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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Burning Issue

The campaign mantra of "Drill, baby, drill" has morphed back into its 1960's civil-rights antecedent of "Burn, baby, burn" as the Coast Guard OKs controlled fires to slow 5000 gallons of oil a day spewing from an exploded rig to menace wildlife and fishing industries along the Gulf Coast.

During the VP debate, Sarah Palin lectured Joe Biden when he minimized the importance of off-shore oil, "The chant is 'drill, baby, drill.' And that's what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into." Last year she wrote in an OpEd, "We can safely drill for US oil offshore and in a tiny, 2,000-acre corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if ever given the go-ahead by Washington bureaucrats."

Apparently not, as a Coast Guard admiral assesses the Gulf spill, "It's premature to say this is catastrophic. I will say that this is very serious."

Politicizing an ecological disaster might be unfair if it were not for indications that the current mess might have been avoided if Bush laissez-faire "Washington bureaucrats" had insisted that offshore rigs use a remote-control shutoff device mandated by Norway and Brazil.

But now the oil is spilling and fires are burning as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar kept track of the situation yesterday from Massachusetts where he was announcing approval of the nation's first wind farm off the Cape Cod coast, which backers claim would "reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the equivalent of taking 175,000 cars off the road."

Kennedys and others in the area oppose the environmental impact on their beloved vacation homes, but nobody is claiming that the wind farm might lead to setting the ocean on fire.

Update: By week's end, the Gulf spill was looking like a man-made Katrina as the Federal government scrambled to help--or give every appearance of helping--to contain it, and posturing members of Congress were urging the White House to rethink its decision to allow expanded offshore drilling.

Whatever happens to the endangered residents and creatures of the Gulf Coast, their plight will be added to the long list of burning issues being stoked by incompetence and political division in Washington.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tower of Babble at the Border

Fittingly enough for a bi-lingual issue, the debate over Arizona's arrest-an-immigrant law is becoming a confusion of tongues with ideologues speaking in unfamiliar ways.

While some Democrats unsurprisingly invoke Nazi Germany and apartheid, Republicans from Jeb Bush and Karl Rove to Tea Party hero Marco Rubio are groping for less flamboyant language to distance themselves from the effort to turn the American Melting Pot into a Grand Canyon of division.

The Bush dynasty's heir-in-waiting complains about its "unintended consequences" (to a moderate presidential candidate, among others, no doubt). "It's difficult," says Bush III, "to imagine how you're going to enforce this law. It places a significant burden on local law enforcement and you have civil liberties issues that are significant."

W's Turd Blossom finds "some constitutional problems with the bill," while Axis of Evil phrasemaker Michael Gerson calls it "understandable--and dreadful," huffing that "chaos at the border is not an argument for states to take control of American immigration policy."

Post-Bush Republicans are having even more trouble distancing themselves from the Arizona crackdown without attracting anti-incumbent ire.

Lindsey Graham flatly calls it "unacceptable" and "un-American," but his best Senate friend, John McCain, facing conservative primary opposition in his reelection campaign there, stalls for time. “I haven’t had a chance to look at all the aspects," says the former Maverick, "but I do understand why the Legislature would act.”

The most delicate balancing act is that of Rubio, a Cuban-American running for the Senate in Florida as the Hard Right's poster boy, who projects his own dilemma onto Arizona police, finding the law puts them in an “incredibly difficult position” and that it could "unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens.[Zinger Alert] Throughout American history and throughout this administration we have seen that when government is given an inch it takes a mile.”

Whether such linguistic judo will work is doubtful, but one unintended consequence of the new Arizona law is that it is attracting bipartisan opposition in a time when politicians who actually think about what they say are rare--a relief from the monolithic tower of babble that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner keep building on every other issue in Washington.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Benator's Buffett Bailout

You have to say this for Nebraska's Sen. Ben Nelson: He isn't a slave to appearances.

After being slapped down for the unlamented Cornhusker Kickback during the health care debate, George W. Bush's favorite Democrat is back holding financial reform hostage to a private bailout for his own favorite constituent, Warren Buffett.

W's Benator wants an exemption for existing derivatives contracts from having to meet new capital requirements to help out Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which has $63 billion of them and would have to set aside $8 billion to cover potential losses under the proposed new law.

As the only Democrat to oppose limiting filibusters on financial reform, Nelson is once again out front trying to blackmail his colleagues.

This time, it's not just Nebraska voters for whom the Benator is playing Robin Hood. In his financial disclosure statement filed last year, Nelson listed between $1 million and $6 million in Berkshire Hathaway stock, his largest investment.

The man is no hypocrite.

Update: For three days now, Nelson has blocked consideration of the bill as Democratic colleagues become impatient and abandon their usual tact in questioning his motives on the Buffett Bonanza, with critics pointing out that Berkshire Hathaway is not only his biggest personal investment but his biggest campaign contributor as well.

Death of a Good Samaritan

The theme of big-city indifference to the Good Samaritan narrative is back with the story of a stabbed man left dying and bleeding by New York City residents for more than an hour before anyone tried to help.

Decades after 38 witnesses failed to call police in the now-legendary killing of Kitty Genovese in 1964, the death of a Guatemalan immigrant a week ago while trying to help a woman being attacked in the same borough of Queens reawakens debate about urban apathy in the face of violence.

