Last Build Date: Sat, 11 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2009
Sat, 11 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600
Is this a great country or what?
More on that later. But first I checked "The Gene Pool," which is a Washington Post online blog by Gene Weingarten, who posts provocative questions to allow his "members," mostly liberal, to make fools of themselves. Anonymously.
The question of the day on Thursday was preceded by this:
"If you've been following the extraordinary story of the U.S. sailors who re-took their ship from Somali pirates, you've been treated to an amazing tale of excitement and adventure. But if you've been reading the Reader Comments to the story, you learned what this is REALLY about: Barack Obama! And it's not good! Because he's an anti-American wimp, or something! Or maybe pro-pirate! Either he made this happen, or he's sorry it happened, or he's about to apologize to the pirates, or something."
Then the question: "What other bad stuff is Obama secretly responsible for, and why?"
The answers, hundreds of them, not always strong on grammar, begin with this one: "I blame Obama for my lunch order being late and the wrong item."
Then "Karen 2009," no liberal she, begins to get down to it: "So,will you Socialist Democrat Cowards and Obamafreaks tell me, where the Hell was your Hero and Messiah, President Nancy Pelosi Trainee Commander in Chief of the U.S. Miltary, Barack Hussein Obama our very own Coward in Chief Little Neville Chamberlin and Jimmy Carter Love Child ..."
Finally, someone who calls himself Carstonio, you will excuse this expression, nails it: "By failing to take a mindlessly macho tough-guy stance with other nations, Obama is to blame for all erectile dysfunction."
That's it! More serious commentators in the paper version of the Post agree with Perino that Obama is a wuss, embarrassing all red-blooded Americans. Charles Krauthammer, for instance, wrote of Obama's first world tour:
"Our president came bearing a basketful of mea culpas. With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own people for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness, for genocide, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantanamo and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world. ... It is passing strange for a world leader to celebrate his own country's decline. A few more such overseas tours, and Obama will have a lot more decline to celebrate."
Across town, The Washington Times editorialized that the president made a "servile gesture" that "belittled the power and independence of the United States."
So it goes and always has. The thing that grates conservatives most about Obama -- other than the fact that he won the election -- is that he is our first post-triumphal president. He talks as if he believes that Americans, because of our history, are different from other nations, but not necessarily better than everyone else in all things.
A lot of Americans hate the idea that all men are created equal. A great conservative, a monarchist, in fact, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote almost 200 years ago in "Democracy in America" something that is as true today as it was then:
"Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of Americans. A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused."
Sat, 28 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600
I would expand on that. The new president did not wallow in the politics of blaming inherited problems and conundrums on his incompetent predecessor. The Obama strategies, it seems to me, are trying everything at the same time to see what works -- economically at home, militarily and politically abroad.
I hope it works, or perhaps I should say, I hope something works. I suspect Obama will be open to change, even as his congressional opponents call it "flip-flopping," which often means "growth" or "common sense." As Obama said Friday: "After years of mixed results (in Pakistan), we will not provide a blank check ... (nor) blindly stay the course."
The course is enormously tricky, with each of the players attached to conflicting histories and conflicting agendas. Our principal regional "ally," Pakistan, is not as unified as it appears on maps. The Northwest is tribal territory -- in but not of Pakistan.
The same could be said of the Pakistani army and intelligences services. They are, in effect, a separate country within Pakistan, with their own infrastructure, including settlements, schools and roads. That military, the most effective segment of the nation, answers only to itself, seeing its real enemy as India. Military leaders do not trust the United States, which they believe abandons or betrays them when it no longer needs a base to deal with regional conflicts. The intelligence services often consider the United States to be the real enemy.
American strategy is contradictory as well. On the one hand, the president wants to bring more and more civilian aides and advisers into Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Vietnam, we called that winning hearts and minds. But as the president talked that way on the front pages, there was a "Job Fair" advertisement on Page 2 of the Los Angeles Times -- a pretty unusual one in these tough times.
The job fair, up the road in Palmdale, was sponsored by General Atomics Aeronautical and listed 25 separate categories of workers the company needed, from engineers and engineering assistants to UAV pilots.
What is a "UAV"? It is an unmanned aerial vehicle. That is what General Atomics builds -- and that has probably been our most successful weapon against al-Qaida and hostile Taliban leadership. But it is the ultimate anti-hearts-and- minds weapon. We have more than 200 of them. The most lethal, the MQ-9 Reaper -- as in "Grim" -- has a wingspan of 66 feet, costs $15 million per copy and flies at a top speed of almost 300 miles per hour. It is capable of carrying 3,000 pounds of missilery. Thirty of them have fired on targets in Pakistan during the past three months.
