Thursday, December 31, 2009

When Would Osama Have Made the No-Fly List?

From the blame scramble over the aborted Christmas bombing comes a CIA defense of the failure to ground Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

The New York Times quotes an anonymous official: “You had a young man who was becoming increasingly pious and was turning his back on his family’s wealthy lifestyle. That alone makes him neither St. Francis nor a dead-eyed killer.

“Every piece of data, of course, looks different when you know the answer, as everyone does now.”

By this smug reasoning, Osama bin Laden might not have made the no-fly list for "turning his back on his family's lifestyle" until after 9/11, even if his father, like Adbulmutallab's, had warned the CIA about his son's radicalization, citing online posts about his "dilemma between liberalism and extremism" over several years.

"American officials," says the Times, "contend that they took the father’s account seriously, but that he never signaled that his son might carry out a terrorist attack." Absent details of an actual plot, they put his name on a large list but failed to alert other intelligence agencies.

This kind of lackadaisical response confirms the near-impossibility of preventing terror by bureaucracy alone. As the President reviews what went wrong and looks for ways to fix the system, he might want to start with the reaction of Rep. Jane Harman, chair of the House Homeland Security subcommittee:

"When government officials receive credible tips like that provided by Abdulmutallab's father regarding Yemen... someone's hair should be on fire," she said yesterday.

If we don't have people like that, the White House had better start looking for them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

True Believers: Abdulmullatab and Cheney

"Passionate hatred," Eric Hoffer wrote half a century ago, "can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance."

Days after a 23-year-old Nigerian demonstrates the enduring truth of this observation by Eisenhower's favorite philosopher, along comes 68-year-old Dick Cheney to confirm its universality.

The former Vice President emerges to deplore not the attempted bombing but Barack Obama's response to it. Cheney, apparently at loose ends before his memoirs are published in May, can't resist another airing of the fanatical grievance of his holy cause--to prove that Bush's successor cares only about "social transformation" of American society.

"As I’ve watched the events of the last few days," he says in a statement, "it is clear once again that President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war. He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war...He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of Sept. 11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won’t be at war.

“He seems to think if he closes Guantanamo and releases the hard-core Al Qaeda-trained terrorists still there, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gets rid of the words, ‘war on terror,’ we won’t be at war. But we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren’t, it makes us less safe. Why doesn’t he want to admit we’re at war? It doesn’t fit with the view of the world he brought with him to the Oval Office. It doesn’t fit with what seems to be the goal of his presidency--social transformation."

It's not clear whether Cheney pounced on Obama's first cautious reaction to the incident or simply chose to ignore his subsequent condemnation of a "systemic failure" and order of a top-to-bottom review of security procedures.

But as Cheney and other rabid Republicans continue their attacks on the Administration, the rest of us may take comfort in another observation of the longshoreman-philosopher who wrote "The True Believer" and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.

“It is cheering," Eric Hoffer wrote, "to see that the rats are still around--the ship is not sinking.”

Update: The White House responds on its blog, with Commmunications Director Dan Pfeiffer writing that "we all agree that there should be honest debate about these issues, but it is telling that Vice President Cheney and others seem to be more focused on criticizing the Administration than condemning the attackers. Unfortunately too many are engaged in the typical Washington game of pointing fingers and making political hay, instead of working together to find solutions to make our country safer."

Pfeiffer declares that "this President is not interested in bellicose rhetoric, he is focused on action. Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country. And it seems strangely off-key now, at a time when our country is under attack, for the architect of those policies to be attacking the President."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Defective Decade, Take Two

In the past ten years, to hold the second most powerful position in the nation, Americans cast more than a quarter of a billion ballots for such leaders with outstanding qualities as (in alphabetical order) Dick Cheney, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin.

This could not have been what a twentieth-century Vice President of the United States, John Nance Garner, had in mind when he declared that the position was "not worth a bucket of warm piss."

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Defective Decade

If there were factory recalls for ages, the first product of the 21st century would be sent back for retooling. Politically, socially, morally, esthetically, the decade has been a disaster.

Economically, Paul Krugman grades it as "The Big Zero," but that may be too generous for a time when almost everything in American life has slid below previous standards in an orgy of what Pat Moynihan called defining deviancy down.

The decade gave us our first needlessly preemptive war, the degradation of individual privacy, the most painful depression in almost a century, and perhaps worst of all, a coarsening of sensibilities toward everything from torture to political discourse.

In the late 1990s, a time of budget surpluses and no foreign wars, Hillary Clinton called the impeachment of her husband "a vast right-wing conspiracy." It was neither vast nor a conspiracy, but it was the opening wedge in the politics of personal destruction that is now bedeviling one of the few accomplishments of the decade, the election of America's first African-American president, who is trying to govern despite a mindlessly monolithic opposition party.

Bill Clinton invited such chaos with incredible self-indulgence in the White House, but his behavior was no worse than JFK's, which did not lead to an impeachment that, among other things, may have inhibited attacks on Osama bin Laden for fear of having them called "Wag the Dog" diversions.

Al Gore started the new decade by distancing himself from Clinton, leading to Clarence Thomas' awarding of the presidency to George W. Bush and his self-selected vice president Dick Cheney.

The rest, unfortunately, is history, which offers no do-overs or replacement decades but from which it may be possible to learn and avoid repeating.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Way We Live Now

The terrorist who set his pants on fire yesterday on a crowded plane is a Christmas bookend to the Thanksgiving White House party-crashers--reminders that, as the Marx Brothers would put it, there is "no sanity clause" in our contract for security in today's world.

Both incidents undermine the belief that poverty and oppression are the main sources of danger, with the perpetrators turning to be scions of the wealthy, a Virginia vineyard owner and a Nigerian bank chairman.

The other usual suspects for blame will not lessen our anxiety, either. A Congressional Republican who is running for governor of Michigan, Pete Hoekstra jumps in to burble, "People have got to start connecting the dots here and maybe this is the thing that will connect the dots for the Obama administration."

The Detroit flight scare comes complete, not only with a political clown like Hoekstra but a heroic passenger, the Dutch filmmaker who suffered burns by jumping the fumbling terrorist and helping avert disaster for the 288 others on board.

In the coming days, there will be scrambling to place retroactive responsibility, particularly since the would-be bomber's father says he alerted authorities to the views of his son who reportedly lived in a $4 million London apartment.

There will also be "tightening" of airline terminal procedures and reassuring speeches from Homeland Security, but the sad truth is that breaches of safety for plane passengers, White House dinner guests and everybody else are just part of the way we live now.

While we must do everything possible to avoid them, they are going to keep happening, especially at times when most Americans are trying to enjoy the traditional comforts and pleasures of life that stir envy and rage in disordered minds. Luckily, at least for now, not all of their efforts are lethal.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Medical Tip

"Hiccups," says the Mayo Clinic, "may result from a large meal, alcoholic beverages or sudden excitement," which makes this the perfect-storm day for being afflicted.

Fortunately, there is a sure-fire cure, passed on to me by (brace yourself for major name-drop) John F. Kennedy's White House doctor, Janet Travell, an expert on muscle spasms who put him in a rocking chair and kept him from being bed-ridden.

Years later, when I was helping Dr. Travell find a publisher for her two-volume medical text on trigger-point therapy, she mentioned a paper she had written on one form of that treatment-—for hiccups.

Herewith Dr. Travell’s little-known but, in my experience, absolutely effective cure:

There is a small flap at the back of the upper palate called the uvula. Pressing the end of a butter knife or spoon handle firmly against it for three seconds or more will make the spasms stop. The only problem is to keep the hiccupper calm enough to avoid gagging.

In dozens of attempts with friends and family, I found it worked every time. As a magazine editor, I ran a brief item, and scores of readers confirmed that it did.

