Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Two Nights in an American Park

Whatever else 2008 was, it was not a slow news year: the longest election campaign ever, a worldwide economic meltdown, natural disasters, scandals large and small filled media to the brim.

But one image belongs to a history that will be passed down through generations forever and lifts the heart for whatever the years ahead may bring--Grant Park, Chicago, the night of November 4th.

A quarter of a million faces radiated the joy of renewal, a burden lifted, a dream realized, a hope brought to life--not by the man who stood before them but by the American people themselves.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," Barack Obama said that night, "who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

Those faces stay in the memory of someone who had a far different experience in that place 40 years earlier, on a night where the world saw a different answer to the question about "the power of our democracy."

On TV screens back then, Americans were watching kids being gassed, clubbed and herded into police vans at gunpoint for exercising their freedom of speech while at the Democratic convention, Walter Cronkite was looking at the footage and telling TV viewers in disgust, "It makes us want to pack up our cameras and go home."

Those two nights in Grant Park are both part of the American story in a single lifetime, and as 2009 begins, we know there will be other nights and other scenes, some inspiring and some ugly, but it's possible to believe the new president when he quotes Martin Luther King to say that "the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice."

A Times Square Memory

As it is annually, the TV focus tonight at midnight will be on a huge crowd jammed into the heart of Manhattan to ring in the new year with revelry.

The other day, the New York Times recalled the days "when X-rated theaters and burlesque joints shared the street with Howard Johnson’s" and stirred up the memory of an embarrassing rite of passage there.

At 12, my best friend Manny, in an acute attack of puberty, kept nagging me to take the subway from our Bronx neighborhood to a Times Square burlesque house and see (gulp) naked women.

In the lobby after buying tickets, we were pressured into checking our coats (another source of revenue for the house) before heading for seats.

As we watched the high-energy comics and listless ladies of the chorus, Manny started whispering into my ear that he may have left an envelope with his name and address in his coat pocket, which the management could use to put him on a list for salacious leaflets that his mother would find in the letterbox.

I was barely aware of the bumping and grinding on the stage as my friend went into a full-scale panic attack, forcing us to leave early, retrieve out coats (with, as it turned out, empty pockets) and head back on the subway, more aroused by fear than lust.

Watching the throngs tonight, I'll be wishing them better luck on their Times Square visit than I had with mine. But I'll also be thinking about how the legendary night club comic Joe E. Lewis, who built a career on joking about his alcoholism, always claimed he abstained that night.

"Drinking on New Year's Eve," he insisted, "is for amateurs."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blagojevich's Human Shield

Taking a cue from Saddam Hussein who surrounded himself with innocent civilians when under attack, Rod Blagojevich has added a new touch, playing the race card by appointing an African-American to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat and daring Democrats to reject his pick and try to bomb him out of the governor's chair.

Blagojevich, who has a lock on the Shameless Person of the Year Award, is in Hall of Fame territory here by appointing Roland Burris, a 71-year-old non-Caucasian who has served as Illinois state comptroller and attorney general.

But as the Governor celebrates his new coup, someone should remind him that the tactic did not work out too well for Saddam (see Baghdad, fallen statue). Senate Democrats have made it clear they won't seat Blagojevich's choice, Patrick Fitzgerald is getting ready to release some of the juicier taped phone calls and the Illinois legislature is on track with impeachment proceedings.

Happy New Year, Governor, it's all downhill from here.

Changing Change: 2008 and 1968

Those years are like bookends to our times, when one period of American life ended and another began.

After Democrats held the White House for 28 out of 36 years, the ground shifted in 1968 and, for 28 of the following 40, Republicans took control.

In 1968, Richard Nixon promised to "Bring Us Together" just as, four decades later, Barack Obama offers "Change."

Back then, Democrats were losing their grip on power after a disastrous war and years of domestic upheaval that were stirring fears about social stability in the face of new ideas about gender, race and conventional morality.

Now the Bush years have discredited the backlash of neo-con politics that brought another miserable military misadventure and the rollback of many hard-won individual rights in the name of keeping us safe from terror.

Once again, American politics are at a turning point and, even in the midst of economic misery, Barack Obama embodies hope for something better than what we have had for a long time.

His freshness and confidence are polar opposites of the qualities with which Nixon ushered in his era of reviving ancient grudges and reacting to the world with paranoia.

Party politics and ideologies aside, in the face of unprecedented challenges, Americans are once again ready for something new and better, and it's possible for even the old and jaded to believe that this time we are going to get it.

Privacy for the Palin Family

Years from now, at show-and-tell in school, Tripp Easton Mitchell Johnston will be able to bring in pictures of his grandmothers from the year he was born, one of them running for vice-president of the US and the other being busted for dealing dope.

Even in wide-open Wasila, Alaska, that could be unusual for the baby born this weekend to Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol, a 7 pound, 4 ounce boy whose father, Levi, took a bow at the Republican convention this fall.

But young Tripp's privacy will be protected from now on. The governor's office has said it would not release information because it considers the birth "a private family matter."

Meanwhile, Grandma Palin is busy governing Alaska, Grandma Johnston is facing felony drug charges for transactions involving OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, and the happy parents are planning to marry next year.

Keep moving along, folks, nothing unusual to see here.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sorcerer's Apprentice Transition

Barack Obama's to-do list just keeps growing as aides tell us he is "closely monitoring" the Gaza crisis even as they keep repeating the one-president-at-a-time mantra.

In the weirdest transition in White House history, the question of being ready on Day One, which was the subject of so much debate earlier this year, has morphed into two months of pre-presidential involvement in bailouts and economic stimulus debates--and now a full-blown foreign policy flap.

According to senior adviser David Axelrod, Condoleeza Rice is keeping the President-Elect up to speed "to get a handle on the situation, so that, when he becomes president on January 20, he has the advantage of all the facts and information leading up to that point."

When the training wheels come off that day, Obama may be hurtling downhill steering his way around a Middle East roadblock as he tries to get to the economic mess.

It's all beginning to look like the sorcerer's apprentice in an overflowing presidential workshop.

Lowballing Bush Memoirs

Laura Bush was on Fox News yesterday, probably the last in a round of appearances to drum up interest in her memoirs.

For some reason, publishers have not been bidding up any proposals for Bush nostalgia, even those of the relatively popular First Lady.

"One question that seems to be weighing on prospective editors," the New Yorker reports, "is whether a book by Mrs. Bush will provide a candid account of her feelings, and perhaps counter the popular view of her as an opinion-free robot."

Candid? What world are these publishing people living in? White House memoirs deal in self-justification, rewriting history and sometimes revenge (pace Nancy Reagan), but candor is never on the menu.

If it were, what we would most want to hear from Laura Bush is not about the White House years, but how she married a middle-aged drunk and straightened him out, a creditable feat for a spouse but a disaster for the country.

But the chances of learning that from her are about the same as getting a primal scream from Hillary Clinton over living with a skirt-chasing jerk before and after moving to Washington.

As a one-time book publisher, I was an unsuccessful bidder for Lady Bird Johnson's "A White House Diary," one of the few successful examples of the genre. (LBJ himself was too depressed to finish his own memoirs. As he told Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was collaborating with him, "They'll get me anyhow, no matter how hard I try. No matter what I say in this book the critics will pull it apart. The reviews are in the hands of my enemies--the New York Times and the Eastern magazines--so I don't have a chance.")

Somewhere in the future, the outgoing President will no doubt pocket umpteen millions from his publicist Rupert Murdoch for a work of fiction about the Bush years. But the book I would really like to read is Dick Cheney's "Dear Reader: As I Was Saying to Pat Leahy..."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

GOP Goes South But Obama Doesn't

His diverse Cabinet is a demographic cross-section of American talent--by gender, ethnicity, party and professional background--with one geographic exception: the South.

