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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Romney's Death and Taxes

The candidate’s son Matt steps into a brouhaha by answering a question about his father’s refusal to release tax returns by being flip about Obama’s birth certificate.

Bad move. The elder Romney has a valid Michigan birth certificate, but there is also the question of a death certificate, officially stamped on his passport ("He is dead") by the French police after a lethal auto accident while he was a missionary there in 1968.

If the Birthers can see a Manchurian candidate scenario in sunny Hawaii, how much more plausible is the substitution by the devious French of a 21-year-old imposter with plastic surgery, waiting to emerge decades later and moved into the White House to foist foreign ideas on America?

To make their case for a fake Romney today, Iowa Birthers could cite all those flipflops on major issues, proving that he is not a genuine Conservative but an undercover agent who will do anything to get elected in order to confuse and undermine America.

Bring on Donald Trump’s team of crack investigators and tell the Romney boys to cool it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Santorum Joke

If Mitt Romney wins in Iowa next week, he could find nipping at his heels the runt of the 2011 litter.

Two weeks ago, in post-debate stupor, I woozily compared the GOP race to an action movie:

“If the Great Screenwriter in the Sky is following the...plotlines, after all the car chases, explosions and reversals, the eventual nominee is clear: Rick Santorum. He’s been a bit player who has never had a big scene and, by all conventions of the genre, has to be revealed as the powerful genius who has been pulling all the strings.”

Now, with Ron Paul finding there is no statute of limitations on racist rant, life is imitating my lame joke with Santorum running a close third in a new poll.

This is the same Santorum who, after making headlines for zany comments on subjects ranging from Catholic priests’ child abuse to the Middle East, lost his bid for reelection only five years ago by 41 percent to 59, the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania.

Yet, here is a serious analysis that gives him a rising chance of actually winning the Caucuses based on his current momentum as desperate Rick Perry runs ads accusing Santorum as “proud of feeding at the earmark trough in Congress.”

If the Joke candidate ends up close to the hard-charging Romney next week, it may prove that Iowans have a sense of humor after all. Or would it be desperation?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Notes From a Shipwreck Year

Reading bloggers' own favorite posts of 2011 is a reminder of how much political and social sanity has been lost in this Tea Party world. Satire and rage abound.

Yet it’s cathartic to read these notes in a bottle from survivors and realize we are not alone in this shipwrecked world.

Such comfort is provided by keeping alive a tradition started by the late Al Weigel, who wrote brilliantly under the nom de plume of Jon Swift and was tireless in promoting the work of others, an effort now being maintained by Batocchio at the Vagabond Scholar.

There you can find what bloggers consider their year’s best posts, a fascinating mosaic of commentary on what we have been living through. GOP presidential candidates to the contrary, the human mind is still alive and well in America.

With a sense of inevitability, I chose a political post but was tempted by others on a range of subjects—-aftermath of Tuscon, the fragility of human life in the face of Nature, and a memoir of two friends, authentic public figures a world apart.

This comes with my best wishes to all for a saner 2012 and special thanks to Joe Gandelman, who allows me to be part of his civil community on The Moderate Voice, a tireless band of resisters to online vitriol and viciousness.

Happy New Year and good reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gingrich, Mel Gibson Divorce News

Breaking up is hard to do, but much more expensive in today’s Hollywood than rural Georgia of three decades ago.

Mel Gibson is finally divorced from his wife of more than 30 years and mother of seven children after turning over an estimated half of his $850 million in movie earnings.

At the same time, the nation’s other Lethal Mouth seems to have been lying about his first divorce three decades ago as CNN unearths Georgia court documents showing that his wife wanted to stay married.

Even worse, the first Mrs. Gingrich’s petition states: "Defendant shows that she has adequate and ample grounds for divorce, but that she does not desire one at this time."

Former friends say they took up collections for the family, because Gingrich "wouldn't give them a dime" in the first months of the separation, and there were "no lights, no heat, no water, no food” in the home. "We had a food drive at First Baptist Church," says a former fellow professor. "The deacons went down and stocked her pantry."

Before the advent of no-fault, divorces were admittedly messier than they are now, but as the husband of a lawyer-mediator and co-author of a book about how women are treated in marital breakups, I can testify that the first Gingrich divorce seems par for the course back then: Get a tough lawyer and starve out an unwilling wife, even if the kids go hungry, too.

It’s heartening to see the former Mrs. Mel Gibson get a just share of her loathsome former husband’s movie loot, but then again, he isn’t Newt Gingrich, who dumped two wives on the way to running for President on a platform of bringing back good old family values for us all.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Firing an Icon, Pauline Kael

A mutual grandparent at holiday dinner confronts me with the accusation that I fired a cinema icon in the 1960s. Guilty. So I may as well share my confession with the whole world.

I brought out the worst in Pauline Kael. She started irritating me the minute we met and never stopped.

Looking for a movie reviewer with intelligence and style when I became editor of McCalls, I had read and admired Kael’s work in periodicals with small circulation. Another editor and I took her to lunch.

The ice in our drinks had barely melted when Kael went into a diatribe about the awfulness of mass magazines. When she paused for breath, I said, “I could tell you worse than that, but we’ve established how independent you are, so let me make a suggestion. When your friends accuse you of selling out, just admit you’re doing it for the money.”

We agreed on a year’s contract.

Kael’s first column was an essay on movie critics. It could have been titled, “Is There Anyone I Haven’t Offended?” She described readers as boobs who expected critics to like what they like and reviewers as venal enough to do that and went on to assail education (“academic dry rot”), art houses and film festivals (patrons are “afraid to say what they think or just don’t know what to think”) and good taste (what’s new and important is “in terrible taste”).

