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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bringing Afghanistan Home

The pre-game coverage of the President's speech at West Point tomorrow night is on track as White House spinners emphasize that he will "give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down.”

Translated, this means that a 48-year-old man named Barack Obama will tell Americans how and why he is sending some 30,000 men and women, most of them younger than he is, to a place thousands of miles from home where they will kill people they don't know and where unknown others will be trying to kill them.

A gifted orator, the President will try to explain what lies behind the polysyllables of "deployment," "security" and "multinational strategy" and show that what some are calling "Obama's Surge" is part of "a necessary war" on behalf of us all.

He won't succeed. How could he? How could anyone? Except for those who are lost in some ideological wasteland, the President will be talking to and about thousands of sovereign souls, each humanly connected to many others, who will never be the same again after he says those words and signs orders to carry them out.

Before the Obama address, we should hear a voice that speaks for them as does Erik Malmstrom, a 29-year-old graduate student who went to Afghanistan three years ago after volunteering for service in 2002 "out of a sense of civic duty," "attracted to the challenge of serving in wartime and leading men in combat."

He came back after surviving roadside bomb attacks, ambushes and confusing fire fights that led to the sudden and inexplicable deaths of comrades in arms. After returning, he crisscrossed the country visiting the families of the fallen to deliver memorial plaques signed by survivors, stand at gravesides, leaf through albums of childhood photos and watch lighthearted home movies.

"I spent much of the time sobbing uncontrollably," Erik Malmstrom recalls and now he says, "I am overridden with conflicting emotions. I am indescribably proud of my service, but can never feel good about it. I did the best I could with an impossible situation, but left behind what has become one of the most violent and unstable valleys in Afghanistan.

"I am thankful for my friendships with the families of my fallen soldiers, but wish that it didn’t take tragedy to bring us together. Coping has not become any easier. My experience changed me forever in ways that I am still trying to understand."

Tomorrow will undoubtedly bring responses to the President from politicians his age and older. The voices we should be hearing are those of Erik Malmstrom and others like him.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fingers-in-the-Dikes Presidency

Nobody seems to be blinking as the world economy bursts another seam, in Dubai this time, accentuating again how much Barack Obama's tenure in the White House has been like a montage of the little Dutch boy racing from dike to dike trying to hold off disasters--on Wall Street and Main Street, in Detroit, Afghanistan, the ozone layer, wherever.

Watery images are on Peggy Noonan's mind as she observes that the President is now "leaking support" in "two core constituencies, Washington's Democratic-journalistic establishment, and what might still be called the foreign-policy establishment."

But Noonan may be missing the point. Obama I is looking more and more like the Year of the Flood, with a President trying to hold back rising tides on all fronts in the kind of world not ideally suited to his political style as a transformational leader on big issues rather than a first responder to one emergency after another.

But the President has been scrambling for quick fixes, and some observers are declaring partial successes, as Jacob Weisberg does in Slate, crediting him with the best first year since FDR and citing "mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—-combined with the bank bailout package—-prevented an economic depression."

Be that as it may, next month Obama's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize will remind us that the fabled boy with his finger in the dike was Hans Brinker, who also competed for the Silver Skates and, through his good works, went on to become a successful healer.

Then again, for skeptics, there is another way to go, by joining the editor of Newsweek in urging Dick Cheney to run against Obama in 2012. As the waters keep rising, the former Veep could go back to doing what he did so well for eight years, shrugging and denying it all.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bush's War Crimes Trial

What is as close as we're going to get to a calling-to-account for the former Decider and his puppet Tony Blair for thousands of deaths in Iraq is unfolding, largely out of American media sight, before a panel of British nobles.

The Chilcot inquiry is hearing from such witnesses as the then-Ambassador to the UN that he threatened to quit in the runup to the Iraq invasion over bulldozing from the Bush-Cheney White House.

“The UK’s attempt to reconstitute a consensus," says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, "had only a slim prospect of success, made slimmer by the recognition by anyone else following events closely that the United States was not proactively supportive of the UK’s efforts and seemed to be preparing for conflict whatever the UK decided to do."

The ambassador's testimony follows that of British intelligence officials that right after 9/11 in 2001 they were asked to draw up an Iraq "options" paper, including regime change.

"We dismissed it at the time because it had no basis in law," says the then-head of the Middle East department at the Foreign Office, noting that ""there was no increased appetite among UK ministers for military action in Iraq."

A former policy director at the Ministry of Defence adds that, in those days, the issue of regime change in Iraq was like "the dog that did not bark. It grizzled, but it did not bark."

But Bush's Neo-Con dogs of war, "hell bent" on the invasion, were barking loud enough to be heard on both sides of the Atlantic, and their call for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his non-existent WMDs was drowning out all dissenters.

The Chilcot hearings are big news in Britain but back here, what with Thanksgiving and the White House gate-crashers, the could-have-been-avoided deaths of more than 4000 Americans in Iraq may seem like yesterday's news.

George W. Bush is only figuratively in the dock, but a British investigator who campaigned for the inquiry calls it "a final opportunity to scrutinize the war...our last chance to get to the truth."

As we prepare to do more killing and dying in Afghanistan, it may be a truth we should be looking at very closely.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hug a Terrorist for the Holidays

That photo of the Vice-President with his arms around a couple of grinning White House gate-crashers last night will do nicely as a symbol for Americans as they count their blessings, real and imagined, on this day.

While so many are getting their meals at homeless shelters, the headlines are devoted to the reality-show aspirants who breached the most secure location in the nation, decked out in finery and hair-styling that could have paid for hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners.

Economic absurdity aside, how are we to take the President's speech next week telling how much more American blood and treasure will be spent in Afghanistan to guarantee our domestic safety when two unauthorized strangers can walk into his own house undeterred and have Joe Biden give them a hug?

Loathsome as they are, Tareq and Michaele Salahi may have done Americans a favor by dramatizing in tabloid terms just how illusory the idea of homeland security may be in an age when there are not enough eyes to watch every rathole in every location, high and low.

If the terrorists show up in evening wear next time, who will stop them?

Update: The uninvited guests were allowed to enter, says a Secret Service spokesman, because "our procedure wasn't followed" at one security checkpoint, an explanation that rivals the explanation of Gen. Buck Turgidson in the movie, "Dr. Strangelove," about the failure to stop American and Soviet bombers heading for a doomsday confrontation, "I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir."