Given the obvious intelligence of the Obama transition, that can't be an unwitting omission. If Republicans had any questions about the meaning of last month's debacle, they can be sure now that they have been exiled into a redoubt south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Their disarray is underscored by the moronic move of Tennessee's Chip Saltsman in sending out Christmas CDs featuring what is now a racist golden oldie, "Barack the Magic Negro." The would-be chairman of the Republican National Committee, a Huckabee backer, was rebuked today by the current head saying he was "shocked and appalled that anyone would think this is appropriate."

But the GOP's problems go deeper than good taste, as David Broder points out:

"The Southern domination of the congressional Republican Party has become more complete with each and every election. This year, Republicans suffered a net loss of two Senate and three House seats in the South, but they lost five Senate seats and 18 House seats in other sections. No Republican House members are left in New England, and they have become ever scarcer in New York and Pennsylvania and across the Midwest."

Obama's idea of bipartisanship involves reaching out to moderate Republicans, such as Ray LaHood of Illinois, his new transportation secretary, who controlled the GOP before Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell et al started them whistling Dixie.

As they turn their eyes northward all the way to Alaska for salvation in 2012, between now and then, Republicans will have to face the fact that they are a Southern-fried party.

Caretaker for Clinton's Seat

If Gov. David Paterson wants to resolve his dilemma over replacing Hillary Clinton by naming a caretaker and letting the public decide in 2010, the perfect choice is at hand--a wise, experienced, respected politician who knows New York State better than any other: Mario Cuomo.

At 76, the former governor would be junior to a platoon of octogenarians in the Senate, not to mention 91-year-old Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and in the Obama Administration's struggle during a time of national stress, would be a powerful ally in pursuing legislative solutions.

The idea of a caretaker choice was broached during the New York Times ill-fated interview with Caroline Kennedy yesterday:

"At one point, she said that it might have been preferable to seek the seat in an election, noting that 'it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, to get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work.'

"But she would not say whether she thought Mr. Paterson should appoint a caretaker candidate to fill out Mrs. Clinton’s term, which would allow Ms. Kennedy and others interested in the seat an equal and unfettered chance to campaign for it in 2010."

The "others" would include Mario Cuomo's son Andrew, who is now New York's Attorney General and a possible opponent for the gubernatorial nomination against Gov. Paterson that year.

In the complex political geometry of two years from now, Paterson could show voters now that he has the best interests of the state at heart by selecting the most articulate advocate for their interests during a crisis and letting the issue of political families' heirs wait until then.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Not in the Kennedy Political Handbook

In the hard times ahead, New York will need a senator who is a politician, not a symbol, and as Caroline Kennedy edges into public life in a bid to succeed Hillary Clinton, it's becoming clearer that temperamentally she may not be the ideal choice for the position.

Now she has managed to alienate political reporters who write that "in an extensive sit-down discussion Saturday morning with The New York Times, she still seemed less like a candidate than an idea of one: forceful but vague, largely undefined and seemingly determined to remain that way."

The largely negative tone of the Times piece can be traced to her evasiveness on almost every issue and, sadly, an exchange when asked to describe the moment she decided to seek the Senate seat:

"Ms. Kennedy seemed irritated by the question and said she couldn’t recall.

“'Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something?' she asked the reporters. 'I thought you were the crack political team.'”

Insulting journalists from the state's most powerful paper for asking a legitimate question is not in the JFK political handbook, but the would-be senator managed to make it even worse in her exit from the interview:

"As things wrapped up, a reporter tried to pose another question, but she interrupted him.

“'I think we’re done,' she said."

If she keeps acting that way, so will Caroline Kennedy's campaign for the Senate seat.

Obama's Jobs Program

White House economic efforts will focus not on "public works but, rather, investments that will work for the American public," according to President Obama's head of the National Economic Council.

Lawrence Summers writes in the Washington Post: "The president-elect has insisted that investments proposed in the recovery plan meet standards much higher than has been traditional. There will be no earmarks. Investments will be chosen strategically based on what yields the highest rate of return for the economy and monitored closely not just by officials but also by the public as government becomes more transparent. We expect to evaluate and to be evaluated rigorously to ensure that Washington is held accountable for how tax dollars are spent."

In describing the previously announced goal of creating 3 million new jobs, Summers adds little detail but reveals that more than 80 percent will be in the private sector, including environmental technology and health care in addition to public works.

Arguing against "short-term policies that generate consumer spending," Summers says:

"Laying the groundwork for recovery and future prosperity will require shedding Washington habits. We must measure progress not by the agendas of interest groups but by whether the American people experience results. We must focus not on ideology but on drawing the best ideas from all quarters. That is why, for example, in key sectors such as energy, Obama is pushing for both public investments and the removal of barriers to private investment. It is also why his plan relies on both government spending and tax cuts to raise incomes and promote recovery."

From January 21st on, we will find out if legislators and lobbyists got the memo.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Obama and the Food Chain

During holiday stuffing season, healthy-eating advocates are looking forward to a trim President with good nutritional habits to inspire an obese nation.

The New York Times reports: "To advocates who have watched scattered calls for changes in food policy gather political and popular momentum, Mr. Obama looks like their kind of president.

"Not only does he seem to possess a more-sophisticated palate than some of his recent predecessors, but he will also take office in an age when organic food is mainstream, cooking competitions are among the top-rated TV shows and books calling for an overhaul in the American food system are best sellers."

Hoping for less sweets in school-lunch programs and perhaps even an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn, food activists realize that, for the most part, a President can push the cause of good eating by example.

While Bill Clinton scarfed Big Macs, Obama has been his polar opposite. “He’s remarkably careful,” says a campaign caterer. “He doesn’t like sweets that much but fish, fish, fish, some chicken and things with spice,” like chicken pizette with fontina cheese, grilled onion and sweet and hot peppers.

Other favorites include "vegetarian beggars purses filled with wild mushrooms, artichokes and tomato; bits of sausage and artichokes on skewers; bruschetta with goat cheese, tomato and basil; baby paninis or crostini and scooped out wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano filled with knobs of the cheese on one side and olives that had been marinated in fennel and lemon and orange peels on the other."

(For those who want to keep even closer track, there is a web site, Obama Foodorama: A Daily Diary of The Obama Foodscape, One Byte At A Time.)

With his sophisticated taste in food, President Obama is poised to lead the nation in a time of belt-tightening in more ways than one.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter

The master of the meaningful pause dies on Silent Night, the artist of primal Jewish dread expires on Christmas eve--a Pinteresque moment in a time of turmoil.

For generations, starting with mine, Harold Pinter made art out of what was unsaid and unseen. His work took us out of the clatter and confusion of our daily lives into bare places where we could sense what might be going on below the noisy surface of our consciousness.

Watching a Pinter play was never pleasure in the traditional sense of being entertained to distraction. It could leave us bored, puzzled, sometimes annoyed, but always moved in ways that prompted thought, discussion and, most of all, feeling.

Unmentioned in most obituaries will be his screenplay for "The Last Tycoon," Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, directed by Elia Kazan, a confluence of 20th century talents that told more about the romantic longings and power struggles behind the making of movies than dozens of Sunset Boulevards.

Pinter was often grouped with the Theater of the Absurd, but reality was what he was after.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Michelle Obama's List and Mine

E-mail from the First Lady-Elect:

"While many of us will spend the holidays counting our blessings and sharing dinner with loved ones, millions of people around the country won't be so fortunate. Donating to your local food bank will help provide a holiday meal to people in your community who can't afford one.

