Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

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

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Conservative Case for Obama

As polls show pushy Palinism hurting McCain's chances, the struggle for the Republican future is reflected by two traditional conservatives, Peggy Noonan and George Will.

In the Wall Street Journal today, Noonan, who wrote speeches for Reagan and Bush I, makes "the case for Obama" this way:

"He has within him the possibility to change the direction and tone of American foreign policy, which need changing; his rise will serve as a practical rebuke to the past five years, which need rebuking; his victory would provide a fresh start in a nation in which a fresh start would come as a national relief. He climbed steep stairs, born off the continent with no father to guide, a dreamy, abandoning mother, mixed race, no connections. He rose with guts and gifts. He is steady, calm, and, in terms of the execution of his political ascent, still the primary and almost only area in which his executive abilities can be discerned, he shows good judgment in terms of whom to hire and consult, what steps to take and moves to make. We witnessed from him this year something unique in American politics: He took down a political machine without raising his voice.

"A great moment: When the press was hitting hard on the pregnancy of Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter, he did not respond with a politically shrewd 'I have no comment,' or 'We shouldn't judge.' Instead he said, 'My mother had me when she was 18," which shamed the press and others into silence. He showed grace when he didn't have to."

In the Washington Post, Pultizer-Prize columnist George Will, under a heading of "Call Him John the Careless," makes the conservative case against McCain:

"From the invasion of Iraq to the selection of Sarah Palin, carelessness has characterized recent episodes of faux conservatism. Tuesday's probable repudiation of the Republican Party will punish characteristics displayed in the campaign's closing days...

"Palin may be an inveterate simplifier; McCain has a history of reducing controversies to cartoons. A Republican financial expert recalls attending a dinner with McCain for the purpose of discussing with him domestic and international financial complexities that clearly did not fascinate the senator. As the dinner ended, McCain's question for his briefer was: 'So, who is the villain?'"

No liberal could make the case for Obama and against McCain any better than that.

The Thrift Trap

Today's economics lecture from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is deeply disquieting. The bad news, in a nutshell, is that American consumers are tightening their belts at the worst possible time.

"(I)f consumers cut their spending," he writes, "and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.

"In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires--a possibility known as the paradox of thrift."

The normal remedies, such as cutting interest rates, have been used up, Krugman argues, leaving only government spending (pace John McCain) "to take the place of retrenching consumers...a major fiscal stimulus. And this time the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend."

If Krugman is right, the usual arguments about tax-and-spend liberals will have to be put on hold, as a bipartisan post-Bush government considers putting massive amounts of money into crumbling roads, tunnels and bridges--to say nothing of education and health care--not only to restore the infrastructure but the economy as well.

For a start, some of it could come from reducing the $10 billion a month that is still being poured down the drain in Iraq.

Government spending, not always wisely, helped put the country back on track in the 1930s. Obama is going to need an even better Brain Trust than FDR put together.

The Case Against One-Day Voting

With an estimated one out of three Americans casting ballots before Election Day this year, it may be time to rethink the tradition of having millions of voters swamp polling places on a Tuesday in November. Why just one day? Why not two, three or even a week?

The advantages of converting to an Election Week are many and obvious:

*With the uncertainties of electronic gadgetry, a longer period would reduce not only endless lines and voter frustration but allow more time to resolve registration challenges and to count and, if necessary, recount ballots;

*Races would not be decided by bad weather conditions that sometimes make it difficult for the aged and the infirm to get to polls;

*The self-employed and others who find it hard to take working time off would have the choice of voting on a Saturday;

*The process would not be so dependent on aggressive get-out-the-vote tactics by political parties.

When a Tuesday was chosen in 1845, people traveled by horse and buggy, and farmers often needed a day to get to the county seat and a day to get back, without interfering with the Sabbath. Now, in Nevada, we have voting machines in shopping malls.

This year, with record numbers of early votes and absentee ballots, there is a de facto move to a longer voting period. Even so, the new Congress may want to look back at next Tuesday's problems in what promises to be a record turnout and rethink the wisdom of squeezing the decision about our national future into a single day.

Some might insist that inconvenience should be a part of civic duty to weed out the unmotivated and uniformed. But that would be, to borrow a word from this year's campaign, an "elitist" argument.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wisdom of the Aged

Andrew Sullivan cites her for commentary "that knocks your socks off," but with the restraint more seemly for age, I just tip my hat to 82-year-old Helen Philpot of Texas and her college friend, Margaret Schmechtman of Maine, who have started an octogenarian blog that really rocks.

Ms. Philpot does not mince words:

"I am surprised that some of you are up in arms about my calling Sarah Palin a bitch, or John McCain an ass or even George Bush a jackass...Some of you are actually praying for me...

"Well this old broad is hurt...I am so sorry if I have offended any of you...

"New rules:

"I will stop calling George Bush a jackass when he stops calling me a terrorist: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

"I will stop calling John McCain an ass when he stops calling Barack Obama a socialist at every dog and pony show on the Straight Talk Express tour.

"I will stop calling Sarah Palin a bitch when she stops calling Obama a terrorist sympathizer. And I will stop calling Sarah Palin a bitch when she stops calling the parts of the country where I don’t live more Pro-American than the part of the country where I do live. And I will definitely stop calling Sarah Palin a bitch when she stops acting like a bitch.

"I’m old enough to remember the Republican party of Barry Goldwater--when the party stood for fiscal responsibility, small government and personal freedoms. I remember when I could talk with friends about politics and just agree to disagree. And then religious nut cases decided that if you didn’t agree with them you were immoral. So they went and elected George Bush President so he could take the Republican Party from being a party full of respectable people to a party filled with asses, jackasses and yes--bitches like Sarah Palin."

Ms. Philpot has a good memory and a salty tongue that makes some of her contemporaries (like me) sound timid and lame.

Obama and Bill Clinton Share a Laugh

There was a moment last night when Barack Obama was saying the McCain campaign was calling him a Socialist because he had once shared a peanut butter sandwich with a classmate and Bill Clinton laughed--not that slit-eyed, calculated political chuckle but a genuine guffaw of recognition from someone who had suffered the smear treatment and survived.

When the former President was being hounded by Newt Gingrich and his merry midgets, it was no laughing matter, and there is still reason to believe that Clinton failed to take out Osama bin Laden when he could have back then because it would have been seen as a "Wag the Dog" diversion from his impeachment.

But more than a decade later, the politics of personal destruction has worn thin, and what was tragic back then can be seen as comedy now in the tired attacks that McCain-Palin are mouthing about terrorists, wealth-spreaders and the like.

In his campaign, Barack Obama may not exactly be standing on Bill Clinton's shoulders, as he graciously suggested last night (“In case all of you forgot, this is what it’s like to have such a great president”), but in the finesse with which he is swatting away Rovian accusations in these final days, the candidate of tomorrow is definitely profiting from the bitter experience of yesterday's target.

It was nice to see them sharing a laugh about it last night.

Wednesday Night Live

The presidential campaign peaked on prime-time TV with Barack Obama's 30-minute, $5 million valentine to the American middle class, followed by John McCain on Larry King, free of charge, expressing pride and confidence in Sarah Palin, while admitting their maverickosity leads to an occasional difference of opinion.

Later, Obama upstaged himself on the Daily Show by simultaneously appearing live in Florida to embrace and be embraced by Bill Clinton. In contrast, George W. Bush seemed to be in a presidential protection program as far as McCain was concerned.

A visitor from another planet could easily tell who is ahead by Obama's concentration on hopes for the future, while McCain and Palin continued to belabor fears about their opponent's past, adding a Palestinian professor to their pantheon of scary passing acquaintances.

The political pundits have now been reduced to debating the reliability of public opinion polls to produce suspense in a race that seems to be headed in one direction even as a deciding World Series game ended competition in the other national pastime.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Weirdness of Waiting

For Americans, after almost two years of electioneering, the prospect of going cold turkey in less than a week is producing symptoms of anxiety on all sides. The campaigns, of course, are doing what they have to do--Obama people warning about overconfidence and McCain strategists sweating for a scrappy finish a la Harry Truman in 1948.

