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, September 30, 2010

That Bedfellows Thing

Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of New York for patronizing prostitutes, will soon be seen on CNN weekday nights pontificating alongside a Foxy conservative co-anchor.

Meanwhile, the contest for his old job is making Spitzer look like a choirboy as the Republican candidate declares "off limits" any discussion of a daughter with another woman while married to the mother of his three children.

Carl Paladino's emergence as a Tea Party hero who wants to "take a bat" to traditional politicians has caused a crisis of conscience for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, which loves angry GOP pols almost as much as sex scandals.

Now the would-be governor is threatening to "take out" a nosy Post editor, making it clear he is using the term in a Goodfellas sense rather than offering to share Chinese food with him. If the Post ends up endorsing Paladino, it could be a first in American journalism.

On the other coast, the gubernatorial issue is not who's been sharing the candidate's bed but who's been making it. Meg Whitman is explaining away an illegal immigrant who was her housekeeper for nine years until the eBay tycoon decided to run for office.

Firing her for self-protection was apparently OK, but turning her in, Whitman now says, would not have been the "right thing" to do, offering a new gloss on compassionate Conservatism.

All this induces nostalgia for North Carolina's outgoing governor, Mark Sanford, who had enough respect for voters to try to cover his tracks with that Appalachian Trail story as he sought true love in Argentina.

If the polls are right, his successor will be Nikki Haley, a Sarah Palin favorite, who had to overcome intra-Republican allegations of her own infidelity, to get the nomination.

Anyone who says "Politics makes strange bedfellows" will be taken out to the town square and horsewhipped.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dialogue With Deaf Democrats

Barack Obama and Joe Biden are out replaying favorite scenes from 2008, but for crowds of Democrats and independent voters, it is as if the sound has been turned off. Their base has gone deaf.

"When I talk to Democrats around the country," the President says in a Rolling Stone interview, "I tell them, 'Guys, wake up here. We have accomplished an incredible amount in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.' I came in and had to prevent a Great Depression, restore the financial system so that it functions, and manage two wars."

He concedes "there were some areas where we could have picked a fight with Republicans that might have gotten our base feeling good, but would have resulted in us not getting legislation done."

Joe Biden, as is his wont, puts it more bluntly and tells Democrats to "stop whining."

But the epidemic of deaf, depressed Democrats is not likely to abate between now and November, and there is nothing in the new health care reforms to treat their condition.

If anything, the President's pyrrhic victory in passing that legislation, rather than concentrating on economic issues, is a root cause of his dilemma now--a year-long spectacle of Republicans yowling about "Obamacare" while Democrats butchered and bargained over thousands of incomprehensible pages to buy off their own dissidents.

If the White House had set out to stage scenes that would lead to voter disgust and disenchantment, the results couldn't have surpassed the months leading to passage of health care reform that few voters understand--leaving only images of an ugly process and few signs of the progress that the new laws represent.

Was passing something rather than nothing worth it? The President will be out claiming that, in the long run, it was. But even his most ardent admirers will have their doubts and may not be energized enough to avoid the looming debacle at the ballot boxes.

Symbolically, Rahm Emanuel who counseled against doing that is leaving the White House to run for Mayor of Chicago. The President should have taken the advice of his most obnoxious pol.

Update: If Democrats fail to rebound, it won't be for the President's lack of trying. He drew an "upbeat but controlled" crowd of 26,000 in Wisconsin yesterday, telling them:

"The prediction among the pundits is, there's going to be a bloodletting for Democrats. That's what they're saying in Washington. And the basis of their prediction is that all of you who worked so hard in 2008 aren't going to be as energized, aren't going to be as engaged...

"We cannot sit this one out. We can't let this country fall backward because the rest of us didn't care enough to fight."

Meanwhile, the worst Democratic candidate in memory, Michael Dukakis, who lost to Bush I in 1988, has dropped by the White House to remind them to "pound" the message that Republicans "want to go back and do exactly what got us in this mess in the first place."

Rah-rah.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Unhealthy American Appetites

Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred. -Proverbs 15:17

I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it. -cartoon caption, The New Yorker 1928

The nation's body and mind are moving in sync as Americans reject Michelle Obama's campaign to eat more vegetables even as they disdain her husband's recipe for a healthier polity.

