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, May 31, 2011

Palin's Marilyn Monroe Moment

As a legendary woman of the last century turns 85 tomorrow, there are echoes of a Marilyn-like media frenzy in the hide-and-seek game being played now by another super-celebrity.

“Congratulations, Sarah Palin, you have turned the Washington press corps into a bunch of paparazzi stalking your every move,” a reporter writes about the bus tour meant to bolster her presidential chances by blowing kisses to crowds while avoiding contact with journalists.

What we have here is a 21st century equivalent of that classic photo of Marilyn posing on a subway grate, her skirts billowing up while dodging reporters’ questions about her future.

Somehow, with as little political substance now as Monroe had in her acting career then, Palin has attained the same iconic status and, no matter what the media and public think about her, she is an irresistible object of curiosity.

“Why,” Marilyn asked me when we first met back then, “do they print things about me that aren’t true?”

“Because,” I told her, “pictures of you sell magazines and newspapers, and when there’s no excuse for running them, they’ll print rumors, gossip, anything they can get.”

Palin and her people have learned this lesson of publicity sainthood well and, instead of subjecting her to the normal electoral process of being questioned by press and public, are putting her out there to be seen and idolized but remain untouched by substantive scrutiny.

When Marilyn Monroe got serious about her acting, she made a movie titled “Bus Stop,” to reveal more about herself than her looks and manner. As Palin continues her tour, there is no sign that she intends to do something similar.

Yet, at some point, she will have to get off the bus and get serious if she intends to have it carry her all the way to the White House. When will she be ready for her closeup?

Update: The Magical Mystery Tour, after a sneak-off visit to Gettysburg, does Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell. The Palin family tours the Civil War gravesite but bypasses Eisenhower’s retirement home. Just as well, Ike must be spinning in his grave if he knows about any of this.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Forgotten on Memorial Day

The parades, flags and mass prayers are meant to honor men and women who died nobly for their country, but they also commemorate the barbaric enterprise of those who sent them to kill and be killed for reasons that are not fully understood and shared by fellow Americans.

Since World War II, our young people have been giving up their lives in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and smaller wars elsewhere with no clear consensus about the goals. On this of all days, shouldn’t we question why they have to do so?

As a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, I left and came back to a country united in an agreed-on reality--to defeat a Nazi war machine bent on world domination. Since then, younger generations have given their lives for abstractions such as the Domino Theory of Communism and the War on Terror, the former turning out to be a fallacy, the latter clearly heading that way.

This gap between the bravery of those who wear the uniform and the muddled motives of those who send them into danger makes a sad mockery of Memorial Day.

On 60 Minutes, Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor awardee in this century, describes himself as an “average, mediocre” soldier and says, "I'm not at peace with that at all. And coming and talking about it and people wanting to shake my hand because of it, it hurts me because it's not what I want.”

What Giunta feels will be understood by anyone who has been a soldier and knows that the essence of war is doing what has to be done and that circumstances, not individual choice, determine the rest. When the risks get higher in some situations, as Giunta’s, soldiers don’t stop to calculate the odds and are certainly not seeking rewards.

This kind of selfless behavior is at the other end of the human spectrum from politics, where everything is done not out of a sense of duty to others, no matter what the consequences, but for calculated self-advantage.

On Memorial Day, we should, of course, cherish those who wear the uniform, but our bearing witness is incomplete without acknowledging the darker side of their service.

TV screens are full of heroic John Wayne movies, but they should also show Paddy Chayevsky’s anti-war satire, “The Americanization of Emily,” in which the World War II protagonist bitterly proclaims:

“War isn't hell at all. It's man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness.

“Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue.”

At the very least, as we honor those brave souls who have given their lives, we should be asking questions that might keep future generations from having to do the same in the pursuit of such absurdities.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Corruption of Power Up Close

He would have turned 100 this weekend, but Hubert Humphrey is a forgotten figure--a hero of the Civil Rights era, V.P. of the U.S. and yet, in the end, a good-hearted man destroyed by the corruption of power and the desire for it.

I was a witness to his downfall with failings of my own as it unfolded.

At the 1948 Democratic Convention, Humphrey sounded a call that led to a walkout of Southern delegates:

"To those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late...the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

Truman won reelection that year, and Humphrey, a former Republican, went to the Senate where he became a champion of Liberal causes until Lyndon Johnson put him on the ticket in 1964.

LBJ wanted a smiling silent partner, a role ill-suited to the ebullient Humphrey. (At one Washington dinner, as M.C. I had had to tug at the back of his jacket to make him stop filibustering the dozing postprandial crowd.)

As America turned against the Vietnam War, Humphrey was assigned to dampen media opposition. At a meeting with editors, he took the hardest possible line against any negotiation to end it.

“Why not?” I asked, “Even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is willing to try.”

He glared at me. “But I’m the Vice President of the United States!”

“Yes, sir,” I answered, “and that’s what worries me.”

A few days later, Humphrey’s chief of staff came to smooth things over: “After years of agreement, you’re not going to turn against Hubert over this one issue?”

No sale. “It’s not his judgment I question, it’s his character.”

After being tear-gassed along with protesters at the raucous 1968 convention that nominated him for President, I was asked to campaign for Humphrey as I had for Eugene McCarthy. I refused, saying I would vote for him but do nothing more.

Humphrey lost by the narrowest margin in an election that gave us Richard Nixon and, eventually, Watergate

Looking back, my feelings about Humphrey’s behavior are unchanged, but I have doubts about my own.

I thought about all that in 2000, waiting to cast my ballot for Al Gore in a line of college students eager to vote for Ralph Nader. Hubert Humphrey may have been done in by eagerness to become President, but that corruption by power doesn’t excuse those of us who remained purists and punished him for it to the nation’s detriment.

Happy Birthday, Hubert. Sorry for us all.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Degrading Democracy: Count the Ways

Republicans are doing more than try to win elections next year. In both presidential primaries and Congress, they are undermining the kind of American government that people are literally dying to emulate in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

The Presidency is in its second round of insult to injury as Sarah Palin follows Donald Trump into making a circus of the selection process, taking a free ride to pump it for personal publicity with no clear intention to take part in it, even as Michele Bachmann lowers the bar with an Iowa no-show, sending instead a video praising Trump.

If by some off-chance she does run, Palin will have made a bad joke out of the most important decision American voters have to make—-choosing who will repair the economy, send young people to war, name Supreme Court justices-—based on wisecracks and hoopla at motorcycle and pep rallies.

In Washington, the GOP is turning the legislative process into the same kind of farce as Mitch McConnell, in the face of rising public opposition to the Ryan Plan, blandly holds Medicare hostage to budget and debt-ceiling votes vital to preserving American credit throughout the world.

