Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

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

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Talk About Bad Taste

CNN interrupts graphic wall-to-wall coverage of the Casey Anthony child-murder trial to lecture Newsweek editor Tina Brown on a “revolting” computer-generated cover showing Kate Middleton side by side with her late mother-in-law to mark what would have been Princess Diana’s 50th birthday this week.

In the world of journalistic grave-robbing, this might seem a minor misstep at most, but it raises questions about taste in an era when we have all just had electronic and digital views of Anthony Weiner’s penis ad nauseum.

From a dead-tree editor of the past century who did his share of exploiting Prince William’s mum, this comes with no sanctimony about what anybody is doing now, but it’s hard to see what’s vulgar in Newsweek’s respectful what-if about how the Princess would look and what her life might be like if she had survived that 1997 car crash.

If anything, it makes fascinating reading and viewing, and brings back a memory of what an aide of Diana’s told me at the height of her fame in the 1980s. Driving through the countryside past a huge billboard with a magazine cover, the Princess buried her face in her hands, saying, “It’s gotten so that I don’t know where I end and she begins.”

Neither did we all but, in this era of 24/7 shamelessness, it’s good to be reminded there were real people who lived and suffered back then from our prurient interest.

In those days, some journalists still cared about taste, as Joseph Epstein, then editor of American Scholar, attempted to define vulgarity in an essay and came up with his best invented example—-Barbara Walters interviewing the Pope and asking, “Tell me, Holy Father, have you never regretted not having children of your own?”

That was smarmy before the word became popular, but Barbara is still with us and, compared to those who have followed, is now a doyenne of good taste.

Vulgarity Update : The legal case in Manhattan crumbles against France’s towel-wrapped statesman, creating moral confusion an ocean away.

As forensic tests find evidence of a sexual encounter between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the woman in his hotel room, prosecutors “now do not believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances or about herself.”

None of this has the glamor of Princess Diana redux, but it’s a fair sample of the state of bad taste now.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Grownup Time Again in Washington?

Barack Obama’s press conference ends up being an effort to put aside childish games and restore government to an adult level on national issues.

“Call me naïve,” he tells reporters. “But my expectation is that leaders are going to lead.”

At one point, he contrasts Congress’ dealing with the debt limit to the way his daughters do their homework a day early, not waiting until the last minute and “pulling all-nighters” to get it done on time.

Members of Congress “need to do their job. They need to go ahead and make the tough choices...

“This is not a situation where Congress is going to say we won’t buy this car or we won’t take the vacation. They took the vacation. They bought the car. And now they are saying maybe we don’t have to pay. If the United States government, for the first time, cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the U.S. economy will be significant and unpredictable. And that is not a good thing.”

Meanwhile, with as much apparent patience and good humor as he can muster, the President chides the GOP’s line in the sand against raising taxes for the richest Americans:

“If you are a wealthy C.E.O. or hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the 1950s. And they can afford it. You can still ride on your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more.”

With his temperament, this is about far as Barack Obama will go with his impersonation of Harry Truman running for reelection against a “do-nothing, good-for-nothing” Congress in 1948 and, against all odds, winning reelection.

At least it’s a start.

Update: The President’s tone in yesterday’s news conference now becomes a political issue itself as pundits point out, “Showing a rarely seen passion, the president called out his rivals for their comments about him, saying they are ‘just not on the level’ and essentially accusing them of being crybabies who walk away from the discussions when the debate gets tough.”

There won’t be a total Obama abandonment of his congenital approach--reasonable, conciliatory, even professorial--but his inner Harry Truman is beginning to surface, just in time for not only this year’s battles with “a do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress,” but next year’s political campaign.

Says the New York Times Caucus blog: “Mr. Obama’s more aggressive, confrontational tone will probably be welcomed by many in the president’s party who have been eager for him to fight for the causes they believe in.”

Amen to that.

Update Update: The President hangs tough with Senate Republicans and turns down their invitation to meet and hear them reiterate their tantrum position on the debt ceiling. The first step in dealing with schoolyard bullies is to turn your back on them.

Clown of the Month Club

A new month brings another GOP candidate as Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan arrives. He plays a star-spangled guitar, wants to repeal health care reform and is backing a $3500 annual tax deduction for pet owners.

The Republican race is looking like one of those old mail-order book clubs that thrive on negative option. Once you sign up and send a buck for the first three or four choices, they automatically start shipping you each month’s new selection, unless you tell them to stop.

Last month, ready or not, we got Michele Bachmann for a coffee table already piled high with Romney, Pawlenty, Cain et al, a summer reading list of anti-Obama screeds with little or no sexy conflict in their own stories.

The Gingriches at least provided a “Breakfast at Tiffany” subplot for a while, as Trump teased us with “DaVinci Code” revelations about Hawaiian archives that never materialized and Palin still keeps hinting at a “Going Rogue” sequel with a promotional tour but fails to deliver a product.

The old saying “You can’t beat somebody with nobody” recurs as Republicans keep “Searching for Mr. Goodbar” (or Ms.) to excite a fractured audience of Tea Party true believers, skeptical Independents and disaffected Democrats to take over the top spot on their best-seller list.

For beach reading, voters could do worse than pull Barack Obama’s old tomes from the shelves and try to remind themselves (and him) of what excited them so much back then.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Palin-Bachmann Iowa Pas de Deux

Ballet comes to mind for what GOP divas as doing in the Hawkeye State, a new variation on the graceful duet in which dancers make their moves in harmony but in this case as if the other were invisible.

La Palin comes into the state on tiptoe for the premiere of an adoring movie about her, cloaked in classic subtlety that sets off equal and opposite images in the eyes of two leading political blogs:

“Sarah Palin team reaching out to Iowa activists for meetings headlines Politico as Real Clear Politics reports, “Palin Not Reaching Out to Key Iowans Ahead of Visit.”

No such ambiguity is seen as the new ballerina bursts on the presidential stage, swathed in patriotic clichés and gaffes, sometimes in the same metaphor as she proclaims her love for “John Wayne’s America” in Waterloo, Iowa, hometown not of the cowboy hero but John Wayne Gacy, the celebrated serial killer. Oops!

For political dance critics, Bachmann’s exuberance may be both her strength and...er...Achilles heel. Her surprisingly positive performance in the South Carolina debate was surely at least in part due to the hiring of veteran Ed Rollins as an adviser.

But moving his new client centerward has a Tea Party price, as Rollins soon learned after being bashed for jibing at the iconic non-candidate.

Now an official entrant, Bachmann will have to go beyond patriotic postures and start tangling with Mitt Romney and even Tim Pawlenty, if he shows signs of life, in Iowa.

Palin may keep striking poses, but her doppelganger will have to accept the reality that running for president, unlike ballet, is a contact sport.

Update: On the fact-checking meter, Bachmann has climbed (or fallen, depending on your perspective) halfway to a rating of two Pinocchios: “Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily.”

That sounds like progress.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Deficit Debate: Air-Cooling the Desert

As the President prepares to confront Mitch McConnell and John Boehner on the deficit, an irresistible image arrives for the absurdity of those deliberations.

