Monday, June 30, 2008

A No-Sweat Win for the Environment

At the start of the thirst season, the US Conference of Mayors has struck a blow for American consumers and the quality of air they breathe by agreeing to stop buying bottled water.

Recognizing that the oil used to distill water, make plastic containers and ship them over long distances rivals the energy spent and pollution caused by gas-guzzling cars, the mayors approved a resolution to redirect taxpayer dollars from bottled water to other city services.

"Cities are sending the wrong message about the quality of public water," says San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, "when we spend taxpayer dollars on water in disposable containers from a private corporation. Our public water systems are among the best in the world and demand significant and ongoing investment."

In a report on the absurdity of the situation, the Washington Post reports, "Trillions of dollars have been spent to get clean drinking water to people at virtually no cost--and it is people in precisely these countries who seem willing to pay premiums of 1,000 percent to 10,000 percent...(T)he bottled-water trade makes selling snow to Eskimos sound like a reasonable business proposition."

More than 60 mayors have reportedly canceled contracts for bottled water and, if enough Americans start tapping their own faucets and using the money they have been wasting on what they really need, both the environment and the economy will benefit.

The Way We Live Now

Beyond the headlines, we occasionally get "soft" news about how the post-9/11 world really is, as we do today in disturbing narratives about the unseen wars in Iran and Pakistan--patterns of secrets and lies that Americans and their representatives in Washington either don't know or want to talk about publicly.

In the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh details a new "major escalation of covert operations against Iran...designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership" as part of a literal tug of war in the White House and Congress on how to deal with the nuclear threat from Tehran.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports "a secret plan to make it easer for the Pentagon’s Special Operations forces to launch missions into the snow-capped mountains of Pakistan to capture or kill top leaders of Al Qaeda," a plan that exists only on paper as a result of Washington indecision and in-fighting.

Until the Bush Administration departs next January, it will be easy enough to blame all this dangerous confusion on their certified bunglers, but how well will successors of either party in a country that prides itself on government transparency be equipped to navigate this shadowy world of shifting alliances among violent splinter groups?

In Iran, the M.E.K., which has been on the State Department’s terrorist list for a decade, is receiving arms and intelligence, from the US, a Pentagon consultant tells Hersh, even though "its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years" and "it is almost useless for the purposes the Administration intends.”

In Pakistan, after being swindled by Pervez Musharraf for years, the US wants to be more aggressive in going after terrorists there but, according to the Times, "With Qaeda operatives now described in intelligence reports as deeply entrenched in the tribal areas and immersed in the civilian population, there is also a view among some military and CIA officials that the opportunity for decisive American action against the militants may have been lost."

Meanwhile, Hersh tells CNN, Congress has authorized up to $400 million to fund the secret campaign in Iran, which involves US special operations troops and Iranian dissidents.

As the Bush Administration tries to throw "Hail Mary" passes before it leaves the field and the candidates confidently promise new approaches to dealing with terrorism, there is a sinking feeling that this is the way we are going to be living for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mission Unaccomplished

"OK, we're in Baghdad, what next?"

Before the invasion, an Army commander asked that question and never got an answer, according to a new 700-page study by the Army itself based on 200 interviews by military historians with active or recently retired officers on what went wrong in Iraq after the man in a flight jacket stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare victory.

In what amounts to the non-Rumsfeld story of the disaster, we finally get first-hand accounts of the making of a quagmire, and it is not a pretty picture.

“The Army, as the service primarily responsible for ground operations, should have insisted on better Phase IV [postwar] planning and preparations through its voice on the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” the study notes. “The military means employed were sufficient to destroy the Saddam regime; they were not sufficient to replace it with the type of nation-state the United States wished to see in its place."

The Bush Administration, the Pentagon and its Iraq commander, Gen. Tommy Franks were plentifully supplied with wishes but short of methods to realize them. Disregarding one proposal that called for 300,000 soldiers to secure postwar Iraq, they deployed half as many and were in a rush to reduce even that number during “an abbreviated period of stability operations."

“In line with the prewar planning and general euphoria at the rapid crumbling of the Saddam regime," the report says, "Franks continued to plan for a very limited role for U.S. ground forces in Iraq.”

Behind all this was the genius of Defense Secretary Don Rumseld who kept smugly assuring Americans that it would all be fine. "As you know," he told the troops, "you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want."

Meanwhile, we now learn, the Army itself was finding out otherwise. Maybe when Rumsfeld gets around to publishing his memoirs, he'll tell them how they got it all wrong.

The Incredibly Shrinking Former President

Day by day, Bill Clinton is inducing more nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, whose post-presidency was a dignified retreat into Alzheimer's and public silence.

As Hillary and Barack do their reconciliation dance in New Hampshire, here is the former Leader of the Free World having a temper tantrum in London, telling friends that Obama will "have to kiss my ass" to get his support for the campaign.

This charming image evokes memories of previous anatomical inappropriateness on the part of the man for whom bands used to play "Hail to the Chief" but is now, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "in a self-pitying meltdown about not being Elvis anymore, trying to shake down Obama for more--more apologies for perceived snubs and more help paying off the $22 million Clinton debt."

Even Joe Klein, who must have thought he was telling the worst about the pre-presidential Clinton in "Primary Colors," seems taken aback.

"It's time for him to get over it," Klein says "or go off and do his charitable work. He knows the rules of the road. What's going on now is kind of strange. I think his behavior is really, really shocking."

In the 2000 campaign, Al Gore was criticized for keeping Bill Clinton in the closet. At the rate the former President's stature is shrinking these days, Barack Obama would be well-advised to try to keep him out of the continent.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Personal Farewell to Arms

Just before I turned 19, my country put a rifle in my hands and taught me how to use it. As an inexperienced city boy, I eventually learned how to unbolt it, release the barrel from the stock and remove the metal innards. Putting it back together was torture but, after a while, my hands took over even as my mind went blank.

Toward the end of basic training, as recruits sat on khaki blankets in a large hall, a sergeant ordered us to take apart our rifles and reassemble them in one minute--with our eyes closed.

As he counted down, I managed to pull out and put together a few pieces, but time was almost gone and I could hear disapproving footsteps and I knew the non-commissioned officers were shaking their heads. Sitting up, the wooden rifle stock between my legs, I fumbled to fit the barrel to it and slam home the bolt.

Just at the count of sixty, it all came together and I felt an overwhelming whoosh inside my thighs. At the age of 19, I was having my first conscious orgasm in carnal knowledge of a Garand M-1 rifle.

Three years later, after carrying my new friend through France, Germany and Austria without shooting anyone face to face, I turned it in but brought home a souvenir pistol taken from a German officer.

It remained on a closet shelf, wrapped and unloaded, for years until my children were old enough to start showing curiosity about it.

Forty years ago, I used my Army training to disassemble the weapon and then take a long walk through Manhattan streets, dropping parts of it into a dozen garbage bins more than a mile apart.

Somehow I've managed to keep my family safe without firearms ever since.

The Unity Party Is Over

The too-muchness was overwhelming--too many smiles and hugs, too much arm-waving, too much cheering--above all, too much calculated color in a sequence out of a 1930s' movie in the early days of Technicolor.

For Gail Collins, it evoked her generation's "Field of Dreams": "The symbolism was obviously supposed to stretch way, way beyond mere unity. Think the signing of the Magna Carta. Or that baseball movie with Kevin Costner. If you concede it, they will come."

After a year and a half of sturm und drang, Democrats can be forgiven for crass celebration, but the aftertaste is that of an over-planned children's party with nervous parents providing too much sweets, too many balloons, too many games.

After an overdose of clichés and platitudes, now comes the grownup part--inducing Hillary diehards to sign on and really mean it, coming to terms with the political Obama who is emerging from behind the Great Oz screen.

For a reality check on the former, try clicking on the justsaynodeal and hillaryis44 web sites. No smiles, balloons or cheering there.

More critical is how fast and how far will Obama enthusiasts go in accepting the fact that he is no longer a visionary figure but a practical politician who will disappoint some of them by negotiating his way through campaign finance, FISA, gun control and other minefields on the path to the presidency.

