Thursday, November 30, 2006

Folk Wisdom

A stranger sees a farmer struggling with a mule that refuses to move, says, “Let me reason with him” and bashes a plank over the mule’s head.

“I thought you were going to reason with him,” the farmer says.

“I am, but first I have to get his attention.”

In the Middle East, a pious farmer is told he will be granted any wish, but his neighbor will get twice as much.

“Poke out one of my eyes,” he asks.

In the debate over Iraq, we are beyond rational thinking. “Iraq Panel to Recommend Pullback of Combat Troops” is a headline in today’s New York Times, which quotes President Bush in Latvia, “I’m not going to pull the troops off the battlefield until the mission is complete.”

For a President who has given new meaning to “often wrong but never in doubt,” the only plank in sight may be the power of the purse strings. How to get his attention without endangering our people in uniform is the problem a new Congress will have to solve.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the eye-poking goes on.

Monday, November 27, 2006

If Wishes Were Horses

A reality check for Americans as they Christmas shop and prepare for holiday screenings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”:

The disaster in Iraq has lasted longer than World War II and killed more of us than the airliners that destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.

After expressing their pain at the polls, voters are getting the same talking heads spouting the same gibberish:

On “Meet the Press,” Congressmen and rent-a-Generals debate tactics for turning a killing ground for murderous zealots into a working democracy while Moqtada al-Sadr threatens to bring down the Maliki government if the Prime Minister even talks to President Bush.

On “60 Minutes,” the American commander, General Abizaid, bristles at an interviewer’s use of the word “defeat” and insists that “Iraq could stabilize.”

As my immigrant parents used to say, if wishes were horses, we would all be riding.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"Bobby" and Obama

On “The West Wing,” Martin Sheen embodied the fantasy of an idealistic President who gave us respite from the shoddy realities of the network news.

Now, his son Emilio Estevez has made a movie about Robert Kennedy, which has had the bad luck to open at the death of Robert Altman, inviting comparisons with one of the master filmmakers of all time.

But what is striking in reviews of “Bobby” is that, whatever its merits, it has evoked a longing for the meaning politics once had in American life.

In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott says that in the archival clips, Kennedy talks “with a quiet eloquence that sounds almost outlandish to present-day ears about the problems of poverty, prejudice, pollution and war.”

The Los Angeles Times reviewer notes that “the vitality of Kennedy” reminds us “we’re far removed from an age where politicians embraced issues and positions rather than middle-of-the-road centrism.”

It sounds like a movie that all those who are excited by the emergence of Barack Obama, and the young Senator himself, should see and take to heart.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Politics, Poetry and Posturing

Every November 22nd, older Americans wake up with a pang. More than four decades later, the death of John F. Kennedy still hurts.

It is more than nostalgia. At his inaugural, the poet Robert Frost foresaw “a golden era of poetry and power.” At Kennedy’s death, the world’s poets filled a volume with elegies and anguish.

Since then, poetry and power have gone their separate ways in our national life. As we look at today’s political landscape, is there any trace of JFK’s humanity in Hillary Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani or any other possible replacements for the robotic President we have now?

John F. Kennedy was far from naïve. There was more of the Irish politician than the Irish poet in him, but he made Americans feel there was a human being behind all the posturing that leaders have to do.

That’s what those of us who knew him miss most.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

President Candide

George W. Bush finally goes to Vietnam and, as usual, misses the point.

Back in Washington, John McCain, who was there when it counted, is agonizing publicly over the possibility of our having to leave Iraq with the humiliating scene of our people being air-lifted from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon "multiplied a thousandfold."

Like Candide, seeing only that "All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds," Bush in Vietnam is preaching an Iraq homily that "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Somebody, perhaps Vice-President Pangloss, should tell Bush we lost in Vietnam and that the progress he was gushing over there came after we were thrown out.

He should also be reminded that Nixon, who got elected in 1968 with the promise of a "secret plan" to get out of Vietnam, stalled for half a dozen years before giving up, and even Bush must know what finally happened to him.

If the new Congress has a mandate, it is to get out of Iraq as quickly and decently as we can. Quitting and succeeding are beside the point.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Defining Deviancy Down, Rock Bottom

Just as politicians with their attack ads seem to have won the Gold in the Sleaze Olympics, along come O.J. Simpson, publisher Judith Regan and Fox TV to set new records for shamelessness with his hypothetical confession.

If the Gods are just, they will all be consigned to Publicity Hell, where they will never be heard from again.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Defining Deviancy Down, 2006

What would the Senate’s last sociologist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have made of this year’s election?

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

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

Moynihan would have been fascinated by how Republicans embraced his thesis this year in their campaigning while railing against it to terrify voters in their “cultural wars” ideology.

In efforts to elect candidates who would criminalize gay couples and women seeking abortions, politicians doing “the Lord’s work” stooped to new lows.

They tried to pass off Mark Foley’s electronic mash notes to teen-aged boys as “inappropriate” while trashing Harold Ford with a racist “Call me” commercial in Tennessee and attacking a New York Democrat for taxpayer-paid phone sex, based on a $1.25 misdialing of a legitimate call. That used to be called "lying."

If cultural conservatives are going to oppose making what they consider deviant behavior acceptable, they will have to stop using what everybody considers deviant tactics to defeat those who disagree with them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

McCain's Tin Ear

Has the high altitude of being the 2008 front-runner made John McCain politically tone-deaf?

First he swallows his principles to kiss Jerry Falwell’s hem before last week’s elections erase much of the “God gap” that make evangelicals vital to securing the Republican nomination.