Among the endless laundry list of government expenditures to be evaluated is $20.2 billion, an item larger than the entire N.A.S.A. budget, scheduled to go for air-conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq next year.

What would be the tradeoffs between scrapping the space program or letting our troops fry in Middle East heat? Or could that much more just be sliced from the American old and poor by a new stroke of the Paul Ryan cleaver?

McConnell drops a Sunday talk show gauntlet: “Throwing more tax revenue into the mix is simply not going to produce a desirable result, and it won’t pass. I mean, putting aside the fact that Republicans don’t like to raise taxes, Democrats don’t like to either.” (He makes it sound like eating spinach or going to the dentist.)

So Republicans frame the struggle to avoid national bankruptcy as a we win-you lose effort for the White House: You can cut out apples, oranges, grapes or even figs but add nothing to the other side of the scale.

If that seems like a weird process, taxpayers can look forward to Tea Party help as the parsimonious patriots form a commission to find ingenious new ways to cut government expenses and reduce the deficit.

In the movie, “The American President,” a politician claims that, without leadership, a parched public would head for an imaginary oasis and try to drink the sand. But apparently not without air-cooling it first.

Take Two Aspirin and Call Me Next Month

As the GOP keeps trying to repeal health care reform, the White House is hiring comparison shoppers to call doctors’ offices and find out how hard it is to get appointments.

While they are snooping, some of the pseudo-patients will claim to have private insurance while others say they are covered by government programs to see if it makes a difference.

This newest wrinkle in the sacred doctor-patient relationship comes as a result of such evidence as that of a Massachusetts study finding that more than half of primary care physicians are not accepting new patients and, for those who do, the waiting time for an appointment averages 36 to 48 days.

Whatever happened to “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning”? Before long, it will be easier to get medical advice by phoning your Congressman’s office.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Is College for Everyone? A Very Old Story

From the current debate over whether a college education is worth the price in money and time for every American child, a memory seven decades old arises as testimony to the life-changing difference those four years used to make for generations born to immigrant parents.

The teacher's name, improbably, was Mr. Crabb. His grim face rose from a stiff rounded collar anchored by a pinched tie. His suits, buttoned over a body of stone, were always black.

He had been teaching math at Junior High School 44 since before any of us were born--a ramrod of a man displaced from some heartland town and set down among the striving little savages of the Bronx. He held us at cufflinked arm's length with disapproving eyes.

Over the years he had planted himself in the doorway to a free college education, and he was an austere gatekeeper, Godlike, judging our fitness to escape a future life of sweat in shops and factories, much as the civil servants on Ellis Island had earlier eyed our parents to decide whether they were worthy of passing from steerage into the Promised Land.

Since none of our families had money for tuition, our only hope was City College, and the only sure way of getting in was through Townsend Harris High School. The competition for places there was so fierce that admission was determined by competitive examinations. Somehow, no one remembered exactly how, Mr. Crabb had taken charge of preparing candidates from JHS 44 for those tests.

Every morning before eight, our small huddled mass waited for him on the cold stone steps of the school (no one who was late would be let in). On the dot of the hour, he marched up to unlock the front door. Once inside, he handed his bowler hat to one of us, briefcase to another, umbrella to a third, and we followed him down the hall for an hour of drill.

After a few weeks it became clear in my 13-year-old mind that those mornings of mental drudgery, boring and repetitive, had a different, darker purpose than preparing us for testing: the sheer assertion of power by a bitter old man over children he detested, exacting humiliation as the price for a chance at a better life than he thought we deserved.

After one brutal session of rote, laced with sarcasm, I went up to his desk and said, "I'm not coming any more."

"Then you won't be taking the tests," he answered without looking up.

I didn’t take the tests but somehow managed to keep my high-school grades just high enough to scrape through and get the college education that would lead to the life described in the biography on this page.

Now, David Leonhardt writes in the New York Times that the argument against college for all “encourages children, parents and schools to aim low. For those families on the fence--often deciding whether a student will be the first to attend--the skepticism becomes one more reason to stop at high school. Only about 33 percent of young adults get a four-year degree today, while another 10 percent receive a two-year degree.”

Here is one emphatic vote the other way, and damn the Mr. Crabbs of the world!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gay Divorce

Amid all the celebrating at the Stonewall Inn and elsewhere, the advent of same-sex marriage in New York stirs in the spouse and co-author of a book by a divorce lawyer memories of how archaic and brutal that state’s divorce laws have always been.

It was only a year ago that New York, which now recognizes the inhumanity of denying legitimacy to those who want to share their lives lovingly and legally, was still forcing heterosexual couples in failed marriages into dishonest warfare that encouraged them to lie and cheat, enrich divorce attorneys and, worst of all, damage their children in protracted court fights.

Last July 1st, the state became the last in the union to legalize no-fault grounds for dissolving a marriage in a relatively humane way. Now, it joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia as the only places in the U.S. where same-sex couples can get legally married.

Moral and religious arguments over the issue will go on, but in the presumably most sophisticated area of the country, both developments will go a long way toward preventing judges and lawyers from torturing Americans in their bedrooms and keep them in the courts and legislatures where they increasingly have their hands full doing just that.

Meanwhile, if some of New York’s newly sanctioned unions don’t work out, here is a place to get help and save time, money and heartache in dissolving them. Two small steps for mankind...

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Hostage President

Barack Obama started the week playing golf with John Boehner a few days before going on TV to proclaim a foreseeable victory in the Middle East, hoping no one would notice he was wearing handcuffs all the time.

Now, with Republicans walking out on debt ceiling talks and the Afghan victory lap clearly a mirage, the President’s chains are inescapably visible. Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl have him as tied up in Washington as Hamid Karzai does in Kabul.

The White House may still be living in some dimly remembered Age of Reason, but intransigence is clearly the prevailing political climate. A New York Times editorial decries the GOP “temper tantrum,” pointing out that they “had no intention of actually negotiating. Negotiations require listening to those on the other side and giving them something they want in exchange for some of your goals.”

Meanwhile, post-bin Laden discoveries are showing how closely our Pakistani allies and clients have been working with Al Qaeda while taking billions of U.S. aid money

In all this, we are still debating our future at home and abroad based on a fantasy world that bears little relation to what pre-9/11 Americans would recognize as reality.

Ten years ago, this nation had a budget surplus, unemployment of 4.4 percent and no wars. The foreign news headlines were about Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic being handed over to U.N. officials to be tried for war crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Much has happened to take us downhill since then, some of it inescapable, most not, but a long, hard look at what we have been doing to ourselves would involve asking how we turned into a Third World country fueled by political blackmail and spite.

Barack Obama won’t be in the White House forever, and whatever his shortcomings, do we really want to live in a country where there is no room for reasonable debate or compromise on anything?

Handcuffs won’t look good on the Presidential seal.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Palin: Genocide and Jury Duty

Her Magical Mystery Tour is on hold, Sarah Palin tells us, because “civic duty calls (like most everyone else, even former governors get called up for jury duty) and I look forward to doing my part just like every other Alaskan."

The civic-minded governor is cancelling a trip to war-torn Sudan with Franklin Graham to stop what evangelical Christians are calling “genocide” there.

