to leave the country if the vote doesn’t go their way.

They shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Interestingly, politicians with far more at stake than your garden-variety celebrity almost never declare their intention to abandon the nation for distant parts. The phenomenon is, in fact, so unusual that history records with a mixture of awe and heartache Davy Crockett’s declaration of departure when he lost his re-election bid to Congress in 1832.

“You may all go to hell,” Crockett told his West Tennessee constituents, “and I will go to Texas.”

Which is how, four months later, the legendary frontiersman wound up with 186-odd others in the Alamo facing Generalissimo Santa Ana and 5,000 Mexican regulars.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to another Son of the South, John Dicks, the Plant City lawyer, financial adviser, farmer and, most recently, failed candidate. Dicks, whose theory of the race turned out to have been spectacularly miscalculated, finished last in a four-way race in the Democratic primary for Hillsborough County’s District 6 (at-large) seat.

Patricia Kemp and Brian Willis might well have split a good portion of the deep-blue city vote from Seminole Heights to South Bayshore, and Tom Scott might have polled well in East Tampa, but the more conservative, third-way Democrats in the incorporated crescent from Westchase to Apollo Beach did not rally to Dicks, the former small-town mayor with the soft drawl and the twinkling blue eyes.

This, possibly, is because the names conservative, third-way Democrats go by anymore are “independent” and “Republican.” Either way, they weren’t eligible to vote in the August primary, won by Kemp (who subsequently prevailed in the general).

The turn of events left Dicks with some unplanned time and the stirrings of wanderlust. This was not to be confused with the Crockett variety. He definitely planned to return, and engage in no warring conduct in the interim.

Full disclosure: John Dicks and I are University of Florida Sigma Chi fraternity brothers. Consider this account colored accordingly.

Campaign losers know Abraham Lincoln described the disappointment perfectly: It hurt too much to laugh, and he was too old to cry. “I just thought it would be better,” Dicks says, “if I wasn’t around for Election Day. There was going to be a lot of tears and anger, no matter how things went, and it would be better for me not to be a part of that.”

Which is how, on the morning of Election Day 2016, he found himself on an icy shore on the Antarctic Peninsula in the company of a small squad of gentoo penguins, notable for their size (they’re No. 3, behind emperors and kings) and the distinct bonnet of white that extends from one eye to the other.

“The guidebook says you should keep about 5 meters, so about 15 feet, from the penguins,” Dicks reports, “but the thing about penguins is, they’re not very good judges of distance.”

Eventually, most of the bunch lost interest and wandered off. But one edged ever closer until it was as near as a companion sitting across the table in a diner. They stayed that way awhile, each studying the other for signs of intelligence, until Dicks — ever … so … slowly — reached for his camera.

“And then, just about the time I’ve got it here” — he mimics cradling a camera beneath his chin — “he goes, ‘Aaaaaaauck!’ and turns and waddles back to the flock.”

This, too, might have been rejection — nobody wants a face full of fishy penguin breath just before lunch — but Dicks accepted it without complaint or introspection.

Back home, he’d still be poring over how he’d misread the political tea leaves, little knowing he soon would have plenty of company. Here, though, in the stark beauty carved by millions of years of wind and ice, unpredictable behavior by indigenous creatures was among the delights.

To be clear, Antarctica wasn’t just some whim. He and wife Sharon have had it on their bucket list for years. For work and pleasure, the Dicks had made it to six continents during their 38-year marriage. That left one. Our southernmost. The only one you really have to be going to to get to.

Antarctica doesn’t do seminars or symposiums or widely attended summits. Nobody says, “How about we hold next year’s convention at Port Lockroy?”

So they went, the entire jaunt, from leaving Plant City to their return to a changed America, consuming most of two weeks, including a five-day, four night tour aboard a small cruise ship that carried about 200 passengers from around the world, all of them blissfully disconnected from our digital, instantaneous, hyperlinked global community.

Inevitably, however, news of the U.S. election made its way to the ship. The morning after, the captain announced the reception desk had flyers of “news of international interest” to distribute.

Waiting for his packet, Dicks spotted, taped to the desk, a printout of a CNN map of the United States. “I saw a ribbon of blue on the East Coast, and a ribbon of blue on the West Coast, and in the middle was a mass of red,” Dicks says, “and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

You didn’t have to be in Antarctica to think the world had turned upside down.

Ultimately, Dicks took this with a how-about-that attitude. That’s Antarctica for you. There’s something about the place, he says, that doesn’t just offer perspective. It is so vast, so vivid, so sublime and, simultaneously, unforgiving; it commands perspective.

And it turns out, Dicks says, “Antarctica wasn’t my Alamo.” He went. He saw. He communed with astonishing nature. And he came back, curious about the world reshaped in his absence, knowing a flock of gentoo penguins at the bottom of the world doesn’t give a whit about his conclusions.

We all should be guided by such wisdom.

