Friday, November 30, 2007

Political Head Cases

Gallup reports today that "Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats or independents to rate their mental health as excellent."

File this under the "Alfred E. Neuman Effect." In his extensive research, Dr. Neuman has discovered a correlation of intellectual curiosity, empathy and compassion with anxiety and depression, resulting in prescription of "What, Me Worry?" medication for afflicted Democrats.

The therapy has worked so well that some patients have not only gone into remission as Independents but achieved total cures and experienced Republican bliss.

For some, however, there have been significant side effects from overdoses--blonde brassiness in women (Ann Coulter Syndrome) and porcine belligerence (Limbaugh Logorrhea)--which have failed to respond to all known treatments.

Researchers at the Rupert Murdoch Institute are studying such cases in hope of discovering a new state of mental health they have tentatively labeled "super-excellent."

Beyond Bush, No Exit From Iraq?

"Americans," a New York Times editorial says today, "need to ask themselves the questions Mr. Bush is refusing to answer: Is this country signing on to keep the peace in Iraq indefinitely? If so, how many American and Iraqi deaths a month are an acceptable price? If not, what’s the plan for getting out?"

The President gave a partial answer this week by joining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a declaration setting out principles for an agreement to be negotiated in the next year to guarantee a U.S. troop presence in Iraq for years.

Behind the "non-bonding" words, the plan is clear: permanent US bases established by a pact that the Decider can sign before he leaves office. "As far as Bush is concerned," Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes today, "he doesn't have to seek congressional ratification for such an enduring commitment of American force, treasure and lives."

Gen. Douglas Lute, White House deputy national security adviser, confirms this speculation: "We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress."

With a 30 percent approval rating from Americans who want to get out of Iraq, George Bush, a majority of one, has decided unilaterally to keeps us there even after he leaves office to hold down what the Times describes as "the lid on a pressure cooker. Iraq’s rival militias, the insurgents, the bitter sectarian resentments and the meddling neighbors haven’t gone anywhere.

"Consider this all too familiar horror: yesterday, police said they pulled six bodies from the Tigris River about 25 miles south of Baghdad. They were handcuffed and showed signs of having been tortured. And five, including a child, had been beheaded."

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is angling to become president for life. Back here, on the subject of Iraq, George Bush has figured out how to manage that without any formalities.

Democratic Divas With a Difference

The names on the ballots are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama but, in Iowa and New Hampshire, a perfect storm of celebrity is brewing with two forces of nature named Barbra and Oprah on a collision course.

Like hurricanes, Streisand and Winfrey need be identified only by their first names, and they are lending their clout to Hillary and Barack to help elevate one of them to the ultimate celebrity.

The two women are a contrast in personal histories and styles. Winfrey, surviving an abusive childhood and early adulthood, created herself through empathy with millions of women. In backing Obama, she is taking her first steps into politics. When she appears with him next month, it will be a new experience.

At a fund-raiser that brought in $3 million, she reportedly told friends, "I haven't been actively engaged before because there hasn't been anything to be actively engaged in. But I am engaged now to make Barack Obama the next President of the United States,"

Streisand, a decade older and now eligible for Social Security, is a self-made powerhouse with an ego that is outsized even by Hollywood standards. She has been involved in politics for decades.

After Bill Clinton was elected, she was omnipresent at his inaugural. When his mother died, Streisand arrived by private jet for the funeral and announced her $200,000 donation to start a breast cancer research fund in memory of the President's mother, who, Barbra solemnly noted, had spent the last weekend of her life at Streisand concerts in Las Vegas.

This week, she announced her support of Hillary with a historical flourish: "Another former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote,‘In government, in business, and in the professions there may be a day when women will be looked upon as persons. We are, however, far from that day as yet.’ More than 50 years later 'that day' is now upon us…and Hillary Clinton is ready to shatter through that glass ceiling for all women."

Streisand will help Hillary with the Hollywood power structure, but Oprah will be giving Obama a unique advantage. Unlike 2000, when George Bush got a boost from appearing on her program, she won't be interviewing other candidates this time.

In light of her support for Obama, she has said, that would be "hypocritical," and nobody has ever accused Oprah of waffling about her feelings.

America's Drinking Problem

Residents of a county that calls itself the American Riviera will start drinking sewage today. Recycled, refined and filtered through aquifers, but still...

The Orange County Water District in southern California will turn on the world’s largest plant devoted to purifying sewer water. The process, called by proponents “indirect potable water reuse” and “toilet to tap” by the dubious, will be getting close scrutiny from authorities elsewhere.

Water shortages have been making news this year, not only in California, but Florida, Georgia and across the country. The federal government projects that at least 36 states will face shortfalls within five years from a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, urban sprawl and waste.

The problem is universal. A UN report has predicted that more than half of humanity will be living with water shortages, depleted fisheries and polluted coastlines within 50 years.

New technology may ease the problem, but awareness and conservation will be required, even more so than with global warming, where changes in public behavior can do only so much to help. (For a start, we could re-think excessive lawn-watering, car-washing, etc. with tap water that might be used for drinking rather than environmentally damaging bottled water.)

"The need to reduce water waste and inefficiency is greater now than ever before," says Benjamin Grumbles of the Environmental Protection Agency. "Water efficiency is the wave of the future."

We had better all drink to that.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Geographic Long Shots

Deep in the bowels of some Las Vegas super-computer, what are the odds against a 2008 Presidential contest between a former Governor of Arkansas and a former First Lady of Arkansas? Or a three-way race involving a Mayor, a former Mayor and a Senator from New York?

New Clue to Lott's Leaving?

Another shoe may be dropping in the twisty tale of why Trent Lott surprisingly gave up his job as the second most powerful Republican in the US Senate.

Originally, there was speculation that Lott's motive was to beat the new two-year limitation on lobbying that goes into effect at year's end.

But a more provocative possibility surfaced today with the indictment of Lott's brother-in-law, Richard Scruggs, for trying to bribe a judge in a case involving a fee dispute with another lawyer following his negotiated settlements worth more than $100 million this year with insurers from damage by Hurricane Katrina.

Scruggs represented Sen. Lott in a settlement with State Farm after the insurer refused to pay a claim for loss of his home and Sen. Lott, according to the New York Times, "pushed through federal legislation to investigate the claims handling of State Farm and other insurers." The investigation is still going on.

All this may be coincidence, but Washington history suggests some cause and effect in looking for a possible answer to Lott's sudden departure from his powerful position. Stay tuned.

Sparing the Rod

In Texas, a 19-year-old mother has told police her two-year-old daughter was beaten with leather belts, had her head held underwater in a bathtub and was thrown across a room, slamming into a tile floor, for failing to say "please" and "thank you" and otherwise displeasing her 24-year-old stepfather. The child's body was found in a plastic box in Galveston bay.

As authorities sort out details of the brief, brutalized life of Riley Ann Sawyers, also known as "Baby Grace," it is a haunting reminder of what childhood was like in America before parents of the Baby Boomers came home from World War II and one of them, Dr. Benjamin Spock, wrote a book for the first generation that would treat children as human beings to be loved and nurtured rather than creatures to be trained and restrained.

Before Spock, child-care experts advised “less sentimentality and more spanking” and discouraged playing with children or showing them affection. Babies were to be fed only on schedule, toilet-trained ready or not, and have their hands tied to prevent thumb-sucking.

In an era of postwar optimism, parents were persuaded instead to love their children without restraint and risk "spoiling" them.

Now, some critics find those children who were not drilled to say "please" and "thank you," as they near retirement age, a "me" generation, selfish, self-centered and the source of many of America's social ills.

But whatever the pathology in the case of Riley Ann Sawyers turns out to be, her story is a jolt to those who may have forgotten that the Baby Boomers also turned out to be one of the most sensitive and caring generations ever.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Party of Punishers

The Republicans talked a lot tonight about penalizing people--illegal immigrants, women and doctors who abort babies, gays in the military, Islamic extremists--anybody who makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable or challenges their vision of a homogenous, God-fearing, heavily armed America.

Mitt Romney wouldn't say no to waterboarding but said yes to Guantanamo. Only John McCain and Mike Huckabee on the death penalty made passing references to human decency in any form, although Huckabee was ready to put Hillary Clinton on the first rocket to Mars.

There was no discussion of health insurance, education, the environment or any other issues that involve American society caring for the young, the weak and the helpless. The main Republican concern for members of future generations was about preserving them in utero and avoiding government spending that would create debt for them as taxpayers.

