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.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Marx Brothers Deficit Deal

You have to bring back Groucho to explain this one. In a classic scene, he and Chico negotiate a contract by tearing off items from long sheets of paper until they are down to a sliver each.

“If any of the parties to this agreement,” Groucho reads, “have been shown not to be in their right mind, this contract is automatically nullified. That’s in every contract—-it’s called a sanity clause.

“You can’t fool me,” Chico answers, tearing it up. “There is no sanity clause.”

As the President announces a deficit deal, and Congressional leaders try to sell it to their factions, all concerned are well past sanity into a cuckooland of compromises and contingencies that will leave almost everyone unhappy, with the possible exception of the financial markets and credit raters.

The Marx Brothers routine is from a 1935 movie, “A Night at the Opera,” which has another scene that foreshadowed the weekend leading to what President Obama announced tonight.

In a small cabin, the brothers keep ordering up all kinds of deliveries and services until the space is a writhing mass of bodies that finally explodes when someone opens the door.

In this Washington remake of the chaos, however, nobody is laughing and tomorrow promises to be a day of bitter recriminations on all sides, unhappy with the agreement they will have vote into law, combined with face-saving posturing by their leaders claiming dubious victories and self-serving criticism by 2012 presidential hopefuls.

In another context, Groucho may have made the most trenchant of commentaries about the members of Congress: “I don’t want to belong to any club that takes people like me as members.”

If only this bunch had a fraction of his wit.

A Contrarian Case for Government

This of all weekends might not be the time to do this, but as George Will piles on with a column arguing that “government and the sectors it dominates have made themselves ludicrous” and “opened minds to the libertarians’ argument,” someone should say a few words in defense of a beleaguered political system that has kept this country the most free and prosperous in the world for centuries.

In the 1950s, best-sellers like “The Hidden Persuaders” and “The Organization Man” excoriated Big Business as the root of American evil, just as fringe arguments for Socialism and Communism were doing, in overheated attacks that boiled down to the naïve discovery that society was organized and that large organizations, while conferring benefits, were not always friendly to the best interests of individuals.

Now, in Ron Paul and his ilk, we have the mirror image of all that, fueled by the shambles of a total politicization of everything that has gone wrong in a period of economic upheaval that was not created by and won’t be totally solved by government.

Blaming Bush for creating and Obama for not overcoming a recession miss the point that government certainly affects the economy but doesn’t control it. (In the 1970s, Gerald Ford promoted “WIN (Whip Inflation Now)" buttons and Jimmy Carter talked about a national malaise, but neither did much to improve the financial state of the nation.)

As Paul, the Ayn Rand caucus in Congress and the Tea Party rail against government as the root of all evil, it might help to remember that a case can be made against all institutions.

In my own experience in recent months, I have been treated atrociously by such free-market bastions as Best Buy and the Geek Squad and, in a question about back taxes, with the utmost courtesy and helpfulness by “bureaucrats” who work for my state government.

But I wouldn’t want to stake a grand theory on the anecdotal evidence of where I have been encountering fallible and/or competent human beings. Neither should the nation.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Nostalgia for the Silly Season

This time of year when people are away on vacation has always been known as the silly season for journalists. News is scarce, but time and space still have to be filled between commercials and ads, so they usually give us the odd, the trivial and outlandish.

But no two-headed snakes or lions cuddling with lambs are needed this year. The Tea Party is serving up what John McCain calls the “bizarre-o” and providing headlines by the hour from Washington.

Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell play out the equivalent of a runaway bride story by embracing and breaking up in less than a news cycle, while John Boehner sulks over having his wedding gift returned by the Senate.

And Barack Obama in his Weekly Address is still searching for the normal by quoting an e-mail from such a person:

“I keep my home clean, work hard at a full time job, give my parents any monies I can so they can afford their medications, I pay my bills and by all appearances I am a responsible person. All I’m asking is that you be responsible. I have my house in order and all I’m asking is that you get yours the same way.”

To this the President adds: “Here in Washington, we need to get our house in order. And I have to say, Democrats in Congress and some Senate Republicans have been listening and have shown themselves willing to make compromises to solve this crisis. Now all of us--including Republicans in the House of Representatives--need to demonstrate the same kind of responsibility that the American people show every day.”

Lots of luck with that one. The Silly Season is far from over down there, and “responsibility” is not on the news menu.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Boehner Is Ready for His Closeup

We’re in “Sunset Boulevard” territory now, with John Boehner coming down the Capitol steps, primping for the cameras completely unaware that there’s a dead body in the swimming pool.

“The quickest way for Congress to eliminate the possibility of default and ease the growing turmoil in our economy,” he emotes, “is for the Senate to take up the House-passed bill and send it to the president today.”

This outdoes Gloria Swanson’s coming down for her closeup by “Mr. DeMille” when the news cameras are actually aimed at her before being taken away for madness and murder.

The words are barely out of Boehner’s mouth before the Senate kills his deformed bill and embarks on a weekend attempt to bring forth a viable solution to the debt-ceiling crisis that will force Boehner and his waxwork compatriots to sign on or leap into an open grave.

“Sunset Boulevard” won all kinds of Academy Awards 60 years ago for portraying lunacy in Hollywood, but this Tea Party production won’t be nominated for any prizes for a Washington remake.

It Hurts to See a President Beg

George W. Bush’s Imperial Presidency is long gone, as Barack Obama pleads with the nation.

“There are a lot of crises in the world that we can’t always predict or avoid,” he tells Americans today after being missing in action all week. “This isn’t one of those crises...

“If you want to see a bipartisan compromise, make a phone call, send an e-mail, tweet. Keep the pressure on Washington and we can get past this.”

The man who killed Osama bin Laden only weeks ago is being held captive by a few dozen Tea Party terrorists, most of whom couldn’t find the Capitol six months ago. There are no Navy Seals, only befuddled John Boehner, to disarm them and keep them from blowing up the economy like the Twin Towers.

But Boehner is looking more and more like bin Laden these days, making plans in his bunker but unsure of who will carry them out.

It’s enough to make you nostalgic for Dick Cheney, who never had to appeal to social media to work his will in Washington.

Update: Even Peggy Noonan, who can usually be counted on for civility, burbles that “the White House seems desperate to be seen as consequential. They're trotting out Press Secretary Jay Carney, who stands there looking like a ferret with flop sweat as he insists President Obama is still at the table, still manning the phones and calling shots.”

Her conclusion about the President? “He is not a devil, an alien, a socialist. He is a loser. And this is America, where nobody loves a loser.”

Reading Noonan’s lips today is depressing.

Palin Crowds Into Lawmaker Lampoon

In Washington, they are reenacting a famous magazine cover, the National Lampoon of January 1973 with a gun pointed at a dog’s head and the caption, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”

The dog is the American economy, and Sarah Palin is urging her Tea Party friends to pull the trigger, with a Facebook post to “remember us ‘little people’ who believed in them, donated to their campaigns, spent hours tirelessly volunteering for them, and trusted them with our votes. This new wave of public servants may recall that they were sent to D.C. for such a time as this.”

With Palin on the scene, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Letterman et al should be donating their salaries to lower the deficit. These days Tea Party parody practically writes itself.

Take freshman Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois jumping on John McCain for criticizing his House brethren: "Folks like him...have no clue as to the troubles Americans are going through right now. They don't understand this crisis anymore."

He may have a point. McCain, who has been in Congress 28 years, has a wife who owns eight houses while Walsh, with six months in Washington, was elected to the House after his home was foreclosed, and the Chicago Sun-Times reports that he owes over $100,000 in child support to his ex-wife.

