Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Jungle Out There

Unlike 9/11, the current disaster is coming to us, not with a bang, but a series of whimpers, a slow rollout of economic devastation--lost jobs and homes, business failures and, most of all, an almost primitive fear of the future.

“Everyone is cutting prices, people, capital spending and all kinds of expenses," an economist tells the New York Times today. "It is almost a herd instinct.”

Even the herds are not immune, as some of the nation's great zoos, short of funds, are firing animals. "State budget cuts," CNN reports, "mean many zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens will lose crucial state funding for their exhibits...Zoo officials say some collections with 'short life cycles' will not be replaced when they die, and other animals could be sent to other zoos or wildlife sanctuaries."

At this point, even bad news is somewhat reassuring if it isn't as bad as expected. The decline in gross domestic product, at a 3.8 percent annual rate, fell short of the 5 to 6 percent that most economists had expected for the fourth quarter.

But the explanation is not cheering: Consumption collapsed so quickly that a plethora of unsold goods in inventory are being counted as part of the nation’s output.

Unless our leaders in Congress, who are meeting the crisis by rattling their cages in disarray, get their act together soon, we may all be looking for sanctuaries.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mr. Bennet Goes to Washington

In these days of rampant stupidity on Capitol Hill, herewith a small hope that intelligence, youth and energy may not disappear completely.

With all the attention on replacements for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, another decidedly unusual choice has entered the Senate to take the Colorado seat of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Michael Bennet, 44, who had never run for elective office (pace critics of Caroline Kennedy), was chosen by Gov. Bill Ritter after serving less than four years as Denver's Superintendent of Schools.

He, too, comes from a political family. His grandfather had been an adviser to FDR, and his father ran the Agency for International Development under Jimmy Carter before becoming president of National Public Radio and, later, Wesleyan University.

From this undeniably elitist background, Bennet after Yale Law School worked in the Clinton Justice Department, then followed his wife, an environmental lawyer, to Colorado, got a job with a financier and, without knowing how to read a balance sheet, began buying distressed businesses, restoring them to profitability and earning millions for himself and his boss.

From there, he went to work for the Mayor of Denver, helped balance the budget after an historic deficit and then, with no background in education, became Superintendent of Schools and helped turn them around.

"You can't beat brains," JFK used to say, and these days the political shortage is acute. Couple that with a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" kind of idealism, and the new Sen. Bennet becomes someone to watch as he learns his way around another unfamiliar environment.

"I was raised," he says, "in a family that believed it has an obligation to make the world better for another generation. It sounds hokey, but it's true."

Hokey will do nicely in this era of Change.

Health Care: Too Big to Fail

In the frenzy over jump-starting the economy, the House stimulus bill includes, among other straws being grasped, $117 billion of spending for health care, most of it to maintain coverage for the disabled and newly poor. Otherwise, the political consensus is that we can't "afford" to reform the system.

If anything, there is a stronger case to be made that we can't afford not to. Paul Krugman scratches the surface today with the argument that "helping families purchase health insurance as part of a universal coverage plan would be at least as effective a way of boosting the economy as the tax breaks that make up roughly a third of the stimulus plan--and it would have the added benefit of directly helping families get through the crisis, ending one of the major sources of Americans’ current anxiety."

He cites research showing that Obama's campaign promise of universal coverage would add “only” about $104 billion to federal spending next year, but this overlooks the huge possible benefits in reforming a system that rewards greed and inefficiency.

Start with health care fraud by hospitals, doctors, pharmacists and other care providers. which the FBI estimates at between $60 and $100 billion a year. Stopping that could be a small growth industry to employ some of the analysts being laid off by the banks and Wall Street, to say nothing of starting to fix a system that has been criminalizing the healing profession in order to let its members survive.

But the big payoff would be in transferring the estimated one-third of the $2.4 trillion-and-counting that goes for insurer overhead and profits into patient care.

In the current economic climate, the SCHIP expansion of coverage for children which George W. Bush resisted on "philosophical" grounds is about to be signed by the new president, and the money in the House stimulus bill has aroused Conservative fears about "nationalizing" the health care system.

Just so, and it opens the way for a healthy debate over whether the current health care system, like greedy Wall Street, is really "too big to fail" and why it can't evolve toward the single-payer system that rational analysts favor.

Krugman cites Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, declaring that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and points out that FDR "was able to enact Social Security in part because the Great Depression highlighted the need for a stronger social safety net."

In repairing the economy, health care can be both part of the stimulus and the 21st century social safety net.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

GOP Scorpions and Democratic Tortoises

This is a time for mixed metaphors. As the House was voting on the stimulus bill yesterday, Minority Leader John Boehner held up his hand with thumb and forefinger to create a zero, indicating the number of Republicans who would back the bill.

He might have done better with a V for pyrrhic victory.

We are in tortoise-and-scorpion territory here, with the GOP willing to drown both themselves and Democrats in the economic flood by doing what is in their nature--ideologically stinging the bearers of government spending as they try to prevent impending disaster.

Imperfect as the House bill is, the unanimous vote against it signifies Barack Obama's failure to get a serious bipartisan dialogue going there over the relative efficacy of spending vs. tax cuts, neither of which is guaranteed to reverse the economy's freefall. (Conservative economist Martin Feldstein, among others, has ideas that seem to be worth consideration.)

The President keeps inviting such engagement, as he did in response to the House vote last night:

“I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk,” he said. “But what we can’t do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way. We must move swiftly and boldly to put Americans back to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do.”

The hope now for urgent debate needed over specific measures is in the Senate, where Mitch McConnell, with a six-year lease on his seat, seems more willing to work with Democrats than Boehner and his crew, whose eyes seem to be firmly fixed on the 2010 elections.

Their unanimity is impressive, but they could turn out to be lemmings headed for a seaside vacation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Scenes From a Spending Spree

The House stimulus bill recalls those old TV game shows with contestants racing the clock to fill shopping carts, items spilling into the aisles in a mad dash to the checkout counter.

In the House, $200 million to re-sod the National Mall and $200 million to extend Medicare to cover family planning services fell out yesterday as Democrats keep ransacking the shelves from what the livid Wall Street Journal calls their "40-year wish list."

Is this the only way to revive a sinking economy--to rush through 647 pages of $825 billion in scattershot spending? The President talks about transparency and accountability, but it's hard to see those elements in a grab bag of what he himself has denounced as "throwing money" at the economy.

The funds for infrastructure are beyond dispute but make up only a small fraction of the whole.

“They keep comparing this to Eisenhower, but he proposed a $500 billion highway system, and they’re going to put $30 billion” in roads and bridges, says the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee. “How farcical can you be? Give me a break.”

After eight years of Bush inaction and deadlock, the exhilaration of rapid movement is understandable, but does everything have to be done at once?

If Democrats have to give up on bipartisanship, as seems inevitable, they should be thinking twice about ramming through a bill with booby traps that are sure to explode in their faces and undermine long-term fixes for the economy.

By all means, start the flow of defensible government spending, provide loans for hard-pressed states and municipalities, and strong-arm the banks into using bailout money for lending, but can't we slow down the drunken-sailor act? The hangover could be painful in the extreme.


He was, in the view of magazine editors, the perfect New Yorker writer--a fount of elegant prose in every form over the Harold Ross and William Shawn postwar decades, a WASP outpost in the American mind being overrun by exotic Mailers, Bellows, Malamuds, Baldwins, Capotes and Kerouacs.

Those of us who came from an immigrant world read him in an effort to understand the rooted life that surrounded our metropolitan isolation. In his novels and short stories, we lived through the social and sexual arrangements of communities to which we did not belong (images of suburban wives opening their adulterous arms and welcoming neighbors' husbands to a post-Pill paradise).

