Tuesday, September 30, 2008

McCain vs. McCain

In the three-ring circus over the financial rescue bill, the Republican candidate has shown an instinct for his own jugular, grasping the issue for political advantage and then becoming encoiled in his own flailings.

"Even before the House vote, voters blamed Republicans more than Democrats for the crisis. Then McCain suspended his campaign to come back to Washington to rally support for a rescue plan," says CNN political analyst Bill Schneider. "He failed, so he gets blamed by both supporters and opponents of the rescue plan."

When the bill appeared headed for passage, McCain took credit for influencing House Republicans to support it even though, during the tense Saturday evening negotiations, the McCains were having a leisurely dinner with the Liebermans at a posh Washington restaurant.

Now, after his purportedly convinced confreres brought the House bill down, the Republican nominee is back on the campaign trail in mournful mode: "Yesterday, the country and the world looked to Washington for leadership, and Congress once again came up empty-handed."

This now-detached analysis is coupled with criticism of Barack Obama for the contradictory offenses of injecting partisanship and just wanting to "phone it in" on the issue.

McCain could have saved himself all these contortions if, like Obama, he just showed up as one member of Congress and didn't try to play premature president for the TV cameras. The one in the White House ended up with egg on his face yesterday, and so did McCain.

Rooting Out Rove

A 390-page report by the Inspector General is only a small step for mankind in bringing Karl Rove to justice for what he did to the Justice Department in the firing of the nine US attorneys, but it's a start.

The internal investigation finds political pressure drove the 2006 dismissals but that refusal of major players at the White House and the department to cooperate in the year-long inquiry has left significant “gaps” in understanding what happened.

Investigators' doubts have led Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint Acting United States Attorney in Connecticut Nora Dannehy, who led the conviction of a former governor for corruption, to continue the probe and decide if anyone should be prosecuted.

The "anyone" list starts with Bush's White House toadies, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, and goes on to former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who was overcome with memory lapses while testifying before Congress, and his cast of ideological helpers, including Monica Goodling and Kyle Sampson, who the report says "abdicated their responsibility" in supervising the firings.

After stonewalling Congress while Bush remains in office, this bunch will be facing possible prosecution in a new atmosphere next year, one in which the criminal politicizing of everything in Washington comes to an end, and Justice reverts to its original mission of discovering and punishing actual crime.

In that event, Karl Rove could be practicing his punditry for Newsweek and Fox News from a new venue that will give him plenty of time to think deep thoughts about the new American political scene.

Bailout Defeat: Blessing in Disguise?

Over the next days, with a show of guts, House Democrats could turn today's stunning defeat into victory by working on a revised version of the rescue bill, not to bring on board dissident Republicans, but members of their own caucus who felt it did not go far enough to protect homeowners and taxpayers.

Such a revamping might ease pressure on incumbents from both parties who fear voter retribution next month if they are perceived as bailing out Wall Street.

The possible permutations are many, but start with the negative take by Larry Kudlow on the National Review blog that "Democrats will come back with a new bill that includes all the left-wing stuff that was scrubbed from the bill that was defeated today in the House.

"As this scenario goes, the House Democrats need 218 votes, and they have to pick up a number of black and Hispanic House members who jumped ship because the Wall Street provisions, in their view, were too benign. So things like the bankruptcy judges setting mortgage terms and rates, the ACORN slush-fund spending, the union proxy for corporate boards, stricter limits on executive compensation, and much larger equity ownership of selling banks through warrants will all find itself back in the new bill.

"Of course, this scenario will lose more Republican votes. But insiders tell me President Bush will take Secretary Paulson’s advice and sign that kind of legislation."

On the more liberal end of the spectrum, economists like Paul Krugman see a plan "centered on purchases of preferred stock and takeovers of failing firms-- basically, a plan clearly focused on recapitalizing the financial sector, with nationalization where necessary."

Yesterday the Federal Reserve started pumping $630 billion into the global financial system, flooding banks with cash to add liquidity and help alleviate the credit crisis.

So, one way or another, for better or worse, the US government will have to act to avert disaster, and today's defeat by diehard Republicans may eventually open the way for measures that are better rather than worse.

The Hillary Holdback

Just as Bill Clinton can't seem to stop praising John McCain and start stumping for Barack Obama with only a month left in the campaign, Hillary's heavy-hitting fundraisers are holding back, too.

Of the 300 “Hillraisers,” those who bundled together $100,000 or more in campaign contributions for her, fewer than a third have given to Obama, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

Who are these people and what can they be thinking?

With the economy collapsing around them, are they so invulnerably rich that they can risk four more years of Bush domestic policies under McCain?

Are they so ideologically impoverished that ending the war in Iraq and turning our attention to combating terrorism doesn't matter as much as their spiteful disappointment at not having backed a winner?

Underneath all their talk about belief in the Democratic Party and what it stands for, is there anything but vanity? When, if not now, are they going to put their money where their mouths are?

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Perfect Political Storm

Congress and Wall Street both crashed today as politicians' fears and public rage collided over the American economy. House members, overcome by genuine doubt as well as panic over self-preservation five weeks before facing reelection, narrowly defeated the financial rescue bill, sending the Dow into an historic dive.

Everybody lost today--the lame-duck Bush Administration, Congressional Democrats for failing to find a convincing compromise, John McCain for prematurely bragging about his leadership in persuading Republican legislators to get on board and Barack Obama, fairly or not, for being helpless on the sidelines.

Watching the numbers on cable TV split screens was an ugly experience and, when the House count was over, Republican leaders John Boehner and Roy Blunt added insult to injury by blaming Democrats for their failure to produce enough votes for passage.

"We could have gotten there today had it not been for the partisan speech that the speaker gave on the floor of the House," Boehner said, claiming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's words "poisoned our conference, caused a number of members that we thought we could get, to go south."

Democrat Barney Frank responded with disbelief: "Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decided to punish the country?"

Before the vote, Frank had said, "Today is the decision day. If we defeat this bill, it will be a very bad day for the financial sector of the American economy and the people who will feel the pain are not the top bankers and top corporate executives but average Americans."

If Washington was broken before today, it is now in shambles as so-called national leaders race to reassure worldwide investors that the American economy is still working.

It may be time to call in older and wiser heads--Warren Buffet, Mike Bloomberg et al--to oversee this mess before it sinks us all.

Repositioning Palin

Most provocative quotes of the day:

"It's time to let Palin be Palin--and let it all hang out." --Scott Reed, a Republican strategist, in the Wall Street Journal.

"McCain needs to liberate his running mate from the former Bush aides brought in to handle her--aides who seem to have succeeded in importing to the Palin campaign the trademark defensive crouch of the Bush White House." --William Kristol, New York Times.

In what conjures up visions of Dr. Frankenstein retooling his creation in the lab, Gov. Palin is being whisked off for pre-debate work, the Journal reports:

"McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and senior adviser Steve Schmidt...plan to fly with her on Monday to Sen. McCain's ranch in Sedona, Ariz., which they hope she will find a comforting place to prep...

"More broadly, the McCain campaign aims to halt what it sees as a perceived decline in the crispness and precision of Gov. Palin's latest remarks as well as a fall in recent polls, according to several advisers and party officials."

Such emergency cosmetic surgery on the Vice-Presidential candidate is a disheartening reminder that McCain's shoot-from-the-hip style of decision-making does not always work out well, and it evokes sympathy for Ms. Palin, who has never pretended to the kind of expertise they are now trying to fabricate for her. (Fareed Zakaria points out that "if forced off those rehearsed lines, what she has to say is often, quite frankly--nonsense.")

If they are going to use old movies as a guide, they may want to try "Singin' in the Rain," with someone behind the curtain while Gov. Palin mouths the words.

Keeping Faith

Sen. John McCain is suspending his campaign for the next two days to observe Rosh Hoshonna with his friend, Sen. Joe Lieberman, by attending services in Miami to offer up prayers for the people of Israel and the Wall Street victims of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs.

