Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Bickersons Turn Into a Ticket

From the moment Barack Obama held out Hillary Clinton's chair as they sat down to debate to the near-hug as he patted her shoulder when they stood up, the Democratic candidates put their party back on the road to the White House tonight.

Gone was last week's Palmetto rancor to be replaced by enough Hollywood feel-good to make Wolf Blitzer's final question about their forming a Dream Ticket plausible. In turning away from attacking each other to aim their fire at George Bush and John McCain, both Clinton and Obama showed voters their best selves.

The former First Lady softened her wonkiness with what came across as genuine caring, while Obama leavened his earnestness with cocky jokes like the one about Mitt Romney's shortcomings as a CEO who was not getting a good return on his campaign money.

If there was a fault line between them, it came toward the end as they discussed the 2002 Senate resolution to let Bush invade Iraq. Clinton, for some reason, continues to dodge admitting her mistake in voting for it, leaving an opening for Obama to score the point that a President needs not only experience but good judgment from Day One.

They started out by sharing satisfaction in the fact that the election of either of them would change American history, and they ended by going off toward Super Tuesday with a civility that bodes well for that future.

Nader, Bloomberg in "David and Goliath"

Now that his second favorite candidate, John Edwards, has dropped out, Ralph Nader is feeling an irresistible urge to pick up the fallen standard and hurl himself once again into the breach.

Ironically, Nader's inner struggle is reported by, part of the business news empire that made New York's mayor a billionaire who is, albeit silently, having the same crisis of conscience about saving the nation with an Independent run.

Inverting their physical attributes, Nader and Bloomberg would be playing David and Goliath in a sideshow of the '08 electoral circus to prove that (a) corporate America is crushing its people or (b) only a corporate genius can straighten out the mess Bush is leaving behind.

"Look at the major areas of injustice, deprivation and solutions that are not being addressed by the major candidates," Nader tells a Bloomberg reporter while denying that his 97,488 votes in Florida elected George W. Bush who won the state by just 537 votes over Al Gore in 2000.

Calling him a spoiler, Nader says, "is basically saying that small candidates are second-class citizens."

If Nader takes his pathological hatred of the Clintons into the arena this time, he won't be traveling in even that much style if Bloomberg comes in, too. Billionaires always go first-class and don't leave much space for anyone else.

Rupert Murdoch's Funny Valentine

Who knew that the Fox News media mogul had such a sense of humor? His New York Post's editorial endorsing Barack Obama should become a comedy classic.

"For all his charisma and his eloquence," the Post writes, "the rookie senator sorely lacks seasoning: Regarding national security, his worldview is beyond naïve...

"His all-things-to-all-people approach to complicated domestic issues also arouses scant confidence. 'Change!' for the sake of change does not a credible campaign platform make."

But what sterling qualities does Obama possess that would make him a good choice for president on Super Tuesday? "(H)e is not Team Clinton."

Not being a Clinton is a supreme virtue: "His opponent, and her husband, stand for déjà vu all over again--a return to the opportunistic, scandal-scarred, morally muddled years of the almost infinitely self-indulgent Clinton co-presidency...

"A return to Sen. Clinton's cattle-futures deal, Travelgate, Whitewater, Filegate, the Lincoln Bedroom Fire Sale, Pardongate--and the inevitable replay of the Monica Mess?

"No, thank you."

From this guarded assessment of the Clinton years emerges a ringing endorsement: "At least Obama has the ability to inspire. Again, we don't agree much with Obama on substantive issues. But many Democrats will."

With friends like Murdoch, a candidate could go far. Did Bill O'Reilly get the memo?

A Mel Brooks Presidential Debate

Like the finale of "Blazing Saddles," last night's Republican brawl broke through the fourth wall and spilled over onto the sets of other movies.

John McCain and Mitt Romney played their Western shootout against a backdrop of "Air Force One," while being watched by "The Terminator" sitting next to the 100-year-old lady from "Titanic," smiling sweetly as all the candidates pledged their fealty to the ghost of The Gipper.

Anderson Cooper seemed awestruck by having an actual Reagan relic on the table in front of him, a leather-bound diary from which he solemnly quoted to the Republican hopefuls.

The scene could have used some Mel Brooks pizzazz, but it made up with non-sequiturs what was lacking in wit.

Ron Paul had the best line of the night. Watching McCain and Romney grapple over who was most patriotically devoted to prolonging the killing in Iraq, Paul looked at them deadpan and said, "Silly."

Hilarious, if you like zany comedy that makes you want to cry.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Contrast in Losing

Two heavyweights, John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani, get out of the ring today and leave behind different modes of fighting for the presidency and being beaten.

Edwards, who began his campaign in New Orleans a year ago, will apparently end it there and symbolically go to work building a house with Habitat for Humanity. He worked hard on the campaign trail, basing his claim to the nomination on an honorable Democratic tradition of fighting for the poor and dispossessed.

Giuliani, on the other hand, all smiles and guile, tried to ride the 9/11 wave that made him rich all the way to the White House, disdaining the early primaries and expecting to be anointed the Republican candidate with even less exertion than lackadaisical Fred Thompson, who at least showed up for the early contests.

Typically, Giuliani will trade in the fruits of his minimal effort by endorsing John McCain in return for who-knows-what if McCain gets to the White House. Edwards may eventually attempt to convert his delegates and supporters into leverage, but it will more likely be to push Clinton or Obama toward greater emphasis on the issues he raised.

Their personal stories are a contrast as well. Edwards made a run despite his wife's cancer and with her spirited support. Giuliani was brought down, in part, by revelations of his misuse of New York Police to run errands for his third wife-to-be while he was still married to his second.

Running for President is a brutal trial. Edwards will be carried out on his shield. Giuliani will leave without a scratch, except to his ego.

Obama's Checkers Speech

The new politics can take a leaf from the very old tomorrow night at the 21st Democratic debate. Just as Richard Nixon saved his vice-presidential candidacy in 1952 from news of a secret political slush fund, Barack Obama has to explain away Antoin Rezko as an obstacle to his campaign's momentum.

For weeks now, the darker side of the Clinton machine has been hammering him with accusations about the Chicago slumlord, and the Former First Lady herself invoked the dreaded name during the last debate.

Yesterday there was another drip of Rezko bad news as Obama's campaign upped the amount of contributions being given to charity to almost $150,000.

Obama's style precludes maudlin Nixon props like his wife's cloth coat and the family dog, but he would be well-advised to prepare his own one-minute version of the Checkers speech to unload the Rezko albatross.

It isn't enough to pass his patron off, as Obama did at the last debate, as someone for whom he did "a few hours" of legal work. Their association has persisted for years and, now that Rezko will be in the headlines facing federal corruption charges, Obama should get out ahead of the issue with his own mea culpa, particularly about the fixer's role in buying the Obamas' home.

In June 2005, Rezko and Obama bought adjoining properties. The senator paid $1.65 million for a Georgian revival mansion, while Rezko bought an adjacent, undeveloped lot for $625,000. Six months later, Obama paid Rezko $104,500 for a strip of his land.

The presidential candidate expressed regrets over the transactions to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2006: "I consider this a mistake on my part and I regret it...(W)hile I tried to pay close attention to the specific requirements of ethical conduct, I misgauged the appearance presented by my purchase of the additional land from Mr. Rezko."

Now he has to tell American voters and take away ammunition for attacks on his character that will keep coming until or unless he does. Nixon showed the way.

What the Sunshine State Foreshadows

Mitt Romney loses a primary to John McCain that would have knocked a less loaded man out of contention for the Republican nomination, but Romney will buy his way on to Super Tuesday.

Hillary Clinton arrives for a made-for-TV celebration, complete with walls of printed placards, of "winning" a phantom contest for no delegates that she and other Democrats had promised to bypass.

Electoral weirdness goes on unabated in Florida, which gave us our unelected president in 2000, but yesterday's results shed some light on where the 2008 nominations are heading.

Unless Romney's money and vacuity win many hearts and minds on February 5th, the arch-conservatives will have to take a deep breath and embrace McCain as the Republican candidate. Wheel out the respirators for Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan.

