Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rolling Out War Against Iran

It worked before the 2002 elections, so why not now? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the lame ducks that roar, are ready. So is John McCain. Hillary Clinton, now as then, is terrified of appearing soft, and even the anti-Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has joined the chorus.

"What the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and -women inside Iraq," he says, as a second aircraft carrier steams into the Persian Gulf and, according to CBS News, the Pentagon orders military commanders to develop new options for attacking Iran.

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton is warlike: "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel). In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

Joe Lieberman, McCain's alter ego, is envisaging "an attempt to hit some of the components of the nuclear program" primarily from the air, with some covert ground assistance. There is now "active discussion" of such plans, he says.

John McCain, now that Lieberman has straightened him out about Sunnis, Shiites and al Qaeda, is ready to roll in the fall campaign against that softie, Barack Obama, who still thinks he can talk down Ahmadinejad from the nuclear brink.

Haven't we seen this movie before?


The politician was doing what he had to do, but Barack Obama's personal pain yesterday was palpable as he cut his ties to Jeremiah Wright.

“Whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this,” Obama said. “I don’t think that he showed much concern for me."

Behind the politician's voice was the anger and disappointment of a man who barely knew his own father but wrote a book about him, bearing a title inspired by a paternal figure who had now betrayed him.

Searching for substitute fathers has been common for a long time now in an era of mobility, psychological desertion and divorce. Throughout his life, Obama has found more than one, not only Wright and the disreputable Tony Rezko but, among others, two figures from the Kennedy era, Abner Mikva and Newt Minow, who helped and advised him along the way.

The Wright psychodrama, and how Obama handles it, will almost certainly be a turning point in this campaign and beyond. Yesterday he seemed dazed and hurt in making the break.

“The fact that Reverend Wright would think that somehow it was appropriate to command the stage for three or four consecutive days in the midst of this major debate is something that not only makes me angry, but also saddens me,” he said in dealing with his pain publicly.

The coming days will be a test of his capacity for recovery and renewal.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama's Binds

He wanted it to be New Politics vs. Old Politics but, as the states dwindle down to a precious few, Barack Obama is being tied in political knots by ancient divisions of race, culture and social class that are being exploited by the Clinton campaign, with some unexpected help from Obama's former spiritual adviser.

You can dress up the differences, as David Brooks does, in new demographic garb, as the educated/less-educated divide, but that only puts a new gloss on the resentment and mistrust that have always fueled have-not hatred of those perceived to be privileged.

Half a century ago, the war hero known as Ike twice defeated the "egghead" Adlai Stevenson, so called because he spoke in coherent sentences. JFK barely beat Nixon, who was born wearing a jacket and tie, but LBJ's disastrous Vietnam war gave the Uriah Heep of presidents new life to act humble and "Bring Us Together" against the voluble Hubert Humphrey and then the cerebral George McGovern.

Ronald Reagan made an art form out of folksy to wipe out Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale and, with an intermission for Bill Clinton's down-home act, we got the man you would like to have a beer with, George Bush, over the wonkish Al Gore and the stiff John Kerry.

So Barrack Obama's dilemma is nothing new in American politics, except for the piquant touch of a self-made man of mixed race being eliticized by a former First Lady and an Admiral's son with a very rich wife.

"You can't beat brains," JFK liked to say, but to get to the White House, you are well-advised to hide them. If he can survive his current ordeal of being bitten by demographic ducks, Obama would bring something to the presidency that hasn't been seen much lately.

After Bush, do we really want another jerk running the country?

Iran's Petraeus

As Frederick Kagan spins Neo-Con daydreams of "turning a corner," McClatchy reporters on the ground are telling a different story:

"One of the most powerful men in Iraq isn't an Iraqi government official, a militia leader, a senior cleric or a top U.S. military commander or diplomat. He's an Iranian general, and at times he's more influential than all of them."

Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, as "Tehran's point man on Iraq," is manipulating election of pro-Iranian politicians, meeting often with Iraqi leaders and backing Shiite elements in Iraqi security forces in the torturing and killing of Sunni Muslims.

According to American and Iraqi officials, Suleimani is Iran's Petraeus who has succeeded, among other things, in slipping into Baghdad's Green Zone in 2006 to orchestrate the choice of a new Iraqi prime minister and building intelligence networks in Iran's embassy while providing Shiite Muslim militias with generalship, cash and arms, including mortars and rockets fired at the US Embassy and advanced roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of Americans and Iraqis.

While Kagan maunders in the Weekly Standard about the "new effort to establish security in Iraq" and that "victory is up for grabs," US officials report that roadside bomb attacks in March matched July's record level, and Joint Chief of Staffs Chairman, Adm. Michael Mullen last week accused Suleimani of precipitating the recent battles in Basra by backing Shiite militias and criminal gangs that are trying to control the city's oil-loading facilities.

Dick Cheney and no doubt John McCain will want to answer all this by getting into another war we can't afford, but American voters will have to be given a clear picture of what is really going on in Iraq beyond campaign claims of victory and decide how much more American blood and treasure to spend fighting Middle East enemies on their own ground.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rev. Wright's Publicity Blitz

More than anything, it's the smile. Is it benign, beatific, self-satisfied or all of the above? As the Rev. Wright, with the help of the media he excoriates, does inestimable damage to Barack Obama's campaign, the smile tells more than his words do. The preacher is center stage.

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy assured voters that, as the first Catholic president, he would not be taking instruction from the Vatican, neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of his diocese held press conferences to contradict him.

Obama has not been so lucky. Rev. Wright feels compelled to correct the image of him spread by YouTube, which he interpreted today as "an attack on the black church."

Moreover, Wright recalled to the National Press Club today that he told Obama last year, "If you get elected, November the 5th I'm coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people."

Unlike JFK, Obama will have to deal with questions about his religion until voters go to the ballot box.

His response today is a sample of what's to come. At a tarmac press conference, Obama told reporters, “He’s obviously free to speak his mind, but I just want to emphasize that this is my former pastor. Many of the statements that he has made both to trigger this initial controversy and that he’s made over the last several days are not statements that I’ve heard him make previously. They don’t represent my views and they don’t represent what this campaign is about.”

But that won't wipe the smile off the Rev. Wright's face.

Obama, Rove: Six Degrees of Separation

What's the journalistic etiquette for exposing someone who works for the same publication? In the new Newsweek, Michael Isikoff reports that the name of fellow columnist Karl Rove has surfaced in the federal trial of Barack Obama's albatross, Antoin Rezko:

"Former Illinois state official Ali Ata is expected to testify about a conversation he had with Rezko in which the developer alleged Rove was 'working with' a top Illinois Republican to remove the Chicago US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.

"The allegation, which Rove denies, quickly reverberated in Washington. Democrats in Congress now want to question Ata. They believe he can help buttress their theory that Rove played a key role in discussions that led to the firings of U.S. attorneys at the Justice Department in 2006."

According to the Chicago Tribune, "Prosecutors at...Rezko's fraud trial caught a break when Ali Ata, former Illinois Finance Authority executive director, pleaded guilty to tax fraud and lying about Rezko and agreed to become a witness at the trial."

Rove's motive would have been to derail Fitzgerald's Scooter Libby prosecution, in which Bush's Brain was being implicated in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame as retaliation for her husband's revelation that the Administration lied about Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear material in Africa.

Now that Obama has turned out to be a distant cousin of Dick Cheney, his six-degrees-of-separation tie to Karl Rove may not come as too much of a shock.

Maybe Rove will explain it all in his next Newsweek column.

The Politics of Poorness

Hillary Clinton and John McCain, each of whom has hundreds of times the family money of Barack Obama, are out there in electoral fantasy land claiming he is out of touch with the poor.

After drinking boilermakers with the boys a while back, Sen. Clinton is now telling Indiana's blue-collar voters that "politics has become too abstract, too generalized" in Obama's elitist world.

“Most people get a lot of meaning in their life from the work that they do,” Clinton says. “People want to be seen, they want to be appreciated, they want to be acknowledged.” And she is out there acknowledging the hell out of them with girlhood tales of helping out in her father's fabric-printing plant and, according to the New York Times, "sounding less like a Wellesley alumna than Roseanne Barr’s old sitcom character, the den mother of her factory floor."