In the decades between, after all the Charles Bronson "Death Wish" vigilante movies, little seems to have changed, except for the technology available to record what happened.

Instead of interviewing neighbors who failed to intervene, reporters now have a surveillance tape showing a man shaking the victim to see a pool of blood before walking away, two others conversing about him and taking a photo before leaving and others glancing at the body as they went by.

The Genovese case led to soul-searching about coarsening of sensibilities, the fear of getting involved in random violence and ambiguity about knowing what's happening in hurried, crowded city life, with social psychologists attempting to debunk what is now called "the bystander effect."

In its story about the death of Hugo Alfredo Yale-Tax, the New York Times notes: "Perhaps the passers-by thought he was just drunk. Perhaps they were illegal immigrants themselves, too nervous to contact the authorities. Or perhaps they had just learned a lesson that Mr. Tale-Yax so clearly had not: better to keep to oneself than to risk the trouble that comes from extending a helping hand."

Forty-six years ago, the paper's report on the Kitty Genevose case was more dramatic:

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

"Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead."

In the intervening years, there have been books, movies and songs about the case, but we are left with the same helpless sadness now as we were then.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Guilty of Goldman and Abul Ghraib

One constant in outrageous behavior by American organizations is that only underlings are punished. Just as top people escaped responsibility in the Abu Ghraib tortures, the only culprit named so far in the massive Goldman Sachs fraud is a 31-year-old trader named Fabrice Tourre, who is on leave and facing Congressional grilling tomorrow.

Even after filing civil charges, the SEC, according to a former government regulator, has not "kicked into gear fully, or they'd be naming [Chairman Lloyd] Blankfein and other senior leaders of Goldman...they've only gone after a junior person. And if they were really in gear, there would be criminal charges here."

At the end of the day in the Abu Ghraib disgrace, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were embarrassed, the general of the military prison was demoted to colonel, but it was only low-ranking officers and soldiers who were put on trial and punished.

Rumseld said later he had twice offered to resign but that President Bush had refused to let him until after an election debacle two years later, and Jay Bybee, author of a Justice Department memo defining torture down, was named a Federal judge.

Now Blankfein, Goldman's leader, is deploying an army of lawyers and lobbyists to defiantly defend his firm, admitting only that it "participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret."

As Congress closes in on a financial regulation bill, the only certainty is that, whatever is put in place to curb excesses of greed that have damaged so many investors, those in charge will face no worse fate than taking their hundreds of millions in ill-gotten bonuses and retiring to a gilded life of leisure.

"Crime doesn't pay" is an old American aphorism. In the 21st century, it does--very well.

Update: David Brooks describes Goldman Sachs' choices in the Congressional hearings: "The firm can claim to be dumb but decent, like the rest of the establishment, and emphasize the times it lost money. Or it can present itself as smart and sleazy, and emphasize the times it made money at the expense of its clients. Goldman seems to have chosen dumb but decent, which is probably the smart narrative to get back in the establishment’s good graces, even if it is less accurate."

And a lot safer for its top brass.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lindsey Graham Crackers

The most perplexing GOP politician is at it again, this time upending a "bipartisan" energy bill in a fit over Senate Democrats' decision to take up immigration reform in the face of a harsh new law just passed in Arizona, the home state of his best friend, John McCain, who is fighting for reelection there.

Lindsey Graham's decision, which derails planned introduction tomorrow of a climate change bill, cosponsored by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, is only the latest move in almost two decades of zigzags that can't be explained by ideology alone.

Jumpstarting his career on the House Judiciary Committee by insisting the Republic would fall because Bill Clinton unzipped in the Oval Office, Graham moved on to the Senate as a solid supporter of the Iraq war, a frequent flier there with McCain and an omnipresence in his 2008 presidential campaign.

Along the way, he took flak back home in South Carolina for joining McCain and Ted Kennedy in supporting serious immigration reform and, as recently as this January, was censured by hard-right Republicans there for positions on that issue as well as energy and the bank bailout.

When McCain was choosing a running mate, it was surprising that he considered Lieberman and finally settled on Sarah Palin but seemingly gave no consideration to Graham, whose reputation nationally as a Southern conservative might have broadened the ticket's appeal.

A possible explanation surfaces now with the public pronouncement of an immigration hardliner that Graham is a closeted gay: "Sen. Graham, you need to come forward and tell people about your alternative lifestyle and your homosexuality...I don't care about your private life, Lindsey. But as our U.S. senator I need to figure out why you're trying to sell out your own countrymen, and I need to make sure your being gay isn't it."

If the current political climate were to get any uglier, bludgeoning Graham with rumors about his sexuality this way would be another step down toward the pure politics of personal destruction.

Under this kind of pressure, the Senator's sense of being embattled on all sides is more understandable--and deplorable.

In the light of Graham's situation, Thomas Friedman's proposal today that the Tea Party go green is pure fantasy. The worst elements of the anti-incumbent movement are heading toward blood red.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jules and Julia

A new memoir by an old friend, Jules Feiffer, and a belated look at a movie about another, Julia Child, recall a time when we were all young and the world was opening up for us like a Cinemascope screen.

Julia and Jules grew up on separate planets before ascending into the celebrity firmament.

