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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Send in the Wikileaks Clowns

The people at PBS have a twisted sense of humor, pairing for a Wikileaks deep-dish discussion Zbigniew Brzezinski, who helped Jimmy Carter arm the Afghans we're now fighting, and Stephen Hadley, who put the claim about Iraq's nuclear material into Bush's 2003 State of the Union.

As experts on diplomatic disasters, they provide perspective on the leak, with Hadley nodding agreement to Brzezinski's wise-man surmise: "I wonder whether, in fact, there aren't some operations internationally, intelligence services, that are feeding stuff to WikiLeaks, because it is a unique opportunity to embarrass us, to embarrass our position, but also to undermine our relations with particular governments."

It starts the rest of us wondering not how all those foreign agents manipulated the soldier who dumped the documents but how America survived 12 years with Abbott and Costello in top White House positions.

To round the comedy turn into a Three Stooges routine, along comes reliable Sarah Palin to blame it all on Obama in a Facebook post, wondering how a “22-year-old private first class could get unrestricted access to so much highly sensitive information” and “copy and distribute these files without anyone noticing that security was compromised.”

Palin asks why the U.S. didn’t “use all the cyber tools at our disposal to permanently dismantle Wikileaks” and suppress the document spill:

"The White House has now issued orders to federal departments and agencies asking them to take immediate steps to ensure that no more leaks like this happen again...But why did the White House not publish these orders after the first leak back in July? What explains this strange lack of urgency on their part?"

Someone may get around to explaining the Constitution to Palin before she starts running for President in 2012, but until then, there's no urgency in keeping her from mouthing off. At least she's supplying her Fox boss, Rupert Murdoch, with material for his Wall Street Journal blogs and late night comics for their standups.

Update: The stage is getting crowded, but Mike Huckabee refuses to be left out of the clownfest, telling an interviewer, “Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason, and I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.”

Now there's a former minister who refuses to turn the other cheek.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Naked Government

TSA screenings pale in comparison to what Wikileaks has just done to Americans--and with less justification. Airport body searches are meant to save lives. The release of all those stolen diplomatic cables strips government bare just for the hell of it.

After the Eisenhower years, a former aide named Emmet Hughes wrote a "scathing" book about inner deliberations of the White House, which JFK denounced to his staff, saying, "I hope nobody here is writing that kind of book." Nobody did.

We are a long way from bipartisan agreement that governing without reasonable privacy invites chaos. Barack Obama promised transparency, but a document dump by a criminal Private First Class has set off what the UK's Guardian calls a "global diplomatic crisis."

The New York Times justifies publication on the grounds that "the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match."

Maybe so, but does the public have a need to know every detail of its representatives' "frustrations," doubts and just plain dirt-dishing--about Libyan leader Qadafi's "voluptuous blonde nurse," the bags of money an Afghan vice president carried on his trip to Washington and other such gossip?

An answer to this argument is made in the recent publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's papers. After a distinguished career as scholar and public servant, Sen. Moynihan told his constituents on retiring just before 9/ll:

"(T)he great fear that I have is the enveloping culture of government secrecy and the corresponding distrust of government that follows. Since the end of the Cold War--which, incidentally, all those secret agencies quite missed--the secret side of government just keeps growing."

All this has worsened since then, but is the alternative an indiscriminate airing of everything that Wikileaks can lay its hands on?

It's like broadcasting to the world the pillow talk of a couple before and after a family holiday reunion. To what purpose? And with how much truth about their real feelings?

There has to be a better way.

Update
: The source of all those secrets says it was "childishly easy," according to a published conversation with a fellow hacker:

"I would come in with music on a CD-RW labelled with something like 'Lady Gaga'...erase the music...then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing ... [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga's Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history...

"Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public...It's beautiful, and horrifying."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but "horrifying" is just about right. No word from Lady Gaga.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

FBI Creates Terrorists to Catch Them

The sting that led a Somali-born youth to set off a fake bomb in Oregon underlines simmering questions about the FBI role in fighting domestic terrorism.

There are surely legal reasons for devoting months of manpower to leading a troubled teenager from jihad aspirations to what he did at a Christmas tree lighting and even some strategic advantage in deterring wannabes with doubts about the authenticity of other online plotters.

Yet there is something too pat and comfortable about what has become a pattern--previously in Dallas, Washington and Springfield, Ill.--of cultivating troubled loners and going through an elaborate charade to make a case against them.

Americans want their government to stop terrorism, but this approach puts law enforcement routine (and public relations) ahead of striking at root causes of possible attacks and raises questions about alternate ways of preventing them.

In announcing the criminal complaint against 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, authorities trumpet their accomplishment. “This defendant’s chilling determination," says the local DA, "is a stark reminder that there are people—even here in Oregon—who are determined to kill Americans."

A national security official adds, “While the public was never in danger from the device, this case serves as yet another reminder of the need for continued vigilance both at home and abroad.”

Yes, but couldn't the months of manpower spent cultivating and abetting Mohamud been more usefully devoted to covert efforts to uproot the Internet sources in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere that recruit such dupes and make them dangerous? Doing so is not a matter of law enforcement but true national security.

Whatever happened to JFK's CIA that tried to assassinate Fidel Castro half a century ago and the 21st century Special Forces that Dick Cheney directed to hunt down and kill Al Qaeda leaders? In fighting terrorists, even Cheney couldn't be wrong all the time.