More and more, taste buds and brain cells are responding less and less to subtleties. As the President's approval ratings hit a new low, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows Americans eating far less fruit and vegetables than a healthy diet requires, little more than they did a decade ago despite all efforts at public education.

In the population, women, older people and those with higher incomes tend to consume more vegetables, according to the CDC report, but overall the nation is eating no better than it's thinking, judging from recent election results that show a growing taste for political red meat and fiery spice.

If eating habits seem a shaky metaphor for state of mind, consider the Republicans' new "Pledge to America," a dish of reheated pablum from political hacks caught between the Democrats' diet of delayed gratification and the Tea Party's buffet of political junk food.

The dilemma is nothing new. Back in the good old days of the last century, the Reagan Administration tried to pass off ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches and George Bush I bravely announced, "I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli."

A food marketer sums up the meaning of the CDC study, “Eating vegetables is a lot less fun than eating flavor-blasted Doritos."

Just so, but if there's any truth to the old saw, "You are what you eat," the new century is not looking good for a healthy America.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Murdoch Funds a War on Obama

They used to call the party out of power "the loyal opposition," but an Australian-born billionaire with Neanderthal politics and no journalistic scruples has changed all that.

Rupert Murdoch became an American citizen in 1985 so he could own TV stations here, and now as proprietor of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and more has turned his adopted country's mass communications powerhouse into a source of sleazy political power as well as profit.

As Glenn Beck's Dr. Frankenstein, Karl Rove's rehabilitator and Sarah Palin's sugar daddy, Murdoch has defined media deviancy down to the point where it matches the now rock-bottom ethical standards of politics.

One gauge of his dual motivation is reflected in the antics of the Journal, which Murdoch has put behind a pay wall online, but which in recent weeks has made freely available to all its most virulent attacks on Obama.

In today's edition alone, one columnist calls Barack Obama "kind of a jerk," another parses his "disastrous fall" and still another explains why "Connecticut voters want a smackdown of the president's policies."

But if would-be readers are interested in a critique of Stephen Hawking's views on God or what Congress should do about IPOs to help the American economy on "the road to recovery," they will have to pay Murdoch for the privilege.

In his full-bore attacks on Obama, there may be an element of the disappointed suitor for Murdoch, who courted him in 2008 and then even allowed his New York Post to endorse him.

"He is a rock star. It's fantastic," the media mogul said back then. "I am anxious to meet him. I want to see if he will walk the walk."

Two years later, Murdoch is busy giving Obama's ugliest attackers a free ride.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The War Behind the Endless Wars

From reports on Bob Woodward's new book, an old story emerges--how wars now take on a life of their own with the military pressing for more troops, handcuffing even a President desperate for a way out.

"I don't think you win this war," Woodward quotes Gen. David Petraeus. "I think you keep fighting. It's a little bit like Iraq, actually...Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives."

If that choice were put to a vote, how many Americans would support it?

Yet, under threat of even a single domestic attack, large or small, no President--particularly one under siege by Tea Party patriots--has the freedom to make rational decisions about Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama sounds like a man trying to persuade himself as he tells Woodward, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever...we absorbed it and we are stronger."

But from reports of internecine struggles among Administration, diplomatic and military brass emerges the picture of a Commander-in-Chief politically trapped, against his better judgment, into investing more American lives and treasure in an endless and futile enterprise, held hostage by the threat that any terrorist act would translate a withdrawal into treason.

There is a nightmarish quality to Woodward's picture of the President pressing the Pentagon for an exit strategy without ever getting one and finally resorting to his own patchwork decision of sending more troops but putting an artificial and unrealistic expiration date on their stay.

There is an unnerving picture of the Mideast War poster boy, Gen. David Petraeus who, Woodward says, took Obama's decision as a "personal repudiation." Ironically, Petraeus, who later replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal after being fired for allowing derisive comments about Administration figures, is quoted as saying he dislikes talking with David M. Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, because he is “a complete spin doctor.”

As details of the Woodward book emerge, real spinning begins with Republicans claiming it shows the President as weak and political, while the White House insists that he comes across as "analytical, strategic, and decisive, with a broad view of history, national security, and his role."

But from the perspective of the rest of Americans trapped by all this posturing, Woodward's book has no winners or losers, only victims.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Jimmy Carter Tells Us Too Much

As President, he was the boring guy at a party who explains everything but gets little, least of all his own failure to connect with people. Three decades later, Jimmy Carter is still amiably garrulous.