A sunny ultra-WASP California childhood led her to volunteer for service in World War II and, after rejection for being too tall, to join the OSS to work at spying in Asia, where she was cited for her "drive and inherent cheerfulness."

His darkly unhappy New York Jewish upbringing, in which his mother gave away the only puppy he ever had while he was at school one day, preceded a bizarre Catch-22 stint as a Korean War draftee ("I was insane for two years, during which I faked a breakdown").

He dreamed of fame to escape that miserable childhood; she never thought of celebrity, marrying a man she would love for the rest of her life and learning to cook when they lived in Paris to please him and fill her spare time.

As polar opposites, they both became American icons, united by one quality--passion. In those days, before shamelessness was a qualification for media attention, Americans responded to authentic feeling--Julia's love of French food, Jules' satirical honesty about personal neurosis and political duplicity in cartoons, plays and movies.

At the 1968 Democratic Convention, he and I as delegates had fought in vain for an anti-Vietnam war plank. To console me, he suggested we retreat to Hugh Hefner's for drinks and steak but, as young protesters were being clubbed, we got off the delegate bus to join them in Grant Park, where we were separated by a cloud of tear gas. I ended up alone with a room-service sandwich and burning eyes.

In Julia's Cambridge kitchen, now in the Smithsonian, she made a never-to-be-forgotten asparagus quiche for our first meal together and once burned the breakfast toast while leaning in to join an animated political discussion I was having with her husband Paul, who was hounded by McCarthy era suspicions during his last years in the diplomatic service.

In Nora Ephron's movie, there is a touching scene in which Paul consoles Julia for their childlessness. In midlife, Jules wrote the misogyny classic, "Carnal Knowledge," which led to the breakup of his first marriage, a bitter novel by his former wife and a lunch during which she railed about Jack Nicholson's influence on him.

Now 81, Jules is in a long, happy marriage to the granddaughter of the minister who wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking," composing charming children's books for his adored children and their children.

At an age when I indulge myself by watching happy endings of old movies over and over again, I can picture Julia (born almost two decades earlier) as Jules' mother, preparing holiday feasts in scenes that he would later draw with Norman Rockwell joy.

Bon appétit!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Obama's Scorched Earth Day

After a bipartisan blip on financial regulation in Washington, the President is in Manhattan, warning Wall Street, "A free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it."

This tough talk comes after his lofty Earth Day anniversary proclamation: "Forty years from today, when our children and grandchildren look back on what we did at this moment, let them say that we, too, met the challenges of our time and passed on a cleaner, healthier planet."

The contrast underscores a new bipolar tone in the Obama presidency, pairing his inspirational gifts with the kind of hard-edged political pressure from the White House that marked the final days of the health care war.

As key GOP elders move away from Mitch McConnell's adamant obstruction of last week, a party official tells the Washington Post of the President's role in the reversal: "His rhetoric got really sharp and really mean...That's what changed."

In his weekly address, the President labeled McConnell "cynical and deceptive," challenging moderate Republicans to put up or shut up on financial industry reform.

Yesterday, Dick Shelby voted with Democrats to control derivatives, and now Chuck Grassley is predicting, "We're very close to a deal and there will be a substantial number of Republicans that go along with it."

After more than a year of nonstop naysaying, GOP ranks are finally collapsing under the pressure of public anger over banks and bailouts, stoked by an energized President in today's appeal to industry leaders to call off their army of lobbyists who are trying to derail regulation:

“Some on Wall Street forgot that behind every dollar traded or leveraged, there is a family looking to buy a house, pay for an education, open a business, or save for retirement. What happens here has real consequences across our country.”

The money manipulators may not respond to that message, but Congressional Republicans are showing signs of understanding that there could be "real consequences" for them in November if they don't.

As she often does, Gail Collins nailed it in her New York Times column today: "The Republican leadership originally seemed to believe that financial reform could be a replay of health care reform, with a political payoff for total obstruction. They’re discovering that the only real similarity is that both are almost impossible to explain. People love their doctors, but they tend to hate their bankers. Nobody is going to scare voters by predicting that if the Democratic bill passes, they may not be able to keep seeing the same hedge fund manager."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

GOP Jihad on American Power

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, with the credibility of a Bush holdover, makes the startling point that the President's victory on health care strengthens America on the world stage.

“When others see the president as a winner or as somebody who has real authority in his own house," Gates tells Thomas Friedman, "it absolutely makes a difference.

"All you have to do is look at how many minority or weak coalition governments there are around the world who can’t deliver something big in their own country, but basically just teeter on the edge, because they can’t put together the votes to do anything consequential, because of the divided electorate.” President Obama, Gates says, has had “a divided electorate and was still able to muscle the thing through.”

From that perspective, Republican wall-to-wall opposition to every Obama initiative has not only been tearing the country apart domestically but weakening us geopolitically in the War on Terror by attempting to reduce Barack Obama to an ineffectual Hamid Karzai or Nouri al-Maliki here at home.

The GOP, in effect, has been waging a more effective jihad against America than al-Qaeda, echoing Joe Klein's argument that "right-wing infotainment gasbags--people like Glenn Beck etc.--were nudging up close to the edge of sedition."

No one would argue against healthy opposition on issues, but the massive effort to discredit and demean the President personally has gone far beyond that. (See the Arizona legislature's vote yesterday to require him to show his birth certificate when he runs for reelection.)