Today's headlines may be a PR triumph for law enforcement but, as reassurance in the War on Terror, they insult the intelligence of the American public. If the FBI can't legally do more than enable sickos to stage aborted attacks to alarm us, they should leave fighting terrorism to those who can.

Update: The Oregon dog-and-pony show continues as a patriot sets fire to the Islamic Center attended by the FBI's "bomber." Can a government agency be charged with abetting hate crimes?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Obama Gotchya Bubble

How much reality does a President need? As Barack Obama nurses an upper lip with 12 stitches from a flying elbow in a basketball scrimmage, Wall Street Journal doyenne Peggy Noonan advises him to escape the White House bubble by hiring "a special assistant for reality" to "advocate for the average, a representative for the normal."

Whose normal? The full text, which Rupert Murdoch did not hide behind a pay wall this weekend, is a frequent business flyer's screed against air terminal patdowns that ends with a call for firing Janet Napolitano.

At the same time, the President is telling Barbara Walters, "We are going to have work on the problem" of security screenings:

"I understand people's frustrations with it, but I also know that if there was an explosion in the air that killed a couple of hundred people...and it turned out that we could have prevented it possibly... that would be something that would be pretty upsetting to most of us--including me."

But Noonan, who put Clint Eastwood's "Read my lips" into Bush I's no-new-tax pledge, wants Obama to know that "every businessman in America already thinks you've been grabbing his gonads."

To that end, she evokes John Wayne passing through a scanner to see a TSA person "walking toward him, snapping his rubber gloves. Guy gets up close to Wayne, starts feeling his waist and hips. Wayne says, Touch the jewels, Pilgrim, and I'll knock you into tomorrow.'"

Sounds like the folks at the Wall Street Journal could use a special assistant for reality even more than the President to screen out past-century cowboy images intended to put him in the wrong, no matter what he does.

As they reach for the gotcha clichés, the Reality Aide could draw down on them and warn, "Make my day."

Meanwhile, Obama might want to woo all those business critics by playing less basketball and going out to hit a few golf balls like all those average, normal presidents used to do.

Update: A conservative GOP Congressman, Peter King writes in another Murdoch publication, the New York Post:

"The debate over security scanning and pat-downs has reached such a fever pitch, it seems that people are forgetting that the enemy isn't the Transportation Security Administration--it's al Qaeda.

"I don't want my children or grandchildren getting on a plane that's going to be blown apart in the sky...If people have constructive suggestions to make, please make them. But to threaten to shut down the system is irresponsible.

"They are putting people in danger by trying to intimidate the TSA into backing down on their security measures."

Peter King, meet Peggy Noonan.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Best Leftover Turkey Recipe Ever

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

TURKEY TETRAZZINI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon appetit!

Losing the American Mind

At 46, she had a premature senior moment the other day, referring to our "North Korean allies" on Fox TV. No big deal, but Sarah Palin has become so pervasive an image for where the country is heading that her little lapse reflects larger issues about the state of the American mind.

Government researchers report more than 45 million Americans, or 20 percent of adults, had some form of mental illness last year, with 11 million suffering from a serious condition. Surprisingly, the rate is highest for those aged 18 to 25 at 30 percent, and lowest for those 50 and older at 13.7.

Economic depression may naturally lead to psychological, but something more seems to be going on here. It is not just mental health measurements of the American mind that are troubling, but the diminishing quality of its contents.

David Brooks, in ruminating on the death of national magazines, observes that a generation ago the "self-improvement ethic" came under attack, the Emersonian idea of a "well-furnished mind."

Men and women of character, salesman, farmer or housewife, he notes, used to "have a responsibility to be familiar with the best that has been thought and said" to spend some "leisure time sampling the great masterworks of culture" and "be conversant in philosophy, theology and the great political events of the wider world."

This middle-brow culture fed a large publishing world in which I worked of magazines, book clubs, encyclopedia sales and shelves of popular volumes about the Great Books, Great Ideas, World History et al. All that didn't make for great thinkers but did help create a reasonably well-informed electorate

In those days, columnists for mass women's magazines were the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead and Clare Booth Luce. Not a Sarah Palin in the lot.

Now all that has been swept away by a new culture that, as Brooks notes, values hipness, not class as "self-esteem hurricanes blew across the landscape. You don’t have to read or listen to boring stuff to possess character. You are wonderful just the way you are."

If you don't know something, Google or Bing it and get the answer. The only problem is that no search engine can tell you the right questions to ask and how to understand the context of the answers. You can't tweet your way to social, political or moral knowledge.

Palin will keep communicating with her Tea Party fans with everything from what looks like books to Facebook pronunciamentos, but the American base of shared knowledge and understanding is eroding under a Tower of Babble.

If it keeps going this way, we may need more than one Daily Show to provide subtitles for what we're seeing and hearing.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sure Cure for One Holiday Problem

"Hiccups," says the Mayo Clinic, "may result from a large meal, alcoholic beverages or sudden excitement," which makes tomorrow the perfect-storm day for being afflicted.

Fortunately, there is a sure-fire cure, passed on by (brace yourself for major name-drop) John F. Kennedy's White House doctor, Janet Travell, an expert on muscle spasms who put him in a rocking chair and kept him from being bed-ridden.

Years later, when I was helping Dr. Travell find a publisher for her two-volume medical text on trigger-point therapy, she mentioned a paper she had written on one form of that treatment-—for hiccups.