If the Salahis had been terrorists carrying vials of anthrax, the Secret Service might today be setting up new checkpoints to protect President Nancy Pelosi or Robert Byrd from the next wave of "Desperate Housewives" wannabes.

Best Leftover Turkey Recipe Ever

From years of editing women's magazines and tasting test-kitchen results thereof, herewith a way with leftover turkey that will keep you from cursing the oversized bird you bought.

TURKEY TETRAZZINI

Ingredients: 3/4 cup butter or margarine, 3/4 cup flour, salt, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 quart milk, 2 cups undiluted chicken broth, 4 egg yolks, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup sherry, 1 pound thin spaghetti, 6 cups leftover turkey cut into cubes, 1 cup fresh or canned sliced mushrooms, 8 oz sharp Cheddar grated (2 cups).

Sauce: Melt butter in large pan, remove from heat. Stir in flour, nutmeg and salt until smooth. Gradually add milk and broth, stirring constantly. Boil 2 minutes until slightly thick.

In small bowl, beat egg yolks and cream. Beat in a little of the sauce, pour back into pan over low heat, stirring until hot but not to a boil. Stir in sherry.

Boil spaghetti, drain and return to kettle. Add 2 cups sauce and toss together. Divide in half and put into two 12-by-8-by-2 baking dishes, push back toward edges. Add 2 cups sauce to turkey and mushrooms, mix well and spoon half into center of each dish.

Sprinkle grated cheese, cover with foil and refrigerate 1 hour or even overnight. Preheat oven to 350F and bake, covered, 45 minutes. Spoon reheated leftover sauce over each serving. You can refreeze and have leftover leftovers.

Somewhat calorific, but then again, so are the bread and mayonnaise for turkey sandwiches, which won't taste nearly this good.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama: War and Peace

Next week Barack Obama will announce he is sending tens of thousands more troops to fight in Afghanistan as he prepares ten days later to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.

This juxtaposition raises questions about the "new climate in international politics" for which the Nobel Committee has cited him, observing, "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts."

But such instruments will not work against those committed to fight a Holy War to the death, and the President now says he "will finish the job" of what he deems "a necessary war" with some yet-to-be-disclosed combination of diplomatic and civilian efforts as well as military force.

When he tells the American people exactly how next Tuesday night, he will be facing a public that is deeply divided about the war. No matter how skillfully Barack Obama explains his decision, an older generation will be thinking of Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.

Bill Moyers, who worked in the White House back then, speaks for all of us:

"(O)nce again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.

"Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

"And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.

"And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.

"We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes."

LBJ never won a Nobel Peace Prize and left office a broken man. In a new century, Barack Obama can learn much from his fate and write a different ending to the story.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trade Health Care for More Stimulus?

The weekend "victory" in the Senate has Pyrrhic written all over it as 2000 pages of proposed legislation is on its way to being held hostage by the likes of Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson et al. What we have now is an abortion of a bill that will only get worse as the back-alley bargaining goes on.

Here's a radical idea for the President of Change: Take most of it off the table until after next year's elections and put your full weight behind another stimulus that would speed up economic recovery, create jobs and shove it down the throats of Republicans who are using the incoherence of health care reform to confuse Americans who are terrified about the economy.

"Most economists I talk to," Paul Krugman writes today, "believe that the big risk to recovery comes from the inadequacy of government efforts: the stimulus was too small, and it will fade out next year, while high unemployment is undermining both consumer and business confidence.

"Now, it’s politically difficult for the Obama administration to enact a full-scale second stimulus. Still, he should be trying to push through as much aid to the economy as possible. And remember, Mr. Obama has the bully pulpit; it’s his job to persuade America to do what needs to be done."

It would take political guts for the President, after all his talk about the urgency of health care reform, to take most of it off the table temporarily and put the effort and money into turning the economy around.

Settle for passing the noncontroversial elements now--i.e., no cutoffs for preexisting conditions--and move on to a full-scale assault on what is really worrying Americans.

Democrats who have to face the voters in less than a year should be able to unite and help him get something meaningful done.

Update: Joe Lieberman, dubbed by Joe Klein, "the Senator from Aetna," is digging in on the public option, in what the Wall Street Journal calls his "trademark sonorous baritone" but others would call a weasely whine, promising to filibuster against the public option. Harry Reid may buy him off before the final vote, but it's saddening to see a pivotal role being played by someone rejected by his own party's voters in the last election. Is this the way to get health care reform?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saving JFK

The day is here again, November 22nd. It's been 46 years now and, for those well over that age, no less painful with the passage of time.

His death was the first of a president in our living rooms--the motorcade, the rifle shots, the disarray in Dallas, the dazed swearing-in of his successor that night, the on-camera murder of the assassin two days later and then the funeral with our eyes and hearts transfixed by the beautiful young widow and two small children.

We are so inured now to TV wakes with old news clips and talking heads that it's hard to imagine how hard and how deeply John F. Kennedy's assassination struck a nation that had been moved by his youth, wit and optimism, all gone in an eyeblink and shown over and over again in slow motion.

The pain went so deep that, as a magazine editor, I published an article by a psychiatrist telling how he and his patients talked of practically nothing else in the days and weeks that followed, how JFK's death had taken over their psyches and became entangled with their inner lives.

For months after that Friday, I would awake from sweat dreams of the motorcade, book depository, silent screams, slow-motion lunges at a relentless assassin, saving JFK at the last moment.

Such rescue fantasies came naturally to generations marked by the central image of "Catcher in the Rye": children "standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them."

Holden Caulfield couldn't save JFK, and neither could we, but every November 22nd, those dreams come back to haunt us.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Weirdest Washington Game

After ten months in office, Barack Obama must feel he has been in a long surreal tennis match with nobody on the other side of the net.

In the stands is a chorus of Republicans yelling "Out!" at everything he serves, while jeering that he is moving too fast on the economy and too slowly on Afghanistan.

On the other side, Democrats are weakly cheering him on but spending much of their energy fighting one another to position themselves for their own contests next year.

