Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

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

Sunday, August 31, 2008

McCain's Answered Prayers

The candidate's faith in a Higher Power must be stronger today with news that Hurricane Gustav will keep George W. Bush from raining on his parade in the Twin Cities this week.

Three years late, the President will be heading to Texas to cope with possible devastation by Nature, thereby sparing the Republican Convention reminders of his failures during Katrina as well as seven years of wrong-headed war and economic storms.

For a conclave with nothing to celebrate, the hurricane emergency will allow Republicans to take the solemn, prayerful tone that suits them best instead of concentrating on made-made political problems that can be solved by policy decisions and good judgment in the White House.

President Bush relied on the guidance of a "Higher Father" in deciding to invade Iraq. For such believers as John McCain and Sarah Palin, it may be a blessing that divine guidance is taking him South this week instead of Minnesota.

Gender Goop

The booing of Sarah Palin yesterday for lauding Hillary Clinton's presidential primary achievement is a dandy metaphor for the sexual stew this election has created.

Here is a woman on the Republican ticket chosen mainly for gender appeal trying to profit from the unhappiness of Hillary supporters being rebuffed by Hillary-hating ideologues even as she tries to win an election for them.

If this foreshadows a Palin problem in her own party, it pales by comparison to the bind she creates for Democrats. If they harp on her lack of qualifications, they risk accusations of sexism. (Recall the success of Clarence Thomas, a less than brilliant choice for the Supreme Court, in clobbering Democrats, with charges of a "high-tech lynching.")

Looking ahead to the Vice-Presidential debate, Joe Biden will have to walk on eggshells to avoid appearing condescending. Even if he treats Palin with utmost courtesy, showing his superior grasp of foreign policy could be interpreted as sexist bullying.

Unlike the unspoken racism that dogs Barack Obama, the question of Palin's identity as a woman will be the subject of open argument ad nauseum, perhaps one of the goals the McCain campaign had in mind when choosing her.

It could serve the double purpose of defending veiled racial attacks on Obama with countercharges that Palin too is being victimized while she goes relatively unscathed in promoting the values of the Religious Right.

This is not quite what the leaders of the Women's Movement had in mind over half a century of trying to break through glass ceilings.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Four Life Stories for '08

With the emergence of Sarah Palin, this is officially the year of personal narrative in national politics--no more Bush or Clinton dynasties, but a quartet of compelling biographies to let voters choose from a menu of American success stories.

Last week it was all about Obama's mixed racial heritage with heartland grandparents and an idealistic single mom, paired with Joe Biden's journey, on Amtrak, from hardscrabble Scranton childhood through personal tragedy to decades of public service.

Next week John McCain's transition from POW patriot to straight-talking politician will be paired with the rapid rise of Sarah Palin from hockey mom to crusader against corruption who detoured from the Bridge to Nowhere to Somewhere Indeed.

In our llogorrheic panel's eye view of the conventions through cable TV squeezed down into an hour of network coverage of highlight orations, there is little tolerance for all those boring speeches about policy and issues.

Those who care about such stuff are reduced to watching C-Span, wading through web sites or putting up with the rants of their favorite bloggers.

If you want to send a message, the old movie moguls used to say, try Western Union. Their wisdom still prevails in the Capraesque melodramas of the candidates that dominate the campaigns today. `

As to their plans to save the economy or reorient foreign policy, many, perhaps most voters will take a pass and decide on whom to trust based on their life stories and likability. It worked out well enough with George W. Bush, didn't it?

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's Busted Flush

The Republican nominee played the gender card today, a sure sign that he is holding a weak hand.

In picking Sarah Palin, Republican masterminds may be shrewdly reckoning to please the Religious Right while also peeling off some disaffected Hillary Clinton voters.

Wrong. Gov. Palin is no doubt a future political star, but Clinton Democrats would have to be far gone to be influenced by a woman on McCain's ticket who is a model for the pro-life, guns-for-everybody poster. Meanwhile, by selecting the recently seated 44-year-old governor of a small state to back up their aging candidate, Republicans are folding the Obama-is-inexperienced card, the red-phone call at 3 AM card, the no-foreign policy experience card and a whole deck of Obama-isn't-ready attacks.

Ironically, as the Democrats filled out their ticket with experience and judgment, the McCain team is opting for an attractive but ill-prepared and ludicrously inappropriate choice that will be seen as akin to George W. Bush nominating Harriet Meiers to the Supreme Court.

Al Gore's Regrets

To warm up the crowd for Barack Obama last night, Al Gore did something he has resisted for eight years, replay the 2000 election and express bitter regret over what might have been.

"Take it from me," he told Democrats, "if it had ended differently, we would not be bogged down in Iraq; we would have pursued bin Laden until we captured him.

"We would not be facing a self-inflicted economic crisis; we would be fighting for middle income families.

"We would not be showing contempt for the Constitution; we'd be protecting the rights of every American regardless of race, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

"And we would not be denying the climate crisis; we'd be solving it."

If Gore had shown more of that combativeness eight years ago, we might be looking back at his two terms in the Oval Office and facing a different set of choices this year.

Instead, we have an admirable but tragic figure with the consolations of an Academy Award and a Nobel Prize and a rueful sense of humor.

"Today," Al Gore told Democrats, "we face essentially the same choice we faced in 2000, though it may be even more obvious now, because John McCain, a man who has earned our respect on many levels, is now openly endorsing the policies of the Bush-Cheney White House and promising to actually continue them, the same policies all over again.

"Hey, I believe in recycling, but that's ridiculous."

Time for Bare-Knuckled Eloquence

In his acceptance speech, Barack Obama put aside the poetry, took off the gloves and threw down the gauntlet for John McCain--reminding even those who have been observing him closely that, behind the charisma, is a steely politician determined to win an election.

"If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament, and judgment, to serve as the next commander in chief," Obama said, "that's a debate I'm ready to have.

"For while Sen. McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats that we face. When John McCain said we could just 'muddle through' in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell--but he won't even go to the cave where he lives."

Critics will carp about the lack of well-turned phrases in tonight's address, but the candidate was clearly not looking to replicate Martin Luther King's eloquence of 45 years ago but to turn "I have a dream" into the reality of wide-awake political power.

At every turn, he tied McCain to failed Bush policies, noting that his opponent has "voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Sen. McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

To the challenge of putting "meat on the bones" of his calls for change, Obama offered a laundry list of tax proposals and incentives to transfer economic burdens from middle-class families to corporations and upper-income taxpayers that will jump start debate on the issues of the campaign.

He called for finding common ground on divisive issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights rather than using them for political advantage.

The Republican swiftboaters are certain to twist what he had to say into attack ads, but one thing is clear: This time around, they won't have a clear field when they do. Obama may not win the election, but he will not go down without a bare-knuckled fight.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama's Prose and Poetry

The venue for tonight's historic speech may be a mistake, reinforcing Barack Obama's image as a rock star at a time when he has to make a reassuringly intimate connection with voters who will be bombarded by Republican attacks on him as too exotic to trust.

On the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" oration, Obama is the embodiment of that dream come true. What Americans will want to hear now are not more visions but concrete plans to wake their country from eight years of the Bush-Cheney nightmare.

As gifted a speaker as he is, Obama may find a way to reach those millions with realistic proposals and inspire them at the same time, but the balance of prose and poetry will be exquisitely difficult to find as tens of thousands embrace him as the symbol of their hopes and, yes, their dreams.

The doubters and detractors will be ready to pounce on his words and twist them into sound bites for toxic commercials, but tonight will be the start of a test of American democracy that, for the sake of future generations, Obama must not fail. The prose will have to match the poetry.

McCain's Mixed Bag of VPs

As Democrats put Obama/Clinton issues behind them, the Republican identity crisis comes front and center in John McCain's decision about a running mate.