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Tom Jackson: Blindsided by a phenomenon in orange

And now, President-elect Donald J. Trump. Wow. Wow. Wow.

So much for that 0.1 percent chance of victory. So much for blue tsunamis and Republican humiliation. So much for the first woman president and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. So much for experts.

It turns out, the hotshots knew nothing. Not a damn thing. Pre-election pollsters. Exit pollsters. Coastal pundits. Cable news talking heads. Every last one of them was Sgt. Schultz. They knew nothing

They were blindsided.

The guy with a slender path to victory, the guy with a razor-thin margin for error, the guy trying to draw an inside straight, the guy expanding the map … for Democrats — that guy won in a historic landslide. Tuesday, as he has since he famously descended the eponymous skyscraper escalator in June 2015 — an escalator so central to the president-elect’s narrative it deserves a wing in the Smithsonian — Trump didn’t just rewrite the rule book. He fed it to a shredder.

Ground game? Trump didn’t need no stinking ground game to get out the vote. His supporters got themselves out.

As Kellyanne Conway, the pollster-turned-campaign genius, told the stunned crew on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as dawn broke Wednesday, “enthusiasm and momentum mattered.”

“I know many people say rallies don’t matter, but they do. If you stood in line for five hours just to be there and … you feel like you’re a card-carrying member of this movement, then of course you’re going to show up and vote. And you’re probably going to get other people to do that.”

Only the Trump camp seemed to know. Those late campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Michigan weren’t last-ditch flights of desperate folly. Trump’s tiny band, guided by someone who’d never before run a national campaign, knew they were closing the deal.

As it turns out, the hidden Trump voter was real; there actually were millions of voters aching to turn out, if only, they thought, someone would listen to their stories and care about their concerns.

The upshot: Astonishingly, we’ve all become players in the biggest reality show ever.

What now? Never mind that Hillary Clinton — taken down, in part, by 30 years of greedy grasping and public duplicity — declined to accept defeat with a public appearance. Or that she dispatched campaign chief John Podesta to the moribund Javits Center, its glass ceiling intact, to hint the campaign was about to call in lawyers, guns and money. Well, fine.

Listen, the Chicago Cubs didn’t need their opponent’s concession to crack open the championship champagne, and neither did Trump.

But anyone who expected snarky campaign Trump was disappointed. Instead, this improbable heir to the Oval Office took the first step toward reconciliation in a victory speech that was equally gracious and firm.

In pursuit of being president for all Americans, he would seek the counsel and assistance of those who weren’t his supporters. But whether they come aboard or not, they are obliged to acknowledge the country was steaming ahead.

“It’s a movement,” he declared, “comprised of Americans from all races, religions, backgrounds, and beliefs who want and expect our government to serve the people, and serve the people it will.”

And later, striking a Reaganesque tone: “No dream is too big, no challenge is too great.” The shining city on a hill needs rebuilding, and he was just the contractor to lead the project.

To a nervous international community whose stock markets were, even then, tanking, Trump began laying the foundation for deal-making.

“I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone — all people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”

For baby boomers, these phrases rang familiar. Where had we heard them before? Oh, yeah. On a frigid January 55 years ago, in his memorable passing-of-the-torch inaugural, John Kennedy said this: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Common ground and partnerships, with a steely edge. Trump, at the time, was 15.

It’s been a bruising, slashing 19 months, and the wounds will not easily heal. Even so, in the spirit of presidential elections past, a little acceptance and graciousness on behalf of the half who backed the losing candidate would be nice.

After both of Barack Obama’s victories, conservatives and Republicans were called upon for introspection and reflection. For the good of the country. To honor our traditions. For the sake of the future.

I’m old enough to remember when “We’re going to take our country back” was an insult to the wisdom of the American people. From where? From whom? But Pennsylvania and Michigan hadn’t even been declared for Trump when lefties started beating the social media drums. They’d never accept the orange man with the helmet hair as their president.

How long will it be before a prominent elected Democrat proclaims, to the wild cheering of the out-of-office resistance, “Our job is to make Donald Trump a one-term president”?

On national TV, Al Sharpton, who’s never been elected to anything, opened the door: “We’re not going down without a fight.”

I’m old enough to remember conservatives and Republicans being ordered to be accepting and gracious after both of Barack Obama’s victories. But, OK. That’s fine. That’s politics.

But here was Conway on the morning after, describing the “great essential goodness in America.”

“People are wise,” she said, “and they care about each other, and they care about this country.”

To this good and noble America, Trump, she says, listened, heeded and tapped in. And voters responded.

And now? Wow. Wow. Wow.

Tom Jackson: At our time of choosing, will we guess wrong?

And so, at last, it is upon us. Election Day. Time, fence-sitters, to decide.

We’ve been counting down so long, all the way back to the spring of last year; it sometimes seemed we’d never get here.

