Sunday, November 30, 2008

Michelle Obama Is No Jacqueline Kennedy

The comparisons were inevitable: two charismatic presidents in their forties and their dazzling wives moving into the White House with young children.

"When Michelle Obama took to describing her new role as mom in chief," Ruth Marcus wrote in the Washington Post last week, "my first reaction was to wince at her words...What does it say about the condition of modern women that Obama... sounded so strangely retro--more Jackie Kennedy than Hillary Clinton?"

Marcus recalled that Cherie Blair "who managed to keep her barrister job while her husband was in office, grandly decreed that Tony, prime minister or not, would be taking paternity leave after the birth of their fourth child." But in advice to Michelle Obama, Mrs. Blair has now changed her tune:

"You have to learn to take a back seat, not just in public but in private. When your spouse is late to put the kids to bed, or for dinner, or your plans for the weekend are turned upside down again, you simply have to accept that he had something more important to do."

When Jacqueline Kennedy was about to become First Lady, she sounded like a Stepford wife, telling a reporter I sent to interview her, "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

But when the reporter put away his notebook, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

The difference between now and then is that Michelle Obama, unlike her predecessor, has had a successful career and put it on hold voluntarily to help her husband get elected and now to govern the country.

As the Kennedys entered the White House, there was obvious tension between them. I spent an hour with JFK waiting for her to appear for a cover shoot and, when I had to leave, he asked, "What do you do when your wife is always late?"

"You can't win, Senator," I answered. "If you let it pass, you're accused of not caring that something might have happened to her. If you complain, you're a brute."

"I'd rather," he said, his jaw tightening, "be a brute."

When Mrs. Kennedy arrived, the resulting pictures showed them looking less like a couple ready to move into the White House than a pair of prisoners posing for a joint mug shot. The shoot was rescheduled.

The Obamas' easy interplay during their Barbara Walters interview last week made it clear there was nothing "retro" about their roles in a relationship that others will be theorizing about during their years in the spotlight.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Math of Mass Murder

They are at the counting stage in Mumbai. As of now, the toll is that ten men killed almost 200 innocent people, but the numbers are only tentative until the fate of hundreds of wounded is clear.

These murderers were not as cost-efficient as the nineteen who caused almost 3000 deaths on 9/11. They didn't have airliners as weapons, although they did use such high-tech help as mobile phones, GPS and satellite phones in what an Indian official says was their objective of killing 5000 at random.

But the evidence is that they were less skilled than the 9/11 killers, some of whom took flying lessons while preparing to do their work. The one surviving Mumbai attacker is a 21-year-old Pakistani laborer with a fourth-grade education.

The human balance sheet is lopsided as it always is--among the victims, an American art professor and his 13-year-old daughter, a local bank chairman, the sister of a Bollywood actor, a young Brooklyn rabbi and his wife, and the head of an Indian antiterrorism squad.

Bullets and bombs outweigh all civilized accomplishments in such situations, and that is exactly the point the attackers want to make. In past times, a lone loser like Lee Harvey Oswald could deprive the world of a John F. Kennedy, but now the triumph of darkness comes in numbers.

The shock and horror are already starting to fade from TV screens and internet sites but, in days to come, it will become clearer to what extent Mumbai was intended to derail any political detente between India and Pakistan, just as terror attacks have so often sabotaged impending progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians and have stalled sectarian reconciliation in Iraq..

In the Middle East, mass murder is political, the larger the numbers the better.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Havoc for the Holiday

The Mumbai massacres undermine our shaky faith in human nature as American families gather for loving celebration in the safety they always took for granted before 9/11.

The identity of the killers matters less than their purpose--to "cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war," in Shakespeare's phrase--to attack civilization itself in bloodthirsty rage and hate.

As grievous as the slaughter of innocents is the knowledge that these acts of darkness, planned with precision, are abetted and amplified by the technology that has done so much to improve modern life, that computer and TV screens which create community can also be used to convey chaos.

It's hard to turn our eyes away from the carnage and concentrate on our good fortune without feeling that, no matter who these murderers turn out to be and whatever their "cause," we are living in a world where their like will be with us for a long time to come.

Bargain-Hunting Home Buyers

Bottom feeders pushed up the stock market this week. Shoppers should flood the stores for Black Friday specials tomorrow. Will potential buyers who have been waiting for housing prices to sink to their lowest go into action this weekend?

After an $800 billion stimulus plan for the credit markets announced this week by the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department, fixed-rate mortgages have been falling by as much as a full percentage point.

There are signs of movement in the housing market. "Almost immediately," according to a report from Sacramento, "homebuyers with deals pending raced to lock in rates. Potential homebuyers called their agents and said they were ready to look in earnest. Homeowners took a fresh look at the refinance market."

The leveling of home prices would be a major step in slowing foreclosures and unfreezing credit in general. After lunching on leftover turkey sandwiches, home seekers may start looking in earnest for places to host family Christmas dinners.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

On the eve of our annual day of excess, we are all suffering from the heartburn of years of greed and over-consumption that a ton of antacids won't cure.

In today's Times, Tom Friedman catalogues the gluttons: "People who had no business buying a home, with nothing down and nothing to pay for two years; people who had no business pushing such mortgages, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business bundling those loans into securities and selling them to third parties, as if they were AAA bonds, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business rating those loans as AAA, but made a fortunes doing so; and people who had no business buying those bonds and putting them on their balance sheets so they could earn a little better yield, but made fortunes doing so."

In the traditional celebration of plenty, Americans will be forced to give some thought to how much is enough as an outgoing government keeps pouring money into who-knows-where and to what effect while the incoming crew chafes at the bit with "new thinking" from some of the same people who championed the old.

As Americans sit down to turkeys with all the trimmings in Norman Rockwell settings, they are not living in that 20th century world of bounty and won't be for the foreseeable future.

The President-Elect managed to reassure the stock markets into gains this week, but our government may have to provide more than $7.76 trillion to rescue the financial system after guaranteeing $306 billion to Citigroup--as much as half the value of everything produced in the nation last year.

That's a lot turkey, yams and pumpkin pie.

Obama View From Barbara Walters

In the face of change, the timeless Barbara Walters scores another "get" with an exclusive interview with the Obamas, in which the new President talks about moral responsibility and the First Lady reveals that her daughters will be making their own beds in the White House.

Detroit automakers, Barack Obama tells her, are "a little tone deaf to what's happening in America right now...a problem for the captains of industry, generally. When people are pulling down hundred-million-dollar bonuses on Wall Street, and taking enormous risks with other people's money...they're not seeing what's going on out there, and one of the things I hope my presidency helps to usher in is a return to an ethic of responsibility."

In the interview, there are echoes of JFK's Inaugural Address ("Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country"):

"(T)here's got to be a point where you say, 'You know what, I have enough, and now I'm in this position of responsibility, let me make sure that I'm doing right by people, and, and acting in a way that is responsible.' And that's true, by the way, for members of Congress, that's true for the president, that's true for Cabinet members, that's true for parents. I want all of us to start thinking a little bit more, not just about what's good for me...but what's good for our children, what's good for our country. The more we do that, the better off we're going to be."

It's good to see Walters, in her eightieth year, still out-hustling the competition after more than half a century, starting with her first job doing publicity for Redbook when I was editor.

Later, when the president's daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, went to work at McCalls, there were almost daily calls to get me to arrange an exclusive interview. Barbara didn't get that one, but there are few she has missed since then.

It's good to see that not everything changes.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


With the imminent naming of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the retention of Robert Gates at Defense will raise questions about exactly what Barack Obama means by "change."

One thing is clear: The new president does not equate change with personal revenge (Joe Lieberman's survival even more than Clinton's appointment proves that) or even, as with Gates, new faces.