It was a great children's party, but from now to November, it's going to be grownup time.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Gun-Nut Gap

Our national schizophrenia on firearms defies rational explanation. In the wake of yesterday's Supreme Court decision, both presidential candidates and, according to public opinion polls, most voters believe in "the right to bear arms."

Yet only one out of three Americans owns a gun and, after mass murders like Virginia Tech, there is an upsurge of grief and outrage at the easy availability of deadly weapons.

Somehow, there is a disconnection between the idea of guns and the reality of what they do that can't be explained away by NRA lobbying or the fierce protestations of "gun nuts."

How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction that many of those who believe in preserving the life of fetuses are just as passionate about the right to own weapons that kill human beings after birth?

By now we are inured to arguments such as that in a "liberal elite" New York Times editorial today:

"This is a decision that will cost innocent lives, cause immeasurable pain and suffering and turn America into a more dangerous country. It will also diminish our standing in the world, sending yet another message that the United States values gun rights over human life."

Many of us agree with that, but there is no justification for feeling morally superior to those who deny it if we can't find a way to talk about that basic human difference without demonizing each other.

Death in the Neo-Con Family

Another member of the Axis of Evil expired today in the explosion of a North Korean nuclear cooling tower, and Washington mourners are taking it hard. Dick Cheney, inconsolable, has retreated into stony silence but John Bolton, voluble as ever, is carrying on about the "shameful" loss of another Neo-Con offspring.

The Vice President, grief-stricken at the terrorism de-listing of North Korea, reportedly left a meeting of foreign-policy experts after being asked about the news.

“I’m not going to be the one to announce this decision,” Cheney said, pointing at himself before departing. “You need to address your interest in this to the State Department.”

With Evil on life support in Iraq, the loss of another Conservative whipping boy leaves only Iran as a survivor of the triplets born during President Bush's State of the Union speech in January 2002.

If Israel makes good on Bolton's prediction of an attack on Tehran after our November elections, the Bush Administration may leave office in January childless, sloganwise.

McCain's Laid-Back Lassitude

After breathing fire in the early Republican primaries ("I will follow bin Laden to the gates of hell and I will get him!"), John McCain is being positively soft-spoken these days in accusing Barack Obama of flip-flopping on campaign finance, gun control and other issues. (Insomniacs could use his YouTube clips as sleep aids.)

Is he channeling Fred Thompson, whose professionally low-key performance was meant to suggest mature self-confidence but made him look as if he were running for president from a Barcalounger?

It's a good idea to offer a contrast to the Bush-Cheney imperial presidency style, but McCain's lassitude may only exacerbate the issue of his age and possibly diminished energy.

"John McCain Doesn't Work Weekends," says a new Politico post, pointing out that he has "done little to capture media attention on weekends for nearly five months," spending much of the time at home.

Now that gender is off the electoral table this year and race is out in the open, the McCain campaign will have to take steps to deal with the age issue by having their man show more get-up-and-go.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Rules for American Shootouts

If your neighbor has been firing automatic weapons at squirrels after midnight, Antonin Scalia is willing to think about whether or not he is breaking the law.

"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," the Justice wrote in today's 5-4 Supreme Court decision striking down the District of Columbia's strict ban on gun ownership. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

Otherwise: "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to protect a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that arm for traditionally lawful proposes, such as self-defense within the home," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, made up of Bush appointees Thomas, Roberts and Alito, along with the swing vote of Ronald Reagan's farewell gift to the Court, Anthony Kennedy.

"Unconnected with service in a militia" is the phrase that will open the door to challenges of gun laws everywhere, nullifying centuries of acceptance of the clear wording of the Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Before the Bushes, America was a country that did not wage preemptive wars abroad or encourage homeowners to take up arms at the slightest provocation. If the 21st century is not going to be a replay of the Wild West, voters will have to elect a President to appoint future Justices who agree with dissenting John Paul Stevens:

"The opinion the court announces today fails to identify any new evidence supporting the view that the amendment was intended to limit the power of Congress to regulate civilian uses of weapons."

If you hear gunfire late at night, pull down the shades and, before calling the police, check with Justice Scalia for an opinion.

$5 a Gallon

It isn't Enron this time, but there are hands in American consumers' pockets as gasoline prices keep rising.

While politicians argue about offshore drilling, miracle batteries and the health benefits of bicycling, at least half of the increase is going to "petro- manipulators," as Timothy Egan dubs them in his New York Times blog, citing the phony energy crisis of seven summers ago:

"The price of energy spiked--tenfold, a hundredfold-- despite low demand. Californians became the most efficient users of power in the nation, and still suffered through dozens of rolling blackouts...caused by manipulation by Enron and other speculators who gamed a faulty system, sticking it to Grandma Millie while laughing at how easy it was to rob 40 million people."

Parallels to today? "Take away the excess speculators who are in the market purely for the ride, and oil prices could drop by half. That’s the view of Michael W. Masters, a hedge fund manager who’s been advising Congress this year.

“'There are no lines at the gas pumps and there is plenty of food on the shelves,' said Masters, whose testimony has been widely discussed in financial circles but rarely in the political realm. What has changed, he said, is the presence of big speculators making futures bets."

On the PBS News Hour this week, oil experts compared energy-price ballooning to the earlier market bubble, attributing half of it to hedge funds as well as "the doctor, the lawyer that has the disposable income that's plowing money into the index funds."

Without the commodities casino, one pointed out, Wall Street in December was forecasting oil in 2008 at $85 to $95 a barrel rather than the $135-plus of today. The difference is essentially a "speculative bubble."

As the White House and presidential candidates cluck about our pain at the pump and offer economic aspirins to ease it, voters should know where and how most of the real injury is being inflicted

'08 Spoiler Alert

He wants to be the Ralph Nader of 2008, but the fact that Bob Barr has already filled the position is not deterring him.

The Spoiler of 2000, who originally said he would run because he hates the Clintons, is now accusing Barack Obama of trying to "talk white." From anyone but today's loony Nader, that might be seen as racist, but it's hard to take umbrage at someone who has talked himself into the shadows of history but refuses to go quietly.

In what amounts to a political obituary, the Washington Post limns the pathetic figure Ralph Nader has become, noting that a biographer "searched for evidence of Nader's personal life and came up with nothing. Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist, called Nader 'a rebel without a life.'"

Meanwhile, Bob Barr has taken up Ron Paul's mantle as the Libertarian scourge and is threatening to cause serious damage to the Republicans, perhaps doing to McCain in Georgia this year what Nader did back then to Al Gore in Florida.

Barr, a former House member who disappeared without trace, was in the spotlight briefly as the relentless Inspector Javert of the Clinton impeachment, who later filed a $30 million lawsuit against the former President, James Carville and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for causing him "emotional distress" in retaliation.

But this year he is hounding Republicans by getting on the ballot in 30 states, with petition drives under way in 20 others. In close races, he could bring McCain down.

This year, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have shown that almost anyone can run for president. Nader and Barr are proving you don't even have to be certifiably sane to do it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Clinton's Clincher for Obama

As they begin their unity tour this week, Hillary Clinton has a powerful argument to win over diehard supporters who resist backing Barack Obama because he kept her from becoming the first woman in the Oval Office.

If John McCain is elected, they can kiss goodbye to Roe v Wade, which has been teetering in the Supreme Court balance since Bush started naming Justices and would surely be overturned in another Republican Administration.

As late as last year, McCain told Tim Russert on Meet the Press: "I have stated time after time after time that Roe v Wade was a bad decision...To me, it's an issue of human rights and human dignity."

So much for pro-choice and the illusions of Independents and disaffected Democrats that, on the overriding issue of women's rights, McCain is not Bush Redux.

Obama ran into flak at the Black Caucus last week for saying, "If women take a moment to realize that on every issue important to women, John McCain is not in their corner, that would help them get over it."

Hillary Clinton can help everyone involved "get over it" by reminding ardent supporters, both men and women, of what could be at stake if they fail to do so.