Great nation that we (still) are, however, propelled by momentum and time-honored systems that guide truer than any GPS, we’ve navigated the distance: From the GOP’s scrum-debates of last fall through the frigid caucuses and first primaries, through the snooze-fest conventions and the increasing post-Labor Day urgency, to here, this day, this moment.

The choice apparent record numbers of voters have been pushing off — and who can blame them, really — is now. Time to choose. Time to commit.

Time, if the dug-in partisans who’ve been slinging varieties of the same invective on your Facebook page since before Memorial Day, to decide … and to discover if the progression of events has assumed the role of the Man In Black and this truly is our iocane-powder moment.

Will we, too, guess wrong no matter what? Is this a land war in Asia or, worse, going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line? Or has the United States, buoyed by the genius of its shared-authority Constitution, spent the last two-plus centuries building up an immunity to two equally poisonous goblets of wine?

My money is on Mr. Madison’s antidote of checks and balances, as well as the resilience of the American people who, as Winston Churchill once said, always can be counted on to do the right thing … once all other possibilities are exhausted.

Not that the choice still lurking for those of us — including me — who reserve and hallow Election Day for the vigorous exercising of our franchise, has improved, or, frankly, even clarified, with the approach and, at last, arrival of today.

The negative campaign messengers have convinced me. One is an orange, helmet-haired xenophobe with a dismal moral character who lashes out in unpredictable fashion as it suits him. But he has lovely children. The other is the most corrupt candidate for high office in any reputable historian’s memory, whose corrosive appetite for power is exacerbated by Nixonian characteristics: paranoia and vengefulness. But Chelsea seems OK.

In a change election, in a nation whose inhabitants, by more than 2-to-1, ache for a new direction, our top picks for president each seems a perversion. One wouldn’t be where he is without having converted a personal fortune into brand-conscious schtick. The other wouldn’t be where she is without her married last name and the blessing — in an America increasingly organized around group identity — of lady parts.

Given that, it seems perfectly appropriate that the final week swirled around the revelation of fresh correspondence discovered only because the husband of Hillary Clinton’s closest confidant is an apparent serial creep who hoarded his wife’s email on a laptop — and that the whole thing, resolved in record time by the FBI — amounted to nothing.

The entire affair almost seemed a feint, a dodge, a misdirection play, mischief from the nation’s chief investigative team. Imagine Director James Comey as Johnny, pulling the plug on the runway lights in “Airplane.” Just kidding.

Well. You can believe that if you want to.

Meanwhile, in Michigan and Pennsylvania Sunday night, Donald Trump, to the cheers of those who skipped Economics 101, resumed his pledge to punish U.S.-based companies that attempt to move or outsource.

Hoo, boy.

The whole thing tempts you to leave the top of the ballot blank, and dive straight into the foundational races.

Will Floridians renew Marco Rubio’s political lease? (They should.) In Pinellas County, will David Jolly’s against-the-grain legislative and campaign styles usher him past the latest iteration of Charlie Crist while showing Republicans a possible new way forward in their (presumed) post-Trump era?

In north Tampa, will the GOP’s Shawn Harrison have stitched together a sufficient number of disparate supporters to hold off Democrat Lisa Montelione in the mixed blessing that is state House District 63? Or will his history as the Legislature’s perpetual freshman — winning off-year elections, losing during presidential years — endure?

And will we, as is prudent, reject all attempts to amend the Florida Constitution at the ballot box? … Or will we face Wednesday’s new dawn having acquired a malady covered by medical pot, and be happy for the hippy dippy wisdom of the state’s voters?

Strap in. At long, long last, Election Day is here, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Tom Jackson: Torched church inspires conclusion-leapers

A century-old historically black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was torched Tuesday night, leaving the insides a sad mass of crumbling ashes. Only a vanishing fraction of us wouldn’t agree this is a terrible thing.

Awful as it was, however, what made this apparent act of arson newsworthy outside Washington County is this: The apparent perpetrator paused to scrawl “Vote Trump” in silver paint on the outside.

Because of that, the FBI has initiated a civil rights investigation. Accordingly, if by rote, everyone has fallen reliably into their roles.

Never mind that the Bureau says it’s too early to sling the term “hate crime;” these things have starting pistols of their own. And even before the smoke cleared, Democrats were leveraging the face-value evidence for all it was worth.

Predictably, Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak instantly concluded, “There are no coincidences in politics, and we’ve got a burnt-out church with political messaging on the side.”

Asked if that meant he’d concluded the apparent arsonist was a supporter of the GOP presidential nominee, Moak said, hilariously, “I’m going to let local law enforcement and the local FBI office do their job.” Whether he winked went unreported.

Moak wasn’t alone. Of course he wasn’t. Greenville’s Democratic mayor, Eric Simmons, declared, without hesitation, the “heinous, hateful, cowardly act” was also “a hate crime … because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and” — here we go — “intimidate voters.”