If, during four years in the White House, he was always dictating his thoughts, why insist on sharing them now? On claiming that Ted Kennedy kept him from enacting health-care reform? Or bragging that "my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents?”

Promoting his book, Carter, who gratuitously told Playboy before election that he "lusted in my heart" for other women, now flummoxes Jon Stewart, of all people, by trying to confess his own experience with self-pleasuring while alluding to a favored topic of Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell.

A fellow octogenarian can sympathize with his need to stay in the game, but younger generations should know this good-hearted but clueless president responded to an energy crisis and long gas lines by wearing a sweater on TV and talking about a "national malaise," backslapped the Russians and then cancelled our Olympic participation when they disappointed him, was unable to free American hostages for 444 days in Iran or stop Castro from exporting criminals and mental cases along with political dissidents to Florida with the Mariel boatlift.

As an ex-president, his humanitarian work is admirable but pales in scope next to Bill Clinton's. And when it goes beyond building homes for the poor, there is the same political naïveté that marked Carter's presidency as he bumbles through the Middle East and trades presidential prestige to free a single innocent American in North Korea.

As it happens, Jimmy Carter's umpteenth book coincides with a memoir by his running mate, Walter Mondale, a capable politician who was served up as a sacrificial lamb to Reagan in 1984.

“At heart, he was an engineer,” Mondale now tells the New Yorker about Carter. “He wanted to sit down and come up with the right answers, and then explain it. He didn’t like to do a lot of emotional public speaking.”

Most presidents learn quickly there are no "right answers," only complicated human transactions in connecting with people. Jimmy Carter never did.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can Comedy Central Rally the Radical Middle?

When Americans badly needed a few laughs during the Great Depression, a cowboy comic named Will Rogers became a huge star--and influential public figure--by tweaking politicians and announcing, "I don't belong to any organized party, I'm a Democrat."

Now that Democrats and their independent ilk are even more disorganized and disheartened, here comes another comic calling for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" at the Washington Monument on October 30th.

After Glenn Beck's crowd scene at the nation's capital, Jon Stewart is organizing "people who've been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs." The effort may be starting out as a parody but could turn into a rallying point to counter Tea Party excesses.

The call to arms starts with the now classic "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" and goes on to riff on it:

"Who among us has not wanted to open their window and shout that at the top of their lungs?

"Seriously, who?

"Because we're looking for those people. We're looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."

Stewart, along with Stephen Colbert holding a mock counter-rally, have the star power to draw an enormous crowd, and there will be no shortage of big names eager to join them. A cameo by one from the White House is certainly not out of the question.

Striking back at the Tea Party with reasonable arguments is not likely to sway millions of voters. Holding its excesses up to ridicule may work better

As Will Rogers used to say, "People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing."

Update: As almost 100,000 write on Facebook that they are planning to attend, Democratic gurus, true to their nature, are finding reasons to worry about the Jon Stewart rally, citing "asymmetry" (say what?) between the "zealous" Tea Party turnouts and those who respond to "a very gifted satirist calling for everyone to just chill."

They may have failed to notice that, if Democrats were at any lower temperature this year, they would be eligible for cryogenic storage. Chilling would be hot stuff.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sarah Palin's Body Snatchers

It's the 1950s again when atomic anxiety had kids ducking under school desks as Joe McCarthy et al were stalking Washington for subversives plotting to steal our liberties while Hollywood cheese showed aliens in aluminum suits invading the planet to steal our minds.

Sarah Palin's remake of The Body Snatchers has opened to sour reviews from both sides of the aisle but with a boffo start at the box office as veteran observers wonder if it has the legs to last through November when Tea Party preview enthusiasts thin out and mass audiences have to be won over.

Say what you will about her as an auteur, however, Palin is following the path of classic masters of mass fear, from Orson Welles' radio invasion by Martians to the makers of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula," who could create scary images in the minds of millions during hard times.

Purists may carp at stylistic touches such as the tacky Palin clone in the Delaware scene and Jim DeMint as an unconvincing Igor, but her feat in instantly assembling a U. S. Senator in Alaska out of body parts is a dazzling hommage to the original monster makers.

In the 1950s, politics and movies were still separate branches of the culture, even as Washington headline hunters borrowed Hollywood star power for their public floggings. Palin can now cast her productions with unknowns--no need for Sandra Bullock and such.

