Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Age-Before-Beauty Weekend

As 94-year-old Kirk Douglas upstages the upstarts at the Oscars comes word that the oldest living veteran of World War I has died at 110.

Kirk teases the supporting actresses by dawdling with the envelope, pinches winner Melissa Leo at her request and, after she drops an F-bomb, lets her grab his cane as they exit, she looking less steady than he.

Meanwhile, Frank Buckles, who as a 16-year-old lied about his age to enlist in 1917 and survived World War II as a civilian Japanese prisoner, takes with him not only his title but the apparently easygoing temperament that sustained him for a century plus a decade.

In the longevity sweepstakes, my bragging rights as 87 looms later this week seem feeble by comparison but prompt thoughts about aging, a subject that usually elicits commentary from isn't-he-or-she cute to it's-the-pits. ("Old age is a shipwreck," said Charles de Gaulle, but typically the General was middle-aged and not talking about himself.)

The truth, as it usually is, exists in a (forgive me) grey area. If you're healthy, you can do much of what you did before but, like life insurance, it costs twice as much to get half the return.

If there is a secret to aging, it involves the paradox of simultaneous involvement and detachment. Younger people keep urging you not to live in the past, but the past keeps living in you in a search for meaning in what you were too busy to think about when you were doing it.

With the dropping away of old grudges and regrets comes a focus on the present and a future you will never see but hope to influence in some small way with what you have learned over the years.

Watching Kirk Douglas now recalls a time when we were together in a Park Avenue duplex at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever.

To keep the conversation going, I suggested a game: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at him across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between Jewish boys of dirt-poor parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

I meant what I said then. I still do. Colin Firth is much too young and callow for the part.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

King's Speech, Queen's Wave, Facebook Fury

This year's Oscars are about something.

One marvelous movie recalls a day in June, 1939 at the New York World's Fair, a 15-year-old boy watching an open car with the King and Queen of England slowly driving by, less than fifty feet from his excited eyes.

Until then, the outside world had been grainy newspaper pictures and black-and-white newsreels, but here was a flesh-and-blood couple, he in resplendent uniform, she in a pale blue dress doing a languid backhand wave as if strewing invisible rose petals to the crowd.

Within weeks, Hitler would invade Poland to start World War II and four years later the boy, now in uniform, would be in a truck, speeding past manicured English fields greener than any he had ever seen before.

These sensual memories arise from this year's Academy Awards as "The King's Speech" competes with "The Social Network"--contrasting two worlds in which mass media create totally different realities.

A radio address is at the heart of the former, a kind of reverse "My Fair Lady," wherein a commoner tutors a speech-impaired monarch. Instead of turning a flower girl into a duchess, this Pygmalion teaches a king to reach out to people like the flower girl.

In today's world, communication is infinitely more complex. When "The Social Network" came out months ago, critics complained that Facebook was more likely to flood the world with trivia rather than foster social change.

Now we know better as crowds across the Middle East topple repressive regimes, communicate with each other online and evade official censorship with cell-phone videos while demonstrations here at home echo public disaffection.

As actors, directors and producers make their dazed acceptance speeches at the Oscars, they will be taking part in something beyond Hollywood's usual self-glorification over pandering to public tastes.

The scene may evoke that endless hall of mirrors in the climax of Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai," in which multiple images merge reflections and real life. But isn't that what movies are supposed to do, even as today's journalism unwittingly competes with them?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hef, the Ultimate Not-Me

The opposite of hero worship is negative self-definition that tells you who you are not and could never be. Such anti-role models can influence a life as much as those you admire and want to emulate.

Hugh Hefner has always been at the top of the not-me list and, now that the geriatric Playboy founder is exposing himself to ridicule by marrying a 24-year-old Playmate ("It will be," says Letterman, "an open-casket ceremony" with Leno adding that the bride is planning a June wedding and an August funeral), it's time to examine my complicated feelings about the man.

At 84, Hef is two years younger, we both edited successful magazines and half a lifetime ago I was wooed to be his successor.

In 1969, over lunch in Chicago, Playboy's publisher, Hefner's oldest friend, is complaining about the struggle to curb such excesses as perpetual parties and a seldom-used but always available 727 and, at the same time, subtly probing to see if I too might go hog wild over such amenities.

It is an out-of-body experience. I listen and nod, while an inner voice questions my sanity over the absurdity of putting myself atop an empire of sensual pleasure against all evidence of my nature and experience. After 45 years of being Mr. Responsible, how could I think of plunging into the glorious chaos of every boy’s dream, with permission--no, mandate--to spend days, and nights, in an X-rated world? Could I?

Even as I wallow in fantasy, my mind is mocking me with a movie memory of a fat Nero, lounging in a palace while near-naked maidens dangle grapes over his mouth.

By coffee, the publisher seems satisfied with my stability and suggests dinner with Hef that night at the mansion. “He’s going to fall in love with you and offer you the job on the spot,” the publisher says, then hesitates. “If he does, what will you say?”

Fantasy can only go so far. I answer honestly: “I don’t know."

He seems unnerved. “Unless you’re sure you’ll say yes, I can’t take you to meet him.”

So it’s settled, but I feel entitled to a small indulgence. “Does it work this way,” I ask, “with women, too?"

I should have known it was not meant to be a year earlier at the 1968 Democratic convention when fellow delegate Jules Feiffer, after defeat of an anti-Vietnam resolution, was taking me to Hefner's for consoling drinks and steak. But, as young protesters were being clubbed, we got off the delegate bus to join them in Grant Park and were separated by a cloud of tear gas. I ended up alone with a room-service sandwich and burning eyes.

Now, as quiet-living octogenarian, I watch in bemusement as Hefner in a state of hormonal excitement does TV interviews with his fiancée and shrugs off sneering descriptions by a former Bunny as "a strange old man who popped Viagra pills like they were Skittles and doled out $1,000 a week in cash from a safe to his various 'girlfriends.' There’s a word for that kind of arrangement."

Well, yes, but I also recall a time when a friend was asserting my moral superiority to another shameless contemporary who spent his time eating the world and all that it has to offer. My response was to ask, "But which of us will be having a better time tonight?"