Even the meaningless Democratic results hold clues to the future. Clinton won among those who cast absentee ballots weeks ago but apparently not among voters who made a choice yesterday. Obama has a long way to go but, with the Kennedy endorsements and more to come, his campaign is moving in the right direction.

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy month.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Margaret Truman Daniel

She was an only child in the White House, a Daddy's girl if there ever was one. Harry Truman doted on her and, when the Washington Post gave her singing concert a bad review, Truman fired off the most intemperate letter a President ever sent to a newspaper.

"I have never met you," Truman wrote to the critic, "but if I do you'll need a new nose and plenty of beefsteak and perhaps a supporter below."

Margaret Truman gave up singing, married a New York Times reporter, had four sons and starting writing books and magazine articles, some of them for me.

I first met her in 1953 when I was editing an alumni magazine. After leaving the White House, Truman came to the Waldorf to speak at our annual dinner. I elbowed my way into the crowd of photographers firing a dazzle of flash bulbs and strobe lights at him.

When they were herded out, I stayed behind with my 35mm camera with no flash for a few more exposures. Truman noticed the soft hiss-clicks of the shutter and walked up to me.

"How many pictures have you taken?" he asked.

I did a quick calculation--three rolls, 36 frames. "About a hundred."

His expression did not change. "I hope your camera breaks," he said and walked off.

Margaret, who overheard, touched my elbow and tried to console me. "He doesn't mean it. Flashbulbs hurt his eyes."

Years later, when she was writing for McCalls, Margaret Truman confided that as a kid she had always wanted an electric train set. I sent her one.

She died today in a week when Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama and Chelsea Clinton was on the campaign trail for her mother. First Families have changed since Margaret Truman's time, but she was a kind and caring woman whose books about the place, including murder mysteries, will be a lasting part of White House lore.

Stealing Surge in Iraq

Move over, Halliburton. Dick Cheney's former company has been replaced as the Texas champion of ripping off American taxpayers in the "rebuilding" of Iraq.

A report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal agency, finds that 8 of 11 rebuilding projects by the Parsons Corporation costing $365 million had to be stopped before completion for disastrous waste and ineptness.

The investigation was prompted by the company's $75 million construction of the Baghdad Police College, which ended up with feces and urine pouring from ceilings in student barracks, floors heaving off the ground, and water dripping profusely in a room dubbed "the rain forest."

As the U.S. military makes the country safer from insurgent attacks, American corporations are giving Iraq a taste of democracy in the sluggish, waste-ridden rebuilding of its infrastructure. Audits have found administration and overhead costs running as high as 55 percent on some projects.

In addition to its Texas connections, Parsons is one of the largest contributors to American political campaigns in the construction industry. That makes Middle East baksheesh look like small potatoes.

Ripples of 9/11 FBI Failure

The Bush Administration is still covering up its pre-9/11 bungling, now by giving $5 million to a man who testified against Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker," while ignoring two flight instructors who reported his suspicious behavior in time to have exposed the terrorist plot if their warnings had been followed up.

The choice of Mark Prevost by the State Department's Rewards for Justice program has drawn criticism from two senators who sponsored a 2005 resolution commending the "bravery" and "heroism" of Tim Nelson and Hugh Sims for alerting the FBI a month before the attacks.

Sen. Norm Coleman is demanding an explanation, but the government's motives seem clear enough. Rewarding Sims and Nelson would be a reminder that FBI Washington headquarters blocked Minneapolis agents from obtaining a warrant to search Moussaoui's possessions, which contained clues that might have led to other hijackers.

In the bizarre Bush Homeland Security universe, you get $5 million for going to court and making the Administration look good, but nothing for taking steps that could have averted a disaster.

Playing President

In last night's Theater of the Absurd, a Lame Duck is quacking at the podium while the ducklings-in-waiting look on, pretending to listen before they waddle out for their turn on the TV stage.

You could have watched the President's last State of the Union address with the sound off and not turned it up as his would-be successors did their predictable soliloquies--Hillary Clinton with a smile as tight as duct tape, dodging questions about Bill; Barack Obama modestly insisting he's no JFK but basking in his Kennedy aura for the day; Mitt Romney mouthing "Washington is broken" platitudes followed by non-sequiturs that Harold Pinter would not have dared to write.

On his way out, George W. Bush is besieged by legislators holding out their programs to be autographed for some e-Bay auction years from now on another planet.

For a coda, a nice-looking schoolteacher named Kathleen Sebelius comes out to review the production by lecturing the "political pundits" before they review it and "obsess over the reactions of members of Congress: 'How many times was the President interrupted by applause? Did Republicans stand? Did Democrats sit?' And the rest of us will roll our eyes and think, 'What in the world does any of that have to do with me?'"

This Washington revival does ample justice to the definition of Theater of the Absurd as "broad comedy, often similar to Vaudeville, mixed with horrific or tragic images; characters caught in hopeless situations forced to do repetitive or meaningless actions; dialogue full of clichés, wordplay, and nonsense; plots that are cyclical or absurdly expansive; either a parody or dismissal of realism."

Now the actors are off to tour the hinterlands for audiences who will watch with as much puzzlement as they did last night, if they stayed awake for the whole production.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Kennedy Time Warp

The woman on the TV news tonight, a very young 50 next to the 75-year-old ruin of her uncle, talking about her daughter who will be old enough to vote for Barack Obama this year, called up a black-and-white picture of three-year-old Caroline Kennedy leaping out of her father's lap toward Richard Avedon's camera in 1960.

As a magazine editor then, I put that picture on the cover of Redbook over the howls of a circulation department that it would "die" in the riot of color on the newsstands. The issue sold out because the Kennedys were magic then, all youth and vigor after decades of old faces in the White House.

Endorsing a new generation now, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg brought back a sense of that time, a wave of hope beyond reason that the world could be younger and better than it had been.

Reality overtook those hopes then, as it may now, but for the moment, the image of that golden little girl was a reminder of how good it was to have those feelings, however fleetingly.

The Clintons' Political Divorce

To end a marriage in New York, the usual grounds are adultery or "cruel and inhuman treatment." Hillary Clinton, who stood by her man from Gennifer to Monica, is finally taking steps to dump him politically for spousal abuse.

"Clinton’s Camp Seeks Gentler Role for Ex-President" is the headline of a New York Times story today that reports "Democrats inside and outside the Clinton campaign on Sunday debated and in some cases bemoaned the degree to which former President Bill Clinton’s criticism of Senator Barack Obama last week had inflicted lasting damage on his wife’s presidential candidacy."

On the editorial page, Clinton-hater William Kristol is clucking that "putting her in the White House brings a hyperactive Bill back in with her. Who needs it?"

Like any other abused wife, Mrs. Clinton tried to minimize the damage on "Face the Nation" yesterday, saying "the spouses of all three of us have, you know, been passionate and vigorous defenders of each of us and, you know, maybe got a little carried away," attributing her husband's behavior to "sleep deprivation" on the campaign trail.

It may be too late to try to "keep the big dog on the porch," as they say in Arkansas, but unless Hillary Clinton takes firm steps to divorce him politically, they can stop worrying about what to call Bill Clinton when she gets to the White House.

Is Rudy Through?

On Wednesday morning, either Rudy Giuliani or John Zogby is going wake up with a big headache. Running fourth in the state on which he has bet his presidential chances, Giuliani is nonetheless sure he's going to prevail in Florida's Tuesday primary.

"We're going to win this election by getting the vote out," Giuliani said at a pizza parlor in Port St. Lucie yesterday. "If we win here, we're going to win the nomination."

Zogby disagrees. "Giuliani is becoming less and less of a factor," he said yesterday, his poll showing John McCain and Mitt Romney tied at 30 percent, Mike Huckabee at 14 and Giuliani at 13, with only 9 percent of voters undecided.

For Zogby, who missed Hillary Clinton's late surge in New Hampshire, another blown call could be professional suicide, so it's safe to assume that his level of confidence in the Florida figures is high.

If he's right, the Giuliani comedy of errors will end this week. After leading in the national polls for a year and raising tons of money, America's Mayor decided to snooze through the early primary states and stake everything on the Sunshine State and its population of New York retirees.