Former President Bill Clinton, who had previously announced he would not be campaigning for Barack Obama until after the Jewish holidays, commented on entering a synagogue in Chappaqua with his wife, "Hillary represents more people of the Hebrew faith than any other Senator and was honored in the recent primaries by more votes than any other candidate from Jewish women, who have started a web site, 'MazelTov2012.com' on her behalf."

Sen. Barack Obama responded by pointing out that, although he would be non-observant today, he is supported by millions of small contributions from young people with Jewish surnames and that David Axelrod is running a kosher campaign on his behalf.

No word as yet on which candidates will be fasting for Yom Kippur next week.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman's Coming of Age

This week will feature a TV feast of his movies, showing the seriously sexy young stud of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Long Hot Summer," "The Hustler," "Hud," "Sweet Bird of Youth" and others that brought Paul Newman fame in his thirties.

But almost alone among superstars of our time (Clint Eastwood is the only other who comes to mind), Newman eased gracefully into a partnership with Robert Redford in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting" in his forties, followed by "Fort Apache the Bronx," "The Verdict," and "Absence of Malice" after 50, capped with his only Oscar for reprising Fast Eddie in "The Color of Money" at 61.

His on-screen persona as a cocky risk-taker was deepening over those years into a knowing, damaged yet decent-at-heart older man, but it was only after he turned 70 that, for my taste, Paul Newman did the vintage acting of his life in a serious of movies written by arguably the best American novelist of our time, Richard Russo.

In the 1994 "Nobody's Fool," Newman was paired with Jessica Tandy in her last picture as a denizen of one of Russo's falling-apart old New England mill towns, as the irresistible reprobate Sully, finding some semblance of redemption (but not that much) for a totally selfish life.

This was followed by Russo's stylish geezer noir, "Twilight," a made-for-HBO film in which Newman played an elderly PI with his peers James Garner and Gene Hackman, still spry enough to bed Susan Sarandon and, more age-appropriately, Stockard Channing.

All this was only prelude to Newman's bringing to life, again for HBO, in the four-hour film of "Empire Falls," Russo's epic novel, Max Roby, a hyperactive food-in-his-beard, scheming, swindling father and grandfather who lights up the TV screen, more a creation than a performance.

In between, Newman did a turn as an imprisoned bank robber who fakes a stroke and sits frozen in a wheel chair for much of the mediocre "Where the Money Is," not moving a muscle even when Linda Fiorentino gives him a lap dance. Now that's what AARP members would call an award-winning performance.

Young or old, Paul Newman was a star for half a century by the classic definition that, when he was on the screen, it was hard to see anybody else. New generations will keep discovering the man who invented cool before most of us knew that the condition had a name.

Fear-Mongering to the Finish

George W. Bush's political epitaph will read: "From first to last, he scared the hell out of the American people."

Starting with fabricated forebodings about Saddam Hussein's imminent plans to nuke us into oblivion, his Administration played the fear card all the way to this week's deadpan televised alarm about financial panic. At the White House meeting the next day, he warned Congressional leaders and the presidential candidates in his usual elegant phrasing, “If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down.”

In 2002, we had a president who made us want hide under our beds and, six years later, he was inspiring us to hide our money under the mattress.

Franklin D. Roosevelt started his tenure by telling Americans, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In a new century, when the new president came to office, political prophets should have told us, "The only thing we have to fear is Bush himself."

Even the most diehard horror-movie lovers will find eight years of being terrified too much. For the next White House movie, they will be looking for a new theme. Hope, perhaps.

The Money Pit and Cat in the Well

After pulling an all-nighter, the low-approval gang in Washington this morning will give us their new, improved version of the $700 billion gamble nobody understands but practically all are sure is needed to keep the sky from falling.

The 1980s Tom Hanks movie, "The Money Pit," comes to mind as Congress and the Administration enthuse over the financial structure we're buying with a $250 million down payment that may or may not stand up until their successors move in next January.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi congratulates the negotiators for "the great work they have done" to "insulate Main Street and everyday Americans from the crisis on Wall Street” while Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gets up off his knees to celebrate "a deal which will work and be effective in the marketplace.”

But as the happy couple prepare for the Housewarming, the grumpy former tenant Newt Gingrich stands outside bitching that "it’s probably impossible, without the president getting a new secretary of the treasury, to get to a good deal...We’re taking an immediate tummy ache, and we’re in danger of turning it into cancer.”

So much for the mixed metaphors, but perhaps the most apt commentary might be that of a voice from the past, the 1960s Senate Leader Everett Dirksen, who may or may not have said, "A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

Dirksen had all kinds of folksy anecdotes to warn about wild-eyed government spending, including the one about the schoolboy asked to figure out how long it would take for a cat that had fallen into a well 100 feet deep to get out if it climbed up one foot and then fell back two feet.

After reams of calculations, the answer was, "If you give me another 30 minutes, I'm pretty sure I can land that cat in hell."

Dirksen is long gone, but he may have a good sense of direction about where Washington spending was heading.

Presidential Pop Psychology

At The Debate, moderator Jim Lehrer at times seemed to be a marriage counselor, urging Barack Obama and John McCain to address each other directly and express their feelings, and now the candidates are accusing each other of being in denial about the financial crisis.

McCain tells voters that "Senator Obama still sees the financial crisis in America as a national problem to be exploited first and solved later." Obama responds, “What he doesn’t seem to get is that if we don’t deal with it right now, by working together for the common good, then this crisis could turn into a far-reaching disaster for workers, businesses, retirees and the American middle class."

As in most bad relationships, there is a breakdown of communication. At Friday night's session, McCain seemed too angry to even look at Obama, let alone talk to him, as his partner tried to cajole him in finding something to agree on.

The remaining debates will be moderated by network elders, Bob Schieffer of CBS and NBC's Tom Brokaw, both of them patient and kindly, but the way things are going, they might want to have Dr. Phil to help the warring couple deal with the "unfinished business of anger, resentment and hurt."

Psychologically, there is no use trying to do anything about the Palin-Biden pairing, a mismatch if there ever was one.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman

He was as American as you can get. The actor who died today was an icon, but the man was even more--someone who loved his country, not in an abstract or flag-waving way, but as a patriot who opposed bad wars and gave millions to people in pain.

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

In the early 1980s, our mutual friend A. E. Hotchner wrote about their light-hearted efforts to bottle and sell Newman's salad dressing. Since then, a line of Newman's Own products has earned a quarter of a billion dollars for charities, especially those affecting children.

"While his philanthropic interests and donations were wide-ranging," reads a statement from his foundation, "he was especially committed to the thousands of children with life-threatening conditions served by the Hole in the Wall Camps, which he helped start over 20 years ago. He saw the Camps as places where kids could escape the fear, pain and isolation of their conditions, kick back, and raise a little hell. Today, there are 11 Camps around the world, with additional programs in Africa and Vietnam. Through the Camps, well over 135,000 children have had the chance to experience what childhood was meant to be.

"In Paul's words: 'I wanted to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others, who might not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.'"

Paul Newman was married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years, and they lived in Westport, Ct. When someone asked him about marital fidelity, he famously answered, "Why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?"

He will live forever in old movies as Butch Cassidy, Henry Gondorff, Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Fast Eddie Felson and all those memorable Americans he created, but some of us will remember him as the man with the bluest eyes we had ever seen--and the biggest heart.

Obama's Missed Point on Pakistan

He was cool and confident in the debate but, in his desire not to look like the young man knocking down a senior citizen to grab a cab, Barack Obama passed up at least one chance to sharpen the difference in his approach to the war on terror with that of John McCain.

At one point, the Republican huffed: "He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan. Now, you don't do that. You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government."

"Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan," Obama replied defensively. "Here's what I said. And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.

"Now, I think that's the right strategy. I think that's the right policy."

What Obama failed to underscore was that since then the Bush Administration has agreed by launching unilateral attacks across the Afghan border on terrorist safe havens and that, after years of being bamboozled by Musharraf, is challenging the new regime to earn the billions of aid the US has been pouring into Pakistan.

