Wednesday, November 30, 2011

D.C's. Secret Santas

Al Franken, who used to be a comic and perhaps still is, has created a holiday solution to the Senate’s civility shortage—-a “Secret Santa” exchange of gifts between the opposing parties.

Just as in grade school, 21 Republicans and 37 Democrats have drawn names from a Santa hat and will present each other with gifts worth $10 or less in mid-December. That won’t violate lobbying laws, and there is something to be said for handing one another gift-wrapped packages instead of verbal hand grenades.

In their real (?) work, Congress is inching toward a gift for voters as Republicans reluctantly prepare to back a small part of the President’s jobs plan by agreeing to extend a payroll-tax cut of $265 billion but without any ho-ho-hos, as they insist that the measure, as well as any extension of unemployment benefits, be offset by spending cuts.

Chief Grinch John Boehner assures followers that such a gesture would not mean abandoning Congress’ overall approach:

“There’s going to be $1.2 trillion of further cuts to meet our commitment, and I think having the sequester in place to ensure that we’re going to get our spending problem under control is a good thing. But I would prefer, and I think all of our members would prefer, that we do this in a more responsible way.”

If they decide to do Secret Santa in the House, somebody should gift-wrap a lump of coal for the Speaker.

Meanwhile, the President is in Scranton, telling voters he is filled with Christmas spirit and wants put $1500 under every family tree, if Republicans get on the sleigh this week. Warm up the reindeer.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Straight-Face Lies, Case Closed

The final nail in the Cain campaign’s coffin is a disheartening reminder of how far Americans have come in being vulnerable to figures “telling public lies with the utmost sincerity.”

Four years ago, John Edwards gave us a preview of hypocrisy taking a candidate close to the White House, but his mendacity was hidden by six years in the U.S. Senate and a substantive campaign, however undercut by his personal enrichment, to highlight growing income disparity in the nation.

Herman Cain’s rise and fall shows how low the bar is now set—-a man with no elective experience, with no substantive proposals beyond an empty 9-9-9 slogan, with aggressive ignorance about foreign policy and no presidential qualifications whatsoever is brought down from the top of the opinion polls by what his lawyer accurately calls “private, alleged consensual conduct between adults.”

No matter how much bravado he shows in aggressively denying that affair, Cain is caught between clear evidence of more long-term sexual misbehavior and his insistence that all charges against him are false. The issue is not whether he is an adulterer but a chronic liar.

In 1992, Bill Clinton, with Hillary standing by her man, could go on 60 Minutes and weather the Gennifer Flowers story, the kind of behavior that would later stain his presidency with impeachment, but Clinton had been a governor and Oxford scholar who was running a substantive campaign.

Now, with Herman Cain being brought down for perhaps the wrong reasons from a position he never should have occupied in the first place, prurient attention may navigate to Newt Gingrich’s three marriages, two adulteries and financial misconduct during and after his tenure as Speaker of the House.

In the contest between Gingrich and squeaky clean Mitt Romney, voters may want to look at the character issue but only after making sure that the subjects are qualified to hold the office, nominate Supreme Court justices and send our young people to war.

Otherwise, what we get in the Oval Office will be our fault, not the those of the humanly imperfect candidates.

Update: Cain now tells supporters he is "assessing” whether or not to drop out, but the larger question is what on earth possessed him to enter the race and run it with so much ignorance and such blatant lies.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

GOP Straight-Face Sweepstakes

A tipping point in the Obama-bashing competition has now cost Mitt Romney endorsement by the only paper that counts in New Hampshire.

“Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate,” says the Union Leader, adding “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.”

This follows last week’s debate, where Ron Paul seemed beside himself at what others were saying, and even Michele Bachmann, Our Lady of the Ludicrous Claim, was moved to call Rick Perry “highly na├»ve.”

Gingrich is moving up in the straight-face sweepstakes, largely because he has the most experience in telling public lies with the utmost sincerity, or as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni puts it more politely:

“This presidential race is shaping up to be an especially mean and mendacious ride, and not just because the two Republicans currently in the lead, Romney and Newt Gingrich, have demonstrated a formidable talent for improvisation, starting with thorough revisions of their own positions on health care, climate change and such. They’re a limber duo, primed to teach classes on political yoga...