This treatment may also stop snoring, if you have the nerve to wake someone and try.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Silent Night, DC

Washington is a ghost town as all through the House, not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse, and the Senate is quiet too after St. Nicholas showed up this morning to fill Democrats' stockings with 60 votes on health care and for Republicans leave only lumps of coal that they hope to transmute into electoral gold next year.

On his way out the door, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was not full of Christmas cheer. "I guarantee you," he vowed, "the people who voted for this bill are going to get an earful when they finally get home for the first time since Thanksgiving. This fight isn't over."

Not exactly "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night," or as a New York Times analysis headlines it: "In Senate Health Care Vote, New Partisan Vitriol" to describe the first purely party-line vote on major legislation in modern times--"the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inverse proportion to a rising influence of lobbying, money, the 24-hour news cycle and hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere."

As he left for the peace and quiet of Hawaii, President Obama hailed the impending bill as "the biggest social reform since the creation of Social Security in the 1930s," but non-Washington residents may be forgiven for seeing reams of muddle that have yet to be "reconciled" by warring legislators as something less than that.

In his excitement to unwrap the package this morning, Harry Reid drew laughter by almost voting the wrong way, and Robert Byrd evoked tears by casting his Aye "for my friend Ted Kennedy" as the Massachusetts senator's widow looked on.

They have all left town now, leaving the rest of us grateful for a "Silent Night" at last.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do Voters Owe Obama an Apology?

As he assesses his performance in 2009, Barack Obama could claim he has been the victim of a bait-and-switch by Americans who voted him into office a year ago. Elected on a platform of Change, he was immediately asked to become the first responder to an economy falling apart.

He is not copping that plea, but the case should be made over the yowling from the do-nothing Right.

In a year-end interview, while defending himself on the health care imbroglio, the President notes that "the most important thing we did this year was to ensure that the financial system did not collapse," almost an aside to the reality that, after campaigning two years on one set of premises, he was thrust into a situation no one foresaw.

Forgotten in his falling approval ratings now are the weeks of "one president at a time," when Americans were so anxious to be rid of George W. Bush that Obama had to keep reminding them that he was not yet in the Oval Office.

Also lost in the mists of the pre-recession past are candidate Hillary Clinton's argument about being "ready on Day One," a test that Barack Obama passed with flying colors.

Ironically, conservative Andrew Sullivan is one of few along the political spectrum making the case that "2009 has been an extraordinarily successful year for Obama," citing his successes in reversing the Unitary Executive, bailing out the banks (however imperfectly) and passing a stimulus to shift the economy from "a tailspin to stabilization and some prospect of job growth next year."

Sullivan's conclusion: "Yes, we have. And yes, we still are the ones we've been waiting for--if we still care enough to swallow purism and pride and show up for the less emotionally satisfying grind of real, practical, incremental reform."

That may be too optimistic, but after months of floundering in the health care morass, this White House is showing signs of reorienting to do "a very hard pivot" and push for a new jobs bill in the State of the Union, and even approval ratings seem to be bottoming out like the unemployment rates.

This season of renewal may be the right time to start drowning out the catcalls and remember that Hope can spring eternal.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Where Have All the Grownups Gone?

The Republican National Committee chairman, who has been charging audiences up to $20,000 a pop for his words of wisdom, offered up a free sample yesterday, accusing Democrats of being willing to “flip the bird to the American people” in the health care debate.

Michael Steele's elegant formulation came after Tom Coburn combined his credentials as an MD and evangelist on the Senate floor Sunday by suggesting, "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray."

Dr. Coburn's entreaty for divine intervention was taken amiss by Dick Durbin, the Democratic Whip, who saw it as putting the evil eye on the failing health of 92-year-old Robert Byrd: "When it reaches a point where we're praying, asking people to pray, that senators wouldn't be able to answer the roll call, I think it has crossed the line."

Coburn's prayer went unanswered as Sen. Byrd made it to the 1 a.m. vote, which he cast with a raised finger followed by a fist pump.

If Durbin's line was meant to mark the boundaries of civil discourse in Washington, it has all but been erased in this season of good will as one of his own colleagues, Sheldon Whitehouse, compared Republican opponents to Nazis, Southern lynch mobs and "taunting crowds" of the French Revolution.

If and when health reform finally passes, it will take decades to learn how it has affected the health of the American people, but in the process, the body politic has come down with a high fever.

At a signing ceremony, Dr. Obama will have to write a powerful prescription to counter that.

Update: The Washington Post adds a holiday note by reporting Byrd's warm greeting by old Senate friends and his zinger for Coburn in a statement: "The Bible says love thy neighbor as thyself. I would hope that we could debate the pressing issues in front of the American public on their own merits without appealing to the Almighty for obstruction, of which there seems to be no short supply in Washington,"

Monday, December 21, 2009

Updated Christmas Classics

This may be the year that George Bailey finally jumps off the bridge after Old Man Potter merges with Bank of America to hire Clarence as a lobbyist with his own private jet instead of those old-fashioned wings he has been wishing for.

For its annual Christmas Eve showing, in the age of James Cameron, "It's a Wonderful Life" needs serious updating, especially if it's being constantly interrupted by commercials against health care reform to freak out the citizens of Bedford Falls over any form of communal activism.

In other celluloid classics, Scrooge can cut a deal with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come aka Harry Reid (call it a Ben Nelson carveout) to escape those hellish chains, while the Grinch gets to keep all the Christmas stuff he stole with a Max Baucus exception for victims of environmental hazards (Mt. Crumpit in Whoville is notorious for its toxic atmosphere).

In the last century, the dream factories of Hollywood made sentimental believers of us all, but the Washington headline makers are teaching us how life really works. So let George Bailey take the plunge. If he survives, he can pay for his own health care out of the advance for the book deal that is sure to follow.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Fed's Financial Death Panels

As Ben Bernanke, Time's Person of the Year, heads toward his second term as Chairman, there is no sign of relief for the most hapless victims of the bank bailouts--millions of retired Americans whose fixed incomes have plunged as a result of the Fed's near-zero interest rates.

In his cover interview, Bernanke explains that "convalescent" banks, which have been taking taxpayer nourishment for a year, are in "much better shape than they were. They are lending, but they are not lending enough to support a healthy recovery..."

As fiscal conservatives bewail future deficits that will burden generations of American children to come, the immediate price is being paid twice over by their grandparents now, both as taxpayers and private individuals whose prudent behavior during years of Wall Street excess has been rewarded by slashing their retirement incomes to a fraction of what they were as recently as a year ago.

Frank Rich underscores the irony today: "The Fed chairman was just as big a schnook as every other magical thinker in Washington and on Wall Street who believed that housing prices would go up in perpetuity to support an economy leveraged past the hilt. Unlike most of the others, it was Bernanke’s job to be ahead of the curve. Yet as recently as June of last year he could be found minimizing the possibility of a substantial economic downturn. And now we’re supposed to applaud him for putting his finger in the dike after disaster struck? This is defining American leadership down."

Even after giving Bernanke the benefit of doubt about foresight and hindsight, here is the Fed this week confirming its free-money-for-banks policy by holding interest rates near zero, as the largest deploy their profits (at least in part the result of giving retirees nothing in return for using their life savings) to repay bailout loans so they can start rewarding themselves with pre-bubble bonuses instead of making loans to get the economy moving again.

Bernanke tells Time that "we are trying to work with banks to make sure that they are, in fact, able to make as many good loans as possible, that they have enough capital, that they have enough short-term funding, and that the examiners and the regulators who work with the banks are not unduly restricting the loans that they make."

