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Last Build Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009
 



North Korea Tests Obama

Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Kim's regime is different. In defiance of a UN Security Council they launch a missile that they say is carrying a satellite over Japan. When it falls into the ocean way short of anything like an orbit, North Korea's news media dutifully announce that the satellite is successfully in orbit, beaming back patriotic music, even though this country's technology doesn't see or hear a thing up there. Since the intensely secret North Korea has been known in the past to fire first and announce later, this time the Dear Leader's advance publicity tells us that he cares less about achieving orbit than grabbing attention. On that he succeeded, especially with those who regard any North Korean missile that can reach the United States as tantamount to one that's about to be fired at the United States. On Fox News Sunday, leading neoconservative Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard fumed, "We can't tolerate these North Korean launches," and the U.S. must "act accordingly." How? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered ways "three or four techniques that could have been used" to disable Kim's missile before it ever left the launch pad. They included "unconventional forces" on the ground and "standoff capabilities" such as a remote-controlled missile-firing drone. Leading conservatives also are furious that President Obama's Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a 15 percent cut from missile defense research. Ah, what a friend our defense contractors have in Kim Jong Il. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said before North Korea's launch that the U.S. is "fully prepared" to shoot down the missile. That suggestion was immediately shot down by Secretary Gates. If an "aberrant missile ... looked like it was headed for Hawaii or something like that," Gates said, "we might consider it." Well, let's hope so. Otherwise, his caution is well advised. Trying to shoot down a missile with another missile still is about as easy as firing a bullet to hit another bullet. The only thing that would have been more embarrassing than North Korea's missile fizzle would be our trying to shoot it down with a missile that missed. So, how best to handle Kim? Were it not for his nukes and his penchant for selling weapons technology to other country, he would be easier to ignore. He wants our attention. He succeeded with a missile launch that upstaged Obama's European trip and a keynote foreign-policy speech in Prague that called for "a world without nuclear weapons" and a new series of arms-control negotiations with Russia. Like the spurned homicidal lover in "Fatal Attraction," Kim will not be ignored. He may have another movie in mind with his missile adventure: "Wag the Dog," in which a US president fakes a war to cover-up a sex scandal. Kim has faked a satellite launch, perhaps to cover-up his regime's shaky future. Although we immediately think his missile launch is all about us, Kim's gesture is aimed just as much at domestic consumption at a time of growing concern about his health problems and lack of an established successor after the Dear Leader's days are over. The 67-year-old disappeared from public view for several weeks last summer after a reported stroke and has dropped out of sight for similarly mysterious periods ever since. In his latest footage, released last month without a date on it, he looks frail, and slimmed down to a sickly degree from his previous pudginess. The government's descriptions of the footage as evidence of the Dear Leader's robust health are about as convincing as their announcements of a successful satellite launch. As Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar on Korean economics at the American Enterprise Institute, observed in the Wall Street Journal, the footage of the frail Kim may have been offered simply to prove to his country that their "Dear Leader" is not dead. The same appears to be true with his mythical satellite. Before we push for regime change in North Korea, it pays to wait and see. It may be coming through natural causes.[...]



Obama Wows a Worried World

Sun, 05 Apr 2009 00:28:15 -0600

Obama wanted more commitments to economic stimulus, while other leaders wanted more regulation of our financial markets.

European leaders in particularly don't want to build large public debt loads to pay for stimulus, especially when they blame our cowboy capitalists for the problem. Besides, European countries already direct a bigger portion of government spending than we do into job protections, unemployment benefits and other social safety nets.

Nevertheless, Obama's comfort with give-and-take appears to have relieved world leaders.

A key moment for Obama's bridge-building skills, according to witnesses inside the closed-door sessions, came when he stepped into a spat between China's President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The seemingly arcane and inconsequential issue of whether the G-20 would "take note of a list of rogue offshore tax havens or endorse" the list had brought the two leaders to an impasse. Obama helped them work out a deal in which they would only "take note," because the body that produced the list was one to which China did not belong.

In the end, everyone could claim to have saved face. Obama's skills at bringing people together helped put big smiles on the faces of world leaders at the summit's end. Of course, I said the same when he was buttering up congressional Republicans before they turned against his economic stimulus package. Here's hoping he has better luck on with his new overseas friends. The fate of the world depends on it.

And Obama can claim that he has led a global battle against recession.

The same reassuring steadiness that former Secretary of State Colin Powell praised during Obama's presidential campaign showed itself in London last week when it was badly needed to smooth ruffled feathers, reassure world markets and get money flowing again.

On the personal diplomacy front, Obama's camera-friendly wife probably received more attention than he. It is much, much more fun to watch the first lady navigate the etiquette protocols of Old Europe than listen to a bunch of leaders in business suits gab about productivity and debt ratios.

But on the issues that matter to people's lives, this was the president's trip. The G-20 is made up of leaders of 20 major economies that make up about 90 percent of the world's global gross national product. A big part of Obama's G-20 trip, followed by NATO, the European Union and Turkey, is to establish his credentials.

"We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize the world is a complicated place," Obama said in London, "when we show some element of humility and when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer."

Translation: Meet the new sheriff. We will lead, but we will also listen. Compared to the previous administration's my-way-or-the-highway attitude ("Either you're with us," President George W. Bush declared, "or you're with the terrorists."), this is a change the world seems ready to believe in.