What does the scoreboard show? Economists are giving the President some points, tentatively concluding that "with roughly a quarter of the stimulus money out the door after nine months, the accumulation of hard data and real-life experience has allowed more dispassionate analysts to reach a consensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working."

On the Wall Street bailout, resident New York Times pundits score him both ways. Paul Krugman concludes "government officials made no serious attempt to extract concessions from bankers, even though these bankers received huge benefits from the rescue. And more than money was lost. By making what was in effect a multibillion-dollar gift to Wall Street, policy makers undermined their own credibility--and put the broader economy at risk."

The same day, David Brooks disagrees, saying "the evidence of the past eight months suggests that [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed."

With all this confused cheering and jeering, it should be no surprise that the public is losing heart with the Gallup Poll showing the President's approval ratings slipping below 50 percent for the first time.

But there is some optimism in the air. Peggy Noonan observes that "the mood of this Thanksgiving looks to be different. An unofficial poll of a dozen friends yields two themes: 'We're still here,' and 'I am so grateful.'"

Meanwhile, the President is back from Asia and still swatting away at the nation's problems, hoping someone will join him for a better game.

Sexual Politics of Health Care

As Harry Reid pressures holiday-homebound Democrats to vote for a start of the Senate health care debate, Republican resisters have found a new weapon to use against the bill--a sudden deep concern about how it might threaten women's bodies.

Seizing on a quasi-government task force's report this week recommending that annual mammograms start at 50 rather than 40, the GOP has gone into full outrage mode.

"This is how rationing begins," warns Rep. Marsha Blackburn. "This is the little toe in the edge of the water. This is when you start getting a bureaucrat between you and your physician."

Never mind that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius immediately made it clear that the US Preventive Services Task Force “is an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations” and who neither “set federal policy” nor “determine what services are covered by the federal government.”

“The task force has presented some new evidence for consideration,” she noted, “but our policies remain unchanged. Indeed, I would be very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage decisions as a result of this action.”

In fact, the recommendation has provided a starting point, as it was intended to do, for debate of the issue, rather than a mandate, and has met heavy resistance from physicians and patients as well as the American Cancer Society.

But the Republican opposition is doing its thing again. Just as it converted voluntary end-of-life discussions into death panels, the know-nothings are trying to turn a scientific finding into a mandate to frighten American women.

The GOP elephant these days is looking more and more like the three monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil but speak it at every possible turn.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oprah's Kissoff

Now that she has smooched you-know-who this week, the talented Ms. Winfrey is ready to end the talk show that made her a billionaire and start the next phase of her life as a media mogul with a cable channel aptly named OWN.

Like the would-be VP but for much longer and in a far different way, Oprah has been a phenomenon, rising from the depths of poverty to become an American icon with empathy, intelligence and enthusiasm, an Everywoman in constant battles to control her emotional life as well as her weight, educate herself and her audiences with a book club, overcome all obstacles in a world still dominated by men.

Her embrace of Barack Obama last year was the climax of a career that went well beyond race, giving a rhetorically gifted but emotionally standoffish candidate just the touch of humanity needed to connect with her constituency, to say nothing of the $3 million and more she raised for him.

Trading her celebrity at 55 to become a mostly behind-the-scenes Rupert Murdoch, Oprah leaves more than two decades of what has been called "a talk show as group therapy session" for millions

As in her ratings coup this week, Ms. Winfrey has occasionally stooped to conquer--i.e., her promotion of the cultural embarrassment known as Dr. Phil.

But as a fiery New York mayor of my childhood Fiorello LaGuardia used to say, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut."

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Byrd: An American Life

Tomorrow, he turns 92 after passing another milestone yesterday as the longest-serving member of Congress in history, almost 57 years.

With such longevity, Sen. Robert Byrd embodies almost a century of American history that transformed a nation of backwaters dotted by big cities into a metropolitan sprawl with access to 24/7 knowledge about the whole world.

Byrd, a self-made man if there ever was one, started as a gas jockey and butcher in West Virginia during World War II, who discovered a taste and talent for politics by joining the Ku Klux Klan at the age of 24 and rising to the position of Exalted Cyclops.

His worldview then is reflected in a 1944 letter: "I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

Jump-cut to May 2008, and here is Sen. Robert Byrd endorsing an African-American candidate as "a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq, and to lead our nation at this challenging time in history. Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support."

In his journey from benighted to Obama, Byrd's finest hour came on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2002 when he warned:

"Why are we being hounded into action on a resolution that turns over to President Bush the Congress's Constitutional power to declare war? This resolution would authorize the president to use the military forces of this nation wherever, whenever and however he determines, and for as long as he determines, if he can somehow make a connection to Iraq. It is a blank check."

Today, plagued by the ills of old age, Robert Byrd is third in line of presidential succession behind Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.

Happy Birthday, Senator, on a milestone in a remarkable American Life.

The Last Palin Post

Now that John McCain has finally spoken out to defend his campaign staff and Andrew Sullivan has gone dark to analyze "Going Rogue," it's time for serious people (including President Obama) to stop talking about the book they don't intend to read.

Sarah Palin's media megaphone has gotten so loud that her running mate (he was at the top of the ticket, wasn't he?) has finally stepped up to defend his campaign staff from the torture they have been undergoing at her hands.

After trying to pass off the book as "background noise," McCain now defends them gingerly: "There's been a lot of dust flying around in the last few days and I just wanted to mention that I have the highest regard for Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace and the rest of the team...and I appreciated all the hard work and everything they did to help the campaign."

The POW metaphor seems to have occurred to McCain as he says, ""Campaigns are high-pressure situations. The only more high-pressure situation that I've been in is combat and prison."

Some of his fellow prisoners are more vocal in breaking out of Palin's web of lies as Nicolle Wallace brands her story about the Katie Couric interview "fiction," just as Schmidt has done previously about other claims in the book.

Here, the rest will be silence and deference to Andrew Sullivan who is going through the torture of actually reading what Palin's ghost wrote.

Update: Sullivan gives up, too: "The lies and truths and half-truths and the facts and non-facts are all blurred together in a pious puree of such ghastly prose that, in the end, the book can only really be read as a some kind of chapter in a cheap nineteenth century edition of 'Lives of the Saints.' But as autobiography."