In a world where greed were not a given, that theoretically would seem sound, but real people with a Sarah Palinish mindset might see that as setting up financial death panels for those too old to earn new income and too experienced to start gambling what they have left in Wall Street's rigged casinos.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Obama and the Benator

As Democrats worked feverishly to stuff Sen. Ben Nelson into his Christmas stocking, the President used his pre-holiday weekly address to hammer health insurer lobbyists and promise voters "the toughest measures we’ve ever taken to hold the insurance industry accountable."

The price for a Nelson this season was high, starting with possible restrictions by the states on abortion coverage and filling the package to the brim with what are delicately described as "other favors for his home state." The man George W. Bush called "the Benator" showed once again why he had rejected "Nellie" as too soft a nickname for his hard-to-buy centrist self.

On cue, the heavens dropped a blanket of snow on DC to cover the legislative wreckage in time for a possible Christmas Eve postcard of bringing health reform home for the holidays.

The final bill, the President promises, will have protections as "just one part of a landmark reform that will finally reduce the cost of health care...

"The insurance industry knows all this. That’s why they’re at it again, using their muscle in Washington to try to block a vote they know they will lose. They’re lobbying. They’re running ads. They’re spending millions of dollars to kill health insurance reform, just like they’ve done so many times before. They want to preserve a system that works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people."

With all due respect to a President who started out proposing serious reform and for too long watched it being torn apart by Congressional hacks, after the passage of this bill, the system will still work better for the health insurance industry--and the greediest of providers--than it does for the American people.

But consider the holiday toast from Paul Krugman: "By all means, hang Senator Joe Lieberman in effigy. Declare that you’re disappointed in and/or disgusted with President Obama. Demand a change in Senate rules that, combined with the Republican strategy of total obstructionism, are in the process of making America ungovernable. But meanwhile, pass the health care bill."

With an oh-so-heavy heart, have a sip of the egg nog (hoping like hell it has no Kool-Aid in it) and second the motion.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Era of Least-Worse Solutions

As the century's first decade winds down, what stands out to someone who has lived through many of them is how America's problems today are being "solved" by angry confrontations, sour and inconsistent compromises, hopeless shrugs and variations thereof.

Health care reform, the Afpak war, the crippled economy, the imperiled climate--all are being confronted, despite a rhetorically gifted president's formulations, by a population that seems to have lost faith in human progress or even simple competence.

Opinion polls show losses for Barack Obama but gains for whom or what? As voters on the left and right grow impatient with the Great Non-White Hope of a year ago, to whom or what are they turning? Certainly not to the Congressional leaders of a balkanized majority or a loyal opposition whose only program is to hold their breath until they turn blue against all spending or tax increases. Is there a serious voice in that cacophony of whining about government control?

On the brink of passing (or perhaps not) a bullet-ridden version of health care reform, Democrats are losing Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, union leaders and others all along their own political spectrum

The President has made an agonizing decision about more troops for Afghanistan, but even he is sounding an uncertain trumpet about eventual success in that hopelessly corrupt region.

In Copenhagen, he will encounter not a new era of international cooperation but the same old bickering between developed states and the third world, pointing fingers at one another.

As Barack Obama faces his second year in office, how or when will he get the chance to preside over an America that doesn't need fingers in dikes everywhere as it searches for the least-worse solutions to its flood of problems?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Insult to Injury Over Health Care

A touch of farce is just what the Senate scrimmage needed, and Joe Lieberman, bless his hypocritical heart, provided it at yesterday's White House meeting.

While the President tried to get his dyslexic troops marching in the same direction for a final vote, the Senator from Self-Important Sanctimony made a bid for sympathy from the assembled colleagues he has been holding hostage.

“What’s happening," he said, "is not any fun for me.”

Like the parent killer pleading for mercy as an orphan, Lieberman is now so deep in the two-faced logic that has marked his career he has lost all sight of cause and effect.

Long-time Lieberman watchers will recall his performances in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings when he announced his support and voted no, followed by the Bill Clinton impeachment at which, after denouncing his party's President for "disgraceful" and "immoral" behavior," he cast his ballot for acquittal.

His current 180 on allowing those from 55 to 65 to enroll in Medicare is just the latest flip-flop, which critics attribute to his financial support from health insurers but can just as easily be seen as the result of his pathological need for the spotlight.

If Joe Lieberman is not enjoying having the White House Press Secretary describe as the object of the President's concern "members of the democratic caucus, including independents who caucus with the Democrats," such attentions must be as repellent to him as George W. Bush's State of the Union smooch and the coverage he drew on the campaign trail last year supporting John McCain.

When Lieberman complained yesterday about the pleasure deficit in his life, Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has championed the public option, answered, “You know, Joe, it’s not fun for us either” and the President reportedly joined in to say, “Why don’t we all begin to have some fun?” he said. “Let’s pass the bill.”

Not until Joe Lieberman has squeezed the last bit of TV face time out of the impasse.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Adultery for Dummies, 2009 Update

As Tiger Woods is pelted by wisecracks about dating women with 8X10 glossies and Gov. Mark Sanford's wife decides to divorce him over his South American travels, the year's body count is mounting for public figures brought down by failure to rein in their private parts.

Such consequences of low behavior by men in high places (gender equality has not yet evolved enough to ensnare powerful women in sex scandals, but give them time), suggest guidelines for who gets away with what these days--and for how long.

Congressmen who cheat have a better chance of career survival than governors, perhaps because of low public expectations. Eliot Spitzer, who was elected as the scourge of Wall Street manipulators, had to leave the New York Governor's mansion, but Sen. David Vitter is still legislating away after his call-girl disgrace, and just last weekend Max Baucus drew a pass for an iffy confession about juggling a wife back home and a girlfriend on his Senate payroll.

What's more, penalties are not permanent. Spitzer has reemerged as a pundit and is now thinking about running for state controller next year, while his former call girl has embarked on a love-advice column for the New York Post. Prurience conquers all.

The prospects for Tiger Woods' rehabilitation may be reflected in what happened to baseball's Alex Rodriguez this year. In 2008, both his game and reputation tanked during an extramarital affair with Madonna and charges of steroid use.

Now, after a divorce, the rehabilitated and single A-Rod entered a performance-enhancing relationship with Kate Hudson, who sat quietly beaming in the stands as he led his team to a World Series victory. At the Manhattan victory parade, fans carried signs thanking Goldie Hawn's little girl for their new, improved hero.

Celebrity bed-hopping is now so familiar that it may run the risk of become passé for a jaded public. The newest online trend is bed-jumping, which doesn't even require a partner, just a springy mattress in a hotel room and a camera to record how high the thrill-seeker can get. Too late no doubt to save Tiger's and Sanford's marriages, but so much easier on reputations and families.

"Smartest Person in the Room"

Watching President Obama on 60 Minutes recalls a memorable exchange from the 1987 movie, "Broadcast News," in which Holly Hunter's boss taunts her, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room."

With a stricken expression, she answers, "No. It's awful."

Last night, as he was being pressed by Steve Kroft about the mess in Afghanistan, the President responded, not with dismay but beyond it with a laugh, explaining "this is really hard. And there's not a question that you asked that I haven't asked in meetings, and that I don't ask myself."

His reaction is a reminder of the limitations of brains alone in the life-and-death decisions made in the White House. After eight years of low intellectual expectations, the American people were ready for a renaissance in the coming of what a new Administration calls "smart power," but America's problems are beyond the multiple-choice format of TV quiz shows.

In citing Obama's West Point announcement of the troop escalation, Kroft told him "you seemed very analytical, detached, not emotional. The tone seemed to be, 'I've studied this situation very hard. It's a real mess. The options aren't very good. But we need to go ahead and do this.' There were no exhortations or promises of victory. Why? Why that tone?"

The President disagreed, calling it "the most emotional speech that I've made...I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back. There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech."

