Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy New Year, Don Rumsfeld

Dear Mr. Secretary: If anyone deserves a better year than 2006, it’s you.

As someone who once lost a top job, I feel your pain. The calendar goes blank, message slips disappear, and people avert their eyes as though you had “loser” stamped on your forehead.

Sure, they gave you a brass-band sendoff, but a sensitive person could see you felt as if the epaulettes were being stripped from your shoulders.

The good news is this: You are now free to do what you do best—set people straight.

Don’t take less than a million-dollar advance for your memoirs and then let those who let you down have both barrels. Start with your “good friend,” Dick Cheney, who should appreciate a shotgun metaphor.

Instead of looking in the mirror in 2000 and picking himself for VP, why not you? You could have spent these past years whispering into young Bush’s ear and being charming on ceremonial occasions.

Instead, they have you fronting for clueless politicians and gutless generals as a punching bag for the malicious media.

After all, your invasion plan sliced Iraq like a hot knife through butter. Why would anyone expect a master strategist to turn traffic cop?

Don’t stop believing in yourself. Even young Bush gets something right once in a while. In fifty years, the world may appreciate his brilliance and courage—and yours.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Brain Calisthenics for the New Congress

The New York Times reports “brain calisthenics” keep the elderly from losing their minds, but can anything be done for younger people in the U.S. Senate?

Of Senators who voted against going to war in Iraq, nine ranged in age from 66 to 85. But there was more to it than the cliché about older, wiser heads.

Not one of the 23 dissenters had Presidential ambitions, while many Democrats who gave George W. Bush a blank check for the disaster were clearly influenced by fear that their refusal might be used against them in the future.

As the first “Profiles in Courage” test of the century, those “no” votes of October 11, 2002 on Joint Resolution 114 ironically resulted not in political suicide for those who cast them but as a headache for those who did not.

Now here is a brain exercise for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd et al: To undo the damage, try hard to imagine what is right rather than what looks safe.

Don't fund the "surge" until you are sure it isn't a ploy to save Bush's face at the cost of more American lives.

Being tough-minded may not always get you what you want, but as you grow older, it will certainly keep your mind and spirit from deteriorating.

Lethal Politeness

From beyond the grave, Gerald Ford now tells us he thought the war in Iraq was "a big mistake." Why didn't he speak out three thousand American lives ago?

Colin Powell, who spent a lifetime serving his country, waits years to let us know his misgivings about the war. Why didn't he resign as Secretary of State and speak out before the deaths of all those soldiers he once commanded?

Even Bush 41 breaks down talking publicly about his fatherly feelings, and we all sense who and what his tears are about. But aren't those Iraq casualties, in the words of Arthur Miller's World War II play, "All My Sons"?

In an era when cable comics tells us more than we want to know about their sex lives and bowel habits, why is there still so much reticence to talk openly about the life and death of multitudes?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Importance of Not Being Nixon

When Richard Nixon resigned, the American people would have been happy to see the Oval Office vacant for a while.

A pleasant, well-meaning man, Gerald R. Ford came close to giving them what they wanted. Aside from his misstep in abruptly pardoning his predecessor, Ford's most memorable act in two years was asking citizens to fight rampant inflation by wearing buttons saying WIN ("Whip Inflation Now").

After Ford, voters chose an obscure Southern governor who wore a sweater for TV fireside chats while puzzling over a "national malaise."

It is no disrespect to Ford's memory to point out that a terrifying President like Nixon lowers the bar for his successors, just as whoever takes the oath in January 2009 will benefit greatly from not being George W. Bush.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

President Gore, Lame Duck

As Al Gore faces his final years in the White House, history will view his two terms as disappointing.

After a razor-thin victory over George Bush in 2000, the new President was ultra-cautious.

Republicans labeled him “Al Bore” for failing to pursue a muscular foreign policy and for endless consultations with UN members, NATO allies, even potential adversaries such as North Korea and Iran.

Then he overreacted to such criticism, using an intelligence report in August, 2001, as pretext for striking defenseless camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, arousing protests throughout the Middle East over the death of a populist leader, Osama bin Laden, and his followers.

Even more controversial was Gore’s expulsion of fifteen visitors from our ally, Saudi Arabia, for what Rush Limbaugh sarcastically termed “the heinous crime of taking flying lessons.”

The furor drove oil prices to $30 a barrel, with public protest bringing the President’s approval ratings down to 50 percent.

After that, Gore reverted to consensus by pushing for UN inspections in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. This diplomatic waffling, critics claim, diminished the U.S.’s standing in the world.