What moved me most was to learn later that, behind that suave writerly voice, was a man literally uncomfortable in his own skin, suffering from psoriasis that made him feel like a leper, a subject which he of course wrote about beautifully, as he did with everything.

When John Updike died yesterday, he left behind more than fifty novels, short story collections, poetry, essays and reviews--a bookshelf of lovely language--by someone who, in his own way, was as much an outsider as the rest of us trying to connect with the life we all shared.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Obama's First Week

Here is what we know after seven days of Change:

(1) The new president is aggressively attacking the economic downturn and, though perhaps too eager to make tax-cut concessions to roll up a bipartisan score, is realizing that nothing will appease Republican know-nothings and, as a result, showing some signs of toughening up in getting a stimulus bill passed without delay.

(2) Though there is much that can be done by executive fiat, it will take longer and be more complicated to make good on campaign promises to close Guantanamo (without freeing Al Qaeda terrorists) and get troops out of Iraq without endangering stability.

(3) His ambition and self-confidence are huge. In making his first phone call to Palestinian President Abbas and giving his first exclusive interview to an Arab TV network, Obama is signaling a change not only in Middle East policy but US attitude toward engaging the rest of the world, insisting that “the Americans are not your enemy.”

He is telling them, "I cannot respect terrorist organizations that would kill innocent civilians and we will hunt them down. But to the broader Muslim world what we are going to be offering is a hand of friendship.”

All this is leaving him open to attacks for being naïve, reckless or worse but, in the first week of America After Bush, government is beginning to look like it might possibly be (pace Ronald Reagan) more like the answer than the problem.

So far, so good with 207 weeks to go in Barack Obama's first term.

Buffoonery, Blago's and Boehner's

On subjects both sublime and ridiculous--the nation's economy to catching a small-time crook in high office--the media are once again showing helplessness in the face of idiocy spouted by people in official positions.

For an hour with Larry King after a blitz of other TV outlets, Rod Blagojevich keeps repeating his mantra of Fitzgerald's tapes as "out of context" and his "innocent until proved guilty" grievances against the Illinois legislature, where the only vote not to impeach him was cast by his sister-in-law.

Much more serious is the constant tanned presence of John Boehner (does the man sleep under a sun lamp?), telling us that the answer to a deepening depression is tax cuts and more tax cuts.

There are many ways to dispose of such nonsense, but Paul Krugman's will suffice:

"Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets--and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens."

Yet Boehner's brainlessness keeps being used by the media as "balance" to the Obama Administration's efforts to get a stimulus bill through Congress. There are serious objections that can be made to portions of the bill that can't be reduced to sound bites, but we don't hear them.

It all recalls the time when a US Senator kept waving pieces of blank paper as lists of Communists in the State Department and the media felt helpless not to report Joe McCarthy's lies with a straight face.

We haven't progressed much in half a century.

Reckoning for Rove?

In his last White House days, George W. Bush left him a get-out-of-jail pass, but Karl Rove is still in the sights of the House Judiciary Committee over his role in the firing of the US attorneys.

Chairman John Conyers has issued a subpoena to Rove to appear for a deposition on February 2nd, saying, "Change has come to Washington, and I hope Karl Rove is ready for it."

Previously, citing a letter from the Bush Justice Department, Rove's lawyer claimed he is "constitutionally immune from compelled congressional testimony" but was willing to grant an "informal interview" or answer written questions about the prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, whose ouster Rove is accused of arranging.

Now his lawyer is saying Rove received a renewed privilege assertion from Bush before he left office but that he will consult with Obama's White House counsel about the new Administration's views on the subject.

It will be a test for the new president's future-oriented tolerance (see Lieberman, Joe), but Karl Rove has become a symbol for eight years of lawlessness in seeking political advantage at all costs.

Even the least blood-thirsty of observers will sympathize with Conyers' assertion, "After two years of stonewalling, it's time for him to talk."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vacuous Valedictory

"All good things must come to an end" is the start of his New York Times essay today, which concludes with an editor's note: This is William Kristol’s last column.

The subject of the piece is not the writer's tenure:

"Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, conservatives of various sorts, and conservatisms of various stripes, have generally been in the ascendancy. And a good thing, too! Conservatives have been right more often than not--and more often than liberals--about most of the important issues of the day: about Communism and jihadism, crime and welfare, education and the family. Conservative policies have on the whole worked--insofar as any set of policies can be said to 'work' in the real world. Conservatives of the Reagan-Bush-Gingrich-Bush years have a fair amount to be proud of."

It's fitting for Kristol to go out on a high note of error. klutzy writing and self-delusion, but apparently the market for his kind of babbling is not entirely dead. He came to the Times after a stint with Time, and now there are reports that the Washington Post, apparently suffering from a lack of wrong-headedness not completely satisfied by Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson, will avail themselves of Kristol's wisdom occasionally.

Whatever. The Times' next move should be to go after an elegant conservative like Peggy Noonan to go with their other literate columnists.

Hillibrand and Burris, Hillary and Obama

A year ago, Americans were excited by the breakthrough of electing a woman or an African-American for president. Now, after the euphoria of Obama's inauguration, we have the sad spectacle of selecting a woman and an African-American senator for all the wrong reasons.

Turning back the demographic clock, here is the peerless Rod Blagojevich in the media spotlight, after choosing Roland Burris for racial reasons alone, bragging that he had considered Oprah for the spot.

And here we have Kirsten Hillibrand, with all of two years in Washington, chosen by Governor David Paterson for being a woman and living in upstate New York, lunching at the Waldorf with Hillary Clinton and burbling, “It’s thrilling. You will see me everywhere in the state. You will see me wherever you want to see me.”

In November 2010, voters in Illinois and New York will pick the person to represent them in the US Senate (and govern their states as well). Until then, they will have to live with the choices of a future felon and an accidental chief executive who got his job because a predecessor failed to keep his fly zipped.

Is this a great country or what?

Health Care on the Back Burner?

Some Democrats are still gun-shy about health care reform, dating back to the Clintons' fiasco in the early 1990s, according to House Majority Whip James Clyburn who, in a C-Span interview Sunday, said he doesn't anticipate comprehensive healthcare legislation in 2009.

Despite President Obama's campaign promises of universal coverage, Clyburn pointed to recent expansion of S-CHIP (State Children's Health Insurance Program) and proposed additional spending on community health centers as going "a long way to building a foundation upon which to build a universal access healthcare program.

"I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can't chew. We've been down that road. I still remember 1994."

Clyburn's reticence is an echo of what now seems like ancient history--the early incompetence of the Clinton White House, the health insurers' "Harry and Louis" TV commercials and the debacle that gave Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America control of Congress in the midterm elections.

If health care reform is to survive in the economic stimulus debate, Tom Daschle and the Obama Administration will have to depend on the Senate where Ted Kennedy and others seem more determined to keep Americans from suffering and dying "incrementally."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taking Over the Banks

Call it "partial" or "temporary," the momentum for nationalizing US banks is growing across the political and economic spectrum.

President Obama, Paul Krugman writes, is "going to have to decide how bold to be in his moves to sustain the financial system, where the outlook has deteriorated so drastically that a surprising number of economists, not all of them especially liberal, now argue that resolving the crisis will require the temporary nationalization of some major banks."

This follows George Soros' call for "partially nationalizing" banks, a step that "would clear the air and restart the economy."

In today's New York Times, business columnist Joe Nocera recalls the Resolution Trust Corporation, which took over and sold bad assets during the S. & L. crisis of the 1980s, quoting Tim Ryan, who helped direct the response to that fiasco:

"Did the S.& L. crisis cost the taxpayers money? You bet it did--some $130 billion. But, said Mr. Ryan, 'it would have been triple that' without the R.T.C...

