Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Energizer Bunny of Baghdad Grifters

If you wanted to cram all the Bush Administration's folly, stupidity and inability to learn into the story of one person, it would be Ahmad Chalabi, the con man who milked the U.S. for millions, lied us into the war and now is a key figure in helping Prime Minister al Maliki and Gen. Petraeus put Iraq back together.

His new job is to press the central government to use gains from the Surge to deliver better electricity, health, education and security services to Baghdad neighborhoods.

Never mind that, as late as this summer, he was sabotaging U.S. plans for de-Bathification and spying for Iran, today Chalabi "is an important part of the process," according to Col. Steven Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman. "He has a lot of energy."

During the runup to the war, Chalabi was promoted by Neo-Cons as the “George Washington of Iraq.” A fugitive from Jordan after being convicted of bank fraud, he told the Pentagon all about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda for which we paid $33 million over four years. None of it turned out to be true.

Nonetheless, he stayed on the U.S. payroll until 2004. About that time, we learned Chalabi was selling information to Iran, letting them know that one of our sources of Iranian intelligence was a broken code used by their spy services.

Now he is devoting all that "energy" into helping us put the pieces of Iraq back together. If Petraeus and al Maliki have him over to lunch to discuss his progress, they had better count the silverware before he leaves.

Spies, Secrets and Sexy Women

Mata Hari would have been mortified, and James Bond might have been stirred, even shaken. Here last night was Valerie Plame, the kind of elegant woman you meet at a Washington cocktail party, talking to Jon Stewart about what the CIA has redacted from her new book in a section about breast-feeding her baby.

Spying is not what it used to be and, from newly released figures, getting more costly and complicated all the time. This year the government is spending $43.5 billion on spy services, up from $26.6 billion a decade ago, according to Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence.

What's more, since 9/11, most of it has been outsourced to civilian contractors in what amounts to a Blackwatering of national spy operations.

The Washington Post has quoted a former senior Pentagon intelligence official about the difficulty of military efforts in Iraq to provide human intelligence sources to forces that rotate out after tours of a single year. "That is hardly enough time to develop serious, dependable Iraqi sources," he said.

As with so much of what goes on in our Iraq adventure, we have no way of knowing who is being paid how much to do what to whom. Are we employing exotic dancers to seduce officials, as Mata Hari presumably did during World War I? Or are most of our spies office-bound matrons like Valerie Plame Wilson?

Unless or until Dick Cheney gets teed off at one of their husbands, we may never know.

Send Out the Clowns

Mike Gravel didn't make the cut for last night's Democratic debate for failure to meet NBC's "fundraising and polling requirements" but Ron Paul apparently was viable enough ratings-wise to appear with Jay Leno last night.

"There's probably a risk I could win," Dr. Paul told him, but not against Stephen Colbert, according to a new poll that shows the Comedy Central star outpolling him among Republicans and drawing more votes from Democrats than Denis Kucinich.

In his uphill battle with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama has been complaining that the polls up to now have been more about name recognition than political substance.

He may have a point. In the 2003 California recall election, when there were 135 candidates, a well-dressed young man with an attaché case was interviewed on network TV. "I'm going to vote for the coolest name on the ballot," he said with a straight face.

Arnold Schwarzenegger won. He had announced his candidacy to Jay Leno.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Insanity Over Iran

We're in recurring nightmare territory here. Today's Zogby poll shows more than half of voters would support a military strike to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon and believe it likely the U.S. will do so before next year's election.

On PBS' News Hour, normally an oasis of rationality in the TV news desert, we have a solemn debate about attacking Iran between Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and Norman Podhoretz, the Neo-Con relic Rudy Giuliani is propping up to prove he is a true conservative.

When Zakaria points out we have used deterrence and containment against nuclear threats from China, the Soviet Union and North Korea, Podhoretz accuses him of "an irresponsible complacency...comparable to the denial in the early '30s of the intentions of Hitler that led to what Churchill called an unnecessary war involving millions and millions of deaths that might have been averted if the West had acted early enough."

If Zakaria's informed rationality and Podhoretz's apocalyptic drool are given equal weight as two sides of the argument, we may be headed for another Iraq, propelled by the same political and media cowardice of five years ago.

The Senate passes the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment designating the Iranian Revolution Guard as a terrorist organization by a vote of 76 to 22, with Hillary Clinton, among other Democrats, failing to see that the Bush-Cheney Administration will surely use it to justify an attack on Iran without seeking Congressional approval.

Such willful blindness now leads to apparent public approval of what would surely be another act of national insanity, putting American troops in harm's way in three Muslim countries based on no compelling national interest beyond the loopy theories of a gaggle of armchair warriors in a discredited lame-duck Administration.

To top it all off, we have Rudy Giuliani war-mongering for votes in New Hampshire by accusing Clinton and Obama of wanting to negotiate with bad people and debating whether to invite Ahmadinejad and Osama to "the inauguration or the inaugural ball."

Why aren't more politicians and media people speaking out about this recurrence of madness?

Make-or-Break for Obama

Tonight's Democratic debate could be critical to his chances of catching up, but Barack Obama will be caught between a rock, Hillary Clinton, and a hard place, a stageful of also-rans competing for the sound bite or riposte to lift them into the top tier--not the best milieu for a candidate who rose to recognition through candor, personal charm and a thoughtful approach to public policy.

Last weekend, the New York Times led off a report on an interview: "Senator Barack Obama said he would start confronting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton more directly and forcefully." Easier said than done, and time is getting short.

After almost a year of foreplay, the nominations will be consummated three months from now on Super Tuesday, February 5th, when twenty states with over half the convention delegates hold primary elections. In the month before, Iowa and New Hampshire will provide some clues.

Against a backdrop of discouraging polls, Obama has been under great pressure from supporters to take the offensive, but is it in his nature or, at this point, even in his interest?

Criticizing Clinton so far has been like throwing rocks at a bulldozer, as John Edwards' efforts in the past weeks have shown. If Obama goes on the attack, it can't be over complex issues such as health care, Social Security or tax reform and it's too late to keep talking about his 2002 opposition to the war in Iraq.

Obama is left with only one opening--Iran. Clinton's vote for the Kyle-Lieberman resolution leaves her vulnerable to charges of being Bush-lite on dealing with the challenges of the Middle East, and Obama can point to a new Zogby poll showing that a majority of Americans are ready to confront Iran and claim that Clinton has contributed once again to public support for an unnecessary war.

But that will be a hard sell, and if Republican reactions are any guide, Obama's chances are slim. Even Dick Cheney is now making little jokes about his cousin Barack, something he would never do if Obama's chances of getting the nomination looked better.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Listening to the People

The man who gave a voice to unheard Americans is speaking up today against illegal listening in on them.

In a New York Times Op Ed, 95-year-old Studs Terkel recounts the history of illegal wiretapping during the Red Scare day of the 1920s, McCarthyism in the 1950s and now the Bush Administration's dismantling of the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Terkel became famous for taping and airing conversations that, in his words, "celebrated the lives of the uncelebrated among us, for lending voice to the face in the crowd."

In a new memoir, the once-blacklisted liberal compares himself jokingly to Richard Nixon, saying both "could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians: I tape, therefore I am," or in his own case, "I tape, therefore they are." Terkel's oral histories brought so-called ordinary Americans into history.

Now he is enraged at an executive branch that listens to them too much against their will and at a Congress "moving in a haphazard fashion to provide a 'get out of jail free card' to the telephone companies that violated the rights of their subscribers.

"Some in Congress argue that this law-breaking is forgivable because it was done to help the government in a time of crisis. But it’s impossible for Congress to know the motivations of these companies or to know how the government will use the private information it received from them."

The man who taught us how to listen to America deserves to be heard on a subject he knows well.

Crazed Converts: Bush and Giuliani

Half a century after a book inspired President Eisenhower to warn about political fanatics, Americans have one in the White House and another who would get there by exploiting the hatred and fears described by Eric Hoffer back then.

The life paths of George W. Bush and now Rudy Giuliani fit Hoffer's description of how "The True Believer" converts personal failure to political success: "Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance."