Herewith Dr. Travell’s little-known but, in my experience, absolutely effective cure:

There is a small flap at the back of the upper palate called the uvula. Pressing the end of a butter knife or spoon handle firmly against it for three seconds or more will make the spasms stop. The only problem is to keep the hiccupper calm enough to avoid gagging.

In dozens of attempts with friends and family, I found it worked every time. As a magazine editor, I ran a brief item, and scores of readers confirmed that it did.

This treatment may also stop snoring, if you have the nerve to wake someone and try.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Long-Ago Thanksgiving Terror

So this is where we are now. As Americans travel to join their families, they can be grateful that, unlike holiday turkeys, they will not undergo "cavity searches," although other body parts may be subject to close scrutiny.

In our sophisticated time, cliches about family stress and dissension have replaced those Norman Rockwell rosy images of holiday reunions, but now just getting to them can be nerve-wracking as stepped-up airport procedures to prevent terrorism are provoking public debate.

Is any part of American life now not being held hostage to post-9/11 fear? This may not come under the heading of reassurance, but an octogenarian editor can recall the first in-flight bombing just before Thanksgiving 55 years ago that killed 44 Americans over Colorado.

The bomber was not a foreign terrorist but a 23-year-old local sociopath who had bought life insurance at the airport for his mother as she left to spend the holidays with other family members. He had helped her pack for the trip, neatly stowing 25 sticks of dynamite in the suitcase.

No airport security measures followed. In those days, Americans shrugged at such tragedies, executed the culprit and treated them as isolated acts of nature.

But we know better now. Murderous lunatics are loose everywhere, and all the technology in the world can't fully protect us from their reach. As it tries, annoying and even embarrassing excesses may come with it, but that's the world we live in. There is no going back to the time when that Colorado bomber was an aberration.

Have a happy, and more important, safe Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Missing JFK More Than Ever

He has been gone now longer than he lived. On this day 47 years ago, John F. Kennedy was killed at 44, and November 22nd has been a heartsick day ever since for those who remember.

What we feel this year is more than nostalgia. We miss a president who, after averting nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, felt the urgency to control those weapons by signing the first Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, which the Senate ratified by a vote of 80-19 two months later, only weeks before he died (Jon Kyl, take note).

Now, as Republicans play political games to stall a new arms treaty with the Russians to the alarm of American allies and the North Koreans keep playing nuclear chicken, I recall what JFK told me in an interview then:

"(T)hose who are in opposition to these efforts usually are well organized and highly motivated, and they make their voices heard up on the Hill and throughout the country...

"A great mass of the people frequently are not heard or may not be informed, may not understand the arguments, may feel the arguments are too complicated, may be so involved in their own private lives that they don't have time to take an informed interest in world events or in great national issues. Therefore, the field is left to a few participants on both sides."

In another interview with me, he had put it more simply. "Too many people," Kennedy said, "want to blow up the world."

As today's President struggles to find the votes to prevent that, he could do worse than falling back on what JFK said back then: “It is insane that two men, sitting on opposite sides of the world, should be able to decide to bring an end to civilization.”

If he had been spared, John F. Kennedy would be 91 now and certainly saying the same things. With the wisdom of age, he might well repeat what he said then about the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.”

In controlling those destructive impulses, JFK said sadly, “we have done reasonably well——but only reasonably well.“

More than ever, we miss him.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Most Memorable Woman

Nora Ephron and I met cute. On the first day Lynda Bird Johnson came to work for me at McCalls in 1966, I found Ephron, a reporter for the New York Post, wandering the corridors and threw her out of the building.

When she started free-lancing for magazines, I sent her to interview Henry Kissinger who, between war crimes, was dating starlets and bimbos in his "Power is an aphrodisiac" days. Her piece eviscerated him.

That's why it's sad now to see Nora Ephron's new book at age 69 being reviewed as leftovers from a great career as a satirist, screenwriter and movie director. Even the title, "I Remember Nothing," is elegiac.

Throughout her working life, Ephron remembered everything, a legacy from a mother who cautioned her to use whatever happened to her, however bad, in her writing: "It's all copy."

And so she did. The daughter of a screenwriting team, Nora went from a lead essay on her breasts at puberty in a first collection to mining her marriages for "copy."

Husband No. 1, a genial writer, was immortalized as so paranoid he erased entries in his appointment book at the end of each of day. But that was only a prelude to her second marriage to Carl Bernstein of "Woodward and..."

She wrote a novel about that splitup, describing him as someone "who would have sex with a venetian blind." Harper's managed to get hold of and publish their divorce agreement, much of it devoted to how Bernstein would be portrayed in the movie version. As a result, he morphed from Dustin Hoffman in "All the President's Men" to Jack Nicholson in "Heartburn."

From there, Ephron went on to her true calling, writing and later directing romantic comedies such as "When Harry Met Sally," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," too easily dismissed as "chick flicks" but just as artful as the Hollywood classics of the 1930s.

Now that I have a teenage granddaughter who is showing an Ephronish flair, I'm going to give her a copy of Nora's "Crazy Salad." As a budding writer, she couldn't have a better role model.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Two Cheers for Free Speech

Jay Rockefeller, Jon Stewart, Alexis de Tocqueville and my teenage grandson combine to provoke second thoughts about the First Amendment.

In frustration, the West Virginia Senator tells a committee, "I hunger for quality news...There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to FOX and to MSNBC: 'Out. Off. End. Goodbye.' It would be a big favor to political discourse; our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people."