"But to carry out this kind of program, the government has to be in control of insolvent banks...Then it can do the same thing the Office of Thrift Supervision did in the early 1990s: close down the worst, sell others to healthier institutions and recapitalize the strongest. You can shovel capital into banks until you’re blue in the face and they are not going to lend so long as they have toxic assets on their books. They are going to hold onto their capital, fearing new losses."

As the Obama Administration prepares to tighten regulation across the financial system with stricter rules for hedge funds, credit rating agencies and mortgage brokers, and more oversight of derivatives and credit default swaps, the banks remain at the heart of the problem.

At some point--and it had better be soon--pouring taxpayer money into the maws of Citicorp, Bank of America et al will have to be accompanied by enough control to get them lending again instead of just fattening balance sheets, merging and paying themselves obscene bonuses.

It will be more complex than FDR's brief bank holiday in 1933, but something dramatic is on the horizon.

Update: On the Sunday talk show circuit this morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually used the N word. “If we are strengthening them," she said about the bailouts, "then the American people should get some of the upside of that strengthening. Some people call that nationalization."

“I’m not talking about total ownership,” she quickly added. “Would we have ever thought we would see the day when we’d be using that terminology? ‘Nationalization of the banks?'”

Yes, and not a moment too soon.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Right Office for Caroline Kennedy

Writing about her withdrawal from seeking Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, I committed a journalistic sin--burying the lead.

The last sentence was: "The Obama Administration should ask her to serve as ambassador to Great Britain (as her grandfather did) or France or Ireland, where her intelligence and instincts, along with her Kennedy and Bouvier background, could be an important American asset."

This self-rebuke arises after reading the new New Yorker piece about Caroline Kennedy, which sheds no light on the reasons for her decision but is a reminder of how much she is like her mother:

"It was, evidently, Jacqueline Kennedy’s intention to raise children who were as unaffected as possible by the extraordinary circumstances of their lives, and it seems that she succeeded: Caroline Kennedy’s life has in many ways been indistinguishable from that of any other smart and reasonably diligent child raised on Fifth Avenue in the nineteen-sixties."

Back then, Caroline's widowed mother was taking her children to the playgrounds of Central Park herself and, on one occasion, warning her brother John not to ram into one of mine while careening down a slide.

The year after JFK's death, I asked Jacqueline Kennedy to become a contributing editor of McCalls. She was still too deep in mourning, but when she talked about wanting to find a way to keep alive her husband's "ideas and ideals," she could conceive of doing that only through someone else with a more public persona.

"Robert Kennedy would be perfect," she said, "but that's not possible."

In her lifetime since then, Caroline Kennedy has been her mother's child, with public service for good causes behind the scenes on boards and collecting best-selling anthologies of poems and essays, not by herself but others.

The right place for her now is not out glad-handing in the "Me, me, me" atmosphere of the US Senate but helping the most public person of our era by representing him--and us--as a gracious ambassador to a generation of Europeans who have never known what it is like to love an American president.

Online Overhaul for America

In his weekly address, the President is selling his plan to save the economy and, at the same time, promising to tell us all about it as he goes along.

"We’ll launch an unprecedented effort," he says, "to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government, and every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new web site called"

You can add it to your bookmarks now, even though there is nothing to see but a promise to show "where and how your tax dollars are spent" after passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Among other promises in the Act are proposals to update our electric grid with more than 3,000 miles of transmission lines; weatherize 2.5 million homes; protect health insurance for more than 8 million Americans in danger of losing their coverage; secure 90 major ports; renovate 10,000 schools; and triple the number of science fellowships.

All this, and a web site to show us if and how members of Congress are getting their grubby hands on any of it for pork. Should keep us pointing and clicking for months to come.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama Says No to the Party of No

At the White House today, the President made it clear that his Inaugural message to Muslims "on the wrong side of history"--that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist"--applies to Congressional Republicans as well.

Responding to Rep. Eric Cantor's objection to the proposal to increase benefits for low-income workers who don't owe federal income taxes, Obama reminded him of the November election results. "I won," he said. "I trump you on that."

He also suggested to Cantor, John Boehner, Jon Kyl and other leaders of the GOP's negative wing, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."

Eager as Obama is for bipartisan support for his efforts to prop up the economy and the financial system, these are the first small signs that he may be willing to take some lessons from the Rahm Emanuel school of political hardball.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had a near-death experience in the November balloting, seems to have gotten the memo.

“I realize," he said today, 'that if you told most people Mitch McConnell was down at the National Press Club hoping for bipartisanship, they’d tell you that’s like an insurance agent hoping for an earthquake. Most people don’t exactly view me as the Mr. Rogers of the Senate.”

But, he added, “Everybody believes that government action is necessary. This is coming out of the mouth of someone who doesn’t normally advocate government action as a first resort.”

This could be a reality check for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is announcing on its web site: "Thanks to Republican economic policies, the U.S. economy is robust and job creation is strong."

If the GOP is to avoid becoming the irrelevant Party of No, they will have to get real at their annual retreat in the resort of Hot Springs, Va. next week as they pick a new chairman, while mingling with lobbyists who are paying $25,000 a head for the privilege.

Otherwise, their party may turn out to be as "robust" as the economy.

Bad Banks, Worse Choices

The attempt to save the banking system is looking more and more like a suicide mission for the US government as estimates of bad loans rise above $3 trillion.

* Losses may reach $3.6 trillion, according to New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini, who predicted last year’s economic crisis. “If that’s true," he says. "it means the US banking system is effectively insolvent because it starts with a capital of $1.4 trillion. This is a systemic banking crisis.”

*At confirmation hearings for the new Treasury Secretary, Sen. Chuck Schumer reveals that Wall Street sources tell him that, if the government wants to clean out all the toxic assets from the financial system, it will cost $3-4 trillion dollars..

*Financier George Soros criticizes the "bad bank" solution of taking troubled assets off balance sheets.

Such measures, he says, would provide "artificial life support for the banks at considerable expense to the taxpayer, but would not put the banks in a position to resume lending at competitive rates."

He argues instead for "partially nationalizing" banks, which "would inflict great pain on a broad segment of the population--not only on bank shareholders but also on the beneficiaries of pension funds" but "would clear the air and restart the economy."

For non-economists, this has the makings of a headache-inducing debate in the coming weeks. When Congressional politicians (pace John Boehner) get into it, there will be a lot of garbage talk about socialism, free markets, tax cuts, etc--all of it beside the point as the financial system teeters at the edge of an abyss.

If President Obama's economic team decides to try for long-range answers rather than Paulsonish quick fixes, it's going to take all his eloquence to get the public and legislative support needed to start on them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Carping About Caroline Kennedy

If she ever had doubts about getting into the rough-and-tumble of politics, the mean-spirited aftermath of JFK's daughter's withdrawal from seeking Hillary Clinton's Senate seat should reinforce her decision.

Governor David Paterson's aides are anonymously attacking Caroline Kennedy (“The fiasco of the last 24 hours reinforced why the governor never intended to choose her”) and contradicting themselves with assertions that "problems involving taxes and a household employee surfaced" during her vetting.

On the other side, Time reports that her uncle's "circle is furious that his brain cancer has been cited by some in her camp as the reason" for stepping back.

"It looks horrible," says a former aide to Ted Kennedy. "It makes him look like he is at death's door."

This kind of rear-covering is only a small sample of what Caroline Kennedy would have encountered if she had taken the job and had to campaign for reelection.

Only New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was kind and gracious about her exit.