Then yesterday, on “Meet the Press,” after backing Bush throughout the campaign, he continues to advocate sending more troops to Iraq, invoking victory and honor, as every other politician in Washington, including Bush, is groping for an exit strategy to the disaster.

Someone should tell the Senator there is a difference between being a maverick and stubbornly mistaken.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Bush's New Body Language

Since the elections, our President has been acting like the kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Gone, for now, are the sanctimony and self-righteousness. Instead, we get good-ole-boyisms about a thumpin' and glazed-smile promises of bi-partisanship.

But when the photo ops are over, Democrats should remember that the cookie jar was the Constitution. They would do well to keep a tight lid on it and an eye on Bush's hand.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Karl Rover Boys Miss Their Chance

If the Republicans had not been dazzled by bringing out The Base, they might have seen an obvious answer to keeping control of the Senate.

Months ago, it was clear Joe Lieberman was in trouble. He won reelection this week only because Republicans fielded a non-entity who drew 10 percent of their party vote.

In a serious three-way contest, Christopher Shays, who squeaked through in the Fourth District with the help of Mayor Bloomberg’s get-out-the vote troops, or some other credible Republican could have taken the Connecticut seat with less than 40 percent of the ballots.

In 1968, Joe Flaherty wrote “The Selling of the President” to show that Nixon’s media manipulators had won the White House for him.

The truth is that, after the chaos of the Democrats’ convention in Chicago, Nixon led the polls by 15 per cent. Two months and $20 million dollars later, he won by less than one per cent.

Evil geniuses have always been overrated.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Father Knows Best?

Behind the mock-swagger of the President’s post-election press conference are clues to a possible sea change in the Bush family psychodrama.

Three years ago when Bob Woodward asked Bush II if he had consulted Bush I before invading Iraq, the President said he had consulted a “higher father,” leaving it unclear whether he meant God or Dick Cheney.

Now that the Veep’s alter ego, Rumsfeld, is gone, George W. is turning back to his birth roots in picking a confidante of George H.W. to succeed him and awaiting the Iraq Study Group report of another paternal friend, James Baker, to give him cover for an exit strategy.

If it weren’t all so deadly serious, it would be right out of a Seventies sitcom, the teenager taking the family car without permission, wrecking it and needing an understanding Dad to bail him out.

Life is Unfair

The comeuppance of George Bush’s Congress comes with its own ironies.
Lincoln Chaffee, who had the courage to vote against the war in 2002, is brought down in Rhode Island by Bush’s lowest approval ratings in the nation.
In neighboring Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, who whole-heartedly supported going into Iraq, survives his defeat in the Democratic primary, and is sent back to the Senate by the support of Republican voters, where as an Independent, he will have to wooed back into his own party.
As John F. Kennedy said, life is unfair.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

R.I.P, President Pitchman

The joy will go out of George W. Bush’s life on November 8, 2006. Whether or not Republicans hold on to Congress, Bush’s loss will be irreparable. He will no longer have what gives his existence meaning.

Before Monicagate, Maureen Dowd nailed Bill Clinton as “the only President who is still social-climbing,” a capsule for his combination of ambition, neediness and guile.

Bush is the only President who never stopped campaigning and started governing.

After November 7th, he will lose that. Karl Rove & Company may still provide reruns of his favorite milieu: hand-picked cheering crowds and brainless banners, catch phrases to demonize Democrats, self-satisfied smiles belaboring the obvious (9/11 changed the world) and twisting it to his needs (tear up the Constitution to get the terrorists).

But the real thrill will be gone—persuading voters to part with their rights as easily as carnival barkers sold elixirs to clueless rubes. Bush will be left only with press conference to smirk uncomfortably at reporters asking about real issues. As always, he will have no answers, only nostrums.

R.I.P, President Pitchman.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Bush's Best Bet for Posterity

As he faces his final years in the White House, George W. Bush should take a closer look at what two of his role models did in their second terms as Republican presidents.

Ronald Reagan stopped speechifying about the “Evil Empire” and launched an era of détente with the Soviet Union.

Richard Nixon, as yet unaware that Watergate would bring him down, went to China for what he termed “the week that changed the world.”

Reagan and Nixon were doing what lame-duck presidents do, securing their place in history by trying to get past the partisanship that elected them and taking a longer view of the national interest.

Or, to put it more crudely, they were selling out the extremists whose support they no longer needed and making a bid for posterity.

How will Bush define himself for the ages?

We should have the answer soon after Election Day when the Iraq Study Group makes its report. In responding, will Bush continue as a pitchman for the war or, at long last, do some actual thinking about what Cheney, Rumsfeld et al have wrought and begin to pursue alternatives to the disaster over which he has presided?

In straying from the course, George W. Bush has one last chance to undo some of the damage his Administration has done to our reputation in the world and, at the same time, rewrite the first draft of his legacy to history.

Shortly before he died, Lyndon Johnson gave me his assessment of Richard Nixon. “Not too much here,” LBJ said, pointing to his head and then holding his hand over his heart, “even less here.” Then he lowered it below his belt. “But enough down there.”

LBJ was wrong. If he and Nixon had not been so obsessed with their manhood, or the appearance of it, they could have saved years and lives getting out of Vietnam. History would have been kinder to them than it is now.

Will George W. Bush use his head and heart to avoid repeating those mistakes and follow Reagan’s lead into the sunset of his presidency? Those who detest him will not begrudge the 43rd President an upgrade in history if he stops the loss of American lives and treasure even at this late date.