“But their specific contortions and distortions are no more worrisome than the backdrop against which this campaign unfolds, one of toxic partisanship and breathless hyperbole.”

When Republicans have finally settled on their least-worst option, the President’s campaign will kick in, undoubtedly under pressure to respond in kind. But Barack Obama, who has lost political battles with Congress by hesitating to go for the gut, will be facing a crucial character test in how he responds.

His opponent will have survived a contest for the hearts of a mean-spirited minority of primary voters, who represent a fraction of Americans. Will the President recognize the opportunity not only to win reelection but bring back some civility to the political landscape?

Politics ain’t beanbag, goes the old saying, but does it have to be mud-wrestling? We’ll find out next year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Really Bad Idea of the Year

If you enjoyed how Ralph Nader put George W. Bush into the White House in 2000, you may love what a group called Americans Elect is trying to do in 2012.

The well-financed effort wants a “wide-scale draft movement for presidential candidates,” but it looks more like hammering a “broken” political system and smashing it to smithereens.

Americans Elect aims, not to create a new party, but hold a “convention on the Internet,” to take the choice away from primary voters and turn it over to the wisdom of those who select “American Idol.”

Presumably, this would bring a process that has survived two centuries, including a civil war, into a new technological democracy that would truly reflect the will of the American people.

Loopier still, the group wants “a mixed-party ticket,” requiring its presidential candidate to pick a running mate from the other party.

All this overlooks the fact that technology can’t fix a mess that was created, depending on ideological bias, either in 2008 by the election of Barack Obama or in 2010 of Tea Party zealots who are holding government hostage in Congress or some combination of both—-or more likely still, a generation of voters that keeps throwing tantrums for instant gratification in hard economic times.

Americans Elect assumes only a minority of Republicans have gone mad, lurching from Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich in their search for a plausible candidate as some Democrats hold back enthusiasm for the reelection of their standard bearer. But there is no evidence that a Silent Majority out there knows better.

In all our free speech, including the Occupy movement, have the 99 percent proposed political solutions they are willing to support with the kind of sweat and hard work that created advances in the past?

Long ago, a social critic answered an audience complaining about those who produced a mass culture of low quality: “If you’re looking for blame, what about those who watch and read and buy this awful stuff? If they responded to better, they might get it.” (See Jon Huntsman.)

As Americans Elect proposes only more chaos, we may want to go back further to consider that "the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."

Computers won’t fix that.

Late Update: A week before Christmas, Americans Elect is on the ballot in 11 states and close to adding California as well as gathering signatures by year’s end for ballot petitions in 30 states that allow the process to be completed this year and is confident of meeting requirements in the remaining states next year.

Chaos, here we come.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Best Leftover Turkey Recipe Ever

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

TURKEY TETRAZZINI

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkeys, D.C.

The President pardoned two birds yesterday after Congress went home for the holidays.

In the annual White House rite, he acknowledged the other fowl escapees, noting that “some of you may know that recently I’ve been taking a series of executive actions that don’t require Congressional approval.

“Well, here’s another one. We can’t wait to pardon these turkeys. Literally. Otherwise they’d end up next to the mashed potatoes and stuffing.”

Aside from his swipe at Capitol Hill residents, Barack Obama had one for the assembled reporters, telling them that the pardoned turkeys had been given media training for the press conference: “Learning how to gobble without really saying anything.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK, November 22, 1963

He has been gone now longer than he lived—-48 years to 46--and, in these days of Washington impotence, must seem unreal to generations of American born after his time.

A few years after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy wistfully told me that her husband was being remembered too much for how he died rather than what he had lived for. She was right. It was too soon then for Americans to appreciate what they had lost.

In 1960, I had made an unintentional contribution to Kennedy’s election. After my magazine ran a piece by Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Advice to the Next First Lady,” the “Tonight” show called me to ask Mrs. Roosevelt if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had supported Adlai Stevenson and been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the “Tonight” show, she did just that, comparing Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant, and he didn't disappoint her.