“I’ll probably give her a call today and say, my thoughts are with you,” he said. “I wish her all the best and I think she should continue to stay involved in public service. She’s a great New Yorker and her husband is a really nice guy that I like.”

Amen to that. The Obama Administration should ask her to serve as ambassador to Great Britain (as her grandfather did) or France or Ireland, where her intelligence and instincts, along with her Kennedy and Bouvier background, could be an important American asset.

Vow-Taking and Language-Mangling

Barack Obama retook the oath of office yesterday after Tuesday's verbal mishap by Chief Justice John Roberts, but language lovers are still bemused by it all,

In today's New York Times, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker blames it on the outdated "prohibition against 'split verbs,' in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like 'to,' or an auxiliary like 'will,' and the main verb of the sentence.

"According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was 'to boldly go where no man has gone before'; it should have been 'to go boldly.'”

The Chief Justice, Pinker theorizes, "joined the Flubber Hall of Fame" by trying to edit "I will faithfully execute the office" to "I will execute faithfully," leading Obama to stumble in the process of becoming president.

A psychologist, Pinker dismisses the conspiracy theory that "it was unconscious retaliation for Senator Obama’s vote against the chief justice’s confirmation in 2005," but there is an alternative explanation that tickles a lifelong critic of language use--pure nervousness.

The swearing-in called up Rowan Atkinson's turn as the bumbling clergyman officiating at his first nuptials in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," starting with "Hear our prayers... through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Goat," instructs the groom to take "his awful wedded wife" and concludes with a blessing by "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot."

The Chief Justice wasn't quite that unnerved but, like the minister, may get it right the next time.

Kennedy, Burris and Identity Politics

The withdrawal of JFK's daughter as a replacement for Hillary Clinton leads to questions about gender and race in national politics in what we all celebrated as the Age of Obama this week.

In Illinois, the future felon Rod Blagojevich appoints Roland Burris amid calls to retain the President's seat for an African-American and now, with Caroline Kennedy gone, New York's governor speaks publicly and privately about "the importance of selecting a woman to replace Mrs. Clinton."

With the critical questions facing the Senate, when and how did substantive qualifications fall behind demographics in making choices for such high office?

Blagojevich was trying to save his skin in the face of impeachment and/or indictment. Now David Paterson, an accidental governor who came to office less than a year ago when Eliot Spitzer resigned in a sexual scandal, seems to be calculating his chances for election in 2010.

Elective politics can be messy, but calculated, self-interested appointments to represent two of the largest states in the Union are clearly worse.

Roland Burris will be a caretaker choice for the next two years, and Governor Paterson would be well-advised to do the same for New York, albeit for more honorable reasons.

At the risk of being repetitive, there is an appointee who could bring wisdom and experience to the Senate until voters make their choice in 2010. His name is Mario Cuomo, and it would reflect well on New York's governor if he could rise above identity politics and name him to Hillary Clinton's seat.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Task: Reversing Inertia

Yesterday notwithstanding, social change usually comes slowly in America--reflecting a double-edged inertia that can prolong an unfair status quo while promoting stability. But there are times when all bets are off.

This is one of them. "(O)ur time of standing pat," Barack Obama said yesterday, "of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions--that time has surely passed," echoing JFK (“We’ve got to get this country moving again!”) and FDR ("the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance").

Obama's mandate, as both an advocate and exemplar of change, is to renounce the caution and business-as-usual that got us into a mess.

"I hope Obama really is a closet radical," Tom Friedman writes today. "Not radical left or right, just a radical, because this is a radical moment. It is a moment for radical departures from business as usual in so many areas. We can’t thrive as a country any longer by coasting on our reputation, by postponing solutions to every big problem that might involve some pain and by telling ourselves that dramatic new initiatives--like a gasoline tax, national health care or banking reform--are too hard or 'off the table.' So my most fervent hope about President Obama is that he will be as radical as this moment--that he will put everything on the table. "

Priding himself on bringing people together, Obama will try to reverse the Bush-Cheney imperial presidency by working closely with Congress. But after eight years of White House nay-saying, the new president will have to redefine leadership as bold and active in pushing for new solutions.

No-drama is fine as demeanor but not as policy in a desperate time. If the call for drastic action is unnerving, it would be well to remember that radical is not the same as rash in reversing inertia.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Music and Great Meat Loaf

One of today's lovely moments was the piece by John Williams performed by an extraordinary quartet--Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo Yo Ma on cello, Garbriela Montero on piano and Anthony McGill on clarinet.

Ethereal as it was, the music brought to mind...meat loaf. Years ago, Perlman shared his recipe with the New York Times, and I have enjoyed it ever since.

So thanks to Barack Obama's inauguration, here is how to make great meat loaf while listening to one of Perlman's CDs:

4 small onions or 2 large ones
1 clove garlic
4 and 1/2 pounds ground veal
ketchup, pepper, garlic salt to taste
1 or 2 cups of boiling water
8 ounces of flavored bread crumbs

1. Chop onions and sauté until translucent, adding minced garlic toward the end.

2. Put the meat (I sometimes use half or even all prime beef) into a large bowl and add onions, garlic, garlic salt, ketchup, pepper. Knead by hand, add water and bread crumbs and mix well.

3. Shape into 2 loaves in baking tins. Cook 30 to 40 minutes in pre-heated 350-degree oven. ("Stick a knife in," the maestro advises. "If it comes out warm, it's ready.")

Yields 10 to 12 servings, and makes great cold sandwiches the next day.

Bon appétit.

Wall Street Gets Obama's Message

It was a tale of two cities today with joy in Washington and despair in the financial markets of New York. When George W. Bush left the White House, he took Wall Street's free-lunch order forms with him and the panic is on.

The Dow lost 4 percent, the Nasdaq and Standard & Poor's 500 index more than 5 as Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup fell to new lows.

While Barack Obama was saying “Without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control,” Wall Street was doing just that in expectation that the Henry Paulson billion-dollar giveaways would now be transformed with conditions, oversight and transparency.

With bank bailouts on the brink of being controlled by the firmer hand of an Obama Administration, shareholders are bailing out of institutions that flourished in the greed-is-good era and now are failing, shrinking or merging.

In this new climate, "too big to fail" may be an idea whose time has passed, to be replaced by smaller entities that can really work in a competitive free market.

How to get from here to there without falling in a financial abyss is the challenge for both government and the private sector. The new people in Washington had better be up to it.

Hillary Holdup, Texas Style

George W Bush is on his way home, but some of the Lone Star nastiness he brought to Washington lingers on as the state's junior senator John Cornyn puts a spiteful hold on Hillary Clinton's confirmation as Secretary of State.

The former First Lady will be approved tomorrow in any case, but Cornyn's action is a reminder that right-wing Republicans will not go through their political Alamo with anything resembling civility.

Cornyn, until now famous only for his shouting match on the Senate floor with John McCain over immigration, joins his legislative soul mate David Vitter in beating the dead horse of conflicts posed by the Clinton Global Initiative.

Will the Republican leadership form a posse and get this attention-seeking maverick back into the corral?

Yes, We Did

Amid all the images, words and music of the day is the still astonishing fact that an African-American became president of the United States and reminded us that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

As in his campaign, Barack Obama acknowledged the past but did not dwell on it. His Inaugural Address was about the future and its challenges:

"For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act--not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions--who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."

To the world beyond our shores, the new president reaffirmed his intention to connect rather than conquer:

"To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

At the close of the event witnessed by more people around the world than any other in history, it was 87-year-old Joseph Lowery who had the final word in his invocation and brought a smile to the face of the new president:

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. Say Amen"

Amen and Amen to that.

Inaugural Address Confidence Game

The very word cuts both ways--meaning true trust and also deception, as in "confidence game." But the added layer of irony for Barack Obama's Inaugural Address is that, in an environment of potential panic, confidence is a key to getting America back on track.

