Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Another Day, Another Obama Website

Today we get FinancialStability.gov to help us with the alphabet-soup intricacies of keeping the banks alive and lending.

A glossary, called the “Decoder,” translates financial terms and acronyms related to the toxic-asset plan--the world according to not GARP but TARP, AGP et al.

A map shows the local impact of banks and financial institutions taking part in the Capital Purchase Program, which uses federal funds to encourage lending, and a searchable database lists the contracts and agreements that are part of the Financial Stability Plan.

Professor Obama promised transparency, but he didn't tell us how much homework would come with the course.

Drudge Suicide Watch

Hard times may be taking a higher psychological toll on politicians and news aggregators than the public. As the Drudge Report hyperventilates about "NANNY STATE: GOVERNMENT WEBSITE TO WARN OF SADNESS/CRYING OVER ECONOMY," a new Washington Post poll finds "a rapid increase in the percentage of Americans who say the economy is improving."

Drudge's excitement is over a new web page by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, "Getting Through Tough Economic Times," that offers advice on recognizing and dealing with the depression and anxiety that can result from financial setbacks, a useful compendium that somehow rates the type size Drudge usually reserves for earthquakes, tsunamis and Democratic scandals.

In the real world, the new Post poll shows that a majority feels that their President is on top of the situation: "Two-thirds of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the country's top job, and six in 10 give him good marks on issue No. 1, the flagging economy. Those figures are little changed from last month."

The SAMSA guide to getting through, however, may be of particular value to conservatives having a hard time over being out of power in Washington:

"Unemployment and other kinds of financial distress do not 'cause' suicide directly, but they can be factors that interact dynamically within individuals and affect their risk for suicide. These financial factors can cause strong feelings such as humiliation and despair, which can precipitate suicidal thoughts or actions among those who may already be vulnerable to having these feelings because of life-experiences or underlying mental or emotional conditions..."

Members of the Republican National Committee, take note.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Car Makers at the Cliff

Parsing the President's verdict on Detroit is like trying to find rays of hope in a death sentence.

"While Chrysler and GM are very different companies with very different paths forward," Obama said today, "both need a fresh start to implement the restructuring plans they develop. That may mean using our bankruptcy code as a mechanism to help them restructure quickly and emerge stronger."

Fresh start? Stronger? Chrysler is being pushed toward a merger with Fiat, while GM is given a 30-day reprieve and a shove toward restructuring by working with "creditors, unions and other stakeholders."

The President's gift for euphemism, as in his Afghanistan announcement last week, is once again putting an optimistic gloss on hard realities--Detroit as we know it is in terminal condition.

The government will provide working capital for a while and back the car makers' warranties to keep sales from falling off a cliff, but there is nothing in today's brief bailout to justify Obama's uplifting statement:

"This industry is, like no other, an emblem of the American spirit; a once and future symbol of America's success."

If that's true, the country is heading the way of Detroit, and the stock market will just have to face that fact.

What's Good for General Motors...

As news sinks in that President Obama has, in effect, fired the head of GM, it recalls that half a century ago President Eisenhower asked the man in that position to help him run the country.

When Ike picked Charles E. Wilson as Secretary of Defense in 1953, Congress wanted Wilson to sell his GM stock, which he reluctantly agreed to do. But when asked if he could conceive of making a decision adverse to the corporation, Wilson said yes but added that he could not imagine such a situation "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa."

Now, in an era when the auto industry is dragging down the US economy, the Washington Post reports, "The Obama administration has forced the longtime head of General Motors to resign and said yesterday that it would withhold additional federal aid to the auto industry unless the ailing companies undertake changes they so far have been unwilling or unable to make."

As the President promises to make Detroit "much more lean, mean and competitive than it currently is" in return for more bailout billions, there is the mirror image of unease about the symbiotic nature of that relationship.

The White House's willingness to take over GM is in sharp contrast to its hands-off approach to the banks in the plan to make toxic assets disappear. Does anybody in Washington know more about making cars than making loans?

After four stormy years of trying to modify and unify the Armed Forces, when Charles E. Wilson stepped down, Eisenower said he had managed the Defense Department "in a manner consistent with the requirements of a strong, healthy national economy."

Can Obama find someone to reverse the process now?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dr. Phil's Octumom Circus

Those two symptoms of cultural excess--the young woman with a fixation on breeding and the super-salesman of psychobabble--were bound to get together in a media collision as embarrassing as it is prototypical.

Dr. Phil, out of the goodness of his heart and ratings for his talk show, arranged for child care to help Nadya Suleman with her brood of 14 including the octuplets, only to have it all end in a brawl between Suleman's lawyer and Gloria Allred, the not-publicity averse attorney for the volunteer group, Angels in Waiting.

Suleman has fired the Angels after an on-camera confrontation over their criticism of her child-rearing skills and, while not taking part in Dr. Phil's continuing public service coverage of her activities, did manage a call-in appearance to deny that she is an unfit mother.

Meanwhile, some 14 real children are involved in this surreal soap opera that is threatening to make the 1930s' freak show over the Dionne quintuplets look like the Partridge family. Has the economic downturn depleted California's social services to the point of being helpless to intervene in all this?

Newsweek and Krugman: New Realities

In a magazine cover, we have a reflection of what's happening not only to the American economy but politics and journalism as well: a close-cropped half of a bearded face and the lines, "Obama Is Wrong: The loyal opposition of Paul Krugman."

Newsweek's story tells us about the economist-turned-pundit who "criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking," but also illustrates the desperation of newsweekly magazines to survive.

In financial straits, Newsweek has been cutting its circulation and redefining itself away from the traditional role of presenting the week's news with attitude. With so much of both available on the Internet and cable TV, Newsweek has chosen less news and more attitude.

"If we don’t have something original to say," editor Jon Meacham points out, "we won’t. The drill of chasing the week’s news to add a couple of hard-fought new details is not sustainable.”

The 21st century has not been kind to Henry Luce's invention of Time in the 1920s to make sense of "the million little chaoses of raw news." In a 24/7 tower of babble, Americans no longer need a Voice from Above to tell them what it all means.

As Newsweek moves away from Time and US News, it will be competing for eyeballs and ads with such as the Economist, the New Yorker and Atlantic in telling readers what they don't know they want to know until they see it in a magazine.

The Krugman story is a promising start, a profile of a quirky Nobel Prize winner who keeps offering those in power reality checks and ends thus:

"Krugman thinks that Obama needs some kind of 'wise man' to advise him and mentions Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman who tamed inflation for Reagan and now heads an advisory panel for Obama. How about Krugman himself for that role? 'I'm not a backroom kind of guy,' he says, schlumped over in his Princeton office, which overflows with unopened mail. He describes himself as a 'born pessimist' and a 'natural rebel.' But he adds, 'What I have is a voice.' That he does."

In these parlous times, so does Newsweek, and we can use both.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Obama's Language Problem

As George W. Bush goes off to write his "authoritarian" version of the past eight years, we are getting the first glimpse of what could be a drawback in having an articulate president.

Barack Obama made a ringing statement yesterday about the US mission in Afghanistan, but we now learn how divided his Administration was over the decision, including the opposition of Joe Biden, who knows more about the region than anyone else involved.

“The United States of America," the President intoned, "did not choose to fight a war in Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of our people were killed on September 11, 2001, for doing nothing more than going about their daily lives.

