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.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Petraeus, al Maliki and Angelina

If reconciliation is going slowly in Iraq, an OpEd piece in today's Washington Post suggests an overlooked answer--box office appeal.

As a good will ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie writes about her meetings with Gen. Petraeus and Prime Minister al Maliki, both of whom promised to provide more resources to help resettle the 2 million Iraqis who are refugees in their own country and the additional 2.5 million who have fled, mostly to Syria and Jordan.

Now, Jolie calls on "the presidential candidates and congressional leaders to announce a comprehensive refugee plan with a specific timeline and budget as part of their Iraq strategy."

Gen. Petraeus has said we "can't kill our way out of Iraq,"
but kindness may be an effective weapon

Cynics will see this as photo-op diplomacy, but since nothing else is working, why not? Bring on the superstars, if they can be passionate and persuasive about turning a botched war toward humanitarian efforts.

Obama's Parenting Advice

While Hillary Clinton reminds voters that, if she wins, they can tell their daughters a woman can be President, Barack Obama is going deeper into parenting advice.

After a programmatic answer about issues in education to a mostly African-American audience in Beaumont, Texas, according to Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post, Obama asked, "Can I make this one last point?" and went into a riff about the role of parents.

"It's not good enough for you to say to your child, 'Do good in school.' And then your child comes home, you've got the TV set on, you've got the radio on, you don't check their homework, there's not a book in the house, you've got the video game playing.

"So, turn off the TV set, put the video game away, buy a little desk. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, give them help. If you don't know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Give them some breakfast."

As the crowd cheered, Obama asked, "Can I get an 'Amen' here?"

"Since I'm on a roll, if your child misbehaves in school, don't cuss out the teacher. You know I'm right about that. Don't cuss out the teacher, do something with your child. I'm speaking the truth. I'm telling you, I won't just tell you what you want to hear."

From there , he turned to nutrition.

"We can't keep on feeding our children junk all day long, giving them no exercise," he said. "They're overweight by the time they're four or five years old and then we're surprised when they get sick. And then we expect that they're going to get treated for things like adult diabetes that children never used to get...But now kids as young as 8, 9, 10 years old are getting it because they are obese. So part of what my health care plan does then is we work with parents, work with families to change nutrition habits.

"Look, I've got a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old daughter, so I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly, but I also know that if we are...letting kids drink eight sodas a day--which some parents do--or eat a bag of potato chips for lunch or Popeye's for breakfast -- y'all have Popeye's down in Beaumont? All right...I know! That's why you're all laughing. I caught you out. You can't do that! Children have to have proper nutrition."

For years, Hillary Clinton has been saying that it takes a village to raise children properly. Now Obama is taking it further and telling them how.

Prince Harry's Excellent Adventure

His grandmother sent him there, and the Drudge Report is bringing him back. For ten weeks, the young man who is third in line for the throne has been soldiering in Afghanistan as the British press honored what used to be called a gentlemen's agreement not to tell the world about it.

But the web site that outed Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky adventure has done the same for Prince Harry by citing an article in an obscure Australian magazine, “Prince Harry Fights on Front Lines in Afghanistan.”

So much for the Prince's war. The headline in today's Guardian reports: "Army prepares to evacuate Harry after news blackout fails."

Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, the British chief of staff, said he was “very disappointed” that “foreign Web sites” had posted the story without asking for permission “in stark contrast to the highly responsible attitude that the whole of the U.K. print and broadcast media, along with a small number of overseas, who have entered into an understanding with us over the coverage of Prince Harry on operations.”

In ten weeks of combat duty, the royal lieutenant has apparently been serving as a spotter to direct air strikes against the Taliban and, now that the secrecy lid is off, the excitable British press is picturing him behind machine guns and babbling such news as "The 23-year-old Household Cavalry lieutenant killed up to 30 of the enemy on his frontline tour by directing at least THREE air strikes."

In a pre-departure interview, Prince Harry told the UK Times that the Queen, his grandmother, "told me I’m off to Afghanistan...and she was very pro me going."

Now Drudge is bringing him back.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

W. C. Heinz

The man who died today at the age of 93 wrote about courage and grace under pressure better than anyone of his time.

Bill Heinz was idealized by generations of writers who in the new millennium were still reading his books, articles and collected columns.

We met when I edited a piece of his about Lew Jenkins, a Depression kid from Texas who fought his way up to lightweight champion and then lost everything, breaking his body in motorcycle and car crashes and coming into the ring hurt and drunk.

Bill ran into him during World War II when the former champion was in the Coast Guard landing invasion troops and later after he won a Silver Star as a foot soldier in Korea at the age of 36. The article was the best I worked on during my time at Argosy, a picture of a man who knew how to fight but not how to live with what is called success.

In 1958, Bill wrote a piece for me at Redbook about a young boxer who killed his first opponent in the ring. His novel, "The Professional," had just been published to good reviews, but some critics and readers were put off by the ending. The hero does everything right but loses the big fight in a quirk of fate and then learns to live with it. Fight stories are not supposed to reflect a tragic sense of life.

Ernest Hemingway called it the only good novel about a boxer he had ever read. But what mattered to Bill most did not get into the blurbs. It was the only time I saw him allow himself a moment of pride as he told me:

"Hemingway said he knew it had to end the way it did, but when he got to the last chapter, he threw the book across the room."

Bill Heinz's subject was grace under pressure. He wrote about football coach Vince Lombardi, surgeons in the operating room and Martin Luther King's march on Selma. Along the way, he did a little book about a trauma unit in Korea called "MASH."

The Mideast Money Drain

With the economy in a nosedive, the Democratic Congress is beginning to turn its anti-war focus on the dollars that are being drained by Bush's Mideast policies.

"In a shift from last year’s failed legislative efforts to force a reduction of troops," the New York Times reports, "the Democrats’ new approach is...focusing on the financial cost of military operations and on the war’s implications for the nation’s troubled economy."

This coupling comes on the heels of a new book, "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict" by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz with Linda Bilmes, which estimates that Iraq has already cost almost ten times as much as the first Gulf War, almost a third more than Vietnam and twice as much as the First World War.

Stiglitz told a British think tank this week that war spending was a hidden cause of the current credit crunch after our central bank responded to the financial drain by flooding the American economy with cheap credit.

"The regulators were looking the other way and money was being lent to anybody this side of a life-support system," he said, leading to a housing bubble and a consumption boom that has driven the economy into recession and saddled the next president with the biggest budget deficit in history.

If this argument is too complicated for politicians to make, Senate committees are beginning to hone in on the billions that have been wasted or stolen during the past five years of presumably protecting us from terrorists--an estimated $3.8 billion misspent by Musharraf in Pakistan along with billions more that have vanished in Iraq.

When voters get their stimulus checks of a few hundred dollars this summer, they may want to think about that.

Bloomberg's Kibitzer Candidacy

After teasing us for a year, Mike Bloomberg is putting his billion dollars back in his wallet and leaving a few platitudes on the plate instead.

In a New York Times OpEd titled "I'm Not Running for President, but...," New York's Mayor delivers a ringing concession speech for a presidential campaign that never started.

As he leaves the arena he didn't enter, Bloomberg chides the future nominees for being "afraid to level" with voters about global trade, global warming, immigration, improving schools and gun control.

"More of the same won’t do, on the economy or any other issue," he says. "We need innovative ideas, bold action and courageous leadership. That’s not just empty rhetoric, and the idea that we have the ability to solve our toughest problems isn’t some pie-in-the-sky dream."

But he stands ready, Bloomberg tells us, to help McCain and Obama or Clinton, "to push them forward, by using the means at my disposal to promote a real and honest debate."

In the event the Mayor has forgotten his ethnic roots, what he is proposing to be is a kibitzer, defined as "someone who looks on and offers unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others."

But not entirely, Bloomberg warns us: "If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach--and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy--I’ll join others in helping that candidate win the White House."

Does he mean Ralph Nader?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr.