That took care of everybody but Kael and her groupies, as she savaged movies from “Zorba the Greek” and “The Pawnbroker” to the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

In the following months, it got so bad that even Kael seemed aware of what she was doing, pausing during a round of demolition to observe that “a reader may easily say, ‘She just doesn’t like movies’ and then start trying to figure out what’s the matter with me.”

“Dr. Zhivago,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Born Free” went under her scalpel and did not survive. After eviscerating movies, Kael went at the people who made them with nasty comments on the taste and motives of Paul Newman, among others.

After five columns, I had enough. To complete her self-directed drama of Life Among the Philistines, Kael told reporters I did not honor her contract (I paid her for the year) and that I fired her for attacking “The Sound of Music” as “The Sound of Money” (actually I agreed and had told her so). Years later, when she was established at the New Yorker, Kael finally admitted to an interviewer that I was right on both counts.

I got some insight into what went wrong between us when she wrote about Herman Mankiewicz, a bitter man who collaborated on “Citizen Kane.” Very drunk at a Hollywood party, he had vomited over the dinner table. “Don’t worry,” he reassured the hosts, “the white wine came up with the fish.”

Kael, who shared Mankiewicz’s contempt for the conventional, had to explain her firing by announcing “The Sound of Music” had come up with the sour grapes.

So I’m guilty, guilty, guilty. I didn’t lose it at the movies, but over the unearned contempt of a self-made icon-to-be.

A Year of Block-and-Blame: What Next?

In the residue of Christmas spirit, a serious attempt to understand what’s behind a toxic cloud that the Tea Party has cast over American government all year:

Yes, the economy has been bad, and many of us have been hurting—-from young people without jobs to the retired with no increases in Social Security and no place to earn interest on their life savings.

Yes, bailouts and stimulus have been very costly yet still not enough to turn the recession around, creating huge deficits.

Yes, government has grown more intrusive with massive health care reform and new regulations for financial institutions that control so much of the national wealth.

Yes, Barack Obama has not been a perfect president in a time of trouble and turmoil.

Yes, but...

Why must all these challenges mean government is the problem and not part of the solution, as it was during the Great Depression?

Next year’s election will provide the answer. The contest, as E. J. Dionne puts it, is between “a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages” and today’s Republicans who “cast the federal government as an oppressive force, a drag on the economy and an enemy of private initiative.”

Their most likely candidate, Mitt Romney, is now campaigning against the straw man of “an Entitlement Society,” in which “government provides every citizen the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk.”

In our 24/7 media world, these opposing arguments may be treated as if they were of equal weight, even though the second is palpable nonsense. Just measure Romney’s own rewards for financial juggling against those of any middle-class worker.

In these dark Washington days, however, there is a ray of hope. A full year of nothing more than block-and-blame by the Tea Party House minority has given voters a full picture of the consequences their continued dominance would have for the country.

An embattled six-term conservative, Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, points out that in 2010 “people who claimed that they wanted somebody who was more of their tea party aspect...killed off the Republican chances for a majority" in the Senate.

Next year, as Dionne observes, Barack Obama may be running as “the conservative.”

Update: Upping the 2012 ante, Newt Gingrich fails to make the Virginia primary ballot and, ever the historian, compares the event to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Block that metaphor!” The stakes are high enough without dragging World War II into it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Romney's Rewrapped Gift

We’ve all done it, and Mitt seems like someone who wouldn’t hesitate to pass on a second-hand present. He did it to a voter yesterday.

Asked by a New Hampshire man who was being foreclosed by Bank of America even though he had made all his mortgage payments, a problem Romney has clearly never faced, the candidate suggested he go to court or occupy bank headquarters until he gets satisfaction.

“That would get their attention,” Romney said.

Problem is, neither the Governor or his staff has been paying enough attention to the news, having missed a widely spread story of a Florida couple who did just that last summer and, accompanied by Sheriff's deputies and movers, went with court permission to remove desks, computers, copiers, filing cabinets and cash in the teller's drawers, before the bank finally anted up what it owed them.

Oh well, never mind, it’s the thought that counts. And a Merry Christmas to all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tea Party Goes to the Dogs

Talk about misreading a mandate: The bitter enders give the President the best Christmas present of all—-pushing their block-and-blame strategy off a political cliff to make Barack Obama, previous evidence to the contrary, look like Harry Truman against “a do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress.”

It wasn’t easy to get the President off his perch as “compromiser in chief,” requiring most of the Senate GOP, Karl Rove and the Murdoch media to stop Boehner’s gang from acting like a circular firing squad.

Even dour Eric Cantor is reduced to leaden levity: “I saw the president out yesterday doing his Christmas shopping. I saw he brought his dog with him. We’re here. He could bring his dog up here. We are pet friendly. It will not take a long time. We could probably resolve the differences within an hour.”

No sale. Nothing could stop this one from ending with the Tea Party going to the dogs. Happy New Year, guys, keep on woofing!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"Take Heaven, Take Peace, Take Joy"

I can’t gift-wrap this, but it’s the closest thing to a Christmas treasure that I have to share. Decades ago, I published it twice in different magazines.

Eric Sevareid was a gifted writer who spent most of his life as a radio and TV journalist working with Edward R. Murrow during World War II as part of “a band of brothers” and later at CBS-TV in its glory days.

He was a hero and a role model to me and, in the light of the new Clint Eastwood movie, it’s noteworthy that J. Edgar Hoover considered this prototypical Midwestern farm boy a threat to his vision of America.

Herewith, excerpts from Sevareid’s essay:

"Christmas offers us peace in one hand but in the other it carries a sword. The peace it offers is the love we felt in childhood and may still feel again if we have lived our lives as we were instructed in our early days. The sword is our conscience, glittering as sharply as the icicles on the Christmas tree.