Idealistic as he may be, Obama is also a pragmatist and keeping Gates is a practical solution during the necessary emphasis on the economy in the early days of the new administration.

Next week, Obama will be naming the rest of his foreign-policy team, which will reorient our Middle East policy away from Iraq toward the dangers posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his two years at Defense, Gates has clearly been as realistic as could be expected, while serving Bush, on that subject.

Moreover, as soon as he replaced Rumsfeld, he saved American lives by giving priority to mine-resistant, ambush-protected trucks (MRAPs) that had been stalled for two years by Pentagon bureaucrats and, in succeeding months, aligned himself with Condoleeza Rice in blunting the push of Cheney's Neo-Cons for attacking Iran.

"Off with their heads" ideologues won't be satisfied by the arguments for retaining Gates, but he will be a reassuring figure as Obama goes about saving the economy and getting us out of Iraq.

Flying Turkeys of Yesteryear

It's not every day you get to write a sentence like this:

As Keith Olbermann was making a pumpkin pie with Martha Stewart yesterday, they discussed the video of Sarah Palin cheerfully pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey with others being slaughtered in the background, as he recalled the classic 1978 WKRP sitcom episode of turkeys being dropped from a helicopter on the mistaken assumption that they could fly.

In the context of politicians scrambling around to give Citibank, AIG and other plummeting turkeys a soft landing, there is something symbolic about Palin's rescue plan for one bird while others are going down.

After all this, the nostalgic may opt for a Thanksgiving dinner of moose chili and watching tapes of Jimmy Carter's fireside chats about the ailing economy back then.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Two Presidents at a Time

As the incoming president introduced his economic team and said there isn't "a minute to waste" in putting them to work, there was a brief, almost ghostly sighting of George W. Bush and Henry Paulson on cable news to promote the Citibank bailout, which Bush said he had discussed with Obama before it was announced.

"My commitment is to do what is required," Obama said at his Chicago news conference today. "President Bush has indicated that he has the same approach, the same attitude."

The President-Elect added that he has asked his new team to consult with Congress, the Bush Administration and the Federal Reserve on economic developments over the next two months.

So much for one president at a time, but the cooperative effort is not going to solve the main problems. The Citibank bailout was needed but drew immediate criticism from economists for being too large. too generous and without adequate supervision.

No matter how hard both Administrations try to deal with it, the two-presidents trap is going to be messy and expensive from now until January 20th.

Rethinking Risk

In all the replays of what went wrong with the economy, the recurring theme is the failure of risk management--by the government, Wall Street and overreaching home buyers.

Over the weekend, we get disheartening replays of how the Bush Administration abdicated responsibility for regulation and how greedy hotshots at Citibank created a mess that taxpayers will now have to clean up with billions in a bailout.

"In normal times," the Economist says in its piece on Treasury Secretary-to-be Timothy Geithner, "risk aversion damps economic cycles; in a crisis, it accentuates them, leading to withdrawn credit, evaporating liquidity, margin calls, falling asset prices, and more risk aversion. 'The brake becomes the accelerator,' as he puts it."

So we have a topsy-turvy world now in which prudence that has morphed into fear is causing the freezing of credit, and the kind of gambling that caused the problem is the prescription for curing it:

"Mr Geithner understands better than almost anyone that in crises you throw out the forecast and focus on avoiding low probability events with catastrophic consequences. Such judgments are excruciating: do too little, and you undermine confidence and generate a bigger crisis that needs even bigger policy action. Do too much, and you look panicked and invite blowback from Wall Street, Congress and the press. At times during the crisis Mr Geithner would counsel Mr Bernanke on the importance of the right 'ratio of drama to effectiveness.'”

For those of us who grew up with a Depression mentality (my parents wanted me to be a teacher because in hard times they still have jobs), this upends a lifetime of trying "not to live beyond your means."

We watch in wonder as a beleaguered government frantically throws billions into rescuing institutions that broke all the rules of our lifetime and wonder, when this is mercifully over, how will we get back to a sane balance of risk and reward to help our children and grandchildren pay for all this madness?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can Obama Stop the Panic?

The Lame Duck has laid an egg on the economy, and nothing better can hatch until he gets out of the nest.

Tomorrow the President-in-Waiting-Who-Can't-Afford-to-Wait will announce his financial dream team and game plan as panic buttons are being pushed all over the world.

*On Meet the Press, Bush family Consiglere James Baker, who muscled W. into office in 2000, now suggests he vacate early by sitting down with Obama now "to see if there isn't something that they could do jointly, together, over the next 58 to 60 days that would help us make sure that the financial system is stabilized and secure," warning that "this thing is even, believe it or not, going to get worse...(S)itting down together and seeing if there's not one thing that they could come together on would do a lot to restore confidence and remove the anxiety and fear that's out there."

*Senior advisor David Axelrod says Obama "wants a plan big enough to deal with the large challenges we face. And I think there's a growing consensus across the spectrum among economists that we're going to have to do something big,"

*The International Monetary Fund's Chief Economist predicts "The worst is yet to come" in the universal liquidity crisis.

*The usually sunny Thomas Friedman quotes a Yale professor of international finance questioning whether "we are staring at a deep hole that the entire world could fall into” and, if so, declaring " we need a huge catalyst of confidence and capital to turn this thing around. Only the new president and his team, synchronizing with the world’s other big economies, can provide it.

“The biggest mistake Obama could make is thinking this problem is smaller than it is."

Tomorrow at midday, the President-Elect takes the stage to do what he can to stop the panic. By late afternoon, the stock market will have given us a first reading on how well he has managed to do it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

45 Years Ago Today

As editor of Redbook, I was about to make a lunchtime speech to three hundred advertising people at the Ambassador East in Chicago. After that, I would check out, have dinner on the Twentieth Century Limited, read myself to sleep and be home in the morning.

Shortly after noon, I was at a table with guests, nattering about nothing over shrimp cocktails, when a waiter bent to my ear and whispered, "President Kennedy's been shot."

I followed him into the kitchen. A small TV set was surrounded by waiters holding trays, chefs with knives and cleavers, maids carrying mops, frozen in shock, tears in their eyes. On the grainy screen, Walter Cronkite was talking evenly about a motorcade, a book depository, Parkland Hospital, but his stricken face was telling more.

I came back to the dining room, went to the platform and tapped on the microphone. As the clatter calmed, I found words coming out of my mouth.

"I'm sorry to have to tell you, but President Kennedy's been shot and it looks...bad. I know you'll want to go where you can find out more. Thank you for coming."

As I sat down dazed, the waiter asked if I wanted lunch and I shook my head. A minute later he put a goblet of brandy in front of me.

A white-haired man came up and asked, "Aren't you going to make your speech?" I shook my head.

The large TV screen upstairs showed Cronkite's face crumpling as he told of Kennedy's death. I packed my bags.

On the train, I felt I was going from where my life had been to somewhere else. In my fortieth year, in the dining car, I tried to take in people talking and laughing, but nothing made sense. I went to my roomette for a night of sleepless sleep.

Three months earlier, I had been in the Oval Office with the man now dead in Dallas. Kennedy was sitting in a rocking chair and his face, under the Hyannisport tan, was drawn, lines around his sunken eyes telling an unspoken story of pain and pills. We talked for half an hour and, when he rose to shake hands goodbye, I thought I saw him wince.

Now he was gone, and the world would never be the same again.

The Coming of a Can-Do Government

In the wreckage of this week's news, it's encouraging to watch the Obama Administration taking shape with an emphasis on extreme competence (no heck-of-a-job Brownie in the lot).

Today's New York Times describes it as "tilting toward the center, inviting a clash of ideas," but the left-right analysis seems less to the point than the question of getting things done as transition team members "believe that the new administration will have no time for a learning curve."