A duly elected President is under attack, for the present and the future, by politicians who are clearly serious about only one thing-—exacerbating Tea Party outrage and milking it for votes, no matter what damage they do to the body politic along the way.

In his Iowa debut, “centrist” Mitt Romney declines to give primary voters the red meat they clearly crave, saying “I want to win that final race and say to Mr. Obama, ‘You’re a nice guy, we like you, you have a lovely family and you’ve done your best. But frankly, it’s time for somebody who understands how the country works.’”

With that kind of approach, Romney will separate himself from the GOP pack by bringing a note of civility into the race, but how far will it take him? One clue is that Rudy Giuliani, Mr. 9/11 who was declared politically dead three years ago, has risen again for no discernible reason than desperation, to lead him in national polling.

In this climate, babies and bath water are flying through the air everywhere. Wherever they land, it won’t be in the safety of the kind of democracy that has protected past generations of Americans for centuries.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Romney's Energizer Bunny Run

It’s only his second campaign for president but Mitt Romney seems to have been running forever, like that battery-powered toy in the classic commercial, always in motion but never in a straight line.

In a Republican field where too little name recognition is a problem for most candidates, Romney has too much. In 2008, he changed positions on issues as often as shirts and is starting now with a campaign tome titled “No Apologies,” but the dazed voter is likely to be sorting through a laundry list and asking for which?

He looks and sounds right for the White House, his resume is fine (successful business man, governor of a large state) but “Empty Suit” seems to be stamped on his forehead. Among has-beens, never-weres and who-knows-whats, he is the default GOP candidate, reflected by his 17 percent as frontrunner in a motley field.

As Sarah Palin starts her vanity tour at a Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally, Romney will be making his announcement at a New Hampshire farm, where no one will be mistaking him for Mr. Excitement. At this moment, the two symbolically represent the Republican 2012 dilemma—to go all in for Tea Party loony or try to straddle an unlikely coalition that would attract enough Independents to win.

For the latter role Romney comes with baggage—his Massachusetts forerunner to “Obamacare,” his Mormon faith, his invincible blandness. (In 1948, when he seemed sure to beat Harry Truman, someone labeled Thomas E. Dewey “the little man on the wedding cake” and took him down.)

Beyond that, there may be a problem in Mitt Romney’s genes. In 1968, when his father was the frontrunner for the nomination, a fellow Republican remarked, “"Watching George Romney run for President is like watching a duck try to make love [PG version] to a football."

In a year when Trump and Gingrich have been providing comic relief galore, that may not be fatal. But GOP voters will have to go through a lot before they find themselves exhausted enough to turn to Romney’s straight-man Energizer Bunny act.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Slow-Motion Apocalypse

The world didn’t end last weekend as predicted, but tornadoes have made the middle of America look as if it did. Devastation fills TV screens, making those safe at home aware of how fragile the daily existence we take for granted really is.

How do we reconcile going about our days as if we were safe and going to live forever with the knowledge deep in our bones that we walk on a thin crust of earth that could crack at any time and swallow us forever? How do we cope with the world without either becoming numb and indifferent or acting as though we could control it?

A tornado victim tells of lying in bed with his wife and seconds later finding her gone while his own life is spared. Others stare in wonder at rubble where their homes were minutes earlier. Even after we click the remote control, what they are feeling is in the room with us.

If Nature does not care whether we live or die, neither do the darker recesses of human minds. We learn that the gunman who shot Gaby Giffords and killed six others isn’t “competent to stand trial,” and our desire for an explanation or justice or revenge disappears with him behind the walls of an institution.

We watch cocksure politicians spout certainties as if they were the center of a universe with others only supporting players or pawns in a drama starring their self-righteous selves.

Every day, the news is about devastation. Apocalypse may or may not ever come for the entire human race but surely awaits us one at a time. Can’t we learn to live our lives together as decently as possible without spending what time and energy we have fighting and demeaning one another?

Or is that (dirty word alert) naïve?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reality Break for Tea Party and Palin

In these Alice-in-Wonderland days, occasional signs of sanity emerge, such as the Democratic victory in a traditionally Republican upstate New York House district, fueled by voter worries about Medicare and a Tea Party candidate on the ballot drawing just enough votes to make the difference.

This used to be known as shooting yourself in the foot, but that won’t deter John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House GOP leaders, who contributed to the loser’s campaign, from pressing their hopelessly ideological agenda on the national stage.

Posturing has become all--reality seems beside the point. Never mind that three Senate Republicans—Scott Brown, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins—are not supporting the House zealots, eliminating any possible chance of victory on the House budget manifesto. Politics has morphed from the art of the possible to proclamations of purity.

This same kind of loony disconnection from what most Americans call reality can be seen in a new Sarah Palin movie, intended to “catapult her from the presidential afterthought she has become in the eyes of many pundits directly to the front lines of the 2012 GOP conversation.”

The film’s thesis is that Palin drove the Republican Congressional victory in 2010, when a sober analysis shows that, if the GOP had nominated more plausible Senate candidates than Palin-backed 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. Even in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski overcame a Palin vendetta with a write-in effort to beat Joe Miller.

But crazy and clueless are still the specials on the Republican menu, and what voters want only occasionally appears as a side dish. Until the Tea Party is over, they are going to have to find ways of ordering a la carte.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beating Bushes for a President

Even as GOP hopefuls make pilgrimages for a blessing by President 41, the sound of a distant groundswell can be heard for a possible Bush 45.

“His credentials,” says a throbbing pundit about the failure of Jeb Bush to step up, “are so good and his political abilities so acute compared to the others that his decision may well result in four more years of President Obama.”

Could eight disastrous years of Bush 43 disappear down the Memory Hole so quickly? Would Independents who deserted McCain in 2008 come back so quickly to a dynasty whose legacy then was a pointless war in Iraq, a faltering economy and infringement of Americans’ traditional rights to privacy?

In this era of Anybody Can Run (pace Trump, Cain et al), 58-year-old John Ellis Bush would bring to the GOP race (1) 100% name recognition (2) two terms as a popular governor of Florida and (3) an opportunity to break the Democratic stranglehold on the national Latino vote as the Spanish-speaking, Catholic convert husband of an Hispanic American.

The conventional wisdom, supported by his own declarations, has been that Jeb Bush would wait out the nation’s Bush Fatigue until at least 2016 before running for anything. But the degradation of political dialogue may have changed the timetable, creating an urgency for him to step forward as the Republican Great White Hope next year.