“So let me be clear: Al Qaeda and its allies--the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks--are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

As well-said and true as this is, it papers over a host, to use one of the president's favorite words, of difficulties. (See the post below.)

The Vice President, White House officials tell the New York Times, "was heavily influenced by the trip he took to Afghanistan and Pakistan just before the inauguration in January. He observed to Mr. Obama that if you asked 10 people on the ground what American objectives were, he would get 10 different answers."

In the end, the President overrode Biden's qualms and chose to broaden and intensify US involvement in the area. Americans can only hope that his decision accomplishes the goal he so eloquently expressed and that it does not turn out to be a triumph of rhetoric over reality.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Crossed Fingers for Afghanistan

For the crisis du jour, the mode is ultra-cautious optimism as we tiptoe deeper into the Afghan-Pakistan quagmire with an infusion of 4,000 more military trainers along with civilian advisers.

The President's announcement today will put the bravest face on it, but the shadow of Iraq will be in the picture. An expert once described the war there as playing three-dimensional chess in the dark but that looks more like checkers compared to this. (See the gung-ho Long War Journal for a sampling of the daily reality.)

David Brooks comes back from his guided tour today "skeptical but also infected by the optimism of the truly impressive people who are working here," a non-sequitur after his gloomy assessment of the situation:

"Afghanistan is one of the poorest, least-educated and most-corrupt nations on earth...It has powerful enemies in Pakistan, Iran and the drug networks working hard to foment chaos. The ground is littered with the ruins of great powers that tried to change this place.

"Moreover, we simply do not know how to modernize nations. Western aid workers seem to spend most of their time drawing up flow charts for each other. They’re so worried about their inspectors general that they can’t really immerse themselves in the messy world of local reality. They insist on making most of the spending decisions themselves so the 'recipients' of their largess end up passive, dependent and resentful."

Add to this an intractable culture of corruption that has made the US-backed Karzai government shaky and the uncertainty of Pakistani support in the tribal regions despite our billions of aid to their government, and the questions of what we're doing there, for how long and with what prospects of success add up to another possible Iraq with more at stake and even less hope of disentanglement.

The Neo-Cons were criminally naïve about the Middle East, but it's hard to see much improvement in the "new" approach.

Obama's Used Car Salesmen

I wouldn't buy one from Larry Summers. I might take a chance on Tim Geithner but have a good mechanic check it out first.

As the President's top two economic advisers keep offering us financial vehicles for the rocky road ahead, they just don't inspire confidence in survivors still stunned by the crash of those in which the two of them had so much involvement over the past decade.

Summers tell us the Administration's new toxic asset plan will create "better functioning capital markets," but Paul Krugman points out:

"Leave aside for a moment the question of whether a market in which buyers have to be bribed to participate can really be described as 'better functioning.' Even so, Mr. Summers needs to get out more. Quite a few economists have reconsidered their favorable opinion of capital markets and asset trading in the light of the current crisis.

"But it has become increasingly clear over the past few days that top officials in the Obama administration are still in the grip of the market mystique. They still believe in the magic of the financial marketplace and in the prowess of the wizards who perform that magic."

Just so. The Treasury Secretary's Congressional testimony about the proposal to regulate non-bank financial institutions reflects a curious ambivalence, recognizing damaging excesses but hesitating to ban much of Wall Street's gambling.

In answer to a question, Geithner said that. "my own sense is that banning naked credit default swaps isn't necessary and wouldn't help," that it is "terribly hard" to differentiate between a legitimate hedge and a pure speculative bet.

The recent stock market surge only adds to the unease. After weeks of sheer panic, are the insiders only grabbing at the chance for cashing in on the huge but temporary infusion of free money?

With so much at stake, the Obama Administration might help the case for its recovery proposals by letting us hear more from Paul Volcker and other respected Wall Street outsiders in a situation where credibility is critical.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Obama Online

The President is working the crowds again this morning, but this time he's telecommuting to the job with what the White House is calling an online town hall. ("It's a way for the president to do what he enjoys doing out on the road but saves on gas," says press secretary Robert Gibbs.)

The session, called "Open for Questions," is the next logical step in the All-Obama-All-the-Time presidency. By the deadline for voting, 91,000 people had submitted more than 103,000 questions and more than 3.5 million had cast votes for their favorites.

Most, of course, were about the economy and financial crisis, but special-interest groups were active, as reflected in the question of whether he favors the pending California bill to legalize marijuana.

It's a commentary on what's happening to American media that everyone but newspaper reporters has been grilling the President in his information blitz over the past week, but the New York Times and Los Angeles Times blogs will be live-posting on the Internet Town Hall here and here.

No more time for kibbutzing here. Have to go watch and listen.

Update: The man is mesmerizing, no doubt about that. His ability to reach out and connect with people should be bottled and made available to all politicians, but only if they qualify by having a reasonable facsimile of his intelligence and empathy. Leavening an hour and a half of wonk talk with anecdotes about his mother's terminal illness and his daughter's experience of a spinal tap, Obama showed today why presidents from here on will have to reach a new level as communicators. The dangers of demagoguery are obvious, but at the very least, the days of Empty Suits like George W. Bush are over

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Monica, the Movie

As Hillary Clinton arrives in Mexico to admit that America's "insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” the cocaine-consuming capital of Hollywood announces a new HBO movie about Monica Lewinsky and you-know-who.

The film, we're told, is "actually about the frustrated efforts of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to form a working relationship with President Clinton, who seemed increasingly distracted by the fallout from the scandal." The title (wink, wink) is "The Special Relationship" with Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore as the former First Couple. Monica herself will appear only in old clips.

The news comes as the Supreme Court considers a case about "Hillary: The Movie," a so-called documentary starring Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich that was made with corporate money last year to derail Mrs. Clinton's candidacy and may have run afoul of federal election laws.

All this cinematic activity is going on as the polls show the Secretary of State with a sky-high approval rating in presenting a new foreign-policy face to the world. At least the perpetrators of the Frost/Nixon fiction waited until the Unindicted Coconspirator was long gone before cashing in.

If HBO cares about one customer vote, turn off the project's greenlight and put the money into a sequel of "Traffic," which would be much more dramatic and timely and a lot less tacky.

An AIG Scapegoat Speaks Up

The human price of political and media stereotyping is highlighted today by publication of an angrily cogent resignation letter from an executive who played no part in AIG's problems but has been vilified, harassed and threatened for staying on and trying to fix them.

An executive vice president Jake DeSantis writes: "After 12 months of hard work dismantling the company--during which A.I.G. reassured us many times we would be rewarded in March 2009--we in the financial products unit have been betrayed by A.I.G. and are being unfairly persecuted by elected officials. In response to this, I will now leave the company and donate my entire post-tax retention payment to those suffering from the global economic downturn. My intent is to keep none of the money myself.

"I take this action after 11 years of dedicated, honorable service to A.I.G. I can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment, nor am I being paid to do so. Like you, I was asked to work for an annual salary of $1, and I agreed out of a sense of duty to the company and to the public officials who have come to its aid. Having now been let down by both, I can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down."

With a senator suggesting suicide, two state Attorneys General hounding and threatening to name them and busloads of protesters howling in their driveways, AIG employees have become victims of the kind of group discrimination that Americans congratulated themselves for leaving behind with the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Such personalizing of a societal problem is the dark side of celebrity worship--a People magazine approach to the breakdown of government regulation that helped bring on today's economic mess, an updated version of "if the crops fail, find the witches who are responsible and burn them."