That kind of decision, Barack Obama was reminding us, has to be made not just by a president who is "the smartest person in the room" about today's pluses and minuses but who has the reserves of emotional intelligence and moral imagination to absorb what it will mean for the future.

Just being smarter and more humane than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is setting the bar too low.

Friday, December 11, 2009

GOP Atwitter Over Obama

Ten months and trillions of dollars after taking office, Barack Obama has finally found a way to make Republicans happy: Go to Europe, do a Bush impersonation, order Freedom Fries and tell those pusillanimous peace-mongers they would be toast if Americans weren’t always ready to come over there and kill bad people.

Dick Cheney hasn’t weighed in yet, but Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are thrilled with the President’s Nobel speech.

“I liked what he said," says she about Obama’s proposal for terrorist death panels. "Of course, war is the last thing I believe any American wants to engage in, but it's necessary."

A ‘very historic speech,” says the author of the Contract with America, “having a liberal president who goes to Oslo on behalf of a peace prize and reminds the committee that they would not be free, they wouldn't be able to have a peace prize, without force.”

In the Age of Twitter, it may be that Palin and Gingrich never got to the second half of the President’s oration, the part where he said that “no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint...Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith--for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

But Obama may have stumbled onto the secret of bipartisanship—give Republicans his views in very small doses, not 2000 pages of health care reform. Then they can do what they did with those big novels back in school, mark up the juicy parts and skip all that boring stuff between.

Tomorrow’s assignment: Tolstoy’s “War.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ghosts at the Peace Podium

Accepting the Nobel Prize, Barack Obama deferred to "Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela" as well as Ghandi and a long line of peacemakers in parsing the irony of a wartime leader being honored in their company, as he acknowledged "the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.

"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago, 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naïve--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

It is this display of what Obama at one point characterized as "moral imagination" that may best explain why he was standing there today. In the crowd of ghosts around him at the podium, perhaps most significant was the one never mentioned, George W. Bush, whose lack of such sensitivity was surely critical in the Nobel Committee's decision to honor his untried successor, the 21st century figure who frightened the world with a vision of where power without it can lead.

In all the sneering at Obama's unworthiness for the award, it may be best seen as being given for his embodiment of the hope that morality does not have to be divorced from power in this dangerous world.

"As the world grows smaller," he said today, "you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we all basically want the same things...

"And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities--their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

"Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam...These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint...

"Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith--for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

"Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

"But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place...

"For if we lose that faith--if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace--then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass."

No wartime leader ever said it better.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Palin's Prize Literature?

Call me Ishmael if, on the eve of Barack Obama's getting his peace prize, the possibility of another unlikely award doesn't arise with the first academic appreciation of "Going Rogue" as a work of art.

In his New York Times blog, Professor Stanley Fish makes the case for Sarah Palin's mastery of the autobiographical form in delivering "the truth the genre promises...the truth about themselves--the kind of persons they are."

A liberal arts dean emeritus, Fish deconstructs "Rogue" for its essence, brushing aside mundane matters of fact-checking to get at the heart of the work:

"The questions to ask then are (1) Does Palin succeed in conveying to her readers the kind of person she is? and (2) Does she do it in a satisfying and artful way? In short, is the book a good autobiographical read? I would answer 'yes' to both."

As the debate begins over Palin's literary artistry, her more prosaic writings are dusting up the usual storms, this time a Washington Post Oped today, urging fellow author Obama to "boycott Copenhagen," trailing the usual quibbles about factual accuracy.

Such literal-mindedness always summons up a story about the fabled Hollywood producer of the last century, Sam Goldwyn.

A screenwriter he had hired to do a script based on a popular novel came to him after months of trying and told him it couldn't be done. Goldwyn hired another writer and made the movie, which turned out to be a disaster.

Years later, when discussing a new project, someone suggested the first writer. "Oh, no," Goldwyn said vehemently. "He was involved in one of my worst failures."

Goldwyn, who won many awards, would have been among those vying to make an epic movie out of "Going Rogue." He would have understood it perfectly.

Keeping a Pakistan Campaign Pledge

President Obama seems ready to deliver on a threat Candidate Obama made over two years ago--that, if Pakistan doesn't go after its terrorists, he will.

The Surge in Afghanistan, according to White House leaks, comes with "a fairly bald warning that unless Pakistan moved quickly to act against two Taliban groups they have so far refused to attack, the United States was prepared to take unilateral action to expand Predator drone attacks beyond the tribal areas and, if needed, to resume raids by Special Operations forces into the country against Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders."

In August 2007, then-Sen. Obama took flak for saying what the Bush White House was dancing around in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas:

“There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”

Pervez Musharraf, who bilked Bush for American billions without delivering on promises to go after those terrorists, is gone now, but the Pakistani military is still playing the same shell game, and one element of the new Afghanistan policy is to squeeze them into delivering more results for the new $7.5 billion they will be getting over the next five years.

Ever since bin Laden escaped into Pakistan eight years ago, the US has pursued a so-called “hammer and anvil” strategy to crush militants in the border areas. Until now, the American hammer in Afghanistan has been pounding against what our frustrated military calls "a Pakistani pillow, not an anvil."

The crucial results of the Afghan Surge will come less from the visible escalation there but from what happens under the radar in the arm-wrestling with a nuclear-armed, politically shaky Pakistan government that Barack Obama foresaw long before he moved into the White House.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Send In the Health-Care Clowns

As the public option starts to morph into an expansion of Medicare and Medicaid in the main tent, two Senate buffoons, Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman, are stepping up their side shows in the health care circus.

The Majority Leader is dragging slavery and woman's suffrage into the debate by invoking them as precedents for Republican resistance:

"When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said 'slow down, it's too early, things aren't bad enough'...When women spoke up for the right to vote, some insisted they simply, slow down, there will be a better day to do that, today isn't quite right."

In another corner of the freak show section, Joe Lieberman's antics are drawing so much attention that TV ads for an opponent of Connecticut's other senator, Chris Dodd, are taking shots at him: "Joe never forgets who he ran to represent: Himself. It's not about you. It's all about Joe."

Hundreds of protesters from an interfaith organization, reports the Washington Post, "showed up at Lieberman's home in Stamford and at his office in Hartford, to plead (and pray) for him to support the bill. Among them was Rabbi Ron Fish, of Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, Conn., who was so supportive of Lieberman's 2006 reelection bid that he rushed through John F. Kennedy International Airport in search of a mailbox in which to send his absentee ballot before boarding a flight to Israel."

Meanwhile, behind the vaudeville, some liberals are pushing to lower Medicare eligibility to age 55, expand Medicaid to cover those with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level (up to $33,075 for a family of four) and/or effectively cap insurance company profits by requiring them to spend 90 percent of premiums on clinical services and activities that improve the quality of care.

None of these proposals can compete with Reid and Lieberman for amusement value, but they indicate that some serious negotiating is going on.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Infamy, Then and Now

Sixty eight years ago today, Americans suffered a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that suddenly brought us into a world war that would last less than four years. This week, after months of debating, we took a step deeper into an eight-year war with no end in sight.

On December 7, 1941, I was a college student with a part-time job in a hospital maternity ward showing fathers their new babies on the other side of a large picture window. Those babies are on Social Security now, grandparents themselves, some of whom may have lost their fathers in World War II, but most of whose lives are not directly affected by this war compared to the one that started on a "date that will live in Infamy."

That next day, FDR declared that "since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire," promising that "I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us."

But it did--on September 11, 2001. Infamy comes in more subtle forms this century, and fighting it is like flailing at smoke.