Whatever he says after taking the oath today will in itself be as crucial, as real in its impact, as the stimulus bills, bailouts and fiscal maneuvering to come.

The new President knows that. With his uncanny emotional intelligence, Obama understands that he will be treading many lines today--between rhetoric and reality, between offering hope and asking for sacrifice, between creating uplift and being down to earth, between Martin Luther King's lofty dreams and his "fierce urgency of now."

In all likelihood, Barack Obama will offer himself not as the agent of change but the instrument of the American people's determination to have it. His first words as President will be intended to inspire confidence, not in himself but his listeners and the community they have created.

The political pundits have been playing the expectations game for The Speech, but it will ultimately be judged not as a performance but as the start of a new era of straight talk.

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Obama Means to Me

My parents were white shopkeepers in the black ghetto of Harlem, living in back of a small store, selling things to people even poorer than they were. Their customers were descended from African slaves, while they themselves had left behind a Europe where their kind would soon be killed by the millions.

We were all safe here from servitude and slaughter, but not fully American, free but far from equal.

When I was three and seriously ill, my parents gave up the store and moved away, but my father kept working in Harlem for the next forty years. When I was old enough, I would sometimes go with him on a Saturday for the fourteen hours he spent in a pawnshop there.

The patrons came parading through, most of them well-dressed, almost all black, carrying clothes, jewelry, musical instruments, cameras to offer as hostage for the few dollars they had to have for a few days or weeks.

Some seemed down and defeated, but many were jaunty, with the aliveness of people always dancing on the edge. Seeing me, they flashed white smiles from their dark faces, surprised and amused to find a kid among the forbidding figures guarding the pawnbroker’s cash box. I always smiled back, trying to drink in some of their joy.

Pawnbrokers made loans to the desperate, with higher interest than banks were allowed to charge. In earlier days, they were little more than fences, acquiring stolen goods cheap to resell. Now strict laws required them to be wary--but it was a sad business, bordering on usury, profiting from human misery. For my father, it was simply where he worked sixty hours a week to earn sixteen dollars.

Once he brought home an autograph, from Colonel Hubert Julian, an American pilot who single-handed had opposed Mussolini’s air force in Abyssinia to become known as Haile Selassie’s “Black Eagle.” What led him to a Harlem pawnshop I never learned, but for years I saved that scrap with the flamboyant signature of a genuine hero.

In the windows of Harlem shops, black-on-yellow placards showed the week’s offerings of local movie houses: Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen (huge letters) in “Gone With the Wind” with (much smaller) Clark Gable, or “The Big Broadcast of 1937” starring Rochester and (footnote size) Jack Benny. There was so little to nourish pride on those streets that when Joe Louis (called by newspapers, without irony, “a credit to his race”) knocked out Max Schmeling in their 1938 rematch for the heavyweight title, Harlem erupted in riotous joy.

After returning from World War II, I went to work at City College's Harlem campus, where I fell in love with a beautiful, brilliant young woman. But a decade before Barack Obama was born, we--certainly I--did not have the courage to marry and bring interracial children into that world so little changed from the time of my own childhood.

When the new president takes the oath of office tomorrow, my heart and all those memories will be with him.

McCain: Gone But Not Forgotten

Proof positive that politics is not a blood sport for Barack Obama can be seen in his unprecedented reaching out during the transition for advice and help from John McCain.

Tonight McCain will be guest of honor at a black-tie dinner celebrating Obama's inauguration but, beyond such ceremonial gestures, the President-Elect has been consulting his former rival about potential nominees to national security jobs, in one case even pursuing answers to questions McCain had raised.

According to Lindsey Graham, McCain's close Senate friend, the Republican candidate has told him "many of these appointments he would have made himself."

With Joe the Plumber reporting from Gaza and Sarah Palin sulking in Alaska, Obama has been healing election campaign wounds, not only by dining with conservative pundits, but discussing with his former rival McCain's proposals to cut "corporate welfare," curb waste in military procurement and overhaul immigration rules, according to Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff.

In the months ahead, McCain could turn out to be one of Obama's strongest Senate allies, representing the traditional wing of the Republican Party rather than the extremists who took over and wrecked his presidential campaign.

With Hillary Clinton in the Cabinet, it's conceivable that, when McCain's Senate term expires next year, Obama could turn to him as a replacement for interim Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to complete a truly Lincolnesque team of rivals.

Martin Luther King's Gift to Obama

He has been gone now for more years than he lived but, on the birthday we celebrate today, Martin Luther King Jr. would have been only 80 years old.

Michelle and Barack Obama are doing community service in his honor and urging all Americans to do the same. In more ways than one, the inauguration of an African-American president tomorrow is part of his legacy.

Martin Luther King preached nonviolence to the oppressed. “Our weapon is love,” he told them, and he used it with stunning force.

At the dawn of TV, he brought into American homes images of peaceful Southern protesters beaten, driven with high-pressure hoses and arrested without fighting back. Their body rhetoric exposed racial hatred as never before.

Then, in 1966 Dr. King wrote for me about the apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”

He asked them to join Freedom Marches in Mississippi and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies...

“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...

“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...

“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”

Some of those young men Martin Luther King helped to grow up and away from their worst selves to exercise their civil rights must have been among the millions of Americans of all races to vote for Barack Obama in November.

We celebrate his birthday today, but tomorrow will be the fulfillment of Martin Luther King's dream.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Flight 1549, Screen-Ready

Like so much that happens these days, Thursday's safe landing in the Hudson River is both a future movie in our minds and a pastiche of past films--bits and pieces of "Airport," "The Birds," "Top Gun" and the evacuation of Dunkirk in "Mrs. Miniver."

Today we have a script for the climactic scene as the pilot (Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks) takes over the controls, calculates his options in seconds and calmly sets down the plane of terrified passengers.

“My aircraft,” he tells the first officer (Colin Hanks?) in the standard phrasing of airline crews as he takes over the controls.

“Your aircraft,” the co-pilot responds.

So far Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III has avoided the media but, from investigators' reports, he is a perfect prototype for the stoic, taciturn hero that Clint Eastwood used to play. In describing his first awareness of the crisis, he needed only two words. "Burning birds," he told them.

The movie will have a lean script and depend mostly on special effects and close-ups of passenger and crew reactions. It may not be great art but is sure to have a satisfyingly happy ending.

Update: As a coda, Capt. Sullenberger, his family and crew will take a bow at Barack Obama's inaugural. Cue in the inspirational music and fade to black.

Lincoln Overload and Life Lessons

Yes, yes, we get it. Barack Obama has themed his installation to the Great Emancipator--"A New Birth of Freedom" from the Gettysburg Address, yesterday's train trip to Washington, last week's family visit to the Lincoln Memorial, the swearing-in with Lincoln's bible, everything but a stovepipe hat for the Inaugural Address.

No fault of Obama's, but it may all be on the brink of what Esquire used to call Wretched Excess with the Congressional Inaugural Committee's Tuesday luncheon of Honest Abe's "favorite foods" (seafood, apples and root vegetables) served on replicas of china selected by Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861.

The hoke is not surprising, particularly in the light of next month's 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, but may an admirer of both Lincoln and Obama suggest that Civil War era trappings are less to the point than an understanding of how the sixteenth president faced his time of national crisis and what the 44th might learn from his experience?

My friend Shaun Mullen on his blog "Kiko's House" has been conducting a festschrift about Lincoln and, in today's contribution, a colleague with no scholarly credentials suggests one noteworthy parallel, the empathy toward people who disagree with them and the shared caution about rushing into social change without first winning public approval.

