Robert Stein 1924-2014

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

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Biden Could Do for Obama

As the short list dwindles down and Republican attacks heat up, the arguments for Joe Biden as Barack Obama's running mate strengthen.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is the flavor of the week in the media frenzy, but with less than three years in the position and no international experience, his choice would only underscore voter doubts about Obama's readiness to be president.

It is more than Biden's years in the Senate that recommend him. During the Democratic primary debates, the phrase "Joe is right" was heard so often that it became the theme of his ultimately failed campaign.

Since he entered the Senate in 1973 at the age of 30, Biden has embodied the kind of brains, character and compassion that national politics should have but rarely gets. Now, at 65, he would bring to Obama's ticket the good judgment and experience a change candidate needs to persuade wary voters that the best of the past would not be swept away in enthusiasm for the new.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who served that role for JFK in 1960, Biden has been no wheeler-dealer in the Senate but a champion of good causes now almost universally accepted--protection of women against domestic violence, a sane policy against drug abuse and, most of all, national security.

In 2001, he had doubts about Iraq yet eventually voted for the resolution but only, by Chuck Hagel's testimony, after working with Dick Lugar and others, in a bipartisan effort to limit the blank check the White House sought. Since then, he been in the forefront of efforts to limit US losses and end the disaster.

Perhaps most persuasive of all, Obama clearly respects Biden and would value him as a partner and, in the quest to convince the candidate's most elusive demographic--the white working class--the Delaware Senator's blue-collar, Catholic background would be a strong asset.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Flagging Down the Forked-Tongue Express

If the campaign continues this way, John McCain may lose not only an election but the respect earned over decades as an honorable soldier and straight-talking politician.

More in sorrow than anger, a New York Times editorial points out what has been clear for weeks now:

"On July 3, news reports said Senator John McCain, worried that he might lose the election before it truly started, opened his doors to disciples of Karl Rove from the 2004 campaign and the Bush White House. Less than a month later, the results are on full display. The candidate who started out talking about high-minded, civil debate has wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Rove’s low-minded and uncivil playbook."

There has been something distant on McCain's face and in his voice ever since as he parrots Rovian attacks on Barack Obama's patriotism. His body language raises questions about whether he can watch the scurrilous 527 commercials without gagging over the sophomoric smears that blame high gas prices on Obama, accuse him of using wounded troops for political gain and denounce him for being popular.

McCain, says the Times editorial, "used to pride himself on being above this ugly brand of politics, which killed his own 2000 presidential bid. But he clearly tossed his inhibitions aside earlier this month when he put day-to-day management of his campaign in the hands of one acolyte of Mr. Rove and gave top positions to two others. The résumés of the new team’s members included stints in Mr. Bush’s White House and in his 2004 re-election campaign, one of the most negative and divisive in memory."

Rove, cited for contempt today by the Senate Judiciary Committee over refusing to come clean about political misuse of the Justice Department, has made a fine art of devising election campaigns based on contempt for voters' intelligence.

The irony now is that the man he destroyed in 2000 to the point that McCain considered switching parties is surrendering to those tactics.

One of the low blows Rove's minions have devised for McCain is the charge that Obama would be willing to lose a war to win an election. How much of himself is John McCain ready to lose?

Pakistan's New Face, Same Old Double Talk

Instead of President Pervez Musharraf, it was Pakistan's new Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani this week posing in the White House, asking for more military handouts and flimflamming the Bush Administration about his country's efforts to root out terrorists across the Afghanistan border.

As American casualties and frustration mount, the New York Times reports, a top CIA official this month confronted senior Pakistan officials with new evidence about ties between the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and militants in the country’s tribal areas "responsible for a surge of violence in Afghanistan."

But here is the Prime Minister on PBS' News Hour, insisting that ISI is "a great institution" and such claims are "not believable...because the ISI is directly working under the prime minister."

So much for that, but Gilani is complaining that his country needs advance notice so that his people can deal with terrorists rather finding out after the fact about this week's US missile strike on a border outpost that killed six foreign fighters, one of them believed to be a top al Qaeda operative.

"We believe in sovereignty of the country," he huffed. "And naturally, nobody likes it."

What might calm him, the Prime Minister indicated, would be a gift of Predator drones and FM radio systems to jam the terrorists' communications.

One of the first jobs of the new President in January will be to sort out this Pakistani shell game that has been costing us American lives and billions in wasted military aid since 9/11.

A Look Into Obama's Mind

In unearthing the syllabus and assignments for his seminar in "Current Issues in Racism and the Law" during 12 years of teaching at the University of Chicago, the New York Times offers a preview of how Barack Obama's mind might work in the Oval Office.

For that complex and controversial subject, Obama improvised his own textbook, with key cases like Brown v. Board of Education, and essays by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Dubois and Malcolm X as well as conservative thinkers like Robert H. Bork.

Amid the historical horrors of slavery and lynchings, students recall, Obama made room for discussing the values and culture that Americans of all races grow up sharing, citing his wife, Michelle, a black woman, who loved “The Brady Bunch” so much that she could identify every episode by its opening scenes.

But perhaps most to the point of how a President Obama would conduct his administration's approach to problem solving may be found in his instructions to students for preparing their term papers:

"What I want to see is that you are fully engaged with an issue, and that you've broken some sweat trying to figure out the problem in all it wonderful complexity.

"More specifically, I'll be looking for: a focused, tightly crafted argument, and analytic rigor in working through the legal or policy problems raised by your argument; a thorough examination of the diversity of opinion that exists on the issue or theme; a willingness, after having looked at the various facets of the topic, to take a stand and offer concrete proposals or approaches to the problem."

That sounds like the essence of what he would telling the people he picks to help him run the country. It certainly would be a change from what we have now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Senate's Grumpiest Old Man Faces Charges

The proponent of the "Bridge to Nowhere" may be going somewhere after all. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska was indicted on seven counts of corruption today involving doubling the size of his home at the expense of lobbyist friends.

They literally raised the roof of what is called Stevens' chalet by lifting the building onto stilts and putting an entirely new first floor under it.

For someone of my generation, the decline and fall of the irascible 84-year-old is a sad reminder that aging is no protection against self-destructive behavior.

Stevens started out as a World War II pilot who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for two years in the China-India-Burma Theater, supporting the "Flying Tigers" and Chinese combat units behind enemy lines.

Now, after 38 years in the Senate, during which he has grown increasingly ornery in pursuit of pork for his constituents, the Alaska Senator will be going on trial for making false statements on his Senate financial forms.

Long before he faces a jury, those constituents will be rendering a verdict on Stevens' continuing in the Senate in November.

While West Virginia's Robert Byrd, who turns 91 that month, is still going strong, the Stevens indictment raises questions about term limits in the Senate. Maybe 40 years is enough.

Victory Gardens and Grassless Lawns

During World War II, Americans grew tons of produce in government-sponsored Victory Gardens. With a 21st century twist, the idea is back, paired with an anti-lawn movement that decries the waste of water, use of an ingredient in Agent Orange and expenditure on fuel for power mowers to make front and back yards look like golf courses.

In New York City, Portland, Oregon and in front of San Francisco's City Hall, vegetables are growing, thanks to a new operation called MyFarm, which does the planting, weeding and harvesting and, for less than it costs to hire people to cut lawns, leaves a box of fresh organic produce on the doorstep.

At the same time, an organization name SALT (Smaller American Lawns Today) has been preaching the virtues of less grass and more trees and meadows, according to the New Yorker, which reports on a number of new books such as "Edible Estates" and "Food Not Lawns" to make American yards more productive.

In the New York Times blog "Designs," a New Yorker describes her own experiences in "swapping out blades of grass for bushels of beans" and recommends sources of information and help for what seems to be a rapidly growing movement.

Food for thought.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Motives for Murder

In Baghdad yesterday, three women wearing suicide vests with bombs killed 24 pilgrims marching in a religious festival and wounded at least 62 others, many of them children.