By the time he started campaigning, Giuliani was caked with mud from scandals over his erstwhile partner Bernard Kerik and police protection for his current wife while he was still married to her predecessor.

Meanwhile, McCain, Romney and even Huckabee had picked up momentum, and in the past week, Giuliani lost a couple more points, perhaps as a result of his retired base reading the New York Times endorsement of McCain, sideswiping Rudy thus: "The real Mr. Giuliani, whom many New Yorkers came to know and mistrust, is a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man who saw no need to limit police power...Mr. Giuliani’s arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking."

If Zogby's figures hold up, Giuliani's best move would be to get out and get behind McCain. For a career prosecutor, Attorney General would not be a shabby consolation prize, if he could weather confirmation hearings about the shadowy clients of Giuliani Partners.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Notes From the Ice Floe HMO

The British have a solution to their health care crisis--cut off the undeserving sick and send the old off on ice floes the way Eskimos did a century ago.

In a new survey, doctors call for National Health Service treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives, an idea that may appeal to the Bush Administration as a solution to runaway Medicare costs.

One in three British doctors said that "elderly patients should not be given free treatment if it were unlikely to do them good for long," according to the Telegraph.

As an octogenarian candidate for that Ice Floe HMO, I can report that American insurers have made significant headway in that direction. The doctor and hospital performing my shoulder surgery had to make do with Medicare allowances, since my supplemental insurer deemed that, for a person of age, the need to be pain-free would be an unwarranted luxury.

But all is not lost, even in Britain. Responding to the survey findings, a doctor speaking for the British Medical Association said: "If a patient of 90 needs a hip operation they should get one. Yes, they might peg out any time, but it's not our job to play God."

Tell that to the Republican Congressmen who recently voted once again to sustain President Bush's veto of expanded S-CHIP coverage for poor children.

The Clinton-Kennedy Chasm

On the heels of Caroline Kennedy's paean to Barack Obama as the heir to her father's political ideals come reports that the family patriarch, Sen. Ted Kennedy, will endorse Obama, too.

For weeks now, JFK's alter ego Ted Sorensen has been campaigning for the Illinois Senator, underscoring the continental divide in American politics between the dynasties.

The famous picture of a starry-eyed young Bill Clinton in 1963 shaking Kennedy's hand is now an ironic reminder of the political and temperamental differences between the two.

Both came to office after enormously popular Republican presidents, Eisenhower and Reagan, but JFK overcame his political caution, learned from mistakes and earned respect for an idealism that, unlike Clinton's, strengthened during his tenure and earned respect across the ideological landscape.

Kennedy was a skeptic by nature, but he was not capable of the cynicism that Bill Clinton has been showing in the attempt to get his wife to the White House.

The Kennedy dynasty is over, but its heirs may play a significant role in ensuring that the Clintons' never materializes.

Cutting Out the Dirty Parts

The Federal Communications Commission wants to fine ABC $1.4 million for airing an episode of "NYPD Blue" in 2003 showing a woman's nude buttocks. The network owner, Walt Disney Company, will appeal.

In the sexual Dark Ages of my adolescence, teenagers would mark the hot passages of novels for the delectation of their peers. Now the enterprise has come full circle--with disastrous results.

A Utah retailer of family-friendly tapes and DVDs--movies with the "dirty parts" cut out of them--has been arrested for trading sex with two 14-year-old girls.

Daniel Dean Thompson's Clean Flix was a video outlet trading in purified versions, catering to clientele who wanted to watch hit movies without nudity, sex, foul language or graphic violence.

But Thompson may have spent too much time watching the excised portions of his products, and now he is facing jail time on charges of sexual abuse and patronizing prostitutes.

This comes after lawsuits by Hollywood studios and the Directors Guild of America for mangling movies by editing out such elements of their art as Kate Winslet's bare breasts in "Titanic."

Sounds a lot like the plot of the film versions of Somerset Maugham's "Rain," in which a South Seas missionary rails against the loose behavior of Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth, only to go mad with desire over their charms.

If there's another remake, Thompson is not likely to be around to cut out the dirty parts. but ABC will have to be careful about showing it on TV

"A President Like My Father"

In an interview after her husband's death, Jacqueline Kennedy told me she was disturbed that JFK was being remembered for how he died rather than what he had lived for.

Forty years later, their daughter is doing something about that. In an OpEd piece in today's New York Times, Caroline Kennedy writes, "All my life, people have told me that my father changed their lives, that they got involved in public service or politics because he asked them to. And the generation he inspired has passed that spirit on to its children. I meet young people who were born long after John F. Kennedy was president, yet who ask me how to live out his ideals.

"Sometimes it takes a while to recognize that someone has a special ability to get us to believe in ourselves, to tie that belief to our highest ideals and imagine that together we can do great things. In those rare moments, when such a person comes along, we need to put aside our plans and reach for what we know is possible.

"We have that kind of opportunity with Senator Obama."

This comes two days after the Times endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in the New York primary. Is its Editorial Board trying to tell us something?

Barack and the Beanstalk

The fable of the giant-killer was alive and well in South Carolina--a young man climbing into the castle of a behemoth called Blunderbore and his wife and stealing their prizes.

Barack Obama summed it up in his victory speech: "After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we've seen in a long, long time."

The Clintons are still huge as they lumber toward Super Tuesday, but Obama has lost narrowly in New Hampshire and Nevada, won handily in Iowa and now by a country mile in South Carolina. His beanstalk is looking sturdier with each contest.

After all the blather about race and gender, it was Bill Clinton shadowing the landscape that made the difference between what might have been a close contest and a runaway. The voters were not charmed by his "Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell the blood of a journeyman!"

In the exit polls, South Carolina voters clearly said they were turned off by the sight and, from here on, to push the fairy tale to its limit, the Clintons will have to find another goose to lay their golden eggs.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mitt Romney's Mystery Voice

At the Republican debate Thursday night, Mitt Romney was hearing voices, and so were we. Before he answered a question about Reagan's Social Security fix, a whisper could be heard, "not raise taxes."

The incident recalls a scene in the 1987 movie "Broadcast News." William Hurt, a handsome but not-quick-witted TV correspondent, anchors a breaking-news special with producer Holly Hunter as his ventriloquist through an earpiece.

Afterward, Hurt tells her, "What a feeling, having you inside my head...You knew just when to feed me the next thing, just a split second before I needed it. There was a
rhythm we got into, like great sex."

Since MSNBC can't explain Romney's ghost voice, there is no way of knowing if there was an erotic component to it, but it raises suspicions that the candidate who looks like a President but doesn't always sound like one may be getting the equivalent of technological steroids for on-the-spot smarts.

In "Broadcast News," after she argues with her boss, Hunter is told, "It must be nice to always believe you know better. To think you're always the smartest person in the room." "No," she answers with a pained expression, "it's awful."

Now there is a problem Mitt Romney will never have to overcome.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Story About Terrorism

If there is a 21st century Kafka somewhere in America, he will get his inspiration not from working in an insurance company but with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of the Department of Homeland Security.

Consider this Kafkaesque gem from the McClatchy newspapers today:

"Thomas Warziniack was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia, but immigration authorities pronounced him an illegal immigrant from Russia.

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement has held Warziniack for weeks in an Arizona detention facility with the aim of deporting him to a country he's never seen. His jailers shrugged off Warziniack's claims that he was an American citizen, even though they could have retrieved his Minnesota birth certificate in minutes and even though a Colorado court had concluded that he was a US citizen a year before it shipped him to Arizona.

"On Thursday, Warziniack finally became a free man. Immigration officials released him after his family, who learned about his predicament from McClatchy, produced a birth certificate and after a US senator demanded his release.

"'The immigration agents told me they never make mistakes,' Warziniack said..."

According to its web site, "US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) strengthens national security and upholds public safety by closing down homeland security vulnerabilities. Created in March 20003 (sic), ICE was tasked with closing down our nation’s vulnerabilities by targeting the people, money and materials that support terrorism and other criminal approach not taken prior to 9/11."

Warziniack is not alone. In the new-found fervor over illegal aliens, there is evidence that many other American citizens with no foreign ties are being swept up for deportation.

By the 201st century, our Homeland Security heroes may have figured out how to tell the difference.

