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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

News from the Cold War Nursing Home

The FBI and KBG are still playing the old games.

The Bureau, which failed to anticipate the Times Square bomber, has been relentlessly tracking Russian agents posing as suburban homeowners for years, and the former spymaster Vladimir Putin is kvetching about it

"Back at your home," he tells another retiree, Bill Clinton, drawing a laugh, "the police went out of control throwing people in jail. But that's the kind of job they have."

The indictment of 11 "deep cover" agents recalls the days when Americans were kept aware of potentially dangerous neighbors by that expert on secret lives, J. Edgar Hoover.

The news has a Rip Van Winkle feel to it, as if the FBI were awakening from a decades-long nap, unaware of this month's visit by the Russian president, who was warmly greeted in the White House, shared cheeseburgers with the President and was given a tour of Silicon Valley as well as the 21st-century imperative of derailing Middle East terrorism rather than Communist subversion.

Thousands of surveillance hours produced not charges of espionage but of acting as "unauthorized foreign agents and conspiracy to commit money laundering"--not quite as alarming as planting bombs in midtown Manhattan, but in the arcane world of spycraft, who can tell?

The indicated conspirators spent years living in American suburbs while, according to prosecutors, penetrating American “policy making circles.”

They did their undercover work well, according to neighbors interviewed by the New York Times: "They raised children, went to work in the city each day, talked the small talk with neighbors about yard work and overpriced contractors. In short, they could have been any family in any suburb in America."

The only mystery about them is what kind of spying they did, but the Justice Department is keeping us in suspense about that until their trials begin.

Until or unless there are nefarious revelations then, the whole thing is reminiscent, on both sides of the international intrigue, of the case of Lt. Haroo Onoda, who was arrested in 1972 after hiding in a remote Philippine island for 29 years not knowing that World War II had ended.

Some people always get the news late.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Self-Education of Robert Byrd

He will be remembered as the nation's longest-serving lawmaker ever, a Ku Klux Klan bigot who lived long enough to back an African-American president, a patriot who tried to stop his country from starting a disastrous war in Iraq and, above all, someone who never stopped learning.

A self-made man if there ever was one, Robert Byrd, who died today at 92, 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."

But in May 2008, Sen. Robert Byrd was 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."

An advocate of lifelong education, Robert Byrd practiced what he preached, becoming the only member of Congress ever to put himself through law school while in office. It's hard to imagine any of the current or future crop of blowhards doing anything like that.

R.I.P., Senator.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bad News for a Good Soldier

While Barack Obama was doing his Donald Trump act telling Stanley McChrystal "You're fired!" on TV, the winner of this season's Afghanistan Apprentice show was at the President's side solemn and expressionless.

For Gen. David Petraeus, who had fainted earlier this month while testifying before the Senate, this new assignment comes as the 21st century definition of a good soldier saluting and doing his duty in the face of a personally devastating order.

To start, the 57-year-old general is leaving a comfortable office job in Florida to take a step down in the hierarchy to command a military/political mess that will put him under 24/7 pressure. This return to the line of fire comes less than a year after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and undergoing radiation treatment for it.

"The challenges of Afghanistan," notes Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post, "mean that Petraeus is risking the reputation he earned in Iraq as one of the greatest generals of his generation for what is, at best, a jump ball. The move feels even more dicey considering Petraeus's alternative: polishing his legacy at Centcom on the way to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"Finally, Petraeus has been regarded in some GOP circles as the best (only?) candidate with a chance of beating Obama in 2012. While that has always been a long shot, it now seems like a no-shot."

Finally, and most crucial, the General is under pressure to appear to be implementing a policy that has been losing public favor and political support while at the same time managing Karzai in Kabul with the same iron fist in a velvet glove that he used on al-Maliki in Baghdad.

At the coming Senate hearings, Petraeus will have to show deference to his Commander-in-Chief and cope with GOP grandstanding about the dangers of Obama's 2011 deadline to start winding down America's longest war ever. His tap-dancing skills will be put to their severest test.