Sayonara, Sarah!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More Twisted Than Terrorist

The more we learn about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the thinner the line stretches between ideology and mental illness, and the more troubling is the question of why, surrounded by psychiatrists, his potential for violence was not sufficiently recognized to remove him from his position as a healer of trauma victims.

Today brings a report that "military superiors repeatedly ignored or rebuffed his efforts to open criminal prosecutions of soldiers he claimed had confessed to 'war crimes' during psychiatric counseling," an unmistakable sign, if true, of Hasan's own disturbance, an eagerness to breach doctor-patient confidentiality to serve his own pathology.

“If there was a failure to take appropriate action before the shootings, there must be accountability,” President Obama has said, and there is increasing evidence that Hasan's erratic behavior was noted and then disregarded as far back as his service at Walter Reed Hospital.

A psychiatrist who worked with him there gave this account to a reporter: "From the beginning--and Hasan was there for four years--the medical staff was very worried about this guy...He did not do a good job as a psychiatrist in training, was repeatedly warned, you better shape up, or, you know, you're going to be in trouble. Did badly in his classes, seemed disinterested...

"(H)e was very proud and upfront about being Muslim...and nobody minded that. But he seemed almost belligerent about being Muslim, and he gave a lecture one day that really freaked a lot of doctors out."

The picture that is emerging of Nidal Malik Hasan is that of a deeply troubled, sexually repressed loner who was seen frequenting a local strip club for $50 lap dances rather than an Islamic martyr hoping to be rewarded with 72 virgins for his actions.

Why didn't the mental-health experts all around him do something about it?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Palin's POWs

Four decades after being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison camp, John McCain is trapped in a slow drip of accusations from Sarah Palin as she embarks on weeks of media ubiquity to promote her aptly titled, "Going Rogue."

A New York Times review notes that "the most sustained and vehement barbs in this book are directed not at Democrats or liberals or the press, but at the McCain campaign. The very campaign that plucked her out of Alaska, anointed her the Republican vice-presidential nominee and made her one of the most talked about women on the planet--someone who could command a reported $5 million for writing this book."

Good soldier that he is, when asked if the book has become "a nuisance," McCain responds no, "It's the usual background noise."

But his former staff members are not so stoic, his campaign manager calling the book "self-serving and revisionist...fiction" as Palin blames everyone but herself for the fiascoes that revealed her inexperience and ignorance, no matter how hard they tried to disguise it.

Now they and McCain are Palin's media prisoners as she preens with Oprah, Barbara Walters and Limbaugh and in personal appearances in small cities all over the map, carefully avoiding the metropolitan areas she disdained during the campaign.

As a "publicity saint," Palin can override all criticism, as she does with the AP's fact-checking of "familiar claims from the 2008 presidential campaign that haven’t become any truer over time."

On her Facebook page, Palin swats such away criticism: "We've heard 11 writers are engaged in this opposition research, er, 'fact checking' research! Imagine that--11 AP reporters dedicating time and resources to tearing up the book, instead of using the time and resources to 'fact check' what's going on with Sheik Mohammed's trial, Pelosi's health care takeover costs, Hasan's associations, etc. Amazing."

What's truly amazing is that, in a time that cries out for serious political discussion, the media will be prisoners of Palin as she sashays around the country as a superstar of being "well-known for her well-knowness."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Birth of Death Panels

A long-time Congressman offers a lesson today about how politics and the media collude to distort rational discussion.

In an Op Ed, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon explains how his bipartisan proposal to have Medicare pay for voluntary end-of-life discussions morphed into death panels:

"I found it perverse that Medicare would pay for almost any medical procedure, yet not reimburse doctors for having a thoughtful conversation to prepare patients and families for the delicate, complex and emotionally demanding decisions surrounding the end of life. So when I was working on the health care bill, I included language directing Medicare to cover a voluntary discussion with a doctor once every five years about living wills, power of attorney and end-of-life treatment preferences...

"Indeed, the majority of Congressional Republicans supported the similar provisions for terminally ill elderly patients that were part of the 2003 prescription drug bill. In the spring of 2008, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska issued a proclamation that stated the importance of end-of-life planning."

During debate, no one in Congress offered any objection until Betsy McCaughey, who had savaged Clinton health care, in a radio interview claimed that the provision would "absolutely require that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner."

That statement was labeled a "Pants on Fire falsehood" by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Politifact, but Sarah Palin, a McCaughey clone, raised it to a higher level on her Facebook page with the warning that "my parents or my baby with Down syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’" while Rush Limbaugh chimed in and the Republicans in Congress all joined the attacks as if they had received their marching orders from on high.

The town hall flareups ensued, and the wall-to-wall coverage, Blumenauer says, "shows how the news media, after aiding and abetting falsehood, were unable to perform their traditional role of reporting the facts. By lavishing uncritical attention on the most exaggerated claims and extreme behavior, they unleashed something that the truth could not dispel."

The furor has subsided and health care reform is moving ahead, but the death panel fear surely lingers on in the public opinion polls that find Americans equally divided about the bills.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Trouble with the 9/11 Trial

The attacks brought Americans together briefly, but the aftermath is still sowing division--as the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to try five of the 9/11 terrorists in lower Manhattan brings conflict and confusion.

On the surface, it's hard to argue with Holder's logic: "After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September 11th will finally face justice. They will be brought to New York--to New York--to answer for their alleged crimes, in a courthouse just blocks away from where the twin towers once stood."

A New York Times editorial calls the decision "an enormous victory for the rule of law, a major milestone in Mr. Obama’s efforts to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and an important departure from Mr. Bush’s disregard for American courts and their proven ability to competently handle high-profile terror cases."

But the Wall Street Journal focuses on the fear of terrorist reprisal: "Coming soon to a civilian courtroom blocks from Ground Zero: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other al Qaeda planners of 9/11. Be sure to get your tickets early, and don't forget to watch out for the truck-bomb barricades and rooftop snipers."

Beyond this conflict of idealistic symbolism and realistic fears, there are other uneasy questions:

How can such a trial possibly find an impartial jury?

How can it not be fairly called "a show trial" when the verdict is predetermined or, in the extremely unlikely event of acquittal, the defendants will face a backlog of other charges?