“She would be a very good person to help draw attention to the plight of the Christians in South Sudan,” says the Rev. Graham. “We’ve got George Clooney, we’ve got some Hollywood-type people...But we need everybody we can find...

“Churches were burned. Pastors were nailed to trees. We have been able to identify 1,000 churches destroyed.”

But the former Governor will be tied up with the rigors of jury duty during what she has described as her family’s “favorite season” in Alaska when they usually travel north for a salmon fishing trip.

As it happens, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, who had planned to make the trip with Palin, has also had to cancel because of urgent journalistic duties.

Choices, choices. It’s hard being a celebrity in today’s world.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Small Change for a Worn-Out War

The President’s remodeling in our Cash for Clunkers struggle reaches the salesroom with all the dings and dents of a ten-year-old lemon that has exhausted the patience of buyers who have spent almost half a trillion dollars keeping it on the road.

“The goal that we seek is achievable,” he says, “and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies. We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place. We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.

“That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people; and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace. What we can do, and will do, is build a partnership with the Afghan people that endures--one that ensures that we will be able to continue targeting terrorists and supporting a sovereign Afghan government.”

Does anyone really believe that is going to happen in 2012, 2014 or ever?

The vaunted Obama rationality once again fails him on a major issue, leading to a split-the-difference formula as self-defeating as his decision two years ago to ram through a misshapen version of health care reform when he might have backed off and concentrated on bolstering the economy instead.

Barack Obama, for all his idealism, has shown a tin ear for managing big Change. Just as the monstrous abortion of health care reform in 2009 is now a Pyrrhic victory that endangers his reelection, so is the new Afghanistan drawdown a bad compromise that few close observers understand and hardly any want. Both Democrats and Republicans are criticizing it.

The timeline of his ups and downs over America’s longest and most frustrating war in history suggests a President making intellectual decisions about an enterprise that he knows in his bones has been flawed from the start and that no amount of tinkering can fix.

How else to explain the stop-and-go Surge that is now coming and going without any basic change in propping up a corrupt partner in an unwinnable war, that will keep costing American lives and money with little hope of anything tangible to show for it?

One goal of the President’s almost everyone will support--that we concentrate on “nation-building here at home.” Why do we have to wait so long to start?

Huntsman, Great White-Haired Hope?

Reaction to the newest GOP 2012 entry is a symptom of how far the politics of paralysis has gone. Virtually unknown, Jon Huntsman Jr. causes a media ripple by bringing something new to the race—-a note of sanity and civility.

That he is on speaking terms with the President and has even served in his Administration makes him either (1) a hopeless outsider in Republican primaries or (2) an alternative to the Obama-bashers who make up the field.

Substance-starved journalists are swooning over his announcement statement that “it concerns me that civility, humanity and respect are sometimes lost in our interactions as Americans...I don’t think you need to run down somebody’s rep in order to run for the office of president.”

More to the point, he closed the day by raising $1.2 million and is off on “a week-long fundraising sprint” from traditional Republican high-rollers who have been waiting for a White-Haired Hope to save them from the current clownfest.

On the blank slate of his public image, Huntsman will be drawing a picture of himself as “someone who knows that serious times demand serious leaders and won’t play the gotcha game of modern politics” rather than “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a man who spent the last two years of his life not just serving President Obama publicly but also praising him privately as a ‘remarkable leader.’”

His position on gay marriage, among other issues, will set him apart from other aspirants, but essentially he seems to be only a different flavor in the GOP smorgasbord of tax cuts and Ryan cutbacks of social programs.

Yet, even small differences could shake up the Republican wall-to-wall strategy of Obama-bashing in an atmosphere that calls for what Thomas Friedman describes as “a full-time government” rather than “a Congress that is a full-time fund-raising enterprise that occasionally legislates and a White House that, save for 100 days, has to be in perpetual campaign mode.”

If Huntsman runs well as “Obama-lite,” at least traditional Republicans and independents will give us some clue about how they feel now about Hope and Change.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

D-Day, Afghanistan

No matter what the President announces tomorrow on Drawdown Day, nobody will be happy with his decision, especially if, in Obama tradition, it is a measured move. That will neither satisfy the growing bipartisan desire to get out completely or the McCainiacs who see every Middle East conflict as an outpost for defending American liberty.

Yet...

How do we keep fighting in a country where an ambassador, as ours did last week, has to tell the president, “When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost--in terms of life and treasure--hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest, and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here?”

How do we keep fighting when the U.S. Conference of Mayors urges Congress to quickly end the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq and spend the money--$112 billion this year in Afghanistan--on jobs at home?

How do we keep fighting a war, about which Gen. Petraeus told Bob Woodward, “I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting...This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives?"

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

When he tells us what he is going to do now, will he be guided by that same thought?

Update: As the President prepares to announce his decision, a new kind of GOP opponent enters the race, Jon M. Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, who served as his ambassador to China.

“He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love,” Mr. Huntsman says. “But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President, not who’s the better American.”

Whatever happens in Afghanistan, that kind of discourse would be a welcome relief on the campaign trail.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The President as Pinata

The tone of the 2012 presidential campaign is reflected in that Volkswagen commercial showing an auto-shaped piñata being whacked at a kid’s birthday party.

How this image sells the idea of an indestructible car is not clear, but judging from last week’s GOP debate and subsequent stumping, such flailing at everything Obama is the Republican strategy for selling themselves into the White House next year.

The biggest stick for beating up on the President is the economy. A party communiqué says flatly about the White House and Congressional Democrats: “They own it.”

Yet the New York Times' John Harwood reports: “Mr. Obama’s policies, for better or worse, have something to do with current employment levels and growth rates. But economic advisers to Republican politicians concede that most of the distress Americans feel now stems from the recession and financial crisis he inherited.

“Glenn Hubbard...who led the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, criticized Mr. Obama’s spending, tax and regulatory strategies for ‘actively’ retarding the recovery. Yet he added, ‘There could have been policies that made a difference--but not a sea change.’

"Mark Zandi...who advised Mr. Obama’s 2008 opponent, Senator John McCain, went further. Had he been elected president, Mr. McCain’s near-term policy choices would have largely overlapped with Mr. Obama’s, he said--and the differences would have had only marginal effects by now.”

That’s the reality, but in the battle of sound bites and slogans, will that make a difference to worried voters? For some time now, Democrats have been running on “It could have been worse,” not the catchiest phrase for buttons and banners.

As the Obama campaign gears up, one of its main aims will be to stop Republicans from piling on the President without offering viable economic solutions of their own.

“There seemed to be a unanimity of antipathy toward the president,” says David Axelrod, who recently left the White House to work on the re-election campaign, summing up the GOP debate: “I didn’t hear a lot of ideas,” only “a lot of pat partisan platitudes.”

The Democratic challenge will be to remind voters that their opponents are not bring any candy of their own to the party, only hoping to break some out of the Presidential piñata.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mitt's Multiple Choice Heritage

In 1994, someone who looked and sounded like Mitt Romney declared, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate.”

Today, apparently the same person writes: “I am pro-life and believe that abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.