When David Howell Petraeus was graduating with honors from West Point in 1974 as the Vietnam War was becoming history, could he have imagined ending his career in an atmosphere where generals are being asked not just to fight their country's battles but "act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts" and "play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight?"

As JFK used to say, life is unfair but the best American leaders find a way to deal with it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Exposure, Indecent and Otherwise

Two incidents of stripping public figures bare bracket the question of "the public's right to know" in an era of redefining journalism--the downfall of Gen. McChrystal and an inconvenient possible truth about Al Gore as a Clintonesque groper.

David Brooks asserts the General was done in by a cultural change that has elevated "private kvetching" by public officials to the forefront of the news, citing Theodore White's "Making of the President" books in the 1960s as a turning point.

He concludes that "the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important."

For a participant and close observer of all this, that misses the main point--an evolution that has taken journalism from helplessly reporting official lies (as in Sen. Joe McCarthy's wild claims) to digging for the truth behind them (Woodward and Bernstein) to, in the age of the Internet, of swamping us 24/7 with facts, factoids and fake news.

If anything, the McChrystal saga illustrates, not the overwhelming of public privacy, but a classic journalistic mission, particularly of magazines with the luxury of time to do it, of finding and showing the truth behind officially constructed facades.

Over the past year, the General's insubordination was one of those truths struggling to be seen, going back to last fall when he went public to pressure the President's decision of more troops for Afghanistan, to the point of being indirectly reprimanded by the Secretary of Defense.

McChrystal's arrogance, far from being what Brooks terms a harmless outlet to "let off steam," was part of a campaign to pressure an ambivalent President into making a major commitment of lives and money to what many, if not most Americans, consider a losing cause.

What Michael Hastings showed in Rolling Stone will probably win a National Magazine Award, for the same reasons that I, as a judge 40 years ago, voted to give one to the New Yorker for Richard Harris' reporting on what John Mitchell was doing to corrupt the Justice Department, long before the Watergate scandal broke.

All the way down at the other end of the news food chain is a National Enquirer revelation that Al Gore may or may not have acted like a jerk while getting a massage in Portland, Oregon four years ago.

Do we really need to know the details of that? Or does that come under the heading of giving people the privacy, by Brooks' definition, to let off steam?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Macho Gone Mad

"The Runaway General" may soon be gone, but a mystery will remain.

For someone who served under Patton in World War II and lived through the MacArthur mess over Korea, the text of McChrystal's self-immolation in Rolling Stone still comes as a mild shock--a hard-to-believe-it's-not-parody of macho gone mad in an era when top generals have learned to be as smooth as Petraeus, who sold Bush's Iraq Surge without getting his hair mussed by the media.

McChrystal, on the other hand, revels in projecting a Neanderthal image, starting with his complaint about being "screwed into" attending a formal Paris dinner described as "gay" by his aide. "I'd rather," the General says, "have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this."

The next night, for his wedding anniversary, McChrystal herds his wife and staff to an Irish pub, the "least Gucci" place in Paris. ("He once took me to a Jack in the Box when I was dressed in formal wear," she recalls.)

There is something more than meat-and-potatoes, man's man stuff going on here. Behind all the contempt for civilians, there is amped-up posturing to separate McChrystal from his picture of a sissified, latte-drinking elite thwarting a right-thinking man of action from doing the right thing.

But McChrystal has been as clueless about what to do in Afghanistan as the politicians he despises. His damn-the-torpedoes act has produced no positive results, and the postponing of a proposed offensive in Kandehar was the result of conditions on the ground, not civilian interference.

In his frustration, the Runaway General has been trying to escape the reality that Afghanistan can't be bulldozed by his counterinsurgency strategy, no matter how macho the trappings. Whatever his immediate fate, McChrystal has served his country well by dramatizing that.