Bush Legacy: Dung and Dirty Air

In San Francisco, there is a new ballot initiative to name a sewage plant for him, but George W. Bush's farewell gift to the environment may be less solid--strong-arming the EPA to water down its opinion to the Supreme Court on pollutants in the air.

The original answer to a 2007 ruling requiring a report on greenhouse gases and health dangers has been in limbo for six months until the environmental agency removed sections that support regulation, including its judgment that curbing motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over three decades.

According to a senior official quoted by the New York Times, the original EPA report “showed that the Clean Air Act can work for certain sectors of the economy to reduce greenhouse gases. That’s not what the administration wants to show. They want to show that the Clean Air Act can’t work.”

This week, the EPA will tell the Supreme Court that greenhouse gases are a complicated issue involving legal and economic issues that have yet to be resolved and, when Bush departs in January, his final gift will be a reminder of the cleaner air we could have been breathing if an Al Gore presidency hadn't been smothered in infancy by the Court with its 2000 Florida recount decision.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Genius of George W. Bush

In an era of information and ideas moving at the speed of light, the rehabilitation has begun on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over here, David Brooks celebrates Bush's "stubbornness" and asserts that "when it comes to Iraq, Bush was at his worst when he was humbly deferring to the generals and at his best when he was arrogantly overruling them. During that period in 2006 and 2007, Bush stiffed the brass," took the advice of such strategic geniuses as Dick Cheney, John McCain and Lindsey Graham and, lo and behold, the Surge "has produced large, if tenuous, gains."

Before long, Brooks concludes that "the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right." If playing nursemaid to a dysfunctional government, having American troops patrol Baghdad in rolling steel fortresses and spending billions of dollars with no end in sight is getting it right, Brooks may have a point about his "supposed dolt."

On the other side of the ocean, Andrew Roberts of the Telegraph sees Bush as a latter-day Harry Truman "who set the United States on the course that ended decades later in the defeat of Communism.

"If the West wins the modern counterpart of that struggle, the War Against Terror, historians will look back in amazement at the present unpopularity of George W Bush, and marvel at it quite as much as we now marvel at the 67 per cent disapproval rates for Truman throughout 1952."

If, as the saying goes, wishes were horses, we would all be riding in style and George W. Bush would be leading the parade. It's comforting that we may be "misunderestimating" him, but there will be plenty of time to think about that when he is out power and has stopped saving the world.

Bittersweet Iraq Success Story

The good news is that roadside bomb fatalities this month are down by almost 90 percent from the last year, largely as a result of almost 7,000 heavily armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles being rushed to Iraq since then.

The sad news is that four months ago members of Congress were seeking whistle-blower protection for a Pentagon analyst who claimed that hundreds of lives could have been saved if military paper pushers hadn't obstructed delivery of those vehicles three years earlier.

In February, a former Marine official named Franz J. Gayl went public with a report accusing the Corps of "gross mismanagement" in delaying deliveries of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks for more than two years because MRAPs, which cost $1 million each, were a financial threat to programs aimed at developing lighter vehicles that were years away from being fielded.

Hundreds of lives were lost, Gayl asserted, as requests of field commanders were buried in bureaucratic paperwork until Defense Secretary Robert Gates made them the No. 1 priority in 2007 after he replaced Donald Rumsfeld.

Gayl's revelations were greeted with Marine Corps denials. quibbles and promises of investigation.

Sens. Ted Kennedy and Claire McCaskill wrote Commandant James Conway that he seemed more focused on whether Gayl overstepped his authority than protecting him from retribution:

"Your statement today that the Marines Corps is investigating whether Mr. Gayl 'has done something other than what his leadership and his bosses have instructed him to do' clearly implies that the Marine Corps may be proceeding inappropriately to punish Mr. Gayl for his actions."

Two months later, Secretary Gates was telling USA Today: "The reaction of the troops in the field has been extraordinary...I had a wounded warrior who was here for a lunch a couple of weeks ago who was going around telling anybody who looked like they were in a position of authority that an MRAP had saved his life."

What happened to Franz J. Gayl? Google sayeth not, but lives and limbs are being saved in Iraq, at least in some measure because he spoke out. Many Marines and their families must feel differently about him than the top brass.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Retroactive Sympathy for Hillary

Regardless of whether he is remembered as a modern Achilles or just a vulnerable heel, the sight of Bill Clinton sulking in his tent before the November battle is not a pretty one.

As Hillary and Barack prepare to embrace at a Thursday night Washington fund-raiser and the next day in the cunningly chosen town of Unity, NH, the former President spent the weekend faintly praising the nominee-to-be's energy policy and pretending not to hear reporters' question about when he will making his own Obama endorsement.

Bill Clinton's petulance now evokes sympathy for what his wife must have put up with for decades, a self-centeredness that makes Joe Klein's "Primary Colors" seem understated.

If she has the maturity to deal with her disappointment, the least he could do is hide his own and his resentment that Obama's new politics may eclipse his tenure.

As he does his Achilles impersonation, Bill Clinton would do well to crack open a copy of "The Iliad" and look at Agamemnon's advice:

"(T)hough our hearts be sore,
Still let us school our angry spirits down.
My wrath I here abjure; it is not meet
It burn for ever unappeas'd."

Neo-Con Sacrifices for Their Country

This is about as ad hominem as it gets, but in today's New York Times, William Kristol is huffing about a MoveOn ad that "boldly embraces a vision of a selfish and infantilized America, suggesting that military service and sacrifice are unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past. And the sole responsibility of others."

He finds the commercial featuring a mother refusing to make her baby available for John McCain's hundred-year Iraq war "unapologetic in its selfishness, and barely disguised in its disdain for those who have chosen to serve."

Such posturing is particularly galling from a charter member of the Neo-Cons who, when other people's sons were dying in Vietnam, were too busy getting into post-Harvard politics, as Kristol was, or hiding out by pulling family National Guard strings a la George W Bush or getting multiple deferments, as Dick Cheney did, or otherwise choosing not to serve, as only the most fire-breathing of them all, John Bolton, has had the honesty to admit.

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

Talking about service, Kristol's one-year stint with the Times expires in January just before the Bush Administration does. Haven't they all sacrificed for their country long enough?

Bush Breaking New Ground in Lawbreaking

In the annals of presidential crime, George W. Bush is setting records again, this time violating a law he signed into existence less than a year ago.

By failing to appoint a White House coordinator for preventing nuclear terrorism, as required by Congress in a bill passed by a wide bipartisan margin last August, the Decider is going beyond using signing statements, as he has in the past, to invalidate legislation he doesn't like.

This time, according to the Boston Globe, he is just ignoring the requirement for an "adviser focused solely on organizing the government to prevent terrorists from acquiring catastrophic weapons, such as a nuclear device, a radioactive 'dirty bomb,' or biological agents."

The new law, advocated by national security experts since before 9/11, was prompted by a recent Pentagon finding that the current practice of Defense, State, Energy and Homeland Security departments going their own uncoordinated way to prevent nuclear proliferation "risks creating gaps and redundancies."

The White House apparently disagrees but, in the face of veto-proof passage, the President signed on and is just ignoring the new law.

"Congress," the Globe quotes a law professor specializing in separation of powers, "has the authority to create by statute different responsibilities in executive departments. You can't ignore a valid statute. I don't think he has the authority to do that."

But George W. Bush is doing it, no doubt to the delight of the terrorists we are fighting over there so we don't have to fight them back here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Going for Brokaw

NBC's decision to replace Tim Russert with their anchor emeritus through the November elections seems wise after today's weak effort by Brian Williams to deal with the verbal calisthenics of the presidential hopefuls' surrogates.

Sens. Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham traded standard campaign patter over their candidates' flip-flopping (Obama on public financing, McCain on almost everything since 2000) without be brought into some larger context by Williams' moderating.

What Tom Brokaw will give "Meet the Press," perhaps even more than Russert did, is a perspective beyond the tactical jousting and prompt interviewees toward the larger issues of 2008, which go far beyond offshore drilling for oil which, along with Obama's public financing pledge, occupied most of today's time.

