In Khizr Khan’s inspirational story, a mighty river flows

Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, speaks as his wife Ghazala listens at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Maybe sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of our greatness and of the things we hold dear as a nation, but which we take for granted. Maybe it takes someone like Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant who chased his American dream and is living it.

You remember Khan. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016, the Gold Star father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat in Iraq fixed a stern gaze at the television camera as if it were a portal into the American consciousness.

With his wife Ghazala beside him, Khan pulled a copy of the U.S. Constitution from his jacket and ripped then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim travel ban and his rhetoric on immigrants. Then Khan famously asked if Trump had even read the founding document.

“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said as the audience roared. “In this document, look for the words liberty and equal protection of the law.”

An electric moment, it rocketed Khan to national prominence.

As we now know is his standard impulse, Trump took to Twitter to fire back. Never mind that attacking the grieving parents of a U.S. Army captain who had given his life for his country seemed outrageously undignified, beneath what we expect of someone wanting to be president.

Khan wasn’t surprised, he told me before an appearance last Saturday morning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin: “We had known (Trump’s) caliber and his mentality and his lack of empathy, his lack of compassion.”

Today of course, Trump is the president of the United States. Khan isn’t shrinking from the spotlight, either. He is traveling across the country with a newly published book, “An American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice.” The event at St. Andrew’s, where he spoke to a few hundred people about the book and about his life, was his 175th event since that fateful, life-changing night in Philadelphia.

“I’d rather be with my grandkids,” Khan told me with a warm smile. “But it’s for a good purpose — to share a message of unity and hope. We are lacking that now.”

But not Khan. His faith in America remains resolute. “The book,” he said, “is a tribute from (our family) to the goodness of America. We are expressing our gratitude.”

Later inside the school auditorium, Khan, wearing a dark suit and a Gold Star lapel pin, deftly wove his life story before a rapt, diverse audience. A Harvard-educated lawyer he spoke in a low, soothing timbre, and reminded them that among the things Americans cherish most are the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

“Human dignities,” he called them. “The founding document gave me these dignities. In Pakistan I did not have freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom to address my grievances in a court of law and due process.”

Life led from a seat on a small cot at his rural Pakistani home with no electricity to his current home of Charlottesville – yes, that Charlottesville in Virginia, where a rally of white supremacists exploded in deadly violence August 12.

In the moonlit darkness of his Pakistani home, Khan’s grandfather offered the young boy wise counsel, paraphrasing one of Rumi’s seven advices. “He told me, ‘So what if you are thirsty. Be a river for others,’” Khan said.

In Charlottesville, three days after the ugly violence, the Khans joined other families in walking the same route the neo-Nazis had taken. Like his grandfather, Khizr Khan had his own lesson to impart.

“We showed our children that these were not American values,” he said. “We stood together to show them that this is the real America.”

Some Americans have blamed Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants for emboldening white supremacist protesters. Khan didn’t address the criticism.

The Khans didn’t intend to accept the Democratic convention’s invitation to speak. Confidantes had warned them there would be backlash, and they were right. Khan receives much hate mail – most of it unsigned and with no return address – and he must travel with great precaution.

But they could not ignore the concerns of their Muslim neighbors’ children, who with Trump’s talk about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., were reluctant to attend school because they feared their parents would be gone — deported – when they returned.

“They would ask, ‘Is this possible? But we were born here,’” Khan said.

In some ways, Khan’s appearance at St. Andrews bore some of the hallmarks of both a celebrity appearance and an inspirational seminar for people thirsty for hope. A long line of people waited to have their photo taken with Khan, who exuded a quiet and gracious humility.

At times audience members fought back tears. At others they rollicked with laughter. The idea of holding up the Constitution had been an afterthought, conceived in a taxi on the way to the Democratic convention. Khan described a comical scene like something out of The Three Stooges: in rehearsing pulling the pocket-size Constitution from his jacket, he displayed the back cover, ruining the intended dramatic effect.

“Practice,” Ghazala scolded him.