Do I feel that way about Hefner now? No comment. I just wish my not-alter ego a happy honeymoon and a long life.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Mideast Tyranny's Unexpected Expiration Dates

As decades-long dictatorships teeter and fall, is it unreasonable to ask whether anyone in or out of our government really knows what's going on and why?

TV screens fill up with talking heads of politicians, academics and think-tank denizens whose combined wisdom comes down to admitting they don't know why this is happening now and can't tell how and when it will end.

A New York Times panel of experts ponders the question, "Why Didn't the U.S. Foresee the Arab Revolts?" and is reduced to citing "group think," preoccupation with minutae and the ultimate platitude that "revolutions are unpredictable."

Instead of scoffing at all this confusion, a more constructive response might combine humility about predictions with a broad and deep reassessment of how far, in a time of its own economic crisis, the U.S. should go in trying to control what happens in turbulent countries far from home.

Afghanistan, for one example. In all the hubbub about Egypt, Tunisia, Libya et al, overlooked is the growing unease among even gung-ho Republicans, typified by former Reagan Defense official Bing West with a new book, "The Wrong War," over shoring up Hamid Karzai with American blood and money.

Iraq, for another, as crowds resembling those that have dominated the news elsewhere for weeks, rally in protest against the "democratic government" we have installed there at a cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

As the Obama Administration faces the immediate problem of getting Americans out of harm's way in Libya, isn't this the right time to reconsider the U.S. role all across the region?

For one thing, shouldn't we think about shifting emphasis from weapons there to an underlying cause of the revolts--people don’t' have enough to eat? A Surge of food instead of troops might serve our interests better.

At the very least, it would reflect our humanitarian traditions better than the confusion we are trapped in now.

Update: Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells West Point cadets, “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq --invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country--may be low” and the U.S. should concentrate on ways to “prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly--and controversial-- large-scale American military intervention.”

"In my opinion," Gates says, "any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Amen to that but, in the meantime, how do we get out of the costly and controversial messes we have been in for so many years?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Decline of Deviousness: Rumsfeld to Walker

The Daily Show offers an inadvertent seminar on the falling quality of public liars by juxtaposing a prank phone call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with Jon Stewart's interview of master obfuscator Donald Rumsfeld.

Granted that Walker is only a novice, Rumsfeld never would have been taken in by a journalist posing as a powerful backer. Even as a Congressional factotum in the Eisenhower days, he was Mr. Smooth.

Now, he is still lying with a straight face to an uncharacteristically flummoxed Stewart about the "selling" of the Iraq War, hiding behind Colin Powell's UN presentation.

As a polite inquisitor, the Daily Show host failed to counter with Powell's own misgivings and eventually expressed regrets about putting his popularity on the line with deceptive "intelligence" from Rumsfeld's Defense Department. ("You've got high poll ratings," Dick Cheney had told the General, "you can afford to lose a few points.")

Now, as he makes the rounds selling his memoirs, Rumsfeld is only a shadow of the former arrogant figure at press conferences (often wrong but never in doubt), the public face of the Bush Administration's conduct of a needless war until he was dumped after the 2006 elections.

If Scott Walker intends to follow in his footsteps, he has a lot to learn about butt-covering along the way. If he got a "phone call" from one of the Koch brothers, whose $35 billion wealth has "repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government and on the Obama Administration in particular," Walker should have had his staff take a return number and check it out before calling back.

That's what Rummy would have done.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Cockeyed Class Warfare

Tea-party politicians are accomplishing what Communists never could--dividing Americans by economic conflict--but in an upside-down way that Karl Marx never would have predicted.

Instead of masses revolting against the rich, it's the Far Right trying to turn back the clock by crushing organized labor.

Even as a Gallup poll shows 61 percent of the public favor bargaining rights for workers, new Statehouse Zealots, as ideological as American Communists ever were but even less realistic, persist in us-vs.-them efforts to take away union rights.

The sad irony in all this is revival of a cockeyed version of class warfare that never took root in an egalitarian U.S. For decades, unions have been losing power in the wake of post-World War II prosperity, the shift from a Rust Belt to a service economy and the overreaching and corruption of labor leaders from Jimmy Hoffa on.

Wisconsin's Scott Walker persists in his role as a hate-labor Lenin, but as he leads the charge, he might want to glance backward and find that some GOP governors are hanging back and trying to find reasonable ways of scaling down employee benefits without challenging the right of unions to exist.

"Some public sector unions have contracts and benefits that are too rich for these times," says a New York Times editorial, "but even when they have made concessions, Republican officials have kept up the attack. The Republicans’ claim to be acting on behalf of taxpayers is not believable...

"The game is up when unionized state workers demonstrate a sense of shared sacrifice but Republican lawmakers won’t even allow them a seat at the table. For unions and Democrats in the Midwest, this is an existential struggle, and it is one worth waging."

In the 1950's, a prospering country was in the grip of anti-Communist fever playing on anxiety that a rising middle class could lose what they have to Un-American subversion. Now, in a time that is far from prosperous, divisive figures are back to play on the same fears but from a different direction that Joe McCarthy et al exploited back then.

Who is Un-American now?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

My 13 Presidents

Schools and banks were closed, no mail was delivered but, aside from that, nobody seemed to notice Presidents Day.

In a Gallup poll, Ronald Reagan is named "greatest," followed by Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt--and Barack Obama. (Name recognition seems to matter.)

For someone who has lived through 13 of 44 White House occupants, "greatest" is meaningless. The important question is how much difference did the men in the Oval Office make in the lives of Americans.

They used to inaugurate them on my birthday, March 4th, and FDR took office in 1933 when I turned nine. I was past 21 on April 12, 1945, sleeping in uniform on a German farmhouse floor when someone shook me awake to tell me the only President I had ever known was dead.

After the Great Depression and World War II, the tenure of future Presidents went by in a relative blur. Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs--twice--to end the war, making the U.S. the only nation ever to use that ultimate weapon.