Now, after reducing the Illinois unemployment rate by one, Walsh is all over cable TV, telling Americans how to manage their money and bad-mouthing McCain for trying to talk sense about a balanced budget amendment.

As John Boehner goes into overtime to strong-arm his Tea Party cadre to pass a bill that will be immediately shelved in the Senate, the Alice-in-Wonderland scene keeps get zanier by the hour and no one knows what the final punch line will be. However it turns out, there won't be much laughing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

When Will Wall Street Weigh In?

A Dow drop of almost 200 points yesterday could be the first tremor of panicky bears preparing to escape an economic conflagration that Congress seems intent on setting off. Will the markets be full of investors with their hair on fire today, tomorrow or Monday as the debt-ceiling deadline looms?

While the House and Senate continue to play chicken, Wall Street (Heaven help us all) looks like the last hope for sanity, as it was in September 2008 when the biggest single-day market crash ever spurred approval of the Paulson bank bailout for unfreezing credit after the House failed to pass it. A loss of $1.2 trillion in market value got their attention.

Now, as the Washington game goes on to avoid default, with the stakes even higher, will the “Greed is good” gang react any differently?

“Investors,” says a New York Times report cautiously, “are seeking alternatives to United States Treasury bonds as worries escalate that lawmakers will fail to reach an agreement...Some have shifted funds into corporate bonds, others are forgetting about yields entirely and parking their money in cash, and more are looking to those classic safe havens of yore, gold and the Swiss franc.

“Investors are getting leery of stocks...”

No one wants to talk openly about a market panic, for fear of being accused of helping to set one off, but the signs are there.

If Boehner and Reid can’t get a deal done and the President is helpless, will the Gordon Gekkos of the financial world step up and twist their arms to get something done?

Friday Update: The stock market's fear factor--the CBOE Market Volatility Index (VIX)-- is up 5% to 25.03 by midday, still below 30, which denotes high fear in the marketplace, but the index has gone up more than 42% in the past five days.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rejuvenation of John McCain

The titular head of the Republican Party, known for his short-fused temper, has exploded after two and a half years of volcanic quiescence.

John McCain, who had to placate far-right opposition to keep his Senate seat last year, is finally blowing his lid over “Tea Party Hobbits” for their “foolish” and “deceiving” behavior in pushing a balanced-budget amendment.

Moreover, he has also freed himself from being polite about his disastrous running mate by blasting “the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell into G.O.P. nominees,” two Sarah-Palin backed candidates in 2010.

It may come as a surprise to Palin as well as Mitch McConnell and John Boehner that, by tradition, the presidential nominee of a defeated party is considered its titular head and spokesperson.

Not that such an arrangement has always been honored without resistance or deviation. In 1964, retired President Eisenhower, in six hours of frank political talk, could not bring himself to mention his Vice President, Richard Nixon, by name.

Instead, he kept referring to him with distaste as “the titular head of our party,” based on Nixon’s 1960 loss to JFK.

Present-day GOP leaders don’t seem to have any more respect for McCain, but for former admirers in his Maverick days, it’s good to see that there are limits to where his backsliding has taken him. They can thank the Tea Party for rejuvenating him.

Boehner's Place in History

The Speaker, with his feat of displeasing almost everyone in the debt-ceiling mess--the White House, Tea Party, GOP Senators, even the Congressional Budget Office--is earning his place in a volume that was in the making years ago to commemorate historic feats of mismanagement, “They Must Know What They’re Doing or They Wouldn’t Be Where They Are.”

It would have honored the Captain of the Titanic, Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression, LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War, and Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis, among other monumental mishaps.

In this century, the list would include Heckuva Job Brownie’s work at FEMA during Hurricane Katrina and, of course, the Master himself—-George W. for the Iraq War. (The jury is still out on Barack Obama's pyrrhic victory in health care reform.)

Garden-variety incompetence does not qualify a public figure for this pantheon. Stunning stubborness has to be compounded by a total lack of foresight and an unerring instinct to misread possible outcomes.

Which brings us to John Andrew Boehner, the 61st Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who now finds himself besieged on all sides in a crisis on his own making as the U.S. economy heads toward a cliff, with friends and foes trying to grab the steering wheel.

As the Aug. 2 deadline nears, the suspense is over whether it will all end with a bang (a stock market plunge) or a whimper (some meaningless face-saving deal) but for the next few days, Boehner will be working frantically in his laboratory like some demented Dr. Frankenstein, along with his Igor, Eric Cantor, to breathe life into some legislative monstrosity.

Meanwhile, Boehner's place in the history of disastrous unforeseen consequences is assured.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mixed Messages: Obama, Boehner Infomercials

As the President and the Speaker gave competing pitches on prime time, they were aiming at different audiences.

Barack Obama was urging millions of indifferent Americans to pressure Congress against taking the economy over a cliff, while John Boehner was trying to keep a handful of his Tea Party mavericks in line for the same purpose.

The chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee had already announced opposition to the Speaker’s two-step plan to raise the debt ceiling, with some members vowing to vote against it on the grounds of ideological impurity.

The President himself slyly pointed up this conflict by praising “the kind of approach the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was working on with me over the last several weeks.

“The only reason this balanced approach isn’t on its way to becoming law right now is because a significant number of Republicans in Congress are insisting on a different approach--a cuts-only approach-–an approach that doesn’t ask the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to contribute anything at all. And because nothing is asked of those at the top of the income scale, such an approach would close the deficit only with more severe cuts to programs we all care about–-cuts that place a greater burden on working families.”

In this odd conflict, Boehner has Tea Party terriers tugging at his leg while he tries to wrestle Democrats for political advantage in averting a disaster for the economy.

Early reactions are promising for Obama as websites of conservative Republicans were crashing under heavy traffic after the President’s address and, to build on such momentum, Democrats are running attack ads against GOP Congress members in districts that the President won in 2008.

In this overheated atmosphere, selling sanity is not easy, but the White House is giving it a good try.

Update: Capitol Hill phones are ringing off the hook today, reports the Times’ Caucus, suggesting that Boehner may have goofed by “demanding--and receiving--time before the same audience to respond” to Obama’s appeal to the prime-time millions who watched their duel over the debt-ceiling.

GOP talking points seem to work better in sound bites than speeches, however brief, with context.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Children on Their Summer Vacations

In Norway, a blond young man who might have stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad kills 93 people with dum-dum bullets, most of them kids at a lakeside camp, to call attention to his 1500-page online rant, some of it plagiarized from the Unabomber.

His politics are beside the point, as were those of the lunatic who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head last January, killing six in Tuscon, including a nine-year-old girl.

For such random slaughtering of innocents, the medium is the message: In the era of the Internet, 24/7 cable TV and semi-automatic guns for everyone, mass murder is a form of expression available to the kind of people who, less than a century ago, might have been handing out pamphlets or just muttering in the streets.

As we celebrate freedom of expression, people like Anders Behring Breivik remind us of the price we pay for having the power to turns words into lethal body rhetoric and, in sane societies, might shock us into tempering our use of language.

In coming days, we will have to endure days of watching him parade his madness for the TV cameras but by then, our own politicians may have stopped exhibiting theirs in Washington, and our children and grandchildren may be safely back in schools like Columbine.

Update: As police lower the death toll to 76, over 100,000 gather in Oslo to mourn the victims and repudiate the killer’s hatred of immigrants. “The streets are filled with love,” Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon tells the crowd.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

President Boehner Turns His Back on Obama

Tomorrow’s headline, as written by the Tea Party, would be, “Congress Saves Economy; President Signs On.”

As their bunch crowds the White House out of the driver’s seat on debt-ceiling negotiations, the Sunday talk shows are dominated by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Chief of Staff William Daley insisting that Barack Obama is still in the game, not only standing by to veto any loony compromise but still taking an active part in the talks.