In an event designed to show American fairness and rule of law, how can it not also be a huge media showcase for the defendants' countercharges of torture and brutality?

In its way, the uproar over this trial may be a reflection of the larger conflict between Obama's hopes and his political antagonists' fears, but there is a case to be made for both sides.

In this instance, it's hard not to feel that there is something robotically correct about Eric Holder's decision that overrides legitimate doubts and fears.

He may feel he is using the Nuremberg trials of Nazis after World War II as a model, but there is a difference. They were held in a defeated country under secure military rule, and even then there was some American and Allied criticism of them as show trials.

The forthright Attorney General acknowledges he was influenced by his wife and "my brother, who's a retired Port Authority police officer...who lost friends and colleagues on 9/11 in the towers" and talked to survivors "about the symbolic significance of it."

Eric Holder wants to show the world that the rule of law can deal with those who kill innocent people for ideology, but he may be inviting another kind of symbolism--how the 9/11 attacks are still causing conflict and fear in America.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Republican Obama?

In 2006, conservative columnist David Brooks fell in love politically with a young senator and wrote a column, "Run Barack Run." We all know how that worked out and now, in a column today, "Meet John Thune," Brooks reveals a new heartthrob from the other side of the Senate aisle.

"Thune," he writes, "is the junior senator from South Dakota, the man who beat Tom Daschle in an epic campaign five years ago. The first thing everybody knows about him is that he is tall (6 feet 4 inches), tanned (in a prairie, sun-chapped sort of way) and handsome (John McCain jokes that if he had Thune’s face he’d be president right now). If you wanted a Republican with the same general body type and athletic grace as Barack Obama, you’d pick Thune."

So much for looks, although a Gary Cooper/Jimmy Stewart lookalike might visually be a better 2012 bet for the GOP than a stiff Mitt Romney or a pudding-faced Mike Huckabee.

But more than that, Brooks insists his new man is not ideologically scary, that "people like Thune offer Republicans a way to connect fiscal discipline with traditional small-town values, a way to tap into rising populism in a manner that is optimistic, uplifting and nice."

These days, few commentators are calling Barack Obama "nice," but it's cheering to remember when Brooks was saying about him: "He distrusts righteous anger and zeal. He does not demonize his opponents and tells audiences that he does not think George Bush is a bad man."

As a political casting director, Brooks has a record that deserves respect.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama vs Karzai Over Exit Strategy

Barack Obama is doing what George W. Bush failed to do in Iraq--looking for "where the off-ramps are," according to a White House official.

As the President starts a nine-day Asia trip, he leaves behind the message that his Afghanistan decision has been strongly influenced by Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador who was once military commander there, whose doubts about Hamid Karzai are reflected in a White House statement:

"The President believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended. After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time."

So begins the crucial battle there--Obama vs Karzai--to get Afghanistan out of its sinkhole of corruption and incompetence far enough to be able to stand on its own and allow US troops to withdraw in a foreseeable time.

Administration officials are reported to be pushing Karzai for a list of "deliverables" to prove that he is cracking down on corruption, including naming able technocrats to top cabinet positions rather than warlords who backed his re-election.

Cynics will claim that Obama does not have the leverage for this kind of arm-twisting--that we are stuck in Afghanistan and Karzai knows it. A former US ambassador there puts it this way:

“You know that scene in the movie ‘Blazing Saddles,’ when Cleavon Little holds the gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself? The argument that we could pull out of Afghanistan if Karzai doesn’t do what we say is stupid. We couldn’t get the Pakistanis to fight if we leave Afghanistan; we couldn’t accomplish what we’ve set out to do. And Karzai knows that.”

Maybe so, but it's heartening to have a Commander-in-Chief searching this hard for an exit strategy before he commits tens of thousands of troops into harm's way.

There are rumors that the President may make a surprise trip to Kabul at the end of his Asia travels and confront Karzai face to face. If he does, he will have to do better in that battle than he has so far in the one with Republicans over health care.

At the end of his first year, Barack Obama is going to show us what kind of fighter he really is. Can Change come with brass knuckles?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dumping Dobbs: Good News for News

CNN has struck a blow for journalism on cable TV by forcing Lou Dobbs to take his "advocacy" elsewhere.

Somewhere between the right-left divide of Fox News and MSNBC, the network has been comparatively fair-minded with the glaring exception of Dobbs, who occupied a unique spot of blowhard wrong-headedness on the political spectrum.

When I started blogging in 2006, my second post was headed "Is Lou Dobbs Running for Something?" and noted: "A long-time Republican, defender of Big Business, business-news entrepreneur himself, he is now a born-again populist, with just a trace of anti-immigration racism, but some may remember when he left CNN in 2000 in a huff after the network president wanted to cut away to live coverage of President Bill Clinton consoling parents at Columbine, which Dobbs argued was not newsworthy."

The following year, as his bloviating got worse, I chose him as "the world's worst journalist" over Bill O'Reilly for being "a rabble-rouser against illegal aliens, provoking more dissension over a serious national issue than any politician in sight--all in the name of journalism."

Soon afterward, the New York Times unmasked his hoax that illegal aliens were bringing leprosy to the US, observing that "The problem with Mr. Dobbs is that he mixes opinion and untruths."

Not long afterward I posted a pleading "Memo to CNN" that started: "Can’t you give Lou Dobbs tranquilizers and/or rabies shots to get him out of our faces?"

Two and a half years later, given a choice between converting to journalism or venting on talk radio, Lou Dobbs has opted for Limbaughland. Journalism will be much better off without him,

Afghan Flypaper

As Decision Day nears and the President considers four options for Afghanistan, a question hovers over his agonizing: Is it a war or an endless occupation?

Will 30, 40 or even 80,000 troops stabilize an unstable country with a corrupt government or, when turmoil persists, stir rage and hatred at Americans for making their people's lives worse?

We went in eight years ago to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists but have succeeded mostly in squeezing them, like toothpaste in a tube, into border areas and across the line into Pakistan.

As a connoisseur of irony, Barack Obama must appreciate the hard fact that the determination of Bush's Neo-Cons to dominate the world with American power has succeeded only in proving how helpless military might alone can be in a world of insurgents who can move freely and escape detection, as Osama bin Laden shows with every taunting tape.