In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower prided himself on staying in the "middle of the road," in retrospect an admirable undertaking, followed by Kennedy's thousand days, in which he learned after a Bay of Pigs fiasco how to avoid blowing up the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Lyndon Johnson passed an historic Civil Rights law, started a War on Poverty but left office in despair after escalating a small Vietnam War to tragic proportions.

Then came Nixon, the first President who resigned to avoid impeachment for criminal activities, followed by Ford, a decent, ineffectual man who gave way to Jimmy Carter, the poster boy for why intelligence and good intentions have to be accompanied by political skills.

Ronald Reagan brought those to the job in abundance, but his publicity sainthood now overlooks a much more mundane reality, which Bush I failed to paper over with a "vision thing" followed by Bill Clinton, who ruined his policy accomplishments with personal misbehavior.

Bush II gave us a pointless war and left behind a collapsing economy, which Barack Obama inherited to oversee a "fingers in the dike" presidency to this very day.

The haunting thought about this baker's dozen of men is how much difference it would have made in our lives if their tenures had been scrambled in time.

Questions about whether Republicans would nominate Eisenhower now and how much racism motivates Tea Party hatred of Obama are beside the point without factoring in whether the historical situation that brought them to the White House, rather than their individual appeal or merits, got them elected in the first place.

Untangling cause and effect is impossible but the mystery to be pondered from President's Day is to what extent do we get the presidents we want, need and deserve, consciously or not, as history unfolds.

Up to now, we have escaped basically unscathed, but next year may test our good sense and good luck.

Update: What hasn't changed from then to now is that Americans have not been content to criticize Presidents and their policies but their families as well.

FDR complained about insults to Eleanor and even his dog Fala. Now comes portly Rush Limbaugh to pontificate that "it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary (sic), dietary advice. And then we hear that she's out eating ribs at 1,500 calories a serving with 141 grams of fat per serving."

No word on how El Rushbo feels about the White House puppy.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cairo, Wisconsin

Foreign and domestic discontents come together as the GOP's Rep. Paul Ryan observes, "It's like Cairo has moved to Madison."

From the Left, Paul Krugman expresses ironic agreement that the Governor's attack on the unions is less about money than a play for power:

"(W)hat’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin--and eventually, America--less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy."

As the standoff escalates into a threat to fire 12,000 state workers, the ideological showdown prompts "moderate" Republicans to propose a compromise--eliminate public employees' bargaining rights now but reinstate them in 2013.

This sounds like Mubarak's temporary state of emergency that somehow lasted for three decades.

The Wisconsin chaos is an ugly distraction from the national debate on deficits and budgets, but it may help focus attention on the true motives of Congress' Ayn Rand Caucus, of which Ryan is the Great White Hope.

It adds to the list of society's "moochers" denounced by his mentor Wisconsin's police, fire fighters and teachers. After the Governor's tax cuts for the wealthy, there isn't much left for them.

If this keeps up, someone will bring up the French Revolution and Empress Marie Antoinette's alleged response to the peasants' shortage of bread, "Let them eat cake."

Just the thing to go with the Tea Party's beverage service.

Update: A former senior adviser to President W puts up a slow-down sign for his party's revolutionaries.

“If Republicans push too far and overreach their mandate, they will be punished by independent voters, just as they were in 1996,” says Mark McKinnon. “Voters said they wanted bold action. They are getting bold action. But Republicans need to be constantly reminded that the last election was a referendum for change, not a referendum for the G.O.P.”

You think?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Winters of Discontent, Here and Abroad

These times echo the opening lines of Shakespeare's "Richard III," rage against the world by "deformed, unfinished" voices.

In the Middle East and our own Midwest, discontent boils up into acting out of bone-deep beliefs, hatreds, tribal feuds and jealousies.

The turmoil proceeds on separate but parallel tracks yet, in a grownup conversation about American reality, is there no room for an overview that encompasses our approach to both?

What these crises share is that, in an era of scarcity, the U.S. is spending more than it can afford on both real domestic needs and a concept of security that unquestioningly keeps pouring billions into propping up so-called allies and containing slippery adversaries.

Yet, half a century after failing in Southeast Asia, a discredited theory is alive and well in the Middle East.

Back then, President Eisenhower described "the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Iran... It's hard to keep track of the shaky dominoes and even harder to foresee where all this popular anger is going. As we nevertheless keep pouring billions into Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere, isn't it time to reconsider this reflexive expenditure of billions into an idea of security that may be outmoded.

We were wrong about the domino theory then. Shouldn't we reexamine our assumptions now?

Meanwhile, in domestic discontent over comparative trifles, the "deformed, unfinished" spawned by the Tea Party strut on the stage, with the opening scene set in Wisconsin where a new governor is not satisfied to cut back union benefits in an economic crisis (no one could argue with that) but emasculate their power in the same stroke, triggering a farce rather than a sane debate

In Washington, John Boehner hails "democracy in action" as he pushes through a partisan budget-slashing bill that has no chance of surviving a Senate vote and/or Presidential veto. Posturing keeps trumping political reality.

Are we living in an era of Shakespearian tragedy or low-rent slapstick on a grand scale? If we don't start sorting all this out, we may have the worst of both.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Scott Brown's Brave Speakout

At first glance, the Massachusetts Senator's revelation of his childhood sexual abuse on 60 Minutes might be filed under the heading of "Things I Didn't Need to Know," but it is far from that.

From the still unfolding Catholic Church scandals, there is growing evidence of how badly victims are hurt and how long they carry the scars, particularly, as it so often happens, they are too frightened and ashamed to tell anyone, even their parents.

A camp counselor, Sen. Brown reveals, repeatedly abused him psychically as well as physically:

"He said 'If you tell anybody...I will make sure that nobody believes you'...When people find people like me at that young vulnerable age, who are basically lost, the thing that they have over you is, they make you believe that no one will believe you."

There is no way to know how many men and women today still conceal and carry the pain not only of what happened to them as children but the shame of feeling that being victimized by a predator was somehow their own fault.

By speaking up, Scott Brown is taking a step toward lifting that burden from all of them.

Even at my advanced age, I have an untold story of 75 years ago when Bronx kids like me played baseball in the park and our only problem was rounding up a ball, bat and enough gloves for two teams.