Aside from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who may actually turn out to be the choice, the longish short list is all over the identity-politics lot:

Mitt Romney, a super-rich Mormon the candidate clearly despises, and holder of the Olympic record for flip-flopping on social issues;

Joe Lieberman, a McCain personal favorite, with the slight handicap of having run for VP as a Democrat, to say nothing of being a pro-choice Orthodox Jew, the prospect of whose presence on the ticket unsettles even the strong stomach of Karl Rove;

Tom Ridge, a pro-choice former governor with an undistinguished record as the first Homeland Security head, whose current work is sitting on the boards of Home Depot and Hershey;

Two business executives (Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina) with no political experience whatsoever but whose gender might appeal to diehard Hillary Clinton dissidents;

And even Colin Powell, who would bring racial balance and a respected military career but whose most recent public service involved helping George W. Bush lie us into Iraq and is a septuagenarian only a few months younger than McCain.

After Bush-Cheney, it's understandably complicated to figure out what enlightened Republicanism should involve this year, a problem with which McCain himself apparently wrestled after being sandbagged by Rove in 2000 when he considered switching parties himself.

If some voters have a problem wrapping their minds around the idea of Obama in the Oval Office, they may be equally bewitched, bothered and bewildered by whoever McCain chooses to be an elderly heartbeat away.

Obama in the Driver's Seat

Between them, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, two white-haired Washington veterans, certified tonight that the new man is ready to move America ahead and handed him the keys to do it.

Clinton, in full-hearted endorsement, declared, "Clearly, the job of the next president is to rebuild the American dream and to restore American leadership in the world...Everything I learned in my eight years as president, and in the work I have done since in America and across the globe, has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job...

"Barack Obama is ready to honor the oath, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States."

To underscore his point, the former President noted that "Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it will not work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."

Biden, as Obama's partner on the journey, after acknowledging "a friendship that goes beyond politics" with John McCain, said, "But I profoundly disagree with the direction John wants to take this country, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Amtrak to veterans."

As a good running mate should, Biden ran through a litany of foreign policy and domestic issues to show that "Again and again, John McCain has been wrong, and Barack Obama is right."

To cap off the evening of validation, Obama made a surprise appearance to hug Biden surrounded by four generations of his family as the Clintons and Michelle Obama beamed from the balcony.

The three-night unity show has set the stage for Obama's performance tomorrow night before a live audience of 70,000 but intended mainly for millions of TV viewers, many of whom will be paying serious attention for the first time. The opening acts have done their job well.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bill Clinton Watch

Which one will show up, the starry-eyed boy in the photograph reaching out to shake JFK's hand or the LBJ lookalike of later years, all guile, ego and appetite?

Tonight will punctuate the quarter of a century we have lived with the many Bill Clintons--the centrist with ideals, the "it's the economy, stupid" realist, the target of right-wing hatred, the self-destructive skirt chaser who tarnished his presidency, humiliated his wife and would do anything to give her the Oval Office as a consolation prize.

The advance word is unsettling--jockeying over what the topic of his speech should be and reports that he will leave town before tomorrow night's stadium acceptance speech.

But of all today's political figures, Bill Clinton of Hope, Arkansas who grew up without a father and created himself out of brains, charm and ambition should understand Barack Obama of Hawaii who did the same a generation later.

The expectation is that Bill Clinton's bruised ego will be more on display tonight than his gift for empathy. Is it too much to hope that the JFK-inspired boy in him will emerge to join today's Kennedys, young and old, to pass the torch without burning down the building?

It would bring him full circle to where he started and hoped to end.

Clinton's Three Speeches in One

Last night, she knitted together soaring rhetoric from an acceptance speech as presidential nominee, some attack-dog sound bites expected of a running mate and finally a plea for party unity behind Barack Obama.

But behind the virtuoso performance was the impression that the former First Lady's heart still belongs, less to her passionately professed love of Democratic Party ideals, than to the doomed candidacy that brought her thisclose to making history.

The emphasis on mothers, daughters and granddaughters only deepened the sense that Hillary Clinton still sees her loss not as the failure of a flawed campaign based on a glaring sense of entitlement but as a blow against womankind.

With the unspoken premise of Obama's victory as an insult to an entire gender, Clinton gave him full-throated support as a generic candidate but failed to offset with specificity a whole season of her attacks on him as inexperienced and unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.

Despite the burblings of Keith Olbermann and other cable pundits about the speech as "a grand slam," it looked more like a safety squeeze to score without risk or all-out effort.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Romney and Giuliani Party On

Two Republican losers are in Denver this week, jockeying for TV face time and puckering up to their new best friend, John McCain.

In the primaries, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney ran neck and neck for the title of Most Shameless, America's Mayor with his 9/11 posturing and the former Massachusetts governor setting world records for pandering to the Radical Right by flip-flopping on gays, abortion and other social issues.

Now they are gate-crashing the Democratic convention like clowns from Comedy Central. Romney is angling for VP on the Republican ticket, accusing Democrats of playing "the politics of envy" by harping on McCain's multiple homes, while modestly pointing out he himself has only four.

Who knows what Giuliani wants in a McCain Administration? Attorney General? The six-figure lectures fees must be drying up.

What Hillary Should Say Tonight

Fellow Democrats, I had hoped to be standing here under different circumstance, but I am proud to be with you and thank those who worked with me to change the face of American politics. That we have done and, although the face this time is not mine, there is still much more for us to do.

A decade ago, I saw first-hand the politics of personal destruction and the lengths to which those who practice it will go in their lust for power. The bitter irony now is that they are invoking my name in an attempt to destroy the opponent with whom I engaged in an intense but honorable contest for the nomination we will be bestowing on him here.

Back then, before the evidence of the past eight years, I described it a vast right-wing conspiracy. Now we know what it is really is--a radical attempt to undermine American values with needless wars, infringement of traditional rights and usurping all the fruits of the American economy for themselves at the expense of hard-working families.

I repudiate them now as I did then and urge everyone who has honored me with support to do the same. They are the true enemies of everything we believe in, and we must not let them practice their divide-and-conquer tactics on us.

If you support Barack Obama with all your heart, as I do, we can rid ourselves of their toxic effects on American life for a long time to come. Yes we can.

Connecting the Democratic Dots

The convention tonight spanned half a century from the possible Last Hurrah from a generation of privileged Kennedys who devoted themselves to the public good to the First Act of a new family with roots in poverty and prejudice aspiring to the same goal.

In their speeches, Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama embodied common values that bridge differences of race, wealth and social advantages.

"We are told," Kennedy said, "that Barack Obama believes too much in an America of high principle and bold endeavor, but when John Kennedy called for going to the moon, he didn't say it's too far to get there. We shouldn't even try.

"Our people answered his call and rose to the challenge, and today an American flag still marks the surface of the moon...This is what we do. We reach the moon. We scale the heights. I know it. I've seen it. I've lived it. And we can do it again."

Michelle Obama talked about her children's future: "I think about how one day, they'll have families of their own. And one day, they--and your sons and daughters--will tell their own children about what we did together in this election.

"They'll tell them how this time, we listened to our hopes, instead of our fears. How this time, how this time, we decided to stop doubting and to start dreaming. How this time, in this great country--where a girl from the South Side of Chicago can go to college and law school, and the son of a single mother from Hawaii can go all the way to the White House--that we committed ourselves, we committed ourselves to building the world as it should be."

The Kennedys and the Obamas started out from different places in life, but this election has brought them together and, if tonight's speeches are any indication, they will connect with Americans of all backgrounds who want something better than what we have had so far in the 21st century.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What Comes Down to the Clintons

The words will be there when they address the convention, but will the music?

Can the former President overcome his case of the sulks to put political ideals and party above pettiness and make a powerful case for taking back the country? Will he whole-heartedly embrace Barack Obama and Joe Biden as the means of doing it? Since Bill Clinton has never been very good at hiding his emotions, it will be a profound test of character to rise above himself at this crucial moment. His place in history may depend on it.

In rare moments in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton broke through a sense of coldness and calculation surrounding her and touched voters by showing her feelings. If she can summon up that side of herself tomorrow night and persuade supporters that she has gone beyond her disappointment and rally them to follow, it will be a breakthrough moment for the former First Lady, regardless of where her political career takes her in the future.

This week is about more than winning or losing an election, and the Clintons are in a position to profoundly affect the outcome. Never has losing gracefully, even gloriously been as crucial an issue.

Clouded Kristol Ball

How wrong can he be in one column? Let me count the ways.