This spectacle of John Boehner presiding over a national crisis should be enough to make political pundits wonder if they owe Rep.Sheila Jackson Lee an apology for ridiculing her when she suggested there was racism in the way the GOP is treating the President during the crisis.

If Republican disdain for Obama has not reached that level, they are showing unprecedented disrespect for the man Mitch McConnell has vowed to make “a one-term president.” By trying to take the reins during a potential national calamity that they themselves have created, they want to make him a half-term president in the eyes of anxious voters.

Whatever happens by the end of the day, it’s clear that these clowns are attempting a clumsy coup, trying to replace Presidential authority with that of a “Super Congress.”

Like greedy children, Tea Party members can’t wait until next November for their ice cream and cake. If the nation has any luck, it will all have melted by then.

Update: President Boehner is being magnanimous. "It may be pretty hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” he tells Fox News, “but my last offer is still out there. I have never taken my last offer off the table," a proposal neither the Senate nor the White House will accept.

Talk about delusions of adequacy!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Death and Taxes, Now and Then

Try this for perspective on the two great inevitabilities of life: At my birth, life expectancy was 58 years. For a baby today, it’s over 75.

When I started earning in the Eisenhower era, the top tax rate was 84 percent rather than the current 35, and hardly anyone complained.

The only audible grumbles came from cartoon figures in upper-crust men's clubs and, on one occasion, John Wayne, the celluloid cowboy, whom I told, "If I could get millions for making faces at cameras, I wouldn't complain about giving most of it back to people who buy tickets to see me do it."

But that was when patriotism was about loving America rather than hating other Americans, when most of those elected to serve in Washington were working against prejudice rather than stoking it for political gain, when class warfare was being promoted only at the lunatic fringes of Communism and McCarthyism.

John Wayne paid his high taxes and kept making movies that exalted the red, white and blue. (That may come as news to Michele Bachmann, who praised his values in her announcement speech, mistakenly placing him in Waterloo, Iowa, where the serial killer John Wayne Gacy lived.)

How did we get from those days to this fractured, fractious parody of American values being played out in Washington today?

When the President talks about shared sacrifice (i.e., taking back a few percent of the Bush tax cuts from billionaires), how did that get to be a do-or-die issue for the Republican Party?

Why are so many patriots ready to take away actually do-or-die protections of Social Security and Medicare from their fellow citizens with those longer life spans?

Back then, we had just come out of a World War, where lives and limbs were sacrificed for American freedoms, and those at home uncomplainingly endured food shortages and gasoline rationing.

When and how did we morph from a nation of John Waynes to a parody of Clint Eastwoods (“Read my lips: No new taxes”)?

Whatever happens between now and August 2nd, it might help to look ahead to August 6th, the sixty-sixth anniversary of the day we exploded an atomic bomb over Hiroshima. That was a moral issue that makes today’s debt-ceiling crisis look like a sandbox fight among squabbling children.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Boehner in a Box, Obama in a Rage

The Tea Party can’t take yes for an answer. Even as the President caves in to their debt-ceiling demands, the Speaker of the House comes out like a ventriloquist’s dummy and demolishes the deal they were making.

“I have decided,” John Boehner harrumphs, “to end discussions with the White House and begin conversations with the leaders of the Senate in an effort to find a path forward...

“The president is emphatic that taxes have to be raised. As a former small businessman, I know tax increases destroy jobs.”

The Speaker’s lips are moving, but clearly Eric Cantor is pulling the strings for the House’s class of 2009, which has put Boehner into a box with no room for negotiation of any kind.

Barack Obama shows his anger: “Can they say yes to anything?...I have been left at the altar a couple of times now.”

The word “insatiable” comes to mind. We are well beyond politics here in a Kafkaesque game of raw power for its own sake.

The President has summoned Congressional leaders to the White House again tomorrow morning. Will they show up or just send a recorded message?

Update: In his Weekly Address, the President is back in Never-Never Land, urging “serious cuts, balanced by some new revenues,” which he describes as “the position of every Democratic and Republican leader who has worked to reduce the deficit, from Bill Clinton to Ronald Reagan.

“In fact, earlier this week, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Tom Coburn, announced his support for a balanced, bipartisan plan that shows promise. And then a funny thing happened. He received a round of applause--from a group of Republican and Democratic senators. That’s a rare event in Washington.”

When Tom Coburn is held up as the voice of reason, we are in deep, deep trouble.

Saturday Update: The White House meeting lasts less than an hour, and the picture of Obama and Boehner tells it all--a glum couple not looking at each other. You could see more warmth in any divorce lawyer’s office.

Obama Blinks

Word is oozing out that the President has apparently caved in to Tea Party blackmail. If true, as White House leaks tend to be, the cliché about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has become a working principle in Washington, and the future outlook could be even worse with many of the details yet to unfold.

Behind news of ”a package calling for as much as $3 trillion in savings from substantial spending cuts and future revenue produced by a tax code overhaul” is the reality that Barack Obama, with his party controlling the Senate, has apparently given in to the intractability of smug thugs who were elected to the House last year and handed them the reins of government.

In such a deal, the cuts in services would be real and immediate, with “future revenue” a cloudy rationalization to obscure the fact that this GOP minority has succeeded in preserving the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans--a resolution of the debt ceiling dilemma that makes no economic or moral sense.

Beyond that, it portends even worse for the future, as Paul Krugman notes:

“The disappearance of unemployment from elite policy discourse and its replacement by deficit panic has been truly remarkable. It’s not a response to public opinion. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 53 percent of the public named the economy and jobs as the most important problem we face, while only 7 percent named the deficit. Nor is it a response to market pressure. Interest rates on U.S. debt remain near historic lows.”

Senate Democrats are expressing fury at the “sellout,” as well they should, but if the President has signed on, their options are limited.

If this is Barack Obama’s response to a manufactured crisis in which public opinion was behind him to do the right thing, he may have just raised the odds on a one-term presidency.

“Never get into a pissing contest with skunks” is the advice of country wisdom. But if you do, make sure you win and worry about cleaning up later. Right now, the White House in in bad odor.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Obama's Excessive Anger Management

With their fabricated debt ceiling fiasco, the GOP has tested the President’s patience and not found it wanting. As the deadline nears, the question is: What will it take to enrage him?

Barack Obama is edging into testy now: "This is actually a self-created crisis in some ways. It has to do with folks who are digging into set positions rather than saying how do we solve a problem.”

But as polls show overwhelming majorities of voters worried and disgusted at Tea Party antics, why is their President not reflecting their emotions and why is he still acting more like a mediator than a leader rallying them to put pressure on their addled legislators?

Die-hard ideologues keep shooting down each possible solution (the Gang of Six proposal is the latest), making it clear that the country is being held hostage with the clock ticking, but Obama is still sounding relatively sanguine.

“My interest here is not scaring people,” he says about the possibility of not sending out Social Security checks next week, but goes only as far as to say "there is no reason this should be a problem" if all the parties take "a sensible approach" to the issue.

This legislative farce went past “sensible” weeks ago, and the President still keeps backing away from the direct confrontation that seems inevitable. Now he has retreated from his vow against short-term deals, opening the door for an intractable House to keep the country tied in knots indefinitely.

Is there an anti-anger management course he can take that would spur him to make a prime-time speech calling out Boehner, McConnell, Ryan and their gang for what they are doing?

Nobody expects Barack Obama to sound like Harry Truman in his attacks on a “do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress” that won him reelection in 1948, but in not confronting this Congress head-on, he is letting down the vast numbers of Americans who want sanity in Washington and damaging his own chances at the ballot box next year.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Murdoch Channels George W. Bush

In the Parliamentary hearing about media misdeeds yesterday, Rupert Murdoch resembled his favorite American President.