We got help from a man everyone called Unk who brought a canvas bag filled with softballs, bats and gloves. His manner was brisk and impersonal, like a teacher or coach. We were awed by his skills and took to heart his sharp comments on our fumbling efforts.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when he invited another 11-year-old boy and me to a Saturday afternoon movie. After we were seated on either side of him in the dark, I was startled to find Unk’s hand in my lap. I took hold and politely pushed it away. But the hand came back and began groping. I got up and ran out of the theater. Confused and ashamed, I never told anyone. After that, I stayed away from Unk’s games.

How many stories like that--and much, much worse--still haunt generations of grownups? By telling his own, Scott Brown has done all of us a service.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Americanization of Obama

Karl Rove has a new mission--to prove the President is a natural-born citizen.

Alarmed by a survey showing 51 percent of Republican primary voters do not believe Barack Obama was born in the U.S. and another 21 percent "not sure," Bush's former Brain warns, “Within our party, we’ve got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the Birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight.”

Translation: The flat-earth faction, if not denounced but at least distanced, might spook independent voters.

Rove's message is meant for GOP leaders and 2012 aspirants who can't quite get themselves to unhug the Birthers. "The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there," John Boehner now says. "That's good enough for me." But he adds that Congress is "the melting pot of America. It's not up to me to tell them what to think."

Actually, as Speaker of the House, he hasn't been shy about doing just that, but it can't be easy to rein in such as Michelle Bachmann who refuses to acknowledge that President is a citizen or a Christian. "That's not for me to state," she says with uncharacteristic open-mindedness.

But Sarah Palin has taken some baby steps toward Rove's advice. “The faith, the birth certificate," she said yesterday, "others can engage in that kind of conversation. It’s distracting. It gets annoying. And let’s just stick with what really matters."

There may be a message in all this for Mitt Romney, now the Republican front-runner but who, with all his Zelig-like flexibility, could nonetheless still turn out to be too liberal for the Birthers.

When they delve into his past, they'll find he spent his formative years in France (Holy Freedom Fries!) and was in a near-fatal accident that resulted in the police there stamping "He is dead" on his passport.

If Obama is having so much trouble persuading the Birthers about where he was born, can Romney prove to them that he is still alive?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Abuse of News People

What used to be unspeakable is now not only news but fodder for tweets, blog posts and myriad forms of comment. Freedom of information has advanced, hasn't it?

A 39-year-old woman, CBS correspondent Lara Logan, is "beaten and assaulted" by a crowd in Cairo. We know because her network issued a terse press release, which the Washington Post and New York Times respectfully reported, adding only such information as citing a report about previous sexual attacks on women journalists.

The tabloids and bloggers have not stopped there, with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post dredging up irrelevant details of Logan's personal life (no link here, this post is prurient enough), and an impetuous blogger has gotten himself fired from a job at NYU after setting off a left-right battle over a tasteless tweet about Logan and Anderson Cooper, who was previously bruised.

The underlying question, however, is what justifies the risks, other than ratings, of putting TV news "stars" into raging crowds? Do we learn any more than we would from indigenous reporters doing the interviews or, if the names need to be there, doing their work in a secure area?

These are not questions about journalism but show business. The talking heads on cable and PBS tells us the back story as crowds surge in protest, but for a 24/7 news culture, that's too boring. Each outlet has to put its own brand on the story with anchor people and familiar faces right in the shouting, jostling, highly emotional multitudes.

Is what happened to Lara Logan worth that? For that matter, was the beheading of Daniel Pearl nine years ago while seeking an interview with an Al Qaeda chief worth the trauma that followed? We can compare journalists to soldiers as casualties in the battle for truth, but that seems somewhat grandiose when the stakes are honestly confronted.

In parts of the world where it's hard to draw a line between reporters and alleged foreign spies, news organizations should rethink their platitudes about the public's "need to know." We would have known all about what happened in Egypt without exposing Lara Logan and other journalists to what she has grievously suffered.

And we certainly could have done without all the blather about it that has followed.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GOP Fast Shuffle

Two years ago, they ran against Barack Obama, accusing him of "wealth redistribution." In two months, Republicans have been working to do just that--upward.

After holding the President hostage in December to save $4 trillion in tax cuts for the richest Americans, the new House majority is now pushing for budget reductions out of the hides of the poor and middle class.

The GOP will have to change its symbolic elephant to a more forgetful creature as it bamboozles the public with a sudden switch of priorities from stimulating the economy to slashing the deficit.

Now John Boehner, after juggling figures, dismisses the loss of government jobs, with a breezy "So be it" as his protégé Paul Ryan earns two Pinocchios in a fact-check claim of his juggling of figures about new spending and new taxes.

In a press conference on the budget, the President is in his usual conciliatory mode as he deems possible “a spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans," offering to negotiate differences on specifics.

But the devil in the details is a combination of greed and fear. For the GOP, it is both, greed for more electoral gains from the Tea Party in 2012 and fear of not appeasing the movement enough to retain political support.

For Democrats, it is fear alone, approaching panic that more of them will be swept out of Congress for resisting cuts in programs that promote the common good.

Cooperation may be the President's stated goal, but under the radar, his Administration issues a threat to veto any bill coming out of the House that "undermines critical priorities or national security."

That covers a lot territory, but will Barack Obama have the deftness and determination he showed in the lame-duck session to extract some public gains from the GOP monolith as it switches themes from stimulating the economy to cutting budget deficits?

The politics of posturing goes on, with reality running a distant second.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who's In, Who's Out

New controversies about inclusion and exclusion in American life bring to mind Groucho's dictum, "I don't want to belong to any club that takes people like me as members."

At a recent meeting of social psychologists, 80 percent defined themselves as politically liberal, leading to a broader debate about under-representation of conservatives in academia.

On a more parochial level, nasty disagreement about who's in and who's out has roiled Manhattan's Century Club, a self-selected bastion of those devoted to arts and culture.

The issue of bias in higher education deserves serious discussion, but a lifelong Groucho Marxist on the subject of joining groups is prompted to ponder the broader question of the need to belong and its consequences.