Let’s be abundantly clear. Moak and Simmons might be exactly right. This horrible, scandalous episode might be the work of some deranged knucklehead committed to crystallizing, in time for Election Day, the deplorable image several tens of millions of Americans have of Trump’s followers.

As this is written, Thursday afternoon, what we know — and it’s not much — indicates it’s no less likely that the whole thing is a treacherous hoax designed to influence what late-deciders think about Trump, as well as to motivate tepid anti-Trumpers to get to the polls.

I mean, just now, we know more about the tranche of emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that prompted FBI Director James Comey to notify Congress his agents had come across new, potentially pertinent evidence. And even though what we know seems highly suggestive, the same people who want Comey run out of town for tampering with an election are convinced they know exactly what went down at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church.

This comment, posted on Facebook, was characteristic: “A black church was burned and ‘Vote Trump’ sprayed painted on the walls. This was voter intimidation, a hate crime. What more evidence do you need?”

Hey, I don’t know. Maybe proof that is more than circumstantial and could have been planted. It wouldn’t be the first time bad actors with political motives created outlandish hoaxes designed to cast despised rivals in a bad light.

Let’s ask the Duke lacrosse team whether more evidence is needed. While we’re at it, let’s ask the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi at the University of Virginia. Both groups were accused of perpetrating gang rapes and earned the scorn of the nation before the stories fell apart.

Let’s ask the Austin, Texas, Whole Foods cake decorators accused by an openly gay pastor of writing a homophobic slur on a confection he’d ordered. Once the story created national outrage, the pastor confessed he’d done the deed.

Or let’s ask the Connecticut couple accused by their gay waitress of stiffing her on a tip, instead leaving a note that said they didn’t approve of her lifestyle. She accepted thousands in donations from sympathizers, only to be found out as a fabulist and a fraud.

The list goes on, and on, and on. At Vassar, hateful graffiti started popping up on student residences, sparking outrage among the Bias Incident Response Team … until it emerged the perps were two members of — wait for it — the Bias Incident Response Team., a website devoted to lefty excesses in higher education, publishes an annual best-of list of campus hoaxes, and never lacks for source material.

And while we’re at it, authorities are still investigating the firebombing and defacing, with spray-painted swastikas and claims of Nazism, the offices of the GOP in Hillsboro, North Carolina. For all we know, that, too, was the work of overzealous Republicans copying what they’ve learned from overzealous leftists.

On the upside, both Hillsboro Republicans and Hopewell Missionary Baptists are likely to see their buildings restored, courtesy of online donation drives that well exceeded their organizers’ modest ambitions.

Moreover, just as thoughtful Democrats donated to the Hillsboro Republicans, so the GoFundMe page for Hopewell is spiced with donations from those who self-identified as Trump supporters.

In short, assuming authorities level charges in Greenville, no matter who it turns out to be, and why that person acted on evil impulses, the evidence is plain these isolated events reveal only the black hearts of the lone-wolf vigilantes, not entire cohorts of nefarious fellow travelers.

No matter who we support for president, we are better than these random acts and actors. We would be better, still, if we wouldn’t leap to stereotypical conclusions.

Tom Jackson: Banker’s pay-it-forward tale is essence of America

Hjalma Johnson

Hjalma Johnson, small-town banker, international mensch and most devoted of Bull Gators, is never without a story pertinent to the moment.

But he knows his listener’s time is precious, and so, even as he dives in, as if there were a pull-string in the middle of his back, he inevitably tenders this offer:

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

Because, at 82, he is a notorious recycler, seven times out of 10 the listener has, in fact, heard it before. Nonetheless, nobody stops Hjalma (“Yamma”) Johnson. Because even if he’s replowing a field, these familiar retellings are like settling in for another round of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” That is, like just George Bailey’s, Johnson’s retold tales never fail to charm and inspire.

And so there we were, one moment on the checker-patterned couch in Johnson’s office/museum just off U.S. 98, with portraits and magazine covers signed by the subjects peering over our shoulders — St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial is prominent in this over-the-sofa collage — and the next it’s a September Tuesday in 1951, and we’re in a Weil Hall classroom at the University of Florida, surrounded by well-dressed, 20-year-old aspiring engineering students.

Here Johnson reminds us, as a Depression-era baby, the seventh of eight children born to working-class parents, his first set of new clothes was when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1953. Otherwise, “Everything I’d ever had was a hand-me-down,” he says, including what he was sweating through that fateful Tuesday afternoon.

He was a precocious UF freshman, having skipped two grades to graduate at the top of his high school class of 17 in Greenville, in the Panhandle between Monticello and Madison. And, because his score on the Florida 12th-grade placement exam — a precursor to the FCAT — was among the best in the state, he could waive most of the routine freshman-year curriculum.

This, he says, was the good news. The bad news is that the day before, the Monday before Fateful Tuesday, he’d been stunned by the rigors of his not-for-freshmen curriculum: advanced chemistry and calculus. “Calculus?” he says. “The only calculus I’d ever heard of grew on your teeth.”