John F. Kennedy was the last president in memory still learning while in office. He admitted mistakes and profited from them.

Despite misgivings, he went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after being told Americans would be greeted as liberators and withdrew when he realized he had been misled, accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he put that lesson to use by overruling “experts” who wanted to bomb or invade Cubs and trusting his own instincts to avoid disaster.

After November 22, 1963 I wrote an editorial attempting to define the deep grief over his shocking death-—that beyond his attractiveness and intelligence, there was the loss of a leader “who was still growing—-in understanding, in skill, in compassion, in commitment."

Today's contenders for the Presidency are, in contrast, overwhelmed by challenges. For all our sakes, we can only hope that whoever wins next year can attain ultimately the stature John F. Kennedy did in the thousand days he spent in the White House.

A Holiday for the Birds

Congress is raising the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving to new heights, not only by disagreeing over how to carve the turkey but throwing it into a shredder and leaving hard-to-digest scraps for the budget table.

This won’t be a Norman Rockwell holiday even as one political observer notes, “We don’t need to like each other. We need to listen to each other.”

Not going to happen. As both sides of the family keep squabbling, old Uncle Newt shows up, drunk with poll power, to announce they’re doing it all wrong. Back in his day, they just closed down the House and ate at McDonald’s, even as his own tab for ethics violations was $300,000.

At the head of the table, Barack Obama has relatives yelling at him to give up his seat, while Mitt Romney waits for his portion, telling lies about the President while holding on to his nomination chair with both hands.

If you think Thanksgiving is a bummer, just wait until Christmas when payroll tax cuts and the Bush bonanza for billionaires are on the menu after the new year.

My old friend Norman Rockwell must be spinning in his grave.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blood Memories of Europe in Crisis

British and German heads of state met this week to bridge the gap between them and “tried to paper over divergent views on European policy that have sparked a war of words between politicians and media in both countries.”

For someone who lived through World War II, the picture of David Cameron entreating Angela Merkel conjures up Neville Chamberlain trying to appease Hitler—-and failing to stop the slaughter of millions of innocents.

Such blood memories may be impossible for most Americans to understand now, but those who can still bear witness are haunted by a history we have largely suppressed in order to live in our own time. Fairness is not part of the equation.

My own response was to Netflix a movie I have resisted watching—-about the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who came of age when Nazis took over Germany and, as a devout Pacifist and proponent of Christian morality, opposed both a murderous regime and his compliant fellow ministers. He was finally imprisoned for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler and hanged only weeks before V-Day.

Cheap grace,” wrote Bonhoeffer, denouncing the comfort his Church was conferring on believers while turning a blind eye to the inhumanity of Nazis, "is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession.”

In that film, seas of adoring Germans heiling Hitler’s rants provide a contrast to my memories of fighting through Germany as a foot soldier, seeing stragglers in ragged stripes, dazed gaunt figures wandering the roads and being picked up by Army trucks. We knew who they were.

During the days of Occupation, working with German civilians, I never met one who would admit to knowing about those concentration camps.

Yet, in contrast to the punitive post-World War I era that created an impoverished nation and opened the way the way for Nazi nationalism, the U.S. poured billions into Germany under the Marshall Plan and underwrote a recovery that led to the strongest economy in 21st century Europe.

Today’s crisis is a long, long way from that era and Angela Merkel is certainly no Nazi, but Germany’s foot-dragging as investors bail out of European bonds is threatening economic collapse.

Those of us with long memories would be comforted by seeing a former enemy recall Bonhoeffer’s warnings about cheap grace.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Newt Goes Dickensian

An impression of Bumble the Beadle is Newt Gingrich’s latest turn in a one-man show of Dickens impressions as he tells Harvard students that he wants to turn schools into workhouses by hiring poor kids as janitors:

"You're in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing...Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the schools.”

With his doughy countenance, Gingrich is ideally suited for the roles of Fagin, Pecksniff et al for Tea Party tastes that run to 19th century melodrama. (They loved Eric Cantor as Scrooge after Hurricane Irene, holding out for tax cuts to offset disaster relief.)