"In politics and diplomacy," Friedman writes, "success breeds authority and authority breeds more success. No one ever said it better than Osama bin Laden: 'When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.'"

As they savor their potential gains in November, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may want to ponder that. By continuing to toe the line of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, they may even be betting on the wrong horse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

From News Chaos to Information Cocoons

On a day when dog-stomping videos get Constitutional protection, questions arise about how First Amendment freedoms may be exacerbating today's political polarization.

Americans have come a long way from 1923 when Time Magazine first appeared to save them from being confused by "the million little chaoses of raw news" with a Voice from Above to explain what it all means. Back then, A. J. Liebling could rightly conclude that freedom of the press was limited to those who own one.

Now in a 24/7 flood of ideas and images, David Brooks tries to make the case that "the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association...You’re more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood."

His evidence is flimsy after citing stronger arguments that the Internet "may be harming the public square" by allowing us to personalize our news, visit only Web sites that confirm our prejudices and live in "information cocoons" that strengthen them.

The Supreme Court's decision on the loathsome videos suggests how hard it is to draw a line between free expression and behavior that damages the society.

In shielding the videos, eight out of nine members declined to limit First Amendment freedoms, with only Justice Alito dissenting with the opinion that they are linked with "violent criminal acts, and it appears that these crimes are committed for the sole purpose of creating the videos.”

Nobody is killing dogs on cable TV or YouTube--yet--but rabid ravings are degrading public discourse everywhere (pace Tom Tancredo) and the only permissible American response is not to suppress them but express a cathartic disgust, as Time's Joe Klein did this week.

The founding father, Henry Luce, would have approved.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Antidote for Poisoned Politics

Eight of ten Americans distrust their government, a new Pew poll finds, concluding that "Politics has poisoned the well" in the era of "a dismal economy, an unhappy public, bitter partisan-based backlash, and epic discontent with Congress and elected officials."

In the face of such domestic bitterness, however, a BBC poll of 28 countries finds that, coinciding with Obama's tenure, "America's influence in the world is now seen as more positive than negative." Only in Pakistan and Turkey does more than half of the population have an unfavorable view.

Tea Party proponents will likely find that such foreign approval only confirms how un-American the first African-American president is, seeing a lack of patriotism in his efforts to avert nuclear destruction in an unstable world.

Yet, on the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton reminds us what can follow from "the belief that the greatest threat to American freedom is our government, and that public servants do not protect our freedoms, but abuse them."

The man who was president then to mourn the deaths of 168 innocent men, women and children warns that, in "a contentious, partisan time...we must all assume responsibility for our words and actions before they enter a vast echo chamber and reach those both serious and delirious, connected and unhinged."

As if to underscore Clinton's warning, a gaggle of "patriots" prepares to make history by taking guns to a demonstration in a national park, only a few miles from the Capitol and the White House.

The politicians and pundits who spread verbal poison in this summer of American discontent may make headlines and get TV ratings for their efforts, but they should be reminded that their jihad against an elected American government may leave them with as much blood on their hands as any Middle East terrorist.

No number of votes in November can be worth that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Wall Street Umbrella War

It's come to this: The President is publicly calling the Senate Republican Leader a liar--and worse.

In his weekly address, Barack Obama says flatly that, after meeting with "two dozen top Wall Street executives to talk about how to block progress" on financial industry regulation, Mitch McConnell "came out against the common-sense reforms we’ve proposed. In doing so, he made the cynical and deceptive assertion that reform would somehow enable future bailouts--when he knows that it would do just the opposite."

This comes in response to a new solid GOP roadblock ("shilling for the banks" says a New York Times editorial) to what was looking like some bipartisan cooperation to avoid the kind of mess highlighted by SEC charges this week that Goldman Sachs was selling subprime mortgage securities to investors who lost more than $1 billion when the housing market crashed while, at the same time, betting against them through a large hedge fund.

All this recalls the old saying, "The rain falls equally on the just and the unjust, but more on the just because the unjust have stolen their umbrellas."

But the Wall Street umbrella stealers will keep staying dry if McConnell has his way. He is on TV today robotically repeating the same tired Frank Luntz talking point that Republicans used in trying to stall the health care bill, "What we ought to do is get back to the table and have a bipartisan bill."

Meanwhile, the Senate hearings are reminding Americans who were drenched in the past two years that those who profited from the downpour are offering mea culpas but not to give back the millions they made while still fighting to hold on to their umbrellas, with a little help from McConnell and friends.

Update: As the GOP drags its feet on reining in financial firms, their beloved market forces may do part of the job for them, as international banks and other investors start wondering where their money went, according to the Times:

"The S.E.C.’s action could also hit Wall Street where it really hurts: the wallet. It could prompt dozens of investor claims against Goldman and other Wall Street titans that devised and sold toxic mortgage investments.

"On Saturday, several European banks that lost money in the deal said they were reviewing the matter. They could try to recoup the money from Goldman."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Larry King Goes for the Gold

Approaching Guinness Book of Records territory as he files for his eighth divorce, 76-year-old Larry King still has a way to go before dethroning the champion of serial monogamy, Tommy Manville, who married 11 women 13 times in the last century.