On the domestic front, the President refused to stimulate the economy with tax cuts, despite an ongoing budget surplus, and pushed for crippling limits on industrial emissions to reduce the so-called greenhouse effect.

Despite such gaffes, Gore narrowly won reelection in 2004 by reverting to Bill Clinton’s ploy of “It’s the economy, stupid.” His opponent, Malcolm Forbes, never managed to stir voters with his proposal of a flat income tax.

As 2008 approaches, the blandness of the Gore years may end. Vice-President Joe Lieberman, with a lock on the Democratic nomination, favors an aggressive American stance in the world. He will likely face George W. Bush, who claims Gore's election sent the country into a downward spiral.

A major issue will be terrorism which, relatively quiescent in eight years of diplomatic bumbling, may come to the fore again when a new President has America acting like a superpower again.

The question in 2008 will be: How do we let the rest of the world know we can no longer be pushed around?

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Raft of Celebrities

Picture Martha Stewart, Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump in the middle of an ocean.

I once invented a game for my media friends: Name three people you would put on a raft to be safe and sound but never to be heard from again.

The problem with the game turned out to be that three was never enough, but it did focus our minds on who were the most annoying celebrities of all.

Your choices can tell a lot about your values: Bill O’Reilly over O.J. Simpson? Paris Hilton or Dr. Phil?

Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand (one of my all-time greats), Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Cruise, Dick Cheney, Anna Nicole Smith, Henry Kissinger, Jessica Simpson, Robert Novak?

If you can’t think of names, watch Larry King on CNN. He has a candidate on his show just about every other night.

Donald Rumsfeld was on my short list for the year, but George Bush put him on his raft last month.

A Cure for Hiccups

President Kennedy’s White House doctor, Janet Travell, who put him in a rocking chair and kept him from being bed-ridden, spent a long career researching muscle spasms.

Twenty five years ago, I was helping Dr. Travell find a publisher for a two-volume medical text on trigger-point therapy when she mentioned a paper she had written on one form of that treatment-—for hiccups.

In this season of eating too fast and drinking too much, both of which may bring on hiccups, herewith Dr. Travell’s little-known but, in my experience, absolutely effective cure:

There is a small flap at the back of the upper palate called the uvula. Pressing the end of a butter knife or spoon handle firmly against it for three seconds or more will make the spasms stop. The only problem is to keep the hiccupper calm enough to avoid gagging.

In dozens of attempts with friends and family, I found it worked every time. As a magazine editor, I ran a brief item, and scores of readers confirmed that it did.

This hiccup treatment may also stop snoring, if you have the nerve to wake someone and try.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cuddly New Newt

One thing about Newt Gingrich: He’s never dull.

After shutting down the government in 1995, impeaching Bill Clinton for office sex while carrying on an affair in his own and a $300,000 fine by the House ethics committee, any other politician might slink into silence.

But here is a new cuddly, conciliatory Newt Gingrich, ubiquitous in New Hampshire, on “Meet the Press” and Fox TV, with a new crackpot Contract With America for the 21st century, advocating bipartisan solutions for social problems, most of them featuring patriotism, God and giving tax-free money to Gingrich.

He is not running for President, mind you, but is holding himself available if America needs him to lead us out of the darkness.

Don’t hold your breath, Newt

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Surging into a Quagmire

At his press conference Bush is asked “if this has been a time of painful realization for you...that some of the policies you hoped would succeed have not.”

He avoids talking about his mistakes by saying, “The most painful aspect of my Presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat.”

Asked about his judgment, Bush tells us about his compassion, making it hard for us to believe in either.

Now this man, who is temperamentally unable to admit being wrong, is considering a “surge” of more troops into Baghdad. If many of them die needlessly, he will undoubtedly tells us, as he did today, that “my heart breaks” for their families.

After he listens to all the expert advice about a surge to quell the violence, he would do well to consider the wisdom of the country boys in my platoon in World War II:

“Don’t keep getting into pissing contests with skunks.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Time for Reflection

Thirty five years ago, McCalls Magazine ran a cover with a Mylar mirror and the line, "The Woman of the Year is You."

We had a hell of a time finding enough of the stuff for millions of copies and making sure it stayed on the covers. Some readers complained about how it made them look.

When the editors of Time are finished with their self-congratulating specials on CNN, they might want to reflect on Harry Truman's aphorism at the top of this page.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

High-Speed Health Care

A New England Journal of Medicine report shows many doctors perform colonoscopies, spend less than six minutes and fail to find potentially dangerous growths.

This may be due less to physicians’ incompetence than pressures from their partners, the health insurers, to put patients on a souped-up assembly line.