The time the President is taking to decide reflects not dithering, as Dick Cheney puts it, but a recognition that in Afghanistan the US is on foreign policy flypaper, stuck in a situation where more strenuous struggling is as likely to lead to exhaustion as liberation.

The White House debate seems to be less hawks-vs-doves than a sincere struggle to find the least-worst answer to an almost impossible situation. According to one insider, the President is "simply not convinced yet that you can do a lasting counterinsurgency strategy if there is no one to hand it off to."

As a master of the English language, Barack Obama understands that that means an endless occupation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Veterans Then and Now

In his Ft. Hood eulogy today, the President eloquently honored "men and women answering an extraordinary call--the call to serve their comrades, their communities, and their country. In an age of selfishness, they embody responsibility. In an era of division, they call upon us to come together. In a time of cynicism, they remind us of who we are as Americans...

"Tomorrow is Veterans Day. It is a chance to pause, and to pay tribute--for students to learn of the struggles that preceded them; for families to honor the service of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the sacrifices that have been made..."

In one school yesterday, eighth-graders spent the morning with men in their seventies and eighties, trying to reach across the gap of generations to explain what those struggles were like.

For those children, the messages boiled down to a simple narrative: We came because our country needed us, we did what had to be done, even when and especially when we were afraid, and we learned how much we were connected to those who served with us and protected us as we protected them.

The children wanted to know if war had changed us. How could it not? We had learned that we lived a world larger than ourselves and that we had to take government and politics seriously, learn what was going on and take part in the decisions that put us and might in the future put them in harm's way far from home.

As the President deliberates over sending tens of thousands more Americans to Afghanistan, he should be keeping in mind those children and their families as well as those with whom he mourned today.

From "No" to "Boo!"

In the battle over health care, the Republican Right, after months of saying no to every Obama initiative from stimulus to bailouts, has gone on the offensive to slice and dice Americans into warring factions--young-old, men-women, rich-poor, anywhere fear and hatred can be stirred up.

Sarah Palin, bless her feisty heart, started it all with "death panels," but naysayers are now working the other side of the age divide. After warning the young that ObamaCare will kill their Granny, they are now goading them with worries that Granny will impoverish them by raising premiums at their expense.

In the House bill, they have driven a wedge into well-settled policy over abortion that would expand restrictions on what the President yesterday called "the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions” but, in his diplomatic way, said he wanted to make sure “we’re not restricting women’s insurance choices."

On a broader front, the Wall Street Journal uncovers, on the basis of a New Yorker writer's blog post, the sinister purpose of it all--"to further redistribute income by putting health care further under government control, and in the process making the middle class more dependent on government."

As the fear-mongering escalates, little wonder that Gallup finds "no clear mandate" while Americans struggle to understand what's in thousands of pages of proposed legislation and Republicans keep crying "Boo!" at every turn.

Someone should tell them that Halloween is over and that it's time to get serious about bargaining over legislation that will affect us all for a long time.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Lodestar Lieberman

In moments of crisis, Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times yesterday, "I generally recommend looking to see where Joe Lieberman is going. Then head the other way."

Such wrong-way reliability, which has made Lieberman a lodestar for the anxious and confused, delivers two gems today--on the Ft. Hood massacre and health care reform.

As investigators conclude that the shooting spree "was not part of a terrorist plot," he announces that, as Senate Homeland Security chairman, he plans to launch a probe into the motives behind "the worst terrorist attack since 9/11."

In a twofer on Fox News, the Independent Senator from Rupert Murdoch also renews his pledge to launch a filibuster against the public option in health care "put forward, I’m convinced, by people who really want the government to take over all of health insurance."

That would never do for a statesman whose base includes the nation's largest insurance companies, which contribute to his campaigns and employ his constituents.

In moments of uncertainty, I turn back to Joan Didion's assessment in 2004:

"Senator Lieberman, who had come to the nation's attention as the hedge player who had previously seized center stage by managing both to denounce the president [Bill Clinton] for 'disgraceful' and 'immoral' behavior and to vote against his conviction (similarly, he had in 1991 both voiced support for and voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas) was not, except to the press, an immediately engaging personality...

"His speech patterns, grounded in the burdens he bore for the rest of us and the personal rewards he had received from God for bearing it, tended to self-congratulation."

But such comfort comes at a price. As convinced as I am by Al Gore's warnings about global warming, it gives me pause to remember that, in Gore's judgment nine years ago, Joe Lieberman was the best person in the country to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

Update: After a meeting with Israel's prime minister this week, President Obama is reported to have quipped to the delegations, "So, we’ve decided that we are going to trade our Lieberman for their Lieberman," referring to the Senator and the hard-line Israeli foreign minister. Sold.

The House's Bowel Movement Bill

When Arizona Republican John Shadegg used a seven-month-old baby as a prop during yesterday's debate on health care, his symbolism was more apt than intended. What the House passed last night was a bowel movement of a bill diapered by competitive political posturing to cover a messy pile of mandates, entitlements, wishful savings and iffy tax changes.

To call the legislative process that produced this excretion infantile insults the newborn. President Obama labeled last night's achievement "history," but it will take months to sort through 1990 pages of dense matter, wait for the Senate to dump its version and shape the remains into a bill for him to sign.

The bottom line is to preserve the world's most expensive system that produces terrible results but enriches insurance companies and encourages provider waste, theft and abuse.

At an estimated ten-year cost of over $1 trillion, this "reform" will deliver 36 million Americans now uninsured to the tender mercies of those same greed machines while attempting to control its worst excesses with a "public option" that has been ground into pablum and will no doubt disappear completely in the Senate.

Along the way, this plan for social progress acquired a regressive abortion restriction that will have to be extracted as well as who-knows-how-many similar jokers in the deck at the hands of the wizards of legislative legerdemain.

In the coming months, the defeat of Bill Clinton's attempt to clean up health care in 1993 may stir nostalgia in those now watching Barack Obama's victory lap.

At the start of the process, the President acknowledged that the best solution to American health care would be a single-payer system overseen by the government but that it would be politically impossible to get that.