During eight years in office, George W. Bush, who called himself the Decider, never took responsibility for anything that went wrong. At the low point of the Iraq war, he would go only as far as to admit, “Mistakes were made.”

In the same way, Murdoch and his son blame underlings for abuses of power, just as Bush let Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove take the fall when things went wrong in such misadventures as the outing of Valerie Plame and the firing of U.S. attorneys.

This is a redefinition of Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here.” For today’s chief executives (call it the Enron principle), the buck, as blame, stops somewhere down there. Only the bucks, as the fruits of an enterprise, reach the top.

This separation of power and responsibility is endemic in the 21st century (see Tea Party and the debt-ceiling crisis), leaving so-called leaders to take all the bows and, when things go wrong, hide behind the stupidity and/or stubbornness of their followers.

For the rest of us, there are few outlets for frustration at this lack of accountability. The clown who pie-pelted Rupert Murdoch is reminiscent of the Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at President Bush in Baghdad during his last month in office.

Neat symbolism, but it only hurts when we laugh.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Mental Health of Michele Bachmann

Politics and psychiatry converge as a conservative website reveals that the surging Republican candidate “frequently suffers from stress-induced medical episodes that...occur once a week on average and can ‘incapacitate’ her for days at time. On at least three occasions, Bachmann has landed in the hospital as a result.”

Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller reports Michelle Bachmann’s history of frequent and severe mood swings that raise questions about her fitness for a campaign, let alone service in the White House.

Doubts about her state of mind keep multiplying after stories of her participation in an anti-gay sect and her fervent prayer five years ago predicting an apocalypse:

“Lord, the day is at hand. We are in the last days. You are a Jehovah God. We know that the times are in your hands. And we give them to you...The day is at hand, Lord, when your return will come nigh. Nothing is more important than bringing sheep into the fold.”

Her admirers may shrug off such revelations as prejudiced attacks on a highly spiritual candidate, but Bachmann has exceeded the speed limit for normal since she was elected to Congress in 2006.

Only weeks afterward, she drew attention at the State of the Union by groping the President and not letting go. A Minneapolis TV station reported what national viewers could plainly see, that Bachmann “put her hand on Bush's shoulder. However, it wasn't just a tap. After he signed an autograph for her, Bachmann grabbed the president and did not let go for almost 30 seconds.

“After signing the autograph for Bachmann, the president turns away, but Bachmann doesn't let go. In fact, the video shows her reaching out to get a better grip on him.

“Bush then leans over to kiss another congresswoman, but Bachmann is still holding on. Bachmann then gets more attention, a kiss and an embrace from the president. A few seconds later, Bachmann's hand finally comes off the presidential shoulder.”

Couple this manic behavior with what her staff describes as “the significant amount of medication Bachmann takes to address her condition,” which they describe as migraine headaches but sounds suspiciously like depression, and questions arise about the possibility of a bipolar President and the nuclear button.

In 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern had to drop Thomas Eagleton as his running mate after revelations of his treatment for depression. We are more sophisticated now, but Michelle Bachmann’s mental health is an issue that will have to be addressed.

Update: When an ABC reporter tries to question Bachmann about her “migraines,” he is roughed up by her bodyguards. Asked if he has been treated this way before, Brian Ross says, “A few times. Mostly by Mafia people.”

Cocooned this way from the media and supplied with plausible sound bites by GOP veteran Ed Rollins, Michele Bachmann is making the Sarah Palin of 2008 look accessible.

Now she is running Tea Party-crazy commercials, bragging about voting against raising the debt limit:

“It goes completely contrary to common sense and how I grew up in Iowa...We have to deal with the economic reality.”

Or is she just trying to help her “Jehovah God” hasten the last days for the U.S.?

Update II: The Bachmann campaign releases a doctor’s letter telling her: “Your migraines occur infrequently and have known trigger factors of which you are aware and know how to avoid. When you do have a migraine, you are able to control it well, as needed with medication.”

All fine, as far it goes, but the lingering question about her mental health is underscored by recent research that “there is a genetic predisposition by people with migraines to be depressed"--46 percent, about four times higher than the rate in the overall population.

Coupled with Bachmann’s manic and erratic behavior, controlling migraines does not go very far toward answering the question of her overall stability.

Talking Congress Off the Ledge

We have seen this scene before: the deranged figure threatening to take the plunge from on high as a negotiator tries to talk him down by taking all his rambling complaints seriously and trying to reason them away as if they were not totally loopy.

Barack Obama keeps calmly engaging Congress, the would-be jumpers, with promises to work on grievances once they come in off the ledge, as the crowd below holds it breath, hoping for a happy outcome.

Polling shows two-thirds of Americans, majorities of both parties, want an agreement with both spending cuts and tax increases, and most would settle for even one they themselves don’t fully support rather than have the United States default.

But, as in every such scene, there are onlookers yelling, “Jump! Jump!” in a Tea Party version of the kind of auto-da-fe stirred up by the burning of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition to purify deviations from the true faith.

As the President maintains his calm rationality in the face of an approaching deadline, other nerves are getting frayed.

“What will it take,” asks Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, “for my Republican colleagues to wake up to the fact that they’re playing a game of political chicken with the entire global economy?”

It’s too bad that, in this situation, the president doesn’t have the Mel Gibson option in the original “Lethal Weapon,” of calling the jumper’s bluff by grabbing him and diving together into a safety net below.

But there isn’t a safety net that big available and, if Republicans have their way, there won’t be any for anybody in the future.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tea Party Fantasy Flick

On the nation’s movie screens, the Sarah Palin-as-saint movie is running a dismal second to Harry Potter, but in Washington, the Tea Party is offering its own fantasy to entertain Americans until the economic apocalypse premiers on Aug. 2.

“The House and Senate this week,” reports The Caucus, “plan to hold politically charged but largely symbolic votes on fiscal policy in what Congressional leaders hope is a prelude to moving ahead with a plan to increase the federal debt limit...

“Given the likelihood of attempts to filibuster any proposal in the Senate, just moving legislation through to passage could consume the next two weeks, including the weekends.”

This gives new meaning to the traditional dramatic category of “dumb show,” a silent pantomime. The GOP actors have all kinds of words like “cap, cut and balance” and “balanced budget amendment,” but they are all gibberish to serve as background to squeeze the last possible moments of posturing on stage before the vote to raise the debt ceiling.

“At the end of the day,” says their Senate No. 2 Jon Kyl, “Republican leaders have made it clear that we will not be the ones to put the government into default. Now the House of Representatives has to make its decision about what it will do.”

Says the White House Budget Director, “There will be a fringe that believes that playing with Armageddon is a good idea, but I don’t think that’s where the majority will be.”

Just so, but the Tea Party troupe will be stretching its time in the spotlight to the last possible moment, even though most Americans clearly find Harry Potter and Sarah Palin more mesmerizing.

Update: Everybody in Washington is getting bad reviews for the Deficit Follies so far, with Republicans in Congress garnering the worst. A new poll shows 71 percent disapproval, with the President at only 48 percent. But Tea Party performers can’t or won’t read, and the show will go on.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Twisted Case Against JFK

History provides perspective but can also bring distortion as a Pulitzer-Prize journalist now decides that John F. Kennedy “probably was the worst American president of the previous century.”

After studying the period, the respected Thomas E. Ricks concludes:

“In retrospect, he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco. He came into office and okayed the Bay of Pigs invasion. Then he went to a Vienna summit conference and got his clock cleaned by Khrushchev. That led to, among other things, the Cuban missile crisis and a whiff of nuclear apocalypse.