Heir to an asbestos fortune, Marrying Manville became a cultural icon, but in those days, money alone was enough to make him appealing to "gold-diggers." During one divorce, he uttered the only memorable quote of his life, "She cried, and the judge wiped her tears with my checkbook."

King, on the other hand, is one of the 21st century's most prolific talkers and, more important, listeners--an aphrodisiac quality for women, according to the conventional wisdom about his grandfatherly sex appeal.

Be that as it may, King is going against the trendiness that has made him so successful by pursuing divorce in a time of recession that makes it financially painful to break up, according to a recent Washington Post report about couples "waiting out the downturn" before putting their marriages into the hands of lawyers and courts.

Meanwhile, CNN's star will be hiding his pain tonight by pairing up with Willie Nelson in a duet of "Blue Skies," with his future far brighter than the fate of Tommy Manville, who was turned into a national joke by such wits as Billy Wilder, who wrote a movie script about him, "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" in 1938, and then upped the ante two decades later in "Some Like It Hot."

In that classic, Joe E. Brown as Osgood Perkins III relentlessly pursues Jack Lemmon in drag to marry him, setting up one of the best movie punch lines ever.

After revealing that he's not a natural blonde, smokes all the time and can't have children without discouraging him, Lemmon finally pulls offs his wig and yells, "I'm a man!"

"Well," says Osgood, "nobody's perfect."

Larry King, who keeps spotlighting the Cinderellas of "American Idol," should be able to sympathize with that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Untaxed Tax Protesters

The ironic statistic du jour is that, despite Tea Party howling, 47 percent of American families are paying no federal taxes on their income this year.

Most are households with young children and (pace the white-haired, red-faced ragers at rallies) the elderly, benefiting from Obama-sponsored stimulus measures, most notably a 2009 reprieve from mandatory withdrawals from their pension plans.

As instant-gratification Baby Boomers begin to qualify for retirement, much older members of that group may see their surge of anti-government feeling as owing more to an exaggerated sense of entitlement than the loudly proclaimed Tea Party yearning for a more pristine past.

The really elderly remember a post-World War II era, presided over by a popular Republican in the White House, when the top tax bracket was 84 percent rather than today's 35, with no public outcry.

The only audible grumbling came from those New Yorker cartoon figures in upper-crust men's clubs and, on one occasion, John Wayne, the celluloid cowboy, whom I told, "If I were getting that many millions of dollars for making faces at cameras, I wouldn't complain about giving most of it back to people who buy tickets to see me do it."

But those were other days, when mainstream patriotism was about loving America rather than hating other Americans in a time when most of those elected to serve in Washington were working against prejudice rather than stoking it for political gain.

There won't be any easy escape from today's economic distress and soaring budget deficits, which will require tradeoffs and sacrifices, but putting on Colonial hats and holding public temper tantrums in Washington and elsewhere only obstruct the hard choices that will have to be made, no matter which party is in power.

It would be encouraging to see Mitch McConnell, John Boehner et al getting involved in that process rather than trying to hold the government hostage to public anger. As they talk about a new "Contract With America," they may want to remember that the first in the 1990s did not work out too well for Newt Gingrich and his gang.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Jacqueline on JFK, 44 Years Late

An old wound reopens with news that a book of Jacqueline Kennedy interviews about her husband will be published next year, recalling a story of my naïveté that ended in disappointment and insight in how the Kennedys protected their legend.

In 1965, I had asked Mrs. Kennedy to become a contributing editor of McCalls, but she seemed too deep in grief, musing, "If there were only some way to keep President Kennedy’s spirit alive...But it wouldn’t be natural for me to do it directly. Perhaps I could work with a man I trusted completely. Robert Kennedy would be ideal but, of course, that’s not possible...“

Two years later, she agreed to take part in a project for what would have been JFK’s fiftieth birthday in May, 1967, prompted by Ted Sorensen’s remark that he was being remembered too much for how he died rather than what he lived for. She would talk to Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had been Kennedy advisors and written books about his Administration, and the results would appear in McCalls.

Just before the taping date, I was offered US rights to an article to appear in a British magazine, The Queen, about Mrs. Kennedy’s unguarded conversations with a British journalist, Robin Douglas-Home--a smarmy piece, ostensibly admiring but showing her as the bitter, bitchy consort of a detached husband, “the original ‘bird in a gilded cage,’ too intelligent, too proud and too stubborn to accept her captivity.” I turned it down, alerted her to its existence and was duly thanked.

Soon afterward Mrs. Kennedy backed out of our project, and not long after that, a my-life-now interview with her appeared in another publication, which had bought American rights to The Queen piece and negotiated with her to grant an interview rather than see it published.

Wooing the Kennedys sometimes worked, but blackmail was apparently better. Clare Boothe Luce, who knew them well and was one of my contributors, tried to assuage my disappointment. "The Kennedys," she said, "leave no good deed unpunished."

Now we are told by Caroline Kennedy, in announcing publication of the 1964 Schlesinger interviews, "My mother's passion for history guided and informed her work in the White House. She believed in my father, his vision for America, and in the art of politics, and felt it was important to share her knowledge and excitement with future generations."

Perhaps I can be forgiven for feeling that she might have shared that "knowledge and excitement" 44 years earlier.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tiger Tale With Two Endings

The golf at the Masters this weekend was as exciting as hitting a ball into a hole can be, but the morality play starring Tiger Woods was fascinating in more complex ways.