In Austin and across the country, at a time when political civility has gone missing, at a time when some in America vilify those who don’t look like them, Khan might be the unlikeliest of rock stars, spinning a love poem to democratic ideals.

If he is thirsty, he is not letting on. Instead, he is a river to others.



Alexander Hamilton, the $10 founding father, and our unlisted rights

A monochrome copy of a painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull. (New York Public Library)

I was an Alexander Hamilton man well before hip hop discovered the founding father and turned him into a pop cultural, Broadway phenomenon and, as of this week, the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. So count me among those who were relieved by the news that Hamilton’s staying on the $10 bill.

Though he’ll eventually have company. The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that it would add Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and Sojourner Truth to the $10 bill’s flip side as part of a redesign due in 2020. The same approach would apply to a redesigned $5 bill: Abraham Lincoln stays on the front, with Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. added to the back.

The big news, of course, was the decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 note with Harriet Tubman. Not so many decades ago, Jackson was seen as the champion of the common man and democracy. Today, Jackson is rightly reviled for his Indian removal policy — a policy that was put into force by Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, under whom the “Trail of Tears” was marched. (A Texas side note: David Crockett, then a member of Congress from Tennessee, was a harsh critic of the Indian Removal Bill signed by Jackson. His split with Jackson over the issue would play a role in his eventual presence at the Alamo.)

Harriet Tubman, in a photo taken between 1860 and 1875. (H.B. Lindsley / Library of Congress via AP)

As has been widely noted, adding Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill helps expand our view of who we are as a nation. Tubman is famous for leading hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but among the many other things I’m guessing most of us didn’t know about Tubman until this week: She also served with the U.S. Army during the Civil War as a scout and a spy and was buried with military honors in Auburn, N.Y., when she died in 1913.

Back to Hamilton:

Yes, yes, I know he was a philandering jerk and a friend of the 1 percent of his time — and, yes, his idiotic decision to fight a duel with Aaron Burr left him, well, a dead idiot. But Hamilton’s “immigrant comin’ up from the bottom” story is as classic a biography of a self-made American as Benjamin Franklin’s and his role in creating the Constitution and the formation of the early federal government and American economy was profound. And unlike many other founders — looking at you, Thomas Jefferson — Hamilton actually fought in the Revolutionary War.

Where I find Hamilton most interesting and challenging is in the Federalist Papers, that series of 85 essays he, James Madison and John Jay wrote in 1787-88 to explain the Constitution and argue for its ratification. (Hamilton contributed about two-thirds of the essays; most of the rest were written by Madison.) Part of the ratification debate was a debate about a bill of rights, which the Constitution lacked, and which its opponents insisted it must have. Hamilton, in the 84th of the Federalist Papers, argues against a bill of rights. Because the Constitution is “founded upon the power of the people,” he writes, there aren’t any rights for the people to reserve for themselves that they don’t already possess. Hamilton thought a bill of rights not only unnecessary but also potentially dangerous because listing what the government could not do gave it a reasonable pretext to claim any power not listed for itself. Similarly, specifying certain individual rights diminished or negated other individual rights not specified.

Which is why we have the Ninth Amendment, added by Madison as a concession to Hamilton’s argument. The Ninth Amendment tells us the Bill of Rights is an incomplete list of rights — that many other rights also exist — and the rights enumerated in the Constitution are not meant “to deny or disparage” the other rights we possess.

What are those other rights? Well, that’s the question. Unfortunately, the courts historically have left the Ninth Amendment to lie “inertly in the Constitution, a joker that has never been played,” as Stanford University historian Jack Rakove once wrote. To begin to change that, and in honor of Hamilton’s newly secure presence on the $10 bill, and in honor of the other Americans who fought to expand our rights who are now destined to appear on our redesigned paper currency, I hereby announce the informal formation of the Ninth Amendment Promotion Society, or NAPS.

OK, we’ll work on the name. Meantime, there’s a whole mess of rights out there waiting to be discovered. Let’s go find ’em.

