Monday, March 31, 2008

The McCain Makeover

The Righteous Republican cosmeticians have started to work their magic and, as in the women's magazines I used to edit, a natural-looking person may end up resembling an aging tart. To borrow from Gloria Steinem, McCain would do better to brush them off and say, "This is what seventy and self-possessed looks like, get used to it."

The first ad is a tipoff, harking back to those days at the Hanoi Hilton over a quarter of a century ago, echoing his advice to fellow prisoners: "Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Stand up. We're Americans. And we'll never surrender."

We're all prisoners of George W. Bush in Iraq now, and it may not be in McCain's best interests to remind us that he wants to keep us there, if not for a hundred years, until some of the troops there are his age now.

Today William Kristol is advising the candidate who admits he doesn't know much about the economy to offer "a broad reform agenda--education reform, health insurance reform, tax reform, government reform, Wall Street reform. He could start by outlining an up-to-date, capitalism-friendly and transparency-requiring approach to regulating the credit markets."

Biography isn't enough, Kristol reminds McCain. You have to start doing a George Bush impersonation, throwing out all kinds of voter bait that you can sweep aside when you get into the White House.

By the time Conservatives finish remaking McCain, his nonagenarian mother won't recognize him and, if he looks in the mirror, neither will he.

Iraq's Cruelest Month Coming Up

Next week, against a backdrop of cherry blossoms on the Potomac, we will get the latest Petraeus-Crocker production of "Blood and Sand" for an audience of the hollow men and women in both houses of Congress.

When they get here, the General and the Ambassador will no doubt give us another suave performance to explain the latest twist in the Mideast theater of the absurd--how our Iraqi lawmakers have been in Iran appealing to the head of the Revolutionary Guard, branded a terrorist organization by Congress last August, to persuade Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop killing people in Baghdad and Basra.

If all this feels like being trapped in an endless Pinter play, consider the recent monologues of Andrew Cordesman, one of our most knowledgeable observers. Last summer, describing Iraq as "three dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you," he made a cautious case for starting to withdraw troops early this year. A month ago, another trip to Iraq and Afghanistan persuaded him that "these are wars that can still be won" if we stay another decade or more.

Today Cordesman describes "worrisome possibilities" that could deny us "victory" in Iraq--the cooperating Sunni tribes and militias could turn against the central government, ethnic conflicts to control territory in the north could lead to fighting in Kirkuk, Mosul and other areas and the political struggle between the dominant Shiite parties could become an armed conflict. (Could? Check the headlines.)

In 2004, as a division commander, Gen.Petraeus was asking a question to which he clearly had no answer, “Tell me how this ends.” Last year, he was telling us that "we can't shoot our way out of Iraq." No matter what he has to say now, how do we persuade him and Congress to stop sleepwalking with Bush toward the edge of another precipice?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A. J. Liebling's War

As a charter member of what has been called the Church of Liebling, I have good news for fellow worshippers.

Liebling's coverage of World War II for the New Yorker has now been gathered into a volume of 1089 pages by the Library of America. Like everything else he wrote, by reporting what he saw and heard, Liebling conveyed more about his subject than all the TV cameras and embedded journalists have told us about Iraq.

I have had the temerity to borrow his name for the URL here, but it's likely Liebling would have been ambivalent about blogs. As a press critic, he was a premature blogger himself, looking behind the news and picking apart the work of those who delivered it, making connections between the motives and methods of the messengers and the frequent unreliability of the message.

But a reporter at heart, Liebling hated experts. He mistrusted anyone who claimed "to have access to some occult source or science not available to reporter or reader...the big picture."

He didn't like editors much, either. "They come to newspapers," he wrote, "like monks to cloisters or worms to apples. They are the dedicated. All of them are fated to be editors except the ones that get killed off by the lunches they eat at their desks...The survivors of gastric disorders rise to minor executive jobs and then major ones, and the reign of these non-writers makes our newspapers read like the food in the New York Times cafeteria tastes."

Above all, he hated publishers. "The function of the press in society," he wrote, "is to inform, but its role is to make money. The monopoly publisher's reaction, on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events, is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her in a horse race."

And that was before Rupert Murdoch.

Wake Me When It's Over

As someone who has lived through and been involved in 15 Presidential contests in an adult lifetime, I'm ready to say "Uncle" to this one. After more than a year of being water-boarded by campaign trivia, I give up. Prepare a confession, and I'll sign it.

I've stopped caring about Obama's pastor, Hillary's fibs and McCain's temper. I don't want to hear or write another word about Florida, Michigan, super-delegates, caucuses and primaries. Brainwash my memories of the debates and Wolf Blitzer, Chris Matthews, Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarbororough and their chattering-head panelists.

Make me forget I ever heard about red phones, Vicki Iseman, Tony Rezko and, above all, Bill Clinton.

Give me back those halcyon days of just bashing Bush, caricaturing Cheney and deploring Karl Rove. Life was so much sweeter and simpler back then.

The way this thing is shaping up, nobody is going to be the next president or deserves to be. When they start talking seriously about resurrecting Al Gore, we're in Easter territory. Praying for miracles has never worked in presidential politics.

Meanwhile, I'm going to stop reading newspapers and blogs, call the cable company and see if there is a V-chip to block off CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, and spend these Spring Fever days watching Laura seduce Paul on HBO's "In Treatment" and wishing they had picked a less doughy-looking John Adams than Paul Giamatti. If all else fails, there's always Turner Classic Movies.

Wake me when it's over--gently.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Global Warming Alarmism

Disregard those crackling sounds up north and pictures of an ice shelf the size of Rhode Island breaking apart. It's just global warming alarmism, and Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, is having none of it.

"Media hype," says Sen. Inhofe, who has it on the authority of a former Weather Channel meteorologist that "the vast majority of Antarctica has cooled over the past 50 years and ice coverage has grown to record levels."

But tomorrow night on 60 Minutes, Al Gore will be at it again, telling Lesley Stahl that skeptics like Inhofe and Dick Cheney are "in such a tiny, tiny minority now with their point of view, they’re almost like the ones who still believe that the moon landing was staged in a movie lot in Arizona and those who believe the world is flat.”

The former Vice President is giving his Nobel Peace Prize money and proceeds from "An Inconvenient Truth" to pay for ads to mobilize public opinion about fighting global warming, featuring such radicals as Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich.

This week's pictures of the ice shelf splitting are accompanied by warnings from international scientists that "key glaciers flowing from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are thinning at rates not seen since the last ice age" and "losing 132 billion tons of ice a year."

But no sweat, Inhofe and his Weather Channel man are sure there's nothing to worry about.

Sniping Over Sniper Fire

The media hanging jury has pounced on Hillary Clinton's landing-in-Bosnia gaffe, with her biographer Carl Bernstein noting that William Safire had called her "a congenital liar" and that the public "seems on the verge of returning a negative verdict on her candidacy.”

Even with all the election-year hyperbole, this is too much weight to pile on one piece of self-inflation, recalling the Republican attacks on Al Gore in 2000 for implying that he had been involved in inventing the Internet.

As anyone of advanced age can tell you, memory conspires to improve on the past and sometimes rewrite it--a process best illustrated by the story of Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn.

A screenwriter he had hired to do a script based on a popular novel came to him after months of trying and told him it couldn't be done. Goldwyn hired another writer and made the movie, which turned out to be a disaster.

Years later, when discussing a new project, someone suggested the first writer. "Oh, no," Goldwyn said vehemently. "He was involved in one of my worst failures."

So the critics and comics might cut Hillary Clinton a little slack. If she retrospectively inflated her anxiety over the Bosnia landing into a false memory, it's the kind of human fallibility that she is accused of never showing.

After seven years of George Bush twisting the truth and playacting in flight jackets, it would be a good idea to separate relatively harmless lies from those that get people killed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Being Stupid Isn't a Crime"

Rush Limbaugh won't be going to jail for encouraging Republican voters in Ohio to cross over and vote for Hillary Clinton in their primary.