Meanwhile, McCain is calling Obama insensitive to poor people by not endorsing his proposal to suspend the federal tax on gasoline this summer, a refusal "to giving low-income Americans a tax break, a little bit of relief so they can travel a little further and a little longer, and maybe have a little bit of money left over to enjoy some other things in their lives."

McCain, who is still fielding questions about using his wife's company jet during the primary season, and Clinton, who lent her campaign $5 million from her pin money, seem determined to educate Obama on what he failed to learn as an organizer in poverty-stricken communities.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Virginia Tech Memorial Ceremony

In a gesture of compassion for the 32 victims of a year ago, the man who sold one of the weapons that killed them came to the Virginia Tech campus this week to express his dismay ("I felt like I was hit by a truck") and sympathy (""My heart goes out to the parents and anyone who lost a loved one").

Speaking to Students for Concealed Carry on Campus during "Firearms Education Week," online gun dealer Eric Thompson underscored his remorse by announcing on his web site a sale of guns at cost for two weeks to "help give law-abiding citizens the tools to prevent tragedy."

Organizers of the meeting reacted to a University spokesman's disapproval, saying it would "serve to inflame potential conflict" and placed armed guards at the entrance of the meeting room.

Thompson was bringing a humanitarian message. "We all want to be safe, and we want our kids to be able to go to the park and play."

No word of whether his backers are planning to organize a subsidiary, Tommy Guns for Tots.

Elizabeth Edwards, Media Critic

The most cogent and heartfelt critique of the coverage of this Presidential campaign comes today from the wife of a candidate who was at the heart of the media melodrama.

"Watching the campaign unfold," Elizabeth Edwards writes in the New York Times, "I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride.

"And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities."

She cites an independent study showing that during the early months of 2008, 63 percent of campaign stories focused on political strategy while only 15 percent discussed the candidates’ ideas and proposals.

But the media circus is a tacit collaboration between politicians and reporters, who assume (with considerable justification) that voters will be more interested in the cost of John Edwards' haircuts than his poverty proposals. If the media are shallow, the public and politicians have been their willing partners in what Mrs. Edwards calls "the Cliff Notes of the news" and "strobe-light journalism."

Only now, in desperation, after months of picayune personal attacks, does Hillary Clinton propose Lincoln-Douglas style debating on the issues without a moderator, as Barack Obama seems headed for the nomination despite the networks' best efforts to make mud fights out of their previous encounters.

"As we move the contest to my home state, North Carolina," Mrs. Edwards writes, "I want my neighbors to know as much as they possibly can about what these men and this woman would do as president.

"If voters want a vibrant, vigorous press, apparently we will have to demand it. Not by screaming out our windows as in the movie 'Network' but by talking calmly, repeatedly, constantly in the ears of those in whom we have entrusted this enormous responsibility. Do your job, so we can--as voters--do ours."

Well said, but don't hold your breath until that happens.

Paddy Chayevsky for Beginners

His name is on a Broadway marquee again this month with a musical version of "The Catered Affair," one of his lesser works, but having Paddy Chayevsky back in any form is good for our culture.

In the second half of the 20th century, he almost single-handedly invented TV drama, then went on to theater and movies, winning three Academy Awards and leaving behind classics like "Network" and "The Hospital" that tell us more about what went wrong with American media and medicine than the history books do.

On our high-school paper, I had taken over a column from Paddy nee Sidney. We were part of a generation coming of age between wars who hoped we could earn our way in the world with our brains rather than backs, as our immigrant parents were doing. We went on to a free college education at City College of New York and then into the Army, where Sidney was rechristened Paddy.

In the 1950s, he mined our lives for “kitchen sink” dramas: “Marty,” “The Bachelor Party,” “Middle of the Night.” From there, he moved on to the confusions of the larger society with savage satires, not only about TV and doctoring but wartime heroism in “The Americanization of Emily.”

But praise was not universal. At one of our occasional lunches, Paddy's characteristic wry smile was a grimace. His movie, "The Goddess," based loosely and respectfully on the life of Marilyn Monroe, had just come out to good reviews. The screenplay would soon be nominated for an Academy Award.

"Got a call from Arthur Miller this morning," he sighed heavily," and he said 'I want to tell you that what you've done is despicable.'" Years later, I would recall Paddy's pain as I sat through "After the Fall," Miller's nasty portrayal of Marilyn after her death.

Now, Paddy Chayevsky is best remembered for "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," the mantra of the crazed anchorman in "Network."

A few years after the movie came out, I was in the grill of the Four Seasons, a clubby gathering place for media moguls and their hirelings, having lunch with a literary agent as Paddy passed by and said hello on his way to the next table to be introduced to William Paley, founder of CBS, avatar of the TV executives in the movie who exploit a madman for ratings and then, when they fall, have him killed on camera.

“I must admit,” we overheard Paddy telling Paley, “I’m nervous about meeting you.”

The agent leaned toward my ear. “He should be. They showed ‘Network’ on CBS the other night, and it got lousy ratings.”

Now new generations can discover Paddy Chayevsky's work on videos and Turner Classic Movies. Start with "Emily," "Network" and "The Hospital," and work back to "Marty" in the 1950s. The trip is worth taking.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Wright's Jeremiads

Bill Moyers did his best last night on PBS to put Barack Obama's controversial pastor into perspective. He succeeded in showing the man's brilliance but created unease in an observer who, by taste and temperament, is not attracted to apocalyptic preaching about the human condition.

From the interview, it's easy to see what Obama found in Jeremiah Wright and his church that gave a new dimension to his secular desire to help the poor and dispossessed during his early days in Chicago.

Wright's church apparently did and does good work in uplifting its community, but the social benefits come with a moral price--the preacher's selective view of good and evil in the political world.

Consider Wright's use of Martin Luther King to justify his own history. "Dr. King, of course, was vilified," he told Moyers, asserting that, after King talked about racism, militarism and capitalism, he was "ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds...He was vilified by all of the Negro leaders who felt he'd overstepped his bounds talking about an unjust war."

Martin Luther King's opposition to the war made him unpopular with Lyndon Johnson but not the rest of America, least of all African-Americans and, unlike Wright, he did not use it to condemn all of American history, from the mistreatment of Native Americans to plotting drug addiction in black communities.

The Rev. Wright's need to "damn" America leads him to a peculiar view of history. He goes back centuries to mine our national past for evil but, when asked about Louis Farrakhan's racist and anti-Semitic speech, dismisses it with "That was twenty years ago" and praises him for getting African-Americans off drugs and giving them self-respect.

Perhaps most troubling of all is his smiling intimation that Barack Obama is only distancing himself from his views for political expedience: "(W)hat happened in Philadelphia where he had to respond to the sound bites, he responded as a politician. But he did not disown me because I'm a pastor."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Money Train Off the Rails

Wesley Snipes has been starring in a remake of his 1995 movie, "Money Train," but this time the cameras haven't been rolling. A Florida judge sentenced him to three years for tax evasion, even as he was trying to hand over $5 million in checks to prove his repentance.

"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance," Snipes said in court, claiming that his sudden wealth and celebrity attracted "wolves and jackals like flies are attracted to meat." He called himself "well-intentioned, but miseducated."

An actor of intense but cool charm, Snipes is a 21st century exemplar of those Bronx boys who came out of poverty in the old Hollywood days and had trouble coping with being rich.

Half a century ago, I had lunch with a high-school classmate, a novelist who had become a big-time writer of movie and TV scripts.

"I was overcommitted," he said, "so I had to return a large advance. It took a week before I could get myself to write the check. Then I stared at it for days before I finally mailed it. The Bronx kid in me just couldn't believe more money would ever be coming in."

In "Money Train," Snipes looted an armored car carrying tons of small change from subway booths. In real life, he stopped paying taxes on his earnings, following the loopy advice of "tax protesters," who are also facing prison sentences.

In our society, getting rich too suddenly can be a bigger problem than never making it at all. When in doubt, remember Elvis.

Supreme Indifference

Just as the '08 election heads for a Democratic-Republican choice, Antonin Scalia comes out from behind the robes to tell us on 60 Minutes this weekend to stop moping about the Supreme Court's award of the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.

"Get over it," he says in an interview with Lesley Stahl. "It’s so old by now." He may be right. The war in Iraq, the wrecking of our economy, the usurping of traditional American legal rights are so yesterday.