Starting with the choice of Rahm Emanuel, a can-do guy if there ever was one, the new President clearly intends to surround himself with brains and real-world experience rather than like-mindedness and loyalty.

That was reflected in the leak yesterday about the new Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, a pragmatist with deep experience, whose choice sent the stock market into euphoria. As America's face to the financial world, he will represent steady resolve compared to former Treasury chief Lawrence Summers, a bombastic figure Obama considered putting back into the job, who will likely end up in the White House as a senior economic adviser.

After such choices as the new Attorney General Eric Holder, Peter Orszag as Budget Director and Greg Craig as White House Counsel, conservative David Brooks calls the new Obama team "more impressive than any other in recent individuals who are persuadable by evidence...admired professionals" who are "not excessively partisan" and "not ideological."

How does Hillary Clinton fit into this picture? She certainly would not blend into the Obama woodwork, but there is something more at stake in her choice as Secretary of State. For those who have become unsure about American values, she would make the Bush-Cheney worldview look like the aberration it has been and reassure continuity of our good intentions and good sense.

As with all of Obama's other choices, personal loyalty would be beside the point.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Wall Street Life Preserver

A stock market starving for reassurance bounced up 500 points late this afternoon on reports that Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, is going to be Barack Obama's Treasury Secretary.

For a look at what he will bring to the crisis, a piece by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic is a good place to start, reporting an almost picture-perfect combination of the kind of intelligence, judgment, temperament and experience for that crucial position.

Wall Street was in need of a life preserver to keep from drowning in panic, and the Administration-to-be threw out one that should buoy investors up, through the weekend at least.

So much for the theory of releasing only bad news on Friday nights.

Making Scenes and Making Laws

As pop culture goes gaga over teenage vampires, Washington's idea of infusing new blood is a Congressional coup with 69-year-old Henry Waxman wresting chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 82-year-old John Dingell.

Such generational change is stirring hopes on the left and fears on the right that Detroit will be pressured to stop making gas guzzlers as a start toward energy independence that could help the economy and slow global warming.

But the difference between the new chairman's Hollywood constituency, which feeds on trends like popcorn, and Washington, where inertia is a way of life, should give pause to those reading too much into the ascendance of Waxman, whose rise to power has been marked by championing such causes as expanding Medicaid coverage for children, helping AIDS patients and making generic drugs widely available.

But he is no Frank Capra hero, constantly grabbing attention with such stunts as horning in on the Valerie Plame publicity and hauling Roger Clemens in front of TV cameras for alleged steroid use.

In the Bush years, Waxman has had ample opportunity to strike poses, but how will he do at making deals that lead to legislation?

The Wall Street Journal is convinced that "Mr. Waxman, speaking for the upscale precincts of Beverly Hills, wants to phase out coal and cars that use gasoline. The coastal elites who now dominate Democratic politics will happily trade the blue collar for the green collar...It's obvious who now pulls the Democratic levers of power, and anyone in the energy or health-care business had better erect the barricades."

Nice imagery for a Hollywood movie, but how will it play out in Washington?

George W. Bush's Impossible Achievement

As he serves out his time, the self-styled Decider is putting Americans through the most agonizing period of indecision in three-quarters of a century, leaving a unified nation holding its breath until January 20th.

Paul Krugman cites today's parallel with the "power vacuum" in 1932-1933 that was "disastrous for the U.S. economy, at least in part because the outgoing administration had no credibility, the incoming administration had no authority and the ideological chasm between the two sides was too great to allow concerted action."

George W. Bush has spent eight years using the power of an imperial presidency to make government impotent and has succeeded so well that Congress is helpless to do anything about saving a failing economy until he leaves Washington.

His Treasury Secretary has disbursed almost half of the $700 billion bailout money he begged for and, with the crisis worsening, has gone into hiding until he can get out of town.

Congressional Democrats are tap-dancing for time by castigating drowning Detroit auto makers for not flying tourist class while checking airline schedules for their own two-month vacations.

Meanwhile, Wall Street keeps sinking to new lows daily, credits markets are freezing up again and the rest of America is facing a holiday season of deep despair.

Bush's crowning achievement is that he will leave the White House, having united the country, in fact the whole world, in a universal hunger for government to do something, anything but what he has been doing and not doing during his tenure in office.

The minute Barack Obama takes the oath, there will be a huge sigh of relief heard around the globe.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Obama's Women

With the Hillary Clinton melodrama still unfolding, the news today is about two women heading for the Obama cabinet--Janet Napolitano as head of Homeland Security and fund-raiser Penny Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce.

Gov. Napolitano of Arizona won reelection in John McCain's home state by a nearly 2-1 margin in 2006 and, during her years as a US attorney, was involved in the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing. Her new job could position her to run against McCain for the Senate in 2010.

Ms. Pritzker, on the other hand, is a Chicago billionaire with no previous political experience but much in the field of commerce as a member of one of America's least-known richest families.

My final years as editor of McCalls were spent working for her uncles, who bought the magazine as a minor investment in the 1970s and were astonished to find themselves on the front pages of the New York Times. "Welcome to the information industry," I told them by way of explanation.

Their niece may be similarly surprised if and when she faces Senate confirmation and finds herself being grilled about her stint with the Superior Bank of Chicago, another minor family subsidiary that made headlines by being embroiled in a subprime mortgage mess two decades ago. But her career in business and philanthropy will no doubt override that minor embarrassment.

Meanwhile, along with the appointment of Karen Kornbluh as his chief policy director and longtime family friend Valerie Jarrett as White House senior adviser, Barack Obama has made a good start at surrounding himself with powerful women, no surprise for a young man who was reared by a strong grandmother and chose an even stronger wife.

Update: Ms. Pritzker late today announced her withdrawal from consideration for the Commerce position. As I recall, her family always hated getting too much attention to their business dealings.

Health Care in a Sick Economy

As jobs disappear and economic anxiety spreads, the incoming Congress is showing signs of getting serious about health care reform, and the entrenched health insurers are signaling their willingness to negotiate.

Two trade groups, America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, are saying they would guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, if they can get a mandate for individual coverage by everyone, sick or well.

This "concession" comes as seven senators responsible for health legislation met yesterday and promised to work together--Democrats Max Baucus, Chris Dodd, Ted Kennedy and John D. Rockefeller IV along with Republicans Michael Enzi, Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch.

The imminent appointment of Tom Daschle as Obama's point man on the issue is another sign that the failing economy is putting more pressure on Washington to create a health care safety net for everyone just as the 1930s produced Social Security for the old.

Without limits on predatory premiums and safeguards against fraud by providers, guaranteed coverage would do nothing to solve the crisis in which one out of every three dollars spent on health is going to insurers' overhead and profits.

But at least the issue is on the table, and the Wall Street Journal is sounding the alarm about a "slow-motion catastrophe" that might "add tens of millions more people to the federal balance sheet. Because the public option will enjoy taxpayer sponsorship, it will offer generous packages to consumers that no private company could ever afford or justify. And because federal officials will run not only the new plan but also the 'market' in which it 'competes' with private programs--like playing both umpire and one of the teams on the field--they will crowd out private alternatives and gradually assume a health-care monopoly."

Sounds something like the approach of a single-payer system, which rational observers have been urging all along, but nothing could be worse than what we have now

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rivals, Retreads and Other Irrelevance

As he picks Rahm Emanuel, Eric Holder, Tom Daschle and flirts with the former First Lady, there is a predictable chorus of criticism that going back to the Clinton years is not the change Barack Obama promised in his campaign.

Some of that was heard when he chose Joe Biden as his running mate, but Obama's goal all along was to persuade voters wary of his inexperience that the best of the past would not be swept away in rhetorical enthusiasm for the new.