Urbane, witty and maddeningly supercilious, he was the liberals' favorite conservative. William F. Buckley Jr., who died today, went to Yale, found it not to his liking, wrote a best-seller about his disdain and went on to make conservatism intellectually respectable in the second half of 20th century America.

In 1955, he founded National Review with his brother-in-law, F. Brent Bozell, but being a magazine editor was only a part-time occupation. Buckley leaves behind a torrent of words, on the pages of books and periodicals and in the medium that came of age with him, television.

My favorite memory, among many, is of his 1968 stint as a network commentator, paired with his liberal doppelganger, the elegant novelist and playwright Gore Vidal.

They ended a dispute on some minor point by calling one another "a pro crypto Nazi" and "a queer." Buckley won the argument by warning Vidal, "Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddam face..."

In 2006, Buckley rendered his verdict on George W. Bush: "Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology--with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress," he told a TV interviewer. "And in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge."

As always, well said.

Superdelegate Scorecard

As Barack Obama sweeps through the primaries and caucuses, Hillary Clinton is still leading among the party faithful by an estimated 60 votes among the more than half of the 796 superdelegates who have made a commitment.

While the candidates are virtually tied among governors and members of Congress, the Clinton lead comes almost entirely from the Democratic National Committee, the insiders who set the organization's rules, raise the money and are likely to have long-standing ties to a family that gave them power in the 1990s.

"Change" is not the most appealing theme for this group but, if they turn out to be the deciders at the convention in August, despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's plea that they not overrule voters in choosing the nominee, Chairman Howard Dean will have a mess on his hands.

According to The Hill today, "Acrimony gathering inside the party has spurred some Democrats to begin discussing reforming the nominating process and perhaps getting rid of superdelegates altogether."

But as for now, most superdelegates are standing firm about their choices. One of them, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri vows to stick with Clinton and "would vote for her unless he died first."

If he does and she loses in November, his constituents may arrange for his political funeral later.

Barbarians at the Gray Lady's Gates

The year has not started well for the New York Times. While taking fire for the John McCain story, its family ownership is under siege from hedge funds that have now accumulated over 15 percent of the company's Class A shares.

Symbolically, the attackers are led by Scott Galloway, most often seen in a charity-ball photograph dressed as a blue-faced, sword-wielding Scottish rebel from the movie "Braveheart." But Galloway and his group are digital warriors who insist they don't want to overthrow the old order, just bring it into the 21st century.

In asking for four seats on Times Company board, they wrote that "we are not pursuing a change in the dual class shareholder structure. The New York Times is a great institution controlled by the Sulzberger family and we have no illusion about, or desire to change, that fact...

"We believe a renewed focus on the core assets and the redeployment of capital to expedite the acquisition of digital assets affords the greatest shareholder appreciation and creates the appropriate platform to compete in today’s media landscape."

For their $400 million investment so far, Galloway's invaders have received little encouragement. Their four nominees for the board have been rejected in favor of new Sulzberger choices including, significantly, a close associate of Warren Buffet's.

Nothing like a Rupert Murdoch takeover of the Wall Street Journal is on the horizon, but with 97 percent of its revenue coming from paper-based properties and stock prices falling, the Company is vulnerable to such criticism, as reported by the Washington Post, that "with a market capitalization of $2.8 billion, the single most valuable asset the Times Co. owns, some analysts say, is its new midtown Manhattan headquarters, which may be worth as much as $1 billion. Some have caustically remarked that the Times Co. is now a REIT--a real estate investment trust-- with a newspaper attached."

Amid denunciations of its McCain takeout from the Right and much of the Left, all this is a reminder that the New York Times is one of the few remaining media institutions still family-controlled and being nominally run as a public trust in a time when corporate ownership and "shareholder appreciation" are the rules of the game.

For those who have spent a lifetime in journalism, all this pressure on "the newspaper of record" is a sobering reminder that the old rules in most places are long gone.

Picturing a President

If Barack Obama is sworn in next January, last night's debate may prove to be the turning point when American voters started seeing him as more than a gifted candidate. Hillary Clinton's job was to create doubts about his fitness to be President, but she ended up giving Obama the opportunity to demonstrate he has the qualities for the job.

After a peevish start (citing a Saturday Night Live skit to air her grievances against the questioners), Sen. Clinton worked hard to present herself as Presidential and rattle Obama into appearing less so. But he never took the bait.

In 15 minutes about health care, he defended his position without demeaning hers. When she accused him of wanting to bomb Pakistan, he restated his more nuanced position and pointed out that the Bush Administration had just done what he proposed in taking out an al Qaeda leader. When she criticized him for not "rejecting" Louis Farrakhan's support, Obama pointed out that he had denounced his racist views but would be happy to reject them as well, if there was a distinction.

As the long campaign has gone on, Obama's command and self-confidence have been visibly growing, thereby undermining the arguments about inexperience the Clinton campaign has tried to use against him.

In this last debate before the nomination is decided, he demolished them. In the general election campaign, John McCain will have to work very hard to prove that his years in Washington qualify him to make better decisions about the future than Barack Obama.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Lotts of Smoke

One of last year's political loose ends--the sudden, unexplained resignation of the Senate Minority leader after only a year in his new term--is beginning to unravel today with Trent Lott's announcement that he is not a target of a judicial bribery investigation involving his brother-in-law.

Lott said FBI agents interviewed him earlier this year. "I may be called as a witness," Lott said, "but I've been assured that I'm not under investigation, and rightly so because nothing was done to justify that."

The Justice Department is investigating his brother-in-law, Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs, for an attempt to get a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, with Lott's help, for a Circuit Court Judge in return for a favorable ruling in a lawsuit against Scruggs by another attorney over legal fees.

Lott admits talking to the judge about recommending his appointment but offers no further details because the case is still pending.

When Lott surprisingly gave up his job as the second most powerful Republican in the US Senate last November, there was speculation that his motive was to beat the new two-year limitation on lobbying that went into effect at year's end.

But the Scruggs case suggests a more plausible motive. Lott's preemptive attempt now to minimize his role will only add fuel to the speculation that it figured in his sudden decision to retire.

Pets on Prozac

After overmedicating men, women and children, the pharmaceutical companies are finding new markets in drugging cats, dogs and, symbolically, the only pets that talk, parrots.

"Parrots are very intelligent and sensitive animals," a British vet observes. "Typically if people go out to work all day their parrot will get very bored and frustrated and eventually develop depression."

If "more stimulation and toys" don't help, flavored liquid Prozac, he reports, works in two out of three cases.

Dogs and cats get depressed too, showing such symptoms as attacking furniture, loss of appetite and excessive scratching and aggression.

"A dog can't sit on the couch and discuss his worries," another vet explains, "but he can howl the house down, chase his tail or chew everything to pieces."

Eli Lilly has come to the rescue with the first anti-depressant for dogs, a once-a-day chewable tablet flavored with beef, and Pfizer has created a new diet drug and a motion-sickness remedy for pets.

No word yet on the availability of dog houses with little medicine cabinets.

Which Hillary?

In desperation now, the Campaign That Couldn't is giving us a montage of Hillary Clintons--defiant, angry, scolding, sarcastic--in Ohio and Texas, but how will she blend those stump personas into a coherent candidate for the side-by-side setting of tonight's crucial debate?

In New Hampshire, the sensitive Hillary won over voters in the final days and, at the end of last week's sitdown, emerged again to great effect, but her advisors seem convinced that only an aggressive Hillary can overcome doubts about a woman as Commander-in-Chief.

During the 1960 campaign, John F. Kennedy said he felt sorry for Richard Nixon. "It must be hard," JFK said, "to get up every morning and have to decide who you're going to be that day."

Compared to Nixon, Hillary Clinton is a person of substance, but the Barack Obama surge has forced her into parading multiple personalities, adding confusion to the negatives she has to overcome from the Clinton years.