As this current reality show unreels nationally, new generations may take some comfort in recalling that the 1950s madness ended abruptly with Eisenhower Republicans taking back their party and JFK urging Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you—-ask what you can do for your country."

But that was in a simpler time. In the age of 3-D, how long will we all be trapped in this new horror show?

Update: In Washington's equivalent of an honorary Academy Award, the White House acknowledges Palin's box-office pow, with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noting that she "very well could be the most formidable force in the Republican Party."

As Palin heads for the first 2012 primary state, Iowa, to speak at the annual Ronald Reagan (movies, again) Dinner, President Obama is now scheduled for a "small town event" there later in the month.

Mr. Deeds vs. Godzilla?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ignorance-is-Bliss Senate Class of 2011

In a back-to-school speech, the President advises students to study and stay out of trouble: "That kind of discipline and drive--that kind of hard work--is absolutely essential for success."

He may want to save a tape of that exhortation for the new Congress next January, which could be posing for its class picture under a sign with its inspirational slogan, "We Won Because We're Not the Other Guy."

This year's ignorance-is-bliss election has reached a point of absurdity to revolt even Karl Rove, not hitherto known for a queasy stomach, who is now being attacked as "an establishment Beltway strategist" for "trashing" the Delaware primary winner on Fox News even as he joins the defeated candidate in not endorsing her and the Republican National Committee in not planning to fund her.

The State Party Chairman sums up the reaction: "I could buy a parrot and train it to say, ‘tax cuts,’ but at the end of the day, it’s still a parrot, not a conservative." This is sounding more like Monty Python than the GOP.

If today's voter mood persists, Sen. Christine O'Donnell of Delaware could join the Senate Class of 2011 along with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Sharron Angle of Nevada, Sen. Carly Fiorina of California, Sen. Linda McMahon of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Miller of Alaska and other legislative virgins to spend the next six years doing something they have never done before that will directly affect the lives of all Americans.

Unless this prospect alarms enough voters between now and November, we could all be living in an interminable Monty Python skit, but this time all the parrots will be animated and squawking.

Term limits, anyone?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Steep Price of a Tea Party Free Lunch

Will the last of the primary season mark the end of an electoral temper tantrum or just a step on the way to a bigger one in November?

Light bulbs are going on for traditional Republicans who, after feasting on opinion polls and relishing a takeover of both houses of Congress, are beginning to see the steep price of a Tea Party free lunch.

On Fox News, conservative intellectual Charles Krauthammer smacks down Sarah Palin's backing of a Delaware Tea Party Senate candidate, calling it "disruptive and capricious. Bill Buckley had a rule that he always supported the most conservative candidate who was electable, otherwise the vote is simply self-indulgence."

But GOP alarm goes beyond electability in November. Even in victories, what will they have in new officeholders coming in on a tide of anger, with no legislative experience and only fervent promises to block government and dismantle it?

"If the current Republican Party regards every new bit of government action as a step on the road to serfdom," predicts David Brooks, "then the party will be taking this long, mainstream American tradition and exiling it from the G.O.P."

In such a know-nothing tide, Brooks foresees political, fiscal, policy and even intellectual tragedies: "Conservatism is supposed to be nonideological and context-driven. If all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think. A pall of dogmatism will settle over the right."

Voting purely on emotion of any kind has a wasteful and destructive history. Liberals who relish the conservatives' dilemma this time may want to remember how in 2000 their idealistic ballots for Ralph Nader put George W. Bush into the White House.

And we all know how well that worked out for America.

Update: The "unelectable" Republican has won the Delaware Senate nomination, setting up a test for how strong the Tea Party brew will be in November, when the voting goes beyond the battle for the GOP's soul. Democrats would be well-advised to take nothing for granted in this topsy-turvy year

Monday, September 13, 2010

Melting Pot Meltdown

With anti-Muslim sentiment joining anti-Mexican immigrant bias and undisguised racism against the first black President, the American dream of assimilation seems to be falling apart.

Why is all this happening now when an even worse Depression and a wider war in the past century brought the country together, leading to the breakdown of discriminatory barriers in the decades that followed?

Blame it on Tea Party rage that elevates Boomer self-entitlement to patriotic fervor. Blame it on Republican surrender to corporate power that preys on the poor and middle-class and calls it free enterprise. Blame it on the 24/7 media and the Internet, which magnify the mindless at the expense of the meaningful.