In the first presidential debate ever in 1960, Nixon tried not to seem too combative and came off looking like Uriah Heep in comparison to JFK's confident firmness. Obama avoided that pitfall, but not completely. In his stance on Pakistan, he could have shown more spine without risking cockiness. That's part of appearing presidential.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Demeanor Debate

John McCain spent 90 minutes tonight telling voters Barack Obama "doesn't understand" what America is facing, as Obama demonstrated a broad grasp of the 21st century issues besetting the economy and national security.

Body language was revealing in McCain's tight grin that occasionally morphed into a smirk under criticism, while Obama featured a relaxed smile and at least half a dozen times responded with a generous "John is right, but..."

Behind the difference in demeanor was the familiar clash of experience vs. change that is at the heart of the contest, with McCain distancing himself from Bush-Cheney and impressively name-dropping world leaders (but getting wrong the new president of Pakistan) to persuade voters that Obama is too naïve to deal with a dangerous world.

There was no defining "gotcha" moment but, in light of Obama's need to show persuadable voters that he has the intellect and disposition to occupy the Oval Office, he made progress as did McCain by appearing forceful and knowing to offset doubts about his age and hair-trigger temper.

Most of the time, the candidates talked past each other but after McCain had hammered away at the need to cut government spending, Obama confronted him with:

"John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending...is, you know, kind of hard to swallow."

What is unknowable is how the debate affected the unspoken subtext of this election--race.

The site itself was a third presence tonight, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where 46 years ago Army troops surrounded James Meredith as he integrated "Ole Miss" amid riots and bloodshed.

Meredith himself, who later became a Republican on the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms, is a cranky reminder of the complexity of race in the South. He declined an invitation to the debate. "My wife and son will be there," he told the Washington Post. "I'm taking care of the grandbabies."

But those of my generation can't overlook the history that, when Meredith entered the university, the interracial marriage of Barack Obama's parents was illegal there, and that John McCain's great-great grandfather had owned a plantation nearby.

Almost half a century later, things have changed but race is still an issue there and in much of America and will affect the result of this election, no matter how well the candidates performed tonight.

Paging Erin Brockovich

With all the evidence of malpractice on Wall Street and in Washington, what taxpayers need is good representation for a class-action suit, and they don't even have to consult the Yellow Pages.

Legal crusader Erin Brockovich, the eponymous heroine of the 2000 movie, is consulting for a New York law firm, soliciting cases, investigating claims and starring in TV commercials seeking individuals who may have contracted lung cancer from exposure to asbestos.

Who better to take on toxic financiers and politicians than the feisty California woman who pushed one of the biggest class-action suits in American history and ended up being played by Julia Roberts in an Oscar-winning performance?

If Brockovich does well, she could follow in the footsteps of John Edwards who parlayed a career in negligence law into a Senate seat and a shot at the presidential nomination. Then again, maybe not.

The Case for McCain

In a hybrid of defense closing argument and political obituary, David Brooks in today's New York Times comes forward as a character witness for "a serious man prone to serious things."

Citing his candor, humility, "crusade" against corruption and, most of all, his "impressive" years as the Iraq war deteriorated, Brooks attempts to separate that John McCain from today's campaigner "without a groundbreaking argument about why he is different" who has had to "rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat."

Brooks says that failure comes "in part because of his Senate training and the tendency to take issues on one at a time—-in part, because of the foolish decision to run a traditional right-left campaign against Obama and, in part, because McCain has never really resolved the contradiction between the Barry Goldwater and Teddy Roosevelt sides of his worldview.

"One day he’s a small-government Western conservative; the next he’s a Bull Moose progressive. The two don’t add up--as we’ve seen in his uneven reaction to the financial crisis."

Such personal admiration is understandable and poignant but, as this past week has shown, can't be the crucial element in a voter's decision about who should lead us out of the mess of the Bush-Cheney years, of which McCain himself, going back to the 2000 primaries, is one of the victims.

But Brooks persists in his loyalty: "If McCain is elected, he will retain his instinct for the hard challenge. With that Greatest Generation style of his, he will run the least partisan administration in recent times."

To others, based on the campaign McCain is waging, that confidence is as misplaced as associating with the Greatest Generation someone who was five years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Palin's $1250-a-Month Impurity

John McCain's maverick partner, self-proclaimed reformer of politicians' ethics, during her 20 months as governor has accepted gifts valued at $25,367 from industry executives, municipalities and a cultural center whose board includes officials from the largest mining interests in Alaska.

According to the Washington Post, Gov. Sarah Palin got expensive artwork, free travel for a family member, more than $2,500 in personal items from a corporation with pending regulatory and budgetary issues, and a gold-nugget pin valued at $1,200 from the city of Nome, which lobbies the state on budget matters.

On another ethical front, lawmakers investigating Gov. Palin's firing of her public safety commissioner yesterday accused the McCain-Palin campaign of stonewalling the probe by helping witnesses, including her husband, refuse to comply with subpoenas.

But then again, she did (eventually) say thanks but no thanks to the Bridge to Nowhere and try to sell the state airplane (unsuccessfully) on e-Bay.

"Washington is Broken" Food Fight

For almost two years, it has been a mantra for candidates of all stripes promising change, but the reality of a dysfunctional Washington was not fully seen until today, fittingly enough in the White House whose occupant has spent eight years politicking and polarizing without a semblance of the skills required to govern.

Today's meeting to achieve a consensus on the financial rescue package ended in a "verbal brawl" with Bush and the two presidential candidates helpless to say or doing anything to stop it.

Ironically, it is conservative House Republicans, after giving the Administration sheeplike devotion for years, who are now the biggest obstacle to bipartisan agreement.

The blight is not limited to one party. Congressional Democrats, after almost two years in charge, may be in less disarray now but have failed over that time to win public confidence that they know what they're doing.

So, with time out for the pointless McCain and Obama cameos, the pressure to do something before rushing home to campaign for their jobs increases on all sides amid an outpouring of public anger and uncertainty about what will actually work in the real world, which resembles Washington less with each passing day.

The President and Congress who take over in January have a lot of patching and mending to do before they can accomplish anything.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Swindlers at Your Friendly Bank

As Washington prepares to pump $730 billion into rescuing banks, consumer advocates are reminding the public of the ways in which the beneficiaries already have their hands in taxpayers' pockets without government protection.

Today, Americans for Fairness in Lending brings forth former employees of credit card issuer MBNA, now owned by Bank of America, to tell how they were forced to use aggressive and deceptive practices with customers to push them into taking cash advances and max out their credit cards.

"Every customer who calls in is a mark," according to one phone operative who estimated that she sold almost a quarter of a billion dollars in the four years she worked for MBNA before it was bought in 2005 by Bank of America, She tells of a supervisor, listening in, pushing her to sell more to a man in his 90s who had a $100,000 limit.

"I was hired to sell money," she told reporters on a conference call organized by the advocacy group. "We had a goal of selling $25,000 an hour, $4 million per month. And I was one employee among hundreds, just at this one site."

Even those of us old enough to pay as we go can testify to the greed of our friendly local banks. Deposit a check, and you can't draw against it for five business days, even though the bank gets your money overnight by electronic clearance and uses it at no charge, a "float" of untold millions of dollars daily.

They stopped giving away toasters a long time ago to get hard-working customers to part with their money, but banks are still putting the heat on customers every day.

The advocacy groups have a laundry list of reforms that are needed and now that the government is in partnership with the banking industry, Congress should start working on them.

$700 Billion or Bust? Why?

The nagging questions are how the Bush Treasury Department arrived at that sacrosanct figure, why it's not negotiable and what's wrong with authorizing it in installments.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who comes from a tradition of never buying retail when there's an alternative, asked Henry Paulson why it would not make sense to put $150 or so billion into the markets and see what happens but got a bristling rebuke:

"I think that would be a grave mistake," Paulson answered. "This is about market confidence and the tools to do the job," he added, insisting he needed the full amount to deal with unanticipated contingencies.