In today's New York Times, William Kristol discloses that "McCain operatives" consider Joe Biden "a pick from weakness," even as McCain himself tells Katie Couric that Biden is "a very wise selection. I know that Joe will campaign well for Sen. Obama, and so I think he's going to be very formidable."

This is followed by a feat of pretzel logic to prove that pro-choice, former liberal Democrat Joe Lieberman would be McCain's best bet for VP on a "quasi-national-unity ticket, with Lieberman renouncing any further ambition to run for the presidency."

Lieberman? Unity? The same Lieberman who lost the Connecticut Democratic primary for reelection in 2006 and retained his seat only because Republicans ran a non-entity in November? The pillar-of-rectitude Lieberman inspired by JFK and liberal enough to run with Al Gore in 2000 until he became a cheerleader for a misbegotten war and was kissed by George W. Bush?

"A Lieberman pick," Kristol concludes, "should help with ticket splitters. But can such a ticket hold the support of pro-lifers, conservatives and Republicans? If you’re conscientiously pro-life, you will have reservations about a pro-abortion-rights VP. If you’re a proud conservative, Lieberman hasn’t been one. If you’re a loyal Republican, you’d much prefer someone from within the ranks."

Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show? They must be paying Kristol by the word.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Noun, a Verb and POW

In the Democratic debates, Joe Biden famously dismissed Rudy Giuliani with: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11...there’s nothing else."

Now, Biden may have the chance to do the same for his Senate friend as John McCain's campaign reflexively parrots POW to any questions raised--about how many homes McCain owns, about whether or not he was in a "cone of silence" at the Saddleback Forum, even the gaffe of suggesting his wife Cindy enter the topless Miss Buffalo Chip contest.

As Maureen Dowd puts it, "His campaign is cheapening his greatest strength--and making a mockery of his already dubious claim that he’s reticent to talk about his POW experience--by flashing the POW card to rebut any criticism, no matter how unrelated. The captivity is already amply displayed in posters and TV advertisements."

Giuliani abruptly discovered a voter expiration date for cashing in on 9/11. Will McCain's campaign discover that it is, in the World War II term, "a bridge too far" from the Hanoi Hilton to the White House?

"While McCain’s experience was heroic," Dowd asks, "did it create a worldview incapable of anticipating the limits to US military power in Iraq? Did he fail to absorb the lessons of Vietnam, so that he is doomed to always want to refight it? Did his captivity inform a search-and-destroy, shoot-first-ask-questions-later, 'We are all Georgians,' mentality?"

McCain has opened the door to such questions by putting his POW experience so close to the center of his campaign. He suffered for his country three decades ago, but does that qualify him to end its pain here and abroad in 2009?

Kennedy Nostalgia

When Caroline Kennedy was a little girl in the White House, JFK would get around her mother's objections to publicity for the children by waiting until Jacqueline Kennedy was out of town before letting photographers take pictures of her.

On Meet the Press today, there was evidence of both parents' influence as a poised, self-confident Caroline Kennedy championed Barack Obama while deftly fending off Tom Brokaw's questions about her part in the VP vetting and any possible role in a new administration.

If the Obamas make it to the White House, the new First Lady could take a leaf from the Kennedy playbook in keeping her children grounded in reality amid the enormous amount of attention they will be getting.

Tomorrow night at the convention, JFK nostalgia will be in full flower as Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg leads a tribute to the 46-year career of her uncle Ted. For those of the generations who watched her growing up through years of violent loss, her presence will evoke painful memories and at the same time provide consolation.

Shedding Tears for Hillary

Memo to disaffected Clinton Democrats arriving in Denver: Forty years ago at the convention in Chicago, as a delegate supporting anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, I was tear-gassed by the police of Mayor Richard Daley, a supporter of Hubert Humphrey. The Democrats lost that election and Richard Nixon moved into the White House.

The internal strife will be less riotous this week, but the danger of self-inflicted damage is just as great. The passions in 1968 were political, about ending a war, but the powerful feelings of 2008 are personal, about perceived sexism and disrespect for the first woman within reach of a presidential nomination.

From the sidelines, hopeful Republicans are shedding crocodile tears for Hillary Clinton with TV commercials about being "passed over," and ardent feminists like William Kristol are bemoaning "The Democrats' Glass Ceiling."

Such sympathy is touching, coming from those whose political sensitivities have brought on a devastating war and economic chaos, but Democrats of all persuasions are faced with the challenge of not letting their own passion for fairness and justice lead to another victory for politicians whose priorities are power and privilege.

That would be cause for sadness beyond tears.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Barack America

Joe Biden's slip in his first vice-presidential peroration today (“the next president of the United States--Barack America!”) may be a Freudian tribute to his dual assignment in this campaign--to tie John McCain firmly to eight years of Bush policies while serving as witness-in-chief to Barack Obama's membership in the American mainstream.

"President Lincoln," Biden started by saying, "once instructed us to be sure to put your feet in the right place and then stand firm. Today in Springfield, I know my feet are in the right place, and I'm proud to stand firm with the next president of the United States of America, Barack Obama."

As a Senate colleague of both presidential candidates, Biden is positioned to testify to his running mate's personal qualities while stressing their common roots in struggles upward from working-class families while praising McCain on a personal level and attacking him relentlessly for supporting Bush's misbegotten war and disastrous domestic agenda.

The opening cards have been dealt in the marathon bridge game that will go on until November, and the only wild card left is John McCain's choice of a partner. Will he too look to the Senate for a fourth or choose a dummy like Mitt Romney?

Obama Makes the Right Choice

As the selection of Joe Biden becomes clear, the only remaining mystery is how political observers could have possibly doubted that Obama would make it.

Stooping to self-quotation, "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."

If Obama had not already been inclined toward him as a running mate, John McCain and Vladimir Putin this month must have helped make up his mind.

"In the bitter campaign ahead, Republicans would have a harder time persuading voters of their candidate's superiority on national security against a ticket anchored by Biden's five-year record of attempting to resolve the political knots in Iraq rather than pushing on with McCain's mindless flag-waving about victory that is still costing American lives and billions of dollars."

Unless Obama has gone to extraordinary lengths to fake us out and text-messages differently a few hours from now, he has made the best possible choice.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Homing In on the White House

With thousands of American families losing their homes to foreclosure every week, it's depressing to see presidential candidates in a food fight about how many residences John McCain possesses and how much help Barack Obama got from a fixer in buying his own.

Technically, McCain may be homeless, since none of the eight places he hangs his hat belongs to him but to his wife, children and trusts she controls, but haggling about that may strike voters desperate to avoid losing the places they live as not quite relevant to their concerns.

The hoo-ha about homes is symptomatic of the freefall from focusing on issues and turning the election into a barroom brawl that Rovian Republicans started with their attack ads and McCain's badmouthing of Obama to which the Democrats are now responding with kneecapping of their own.

Ironically, it was Cindy McCain, owner of the houses and condos in question, who started out by making it clear that she and her husband kept their finances separate and that she had no intention of telling the world about her own.

At the same time, she was adamant that, after all the sliming her family suffered in 2000, that this campaign would be different.

“We'd rather not win than to have to do that,” Mrs. McCain said last spring. “That's not worth winning for. This is about being a leader and a person that can be a good example for our children, and a good role model. There are many, many, many more things to this job than just being the president. You are an example. You have to--you have to be better than that. You have to be.”

She said she had asked her husband after the 2000 race not to try again for the presidency if it meant enduring all the attacks and slanders. But here we are, and this time it's John McCain who has found a home with the Republican politics of personal destruction.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lost in the VP Shuffle

Lindsey Graham is in strife-torn Georgia. On every trip to Iraq and all through the primaries, he has been joined at John McCain's hip, a Southern conservative to validate the candidate's on-again, off-again appeal to the Republican Right. Why then, in all the rumor-mill mood swings from pro-life Tom Ridge to who-knows-what Mitt Romney, has Graham been left out of the equation?

As notorious as George W. Bush for his emphasis on personal loyalty, McCain would surely find a peak of comfort level with the South Carolina senator in the Number Two role. Yet it's Joe Lieberman, the ex-Democrat now Independent who will be speaking at the Republican convention and being touted as a possible crossover VP candidate.