Yet, for someone who has lived through both eras and spent a lifetime in journalistic search for understanding, those easy targets fail to explain all the differences.

From the start, America gloried in diversity. Emerson in his journals predicted that "the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes--of the Africans, and of the Polynesians--will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages."

Emerson's smelting pot became "The Melting Pot" a century ago, incorporating each wave of immigrants into its promise of freedom and equality. As a child in the 1930s, I was part of a generation who expected to hoist ourselves into that Pot and splash around in its splendors. And so we did. Not without having to overcome prejudice and exclusion, but with a patriotic certainty in that American promise.

Those who excuse today's poisonous atmosphere point to hatred of "the Huns" in the first World War and internment of Japanese in the second, but those were true wars against nations of enemies unlike today's War on Terror, fighting ragtag collections of zealots who represent no country and certainly no religion but their own destructive madness.

In the second half of the last century, the Melting Pot metaphor morphed into a Salad Bowl of multiculturalism, but that was an attempt to preserve the best of old cultures as part of the new American ethos of inclusion and acceptance.

After living through all that hope and promise, it's painful to see so much being swept away by new generations who profited from that history but can't seem to understand how precious and fragile it is.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Small Favor

The angry prophet of Gainsville, Fla. has had a vision that "God is telling us to stop,” according to the media that had anointed him for his babble about burning Korans.

Unfazed by similar exhortations from President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, Sarah Palin and 99 percent of the civilized world and after trying to blackmail a Manhattan imam into canceling plans for the "Ground Zero Mosque" and after at least one death in Afghanistan during rioting over his announcement, this week's grabber of 15 minutes is retreating back into the alternate universe from which he came, assuring the world that his mission has been accomplished:

“We feel that whenever we started this out, one of our reasons was to show, to expose that there is an element of Islam is very dangerous and very radical. I feel that we have definitely accomplished that mission.”

No word from high-school classmate Rush Limbaugh about his reaction to the news about his fellow bigmouth.

9/11/2010

The "physical rebirth" of the World Trade Center, says a New York Times editorial, "is cause for celebration on this anniversary. It is a far more fitting way to defy the hate-filled extremists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and to honor their victims, than to wallow in the intolerance and fear that have mushroomed across the nation."

When the planes hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon that morning, I said to someone, "This is the worst day of my life."

I didn't know then what I meant, but it was as if the crust of the earth had suddenly cracked and we would never again feel safe going about our daily lives. Over time, that feeling has receded, but the world has not been the same since.

What we lost that day nine years ago is social trust--the sense of not having to be constantly on guard against the malice of unknown people who want to hurt or kill us for no personal reason whatsoever.

Before 9/11, we took for granted unspoken rules that protect us from the outside world: We could walk safely in front of cars that would stop for red lights, eat food that had passed through the hands of countless unseen people, hand over our children every day to strangers who would protect and nurture them.

We still do all that and more every day, but we can’t board a plane, go to a stadium or walk a crowded street with the same sense of security we had before 9/11/01.

Here at home, our public life has become meaner, coarser and, in this political season, we are not the people we were in the last century--fiercely opinionated, intensely competitive but optimistic and generous underneath it all.

If time heals all wounds, nine years is obviously not enough. How much is?

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Party Time for bin Laden

Al Qaeda's Class of 2001 has much to celebrate this weekend on the anniversary of its biggest hits, not least of which is the fear and panic that has not only persisted but grown as a result of its 9/11 attacks.

Nine years later, Americans are divided by headline bigotry over building a mosque near Ground Zero while an ecclesiastical moron with a flock of fifty plans to mark the anniversary by burning the Koran despite bipartisan warnings by politicians and Gen. Petraeus that such antics could "endanger troops" and damage the war effort in Afghanistan.

What we have here is not a clash of cultures but the tyranny of lunatic fringes in which Osama bin Laden's fanatics on one side and U. S. counterparts of loudmouths who play into their hands hold millions of reasonable Muslims and Americans hostage to their attention-getting extremism.

The Koran-burners can't seem to grasp that incinerating the terrorists' holy book will offend not only them but the large majority of Muslims fighting them side by side with our own troops in the Middle East.