"Talking with the families of deployed troops was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during the campaign. Giving to Operation USO Care Package is a great way to send members of our military stationed around the world a reminder that someone back home is thinking of them.

"This is a time to celebrate our blessings, the new year, and a new era for our country. But it's also a time to come together on behalf of those who need our help.

"Do what you can to help today by locating your local food bank and giving your support:

"Or send a care package to an American in uniform:"

P.S., a few suggestions of mine:

Kids Against Hunger

Salvation Army

American Friends Service Committee

Doctors Without Borders

A Happy and Healthy Holiday to All!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Topless Summit

Photographic proof that the Cold War is finally over comes today in images of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin naked to the waist.

The subliminal message may be that world leaders have nothing to hide, although Andy Borowitz suggests a darker meaning--that the President-Elect has lost his shirt in the economic crisis and is wandering on a deserted beach.

Old political hands point out that there were no such displays of skin in the good old days of LBJ and Khrushchev, as journalists in western Europe, particularly Germany, speculate about whether their heads of state will follow the new trend.

Dick Cheney's Farewell Snarls

Bush's Scrooge is making some final appearances and, true to his nature, giving us "Bah, humbug" to the very end.

Almost six years, 4210 American lives and trillions of dollars after the Iraq invasion, the Vice President tells us "the world is better off with Saddam gone...This was a bad actor."

Torture? "Did it produce the desired results? I think it's been a remarkably successful effort. I think the results speak for themselves."

William Kristol, in his fond farewell, assures Cheney "Popularity Isn't Everything" as a new poll shows 23 percent of Americans ranking him as the worst vice president ever. But the VP, who picked himself for the job, doesn't require solace. "I'm very comfortable," he says. "with where we are and what we achieved substantively. And frankly, I would not want to be one of those guys who spends all his time reading the polls."

Kristol's compatriots on the New York Times editorial page have a slightly different view, pointing out that "it must be exhausting to rewrite history as much as Mr. Cheney has done in a series of exit interviews."

Not for someone who personifies the old saying, "often wrong but never in doubt." Asked about "second thoughts" over publicly telling Sen. Pat Leahy to copulate with himself, Cheney says, "No, I thought he merited it at the time."

Judging from his curtain calls this week, Dick Cheney has felt that way about the rest of us for eight years.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Blagojevich, Fitzgerald--and Obama

As the President-Elect vacations in Hawaii and the besieged governor hunkers down back home, the relentless prosecutor keeps chipping away at their state's institutionalized corruption.

Today there is a leaked backgrounder in the Washington Post, headlined "Secret Tapes Helped Build Graft Cases In Illinois," detailing five years of what Fitzgerald calls "wide-ranging schemes where people are seeking to make people pay contributions to get contracts or appointments or do other stuff."

In the interconnected stories of this threesome, there are clues to the nature of 21st century political life and the human beings who struggle with its temptations and contradictions.

Fitzgerald and Blagojevich are stereotypical--the crusader who never sleeps and the corkscrew pol who never stops stealing--but their collision is moving beyond clichés into a more complicated picture of people and power in a new century and raising questions about how Barack Obama managed to navigate that world without being tainted by it.

The Obama organization wants to take Rahm Emanuel off the hook by insisting the prospective chief of staff had "only had one phone call with Gov. Blagojevich. It wasn’t even really about the Senate seat.” But the governor's new phone friend, Willie Brown of California, is saying "there were some pretty heated conversations between Blagojevich and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, which I understand will burn your ears off."

Be that as it may, the melodrama of New Politics vs. Old is likely to go on for some time now, at the cost of an empty Illinois Senate seat, while the Obama administration struggles with the high-profile problems that are plaguing the country.

As Fitzgerald keeps plodding forward, nagging questions involving the new president will center on convicted fixer Tony Rezko, described by the Post as the "gatekeeper to Blagojevich, advising him on appointments to boards and commissions."

During the campaign, Obama returned Rezko's contributions, stressing he had not been accused of any wrongdoing in his association with him while admitting that Rezko's involvement in the buying of the Obamas' Chicago home was a "boneheaded" mistake.

The Fitzgerald-Blagojevich confrontation is a high-wire media circus of good vs. evil, but the peripheral role of the new president who is shouldering the burdens of America's future is a reminder that what human beings do when the stakes are high is never that simple.

An incident from 40 years ago keeps coming back to mind. As a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, I found myself alone in a hotel elevator with political boss Stanley Steingut, a decent man, after his egregious power play had cut off an antiwar resolution in the state caucus meeting.

Enraged, I asked him, "Does your mother know what you do for a living?"

He gave me the kindliest of smiles, took my elbow and said sadly, "Politics, kid."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

How Bush Pushed Housing Heroin

If he were still with us, our departed president might be trying to figure out how he made this mess. But as his ghostly presence emanates interviews and speeches about how he stuck to his principles in the face of reality, journalists are piecing together the tale of the Bush housing bubble that has now splattered over the world economy.

"White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire" is the headline in today's New York Times over a 2002 picture of a smiling George W. Bush selling his new plan for minority home ownership against a backdrop of "A Home of Your Own" logos, the domestic equivalent of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq:

"Eight years after arriving in Washington vowing to spread the dream of homeownership, Mr. Bush is leaving office, as he himself said recently, 'faced with the prospect of a global meltdown' with roots in the housing sector he so ardently championed...

"From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

"He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent--and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards."

In effect, the President became the pusher-in-chief for a housing heroin cartel of banks, mortgage brokers and Wall Street sharks that was hooking millions of Americans with nothing-down, low-start variable rate loans that would get them high on home ownership and send them crashing when inflated prices inevitably started falling.

The Times takeout is full of head-shaking statements by the "experts" who helped him foster and for years ignore the growing bubble, but it ends with an image that sums it all up:

"With 31 days left in office, Mr. Bush says he will leave it to historians to analyze 'what went right and what went wrong,' as he put it in a speech last week to the American Enterprise Institute.

"Mr. Bush said he was too focused on the present to do much looking back.

“'It turns out,' he said, 'this isn’t one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset, you know, kind of waving goodbye.'”

But that is exactly what George W. Bush will be doing next month as he leaves behind a nation in the throes of financial withdrawal and heads, smiling and sober, for the two homes he owns free and clear in Texas

Saturday, December 20, 2008

California Crisis

Teetering at the edge of bankruptcy with Arnold Schwarzenegger facing a reprise as the Terminator, this time of public employees, the big political issue in the Golden State is whether or not Ellen DeGeneres' marriage is legal.

Sponsors of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage last month, now want to nullify thousands of unions between gay and lesbian couples performed after the state Supreme Court ruled them constitutional last May.

Fittingly enough for California, the legal battle is shaping up with an all-star cast of yesteryear, like a remake of "Sunset Boulevard," with Kenneth Starr and Jerry Brown in the leading geriatric roles.

Starr, the Inspector Javier of Bill Clinton's impeachment, will be defending the ban, presumably with all the zeal he brought to saving America from the threat of Monica Lewinsky's semen-stained dress over a decade ago.

Opposing him will be the State's Attorney General, Jerry Brown, who stirs nostalgia for his time in the 1970s as the quirky populist California governor who refused to move into the executive mansion and, as a bachelor, became famous for dating Linda Ronstadt.

In a surprise move, Brown, who is charged with enforcing the new law, yesterday asked the Court to invalidate Proposition 8 on the grounds that it "deprives people of the right to marry, an aspect of liberty that the Supreme Court has concluded is guaranteed by the California Constitution."