Those who grew up early in the last century are instinctively wary of excluding people, remembering how religious, racial and ethic minorities were routinely shut out of so many areas of society back then.

Woody Allen satirized this impulse in a 1983 movie, wherein “Zelig” wills himself into becoming like people he sees in newsreels, because his own life does not seem worth living. In pseudo-documentary style, Irving Howe, a scholar of the immigrant experience, explains the fictional chameleon: “He wanted to assimilate like crazy."

In today's presumably assimilated America, the counter-need to define oneself as different persists to the point that a claim can be made that it's hurting the economy.

Even more worrisome is the us-against-them mentality of the Tea Party, which goes beyond challenging the ideas of those they disagree with but their legitimacy.

Sitting in a club chair among people you consider your peers in a campus lounge or a members-only enclave can be a comforting experience, but the price American society pays for that impulse may go far beyond the dues for doing it.

As someone who joined nothing else (including turning down an invitation to the Century Club), I can only point to my one experience of belonging to and becoming chairman of a professional group of editors, an open-minded group by definition.

When you put any group into a closed room, self-interest and low cunning come to the fore. I found less true congeniality and more self-promotion in the gatherings of "peers."

The price for associating with kindred spirits, at least for Groucho and me, is just too high.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ghosts at the Grammys

This is foreign correspondence, reporting from an alien time and space, on the Grammy Awards.

The music industry seems to have been infiltrated by the Tea Party as the multiple winner is Lady Antebellum, a white-bread trio looking like well-behaved children of old Nashville who could make Sarah Palin's "A" list.

Even CBS, which telecast the event, is caught off guard with a 60 Minutes feature on the outrageous Lady Gaga, who did not have a good night at the awards.

The past was very much present, too: 69-year-old Bob Dylan ("his voice shredded," says a report) looking wan and weak, upstaged by an electrifying Mick Jagger, 67, showing that being past Social Security is no bar to wowing a crowd (despite a spitefully timed statement by Marianne Faithfull on his private parts).

In the quest for historical continuity, the producers may have reached back too far by unearthing the co-stars of the third and worst version of "A Star Is Born," Kris Kristofferson, 74, and the unsinkable Barbra Streisand, 68. (One of my last acts before retiring as an editor over a quarter of a century ago was bawling her out over the phone as "a bad person" for breaching an agreement she had made with my magazine.)

As foreign correspondents are wont to do, this has to conclude with uniformed judgments about matters they know little about. On some of the lavish production numbers, watching with one's eyes closed raised questions about the musical quality unenhanced by the flashing lights, bizarre backgrounds and, in the case of one winner, bicycle riders circling the group like escapees from the Tour de France.

We are a long way from the jukeboxes of my time.

Update: The best musical performance of the day by far is by recovering Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lip-syncing songs while talking by phone to her brother-in-law in space, mouthing lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” and, for her husband's birthday this month, the words to “Happy Birthday to You.”

Now that's really music to a nation's ears.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Catch-22 Man

How many people plant an expression in the English language that half a century later becomes shorthand for the state of the world? I knew one.

As Obama's dilemmas on the economy and the Middle East are labeled "Catch-22s," I recall my friend Joseph Heller whose novel of that name has become shorthand for no-win situations of insane proportions.

Back then, Joe seemed an unlikely candidate for immortality--a happy-go-lucky guy who wrote promotion copy for McCalls while I worked for Redbook down an adjacent corridor. We would meet at the elevators and trade wisecracks.

Then, one day, he handed me a copy of "Catch-22," inscribed: "You could have read this in Redbook if you had acted with more alacrity. I hope you enjoy reading it now."

My alacrity was still lacking as I put Joe's book aside, but in October 1962 I took it on a trip to California and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the black comedy of "Catch-22" was perfectly plausible at the edge of nuclear annihilation in L.A., where residents were hoarding toilet paper. Yossarian's struggle against universal madness seemed like pure realism.

Soon afterward, Joe handed me a novella he had written years earlier, telling me Hollywood was interested if he could get it published somewhere. I handed it back with my advice: "Burn it." Apparently his agent, Candida Donadio, had told him the same thing.

But Joe kept finding ingenious ways to nurse writer's block, conning me into low-paying assignments for a Metropolitan New York section of my magazine until Candida called and asked me to stop, saying I was enabling his procrastination on the second novel.

I cut him off and soon afterward received another inscribed copy, of "Something Happened," a dazzling work in which the wartime madness of "Catch-22" was applied to magazines resembling those we worked for.

I wish he were still around to see how the illogic and insanity he wrote about then are taking over the world now. He would have loved making fiction out of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and Tea Party antics , but satirizing it all would have been a challenge.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

People Power in the Arab World

Is political freedom contagious? Just as Tunisia ignited Egypt, how far will their example go in the wider Arab world, where many join in celebration of Mubarak's overthrow? Could Iran be next?

A parallel comes to mind from half a century ago. Just as social media played a big role in this month's events, TV in its infancy enabled the civil rights movement in the U.S.

The young protesters in Cairo, with no formal organization, attained critical mass and become a force through their Internet connections just as the oppression of segregation was brought into living rooms by Martin Luther King, a minister in his twenties, who orchestrated scenes for the nightly news to create a force out of black people in urban ghettos and rural backwaters who had been invisible to most Americans and one another.

Without TV, there would have been no Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without the Internet, Mubarak would still be ruling Egypt.

The history of media changing the world goes back to the Great Depression when radio amplified the voice of FDR, a man in a wheelchair, with Fireside Chats and speeches to overcome national despair and, in World War II, when Winston Churchill rallied the British to resist the Nazis.

Oppression always works best in darkness. As more and more information lights up the world, anything seems possible, even in the benighted Middle East.

While stirring up populations becomes easier, however, it will take better and better political skills to make those expectations lead to something real. History says that they can, but nothing will come easily.

"There's no script," says a Middle East correspondent, "no research on a leaderless revolution taking on an oligarch protected by a military establishment supported by an entrenched elite."

One will have to be written.