The disastrous consequences of Bush's midlife crisis are now clear, but the effects of Giuliani's conversion are just coming to light. On September 11, 2001, a lackadaisical lame-duck mayor with no political prospects and two failed marriages was transformed into a money-making preacher and then the zealous leader of a crusade against Islamofascism.

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman cites the Republican front runner's dedication to spreading what Franklin Roosevelt called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” inspired by those described by Frank Rich as "the mad neocon bombers shaping his apocalyptic policy toward Iran" after giving Bush an outlet for his new-found religious zeal in attacking Iraq.

For a time, Giuliani seemed merely cynical in courting Republican extremists who find his social values distasteful, but more and more, the alarming truth seems to be that he may really believe what he is saying about a holy war.

As he surrounds himself with more and more Podhoretzes and Kristols, the future Republican nominee may want to ponder the words of Hoffer, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan: "The rule seems to be that those who find no difficulty in deceiving themselves are easily deceived by others. They are easily persuaded and led."

The rest of us will have to take comfort in another Hoffer observation: “It is cheering to see that the rats are still around--the ship is not sinking.”

Clinton-Bashing Below the Belt

Should there be an expiration date on White House gossip? The question is raised by "revelations" this weekend by the New York Daily News and Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

"Ford saw Clinton as a sex 'addict'" was the News headline yesterday based on a new book by one of its own, Washington Bureau Chief Thomas M. DeFrank, author of "Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford" and Russert had him on MTP to discuss it.

The timing of Ford's posthumous distaste for Bill Clinton's "skirt-chasing" and Hillary Clinton's "iron will" may seem a tad suspicious and, to eliminate any doubt, the News follows it with Mr. DeFrank's "Giuliani is GOP's best shot against Hillary, said Ford."

Just before he died, DeFrank reveals, the former President described America's mayor as the best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton in "08. "He's really good," Mr. Ford is quoted as saying, "he's articulate--he's just a leader." Nothing about Giuliani's "skirt-chasing."

Aside from dragging a 93-year-old man who died soon afterward into today's electoral mudslinging, there is a sad irony in bringing Gerald Ford forward as a character witness about the Clintons' dysfunctional marriage.

By Betty Ford's own testimony, her husband's being away from home politicking most nights of the year before and after their White House years brought on her addiction to alcohol and pain killers.

With Mrs. Ford in ill health in her ninetieth year, DeFrank might have well waited until she too was "gone" before involving the Fords in a public dissection of the shortcomings in the Clintons' marriage.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Stephen Colbert Sues FEMA

A court order is being sought by the Stephen Colbert presidential campaign to enjoin the Federal Emergency Management Agency from issuing any further fake news in California.

The campaign claims that FEMA's actions in having employees pose as reporters at press conferences is "infringing on Mr. Colbert's trademark performance as a faux journalist over many years" and "if allowed to continue, would do irreparable harm to his activities as such in seeking the presidency."

Colbert stressed that having pseudo-reporters ask FEMA deputy administrator Harvey Johnson "sappy questions" was making a mockery of his finely honed journalistic impersonations. "No fake newsman worth his salt," he scoffed, "would ask 'Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?'"

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has authority over FEMA, called the incident "inexcusable and offensive." There are reports that he will apologize to Mr. Colbert personally and consider endorsing his candidacy.

Nixon/Frost: Poster Boys for Opportunism

Last night Bill Maher interviewed the ghost of David Frost and brought back a rush of memories about Richard Nixon, the 1970s' president who lied and broke laws with heartfelt sincerity.

Maher deferentially let Frost, with customary sliminess, rewrite the Iraq war into a little misunderstanding in which Americans and British went in willingly, without bothering to mention that up to 2 million people in London and hundreds of thousands in New York and Washington were in the streets protesting before it started.

But Frost, now immortalized in a play and upcoming movie for his post-resignation interviews, is remembered by contemporaries as a perfect match for Nixon, poster boys for smarmy opportunism. Typically, his "hard-hitting" interview with the disgraced President was the result of relentless cajoling.

The James Lipton of his day, Frost snagged unctuous sitdowns with Presidents and Prime Ministers, while earning the scorn of the Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe satirists, who called him the "Bubonic Plagiarist" for stealing their satirical approach to the news in his other incarnation.

For an approximation of Frost at his zenith, imagine a tireless, disingenuous combination of Jon Stewart and Larry King with unlimited ambition and greed.

His counterpart, Nixon, ended in disgrace but Sir David Frost, a multimillionaire and now host on the Al Jazeera English Channel, is still with us, pimping his way through history.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fred Thompson's Floppy Performance

In 1966, during his first political campaign, Ronald Reagan was asked what kind of governor he would be. "I don't know," he said. "I've never played a governor."

Using Reagan as a role model, Fred Thompson is running for President, but he just can't seem to get the dialogue right. Yesterday he told a South Carolina questioner "we will not be a safer America if the whole world watches us being defeated by a bunch of kids with improvised explosive devices."

Trying for Reaganesque earthiness, Thompson came up, as he often does, with a mouthful of mush, prompting Democratic candidate Joe Biden to call him "totally divorced from reality" about "a civil war between lethal militias."

Citing Thompson's foot-in-mouth flubs about Terri Schiavo, the Everglades and lethal injections in his home state, the National Journal noted that although "some conservatives herald Thompson as a modern-day Ronald Reagan, his recent gaffes seem to indicate he's more like the next George W. Bush."

Looking back at Reagan's presidency, Joan Didion observed that he "regarded his daily schedule as being something like a shooting script in which characters came and went, scenes were rehearsed and acted out, and the plot was advanced one day at a time."

But Reagan never blew his lines, something Thompson still has to learn.

Gut Check Time for Democrats

The party that could win the White House and extend its majorities in both houses of Congress next year is in disarray.

In confronting a President with abysmal approval ratings, Democrats have managed to lose every major battle this year--over the war in Iraq, children's health insurance and illegal wiretapping--and dissipate the mandate that gave them legislative control last November.

Now the internal bickering is on. Today a sappy memo from a House aide blames it on semantics. "Why,” writes Dave Helfert, who now works for Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). “are we defending S-CHIP instead of advocating a ‘Healthy Kids’ plan?...Republicans have been kicking our rhetorical butt since about 1995.”

But imitating Frank Luntz won't solve the party's problems. True enough, as a new book "The Political Brain" argues, Democrats may be too cerebral instead of going for the gut. But their real problem is not language but leadership.

On the surface, Bush's intransigence and their narrow margins in both houses have tied their hands, but no more so than the failure of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to get beyond playing it politically safe.

Their approach to S-CHIP is symptomatic. Yesterday they passed another bill that inches toward the White House position with an Oliver Twist-like, "Please, sir, we want some more."

As for slowing the war in Iraq or stopping a new one against Iran, they have not only given up trying but talking as well. On the overriding issue of our time, Democrats have been cowed by accusations of "not supporting the troops" if they block funding. It's past time for someone to step up and rally them to try.

There are signs that something is stirring. Chris Dodd is threatening a Senate filibuster of FISA bill provisions to grant telecoms retroactive immunity for helping Bush-Cheney spy on Americans, and other '08 candidates may join him. Not exactly "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but it could be a start.

What's the point of winning it all in '08 if Democrats don't show the will and courage to change course between now and then?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Exits: Paul Newman and Robert Redford

“Certain friendships,” Robert Redford once said about Paul Newman, “are too good and too strong to talk about.” This month, Redford broke his silence to say that the final movie they planned to make together was not to be:

"It's not happening, sadly. Paul and I were planning to do a film version of Bill Bryson's wonderful book ‘A Walk In The Woods.’

"I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn't decide if we were too old to do it. Then we decided, 'Let's go for it.'

"But time passed, and Paul's been getting old fast. I think things deteriorated for him. Finally, two months ago he called and said, 'I gotta retire.' The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart."

Like their other work together, it would have been about the friendship of men, two old college buddies walking the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine.

Toward the end of life, biology is destiny. A British actor of the past century, A. E. Matthews, who worked to the age of 90, explained, “I get up every morning, look at the obituaries in the Times and, if my name isn’t there, get dressed and go to work.”

But last spring, the 82-year-old Newman told an interviewer, "I’m not able to work at the level I would want to. You start to lose your memory, you start to lose your confidence, you start to lose your invention. So I think that's pretty much a closed book for me."