His listeners were concerned that he might be charged with voter fraud, and Limbaugh apparently hoped that he would. "I wouldn't worry about it," Limbaugh told them. "Look at this as a badge of honor, ladies and gentlemen. If anybody gets indicted, if anybody has to go jail, it will be me-- and I'll do my program from jail..."

But the Democratic Attorney General of Ohio has calmed their fears and dashed his hopes. "We have no intention of prosecuting Rush Limbaugh because lying through your teeth and being stupid isn't a crime," a spokesman announced.

Politicians everywhere must be breathing a sigh of relief.

Tacky War on Terror

Munitions merchants are not what they used to be. A century ago, in "Major Barbara," George Bernard Shaw gave us Andrew Undershaft, an intellectual who philosophized about war and poverty. Today we have 22-year-old Efraim Diveroli, who peddles useless used weaponry and keeps getting arrested for domestic violence.

After "repeated inquiries" by the New York Times, the Army this week finally suspended his company, AEY inc., from future federal contracts, after learning Diveroli had sold them Chinese ammunition that he claimed to be Hungarian.

The company, which operates out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach with a licensed masseur as Vice President, had supplied $300 million of munitions to Afghanistan’s army and police forces, much of which turned out to be more than 40 years old from stockpiles of the former Communist bloc, including some that the State Department and NATO had determined to be obsolete and spent millions of dollars to have destroyed.

Diveroli's convoluted business dealings include allegations of bribery in Albania (where some of munitions blew up this month, killing 22 people and destroying hundreds of homes), a dummy company in Cyprus and illegal arms trafficking in the Czech Republic, all of which led to arming US allies fighting the Taliban with useless and dangerous weapons.

It's comforting to know that the war on terror is being run by the people who certified Diveroli as a reliable arms contractor.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Trapped in Bush's Old Movie

Muqtada al Sadr is splintering the peace in Baghdad and Basra, militias are murdering and looting, but our toy soldier President is still out speechifying to captive stateside military audiences about how splendidly the war is going and belaboring Congressional Democrats for "hectoring" Iraqi leaders as they "try to work out their differences."

After five years, over 4000 American lives and half a trillion dollars, George W. Bush has no patience for critics whose "prescription is always the same: retreat." Today he ridicules anti-war Democrats: "They claim that our strategic interest is elsewhere and if we would just get out of Iraq, we could focus on the battles that really matter."

Then the President sets them straight: "If America's strategic interests are not in Iraq, the convergence point for the twin threats of al Qaeda and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden's deputy has called the place for the greatest battle, the country at the heart of the most volatile region on earth, then where are they?"

The critics could furnish him with a list, starting with Afghanistan, Pakistan and homeland security, but that might intrude on George W. Bush's fantasy life.

With every passing day, he is looking more like the deluded character in "Arsenic and Old Lace" who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and keeps running up the stairs with a saber, yelling "Charge!" and the rest of us feel trapped in his bad movie praying for the lights to come back on.

Obama-Bloomberg Boomlet

As dream tickets go, this one would go deep into the American unconscious and produce either a catharsis or a nightmare.

Today's surprise embrace of Barack Obama in New York by Mayor Mike Bloomberg sets off speculation about an endorsement, but more than that, the possibility that they might share the Democratic ticket for November.

The pluses are obvious: Bloomberg would bring to Obama the managerial skills he is accused of lacking, a Jewish partner to offset doubts raised by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap, credibility in handling a recession as well as a billionaire's deep pockets for campaign funds.

The Mayor, according to Obama, has been "a remarkable leader for New York--he has established himself as a major voice in our national debate on issues like renewing our economy, educating our children, and seeking energy independence. Mr. Mayor, I share your determination to bring this country together to finally make progress for the American people."

For the two to share more than that, the once Democrat turned Republican now an Independent would have to convince his former political allies that he would bring more to the party and Democratic candidates across the country than the combined racial and religious prejudice would take away.

But in this extraordinary year, when there are even renewed rumors about a McCain-Condoleezza Rice pairing, speculation won't go away.

The Lost McCain

If he had not been sidetracked in 2000 by the Bush-Rove smear machine, John McCain might have attracted enough Independents and so-called Reagan Democrats to win the White House without the help of the Supreme Court.

In that event, would we have been spared not only the Bush years but the far different McCain who is contending for the Presidency this year?

In power after 9/11, McCain would not have had a Dick Cheney and his Neo-Cons to torture intelligence into a case for invading Iraq and, even with his own quasi-religious faith in military force, might have presided over a saner response to the threat of Islamic extremism.

But that McCain, who charmed the media with his candor, is long gone, vaporized by bitterness over what Bush et al did to him back then, by his decision to court the Religious Right he once disdained, by tailoring his views on tax cuts for the very rich to win over the Grover Norquist gang in the primaries, by hooking up with the likes of Joe Lieberman to become the champion of a war he might never have started.

In the coming months, Democrats will have to work hard to make voters understand that this year's Republican standard bearer is not the John McCain of 2000, who would not have needed Lieberman to whisper in his ear after confusing Iran and al Qaeda, who would not be entrusting his own professed ignorance about the economy to those who helped deregulate us into recession, who might have included Independents and Democrats in an administration back then but would be too compromised to do so now.

McCain has always had a romanticized picture of himself that an admiring media has helped perpetuate. His favorite movie, "Viva Zapata," is about an uncompromising man of the people done in by petty politicians, an image that helps explain constant battles with members of his own party in the Senate and displays of temper when challenged.

As the rightmost Republicans who changed him over the past eight years try to sell McCain as the man he was then, it will be up to the Democratic candidate to bring down that Wizard of Oz fa├žade without alienating voters who respect his lifetime of service to the country.

When all the primary garbage is cleared away, Barack Obama will be in a better position to do that than Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An American Face

Richard Widmark, who died today at 93, made his movie debut in 1947 as a giggling psychotic who pushed a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs in "Kiss of Death."

Nominated for an Academy Award, he went on to play villains over next decade but, approaching middle age, his maturing prototypical American face made him more suitable for roles that reflected cherished American values--as the caring head of a psychiatric hospital in "The Cobweb," Jim Bowie in "The Alamo" and the prosecutor of Nazis in "Judgment at Nuremberg."

Our paths crossed during regular visits in the waiting room of a Manhattan oral surgeon in 1965. I was being treated for excruciating pain from TMJ muscle spasms, and Widmark was there because the doctor, Stanley Behrman, the nephew of a Broadway playwright, was famous for his expertise on facial shapes. At 50, Widmark could not have entrusted his appearance to anyone more sensitive to an actor's needs. He would smile and nod as I nodded back and grimaced

He was in 77 movies, in later years playing senators, generals and judges. Living in northwestern Connecticut with his wife of 55 years, Widmark was a founding member of a land trust to preserve the rural landscape.

On and off the screen, he lived up to that American face.

Hillary's True Voice

After her first primary victory, Hillary Clinton exulted, "Thank you so much, New Hampshire. I listened to you, and in the process I found my voice."

Make that plural. Since then, the candidate has given us more vocal gymnastics than the legendary Mel Blanc, who did Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, among others. Her repertoire has been dazzling--and confusing.

There has been the vulnerable Hillary followed by the combative, condescending, sarcastic, victimized, wounded Hillary, not to mention the nasty and negative voices from her discordant campaign chorus.

Now we have the embattled Hillary, apologizing for her Bosnia sniper fire gaffe with something less than graciousness. "So I made a mistake," she said. "That happens. It proves I'm human, which you know, for some people, is a revelation."

Courage, Hemingway said, is grace under pressure.

It must be hard getting up every morning and having to face a growing consensus that she can't win the nomination. But if adversity is the truest test of character, it would be heartening to see Hillary Clinton swallow her disappointment and either soldier on with dignity, if she decides to, or accept the inevitable with grace.

Doing so would be good for the Democratic Party and a rebuke to those who hate her. Her voice is too important to be drowned out in disappointment and negative campaigning.

Win or lose, Hillary Clinton can keep serving her country well.

Indiana Flashback

The news that the Hoosier State will be in the primary spotlight for the first time in decades triggers memories of forty years ago when celebrities went there to try to stop the war in Viet Nam.