But Scalia himself is a living reminder of what's at stake in this year's election beyond all the mumbo-jumbo of the campaigns--the president's power to name Supreme Court Justices.

If Obama or Clinton is in the White House, it probably won't be someone who goes duck-hunting with Dick Cheney as he is considering a case over the Vice President's meetings with industry officials, including Enron's Ken Lay, while formulating the Administration's energy policy.

Meanwhile, not to worry about Scalia's role on the Court: "I am a law-and-order guy," he tells Stahl. "I mean, I confess to being a social conservative, but it does not affect my views on cases."

Now that is something it make take some time to get over.

Obama's Preening Pastor

What emerges from watching the endless YouTubing of Jeremiah Wright is not the picture of a religious or political fanatic but a world-class attention-seeker. In those operatic video clips, there is a dashiki-dressed performer playing to the crowd, a soulmate, not of Louis Farrakhan, but of Bill Maher, whose imprudent comments on 9/11 cost him his network gig.

Now Obama's pastor is back on stage, coming out of his recent retirement, with Bill Moyers on PBS tonight and at the National Press Club in Washington next Monday, flamboyantly defending himself to the possible political detriment of his former congregant:

"I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ. And by the way, guess who goes to his church, hint, hint, hint?"

If Hillary Clinton's campaign were paying him, the Rev. Wright couldn't being doing more for them than to keep Obama's embarrassment front and center in the days leading up to the final critical primaries.

But we may be underestimating him. By continuing to call attention to himself, Wright may be deviously trying to show that Obama is not under the Svengali-like influence of a dangerous man, just bedeviled by the antics of a showoff.

If so, that would be too subtle for most voters. All that may register with them is Obama's unfortunate choice in a spiritual adviser.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Democrats' Sickly Approach to Health Care

Even as their presidential candidates debate differences between plans for universal coverage, Congressional Democrats are waving white flags in the coming battle to get anything done.

Leaders of the party that should gain decisive control in November, according to The Hill, are busy explaining the expected defeat of health care reform.

“We all know there is not enough money to do all this stuff,” says Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Finance Committee member and an Obama backer. “What they are doing is … laying out their ambitions.”

New York's Chuck Schumer, who is for Hillary Clinton, agrees, saying he is “not sure we have the big plan on healthcare...not sure that we’re ready for a major national healthcare plan.”

Translation: The health insurance corporations, the drug companies and their Harry-and-Louise lobbyists will still be draining one out of every three dollars spent to cure and heal Americans for their own profit and drowning out any voices for change with loud chants about "socialized medicine."

The lawmakers cite the Clintons' failed attempt at reform in 1993 and even George Bush's defeat in trying to privatize Social Security as precedents for going slowly or, more accurately, glacially in expanding health-care coverage.

Under a Democratic President, we will likely get the expansion of SCHIP coverage that Bush vetoed and more funding for stem cell research, but not much else.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus predicts an uphill battle on health-care reform. “If they try to solve all the problems," he says, "it’s going to be difficult." And possibly unhealthy for their campaigns in the next election cycle.

The Code-Word Campaign

How many Americans will not vote for Barack Obama because of his race? Never mind all the smoke screens about his elitism, "inexperience," and "associations" with Jeremiah Wright and a Weatherman of the 1970s, the bedrock fact is that, among voters supporting Hillary Clinton--white blue-collar workers, older people and the less-educated--are some who would never cast a ballot for an African-American.

In primary after primary, she has won these demographic groups by huge margins that defy explanation by differences between the candidates on issues that matter to them. If anything, Obama's history of organizing and empowering the poor in Chicago should give him an edge.

No polls will quantify such prejudice, because those who harbor it won't talk to strangers about their politically incorrect feelings and the talking heads on TV are constrained, not only by the lack of evidence but their own self-consciousness about discussing it directly.

In the New York Times yesterday, Adam Nagourney finally asked the questions: "Why has he been unable to win over enough working-class and white voters to wrap up the Democratic nomination? Lurking behind that question is another: Is the Democratic Party hesitating about race as it moves to the brink of nominating an African-American to be president?"

The answers were evasive. “Race is intertwined with a broader notion that he is not one of us,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which has studied voter attitudes toward Obama. “They react negatively to people who are seen as different.”

A senior strategist for Hillary Clinton said that, while race may have had a role in Obama’s Pennsylvania loss, his big problem was his image of "being out of touch."

Different, out of touch, naïve, elitist, a bad bowler--take your choice of rationalizations, but it would be healthier for the body politic if, for the rest of the primaries and in the general election, the question of race was openly and directly addressed.

That won't change die-hard racists, but it might force some voters to open their minds and examine their prejudices. Whether Obama wins or loses, that would be good for America.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A Role Model for Both Clinton and Obama

The race and gender issues that haunt this year's campaigns were embodied by one person who ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1972 and won 152 delegates before losing to Sen. George McGovern.

As a first-term House member, Shirley Chisholm had even less experience then than Obama does now, but she was an inspirational figure who understood the importance of reaching out. When her racist opponent George Wallace was shot during the campaign, she visited him in the hospital. Years later, when Chisholm was pushing a bill to give domestic workers a minimum wage, Wallace got her enough votes from southern Congressmen to pass it.

We had been together on the New York delegation to the raucous 1968 Democratic convention, which nominated Hubert Humphrey and failed to pass a resolution to end the war in Vietnam. But Chisholm won a seat in Congress that year and, what she said in her first speech on the House floor could serve as a guide for both Clinton and Obama now:

"We Americans have come to feel that it is our mission to make the world free. We believe that we are the good guys, everywhere, in Vietnam, in Latin America, wherever we go. We believe we are the good guys at home, too...Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.

"I am deeply disappointed at the clear evidence that the number one priority of the new administration is to buy more and more and more weapons of war...and to ignore the war we must fight here, the war that is not optional. There is only one way, I believe, to turn these policies around. The Congress must respond to the mandate that the American people have clearly expressed. They have said, 'End this war. Stop the waste. Stop the killing. Do something for our own people first.'"

She was ahead of her time in more ways than one.

Democrats' Groundhog Day

"Somebody, please make it stop," Dana Milbank pleads in this morning's Washington Post.

"This time it's Pennsylvania--home of Punxsutawney Phil, the rodent made famous by the movie 'Groundhog Day,' in which Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day, over and over. So it is with the Democratic Party in this never-ending campaign season."

For old-movie fans, Milbank also finds echoes of "Godfather III," with the headline, "Just When You Think They're Out, They Keep Getting Pulled Back In."

Barack Obama is no Bill Murray and Hillary Clinton bears no resemblance to Al Pacino, but the Post columnist has a point. Isn't it time to stop the reruns and show us something new?

A Heavenly Sign for McCain?

The "Close Encounters" crowd must be beside itself as a sign from outer space appears over Arizona the night before its Senator is blessed by the results of the Pennsylvania primary.

Unexplained red lights that formed a square and then a triangle were seen floating over Phoenix late Monday.

Local Air Force Base officials denied that the UFOs were part of any of their activities as civilian airport employees reported that the lights, approximately four miles south and visible for 13 minutes, were rising as they watched.

A portent for John McCain, the former flyer who benefited greatly from Hillary Clinton's victory yesterday? The mystically inclined will have to tell us what it means, but Steven Spielberg should be standing by.

Clinton's Comeback and Obama's Challenge

One thing is clear: Hillary Clinton has won her Comeback Kid spurs and, despite the challenges ahead, shown remarkable political resilience. Has it been worth the price?

Editorially today the New York Times condemns the Pennsylvania campaign and calls on Clinton to acknowledge that "the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election."

On the eve of the primary, the editorial contends, "Mrs. Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. A Clinton television ad--torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook--evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden. 'If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,' the narrator intoned.

"If that was supposed to bolster Mrs. Clinton’s argument that she is the better prepared to be president in a dangerous world, she sent the opposite message on Tuesday morning by declaring in an interview on ABC News that if Iran attacked Israel while she were president: 'We would be able to totally obliterate them.'"

The nagging question is whether the contest for the Democratic nomination will end in a Pyrrhic victory that could give Republicans a chance to hold onto the White House that was unthinkable even a few months ago.

With Clinton sounding more and more like McCain, Obama's failure in all this has been not to find a way to answer personal attacks without being deflected from the positive, inclusive message that has brought him so far in such a short time.