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart goes into an over-the-top riff on Glenn Beck's campaign to prove that George Soros is plotting to overthrow the government, offering more plausible goofy proof that Beck's boss Rupert Murdoch is actually doing that.

All this comes after a call from my grandson to exchange ideas about a high-school assignment on the subject of whether there should be more regulation of TV.

For a First Amendment almost-absolutist, this brings up de Tocqueville's take in "Democracy in America" almost two centuries ago:

"I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it insures."

His reservation was that, while unfettered competition guarantees political freedom, it also fosters a low level of journalism--"vulgar" and "coarse" were the words he used.

Given the history of totalitarianism since then, we are well-advised to struggle along in this imperfect condition. Eternal banality, as well as vigilance, may be the true price of liberty.

While there is no denying that Murdoch's organs are boils on the backside of American journalism, they can't be lanced by official surgery. They can be treated only by the palliatives of better news from other sources in the hope that truth will emerge, as Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand put it, from "a multitude of tongues."

Such optimism is tempered by a new Pew Poll that shows an ill-informed electorate--fewer than half of all Americans know that Republicans won control of the House this month with one in seven believing they took over the Senate as well.

But, to Sen. Rockefeller, Jon Stewart and my grandson, I can only offer reassurance that time eventually wounds all media heels--punishing Sen. Joe McCarthy's deceptions in the 1950s, the lies of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon in the next decades up to the flummery of Newt Gingrich at the end of the century.

American democracy is, as Barack Obama recently said, "messy," but well worth the struggle to keep absolutely free while cleaning it up as best we can as we go along.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Palin Delusions of Adequacy

In her alternate universe, the kickoff of Sarah Palin's presidential campaign makes perfect sense: After backstage triumphs in the midterms, the candidate emerges to take the spotlight to the acclaim of an adoring America.

We are in a "Sunset Boulevard" remake here, with a 21st century Norma Desmond taking bows for killing GOP chances to control the Senate and, after years of hiding from them, blowing kisses at the "lamestream media" like Barbara Walters and the New York Times Magazine. ("I'm ready for my closeup, Mr DeMille. Pay no attention to the corpse in the swimming pool.")

For all this, the Milwaukee man who shot his TV set to protest Bristol Palin's dancing may have been acting out for many Americans who have the urge to blast their computers over her mother's ubiquity online.

Yet the Palins, for all their weird delusions of adequacy, are themselves the most telling metaphor for how far gone we all are, to switch movie images, into a political land of Oz.

As she confides to the Times about her White House ambitions, the piece reports advice Palin got from "her friend Fred Malek, whom she met through McCain during the 2008 campaign. She was listening to the former White House aide to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford map out logical next steps to her political career. Focus on amassing a good record as governor, he advised her. Run for a second term. Develop some policy expertise. Do some extensive overseas travel. Generate some good will by campaigning for fellow Republicans."

Sarah Palin did none of this, except the campaigning and that was not for established Republicans but Tea Party rogues, most of whom lost to the annoyance of Karl Rove and other party poobahs.

And yet... For all this politically suicidal behavior, she is running not far behind Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in the early 2012 polls.

In the coming months, it will become clearer whether it is Palin who is delusional--or the rest of us. Meanwhile, she will keep posing for those Norma Desmond closeups.

Update: New metaphor alert: If Palin is "Alice in Wonderland," here comes the Mad Hatter. Donald Trump tells George Stephanopoulos that a presidential run "could be fun."

"I'm looking at this country, George, and what's happened in terms of respect," Trump muses. "And the respect for this country is just not there. I have many people from China that I do business with, they laugh at us. They feel we're fools. And almost being led by fools."

That "almost" suggests he may be serious. The Donald never pulls his punches when he fires people. Would he settle for being Palin's Dick Cheney?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Government-by-Spite

The Washington climate recalls V-E Day in World War II: hours before the armistice, hordes of refugees streaming westward to the American zone with whatever they could carry to escape the oncoming Russians before the official deadline.

In the same way, Democrats are scrambling to salvage what they can in these last days, and the sight is just as saddening--the President and his wounded cadre struggling to pass legislation before le deluge of Tea Party naysayers.

Extension of Bush tax cuts, with whatever compromise can be reached, tops the list, but less obvious and ultimately more important for the nation's future is ratifying the New Start treaty on arms control with the Russians, now being held hostage by Sen. Jon Kyl simply to deal "a devastating blow to the president’s most tangible foreign policy achievement."

Administration officials, Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly reports, have "mapped out in detail how they're prepared to do exactly what he wants them to do. Even Jon Kyl, with his limited intellect, should be able to understand when someone says 'yes' to his demands...Kyl simply cares more about defeating a key priority for President Obama than advancing the nation's interests."

What we have here is government-by-spite, a regression to schoolyard taunting and bullying that foreshadows much worse to come.

President Obama tells Congressional Democrats he wants passage of the DREAM Act, providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who complete two years of college or military service, as "a down payment" on immigration reform.

In today's Washington, it may be the President who is dreaming.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ending the Afghan Charade

How much more blood and how many more billions will America pour into a senseless enterprise as it enters its tenth year with the threadbare façade of strategic coherence crumbling?

As the President goes to Lisbon this week to "confront" Hamid Karzai right after he enraged Gen. Petraeus by publicly demanding the US scale back its operations, reality calls for more than the usual coddling that has characterized such meetings.

A year ago, in sending more troops, the President said, "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Despite all the diplo-speak, can he possibly still believe that? In a time when our own country is in turmoil, doesn't it make sense to start calling Karzai's bluff?

