Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Running in Place

Thursday night we will finally have some numbers, but will they tell us anything about where this bizarre election race is going?

Duration aside, the sight of more than a dozen people running for the White House this past year has seemed more an exercise in attrition than a political marathon--candidates huffing and puffing on treadmills, some falling off (Giuliani) and then climbing back on (McCain and Edwards), some watching each step carefully (Clinton and Romney) while others flaunt their freshness by picking up the pace (Huckabee and Obama). Fred Thompson strolls at the lowest setting, and Ron Paul runs around outside the gym, cussing out the machines.

But is any of this getting them--or us--anywhere? The rapid rise and fall of poll numbers suggests that, instead of choosing, voters are still shopping around and changing their minds as they watch and wait for someone to get off the track to nowhere and head in a direction that inspires them to follow.

Unless some of the candidates start taking such risks instead of pandering to their bases, they will keep running in circles until we finally pick a president out of exhaustion rather than with hope for the future.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rash Judgments of 2007

If journalists are historians in a hurry, bloggers are first responders, dashing to each disaster in search of finding some sense, but there are times when smoke gets in our eyes.

For your entertainment and my mental health, herewith a few of the year's least prescient posts, out of more than a thousand, where this witness arrived at the scene and got it wrong:

In January, there was hope the proposed Surge would isolate Bush in his madness, followed by a fantasy that voters might look for authenticity in the next President, perhaps in a series of substantive debates.

Last spring, with all respect to the man's honor and integrity, there were qualms about John McCain's losing it. (Now in Iowa, he is being called the "Comeback Codger.")

Gen. Petraeus was compared to Eisenhower and seen as "the man who could end the war," but he ended up doing more than anyone else to prolong it and gave Congressional Republicans enough cover to keep backing Bush without fear of losing their jobs in next year's elections.

When Karl Rove resigned, the MSM and blogosphere were urged to stop paying attention to the "biggest bottom feeder of our time and look ahead to putting back some semblance of decency into American politics." (He's a columnist for Newsweek now.)

In September, it seemed that Fred Thompson's playing it cool could be a winning strategy, but he turned out to be playing it comatose.

As late as mid-November, Rudy Giuliani looked as bulletproof to scandal as Bill Clinton was in 1992. A few weeks later his poll numbers were diving in a mudslide of revelations.

Blogging is an attempt to share thoughts and feelings, to connect with others, but sometimes the medium delivers a defective message. Sorry, mea culpa and a resolution to try to do better. Happy New Year!

Separation of Church and State of Mind

On Meet the Press today, Mike Huckabee answered a question about punishing doctors for performing abortions: "I think if a doctor knowingly took the life of an unborn child for money, and that's why he was doing it, yeah, I think you would, you would find some way to sanction that doctor. I don't know that you'd put him in prison, but..."

After protestations that he would never "use the government institutions to impose mine or anybody else's faith or to restrict" others, Huckabee undermines that reassurance by saying he would ban all abortions "not just because I'm a Christian, that's because I'm an American," thereby consigning all those who don't agree that life begins at conception to the same status he gives illegal immigrants.

Therein lies the danger of Huckabee to the separation of church and state--that as a man whose faith "really defines me," his definition of issues would erase that traditional line without acknowledging it as all previous presidents have scrupulously done.

Even George Bush's fake piety, used by Karl Rove to swindle the Religious Right, never extended that far. Banning gay marriage disappeared as an issue right after the elections.

Commendably, Huckabee reassured Tim Russert he would include atheists in his White House, but the Constitution requires the President to be more than smoothly tolerant of others' beliefs or lack of them. If he is nominated by Republicans, whether or not Mike Huckabee understands that will be one of the main issues in 2008.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Left, Right and Dead Wrong

The news that William Kristol may be joining the New York Times as an OpEd columnist to provide ideological balance--left, right and dead wrong--is a dreary reminder of the new Neo-Con heaven in the mainstream media. With Karl Rove at Newsweek, can Scooter Libby be far behind?

Kristol would bring to the Times not only a spectacular record for unfulfilled predictions about the future but a turgid style to inspire nostalgia for William Safire's bouncy wrong-headedness.

David Brooks' pedantic pop sociology must not be enough to cover the paper's conservative flank, so the Times is going all the way to the right edge of reason by hiring a writer who describes it as "irredeemable" and deserving of prosecution for treason.

But we may be missing the point. The move may have more to do with being democratic about talent than politics.

As Sen. Roman Hruska famously said in defending a Nixon Supreme Court appointee called mediocre, "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"

Bon Voyage to Bush

The good news is that our President will be elsewhere much of next year, giving him less time in Washington to start disastrous wars and subvert the Constitution.

The bad news: He will be abroad, winning hearts and minds for America with his wit, warmth and incomparable charm.

In early January, Bush makes his first visit to Israel with side trips to the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In February, he goes to Africa, in April to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Romania, in June the U.S.-European summit in Slovenia followed by a July meeting of Group of Eight leaders in Japan, the summer Olympics in China and a November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru.

The US Secret Service and security people around the world will be exhausted by year's end. The Republican candidate for President should be relieved by not having to explain why the incumbent is not out there campaigning for him. And Dick Cheney could be a total wreck from overseeing all the Neo-Con mischief himself after the loss of Rove, Gonzales, Libby, Meiers and so many of the other elves.

Meanwhile, the sightseeing could do Bush some good after a year in the bunker and provide some upbeat material for the final chapter of his Presidential memoirs.

When they pack his bags, the White House staff could do the country a service by forgetting to put in the veto pens.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Deadly Politics in Iowa and New Hampshire

In today's world, very little can be called "unseemly," but the candidates' reaction to the death of Benazir Bhutto might give pause to even the most jaded observer.

It's hard to tell tone from news reports, but the responses of Obama and Clinton seem unfeeling at best, while Giuliani's New Hampshire co-chairman is right there to 9/11 her death with the claim that only his man has "the knowledge and judgment to attack one of the most difficult problems in current history. And that is the rise of the Muslims...(W)e need to keep the feet to the fire and keep pressing these people until we defeat them or chase them back to their caves, or in other words, get rid of them."

Par for the Giuliani course, but the Washington Post headline reflects no credit on the Democrats: "Clinton, Obama Seize on Killing."

Politics ain't beanbag, but neither is it prissy to be repulsed by the rush to tie an assassination to experience and womanhood on the one hand, and an opponent's vote to go to war in Iraq on the other. Even George Bush had the restraint to limit his first reaction to shock and a determination to track down the people behind the killer.

"While aides said Clinton was anxious not to appear to be politicizing Bhutto's death," the Post reports, "they nonetheless saw it as a potential turning point in the race with Obama and former senator John Edwards."

Edwards meanwhile was touting his phone call to Pakistan President Perez Musharraf, urging him "to continue on the path to democratization."

What to do about Pakistan is going to be high on the next President's agenda, but a little mourning might be in order before seizing on a violent death to turn the issue to political profit in Iowa.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mrs. Bhutto

As inured as we may be to the flow of bloody news from that part of the world, the death of Benazir Bhutto comes as a shocking reminder of how deeply involved we now are in places where murder is part of the political process.

How will her assassination affect our own debate about dealing with a post-9/11 world in which our "friend" Pervez Musharraf promises to protect us from terrorists and is unable or unwilling to prevent such suicide attacks in his own country? How safe can we feel about a nuclear Pakistan so vulnerable to the will of extremists for whom killing is a form of religious and political expression?

Our own candidates, from the safety of Iowa and New Hampshire, will no doubt say all the right things about how tough, realistic and determined our policies should be in the face of this kind of reality. But how much more can they do than the clueless Bush Administration has done in protecting us from it?

A Valentine Proposal From Bloomberg?

In the glory days of Time Inc, an editor who didn't get a promotion he had been expecting sent Henry Luce a wire: "Why did you keep me standing on my tippy toes if you didn't intend to kiss me?"

Voters may be feeling that way about Mike Bloomberg. After a year of flirting with us, and as the possible nominees in both parties look less desirable all the time, will Gotham's Prince Charming ever make his move?