He is fulfilling that promise and concentrating on the real change from the Bush-Cheney years, bringing competence back to Washington, wherever he finds it--in the over-touted Lincolnesque "team of rivals" or in the best of the 1990s.

Holder, the new Attorney General who served under Janet Reno, will have the monumental job of restoring Justice to its pre-Ashcroft, pre-Gonzales stature, as he indicated in a speech last June, citing that "disrespect for the rule of law is not only wrong, it is destructive in our struggle against terrorism."

"Our government," he said, "authorized the use of torture, approved of secret electronic surveillance against American citizens, secretly detained American citizens without due process of law, denied the writ of habeas corpus to hundreds of accused enemy combatants, and authorized the use of procedures that violate both international law and the United States Constitution."

Obama's apparent willingness to consider keeping Robert Gates on as Secretary of Defense is based on Gates' capable performance following Don Rumsfeld's ideological reign in the Pentagon, and there may well be places in the new administration for Colin Powell, Chuck Hagel and other able Republicans.

So far, Obama's choices have reflected well on his judgment about the judgment of those who will be helping him, regardless of their resumes. January 20th can't come a minute too soon.

Bailouts: The Game Show

TV news is beginning to look like the mother of all game shows with Washington contestants competing to pick a jackpot for the economy.

Here is Henry Paulson wavering between the curtains marked Toxic Loans and Bank Capital, some members of Congress wanting to take a flyer on Detroit, Sheila Bair of the FDIC choosing Foreclosure Relief as the audience of lobbyists cheers them on and the rest of us wait anxiously for someone to come up with a winner.

Mitt Romney, whose family money comes from the car industry, shows up today to opt for Big Three Bankruptcy while a nearby New York Times editorial urges Congress to open the curtain marked Modifying Home Loans.

The Bailout Show so far is not getting stock-market ratings like the Neilsens of such classics as Deal or No Deal, but changing the host in January may make a difference. Meanwhile we're all watching, remote in hand, hoping that no one shows up to repossess the TV set.

So far, the show looks far from ready for prime time.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Triumph of the Turncoat Houdini

Today's escape from losing his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security Committee caps Joe Lieberman's career of having it both ways in two decades of sanctimonious posturing and backroom politicking.

With a novelist's eye for the absurd, Joan Didion nailed him in her reporting of the 2000 election campaign:

"Senator Lieberman, who had come to the nation's attention as the hedge player who had previously seized center stage by managing both to denounce the president [Bill Clinton] for "disgraceful" and "immoral" behavior and to vote against his conviction (similarly, he had in 1991 both voiced support for and voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas) was not, except to the press, an immediately engaging personality...

"His speech patterns, grounded in the burdens he bore for the rest of us and the personal rewards he had received from God for bearing it, tended to self-congratulation."

Lieberman called today's verdict “fair and forward-looking” and one of “reconciliation and not retribution,” but others, like this constituent, will see it as another slithering out of responsibility for his actions by the weasel who was voted out by his party in the 2006 primaries but kept his seat when Republicans named a non-entity to throw the three-way race his way.

The President-Elect and Senate Democrats may congratulate themselves on today's act of anonymous generosity, but Connecticut residents who are enraged by and stuck with Lieberman's smug, self-righteous, self-serving wrong-headedness won't join in the celebration.

Kissing Hillary

An editor who didn't get an expected promotion once cabled Henry Luce of Time Inc, "If you didn't intend to kiss me, why did you keep me standing on my tippy toes?"

The image comes back as days stretch out over the possible appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, creating the first tiny crisis of the Obama Administration in the making.

As in all matters Clinton, the stumbling block is the former President and possible conflicts of interest created by his current activities, donors, backers and business associates in the complex corporation of Bill Inc.

Symbolically, he enthused this weekend, “I think she’ll be really great as a secretary of state” while in Kuwait for a paid speech at a symposium sponsored by the National Bank of Kuwait to “share with a select audience his perspective on the issues likely to shape the future prospects of the region.”

The media frenzy, set off by the face-to-face meeting of Obama and Hillary Clinton last Thursday, raises the question of why the vetting could not have done before that event, which was sure to start a furor of speculation.

Now there are reports of rising anger and unhappiness among Obama supporters as the process drags on with no confirmation or denial.

For someone who was almost uniformly sure-handed during the campaign, the President-to-be has let things get out of hand on this possible appointment. Or did he intend to create such venting of emotion before making the announcement? There will be no shortage of opinions both ways.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama and Palin: Publicity Saints

Much has changed since I worked in the Fame Factory as an editor, exploiting big names to sell magazines and, in the circular process, enlarging their status as media megastars.

But even in today's climate of disposable celebrities who are quickly used up like Kleenex, there is still the rare publicity saint, where mere mention of a name invokes automatic interest over time, as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin (sorry to say) now do.

Merit is moot--it's the tingle of curiosity that attaches to every sighting or utterance, no matter how trivial or vapid, as evidenced by reports that Palin is signing a $7 million book deal and by a magazine editor's breathless comment that "photos of her just sitting there, looking like a normal person, could go for solid five-figure sums."

At the other end of the substance scale, Obama's imminent presidency recalls the editorial excitement over JFK. I put a black-and-white picture of him with Caroline on his lap on a Redbook cover in 1961, over the protests of the Circulation Department, and it sold out. Now Obama is on the cover of GQ after a photo shoot of less than two minutes, accompanied by a paean from, fittingly enough, Ted Kennedy.

My friend, Dick Stolley, the first editor of People, formulated the rule for best-selling celebrities in the 1970s: "Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. Movies are better than music. Music is better than television. Television is better than sports. And anything is better than politics."

Now that politics has become show business, sports and beauty contest rolled into one, there are, as Bill Maher would say, New Rules. But if we can get an Obama, putting up with Palin is worth the price.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Obamas: Keeping It Real

If self-possession is a requirement for a successful presidency, Michelle and Barack Obama showed it in abundance on 60 Minutes tonight.

In half a century of watching White House occupants publicly and privately, I have never seen a couple as comfortable with themselves and each other as these two people who had to overcome extraordinary barriers to get there.

Obama, who avoided talking about race after his Philadelphia speech, acknowledged on Election Night "emotion that I could see in people's faces and in my mother-in-law's face...Michelle's mom, who grew up on the west and south sides of Chicago, who worked so hard to help Michelle get to where she is, her brother to be successful. She was sitting next to me, actually, as we were watching returns...

"And suddenly she just kind of reached out and she started holding my hand, you know, kind of squeezing it. And you had this sense of, 'Well, what's she thinking?' For a black woman who grew up in the 50s, you know, in a segregated Chicago, to watch her daughter become first lady of the United States. I think there was that sense across the country. And not unique to African-Americans."

When their journey started, Obama told Tim Russert with a nervous smile that his wife and friends thought he was still there behind all the hype and hoopla. Almost two years later, he still seems to be himself after all the exposure and pressure to become the fictional character that presidential aspirants usually morph into.

From the evidence of their interplay tonight, his staying grounded has much to do with the woman at his side, who teased him about the car he drove with a hole in the floorboard when they first met and his Washington apartment ("a dump") that she refused to sleep in during his Senate days.

Talking about what he will face as president in dealing with a sick economy, the President-to-be projected a no-nonsense approach that would be seamless with the kind of personal life he has led and will, if Michelle Obama has anything to say about it, continue to lead in the White House.

Dates Certain for Iraq Withdrawal

Deadlines for American troops to leave were set today with a near-unanimous Iraqi Cabinet vote that requires coalition forces to withdraw from cities and towns by the summer of 2009 and from the country by the end of 2011 with no ifs, ands or buts.

As late as Friday, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr was calling for armed resistance against a continued US presence in Iraq, and there will undoubtedly be sectarian jockeying before the full parliament approves today's decision, but it lays out timetables that an Obama Administration will have as a framework for its own decisions about starting to draw down the 150,000 troops still there.