In Knoxville, Tenn., an unemployed man opened fire with a shotgun, killing two people at a Unitarian church he had never attended. He left a note in his SUV, according to police, about his "frustration" over not finding a job and "hatred of the liberal movement" that the church represented.

The search for serenity through religious worship is not what it used to be.

Obama's Fifty-Percent Barrier

As the new Gallup Poll shows him leading John McCain nationally by 49 to 40 per cent, there is the question. "Where's the Bounce?" from his apparently triumphant tour of the Mideast and Europe last week.

"Why is he not doing better?” the Times' Adam Nagourney asks today. "Even Mr. Obama’s advisers say they are uneasy about his difficulty so far in breaking the 50 percent barrier--a reminder, in poll after poll, that there are many Americans who are not yet ready to cast their lot with him, and may never be."

Some analysts compare Obama to Reagan in 1980, following the unpopular Jimmy Carter but needing to persuade voters he was credible as a president.

“It took a long while for the American public to test and look at Ronald Reagan before they were willing to go with him,” a Democratic pollster points out. “And then, when the dam broke open, it broke open very, very wide.”

It may be too optimistic to equate the comfort levels of American voters over a former actor with those of an African-American with less than a full term in the US Senate, but then again Ronald Reagan didn't have almost two years of exposure in a 24/7 media and internet world to familiarize them with what kind of president he might be.

With more than three months and two national conventions to go, Obama's prospects are looking good, 50 percent or not. Reagan had Jimmy Carter running against him as a living reminder of what the choice was, but John McCain keeps showing voters that he is George W. Bush's heir.

Petraeus' Reality Check

By the end of last week, John McCain was agreeing with Barack Obama that 16 months would be "a pretty good timetable" for withdrawing American troops from Iraq, but now Gen. David Petraeus says no.

The situation in Iraq, he tells an interviewer, is too volatile to "project out, and to then try to plant a flag on, a particular date."

Unlike the candidates, who have condensed their positions to bumper stickers of withdrawal or victory, Petraeus is wary of what Colin Powell called the Pottery Barn rule about Iraq, "You break it, you own it."

It should be sobering to hear from our man on the ground that McCain's claims of victory and belaboring of Obama for defeatism are, to put it kindly, premature.

"We know where we are trying to go," Petraeus says. "We know how we think we need to try to get there with our Iraqi partners and increasingly with them in the lead and shouldering more of the burden as they are.

"But there are a lot of storm clouds out there, there are lots of these possible lightning bolts. You just don't know what it could be. You try to anticipate them and you try to react very quickly...It's all there, but it's not something you want to lay out publicly."

Translation: We just don't know when the US can stop pouring blood and dollars into the fantasy of a free, democratic Iraq because the outcome is not in our hands.

If anything, Petraeus' doubts should reinforce Obama's determination to decide what we can do, give up the pipedream and start allocating our forces to fight terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Debriefing Obama

You can measure the toughness of Tom Brokaw's Meet the Press interview with the Democratic nominee today by the multiple times Obama said "Right, right," "but, but" and "look, look."

They were numerous as Brokaw pressed him on not being willing to admit the Surge has worked, on oversimplifying the politics of Pakistan and answering the charge that his Berlin speech was a Disney version of "optimism without reality."

Taped in London last night, the interview was a test for the bone-weary candidate after a week of media adulation, and a testament to Brokaw's unimpaired skills as he questioned Obama, not with Tim Russert's cordial aggressiveness, but a cool insistence on getting to the core of issues.

At 68, Brokaw is of John McCain's generation and a suitable surrogate for 20th century journalists who kept their distance from politicians rather than basking in the spotlight as fellow media stars.

On Obama's part, the experience will surely be useful in honing presidential skills that go beyond cheering crowds and fawning interviewers.

Tomorrow, he will be back down to earth, meeting with his economic advisers to focus on gas prices, mortgage bailouts and other worries that voters will want straight answers about from now to November.

Smoke-Filled Lungs and Empty Stomachs

A 21st century corollary to the idealistic hope, "Suppose they gave a war and nobody came," could be "Suppose everybody stopped smoking and tobacco farmers grew food instead."

The outlandish idea of devoting millions of acres to feeding hungry people rather than shortening their lives is reflected in new stirrings by Big Government and Big Money.

The House of Representatives will vote this week on a breakthrough bill to empower the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco as it now regulates food, drugs and medical devices, an important step toward bringing a death-dealing industry under control.

Meanwhile, two billionaires--New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates--are pledging $375 million to fight what they called a global tobacco epidemic.

As food shortages rise and health care is unavailable to multitudes, inhabitants of a rational world might see crop rotation from tobacco to food as a logical way of filling empty stomachs and cutting down on cancer and heart disease at the same time.

We are living in a rational world, aren't we?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sex and the Kitchen Sink

After decades of editing women's magazines, it's reassuring to learn science is solving one perennial problem--getting husbands to do housework.

The latest news is that the sight of men doing domestic chores is erotic, a discovery about marital bliss that recalls the Lysistrata approach to ending wars, which the historically minded will recall didn't work out too well. Now, that's been updated with a carrot-and-stick approach.

"I am very turned on when he's doing housework," one woman reports. "If there's a sink full of dirty dishes, he knows I'm going to take care of that before I want to get intimate. If he wasn't helping with the housework, I would not find that very attractive."

There may be deeper reasons. "When a man does housework, it feels to the woman like an expression of caring and concern," says a psychologist-researcher. "A guy can be completely stressed out and want to have sex to burn it off, but women are not wired like that." They need to feel relaxed in order to feel sexy.

But there could also be a tradeoff going on here. Recent findings by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research show, in 1976, men did six hours of housework a week which, in 2005, increased to about 13 while women decreased their weekly chores from 26 hours to 17.

But the same research shows that "as men's housework goes up, women's marital satisfaction also goes up but men's marital satisfaction goes down."

If these trends continue, the best answer may be to invest in companies that make paper plates and, just possibly, Viagra.

Friday, July 25, 2008

No Bistro for Obama

He has been to Paris and gone, four hours in the City of Light without so much as a stop in a bistro or a quick tour of the Louvre, rien but a photo op with French President Nicolas Sarkozy standing in the doorway of the Palace Eysee.

“The French love the Americans,” Sarkozy enthused after a private 40-minute meeting with Barack Obama today. “The French have been following him with passion.”

Obama returned the affection by citing Sarkozy as responsible for "Americans calling French Fries French Fries again" and was whisked off to a flight to London without so much a single Pomme Frite.

Dark Days for Blackwater

Everybody's favorite rent-a-goon service is going out of business in Iraq even before our troops leave.

After bad publicity and audits by the FBI and Homeland Security, Blackwater International's security business is down to about 30 percent of its revenue from a high of more than 50 percent and headed lower.

"If I could get it down to 2 percent or 1 percent, I would go there," the company president said this week, blaming the media for the decline and scolding them, "If you could get it right, we might stay in the business."

Score one for the journalism that exposed, among other abuses, the deadly hail of Blackwater gunfire that left 17 Iraqis dead and prompted the Baghdad government to revoke its license.

But shedding tears for the Bush Administration's favorite privatized murderers may be premature, according to Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater's Boswell, who points out that it is slithering into new areas of work, including spying, undercover operations against terrorists and drug dealers as well as "wrapping up work on its own armored vehicle, the Grizzly, as well as its Polar Airship 400, a surveillance blimp Blackwater wants to market to the Department of Homeland security for use in monitoring the US-Mexico border."

Lou Dobbs will be thrilled.

"Little Minds" Assault on Obama

After years of Bush's always-wrong-but-never-in-doubt presidency, Republican swiftboaters are launching their first attack ad on Obama, telling MTV watchers, among others, that he's "Both Ways Barack--worse than a flip-flopper!"

A young generation, some of whom may actually have been paying attention in high school and college, will find irony in having their favorite candidate under fire for what they learned from reading F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

It was Obama's unBushlike intelligence that excited the New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks back in 2006: “He has a compulsive tendency to see both sides of an issue...And yet this style is surely the antidote to the politics of the past several years. It is surely true that a President who brings a deliberative style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it.”