Part of remembering Pearl Harbor today will be nostalgia for a time when we could identify our enemies and confront them head on, instead of becoming lost in the thickets of counterinsurgency and finding ways to "narrow the mission." If we ever reach V-Day in this war, will we know it when we see it?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bringing Up the Afghan Baby

The image of the day comes from Tom Friedman describing the Obama decision this week as like "an unemployed couple who just went out and decided to adopt a special-needs baby," to which he might have added "from a family that deals drugs and rear it in a neighborhood where the kids steal each others' lunch money."

All the President's Men (and Hillary Clinton) are on the TV circuit to sell the Stop-and-Go Surge, along with senior media pundits to parse it, but the babble boils down to what the Administration denies it is trying to do: nation-building in a place with no real history of nationhood.

In the Sunday New York Times and Washington Post are long reports about the months-long debate leading up to the Decision.

The Times describes how "a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war... to send 30,000 troops mostly in the next six months and then begin pulling them out a year after that, betting that a quick jolt of extra forces could knock the enemy back on its heels enough for the Afghans to take over the fight."

The Post discloses that, after "one revelatory discussion," the White House team "changed their chief objective from trying to eliminate the Taliban to making sure insurgents could no longer threaten the Afghan government's survival. The new strategy would include a closer relationship with Pakistan, along with a warning that the United States would step up its action against al-Qaeda camps in that country if the Pakistanis did not do it themselves."

If any of this deep-dish analysis makes any more sense than George W. Bush's cocky certainty as the Decider, it's hard to see it.

While respecting Barack Obama for his intellect, seriousness and honesty, it's hard to see how we are not in the same never-neverland, only without the Neo-Con arrogance.

Back in his Times column, Friedman sums it up this way: "You can’t train an Afghan Army and police force to replace our troops if you have no basic state they feel is worth fighting for. But that will require a transformation by Karzai, starting with the dismissal of his most corrupt aides and installing officials Afghans can trust.

"This surge also depends...on Pakistan ending its obsession with India. That obsession has led Pakistan to support the Taliban to control Afghanistan as part of its 'strategic depth' vis-à-vis India. Pakistan fights the Taliban who attack it, but nurtures the Taliban who want to control Afghanistan. So we now need this fragile Pakistan to stop looking for strategic depth against India in Afghanistan and to start building strategic depth at home, by reviving its economy and school system and preventing jihadists from taking over there...

"Mr. Obama is going to have to make sure, every day, that Karzai doesn’t weasel out of reform or Pakistan wiggle out of shutting down Taliban sanctuaries or the allies wimp out on helping us...This only has a chance to work if Karzai becomes a new man, if Pakistan becomes a new country and if we actually succeed at something the president says we won’t be doing at all: nation-building in Afghanistan."

Amen and amen, but let's not sign any final adoption papers for that Afghan baby until it shows some signs of being able to walk and talk straight.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Et Tu, Baucus?

The question is timing. Why is Max Baucus, the Senate master of health care reform, telling the world on a Saturday morning that he "is currently in a mature and happy relationship with Melodee Hanes,” adding that “They are both divorced, and in no way was their relationship the cause of their respective divorces.”

Well, yes, congratulations and all that, but why is the Senator's office sending out this particular Hallmark card in the midst of weekend sessions to iron out the kinks in a 2000-plus page bill to reform American health care?

The answer may relate to another bit of news in the statement that Ms. Hanes was nominated in March by Baucus for the position of US Attorney in Montana. She didn't get the job, withdrawing because "she had been presented with other opportunities she couldn't pass up," one of them moving in with Baucus in Washington and taking a Justice Department job after being "awarded the position based solely on her merit."

Ms. Hanes' career has been on the upswing as she earned $126,541.50 in 2008, according to Senate records, mostly as Baucus' State Director/Senior Counsel, with a bit extra from advising the Senate Finance Committee, a distinct improvement from the $53,999.88 she drew down in 2004 as his full-time Field Director/Counsel.

But with trillions at stake, why should Americans care about such loose change and any insinuations about loose behavior on the part of one Senator? Is Baucus trying to head off political blackmail about his personal life and, if so, isn't that reprehensible on the part of those who oppose him?

As a dear, dear friend of health care lobbyists, Baucus is not admired as the enemy of the public option, but his sudden need to defend behavior at the conjunction of his personal and political lives has a distinct bad odor about it.

Whether or not the Senator from Big Pharma country did anything wrong is a matter for Congress' ethics machinery, but the timing is very peculiar indeed. He has more important work to do at the moment.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Privacy, Then and Now

Tiger Woods, who named his yacht Privacy, was born half a century too late. As he laments the exposure of "matters that are intimate and within one's family," Woods' pain recalls a time when two of the world's most famous actors lived together on and off for decades with the full knowledge of and complicity by the media to keep their private lives private.

As a magazine editor back then, I was involved in the final chapter of Katharine Hepburn's life with Spencer Tracy, a married Catholic for whom divorce was unthinkable. For years, even the sleaziest Hollywood journalists had kept silent about their relationship out of respect for two serious people who guarded their privacy as well as they could.

As she and Tracy were making the last of their nine movies, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in 1967, Hepburn wanted the world to hear about their life together in their own words and scheduled a joint interview, but Tracy failed to join her--twice.

He died just after the picture was finished and, out of respect for his wishes and his family, Hepburn kept her silence. Over the following 20 years, she told their story to a writer on the condition that it be published only after her own death. It was, in 2003.

In an era when non-famous people debase themselves for reality TV and even crash the White House to audition for it, it's hard to imagine celebrities wanting or being able to preserve their privacy as Hepburn and Tracy did.

Certainly not Tiger Woods as he withdraws, at least for now, from public life and reflects on what happened to him:

"Although I am a well-known person and have made my career as a professional athlete, I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week, my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives...

"But no matter how intense curiosity about public figures can be, there is an important and deep principle at stake which is the right to some simple, human measure of privacy...Personal sins should not require press releases and problems within a family shouldn't have to mean public confessions."

Amen to that, and good luck with the pack of hounds who call themselves celebrity journalists.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Liking Ike: A Memory

"Did you notice," E.J. Dionne asks, "that the president did not choose to quote any of his party’s own giants--Franklin D. Roosevelt (though FDR got a side mention), Harry S Truman or John F. Kennedy? Instead, he quoted a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower."

For those who doubt that Barack Obama has anything in common with Ike, herewith the story of a memorable evening with the nation's 34th president:

In the summer of 1964 I fell in love with the man I had voted against twice. After Eisenhower's retirement, I was one of a half dozen magazine editors invited to dinner in Gettysburg.

From the moment Mrs. Eisenhower opened the front door after the Secret Service vanished, we stepped into an earlier small-town world where a long-married couple referred to each other as "Ike" and "Mamie," urged us to do the same, talked lovingly about their grandchildren and said exactly what was on their minds.

"Ike has just gotten in from golf," Mrs. Eisenhower told us, "and I insisted he take a few minutes' rest." She led us to an enclosed porch facing a putting green, a large meadow and thick woods beyond, of a farmhouse she had bought in 1949 without Ike's having seen it.

After a few minutes Ike came down, freshly shaved in a dark blue suit complete with vest. Although it was June, air-conditioning chilled the house, a reaction, Mamie explained, to years in the tropics when she found the heat unbearable. Ike's skin had a pleasant pink cast and, when we shook hands, I could see why millions of voters had found those light blue eyes and that unforced smile irresistible.

We sat on the porch. For a while we talked about golf over drinks and a tray of potato chips and clam dip ("the only hors d'oeuvres you're going to get," said our hostess). Ike took them around and served everyone.

As we sipped in silence, the former President looked toward the deepening darkness over the richly green ground that had once been soaked with Union and Confederate blood, and said in an even tone, "About 4:30, I thought I was going out of my mind--I've never felt so close to insanity." He paused. "That's why I had to get out to the golf course."

After a moment of silence, I asked, "What made you feel that way?"