Speaking of loudmouths, Glenn Beck will be in Alaska to mark 9/11 by selling tickets for from $73 to $225 for some unspecified cause to an event that Sarah Palin promises will be "interesting and inspiring" for "patriots who will never forget."

In more solemn remembrance, President Obama will be laying a wreath at the Pentagon and Vice President Biden will attend services at the rubble of the World Trade Center in a show of respect to the innocent Americans who lost their lives nine years ago.

From whatever cave he is now occupying, Osama bin Laden will no doubt relish the divisive results of his strike at the American spirit, but his celebration should be tempered by the unique history of a nation that has overcome waves of religious intolerance and stupidity for centuries.

As book burners prepare for their work in Florida, another community--Hartford, Ct.--announces that it has invited local imams to perform Islamic invocations at its City Council meetings this month.

That may not match the heat of book-burning fires, but it will be a candle in the darkness.

Update: Two organizations, the Associated Press and Fox News, take a step toward media sanity by announcing they will not show the Koran burning on Saturday, if indeed it takes place.

If some journalistic purists find this to be "censorship," it may be useful to remember that news by definition is only a tiny fraction of what goes on all over the world and that editors have always made decisions about what's news and what isn't.

In the unfiltered world of the Internet, that function has been downgraded and has almost disappeared. Perhaps journalists should be grateful to the would-be Koran burners for the reminder that their judgment has not become totally irrelevant after all.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Obama Tries Out His Truman Act

Too little and too late, the President is out channeling the Harry Truman of 1948, who won with attacks on Republicans of a "Do Nothing Congress," inspiring the battle cry of "Give 'em Hell, Harry!"

But in personality and style, the urbane Barack Obama is ill-suited for the role of the cranky old man who turned around a sure-to-lose election back then. His Truman tryout yesterday evoked more laughter than cries of outrage:

"When it comes to just about everything we’ve done to strengthen our middle class, to rebuild our economy, almost every Republican in Congress says no. Even on things we usually agree on, they say no. If I said the sky was blue, they say no. If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no. They just think it’s better to score political points before an election than to solve problems."

Claiming that critics "talk about me like a dog," he asserted: "They’re betting that between now and November, you’ll come down with a case of amnesia. They think you’ll forget what their agenda did to this country. They think you’ll just believe that they’ve changed. These are the folks whose policies helped devastate our middle class and drive our economy into a ditch. And now they’re asking you for the keys back."

The President was even willing to go personal, taking a swipe at John Boehner as "the Republican who thinks he’s going to take over as Speaker" dismissing the saving of teachers, police and firefighters from cuts as mere “government jobs.”

But less than two months before Election Day in a time when more and more early ballots are being cast, the polls keep looking worse and worse for Democrats.

In doing his Truman impersonation at this late date, the President may want to remember what Adlai Stevenson, a two-time loser, said in comparing himself to John F. Kennedy who won the White House:

"In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke' but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, 'Let us march.'"

This year voters certainly seem to be on the march--but not in Barack Obama's direction.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Case for Being Caught Napping

A new survey shows that 34 percent of Americans take a daily snooze, setting off lively debate about the benefits to body and mind of a brief break from the pace of digital life.

Another study suggests that "an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power...it not only refreshes the mind but can make you smarter."

“Almost certainly," says a research psychologist, making the case against ceaseless stimulation, "downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories.”

If all this sounds like a rationalization for sloth, let me bear witness as an inveterate napper.

It began during World War II when trainees had to watch a weekly series of short films called “Why We Fight.” As a strident voice denounced Hitler and Hirohito to loud marching music, I sat at attention and slept. When the lights came on, I felt revived for more bayonet drills, calisthenics and obstacle courses.

I took that lesson into the working world now immortalized by "Mad Men." After acquiring an office with a couch, there were fewer two-martini lunches and more half-hour naps instead. More often than not, I woke up with answers to questions that had eluded me all morning.

The current upsurge in napping advocacy has even inspired a New York Times editorial:

"So why is it easier to find a coffee machine in the office than a spot for a doze? Perhaps the simplest answer is that sleep is so relentlessly personal. We are never more who we really are than when sound asleep, and being who we really are is something we’re supposed to do on our personal time.

"But let’s try to think of it this way. Plenty of us bring work home. Why not bring a little sleep to the office? It worked in kindergarten. It would work even better now."

