Friday, March 30, 2012

Romney's Slo-Mo Bandwagon

The Republican Establishment is now embracing the Inevitable—-not with the usual alacrity of hopping on a winner’s bandwagon but a heavy-legged weariness of just wanting to escape the GOP primary swamp.

“I think he deserves to be the nominee,” Paul Ryan says in announcing his support as the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall overshadows the primary. “I think he earned it.”

The elder George Bush sounds similarly resigned, pointing out Barbara had reminded him of the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler” (“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold em”), adding, “Well I think it’s time for people to all get behind this good man.”

Even future star Marco Rubio announces with no excitement, “We have got to come together behind who I think has earned this nomination, and that’s Mitt Romney,” and, without betraying either sadness or relief, notes, “I don’t believe I’m going to be asked to be the vice presidential nominee.”

Such bounded enthusiasm, entirely in keeping with Mitt Romney’s charisma deficit, presages a campaign that will have to emphasize Barack Obama’s deficiencies rather than his hopeful replacement’s virtues.

Peggy Noonan gives it a try by labeling the President “A Not-So-Smooth Operator,” making a not-so-compelling case that he is coming across “more and more as a trimmer, as an operator who's not operating in good faith. This is hardening positions and leading to increased political bitterness. And it's his fault, too. As an increase in polarization is a bad thing, it's a big fault.”

The evidence consists of such scraps as Obama’s waffling on contraception for Catholic institutions, his personal comments on the Trayvon killing and the Supreme Court hearings on the health care mandate, which “have made that law look so hollow, so careless, that it amounts to a characterological indictment of the administration.”

We will be hearing many versions of this tune from now until November, as Republicans look for a way to “Strike Up the Band” for their leaden-footed default choice, but there isn’t much chance that Mitt Romney will be lighting up the tube with his own version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

Update: Romney is feeling cocky enough to tell voters, “I got a good boost from the folks in Illinois, and if I can get that boost also from Wisconsin, I think we’ll be on a path that will get me the nomination well before the convention.”

Oil up the bandwagon wheels.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Al Sharpton: Journalist, Prosecutor, Judge

Whatever happened to innocent until proved guilty? Are we deciding murder cases now by taking polls?

As Trayvon Martin’s parents call for calm, debate heats up in the media itself, not about the Florida teenager’s shooting death, but about Al Sharpton’s multiple roles in the case as cable news host, racial agitator, judge and jury.

A quarter of a century ago, the Reverend Al began his public career as champion of Tawana Brawley, a black teenage girl in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. who, after staying out overnight, invented a story of gang rape by white law officers, which ended with a Grand Jury finding Sharpton guilty of defamation and ordered to pay damages to the accused.

Since then, Sharpton has morphed into super-celebrity as a presidential candidate in Democratic debates as well as the beneficiary of free face time in every incident with racial overtones since then, including the firing of Don Imus, culminating in his hiring as an MSNBC news host last year.

In the Trayvon Martin case, Sharpton’s antics have been abetted by the failure of local Florida authorities for weeks to provide details about the accused, allowing one-sided news to escalate into a national uproar, involving even the President.

Now, in slow leaks, facts begin to emerge. The Sanford police release a video of George Zimmerman, the shooter, being taken in to headquarters that night with no visible signs of the injuries he allegedly sustained when “attacked” by the teenager.

Eventually, the full truth of the case will emerge from the furor of hoodies in Congress, Black Panther death threats and Fox News defamation of the victim, but a larger question remains for the media and society as a whole.

Do we remain a nation of laws or go back to the days of the Roman Coliseum when crowds decided the fate of fellow human beings by yelling and turning their thumbs up or down?

If so, one vote here for having Al Sharpton as an MSNBC anchor join the over-opinionated Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs et al in media oblivion.

Update: On the weekend, hanging judge Sharpton is in Sanford as racial agitator Sharpton, to the dismay of local civil rights leaders. When he gets back to the Big Apple, cable host Sharpton will no doubt explain it all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Beyond the Mandate Muddle

The Supreme Court marathon is more proof of how American health care, with or without reform, is in the hands of the wrong people—-the for-profit insurance industry that siphons off one out of every three dollars for overhead and profit.

Now largely forgotten in the inside-baseball legal arguments is that, in 2008, it was Barack Obama who opposed the mandate that Hillary Clinton backed and now finds himself defending it to save the deformed Act that was finally passed by an out-of-control Congress.

Before he got into the White House, the President freely admitted that a single-payer system was the best answer to health care reform but, unlike other advanced nations that have successfully adopted some form of it, the U.S. was not politically ready for it.

Instead, Barack Obama let the abortion of a bill that Congress squeezed through passage became his political albatross, not only in the reelection campaign but the Supreme Court, which may now overturn its individual mandate provision.

If so, it may be an opportunity for Democrats to start cleaning up their act.

As Fareed Zakaria observes, “A general insurance system can only work if everyone is insured. That's what the Swiss and Taiwanese found out. Otherwise, only the people who are sick will want to buy insurance and the insurance companies will spend most of their time and effort trying to kick sick people out of the system and denying coverage to those who might get sick.