The Predators, an earlier model, or "drones," as they are often called, have become our signature weapon in that part of the world, evolving from television eye-in-the-sky "scouts" to "hunter/killers" in military jargon. But they have problems: collateral damage, killing children and women, and mocking Pakistani sovereignty. Pakistanis react predictably at the idea of unmanned killer machines, controlled by operators in Virginia and Nevada, splashing the bodies of their relatives over the rocky ground of the tribal areas.
For Americans, however, the Reapers are perfect. The operator can sit in a Star Trek chair watching television screens, push a button, kill bad guys, we hope, and then go home for dinner. A perfect weapon for people depending on technology and a few volunteers to re-make the world in our image.
So it goes as we try to protect ourselves from terrorists. The final contradiction in all this action -- which obviously did not start with Obama -- is that we were in more danger from bad guys on Wall Street than from religious zealots on both sides of the Khyber Pass.
Tue, 24 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600
In Congress, the best example of bad times ahead is Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is in headline trouble because he was supposed to know what he was doing. It turns out that he or his staff wrote the clauses that allowed AIG, the insurance monster, to eat taxpayers' lunch. He didn't get it, and there's a reason: The overeaters many Americans would like to see in jail are the people who financed his campaigns.
Dodd is a Democrat who may be headed for involuntary retirement, but Republicans will probably end up in worse trouble. The party of big markets and small government is to blame for a good deal of what went wrong. That makes it painful to watch and listen to those same Republican free-marketeers try to spin this monstrosity to make President Obama the villain for not being tough enough on monied corporate America. Will people believe that?
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner could be a candidate for early retirement as well. However much he knows about finance, he obviously is a political novice. He's not the first of his kind to need on-the-job training in Washington. During the recession in 1961, a smaller recession, President John F. Kennedy read out his chief economic adviser, Walter Heller, after he listed numeric goals, prompting an angry call from the boss. "Never do that again," Kennedy told Heller. "Forget those numbers. Numbers can come back to haunt you. Words can always be explained away."
"Wall Street" will not be easily explained away. The money-movers and gamblers who work there will have to lie about it for fear someone will find out where they live and burn down their big houses.
And then there is the press, the financial press -- weathermen who missed a tsunami or, worse, hid their forecasts and ended up being lectured by comedians who seemed to know more about what was really happening than they did.
Comedians may lead the eventual list of winners, as entertainment continues to squeeze news in the struggle for the public's overloaded attention span. Jon Stewart becomes Edward R. Murrow, and Jay Leno is our venue for fireside chats.
That, of course, is why Obama chooses to communicate the way he did last Thursday on Leno's couch. He looked and sounded like a big winner -- and why not? The public may or may not agree with the things he is trying, but I think they do believe he is trying, which counts for a lot. The new president did not make this problem and, between the jokes and small talk, seemed to get his message across in language most of us understand:
"Here's the dirty little secret, though. Most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal. And that is a sign of how much we've got to change our laws -- right? We were talking earlier about credit cards, and it's legal to charge somebody 30 percent on their credit card, and charge fees and so forth that people don't always know what they're getting into. So the answer is to deal with those laws in a way that gives the average consumer a break.
"When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there's a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there's no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you're going to be protected.
"So this is -- the need for getting back to some commonsense regulations -- there's nothing wrong with innovation in the financial markets. We want people to be successful; we want people to be able to make a profit. Banks are critical to our economy, and we want credit to flow again. But we just want to make sure that there's enough regulatory common sense in place that ordinary Americans aren't taken advantage of."
That might make him the Most Valuable Player in this league. New laws. Change. Change we can believe in.
Sat, 14 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600
"I remember my own mother giving me a lecture once when she had to wait in Germany two weeks for the neighboring hospital to have a bed. And I said, 'Oh, I can make a phone call and get you in earlier.' And she said I was asocial. She says, 'Then some other lady has to step back. How could this be decent?'"
Dr. Reinhardt, whose work I have followed for a while, was questioned last Wednesday on "Fresh Air" by the estimable National Public Radio host Terry Gross. He also said this:
"What kind of country would you want to live in? Do you want to live in a country where someone who loses their job loses their health insurance? Is that what you want?
"Do you want a system where kids come out of college, and for the next 10 years, they can't get insurance? You want people who have family members struck with cancer to lose their house or their car? I mean, ask yourself what kind of country do you want to live in. And all of these things I mentioned, we have now. You lose your insurance with your job. You can lose your house and go bankrupt over a health care bill."
"The typical Canadian or German or Englishman understands that they have to pay taxes or premiums to be insured because you're all in this together, because you also expect society to save your life when you get in trouble. And they understand tit for tat."
The comparable American phrase for that would be: "You get what you pay for!"
But we don't. Americans pay more for health care than anyone else in the world -- close to $7,000 a year per capita compared with $3,000 in Germany -- and 47 million of us have no coverage at all. Our life expectancy is 29th in the world.