Now Treasury Secretary Geithner is proposing new controls. “One of the key lessons of the current crisis is that destabilizing dangers can come from financial institutions besides banks,” he said yesterday, “but our current regulatory system provides few ways to deal with these risks.”

At least one employee of those financial institutions will no longer be trying to undo the effects of those destabilizing dangers.

"I’ll continue over the short term to help make sure no balls are dropped," DeSantis tells his bosses, "but after what’s happened this past week I can’t remain much longer--there is too much bad blood."

Presidential Persistence and Focus

Two months have taken a toll on Barack Obama, who came into office offering change and is now promising persistence.

He finished his news conference last night citing the St. Patrick's Day celebration of "previously sworn enemies" from Ireland in the White House as proof that time and effort can solve intractable problems.

"And what that tells me," he said "is that, if you stick to it, if you are persistent, then these problems can be dealt with.

"That whole philosophy of persistence, by the way, is one that I'm going to be emphasizing again and again in the months and years to come as long as I'm in this office. I'm a big believer in persistence."

The New York Times sums up its account of the news conference this way:

"Throughout his time in public life, Mr. Obama has confronted questions about whether he was too detached, too analytical, too intellectual. In the campaign, he was as likely to be compared to Adlai E. Stevenson as he was to John F. Kennedy. And if there is a pattern to Mr. Obama, it is to lumber through periods like this and then become intense and animated at the first sign of trouble.

"Over the long term, Mr. Obama’s calm has served him well, in particular at the critical moment in the campaign when the economy began its steep slide."

What this omits is the ability Obama shares most with JFK--to stay focused. Of all presidents since then, he most clearly exhibits the quality that not only gave Americans confidence in Kennedy's intelligence but created the kind of emotional connection that has not been seen since.

Today Obama faces the task of negotiating with Congressional leaders, most importantly of his own party, over the size and scope of the budget. Then he goes to Mexico to deal with the growing drug war on our borders and on to the G20 summit over the crashing world economy.

As he moves through this series of intense tests of his leadership, the one reassuring certainty is that Obama will keep his eye on the ball.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How Low Can Cheney Go?

When he left office, the former Vice President's approval rating was 13 percent. Yet in the past week, Dick Cheney has managed to make it worse.

By criticizing President Obama for refusing to torture, Cheney has outdone himself to the point that even Republican Congressmen are now calling on him to shut up.

“He became so unpopular while he was in the White House," says Congressman John Duncan, "that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn’t be so public.”

That motion is seconded by fellow Tennessee House member Zach Wamp: “Interpret it however you want to, but what I’m saying is: We should focus on the people that will lead us tomorrow, not the people who led us yesterday. With all due respect to former Vice President Cheney, he represents what’s behind us, not what’s ahead of us.”

As politely as possible, Republicans are suggesting that Cheney find other ways to occupy himself.

"Tending a legacy is best done in a memoir,” says Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, who hopes to run for Obama's former Senate seat next year. “I would just encourage everybody who has left office to follow the tradition of the Founding Fathers--to write your memoirs."

How many ways can the GOP find to tell Cheney to get lost?

Ubiquitous Obama

If we were paying the President by the hour, the economic crisis would be worse. After the Tonight Show, 60 Minutes and town halls everywhere, we get a prime-time news conference this evening.

If that sounds like a complaint, it isn't. In this time of multiple anxieties, Barack Obama, despite the inevitability of falling approval ratings, has succeeded brilliantly as Comforter-in-Chief.

With his remarkable capacity to put mixed feelings into context (i.e., the AIG bonuses are an outrage, but we can't afford to govern out of anger and then helping bury the nutty House tax bill), Obama is just the President we need psychologically at this moment, no matter what reservations we may have about specific moves such as the stimulus and the bank bailout.

"Obama Dials Down Wall Street Criticism" proclaims the Wall Street Journal today, as he reaches out for a public-private answer to the credit crunch, the latest step in his progress from defining the problem to trying to solve it.

Frustrated Republicans are reduced to sneers and nitpicking. As Carl Ericson observes at Simply Left Behind: "It's driving his opponents crazy. Obama has at once lifted himself above the fray while encouraging the fray using surrogates. The more conservatives focus on Obama's miscues and teleprompters, the more the American people will understand that the GOP offers no rational alternative at this time, that they are spinning their wheels waiting for an opportunity to seize the upper hand on an issue of substance."

In advance of the G20 economic summit next week, the President is going global with his ubiquity. In an OpEd today running in 31 countries around the world, he writes:

"We are living through a time of global economic challenges that cannot be met by half measures or the isolated efforts of any nation. Now, the leaders of the Group of 20 have a responsibility to take bold, comprehensive and coordinated action that not only jump-starts recovery, but also launches a new era of economic engagement to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again."

No matter what final grades he gets from history, Obama has already earned his A for effort.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Madoff Mystique

He is out of sight behind bars now, but the maddeningly blank face of Bernard Madoff is still with us like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. The mild-looking little man who stole billions with minimal exertion is proving to be irresistible to the literary imagination.

In a New York Times OpEd, Daphne Merkin, who is writing a book about Jews and money, maintains, "There is no single code word--no 'Rosebud'--that will lead us to decipher the Madoff phenomenon...

"Indeed, what is lost amid the fury of some of those who handed their money over to him is that theirs was a voluntary--nay, eager--association. No one was holding a gun to anyone’s head, saying sign up with Mr. Madoff or else.

"Far from it: people scrambled to find a home within his financial orbit, auditioning for the role of Madoff client the way you would try out for a place at an Ivy League college, nudging connections to put in a good word, calling in favors to get in on a piece of the Madoff action."

She concludes that "to call Mr. Madoff a sociopath isn’t really to explain him so much as to explain our failure to pick up on his scam. 'Everything that deceives,' decreed Plato, “can be said to enchant.'"

In the New Yorker, Woody Allen conjures up two Madoff victims who have been reincarnated as lobsters in the tank of a Manhattan restaurant: "The day I found out he could handle my account I was so thrilled I cut my wife’s head out of our wedding photo and put his in. When I learned I was broke, I committed suicide by jumping off the roof of our golf club in Palm Beach. I had to wait half an hour to jump, I was twelfth in line.” When Madoff shows up for a seafood dinner, the crustacean victims see their chance for revenge.

Life and art intersect in the person of Elie Wiesel, the bard of the Holocaust, who lost all his own and his charities' money. Madoff, he recalls, "presented himself as a philanthropist," and they talked about ethics and education:

"It was a myth that he created around him...the myth of exclusivity...He gave the impression that maybe a hundred people belonged to his club. Now we know thousands of them were cheated by him."

The myth was an echo of the Midas Touch with no memory of the curse that comes with it. Whatever happens to Madoff himself, he is on his way to becoming a symbol of "the stuff that dreams are made on" in the long line of literature from Shakespeare to Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon."

Banks Are Lending--to Their Own

The credit crunch is squeezing American businesses and consumers, except for the directors, top executives and other insiders who have loans from their own banks totaling $41 billion.