In defending himself, Obama has lost some of his focus and reinforced doubts about his inexperience in hardball presidential politics. He will have to work hard to regain it in the remaining primaries.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Running Out and Cutting Down

As gasoline prices head toward $4 a gallon, there are signs Americans are starting to use less.

“Sustained higher gasoline prices are beginning to show up in lower gasoline consumption,” an analyst for the Energy Information Administration observes as usage declines for the first time in two decades, albeit by only a fraction of one percent. The drop was more dramatic last Christmas when total miles traveled in the US dropped 3.9 percent compared with a year earlier.

Not a minute too soon, according to Paul Krugman, who foresees hard times when "an ever-growing world economy pushes up against the limits of a finite planet" and rich countries "face steady pressure on their economies from rising resource prices, making it harder to raise their standard of living" and poorer countries "find themselves living dangerously close to the edge--or over it."

In this election year, politicians will talk darkly about oil industry collusion to raise prices, which may well be true, but not much about conservation. Voters don't want to hear about driving less, carpooling, using mass transit and buying fuel-efficient vehicles.

But $4 a gallon seems to be getting their attention, and $5 would have them spellbound. Starting to conserve now would help stave that off.

Earth Day would be a good time to start.

Has ABC Killed Presidential Debates?

For the time being, at least, nobody in America, except the desperate Clinton campaign, seems to want a rerun of last week's degrading boobfest.

Today North Carolina Democrats cancelled a scheduled CBS go-round next weekend with unusual political frankness: "While there was great interest in the debate, there were also growing concerns about what another debate would do to party unity."

In the New Yorker, under the title, "Bitter Patter," Hendrik Hertzberg sums up the fiasco:

"Last Wednesday’s two-hour televised smackdown in Philadelphia between the two remaining Democratic candidates for President, which might have been billed as the Élite Treat v. the Boilermaker Belle, turned into something worse—-something akin to a federal crime. Call it the case of the Walt Disney Company v. People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (and of the United States, for that matter). Seldom has a large corporation so heedlessly inflicted so much civic damage in such a short space of time."

At the beginning of this interminable campaign, there was my hope that voters might be compensated for the agony by a modern version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with candidates getting beyond sound bites to discuss the issues at length.

Silly me. I should have known that, given the gatekeepers of our popular culture today, the candidate exchanges would end up closer to actual biting.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jimmy Carter to the Rescue

As President, he gave new meaning to the word "naïve." Now Jimmy Carter is outdoing himself wandering the Middle East to broker an end to decades of murderous hatred in the region.

Today Carter, an admirable man when he builds houses for the poor and helps refugees around the world, announces he has "no doubt that both the Arab world and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will accept Israel's right to live in peace."

"But," the New York Times reports, "some of Hamas's commitments to Carter, in talks he held with the Islamist group's top leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, were short on details and remarks by a Gaza-based Hamas official suggested the movement was not abandoning long-held positions."

This is vintage Carter, recalling a White House briefing in 1979 after he had negotiated a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons. As Carter and Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, reached agreement, Carter, according to Time Magazine, seemed "to have developed a protectiveness, almost a fondness, for the older man, especially after he saved Brezhnev from falling" and later "held Brezhnev's left hand all the way down the front walk" of the Soviet Embassy.

Carter's kindness was rewarded months later when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, destroying any chances for the treaty's ratification by the Senate.

At the White House briefing, Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security advisor, was lauding their "calm, consistent, predictable" foreign policy when I asked, "How does this explain the President's embrace of Brezhnev as 'a good friend' and, when the Soviets make a predictably aggressive move, overreacting and scaring our people by reviving registration for the draft?" There was no answer.

During his term in office, Carter was humiliated by American impotence throughout the Iranian hostage crisis and during the Mariel Boat Lift, when the US failed to screen out criminals and the mentally ill Castro sent us among the 125,000 legitimate political refugees.

He ended his term in office puzzled by a "national malaise" and asking Americans "to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel" to combat rising gasoline prices.

Now, as an octogenarian, Jimmy Carter is going to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lots of luck.

The Bushed Generation

Tomorrow's Pennsylvania primary will most likely settle nothing, but there is an outside chance that the results could end it all. If Barack Obama wins by even one vote, it's over.

The slice-and-dice demographics show Hillary Clinton running strong among blue-collar voters, gun owners and bowlers, but there is a less obvious layer of the electorate that could surprise the experts--the voters who were pre-pubescent when George W. Bush took power.

These 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are either in college or entering the work force into a dismal economy have been registering in large numbers, and despite all the negative ads and campaigning, may find Obama's message of new politics and hope irresistible. He could win the nomination on their disgust with what eight years of the worst presidency in modern times has wrought.

At a rally yesterday, Obama said, "You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain, and all three of us would be better than George Bush.

"But what you have to ask yourself is who has the chance to actually really change things in a fundamental way so that 10 years from now or 20 years from now you can look back and you can say boy we really moved in a new direction and we put the country on a better path."

According to an AP reporter, "The comment threatened to undercut Obama's efforts--and those of the entire Democratic Party--to portray the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting as nothing more than an extension of Bush's unpopular tenure. At the very least, it provides fodder Republicans can use to prop up McCain."

But it may well be that the conventional wisdom of propping up McCain misses the point of this election. Pennsylvania's youngest voters may settle that question tomorrow.

The Potemkin Village of Iraq

Now it's Condoleezza Rice's turn to take a hand in putting up the false front the Bush Administration is trying to construct and pass off as "victory." She follows President Bush last September, Vice President Cheney and the war's heir apparent, John McCain, last month in projecting a perception of peace with smoke and mirrors.

In a surprise trip this weekend, the Secretary of State cheerleads "a coalescing of a center in Iraqi politics in which the Sunni leadership, the Kurdish leadership, and elements of the Shiite leadership that are not associated with these special groups have been working together better than at any time before."

The "special groups" are militias of the Mahdi Army. If the central government continues to attack them, as it did ineptly in Basra this month only to be bailed out by US forces, al-Sadr is threatening "all-out war."

While Rice hailed the coalescing, there were three rocket attacks--the first as she was meeting with Maliki at his office, another while returning to the Green Zone from a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, a third that delayed a ceremony at which she unveiled a plaque commemorating civilian deaths in the Green Zone.

The Secretary's trip recalls President Bush's visit to Anbar province last September to exult over "success" against al Qaeda, achieved by the influx of Surge troops and buying off Sunni tribal leaders. But the Surge troops can't stay forever and, when they leave, will the Sunnis stay bought?

To all the blood and billions being poured into Iraq, add the time and attention of an Administration that should be attending to threats elsewhere in the world and a collapsing economy back home.

But their priorities are clear: Cobble together a Potemkin village of peace in Iraq to help keep the White House in Republican hands and delay the reckoning they will have to face when the American people get a good look behind the façade of "victory" at the wreckage they have created there.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Give 'Em Hell, Barry"

If the campaign was meant to toughen him up, it is both succeeding and failing. After being bushwhacked in the ABC debate, Barack Obama is riding the Pennsylvania rails doing a 1948 Harry Truman impersonation at whistle stops.

Instead of giving hell to a do-nothing Congress, as Truman did, Obama is targeting Hillary Clinton and the media.

"On his train tour Saturday," John Dickerson reports in Slate, "Senator Obama continued to condemn the petty distractions that keep Americans from focusing on real issues. He decried Clinton's 'tactics of Washington,' in which she attacks him with every possible weapon. 'She's got the kitchen sink flying, the china flying. The buffet is coming at me…when we get involved in the constant distractions, the petty tit-for-tat politics…that may be good for the television ratings, but that's not good for you.'"

At the same time, Obama is paying a price for such outraged high-mindedness as his campaign, in Dickerson's words, "hosted a conference call to engage in the practice the candidate was busy denouncing." Hypocrisy, as necessary as it may appear to be, is sapping the strength of a candidacy that has come this far by attacking it.

All along, the central question in voters' minds has been, not about Obama's inexperience, but his core toughness to be president in a time that calls for it as well as for idealism, intelligence and good judgement.

Maureen Dowd, who has been coaching him not to be bullied, says today, "Obama is cool in a good way. He continues to look to the stars as the Clintons drag him down to the gutter, even when Hillary suggests he should scamper out of the kitchen since he’s so obviously sensitive to heat" but also warns:

"He can create an uplifting new kind of politics if he becomes president, but first he’s going to have to get past the shallow and vicious old politics he says he disdains (even if his campaign knows how to dip into the Clinton toolbox)."