Oddly enough, Obama's electoral shellacking provides him with bipartisan cover. The GOP wing led by war-loving John McCain is under siege from new Senators like Rand Paul, who shares his father's opposition to foreign military operations and the expense of waging them.

Two years ago, there was an exit proposal to increase funding and training for Afghans as US troops withdraw while trying to buy away less extreme elements of the Taliban and preserving the option of air strikes to keep them bought.

"Our strategy in Afghanistan," a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations contended, "should emphasize what we do best (containing and deterring, and forging coalitions) and downgrade what we do worst (nation-building in open-ended wars). It should cut our growing costs and secure our interests by employing our power more creatively and practically. It must also permit us...to focus more American resources and influence on the far more dire situation in Pakistan."

Months ago, Bob Woodward's book, "Obama's Wars," depicted a deeply divided White House over what to do in Afghanistan, with US intelligence describing Karzai as a manic-depressive whose mood swings are not always controlled by medication. Isn't it time to get him on a higher dose and get our troops out of harm's way while he tries to stabilize himself and his country?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tea Party Going Rogue

They haven't packed the moving vans yet, but new members of Congress are starting to feel pressure to split the GOP apart.

This weekend they found a flood of email and voice mail messages to attend a Tea Party meeting in Washington rather than the traditional orientation for freshmen lawmakers at the conservative Claremont Institute, leading to complaints about "an incredible violation of privacy."

Privacy will be in short supply for the Class of 2011, who are about to learn that zealotry does not end at the ballot box.

Members have also received a letter giving them marching orders for the new session:

"On behalf of limited-government conservatives everywhere, we write to urge you and your colleagues in Washington to put forward a legislative agenda in the next Congress that reflects the principles of the Tea Party movement. This election was not a mandate for the Republican Party, nor was it a mandate to act on any social issue."

Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may have to spend as much time fighting off their new friends as their old adversaries across the Congressional aisles and update the old saying to read, "If you have the Tea Party for a friend, you don't need an enemy."

Update: As a new poll shows only one in six voters considers the election a mandate for Republicans, Tea Party pressure on Congress is mushrooming.

Yesterday, one group rallied on Capitol Hill to remind lawmakers of their message and warn them to vote their way or they will turn against them next time, with the crowd chanting, "We're watching!"

Today, they go online to lobby with a new social-networking site to keep activists apprised of Tea Party meetings and provide material for letter-writing campaigns before Congressional votes and rebukes afterward to those who fail to follow their lead.

If the next Congress doesn't respond to "the voice of the people," it won't be for lack of Tea Party trying.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Getting Off Obama's Back

Memo to presidential bashers of the progressive persuasion: Chill.

A verbal assault from the Left recalls what Lyndon Johnson would snarl to quiet his critics, "I'm the only president you've got." Yet LBJ had no cable news or Internet to amplify the noise, and his aggressive personality was 180 degrees from that of Barack Obama.

In the wake of November 2nd, the White House is under siege with a blame game from former backers to balance Tea Party venom: If only Obama had done this, if only...i.e., Michael Moore smugly telling Bill Maher that the President should have pushed for single-payer health care in a real world where Congress butchered even the feeble bill that passed.

To top it all off, two Democratic pollsters now opine that "Obama should announce immediately that he will not be a candidate for reelection in 2012.

"If the president goes down the reelection road, we are guaranteed two years of political gridlock at a time when we can ill afford it. But by explicitly saying he will be a one-term president, Obama can deliver on his central campaign promise of 2008, draining the poison from our culture of polarization and ending the resentment and division that have eroded our national identity and common purpose."

Brilliant. By becoming a lame duck, the President will magically purify the political air and bring the country together.

In this atmosphere, it may be time to form a Committee to Defend the President so he can keep functioning for the next two years in his imperfect way despite his so-called friends as well as his enemies.

A New York Times editorial advises the triumphant GOP to "Try Something Hard: Governing." That should be addressed to terrified Democratic officeholders and purist progressive pundits as well.

If President Obama wants guidance for this hard time, he can look past LBJ to Harry Truman, who ran for reelection in 1948 against a "Do Nothing Congress" and won.

Update: An inside look at the White House itself post-shellacking is not promising, with aides wrestling to figure out how to "neither overreact or underreact."

No one expects Obama to be LBJ or Truman, but cool calculation is not the best mode for the next two years. Shucking off critics of all stripes and moving ahead with as much passion as he can muster will serve the President better.

He himself has said, "I would rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." If gets fired up enough and stops worrying about tactics, he may not have to be either.

Update Update: Some encouragement as the President on his way back from Asia tells reporters he will "redouble" his efforts to get back to his core principles and focus on them because the economy is more stable. Fine, but is Washington?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Last Bush Binge

George W. Bush tells Oprah this week that alcohol was ruining his family life, so after getting "drunk as a skunk" on his 40th birthday, he just stopped for good the next day.

The former president's media blitz won't exhilarate the political Right or Left but, for the psychologically inclined, there may be some closure--the final chapter in the tale of a middle-aged man who, with no self-knowledge whatsoever, replaced an alcohol addiction with one for power and piety, never understanding what drove him to either and the distortion of reality that comes with both.

The exchange saved his marriage but put the country through hell. At a low point of his presidency, his father's former speechwriter Peggy Noonan wondered why, unlike other presidents under stress, Bush was always in a "good mood."