Barack Obama seems commendably intent on learning from history, but he can lean on Lincoln only so far in an era when it's no longer possible to rally public opinion with what's written on the back of an envelope.

On January 21st, he has to start celebrating his role model with his own brand of honesty and leadership.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obamas' Arrival: Train of Thought

They came to Washington this evening after their Inaugural rail journey and got into a limo surrounded by security in an otherwise deserted Union Station, evoking memories of late nights in that place many years ago.

Back then, after attending a long-winded formal dinner, you could make your way through the desolate terminal at midnight or later and get aboard a waiting Pullman car to read or sleep as it pulled out at 2 a.m. and brought you into Manhattan in the morning, refreshed and ready for work.

Watching tonight's televised arrival there of the about-to-be African-American First Family made you wonder what A. Philip Randolph, whose statue stands in the concourse of Union Station, would have made of it.

In 1925, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union for the dignified but deferential black men in white coats who made up beds in those Pullman cars and shined your shoes while you slept. For more than half a century after that, he fought racial discrimination.

During World War II, he was one of the leaders of a proposed March on Washington that pressured FDR into issuing the Fair Employment Act, the first law banning discrimination in industry.

In 1963, Randolph was a leading organizer of a March on Washington that did take place. It was there that Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream speech" to a quarter of a million Americans of all races that led to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Arriving in Washington to begin their journey into history, the Obama family did not see the statue of A. Philip Randolph, but he was there.

Repossessing Patriotism

In the most important foreclosure of all, the White House will be taken back Tuesday by the majority of Americans who lost it to lawyers in 2000 and the legions who have joined them while watching in disgust as George W. Bush lowered American property values in the world neighborhood.

Our new tenants, the Obamas, are holding an open house as they move in and, although visitors won't be able to see it, the most cherished heirloom of all will be back in the people's possession, the patriotism that the Neo-Cons hijacked and tarnished for eight years.

President Obama will be wearing a flag pin in his lapel, but it was less than a year ago that he had to answer attacks on his patriotism for not doing so:

"The truth is that right after 9/11 I had a pin. Shortly after...talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security.

"I decided I won't wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I'm going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great."

Over almost two years, they listened, heard and bought back their most precious possession on November 4th. Now Obama's talents as a community organizer will be put to the test on a global scale and, starting next week, he and his helpers will be cleaning house for us.

In the good times and bad ahead, at the very least Americans will be White House-proud again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Cabdriver's Inaugural Address

The moment in history is little more than a weekend away and, as Peggy Noonan writes today from Washington, "Everyone wants to be part of it."

She tells of Obama's speechwriter Jon Favreau in a taxi mentioning that he knows someone in the new administration:

"The cabdriver handed him a fully written inaugural address, and asked him to pass it on. Later, thinking of this, unbidden and for no clear reason, the words of the theme of the 1956 movie 'Friendly Persuasion' came to mind: 'Thee is mine, though I don't know many words of praise / Thee pleasures me in a hundred ways.' Jessamyn West's celebration of the Quakers of Indiana during the Civil War is a tale of a community living apart from a great drama and yet within that drama.

"And so the cabdriver, who works a shift, is up at night writing his inaugural address for Mr. Obama, knowing, this being America, the most fluid country in history, a place of unforeseen magic, that he would meet someone who knows someone. We all want to be together, to work together, we all want to be part of the history, of the time. And why not? Join in. Lightning strikes."

That feeling will swell up everywhere over the next few days, an unreasonable tide of hope and pride in the darkest of days, overwhelming everything we know and fear to move us to tears.

We are all living in a Frank Capra movie now--"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Meet John Doe," "It's a Wonderful Life"--and we don't want to hear that it's all fantasy, that the houselights will come up and send us out into a cold, dark night of reality.

I can't wait to learn what Barack Obama and Jon Favreau have written for Tuesday, but I wish I could hear the cabdriver's inaugural address, too.

Republican Leader Is Highly Stimulated

Like the Claude Rains character in "Casablanca," John Boehner was "shocked" yesterday by details of the Democratic stimulus plan.

"There's over a half-a-trillion dollars worth of spending," he said on the PBS News Hour. Spending in a stimulus bill? As shocking as gambling in a casino.

The House Minority leader, who has been an embarrassment before, doesn't like the proposal because (1) it isn't all tax cuts and (2) Republicans weren't consulted enough.

The $825 billion stimulus bill unveiled by Democrats yesterday has $275 billion in tax cuts and credits to jump-start the economy (and appease Republicans), along with $550 billion in spending for clean energy, road construction, social welfare programs and emergency assistance to states.

There is much to debate about the details, not only the nature of the infrastructure expenditures but opposition by some Democrats to the size of the tax cuts, but Boehner's boobery-as-usual won't advance the process very far.

When the original bailout was voted down in late September, Boehner insisted it could have drawn enough Republican votes "had it not been for the partisan speech that the speaker gave on the floor of the House," claiming Speaker Nancy Pelosi's words "poisoned our conference, caused a number of members that we thought we could get, to go south."

This led Barney Frank to respond with disbelief, "Because somebody hurt their feelings, they decided to punish the country?"

The House Republican leader is a sensitive man, who has shed patriotic tears on the floor, but with the US economy at stake, Boehner will have to calm down and get his colleagues to discuss the bill rationally.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bush's Luck

Whatever else he is, George W. Bush has not been a lucky president. Here he is, after eight disastrous years in office, in the TV spotlight to make his case for history in a sentimental setting, and millions of viewers can't wait to see the last of him and get back to watching a miracle in Manhattan--a crippled airliner with 155 people landing without loss of life on a strip of river between the crowded shores of New York and New Jersey.

As the President was praising himself, Americans were impatient to learn about a man his age named Chesley B. Sullenberger III, who piloted a twin-jet Airbus safely into the water and then walked the aisles twice to make sure everyone was safe before finally leaving his craft.

An attentive mind and heart could not fail to be moved by the contrast between that airline captain and the man in the White House who steered America into a bloodbath in Iraq after 9/11 and who responded feebly to Katrina, telling us how he kept the nation safe

"I have followed my conscience," Bush said, "and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

Like ditching a damaged plane, steering a nation in distress is not an activity that allows for being graded on good intentions. George W. Bush has been unlucky in the challenges he faced that were beyond his control, but he met them with arrogance and ineptitude that resulted in needless loss of life time and again.

Americans can only hope there is no need for an emergency response in the next five days.

Hillary OKed, Vitter Dissents

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State by 16 to 1 with only Sen. David Vitter opposing the nomination.

The Louisianan is unhappy about insufficient disclosure rules for new contributors to the Clinton Global Initiative, an understandable sensitivity to possible exchanges of favors by someone who was embarrassed in 2007 by evidence that he had had financial dealings with the DC Madam as well as prostitutes back home in New Orleans.

It's good to know that someone in Washington is standing up against the possibility of undue influence by those with whom the Clintons are, um, getting into bed.

Poetic Justice for the Bush White House

"The Moving Finger writes," said Omar Khayyam, "and, having writ, moves on..." But not according to US District Judge Henry Kennedy, who yesterday instructed White House officials to "collect and preserve all e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005."

He was responding to a suit by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Government to keep the current occupants from disposing of more than 300 million e-mail messages and 25,000 boxes of documents.

National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton points out: "In six days the Bush Executive Office of the President will be gone and without this order, their records may disappear with them. The White House will complain about the last-minute challenge, but this is a records crisis of the White House's own making."

If and when Congress appoints a special prosecutor to look into alleged criminal behavior in starting the Iraq war, outing Valerie Plame and firing the US Attorneys, among a multitude of possible crimes, the electronic and paper trail from Karl Rove et al will be critical evidence.