Update: The President played his Commander-in-Chief card today, firing the General and replacing him with his polar opposite, Gen. Petraeus. Now McChrystal can start planning his ballsy memoirs to explain how Afghanistan could have been saved if he and his crew hadn't been forced to endure all those gay dinners in Paris on the taxpayers' dime.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

McChrystal's MacArthur Act

Six decades after a commanding general lost his job for bad-mouthing Harry Truman's conduct of the Korean War, another is in the White House today apologizing for deriding Obama officials over the conflict in Afghanistan.

But Stanley McChrystal is no Douglas MacArthur, a mythic figure after his triumphal World War II return to the Philippines and a consummate military politician who played Congress like a violin in opposing his President's caution over risking war with China in Korea.

Dwight Eisenhower, who served under him before becoming Supreme Commander, once noted that in the 1930s, "I studied acting under MacArthur."

With none of his predecessor's charisma, McChrystal is in trouble, not for disagreeing over policy but for demeaning Administration officials who have urged caution in Afghanistan during a Rolling Stone interview.

"Are you asking me about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal is quoted as asking the reporter at one point, laughing. "Who's that?" as an aide chimed in, "Biden? Did you say Bite Me?"

This kind of low-rent pique, also directed at Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, is a far cry from MacArthur's eloquent but wrong-headed advocacy of widening the Korean War, warning that "if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom...There is no substitute for victory."

"Victory" in Afghanistan is an even murkier concept than it was in Korea back then, and it makes matters worse to have the American commander playing for cheap laughs at the expense of his Commander-in-Chief's political team.

McChrystal will no doubt escape MacArthur's fate of being fired for insubordination, but as he promises to button his lip in the future, he may want recall his role model's famous farewell to Congress:

"When I joined the Army...it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that 'old soldiers never die; they just fade away.'"

For McChrystal, a little fading away right now would be a good idea.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Piling on the President

Opening his Fathers Day gifts, Barack Obama must be basking in a rare moment of unconditional love as his White House is engulfed in a rising spill of criticism and disapproval from all sides.

After what Frank Rich terms a "doomed" speech on the Gulf gush, the President this weekend is being called, on the one hand, "snakebit" by Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter who ruined Bush I's reelection chances by having him mouth "Read my lips, no new taxes" and, on the other, "incompetent and amateur" by Mort Zuckerman, a real-estate tycoon who bought his way into publishing punditry only to end up high on the list of Bernie Madoff's Ponzi victims.

To make the gloom global, Der Spiegel, the post-Nazi German newsweekly with a taste for scandal, pronounces Obama "in danger of turning into an idealistic, one-term president like Jimmy Carter."

Amid all this, the Joe Barton "BP shakedown" flap gave Democrats only a temporary reprieve from bad news (and a hook for election fund-raising) as House Republicans shut down Barton by threatening to take away his privileged position for shaking down all the oil companies for contributions.

Meanwhile, stepping back for a longer view, the Washington Post suggests "narrative creep" in media preoccupation with the man who won the presidency less than two years ago as a quasi-mythic figure and now has to deal with a pileup of crises in the real world:

"The BP oil spill has largely been treated as the latest plot twist in the Obama epic. The plume of crude rising from the seabed is not only the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, darkening the gulf and thousands of lives and pervading the nation with a sense of helplessness, it is a metaphor for Obama's loss of control, a revealing moment to study our protagonist."

But the explanation for Obama's current woes may be as simple as media payback, the process by which journalists elevate politicians and then, when that cycle is over, compensate by tearing them down. It happened to JFK in the last century and John McCain in this one.

When the current round of Obama trashing is over, the only direction he can go is up.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama's Moby Dick Moment

In the Oil Spill, the President is sounding like Ishmael but Americans want him to act more like Ahab.

“My power is not limitless," he told Gulf residents before The Speech last night. "I can’t dive down there and plug the hole. I can’t suck it up with a straw.”

That exasperation is reflected in postmortems of his attempt to take political charge of an unmanageable mess that has inspired parallels with Melville's saga of human hubris, a relentless search for oil leading to self-destruction in the ocean's depths.