Meanwhile, the American death toll in George W. Bush's war has passed 4200 and will continue well after he leaves the White House, but at least the end is in sight.

A Haitus for Honest Abe

News flash for the punditocracy: Barack Obama is not a YouTube reincarnation of Lincoln. Despite their common Illinois roots and the reverberations over race, pace Doris Kearns Goodwin, it's time to put aside Obama-Lincoln comparisons and be realistic about what the new president is facing in a 21st century world.

Evan Thomas at Newsweek obviously did not get the memo and in the new issue writes: "It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones—by hand, on yellow legal paper..."

But this kind of mooning over Obama obscures the tough, torturing questions he has to deal with, even before taking office. Notes on a yellow legal pad won't go very far toward stabilizing financial markets, saving Detroit, realigning our Mideast policy and solving the high pile of other problems George W. Bush is leaving on the Oval Office desk.

When President Obama is sworn in, the last thing he needs is gauzy expectations that he will wave a Lincolnesque wand and make them all go away.

There will be hard, practical political choices and the decisions of the new administration are going to displease and disappoint not only its critics but fervent supporters who, with the luxury of venting their rage during the Bush era, are not poised to accept tradeoffs and incremental improvements.

But there can't be an Emancipation Proclamation from the national enslavement to stupidity and meanness that makes all the consequences go away with a few strokes of a pen.

Even the ebullient Newsweek essay ends on a cautionary note:

"With luck, he will not be confronted with lose-lose decisions like LBJ, who had to choose between the Great Society and the war in Vietnam and ultimately lost both. Obama will surely face some hard choices, and possibly all at once. He may not wind up as a tragic figure like LBJ, but he may also disappoint the expectations of his vast legions of believers. He will not be 'the One'; he will be human like the rest of us."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama Baby Boom

The Urban Legend makers are ushering in the new era with speculation that large numbers of children may have been "conceived after Obama was proclaimed President, by way of celebratory sex" by young voters.

Newsweek even adds the nice touch that Obama himself, "the son of politically progressive parents, was born Aug. 4, 1961--almost nine months to the day after John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House. Is it possible Obama was conceived on that historic night?"

The history of baby-making myths is not reassuring. After the massive blackout of November 9, 1965, the New York Times ran three stories the following August reporting a baby boom resulting from that night.

Since then, demographers have debunked the theory with unromantic statistics showing that, despite the widespread phenomenon of couples having nothing to do that night and spending it by candlelight, the birth rate did not rise.

If Nature has failed to produce such results, there is still some evidence that man-made euphoria may do so, as in Germany last year after the excitement of hosting the World Cup soccer matches.

We'll have to wait until next summer to see if Obama mania overcame couples' inhibitions about adding to their families in a time of economic woes.

McCain, Secretary of Defense?

If the new president is serious about Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State as he follows Lincoln's "team of rivals" approach, Barack Obama should consider John McCain as Secretary of Defense.

When the two meet on Monday, at Obama's suggestion it turns out, "sitting down in a serious way" to "find common ground," the discussion might include a role for McCain in the new administration.

McCain's maverick history makes it unlikely that Senate Republicans will look to him for leadership. (One of them, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, is already accusing him of betraying Republican principles.)

Despite campaign differences over the past in Iraq, Obama and McCain, if they teamed up, would be faced with implementing an exit strategy being firmed up in the last days of the Bush Administration and shifting military attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The political aspect is not in much dispute

As Gen. David Petraeus' most vocal admirer, McCain is in a position to bring together the new Commander-in-Chief and the armed forces, and his abrasiveness, unlike that of the armchair warrior Donald Rumsfeld, could be effective in a Pentagon that needs strong leadership.

On the campaign trail, McCain persuaded a substantial number of voters that he was qualified to lead the nation on national security. As an Obama Administration focuses on saving the economy, he could provide leadership and reassurance in the war on terror.

If Obama is as generous and inclusive as he appears to be, bringing both of his chief rivals for the presidency on board would be a strong signal that national unity is possible.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Defining Moment

Today's transition hot topic is the rumor that the President-Elect is considering Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State and that the two of them have met in Chicago to discuss it.

Coming right after the buzz about her as Senate Major Leader, this seems to be a fork in the road for the former First Lady. Does she best keep her presidential hopes alive by devoting herself to domestic issues or foreign policy?

It may be a close call. In the immediate future, the economy will be front and center on the national agenda, but if any Obama initiatives fail (and some almost certainly will), should the once and future candidate risk taking the heat for them as legislative overseer? As the original proponent of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" a decade ago, how effective would she be in reaching across the aisle for bipartisanship?

As Secretary of State, Clinton would be the face of America interacting with world leaders, but it would be President Obama's policy and, while there might less glory in it, the position would strengthen her future claims about experience against any upstart political opponent in 2016.

If Obama offers her the position, it would be tempting and, for the rest of us, fascinating to see Bill Clinton traveling the world in the role of an upgraded Denis Thatcher.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Katrina of Cash

Almost half the $700 billion bailout money has been shoveled out the door, but nobody is keeping track of it.

"It's a mess," says Eric M. Thorson, the Treasury Department's inspector general, who has overseen the dispensing of $290 billion so far until a special inspector general takes over. "I don't think anyone understands right now how we're going to do proper oversight of this thing."

Nobody expects neatness from a rescue operation in panic mode, but the spectacle of Bush Administration ineptness coupled with Congressional turf warfare in an interregnum is distressing.

Six weeks have passed without White House naming of an inspector general to conduct audits and investigations of the bailout, including equity investments in firms.with reports about assets acquired, their value, the reasons for acquiring them and details about individuals and companies in each deal.

Meanwhile in the Senate, the Finance and Banking Committees are arguing over the confirmation process when the Administration finally does, and lobbyists are besieging a former Karl Rove White House assistant in cowboy boots, 32-year-old Jeb Mason, who is charged with sorting out the supplicants for loans.

With each passing day, it's looking like another Katrina, with money instead of water.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pursuing Palin, Shunning Ron Paul

It would be restful if, along with Joe the Plumber, John McCain's running mate just went off into a disposable-celebrity waste basket along with the other used Kleenex of the campaign, but Sarah Palin and the idea of her are still with us, as Andrew Sullivan so cogently points out today:

"That the Palin absurdity should follow the two-term presidency of another individual utterly out of his depth in national government is particularly troubling; 46 percent of Americans voted for the possibility of this blank slate as president because she somehow echoed their own sense of religious or cultural 'identity'. Until we figure out how this happened, we will not be able to prevent it from happening again."

Promoting an over-aged cheerleader with no political substance whatsoever for 2012, as William Kristol and others are doing, is a sign that the diaper division of the Republican Party has no interest in going back to its Goldwater-William F. Buckley roots and offering principled opposition to the new Democratic majority.

Palin's ascension is highlighted by the decline and fall of Ron Paul who, in his own idiosyncratic way, identified some of the issues that his party should be considering and debating. As Paul now writes:

"In the rise and fall of the recent Republican reign of power these past decades, the goal of the party had grown to be only that of gaining and maintaining power--with total sacrifice of the original Republican belief in shrinking the size of government."

Instead, the GOP focus is on Palin's "star quality" and her media blitz this week to make GOP true believers forget how her vast emptiness and arrogance helped bring down John McCain's campaign.

Making Book on Paulson

An editor once proposed a picture book titled "They Must Know What They're Doing or They Wouldn't Be Where They Are," featuring the captain of the Titanic, the designer of the Edsel, LBJ running the Vietnam war and other disaster-prone people in high places.

Add Henry Paulson to the list. After pushing Congress into a panic to let him buy toxic mortgage assets, Bush's Treasury Secretary today said maybe not, announcing the plan is on hold.