Gingrich, who now pronounces the Republican race as a contest between Mitt Romney and himself, crystalizes all of Victorian hypocrisy, with a 21st century correction for inflation—-a six-figure tab at Tiffany, a mid-campaign Greek cruise that prompted his now-returning staff to quit and, most recently, the $1.8 million he earned as a “historian” consulting for Freddie Mac, the mortgage bank whose failures he now denounces Obama for.

Those Victorian critics who charged Charles Dickens with sentimentality and implausibility would be astonished at Gingrich’s new web site that lists a long string of accusations against him and explains them away with all the deftness of the Artful Dodger.

Ever alert for a turn in political fortunes, even mainstream media are now joining in the Newtster’s self-rehabilitation as the Washington Post debunks “aspects” of the story that he “ended his first marriage by serving his wife with divorce papers while she lay in a hospital bed dying of cancer.”

By the next GOP debate, Newt Gingrich may show up dressed as Tiny Tim.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Searching for Something Human in Washington

Another Congressional “Perils of Pauline” episode unreels with the Supercommittee jalopy dangling over the edge of a cliff as members try to freeze the frame beyond next week’s deadline while ideologues left and right gabble about bad Grand Bargains, sequesters and the like. From the cheap seats in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney accuses Democrats of a "Faustian bargain."

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin throws both sides under her bus, appealing to ends of the political spectrum, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, to oppose Congress’ “corruption and cronyism.” From the safety of presidential sidelines, she rails:

“Politicians derive power from the authority of their office and their access to our tax dollars, and they use that power to enrich and shield themselves.”

Her screed appears in the Wall Street Journal, one of the Rupert Murdoch media from which she is drawing non-tax dollars to “enrich and shield” herself beyond any member of Congress’ wildest dreams.

The rational mind reels at this cockpit of self-interest, self-justification and hypocrisy in the name of patriotism and searches for signs of human life in the debris.

What emerges is the image of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband Mike Kelly appearing on TV this week to talk about their lives and her ongoing recovery from being shot in the head last January, a story of love and courage.

Yet, even here, there is no escape from Washington meanness. Kelly writes in their book about the couple’s disappointment that three months later, when Giffords was in rehabilitation in Houston, John Boehner came down for the NCAA basketball finals.

“Considering that she was a member of Congress and he was the highest-ranking member,” Kelly notes, “we thought he’d ask to visit Gabby or at least give a call to see how she was doing.”

But Boehner had already sent a get-well card, and that was the limit of empathy for a man known to break in tears while talking about his own rise from humble beginnings.

Meanwhile, it raises a question Kelly does not address. Were Boehner’s tickets and travel at taxpayer expense, or did lobbyists pick up the tab?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy What Next? A Geezer Take

As powers-that-be sweep away the Occupy movement, where does the animating spirit go now?

With apologies to generations who have lodged “99 percent” into the American vocabulary, this will come as unwanted advice for those whose have made visible hidden rage against a financial system that brought the economy to its knees and still keeps profiting while the rest of us suffer.

Even so, as a retiree, I can add my own victimhood credentials—-a return of near-zero on savings that used to supplement Social Security while banks fatten by holding the money without risk. (Ron Paul cited this injustice in the last GOP debate.)

Yet, if they are to effect change rather than just demonstrate for it, the Occupy generations would do well to study the protests of the 1960s.

Then as now, street theater provided great images for TV news but was soon coopted into a sideshow in which the larger population lost interest, while the real financial power and politics ground on unchanged.

Loathsome though it may sound, the Tea Party could provide a model for finding focus, converting free-floating anger into political muscle. As satisfying as denouncing those in power may be, without traction in the real world, it changes nothing.

At this transitional point, the alternative is the kind of increasingly radical rhetoric and disruptive behavior that is surfacing now and, ultimately, irrelevance.

Anarchy has fortunately never taken hold in American life, and there are issues to which the Occupy energy could usefully attach itself. Putting pressure on Congress not to gut new Dodd-Frank regulation of financial institutions and even expand them is clearly one. Helping a consumer champion like Elizabeth Warren get elected to the Senate is another.

None of this will be as exciting as camping out with signs and slogans, but that’s the way real world works. If Occupy enthusiasts want to change it, they can start by pushing back politically against the damage the Tea Party has done.