“Americans," she wrote, "like the president to be the cool-eyed realist, the tough customer who understands harsh realities. With Mr. Bush it is the people who are forced to be cool-eyed and realistic. He's the one who goes off on the toots. This is extremely irritating, and also unnatural. Actually it's weird."

Now he's back, recalling an ancient bumper sticker about his father: "Bush reminds every woman of her first husband."

It's like suddenly seeing that ex-spouse again at a wedding or funeral--old feelings stir, muted but still painful, and you wonder how you survived years together when he starts telling stories with the same clueless confidence that drove you crazy back then.

He's more mellow now, even admitting mistakes like the "Mission Accomplished" fiasco and his failed response to Katrina, but there is still that odd disconnection, harping on rapper Kanye West's accusation of racism as a low point of his tenure rather than 9/11, the death of 4000 troops in Iraq or the crash of the economy in his final days.

Today, George W. Bush seems to be in good shape, alcohol-free, but the rest of us are still suffering from a hellish hangover.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

A time that always calls up love of country and pride in a member of the so-called "The Greatest Generation" is overlaid today with sadness for what has been lost.

We celebrate community, connection and self-sacrifice only a week after an election marked by selfish and bitter complaints about how the United States is damaging me, me, me with barely a word about the multitude of men and women in uniform risking their lives for all of us in unspeakable places.

Last year I was among those in their seventies and eighties trying to reach across generations to explain to eighth-graders what life was like in World War II.

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

We learned about living in a world larger than ourselves and that we had to take government and politics seriously and join in a process that put us and might in the future put them in harm's way far from home.

This year I did not have the heart to stand there and talk about all that as those children are about to inherit a country that has utterly forgotten its unity in a time when there were stars in almost every window with families sacrificing food, gasoline and other necessities for the war effort and where people flocked to USOs to make strangers in uniform feel loved and appreciated in their common effort for survival.

If Americans truly want to celebrate Veterans Day, they might want to reflect on how patriotism has become a mask for selfishness, how sacrifice has become a dirty word and how hatred of one another has replaced love of the country that shelters us all.

Otherwise they will be honoring those who bled and died for it with empty words.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Favorite Adulterer

Political sex scandals have expiration dates now.

Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York Governor in 2008 for consorting with a call girl, is now a CNN anchor while Louisiana last week easily reelected Sen. David Vitter, who was the DC Madam's best customer a year earlier.

Sexual commerce aside, my favorite adulterer is South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, now resurfacing with high approval ratings to hint of a possible return to public life as he gives way to Gov.-Elect Nikki Haley, who had to withstand gossip about affairs of her own during the campaign.

“I’d say nothing is impossible, given the last chapter of my life,” Sanford tells an interviewer, saying he is more likely to work in the private sector but not ruling out another run for office.

Why should he? Family values voters have stepped aside for Tea Party enthusiasts, who care more about cutting taxes and deficits than breaking marital vows.

Of all the politicians caught cheating, Sanford has been by far the most dopily sincere, with the hapless look of Edward VIII giving up the throne of England in 1936 for "the woman I love," a man undone by sudden passion after a straight-laced lifetime.

What emotions must have overcome an Eagle Scout on his way to a possible presidential nomination to make him suddenly disappear, on Father's Day weekend, and return to confess publicly with the dazed look of a man with no rational explanation for his behavior?

Yet the voters, who may forgive Sanford after he steps down and marries his true love, have their limits. Nevada Sen. John Ensign, who "slept with his wife’s best friend who was also his best friend’s wife," is now being targeted in the 2012 GOP primaries.

And then, of course, there is John Edwards who, if a tabloid hadn't exposed his lies, might have ended up in the White House with two families. Don't look for his return any time soon. Voters may have lowered their threshold for sexual misconduct, but real sleaze still turns them off.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Fifty Years Ago Today

On November 9, 1960, Americans woke up and had to wait until afternoon for Nixon to concede a close presidential election to Kennedy the day before.

Despite recounts and charges of voter fraud, the nation peacefully accepted the results and inaugurated JFK in January. If there had been an Internet and cable TV then, what would the months between have been like?

The question arises as America's two 21st century presidents cope with today's media climate, Obama reacting to a midterm electoral disaster, Bush resurfacing with a memoir to explain his White House tenure.

What strikes someone who lived through both eras is the old saw, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Now that high def shows every pore in a president's face and every flicker of expression, are we better-informed or simply better armed to confirm our prejudices? Do we really glimpse the man behind the public figure or just a more highly detailed façade?

Now that every detail of a presidency is amplified, scrutinized, distorted, bloviated and blogged about, do we know more or just feel more and tear the country apart expressing our own emotions?

In 1960, those who voted for Nixon were disappointed, but there was little public rancor, and after a gray Eisenhower, growing excitement about a handsome young president with a beautiful, pregnant wife.

If Kennedy had not been killed, he might still be remembered for averting a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis but surely judged critically for what he did and didn't do during the rest of his tenure.

But those judgments would have come over time and with context. Now that we have minute-by-minute information about the presidency, are we too swamped with detail to see the larger picture?

We have had Bush Derangement Syndrome, Obama Derangement Syndrome and no doubt the same for whoever comes next.

An informed electorate is a good thing, but citizens stuffed with information like Strasbourg geese, not for their own nutrition but the profit of those who do the stuffing, do not make for the healthiest body politic.