“I support the reversal of Roe v. Wade, because it is bad law and bad medicine. Roe was a misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench.

“I support the Hyde Amendment, which broadly bars the use of federal funds for abortions. And as president, I will support efforts to prohibit federal funding for any organization like Planned Parenthood, which primarily performs abortions or offers abortion-related services.”

Back then, his opponent for the Senate, Ted Kennedy, accused Romney of being “multiple choice,” but he insisted “since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it, and I sustain and support that law, and the right of a woman to make that choice, and my personal beliefs, like the personal beliefs of other people, should not be brought into a political campaign.”

In 1968, when his father was running for President, I spent some time with his parents. Lenore Romney was an intelligent, articulate and humane woman, and I can’t help wondering what flip-flop gene she passed on to her son from the male side of the family.

Romney Sr. went from front-runner to also-ran after switching positions on Vietnam with the claim that he had been “brainwashed” by generals and diplomats on his trip there into supporting the war.

Now on Father’s Day, his son has “evolved” 180 degrees on abortion to satisfy the Social Conservatives in his party, a chip off the old block whose campaigning a Republican colleague described as "like watching a duck trying to [expletive deleted] a football."

Back then, I thought that Romney’s mother would have been a better presidential candidate than her husband. I still do. The male Romneys are so easily brainwashed.

Update: Romney’s abortion flip is apparently not far enough because he won’t sign the Susan B. Anthony Pledge that he says might “end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America."

Says Michele Bachmann: “Gov. Romney should reconsider his decision not to sign the pledge just as he reconsidered his position on the life issue during the last campaign.” Wait, he is still “evolving.”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Failings of a National Father

In his Weekly Address, the President talks personally, but his musings about fatherhood have deep political resonance.

“I grew up without my father around,” he says. “He left when I was two years old, and even though my sister and I were lucky enough to have a wonderful mother and caring grandparents to raise us, I felt his absence. And I wonder what my life would have been like had he been a greater presence...

“That’s why I’ve tried so hard to be a good dad for my own children. I haven’t always succeeded, of course--in the past, my job has kept me away from home more often than I liked.”

What children need most, he concludes, are time, structure and unconditional love. True enough but not the whole story.

As President, Barack Obama has done his best at national fathering, but his own experience deprives him of an essential truth about the role: Children have to know in their bones that, when they are in trouble, their fathers will come and take them home.

One of the best parents I ever knew was a quiet, diffident man who never showed emotion, but when his teen-age son was off in India on drugs, got on the first flight and brought him back safely.

Behind all the clichés about fatherhood is the need for children to feel, no matter how bad things get, they will never be abandoned, that when they fall into a hole, someone will be there for them.

Barack Obama never had that experience and, with the best of intentions, seems unable to communicate to anxious Americans that government is not an enemy under the same national roof but a source of help and support in the hardest times.

He tells fathers to “encourage our children to turn off the video games and pick up a book...pack a healthy lunch for our son, or go outside and play ball with our daughter...teach our children the difference between right and wrong, and show them through our own example the value in treating one another as we wish to be treated.”

All well and good but, as he faces a year of pounding by Republicans, the President will have to learn an essential truth about fathers is that, when you are in trouble, they are the ones you depend on to be there to help save you.

Like it or not, American presidents from “The father of his country” on have assumed a paternal role in the society, and now as Tea Party patriots seem intent on patricide, Barack Obama will have to step up to reassure the rest of us that he understands the symbolism.

Try imagining Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann and Gingrich doing that.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sleaze Olympics

On the first day of the rest of his life, Anthony Weiner may take some comfort from the latest news about his role model in sexual misadventure. John Edwards has now been caught soliciting get-out-of-jail money from the 100-year-old heiress who bankrolled his original walk on the wild side. (Is that why he was smiling in his mug shot?)

As Republicans open a wide lead in the Shameless Olympics in the halls of Congress, Democrats have clinched the gold on the domestic front.

On trial for misusing election contributions from “Bunny” Mellon, Edwards is apparently redefining chutzpah with a flying visit on her private jet to see if she would compound the felony by giving him millions more to defend himself.

Whatever “package” Weiner was bragging about to his online correspondents, it seems puny in contrast to what Edwards is showing to one and all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hypocrisy Moves On--Sex to Money

Now that the political air has been purified by Anthony Weiner’s departure, Washington can concentrate on its other endless fount of hypocrisy--money.

Many Tea Party purists, who came to Congress to force government to live within its means, we learn, have not been doing well on that score personally. Among 87 new GOP members, the Washington Post reports, at least 30 had liabilities totaling $50,000 or more in 2010--credit card debt, unpaid student loans, mortgages on investment properties.

The zealots who campaigned on the simplistic premise that the country should emulate families have not been doing well in setting an example.

“Like the rest of America,” one Texas Congressman had proclaimed, “the government needs to tighten its belt and work within its means” as his disclosure forms now show credit card debt of $45,000 to $150,000.

“If they’re responsible for their own personal finances, then they may have a mind-set to be frugal with the federal Treasury,” says a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But if they can’t keep their personal finances in order, then you have to wonder how they’re going to handle the federal budget.”

As the Misery Index (unemployment and inflation) for Americans rises, their representatives in Washington keep offering slogans but no relief, and superrich Mitt Romney makes jokes on the campaign trail about his own unemployment.

On the other hand, the Obama campaign is recognizing reality by holding a lottery for $5 contributors, giving them a chance at dinner with the President if, against big odds, their names are drawn from a hat.

Nobody is selling apples on street corners yet, as they did in the Big Depression, but the signs are there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

GOP War on Obama

Three years ago, Barack Obama was campaigning against dumb wars while John McCain was musing about staying in Iraq a hundred years. Now Republican hopefuls pound the President about military moves in the Middle East even as John Boehner warns him to get Congressional approval for his action in Libya by this weekend or face being in violation of the War Powers Act.

Behind this scramble of traditional hawks and doves is the emerging theme for 2012: Everything Obama does is wrong, including going to war and getting out of it.

A New York Times report puts it politely: “The hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view...

“A new debate over the costs and benefits of deploying the military reflects the length of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the difficulty of building functional governments and the financial burden at home in a time of extreme fiscal pressure.

“The evolution also highlights a renewed streak of isolationism among Republicans, which has been influenced by the rise of the Tea Party movement and a growing sense that the United States can no longer afford to intervene in clashes everywhere.”

Sounds good as far it goes, but politics, which used to stop at the water’s edge, is in the depths of demagoguery and sound bites on a subject that deserves serious debate. If Republicans want to question the wisdom of what we are doing in the Muddle East (no typo)--as both parties should—-Boehner’s strategy of holding a gun to the White House’s head, just as he is doing on the debt-ceiling vote, is the absolutely worst way to do it.

In Monday’s debate, nobody went as far as Ron Paul’s usual call to get out now, but the others all criticized “Obama’s wars,” sounding not a loyal opposition but the way some Democrats used to rail against George W. Bush. If Romney, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum and Cain had anything substantive to say beyond “Obama is wrong,” it was lost in the negative cheerleading.

With the summer deadline for drawing down in Afghanistan at hand, it’s time for serious thinking about our involvement there and elsewhere, but it has go beyond campaign carping.