It's a puzzlement.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The McCain-Clinton Team Goes Gold

Cancel the conventions, call off the debates and go straight to the Election Night scoreboard to see how large McCain's margin of victory has turned out to be. The pollsters and pundits are wrapping the story into a neat package: The Republicans went to school on Hillary Clinton's last-minute Obamacide and are finishing off what she started.

At last weekend's Saddleback shootout, the Democratic nominee did not pull the sound-bite trigger fast enough to gun down McCain's prefabbed POW anecdotes and pithy gates-of-hell promises to protect Americans from Osama, the Russians and whoever else is lurking out there in their paranoid fantasies.

Maureen Dowd, insightful as ever but much less funny, wraps it all up imagining a dead-of-night celebration by Hillary and Mac the Knife of their joint victory over the Senate upstart who wanted to take away the country they have been pandering so hard to take over.

We can turn our full attention to the Olympics, where the competition is keener and the judges aren't announcing the results before the contestants start their routines. Then, during the next two weeks of convention blather, we can all go to the beach and get a nice tan instead of watching political volleyball when we all know the score.

Kennedy Scandal, Low-Rent Version

He won't be running for VP again, he won't even attend the Democratic convention, but John Edwards is still in the news with reports of a Virgin Island vacation by private jet for Rielle Hunter and her baby as well as rumblings of contributor unhappiness about the $100,000-plus of campaign funds paid her to videograph their time together.

In every scandal, there are haunting questions about motives, about what prompts people to risk humiliation and invite disaster by their choices.

In the Edwards debacle, it's easy to accept his own explanation of ego and hubris, even while doubting his sanitized confession, but what teases the imagination is why the woman involved, Rielle Hunter, would go ahead and have a baby when not doing so might have kept the affair from becoming public.

A provocative clue comes from, of all places, the ESPN website by a lawyer-sports journalist who ties Ms. Hunter, nee Lisa Druck, to a decades-old criminal case in which prominent Florida "sportsmen" conspired to kill thoroughbred horses to collect on insurance.

One of them, Lester Munson reports, was the young woman's late father who arranged to have a show horse she owned and jockeyed electrocuted to cash in on a $150,000 policy rather than accept $25,000 less by selling the animal.

From this seamy background, the self-created Rielle Hunter went on to a notorious career on the Manhattan party scene, immortalized by the novelist Jay McInerney in a roman a clef as, in his words, a "cocaine-addled, sexually voracious 20-year-old who was, shall we say, inspired by Lisa."

The fount of wisdom on the Edwards affair, the National Enquirer, now reports that "Hunter's own lawyer advised her to allow Edwards to take a paternity test but she refused out of misguided belief that Edwards will marry her after the death of his cancer-stricken wife."

There are echoes here, on a far tackier level, of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys. One of her last visitors the day she died was Peter Lawford, JFK's Hollywood brother-in-law, in an attempt to disentangle Marilyn from Robert Kennedy, reflecting a disordered state of mind that had led to hope there could be a future for her with a prominent married Catholic politician who was then the father of seven.

The Edwards parallel suggests that, even in the 21st century, marrying up is still a fantasy of redemption from a rotten childhood.

Another Woman in Denver

Lilly Ledbetter is the latest addition to the list of speakers at the Democratic convention next week, and her appearance may possibly do Barack Obama as much good as Hillary Clinton's.

In today's Washington Post, Ruth Marcus explains: "Ledbetter was on the losing end of a Supreme Court case last year on equal pay. A manager at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, she consistently received smaller raises than her male counterparts. The Supreme Court threw out her suit because, the five-justice majority said, she waited too long to complain, even though she didn't know about the pay difference earlier.

"Now, a bill to fix this equal pay Catch-22 is pending in Congress--and the Ledbetter case has emerged as a key piece of Obama's effort to woo women. In particular, working women, less-educated women, older women. Women who voted for a certain woman and haven't come around to the guy who defeated her."

Obama is co-sponsoring legislation to reverse the result in the case. McCain opposes it. When Lilly Ledbetter takes the stage in Denver next week, her presence may make a stronger argument for the Democratic nominee than anything Hillary Clinton could possibly say.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Biden

If Barack Obama was not already inclined toward him as a running mate, John McCain and Vladimir Putin in the past week should have helped make up his mind to choose Joe Biden.

His trip to Georgia as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee underscored his credentials to complement Obama's idealism with the experience and know-how to navigate through a world of treacherous policy decisions.

"We must help Georgia rebuild what has been destroyed," Obama said today in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. "That is why I’m proud to join my friend, Senator Joe Biden, in calling for an additional $1 billion in reconstruction assistance for the people of Georgia."

In the bitter campaign ahead, Republicans would have a harder time persuading voters of their candidate's superiority on national security against a ticket anchored by Biden's five-year record of attempting to resolve the political knots in Iraq rather than pushing on with McCain's mindless flag-waving about victory that is still costing American lives and billions of dollars.

The surest way now for Obama to answer attacks on his good judgment and doubts about his political maturity is to announce his choice of Joe Biden and get on with ending the Bush-McCain era in November.

Clinton Closure at the Convention

By declaring "I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies," John McCain should have dispelled any fantasies that unreconciled Hillary Clinton supporters may have about supporting him or sitting out the election.

But disappointment dies hard and, at the Democratic convention next week and its environs, there will undoubtedly be expressions of lingering resentment on the part of women who feel cheated of an historic breakthrough with her candidacy.

Sen. Clinton herself, amid the consolations of a prime-time speech and roll-call vote, will be under pressure not only to offer strong support of Barack Obama but make a persuasive case that McCain's election would be a disaster for her supporters, the Democratic Party and the entire nation.

McCain's promise to the Religious Right that he will appoint Supreme Court justices who don't "legislate from the bench" signals not only the overturn of Roe v Wade if he is elected but chipping away at a wide range of legislation that has leveled the playing field for Americans who don't start life from backgrounds of power and privilege.

At risk will be half a century of progress, not only by women but all disadvantaged members of society not represented by those sitting in the pews of Saddleback Church in well-heeled and self-satisfied Orange County last weekend.

The onus will be on Hillary Clinton to speak for all of them.

Petraeus for VP?

Asked by Rick Warren to name "the three wisest people you would rely on heavily in an administration," John McCain led off with David Petraeus, which raises the question of why not have the general at his side as a running mate?

Since, in McCain's judgment, the Iraq war has been won, wouldn't Petraeus' wisdom be useful in a broader role? After presiding over victory in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower, with no previous political experience, went straight to the White House, so the vice-presidency for a newcomer would not be a radical departure.

Aside from that, Gen. Petraeus has been deeply involved in the politics of Iraq, sometimes to the dismay of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and just last week went to Beirut to meet with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora on the military-political situation there.

Since the US military has been drawn so deeply into politics by the Bush Administration, Petraeus as VP might be the logical next stop.

According to an editor of US News & World Report, Petraeus has already helped save the US economy with the success of the Surge allowing Iraq to pump 2.4 million barrels of petroleum a day and prevent "$200-a-barrel oil--or maybe twice that."

With all this success on America's foreign and domestic fronts, doesn't Petraeus qualify as a VP choice for McCain?

Monday, August 18, 2008

High-Fives for Fake News

Journalism research today shows devotees of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to be better-informed than watchers of cable news shows hosted by Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and Larry King, thereby raising the question of whether it's more helpful to lampoon the news than slobber all over it.

Asked which party now controls Congress, who is the current US secretary of state and to name the new prime minister of Great Britain, Comedy Central viewers outscored those who watch most cable TV news programs as well as those who claim to read newsmagazines and daily newspapers.

On the weekend, the New York Times asked, "Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?" with critic Michiko Kakutani concluding the Daily Show "has earned a devoted following that regards the broadcast as both the smartest, funniest show on television and a provocative and substantive source of news.

"'The Daily Show' resonates not only because it is wickedly funny but also because its keen sense of the absurd is perfectly attuned to an era in which cognitive dissonance has become a national epidemic."

What Stewart and Colbert tonight will make of two men aspiring to the most powerful position in the world being quizzed like schoolboys by a best-selling, pop culture clergyman remains to be seen, but it's clear that only connoisseurs of the ridiculous can do the sight justice.