But ambivalence is too complicated a concept for the 527 smearers who trashed John Kerry, a decorated war veteran, for his Vietnam service in favor of George W. Bush, who dodged going there, and they are banking on voters to be easy marks for their shell game again.

Their new commercial shows headlines ("Obama's Changes Raise Issue: Can You Believe Him?") with a voice-over, "People are saying that Senator Obama's recent changes of position have made him a flip-flopper. He's not! Flip-floppers only hold one position at a time. Senator Obama is different: He holds two positions at the same time."

If voters want to go further back in seeing through the smokescreen, they can check Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 essay on self-reliance, in which he urges "Trust thyself“ and observes that "To be great is to be misunderstood” and “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Thursday, July 24, 2008

McCain's Daily Show Routine

His staff has been watching Jon Stewart. In a brilliant counter-programming move, they had John McCain satirizing Obama's Berlin speech today with a standup in front of Schmidt's Sausage Haus in Columbus, Ohio.

Instead of a cheering, flag-waving crowd of 200,000, they had McCain meeting with half a dozen small business owners for a meal of bratwurst to complain, "I'd love to give a speech in Germany. But I'd much prefer to do it as president of the United States rather than as a candidate for president."

Lots of laughs and a delicious satire, but if he doesn't make it to the White House, McCain has even less chance of replacing John Oliver on the Daily Show.

Breaking Down Invisible Walls

Barack Obama in Berlin today talked about tearing down walls that separate nations, just as John F. Kennedy did in 1963 and Ronald Reagan in 1987, but there were differences. JFK and Reagan wanted to break down the physical barrier that symbolized a Cold War. Obama was offering himself as the symbol of a new century without political, ideological or psychological walls between people.

"I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city," he told a crowd of an estimated 200,000 Germans before recalling the common struggles during the Berlin Airlift and exhorting them to a comparable effort against terrorism, tyranny, nuclear weapons, poverty and AIDS and other threats to freedom today.

"Freedom is indivisible," JFK had said, "and when one man is enslaved, all are not free." Reagan had echoed him, proclaiming, "We in the West stand ready to cooperate with the East to promote true openness, to break down barriers that separate people, to create a safe, freer world."

Today, Obama acknowledged that "In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common. In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe's role in our security and our future.

"Both views miss the truth--that Europeans today are bearing new burdens and taking more responsibility in critical parts of the world; and that just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe."

As the potential next American President, who in earlier times was considered the Leader of the Free World, Obama offered his prescription for a common future:

"Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more--not less.

"Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.

"That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another."

In the coming months, the Presidential campaign will be a crucial test of how willing Americans are to break down our own long-standing barriers between people.

Repairing America's Image

The memory of angry millions in European streets five years ago to protest the imminent US attack on Iraq will be the background for Barack Obama's visit and speech in Berlin today that are expected to draw huge cheering crowds.

The contrast underscores one of Obama's main missions in seeking the presidency--to restore worldwide respect, if not admiration, for American ideals after eight years of Bush-Cheney arrogance that have sown mistrust, if not hatred.

Leaving Israel, Obama said his speech would be a "substantive articulation" of the relationship he wanted to see between the US and Europe.

"I think the world is keenly interested in this election and I think they're hungry for a sense of where America is going," he told reporters on his flight from Tel Aviv.

As John McCain keeps hammering at Obama with a rewriting of the Iraq disaster, the man who almost surely will have to repair the damage is making a start today on the other side of the Atlantic.

Silence of the Hams

Like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark in the night, the MSM blackout on John Edwards' visit to his "mistress and love child" (particularly on the part of the cable news loudmouths) gets curiouser.

My assumption yesterday about "this morning's MSM reticence to what surely will be a cable news orgy tonight (Fox News in hog heaven over a fallen Democratic idol on Obama's VP list)" turned out to be stunningly wrong.

The reaction, or lack of it, on the part of the CNN, MSNBC and Fox operatic anchors and their endless panels of expert logorrhea is much more interesting than the story itself.

On Slate under the heading, "Edwards: The Agony of the MSM," Mickey Kaus asks, "If the MSM can discuss the charges in meta form ("It's so easy to jump to conclusions---and I admit, this looks bad") in blogs, chat rooms, and in press commentaries, why not on the front page in political commentaries?"

The most likely answer is a combination of fears about looking salacious and being insensitive to Elizabeth Edwards' medical condition. Even for a longtime non-admirer of John Edwards, this is understandable but not persuasive in the light of media reactions to previous political scandals, from Bill Clinton to David Vitter and Larry Craig.

The rationalizations, extending from "not proven" (the Enquirer today offers more details) to Edwards' privacy rights (he has been out front promoting his poverty campaign and hinting about being Obama's VP), fail to explain it.

As comforting as it would be to believe that all the media are developing more scruples about exploiting the personal lives of public figures, that explanation won't wash.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The McCain VP Shell Game

Duping the Prince of Darkness is SOP for the GOP, as the Valerie Plame outing showed, but the McCain campaign is in "reprehensible" new territory by using him to distract attention from the Obama tour, Robert Novak is mournfully telling Fox News.

The VP shell game is definitely going on, as the Republican candidate goes to New Orleans today, suggesting Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal as the choice, while other reports ooze out that Mitt Romney is fast becoming McCain's best friend.

"I'm appreciative every time I see Mitt on television on my behalf," McCain says. "He does a better job for me than he did for himself, as a matter of fact."

But at a private Republican meeting in New Hampshire yesterday, reports CNN's Dana Bash, McCain "dropped a serious hint about Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, telling them "out of the blue" they are "really going to like" Pawlenty.

Of them all, Pawlenty sounds the most plausible. A former Congressman, former Catholic turned Protestant, experienced but young (47), socially conservative with an impressive record of fiscal management, he helps McCain on age and the economy without bringing any of the baggage Jindal and Romney would be toting. And the last thing the Republican campaign needs is baggage.

In the process, they may have even unloaded Novak.

Jawing Over John Edwards

Today will be a test for us all--journalists, bloggers, the whole world of political punditry--in confronting the National Enquirer coup in staking out and catching John Edwards in a visit to what it delicately calls "his mistress and secret love child."

It won't be a pretty picture. From this morning's MSM reticence to what surely will be a cable news orgy tonight (Fox News in hog heaven over a fallen Democratic idol on Obama's VP list), no one will pass the test with anything approaching integrity.

So bring it on--the outrage at a politician's hypocrisy, crocodile tears for Elizabeth Edwards, condemnation of the media for voyeurism, wailing over the breakdown between what's public and private--and when it's over, the caravan will move on to its higher pursuit of helping Americans pick their next president.

The public's right to know will have been served

Andrea Mitchell Is Miffed

In his practice round for the presidency, Barack Obama is not blowing kisses to his journalistic groupies, and at least one of those spurned is upset about the "media management."

NBC's Andrea Mitchell is not taking it lightly. "He didn't have reporters with him, he didn't have a press pool, he didn't do a press conference while he was on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq," she complained on air with Chris Matthews the other night.

As a candidate treading lightly in war zones and trying to toe a line between confident and cocky, Obama has good reason to keep what amounts for him a low profile. Maybe he can make it up to Mitchell on the plane ride back, but meanwhile Mrs. Greenspan is not amused.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Barack Obama's Race With Himself

It's not as if John McCain has become irrelevant, but in the main ring of the '08 electoral circus, all eyes are now on Barack Obama's solo high-wire act as he walks a racial, political and cultural tightrope toward the White House.

The questions are less about the two candidates' policies and personalities than about the larger meaning of it all: "Could an Obama Presidency Hurt Black Americans?" CNN asks while citing those "who warn that an Obama victory could cause white Americans to ignore entrenched racial divisions while claiming that America has reached the racial Promised Land."

Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, the author of a book predicting that Obama can't win now says that he "has already won a cultural mandate to the American presidency. And politically, he is now essentially in a contest with himself" to persuade "even Middle America to feel comfortable as the mantle they bestow on him settles upon his shoulders."