Redford at 71 has a new picture coming out next month, “Lions for Lambs,” which he directed and plays a leading role in. More polemical than his previous work, Redford hopes the movie will encourage young people “to take command of their voice" in American politics.

Over long careers, Newman and Redford personified an alternative American manhood to the full-throttle macho of John Wayne and the young Clint Eastwood--a more complex mix of strength, wit and sensitivity. (Newman turned down "Dirty Harry.")

Off-screen, they lived away from Hollywood--Newman in Connecticut, Redford in Utah--lives of social responsibility rather than movie-star celebrity.

In 1968, my path crossed Newman’s as we both stepped out of our working lives to oppose the war in Vietnam. When I invited him to lunch with a dozen magazine editors, he told me the prospect of talking about himself was so unnerving he had stayed too long in a steam bath to calm down. Sitting next to him, I had to titrate the balance of beer and ice water to keep him relaxed and hydrated as he eloquently described his feelings about the war.

In the early 1980s, our mutual friend A. E. Hotchner wrote about their light-hearted efforts to bottle and sell Newman's salad dressing. Since then, a line of Newman's Own products has earned $200 million for charity.

Meanwhile, Redford was creating a mecca for independent film makers in Sundance, Utah and giving their work recognition and commercial opportunities.

As Newman exits from the public stage and Redford keeps working for the public good, those repeated showings of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" on TV are reminders of how much actors can accomplish in what we call real life.

Rudy's Crusade

If he keeps moving right at this rate, Rudy Giuliani is in danger of falling off the edge of the flat earth.

The knight who drove criminals out of Manhattan, single-handedly cleaned up Ground Zero after 9/11 and kept al Qaeda from taking over New York has strapped on his armor to rid the Holy Land of Islamo-Fascism.

With an array of blood-related Neo-Con Sancho Panzas--Podhoretzes, Kagans and Kristols--Sir Rudy has been on the campaign trail tilting so hard at windmills that even the New York Times today has noticed what bloggers have been reporting for some time:

“Rudolph W. Giuliani’s approach to foreign policy shares with other Republican presidential candidates an aggressive posture toward terrorism, a commitment to strengthening the military and disdain for United Nations.

“But in developing his views, Mr. Giuliani is consulting with, among others, a particularly hawkish group of advisers and neoconservative thinkers.

“Their positions have been criticized by Democrats as irresponsible and applauded by some conservatives as appropriately tough, while raising questions about how closely aligned Mr. Giuliani’s thinking is with theirs.”

Sir Rudy gave some clues to his thinking last week in a speech during “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” blasting Democrats for never using “the word ‘Islamic terrorist.’ Ever.”

In the course of saddling up for his crusade, Guiliani, who has at times been accused of being too courtly, did not hesitate to take swipes at the opposition’s Lady in Waiting:

“Honestly, in most respects, I don’t know Hillary’s experience. She’s never run a city. She’s never run a state. She’s never run a business. She has never met a payroll. She has never been responsible for the safety and security of millions of people, much less even hundreds of people.”

At this rate, Giuliani may yet win over the hearts of the Radical Right, who for some time now have been suspecting that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney may have lost their cojones for doing God’s work in the Middle East.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bushes' Backward March on Birth Control

Politics not only makes strange bedfellows but can lead them to do kinky things when they get there.

In 1947, George W. Bush’s grandfather was the first national campaign treasurer for Planned Parenthood, and three years later Prescott Bush’s advocacy of birth control led to his close defeat for a U.S. Senate seat in heavily Catholic Connecticut.

This month, his grandson named an opponent of birth control to be in charge of all the government’s contraception programs. Susan Orr, head of population affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services, will be overseeing activities that she has been denouncing for years.

In 2001, she pushed a proposal to stop requiring health insurance plans for federal employees to cover birth control on the grounds that ”fertility is not a disease.”

It would be easy to write off her appointment as another sop to the Pat Robertson-James Dobson wing of the Republican base, where Ms. Orr previously labored. But there is a more interesting question in all this:

As a lame-duck, Bush has no political self-interest in placating them. As a human being, he has a wife, mother and daughter who are on the public record in favor of freedom of choice for women, to say nothing of his grandfather’s advocacy.

What drives him to this automaton-like appointment that goes against overwhelming public sentiment as well? If we knew the answer to that, we might begin to understand how George W. Bush in two decades went from the failed son of a wealthy but public-spirited family to a destroyer of so many basic values in American life.

Natural Disasters

Amid the overwhelming sadness of seeing California on fire, there are reminders that all is not lost.

Syndicated radio host Glenn Beck is now famous for pointing out that in Malibu “a handful of people who hate America...are losing their homes in a forest fire today."

After Hurricane Katrina, the President’s mother philosophized about victims in the Houston Astrodome, "Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this is working very well for them."

Silver linings are everywhere in Bushland, if only we knew where to look. Consider Baghdad last spring, where a Republican Congressman found it "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summer time."

Hope and renewal are everywhere. All it takes is a perfect storm of stupidity to help us see the light.

Who's Polarizing Whom?

The Presidential polls keep telling us Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani are “polarizing” voters. Even as they widen their leads by more than 2-1, the two front runners are beset by sizable minorities who swear never to vote for them under any circumstances.

Today new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg numbers show the former First Lady “viewed unfavorably by 44% of respondents” and about one-third of GOP voters saying “they would consider supporting a third-party candidate in the general election if the party nominee supported abortion and gay rights.”

But to what extent are Clinton and Giuliani doing the polarizing or taking the heat from an electorate divided by George W. Bush, who ran for President as a “uniter?” Not since Richard Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” in 1968, have Americans been so polarized by an unpopular war and a secretive Administration that considered itself above the law.

After Nixon, voters turned to the bland but ineffectual Jimmy Carter to escape a Presidency that had given them a taste of what oppressive power could do. What are their choices now?

If they find Clinton and Giuliani too “polarizing,” which more neutral candidate will they favor?

Mitt Romney, who is on all sides of every issue and can’t keep straight the difference between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden?

John Edwards, the guy with the sincere smile every girl would bring home to meet her parents who keeps talking a little too much about the virtues of honesty?

Fred Thompson, who can do folksy and comfortable but can’t seem to recall how he feels about anything specific?

Mike Huckabee, the smooth-talking preacher, who might just be selling snake oil on social issues and a placebo for foreign policy?

Or Barack Obama, the nice young man with stars in his eyes who may not have his feet firmly enough on the ground?

With time starting to run out, American voters are going to have to get past the anger built up over the Bush years and make some choices about how well-defined a President they want to clean up the social and political wreckage.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

First Ladies in a Fix

The Washington Post today ruminates about the role of Presidential spouses and concludes that they, well, differ from those of the past.

They sure do. In half a century as an editor, I knew First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Nancy Reagan, both of whom wrote for me. They differed from one another back then, too, but what they had in common was, after Mrs. Roosevelt, they had little to say about policy issues--in public.

But now, according to a professor of government quoted by the Post, “there is a greater acceptance of assertive women that is consistent with other societal trends. But there is still a divide in the country in what people want and expect. Look at how much people like Laura Bush."

First Ladies were in a bind back then, and they still are today. How much resentment of Hillary Clinton comes from the fact that in 1992 she said she was not the little woman who bakes cookies and stands by her man? She wasn’t, isn’t and is now running for President on her own, but some voters will never forgive her for not being Barbara Bush or Nancy Reagan.

For other spouses, it’s still like walking a tightrope. Shouldn’t Michelle Obama have kept her high-powered job instead of helping her husband? Is Jeri Thompson too involved in Fred’s campaign? Is Elizabeth Edwards too outspoken? Does Judith Giuliani ring Rudy’s cell phone at the wrong time? What gives with Elizabeth Kucinich’s pierced tongue?

Today some of them will be talking about all this on TV with Maria Shriver, who as the wife of Governor Arnold and the niece of Jack Kennedy, knows a little something about the subject.

In 1960, when I sent a reporter to interview her aunt, Jacqueline Kennedy, she sounded like a Stepford wife: "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well. The wife's satisfactions will follow...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

She never deviated from this submissive line, but even then, it wasn’t simple. When the reporter was about to leave, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

Lobbying Lite

Fifty executives of AT&T and Verizon have fallen in love with Sen. Jay Rockefeller this year, contributing more than $42,000 to his campaign fund, ten times what they gave him in the previous five years.