True enough, up to a point, but in doing his Harry Truman impression, he should keep in mind what another Democratic predecessor, Adlai Stevenson, said: “The hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning.”

The looming irony about the toughness issue is that, after winning the nomination, Obama will have to confront John McCain in what will be a two-front war. McCain, not needing to show cojones as Clinton has been doing, will take the high road on personal issues, even as 527 ads swiftboat Obama's past associations. Obama will have to stand up to McCain, while continuing to express personal admiration, but make the case that a new kind of leadership is required in a world that has made McCain's stubborn strength obsolete.

It won't be a dull campaign.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Funny Thing About Global Warming...

Those who worry about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other wonky Al Gore stuff should lighten up. President Bush is on the case. He held a Rose Garden press conference this week and reassured us, “I’m pleased to say that we remain on track to meet this goal."

For the scientifically challenged, Gail Collins explains it all today in the New York Times:

"Suppose that two years after taking office, George W. Bush discovered that because of the stress of his job, he had gained 40 pounds and was tipping the scales at 220.

"The real-world Bush would immediately barricade himself in the White House gym, refusing all human contact or nourishment until the issue was resolved. But imagine that he regarded getting fat as seriously as he regards melting glaciers, rising oceans and drought and starvation around the planet. In that case, he would set a serious, management-type goal--of, say, an 18 percent reduction in the rate at which he was gaining weight, to be reached within the next decade.

"Cut to the Rose Garden in 2008 where partial victory is declared.'Over the past seven years, my administration has taken a rational, balanced approach to these serious challenges,' the 332-pound chief executive announces. He delivers this good news sitting down.

"2012: Bush hits his final goal and 400 pounds at approximately the same time."

Of course, Bush won't be in office then, but it’s the principle that counts, so we can start breathing easier.

The Politics of Starvation

The growing world food crisis looks like a montage in a disaster movie--crowd scenes of hungry rioters in Haiti, Egypt and Africa's Ivory Coast; close-ups of emaciated mothers holding out starving children to anyone who will feed them; well-fed gray men in paneled rooms clucking impotently.

Before the World Bank meeting last weekend, president Robert Zoellick talked about the growing emergency caused by doubling wheat and rice prices in the past year. "While many are worrying about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs and it's getting more and more difficult everyday,” he said.

But at the meeting, nothing was done. An official of the International Monetary Fund observed that "the best sort of response is to allow market forces to operate, to allow prices to rise so that there can be a supply response."

To his credit, President Bush acted more forcefully by releasing $200 million in emergency food aid and promising to do more. But in Congress, a farm bill that could alleviate hunger in the US with food stamps and nutrition programs is tied up by political wrangling as members stuff it with provisions to help breeders of race horses and farmers in law suits over the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Meanwhile, the disaster movie keeps unreeling, and the only way for onlookers to change the script is by supporting organizations like Oxfam, Bread for the World and the UN's World Food Programme--and letting members of Congress know that, if they don't act responsibly, they may have to look elsewhere for their own bread and butter after November.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The McCains' Monied Modesty

We know many millions Hillary and Bill Clinton made (109 in eight years), but the family finances of John and Cindy McCain are none of our business, thank you very much.

In releasing the Senator's tax returns today, his campaign tells us: "Since the beginning of their marriage, Senator McCain and Mrs. McCain have always maintained separate finances. As required by federal law and Senate rules, Mrs. McCain has released significant and extensive financial information through Senate and Presidential disclosure forms. In the interest of protecting the privacy of her children, Mrs. McCain will not be releasing her personal tax returns."

So we are allowed to know that, for 2007, Senator McCain paid $84,460 in federal income taxes on taxable income of $258,800.

It's comforting to know that the McCain children's privacy is being protected. Chelsea Clinton is a grownup, and the Obama children don't stand to inherit all that much, unless their father loses this year and writes more best-sellers and goes on a lecture tour, so their financial privacy is not of such urgent concern.

Teaching Tony Curtis to Be Suave

At 82, he's still a star but not in the grand style, which never did fit Bernie Schwartz from the Bronx, as he goes down memory lane for the Guardian:

"He's rounder in the face than he was, his once-magnificent hair is now a pale white fuzz and he's a little more rotund than you'd expect, but once you get him rolling, he's all bada-bing, whatcha lookin' at me for! He's still a kid in all the best ways, and glimpses of the star of masterpieces such as Sweet Smell of Success and Some Like It Hot are still readily available."

In "Some Like It Hot," Tony Curtis did a Cary Grant impression to woo Marilyn Monroe. The year before, in 1958, I had given him a little lesson in how to be suave.

As the new editor of Redbook, I had met his then-wife Janet Leigh, who was not happy with a cover story about Tony we had just run under the title, "I Grew Up Stealing." But she relented to the point of an invitation to visit them on a trip to Hollywood the following month.

My wife, new baby and I arrived at their Beverly Hills mansion with a circular driveway full of antique cars. Inside, we met the children, a sweet little girl named Kelly and a baby sister, Jamie Lee. As Janet took my wife on a tour of the house, Tony took me aside.

He gave me an abashed Bernie Schwartz smile and admitted he didn't know to make the martini my wife had asked for. I gave him a demonstration of the fine art of handling gin, vermouth and lemon peel, a social skill he would put to good use in the following decades as an international movie star.

Being handsome, he tells his Guardian interviewer, took him out of Depression poverty into the good life. But along the way, he learned a thing or two about acting and enough about paintings to impress the Museum of Modern Art. Those Bronx kids knew how to make the most of their opportunities.

The Heartbreak of David Brooks

Eighteen months ago, he wrote a New York Times column headed "Run Barack Run." Today he tells us "How Obama Fell to Earth." Between the two is a sad tale of political puppy love, infatuation and disillusion.

In October 2006, David Brooks swooned over a figure who could "move beyond the political style of the baby boom generation...that is highly moralistic and personal, dividing people between who is good and who is bad...He distrusts righteous anger and zeal. He does not demonize his opponents."

Today an older but wiser Brooks finds that "voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry’s windsurfing or John Edwards’s haircut as clues about shared values."

Ah, the broken dreams of idealistic youth! Brooks has gone from sighing that a potential "president who brings a deliberative style to the White House will multiply his knowledge, not divide it" to grumbling over Obama's "grand and cynical promises that are the sign of someone who is thinking more about campaigning than governing."

Sadly, young Brooks is learning that politics makes cynics of us all, particularly someone who in 2000 was burbling that George W. Bush is "deep down, a very nice guy who likes people."

Today, Brooks concludes, "Welcome to 2008. Everybody’s miserable." Especially those of us who fall in and out of love so easily.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

To Make Memorial Day Memorable

In 1969, over Memorial Day, Life Magazine devoted an issue to pictures of 242 American soldiers who had died in Vietnam in a recent week. While the nation, the editors said, was being "numbed" by a "statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who."

It made the country stop and think. This Memorial Day, the best way to honor the dead of all America's wars would be to look at those who died in Iraq and see them as people, not statistics.

On a cable news network or PBS, at the rate of one every ten seconds, it would take more than 11 hours to bring their faces, names and home towns to the TV screens of American homes.

Doing so would not be a political statement, but a reminder as concrete as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington of the human meaning of the words "sacrifice" and "honor."

Deep in the bowels of the New York Times' web site, the faces are now there in a composite for those who want to seek them out, but they deserve to be seen everywhere, however fleetingly, to bring the war home on Memorial Day.

Amid the usual speeches, parades and flag-waving, it would make the holiday truly meaningful this year.

Laughing It Off

As David Brooks blogs that "issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall," Gail Collins, bless her, provides the best tonic for the general dismay about last night's debate.

In her New York Times column, she writes:

"I know it’s been a hard couple of weeks, people. You were all excited about this election and now you feel like someone who got all dressed up for a great event and wound up at a B-list party with a cash bar. You never want to hear the words 'bitter' or 'Bosnia' again. And the only political story that you’ve really enjoyed lately is the one about Cindy McCain’s list of favorite recipes being cribbed from The Food Network...