Cheerful Givers, Grumpy Receivers

Wed, 25 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But members of Congress are luckier than governors. Republicans could vote against Obama's stimulus plan confident in the knowledge that the Democratic majority was going to pass it anyway, sending billions of dollars to their states, most of which desperately need it. That's the nice thing about being in Congress. Sometimes you can talk political hot air all day long, blowing rhetorical kisses to your ideological base, without worrying about whether your words will do any actual damage. Governors are different. They have to actually manage something. They're accountable every day for whether highways are fixed, buses run, kids get to school and seniors get into decent nursing homes. That leaves Republican governors in an interesting politically predicament. As a president and Congress send money, the governors who have attacked it have to decide whether to take it. Some of the least cheerful receivers like Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina also are known to have national political ambitions. All three oppose the stimulus on principle as too costly and uncertain in its effectiveness. But they'll take the money, if not all of it. Palin recently said she'd have to examine the details of the plan and trace possible strings attached to determine whether it would be in her state's best interests. Jindal was more forthright, saying in national TV interviews that they would reject at least some of the money. Guess which part? He said he would not accept money to expand eligibility for unemployment benefits to part-time workers because it would increase taxes on employers. He would, however, take advantage of a provision to increase unemployment benefits by $25 a week, financed entirely with federal money. Sanford and Gov. Haley Barbour similarly rejected expanding unemployment insurance. In this way the grumpy receivers illustrate one of the big problems that the Grand Old Party faces. Their power has eroded in the past two election cycles to a mostly regional party based in the conservative South. Jindal and Sanford are two of the rising stars to which the party looks for leadership as it tries to rebuild. But in the face of Obama's stimulus package, they respond like regional leaders. While many other states, mostly outside the South, already have expanded their jobless benefits, the grumpy receivers show a remarkable tone-deafness to the sense of national emergency that grips most of the rest of the country. It is revealing to contrast their attitudes with those of big-state Republican governors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida. "I'm more than happy to take his money or any other governor in this country (who) doesn't want to take this money," Schwarzenegger said, responding to Sanford on ABC's "This Week." "I take it, because we in California ... need it." It probably is not insignificant that California and Florida, unlike the states from which the grumpy receivers hail, were both won by Obama. The controversy illustrates the stark difference between governors and members of Congress when it comes to having to solve real problems rather than just talk about them. One congressman, New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, announced proposed legislation to make it easier for states that want the money to get a share of the funds others pass up. But if Democrats have anything to fear from episodes like this, it is overconfidence. The grumpy governors might not be showing much compassion in regard to the plight of the jobless, but their criticisms reflect widely held misgivings about whether at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars we Americans can buy our way out of a global recession. If Obama's efforts work, the Republicans who opposed it will have egg on their political faces. If not, they could sound like geniuses. For now, their rising stars appear to think it is blessed to be grumpy as they receive.[...]



At Least 'Chimp' Cartoon Got Us Talking

Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The drawing is a timely reference to Travis the chimp, an ape-gone-wild that was shot to death by Stamford, Conn., police earlier in the week after it mauled a friend of its owner. Still, the cartoon leaves one muttering, "Huh?" Was the chimp supposed to be Obama? The Democratic Congress? Does the Post view firearms as an appropriate way to settle the economic debate? No and no, says the Delonas and the newspaper, although it is hard to tell what the cartoon is about. Even animal lovers have taken offense -- at its depiction of cruelty to apes. We've seen controversial scenarios like this before: A publication infuriates a prominent minority group. Protest leaders demand apologies. They also may demand that someone be fired. If the publication's owner also is a broadcaster, licenses are threatened, as the Rev. Al Sharpton threatened the newspaper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, while leading pickets outside the Post. The scenario continues: Defenders of the publication cry foul. They cite "free speech" rights and accuse grievance leaders like Sharpton of enflaming racial tensions for personal gain. "You've got a black president," one reader wrote to a blogger, "What more do black people want?" We saw a similar harangue-and-flagellate scenario happen last year with the New Yorker's cartoon controversy. Its cover depicted Obama in Islamic dress and his wife Michelle Obama as a 1960s style Black Panther militant. Now that the two have moved into the White House, is it safe to laugh? Don't ask. The Post's editorial board tried to weather this storm. They lasted two days before posting an apology on the newspaper's Web site while pickets marched outside their offices and politicians called for investigations, or at least for better taste in political artwork. The Post's apology sounded half-hearted, as if it were forced from a schoolyard bully by a bigger bully. The cartoon, explained the Post, "was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period." They apologized to "those who were offended by the image," but not to "some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past" and "see the incident as an opportunity for payback." Surely they were not talking about me. I like the Post. Whether I agree with their editorials or not, I have long been entertained by their elevation of page-one headline writing to a high art. Among their greatest hits: "AXIS OF WEASEL" (2003), "MARLA: 'BEST SEX I EVER HAD' " (1990), "KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE!" (Meteor misses earth, 1998), and the all-time champ in my record book, "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR" (1982). Ah, the memories. The same day that the Post cartoon appeared, a Black History Month speech by Eric Holder, the nation's first black attorney general, sparked another controversy with the way that he called for the very thing that his speech stirred up: More talk about race. Holder called our country "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, with most Americans avoiding candid talk about racial issues. I have long argued the same point, although I am too cowardly to use the word "cowards." Reaction to Holder's speech illustrated his point. Radio star Rush Limbaugh and other prominent conservatives denounced Holder's notion that Americans outside the workplace tend to live racially self-segregated lives. Then his critics, I would wager, returned home to mostly self-segregated neighborhoods. We Americans do need to talk more about race. But what form should that conversation take without turning into a blamestorm? As President Bill Clinton's national attempt at a racial dialogue found a decade ago, holding talks for the sake of talk tends to bring out the open-minded folks who need such dialogues the least. It is our five-alarm eruptions like the Post's cartoon or Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" episode that draws the truly angry minds into the arena, even if only to shout at one-another. Only then do we see just how widely and deeply race continues to div[...]