In between, pollsters and pundits, in a panic to fill the time with perceived wisdom, are sprinting in all directions--the race is tightening (Gallup) as races always do with "buyer's remorse" setting in, an Obama landslide is coming (Pew Research Center), but we either don't really know what his presidency would be like (Washington Post) or we know only too well and should head for the bunkers (Wall Street Journal).

Tonight is the night of TV with Obama's half-hour wall-to-wall infomercial, which may either be a triumph of taking advantage of his fund-raising prowess or a reminder of his broken promise to limit himself to public financing (Campbell Brown on CNN).

By the time we see him on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, we should be in desperate need of a laugh or a five-day nap until next Tuesday.

Wrong-Way McCain

In this final week, the former Navy flier is piloting his campaign with the navigational skills of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, who took off for California 70 years ago and ended up in Ireland and as part of American folklore.

John McCain, whose destination is the support of independent voters, keeps flying in the face of all experience that shows they are averse to negative campaigning by escalating his attacks on Barack Obama as a Socialist, "wealth spreader" and, catchiest of all, "redistributionist."

As he has throughout the year, McCain seems almost obsessively focused on the Rightmost Republican base, voters who certainly don't need persuading to reject Obama, by picking Sarah Palin as a running mate rather than a centrist and by giving campaign crowds red meat rather than acting presidential and concentrating on issues.

With Palin as his co-pilot and Joe the Plumber navigating, McCain seems destined to end this flight in electoral oblivion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Best Journalism Movie Ever

TCM is showing Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole" tonight, my favorite among all journalism movies over "The Front Page," "Deadline USA," "All the President's Men," "The Paper," "Broadcast News" and "Absence of Malice," all fine films about fallible human beings reporting the news.

In an era when journalists are routinely reviled by political ideologists, it's easy to forget that, from A. J. Liebling on, they have always been their own severest critics in a calling that usually attracts young people interested in doing good in the world beyond doing well for themselves.

In 1951, I had just started working on newspapers and magazines when "Ace in the Hole" hit me hard with Kirk Douglas' portrayal of a down-and-almost-out reporter who sees a man trapped in a mine as his ticket back to the big time and ends up killing him by exploiting and stretching out his rescue.

Journalists as seducers and betrayers of their sources is a theme that runs through modern culture, from Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" through the recent movies about Truman Capote and the making of "In Cold Blood."

When it appeared in the what-me-worry postwar era, "Ace in the Hole" was a commercial failure and, when released for TV, was given the more palatable title of "The Big Carnival." But it was and is a mordant reminder that there can be people in life-and-death situations behind the collection of words and images we call news.

Fall of the Know-It-Alls

The humiliation of Alan Greenspan last week in publicly admitting his fallible perception of the housing bubble prompts David Brooks to see a larger meaning:

"This meltdown is not just a financial event, but also a cultural one. It’s a big, whopping reminder that the human mind is continually trying to perceive things that aren’t true, and not perceiving them takes enormous effort."

It's also a reminder of what has always been the motivation, aside from greed, of not only the so-called experts but the run-of-the-mill stock market investor--the psychic need to be "in the know," to be able to see more than anyone else and profit from it.

In the era of 24/7 cable financial news, it's not just the talking heads but the watchers who are constantly trying to confirm their superior perception--a modern version of the traditional gambler's search for grace in the roll of the dice or turn of the cards--the need to feel superior to the rest of humanity.

"My sense," Brooks writes, "is that this financial crisis is going to amount to a coming-out party for behavioral economists and others who are bringing sophisticated psychology to the realm of public policy. At least these folks have plausible explanations for why so many people could have been so gigantically wrong about the risks they were taking."

Maybe so, but all that social science may end up just staring at that primal urge that drives human beings to prove themselves special by being "in the know."

Obama's Southern Surge

With a week to go, more than a million ballots have been cast in each of three swing states--Georgia, North Carolina and Florida--foreshadowing a record early turnout across the country.

The Solid South, which, in pre-civil rights days was a segregationist stronghold for Democrats, is showing signs of breaking out of the Republican redoubt it has been ever since.

Polls are showing Obama's lead in Virginia widening, and the Institute for Southern Studies reports that in North Carolina "a perfect storm of factors have come together for Democrats in 2008, including: a widespread sentiment for change, frustration over the tough hit on NC's economy, Obama's ability to mobilize a sizable number of core voters in NC, lack of excitement among religious conservatives for McCain--even same-day voter registration, which tends to boost youth and African-American turnout."

With all this going on below the Mason-Dixon line, next week's voting promises to shake up the electoral map in a way that goes beyond the obvious contest between new voters and old biases.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sarah Palin's Sentimental Side

After Election Day, Alaska may have the Vice President-Elect (or not) and a convicted felon who has just won another term in the Senate (or not), but in any case, they are not likely to be exchanging Christmas cards.

After Ted Stevens was found guilty today, Sarah Palin said it was a sad day for Alaska and promptly threw her former mentor under the bus:

"The verdict shines a light on the corrupting influence of the big oil service company up there in Alaska that was allowed to control too much of our state. And that control was part of the culture of corruption that I was elected to fight, and that fight must always move forward regardless of party affiliation or seniority or even past service."

In stepping over Stevens' still warm body, Palin is overlooking their personal history: that, during her 2006 race for governor, Palin, while calling on Stevens to come clean about his alleged wrongdoing, held a joint news conference with him, before he was indicted, to have it both ways. Stevens reciprocated with a last-minute endorsement and filmed a campaign commercial for her.

Their connection began in 2003 with Palin serving as a director of the ethically iffy "Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.," a 527 group to raise unlimited funds from corporate donors to help Republican women running for office in Alaska.

If the Republicans fail to take the White House next week, this could be a preview of the gratitude and loyalty John McCain can expect from his running mate in the future.

Kafka at the Polls

With only a week to go, Republicans have been busy trying to use computer errors to make voters disappear in swing states such as Georgia, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin.

"What most people don't know is that every year, elections officials strike millions of names from the voter rolls using processes that are secret, prone to error and vulnerable to manipulation," says Wendy Weiser, an elections expert with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

In Georgia, the regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit claiming, "people are being told they are non-citizens, including both naturalized citizens and U.S-born citizens. They're being told they're not eligible to vote, based on information in a database that hasn't been checked and approved by the Department of Justice, and that we know has flaws in it."

In Ohio, the state Republican Party sued to make the Democratic secretary of state generate a list of people who had mismatched information, but Jennifer Brunner refused on the grounds that it might disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. The Supreme Court last week ruled in her favor.

While criticizing ACORN for inaccuracies in registering new voters, Republican elves have been very busy trying to block the existing who might vote the wrong way.

New England's Token Republican

The 4th District of Connecticut, where I live, is represented in the House by the region's only surviving Republican of the Bush years, Chris Shays, and once again the New York Times is endorsing him, noting that his opponent Jim Himes "is an attractive candidate, and we have not always agreed with Mr. Shays on the Iraq war and other issues."

In both 2004 and 2006, the Times endorsed Shays over Diane Farrell, another "attractive candidate," in practically the same words.

As a voter who has conscientiously compared the records and positions of all concerned, I am once again frustrated by the logic of preferring a politician who started out with Newt Gingrich as "my hero," followed Tom DeLay loyally and, against the clear desires of his constituents, supported the war in Iraq consistently over a highly qualified replacement.

If the Times Editorial Board needs another token Republican this year, some other district should take its turn. This time, NIMBY.

The One-Party Rule Scare

In this desperate week of fighting to hold onto Washington power, the GOP will play its last card--to arouse voter fear of what one-party rule would do to the country, of what the "Socialism" of Barack Obama would mean if supported by filibuster-proof majorities that would give Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a free hand.

By implicitly acknowledging the defeat of their White House ticket, Republicans could make the argument in an attempt to save such endangered Senate seats as those of Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Saxby Chambliss in Georgia and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

Since Americans have an innate mistrust of concentrated power, the notion could gain traction for voters with short memories. They would have to forget the past two years of "checks and balances" that prevented extending health care to impoverished children and setting reasonable timetables for withdrawal from Iraq, among other majority desires.