Amid the economic chaos that the outgoing Bush administration has brought America, its backers are determined to stay on the job wreaking cultural havoc. Millions of homes may be foreclosed in California over the coming months, but until then, they will be spending the state's time and money to make sure that those bedrooms aren't being legally occupied by the wrong people.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Parting Prescription From Dr. Bush

The Administration's final gift to American health care could keep pulmonologists busy with patients afflicted by its breath-taking cynicism.

The Health and Human Services Department has issued a rule prohibiting "discrimination" against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in procedures because of their convictions and barring hospitals, clinics, doctors’ office and pharmacies from forcing them to do so.

"This rule," says the Secretary, "protects the right of medical providers to care for their patients in accord with their conscience.”

Abortion is the obvious subtext but, if literally applied, the new standard could allow vegetarian doctors to withhold cholesterol-lowering treatment from meat eaters and abstinent pharmacy clerks to decline filling prescriptions for birth-control pills.

But the rule is not about health care. The regulations are timed to coincide with the start of the new administration, which will surely overturn them but allow Republican candidates in the next election to claim that the Obama people are forcing devout doctors and nurses to become baby killers against their will.

Patients won't suffer, but the body politic will take a long time to recover from its Bush infection.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren's Blessing and Obama's

The furor over the minister selected to deliver the invocation at the Inaugural is a measure of how the traditional separation of church and state for more than two centuries has broken down in American life over the past eight years.

In decades of acting out his informal role as the "President's pastor," Billy Graham affirmed the values of Christianity without applying them to political issues and without suggesting a state-sponsored religion at the expense of those with other beliefs or none. No President would have welcomed him to the White House if he had.

Now we have Obama defending his choice of Rick Warren on the grounds that the best-selling minister is tolerant of the President-Elect's political views:

"I would note that a couple of years ago, I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion...

"And that dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign's been all about: That we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere...where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."

Barack Obama did not go to Warren's church to discuss politics, but Warren's invitation to offer a blessing at the Inaugural, by his activism on political issues, inevitably is seen as tolerance for if not approval of that commingling of church and state.

The new president has promised Change from what George W. Bush brought to the White House. This, sad to say, looks like more of the same.

The Myth of the Midas Touch

As the list of victims grows, the Bernard Madoff scandal is proving once again that the easiest prey for get-rich-quick schemes are the rich.

On the PBS News Hour the other night, my old friend Mort Zuckerman, who made billions in real estate and then went into publishing, seemed stunned at the wipeout of $30 million from his charitable fund's investments, which were made by someone he trusted who in turn trusted Madoff.

The same mistake was made by international banks, hedge funds, asset managers, at least one US senator and other money-hungry believers in magic down to the proverbial little old ladies in tennis shoes of Palm Beach, Florida, all of whom deemed it a privilege to be allowed into Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which was showing annual returns of 11 percent and more.

A lifetime of dealing with the very rich has made me suspect that many are one-trick ponies, very good at what brought them wealth, but susceptible of being flattered by flim-flam artists like Madoff, who make them feel smarter than everybody else at maximizing their money (an attitude taken to the extreme by the late Leona Helmsley, who said before going to prison for tax evasion, "Paying taxes is only for the little people.")

The rest of us are more likely to subscribe to the old adage, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't" and go our financially paranoid ways.

Now the economic waves have wiped him out and Madoff is under luxury house arrest, as prosecutors try to find out what happened to all that smart money. It's highly unlikely that other predators like him won't be washed up by outgoing tide.

Second Thoughts for Caroline Kennedy

Just when things were going well on her upstate tour comes the word that Harry Reid has been lobbying Gov. David Paterson to name Caroline Kennedy to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

Being backed a Majority Leader who can't get anything done is yet another obstacle for JFK's daughter, following the news that Al Sharpton is supporting her.

The usually publicity-shy Sharpton has sent the media an unsolicited statement announcing she had called him about the position and, with double-negative grandeur, he felt "compelled to state that I unequivocally disagree with those that say she is not qualified and could not bring needed leadership to this state and country."

Sharpton also disclosed he has "invited Ms. Kennedy to dine with me at Sylvia's this week in Harlem and reminded her that I took Sen. Obama there during his campaign so it's a good luck stop since he did all right."

If consorting with the likes of Reid and Sharpton is not enough to give Caroline Kennedy pause, Gail Collins asks "how much of her life does she really want to spend at fund-raisers for people she suspects will be indicted before they have a chance to cash the checks? How does she feel about admiring butter sculptures at state fairs?"

As if all this were not enough for second thoughts, has she really thought about what it would be like to have Chuck Schumer for a mentor yakking at her for hours at a time?

In her father's immortal words, how much is too much to "ask what you can do for your country."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


After generations of expecting more from life than those who came before them, Americans are entering uncharted economic territory--the landscape of less.

Every day, new numbers map the terrain. As the Fed cuts interest rates to near-zero to stimulate spending, two out of every three Americans now say they have been hurt by the downturn and that the country has slipped into long-term decline.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds 66 percent worried about maintaining their standard of living, with almost two in 10 families experiencing a job loss in recent months, more than a quarter seeing their pay or hours reduced, and 15 percent falling behind on rent or mortgage payments.

The Consumer Confidence Index has hit an all-time low in its 41 years of existence, reflected in slow holiday sales.

Even with falling prices, a federal agency is predicting the steepest drop in gasoline consumption this year and next since 1979-1980, some of it the result of fewer people driving to work amid record job losses and business bankruptcies.

Less is definitely more on the minds of Americans than ever before as they look ahead to an economic recovery with tightened belts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Vindication for Vilsack

Exactly two years ago, an impressive man with an odd name started running for president. Meeting Tom Vilsack moved me to write about him under the heading, "Can Competence Compete?"

In his case, the answer turned out to be no, and Vilsack went on to back Hillary Clinton before finally falling in line behind Barack Obama, who tomorrow will name him as his Secretary of Agriculture.

The appointment of someone who opposed him twice will confirm once again that the new president values competence over personal loyalty, an important trait when the country needs all the brains and good judgment it can get.

An orphan with a troubled adoptive family history, Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, identifies with the struggles of American families and, for a start, will empathize with them rather than the corporations who dominate farming.

He will serve Obama and the rest of us very well.

Patrick Fitzgerald's Problem

He is right out of a Frank Capra movie--a clean-cut crime fighter who lives to bring down the bad guys--but in the current Illinois Senate seat mess, Patrick Fitzgerald had to make a hard choice that could eventually let Rod Blagojevich off the hook: Should he try to stop the crime before it happens or nail the wrongdoer but only after the damage has been done?

The results of his decision to go public prematurely can be seen in a New York Times analysis under the headline, "In Blagojevich Case, Is it a Crime, or Just Talk?" that explores the fine line between political wheeling-dealing and a prosecutable crime:

"Mr. Fitzgerald’s decision to bypass a grand jury initially could signal a belief on his part that he did not yet have a fully prosecutable case on his hand, though it appears to have been prompted at least in part by the publication...of an article that tipped off Mr. Blagojevich that investigators were listening in on his conversations.

"Mr. Fitzgerald has also said he had been worried that if he did not intervene, Mr. Blagojevich might go ahead with some of his schemes, including appointing a successor to Mr. Obama."

Just so. If Fitzgerald had waited to catch Blagojevich with a smoking gun, he would have had an airtight case, but the US Senate would have had a replacement for Obama who, directly or indirectly, had bribed his or her way there.