The President's problem now is that the public expects him to match in his response some of the maniacal passion that led BP to endanger the environment and economy, but such acting out is neither in his nature or the realities of a situation that requires the perpetrator to clean up the scene of an ongoing crime.

As estimates of its output grow, the gush goes on as a continuing image of American impotence no matter how hard the White House pushes BP to stop it and/or put up the money to pay for years of cleanup to come.

Nobody is going to write a happy ending for this 21st century version of "Moby Dick." After his litany of efforts to respond last night, the President was reduced to prayer with "our unyielding faith that something better awaits us if we summon the courage to reach for it."

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have been reaching for "something better" out of the Spill by dumping their shares of BP on the stock market.

Like members of the Pequod crew, they are grabbing for anything that might keep them afloat as the ship goes down.

Update: After meeting with the President, BP's Chairman discovers they share an empathy, “He's frustrated because he cares about the small people and we care about the small people. I hear comments that sometimes large oil companies are greedy companies that don't care. But that is not the case with BP. We care about the small people."

Just about as much as Ahab cared about the small people below his decks.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Gen. Petraeus' Gold Mine

As the war in Afghanistan worsens, its American proprietors have suddenly discovered that, far from being a quagmire, the country is a jackpot of "nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits...far beyond any previously known reserves."

Trumpeted in a front-page New York Times story, quoting Gen. David Petraeus no less, this "revelation" comes at a time when, the Washington Post points out, "Bad news from Afghanistan came in a steady stream last week," including increasing casualties and corruption as the "perception that the clock is ticking on the U.S. mission pushes Karzai toward building and defending his own family network, and favoring aides who can talk to Pakistan--and maybe the Taliban--over those close to the United States."

This juxtaposition of bad news on the ground and pie in the sky leads to a skepticism encapsulated by Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic in a blog post headline, "The Mineral Miracle? Or A Massive Information Operation?"

The Times story tells us, "The vast scale of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth was discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists...

"While it could take many years to develop a mining industry, the potential is so great that officials and executives in the industry believe it could attract heavy investment even before mines are profitable, providing the possibility of jobs that could distract from generations of war."

The unpersuaded observer will be pardoned for suspecting that this sudden transformation of America's Afghan mess into a 21st century version of Sutter's Mill may be meant to "distract" us from almost nine years and counting of an endless war that is growing worse by the week.

From this perspective, the "news" that Afghanistan may provide lithium for American laptops and BlackBerrys looks more like another Oil Spill than a Gold Rush.

Update: As skeptical as outside observers might be about their mineral bonanza, Afghanis are excited to the point of figuring out how much they will get--$34,482.76 for each man, woman and child--as President Karzai's spokesman pooh-poohs the idea that the Taliban and local warlords might decide to cut themselves in for a larger share.

In a country where nothing is ever what it seems to be, that may pass for a government promise of socialized mining to surpass proceeds from the drug trade.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Immigrant Offspring: Correspondent and Queen

Helen Thomas and Queen Noor were in the news this week, American women of Middle East descent making career moves.

Thomas, who has annoyed ten presidents with questions at White House press conferences, made the mistake of answering one herself and ended up unemployed shortly before her 90th birthday.

Her Majesty, nee Lisa Halaby of Washington, widow of Jordan's King Hussein, was in Hollywood to promote a movie she helped make with Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" producers warning about nuclear proliferation.

An octogenarian journalist's compassion goes out to Thomas, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, despite her telling people of my birth to "get the hell out of Palestine" and relocate to "Poland, Germany and America and everywhere else."

Making such a remark to two men with microphones wearing yarmulkes is surely more a sign of senior misjudgment than vicious anti-Semitism, but the demands of political correctness have led to White House denunciation and Thomas' banishment after more than half a century of hard work as a journalist.