“That's why the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, came up with the idea of an individual mandate, requiring that people buy health insurance in exactly the same way that people are required to buy car insurance...

“The fact is that all rich countries try to provide affordable health care for their citizens in some way or the other.

“All of them--including free market havens like Taiwan--have found that they need to use an insurance or government-sponsored model. All of them provide universal health care at much, much lower costs than we do.

“The United States has the most marketized system in the world and the most expensive and inefficient one with bad outcomes and low levels of customer satisfaction.”

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it won’t change that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Prospect of a Paranoid President

Losing momentum, Rick Santorum is letting the public mask slip and openly showing what historian Richard Hofstadter identified half a century ago as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

The candidate is now publicly attacking a New York Times reporter: “Stop lying” and “quit distorting our words,” calling his question "bullshit" and adding “C’mon man! What are you doing?...You don’t care about the truth at all, you really don’t.”

This outburst is prompted by a query about Santorum’s recurring line about Mitt Romney as “the worst candidate” for the GOP to pit against President Obama.

Half a century ago Hofstadter, a two-time Pulitzer Prize historian, wrote: “In recent years, we have seen angry minds at work, mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated, in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority...I call it the paranoid style, simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Santorum’s media attacks differ from Newt Gingrich’s earlier (and successful) use of reporters as straw men, deflecting questions about himself into crowd-pleasing diversions to win approval-—and the South Carolina primary.

Gingrich’s calculation has given way to Santorum’s apparently genuine frustration at not being seen as the GOP savior from evil, recalling Hofstadter’s observation that “failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

Yet Santorum is not alone. His latest fulmination brings enthusiastic approval from another member of the club, Sarah Palin:

“Welcome to my world, Rick, and good on ya...it was about time because he’s saying enough is enough of the liberal media twisting the conservative words, putting words in his mouth, taking things out of context and even just making things up.”

Happily, Palin is now relegated to the world of Fox News and HBO docudrama but, with Santorum still in the real-world race, Americans have to ponder the possibility of a truly paranoid President with his finger on the nuclear button.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Art of Loving, 2012

I paid a posthumous visit this week to the world I once lived in—-a Manhattan gathering of privileged people giving money and time to a cause of caring and concern.

Nothing has changed. The well-to-do and a few celebrities mingle at a reception and then sit in an auditorium to applaud expressions of social and political decency. The faces are new, but they belong to people trying to reach out past the solitude of their own skins, just as my generation had done.

In very old age, all this brings sadness at how hard it still is to make human connection, even after science and technology have transcended the physical isolation of a century ago when loving thy neighbor may have been difficult because choices were so limited.

Now we are all neighbors, but is there more hatred than love? In the turbulent 1960s, the psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm was preoccupied with what he called "The Myth of Care." Amid social upheaval and rage about Vietnam, the author of "The Art of Loving" and "The Sane Society" kept searching newspapers and TV screens for images of people reaching out, helping and comforting one another.

He found them but, if he were still alive, what would he see today? Bitter discord over the apparently senseless killing of a young boy on his way home. Hate and fear-mongering in the presidential primaries. Road rage over high gas prices.

The social and political landscape is looking more and more like the last scene of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a dazed doctor amid carnage mumbling "Madness, madness."

Yet there is a new hint of hope from brain science: “If you’re in a healthy relationship, holding your partner’s hand is enough to subdue your blood pressure, ease your response to stress, improve your health and soften physical pain. We alter one another’s physiology and neural functions.”

Small rituals of caring and random acts of kindness to strangers may mount up to enough human love to save us all.

In a time when Dick Cheney has a new heart, can’t we all change our own enough to make a difference?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Back-to-the-Future Trayvon Martin Moment

“If I had a son,” the President said today, “he’d look like Trayvon,” the boy whose shooting by a Florida neighborhood watchman has become the subject of obsessive national discussion.

“All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” he added. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”

Suddenly, race has broken through the surface of an election year that has pushed the subject into the darkest corners of Obama hatred--in the senseless death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on his way home.

Four years ago, the presidential candidate dealt with the subject openly in the wake of a Rev. Jeremiah Wright uproar, and more personally when he spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Martin Luther King's birthday.

In discussing why they were there, a young white woman, Ashley Baia, told volunteers that when she was nine years old, her mother was stricken with cancer, lost her health care and had to file for bankruptcy. Obama said she "convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

"She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone...the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too."

When it was the turn of an elderly black man to explain why he was there, he answered, "I'm here because of Ashley."

That experience typified his campaign, Obama said: “'I’m here because of Ashley.' By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough...But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger."