We learn this from the Charlotte Observer, which reports: "At Charlotte-based Bank of America, those loans more than doubled last year, to $624.2 million--the biggest dollar jump in the country. The largest of them likely went to three directors or their companies. The surge came during the third quarter as credit markets froze, the government prepared to infuse banks with billions in tax dollars and the board approved the purchase of troubled Merrill Lynch.

"Bank of America ranked fourth on the list of biggest insider lenders. At the top was JPMorgan of New York, which held $1.48 billion in insider loans, mostly by directors or their companies."

This hyperactive insider lending raises all kinds of questions about the true condition of the institutions that are now about to receive another huge bailout by the Administration's plan to get toxic assets off their books.

But it also raises a question about journalism as well. Why does a story of this significance come from a Charlotte reporter, Stella M. Hopkins, part of the McClatchy chain, rather than from the journalistic centers of the financial and political universe in New York and Washington?

The McClatchy papers are in small to medium-sized but fast-growing communities, and they often break stories that the metropolitan behemoths overlook. Old-fashioned journalism seems to be alive and well on Main Street.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Obama's Biggest Bet and Ours

We are back in the casino now, ready to play a hand that could make us whole again or leave us broke for a long time to come.

After huge bets on bailouts and stimulus plans, we are about to go all in with $1 trillion to buy bad loans and toxic assets from ailing banks in partnership with private investors.

As Obama pushes our chips into that pot, there is a sinking feeling that the game may be rigged for the Wall Street players around the table who have been hoarding theirs, waiting for a time when the odds are with them.

It's unnerving that the President's chief advisers, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, have been house men so long that their vision of the game may be inadequate to the needs of a nation that is gambling real money--rent money and what could put food on millions of family tables--on the outcome.

The Public Investment Corporation to be announced tomorrow sounds like a rehash of ideas that have been floating around for months and been picked apart by economists and knowledgeable financial operators. It has the look and feel of another Wall Street heads-I-win, tails-I-break-even proposition.

Before taking the plunge, we should hear the case for temporary and/or partial nationalization of the banks that has been pushed aside for political reasons, which amounts to leaving our fate in the hands of the Congressional clowns who have been showing us who they are in the past week.

As we try to clear our heads of AIG bonus madness and other distractions, let's take the time to get this one right. We have been betting everything on Obama's judgement. There is too much at stake to make the wrong call.

An Obama Kiss for Cousin Cheney

On 60 Minutes tonight, the President takes note of the assertion by his long-lost relative Dick Cheney that the Obama Administration's refusal to torture raises the risk for another 9/11 attack on America.

"How many terrorists," Obama asks, "have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment."

In answer to a question about released Guantanamo detainees who have reportedly returned to terrorism, the President acknowledges, "There is no doubt that we have not done a particularly effective job in sorting through who are truly dangerous individuals...to make sure [they] are not a threat to us" but calls the Bush policy of long incarcerations with no trials "unsustainable."

As unusual as it is for a president and former vice-president to engage in public argument, at least this one is all in the family, but Obama may want to engage his own genealogist to double-check on the lineage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Price of Congress' Crazy Rage

This has been a bad week for American leadership, and next week could be worse. In trying to calm the country, Barack Obama made one joke too many while lawmakers in Washington spent their time acting out the worst stereotypes of politicians as fools, cowards and knaves.

"Congress," writes New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, "with its howls of rage, its chaotic, episodic reaction to the crisis, and its shameless playing to the crowds, is out of control. This week, the body politic ran off the rails.

"There are times when anger is cathartic. There are other times when anger makes a bad situation worse. 'We need to stop committing economic arson,' Bert Ely, a banking consultant, said to me this week. That is what Congress committed: economic arson."

The scorched earth from that diversion now litters the battlefield of next week's crucial fight over how to clean out toxic assets from the paralyzed banking system. But how can there be a rational discussion of the Administration's plan to partner with private investors after all this madness? How do people in Wall Street now feel about making deals with a government held hostage by lunatic lawmakers?

When Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner unveils his plan, there will be serious doubts, some of which are surfacing beforehand. Paul Krugman predicts:

"In effect, Treasury will be creating--deliberately!--the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn’t, that’s someone else’s problem...

"This plan will produce big gains for banks that didn’t actually need any help; it will, however, do little to reassure the public about banks that are seriously undercapitalized. And...when the plan fails, as it almost surely will, the administration will have shot its bolt: it won’t be able to come back to Congress for a plan that might actually work."

That argument against Geithner's proposal deserves serious discussion. But in the face of a Congress still slavering from its fit of AIG bonus hysteria, with whom?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Stimulus Show-and-Tell Starts

State by state, the Recovery Scoreboard is lighting up with projects to be funded by some of the $787 billion Congress passed last month to get the economy moving again.

Just keeping track of the money, let alone spending it wisely, is going to be a monumental job as governors appoint overseeing groups and, in some cases, "czars" to make sure the money is not fraudulently or stupidly spent.

The Recovery.gov web site is getting almost 4,000 hits a second, according to the chairman of the federal Transparency and Accountability Board, but it's not clear how many of the viewers are concerned citizens or job seekers looking to get to the money tap.

Residents of every state can click on the interactive map and get, along with a self-puffing picture and message from their governor, a breakdown, with varying degrees of detail, on the projects about to get going in their area.

State officials are under pressure to move projects fast and efficiently. As Vice President Joe Biden warned them at a Washington meeting this week:

"Six months from now, if the verdict on this effort is that we've wasted the money, we built things that were unnecessary, or we've done things that are legal but make no sense, then, folks, don't look for any help from the federal government for a long while."

Politics, of course, is part of the picture, as 2012 presidential hopefuls like Govs. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Alaska's Sarah Palin righteously turn down part (but far from all) of the federal funds.

Their conservative grandstanding may go down well in future primaries, but they may have to take some flak meanwhile from their own residents watching them throw the money back at Washington.

Uodate: The New York Times reports: "President Obama issued a directive on Friday requiring lobbyists to make their requests in writing about the projects they believe should be awarded from the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, saying the plan 'will not be an excuse for waste and abuse.'

"In a speech to state lawmakers here, Mr. Obama outlined what he called 'unprecedented restrictions' to increase the transparency on how the government spends money on projects to boost the economy and create jobs. The conversations between federal lobbyists and his administration, he said, would be disclosed on the Internet.

“'Whenever a project comes up for review, we’re going to ask a simple question,' Mr. Obama said. 'Does it advance the core mission of the Recovery Act? Does it jump-start job creation? Does it lay the foundation for lasting prosperity?'”

Bailout Rage: Tale of Two Cities

The epicenters of the national economic crisis are showing a curious journalistic inversion in covering the news. The New York Times, at the heart of the financial industry, seems focused on reporting popular rage as the Washington Post, home of posturing politicians, is making more of a sustained effort to keep the issues in perspective.

This conclusion, admittedly impressionistic but based on close reading of the papers over the past months, is reflected in today's issues.

The Times features "Scorn Trails A.I.G. Executives, Even in Their Driveways" and "Connecticut Senator Draws Voters’ Ire for His Bonus Role," which highlight the blame game, while the Post offers "In New Dilemma, Banks Cite Two Paths to Disaster," a balanced report on the tension inherent in government supervision, and business columnist Steven Pearlstein's "Let's Put Down the Pitchforks":

"At the end of the day, the thing to get outraged about is not the $440 million in bonuses at AIG or the $10 million that Citigroup is spending to redesign its shrunken executive suite...almost insignificant compared with the real outrage: the hundreds of billion dollars of taxpayer funds that have been put at risk to keep AIG and Citi from failing and taking the whole financial system down with them. Let's keep our attention on the elephant rather than the pimples on its behind."