"Christmas is an anticipation for the children; it is memory for most adults. It fastens the grip of truth upon us and will not let us go. Implacably it demands of us that we regard our work and what we have made of our lives, our country and our world.

"By the glow of the soft lights, by the sound of child voices in song, piercing us with an almost unendurable purity, we are obliged to remember that our first and only commandment was to love, and we have not truly obeyed; that men were so commanded not to improve them, but to save them from themselves, and we have not truly understood.

"Of course, we say as the moment of truth approaches, 'Christmas is really for the children.' Suffer the little children to take this burden from us.

"Perhaps, were we to know the realities of our own deepest motivations, we would conclude that this is why we have made of the Christmas occasion an immensely complicated business. It is the sheer busyness of Christmas, not so much its commercialization, that has changed its forms and rituals. Perhaps we have lost not only the art of simplicity but the desire for it as well. But not, I think, in our deepest beings. And as long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, then Christmas is.

"The sophisticated may belittle the almost assembly-line transaction of the printed Christmas cards that swamp our parlors in piles and windows. It is impersonal, yes, as compared with the old-fashioned family trek down the street for greetings at the door. But each little square or rectangular printed card is a signal of human recognition, a reassurance that we live in part, at least, of their consciousness, however small a part, and so are not alone...

"We cannot live, in our families, in our nations or in the world, if we cannot open our hearts. I do not know how this compressed, elbowing and suspicious world is to go on in peace if this cannot be done. I see no ultimate security in any 'balance of power' or 'balance of terror' peace. We know instinctively that in the end only a peace through a balance of kindness will preserve us...

"There are a few words I read every time the Christmas season comes around...[perhaps] written by Fra Giovanni in the year 1513...which sometimes I think of as the most perfect passage in our language...

"'There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give you, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven. No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace. The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within reach, is joy. Take joy. And so, at this Christmastime, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.'"

From Sevareid, long gone now, and me, wishes to all for a day of heaven, peace and joy.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is Eric Cantor Running the Country?

Washington’s new impasse could ironically lead to a gift of sanity as the House Tea Party is finally revealed for the berserk faction it has been all year, holding the nation hostage to a scorched-government ideology.

Senate Republicans, after passing a short-term payroll tax extension by 89 to 10, are outdoing the President in denouncing them for “harming the view, if it’s possible anymore, of the American people about Congress” (John McCain), “playing politics” (Scott Brown) and thinking of “political leverage, not about what’s good for the American people” (Dean Heller, who replaced John Ensign in Nevada).

Speaker John Boehner is the public face of GOP irrationality, but he is clearly trapped by his own deputy, Eric Cantor, the leader of what the No.2 House Democrat describes as a “walk-away caucus...walking away from 160 million Americans.”

For a long time, from the Health Care Summit last year to the debt-ceiling debacle that scuttled Boehner’s Grand Bargain with the President this summer, Cantor has been at the head of those holding the Speaker himself hostage.

Now, he attacks Senate Republicans by charging that “the people of this country are beginning to wonder about the body on the other side of this Capitol and are wondering what the leader over there has against the middle class of this country.”

Cantor has been picking fights with the President for two years now in his delusion that he will replace Boehner someday, but now he is taking on his own party as well.

As Obama approval rises and voters find Cantor’s coal in their Christmas stockings, it may eventually stoke the fires in next year’s electoral heat against his Tea Party followers.

Enough is enough,” the President said when he walked out in disgust on Cantor this summer. Now that Senate Republicans agree, Washington will have to find ways to get back to business.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Americas

I am haunted by the opening lines of an old novel: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Lately, I have been watching hours of scratchy black-and-white film about my childhood years, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and seeing through very old eyes a different America, peopled in turmoil by those who don’t resemble their descendants today.

Instead of fighting for bargains on Black Friday, they stand patiently in breadlines with gaunt faces and hopeless eyes, waiting for food. Instead of blaming government for their poverty, with 25 percent unemployment, they look hopefully to it for salvation.

In FDR’s First Hundred Days, politicians work day and night, shuffling papers at warp speed to pass legislation in a frenzy to get the economy moving. Some of what they do will work, some will fail, some will be called unconstitutional, but there is little legislative in-fighting by politicians blaming one another.

Without 24/7 media chatter, there are parades supporting the National Recovery Act (NRA) but, behind the newsreel scenes, farm families are driven off their land by the Dust Bowl and city dwellers are sleeping in the streets.

In those days, my father worked in a Harlem pawn shop 60 hours a week for $16, a dark place where people sold their soles, trading dress shoes and suits or furs and jewels for cash.

When I was old enough, I would sometimes go with him on a Saturday for the fourteen hours he spent there. Tan-coated men behind cages squinted through jeweler’s loops and raised their heads to shake them side to side at hopeful smiles and hopeless eyes across the counter. The patrons came parading through, most of them well-dressed, almost all black, carrying clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, cameras, binoculars, as hostage for the few dollars they had to have for a few days or weeks.

Some seemed down and defeated, but many were jaunty, with the aliveness of people dancing on the edge. Seeing me, they flashed white smiles from their dark faces, surprised and amused to find a kid among the forbidding figures guarding the pawnbroker’s cash box. I always smiled back, trying to drink in some of their joy in that place of a sad business profiting from human misery that was almost universal.

In that different America, politics was more an expression of hope than a set of beliefs. Although my father worshipped FDR, his voting reflected a longing for something more.

In a 1960s hotel ballroom, I was on the dais at a dinner to honor Dr. Benjamin Spock for his efforts to avoid nuclear war. Sitting next to me, tall and thin and clear-eyed in his eighties, was Norman Thomas, the idealistic clergyman who became a perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party between the world wars.