The '08 battle lines between the parties have been drawn. Republicans will play on voters' fears as opposed to their hopes, on shutting out Others rather than caring for them. Judging from tonight's performance, they have the right candidates to push their agenda.

The Prince of Dimness

That noise in the background is Robert Novak, the self-styled Prince of Darkness, doing what he always does--nipping at politicians while barking away to call attention to himself.

Instead of slinking off after his Valerie Plame dump on the national carpet, the old dog is still up to his ancient tricks, this time befouling Presidential candidates of both parties.

Weekend before last, he stirred up a Clinton-Obama spat by writing that "agents" of the Clinton campaign had been "spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent." After smearing both Democrats with anonymous dirt, Novak went on Fox News to stand by his "scoop," while admitting it came to him third-hand with no confirmation.

This week Novak is outing Mike Huckabee as a "false conservative" who is really "a high-tax, protectionist, big-government advocate of a strong hand in the Oval Office directing the lives of Americans."

After half a century of "reporting," Novak seems to get most of his dope over expense-account lunches these days and, judging from his past gushes over Fred Thompson, the Huckabee smear may be coming from that direction.

Come to think of it, the canine metaphor may be misplaced. Novak is more of a handy hydrant for political operatives' leaks.

Iraq: Too Dangerous to Cover

The Surge may be making Iraq safer, but not for those reporting it. Eight out of ten journalists say the war is now harder to cover than it was when they started working there.

From an October survey of 111 journalists in 29 news organizations, the Project for Excellence in Journalism concludes: "They believe they have done a better job of covering the American military and the insurgency than they have the lives of ordinary Iraqis. And they do not believe the coverage of Iraq over time has been too negative. If anything, many believe the situation over the course of the war has been worse than the American public has perceived."

Outside of the heavily-fortified Green Zone, local staff do the face-to-face reporting, and they can't carry any equipment, not even notebooks, that might identify them as working for American media out of fear of being killed. Some don't even tell their families.

According to one print journalist, "The dangers can’t be overstated. It’s been an ambush--two staff killed, one wounded--various firefights, and our ‘home’ has been rocked and mortared (by accident, I’m pretty sure).”

A broadcast editor reported: "It's dangerous and frustrating. You want to go out and cover stories, but you can't because of the threat of kidnapping or worse. It's hard to hear commentators back home say, 'The media isn't covering the full story.' Well, there's a reason for that, and it's not bias. When journalists cannot cover a playground being rebuilt because it's too dangerous to travel around the city, then that playground is not the primary story."

Politicians, media critics and journalism students, take note.

A Living Rebuke to Today's Politics

You might sum up what's wrong with this process of picking a president in two words: Joe Biden. Why is he stuck in single digits?

In an interview with Judy Woodruff on PBS' News Hour last night, Biden was a reminder of the kind of candidate that old-fashioned, smoke-filled-room politics of the past century would often produce: experienced, knowing, comfortable in his own skin, someone to be trusted without being idealized.

Not always. There was Nixon, of course, but there were also FDR, Jack Kennedy, Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and even Truman, if you overlook the cronyism.

Biden is a throwback to those days in refusing to play the Hillary-Rudy-Romney game of pandering from the heart. In Iowa, he is running a tongue-in-cheek ad about the phrase often heard in Democratic debates, "Joe's right," and he has been--about Iraq (after trusting Bush in 2002) and most domestic issues based on more than half a lifetime in Congress.

Peace to those cynics who will pop up with "plagiarism" and "shoot from the hip," but Biden seems to have learned from past mistakes and personal losses to emerge not sadder but wiser and optimistic. He deserves a closer look.

The old pols who used to pick candidates were a nasty, often crooked, lot, but they were realists who didn't fall for sound bites, test-panel slogans and shifty commercials. Nobody wants them back, but there must be a better alternative than this.

Maybe the YouTubers tonight will show us the way.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Will Ted Kennedy Tell All?

The last survivor of the twentieth century's great brother act is writing his memoirs, fittingly for one of the largest advances of all time, north of $8 million.

"I've been fortunate in my life to grow up in an extraordinary family and to have a front row seat at many key events in our nation's history," Ted Kennedy said in a statement.

He will be the first of his generation to live long enough to tell the story of those lives that were marked by grandeur, scandal and grief.

The youngest of nine children, Edward Moore Kennedy was thrown out of Harvard for cheating but, with one brother as President and another Attorney General, he overcame adversity by winning Jack's former Senate seat, which had been kept warm for him by a family friend until he turned 30 in 1962 and was eligible to run for it.

In the 1960s, he was seen at TV funerals of both brothers, became the surrogate father of their 13 children and ended the decade, on the weekend of the first moon landing, driving a car into the waters off Chappaquiddick island, resulting in the drowning of the young woman who was with him.

That scandal would have ended any other political career but, in 1980, he was preparing to challenge unpopular incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Presidential nomination. I know because I published a 90th birthday reminiscence by his mother that summer, arranged by loyal JFK staffers as part of Ted Kennedy's public rehabilitation.

But his heart was not in it. In a CBS special just before announcing the candidacy, his answer to the question of why he wanted to be president was so vague, rambling and unsure that poll numbers plummeted and it was over.

When he looks back on all that and a remarkable 45-year career in the Senate that includes championing gun control, alternative energy and immigration reform as well as voting against invading Iraq in 2002, Ted Kennedy will have a lot to tell in his autobiography but, for better or worse, most potential readers will have strong opinions about him even before they turn the first page.

The Rumors About Trent Lott's Retirement

This could be a case study of the difference in news values between the Mainstream Media and blogs.

After Trent Lott's surprising announcement yesterday that he would retire from the Senate at the end of the year, there was puzzlement about his motives and timing. Why would the second most powerful Republican resign after two decades with five years left in his current term to "pursue something else"?

Then, lo and behold, a questionable D.C.-based blog last night offers a gay-sex scandal to explain it all. This morning, the young man involved denies it all and the whole story pulses through the blogosphere in a tizzy of titillation and disappointment.

Unless the arbiter of Washington sleaze, Larry Flynt, comes forward with evidence, file it under "Sex Scandals That Never Happened" with yesterday's Drudge Report of a British rumor about Hillary Clinton's affair with a female aide.

This post will self-destruct in 30 seconds.


If the Presidential election were held today, it might end up in a worse muddle than Bush-Gore in 2000. Gallup tells us Hillary Clinton can beat any Republican, while Zogby reports she is trailing five of them in their polling.

With a year to go, it's safe to say Americans are undecided--safe but how useful? With a flood of statistics from all directions, nationally and in early primary states, are polls turning the process into a numbers game that obscures the issues?

If that sounds stuffy, or even Luddite, consider the checkered history of Presidential polls. In 1936, the Literary Digest famously predicted Alf Landon would beat FDR, but he lost every state except Maine and Vermont. The mistake was asking voters who had cars and telephones, not a fair cross-section of the whole population back then.

Sampling is more sophisticated now but on election night 2000, we were whipsawed by exit polls from the Voters News Service that reported Gore winning Florida and the White House and then maybe not.

What can we believe? Gallup polls by phone, Zogby "surveys individuals who have registered to take part in online polls," but does it make any difference?

What does matter is that politicians and public may be getting too mesmerized by the numbers and, based on their fallible evidence, making "electability" the main issue instead of substantive differences among the candidates.

Those who like horse races can get a better run for their money at the race track rather than the voting booth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

CBS' Respect-Free Zone for Journalists

The network has come a long way since Edward R. Murrow. From the time William S. Paley backed his newspeople in unmasking Sen. Joe McCarthy to the present day when its lawyers are insulting Dan Rather in court filings for trying to nail George W. Bush's lies about his National Guard service, CBS has been in a downward spiral as steep as the ratings plunge of its nightly news.

In the new issue of New York Magazine, Rather vents his dismay over being blamed for an error in a story that was essentially right and booted out of a job he held with distinction for 24 years after being the network's lead reporter in exposing Nixon and Watergate.

Although legend rightly immortalizes Woodward and Bernstein for their Washington Post coverage leading to Nixon's downfall, CBS News was the only other media outlet that stayed with the story during a time when others held back, and it was Rather who did most of the reporting.

When he recently brought suit to vindicate himself from what Ted Koppel called the "travesty" of his firing for "a story that was much more correct than incorrect," CBS lawyers filed a contemptuous response in court papers, citing it as "a regrettable attempt" by him "to remain in the public eye, and to settle old scores and perceived slights."