"During the day," he said heavily, "I've had dozens of phone calls and telegrams from people I respect telling me what I should do about this Goldwater thing, and each one sure he's expressing the will of God. I felt like Lincoln who used to wonder why the will of God is revealed to so many others and not to the person who needs to know it."

Weeks before the 1964 Republican convention, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater seemed certain to be nominated for President, and moderates in the party felt only Eisenhower could stop him to avert a Republican disaster in November.

Strangely, for a man who had commanded fighting forces most of his life, Eisenhower was unwilling to engage in political combat. "I'm not the titular head of the party," he said, referring with obvious distaste to Richard Nixon, without mentioning his name, as he did several times during the evening.

Then he cited Senator Joe McCarthy who, during Ike's Presidency, had been terrorizing the country with accusations of Communist sympathies against leading Americans, including Eisenhower's hero, General George Marshall. When advisors had urged him to speak out, Ike refused: "I'm not going to get into the gutter with that guy."

Now, on a porch wrapped in darkness, he was reassuring himself that his silence had denied McCarthy attention. "The fellow just wanted publicity." We were too polite to point out that McCarthy did not fall until confronted by men without Presidential power, Edward R. Murrow on TV and attorney Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Yet, as we talked, what emerged was that Eisenhower's distaste for hand-to-hand combat rested on deep conviction. ("Ike never argues," Mamie once said. "He just walks out of the room.") He told stories of bringing officials with opposing views into the Oval Office and persuading them to compromise. "The road in politics goes only one way," he said, "ahead--and the best place to travel is the middle, on the good surface. That's where you can bring the most people with you, not in the ruts and ditches on the extreme sides."

Ike had been sipping lemonade but, as we were handed our second drinks, he took a highball. "I allow myself only one, but I don't intend to waste any of it," draining the glass as we went into dinner. After crab meat and baked chicken, there were individual lemon meringue pies. "My favorite dessert," he said, "but I have to watch calories so we only have it on special occasions."

After the meal we went back to the porch, now dimly lit. The drink and dinner must have relaxed Ike. He went into a caustic commentary on the dishonesty of politicians, with emphasis on Goldwater:

"He came to tell me he was going to vote against the civil rights bill as a matter of conscience. I said I wouldn't ask any man to go against his conscience, but that if I were a Senator I'd vote for it. Even an imperfect bill would help balance eighty years of oppression. But what I couldn't understand was his attempt to keep the bill from coming to a vote. If I were to comment, I'd crucify him for that. But I was not going to say anything publicly."

Goldwater then told reporters that Ike "would not hold the vote against me." When Eisenhower complained about the misrepresentation, Goldwater assured him it would be corrected. We pointed out that it hadn't been, and Ike shrugged. The sequence just confirmed his low opinion of politicians and journalists.

As he told stories of being misquoted and misunderstood, something became clear about his cast of mind. Described by critics as intellectually limited and unwilling to commit himself, Eisenhower may simply have been a man who gave his full attention to one situation at a time, tried to do "the right thing" and was baffled when others looked below the surface or connected it with what had gone before or might come after.

He confirmed this impression describing the difficulty he was having with memoirs about his Presidency, as opposed to those about the war. His approach was chronological, rather than subjective and thematic. He seemed unwilling to look below the visible aspects of experience. (That this was a matter of disposition is suggested by his definition of an intellectual as "a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.")

His passion for golf seemed a metaphor for his approach to politics and life. Unlike tennis, you don't react to an opponent. You focus on one stroke and then go on to the next. There is no ambiguity about the result--your score is a precise number. Even in competition, the social coziness of a foursome masks the desire to prevail over others, and jokes about slyness and cheating defuse competitiveness into laughter and camaraderie.

But despite this inflexible mindset, I felt myself drawn to Eisenhower's palpable decency and lack of pretension. I wondered what was below that controlled surface, particularly when we looked at his unframed oil paintings stacked in a corner. (He spent much of his retirement behind the easel, another solitary activity that required intense concentration on the next stroke.)

As we looked at the paintings, he kept pointing out his shortcomings ("Sometimes I work on one for years without getting it right"}. Most resembled picture-postcard illustrations, the equivalents of polite conversation. But there was an exception.

He had drawn it from memory, he said. It showed a solitary figure in a rowboat at sunset, a dark silhouette in the subdued gleam of a lake. Above was a truly extraordinary sky, bursting with fragments of vivid color--light and dark blues, reds, purples. He expressed pleasure at his own daring in painting that sky.

As we started to leave, Ike seemed reluctant to see us go. He had an early golf date in the morning but protested that he wasn't tired and dawdled while we made our way from the dark porch into the glare of the living room.

For a moment I found myself at his shoulder. He stood militarily erect, but a network of cross-hatched lines at the back of his neck testified to age. I felt a surge of sorrow and affection. Whatever reservations I might have had about him as a President, I was drawn to the man--I would have trusted him with everything I own.

As we sorted ourselves into the limousine that would take us back to Manhattan and drove off, Ike and Mamie stood in the driveway, waving us on our way.

Remembering that evening when Barack Obama was only two years old also recalls what he told 60 Minutes during last year's campaign: "I am a practical person. One of the things I'm good at is getting people in a room with ...different ideas who sometimes violently disagree with each other and finding common ground, and a sense of common direction."

As he moves ahead, Americans can only hope he puts that Eisenhower-like skill to good use.

Obama Buys a Used War

When the President unveiled his vehicle for getting from here to there in Afghanistan last night, it was not, as W's chief of staff described the Iraq invasion in 2002, a "new product" but an eight-year-old jalopy retooled for an even longer, bumpier ride.

As Barack Obama "assumed full ownership," there was no shortage of tire-kickers, starting with John McCain, who judges wars on durability (i.e., 100 years in Iraq). The President reportedly placated his rival in last year's race by assuring McCain that the 2011 trade-in date could be modified by "conditions on the ground," a warranty loophole big enough to drive another Surge through.

The post-purchase debate will be all the livelier for an aging gas-guzzler that has none of the curb appeal of George W. Bush's choice, the Saddam Hussein 2003 model with such then-new features as WMDs and a shock-and-awe startup for quick acceleration.

At a pre-speech lunch, the President failed to sell even such an avid buyer of that previous rollout as Tom Friedman, who now complains the new transport has too many "moving parts," that "Afghans, Pakistanis and NATO allies all have to behave forever differently for this to work."

With so much sales resistance, Obama may want to look back at Lyndon Johnson's experience. LBJ was moving along just fine with his newly unveiled war on poverty until he switched off for a side trip aboard the sputtering Vietnam buggy, which eventually took his presidency over a cliff.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Gung Ho-Hum

"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" asks the Bible.

Barack Obama showed tonight that no president, however eloquent, can successfully summon Americans to combat with a divided mind and heart, that no call for national sacrifice can come with an expiration date, that it is monumentally wrong to send off all those shining young faces to a mission that people back home are confused, ambivalent and heartsick about.

The speech meant to rouse unity and purpose about the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan turned out to be more of a lawyerly brief about how the nation went wrong after 9/11 and how repeating those mistakes more intelligently will produce a different result.

“It is easy to forget," said the President in his peroration, "that when this war began, we were united-- bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear. I refuse to accept the notion that we cannot summon that unity again.”

Those young people at West Point will salute their Commander-in-Chief and follow his orders, wherever they lead, but older and sadder hearts will grieve for their future and for those who will follow them.

The speech tonight was given in Eisenhower Hall, named for a general who was victorious in World War II to become a president who took us out of what a younger Obama might have called "a dumb war" in Korea a decade later.

Barack Obama would do well to remember both Eisenhowers.

Bin Laden's Gaslighting of America

Somewhere in an Afpak cave, the 9/11 mastermind must be smiling as the US takes the next big step in his "bleed-until-bankruptcy" plan to defeat the most powerful nation on earth.