My conclusion, not buttressed by statistics, may be unfair to the Times, but I have seen nothing comparable there to the long takeout last month and a previous three-part series in the Post about the origins and history of the AIG debacle.

As the US Congress spends precious time playing gotcha on a minuscule issue in the nation's crisis, it would be helpful if the newspaper of record devoted more of its attention to what really matters.

Tonight Show and the White House

If you could get through all the commercials NBC larded into his sitdown with Jay Leno, the President managed to make his points about the economic crisis to millions of Americans who probably never watch Meet the Press.

But Jay Leno's approach to the Leader of the Free World recalled a night almost half a century ago when I was an accidental matchmaker for the first White House figure ever to appear on the Tonight Show.

In 1960, after my magazine ran a piece by Eleanor Roosevelt, “My Advice to the Next First Lady,” the producers called me to ask her if she would appear with Jack Paar. To my surprise, she agreed.

On the way to the studio, I asked Mrs. Roosevelt, who had been visibly cool to JFK, what made her decide to take part in a late-night talk show. “I want to help elect Senator Kennedy,” she said.

On the show, she did just that, comparing Kennedy to FDR during his first campaign in 1932, inspiring voters and responding to their enthusiasm, and predicted he would make a fine President. In Kennedy’s hairline victory, her testimonial may well have been significant.

Before she went on, the usually brash Paar greeted her in the Green Room, almost literally bowing and scraping--a sharp contrast to Leno's palsy treatment of his White House guest tonight.

The world is much informal now than it was then and Barack Obama is probably the least stuffy president ever, but Leno could have managed a little more respectful approach than he takes with starlets plugging their new movies.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Accessible Obamas

The First Couple is out in the real world this week, the President sympathizing with people who have lost their jobs in California and scheduled to schmooze with Jay Leno tonight, while the First Lady is hugging DC school kids and encouraging them to dream big.

The Obamas are easily the most accessible people ever to occupy the White House, and an aged skeptic keeps waiting for the inevitable backlash that will brand their attempts to connect with voters as cosmetic and manipulative.

When Lynda Bird Johnson was working for me during the Johnson Administration, a coworker watching her at an office meeting complained, "Who does she think she is, pretending to be just like other people?"

In the era of connectivity, the White House's societal role is being redefined, and the balance between the President as an authority figure and a source of empathy in hard times is being recalibrated.

So far, as the polls show, Obama is holding on to voters' trust without pretending to perfection, as he did yesterday in deflecting blame from his advisers for the AIG bonuses. But real trials are ahead.

If the economy keeps stumbling, the public's need for a stern father figure rather than a smart, good-hearted big brother will be put to the test, and the "I feel your pain" cliché may collide with "Nice guys finish last."

At least that's what the shiftless Republican relatives are counting on.

Bush's Chinese-Menu Memoir

Barack Obama "deserves my silence," he said in a speech this week, but the rest of the public will not be deprived as George W. Bush signs a contract for his selective White House memoirs.

The former President has chosen Richard Nixon as his literary model. His book, with the working title, "Decision Points," echoes Nixon's "Six Crises," but doubles down on the number with twelve.

There is a logic to the format, which avoids the unpleasantness of what happened after the Iraq invasion, just as his predecessor skirted the impeachment, concentrating on the inner agonies of a heroic figure shouldering the burdens of the Oval Office.

Call it a Chinese-menu memoir.

The Decider, we are told, will deal with "personal and presidential choices, from giving up drinking to picking Dick Cheney as his vice president to sending troops to Iraq. He will also write about his relationship with family members, including his father, the first President Bush, his religious faith and his highly criticized response to Hurricane Katrina."

Nixon's "Six Crises" similarly stopped short of Watergate by only covering events until 1960.

At the same time, we learn that Obama signed a deal before his inauguration for an abridged version of "Dreams From My Father" for children. Bush hasn't gotten around to reading the original but may be inspired now that he is embarked on a similar project about his presidency.

Update: Oops--"Six Crises" was published in 1962 before Watergate, but the comparison still holds. Maybe W would like to do some long interviews with David Frost.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bailout Rocky Horror Shows

The 1930s are back today, featuring remakes of the scary movies that entranced Americans during the Great Depression.

With the political landscape looking a mob scene from "Frankenstein," Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post asks, "Could we put down the pitchforks for just a moment and have a reasonable discussion about the bonuses at American International Group?"

At another screen of the nail-biters' multiplex, Maureen Dowd is egging on the villagers by invoking "Dracula": "What President Obama should have said to the blood-sucking bums at A.I.G., many of them foreigners who were working at the louche London unit, was quite simple: 'We stopped the checks. They’re immoral. If you want Americans’ hard-earned cash as a reward for burning up their jobs, homes and savings, sue me.'"

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Barney Frank is directing a remake of "The Invisible Man," demanding that AIG name names so his colleagues won't be flailing at thin air as they chase the bonus takers with Sen. Charles Grassley, who seems to have wandered in from some Japanese slasher flick, demanding that they quit or commit hari kari.

With taxpayers in dire need of distraction from the real world and the President on a trip to the West Coast, ticket sales should be brisk.

A Marshall Plan for AIG

With each passing day, the insurance giant is looking more like Western Europe after World War II--devastated, bankrupt and occupied by the American government.

As Congress conducts its equivalent of war crimes trials for AIG executives to recover a fraction of one percent of bailout money, the larger question for American taxpayers is how to rebuild, salvage and/or sell off the corporation, of which they now own 80 percent.

While there may be gratification in vengefully hounding the defeated, there could be much more long-term profit in enlisting AIG people in undoing the mind-boggling deals that led to the mess.

According to the New York Times Wall Street expert, "A.I.G. employees concocted complex derivatives that then wormed their way through the global financial system. If they leave--the buzz on Wall Street is that some have, and more are ready to--they might simply turn around and trade against A.I.G.’s book. Why not? They know how bad it is. They built it.

"So as unpalatable as it seems, taxpayers need to keep some of these brainiacs in their seats, if only to prevent them from turning against the company. In the end, we may actually be better off if they can figure out how to unwind these tricky investments."

But there is a less cynical way to look at it. Before the crash, AIG was a top-down company, but its Hitlers, Himmlers and Goerings are gone now. The mid-level people, some still there and many who have left, were doing their jobs back then under the rules that existed.

Couldn't they be invaluable to the Treasury in unwinding the deals they helped structure under the equivalent of a post-World War II Marshall Plan for the company that now belongs to taxpayers? Punishment is less the point than rehabilitation.

"Marshall Plan," Wiki tells us, "has become a metaphor for any very large scale government program that is designed to solve a specific social problem. It is usually used when calling for federal spending to correct a perceived failure of the private sector."


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St, Patrick's Day Memories

A repeat of last year's toast to all the Irish eyes that have brightened my life:

After President Kennedy was killed in 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Growing up in the Bronx of the 1930s, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. In our apartment building, there was one Irish family whose men sat on the front steps in summer, drinking beer and joking. As the evening went on, their smiles got wider, their talk louder. They seemed to be breathing some other air. They were as poor as the rest of us, but so full of life.