The US Attorney's decision to prevent the crime has been drawing the fire of prosecutorial purists such as Victoria Toensing complaining in the Wall Street Journal that "he is not permitted to make the kind of inflammatory statements Mr. Fitzgerald made during his media appearance."

In an ideal world, she is right but the bottom line is that, in 21st century real life rather than a Frank Capra movie, most onlookers may readily forgive Patrick Fitzgerald for not playing a Boy Scout in the Blagojevich bad movie.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kennedy, Cuomo or None of the Above

New York's Governor David Patterson, himself a second-generation politician, is faced with a hard dynastic decision now that Caroline Kennedy has made it clear that she wants Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

In the Empire State, unlike those where money talks and talks, political bloodlines matter in the choice between a former president's daughter and a former governor's son, Andrew Cuomo, to replace a former First Lady.

To complicate it even more, Cuomo is divorced from Caroline Kennedy's cousin Kerry, whose brother, Robert Kennedy Jr. only recently took himself out of contention for the Clinton seat.

In political experience, Cuomo is a quarter of a century ahead, starting in his father Mario's administration in the 1980s and going on to serve as chairman of New York City's Homeless Commission, then in Bill Clinton's cabinet as HUD Secretary and now as New York State Attorney General.

But Caroline Kennedy is a serious, intelligent public figure-by-birth whose close ties to the new President could be an advantage for residents of the state even without experience in the rough-and-tumble.

Gov. Patterson, who inherited the job after Eliot Spitzer's downfall, should, of all people, know that character counts in public life. Making the choice will be a test of his own, and he may just surprise everyone by picking None of the Above.

Thanks a Trillion

After months of boring billion-dollar bailouts, the Change in Washington will usher in an exciting new time of the trillion for the incoming Congress and Administration:

*Cost estimates of the Obama stimulus plan for the economy are now $1 trillion over two years.

*Politicians will be under pressure to stop the steep drop in the value of American homes, now estimated to have fallen by $2 trillion this year.

*The new people at Treasury and Congressional oversight committees will be busy trying to find out what happened to an estimated $2 trillion shoveled out to banks and other financial houses in the past months. (Bloomberg News is suing under the Freedom of Information Act, but government agencies won't say.)

*When they get a closer look at the books, the Obama people may finally see if the Iraq war cost us only $1 or $2 trillion, as the Congressional Budget Office figures, or closer to the $4 trillion and counting that Nobel economist Joseph Stieglitz has been calculating.

At this rate, it will soon be time to update the folksy wisdom of the 1960s Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen: "A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Nation Builder's Victory Lap

George W. Bush is on a farewell visit to the country he liberated this weekend as spoilsports in Washington leak details of a 513-page report showing the American-led reconstruction of Iraq as "a $100 billion failure" caused by "bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure."

The Lame Duck was apparently hoping to limp out of Washington before the bad news came out in February, but the New York Times has it all today as a final Christmas present to a nation already depressed over what happened to the economy on the Bush Administration watch.

In the first 2000 presidential debate, candidate Bush criticized Al Gore as a closet nation-builder: "I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place."

Now we have evidence that his instinct was right in the new federal report titled “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” compiled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction headed by a Republican lawyer with a staff of engineers and auditors.

According to the Times, it is a "searing critique" of what its director calls the “blinkered and disjointed prewar planning for Iraq’s reconstruction” that led to "the botched expansion of the program from a modest initiative to improve Iraqi services to a multibillion-dollar enterprise."

To the heaping plate of problems that the new President will find on the table January 20th, add the cleaning up of our "success" in Iraq and figuring out how to avoid repeating it in Afghanistan.

Maybe Bush will send him a "Wish you were here" postcard from Baghdad this weekend.

Update: As the President finished his final press conference alongside Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an Iraq TV journalist threw his shoes at him. Some of us back here know exactly what he was feeling.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Colin Powell Spanks Sarah Palin

After being overshadowed by another spunky statehouse figure, Alaska's Governor finally gets some attention this weekend as Colin Powell emerges on CNN with a little lecture for her on American values.

"Gov. Palin," Powell tells Fareed Zakaria, "pushed the party more to the right, and...had something of a polarizing effect when she talked about how small town values are good. Well, most of us don’t live in small towns. And I was raised in the South Bronx, and there’s nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx."

I admit bias here. Colin Powell started life in Harlem and the Bronx of poor immigrant parents, as I did, and was given an education at the City College of New York, as I was, by the American people. He spent his life serving them with honor and valor until George W. Bush and Dick Cheney trashed his reputation by putting him out front at the UN with doctored intelligence about Iraq.

Having taxpayers give you what your parents could never afford gave generations of us values of community and responsibility that led many to try to do more than make money and reputations.

Colin Powell, with his endorsement of Obama and now his attempt to push the Republican Party back to its roots and ahead to its future of talking to all minorities, including hockey moms, is still trying to serve his country.

A Tale of Two Governors

As Rod Blagojevich struggles to keep his office after trying to sell a US Senate seat, spare a thought for Eliot Spitzer who lost his for buying bed time with a hooker.

On the eve of Change in America, their stories reflect the extremes of old politics--the self-made thief and the self-righteous reformer--both brought down by failure to hide their raw ambition behind the smooth façade required by a 24/7 media culture.

Their 20th century counterparts operated in relative darkness, the first Mayor Richard Daley with a stranglehold on a corrupt Chicago, Thomas E. Dewey building a reputation as a cardboard crime-buster that led to the New York statehouse and a presidential nomination.

But in today's public life, Spitzer's hard-charging style in Wall Street prosecutions, prescient in the light of the current collapse, made him politically vulnerable and forced his resignation as governor when other prosecutors taped his pathetic private indiscretions, even though he was not charged with any criminality.

Blagojevich, on the other hand, faces a multitude of possible prosecutions but refuses to go gentle in that good night.

Their stories tell us much about culture as well as politics. Spitzer's privileged Ivy League background made him more vulnerable to public shame and peer pressure than Blagojevich, who worked his way through college by shining shoes, delivering pizza and in a meat-packing plant before marrying into a political family. Public vilification seems to roll right off his back.

As the Illinois scandal plays itself out, the former New York governor is edging back into sight by writing a column on public issues for Slate. The first this month, about bailouts, is provocatively titled "Too Big Not to Fail."

The hooker, by the way, is doing just fine, on her way to a celebrity career after being interviewed by Diane Sawyer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Confederate Senators From Japan

In killing the Detroit bailout yesterday, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Toyota joined his colleagues Dick Shelby of Honda and Bob Corker of Nissan in upholding a basic American principle: Blame all economic woes on greedy unions.

After shoveling billions out the door for Wall Street bastions of free enterprise, McConnell expressed the worry that “a government big enough to give us everything we want is a government big enough to take everything we have.”

There is enough fault in the failing auto industry to go around--management, labor, shareholders and consumers--but taking cheap shots at the health and pension benefits of organized workers as the root of it all is a perfect example of what the great journalist Murray Kempton described half a century ago:

“There is a certain kind of politician who stays safely in the hills during a battle and then comes down and shoots the wounded.”

McConnell and his coterie of Southern senators, including Louisiana's David Vitter and South Carolina's Jim DeMint, all represent states with foreign-owned, non-union plants that would benefit from the disappearance of the American auto industry, no matter how much havoc it would wreak on the country as a whole.

Now these patriotic stalwarts are turning away from the Bush Administration they supported all through a disastrous foreign war to show their independence in the last days of the lame-duck hunting season by playing to the prejudices of constituents who barely reelected some of them last month.