"The problem with primaries is that without real policy disagreements, if you want to prove you’re better than your opponent it has to get personal. Barack and Hillary are dying to take on John McCain. They can’t wait to fight with somebody who thinks Iraq is a good idea.

"In a great debate breakthrough, Hillary said she thought that while she was the best candidate, Barack could beat the Republicans, too: 'Yes, yes, yes.' This is definitely a new conclusion on the part of the Clinton campaign, arrived at under extreme duress and the presence of network TV cameras, but the Democrats can use all the amity they can get.

"Five more days and then it’s on to the next primary. Let’s try not to say anything insulting about Guam."

And stay away from networks that treat a presidential campaign as a grade-school food fight.

How Not to Stage a Debate

The geniuses at ABC TV did everything wrong, spending the first hour of the Democratic debate on nasty trivia, butchering the continuity of both hours with endless commercials and having their moderators badger the candidates to the point of interrupting their answers to argue with them.

For fully half the time, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos harped on Jeremiah Wright and sniper fire in Bosnia, adding to the ugly mix a former member of the Weather Underground with a marginal connection to Obama. The premise seemed to be that Republicans would run a Karl Rovian smear campaign against one of them in the fall, so why not preview it now?

Obama protested that American voters would not succumb to those tactics in a year when they faced serious problems, but Clinton seemed eager enough to roll in the mud under the high-minded pretense of discussing "character."

In the second hour, when the questions became substantive, on Iraq and the economy, Hillary Clinton was at her sure-handed best while Obama gave cogent enough answers but seemed a little weary of suppressing his anger and dealing with Gibson's gotcha questioning.

The dismal two hours started with a suggestion from Mario Cuomo, the best president we never had, that the candidates promise now to run on the same ticket, regardless of who wins. They refused, of course, but if the campaign continues along the lines set by ABC last night, it might be impossible to get them into the same room by convention time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Home-Foreclosure Picnic

Hearts aching for millions of Americans in danger of losing their homes, the Senate has been working hard on the Foreclosure Prevention Act, which will provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for airlines, automakers, alternative energy producers and home builders.

As they always do, lobbyists have been hijacking the bill that has bipartisan support in an economic crisis to lard it with help for their clients, everybody but homeowners.

“The Senate legislation gave corporations and Wall Street billions in tax breaks,” the president of the Laborers International Union of North America said at a news conference yesterday. “Tax breaks for corporate home builders won’t help stabilize the housing market, won’t create jobs and won’t prevent a single foreclosure.”

In the House, New York's Charles Rangel is pushing a bill to give tax breaks to first-time home buyers, but the realtors lobby would like it to apply to all buyers as would the National Association of Home Builders, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Council of Federal Home Loan Banks.

Meanwhile, the only help beleaguered home owners are getting is from some states and cities. "This month alone," the Washington Post reports, "Philadelphia's sheriff delayed foreclosure auctions of 759 homes...Maryland extended the time it takes to complete a foreclosure. State leaders in Ohio recruited more than 1,000 lawyers to aid distressed borrowers."

Nine states have committed more than $450 million to loan funds to refinancing mortgages of at-risk borrowers, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Some have brokered deals with lenders to ease terms for troubled loans. A few states have lengthened the time it takes for foreclosure.

When they face the voters this fall, members of Congress may have trouble figuring out why some of them are so...bitter.

No News from Iraq

When Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker left Washington last week, they took the war with them, at least as far as the news media are concerned. Things have been happening in Iraq, all of them bad, but you have to look hard to see past the Clinton-Obama-McCain war of words to find out about them.

Violence is spiking again, with Sunni insurgents joining the Shiites in causing carnage. Car bombs killed at least 60 people yesterday, the most deadly of them at a restaurant in "safe" Anbar province. In Baghdad, another targeted a convoy carrying the director of police affairs.

In Sadr City, a company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions, despite pleas from American forces to hold the line against Shiite militias. This happened a day after the Iraqi government announced it had fired 1,300 soldiers and policemen for refusing to fight during the Maliki-ordered offensive last month in Basra.

Meanwhile, as the candidates back here bicker about Barack Obama's perceived insult to small towns, there is some discussion about what the $1 to $3 trillion war is costing American life, but most of that is going on behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, the icasualties web site, after what is described as "a malicious attack" on its server, reports that 25 American troops have died in Iraq so far this month, a number that is slowly rising toward pre-Surge levels.

But none of that is making much news. The Petraeus-Crocker show satisfied our curiosity about Iraq so we can concentrate on the Presidential campaign and the Pope's visit.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Zero: A Memory

They're showing the original of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" on Turner Classic Movies tonight with Zero Mostel, an actor of comic genius. In 1943, we were in basic training together in South Carolina, and he gave me one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

The country boys in my company were excited by anything exotic and, given their lives before induction, it took little to tickle them. One day they were chortling over a guy in the next battalion named Zero.

He had been at City College a decade before me and in the 1940s was getting known in Manhattan night clubs for political satire that would later fail to amuse the House Un-American Activities Committee. The night I looked him up, Zero was on his way to becoming the pear-shaped presence that years later would charge around a Broadway stage and turn into a rhinoceros.

Sitting on his bunk, field jacket zipped to the throat, his big head seemed to be resting on a bulging bag of laundry. He was in his late twenties, but his eyes were a thousand years old. When I told him I was from the Bronx, he grabbed me as if I were a pastrami sandwich.

We went into town Saturday night to the Spartanburg USO, where local ladies entertained with doughnuts, coffee and Southern charm, and the troops entertained back however they could. When the hostesses heard Zero was a professional performer, they pushed him to the stage. I sat in the front row, happily awaiting my share of the attention he would be getting.

Zero slouched up to the microphone with a shy smile and a glint in his eye, gathered his bulk, fixed his face into a scowl and suddenly emitted the roar of a deep Southern demagogue. To this audience of dewy damsels and redneck recruits, he was offering his rendition of Senator Pellagra T. Polltax, a raging parody of the Mississippi racist, Theodore Bilbo.

As Zero flung his arms in all directions and turned up the angry rant about niggers and kikes, I slid down in my seat, looking for an exit.

By the time he finished, I was crouching near the floor. Through the startled silence, I heard the start of a low rumble, and I sprinted to the stage where Zero was beaming and bowing, grabbed his elbow and shoved him through a door toward the bus that would carry us, untarred and unfeathered, back to camp. On the ride Zero seemed relaxed, a small smile on his face. We never went to the USO again.

The Foundering Fathers

HBO has made John Adams a lot less lovable than Tony Soprano and, despite all the critical tiptoeing around it, picked a poor time to demythologize the making of the American miracle.

In this week's next-to-last installment, a sour, surly Adams slips out of a half-finished, half-furnished White House to board a crowded jitney and avoid attending the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, a former friend he has come to envy and despise.

This is a typical moment in seven hours of relentless "realism" to offset a century of Hollywood biopics that glorified the Founding Fathers beyond human recognition and now attempts to balance the books by presenting them warts and all but ends up with a visually spectacular exhibition of warts.

It was only in middle age that, as a child of immigrants, I fell deeply in love with the makers of the American Revolution while touring the stately homes of England to view huge tapestries celebrating ancestral slaughter that created a ruling aristocracy who passed along generations of splendor to a few who live at the expense of misery for the many.

Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin fought a war to escape all that and, by some miracle, found a way not to replicate it but create something magnificently new in history that endures to this day.

That they were vain, petty, self-seeking--in a word, human--is not surprising, but a televised tapestry of their faults is no more a cause for self-congratulation than the wall hangings in those palaces built on exploitation.

What the magnificent Laura Linney as Abigail Adams keeps warning about in pillow talk would have been helpful to the producers of the HBO epic. "Ambition," she keeps saying sadly. "Vanity."

Recession Rolls On

As Americans mail in tax returns and wait for their economic stimulus checks, they will find fewer places to spend the money when it arrives. Retail chains are closing stores and going out of business in the face of declining sales and mounting debt, the New York Times reports:

"Since last fall, eight mostly midsize chains--as diverse as the furniture store Levitz and the electronics seller Sharper Image--have filed for bankruptcy protection...

"But the troubles are quickly spreading to bigger national companies, like Linens ‘n Things, the bedding and furniture retailer with 500 stores in 47 states...

"Even retailers that can avoid bankruptcy are shutting down stores to preserve cash through what could be a long economic downturn. Over the next year, Foot Locker said it would close 140 stores, Ann Taylor will start to shutter 117 and the jeweler Zales will close 100."