Now there are hints he could pop the question, or not, right after Super Tuesday, February 5th, when more than 20 primaries provide some idea of who the Democratic and Republican candidates will be. "If the parties nominate polarizing candidates," a leading pollster says, "then there's plenty of room"

Meanwhile, Mayor Mike has been busy traveling to China to talk about entrepreneurship and Bali to discuss climate change while observing that the next president should “go around the world, make sure that people understand that we are willing to listen--and actually listen.”

While polishing his foreign-policy credentials, Bloomberg has been working hard to remind potential voters of his environmental and other quality-of-life improvements in New York.

Along with all this, the non-candidate has been reaching out to consultants and ad people from his past campaigns for a possible run while a "Unite for Mike" web site keeps supporters abreast of all the Bloomberg buzz, including a weekend dinner with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, "amid hints that he has been trying to find a way for the Austrian-born governor to run as his vice president."

No Ross Perot, if he decides to go for it, Bloomberg will spend a billion dollars only if he sees a way to win enough electoral votes to take the prize, and enthusiasts are working on a map to show he can do it.

But like Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls," we have heard these songs before. Will our bachelor billionaire ever stop playing Nathan Detroit, get down on a knee and ask us to be his?

Valentine's Day might be a good time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

JFK's Daughter, Maureen Dowd's Mother

For a taste of something both tart and sweet the day after Christmas, try a bite of this.

If Bill Had Been Faithful to Hillary...

How different would the American political landscape look today?

The question is raised anew by the sight of the former President taking over the spotlight to try to save his wife's candidacy with trademark meaning-of-is-is talk about Obama's inexperience and his own opposition to the war in Iraq from the get-go.

"Maybe," Maureen Dowd suggests, "the Boy Who Can’t Help Himself is simply engaging in his usual patterns of humiliating Hillary and lighting an exploding cigar when things are going well."

The conjugal question comes up, too, in the new issue of Newsweek. Sally Bedell Smith, author of a book about the Clinton marriage, writes about the health-car debacle in 1993: "When Bill tried to make the plan more flexible, he had to defer to her, in part because of their implicit marital bargain, in which Bill ceded her power as a trade-off for his history of infidelity."

It's impossible to talk about Bill Clinton's character without running into a polarizing political buzz saw--vast right-wing conspiracy vs. moral depravity in the Oval Office--but the connection between the impeachment, the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s and Al Gore's narrow defeat in 2000 are too important to be swept into the dust bin of history, particularly with the prospect of both Clintons returning to the White House.

Today's New York Times notes that "during one of President Bill Clinton’s major tests on terrorism, whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled."

A year ago, the former President reacted with fury to a TV mini-series portraying him as so distracted then that he failed to focus on the emerging threat of Osama bin Laden. Yet, the program's advisor was 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean, and there is evidence that Clinton might have done more about bin Laden if not for fear of public reaction that attacking him might be seen as a "wag the dog" diversion from the impeachment.

Replaying Bill Clinton's record as a serially straying husband would be mean-spirited and pointless now if his wife were not now claiming spousal experience as justification and preparation for her own presidency.

But, in that light, it's not only proper but necessary to ask, how different might our lives be today if Bill Clinton had managed to be a faithful husband during those White House years? And what kind of distraction could he be if voters sent the Clintons back there for another four years?

Republican Squeaky Wheels

The overhyped story of the 2008 elections so far is the role of the Religious Right in picking a GOP candidate, fueled by headlines about Huckabee's commercial cross, Romney's speech on "Faith in America," Pat Robertson's underwhelming endorsement of Giuliani and the Rev. James Dobson's serial excommunication of each aspirant as he edges toward supporting his fellow preacher.

But this media melodrama may be obscuring the decline of the so-called God Vote in Republican politics, starting last November when opposition to the war in Iraq overwhelmed candidates of the Bush theocracy and gave control of Congress to the Democrats.

Even as Huckabee rises in the polls, prominent Republicans are questioning what Peggy Noonan calls his "creepy" appeal and, in New Hampshire, the resurgence of the resolutely secular John McCain is threatening Romney.

A new Gallup poll offers some perspective, showing only 32 percent of Americans now feel religion is increasing its influence in national life, compared to the Eisenhower era half a century ago when 69 percent felt that way.

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that "younger white evangelicals have become increasingly dissatisfied with Bush and are moving away from the GOP."

In October, Mike Huckabee told the Values Voters summit, “I come today as one not who comes to you, but as one who comes from you. You are my roots.” Nonetheless, Romney won the straw poll after the meeting.

Now that Huckabee is surging and real voting is about to begin, Republicans will give us some answers about what kind of President they want after George Bush's pious pronouncements and disastrous performance. "Cultural conservatives" may be in for some surprises.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Stocking Stuffers

In the holiday hiatus from solving the world's problems, herewith the answers to two pressing issues of Christmas Day and beyond:

If eating and drinking too much too fast bring on the hiccups, see here.

For the best ever leftover turkey recipe, look here.

Get home safely. Ho, ho, ho.

None of the Above

After the longest shopping season in history, Americans are not ready to buy. The oscillating poll numbers seem to reflect not changing enthusiasms but unease over their choices in both parties.

As Clinton and Giuliani slide, Obama and Huckabee gain traction, Edwards and McCain come back from oblivion, and Mitt Romney keeps barely running in place, voters are vacillating in the face of campaigns that stress opponents' weaknesses and gaffes rather than their own visions for the future.

It's noteworthy that the front runners are being overtaken by doubts about their character and temperament and that Obama and Huckabee have both benefited by being newer faces in their fields.

As residents of Iowa and New Hampshire get ready to make their choices, the most excitement is being generated by "none of the above."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dr. Paul Wants to Amputate

If you consulted Ron Paul as a doctor, you would be lucky to leave with all your limbs. The man is not an incrementalist. Cut out the income tax, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press today, bring home our troops from everywhere and, with only a few caveats, Dr. Paul doesn't see much more value in the FBI, CIA, public schools and Social Security than tonsils or the appendix.

But the man who raised $19 million in two months is no crackpot. He has clearly tapped into a vein of voter discontent, and his opposition to US military and fiscal over-involvement all over the world deserves serious consideration.

Yet Paul's arguments come wrapped in a dogmatic personality with impatience about detail and with anyone who questions contradictions in his record. He insisted Russert was "confused" when asked about the apparent contradiction between Paul's theories and all the pork he collects for his district. "I vote against it," he said, "but that's the system."

Paul seems to find Mike Huckabee's sudden ascent galling and, while hedging his "fascism" response to the new front runner's commercial with the cross, complained about a general "softer fascism: loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That's where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous."

Ron Paul sounds like a right-leaning Ralph Nader, and it remains to be seen if, in the Republican primaries or as an independent candidate, he exerts as much influence on the outcome of next year's elections as Nader did in taking votes from Al Gore and electing Bush in 2000.

Bah, Humbug and All That

If he wrote "A Christmas Carol" today, Charles Dickens might take flak for insidiously promoting a welfare state that could lead to higher taxes and SCHIP programs for the likes of Tiny Tim.

But after more than a century and a half, Scrooge and his ghosts will be all over TV this week without protest, except from lovers of the classic who feel strongly about the dozens of movies based on it.

Christmas eve, TCM will be showing the 1938 MGM version, which ranks high in memory, with an asterisk to protest liberties taken with the plot, including Bob Cratchit heaving a snowball at Scrooge and being fired before the holiday (always a touch of Andy Hardy in the Louis B. Mayer era).

You'll have to check local stations or Blockbuster because no network showing is scheduled for arguably the best, a 1951 darkly beautiful British tour de force with Alastair Sim, a grand actor who was born to play Scrooge, or for my Yuletide guilty pleasure, the 1970 musical with Albert Finney.

With an undistinguished score (we're not talking Stephen Sondheim here), the singing and dancing somehow seem just right for a tale to lift our hearts and make believing children of us all. Peopled with great actors--Edith Evans, Kenneth More and Alec Guinness as the campiest Jacob Marley ever--it's a thing of visual beauty, culminating in a joyous scene of dancing, bell-ringing celebrants against a snowy background that is pure Breughel.