Some might look at the first six years of the Bush Administration with a compliant Congress that produced a disastrous war, a ruined economy and an assault on the Constitution. That was one-party rule with a vengeance, but does that make the case for an impotent divided Washington or for putting the future in the hands of a party that won't abuse its power?

No reasonable person would be willing to trust an Obama Administration and Democratic Congress with unlimited power but, in cleaning up eight years of Bush wreckage, it makes sense to let them start doing the job without their hands tied.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

McCain's Last Stand

As Barack Obama was promising voters "We're not going to let George Bush pass the torch to John McCain," the GOP candidate himself was in, of all places, Waterloo (Iowa), trying to persuade Tom Brokaw and himself that, on the 41st anniversary of being shot down in Vietnam, his campaign for president was not going down in flames now.

As Brokaw fired off poll numbers, quotes about Sarah Palin's shortcomings and McCain's own words about Bush that evoked the answer, "So do we share a common philosophy of the Republican Party? Of course," the old warrior resolutely insisted on his own version of reality, often using air quotes to denote sarcasm about those who say otherwise and consider Obama preferable.

In this hermetically sealed world, the polls are all wrong except for Zogby (which insists on using a model that forces equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats into an outdated mold) and voters will wake up on November 4th and elect the maverick McCain of 2000.

In this Rip Van Winkle universe, McCain on the economy is FDR in the Great Depression and Harry Truman upsetting Tom Dewey in 1948.

Listening to all this must have been an out-of-body experience for Brokaw, who ended the ordeal with valedictory-like "hope this has been a better Sunday than it was 41 years ago," to which McCain responded, "I appreciate your many years of informing the American people. You've come a long way from South Dakota, but you never forgot where you came from."

So today's Meet the Press ended with an exchange of good wishes by two elderly gentlemen, one of whom will ease back into retirement from TV next year and the other into being the titular head of a minority opposition party from his seat in the US Senate.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Generation Gap in the McCain-Palin Split

Attack dogs can get carried away and turn on their handlers, the Republican campaign now seems to be learning, as open warfare breaks out in anonymous diatribes.

McCain advisers, CNN reports, are becoming "increasingly frustrated with what one aide described as Palin 'going rogue'" while her people are complaining about what they feel was "a damaging and mismanaged roll-out."

According to McCain sources, "Palin has gone off-message several times, and they privately wonder whether the incidents were deliberate. They cited an instance in which she labeled robocalls--recorded messages often used to attack a candidate's opponent--'irritating' even as the campaign defended their use. Also, they pointed to her telling reporters she disagreed with the campaign's decision to pull out of Michigan."

McCain aides tell Politico Palin was "simply unready--'green,' sloppy and incomprehensibly willing to criticize McCain for, for instance, not attacking Sen. Barack Obama for his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright."

The rift seems to go beyond the usual friction in a losing campaign. "She is a diva," a McCain adviser complains. "She takes no advice from anyone. She does not have any relationships of trust with any of us, her family or anyone else."

The generation gap in the ticket is fast becoming a chasm, as the McCain people see his last chance fading fast and the Palin supporters start looking for excuses and positioning their candidate for the future. If the ugliness grows, they may all lose their credibility.

Obama's Goodbye to His Grandmother

Ten days from now, he may face the unimaginable--becoming the most powerful person in the world--but visiting his grandmother, Barack Obama was just like the rest of us in middle age and beyond, entering a world where the adults who nurtured us as children are gone.

"I want to give her a kiss and a hug," he said before heading for Hawaii and, in the midst of campaign clamor, his stay was as private as possible, pictures showing him for the first time in two years as a solitary figure.

Those images are a metaphor for the psychic isolation he will soon encounter. No matter how close a family and how loyal a staff a president has, there is an irreducible loneliness in the Oval Office, perhaps best expressed in the classic picture of John F. Kennedy, head bent and silhouetted in darkness during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

When the cheering and shouting of campaign crowds are gone, the President-elect has to start living in a world where he has to be the most grownup of all. It has been hard to remember that during the past eight years, but much of what happens to us from January on depends on it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Palin Channels Pat Nixon

Across a divide of decades, Sarah Palin is openly fueling the class-based resentment that motivated the Nixons in the 1960s but could only be expressed back then in coded terms like "the silent majority."

In her interview with Brian Williams last night, Palin evoked memories of what Pat Nixon let slip publicly only once in 1968 in an interview with Gloria Steinem, whose status as one of "The Beautiful People" triggered a monologue of aggrieved self-pity.

Asked to describe members of the elite she rails against on the campaign trail, Palin answered, "Oh, I guess just people who think that they’re better than anyone else. John McCain and I are so committed to serving every American. Hard-working, middle-class Americans...So anyone who thinks that they are--I guess--better than anyone else, that’s my definition of elitism.

"So it’s not education?" Williams pressed. "It’s not income-based? A state of mind? It’s not geography?"

"Anyone who thinks that they’re better than someone else," Palin repeated firmly.

This echoes what happened when Steinem asked Pat Nixon to define herself and opened a floodgate of resentment that sounded like "a long accusation":

"I never had time," Pat Nixon answered, "to think about things like that--who I wanted to be, or who I admired or to have ideas. I never had time to dream about being anyone else. I had to work. My parents died when I was a teen-ager, and I had to work my way through college. I drove people all the way cross-country so I could get to New York and take training as an X-ray technician so I could work my way through college. I worked in a bank when Dick was in service...

"I don't have time to worry about who I admire or who I identify with. I've never had it easy. I'm not like all you...all those people who had it easy."

Back then, Pat Nixon felt she had to hide those feelings. Now Palin is building a career on expressing them out loud,

A Home Run for Health Care?

Under the oddest byline ever, an unlikely trio tells New York Times OpEd readers today how to fix American health care--by applying the expertise of baseball's number crunchers to medical treatment.

A skeptical reader starts with a bit of resistance based on the track record of the authors: Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's, who finished third out of four teams in their division this year; Newt Gingrich, author of "Contract With America," the failure of which led to an exit from Congress in disgrace; and John Kerry, who couldn't counter the swiftboating that resulted in George W. Bush's reelection in 2004.

How these losers got together, the OpEd editors explaineth not, but the essence of their argument is that computer analysis of treatment will revolutionize the American health care system, which now "behaves like a hidebound, tradition-based ball club that chases after aging sluggers and plays by the old rules: we pay too much and get too little in return.

"To deliver better health care, we should learn from the successful teams that have adopted baseball’s new evidence-based methods. The best way to start improving quality and lowering costs is to study the stats."

Nobody would begrudge more information in any field, including medical treatment, but we may be forgiven for skepticism about the formulations of Gingrich and Beane, two self-promoting reformers without results, and for wondering how staid old John Kerry fell in with this crew.

Meanwhile, health insurers have done enough damage in hampering doctors from using their best judgment and experience by nagging them with cost-benefit analysis, where outcomes are more serious than winning or losing ball games.

Greenspan, Greed and the Blame Game

Congressmen who used to hang on every word and kiss his ring got rough with the former Fed chairman today, as Henry Waxman bullied him to admit his fault for the subprime mortgage crisis ("Were you wrong?") and got a qualified mea culpa ("Partially").

The Greenspan grilling is at the respectable end of the national rage over the collapsing economy, bracketed on the far side of sanity by letters with white powder mailed to banks and regulatory agencies promising "payback time" for stealing people's money.

The rhetoric is different, but the impulse is the same: If the crops fail, find the witches who made it happen and burn them. But that didn't work in colonial times, and it certainly is not the answer to today's far more complex mess.

Greenspan, with his Ayn Randish faith in market greed, is far from innocent in the growth of the monstrous housing bubble, but he had plenty of help from fast-buck financial operators, politicians who resisted regulation and overreaching homeowners who thought prices would never fall.

Even his severest critic, Paul Krugman, has a kind word for him today, "At least he’s admitting that he got something wrong. That’s actually rare these days, especially among the people Greenspan associates with," quoting a memorable line, "For a man who was once remarkably hard to decipher, Alan Greenspan is now as clear as an empty Lehman Brothers office."