It is not so much that our system is worse than others. It is that, for many practical purposes, we have no system. Dr. Reinhardt, in heading a New Jersey Health Care Task Force, has reported that at one Jersey hospital the same procedure, a colonscopy, with the same doctor and equipment can cost anywhere from $400 to $3,000. The difference is not in the procedure; the difference depends on contracts and haggling with different insurance plans over coverage.
One other number he has used is 900; that is the number of people in the billing department at Duke University Hospital. "These people push paper," he said. "They do not treat patients."
Unfortunately, though I, too, have gold-standard coverage, I know that what Reinhardt is saying is true. Because of horrendous health problems in my family, I have been haggling with insurance companies in the United States for more than seven years -- and so have the doctors involved in those treatments. Some of the operations and procedures we needed were done in France -- and those treatments were generally haggle- and hassle-free. French health care costs per year are about the same as Germany's, $3,000 per capita.
As for Reinhardt, he believes it's now or never for American health care reform. New problems, new attitudes and a new president may be coming together at the right time. His guess is that President Obama will win a compromise victory on health care:
"The big battleground in the forthcoming health reform debate will be this idea of having a public plan. And my gut tells me that maybe President Obama will possibly give up on that idea if, in return, the insurance industry comes to the bargaining table and gives him what he wants, which is that any insurer must serve everyone who comes to them, and the premiums cannot reflect the health status of the individual applicant for insurance."
In other words, we will have universal government-mandated health care. And fools will attack it as socialism -- as long as they don't get sick.
Sat, 07 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600
Johnathan Krohn, a talented speaker who could start a religion if he wanted to, defined the Republican Party as a shell and conservatism as the filling -- and added, "The filling is what matters." Yes, but election laws are such that principled conservatives are essentially forced to fill the shell of Republicanism, as liberals are almost forced to be Democrats. We have pretty much eliminated third parties with laws that are really contracts between the two parties to preserve each other.
This is Krohn's definition of the filling: "Respect for the Constitution, respect for life, less government and personal responsibility."
Few at CPAC, convening in Washington, would argue with that. Many who were not there would agree with those principles, as well, although they might argue with what those words mean.
Another CPAC celebrity, Henry Olsen, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, quoted interesting statistics about the 2008 election and then concluded that the conservatives in the Republican Party have to choose among three futures. The statistics concern who votes Republican: 42 percent of the people who voted for John McCain identified themseves as "evangelical Christians" -- that is the core of the party.
So where do you go from there? Olsen says:
"Compete with Obama and the Democrats for votes among the mass educated affluent. Such an attempt could focus on social issues that unite people of various religious persuasions and economic issues that emphasize limiting government's growth. ...
"Try to add working-class Catholics and members of other faiths to the white evangelical base. A move in this direction could emphasize social issues that unite these disparate faiths. ...
"Court the growing non-white portion of the electorate. This group is split between lower-skilled Latino workers and higher-skilled Asian immigrants. ... (But) it will be difficult to make a serious play for these voters with an immigration platform that is perceived as restrictionist and exclusionary."
William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, on the other hand, focuses on the political shell, the party, and favors this choice:
"Conservatives can't win politically right now. But they can raise doubts, they can point out other issues that we can't ignore (especially in national security and foreign policy), they can pick other fights -- and they can try in any way possible to break Obama's momentum. ... (T)hey (Republicans) can find reasons to obstruct and delay. They should do their best not to permit Obama to rush his agenda through this year. They can't allow Obama to make of 2009 what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965. Slow down the policy train."
Otherwise, Kristol complains, Republicans will be "reduced to the unpleasant role of bystanders or the unattractive status of complainers, as Barack Obama makes history."
Thinking about what looks a lot like self-destructive behavior by elected officials and thinkers of the Right, I have another idea for them. Conservatives/Republicans should wait 22 years, until Jonathan Krohn is old enough to run for president.
Sat, 28 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600
"The era of big government is back, and Democrats are asking you to pay for it," said a more important Ohio congressman, John Boehner, the leader of the Republican minority in the House.
Oh? I did not realize that fighting two wars, off the budget, and still managing to run up record deficits year after year was a hallmark of small government.
"It is simply a continuation of the misguided notion that America can spend, tax and borrow its way to prosperity," said a Wisconsin Republican congressman, Paul Ryan.
Spend, tax and borrow. It is not nice for Republicans to criticize their great hero, President Reagan. The man from California got to the White House by attacking "tax and spend" liberals and then introduced "borrow and spend" conservatism -- and when he had to, raised taxes, as well.
Some might even say that we have just lived through 30 years of big-government conservatism. One advocate of that was former Vice President Dick Cheney, who told President Bush that Reagan proved that deficits don't matter.
It turned out deficits do matter, for government and for individuals. That, after all, is what we are talking about now. As Obama ended his budget speech after talking of raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year: "The past eight years have discredited once and for all the philosophy of trickle-down economics -- that tax breaks, income gains and wealth creation among the wealthy eventually will work their way down to the middle class."