As food prices rise at a record rate and gasoline prices keep climbing, they crowd out other purchases--people are spending less on furniture, clothing and electronics. As jobs disappear in these contracting companies, the recession may worsen and snowball beyond the pathetic efforts of a clueless Congress and President to affect them.

Meanwhile, billions of American dollars keep disappearing into the sinkhole of Iraqi corruption. At least business is booming at banks in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

Obama's Defining Moment

Tomorrow night's debate in Philadelphia could be the turning point. If he is the masterful politician he seems to be, Barack Obama will seize the moment to rise above the squabbling and bickering to define himself for American voters.

Just as he broadened the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha into a statement about race in America in that same hall, Obama can use his "small town" misstep to address directly the doubts that exist and are being exacerbated about him and re-frame the issue of his trustworthiness.

In response, he can acknowledge understandable skepticism on the part of Americans who were told eight years ago that George W. Bush was a compassionate conservative who would not embark on nation-building, only to get a president with no empathy for their needs, a radical agenda to enrich the richest and a reckless foreign policy that would destroy another nation and squander our blood, treasure and reputation in the world trying to put it back together again.

Voters, Obama can point out, thought they were making a safe choice in selecting a familiar name and reassuring promises from a comforting source. Now they are being asked to give their trust to a dark-skinned man with an odd name and exotic roots who, they are being told, is "elitist" and "out of touch" with them.

But which is the greater gamble at this low point of Americans' confidence in their future? More of the same or trusting someone whose judgement has thus far turned out to be sound and whose promise of change is not encumbered with a history of business-as-usual in Washington?

Playing it safe, Obama can truthfully tell Americans, is the biggest gamble of all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Small-Town, Small-Time Politics

By now, Barack Obama has learned to avoid sociological commentary during a presidential campaign, after unleashing the Clinton-McCain attack dogs with his observations at a San Francisco fund-raiser.

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest," he said, "the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them... And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

McCain's spokesman pounced: "It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."

Hillary Clinton was shocked, shocked and evoked her own Lincolnesque, Annie Oakley childhood, recalling how her father taught her how to shoot when she was a young girl and her faith as "the faith of my parents and my grandparents,” presumably unlike that of you-know-who's Muslim forebears.

The Clinton and McCain little houses on the prairie in Chappaqua and upscale Arizona are a rebuke to the Obamas' elitist life style in Chicago and should serve as a reminder to the candidate to stay in touch with the realities that voters face every day.

No matter how bad things get in Bush America, it's not a good idea to knock guns or God, especially with Charlton Heston still warm in his grave.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ending an Era of American Impotence

Those ubiquitous commercials for Cialis, Levitra, etc. may be telling us more about our national psyche than just the state of the male libido.

Put together with surveys showing sagging confidence in the institutions of power, they present a picture of American impotence--to either win or get out of a hopeless war, to rebuild after a natural disaster or deal with hard times. (Is Congress' stimulus bill any more than a weak dose of economic Viagra?)

Years of a smirking, swaggering George W. Bush who has failed to perform where it counts have taken a toll on American life. To compensate, he has surrounded himself with Cheney's Neo-Cons, whose judgement has been clouded by seven-year erections for which they have failed to find satisfaction or seek medical attention.

Now the political party that gave us all this is offering an aging macho figure who promises to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell but can't seem to find his way around the factions in Iraq.

In offering a non-belligerent younger man and/or a woman, Democrats may be onto something--empowering Americans with the sense that real strength comes, not from blustering and bullying, but using empathy and understanding to form real connections in the world.

We don't need pills for that.

Odd Couple: Ahmadinejad and Cheney

This week the President of Iran was strutting around his nation's main uranium enrichment facility, claiming installation of 6,000 new centrifuges in addition to the existing 3,000 there--an ill-advised nose-thumbing gesture in the direction of the US and Israel.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a chronic sufferer from the need for attention on the world stage, who has been in remission since his visit to the UN last fall. With this latest turn for the TV cameras, he is showing symptoms of an acute and, for his regime, possibly life-threatening new outbreak.

Dick Cheney immediately made the diagnosis on right-wing talk radio. The Iranian President, he told Sean Hannity, is "a very dangerous man" who "has repeatedly stated that he wants to destroy Israel" and believes that "the highest honor that can befall a man is that he should die a martyr in facilitating the return of the 12th Imam. It's a radical, radical point of view."

Dr. Cheney's cure would involve surgery, military action against Iran before the end of the year, a treatment thus far successfully opposed by Bush's Secretaries of Defense and State, who favor sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

But Ahmadinejad's antics are encouraging Cheney's Neo-Cons, who take heart from William Kristol's report of his Bush interview this week suggesting the President hinted that military action against Iran was "not out of the question."

Before his earthly departure, Saddam Hussein admitted that he refused to stop bluffing about WMDs to maintain a strategic advantage against Iran. If his former antagonist is now following that course, as he well may be, he is a slow learner.

But one thing is clear: On the subject of lethal madness, Cheney and Ahmadinejad are soulmates at heart.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Bill Clinton on the Couch

Political analysis won't do to explain why the former President is sabotaging his wife's dwindling chances for the Democratic nomination. Call in the shrinks.

Yesterday's Bill Clinton super-whopper revival of Hillary's Bosnia sniper fire story on the campaign trail in Indiana can be explained only by premature political Alzheimer's or an unconscious desire to bring her down. (Eight easily fact-checkable lies in less than a minute must be a record, even for the former Slick Willie.)

When he hurt Hillary with his "rolling the dice" comments to Charlie Rose and accused Obama of telling fairy tales about his opposition to the Iraq war, Bill Clinton might have been excused on the grounds of irrational exuberance.

When he gratuitously dragged race into the campaign after his wife's South Carolina loss by comparing Obama's win to Jesse Jackson's, Clinton could have been forgiven for spousal overreaching.

But rubbing salt into the Bosnia wound to Hillary's campaign just as it was healing takes his mischief-making to a new level that can't be explained by the former President's need for attention or diminished political judgment.

It may be too late, but somebody should put Bill Clinton on the couch and help him figure out why he is undermining the woman who stood by him in his time of crisis. No good deed goes unpunished?

McCain's Surge in the Polls

Suddenly public opinion results show John McCain leading Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton, and they recall the numbers of a year ago when Rudy Giuliani was beating every Republican in sight and Clinton was on her way to a coronation on the Democratic side.

In this long, long pre-election season, the pollsters and pundits should try harder to distinguish between near-term sentiment and electoral viability. Last year's wide Giuliani and Clinton leads turned out to be more about name recognition and TV-like familiarity ratings than serious thought about who would make the best president.

Isn't the current McCain bounce more about the fallout from the Obama-Clinton mud-fighting than about a sudden desire on the part of voters to see McCain in the White House? Have they fallen in love with him or are they just irritated by super-delegates, Michigan, Florida and other Democratic follies? Do these figures mean anything more than last year's did?

The polls we might want to pay attention to now are those that show Americans unhappier about the economy, the war and politicians of both parties than at any time in memory. In November, they will be deciding who has the best answers for their fears and doubts.

Meanwhile, the candidates are making pitches on "American Idol." Fascinating but, as Dick Cheney might say, so?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Iraq Skin Game

Now that President Petraeus and Vice-President Crocker have given us our marching orders, someone named George W. Bush will emerge today at the White House to rubber-stamp them, suspending troop withdrawals after this summer but sweetening the bitter medicine by cutting combat tours back to 12 months.

These actions will bring troop deployment back to where it was at the start of last year, a thousand American deaths and several hundred billions of dollars ago.

Even the good news is illusory. The tour cutbacks will affect only troops sent to Iraq in August or later. As the president of Veterans for America points out, nearly half of the Army's units are now deployed for 15 months and will stay there, making the "hollow announcement...nothing more than political posturing at the expense of our troops."

The net effect of this week's doings, as the New York Times points out quoting "senior administration and military officials" is "a bleak assessment that Iraqi forces remain unprepared to take over the mission of securing their own nation."

John McCain assures Americans the Surge has been a success, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seems closer to the mark in saying that “based on everything we have heard, we can reach only one conclusion: With 160,000 courageous American troops serving in Iraq, President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man--himself--on Jan. 20, 2009.”