The rage will go on, certainly through Election Day, but after it runs its course, the new President and new Congress will have to settle down to making the hard choices that will get the country out of the ditch and persuade the public that doing that is more important than arguing over who drove us into it.

In an editorial today endorsing Barack Obama, the New York Times points the way:

"Mr. McCain offers more of the Republican every-man-for-himself ideology, now lying in shards on Wall Street and in Americans’ bank accounts. Mr. Obama has another vision of government’s role and responsibilities...

"Since the financial crisis, he has correctly identified the abject failure of government regulation that has brought the markets to the brink of collapse.

"The American financial system is the victim of decades of Republican deregulatory and anti-tax policies. Those ideas have been proved wrong at an unfathomable price, but Mr. McCain--a self-proclaimed 'foot soldier in the Reagan revolution'--is still a believer.

"Mr. Obama sees that far-reaching reforms will be needed to protect Americans and American business."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Undecided as Code

Somewhere in the higher-than-usual percentage of undecided voters in the late stages of an almost two-year campaign are those who can't or won't vote for an African-American candidate.

The good news for Barack Obama is that, as his lead in the national polls grows toward double digits, it may, as gamblers say, "cover the spread."

Michelle Obama recently dismissed the Bradley Effect by pointing to the primary vote that gave her husband the nomination, but that overlooks the late surge by Hillary Clinton among white voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Rep. John Murtha, in his usual blunt way, recently pointed out that race matters.

A critical question about such voters may be, How deep does their "indecision" go? Is it virulent enough to make them choose McCain or just skip voting entirely? Since many of them are among those most worried about the sinking economy, the answer may be a test of self-interest against deeply held prejudice.

In any case, on Election Night, we will learn something about how far America has come on the subject of race since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A Walk in the Park, 40 Years Ago

The Obama campaign is planning a huge Election Night victory celebration in Chicago's Grant Park, weather and vote tallies permitting.

Just reading about it makes my eyes water at what happened there 40 years ago.

Tear gas was stinging my face and burning my throat as armed men in masks pushed us deeper into the park. My middle-aged legs were pumping hard across the grass when a teen-aged war protester grabbed my arm and drew me to a water fountain. "Soak your handkerchief," he said, "keep it on your face."

I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August, 1968, but that night I found myself among young people being herded into Grant Park by National Guardsmen and Chicago police.

After the defeat of an anti-war resolution in the hall, another delegate and I had taken a convention bus heading into town. As we stopped for a traffic light in front of the Mayflower Hotel, cops with clubs and soldiers with rifles were pushing kids into the park. We got off the bus, joined the crowd and were immediately separated by a surge of bodies. With the wet handkerchief over my face, I stumbled along until I finally found an exit and a taxi.

Back in my hotel room, eyes still burning, I turned on TV to see what the rest of the country was seeing--American kids being gassed, clubbed and herded into police vans at gunpoint. In the convention hall, looking at the footage, Walter Cronkite was saying in disgust, "It makes us want to pack up our cameras and go home."

If and when an African-American man faces a cheering crowd of young people and old there the night of this November 4th, it may erase that memory once and for all.

The ACORN Non-Issue

Amid all the Republican accusations against ACORN for its drive to register new voters, the simple truth seems to be that hourly workers scammed the non-profit organization by submitting fake names, but there is no evidence whatsoever of fraud by non-existent voters actually going to the polls to cast ballots.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is guilty of sloppiness but no sinister intent to rig the election for former community organizer Barack Obama.

When con artists fill their quotas of new names with the lineup of the Dallas Cowboys, as they did in Las Vegas, raiding the ACORN offices for evidence of voter fraud may seem excessive to everyone but Fox News.

"When we have identified suspicious applications," an ACORN official explains, "we have separated them out and flagged them for election officials. We have zero tolerance for fraudulent registrations. We immediately dismiss employees we suspect of submitting fraudulent registrations.

"Today's raid by the secretary of state's office is a stunt that serves no useful purpose other than discredit our work registering Nevadans and distracting us from the important work ahead of getting every eligible voter to the polls."

The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, according to CNN, "reviewed voter fraud claims across the country and found that most were caused by technical glitches, clerical errors or mistakes made by voters. One other finding: A person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate another voter at the polls."

But desperate Republicans have been hoping to be struck by lightning for some time now.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Six John McCains, But No Sale

The Instant Information Age goes a step further with a retrospective about the failed McCain campaign in the New York Times Magazine next Sunday, nine days before the election and, true to the spirit of déjà vu on steroids, available online four days earlier.

Time-scrambling aside, "The Making (and Remaking) of McCain" offers a compelling inside view of how the man who might have won the presidency against Al Gore in 2000 will lose it by lurching "from tactic to tactic" this year against Barack Obama, the legacy of George W. Bush and the self he lost in the intervening eight years.

Robert Draper's report is based on talks with "a half-dozen of McCain’s senior-most advisers--most of them more than once and some of them repeatedly" as well as "midlevel advisers and to a number of former senior aides" over the past months.

The campaign, in the classic pattern of losing enterprises, burned through six different narratives about their candidate in a desperate search for a winning formula:

*The Heroic Fighter vs. the Quitters (pumping up the tentative gains of the Surge into Victory with Honor)

*Country-First Deal Maker vs. Nonpartisan Pretender (the maverick who fought his own party as opposed to the newcomer who is all rhetoric)

*Leader vs. Celebrity (to counter the success of Obama's triumphant trip to the Middle East and Europe by picturing him as a celebrity akin to Paris Hilton)

*Team of Mavericks vs. Old-Style Washington (the "Hail Mary" choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate rather than Joe Lieberman, whom he really wanted)

* John McCain vs. John McCain (going along with smears of Obama despite his own misgivings so that he "sometimes seemed to be running against not only Barack Obama but an earlier version of himself")

*The Fighter (Again) vs. the Tax-and-Spend Liberal (a "cobbled together one last narrative with less than a month to go").

All these McCains running in so many different directions make for wistful thinking about what might have been if John McCain, in true maverick style, had overridden all his advisors and campaigned as himself.

Exit-Polling the Early Turnout

The tea leaves are showing a pattern that becomes clearer every day in forecasting an Obama-Biden victory:

At least 2.2 million voters have already cast ballots, according to one estimate, pointing to a record early turnout. Of 500,000 in North Carolina, 56 percent were Democrats, 28 percent Republicans, 16 percent unaffiliated.

Among the polling places being swamped by turnout is Fairfax County in northern Virginia, an area pooh-poohed as not "the real Virginia" by McCain advisor Nancy Pfotenhauer, where early voters filled a meeting room and threatened to spill over into the parking lot.

Supporting evidence for the trend comes from the Gallup daily tracking poll, which shows Obama with a growing edge as the economy worsens, and from numbers crunchers at the National Journal, which headlines "In Endgame, Metrics Are Adding Up For Obama" and summarizes:

"As things are going now, this election would appear to be on a track to match Bill Clinton's 1992 5.6 percent margin over President George H.W. Bush, the question is whether it gets to Bush's 1988 7.7 percent win over Michael Dukakis or Clinton's 8.5 percent win over Robert Dole in 1996.

"Maybe some cataclysmic event occurs in the next two weeks that changes the trajectory of this election, but to override these factors, it would have to be very, very big."

Cataclysms and the Bradley Effect aside, with 13 days to go, the picture is coming into focus.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sarah Palin and Princess Grace

The headline asks, "Could Palin Factor Save McCain?" and their story brings back memories of another Cinderella tale--how Grace Kelly came to rescue Prince Rainier of Monaco half a century ago.

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer says of McCain and Palin: "By the time he announced her as his choice, the next day, he had spent less than three hours in her company."

Their whirlwind courtship duplicates how the movie star and the Prince got together over half a century ago and for some of the same reasons.

Monaco, a tiny country surrounding a casino in Monte Carlo, was in as much trouble then as the McCain campaign this summer, until Grace Kelly was briefly introduced to Rainier while shooting "To Catch a Thief" there.

Soon afterward, the Prince visited the Kelly family in Philadelphia and, after being alone with her for only a few hours, asked the movie star to marry him and she accepted.