As a young man in Manhattan of the 1950s, I would go after work to Costello's, a saloon where you could breathe that "other air" with writers, editors and artists, a place John McNulty had made famous in the New Yorker. Pat Moynihan was sometimes there, wearing an outdated straw boater, but no one seemed to think it odd.

Tim Costello was our Irish godfather, keeping us happy but grounded and civil. When Frank McCourt, who later wrote "Angela's Ashes," came over as an 18-year-old immigrant, Tim sent him to the New York Public Library to read Samuel Johnson.

It was Tim's policy to help the poor but never to buy drinks for anyone who could afford to pay for his own. When someone at my bachelor party told me he was coming and bringing a case, I said that, if so, a lawyer would be handling it. Tim came, empty-handed, but his presence was honor enough.

Over the years my life has been entwined with colleagues, friends and relatives by marriage who have leavened my Jewish gloom with Irish wit and cheer, so here's a St. Patrick Day's toast to Tim Costello et al, along with a new generation of Irish-American writers of all political persuasions--Peggy Noonan, Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, Andrew Sullivan, P.J. O'Rourke and more--who are helping keep us sane as George W. Bush breaks our hearts.

Cheers to all.

AIG Lynch Mob

Of all people, Barack Obama is the unlikeliest to be stirring up a lynch mob, but there is no other way to describe his stoking of public anger over the AIG bonuses.

"In the last six months, A.I.G. has received substantial sums from the U.S. Treasury,” Mr. Obama took the podium to say yesterday. “How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” He railed against "recklessness and greed."

Undoing unconscionable bonuses in the company that keeps getting huge taxpayer bailouts is a fair exercise of government power, but demonizing a relative handful of people who were part of a huge systemic failure is out of character for a president who is a peacemaker by instinct and an economic optimist by necessity.

The growing anger is leading to a mob mentality. "A tidal wave of public outrage over bonus payments swamped American International Group yesterday," the Washington Post reports.

"Hired guards stood watch outside the suburban Connecticut offices of AIG Financial Products, the division whose exotic derivatives brought the insurance giant to the brink of collapse last year. Inside, death threats and angry letters flooded e-mail inboxes. Irate callers lit up the phone lines. Senior managers submitted their resignations. Some employees didn't show up at all."

It's disheartening to see Obama leading a pack of tinhorn politicians and media mouths when he should be confirming his stand against unfairness but emphasizing the positive steps he is taking for national recovery, as he did with his announcement yesterday of a "substantial program" to get credit flowing to small businesses.

A New York Times editorial notes that "the bonuses are something of a distraction. Seen by themselves, the payments are huge, but they are less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the money already committed to the A.I.G. bailout."

Billions of the money, we learned Sunday, has gone to American and European banks on the other side of AIG's failed deals.

"Congress must investigate," the editorial urges, "and the new disclosures give them enough to get started. Untangling all the entanglements is not only essential to understanding how the system became so badly broken, but also to restoring faith in the government that it is up to the task of fixing it."

If public anger needs an outlet, that's where it should go.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chiding Cheney

This White House isn't going to be dumbstruck by Republican media attacks. Asked about the former VP's CNN performance yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters today, “I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal.”

Gibbs was responding to Cheney's charge that President Obama is making choices that "raise the risk to the American people of another attack" like 9/11.

Asked whether he wasn't being a little rough on a former Vice President, Gibbs didn't back down.

"I hope," he said, "my sarcasm didn’t mask the seriousness of my answer. For seven-plus years, the very perpetrators that the vice president says he’s concerned about weren’t brought to justice.”

Gibbs may not be as easy on the eyes as Dana Perino, but he's a lot feistier.

Roland Burris in the Round

If I were still teaching journalism, Jeffrey Toobin's profile of Obama's Senate replacement in the New Yorker would be an example of what magazines do best--tell readers what they don't know they want to know until they read it.

In the furor about the blatant Rod Blagojevich, the new senator he appointed has been a stick figure, contradicting himself about pre-appointment contacts and stubbornly refusing calls for his resignation.

Toobin's piece gives him dimension:

"According to the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, a longtime student of Chicago politics, Burris 'was a soldier, part of the machine. He’s not a distinguished politician. He’s not a powerful political thinker.' Of course, this description hardly distinguishes Burris from many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. In his very ordinariness, Burris may represent a triumph of sorts for the civil-rights movement, which was, at least in part, a struggle for black people to be seen as just like everybody else."

In the story of a poor kid from southern Illinois who as a teenager helped integrate a public swimming pool but was no radical reformer to the ambitious pol who couldn't get anywhere until he joined the Daley Machine to the straight-laced attorney general who was apparently willing to let an innocent man die rather stir up a commotion, we get a rounded picture of the man who, as he now goes about his Senate rounds, cheerfully tries to engage his colleagues but for the most part gets averted faces.

"In recent weeks," Toobin concludes, "a consensus seems to be forming that Burris will serve out Obama’s term, but will not run for another in 2010. Burris probably couldn’t win anyway, and he has now attained the goal that appears to mean most to him--adding United States senator to his list of achievements."

Those are on the now-famous mausoleum that has his "firsts" inscribed on granite, a few yards away from the modest marker on the grave of Jesse Owens, who made history in the 1930s as an African-American track star winning four Olympic medals in Hitler's Germany.

Bailout Roulette

Connoisseurs of irony may relish this round trip of millions of taxpayer dollars--from the Federal Reserve to AIG to UBS and back to the US Treasury.

Under pressure from Congress and the public, AIG yesterday released names of financial institutions that benefited from the Federal Reserve’s decision last fall to bail out the giant insurer. Among them was the Swiss Bank UBS, which got $5 billion.

Last month, UBS had to pay $780 million to settle federal charges of helping customers defraud the IRS with offshore accounts. As part of the deal, UBS agreed to cooperate with a summons by the Justice Department to turn over names of account holders under the threat that the bank's executives could be indicted if UBS failed to do so.

So here we have bailout money spinning from the US government to a too-big-to-fail financial giant that blew billions to a crooked Swiss bank that help rich Americans cheat on their taxes and now has to give some of it back in fines for doing so.

Amid all this wheeling and dealing among incompetents and thieves, there is a little extra touch that one of the UBS executives who could be hauled into court is John McCain's campaign economic adviser, former Sen. Phil Gramm, a vice chairman of UBS who recently told Wall Street Journal readers that it wasn't the deregulation he sponsored that started the mortgage meltdown.

The money just keeps going round and round and, as croupiers like to say, where it stops nobody knows.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Vintage Cheney: Sour and Poisonous

Torture, the former Vice President tell us today, is "absolutely essential" to preventing future 9/11s and that "President Obama campaigned against it all across the country, and now he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack."

If Dick Cheney's goal is to make George W. Bush look like a statesman, his CNN interview today is a good start. "Cheap shot" is too mild a description for a former Vice President casually calling a sitting president too naïve to head off terrorist attacks with no chance of ever being held to account for saying it.

But being unaccountable is Cheney's hallmark. As the most secretive Vice President in history, he shrugged off all demands for transparency and now, instead of remaining in his accustomed silence, emerges to defend the alternate reality he helped create for eight years.

In Iraq, Cheney says, "We've accomplished nearly everything we set out to do."

The economy? "Stuff happens, and an administration has to be able to respond to that and we did," he tells John King.