Now, after all the failed bipartisan efforts and the mounting heap of compromises with his own party's naysayers, no matter how much rhetorical deodorant he sprays, will Obama's victory smell much sweeter than Clinton's defeat?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Other Shooter: Banality of Terror

As the nation was reeling from the Ft. Hood horror yesterday, a pathetic loner killed one man and wounded five other people in an Orlando office building shootout.

Compared to the complexity of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Jason Rodriguez looks like a run-of-the-mill loser with a failed marriage and the inability to hold a job after being fired two years ago from the architectural firm he shot up and later from a Subway eatery in a career of downward mobility.

As he was being led away by police, he told them, "I'm just going through a tough time right now. I'm sorry" and explained his murderous pique at former coworkers by claiming "they left me to rot."

Such lethal blandness is, in a way, more terrifying than whatever roiling of religious, ethnic and political passions led the Ft. Hood killer to his actions.

The well-dressed, calm Rodriguez seems outwardly more stable than many members of protest crowds in Washington and elsewhere, venting their passions about health care and the economy across the political spectrum. Even bland Al Gore gets into the acting-out act by proclaiming that "civil disobedience has a role to play" in the struggle to control climate change.

At the Eichmann trials after World War II, Hannah Arendt wrote about the "banality of evil" in a climate where human life was devalued in the service of social hysteria and slogans.

Now we are seeing mass murder as a form of political expression migrating from more savage societies to our own, and that may be the most unnerving prospect of all on this shell-shocked weekend.

Friday, November 06, 2009

American High Noons

The TV screen today looks like the vision of a demented performance artist. You can click from images of wildly cheering crowds in a Manhattan canyon celebrating what 25 young man did on a baseball field to talking heads and replays of a massacre of other young people in Texas and then suddenly to an Orlando, Florida office building for the familiar confusion in the first moments after another shooting spree.

This is a portrait of 21st century America, light and dark, torn by high emotions in a new Age of Anxiety, worlds away from the black-and-white vision of "High Noon" on Turner Classic Movies last night ending with a simple facedown between good and evil.

After the news of Ft. Hood yesterday, the President came forward with prayers for the victims and their families, promising to find out what happened and why but, for all his eloquence, Barack Obama is at a loss to make sense of the senseless. In the mad mosaic of our era, he is even accused of "frightening insensitivity" for that failure.

For a moment, real life has pushed political rhetoric to the background but when the confetti has been swept up and the bodies buried, America will still be torn by the fears and hatreds raging through its bloodstream as unemployment reaches double digits.

This weekend, many will be looking to the Mourner-in-Chief for a "teachable" moment in Texas, even as the atmosphere resembles that in which John F. Kennedy went there on another November day 46 years ago.

We have learned so much since then but, even with all the heightened security, can a voice of faith and reason do anything to bring us together? Less than ten months after he took office, Barack Obama keeps facing one "High Noon" moment after another.

Random Madness, Again

Less than three years after the Virginia campus massacre, another mass murderer strikes at the American heart, this time at a military base where the victims are troops preparing to fight in the Middle East.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of yesterday’s mass shooting that killed at least 12 at Fort Hood, Texas, unlike the disturbed undergraduate Seung-Hui Cho who slaughtered 32 at Virginia Tech, ironically is a psychiatrist trained to treat veterans suffering from combat stress.

He spent most of his professional life at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, caring for trauma patients, yet he is reported to have spoken openly of his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and may have been motivated by anxiety over his imminent deployment.

In the coming days, his life and motives will be endlessly dissected, but such outbursts of violence on American soil are as disturbing as terrorist attacks and even less fathomable, creating even more anxiety for being totally unpredictable.

There will be blather about everything from his Muslim faith to the discrimination he may felt, but the sad truth is that nothing will explain why those innocents are dead or what we can do to keep it from happening again.

The only possible human response is to grieve.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

World War II Closure in the Bronx

At Yankee Stadium last night, a young man born in Japan decades after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought joy to, among others, a generation of Americans who fought his ancestors in World War II.

As the Most Valuable Player in this year's World Series, Hideki Matsui joined the pantheon of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other hyphenated Americans of the last century in Yankee lore.

After six years in Yankee uniform, Matsui still needed a translator to express himself about the award but, for older onlookers, there was a feeling of closure at the sight of a new hero of our national pastime who, if he had been here in the 1940s, would not have been playing baseball but would have been sent to an internment camp along with his family.

Back then, the American Melting Pot had sprung a leak as even Joe DiMaggio's parents were among the thousands of immigrants classified as "enemy aliens" after Pearl Harbor who had to carry photo IDs and were not allowed to travel five miles from their home. Jolting Joe's father was barred from the San Francisco Bay, where he had fished for decades, and his boat was seized.

But what used to be the Great American Pastime is global now and perhaps in the future, a young man of Middle East descent will be standing in Yankee Stadium holding up that trophy.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dowd's Date With Limbaugh

In the annals of sexual politics and odd couples, none could ever match the possibilities of mating Maureen Dowd and Rush Limbaugh, a power pairing that would have made Mary Matalin and James Carville look like America's Sweethearts.

The image comes to mind from Dowd's column today, recounting a four-hour dinner at Manhattan's 21 Club back when she was "a reportette" and El Rushbo's puss had not yet been carved on the Mt. Rushmore of the Rabid Right.

"He was charming, in a shy, awkward, lonely-guy way," Dowd recalls. "Not a man of the people. He arrived in a chauffeured town car and ordered $70-an-ounce Beluga, Porterhouse and 1990 Corton-Charlemagne."

Just another suave type trying to look good on a first date and apparently making some headway, impressing Dowd as "not a Neanderthal, though he did have a cold and blew his nose in his napkin. He talked about Chopin’s Polonaise No. 6, C.S. Lewis and how much he loved the end of the movie 'Love Story.'"

That last should have given Dowd pause if she recalled that the heroine of the 1970 weeper is "smart and poor," falls for a guy who is "stupid and rich" and dies an early death murmuring "Love is never having to say you're sorry."

But the chemistry apparently failed, depriving the world of a match that would have made media history.

Now Dowd is hammering her might-have-been mate with rueful memories:

"At our long-ago dinner, Limbaugh credited his success with being 'one-dimensional.' 'I’m totally concerned with me,' he said. And that was way before he got a contract for $400 million, so we can only imagine how one-dimensional he is now.