Indiana in the spring of 1968 was our Agincourt. "We happy few" were gathered not to spill blood for Harry and England but to stop American bloodshed in Asia. I slept in spare rooms and on pullout couches to spend days being driven to meeting halls, suburban living rooms and farmhouses, asking people to vote for Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic presidential primary.

I told them I was a thousand miles from home with no political ambition, no other motive than to try to end a futile war. Some listened. In one living room, three nuns gave me their blessing.

In terminals and crossroads cafes, I ran across others--Paul Newman, Myrna Loy, Erich Fromm, Garry Moore, faces and names people would recognize and come to hear. We traded experiences and notes. I recalled a 1942 story by Irwin Shaw, "Preach on the Dusty Roads," about a man who, after seeing his son off to fight in World War II, was overwhelmed with remorse that he hadn't been out begging people everywhere to prevent it or stop it. We were in Indiana trying to save other people's children.

Years later I would run across someone from that time and we would talk like old comrades in arms, recalling how good we had felt about what we were doing.

It still does.

The Senator from Saturday Night Live

Al Franken is a step away from getting the nomination to run against Minnesota's Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in November.

This month, his competition dwindled down to an under-funded activist college professor who is given little chance of beating him at the Democratic-Farmer-Labor convention in June. The party of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone will be nominating the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot."

For Franken, since he first announced over a year ago, the political race has been no laughing matter. He's been working hard at fund-raising, matching the incumbent, and lining up the state's liberal constituency behind him. Serving as a Fellow with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 2003, he knows a thing or two about serious politics.

In Coleman, Franken will be facing a popular Republican, who was against the Surge in Iraq a year ago but has not otherwise broken ranks in opposing all Senate efforts to stop or slow down the war.

In a state that elected a professional wrestler as governor, Franken's show business resume won't be a fatal handicap, although Republican will be mining his books and standup routines for the most outrageous statements to use again him.

But Stuart Smalley should be up to the challenge of getting the first graduate of Saturday Night Live into the US Senate to show the jokers there how it really should be done.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jeremiah Wright and James Carville

At the risk of being theologically incorrect, it's irresistible to point out a stylistic similarity between the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and that fire-and-brimstone preacher of the Church of Clinton, James Carville.

In his Easter sermon on Fox News, Carville thundered over the betrayal by Bill Richardson, a former member of the Clinton flock:

"Mr. Richardson's endorsement came right around the anniversary of the day when Judas sold out for 30 pieces of silver, so I think the timing is appropriate, if ironic."

Not quite "God damn America," but apocalyptic enough to make Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson distance himself from Carville's pronouncement as Barack Obama did from his pastor's more extreme expressions. "If I had said it," Wolfson confessed, "I would apologize."

In preaching to the choir, true believers sometimes get carried away, but their passion is undeniable and not negotiable.

The Rev. Carville did not back down in the face of criticism. "I wanted to use a very strong metaphor to make my point," he said. Rev. Wright would no doubt understand.

4001, 4002, 4003...

Milestones are news--the fifth anniversary, the 4000th death--and news shield us, as any drug does, from the pain of reality. We swallow some words and images about Iraq and turn to newer news--about Hillary and Barack, the economy, March Madness, storms and flooding, the HBO miniseries on John Adams.

"People don't actually read newspapers," Marshall McLuhan said half a century ago. "They get into them every morning like a warm bath."

This week we wash away our consciousness of the continuing dying and killing in the Mideast with soothing words from Bush and Cheney in Washington, John McCain in Baghdad and the muffled sounds of impotent anti-war Democrats.

"One day people will look back at this moment in history," the President tells us after a roadside bomb kills four US soldiers, "and say 'thank God there were courageous people willing to serve' because they laid the foundation for peace for generations to come."

"The president carries the biggest burden," Dick Cheney says. "He's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women...who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us."

"We're succeeding," John McCain insists, "I don't care what anybody says. I've seen the facts on the ground...I don't think I would change the strategy now unless General Petraeus recommended it. I think he's trusted by the American people, the president and by me."

Meanwhile, Shiite militia are shutting down neighborhoods in west Baghdad, the Mahdi Army is fighting police in Basra and cease-fires are starting to "unravel." But there will be no anniversaries or milestone deaths next week to make news from Iraq.

As far as we will know, none of it is happening.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The New York Times' War With McCain

Less than two months after the furor over its lobbyist liaison story about him, the Times today features "2 McCain Moments, Rarely Mentioned," his "discussions in 2001 with Democrats about leaving the Republican Party, and his conversations in 2004 with Senator John Kerry about becoming Mr. Kerry’s running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket."

If he feels the Times is hounding him, McCain has cause. The newspaper's own Public Editor joined in the general criticism of the February story, noting that, "although it raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics--sex--it offered readers no proof."

Today's rehash about McCain's flirtation with the Democrats after being smeared by the Bush machine in 2000 is, to put it mildly, gratuitous. It relies entirely on old material, particularly a story in the Washington paper, The Hill, that appeared on February lst, just before Super Tuesday.

Two weeks ago, a testy exchange about the Kerry overture between McCain and the Times' Elisabeth Bumiller on his campaign plane ended with her asking him, "Can I ask you about your...Why you’re so angry?" McCain didn't answer.

One consolation for the Republican standard bearer is that his right-wing critics, Rush Limbaugh et al, are now rushing to defend him from the "drive-by attacks" of their least favorite newspaper. His campaign couldn't have planned it better.

What's John Edwards Waiting For?

Bill Richardson's endorsement of Barack Obama last week raises the question of why the leader of the also-rans is being coy about making a choice

"John Edwards," Politico reports, "is unlikely to endorse either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton before the nomination is decided, according to interviews with several members of the former candidate's inner circle."

Why not? At this stage, the Democrats need all the clarity they can get. Despite his long-standing ties to the Clintons, Richardson made his announcement last week--a hard choice, but he made it.

Edwards has been courted with visits from Obama and Clinton, and he knows how helpful his endorsement might be, particularly in the upcoming North Carolina primary.

Why would he hold back? None of the possible reasons do him credit or even make much sense. Surely he knows enough about the two candidates to make a choice, and holding out will not encourage them at this point to take up his war on poverty any more than they already have.

Is he angling to be a kingmaker at the convention? Not likely, all but a handful of his pledged delegates are gone, and none would take direction from him in any case. Does he want to be sure to back the winner and end up in the cabinet, perhaps as Attorney General? Bad strategy. They don't give medals for showing up after the battle. Or is he just planning to become the 21st century Harold Stassen, a perennial Presidential candidate?

Jonathan Prince, Edwards’ former deputy campaign manager, thinks his man has clout, asserting "that before Ohio and Texas, the campaigns told me that the most popular Democrat in Ohio was John Edwards. And he was tied for the most popular Democrat in Texas. I would imagine that what was true in Ohio is true in Pennsylvania, too.

“One candidate is trying to show he’s got it wrapped up. I think John Edwards would help to do that. The other candidate is trying to show that things are breaking her way. I think John Edwards would help to do that also.”

Most of all, by choosing now he would set an example for his party to encourage settling their squabbles sooner rather than later to unite against the possibility of another Republican in the White House. John Edwards has dedicated himself to bringing together the two Americas. Is it too much to ask him to do something for the two Democratic parties?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Dick Cheney's Shrug

After the torrent of words over the arrogance of America's self-selected, unelected Vice President, a former Republican colleague and friend boils it all down to one word in today's Washington Post.

Ex-Congressman Mickey Edwards explains what changed his mind about defending Cheney, his "all-too-revealing conversation this week with ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz. On Wednesday, reminded of the public's disapproval of the war in Iraq, now five years old, the vice president shrugged off that fact (and thus, the people themselves) with a one-word answer: 'So?'"

Into that one word is compressed more than seven years of secrecy, usurping of power and stealing traditional American freedoms.

Skewing intelligence to lie us into a war costing almost 4,000 American lives and half a trillion dollars and counting? So?

Outing a CIA operative to get revenge against criticism and hanging his own Chief of Staff out on a limb and sawing it off? So?