Granted, a Bush candidacy would offer Barack Obama a chance to saddle Republicans with the past that led to the present chaos, but voters have short memories, as 2010 showed.

If Jeb Bush does run, the only consolation is that there won’t be any Dick Cheney with him. But then again, we could be faced with a Jeb Bush-Paul Ryan ticket, and if that isn’t Back to the Future, what would be?

The Wrong Strauss-Kahn Movie

It’s getting harder to coopt reality for entertainment. Columnist Ross Douthat proposes a Dominique Strauss-Kahn epic—“one of those sprawling, complex, kaleidoscope-of-globalization movies that aspire to Oscar glory. Think ‘Traffic’ or ‘Syriana,’ ‘Crash’ or ‘Babel’”—but he has the wrong genre.

The boffo box office gold may be in a remake of low comedy.

Imagine the poster for the 1988 flick “Twins”--identically dressed Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito leaning against each other, and then put in the head of Strauss-Kahn for DeVito’s.

The script practically writes itself: Two disparate self-made Europeans in their early 60s suddenly find, in the words of the old Spy Magazine, they were “separated at birth” and are dramatically reunited by revelations that they share DNA to make headline dicks of themselves at the height of fame and wealth.

The parallels are remarkable. Both marry women journalists from rich and aristocratic families—a Kennedy TV newswoman and the daughter of a wealthy French family described as “a combination of Charlie Rose and Barbara Walters” by Elie Wiesel, for whom one of the Strauss-Kahn children is named.

Both come a cropper in encounters with housemaids, albeit years apart, and in the climatic scenes embrace the inevitability of the inborn hubris waiting to take them down at the height of their careers. (Strauss-Kahn was ready to run for president of France and, were it not for the U.S. native-born thing, Arnold would have been up there for the 2012 Republican nod ).

But unbridled lust is destiny, and one is caught out by the existence of a teen-age son while the other is entrapped by a Monica Lewinskyish semen stain for which not even the most ardent Right-to-Lifer would claim human status.

Sad endings for a farce. Maybe better to stick with the Danny DeVito version.

Update: Arianna Huffington weighs in, noting that “the competitor who ultimately did Strauss-Kahn in wasn't one of his political rivals, it was himself.

“Likewise in California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a career of defeating opponents--including me!--both on-screen and off. But, in the final reel, he was undermined by an opponent much closer to home.”

If they remake “Twins,” she could serve as the Greek chorus.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Defining Macho Down

Never mind men in outer space or those slogging in Middle East mud, media attention is on a horny old Frenchman in Manhattan detention, a former body builder with no procreative self-control and a preening pack of politicians playing Chicken with the national debt limit.

In the Age of Viagra, masculinity is being downgraded everywhere. Even 60 Minutes is obsessed with strength cheating by Lance Armstrong and other cycling idols.

The Bogart-Eastwood days of strong, silent men are long gone, replaced by caricatures on the national stage, flexing fake muscles and abandoning all the responsibilities that used to be associated with responsible manhood.

A nation still composed more of families headed by breadwinners and Little League fathers than cases of arrested development watches survivor and “reality” shows featuring selfishness and low cunning as well as “news” about creatures with no sense of what’s involved in taking care of dependent people at home or in the public arena.

When moments of old-fashioned heroism, such as Seal Team Six’s takeout of Osama bin Laden, jolt us into awareness of reality, Disney is right there to trademark the name in order to convert it into toys, games and other distractions.

All this is happening against an almost complete takeover of the mental health profession by women, who comprise 90 percent of counselors now as compared to 70 in 1982.

A study finds that a man’s willingness to seek therapy is directly related to how strongly he agreed with traditionally male assumptions, like “I can usually handle whatever comes my way” and that men undecided about treatment may be discouraged by the prospect of talking to a woman.

The coming election year will only inflate male bluster about leadership and strength in the effort to unseat a President more prone to professorial lecturing about national problems than playing dressup to land on an airplane carrier bedecked with “Mission Accomplished” signs.

But then again, Bogie is long gone and Eastwood is a very senior citizen in an era of noisy blowhards and sexual sneaks.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

President Wanted, No Experience Necessary

Tea Party Republican primaries are headed toward their logical conclusion. With Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana bowing out and Pizza Man Herman Cain stepping in, political experience is becoming a liability for GOP candidates.

Cain won the first Fox debate boasting that he was unencumbered by government service, a political virgin whose purity would enable him to solve all the nation’s problems just as he had successfully marketed a cheese pie named for a Mafia head and gone on to talk radio prominence.

Unlike Romney, Pawlenty et al, Cain would present a clean slate to voters, not having to explain away previous positions on health care reform, cap-and-trade and other troublesome issues down to their records as governors issuing pardons, reviving the Willie Horton issue that helped sink Dukakis in 1988.

With Donald Trump exiting as the prime ignorance-is-bliss candidate, Cain will have to worry only about competition from half-term Gov. Sarah Palin and possibly Michele Bachmann, if political experience on another planet counts.

Gov. Daniels, whose possibly entry into the race had professional GOP pulses pounding, now declines with a remarkably personal explanation: “On matters affecting us all, our family constitution gives a veto to the women’s caucus, and there is no override provision. Simply put, I find myself caught between two duties. I love my country; I love my family more.”

The Republican leftovers have no such qualms, leaving the nomination contest a race to the bottom. If Cain turns out to be the choice, Democrats can revive the Hillary Clinton commercial against Barack Obama in 2008.

If the red phone rings at 3 A.M. in the White House, President Cain will be ready on Day One to respond with a barrage of pizza deliveries.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yes But, Maybe, I Don't Know

When did certainty become the air we breathe? Where did ambivalence and ambiguity go? Why is everybody so sure of everything in an era that keeps surprising us with the unexpected and unforeseen?

Such thoughts arise with the expected arrival of Judgment Day by many believers, an event that would make obsolete the billions of passionate words that wash over us daily on every conceivable subject.

If the Biblical prophecy does not come to pass, it should at least leave us reflecting on the nature of the world we all inhabit so briefly.

As passengers on a cosmic life raft, why do we spend so much time bickering about who sits where and who gets how much of what’s available?

It may be deep in human nature to act this way but, for someone in old age, it seems to get more so as time goes on. The more we know, the more opinionated we get and the surer that everyone else has it all wrong.

Long ago, I wrote a book about the media that over-inform this modern world, with a first chapter titled “The World Ends Tomorrow, Details After This Message.”

If those who are sure about the Rapture turn out to be right, we won’t get any analysis from cable TV and blogs.

If they are wrong, can their mistake leave us with a little humility about what we do and don’t know about everything?

Repeat after me: It’s only my opinion, but I could be wrong... You may be right... Nobody knows for sure...