Update: The debate takes a more substantive tone as the newest GOP entry Jon Huntsman, a former governor and diplomat, weighs in: “Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it’s now or years from now, we’ll have an incendiary situation,” he says. “Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don’t think that serves our strategic interests.”

That’s the right question, and it’s reassuring to hear a Republican asking it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Kissinger, a Weiner of His Time

Introducing him to flog a new book, Stephen Colbert admiringly cites the days when Henry Kissinger chased women in his “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” days, an arresting contrast to the fate of Anthony Weiner for pursuing similar urges in our time.

In fact, by all accounts, Kissinger actually netted some of his quarry (“When I’m boring, they think it’s their fault”) while Weiner came up empty. Have Americans become more prudish in the intervening years?

One difference is that the 20th century diplomat, widely branded a “war criminal” (I prefer self-serving snake) for his lethal secrecy, was not furtive in sexual matters. Another was that the now 88-year-old gnome, thankfully in pre-Twitter days, did not transmit photos of his body parts.

In fact, Kissinger was proud of being “a secret swinger.” When I sent Nora Ephron, in her pre-“Sleepless in Seattle” days, to interview him, a staff member, while introducing her to the alleged Great Lover, remarked, “Another Hunebelle?” The reference was to a French journalist who had written a book about her infatuation titled “Dear Henry.”

In it, Danielle Hunebelle described him as “a species of monster.” Yet at first meeting she noted, “With his sloping forehead, aquiline nose and heavy, skeptical chin, he looked like a libidinous bird...Suddenly I realized that Kissinger’s skin color was yellow, a grayish ashen kind of yellow...I looked at him tenderly. What a poor lover he must be.

“Bound hand and foot by complexes, fraught with persecution mania...His contradictions make him a species of monster...From that moment...I began to love him...For the few seconds in which I held his hand in mine, the fatness of his sausage-like fingers, as the deformation of his face just a little earlier had surprised me.”

L’affaire Hunebelle ended badly. When she learned that Kissinger was in Paris for secret Vietnam peace talks and seeing another woman, she was so distraught that she wrecked her car at learning of the betrayal.

Nora Ephron, not similarly smitten, wrote a hilarious sendup of Kissinger’s alleged love life, which did him no harm, and he went back to subverting Vietnam peace efforts and eventually gave up his bachelorhood for a suitable soulmate he had met when they first worked together for Nelson Rockefeller, a potential President who faltered, leading Kissinger to sign on with Richard Nixon.

Ephron went on to marry Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and), who helped bring down Kissinger's boss but turned out himself to be a skirt-chaser of note, whom she eviscerated in her novel and movie, "Heartburn."

For all the nostalgia over seeing Kissinger again, looking like a puffed-up toad while pontificating for Colbert and other TV interviewers, it’s somehow sad to see Weiner, politically so much more attractive, having to “take a cure” for his rampant heterosexuality.

To quote a popular novel of Kissinger’s prime, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Apparently back then neither did lust, and Kissinger never did, but those days are long gone.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fame: Sarah and the Seven Dwarves

In the wake of Weiner and on the tide of Palin e-mails and Facebook posts, we swim in a world where fame is so uncoupled from achievement that a Republican presidential debate could well be titled “Sarah and the Seven Dwarves,” with a non-candidate’s image hovering over the politicians vying for attention.

Seventy years ago, Americans were riveted by a book ironically titled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” showing in words and pictures the desperate poverty of invisible victims of the Great Depression.

Now, social media have erased the problem of being unseen and unheard but created a new one--a poverty of mind threatening to starve out understanding of public issues with a glut of personal nonsense that one critic describes as “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, but with higher real-world stakes. It is grounded in the first principles of game theory...You have to give to get; you have to get to give. Managing these ratios--deciding how much of your attention to expend to win attention to yourself, say--is the lion’s share of the Twitter action.”

The Fame Game has gone long past 20th century clichés—-Daniel Boorstin’s definition of celebrity as “being well-known for well-knowness” and Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame for everybody--into a realm of irrationality never foreseen.

Back then, traditional media were a fame factory retooling from manufacturing publicity saints that last for years, even decades, into spewing out disposable celebrities to be used briefly and thrown away like Kleenex. ”Freedom of the press,” A. J. Liebling noted, “is limited to those who own one.”

Now we are all publishers and self-publicists, and the premium for rising above the crowd is not intellect, ideas or actual achievement (pace Herman Cain) but shameless self-promotion in a 24/7 swirl in which “Twitter handsomely rewards those with a capacity for risk and an aptitude for the social sciences,” but, as Weiner learned, can destroy reputations as easily it inflates them.

Attention Deficit Disorder is now a normal condition on both sides of the celebrity divide, for those consuming it as well as those desperately seeking it.

Update: Apologies to Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey and Doc. They were a colorful lot compared to the seven Republicans in CNN’s debate who spent two hours bashing everything Obama, demonizing government and refusing to say an unkind word about one another.

Their facts were often wrong but the message was clear: Each wants to be president but they all refrain from criticizing one another while each hopes to become the Prince who awakens Snow White (America) from her bad dream. Even Ron Paul, always cast as Grumpy, concludes that he would be happy to have any one of them in his Administration.

Nobody gaffed badly, and the audience went home happy, as is only right and fair for a Disney show.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Palin, Weiner: More Than We Want to Know

Life is too short to read Sarah Palin’s 24,000 e-mails or even all the media blather about them, and sanity too precious to delve into Anthony Weiner’s last refuge from getting out of Congress and our faces

Weiner, says his spokesperson, “departed this morning to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” Good idea, says Nancy Pelosi, urging him “to seek that help without the pressures of being a Member of Congress.”

A sane response to all this would be, “Who cares?” The 21st century answer for sex-plagued politicians is to medicalize their misbehavior and hide out in a psychiatric facility until the media get bored, but healers may have trouble finding the right diagnosis for flirty Tweeting with Las Vegas blackjack dealers and 17-year-old girls. The DSM of the American Psychiatric Association does not list among its mental disorders acting like a putz.

While Weiner vanishes, Palin, on the other hand, is too much with us as Alaska unloads a truckful of her e-mails, with the tantalizing footnote that 8000 are being withheld. From wading through all that, aside from headaches, any conclusion is possible.

“Palin’s E-Mails,” headlines the New York Times, “Undercut Simplistic Views of Her, Both Positive and Negative,” even as a supportive website claims, “This surreal ‘colonoscopy’ by the cartoonish mainstream media is backfiring.”

Wake me when it’s over but, in any case, before the nation slides into bankruptcy as we drown in trivia.

Update: As antidote to all this mind sewage, there is the gift of seeing Gabrielle Giffords smiling on the long, hard road to her recovery--a sign of hope for American beset by culprits and clowns.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dog Gone Love Story

The death this week of a multimillionaire lapdog puts a furry period to the end of a greed-is-good tale that now seems ancient history.

In the rare world of canine obituaries, the small Maltese named Trouble rates attention, not only for her wealth but as a reminder of the heartless rapacity that led to the depressed economy we now inhabit.