Free Money for All

The bipartisan smiles in Washington signify that the President and Congress have agreed to give the economy a $150 billion jolt, less than a year's worth of what it costs to keep American troops fighting and dying in Iraq.

Democrats who gave up on de-funding the war will face the voters this fall with a "victory" over an impending recession to paper over their failure to do what they were elected to do in November 2006.

For consumers who overspent by $3 trillion dollars since 2001 (according to Business Week's chief economist), there will be free money and cheaper credit thanks to the Fed to keep doing what they did to get us into trouble in the first place.

The talking-head economists on TV will give us contradictory explanations of how this all works, but the bottom line seems to be that "fiscal discipline" for both individuals and the government has gone out of style in the Bush era, along with restraint over the use of military power.

Is it naïve to suggest that the money being wasted in Iraq could be stimulating the economy and rebuilding America's infrastructure without any loss of life?

Dumb and Dumber in Iraq

It took two kinds of stupidity to get us into the war--the Bush-Cheney Neo-Con brand and Saddam Hussein's. We get a closer look at the latter this weekend from the FBI agent who interrogated him after his capture.

Shrewd Saddam was so sure the US wouldn't invade, he told George Piro, that he refused to let inspectors verify that he had no WMD in order to fake out Iran.

"For him," Piro discloses on Sixty Minutes, "it was critical that he was seen as still the strong, defiant Saddam" to "prevent the Iranians from reinvading Iraq."

During the run-up to the war, it was hard enough to reconcile George Bush's picture of the murderous dictator planning to send us a mushroom cloud with the buffoon on a balcony firing a rifle into the Baghdad air.

Even more baffling was our certainty that the invasion would be a "cakewalk" and our eagerness to send American troops into battle against nuclear and chemical weapons that could cause massive casualties.

As a reward for his bluffing and our being wrong about his WMD, Saddam ended up at the end of a rope, and we ended up with an endless occupation.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Return of Rumsfeld

He's back, with all his contempt for the media intact. Now Donald Rumsfeld is proposing a “21st-century agency for global communications” that would use blogs, social networks and talk radio to visit verbal shock and awe on Muslim extremists.

Addressing an "information warfare conference" co-sponsored by such defenders of free speech as Boeing, Lockheed and Curtiss Wright, Rumsfeld said the US is “sitting on the sidelines” in a global battle of ideas and "barely competing.”

When Sharon Weinberger of Wired asked what his new agency would do, the former Secretary Defense referred nostalgically to the good old days when the Army paid locals to plant stories in the Iraq press until American media spoiled the fun by reporting about it.

Rumsfeld insisted that his new propaganda ministry would not interfere with traditional journalism.

“It doesn’t mean we have to infringe on the role of the free press, they can go do what they do, and that’s fine,” he said. “Well, it’s not fine, but it’s what it is, let’s put it that way.”

What the architect of the Iraq war wants to do now is “tell the story of a nation that was carved from the wilderness and conceived in freedom” to those benighted souls who live under regimes that don't respect our First Amendment, as he does.

John Edwards as Mr. Clean

As the two front-runners mud wrestle, the Great White Hope from North Carolina keeps blinking his eyes earnestly in the hope that Democrats will turn their lonely eyes toward him.

But John Edwards, like Mitt Romney in the other contest, is just too airbrushed for the part, try as he may, and his instinct for the jugular may remind voters of the class tattletale.

The New York Observer reports Edwards at a New York fundraiser, calling John McCain too "crazy" to have his finger on the nuclear button and hinting that Hillary Clinton will be tarring Barack Obama with more Rezko mud.

But if Edwards can pull off a decent showing in South Carolina Saturday, he may be able to hang around as a vulture waiting to pick at Clinton's and Obama's bones.

If so, voters may want to recall that, under all the operatic wailing for the poor, is a multimillionaire negligence lawyer who only last year fronted for a hedge fund that victimized them and, in one tepid term in the Senate, voted for the Iraq war in 2002.

That doesn't quite qualify him for the part of Mr. Clean.

Bill Clinton's Bimbo Offensive

In attacking Barack Obama, the ex-President has gone past embarrassing into his own kind of seductive swiftboating.

Is there any difference in twisting the record of someone who opposed the Iraq war from Day One on behalf of an opponent who voted for it from smearing a man who fought and bled in Vietnam to benefit someone who dodged serving there?

More and more leading Democrats, including John Kerry, are complaining, but perhaps even worse than the cheap politics to which Bill Clinton has lowered himself is the insult of treating voters as too stupid to see through what he is doing--of wooing them like bimbos who will swallow anything.

In our sound-bite age, all politicians invert the truth occasionally, but it has become a modus operandi for the former President who once explained his distortions in the 1996 election to opponent Bob Dole with a smiling, "You gotta do what you gotta do."

Now, when political figures and reporters comment on his behavior, Bill Clinton gets testy as he did with a CNN correspondent who raised a question that led a former South Carolina Democratic chairman to compare his attacks to those of Lee Atwater, Karl Rove's mentor. "Shame on you," the prospective First Spouse says.

The ex-President must be even less charmed by ABC News' Jake Tapper's exegesis of how both Clintons tortured Obama's words about Ronald Reagan in a Las Vegas interview into meanings that were clearly not there.

But Bill Clinton seems exhilarated by it all. "I know you think it's crazy," he told a South Carolina crowd, "but I kind of like to see Barack and Hillary fight. They're flesh and blood people and they have their differences--let them have it."

The Clintons are letting Barack Obama "have it" with a truthiness that would make George W. Bush blush. As someone whom most Americans once respected and many admired said recently on the campaign trail, "Give us a break!"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Musharraf Marches On

A year from now, when Bush is gone, what will President Clinton, McCain or Obama do about our most annoying ally, Pervez Musharraf?

Here he is today, sashaying around Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, pooh-poohing the notion that capturing or killing Osama bin Laden is of any importance in the war on terror and insisting that Pakistan is as stable as a rock.

His 100,000 troops on the Afghan border are not "trying to locate Osama bin Laden and (Ayman-al) Zawahri, frankly," Musharraf tells a conference at the French Institute for International Relations. "They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly."

As for the instability that led him to declare a state of emergency only weeks ago, Musharraf is sanguine. "I can assure you that nothing will happen in Pakistan," he says. "We are not a banana republic."

We have heard these songs before and, after years of being euchred out of $100 million by the Pakistani President's shell game without finding out where his nuclear weapons are, even the Bush Administration is catching on.

The State Department's counterterrorism chief is complaining about "gaps in intelligence" about the activities of extremist groups in the tribal regions.

"We don't have enough information about what's going on there. Not on al-Qaeda. Not on foreign fighters. Not on the Taliban," he says.

Our next President's priority will be picking a Secretary of State who will stop buying Musharraf's song and dance and make sure we get what we are paying for in Pakistan.

Republicans Wrestle With Pork

A generation gap is dividing GOP members of Congress over the classic conflict between doing good for the country and doing well for the voters who sent them there.

According to Washington insiders' bible, The Hill, "earmarking funds back home is becoming the most divisive issue facing congressional Republicans.

"The fight largely pits junior conservatives--arguing that the failure of Republicans to aggressively fight earmarking is preventing the GOP from reclaiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility--against party veterans, who say that it is their prerogative to choose funding priorities..."

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Alaska's Ted (Bridge-to-Nowhere) Stevens, who is trying to remove him as chairman of the conservative Steering Committee, are the leading antagonists. The subject is likely to set off sparks at today's annual retreat of Senate Republicans.

In the House, a proposal being pushed by Young Turks Mike Pence of Indiana, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jeb Hensarling of Texas, calls for a moratorium on earmarking for the rest of the year. They plan to push the House GOP conference to rally around their plan at their retreat tomorrow.

“This would be pure electoral gold for Republicans,” Flake says, pointing out that Democrats were not likely to stop earmarking in response.

Pence asserts the pledge would show Americans that House GOP members were willing to “set aside the priorities of our districts for a year” to get spending under control and would pressure Democrats to follow suit.

Proof that voters care about the issue can be seen on a web site that tracks earmarks.