"But on Sunday, he ripped the president for having 'an out-of-this-world ego,' for being 'very narcissistic,' 'immature, inexperienced, in over his head.' (Isn’t immaturity scoring OxyContin from your maid?)

"It gives new meaning to pot, kettle and black."

Ouch. Love hurts.

Going Rogue in Upstate New York

Sarah Palin has upended politics-as-usual again, this time electing a Democratic Congressman in an upstate New York district that has been Republican for over 100 years.

In drumming out of the party Dede Scozzafava, a member of the State Assembly with solid GOP credentials in favor of an inexperienced Conservative with a scared-rabbit persona, Palin has once again demonstrated that her gifts are better suited to show business than elective politics.

Even as voters show their unease in Virginia, New Jersey and even New York City, the Palin wing of the party, by pouring money and endorsements into New York's 23rd District, managed to translate their lust for ideological purity into an unexpected loss.

Scozzafava was so stunned by "the amount of hate and lies and the deceitfulness” aimed at her from all over the country that she bowed out and endorsed the Democrat.

“I don’t believe," she says, "that should be the characteristics that define the Republican Party. I think people should be allowed to have discussions and reasonable disagreements. But this was a full frontal assault on me personally and politically, for weeks.”

On an election night when serious Republicans could find shreds of hope for the future, the Palinistas have given them something to think about in the struggle for their party's soul.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Health Care as a Pyrrhic Victory

There is a rueful note in today's New York Times report of impending White House triumph in "a process that has at times seemed on the brink of anarchy":

"After months of plodding work by five Congressional committees and weeks of back-room bargaining by Democratic leaders, President Obama’s arms-length strategy on health care appears to be paying dividends, with the House and the Senate poised to take up legislation to insure nearly all Americans."

One criticism of all this chaos can be easily dismissed--that, as Matthew Yglesias shows, "Obama needs to be nicer to Republicans." Lack of bipartisanship on health care is like accusing the President of refusing to play tennis when nobody is on the other side of the net.

More important is the reality of Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin's observation, “When you are seeking 60 votes, every person is a kingmaker."

For only one example out of many, there is loathsome Joe Lieberman who, after being allowed to keep his committee chairmanship despite campaigning for McCain last year, is threatening to filibuster against any public option in totally predictable loyalty to the insurance companies that dominate his state rather than the President who forgave his own disloyalty.

Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal rails against "The Worst Bill Ever" ("Epic new spending and taxes, pricier insurance, rationed care, dishonest accounting: The Pelosi health bill has it all"), it's hard to refute those epic distortions about the many thousands of dense pages that are working their way through both houses of Congress.

These coming weeks will be a test for the Obama "arm's-length strategy," his instinct for consensus rather than strong leadership from the top.

According to one of his favorite philosophers, Reinhold Niebuhr, "Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph."

But on the other hand, the mid-20th century's most eminent Protestant theologian never had to contemplate the arm-twisting that passes for reasoning with both allies and foes on Capitol Hill.

As in the debate over Afghanistan, the President is going to have to step up with decisiveness and persuade all the competing interests to follow his leadership.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Goldman Sachs' Stolen Umbrellas

As CIT goes bankrupt and Treasury Secretary Geithner warns today that the "damage caused by this crisis" will "take some time" to repair, a key Wall Street player has managed to weather the storm at the expense of an unwary, drenched public.

"All men are equal," E.M. Forster wrote a century ago, "all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas." An old saying puts it more tartly: "The rain falls equally on the just and the unjust, but more on the just because the unjust have stolen their umbrellas."

According to the McClatchy Newspapers, Goldman Sachs spent years cornering the umbrella market:

In 2006 and 2007, they "peddled more than $40 billion in securities backed by at least 200,000 risky home mortgages, but never told the buyers it was secretly betting that a sharp drop in U.S. housing prices would send the value of those securities plummeting.

"Goldman's sales and its clandestine wagers, completed at the brink of the housing market meltdown, enabled the nation's premier investment bank to pass most of its potential losses to others before a flood of mortgage defaults staggered the U.S. and global economies.

"Only later did investors discover that what Goldman had promoted as triple-A rated investments were closer to junk."

Pension funds, insurance companies, labor unions and financial institutions have been hit with large losses as a five-month McClatchy investigation finds that "Goldman's failure to disclose that it made secret, exotic bets on an imminent housing crash may have violated securities laws."

Meanwhile, after raking in more than $23 billion of taxpayer money (most of it funneled from the AIG bailout), Goldman is repaying the $10 billion it received directly to escape federal limits on $20 billion in bonuses it wants to pay executives from more than $50 billion in expected revenue this year.

In these rainy days for the American economy, there is one place on Wall Street where everybody is staying very dry.

Right Field of Dreams

In northern New York State, they are staging a 21st century version of an American classic, old-time hardball without the Iowa corn.

"People will come," said the prophetic Voice in the 1989 movie. "They'll turn up not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive as innocent as children, longing for the past. They'll pass over their money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack."

In a trance of hope, they are handing over more than $3 million and cheering in the bleachers--new true believers like Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and Glenn Beck, along with ghosts of old-timey all-stars like Dick Armey, Fred Thompson, Steve Forbes and Rick Santorum, wearing retro uniforms and waving rhetorical pompoms.

A fist fight breaks out, and Newt Gingrich dons his umpire's uniform to be shouted down by Michelle Malkin and a chorus from the cheap seats.

Of course, cynics are baffled. They see all this as only a contest for a GOP House seat vacated by the President's appointee as Secretary of the Army.

"The battle for upstate New York," Frank Rich observes, "confirms just how swiftly the right has devolved into a wacky, paranoid cult that is as eager to eat its own as it is to destroy Obama."

But Rich and his ilk fail to see the deeper meaning--that the routing of Dede Scozafavva and her gay-loving, baby-killing cohorts from the Republican ranks is a struggle for the soul of America, that rallying behind Clueless Doug Hoffman will bring back the pride and glory of the past.

Scoffers don't understand that New York's 23rd Congressional District has become, in the words of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham in the movie, "the most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like this, the wind nevers blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child."

These days, Americans need their fields of dreams so badly that many are paying to be buried in them or have their ashes scattered there. Whatever has been lost in their lifetimes can be found again in the hereafter.