Trouble was bequeathed $12 million in 2007 by owner Leona Helmsley who, after a gaudy career of appearing in TV commercials as the demanding Queen of Manhattan’s Palace Hotel, was widely known as “The Queen of Mean” for her monstrous self-centeredness.

Like Donald Trump, her wealth came from an earlier generation’s real-estate wheeling and dealing but with a difference. Trump was born into it, Helmsley seduced and married it.

In 1972, straight-laced billionaire Harry Helmsley left his wife of 33 years to partner with the twice-divorced fireball, who set to work making his (and her) name famous. My office was in a landmark building, originally owned by the New York Central Railroad, which quickly morphed into the Helmsley Building with higher rents and reduced services.

The new Mrs. Helmsley spared no expense, however, in hosting celebrity parties with the theme, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” but her capacity for familial love seemed otherwise limited. When her only child died of a heart attack, Leona sued his estate for property and money she claimed had only been lent to him and impoverished his widow and children.

If she were still alive, Leona might have loved the Tea Party and vice versa. In 1992, with Harry in failing health, she was convicted of tax fraud and spent almost two years in prison, after testimony that she had claimed, “We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Harry Helmsley died in 1997, leaving his wife $5 billion but as emotionally bankrupt as she had always been. Soon afterward, she spotted a puppy in a store window and spent the rest of her life lavishing love on a small creature that apparently never disappointed her.

She now rests with Harry in a mausoleum with stained-glass windows depicting the skyline of Manhattan, much of which the couple owned at one time or another.

As the survivor of a Wheaten Terrier who warmed my retirement years, it’s comforting to learn that what remains of Trouble’s legacy will be used to care for dogs but not surprising that a court will have to determine whether the trustees have been actually using the money for its intended purposes.

In Leona Helmsley’s world, nothing was ever simple, not even puppy love.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trophy Wife Trouble vs. Quickie Thrills

A very un-Weiner problem arises as Newt’s campaign staff quits “in protest of what they felt was a takeover by Callista Gingrich, the candidate’s wife since 2000.”

The partisan contrast is striking. The Gingrich rebellion recalls Fred Thompson’s 2008 implosion when interference by his young spouse (“the Jeri factor”) brought down his listless campaign, and even Rudy Giuliani, now poised for 2012, back then interrupted stump speeches to take cell calls from the third wife he had met at a cigar bar.

Democrats, to judge by Weiner and the man who officiated at his wedding, Bill Clinton, are susceptible to quickie extramarital thrills, while Republicans are more likely to be henpecked by trophy wives.

According to GOP insiders, the “last straw” for Newt’s staff was “Gingrich’s decision to go on a two-week cruise in the Mediterranean...His advisers urged him not to go and take so much time from a campaign that was already in trouble. But his wife wanted him to go and she won the argument.”

This kind of dustup, along with those huge jewelry bills from Tiffany’s, may set conservative Republicans wondering about Gingrich’s domestic spending priorities for the nation.

But marital misbehavior may fade into the background if 2012 turns out to be Obama vs. Romney or some other Republican straight arrow, and there are even signs that time dampens all those unseemly passions.

Now, we learn that Bill Clinton is still seeking dinner dates, not for romance, but to pay off Hillary’s remaining 2008 campaign debts. There can be happy endings for political couples after all.

Update: Gingrich insists he will remain in the race, promising the “campaign begins anew” with a speech in Los Angeles Sunday night. “Going forward,” says a spokesman, “we’re going to build a strategy around Newt, rather than fit Newt into a strategy.” A moat around Mrs. Gingrich might also help.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Pentagon Papers' 11 Secret Words

When a top-secret Defense Department analysis of the Vietnam War, which caused a legal uproar 40 years ago, was recently made public, the government said it was keeping 11 words secret, then changed its mind and published the 7000 pages in full.

Now a guessing game is vexing the even the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, and the lead author of the report, Leslie Gelb, who can’t find them in the mountain of words.

It may be like the re-mastering of those ancient jazz records, which uncover sounds not caught by the existing technology but are now clearly heard in CDs, like Louis Armstrong’s breathing and muttering—-a gift from the past.

In the era of Wikileaks, why not imagine a ghostly Tweet embedded in the Pentagon Papers by some technological wizard in code to be teased out of those 47 volumes?
Properly sequenced, the message might read: “Don’t fight dumb wars for no good reason in faroff places.”

If such a warning is not explicit in the original Papers, it is crystal-clear in hindsight and should be passed on to the politicians who are trying to figure out what we are doing and why in the Middle East. Back to the future!

Weapon of Mass Distraction

Anthony Weiner’s penis has dominated the news longer now than the death of Osama bin Laden in a media world more transfixed by texting antics of a horny Congressman than the demise of a mass murderer who changed the world.

When I was teaching journalism, that would have been unthinkable. In those benighted days, sex scandals lasted a few days and headline writers went back from sniggering to serious issues. Unsophisticated as we were, subjects like the national debt, Medicare and wars would have retaken the headlines. But not now.

“President Obama was trying hard to get his economic message out on Wednesday. But thanks to Anthony Weiner, he really had no chance,” reports a New York Times blog.

“Even as Mr. Obama was talking about his efforts to ‘rebuild the middle class,’ more graphic pictures of Mr. Weiner were popping up online. Cable news channels picked apart the scandal throughout the day, virtually ignoring Mr. Obama’s remarks...”

In an era when explicit sex is so available on TV and in movies, why this grade-school fascination with a subject that no longer has any mysteries for anyone on the planet past puberty?

It seems that, behind all of today’s pseudo-sophistication, is the same schoolyard entrancement that overcame me at an early age when a classmate enlightened a gaggle of us about “the facts of life.”

One day, a boy told us he had seen “it” by spying on an older brother and his girlfriend. After sketchily detailing the kind of gyrations we had all heard rumors about, he paused.

“When they finished, my brother made sure she wouldn’t have a kid.”

Now we were hooked. This was surely something that could come in handy later in our lives.

“How did he do that?”

Shaking his head at our ignorance, he imparted the secret of birth control: “He punched her in the stomach--hard.”

It took years to overcome that unnerving image about what grownups do in private but apparently, in the collective unconscious even today, there is still a bottomless curiosity about the subject, and the media will keep on reporting Weiner’s travails and punching us in the stomach--hard.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Obama: Afghanistan Mission Accomplished?

The President is hinting at a declare-victory-and-leave strategy, once proposed for Vietnam and more recently for Iraq, to end our decade-long war in Afghanistan.

In a TV interview, he says, “By killing Osama bin Laden, getting al Qaeda back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can't take it over...it's now time for us to recognize that we've accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it's time for Afghans to take more responsibility."

There will be no banners on aircraft carriers, but as Robert Gates leaves and Leon Panetta arrives as Secretary of Defense in the face of the troop drawdowns scheduled this summer when the “Surge” began at the end of 2009, the stars seem aligned for rethinking our mission there.

Add the pressures of public fatigue with the war, a temptation of huge budget savings and the shifting Middle East picture with Arab Spring uprisings, the original motives for waging the War on Terror in Afghanistan seem to have faded into some distant past.