Rainier's advisor was a priest named Father Tucker, and it turns out that the McCain-Palin union was brokered by a less spiritual team led by William Kristol and Dick Morris. The 21st century counterpart of the movie shoot was a fund-raising cruise of the Weekly Standard to Alaska last summer.

At a lunch in the governor's mansion, Kristol and other Neo-Cons were smitten. A few weeks later, a boatload from the National Review came to call and, after sharing salmon with Palin, had a similar reaction.

Morris, a Clinton confidante who fell out of favor after having a prostitute listen in on his phone calls to the president, wrote in the Washington Post, “I will always remember taking her aside and telling her that she might one day be tapped to be Vice-President, given her record and the shortage of female political talent in the Republican Party."

The rest is history, but Palin's story may turn out to be Princess Grace in reverse. The movie star gave up show business for high office but, after her SNL stint, Palin is being touted for a new career as an entertainer. The voters will help her decide next month.

In Voting, White Men Don't Jump

The final days find male Caucasians in the spotlight as John McCain pushes his white hope, Joe the Plumber and David Brooks focuses on Patio Man.

In a time of unprecedented fear and worry, traditional male breadwinners seem to be the Republicans' best target, but the question arises: Will they make enough difference?

One striking answer can be found in a study of the American electorate over 20 years by the National Journal, which shows:

"Over the past five elections, no Democratic nominee has carried even a plurality of white voters, although Bill Clinton came close in 1992 and 1996 when Ross Perot siphoned a substantial number of them away to his independent candidacy.

"White men have been particularly cool to Democrats. Only once since 1988 has the Republican nominee amassed less than a double-digit lead among white men. (That was in 1992, when Perot reached his high point.) And in both 2000 and 2004, white men provided George W. Bush with crushing margins of about 25 percentage points over his Democratic opponents."

The dominance cuts across class lines with the five most recent Democratic nominees averaging 36.6 percent of the vote among white men with less than a college education (blue-collar workers) and 36 percent among white men with a college education.

For whatever reasons, when it comes to voting for a president, white men don't jump party lines and, in concentrating on them, are John McCain and Sarah Palin wasting their time preaching to a very convinced choir?

Reality Intrudes on the Presidential Race

Judging from tonight's news, Madelyn Dunham may not live long enough to see her grandson inaugurated President of the United States, a cruel irony for the woman Barack Obama says "poured everything she had into me."

As Obama leaves tomorrow to be with his ailing grandmother in Hawaii, mortality suddenly intrudes and, for a moment, reveals the presidential campaign to be a long-running TV reality show with all the fake trimmings.

In his convention acceptance speech, Obama said "when I hear a woman talk about the difficulties of starting her own business, I think about my grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management, despite years of being passed over for promotions because she was a woman.

"She's the one who taught me about hard work. She's the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life. She poured everything she had into me. And although she can no longer travel, I know that she's watching tonight, and that tonight is her night as well."

In the Oval Office, a President makes life-and-death decisions every day and, in time, they become abstractions. In the next two days, Barack Obama will be confronting the reality of pain and loss in the most personal possible way, a final legacy from the woman who wanted him to have a better life.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Colin Powell's Revenge

As political observers parse The Endorsement, the unspoken element is the payback of Colin Powell, no matter how much he denies it, for the humiliation he suffered at the hands of Dick Cheney's gang in being forced to act as UN point man in justifying the invasion of Iraq with cooked intelligence.

Yes, Powell gives Obama credibility as commander-in-chief and a leader who will be able to reach across party lines. No, contrary to Rush Limbaugh et al, the endorsement is not racially based.

But behind Powell's calm, rational demeanor in explaining his decision on Meet the Press yesterday, he would be less than human if his own treatment by the Bush Administration was not involved in his thinking and, more to the point, feeling.

Before Iraq, Powell was the one of the most admired men in America, who might have been nominated for President in 1996 if he agreed to run. Today he is remembered for that February 2003 speech that misled Americans into believing Saddam Hussein had WMDs.

Before making the speech, Powell had spent a week wrestling with the White House staff, discarding what Dick Cheney had called Scooter Libby’s stuff and other “garbage” from the likes of Ahmed Chalabi.

Earlier Cheney had made it clear he and Bush were using Powell’s credibility to sell the war. Poking him in the chest, the Vice President told Powell, "You've got high poll ratings, you can afford to lose a few points."

In the end, Powell made the speech and lost much more--his reputation as a man of honor after a lifetime of public service.

If revenge is a dish best served cold, Powell has put it on the table after five years for those he called the GOP "crazies" to eat at just the right time.

McCain-Palin Cartoon Campaign

Never overburdened with ideas to start, the Republican race has degenerated into a series of loony-tune stereotypes of Barack Obama--as a swarthy Muslim terrorist, a latte-drinking elitist and now, worst of all, a socialist.

"Barack Obama calls it spreading the wealth," Sarah Palin is warning New Mexico voters. "Joe Biden calls higher taxes patriotic. But Joe the plumber and Ed the dairy man, I believe that they think that it sounds more like socialism. Friends, now is no time to experiment with socialism."

It may come as a surprise to Palin that her running mate just voted to nationalize banks, but words have lost all meaning in the final stages of this weird campaign, which calls up the old jokes about accusing an opponent of being "a shameless extrovert" who was known to have engaged in "nepotism" with his sister-in-law, "who was once a thespian" and "even performed the act in front of paying customers" in wicked New York City.

The McCain-Palin people must be mining old issues of Mad Magazine for their linguistic sleight-of-hand, but they are obviously counting on unnerving voters who may have limited vocabularies.

One of their surrogates, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez is equating Obama's tax plan to the policies of Communist Cuba:

"Where I come from, where I was raised, they tried wealth redistribution. We don't need that here. That's called socialism, communism--not Americanism."

Most Americans with a grade-school education would call that demagoguery.

Out of the Mouths of Boobs

Two leaders of the get-paid-to-be-stupid-in-public punditry give us gems today, Pat Buchanan with his pronouncement that Colin Powell is backing Barack Obama because he's black and William Kristol scolding Peggy Noonan for saying that Sarah Palin is symptomatic of "a new vulgarization in American politics.”

Buchanan can't help belaboring the obnoxious obvious, but Kristol reaches new heights of sappiness in attacking Noonan:

"Why do elites like to proclaim premature closure--not just in elections, but also in wars and in social struggles? Because it makes them the imperial arbiters, or at least the perspicacious announcers, of what history is going to bring. This puts the elite prognosticators ahead of the curve, ahead of the simple-minded people who might entertain the delusion that they still have a choice."

Aside from attacking what he does for a living in prose that shows an urgent need for instruction in remedial invective, Kristol is making the case that Joe the Plumber is "the latest ordinary American to do a star turn in our vulgar democratic circus. He seems like a sensible man to me...

"McCain and Palin have had the good sense to embrace him. I join them in taking my stand with Joe the Plumber--in defiance of Horace the Poet."

When Kristol's New York Times gig expires, the editors should seriously consider Joe as his replacement.

Voting Bush Out Without Waiting

Under a patchwork of varying rules, Americans start the process of picking the next president with early voting today.

They are casting ballots in Colorado, Florida, Texas, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho and North Dakota. Hawaii and Louisiana open the polls tomorrow.

In all, 31 allow no-excuse, in-person voting before Election Day, but every state has some form of absentee voting, either by mail or showing up at a county clerk's office or satellite location such as a grocery store, shopping center, school or library. (Requirements in each state can be found here.)

A record-breaking one out of three may be voting early this year, many of them prompted by the Obama campaign to take advantage of the polling tide that is running in his favor.

Those who can't wait to see Bush and Cheney gone are in a position to do something about it now.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama Blitz

If an Obama Administration is anything like the campaign, Americans may have an efficient government again.

Behind the candidate's charisma, a leave-little-to-chance operation has been working hard to put him into the White House--recruiting supporters not only to give money (a record $150 million from 632,000 new donors in September) but travel to swing states and knock on doors, make phone calls, hold debate parties and write personalized post cards to undecided voters.