Update: No Apocalypse today. We'll have to struggle on.

Notes on GOP Groupthink

Score one more for the Law of Unintended Consequences. In 2008, voters hungry for new ideas chose Hope and Change. What they have now is an extreme example of the ancient phenomenon of closed-mindedness.

What Newt Gingrich is encountering fits perfectly the sociological definition of Groupthink “that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive ingroup, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

Republican opposition to the Obama Administration has morphed from wall-to-wall resistance to every proposal to a quasi-religious fervor that punishes even talk of apostasy as harshly as the Spanish Inquisition ever did.

Appearing before the head of the Tribunal Rush Limbaugh, the sinner Gingrich pleads that his Meet the Press reference to “right-wing social engineering” was misunderstood:

"It was not a reference to Paul Ryan. There was no reference to Paul Ryan in that answer."

When Limbaugh demands to know why then he called Ryan to apologize, Gingrich grovels further: "It was interpreted in a way which was causing trouble which he doesn't need or deserve. My answer wasn't about the budget, and I promptly went back to say publicly that I would have voted for the Ryan budget."

As a preview of the 2012 primaries, such self-flagellation removes any suspense from the campaign since no one but Ron Paul will be saying anything to offend Tea Party theology.

One sure sign of how toxic deviation from the party line has become is that sly Democrats have taken to praising Mitt Romney, Mitch Daniels and other moderate Republicans to stir up doubts among the GOP faithful. Just the kind of thing that used to go on in Salem.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Republican Submarine Campaign

In World War II, U boats would send up wreckage to the surface to make pursuers think they had been sunk. The GOP presidential campaign is at that stage now.

Huckabee, Trump, Barbour, (gulp) Gingrich...the flotsam and jetsam keep coming, but down below in the engine room, are real missiles being loaded? (Apologies to Sarah Palin for the war image.)

A Gallup poll shows name recognition is still the game with only Romney reaching 20 percent as the preferred candidate. Most GOP voters seem to want something, but they won’t know what it is until they see it.

“Top Republicans,” reports Politico, “are increasingly convinced that President Barack Obama will be easily reelected if stronger GOP contenders do not emerge, and some are virtually begging Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to add some excitement...

“It’s a sign of the GOP’s straits that the party is depending on the bland, wonkish Daniels for an adrenaline boost.”

There is talk of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has declined, as well as any other Republican governor or senator untainted by scandal or blatant stupidity.

Is John M. Huntsman Jr. the man? Who? A former Utah governor who has been serving as Ambassador to China is opening campaign headquarters in Florida and heading to New Hampshire.

Compared to him, Barack Obama was a celebrity at this stage in 2007, but who knows how far a moderate billionaire can go in this climate of desperation?

The way things are, Republican pros are working and praying for their apparatus to surface next year with someone who can hold on to Tea Party marauders and get enough Independents on board to win.

Maybe they can find a modern-day pilot for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and conquer the Blue Meanies, but time is passing without any distant sound of real music.

Update: Voices for party sanity are being heard as Ross Douthat warns that "Gingrich’s more enthusiastic critics are...behaving as if the Ryan budget represents some kind of sacred right-wing writ. Unless American politics changes beyond recognition, Ryan’s plan cannot and will not become the law of the land in its current form.

"And while it has many virtues, it has many flaws as well. Its example should call Republican presidential candidates to a greater seriousness about Medicare reform than most conservative politicians have manifested to date. But it cannot, and must not, become a rigid litmus test: That way lies intellectual sclerosis, and political disaster."

And groupthink for those who represent half of American voters.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

No New Newt

With Trump out, the GOP Blowhard title goes to Newt Gingrich hands down.

Already this week he has “slammed the Republican Medicare proposals in Congress, declared the city of Detroit ‘destroyed’ by food stamps and implied that he supported the individual mandates at the heart of President Obama’s health care overhaul.

“What was supposed to be the beginning of a conversation with the American people about Mr. Gingrich’s big ideas became a nightmare of political damage control. And on Tuesday the week got worse, with reports that Mr. Gingrich--who urges fiscal discipline for the country--owed as much as $500,000 to Tiffany’s.”

And that’s only the beginning. A day later, the Newtster was the on the phone apologizing to Paul Ryan and with Tea Party members to reassure them he shares their aims to take down the government.

Gingrich started his campaign a month ago claiming his adultery (in two marriages) more excusable than Bill Clinton's because he was aroused by patriotic fervor and isn't a lawyer while urging voters to elect him to save their grandchildren from living in "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists."

Now that Trump and Huckabee are gone, pundits and late-night comics have only Newt to save them from Romney and Pawlenty snorefests.

But at the rate he is going, Gingrich will soon use up all his media oxygen and go back to being just the goofy old guy who shut down the government in the 1990s and then impeached Bill Clinton for unzipping his pants.

No Twitters and Facebooks will update him from that.

Update: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin holds out some hope for Newt, saying it takes toughness and resilience to keep on going even when everyone seems to think you are roadkill. Well. at this rate, roadkill may not look so bad to GOP voters who are losing candidates at the speed of light.

The Aggrieved Wives Syndrome

With all the Schwarzegger gabble about why powerful men cheat, their wives are dismissed with clucking sympathy and respectful silence.

Maria Shriver says, “This is a painful and heartbreaking time. As a mother, my concern is for the children. I ask for compassion, respect and privacy as my children and I try to rebuild our lives and heal. I will have no further comment."

Understandable, but her retreat into silence should be seen in context of what other political wives such as Hillary Clinton and the late Elizabeth Edwards said and did not say when their husbands were seeking power—-and their complicity in deceiving voters.

Eight years ago, when he was running for governor of California, Ms. Shriver dismissed reports by 11 women of her husband’s groping as rumors, even though she must have known about the illegitimate child by then.

Coming from a family of tomcatting Kennedy men, such forbearance may have come naturally but, in an era when “the public’s right to know” about private lives of public people has escalated, questions arise.

Her protective behavior has to be seen against a background of Hillary Clinton, who also knew better, dismissing charges that led to an impeachment trial, as “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” It may well have been that, but Bill Clinton’s behavior was not.

Flash forward to Elizabeth Edwards, who allowed her sleazy husband to use her terminal illness in his campaigning, defending him against charges of infidelity and finally admitting in her last book that she knew about his “love child” a year earlier than she had said.

There is no denying the unspeakable treatment of Shriver, Clinton and Edwards in their marriages, but to acknowledge their enablement of public deception in their husbands’ careers is not “blaming the victim.”

Far from it. It is to raise the question of why society puts estimable women in the position of having to be involved in such behavior.