Now here he was in engineering, still addled, thinking about the delivery-boy job he’d abandoned at his dad’s modest hardware store back home to become the first in his family to enroll in college, and vaguely hearing the professor say, “Gentlemen, take out your instruments.”

A rustle and clatter attended the production of neat black boxes filled with, to Johnson’s eyes, exotic tools beyond his imagination. Meanwhile, on the table before him, the lad spread what he’d brought from home: a wooden ruler, a plastic triangle and a compass with a spike on one end and a yellow No. 2 pencil on the other.

The professor, making his way around the classroom, paused by the youngster, and leaned in for a chat. Johnson describes the moment in golf terms: “I felt like a lost ball in high weeds. I was in way over my head.

“There were 50 things he could have said to me right then, and all of them would have been absolutely appropriate,” he continues, “and if he’d said any of them, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”

What the professor said, however, was this: “Do you know where the College Inn is?” He did. Once a week, with the dollar his momma sent, he took a break from the campus cafeteria where he ate free to splurge on a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich and a chocolate malt for 65 cents.

“There is a bookstore next door where you can pick up a box of used instruments for $5.” Johnson blanched. Five dollars might as well have been five thousand.

Sensing this, the professor instructed the other students to sit quietly while he walked Mr. Johnson to the door. In the hallway, out of sight of the boy’s peers, the professor plucked a $5 bill from his wallet and pressed it into his hand, saying, “I will see you tomorrow.”

For Hjalma Johnson, this became a flexion point. Out of the blue, and for no other reason than this instructor, an absolute stranger to him, performed an act of generosity, the small-town boy caught a glimmer of what could be.

Space, even in the digital world, is insufficient to describe any more than the highlights of what followed, among them that Johnson graduated with high honors; married his high school sweetheart; earned a master’s in business; ran several banks; became president of the American Bankers Association and president of Gator Boosters Inc. (during the national championship runs of Tim Tebow and Joakim Noah); has met every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower; has dined with 16 foreign heads of state; has visited 63 countries; and has never lost the ability to weep grateful tears at the bare mention of all his momma and daddy sacrificed to see him firmly on the ladder of success.

So, where are we going with this? Just here: All of what came to him hinged, in Johnson’s telling, on $5 from a professor. And so, in honor of this man — this pivotal, empathetic man — roughly 50 years later Hjalma Johnson donated $50,000 toward creation of the Thomas O. Neff Fabrication Methods & Application Laboratory at the UF College of Engineering.

Because, Johnson says, “That’s America.” That’s how this exceptional country works. We take help when it is offered in earnest, we make the most of our opportunities, and in the name of those who gave us a boost, we pay it forward.

Nowadays the landscape is littered with Johnson’s five-figure gifts to foundations and nonprofits, and not one of them passes through his finances without him sending up a Thanksgiving prayer for Tom Neff’s timely intervention.

Back here in the final days of this extraordinarily divisive national campaign, Johnson’s kicker — “That’s America” — strikes me as just the right reminder of what we are about, and what is within our power to continue to be about, no matter what happens come Nov. 8.

What is essential about America will remain, if we want it that way. Now, perhaps more than ever, it will be up to us.

Tom Jackson: This year, especially, resist the early voting urge

Early voting has arrived in Florida, and with it the inevitable rush to the polls.


I can’t say I fault anyone who exercises the early option, particularly this year, when the choices at the top are so unrelentingly dismal.

In 2016, voting early is sort of like ripping off a bandage. You know it’s going to hurt, but it is better to do it quickly and with conviction. And then you can get on with life, knowing that no matter what happens in the last two weeks, you have done your part.

That’s one way to look at it, anyway.

Forgive me if I do not join you.

Early voting, in all of its manifestations, strikes me as a bad idea, for a variety of reasons. Not least of these is — at the risk of lending undue support for Donald Trump — the potential for mischief increases when voting is stretched over a period of weeks.

But even if there were a 100 percent guarantee against dirty tricksters taking advantage of extended voting opportunities, I still would prefer a single Election Day.

I like that Election Day — not Election Month, or Election Fortnight — is mentioned in the Constitution. I like what it represents: the great coming together of the vast body politic for its distinguishing opportunity and obligation. I like the All-American cohesion that is lost — indeed, recklessly sacrificed — in our manic pursuit of eliminating the vigor from exercising our franchise.

Supporters of convenience voting stress the idea that making the ballot box more readily available encourages unlikely participants to get in the game, thereby pushing up turnout.

Except it doesn’t. Study after study, including those from the Pew Research Center to the Government Accounting Office, reports essentially the same thing: At best, early voting tends to cannibalize Election Day voting. That is, people who would have voted anyway take advantage of the early option, with no boost to the overall turnout.