Pressuring Bush, against the opposition of his own Secretaries of State and Defense, to go to war against Iran before they leave office? So?

In the interview that finally tipped the scales, Edwards says: "Cheney told Raddatz that American war policy should not be affected by the views of the people. But that is precisely whose views should matter: It is the people who should decide whether the nation shall go to war. That is not a radical, or liberal, or unpatriotic idea. It is the very heart of America's constitutional system."

For millions of Americans, that won't come as news, but they may want to keep it in mind as John McCain tries to sell them a continuation of what Bush and Cheney have stolen from them and labeling it victory in Iraq.

Now it's up to them to stop it. So?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Power and Promise of an Ugly Word

As Barack Obama stands at the crossroads of race in America and offers himself as an agent of healing, he is a symbol of both the fears and hopes aroused by an ugly word, miscegenation.

When he was born in 1961, his parents' marriage was illegal in 17 states of the Union. It was six years later that the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia statute against racially mixed marriages as unconstitutional and ended anti-miscegenation laws in America.

Such unions have always been denounced by both black and white extremists. Louis Farrakhan, who received last year's Jeremiah Wright A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award as a man "who truly epitomized greatness" from Obama's church, has always opposed intermarriage and called it "unnatural." In doing so, he was echoing the classic sneer of white bigots, "Would you want your sister to marry one?"

Yet, as long ago as 1963, in a memorable article in Commentary titled "My Negro Problem--and Ours," Norman Podhoretz, confessing his "twisted" racial fears and animus, came to the judgment that "the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative" to resolving the American dilemma.

The irony now is that Obama, who wants to transcend race, is being pressured to reconcile his heritages while subtly distancing himself from the pain of both, rejecting both his pastor's rage and his white grandmother's fears.

In an era of more and more talented biracial people like Obama, Derek Jeter, Halle Berry and so many others, it's sad to see the power of an ugly either-or still distorting the possibilities of a beautiful both.

Bill Clinton Can't Help Himself

During the Lewinsky days, the word "compulsive" was often applied to Bill Clinton's behavior, and the former President seems intent on reviving memories of the disappointment even his most ardent admirers felt back then.

Now, stumping for his wife in North Carolina after being chastened for his South Carolina comments comparing Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson, here he is doing a little McCarthyesque turn to pile on her opponent's Jeremiah Wright problem by suggesting Obama is something less than a true patriot.

"I think it would be a great thing," Clinton said yesterday, "if we had an election year where you had two people who loved this country and were devoted to the interest of this country. And people could actually ask themselves who is right on these issues, instead of all this other stuff that always seems to intrude itself on our politics."

What can this man be thinking? Has he been watching too many screenings of "Primary Colors?" Is he so devoted to winning at all costs that nothing else matters? Or is he so jealous of Obama's appeal as a moral figure that he can't help trying to tear him down?

It would be a "great thing," Mr. President, if you would just put a cork on it before you start making George W. Bush look like a figure of probity.

Doing Good, Feeling Good

Altruism has always been a puzzle to the scholars of selfishness, especially economists, who rely on people to act in their own interest. Now new studies suggest that giving money to others can make you happier than spending it on yourself.

In the journal Science, Harvard researchers report on questioning 632 Americans about how much they earn, what they do with it and, separately, how they rate their own happiness.

Weeks after getting large bonuses at work, employees who had given to others or to charity were happier than those who had bought stuff for themselves, regardless of how much they got. In another study, volunteers who were handed cash felt better after spending it on others rather than themselves.

"This may come as a surprise for economists," says one of them. "Often people don't know what really makes them happy."

In our post-Darwin world, science has tried, without much success, to explain altruism on the basis of group survival and in recent years even with brain scans. But the mystery remains, and it can be a source of comfort.

If they keep working on the problem long enough, it may turn out that the Golden Rule is more than a soupy concept after all.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Opinionated Polling

The friendly folks at Fox News have developed a sudden strong interest in the concept of friendship, and today their pollster reports:

"All in all, Americans think your choice in friends says a lot about you: Almost 7 of 10 say they think the people you choose to be your friends reflect on you and your values. And 39 percent say your friends reflect on you 'a lot.'"

These philosophical reflections arise from their poll that shows that "57 percent of Americans do not believe Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shares the controversial views of his former spiritual mentor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright," but "a sizable minority has doubts about Obama because of his pastor’s comments."

This follows last month's revelation that Hillary Clinton is the candidate who would "do anything," including something unethical, to win the presidency and, if elected, the most likely to embarrass the country by her actions in the Oval Office.

No word yet about a poll that solicits voters' views on aging candidates who can't keep the names of our enemies in Iraq straight.

A Super-Endorsement

Barack Obama gains more than another super-delegate today as Gov. Bill Richardson endorses him for President.

The former UN ambassador under Bill Clinton was under pressure from the former President, who watched the Super Bowl with him last month, to endorse Hillary Clinton, whom he defended against attacks in the Presidential debates when he was a candidate.

But according to his planned statement, Richardson has made a choice that goes beyond past loyalties and even self-interest (he was widely regarded as a possible running mate for Hillary):

“There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama has the judgment and courage we need in a commander in chief when our nation’s security is on the line. He showed this judgment by opposing the Iraq war from the start, and he has shown it during this campaign by standing up for a new era in American leadership internationally.”

At a time when he is under pressure from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fallout, the endorsement is encouraging for Obama, who greets it with a warm response:

“Whether it’s fighting to end the Iraq war or stop the genocide in Darfur or prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, Gov. Richardson has been a powerful voice on issues of global security, peace and justice, earning five Nobel Peace Prize nominations.”

He will also be a powerful voice among Hispanic voters, who so far have been significant supporters of Hillary Clinton.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Great Moments in American Journalism

Reserve a Pulitzer Prize now for another reporting coup by Associated Press. After scouring thousands of pages of newly released White House records, an investigative journalist today reveals the shocking news that "Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the White House on at least seven days when her husband had sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky."

If this doesn't damage the former First Lady's claim that she was involved in the crucial affairs of the Clinton Administration, what will?

The Desecration of Alistair Cooke

Crimes against humanity come large now--wars, holocausts, ethnic cleansing--but sometimes a small horror rises from the past and pierces the heart. Such is the case of a man convicted last week of harvesting and selling body parts, including those of the most civilized man I ever knew.

For several generations of Americans, Alistair Cooke was the Englishman who loved America, writing about life here for the Manchester Guardian, doing "Letter From America" radio broadcasts that were heard around the world and finally sitting in an armchair in front of Public TV cameras as the cultivated host of "Masterpiece Theater."

I interviewed him in 1953 when he was doing a CBS TV venture into culture, a short-lived series called "Omnibus," which was shown on Sunday afternoons when nobody would watch. Undaunted, Cooke introduced opera, ballet and dramatic performances with suave charm. As I followed him through a maze of narrow sets, he told me, "It's like making movies in an iron lung."

He had become a naturalized citizen only days before Pearl Harbor, and he loved his new country as only someone who volunteered to live here could. He spent his life answering what he called the "slanders" of those who looked down their British noses at American culture:

"It will be a great day when you ask an Englishman what comes to mind at the mention of America and he replies, 'The beautiful white villages of New England, the neighborly warmth of Midwesterners, the great contributions of American scholarship, the outdoor life of California, the fine style of modern American architecture, the God-given glory of Bryce Canyon, the man-made marvel of Boulder Dam."

He died in 2004 at the age of 95, and when American ghouls dug up his body and sold the parts for organ transplants, they lied about his age and the cancer that killed him.

"He was a reporter," Cooke's daughter said last week. "I have no doubt he would have written about this." And he wouldn't have made it an indictment of American greed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Bush-Obama Language Barrier

The man who coined "smoking gun, mushroom cloud" to justify Bush's push into Iraq thinks Barack Obama has not gone far enough to distance himself from the hyperbolic language of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

In today's Washington Post, former White House speech writer Michael Gerson says Obama's oration yesterday "fell short in significant ways" of separating himself from "a dangerous man" who has told lies about the US government.