We were spared JFK Derangement Syndrome, but maybe we should have known more about him back then. If he had been spared, he might even have been letting his hair down on Oprah, as George W. Bush is scheduled to do later this week, but somehow I doubt it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Olbermann's Return Won't Restore Sanity

Two weeks of media melodrama bracket a tumultuous election that shook up American politics, putting a spotlight on the people who presumably report on the spectacle but more and more are out there strutting on the stage.

Keith Olbermann will be back from the on-camera dead tomorrow night after his constituency, and many journalists, showered NBC with Tea Partyish rage. But there should be no unalloyed joy over his resurrection, which only confirms what critic David Carr calls "the Foxification of the cable universe."

Olbermann's return will correct an absurdity but do nothing for what Jon Stewart calls Sanity. As Carr points out:

"The shift of audiences toward cable news outlets--with their manifest agendas--as sources of truth and transparency may have something to do with a credibility gap that now confronts more mainstream news outfits. Lately, the idea of objective journalism has been on a pretty rough ride (that means you, CNN), with viewers deciding to align themselves with outlets that share their points of view--warts, agendas and all."

Stewart's rally was held on the weekend before the voting. Significantly, when the President appeared on the Daily Show just before it took place, he ruefully suggested that the reminder was coming two years late.

Looking back on 60 Minutes yesterday, Obama remarked that "this country doesn't just agree with The New York Times editorial page...I can make some really good arguments defending the Democratic position, and there are gonna be some people who just don't agree with me. And that's okay. And then we've got to figure out a way to compromise."

So Olbermann is back, which is all to the good as balance for the growing Fox dominance of the tower of babble, but the underlying problem is worse than ever.

In a cameo appearance on Election Night, the ghost of Journalism Past, Tom Brokaw, observed that "almost nothing is going the way that most people have been told that it will. And every time they’re told in Washington that they have it figured out, it turns out not to be true."

On cable news, "true" is not the highest priority.

Update: Olbermann apologizes to his viewers but not to his bosses for all the furor. Just so. Now we can all get back to watching the PBS NewsHour to get the news of the day.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Jill Clayburgh

If future generations want to know what life was like for smart, sensitive urban women in the 1970s, a time capsule should be stocked with the movies of Jill Clayburgh, the lovely actress who died this week.

When a feminist wave was wrecking marriages and reordering relationships, Clayburgh brilliantly embodied their emotional chaos in "An Unmarried Woman" (1978), "Starting Over" (1979) and "It's My Turn" (1980).

Getting Oscar nominations for the first two, she went beyond clichés of the time to show the tumult of living through breakups, self-discovery and inner renewal.

Best-known of her roles is Erica in "An Unmarried Woman" who, after her husband blurts out and blubbers over his infidelity, goes through the rage of betrayal and, with an ever-present support group of divorced friends, finds herself dating again, kissing a few frogs until she meets a sort-of-prince.

Clayburgh makes her real, despite an unfortunate directorial choice of using an actual psychologist to spout platitudes in improvised therapy sessions.

My favorite is "Starting Over" with, of all people, Burt Reynolds in a fine performance as a dazed newly separated man who puts Clayburgh's wised-up divorcee through hell in a rebound romance.

After a scene of Reynolds' panic attack during sofa shopping in which all the onlookers respond when a doctor asks for a valium, there is a final encounter in which Clayburgh asks, "What do you want?"

"I want us to live together," he answers. "I want us to get married. I want us to have children together. I want us to put our teeth in the same glass. I want us buried together in a family plot with one headstone. What do you want?"

After a flicker of pause, she answers: "I want a separate glass for my teeth."

Jill Clayburgh brought to life the kind of woman who had earned her own glass.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Olbermann Remake of "Network"

The angry anchorman in the 1976 movie gets high ratings for a while and, when they drop, network honchos have him killed on camera.

As the Keith Olbermann saga unfolds, the only new wrinkle is doing him in offstage with fine print instead of bullets. In the face of declining ratings, a pending change of ownership and a Republican tide rising, the left-leaning "mad as hell" style is obviously expendable.

Yet, in the cesspool called "cable news," it's disheartening to see Fox News and Rupert Murdoch tightening their grip on what passes for journalism but is little more than a political cockpit for venomous opinionating.

In an interview for tomorrow's New York Times, Olbermann objects to pairing "MSNBC as the lefty version of Fox News" at Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity:

"To present all this as the same is both unfair and injurious to the political system at the moment. One of the big flaws now is that there is all this noise on the right. When I yell there is a reason for it. There is a political and factual discernment behind it. I am not doing it gratuitously."

Olbermann unwittingly offers his own professional epitaph by quoting Joe Biden when he was still a senator at a lunch with him, "I just come across like I’m angry and out of control, and you seem to focus it and make it look useful and expressive."

Back then, as now, not everybody would agree with Joe Biden, but this is a sad time to be losing Olbermann's expressive voice.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Flying Turkeys of Cable TV

Suspension by MSNBC of Keith Olbermann today recalls his appearance two years ago with Martha Stewart discussing a video of Sarah Palin pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey with others being slaughtered in the background, as he cited the classic 1978 WKRP sitcom episode of turkeys being dropped from a helicopter on the mistaken assumption that they could fly.

In clipping Olbermann's wings for three small political donations, his cable network boss acted in true WKRP tradition and is roundly being given the bird across the journalistic spectrum starting with William Kristol on the extreme right.

For the head of a cable network that thrives on passionate opinionating for ratings to punish its star for putting some of his money where his mouth is surely qualifies him for the worst-person-in-the-world award, a process which Olbermann recently discontinued for undisclosed reasons.