Does it make sense to keep spending twice as much per capita for health care as any other nation and getting less because HMOs and insurance companies siphon off one out of every three dollars for their paperwork and profits?

There is growing clamor for reform across the political spectrum--from Newt Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, which stresses new technology, to Physicians for a National Health Program, which wants a public or quasi-public agency to oversee financing while delivery remains private.

When the Clintons tried in 1993, outcries over “socialized medicine” derailed them.

Since then, costs have ballooned, and coverage has shrunk. While we talk incessantly about life and death in Iraq, the casualties at home keep mounting. The next Congress should do something about both.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vilsack: Can Competence Compete ?

Meeting Tom Vilsack is a reminder of how degraded American politics has become.

Start with his name. When the Iowa governor declared for President, even though he had been on the Democrats’ short list for VP in 2004, the universal reaction was “Huh?”

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart superimposed the Aflac duck on his announcement, and comic Lewis Black told Larry King that Vilsack sounded like an unmentionable disease. (When Dukakis ran in 1988, his name was the least of his problems)

Less hilarious was a Des Moines political columnist’s reaction: “Polls show the governor runs badly in his own home state...and a majority of Iowans don’t think he should get into this race.”

Case closed.

Yet, at a recent Manhattan meeting with several dozen potential supporters, Vilsack was anything but the stereotype of a sure loser.

A thoughtful, plain-spoken man, Vilsack has a long, hard row to hoe, but he makes a strong case for competence in governing that may resonate with a public exhausted by the Bush years.

As an orphan with a troubled adoptive family history, Vilsack identifies with the struggles of working Americans to give their children good health care and a decent education.

Asked about his unfamiliarity with foreign affairs, he cites all the experience in the room when Bush decided to go into Iraq. “What was missing,” he says, “was judgment.”

The larger question raised by his candidacy is: Amid the 24/7 din of pundits, pollsters, standup cynics and logorrheic bloggers, can a straight-talking politician like Vilsack be heard?

In the 1990s, the Presidential process still had space for serious people like Bill Bradley, Richard Lugar and Mario Cuomo, but it was shrinking.

Bill Clinton may have been the tipping point. As the smooth governor of a small state, he broke through anonymity and leveraged Bush 41’s lack of “the vision thing” to the White House, balanced the budget and kept us out of war but also managed to get himself impeached and rendered impotent to take out Osama bin Laden by fear of “Wag the Dog” accusations.

Since then, it has been all downhill. Last month’s election was a national cry of pain, but where do we go from here?

In coming months, Vilsack's fate may offer some clues. In the Iowa caucuses, he is in a bind. If he wins, ho-hum, but he may then attract enough serious money and support to go on. If not, it’s over.

Undaunted, he welcomes all challengers and predicts he will prevail by getting through to the people of Main Street where he lives literally in Mt, Pleasant, Iowa and figuratively all over America.

Without the clout of Hillary Clinton or the high voltage of Barack Obama, Vilsack has his own quiet charm and confidence.

On December 18th, he will be interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

“We’re going to have some fun,” he says with a small smile.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Christmas Card to Ralph Nader

Dear Ralph: Haven’t heard much from you lately, but happy to see you are alive and well, working to “preserve the safety and quality of life for every American,” as your web site puts it.

But your recent suggestion that Bill Moyers run for President in ’08 as a third-party candidate is a wee bit troubling.

Age has a tendency to cloud our memories, so forgive me for pointing out what you surely know:

In 2000, your idealistic efforts for our safety and quality of life gave us George W. Bush by drawing 180 times the number of votes by which Gore lost Florida and three times the margin by which he fell short in New Hampshire.

The almost three million Americans who voted for you were an inspiration to us all, but please stop inspiring us to elect Presidents who take us into ruinous wars and pick Supreme Court justices who may destroy the Constitution.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Deprivation by Surfeit

Half a century ago, at the dawn of TV and before the Web, change was sluggish. It took years for new ideas and new people to grab the public imagination.

Now, we know everything instantly and we are in danger of what Lewis Mumford called "deprivation by surfeit," overwhelmed with more than we can digest and assimilate--too much in too little time to think about and understand.

The question comes up after the carpet-bombing of our senses with Barack Obama's rock-star tour of New Hampshire this weekend. Almost two years before the '08 election, he is a promising public figure.

But will the media devour him before we get a solid sense of who he is and what he may become?

In show business, disposable celebrities come and go with no social damage.

But, as we have learned to our sorrow in the past five years, picking a President is serious business. Give Obama and Americans a chance to get to know each other.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cheap Grace and Invincible Ignorance

One of Adolf Hitler’s last orders before his death in April 1945 was to hang a 39-year-old minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer had opposed the comfort the German Church was conferring on believers while turning a blind eye to the inhumanity of the Nazis.

“Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance...absolution without personal confession.”

Ever since, Bonhoeffer has been a beacon to those of all faiths, or even none, whose beliefs lead to humility, self-sacrifice and good works rather than contempt for those who do not share their self-serving certainties.

“Invincible ignorance,” according to Catholic doctrine, excludes sin, since it leads those in that state to involuntary error.

As Sunday morning quarterbacks on “Meet the Press,” etc. try to predict what George Bush will or will not do after the report of the Iraq Study group, such reflections on religion are inspired in a secular humanist in the throes of despair about the ongoing bloodshed.

How do you get through the defenses of cheap grace and invincible ignorance?

Friday, December 08, 2006

If the Centrists Rise Up...

There has always been one sure bet in American politics: No Mayor of New York can get to the White House.

The charismatic John Lindsay was shot down in the 1972 primaries, but no one else came close.

Now we have Rudy Giuliani, still wearing his 9/11 halo, gearing up for the Republican nomination, and what’s this...?

“Bloomberg ‘08” blares a New York Magazine cover.

Jeff Greenfield on CNN does a piece on a “vertically challenged Jewish billionaire” running as an Independent in 2008, days before the network’s political guru Bill Schneider describes the Mayor as “a healer and conciliator.”

Even George Will gets into the act by calling Bloomberg the nation’s “leading Centrist.”

While Bloomberg urges others to run, his Deputy keeps telling reporters he “hopes the Mayor will change his mind” about not running himself (coyness cubed).

The non-candidate visits Jeb Bush in Florida and exchanges air-kiss compliments with Governor Arnold on the other coast after ladling out money and endorsements to save Congressman Chris Shays and Senator Joe in Connecticut.

With all the dark horses pawing at the starting gate, Bloomberg can afford to wait and see how the race shapes up until late next year.

If the nation seems ready for a plausible Ross Perot, Bloomberg’s fund-raising will consist of one phone call--to his personal bankers.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 7, 1941 and 2006

Sixty-five years ago today, the world changed.

I was in a hospital next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window as a nurse in white mask held up a sleeping baby. A minute later, she drew the curtain.

In those days, fear of germs kept newborns isolated, and the new father could get only a quick look. As a college student, my part-time job was to hand him a hospital gown and 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 those tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College of New York, my eyes on a huge mural, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing 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 saying we are at war.

The day was a 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 warm 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 in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.

That was how the “Greatest Generation” came to its calling
--with a shock that would be unequaled until 9/11/01. The war was unseen but our imaginations, overheated by a recent Orson Welles’ broadcast of an “invasion from Mars,” produced pictures in our minds more horrifying than anything cable TV and the Internet give us now.

This week, despite all the news from Washington as leaders debate the war in Iraq, millions of Americans will go about their lives untouched by the life-and-death drama our young people there are living every day.

As a nation, we are swamped with information and images of this war, but do we feel a fraction of what we did on December 7, 1941?

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Busy Week in Washington

So it has come to this:

At 11 A.M. Wednesday, the Iraq Study Group will post its report on four web sites, James Baker and Lee Hamilton will hold a press conference, the TV screens will overflow with blather, Americans and Iraqis will keep dying in Baghdad, and the only suspense will focus on one question:

Is the President of the United States still out to lunch?

On Thursday, Baker and Hamilton will climb Capitol Hill to sit before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the invitation of Carl Levin, who is looking more and more like Santa Claus these days, and John Warner, whose ashen face appears to have been recently frozen under the strain of actually thinking about what he is saying.

Levin, who voted against going into Iraq, and Warner, who didn’t but was once married to Elizabeth Taylor, will strike thoughtful poses, their confreres will emit scripted sound bites, and Americans and Iraqis will be still be dying in Baghdad.

The media is going to have a busy week anticipating what the report will say, covering its release and analyzing the aftermath.

Americans and Iraqis will be dying in Baghdad, and will the President still be out to lunch?.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Coaltion of the Increasingly Less Willing

President Bush says American troops will stay in Iraq “until the job is complete” and there will be no “graceful exit.”

His certitude is apparently not infectious. Fifteen members of the “Coalition of the Willing,” including Spain, Norway and the Netherlands, have made their exits in the past three years. Japan, Italy and Poland are on their way out, and even the British are cutting back.

Before long, the White House’s bunker mentality, which, according to polls, is increasingly distancing the Administration from the American people, will be global.

If Bush prevails and we are the last to leave, at least we won’t have to remember to turn off the lights. In Baghdad these days, the power is on for only seven hours a day.