Post-Bush, Republicans may be in disarray, but at their retreats this week, there will be a good deal of talk about charging back toward power.

The Truth About 935 Bush Lies

Did it take a thousand untruths to get us into Iraq? Not quite.

According to a new study by two non-profit journalism organizations, "President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials...made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

The orchestrated campaign has been documented by the staffs of the Fund for Independence in Journalism and the Center for Public Integrity to create a data base of deception.

Some of the highlights:

.On August 26, 2002, Dick Cheney made a speech saying "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." The CIA had no idea of the basis for that claim.

.A month later, in his weekly radio address, the President said: "The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given...This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year."

.In July 2002, asked whether Iraq had relationships with Al Qaeda terrorists, Don Rumsfeld answered, "Sure" despite the fact that his own Defense Intelligence and the CIA had no such evidence.

.A year later, President Bush told Polish TV: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." The two labs he cited, a team of experts found, "had probably been used to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons."

The report concludes that the Bush Administration "led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses." White House reaction: "The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world." Add that to the list.

Now that 935 lies to get us into Iraq have been documented, collated and counted, how many more is it taking to keep us there?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bedtime for Fred

He could have aced the part, but the rehearsals were murder, so Fred Thompson's agent can start fielding offers again. The Law & Order star announced today that he has stopped auditioning for the White House.

It was fun while it lasted. Before he declared his candidacy, Thompson was running second in the national polls, but the rigors of actually campaigning were too much.

He ran for President from a Barcalounger, as Dick Cavett observed in his New York Times blog, and gave new meaning to "laid back" until he bestirred himself in the South Carolina debate to deliver a few barbs for Mike Huckabee, who will no doubt benefit from his absence in the Florida primary.

Since everybody else is playing Ronald Reagan in this campaign, Thompson's road-show performance won't be missed.

Obama's Whitewater

In the candidate mud fight last night, Hillary Clinton made a drive-by reference to Obama's "representing your constituent Rezko in his slumlord business," and the Illinois Senator responded by passing the association off as "I worked for someone and a church group and I did a few hours work." Both were being, to put it kindly, disingenuous.

For weeks now, Clinton supporters under the radar have kept up an accusatory drumbeat about Obama's connection to Antoin Rezko, who goes on trial next month for corruption in federal court, and Obama is vulnerable about a relationship that goes back to 1990, involving transactions he will ultimately have to explain in detail.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, "In 13 years in politics, Obama has gotten at least $168,000 in campaign donations from Rezko, his family and business associates....

"Eleven Rezmar buildings were in the state Senate district Obama represented between 1996 and 2004. Many of the buildings ended up in foreclosure, with tenants living in squalid conditions, the Sun-Times reported last year. In one instance, Rezko’s company left tenants without heat for five weeks. Obama said he was unaware of problems with the buildings and minimized the legal work he’d done.

"Obama’s relationship with Rezko grew closer in June 2005, when Obama and Rezko’s wife bought adjoining real estate parcels from a doctor in the South Side Kenwood neighborhood. Obama paid $1.65 million for the doctor’s mansion, while Rezko’s wife paid $625,000 for the vacant lot next door. Obama’s purchase price was $300,000 below the asking price; Rezko’s wife paid full price.

"Six months later, Obama paid Rita Rezko $104,500 for one-sixth of the vacant lot, which he bought to expand his yard."

In 2006, the Senator expressed regret about the transaction. “It was a mistake to have been engaged with him at all in this or any other personal business dealing that would allow him, or anyone else,” Obama said, “to believe that he had done me a favor.”

Last week, after a published report that a $10,000 donation to his 2004 Senate campaign came from a fraud that Rezko is accused of devising, Obama's campaign announced it would give charities $40,350 in donations linked to the developer, in addition to more than $44,000 it divested last year.

The Clintons' Whitewater dealings, ultimately not found to be illegal, nevertheless ended up with Ken Starr and impeachment on unrelated matters. Now that Rezko is in the limelight, Sen. Obama would be well-advised to clear up accusations that fail to pass the smell test. Otherwise, they may continue to haunt him all year, with a little help from the Clintons and, should he win nomination, the Republican remnants of the Rove smear machine.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Democrats' Standup Demagoguery

They should have been sitting down for the first hour. The civility Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama showed in their Las Vegas round table last week and in the second hour of the Myrtle Beach debate tonight bracketed a standup slugfest that did neither of them credit.

Particularly ugly was Clinton's attempt to tar Obama with Chicago slumlord Tony Rezko and particularly slippery was Obama's trying to pass him off as a client for whom he had worked for a few hours. His relationship with the man who is under indictment in a federal corruption case is much more complicated than that (more about this here later).

But the lowlight was the pummeling Obama took from both Clinton and John Edwards for voting "present" on many occasions in the Illinois Legislature. This attempt to make him look indecisive was coming from people who did not hesitate in October 2001 to cast votes that allowed George Bush to invade Iraq.

Perhaps standing on their feet makes the candidates testy. The organizers of the next debate might consider a format that encourages them to chill out by reclining on chaise longues.

McCain's Cockiness

Forget the poll numbers. The surest sign of a winner is making ballsy jokes, and John McCain is back doing that.

When Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post asks why, unlike most other candidates, he is so accessible to reporters, McCain responds, "I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be."

Kurtz notes, "How candidates treat reporters shouldn't matter in the coverage, but it does. Journalists tend to reward those who engage them and get testy when they are stiffed, concluding that such candidates are overly calculating and wary of unscripted exchanges."

When McCain made an unusual trip without his press contingent, a reporter asked, "What did you do without us this morning? Were you hanging out with other reporters?"

McCain acted horrified. "I was not unfaithful," he insisted.

Lest all this seem lovable, it pays to remember that Nancy Pelosi's daughter, of all people, made a documentary in 2000 about how charming and lovable George Bush was on his campaign plane, and we know how that turned out.

Stoning Bush

If ye have tears for George W. Bush, prepare to shed them now. Oliver Stone is going to make a movie about him.

On the other hand, that may be the Decider's best chance for an upgrade in history. In some quarters, such as this one, there is great sympathy for the subjects of Stone's blow-torch reinventions of the truth, as in his lie-filled "JFK" about the assassination.

"It's a behind-the-scenes approach, similar to 'Nixon,' to give a sense of what it's like to be in his skin," Stone tells Variety. "But if 'Nixon' was a symphony, this is more like a chamber piece, and not as dark in tone. People have turned my political ideas into a cliche, but that is superficial. I'm a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being..."

Stone's empathy is illustrated by his description of the theme of his projected "fair, true portrait of the man: How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?"

This new project will replace Stone's attempt to immortalize Iran's Ahmadinejad, who turned him down last year because he is "part of the great Satan."

Stone began his career as a moviemaker in the 1970s after returning from Vietnam, in his words, "very mixed up, very alienated, very paranoid." If his goal has been to make us all that way, he has been doing very well. Whatever he does to George W. Bush won't change that.

Obama Calls Out Bill Clinton

On "Good Morning America" today, Barack Obama takes on the other half of the Clinton team, the non-candidate who has been contesting him in the primaries:

"The former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling. He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts--whether it's about my record of opposition to the war in Iraq or our approach to organizing in Las Vegas.

"This has become a habit, and one of the things that we're going to have to do is to directly confront Bill Clinton when he's making statements that are not factually accurate."

So now we have the unprecedented spectacle of a Presidential candidate being double-teamed and responding directly to both Clintons who have been challenging him.

"I understand," Obama concedes, "that there are going to be sharp elbows in a primary and certainly there's going to be some rough and tumble in a general election" but claims that Bill Clinton has gone too far.

He is not alone in that opinion. The new Newsweek reports that leading Democrats, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel, who worked in the Clinton White House, are telling the ex-President to "pipe down."

The man who coordinated Clinton's impeachment defense in 1998 and is now a senior Obama adviser argues that "recent events raise the question: if Hillary's campaign can't control Bill, whether Hillary's White House could."

Obama has apparently decided to stop waiting for an answer to that and start providing his own critique.

Martin Luther King's Last Speech

On April 3, 1968, the night before he died, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in a Memphis church and concluded with these words:

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

His foreboding was more than rhetoric. A decade later in an article I published, his father wrote that Dr. King had visited him weeks before to prepare his parents for the possibility he would be killed.