"Meet the Press," like its Sunday morning counterparts, offers voters a chance to go past the sound bites that make up most of the week's news by pinning down politicians on the issues behind them.

It's nice to know that Biden isn't "interested" in being VP but would do it if Obama asked, but that doesn't help us understand anything important about the economy or ending the war in Iraq.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Stay-Put Solutions to High Fuel Prices

Man at airline ticket counter: "Gimme a ticket, quick." "Where to?" clerks asks. "Doesn't matter, I've got offices everywhere."

Not as old as the one about first prize, a week in Philadelphia, second prize, two weeks in Philadelphia, but United Airlines' new policy of requiring overnight stays on domestic flights to combat fuel costs seems like some kind of joke in this rich vein of travel humor.

How making business people stay where they go keeps them from grabbing up cheap seats is an arcane airline secret that has always evaded this sedentary observer who wonders why not just raise the prices? Or would that discourage people who have no business taking the flights from going anyway to take advantage of irresistible bargains?

With new airline charges for checking luggage, which only transfer energy costs to dry cleaners at hotel valet services, more drastic steps seem needed.

In light of President Bush's vow to give up golf out of respect for servicemen in Iraq, why not cancel all sales conventions and professional meetings in distant resort areas and read all the pertinent stuff at home with takeout pizza?

Candidates can set a good example by not rushing around to town hall meetings but sitting on their own porches and making promises they don't intend to keep to the TV cameras.

Why don't corporate buyers forego dinner meetings with faraway sales people in favor of teleconferences and restaurant gift certificates by mail? Added advantage: More quality time for all with family or significant others.

That could lead to family reunions on either Thanksgiving or Christmas, which could reduce gasoline usage and heartburn by half.

To cut our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, don't just do something. Sit there.

"Did I Mention He's Black?"

Barack Obama started out running as a race-neutral candidate, but Jeremiah Wright and the "white working class demographic" made the issue inescapable, and the presidential campaign will benefit from having it out in the open.

At a fund-raiser last night, he previewed the underbelly of the Republican attacks to come:

“We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” Obama told supporters. “They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”

And to cap it all: “He’s got a feisty wife.”

It takes rare confidence and courage to anticipate and drag out into the light the kind of prejudice that thrives on darkness, to do what John Kerry, to his regret, failed to do in 2004--confront the 527 slime machine that John McCain deplored back then but has yet to disavow fully and forcefully now.

What Obama is doing is not only challenging the decency of fair-minded voters who might be influenced by such attacks veiled in darkness and silence but would be shamed to tolerate openly--but his opponent's as well.

They, and John McCain, have a decision to make.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Barack Doesn't Send Flowers Any More

Last year, John McCain felt the fury of media scorn, and now it's Barack Obama's turn for the hurt feelings of journalists as passions cool after their first encounters.

The Times' David Brooks, who was deeply in love late in 2006, is sharing his pain today after suffering from what he previously described as "Obama Comedown Syndrome":

"All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naïve. But naïve is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades."

Earlier in the year, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurta complained, "The Illinois senator remains a remote figure to those covering him," a complaint echoed by Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe, "There is no charm offensive from the candidate toward the press corps."

For other MSM infatuees, the letdown started this month with a rueful letter to the campaign about Obama's sneaking out on reporters for a rendezvous with Hillary Clinton while they waited on a plane to Chicago the weekend before her concession:

"The decision to mislead reporters is a troubling one. We hope this does not presage a relationship with the Obama campaign that is not based on a mutual respect for the truth."

The rest of us may be forgiven for taking all this as the natural course of adolescent crushes, remembering how enthralled they all were with the "straight talk" of John McCain and the "guy you'd like to have a beer with" charm of George W. Bush when they were all younger and more naïve eight years ago.

If Obama isn't spending too much time making MSM pulses race these days, the rest of us can sympathize with their hurt feelings and, with a little tough love from older and possibly wiser heads, tell them to get over it.

The Russert Connection

In the week since he died, after all the millions of words about his life, there is the question of, beyond the self-love of media people celebrating themselves, why do so many care so much about Tim Russert's death?

Peggy Noonan today has the start of an answer: "The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better...That's what we talk about in eulogies, because that's what's important. We don't say, 'The thing about Joe was he was rich.' We say, if we can, 'The thing about Joe was he took care of people.'"

In the week's outpouring of sentiment, there was a striking emphasis on Russert's random acts of kindness-concern for people and their families far beyond the token gestures of a political life. After all the talk about his work, we are left with the residue of a sweet man who lived out E. M. Forster's injunction, "Only connect!"

What we long for in our hyperactive, overcrowded and wised-up lives is some joining of what Forster called "the prose and the passion"--some sense of a feeling heart behind all the cunning and the calculation of it all.

Tim Russert of Buffalo knew just what E M. Forster of Cambridge meant.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama's Coattails

The surest sign that primaries are really over is the surfacing of talk about how long and strong Barack Obama's coattails may be in carrying state and local candidates into office in November.

In the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza reports that even Alaska, that frozen tundra of Democratic hopes, is looking good, with polls showing Sen. Ted "Bridge to Nowhere" Stevens behind his challenger, and prospects looking up in deep red hot-weather states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

"Rarely in politics is a narrow loss as good as a win," says Cillizza, "but if Obama can keep McCain from running up the score in these Republican-friendly states he may well do a world of good for the down-ballot candidates seeking Senate and House posts."

To start undoing the damage of the Bush years will take solid Democratic majorities in Congress to help the new man in the White House with something akin to the "Reagan Revolution" in 1980, which swept a dozen Democrats, including George McGovern, out of the Senate.

This could be a "Change" election in more ways than one.

The Truth as Private Property

Hostilities between the Associated Press and bloggers are escalating to the point that some are now vowing to stop linking to the wire service. Regardless of the merits, such conflict is unhealthy for the free flow of information in a society that depends on it.

As a part of traditional media, AP regards its output as property without distinguishing between form and substance. The arrangement of words and sentences in its reports belongs to the agency, but the news conveyed does not. The facts and public statements therein, once published, belong to everyone. "Published" literally means "making public"

Bloggers, regardless of where their information comes from, have the right to analyze and comment on news without restriction. What they may not have the right to do is cut and paste large chunks of AP stories, as some do, and add their reactions which, in some cases, amount to no more than "Oh, wow!" in either a positive or negative sense.

Even before the Internet, on-the-spot reporting was only a fraction of what MSM did. TV news often piggybacked on newspaper reporting, and magazines got most of their ideas and leads from daily news. In the future, with news bureaus being cut back for economic reasons, that will be truer than ever.

Those of us who spent a working lifetime dealing with copyrighted material have no formula for where "fair use" ends and theft begins. But context is important. If a blog post is using AP material as a taking-off point for commentary or to illustrate a point, that's "fair use," and a word count formula can't be the only criterion.

For example, if this post were legally copyrighted, fair use would be characterizing it, quoting from it and expressing views but not just lifting most of it without creating some new piece of writing. But the exhilarating thing about blogging is that such property considerations are beside the point.

Beyond that, the real puzzlement in this debate is defining what damage AP believes results from having bloggers quote from its output by linking to the media that are legally using it. In what way does it devalue the product or damage those legal users? In fact, don’t they benefit from getting more traffic to their web sites?

But, all that aside, the larger issue is that, in a free society, it's not a good idea to start treating the truth as private property.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Michelle Obama Channels Betty Ford

But in the era of gender and racial correctness, not quite...

On "The View" today, according to the Times' Jodi Kantor, "She got to explain her 'proud' comment at length, in a friendly setting; she talked about her husband and children in approachable terms; she stressed her humble roots (she just said her mother has a slight gambling habit, and has won $17,000 with what sound like quarter slots). That said, it looks like Mrs. Obama is having the appearance of fun, rather than actual fun. This is not the loosest I’ve seen her, and she is surely watching every word."

No wonder. "Unlike her husband, who wrote in his memoir that he had learned at a young age to smile and charm and disarm whites of the notion that he might be a bristly black militant," Maureen Dowd observes, "Michelle has not always hidden her jangly opinions so well."