E-mails, often with videos, arrive by the dozens every week--from both Obamas and Bidens, and campaign managers at every level--to encourage backers to leave no rocks unturned, including those from which the William Ayers robocalls are coming.

"Barack will be the underdog," says a message from Michelle Obama, "until he's in the White House, so keep working, keep talking to your friends and neighbors, and together we can change the world."

"My wife Jill is an extraordinary woman," Joe Biden writes. "Jill's passion has always been education, and even during the campaign she's been teaching class during the week and joining me on the trail on the weekends. But this week, she also found some time to go to campaign headquarters and call voters in crucial battleground states...Can you do the same?"

If Obama doesn't win, it will certainly not be for lack of trying.

The Two Republican Parties

Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama today underscores how clearly and irreparably John McCain has split open the fault line in the GOP.

In going against McCain, whom he has known and admired for two decades, the party's keynote speaker in 2000 and former Bush Secretary of State cited Sarah Palin and the William Ayers tone of the Republican campaign and praised the "inclusive nature" of Obama's as key reasons for his decision.

If, against all odds, McCain wins, traditional Republicans like Powell and those pillars of the GOP before the rise of the Religious Right and Karl Rove's divisive tactics will be all but shut out.

If McCain loses, the struggle for the soul of a battered minority party will be ideologically fierce. The signs are already emerging:

*"In the end," Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, "the Palin candidacy is a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics. It's no good, not for conservatism and not for the country. And yes, it is a mark against John McCain, against his judgment and idealism."

*The son of the National Review's founding father, William F. Buckley, is forced out for supporting Obama. “But to paraphrase Ronald Reagan," Christopher Buckley explains, "I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.”

*Traditional Republican voices, such as those of columnists George Will and David Brooks, have been lamenting the direction of the party and the tone of the campaign.

For decades to come, political analysts will be debating John McCain's decision to move rightward rather than appeal to centrists as the maverick he once was but is now just the basis for an empty slogan.

But win or lose, he will have shaken up the Republican Party for years to come.

Lost Causes on SNL

Sarah Palin, who has yet to Meet the Press or Face the Nation, showed up on Saturday Night Live tonight minutes before Oliver Stone rose from the audience to plug his lost cause, the movie, "W."

The juxtaposition was no more bizarre, or funnier, than Alec Baldwin mistaking Palin for Tina Fey, badmouthing her to her face and, when set straight, ogling the VP candidate and telling her, “You are way hotter in person.”.

There must be something profound to be said about all this confusion of reality and fantasy in today's world, but life hasn't been the same since Richard Nixon appeared on "Laugh-In" endlessly mouthing the show's punch line, "Sock it to me?"

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Obama's Rising River of Ink

The trickle of newspaper endorsements is reaching flood stage this weekend, with the New York Times expected to join other major newspapers in declaring for the Democratic ticket.

So far, Editor & Publisher reports, Obama leads McCain by 58 to 16 in backing from the oldest mainstream medium of all, including the first endorsement of a Democrat by the Chicago Tribune in its 161-year history and the Los Angeles Times' first choice of any candidate since Nixon in 1972.

Their reasons are many and varied, ranging from seeing hope for renewal in Obama to disappointment in McCain, especially his attack ads and selection of a running mate

"Despite his age and previous health problems," says the Kansas City Star, "McCain chose a vice presidential candidate who is so clearly unqualified for high office that the thought of her stepping into the presidency is frightening. That irresponsible decision casts serious doubt on McCain’s judgment."

Many Obama endorsements are coming from papers in small towns, which Gov. Palin has been claiming for the Republicans as more "pro-America" than big cities. Joe Biden has been out disputing that notion, and apparently the editors of country newspapers are agreeing with him.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Wall Street Journal Is Worried

As the McCain campaign concentrates on holding the red states, Rupert Murdoch's house organ for the super-rich sounds the alarm on what could happen if Barack Obama's coattails are long enough to give Democrats filibuster-proof majorities in Congress.

"Though we doubt most Americans realize it," a WSJ editorial warns, "this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in U.S. history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven't since 1965, or 1933. In other words, the election would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s."

A sidebar lists Republican nightmares that passed the House this year but were blocked in the Senate--prescription-drug price controls, renegotiating mortgage contracts in bankruptcy, withdrawal timetables for funding the Iraq war and, horror of horrors, a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

Looking to the future, the Journal is doing a Paul Revere on the possibility of laws to expand health care coverage that could lead to a single-taxpayer system and a "tax-and-regulation scheme in the name of climate change."

To a liberal who was alive when FDR created such support systems as Social Security and FDIC insurance for bank accounts, going back to the 1930s and 1960s, when LBJ finally gave the vote to African-Americans, is nowhere near as scary as continuing the Bush debacle that is decimating our economy today.

But then again, the editors of the Wall Street Journal are so much more sophisticated about such matters, particularly with the Australian-billionaire sensibility they recently acquired.

N-O to W.

Oliver Stone came back from Vietnam, he has said, "very mixed up, very alienated, very paranoid," and, for a quarter of a century, has been creating movies to make us all that way.

As George W. Bush ends his eight-year effort to do the same, the last thing we need is a Stone biopic to "explain" how and why he did it. Thanks, but no thanks.

With his "JFK," Stone managed to muddle the truth about Kennedy's assassination for several generations of Americans. Now, judging from reviews, he is wedging Bush into his one-size-fits-all autobiographical theme of a wastrel son with a hard-hearted father.

It will take a long time to recover from what George W. Bush did to the American psyche, but the worst place to start understanding it all is with an Oliver Stone hyped-up Dr. Phil's-eye view of it all.

Stone is reportedly working on a remake of the worst movie ever made, Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead," a project that seems much more suited to his talents.

No Joe, No Plumber, But Racist?

John McCain's new best friend is not a plumber, his name isn't Joe, he's a tax deadbeat and, to make the symbolism perfect, talks about Barack Obama in racial terms.

No more carefully vetted by the McCain campaign than Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber in his wall-to-wall TV debut turns out to be Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, who has never had a plumber's license, and is no danger of having to pay more taxes, as he suggested to Obama, by making $250,000 a year, even after he pays off the lien for failing to pay what he owes Ohio from past earnings.

In an interview with Katie Couric, Wurzelbacher said his encounter with Obama was prompted by the desire “to ask one of these guys a question, and really corner them and get them to answer a question for once instead of tap dancing around it. And unfortunately I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance.”

Obama, he added "was almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.”

If he maintains this level of discourse, Wurzelbacher could end up on the campaign trail palling around with Sarah Palin.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

News You Need Kleenex For

It took a heart of stone to watch PBS' News Hour last night without breaking into tears over America in ruins-- a collapsing economy with no end in sight, the falling-apart of charity and culture in Seattle, poor people without medical care in New Mexico and, to cap it off, a critique of how helpless the presidential candidates are to do anything meaningful about it.

How did we get to be living in Haiti? Political explanations are not enough. As careless and clueless as Washington leaders may be, there has to be more involved here--some moral failure by all of us to feel and act responsibly in this new century of the national id run wild.

Tonight, the cable pundits will be back knowingly huffing and puffing from their perches of moral superiority, but self-congratulation is a bizarre response to our condition.

As a wise man once said, we may be too old to cry but it hurts too much to laugh.

Obama-Ate-My-Lunch Syndrome

Hillary and Bill Clinton are still recovering from their severe case of it last spring, but John McCain is nearing critical condition from a new virus that attacks candidates in the prime of their political lives and suddenly lays them low--the Obama-Ate-My-Lunch Syndrome.

The symptoms are elevated temperatures of rage and disappointment that strike the victim's sense of entitlement to occupy the White House after being struck down by a sudden fever for someone new.

At last night's debate, the effects could be seen in McCain's agitation and contorted facial expressions as he distractedly mumbled about his long record while writhing in pain over an apparent inability to be heard.

Researchers are finding some correlation with the symptoms of Tourette's Syndrome, which causes outbursts of hostile language, notably in the case of Bill Clinton during its primary stage and more recently evident in McCain's affliction.

There is no medical cure in sight, but doctors are prescribing long periods of rest and abstinence from political exertion.