As we bend over fruit cups, I tell him my father voted for him six times. Norman Thomas grins. “Ah,” he says in a dry midwestern voice. “So he was the one.”

In that other America, it was still possible for politicians to make self-deflating jokes.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Ron Paul in an Empty White House

If the feisty Libertarian, who now leads in Iowa, should win the nomination, all of us who have qualms about 21st century government will be put to a test.

With Congress tied in knots and a narrowly divided Supreme Court, we have had a sneak preview of what may be coming—-total loss of faith in a flawed system that has more or less worked for centuries and, in an election between Barack Obama and Ron Paul, the choice of a continuing struggle to repair it or dismantle it completely and start over.

The positive outcome of Republican debates has been to weed out a series of frontrunners with little to offer beyond personal ambition and narrow the contest to Mitt Romney, the Zelig-like chameleon, and Paul, whose position on every issue is strong and predictable. Unless Jeb Bush makes a last-minute entry, that is the GOP choice.

In head-to-head confrontation, Romney will no doubt attack Paul as “zany,” but some Independents and flexible Democrats may be drawn to his foreign-policy stance against endless wars as opposed to other GOP aspirants who want to annihilate Iran, confront Pakistan and get into a trade war with China.

For a party that has veered from Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, Paul has the virtues of being consistent and scandal-free.

For a nation that is reeling from a sick economy and Washington gridlock, however, he would raise a different question: Are we better off with a vacant White House than we are now?

The closest we have come to that was clueless Jimmy Carter, elected by voters after disgust over Watergate, and we know how that worked out. Paul is far from clueless, but some of his certainties would put our current unhappiness with American governance to the severest test.

Anarchy, anyone?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

American Manhood: Piety and Testosterone

When scoring athletes look upward and thank God for His help, why don’t opponents ever shake their fists at the sky for being disfavored?

Debate over piety displays by Denver’s Tim Tebow and a Barry Bonds conviction of using testosterone enhancers prompt broader questions about the definition of manhood today and its manifestations.

We are a long way from the culture’s strong, silent heroes (Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Unitas, Clint Eastwood) to a generation of Dancing with the Stars on the diamond, gridiron, movie screens—-and everywhere else.

In politics, Mitt Romney is punished for trying to look presidential (i.e., dignified), while a cable mating show features an obnoxious dandy trying to impress a first date with condom wrappers bearing his name and likeness.

We are talking about the morphing of American manhood from what may have been idealized stereotypes (Atticus Finch and Shane) to id-driven child-men with no limits in their quest to score on the playing field, at the ballot box and in the bedroom.

That may be dismissed as a matter of style, but what has been lost in these equal-opportunity self-assertions is a component of the traditional ideal of manhood—-protecting not only those in your own family but, insofar as possible, the weak and helpless everywhere.

Men of my ancient generation may have exaggerated that masculine role in society, but in today’s culture only Barack Obama is trying to hold on to a shred of it and being pilloried as a result.

Do we really want our grandsons to take as role models the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Tea Party crybabies in Congress?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Goodbye Gingrich?

His opponents sound like Occupy Wall Street protesters as the SEC files charges against six top executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who seem not to have profited from Newt Gingrich’s $1.6 million of advice as a historian.

The indictments could be a harpoon to bring down the GOP’s white-haired whale, sharpening attacks on his self-enrichment with court cases rather than vague accusations.

Asked if those ties should disqualify Gingrich as a presidential contender, Rick Perry tells Iowans, “People are sick and tired of being ripped up by congressmen and senators who are in cahoots with Wall Street financiers, and that’s basically what we have here.”

This follows Ron Paul’s debate attack on Newt’s non-lobbying: “They went broke. We had to bail them out. So, indirectly, that was money that he ended up getting.”

When Mitt Romney mildly observed that “people go to serve the people and then they stay there to serve themselves” and suggested that he return the money, Gingrich slid off the hook by retorting that Romney should give back “all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over the years at Bain.”

That kind of slick evasion won’t wash now as the SEC’s chief enforcement officer proclaims in bringing the cases:

“All individuals, regardless of their rank or position, will be held accountable for perpetuating half-truths or misrepresentations about matters materially important to the interest of our country’s investors. Investors were robbed of the opportunity to make informed investment decisions.”

Newt Gingrich may not have been among the masked men holding the guns, but he was around helping them with the getaway cars. Will primary voters be able to blank that image out of their minds?

Update: Even the Wall Street Journal joins the chorus: "Newt Gingrich's opponents aren't letting up in their criticism of his lucrative ties to the failed mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he resigned as House Speaker in the late 1990s.

"More damaging to his Presidential candidacy is that Mr. Gingrich doesn't seem to understand why anyone is offended."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bachmann Does Norma Desmond

With the leaders underplaying conflict, Michele Bachmann takes center stage to give an over-the-top performance worthy of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

After Newt Gingrich twice accuses her of getting facts wrong, Bachmann harrumphs that “it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debates that I don’t have my facts right when, as a matter of fact, I do. I am a serious candidate for president of the United States and my facts are accurate.”

(“You’re Norma Desmond, you used to be big in pictures.” “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”)

The former frontrunner, with wide-eyed stare, by tangling not only with Gingrich but Ron Paul as well, is reprising the refusing-to-face-reality role that has marked her five years in Congress, starting with a bit part at her first State of the Union, when she groped George W. Bush and did not let go.

A Minneapolis TV station reported 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...

“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.”

With attention slipping away, the former star is trying to hold on by dragging down everyone else in camera range.

If I were Gingrich, Romney or Ron Paul, I would stay away from swimming pools in Iowa when Bachmann is around. She’s ready for her closeup, Mr. DeMille.