There have been "Christmas Carols" by all the icons of pop culture from Mickey Mouse and the Jetsons to Star Trek's Patrick Stewart and the Muppets and, in 2009, there will be a live action-computer graphic version with Jim Carrey as Scrooge and all three ghosts.

So take your choice and Bah, Humbug and Merry Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Limbaugh Bites Huckabee

In politics, they say, if you want a friend, get a dog. But El Rushbo, as he dubs himself, is showing remarkable loyalty to the folks who pay his salary, the former partners of Mitt Romney.

Not only has he been deifying their friend but Rush Limbaugh is now going the extra mile by getting into a hissing contest with Huckabee supporters over his attacks on the preacher who is now leading Romney in the polls.

"Huckabee forces are attacking me, ladies and gentlemen," Limbaugh told his listeners the other day. "Yes siree, Bob, the Hucksters are on the warpath!...

"If you missed it, somebody went out there and asked a Huckabee supporter in a Huckabee Universe, actually, why I don't like him. Frankly, I haven't attacked Huckabee. You know, I've raised some questions, but they're pretty sensitive out there about this."

Hinting that he might just endorse somebody, as he did George Bush in the 2000 South Carolina primary, Limbaugh noted that "McCain was going so far off the conservative reservation, so far off of it, that it was necessary to step in. Huckabee is getting close, I'm going to have to tell you. Huckabee's getting close to the same stuff. Huckabee is using his devout Christianity to mask some other things that are distinctively not conservative. He is against free trade. He's really doesn't believe in free market."

Remembering what a dog did to his car, Mitt Romney may be grateful to have this kind of friend when it all hits the fan.

A Backward Presidency

George W. Bush started out to be Ronald Reagan, morphed into Richard Nixon and, toward the end, is starting to resemble Herbert Hoover.

The shanties, shacks and cardboard shelters in communities spawned by the Great Depression and known as Hoovervilles are showing up in 21st century America as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that has doubled foreclosures of homes in the past year.

"Between railroad tracks and beneath the roar of departing planes," Reuters reports, "sits 'tent city,' a terminus for homeless people. It is not, as might be expected, in a blighted city center, but in the once-booming suburbia of Southern California.

"The noisy, dusty camp sprang up in July with 20 residents and now numbers 200 people, including several children, growing as this region east of Los Angeles has been hit by the U.S. housing crisis."

Not only are homeowners being dispossessed, but tenants are, too. A California realty firm estimates 20 percent of foreclosures are on homes bought as investment properties. Even after paying their rent, tenants are getting little notice before being evicted.

As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan takes most of the heat for not foreseeing the crisis, Paul Krugman points out the Bush Administration's share of the blame:

"Consider the press conference held on June 3, 2003--just about the time subprime lending was starting to go wild--to announce a new initiative aimed at reducing the regulatory burden on banks. Representatives of four of the five government agencies responsible for financial supervision used tree shears to attack a stack of paper representing bank regulations. The fifth representative, James Gilleran of the Office of Thrift Supervision, wielded a chainsaw...

"Two months after that event the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, one of the tree-shears-wielding agencies, moved to exempt national banks from state regulations that protect consumers against predatory lending."

After weakening the patchwork of federal agencies to let banks run wild with loose loans, Bush, like Hoover, is responding with government action that is too little and too late. A Treasury Department plan to freeze mortgage rates has been deemed a failure even before it is in place.

It's a little like watching a lowlight reel of the 20th century being played backward at warp speed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Huckabee's Cross

Say whatever else you will about him, Ron Paul has a sensitive antenna for oppressive government. So what are we to make of his remark that the Mike Huckabee commercial with a floating cross in the background reminds him "of what Sinclair Lewis once said--when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross?"

Paul was referring, of course, to Lewis' 1935 novel, "It Can't Happen Here," about America taken over by a right-wing evangelist. The Congressman tends to hyperbole in seeing threats to individual freedom, but Huckabee seems to be unsettling some less sensitive Republicans as well.

In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan writes about the ad: "Only on second look did I see the white lines of the warmly lit bookcase, which formed a glowing cross. Someone had bothered to remove the books from that bookcase, or bothered not to put them in. Maybe they would have dulled the lines.

"Is there a word for 'This is nice' and 'This is creepy'? For that is what I felt. This is so sweet-appalling."

Noonan sums up her ambivalence: "Does Mr. Huckabee understand that his approach is making people uncomfortable? Does he see himself as divisive? He's a bright man, so it's hard to believe he doesn't...

"Could he win the nomination? Who knows? It's all a bubbling stew on the Republican side, and no one knows who'll float to the top. In an interview this week...Mr. Huckabee said people everywhere were coming to him and saying, 'We are claiming Isaiah 54 for you, that the weapons formed against you will not prosper.'

"Prayer is powerful. But Huckabee's critics say he's a manipulator with a mean streak and little knowledge of the world. And Isaiah 54 doesn't say anything about self-inflicted wounds."

If Republicans are this uncomfortable this soon with their preacher pol, how would he fare in a general election? With all the questions about Hillary Clinton, electability may turn out to be the issue for both parties.

Republican Perfection Police

In defending his client from the latest smear-by-whisper in the '08 campaign, John McCain's lawyer says he “was the victim of false, vicious rumors about his personal life” during the 2000 South Carolina primary, and that “rumors and gossip damaged his campaign and may have cost him the election.”

So the spirit of Karl Rove lives on in whatever dirt is at the bottom of Matt Drudge's "revelations" about a story McCain's people have tried to persuade the New York Times not to publish.

In the Republican moral universe, human frailty is a disqualification for President, so the last two candidates standing are Mike Huckabee, the man of God, and Mitt Romney, he of the unblemished personal life.

For a while, his 9/11 aura kept Rudy Giuliani afloat, but the weight of personal imperfections finally dragged him down in the polls, and Fred Thompson has not shown enough orthodox Republican zeal to make up for his actorish womanizing and trophy wife,

In their neo-Victorian fervor, the GOP gave us the exemplary personal life of George W. Bush as an antidote to Bill Clinton's waywardness, and now it seems that nothing less will do for '08.

As the protagonist of Jean Anouilh's "Waltz of the Toreadors" observed about the original Victorians, propriety demanded that couples be seen serenely swimming through life side by side and, if there was a need to relieve oneself, it had to be done under the water, out of sight.

Today's Republicans are keeping that ethos alive with a vengeance.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Over to You, Vladimir

Being Time's Person of the Year is no barrel of laughs, it comes with a lot of headaches.

For the whole year, last year's mylar cover has been sitting next to the computer screen as a taunt to Time's designation of me "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game."

That's the kind of pressure you're facing, comrade, as the newsweekly praises your accomplishments, salutes your longevity and calls you an "elected emperor" who will be the "longest-serving statesman among the great powers, long after such leaders as Bush and Tony Blair have faded from the scene."

For a guy who has never sent an e-mail in his life and whose father was Stalin's cook, you've done very well, but believe you me, that kind of talk can unnerve anybody, even someone with your Tsar's stare. If you look back at some of the other cover people, remember what happened to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. It's not exactly the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, but...

Now the crown is yours. Serving the Time correspondent a "dinner of lobster-and-shiitake-mushroom salad, 'crab fingers with hot sauce' and impressive vintages of Puligny-Montrachet and a Chilean Cabernet" was a good start.

Last year's winners salute you as they go back to their keyboards, stuffed with fast food, relaxed and ready to face a new year of solving the world's problems without all that pressure.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Holidays, Senators

Before leaving for Thanksgiving, Congressional Democrats promised not to give President Bush more money for Iraq without deadlines for withdrawal.

Now they are slinking out of Washington for Christmas after providing $70 billion in unrestricted funds for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When is enough enough?" asked Ted Kennedy, who supported an amendment to require troop withdrawal from Iraq and a cutoff of combat funds within nine months. "I urge my colleagues to vote against this gigantic blank check." By a vote of 76-17, they didn't.

Russ Feingold's troop-withdrawal amendment failed by 74-21. None of the Democratic Presidential candidates was there to support it.