In that event, the Bush alumni will have to ponder the rest of Omar Khayyam's poetic wisdom: "nor all thy Piety nor Wit/Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

It will not be the first instance of ancient voices from the Middle East coming back to haunt them.

Cheneyworld: Robot Gone Wild

Watching the VP interview by Jim Lehrer on PBS last night recalled the movie "Westworld" about a theme park in which lifelike robots run amok and start killing. It came out at the time that an automaton named Dick Cheney, codenamed Backseat by the Secret Service, was serving in the White House, getting toilet leaks fixed and installing a headrest for Betty Ford on the presidential helicopter.

More than three decades later, asked whether 4500 American and more than a hundred thousand Iraqi deaths were "worth" what happened there, the now glorified robot answers, "I think so...Because I believed at the time that what Saddam Hussein represented was, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, was a terror-sponsoring state--so designated by the State Department. He was making payments to the families of suicide bombers; he provided a safe haven and sanctuary for Abu Nidal and other terrorist operations. He had produced and used weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents.

"He'd had a nuclear program in the past. He killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and he did have a relationship with al-Qaida...That's not to say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11; it is to say, as George Tenet, CIA director testified in open session in the Senate, that there was a relationship there that went back 10 years."

In Cheneyworld, ask a question and the pre-recorded tape spools out the automatic answer. In that hermetically sealed space, the response about mistakes in Iraq, illegal torture, the economic meltdown, whatever is same robotic "I don't buy that."

In his insightful book, "Rise of the Vulcans," James Mann reported that "Cheney's ascent in the Ford White House served as an illustration of how an individual can rise to the top by virtue of his willingness to take care of the mundane chores that persons with larger egos avoid, thereby establishing reliability and learning all the inner workings of an organization.

"Cheney was akin to the clerk who becomes chief executive, the copy editor who rises to become editor in chief, the accountant who takes over the film studio."

But just as the Yul Brenner gunslinger robot in Westworld turned murderous without blinking an eye, we now have the 2009 model Cheney, with real blood on his hands after an eight-year rampage, still spouting the programmed answers to what he was doing all that time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Suffer the Little Children No More

Late next week, or soon afterward, four million American children, whose health care has been held hostage by George W. Bush's deep sympathy for the profits of private insurers, will finally get the coverage Congress has been trying to give them for almost a year and a half.

Today, the House passed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which now goes to the Senate for quick approval by the new president, who greeted the news thus:

"In this moment of crisis, ensuring that every child in America has access to affordable health care is not just good economic policy, but a moral obligation we hold as parents and citizens. That is why I’m so pleased that Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives came together to provide health insurance to over ten million children whose families have been hurt most by this downturn. This coverage is critical, it is fully paid for, and I hope that the Senate acts with the same sense of urgency so that it can be one of the first measures I sign into law when I am President."

In his exit interviews this week, Bush is not bragging about his "philosophical" veto-wielding victory for free enterprise at the expense of children's health and lives. But today's legislation is a quick payoff to voters for getting rid of him and his ilk in the White House.

Is Smart Enough?

At her confirmation yesterday, Hillary Clinton invoked the concept of "smart power" as a guide to American diplomacy.

In his hearings, Education Secretary Arne Duncan cited Barack Obama as a role model for America's school children. “Never before," he said "has being smart been so cool.”

And in another hearing room, Senators were mooning over Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, the nominee for Energy Secretary. Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman enthused over Chu's "insight and vision" to carry out Obama's energy policies.

But is brilliance alone the panacea for all of America's problems? With the possible exception of the Defense Department's Douglas Feith, characterized as the "dumbest effing guy on the planet' by Gen.Tommy Franks, Bush's Neo-Cons were not stupid but blinkered in their perception of how the world works and too arrogant to learn from their mistakes.

The test for all that Obama brainpower will be to avoid replicating the record of JFK's "The Best and the Brightest" whose tunnel vision led to quagmire in Vietnam as surely as the Neo-Cons confidently took us into Iraq disaster and, back home, free-market ruin.

"It doesn’t help," Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, "that intellectuals are often as full of themselves as of ideas."

What's encouraging is that, although Obama has surrounded himself with figures like Lawrence Summers and Rahm Emanuel, who never suffer from an excess of doubt, he himself keeps showing the open-mindedness to empathize with opposition and avoid hubris.

Talking about measures to save the economy, the President-Elect said the other day, "“This is not an intellectual exercise, and there’s no pride of authorship. If members of Congress have good ideas, if they can identify a project for me that will create jobs in an efficient way--that does not hamper our ability to, over the long term, get control of our deficit; that is good for the economy--then I’m going to accept it.”

Now that sounds like the smart use of power.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Obama's $350 Billion "Trust Me"

The President-Elect was on Capitol Hill today, urging Congress to give him the second half of the financial rescue bill they passed in October:

"I felt that it would be irresponsible for me, with the first $350 billion already spent, to enter into the administration without any potential ammunition, should there be some sort of emergency or weakening of the financial systems."

Before addressing lawmakers and reporters, Obama had his economic team send Congress a letter outlining priorities for spending the money--using "our full arsenal of tools" to get credit flowing; strengthening oversight of the TARP and other rescue programs; deploying "smart, aggressive policies" to reduce foreclosures; toughening conditions for recipients of bailout money; and attracting private capital to limit new bailout outlays.

To the untrained ear, it sounds like a huge "Trust me," but Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee is ready to buy it: "We should not allow our disappointment at the Bush administration's poor handling of the TARP program to prevent the Obama administration from using the funds in more appropriate ways."

All this would be unnerving enough without the disclosure today that Treasury Secretary designee Timothy Geithner will have to explain at his confirmation hearing failure to pay tens of thousands of dollars in federal taxes (after underpayments were detected, he turned over $43,000 in back taxes and interest) and to answer questions about the immigration status of a former household employee.

This reminder of Zoe Baird, the Attorney General choice Bill Clinton lost in 1993, is not reassuring in today's shaky atmosphere.

Ponzi Bedtime Story?

In a time of falling home prices and trillion-dollar bailouts, one market seems to be up as a young candidate for a master's in family and marriage therapy reports that 10,000 bidders for her virginity have pushed the price to $3.7 million.

Skeptics in the age of Madoff may be forgiven for their doubts about such returns from what these days might be considered a modest investment.

The young woman's enterprise recalls the response of a friend of mine with a large public relations company to young job seekers fresh out of college who would tell him they were ready to sell out.

"That's fine," he would say. "Now what is it exactly that you have to sell?"

These days, the "Buyer Beware" signs are up for everyone, journalists included.

Obama Online Presidency Miffs MSM

He could turn out to be a one-term president, according to New York Times White House reporters in a panel discussion this weekend moderated by their assistant managing editor who complained:

“When the current president was elected, one of the first things he did was sit down with the New York Times and a battery of reporters. This president has not sat down with our New York Times press corps in a very long time, as even Bush did.”

As uncharitable as it may be to connect the gloomy assessment of his administration with Obama's going AWOL from the newspaper of record, the fact remains that he is bypassing what Reagan's people used to call "media filters" with almost daily speeches, televised "media opportunities" and exclusive unedited TV network interviews.

Even worse, to MSM eyes, are the Obama team's constant communications with 13 million supporters by e-mail, a million recipients of text-messaging, 2 million members of the campaign's proprietary social network, and 5 million "friends" on more than 15 other social networking sites including Facebook.

The Times reporters who foresee doom for an Obama Administration that fails to stop the economic slide may be influenced, consciously or not, by the growing number of predictions that their paper in printed form, along with many others, may be facing extinction under the same circumstances--and in less than four years.