Claiming superior experience didn't work. Unleashing Bill Clinton didn't work. Mockery and anger don't seem to be working. Being soft and sensitive is too risky.

What's left?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Romney Redux?

Now that John McCain's hair has been mussed a bit by New York Times reminders of his ties to lobbyists, Mitt Romney may be rethinking his decision to suspend his campaign in order not to "be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

According to Los Angeles Times political columnist Andrew Malcolm, "Josh Romney, one of former Gov. Mitt Romney's five sons, says it's 'possible' his father may rejoin the race for the White House, as a vice presidential candidate or as the Republican Party's standard-bearer if the campaign of Sen. John McCain falters...Because he suspended rather than terminated his campaign, Romney still retains control of the nearly 300 delegates he's already won."

Mike Huckabee will be thrilled to hear that Romney may want to be a part of surrendering to terror after all. Maybe they can get Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson to come back for a Republican roast of McCain with Rush Limbaugh as MC.

Mission Creep in the Middle East

John McCain's hyperbole about keeping troops in Iraq for a hundred years is alarmingly echoed in a Washington Post OpEd by one of the saner foreign policy experts on the Washington scene.

"What the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan have in common," Anthony Cordesman writes, "is that it will take a major and consistent U.S. effort throughout the next administration at least to win either war.

"Any American political debate that ignores or denies the fact that these are long wars is dishonest and will ensure defeat. There are good reasons that the briefing slides in U.S. military and aid presentations for both battlefields don't end in 2008 or with some aid compact that expires in 2009. They go well beyond 2012 and often to 2020."

Only seven months ago, Cordesman was pointing out that some recent advances in Iraq were the result of “sheer luck,” such as Sunni tribesmen turning against Al Qaeda insurgents and quoting a U.S. official as describing our situation as "three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you."

Rejecting the extremes of staying the course or immediate withdrawal, Cordesman made a case then for phasing down troop levels starting early this year. Now, another trip to Iraq and Afghanistan has persuaded him that "these are wars that can still be won" if we stay another decade or more.

Does the word quagmire ring a bell? In 1968, Richard Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam and stayed another five years before accepting a humiliating defeat.

Now, once again, we are testing our will in places thousands of miles away against antagonists who are willing to do anything for as long it takes to get control of their own territory.

We started out to remove Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, a mission that has morphed into policing the entire Middle East, with Pakistan and Iran next on the horizon. Can Cordesman and John McCain explain how we do that without breaking our military and busting the budget?

No More Oscars for Jon Stewart

Two years ago, it might have just been the unease of doing something new before hundreds of millions of people, but last night made it clear: Jon Stewart shouldn't be hosting the Academy Awards.

With his exquisite sense of the absurd, Stewart can't break through the defenses of an audience that takes its own absurdity solemnly, and he is much too polite to provoke them outrageously. So he is reduced to making lame, outdated jokes about Dennis Hopper's drug haze and MCing a la Larry King--a little like watching a thoroughbred pulling a rusty plow.

Send back the clowns with their one-liners and let Stewart concentrate on saving our sanity on the Daily Show.

What's Wrong With Obama

Now we know the worst. Behind all the electoral enthusiasm for the Democratic front runner is a treasonous self-regard.

In today's New York Times, William Kristol explains it in his inimitable style. In declining to wear an American flag lapel pin as "a substitute...for true patriotism," which he defines as "speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security," Barack Obama is guilty of...moral vanity!

"What’s striking," Kristol instructs us, "is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. Obama’s unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good--too patriotic!--to wear a flag pin on his chest."

A surge of unity after 9/11 inspired Americans to display the flag--on their lapels and their lawns--after the trauma of an unthinkable attack. But Kristol's heroes--Bush, Cheney and Rove--converted that heartfelt feeling into a Neo-Con tool for waging preemptive war, trampling on civil liberties and winning elections by attacking their opponents' love of country.

In rejecting that definition of patriotism, Obama is embracing "the preening self-regard of Bill Clinton, the patronizing elitism of Al Gore and the haughty liberalism of John Kerry."

As a member of that fraternity, Obama can't expect to be pinned by William Kristol, who has belatedly pledged John McCain into the circle of true believers who wear their American hearts on their sleeves and their chests.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

3972 Reasons for Nader Not to Run

John Roberts, Samuel Alito and US fatalities in Iraq head the list of what might have been avoided if America's crusader had stayed off the ballot in 2000 and not provided George W. Bush with the margins he needed to win the White House.

Now here he is again, on Meet the Press, puffing away at the importance of third-party candidates in pushing Democrats and Republicans toward ideological purity, pooh-poohing the complaint that he gave us a President who has tilted the Supreme Court away from what Nader's admirers believe and into a war that he and they deplore.

In declaring his candidacy yet again, Nader, who will be 74 this week, is in a dead heat with Ann Coulter for becoming this year's foremost example of Reverse Attention Deficit Disorder, the compulsive need to preen for TV cameras at any cost.

What they have in common is Hillary Clinton. Coulter claims she would support her rather than John McCain, and Nader would do anything to keep another Clinton out of the White House.

Of the two, Coulter is a more benign case, providing only passing amusement in her quest for attention. Nader is a self-deluded disgrace who might pose an actual danger of electing Bush's anointed successor if it were not for the comforting fact that he drew less than half of one percent of the vote in 2004.

All the News That's Fit to Hint

You can hear the crackle of eggshells as the Public Editor of the New York Times walks through the wreckage of the paper's story about John McCain last Thursday.

In today's column, Clark Hoyt quotes the morning-after justifying by Executive Editor Bill Keller of a report on a "fighter against corruption" who has been “careless about appearances, careless about his reputation, and that’s a pretty important thing to know about somebody who wants to be president of the United States.”

Perhaps so, but Keller's characterization can be applied just as well to a newspaper that has been and still wants to be the journalistic conscience of the United States.

In defending his reporters, Keller downgraded McCain's "ties" to a younger woman lobbyist to an "association," but they offered proof of little more than an acquaintance that led staff members to worry that it might look like more. About that, the newspaper of record's own conscience concludes that "if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed."

Amid all the leering, what has been lost is the point about McCain's iffy relationships with lobbyists over the years.

"The pity of it," Hoyt writes today "is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain, who was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for exercising 'poor judgment' by intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a corrupt savings and loan executive, recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman, at whose request he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge a speed-up on a decision affecting one of her clients."

McCain's defense that he was only trying to expedite rather than influence that decision won't wash in a wink-and-a-nod town where any kind of intervention with a regulatory commission by a powerful Senator sends a clear message.

The Times' main error may have been not to publish its story about that, minus the gossip, as opinion rather than news in "a series of articles about the life and careers of contenders for the 2008 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Michelle Obama's Pride

Those who were perplexed, annoyed and/or enraged by Mrs. Obama's statement that "for the first time in my adult life I'm proud of America" may want to take a look at HBO's contribution tonight to Black History Month, a documentary about Joe Louis.

Called, without irony, "a credit to his race," the heavyweight champion was exalted in 1938 for beating the exemplar of Nazi Germany, Max Schmeling, but never accepted as a true American. Decades later, when playing golf in San Diego, he found excrement in the first hole.

As a white child growing up in the Harlem ghetto, I saw how little of the pride that Michelle Obama now feels was within reach of its black residents. Movie placards in store windows would read "Gone With the Wind with Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen," followed in smaller type by "Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh."

In World War II, I was greeted by glares for sitting in the back of a bus in Charleston, South Carolina, and only my uniform spared me from more physical reactions by white riders.

In the 1950s, it took a Supreme Court desegregation decision to let children who looked like Michelle Obama go to school with those who didn't and, in the years afterward, they were beaten in the streets for marching with Martin Luther King for the audacity of wanting to exercise their right to vote.

In 1985, in her senior thesis, the future Mrs. Obama wrote, "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong...it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."

Now millions of Americans of all races are voting to make Barack Obama their president. His wife's pride is understandable, and those who attack her manner of expressing it would do well to recall its origins and examine their own motives.