Unanticipated? That's an apt description of the entire mess that his Treasury Department was slow to recognize but now claims with absolute certitude that it knows how to clean up, but only if taxpayers commit an enormous amount to a lame-duck Administration, no questions asked.

But, to the credit of Congress, members are not responding meekly to the pre-election panic this time as they did to the 2002 resolution to invade Iraq, but are negotiating for oversight and transparency, executive pay limits and equity interest on taxpayers’ behalf as well as a provision to allow bankruptcy judges to revise mortgage terms.

Their constituents should be urging them to adjust the price tag too to keep from tying the hands of the new President and Congress by giving away the store now.

This morning, President Bush will be trying to make his last sale in office to Barack Obama and John McCain but, to the credit of both, there are signs that they won't buy in whole-heartedly.

Paulson has no sure way of knowing how much is needed to calm the credit markets but, like his leader, is stubbornly arguing that he should be the Decider, even though he will be long gone if and when he turns out to be wrong.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Presidential Reality TV

The two most recent occupants of the Oval Office were in prime time tonight, while aspirants to succeed them prepared to go to the White House tomorrow morning in a bizarre interactive TV reality show that will affect the financial survival of millions of Americans.

George W. Bush, who was voted off the island two years ago but refused to leave, looked voters in the eye and talked about panic and recession with a straight face as if he had just arrived and would fix it if only they cheered for his Hail Mary pass without delay and without asking too many questions.

His predecessor, Bill Clinton, with his usual maddening mix of half-faux sincerity and guile, was telling Larry King that Hillary had campaigned for the Democratic nominee more than any runner-up in the last 40 years, that he would join her in Florida after the Jewish holidays, that although he admired McCain and Palin was backing Obama and Biden but devoting most of his energies to making Americans good global citizens for the future. All in all, it came across as the pitch for a new Hillary survival show in 2012 or 2016.

With the past presidents on their way out, the two wannabes were trying to please the electoral audience. Chris Dodd, who is quarterbacking the Senate effort to make sense of the Bush $700 billion dollar plan, welcomed John McCain's interest but drily noted that his campaign suspension sounded more like a rescue plan for his own candidacy than the national economy.

This series will run for the next 40 days until viewers get a chance to vote for the ultimate survivor, but meanwhile the show keeps getting more tacky and there is no way to use a remote control to tune in on something better.

McCain, Letterman, Couric and Drudge

The weirdness of the week is best illustrated by a news flash from a place where irony is only unintentional, the Drudge Report:

"David Letterman tells audience that McCain called him today to tell him he had to rush back to DC to deal with the economy.

"Then in the middle of the taping Dave got word that McCain was, in fact just down the street being interviewed by Katie Couric. Dave even cut over to the live video of the interview, and said, 'Hey Senator, can I give you a ride home?'

"Earlier in the show, Dave kept saying, 'You don't suspend your campaign. This doesn't smell right. This isn't the way a tested hero behaves.' And he joked: 'I think someone's putting something in his metamucil.'

"'He can't run the campaign because the economy is cratering? Fine, put in your second string quarterback, Sarah Palin. Where is she?'

"'What are you going to do if you're elected and things get tough? Suspend being president? We've got a guy like that now!'

The McCain campaign will undoubtedly spin this as another media attack on their man. By Drudge?

McCain's "Sky Is Falling" Move

In the face of plummeting poll numbers and after Barack Obama's phone call suggesting a joint statement on the economy, John McCain is going what Las Vegas gamblers call "all in" by announcing a suspension of his campaign, suggesting cancellation of Friday night's debate and rushing back to Washington to...do what?

Obama says no, thanks to the charade. “It’s my belief," he told reporters today, "that this is exactly the time when the American people need to hear from the person who in approximately 40 days will be responsible for dealing with this mess. It is going to be part of the president’s job to deal with more than one thing at once.”

The Senate debate over the rescue bill is in good bipartisan hands with veterans Chris Dodd, Richard Shelby et al, so it's unclear what the presidential candidates could add by their presence, except that which is definitely not needed--partisan posturing for political gain.

When the time comes for a Senate vote, McCain, Obama and Joe Biden will certainly be there but meanwhile the Republican nominee is showing, not presidential command (George W. Bush will playact that on TV tonight) but the desperation of a candidate who is tied to the eight-year failure of leadership that led to this mess.

That subject is better addressed to voters out on the stump than in the one place in America that calls for serious leadership now without Karl Rovian politicking on the part of the next occupant of the White House.

Obama Breaks the 50 Percent Barrier

As Wall Street numbers tank, the Democratic candidate rises past a milestone number in the campaign, leading John McCain by 52 to 43 percent in the new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

This "It's the economy, stupid" feat outdoes Al Gore and John Kerry, neither of whom broke the 50 percent barrier in pre-election polls while running against the Compassionate Conservative.

Part of the Obama bump may well come from his measured approach to the Congressional rescue effort, compared to McCain's yo-yo response from outrage and heads-will-roll to let's-do-it now.

Obama is taking a presidential stance of balancing the risks and rewards, while the former fighter pilot responds with his customary "let's shoot it down and ask questions later" mentality.

Voters who have been bombarded with attacks on Obama's "otherness" may be starting to feel that that risk is preferable to McCain's "more of the same." They may be watching more for signs of temperament than positions on issues in the first debate Friday night.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Warren Buffet Shows the Way

While Chris Dodd et al in Congress arm-wrestle with Henry Paulson on how to invest taxpayer money to rescue the financial system, the 78-year-old sage of Omaha is putting $5 billion into saving Goldman Sachs and getting a nice deal for the money, preferred shares and a 10 percent annual dividend, thank you very much.

Wall Street, which respects Buffet in the extreme, will undoubtedly be buoyed by his move on the theory that the master investor, unlike the bipartisan bumblers in Washington, knows what he's doing and is taking action rather than debating about it.

It might settle the impasse if the government could persuade Buffet, who has more money than he will ever need and plans to leave most of it to charity, to come to Washington and help oversee the $700 billion portfolio that taxpayers are being urged to acquire.

That would inspire confidence well beyond Wall Street.

Conservative Doubts About the New McCain

With the struggle for his political soul between the Religious Right and Reagan Republicans settled by the choice of a running mate, there are increasing qualms about the new John McCain by traditional voices in his own party.

"Under the pressure of the financial crisis," writes conservative icon George Will, "one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama."

This comes after the Wall Street Journal labels McCain's call for the resignation of SEC Chairman Christopher Cox "unpresidential," demonstrating that McCain "doesn't understand what's happening on Wall Street any better than Barack Obama does."

"McCain's populist bent," CNN reports, "has made some fellow Republicans unhappy" about "his election year migration toward more government control of the economy."

But the doubts run deeper than unhappiness over his stance on the financial bailout.

"Conservatives who insist that electing McCain is crucial," George Will observes, "usually start, and increasingly end, by saying he would make excellent judicial selections. But the more one sees of his impulsive, intensely personal reactions to people and events, the less confidence one has that he would select judges by calm reflection and clear principles, having neither patience nor aptitude for either.

"It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?"

In an analysis of McCain's decision-making, PBS News Hour quotes his own description: "As a politician, I am instinctive, often impulsive...I don't torture myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."

On that program, McCain's best friend in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, admitted that he wanted Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge for VP but their pro-choice positions ruled them out.

In picking Palin," Graham says, he wanted "to let the American people know that, if he gets to be president, buckle your seats, because we're going to do things different...I'm not so sure it was impulse, certainly from his gut."

As Election Day nears, more and more Americans, including conservative Republicans, are worrying out loud about government by McCain's intestines.

Monday, September 22, 2008

No Blank-Check Bailout

The bill for decades of American greed has just come due, and deadbeats at every level of society are trying to avoid paying their share.

From street-level avaricious buyers of bigger homes than they could afford with zero down and mortgage brokers and banks willing to bilk them to the covetous upper-echelon insurance companies, Wall Street houses and hedge funds that packaged all-but-worthless indebtedness at a markup for free-lunch investors, all eyes are now on Congress to pick up the tab with taxpayer money--to buy all that trash for cash without any safeguards.