Just as in Iraq, there is no just-get-up-and-go option, but a tipping point is clearly on the horizon. When he sent more troops, the President said, "If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

It’s clearly time to revisit that question, as well as our broader immersion in Middle East conflicts, and it’s reassuring that President seems ready to do just that.

Update: Right on cue, a two-year Congressional study finds U.S. attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan have had only limited success and may not survive an American withdrawal.

The report cites “a tidal wave of funding” that local officials are incapable of “spending wisely,” a polite way to describe rampant corruption.

As Paul Ryan and the GOP try to hack away Medicare for American seniors, they may want to ponder the fact that foreign military and development spending now provide 97 percent of Afghan gross domestic product, and guess-who is paying most of it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Penis-Sizing Politics

Turns out the Congressman is not just a Weiner but, in the parlance of our people (his, mine and Jon Stewart’s), a “schmuck,” the difference between the male member as metaphor for “stupid, foolish, or detestable” or simply clueless, as the euphemism for a smaller organ his surname suggests. Then again, he may now have earned the highest rank in the Yiddish lexicon of penile designations for the unwise--a total “putz.”

In calling Anthony Weiner “half-smart” before he finally admitted that he Tweeted that picture of his genitals and lied about his computer being hacked with messages to women, I had seriously misjudged his puerility, an unforgivable offense in the current political climate.

But such embarrassment pales in comparison to that of his longtime friend. On the Daily Show, Stewart makes a few jokes about pictures of his contemporary’s relative virility and bare-chested buffness, then quickly swivels to the indictment of the Congressman’s human shield, John Edwards, whose exploits make Weiner’s look like a schoolboy prank, as his refusal to resign suggests.

We are in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” territory here, Woody Allen’s bitter 1989 rumination on male morality linking adultery all the way from embarrassment to murder. Granted that Weiner’s is not a hanging offense, how much punishment fits the crime?

Matt Bai, a reporter who closely covered Edwards for seven years, is torn in contemplating what would be suitable, noting “what’s disappointing to anyone who once took Mr. Edwards seriously...is the absence of...genuine, unqualified contrition. Not the kind that says: ‘Look, I said I was sorry a hundred times, and I know I was a crappy husband, but I observed the letter of the law and I intend to prove it.’ But more the kind that says: ‘I know how I’ve betrayed people who believed in me, and I’ll submit to whatever punishment you want to mete out, and when it’s over I vow to make use of the talents I’ve been given with whatever days I have left.’

“There’s not much point in rooting against John Edwards in court, unless you just like to see a man suffer a cascade of indignity. But it’s also hard to root for him as long as he seems to think that his misguided actions as a father, legal or not, were somehow disconnected from the moral resonance of his politics.”

Weiner is apologizing to everyone in sight, eyeing eventual political redemption. But as he serves his sentence in the halls of Congress and John Edwards ends up wherever, maybe justice would best be served by having both spend time under house arrest, endlessly watching tapes of themselves lying to the public about their phallic exploits.

In that case, Edwards’ sentence would be much longer, the difference between punishing crimes and misdemeanors.

Update: In trying to make amends for letting Weiner off the hook the night before, Jon Stewart literally bleeds for the cause Tuesday by slicing his hand on broken glass, another case of innocent bystanders getting hurt. The wrong people always get punished.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Dumbing Down Sweepstakes

Stupidity is so rampant now that the problem is to distinguish between the trivial and the significant.

Lost in the flood of sewage news about Anthony Weiner’s underwear and Sarah Palin’s Paul Revere gaffe are much more important examples of the dumbing down of American politics, where knowledge and insight keep giving way to slogans and invincible ignorance.

“Last October,” writes an MIT professor, “I won the Nobel Prize in economics for my work on unemployment and the labor market. But I am unqualified to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve--at least according to the Republican senators who have blocked my nomination...

“Analytical expertise is needed...to make government more effective and efficient. Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better. I had hoped to bring some of my own expertise and experience to the Fed. Now I hope someone else can.”

Shutting out knowledge is only half of dumbing down. Replacing it with misinformation is the other, as Paul Krugman points out in analyzing the Paul Ryan Plan to replace Medicare with Vouchercare:

“Medicare is a government-run insurance system that directly pays health-care providers. Vouchercare would cut checks to insurance companies instead...If you couldn’t afford a policy adequate for your needs, even with the voucher, that would be your problem.

“And most seniors wouldn’t...A Congressional Budget Office analysis found that to get coverage equivalent to what they have now, older Americans would have to pay vastly more out of pocket under the Paul Ryan plan than they would if Medicare as we know it was preserved...the typical senior would end up paying around $6,000 more out of pocket in the plan’s first year.”

If we can’t get facts and figures straight on such tangible issues as employment and health care, how can we deal with anxiety over the relatively unknowable risks of giving ourselves brain cancer with cell phones, as new research warns?

One reasonable approach is suggested by columnist Virginia Heffernan who, while acknowledging that “pressing a hot tile of trembling polymers and metals against your skull for hours on end is probably not a good idea,” refuses to “take an icepick to my Blackberry.”

Instead, she favors using critical judgment and following World Health Organization advice: “Text instead. Use speakerphone. Keep calls short. Switch ears.”

But in public life “critical judgment” is not highly valued these days. If cell-phone dangers become a political issue, the debate will be, as it is in global warming, over the ulterior motives of the scientists and the free-market dangers of discrediting cell phones.

Ignorance may not be bliss, but it certainly helps in a “What? Me Worry?” world.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Bitter Laugh: Homeowners Foreclose Bank

From the gloom of news, a man-bites-dog story brings comic relief to a national tragedy.

In Florida, a couple wrongfully targeted by Bank of America proves in court they have no mortgage, is awarded legal fees and eventually allowed to foreclose the branch when the bank fails to pay. Sheriff's deputies, movers and the couple’s attorney go there with permission to remove desks, computers, copiers, filing cabinets and cash in the teller's drawers before the bank finally antes up what it owes.

Nationwide, however, homeowners are suffering as an Obama program started two years ago to modify mortgages for three to four million families reports that it has helped only 670,000 so far. The Treasury Department with $46 billion to spend on keeping homeowners in their houses so far has spent only about $1.85 billion.

A former Federal Reserve economist estimates as many as a million homeowners were foreclosed as a result of insufficient help for the unemployed. “The money was there and they didn’t spend it,” says a critic.

Administration officials defend themselves by pointing out that their programs are voluntary, limiting how hard they can push mortgage providers and investors, who often profit more from foreclosures than extending aid.

So, as millions keep suffering from a continuing housing crisis, there is fodder for both sides of ideological argument, the Republicans sure that government can’t solve problems of free markets, the Democrats certain that legislative solutions have been made toothless by GOP restrictions on what they can do.

There may be merits in both arguments, but meanwhile Americans are still losing their homes at an alarming rate, except for the Florida couple who gained temporary possession of a bank branch.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Half-Smart

He must have been the brightest kid in school but, in three years, John Edwards has gone from a leading Presidential candidate to a pariah now charged with violating federal law.

Yet, in a season of reminders that brains alone are not enough to navigate the world safely and successfully, to lump Edwards with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and even Bill Clinton as just another victim of unzipped desire would be an oversimplification.