Obama's an Optimist, But Not a 'Sap'

Wed, 18 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Obama had invited the columnists -- including me -- on his first visit home to Chicago since he became president. (See my photos and more about Obama's airborne chat at "Page's Page," my blog. Sitting in shirtsleeves with his elbows on the conference table, he took our questions for 55 minutes in the wood-paneled conference room on board the modified presidential Boeing 747. Back on Capitol Hill, his stimulus package -- trimmed down to a $787 billion -- was nearing final passage in Congress. Only three Republicans in the Senate and none in the House voted for the package. So much for bipartisanship, one might think. But Obama was not about to let a wall of Republican opposition stop his show. He has other fish to fry. If he couldn't bridge the divide on the stimulus package, other legislative measures are coming down the road that don't poke partisan buttons as easily. The mammoth recovery package "may have exaggerated" core differences between Democrats and Republicans as to whether tax cuts or public spending can best stimulate growth, he said. Future debates over issues such as the budget, entitlements, foreign policy offer opportunities for "greater flexibility," especially if some "countervailing pressures" arise from voters, governors, business leaders and others who nudge Republicans and Democrats into working together. And the stimulus clash could be kid stuff compared to the "really tough" part of his economic recovery goals, he said, which is to "get private credit flowing again" and avoid "potential catastrophe in the banking system." "You know, I am an eternal optimist," he said, pausing to strike a delicate balance between hope and healthy skepticism. "That doesn't mean I'm a sap." Headline writers thank you for that, sir. His optimism grows out of certain realities that don't get much attention in the heat-seeking media. He already has made enough policy changes to give a sense of psychic whiplash to a world that looks with bemused wonder at this country. By executive order he has outlawed torture, ordered the closing of Guantanamo, added funds to the children's health insurance program and reversed family planning restrictions on overseas funds. And on the financial debate, he gave the sort of balanced, detailed and even nuanced analysis in which op-ed columnists revel -- and from which the previous president shied away. He was asked, for example, if he foresees a time when more drastic action might be required to save the financial markets, as in the banking crises in Japan and Sweden. Obama weighed the pros and cons of each and, without committing himself, seemed to lean in the Scandinavian direction. Japan failed to intervene forcefully enough in the 1990s -- "they sort of papered things over and never really bit the bullet" -- and fell into an economic "lost decade," he said. A "good argument" could be made for Sweden's example, he said, which temporarily nationalized its failed banks, then sold them off. But "they only had a handful of banks, he pointed out. "We've got thousands of banks. The scale, the magnitude, of what we're dealing with is much bigger." "But here's the bottom line," he said. "We will do what works." In other words, he is not ruling out nationalizing weak banks, regardless of how many right-wingers call him a socialist. Neither will certain key Republicans, it turns out. Last Sunday, conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Senate Budget Committee, said on ABC's "This Week" that he won't take "nationalizing the banks" off the table, either. He was not "comfortable" with the idea, he said, but "we have got so many toxic assets" spread throughout the banking system "that we're going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes." If that offers hope for Obama's optimism, it is because Graham, like Obama, has a streak of intelligent pragmatism in him. He's able to overlook what's "left" or w[...]



As Obama's Hopes Face Reality

Wed, 21 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

It was ironic of Abraham Lincoln to author an Emancipation Proclamation that only freed the slaves in the states that had broken away from the Union. It was ironic of African Americans to fight a war against Nazism abroad and return to racial segregation at home. But as my wife and I watched Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen on television, singing "This land is your land, this land is my land ..." at the Lincoln Memorial program before the inauguration of Barack Obama -- and we began to sing along -- there was no irony in that moment. The inauguration of a biracial president with African roots and a global autobiography causes even the most cynical among us to feel proud to be part of a country that made this possible. You would have to have a heart made of stone to be unmoved by Laurie Madsen, a woman I met on a Metro train, who jokingly called herself "one of the few liberals in Utah." Old enough to witness the tragedies of the 1960s on television, "I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in my house," she said, choking back tears. "Now I feel blessed to march to Obama." I felt her joy. Watching King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial made me want to be a journalist. I wanted to witness history while it was happening. Like others of my generation, I did not dare to expect to live long enough to see King's dream become as much of a reality as it has. Irony recedes as Obama's victory raises the expectations that we Americans have of ourselves and our country's capacity for racial fairness. Yet, disabuse yourself of any notion that irony has died, despite such suggestions from public intellectuals as diverse as author Joan Didion and "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. Political honeymoons soon end. A gap between expectations and reality inevitably opens. Critics and comedy writers quickly regain their footing. Are expectations of Obama too high, journalists ask? It's easy to see how the world might get that impression. Obama iconography was abundant long before he took his oath of office. You could see it in the ring of Obama-branded commerce around the Washington Mall -- a bizarre bazaar of Obama caps, T-shirts, playing cards, bobble-head dolls and other paraphernalia of Obama-love. Top of the kitsch pile is the "Barack Obama condom." "Use with good judgement" (sic) its foil wrapper advices. Irony lives. At least, the company didn't try to use the real Obama campaign slogan, "Yes, we can!" Like the "John McCain condom" offered by the same company, it has no official link to the man whose name and photo it features on its foil wrapper. And neither does the blissfully irrational exuberance that many well-wishers around the planet have expressed about Obama's victory. Rev. Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, offered this reality check in his opening prayer at pre-inaugural ceremonies. "Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon," he prayed, "and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah." Obama supporters with whom I have talked seem to know that, despite die-hard critics who mock his "Savior" appeal to liberals. Once the inaugural party lights have faded, everyone should know that President Obama becomes just another chief executive who must sink or swim on his ability to handle the job. He seemed to say as much in the subtle appeal for help that he included in his inaugural address, even as he tried to keep hopes aloft. "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," he said, "a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." With that he raises a new question: I[...]