Over three decades ago, Americans fell in love with an outspoken First Lady, who didn't hesitate to talk about birth control, her addiction to alcohol or anything else she was asked. But Betty Ford came to the White House without running an election campaign gauntlet--behaving naturally unlike others who could pass for inflatable life-sized dolls permanently positioned to stare adoringly at their husbands.

Michelle Obama has a lot of that outspokenness in her, but in this election year, a rare combination of racism and sexism will be waiting to twist everything she says. It will take a delicate balance to channel her inner Betty Ford while preventing haters from picturing her, in Dowd's words, as "a female version of Jeremiah Wright, an angry black woman."

It might help to keep in mind that Mrs. Ford deflected criticism by keeping her sense of humor. Telling a reporter that the media was asking all kinds of personal questions, except how often she slept with her husband, she volunteered to answer that, too.

"As often as I can," Betty Ford said.

Iraq: Three-Dimensional Chess in the Dark

Our future in Iraq is being settled, but no one there or here knows all the details or approves of what they do know.

The status of forces agreement (SOFA) will establish principles for a continued US military presence in Iraq beyond the expiration of the UN mandate at the end of this year, but as a July deadline approaches, the end game is as murky and confused as the start of it all.

"We have reached an impasse," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last weekend, "because when we opened these negotiations we did not realize that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty and this is something we can never accept."

Back here, Congressman Bill Delahut, Chairman of a key House Subcommittee, is complaining that “Congress has received, to be polite, minimal information from the Bush administration on the agreement.”

Last summer Andrew Cordesman described Iraq as 'three-dimensional chess in the dark while someone is shooting at you." Now the shooting has subsided somewhat, but no one has turned the lights on.

One of the fascinating side shows is reflected in an OpEd in yesterday's New York Times: "With only perfunctory debate, the Bush administration is pressuring a divided Iraqi government to approve a security agreement that could haunt Washington’s relations with Baghdad for years to come.

"The 'strategic alliance' that President Bush is proposing eerily resembles, in spirit and in letter, a failed 1930 treaty between Britain and Iraq that prompted a nationalist eruption in Baghdad, a pro-Nazi military coup and a pogrom that foreshadowed the elimination of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community."

This conclusion is based on the arguments of Ayad Allawi, the first prime minister after our occupation, backed by the CIA and now in exile agitating against al-Maliki with the help of very expensive Republican lobbyists in Washington

Today Thomas Friedman observes that the reconciliation process "has not reached a point where Iraq’s stability is self-sustaining. And Tuesday’s bombing in Baghdad, which killed more than 50 people at a bus stop in a Shiite neighborhood, only underscores that. The U.S. military is still needed as referee. It still is not clear that Iraq is a country that can be held together by anything other than an iron fist. It’s still not clear that its government is anything more than a collection of sectarian fiefs."

In fact, nothing about Iraq is clear other than it was huge blunder for the US to get in and it will be an unholy mess getting out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"9/10 Mindset" vs. "1984"

The McCain campaign is pouncing on Barack Obama for a "9/10 mindset" in his approach to the treatment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

In a conference call with reporters, they trotted out former CIA chief James Woolsey and others to charge that Obama’s is, to resurrect an old GOP Cold War word, "soft" on terrorism.

“If a law enforcement approach were accurate," a McCain policy adviser said, "then you wouldn’t have had Sept. 11."

They were inspired by Obama's approval of the Supreme Court decision that detainees have the right to seek habeas corpus relief.

"(W)e have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, ‘Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims,'" Obama said. “We could have done the exact same thing, but done it in a way that was consistent with our laws.”

Obama's camp will no doubt respond, but conservative columnist has already done that for them in today's Washington Post by parsing McCain's response that it was "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country":

"Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

"Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court--meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees--a campaign issue."

Will, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Reagan supporter, may just be out of step with the new conservative thinking. He may just not realize that a "9/10 mindset" is more dangerous these days than going back to the totalitarian mindset of George Orwell's novel, "1984."

Bravely Facing the Bushless Years

The keyboard keys are soggy with tears at the thought of no more Bushes in our national life after almost three decades, but George W. and Laura are consoling us with the prospect that Jeb may save us.

In interviews this weekend, the departing President and First Lady tried to ease our sense of loss.

"Well, we've got another one out there who did a fabulous job as governor of Florida, and that's Jeb,” W. said. “But you know, you better ask him whether or not he's thinking of running. But he'd be a great president."

Mrs. Bush was just as sensitive to the emptiness we are all feeling. "One of the reasons George and his brother, Jeb, served in office is because they admired their father so much," she said and when asked whether that meant her husband was not the last Bush, responded: “Well, who knows. We'll see."

Those with long memories are still nostalgic over grandfather Prescott Bush who entered the Senate over half a century ago, starting a tradition of public service for the family whose banking activities helped finance Adolf Hitler’s war machine for World War II.

What will we do without another Bush to pull us all together in a profitable effort to defeat the nation's future enemies?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Obama and Ike: Timing the End of a War

Whether or not he is responding to John McCain's goading, Barack Obama's statement today that he is "interested in" going to Iraq before November recalls Dwight Eisenhower's campaign promise in 1952 to go to Korea and do something about ending the war there.

American voters then were weary of protracted fighting far from home as they are now. By his promise, Ike was underscoring his credentials as the man who won World War II and, soon after he was sworn in, made the trip--largely ceremonial--and months later a truce was signed.

Obama is on shakier ground in proposing to signify the end of US support for the war in Iraq and align himself with Prime Minister al-Maliki's desire for withdrawal of our troops.

He should consider making that trip after he takes over the White House, as Eisenhower did, to avoid Republican campaign attacks that he is urging Iraqis to "surrender" to insurgents and extremists and that he is undermining and endangering American troops.

Those charges won't be true but, in ending a war as all other life-and-death situations, timing is crucial.

AP: Accusatory and Patronizing

As an editor and publisher, I spent part of my working life dealing with copyright infringement and fair use, so it's fascinating to find the Associated Press today in a fumbling effort to limit use of its content by bloggers.

To start, no one's work should be redistributed at random, but that's hardly what bloggers do in reproducing, almost always with attribution, portions of the news that AP publishes and commenting on it, almost always with links to the source of the material.

In the case chosen to set an example, the AP leaned on the satirical Drudge Retort over seven items containing quotations ranging from 39 to 79 words, hardly a wholesale lifting, leading to the suspicion that the news syndicate was more upset by the appropriator's tone than the "theft."

That's less a defense of copyrighted material than the act of a would-be censor.

“We are not trying to sue bloggers,” its "strategy director" says. “That would be the rough equivalent of suing grandma and the kids for stealing music. That is not what we are trying to do.”

That's adding insult to insult. Bloggers may want avoid using AP stuff--there are so many other news sources from which to steal our pathetic little music.

Obama as Pediatrician-in-Chief

If there was any doubt about his new politics, Barack Obama dispelled them yesterday.

He celebrated Father's Day by calling out African-American men on their failure "to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.”

At one of Chicago's largest black churches, Obama took on a sensitive subject that politicians seldom talk about, especially in a campaign year:

“Too many fathers are MIA, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

If one of his themes has been speaking truth to power, Obama is not stopping at the edge of America's racial divide.

Citing his own father, who left when he was two, Obama stressed how lucky he was to have had loving grandparents who helped his mother give him support and opportunities for education.

"A lot of children don't get those chances. There is no margin for error in their lives," he said. "I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle--that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father."

It's not the first time Obama has scolded African-Americans for parenting failures. During the Texas primary, he told them: "It's not good enough for you to say to your child, 'Do good in school.' And then your child comes home, you've got the TV set on, you've got the radio on, you don't check their homework, there's not a book in the house, you've got the video game playing.

"So, turn off the TV set, put the video game away, buy a little desk. Watch them do their homework. If they don't know how to do it, give them help. If you don't know how to do it, call the teacher. Make them go to bed at a reasonable time. Give them some breakfast."