This portentous pronouncement comes at the conclusion of a column titled "Why Jesse Jackson Hates Obama," which argues that Jackson and his peers presided over "an extortionist era of civil rights, in which they said to American institutions: Your shame must now become our advantage."

Obama, he claims, is moving beyond all that to become the anti-Jackson "to trade moral leverage for gratitude. Give up moral leverage over whites, refuse to shame them with America's racist past, and the gratitude they show you will constitute a new form of black power. They will love you for the faith you show in them."

All these exegeses are enough to make voters' heads spin as they watch a gifted political figure weaving his way this week through a Middle East minefield and heading toward what promises to be a tumultuous reception in Europe.

Whatever the subtexts of Barack Obama's American journey turn out to be, one conclusion is inescapable: Unlike the current occupant, if and when he moves into the Oval Office, a person of substance will be sitting there.

Sad Hearts at the Supermarket

David Brooks today straddles the gap between social pressures and personal responsibility in "The Culture of Debt" by insisting that, in digging America out of its mountain of debt, "the important shifts will be private, as people and communities learn and adopt different social standards.

"After the Depression, a savings mentality set in. After the dot-com bubble, a bit of sobriety hit Silicon Valley. Now it’s the borrowers’ and lenders’ turn. As the saying goes: People don’t change when they see the light. They change when they feel the heat."

Brooks' optimism about "a bit of sobriety" is a nice Conservative try to ease the pressure off the banks, credit card companies and sellers of stuff for the waves of debt that are now threatening to drown so many Americans. Why did all those irresponsible swimmers plunge so far out?

But he may want to look back at the early 1960s to an America wallowing in post-World War II prosperity when the poet-critic Randall Jarrell was warning in "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket" about a society that "needs for us to be buyers, consumers, beings who want much and will want more --who want consistently and insatiably," in which "the product or services which seemed yesterday an unthinkable luxury is today an inexorable necessity."

Bigger homes with zero down, newer cars with delayed payments, electronic gadgets galore, flying everywhere on impulse, credit cards for jobless new college graduates in a world of hyper-consumerism and retail therapy ("When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping")...

If he were still alive, Randall Jarrell's supermarket sadness would surely be deeper than ever, but then again what would a poet know about the real world?

McCain Mantra: "As Conditions Permit"

There is a Karl Rovian rote to the attempted undermining of a growing Barack Obama-Nouri al-Maliki entente on getting American troops out of Iraq in the next two years.

Any withdrawal of troops "must be based on conditions on the ground," John McCain insisted yesterday as he stood next to George W. Bush's father, a living reminder that getting the US into an Iraq quagmire was not the only post-9/11 option.

McCain campaign surrogates are parroting the line that their candidate also wants to get us out, but not on a timetable or time line or time horizon, but only "as conditions permit," thereby branding any scheduled withdrawal as rash and dangerous.

On the PBS News Hour, adviser Max Boot contends "that any reductions in combat forces have to be based on conditions on the ground, not on rigid timetables imposed in advance" and that McCain and Maliki "agree that we can only have these major withdrawals of American troops if conditions on the ground permit. But that's something that Senator Barack Obama does not agree with. He wants to reduce U.S. troops, no matter what conditions on the ground are. And nobody can predict what Iraq will look like two years from now."

But exactly what does that mean? Are "conditions" to be taken as an end to all the murderous actions of bitter-ender al Qaeda insurgents or out-of-control fringe Moqtada al-Sadr militias?

Do "conditions" mean the suppression of all squabbling among sectarian factions in the Iraqi parliament and a binding agreement on hot-button issues such as sharing oil revenues?

Or are "conditions" a generic cover for the McCain campaign to make Obama look irresponsible for proposing any orderly exit from Iraq?

In all fairness, the Republican candidate is no longer pushing for an American presence in Iraq for a hundred years. Apparently, his time line is keeping the option open to scare American voters until after the November balloting is over.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dear John: NY Times Rejects McCain

For someone who spent a working lifetime turning down manuscripts and being turned down in turn, the Times' rejection of John McCain's answer to Barack Obama's OpEd piece on Iraq is puzzling.

Reading it on the Drudge Report, the McCain riposte is no prose masterpiece, but it mirrors, albeit with partisan fervor, Obama's "My Plan for Iraq," published last week and certainly meets the literary standards of OpEd columnist William Kristol.

OpEd editor David Shipley explains: "The Obama piece worked for me because it offered new information (it appeared before his speech); while Senator Obama discussed Senator McCain, he also went into detail about his own plans.

"It would be terrific to have an article from Senator McCain that mirrors Senator Obama's piece. To that end, the article would have to articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq."

In his rejected manuscript, McCain claims Iraq has met "all but three of 18 original benchmarks set by Congress last year to measure security, political and economic progress. Even more heartening has been progress that’s not measured by the benchmarks.

"More than 90,000 Iraqis, many of them Sunnis who once fought against the government, have signed up as Sons of Iraq to fight against the terrorists. Nor do they measure Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s new-found willingness to crack down on Shiite extremists in Basra and Sadr City—actions that have done much to dispel suspicions of sectarianism."

No matter how simplistic, the piece reflects how McCain "defines victory in Iraq." Why didn't the Times let him have his say and let its columnists and readers as well as bloggers everywhere expose the holes in his logic and question whether such a "victory" justifies the American blood and treasure it has cost?

In turning the manuscript down, the newspaper has shot itself in the foot once again, fueling the arguments set forth in a current Vanity Fair piece, "Why Do People Love to Hate The New York Times?"

Double Talk in the Mideast

After what must have been awkward conversations in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, who he last week said "has not gotten out of the bunker and helped organize Afghanistan and government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence," Barack Obama has arrived in Baghdad to consult with Nouri al-Maliki, who agrees with his timetable for American troop withdrawal--sort of, maybe, depending.

The Iraqi Prime Minister turned into a tower of jello this weekend at first publicly backing Obama's proposal and then, after a call from the US Embassy "to express concern and seek clarification," said he had been misinterpreted.

What Obama is learning first-hand on this trip will surely have less to do with Mideast policy than the serpentine course of politics in that part of the world, where friends, allies and enemies are subject to variable definitions at a moment's notice.

The national leaders he's meeting have to walk a line between six more months of dependence on the Bush Administration and the prospect that the money and military aid crucial to their political survival may depend on Obama's totally different mindset next year.

If Karzai and al-Maliki, to say nothing of American diplomats and military commanders, are running true to form, the potential new Commander-in-Chief is hearing a lot about how well we're doing now along with promises to do even better under policies 180 degrees from those now in place.

The chief benefit from Obama's "fact-finding" trip may be a glimmer of who in the cast of characters will give him some semblance of frankness amid all the double talk he will be hearing. It's a safe bet that there won't be much.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Red Cross: An American Disaster

The latest chapter in the catastrophic recent history of the organization Americans depend on for disaster relief is the revelation that the Red Cross, which collects and distributes almost half of the blood given to patients in this country, is so sloppy it may be endangering their lives.

The FDA has found "shortcomings in the way the Red Cross screens donors for possible exposure to infectious diseases, failures to swab arms properly before inserting needles, failures to test for syphilis and failures to discard potentially risky blood, among other deficiencies."

This comes after post-9/11 disclosures of embezzlement and mismanagement at Red Cross chapters across the country followed by a series of scandals that has led the Congressionally chartered charity to run through five leaders in the past six years, including an ouster last year of a new president after several months for engaging in a "personal relationship" with one of his subordinates.

For 15 years, the Red Cross has been under a federal court order to improve the way it collects and processes blood, but despite $21 million in fines since 2003, this January the FDA Commissioner warned board members they could face criminal charges for their continued failure to comply.

My experience as an editor persuaded me that the Red Cross was always better at promoting itself than helping people in trouble, as opposed to the Salvation Army, the American Friends Service Committee and other organizations that concentrate on being there for victims.

Now a New York Times editorial notes: "Some critics believe the Red Cross should sell off its blood banking services and stick to disaster relief, but that might present financial difficulties. The disaster relief activities are said to be heavily subsidized by blood banking revenues, although the organization’s financial systems are so antiquated that even its own top executives do not know for sure.