The geezer will now fold his tent and retreat into silence on the subject.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rick Perry, Meet Tom Coburn

Two Southwestern stars of the GOP, the Governor of Texas and the Senator from Oklahoma, are riding off in opposite ideological directions.

Rick Perry, who keeps falling off his horse in the Republican debates, has now mounted a bucking bull by proposing a radical and, in some respects, clearly unconstitutional tearing down of the federal government, which includes making Congress work part-time with half pay and ending lifetime tenure of federal judges. (Lots of luck with those!)

The Perry plan would give him less to remember in answering questions publicly but is not likely to pull him out of the pits of the nomination polls, where he now resides. It could, however, provide a good stepping-off point for someone like John Huntsman Jr., if he decides to distance himself from Tea Party nuttiness.

At the same time, Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn affirms his maverick conservatism by issuing a report titled “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous” to illustrate how, “under the current tax code, the federal government is giving billions of dollars to individuals with an Annual Gross Income (AGI) of at least $1 million, subsidizing their lavish lifestyles with the taxes of the less fortunate.”

Dr. Coburn’s indictment even outdoes what his sometime friend Barack Obama has been saying for months:

“All Americans are facing tough times, with many working two jobs just to make ends meet and more families turning to the government for financial assistance. From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Multi-millionaires are even receiving government checks for not working.

“This welfare for the well-off--costing billions of dollars a year--is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate, many who are working two jobs just to make ends meet, and IOUs to be paid off by future generations. We should never demonize those who are successful. Nor should we pamper them with unnecessary welfare to create an appearance everyone is benefiting from federal programs.”

Perry will disappear from the national scene, but Coburn’s conversion to at least one tenet of tax sanity augurs well for the deficit reduction impasse. How do you say “strange bedfellows” in Spanish?

Huntsman Heresy: GOP's Last Chance

For a long-time Democrat who loves his country much more than his party, it may seem like an agonizing choice: a sane Republican to oppose Barack Obama or one of the revolving front-running clowns who would be easier to beat next November.

The question is brought on by the serial implosions of Bachmann, Perry, Cain et al with Newt being teed up for next 15 minutes of fame on the dog-and-pony debate circuit.

The answer is easy. No American wants to play Russian roulette with the country’s future so, in that spirit, a political strategy for Jon Huntsman Jr., whom I would not support in the general election but who, free of the Tea Party’s yoke, might restore some sanity to the campaign:

Right now, Huntsman has practically fallen out of the polls—-and for good reason. His contortions to fit the crazy contest have made him invisible, and his efforts to slip the bonds of Obama-bashing orthodoxy look lame and wishy-washy.

Yet he is poised to separate himself from the pack, if he can muster the courage to do it. In the next debate in Washington on November 22nd, he could break through and give the country something to be thankful for by embracing a heresy that so far has dared not speak its name—-renouncing the GOP’s rush toward an extremist cliff and offering an aggressive alternative to bringing back traditional Republicans and Independents next year.

What does he have to lose? His 3 percent in the national polls? Huntsman has been working hard in New Hampshire, and a super PAC is now running ads there, supporting him as “someone we can trust as a conservative.”

Yesterday, he was at the liberal Brookings Institution, criticizing loopy proposals of Romney, Perry and Cain, noting that “you’ve got to at least pass the straight-face test in terms of what can be done with Congress so it’s not laughed out on day one.”

If he shows the guts to say that forcefully to Republicans, he can in one stroke stake out a position and give what may be their silent majority a voice. Setting off a Tea Party firestorm is a much better choice than being left for dead in the snows of New Hampshire.

Huntsman was willing to put his country first by serving as Obama’s ambassador to China. Now he has an opening to serve both his country and his own presidential chances in another dicey setting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leadership Failure? Try Decency

The time for euphemisms is running out. What we are seeing is more like a social meltdown.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning economic journalist writes about “The epic global leadership fail,” but the symptoms he cites, along with so many others, add up to a loss of the moral responsibility that used to be taken for granted as common decency:

“The global financial system teeters on the edge of collapse because European politicians refused to tell citizens of their crumbling economies that they could no longer guarantee them ‘la dolce vita’-- the sweet life--they had come to expect.