At worst, early voting dilutes the special tug of Election Day, “reducing,” as Evan Horowitz writes in Monday’s Boston Globe, “the size of the Tuesday wave which used to carry people to the polls as if for a civic celebration.”

And here I quote myself, from a similarly brooding column for the Tampa Tribune a little more than two years ago, with brackets indicating the changes since then:

“This doesn’t mean Election Day purists aren’t keen to seek reasonable accommodations. The idea of making Election Day a full 24 hours, and every state beginning and ending at the same moment — say 7 a.m. on the East Coast, 4 a.m. on the West Coast, 1 a.m. in Hawaii and Alaska — intrigues. So does switching from local precincts to ‘supercenters’ that would allow voters to cast ballots near where they work or shop. We have the technology.

“With the money saved on manning early-voting locations … elections supervisors could buy voting booths and optical readers sufficient to meet a one-day crush. We could even send them to training sessions in the 17 [ now 13] states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts [alas, the Old Colony State succumbed in 2016], Michigan and Virginia (all of which went for Barack Obama in 2012), where they have no form of early or excuse-free absentee voting, and still cope with turnouts matching or exceeding the national average.”

National Review’s John Fund, who has been writing about threats to honest elections for years, frets that early voting exacerbates the weaknesses in our balloting systems. Especially concerning, however, is the notion that early voting encourages Americans to tune out prematurely.

Fund quotes one former Justice Department official, Christian Adams, saying, “Those who vote a month in advance are saying they don’t care about weighing all the facts.”

This, of course, is every voter’s right. We don’t make a big fuss anymore about Americans being well-informed, or even informed at all, before they cast a ballot. To hear some elections supervisors tell it — and they are often echoed in the media — turnout is its own reward.

Adams, meanwhile, likened the quick trigger-pullers to jurors who stand up in the middle of a case and announce they’ve reached their verdict.

Listen, I don’t expect my voice in the wilderness is going to reverse the tsunami. Americans, who value convenience a bit more than they should, like early voting options, and the preference cuts across every political persuasion.

Well, fine. Have it your way. But this year, more than any in recent memory, fresh, decision-influencing information about every candidate — not just those running for president — is certain to leak out right up until the moment the polls open Nov. 8.

Therefore, I will keep my powder dry until then. Like V’Ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” when I take up my government-issued felt-tipped pen in two weeks, I will do so knowing all that is knowable.

That might not be a big deal to the rest of you. It is to me.

Tom Jackson: A week on the trail to political eternity

It’s said in politics; a week is an eternity. Some weeks, maybe. Not the one just behind us.

The reason I know this for a certainty is that last week was precisely when I took a mind-cleansing break from the day-by-day hubbub that is this year’s precedent-setting, stomach-turning election.

The cause, both recreational and restorative, was joining with several other fellows in an annual breakneck tour of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama.

The Trail, part of the Alabama state pension fund, stretches from Mobile in the south to Florence in the north, boasting 11 sites and 478 mostly breathtaking holes. It is in every way efficient, friendly, well-tended and lovely. In short, there is nothing about any of it that provides the first hint that the RTJ Trail is a government project.

For these reasons and more, the Trail ranks as possibly the most felicitous use of public money since Neil Armstrong put boots on the moon.

We based ourselves in Mobile and bit off the lower portion: Six courses in six days.

We filled in the odd hours involved in team dining and team baseball-playoffs-watching (the organizer is a retired scout). A day to travel there and a day to travel back.

And there it is — eight blissful days disconnected from the various campaigns’ hour-by-hour twitches.

As for how your correspondent played, well, the less said about that, the better. Remember, this was as much about clearing a muddled brain as it was about proficient ball-striking, and after a week among southern Alabama’s comical fox squirrels, abundant bird life, and the pleasant thump of nut trees dropping their wares, the mission is largely accomplished.

As for weeks and eternities, as noted above, the span just behind us seemed to consume no more than its allotted seven days.

My sabbatical ended as it began, with attention at the presidential level focused almost exclusively on how Donald Trump’s pattern of rude behavior makes him unsuitable for the Oval Office, and not at all how Hillary Clinton’s demonstrated manipulations of influence are equally disqualifying.

The race, then, has achieved a sort of stasis that seems immune to outside influence. Never mind that Trump, according to reports, was more formidable, focused and on the attack in the second debate. He remains, in enough voters’ minds to cost him the election, a boor and a reprobate.

Never mind, either, that the more we learn about the FBI’s “investigation” into Clinton’s reckless use of a private email server, the more it looks like Director James Comey decided the outcome before the first evidence was collected. She remains, for enough voters to create a winning plurality, the acceptable lesser of two evils.

Two observations on this from a week that flashed by like the wink of an eye.

First, even as he tanks elsewhere, judging by the number of yard signs and bumper stickers bearing his name, Trump appears to be safe in the Florida Panhandle and in south Alabama.