At the risk of looking like the loony anchorman in "Network" shouting, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more," Rather is ending his public life with the signoff he used for his broadcasts: "Courage."

He has always had more than his share of that and deserves the respect that a now whorish network is trying to take away from him.

Cheney vs. Rice, Fight to the Finish

With Karl Rove gone, the battle for Bush's brain is on between the remaining White House heavyweights, Vice-President Cheney and the Secretary of State, who is taking the offensive as the last round begins.

At Annapolis tomorrow, Condoleeza Rice will engage Mideast leaders in an attempt to stop the pounding she and her President have taken over Iraq and show some fancy footwork in moving toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In today's New York Times, her biographer, Elisabeth Bumiller has two stories, one about Rice's "Turnabout on Mideast Peace Talks" and another on the "Personal Bond" between Bush and the woman he affectionately calls "Madame Rice."

This is heavy-duty book promotion and somewhat iffy journalism by a reporter with a vested interest in her subject, but more important, it kicks off Rice's campaign to burnish her legacy as well as Bush's.

Ms. Bumiller, after chronicling Rice's early opposition to involvement in the Isareli-Palestinian standoff, concludes: "Nearly seven tumultuous years later, Ms. Rice, as secretary of state, has led the Bush administration to a startling turnaround and is now thrusting the United States as forcefully as Mr. Clinton once did into the role of mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians. The culmination of her efforts occurs this week in Annapolis, Md., as Mr. Bush, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, meet to set the outlines of a final peace agreement before the end of Mr. Bush’s term."

All this, Bumiller reports in detail, is over the grim opposition of Dick Cheney, who is willing to bomb but not talk to anyone in the region.

The gossipy sidebar rehashes the Bush-Rice personal ties and explains how she used "her relationship with Mr. Bush to try to gain control over the national security process as well as two powerful men who drove much of the agenda in the first term," Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.

The gloves are off, Rice and Cheney are in the ring and, outside of their personal fight, there is not much at stake beyond peace in the Mideast and whether or not we invade Iran before Bush leaves office.

Hillary: The Case for Humility

The other day, Andrew Sullivan distilled his and America's '08 dilemma into a choice "between fear and loathing. I loathe Clinton; I fear Giuliani."

The Rudy side of the equation is easily quantified (see below), but the hatred of Hillary Clinton, not only Sullivan's, but that, if polls are to be believed, of close to half of all Americans, is more complicated.

A visitor from another planet might see her as a former First Lady of undoubted intelligence who stood by her husband in a pre-election sex scandal, was later victimized by another in the White House and then went on to an independent political career and the brink of nomination for president. As they used to say on Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Critics call her cold, calculating and ruthless but, in some political circles, those are qualities deemed vital in a president. Among the less sophisticated, there is a resentment over exploiting her spousal status that overlooks George W. Bush's leveraging of his filial tie into the White House.

But underneath all that, I would suggest, is a vague rage at her sense of entitlement, the unquestioning attitude toward her right to be President, the confidence she projects of having somehow earned it by claiming her White House years as executive "experience."

That Achilles' heel has, in recent days, been exploited by her opposition, as in Barack Obama's observation, “My understanding was that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, so I don’t know exactly what experiences she’s claiming.”

In some ways, Sen. Clinton may have damaged her own campaign narrative by framing the choice as experience vs. change. Some of those experiences are turnoffs for voters, who might be impressed by strong stands on issues that concern them but see her waffling only as reinforcement for the feeling that she takes her succession for granted.

Humility is not high on the list of qualities the electorate wants in a president, but modesty could go a long way in offsetting the arrogance Hillary Clinton projects and, in a general election, it might serve her well against Rudy Giuliani, who is over-endowed with it to the point of frightening Andrew Sullivan:

"His obsessive loyalty to aides, his reflexive defense of the security and police forces, his discomfort with any argument smacking of civil liberties, his mean streak, his desire to extend his own term of office as New York City mayor, his authoritarian, meddling instincts, and his frequent, hotheaded outbursts: all this make giving him the Cheney-style presidency a huge risk."

Hillary haters and supporters, take note.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

9/11 and Other American Plots

When fire breaks out in a mental hospital, the paranoids are the first to respond--they always expect someone to do terrible things.

That bit of apocryphal folklore comes to mind with news today that almost two-thirds of Americans think federal officials knew in advance of 9/11 but chose to ignore the warnings.

A similar survey last year showed one out of three thinks our government assisted in the attacks or took no action to stop them so the US could go to war in the Middle East.

These conspiracy beliefs come, not from residents of a mental hospital, but a study of Americans normal enough to answer their own phones.

In 1964, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," a book widely read because its thesis was then so new and startling: that a "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" was spreading from the lunatic fringes into the mainstream of our national life.

The political paranoid, he wrote, "does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician...Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated."

From then on, starting with President Kennedy's assassination, more and more Americans believed everything that happened had to be part of some evil design, rather than the result of human randomness. No one could be trusted and, during its tenure, the Bush Administration has provided much evidence to support such suspicions.

But, in large part, distrust goes back to changes in perception as well as politics. Before TV, news was what people in power said it was, and there was no way to see behind the official version of truth. But with events coming into our living rooms, we could start to make our own judgments about what was really going on.

Now, with 24/7 news everywhere, everyone is "in the know," and there is no reason to accept the official version of anything. As any blogger can tell you, the more devious the explanation for events, the more attention and, for some, credence it receives.

We are now free from getting only a whitewashed picture of the world, but are we closer to any truths by getting a flood of blackwashed analyses of everyone's actions and motives? Little wonder that some Americans now see everything as a conspiracy,

Can We Disinvent Nuclear Weapons?

There is an axiom about movie plots: If a gun is seen in an early scene, it will be fired before the final credits.

So it is now in the international movie of our lives after the unreeling of more than half a century with weapons that could bring total devastation. In today's New York Times Book Review, Martin Walker considers new histories of that period by writers who have chronicled it from the start, Jonathan Schell and Richard Rhodes.

"When the Soviet Union collapsed," Walker writes, "five declared nuclear powers and Israel constituted the nuclear club. Today India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined their number. Iraq under Saddam Hussein came within perhaps a year of doing so, and Iran is waiting in the wings. We are poised on the brink of a new age of multiple nuclear powers."

The Presidential candidates talk glibly about managing this volatile world--Republicans with more macho than realism, Democrats with more faith in muscular rationality than realism can support--but evade the basic issue: Is there any way to rid the world of weapons that endanger all of human civilization?

In "The Seventh Decade," Schell blames the Bush Administration, particularly Dick Cheney, for overturning all previous efforts toward nuclear controls by embracing
a first-strike policy to combat proliferation and pursuing new generations of WMDs.

To avoid a global calamity, Schell argues, disarmament is no longer an idealistic pipe dream but a practical bipartisan necessity, pointing to a call earlier this year by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Rhodes, in "Arsenal of Folly," cites a missed opportunity when, after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev started down that road at the Reykjavik summit of 1986 but stumbled over disagreement about testing of Stars Wars systems of defense against surprise attack.

Since then, generations have come of age with only hazy awareness of the ultimate threat, but they should be reminded of what it was like in the early scenes of civilization's nuclear movie during the Cold War, when schoolchildren were drilled in ducking under desks and every siren that sounded set off visceral fears that a mushroom cloud was coming.

Time to End Bloomberg's Ambivalence

With Election Day '08 less than a year away, the Hamlet act is wearing thin for New York's Mayor. Soon he will have to decide whether to be or not to be a candidate for President.

Lately he seems to be leaning toward it. Last weekend in New Orleans, the symbolic site for Washington inadequacy, Mike Bloomberg proclaimed his principles of governing "a challenge to candidates to move beyond photo-ops, to reject stage-managed town hall meetings, and to talk about how we're going to use real accountability to solve real problems and take real questions from our constituents and give them real answers.

"They're a challenge to a rotten political culture that rewards sellouts and sycophants, and I've just always thought that we can do better."

After blasting the campaign as "pandering in full throttle," Bloomberg toured the hurricane-ravaged lower Ninth Ward and got an endorsement from one of the residents, Fats Domino.

At the same time, the Mayor is taking a cram course on foreign policy with Nancy Soderberg, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a Clinton Administration foreign policy adviser, and has had his chief political aide, Kevin Sheekey, meeting with officials of Britain's Independence Party to discuss how a third-party bid could be launched.