“Top executives at Olympus, one of Japan’s leading companies, resign in shame after acknowledging that for nearly 20 years they used a complex accounting scheme to hide billions of dollars in speculative trading losses.

“A revered coach and a respected president at Penn State are fired because they were more concerned about protecting their own reputations, and that of their school, than protecting young boys from an alleged sexual predator.

“And a former governor, senator and head of Goldman Sachs resigns as chief executive of MF Global after bankrupting the broker-dealer with overleveraged bets on European sovereign bonds.”

Yet this is only the tip of a moral iceberg as traditional values sink below what the late sociologist turned Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed two decades ago:

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” he wrote in 1993 in his now-famous American Scholar article, “Defining Deviancy Down,” arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

He pointed out that, in 1929, the killing of seven gangsters in Chicago became the stuff of legend while half a century later “Los Angeles has the equivalent of a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre every weekend.”

This weekend, we see a new low in the Republican race to the bottom with contenders condoning torture, attacking Iran, waging economic warfare with China (which could crash our economy by dumping our debt), anything to appeal to a primitive Tea Party minority that hates Barack Obama with religious fervor.

In this moral mess, Newt Gingrich, who cheated on two wives, tried to impeach Bill Clinton for sexual misbehavior and was the only House Speaker ever censured for corruption, now takes the lead in the polls while Herman Cain parades his family for Fox News to prove his moral probity in the face of evidence that points otherwise.

If Gingrich and Cain are the answers to America’s problems, what are the questions?

We learn about “honest graft” in Congress’ insider trading as its debt reduction panel begins to duck out from a Thanksgiving deadline and invite more economic chaos in an election year.

Deviancy has been redefined out of sight, taking decency along with it. Leadership may be failing, but shouldn't we be taking a closer look at our followership as well?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The President Makes a Point Before GOP Debate

On his way to an eight-day trip to discuss trade and security in the Pacific rim, Barack Obama watches a basketball game on an aircraft carrier and broadens the meaning of the Penn State scandal.

Asked about it, he says, “People have to step forward. They have to be tapping into just their core decency. When kids are being mistreated-— when anybody is being mistreated--all of us have to step up. We don’t leave it to somebody else to take responsibility.”

Will we hear an echo of that at tonight’s GOP debate?

Update: No. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain want to bring back waterboarding, even as others point out that such torture is illegal under U.S. and international law.

Luckily, no asked about drawing and quartering.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Memory of Sports, Sex and Shame

The Penn State Scandal has many losers—-not the only the legendary coach who lost his job, his reputation and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the university that fed on football and is now disgraced by it, a student body in shock and, beyond the campus, millions who have lost some of their innocence about an “amateur” game that, as years of covering up the crimes of a pedophile coach show, has more in common with corporate rather than academic ethics.

Yet there is nothing new in the use of sports to prey on children, perhaps only the fact that prosecutors and the public are less willing to be accomplices in overlooking such behavior.

It all brings back a pre-teen memory of 75 years ago when my friends and I tried to play ball on a scraggly Bronx diamond but never had enough equipment to field two full teams.

We got help from a man everyone called Unk. He was short and muscular, his tan round face punctuated by a pencil mustache and small steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He acted like an uncle, bringing a canvas bag filled with softballs, bats and gloves, running the games we played until darkness dimmed the batting cage and base paths.

His manner was brisk and impersonal, like a teacher or coach. We were awed by his skills and took to heart his sharp comments on our fumbling efforts.

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

Now, amid all the gabble about Penn State, even the fatuous need by some to identify themselves as parents (as if that were a requirement to be outraged), I don’t begrudge the pleasure of the more than 100,000 who will fill the stadium Saturday, but they may want to realize that there is a social surcharge on the price of their tickets.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Piling on Rick Perry

I know just how Rick Perry felt during his “brain freeze” last night.

As other GOP candidates were spewing out new versions of their non-sequiturs about Barack Obama and the economy, my eyes were drawn to the Texas governor every time the cameras showed him in a shot.