Update: Algeria gets the message and shuts down Internet providers and Facebook, but it's a case of shutting the barn door too late as crowds protest in the streets. Who's next?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Obama's Tightrope Walk

"Rip van Winkle meets Facebook." In a phrase, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman nails the drama unfolding in Egypt as the White House struggles with the dilemma of how hard to shake Mubarak awake after his soporific speech "from the father to his sons and daughters."

“The administration has to put everything on the line now,” says an official of Human Rights Watch, who has been advising the White House. “Whatever cards they have, this is the time to play them.”

The pressure grows as an Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner, mapping out "a peaceful and orderly transition of power," writes that we and our allies have been "at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives, fighting wars to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Now that the youth of Cairo, armed with nothing but Facebook and the power of their convictions, have drawn millions into the street to demand a true Egyptian democracy, it would be absurd to continue to tacitly endorse the rule of a regime that has lost its own people’s trust."

Yes, but we are back to the old fable of the mice trying to decide who will put the bell on the dangerous cat and how.

Yesterday's performance by CIA Director Leon Panetta is not reassuring as he tells Congress of a "strong likelihood" that Mubarak will step down by the end of the day, intelligence, as it turns out, gathered from cable TV. The Egyptian dictator is not the only drowsy one in this situation.

No matter what the Obama White House does, it risks the appearance of doing too little and appearing weak or too much and being criticized for overthrowing a sovereign government.

The coming days will be a test of Barack Obama's skills at walking a tightrope, good preparation for what he faces in confronting the GOP on budget cuts.

Update: If reports are right, Mubarak has left his palace outside Cairo and ceded control to a military council, putting his speech yesterday into a Nixon-like perspective. Our Unindicted Coconspirator spent time talking incoherently to the pictures in the White House before stepping down. His current counterpart chose to do it on state TV.

No matter. His people--and many around the world--will be as relieved to have Mubarak go as Americans were to see the last of Nixon almost four decades ago.

And perhaps most heartening of all, our current White House occupant has passed his tightrope test in fine style.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mubarak Plays the Chaos Card

Update: After a day of false reports that he would be stepping down, Hosni Mubarak appears on Egyptian TV to offer a rambling self-justification and enrage protesting crowds with double-talk about peaceful transition. By doing so, he is inviting the chaos his supporters have been warning about--a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The question arises, "Would you buy a used camel from this man?" as Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit insists that Egypt has a "road map" for peaceful transformation and the U.S. has left him "angry, infuriated" by pressuring his boss Mubarak to step down.

With a straight face, he posits that "a stupid fellow would throw a Molotov bomb against a tank or a soldier, and it explodes." Translation: If Mubarak is backed against the wall, he could play the chaos card by igniting violence himself. Meanwhile, he will hang on and hope for the best.

It is against this background that the Obama Administration has to tap-dance around the siege of Egypt, and it is one of the downsides of our 24/7 news culture that it demands new headlines in a situation where watchful waiting should be the public position and horse-trading should be going on behind the scenes, as it undoubtedly is.

There are reports that "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security advisor Thomas Donilon and Defense Secretary Robert Gates...worry about regional stability and want to reassure other Middle East governments that the U.S. will not abandon an important and longtime ally.

"But that position has been harder to defend as...Mubarak allies appeared to dig in, refusing the administration's entreaties to undertake swift reforms such as scrapping the country's longstanding state of emergency," warning of "a coup" if the unrest continues.

As in all our Middle East adventures, there is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don't undercurrent that eats up our government's attention and money in an era of domestic crisis.

For a moment, the news cycle is distracted by reports of a married Congressman posing as a single lobbyist (upward mobility?) in a topless online ad, but within hours, there is the standard resignation and public apology--and we are back to worrying about Egypt.

These days, public anxiety trumps prurience.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

When We Ate Real Food

"In recent weeks," writes a culinary columnist, "we’ve seen a big, powerful government agency, a big, powerful person and a big, powerful corporation telling us what to eat." He is critiquing the efforts of the USDA, Oprah and Wal-Mart (partnering with Michelle Obama) to persuade Americans to "Eat Real Food"--more fruit and vegetables, less processed gunk.

A noble goal, but easier said than done in the Supermarket and Fast Food Ages. The dilemma brings back memories of my childhood in the Bronx 75 years ago when we had no such problems.

Our family eating was insular: boiled chicken, mashed and baked potatoes, raw vegetables with farmer cheese and sour cream, fish, at times a broiled lamb chop--and always fresh fruit.

A touch of worldliness intruded with the opening of a small shop down the block. Through the window we saw a man filling wire baskets with chunks of potato and plunging them into boiling oil. My mother, her face scrunched in distaste, told me the oddities were called "potato chips."

Such goings-on convinced her we had moved into too pricey a neighborhood, so she insisted on shopping back on Bathgate Avenue, more than a mile from where we now lived.

Once or twice a week we took empty shopping bags, two for each of us, and hiked down to where butcher shops, bakeries, delicatessens, fruit stands and appetizing stores, repositories of a dozen kinds of smoked fish, crowded one another to dazzle the senses: fresh-baked challah and sweet dark honey cake, bright ripening fruit, briny pickles and peppers, wafts of coffee beans going through the grinder, spicy heat rising from knishes and pastrami, the smoky singe of feather stems being burned off stripped chickens.

The chicken pluckers, heads bent over huge bloody aprons, sat up to their ankles in sawdust, legs splayed to hold a bird in their laps, their hairy arms alive with little white lice, hands flying in a cloud of feathers. They charged a nickel a chicken, and it was only the hardiest of housewives who could resist their services and take home an unplucked fowl. My mother was one of them.

Butchers and bakers kept some wares behind glass but everything else was within reach--in barrels, buckets, casks, big brown sacks and wooden crates--to be smelled, touched and tasted. We inched along a crowded sidewalk between stores on one side and pushcarts lining the curb, prices thickly crayoned on brown paper bags hung on sticks buried in mounds of apples, pears, potatoes and onions.

We scoured the signs for a penny a pound less here, a slightly larger dozen for the same price there. My mother dipped into her purse like a fastidious bird pecking at desirable morsels. By the time we had gone two or three blocks, our shopping bags were filling up with provender pushed at us by unshaven men, their hands moving at the speed of light, their voices breaking the sound barrier to importune potential buyers streaming by behind our backs.