Musharraf Does a Nixon

In the face of impeachment, Pervez Musharraf is resigning as president of Pakistan, sounding eerily like Richard Nixon almost 34 years ago to the day.

"I don't want the people of Pakistan to slide deeper and deeper into uncertainty," Musharraf said today. "For the interest of the nation, I have decided to resign as president,"

"I have always tried to do what was best for the nation," Nixon said in August 1974, avowing that "the interest of the nation must always come before any personal considerations."

Nixon left office with the claim, "In the Middle East, 100 million people in the Arab countries, many of whom have considered us their enemy for nearly 20 years, now look on us as their friends. We must continue to build on that friendship so that peace can settle at last over the Middle East and so that the cradle of civilization will not become its grave."

Musharraf departs with the Middle East in turmoil after his milking the US of billions of dollars ostensibly to fight terrorists in Pakistan's border areas but leaving behind a crisis in which more Americans are being killed there now than in Iraq.

He exits with a beleaguered government holding nuclear weapons that are controlled who-knows-how by who-knows-whom, with no assurances that "peace can settle at last over the Middle East" and that "the cradle of civilization will not become its grave."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Secretary of State Sweepstakes

As Sunday talk shows are flooded with possible VPs for both tickets, political junkies start the next round of speculation--about the best Secretary of State to help the US repair its relations with the rest of the world.

In the Christian Science Monitor, its former editor John Hughes, who served as an Assistant Secretary under Reagan, gets the ball rolling with a rundown of possible choices for an Obama or McCain Administration.

After owning up to a prejudice for his former boss, George Shultz, now 87, Hughes gets more realistic by touting Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense as "an advocate of a strong military supplemented by vigorous 'soft power,' or public diplomacy, and economic aid. Remarkable for a secretary of Defense, he has argued that the State Department is under-budgeted and understaffed."

Runners-up are Dick Lugar and, raising some doubts about Hughes' judgment, Condoleeza Rice.

For Obama, if they don't get the VP nod, Joe Biden and Sam Nunn head a list that includes foreign policy advisors Susan Rice, Dennis Ross and Tony Lake, all with high-level State Department experience.

But perhaps the most intriguing possibility is former Rep. Lee Hamilton, 77, who earned bipartisan respect as co-chair of both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, one of the most universally admired politicians of his generation.

Once Dick Cheney vacates the VP office, the Secretary of State may very well revert to being the most influential member of an Administration facing challenges in every part of the world. Voters won't get to make that choice, but it's worth keeping in mind when they pick someone who does.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Candidates in Church: The Big Question

By the standards of traditional politics, in tonight's talkfest with Rick Warren, John McCain "won," but the verdict of victory brings into focus the great unanswered question of this presidential campaign: Are American voters really ready for a new kind of politics?

In his answers, McCain was free of doubt, firm and decisive, directing his words to the audience and the cameras, while Obama kept eye contact in conversation with Warren, giving nuanced responses on complex subjects such as abortion and the relationship between government and faith-based organizations.

But until now, nuance has not been a winning strategy in political campaigns, and the wave of enthusiasm for Obama's approach will be washing up against McCain's rock-hard certainties when voters cast their ballots.

While professing strong personal faith, Obama seemed to be addressing Americans who can incorporate doubt into their belief and work to resolve conflicting values and desires, while McCain offered himself as a true believer with no leeway for ambiguity or ambivalence.

After eight years of Bush-Cheney's polarizing view of the world, Obama's approach should have widespread support, but can it overcome the appeal of straight talk that is not always supported by straight thinking?

When they meet in head-on debate, that will be Obama's challenge but, for one night at least, McCain made very good use of a bully pulpit.

Fifty-Fifty About 50

As Madonna turns 50 today, pop culture discovers a whole new decade to babble and bloviate about, following its #1 Seeker as she leaves what Gloria Steinem once called "a much-loved and familiar country."

Time is catching up with the Baby Boomers, the first of whom are eligible for early Social Security this year, and true to their natures, they will make aging a subject of endless self-examination and a project for self-improvement--skydiving, running in marathons and try to prove that "50 is the new 30."

My friends, as John McCain might say from the vantage of 70 and I would echo from beyond 80, the fact is that 50 is 50. Deal with it. It's neither a cause for celebration or despair, just another milestone in life's march through endless possibilities and problems. Savor all you can of the good and, in facing the losses, suck it up

If the tabloids are to be believed, in addition to her Kabbalah studies, Madonna has been busy breaking up not only her own marriage but that of baseball's $20-million-a-year man, Alex Rodriguez, who was eight years old when her first album came out. (Coincidentally or not, he's been slumping at the ball park ever since.)

If one can offer a bit of advice along with birthday greetings, best of luck with trying to have it all for as long as you can, but there's also something to be said for acting your age.

A President From Nowhere

After Barack Obama or John McCain leaves the White House, where will future generations go to tour the boyhood home that shaped a president? Hawaii? Indonesia? The Panama Canal Zone?

For a long time, I lived near Hyde Park, where FDR was born and spent his years before moving into the White House. "All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River," he said as he was making history, and American generations can still visit, see and touch the reality that formed him and told him who he was and could be.

For the candidates in this election there is, as Gertrude Stein said, no there there. "Obama and McCain," Peggy Noonan writes, "are not from a place, but from an experience" and the "lack of placeness with both candidates contributes to a sense of their disjointedness, their floatingness."

This 21st century identity gap started with George W. Bush, who was born in Connecticut, grew up in Texas and spent most of his life before politics trying to figure out who he was and where he belonged. No matter how often we see him cutting brush, our sense of who he is and where he came from remains hazy.

For Obama, lack of a geographical label may even be an advantage, George Packer claims in the New Yorker, asserting that "a black man who, unlike Obama, is deeply rooted in America is probably unelectable today. His rootedness would be inseparable from his blackness, an identity that has to recede far into the background for a black candidate to have a chance."

And yet, anxiety about both candidates today may have much to do with the voters' sense that, as Noonan says, one of them is "from Young. He's from the town of Smooth in the state of Well Educated. He's from TV" and the other "from Military. He's from Vietnam Township in the Sunbelt state."

In the past century, Warren G. Harding campaigned from the front porch of his Victorian house in Marion, Ohio, which is still there for anyone who pays $6 to look at and wander through as is the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Illinois, complete with a bowl of the popcorn he liked to munch before he went to California and invented himself first as an actor and then as a politician.

Our next president's defining home will not be geographical but a set of images on the Internet from all over the world, and we can only hope that that lack of a specific locale won't keep him from being grounded in reality.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Polluting Mainstream Publishing

Folk wisdom says "Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk," but the Obama campaign has little choice as a new load of slime by the co-author of the 2004 swiftboat smears tops the New York Times best-seller list this weekend.

For those with the stomach and patience to wade through the muck, some of the factual rebuttals can be found here and here.

But what interests a former book publisher is how low such a respected house as Simon & Schuster has fallen in lusting for the nutball dollar, as it issues Jerome Corsi's "Obama Nation" under the imprint of Mary Matalin, a former Dick Cheney staffer with no publishing background, a book industry feat akin to sweeping in money while holding your nose.

Corsi, who has previously disputed the notion that oil is a fossil fuel and argued that the Twin Towers were felled on 9/11 by explosives inside the building, is a persuasive enough exponent of the tinfoil hat school of paranoia to inspire a theory about the publication of his new book.

Isn't it possible that Matalin, who is married to James Carville, one of Hillary Clinton's ardent backers, is part of a plot to take down Obama before the Democratic convention, where enough delegates with a chance to vote for the former First Lady will be so spooked by Corsi's tome that they switch allegiance and give her the nomination?

Anyone who doubts that theory will have to wait for the documentation in my forthcoming expose, "The Clinton Comeback," to be published soon by Random House under the imprint of Mark Penn.

Purpose-Driven Candidates

It won't be a debate or even a town hall, but John McCain and Barack Obama will be on the same stage tomorrow night at Rick Warren's mega-church in California and on the world stage through CNN. The air could be filled with piety and platitudes.

After appearing together briefly, they will be questioned separately by the author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," who promises to bypass the gotcha questions by interviewers who "pounce on every misstatement, every partial statement” and give the candidates a “ten-per-cent grace factor.” If one of them misspeaks, Warren says “I always think, Aw, he didn’t mean that.”