More to the point may be what social scientists call “emotional intelligence”--skills that promote self-awareness of one’s feelings and how managing them or not may affect others in pursuing goals in a social context--in short, an antidote to the inflated sense of ego and entitlement that leads public figures into private follies that eventually destroy their careers.

Before John Edwards was taken down by a sex scandal, there were clear signs that he did not understand the consequences of failing to rein in his greed. Between running for VP in 2004 and President in 2008, he collected $479,512 in one year for consulting to an investment group specializing in profit from selling subprime mortgages to the unsuspecting poor.

Oh, Edwards loftily assured voters, it was only a part-time job and educational in his mission to fight for the victims of poverty. His supporters bought that rationalization as readily as they did when he explained away the sexy videographer always with him as documenting his campaign

Now, as the former negligence lawyer faces his day in court, Weinergate goes on with a bright and aggressive Congressman acting like a tanglefoot in a farce that should have ended with a firm denial that he tweeted the offending picture instead of fueling endless speculation about whether or not his underwear was ever photographed.

For someone of age, all this suggests that Baby Boomer self-absorption is still driving public life by completely erasing the line between public and private. By using his terminally ill wife as a campaign prop, John Edwards certainly opened the door to the kind of scrutiny that brought him down.

Still, the media and the rest of us don’t have to go charging in every time a half-smart politician doesn’t close it firmly. But as the 2012 primaries loom, that process may require superhuman restraint.

"You can't beat brains," JFK used to say, but character and common sense are crucial, too.

Update: A columnist nails the lesson of the latest half-smart media to-do: “For such a savvy practitioner of the political game, Anthony Weiner has violated the cardinal rule of Washington crisis management: If you don't have anything to hide, don't behave like you do.”

But then again, even in a situation that makes you look like a sap, isn’t all that attention irresistible?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Empty Oval Office

If Mitt Romney, who declares his candidacy today, actually gets the Republican nomination, out of default or disgust with the rest of the field, Americans will have the chance to reprise 1976 when they, in effect, voted to leave the White House unoccupied by electing Jimmy Carter to take a breather from Watergate and its aftereffects.

Still in shock from Nixon and offended by Gerald Ford’s pardon of him, Americans turned to a former governor whose chief appeal was “I will never lie to you,” but who was otherwise clueless about dealing with a failing economy and a dispirited nation.

What Romney’s candidacy would offer next year is not Hope but Respite. For those who blame Obama for everything but the weather, an Empty Suit in the Oval Office would offer transitory relief from hate and rage but little else, as Carter proved by responding to higher oil prices and inflation with a fireside chat wearing a sweater and complaining about a “national malaise.”

With Sarah Palin and Donald Trump sharing bad pizza to make Jon Stewart apoplectic and Herman Cain, who had marketed bad pizza, rising in the polls, traditional Republicans and Independents might be willing to settle for Mitt’s white-bread persona.

But before that can appeal to Tea Partygoers, it will have to be toasted and slathered with fiery spices and sweets. Romney, who has shown himself willing to stock his cupboard with anything that works, will certainly give it a try but even he might gag on what it would take to win them over.

Bon appetit!

Update: The Republican reality quotient is reflected in Romney’s willingness to admit in New Hampshire that global warming actually exists, while Palin is in his home state, babbling about how Paul Revere “warned the British.” Empty Suit is looking better every day.

Wall Street, Not White House, Will Stop GOP

Wink, wink. John Boehner, Paul Ryan and their gang that can’t shoot straight are holding the debt-ceiling hostage to tax cuts but telling financial markets the guns aren’t loaded.

“Just ignore Tuesday’s vote against raising the debt ceiling, House Republican leaders whispered to Wall Street,” says a New York Times editorial. “We didn’t really vote against it, members suggested; we just sent another of our endless symbolic messages, pretending to take the nation’s credit to the brink of collapse in order to extract the maximum concessions from President Obama.”

What we have here is the classic Mad Magazine cover of a cute canine with a gun to his head and the caption, “Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot this dog.”

Republicans go to the White House, dance around with the President and then stand outside smirking their talking points for the TV cameras, but everyone, with the possible exception of a few Tea Party diehards, knows they are playing Russian roulette without legislative bullets.

One of the House freshmen issues a statement refusing to attend. “Until the president produces a responsible deficit reduction plan,” he huffs, ”I’m not going to the White House to negotiate with myself.” Such delusions of grandeur reflect the pressure on Boehner to keep up the pointless charade.

The bottom line is that, as the August default deadline nears, the crumbling of U.S. credit on world markets will force a vote on what should have been routine raising of the debt limit without Republican histrionics.

The House drama queens will keep playing their game of holding the debt ceiling hostage to budget cuts until their gods of the free markets get nervous enough to tell them it’s time to stop.

Then, they can fold that show and open the next one—-pretending to negotiate with Democrats on budget cuts that will preserve tax cuts for the richest Americans on Wall Street and elsewhere by gutting Medicare for the elderly poor.

Paul Ryan is still trying to explain to the President how his plan to raise premiums by $6400 a year is good for seniors as well as the deficit. He would do better trying to persuade voters before November 2012.

Update: Moody’s fires the opening Wall Street shot by warning it might downgrade the government’s credit rating if Congress does not increase the nation’s debt limit “in coming weeks.” Can the House GOP read a "Stop" sign when they see one?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Bin Laden's Legacies

Amid excitement about Anthony Weiner’s Twittering comes a reminder of something less trivial--what Osama bin Laden’s death did not solve for America and the Arab world.

“Bin Laden,” Thomas Friedman writes, “really did a number on all of us...the Arab states, America and Israel--all of whom have deeper holes than ever to dig out of thanks to the Bin Laden decade, 2001 to 2011, and all of whom have less political authority than ever to make the hard decisions needed to get out of the holes.”

Friedman cites a 2002 UN report by Arab experts that said “the Arab states suffered from three huge deficits: a deficit of freedom and respect for human rights as the bases of good governance, a deficit of knowledge in the form of decent schooling and a deficit of women’s empowerment.”

But in the wake of 9/11, that agenda was ignored, and “Washington basically gave the Arab dictators a free pass to tighten their vise grip on their people--as long as these Arab leaders arrested, interrogated and held the Islamic militants in their societies and eliminated them as a threat to us.”

Now bin Laden is gone, but as the Arab Spring draws us deeper into Libya and other eruptions of the pent-up desire for good governance, the price now is higher than it would have been a decade ago to dislodge brutal and corrupt leaders who have flourished since then, mostly on American taxpayers’ money.

But his legacy goes deeper than Friedman describes. The Weiner to-do is only the latest trivial eruption of what has been happening in American politics on a broad scale--the shift from governing by trust to concentrating on fear to demonize and destroy opposition.

By taking down the Twin Towers and striking the Pentagon, Osama bin Laden changed the American psyche in a lasting way--weakening trust that their daily world was a safe place and making them susceptible to fears that their own leaders were plotting to undermine traditional values.

That used to be called paranoia, but now it goes by the name of Tea Party patriotism, and Osama bin Laden has left us that, along with his other murderous legacies.