Wright's claim that the AIDS virus was invented as a means of genocide against people of color, says Gerson, creates "an atmosphere of denial, quack science and conspiracy theories," in contrast, of course, to President Bush's scientifically grounded opposition to stem cell research.

In the 2004 campaign, Gerson had Bush railing against "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in belaboring schools with No Child Left Behind yardsticks as cover for attacking teachers unions that were supporting Democrats

Now, he asks, how can Obama associate himself with a "political extremist, holding views that are shocking to many Americans?"

If Gerson doesn't know the answer to that question, the voters may explain it to him and his former employer in November.

How Does a Recession Look?

Three out of four Americans think the country is a recession, the Zogby Poll reports today, and confidence in the economy, President Bush and Congress has plummeted.

"As oil prices hit record highs," the pollsters note, "Americans say they are prepared to take measures to compensate if oil prices continue to rise--37% plan to drive less, 24% would reduce retail and entertainment spending and 19% would try to conserve energy at home."

Retail sales are slowing down, and payrolls fell by 22,000 in January and 63,000 in February.

Anecdotal evidence is everywhere. Once-crowded restaurants have empty tables, and consumers are rethinking optional spending. In one of the wealthiest areas in Connecticut, a prominent dentist reports a sharp drop in cosmetic surgery as his hygienist tells of losing her overleveraged home to foreclosure.

Starbucks is closing 100 stores in the face of sales losses and has decided to stop offering hot breakfast sandwiches because customers complained about the aroma. As the Bush era stumbles toward a close, Americans are having a lot of trouble telling themselves to wake up and smell the coffee.

Things may get better when taxpayers start getting stimulus checks in May, but not many are willing to bet on it by buying more now.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Two Little White Girls

Barack Obama ended his speech with the story of a young white woman who worked for his South Carolina campaign.

In a discussion of why they were there, Ashley Baia told volunteers that when she was nine years old, her mother was stricken with cancer, lost her health care and had to file for bankruptcy and that she "convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

"She did this for a year until her mom got better," Obama said, "and she told everyone at the round table that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too."

When it was the turn of an elderly black man to explain why he was there, he answered, "I'm here because of Ashley."

That experience typified his campaign, Obama said: “'I’m here because of Ashley.' By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough...But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger."

Obama had told that story when he spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King's birthday and, for an older observer, it resonates with the story Dr. King told in his last speech in Memphis the night before he died.

After being stabbed by a demented woman in Harlem, he had received a letter: "Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze."

In leading up to his "I've been to the mountain top" peroration, Martin Luther King said:

"And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

"If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering. I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze."

Two stories. Two little white girls. Two African-American men. Two moments of connection half a century apart. One American dream.

The Speech

Barack Obama had only words today, but it would take a heart of stone and a closed mind to deny their power at this moment in American history. You can read them now or watch to make up your own mind about the kind of President he would be, but to ignore his vision would be to leave America's future to the inane sound bites that have brought us to where we are today at home and around the world.

There can and should be debate over what he said and didn't say, and it should start now on the level to which he has raised this campaign. Anything less would be a shame.

Testing the Power of "Just Words"

Until the ugliness started this month, race and gender were benign issues, at least on the surface, of the Democratic contest as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama congratulated themselves and each other for breaking through barriers of prejudice in American life.

But centuries of oppression, hatred and anger are not so easily wiped out by symbolic candidacies, and Obama is making the speech of his political life today to repair the damage to his campaign by the furor over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who wears dashikis and does not speak softly.

In his first response last week, Obama invoked Robert Kennedy's plea for racial unity after the murder of Martin Luther King, as he no doubt will again today, under the influence of Ted Sorensen, who saw first-hand the violence of the 1960s and emerged as a soft-spoken liberal corporate lawyer.

But Wright and Sorensen reflect more than Obama's mixed racial heritage and the generational gap between their lives and his own. Below the surface of race (and gender) are internal strains of economic class and culture that are not easily resolved.

In the 1960s, Black Power advocates and the Black Panthers were pitted against Dr. King's message of non-violence and reconciliation, just as the Women's Movement was riven by a divide between radical Feminists, college-educated and privileged, and working women who resented "Women's Lib," even as they benefited from the political consciousness it raised. The victims of prejudice are no more monolithic than those who practice and profit from it.

Obama will try to bridge those gaps and more as he is put to the severe test of reaching beyond rhetoric into the hearts of voters with both hopes and fears about the change he represents. At the very least, the results will show how much "just words" matter in American life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Didn't You Mean Uppity, Massa?

Wire Services are not known for parody, so the piece about Barack Obama's "arrogance" today by Ron Fournier, who "has covered politics for The Associated Press for nearly 20 years," must be meant to be taken seriously.

"Barack Obama better watch his step," Fournier writes, "He's bordering on arrogance. The dictionary defines the word as an 'offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.' Obama may not be offensive or overbearing, but he can be a bit too cocky for his own good."

The indictment cites such statement as "To know me is to love me" and "Every place is Barack Obama country once Barack Obama's been there."

"True," Fournier concedes, "there's a certain amount of tongue-in-cheekiness to such remarks--almost as if Obama doesn't want to take his adoring crowds and political ascent too seriously. He was surely kidding when he told supporters in January that by the time he was done speaking "'a light will shine down from somewhere.'"

Nonetheless, "both Obama and his wife, Michelle, ooze a sense of entitlement," according to the AP's resident character analyist, who concludes:

"As he told 7,000 supporters at a rally last month, 'I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.'

"Nobody expects Obama to be perfect. But he better never forget that he isn't."

The Associated Press might want to consider that having the clueless and irony-impaired calling African-Americans "uppity" is not the best strategy for a wire service in the 21st century.

Maybe Obama will explain it to them when he makes his speech about race tomorrow.

A Trillion Here, a Trillion There

A publisher I knew once proposed a picture book, "They Must Know What They're Doing or They Wouldn't Be Where They Are," to show the captain of the Titanic, the designers of the Edsel, LBJ running the War in Viet Nam and other overseers of spectacular 20th century blunders.

The Bush Administration now rates a sequel all its own for being in charge of two cataclysms, in the Middle East and here at home.

As Bear Stearns, the poster boy for Wall Street greed, gets gobbled up with the help of taxpayer money, Paul Krugman today asks, "When the feds do bail out the financial system, what will they do to ensure that they aren’t also bailing out the people who got us into this mess?"

Not much is the answer, he points out, citing "false beliefs in the private sector" that "led to an epidemic of bad lending" and how "false beliefs in the political arena --the belief of Alan Greenspan and his friends in the Bush administration that the market is always right and regulation always a bad thing--led Washington to ignore the warning signs."

Now even the temple of free enterprise, Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, is yelling "Uncle," editorially calling for a "more aggressive, and pre-emptive, regulatory role for the Fed...to restore its monetary credibility, or today's panic could become tomorrow's crash."

In assessing the cost of Iraq and the financial meltdown here, Washington is going to have update Everett Dirksen's old maxim, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money." Just add the zeroes and pray for some real brains and leadership in the White House next year.

Narrowing News and Drive-By Journalism

Two stories hogged the attention of Americans in 2007 with "reverse trajectories," at first the war in Iraq, which declined in interest as the '08 Presidential elections took over the spotlight.

That's a main conclusion of the State of the News Media 2008 report, just released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which also cites "markedly short attention span" stories such as the Virginia Tech massacre, the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the California wildfires, one-week wonders that drew intense coverage and suddenly faded from sight.

Subjects least covered last year included urban sprawl, the legal and court system, religion, transportation, education, and race, gender and sexual identity issues, none of which attracted more than 1% of coverage over all.

"This kind of news," the report says, "requires more continuous attention to be able to understand and explain incremental changes along the way or to know when the small changes have added up to something more comprehensive-- specialists, beats, sentinels assigned to watch. Many news organizations have cut back on staff devoted to specific beats like these.

"Also, news that breaks, such as car crashes or explosions, generates more immediate news appeal, often involving strong visuals or attention-grabbing headlines."