If Obama wins in November, Americans will be getting a new pediatrician-in-chief as well as a president.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Tim Russert's Wake

"Meet the Press" is, by its nature, an hour of posturing, lies and evasions, but today it was filled with genuine feeling--tears, laughter and even a few home movies. (Who could resist Doris Kearns Goodwin in a blonde wig with a feather boa popping out of a cake to a do a Marilyn Monroe-JFK bit for Tim's 50th birthday?)

Tom Brokaw, presiding over the mourning, was in tears at one point, while political toughie Mary Matalin clenched a soggy Kleenex, but the prevailing mood was love and laughter, a hell of a good wake for a good life, even without alcohol.

By now, everything that could be said about Tim Russert has been said and oversaid, but it's hard to resist one final observation about the sources of his success, beyond Buffalo, Big Russ and his old-pol Irish genes.

He had the good sense or good fortune or perhaps both to get a start in politics before switching to journalism with two of the twentieth century's best people in public life--Pat Moynihan and Mario Cuomo.

From the Senator-scholar who deplored the trend of "Defining Deviancy Down" and the best president we never had who redefined Reagan's "shining city on a hill" at the 1984 Democratic convention, a young Russert learned that politics was a serious business for serious people.

For all his fascination with the down and dirty of it all, Tim Russert never forgot those lessons. When all the eulogies are over, his successors would do well to remember them for the future.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

An American Father

One night in 1968, my father was in a Manhattan ballroom for the first time in his life, watching Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr. hand me an award. The expression on his face was the essence of "nachas," the word immigrants used for the joy and pride their children give them to redeem a lifetime of suffering.

I had been six or so at a Fourth of July parade when the colors came by and my father’s hat went flying from his head, knocked off by the beefy hand of a red-faced man behind us pointing at the flag. Shame and rage rose in me, but my father only smiled sweetly, nodded and bent to pick up the hat.

Years later, I read that, as a child, Sigmund Freud was told by his father that a man had grabbed his new fur cap and flung it into the mud, shouting, “Jew, get off the street.” Freud recalled angrily asking, “What did you do?” His father answered calmly, “I stepped into the gutter and picked up my cap.” In dreams, Freud would later note, a hat may stand for male genitals.

My father never talked about the past. I knew him only as a man who went to work early, came home late, ate his dinner, kissed me goodnight and went to bed. We did not play ball or go to games or listen to them on the radio. He told no stories and passed on no fatherly wisdom. He expected nothing, envied no one. He just slaved sixty hours a week to put food in my mouth, and he loved me without words. What I learned about his life came later and not from him.

He had had no childhood. From birth, he was fated to serve others after his own father died soon after he was born. From then on, he was harnessed to a mother who tended store and, as soon as he could, was hauling sacks and crates.

They lived in Podhajce, one of those small cities in Galicia constantly being overrun by Turks, Tatars, Austrians, Poles and Russians, who in passing would rob and slaughter some of the local Jews. In 1943, the Nazis would finish their work, declaring Podhajce "Judenrein," cleansed of them all.

When my father was sixteen, an older sister sent her six-year-old son, Bernard Kleinrock, to live with his grandmother. Most of what I know about my father's life came from him.

In 1914, the Austrian Army fled town amid rumors that approaching Russian soldiers would rob, rape and murder. My grandmother packed what she could onto a wheelbarrow and tied the rest into bed sheets, which my father slung over his back. They spent two days and nights on clogged roads before the Austrian Army herded them into the fields so as not to slow down their own retreat.

With no food left, my grandmother decided to head back home. "Thank God for Izzy's stamina," Bernard wrote years later. "He wheeled us for miles in the wheelbarrow past dead and dying soldiers and horses beside the road."

The Russians came and went, and the Austrians retook Podhajce and drafted my father into their army. He served four years and came back in 1919 after nine months in the hospital with wounds suffered on the Italian front. He took Bernard to Warsaw and, after months of waiting for visas, for a month-long trip on a cattle ship to America.

My father's sister, 21 years older, married and living in Manhattan, took them in and brought the boy to a doctor to find out why at 16 years old he looked ten. The answer was malnutrition.

At the age of eight, I was dazzled by Bernard's wedding to Anna--the glowing bride in white, the two of them under a canopy, his foot smashing the glass to the cries of "Mazel Tov!" In years to come, they would visit, bringing food from their grocery and gifts for me, once a briefcase along with a loving lecture about the value of education.

In 1983, after their golden wedding anniversary, Bernard and Anna Kleinrock went back to Europe to see the King of Sweden present its highest scientific award to their son Leonard for his achievements as "The Father of the Internet."

Nachas, squared. And my father, who thought of himself as most insignificant of men, by saving his nephew had helped change the world.

Cash-and-Carry Candidate Is Back

Rudy Giuliani, who parlayed his 9/11 TV performance into a $100 million consulting business and six-figure fees for speeches before flopping as a presidential aspirant, is now offering to "appear at fund-raisers around the country for G.O.P. candidates. But there is a catch: He wants some cash out of the deal."

Giuliani is telling the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional candidates that if he makes appearances, he wants the candidates to help him pay off his $3.6 million presidential campaign debt.

Giuliani, who was too busy raking in speaking fees to attend meetings of the Iraq Study Group, wants to recover the $500,000 he lent his own campaign.

Leading Republicans are not thrilled by his latest offer. “In a year when our candidates are struggling to raise money, this is just another burden,” said a party strategist. “This is not about helping the party. This is about helping Rudy Giuliani.”

But America' Mayor has endorsed John McCain and will undoubtedly make appearances for him. No word about how much he will charge.

Obama-McCain: Manhood Now and Then

In the wake of disputes over sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama offer, among other contrasts, a confrontation between old ideas about manhood and new--the hard-drinking, womanizing Navy flyboy turned politician and the New Age husband in equal partnership with a powerful wife.

Stereotypes, yes, but the biographical facts are beyond dispute. On his nostalgia tour after clinching the nomination, McCain talked about misadventures in the places he was visiting.

"I remember with affection the unruly passions of youth," he said in Meridian, Miss., where he had organized an off-base toga party for military buddies and local girls.

At his Virginia high school, he recalled that his disobedience earned him the nickname "worst rat" for sneaking away to Washington burlesque houses and bars.

Outside the Naval Academy in Annapolis, McCain described "nocturnal sojourns" and the hundreds of miles he was forced to march for insubordination.

"I wanted," McCain recalled in Pensacola, "to live the life of a daring, brash, fun-loving flyer...In truth, the image I aspired to was, in the end, only irresistible to one person--me, and it was a very childish attraction."

McCain's vision of manhood comes from life as a carousing son and grandson of admirals and then his sobering experiences as a POW and a Washington politician.

Obama, on the other hand, as he tells it in his books, was an uprooted young man searching for a sense of the father he barely knew and, despite experimentation with drugs, a serious and ambitious young man, described as "grounded, motivated and poised" by his peers.

As they present themselves to voters this Father's Day weekend and beyond, McCain and Obama are both remarkable products of their life histories, representing a contrast in styles of American manhood that go far beyond their other generational differences.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

He brought the powerful and the would-be powerful to us and firmly but respectfully held them to account. Tim Russert's sudden death today of a heart attack is a wrenching reminder that the familiar faces on the small screen belong to mortal human beings we can lose in a moment.

Of them all, his bluff honesty and persistence did more than most to help cut through the self-serving syrup politicians try to pour over us like pancakes on Sunday mornings.

Amid the outpouring of grief, there will inevitably be grousing about the too-tolerant MSM, but Tim Russert made "Meet the Press" a place where you could get at least some of the truth from people who lie for a living.

Sundays won't be the same without him.

Obama's Can-Do Campaign

Two moves this week offer clues to what an Obama White House would be like--the precipitous dumping of his VP vetter Jim Johnson and the unveiling of a rapid-response anti-smear web site.

With all the hoo-ha about charisma and star quality, what's been largely overlooked is the sheer competence of Barack Obama's campaign to win the nomination and what it portends for his presidency.

The Johnson embarrassment is, by its rarity, a reminder of how much skill it took for a relatively unknown, unfunded first-term senator to prevail against the Clintons with all their power in the Democratic Party.