Reagan believed the opposite. His first budget speech in 1981 was as stunning as Obama's was this week. The headline of a front-page New York Times analysis of that speech 29 years ago was: "President's Plans Considered as Revolutionary as Those Espoused by the New Deal in the 1930s."
The wheel turns. Ironically, Obama, in rejecting Reaganism last week, sounded a lot like the Great Communicator. "Bold" and "gamble" were the words most used in headlines across the country back in 1981. The same words are being used now.
And the "T" word -- "taxes" -- is being used without the prefix "no new." The "R" word -- "revenue" -- is also back on the tables of Washington.
A moderate Democratic senator, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, broke the old Reagan-era rules in a very significant way last Monday at President Obama's "Fiscal Responsibility" White House session. "Revenue is the thing almost nobody wants to talk about," he said, quite correctly. "But I think if we're going to be honest with each other, we've got to recognize that is part of the solution as well."
Omigod! The truth. Taxes are going up. Either that or we're going down.
Is that bad? The New York Times actually took that on after Conrad spoke out. The headline on David Leonhardt's "Economic Scene" column was: "The Upside of Paying More Taxes." He wrote:
"When over the past 60 years did the American economy grow the fastest? The 1950s and 1960s when the top marginal tax rate was a now-unthinkable 90 percent. And when over the past generation did the economy grow fastest? The 1990s when President Bill Clinton briefly took taxes to 20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product."
The comparable figure now is closer to 15 percent. The debate now over whose taxes will go up is the Concord Bridge and Fort Sumter of class warfare.
Sat, 21 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600
The voters? C'mon. Bloomberg the talented billionaire, perhaps the most self-financed candidate in the history of the Republic, pays his own way and governs as he pleases. Except for the fact he does not speak Latin, he could be a Roman emperor. The Roman democracy, by the way, along with ancient Greece, had term limits -- usually one -- on officials below the emperor.
So, barring court action, Bloomberg, whom I will vote for again and who would have been my choice as President Obama's vice president, will be pretty much mayor-for-life. Paying his own way, the mayor has presented himself as a not-very-democratic Democrat, Republican and Independent, whatever it took.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles to the west in California, probably the most democratic of states, if you consider its initiative and referendum laws and its term-limit laws, has turned its politics in a game of musical chairs and its government into a dangerous laughingstock. The basic idea of California's laws and mores is that the less its officials know about governance the better. That is especially true of the state's talk radio-whipped Republicans, who are practically a cult, The Church of No Taxation, with or without representation.
As you may have noticed, the California State Legislature had to lock itself in to get a budget that pretends to close the state's current $42 billion gap between revenues and spending. In this economy, the numbers almost certainly won't hold up for long, but maybe the legislators who voted for it (Democrats) and those who voted against everything (Republicans) will have tried to move on to other elected jobs.
Since a 1990 referendum on term limits, California has restricted members of its lower house, the Assembly, to three two-year terms -- six years -- and Senators to two four-year terms. So from the day they get to the state capital, Sacramento, legislators begin manuevering for their next job, in the other house or, better, in non-term-limited elected jobs like city councils, county boards of supervisors, judgeships -- whatever can be traded for or won. It is no accident, for instance, that California schools have gone from about the best in the country to among the worst. Some of that decline goes back to 1978's Proposition 13, capping local property taxes and mandating super-majorities in legislative votes on budgets and taxes. The budget agreement approved last Thursday after the lock-up cuts public school funding by $8 billion and takes hundreds of millions more from the state's colleges and universities, once the jewel in the crown of California governance.
Term limits seemed like a good idea at the time -- at least to me. I remembered writing a piece in Newsweek, endorsing them as a cure-all for what ailed government in the 1970s. One of the letters I got talking about such reforms was from an obviously idealistic young legislator in Montana. His name was Max Baucus, and he went on to serve four years in the U.S. House of Representatives and, now, 31 in the Senate.
So it goes. Democracy is an act of faith and a work in progress. Yes, as Churchill said, it is better than anything else men have tried. But this is a messy time on both coasts for what we like to call the last, best hope of mankind.
Sat, 07 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600
"I was not allowed to leave without going from bed to bed. Forty beds. At each one, stumps of arms or legs would be thrust at me, or dressings would be lifted away to show a red hole that had been a face. A young man, what was left of him, held my eyes with his until I cried as the blankets were pulled from his wasting body, most of it scar tissue from burns. ... An older man named Abdul Kareem, who said he was a farmer at a place called Baghlan, north of Kabul, proudly showed me the foot-long stumps of his legs."
"Abdul Kareem said, through a translator, that a Russian had thrown a grenade into his house and killed three of his children. "'How do you know it was a Russian?'" I asked.