Bush's Lessons for Obama

Sun, 18 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Ah, yes, maybe we can joke a little more easily about race, now that the country has elected a biracial American -- especially one who, while discussing his family's auditions for the next White House dog, joked about "mutts like me."

Lenny Bruce said humor is tragedy plus time. A lot of tragedy preceded the joy that Obama's landmark inauguration celebrates. The White House and the U.S. Capitol were constructed with slave labor, we are reminded by a new book, "Black Men Built the Capitol" by Jesse J. Holland. That's no joke.

Near the Mall that stretches in front of the Capitol to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, African-American slaves once were held in pens, ready for auction. Eight presidents owned slaves.

President George W. Bush quoted one of them, Thomas Jefferson, in his televised farewell speech: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." To that Bush added, "As I leave the house he occupied two centuries ago, I share that optimism." Bush has good reason to be optimistic about the country. The American people are resilient and resourceful enough to survive all kinds of presidencies, even his.

Yet there is a lot that Obama can learn from Bush's past, if only to avoid taking the sort of plunge that Bush's approval ratings took from the great heights he achieved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

First, presidents should encourage long-range thinking, not just short-term planning.

Toppling Saddam Hussein was easy. Everyone with any knowledge of our military capabilities knew that. Managing Iraq through its transition to self-government is hard. The result is a stain on Bush's record to rival the one that Vietnam left on our memory of Lyndon B. Johnson's years.

Second, certainty and clarity are admirable, but don't get too full of yourself to listen to opposing views.

Obama has shocked some of his fellow left-progressives with his outreach to conservative politicians, columnists and clergy. Bush was cordial enough to everyone, but not known to dine with liberals the way Obama did with conservative columnists at George Will's house recently. Imagine Bush inviting Jon Stewart or Arianna Huffington to tea? Not gonna happen.

Third, sympathy and empathy are not the same. Bush still seemed rather puzzled at his final presidential press conference by the backlash he received for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Bill Clinton's critics make fun of his "I feel your pain" line, but his sentiment is better than Bush's inaction, which seemed to tell people in distress that he didn't feel their pain at all.

Fourth, after hearing both sides and pondering the options, make up your mind. Bush, proclaiming himself "the decider," was good at that part. "Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," he said, almost like a benediction. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I've always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

Agreed. He made the decisions, good or bad. But that's his job. Presidents get elected to make tough decisions and they're judged by how those decisions turn out.

Which leads to Bush's final lesson for presidents: Keep your sense of humor. Bush has said in his exit interviews that he thinks time will vindicate him, as it has for some other unpopular presidents. Could he be right? Humor is tragedy plus time. For now, I see mostly tragedy.




Our Drug War Next Door

Wed, 14 Jan 2009 00:40:00 -0600

The tragedy is etched in daily news headlines. The same day I arrived, two Mexican police offers were ambushed, shot to death while sitting in their patrol car. Just another bloody day in Juarez. Hardly a day goes by without a new Juarez horror story in the El Paso Times: "Man found dead with hands severed." "Prominent Juarez lawyer, son, among four found dead Tuesday." "Man found shot to death in trash drum." "El Paso charities afraid to cross border." "Juarez area slayings top 20 in new year." Murders across Mexico more than doubled last year to more than 5,600. That's more than the total Americans lost so far in the Iraq war. Most of those murders have been happening in border towns. More than 1,600 were killed in Juarez, Mexico's fourth largest city, with a population of 1.7 million. The bloodbath of unspeakable brutality includes kidnappings and decapitated bodies left in public places as a grisly form of advertising. "There have already been 20 murders in Juarez this year," Beto O'Rourke, a member of El Paso's city council, told me in a telephone interview this week as President-elect Barack Obama met with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon Monday. "That doesn't include the kidnappings and extortions. Ciudad Juarez is essentially a failed city at this point. They can't guarantee your safety." The situation is deteriorating so fast that "Mexico is on the edge of abyss," retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a drug czar under President Clinton, said. "It could become a narco-state in the coming decade," he wrote in a recent report, and the result could be a "surge of millions of refugees" crossing the U.S. border to escape. Something drastic needed to be done, O'Rourke, a fourth-generation El Paso resident, decided. A proposed city council resolution called for more federal action on both sides of the border to reduce the flow of guns and drugs. But it wasn't strong enough. O'Rourke pushed things further by adding 12 words: "supporting an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." The council passed it unanimously. Yet even a bid to talk about drug legalization was too much for Mayor John Cook. He vetoed the bill, at least partly out of concern that Washington might not take the measure seriously with the drug legalization line in it. Nevertheless, the controversy brought what has been rare American media attention to Mexico's crisis by turning it into radio and cable TV talk fodder. That's a start. Obama promised more American help to Calderon in a meeting that focused on trade, immigration and the drug war. President Bush successfully pushed the Merida initiative, a $1.4 billion security package to help Mexico with high-tech equipment and anti-drug training. The first $400 million, approved by Congress last year, has begun to flow. But the rest of the funds could be slowed by the many other financial pressures this country and the incoming Obama administration faces. And Calderon faces mounting pressures on his two-year-old campaign against drug and gun smuggling. The campaign that actually touched off much of the fighting between the cartels. It has also exposed corruption that reached the highest levels of his government. Even a member of his security team has been arrested for allegedly feeding information to the cartels in exchange for money. When you step back and take a broad look at Mexico's growing carnage, it's easy to see why El Paso's city leaders think legalization doesn't look so bad. Mexico's drug problem is not the drugs. It is the illegality of the drugs. Legalization is not the perfect solution. But treating currently illegal drugs in the way we treat liquor and other legal addictive substances would provide regulation, tax revenue and funds for rehabilitation programs. Most satisfying, it would wipe a lot of smiles off the current drug lords' faces.[...]