The fallen hero did not achieve redemption with his clubs and came away unsatisfied, saying "I enter events to win--I didn't get that done," and now is taking "time off" to "reevaluate this."

"This" may be simply be the mechanics of his golf game, but a comparison of Woods and the protagonist of the 20th century's most provocative sports novel and movie suggests something more.

In a New York Times blog, Robert Wright sees "an eerie parallel between Woods and Roy Hobbs, the baseball player at the center of Bernard Malamud’s 'The Natural,'" who sets out to be "the best there ever was in the game” and is derailed by his appetite for women.

Wright points out the disparity between outcomes in the 1952 novel and 1984 movie starring Robert Redford, which appeared at the start of the era in which Oprah arrived to become such "a showcase for redemption that, when Tiger Woods had his fall, people started counting the days until the seemingly inevitable Oprah cleansing ritual."

Redford comes back from his downfall to win it all in an explosion of lights and to live happily ever after with a virtuous woman in white, but Malamud's novel ends with an earlier version of American attitudes toward sin, with Hobbs being condemned for his flaws and cast into publicity hell.

For Woods, the ending is still being written, but yesterday's chapter offers some clues. On the greens, he appeared unusually rattled while struggling to regain the old magic. His admirers may have been rooting for him with mixed feelings.

In his "time off," while still striving to be "the best there ever was," Tiger Woods will have to work on more than his game to determine which Roy Hobbs ending will be written for his story.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

President Romney?

The Empty Suit is back, winning a 2012 straw poll at the Southern Republican revival meeting, in absentia over Dr. No, Ron Paul; the Man of a Thousand Ideas, Newt Gingrich; and the Madonna of a Million Punch Lines, Sarah Palin.

Mitt Romney, who went down in the 2008 primaries by contradicting himself daily, is going for the White House this time as a stealth candidate, hoping to ride a GOP tidal wave by crouching under the radar.

Unseen, he prevailed by a single vote this weekend in New Orleans by sneaking in 200 "Evangelicals for Mitt," who handed out Romney buttons, piggy banks emblazoned with "Elect a president who won't break the bank," and copies of his new book, "No Apology," an ironic title for the man who spent his last campaign flip-flopping on abortion, gay rights and every other issue in the Religious Right political bible.

Hoping to be the 2012 "default candidate," Romney has been spending his time on what could described as an unPalin book tour, "with the patient, workmanlike mien that has distinguished him from other probable contenders who seem far more eager for attention," as one report puts it.

In his low-key efforts, Mr. Smooth could be counting on later use of a secret weapon, Rush Limbaugh, a wholly owned subsidiary of Romney's former partners, waiting in the wings to defend him against "drive-by media attacks" on his Mormon faith, as he did in 2007.

With the Democrats in disarray, as Republicans were after Watergate in 1976, Mitt Romney may be taking a leaf from the Jimmy Carter playbook running as Mr. Clean for a politically disgusted electorate.

In any event, he won't be looking for guidance from his father's 1968 campaign, which prompted one Republican governor to observe, "Watching George Romney run for the Presidency is like watching a duck try to make love to a football."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Supreme Degradation

The President's choice to succeed John Paul Stevens on the Court may be less significant for the country than the ugly confirmation process that is sure to follow. A legal saint, if there were one, would only be the excuse for a Senate auto de fe to embarrass the Obama Administration and curry favor for Tea Party votes in November.

"Justice Stevens," the New York Times editorializes, "has been an eloquent voice for civil liberties, equal rights and fairness. Mr. Obama should fill his seat with someone equally committed to these principles."

In today's poisoned political climate, those qualities will be viewed as anti-American as Justice Sonia Sotomayor's "empathy" when she was being vetted for the last vacancy.

To underscore that, as Justice Stevens announced retirement, the President had to withdraw his nomination of the eminently qualified Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department after a year of bitter Senate stalling.

“After years of politicization of the office during the previous administration," a White House statement said, "the president believes it is time for the Senate to move beyond politics and allow the Office of Legal Counsel to serve the role it was intended to--to provide impartial legal advice and constitutional analysis to the executive branch.”

But "impartial legal advice and constitutional analysis" are out of style on Capitol Hill, where the standard is now pandering to the prejudices of self-proclaimed patriots who have been whipped into an anti-Obama frenzy.

Ironically, all this would seem to argue for a Presidential choice that abandons caution and welcomes the ideological engagement that is sure to follow.

Is he up for that? At the very least, he should recall the immortal words of Sen. Roman Hruska in favor of Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell in 1970, who was deemed mediocre by legal experts across the political spectrum:

"Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."

Why not? The mediocre and worse have taken over Congress and, judging from the Republican field so far, have a shot at the presidency in 2012. Can't we try for excellence somewhere in Washington?

Friday, April 09, 2010

GOP's Roxie and Velma

Just as the two merry murderers were fated to team up for the finale of the musical "Chicago," Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann are together now for a doubles act to machine-gun any remaining sense in American politics.

Ticket prices are higher, $10,000 a plate for a Bachmann reelection fundraiser, but the performances are pure Zellweger and Zeta-Jones parody.