It's unclear whether or not George W. Bush has the least sense of shame over what he did to the country, but it's clear that Dick Cheney doesn't and that he doesn't intend to stop doing it.

Ayn Rand Rises Again

Who's next? Gordon Gekko?

As the economy crumbles, the usual cultural indicators of panic are on the rise--gun sales, survivalist talk and, of course, interest in the last century's loony goddess of selfishness.

"Ayn Rand," the Wall Street Journal reports, "died more than a quarter of a century ago, yet her name appears regularly in discussions of our current economic turmoil. Pundits including Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli urge listeners to read her books, and her magnum opus, 'Atlas Shrugged,' is selling at a faster rate today than at any time during its 51-year history."

The message of that turgid 1200-page opus, that money is the root of all good, has inspired those who need justification for extreme selfishness and for looking down at the rest of humanity as “looters” and “moochers.”

When it was first published, "Atlas Shrugged" was derided by both the right and left, but over the years, a few acolytes like Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul (who named his son Rand) have risen to prominence.

Now that Greenspan has helped devastate the economy, the president of the Rand Institute is proposing that only more of the same will save it:

"Why do we accept the budget-busting costs of a welfare state? Because it implements the moral ideal of self-sacrifice to the needy. Why do so few protest the endless regulatory burdens placed on businessmen? Because businessmen are pursuing their self-interest, which we have been taught is dangerous and immoral...

"The message is always the same: 'Selfishness is evil; sacrifice for the needs of others is good.' But Rand said this message is wrong--selfishness, rather than being evil, is a virtue."

For those who can tolerate such stuff, reading "Atlas Shrugged" is punishment enough. At least Gordon Gekko with his message of "Greed is good" in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" was an entertaining son-of-a-bitch who did not offer himself as an exemplar of a higher morality.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

So Much News, So Little Truth

The hot topic this week has been inside information--in the Stewart-Cramer dustup, the Madoff mess, the Seymour Hersh blurtout about a Bush-Cheney "executive assassination ring." In a 24/7 flood of facts, factoids and fake news, who finds the truth and who tells it?

Barack Obama won the White House with promises of transparency to voters starved for some sense of reality in a world of flimflam and lies that have led to so much social devastation.

Yet truth-telling has traditionally been not the job of politicians but journalists. Half a century ago, as a newly appointed magazine editor, I was baited at a dinner party by the French war bride of a college classmate who was running a tabloid newspaper. "What is it exactly that you do?" she persisted

Since philosophical questions were not on the menu, I answered offhandedly, "Try to tell people the truth."

"Ah," she replied in triumph, "the truth! Camus doesn't know the truth, but you do."

For journalism, the goal has never been cosmic verities but everyday truth. It still is, but the world has become so sophisticated that we now find ourselves in a muddle over what the meaning of "is" is.

Jon Stewart's cri de coeur over "business journalism" reflects the loss of that function to what his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness," entertaining falsehoods, which viewers of CNBC to their regret took for facts and bet their shirts on.

Their mistake was a bookend to that of Bernard Madoff's victims who were eager to become privileged "in the know" insiders and now, according to hard-nosed New York Times business reporter Joe Nocera, are looking for someone else to fault:

"People did abdicate responsibility--and now, rather than face that fact, many of them are blaming the government for not, in effect, saving them from themselves."

Those journalists still obsessed with getting below the surface are likely to get as much abuse as acclaim. Bob Woodward has morphed from the hero of Watergate to what some jealous colleagues unjustly called a lapdog of the powerful to gain access for his remarkable reporting.

And now Hersh's remarks this week are leading not to outrage and further investigation of his charges but to media silence and, of course, Conservative attacks on his character.

Reason exhumes a four-year-old piece entitled "Sy Hersh Says It's Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)," from New York Magazine, not the most objective observer of his prize-winning reporting in the rival New Yorker, which accuses him of nothing worse than sometimes getting ahead of himself in his passion to uncover official deception.

With all this, and millions of bloggers to boot, the flow of inside information is still somehow leaving us, on the important questions, out in the cold.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Madoff, Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart

The Ponzi scheme perpetrator was in a courtroom yesterday, pleading guilty but offering no explanation of his motives or what happened to the money.

Jim Cramer, who misled investors for years on MSNBC, was on the Daily Show, trying to defend himself against Jon Stewart's indictment of financial "news." Cramer, who built a career as the "wild man" truth teller, was as subdued as Madoff but no more successful in escaping guilt for where Wall Street is today.

Jon Stewart's verdict: "disingenuous at best and criminal at worst." One of today's best journalists, Jim Fallows, who considers Stewart, without hyperbole, the Edward R. Murrow of our time, says that he "without excessive showboating, did the journalistic sensibility proud."

Someone who saw Murrow in his prime has to agree.

Afghanistan: Could We, Should We Go?

We have been here before--fighting and occupying countries with ancient hatreds and no history of anything resembling democracy--in Vietnam and Iraq. Lyndon Johnson's pride led to humiliation, George W. Bush's stubbornness to stalemate. Can Barack Obama's rationality save us from more of the same in Afghanistan?

In the New York Times today, as the cheerleaders for the Surge argue for an encore, Leslie Gelb makes the opening argument in the case for "How to Leave Afghanistan." It is an alternative the President should hear and consider.

The voters did not choose John McCain's approach to fighting terrorism, and the Obama Administration has a moral obligation to explore other choices than the policies that bogged us down in Iraq and will keep us there indefinitely, no matter what the timetables say.

"Our strategy in Afghanistan," Gelb argues, "should emphasize what we do best (containing and deterring, and forging coalitions) and downgrade what we do worst (nation-building in open-ended wars). It should cut our growing costs and secure our interests by employing our power more creatively and practically. It must also permit us--and this is critical--to focus more American resources and influence on the far more dire situation in Pakistan."

His proposal is to increase money, arms and training to friendly Afghans as US troops withdraw gradually while trying to buy away less extreme elements of the Taliban from their leadership and Al Qaeda and keeping available the option of air strikes to keep them bought.

Most important, Gelb argues, "Obama must do what the Bush team inexplicably never seemed to succeed in doing--stop the flow of funds to the Taliban that comes mainly through the Arab Gulf states. At the same time, he could let some money trickle in to reward good behavior."

What's important now are not the details of any particular proposal to keep us from putting more and more American lives at risk, but a mindset that will explore other options than those that served us so badly in Vietnam and Iraq and threaten to do it again in Afghanistan.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Traffic" Update

A drug dealer named Shorty joins Warren Buffet and Bill Gates on the Forbes list of the world's richest people as President Obama talks about sending National Guard troops to the Mexican border because "it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens."

We are living in a sequel to Steven Soderbergh's 2000 movie "Traffic" now as the American appetite for controlled substances competes with financial greed to undermine the society. In almost a decade since, the "war on drugs" has gone no better than those in the Middle East.

The President spoke yesterday about a "two-way situation" on the Mexican border: "The drugs are coming north, we're sending funds and guns south. As a consequence, these cartels have gained extraordinary power. Our expectation is to have a comprehensive policy in place in the next few months."

The first step was the appointment as drug czar of a former street cop, Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, who in his acceptance brought out echoes of the Michael Douglas character in "Traffic," saying, "Our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering, and as a police officer but also in my own family, I have experienced the effects that drugs can have on our youth, our families and our communities."