On his way out the door, Trent Lott, the Republican whip, insisted "we're doing the right thing here for our men and women in uniform," handing in his resignation to do the right thing for Trent Lott before lobbying restrictions on former Senators get tougher.

For the American people who voted last November to end the war, they leave behind stockings stuffed with lumps of coal. If we're really good next year, maybe we can get our own President for Christmas.

Casting Call for GOP "Christmas Carol"

Looking for redemption in Bush's final year, the White House Art Players might plan a new production of the Dickens classic starring the President as a kinder, gentler Scrooge.

A Nixon impersonator would be perfect for Jacob Marley, dragging the chains of Watergate, to open W's eyes with visits from the ghost of Christmas past (a Reagan lookalike as Fezziwig) Christmas present (Mitch McConnell or any endangered Senate colleague) and Mike Huckabee as Christmas future in the Republican graveyard.

On Christmas morning, a new Bush would awaken with SCHIP insurance for Tiny Tim, a veto-proof new signing pen to show Nancy Pelosi and a symbolic fruitcake to send to his new best friend, Ahmadinejad.

They could ask Dick Cheney to understudy the lead, if he promises not to shoot any of the other actors.

Democrats Sowing Confusion in Iowa

If you look carefully at the Hawkeye State, you can find polls showing John Edwards is in the lead (b) Barack Obama is ahead (c) Hillary Clinton and Obama are tied or (d) after the "viability rule" excludes candidates with less than 15 percent of the vote, who knows?

Iowans have a reputation for being contrary, but this year they have raised sowing confusion to an art form. Yesterday, three of their journalists wrote a New York Times OpEd, saying "if a poll does manage to precisely forecast the results of the Jan. 3 caucuses, that is probably more coincidence than polling accuracy" because of the arcane, secretive way that Democrats report results of their caucuses:

"Under the formulas used to apportion delegates, it is possible that the candidate with the highest percentage of delegate equivalents--that is, the headline “winner”--did not really lead in the “popular vote” at the caucuses. Further, it is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 percent or 12 percent of the popular vote statewide and get zero delegates. (That’s because to be in the running for a delegate a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the people at a precinct caucus.) He or she may have done two or three times as well as expected among Iowa’s Democratic voters and get no recognition for it."

Is that clear? For months now, we have been hanging on every word from voters in the Tall Corn State as they ogle butter sculptures, eat fried stuff on a stick and respond to the presence of Oprah, Bill Clinton and Magic Johnson.

But do we get any clear answers from them? Not in your Field of Dreams. Maybe Meredith Willson had it right in the "Music Man" when he had them singing “And we're so by God stubborn/We can stand touchin' noses/For a week at a time/And never see eye-to-eye.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Romney-Rush Limbaugh Connection

There have been less than six degrees of separation between the Republican's richest candidate and the Masters of the Talk Radio Universe since Mitt Romney's former partners at Bain Capital took over Clear Channel Communications, owner of 1,000 radio stations and home to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and other ornaments of the right-wing enlightenment.

Blind trusts insulate Romney from any direct connection, but it's hard to imagine what the Javerts of Whitewater would have made of it if the Clintons were this closely tied to a mass media empire.

A headline this month reads, "Limbaugh 'non-endorses' Mitt after the Speech!!" leading to Rush's "I want to start with Mitt Romney today, Mitt Romney’s speech. Frankly, I thought what we saw today, folks, was a Republican candidate for president giving an inspiring speech. It was an inspiring speech about American values."

As far back as February, Limbaugh was defending Romney from "drive-by media attacks" against his Mormon faith. In his usual elegant style, he drew parallels with the Kennedys:

"Let me explain the difference in this Mitt Romney business and the way Democrats are treated in this regard. Ted Kennedy’s father...was a Third Reich sympathizer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to pull him as ambassador of the Court of Saint James...Now we don’t hold this against Teddy. Teddy had nothing to do with that. Just as we don’t hold Mitt Romney’s grandfather, or great-grandfather, against him. But the lib media, the Drive-Bys, are definitely trying to do that."

Limbaugh, of course, is not a drive-by kind of guy, so if he seems to be steering in the direction of his new bosses' former partner, we will have to take it on faith that nothing venal is involved.

Bedford Falls in D.C.

In the era of Bush, Cheney and broken government, just in time for reruns of "It's a Wonderful Life," we get a Capraesque moment. After three decades in the Senate, Chris Dodd doesn't look much like Jimmy Stewart, but for the time being, he has saved the savings and loan or, in view of his filibuster threat, is it the boy's camp from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?"

Until after the holidays, at least, the Senate won't be giving telecoms retroactive immunity for illegal spying on Americans. The Majority leader (if you use the word loosely) was ready to Christmas-wrap that gift for the Bush Administration until a few Bill of Rights Scrooges started talking about traditional American values.

“Today," Sen. Dodd said of Harry Reid's decision to put off the vote on the FISA bill, "we have scored a victory for American civil liberties and sent a message to President Bush that we will not tolerate his abuse of power and veil of secrecy.”

Before we get all misty-eyed, start re-reading "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" and sending checks to Dodd for President, it might help to ponder how far we have come from the innocence and hope of those old Capra movies.

But it's good to be reminded that the spirit of Jimmy Stewart still lives in Washington, even if embodied in a white-haired Presidential candidate who is polling in the single digits.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hillary Tops Rudy on Domestic Issues

My alma mater, the Daily News, is still doing its job, keeping blue-collar New Yorkers informed about the important issues of the day.

Today we have the results of their "national poll of female voters" showing them to be more forgiving of Bill Clinton's peccadilloes than Rudy Giuliani's.

Forty percent said Judith Giuliani's affair with the then-married Mayor made her less suitable to be First Lady, while only 34 percent were not willing to forgive Hillary's husband for whatever it was that he did with Monica Lewinsky.

When asked about who they would prefer to watch their kids, 36 percent of women would choose to have Bill and Hillary Clinton baby-sit, while 21 percent would pick Rudy and Judith Giuliani. One of five wouldn't trust either couple, a blow to any hope of balancing the budget with baby-sitting gigs.

"A straying husband is bad," the News concludes. "But a home wrecker is worse."

When I was a copy boy there, they didn't go in for so much sociology.

Another F.D.R.?

As the Ron Paul rebellion bubbles up on the Internet, there are increasing signs of Big Media discontent as well.

Today Paul Krugman in the New York Times proclaims, "Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world." This leads him to criticize Barack Obama (yet again) as naïve and "out of touch with the strong populist tide running in America right now."

Krugman's alternative is John Edwards, who is portraying himself as "another F.D.R.--a polarizing figure, the object of much hatred from the right, who nonetheless succeeded in making big changes."

If Edwards is the answer, what's the question? He may not be as weird as Ron Paul, but his windmill-tilting is much less sincere. Paul's country-doctor ethic comes from a lifetime of bedrock distrust of government power. Edwards is a negligence lawyer who milked the system for millions, spent one undistinguished term in the Senate and, only when he hit the campaign trail, started posing as the friend of the poor.

For those old enough to respond to Krugman's F.D.R. analogy, try Huey Long.

The Senate's Tower of Jello

Harry Reid is once again showing the leadership that gave us a year of bickering and frustration over getting out of Iraq with nothing to show for it.

Today, as Chris Dodd fights retroactive immunity for telecoms on illegal wiretapping and threatens a filibuster, the Senate Majority leader is taking the bold step of offering versions of a bill with and without it.

“I have determined that in this situation," it would be wrong of me to simply choose one committee’s bill over the other," Reid said, referring to the conflicting versions presented by the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.

To accomplish this, Reid took the unusual step of overriding Dodd's "hold" on the bill with immunity to keep it from coming to a vote.

"Providing retroactive immunity to companies that may have violated the law will set a dangerous precedent,” said Dodd. “Companies who violated the trust of thousands of their customers will be immune to prosecution and the details of their actions will stay hidden.

"The President, and his Administration, has consistently used scare tactics in an attempt to force Congress to pass FISA legislation that provides retroactive immunity."

The Democratic Senate leader is acting as his helper on the issue.

Ron Paul Money Bombs

In 2004, Howard Dean was an Internet meteor flashing briefly across the political sky. Ron Paul is beginning to look like a new planet.