Earlier this fall, Bloomberg dined with retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel, whose Republican domestic credentials, opposition to the war in Iraq and Washington know-how would pair up nicely with the Mayor's executive experience on an Independent ticket.

This month, Newsweek's editor Jon Meacham wrote a long story about Bloomberg's "American odyssey," blurbed, "He has the money and message to upend 2008."

But Bloomberg will have to decide soon. Even with a billion dollars, it takes time to put together a campaign and get on the ballot in 50 states.

As the major parties seem ready to nominate two unusual New Yorkers--a woman and a multi-married Italian-American--will another, described by CNN's Jeff Greenfield as "a vertically challenged Jewish billionaire," have the legs to make it a three-way?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sex, Power and Aging in the Movies

This weekend, a fine actor named Frank Langella is being seen in a new film, "Starting Out in the Evening," which is getting good reviews in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and points between.

In it, Langella plays a writer and was directed by Andrew Wagner, a college classmate of one of my sons. Thirty years ago, Langella played a writer in "Diary of a Mad Housewife," directed by a friend of mine, Frank Perry, from a script by his wife, Eleanor.

In both movies, the writer ends up in bed with complicated women, as a self-centered seducer in "Diary" and as the vulnerable seduced in "Starting Out."

In the three decades between, as age diminished Langella's sexual power on the screen, it transformed him into a powerhouse of an actor in roles from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes to the evil White House chief of staff in "Dave."

Along the way, in "Eddie," he played the owner of the New York Knicks who hires Whoopi Goldberg to coach the team and, in real life, they lived together for a time as a couple that conjures up marvelous visions of energy and elegance.

Next year, at 70, he will be seen as the famous Unindicted Co-conspirator in "Frost/Nixon," Ron Howard's film of the Broadway play for which Langella won a Tony.

Aging sucks, but it can have its compensations.

Semi-Private Lives

The Hulk Hogans may be getting divorced, a devastating development in the life of a family that has been fascinating VH1 viewers for more than two years on a reality series in some other America than the one I inhabit.

But their public pain recalls another family, the Louds, whose disintegration was seen in the early 1970s in a series, "An American Family," a landmark in breaking down what's private and what's public in our society.

The similarities are eerie. Hogan, the celebrity wrestler-musician, apparently learned of the divorce yesterday from a reporter in Florida, where his family lives. "My wife has been in California for about three weeks," he responded. "Holy smokes. Wow, you just knocked the bottom out of me."

In the earlier series, Linda Loud told her husband of 20 years to move out of the house on camera, a scene 10 million viewers would watch later that week.

Like the Hogans, the Louds were not the people next door, living a life of luxury in Santa Barbara, California that was several American Dreams away from "The Waltons" and even "The Brady Brunch" of late twentieth-century TV. The Hogans occupy a 20,000-square-foot Florida estate with more than 30 pets.

Both series featured flamboyant teenagers--Lance Loud, who dyed his hair silver and his clothes purple, and in this century, Brooke Hogan, who signed a $1.3 million contract as a singer when she turned 18, and Nick, a professional car racer briefly jailed for underage drinking and reckless driving

Back then, the Louds were denounced as exhibitionists and praised for pioneering a new openness in an electronic society. Today, when celebrity lives are routinely played out in public, the Hogans are not that unusual.

American fame has come a long way in those three decades, but some killjoys may wonder if it was worth the trip.

In-Fighting by Innuendo

They're trying something new in this political campaign--subtlety. The '08 candidates are using this unlikely weapon out of fear that voters may be turned off by the customary sledgehammer attack ads.

So reports Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post, citing commercials that ooze with good feelings about themselves but hide embedded barbs for their rivals.

A Romney ad features his super-wholesome family, hoping to remind viewers that Giuliani has been married three times with a second divorce that has left him alienated from his children.

"It's just essential," Romney intones, "to have a home where faith, where love of country, where determination, where all these features that are so much a part of American culture are taught to our kids."

Giuliani stresses his record as a mayor and prosecutor while telling voters they "are not going to find perfection" and, on the stump, suggests that candidates like Romney who don't admit mistakes in their lives may make some big ones in the Oval Office.

In his commercial, Obama says the country needs "a real honest conversation" about Social Security. "I don't want to put my finger out to the wind and see what the polls say," he reminds us, an oblique reference to Hillary You-Know-Who.

John McCain attacks pork-barrel spending by citing Clinton's effort to obtain $1 million for a Woodstock museum, noting that he missed the 1969 music festival because he "was tied up at the time" while the screen shows him as a wounded prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Political strategists seem to have concluded that blatant Karl Rove attack ads and Swift Boat commercials may backfire this time, but there is no guarantee that snide will be better. After being fed red meat for so long, voters may not lap up pablum.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Best Leftover Turkey Recipe Ever

A contribution to humanity: From years of editing women's magazines and tasting test-kitchen results thereof, herewith a way with leftover turkey that will keep you from cursing the oversized bird you bought.


Ingredients: 3/4 cup butter or margarine, 3/4 cup flour, salt, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 quart milk, 2 cups undiluted chicken broth, 4 egg yolks, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup sherry, 1 pound thin spaghetti, 6 cups leftover turkey cut into cubes, 1 cup fresh or canned sliced mushrooms, 8 oz sharp Cheddar grated (2 cups).

Sauce: Melt butter in large pan, remove from heat. Stir in flour, nutmeg and salt until smooth. Gradually add milk and broth, stirring constantly. Boil 2 minutes until slightly thick.

In small bowl, beat egg yolks and cream. Beat in a little of the sauce, pour back into pan over low heat, stirring until hot but not to a boil. Stir in sherry.

Boil spaghetti, drain and return to kettle. Add 2 cups sauce and toss together. Divide in half and put into two 12-by-8-by-2 baking dishes, push back toward edges. Add 2 cups sauce to turkey and mushrooms, mix well and spoon half into center of each dish.

Sprinkle grated cheese, cover with foil and refrigerate 1 hour or even overnight. Preheat oven to 350F and bake, covered, 45 minutes. Spoon reheated leftover sauce over each serving. You can refreeze and have leftover leftovers.

Somewhat calorific, but then again, so are the bread and mayonnaise for turkey sandwiches, which won't taste nearly this good.

Sleepless Shopping

Turkey leftovers and Christmas shopping are the traditional order of the day, but this is ridiculous.

Fearful of a slow Christmas season, the Big Ones opened their doors today in the middle of the night, AP reports--Best Buy and Wal-Mart at 5 A.M., J.C. Penney at 4. It's Black Friday, literally.

Early Birding seems contagious this year, with states rushing to move up their primaries. Are we living in a new Age of Anxiety?

Hope you didn't have too much Turkey Melt for breakfast.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Friend in the White House

On The Nation's web site, Bill Moyers talks about his father who never made over $100 a week in his life and voted for Franklin Roosevelt in four elections "because the President's my friend."

As a Depression child a decade older than Moyers, I can top that--my father never made more than $55 and worked up to 60 hours a week for it.

Our paths, Moyers' and mine, crossed in the 1960s and 1970s when he worked in Lyndon Johnson's White House and afterward as a commentator for CBS and NBC before finding a home in public television. As the voice of Americans who work hard for what they get, he has always been his father's son.

"My father got it," Moyers says "when he heard his friend in the White House talk about how 'a small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor--other people's lives.' My father knew FDR was talking for him when he said life was no longer free, liberty no longer real, men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness--against economic tyranny."

Contrast this with Moyers' assessment of Karl Rove who "modeled the Bush presidency on that of William McKinley, who was in the White House from 1897 to 1901, and modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the man who virtually manufactured McKinley. Hanna had one consummate passion--to serve corporate and imperial power...that businessmen should run the government and run it for personal profit."

Whoever takes over the White House next will be somebody's friend. The questions won't be as simple as they were in the last century or the one before that, but voters might want to give a thought to Moyers' father and Rove's role model before they make their choice.

Scott McClellan's Script Tease

Say this much for Dana Perino: She may not be the most scintillating White House press secretary in history but, after writing her memoirs, she won't be performing the verbal strip tease Scott McClellan did this week to get attention for his.

Earlier in this slow news week, his publisher posted 121 words from McClellan's oevre that won't be available until next April:

"The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

"There was one problem. It was not true.

"I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the Vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself."

Most journalists (silly people) took this to mean that George W. Bush was "involved" in lies about Rove and Libby to the press.