"At a minimum, Congress should explore ways to strengthen regulatory oversight and force the Red Cross to meet the highest safety standards."

Meanwhile, those who want to help people in trouble here at home and all over the world might take a closer look at the work of other relief organizations.

Johnny Cash Comes Back to Life

A London gallery next week will show pictures of an American legend, some of them unseen for almost half a century. Taken by my friend Marvin Koner, they show, not the familiar man in black with a life-scarred face, but a smooth-skinned 27-year-old at the brink of a career that would sear his voice and music into America's memory.

Koner was one of the young men who came back from World War II to pioneer an era of available-light photography that transformed pictures in magazines from frozen images with studio lighting to exciting depictions of life in motion, just as movies were moving from Hollywood sound stages to the grainy reality of Italian Neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague.

In their work, the 1950s and 1960s still live. A slide show on Koner's website brings back Martin Luther King, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Taylor and unremembered people of the era through the eyes of a man with a 35mm camera and an artist's sensibility,

The pictures of Johnny Cash, discovered in a closet after more than 40 years, are part of that lost-and-found-again world that a new generation can rediscover now and marvel at how young and alive historical figures once were.

Doing Afghanistan

So endeth Day One. Barack Obama did Afghanistan yesterday, where more Americans are now dying than in Iraq--a photo op with President Hamid Karzai, bacon and eggs with the troops (hold the grits) and shooting hoops with them.

His comments were low-carb, too. "To see young people like this, who are doing such excellent work with so much dedication and pride, it makes you feel good about the country," he said. "You want to make sure that everybody back home understands how much pride people take in their work here and how much sacrifice people are making. It's outstanding."

If and when he visits the Middle East again as president, the atmosphere won't be as relaxed. If Obama keeps his campaigning word, the emphasis of the war on terror will shift to Afghanistan from Iraq, where Nouri al-Maliki is now waffling on endorsing Obama's withdrawal plan.

Nine US soldiers were killed last week fighting Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan during the deadliest attack on American troops in Afghanistan in three years.

Obama won't be visiting Pakistan on this trip, but that's where the problem lies, getting the post-Musharraf government to stop tiptoeing around the tribes shielding al Qaeda there. If he can do something about that, Obama would lessen the "sacrifice people are making" of the troops he visited today.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Obama's Magical Mystery Tour

He's in Afghanistan today and will go on to Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England on what his campaign hopes will be a 21st century reprise of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour with its theme of "All You Need Is Love" but at the same time has the potential to be a gauntlet of political minefields and security nightmares.

Despite the advance secrecy, John McCain yesterday blurted out that Obama would be going "either today or tomorrow" and that "Sen. Obama is going to arrive in Baghdad in a much, much safer and secure environment than the one that he would've encountered before we started the surge." Maybe so, but someone might remind McCain of the old World War II slogan, "Loose Lips Sink Ships."

Physical security aside, Obama may get a warm reception in Baghdad if what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has told the German magazine Der Spiegel about troop withdrawal is any indication:

"U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."

As he departed, Obama pointed out, "I’m more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking. And I think it is very important to recognize that I’m going over there as a U.S. senator. We have one president at a time, so it’s the president’s job to deliver those messages.”

That may be what the Democratic candidate is saying, but what will the world leaders along his route be hearing? Something alone the lines of "All You Need Is Tough Love"?

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Ich bin ein Berliner, Folks"

The vacillation over a speech site for Barack Obama evokes memories of previous fusses raised by American presidents in post-World War II Germany.

The Obama campaign has been searching for a suitable venue since Chancellor Angela Merkel deemed the Brandenburg Gate unseemly for a speech by a political candidate, and now the Victory Column less than a mile away seems to be the choice.

In 1985, there was a flap over President Reagan's visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to lay a wreath at the graves of German soldiers, including SS troops, over the protests of Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors.

Before that, in 1963, President Kennedy made a stirring speech with the memorable line "Ich bin ein Berliner," followed by a semantic fuss about its translation, indicating that JFK may have unintentionally proclaimed himself, not a citizen of Berlin, but a jelly doughnut.

Whatever Obama decides to say to his German audience, he would be well-advised not to refer to John McCain as a hero, risking the possibility he might be understood to be calling the Republican candidate a big, fat overstuffed sandwich.

In languages as well as politics, it's easy for much to be lost in translation.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

VP for Saving the Planet?

Al Gore's impassioned speech today urges Americans to give up fossil fuels within a decade or risk losing national security, raising again the question of how his presence on the Obama ticket would elevate the stakes for "change" in this election.

The once and possibly future Vice President cited military-intelligence studies warning of “dangerous national security implications” of climate change, including the possibility of “hundreds of millions of climate refugees” creating worldwide instability and converting US dependence on foreign oil into a threat to the nation's safety.

Barack Obama issued an immediate statement underscoring his agreement:

“For decades, Al Gore has challenged the skeptics in Washington on climate change and awakened the conscience of a nation to the urgency of this threat. I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence, but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power and advanced biofuels, and those are the investments I will make as President. It’s a strategy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced, and one that will leave our children a world that is cleaner and safer.”

How better to advance these objectives--and bring Executive branch experience to an Obama White House--than persuading Gore to take up his former job with enhanced responsibilities?

Al Gore may have lost the legendary "fire in the belly" for higher office, but he might be persuaded to reenter the arena to forward what has become the cause of his life.

Senior Sex Makes News

Cohabiting among older people increased 50 percent from 2000 to 2006, the McClatchy Newspapers report today:

"The total--1.8 million--counts only couples who live together full time and were willing to admit it to census interviewers. Part-time cohabiting--traveling together, sharing a summer house, spending weekends together--is up at least as sharply, according to seniors and people who work with them."

This news about the growth of "love expectancy" may come as a shock to younger generations, whose sophistication does not extend to the notion that parents and grandparents, despite all the evidence of Viagra commercials, may not be immune to a culture of supersex on TV and in the movies.

On a family weekend celebrating his 75th birthday, a friend of mine and his wife went to bed early. Their youngest son, staying in the spare room, came back from an evening out and heard what he later described as “this Godawful scream."

Afraid that his father was having a heart attack, he called through the closed door. “Dad, are you all right?” After a moment of silence, he heard laughter, muffled at first, then louder. “It’s OK,” his mother giggled, “we’re making love.”

Few septuagenarians shock their grown children this way, but any evidence of love-making can come as a surprise. A young married woman, seeing a bottle of baby oil on her parents’ nightstand, opened her eyes wide, startled, and then smiled knowingly at them.

For the solitary, the new report discloses, finding partners is much easier than it used to be. According to the Internet-dating industry, the number of seniors joining online dating services has risen at double-digit rates annually since 2003, the most of any age group.

If they do further research, anthropologists may discover that senior sex does not bear much resemblance to those Cinemax closeups of satiny skin in pneumatic moves that make Extreme Fighting look tame. But then again, younger people have always underrated the pleasures of closeness and companionship.

Obama in Iraq: Summer Blockbuster

The Star is ready, the script written and the supporting cast assembled from the media A-list as the political extravaganza of the summer goes into production. With so much invested on the part of all concerned, can there be any surprises?

The plot of "Obama in Iraq" is foreordained: Scenes of breathless anticipation as the protagonist--young, idealistic but wise beyond his years--undertakes the critical journey, modestly protesting he is there to listen and learn not negotiate ("One president at a time," he says).

Intercut with scenes of Republican scoffers and doubters to heighten the tension. "If Barack Obama believes that visiting Iraq and meeting with commanders will not give him any new perspective," John McCain's spokesman says, "then we can only assume he's going just to smile for the cameras."

Then a montage of waiting Iraqis buzzing with ambivalent excitement: “Every time I see Obama I say: ‘He’s close to us. Maybe he’ll see us in a different way,'" says a government official. “I find Obama very close to my heart.”

But another expresses dread: “It’s a very big assumption that just because he wants to pull troops out, he’ll be able to do it. The American strategy in the region requires troops to remain in Iraq for a long time.”