"'I know Russians,' he said. 'They have red faces. They look like monkeys.'
"The maimed men around me burst into laughter. They were broken only in body -- and many of their bodies were being patched up so they could fight another day."
Someone else said something and they laughed again. I didn't need a translator to know what he had said. "They look like you!"
Most of the fighters I talked with there and in travels through the tribal lands on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border saw little difference between Russians and Americans, except at that time we were paying them to kill Russians. Communists, democrats, we all represented modernity to them. We wanted to give them -- or force on them -- new laws, new freedoms, a new culture. Most of all, both communists and democrats wanted to educate women.
We want them to be like us. That is not going to happen.
They beat the Soviets, as they beat the British of Kipling's time, the time he wrote "A Soldier of the Queen," ending:
"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
"And the women come out to cut up what remains,
"Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
"An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
And they will defeat us. They have been there for centuries, and they will be there for centuries more. They have no place else to go. We do and we will. As early as 2006, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, the former head of Great Britain's armed forces, warned his country and countrymen that they were risking another defeat in Afghanistan, which is more a name than a nation.
Which brings me to President Obama's warnings and pledges about winning in Afghanistan. He had to sound tough about something after he courageously and correctly opposed our invasion of Iraq. That's how American politics works. And American presidents, the good ones, change their focus and strategies as times and events redirect them. Now he is running the government, and he should break those promises, the sooner the better, before more of our men -- and the men of our NATO allies -- are left on Afghanistan's plains.
"We did not finish the job against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We did not develop new capabilities to defeat a new enemy, or launch a comprehensive strategy to dry up the terrorists' base of support," Obama said during the campaign. We tried but failed. That's too bad, but the growth of terrorism and a multiplication of terrorist havens have made the job more complex and Afghanistan irrelevant.
We have been on the plains and in the mountains for seven years now, almost as long as the Soviets were there. We went to punish Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida for the bombing of the World Trade Center -- and we have certainly had some success diminishing that organization, even as others are arising, some because we are engaged in that part of the world. It is worth remembering that bin Laden and his people are not Afghans; they are Saudi Arabians and Egyptians.
So the relevant questions now are: Who are we fighting? Why?
Sat, 31 Jan 2009 00:10:00 -0600
"There are any number of reasons for the Republican Party's defeat on Nov. 4. But high on the list is the fact that the party lost the battle for brains. Barack Obama won college graduates by two points, a group that George Bush won by six points four years ago. He won voters with postgraduate degrees by 18 points. And he won voters with a household income of more than $200,000 -- many of whom will get thumped by his tax increases -- by six points. John McCain did best among uneducated voters in Appalachia and the South."
The proof of that pudding was dramatized last week in Washington when every single Republican in the House of Representatives voted against the new president's economic stimulus plan. It is not that the nay-saying Republicans have a plan of their own; they agree on nothing except cutting taxes. Their leader, Rush Limbaugh, the entertainer, has told them that their job is to make sure that Obama fails.
In an American context, Republicans have been called America's stupid party for much of their history, but that title clearly passed to the Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps for most of '90s and on into the 21st century. Now, led by wacko pundits like Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and a bunch of less-prosperous firebugs, the Republicans have lost all sense of what is happening in the country.
Their boy, George W. Bush, left the country in fear and loathing. Obama was seized on as something of a savior, and he has shown he knows how to play the role. There is no way Obama, or perhaps anyone, knows how to get out of the current mess. But he does know what most people want at this uncertain moment. As he made clear in his Inaugural Address:
"The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."
We are going to see a lot of trial and error from the White House, as generations before us did in the 1930s. But the point is, we have to try -- and odds are we'll figure something out.
If ideologically driven Republicans are seen as nothing more than obstructionists, they will end up in the worst place in their history. They are flirting with irrelevance these days, while Obama is dancing as fast he can, trying to extend a hand if they are willing to unclench their fists.
It wouldn't hurt either if Democrats in Congress unclenched their fists, too. There is more to political life than saying over and over again that we won the election and we can do anything we want. That, it could be argued, is how the Republicans destroyed themselves over the past few years.
"The Republicans lost the battle of ideas even more comprehensively than they lost the battle for educated votes, marching into the election armed with nothing more than slogans. Energy? Just drill, baby, drill. Global warming? Crack a joke about Ozone Al. ... During the primary debates, three out of 10 Republican candidates admitted that they did not believe in evolution," wrote the Economist.
"Richard Weaver, one of the founders of modern conservatism, once wrote a book entitled 'Ideas Have Consequences'; unfortunately, too many Republicans are still refusing to acknowledge that idiocy has consequences, too."