The rest of the politicians in Congress and the White House will no doubt find a way to throw General Motors and Chrysler a temporary life-preserver, but certainly without the help of the union-busting senators from Japan.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bush Medal for Nixon Felon

In one of his last presidential acts, the Compassionate Conservative pinned a medal yesterday on Richard Nixon's Watergate hatchet man, Chuck Colson, for "sharing the message of God’s boundless love and mercy with prisoners, former prisoners, and their families."

In the season of Scrooge and redemption, it would be surly to see anything autobiographical in the gesture, but...

Just as Bush himself discovered God after half a lifetime of hell-raising, Colson in a jailhouse epiphany rehabilitated himself into Religious Right respectability after a career as Nixon's White House counsel, the brains behind the Watergate break-in and countless other assaults on the rule of law.

William F. Buckley, the now sainted conservative, summed up the general skepticism about Colson's conversion thus: "Those among us who consider themselves most worldly...treat [it] as a huge joke, as if W. C. Fields had come out for the Temperance Union. They are waiting for the second act, when the resolution comes, and W. C. Fields is toasting his rediscovery of booze, and Colson is back practicing calisthenics on his grandmother's grave."

But Bush is a True Believer in redemption for such as the holy man who rallied support for the war in Iraq, condemned the outed Deep Throat as a traitor to the FBI and recently signed a full-page ad backing Proposition 8 and accusing gays of "anti-religious bigotry."

Colson's rehabilitation is a family thing: In 2000, Jeb Bush as Florida Governor reinstated the rights taken away by Colson's felony conviction, including the right to vote.

In the award of the Presidential Citizens Medal, Colson is cited "for his good heart and his compassionate efforts to renew a spirit of purpose in the lives of countless individuals."

It's not hard to see why the Bushes would want to honor that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama vs. "The Bubble"

Even before he moves into the White House, the new President is feeling hemmed in and planning to do something about it.

Asked by Chicago reporters about his face painted on sides of buildings and lamp posts, Barack Obama complained that "because I'm in this bubble, I don't get to see all this stuff...I don't get a chance to wander around neighborhoods," saying that he missed encounters like the one on Thanksgiving handing out food at a local church.

But the President-Elect is resisting being cut off: "M)y Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago. We own one piece of property, and that is our home in Chicago...10 minutes away from where Michelle grew up and where her mother still has a house...we're going to try to get back here at least once every six weeks or couple of months."

At the beginning of his campaign two years ago, Obama expressed worries about staying grounded in the face of all the hype, and he apparently still has those concerns.

In the interview, he revealed he will be sworn in by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, and that, while he hasn't had time to settle on a church in Washington ("right now we're just trying to make sure that we don't lose anything in the move, including our children"), he has been getting spiritual support every morning from "a prayer circle" of pastors from all faith and denominations, some of whom "get on the phone and pray for me...

"I'm not even sure that all of them voted for me. But they were willing to pray for me."

With the country in the shape it's in, starting January 20th, there will be no shortage of Americans doing that.

Impeachment, Treatment or Exorcism?

That goofy vacant look, the Elvis combover and, above all, over-the-top arrogance are pushing the Blagojevich brouhaha into mental-health territory as the Illinois governor announces his intention of returning to work today.

“I’m not sure he’s playing with a full deck anymore,” says Mike Jacobs, a Democratic state senator and former friend quoted by the New York Times, as suggesting that "Blagojevich may have lost his grip on reality."

The Times backgrounder is replete with diagnostic terms such as "grandiosity," "pathology" and "no feedback loop or reality check" to suggest that Blagojevich's legal team may be planning to cop a psychiatric plea.

We are back in "disorder" territory to explain very bad, eventually self-defeating behavior by public officials (see Clinton, Bill: sex addiction), but labeling Blagojevich a sociopath is too easy an out.

That diagnosis, in the era of a new president's emphasis on personal responsibility, won't wash. It may pigeonhole the Illinois governor's odd antics to relieve us of thinking too hard about the corrupting effects of power, but straight arrows like Patrick Fitzgerald are more socially useful in expressing public outrage and disgust.

Nowadays, every exposed rogue (see Foley, Mark: rehab clinic) opts for treatment rather punishment but, at the risk of sounding insufficiently postmodern, the focus should be, not of explicating or exorcising Blagojevich's demons, but getting him out of office and into jail.

Update: This afternoon Barack Obama joined the chorus for a Blagojevich exit as his spokesman announced: "The president-elect agrees with [Illinois] Lt. Gov. [Pat] Quinn and many others that under the current circumstances it is difficult for the governor to effectively do his job and serve the people of Illinois."

Adios, Elvis.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Spreading Blagojevich Blot

Illinois' governor has gone on a “political corruption crime spree” with actions that have “taken us to a truly new low. The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” US Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said at his press conference today as the scandal unfolds with multiple questions about Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who ironically pushed the state's Whistleblower Law, calls on Blagojevich to step aside and urges the General Assembly to enact legislation removing his power to fill the Obama seat.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democratic leader, agrees and suggests the legislature schedule a special election, effectively pushing Blagojevich aside.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Obama's designated chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, another Illinois politician, may have blown the whistle on Blagejovich, while the President-Elect says today:

"I had no contact with the governor or his office and so I was not aware of what was happening. And as I said, it's a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate to comment."

With everything else going on in the transition, it now looks as if Illinois may be without a second Senator for a while, but one political prediction looks safe: In the next gubernatorial election, Republicans will be putting pressure on Patrick Fitzgerald to accept their nomination on a platform of cleaning up the mess.

Selling Obama's Senate Seat

The prosecutor who took out Scooter Libby is flummoxed today by the antics of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich in trying to auction off Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.

"The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering," US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald says in a statement. "They allege that Blagojevich put a 'for sale' sign on the naming of a United States Senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target; and corruptly used his office in an effort to trample editorial voices of criticism."

Someone who spent months in the muck of Libby's, Dick Cheney's and Karl Rove's campaign to discredit Joe Wilson by outing his wife Valerie Plame should not be easily shocked by political arrogance, but Fitzgerald is shaking his head over allegations that the Illinois governor tried to sell Obama's seat in return for:

(1) a high-paying non-profit job for himself and (2) putting his wife on corporate boards for as much as $150,000 a year and (3) promises of campaign funds in cash and (4) a Cabinet job or ambassadorship.

If even half of the charges are true, he should be indicted for breaking all records for greed and stupidity in the state that houses the Chicago Political Corruption Hall of Fame. And, if he goes down, unlike Libby, Blagojevich won't be able to count on a presidential pardon.

Monday, December 08, 2008

No Thomas Jefferson Bailout

With Congress preparing a $15 billion Christmas tip for Detroit, a more basic American industry is slowly going under.

"If I had to choose," Thomas Jefferson famously said, "between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."

The "latter" is in the grip of the financial squeeze and advertising losses in a failing economy as the company that owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun files for bankruptcy protection today, and the New York Times is reportedly planning to borrow up to $225 million against its mid-Manhattan headquarters building to ease its cash crunch.

Some bloggers who hate the MSM will no doubt show little more sympathy for newspaper makers than the most of the public does for the car industry. Yet their downfall threatens us all in an age when we are awash in tip-of-the-iceberg news, while fewer and fewer journalists are helping us see what's going on under the surface.

As we are threatened with drowning in repetitious cable TV and online headline-chasing and opinionizing, we learn less and less about hard news that might help us with the informed consent that Jefferson wanted us to have and depend more and more on the government he did not trust in its absence,

As far back as 1922, in "Public Opinion," Walter Lippmann pointed out that "the citizen will pay for his telephone, his railroad rides, his motor car, his entertainment. But he does not pay openly for his news,"

There won't be a Washington bailout for newspapers, so they will have to figure out new answers to who is going to pay for what we urgently need but expect to get free.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Enter Obama, Exit Brokaw

Today's Meet the Press was a scene of passage between the 21st century president-to-be and a media giant of the past, less striking for what was said than the display of intelligence and grace that has been so rare on the public stage for many years.