Lieberman Absolves McCain

The US Senate's Resident Moralist has prayed over the alleged sins of John McCain and given him his blessing.

"Here’s a man," the Reverend Joe Lieberman sermonized outside a Connecticut diner this week, "who has devoted his whole life to service to his country. His honor matters a lot to him. His reputation matters a lot to him. And this is a story that basically pukes up 8-year-old rumors, uncorroborated."

In addition, Lieberman offered his personal testimony: "I've been with him on a lot of occasions, traveled all around the world, been at meetings with a lot of women there. And I've never seen him do anything that even approached inappropriate behavior."

Case closed.

Such absolution is impressive from the man who publicly scolded his own President for "sexual misconduct and his deliberate efforts to deceive the American people" in the Monica Lewinsky days.

Now, as an Independent supporting a Republican candidate for president, Lieberman has obviously mellowed. It's surely only coincidence that the text he denounced came from the New York Times, which in 2006 endorsed his opponent in the Connecticut primary, saying "Mr. Lieberman has fallen in love with his image as the nation’s moral compass" but "has become one of the Bush administration’s most useful allies as the president tries to turn the war on terror into an excuse for radical changes in how this country operates."

It's heartening to see Sen. Lieberman, as Barack Obama might say, reach across the aisle to give moral support to an old friend and after all, as the Times noted back then, "if pomposity were a disqualification, the Senate would never be able to call a quorum."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Castro and Karl Rove, Commentators

Fidel just won't go away and, like Bush's Brain in Newsweek, he has to give us his expertise on '08.

“I enjoyed observing the embarrassing position of all the presidential candidates in the United States,” Castro wrote this week about reaction to his stepping down in a column for Cuba's state-run newspaper. “One by one, they found themselves forced to proclaim their immediate demands to Cuba, so as not to alienate a single voter.”

Castro also had a few words about theme of change that has dominated the campaign: "Half a century of blockade was not enough for the chosen few. 'Change, change, change!' they shouted in unison. I agree. Change!--but in the United States."

After noting the first President Bush's endorsement of John McCain, Castro remarked on the current President's visit to Africa, "I don't know what he's doing there."

Karl Rove could tell him. Now that they both have time on their hands, the Western Hemisphere's two leading political manipulators might want to get together and exchange secrets of the trade.

If Fidel wants to learn a thing or two, he might watch 60 Minutes Sunday night, for an interview with a Rove operative explaining how the Master ordered her to take sexually compromising pictures of a Democratic governor. That's Rove's definition of an "embarrassing position."

Betting on a Dead Horse, Again

Political chaos in Pakistan could bring nuclear headaches for the US, and what our government is doing to prop up a failing regime recalls efforts three decades ago on behalf of our old ally, the Shah of Iran.

The McClatchy Newspapers report: "The Bush administration is pressing the opposition leaders who defeated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to allow the former general to retain his position, a move that Western diplomats and U.S. officials say could trigger the very turmoil the United States seeks to avoid.

"U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, said this week that they think Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, should continue to play a role, despite his party's rout in parliamentary elections Monday and his unpopularity in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation."

Pressuring the newly elected anti-Musharraf majority to retain our iffy friend may turn out to be the kind of mistake we made in the late 1970s on behalf of the Shah before and after he was deposed in Iran. Despite Jimmy Carter's misgivings, he was persuaded by Henry Kissinger and his oil friends to let the old US ally come here, which resulted in occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days and the ongoing hostility with Iran.

President Bush has reacted to the Pakistan elections with a wishful observation that "it's time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government, and the question then is, will they be friends of the United States, and I certainly hope so."

Behind the scenes, however, the White House is urging the newly elected Pakistanis not to reinstate the judges Musharraf ousted last year, who would likely try to remove him from office--a strategy that veteran State Department officials feel could backfire.

But not to fear, Henry Kissinger is still around to give the Administration the benefit of his wisdom and is helping John McCain with foreign policy advice.

What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hillary Clinton for VP

Tonight's debate pushed front and center the question of whether the Democratic Party can do what it did in 1960, nominate an inspiring young leader paired with a Washington veteran in the workings of government.

John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson persuaded voters that they could open a New Frontier with the first Catholic president in American history. This year, the Democrats can offer a ticket with two firsts.

In tone and substance, the debate in Austin suggested that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton together can restore the damage that George W. Bush has done to the American body politic and that John McCain might only prolong.

Their policy differences tonight were invisible to the naked eye, and they ended up with the kind of hearty handshake that could be repeated to seal their designation as the 2008 ticket at the Democratic convention in August.

For Obama, it would be a demonstration of his claim that he can bring people together. On her part, it would take character for Hillary Clinton to accept the vice-presidency after leading in the presidential polls for more than a year.

But voters are rendering a different judgment now, and when the Texas and Ohio primaries are over, Obama should look back at how JFK in 1960 insured that his party ended eight years of Republican rule by teaming up with his opponent for the nomination.

If the ticket won, Hillary Clinton in 2016 would still be younger than John McCain is now.

Mischanneling Marilyn

Between them, Lindsay Lohan (21) and Bert Stern (79) have inhabited planet Earth for a century, but all those years have not produced an iota of the good judgment it would have taken for them not to recreate "Marilyn Monroe's Last Sitting" for New York Magazine this week.

Grave-robbing is rife in the celebrity world, but the desperation of a troubled young woman and an aging once-talented photographer plumbs new depths of exploitation. Lohan has none of Marilyn's magic, and Stern is parodying the artist he was 46 years ago.

My revulsion is not objective. As someone who spent a week in 1955 working with Marilyn and the gifted Ed Feingersh, both of whom died in their thirties, as he created classic photographs of her, I am prejudiced in the extreme.

But for anyone who wants to get a sense of what Marilyn Monroe was really like, there is the YouTube presentation of some of Feingersh's pictures here and, for the truly patient, the story of how they were taken here.

Marilyn was no Lindsay Lohan.

The NY Times Defines Deviancy Down

The Gray Lady won't win its 96th Pulitzer Prize with today's "expose" of John McCain's history of ethical struggles and leering innuendo about his relationship with a young woman lobbyist.

In fact, the Times' takeout is bigger news than its contents. The long leadup to publication has been a source of journalistic gossip for months, and the timing is attributed to worries about being beaten on the story by another media behemoth, the New Republic.

The days of the Pentagon papers, The New York Times vs Sullivan case that changed libel law and the universal respect for columnists like James Reston and Tom Wicker are long gone. Today we have William Kristol and this--a long rehash of McCain's political lapses, coupled with a low-fact personal smear.

In defining deviancy downward, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan might say, the Times has done more than open the door for its rabid right-wing haters. The newspaper of record has put pressure on itself to do a similar job on Barack Obama and his Antoin Rezko connections or face an election-year barrage of continuing criticism.

A long mea culpa from its Public Editor next weekend won't be enough to undo the damage.

The Pox of Pigeonhole Politics

If Barack Obama has accomplished nothing else in his campaign so far, he has done us all a service by confounding the political consultants and pollsters who slice and dice voters by age, gender, ethnicity, religion, economic status, the population density of where they live and sub-categories thereof.

Unfazed by their spectacular failure in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, the identity experts appear regularly after each victory to report confidently on Obama's "progress" with younger women, blue-collar workers, Latinos, etc. to explain his march toward the Democratic nomination.

No turn of events escapes their expert analysis. In a classic gotcha, whatever they predict that turns out to be wrong is simply a new trend to be reported with confident expertise.

All this begs the question, to put it bluntly, of whether they know what they're talking about. One of the heartening aspects of the Obama campaign has been his capacity to reach across the lines that divide voters and tap into hopes that could unite them.

Each success has left Hillary Clinton's strategists scrambling for ways to stop losses among working men, shore up support among younger women, rope in straying independents and woo other perceived segments of society--a process that produces the picture of a campaign running off in all directions.