I saw declarations from Veterans for Trump, Gun Owners for Trump, Pro-Lifers for Trump, Farmers for Trump, Democrats for Trump … pretty much everything but Gumbo Eaters for Trump. Signs and stickers for Clinton were as rare as Boston accents.

This, of course, always was reliable Trump country, even when the GOP field was 17 strong, populated by countless replications of people like “Morning Joe” Scarborough’s brother who, the MSNBC host repeatedly said, heard something refreshing and positive in the celebrity businessman.

And now their guy is saying he’s up against a rigged system. Lordy. Having been fed a the-fix-is-in line in the dying days of the campaign, I can’t help but wonder how these early and steadfast Trump supporters will take the results of Nov. 8. Will they, as usual, hitch up their britches and get back to their civic business? Or will something dark and treacherous sprout from the seeds of suspicion Trump is sowing?

Second, and perhaps even more telling, ordinarily my (right-tilting) golf group does not shy from political discussions.

A year ago, we weighed the merits of the massive Republican field; marveled at the absence of merits among Clinton’s Democratic challengers in the face of Herself’s obvious and abundant shortcomings; argued over which Floridian was more likely to emerge victorious from the GOP scrum; and attempted to set a date for Trump’s inevitable implosion.

This year the subject of politics barely came up. Oh, we extracted plenty of mileage from “That’s just locker room talk,” when someone said something slightly off-color. But we otherwise left the election unremarked upon, as if it were a subject unfit for the company and the surroundings.

Maybe that’s not such an uncommon sensation. Maybe that’s why we want these last three weeks over with already. We’ve made a hash of this election. The only thing left to do is get through it and start preparing for the next one.

You will excuse me if I decide the best way to do that is by playing golf. Lots and lots of golf.

Let’s be careful out there, even on Matthew’s ‘safe’ side

In the greater Tampa Bay area, we’re the lucky ones just now. Hurricane Matthew is churning north, bearing down on Florida’s eastern flank, threatening the coasts with their charming names: Gold, Treasure, Space, First … now suddenly sounding like the beaches of Normandy — Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

So much likely destruction, so much potential human suffering.

Hours before the core of the storm was scheduled to strike the state, Thursday the outer bands already had knocked out power to 20,000. Florida Power was predicting 2.5 million outages before Matthew clears the peninsula.

Forecasts have called for an eight-foot storm surge, a wall of water that can do more lasting damage than any howling wind. Horrifying.

But for us on the other side, Matthew is projected to pack only inconvenience: occasional tropical winds, heavy rain, some localized flooding. While our neighbors across the state flee to safe haven and worry what they’ll find when they return, or hunker down and pray, we see public schools and nonessential government services close out of an abundance of caution, and lament another round of Friday night football games lost to the elements.

Still, we are on the other side. The Gulf of Mexico side. The safe side. Let’s hope, the generous, welcoming side.

My wife, the redoubtable Debbie, was gassing up at the neighborhood 7-Eleven in Tampa Palms when she locked eyes with a shaken young woman at the next pump. A sticker on her car revealed her status as a Palm Beach Atlantic University student.

Campus closed Thursday morning, she said, and as a Missourian, she didn’t want her first tropical experience to be a Category 4 hurricane. She packed quickly, phoned her parents, hopped in her car and headed across Alligator Alley, not stopping until she hit Fort Myers and began looking for a place to stay.

She didn’t find a vacancy until she hit Fletcher Avenue, 130 miles north. The catch: She’d have to decamp Saturday morning. Her name was Peyton, and she was alone and frightened. Debbie reached out and, as she pulled her into a hug, felt this lost daughter melt into her.

“We have a spare room,” she murmured. “We have space if you need it.”

Peyton held on. “This is what I need right now. A mommy moment.”

They clung together for a while longer, then, as they separated, Debbie pressed one of her personal cards into her hand. “Call. If you need anything. Please.”

My experience was somewhat different.

Returning from a job assignment in Dade City, heading south in a windblown storm through a construction zone on Interstate 75 — driving, probably, a little faster than I should have — I saw red tail lights slide abruptly across two lanes, from an inside lane to the right-hand emergency lane, before the driver righted himself.

I backed off my accelerator.

Moments later, a silver muscle car — a Dodge Charger, I think, low and wide, shining in the late afternoon sun peeking between clouds — sprayed past on the left. Several hundred yards ahead, it, too, hit a patch of water, and hydroplaned crazily. Right. Left. Right.

In either case, had another motorist been in the wrong place, disaster would have resulted. In the greater Tampa Bay area. On the safe side.

We were on a patch of interstate between lines of construction barriers on either side, and the rain had nowhere to go. My mind raced. What did they teach us about hydroplaning in Drivers’ Ed?

It was a long time ago, but I seem to recall cars being able to lose contact with the pavement on less than an inch of water. The steering wheel tugged in my hands.

My foot eased a little more off the gas pedal. Safe, it seems, is a relative term.