At a news conference, Paulson said the $700 billion will be used instead to bolster the financial markets and, in turn, make loans more accessible for creditworthy borrowers:

“During times like these with a slowing economy and some deterioration in credit conditions, even the healthiest banks tend to become more risk-averse and restrain lending, and regulators’ actions have reinforced this lending restraint in the past.”

Four federal agencies, including the Federal Reserve and the FDIC, joined in by issuing a statement practically begging banks to step up: “Lending to creditworthy borrowers provides sustainable returns for the lending organization and is constructive for the economy as a whole.”

Paulson's turning on a dime is analogous to what the Bush Administration might have done five years ago if, after getting Congress to authorize invasion of Iraq and starting the shock and awe, they suddenly decided to stop and bomb Iran instead.

No wonder, in the face of all this fumbling, the stock market keeps going down, waiting for a signal about where all this confusion is heading.

The naming of Obama's Treasury Secretary, along with a clear statement of intentions about the financial markets, gets more urgent with each passing day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Chutzpah of John Edwards

Emerging from the Democratic Party witness protection program, the former perpetual candidate is slouching toward redemption tonight for a discussion of last week's elections at Indiana University and next week to debate Karl Rove, his Republican counterpart in shamelessness, at an American Bankers Association meeting in San Francisco (paying them with taxpayer bailout money, no doubt).

There used to a timeline for public rehabilitation, but it has been erased, first by Rove's instant reincarnation from Bush's smear-master as a political pundit and now by John Edwards' popping up in public only three months after a weasel-worded admission of adultery for being caught red-handed by a tabloid.

If it were not for the presidential campaign, Edwards' attempt to regain political respectability might have started even sooner as the concept of shame disappears completely in national politics.

The next thing you know, we will see a convicted felon reelected to the Senate and a vice-presidential candidate who wrecked her party's campaign strutting and spouting off on network TV.

Michelle Obama's Transition

In the White House, she will be both a working wife and a stay-at-home mom, trying to give her daughters as normal a childhood as they can have living with the eyes of the world always on them.

Even their new pet won't have a dog's life. In a 1963 interview, JFK told me with bemusement, "We got more letters about the puppies born here than the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."

Michelle Obama has always been "a working mom," her friend Valerie Jarrett said on Meet the Press Sunday. "She knows how hard it is to manage being a mom, a spouse, have a professional job...Her first priority as she comes to Washington and moves into the White House are those two darling girls, making sure that they are OK, getting them in school, getting them comfortable. Her mom, Mary Robinson, is coming with them, and so she'll have her hands full."

Beyond that, according to Jarrett, "her interests will be work-life balance, volunteerism, military spouses. And she'll go from there. But having a seat at, at the table and being a co-president is not something that she's interested in doing."

In the light of Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama's decision to stay out of policy-making will no doubt draw a lot of attention, even more than did leaving her job to spend full-time on her husband's campaign.

As she pursues her "work-life balance" in the White House, the new First Lady will need all her abundant equanimity to keep family life as private as possible. In yesterday's visit, she got some advice from Laura Bush, who managed to do it very well in a time of turmoil.

The Bailout as Bay of Pigs

It took JFK three months to stumble over the no-win Cuban invasion he inherited in 1961, but Barack Obama is in a deeper mess as he makes his first visit to the Oval Office more than two months before taking over.

The Bush Administration is fumbling the financial bailout in ways that make CIA planning for the Bay of Pigs look brilliant, and this time the new president won't have the option of pulling back and starting all over.

First results from takeovers of Fannie Mae and AIG show huge losses, reflecting a failure to stop the bleeding, and according to the Washington Post, "underscore the government's difficulty in intervening in private markets in a way that both protects taxpayers and ensures that the rescue efforts succeed...a cautionary tale at a time when Washington is debating whether to extend the federal umbrella to Detroit automakers and other beleaguered firms."

After interest rates on the original handouts proved too high to keep AIG from drowning in debt, the government agreed yesterday to offer a stronger lifeline with a new $152 billion loan on easier terms.

Fannie Mae executives are warning that their bailout funds "may prove insufficient" to allow the company to pay off loans or "continue to fulfill our mission of providing liquidity to the mortgage market at appropriate levels."

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News is suing under the Freedom of Information Act to force the Federal Reserve to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers and the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Even before he takes office, President Obama may find himself asking the question that plagued Casey Stengel when he took over the hapless New York Mets, "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Monday, November 10, 2008

Brief Reign of the Boomers

Another first in Barack Obama's presidency is change from the generation born when millions came back from World War II and began to beget--Baby Boomers, the first of whom are now eligible for early Social Security benefits.

For a noisy cohort, the Boomers produced only two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. This year, they and the rest of us ended up with a choice of two men whose times of birth bracketed their own. For the best-educated, wealthiest generation in American history, this is a meager presidential output.

How so? The conventional wisdom about Boomer self-absorption doesn't explain everything. This is, after all, the generation of the 1960s' college idealists acting out passionate new ideas about sex, gender, race, war and politics.

They held the media spotlight briefly but never cohered into a political force. In "The Audacity of Hope," Obama disdains “the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.”

Did, after all that turmoil, Boomers terrify the Silent Majority into the Reagan Revolution and then retreat to fuel the "greed is good" decades that led to Wall Street bubbles and today's crippled economy?

That might, in part, explain the political transition from Clinton's slipperiness to the retro Contract With America and finally Bush II's Neo-Con radical hubris.

But in writing the Boomers' political obituary, there should be some nostalgic credit for rearing the Generation O children who comprised the under-30 demographic that helped put Obama into the White House.

Will their iPhone, text-messaging, blog-reading, Facebook idealism last longer and accomplish more? Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Lieberman Limbo Dance

In his two-step with the former Democrat turned Independent (by his own party's outraged voters) and, most recently, inseparable McCain sidekick and Obama basher, Harry Reid is showing all the resolution and skill that have marked his tenure as Senate Majority Leader.

"Joe Lieberman is not some right-wing nutcase," Reid said today. "Joe Lieberman is one of the most progressive people ever to come from the state of Connecticut."

He is also playing Reid like a cheap violin in the moves over stripping him of chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, as Democrats in and out of the Senate have been calling for the Majority Leader to do.

Apparently Lieberman is refusing to accept a less critical assignment and making eyes at Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a threat to switch allegiances once again.

Reid, who used to be a boxer, seems unable to recognize a feint when he sees one and call the bluff. Back here in Connecticut, voters have revised an old folk saying, "When you have Joe Lieberman for a friend, you don't need an enemy."

Obama: Balancing Heart and Mind

At his press conference Friday, the President-Elect said he was rereading Lincoln for "inspiration," but he may also want to take another look at David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest."

Like JFK, Barack Obama values brains, but Halberstam's book might inspire him to be wary of the hubris that can blindside academic brilliance without accompanying insight into the realities of human behavior, as it did with Kennedy's overachievers who went on to bring down LBJ with their tunnel vision of the Vietnam war.

Obama has shown the self-awareness and empathy--some call it "emotional intelligence"--needed for leadership but, in overturning all the clichés about "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," the real test will come in creating and managing a government with all those qualities.

"The second most remarkable thing about his election," Nicholas Kristof writes, "is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual...

"Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we’ve seen recently that the converse—a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance—doesn’t get very far either."

But, Kristof adds, "It doesn’t help that intellectuals are often as full of themselves as of ideas."

The 1972 look back at Vietnam took its scathing "Best and Brightest" title from Kennedy's so-called "whiz kids," thinkers from industry and academia such as Robert McNamara and the Bundy brothers, whom Halberstam characterized as arrogantly insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in the Vietnam quagmire.