From then on, the story line is clear. The president-to-be bonds with the troops, charms the commanders and promises to honor their valor while elevating their mission to a higher plane.

"As president," he promises, "I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq."

Finally, smiling scenes with Prime Minister al-Maliki, mingling reassurance with promised firmness about the future: “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place, and we don’t have the resources to try to make it one. True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future.”

Then, boarding the plane with smiles and waves, the President-to-Be leaves the mise en scene as the music swells, the credits roll and the audience tries to figure out if what they've seen will have any effect on reality whatsoever.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Going to School on McCain

In the wake of Jesse Jackson's slashing remark about Barack Obama's emphasis on parental responsibility, John McCain is telling the NAACP today who is really hurting African-American children--the "entrenched bureaucracy" and unions that want to deny their parents the right to hand over tuition to private schools in addition to the taxes they pay for "failing" public education.

In McCain's alternate universe, the answer to a good start in life for children of families threatened by rampant inflation and home foreclosures is to find the money to buy something they have every right to expect government to provide.

"When a public system fails," McCain says, "parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.”

Following that logic, those who live in blighted minority communities might want to raise the money for private police and fire departments as well as parks and playgrounds.

In a McCain presidency, if another Katrina strikes, residents of the next New Orleans should have a private FEMA at the ready to clean up after the disaster.

As a newly converted advocate of free-enterprise education, McCain might consider reimbursing taxpayers for his college years at the US Naval Academy, another institution that could no doubt benefit from being privatized.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iraq in the Rear-View Mirror

Barack Obama and John McCain are squaring off on foreign policy this week, but there is an oddly retrospective quality to the debate over Iraq. Both promise to end the war, albeit on differing timelines, but the main issue is whether we should have fought it at all.

In his foreign policy speech today, Obama's answer was a resounding no, claiming the effort should have gone into hunting down Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Taliban and terrorists responsible for the attacks, and that the billions spent on the war could have been invested in alternative sources of energy to "end the tyranny of oil" and strengthening our position in the world.

"Instead," he said, "we have lost thousands of American lives, spent nearly a trillion dollars, alienated allies and neglected emerging threats--all in the cause of fighting a war for well over five years in a country that had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks,"

Meanwhile, McCain's foreign policy adviser is harrumphing that his candidate "would rather lose an election than lose a war and see the nation lose a war. Senator Obama seems to think losing a war will help him win an election."

New polls are reflecting uncertainty among voters on how to react to all this. In the coming weeks, after he travels to the Mideast, Obama is going to have to make an effort to persuade the public to sign on to his five foreign policy goals:

"(E)nding the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

Yankee Stadium

It came to life only months before I did and, all through a Bronx childhood, the Stadium was my field of dreams.

Even before I was old enough to go there, it brought color and excitement into my life. A block from where I lived, there was a squat windowless structure built years earlier for making silent movies, but it was deserted, just another foul-line marker for stickball games on the street.

Then one afternoon in 1937, a crowd gathered at the entrance, two lines of policemen stretched their arms to open the way for people getting out of limos and a tall man in fitted yellow sports shirt and slacks with no expression on his tanned face got out, crossed the sidewalk and disappeared into the building.

I had never been to Yankee Stadium a mile away so I knew Joe DiMaggio only from grainy newspaper pictures, jumpy newsreels and the excited voices of radio sportscasters, but here he was. The sudden texture and color of his face and clothes shocked my senses into a sweet awareness that he actually lived in the same world I did. Beyond the baseball cards and box scores, Joe DiMaggio was suddenly real, only six feet away.

When I saw him next at the Stadium, I stepped out of a tunnel to be overwhelmed by an expanse of bright green framed by roaring white bleachers and dark stands. Suddenly, the whole world took on color, dimension and sound--thousands of people united in an overwhelming reality I had never know to exist.

From then until only a few weeks ago, my final visit to the place that will be torn down at the end of summer, Yankee Stadium and the heirs of Joe DiMaggio have been part of my life, as real as family, friends and neighbors.

One night in the early 1980s, an hour before game time, I was in George Steinbrenner’s private dining room for an evening sponsored by a Christian athletes’ association. A few days earlier, the son of Yankee pitcher Tommy John had fallen from a second-story window and was now in critical condition.

Before dinner, Norman Vincent Peale led us in prayer for little Travis John. I lowered my head and wished hard for the child’s recovery. Days later, the boy was out of danger, and the experience only confirmed what I had always known: The Stadium was a magical place where the hard realities of the world are kept out by a dream life shared by millions over the years of my lifetime.

This Bud's for You, Mrs. McCain

The impending sale of Anheuser-Busch, brewer of Budweiser, to a Belgian conglomerate will make Cindy McCain much richer than she already is from her inherited distributorship, and the Wall Street Journal is busy toting up how much.

If her husband makes it to the White House, he won't be the first president with family money from the booze business. JFK's father, son of a Boston saloon keeper who went into politics, built his fortune on importing Scotch after Prohibition and, according to rumors, even during the period it was illegal.

Bluenoses who find such alcoholic connections objectionable may want to remember that all our current problems come from the fact that George W. Bush gave up drinking, found God and became intoxicated with presidential power.

In January, whether or not the McCains move into the White House, we can all raise a toast to his departure.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Obama Cover As a Museum Piece

It's one thing to find the New Yorker Obama cover in questionable taste, but the yahoo-ish invective being aimed at the magazine is over the top. However flawed in the eyes of some, the cover is nevertheless in the best tradition of magazine journalism.

Doubters can check out the Museum of Modern Art exhibit showing 32 of the 92 George Lois covers designed for Esquire between 1962 and 1972.

Unlike the current New Yorker, with the Obamas imagined by an illustrator, Lois often had subjects pose for his satirical images--heavyweight champions Muhammed Ali as the Christian martyr St. Sebastian with arrows stuck in him and Sonny Liston, the "meanest man in the world," as Santa Claus, to name two featuring African-Americans.

After the JFK assassination, inspired by the article "Kennedy Without Tears," Lois superimposed a hand with a handkerchief dabbing at the eye of the slain president. "I caught hell from a lot of people," Lois recalls, for being 'insensitive.'"

In 1968, as a takeoff on the five o'clock shadow from the 1960 presidential debate, Lois had a number of hands applying makeup to Richard Nixon, one of them wielding a lipstick, which a campaign honcho complained was a slur on the candidate's masculinity.

Lipstick had previously figured in a cover of a college football player applying it to his face to illustrate a piece on "the gay way to beat the draft."

Equal-opportunity offenders, Lois and editor Harold Hayes showed Vice President Hubert Humphrey as a ventriloquist's dummy on LBJ's lap, Stalin's daughter who defected to the US with her father's mustache drawn above her upper lip and TV MC Ed Sullivan with a Beatles' wig on his head.

The Obama cover is not likely to end up with all those in the MOMA, but it would be heartening to be able to look back at the reaction to it some day as a museum piece reflecting the prejudices and stupidity of our unevolved era.

Day-Late-and-Dollar-Short Government

Trot out the clichés about closing the barn door for news today that the Federal Reserve is cracking down on shady lending practices to home buyers and President Bush is fighting high gas prices by lifting a ban on offshore drilling for oil.

As Americans drown in bad economic news, these daring rescue moves are the equivalent of throwing them concrete life preservers.

The Fed's new rules to protect the public against predatory lenders of subprime mortgages are too little for future home buyers and too late for the millions who are losing their homes at the highest rate in history.

The regulations, which take effect in October, will require more disclosure, but bank lobbyists have managed to make sure they contain "loopholes that would allow shady lending practices to continue" and reassure financial industry executives, "who feared increasing oversight would lead to less lending."

But the Fed's attempt to ease public fears is positively heroic when compared to the Presidential move, which has no meaning whatsoever unless Congress acts as well and, even after that, would have no effect on gas prices for years. But that didn't deter the White House from staging a White House signing for the evening news.

There may be a pony somewhere in one of those barns, but the public would be well-advised not to invest in riding clothes.