It's too much to hope that the experts will abandon their pigeonholing of voters. They will most likely respond by discovering a new demographic--true believers in the possibility of change, with subdivisions by age, gender, religion, etc.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bright Lights and Breast Cancer

Simon and Garfunkel's "Hello darkness, my old friend" has taken on new meaning with reports of a study that women exposed to bright noctural lighting have higher breast cancer rates than those who spend their nighttime hours in unlit surroundings.

By overlaying satellite images of Earth on geographical reports of cancer, Israeli scientists tested the hypothesis that exposure to excessive light at night can raise the risk of breast cancer by interfering with the brain's production of a tumor-suppressing hormone. They found "a clear and strong correlation."

Previous studies of nurses, flight attendants and other night workers found breast cancer rates 60 percent above normal. As a result, the World Health Organization recently classified their work as a "probable carcinogen," putting the night shift in the same health-risk category as exposure to toxic chemicals.

Scientists believe melatonin, which the body produces primarily at night, may be the answer. Levels drop sharply in the presence of light in that part of the spectrum emitted by computer screens and fluorescent bulbs.

Now that the risk has been identified, the search for ways to minimize or eliminate it can begin.

President Obama Strikes Pakistan

With Pervez Musharraf on the electoral ropes, US policy has morphed from Bush's approach to Barack Obama's in unilaterally taking out an al Qaeda commander in Pakistan's tribal area.

Last July, Obama was criticized for saying, "“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”

Now, according to a highly sourced report in the Washington Post, the CIA has done just that. In a Tom Clancyish operation, missiles from a drone aircraft killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda commander who had been eluding the CIA's dragnet.

"It was the first successful strike against al-Qaeda's core leadership in two years," the Post reports, "and it involved, U.S. officials say, an unusual degree of autonomy by the CIA inside Pakistan.

"Having requested the Pakistani government's official permission for such strikes on previous occasions, only to be put off or turned down, this time the U.S. spy agency did not seek approval. The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was notified only as the operation was underway, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities."

Six months ago, Obama was denounced by other Presidential candidates as naïve and pooh-poohed by then White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

“I'm confident," President Bush harrumphed, "that with actionable intelligence we will be able to bring top Al Qaeda to justice. We're in constant communications with the Pakistan government."

Not this time. In the light of elections in Pakistan and back here, change seems to be literally in the air.

Yesterday vs. Tomorrow

John McCain says it's too soon for Barack Obama, Obama claims it's too late for McCain and Hillary Clinton is still insisting, against all odds, that the time is just right for her.

Last night, McCain posed the question, "(W)ill we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down without pre-conditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?"

In doing so, he personified yesterday's politics by distorting Obama's statements about Pakistan and negotiating with America's enemies beyond recognition.

Last night, Obama said, "I revere and honor John McCain's service to this country. He is a genuine American hero. But when he embraces George Bush's failed economic policies, when he says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq, then he represents the policies of yesterday. And we want to be the party of tomorrow. And I'm looking forward to having that debate with John McCain."

Despite another devastating loss in the Wisconsin primary, Hillary Clinton was still holding herself out as the candidate who is in touch with today's realities.

"(Y)ou'll find at HillaryClinton.com all of my positions, everything that I have been working on, because I know what's happening in America," she told a rally in Youngstown, Ohio. "People are struggling...They cannot afford four more years of a president who just doesn't see or hear them at all. They need a president ready on day one to be commander-in-chief, ready to manage our economy, and ready to beat the Republicans in November."

But, after last night's results, it appears the choice will be between Obama and McCain, separated by decades in age and light years apart in their view of the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama's Dose of Media Payback

David Brooks' New York Times column with its cutesy concept of "Obama Comedown Syndrome" is a sure sign that the familiar process has begun: media payback, wherein the over-hypers of MSM start a new cycle of anti-gush to meet their quotas of knowingness.

In filling his space today, Brooks describes Obama enthusiasts as victims of "intense surges of hope-amine, the brain chemical that fuels euphoric sensations of historic change and personal salvation" and goes on to criticize the candidate as "the most predictable liberal vote in the Senate" with a tendency to vacillate on issues.

Yet, in October 2006, Brooks was one of the first commentators in either party to enthuse over Obama. In a column titled "Run Barack Run," he encouraged him to do just that, noting that “a president who brings a deliberative style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it.”

But Brooks is only doing what comes naturally to columnists, trying to stay ahead of the public opinion curve to preserve his punditry credentials.

When he declared his candidacy last spring, John McCain complained of rough media treatment, failing to understand it as the predictable backlash to all the "Straight Talk" hype about his previous campaign.

In Obama's case, there may be some legitimate "buyer's remorse" out there as voters begin to see him as a possible president rather than a symbol of hope, but in the coming weeks, the media can be trusted to amplify those doubts ad nauseam.

Welcome to the big ring, Senator.

Cuba's Next President and Ours

The man who plagued the White House from JFK on won't be around for the next occupant, although the turmoil of his succession may be more of a problem than he himself has been in recent years for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain in their campaigning in Florida and elsewhere.

From several generations of Cuban-Americans, Castro's announcement that he is stepping down will elicit joy and hope, shadowed by bitter sorrow over decades of exile from their native land. Feelings will run high again.

For once, perhaps because he is continents away from home, George W. Bush sounded presidential today in noting "the question really should be what does this mean for the people in Cuba. They are the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro."

Bush expressed hope this would be "the beginning of a democratic transition for the people of Cuba...An interesting debate will arise. Some will say let's promote stability. In the meantime political prisoners will rot...This should be a transition to free and fair elections. And I mean free and fair. Not these elections that the Castro brothers rig."

Nepotism and iffy elections are not a strong suit for the man who took power in 2000, but we can be grateful that he won't be in office long enough to help the Cuban people find democracy as he has been doing in Iraq. His successor will have to find subtler ways.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Obama's Words and Music

The Clinton campaign and its candidate are immune to irony. In attacking Barack Obama for "plagiarism" in using memorable phrases cited by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick as he too defended himself against charges of excessive rhetorical brilliance, Clinton campaign adviser Howard Wolfson is missing the point in spectacular fashion.

Even after Gov. Patrick's testimony that he and Obama often exchange ideas, Wolfson insists "that the public has an expectation that Sen. Obama's words are his own."

But Wolfson's gotcha may boomerang. It isn't Obama's phrases that have carried him past Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race but the attitude and worldview they convey. It isn't Obama's words that count, it's the music.

By fastening attention on the literal, Clinton's surrogate is exhibiting exactly the kind of literal thinking that has damaged her campaign from the start. In the Clinton view, the campaign is a test, and the candidate with the most answers should win.

But it isn't. Voters want a sense of the candidate's heart, mind and spirit, the kind of test Obama is winning by making his feelings and thought processes available rather than hiding behind rote phrases like "ready from Day One" and "35 years of delivering change."

If anything, Obama is far from a talented phrase-maker. His speeches depend more on rhythms of openness and reaching out that seem to be connecting with voters of all demographics.

After all these years of Bush's mangling the English language and inverting the meaning of words, a little literacy is certainly welcome. But if Clinton and her crew keep harping on getting the words right, they will be missing the music.

Health Care: You Bet Your Life

In offering solutions for medical insurance, politicians of all stripes keep reassuring voters about their right to be treated by "the doctor of your choice" rather than some faceless bureaucrat in a white coat under socialized medicine.

There are problems with this argument. Most Americans are now covered by HMOs, which present them with lists of "in-network" physicians either on their payroll or who have agreed to pre-set fees and, in many cases, face pressure to make life-and-death decisions on what's best for the insurers' bottom line.

In California, this divided loyalty recently came into focus with Blue Cross' attempt to enlist doctors in reporting patients who fail to disclose previously existing conditions.

"We're outraged, "the President of the California Medical Association responded, "that they are asking doctors to violate the sacred trust of patients to rat them out for medical information that patients would expect their doctors to handle with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality."