In the days of Maria Shriver’s uncles, there was much philandering but her aunts did not have to be complicit in covering it up.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

End Runs: Trump Bluff, French Kissoff

Two presidential campaigns crash in one day and, ho hum, what else is new?

The Donald folds a flirtation with the 2012 Republican nomination after weeks of pasting his name over the news, as always leaving onlookers wondering what it was all about beyond enhancing the brand.

In a nearby posh Manhattan hotel, a contender for next year’s French presidency flames out in more traditional fashion, with a bedroom scandal out of classic farce as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, is ordered held without bail for sexually assaulting a housekeeper.

On cable TV and blogs, both figures--the renowned economist and the American media hustler—-are fodder for straight-faced speculation with no distinction whatever between a scandal that could affect the economic bailout of Europe and the end of an American sideshow of no importance whatsoever.

In the era of celebrities who are, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase “well-known for their well-knowness,” Big Names exist in a world apart from their achievements or social significance.

If anything, the Trump saga, aside from its lack of prurience, rates more attention than that of a Bernie Madoff lookalike who seems to be a less suave sufferer from what we have all come to know as Bill Clinton Sex Syndrome.

“Celebrity Apprentice” will no doubt go on to higher ratings than ever next season, but who knows--or cares—-what happens to European economies or in French elections now?

On to today’s names in the news...

Update: Another day, another scandal. Former Gov. Arnold is being terminated as a Kennedy in-law for having fathered a child years ago by a woman who worked for his family. One thing about the Kennedys--they keep these things in historical perspective.

Monday, May 16, 2011

News in the Drudge Age

An editor, goes an old journalism bromide, separates wheat from chaff and prints the chaff.

The biggest chaff-maker on the Internet, according to a new study, is Matt Drudge who still outdoes Facebook and Twitter in telling millions what they should know.

“He can look into a huge stream of news,” says an admirer, “find the hot story and put an irresistible headline on it.”

This Internet skill recalls Henry Luce, who founded Time Magazine in the last century to save readers from being confused by “the million little chaoses of raw news” and give them a Voice from Above to explain what it all means.

From Luce to Drudge, American journalism has gone downhill from fake omniscience to injecting a 24/7 stream of "news" on steroids into the public bloodstream.
Luce, like Drudge, pursued his own political agenda but had to recognize some bounds in pushing it.

“Isn’t good editing,” he once asked me, “figuring out what’s going to happen and then advocating it before it does?”

I wish I could report that there was a mischievous gleam in his eye when he said it, but there wasn’t.

What Luce called the American century has now morphed into an age of division and mistrust, and it seems somehow fitting that a man who filled our heads with fantasies of superiority and safety has been replaced by one who peddles the cheapest fears and suspicions.

News is still the biggest loser in all this.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Air Force One on eBay

Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run clarifies the career choice picture between Fox News and the White House.

“All the factors say go,” Huckabee explains (on Fox, of course), “but my heart says no.”

Perhaps his finances do as well. Unlike Romney and Trump, for example, the ex-minister is not a wealthy man who, in making the race, would have had to go off the Fox payroll, as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did recently.

As Sarah Palin ponders a potential run, the choice between trying to go to work for taxpayers or staying with Rupert Murdoch becomes harder to make.

Murdoch pays better, of course, but being President has perks—-public housing, transportation and all that. If Palin goes for it, she could promise to put Air Force One on eBay, as she claimed to have done with the Alaska state plane.

Be that as it may, this is the first presidential race in history where potential contenders are asking themselves not only what they can do for their country but what Rupert Murdoch can continue doing for them.

Donald Trump, who welcomes Huckabee’s decision, has no Fox dilemma but would have to give up far more in ratings and income on NBC.

It was simpler in Lincoln's time when all you had to sacrifice was a log cabin.

Update: Huckabee says "It really came down for me to a very personal, a very intimate, and... spiritual decision...But I just somehow believed deep within me that it wasn't the right time, it wasn't meant to be."

Anything spiritual on Fox News should be welcomed by all.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In Electronic Limbo

The computer gods have been frowning here, subjecting an ancient, temporarily one-eyed blogger to the wrath of Microsoft, Dell, the Geek Squad and the like.

Linkless and lost in cyberspace, the opinion producer here will be less active until the computers of those who determine the faith of other users get their act together to figure out how to restore the viability of what used to be called a customer.

If bin Laden had had the same luck with his now captured devices, he wouldn't have lasted as long as he did.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Next Step in Class Warfare

The Paul Ryan crusade (all hail Ayn Rand) takes a slight turn away from "looters and moochers" of poverty to the real villains of our time--the old leeches who hold onto life beyond their span and suck future generations dry of their heritage.

The Wall Street Journal opens its paywall for an attack on "The Millionaire Retirees Next Door," those who live it up on Social Security and Medicare, refusing to go willingly onto the ice floe that would release trillions for future generations:

"Many of the million-dollar couples believe they rightfully deserve the benefits they have been promised. They have, after all, spent all of their working years paying into Social Security and Medicare. And true enough, the typical 66-year old couple and their employers, on their behalf, have contributed nearly $500,000 in payroll taxes (in today's dollars) toward these benefits during their working careers.

"But regardless of how much they have contributed, the hard reality is that the federal government has already spent it. No matter how deserving they are, it is younger generations of workers who have to come up with the money."

As to the "today's dollars" calculation, does it include compound interest on contributions held by the government for decades accumulating money for the Social Security Fund rather than beneficiaries? I doubt it.

But more to the point, as taxpayer money bails out banks to make billionaires out of their executives, those retirees with even modest savings watch as their IRAs and pension funds wither at near-zero interest rates to the benefit of the GOP's favorite taxpayers, those with eight-digit incomes.

Before heading gracefully for the ice floe, generations of millionaire retirees may want to express themselves on this issue at the 2012 ballot box along with younger generations being robbed by the GOP on behalf of its friends.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Media Critics, High and Low

A. J. Liebling, the founding father, might have appreciated this. As the inventor of riding herd on journalism, the New Yorker critic would be bemused to see Barack Obama taking on Rupert Murdoch

In a speech, the President quotes the Australian-born media baron: "Immigrants have made America great as the world leader in business, science, higher education and innovation," adding about the Fox News owner, "I don't know if you're familiar with his views, but let's just say he doesn't have an Obama bumper sticker on his car."

Liebling held such as the Wall Street Journal owner in minimal high esteem, observing that "a publisher's reaction, on being told that he ought to spend money on reporting distant events, is therefore exactly that of the proprietor of a large, fat cow, who is told that he ought to enter her in a horse race."