Today's news should reassure Osama bin Laden (and/or his heirs) that the objectives he laid out in November 2004 are working out well--to gaslight his enemies into self-destruction, a term derived from the World War II movie to describe intimidation and psychological abuse through false information that clouds the victims' perception.

"All we have to do," he said back then, "is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note..."

The human and economic losses will grow larger as the number of American troops in Afghanistan approaches 100,000, but the political losses are surfacing even before then, as party-line distinctions blur in a wave of contradictions and self-doubt.

From the right, we have the Weekly Standard urging the President to stop being half-hearted and start talking about victory, while moderate Republican Sen. Dick Lugar suggests "we put aside the health care debate until next year" because "the war is terribly important."

Moving left, a Slate writer confesses to a cardinal sin of columndom, "mixed feelings," Democrat Dick Obey calls the escalation "a fool's errand," and Michael Moore with his trademark understatement, urges the President, "Stop, stop, stop! For the sake of the lives of young Americans and Afghan civilians, stop. For the sake of your presidency, hope, and the future of our nation, stop. For God's sake, stop."

From the sidelines, retired diplomats and generals muse about the "the possibilities and the limits of nation-building," coming to a consensus that "world powers have at best a mixed record when it comes to establishing functional, stable governments in countries devastated by war. The efforts have been long and costly, tangible results often hard to measure, and support for a prolonged involvement difficult to maintain."

Osama bin Laden couldn't have scripted it better. No matter what Barack Obama says tonight, the man in the cave will have controlled the situation more through gaslighting than the man in the White House who has all that 21st century enlightenment at his command.

Update: Now the picture is complete as Dick Cheney weighs in to claim that the President is "undermining" the forces in the field by "agonizing" over his decision. The former VP is a great advocate for shooting from the hip, even if you never nail bin Laden but hit your best friend in the next duck blind.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bringing Afghanistan Home

The pre-game coverage of the President's speech at West Point tomorrow night is on track as White House spinners emphasize that he will "give a clear sense of both the time frame for action and how the war will eventually wind down.”

Translated, this means that a 48-year-old man named Barack Obama will tell Americans how and why he is sending some 30,000 men and women, most of them younger than he is, to a place thousands of miles from home where they will kill people they don't know and where unknown others will be trying to kill them.

A gifted orator, the President will try to explain what lies behind the polysyllables of "deployment," "security" and "multinational strategy" and show that what some are calling "Obama's Surge" is part of "a necessary war" on behalf of us all.

He won't succeed. How could he? How could anyone? Except for those who are lost in some ideological wasteland, the President will be talking to and about thousands of sovereign souls, each humanly connected to many others, who will never be the same again after he says those words and signs orders to carry them out.

Before the Obama address, we should hear a voice that speaks for them as does Erik Malmstrom, a 29-year-old graduate student who went to Afghanistan three years ago after volunteering for service in 2002 "out of a sense of civic duty," "attracted to the challenge of serving in wartime and leading men in combat."

He came back after surviving roadside bomb attacks, ambushes and confusing fire fights that led to the sudden and inexplicable deaths of comrades in arms. After returning, he crisscrossed the country visiting the families of the fallen to deliver memorial plaques signed by survivors, stand at gravesides, leaf through albums of childhood photos and watch lighthearted home movies.

"I spent much of the time sobbing uncontrollably," Erik Malmstrom recalls and now he says, "I am overridden with conflicting emotions. I am indescribably proud of my service, but can never feel good about it. I did the best I could with an impossible situation, but left behind what has become one of the most violent and unstable valleys in Afghanistan.

"I am thankful for my friendships with the families of my fallen soldiers, but wish that it didn’t take tragedy to bring us together. Coping has not become any easier. My experience changed me forever in ways that I am still trying to understand."

Tomorrow will undoubtedly bring responses to the President from politicians his age and older. The voices we should be hearing are those of Erik Malmstrom and others like him.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fingers-in-the-Dikes Presidency

Nobody seems to be blinking as the world economy bursts another seam, in Dubai this time, accentuating again how much Barack Obama's tenure in the White House has been like a montage of the little Dutch boy racing from dike to dike trying to hold off disasters--on Wall Street and Main Street, in Detroit, Afghanistan, the ozone layer, wherever.

Watery images are on Peggy Noonan's mind as she observes that the President is now "leaking support" in "two core constituencies, Washington's Democratic-journalistic establishment, and what might still be called the foreign-policy establishment."

But Noonan may be missing the point. Obama I is looking more and more like the Year of the Flood, with a President trying to hold back rising tides on all fronts in the kind of world not ideally suited to his political style as a transformational leader on big issues rather than a first responder to one emergency after another.

But the President has been scrambling for quick fixes, and some observers are declaring partial successes, as Jacob Weisberg does in Slate, crediting him with the best first year since FDR and citing "mounting evidence that the $787 billion economic stimulus he signed in February—-combined with the bank bailout package—-prevented an economic depression."

Be that as it may, next month Obama's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize will remind us that the fabled boy with his finger in the dike was Hans Brinker, who also competed for the Silver Skates and, through his good works, went on to become a successful healer.

Then again, for skeptics, there is another way to go, by joining the editor of Newsweek in urging Dick Cheney to run against Obama in 2012. As the waters keep rising, the former Veep could go back to doing what he did so well for eight years, shrugging and denying it all.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bush's War Crimes Trial

What is as close as we're going to get to a calling-to-account for the former Decider and his puppet Tony Blair for thousands of deaths in Iraq is unfolding, largely out of American media sight, before a panel of British nobles.

The Chilcot inquiry is hearing from such witnesses as the then-Ambassador to the UN that he threatened to quit in the runup to the Iraq invasion over bulldozing from the Bush-Cheney White House.

“The UK’s attempt to reconstitute a consensus," says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, "had only a slim prospect of success, made slimmer by the recognition by anyone else following events closely that the United States was not proactively supportive of the UK’s efforts and seemed to be preparing for conflict whatever the UK decided to do."

The ambassador's testimony follows that of British intelligence officials that right after 9/11 in 2001 they were asked to draw up an Iraq "options" paper, including regime change.

"We dismissed it at the time because it had no basis in law," says the then-head of the Middle East department at the Foreign Office, noting that ""there was no increased appetite among UK ministers for military action in Iraq."

A former policy director at the Ministry of Defence adds that, in those days, the issue of regime change in Iraq was like "the dog that did not bark. It grizzled, but it did not bark."

But Bush's Neo-Con dogs of war, "hell bent" on the invasion, were barking loud enough to be heard on both sides of the Atlantic, and their call for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his non-existent WMDs was drowning out all dissenters.

The Chilcot hearings are big news in Britain but back here, what with Thanksgiving and the White House gate-crashers, the could-have-been-avoided deaths of more than 4000 Americans in Iraq may seem like yesterday's news.

George W. Bush is only figuratively in the dock, but a British investigator who campaigned for the inquiry calls it "a final opportunity to scrutinize the war...our last chance to get to the truth."

As we prepare to do more killing and dying in Afghanistan, it may be a truth we should be looking at very closely.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hug a Terrorist for the Holidays

That photo of the Vice-President with his arms around a couple of grinning White House gate-crashers last night will do nicely as a symbol for Americans as they count their blessings, real and imagined, on this day.

While so many are getting their meals at homeless shelters, the headlines are devoted to the reality-show aspirants who breached the most secure location in the nation, decked out in finery and hair-styling that could have paid for hundreds of Thanksgiving dinners.

Economic absurdity aside, how are we to take the President's speech next week telling how much more American blood and treasure will be spent in Afghanistan to guarantee our domestic safety when two unauthorized strangers can walk into his own house undeterred and have Joe Biden give them a hug?