These wet kisses from the telecommunications folks may raise suspicion they are motivated by his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee and its recommendations about telephone eavesdropping and extending retroactive immunity to carriers that participated in the program President Bush secretly approved after 9/11.

Not so, say all involved. “Any suggestion that Senator Rockefeller would make policy decisions based on campaign contributions is patently false,” says his spokesperson. “Many AT&T executives,” says a company flack, “work with the leaders of both the House and Senate Commerce Committees on a daily basis and have come to know them over the years.”

Lying about lobbying is such a hallowed tradition that it goes back into the mists of time. Almost half a century ago, when I was on the board of directors of the Magazine Publishers Association I received a burn-this letter about making personal contributions to politicians I never heard of who were members of the committees that decided postal rates.

As an editor among all those publishers, I declined to follow orders, but then again, I wasn’t on the board long enough to learn how to get reimbursed for such voluntary largesse.

John Bolton vs. George W. Bush

The man with the white walrus mustache is back in Washington after a European tour of touting war with Iran. He has a new book to promote and a new cause--rallying Republican Congressmen to oppose the nuclear agreement with North Korea by that left-wing softie, George W. Bush.

Last week he met with 42 GOP Neanderthals at the invitation of Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose main legislative goal is to abolish the income tax, and argued that “North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily, and that it is only a matter of time before their cheating is exposed, at which point one hopes that Bush will repudiate this charade.”

Bolton’s new book is titled “Surrender Is Not an Option,” reflecting the unyielding bellicosity of the man who calls himself a Goldwater conservative, as opposed to those parvenu Neo-Cons he considers “liberals who’d been mugged by reality.”

If he had his way, Bolton would solve all our world problems by bombing and invading, in contrast to his youthful aversion to warfare.

"I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy," Bolton wrote in the 25th reunion book of his graduation from Yale about his decision to join the National Guard and go to law school. "I considered the war in Vietnam already lost."

Unlike the war in Iraq today and whatever new ones he can instigate tomorrow.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pre-School Perverts

Good news for those concerned about the slippage of moral standards in American life: Our schools are now alert to inappropriate sexual behavior by three- and four-year-olds, according to a report in the Washington Post.

Rather than trusting in too little, too late with “secondary virginity” programs in high school, educators are now taking action against potential miscreants even before they reach kindergarten.

In Waco, Texas, a four-year-old boy was punished for sexual harassment after hugging a teacher’s aide while getting on the bus and putting his face in her chest.

In Maryland during the last school year, 28 kindergartners were suspended for sex offenses, including 15 for sexual harassment, one of them for pinching a classmate’s bottom.

A Supreme Court ruling that school districts are liable for monetary damages for failing to stop sexual harassment has led educators to take a better-safe-than-sorry attitude.

If kids are going to play doctor, parents better make sure they do it at home. On school grounds, they could end up with a criminal record.

Lipton a Pimp? What Else Is New?

Those who have been watching the “Actors Studio” host interviewing movie stars for years will not be shocked to learn that, in an earlier incarnation, James Lipton worked as a facilitator in the world’s oldest profession.

In a new book, according to ABC, Lipton says that when he was “very very young, living in Paris, penniless, unable to get any kind of working permit... I had a friend who worked in what is called the Milieu, which is that world and she suggested to me one night, `Look, you'll be my meck... We would translate it perhaps... as pimp.

"We were earning our living together, this young woman and I, we made a rather good living, I must say."

It has always been a source of wonder that Lipton as an interviewer has had such perfect pitch for unction and smarm, but he appears to have worked hard to perfect his bedside manner.

"I had to accompany my clientelle to the Rue Pigalle,” he recalls. “And then I'd take them up to the room and I had to remain there because they were very nervous, they were young Americans for the most part...and they didn't speak French."

Only a short step from there to putting actors at ease in front of TV cameras in an academic setting.

The Comedy Central Campaign

Stephen Colbert, who is no Jon Stewart, is beginning to give irony a bad name. On Meet the Press yesterday he proved that (a) there is no way of parodying the jokers who are running for President in ’08 and (b) that putting on Tim Russert is too easy--politicians have been doing it for years.

Colbert told him he is running because “I think our country is facing unprecedented challenges in the future. And I think that the junctures that we face are both critical and unforeseen, and the real challenge is how we will respond to these junctures, be they unprecedented or unforeseen, or, God help us, critical.”

John Edwards or Mitt Romney could not have said it better, and they undoubtedly have.

The Sunday before, Maureen Dowd took a day off and let Colbert write her New York Times column. His sly wit made a reader long for Dowd’s invective.

About Hillary Clinton, he wrote, “I can’t remember if I’m supposed to be scared of her so Democrats will think they should nominate her when she’s actually easy to beat, or if I’m supposed to be scared of her because she’s legitimately scary.

“Or Rudy Giuliani. I can’t remember if I’m supposed to support him because he’s the one who can beat Hillary if she gets nominated, or if I’m supposed to support him because he’s legitimately scary.”

The Presidential candidates are doing a great job of making fools of themselves. They don’t need professional help.

Losing the Anti-War War

Evidence that the Iraq narrative has turned is everywhere.

“Victory Is Within Reach in Iraq,” a Wall Street Journal headline enthuses this weekend, claiming that “highly respected officers including the commander of Special Forces in Iraq, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, reportedly feel it is justified by the facts on the ground.”

The Washington Post reports “The Next Challenge in Iraq,” quoting Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command:

"I look at the numbers, and I say the success that General Petraeus and the guys have made is amazing. But how do we leverage that to get the Iraqi government to take decisions that will provide enduring security? How do we help them take advantage of this?"

The Los Angeles Times cites, “Tough going for antiwar Republicans,” reporting that “Despite months of pressure, no more than eight Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have backed any measure that mandates a troop withdrawal. And GOP strategists predict that is unlikely to change.”

How much our situation in Iraq has changed is highly debatable, but the battle is Washington seems to be lost. What do Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi do now?

Bush’s stubbornness and their own ineffectual legislative maneuvering have put them in a bind. To persist in railing against the war may only feed charges that they are “defeatist.” To back off efforts to get us out of Iraq will enrage those who gave them control of Congress to do just that.

In coming months, they will undoubtedly concentrate on domestic issues--health insurance, housing, tax reform--to persuade voters that Democrats can get something done.

Meanwhile, the dying in Iraq goes on. The numbers may be slightly smaller, but the blood is just as real as it was before Americans lost hope of stopping it anytime soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Burritos and Botox Beat Sex

Hard to tell what cultural studies scholars will make of all this, but American web users are less interested in sex than their counterparts in Egypt, India and Turkey.

But our Internet searchers lead the world in curiosity about burritos and Iraq, and are second only to Australians in asking about botox and car bombs, according to Google data since 2004.

The Irish want to know about hangovers and Kate Moss, Italians are inquisitive about Viagra while people in Pakistan are understandably concerned about terrorism and the Taliban.

So in the long run, the average American is a lover of Mexican food who wants to erase frown lines caused by worries over the violence in the Middle East. Short term, if you check quickly, the preoccupation is with fires destroying castles in Malibu.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Faithful Choose Romney?

Fred Thompson told Christian conservatives at their Value Voters rally that, right after being inaugurated, he would “go in the Oval Office and close the door and pray for the wisdom to know what was right.”

Judging from the straw poll taken there, many of the most devout would be praying, too. God knows that most non-believers would be on their knees if the offhand, careless and seemingly senile actor/politician became President, ready to invade Iran and do who-knows-what to the Constitution.

The Democrats in this long pre-season have been uninspiring, to say the least, but the Republican field broke all records for smarm in wooing what they consider their Base this weekend.

In the end, it was Mitt Romney, the flip-flopper, who won their votes if note their hearts, closely followed by the preacher Mike Huckabee, who trumped all by saying, “I come today as one not who comes to you, but as one who comes from you. You are my roots.”

In the hall, most of the audience voted for Huckabee, but Romney’s campaign workers may have used Mammon to get enough supporters online to give their Mormon a narrow victory, with Ron Paul placing third and Thompson fourth.