Palin does her signature number about real people "clinging to guns and religion like the rest of us," and adds a new chorus about the Obama nuclear initiative being like a kid in the playground who says, "Punch me in the face--I'm not going to retaliate."

Never to be outdone in nonsense, Bachmann comes on to chirp that two years ago "I said I had very serious concerns that Barack Obama had anti-American views, and now I look like Nostradamus."

All this is Tea Party crowd-pleasing in the "Chicago" tradition: "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle. Razzle razzle 'em. Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it and the reaction will be passionate."

Some fans are even talking about a Palin-Bachmann ticket for 2012. "What's wrong with being the party of no," belts out the Alaska governor who gave up politics for show biz, "when you consider what Obama, Pelosi and Reid are trying to do to our country? So be it. Not when it violates our Constitution!"

Catchy, although some critics may turn out to be as cranky as Obama himself who, when asked about her new tune, says, "The last I checked, Sarah Palin is not much of an expert on nuclear issues."

But for the moment, that doesn't seem to matter as much as the "Chicago" rule: "Give 'em a show that's so splendiferous, row after row will grow vociferous" as Palin takes her act to New Orleans for another Republican wingding to compete with the party's up-and-coming showstopper, Liz Cheney.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Happy Birthday, Betty Ford

She turns 92 today, a reminder of days in Washington when an honest, caring human being could command universal respect without the malice and spite that now infect everything.

Isolated in infirmity since the death in 2006 of her husband, Gerald Ford, who was president for only two and a half years, Elizabeth Anne Bloomer is a woman for all time who made her mark in American culture by showing a human face in the White House.

Betty Ford came there unexpectedly and never stopped being herself, unlike those who could have passed for inflatable life-sized dolls permanently positioned to stare adoringly at their husbands.

She spoke openly about everything, from equal rights for women to abortion to what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter were sexually active. But by example, she went beyond politics and set new standards for openness about her own life.

Undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer, Betty Ford spoke about it in public and wrote an article for me in McCalls to encourage women to go for early screening. When she later had to seek treatment for addiction to alcohol and painkillers, the magazine ran an article blaming years of neglect by a clueless husband. Instead of complaining about it, Mrs. Ford "sent copies to every politician's wife I know" and then spent years founding and promoting the Betty Ford Center for substance abuse sufferers.

She will undoubtedly get birthday greetings from today's First Lady, Michelle Obama, who has reason to be grateful to the woman who made staying human in the White House a bipartisan issue.

From the rest of us watching from the sidelines as well: Happy Birthday, Betty Ford.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Nuclear

Barack Obama is trying to do something about the word George W. Bush couldn't pronounce, but his revision to the US stance on nuclear weapons only underscores the near-impossibility of a neat solution to a problem that presidents have wrestled with for more than half a century.

In one of his last interviews, John F. Kennedy pointed out that Eisenhower had tried to limit testing in 1959 and failed but that, soon after averting a nuclear exchange in the Cuban Missile Crisis, he himself had succeeded in getting a test-ban treaty with the Soviets four years later.

"We can't get quickly discouraged," JFK said. "We can't accept the idea of the inevitability of a nuclear exchange. That is the ultimate destruction of the human race. That is what we have to avoid."

Now, a new president in a new century is still inching toward that goal with a new policy "to substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons."

The new Obama approach will not satisfy those who urge him to announce that the United States would never use nuclear weapons first or the other side sure to be dismayed by his making deterrence of a nuclear strike the "sole objective" of our use, leaving other threats to be dealt with by conventional weapons.

As he has shown time and again, this president favors rational and measured solutions in foreign policy, so this announcement should be no surprise.

Asked about what has been called "The Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion," Obama's answer to dealing with Iran is typical.

"This isn't a football game," he said. "So I'm not interested in victory, I'm interested in solving the problem."

JFK would have approved.

Update: On Thursday, the President was in Prague, signing a new nuclear-arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev, who signaled a harder line with Iran, "We cannot turn a blind eye to this," on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Strangelove Strategy for Financial Reform

One of the economy's Terminators is back, bringing Ayn Rand and memories of mid-20th century movies with him.

Preparing to testify before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Alan Greenspan reaffirms absolute faith in his mentor's me-first market philosophy in "The Fountainhead" and adds a note from "Dr. Strangelove."

Asked if the meltdown disputes Rand's theories, Greenspan says no, it was not the fault of free markets, that "the major mistake was assuming what the nature of risk would be. And the reason it was missed is we have had no experience of the type of risks that arose following the default of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

"That's the critical mistake. And I made it. Everybody I know who works in this business made it."

This is straight out of "Strangelove" in which a clueless general defends the fail-safe system that has allowed impending nuclear destruction of the planet: "I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up."

Beyond that, Greenspan should read Michael Lewis' new book, "The Big Short" and enlarge his circle of acquaintances to include those described therein who foresaw the bursting of the mortgage bubble and profited from it.

To make financial reform "fool-resistant," Congress will have to go beyond conventional wisdom and put restraints on the money manipulators that really work.

One step would be to break down Wall Street's old boys' network, where an estimated only two to three percent of finance-related chief executives are women, and reach across gender barriers for regulation of the system.

In choosing someone to oversee such activity, they would be well-advised to go beyond Greenspan's crowd and look to someone like Elizabeth Warren or Sheila Bair as a czarina who would bring to the macho game of grabbing profits at everybody else's expense a different perspective.