“Looming over it all is the American descent into Vietnam. The assassination of Vietnam's President Diem on Kennedy's watch may have been one of the two biggest mistakes of the war there. (The other was the decision to wage a war of attrition on the unexamined assumption that Hanoi would buckle under the pain.) I don't buy the theory promulgated by Robert McNamara and others that Kennedy would have kept U.S. troops out.”

For a journalist who saw JFK up close, this reads more like a prosecutor’s indictment than a historical judgment, much like blaming Barack Obama for everything he inherited from George W. Bush.

Kennedy did approve with misgivings the Bay of Pigs which was imminent when he took office, refused to escalate with air cover as the military pressed him to do and, when the operation failed, nevertheless took full responsibility (“Defeat is an orphan”), learning lessons that served him well in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The “whiff of nuclear apocalypse” was dispelled by his deft handling of that confrontation and led to concluding a nuclear test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union.

In Vietnam, JFK made mistakes in underestimating the unpopularity and corruption of the regime we were backing (Afghanistan, anyone?), but we had only a few thousand advisers there when he was killed. If he had lived, he undoubtedly “would have kept U.S. troops out.”

Ricks is entitled to his historical reading, and those of us who lived through that period may have our judgment warped by being exposed to Kennedy’s qualities of mind and heart.

In one of his last interviews, he told me, “Too many people want to blow up the world.” Far from “stumbling from crisis to fiasco,” he was doing everything humanly possible to avoid just that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Washington Madness, Madness

As the capitol shows signs of awakening from the debt-ceiling fever dream with face-saving aspirin for both sides, onlookers try to understand the pathology of it all.

Like the final scene of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” after crazed loyalties and pride have created carnage, a dazed survivor is left to wander through the wreckage, mumbling, “Madness, madness.”

As the Chairman of the Fed describes failure to raise the debt limit as a “catastrophic...calamitous...self-inflicted wound” to the economy, the President in his Weekly Address is virtually pleading for sanity:

“After all, we’ve worked together like that before. Ronald Reagan worked with Tip O’Neill and Democrats to cut spending, raise revenues, and reform Social Security. Bill Clinton worked with Newt Gingrich and Republicans to balance the budget and create surpluses. Nobody ever got everything they wanted. But they worked together. And they moved this country forward.

”That kind of cooperation should be the least you expect from us--not the most you expect from us.”

In a piece titled “Getting to Crazy,” Paul Krugman notes: “If a Republican president had managed to extract the kind of concessions on Medicare and Social Security that Mr. Obama is offering, it would have been considered a conservative triumph. But when those concessions come attached to minor increases in revenue, and more important, when they come from a Democratic president, the proposals become unacceptable plans to tax the life out of the U.S. economy.”

Washington insanity seems to be contagious as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee finds racism in the madness.

"What is different about this president that should put him in a position that he should not receive the same kind of respectful treatment of when it is necessary to raise the debt limit in order to pay our bills, something required by both statute and the 14th amendment?

"I hope someone will say that what it appears to be is not in fact accurate. But historically it seems to be nothing more."

It’s long past time to start testing what’s in the D.C. drinking water.

Update: Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are ready to unveil Plan B in the Senate to avoid default. But Tea Party honcho Jim DeMint pledges to kill it. Keep the straightjackets standing by.

Even John Boehner seems to be taking political tranquilizers as he claims Democrats "want to blame the economy on us and the reason default is no better an idea today than when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995 is that it destroys your brand. It would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy."

He's right. Crazy is not good advertising for a brand that wants to run the country.

Friday, July 15, 2011

President Generic

A Republican has opened up a 47 to 39 percent lead over Barack Obama for 2012 in the latest Gallup Poll, but voters don’t know who he or she is.

At this point in their reelection bids, both Bushes were leading generic opponents, even though George H. W. eventually lost to Bill Clinton while George W. defeated John Kerry.

But now, in what the President agrees is a “stressed-out” nation, Americans are venting their anger at the man in the White House.

Understandably so, but when the 2012 GOP challenger has a name and a face and, most important, a record and positions on issues, how will that translate into what they do at the ballot box?

The dilemma of the Republican field of has-beens and never-will-bes is reflected in the first campaign ad of Ron Paul, trying to portray the extreme libertarian as another Ronald Reagan. Lots of luck with that one.

Frontrunner (barely) Mitt Romney is still straddling every position in sight, but opponents are reviving the ads Ted Kennedy used to trounce him in 1994, showing that his vaunted business acumen consisted mostly of merging companies and eliminating jobs.

Michele Bachmann is still explaining away her weirdness, while Herman Cain is gagging on his gaffe about no Muslims in his cabinet and Tim Pawlenty is trying to find traction on anything.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to defeat Gerald Ford in an electorate that was disgusted by the aftermath of Watergate, but the prospects for a GOP President Generic next year are looking dimmer with each passing day.

Can you beat somebody with nobody?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Obama-Cantor Clash: An Old Story

For those who have been watching closely, Barack Obama has had it up to here with Eric Cantor for a long time, starting at least a year and a half before the President’s disgusted walkout this week.

As far back as the White House Health Care Summit on February 25, 2010, the Leader of the Free World was lecturing the partisan pipsqueak on the difference between legislating and grandstanding. As Cantor parroted talking points behind a foot-high pile of papers, the President tartly dismissed “props like these” and told him, “These are the political things we do that prevent us from having a conversation.”

Cantor had been squeezing maximum personal exposure out of the Summit for weeks, at first refusing to go, then signing a drop-dead letter with Boehner before the meeting and finally showing up that day on “Good Morning America” to bloviate on why it would fail.

Labeled “Dr. No” back then, Cantor has followed the same game plan in the debt ceiling debate, stalking out of the Biden negotiations to make headlines and hectoring the President at meetings ever since.

The New York Times’ Caucus blog offers a Democratic version of the Presidential walkout the other day:

“Let’s stop the catering to our bases. Let’s start compromising and solving this problem for the American people, because the clock is ticking, Mr. Obama told those assembled around the table.

“Mr. Cantor interrupted--rudely, according to the Democratic aides.

“We should pursue short-term debt ceiling increases, Mr. Cantor said.

“Mr. Obama rejected the idea.

“It’s not an acceptable outcome to have an extension of the debt ceiling that doesn’t get into 2013, the president said.

“Mr. Cantor tried two more times, interrupting the president to advocate for a stop-gap measure.

“’Enough is enough,’” the president said...

“Aides described Mr. Obama as animated and passionate.

“We have to get this solved for the American people, the president said. We have to be willing to compromise. It shouldn’t be about positioning and politics.”

The President then left the meeting, clearly annoyed at the one-note ideologue and self-promoter who has been dogging his steps for years now.

Misadventures of Michele and Murdoch

To keep our heads from exploding over the debt-ceiling debacle, it’s time to turn back to figures who keep public life from being boring. After a summer of Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Anthony Weiner, Americans badly need a fresh dose of the peculiar and piquant to divert their attention.

Michele Bachmann fills the bill so well that Jon Stewart devotes a long segment to having Jerry Seinfeld try to cure him of taking cheap shots at the “gay cures” of her therapist husband, even as the Iowa GOP frontrunner is backing off her screed denouncing homosexuality as slavery and now has to defend herself from charges of membership in a church that calls the Pope the Antichrist.

Unless Republicans lose their senses entirely and nominate her, however, Bachmann will be only a passing diversion compared to the emergence of Rupert Murdoch in all his slimy glory, not only in the British scandal that shut down his News of the World and blocked his BSkyB takeover but in a rising bipartisan clamor here over charges that his “journalists” hacked into voicemail accounts of 9/11 victims.