This kind of gentle grilling may be a relief to those who were turned off by the infamous ABC debate in April when Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos badgered and interrupted Obama and Hillary Clinton to widespread criticism and disgust.

But the "Aw, he didn't mean that" approach could result only in professions of faith without substance unless the best-selling Evangelist described by Time as "a suprapolitical, supracreedal arbiter of public virtues and religious responsibilities" finds a way to use his medically diagnosed adrenaline overdrive to get Obama and McCain past self-puffery.

The event will test not only the candidates but the preacher-social activist who is being seen as a 21st century combination of Billy Graham and Albert Schweitzer.

"I want," he says, "to know how they handle a crisis, because a lot of the things in the presidency often deal with things you don't know are going to happen."

Amen to that.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Good for the Soul and the Heel

Public confession makes a half-century leap from John Edwards' mea-not-so-culpa to a sudden exercise in self-revelation by Charles Van Doren, who was caught in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s.

But perhaps the most telling truth about public soul-searching comes, not from Edwards on Nightline or Van Doren in the New Yorker, but in a New York Times blog by the scholar Stanley Fish about "autobiographical writing that tells and hides all at the same time."

In a sympathetic rumination, Professor Fish points out that Van Doren, now 80, proffers the title, "All the Answers": "But there are no answers, at least to the questions most readers would want to ask: Why did you do it? What was going on in your mind? What about the moral issues? The moment of decision...seems not to have occurred, or to have occurred off-stage when no one, even the person most concerned, was watching."

It is likely that even now Van Doren doesn't know, but Fish credits him with an honest attempt at self-discovery: "He does not cast himself as a victim, or as a reformed villain or a misunderstood hero, three narratives that are quite popular in these days of compulsive self-discovery."

(A confession of my own: Several years after the scandal, as my magazine was preparing a piece on the aftermath, there was a letter from Van Doren's wife asking me to be "kind and gracious" and not publish it. But I did, and my refusal has troubled me ever since.)

When Robert Redford was working on the movie, "Quiz Show," he offered Van Doren $100,000 to be a consultant as "a guarantee of its truthfulness." Once again Van Doren was tempted to cash in, but his wife put her foot down firmly. "Don't be a fool," she told him, and he tore up the contract.

It is a long way from Van Doren to John Edwards, not only in time but character. Both may have been undone by vanity but there was and is no cunning and calculation in the man who succumbed in that earlier scandal.

Van Doren had the grace to retreat into silence (until now), but Edwards' lies and evasions have created a continuing public melodrama, and his wife, as sympathetic a figure as she has been, may be complicit in his use of confession for concealment rather than redemption. Maybe he too should wait fifty years before going public again about his inner turmoil.

Outing Julia Child

Before there was a CIA, during World War II, there was the OSS and now more than half a century later the National Archives is releasing files on almost 24,000 Americans who worked for the agency, including Julia Child.

Although she will be mentioned in the same breath as Valerie Plame, there was nothing covert about Julia, with whom I worked for more than a decade and whose only secretive moment came on camera when she dropped food on the kitchen floor, picked it up and confided to viewers, "Don't forget. If you're alone in the kitchen, no one will know."

The OSS revelations won't come as news to anyone who knew her, since she reveled in telling about her most dramatic exploit, helping to cook up a shark repellent to coat underwater explosives and keep them away from devices meant to blow up German U-boats.

The newly released list is a reminder of that innocent time when secretly working for your country was a source of pride for people like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who later worked in JFK's White House as well as two sons of Theodore Roosevelt and Sterling Hayden, the actor now immortalized as Al Pacino's first murder victim in "The Godfather."

Nobody had to worry about the likes of Scooter Libby blabbing their names.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Politicking Past the Water's Edge

John McCain says he is sending the Curly and Moe of his campaign, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, to the Georgia war zone. To do what?

Their mission, according to the candidate, is to "receive an assessment of the situation and what we need to do in the future, to avoid further escalation, and also to protect the independence and freedom of the people of this brave democratic ally, the country of Georgia.”

They could do that by watching CNN and phoning the State Department, but it enhances the image of McCain as a commander-in-chief dispatching emissaries to war zones to feed into his decision-making.

For a campaign that goaded Obama to go to Iraq and then accused him of politicking when he did, the McCain high command has no compunctions about posturing over dead bodies in a distant land.

Moreover, nothing that Lieberman and Graham could report back would change McCain's long-standing support of Georgia's independence and his stumping now with Cold War rhetoric to emphasize how much tougher he is than Obama.

They used to say American politics stops at the water's edge, but for the Republican nominee-to-be, that's where it starts these days.

Obama's VP Mystery Plot

The process is unfolding like one of those country-house melodramas in which likely suspects disappear one by one. The latest departure from the cast is former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a candidate for the Senate seat of retiring John Warner (no relation), who has now been designated as the keynote speaker of the Democratic nomination.

Yesterday, Chuck Hagel took himself out by having a spokesman tell USA Today he is "not planning to endorse either candidate," and in a bit of veepstakes overkill, today's Washington Post reports bipartisan unhappiness over the possibility that the Nebraska Republican who went to Iraq with Obama might be on the ticket.

Hillary Clinton, as the too-obvious suspect is long gone but has been busy enlarging her convention cameo, while the handful of viable survivors--Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Tim Kaine, Kathleen Sebelius--mill around the sets waiting for their mobile phones to ring with a text message from Obama revealing whodunit.

Miss Marple couldn't have plotted it better.

Mark Penn's Political Poison

The mark of a world-class horse's ass is not just engineering a colossal defeat out of all the elements of victory, as he did with Hillary Clinton's candidacy, but to keep pestering us with his expertise, as Mark Penn is now doing in praising the Britney Spears-Paris Hilton ad of the McCain campaign.

"Fair or not," Penn pontificates, "as advertising it did its job: It used humor, stuck viewers with memorable images and created a debate."

After the autopsy of his botched management of the Clinton campaign in the current Atlantic, Penn should be skulking off to pitch some banana republic to replace his lobbying work for Colombia, which finally got him fired as Hillary's mastermind.

But Penn is obviously still frustrated enough by his failure to smear Obama enough in the primaries to be cheerleading for the Republicans to continue the work and justify his genius for poisoning the political process.

Or maybe it's just that Obama isn't doing enough to raise money for the Clinton campaign to pay off its debts to him for his monumental service.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Offshore Snake Oil Bonanza

Republicans are tapping into a gusher of voter gullibility. According to the Rasmussen Reports, almost two-thirds of Americans approve of offshore drilling and believe that finding new sources of oil is more important than reducing the amount of energy they now use.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waving the white flag by telling Larry King she might vote for drilling as part of a larger energy package, even as she proclaims, "I will not subscribe to a hoax on the American people that if you drill offshore, you're going to bring down the price at the pump. Even the president says that's not true."

The case for an easy fix is so compelling that the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund is taking out full-page newspaper ads to decry offshore drilling as "George W. Bush's Gasoline Price Elixir" that is "100% Snake Oil" and urge letters to Congress saying, "I am not buying the lie...that sacrificing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and America's coastal waters to oil drilling would make a real difference in gas prices--either today or twenty years from today!"

The Washington Post editorial page, ever faithful to the Bush Administration, starts out to debunk the ad but ends up agreeing that "the United States cannot drill its way to energy independence."

Offshore oil won't bring down prices at the pump (the current drop is showing that only lower demand can do that) but, as long as there are November votes buried in the issue, McCain and Congressional Republicans will keep hammering away.

Obama's Inexperience, McCain's Instability

The campaign exchanges recall the clichéd barroom banter: "You're ugly." "You're drunk." "But I'll be sober in the morning." Barack Obama's so-called inexperience is fast disappearing as he is tested by world events under Republican fire, while John McCain's Cheney-on-steroids approach is becoming more pronounced all the time.

Abetted by his foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who was lobbying for the Georgian government until March, McCain has been fanning the embers of the Cold War for some time now.

According to the New York Times, "The intensifying warfare in the former Soviet republic of Georgia has put a new focus on the increasingly hard line that Senator John McCain has taken against Russia in recent years, with stances that have often gone well beyond those of the Bush administration and its focus on engagement."