But not Ayn Rand's.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

American Rebounds

The weekend's irresistible sports metaphor is the NCAA final, "Duke vs. Butler," which sounds like a sequel to "Remains of the Day," "Gosford Park" and all the dramas juxtaposing lives of the privileged with those fated to serve them.

On the eve of a confrontation between American biggies and little guys from nowhere, it's tempting to translate that battle into the counterpart of Wall Street vs. Main Street but, in the real world, life is more complicated.

On the Sunday talk circuit, the Obama Administration is cautiously touting economic recovery, with Economic Adviser Christine Romer claiming "there's just been a tremendous increase in the labor force...over the last three months, we've added more than a million people to the labor force...people that might have been discouraged, dropped out because of the terrible recession have started to have some hope again and are looking for work again."

At the same time, another White House adviser, Lawrence Summers, is cautioning that "the economy has a long way to go" before jobless numbers are back down where they should be.

Unlike basketball, there is no time clock or scoreboard for economy recovery, and politically it's hard to score points with such arguments as Dr. Romer makes about "the biggest fiscal stimulus in American history," cash for clunkers, extending the first-time home buyers credit, the HIRE Act's tax incentive for hiring and a pending $30 billion small business lending program, among other moves.

Democrats will have a hard time winning in November with the slogan, "The recession would have been worse if we hadn't spent trillions to turn it around."

But the nation's Number One basketball fan knows that and, as he watches the NCAA finals, Barack Obama may find some consolation in seeing little Butler, founded by an abolitionist and now ranked high nationally in academic quality, going head to head with the hereditary lords of Duke, whose $50,000-a-year costs to attend are undoubtedly being provided in some part by parents raking it in on Wall Street.

But on Monday night, at least, the playing field will be level.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Pope's Red Herrings

On Good Friday, of all days, the Pope's priest, of all people, stirs blood memories of hatred by invoking Jews as "victims of collective violence" to bewail his spiritual leader's ordeal of criticism for failing to protect the victims of ordained pedophile predators.

As quickly as the Vatican has moved to distance itself from this crackpot comparison, it reverberates in the mind of one who, as a child 80 years ago, was beaten by an enraged bigger boy, never before seen, from a Catholic neighborhood.

An older friend of mine explained, "They say we killed Christ." "Did we?" I asked. "How the hell should I know?" he shrugged. "It happened a million years ago."

This Easter weekend's brouhaha, following Vatican complaints against the New York Times for "its attack mode about Pope Benedict XVI," brings a flash-forward to the 1950s when my college classmate Abe Rosenthal began to write bylined stories for the paper and was told to pick a middle initial, even though he had none.

The Sulzbergers, the owners, were sensitive about Jewish-sounding bylines, and so my friend became A. M. Rosenthal, just as a decade earlier another fine reporter had morphed into A. H. Raskin. If the Great Emancipator had been writing for the Times then, he would have been known as "A. B. Lincoln."

Now, more than half a century later, for one shaped by such experiences, it's hard not to see a subtext of all this in the statement of a Cardinal close to the Pontiff that the Times reporting of his failure in the child abuse scandal and an editorial were ""deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness."

That editorial said: "Pope Benedict XVI’s latest apology for the emerging global scandal of child abuse by predatory priests--an issue that the Roman Catholic Church should have engaged years ago--is strong on forgiveness but far short of the full accountability that Catholics need for repairing their damaged church."

Would the Vatican have seen an "attack mode" in such words from a newspaper not famously owned by a Jewish family, and would the Pope's priest have chosen to read a letter by any other than a "Jewish friend" to point out that the "use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt, remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism”?

Catholics themselves will have to decide on the merits of the priestly abuse scandal but, just this once, is it too much to ask that Jews be excused from being dragged into someone else's mess as, forgive the ethnicity, red herrings?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Mideast Muddle of Democracy

In what turns out to have been no April Fool's joke, Hamid Karzai blames fraud in Afghanistan's recent elections on "foreigners," and President Obama's national security adviser is not amused.

Brushing off such allegations, retired Gen. Jim Jones tells Jim Lehrer that that the Afghan president's progress against corruption is "very embryonic," citing the people's need "to pay bribes to do business, or pay off officials, or pay police for protection...in order to exist."

After eight years of fighting there, Americans are still lecturing its government about basic decency, as the President undoubtedly did on his trip last weekend, and hoping that the high cost in lives and money will somehow make the US safer against terrorism.

Against Iran, an impatient Obama is pressuring China to help "ratchet the pressure" against Teheran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, another Mideast project that has borne no fruit after years of alternating threats and negotiation.

Back in Iraq, a war presumably won by Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency genius, the post-election climate is muddier than ever with the Shiite militant Moktada al-Sadr reappearing to take advantage of the close election victory of Ayad Allawi by threatening to hold his own election for prime minister--a development that has the potential for a renewal of violence in Baghdad.

In the past weeks, with Americans mesmerized by the machinations of their own politicians in the bizarre struggle over health care reform, the project to bring democracy to the Mideast, inherited from master strategists George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, has been continuing at its own deadly pace.

Back here, the stakes in civil disarray are votes in November but, as always, for our young people over there, much higher.