Update: From Politifact: “During the Sioux City debate, Bachmann said that ‘after the debate that we had last week, PolitiFact came out and said that everything I said was true.’ That’s simply not the case. We rated two statements by Bachmann from that debate and ruled one of them Mostly True and the other one Pants on Fire. So for claiming she had a perfect record, she earns another Pants on Fire.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slouching Out of Iraq

Our departure, after nine years, almost 4500 deaths and trillions of dollars, comes not with a bang but a whimper of exhaustion and relief.

“Iraq will be tested in the days ahead,” says Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “by terrorism, and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself.”

No senior Iraqi official attends the ceremony of departure, marked by muted wishful thinking that contrasts with U.S. arrival of “shock and awe” to find Saddam Hussein’s phantom nuclear arsenal.

What we leave behind is a dead tyrant and a fractured, fragile nation.

At this moment, it’s fitting to recall what Robert Byrd warned in 2002 before the Senate voted to authorize the invasion:

"We may not always be able to avoid war, particularly if it is thrust upon us, but Congress must not attempt to give away the authority to determine when war is to be declared. We must not allow any president to unleash the dogs of war at his own discretion and or an unlimited period of time.

"Yet that is what we are being asked to do. The judgment of history will not be kind to us if we take this step.”

In 2007, with the war seemingly lost, George W. launched a Surge of more troops and more money, under the counterinsurgency leadership of Gen. David Petraeus, which stabilized Iraq enough to make possible today’s departure if not in victory, at least without dishonor.

Most of us who opposed the war when it started, including Barack Obama, also resisted the Surge, but it worked well enough to make this day possible.

As we leave Iraq, there is enough sadness, guilt and regret to go around, but what’s important to remember is that “wars of choice” are costly in blood, treasure and American morality.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

And the Winner Is...Rick Santorum

I dozed off last night watching one of those Liam Neeson action movies in which he wrecks cities for reasons too complicated to explain and switched channels to find more of the same in the Republican demolition derby.

Ron Paul is surging in Iowa to bump the tailpipes of Gingrich and Romney while the first frontrunner Donald Trump has been waved off the track, canceling his debate and promising to “leave all of my options open because, above all else, we must make America great again!”

In the stands, superfan Christine O’Donnell is cheering for Mitt, who is “pleased to have her on my team,” with the witch-like logic that “he’s been consistent since he changed his mind.”

If the Great Screenwriter in the Sky is following the action movie plotlines, after all the car chases, explosions and reversals, the eventual nominee is clear: Rick Santorum. He’s been a bit player who has never had a big scene and, by all conventions of the genre, has to be revealed as the powerful genius who has been pulling all the strings.

If that doesn’t play well at future GOP screenings, they can always go for a vampire-flick resolution—-reviving the dead—-by bringing back Herman Cain or Jon Huntsman Jr.

And if desperation sets in, does anyone know if Liam Neeson is a registered Republican ?

Update: Romney tells New York Times editors that Gingrich is “zany.” As always, he is a master of understatement.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Democrats' Holiday Hardball

After a year of being held hostage by Tea Party naysayers, the party that controls the White House and Senate is finally gift-wrapping a package of gotcha for their tormentors.

At the President’s urging, Senate Majority Leader Reid has told Speaker Boehner he will not hold a vote this week on government spending until there is agreement on the payroll tax and unemployment compensation issues, for which House Republicans have insisted on paying with cuts for federal workers and Medicare beneficiaries instead of taxing the income of the richest Americans, as Democrats propose.

A White House aide explains, “When the president said Congressional Republicans weren’t going on vacation until they passed this middle class tax cut, he meant it. They don’t get to finish their business until the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance are extended.”

In a reversal of the debt-ceiling crisis, Democrats can pass a stopgap government spending bill to go past this Friday’s deadline and hold Congress in Washington next week to hammer out an agreement on the other issues.

This time, instead of the prospect of downgrading the government’s credit rating, the penalty will be getting home late for the holidays. But for Americans, who now fear Big Government at record levels, that Grinch-like price for Congress may not be too troubling.

Update: Boehner holds his troops together to pass what Reid calls "a pointless partisan exercise. The bill is dead on arrival in the Senate. It was dead before it got to the Senate.”

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Obama Enigma

Watching the President on 60 Minutes last night raises wonder at why more Americans aren’t rallying around this highly intelligent, energetic, fair-minded man.

The answer may be in the question itself. Contrasting Barack Obama’s demeanor with the rage and unearned self-regard of his would-be successors, Congressional critics and Murdoch media attack dogs—-and his low-key response to that rabid criticism--may tell us as much about low approval ratings as his own performance.

Informed of a new poll showing that “People like you. They respect you. They think that you're working hard. And they realize that you faced an enormous amount of trouble and problems, many of them inherited. And you're approval rating is four times higher than the Congress,” the President responds wryly, “That's a low bar.”

Then the bad news: “But they're not happy with the way you're doing your job. You've got 75 percent of the people in the country think it's headed in the wrong direction. Seventy-five percent. And 54 percent don't think that you deserve to be re-elected.”

Most politicians would respond defensively, but this President coolly observes, “We've gone through an incredibly difficult time in this country. And I would be surprised if the American people felt satisfied right now. They shouldn't feel satisfied. We've got a lot more work to do in order to get this country and the economy moving in a way that benefits everybody, as opposed to just a few.”

Even as he goes on the attack against Congressional stonewalling, Barack Obama is trapped not only by his even temperament but the reality that a 2012 opponent is still unchosen and that GOP debates demonizing him will go on for months to come.

Asked about them, the President once again wryly observes that Gingrich is “somebody that has been around a long time and is good on TV, is good in debates” and Romney has “shown himself to be somebody who is good at politics as well. He’s had a lot of practice at it.”