Unlike Thomas, Queen Noor was born to American wealth and privilege a generation later, her father a Deputy Defense Secretary for Truman who became head of Pan American Airways and later JFK's head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Stripped of her role as Queen Mother after her husband's death, the former Ms. Halaby has spent her widowhood working for good causes, including the best of all--avoiding global devastation by the spread of nuclear weapons.

As she goes about promoting the movie, "Countdown to Zero," the former Queen is subjecting herself to previously inexperienced indignities, mostly notably this weekend an interview with smarmy Bill Maher.

But no price is too high to help keep the world from blowing up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Whatever Happened to "We"?

In retrospect, George W. Bush was right when he described himself as a Uniter, not a Divider. He left office after bringing together Democrats and Independents under the banner of "Yes We Can" while Republicans campaigned as if he had never existed.

A year and a half later, the dams of Bush government-in-denial have burst open to flood the political scene with economic and environmental disasters resulting from a Decider who spent eight years decreeing that regulation of anything was wrong, leaving behind an electorate swamped by social wreckage and furiously divided over what to do about it.

Now, the Oil Spill provides only one metaphor for a helplessness that has overtaken the collective pronoun not only in "Yes We Can" but as deeply in the national psyche as "We the people" in the Preamble of the Constitution.

This election year is unfolding with the theme of "Theys" who are responsible for every misery, among them incumbent lawmakers of both parties, ineffectual bureaucrats, rapacious corporations, greedy Wall Streeters and, of course, the man behind the desk with the sign, "The buck stops here."

As the list lengthens to include the children of illegal immigrants and as Tea Party zealots begin to turn on one another, we are close to the wisdom of Pogo: "We have met the enemy...and he is us."

For guidance, today's vociferous patriots may want to pause in their frantic dumping of everything overboard long enough to recall another "we" tenet of the Founding Fathers: "United we stand, divided we fall."

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

American Ass-Kicking

Another primary day, another occasion for voter disgust-- today's ballots will be parsed for the degree and direction of anti-incumbent rage as new polls show such passion at an all-time high.

All this recalls the reaction of a social critic half a century ago to excoriation of those who produce mass entertainment as purveyors of junk: "Yes, but what about the people who consume all this swill, who choose the bad over the good, who don't know or don't care about the difference?"

In their current pique, voters are blaming everyone but themselves for public problems while overlooking the inconvenient fact that they chose the incumbents they now hate and are about to transfer their approval to a different set of charlatans and clowns.

Across the primary scene, campaigns are being driven by South Carolina "freak show politics" and inexperienced candidates' "obscene" spending in California, ensuring that new choices will be no better and probably worse than the old.

As President Obama elegantly declares he is looking for "whose ass to kick" over the Gulf oil spill, the American public is engaged in the same search for who to blame for everything.

The enterprise is bipartisan, as reflected in a meeting of "progressive" organizations, where references to government failures provoke the loudest cheers as only one voice urges that organizers “invest in the slow, respectful work of talking to people in our country again.”

When the President is finished satisfying his critics with a manly display of posterior pummeling, he may want to get back to doing that again or come November we will end up being governed by the worst set of horses' asses ever.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Overanalyzing Obama

George W. Bush was lucky. Over eight years, the so-called liberal media decided he was an incurable clod, mocked him as the self-described Decider and left his inner life alone.

Not so with Barack Obama, for whom the Oil Spill has unleashed a new rush of psychobabble from the Left, with globs of comment about his detachment, over-rationality and rage deficit.

As everyone from Maureen Dowd to Spike Lee urges the President to "go off," his Press Secretary is reduced to defending the boss against charges of excessive anger management by citing his clenched jaw and order to "Plug the damn hole" as proof of furious displeasure.

Now along comes Frank Rich to advise "Don't Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even" and assert that "the debate over how to raise the president’s emotional thermostat...allows Obama to duck the more serious doubts about his leadership that have resurfaced along with BP’s oil."