President Barack Obama knows that our union has, in the four years since, weathered hard economic times and grown visibly weaker. His hope back then is a haunting reminder of what he—-and we—-face now in the ongoing story of dead black boy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Etch-a-Sketch Election, 2012

Mitt Romney’s hapless aide has found the perfect metaphor for a GOP campaign that keeps changing like scribbles on a childhood toy, erasing quick pictures of one frontrunner after another and now preparing to find the best face for a chameleon candidate who makes “Zelig” look like a figure on Mt. Rushmore.

Which Romney will run against Obama? There are dozens to choose from, with a SuperPAC for each area of the country, each demographic slice of the population, each voter desire—-a cascade of media Mitts to parade as the “turnaround” guy for every Obama hater’s desire.

One tiny problem: The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher et al will be showing montages of them all. But will anyone beyond us liberal elitists be watching?

Update: In his last gasp mode, Rick Santorum is grasping for the metaphor as a weapon.

“You win by giving people a choice,” he tells a Texas crowd. “You win by giving people the opportunity to see a different vision for our country, not someone who’s just going to be a little different than the person in there...

“If they’re going to be a little different, we might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk with what may be the Etch a Sketch candidate for the future.”

But there are so many to choose from.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Dyslexic Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke for two minutes at a Pennsylvania cemetery of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Last night, a would-be president, after losing a primary in Lincoln’s state by a “crushing” margin, came there to ramble on cable news with his divisive message of pitting “work clothes” Americans against the rest.

As long as he maintains a tenuous hold in the battle for the nomination, Rick Santorum will be stoking resentments for votes from descendants of “men and women who worked and scraped and clawed so their children could have a better quality of life” against their presumed enemies in big cities and offices.

He was rallying a crowd in the state of Pennsylvania where he was turned out of office six years ago by the largest margin (59-41 percent) ever for a sitting Senator in that state.

Santorum’s civil war, which may well end there next month, has been made possible by attrition in TV debates of more obvious incompetents and misfits such as Cain, Perry and Bachmann, but none of them had a more insidious message than that of a zealot promoting class warfare with a theocratic twist.

He is the 21st century antithesis of Lincoln, who ended his first Inaugural Address with this impassioned plea:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

As distressed as they may be over what they perceive as the failings of an Obama Administration, GOP voters are showing that nonetheless they are not ready to see “government of the people, by the people, for the people” perish from the earth.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum's Red, Blight and Blue Campaign

The man has a gift for divisiveness. After a disastrous loss in Puerto Rico, helped along by his English-as-a-first-language gaffe, the not-Romney candidate is in Illinois stirring another class warfare pot.

Santorum is telling crowds to “look at the map of the United States. Blue being the Democrats, red being the Republicans--it’s almost all red. Except around the big cities. And yet when you look at the economic plan that Republicans put forward, it’s all about tax breaks for higher-income individuals who live in those blue areas mostly.”

His campaigning is clearly aimed at what used to be called the redneck vote to pitchfork their resentments not only against Democrats but to elicit booing of “pundits” who say “we’ve got to elect someone who’s more moderate, someone who can appeal to moderates and independents in New York City and Los Angeles on Wall Street and corporate boardrooms.”

His strategy of winning sparsely populated areas against crowded cities is dubious in the face of polling that shows him losing by 45 to 30 percent in the crucial Illinois primary.

If Romney can seal that deal tomorrow, we may be on the way to seeing the last of a candidate who even Sarah Palin has suggested is a ”knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.”

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tea Party's War on Age

As supporters try to put Orrin Hatch, 78, out to pasture and literally dislodge Dick Lugar, 79, zealots in the Senate now are showing their hand against all older Americans by trying to end Medicare for current retirees and enrolling them in a health insurance plan now offered to federal employees by the year after next.

A proposal by Sens. Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee would, by their own admission, do nothing to lower long-term costs of Medicare but start the federal program on the road to privatization.

Eligibility age would rise by three months a year for 20 years from age 65 to 70, and premiums would increase on a sliding income scale until those with a $1 million or more a year would pay the full amount.

It’s curious that pols who bitterly oppose raising rates for all billionaires now have no qualms about punishing the older rich, presumably on the theory that their work as “job creators” diminishes with age.

The plan differs from earlier Republican proposals, which excluded those in or near retirement. Asked what he would tell older Americans who expected to be covered by Medicare for the rest of their lives, Sen. Graham offered a politician’s familiar answer that has always set American teeth (even false ones) on edge: “Trust me. It’s a good deal.”

My fellow octogenarians will be thrilled to learn that the GOP wants to spare us from what Sarah Palin called Democratic death panels under Obamacare, but her fellow ideologues have no such qualms about impoverishment.

“Happy 90th birthday, sir, now fork over what’s left in your bank account.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Small Gains in Santorum's Big Night

The media narrative of Republican primaries keeps producing excited headlines of Rick victories that obscure a mundane reality of Mitt inching his way under the radar toward nomination.

This morning’s AP estimate is that, in Mississippi and Alabama combined, Santorum will take away perhaps four or five more delegates than either Romney or Gingrich each, with late news showing Romney picking up nine in American Samoa and 8 out of 12 in Hawaii to go with the 18 he won in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands last weekend.