In a situation where the US and the UN have few practical options for restraining Putin, Obama is taking a more nuanced approach reminiscent of JFK and Reagan efforts to resist Soviet aggression without provoking needless showdowns by calling for direct talks for an end to the violence and emphasizing that "the United States, the United Nations Security Council, and the international community should fully support a peaceful resolution to this crisis."

After speaking with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Obama dispelled any doubts about his firmness: "I condemn Russia's aggressive actions and reiterate my call for an immediate cease fire."

In an era too complicated for the pseudo-tough talk of the Neo-Cons, McCain is even getting some pressure for moderation from the poster boy of the 20th century cold warriors.

“If Henry Kissinger thinks that I’m wrong," McCain reveals, "he’ll pick up the phone--and he has, several times, and say ‘You’re wrong on this; you shouldn’t be so hard on the Russians, O.K.?'"

Obama's experience with foreign crises is sobering, but will McCain's attitudes be any less ugly the morning after the presidential election?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cell-Phone Parenting

The timeless issue of cutting the apron strings takes on new meaning for American families as almost half of preteens go back to school this month with cell phones in their backpacks.

The news brings a mixed bag of reactions, ranging from peace of mind for parents by having constant contact with their kids to worries about exposing them to new physical and psychological dangers.

The advantages of instant communication about change of plans and missed school buses are obvious, to say nothing of emergencies in the Columbine era. But the inevitable price of progress comes with worries about possible cancer risks to developing young brains as well as the temptations of text-message cheating in classrooms and exposure to inappropriate photographs and videos.

The ultimate risk, according to the president of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children, is exposure to predators who may use cell phones to gain trust over time without the knowledge of parents or teachers. He recommends the use of new technology that allows monitoring of children's text messages and pinpointing their locations.

As parents of pre-schoolers begin to contemplate the advantages of wiring their children, it's sad to see the development of new human tools, as always, bringing with them unforeseen problems and dangers.

Will McCain Play the Gender Card?

With disaffected Clinton supporters still vowing to stay home or vote for him, John McCain must be tempted to give them another reason to come aboard by picking Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.

From a look at her political history, the 44-year-old "Northern Exposure" chief executive would bring more than token womanhood to the ticket. With approval ratings in the 80-90 percent range, Palin is seen, in the words of NPR, as "a moose-burger-eating, snow-mobile-riding maverick who's not afraid to take on fellow Republicans she disagrees with," including distancing herself from the now-indicted Sen. Ted Stevens.

At the same time, she is adored by the Religious Right as the mother of five, the eldest of whom joined the Army at 18 last year and the youngest a Down's Syndrome baby she refused to abort, and as a hunting, fishing lifetime member of the NRA.

With her beauty pageant looks and background in journalism, Palin would enliven the Republican campaign and bring them an activist on the key issue of energy, providing a tireless young partner for McCain's claims of change in Washington.

Unrequited Hillary Clinton supporters, still fighting for recognition at the Democratic convention, would face a bitter irony in Sarah Palin as a potential vice-president. In the light of McCain's age, a Republican victory this year could eventually make the first woman in the White House a president who would appoint Supreme Court Justices to overturn Roe v Wade and restore the era of back-alley abortions.

If McCain decides to play the gender card, he will be forcing Democrats to overcome their differences, to put up or shut up by making party unity a reality rather than a slogan.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Diplomacy Gap

A convergence of events--the Russian crackdown in Georgia, Musharraf's imminent impeachment in Pakistan, the continuing impasse over Iran's nuclear ambitions--is underscoring the damage of the bellicose Bush foreign policy to America's relations with the rest of the world.

As the McCain campaign mocks Obama's willingness to negotiate with rather than bully adversarial nations and dicey allies, reality keeps offering up situations that demonstrate the failure of the Neo-Con blueprint for American world dominance by military power that took us into an unending war in Iraq.

Nicholas Kristof points out today that "the United States is hugely overinvesting in military tools and underinvesting in diplomatic tools. The result is a lopsided foreign policy that antagonizes the rest of the world and is ineffective in tackling many modern problems. After all, you can’t bomb global warming."

Item: As Bush and Putin watch the Beijing Olympics together, the US is helpless to deter new Russian aggression. "While America considers Georgia its strongest ally in the bloc of former Soviet countries," an analysis concludes, "Washington needs Russia too much on big issues like Iran to risk it all to defend Georgia."

Item: With Bush's best friend facing removal, the US, in Fareed Zakaria's words, "is seen by Pakistanis as having backed Musharraf for far too long and in too unqualified a manner...Just sending American troops in there, especially without coordination with Pakistan, would be a recipe for failure. But a genuinely political and military approach might succeed over time."

A New York Times editorial concludes, "There are no quick and easy fixes for Pakistan, but it will have no chance if its civilian leaders, its army and the United States do not work together to build more effective democratic governance, an economic future and a coordinated plan for routing the Taliban and Al Qaeda."

Item: As Iran continues to flex its nuclear muscles, the Bush State Department is barely beginning to engage the process of a coordinated carrot-and-stick international effort to keep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shooting off his mouth instead of test missiles.

All of this will require foreign-service brains, expertise and experience but, as Kristof points out, the US has more musicians in its military bands than diplomats.


John Edwards Channels Nixon

In his weekend of "confession," there are echoes of Richard Nixon's ploy of "modified limited hangout" during the Watergate crisis, a strategy of concealing crucial information while appearing to come clean.

It didn't save Nixon's presidency and, from early indications, John Edwards' political career won't survive either.

As the Senate Watergate Committee was closing in on the truth, Nixon ordered John Dean to prepare a report that would mix partial admissions with misinformation and resistance to further investigation, a parallel to the World War II tactic of Nazi subs sending debris to the surface to make Allied attackers think they had destroyed their target.

John Edwards' "limited hangout" Friday night consisted of a vague admission of adultery, coupled with denials and evasions about everything from the paternity of Rielle Hunter's child to the money his finance director has been giving her, coupled with his willingness to take a DNA test and have all the facts out in the open.

Now, Ms. Hunter is declining the test, and Edwards' generous friend is asserting the payments are a private matter.

"I have been stripped bare," Edwards said in his statement Friday. Not really, but we know as much as we need to know and the only thing left for him to do is go away--quietly. His tacky affair is no Watergate.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Hanoi Hilton to Paris Hilton

The Obama attacks may be damaging the John McCain "brand" in the long run, according to a growing chorus of Republican supporters and admirers, including McCain's mother who calls one of the ads "stupid."

But the candidate himself isn't backing off. On radio today, he compared an Obama speech to "watching a big summer blockbuster, and an hour in realizing that all the best scenes were in the trailer you saw last fall."

Long-time McCain watchers see ventriloquism in all this by Karl Rove protégés who have taken him over. McCain's 2000 campaign manager calls the Paris Hilton-Britney Spears commercial "clumsy, juvenile, and a mistake" while David Gergen parses the Charlton Heston ad calling Obama "The One" as "code for 'he's uppity, he ought to stay in his place.' Everybody gets that who is from a southern background."

In the long run, what will all this do to the image of a straight-talking war hero who withstood the pressures of being a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton and now is a captive of smearers using his name to compare Obama to Paris Hilton?

Perhaps a little time off will give McCain some perspective. “If I put in three or four 18-hour, 20-hour days in a row, then I’m not sharp," McCain told reporters recently. “It’s just a fact."

As Obama visits his grandmother and surfs in Hawaii, McCain is planning some down time later this month back home in Arizona. He may want to think about who he used to be and how to get back to being himself for the rest of the campaign season.

Religious Right's VP Choices

If John McCain wants to protect his extreme flank, George Bush's favorite evangelist has a few suggestions.

In an interview, Southern Baptist spokesman Richard Land vetoes as a pro-choice "catastrophe" Tom Ridge and, reluctantly, Joe Lieberman, who he "would love to have" as Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. (In 2002, they both evangelized for Iraq as a "just war.")

Who does Land like? "Governor (Sarah) Palin of Alaska...She just had her fifth child, a Downs Syndrome child...She's strongly pro-life. She's a virtual lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. She would ring so many bells."