All kinds of Change are in the air.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bush's Mellow Farewell

Nobody threw shoes (or rice either) at his farewell press conference this morning, but George W. Bush was blowing kisses at the assembled reporters and even his critics.

“They are not angry, they are not hostile people,” he said. “I view those who get angry and yell and say bad things and all that kind of stuff as just a few people in the country.”

The Decider is easing out the door by deciding not to ask for the second $350 billion of the bailout bill unless Obama asks him to do so: "I don't intend to make the request unless he specifically asks me to make it."

Meanwhile, the new President's transition team is reassuring Congress that they won't shovel the money out without transparency or accountability as Henry Paulson's people have.

Bush's appearance behind the podium today was a final reminder of the difference between a president posing as an affable guy and one who knows who he is and is listening carefully to substantive questions and thinking as he answers them.

The White House press corps will have to get back on its toes and into its running shoes next week to start reporting some actual news from the briefing room.

Dissing the Fifties

Last night's Golden Globe awards were another reminder that the Obama Generation can't get enough of trashing the Fifties and early Sixties with "Revolutionary Road" and "Mad Men" just the latest examples.

This follows an election phenomenon noted by Joan Didion that "only the very young were decreed capable of truly appreciating the candidate. Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate's behalf by their children. Again and again we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn't understand. In a flash, we were back in high school, and we couldn't sit with the popular kids, we didn't get it."

But it may be time for a little Fifties/Sixties backlash. In the New York Times, Judith Warner recently wrote about her "brief obsession with mid-20th-century American anomie. I read 'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit' and 'The Organization Man.' I re-read 'The Feminine Mystique'" only to realize that her sense of superiority was tinged with envy:

"How we seem to love and hate those men and women we never knew. What we would give to know their secrets: how Dad managed to come home at 5 p.m. to read the paper or watch TV while Mom fixed dinner and bathed the kids. How Mom turned up at school, every day, unrumpled, coiffed, unflappable. And more to the point: how they managed to afford the lives that they led, on one salary, without hocking their homes to pay for college, without worrying about being bankrupted by medical bills.

"How we make them pay now, when we breathe them back into life. Our cultural representations of them are punishing. We defile the putative purity of the housewives--those doe-eyed, frivolous, almost simple-minded depressives--by assigning them drunken, cheating, no-good mates. We discredit the memory of the organization men by filling them with self-loathing and despair."

A survivor of all that can testify that those who were idealized as the Greatest Generation and are now reviled for wanting what they thought was the good life for themselves and their kids when they came back were only human after all.

Racism, sexism, religious bigotry and materialism were surely rampant but so were hope, decency and a kind of naïve love of country that Americans of all generations would welcome now as Obama and his people go about repairing the ruins created by the wised-up middle-aged in the Nineties and the new century.

If their children want to keep hammering their grandparents with "American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road" and all the rest, so be it but their creations leave an aftertaste of disguised patricide and unearned self-righteousness.

Obama's Janus Dilemma

As he takes the oath in this aptly named month, Barack Obama is faced with looking both forward and back over an enormous list of national problems.

Steering the country through economic minefields will obviously take almost all of his administration's energies but, to the extent that present difficulties are rooted in the disastrous Bush years, the past can't be totally ignored.

In cataloguing the major frauds and deceptions, Frank Rich in the New York Times asserts, "The more we learn about where all the bodies and billions were buried on our path to ruin, the easier it may be for our new president to make the case for a bold, whatever-it-takes New Deal."

In his interview, George Stephanopoulos asked the President-Elect about appointing a special prosecutor to "investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping" and got an ambivalent response, "I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

Those who were outraged by the Bush-Cheney assault on traditional American freedoms may be disappointed by such hesitation but will have to consider the priorities of doing things right for the future against punishing the wrongs of the past.

Stephanopoulos asked about Dick Cheney's advice: "Before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it."

Obama agreed but not in the way Cheney had in mind. Perhaps the best way to resolve his Janus-like dilemma is the answer Frank Rich got from Henry Waxman, Capitol Hill's "most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals."

Though Waxman "remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds: 'I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.'

"He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record. 'We need to depoliticize it,' he says. 'If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.'”

For Obama, that may turn out to be the best Janus-like approach.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Venture in Dog Diplomacy

Malia and Sasha Obama are getting the hang of how politics works. Today they used George Stephanopoulos to lobby for their dog.

At the end of his interview with the President-Elect, Stephanopoulos told him "while you were getting made up, they went into the control room and played director and producer. And they actually gave me a question they want me to ask you. You know exactly what it's going to be...What kind of a dog are we getting and when are we getting it?"

That got their father to go on the record: "They seem to have narrowed it down to a labradoodle or a Portuguese water hound...and so, we're now going to start looking at shelters to see when one of those dogs might come up."

Finding a pure-bred, untraumatized dog in a shelter will take some doing. So if they want to speed up the process, Malia and Sasha may want to cajole someone to get in touch in the comments section here to start the ball rolling about adopting an under-two-year-old labradoodle who loves children but, for complicated family reasons, needs a new home.

Replies will be kept strictly confidential--unless their father blabs about it on TV.

Inaugural Dress Code, Part II

As women go to great lengths (even a special web site) to make sure they will be uniquely dressed for the Inaugural balls, men are doing what they always do--suiting up like penguins on parade.

According to reporting by the New York Times blog, The Caucus: "Whether they buy, recycle or rent their inaugural formal wear, most men will choose a black tuxedo."

There must be something deeply psychological about one gender's need to look different and the other's to appear the same, but you don't survive to my age by publicly speculating about such loaded questions.

Instead, let me offer some advice based on years of making do with the same tuxedo: Don't waste money on alterations. Just count on suspenders and leave the waist unfastened. An expandable cummerbund is your best friend for concealing the passage of time on formal occasions.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Bumpy Year to Come

Barack Obama is reaching for the controls of an economy in a fog bank, flying blind to who-knows-where with huge numbers of job losses, business failures, home foreclosures and, above all, fear of worse to come.

Unlike the late 1970s during the Gerald Ford interregnum, when a helpless government was reduced to sloganeering with WIN (Whip Inflation Now) buttons, the administration that takes over in ten days has a multitude of plans and proposals for economic stimulus, but with each day, there is mounting anxiety over what kind and how much and for how long.

The bottom line: Nobody knows. And with so much at stake, politicians and economists are in their least favorite mode--uncertainty.

“This is not an intellectual exercise, and there’s no pride of authorship,” the President-Elect told a news conference yesterday. “If members of Congress have good ideas, if they can identify a project for me that will create jobs in an efficient way--that does not hamper our ability to, over the long term, get control of our deficit; that is good for the economy--then I’m going to accept it.”

Republicans are scrambling to look cooperative but wary of the huge federal spending to come, while some Democrats are starting to push back against Obama's concessions on tax cuts to get bipartisan support.

The "experts" are uncharacteristically iffy. “We have very few good examples to guide us,” said a Brookings wonk and Paul Krugman writes about the "Obama Gap," claiming that his economic plan "falls well short of what’s needed," a $775 billion answer to a $2 trillion shortfall of lost production in the next two years.

Success or failure will hinge on developments outside the control of Obama or the Congress, according to Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce. In his annual State of American Business speech, Donohue said this week that at least 12 major economies are now deeply in trouble.

Meanwhile, the confusion is underscored by jockeying between the outgoing Bush Administration and the new Congress over spending the second half of October's $700 billion financial rescue package. Nobody is sure of exactly what happened to the first installment or whether it did much good, but one way or another, the money will get shoveled out the door.

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama will be in the position of an airline pilot reassuring passengers that the turbulence will eventually subside and that they will get to where they want to go.

But in the meantime, fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy year.