Rich wants the President to stop his intellectual reliance on so-called experts, "credibly seize the narrative that Americans have craved ever since he was elected during the most punishing economic downturn of our lifetime" and transform himself into a new Teddy Roosevelt to "wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off."

For Obama, such sympathetic but insistent prescriptions for more activism, bracketing Tea Party accusations of too much, must be a constant source of wonderment about how the message of hope and change that took him to the White House has collided with realities that lead to picturing him as an impotent Messiah on the one hand and the Devil incarnate on the other.

In this terrible time for Americans, an alternative view would be gratitude for a president with intelligence, ideals and an unflappable temperament who understands the limits of his power and, making human mistakes along the way, is doing fairly well in meeting an unprecedented pileup of challenges.

Would it be too much to ask Obama's critics on the Left for a moratorium on deconstructing him to match the next ten days of silence from Rush Limbaugh on his honeymoon?

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Gore Divorce

A decade ago, who would have thought Hillary and Bill would still be together as Tipper and Al end their forty-year marriage?

In announcing their breakup, the Gores requested "respect for our privacy," but that hasn't stopped speculation about what happened to the man who might have been president if Bill Clinton had kept his pants zipped.

The Gore news comes right after the premiere of an awful HBO movie titled "Special Relationship" that explores Tony Blair's bond with Clinton as his presidency was being damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and succeeds only in underscoring how messy the interplay between public and private lives can be.

The HBO take on the Clinton marriage, incidental to its portrait of Blair as a devout toady, portrays the 42nd president as a devious glutton, whose "sex with that woman" comes as a surprise to his wife.

Not likely. Nobody has ever accused the deceived First Lady who parlayed her experience into Senator, almost President and then Secretary of State of being clueless. The more plausible explanation is that the Clinton marriage had long ago morphed into an arrangement between two ambitious Baby Boomers with separate agendas in life.

The Gores, on the other hand, his wooden public persona and that theatrical convention kiss notwithstanding, seemed genuinely connected and Tipper Gore, in a way that recalls the forthrightness and public honesty of Betty Ford, spoke openly about the damage politics can do to a marriage and her own bouts with depression.

Serious people, unlike the John Edwardses et al, have a hard time preserving their private lives while living on a public stage.

Whatever gabble there is now about long-marriage breakups, the Gores deserve as much privacy as they can get in this media-drenched age. At least, there is the consolation that HBO won't be making any movies about their life together.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

They Must Know What They're Doing

In the 1960s, an editor I knew proposed a snarky picture book to be titled "They Must Know What They're Doing or They Wouldn't Be Where They Are" that would show the captain of the Titanic, the designer of the Edsel, LBJ directing the Vietnam war and other examples of low acumen in high places.

Since then, the list has grown with Nixon at Watergate, Jimmy Carter's bumbling on the Tehran captives, George W's Iraq occupation, Alan Greenspan handling the housing bubble, but now new candidates are arriving at warp speed.

"Everybody," David Brooks observes, "is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis...a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself."

BP's inability to stop the gush and the White House's helplessness in the face of that failure are a perfect pairing of new entries in the annals of unexpected impotence by powerful institutions.

As the Justice Department and Gulf states' Attorney Generals begin looking for ways to apply legal pressure, their dilemma is described in the Washington Post: "The opening of a criminal investigation or civil action against BP, if either were to happen, would create the unusual situation of the federal government weighing charges against a company that it is simultaneously depending on for the most critical elements of the response to the record oil spill."

Tea Party activists will surely blame all this on officeholders but that would be like watching Abbott without Costello or laughing at Laurel and ignoring Hardy as government and corporate leaders pose for their joint portrait to follow the honchos of Wall Street and Congress in the 21st century edition of "They Must Know What They're Doing..."

Update: The incompetence carnival goes on as the Justice Department announces its probe, the stock market savages BP and the "national incident commander" tries to plug the hole with cliches: "We've got to keep our heads in the game; we've got to keep our shoulders to the wheel." And look out for the icebergs.