As an executive, Obama seems to be the exact opposite of George W. Bush, surrounding himself with bright people and not only listening to them but demanding their arguments against his strategies and tactics.

A Newsweek piece on his management style quoted a staff member: "When he's at a meeting, he's very inclusive and a very good listener. He's not looking to dictate what everyone is discussing, and he wants to hear what everyone is thinking. He doesn't discount things."

He rejects knee-jerk thinking, the staffer says. "Obama's response is, 'Well, we've always done it that way--why?'"

Being open and intellectually inquisitive is no guarantee against making mistakes, such as being too slow to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright. But coupled with being decisive and smart, Obama's modus operandi would certainly be a welcome change from seven lean years of Oval Office competence.

In the next five months, voters will get a preview of how well he holds up under pressure and pummeling.

Pork a la Lieberman

The most sanctimonious Senator of them all, who is supporting earmark-hater John McCain for president, has a ravenous appetite for the stuff, according to a new report showing Congress on an election-year binge despite all promises to the contrary.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Joe Lieberman has led the way in looting the new Defense Authorization bill by participating in 14 requests worth more than $292 million.

But he is not alone in grabbing money for voters back home. "Both parties talk a good game on cutting earmarks, but at first opportunity, the House larded up," said Stephen Ellis of the watchdog group. "This is just another broken promise."

Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake points out that the budget system lets lawmakers use earmarks not only to woo voters but draw campaign contributions from recipient organizations and their lobbyists in what Taxpayers for Common Sense describes as the "pay-to-play system."

The new data show most members of the House Armed Services Committee getting financial returns from companies that benefit from being showered with taxpayer money.

"It's corrupting. It's a much bigger problem than the sum of its parts. It's much more than just waste," says Flake, a critic of both parties. "One good defense earmark can yield tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions."

Meanwhile, fellow Arizona John McCain is running for president on the issue, while his chief cheerleader Joe Lieberman is gorging on one bill alone for more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Grand Old Man of the New Journalism

At 78, Tom Wolfe is being immortalized with the reissue of ten of his books in covers "designed to appeal to a new generation."

But before he is embalmed as a writer of satirical novels like "Bonfire of the Vanities," someone should remind readers how he helped change the face of American journalism and, in no small degree, politics.

In August 1966, a Tiffany-engraved invitation arrived in my mail to have cocktails and canapés in the Park Avenue duplex of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein to meet the Black Panthers. A sense of the ridiculous prompted me to decline.

But Tom Wolfe went, notebook in hand, and wrote "Radical Chic" for New York Magazine, a classic of the New Journalism that skewered the pretensions of upscale liberals parading their sympathy for the downtrodden in a setting of ostentatious luxury. ("The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny's duplex like a rogue hormone...These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three times too big...)

Along with Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer and others, Wolfe invented the New Journalism in the 1960s to open space for human expression in the growing thicket of corporate journalism.

Reporters became novelists, novelists morphed into reporters to break through the limits of who, what, when, where, why and how. Mailer's story of the march on the Pentagon to protest Vietnam filled an entire issue of Harper's and made newspaper and TV accounts look like tracts on whaling compared to "Moby Dick."

But it was Tom Wolfe who epitomized the best of I-witness journalism. Unlike imitators, he adhered to the traditional rules of reporting while using a fictional style to show what people did and why with an eye for the telling details. For better or worse, his influence is visible in magazine and newspaper reporting to this day.

Recently he sat down with editors of the New York Times Book Review and gave them an oral history of his part in inventing the New Journalism. Even if you disagree, as I do, with many of his social and political views, the Man in the White Suit is an historic and fascinating figure in 20th and 21st century American life.

Huckabee or Jindal: Googling McCain's VP

"You know, basically it's a Google," the Republican candidate told a fund-raising luncheon this week when asked how the running-mate selection process was going. "What you can find out now on the Internet--it's remarkable."

McCain was joking, of course, but in the light of his age issue and as a veteran of the 2000 campaign in which Dick Cheney chose himself, he knows the Republican VP candidate is no laughing matter.

After auditions of Mitt Romney and Governors Charlie Charlie Crist of Florida and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana at a Memorial Day barbecue, rumors are running toward Mike Huckabee, who caught fire with some conservatives during the primaries but put off others with his Second Commandment populism.

But, prodded by Rush Limbaugh, true believers are salivating over the 37-year-old Louisiana governor.

"Bobby Jindal is a great American," Grover Norquist burbles. "He is great on guns, great on taxes, a Roman Catholic, a Southerner and an Indian-American. Bobby Jindal would be great for the GOP and perfect for McCain."

The 71-year-old McCain's choice of Jindal would inevitably invite comparisons with the selection in 1988 by George H. W. Bush of Dan Quayle, then 41, who turned out to be an embarrassing VP who couldn't spell "potato."

But Jindal is a former Rhodes scholar who went on to work for McKinsey advising Fortune 500 companies. He is reliably pro-life, voted in Congress to make the Patriot Act permanent and advocates teaching "intelligent design" in public schools.

In 1988, McCain opined about Quayle, "I can't believe a guy that handsome wouldn't have some impact." Soon now, we'll know what kind of guy McCain thinks would have impact on his chances for the White House.

The Politics of Unemployment

Congressional Democrats and Republicans are doing an election-year dance with the White House over extending unemployment benefits. The House yesterday failed to approve a proposal to give jobless workers an extra three months of eligibility, but Democrats are bringing the bill back for another vote today.

Yesterday's bill came up after the May jobless report showed the largest one-month flood of filings in 22 years, the rate up to 5.5 percent from 5 percent, as the number of laid-off workers increased to 8.5 million with more than 1.6 million out of work for 27 weeks or more and no longer eligible for benefits.

Some worried Republicans are supporting the extension, including John McCain, but President Bush keeps threatening to veto it as "not fiscally responsible to extend benefits in states with very low unemployment rates."

The logic of this is mind-boggling, since workers in those states would collect a smaller total of benefits for families that need help as much as those in areas with higher unemployment rates.

Democrats are not unaware of this impasse as an election issue. Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic House caucus, observed that Republicans "are all for spending an additional 10 or 12 years in Iraq, but they're opposed to 13 additional weeks of benefits for unemployed people who, through no fault of their own, are without work."

But election-year rhetoric won't feed hungry children. A veto-proof bill should be on the Congressional menu this week without political applesauce.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Is Your Trip Necessary?"

During World War II, that was the heading of a ubiquitous poster that urged energy conservation for the war effort. Is it time for a reissue?

With airlines cutting back schedules and Americans starting to drive less because of soaring gasoline prices, rethinking travel habits may be the best and simplest solution of all. In crowded terminals and road jams, the question always arises, "Where are all these people going and why?"

Lest this seem like a retrograde answer, cutting back is not the only kind of behavior change that a crisis can precipitate.

In his always fascinating New York Times Freakonomics blog, Stephen J. Dubner writes about "Crisis as the Mother of Invention," citing as one example Brazil's booming sugar ethanol industry:

"During the 1970’s oil embargo, Brazil was so worried about its energy future that it devoted itself to building a sugar ethanol industry, and it worked. Again, without the crisis, it is likely that Brazil would have continued down the same oil-dependent path as other nations."

In this year when Change is the political mantra, why limit it to politicians? Are our own habits set in stone?

Big Field for Obama Veepstakes

The first test of his decision-making is at hand.

The short list is down to "about twenty current top government officials, former top government officials and former military leaders" as Barack Obama looks for a running mate who would both give him credibility and be qualified to succeed him.

There is Hillary Clinton, of course, but name recognition of those being considered runs all the way down to the retired former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Gen. James Jones, who meets the first qualification but would be a little shaky on the second.

There are governors, of course--Tim Kaine of Virginia, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, although one of them, Ted Strickland has ruled himself out with a Shermanesque declaration.

Among former rivals for the nomination, John Edwards has professed no interest, leaving Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich--and Joe Biden.

The esteemed E. J. Dionne Jr. has made his choice known in the Washington Post: Biden "should be at the top of any list of vice presidential picks for Obama...Few Democrats know more about foreign policy, and few would so relish the fight against McCain on international affairs. Few are better placed to argue that withdrawal from Iraq will strengthen rather than weaken the United States."