Noting that “they will be going at it a while,” Barack Obama is in the delicate position of calibrating how much and how long to allow himself to be tarred without directly responding or stepping up the counterattacks of his surrogates.

Will his wry be enough to contain all that GOP baloney?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Presidential Fidelity: History's Mixed Verdict

The least passionate segment of last night’s debate was a brief round on personal family values.

Without glancing at Gingrich, his adversaries gave toneless answers, citing their own long marriages and “character” as an issue, with only Rick Perry, suave as always, expanding on the subject:

“Not only did I make a vow to my wife, but I made a vow to God. That’s pretty heavy lifting. That’s even stronger than a handshake in Texas...If you cheat on your wife, you'll cheat on your business partner."

Gingrich, with a straight face, agreed that people should know "that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency...I've made mistakes at times--I'm also a 68-year-old grandfather and I think people have to measure what I do now."

Subject closed? Looking back at White House occupants since FDR, however, history suggest a more nuanced answer to the correlation between presidential performance and marital fidelity.

Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter and the two Bushes (as far as we know) were faithful, although Carter during his campaign gratuitously told Playboy he had “looked at a lot of women with lust in my heart.”

Before and after being stricken by polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt was not. His romance with Lucy Mercer effectively ended the intimacy of his marriage to Eleanor and, in later years, Missy LeHand was his social secretary and “constant companion.”

When Eisenhower was president, there were rumors of an affair with his World War II driver, Kay Summersby, who after Ike’s death and shortly before her own, wrote a memoir about their relationship.

JFK and LBJ violated their vows early and often.

Sainted Ronald Reagan moved into the White House as the first divorced president, while Nancy worked tirelessly to remove all biographical references to his first Hollywood wife, Jane Wyman, who never spoke publicly about their marriage.

Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” and impeachment thereafter (by Gingrich) require no elaboration.

Now, after the death of privacy, Americans might likely take in stride the first First Lady to acquire the position through adultery, although evangelicals are divided about the question of whether or not Gingrich has "repented enough."

To offset such criticism, Gingrich has now endorsed their "Marriage Pledge," promising to “support sending a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman to the states for ratification. I will also oppose any judicial, bureaucratic, or legislative effort to define marriage in any manner other than as between one man and one woman.”

Looking back, such presidents as Truman (who slept well after dropping the first atomic bombs in history), Nixon and Carter may be seen as small, mean-spirited men without moral imagination or the humanity to be ensnared by uncontrolled passion.

Whether or not that applies to Newton Leroy Gingrich, there will be a lot of other evidence to consider.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Double Dose of Political Inertia

Newton’s First Law tells us objects stay at rest or continue in motion if nothing changes, an apt description of this year in American politics: an inert Congress and a careening GOP presidential race that keeps dropping former frontrunners off the turnip truck.

This was not the kind of Change Barack Obama had in mind when he was elected, but he has now gone through three years of pushing legislation against wall-to-wall GOP resistance that hardened into stone after the 2010 Tea Party takeover of the House.

As he starts to campaign for reelection, the President will have to persuade voters that inertia in American life has always worked both ways, as a deterrent to progress, to be sure, but also as a brake to driving off a cliff in the passions of the moment, a delicate balancing act.

In John Boehner and Newt Gingrich, if nominated, he will have twin symbols of what’s wrong in American politics now, both kinds of inertia gone berserk.

Barack Obama will have to counter such ugly Newtonian mindlessness by going back to the wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau, with an ethos of American individualism that now seems like a message from another planet.

"All our progress is an unfolding," said Emerson, "like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit."

"How vain it is to sit down to write," Thoreau added, "when you have not stood up to live."

Telling Americans to stop and think may be a hard sell in the era of instant bloviating with a flood of 24/7 certainty on every subject, but it may be the only way to get the nation off a path to self-destruction.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Romney-Gingrich Mudfight

The next two Republican debates, tomorrow night and Thursday, “are shaping up to be the most important--and nasty--yet.”

Both come only weeks before Iowa caucuses on January 3rd, with primaries soon after in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. These debates, predicts the Caucus, “are likely to be slugfests as desperate candidates search for a magic bullet to improve their political fortunes in the short time that is left.

“The best predictors for the tenor of a presidential debate are the hours and days that precede it...And the 2012 campaign for the Republican nomination has suddenly taken on a much harsher tone.”

In this mudfight, David Brooks observes, “we have one man, Romney, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1950s, and another, Gingrich, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1960s. He has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with ’60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance...

“It’s really too bad. We could have had a great debate about the progressive-conservative tradition. President Obama is now embracing Roosevelt. Gingrich has tried to modernize this tendency.

”But how you believe something is as important as what you believe. It doesn’t matter if a person shares your overall philosophy. If that person doesn’t have the right temperament and character, stay away.”

The Wall Street Journal is kinder to Gingrich as Peggy Noonan calls him “Inspiring—-and Disturbing,” noting that “He is compelling and unique, and, as Margaret Thatcher once said, he has ‘tons of guts.’ But this is a walk on the wild side.”

All this is capped by a Romney surrogate accusing Gingrich of being "not stable."

Does the GOP go with the buttoned-down stiff they could bring home to meet their parents or the wild guy on the motorbike who might run them off the road?

Let the games begin.

Romney, Gingrich and a Constipated Congress

This is the week Barack Obama declared political war on an obstructionist GOP, invoking Theodore Roosevelt.

In Osawatomie, Kansas, the President cited TR who came there in 1910 and “was called a radical...a socialist—-even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women—-insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax...

“Just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. ‘The market will take care of everything,’ they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and taxes—-especially for the wealthy—-our economy will grow stronger...

"Now, it’s a simple theory...one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government...And fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ‘50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.”