Sat, 24 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600The 44th president obviously made a decision to project the number and complexity of the challenges he and we, the people, are facing these days, beginning with a fading economy and losing wars. The speech struck me as a mini-State of the Union Address, a laundry list touching all the bases. Unfortunately, the address that reverberated in my head was President Gerald Ford's message on Jan. 15, 1975, in which he said: "I must say to you that the state of the union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year's federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual." Ford's numbers and the problems of that January past sound like a walk in the park this January. But we survived then, and we will now. And somehow great things are on our minds and in our hearts this time. What a tribute this is to the man in the arena. Yes, there was something for everyone this past Tuesday. Pray we can hold the glow! What there was for me was what Obama had to say about science, or even the fact that he mentioned science at all. One of the most destructive things about the know-nothing nature of the Bush administration, that determined anti-intellectualism in the White House, was the disdain the 43rd president and his men had for science and scientific method. Whether it was climate change, evolution or medical revolution, George W. Bush seemed not only to know nothing about it, he did not want to know about it. He and the rest of them loved the phrase "junk science," but they knew more about junk than about science. So I, for one, was thrilled and a little surprised when the crowds cheered after the new president said: "We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs." And then: "We will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet." I do not know how much Obama knows about science, or even if he saw it as little more than a handy way to dramatize the failings of his predecessor. Remember 2002, when Bush's own Environmental Protection Agency supported some theories about global warming and the president dismissed it with: "I read the report put out by the bureaucracy." Whatever he thought of it, does anyone believe Bush actually read it? I also wonder whether Obama read all the promises issued in his name during the campaign. By one count -- in Popular Mechanics magazine -- he made more than 100 pledges relating to science and technology, not including questions of health and health care. The specifics are not the point, at least right now. The point was made in the Inaugural speech: We have a president who says he intends to restore science to its rightful place. Science is one of government's most important responsibilities and that involves more than making smarter bombs and drones. Looking back, it could be argued that scientific advancement was the biggest government story of the 20th century. In the United States, that advance was in public health, from clean water to discovering treatments for tuberculosis. That is why we live so much longer these days, which of course is why the government created Social Security and Medicare. Whatever one thinks of "big government," we live in an era of "big science." Only so much can be accomplished now by one person and a blackboard or a few test tubes. It seems that our new presid[...]
Sat, 17 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600
All of that is true and defines Bush's failures. He was too willing to make tough decisions, and the problem was what was in his mind, or rather what was not in his mind: history. We were governed by the uninformed instincts of an intellectually lazy and incurious man who believed that his gut was superior to unfamiliar wisdom. He was ignorant of history. And history will find him ignorant.
Now, he, or at least his people, are making their pitch to that bitch goddess. The case is direct and simple. In his own words:
"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
The Wall Street Journal, the president's most vigorous defender, fleshed the argument out a bit last Friday:
"Mr. Bush told a Joint Session of Congress (after 9/11), 'I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.'
"In that moment, he set the standard for the Bush Presidency: To protect Americans from another 9/11 and hit Islamist terrorists and their sponsors abroad. Whatever history's ultimate judgment, Mr. Bush never did yield. Nearly all the significant battles of the Bush years -- the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Guantanamo and wiretapping, upheavals in the Middle East, America's troubles with Europe -- stemmed directly from his response to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that defined his Presidency."
I would reject that argument, beginning with the fact that Bush himself was president for eight months before Sept. 11, 2001. It happened on his watch. Enough is now known about what the government knew and when it knew it to argue that "the decider," as he thinks of himself, was more responsible than any other American and that he ignored the threat until it was too late. And the decisions he made after the event left America weaker and more vulnerable than it was on Sept. 12, 2001.
The bottom line on this Bush presidency, I think, as I've said before, was that he took office when the United States was considered "The World's Only Superpower" -- militarily, economically and morally -- and is leaving power with the country in economic chaos, fighting two wars it cannot really win and a reputation that begins with impulsive attack and ends with torture.
On Thursday, he tried to recast those events as inevitable:
"America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace."
That is more ideology, or faith, than it is wisdom. The second George Bush would win a better judgment from history, I think, if he had pondered what lies between the absolutes of good and evil. Perhaps the rest of us will take hard-earned wisdom from this man's failures and his inability to learn from them.
Sat, 10 Jan 2009 00:25:00 -0600
In September of 1994, I was interviewing President Bill Clinton, thinking we might ramble on for hours as we had in the past. The Clinton White House was like that. After 25 minutes -- I had asked for a half-hour -- his new chief of staff came in with a big smile, a few words of greeting, and I was out of there. Suddenly, the White House did not feel like a fraternity house or an Internet startup anymore.
In last Thursday's Los Angeles Times, under the headline, "Obama Takes the State's Best Bet," the paper's veteran Sacramento columnist, George Skelton, wrote: "Thanks a bunch, Mr. President-elect. You've just taken away California's best hope for government and political reform -- reform necessary to save this state."