Mitt Romney "would be an excellent choice" but "about 15 to 20 percent of the evangelical community would have a problem with his Mormonism."

Land's interfaith selection is Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, "a conservative, observant Jew, a one hundred percent pro-life voting record," who defeated Cooter Jones of the "Dukes Of Hazzard" for the Richmond seat in 2002.

If McCain makes it, Rev. Land would look forward to a VP who might continue his weekly White House conference calls initiated by Karl Rove to make sure the Administration continues to be on guard against such threats as John Lennon's "Imagine," the "secular anthem" for a future of "clone plantations, child sacrifice, legalized polygamy and hard-core porn."

But no matter who turns out to be his running mate, McCain is sure to have Land's at least lukewarm support against Barack Obama who "has never met an abortion that he couldn't...live with."

Friday, August 08, 2008

John Edwards Owns Up

The MSM's silent soap opera is over.

From ABC: "In an interview for broadcast tonight on Nightline, Edwards told ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff he did have an affair with 44-year old Rielle Hunter, but said that he did not love her." (Reminiscent of Bill Clinton's admission that he smoked marijuana but did not inhale?)

Even in confessing, Mr. Sincere is still playing the angles, timing his disclosure for a late Friday night news dump when all eyes will be on the opening of the Olympics. (My confession: Edwards has always brought out the worst in me, a skepticism bordering on cynicism. More here.)

"It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," Edwards says.

Amen to that.

"Vote" Stealing

A former White House aide is suing everybody in sight for swiping the idea for the new Kevin Costner-Kelsey Grammer movie, "Swing Vote," in which a presidential election comes down to one alcoholic man's ballot, but there's a wee problem: The same movie was made back in 1939 under the title, "The Great Man Votes."

As a teenager, I was impressed by the antics of politicians to persuade John Barrymore (who by then did not have to do much acting to play a boozy has-been), the only registered voter in a key precinct, to declare himself for the incumbent mayor.

Now Bradley Blakeman, a former aide to President George W. Bush, claims in a lawsuit that "Swing Vote" rips off his story, "Go November," which bears a "striking resemblance" to the movie just released by Disney.

"The Great Man Votes" was directed and co-written by Garson Kanin, a talented man who later wrote one of the best political movies of all time, "Born Yesterday."

I still remember the punch line of "Great Man": After being bribed, flattered and paraded around as a hero, Barrymore tells his kids, "Nice man, the mayor. Almost makes me wish I had voted for him."

The Clintons Go All Out for Obama

To the untrained eye, they seem to be overspreading the Democratic Convention like those kudzu vines that grow a foot every day to eventually blot out everything in sight, but the Clintons insist they are doing it all for Barack Obama.

Hillary will speak one night and Bill will hold forth the next after, if all goes according to their plan, Clinton supporters get "catharsis" by nominating her and, in her words, "yell and scream and have their opportunity."

In the Denver streets outside, a grassroots group will be marching and holding a festival "to celebrate Clinton's achievement and advocate for women's rights."

All this, according to Hillary, is for the benefit of Obama: “We do not want any Democrat in the hall or in the stadium or at home walking away saying, ‘I’m just not satisfied, I’m not happy.’ That’s what I’m trying to avoid.”

The two former rivals for the nomination issued a joint statement yesterday: "At the Democratic convention, we will ensure that the voices of everyone who participated in this historic process are respected and our party will be fully unified heading into the November election."

Meanwhile, the former President extolled Obama this week with a ringing statement, "I think he should win, and I think he will win." With oratory like that, Bill Clinton is likely to stampede the convention to fever pitch.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Tracking Down Terrorist Enablers

A military commission has found Osama bin Laden's former driver guilty of one count of providing material support for terrorism, but a spoilsport New York Times editorial complains about "an odd prosecution. Drivers of even the most heinous people are generally not charged with war crimes."

Picky, picky. If bin Laden had been without wheels in 2001, how could he have gone to planning meetings for 9/11? By bicycle?

Terrorist enablers are a serious problem. After we track down and prosecute bin Laden's barber, dentist, dry cleaner and personal trainer, he will be in no shape to plan new attacks or record threatening videos. If he does, who will take an unkempt, flabby, badly dressed terrorist seriously?

We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble in Iraq by going after Saddam Hussein's groomers instead of invading the whole damn country. How long could he have stayed in power looking the way he did with all those lice in his hair after coming out of that hidey-hole?

Opening John Edwards' Back Door

Like nature, scandal abhors a vacuum. Ignored by the MSM for weeks, the John Edwards illegitimate child story is oozing into sight with debate over his role at the Democratic convention.

"If there is not an explanation that’s satisfactory, acceptable and meets high moral standards...he would not be a prime candidate to make a major address to the convention," Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chair, tells the Charlotte Observer.

"He absolutely does have to (resolve it). If it's not true, he has to issue a stronger denial," says a Democratic strategist who ran Edwards’ 1998 Senate race. "It's a very damaging thing.

"The big media has tried to be responsible and handle this with kid gloves, but it's clearly getting ready to bust out. If it's not true, he's got to stand up and say, 'This is not true. That is not my child and I'm going to take legal action against the people who are spreading these lies.' It's not enough to say, 'That’s tabloid trash.'"

No, it isn't and Edwards' continuing silence, while understandable on the personal level, does not bode well for his reputation and any future role on the national political stage.

The Doubts-About-Obama Industry

The polls show a tightening race, reflecting how perniciously effective smear politics can still be. McCain campaign mud, at least for the time being, is filling in the blanks of an opponent largely unknown to some clueless segment of the electorate.

The dilemma for Obama is how to respond. Trying to stay about it all, as John Kerry did in 2004, is a losing strategy, but full-throttle counterattacks raise the risk of making Obama seem thin-skinned and easily rattled.

Ridicule is iffy. Yesterday the Democratic candidate got some mileage from tweaking McCain about his flipflop on tire inflation for better gas mileage, but too much of that could make him look unpleasantly sarcastic.

For the long haul, Barack Obama has to concentrate on defining himself and his politics for an electorate that wants change but at the same time is wary of risk. He should establish himself as strong enough to withstand smears and then let his surrogates and his eventual running mate deal with the most of the tactical back-and-forth.

Obama has to remember that, as much as he has excited millions of voters, there may be even more who know little about him and can be manipulated into seeing him as a dangerous choice. He has to make them see who he is and what he stands for.

Meanwhile, the doubt-raisers are getting more subtle. Yesterday, one of McCain's potential running mates, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, praised the Democrat ("Say what you will about Barack Obama," he told conservatives, "people gravitate when you have something positive to say"), but then attacked him for inexperience (“It is simply a matter of fact that less than four years ago he was a state legislator”).

Obama should leave it to others to point out that Pawlenty, who could be second in line to an aging president, was only a state legislator five years ago and concentrate on the "something positive" his presidency would offer Americans after eight years of Bush-Cheney negativity.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Lunch With Mrs. Robinson

This is Anne Bancroft Day on TCM, and they are showing her in movies ranging from Anne Sullivan, the determined teacher of deaf-and-blind Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker" to the boozy Mrs. Robinson seducing Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate."

Before those triumphs, there was an unforgettable lunch with the young actress born Anna Maria Italiano in the Bronx. When we met at an elegant Park Avenue hotel in Manhattan soon after she won a Tony as the free-spirited Gittel in "Two for the Seesaw," she confided she was too shy to sit in the crowded dining room.

An understanding maitre d' took us to the far end of a huge, darkened main room that was closed for lunch and had a waiter serve us there.

She ordered a shrimp cocktail but when it arrived, the little fork was nowhere in sight. She apologized profusely for sending the waiter off on a long walk to find one but, as he was reentering the room, she gasped, "Oh my God" after finding a cocktail fork in the folds of the tablecloth.

Without hesitation, she slipped it into her bra and gave the waiter a dazzling smile of thanks as he set down the new one.

After becoming instant co-conspirators, we had a lively talk about growing up poor and ambitious in an outer borough and, for years afterward, I envied Mel Brooks who a few years later would bribe someone to find out where she was having dinner and show up to woo and wed her for a 40-year-marriage that couldn't possibly had had a dull moment.