But after getting attention with this admission, McClellan's publisher now tells us it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is. Peter Osnos of Public Affairs Books explains that his author "did not intend to suggest Bush lied to him" but told him what "he thought to be the case" and "didn't know it was not true."

Oh. Sounds a lot like the kind of work McClellan used to do from behind the White House podium.

The history of the Bush Administration's downfall can be traced in the arc of attractiveness of its spokespeople. When they were riding high, the media were held at bay by boring dough-faced types like McClellan and Ari Fleischer. Later, when the going got tough, they were replaced by the smoother and better-looking Tony Snow and Perino.

At this rate, Bush and Cheney should scouring Hollywood casting officers for a communications closer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bush's Madame Curie Moment

It's hard to picture the President in a lab coat, but the White House today is giving him credit for the newest advance in stem cell research.

Reacting to the news that scientists have succeeded in reprogramming skin cells to mimic embryonic stem cells, a Presidential adviser tells us today,

“This is very much in accord with the president’s vision from the get-go. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the president’s drawing of lines on cloning and embryo use was a positive factor in making this come to fruition.”

If the way to encourage advances is to thwart scientists' work, Bush should take his place alongside Madame Curie in the annals of medical breakthroughs.

"My feeling is that the political controversy set the field back four or five years," says James Thomson, who led a team at the University of Wisconsin in discovering human embryonic stem cells in 1998.

“I really don’t think anybody ought to take credit in light of the six-year delay we’ve had,” says Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican sponsor of the bill Bush vetoed in July 2006. “My own view is that science ought to be unfettered and that every possible alternative ought to be explored.

“You’ve got a life-and-death situation here, and if we can find something which is certifiably equivalent to embryonic stem cells, fine. But we are not there yet.”

Americans like Nancy Reagan and Michael J. Fox will be elated to learn about the new research, they are not likely to be hailing George W. Bush as a benefactor of mankind.

Giving Thanks for President Kennedy

For anyone over 50, tomorrow will be not only Thanksgiving but the day JFK died 44 years ago. He has been gone now for almost as long as he lived and, in these days of White House infamy, not nearly as much in the national mind as his antagonist, Richard Nixon, whose all-time low approval ratings have just been eclipsed by George W. Bush.

A few years after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy wistfully told me that her husband was being remembered too much for how he died rather than what he had lived for. She was right. It was too soon then for Americans to appreciate what they had lost.

In 1960, I had made an unintentional contribution to Kennedy’s election. After my magazine ran a piece by Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Advice to the Next First Lady,” the producers of the “Tonight” show called me to ask Mrs. Roosevelt if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had supported Adlai Stevenson during the convention and been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the “Tonight” show, she did just that, comparing Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant, and he didn't disappoint her.

John F. Kennedy was the last president in memory who was still learning while in office. He admitted mistakes and profited from them.

Despite misgivings, he went ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after being told Americans would be greeted as liberators and withdrew when he realized he had been misled, accepting “sole responsibility” for the fiasco.

As the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he put that lesson to use by overruling “experts” who wanted to bomb or invade Cubs and trusting his own instincts to avoid disaster.

After November 22, 1963 I wrote an editorial attempting to define the deep grief over his shocking death-—that beyond his attractiveness and intelligence, there was the loss of a leader “who was still growing—-in understanding, in skill, in compassion, in commitment."

Today's leading contenders for the Presidency are, for the most part, as cool and rational as Kennedy was when he was running for the office. For all our sakes, we can only hope that whoever wins can attain the stature he did in the thousand days he spent in the White House.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Obama Boomlet, Oprah to Come

As in Iowa, there are small signs of momentum for Barack Obama in New Hampshire.

In a new CNN poll today, he has narrowed the gap behind Hillary Clinton to 36-22 percent from 43-20, but more significantly, only 24 percent of likely voters tell pollsters they have made a choice. Another 29 percent are leaning toward one candidate, 47 percent are undecided.

Now the campaign is poised to bring out their big weapon. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, a close Obama watcher, reports his telling voters that Oprah is coming to New Hampshire and will probably stump for him in Iowa, too. One of his supporters points out, "Oprah can say to women ‘You don't have to vote for the first woman president. Vote for what you need.'”

Even Rudy Giuliani is pitching in (for his own obvious reasons). After Obama told high-school students today not to emulate his own experimentation with drugs and alcohol at their age, America's Mayor expressed admiration:

“I respect his honesty in doing that. One of the things we need from our people running for office is not this pretense of perfection. The reality is...we’re all human beings. If we haven’t made mistakes, don’t vote for us, because we’ve got some big ones that are going to happen in the future.”

After that validation, it would be churlish of Obama to point out that Giuliani has kept making some big mistakes long after high school. At the moment, however, they are both busy chipping away at Hillary Clinton's image of perfection.

New Sing-Along in Iowa

If you believe the polls, voters are changing their tune in the first bellwether state for '08, putting Barack Obama ahead of Hillary Clinton and reversing their desire for experience over change.

Fifty-five percent say that a "new direction and new ideas" are their top priority, compared with 33 percent who favor "strength and experience," a shift from July, when 49 percent wanted change and 39 percent experience.

Their lyrics may come straight from Bob Dylan's "Blowing' in the Wind" of the 1960s:

"Come writers and critics/Who prophesize with your pen/And keep your eyes wide/The chance won't come again/And don't speak too soon/For the wheel's still in spin/And there's no tellin' who/That it's namin'./For the loser now/Will be later to win/For the times they are a-changin'."

On the Republican side, the wheel is turning toward Mike Huckabee catching up to Mitt Romney, both of them well ahead of Rudy Giuliani fighting Fred Thompson for third place.

All this can be summed up by a still earlier song about the contrariness of Iowans from "The Music Man":

“And we're so by God stubborn/We can stand touchin' noses/For a week at a time/And never see eye-to-eye.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

Exit White House Musharraf Critic

With Pakistan imploding, the only top Bush official who has been criticizing President Pervez Musharraf in public for some time now is leaving her position.

In July, Frances Fragos Townsend, the President's homeland security advisor, who resigned today, said that Musharraf's cease-fire with tribal leaders to drain support for Islamic extremism was a failure, acknowledging frustration that Al Qaeda had rebuilt its infrastructure and links to affiliates, while keeping Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants alive for nearly six years since 9/11.

“It hasn’t worked for Pakistan,” she said. “It hasn’t worked for the United States.”

At the same time, Townsend was suggesting that, if Musharraf wouldn't take action, the US would.

"Just because we don't speak about things publicly doesn't mean we're not doing things you talk about," Townsend told a TV interviewer who asked why the US does not conduct special operations and other measures to cripple Al Qaeda.

"Job No. 1 is to protect the American people. There are no options off the table,’" she said, " question that we will use any instrument at our disposal" to deal with Al Qaeda and bin Laden.

Townsend's unexplained departure now to "pursue some private-sector opportunities" comes at a time of crisis with Pakistan.

There is no way of knowing why the one-time official in the Clinton Justice Department, who was mentioned as a possible successor to Alberto Gonzales, is leaving now, but Bush fatigue, disappointment and disagreement over what to do in Pakistan are certainly among the possible reasons.

Mud and Milquetoast

For a contrast in styles of playing political catch-up, consider two candidates who have been getting Dear John letters from voters in the Presidential polls--Edwards and McCain.

Accused of “throwing mud...right out of the Republican playbook" by the Democratic front runner, John Edwards responded yesterday, “If anybody, including Senator Clinton, thinks this is mudslinging--this is milquetoast, compared to what we’re going to see next fall." On the TV talk shows, he defined his attacks as passion rather than anger.

Meanwhile, John McCain is making the case for civility. “If I’m your nominee and Senator Clinton is the nominee of the other party," he told a university audience in New Hampshire, "the country will face as clear a choice as any in recent memory.

“She will be a formidable candidate. And while our differences are many and profound, I intend this to be a respectful debate. She and I disagree over America’s direction, and it is a serious disagreement. But I don’t doubt her ability to lead this country where she thinks it should go.”

On his bus, McCain told reporters, obviously aiming at Rudy Giuliani, “I don’t think you should take shots at her, like imitating her voice. I don’t know what you gain by doing that.”

Observers of the differences in the candidates' approaches might be tempted to look for explanations in their combat experiences--McCain in the skies over Vietnam and prison camps below, Edwards (and Giuliani) arguing cases in courtrooms.

As Murray Kempton used to say, the less at stake, the more bitter the battles become.

Better Than Bombing: Photo-Op Diplomacy

Confusion is the prevailing mode over an Administration initiative for a 24-hour Mideast conference to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks before President Bush leaves office.