For craven gaucherie, the action overshadows the recent NPR firing of Juan Williams and the banning of employees from attending Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity.

If there is going to be a Free-Keith-Olbermann Committee, put me down for a small contribution to force his employers to eat crow for Thanksgiving.

Pyrrhic Victories, Left and Right

Democrats took a shellacking, but the big loser was the Untied (no typo) States of America, with the electoral map now looking like a big red blob with thin blue parentheses on both coasts.

Politically, the President is still dazed, but there are early signs that Republicans will turn out to be sore winners with a Tea Party headache that won't go away.

Some GOP Senators are livid that Sarah Palin and her Sancho Panza, Jim DeMint, cost them control of the upper house, while leaders of both are stuck with contradictory promises to cut spending and taxes yet somehow stimulate the economy. Sound bites for disaffected voters, meet reality.

"Republicans," says a New York Times report, "are standing by their campaign vows to slash spending for domestic programs immediately by at least one-fifth--$100 billion in a single year—-even as many mainstream economists say such deep cuts could further strain the economy and should await its full recovery...(T)hey will try to deny money to put Mr. Obama’s new health care law into effect, though they have not made clear what they would do to make up the cost savings that would be lost if they succeeded in repealing the law."

Irony alert: Health care hatred could lead Boehner, McConnell and their cadres into a Pyrrhic victory now just as passage of the reform bill was a turning point in the President's downfall.

Paul Krugman, a better economist than political analyst, takes aim at the idea that Obama “overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession,” but his own chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and lesser voices were warning back then that the spectacle of a long, messy fight over a monstrous abortion of a bill, whose effects were in the future, would be a Pyrrhic victory and turn off voters not only on the issue at hand but the workings of government as well.

This week's balloting confirms the rage against incumbents spawned back then and is more crucial to today's political climate than Krugman's caviling now that there was little the President could have done to improve the economy instead.

To the extent that politics is perception, the American people saw an ugly process producing a bloated, bargain-marred mess and taking attention away from their immediate economic worries.

Health care reform was a useful cudgel for GOP naysayers but, if they fall victim to their own slogans, it could turn into a boomerang now.

Update: Eric Cantor, the GOP House whip, announces his intention to repeal "Obamacare piece by piece," blocking funding and the regulations to implement the health care law, some of which would require limiting money to the IRS, a good example of tearing down the house to kill a mouse under the floorboards.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Thank You, Sarah Palin

In a disastrous night for Democrats, only the Momma Grizzlies provided some solace, helping them hold on to the Senate. If the GOP had nominated more plausible candidates than Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Carly Fiorina in California, they might have swept both houses of Congress.

Judging from the wave of discontent otherwise, the White House can thank Sarah Palin for helping define the limits of crazy and clueless. Even in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski seems to have overcome a Palin vendetta with her write-in effort against Joe Miller.

Amid the wreckage, that may signify where the GOP is heading between now and 2012. Even a subdued John Boehner was walking on eggshells in his victory speech.

"We hope President Obama will now respect the will of the people, change course, and to commit to making changes that they are demanding. And to the extent that he’s willing to do that, we’re ready to work with him.”

After a "brief but pleasant" phone call from the President, the White House noted that "Leader Boehner said he's always been straightforward and honest with the president in the past, and said that's the way he'll continue to be with the president in the future. They discussed working together to focus on the top priorities of the American people, which Boehner has identified as creating jobs and cutting spending."

That may be pro forma Election Night boilerplate, but the House's new GOP majority will have to placate its new Tea Party caucus to persuade voters that it is not bent on waging two more years of "no" to position itself for trying to retake the White House in 2012.

If Palin is seriously contemplating a run at the nomination then, yesterday was as much a wakeup call for her as for Democrats: Divisiveness can take you only so far in national politics.

In an odd but apt footnote to all this, George W. Bush emerges to tell us he seriously considered Dick Cheney's offer to get off the ticket in 2004 to relieve him of the VP's polarizing effect.

Palin, take note.

Monday, November 01, 2010

JFK's Alter Ego

Just half a century after an election that put him into the White House with John F. Kennedy for a memorable thousand days, Ted Sorensen has died, the last living link to a time that, in today's political world, seems a distant dream.

They would say in those days, "When Jack is hurt, Ted bleeds," and loyalty was certainly a Sorensen trait, but there was so much more.

He stubbornly refused to admit he had ghost-written "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize book about political courage that first brought JFK to prominence, admitting only he had helped with research and editing.

As for the famous line in the inaugural, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country," Sorensen would only say with a smile about its origin, "Ask not."

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen provided Kennedy not only with words but with the heartland ideals that came from his own heritage as a Nebraska-born "Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian" born to a staunch Republican and a feminist mother.

When they met, Kennedy had proclaimed, "I am not a liberal," and he wasn't but, over the years with Sorensen's influence, grew beyond the confines of his own background of great wealth and privilege into the man the world remembers now.

Over time, I was privileged to know and work with Ted on many projects, including Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and became enough of a friend to be invited to the wedding reception when he married his beloved Gillian.

He was a soft-spoken, gentle man but a fierce idealist who did not let age and infirmity slow him down. Two years ago, nearly blind, he was out campaigning for Barack Obama, in whom he saw many of the qualities of his alter ego, John F. Kennedy.

Ted Sorensen leaves this world and the country he loved in a much more troubled state than it was half a century ago, but it is infinitely better for his having been a part of it.