Meanwhile, the prize heifer in Murdoch's stable, Sarah Palin, is being battered by the Right for failing to follow through on her political education and setting herself up instead as a mere media critic.

Such sideshows might have amused Liebling, who hated power brokers and worshipped good reporting, but he surely would have been galled by the rise of the "experts" he deplored at the expense of finding out what's actually happening.

It's good to have a President and a presidential wannabe getting in on his game, but A.J. would have traded them both in for a good beat reporter.

Bin Laden Birthers

The passing of a patriarch always brings contention and confusion and, for one who leaves behind so many births and deaths, the aftermath is bound to be complex.

Now Osama bin Laden's son Omar issues a family statement asking for (1) "conclusive evidence" that his father is dead and (2) if so, why he was "summarily executed" without a fair trial such as those granted Saddam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic.

"We maintain," his heir contends "that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems," a view that seems to have been lost on his late father.

We are in "kill your parents and ask for mercy as an orphan" territory here, but it comes as no surprise in an era that tortured the question of Barack Obama's birth for so long that bin Laden's death would resonate with noisy doubts.

What is surprising is that Donald Trump, who rode the former issue so hard, has been silent on the latter. Why no video of the graybeard in his compound watching the new installment of "Celebrity Apprentice" and agonizing over the firing of the latest people?

As Trump plummets in the Republican 2012 polls, from first to fifth, here is the perfect issue to resurrect his standing by sending his Hawaii investigators to Pakistan to find out why no long-form death certificate is on file there.

As someone whose career consisted of dispatching people and earning high TV ratings, the case of Osama bin Laden would be a natural for Trump's next political crusade.

A dead body dumped in the ocean is at least as good a target for controversy as a live one making daily appearances in the White House.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Unspeakable Speakers

Unspeakable is a word to be used rarely, but it is the only way to describe what Republicans are doing to the American economy.

As House members fight to preserve tax cuts for the filthy rich and gut safety nets for the poor, John Boehner warns, “Without significant spending cuts and changes to the way we spend the American people’s money, there will be no debt limit increase. And cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.”

How did such blackmail based on a Big Lie gain traction in a time when the gap between the filthy rich and the rest of Americans has widened to record proportions?

A labor advocate points out that "in 1980, CEOs made about 42 times the pay of an average worker. And in 2010 it was 324 times...And it is as if the recession never happened...

"Executive Pay Watch showed that 299 of the S&P 500 CEOs made a collective $3.4 billion. And that could support 103,000 workers making average wages."

Still, the GOP party line is to hold a gun to the head of Congress in order to retain tax breaks that only widen this gap, increase the deficit and do nothing but exacerbate doubts that endanger U.S. credit in the world.

As this obscene melodrama goes on, Newt Gingrich enters the Republican 2012 lists, a reminder that his party is perfectly capable of shutting down the government to make a political point and to invite a new definition of "unspeakable" for his successor as Speaker of the House.

When language is degraded to this point, what's left to protect us?

Update: The President joins the debate head on, declaring that Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are part of the fundamental pact between the American government and its citizens.

“We would not be a great country without those commitments,” he says. Amen to that.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Obama's Seven Days in May

In a 1964 movie, a U.S. President has to overcome a plot by the Joint Chiefs to depose him for being too weak a leader to keep the nation secure. Titled "Seven Days in May," it was a cautionary tale about maintaining civilian control of America's might.

This May, in real life, Barack Obama and his military-intelligence apparatus worked together seamlessly to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and, in the President's retelling of these seven days on 60 Minutes, for a triumph of textbook leadership as it is supposed to function, very much like JFK's approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The boggled mind tries to imagine John McCain in the Oval Office with his quick-on-the-trigger temperament as opposed to the months of information-gathering, planning and what-if gaming that preceded last Sunday's attack. The even more boggled mind fantasizes about any of the Republican 2012 intellectual dwarves in control.

No less critical is what happens now after the deed has been done.

"We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan," the President says. "But we don't know who or what that support network was. We don't know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that's something that we have to investigate, and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate."

That next stage will require the same kind of leadership and judgment in dealing with a nuclear-armed, unreliable Pakistan. The answers won't come from any old movie but the qualities of the Commander-in-Chief in today's White House.

Hold the popcorn.

Update: Politically the week has brought the President an uptick in approval from 46 to 51 percent and "solidified his credentials as commander in chief in a way that eluded his most recent Democratic predecessors and has undercut broader attacks on his leadership before 2012." Doing the right thing sometimes actually works politically. Who knew?

Mom

The day of cards, candy and phone calls restores the debate over the most-analyzed figure in American society--Mom--and recalls my intense relationship with Feminism's "Mother of Us All"--Betty Friedan.

In early 1957, as a free-lance writer, she suggested an idea: At her fifteenth college reunion, she would pass out a questionnaire asking classmates how they felt about their lives. I assigned her to do an article about it.

That questionnaire became the Holy Writ of the Women’s Movement, prompting Betty to write ”The Feminine Mystique.” In the following decades, as the last man to edit a mass magazine for women, I worked with Betty as a contributing editor and became embroiled in the struggles of those who changed the lives of American women forever.

As The Mother told it, I almost killed the Woman’s Movement in utero. In the “The Feminine Mystique,” she says I rejected it before birth, confirming the venality of men who edited women’s magazines, one of the book’s themes. It is not exactly what happened.

In the 1950s Betty was a housewife and part—time writer, who was “getting strangely bored writing articles about breast-feeding and the like.” Actually, those she did for me were paeans to suburban life, which were edited to tone down her exuberance for the joys of housewifery and motherhood.

Then came the questionnaire. Her classmates said they were dissatisfied with being wives and mothers when their education had prepared them for worldly accomplishment.

In “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty wrote that she submitted an article to me, and I told her agent, ‘Betty has gone off her rocker. She has always done a good job for us, but this time only the most neurotic housewife could identify.’” Thus thwarted, she told her agent, “I’ll have to write a book to get this into print.”

Nice story, embellished over the years with references to me as “an old friend” whose betrayal was particularly painful.

But there was no article. Instead, Betty sent her book outline with the theme that “the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in concentration camps-—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”

If I used the word “neurotic,” I was being polite. I might have said “paranoid.”

In any event, there were no hard feelings. Betty interviewed me for the book, and I spent hours answering questions. After it was published, there were hard feelings. She had taken what I said and twisted it to fit the tunnel vision of a polemic. Writing a novel like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to arouse a revolution is one thing, but making a “sociological” argument with tendentious research is another.

The Simon Legrees of “The Feminine Mystique” were the editors of women’s magazines: “The men and women who make the editorial decisions often compromise their own very high standards in the interest of the advertising dollar.”