A curious combination of expressions fleeted across his face, some of earnest determination to follow what another candidate was saying, at other times a kind of glazed look as if he were watching a foreign movie without subtitles.

I was having the same kinds of reactions to the point of turning down the sound and settling for a kind of pantomime display of the looniness we had all heard dozens of times before.

At one point, I was startled into wakefulness when Ron Paul made a valid point about retirees subsidizing the big banks, by getting no returns on their savings while the institutions kept profiting on them with no risk.

But that moment was an aberration. None of the other candidates wanted to talk about the real world, only the theme park called Obama World they have been constructing on Cable TV all year.

Little wonder that Perry would lose the thread of his prepared sound bites and forget the third federal agency he was promising to eliminate.

The Gaffe Police have now decided that the Texas governor has exceeded the speed limit and are now flagging him down from the race, but my sympathy is with him.

Update: The fallout from Perry’s howler goes on as Matt Bai points out that it undermines the all-important question of authenticity:

“We know, of course, that presidential candidates don’t actually write their own speeches or stay up late at night tinkering with their own proposals...

“But we do expect them to really believe in the things they propose—- to have the requisite conviction to know and recite with passion the basic policies that someone on their team stayed up nights to craft...

“There’s nothing more central to Mr. Perry’s campaign than the idea of scaling back the government in Washington--that’s pretty much the whole tamale right there--and what he proved last night, in 60 or so agonizing seconds, is that he hasn’t thought deeply enough about it to even master the basics of his own agenda.”

In this game, you have to be able to fake sincerity from the heart. Take lessons from Herman Cain.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

J. Edgar

Memo to Clint Eastwood: This admirer of your mature work is going to pass on the new Hoover movie. Even public monsters have inner lives, but some are beyond my capacity to care about.

Just as Hitler’s personal demons are beside the point, so are those of a man who built a self-glorifying empire by blackmail in Washington, D.C., ruining reputations, holding Presidents hostage in a personal police state and relentlessly hounding the century’s greatest exemplar of human decency, Martin Luther King.

J. Edgar Hoover invented and promoted the image of tommy-gun toting G-men in the 1930s, with the help of compliant Hollywood producers, and went on to keep files after the war on anyone who might be “soft on Communism,” right up to and including the White House.

From the 1950s on, his hatred was directed at Dr. King. He had agents bug his hotel rooms and send him anonymous threatening letters, urging him to commit suicide.

"King," read one of them, "there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is...You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation."

In Hoover's files, there were angry scrawls on Dr. King's press clippings. On a story about King receiving the St. Francis peace medal from the Catholic Church, he wrote "this is disgusting." On King being expected to win the Nobel Prize, he wrote "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize!"

No president, not even JFK, could get rid of Hoover who knew where all the bodies were buried or inconveniently bared.

J. Edgar may have loved his mother, his secretary and his live-in partner Clyde Tolson, but he was a menace to the American freedoms that Clint Eastwood has been obsessed with all these years, and I wish he had left him in the past, like Dirty Harry.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Cain's Assembly Line Lechery

From evidence so far, the Pizza Man’s skirt-chasing seems as random as his economic studies, making casual passes at objectives but cheerfully taking nein-nein-nein as a final answer and moving on to keep selling.

After yesterday’s lurid testimony by Woman #4, which led the PBS NewsHour, #5 comes as a letdown, with Cain, after a speech in Egypt, asking to be set up with a woman in the audience, then trying to settle for a USAID worker and finally dining with a group, stiffing them (and ultimately taxpayers) for two $400 bottles of wine.

Such assembly-line lechery recalls Bill Clinton, of course, but not to make light of any sexual harassment, without passion or panache, but more of a reflexive response.

In his press conference today, Cain says he can't remember his Monday accuser. If the emerging pattern is accurate, he may be telling the truth about that.

With a trickle of women who said no, the question is how many, under persistent pressure to get or keep their jobs, said yes and would now be too ashamed to come forward?

If all this takes him down, the irony would be that Herman Cain’s sexual disrespect for women would have to serve as a metaphor for the intellectual emptiness that has brought him this far but never should have.