A Senator Without a Seat -- Or Sponsor

Sun, 11 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

He is notable for having managed to commit few political sins, except maybe aggravated narcissism. The names of Burris' two children, Roland and Rolanda, are now nationally famous. So is his lavish mausoleum, with his resume etched in stone under the headline "Trailblazer" and with just enough space left at the bottom of the slab for more milestones.

How about, "first black appointed senator to be barred from entering a Senate that currently has no other African-American members?"

In the past week, the appointee of impeached Gov. Rod "Bleeping" Blagojevich arose overnight from being left out in the rain by his fellow Democrats in the Senate's leadership to being warmly embraced.

After Blagojevich was arrested last month for, among other charges, allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat, Senate Democrats voted unanimously to refuse any appointee sent by Blagojevich.

Although Burris promised not to cause a scene, he did precisely that by showing up for a swearing-in ceremony to which he knew he was not welcome -- not because of anything he had done, but because of the governor who sent him.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid actually thought his fellow Democrat would take the hint and refrain from appointing anyone, he's been spending too much time in the genteel legislative culture of Washington. Blagojevich, still legally the governor, gave Reid and Company a lesson in Chicago-style chutzpah. He named Burris.

As political gamesmanship, the move was ingenious. In Burris, 71, Blago found an affable, largely inoffensive veteran Chicago officeholder who was hard to refuse, especially after Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Chicago Black Panther leader threw in the race card: Don't "lynch" Burris for what the governor who appointed him did, Rush warned.

Reports that Obama's election signaled a "post-racial" society proved to be greatly exaggerated, especially for Democrats who don't want to drive wedges in their political base. A day after Burris' news conference in the rain outside the Capitol, another photo op was constructed: Burris cheerfully sitting down with Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Illinois' other senator.

Why did Senate Dems cave so quickly? Tribune reporters revealed that pressure came from Obama and fellow senators to resolve this embarrassing mess quickly and move on to more urgent matters like the war, the recession, the bailout, etc., etc.

Obama's own public comments had cooled from a blanket denunciation a week earlier of anyone whom Blagojevich appointed to effusive compliments of Burris's character and record.

By the end of the week, the governor who appointed Burris was impeached by a near-unanimous vote in the Illinois House, partly for allegations that the governor tried to sell the seat Burris seeks to occupy.

While Blago's fate was passed to the Senate, Burris' standing on the Senate side actually improved. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's resistance to Burris had worn down to one thin little strand: Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's refusal to certify Blagojevich's appointment of Burris.

Although Burris remained an appointed senator without a seat, political winds had shifted his way with hurricane force. Was it a political miracle? Burris seemed to think so.

"...(T)he Lord put his hands on the governor," Burris orated to a supportive crowd in a South Side Chicago church the previous Sunday, "and said, 'This is the person that has to go to Washington....' "

Blagojevich has an "in" with the Almighty? If so, the governor must be mightily steamed that the Lord didn't clue him in a little sooner about the court-ordered wiretaps on his phones.




A Social Trauma for Obama: Youth Crime

Wed, 07 Jan 2009 00:14:15 -0600

During the same period, murders by white youth actually decreased slightly. The FBI statistics on which the study is based don't count Hispanics separately from whites. Hispanic crime rates are between three and four times that of whites, according to contributing editor Heather MacDonald in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Counting Hispanics separately from whites, she writes, would make the 10-to-1 disparity between black and white homicide rates reported in the Northeastern study even larger. The report is particularly depressing in light of the good news to which we have become accustomed since the early 1990s. That's when crime suddenly dropped, despite some experts' doomsday predictions of a rise in young "superpredators." In fact, one of the experts who predicted a crime rise was James Alan Fox, a Northeastern criminal justice professor who co-authored the new study with Assistant Prof. Marc Swatt. It didn't take long for one of Fox's critics, "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt, to note in his New York Times blog a glaring omission. The Times coverage and most of Fox's report fail to mention a 15 percent rise in the overall population of black youths. Based on changes in population, the number of perpetrators would have been expected to rise from a little over 800 to nearly 1,000," writes Levitt, a University of Chicago economist. "Knowing that," he writes, "the actual rise to roughly 1,150 doesn't seem that noteworthy." Maybe not, as a mathematical statistic. The families of the victims of those extra 150 youthful perps probably have another view. "Freakonomics," you might recall is the best-seller that extrapolated, among other bombshells, that the 1990s crime drop may have resulted from the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s. Other experts have pointed out, among other arguments, that Canada experienced a similar crime drop without a similar change in abortion laws. Who's right? After years of reading reports and interviewing experts, I am convinced that crime is like the stock market: A lot of people know how it works, but no one can tell you when the next boom or crash will come. But, as a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, we know it when we see it. We don't know if Fox's crime surge will continue up or slide down. But we have some pretty good ideas of what works in fighting crime and what doesn't. We also know that if we don't do anything, we invite another trend in the wrong direction. A big hint of Fox's preferred wish list is offered in the title of the report he co-authored: "The Recent Surge in Homicides Involving Young Black Males and Guns: Time to Reinvest in Prevention and Crime Control." That's something Congress and the incoming Obama administration should keep in mind as they wonder where to spend billions in stimulus dollars. We can use more federal support for police on the street and other traditional law enforcement funding that was trimmed back during the Bush administration, the Fox report suggests. We could also fight harder to forge right-left coalitions behind tougher prosecution of crimes committed with a gun. But we black Americans cannot rely on government help alone. Nothing stirs more mischief in young minds and bodies than to have too much time on their hands. The Fox report notes that most youth crimes are committed in the hours after school and before evening. That's why Obama's comments last Father's Day in Chicago's Apostolic Church urged young parents to fill that empty time with useful activities. "Obama was merely paying attention to an unavoidable fact that race men are obligated to point out," Jabari Asim, editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's magazine, observes in his new book "What Obama Means": "Where black Americans are concerned, there is always more at stake." Despite the naysayers, I[...]