Loathsome as they are, Tareq and Michaele Salahi may have done Americans a favor by dramatizing in tabloid terms just how illusory the idea of homeland security may be in an age when there are not enough eyes to watch every rathole in every location, high and low.

If the terrorists show up in evening wear next time, who will stop them?

Update: The uninvited guests were allowed to enter, says a Secret Service spokesman, because "our procedure wasn't followed" at one security checkpoint, an explanation that rivals the explanation of Gen. Buck Turgidson in the movie, "Dr. Strangelove," about the failure to stop American and Soviet bombers heading for a doomsday confrontation, "I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir."

If the Salahis had been terrorists carrying vials of anthrax, the Secret Service might today be setting up new checkpoints to protect President Nancy Pelosi or Robert Byrd from the next wave of "Desperate Housewives" wannabes.

Best Leftover Turkey Recipe Ever

From years of editing women's magazines and tasting test-kitchen results thereof, herewith a way with leftover turkey that will keep you from cursing the oversized bird you bought.


Ingredients: 3/4 cup butter or margarine, 3/4 cup flour, salt, 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1 quart milk, 2 cups undiluted chicken broth, 4 egg yolks, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup sherry, 1 pound thin spaghetti, 6 cups leftover turkey cut into cubes, 1 cup fresh or canned sliced mushrooms, 8 oz sharp Cheddar grated (2 cups).

Sauce: Melt butter in large pan, remove from heat. Stir in flour, nutmeg and salt until smooth. Gradually add milk and broth, stirring constantly. Boil 2 minutes until slightly thick.

In small bowl, beat egg yolks and cream. Beat in a little of the sauce, pour back into pan over low heat, stirring until hot but not to a boil. Stir in sherry.

Boil spaghetti, drain and return to kettle. Add 2 cups sauce and toss together. Divide in half and put into two 12-by-8-by-2 baking dishes, push back toward edges. Add 2 cups sauce to turkey and mushrooms, mix well and spoon half into center of each dish.

Sprinkle grated cheese, cover with foil and refrigerate 1 hour or even overnight. Preheat oven to 350F and bake, covered, 45 minutes. Spoon reheated leftover sauce over each serving. You can refreeze and have leftover leftovers.

Somewhat calorific, but then again, so are the bread and mayonnaise for turkey sandwiches, which won't taste nearly this good.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama: War and Peace

Next week Barack Obama will announce he is sending tens of thousands more troops to fight in Afghanistan as he prepares ten days later to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway.

This juxtaposition raises questions about the "new climate in international politics" for which the Nobel Committee has cited him, observing, "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts."

But such instruments will not work against those committed to fight a Holy War to the death, and the President now says he "will finish the job" of what he deems "a necessary war" with some yet-to-be-disclosed combination of diplomatic and civilian efforts as well as military force.

When he tells the American people exactly how next Tuesday night, he will be facing a public that is deeply divided about the war. No matter how skillfully Barack Obama explains his decision, an older generation will be thinking of Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam.

Bill Moyers, who worked in the White House back then, speaks for all of us:

"(O)nce again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.

"Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

"And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.

"And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.

"We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes."

LBJ never won a Nobel Peace Prize and left office a broken man. In a new century, Barack Obama can learn much from his fate and write a different ending to the story.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trade Health Care for More Stimulus?

The weekend "victory" in the Senate has Pyrrhic written all over it as 2000 pages of proposed legislation is on its way to being held hostage by the likes of Joe Lieberman, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson et al. What we have now is an abortion of a bill that will only get worse as the back-alley bargaining goes on.

Here's a radical idea for the President of Change: Take most of it off the table until after next year's elections and put your full weight behind another stimulus that would speed up economic recovery, create jobs and shove it down the throats of Republicans who are using the incoherence of health care reform to confuse Americans who are terrified about the economy.

"Most economists I talk to," Paul Krugman writes today, "believe that the big risk to recovery comes from the inadequacy of government efforts: the stimulus was too small, and it will fade out next year, while high unemployment is undermining both consumer and business confidence.

"Now, it’s politically difficult for the Obama administration to enact a full-scale second stimulus. Still, he should be trying to push through as much aid to the economy as possible. And remember, Mr. Obama has the bully pulpit; it’s his job to persuade America to do what needs to be done."

It would take political guts for the President, after all his talk about the urgency of health care reform, to take most of it off the table temporarily and put the effort and money into turning the economy around.

Settle for passing the noncontroversial elements now--i.e., no cutoffs for preexisting conditions--and move on to a full-scale assault on what is really worrying Americans.

Democrats who have to face the voters in less than a year should be able to unite and help him get something meaningful done.

Update: Joe Lieberman, dubbed by Joe Klein, "the Senator from Aetna," is digging in on the public option, in what the Wall Street Journal calls his "trademark sonorous baritone" but others would call a weasely whine, promising to filibuster against the public option. Harry Reid may buy him off before the final vote, but it's saddening to see a pivotal role being played by someone rejected by his own party's voters in the last election. Is this the way to get health care reform?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saving JFK

The day is here again, November 22nd. It's been 46 years now and, for those well over that age, no less painful with the passage of time.

His death was the first of a president in our living rooms--the motorcade, the rifle shots, the disarray in Dallas, the dazed swearing-in of his successor that night, the on-camera murder of the assassin two days later and then the funeral with our eyes and hearts transfixed by the beautiful young widow and two small children.

We are so inured now to TV wakes with old news clips and talking heads that it's hard to imagine how hard and how deeply John F. Kennedy's assassination struck a nation that had been moved by his youth, wit and optimism, all gone in an eyeblink and shown over and over again in slow motion.

The pain went so deep that, as a magazine editor, I published an article by a psychiatrist telling how he and his patients talked of practically nothing else in the days and weeks that followed, how JFK's death had taken over their psyches and became entangled with their inner lives.

For months after that Friday, I would awake from sweat dreams of the motorcade, book depository, silent screams, slow-motion lunges at a relentless assassin, saving JFK at the last moment.

Such rescue fantasies came naturally to generations marked by the central image of "Catcher in the Rye": children "standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them."

Holden Caulfield couldn't save JFK, and neither could we, but every November 22nd, those dreams come back to haunt us.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Weirdest Washington Game

After ten months in office, Barack Obama must feel he has been in a long surreal tennis match with nobody on the other side of the net.

In the stands is a chorus of Republicans yelling "Out!" at everything he serves, while jeering that he is moving too fast on the economy and too slowly on Afghanistan.

On the other side, Democrats are weakly cheering him on but spending much of their energy fighting one another to position themselves for their own contests next year.

What does the scoreboard show? Economists are giving the President some points, tentatively concluding that "with roughly a quarter of the stimulus money out the door after nine months, the accumulation of hard data and real-life experience has allowed more dispassionate analysts to reach a consensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working."

On the Wall Street bailout, resident New York Times pundits score him both ways. Paul Krugman concludes "government officials made no serious attempt to extract concessions from bankers, even though these bankers received huge benefits from the rescue. And more than money was lost. By making what was in effect a multibillion-dollar gift to Wall Street, policy makers undermined their own credibility--and put the broader economy at risk."

The same day, David Brooks disagrees, saying "the evidence of the past eight months suggests that [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed."

With all this confused cheering and jeering, it should be no surprise that the public is losing heart with the Gallup Poll showing the President's approval ratings slipping below 50 percent for the first time.

But there is some optimism in the air. Peggy Noonan observes that "the mood of this Thanksgiving looks to be different. An unofficial poll of a dozen friends yields two themes: 'We're still here,' and 'I am so grateful.'"

Meanwhile, the President is back from Asia and still swatting away at the nation's problems, hoping someone will join him for a better game.