So, what did I learn on Hurricane Matthew Eve? Three things. We are obliged to be welcoming. As long as we are under the influence of the storm, there is no “safe side.”

And, above all, let’s be careful out there.

Tom Jackson: Donald Trump lost, big league … or did he?

Paraphrasing the driver in “Taxi” when he approached the gorgeous blonde in the bar: “You look like the kind of voter who’s heard every debate takedown in the book. … So I guess one more won’t hurt.”

Let’s begin by conceding that nobody knows anything anymore. There’s not a single conventional thinker who thought Donald Trump would make it as far as the Iowa caucuses, let alone wind up the center of the balloon shower at the Republican National Convention.

And yet there he was Monday night doing the dueling lecterns thing with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (the only prediction validated by experience) in front of a record television audience of 100 million.

Well, Trump always was, bizarrely, a ratings phenomenon.

Nonetheless, from the moment he descended to the lobby of Trump Tower on that gilded escalator in June 2015 to toss the first Make-America-Great-Again cap in the ring, the usual rules and expectations ceased to exist.

I thought Trump, whose only rhetorical weapons amounted to bombast and playground name calling, got killed — to borrow his phrase, big league — in every debate during the GOP primaries. And yet his numbers continued to rise.

Similarly, Monday night he was equally unprepared, proving — one would assume — that reviewing policy papers between rallies is no way to bone up for a debate. Everyone from the pundit class to the Clinton campaign to the GOP establishment agreed: HRC, though somewhat robotic, was poised, polished, and knowledgeable to a granular level.

You know, very much like Marco Rubio, without the schvitzing. So, experience tells us we should expect Trump’s poll numbers to spike.

Except for this difference: For reasons that are his own — unless you buy the Chelsea excuse (and if you do, foreign adversaries got a glimpse of how to befuddle him) — Trump chose to disarm his trusty name-calling missile. We didn’t hear him utter “Crooked Hillary” even once; indeed, after an opening exchange lapse when he used her first name, he was reduced to the deferential “Secretary Clinton.” Because he wanted her to “be very happy.”

If only low-energy Jeb and lyin’ Ted had known, right?

All the while, Clinton herself referred to her rival not as “Mr. Trump” — which would have repaid the courtesy — but, simply, as “Donald,” as if she were the Madame and he was household staff.

Trump’s unilateral disarmament was verifiably emasculating, like Samson after his haircut. He still played the schoolyard bully, murmuring boorish interruptions into his microphone, but without that first line of invective, the famous counterpuncher was ineffective at best, and defensive and tongue-tied at worst.

After a decent first 30 minutes, the man who says he has a secret plan to tilt the Middle East balance of power in a heartbeat let the teacher’s pet — Did you catch her little shimmy after Trump’s boast about his “winning temperament”? — set the rules of engagement.

Although he dominated microphone time-of-possession, Trump used his advantage to pick almost none of Clinton’s ripe, low-hanging fruit. He virtually whiffed on the breathtaking revelations from the FBI’s investigation of her private, undefended email server; missed a golden chance to zing her over cyber security; and failed to inject the seedy pay-for-play connection between Foggy Bottom and the Clinton Foundation.

Worse, he even agreed with her that it would be proper and responsible to deny Bill of Rights protections to Americans on a super-secret government list. Hey, no president would ever use such a tool against the politically inconvenient, right? That would be like drafting an enemies list and siccing the IRS on them.

Instead, he seemed stuck for reasonable answers to the birther issue, what his tax returns might reveal, his apparent history of stiffing contractors, welcoming the popping real estate bubble (which any first-year debate student could have tied to Bill Clinton’s housing policies) and, the coup de gras, after more than 90 minutes of keeping a civil tongue, getting whacked for verbal abuse of a former Miss Universe.

So Trump was hopeless, right? All the smart people seem to agree. Even if the billionaire reality star didn’t hit the canvas, Clinton cut him up on points.

But then there came this out of a crowded bar in western Pennsylvania, where, surrounded by Democrats and undecideds, columnist Salena Zito found eye-opening support for the guy we all thought spent the night on the ropes.

Ken Reed, a small-business man, seemed to speak for the group when he described Clinton “as either smug or as if she was reading her résumé,” adding there was nothing on her résumé that touched on his life.

“I am a small-business man, a farmer, come from a long line of farmers and coal miners,” he said. “The policies she talked about tonight ultimately either hurt me or ignore me.”

Trump, Reed said, “had the edge this evening, he came out swinging but also talked about specifics on jobs and the economy.” He did? Well. Eye of the beholder, and all that.

And so we have to reconsider what we thought we saw Monday night and discover how it played where it mattered, in counties such as those in western Pennsylvania, and those clustered along Interstate 4 in Florida. These, more than elite opinion-spinners clustered along our deep-blue coasts, will decide the Nov. 8 outcome.

If nothing else has penetrated our thick skulls this year, it’s that conventional wisdom knows nothing.

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