No Mo-Joe for McCain

After giving up Joe Lieberman as a running mate in favor of Mrs. Joe Sixpack, John McCain brought out Joe the Plumber for tonight's debate--to no avail. The networks' instant polling shows a third straight loss for the Republican's attempt to sell himself as the champion of the average Joe.

The candidates squared off after a day of dismal economic news--another stock-market plunge, retail sales down, factory orders at historic lows--and the best John McCain could do was jibe that, if Obama wanted to run against the Bush Administration, he should have done so four years ago.

But voters apparently aren't buying McCain's attempt to run away from the Bush-Cheney debacle that has left them distressed about their homes, their jobs, their retirement funds and savings for their kids' college educations.

McCain, who had promised to kick Obama's posterior, ended up flat on his own after another encounter in which his opponent looked presidential, often smiling at attacks, while McCain seemed barely able to control his anger and frustration with odd grimaces.

(Adam Nagourney of the New York Times notes, "The split-screen visual contrast between the two men--McCain often appearing coiled and annoyed, Mr. Obama seeming at ease and smiling--was striking.")

Obama did what he had to do, including sidestepping Bob Schieffer's question about whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president, while McCain retroactively discovered that Joe Biden was wrong on several issues during their decades together in the Senate.

In his final statement, Obama summed up the campaign:

"I think we all know America is going through tough times right now. The policies of the last eight years and--and Washington's unwillingness to tackle the tough problems for decades has left us in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

"And that's why the biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed policies and the same failed politics that we've seen over the last eight years and somehow expect a different result.

"We need fundamental change in this country, and that's what I'd like to bring."

What Americans are facing will be longer and harder than Obama can admit or prescribe fixes for during a presidential campaign, but it's looking very much as if the average Joes are going to give him the chance to try.

Now that the debates are over, voters will wonder if they served any purpose. Let's leave the last word on that to tonight's moderator, who writes in his new book, "Bob Schieffer's America," that presidential debates are a 20th century invention and that "with the turn that modern campaigns have taken, maybe there is some merit in the nineteenth-century idea of just having the candidates stay home."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Reluctant, Respectful VP

By dominating media coverage, Sarah Palin is giving Joe Biden a pass to do what he does best, talk straight to voters without the glare of bright lights and pushy reporters.

In the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reports on conversations with Barack Obama in which Biden hesitated about being on the ticket, weighing the job against remaining as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or becoming Secretary of State. No Palinesque "you betcha" instant answer to running for VP.

"If you’re asking me to help you get elected," Biden says he told Obama, "I can do that other ways, but I don’t want to be a Vice-President who is not part of the major decisions you make."

In the campaign now, Biden is helping most by providing a contrast to his strident, superficial counterpart, as he did in their debate, and rallying working-class voters in key states without making headlines or gaffes.

Looking ahead, Biden sees himself as helping Obama reach across party lines to help heal the divisions of the Bush-Cheney years.

“The reason I’ve been relatively successful," he told Lizza, "is that I have never questioned the motive of other senators, and that’s instinctively Barack. Barack doesn’t start off, ‘Well, you disagree, you must be a, you know, an S.O.B. or you must not care about the poor or you’re sexist or you’re racist or you’re a whatever.’ He doesn’t think that way.”

If and when they are sworn in next January, Obama and Biden will be able to put that respectful approach to good use.

What Obama Has to Do Tonight

In the words of E.M. Forster, only connect. He has spent two years inspiring and dazzling crowds with eloquence, maintaining his rational calm in debates, acting presidential under fire. For tonight's debate, Barack Obama needs a little less JFK, a bit more Oprah.

What may be missing for some undecided voters is a visceral connection to their lives, especially in today's distress, the absence of which has allowed Republicans to stereotype as elitist and detached the man who grew up with a mother on food stamps opposing a privileged son of the military upper crust.

His cerebral, scholarly attitude is central to Obama and, consciously or not, he may feel impelled to separate himself from the emotionalism of the civil rights era. But in his own style, he needs to project some of Bill Clinton's "I feel your pain" empathy to win over voters being besieged by attacks about how "different" he is.

In Joe Klein's "Primary Colors," there is a scene in which the Clinton character and his cronies indulge in a maudlin "mamathon" about the virtues of their mothers. As dogged by scandal in 1992 as Obama is now by attacks about class and race, Clinton managed to reach through the TV screen and touch voters in a time when they needed emotional connection much less than they do now.

Perhaps Obama could use a pep talk from his most vocal supporter, Oprah, on how to pass on to Americans a measure of the warmth and compassion that brought her from the depths of poverty to the pinnacle of wealth and power.

With everything else going his way in the final days of the campaign, that might be the last piece of the puzzle to give undecided voters a picture of him in the White House.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Sexiness of Smarts

She is as famous for movies she turned down as those she made and now, after years of retreat into real life, Debra Winger at 53 is back as a reminder that nothing is more erotic than beauty and brains.

Her disappearance inspired a documentary, "Searching for Debra Winger," in which middle-aged Hollywood women pour out their unhappiness over losing stardom that came to them for their stunning looks.

But there is another quality in Winger rarely seen in those "look at me, love me, worship me" beauties--an always-working mind and undisguised vulnerability that drew watchers into her world, in "Terms of Endearment," "Urban Cowboy" and "Officer and a Gentleman."

Even in lesser efforts like the dopey "Legal Eagles" and chilling "Black Widow," there was a kind of offhand sensuality that makes re-viewing a pleasure.

Only in "Shadowlands" with Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis did we get an idea of what Winger could do in high-powered drama, holding her own with a troupe of British elite actors.

Biography offers clues to her Hollywood reputation as difficult and "too smart for her own good." Graduating from high school at 15 and dropping out of community college, she had a near-fatal accident that left her temporarily blind and paralyzed. When she recovered from what she describes as "eating a mortality sandwich," she decided to put that awareness into being an actress.

Now, after three Oscar nominations and retirement to a farmhouse, raising a family and writing a philosophical book, Winger is back in "Rachel Getting Married," playing the mother of a troubled young woman.

Watching her will still be a pleasure.

Big Government Bugaboo

George W. Bush is leaving conservatives with their worst nightmare, an economic disaster that will, in David Brooks' words, bring on a "Gingrich revolution in reverse and on steroids...a big increase in spending and deficits...The over-reach is coming."

In a moment when government held hostage by Bush-Cheney has brought on economic disasters that are forcing socialization of banks and a foreign policy that is dumping $10 billion a month into an avoidable war, Brooks' worries that Democrats may spend money to save the economy are, to put it kindly, overwrought.

The "Gingrich revolution" served only to bring government to a standstill by holding budgets hostage and pushing the impeachment of Bill Clinton at a time when the US was running surpluses, only to be followed by an all-Republican regime that went on a monstrous binge of deficit spending.

The overriding issue is not big vs. little government but smart vs. dumb, government with some heart vs. a Scrooge-like counting house, government that will spend its way out of recession on bridges that don't fall down, decent education and health care for kids rather than bridges to nowhere and the wrong wars.

As Bush and Paulson undertake their socialist intervention in the banking system they failed to regulate, that kind of big government may appeal to most voters.

Race Race: The Final Lap

As his campaign dances at the edge of the subject, John McCain shies away but it is the Obama campaign that is confronting the racial issue directly.

After John Lewis' blunderbuss approach backfired last weekend, it is AFL-CIO leaders who are encouraging "blunt face-to-face encounter(s) to deal with those who say they can't support the Democratic presidential nominee because of the color of his skin."

In Ohio, the president of a government workers' union tells a rally: "(I)t comes out like this: 'I can't vote for him because he is a black man. He's not one of us.' Well, sisters and brothers, when you hear that, you know what you ought to say? This is what I say: 'That is bullshit! That is total, absolute bullshit!'"

The AFL-CIO campaign will make 70 million phone calls to union households in key presidential and congressional battlegrounds and mail 25 million pieces to rebut rumors that Obama isn't a Christian, wasn't born in the United States or was sworn into the Senate with his hand on a Quran. (Mailings show Obama being sworn by Dick Cheney, his hand on a Bible.)