That may be more of an argument for Biden as Secretary of State than VP, for which there are countless contenders--Jim Webb, Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, Tom Daschle, Sam Nunn and on and on.

Obama's vetting committee has a lot of work to do, but they may be inspired by recalling how less effort in going through the process produced Dick Cheney.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Married-Sex Marathons

Americans are so inventive. Just as soaring gas prices make the cost of travel prohibitive, along comes a new trend to give a whole new meaning to the pleasures of staying home.

The New York Times Fashion & Style Department reports on two new entries in the "mini-genre of books offering advice about the 'sex-starved marriage'" featuring couples who discovered that daily sex is key to happiness and are sharing their adventures with the rest of us.

In this new arena of family values, politics seems to be beside the point.

"The Mullers," says the Times, "are Bible-studying steak-eating Republicans from Charlotte, NC. The Browns are backpacking multigrain northerners who moved to Boulder, Colo. The Mullers’ book, “365 Nights,” is rather modest and circumspect in its details. The Browns’ book, “Just Do It,” almost makes the reader feel part of a threesome, sharing everything they used to stimulate sexual desire (it’s hard to visualize and even harder to explain)."

Outdoing average couples who average 66 times a year, "the Mullers and Browns are in Olympic-record territory," and the theory that a sex marathon would reinvigorate their marriages "might say as much about the American penchant for exercise and goal-setting as it does about the state of romance."

Be that as it may, if the new trend catches on, it will show that American ingenuity never sleeps, especially when it comes to selling books.

$4 a Gallon

The pain at the pump is going political this week. The President and his wannabe successors are pushing pie-in-the-sky proposals--more drilling in Alaska (Bush), gas tax holidays (McCain) and new taxes on oil companies (Obama)--but Congress is taking aim at one of the underlying reasons for skyrocketing prices--speculation.

"(A)s gas reaches a national average of $4 a gallon for the first time in the nation’s history," reports The Hill, "some see the makings of a consensus on Capital Hill: making it harder for investors to buy crude on the commodity futures markets.

"Critics say the increased participation of non-commercial investors that don’t intend to use the commodity--as opposed to, say, airlines that also buy crude--has helped raise prices."

The focus of Congressional pressure is the government agency charged with overseeing the gambling on oil. According to a spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, “More and more senators are questioning the adequacy of the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC)] regulatory oversight and...are bothered by the role that speculation and non-commercial, institutional investors are having in preventing energy markets from functioning properly.”

The quickest fix would be new curbs on pension funds, endowments and other institutional investors that pump money into commodities index funds, driving up demand and prices. The Goldman Sachs fund attracted $260 billion last year, compared to $13 billion five years earlier.

According to the McClatchy newspapers, complicating any effort to harness speculation is the 30 percent of trading in crude oil in "dark areas"--markets in London and Dubai--not regulated by the CFTC but could be by the President with "a snap of his fingers."

A former CFTC director of trading is quoted as saying, "Essentially this could be ended this afternoon if the Bush administration had the stomach to do it."

But with an army of oil company lobbyists besieging the White House and Congress, don't bet your gas money that it will happen.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Hillary Guerrillas

The candidate herself has conceded, firmly and graciously, but the diehards at "Hillary Is 44" are fighting on to the last ounce of purple type and pink background in their arsenal.

Their reaction to Sen. Clinton's support of Obama: "(A) few words of advice to Hillary: If you lie down with dogs you wake up with fleas."

"Action Item 1," reads the next day's call to arms: "First thing for everyone to do Monday morning: Contact every superdelegate, everyone you met during the Hillary campaign, every fundraiser, every Hillraiser, every endorser, every friend, every relative...and let them know--I will not vote for Obama nor any person who endorsed Obama before June 3, 2008 when I vote during the general elections in NOvember. Obama is NOt qualified to be president. I reject NOw and in NOvember the Obama race-baiting, gay-bashing, woman-hating campaign of division and distraction."

Today they stopped mincing words: "Democratic Latinos, White Working Class voters, and women, will not come home in NOvember. Women will NOt vote for race-baiting, gay-bashing, women-hating Barack Obama in NOvember...Democrats Are Not Coming Home In November...Only The Chickens Are Coming Home...To Roost."

The site is still selling "Hillary Is 44" (for 44th president) T-shirts and buttons while emphasizing: "We are not affiliated with the Hillary For President Exploratory Committee, or any official Hillary Clinton organization in any way."

No word where the sales proceeds will go, but they may well be cranking up for "Hillary Is 45." A better investment would be tranquilizers for the operators of the site.

Nobody Loves Blackwater But Bush

The Iraqis don't want them, the FBI calls them murderers and American homeowners are trying to move them out of their backyard. Only the Bush Administration keeps giving Blackwater love--and contracts.

In the latest misadventures of Mercenaries-R-Us, it took an order from a federal judge last week to force San Diego's mayor to let Blackwater open its new training facility after 200 residents led by a congressman protested “a black mark on American democracy.”

Since gunning down 17 Iraqis last September, Blackwater has reportedly signed more than $144 million in contracts with the State Department for “protective services” in Iraq and Afghanistan and been awarded millions more in contracts from the Coast Guard, the Navy and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

All this comes months after the FBI found that at least 14 of the Baghdad shootings were unjustified and violated deadly-force rules in effect for Iraq security contractors, and the Justice Department is investigating charges that Blackwater employees sold US arms on the black market that ended up in the hands of terrorists.

Nonetheless, in April, the State Department renewed Blackwater's contract to provide security, a move Prime Minister al-Maliki adviser Sami al-Askari called "bad news...because they have committed acts of aggression, killed Iraqis, and this has not been resolved yet positively for families of victims."

Blackwater is so deeply entrenched that even Barack Obama has not "ruled out" their continued involvement in Iraq. Starting with hefty contributions to Bush's campaigns by its founder, the company has privatized the war with $1 billion of mayhem--and counting.

Rapist Rights

In a Nebraska courtroom, a judge has told a woman not to characterize her experience as “rape” or “sexual assault” or describe herself as a victim and the accused man as an assailant.

The defendant’s presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial trumps the woman's right of free speech, according to a Lincoln judge who issued the order.

This is a long way from the social contract not to publish the name of a victim (make that "recipient of unsolicited affection") of sexual assault (that is, "excessive familiar attention") by a rapist (er, "overzealous suitor").

The woman lost her case for violation of her First Amendment rights, but a federal judge, in dismissing the suit, doubted a jury would be swayed by her use of the word “rape” instead of some “tortured equivalent.”

“For the life of me," he said. "I do not understand why a judge would tell an alleged rape victim that she cannot say she was raped when she testifies in a trial about rape.”

But in this era of political correctness, you can't be too careful. If we started calling collateral damage murder, where would it all end?

Obama, McCain: TV Anchors Away

The candidates are opting out of the "let's you and him fight" format of the TV networks for presidential debates.

In rejecting a "town hall" proposed by ABC News and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, they must be thinking of the April Democratic debate that ended up with the audience booing moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos followed by widespread criticism for inciting an hour of nasty trivia. (Tom Shales of the Washington Post pasted the ABC anchors for "shoddy, despicable performances.")

Obama's spokesman said, “Both campaigns indicate that any additional appearances will be open to all networks for broadcast on TV or Internet like the presidential commission debates, rather than sponsored by a single network or news organization.”

McCain's spokesman said, "Both campaigns agree the town hall meetings will be open to press but not sponsored or moderated by the press."

The candidates are invoking the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a model but are not likely to embrace that format of a half-hour of oratory for one side, followed by an hour for the other and another half-hour of rebuttal.

That may have worked out for the single subject of slavery, but there are too many domestic and foreign-policy issues this year for such a formal approach.

What voters can hope for is a setting in which they ask the questions and the candidates respond to them and each other with substantive civility rather than the gotcha sound bites the TV networks want.

If the campaigns mean what they say, this year's presidential debates won't be an extension of "American Idol" and the survival tests of reality TV.