A month after his election and more than that before taking office, Barack Obama seems effortlessly presidential as he discusses the failing economy, corporate bailouts as well as military and diplomatic challenges in a dangerous world.

In his first months, Obama will face a balancing act--to jump-start the economy in ways consistent with "long-term, sustainable economic growth...investing in the largest infrastructure program--in roads and bridges and, and other traditional infrastructure--since the building of the federal highway system in the 1950s; rebuilding our schools and making sure that they're energy-efficient; making sure that we're investing in electronic medical records and other technologies that can drive down health care costs...down payments on the kind of long-term, sustainable growth that we need."

Doing that will take unprecedented leadership skills working with a Congress of competing interests and ideologies, but the new administration starts with a good deal of hope and good will aroused by a new president who can communicate with the public.

Seeing him interviewed by Brokaw, who took over Meet the Press when Tim Russert died suddenly in June, is a reminder of the media obligation to focus on what politicians are saying and doing and hold them to account with tough but fair questioning.

Both sides of the equation are in transition as David Gregory takes over the Sunday morning talkfest for a new era, but watching Obama with Brokaw was a reminder of how useful the process can be.

December 7, 1941

Each year there are fewer of us to remember and bear witness to the day the Japanese attack changed us from children of the Depression to what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation.

On the anniversary this year, Americans are thinking more about the hard times of the 1930s than World War II, but with the terror of Mumbai fresh in our minds, the shock of Pearl Harbor has resonance as well.

I was 17 that day, standing next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through the picture window of a hospital nursery as a nurse in white mask held up a sleeping baby. A minute later, she drew the curtain.

Newborns were kept isolated then and, as a college student, my part-time job was to hand the new father a hospital gown and lead him to the window. The babies all looked alike. The real show was on our side of the glass: a man’s eyes flooding with pride, wonder and worry.

But then sudden death six thousand miles away shattered those tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College of New York, my eyes on a huge mural, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing to a bright future.

From a loudspeaker the voice of the only President I could remember (FDR took office on my ninth birthday) was telling of a day that will live in infamy and saying we are at war.

There was no 24/7 news but every night at 8:55, the chilling radio voice of Elmer Davis told of battles in Europe and the Pacific. We saw and heard so little news then, but we never for a minute forgot that our young people were dying in distant places.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Caroline Kennedy's Genetic Conflict

News that she is interested in being appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is coming as a surprise to those who have always seen Caroline Kennedy as an essentially private person, temperamentally more like her mother than her father.

“I believe that she is considering it,” her cousin Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells the New York Times. “A lot of people the last couple of weeks have urged her to do it.” She apparently called New York Gov. David Paterson this week to discuss the position.

That would represent a drastic midlife switch for the 51-year-old wife and mother of three who has kept a low profile in her career as a lawyer, writer and philanthropist, very much like her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy, in her widowhood.

She emerged last January with a Times op-ed piece titled, "A President Like My Father," to endorse Barack Obama and then actively campaign for him and serve on his vice-presidential search team.

If Caroline Kennedy were to replace Sen. Clinton, she would be committing herself to run in a special 2010 election and for reelection in 2012, two grueling political campaigns for someone who has spent a lifetime so far in relative privacy.

But it's also easy to understand what has led her to consider such a change. A year after JFK's death, I asked Jacqueline Kennedy to become a contributing editor of McCalls. She was still too deep in mourning for that, but she talked about wanting to find a way to keep alive her husband's "ideas and ideals."

It's a measure of the difference between then and now that she could conceive of doing that only through a man. "Robert Kennedy would be perfect," she said, "but that's not possible."

Now her daughter, even with the same tendencies toward privacy, seems to be ready to step out and emulate her father in the Senate.

Caroline Kennedy may have given us a clue when she wrote that OpEd about Obama:

"I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president--not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."

Friday, December 05, 2008

Post-Partisan Depression

With Democrats ascending, the wordplay in Washington is improving even if the economy isn't. Pressuring Barack Obama to be more aggressive, Congressman Barney Frank said yesterday, "At a time of great crisis with mortgage foreclosures and autos, he says we only have one president at a time. I'm afraid that overstates the number of presidents we have."

He also chided the President-Elect's policy of reaching across party lines: "Having lived with this very right-wing Republican group that runs the House most of the time, the notion of trying to deal with them as if we could be post-partisan gives me post-partisan depression."

No worries about an excess of wit or a partisanship gap, however, on the part of Democratic Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who sent George W. Bush a gotcha letter on the Detroit bailout, urging him to use "the TARP funds, or to work with the Federal Reserve to make available assistance through its existing lending programs, or both."

Translation: We can't or won't do anything until our man takes over the White House, so if the situation gets worse, it's your fault if you don't do something but, if you do, we get credit for pushing you into doing it.

When President Obama is finally in charge, he will have more than one kind of partisanship to overcome.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ambivalence Over Obama's Inaugural

January 20th will be a dicey day. It represents a joyous celebration of Change but also a reminder of how much we have suffered in the last eight years and the pain that now has to be eased.

Such uncertainty has clouded the triumph of Barack Obama, starting with Election Night when he cancelled a fireworks display in Grant Park as inappropriate. As he takes office, what's the right balance of celebration and dedication, of raising hopes and calming fears, of soaring rhetoric and sad reality for this American moment?

As Inaugural planners brace themselves for an estimated 3 million or more attendees, spokeswoman Linda Douglass acknowledges, "These are tough times, and certainly we are mindful of the struggles that Americans are going through in their own lives right now."

At a time when unprecedented numbers of Americans are losing their homes, the Obamas will be moving into the White House as the Bushes relocate to their new $2 million hideaway in Dallas. Obama and his administration will be assuming their new jobs as millions across the country are losing theirs.

"A Birth of New Freedom" is the official inauguration theme, taken from the Gettysburg Address, expressing Lincoln's hope that sacrifice would lead to "a new birth of freedom," coupled with an appeal in his inaugural address to "the better angels of our nature."

Balancing the solemnity of the times with Washington's penchant for glitz and glamour won't be easy for Obama.

He has the dubious example of Jimmy Carter, who tried to show his earthiness by passing up a limousine and walking a freezing mile and a half from his swearing-in to the White House and insisted on serving pretzels and peanuts at the inaugural balls.

Barack Obama is too sophisticated for that kind of cornball symbolism, but he will have to find his own tone for a January 20th filled with ambivalence.

Beating Up on the Big Three

Hard times bring out the worst in everyone, and politicians and the public are venting their unhappiness on Detroit automakers with a vengeance.

In a new poll, six out of ten Americans oppose using taxpayer money to save General Motors, Chrysler and Ford after Congress' trashing of their chief executives for flying to Washington in separate corporate jets to ask for billions in bailouts.

This week they are arriving in hybrid cars with restructuring plans, but the lame-duck Congress is not inclined to relent even as the President-Elect expresses hope for "maintaining a viable auto industry" while stressing the need for "a more serious set of plans" for restructuring.

Even the Wall Street Journal is urging "tough love" for Detroit but, behind all the posturing, there is the reality that allowing the American auto industry to crash and burn would make a failing economy even worse than it already is.