Sad Day for Satire

Somewhere in editorial heaven, William Shawn is making a little note on the new New Yorker cover, scribbling in his tiny script, "What this?"

The cover of the July 21st issue is an artist's vision of the Oval Office with Michelle Obama with an AK 47 and Afro fist-bumping her husband in turban and Muslim dress to illustrate an article, "The Politics of Fear." The cover, the New Yorker explains, "satirizes the use of scare tactics and misinformation in the Presidential election to derail Barack Obama’s campaign.”

In the chaotic 1960s and beyond, the legendary Shawn made his magazine an oasis of sanity with the best reporting of the time on the political, social and cultural upheavals over race, the environment, art, poverty and the depredations of the Nixon White House.

He was trying, Shawn explained, "to hang on to sanity and reasonableness, no matter how turbulent or fevered or lunatic the world became...and, through it all we've considered humor indispensable, and we've searched for it, clung to it, and nourished it as if our life depended on it--and I think it did."

Today, the Obama campaign isn't laughing, finding the new cover "tasteless and offensive." Sadly, I'm sure Shawn would agree.

Trickle-Down in Iraq

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been walking the streets of Baghdad doling out cash to passersby. Compared to the American millions that have been paid out to tribal leaders or stolen by Iraqi politicians, al-Maliki's largesse is small potatoes, more like the street money paid out by local American pols on election day.

But the irony is that all this free money over there is flowing as American taxpayers prepare to spend billions here to rescue mortgage lenders from defaults of homeowners whose equity has plunged and who can't afford or are unwilling to make their monthly payments.

For the free enterprise enthusiasts of the Bush Administration, there is the huge embarrassment of a government bailout of what private markets are supposed to handle so efficiently and, beyond that, the continuing commitment of billions needed here to a seemingly endless Iraq adventure.

Before he took office, George W. Bush promised voters he would not get involved in nation-building elsewhere, but who have imagined that he would do just that as the nation he is supposed to preserve is crumbling all around him?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obama Beyond the Sound Bites

After eight years of Bush-Cheney bluster and the promise of a regular-guy version from John McCain, the prospect of a president with more than a sound-bite view of American foreign policy was raised today in Fareed Zarakia's extended CNN interview with Barack Obama.

The Democratic candidate proposed to "bring back the kind of foreign policy that characterized the Truman administration with Marshall and Acheson and Kennan but also characterized to a large degree the first President Bush with people like Scowcroft and Powell and Baker...a fairly clear-eyed view of how the world works, and recognized that it is always in our interests to engage, to listen, to build alliances--to understand what our interests are, and to be fierce in protecting those interests, but to make sure that we understand it's very difficult for us to, as powerful as we are, to deal with all these issues by ourselves.

"We need to show leadership...through pulling people together wherever we can. There are going to be times where we have to act unilaterally to protect our interests. And I always reserve the right to do that, should I be commander in chief."

On the overriding issue of Islamic extremism, Obama said he would "hunt down those who would resort to violence to move their agenda, their ideology forward. We should be going after al Qaeda and those networks fiercely and effectively.

"But what we also want to do is to shrink the pool of potential recruits. And that involves engaging the Islamic world rather than vilifying it, and making sure that we understand that not only are those in Islam who would resort to violence a tiny fraction of the Islamic world, but that also, the Islamic world itself is diverse.

"And that lumping together Shia extremists with Sunni extremists, assuming that Persian culture is the same as Arab culture, that those kinds of errors...result in us not only being less effective in hunting down and isolating terrorists, but also in alienating what need to be our long-term allies on a whole host of issues."

The Republican spin machine will doubtlessly characterize that nuanced attitude toward American power in a complex and dangerous world as naïveté, weakness and vacillation. If voters believe that, we could be in for four more years of disastrous Neo-Con certainty, mock macho and isolation from the rest of the world.

An Answer to the Bill Clinton Problem

Barack Obama has told a Hillary supporter he is considering her as a VP candidate but that the choice is "complicated" by her husband's status as a former president.

No problema. The week before the Democratic Convention in late August, Bill Clinton turns 62, one of the first Baby Boomers eligible for Social Security. As First Retiree, he would be an ideal choice for an unofficial portfolio as Ambassador to a new and growing segment of the population whose concerns will take on increasing significance during the Obama Administration.

Just as the US representative to the Holy See resides in Rome, Clinton could work best from a retirement community in southern Florida, where he would be surrounded by his new constituency.

One added benefit: When Vice President Hillary Clinton makes her run for the White House in 2016, her candidacy would get a jump start in a key state--if there were no sexagenarian scandals in the intervening years.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Debating Kennedy's Life-and-Death Decision

His dramatic return this week to cast the deciding vote for a crucial Medicare bill brought tears and cheers in the US Senate, even as some medical ethicists question Ted Kennedy's decision to undergo life-prolonging (and expensive) surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

On the New York Times Freakonomics blog, an internist involved in public health issues suggests Sen. Kennedy might have issued this statement instead:

“Because I am not a young man, the cancer in my brain will progress rapidly and is likely to incapacitate me in the near future. I trust that my doctors will do everything they can to prevent further seizures and to keep me in comfort. I will not endure extraordinary excess pain and suffering, while hundreds of thousand of dollars will not be spent on surgical debulking, radiation, and chemotherapeutic regimens which do not work.

"Modern medicine cannot cure my cancer, but it can keep me comfortable and free of pain. I have already contacted the Massachusetts General Hospital Hospice program.”

If such a suggestion seems heartless, it nonetheless reflects a crucial debate that has started about end-of-life care, which accounts for a significant percentage of Medicare expenditures.

Pointing to a study that shows only 37 percent of oncologists discuss such issues with their advanced-stage patients, PBS' News Hour did a segment this week about a woman choosing to forego heroic measures against her terminal cancer in favor of maintaining the quality of her life as long as she can.

In the face of constantly improving treatments and the amounts of money needed to provide them, the morality of choices about ending life may eventually engage as much emotion as the debate over when life begins.

Cost-benefit analysis will be pitted against such poetry as Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day./Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Meanwhile, Ted Kennedy is showing us all how valuable a life can be in the face of all financial calculations.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Black Friday of Bushonomics

Things fell apart, the center was barely holding today in the financial markets as oil went past $145 a barrel and the stocks of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae plunged by over 20 percent followed by late news of what could be the largest bank failure in history, sending most Americans home for a weekend of stiff drinks, pain killers and antacids.

If past experience holds, markets should open Monday sharply down for a while and then start to recover as bargain hunters and steel-nerved investors move to cash in on the panic, followed by a Tuesday aftershock and the beginning of a return to normal later in the week.

But past experience may not hold. What's gripping Americans now may be more than the credit crunch and housing crisis, more than inflation fueled by gas price spikes exacerbated by an endless Mideast war, more than the unchecked greed of speculators and hedge funds.

What may be going on is not what Phil Gramm densely called a "mental recession" but much more than that--a cumulative public breakdown of confidence, a social depression from seven years of Bushonomics trashing of the economy, the environment and the safety nets of all but the richest Americans.

With six months to go, we may be seeing the last spasms of damage to a government controlled by people dedicated to destroying every scrap of security it was designed to provide.

Misreading Sexual Signals

To an observer from another era, it comes as a mild shock that young men today have troubling discerning women's erotic interest in them.

But researchers at Indiana University and Yale find women are better at interpreting facial expressions and body language, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, and that a substantial percentage of young men are clueless in potentially sexual situations.

Reporting on the research, CNN describes the experience of college administrator at an academic conference in conversation with an attractive woman over a glass of wine, who undid the clasp holding her hair in a bun, let it fall and flipped it side to side. A sign of interest? No, he decided. "I told myself to get real." The woman went off to her room with a puzzled expression--to shampoo her hair, no doubt.

In an era when claims of sexual harassment can follow misreading, such caution is understandable, but it may reflect a difference in communication styles between the sexes, says a "dating coach" who suggests men pay less attention to what women say than how it's said--citing such positive signs as touching on the arm, maintaining eye contact and smiling while talking.