For the frontrunner to stay almost even with two rivals in hard-core Southern states looks like bigger news than trumpeting Santorum narrow W’s in those conservative redoubts to pump up headlines and fill in cable news’ dead hours.

Yet here is Santorum whining on, of all places, Fox News that Rupert Murdoch’s minions are ”shilling” for his rival:

“I can tell you, we watch the coverage there and you know, look you guys are allowed to cover what you want to cover. But I can tell you, we want to make sure a conservative is nominated. And we’re going to go out there and focus on, not mathematics--we’re not going to focus on the process. We’re going to focus on the issues that are going to help us win and that’s what our campaign has been about.”

Someday should explain to the former Senator that focusing on the process rather than the math has, rather than denying him attention, given him more visibility than he realistically deserves, such as labeling February “beauty contests” with a tiny percentage of voters as victories for him in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota where no delegates were at stake.

Mathematics, in fact, are what it’s all about and, unless Santorum can put up numbers in Illinois next week, Romney will be well on his boring way to winning at the Convention.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mitt Zelig

Both Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert were entranced last night with the latest Romney transformation—-into a grits-eating good ole boy down South—-in his road show revival of “Zelig,” Woody Allen’s classic about a human chameleon.

The new version has a twist. Instead of a poor immigrant boy who wills himself into becoming like people he sees in newsreels because he has no life of his own worth living, the Mitt protagonist is trying to move in the other direction, downscale to dialect territory.

It didn’t work with the governor of Alabama, who voted for Santorum today, and like everything else he does, Romney’s y’all act was clunky enough to inspire his tutor Jeff Foxworthy to caution.

When the candidate pandered a joke at his own expense ("I’m looking forward to going hunting with you sometime and you can actually show me which end of the rifle to point"), Foxworthy responded, "That sounds even more dangerous than Cheney if you ask me. We may start with a BB gun and work our way up to a rifle."

As the campaign moves on, we have many more Romneys ahead: In California, Mitt in a “Treasure of Sierra Madre” sombrero to remind Latino voters he was born in Mexico. In New York, to eat pizza with a knife and fork like his new best friend Donald Trump and drive Jon Stewart crazy. In Texas, to fall off his horse while trying to rope voters away from Newt Gingrich and his new best friend (and possible running mate) Rick Perry.

For a “Zelig” finale, Woody Allen’s character flew across the Atlantic in a small plane upside down. Start the propellers!

Monday, March 12, 2012

GOP's New Catch-22

In my departed friend Joe Heller’s great novel, a character explains that "Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can't stop them from doing."

Republicans are now applying this logic to the choice of a Presidential candidate, with each side offering indisputable proof that, depending on who is doing the figures (a) Mitt Romney is on a “path to getting the delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination” or (b) a Santorum calculation that “Mitt Romney’s math is just like Mitt Romney’s conservatism. It’s bogus. Mitt Romney thinks he can get to 1,144. The problem is, he can’t.”

When it first appeared fifty years ago, I read “Catch-22” during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a Los Angeles hotel room after watching JFK’s speech about nuclear weapons 90 miles from our shores with helicopters making a racket as they came and went on a pad outside my room. In that setting, Joe’s nightmare world made perfect sense.

That feeling is back at a time where Southern GOP voters believe their President is a Muslim and are preparing to back either Romney, a reincarnation of unlikable Col. Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions a crew must fly after they reach it or Santorum, a latter-day Milo Minderbinder, who ends up bombing his own base at cost-plus.

In recent years, I have missed what Heller would have had to say about George Bush, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin, but now on the anniversary of having put the perfect phrase into our language to describe what we are living through now, the only solace is to read “Catch-22” again and wonder how he knew so well what was coming.

During the GOP convention might be the perfect time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Moral Game Change

Tomorrow’s water-cooler topic at work will be the HBO Sarah Palin movie, with riffs on the performances, accuracy and political meaning. It’s not likely there will be much talk about its morality.

In 1962, an Eisenhower aide, Emmett J. Hughes, published “The Ordeal of Power,” revealing internal debates during his White House years. It was a first, and when JFK heard about it, he told his staff, “I hope nobody around here is writing that kind of book.” Nobody did.

In our era, everybody tells everything in memoirs or self-serving interviews with journalists. The public’s right to know, you know.

Fair enough, especially about what manipulative political campaigns are hiding, but within “Game Change” and Julianne Moore’s amazing performance, another movie is struggling to be seen—-not about Sarah Palin’s total lack of qualifications to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office but the incredible irresponsibility of John McCain and their handlers once they discover it.

By giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, they manage to hide Palin’s ignorance in her debate with Joe Biden and then high-five one another over the accomplishment, but not once is there even fleeting consideration of replacing her on the ticket, as George McGovern did with Thomas Eagleton in 1972 when news about his mental-health history leaked.

In 2008, says the author of a book about Palin, she “was picked by McCain's all-male pack of senior advisers not because of her experience and statesmanship, but because of a political calculus that placed a higher value on her flash than her substance. They were looking for a ‘game-changer’--and they treated the political future of this country as though it were, indeed, a game.”