The Blue Cross backed off, but the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship is definitely showing symptoms of stress. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is suing UnitedHealth for operating "a defective and manipulated database that most major health insurance companies rely upon to set reimbursement rates for out-of-network medical expenses.”

Translation: If you see "the doctor of your choice," your insurer will stiff you on how much of his or her bill they will pay.

That aside, there is the question of how Americans pick their physicians when they can. From all evidence, most do so more casually and with less information than they gather before buying a car or trying a new restaurant.

There is no Zagat guide to medical services, and consulting the "best doctors" lists of regional magazines only leads to the discovery that most are not taking new patients. Too often, the decision is based on the casual advice of a friend or neighbor.

The US Department of Health & Human Services has a few rudimentary suggestions for getting information, but for the most part, finding the right doctor is no more fact-based than finding the right mate. You have to trust your instincts and hope for the best. No politician can help with that.

A Few Words From Bush's Gunga Dim

William Kristol, the Neo-Con water carrier, finds inspiration today in the poet of empire, Rudyard Kipling, via George Orwell, a literary confluence that boggles the 21st century mind.

From an Orwell essay on Kipling discovered in a used-book store, Kristol finds a parallel for today's Democrats with the British "permanent and pensioned opposition," whose quality of thought deteriorated because it was "not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.”

Modestly asking our leave to "vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit," the New York Times' newest sage adapts the wisdom of the author of "White Man's Burden" to belabor opposition to the war in Iraq and illegal eavesdropping as the acts of decadent Democrats who have forgotten how to take responsibility for the use of power.

Cheerfully ignoring the fate of the British Empire that Kipling celebrated, Kristol advises Bush detractors to step up and emulate those men of action who muddled up the Middle East a century ago.

He ends with a more recent historical reference: "To govern is to choose, a Democrat of an earlier generation, John F. Kennedy, famously remarked. Is this generation of Democrats capable of governing?"

Kristol may want to take note of something JFK also said, "You can't beat brains."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Trouble With Too Much Charisma

Those who oppose him in both parties are attacking Barack Obama with a double-barreled cultural stereotype, the old film noir thesis that good looks can be deceptive combined with a Jim Jones analogy about followers suicidally drinking in hope with laced Kool-Aid.

In today's New York Times, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian and Clinton supporter, observes, "What is troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption.” He claims that Obama is "posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”

Earlier this week, Paul Krugman wrote that "the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality."

Today's Times piece quotes Norman Mailer describing JFK's arrival at the Democratic convention in 1960, “the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street.”

The reporter should have gone further into Mailer's musings on Kennedy. Substitute "African-American" for "Catholic" in this passage:

"With such a man in office, the myth of the nation would again be engaged, and the fact that he was a Catholic would engage the mind of the White Protestant. For the first time in our history, the Protestant would have the pain and creative luxury of feeling himself in some tiny degree part of a minority, and that was an experience which might be incommensurable in its value to the best of them."

It's understandable that detractors would try to equate Obama's emotional appeal to lack of substance. In the 1960s, when I was editing McCalls, an advertiser told me, "Your competitors say the magazine looks so good that readers don't get to the ads."

"If I had to sell a dull magazine," I answered, "I might make say that too, but if you can't get people to pay attention, they won't respond to anything."

This year, Obama is getting voters to pay attention, and his opponents are reduced to finding fault with that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Blunder Bus Rolls On

The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld top command had plenty of company in mismanaging the war in Iraq, a Pentagon study shows.

Hundreds of U.S. Marines were killed or injured by roadside bombs when Marine Corps bureaucrats refused urgent requests in 2005 from battlefield commanders for blast-resistant vehicles.

The study disclosed today by the AP accuses the service of "gross mismanagement" that delayed deliveries of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks for more than two years.

Stateside paper shufflers sidetracked orders for the heavily armored MRAPs that could have prevented casualties from the IEDs that were decimating US troops on the basis of their cost of almost $1 million each to expedite plans for lighter vehicles still on the drawing board.

Without the knowledge of the Marine Corps Commandant, a field General's requests were sent to a civilian logistics official in suburban Washington. "As a result," the study contends, "there was more concern over how the MRAP would upset the Marine Corps' supply and maintenance chains than there was in getting the troops a truck that would keep them alive."

It was only when current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the trucks the top priority last year that the vehicles started to be shipped in large quantities.

More than 800 Marines have been killed and almost 8400 wounded in Iraq, most of them by explosive devices. The former Marine officer who wrote the report had to file for whistle-blower protection last year with the US Office of Special Counsel after being threatened with disciplinary action for meeting with Congressional staff members.

The Corps seems to have moved more swiftly to protect bureaucrats and their bosses than troops in the field.

Al Gore: Revenge of the Nerd

After years of being bullied by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and the jocks of the Supreme Court, this may be Al Gore's moment to exercise his muscle.

In the gathering storm over the Democratic nomination, the non-violent Gore is increasingly seen as the one figure who might mediate the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who could overcome divisions about superdelegates and the seating of the Florida and Michigan phantom contingents.

Gore, according to today's New York Times, "has been lobbied hard for an endorsement by allies of Mrs. Clinton and of Mr. Obama.

"Although it is not clear what role their past may play in his decision, Mr. Gore and the Clintons have a complicated, sometimes intense history, and Mr. Obama’s strength in the presidential race could make it even more complicated.

"Some of Mr. Gore’s allies have complained bitterly that Mr. Clinton concentrated more on Mrs. Clinton’s Senate run in 2000 than on getting Mr. Gore elected president. For his part, Mr. Clinton was surprised and hurt that Mr. Gore did not enlist him on the campaign trail in the final weeks of the presidential campaign."

Those wounds from the campaign that gave us eight years of George W. Bush may still be sore but should also motivate Democrats not to let anything like it happen again.

For the moment, Gore is watching warily from the sidelines, but the man who once claimed to have invented the Internet should be smart enough to get the warring factions of his party to communicate about ways to come together and retake the White House.

The Mother of All Mideast Scandals

Huge bribes, arms deals and threats of terrorism are the elements of an unfolding plot centering on the good friend of both Presidents Bush, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia.

Testimony in a London court yesterday led a judge to comment that former Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared to have "rolled over" for Bandar "just as if a gun had been held to the head" of the government.

The Saudi Prince was accused of threatening to hold back information on terrorists and suicide bombers that would lead to the loss of "British lives on British streets" if Blair's investigators kept looking into charges that he took $2 billion of bribes in arms deals with the British company BAE. They stopped.

Now those charges as well as Bandar's strong-arming to suppress them are being heard in a British high court, and there are ongoing probes here as well.

Last summer, BAE disclosed that the US Justice Department is looking into the company's possible violations of corruption laws in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and this week, in a class-action suit brought by stockholders, a federal judge restrained Prince Bandar from transferring out of the country proceeds from his real estate deals, including the legendary Hearst Mansion, which he has put up for sale at $165 million.

As his country's ambassador in Washington, Bandar was so close to both Bushes that, immediately after 9/11, with air space closed to private flights, he was able to fly his family and friends home and, until recently, he was the key player in the Saudi game of publicly supporting US efforts against terrorism while allowing Saudi troublemakers to join Al Qaeda in Iraq to attack our troops.

Now, the story of the Playboy Prince's intrigues is beginning to unravel and, in coming months, may make Mideast conspiracy movies such as "Syriana" look like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Gagging in Washington

Now we know what the striking comedy writers were doing during their down time, hiring out to prepare standup routines for Washington politicians.

At the Washington Press Club's annual Congressional dinner this week, Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel wowed the crowd with material from his previous incarnation in the Clinton White House.

As reported by Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times, Emanuel proposed himself as a Clinton or Obama running mate: "I’d balance them both--I have more experience in the executive branch than Barack and I’ve spent more time alone with Bill than Hillary has."