Economic pressures dominate the worries of journalists, rather than the issues of media credibility and the quality of news coverage.

More people get their news online than ever before, as media sites steer readers away from their own content and link to outside sources.

According to the report, "Web sites run by citizen journalists are multiplying--rapidly approaching 1,500 heading into 2008--offering stories, blogs and videos. And that trend is considered a healthy one by professional journalists, who call on citizens more frequently to inform their reporting."

Hybrid journalism is evolving rapidly, but questions about whether Americans who know more make up a public that understands more still have far from clear answers.

Irish Eyes

After President Kennedy was killed in 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Growing up in the Bronx of the 1930s, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. In our apartment building, there was one Irish family whose men sat on the front steps in summer, drinking beer and joking. As the evening went on, their smiles got wider, their talk louder. They seemed to be breathing some other air. They were as poor as the rest of us, but so full of life.

As a young man in Manhattan of the 1950s, I would go after work to Costello's, a saloon where you could breathe that "other air" with writers, editors and artists, a place John McNulty had made famous in the New Yorker. Pat Moynihan was sometimes there, wearing an outdated straw boater, but no one seemed to think it odd.

Tim Costello was our Irish godfather, keeping us happy but grounded and civil. When Frank McCourt, who later wrote "Angela's Ashes," came over as an 18-year-old immigrant, Tim sent him to the New York Public Library to read Samuel Johnson.

It was Tim's policy to help the poor but never to buy drinks for anyone who could afford to pay for his own. When someone at my bachelor party told me he was coming and bringing a case, I said that, if so, a lawyer would be handling it. Tim came, empty-handed, but his presence was honor enough.

Over the years my life has been entwined with colleagues, friends and relatives by marriage who have leavened my Jewish gloom with Irish wit and cheer, so here's a St. Patrick Day's toast to Tim Costello et al, along with a new generation of Irish-American writers of all political persuasions--Peggy Noonan, Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, Andrew Sullivan, P.J. O'Rourke and more--who are helping keep us sane as George W. Bush breaks our hearts.

Cheers to all.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

McCain's Free Ride

While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue their mud fight this week, John McCain is on a six-day campaign trip to the Mideast and Europe--at taxpayer expense--polishing his image as a warrior-statesman.

As ranking Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, the candidate will be accompanied by the Iraq Rover Boys, Senate colleagues Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, to help him "understand and keep up to date, particularly where young Americans may be in harm's way."

The trip is a perfect metaphor for our situation in Iraq. Humvees, tanks and helicopters will be protecting the politicians as they preen for the TV cameras while the bleeding goes on out of sight. Even the Democrats' tower of jello Harry Reid has politely pointed out that he wouldn't make such a trip himself, preferring to stay "more focused on the eight soldiers killed yesterday."

It won't all be waste. Graham may get another good buy on an Oriental rug as he did last spring when McCain staged his heavily fortified stroll in a Baghdad market and, in the European stage of the trip, there will be time to pose with European prime ministers and attend a $1000-a-plate fundraising lunch at the ancestral home of Princess Diana's family.

But all is not sunny in McCain's world view. Before leaving, he told Pennsylvania voters he is worried that al Qaeda might stage spectacular attacks in Iraq to tilt the election against him.

"We have achieved enormous success," he said, "but they are still a very viable and tough enemy. There is no doubt in my mind that the surge is succeeding. Thank God for Gen. Petraeus, one of the greatest generals in American history."

Later today, in Baghdad, McCain will be able to tell Petraeus in person and pose for pictures that won't do his campaign any harm.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Ultimate Triumph of George W. Bush

He set out to show that government is useless, expensive and stupid, and in the waning days of his Presidency, the man is proving it beyond all doubt.

Forget Katrina, the war in Iraq, the violation of individual rights--misadventures that might have happened to any brain-dead President--but now our lame duck is giving us his "What, Me Worry?" grin as the economy crumbles around our ears. A catastrophic Bush Depression would be the final gift to his government-hating supporters.

Watching the leader of the Free World address the Economic Club of New York yesterday, Gail Collins muses that "you had to wonder what the international financial community makes of a country whose president could show up to talk economics in the middle of a liquidity crisis and kind of flop around the stage as if he was emcee at the Iowa Republican Pig Roast.

"We’re really past expecting anything much, but in times of crisis you would like to at least believe your leader has the capacity to pretend he’s in control. Suddenly, I recalled a day long ago when my husband worked for a struggling paper full of worried employees and the publisher walked into the newsroom wearing a gorilla suit.

"The country that elected George Bush--sort of--because he seemed like he’d be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering, and all we’ve got is a guy who looks like he’s ready to kick back and start the weekend."

Home prices are plummeting, foreclosures are soaring, the Fed pumps billions into propping up Bear Stearns and his Treasury Secretary belatedly starts talking about overseeing cowboy mortgage lenders, but the President is sure that our country is still "the economic envy of the world" and that "sending out over $150 billion into the marketplace in the form of checks that will be reaching the mailboxes by the second week of May" will cure it all.

But then again, why worry? He probably owns the ranch in Crawford free and clear.

Spitzer's Sidekick Feels Violated

According to the AP, the lawyer for the multi-named call girl who brought down the governor of New York has "lashed out at the media...for thrusting the 22-year-old woman into the 'public glare' without her consent and publishing revealing photos."

He is shocked, shocked that such images "have appeared on commercial web sites without her consent" and vowed to take legal steps to protect her from "any unwarranted exploitation of her name, picture, voice or likeness for purposes of profit."

After the news broke, insensitive outlets such as the New York Times published a story and pictures about Spitzer's petite ami based on "a series of telephone interviews" as "she told the tiniest tidbits of her story."

Now boors like Larry Flynt are besieging her with offers of $1 million to pose for "tastefully done" nudes for Hustler, after the "revealing photos" were taken down from the MySpace page hosted by the company she created in 2005 to further her singing career.

Is there no limit to media exploitation? In cases like these, even in the 21st century, as the old saying goes, it's always the woman who pays.

Will Glib Be Good Enough?

Sooner rather than later (see below), Barack Obama has had to confront his twin albatrosses, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the decidedly secular Tony Rezko. In his rounds of the cable news shows last night, Obama was articulate, as always, but for the first time, glib bordering on shifty.

On Countdown with a deferential Keith Olbermann, he distanced himself from Wright's racist rants but asked voters to believe that, in 17 years of churchgoing, he did not hear any of the venom or he would have condemned it.

Even more tenuous was Obama's attempt to paint Wright as a spiritual leader caught up in the anger of his generation at racial injustice, a pissed-off Martin Luther King, if you will. That won't wash with those who remember how King stressed rejection of such attitudes at a time when Black Power advocates were promoting them. Senator, Wright is no Martin Luther King. Not even close.

In his attempt to "disgorge" Rezko, along with his campaign contributions, Obama stressed that he has not been accused of any wrongdoing or connected to any of the issues involved in the current federal corruption trial, but his opponents won't be deterred from harping on their long, close association, including the buying of the Obamas' Chicago home.

Obama's most fervent admirers will be tempted to pass off these iffy relationships as part of a misguided search for substitute fathers by a man who lost his own at an early age, and there may be truth in that. But Obama is now attempting to become the national father figure, and just asking him to show better judgment than George W. Bush would be setting the bar very low.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Showtime for Obama

In the lull between now and the remaining primaries, it's time for Barack Obama's crucial closeup. Casual dismissals of his minister's troubling views and his ties to indicted fixer Tony Rezko won't be enough to withstand last-minute attacks from the Clinton campaign and, if Obama is nominated, from salivating free-lance Republican swiftboaters.

Over a year ago, the candidate introduced himself and his family on 60 Minutes, with a tour of his old neighborhood. Now Obama, who has said he doesn't want to "airbrush" his past, should follow up by answering the tougher questions that have come up during the campaign.

The drumbeat of accusations is on. Today's Wall Street Journal harps on the tirades of Obama's minister and mentor, Jeremiah Wright, charging that Americans "care nothing about human life if the end justifies the means" by importing drugs, exporting guns and starting the AIDS virus, among other iniquities.