“Game Change” is less a movie about Sarah Palin than a cautionary tale about today’s politics in which there is potentially more profit in disloyalty rather than loyalty:

“We already don’t write things down for fear of having documents subpoenaed. Now, in a meeting, you’ll have people staring at each other afraid to say anything—-for fear that it’ll end up in a book.”

Will anybody be talking about that at the water cooler?

Update: A couple of days late, the “hero” of “Game Change” gets the point by telling an interviewer “the experience on this campaign is that there are worse things than losing.”

Pressed by a TV interviewer, Steve Schmidt admits that “the notion of Sarah Palin being President of the United States is something that frightens me, frankly. And I played a part in that...because we were fueled by ambition to win. And I think that ambition to win, to victory is what drives people in politics...how we got there is something that troubles me a lot.”

Thank you, Dr. Frankenstein.

How Romney Might Beat Obama

As Republicans lurch toward choosing a nominee, the President’s worst mistake of a tumultuous first term is waiting to emerge in the election—-his Pyrrhic victory on health care reform.

A new study shows that, more than any issue, it led to the 2110 Tea Party takeover of the House, costing Democrats “almost exactly the number of seats that decided the majority,” and even the furor now over Rush Limbaugh presages how large a role aspects of “Obamacare” will play in swaying voters this November.

In the conventional wisdom, Mitt Romney will have a hard time pressing the case against Barack Obama’s health care law, since it so closely resembles what he did in Massachusetts. Not necessarily so. Head to head, the GOP choice will argue that Democrats made a multi-thousand-page monster out of his relatively modest state bill and that he will scrap it.

What voters may remember most out of the fight to pass a law that many still don’t understand is how Obama, instead on analyzing the red-meat issue and formulating a comprehensible plan to deal with its major components, stepped back and tossed it into the Congressional boneyard where it could be shredded into self-interested scraps.

Instead of emphasizing how the current system threatened to bankrupt the middle class, he chose to reassure them that they could keep their current coverage while appealing to their sense of fairness in bringing 30 million uninsured into it, opening the way for Tea Party demagoguery about socialism.

Instead of recognizing that health insurer "cooperation" was a sham, the President naively embraced it only to find they would be back lobbying against reform at crunch time.

Instead of accepting the hard truth that cost containment was a complex tangle of provider greed and unbridled patient sense of entitlement, Obama persisted in hazy formulations about bending the cost curve.

Now, his Pyrrhic victory could turn into a classic tragedy in November, if he fails to persuade voters that the final result will improve their lives rather let the government control them.

In our sound-bite age, even a heavy-footed Romney starts with an edge in that debate.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Presidency Hanging by a Thread

No one believes the White House (or all of government, for that matter) controls what happens to the economy and certainly not on a short-term basis, but weekly unemployment figures from now until November could help re-elect Barack Obama—-or defeat him.

The Caucus rightly concludes: “The biggest test for Mr. Obama and his Republican adversaries in the months to come may be how agile they are in responding to the ups and downs of the jobs reports.”

A President Romney (or, Heaven help us, Santorum) could be inaugurated in January based on temporary numbers that have little to do with America’s future for four years of picking Supreme Court Justices, signing or vetoing vital laws and having a finger on the nuclear button.

It was always this way, but never so much so. “October surprise” is embedded in the political vocabulary, but 24/7 media have heightened the velocity and volatility that threaten the nation’s future to an unnerving degree.

Look back at October 1964 when Lyndon Johnson, polling well ahead of Barry Goldwater, was suddenly struck by news that his closest aide had been arrested with another man in a YMCA restroom and fined $50 for disorderly conduct.

Back then, many newspapers hesitated to publish the story and Goldwater himself refused to make an issue of it. Later he wrote that it was “a sad time” for the man’s wife and children, and “I was not about to add to their private sorrow. Winning isn't everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principle, are more important."

Maybe media and politicians were less sensitive then to the public’s right to know everything immediately, but the fate of the nation was not hanging by every news thread, either.

Meanwhile, we now have to hold our breaths as every jobs number comes down the pike to be greeted with hope or dismay, depending on the disposition of the beholder.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Divine Endorsement

Mitt’s bandwagon is picking up the likes of Eric Cantor and Sen. Tom Coburn, but the contest is on for the Big One.

After Romney acolytes tell a news conference it would now “take an act of God” for any other candidate to win the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum is taking up the challenge.

“What won’t they resort to, to try to bully their way through this race?” he says. “If the governor thinks he’s now ordained by God to win, then let’s just have it out...I like my chances.”

Such a divine duel conjures up candidates back to back on a stormy field one morning, walking away from each other to see who gets struck by lightning and rises up, or not.

In this bizarre year, what else? Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson could serve as seconds to ensure evangelical voters there are no concealed lightning rods or other tent-show gimmickry.