Your Supreme Court Monday: Texas, Obama and immigration

Abbott DAPA
Gov. Greg Abbott, in his waning days as Texas attorney general, sued the Obama administration in November 2014 to block its effort to shield some 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the case Monday morning. (JAY JANNER / 2014 AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in United States v. Texas, the immigration case that began in November 2014 when President Barack Obama protected from deportation as many as 5 million immigrants in the country illegally, including the undocumented parents of American citizens or permanent residents. Then-Gov.-elect Greg Abbott, in his waning days as Texas attorney general, sued the federal government to keep Obama’s policy from taking effect.

Twenty-five states joined Texas in opposing the president, and over the next several months, a U.S. district judge in Brownsville and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans blocked Obama’s policy from taking effect. So the Obama administration asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, and in January the court agreed to do so.

I have written about United States v. Texas previously on this blog. Here’s a quick review of the questions to be argued today before the Supreme Court.

Standing: Before the court’s justices can consider any larger, constitutional question they must answer whether Texas and the other 25 states have “standing” to sue the federal government. Simply disliking a federal program does not give states the right to challenge it in court. Direct harm must be suffered to seek legal relief. Texas argues that costs associated with issuing driver’s licenses to a group of undocumented immigrants granted temporary legal status would directly harm it.

Conservatives usually view standing restrictively. The case could end here but no one expects that to happen.

Procedural:  Another question involves whether the Obama administration failed to follow the Administrative Procedures Act by not giving the public sufficient notice of its immigration change along with the opportunity to comment on it. This technical, procedural detail is frequently overlooked in most discussions of the case, but it offers the justices a path toward a narrow decision.

Executive authority: The big question in United States v. Texas is whether the president’s actions violate the Constitution’s requirement that he “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Only Congress can make law, but the president has “prosecutorial discretion” when it comes to enforcing the laws — a view the Supreme Court and lower federal courts historically have supported. The immigrants in question in U.S. v. Texas remain undocumented and subject to deportation; in simple terms, the Obama administration wants to defer action against them to focus on immigrants who pose a threat. Texas accepts that the administration has discretion. The state argues, however, that the administration should practice its discretion case by case rather than by issuing a sweeping executive order.

Four years ago, in Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court essentially confirmed the argument the Obama administration is making in today’s Texas case. “A principal feature of the removal system is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials. Federal officials, as an initial matter, must decide whether it makes sense to pursue removal at all,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-3 majority. “Discretion in the enforcement of immigration law embraces immediate human concerns. Unauthorized workers trying to support their families, for example, likely pose less danger than alien smugglers or aliens who commit a serious crime.”

A decision in U.S. v. Texas is expected to arrive in June, a few weeks before Republicans and Democrats hold their nominating conventions in mid- and late July. A 4-4 tie would let stand the lower court rulings and would block Obama’s programs from taking effect.

Even if the Supreme Court rules in Obama’s favor, his administration will have less than seven months to implement its policy before the next president assumes office. So Obama’s policy lives or dies not only with the court, but also with the next president.




No man is good three times? Tell it to the Gipper

Franklin Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945. Elected four times, he is the only president to have served more than two terms.

The worst constitutional amendment this side of Prohibition is the 22nd, which limits presidents to two terms and was ratified on this date 65 years ago.

Just as British voters sent Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party packing as soon as Hitler was defeated in World War II, Americans rejected the governing party in the first postwar congressional elections in 1946, sweeping Democrats from power. When the 80th Congress began in January 1947, the new Republican majority, setting a template for conservative legislative petulance that continues to this day, immediately lashed out against Franklin Roosevelt’s 12-year presidency, which had ended with FDR’s death two years earlier. In March 1947, after minimum debate, Congress sent the 22nd Amendment to the states for ratification.

Three-fourths of the states must ratify a proposed amendment before it can become part of the Constitution. On Feb. 27, 1951, Minnesota became the 36th state out of 48 — Alaska and Hawaii weren’t yet part of the union — to approve the 22nd Amendment.

Only two states — Oklahoma and Massachusetts — rejected the amendment. Good for you, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, for standing with democracy. Good for you.