The immediate response of those compromisers was to publish parts of her book in the four largest, bringing it to the attention of millions of women. They saw her provocations only as good copy to sell magazines.

I was not one of them. I took the book seriously and I took it personally. So when the Women’s National Press Club asked me to appear with Betty at a meeting in Washington--although it seemed an invitation to a bear-baiting, with guess-who as the bear——I accepted. Now, with “The Feminine Mystique” a landmark, it might be tempting to soften my criticism. To insure against that, here are excepts, word for word:

“Let’s start with this sweeping assertion from the book:
’In the fifties, it was simply taken for granted by editors, and accepted as an immutable fact of life by writers, that women were not interested in politics, life outside the United States, national issues, science, ideas, adventure, education or even their own communities, except where they could be sold through their emotions as wives and mothers.’

”In 1954 Redbook’s articles about McCarthyism won the Benjamin Franklin Award of the University of Illinois. We have published at least 25 articles on race relations, prejudice in churches, integration conflict in Nashville and in New Orleans, as well as the first national profile of Martin Luther King. We dealt with religion in the schools, birth control and abortion, welfare programs, Federal Aid to Education, farm foreclosures, legalized gambling, labor racketeering, the honesty and competence of Congressmen as well as censorship of books, films and television.

“The number of articles on community problems is staggering. One, about how citizens of Peoria drove racketeers out of their town, was written by Betty Friedan.

“Mrs. Friedan says: ‘An editor of Redbook ingeniously tried to bring the bomb down to the feminine level by showing the emotions of a wife whose husband sailed into a contaminated area’...In five years we have published 20 articles on peace, nuclear testing, fallout hazards, survivors of Hiroshima, and an article, “Are We Powerless to Prevent War?“ based on interviews with Adlai Stevenson, Walter Lippmann and others.

Of course, women’s magazines have grave shortcomings. It’s one thing to acknowledge the limits of an editor’s imagination, intelligence and courage. It’s something else again to call it dishonesty.

”And that is what the book does: ‘In 1960 the editors of a magazine geared to the happy young housewife ran an article asking, ‘Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped.’ As a promotion stunt they invited young mothers with such a problem to write in the details, for $500. The editors were shocked to receive 24,000 replies. Can an image of woman be cut down to the point where it becomes itself a trap?’

“This ignores the fact that we had been dealing with this subject for years, had announced our intention of running the articles as a monthly series [N.B. It ran almost 20 years] and that the Harvard School of Public Health based a study on 1,000 of the manuscripts. But according to ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ it has to be a ‘promotion stunt’ and the editors dim-witted enough to be ‘shocked’ by the response.

“It’s mischievous to tell a woman who is happy to stay home and take care of her children she has been brainwashed into giving up her birthright. It’s irresponsible to insist that ‘even if a woman does not have to work to eat, she can find identity only in work that is of real value to society——work for which, usually, our society pays.’

“Last month we published parts of a new book, “The Creative Woman” by Dorothy Goldberg, an artist and wife of a Supreme Court Justice. Let me end with a passage: ‘In a free society a woman should have freedom to choose whether or not she prefers to be at home or work. She should not have to work as a matter of sheer economic necessity. Nor should she have a feeling of guilt if she chooses to work.’

“Mrs. Goldberg is willing to let each woman find her own way. Can anyone really quarrel with that?”

I said this to editors, writers and broadcasters who had had to fight prejudice against women to get where they were. I was not tarred and feathered. In fact, I was applauded and it was Betty who had to answer hostile questions.

After our duet in Washington, we became a popular team on TV and radio. Far from resenting my criticism, Betty became friendlier with each appearance. I finally realized I was spending a lot of time promoting her book.

While Betty was making the rounds for “The Feminine Mystique,” she often ran into Helen Gurley Brown, who
was plugging her book, “Sex and the Single Girl.” Their messages were poles apart, but the “angry battler for her sex” (as Life styled Betty) and the eye-batting expert on getting men into bed both learned a prime lesson of celebrity: shamelessness.

Ridiculed by program hosts and audiences, they kept coming back for more. Fame is not for the thin-skinned. Then, to Betty’s disappointment, I retired from our act. My annoyance was gone, and I began to see that reasonable arguments seldom lead to social change. Howls of pain sometimes do, and "The Feminine Mystique" did.

Five years later, when we were opposing the war, Betty and I did a half-hearted reprise of our old routine in exchange for air time to talk about Vietnam. But it wasn’t the same. The passion was gone.

Later, Betty wrote a monthly column for me in McCalls, and we remained good friends for the rest of her life. Now, with all those old arguments forgotten, new generations of women are finding new solutions in new times.

Happy Mother's Day to them all.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Osama's Age-Old Act

Killing him is one thing, but the cruelest blow is showing 54-year-old, gray-bearded bin Laden huddled in a blanket watching TV, in short, looking like me and other aged retirees.

Releasing the videos may be intended to suggest that the mastermind of 9/11 was still a lethal threat, but the subliminal message is that age diminishes all, leaving us a parody of our former selves.

"Old age is a shipwreck," goes the saying, and for mass murderers, it apparently comes sooner than later, with that added insult of having others treat us as our former selves while we know that the wise-old-man and chairman-of-the-board clichés are only routine courtesies from those in the real world.

No mistake, we are all better off without the brilliant madman who acted out his fantasy that murdering innocent people at random is a political statement, but his passing is also a reminder that nothing in this world is permanent.

"The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on" is a Middle East saying, and as the death of Osama bin Laden keeps the dogs barking over its implications, those who have seen many caravans, understand what those images of the prematurely old man with the shawl really mean.

He belongs to history now, and the dogs will soon be yelping after other caravans.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Giant Killer and One-Eyed Wonder

An observer still high on sedation (cataract surgery) opens an eye to the sights flashing by on a glowing rectangle in the room:

President Obama is at Ground Zero, a hero, not for his efforts to save the most vulnerable Americans from Republican deficit slashers, but for killing one old man, the nation's symbolic dragon for a decade.

In Washington, a beaming Vice-President Biden is with a roomful of people pretending to find common ground on budget cuts, John Boehner with his perpetual scowl and Eric Cantor, whose every effort to smile comes out as a smirk. Lots of luck on that one.

In South Carolina, Fox holds its first GOP primary debate, which turns out to consist of Ron Paul, with his Dr. No act on everything, along with four other guys who look like they just came in to get out of the rain. If that's all they've got, cancel the election. A one-eyed President won't cut it.

The experience recalls a 1994 movie, "Blink," in which the heroine, blind since childhood, has her vision restored and then experiences "retroactive hallucinations," a syndrome in which the newly sighted sometimes "see" things hours, or even days, after they actually happen.