Barack Obama is no Teddy Roosevelt or even a Harry Truman who slugged it out against a “do-nothing, good-for-nothing” Congress and won reelection in 1948. But, regardless of whether he faces Romney or Gingrich, the 2012 issue is the same, and the question is: Will he fire himself up enough to meet the challenge of rallying voters.

As Republicans treat the payroll tax cut extension as just another occasion to hack away at social programs, GOP Sen. Susan Collins, who supports taxing high earners to finance it, is discouraged about how a bill could appeal to enough members to pass.

“It’s going to be pointless if the House sends over bills that the Senate cannot or will not pass,” Sen. Collins says, assuming leaders are negotiating behind the scenes.

That’s a generous assumption, given her party’s constipated failure to move on any issue all year, bringing Congressional approval ratings to new lows.

If this President is going to be a Teddy or Truman next year, he has a long way to go in turning up the heat before year’s end and girding himself for even more of the same in an election year.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Newt's Kingmaker Murdoch

Mitt Romney has an uphill battle as he gets into the Fox cockpit to contest Newt Gingrich, whose cozy ties with proprietor Rupert Murdoch go back almost two decades.

“I’ll be on Fox a lot because you guys matter when it comes to Republican primary voters,” Romney tells Neil Cavuto in an interview as polls show him far behind Gingrich among Fox-watching Iowa caucus-goers.

Until he started running for President, the former Speaker was on the Fox payroll, but his shady relationship with Murdoch goes back to the 1990s when he had to return a $4.5 million book advance under pressure after it was disclosed that at the same time he had been meeting with the media mogul on legislative relief for his empire during a whirlwind of ethics violations that eventually led to Gingrich’s downfall.

In 1997, the House voted overwhelmingly (395 to 28) to reprimand him with an unprecedented $300,000 penalty, the first time in its 208-year history that the body ever disciplined a Speaker for ethical wrongdoing.

Now, with his own empire itself under pressure for ethical lapses, particularly in Great Britain, Murdoch has lost none of his appetite for playing White House kingmaker with Fox lackeys giving Romney a hard time to advance Gingrich’s fortunes.

It will be the severest test yet of Romney’s blandness as he enters the Fox lion’s den to take them on in Murdoch’s last hurrah to get a pet poodle of his own into the White House.

Will Romney be able to roar?

Update: Gingrich is champing at the bit to line up a Fox team for the White House, promising to name a fellow contributor John Bolton as Secretary of State.

Bolton, who wants to bomb everybody, would match Newt’s hair-trigger temperament perfectly.

Pearl Harbor, 70 Years Ago Today

We lived in a different America then. News of the Japanese attack came from bulletins that broke into radio programs and was spread by word of mouth over the phone, on streets of cities and house to house in small towns.

That Sunday, I was a 17-year-old college student with a part-time job in a New York hospital, standing next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window at a nurse in a white mask holding up a swaddled armful inches from our eyes. She gently shook the sleeping baby into a red-faced wail, then drew the curtain.

In those days, fear of germs kept newborns in a nursery while mothers spent a week in hospital beds. The babies were brought in to be breast-fed, then carried back to their cocoons. During that time, the new father would get only one quick look, and my job was to lead him to the window. The babies all looked alike. The real show was on our side of the glass: a man’s eyes flooding with pride, wonder and worry.

But on December 7, 1941, sudden death six thousand miles away shattered the tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. My stomach churned as I climbed to the Third Avenue El to go home. As the train hurtled over familiar streets, I felt cold and exposed.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College, holding a half-eaten sandwich, my eyes on a huge glowing mural behind the stage, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing the way to a bright future.

From a loudspeaker the voice of the only President I could remember (FDR took office on my ninth birthday) was telling of a day that will live in infamy and announcing we were at war. I was suddenly wrenched into a world beyond my familiar slivers of the Bronx and Harlem connected by a subway ride.

The following days were a thrilling blur of rumor and fear. A history professor stopped a lecture on Victorian life. “You’ll hear the Japanese have poisoned the water and Nazi subs are off Staten Island,” he said, with a reassuring grimace. “Nothing will happen. Go home, do your homework.”

Every night at 8:55, breaking into the flow of radio comedy and dopey drama, the chilling voice of Elmer Davis told of battles in Europe and the Pacific. Older boys from my neighborhood were fighting in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.

World War II came to us in slow motion and seemed unreal until we read the next day's newspaper. Why, then, did that unseen war affect our lives so much more deeply than the 24/7 images and endless words about the Middle East, which now slide out of national consciousness?

World War II was everybody's war, fought by our fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and those of the people next door and down the street. At 17 then, in little more than a year, I knew I would be among them. We were all in it together.

Today, a New York Times editorial observes, “The youngest of the survivors are in their late 80s now. Our direct connection to that day will soon flicker out. Yet we will still remember, to pay respect to sacrifice, to honor bravery, to note the dear price of peace...

“Just as Americans will do today with flowers tossed into the oil-speckled waters of a peaceful harbor outside Honolulu, and as they do each September in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, they are summoning the memory of people cherished and dearly missed--and strengthening the unity of a nation well loved and worth defending.”

If my friends and I had known we would be called "The Greatest Generation," we would have wondered what was so unusual about doing what we had to do. And it would have saddened us to know that our children and grandchildren would have to fight and die when the nation's survival was not so clearly at stake.

It would have broken our hearts then, and it still does.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Impeaching Gingrich, Right and Left

Thinking about Newt is exhausting—-all those policy reversals, all that profiteering from disguised lobbying, all that adultery while impeaching Clinton, all those crackpot gimmicks posing as intellect. Yet, there are many hands on both sides of the political spectrum to do the heavy lifting of deconstructing him.