With a target date (maybe) less than two weeks away, there is no firm schedule and no agenda. No invitations have been sent for the meeting at Annapolis, but diplomats from countries hoping to attend have been booking hotel rooms all over Washington for late November and early December.

"No one seems to know what is happening," one senior Arab envoy tells the Washington Post, speaking anonymously to avoid appearing out of the loop. "I am completely lost."

"American officials," the New York Times reports, "are not sure that the negotiations...will succeed. Others worry that...the Bush administration has not done the diplomatic groundwork necessary to get the negotiations off to a rapid and serious start, or that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not be able to spend the time necessary to keep the parties moving ahead when the difficult issues of borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem surface in all their excruciating detail."

It sounds like something being arranged by those who planned for post-war Iraq, but the good news is that this time they are promoting the long-forgotten "road map" to Mideast peace, and there are no military operations involved.

Will Rudy Be as Bulletproof as Bill Clinton?

As the year began, the Giuliani campaign seemed doomed by its own lost playbook, which listed his liabilities in bullet form: his third marriage after publicly cheating on his second wife; his consulting business with a less-than-sterling partner, Bernard Kerik; his liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and gun control, to say nothing of a New York style that might not charm red-states residents.

Yet here he is at year's end leading in the polls, the cross-dresser darling of the Religious right, with even the redoubtable Frank Rich in his Sunday Times column reduced to citing Judith Regan as the "silver bullet" that might pierce the heart of his campaign.

Not likely. More and more, Rudy is resembling the Bill Clinton of 1992, who (with an assist from you-know-who) survived his Gennifer Flowers scandal and went on to overcome stories of smoking marijuana ("I didn't inhale") and dodging service in Vietnam.

Now, as Hillary Clinton takes flak for not making her First Lady papers public fast enough, Giuliani is skating past complaints about moving 2,100 boxes of documents from his tenure as mayor to his own tax-exempt foundation before turning them back to the city. Only the mildest of questions has been raised about the papers, which include 9/11 records, being "sanitized" for campaign purposes.

After a media makeover, the current Mrs. Giuliani has emerged to make her first political speech, to an audience of cancer advocates, describing her not-then husband's reaction to hearing the news about his own in 2000.

The campaign's Southern strategy has worked well enough to bring Pat Robertson on board, even after having to dump Louisiana Sen. David Vitter of D.C. Madam fame and a South Carolina chairman accused of dealing cocaine.

After all this and more mishaps, any Judith Regan revelations from her pillow talk with Kerik and about the Murdoch empire's attempts to protect America's Mayor from gossip seem unlikely to derail him.

Only Mitt Romney's money and Iowa voters' orneriness might slow Rudy down. But then again, he could take heart from Bill Clinton's 1992 pattern, when the "Comeback Kid" bypassed Iowa and lost in New Hampshire but still went on to run the table of later primaries and get the nomination.

If the Giuliani campaign needs money, they might want to consider auctioning off signed copies of that lost playbook to die-hard supporters who have faith Rudy will prove it wrong.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Stealing from the Sick

Over the next year, Presidential candidates will prattle about health care, but none of them will talk about the elephant in the operating room--the massive fraud that bleeds the system.

Another piece of the picture emerges today in a whistle-blower lawsuit that, according to the New York Times, claims "improper sales practices, together with erroneous accounting, are invisibly draining millions of dollars out of vital public programs like Medicare through overcharges or unauthorized uses...systemic fraud across a whole network of companies and more than 7,000 health care institutions."

Cynthia Fitzgerald's sickening account of her experience in the medical supply business involves kickbacks, bribes and bid-rigging. For complaining about such illegalities, she was, of course, fired as a trouble-maker.

Now she is suing under the False Claims Act which, according to Taxpayers Against Fraud, has helped the government recover more than $20 billion from health care companies since 1986, $5 billion of it in the last two years.

But that may be small change compared to the blood money that is hemorrhaging everywhere. According to the FBI, health care crime by hospitals, doctors, pharmacists and other care providers is adding up to between $60 and $100 billion a year in the system that is saving us from socialized medicine.

If we could stop that, it would pay for almost six months of the war in Iraq.

Nuclear Hide-and-Seek

It keeps getting worse. Now we learn our government has given Pakistan $100 million and a "raft of equipment" to safeguard nuclear weapons since 9/11, but we have no idea whether any of it helped because they won't show us where or how what we gave them is being used.

Beleaguered President Musharraf says Pakistan's nuclear controls are "the best in the world" but won't reveal location of the weapons or the amount or type of new bomb-grade fuel his country is now producing.

After six years of secrecy, the Bush Administration is now starting to worry that Musharraf's "Trust me" on the nukes may be no more reliable than his assurances about fighting terrorists on the Afghanistan border.

The New York Times now admits it "has known details of the secret program for more than three years, based on interviews with a range of American officials and nuclear experts, some of whom were concerned that Pakistan’s arsenal remained vulnerable," but delayed publication when the Bush Administration "argued that premature disclosure could hurt the effort to secure the weapons."

In retrospect, there might have been some value in going public with the internal debate that pitted atomic scientists who favored technical sharing against the State Department, which prevailed by ruling such transfers were illegal under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Harold M. Agnew, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory, says reluctance to share warhead security technology was making the world more dangerous. “Lawyers say it’s classified,” he told the Times. “That’s nonsense...You want to make sure that the guys who have their hands on the weapons can’t use them without proper authorization.”

Now we are faced with the nightmare of nuclear weapons that are who-knows-where and protected who-knows-how in an unstable nation whose leading scientist was once selling its technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA who played a crucial role in stopping that proliferation, now says, “I am confident...the Pakistanis are very serious about securing this material, but also that someone in Pakistan is very intent on getting their hands on it.”

Saturday, November 17, 2007

All the Money You Could Want

Most of us go through life wishing for more money but are never faced with deciding what to do with endless amounts. A news story today suggests how much imagination it takes to deal with no limits.

After a tax scam that yielded millions, the FBI raided a modest home and garage in Washington to find a Mercedes, tons of designer shoes and luggage, silver-plated iguana figurines, 13 watches including a Rolex, 90 purses (47 from Chanel), flutes and goblets by Steuben, a Faberge egg and a silver bar cart as well as courtesy cards used by regular gamblers in half a dozen Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, phone bills of $1500 a month and travel receipts from all over. They filled 25 boxes with clothes and listed 414 unidentified pieces in the inventory.

But all this is only a testament to the banality of greed, a kind of Home Shopping Network vision of huge wealth. Without imagination, the woman who apparently embezzled more than $20 million from the D.C. government used it to become a glorified bag lady.

How much more complicated is it for the Warren Buffets, Bill Gateses, and Oprahs of the world, trying to do good, a Mike Bloomberg, pondering whether to buy the White House, or a Rupert Murdoch, too busy trying to acquire more power and influence to spend much actual money in his own life?

For some, it can produce deprivation by surfeit, psychological chaos (pace Paris Hilton and her ilk). For box-office actors and superstar athletes, there are booby traps of hubris and self-importance.

For politicians controlling huge amounts of other people's money, see the President and Congress squabbling over which is acting more like the teenager with an unlimited credit card.

For the rest of us, there is the iffy consolation of believing it's too much money that may actually be the root of all evil.

New Kind of Presidential Debate

Would you rather see the candidates grilled by Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer or a snowman and a gun nut cradling his "baby," a semi-automatic weapon?

Close call, but isn't there an alternative? The question is prompted by Paul Krugman's column after this week's Democratic debate, claiming Barack Obama was "a sucker" for signing on to fears that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" that will go bankrupt before Baby Boomers can collect what's due them.

Most voters, it's fair to say, would like to know who's blowing smoke here--politicians or dueling economists--but we're not likely to find out from sound-bite answers to ignorant questions.

In our treasured but messy democracy, there is room for college girls to ask Hillary Clinton about diamonds and pearls but so far not for informed political scientists, historians and economists to ask knowledgeable questions that could show us who really understands the issues.

At the end of this month, CNN will give us Republican hopefuls being discomfited by cutesy YouTubers, a spectacle that will undoubtedly produce entertaining insights into how well the candidates handle social embarrassment.

But if we want to know what they know about issues that will affect our lives when one of them takes the oath, couldn't there be at least one debate in which they face those talking heads the networks trot out only on election night to give us perspective on what's been going on or at other times we only hear on PBS?