The hero of all three of those little stories, the young Republican fighting for civil rights, the Democratic chief of staff and the co-chairman of California Forward, is the same man: Leon Panetta.
In between, the same guy served eight terms in Congress, became chairman of the House Budget Committee and served as director of the Office of Management and Budget. He also sat in on the morning national intelligence briefing during his 2 1/2 years as White House chief of staff.
"Washington's gain is California's loss," said Tracy Westen, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a California think tank, when he heard that Obama intended to name Panetta director of the Central Intelligence Agency. You would think Washington might appreciate its gain. But, in fact, the intelligence establishment is already out to get Panetta. He is not one of them.
The CIA and some very good friends believe they work for themselves, not for the country. They prefer directors like George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who came up through the ranks. The attack they will make is that appointing someone like Panetta would "politicize" the collection and interpretation of intelligence. I'm not sure what that means, since one of the problems of the last eight years has been the agency's -- or its directors' -- inclination to tell politicians whatever they wanted to hear.
The first and most important person to attack the Panetta nomination was a longtime California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The story is that she was miffed that the Obama folks had not let her know in advance about the Panetta appointment. I'm sure she was -- and had a right to be -- annoyed by that, but I don't think that was the principal reason she jumped in and suggested that her old friend was some kind of hack who had no intelligence experience.
The big reason, I think, is that members of Congress who serve on intelligence committees almost inevitably become co-opted by the "intelligence community." I've watched it happen to other senators -- Bill Bradley and Jay Rockefeller come to mind -- after they have had a secret or two whispered to them. They all adopt a small nod that apparently means, "If you knew what I know. ..."
I don't know what they know, and I don't know whether it is worth knowing. I do know that Leon Panetta is as good as it gets. I do not know whether he can get control over the nasty internal politics of the CIA, but I do know he will tell the truth to the president, and that CIA analysts and spies work not for nameless bosses but for the people of the United States. If that is politicization, I am all for it.
Sat, 03 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600
"I've worked some with him, and as far as I can tell, he's the real deal," she said. "He is what he says he is."
In politics, that is saying a lot. But will that be true when he is the most powerful (and most challenged) man in the world after Jan. 20? So far, it seems, it will be true.
Obama, as I keep thinking and saying, represents a new generation. As well as he speaks, he actually communicates his ideas and thoughts in the multimedia/new media mix of the day. It is a day my daughter understands better than I do.
Exhibit A is his transition Web site. It is an amazing political document, a transparent document that might come back to haunt the 44th president because it tells, publicly, so much about what he wants to do. He is, in effect, asking to be held accountable.
The address is simply change.gov. The first two items on the homepage are "Upcoming Events" and "The Agenda." There is only one event listed: "The Inauguration. January 20, 2008 in Washington, D.C."
The agenda is more complicated. It begins:
"Revitalizing the Economy
"Ending the War in Iraq
"Providing Health Care for All
"Renewing American Global Leadership"
That is on the homepage. Clicking away produces 18 more agenda items from Civil Rights and Disabilities to Veterans and Women. Going deeper, the items are defined in more specific terms than presidents normally use. Early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy bawled out his secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, for using specific numbers in public, telling him to say "many" or "more" or "less," but never say anything that might later be checked and proved wrong. In the Obama agenda are numbers, like raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011.
If you care, check it out. His political opponents surely will -- now and when the 2012 election cycle begins. This is risky business.
The site is sprinkled with interactive features. One purpose of that is to get your address and other particulars, so that the mighty Obamites and their hot laptops can add you to their ever-expanding lists of people they will come back to for votes or for money. But there are other reasons as well.
One feature is called "An American Moment" with an interactive button marked: "Tell us your story." The blurb reads: "Your stories and your ideas can help change the future of the country. When we come together around a common purpose, great things are possible."
Again, they'll find out who you are, where you are and what you want. They also may pick up an anecdote or slogan to use in the new president's Inaugural Address or later speeches.
Maybe they'll hire you to work on those speeches -- great things are possible. Alas, things may not be so great for the established press, my business. It is a misperception to count us in the Obama constituency. Change.gov is another example that Obama, or his people, understand they can go around and over columnists and pundits -- in fact, they already have.
Many things will go wrong with the Obama presidency. Bombs will explode, events will occur that no one anticipated. He will make mistakes. The point here is not that he will be a great president, though that would be nice. The point is that he will be a new kind of president, a man of his time, a new time.
Fri, 26 Dec 2008 00:40:00 -0600
"2. Economic Meltdown; 3. Oil Prices; 4. Iraq; 5. Beijing Olympics; 6. Chinese Earthquake; 8. Mumbai Terrorism; 10. Russia-Georgia War."
No. 1, of course, was the best news -- about a man preaching hope: the election of Barack Obama.