Finally, shopping bags bulging, we emerged from the clamor and color to turn toward home, stopping every few blocks to rest our aching arms and shoulders as we trudged uphill with what would fill our stomachs in the days to come. By the time we got home, we were as exhausted as field hands after bringing in the harvest.

On holidays, all that hauling would be rewarded by something from my mother's small repertoire of baking skills: a deep dish of apple slices crusted with buttery crushed Graham crackers or a "potatonik," an oily pudding best eaten cold and slathered with butter. Oddly, somewhere she had also learned how to make the most delicious fruitcake I would ever taste, sweet and moist mouthfuls of raisins, prunes, apricots and nuts.

In those Depression days, nobody had to tell us to "Eat Real Food,"

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Arianna, AOL and Eyeballs: A Cautionary Tale

A merger couples the Huffington Post and what remains of the dialup service that tried to eat the media world. For Arianna H., it's a giant financial step for Womankind but hardly a "Merger of Visions"--more a cautionary tale about 21st century competition for eyeballs.

In a 1997 New York Times OpEd, at the height of a subscriber and stock boom, I compared AOL to mass magazines of my era which kept buying ever higher circulations at cut rates while consumers needed them less and less in the hope that advertisers would provide revenue.

The magazines died but AOL was bailed out, ironically, by a merger with Time Inc., the healthiest dead-tree dinosaur, which worked out so miserably that AOL had to be spun off before it sank the remains of Henry Luce's empire.

Now the former online giant is making another vampire move in the hope that Huffington blood will revive it. Howard Kurtz, who recently migrated from the Washington Post to the Daily Beast web site, sees it as "evidence that online news and entertainment are an increasingly valuable force in a media world once dominated by old-guard newspapers, magazines, and networks. The merger of The Daily Beast and Newsweek, completed last week, was another such sign."

Maybe so, but what's going on below is much less reassuring.

In that ancient AOL piece, I cited the 20th century wisdom of Lewis Mumford, whose critique of industrial society cited "deprivation by surfeit" as one of its dangers.

"Because of our concentration on speed and productivity," he wrote, "we have ignored the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation."

Now, even more than then, we are flooded 24/7 with information competing for our eyeballs and brains, but less and less with understanding of what it all means. With due respect to the Huffington Post's efforts to practice interpretive journalism, it essentially remains a grab bag of links to entice more and more clicks to its site.

If Ms. Huffington succeeds in expanding and deepening its own coverage, that would be a step in the right direction. Otherwise, our deprivation of understanding will only get worse.

For now, the merger seems less of Visions than, as a competitor asks, "Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”

Monday, February 07, 2011

Belittling Egypt

Over a century ago, Americans were wowed by belly dancers called Little Egypt who did the Hoochee-Coochee for the yokels' amazement.

Now, with the real Egypt in upheaval, the Far Right has gone into its ritual dance to blame Barack Obama and show themselves as insular rubes to the point that even conservative guru William Kristol is disgusted:

"When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He’s marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s.

"Nor is it a sign of health when other American conservatives are so fearful of a popular awakening that they side with the dictator against the democrats. Rather, it’s a sign of fearfulness unworthy of Americans, of short-sightedness uncharacteristic of conservatives, of excuse-making for thuggery unworthy of the American conservative tradition."

Kristol fails to mention his friend Sarah Palin as part of the pack, resurrecting Hillary Clinton's campaign "3 a.m. White House phone call," and asserting that the "call went right to the answering machine.”

Beyond all this "Dancing with the Stars" fluff, there is a complex diplomatic dance in which the Obama Administration is taking steps to ease out Mubarak and avert chaos while bending over backwards to avoid the appearance of meddling in another country's domestic affairs.

The choreography may be a bit slipshod but so far, so good, no thanks to the likes of Dick Cheney, who emerges to eulogize the three-decade dictator as "a good man, a good friend and ally to the United States."

When Mubarak finally goes, let's hope he has the sense to step off the stage in favor of whatever passes for democracy in Egypt and, unlike our own self-chosen former VP, stop tap-dancing for the TV cameras and embarrassing his successors.

In this tense time, it's heartening to see all but the fringe Right of the American political spectrum in unison.

Update: Newt Gingrich pops in to shimmy and shake over Egypt by calling the Obama Administration "amateurish."

His authority: John Bolton, who wants to bomb everybody, proclaiming "it's inconceivable that they would be this clumsy and this out of sync."

If Gingrich is planning to run next year, he should do better than getting advice from the man who couldn't be confirmed as W's ambassador to the UN, after proclaiming "There is no such thing as the United Nations."

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Reagan's Super Bowl Birthday

The Gipper would have enjoyed celebrating his centennial on that most American of days when two football teams beat each other's brains out while the nation watches with barbecue and beer.

The actor who became President, Ronald Wilson Reagan lived all his life in an imagined country, starting as a sportscaster in a small room with a teletype that told him "GO 3B," from which, with recorded crowd noises, he would spin a breathless description of a hard smash down the left field line, the third baseman diving headlong to spear the drive and scrambling to his feet in a cloud of dust to beat the runner as his manager yelled from the dugout in protest.

From then on, through Hollywood years and two terms in the White House, Reagan creatively breathed life into grains of truth that would entertain, inspire and sometimes mislead millions. As he turns 100, Barack Obama tactfully notes:

"No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan--and I certainly had my share--there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America."

As Sarah Palin keynotes a centennial dinner, what stands out in memory is not Reagan's politics but his persona, which changed the image of Republicans from a stuffy bunch in exclusive Wall Street clubs to the earthy middle Americans they always fleece.

To get elected, he played that part to the hilt, in 1980 demolishing Jimmy Carter's attack on his Medicare record with a genial, condescending "There you go again!" and, four years later, defusing the issue of his own advanced age by telling Walter Mondale that he wouldn't hold his youth and inexperience against him.

What the GOP now likes to remember is the "Morning in America" glaze Reagan put over eight years of White House playacting, crediting his "Tear down that wall!" line for the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been bankrupting itself for decades.