Timing could be tricky, as a massive solar storm threatens Earth this week, but sometime around St. Patrick’s Day or the NCAA Final Four might be symbolically suitable.

Only the participation of the Deity is in question. I recall a friend some years ago who was running himself ragged with his ministerial duties waking one morning with the flu and trying to drag himself out of bed.

“Then I had a vision,” he said, “God hovering above me, wringing his hands and moaning, ‘How will I get through the day without him.’ I dropped back on the pillow and went back to sleep.”

It might help Romney and Santorum to visualize such hand-wringing and lower their sights to each other and such lesser entities as Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.

Besides, who knows? The Man Upstairs may like Obama.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Romney Love, a Russian Novel

On Super Tuesday, the GOP delivers another chapter in its update of “Anna Karenina,” a serialized Tolstoy tale of the clash between love and duty, the search for passion in high places.

Ann Romney recently named it as one of her two favorite books, raising literary eyebrows like those of Virginia Heffernan:

“Shouldn't, for one, a political wife...be naming American novels as her favorites? With wholesome themes like ‘stay married to that government tool Karenin, even if he makes you feel dead inside’? It's just an idea.”

GOP voters are still showing that kind of inner conflict by running off for interludes with a low-rent Vronsky, Rick Santorum, in backwoods states and embarrassing Mitt with a close call in Ohio, even if it portends ending up under the wheels of a train in November.

Unruly Republican hearts just can’t seem to settle for the conventional, prolonging the melodrama to a possible Convention duel with all kinds of unforeseeable plot twists.

In fact, they may well be following the example of Tolstoy, who quarreled with his editor over the final chapter of Anna and never delivered it, leaving readers in limbo until the story was finally published in book form.

One way or another, the GOP has to come up with some kind of socko ending this summer, and Sarah Palin is sending out signals that she’ll be there to take the stage if all else fails.

That would turn the tragedy into farce, with a chirpy heroine who claims she can see Russia from her Alaskan outpost and perhaps Tolstoy revolving in his grave.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Slo-Mo Iran Missile Crisis

Fifty years after the world teetered on the brink of war in 1962 when the Soviet Union put missiles into Cuba 90 miles from the U.S., we have a more slowly unfolding nuclear crisis with Israel and Iran as our partners in the diplomatic death dance.

In Washington this week, the President tries both to reassure the Israeli prime minister of our firm backing to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and to stay his hand from a preemptive strike to stop them.

“When he warns that an Israeli attack on Iran could backfire,” says a New York Times editorial, “and that ‘there is still a window’ for diplomacy, he is speaking for American and Israeli interests.

“Iran’s nuclear appetites are undeniable, as is its malign intent toward Israel, toward America, toward its Arab neighbors and its own people. Israel’s threats of unilateral action have finally focused the world’s attention on the danger. Still, there must be no illusions about what it would take to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear complex, the high costs and the limited returns.

“This would not be a ‘surgical’ strike like the Israeli attack in 1981 that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, or the 2007 Israeli strike on an unfinished reactor in Syria. Iran has multiple facilities, and the crucial ones are buried or ‘hardened.’ Pentagon analysts estimate that even a sustained Israeli air campaign would set back the program by only a few years, drive it further underground and possibly unleash a wider war.

“It would also cast the Iranian government as the victim in the eyes of an otherwise alienated Iranian public. It would tear apart the international coalition and undermine an increasingly tough sanctions regime, making it even easier for Iran to rebuild its program.”

Nonetheless, the President is under intense pressure from both Prime Minister Netanyahu and his would-be November opponents (save Ron Paul) to cowboy into a confrontation. (As a warmup, John McCain wants him to bomb Syria.)

In another dimension, the President and Premier may be playing some high-stakes version of good cop-bad cop. If so, the bad cop had better avoid overacting.

In his measured approach, Barack Obama is taking a leaf from John F. Kennedy half a century ago who said, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”

Robert Kennedy was to write afterward, “Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side can bring a counterresponse. No action is taken against a powerful enemy in a vacuum. A government or a people will fail to understand this at their great peril. For that is how wars begin—-wars no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.”

Messrs. Netanyahu, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, are you listening?

Update: “This is not a game,” the President says in a Super Tuesday news conference to answer his GOP critics. “The one thing we have not done is we have not launched a war. If some of these folks think we should launch a war, let them say so, and explain to the American people.”

The winner(s)will have ample chances to answer.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Breitbart: The Dead Speaking Ill

Before dying suddenly at 43 last week, right-wing activist Andrew Breitbart promised a “bombshell” to dethrone the President and has now posthumously exploded it: Barack Obama saw a play about Saul Alinsky in Chicago 14 years ago.

Since politically deceased Newt Gingrich has also been hammering the President with Alinsky during GOP debates, herewith a word-for-word reprint of a post from March 27, 2007 to help voters judge for themselves Breitbart’s “stunner”:


In coming months, voters will be judging Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What will they make of their youthful intersections with one of the fascinating figures of twentieth-century American politics, Saul Alinsky?