The unreality of it all was highlighted by Rudy Giuliani, who is leading in all the national polls, finishing in eighth place behind Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter and Sam Brownback, who has dropped out of the race.

In this Presidential race, the issue of faith may be taking some funny turns.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Deborah Kerr

The woman who died this week was part of an American legend that will live forever in the Hollywood movies of the mid-twentieth century.

From the 1930s on, the studios there manufactured what John Updike has called “those gargantuan, crass contraptions whereby Jewish brains project Gentile stars upon a Gentile nation and out of the immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

Louis B. Mayer at MGM, the chief dream maker, son of a scrap-metal scavenger who became the most highly-paid man in the U.S., had an idealized vision of womanhood--beautiful, British and well-bred. He went to London and found Greer Garson to embody her in “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Random Harvest,” “Mrs. Miniver” and “Madame Curie.”

After World War II, when Garson was becoming matronly, Mayer replaced her with Deborah Kerr, starting with “The Hucksters,” in which she played a high-born British widow who tames the American rough-and-readiness of Clark Gable.

Kerr kept playing the part with grace and wit until the early 1950s when Mayer lost control of the studio. She left MGM in 1953 to play an Army officer's alcoholic, sex-starved wife washed over by waves in the adulterous embrace of Burt Lancaster in “From Here to Eternity.”

American reality was changing, and so were the movies but, looking back, Mayer’s dream world had its charms, and Deborah Kerr was a lovely part of it.

Huckabee, Another Jimmy Carter?

David Brooks of the New York Times has discovered the former Arkansas governor in his column today.

“He is a solid conservative who is both temperamentally and substantively different from the conservatives who have led the country over the past few years,” Brooks writes. “He’s rising in the polls, especially in Iowa. His popularity with the press corps suggests he could catch a free media wave that would put him in the top tier. He deserves to be there.”

Brooks may be right, although there are few signs that the Conservative Establishment is ready to embrace him for qualities that many non-Republicans respect. In the unlikely event that they do, another question arises: Could he be another Jimmy Carter?

In the wake of Nixon’s traumatic tenure, voters turned to a sincere man of faith who promised “I will never lie to you” and then proved to be too naïve to deal with the complexities of international affairs.

Carter floundered during the Mariel boatlift when Castro sent criminals and mental cases to us along with legitimate political refugees, and he was at a loss when Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 70 Americans hostage for more than a year. He ended up puzzling over a “national malaise.”

Now Brooks notes about Huckabee, “His foreign policy thinking is thin. Some of his policy ideas seem to come off the top of his head.”

In the relief to be rid of Bush and escape the likes of Giuliani, Thompson and Romney, it’s possible that Republicans may turn to someone as apparently sane and sensible as Huckabee, but if they do, the rest of us will have to look very closely about what lies under that attractive surface.

No Tyranny of the Majority in the Bush Era

John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville can rest easy about “the tyranny of the majority.”

After being elected by less than a plurality of voters in 2000, George W. Bush has kept America safe from majority rule. After yesterday’s vote, 341 members of Congress had voted to expand children’s health insurance, 187 against, but the President’s veto stands to safeguard us against the folly of mob rule.

If the polls are accurate, seven out of ten Americans want us to get out of Iraq, as do a majority of their representatives, but the President is having none of that panic to do what’s popular.

"A man with God is always in the majority," John Knox declared in the sixteenth century, and Thoreau proclaimed the American counterpart, "Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one."

You don’t see them much any more, but five years ago, there were bumper stickers everywhere that said “Thank God for President Bush.”

As he approaches his final year of protecting us from ourselves, Bush should find comfort in de Tocqueville’s judgement: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An American Patriot

In the debate before the House fell 13 votes short of overriding President Bush’s veto today, Rep. Steve King of Iowa charged that "S-CHIP stands for Socialized, Clinton-style Hillarycare for illegals and their parents."

Republicans must be reassured by the steadfastness of a patriot like Rep. King, whose major initiative in this session of Congress has been a bill to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which authorizes the income tax.

If he had his way, King would protect Americans not only from illegal immigrants, socialized medicine and Hillary Clinton but from everything the Federal government does, including subsidies for Iowa farmers, fighting the war in Iraq--and maybe even paying the salaries of moronic members of Congress.

Nixon Nostalgia

Dick Cavett, the best celebrity interviewer of the 1970s, just can’t let go of Richard Nixon. On his wonderful New York Times blog, the last three entries have been about the Great Unindicted Co-Conspirator. I know just how he feels.

Cavett's current post recalls seeing Himself in the flesh at a restaurant with his daughter Julie during the Ford Administration.

“I grabbed up two menus,” Cavett writes. “Approaching the famous seated pair from behind, I piped, 'Our specials today include the Yorba Linda soufflé, the Whittier College clam chowder . . .' I invented a few more fictional Nixon-related specials; you get the idea. At least I self-censored any Checkers or Watergate references.”

Nixon was not amused. Nor was he much taken with a Cavett anecdote about the smell of burning paper at a White House dinner interpreted as the infamous Veep Spiro Agnew being in the library.

“Oh, I see,” Nixon finally said with a straight face. “Book burning.”

Years from now, will a retired Jon Stewart be writing on his blog about George Bush not being amused by Dick Cheney jokes?

Republican Race for Running Mate

Sam Brownback, who started his run for President by spending a night in jail, is free at last. Tomorrow he will leave the Oz of campaign country and be back in Kansas to announce he is dropping out.

As a bona fide conservative, the Kansas Senator will automatically join Mike Huckabee, who still has hopes, as a leading contender for the ticket of Republican front runners who leave the Rev. James Dobson and other Religious Rightists as unbelievers.

Since Brownback has been bashing Mitt Romney, he may have an inside track with Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson or particularly John McCain, with whom he agrees on immigration. (The new issue of Time proclaims “McCain Is Back.")

Brownback signaled his possible departure from Oz last week by joining with a Democratic Presidential candidate in spearheading a Senate Resolution for the partitioning of Iraq.

“This plan,” he proclaimed, “wasn't pushed by members of one party. Instead, Senator Joe Biden and I, who are consistently on opposite ends politically on economic and social issues, worked together to build consensus to push the legislation forward and on to a resounding victory.”

A man who talks like that has clearly given up his hopes of succeeding George Bush.

S-CHIP's Other Little Victims

In the fight to override Bush’s veto, Democrats may have put the spotlight on the wrong victims. Instead of pushing forward 12-year-old brain injured Graeme Frost and two-year-old Bethany Wilkerson with her heart problem, they might have converted more Republicans by emphasizing the other sufferers from unaffordable health care--America’s small business owners.

“The future of SCHIP,” according to a recent article in Forbes, no bleeding-heart liberal journal, “is particularly significant to small business. Of the 6.6 million children up to age 19 that receive health insurance through SCHIP, 37 percent belong to parents who work for businesses with fewer than 100 employees, estimates the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan tax research organization.”

In July, the President made one of his photo-op I-talk-you-listen visits to a group of small business owners. His host, Clifton Broumand, according to the Washington Post, “could barely get a word in as Bush opined on children's health insurance and other health topics.”

Private insurers, Gourmand would have told him if he could, "are like the Godfather--they make you an offer you can't refuse. When my insurance goes up 73 percent in four years, that's a tax...All these things are hidden taxes.

"When you don't cover children, what ends up happening is that when kids are sick, which happens in my office, parents aren't productive. They have to go home."

Small businesses, USA Today reports, “are driven crazy by soaring employee health costs, an expense that surveys show has become the biggest headache and obstacle to growth.”

In the next round, Democrats should try pushing forward restaurateurs, realtors and owners of small construction firms instead the tots of people who work for them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sexy Feminists

Now comes a scientific study to prove that feminists are hot.

“Contrary to popular opinion,” Science Daily reports, “feminism and romance are not incompatible and feminism may actually improve the quality of heterosexual relationships.” The study also refutes stereotypes that “stigmatize feminists as unattractive and sexually unappealing.”

As someone who worked at the dawn of the women’s movement with hundreds of feminists, I’m puzzled by the need half a century later to argue (the study is more polemic than science) that women who have strong feelings about their rights in society are not sexually impaired.