Moreover, it has to be done in a super-hurry with no questions asked or the freeloaders in the markets will go into a swoon, as they did today.

Before Congress gives the Bush Administration an economic blank check comparable to the 2002 carte blanche to shoot up the Middle East, saner Senators are asking for more supervision of the Treasury handouts, more equity from the Wall Street casinos that lost their bets and more emphasis on helping responsible home owners who got caught in the squeeze.

Henry Paulson may tell them the sky is falling, but that doesn't mean that our lawmakers have to respond like Henny Pennies in a panic.

The Rocky Republican Horror Show

The McCain campaign is unveiling Sarah Palin in a way that brings back the creepy fear I felt as a nine-year-old watching a scene in "The Invisible Man," when the mad scientist slowly unwound the bandages from his face to reveal...nothing.

Much more than the frightening figures of Dracula and Frankenstein's monster, that absence chilled the imagination as does the current blankness where the face of someone a heartbeat away from the most powerful position in the world should be.

Now, almost a month after McCain chose her and six weeks before voters have to decide, Sarah Palin has yet to show her face at a press conference where reporters can question her.

This week will feature a photo-op shaking hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the UN, followed by a controlled end-of-the-week two days with Katie Couric that will be doled out by CBS next week. Other than that, there will be Palin's robotic stump speech to cheering crowds with hand-written signs provided by the McCain campaign.

What we know about Palin continues to dribble out second- and third-hand, to be decried by her surrogates as smears, such as the news today that the woman who is courting ardent feminists was the only mayor in Alaska whose town made victims of assault pay for rape kits.

There may be a plausible explanation for that, but we won't get to hear it until reporters are allowed to question the candidate, a possibility that keeps receding toward Election Day.

Movie buffs will recall that the hubris of "The Invisible Man" led to an unhappy ending but, in today's political and media climate, who can say?

Obama as Eisenhower

On 60 Minutes last night, he evoked another man who came to office promising to end an unpopular war and to restore confidence after the tenure of a president with abysmal approval ratings.

"I am a practical person," Barack Obama said, channeling the Dwight Eisenhower of more than half a century ago. "One of the things I'm good at is getting people in a room with ...different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction. And that's the kind of approach that I think prevents you from making some of the enormous mistakes that we've seen over the last eight years."

Looking back at his two terms in the 1950s, Ike had taken pride in bringing together the vehemently opinionated and reasoning them into agreement, as he had done in World War II with such military divas as Gen. George Patton and Britain's Viscount Bernard Law Montgomery.

"Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong," Eisenhower would say. "The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes are in the gutters."

Despite his own mantra of change and Republican efforts to tar him as a wild-eyed radical, Obama is temperamentally akin to Eisenhower in his reliance on persuasion and conciliation. If elected, he will face a much more divided America, but his instinct will be like Ike's--to reason and heal.

Maybe it goes back to their common childhood roots in Kansas.

Palin's Shaky Bridge to Ted Stevens

If the economy calms down, this should be a big news week for Alaska. As Sen. Ted Stevens goes on trial in Washington for helping himself to some of the bacon he brought back home for constituents over 40 years, Gov. Sarah Palin will be hoping voters believe she refused to cook it.

Neither will be candid about their relationship, which started in 2003 with Palin serving as a director of the ethically iffy "Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.," a 527 group to raise unlimited funds from corporate donors to help Republican women running for office in Alaska.

As an anti-corruption candidate in 2006, Palin took a step away by calling on Stevens to come clean about his alleged wrongdoing but also held a joint news conference with him, before he was indicted, to have it both ways. Stevens reciprocated with a last-minute endorsement and filmed a campaign commercial with her.

So now, in Palinworld, the Stevens who is on trial has gone from mentor to arm's length "Ted Who?" unless, by some chance, he beats the rap, in which case he may morph back into the kindly old uncle who helped get her into the statehouse, where John McCain could discover her and take over the role of older man in her life 20 months later.

The soap operas keep their convoluted plots more believable than that, but with Palin showing up only for scripted cameos, voters will have trouble figuring it out.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Irrelevant Presidential Candidates

As they prepare for their first debate, Barack Obama and John McCain will be upstaged this week by people who will be out of power in four months--members of the Bush Administration and Congress, many of whom retire voluntarily or otherwise at year's end.

No matter what the candidates say, our economy will be on the operating table in Washington, with the surgery being performed, if not by quacks but lame-duck politicians, few of whom have shown any aptitude for making life-and-death decisions (see "War, Iraq" and "Children, Health Insurance for").

With bipartisan urgency, Congress will give Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson power to buy up to $700 billion in distressed mortgage-related assets from private holders.

“I hate the fact that we have to do it, but it’s better than the alternative,” Paulson said in his round of appearances of the Sunday morning talk shows. “This is a humbling, humbling time for the United States of America.”

The alternative would be an unthinkable meltdown of the financial markets that would eventually throw millions of people out of work as well as their homes.

On Meet the Press, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg admitted that "nobody knows exactly what they should do, but anything is better than nothing. You've got to restore the public's belief and the market's belief that we will go on. And this is not just an American problem, it's financial markets around the world that are all interlinked and they're all collapsing."

That's the emergency agenda for this week, but Bloomberg, who made a fortune providing instant information for the money world, points out that "we're paying the price for the last years where we all wanted something for nothing, where we took risks because we were convinced that we would never have to pay, somebody else would pay on the downside, but we'd keep the profit. Congress has been unwilling to address the fundamentals of this country--an energy policy that makes sense, infrastructure, health care..."

All this will land in the lap of the next president and Congress that Americans will be voting into power six weeks from now. There will be no shortage of promises and finger-pointing in the campaigning until then, but to get us there, the lame ducks will have to get it right in the next few days.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Show-and-Tell for Cheney

The Vice President has never been a gushy kind of guy, but his innate modesty and shyness will have to give way to a court order today to preserve his records so the rest of us may eventually get some idea of how he was running the country in total privacy for the past eight years.

Responding to the suit of the watchdog group CREW, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly found that the VP's records are not excluded under the Presidential Records Act, which gives the national archivist custody of the material when Bush and Cheney leave office.

Their lawyers had sought a narrow interpretation to allow the VP to withhold as much as possible from National Archives, but the judge said no.

"Defendants were only willing to agree to a preservation order that tracked their narrowed interpretation of the PRA's statutory language," Kollar-Kotelly said in her order. This position "heightens the Court's concern" that some records would not be preserved without an injunction.

As we learned in the Valerie Plame case, pinning down what Cheney said and did is not easy, but today's judgment will go some distance toward helping historians breach Cheney's cone of silence as he helped lie us into a disastrous war, violated the civil rights of anyone who disagreed with him and pulled the strings of a puppet president.

A while back, when he deigned to give an interview, Cheney was asked about public disapproval of the Iraq war. His answer, with a shrug, was "So?"

Today's court decision is the first step toward getting more definitive answers than that.

The Fat Lady Sings at Yankee Stadium

Soon after returning to the Bronx from World War II, I went to the Stadium to see a football game. The home team, called the New York Yankees, was inept but all through the game a stout woman sitting alone several rows away was loudly cheering her heart out.

Watching her, I thought about the emptiness of some lives that could only be filled with devotion to a team of professional losers. I was overcome with emotion over such pathos until someone told me that the woman was Kate Smith, whose business manager Ted Collins owned the team, bought no doubt with his percentage of her earnings as one of the most popular singers of the time.

During the seventh inning break at tomorrow's final game before they demolish the Stadium, there will likely be tears on and off the field as the booming sounds of Kate Smith's "God Bless America" fills the storied arena for the last time.

As it does, I will be thinking of the day I felt so sorry for the fat lady who is singing for the last time at the field of dreams that has meant so much in my life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Maliki, Can You Spare a Dime?

As Washington prepares to tap taxpayers for a bipartisan bailout of the US financial system, is it out of order to ask our Iraqi friends who are sitting on $80 billion of oil profits to put a little something into their own pot?