Hiding Behind the Race Card

Sun, 04 Jan 2009 00:32:58 -0600

Rush, a former leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party, used to sound as troubled by that as other Democratic lawmakers did, until Blagojevich named Burris, a former Illinois attorney general and fellow African American. Then things changed. In a Blagojevich news conference to announce Burris, Rush said he was supporting Burris essentially for one reason: the Senate needs a black member and even the scandalized Blago's man will do. I found it curious that Rush's concern for black representation did not stop him from endorsing a white Obama opponent, Blair Hull, for the seat in the 2004 primary. But of course, four years earlier, Rush became the only man so far to beat Obama, when the young state senator tried to unseat the popular incumbent. Rush later endorsed Obama's presidential bid, being savvy enough to know which way the political winds were blowing. Yet here he was, boosting Burris by playing to white guilt. He used the Senate's current lack of any black members as a one-size-fits-all justification for the body to accept Burris and "not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." But, why not? This fight isn't about Burris. It's about Blagojevich. The Democrats who control the Senate are not rejecting all black appointees. They only want to reject anyone who is appointed by this governor, regardless of their race, gender or whatever. Considering the way this governor appears to have embarrassed his office, according to the federal prosecutor's court-ordered wiretaps, that's a worthy goal for the senators to have. Yet on CBS's "The Early Show," Rush pressed further. He compared plans by Senate Democrats to block Burris to white governors in the Jim Crow south who blocked the desegregation of public schools and colleges. Never have images from the bad old days of white bigotry sounded so breathtakingly inappropriate, especially when they come so soon after the election of the nation's first black president. Is this where the revolution has come? Has the black community become the last refuge for scalawags like Blagojevich, whose approval ratings had fallen to only 13 percent in a Chicago Tribune poll even before his arrest? As a fellow African American, I resent that notion, and I don't appear to be alone. Secretary of State Jesse White, a black Democratic friend of Rush and Burris, nevertheless is refusing to certify Burris' appointment in what he called "a moral decision," even if it fails to hold up in court. Rep. Danny Davis, another African American House member from Chicago, revealed that he had been asked by Blagojevich and turned it down, saying that any appointee from the governor would be too tainted to serve. Sure, it might be purely coincidental that Blagojevich happened to pick two black candidates in a row. Or maybe he feels a sincere liberal urge to make Obama's desk a "black seat." And maybe there really is a tooth fairy. More likely, the message to Burris is this: You're getting played. Blagojevich undoubtedly hopes white senators will bow to the possibility of a black backlash in Burris' favor. That would have been more likely had Obama not held fast to his call for Blagojevich to step aside. Obama paid proper respect to Burris' public service, which includes his election to state comptroller as the first black officeholder to be elected statewide. Nevertheless, he asked that no one accept an appointment that was not "free of taint and controversy." Having covered Rush as a reporter and commentator since his Black Panther days, I like him. I have admired his transition from beret-wearing militant to suit-and-tie South Side Chicago congressman. I like Burris, too. His only sins until now, as far as I know, have been a political tone-deafness that has prevented him from getting past the primarie[...]