"I’m a man who has learned a lot," he claimed, "since his days in the Clinton White House. Back then, the words 'stimulus' and 'package' had a whole different meaning.

'Let’s be honest, back then when we would talk about a surge, a lightning quick thrust and a phased withdrawal it was damage control."

In bipartisan jibes, Emanuel noted that "Mike Huckabee says he is staying in the race and looking for a miracle because he believes in them. He is a very religious man who worships an ancient white-haired wrathful God who believes vengeance is his. Isn’t that John McCain?

"Can you imagine John McCain as President? During the White House Easter egg hunt he’d be standing at the door in his bathrobe yelling at the kids to get off his damn lawn...A lot of Republicans are worried about John McCain’s temper. It’s never a good sign when Dick Cheney tells you to lighten up."

The Republicans must have latched on to some of the talent, too. Even dour Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got off a laugh line about the Democratic race as a contest between "a New York senator who was born in Illinois and an Illinois senator who was apparently born in a manger."

It's nice to see them being intentionally funny for a change.

A Painful Look at Homeland Security

The terror-threat level is being reset on the Michael Chertoff Bodily Functions Sensor System.

Last spring, as the national designated worrier, the agency director reported acute gut feelings about an imminent attack, but his scare-response scale has now been lowered to chronic insomnia.

In an interview, Chertoff reports he is not sleeping any better than last year but not any worse over the possibility of an "earth-shattering" event such as "a nuclear or a dirty bomb attack or a nuclear or biological attack."

Last year's biological disclosure brought Chertoff a stern rebuke from the Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson:

"What color code in the Homeland Security Advisory System is associated with a 'gut feeling?' What sectors should be on alert as a result of your 'gut feeling?' What cities should be asking their law enforcement to work double shifts because of your 'gut feeling?'”

Such warnings, the Chairman pointed out, could result in communities depleting scarce homeland security resources and subverting "a risk-based approach to homeland security."

But that may be unfair to a director whose agency last year was cited by Congress for failing to fill a quarter of its top leadership posts as a result of "over-politicization of the top rank of Department management" and whose employees reported the lowest job satisfaction among 36 federal agencies.

With all these handicaps, perhaps Chertoff should be commended for finding unorthodox methods of assessing threats and keeping the public informed. The man obviously takes his job to heart.

Superdelegates Tilt Toward Obama

If Hillary Clinton can't stop the primary dominoes from falling, the superdelegates won't save her.

The latest defection is Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights era, who had endorsed Sen. Clinton, but now says, "Something is happening in America and people are prepared and ready to make that great leap...I’ve been very impressed with the campaign of Senator Obama. He’s getting better and better every single day.”

Lewis' switch, following that of Rep. David Scott, signals the Clintons' loss of one of its most loyal constituencies, the Black Caucus, and foreshadows a possible further erosion in support from Democratic Party insiders, who weeks ago seemed to be solidly behind the former First Lady.

David Wilhelm, who managed Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, has announced he will vote for Obama. Christine Samuels, a former Clinton superdelegate from New Jersey, yesterday did the same.

Perhaps the most ominous sign is what the most powerful woman in American political history, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has remained neutral, said last week:

"I don't think it was ever intended that superdelegates would overturn the verdict, the decision of the American people."

No one ever accused politicians of remaining loyal until the last dog dies.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Politics of Murder

Déjà vu won't do. Recurring nightmare is a better description for what happened today on a college campus in DeKalb, Illinois--an armed-to-the-teeth gunman, random shooting, sudden deaths.

This time there were five victims, plus the shooter, who stepped from behind a curtain in a lecture hall and started firing indiscriminately before killing himself on the stage. He had a shotgun, a Glock pistol and another handgun.

Ten months after Virginia Tech, the body count is mercifully lower, but the aftermath will be the same.

A special agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is at the scene, promising to "be urgently tracing the firearms and learning the history of the weapons" to "learn where they came from and how the shooter came to possess them."

Last April, John McCain responded to the Virginia massacre by saying, "We have to look at what happened here, but it doesn't change my views on the Second Amendment, except to make sure that these kinds of weapons don't fall into the hands of bad people...Obviously we have to keep guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens."

Now, as the Republican nominee-to-be courts the favor of his from-my-cold-dead-hands constituency, will his response be any different? The rest of us will have to mourn without him.

Swooning Over Obama

The crowd scenes strike a chord, entranced young faces and outstretched arms reaching for the figure on a stage, memories of Frank Sinatra stirring the emotions of a young generation coming of age in a dark wartime world.

They called it "swooning" then, young girls moved to tears by the promise of love and happy endings beyond the hard realities.

Barack Obama's ballad is political, not personal, but he is striking notes of hope and caring to a post-MTV generation that in the Bush era has heard only cynicism and despair. This time they are not only filling arenas and cheering but, by the evidence of recent primaries, going to the ballot box and voting.

It will take time for politicians to grasp that we are beyond demographics here into a realm where the old song-and-dance routines are not enough. Bush-Cheney-Rove replaced them with bitter dissonance and discord, but those sounds have run their course, too.

Now, a new generation that hasn't known any other kind of politics is hearing something new, the music of "Yes We Can," and their response to the rhythms is crossing over to older listeners.

If Obama can provide the right lyrics in the coming months, we may all be dancing to a new tune in November.

Democracy at Work

Our taxpayer dollars were spent yesterday embarrassing Larry Craig and humiliating Roger Clemens by people who are siphoning off millions of it to reelect new members of their own party.

That snapshot of Congress comes from the lead items on the website of The Hill, which chronicles the workings of our government:

"The Senate Ethics Committee publicly admonished Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) late Wednesday for attempting to use his public office to get out of his arrest last summer in a Minneapolis airport restroom sting..."

"Roger Clemens, the New York Yankees’ star pitcher, had barely taken his seat Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) stunned an already tense hearing into near silence...'Someone isn’t telling the truth,' said Waxman in his opening statement in a hearing that lasted most of the day..."

"Democratic leaders have sent tens of millions of dollars to freshman lawmakers’ districts in hope of protecting the party’s newfound majority..."

There was other news, too:

"President Bush on Wednesday signed the $152 billion stimulus package that he hopes will jump-start the economy in the coming months..."

"Congressional Democrats headed into another clash with President Bush over torture as the Senate cleared a bill Wednesday to force spy agencies to comply with the military’s ban on waterboarding and other harsh techniques..."

"A House committee is expected to vote soon on a program that would allow Hill staff working late to take taxis home and have the cab fares paid out of office expenses..."

It's good to know that our elected representatives are hard at work.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pimping Out the News

Last week's Chelsea Clinton furor marks a low point in cable network competition for eyeballs and ears during the 24/7 news cycle and raises broader questions about their prime-time "journalism," which has degenerated into a babble of idiot ids vying for attention.

David Shuster's "pimped out" remark exemplifies a trend reported almost a year ago by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, that "cable news channels...are moving more toward personalities, often opinionated ones, to win audiences.

"The most strident voices, such as Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, are among the biggest successes in winning viewers, as is CNN’s new crusader, Lou Dobbs. How much those individual shows affect a channel’s overall audience is harder to gauge. Their growth in 2006 was substantial, particularly among 25-to-54-year-olds, but those gains were not enough to stanch the overall declines.

"The shifts toward even edgier opinion are also probably a response to another change. Cable is beginning to lose its claim as the primary destination for what was once its main appeal: news on demand. That is something the Internet can now provide more efficiently."

Something even more basic is involved as well. Unlike newspapers, magazines and even blogs, TV news has always been a zero-sum game. If a viewer loses interest and switches channels, it's over, so the premium is on attention-getting and holding. Blowhards and gasbags are the means of choice.

So Olbermann, as much as he rants at Bill O'Reilly, is driven to his own extremes as are Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough and the trash-talking heads they assemble every night.

Only when there is immediate news to analyze, as on election nights, are the more rational voices heard--the Andrea Mitchells, Candy Crowleys, Jeffrey Toobins, Jeff Greenfields and even the Tom Brokaws of TV's greatest generation.