After our expenditure of half a trillion dollars, $10 billion a month of American money is still going there. Our friends in Baghdad could ease the credit crunch here by taking over some of that tab from now on without going broke themselves.

The suggestion might be most palatable coming from their best friend, John McCain, who is presenting himself as responsible for their victory over chaos. Would we be leaving Iraq with less honor if they starting buying some of the blessings of democracy with their own money?

One incentive for such a selfless gesture might be the prospect of Barack Obama moving into the White House next January with his plans for troop withdrawals that would speed the day when the Iraqis run their own country and pay for its upkeep.

The old song of the 20th century Depression had a war veteran asking, "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" Nouri, old buddy, can't you spare a billion or two or three?

Die (Not So) Hard

Right-to-Lifers may be heading for a collision with a new Duty-to-Die movement advocated by Britain's leading moral philosopher, who foresees "licensing people to put others down."

In an interview with the Church of Scotland magazine Life and Work, Mary Warnock suggests that dementia sufferers should consider ending their lives because of the strain they put on their families and public services.

In addition to euthanasia for those in pain, Lady Warnock believes that "if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.

"Actually I've just written an article called 'A Duty to Die?' for a Norwegian periodical...If you've an advance directive, appointing someone else to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, then I think there is a hope that your advocate may say that you would not wish to live in this condition so please try to help her die."

As someone with a month' seniority to the 84-year-old Baroness, I feel duty-bound to point out a tiny flaw in her plan: Your dementia may turn out to be my crankiness, which is hardly a capital crime, and I can't think of an "advocate" I would authorize to make that distinction.

Lady Warnock's piquant proposal follows results of a recent survey in which one out of three British doctors called for National Health Service treatment to be withheld from patients who are too old or who lead unhealthy lives.

Anglophiles planning to spend their declining years in London and thereabouts should start rethinking their retirement plans in favor of an Arctic ice floe.

Bill Touts McCain, Palin, Hillary and...

"Slimy elder statesman" is the apt description for the former President's latest foray into this year's election as he calls John McCain "a great man," Sarah Palin an "instinctively effective candidate" and says that Hillary Clinton is offering "the most detailed position" on what to do about the financial crisis.

And the other guys? "I've never concealed my admiration and affection for Sen. McCain. I think he's a great man. But, I think, on the issues that matter to our future, the Obama-Biden team is, is more right. And I believe they're gonna win. But, I think that it will be competitive until the end."

This represents a bit of slippage from Clinton's convention speech only three weeks ago:

"Clearly, the job of the next president is to rebuild the American dream and to restore American leadership in the world...Everything I learned in my eight years as president, and in the work I have done since in America and across the globe, has convinced me that Barack Obama is the man for this job...

"Barack Obama is ready to honor the oath, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States...

"Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it will not work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."

Does Bill Clinton really want Obama to win? His interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo sounds more like pundit pillow talk than an effort by the last Democratic president to help his party's candidate get to the White House.

Asked about Hillary in 2012, Clinton waxed philosophical: "I hope we're both active till we're 90 and healthy. But, I think that her focus will now be on what she can do in her present positions to try to help her deal with all these things that threw her into the presidential race in the first place...She's out there workin' hard for Senator Obama. She, like me, believe he's gonna win. And no matter who wins, we've got to put our, our own personal politics aside for the next couple of years and get after these problems."


A 21st Century "New Deal"

George W. Bush is going out as Herbert Hoover with last-minute efforts to save the financial system, but who will voters ask to play FDR and offer them a New Deal?

The Administration is asking Congress to enact what, according to the Wall Street Journal, may look "like the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era relief program formed in 1932 by President Hoover that tried to inject liquidity into the market by giving loans to banks and other businesses."

It didn't work back then until after Democrats won in a landslide and took more drastic government action. In that crisis, politicians stopped worrying about socialization and stepped in to save the economy.

The ideologues now will be howling, but John McCain and Barack Obama have to stop talking about tinkering with the "fundamentals" and start offering reality to the people they are asking to vote them into the White House.

The first worldwide reaction to today's news is encouraging as stock markets in Europe and Asia are posting "huge gains" in response.

But the devil will be in the details, as Paul Krugman observes: "Today’s U.S. political system isn’t going to follow Andrew Mellon’s infamous advice to Herbert Hoover: 'Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.' The big buyout is coming; the only question is whether it will be done right."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Picking Up the Pieces

The cleanup crews are at work on Wall Street, President Bush cancels a fund-raising trip to cheer on his mop-up gang in Washington and, barely within camera range, the presidential candidates and Congress are blathering about who's to blame for the financial storm.

Unlike the hurricane damage in Texas, there is profit lurking somewhere in the Wall Street wreckage and, if the past is any guide, the would-be Warren Buffets should soon be emerging from their storm cellars and bidding for the best bits and pieces.

The stock markets are starting to stabilize as profit potential wrestles with fear for the free-lunch crowd trying to measure when the worst is over and the aftermath has begun. Vultures know by instinct when to swoop in.

As always, most of us will be examining our financial wounds and reaching for band-aids while the greed-is-good gang move in to do what they do best, but they too serve a social function by sopping some of the panic out of the system so we can stop agonizing and start believing that everything is going to be all right.

Bush defended government bailouts today, saying. "These actions are necessary and important, and the markets are adjusting to them." It's hard to argue with that, but maybe the next Administration and Congress will do a better job of reading the storm signals and getting taxpayers to higher ground.

Too Many McCains

He is outdoing the 1960 Richard Nixon, of whom John F. Kennedy said, "It must be hard getting up every morning and having to decide who you're going to be that day."

In a New York Times column today headed "The McCain of the Week," Gail Collins suggests, "Really, if McCain is going to keep changing into new people, the campaign should send out notices. (Come to a rally for the next president of the United States. Today he’s a vegetarian!)"

Aside from the lying attack ads on Barack Obama, the Republican effort to hold onto the Bush White House has deteriorated into wheeling out a new John McCain with every headline, accompanied by a plastic Palin figure nodding and smiling like a 21st century Pat Nixon with a few lines of actual dopey dialogue.

In the past week alone, McCain has morphed from the champion of free enterprise to an angry populist regulator of Wall Street, from a confident believer in the soundness of the economy followed a redefinition of "fundamentals" as the workers, not the complicated stuff of facts and figures.

Are voters with short memories actually buying all this? The polls are beginning to show an Obama rebound from the Palin bounce, but it would be foolish to discount the wisdom of P. T. Barnum in gauging public shrewdness.

Gail Collins notes that since "McCain’s willingness to make speeches that have nothing to do with his actual beliefs is not matched by an ability to give them, he wound up sounding like Bob Dole impersonating Huey Long."

Not to forget Richard Nixon.

The Unspeakable Joe Lieberman

In the midst of a national financial meltdown, the Senate's worst nightmare is playing political games by pushing a pointless resolution declaring the troop surge in Iraq a "strategic success"--a move designed to promote the presidential chances of his friend, John McCain.

"We would hope," Lieberman's spokesman said today with a straight face, "that Democrats and Republicans could stop fighting for a minute and send a bipartisan message of thanks to our courageous troops and their brilliant commander for a job well done."

When Democrats take firm control of the Senate next January, they will send a message to "Independent" Joe Lieberman by booting him out of the party caucus and chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee as firmly as Democratic voters rejected him in their 2006 primary.

Meanwhile, Lieberman will continue to make himself as obnoxious as he was at the Republican convention before he is finally relegated to the irrelevance he so richly deserves.

The Clintons' September Song

With the days dwindling down to a precious few, Hillary and Bill Clinton can't play the waiting game if they are going to help Barack Obama beat John McCain.

Today, one of the former First Lady's richest and most rabid supporters is going over to the Republican candidate. Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a prominent Hillary supporter and member of the Democratic National Committee’s Platform Committee, is endorsing John McCain.

“This is a hard decision for me personally because frankly I don't like him,” she says of Obama. “I feel like he is an elitist. I feel like he has not given me reason to trust him.”