Republican Rep. Peter King is asking the FBI to investigate, as Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez writes to the Attorney General:

“It is horrifying to consider the possibility that the victims of the 9/11 tragedy would be victimized again by an international newspaper seeking information about their personal suffering.”

Murdoch isn’t running for president, but his standing in the media world is not looking too secure as politicians and real journalists start to sense that the Fox News emperor has no clothes.

Now, back to Boehner and Eric Cantor...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heading for Economic 9/11 on 8/2

Tea Party terrorists elected last fall promised to change Washington, and they have—-turning it from a flawed vehicle that moves the nation’s business along, however bumpily, to a cockpit of fighting over a fabricated issue that is steering a shaky economy toward a smashup.

The sorry spectacle has roused the largest American corporations to sound alarms and rating agencies to issue warnings about plummeting credit ratings for U.S. debt

But GOP leaders, sitting up front, refuse to look ahead or even buckle their seat belts. John Boehner tells Fox News that “no one really knows what would happen” after August 2nd if no deal is reached but admits that a failure to do so could “spook the market, and you could have a real catastrophe.”

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is staring at the emergency exits and talking in tongues about a plan to let the President retake the controls for a time, while Republicans stand over him with box cutters.

In India, terrorists have set off real bombs in the financial district of Mumbai. Over here, you can blow up Wall Street by remote control from the Capitol building in Washington.

Update: The President reaches the end of his patience by walking out after Eric Cantor, the delusionary Tea Party champion, tells him, “We are very far apart right now. I don’t know if we can get there.”

Somebody should take away Cantor’s rubber gun and mask.

Or maybe not. “Eric Cantor Is the Democrats’ New Boogeyman,” reports the Caucus, potentially a very valuable symbol for the 2012 election cycle.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Eric Cantor's Nixon Act

When John Boehner pulled back from his Grand Bargain with the President last weekend, the cynical suspected that he and Eric Cantor were playing good cop-bad cop. But it’s clear now that Boehner was being undermined by his own sidekick.

Cantor is looking more and more like a young Richard Nixon. In 1952, when Nixon was on the GOP ticket with Ike before the Checkers speech, a Democratic volunteer asked, “What do we say when they ask exactly what’s wrong with him?”

Someone suggested, “The only answer to that is, if you don’t know, I’m sorry for you.”

From then until Watergate, Americans found answers to what the intuitive could see then in a recklessly ambitious young pol who would do anything to get ahead.

Now, as Cantor now embarrasses his boss John Boehner in the debt ceiling debate, that blind ambition is obvious again in another charisma-free climber with limited intelligence and no scruples.

There are always potential Nixons and Cantors around, but it takes a political crisis for them to emerge on the national stage. Nixon had the McCarthy era Communist scare to fuel his rise. Cantor has Tea Party anger and hatred of government.

After stalking out of the Biden talks to call attention to himself, the House Majority Leader, says one Washington observer, “has slipped into true madness” by now insisting that the GOP’s concession in negotiations is “the fact that we are even discussing voting for a debt ceiling increase.”

“Crazy like a fox” is closer to the truth, as Cantor positions himself to be the Tea Party hero no matter what compromise is finally reached, leaving Boehner to take the heat.

In 2008, Cantor’s staff spread false rumors that he was being vetted as a possible V.P., which the McCain people called “a complete and total joke.”

Nixon would have found that shrewd rather than funny.

Update: Cantor's gamble could easily backfire, as Matt Bai notes: "To the extent that Mr. Obama gets his message across more effectively, he hands Republicans the unenviable choice or either joining him in a comprehensive solution or looking self-interested for backing away and imperiling the economy.

"Does that mean voters won’t blame Mr. Obama for a crisis over the debt ceiling? It doesn’t. But they’ll probably blame Congress even more."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Grand Bargain Basement

Last week’s brief attempt at actual governing by both the White House and the GOP Congressional leadership in trying to “go big” on budget deficit and debt ceiling solutions dramatizes how dysfunctional Washington has become in six months of Tea Party madness.

After two years of Democratic control and wall-to-wall Republican naysaying, the American economy was teetering toward recovery but now has to be kept from going off a cliff, as the leadership of both parties acknowledge.

Why? John Boehner’s willingness to negotiate a Grand Bargain has been undermined by idiot ideologues in his own party, led by his own deputy Eric Cantor who makes Karl Rove look like a statesman.

The nation is careening toward a disastrous default because a moronic minority of newly elected anti-politicians has made a religious mission out of preserving the Bush tax cuts for billionaires while tearing down Medicare, Social Security and other safety nets for the most vulnerable Americans.

“No tax hikes” has become the mindless mantra for those who were elected to curb the excesses of government but have translated that into a mandate to destroy it.

“If not now, when?” the President asks Republican leaders but, for an answer, gets a Cantor monologue on going back to the patchwork compromises his minions had negotiated with the Vice President.

But Joe Biden has been working for the goals of Barack Obama, while Cantor has been undermining his own boss Boehner. If the government is to get past these distractions and start dealing with substantive issues again, the GOP has to clean out its bargain basement and get the House in working order again.

Update: The President turns up the heat on opponents about “massive, job-killing” tax hikes by emphasizing that any tax increases would only go into effect after 2013.

“No one is talking about raising taxes right now,” he says at a press conference. “I have bent over backwards to work with the Republicans that comes up with a formulation that doesn’t require them to vote sometime in the next month to increase taxes.”

For presidential hopefuls Like Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, he has no patience: “For them to say we shouldn’t be raising the debt ceiling is irresponsible. They know better.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Boehner Falls Off His Horse

It’s enough to make a cowboy cry, seeing the Speaker drop the reins and let himself be pulled off his debt-deal mount by the Tea Party drunks in D.C.

“Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground,” John Boehner sobs, climbing down from a Grand Bargain, “the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes. I believe the best approach may be to focus on producing a smaller measure...”

In this new definition of horse’s-ass leadership, the GOP chief is tethered to the “tax hike” post by his own deputy, Eric Cantor, and the rowdies behind him.

A White House spokesman responds regretfully, “Both parties have made real progress thus far, and to back off now will not only fail to solve our fiscal challenge, it will confirm the cynicism people have about politics in Washington. The president believes that now is the moment to rise above that cynicism and show the American people that we can still do big things.”

But you can’t do that riding backward.

Update: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on “Face the Nation” restates the reality:

“I have to write 80 million checks a month to Americans, including 55 million Americans who depend on their Social Security check. We have to make principal payments or roll over $500 billion of debt in the month of August, about $87 billion in that first week in August.

“If they don’t act, then we face catastrophic damage to the American economy and the leadership, to their credit, and I mean Republicans and Democrats, fully understand that.”

If they do, why are they still horsing around?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Boehner on a Bucking Bronco

As the “Grand Bargain” unfolds, both the President and the Speaker are taking heat from their true believers, but there is both irony and justice in John Boehner’s plight.

A year and a half ago, he chose to wild-ride the Tea Party bronco all the way to November 2012 without getting the creature under control. Now, after stirring up all that dust about the debt limit, Boehner has to corral enough votes to avoid going over a cliff.

"While some think that we can go past August 2nd,” he says, with no embarrassment over having caused the crisis in the first place, “I frankly think it puts us in an awful lot of jeopardy and puts our economy in jeopardy risking even more jobs."

But Boehner is riding at the head of a 21st century Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight.

Michele Bachmann, playing Calamity Jane to his Wild Bill Hickcock, is riding off in the other direction, vowing in TV ads to vote “no” on any deal.

His shifty sidekick Eric Cantor, perhaps hoping eventually to unhorse his chief, is also veering off the path by having a spokesperson tell reporters that “the big deal as described by the president included $1.4 to $1.7 trillion in tax hikes and he doesn't support that and the House wouldn't support that.”