As they debate the specifics of reform this week--more fuel efficiency, union concessions, fewer dealerships--members of Congress should stop taking cheap shots at the automakers' chief executives and start negotiating and taking responsibility for their terms of surrender to the economic crisis.

Unlike the financial houses that are being propped up with much less pressure to mend their ways, the auto industry actually makes something besides money.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nixon and Bush Come Into a Bar...

A decade and a half after he died, the ghost of Bad Presidents Past keeps reappearing, rattling his chains to remind us that, as George W. Bush leaves, he did not invent bad behavior in the White House.

The latest batch of released Nixon tapes provokes a headline: "Ruthless, Cynical, Profane."

In contrast to the President Present, Nixon was never someone you would want to have a beer with, more like the weird guy who comes into the bar and inspires everyone to move to the other end.

With Nixon we are beyond politics, deep into the personal pathology of a man who saw himself surrounded by a world of enemies yet hungered for their approval even while hatching plots against them and, throughout it all, secretly recording every word in the Oval Office that would come back to destroy his presidency and, beyond that, haunt and puzzle generations to come.

By contrast, in his farewell media tour, starting this week with Charlie Gibson, we get a genial, somewhat befuddled Bush, prompting us to speculate about when he is lying to himself as well as us.

In one of the new Nixon revelations, he orders an aide to make sure that pictures of all previous presidents are removed from White House Offices, only to discover that an employee of 41 years still has a signed photo of JFK on her wall.

The episode has a happy ending when the Leader of the Free World receives a memo: "On January 14th, the project was completed and all 35 offices displayed only your photograph."

Mission Accomplished.

Moishe Holtzberg of Mumbai

The two-year-old, in Israel now after his parents were gunned down last week, evokes tears and stirs a childhood memory.

One day when I was ten, in a Bronx park, a band of kids from another neighborhood suddenly attacked half a dozen of us. In the melee, I was pinned against a tree by a bigger boy. He held me with one hand and kept driving a fist at my head as hard and fast as he could. I warded off most of the blows with my arms, but I couldn’t take my eyes off his furious face. While struggling to escape, I was transfixed by a rage I had never seen before--it was like being caught in a storm.

When it was over, I asked an older boy from our neighborhood why.

"They hate us because we're Jews," he said. "They say we killed Christ."

"Did we?"

"How the hell should I know? It happened a million years ago."

From then on, I lived in a world among those who despised people like me enough to inspire special words for our slaughter--pogrom, genocide, Holocaust--and by those with euphemisms for killing the spirit, if not the body: “restricted” and “gentlemen’s agreement,” and those on the streets and in barracks where the expressions were raw but honest--kike, sheenie, Hebe.

They made it clear I belonged to a people fated to be despised and driven, their names their crime, the shape of their noses their destiny. Faced with such hatred of a religion I could never feel in my heart, it would have been unthinkable to stop being a Jew or calling myself one.

Last week in Mumbai, the killers were apparently Muslims motivated by murderous hatred of Hindus, but they took the time for a detour to slaughter Jews in a Hasidic headquarters. An Indian nanny saved Moishe as his parents Gavriel and Rivka died.

The boy is in a village near Tel Aviv now, where during a memorial service, a rabbi told him, "You don't have a mother who will hug you and kiss you. You are the child of all Israel."

As he grows up, someone will have to explain to him why his parents died.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Search Engines Can Make You Sick

In the latest example of information overload, a new study suggests that surfing the Web can cause "cyberchondria," needlessly escalating medical concerns and causing anxiety leading to physical harm.

Sponsored by Microsoft, researchers found that online seekers of medical information often attribute innocuous symptoms to serious diseases, which are the unlikely causes, as a result of web sites ranking diseases by the clicks of worried users rather than likelihood of relevance, as a doctor would in making a diagnosis.

"On the Web, larger amounts of indexed content about serious disorders can make these disorders more available to search engines as well as people who browse content. Similar or larger amounts of content may be devoted to rare yet serious illnesses compared to content on more common explanations for symptoms.

"For example, headaches are far more often caused by caffeine withdrawal than by cerebral hemorrhage or brain tumors, but there is a great deal more written about headaches and the link to serious, albeit rare diseases."

Add this to the well-established human tendency to exaggerate the possibility of rare outcomes, and online seekers of medical information can work themselves into a lather over very little.

To prevent such cyberchondria, the researchers suggest developing more ways to detect whether search engine users are practicing self-diagnosis and, if so, ranking possible causes more realistically.

Meanwhile, it might be well to recall the folk wisdom: "He who treats himself has a fool for a doctor."

All-in-the-Family Politics

The colonists who left England to escape hereditary rule would be surprised to find so much of it in American politics two centuries later as jockeying begins to fill Senate seats vacated by members of the Obama Administration.

Name recognition has been important in contested elections, but it seems to be a major factor in appointed positions as well.

For Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, those being considered include former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's son Andrew, Robert Kennedy Jr., Caroline Kennedy--and even Bill Clinton. For Obama's vacated position in Illinois, the front runner is Jesse Jackson Jr. and, in Delaware, the newly appointed Ted Kaufman is widely believed to be keeping the seat warm for Joe Biden's son Beau in 2010.

Nepotism has produced mixed results in recent American politics, as the histories of George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton suggest, but it's disconcerting to find inherited star quality playing so big a part in naming members of Congress' upper chamber.

Barack Obama's success this year was an important victory for meritocracy in American life, but the aftermath is showing that family connections still count.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Debriefing Bush

"I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess." That, in a nutshell, is George W. Bush's valedictory thought about invading Iraq, in interviews with Charlie Gibson on ABC this week.

"A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is [sic] a reason to remove Saddam Hussein," Bush added.

But the historical record shows that the "lot of people" consisted mainly of Dick Cheney and his henchman, relying on a swindling Ahmad Chalabi and torturing CIA intelligence into a false case against the Iraqi regime he was salivating to replace.

"We've really got to make the case" against Hussein, Bush told Secretary of State Colin Powell in January 2003, "and I want you to make it" at the UN.

A few days later, according to the Washington Post, Powell was "taken aback" by "a 48-page, single-spaced compilation of Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction program, replete with drama, rhetorical devices and a kitchen sink full of allegations. The most extreme version of every charge the administration had made about Hussein, the document had been written, Powell concluded, under the tutelage of Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who shared all of his boss's hard-line views and then some."

In blaming faulty intelligence for a misbegotten war, Bush is exposing himself to history's choice of branding him either a fool or a lethal liar.

He would have done much better by looking back to George Washington's farewell words as he left the presidency:

"The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest."

Clintons Front and Center Again

Barack Obama unveils a new national security team today with old faces, not least of which is the ghostly presence of Bill Clinton hovering in the background.

After weeks of negotiation, the former First Lady will be named Secretary of State, but where Obama vetting leaves off, the Senate confirmation process will take up untangling the former President's private foreign policy empire.

Sen. Dick Lugar, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee indicated yesterday that "there will be questions raised, and probably legitimate questions” about Bill Clinton's "cosmic ties."

The New York Times reports Clinton will disclose names of more than 200,000 donors to his foundation, refuse contributions from foreign governments to the Clinton Global Initiative, his annual charitable conference, stop holding its meetings overseas, let his speaking schedule be reviewed by the State Department and White House counsel and submit new sources of income to an ethical review.

“It’s a big step,” Senator Lugar says of the agreement, but there will almost certainly be Republican efforts to dig deeper for potential conflicts of interest.

During the primary campaign, there was widespread resentment about continuing the Clinton/Bush dynasties in Washington but, now that W's Neo-Cons are being sent off to the national security nursing home, here are the Clintons front and center again in the era of Change.