Lady de Rothschild, nee Lynn Forster, is a non-elitist billionaire who is now investing in India. "Two hundred fifty million," she explains, "are middle-class, so you might not go for the Chanel glasses, but you sure could go for an Estée Lauder lipstick or a Starbucks coffee."

With such supporters defecting, Hillary and Bill Clinton don't have much time to start getting out to American places deprived of Estee Lauder and Starbucks to start convincing the inhabitants that Obama is the man to lead their country out of the economic chaos that won't leave Lady de Rothschild jobless and without health insurance.

McCain: Witness for the Prosecution

For the 9/11-like Commission he wants to study the Wall Street collapse, John McCain could well be the star witness about failure of government regulation to prevent chaos in the financial industry.

His actions as a member of the Keating Five in the 1980s, which the Senate Ethics Committee later labeled "poor judgment," were the start of two decades of McCain opposition to controlling the excesses he is now denouncing on the campaign trail.

Like the Washington insiders he is now promising to rein in, McCain took heavy campaign contributions from Savings and Loan operator Charles H. Keating, accepted free trips to Keating's Bahamas vacation retreat and saw his family turn a profit from an investment his wife and father-in-law made with Keating.

In return, McCain worked hard to delay and divert government action against Keating, who later went to jail for fraud and whose S&L bailout cost taxpayers more than $124 billion.

Now here he is in 2008, promising to reform what he was so deeply involved in and expecting voters to believe that he and Sarah Palin will ride in as mavericks to clean it all up.

In 2000, the Bush-Rove gang used a push poll about the Keating Scandal in the South Carolina primary to blemish McCain's straight-talk campaigning. Obama won't stoop to that, but voters with short memories should remember McCain's own record on corruption before swallowing his promises to shake up the way Washington does business.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Wall Street Sinkings

It's like watching "Titanic" at a multiplex with sequels on every screen as Lehman Brothers goes under and other huge financial vessels with gaping holes are being towed toward hopefully safe harbors.

For older observers, the maritime metaphor recalls a sendup of Wall Street, "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?", first published in 1940 and reissued seven years ago. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg, New York's new Mayor, called it "a hilarious classic that proves the more things change the more they stay the same."

The new edition was on the reading list for interns at Bear Stearns, apparently to no avail, and few investors seemed to take seriously Fred Schwed's opening caution:

"'Wall Street,' reads the sinister old gag, 'is a street with a river at one end and a graveyard at the other.' This is striking but incomplete. It omits the kindergarten in the middle..."

But no one is laughing now. "The nation," says a New York Times editorial today," needs a new perspective on the markets, one that acknowledges the self-destructive bent of unfettered capitalism and its ability, unchecked, to wreak havoc far beyond Wall Street."

Both presidential candidates are out there placing blame and offering life rafts for the survivors, who will have to get out of the kindergarten fast and learn how to stay afloat.

McCain's PR Playpen

His campaign flackery is being fronted by a 29-year-old attack puppy named Tucker Bounds, who can't seem to stop tripping over himself with mindless muck that makes John McCain look foolish and nasty almost every day.

Yesterday, the ebullient Bounds was taken to task by Fox News' Megyn Kelly for lying about Barack Obama's tax proposals and the bill he supported for sex education in the Illinois Legislature.

US News & World Report tagged him for trying to pass off Sarah Palin's command of the Alaska National Guard as foreign policy experience, and the campaign cancelled a McCain appearance on "Larry King Live" after mild-mannered Campbell Brown pressed the hapless Bounds in an interview on CNN.

Bounds and Jill Hazelbacker, 27, are former University of Oregon classmates who took over McCain's PR when the campaign was out of money a year ago and are still running the show now that he is the nominee.

Their Googled past is a virtual blank, except for an Oregonian feature that reveals Bounds' mother recalling "he declaimed in paragraphs in his playpen," even if no one understood what he was saying.

McCain, who is more than twice as old as his mouthpieces, should think seriously about getting spokespeople who are not still in the playpen. As he keeps telling us, experience counts.

Palin Attackers' Crystal Ball

In the first recorded case of political pre-cognition, Sarah Palin is refusing to cooperate in the Troopergate case on the grounds that Obama supporters in the Alaska Legislature are behind the investigation, which began on a bipartisan basis in July, two months before John McCain picked her as his running mate.

The less-than-momentous question of whether the Governor fired the commissioner who refused to fire her former brother-in-law is becoming a more important reflection of how the Vice-Presidential candidate deals with opposition.

There is a touch of Nixonian stonewalling, combined with Joe McCarthy-like smearing of the opposition, in her backers' insistence on turning an accusation of her misbehavior into attacks on those who are trying to get at the truth about what she did or didn't do.

A McCain spokesman said today that Palin will not cooperate with "that investigation so long as it remained tainted and run by partisan individuals who have a predetermined conclusion."

The fascinating question is how and why those nefarious Obama supporters decided to start mistreating her last summer.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Woman Behind "The Women"

They're showing Clare Boothe Luce's satire of her gender again on Turner Class Movies tonight and, in the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, memory brings back one of the most famous--and fascinating--political women of the past century.

As the new editor of McCalls in 1965, I inherited her as a columnist after my predecessor hired her to balance Eleanor Roosevelt with a conservative icon. But now Mrs. Roosevelt had died, and, to my discomfort, I was left with the caustic writer, a former member of Congress and Ambassador to Italy, wife of America’s most powerful publisher, known for consigning enemies to publicity hell, as she did a respected politician by noting her problems with him went back to “when Senator Wayne Morse was kicked in the head by a horse.”

After cocktails at lunch, I said earnestly, "Since you and I disagree about so much politically, I don’t see how we’re going to work together. We might keep making each other uncomfortable.”

With a dazzling smile, she answered, “Why don’t we try? I promise never to make you uncomfortable.”

She kept her promise. For the next three years, she wrote charming, sometimes touching pieces on manners, morals and culture, carefully skirting politics.

We would meet for lunch, spend a few minutes talking about the column, then argue amiably about politics. In her early sixties, Clare was a seductive storyteller and shrewd observer. When I told her about trying to protect Jacqueline Kennedy from embarrassment only to have her cancel an interview and give it to a competing magazine, Clare said sweetly, “The Kennedys leave no good deed unpunished.”

She talked often about her husband. Their turbulent marriage had settled into a kind of prickly peace, and she loved telling stories at his expense, about his misadventures as “the world’s worst driver” and his cantankerousness. They had just built a house in Hawaii, and the new cook asked, “How does Mr. Luce like his eggs?” “Any way,” Clare answered, “that you can’t cook them.”

She liked men but was an affectionate skeptic. "They say women talk too much," she once said. "If you've worked in Congress, you know the filibuster was invented by men." And: "A man's home looks like his castle on the outside. Inside, it's more like his nursery."

Early in 1967, after Luce died suddenly, I went to see her. Dressed in black, Clare seemed pale and fragile. In a disembodied voice, she talked about how free his life had been of suffering, how even death had come without pain. As always, her tone was wryly affectionate with an undercurrent of anger.

Just before I left, her voice softened. “The people from Time Inc. came yesterday,” she said, “and I made up my mind not to cry, so I put on false eyelashes...”

She looked at me. “But I don’t have them on now,” and broke into tears.

On the way out, I reminded myself Clare had been an actress, but if those tears were a performance, it was a good one.

Money Under the Mattress?

Childhood nightmares of the 1930s Depression are back today with the fall of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch as the unthinkable becomes the possibly avoidable in a national economic meltdown.

"Will the U.S. financial system collapse today," asks economist Paul Krugman, "or maybe over the next few days? I don’t think so--but I’m nowhere near certain."

As a small-account holder at Merrill Lynch, my antennae went up after a phone call from someone there this weekend trying to sell me a certificate of deposit--an unprecedented pitch for cash to bail out the huge investment house.

Where did all the money go? "To understand the problem," Krugman writes, "you need to know that the old world of banking...has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the 'shadow banking system'...(M)ost of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by 'nondepository' institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear Stearns--and Lehman.