(For his pains, a new report shows Halberstam was closely tracked by the FBI for two decades, another sign that too much thinking of any kind is suspect in American politics.)

Obama's Illinois predecessor, Adlai Stevenson, who lost the presidency twice half a century ago being labeled an unworldly "egghead," observed, “The hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning.”

The President-Elect has cleared that hurdle and now faces the higher leap into governing with a winning balance of heart and mind.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Hillary Clinton, Senate Majority Leader?

Obama passed on her as vice president but can still put Hillary Clinton on the team by backing her for Senate Majority Leader.

In that role, Harry Reid has been ineffectual in rallying Democrats to curtail Bush's excesses or even effectively articulate an opposition view. Now, with a Senate reshuffling that includes the stepping-down of Robert Byrd and the throwing-out of Joe Lieberman, "change" could be served by bringing Clinton to the forefront.

With a clear electoral mandate and wide margin in Congress, before reaching out to Republicans as he has promised to do, the President-Elect can solidify his own ranks by recruiting the faction of his own party he narrowly defeated to win the nomination.

By naming Rahm Emanuel chief of staff, Obama has shown he was no qualms about relying on former Clinton loyalists. Choosing the former First Lady as a legislative partner would be a logical next step.

During the primaries, there were insistent rumors that Reid himself was offering his position to Sen. Clinton as an inducement to concede the nomination. He denied them, but the idea now won't come as a shock.

Clinton's ascension would be a powerful metaphor for cracking the glass-ceiling with women in the leadership positions of both houses of Congress, and her passion on domestic issues would nicely compliment Joe Biden's strength on foreign policy as surrogates for the new Administration's views.

The efforts of both Clintons during the campaign and the logic of a Hillary run in 2012 as a natural heir to a successful Obama Administration are strong arguments against any worries about possible subversion.

In his reaching out for bipartisan consensus, the President-Elect could start with unifying his own party.

Friday, November 07, 2008

John Leonard

The writer-critic-editor who died today was a gifted man who never seemed to fit into categories. It started when he was a teenager and applied for a job as a Disneyland guide. "I failed the physical," he recalled. "I wasn't blond enough."

He went from being an "apostate" intern at William F. Buckley's National Review to editor of the New York Times Book Review, where he breathed life into a staid journal until 1970 when he devoted an entire issue to books against the war in Vietnam and lost his job for not being "centrist" enough.

From then on, he devoted himself to writing, in his words, "sorting the signals of an overheated publicity culture, manufacturing opinions instead of widgets" and earned a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for seeing into the heart of every form of expression from serious literature to sitcoms.

In my working lifetime among writers, there were few I admired as much.

Walking the President-in-Waiting Walk

With all the demurrals about one president at a time, what Barack Obama said and didn't say today will be closely parsed by markets, publics and political leaders everywhere.

His appearance, flanked by a team of economic advisors, was meant to show a nervous world that he is on the case, ready to move on January 20th and as involved as he can be in the role of President-Elect.

"(A)s we monitor and address these immediate economic challenges," he said, "we will be moving forward in laying out a set of policies that will grow our middle class and strengthen our economy in the long term. We cannot afford to wait on moving forward on the key priorities that I identified during the campaign, including clean energy, health care, education, and tax relief for middle-class families.

"My transition team will be working on each of these priorities in the weeks ahead, and I intend to reconvene this advisory board to discuss the best ideas for responding to these immediate problems."

But Obama made it clear he favors "a stimulus package passed, either before or after inauguration...sooner rather than later,” if not in the lame-duck Congressional session, as soon as he takes office, and he called for an extension of unemployment benefits.

In the minuet between now and then, the President-in-Waiting is deferring to the one in the White House but making it clear he is ready to take new steps on his own. A worried world clearly would like to see the dance speeded up.

Iraq End Game

The bargaining in Baghdad is getting serious as Iraqis pressure the Bush Administration for last-minute concessions on a status-of-forces agreement to sanction US presence beyond the end of the year.

But the American election and Bush's imminent departure have changed the game. Gone is the McCain mantra of "victory with honor," a prescription for open-ended American presence, and what's left is only haggling over details about the pace of troop withdrawal and how much control Iraqis will assume over security efforts in the meantime.

Iraqi leaders, while openly welcoming Barack Obama's timetable, are losing the luxury of factional jockeying in their own parliament and facing a timetable to resolve Shiite-Sunni differences about the future of their country.

The only questions left are when and how, not if, the loss of American lives and the expenditure of $10 billion a month finally come to an end.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"Faith Over Fear": The Movie

There has to be a Spike Lee script in this:

Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old woman Barack Obama invoked in his Tuesday night speech, is now a centenarian celebrity, giving interviews and repeating what she told CNN last month: "I ain't got time to die 'cause I've got to see a black president," now adding that it was a "victory of faith over fear."

The widow of an Atlanta dentist, Mrs. Cooper knew Martin Luther King Jr. as a boy and years later a Morehouse College student named Spike Lee, who hoped to become a filmmaker.

In his Grant Park speech, Obama cited her vote as symbolic of the meaning of his election:

"She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons--because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

"And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America--the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

"At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

"When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

"When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

"She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that 'We Shall Overcome.' Yes we can.

"A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination.

"And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change."

Now Mrs. Cooper herself has written the final scene for the movie. "I would be very proud," she says, "if I could just meet him and shake his hand."

Lights, camera, action.

Obama Mandate: Post-Partisanship

On Election Day, Barack Obama canceled a fireworks display for the Grant Park rally that night, a sign he wants to leave the long campaign behind and start governing, something the Bush-Cheney-Rove Administration neglected to do for eight years.

Governing, but how? Tuesday's victory margins clearly were a mandate to change the bitter two-year stalemate of tenuous Congressional control by Democrats and a stubborn, veto-wielding White House.

"Obama's ability," Dan Balz notes in the Washington Post, "to manage relationships with Democratic congressional leaders, with Republicans and with impatient liberal constituencies with agendas of their own will have a lasting impact on his presidency. Can he, for example, fulfill his promise to govern in a unifying and inclusive way yet also push an ambitious progressive agenda?"

That may be the wrong question. "Ambitious progressive agenda" still sees the American crisis through the left-right lens of eight years that led to abysmal approval ratings and voter revolt against Washington politics.

In the afterglow of his historic breakthrough, the President-Elect has an opportunity to test his consensus approach to governing by bringing the decimated Republican opposition into a process that goes beyond scoring political points for the next election cycle and attacks problems in some semblance of bipartisanship.

He has the chance to demonstrate the difference between consensus and caution by showing that leadership can go beyond "agendas" and begin to find solutions.

If that sounds naïve, so be it. Obama has rehearsed overcoming that charge in two tough years of campaigning. Let's see what he can do with it in the real world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Transition and Tone

President-Elect Obama has little time to savor his historic victory and has to start addressing the challenges he stressed last night with a swift and sure transition from the paralyzed government now in place.

The names will be important, but decisiveness without delay would help lay to rest the doubts raised about his inexperience during the campaign and reassure an American public on the edge of panic about the economy.

Leon Panetta, the former White House chief of staff who has been advising his transition team, says, "You better damn well do the tough stuff up front, because if you think you can delay the tough decisions and tiptoe past the graveyard, you’re in for a lot of trouble. Make the decisions that involve pain and sacrifice up front.”

The rumors are that Obama will start by naming Rep. Rahm Emanuel, with experience in the Clinton White House as his chief of staff this week and will go on quickly to appoint future cabinet members.

In today's political climate, a new Treasury Secretary will be as critical as the choices for State and Defense, and whoever it is and the President-Elect will have to get involved in the financial crisis long before Obama raises his hand and takes the oath on January 20th.

Half-Baked Alaska

In that alternate reality Up North, Gov. Sarah Palin is back home with her new fame and wardrobe, while Ted Stevens seems to have won reelection to his Senate seat.