Yesterday his supporters broke their own record by raising $6 million to celebrate the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Last month, on Guy Fawkes Day, they collected $4.3 million in 24 hours.

What's going on here? Howard Dean was a spontaneous expression of Americans turning against the war in Iraq. Ron Paul is an uprising against everything government does, prompting an explosion of money on the anniversaries of dumping ships' cargoes and trying to blow up legislative bodies.

Chief fundraiser for the Paul insurrection is a college dropout who subsists on junk food and has never voted but was so distressed by the Democratic Congress' failure to get US troops out of Iraq that he has put his digital know-how into backing the only Republican who wants to do it.

"I know my tax dollars are being used to kill people," Trevor Lyman says. "It makes me feel horrible."

As Ron Paul goes his eccentric libertarian way, there is no knowing what he will do with the money, aside from running commercials that may lift his Presidential candidacy into low double digits in some primaries.

What's clear is that the intensity of anger with the status quo this season is rising above Nader and Perot levels. Throwing money at Ron Paul is a more benign expression than heaving casks of tea or bombs, but where do the 21st century revolutionaries go from there?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

White Noise for the White House

If he doesn't make it to the Oval Office, Mitt Romney can be marketed as a cure for insomnia. His flow of robotic rationalizations for past positions on "Meet the Press" today was enough to induce a stupor in any listener trying to connect them with reality.

Ask Romney the time of day, and he'll give you a rundown on his past experiences with timepieces from hourglasses on, how it all depends on where you are and tell you he's willing to let the states decide the time wherever you happen to be.

Except for the jarring commercial breaks, Romney was a white-noise machine to lull voters into believing that, if he gets to be president, we can all settle into a four-year nap. Side by side, he makes Fred Thompson look like a firebrand.

Romney did detour from unctuous smarm long enough to take a listless swipe at Mike Huckabee for criticizing Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq, but his heart clearly wasn't in it.

If he makes it, we can tune out during State of the Union speeches and stare at his hair.

Back to the Political Future

There are undeniable echoes of the 1960s in how the elections of 2008 are shaping up.

Both parties are in crises that could define them for decades to come and, although the parallels are inexact, the issues are similar: What kind of America are we living in and what do we want it to be?

For Democrats in 1968, the question was not unlike what Republicans are facing now--how to recover from presiding over a disastrous war and domestic discord and, until a bullet stopped him, Robert Kennedy was the Barack Obama then and Hubert Humphrey the Hillary Clinton, promising change vs. philosophical continuity.

Republicans had to face their directional question four years earlier when Barry Goldwater ran. Traditional conservatives feared he might wreck their party in 1964, as many of them feel about Mike Huckabee now. They tried to rally around Gov. William Scranton just as Robert Bork is now backing Mitt Romney with other National Review icons to come.

In that struggle, Dwight Eisenhower clearly favored Scranton but could not bring himself to do it publicly. Today we have the elder George Bush sending a signal by hosting Romney's speech about religion.

Lyndon Johnson left his party in shambles as George W. Bush will in 2009. If we're lucky, we won't have to live through a Richard Nixon and a Jimmy Carter before the country recovers from its ideological headaches.

For the aging, everything that happens is a reminder of something that happened before, so younger eyes may
see better alternatives now. Let's hope so.

Obama: Getting More Experience Every Day

If Bill Clinton is right about the importance of experience in a candidate for President, shouldn't he be backing Joe Biden or Chris Dodd who, between them, have been in Congress for 66 years?

But the former President's doubts about inexperience are selectively aimed at Barack Obama as his challenge to Mrs. Clinton gathers strength, today with an endorsement in the New Hampshire primary by the Boston Globe.

“When is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?” the ex-president asked in a PBS interview Friday night, deftly slicing eleven months off Obama's resume.

Obama responded yesterday that Clinton himself had said when he ran in 1992 that a candidate can “have the right kind of experience or the wrong kind of experience” and that his own involvement in government for over a decade matches Clinton's ten years as a governor back then.

"When it comes to waging peace," the Globe editorial says, "Obama has the leadership skills to reset the country's reputation in the world...Obama's critics, and even many who want to support him, worry about his relative lack of experience. It is true that other Democratic contenders have more conventional resumes and have spent more time in Washington. But that exposure has tended to give them a sense of government's constraints. Obama is more animated by its possibilities."

The perception that he is now running against two Clintons may very well help Obama, if voters consider it a learning experience.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Sinatra on Love Letters

The Postal Service unveiled a Frank Sinatra stamp this week on what would have been his 92nd birthday. It was, of course, first-class.

For better and occasionally for worse, Sinatra provided the sound track for our romantic lives as the Greatest Generation went to war, morphing from a scrawny crooner mobbed by teen-age girls to middle-aged sophisticate specializing in wised-up ballads of wounded rue to mellow old lover recalling the joys of yesteryear with swinging optimism ("The Best Is Yet to Come" is inscribed on his tombstone).

My own tastes ran more to Ella, Billie and Louis, but Frank Sinatra was a mesmerizing figure who held the 20th century stage with what Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic recently called "the most spectacular second act in American cultural history."

Washed up before 40, he came back to win an Academy Award by playing Maggio in "From Here to Eternity," an event celebrated by Mario Puzo in the "Godfather" scene of a Hollywood producer waking up with his horse's head under the covers to persuade him to cast Don Corleone's crooner.

Fictionalized as that may have been, Sinatra's mob ties were real, culminating in introducing a Mafia boss' girl friend to JFK during his White House years.

Sinatra was politically liberal back then but ended up by giving $4 million to the election campaign of his fellow actor Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Husband and lover of the most beautiful women of his time, from Ava Gardner to the widowed Lauren Bacall, he was at heart a guy's guy as shown in the Rat Pack goof-off movie, "Ocean's Eleven," a wretched thing that Steven Soderbergh remade in fine 21st century style.

We met once. At Truman Capote's Black-and-White Ball in 1966, a glum Sinatra, who left early for his friend Jilly's saloon, was watching his 21-year-old bride, Mia Farrow energetically lighting up the dance floor with one partner after another. When a beautiful woman suggested joining them, Sinatra said, "I don't dance."

Like much else about him, that may or may not have been true, but when millions all over the world did their dancing and love-making in the last century, Sinatra was with them.

Now he will be staring back at a new generation as they stamp their love letters, if there are still any who don't communicate with their partners entirely by e-mail and cell phone.

Huckabee Hit Parade

After yesterday's right-left jabs from the Washington Post, the Republican Great White Hope is bashed today by the New York Times with charges of a Nixonish slush fund from tobacco lobbyists during his days as lieutenant governor of Arkansas.

Huckabee's sudden rise in the polls has drawn hits not only from Big Media (read cosmopolitan urban latte drinkers) but little media like National Review, whose web site keeps raining anti-Huck posts, including not only doubts about his conservative credentials but scorn for his claims of a theology degree when he was actually a seminary dropout.

Compared to Rudy Giuliani's whoppers, Huckabee's little fibs look benign, but there seems to be a deeper unease about him percolating across the political spectrum. National Review editor Rich Lowry says he agrees with the assessment that "Huckabee could be a disaster," likely to "lose conservatives on taxes, spending and immigration and alienate moderates and Democrats on social issues."

To add to all the ideological confusion, there is a remarkably statesmanlike piece by Huckabee in the new issue of Foreign Affairs asserting "The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. In particular, it should focus on eliminating Islamist terrorists, stabilizing Iraq, containing Iran, and toughening its stance with Pakistan."

Huckabee's foreign policy stance sounds suspiciously urbane (read ghost-written) for a candidate who was surprised by reporters' questions about NIE conclusions on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Political campaigns are supposed to sort out such questions but, as Iowa and New Hampshire draw near, will there be time for voters to see the real Huckabee stand up?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Larry Craig Is Sticking to His Guns

Washington's Walking Embarrassment is still sitting proudly in his Senate seat and, along with his Idaho colleague, Michael Crapo (sic), is blocking President Bush’s nomination of Michael Sullivan to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

According to the Editorial Board blog of the New York Times, "Mr. Crapo’s spokesman said his boss is hearing from gun owners and dealers with 'concerns about ATF policies regarding gun sales and even ownership.' It may be, he said, 'that the federal government is getting a little too aggressive with people who haven’t done anything wrong.'