It wasn't simple back in my day either, when we somehow managed without academic researchers or dating coaches, but then again we may have been missing out on all the nuances in the fine art of flirting.

Toothpaste-Tube Terrorism

Squeeze them out of Iraq, and they squirt into Afghanistan and Pakistan tribal areas. What's clear is that the Bush-McCain mantra of "fight them there [Iraq] so we don't have to fight them here" has turned out to be an oversimplification of the war on terror the US will be fighting through the next Administration and beyond.

This week, A US Marines commander reported his troops have killed 400 insurgents in southern Afghanistan since late April, and visiting Congressmen were told the Bush administration is "recalibrating operations in the region because of a 40 percent increase in violent attacks against US-led forces in Afghanistan that have pushed US casualties for the month of June beyond the monthly toll in Iraq."

Today's New York Times adds, "The swelling forces of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan’s border region pose a grave threat to American and NATO troops in Afghanistan...More than a thousand Pakistanis have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past year, mostly in the border areas where radical Islamic fighters are strongest."

After being bilked out of $7 billion in military aid with no security gains to show for it by Pervez Musharraf, our post-Bush policy for Pakistan may be starting with proposed legislation by Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar to provide up to $15 billion in aid over the next 10 years for economic development, health and education and strengthen the civilian government "to regain control over a military that has too often been a law unto itself and intelligence services that seem far more loyal to the extremists than their own government."

In any case, the new tenant of the White House next January will have to rethink the war on terror by bringing in the best brains available as opposed to the Bush-Cheney we-know-best approach that took four years to discover the man who wrote the book on counterinsurgency, Gen. David Petraeus, might have something useful to offer in Iraq.

McCain's Hoof-in-Mouth Casualties

The attrition rate of potential VPs is running high, with Phil Gramm yesterday joining Carly Fiorina among the stricken as McCain had to repudiate his contention that America is "a nation of whiners" in a “mental recession.”

Earlier in the week, the candidate found himself flummoxed by Fiorina's frankness about health care. At a Washington political breakfast, the former Hewlitt-Packard chief said, "I've been hearing a lot from women. There are many health insurance plans that will cover Viagra but won't cover birth-control medication. Those women would like a choice."

A sensible enough statement but not the most winning argument for the Conservatives McCain is still wooing. "I certainly do not want to discuss that issue," the candidate huffed when a reporter asked him about it on the "Straight Talk Express."

When it comes to creating embarrassment, McCain doesn't need much help from a running mate. Asked about the increase in US exports of cigarettes to Iran the other day, he answered, "Maybe that's a way of killing them."

Somebody should check out the fumes from the campaign bus.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Selective Reticence of Karl Rove

He is refusing to testify before Congress about Bush crimes but he just won't shut up in the Wall Street Journal about how Barack Obama is using his political genius for the '08 election.

Citing a letter from the Bush Justice Department, Karl Rove's lawyer claims he is "constitutionally immune from compelled congressional testimony" but is willing to grant an "informal interview" or answer written questions about the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, whose ouster Bush's Brain is accused of arranging.

But Rove is showing no such reticence in today's Journal claiming that "the Obama for President effort has cribbed an awful lot from the Bush-Cheney playbooks of 2000 and 2004."

On closer inspection, the "awful lot" turns out to be the nuts and bolts of modern electioneering, although Rove insists that "by setting a world indoor record for jettisoning past positions, Mr. Obama may be risking his reputation for truthfulness. A candidate's credibility, once lost, is very hard to restore, regardless of how fine an organization he has built."

Lost credibility is a subject Rove knows inside out and, if the Judiciary Committee can make its subpoenas hold up in court, he will get ample opportunity to expatiate on it under oath, not for pay by Fox News and the Journal, but under penalty for perjury.

Meanwhile, Obama and the rest of us may be excused for not wanting to hear the brilliant insights of the man who made the White House a cesspool of lies and deception.

Paternal Politics

Now that Jesse Jackson has reassured us about Barack Obama's genitals, it's time to consider what prompted the Reverend's rage--the candidate's criticism of African-American fathers for failing their children--as part of a larger subtext of this election.

On all sides, it involves issues about American manhood in the 21st century and the troubling rites of passage from one generation to the next.

Start with George W. Bush who was moved to take up a war left unfinished by paternal prudence and turned toward "a higher Father" for guidance.

Enter John McCain, son and grandson of Admirals who, after writing "Faith of My Fathers," is campaigning for the White House based on the premise that the Head of State in an age of terror should be a reassuring paterfamilias.

Then there is Obama, searching for a father he never knew in "Dreams from My Father" and, in his presidential campaign, calling out men who aren't there for their children and challenging them to take up their responsibilities.

Add to the oedipal mix the outraged reaction of Jesse Jackson's son at his attack on Obama for raising such questions, and there is an overarching issue about American manhood in our time.

Aside from all else, voters will be choosing between John McCain's macho approach and Barack Obama's nurturing, protective style at the head of the national table.

Hillary Clinton's candidacy would have raised the question of whether such gender stereotypes are the only choices, but the answer to that will have to wait for another time.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Jesse Jackson's Apologies

In 1984, when he called Jews "Hymies" and New York "Hymietown" while talking to an African-American reporter for the Washington Post, Jesse Jackson denied that he did, and it took a month for him to admit it and apologize.

More than two decades later, the Rev. Jackson has learned to be quicker to own up to his hurtful mouthings, apologizing to Barack Obama before anyone heard it for being caught by a microphone on Fox News, of all places, saying, "Barack's been talking down to black people...I want to cut his nuts off."

Jackson's reflexes have improved, but his prejudices are as strong as ever and, in the case of Obama, his apparent resentment. In South Carolina, he had accused the Democratic candidate of "acting white."

As an African-American leader, you know you've stepped over the line when Al Sharpton calls what you said "most unfortunate" and your own son says he is "deeply outraged and disappointed."

It may be time for Jackson to join Jeremiah Wright Jr. in an ecclesiastical retreat involving vows of silence.

Here's Your Helmet, What's Your Hurry?

John McCain is beginning to look like the last guest at the party who doesn't notice that the host is dropping hints that it's time to go. As al-Maliki talks about how late it is and what a busy day tomorrow will be, the Republican candidate is still trying to keep the Iraq festivities going, at least until after November.

"I am convinced," the reluctant guest now says, "as I have said before, we can withdraw and withdraw with honor, not according to a set timetable. And I’m confident that is what Prime Minister Maliki is talking about since he has told me that for the many meetings we have had.”

The Iraqi party pooper is obviously not aware that President-to-Be McCain has promised Americans that "by the end of my first term we will have succeeded in Iraq...This is what I want to achieve."

Doesn't Maliki realize "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal?"

An unfortunate phrase, that last, with connotations of who has been doing what to whom for the past five years, but McCain is not ready to leave the bash even as his host is yawning and starting to turn out the lights.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Maiming Medicare

Having failed to privatize Social Security, the Bush Administration is trying to wreck Medicare on its way out the door, but MDs are mad as hell, and they're taking it out on Congressional Republicans.

The focus this week is on trying to undo a 10.6 percent cut in payment to care providers for millions of older Americans. Before the Fourth of July recess, the House passed a bill to prevent the Medicare pay cut by a vote of 355 to 59. In the Senate, Republicans blocked efforts to take up the bill, so the cut took effect on July 1st.

Now the AMA and its incensed members are targeting such former friends as Sens. John Sununu, Roger Wicker and Arlen Specter, who all voted against cloture.

As with the SCHIP legislation to expand children's health care coverage, Bush and his allies are favoring the insurance industry over a government program that is working well for those who need it most.

If the new reimbursement rates were to stand, more doctors would be joining the legions of those who refuse to take on Medicare patients as economically unsound for their practices.

Perhaps the next step would be the "Ice Floe HMO" solution favored by one in three British doctors who would deny treatment to the old "if it were unlikely to do them good for long."

Unless Republicans relent, as they almost surely will, members of the AARP are certain to send them a don't-get-well message in November.