Betty Friedan, who started it all with “The Feminine Mystique,” once showed up to protest the lunchtime exclusion of women by the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room in New York with special makeup to hide the black eye and bruises her husband had given her. But she got out of that bad marriage and, although far from a beauty, had satisfying long-term relationships with men for the rest of her long life.

The other icon of the movement, Gloria Steinem, who came to her calling after going undercover to write an article, “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” later made into a TV movie, was once described by Time as “one of the best dates to take to a New York party these days--or, failing such luck, one of the most arresting names to drop.”

Both worked with me at different times as contributing editors, and there was nothing “unattractive and sexually unappealing” about them and the multitudes who followed their lead.

“It is generally perceived that feminism and romance are in direct conflict,” the report on the new study says.

Perhaps by men who feel threatened and some brainwashed women, but these are people with problems of their own. The scientists should spend some time studying them.

High Noon for S-CHIP

In the President’s favorite movie, the righteous hero stands alone and guns down the bad guys. Bush has played Gary Cooper in the showdowns over Iraq, and now he is facing down the villains in the S-CHIP fight.

But Bush has modeled himself on the wrong 1950s western. True to Washington and Hollywood, “High Noon” is more about pride and calculation than humanity. Those who care about people rather than power have always preferred “Shane.”

At the end of “High Noon,” the hero, after gunning down the bad guys, converting his Quaker wife to killing and showing his contempt for everyone else, rides off with Grace Kelly to some Olympus denied other mortals, all as a reward for his concept of manhood.

In “Shane,” a retired gunfighter reluctantly takes up arms again to protect a family he loves and their hard-working community against ruthless power. His reward is to ride off to die, alone.

That’s a concept that the man who the former President of Mexico calls a “windshield cowboy” fails to understand. (In his memoirs, Vincente Fox recounts Bush’s skittishness about getting on a horse, preferring to drive a pickup truck instead.)

This time Bush is playing cowboy with the health and lives of millions of children. Senate Democrats are trying to round up enough Republicans to override his veto in tomorrow’s vote, but the First Moviegoer is sticking to his guns.

It may be too late to stop Bush’s acting out of old oaters, but those who have to belly up to the ballot box next year should think hard about the consequences of the shootout.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Obama and Cheney: Kissing Cousins?

This dynasty thing has got to stop. After all the talk about Clintons and Bushes in the Oval Office for more than two decades, now poor Barack Obama is being dragged out to sit on a branch of Dick Cheney’s family tree.

Plugging her book on cable TV today, the Vice-President’s wife Lynne revealed that Obama and her husband had an ancestor in common eight generations back.

"Think about this," Mrs. Cheney said. "This is such an amazing American story that one ancestor, a man that came to Maryland, could be responsible down the family line for lives that have taken such different and varied paths as Dick's and Barack Obama's."

Even worse, Obama’s lineage has previously been tied to that of George W. Bush as 11th cousins through a shared 17th century Massachusetts relative.

Oh, the nepotism of it all! America needs new bloodlines. Better check all the way back on Giuliani, Thompson, Romney and Edwards.

New Triumph for British Cuisine

Sounds like something out of “Fawlty Towers,” but a British country hotel is now serving grey squirrel pancakes in Peking Duck-style wraps to customers, free of charge.

Actually, it’s all the result of trying to preserve a vanishing species. Lord Redesdale’s Red Squirrel Protection Partnership traps and kills thousands of over-abundant greys to protect the reds but, as His Lordship observes, "The problem is, there is nothing we can do with them.”

Wild Boar Hotel head chef Marc Sanders came to the rescue, and now even the manager of the Save Our Squirrels project of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust is on board saying, "It is far more ecologically and environmentally sound to find a use for what is being trapped.

"A number of places in Northumberland are thinking of having grey squirrel on the menu. I haven't tried grey squirrel but people I know who have say it tastes like chicken used to taste when it tasted like chicken.”

Waste not, want not. But no thanks, just pass the vegetables.

Dumbed-Down Democracy

Watching Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican Chief Deputy Whip, on PBS’ News Hour last week was a depressing experience. He was debating Rahm Emanuel on the S-CHIP legislation and, with an infuriatingly smug smile, making Bush’s “philosophical” case for denying needy children health care.

Now here we are this week without enough votes to override the President’s heartless, brainless veto. Why? A USA Today/Gallup poll today shows how, in this age where You are Time’s Person of the Year, too many you’s are not motivated to get past slogans and charades on an issue that affects millions of children’s lives.

Although 49 percent have been following news about the bill “not too closely or at all,” 55 percent are concerned that “expanding this program would create an incentive for middle-class Americans to drop private health insurance for a public program.”

The Gallup people, by framing the question this way, are contributing to the confusion and their USA Today partners are still doing what mass media have been doing throughout the Bush years, letting the Administration set the specious terms for public debate.

Through the obfuscation, a solid majority of voters still manage to get the point and “have more confidence” in Democrats than Bush to handle the issue, by 52 to 32 percent, but with a President who listens only to himself, that won’t be enough.

Nancy Pelosi talks about fighting on, but the lack of enough public outrage will force Democrats to accept a defeat masked as a compromise.

If sanity in both parties can’t prevail on an issue this clear, we are in deeper trouble than any of the ’08 candidates is willing to admit.

Spying on Your Circle of Friends

If a suspected terrorist mis-dialed your number any time in the past two years, the FBI is on your case and, if the phone company had had the technology, they might have been investigating everyone you know.

A Congressional committee learned yesterday that Verizon has provided customers' telephone records to federal authorities in emergency cases without court orders hundreds of times since 2005 in addition to the thousands obtained through subpoenas and court orders.

Moreover, the FBI wanted to know not only about the person making a call, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called. The only reason they didn’t get it was that Verizon doesn’t keep data on this "two-generation community of interest."

To conceal the widening net of spying on innocent Americans, the Bush Administration has put up a brick wall of “state secrets” defenses, but as the enormity of surveillance, lawful and otherwise, becomes clearer, Congress is pressing for answers.

Some years ago, I received an apologetic letter from a law enforcement agency about a monitored phone call to my home from a friend of my teen-age son who was being investigated for selling marijuana. Apparently state law back then required notification about every such invasion of privacy.

We’re living in a different country now.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why Didn't Larry Craig Think of That?

In the old I-was-doing-it-as-research ploy, a Vatican official caught soliticing gay sex claims that he only pretended to be gay in order to gather information about "those who damage the image of the Church with homosexual activity."

Nonetheless, Monsignor Tommaso Stenico was suspended after being filmed making advances to a young man and asserting that gay sex was not sinful on a television program.

The Monsignor insists he is heterosexual but remained faithful to his vow of celibacy and expects to be fully exonerated after a review.

Back here, his counterpart, Sen. Larry Craig is fighting on as well. In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, he says he will seek vindication from the Senate Ethics Committee and is particularly rueful about being fired as Senate chairman of Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign.

"I was very proud of my association with Mitt Romney," Craig told Lauer. "... And he not only threw me under his campaign bus, he backed up and ran over me again."

Nothing, however, about vows of celibacy.

Outsourcing the Search for Truth

In an implied rebuke to junk journalism, a rich California couple is underwriting investigative reporters to give away their work to mainstream media. It won’t work.

Acting in a free-lance role, a nonprofit organization, Pro Publica, will offer long-term projects to uncover misdeeds in government, business and organizations on an exclusive basis for newspapers, magazines or other media outlets.

To start, their offers won’t thrill thin-skinned editors. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, is quoted as being “open to using work from an outside source, assuming we were confident of its quality,” but adding that “we’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves.”

Beyond that hurdle is the fact that the backers are Herbert and Marion Sandler, former chief executives of Golden West Financial Corporation, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, who are major Democratic political donors and critics of President Bush.

Pro Publica will be staffed by distinguished journalists, but even so, how will it overcome the long-standing prejudice against outsourcing the search for truth along with the current climate of distrust over ulterior motives?

Over eighty years ago, in “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann wrote that journalism suffers from “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice by inventing, creating and organizing a machinery of knowledge.” He proposed that social institutions use reason and intelligence to “work by a steady light of their own” so that journalists could concentrate on amplifying and transmitting that light to the public.