"The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were."

So do we withdraw whatever money we have and put it in The First Bank of Sealy Posturepedic and start looking forward to former stockbrokers selling apples on street corners?

Not quite yet, but extreme caution is in the air. Krugman says "the system has been experiencing postmodern bank runs. These don’t look like the old-fashioned version: with few exceptions, we’re not talking about mobs of distraught depositors pounding on closed bank doors. Instead, we’re talking about frantic phone calls and mouse clicks, as financial players pull credit lines and try to unwind counterparty risk. But the economic effects--a freezing up of credit, a downward spiral in asset values--are the same as those of the great bank runs of the 1930s."

To put it in terms of the presidential election campaign: Are you feeling better off than you did eight years ago?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elder Statesman of Sleaze

Karl Rove, who smeared John McCain out of the presidency eight years ago, finds his victim's use of those tactics now against Barack Obama a trifle too crude for his taste.

"McCain," Karl Rove said today on Fox News, "has...gone one step too far and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the '100 percent truth' test."

Rove, in effect, is criticizing his own protégés in the McCain campaign, saying "there ought to be an adult who says, 'Do we really need to go that far in this ad? Don't we make our point and won't we get broader acceptance and deny the opposition an opportunity to attack us if we don't include that one little last tweak in the ad?'"

Amid the talk about pigs and lipstick, Rove's remarks call to mind the old saying about thrift--using every porker part but the squeal. As a paid pundit for Fox, Rove has even found a way to profit from that.

It's Not the Stupidity, Stupid

As Barack Obama's spokesman accuses John McCain of "the sleaziest and least honorable campaign in modern presidential campaign history," he is giving Republicans exactly what they want--shifting the focus of the election to personalities and tactics from what should be the main issue.

Ronald Reagan put it succinctly to voters in 1980: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The answer was a resounding no, and he swept a sitting president out of office.

This year the answer to the question, "Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" is so obvious and compelling that some in the Obama campaign seem to be acting on the assumption that it wouldn't be cool to keep harping on it.

They need a wakeup call similar to James Carville's 1992 reminder, "It's the economy, stupid" that saved Bill Clinton's effort against Bush 41 by keeping it on message: "It's not the stupidity, stupid."

It isn't the smear ads against Obama, the coded racial attacks that label him "different," the cynical selection of Sarah Palin, the McCain transition from straight talk to double talk. Those side shows are distractions from the main point that McCain has morphed into another Bush and is getting away with the claim that he represents change.

An ocean away, this seems clearer. The Sunday Telegraph quotes a Democratic Party official: "I really find it offensive when Democrats ask the Republicans not to be nasty to us, which is effectively what Obama keeps doing. They know that's how the game is played."

Of course, the smears and lies have to be addressed and swatted away like flies at a picnic, but that's the part-time work of staff and surrogates. Obama now is spending too much of his own time talking about "them" and what "they" are doing instead of telling voters what he will do to undo what the last eight years have brought them--loss of jobs, homes and health care to a wrong-headed war that has squandered lives and billions of dollars to the point of making most Americans despair about the future.

Obama himself seems to know that. "The McCain-Palin ticket," he said yesterday, "they don't want to debate the Obama-Biden ticket on issues because they are running on eight more years of what we've just seen. And they know it. As a consequence, what they're going to spend the next seven, eight weeks doing is trying to distract you."

He should remind his own staff, too.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Another Sunday Without Sarah

Tomorrow morning's political talk shows will offer interviews with a wide range of Republicans, including such women as Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Sen. Kay Baily-Hutchison of Texas, McCain advisors Carleton Fiorina and Nancy Pftotenhauer as well as former Massachusetts Acting Gov. Jane Swift.

Those interested in the politics of Alaska will hear from
Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who lost the 2006 election to someone who will be unavailable to discuss politics before facing a Fox News grilling on Tuesday by Sean Hannity.

With less than two months to go before Election Day, voters may be reminded of the dramaturgy of such classic thrillers as "Laura" and "The Third Man," in which the lead character fails to appear until halfway through the movie, only after the others actors have been endlessly babbling away about her/him without revealing anything significant.

Do the Clintons Really Want Obama to Win?

Amid all this year's psychodramas about gender, race and age, consider the conflict in the heart and soul of the 42nd President of the United States as he looks back at his past and ahead to his place in history.

This week Bill Clinton gave Barack Obama lunch in his Harlem office, a promise to do "whatever I'm asked" in the campaign and a prediction that Obama "will win and win handily" in November.

But nothing is simple in Clintonland. The day before, the former President had another visitor, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, head of the "vast right wing conspiracy" that had financed his impeachment. They talked cozily about doing good in the world, just as Hillary had met with the editorial board of Scaife's Pittsburgh newspaper and won their endorsement in this year's primary.

Since there are no permanent friends or enemies in the Clintons' lives (ask Bill Richardson), their support of Obama requires close parsing.

Without his own marital melodrama, there would be little reason to doubt Clinton's sincerity about seeing Obama as a logical heir to his and JFK's Democratic legacies. But the bruising primary season and Hillary Clinton's future hopes can't be left out of the equation.

At times this year, Bill Clinton seemed to be subverting his wife's campaign out of pique in what Maureen Dowd called "a self-pitying meltdown about not being Elvis anymore" and, even worse, out of some twisted need to undermine the woman who stood by him. After the contest was over, he reportedly told friends that Obama would "have to kiss my ass" to get his support.

Now, to make matters even stickier, there is the complication of Sarah Palin. If John McCain, with a woman as his running mate, wins in November, the Democratic door is open for Hillary Clinton in 2012.

This means that both Clintons have to be careful in campaigning for Obama not to alienate diehard supporters who saw sexism in this year's defeat and would be a core part of her support the next time around. Those who refuse to back Obama would take it amiss if either Clinton went after Palin.

So for both Clintons, there is personal risk in going all out to get Obama elected.

The "Profiles in Courage" question is: Will they put their country and their party first? Or is it silly to ask?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Forces of Nature

With a Katrina-sized hurricane bearing down on Texas amid whirlwind parsing of Sarah Palin's interview by Charlie Gibson, this looks like a weekend of hunkering down and hoping--a time for looking inward and wishing for the best.

As rational creatures, we want an explanation for everything so we can figure out how to cope. But especially on the day after 9/11, we know that some events are unforeseeable and leave us feeling helpless.

Weather forecasters predict "certain death" for those who stay in the Galveston area, and Peggy Noonan tells Obama supporters about Palin, "You can never kill her now. Forget it. She can hurt herself, but in terms of Democratic attacks she is bulletproof."

The hurricane is an immediate threat to life and limb, so it may be insensitive and unfair to compare its force to the potential destructiveness of a political figure who may or may not devastate our national life in the future.

But both are reminders that, much as we think of ourselves as knowledgeable, competent and evolved human beings, there are things in life we can't control. We just have to wait them out until things get back to normal.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Case for Closer Campaign Encounters

Around their drive-by handshake at this evening's forum on public service, John McCain and Barack Obama showed voters their best selves, but there must be an alternative to the sliming of the past weeks and tonight's arm's length politesse.

Why doesn't Obama take McCain up on the offer he repeated tonight for face-to-face town hall encounters? In such a setting, McCain would not have been able to pass off Sarah Palin's slur on community organizers without being pressed by Obama to repudiate such glib mindlessness.

In a race that has tightened and with McCain's momentum from Palin effect, Obama should rethink his rejection of the town-hall setting as he did the issue of public financing. A presidential race is no place for a foolish consistency.

The single most pressing problem for the Obama campaign is the split-screen McCain campaign in which he presents himself as the honorable warrior against corruption while his ads and surrogates, especially Palin, take the low Rovian road of swiftboating his history and positions on issues.

The surest way to deal with that is face to face on as frequent a schedule as possible. The debate format leaves too much wiggle room for evasion.

Obama's best chance lies in accepting the opportunities for hand-to-hand combat. He has the truth on his side in most of the controversies that have been stirred up, and he certainly has the rhetorical skills to make the most of it.