A grass-roots organizer of the poor who used radical means to work within the system, Alinsky was a puzzle to ideologues of both the right and left.

In 1970, Time Magazine concluded, “It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas. In an age of dissolving political labels, he is a radical--but not in the usual sense, and he is certainly a long way removed from New Left extremists.”

The year before, a Wellesley student, Hillary Rodham, had spent time a good deal of time interviewing him as the subject of her senior thesis.

Seventeen years later, a Columbia University graduate, Barack Obama, took a $13,000-a-year job in the Chicago organization Alinsky had founded.

Alinsky is a maddening figure to assess, even from this distance. He was charismatic, caring and selfless, but he could be crude, vulgar, disruptive and self-centered--often at the same time. His passion inspired downtrodden people, from Chicago stockyard workers to California migrant laborers, to organize and stand up for themselves.

Hillary Rodham’s thesis gave him a mixed review, conceding that Alinsky was “a born organizer” and “a man of exceptional charm” in “a peculiarly American tradition” but ultimately judging him unable to create larger social change. She was “tempted” but declined his offer of a job and went on to law school.

In 1985, Obama began three years of community organizing, getting residents to agitate for improvements such as better trash removal, playgrounds for their kids and removing asbestos from public housing. Then he too decided to go to law school.

In announcing his candidacy, Obama said that, in those neighborhoods, he had “received the best education I ever had” and “learned the true meaning of my Christian faith.”

Hillary Clinton has been more circumspect about her Alinsky experience. When her husband became President, she had her thesis sealed and, even now, it can only be read on the Wellesley campus.

Her caution is understandable: Hillary Rodham’s college years were a time of national turmoil. She began as president of the campus Republicans and ended supporting Gene McCarthy’s effort to stop the war in Vietnam.

What Clinton and Obama had in common, a generation apart, was youthful idealism looking for a way to express itself in the larger world. Despite his radical methods, Alinsky believed in working through the system. “Compromise,” he said, “is a noble word that sums up democracy.”

Now as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face the ultimate test of democracy, they can expect their early years to be the target of sliming. The producer of the swift-boat attack ads is salivating over the prospect of showing John McCain as a POW and superimposing phrases from the Wellesley thesis.

To deal with that kind of distortion, Clinton and Obama will have to show a toughness Alinsky doubted that people like them have. “A liberal,” he liked to say, “is someone who walks out of the room when the argument turns into a fight.”

What’s at stake in 2008 is worth fighting for.

So it is even more so in 2012.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The View from 88: Distress and Hope

On this day in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. It was my ninth birthday.

In April 1945, I was a 21-year-old foot soldier on the floor of a German farmhouse when someone shook me awake to whisper that FDR had died.

Now, at 88, I am inevitably shaped by those years after a working lifetime as writer, editor and publisher trying to explain the world to others—-and myself.

The scenes around me today are filled with human folly, selfishness and shameless behavior, but that’s far from the whole story. My so-called Greatest Generation, which survived a Depression and World War, does not in retrospect seem so morally superior to those that succeeded it but only more limited in education, experience of the world and outlook.

Many of our virtues were rooted in ignorance: no TV, cable, computers, Internet, no electronics of any kind, only radios with music, soap operas and swatches of evening news lifted from newspapers (when I was a teenage copy boy, I wrote some of them.)

As a nation we were united, but in an innocence that also had its dark side—-racial ghettos, religious prejudice, rural isolation—-where only unseen white men, almost all Protestant, held power over our lives in government and business.

Women then lived no fuller a life than those in Nazi Germany: Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Our mothers patrolled homes in house dresses, with only one exception.

Although we knew her as Mrs. Goldstein, nothing went with that matronly name, not the shimmer of clothes clinging to her trim body, or the beauty-parlor hair, the high-heeled shoes and face painted with makeup even in daytime, or the sweet perfume cloud that came into the living room in late afternoons when she kissed her son goodnight and dazzled the rest of us playing there with a cupid’s bow smile on her way out.

She always seemed on the move to someplace exciting or, if my mother’s mutterings could be believed, sinful. I had no idea what nafka meant, but Mrs. Goldstein gave our pre-teen senses a whiff of hope that the night life on movie screens existed somewhere in the real world.

Jump cut through decades: a World War; prosperous but Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit Fifties; JFK, the Youthquake, Civil Rights awakening and Women’s Lib of the televised Sixties; a backlash of the Silent Majority and Watergate in the Nixon years; Reagan’s Morning-in-America to paper over growing economic and political gulfs followed by Clinton’s centrism and self-centeredness barely surviving Gingrich’s loopy Contract with America; and then almost a decade of W’s preemptive war and mindless tax cuts to bring us into the Obama years of almost total Tea Party collapse of the civility that held us together all that time.

Yet, in perspective, what looks so grim now may only be the low point of another upward spiral to come. Only a week ago, the New York Times posted a symposium, “Are People Getting Dumber?”