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Proof That God Exists

Amid all the evidence that the world is a random hellhole, there is sometimes a small cosmic joke. Consider today's news about Joe Lieberman.

In August 2006, as Connecticut Democrats were preparing to shed his sanctimonious carcass in their party primary, George W. Bush's favorite toady charged that anti-war voters had sabotaged his web site the day before.

Now, the FBI has reluctantly released results of its investigation of this weighty national security matter to the Stamford Advocate:

"(T)he site crashed because Lieberman officials continually exceeded a configured limit of 100 e-mails per hour the night before the primary.

"'The system administrator misinterpreted the root cause,' the memo stated. 'The system administrator finally declared the server was being attacked and the Lieberman campaign accused the Ned Lamont campaign. The news reported this on Aug. 8, 2006, causing additional Web traffic to visit the site.

"'The additional Web traffic then overwhelmed the Web server...Web traffic pattern analysis reports and Web logging that was available did not demonstrate traffic that was indicative of a denial-of-service attack.'"

Sounds perfectly consistant with Sen. Joe's modus operandi in urging a US attack on Iran for the past year.

Boxer's Breakthrough

You have to get to the last two paragraphs of the Washington Post story on yesterday's hearings to learn that Gen. David Petraeus actually heard something one of the US Senators was saying:

"The United States was still funding the roughly 90,000 Sunni security volunteers who Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is reluctant to put on its payroll, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Petraeus. 'I'm just asking you why you would object to asking [Iraq] to pay for that entire program, given all we are giving them in blood and everything else.'

"'It is a very fair question,' Petraeus responded, 'and I think that if there's anything that the ambassador and I will take back to Iraq candidly after this morning's session and this afternoon's is, in fact, to ask those kinds of questions more directly.'"

Very noblesse oblige of our Middle East proconsul to acknowledge that, after all those long hours, something actually registered behind that stony stare as the plebians were ranting about his management of the empire's affairs.

If Petraeus asks politely enough, maybe Maliki will also agree to give him some advance notice the next time he decides to play George Washington in Basra and draw us into bailing him out--at our expense, of course.

The Petraeus-Crocker Autocracy

The nation's elected lawmakers of both parties spent yesterday pleading with two bureaucrats to give them some idea of when our young people will stop being killed and maimed thousands of miles from home.

Who empowered David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker to make the judgement that progress in Iraq was “fragile and reversible” and that consideration of any new withdrawals of American troops be delayed until the fall?

If George W. Bush has delegated these powers to two unelected employees of the US government, he is in dereliction of his duty as President. Why isn't he answering the questions and being held to account for over 4000 lives and billions of dollars? And why is Congress acceding to his budget demands as if they had no choice but to do exactly what he wants when he is not doing what the Constitution requires him to do?

Where is the public outrage over this charade of how government should work? Where are the protesters who should be filling the streets? Why are the Democrats who control the legislative branch deferring to this parody of how democracy should work?

While these two factotums try to barter and bribe Iraqis into some semblance of civilized governance, why are they being allowed to make a mockery of our own?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Iraq Farewell Tour

Today, with the next President among the questioners, the stars of the Iraq spectacle come to Capitol Hill for their final performance of the Bush era.

Knowing that, unless McCain walks on water in November, the time for an honest reckoning is here, how will David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker face the chasm between Bush intransigence and an Obama (or Clinton) mandate to bring down the curtain?

"Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous," Gen. David Petraeus told Congress last September. "The events of the past six months underscore that point."

But the time for adlibbing is gone, and the two maestros of the Maliki show are going to have to explain the recent misadventure in Basra--the botched offensive against the militias, the mass desertions in the Iraqi forces and the intervention of Iran in temporarily reining in al-Sadr.

Having bought off Sunnis in Anbar, how much will it take to pay off Shiites in Basra, and what are the chances they will stay bought?

The Republicans up for reelection are hearing voters' footsteps. At a hearing last week, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman asked, "How do we get out of this mess?" A colleague, who preferred anonymity, added "We can't just say we're coasting through and waiting for the next president."

After his triumphant tour of past glories, John McCain is still in some imaginary realm, expressing support for the Basra attack but, on Fox News, suggesting that "al-Maliki should have waited until fighting subsided in Mosul.

“Look, I didn’t particularly like the outcome of this thing, but I am convinced that we now have a government that is governing with some effect and a military that is functioning very effectively.”

As the American death toll starts rising again, McCain won't be asking any tough questions today, but the Democrats who expect to take over the White House and expand their control of Congress next year should be insisting on straight answers now.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Least of Obama's Problems

William Kristol, who writes as if he were being paid by the word, today gives us a diary of his recent expense-account travels and reports "that lots of conservatives and Republicans expect Barack Obama to be our next president."

But undaunted, Kristol dredges up "an experienced Democratic operative" who thinks McCain is going to win with this brilliant analysis:

"Obama isn’t growing in stature. Once I thought he could be Jimmy Carter, but now he reminds me more of Michael Dukakis with the flag lapel thing and defending Wright. Plus he doesn’t have a clue how to talk to the middle class. He’s in the Stevenson reform mold out of Illinois, with a dash of Harvard disease thrown in.”

In a close race, Kristol comforts his fellow conservatives, that “dash of Harvard disease” could be the difference.

Comparing Obama, a once-in-a-lifetime political talent, to the clueless Carter and lead-footed Dukakis, is grasping at straws and expecting an electorate, panicky about the economy and worn out by the war, to find McCain's version of Bush Lite irresistible borders on the delusional.

Between now and November, Democrats have hard work to do to assure retaking the White House, but overcoming Obama's Harvardness is not high on the list. After all, the voters didn't hold George W. Bush's Yale background against him, and he proved that a President's college education ia no measure of how he will do in office.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Stupidity Plus

Gen. Tommy Franks was off the mark when he called Douglas Feith the dumbest effing guy on the planet. On 60 Minutes tonight, Feith showed that stupidity alone is not enough to describe a clueless academic intoxicated by power and willing to stoop to intellectual dishonesty that would shame any used-car salesman

"What we did after 9/11," he told Steve Kroft, "was look broadly at the international terrorist network from which the next attack on the United States might come. And we did not focus narrowly only on the people who were specifically responsible for 9/11. Our main goal was preventing the next attack."

"So you're saying," an incredulous Kroft followed up by asking, "you didn't think it was that important to go after the people who were responsible for it--more important to go after people who weren't responsible for it?"

Feith, who helped cook the intelligence to justify the invasion, was pimping his doorstop book that blames everyone else, especially L. Paul Bremer, who ran the Iraq occupation for the first two years, for the ensuing fiasco.

If he had had his way, Feith claims, he would have turned the country over to con man Ahmad Chalabi, who fed him and his Neo-Con rubes $33 million of false information to lie us into the war.

Dumb isn't enough. Try shameless, arrogant and deceitful. There is at least one like him on most campuses. Just our luck that this specimen ended up in Rumsfeld's Defense Department.

Death by Blogging

"In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop" reads the headline in today's New York Times for a report on "digital sweatshops" that evoke images of a century ago that led to the rise of unions to protect exploited factory workers.

The documentation is scant, but the idea will nonetheless appeal to a population of writers with a congenital need to see and expose hidden evil forces in society:

"A growing work force of home-office laborers and entrepreneurs, armed with computers and smartphones and wired to the hilt, are toiling under great physical and emotional stress created by the around-the-clock Internet economy that demands a constant stream of news and comment.

"Of course, the bloggers can work elsewhere, and they profess a love of the nonstop action and perhaps the chance to create a global media outlet without a major up-front investment. At the same time, some are starting to wonder if something has gone very wrong. In the last few months, two among their ranks have died suddenly..."

The piece is a throwback to the Vance Packard school of journalism of half a century ago, when excitable writers strung together a few anecdotes and statistics to agitate readers with best-sellers such as "The Hidden Persuaders," "The Status Seekers" and "The Waste Makers."

The net effect, one publisher noted back then, was to alarm the public at the discovery that society is organized.

It would be heartless to minimize the stress that some full-time bloggers feel, but there is something odd about finding a dark side to what is a labor of love and a form of self-expression that was not available to previous generations.

Better pay and working hours for piecework bloggers, by all means, but MSM like the Times may want to concentrate on recognizing and honoring their efforts rather than drumming up sob stories about them.