The careers of Alaska's two media stars have been intertwined since before Palin emerged and ran for the state house in 2006, and the conjunction will clearly continue.

Senate Republicans, anxious to escape the past and look to the future, would undoubtedly pressure the 84-year-old convicted felon to step aside to let Palin run for the seat in a special election early next year.

That would pose a slight problem for John McCain's running mate, who attained national stature without showing any knowledge whatsoever about substantive issues. As a senator, she would be a politician, to quote her convention speech, "with actual responsibilities" to know what's involved in proposed legislation and cast votes.

But her admirers at the National Review and Weekly Standard would be happy to supply tutelage, and it would be hard for Palin to resist the spotlight and remain frozen in Juneau.

As she told Rush Limbaugh, she is not bothered by the pesky attentions of the mainstream media: "Well, yeah, I guess that message is they do want me to sit down and shut up. But that's not going to happen. I care too much about this great country."

In his concession speech last night, McCain called Palin "an impressive new voice in our party for reform and the principles that have always been our greatest strength" and in Washington she would have much more occasion to wear the designer clothes that Republican contributors bought for her.

American Turning Point

"Yes we can!" changed from a defiant campaign mantra into a soft-spoken promise from the nation's new voice as President-Elect Barack Obama rallied Americans, not to celebrate his victory but join him in meeting "the challenges that tomorrow will bring...the greatest of our lifetime--two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."

In his graceful concession, John McCain became again the admirable man he once was, congratulating Obama for "inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president" and wishing "Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president."

The sea of faces in Chicago's Grant Park said what Obama did not dwell on, that the face America now presents to the world will for the first time confirm the promises of our democracy.

Their joyful tears were a reminder of those shed by Vietnam war protesters, I among them, 40 years ago being tear-gassed in that place for exercising the right of free speech only a few months after Martin Luther King was killed for championing the right of African-Americans to vote in some of the states that helped Obama win the presidency today.

The irony in all this is that George W. Bush and his followers, who hate government, damaged it enough in eight years to make the country ready for a new generation and a new approach to using it wisely and well rather than trying to destroy it.

Tomorrow will be the time to start thinking about the challenges the President-Elect talked about tonight, but for the moment, savoring this historic turning point in American history is an emotional challenge in itself.

Climate change is coming to American politics, and it will take a while to adjust to a new environment in Washington and learn how to make the most of it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Luddites, Unite!

The machines are breaking down in Virginia and (of course) Florida, leading to a cry of the heart against electronic gizmos and for a return to pieces of paper and thick pencils at the ballot box.

Digital democracy has a nice ring to it, but at what price and for how long until the nerds get it right? If we need technology, why not supermarket scanners to count the pieces of paper that human beings have marking for centuries? If the results look fishy, scan them again or count by hand.

As it is, we're in for a day of breakdowns, long lines and who-knows-what glitches in the counting, leading to paranoia on all sides. Is it worth it?

Voting and Waiting

The first time was 1948. I was 24 and had fought in a war, but the voting age was 21 then, and I cast my first ballot for Harry Truman, a centrist choice between Republican Thomas E. Dewey ("the little man on the wedding cake," Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice had dubbed him) and the liberal Henry Wallace, who had been Truman's vice president before being dumped from the ticket.

Clare Boothe Luce had pronounced Truman a "gone goose," but the man from Missouri ran a "Give 'em hell, Harry" campaign and won the White House after serving more than three years there in the wake of FDR's death in 1945.

All this ancient history comes back to mind today after my sixteenth vote for a president (more often for a loser than not, thanks to the Bushes) and recalls the range of emotions on Election Days for someone who believes politics really matters.

The two Eisenhower victories were days of resignation, even though I had been a volunteer speech writer for Adlai Stevenson in 1956. In the next decade, to my surprise, I learned to "like Ike" very much.

In the nail-biter between JFK and Nixon in 1960, I went to an afternoon movie to make the time pass but, even so, had to stay up all night to get the final result. It was worth it.

But in 1968, after working for Eugene McCarthy to try to end the war in Vietnam and being tear-gassed at the Democratic convention, I voted but refused to campaign for Hubert Humphrey and regretted my "purism" when Nixon won by less than one percent and went on to give us Watergate.

Since then, Election Days and Nights blur together except for 2000, and the less said and thought about that the better.

Today will be long and hard, but age has taught me to be patient, even in the face of an historic moment I never believed I would live to see. But, as in 1960, the waiting will be worth it.

Last Days of the Starbucks Life

On a day when Americans are keenly aware of economic hardships ahead, those symbols of Baby Boomer excess--Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Ben and Jerry's--are giving voters free stuff, to promote their products, of course, but unintentionally taunting them with little luxuries they may soon not be able to afford.

Assuming a victory by Obama and his post-Boomer generation, David Brooks foresees "the irony...that they will be confronted by the problem for which they have the least experience and for which they are the least prepared: the problem of scarcity."

After decades of self-indulgence, Americans are suddenly facing the fact that what looked like a perpetual free ride to prosperity has a toll bridge up ahead, and once the election euphoria wears off, the hints that Obama has been tossing off about shared sacrifice during the campaign will become a central reality of our new political life.

In setting priorities for recovery, the incoming government will have to make hard and unpopular decisions.

"In the next few years," Brooks writes about the new reality, "the nation’s wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggles over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future."

When all the Election Night celebration is over, America is facing one hell of a morning-after.

Monday, November 03, 2008

No-Show on the Campaign Trail

At his final rallies, Barack Obama is gleefully telling crowds that Dick Cheney's endorsement this weekend of John McCain was well-earned. George W. Bush is offering no such target by staying completely out of sight, but he did rate a mention in Pennsylvania yesterday, albeit as an afterthought.

“I think," John McCain said, "that Tom Ridge--and President Bush--deserve some credit for the fact there’s not been another attack on the United States of America since 9/11.’

Aside from that, it's been all silence since McCain proclaimed "I am not President Bush' in the final debate.

The actual president, according to press secretary Dana Perino, is "pretty focused" on "getting this economy back in order" in seclusion at Camp David.

He will come out of hiding the weekend after next for a meeting of world leaders in Washington to discuss the global financial crisis but may have even less clout there than in the presidential campaign

His problem, according to a New York Times editorial, is "utter lack of credibility when it comes to the central question of how to regulate national and global financial markets to ensure that this disaster never happens again. Eight years and a huge financial crash later, and Mr. Bush is still extolling the corrective powers of unrestrained markets."

Bush's final days in power are making King Lear look like a party animal.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Palin's Pluses

As new polling shows her costing him more votes than she might win, John McCain's running mate is, in her own way, doing a number of services for the Republican Party and the nation as a whole.

For one, Sarah Palin is proving that gender doesn't count in bringing ignorance (pace Dan Quayle) and mean-spiritedness (shades of Spiro Agnew) to a national ticket as she promises a balanced budget after four years of a McCain Administration and keeps repeating blatant lies about Barack Obama's tax proposals. Feminists can rest easy now that she and Hillary Clinton have shown women to be the equals of men in both venality and statesmanship.

Perhaps even more valuable is Palin's demonstration, by her meteoric rise and downfall, that media exposure cuts both ways in politics as well as show business (i.e., Britney Spears and Paris Hilton). Her handlers have learned that in presidential politics, as Muhammad Ali said about the prize ring, you can run but you can't hide.

Palin's most important contribution may be yet to come. When the extremists who finessed McCain into choosing her for VP start pushing Palin for the top spot in 2012, traditional Republican may finally rise up and take back their party and restore responsible two-party politics to the national dialogue.

If and when that happens, Palin can go back to governing Alaska with a sense of accomplishment and a nifty new wardrobe.