Meanwhile, McCain dithers about race, joining in the William Ayers attacks but dodging questions about hitting Obama with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as less fastidious conservatives like Tucker Carlson are urging him to do.

At tomorrow night's debate, the subject is sure to come up and both candidates will have a chance to drag it out into the open once and for all.

The Financial 9/11

Yesterday's stock-market surge is at least a temporary all-clear for millions of Americans to emerge from the shock and awe that has devastated their financial lives. As they look around at the rubble of savings, 401ks and home values, what are they thinking and feeling?

Across the country, there are reports of victims. "In some places," CNN reports, "mental-health hot lines are jammed, counseling services are in high demand and domestic-violence shelters are full."

In this disordered emotional climate, the wounded will be asked to decide on whom to trust to heal the national economy. Barack Obama and John McCain are offering band-aids, George W. Bush is dispensing bromides, but there is no national figure to "feel their pain."

In tomorrow night's debate, the presidential candidates will be under great pressure to posture as economic saviors in a situation ripe for demagoguery. McCain will no doubt promise to fight our way out and Obama to think through the disaster, but what voters will be searching for, more than ever, is empathy and trust.

The financial rescue farce of the past two weeks has made politicians of all stripes look foolish and impotent. Congress wasted valuable time arguing over Hank Paulson's now-abandoned plan to buy bad mortgages, then loaded the bill with pork and, only incidentally, added provisions that now are seen as the best answer to the crisis--putting money into banks and taking equity positions in return.

How much of the market panic could have been avoided if American politicians had acted with the ultimate good sense of Gordon Brown and the British, who have led the way out of the mess, at least temporarily?

There is no time now for postmortems, but McCain and Obama would do well this week to offer, not nostrums, but convincing evidence that they will rely on the best experience and judgment when the next disaster strikes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

McCain's Last Move

"It’s time for John McCain to fire his campaign," William Kristol decrees in today's New York Times. "He has nothing to lose. His campaign is totally overmatched by Obama’s."

Whatever the Times is paying Kristol, it's too much. Pundits are supposed to see what's ahead, not in the rear-view mirror.

McCain is scheduled to make a "turnaround" speech today, an oratorical "Hail Mary" pass to turned-off voters.

But, in the spirit of bipartisanship so desperately needed these days, herewith a rerun of the acceptance speech McCain should have made at the Republican convention and can still adapt before the final debate this week:

Minneapolis, Sept 4, 2008--In a Capraesque moment for the 21st century, John Sidney McCain III told a stunned Republican Convention tonight:

"I accept your nomination for president of the United States but, in all good conscience, must reject the tactics that are being used to win that office for myself and my party."

To the bewildered, buzzing audience, McCain declared, "I take my text tonight from a source familiar to us all but too easily forgotten in the heat of political battle: 'For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?'

"My friends, I have tried to serve my country all my life with honor, and I will not trade that accomplishment for any office, no matter how exalted.

"In the past months, I have given in to the temptation to allow people who speak for me to paint my opponent as dishonest, deceitful and untrustworthy. From my own experience as his Senate colleague, I know that is simply not true.

"From this moment, all that will stop. In my heart, I believe I am better qualified to lead this country, and I will make my case to anyone who will listen. But I will not be part of a process that demeans others for my own advantage and damages the civilized American dialogue that has been the glory of our democracy for more than two centuries."

Sources close to McCain reveal that, prior to delivering his acceptance speech, the text of which was not made available in advance, the Republican candidate had dismissed all members of his staff associated with Karl Rove and the Bush campaigns of 2000 and 2004.

In what is being called "Operation Straight Talk Redux," the Senator has taped talking-head commercials outlining his positions on the economy, energy, health care and other issues, ending with the statement, "I'm John McCain, and you can bet your bottom dollar I approve this message."

Reaction from Republican convention goers has been mixed. "Even it works for him," said one Congressional candidate who declined to be identified, "there goes eight years of everything the rest of us got from following the Rove playbook."

Seasoned political observers are divided over whether the new McCain can win over enough Independents and disaffected Democrats to make up for expected losses among Conservative Republicans.

"In the long run," says one pollster, "honesty is the best policy. Except when it isn't."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Why Obama Needs a Mandate

To restore America in a time of economic crisis and partisan hatred, a hairline victory will not be enough. True, George W. Bush turned a deficit of popular votes and a 5-4 Supreme Court decision into a mandate to start the wrong war and try to dismantle the Constitution, but that won't be enough for the first African-American president.

Democrats need an all-out effort in the final three weeks, and it's encouraging to see both Clintons out on the campaign trail with Joe Biden in Pennsylvania yesterday, with the almost-candidate back in fighting form.

"Sending the Republicans to solve this economic crisis," Hillary Clinton told voters, "is like sending the bull to clean up the china closet. They broke it and we're not buying it anymore. Barack Obama and Joe Biden...will lead us out of this economic crisis."

Biden was in cheerleading mode: "I have never seen as many Americans knocked down as I have in the last past eight years. It's time to get up. So get up Pennsylvania, get up Scranton, get up deliver and this election for Barack Obama."

Former Reagan political adviser Ed Rollins is comparing the political landscape to that of 1980, when angry voters rejected Democrats and turned to Reagan "in droves" once they felt comfortable with the idea of him as president.

"Barack has met the threshold," Rollins says. "Once Reagan met the threshold, people wanted to get rid of Carter and they did in a landslide. This is going to turn into a landslide."

The polls don't show that, and there is always the X Factor of unspoken racism--the Bradley effect--that could keep the election close, but Barack Obama needs what FDR got in 1932 to lead a solidly Democratic Congress to get the country out of Iraq and onto the road of economic reform.

America does not need the chaos of a close election.

A Prized Selection

Barack Obama was endorsed today in an especially cogent editorial by the newspaper that is a monument to Joseph Pulitzer, who funded the prizes for excellence in American culture and established the Columbia School of Journalism.

Obama, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch declares, "is right on the issues. He was right on the war in Iraq. He is right that all Americans deserve access to health care and right in his pragmatic approach to meeting that goal. He is right on tax policy, infrastructure investment, energy policy and environmental issues. He is right on American ideals.

"He was right when he said in his remarkable speech in March in Philadelphia that 'In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand: that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.'”

Noting that they had backed John McCain in the Republican primaries, the Post-Dispatch editors conclude that then McCain "became the incredible shrinking man. He shrank from his principled stands in favor of a humane immigration policy. He shrank from his universal condemnation of torture and his condemnation of the politics of smear.

"He even shrank from his own campaign slogan, 'Country First,' by selecting the least qualified running mate since the Swedenborgian shipbuilder Arthur Sewall ran as William Jennings Bryan’s No. 2 in 1896."

Going beyond the red herrings about Obama's character and inexperience being hawked by the McCain campaign, the editorial notes, "A presidency is defined less by what happens in the Oval Office than by what is done by the more than 3,000 men and women the president appoints to government office. Only 600 of them are subject to Senate approval. The rest serve at the pleasure of the president.

"We have little doubt that Mr. Obama’s appointees would bring a level of competence, compassion and intellectual achievement to the executive branch that hasn’t been seen since the New Frontier. He has energized a new generation of Americans who would put the concept of service back in 'public service.'”

All of this leads back to the credo of the founding father, Joseph Pulitzer, who promised that the paper "will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."

Pulitzer would undoubtedly have approved of today's choice.

Second Generation in Space

Leaving behind all the grim news on earth, Richard Garriott is on his way to outer space today, the first man to follow his father into orbit, a happy reminder that mankind has made progress in some fields over the past half-century.

Garriott, a 47-year-old computer game entrepreneur, departed this morning on a Soyuz spacecraft with two Americans and a Russian from Kazakhstan en route to the international space station for 10 days of conducting experiments and photographing Earth to measure changes since his father took pictures from the US Skylab in 1973.

Watching his son go into orbit, Owen Garriott was "elated" to see him in the company of cosmonaut Segei Volkov, whose father also traveled to space.

As American and Russian politicians on earth keep bickering over Georgia and nuclear missile defenses, it's heartening to see a couple of their compatriots rising above it all.

Happy landings, comrades.