"It’s a remarkable claim to make in a month in which a young gunman in Nebraska shot 11 people, killing eight of them, at an Omaha shopping mall, and another killed four young people in two attacks on religious organizations in Colorado, before taking his own life.

"The Colorado gunman, according to the Denver Post, spent a year buying guns and ammunition...and all of his purchases were within the law. When a large shipment of ammunition was sent to a post office box owned by the gunman, the authorities were alerted, the paper reports--and specifically determined that he had a legal right to receive it."

Awaiting action by the Senate Ethics Committee on his little Minneapolis men's room misunderstanding, Sen. Craig is sticking to his guns maintaining the record that earned him an A+ from the National Rifle Association. The voters who saw him inducted into Idaho's Hall of Fame this fall must be proud.

Cutting Up Huckabee, Left and Right

In the Washington Post today, the new Republican White Hope is being carved up like a Christmas turkey from both sides of the political spectrum.

"Is the thought of Mike Huckabee as president just vaguely scary?" Eugene Robinson asks. "Or have we learned enough about the man that we should be hair-on-fire alarmed at the prospect...that he could actually win?

"Huckabee," former Bush speech writer Michael Gerson notes, "is managing to compromise his most distinctive virtue at the very moment the attention of the public is focused on his candidacy. In politics, a candidate can bend over backward so far that his spine snaps."

Robinson's complaints are that the former preacher is "anti-reason" in denying evolution, a "country bumpkin" in his uninformed attacks on Romney's Mormon faith and "the last person in the country to learn that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe Iran ended its nuclear weapons program four years ago."

Gerson faults Huckabee for accepting the endorsement of "one of the most divisive figures in the most divisive debate in American politics," Jim Gilchrist, founder of the anti-immigration group, the Minuteman Project, who has called for Bush's impeachment over failure to enforce border security and proclaims, "I will not promote violence in resolving this, but I will not stop others who might pursue that."

After being sliced from both directions, the Huckabee candidacy is left as a spineless carcass with no intellectual meat on its bones. Can somebody send the man a recipe for making turkey soup?

Naming Names and Playing Games

One afternoon when I was 13, a crowd gathered at an old movie studio near where I lived in the Bronx. Policemen stretched their arms to open an alley for people getting out of limos. A tall man in fitted yellow sports shirt and slacks, striding ahead with no expression on his tanned face, Joe DiMaggio got out of a car, crossed the sidewalk and disappeared into the building.

I had never been to Yankee Stadium a mile away so I knew him only from grainy newspaper pictures and jumpy newsreel clips. The sudden texture and color of his face and clothes shocked my senses into a sweet awareness that he actually lived in the same world I did. For weeks, I kept replaying those vivid few seconds in my mind. Beyond the baseball cards and box scores, Joe DiMaggio was suddenly real. I had seen him six feet away.

Today's baseball players are familiar figures in our living rooms, but their mythic quality remains, and the news about their use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs is even harder to take than it might have been back then when they lived on a distant planet.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite have been part of my grandkids' lives since they were old enough to sit in front of a TV set or eat a hot dog at Yankee Stadium. How are they to understand what is being said about the men they try to emulate in their Little League games?

As troubled as all of us are about the use of steroids by the role models for millions of kids, there is something reckless about publicly indicting so many men on the kind of evidence, much of it from informants trying to save their own skins, that is the basis of the Mitchell Report. There is a flashback to the times when Congressional committees named names and ruined careers that way.

Those who control and profit from the game should protect their investments by setting new rules and enforcing them by all means. But they have had years to do that. Are 400 pages of hearsay about 89 Major League players the best or the only way to move ahead now?

My nostalgia for Joe DiMaggio and other idols of his time may be clouding my mature judgment but, in those days, we still believed in the presumption of innocence before we plastered people's names all over headlines that would ruin their reputations.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best Behavior

If they issued grades for deportment, the six Democratic Presidential candidates who took part in today's Iowa debate would all have earned A's. No bickering, backbiting or mud slinging.

The good behavior started at Reagan airport en route when Hillary Clinton apologized to Barack Obama for her now-departed New Hampshire co-chairman's snide statement on Obama's "drug use" and carried over onto the stage as the candidates, for the most part, gave crisp answers on the issues with a minimum of reaching around to pat their own backs.

If there was a transcendent moment, it came after Joe Biden's defense against charges of racist comments when Barack Obama went beyond politics to create a moment of grace.

“I’ve worked with Joe Biden, I’ve seen his leadership,” Obama said. “I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country. So I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America.”

Everyone on the stage today seemed capable of restoring sanity and good sense to the Oval Office.

Everything a Politician Should Be

Lee Hamilton was visibly angry this week, a rare sight in more than 40 years as one of the most admirable figures in American politics.

Reacting to news that the CIA destroyed interrogation tapes, the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission said, "Did they obstruct our inquiry? The answer is clearly yes. Whether that amounts to a crime, others will have to judge."

In a hero-less age, Americans might want to take a closer look at Hamilton, as the Christian Science Monitor did yesterday in a profile titled, "Washington's Bipartisan Power Broker."

The piece cites his success, as head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, in getting Haleh Esfandiari, his director of Middle East Studies, out of a Tehran prison on charges of spying.

After being rebuffed for months by political leaders, Hamilton appealed to Iran's most powerful man, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and won her release.

Hamilton, the Monitor says, is "Washington's middleman, the mild-mannered moderate more interested in solutions than sound bites. People who know him well compare him...as a man of pragmatism, to 'that other Hamilton'–-Alexander, the Founding Father famous for his worry about the dangers of faction."

Watching Hamilton chair the House’s Iran-Contra hearings a quarter of a century ago, it struck me he should run for President in 1988.

It struck others, too, but the boomlet soon ended. “He told them he didn’t want to do it,” his aide announced, “he didn’t want to look into it, he just wants to keep doing what he’s doing.” The New York Times called his response “a standard of modesty believed to be extinct on Capitol Hill.”

Hamilton had skewered Oliver North, Bush pere and President Reagan himself with a flat-out “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” simplicity: “Policy was driven by a series of lies...A few do not know what is better for the American people than the people themselves.”

But he resisted pressure for impeachment, saying it would damage the country after the trauma of Nixon's departure a decade earlier.

Lee Hamilton was thinking about what's best for America, He still is.

Blackening Obama

As the polls dwindle down, Hillary Clinton's supporters are performing what they delicately call "the political equivalent of a proctology exam on the opposition" by pelting Barack Obama with slime and hoping some of it will stick.

Twisting old news about real estate deals, drug use and (shades of Nixon) slush funds into attacks on his character that might make Karl Rove blush, they are topping it off with accusations that Obama's campaign is importing college students to vote illegally in the Iowa caucuses.

A Clinton national co-chairman is spreading word about possible problems from Obama's youth that Republicans could use if he is the Democratic nominee.

"It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?'" he told the Washington Post. "There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks"

Meanwhile, the "Hillary is 44" attack crew is dredging for every bit of gossip about "Obama’s myriad real estate deceptions and transactions" and other alleged "lies."

Conservative smearmaster Robert Novak is helping stir the pot. Last month he provoked a Clinton-Obama spat with a report that "agents" of the Clinton campaign had been "spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent."

Today he spotlights an accusation on "Face the Nation" last Sunday that Obama is illegally spreading money from a Nixon-like fund to bolster political support and shoots it down by claiming the PAC fund "contributed to Clinton's 2006 Senate reelection and, in the current cycle, to Jeanne Shaheen's Senate campaign in New Hampshire, even though her husband, Bill Shaheen, heads that state's Clinton campaign."

The days are growing shorter in Iowa and New Hampshire, and more than one kind of darkness is setting in.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Drunk on Power and Piety

If less were at stake, George Bush's personal journey would evoke sorrow and pity--a ruined life being "redeemed" by self-deception.

His statement to Martha Raddatz of ABC about addiction is like watching a man walk unknowingly toward a cliff and taking a whole nation with him.