Harvard’s brilliant Steven Pinker anchored it with an essay, “To See Humans’ Progress, Zoom Out”:

“Can we see the fruits of superior reasoning in the world around us? The answer is yes.

“In recent decades the sciences have made vertiginous leaps in understanding, while technology has given us secular miracles like smartphones, genome scans and stunning photographs of outer planets and distant galaxies. No historian with a long view could miss the fact that we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment...

“Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted--equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity--are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.”

Others point out a worldwide rise in IQ scores, innovations complicating our lives with “upgrade upon upgrade” that don’t “lower our native intelligence but "relentlessly burden it” and, perhaps most important of all, a blogger about stupidity notes:

“You can get a perfect score on your SATs and it will barely register in a world of 200 million tweets a day. But give just one stupid answer in a beauty pageant, and you’ll be the laughingstock of the world before you have time to clear your name on the next morning’s ‘Today’ show.

”And while watching something smart takes time, you can see something stupid in a flash. Today at work, when I had a spare moment, I didn’t try to learn a new language. I watched a video of a guy getting a tattoo removed with an air-blast sander. And now I know that’s not a very good idea.”

As I prepare to blow out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum headlines, I’ll be silently repeating Dr. Pangloss’ mantra, that with the proper attitude—-and some luck--we may all soon be living again in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Sluts, Snobs and Social Sanity

Conspiracy theory: Is Rush Limbaugh trying to take the heat off Rick Santorum in the Off-the-Wall Olympics?

The mouthiest presidential candidate in memory was getting attention this week for his “snob” and “throw up” criticism of the President and JFK until El Rushbo took after a Jesuit university law student with his “slut” and “prostitute” aria over her backing of contraception.

Now, as Santorum poo-poos Limbaugh’s comments as those of an entertainer and Mitt Romney, as always, evades and waffles, Barack Obama calls 30-year-old Sandra Fluke to console her over the attacks and back her position.

“The Democrats are desperate,” Limbaugh responds with his usual logic. “This is all they’ve got...to impugn and discredit the people who disagree with them.”

All this recalls Maureen Dowd’s account of a long-ago encounter with Limbaugh when she was a reporter interviewing a rising talk radio star:

“He arrived in a chauffeured town car and ordered $70-an-ounce Beluga, Porterhouse and 1990 Corton-Charlemagne...

"At our long-ago dinner, Limbaugh credited his success with being 'one-dimensional.' 'I’m totally concerned with me,' he said. And that was way before he got a contract for $400 million, so we can only imagine how one-dimensional he is now.

"But on Sunday, he ripped the president for having 'an out-of-this-world ego,' for being 'very narcissistic,' 'immature, inexperienced, in over his head.' (Isn’t immaturity scoring OxyContin from your maid?)

"It gives new meaning to pot, kettle and black."

Looking back at the Limbaugh that was, now four-times married with no offspring of his own, it’s not likely he’s trying to help out Santorum, just doing what comes naturally in a world that has lost so much traditional decency that it will give ratings and votes to the kind of people who used to be considered “wacko” beyond the pale.

Update: Today Dowd herself goes after Limbaugh in a column titled "Have You No Shame, Rush" that starts: “As a woman who has been viciously slashed by Rush Limbaugh, I can tell you, it’s no fun.

“At first you think, if he objects to the substance of what you’re saying, why can’t he just object to the substance of what you’re saying? Why go after you in the most personal and humiliating way?”

It’s well worth reading her double-length takedown.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Reel Lives of Sarah Palin

Unlike a film about the past that won the Oscar without words, the second biopic of a historical figure named Sarah Palin is apparently full of them, even before it hits the screen.

Has it been less than four years ago that an unknown governor of Alaska wowed the GOP convention with a speech about hockey moms and pit bulls with lipstick?

Now, after losing in 2008, quitting her day job and starring on Fox News, Facebook and a bus-trip strip tease about running for president this year, she is waging preemptive war against HBO’s “Game Change,” which premieres next weekend, with a video of John McCain’s people saying nice things about her publicly while they were suffering behind the scenes with her “Going Rogue” candidacy.

Palin apparently prefers the first movie about her, “The Undefeated,” a fawning infomercial with friends facing the camera and heaping praise on her, interspersed with Alaskan scenery and repeated shots of fat men in cigar-smoke-filled back rooms.

In it, Palin says her favorite movie is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but she never got there, and Netflix viewers rate her movie “didn’t like.”

Now, as Palin tries to undercut a more realistic picture of her, she is also pontificating about “pettiness” and “bickering” in the GOP primaries.

Of their new film, with Julianne Moore as you-know-who and Ed Harris as John McCain, the producers parry Palin’s attacks: “HBO has a long track record of producing fact-based dramas, and our mantra has always been ‘get the story right.’ We stand by our movie and we hope that people will withhold any judgment until they have viewed the film.”

In all fairness, the 21st century Norma Desmond deserves a “Sunset Boulevard” coda: “You’re Sarah Palin, you used to be big.” “I am big, it’s the politics that got small.”

It would be hard to argue with that.