The rest of the time, it's hyperbole and hype, with the news, you might say, being pimped out.

Lust and Logorrhea on the HBO Couch

A new series, "In Treatment," is trying to do for psychotherapy what "The Sopranos" did for organized crime. But from the evidence thus far, Dr. Melfi and her star patient can rest easy. Talk alone, without Bada Bing pole dancers and bloody on-camera murders, won't cut it.

In our time, HBO has provided a sociological index of upper middle-class anxieties and guilty pleasures from "Sex and the City" to "Six Feet Under."

Now comes "In Treatment," half-hour sessions confined to consulting rooms and self-absorbed talk-talk-talk.

In one story line, the therapist has to fend off the sexual advances of a gorgeous patient and, while trying to help a hostile couple decide about aborting a pregnancy, has his couch stained by a miscarriage, which leads to his wife's cleaning up the mess and, in passing, unloading her rage about his indifference and taunting him with news of her affair with a divorced business type. This sends the therapist to his therapist who recommends unloading the gorgeous sexual predator and is rewarded by accusations about her mishandling of an ancient case of counter-transference.

Holy Freud! In an interview this week, George W. Bush dismissed a question about his relationship with his father as "shallow psychobabble." If the President has a taste for deep psychobabble, HBO has just the thing for him.

McCain, Obama: The Generation Chasm

After years of Bush's would-be and as-if leadership, American voters are choosing authenticity, albeit with a 24-year age gap and a world of difference in personal history and mindset.

Of all the accusations that could, and likely will, be made against John McCain and Barack Obama, the least plausible will involve calculation and deceit.

Last night's victory speeches laid out the broad outlines of their confrontation.

Turning Obama's central theme against him, McCain said, "My hope for our country resides in my faith in the American character, the character which proudly defends the right to think and do for ourselves, but perceives self-interest in accord with a kinship of ideals, which, when called upon, Americans will defend with their very lives.

"To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

Against McCain's message of traditional values, Obama offered a new approach: "This is what change looks like when it happens from the bottom up. And in this election, your voices will be heard.

"Because at a time when so many people are struggling to keep up with soaring costs in a sluggish economy, we know that the status quo in Washington just won't do. Not this time. Not this year. We can't keep playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expect a different result--because it's a game that ordinary Americans are losing."

This contest of new vs. old promises to feature civility and positive attitude from both candidates, although there will certainly be Rovian low blows from third-party fringes on both sides.

In stepping up to face each other, both candidates in passing repudiated those on their own side who opposed them.

Obama framed the Democratic outcome as a decision "about whether we choose to play the game, or whether we choose to end it...change that polls well, or change we can believe in. It's the past versus the future. And when I'm the Democratic nominee for President, that will be the choice in November."

On his part, McCain gave an oblique "kiss my grits" to the Religious Right by talking about faith in his supporters, the "American character" and "our country" without the obligatory bow to a Higher Power.

With Obama acknowledging McCain as "an American hero," the '08 contest is definitely looking up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Nuclear Option

Now that the Obama wave has turned tidal, the Clinton campaign may have to roll out its ultimate weapon.

For the sake of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, who has lived through the worst attacks that the "vast right- wing conspiracy" can launch, is obliged to help toughen Barack Obama's ability to withstand what they will throw at him if he wins the nomination.

As a survivor of Whitewater, Travelgate and the impeachment, isn't it her solemn duty to inoculate Obama against the Republican smears and swiftboating that will surely belabor him after Labor Day?

How will he explain his dealings with the slumlord Rezko, facing trial in federal court for corruption? What will he say when they bring up his admitted drug use? How will he respond to questions about his patriotism?

In the one area of experience in which she clearly surpasses him--being attacked by Republicans--Hillary Clinton is duty-bound to make sure Barack Obama can survive to win the White House for the Democrats. Surely she should help him rehearse his responses.

Thursday night's debate in Texas may not be too soon to start.

In the Political Trenches

Tall, handsome Jim Himes looks a little like James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and, at a meeting with supporters in a Westport living room, sounds like him as he talks earnestly about repairing the damage done to the world and America's place in it during the Bush years.

Behind the hoopla over Presidential primaries and caucuses, the struggle for America's political soul goes on in meeting halls and homes across the country to decide what kind of Congress will set priorities for families and communities next year with a new president in the White House.

Himes, a political newcomer, is trying to unseat Chris Shays who has been entrenched in the House seat of the 4th District in southwestern Connecticut since 1987, the only Republican in New England to survive, barely, the purge of Bush supporters in 2006.

It won't help his cause that, after weaseling about getting troops out of Iraq, Shays planted a kiss on George W. Bush's cheek as the President walked in to deliver his final State of the Union speech last month.

In his campaign, the 40-year-old Himes is being supported by the so-called 30-something Democrats in their tactful revolt against the party's ineffectual elders in the House. Two of them, one from Florida, were in the room last night to cheer him on.

After a year in the trenches, the novice challenger has outdone Shays in fund-raising and is ready to campaign against him, coupling the issue of impending recession with the trillion-plus dollars being wasted in Iraq that could have been providing jobs and repairing our infrastructure back home.

It shouldn't take a Frank Capra ending to get Himes, and others like him, to Washington this November.

Pulling Petraeus Out of Iraq

In an odd juxtaposition, questions about bringing our troops home and how long Gen. David Petraeus himself will stay have become entwined in the Washington debate over Iraq.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he supports a pause in troop reduction after the drawdown to pre-Surge levels in July, reflecting doubts Petraeus has expressed while others in the Pentagon have been worrying about the strain of prolonged tours on the US military.

Two weeks ago, Gates tried to quiet rumors that Petraeus would be leaving Iraq for the top NATO command, saying "the president is pretty clear that he wants General Petraeus to stay right where he is at least through late fall and maybe the end of the year.”

As the symbol of "success" in Iraq for both the Bush Administration and John McCain's candidacy, Petraeus is finding his own career path blocked by the lowering of violence levels without enough significant political reconciliation to keep making troop reductions.

"Nothing in Iraq is easy," Petraeus told a reporter recently, a statement that may be the gist of his scheduled progress report to Congress next month. Meanwhile, his personal bind is a perfect metaphor for our national dilemma, being stuck in an Iraq stalemate that is like flypaper to any hope of moving on.

Someday, Gen. Petraeus may be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a personal victory that won't console American families whose loved ones will keep dying in Iraq between now and then.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Polaroid Fades Out

You could take a snapshot of our generations by how long they had to wait to see how their family pictures turned out--from days in the time of the Brownie to minutes in the Polaroid era to no time at all with today's digital memory-makers.

The Brownies are long gone, and now the Polaroid Corporation has announced it will stop producing film for those instant cameras that recorded the first steps of the Baby Boomers after World War II and followed them through the rest of the century.

A new generation of kids might be puzzled by pictures that had to be pulled from the camera, but their parents and grandparents can tell them about the excitement of seeing images and memories slowly take shape before their eyes.

Polaroid is fading out of the picture, but the memories will remain in shoeboxes and old family albums in American closets, basements and attics.

Obama as the New Nixon

Paul Krugman has been on Barack Obama's case for weeks, criticizing him over Social Security and health care, but in today's New York Times, he goes over the line into comparing supporters of the "new Kennedy" to, of all people, the old Nixon.

Ironically, Krugman quotes Adlai Stevenson decrying the effect of Eisenhower's VP in making America “a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland.”

If anything, for some observers, Obama has evoked Stevenson more than JFK in his thoughtful approach and willingness to credit voters with enough intelligence to go beyond sound-bite slogans. His "Yes, We Can" style has been the polar opposite of Nixon's approach to politics.

But Krugman says "most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration--remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again."

A combination of Nixon and George W. Bush? To quote the Republican phrasemaker of 2008, Mike Huckabee, "If you're getting a lot of flak, you must be over the target."