Now we have machineries of knowledge, but their aim is to hide the truth. If the Sandlers want to use their money to remedy that, it might be better spent training motivated poor kids to become journalists with the now outdated ambition to do good rather than do well.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Is This a Great Country or What?

In Washington, our Congress has settled in to business as usual now that the Surge is going so well. Democrats are overjoyed at news of Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, while Republicans are fresh from the triumph of sliming a brain-injured 12-year-old boy to make sure he and others like him don’t rip us off by getting health care insurance.

In Iraq today, other people acting in my name and yours killed six women and nine children during an air and ground attack on senior Al Qaeda leaders. We issued a statement of regret that “civilians are hurt or killed while Coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, AP reports, “has recently confronted top American commander Gen. David Petraeus about what he sees as overly aggressive U.S. tactics that harm innocent civilians, according to Iraqi officials.”

Last Friday, a pre-dawn U.S. raid on Khalis, a Shiite city north of Baghdad, killed 25 people when troops called in air strikes while hunting suspected smugglers of arms from Iran to Baghdad. Village leaders said the victims included civilians, but the military insisted the 25 killed were militants.

Meanwhile, Shiites and Sunnis are reported to be making no progress toward national reconciliation. But the Surge is working just fine, isn’t it?

We can all go on getting Halloween costumes for the kids and maybe driving somewhere for a little leaf-peeping.

Democrats Eating Their Old

The party that prides itself on being a big tent for diversity is showing signs of cannibalism since it took over Congress a year ago and, in a reversal of eating its young, is threatening to devour some of its long-standing stalwarts.

After all the furor about anti-war legislators not being anti-war enough, now we have Rep. Barney Frank, of all people, defending himself from charges of not being pro-gay enough by backing a bill to protect homosexual men and women in the workplace that might leave transsexuals vulnerable.

“There is a tendency in American politics,” he said yesterday, “for the people who feel most passionately about... a single issue to be unrealistic in what a democratic political system can deliver, and that can be self-defeating.”

In an era when George Bush is still blocking almost everything with his veto power and remnants of a monolithic Republican minority, Democratic activists only play into his hands by forgetting that politics is the art of the possible and that the perfect can be the worst enemy of the good enough.

Push for perfection by all means, but don’t trample those who are out front navigating the minefields.

Incremental improvement in energy standards and cutbacks of farm subsidies are not very exciting for generations that want it all now. But politics has never been the best place for instant gratification, except for those who exercise their mouths rather than real power.

From half a century of observation and activism emerges the lesson that inertia, while it slows progress, can also be the best protection against violent, destructive change.

Those who find that old fogeyism can eat me, too.

Ann Coulter's Glossolalia

She has been speaking in tongues again. This time Ann Coulter tells a cable TV host of Hebrew origin that it would be better for America if Jews “perfected” themselves and became Christians.

The woman is clearly in the grip of “glossolalia,” defined as “the vocalizing of fluent speech-like but unintelligible utterances, often as part of religious practice.”

Until recently, such behavior was a mystery. But now neuroscientists have taken brain images of women speaking in tongues and found that their frontal lobes--the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do--were relatively quiet. (Spoiler alert: Several of the researchers had Jewish-sounding names.)

In the grip of such religious ecstasy, Coulter can’t be held responsible for what she says, as would a normal person who was just plugging a book on cable TV.

Previously, she had seemed to be a victim of Reverse Attention Deficit Disorder, a pathological need to be noticed that afflicts politicians and show business people. But Coulter’s self-destructive streak of disinhibited pronouncements suggests something deeper.

Politicians and performers set limits to what they say by the need to be liked. Not Coulter. After calling John Edwards a “faggot” and then being publicly rebuked by his wife, she replied, “If I say anything about John Edwards in the future, I'll just wish he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot."

The Edwards campaign turned Coulter’s attacks into a fund-raising tool, so yet another conspiratorial possibility arises: Is Coulter secretly acting as a Zionist agent to arouse sympathy for American Jews?

In any case, medical attention is needed. Is there an exorcist in the house?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Nobel War Prize for Cheney

Rumors that the former Vice-President may get a Nobel Peace Prize prompt the thought that, in all fairness, his successor should be awarded the Nobel War Prize.

As much as Gore has fought to avert global warming, Dick Cheney has done to fight everybody. Just as his predecessor has had to deal with critics who question his judgment, so has Cheney been forced to counter skeptics who doubt his sanity over a war against Iran, some of them reportedly members of the Bush cabinet such as the Secretaries of State and Defense.

It would set a poor example to the rest of the world if our former #2 man was honored for being a wimp, while the incumbent is left to snarl unseen and unappreciated.

Fair is fair.

Money Where Your Mouth Is

Dentists get no respect, and now the Rodney Dangerfields of the healing profession are being accused of being greedy and uncaring as well.

Today’s New York Times reports the highest level since the 1980s of untreated adults and children, more than in four, while dentists’ incomes are rising faster than those of MDs.

This huge cavity in health care is no surprise, given that dental fees have been rising faster than inflation, that 100 million Americans have no insurance coverage and that
the number of dentists has stayed the same while the population has risen over 20 percent.

The gap in gum care is one more symptom of the growing disparity in living standards of the rich, whose children get expensive orthodontia to straighten their teeth, while poor parents can’t afford to have kids’ cavities filled.

Compounding it all is the widespread suspicion that some dentists view their practices as a business rather than a profession.

A decade ago, the Readers Digest sent a reporter to have his teeth checked in 50 communities across the country. Before going, several experts agreed that all he needed was a crown on one tooth for $500.

Most dentists proposed thousands of dollars of treatment, ranging up to more than $29,000 in one case. Needless to say, that was one copy of the Readers Digest that didn’t end up in many waiting rooms.

Human nature being what it is, it may not be surprising that some professionals have less scruples than auto mechanics, but it’s easier to get a new car than a new mouth.

Buying Lives: Army Ups the Ante

In the past three weeks, more than 6,000 U. S. Army captains have accepted payments of $25,000 to $35,000 to serve three more years.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved the incentives last month as a temporary measure to retain “a generation of junior and mid-level officers and NCOs who have been tested in battle like none other in decades."

The money is paltry compared to the billions involved in fighting the war in Iraq, but it sheds light on the human costs of our continuing presence there.

"In the Army there has never been anything like this in memory," said Col. Paul Aswell, director of officer policy for Army personnel. "The bonuses are...a measure of payback to the family. They get this windfall to ease some of the pain of service in this environment."

The Washington Post reports a Brigadier General’s comment: "For a young family, these captains have known nothing but war and nonstop deployments. No amount of money can compensate me for daughter's first play.”

No taxpayer will begrudge this “windfall” for those who pay the real price for prolonging a pointless war, but anyone with financial qualms might want to compare an Army captain’s salary of up to $60,000 a year with the $445,000 it takes to keep a Blackwater guard there.

Honorable service is much cheaper to buy than the efforts of those who besmirch the nation’s reputation by killing innocent civilians.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Frankenstein's Fred

If he doesn’t make it to the White House, Fred Thompson would be a natural for the musical version of “Young Frankenstein,” the Mel Brooks 1974 classic that came out not long after the Watergate black comedy played out on live TV.

Just as Gene Wilder gave life to the hulking Peter Boyle in Transylvania, Sen. Howard Baker pushed forward his gangling former campaign manager as Minority Counsel in the Washington hearings and launched his dual career in politics and acting.

In yesterday’s debate, it was difficult not to picture Thompson as the Creature who came off the lab table stiffly but eventually warmed up enough to perform a creditable soft-shoe “Putting on the Ritz” for the nervous crowd that had been anticipating his debut.

The question now is whether Thompson’s handlers can continue to zap him with enough voltage to keep their big guy animated while holding off Giuliani’s angry Republican villagers who will be hounding him on the campaign trail.

If not, Mel Brooks will be waiting.

In Praise of Peggy Noonan

Some of the best writing about politics today can be found (brace yourself) on the editorial page of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal in the weekly column of a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

It’s not just that Peggy Noonan is shrewd, sane and sharp of tongue, but she is also one of the most sensitive of commentators along the political spectrum. In July, she wrote about the current Bush:

“Presidents in great enterprises that are going badly suffer: Lincoln, LBJ with his head in his hands. Why doesn't Mr. Bush? Every major domestic initiative of his second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president since polling began. He's in a good mood...