With friends like those, the old saying goes, you don’t need enemies.

Meanwhile, the President is getting static from his supporters as well. But being Democrats, there are no ultimatums and threats, just a letter urging him to stand firm on cutting entitlement benefits.

If and when Obama and Boehner finally get the debt ceiling bull into the barn, they will still be pursued by Tea Party vigilantes trying to burn it down.

Update: Boehner shouldn't "bet his majority on Mr. Obama's promises," says the Wall Street Journal, warning that "the only way he can avoid being taken for a ride by Democrats is if all parts of any deal are negotiated, voted on and then implemented immediately. Two men, one deal, once. Promises of future action aren't credible."

That kind of talk won't help the beleaguered Speaker.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Betty Ford I Knew

She came to the White House unexpectedly and never stopped being herself, unlike those before her who could have passed for inflatable life-sized dolls permanently positioned to stare adoringly at their husbands.

Betty Ford spoke openly about everything, from equal rights for women to abortion to what she would do if her 18-year-old daughter were sexually active. Even more, by example, she went beyond politics and set new standards for openness about her own life.

After a mastectomy for breast cancer, she spoke about it in public and wrote an article for me in McCalls to encourage women to go for early screening.

Then, in July 1978, I published a piece, “Betty Ford: Her Long Struggle with a Lonely Marriage.” Mrs. Ford had just been hospitalized for addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers after years of suffering with a pinched nerve in her neck.

Knowing that pinched nerves often result from emotional stress, I asked Myra MacPherson, who knew Mrs. Ford well, to interview her friends, family and physicians about that possible explanation.

They told of her distress that, after looking forward to retirement togetherness after his Presidency, her husband was still away from home politicking 200 nights a year.

Our conclusion: “Like other wives of ambitious men, she had to raise her children with little emotional support from her husband. After 30 years, the price she has paid for a life of loneliness and stress is painfully clear to everyone—with the possible exception of the one person she needs most.”

The aftermath has stayed in my mind ever since.

Several years later, although anxious that Mrs. Ford might have been upset by our piece, I asked Myra MacPherson to interview her again.

“The reason I’m seeing you,” Mrs. Ford told her, “is that 1978 article. I sent copies of it to every politician’s wife I know.”

Betty Ford, who died today at 93, was one of the most honest and caring people ever to live in the White House

Murdoch's Pickpocket Journalism

He is unmasked not only as an opinionated mogul (pace Fox News) but mastermind to a den of thieves, a 21st century Fagin to the Artful Dodgers of his London gang of reporters stealing news not only from politicians and celebrities but the victims of tragedies while paying off Scotland Yard for protection.

This kind of electronic pickpocketing has led to criminal investigations and the closing of his tabloid News of the World, the only newspaper, as one observer puts it, to die of shame.

For those who see Murdoch’s holdings as boils on the backside of American journalism, his British embarrassment only underscores what he has insidiously been doing here.

At the risk of sounding starchy (critics, flail away!), Murdoch’s Fox gang is yet another expression of a rapacious mentality that is not satisfied to slant the news but bend it into total submission to his purposes. (Those with strong stomachs can Wiki that history for themselves.)

"I hunger for quality news,” Jay Rockefeller told a Senate Committee recently. “There's a little bug inside of me which wants to get the FCC to say to FOX and to MSNBC: 'Out. Off. End. Goodbye.' It would be a big favor to political discourse; our ability to do our work here in Congress, and to the American people."

But no legal disasters are going to slow up Murdoch here, as they are doing in Britain now.

Eternal banality, as well as vigilance, may be the true price of liberty, but it’s worth the effort to keep Rupert Murdoch from stealing our minds.

Trash Journalism Update: Star Magazine, founded by Murdoch to compete with the National Enquirer but later sold off, is reporting that Casey Anthony and her family have been offered $1 million to appear on the Jerry Springer Show.

If News of the World hadn’t gone under, it would have saved all that money by just tapping their phones.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Deficit Dance Begins

As Barack Obama beats the default drums louder, the White House and Congress are finally taking steps toward moving in concert instead of sitting on the sidelines vocalizing and tweeting at each other.

Now the usual reliable sources whisper that the President “wants to move well beyond the $2 trillion in savings sought in earlier negotiations and seek perhaps twice as much over the next decade.”

In the light of two and a half years of dysfunctional hoofing, can Obama and Boehner suddenly turn into Astaire and Rogers without tripping all over the feet of their party members?

As they prepare for serious steps, there is nervousness among Democrats that the President may go too far on Social Security while Republicans are worrying that their Speaker could stop moving to the right on tax increases.

Obama, the Washington Post reports, “is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security...

“The move marks a major shift for the White House and could present a direct challenge to Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to protect health and retirement benefits from the assault on government spending.”

GOP stalwarts, while insisting they will remain firm on the Bush tax cuts, concede that “Boehner may be amenable to a solution that simplifies and lowers individual and corporate tax rates, while ending preferences, loopholes, and expenditures—including...subsidies for big oil companies--and perhaps other reforms to be named later.” In short, raising taxes while denying that you are.

As clumsy as these moves may seem, they are an advance over sitting on the sidelines with arms folded. Start the music, but don’t expect the choreography to be classic.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Washington Tweet Meet

The deficit impasse takes an ecclesiastical turn as GOP talking heads unveil yet another phrase to defend tax increases for what the President considers, although not nearly as pithily, to be the filthy rich.

The owners of private jets are “job creators,” according to Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a new sound bite to pair off with designation of Democratic efforts to raise taxes on billionaires as “job killers.” Sounds like a hell of a matchup!

As the President holds his first Twitter town meeting, he will be hard-pressed to match the Republican machine (pioneered by Frank Luntz) to churn out lies that can be sold as verities.

With the Obama penchant for serious, long-winded answers, the White House will be disadvantaged in the competition for reductive language that conceals rather than reveals.

Twitters away!

Update: Good news for brevity addicts--Joe Biden has a new Twitter account. Less good: His first two tweets are in the third person.

Murder, 21st Century Soap Opera

What, asks an old riddle, do you call a hundred lawyers under the ocean? A good start. Now, what do you call a thousand lawyers under glass? Cable TV news.

In 17 years since the O.J. trial, media fascination with murder has morphed from classic elements as fame, race and sexual rage to pathetic obsession with the death of a little girl and the guilt of her possibly disturbed young mother.

Now the Casey Anthony verdict brings into focus the extent to which reality TV has infected the daylight hours, supplementing inexpensive adventure and talent shows with even cheaper studio sets and courtroom coverage.

For weeks, CNN’s outpost HLN outranked Fox and other cable channels with its trial coverage and, after announcement of the verdict yesterday, CNN’s web site had a million live-video users, 30 times as high as its usual average.

Crime has become this century’s substitute for soap opera, dispensing with the need for writers, actors and other artifices, going right to the gut of the lonely, alienated homebound and bored office workers.

A Florida newspaper reports, “Thousands of people wrote letters to Anthony. Women mailed her magazines and books, asked her for dating advice. Men asked for her hand in marriage, told her she was beautiful, sent her money.” (Renee Zellweger in "Chicago," anyone?)

Now, there will be furious debate over the unexpected not-guilty verdicts and, on a more refined plane, about the exploitative role of the media in distorting the justice system, with Anthony’s chief electronic prosecutor Nancy Grace garnering even more attention with her outrage.

With social media involved, it will all seem very 21st century. But at bottom, will there be much difference from Nathanael West’s classic 1939 black comedy, “Day of the Locust,” originally titled “The Cheated,” in which an enraged crowd enacts its bottled-up feelings by rioting at a Hollywood premiere?