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but total ignorance, as we know only too well from recent experience, can be disastrous. Along with the snowman and Chris Matthews, can't we have at least one debate with questions from Krugman and his academic peers of various political persuasions?

We should be willing to take the risk of being bored to death to try to avoid being governed by morons.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Lou Dobbs Binge

Avert your eyes. This is going to be ugly, like a drunk falling off the wagon.

Over a year ago, I raised the question, "Is Lou Dobbs running for something?" Today we have the answer:

"Lou Dobbs for President?" John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal. "Don’t' laugh...Friends of Mr. Dobbs say he is seriously considering a race..."

In a moment of blinding clarity a while back, I swore off writing about Dobbs. Dobbs-bashing was becoming addictive, and friends were threatening an intervention.

But today's news has me bellying up to the bar again for straight shots. So here's Dobbs in your eye.

And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here...

I think I'm beginning to slur my links. Somebody, please, call AA.

Kos and Karl Rove, Kolumnists

It's a little like watching your prim maiden aunt get sloshed at Thanksgiving dinner to see Newsweek hiring Markos Moulitsas and Karl Rove as contributors. Cutesy can be embarrassing.

For the Kos founder, the question of being co-opted comes up in much the way the MSM glommed on to the hippies in the 1960s and packaged their rebellion out of existence. Moulitsas will have to be careful to preserve his edge.

Rove is another kettle of stale fish. Instead of letting him slink away after poisoning American politics, here he comes as Elder Statesman to pontificate in a magazine owned by the heirs of Kay Graham, who backed Woodward and Bernstein in taking down Nixon's White House illegality.

What next? Is Time dickering to sign up Dick Cheney after January 2009?

Clinton-Clark vs. Giuliani-Huckabee?

It's getting to be crunch time.

After ten minutes as a food fight, the Democratic debate settled into an edgy pep rally after Hillary Clinton stopped John Edwards with the magic word, mud. The rest was more or less collegial self-puffery, not Obama's best medium--he needs more time to get on an inspirational roll.

Once again, Joe Biden made a good case for becoming Secretary of State in what's beginning to look more and more like another Clinton Administration, especially if the Republicans end up with a Giuliani-Huckabee ticket.

There are a multitude of good choices for running mate--Obama, if she dares, but more likely someone who has managerial experience, former Gen. Wesley Clark or an ex-governor like Tom Vilsack or Mark Warner, if he wants to preside over rather than become a member of the Senate.

Unless a few thousand voters in Iowa or New Hampshire say otherwise, inevitability is in the air.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Friends, Foes and Who Knows?

The Musharraf Mess should remind Presidential candidates and voters that we are not living in Bush World any more, where other countries are either allies or enemies, good or bad guys to whom we either send tons of money or bunker-busting bombs.

Belatedly, the Administration is leaking word that they have doubts that Musharraf "can survive in office and have begun discussing what might come next."

Lesson #1 for the next President: If your foreign-policy people take five years to discover a not-very-subtle military dictator has been blowing smoke about his dedication to democracy and playing us for saps about opposing Islamic extremists, you need a whole new State Department and CIA. Or if they have been doing their jobs and nobody around you has been listening, you are surrounded by the wrong people.

Lesson #2: When an iffy ally like Musharraf is sitting on a stockpile of nuclear weapons, you don't want to wait until he is on the way out to start finding out where those weapons are, who controls them and reaching out to those who do.

Lesson # 3: Have all the photo ops you want with the Saudis, Iraqi Sunnis and al-Maliki's mob, but keep a close eye on what they are doing when there are no lights and cameras.

In a world where foreign relations have morphed from checkers to three-dimensional chess, the next White House is going to need a new generation of policy makers and analysts who can see beyond the outdated clichés of the Kissingers, Brzezinskis and Podhoretzes.

Voters should be looking for clues about candidates who understand that.

Candidate Zingers We Won't Hear

No need to watch the Democratic debate from Las Vegas tonight--all the best lines are already available from observers who don't have to exercise the caution that candidates do.

A professor of political science, if you can believe it, offers a below-the-belt zinger against Hillary. Says Ross K. Baker of Rutgers: “One absolutely devastating that she is gullible--she bought into two false story lines, one from her husband about Monica Lewinsky and one from President Bush about Iraq.” Ugh.

In her New York Times column, Gail Collins has a lighter touch in scripting John Edwards' answer on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants: "The fact that I once voted yes should not be interpreted as anything but a no. And do not call this waffling. There is only one waffler in this pack, and I don’t even like the way she dresses."

Edwards, says Collins, was "cheerfulness incarnate four years ago...Then he morphed into a sorrowful populist who thought we should vote for him because he cared the most about the poor. Now he’s running around like a rabid gerbil, telling people he should be president because he’s the angriest. Soon, he’s going to run out of adjectives to embody."

Obama, Collins says, is having trouble coming off as a "mean unifier...the new post-millennial candidate who hates petty partisanship. (So ’90s!) That makes it a little tough to go out on debate day and try to kneecap his opponent."

By comparison, the candidates themselves are going to sound boring but at least the writers strike will spare them from having to go up against the punch lines of Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Bill Maher this week.

Pardoning the Turkey

The White House should cancel this year's annual event of sparing an awkward bird just before Thanksgiving because George Bush did that before the fourth of July when he freed Scooter Libby.

But the ceremony is still on. After the Rose Garden pardon, the turkey will be flown first class to Orlando to be grand marshal of “Disney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” After the parade, guests will be able to socialize with the bird in a backyard at Magic Kingdom Park.

No news about Libby's plans for the holidays, but it's safe to assume he won't be leading any parades or receiving visits from old friends of the Washington press corps at Disney World or anywhere else.

"The Constitution gives the President the power of clemency to be used when he deems it to be warranted," Bush said on July 2nd. So far this year he has exercised it for Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and a 45-pound fowl.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Writers Strike: Not Just the Money

In the ideas-and-images industry, there has always been a gulf between labor and management. Seeing writers on picket lines now only confirms where, in our society, the money and power always goes.

On one of my first magazine jobs, the editor was Wade Nichols, a writer at heart, who created a family-like atmosphere where on Friday afternoons everyone on the payroll gathered in his office to drink and talk their way toward their weekend lives.

When the publisher died, Nichols took that that job too. "Do you really want to do all that business stuff?" I asked. "No," he answered," but I don't want to see some son-of-a-bitch do it and ruin what we have."

When I became editor, they put me on the company's board of directors, and I felt like an atheist in church, watching even the best people take on a quasi-religious fervor for maximizing profit. They seemed to be under the influence of a narcotic that suppresses conscience and brings out low cunning that might make a carnival pitchman blush.

Such zealotry may explain why the current strike, which is costing organizations millions, is now in its tenth day with no end in sight. What the writers are asking won't put a dent in their huge profits but, for the corporate true believers, it isn't the money, it's the principle that's at stake.

They have to keep their faith.

The Presidency as Dating Game

In her New York Times columns, Maureen Dowd has two recurring themes--the White House and the romantic woes of modern women.

Today she brings all the clichés about both together in relating Hillary Clinton's campaign to a new study showing the same old stereotypes: Men like women who are smart and successful, but not more so than themselves, and preferably with hour-glass figures (because, another "scientific" study suggests, "hips plumped up by omega-3 fatty acids could mean smarter women bearing smarter kids.")

So women still have to play down their smarts and success "to bolster the egos of the men they date.”

In the Clinton-era movie, "The American President," which led to the TV series, "West Wing," a widower in the Oval Office falls hard for a sexy, super-smart lobbyist and finds his approval ratings in free fall as a result. But love conquers all when he comes to his senses and gets macho over saving the environment and outlawing hand guns.

All good clean fun, but Hillary Clinton is not running for calendar girl or movie star so it might be a good idea to stow all the talk about dating, pants suits and cleavage for a while to concentrate on slightly more relevant issues, like present and future wars, the economy, health care and such.

If Ms. Dowd thinks Hillary is pushy and Barack is a stud, maybe she should tell it to her diary, not the rest of us.

Giuliani, Murdoch and Judith Regan

She is making news again, this time claiming Rupert Murdoch's people asked her to cover up an affair with Bernard Kerik to protect Rudy Giuliani's presidential ambitions. It's vintage Judith Regan to tie her own interests, this time in a lawsuit against Murdoch, to the headlines.

The charge comes at the start of a 70-page filing for $100 million in damages for what she says was a campaign to smear and discredit her by her bosses at Harper Collins and its parent company, News Corporation.