The AP list was compiled by interviewing 150 newspaper editors and news directors. One of them, Linda Grist Cunningham of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, said: "As far as I am concerned, there were only two stories this year. Global economy collaspses (sending every country into financial, political and personal chaos) and Obama elected U.S. president, changing the way America does business -- financial, political and personal."
The AP lead emphasizes that Obama is the first African-American elected to the country's highest office. But that is already yesterday's news -- so 2008. What is more important now is that Obama represents a new generation. It was only as the presidential campaign was ending that the nation realized the depth of its chaos and crisis. The housing bubble -- people, including one of my children, losing their homes morphed into the revelation that Wall Street had underestimated risk in a greedy race that threatened free-market capitalism itself. And the collapse finally discredited the myth that government actually was regulating the dangers of uncontrolled markets and financial manipulators like characters in an updated, hyper version of the gamblers in "Guys and Dolls."
Now, some of us, part of what history will almost certainly call a failed generation, will have to get out of the way: Many of us turned out to be more the problem than the solution. We are all in this together, but, like immigrants on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, we are dependent on our children because they speak the new language and many of us cannot.
Newt Gingrich, who was certainly part of the problem as a savage and ignorant partisan politician, said as much the other day:
"I think the country is so tired right now of a style of Republican attack politics that has become a caricature of itself. ... It's ineffective against Barack Obama right now. The country is faced with serious problems and is about to have a brand-new president. You'd have to be irrational not to want the new president to succeed."
But Barack Obama, a gifted politician and persuasive speaker, cannot do much alone. He has to govern in the style of Franklin D. Roosevelt, calling out that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. His job, after Jan. 20, 2009, is to bring out the best in the American people -- and that is pretty good stuff.
Twenty years ago, I was in Singapore at a conference on the world economy. The founder of that prosperous little canton, Lee Kuan Yew, rose to give the United States as harsh a tongue-lashing as I've ever heard, essentially attacking us for having no real economic plan for the future, calling us a soft people who would inevitably lose the war against the planning and work ethic of advanced Asian systems, which then did not include China and its ability to organize both Olympics and cheap manufacturing based on new electronic technologies and cheap labor.
Lee was, of course, right about some of that. But the next day, William Safire, then a New York Times columnist, rebutted the Singapore argument, saying that millions of American kids working in garages and basements and libraries would overwhelm the best of planned economies.
Safire was right. Those kids are now taking over, and we will be better for it. America was always about hope and renewal. If I am right about that, 2009 will end as a Happy New Year.
Sat, 13 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600
Never missing a chance to rough up a Democrat, the News played my piece across the bottom of Page One. So, that year Frankie gave the money to St. Mary's Hospital and did hold a party in a restaurant out on Route 4. He invited me. I walked in the door and this huge fist moving at about a hundred miles an hour came at my face and stopped about a quarter-inch from my rather large nose. At the other end of the fist was Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion of the world, who turned out to be a friend of Graves.
Frankie was standing behind him, laughing like hell.
Twenty years later, I flew into Newark Airport -- now we say Newark International Airport -- and picked up a copy of The Newark Star-Ledger. There was a story about the fundraising follies of New Jersey state senators and the top guy was none other than Sen. Francis X. Graves, who had no opponent. He was pocketing the dough. Legally.
I called him up, said "Do you remember me?"
"Remember you?" he said with the same laugh I'd heard before. "Of course. You made me famous. How's it hanging, kid?"
So, not a kid anymore, if I'm asked how I know about political corruption, I have a five-word answer: "I grew up in Jersey."
Now young reporters will need only need one word: "Chicago!" A new generation will laugh when someone remembers Rod "I want the money!" Blagojevich. The Democratic governor of Illinois, it seems, was on the verge of putting Barack Obama's old Senate seat up on e-Bay. He has set a new standard for political corruption even in a state and city where the bar was already set very high.
This, then, is what I have learned about political corruption by covering a lot of it and having seen more than a few friends or sources go to jail. Two things:
1. The USA is about power and money. Elected politicians have great power -- deciding whether your street gets paved or your Navy gets a new aircraft carrier, but usually the men and women who win public office have very little money and are paid relatively modest salaries. That creates an obvious temptation for, well, you do the numbers.
2. There are fundamental differences between corrupt Republicans and Democrats. Many Republicans get in trouble because they believe in a private ethic that rates it un-American to pass up a business opportunity. Democrats go to jail because they get used to the high-living and rich friends that come with the power of high office. There comes a day when their rich friends buy a new country place or send their kids off to a fancy college -- and they're left out unless they grab some of the money on the table.
A corollary to those lessons is that winning politics is a business of deferred compensation. Honest folk wait until they are out of office before they cash in on books and speeches, become lobbyists, or just introduce manufacturers and bankers to the powerful politicians still in office at home and around the world.
So, "I want the money!" Blogojevich is not unique, he is just crazier or stupider than most. Also, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, is smarter and tougher than most.