So let the debate go on. Wake me when it's over.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Pitying Palin

A new Vanity Fair takedown disheartens an aged former editor who in his time has seen too many dreary "I didn't get the story because nobody would talk to me" magazine profiles.

"Even as Sarah Palin’s public voice grows louder," the magazine blurbs, "she has become increasingly secretive, walling herself off from old friends and associates, and attempting to enforce silence from those around her. Following the former Alaska governor’s road show, the author delves into the surreal new world Palin now inhabits--a place of fear, anger, and illusion, which has swallowed up the engaging, small-town hockey mom and her family--and the sadness she has left in her wake."

What follows the admission that "neither Palin nor her current staff would comment for this article" is a string of insights from former aides, "friends," hotel bellhops and her about-to-be biographer Joe McGinniss, who has rented a house next door, which may or may not have a view of the Palins' windows.

McGinniss was there at the dawn of peeping-Tom journalism with his "Selling of the President," which in 1968 supplanted as a best-seller Theodore White's meticulously reported series of "Making of the President" books during the Kennedy years.

The level of such reporting can be judged by his thesis then that Nixon's media handlers were manipulative geniuses when, in fact, they managed to spend millions turning his 15-point polling advantage after the conventions into a November victory by less than one percent.

McGinniss' book next year may very well make the Vanity Fair piece look like a valentine, but the meaning of both goes beyond the question of loving or hating their subject.

Sarah Palin, who has voluntarily made herself into a media creature by abandoning politics to make millions flaunting herself in public, is fair game as an object of reporting.

But what does it say about the thousands of words in Vanity Fair that Gail Collins' takeaway from the piece is that it "suggests that Palin does still cut costs by being an extremely bad tipper. The piece also resurrects the charge that she does not actually hunt, and claims that Todd had to scour the neighborhood to find some moose to put in that chili when a TV crew came to call"?

All this scrounging for Palinalia echoes the time of McGinnis' first book in the late 1960s when a would-be journalist named A. J. Weberman was featured in Esquire as a "garbologist," who reported on the rich and famous by rooting through their rubbish, reconstructing their inner lives from the evidence of egg shells, coffee grounds and discarded scrap paper.

As journalism, it also recalls the expression GIGO from the early days of judging the reliability of computer output--garbage in, garbage out.

Update: You can count on Sarah Palin to be abrasively annoying, even when she's in the right. Her reaction to the Vanity Fair piece is to blast "impotent, limp and gutless reporters" who use anonymous sources, thereby giving credence to all those reports therein about her hair-trigger temper. Her grievances could have been much better expressed without impugning the author's cojones or courage, but it doesn't seem to be in her emotional range to respond with more sorrow than anger.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Gates Near Tears

The most moving moment in ending America's combat mission in Iraq comes not from the President's touch-all-the-bases Oval Office speech but the stifled tears of a man who helped George W. Bush prosecute the war.

At an American Legion convention yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates choked up as he said: "Today, at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,427 American service members have died in Iraq, 3,502 of them killed in action; 34,265 have been wounded or injured. We must never forget."

Gates' emotion is a fitting response to the misbegotten invasion of a country that neither possessed weapons of mass destruction nor harbored 9/11 terrorists, as its justifiers--Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and, yes, Colin Powell--claimed in selling it to the American people.

Yet, in the Oval Office, Barack Obama was more circumspect:

"From this desk, seven and a half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night. A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home was tested.

"These are the rough waters encountered during the course of one of America’s longest wars. Yet there has been one constant amidst those shifting tides. At every turn, America’s men and women in uniform have served with courage and resolve."

The President's cautious rhetoric is understandable, but his listless attempt to "turn the page" and link Iraq to the current operations in Afghanistan and even the struggling economy project not the passion of the man who promised Change but an embattled politician hitting talking points during an election year that threatens to disembowel his party.

The speech, says a New York Times editorial, "made us reflect on how little Mr. Bush accomplished by needlessly invading Iraq in March 2003--and then ludicrously declaring victory two months later."

"We," the Times adds about Obama's speech, "are puzzled about why he talks to Americans directly so rarely and with seeming reluctance...The country particularly needs to hear more from Mr. Obama about what he rightly called the most urgent task--'to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work.'”

The country needs to hear more from the President in words that go beyond his by-the-numbers declamation yesterday. Perhaps Gates' near-weeping points the way for Barack Obama to share, in the poet's words, "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."