Obama vs. Machine Politics

Wed, 17 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Using newly released Justice Department figures, USA Today determined that Illinois is not, in fact, the nation's most corrupt place by a long shot. Who is? The newspaper awards that distinction to -- wait for it! -- North Dakota. North Dakota? As we might say in my old Chicago neighborhood, hey, c'mon! That hardly seems fair. Look at the size of that state. Five Twin Buttes school board members were convicted of abusing travel money two years ago, for example, and you'd think they had a crime wave. Using Justice Department data, USA Today compared federal corruption convictions since 1998 to state population. North Dakota had 8.3 per 100,000. Illinois had a mere 3.9. But Illinois has a much larger population (12.9 million) than North Dakota (639,715). By their count, Illinois slides down or, depending on how you look at it, rises up to 18th place. The New York Times differs. It counted the number of guilty public officials over the past decade and found Florida beat everyone else with 824. Illinois came in seventh with a mere -- a mere! -- 502. As a proud Illinoisan, I demand a recount. As a political journalist who has spent most of my career in the Land of Lincoln, I suppose that a part of me takes perverse pride in Illinois corruption in the way that a big game hunter supports wildlife preservation. If you're trying to ferret out big stories of bribes, favoritism and other skullduggery, it's nice to think that you are going after the worst of the lot, not the 18th worst. "We certainly have a right to the title of most corrupt state," says political science Prof. Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois in Chicago -- and my former alderman in Chicago's 44th Ward. "Certainly more than North Dakota, which has more cows than people." Since 1971, by his count, Illinois has had 1,000 elected officials, city workers, lawyers or businesspeople convicted of serious public corruption charges. Is Illinois only a hotbed of crooks? Hardly. The "Land of Lincoln" has had notable statesmen, including Abraham Lincoln himself. Others include Sen. Paul Douglas, Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Sen. Paul Simon. However, unlike New York and similar industrial cities, Chicago hasn't had many reform-minded mayors over the past century. Harold Washington was a notable exception, but died in office before he could enact much of his reform agenda. Some national media reporters and commentators have raised questions or dropped hints that Obama might be a product of corrupt "Chicago politics." Political life in Chicago is more complicated and interesting than that. "Obama basically comes out of the reform wing," says Simpson, who comes from that same wing. "He passed the most stringent ethics law in Illinois history in the state Senate." Obama fought the machine in his early days, later made alliances with people like Mayor Daley. Yet Obama has carefully maintained his distance from the more questionable avenues of Illinois' political power. What makes some cities or states more corrupt than others? Simpson answered with two words: machine politics. "Whenever you have people trading jobs and money for votes, you build up a pattern" until "the average precinct captain can't tell difference between the questionable ethics that George Washington Plunkett (of New York's old Tammany Hall machine) called 'honest graft' and the illegal 'dishonest' kind." Most other cities got rid of their big political "machine" organizations with their armies of loyal precinct captains in public jobs. Some cities built modern versions of the old machine politics, fueled by big donations from wealthy contractors who, in turn, create jobs through their businesses. Blagojevich is alleged to have run into trouble in those gray areas of favoritism and abuses of power. Jud[...]



Jackson Jr. Tangled in Blago's Net

Sun, 14 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Fortunately for Obama, a tape recording of Blagojevich's frustration at the Obama camp's rebuff to his pay-for-play invitation makes the president-elect sound downright heroic. Less fortunate is Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who led other prominent contenders in a recent poll of Illinois Democrats. Thanks to Blago's banter, Jackson's hopes for a Senate seat have been effectively derailed, whether they deserve to be or not. In his quotes, the governor sounds like the model of a cranky basket crab with his claws out for money. To him, the appointment of someone to fill Obama's seat is not a serious public duty but a blank check waiting to be cashed in for a pot of gold. But when he's rebuffed by the Obama camp, the crab is plenty steamed. As U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald read from affidavit: "Quote, 'They're not willing to give me anything but appreciation. Bleep them,' close quote." The "bleep," Fitzgerald patiently explained, "is a redaction." Coming on top of the explicit exoneration offered by Fitzgerald, who ran this investigation, Blago's nasty words must have been music to Obama's ears. There's no higher praise than to be condemned by a scoundrel. Questions remain. Obama denies that he or anyone on his staff communicated with the governor as to who should fill the empty seat. But that's not saying enough, especially after what's happened to his friend, the junior Jackson. As the investigation unfolds, Obama is caught in a classic Washington trap: You shouldn't answer reporters' questions, your lawyers tell you, but if you don't answer the questions, the story hangs around like a cloud, feeding public suspicions and the propaganda machinery of your partisan critics and rivals. But Obama's burden is minor compared to Jackson's. Weeks before Election Day, Jackson made no secret of his desire to be appointed to the seat if Obama won. He would have an easier time winning over Blagojevich, despite their past differences, than winning over downstate voters for whom his father's name was even less of a blessing than Obama's Arabic middle name. But after the governor's arrest, one hopes Blago will have a hard time finding anyone, let alone Jackson, who would accept his appointment, if he were goofy enough to make one. Worse for Jackson, the Chicago Tribune identified him Friday as "Senate Candidate 5." That's the now-famous name that prosecutors gave to a politician they allege to whom Blagojevich was considering awarding the senate seat in exchange for a promise to raise as much as $1.5 million for Blagojevich's campaign fund. The emissaries, according to the Tribune, turned out to be Chicago businessmen with ties to Blagojevich and Jackson. Jackson's attorney and spokesmen denied that the congressman had asked the businessmen to do anything on his behalf. Even if Jackson is telling the truth, the wheeler-dealer image of this news does not help him politically. Instead, the revelations hit his statewide political prospects like a load of bricks on the shoulders of a man who already is treading water. I hate to see that, because I have admired the younger Jackson ever since he and his siblings presented the sort of wholesome family image at the 1988 Democratic National Convention for which Obama's family is known today. All along his political climb, he has tried to make up for the shortcomings that prevented his father from appealing to a wider audience. Still, as he told me a few months ago, his name is both a political blessing and curse. He'll have to work a lot longer if he is ever to soften the resistance of those whose image of his dad gets in the way of their ability to know the son.[...]