“The reports are that they are out to get me,” he told them. “I have to go on with my work, I’m too deeply involved now to get out, it’s all too important. Sometimes I want to stop. Just go away somewhere and have some quiet days, finally, a quiet life with Coretta and the children. But it’s too late for that now. I have my path before me. I know what I have to do.”

The man whose life we celebrate today gave it up for a vision of better lives for generations to come.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Suzanne Pleshette

Her wry smile and throaty voice remain. As Emily Hartley on the 1970s "Bob Newhart Show," she was the quintessential loving but skeptical wife in the kind of gentle comedy that is long gone from network TV.

A perfect partner for Newhart's stammering psychologist, Suzanne Pleshette complemented his confusion with a sardonic sense of reality in a quirky series that evoked more smiles than belly laughs.

Newhart went to another series with another actress playing his wife, but Pleshette was there for the finale in 1990, waking up in bed next to him as Emily listening to Newhart describe his life in the second sitcom as a dream resulting from eating too much Japanese food the night before.

She died yesterday at 70 from respiratory failure after years of struggling against lung cancer, a beautiful woman and accomplished actress leaving behind sweet moments in our collective memory.

"Mine Is Bigger Than Yours" Hits Home

In the words of Mel Brooks' philosopher-producer Max Bialystock, "If you've got it, baby, flaunt it!" That's just what many Americans have been doing with their homes until the credit crunch brought down the curtain with record foreclosures.

Amid bailouts and interest rate freezes to keep the show going, a painfully apt book emerges to underscore that the housing crisis, despite what the politicians are telling us, is not only about greedy bankers, mortgage brokers and hedge funds.

The thesis of "House Lust" by Newsweek reporter Dan McGinn: "Owning a home has long been considered the fulfillment of the American Dream. But in the last decade, as the real estate market boomed, Americans’ fascination with homes turned into a frenzy. Everywhere we turned, people were talking about, scheming over, envying, shopping for, refinancing, or just plain ogling houses—in the process, we’ve transformed shelter from a basic necessity into an all-consuming passion."

For some, huge homes have become what Cadillacs were half a century ago, an emblem of conspicuous consumption, proof to the world that owners have "arrived." In 2005, the average newly built US house measured 2,434 square feet, as opposed to 1,000 feet in Britain, Italy and Sweden and the 750-foot shoeboxes in Levittown after World War II.

"Everyone knows the direct causes of the present housing collapse: low interest rates, lax mortgage lending, rampant speculation," Robert J. Samuelson writes in the Washington Post. "But the larger force lies in Americans' devotion to home ownership. It explains why government officials, politicians and journalists (including this one) overlooked abuses in 'subprime' lending. The home ownership rate was approaching 70 percent in 2005, up from 64 percent in 1990. Great. A good cause shielded bad practices. The same complacency lulled ordinary Americans into paying ever-rising home prices."

The crisis may slow down builders in affluent areas from tearing down adequate houses and replacing them with "MacMansions" that not only require higher costs for upkeep but contribute to global warming with the energy consumed to heat and cool them.

As Congress and the White House push along legislation to head off a recession, a report on economic overreaching may be in order to remind Americans that, even in building their castles, less may be more.

Southern Fried Politicians

Fred Thompson hit his expiration date in South Carolina but may have managed to cook Mike Huckabee's goose in the process as John Edwards, after fizzling in Nevada, is in danger of becoming toast without a strong showing in South Carolina next weekend.

So much for culinary clichés, but the Presidential buffet is definitely losing its down-home flavor--no drawls or twangs in the next White House, if you don't count possible First Spouse Bill Clinton.

The Republicans' well-established Southern strategy has been derailed by the Thompson-Huckabee collision and faces a severe test in November against the appeal of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to African-American voters.

In the long arc from the Democrats' Solid South more than half a century ago to the GOP's recent coalition of cultural conservatives, there has been a degree of unanimity that looks unlikely this year.

By nominating a McCain, Romney or Giuliani, Republicans will face fallout that won't be papered over by late conversions on abortion, immigration and gay rights or a Southern running mate on the ticket.

This November, red and blue states may form a checkered pattern all across the electoral map.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Only Numbers That Count

Behind the rise and fall of the polls and the trickle of primary and caucus results is the reality of who will pick next President of the United States.

At the Democratic Convention in late August, there will be over 850 super-delegates--governors, members of Congress and the Democratic National Committee, present and former Senate and House leaders as well as former presidents and vice presidents (Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale get a vote).

Even before Super Tuesday, more than one-third of the 2025 delegates needed to nominate have been chosen and are quietly lining up behind Hillary Clinton (at the latest estimate, 181), Barack Obama (80), John Edwards (29) and Denis Kucinich (2, including himself). More than half, 479, are uncommitted. You can see the list here.

Those behind Hillary Clinton include a considerable number of women and DNC members as well as New York and New Jersey Governors Eliot Spitzer and Jon Corzine. Obama has Sens. Pat Leahy, Tim Johnson, John Kerry, Claire McCaskill, Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson. John Edwards' list includes nine members of Congress and the DNC from North Carolina.

The new rules put in place after the 1972 convention were intended to take the choice out of the hands of party machines and kingmakers, but even so, picking the nominees is not a pure (large or small "d") Democratic process.

Then again, we have today's example of power to the people in Nevada. where as Gail Collins notes in her New York Times column, "the number of people in the state who have ever attended a caucus before is probably smaller than the number of people in the state who make their living as Elvis impersonators."

On to Super Tuesday...

The Two Bill Clintons

Soon after he moved into the White House, Bill Clinton was tagged by Maureen Dowd as the first president who was still social-climbing.

After more than two decades of Republican rule, interrupted only by an ineffectual Jimmy Carter, Democrats were exhilarated in 1993 at the prospect of restoring the momentum toward a Great Society that had come to a dead stop after LBJ was undone by Vietnam. Even the early fiasco over health care reform was a sign that the new man cared.

But there was always another Bill Clinton, a Gennifer Flowers-chasing, low-rent undercurrent to his character that emerged to give Newt Gingrich and his merry men an opening for impeachment that hobbled the last years of the second Clinton term.

Then, for almost seven years of his post-presidency, we saw only the good Bill Clinton again, going all over the world to raise awareness and money to help the wretched of the world.

Now, in his wife's campaign for the nomination, here comes the other guy, trash-talking about Barack Obama and squabbling with reporters like a precinct pol rather than a former President of the United States.

Armchair psychology suggests he may be trying to over-compensate Hillary Clinton for the Lewinsky humiliation, but his behavior is not helping her campaign, only highlighting the difference between what he is doing and the dignified reticence of George H. W. Bush during his son's run in 2000.

What's even worse is that all this may giving voters pause at the prospect of having the two Bill Clintons back in the White House.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Dr. Phil's Bedside Manure

If Hillary Clinton supporters want to attack Oprah for backing Barack Obama, they could question her judgment about people in creating the cultural embarrassment known as Dr. Phil.

The good Dr. McGraw's latest misadventure in poisoning the well of psychology as a profession involves a reported complaint about his hospital visit to Britney Spears this month, which may constitute practicing without a license in California, and promoting his excursion to the pop star, which could be a violation of doctor-patient privilege.

Since advising her in a lawsuit over dissing beef over a decade ago, McGraw has parlayed appearances on Oprah's show into his own syndicated program, frequent appearances on Larry King, a weight-loss business and a number of legal hassles of his own making.

Peddling pious platitudes and pep talks as psychological insight pays well, starting with Dr. Phil's $15 million syndication deal and a new show later this year in which he will be coaching other medical "experts" in how to connect with TV audiences.

Off-camera, however, he is not that popular. In addition to the possible Britney Spears problem, Dr. Phil is being sued by brothers involved in the case of Natalee Holloway, victim of a headline disappearance in Aruba, for "invasion of privacy, fraud, deceit, defamation, emotional distress, and civil conspiracy."

TV's favorite psychologist lost his license to practice in his home state as a result of disciplinary sanctions imposed by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists in 1989 after a former therapy client filed a complaint, claiming their relationship was inappropriate.