"I had too much to drink one night, and the next day I didn't have any," Bush said. "The next day I decided to quit and I haven't had a drink since 1986."

"And you did it just cold turkey?" asked Raddatz.

"I'm a better man for it," Bush said.

For two decades, the 40-year-old who made that decision with no self-knowledge has replaced one addiction for another, giving up alcohol for power and piety without understanding what drove him to either and the distortion of reality that comes with both.

It doesn't take psychological training to see the signs--the stubbornness, the inappropriately cheerful response to disaster, the refusal to listen to any questioning of his behavior--that would be clear in an addict from any other walk of life.

His father's speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, came close to calling it in the Wall Street Journal, of all places:

“Presidents in great enterprises that are going badly suffer: Lincoln, LBJ with his head in his hands. Why doesn't Mr. Bush? Every major domestic initiative of his second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president since polling began. He's in a good mood...

“Americans...like the president to be the cool-eyed realist, the tough customer who understands harsh realities. With Mr. Bush it is the people who are forced to be cool-eyed and realistic. He's the one who goes off on the toots. This is extremely irritating, and also unnatural. Actually it's weird."

"Alcohol," the President said yesterday," can compete with your affections. It sure did in my case, affections with your family, or affections for exercise. It was the competition that I decided just wasn't worth it."

George Bush was restored to his family, he exercises regularly and he has no clue about what addictive behavior can do when it takes over the most powerful position in the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Dumbest Guy on the Planet" Explains It All

At a Neo-Con reunion last night, Don Rumsfeld's Three Stooges, who planned the war in Iraq, got together to blame the mess there on somebody else, L. Paul Bremer, who ran the occupation for the first two years.

Former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told the faithful at the American Enterprise Institute that his plan was not "to be around for many, many months" but that Bremer overruled him, thereby putting the US in today's stalemate.

Feith, labeled by Gen. Tommy Franks as "the dumbest effing guy on the planet," was introduced by former colleague Richard Perle while Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank lover, sat up front and agreed that Feith was "pretty much on the mark."

After hearing about the talk, Bremer told a reporter that Feith's "argument isn't with me," that President Bush told him before leaving for Baghdad to "take our time setting up an interim administration."

In reviewing George Tenet's memoir for the Wall Street Journal, Feith accused the former CIA Director of making up stories about how we got into Iraq. With his own book due for publication is March, Feith is getting a head start on fabricating his own.

The Prudent President

The compassionate conservative who ran in 2000 lost his empathy on the way to the White House but, after years of spending for wars and tax cuts for the wealthy, is belatedly rediscovering his fiscal prudence--about health insurance for children, school aid and public housing.

Bush's latest act of compassionate conservatism is to deny funding for the Social Security Administration that would cut delay of financial aid to the disabled, many of whom now have to wait years to have their claims adjudicated.

As a New York Times editorial points out today, "the backlog of applicants who are awaiting a decision after appealing an initial rejection has soared to 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000. The average wait for an appeals hearing now exceeds 500 days, twice as long as applicants had to wait in 2000.

"Typically two-thirds of those who appeal eventually win their cases. But during the long wait, their conditions may worsen and their lives often fall apart. More and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing."

After Congress last month passed a bill to give Social Security $275 million more than he requested, enough to hire judges to speed up the process, the President vetoed as profligate an amount that wouldn't pay for a day of the war in Iraq.

What would America be like if we had elected an unfeeling liberal (as many disaffected Democrats believe we actually did) in 2000 rather than the compassionate conservative who is setting our priorities now?

Family Gathering

The Presidential candidates are beginning to look like relatives who came for the holidays and stayed too long.

At first it was just going to be the kids--Hillary, Barack, Rudy with his newest wife, and John, if he wasn't on one of his trips to Iraq. But then all kinds of kin you invite but don't expect to come started showing up.

Nephew Mitt drove up with a dog on the car roof, told all kinds of stories about where he'd been and got into a beef with Rudy about the people who were doing the yard work.

Great-uncle Fred arrived late and went up to the guest room for a long nap.

Cousin Mike came in from the cold and started eating everybody's lunch.

After Barack got reclusive Aunt Oprah to show up for appetizers, Hillary called Chelsea and her mother, and the old homestead started filling up like the Marx brothers' stateroom.

Somewhere in the attic, Ron Paul is checking his e-mail on a laptop, and who knows what all those distant relatives are yakking about in the basement?

It's great to have a big family, but how long are they all going to hang around?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Nine-Year-Old Scoop

The Drudge Report works in wondrous ways.

The banner this morning, under a picture of Mike Huckabee wagging his finger, is 'Take This Nation Back for Christ' leading to a news report of his speech at a Southern Baptist Convention. The small type notes it was made in 1998.

Click through, and you get the story from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, making the then-governor sound as if he wants, not to be President, but Pastor-in-Chief of the nation.

"The reason we have so much government is because we have so much broken humanity," it quotes him as saying. "And the reason we have so much broken humanity is because sin reigns in the hearts and lives of human beings instead of the Savior...

"Government knows it does not have the answer, but it's arrogant and acts as though it does. Church does have the answer but will cowardly deny that it does and wonder when the world will be changed...

"I didn't get into politics because I thought government had a better answer. I got into politics because I knew government didn't have the real answers, that the real answers lie in accepting Jesus Christ into our lives."

The provenance of this Drudge scoop is suggested by the fact that the speech was made in Salt Lake City, where reporters were given copies of a book Huckabee had written as well as one titled "Mormonism Unmasked," exposing the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Cui bono to make Huckabee look like a religious nut? Or, in today's world, would his supporters consider the story a plus?

Dress Right or Die

As a woman in a pants suit campaigns to become President of the United States, others are being killed on the streets of Basra for wearing makeup and not covering their faces.

Religious vigilantes have murdered at least 40 women this year in the southern Iraqi city because of how they dressed, the police chief told AP yesterday, and "dumped in the garbage with notes saying they were killed for un-Islamic behavior."

As American politicians debate the future of the country we invaded almost five years ago, what is happening in Basra, "known for its mixed population and night life" under Saddam Hussein, is a chilling reminder of what we will leave behind, no matter how well the Surge works.

Can the sectarian madness we unleashed be negotiated away by Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad? The Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr controls Basra, but one of his aides blames the murders on "gangs with foreign support to destabilize the city," while citing the "religious principle that says that wearing makeup and forgoing the hijab (headscarf) in public is a sin."

"But killing them," he concedes, "is a sin bigger than this one."

When President Bush makes his next self-congratulatory speech about bringing the blessings of democracy to Iraq, someone should ask him about the women of Basra and remind Hillary Clinton what she voted for in the resolution opening the door to our doing the same for Iran.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Torturing Questions

News today that members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, failed to protest when they were briefed about waterboarding and other harsh techniques of interrogation five years ago recalls the disturbing Milgram experiments of the 1960s.

A Yale professor wanted to find out how much pain people would inflict on others for what they believed to be a good cause.

"Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others," Prof. Stanley Milgram reported, "and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

We still don't know the answer to that question, which was originally raised in an effort to see behind the Eichmann defense for Nazi atrocities during World War War II, "I was only following orders." But we should keep trying to find out.

Today's revelation about waterboarding further underscores how dicey individual morality can become under social pressure. According to the Washington Post, "officials present during the meetings described the reaction as mostly quiet acquiescence, if not outright support.

"'Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing,' said [Porter] Goss, who chaired the House intelligence committee from 1997 to 2004 and then served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006. 'And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.'"

All this is clearly intended to relieve pressure on the Administration for its secrecy, including the destruction of torture tapes, but if involving lawmakers clears the air of some holier-than-thou posturing, it doesn't absolve anyone or lessen the need to move forward in the public debate on what kind of people we are and want to be.

What Stanley Milgram wrote in 1974, looking back on his experiments, might be as good a place as any to start:

"There was a time, perhaps, when people were able to give a fully human response to any situation because they were fully absorbed in it as human beings. But as soon as there was a division of labor things changed. Beyond a certain point, the breaking up of society into people carrying out narrow and very special jobs takes away from the human quality of work and life. A person does not get to see the whole situation but only a small part of it, and is thus unable to act without some kind of overall direction. He yields to authority but in doing so is alienated from his own actions.