Maureen Dowd takes a whack at it: “His mind is a jumble, an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior.

“He didn’t get whiplash being a serial adulterer while impeaching another serial adulterer, a lobbyist for Freddie Mac while attacking Freddie Mac, a self-professed fiscal conservative with a whopping Tiffany’s credit line, and an anti-Communist Army brat who supported the Vietnam War but dodged it.”

From the other side, GOP Sen. Tom Coburn weighs in: “I am not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich’s having served under him for four years and experienced his leadership. Because I found it lacking often times...

“There’s all kind of leaders that have one standard for the people that they are leading and a different standard for themselves. I will have difficulty supporting him for president of the United States.”

Conservative columnist George Will hits harder, noting that Newt “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything...

“There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich’s unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages. His Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic allowed him, fresh from pocketing $1.6 million from Freddie Mac (for services as a ‘historian’), to say, ‘If you want to put people in jail,’ look at ‘the politicians who profited from’ Washington’s environment.”

From the center, Times columnist Frank Bruni notes that “Romney seems newly shaken, Newt-ly spooked. It must be wearing on him to stand as long as he has with his chest thrust out, waiting for his corsage while the electorate casts around for some better date to the prom. No wonder his knees, to judge by his own Fox News appearance last week, have gone a little weak.

“Romney’s wobble gives Gingrich a window. Just watch him squeeze through it, pontificating all the while about the nature of portals and the history of glass. That Republicans don’t mind a lecture is reassuring. That they’re so open to this particular lecturer isn’t.”

Even with a Gingrich endorsement by the Union Leader, former GOP Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire writes an op-ed in the Boston Globe to downgrade him and endorse Romney

In the White House, just as Jon Stewart on The Daily Show did, they must be praying that Gingrich turns out to be The One. There will be an oversupply of political harpoons to spear this Great White-haired Whale.

Update: In another dazzling display of bad judgment, Gingrich visits New York to pay court to a former frontrunner, even as leading Republicans express dismay at the so-called Donald Trump “debate” as potentially damaging to the party.

With Newt’s talent for making the wrong friends, he doesn’t have to worry about enemies and critics.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Cain and the Death of Shame

Shame is dead or at least comatose as two public figures refuse to retreat into embarrassment over mounting evidence of their sexual misconduct.

A would-be leader of the Free World, Herman Cain is surrounded by barbecue, bunting and bands in announcing “suspension” of his campaign after “continued hurt caused on me and my family” by numerous charges of harassing women as well as a long-term extramarital affair.

Cain’s positive spin on disaster recalls a press conference decades ago by two entrepreneurs who had bankrupt a venerable publication that started with a slide
presentation titled “Moving Ahead with the Saturday Review.”

Similarly, the former pizza mogul touts a “Plan B” that consists of denying everything while trying to hold on to media attention, as if his campaign wreck were the result of a natural disaster not of his own making.

Cain’s disconnection from reality is echoed by the central figure in the Penn State scandal, Jerry Sandusky. Faced with 40 charges of child molestation, the former coach is pursuing what may be the weirdest legal strategy ever by giving interviews everywhere.

In the latest, he tells the New York Times that, despite being caught in a public shower with a 10-year-old boy, that he was only “a father figure” to disadvantaged children and prosecutors “just twisted that all.”

Sandusky sums up the news cyclone that that ended the careers of legendary coach Joe Paterno and the university president with self-pity over the loss of his connection with kids, leaving only his dog Bo, “And I swear he understands...And you know I love him dearly for that.”

Psychiatrists may have clinical explanations for such narcissistic behavior by Cain and Sandusky, but what comes to the inexpert mind is musical comedy. In “Chicago,” after being caught in bed with two women, a two-timing lover asks, “Who are you going to believe? What you see or what I tell you?” His outraged companion pulls the trigger.

Would it be too much to ask the media to do the same about showering attention on the former candidate and the predator coach? Or have we all lost our sense of shame?

Friday, December 02, 2011

A Composite President: Chinese Menu

If Americans could pick someone for the White House next year from a Chinese menu, what do opinion polls tell us about what they want?

The seesawing Republican race, along with Obama’s falling favorables, suggest that voters’ appetites are more jaded than they have been for decades. But if they could pick and choose traits, what kind of composite President would we get?

Resistance to Romney clearly shows a desire for something new, but if Gingrich is the answer, what’s the question? Newt’s surge suggests preference for a know-it-all sweet talker spiced with sudden surprises, like immigration compassion and Dickensian attacks on poor children, to a blandly predictable flip-flopper without Gingrich’s say-anything panache to cover a record of reversals that makes Mitt’s taste tame.

Yet thinking conservatives who want to win will hang on to Romney, immovable hair and all, as their best bet.

Ron Paul, who wants to wipe the table of almost everything, nonetheless offers a palate-clearing clarity on the follies of Newtness and continuing to pour trillions that might save the American economy into foreign wars.

Put Romney’s hair, Gingrich’s certainty and Paul’s staunchness on the table, and what would voters want of Obama?

One clue goes back to early in the 2008 campaign when Maureen Dowd challenged him on his "toughness," asking, "Do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little.”

“When I get into a tussle,” he answered, “I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured.”

Bipartisanship was a noble goal, but this brilliant President has been slow to learn that you can't negotiate with nobody and the bully pulpit allows you to do the bullying, not the other way around.

Now that he is in campaign mode again, Barack Obama is going on the attack, and none too soon.

We don’t get to pick a President from a Chinese menu.

Update: It’s official. The presidential choice has dropped to the cheap takeout level as attention junkie Donald Trump returns to “moderate” a GOP “debate” after Christmas—-a late present for Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Jon Huntsman won't be there, another small step toward staking out his position as the only sane candidate in that race.