Since then, he has made a brilliant career out of being inappropriate in public. Obama admirers can only hope Dr. Phil doesn't join Oprah in stumping for him and create psychological problems for his campaign.

Governor Huckabee of Dogpatch

Half a century ago, after the Supreme Court desegregation decision, an Arkansas governor named Orval Faubus stood in the doorway of Central High School in Little Rock with National Guard members to keep African American teenagers out. Now Mike Huckabee is doing a Faubus impersonation in South Carolina.

“You don’t like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag,” the former Arkansas governor told a crowd in Myrtle Beach yesterday. “In fact, if somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole, that’s what we’d do.”

In doing a Faubus to court what remains of the redneck vote, Huckabee might want to recall what happened to his predecessor. President Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas Guard, ordered them to stand down and sent in troops from the 101st Airborne Division to escort the kids into the school.

As John McCain continues to lead in the polls, Huckabee protesters are dogging his appearances by waving Confederate flags. But McCain refuses to cave in as he did in 2000.

"Probably the worst piece of advice I've ever given to myself," he tells Katie Couric, "was when the Confederate flag was flying over the state capitol in South Carolina, and I decided that I would say it's not an issue I should be involved in, that it should be decided by the people of the state of South Carolina.

"I knew it was a symbol that was offensive to so many people. And afterwards, I went back and apologized. But it was, needless to say, by saying that I wouldn't have anything to do with an issue like that was an act of cowardice."

If Huckabee believes he can win in South Carolina by going back to the past, he should take a look at the later career of Orval Faubus. A decade after the Little Rock standoff, he was managing the Li'l Abner theme park in the "Ozark Mountains, Dogpatch USA."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Flummoxing the Candidates

On the New York Times blog, The Caucus, Matt Bai has a solution to enlivening the Presidential debates, suggesting reverse psychology:

"Instead of making it harder for candidates to lapse into their stump speeches, we should make it easier for them by choosing the world’s most ignorant moderator, thus confusing the candidates and causing them to practically explode from excitement."

The questions he suggests are priceless.

The Jewish Question

With Martin Luther King in the crosshairs, could Jews be far behind? Now identity politics (read hatred and division) is catching up with the Chosen People who are always a target of choice when blood is in the air.

First there is an attempt by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen to link Barack Obama to his church's year-old award to Louis Farrakhan, conveniently overlooking the fact that the anti-Semite firebrand of yore is dying of cancer and professing "enlightenment," while still denouncing the kind of interracial marriage that spawned Obama as "unnatural."

Obama issued a statement distancing himself from Farrakhan that satisfied Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, who joined other Jewish leaders in signing an open letter denouncing “hateful e-mails” directed at Obama.

Now here comes Politico with a thumb-sucking, fact-free piece headed "Jewish voters lean toward Hillary," asserting that, after years of courting it, she is "well positioned to win the Jewish vote in Nevada’s Jan. 19 caucuses and in the Jewish centers of New York, New Jersey and California on Feb. 5."

While quoting Rothman as saying about Obama, “Like many other segments of the American community, Jewish Americans see him as a unifying figure with the intellect and skill to make change,” Politico nevertheless finds enough supporters among politicians to conclude that Clinton has won "the trust of the hawkish leadership of New York’s Jewish community."

As someone who can be Googled to reveal decades-old listings as a member of the Jewish media conspiracy against America, perhaps I may be forgiven for wanting to barf at this kind of "journalism."

Joe Lieberman and Jewish Neo-Cons to the contrary, the Protocols of Zion people will have to look elsewhere for group guilt in today's politics. Those whose parents and grandparents came to this country to escape the Holocaust are not lining up to support Bush's war in the Mideast or to choose between Clinton and Obama as the best person to end it.

Enough already.

Et Tu, Barack?

As the campaign reaches fever pitch, the candidates are slipping toward caricatures of themselves--Huckabee's piety, Hillary Clinton's control-freakiness, John Edwards' angry man act, and now Barack Obama gives us too much audacity about hope in praising Ronald Reagan for "clarity...optimism...a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

True enough that Reagan rode to the White House on "the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s," but it was Nixon's resentful Silent Majority that propelled him there to express, behind the "Morning in America" façade, a social meanness that cut taxes for the very rich and falsified a "trickle down" effect for everyone else.

After his Iowa victory, Obama said, ""The time has come for a president who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face...who won't just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know."

In this campaign, there has been very little of that, but Obama has showed some signs. Tuesday night, for example, he dared to suggest that one way to cut American dependence on foreign oil is to consume less energy:

"We are going to have to make our buildings more efficient. We're going to have to make our lighting more efficient. We're going to have to make our appliances more efficient. That is actually the low-hanging fruit if we're going to deal with climate change...

"And there's no reason why, with the kind of presidential leadership that I intend to provide, that we can't make drastic cuts in the amount of energy that we consume without any drop in our standard of living."

Not exactly a call for blood, sweat and tears, but amid all the pumped-up promises of no-cost change, Obama has here and there dropped a hint that it will take more than optimism to cure the economy. It's disheartening to hear him praise the false hope of the 1980s in an attempt to "bring us together" and pick up some votes from surviving Reagan Democrats.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mile-High Club Comes Down to Earth

If the ACLU has its way, the thrill of the forbidden will disappear from air travel. In a brief today supporting Sen. Larry Craig, the freedom-loving organization argues that people who have sex in public rest rooms "have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Should the Idaho Senator prevail in an effort to withdraw his guilty plea of disorderly conduct during a men's room sting at the Minneapolis airport, the Mile-High Club will have to disband. What would be the point of in-flight lavatory liaisons if they were completely legal, even before takeoff?

In its brief, the ACLU asserts, "The government cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Senator Craig was inviting the undercover officer to engage in anything other than sexual intimacy that would not have called attention to itself in a closed stall in the public restroom."

The defenders of Larry Craig may end up expanding civil liberties but striking a blow at one of the few well-established ways of relieving the tedium of long flights.

Up With Huckabee

Since Iowa, the vote count for the former Arkansas governor has been earthbound, but it hasn't lowered his expectations.

"We really need to take America up and not down," Mike Huckabee said when he moved into the top tier of candidates and now, as he faces a moment of truth in South Carolina that could foreshadow his fate on Super Tuesday, he is still looking in that direction.

Before his third-place finish in Michigan yesterday, he told supporters that "what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards."

It's no surprise that Huckabee is keeping his spirits up but, as his political fortunes fluctuate, his weight seems to be heading in the same direction.

Famous for losing over a hundred pounds and writing a book about it, in recent appearances, Huckabee has been looking more and more like Al Gore.

Last month, he admitted to gaining a dozen pounds on the campaign trail but seemed optimistic that he could trim down for the Boston marathon in April.

Between now and then, his ecclesiastical and dietary resolve will be tested by the political marathon.

An Outbreak of Civility

Everybody got the memo, except Charlie Rangel who was still bashing Barack Obama yesterday afternoon, but by nightfall in Las Vegas, it was all sweetness and light at the Democratic round table (debate would be too harsh a word for what Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards did for two hours).

For this news cycle at least, the politics of personal destruction gave way to earnest discussion of how to repair the Bush damage to America at home and around the world.

Something important must have happened to Sen. Clinton when she was 25 because she kept referring to her 35 years of experience as a qualification for the Presidency, while John Edwards kept reminding us how "personal" all the issues were for him and Barack Obama spoke often about bringing people together.

Compared to the headlines of the past week, it was all touchy-feely and rather restful.

Turning to the writerless Daily Show, the new civility was evident there too as the usually cantankerous John Bolton stopped Jon Stewart in his tracks by agreeing with him about Middle East policy while plugging his new book.

It won't last, but for the time being, it's a nice (forgive the cliché) change.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Primary Colors II"

In the climactic scene of the movie from the Anonymous Joe Klein novel, John Travolta-Jack Stanton-Bill Clinton importunes a young, idealistic African-American young man, "We can do incredible things. We can change this country. I'm gonna win this thing. Look me in the eye, Henry, and tell me that you don't want to be a part of it."

In the sequel, Henry has morphed into Barack Obama, and he is still in it, this time not as part of the steamroller but as its target.