That, too, was a time of Depression and worldwide social upheaval.

Update: The Orlando soap opera moves to a new chapter with a four-year sentence and $4000 fine, a tap on the wrist when time served is included.

Even the closest viewers are confused as the New York Times at first reports the wrong parent-grandparent combination that concealed the child’s death in a family in which defense lawyers claimed their client “had been sexually abused by her father and had been taught to lie her entire life.”

The Partridge family, it wasn’t.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Giving Brains a Bad Name

Were the fireworks louder this year or what?

Newt Gingrich may be on to something by making Alzheimer’s a campaign issue, although he could be going too far in trying to make voters forget about his crackpot Contract with America, Tiffany tabs and his latest wife’s terror campaign that led an entire staff to quit.

Mitt Romney, as always, is testing the waters with a little senior moment of his own, forgetting he had to apologize for saying that Obama made the economy worse, and at a neighborhood holiday celebration, repeating the gaffe. Those who have been following him closely are not surprised, since he has had trouble remembering the names of other Republicans in the race.

Michele Bachmann seems to have an invisible edge in the mental health meltdown, with a clinical therapist and her husband of 32 years always at her side, often with arms wrapped around her.

All this, plus the intellectually challenged remainder of the field, leads David Brooks to conclude that the GOP is in the grip of “the mother of all no-brainers.”

The Republican Party, he decides, “may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

“The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.”

A Washington Post columnist suggests they could use “a mental health professional, preferably a specialist in the power of fixations, obsessions and the like. The GOP needs an intervention. It has become a cult.”

Such armchair analysis may be helpful but, if this Alice in Wonderland Tea Party continues through next year, it will be voters who need to have their heads examined.

JFK used to say "You can't beat brains," but he was living in a time before 24/7 idiocy had turn the mind of the body politic to mush.

Update: The diagnosis gets worse. Paul Ryan tells an interviewer about his proposed Medicare changes, “When the plan is described accurately, it actually polls very well.”

Add to GOP psychiatric symptoms “in total denial,” a condition that makes it near-impossible to treat delusions.

The President invites Republicans to discuss a “balanced approach” to the stalemate, but how do you do that with politicians who have become unhinged from reality.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Declaration Disclaimer: How Fast to Change?

The document Americans celebrate today starts with a cautionary note:

“Prudence, indeed,” warns the Declaration of Independence, “will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

This serves well as a preamble to a ringing statement of our nation’s right to free itself from British oppression, but a slight turn of the kaleidoscope can reveal that warning’s meaning for our national life today, both domestically and abroad.

After voting for Change less than three years ago, under pressure of economic and terrorist anxiety, Americans are now experiencing transformation at a rapid rate of “the forms to which they are accustomed” in both governing themselves and intervening in the affairs of other nations.

In Washington, the Tea Party shadow government has Congress and the White House locked in paralysis over its agenda with more to come, a minority as militant as George III’s redcoats and as oppressive.

In the Middle East, we are hip-deep in “abolishing the forms” of other governments, directly or not, with no clear statements of our national interests and timelines.

As we light barbecue grills and fireworks in congratulation of hard-won freedoms, it might be worth a moment’s pause to think about how fast we are burning them up today and why.

They are as easily lost not just with bangs but whimpers.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Historic Blink Time

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, just before the Soviets caved in, someone in the Oval Office exclaimed, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy just blinked!”

Now, as a deadline nears in the debt-ceiling staredown, Bill Clinton evokes that JFK era image and warns “the White House could blink. I hope that won't happen. I don't think they should blink."

The former President, who survived a Newt Gingrich government shutdown and won reelection, is advising Barack Obama not to back down to Boehner and McConnell, even though the price of standing firm could be high.

"You have to assume,” Clinton says, “that our credit rating will be downgraded and our interest rates will go up which will make the deficit problem worse and make it much more difficult to recover because it will be harder for people to get credit, even harder than it is now."

In his Weekly Address, the President is not wavering, noting that “It would be nice if we could keep every tax break, but we can’t afford them.”

Almost half a century ago, when Kennedy stood fast in their nuclear confrontation, the Soviets eventually stood down. Boehner and McConnell may want to note that Nikita Khrushchev had his own version of Tea Party hardheads in the Kremlin back then but decided that those who, in JFK’s words, “want to blow up the world,” should not have the final word.

Clinton and Obama would do well to remember that, too.

Update: Was there a GOP eyelid moving on the Sunday talk shows? Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl reiterates the party talking points but mentions “revenue raisers” as a euphemism for tax hikes and observes that “we’ll take the savings we can get now, and we will relitigate this as we get closer to the election.”

Blink?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Kennedy Freedom, Low-Rent Royal Wedding

Celebrity independence is making Fourth of July weekend news as famous names couple and uncouple.

In California, JFK’s niece takes steps to terminate the Terminator as her husband while 6000 miles away Princess Grace’s son enters wedlock in a low-budget version of the extravaganza that starred his mother, nee Grace Kelly, 55 years ago.

Saving all this from utter cheesiness is the new British royal family, geographically and temporally between these extremes on what would have been Princess Diana’s 50th birthday yesterday.

Only weeks after their own wedding, her son and his bride are in Canada playing out the sequel to their fairy-tale wedding, obscuring the tawdry tales of two 20th century princesses whose weddings captured the world’s imagination but did not live happily ever after, only until car crashes ended their sad stories violently.

What meaning can we find in the lives of those selected by birth or matrimony to give the rest of us vicarious dreams of glamor and grandeur at the eventual price of their own inner happiness?

In the last century, relatively unsophisticated media offered the full candy-box treatment, playing down the reality that movie star Grace Kelly was marrying a man she hardly knew and that virginal Diana Spencer was doing the same 26 years later.

Diana’s son seems to have escaped his mother’s fate by joining his life to a woman he has known well for years rather than a virtual stranger, but the show-biz glitz dominating the wedding of Grace’s son is not promising for the princely couple of an area the size of Central Park, whose domain is a tourist trap with a gambling casino.

Back here, Maria Shriver is in court, despite her Catholic faith, to shed the body-builder who became a movie star and then a political prince but remained a horny frog when the cameras were off.

Those in the media who amplify such spectacles, like Fourth of July fireworks, and those who consume them like the products of holiday barbecues, will shake their heads knowingly at these sad denouements and move on, feeling sated and superior to such superficiality.

But they are part of those pathetic stories, perhaps the most important part of them all.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Body Language on the Potomac

Presidential courage can be a tricky question.

The fuss over a TV anatomical reference to Barack Obama recalls the original Dick in American politics, Nixon, and how another President, LBJ, viewed his successor’s genital endowments--wrongly, as it turned out, based on his own Vietnam mistakes arising from confusion in that area.

Depressed and unhappy in retirement, Johnson was still trying to understand what went wrong, when I saw and heard him analyze his successor Richard Nixon.

"Not much here," LBJ said, pointing to his head and then his heart, "even less here," before lowering a hand below the belt and saying grudgingly, "But enough down there."

Johnson’s judgment was made in the aftermath of the quagmire he created by his stubborn refusal to become "the first American president to lose a war." He spent those final years confused by his own downfall from what he considered a gutsy stand.

Barack Obama’s problems today, however, come not from too much self-assertion, but too little and a more apt role model would be, not LBJ with his hubris, but Harry Truman with his feistiness in trying to blast through Congressional road blocks to saving the economy.

For five years after Johnson’s departure, Dick Nixon kept us bleeding blood and money in Vietnam by refusing to wimp out there. In today’s confrontation, Obama does not have that much time, no matter what pundits say about his guy behavior.

Hormonal metaphors won’t hurt.