Governor's Troubles, Not Obama's

Wed, 10 Dec 2008 00:20:00 -0600

That's why I came to Chicago several decades ago. It was a great news town. It was a town with gangsters and hardball politics in a state where corruption often came with a little extra zing to it. My colleagues from more sedate little towns like New York or Los Angeles sound shocked to hear that our Democratic governor has been arrested. For Chicagoans as jaded as me, the news is like the gambling in "Casablanca." I arrived, for example, at about the time in 1970 that Paul Powell, a former state speaker of the house and secretary of state, was found after his death to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in embezzled cash stashed in shoe boxes in a hotel room. Most recently, our former Republican Gov. George Ryan has been serving a 6 1/2 year stretch in federal prison for fraud and racketeering. We've had more than four years of scandalous headlines tied to our current governor or his associates. The stories include 13 indictments or convictions related to illegal kickbacks, sweetheart contract deals and shady hiring practices. So there was a sense of the other shoe dropping when the feds came for the governor. I was shocked not so much by the allegations of criminal conduct against Blago as by the audacity in the details, including the absence in the allegations of any apparent realization that he might get caught. U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, bolstering his reputation as a modern-day Eliot Ness, says the governor treated his office like a personal ATM machine. The charges include conspiracy to in effect sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. He hoped to parlay the offer into a possible ambassador's post, secretary of Health and Human Services or some high-paying job in a nonprofit or an organization connected to labor unions, prosecutors said. He also tried to gain promises of money for his campaign fund, the feds said, and suggested that his wife could be placed on corporate boards where she might earn $100,000 or more. But while reading the 76-page criminal complaint, I almost spit out my morning coffee when I saw that Blagojevich allegedly tried to shake down owners of the newspaper where I work -- and in connection with the editorial board of which I am a member. In exchange for state assistance with the sale of Wrigley Field, according to Fitzgerald, Blagojevich wanted the firing of members of the Tribune's editorial board who had criticized him. Didn't anybody tell Blago the old line about how you don't make an enemy out of people who buy ink by the barrel? Nothing should delight an editorial writer more than the knowledge that he or she has been a burr under the saddle of the brazenly corrupt. Yet if the charges are true, years of scandalous stories, scathing editorials and a record low approval rating of 13 percent in a recent Tribune poll barely slowed the governor down. Most of the allegations occurred in the past few months, as if almost four years of known federal scrutiny actually had made him more flamboyant in his excesses. How much impact will the governor's troubles have on President-elect Obama? Probably not much. Fitzgerald did Obama the large favor of noting in his news conference that, "We make no allegations that he (Obama) was aware of anything." It was also fortunate for Obama that this story broke after the election. The campaign of Sen. John McCain, who made a crack during a presidential debate about not taking ethical advice from a "Chicago politician," might well have gone wild with guilt-by-association charges against Obama's party affiliation with Blagojevich. But from the Chicago point of view, Obama and Blagojevich occupy two opposing worlds of Democratic politics that work together out of[...]



Gay Pride, Black Prejudice

Sun, 07 Dec 2008 00:25:00 -0600

Besides, single-parenting has climbed so high in the past half-century, especially in black America, that I am delighted whenever anyone still wants to get married. But gay rights leaders should think twice before drawing too many comparisons to the fight for racial equality. They are tragically correct to point out the murder, beatings, arson and other hate crimes that continue to be perpetrated against homosexuals. But the history and nature of our oppression is so different as to serve to alienate potential allies instead of winning them over. I have long thought that gay activists should congratulate themselves that gay rights has made so much progress as an issue in less time than the civil rights movement's decades-long march to the election of a black man to be president. That progress unfortunately was set back with whiplash force in the double message California voters delivered on Election Day. While America elected Barack Obama to be its first president of African descent, Californians voted for Proposition 8, a measure to overturn gay marriage. The crosswinds of Obama's win and gay people's losses inflicted what Advocate writer Michael Joseph Gross called "mass whiplash" on those who mistakenly thought a win for one would mean a win for the other. "We were elated," he wrote, "then furious." Such fury found an unfortunate target as exit polls showed 70 percent of gays voted for Obama but 70 percent of blacks voted for Prop 8. This led some commentators to blame black voters for the loss of gay marriage. That's a bum rap, as Gross points out, because black voters account for only 10 percent of California's turnout. In fact, the vote was so close -- 52.3 percent to 47.7 percent -- that you could credit or blame, depending on your point of view, any group of voters for the outcome. The measure carried Hispanics and other demographic groups, too. It was also supported by the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church, which contributed millions to support the measure. So why single out blacks? A lot of people, it turns out, made the mistake of presuming that most of the state's black voters would see comparisons to the racial equality movement that, it turned out, most black voters did not see. How could a people who have known so much bigotry and persecution turn around and inflict it on another group? As many black homosexuals know, black voters tend to vote liberal, but we also have a strong strain of social conservatism closely tied to a strong tradition of church membership. Too often we forget the centuries in which the Bible was cited to justify the dehumanization of black people, too. If anything the gay rights movement can take some valuable lessons from Obama's success. It was not that long ago, after all, that he was losing to Sen. Hillary Clinton two-to-one among black voters before he won the Iowa caucuses. Gay rights were unpopular enough to be a mostly underground movement until the late 1960s. But by 2000, Vermont would become the first state to create civil unions to provide legal rights, responsibilities and protections of marriage to gay and lesbian couples in almost every legal sense except the M-word itself. Four years later, even President Bush outraged some conservative groups by supporting civil unions, "if that's what a state chooses to do." Obama turned his popularity around through persistent campaigning and excellent organizing to increase the public's comfort level with him. In the end, he turned a vote for Obama into something in which many voters took pride, just for being on the right side of history. The gay rights movement has a long way to go to reach that point, but taking time to educate the pu[...]