Dismissing Wright as "an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with," as Obama did recently before Jewish leaders, doesn't erase all doubts about the influence on his thinking of the man from whom he borrowed the title of his book, "The Audacity of Hope."

Even more disclosure is needed about the candidate's ties to Tony Rezko, now on trial for corruption in federal court. Returning campaign contributions and waving away Rezko's involvement in the Obamas' purchase of their home as "boneheaded" on his part barely dent the surface of what the Presidential candidate should explain to voters who have signed onto his promises of a new kind of politics.

Starting with Bill Clinton's response (or non-response, as some saw it) to Gennifer Flowers accusations in 1992, 60 Minutes has come as close to being an arbiter of Presidential character as we have.

If 60 Minutes can get Obama to cooperate in an appraisal of the questions about him, the next step should be a no-holds-barred followup on John McCain's ties to lobbyists.

The time for sound bites and evasions is over.

No Country for Old Men

To counter all that Democratic talk about fighting the wrong war in Iraq, somebody in the White House brilliantly decided to let a Reuters correspondent sit in on the President's video conference yesterday with Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood and US military and civilian personnel in Kabul.

Sitting at a conference table, Bush listened to a description of the fighting there and could hardly contain his excitement

"I must say, I'm a little envious," he confessed. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.

"It must be exciting for you ... in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history."

Bush's envy is understandable four decades after he missed all the excitement in Viet Nam by serving in the National Air Guard back here. With him at the video conference was Vice President Dick Cheney, who received five deferments and "had other priorities in the '60s than military service."

The Presidential nostalgia is poignant. Sadly Afghanistan now is no country for old men.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Salvation for Democrats

Is it time for Howard Dean to call in the party's Three Wise Men to build an ark and save the Democrats from a flood of Biblical proportions?

Mixed metaphors seem an apt response to the confusing news that one out of four Florida Democrats is incensed enough over the primary re-vote issue to consider skipping the ballot in November or casting it for McCain.

As today's Sunshine State pols argue bitterly, Dean is way over his head in trying to mediate a solution. One quick fix would be to turn to the party elders--Lee Hamilton, who has studied everything from 9/11 to Iraq; George Mitchell, the savior of major-league baseball from steroid users; and Jimmy Carter, who specializes in guaranteeing the fairness of elections in the Third World.

Older, wiser heads behind the wheel might slow down or stop the partisan bickering that threatens to drive Democrats off a cliff as it did in the unruly 1968 convention. If the party doesn't change direction, the country could be heading for the abyss of another war-loving, economically tone-deaf Republican administration.

The Obama and Clinton campaigns may want to think long and hard about whether there is any salvation for anybody in that.

Gray Lady, Fallen Woman

How low is the New York Times going to go? After outing Eliot Spitzer, with a little help from the Bush Administration Justice Department, today as a coda we get the heartbreaking story, complete with photographs, of a 22-year-old from a broken home who only wants to be a singing star.

In today's low-rent world, with the Times' help, the wayward young woman may get her wish, after she testifies in court against her former employers at the Emperor's Club.

The Gray Lady's excursion into tabloid journalism yields 25 paragraphs of gush, including every detail of the aspiring singer's MySpace self-advertising (“I am all about my music and my music is all about me. It flows from what I’ve been through, what I’ve seen and how I feel”) and her understanding mother's judgment about it all (“She is a very bright girl who can handle someone like the governor. But she also is a 22-year-old, not a 32-year-old or a 42-year-old, and she obviously got involved in something much larger than her.”)

"In a series of telephone interviews on Tuesday night," the Times' team of five reporters reveals about their cooperative subject, "she said she had slept very little over the past week, with all the stress of the case.

“'I just don’t want to be thought of as a monster,' the woman said as she told the tiniest tidbits of her story."

And the newspaper of record is making sure we get them all. Ergh.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Ferraro Flap

Signs of social progress can come in strange disguises, as the first woman to run for Vice President embarrasses Hillary Clinton with asinine remarks about Barack Obama.

Geraldine Ferraro, who, as Maureen Dowd points out, "helped Walter Mondale lose 49 states in 1984, was clearly stung at what she considered Obama’s easy rise to celebrity and electoral success.

"Last Friday, Ms. Ferraro, who is on Hillary’s national finance committee, told...a small newspaper in Torrance, Calif.: 'If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.'”

Sen. Clinton, of course, quickly disavowed her role model's remarks, but the heartening aspect of all this is the demonstration that old-pol foolishness has crossed the gender barrier.

Ferraro, who now labors as a lobbyist, was considered a daring choice for VP in the Democratic debacle to prevent Reagan's reelection, and she acquitted herself well in debating Bush I, even though he afterward was overheard by an open mike bragging that he had "kicked ass."

She encountered a little sexist flak when her husband balked at releasing his tax returns, a precursor of Hillary's woes over spousal behavior, which makes Ferraro's sensitivity about breaking barriers more understandable.

Now here she is, hurdling another one in forthrightly declaring her resentment over how easy it is for an African-American man to win over voters compared to those deep-rooted prejudices against women.

Geraldine Ferraro is still involved in kicking ass but, as the kicker, she may be hitting the wrong target.

Spitzer and Sex Education

In one of those telling front page-back page juxtapositions, the headline news about Eliot Spitzer overwhelms a government study showing that one out of every four American teenage girls is infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

After seven years of a federal government promoting abstinence only, both stories are reminders that the gap between what Americans say in public and do in private has morphed into a chasm of hypocrisy.

As righteous Republicans enjoy the spectacle of a Democratic governor joining the ranks of Larry Craig, David Vitter et al, little attention is being paid to the alarming news about teenagers who don't know or don't care enough to protect themselves from infections that can lead to serious disease.

The MSM media and bloggers are all atwitter with how much Spitzer spent for how long for whose favors, but what is happening to a generation of our children is treated as dry, statistical stuff.

As officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that the findings underscore the need for more screening, vaccination and other prevention measures, 19 million new sexually transmitted infections occur each year. They emphasize that "we must continue developing ways to reach those most at risk.”

Maybe reading about the woes of a careless governor will be a start.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Downfall of Admiral Fallon

Gen. David Petraeus' boss, the top US Commander for the Middle East, has done what Colin Powell should have done over five years ago, and it has cost him his job.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates disclosed today that Adm. William Fallon, after a 41-year Navy career, has asked for permission to retire and that it's been granted.

An article in the current issue of Esquire describes Fallon as opposed to President Bush's Iran policy, a lone voice against military action to stop the Iranian nuclear program who has expressed his opinion publicly.

He told Al Jazeera last fall: "This constant drumbeat of conflict...is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions."

That's not what the Bush Administration wants to hear. They much prefer Gen. Petraeus' tamer assertion, "You cannot win in Iraq solely in Iraq."

So on the eve of Vice-President Cheney's Mideast visit, presumably to sweet-talk our Saudi allies into producing more oil to lower prices, Fallon's discordant voice on Iran will be stilled.

"I think this is a cumulative kind of thing," Gates said in explaining Fallon's sudden decision to retire. "It isn't the result of any one article or any one issue."

That may even be true as far as it goes, but Fallon's departure looks more like an honorable man's way out of being politicized by Washington warriors who still think war with Iran is a dandy idea.

Clinton and Obama Take Command

It's 3 AM for the Hillary Clinton campaign, the red phone is ringing but there's no one to answer because they're all too busy squabbling among themselves.

On the brink of disaster, the putatively more experienced candidate for Commander-in-Chief has fired her campaign manager, muzzled her husband and chief strategist Mark Penn and, according to the New York Times, set out to overhaul an organization that has "set itself apart for its level of disorder and dysfunction."

The unkindest cut of all is an implied comparison to George W. Bush as an executive:

"Mrs. Clinton showed a tendency toward an insular management style, relying on a coterie of aides who have worked for her for years, her aides and associates said. Her choice of lieutenants, and her insistence on staying with them...was blamed by some associates for the campaign’s woes. Again and again, the senator was portrayed as a manager who valued loyalty and familiarity over experience and expertise."