"Even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but he had only to sit at a desk and shuffle papers. At the same time the man in the camp who actually dropped Cyclon-b into the gas chambers was able to justify his behavior on the ground that he was only following orders from above. Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one is confronted with the consequences of his decision to carry out the evil act. The person who assumes responsibility has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society."

As today's furor over torture goes on, it might help to think about that.

Giuliani's Single Slip-Up

Life imitates old movies. On "Meet the Press" today, when asked about recommending Bernard Kerik, his friend of ill fame, to President Bush as director of homeland security, Rudy Giuliani, for the only time in an hour of questioning about multiple counts of public and private misfeasance, admitted he "made a mistake" in not vetting his old friend and associate carefully enough while at the same time claiming good judgment 95 to 99 percent of the time.

Stanley Kubrick did this better and funnier in the 1964 movie, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Asked by President Merkin Muffley how Gen. Jack D. Ripper, who is about to blow up the world, was not detected as a psychotic by the foolproof "human reliability tests," Gen. Buck Turgidson replies: "Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir."

President Giuliani couldn't have said it better.

Dethroning America's King George

The creation of a Bush monarchy by Administration lawyers was decried at week's end by Rhode Island's freshman senator, Sheldon Whitehouse.

"This nation," he said on the Senate floor Friday, in reviewing the need for FISA reform, "was founded in rejection of the royalist principles that 'l’etat c’est moi' and 'The King can do no wrong.'"

But, Whitehouse contends, White House and Justice Department lawyers have given their President unprecedented powers to decide what's legal in spying on American citizens. In effect, unless Congress acts to modify their usurping of authority to allow the Oval Office monarch to do whatever he wants, Bush is free to do just that without consulting Congress or the courts.

Reviewing the circular logic in "highly classified secret legal opinions related to surveillance" by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, Sen. Whitehouse arrived at a "nutshell" description of this new definition of President power:

"1. 'I don’t have to follow my own rules, and I don’t have to tell you when I’m breaking them.'

"2. 'I get to determine what my own powers are.'

"3. 'The Department of Justice doesn’t tell me what the law is, I tell the Department of Justice what the law is.'"

Whitehouse reminded Senate colleagues, "We are a nation of laws, not of men...Our Attorney General swears an oath to defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States; we are not some banana republic in which the officials all have to kowtow to the 'supreme leader.'”

The Senator from a state that had its own version of the Boston Tea Party was urging them to correct "a second-rate piece of legislation passed in a stampede in August" and take away the powers that all the king's men have conferred on the monarch with more than a year to go on his White House throne.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

There Goes the Log Cabin Vote

"Mike Huckabee," the AP reports, "once advocated isolating AIDS patients from the general public, opposed increased federal funding in the search for a cure and said homosexuality could 'pose a dangerous public health risk.'"

If the preacher is planning to go Reaganesque in his surge toward the GOP nomination, this news will not sit well with the 47 chapters of the Long Cabin Republicans, who got their start in California in 1977 when the Great Communicator opposed an anti-gay ballot initiative against teachers and helped defeat it.

Reagan wrote a letter outlining his views, in which he said, "Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this."

In contrast, answering a questionnaire when he was running for the Senate in 1992, Huckabee wrote: "It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents."

The former Arkansas governor won't be making any new friends in Hollywood either when they learn he opposed federal funding for AIDS research and suggest that celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna who support it do so "out of their own personal treasuries."

But as a candidate this year, Huckabee did a little flip-flopping on his web site: "My administration will be the first to have an overarching strategy for dealing with HIV and AIDS here in the United States, with a partnership between the public and private sectors that will provide necessary financing and a realistic path toward our goals."

Huckabee and Mitt Romney might have bumped into each other racing toward new positions on gays from opposite directions. But he could make a new friend in Lou Dobbs, who wants to treat illegal immigrants as lepers, too.

"And That's the Way It Is..."

After the Tet offensive in early 1968, the Most Trusted Man in America announced the war in Vietnam could not be won. "If I've lost Cronkite," the President of the United States said, "I've lost America" and conceded by announcing he wouldn't run for reelection.

Walter Cronkite is 91 now, and George W. Bush is no Lyndon Johnson, but America's news nanny, who tucked us in every evening for two decades by ending the CBS Evening News with "And that's the way it is," has declared "Our Troops Must Leave Iraq."

In a piece co-written and appearing in print, Cronkite's voice is still being heard. In the Japan Times, on the eve of Pearl Harbor day, he concludes:

"Congress must act. Although Congress never declared war, as required by the Constitution, they did give the president the authority to invade Iraq. Congress must now withdraw that authority and cease its funding of the war.

"It is not likely, however, that Congress will act unless the American people make their voices heard with unmistakable clarity. That is the way the Vietnam War was brought to an end. It is the way that the Iraq War will also be brought to an end. The only question is whether it will be now, or whether the war will drag on, with all the suffering that implies, to an even more tragic, costly and degrading defeat. We will be a better, stronger and more decent country to bring the troops home now."

Trust is not what it used to be, and age has diminished the reach of Cronkite's voice, but he is still trying to tell America how it is.

A Referendum on Church and State

As long as we have come this far in George Bush's undeclared theocracy and Mitt Romney's open endorsement this week, doesn't the Republican Party owe Americans a clear choice--a Huckabee-Romney or Romney-Huckabee ticket--that would, in effect, be a referendum on the separation of church and state?

Some may fear the outcome of such a confrontation with a more secular Democratic ticket, but the alternative is to keep allowing the Religious Right to keep dominating the American conversation far out of proportion to be their true numbers and in contradiction to a consensus that existed in the nation's politics since 1776 until Islamic terrorists gave Bush's Christian absolutists a climate of fear in which to propagate their own extremism.

Failure to bring this debate out into the open allows a unthinking nod of heads to Romney's religiosity that asserts "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."

For over 200 years, Americans have subscribed to the proposition that freedom requires freedom and that everyone, in the words of John F. Kennedy "has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice...where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials."

In claiming his right as a Catholic to be considered for the presidency, Kennedy was affirming the separation of church and state. In claiming his right as a Mormon, Romney is blurring that tradition.

"I would not look with favor," JFK told Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960, "upon a President working to subvert the first amendment's guarantees of religious liberty...And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test, even by indirection. For if they disagree with that safeguard, they should be openly working to repeal it."

Responding to Romney's speech, Huckabee, the former preacher, said "it's a good thing and healthy for all of us for people to discuss faith in the public square," but diplomatically evaded details of his own, such as his views on evolution and women as pastors, noting that "where two or more Baptists are gathered together, there are at least seven different opinions."

Until now, Democrats have been unwilling to confront this question, settling for affirmation of their own faith in addressing evangelicals but not drawing the distinction between religion as a private matter and a deeply divisive public issue.

By nominating Huckabee and/or Romney, the Republican Party would inevitably make that part of the choice for the kind of America voters envision and want.

Friday, December 07, 2007

History Lessons: Mitt, Huckabee and Hillary

This week, Presidential candidates who are trying to sell the future are involved with echoes from the past.

Mitt Romney's Texas speech, meant to invoke John F. Kennedy, drew on Nixon's Checkers speech as well, using his family to validate himself, insisting on his own virtue and pandering to his audience in a way JFK would have disdained.

His sermon is getting mixed reviews on the right--a Pat Buchanan rave and a John Podhoretz pan--but, like Nixon, Romney seems to have kept his candidacy from going down tubes.

Mitt's nemesis, Mike Huckabee, is getting the Dukakis treatment with accusations of being naïve in freeing a murderer-rapist to kill again. But the Republican preacher is a lot faster on his feet and smoother than the Democrats' 1988 candidate, and he has already started to convert his Willie Horton problem into a failure of "the system" rather than his own.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is faced with reminders of the 1948 campaign, in which an over-confident Thomas E. Dewey, anointed by the public opinion polls, ran a cautious campaign and was overtaken by "Give 'em Hell, Harry" Truman.

As Truman himself said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know."