In an early scene of the original, a politician talking to the candidate asks the aspiring First Lady, "You don't mind us talking business, do you?" and she answers wryly, "No, no. How else could I learn?"

As we play out "Primary Colors II," how much has Emma Thompson-Susan Stanton-Hillary Clinton learned? The moral dilemma of the original--whether or not to destroy the opposition with dirt--has been transmuted into a team operation to smear Barack Obama with mud about drug use, doubts about his opposition to the war in Iraq and accusations of racial opportunism.

The 1998 movie was in theaters during the impeachment and left viewers with mixed feelings about the ruthless charmer who connected with Americans by feeling their pain while inflicting some of his own on them. Now the whole cast is back, and after years of the George Bush horror movie, the audience may be looking for something a little more elevating.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Martin Luther King to Obama

The following was originally posted a year ago today, January 14, 2007.

West Side residents of Chicago now have a U.S. Senator who looks like them and it may be, in more ways than one, due to the man whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to the oppressed. “Our weapon is love,” he told them, and he used it with stunning force.

At the dawn of TV, he brought into American homes images of peaceful Southern protesters beaten, driven with high-pressure hoses and arrested without fighting back. Their body rhetoric exposed racial hatred as never before.

Then, in 1966 Dr. King wrote for me about the apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”

He asked them to join Freedom Marches in Mississippi and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies…..

“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...

“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...

“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”

It is not hard to believe that some of those young men Martin Luther King helped to grow up and away from their worst selves exercised their rights decades later in voting for Barack Obama.

A Wedding Anniversary

One of those "This Day in History" items recalls that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married on January 14, 1954 and brings back a flood of memories.

I met DiMaggio soon after their divorce the next year, when Marilyn came to New York and Joe, still in love with her as he would always be, confided how happy he was that she was getting away from "that Hollywood crowd."

Five years after Marilyn’s death, the story I wanted as a magazine editor was Joe’s. He had arranged her funeral, kept it private and was still sending flowers to her grave three times a week but had not said a word about her.

He invited me to his New York suite at cocktail time and poured a drink. There were half a dozen men there, and it became clear he wanted me to sit at the edge of his circle, listening to locker—room banter, while he eyed me once in a while, freshened my drink and made up his mind about talking to me.

He was a matador surrounded by his entourage. Two men in business suits came in for a Polaroid picture. With DiMaggio’s arms draped over them, years fell from their middle-aged faces. They were boys in the embrace of their boyhood hero. It recalled Gay Talese’s Esquire piece about Joe’s honeymoon with Marilyn. She went to Korea to entertain American troops. He stayed in Japan, and when she came back, Marilyn told him about her reception by 100,000 servicemen: “Joe, you never heard such cheering.” “Yes, I have,” he said.

The evening ground on, the friends chattered, Joe said little. Finally I asked, “Could we talk?“ “Tomorrow morning,” he said. “Come up about ten.”

When I arrived, he was packing his bags. I talked as he kept putting shirts, socks and underwear into a suitcase. He never looked up.

I told him I didn’t want to intrude, but it was my job to ask if he would ever say anything about Marilyn. If he did, he could trust me to make sure it came out right.

He was still staring into the suitcase, but I could see his eyes clouding. His jaw muscles tightened. For a long minute, he was silent.

“I could never talk about her,” he finally said in a choked voice. “Never.”

He never did.

The McCain Mutiny

Now that he is the Republican front runner again (talk about Comeback Kids!), John McCain has a bull's eye on his back for all manner of Conservatives, and today's Washington Post recites the litany.

"For at least eight years," the Post reports, "official Republican Washington has been dominated by what McCain advocates have called President Bush's 'Death Star'--an array of advocacy groups and lobbyists that backed Bush in 2000 and have remained the city's conservative power brokers.

"Republican politicians with national ambitions genuflect to (David) Keene at his Conservative Political Action Conference. They sign (Grover) Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes and attend the weekly conservative conclaves over which he presides as the head of Americans for Tax Reform. And they curry favor with religious conservatives such as Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition."

At one time or another, McCain has poked a finger in the eye of these king makers with his position on issues, as the executive director of Gun Owners of America points out. "I can tell you every single immigration activist and organization is terrified by the New Hampshire results," says the executive director of an "immigration reduction" group.

If Huckabee and Thompson fail to keep McCain from taking South Carolina, all these idealists will be put to a severe reality test. At the moment, Sen. Jim DeMint is backing Romney there, but John McCain's Baghdad traveling companion and likely running mate, Lindsey Graham, will be trying to tip the scales in his favor.

In 2000, Karl Rove bushwhacked McCain there, but that kind of ambush is not in the cards this time.

Clinton, Obama and Martin Luther King

In the week before his 79th birthday tomorrow, Martin Luther King was in the news again.

To make a point about the difference between rhetoric and reality, between Barack Obama and herself, Hillary Clinton said, "“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”

That December, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King went to the White House, where President Johnson told him he that, if he tried to pass a voting rights bill, Southerners in Congress would block other measures of his Great Society program, which would benefit his people in important ways.

"The President said nothing could be done," Dr. King recalled. "But we started a movement."

Three months later, in Selma, Alabama, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, police beat peaceful protesters on a bridge, and days afterward Lyndon Johnson made a speech to a joint session of Congress that Martin Luther King called "one of the most eloquent, unequivocal, and passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a President of the United States."

"Our struggle in Selma had brought the whole issue of the right to vote to the attention of the nation," King said. "Selma brought us a voting bill...We had a federal law which could be used, and use it we would. Where it fell short, we had our tradition of struggle and the method of nonviolent direct action, and these too we would use."

On his birthday tomorrow, Americans will not have to choose between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson in remembering that achievement. Both played their parts, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are playing theirs in another historic turning point in American life. When voters cast their ballots for either of them, they will be making statements as powerful as Dr. King and President Johnson did back then.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Iraq Mousetrap for the Next President

As Democratic candidates make promises to voters about troop withdrawal, George W. Bush is in the Middle East trying to tie the hands of his successor in office.

In November, he joined Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a declaration of principles to negotiate an agreement to guarantee US troop presence for years. It would replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing multinational forces in Iraq and become a sworn obligation for the next president. Yesterday, Bush announced in Kuwait that they are moving ahead with the plan.

According to Michael Hirsh of Newsweek, "The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House--in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions."

The intention is to bypass Congress and commit the next president to Bush's agenda. "We don't anticipate now," Gen. Lute has said, "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."

Last month, Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to sign any such agreement without congressional approval since it would be difficult if not impossible for a future president to breach. White House silence has been deafening.

Touting the Surge's success, Bush said yesterday that "long-term success will require active U.S. engagement that outlasts my presidency."

If the Democratic Congress tries to head him off at the pass with legislation, its legality would be challenged and the Bush years would end where they started--in the Supreme Court.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No Crying Shame

This is starting out as a year for tears.

Days after Hillary Clinton rescued her campaign by welling up in a New Hampshire coffee shop, George W. Bush wept yesterday at a Holocaust memorial in Israel, expressing sorrow over US failure in World War II to bomb Auschwitz and save some of the victims.

Sen. Clinton was clearly crying in response to her own stress, but the President's tears seem more complicated. Faced with visible evidence of more than a million murders, he turned from aerial views of the concentration camp and told Condoleeza Rice, "We should have bombed it." Before leaving, he wrote in the visitor's book, "God Bless Israel, George Bush."

For a man who believes in a world divided into Good and Evil, that is an understandable reaction, but is there something more in him than self-righteous certainty?

Last year, at a ceremony awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to a Marine who threw himself over a grenade and saved the lives of two men in his unit, Bush wept as he said, “He was the guy who signed on for an extra two months in Iraq so he could stay with his make sure that everyone makes it home alive."

As we reach for change in American leadership, Bush's tears evoke sadness that his capacity to grieve for that Marine and his family as well as Holocaust victims never led him to join the majority of those he serves who want to put an end to killing as the means of choice to make the world safer.

Now we know that Hillary Clinton can cry over herself, but will she or whoever else succeeds George Bush be truly committed to sparing American families tears in the years ahead?