The surprise on the other side has been the quick-response style of the supposedly dreamy Obama and his cohorts. Campaigning in Mississippi, he has been accusing Clinton of using "Republican tactics" against him.

“When in the midst of a campaign you decide to throw the kitchen sink at your opponent because you’re behind,” he says, “and your campaign starts leaking photographs of me when I’m traveling overseas wearing the native clothes of those folks to make people afraid, and then you run an ad talking about who’s going to answer the phone at three in the morning, an ad straight out of the Republican playbook, that’s not real change.”

Even mild-mannered former Sen. Bill Bradley, who ran in 2000, is striking back on his behalf, accusing the Clintons of “lying” to win.

“The bigger the lie, the better the chance they think they’ve got. That’s been their whole approach,” Bradley told a reporter. “She’s going to lose a whole generation of people who got involved in politics believing it could be something different.”

Heading down the stretch for the nomination, it's clear that Obama is going to be no John Kerry in response to swiftboating from opponents in either party.

Troubling Questions About Spitzer Scandal

The New York Times, which failed to make a sex-scandal charge against John McCain stick, has settled for the scalp of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, exposing his involvement with high-priced prostitutes that will likely lead to his resignation.

Spitzer, whose career was built on bull-in-the-china-shop pursuit of corporate malfeasance as Attorney General of New York and whose term in Albany has made him less than lovable, will get little sympathy from politicians, the press and most of the public, but journalistically, there are some troubling questions.

"Mr. Spitzer’s involvement with the prostitution operation came to light in court papers filed last week," the Times reports today, citing unnamed "federal authorities" and "officials," although Spitzer was not named in the affidavit by Assistant US Attorneys.

The case started with IRS investigation of "suspicious transactions" about possible bribery, but it soon became clear from wiretaps authorized by the US Attorney General (Alberto Gonzales?) that Spitzer's financial gyrations involved sex rather than official corruption.

The prostitution ring is now being prosecuted, but Spitzer's legal exposure seems limited to possible charges of "a crime called structuring" that involves concealing of payments and sources.

What, then, justifies the outing of Spitzer at this point by anonymous federal officials and the Times of activity that so far has not been deemed illegal and does not involve his duties as Governor?

Spitzer's leaving office in this situation would be in sharp contrast to two Senators who remain in their positions, Louisiana's David Vitter, who admitted patronizing prostitutes last year, and Larry Craig, who pled guilty to soliciting men's room sex but was defended by the ACLU on the basis that it was private behavior.

John McCain is likable and Eliot Spitzer is far from lovable, but does that difference justify his destruction by front-page exposure of personal misbehavior?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Desperate Househusband

Not easy to boggle the public mind these days, but Bill Clinton seems to have done it again by appearing on the Rush Limbaugh show on the day of the Texas primary.

The former President did not have intercourse with that man himself, who was suffering from a convenient case of one-day flu after urging his listeners to cross over and vote for Hillary Clinton on the theory that Barack Obama would be harder for Republicans to beat. A substitute interviewer did the deed.

Andrew Sullivan's reaction: "Now just wrap your mind around this: the Clintons were happy to support a cynical, partisan Republican campaign to wound the Democratic front-runner, and they were brazen enough to go on the Limbaugh show to do so.

"There also seems little doubt that Republican mischief played a real role in affecting the results."

Several days later Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson complained about Obama's "attacks" on his candidate: "I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for president."

His target, the former President, is making Starr look like a pussycat.

Back to the Political Future

"I don't belong to any organized party," Will Rogers liked to say, "I'm a Democrat."

Imagine Jon Stewart in a cowboy hat, twirling a lariat and talking with a nasal twang. That was Will Rogers in the 1930s, the most popular political satirist of his time, who did monologues back then on the idiocy of the Washington power structure.

Imagine what he would have to say about superdelegates, caucuses and the Florida-Michigan brouhaha.

“Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats," Rogers explained. "If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.”

Nothing changes, except to get funnier--and sadder. The cowboy nailed it all by observing, "The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected."

When Washington lawmakers wanted to put up a statue of him, Rogers agreed but only if it were facing the House Chamber, so he could "keep an eye on Congress." It's the only one facing the entrance and, according to Capitol guides, Presidents rub his left shoe for good luck before entering to give the State of the Union Address.

The old cowboy would get a kick out of that.

The Audacity of Dope

In today's New York Times, William Kristol invokes the Reign of Terror in advising John McCain to follow Danton's lead in picking his running mate.

Coopting Obama's keyword, Kristol urges the Republican nominee to show audacity and "upend the normal dynamics of this year’s election" with a bold vice presidential choice like Gen. David Petraeus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or--wait for it--"a hawkish and principled Democrat like Joe Lieberman."

As one of the Connecticut Independent's constituents, I am reduced to paraphrasing Henny Youngman, "Take my Senator--please."

Kristol's reasoning: "If any Republican can defend conservative principles and policies, at once acknowledging Bush’s failures while pivoting to present his own biography and agenda to the voters, McCain can.

"Still, he’ll have to take risks."

One of them would be listening to loony advice from the likes of Kristol, who has only recently become McCain's new best friend and is now urging on him the wisdom of the French Revolution: “Il faut de l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace.

McCain may want to keep in mind that Danton ended up under the guillotine.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Our Wobbly War on Terror

With President Bush's would-be successors squabbling over Iraq, they are neglecting the main threat of terror that will face one of them taking office next January.

In Pakistan, Musharraf is on his way out as leaders of the two dominant parties agree to reinstate the judges he fired and try to strip him of crucial powers.

"Afghanistan is slipping toward failure," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden warns. "The Taliban is back, violence is up, drug production is booming and the Afghans are losing faith in their government. All the legs of our strategy--security, counter-narcotics efforts, reconstruction and governance--have gone wobbly."

The schedule of staying or going in Iraq is dominating the foreign policy debate in the presidential campaign, but Pakistan and Afghanistan are becoming more urgent.

"If we should have had a surge anywhere," Sen. Biden wrote last week in the New York Times, "it is Afghanistan...In six years, we have spent on Afghanistan’s reconstruction only what we spend every three weeks on military operations in Iraq."

The border area between the two countries, according to Biden is "a freeway of fundamentalism: the Taliban and Al Qaeda find sanctuary in Pakistan, while Pakistani suicide bombers wreak havoc in Afghanistan."

The Bush-Cheney strategy of relying on Musharraf's unreliable assurances about rooting them out is collapsing, but this Administration is unlikely to face that fact.

Biden sums it up: "The next president will have to rally America and the world to 'fight them over there unless we want to fight them over here.' The 'over there' is not, as President Bush has claimed, Iraq, but rather the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Voters should be pressing Sens. McCain, Clinton and Obama to tell them what they are going to do about that.

Pyrrhic Victory, Anyone?

Amid two tiny wins yesterday--in the Wyoming caucuses and the taking of Dennis Hastert's House seat by an Obama admirer--his supporters and Hillary Clinton's were hard at work to snatch defeat from the jaws of expected Democratic victory in November.

After the candidate's claim this week that only she and John McCain had crossed "the commander-in chief threshold," Clinton's campaign generalissimos were e-mailing journalists a memo headed "Obama's Iraq Plan: Just Words":

"Once again, it looks like Senator Obama is telling voters one thing while his campaign says those words should not to be mistaken for serious action...

"Senator Obama has made hard end dates about Iraq a centerpiece of his campaign and has repeatedly attacked Senator Clinton for not being clear about her intentions with regard to troop withdrawal.

"It turns out those attacks and speeches were just words. And if you can't trust Senator Obama's words, what's left?"

His campaign fired back: "The Clinton campaign has publicly admitted that the only way they can still win this election is by tearing Barack Obama down. They have called their attacks the 'kitchen sink strategy'...The result has been a constant barrage of attacks about Senator Obama's record that they know full well aren't true. And yet they repeat them, over and over again, day after day, in an attempt to deceive the American people..."

Well said, word warriors. Those people taking notes are from the Republican swiftboat squad, who will be happy to immortalize them, no matter which Democrat wins the nomination.