Harmless enough, but the former actor's truth-stretching is still bedeviling us with an iffy Star Wars missile defense and memories of the Iran-Contra scandal that led to talk of impeachment.

Yet Ronald Reagan's star power was a good fit for the 1980s, sandwiched between the clueless tenure of Jimmy Carter and that of George H. W. Bush, said to remind every woman of her first husband and, by his own admission, not good with "the vision thing."

Reagan had that in abundance for an era when Americans wanted a showman in the White House and could afford to have one there. As the Tea Party revs up its rhetoric now, it would be good to have him still with us, telling them, "There you go again."

Update: Sarah Palin, who also started as a sportscaster, auditions for a 21st century remake of "The Reagan Story" while modestly denying any interest in the role.

"Today there are a lot of people looking around for the next Ronald Reagan," she tells the centennial dinner at the Reagan Ranch center, "but he was one of a kind and you are not going to find his kind again. And the Gipper wouldn't want us to spend our time on that anyway."

She's probably right. The original spent decades in Hollywood learning his craft and, when elected governor of California, served out all eight years of his two terms. They used to call that paying your dues, not raking in your due on Rupert Murdoch's payroll.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Michelle Obama Is No Barbie Doll

The First Lady, who has been promoting healthy diets for Americans, has misspoken herself into, of all things, a grease pit of controversy and even worse just before Super Bowl Sunday in Texas, where barbecue is sacred.

In her memo to supporters announcing next year's Democratic convention in Charlotte, Mrs. Obama praises the city's many virtues, adding "And of course great barbecue." This prompts the local North Carolina newspaper to respond "Charlotte=great barbecue? Who knew?"

For Northerners, this is tantamount to citing Jersey City for French cuisine, and the timing couldn't be worse.

As football worshippers arrive at a de-iced Arlington Stadium, they will be only a three-hour drive (a Lone Star hop, skip and jump) from Snow's in Lexington, which Texas Monthly cites as the best in the state--and therefore the world (the UK's Guardian lists the place in "The 50 best things to eat in the world, and where to eat them")--prompting the New Yorker's guru of grease Calvin Trillin to visit and ratify the choice.

The only problem for football fans is that the establishment, run by a former rodeo clown and a lady named Tootsie, is open only from 8 to noon on Saturdays, creating slight timing and digestive problems that could only be solved by staying up and drinking all Friday night.

The prospect of all this might well turn the First Lady into a total vegetarian. In telling supporters about the Charlotte convention, Mrs. Obama noted that "the table we sit at together ought to be big enough for everyone."

But sitting there at breakfast time sopping up fat with packaged white bread is not likely to be what she had in mind.

Health Care Chaos and Egypt Riots

Two narratives dominate the news--the revolt in Egypt and the future of American health care.

How bad can a Pyrrhic victory get and how long can it last? As the Senate votes down health care repeal, Congress has wasted a full month on partisan posturing, leaving what was a national mess to the courts and states to scramble it into 50 forms of incoherence.

Just as the House and Senate split on undoing the Act, implementing it is breaking down by party lines as well with Democratic governors moving ahead on setting up health insurance exchanges required by the new law and Republicans either stalling or coming to a dead stop.

By the time the issue of its legitimacy gets to the Supreme Court, what the GOP loves to call Obamacare, which was designed to take years to come into full effect, may be in limbo for almost a decade.

Is this any way to run a country, especially on an issue that affects the lives of its citizens and could be critical to a recovering economy?

In today's political climate, it would seem so and, for the most part, in media darkness.

True to Marshall McLuhan's dictum that the medium is the message, news attention is focusing on chaotic crowd scenes in Cairo, an event of momentous importance in the Middle East, exciting to watch but with far less impact on the lives of Americans than the untelegenic paper shuffling in Washington and state houses.

Informed citizens are getting more news and opinions on the future of Egypt than the medical care they and their families will be receiving from now on.

Half a century ago, Mike Nichols and Elaine May would do a routine in which a fatuous couple agreed that moral issues are so much more interesting to discuss than real issues. Apparently they still are. But when things settle down, Egypt will fade from the news, and health care will still mean life-or-death for American families.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Enter the Unexpected--and Hope?

February arrives with a reminder that life takes turns that don't fit into the mold our minds have constructed for the world:

An uprising in Egypt suddenly changes the Middle East power equation and forces us to recalibrate our investment of blood and money in the region.

Here at home, state courts keep overturning the essence of health care reform, racing ahead of GOP Congressional efforts to repeal it.

And winter storms across the country wreck damaged local government budgets with new debt piling as high as the sleet and snow that have to be taken away.

The agents of such unexpected stress, varied as they are, don't wait for political agendas to focus attention on problems that must be faced, ready or not.

Only a supreme optimist would see in all this a reflection of the bromide that the Chinese word for crisis is the same as opportunity, but there are elements of hope in all of them.

The upheaval that shakes our strongest ally--and client--in the Middle East forces us to rethink what we have been doing there for a decade. Are our policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq built on sand? (Decades ago, we supported the Shah in Iran and ended up with a hostile regime now going nuclear.) Are there better ways to invest in our own security there?

The piñata that the Obama White House pushed through Congress is being whacked from all sides and, from the debris, there could emerge a less convoluted, simpler health care system. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, a keen student of the subject, speculates on a possible overturn of the act followed by a Democratic expansion of existing programs that could sidestep the obstacles of a Senate supermajority and legal challenges:


"Think something like opening Medicare to all Americans over age 45, raising Medicaid up to 300 percent of the poverty line, opening S-CHIP to all children, and paying for the necessary subsidies and spending with a surtax on the wealthy (which is how the House originally wanted to fund health-care reform). That won't get us quite to universal health care, but it'll get us pretty close. And it'll be a big step towards squeezing out private insurers, particularly if Medicaid and Medicare are given more power to control their costs."

Snow removal costs can't be as easily wished away, but their reality could fuel a groundswell of public opinion to jolt even such as GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who has proclaimed that "There will be no bailout of the states. States can deal with this and have the ability to do so on their own.”

Try telling that to snowbound constituents.