In our current political world, the one-eyed may truly be kings, but look out for flashbacks from now until a year after next November.

Update: A new CNN poll shows somebodies and nobodies in a tight pack for the GOP nomination, as the poll director observes "name recognition alone is not enough. Otherwise one of the best known candidates, Palin, would not be stuck in fourth place. Trump and Palin, with the highest name ID, also have the highest unfavorable ratings."

Familiarity breeds contempt?

Update Update: Backtracking is the GOP order of the day as someone named Tim Pawlenty apologizes for approving a cap on greenhouse gases when governor of some state or other, opening the way to attack Mitt Romney as the health care reformer in some other state. It's all beginning to look like an old silent movie of a ragtag army marching backward at high speed.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Commanding-in-Chief

As details of Operation Osama emerge, a campaign promise by Barack Obama, widely disparaged by opponents then, comes back to recall his confidence about being Commander-in-Chief.

In 2007, he said, "It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”

Musharraf is long gone, but his Pakistani successors are no more reliable than he was and, in going after bin Laden, President Obama did exactly what candidate Obama promised--bypass Pakistanis in their own country to finally nail America's Public Enemy No.1.

Behind-the-scenes accounts of White House decision-making now echo John F. Kennedy in his approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which all options and contingencies were closely considered, with the President making the final calls. Bomb or send in troops? How do they fight their way out? If we do this and that happens--what if's and backup choices of every kind?

Photos of Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates et al tensely watching as the operation unfolds in real time tell more than thousands of words about what was at stake in a move to bypass an unreliable "ally" and go for broke to get bin Laden.

Failure could have been a diplomatic disaster. Bombing would have been safer, easier to explain away, but a hands-on attack would, as it did, provide sure proof of his death and provide some closure for Americans from 9/11 devastation.

What does all this reveal about Obama? Is he, like JFK, growing in stature after a dozen domestic versions of the Bay of Pigs in office? Has the professorial President finally shown the steel in his soul that critics, Right and Left, have been questioning since he took the oath?

When Barack Obama stands at Ground Zero in Manhattan Thursday for a victory lap to fulfill the promise that George W. Bush made with a bullhorn almost ten years ago, will he finally have quieted critics about his Commanding-in-Chief qualities?

And how well will he use them when Congress reconvenes next week for the Battle of the Budget?

As Republicans prepare for their first debate that night, how will they manage to vilify the man who gave the successful order to kill Osama bin Laden?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Burying bin Laden

His body has been consigned to the sea but how will we deal with his legacy?

For years now, the corporeal Osama has been like one of those aging celebrities on reality TV and game shows popping up to reprise his latest and greatest hit on 9/11. His irrelevance has been monumental.

What needs attention now is the hole he left in the American psyche that has been growing and festering for almost a decade now--gaslighting us into self-destruction, a term to describe intimidation and psychological abuse through false information that clouds the victim's perception.

"All we have to do," bin Laden crowed in 2004, "is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note..."

He was talking about Iraq and Afghanistan but could have updated it with Libya, Yemen and most of the Middle East by now. If he were poetically inclined, Osama might have even eulogized himself for much of the hatred, division and distrust that cloud internal American politics today.

The Pakistan assassination is being hailed as "a game changer," but, in and of itself, will change little. Yet it does offer an opportunity for bipartisan realization that we should be at war with real enemies, not one another.

Former President Bush's congratulations recall the spirit in late 2001 that brought Americans together in shocked awareness of our vulnerability and, at the same time, the bonds we all share.

As Osama bin Laden's body sinks out of sight, he is giving us a second chance at redemption from the havoc and hate he brought to the world. The only fitting tribute to his memory would be to grasp it and erase some of his obscene legacy.

Die-Hard of the Decade

Osama Bin Laden is found in a Pakistan mansion and killed as Americans at home spend an hour sweating out a "national security" announcement while watching "Celebrity Apprentice" or preparing for bed.

For the old, anxiety arises with the memory of another Sunday night when President Kennedy interrupted TV schedules to reveal missiles in Cuba and that the U.S. would block all shipments to the Caribbean island.

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, a death notice takes on all the urgency of a nuclear confrontation, while no one questions its timing or treatment.

Of course, bin Laden's death is an important symbolic event in the War on Terror, but does it merit a weekend late-night presidential announcement that brings out cheering crowds at the White House and elsewhere? Would Americans have suffered by learning the news officially this morning?

That said, there is a jarring contrast between Osama's end in a luxury compound and the capture of Saddam Hussein "like a rat in a hole" over seven years ago. The timeline of bin Laden's demise suggests it took four years of intelligence work to pinpoint whereabouts of the world's most wanted fugitive, not in a cave but living the lifestyle of the rich and famous in the country of an ally into which we have been pouring billions of dollars.

Killing bin Laden ends almost a decade of American impotence and eases the pain of 9/11 victims' survivors, but it qualifies for none of the exuberance of winning a game show.

At a time of involvement in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, it complicates U.S. relations in the Middle East by not only demonstrating the reach of a superpower but inviting terrorist retaliation for their "martyred" leader.

In coming days, there will surely be crowds in Arab streets, but they are not likely to be waving American flags.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Dead C-Span Scrolls

If they put last night's four-hour coverage of the White House Correspondents Dinner into a time capsule, future generations will get a glimpse of what went wrong in a once-great civilization.

The "news" may emphasize face-to-face takedowns of an unsmiling Donald Trump by the President and SNL's Seth Meyers (check out the jokes here) but, for a long-time veteran of toxic Washington dinners, the C-Span hours before were the real thrill.

How nostalgic to see overstuffed men in penguin suits and bare-shouldered (many unfortunately) women shaking hands and air-kissing while looking past one another for bigger names to accost!

How fascinating to see the nation's movers and shakers congratulating themselves on their in-ness without actually having to be in the room being bored by them!

How wonderful to see what Dana Milbank calls "the journalists' prom" where they "wind up serving as pimps: We recruit Hollywood stars to entertain the politicians, and we recruit powerful political figures to entertain the stars. Corporate bosses bring in advertisers to gawk at the display, and journalists lucky enough to score invitations fancy themselves celebrities."

My favorite part of the program was an opening montage of the President and Mrs. Obama telling various audiences to "Sit!" It looked like the intro to a dog-obedience video and, for an audience of trained poodles, quite apt.

SNL itself showed a rerun with Dana Carvey as host, but C-Span got the jump on them with a satire of those who make and influence life-and-death decisions for the audience.

As the Church Lady would say, "How convenient!"