“Americans have always been somewhat romantic about the meaning of our country...But they like the president to be the cool-eyed realist, the tough customer who understands harsh realities. With Mr. Bush it is the people who are forced to be cool-eyed and realistic. He's the one who goes off on the toots. This is extremely irritating, and also unnatural. Actually it's weird...

“Americans can't fire the president right now, so they're waiting it out.”

In her column last Friday, she wrote: “Barack Obama has a great thinking look. I mean the look he gets on his face when he's thinking, not the look he presents in debate, where they all control their faces knowing they may be in the reaction shot and fearing they'll look shrewd and clever, as opposed to open and strong...

“You get the impression Mr. Obama trusts himself to think, as if something good might happen if he does. What a concept. Anyway, I've started to lean forward a little when he talks.”

Does he have a chance? Noonan goes on to describe “The Trance” that has perpetuated the Bush and Clinton dynasties: “Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability? ...It would be understandable if they were families of a most extraordinary natural distinction and self-sacrifice. But these are not the Adamses of Massachusetts we're talking about. You've noticed, right?”

Peggy Noonan has noticed that and a lot more.

Milestones in Media Muck

Those who have tears to shed for our culture can reach for the Kleenex now. Today we have hospital workers scrambling to publicize George Clooney’s medical records after a motorcycle accident and a magazine cover showing a bare-breasted Hillary Clinton being nuzzled by hairy-chested Rudy Giuliani behind the bare butt of a reclining Barack Obama.

It barely seems to matter that Clooney’s accident actually happened while the political threesome is a product of photoshopping from the overheated imagination of sleazy magazine editors, justified as commentary on presidential campaigns as “lengthy spectacles...relentlessly contrived and overproduced.”

The motto of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” was “Everybody belongs to everybody else,” but we seem to have left that behind several Paris Hiltons ago.

On second thought, forget the Kleenex. Bring in the puke bucket.

All Eyes on Idaho

Electors of the state’s Hall of Fame were prescient last spring when they chose Sen. Larry Craig to be one of this year’s new inductees.

At the ceremonies this weekend to honor his “great contribution to Idaho over the period of 20-some years,” the state should be getting more media attention than it has had for half a century since Marilyn Monroe posed for the cameras wearing an Idaho potato sack.

It’s heartening to see one of less populous states getting some national attention.

Bush's Uniting Work Is Almost Done

During the 2000 campaign, the future President called himself “a uniter, not a divider.” Seven years later, not only the nation but the entire world is so united that it may be time to relax his efforts.

More than 70 percent of Americans agree about the war in Iraq, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are getting together to pass a veto-proof children’s health insurance bill this month, and just last week, traditionally antagonistic groups from North and South met in harmony to consider secession from the Union.

Around the world, there is near-unanimity about the United States’ international stature, and even in Iraq, where unity has been a bit slow in coming, there is a growing consensus of all factions that national reconciliation is not their style.

In the waning days of his Era of Comity, the President may want to focus on extending it beyond his tenure by discouraging Republican candidates from impugning Hillary Clinton as a polarizing figure. By nature, she may very well be a divider, but can any future President fail to learn from the example George W. Bush has set?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Giuliani Stays Ahead of the Game

America’s Mayor prepared for tonight’s Republican debate by going to a ball park last night. It couldn’t have been relaxing since he saw his beloved New York Yankees eliminated from the American League playoffs and. at the same time, had to face the fact that front runners and favorites can be beaten.

But if he loses, the scoreboard shows it’s unlikely to be to the former Governor of the hated Boston Red Sox’s state, Mitt Romney.

A new Gallup Poll today shows Rudy 12 percentage points ahead of Fred Thompson, 16 over John McCain and in another ballpark from Romney, whose free-spending still leaves him at 9 percent, barely ahead of practically penniless Mike Huckabee at 7.

Giuliani will be saddened by the Yankees’ loss not only by empathy for the ball club he loves but a blow to his New Hampshire campaign where he has been connecting with Red Sox fans with good-natured bantering about their respective teams.

Now, as they say in the national pastime, the fat lady has sung for his favorite team, but there hasn’t been a peep out of her for his Presidential campaign.

Media Mistrust: The Tipping Point

According to the latest Gallup Poll, Americans passed a milestone four years ago and have never looked back: More than half of us now have little or no confidence that mass media--newspapers, TV and radio--report the news fully, fairly and accurately.

Thirty years ago, only 26 percent felt that way. The gap then between Republicans and Democrats was only 10 percent. Today it is a chasm, with twice as many Republicans mistrustful of the news they are getting.

In the wake of Watergate, the public didn’t blame the messengers for delivering political bad news. In the post-9/11 world, they do and accuse them of distorting it.

Behind this change is the difference in the amount of news we get and how we get it. Before 24/7 cable and the Web, newspaper front pages and the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC packaged our perception of the world and, for better or worse, there were few other sources of information to challenge what they gave us.

Walter Cronkite signed off every night, saying “That’s the way it is,” and most Americans had no way to doubt it.

Today, there are millions of Walter Cronkites on cable and the Web to decide for themselves the way it is and, although they still depend on MSM for most of the hard news, they decide for themselves what it means.

Mistrust and rancor are part of the price we pay for this privilege, but after the Bush-Cheney era gives way to a likely Democratic Administration, will partisan dissatisfaction with the news shift as well? Or do Republicans have the patent on media-bashing?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Gnats to You, George Steinbrenner

In the race for Most Obnoxious New Yorker, the Yankee owner has always been neck and neck with Donald Trump, but this weekend “The Boss” made a strong bid for the title as he nears the finish line.

Emerging from what was assumed to be senile silence, the 77-year-old Mouth managed to offend everyone who enjoys baseball as an oasis from the cruder realities of modern life by threatening to fire his polar opposite, 67-year-old Joe Torre, one of the most gifted managers in sports history and a model for what a decent, caring man can accomplish in competition.

The team had lost two games of a playoff with Cleveland, the second of which hinged on the bizarre attack of swarms of insects that unnerved 22-year-old Joba Chamberlain, who up to that point had been their American Dream savior.

But Steinbrenner has no sensitivity to anything beyond money, power and his own insatiable ego.

The Yankees rallied to win last night and save their manager’s job. But even if they go on to win it all, Steinbrenner has once again, hopefully for the last time, poisoned our pleasure in seeing them do it.

Republicans' Faith-Based Choice

The former Arkansas Governor, a Baptist minister, is becoming everybody’s favorite conservative, except for the Religious Right. Arguably the smartest and most personable of Republican Presidential contenders, Mike Huckabee is stuck in single digits and woeful campaign contribution numbers.

The reason may be his faith. After years of George Bush’s self-righteous religiosity, Republican true believers seem leery of Huckabee’s traditional approach to Christian values that calls for brotherhood and humility.

Unlike Bush, Huckabee grew up in poverty and embraced his religion from childhood, rather than as a middle-aged man grasping for salvation when his over-privileged life was falling apart.

Joe Klein of Time describes him as “a political inconvenience, a destroyer of stereotypes” with a new constituency of Second Commandment Christians who live by the Golden Rule and are “more interested in salvation than damnation.”

“I believe,” Huckabee told him, “that life begins at conception, but I don't believe it ends at birth. I believe we have a responsibility to feed the hungry, to provide a good education, a safe neighborhood, health care.”

In a recent Pew Center forum, moderated by Washington Post liberal columnist E. J. Dionne, he went beyond debate sound bites about evolution and explained his philosophy of governing.

“I was absolutely embarrassed and ashamed of my own government,” he said, “in the response to Katrina. I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought...These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana...We were not going to allow them to be further traumatized, depersonalized and dehumanized by stacking them in some sports arena and calling that a rescue.”

Republican voters may still be too mesmerized by Bush’s fake piety to give Huckabee a fair hearing, but his showing in the Iowa straw poll suggests some are listening.

Back in January, Dionne called Huckabee “the brightest star among Republican presidential dark horses” who “has maintained what you might call loyal distance” from Bush’s Iraq disaster. Voters may begin to notice that, too.