What is coming to light about his approach to women is no different from what he has been doing to voters in plain view for months now. When he drops out, they will no longer have a choice between Cain and the other Disabled GOP contenders.

The former President is scheduled for the Daily Show tonight. Will Jon Stewart find a sly way to ask Bill Clinton about Cain and the Question?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Invitation to the Tea Party Congress

I’ve just spent a week in that earlier America you love so much and, while the absence of politicians was a blessing, I would not recommend living in cold semi-darkness, feebly powered by an emergency generator that eats $100 a day of propane and engine oil (if you can get a delivery) without providing Internet, cable or phone service and, in many cases, enough juice to run an electric range.

Even this weekend, well over 100,000 homes of my neighbors in the Northeast are still that way, evoking questions about the role of private utilities with monopoly power and what government does and doesn’t do to regulate them and even larger questions about investing in the crumbling infrastructure of 21st century America to ease unemployment.

As the emergency dribbles away, there is huffing and puffing from elected officials, but when the power goes out again in this winter’s heavy snows, nothing will have changed.

Throughout this enforced visit to the past, questions swirl about investing in America’s infrastructure as a way of jump-starting the economy.

While we pour so much money into the Middle East, why must millions back home depend for their health, let alone comfort, on poles and wires decades old with connections that break at the fall of a tree limb? Isn’t better technology available and why don’t we, as a government in partnership with those who will profit from it, invest in that over the coming years and create jobs?

Meanwhile, as the Tea Party Congress blocks Obama’s jobs bill, here is a blanket invitation for the next power outage to visit an octogenarian who depends on auxiliary power for oxygen and enjoy the 19th century ambience.

We could sit by the fire and have a spirited discussion of the important news of the day—-whether or not Herman Cain hit on women who worked for him decades ago.

Wifely Wisdom of Michelle Obama

A year from today, Americans vote for a president again.

Three years after the last ballot, even ardent Democrats and entranced Independents no longer have stars in their eyes. With no time for a honeymoon back then, how can voters be enthusiastic about renewing their vows with Barack Obama?

For some, “consider the alternative” may be answer enough, but in fairness to the President—-and ourselves—-he deserves better than that.

Campaigning back in 2007, Michelle Obama talked about her husband’s domestic faults (not picking up his socks or putting butter back in the refrigerator) and offered a philosophical reason for doing so:

“Barack is very much human. So let’s not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we’re ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife’s role should be in this process, and it’s been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different--I think most real marriages are.”

And so, we know now, are political unions, particularly in hard times when angry opponents keep pounding on the door, doing nothing to help and turning off the fire hoses as the neighborhood burns down.

If his wife worried about deifying him, who could have foreseen so much effort to demonize Barack Obama, no matter what he does or fails to do? Who can parse the hidden racism and the bitterness of an over-entitled generation of aging Baby Boomers against his failure to perform miracles in a global meltdown?

American should choose Obama again, not because he has been a savior but a decent, talented, serious man whose mistakes pale against the kind of rabid obstruction unknown in my lifetime under 13 presidents with the privilege of seeing most of them up close as a journalist.

As a teenager during the Great Depression, I witnessed widespread support for FDR. But there were also newspapers owned by Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of his time) and, in the New Yorker and elsewhere, cartoons of bankers in overstuffed chairs, fulminating against the President, but no one had to Occupy Wall Street to tell the majority of Americans how to feel about them.

Now, in a 24/7 information era, Tea Party venom is stronger and more easily spread, but the most striking change in American attitudes, after almost a century of better education and a multiplication of media, is the flood of unreason and downright stupidity now besieging an American President.

Those who hesitate to renew their vows with Barack Obama will want to think hard about his successes in the War on Terror and back home his Detroit rescue and new Wall Street regulations, among other accomplishments, in staving off a global economic crisis back here.

The question for 2012 is not Ronald Reagan’s, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The question is where would we have been after four years of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and where might we be after four with Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or the winner of the Herman Cain-Newt Gingrich “Lincoln-Douglas debate.”

Barack Obama has learned the political equivalent of picking up his socks and putting back the butter in the refrigerator. Can any of the others tie their shoelaces in a dangerous and demanding world?