The idea that presidents should limit themselves to two terms starts, as do several presidential precedents, useful and otherwise, with George Washington, and can be blamed on the man crushes the other Founders had on the nation’s first president. A third term was Washington’s for the taking in 1796, but he declined. He was feeling old and tired and he wanted to get home to Mount Vernon as quick as he could. As he wrote in his farewell address, “Every day the increasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome.”

If two terms were good enough for George Washington, then two terms were good enough for any president who followed him, the thinking went. A two-term tradition was born because of Washington’s constitution, not because it was written anywhere in the Constitution.

Washington died in December 1799, less than three years after leaving office. Had he stayed on for a third term, Washington would have achieved another presidential first — the first president to die in office. Now that would have set an interesting precedent!

Franklin Roosevelt ran for and won a third term in 1940 largely because of World War II and voters’ reluctance to change leaders at a time when Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and Imperial Japan ruled in the Pacific. He won a fourth term in 1944 to see the war to its conclusion, but died on April 12, 1945, only 83 days into his fourth term.

Had Roosevelt not been president during an extraordinary time, would he have broken with the tradition set by Washington and sought more than two terms? Had he tried, would voters have given him a third and fourth term?

Doubtful on both counts. A few other presidents had tried for third terms previously, but failed. Ulysses Grant, president from 1869 to 1877, had sought a nonconsecutive third term in 1880 and couldn’t even win the Republican nomination. Teddy Roosevelt, in office from 1901 to 1909, ran for another term as an independent candidate in 1912*. He lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who eight years later fruitlessly maneuvered to tie up the Democratic convention in the hope the party would break the deadlock by nominating him for a third term.

Voters might elect someone president three times: If the 22nd Amendment didn’t exist, I’m sure Bill Clinton would have run for a third term in 2000 and I have no doubt he easily would have beaten George W. Bush. And who’s to say we wouldn’t be better off for it?

Voters might even elect someone four times in unique circumstances, as they did with FDR, but five or six times? No. Presidents, no matter how great, eventually wear out their welcome. Voters eventually desire change. And presidents age. They get tired, like Washington did. They encounter a natural term limit.


The 22nd Amendment turns presidents’ second terms into a tedious four-year march toward forced retirement. But the main argument against the amendment is it limits our choices as voters. It’s “an infringement on the democratic rights of the people … an invasion of their democratic rights to vote for whoever they want to vote for and for however long,” Ronald Reagan told NBC’s Tom Brokaw in 1989 as his time in office neared its end. Reagan had no interest in someday running for a third term himself, he told Brokaw, but he intended to use part of his time and influence as a former president to push for the 22nd Amendment’s repeal. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis five years later ended Reagan’s intentions. Alas.

A proposal to repeal the 22nd Amendment has popped up in almost every Congress since the mid-1980s, though no such proposal is on file with the current Congress. The effort, such as it is, crosses party lines: Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1989 and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 1995 are among the various Democrats and Republicans who have sponsored resolutions to erase the amendment from the Constitution.

I know, I know. Given the current crop of presidential candidates before us, we might want to eliminate the office of president rather than allow someone to be elected president more than twice. But once in a rare while a president comes along whom we should keep for an extra term or two.

Supporters of the 22nd Amendment say it prevents tyranny — an argument that apparently never occurred to the Founders, since they set no term limits for the president, members of Congress or federal judges. It’s not tyranny to have additional choices. It’s democracy.

So, c’mon, people. Sixty-five years is enough time for this infringement on our rights to exist. Ronald Reagan was right. We repealed the disastrous 18th Amendment — Prohibition. Let’s do the same with the 22nd.

(This blog entry revises and expands a similar article I wrote in 2009 for an American-Statesman blog that no longer exists.)


* Though Teddy Roosevelt was elected president only once, in 1904, the 22nd Amendment still would have applied to him had it existed. Roosevelt was William McKinley’s vice president and became president after McKinley’s assassination. McKinley was only six months into his second term when he died on Sept. 14, 1901.