Before she was famous, Regan sounded me out about writing a book about fatherhood. When I started talking about the complexity of the subject, she cut me off.

"No, no," she said, alluding to her own experience. "It has to be about bastards abandoning their children. The title is 'DaddyWho?'"

After that brief encounter, Regan parlayed her colorful certainty into a notorious career as a book publisher and TV host, most of it under the aegis of Murdoch, a kindred spirit when it comes to eschewing ambivalence.

Now here they are, locked in combat, after Murdoch fired her over O.J. Simpson's "If I Did It" book, which he had apparently approved but backed off when it provoked widespread outrage.

Regan, the New York Times reports, "had an affair with Mr. Kerik, who is married, beginning in the spring of 2001, when her imprint, Regan Books, began work on his memoir, 'The Lost Son.' In December 2004, after the relationship had ended and shortly after Mr. Kerik’s homeland security nomination fell apart, newspapers reported that the two had carried on the affair at an apartment near ground zero that had been donated as a haven for rescue and recovery workers."

Regan has an unerring flair for getting attention and perfect pitch for bad taste. It's a wonder Murdoch ever let her go.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How to Make a War Disappear

Iraq is fading from the minds of the American public, and politicians, pollsters and pundits are trying to figure out how it happened.

Although 2007 casualties have been the highest in five years of war, a combination of Congressional Democrats' ineffectual efforts to stop or slow it down along with Republican unwillingness to buck Bush in numbers large enough to override vetoes has created an Iraq fatigue in both the media and public.

Now, Politico reports, "Democrats plan to spend the December recess reviewing their strategy and determining if they missed opportunities to put limitations, even if they were smaller than war activists were demanding, on Bush’s war policies.

"Some Democratic strategists are warning that congressional leaders are 'muddling through' with a strategy that carries both political and military risks for the party."

"News about the Iraq war," the Pew Research Center reports, "does not dominate the public's consciousness nearly as much as it did last winter" and cites figures to support that contention.

There is enough blame for this to go around--divided Democrats, absence of Republican spine, Petraeus' flacking for the Surge, too little MSM courage coupled with too much posturing and puffing on the blogosphere--all adding up to impotence in resisting a pathologically stubborn Administration.

Now facing a new year, with the Presidential contest upstaging all else, where do the vast majority of Americans who want to end the most disastrous war in our history go from here?

Republicans, under the cover of electorate ennui, will try to ride it out behind their White House candidates' bluster. Democrats will keep promising to get us out but not just yet.

Like it or not, those who hate this war are faced with no better hope than the kind of incremental easing out that seemed unthinkable a year ago.

We can only hope they don't botch that, too.

No Whitewater for Giuliani

Is the 9/11 sainthood of America's Mayor too radioactive for opponents to attack?

A headline in today's Washington Post says, "Giuliani Campaign Tries to Minimize Fallout From Kerik Indictment" but so far other Republican Presidential candidates have tiptoed around the subject. As contrast, imagine the reaction if Kerik had been one of Hillary Clinton's closest associates.

"Mitt Romney," the Post reports, "declined to comment on whether Kerik's legal woes might pose a political problem for Giuliani, but he called Kerik's indictment on tax fraud and other charges 'very sad and disappointing.'"

John McCain had former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge at his side when he alluded to Kerik. "Supposedly his mission was to help train Iraqi police. He stayed a couple of months, got up and left," McCain said. "That should have been part of anybody's judgment before they would recommend that individual to be head of the Department of Homeland Security."

Only his campaign manager went any further. "A president's judgment matters," he said in a memo, "and Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly placed personal loyalty over regard for the facts."

Even this tame criticism brought a reaction from Giuliani. “I'd be very surprised if John did that,” he said. “John is a very good friend. I probably have about 20 quotes from John since all of this became public...[describing] me as a hero.” He claimed that not vetting Kerik carefully enough was a "mistake."

Giuliani is talking about the former bodyguard and driver he appointed as Police Commissioner despite reports of mob links and over the objection of half his Mayoral Cabinet in 2000, kept at his side on 9/11 and afterward made a partner of his consulting firm with the slogan of "Integrity, Optimism, Courage, Preparedness, Communication, Accountability."

Giuliani is also the godfather of two of Kerik's children.

In "Leadership," the best-selling book the former mayor wrote in 2002, there is a chapter titled "Surround Yourself With Great People." If there is a sequel, it will have to include advice on "How to Dump and Distance Yourself From Great People Who Have Been Indicted for Corruption."

So far Giuliani has been masterful at that aspect of 21st century leadership.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Too Principled to Be President?

John McCain is the Anti-Giuliani of the Republican field. He doesn't equivocate, exaggerate or evade, qualities that might make a good President but a terrible candidate, particularly in a party whose leaders haven't told the truth since Bob Dole.

Now McCain is speaking out against soft-money ads in South Carolina ostensibly pushing for passage of Wounded Warriors legislation to improve veterans' health care, which has widespread bipartisan support, but are really a back-door pitch for his candidacy, among others.

The Senator who championed the McCain-Feingold bill to reform campaign finance is having none of it. “I have condemned those ads,” he said on Fox News yesterday.

His opponents insist McCain is demurring with a wink and a nod, but that has never been his style. If anything, he has hurt himself with an abundance of bluntness.

As a result of a recent Supreme Court decision, soft-money groups will be operating in this election with even less disclosure than in 2004, the glory days of the Swift Boat ads, which McCain criticized back then.

Both parties are gearing up for record amounts of this kind of public deception, a way for candidates to save their halos and their money by letting anonymous backers spend unlimited money to lie for them.

It may be a little complicated for sound bites but the candidates of both parties should be pressed about their positions on all this in the upcoming debates.

Obama, Hot and Cold

On Meet the Press yesterday, Barack Obama seemed tentative, defensive and, of all things, wishy-washy. No one could have guessed that the night before, at the Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson dinner, he brought down the house.

"The passion he showed," political columnist David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register wrote, "should help him close the gap on Hillary Clinton...His oratory was moving, and he successfully contrasted himself with the others--especially Clinton--without being snide or nasty about it."

"When I am the nominee of this party," Obama told Democrats, "the Republican nominee will not be able to say I voted for the war in Iraq, or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, or that I support Bush-Cheney policies of not talking to leaders that we don't like...I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s...I don't want to pit red America against blue America."

He was the last to speak at 11 o'clock after four hours of oratory by others and apparently wowed the crowd, but the next morning with Tim Russert, he was defensively answering questions with "Look,..."

Walter Shapiro in Salon puts it just right: "The fiery Obama of Saturday night had been replaced on Sunday morning by a replicant, a tepid candidate mostly concerned with avoiding mistakes rather than winning converts."

It's getting to be too late in the campaign to be blowing hot and cold. Will the real Obama stand up and stop taking time for a nap on national TV?

Nuclear Shell Game

If we had a competent, open-minded and subtle Administration, the questions of what to do about Pakistan would still be dicey. As things stand, our clueless President, out-of-it Secretary of State and politically damaged diplomatic corps seem like rubes at the fair watching Musharraf run his games of repression and promises of free elections with no idea of where the nuclear pea is.

Nightmares that Pakistan might "lose control over a nuclear arsenal of uncertain size--estimated at from 55 to 115 weapons," the New York Times reports, are driving fears in Washington, London and Paris.

The Pakistan president has insisted his nuclear controls are "the best in the world," but, over the years, his assurances about everything have turned out to be full of empty bluster and, now that his control of the country is shaky, can we take the chance of believing him?

In a situation like this, it would be comforting to think that US intelligence assets have some answers but, even if they do, with our "What, me worry?" President and Vice President surrounded by Neo-Cons obsessed with Iran's nuclear potential, is anybody in charge of the titrating of carrots-and-sticks financial aid, covert actions and contingency planning that are needed?

"If General Musharraf is overthrown," the Times reports, "no one is quite sure what will happen to the team he has entrusted to safeguard the arsenal. There is some hope that the military as an institution could reliably keep things under control no matter who is in charge, but that is just a hope.

“'It’s a very professional military,'” said a senior American official who is trying to manage the crisis and insisted on anonymity because the White House has said this problem will not be discussed in public. “'But the truth is, we don’t know how many of the safeguards are institutionalized, and how many are dependent on Musharraf’s guys.'”

In a situation where "don't know" and "hope" could lead to disaster, the track record of this White House is not reassuring. From the outside, it looks as if regime change in Washington is more urgent than in Islamabad.