In announcing Kerlikowske's appointment, Vice-President Joe Biden cited the "very, very heavy price tag, both in terms of personal and emotional terms, and in terms of cost to the American taxpayer. Just the health and economic cost alone from drug and alcohol abuse amounts to over $350 billion a year."

Unlike our other 21st century wars, this one starts at home with a Depression-proof demand for the drug cartels' product, and it won't end with sending more troops to prevent them from cashing in on it.

Cheney Death Squads

Unless Seymour Hersh has suddenly lost his senses, the question of White House lawlessness has just taken a turn that even the most paranoid Bush haters may have trouble imagining.

In an appearance at the University of Minnesota last night, the New Yorker reporter talked about "an executive assassination ring" that has "been going into countries... and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us."

Hersh's revelation was prompted by a New York Times story yesterday about a stand-down "ordered by Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the secret commando units."

The JOSC, Hersh said, is "a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense...

"Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.

"Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us."

Until now, President Obama has been discouraging retrospective investigations of Bush lawbreaking by Sen. Patrick Leahy, but Hersh has opened an ugly can of worms that can't be resealed.

Stopping the operation of American death squads, as the Commander-in-Chief has just apparently done, is one thing. But now that news about them has been made public by the most respected investigative reporter of our time, it's unthinkable that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will not be called to answer for possible war crimes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ron Paul's Pure Pork

Even Fox News thinks he's "having his cake and eating it too" by giving constituents more earmark money than any member of Congress, but Ron Paul insists it's all in the name of his libertarian beliefs.

It's "like a tax credit," he explains about the $73 million for his district. "And I vote for all tax credits, no matter how silly they might seem. If I can give you any of your money back, I vote for it. So, if I can give my district any money back, I encourage that.

"But, because the budget is out of control, I haven't voted for an appropriation in years--if ever."

Paul, who insists that John McCain is just "grandstanding" in his opposition to pork, was then asked "who proposes the bridge or the highway or the school? How does that even get in there?"

"I have no idea," says the Congressman who has deeply felt ideas about everything else. "But the most important thing is to have transparency."

Is that clear?

Upcoming: Ultimate Bank Bailout

As piecemeal rescue plans sputter, Washington is moving toward a consensus on a huge public-private partnership to strip banks of bad assets and get them moving again.

Like spoiled children of families facing hard times, financial institutions have whining about their allowances and the chores they have to do to earn them. Some are stamping their feet and returning or refusing to take the money.

In the face of public outrage, the government has been demanding more and more reform--delaying evictions and modifying mortgages for strapped homeowners, letting shareholders vote on executive pay packages, cutting dividends and canceling expensive junkets.

As banks reach out for help but complain about the strings, the outline of a simpler but more drastic approach is taking shape, as Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC, and others have been suggesting in recent days.

The government would partner with private investors to buy troubled assets, in part by providing financing at low cost. Federal officials are debating the amount of the subsidy that would allow investors to pay higher prices, limiting the losses that banks would record but also exposing taxpayers to greater risk.

"You end up with two healthy institutions," Bair contends. "It's not a good bank and a bad bank; it's an aggregator bank with good upside potential because it bought at good discounts and you've got a clean balance sheet over here with an opportunity to raise private capital."

But critics like Paul Krugman will take a lot of convincing. He contends that "by using taxpayer funds to subsidize the prices of toxic waste, the administration would shower benefits on everyone who made the mistake of buying the stuff. Some of those benefits would trickle down to where they’re needed, shoring up the balance sheets of key financial institutions. But most of the benefit would go to people who don’t need or deserve to be rescued."

In any event, when the administration decides on the right formula, perhaps in the next week, the Ultimate Bailout will be unveiled for a global vote of confidence--by investors, politicians, the financial industry and world markets. That tally will tell us much about where the economy is headed and for how long.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Memo to Rahm Emanuel

You've got it all wrong about Rush Limbaugh dictating Republican strategy. Actually it's David Brooks.

In his New York Times column this morning, Brooks writes: "The G.O.P. leaders have adopted a posture that allows the Democrats to make all the proposals while all the Republicans can say is 'no.' They’ve apparently decided that it’s easier to repeat the familiar talking points than actually think through a response to the extraordinary crisis at hand.

"If the Republicans wanted to do the country some good, they’d embrace an entirely different approach.

"First, they’d take the current economic crisis more seriously than the Democrats...Republicans could point out that this crisis is not just an opportunity to do other things. It’s a bloomin’ emergency. Robert Barro of Harvard estimates that there is a 30 percent chance of a depression."

After their weekly strategy meeting this morning, House Republicans sent out their attack puppy Eric Cantor to complain that Obama is not focusing enough on the economy:

"At the end of the day, we are in an economic emergency. Economists are saying that there's a 30 percent likelihood that we're going to be in a depression. My goodness, we do have an emergency, and we oughta say, look, priority No. 1 is to create jobs."

Boehner and his clueless bunch are showing better judgment about where to get their marching orders. Brooks is a big step up from Limbaugh.

Obama's Bay of Pigs?

Today's suicide-bombing of an Iraq peace conference and the American commander's warning that we are "not winning" in Afghanistan are sobering reminders that the Obama troop withdrawal plan did not close the file on US misadventures in the Middle East.

They underscore the final assessment of Thomas Ricks' new book, "The Gamble": "The quiet consensus emerging among many people who have served in Iraq is that we likely will have American soldiers engaged in combat in Iraq until at least 2015--which would put us not at about the midpoint in the conflict...In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

Ricks, whose new book along with "The Fiasco" constitute the definitive reporting on Iraq, concludes, "The surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war...The surge campaign was effective in many ways, but the best grade it can be given is a solid incomplete. It succeeded tactically but fell short strategically."

His indictment of the military commanders who are now advising Obama includes the question by a retired officer. "Why did the American military establishment so fail to come up with a war-winning strategy that it was up to a retired general and a civilian think thank...to do their job? This is a stunning indictment of the American military's top leadership."

Today's Baghdad bombing with a toll of 33, along with an attack that killed 28 on Sunday, according to the New York Times, "suggest a renewed ability by insurgents to mount more effective suicide bombings, after a long period in which such attacks were relatively few and less lethal because of heavy security precautions."

With all the attention on the economy, there are sobering indications that the American Military Establishment may not have changed much since it misled another new American president into the Bay of Pigs almost half a century ago. Like Obama, JFK had the brains but not the experience to understand what he was being drawn into.

Kennedy learned fast. Will Obama?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Lincoln-Douglas for the Brain-Damaged

The next weeks will provide evidence that the economy has not hit rock bottom, although the culture may have, when people in New York, Boston and elsewhere pay $50 or more to watch Bill Maher and Ann Coulter debate issues of the day.

To promote these historic events, part of a series titled "Minds That Move the World," Ms. Coulter deigned to give the "treasonous" New York Times an email interview, invoking Aristotle, Winston Churchill and Lincoln-Douglas as models for the encounter.

Closer to the mark would the old CNN freak show "Crossfire" demolished by Jon Stewart two years ago when he told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala they were partisan hacks who “should be doing debate, which would be great, but you’re doing theater.”

On his weekly HBO show recently, Maher has looked lost without George Bush to riff on while Coulter, who reached a high point of loony invective by naming John Edwards a "faggot" and wishing him dead, is fighting a losing battle against Rush Limbaugh for the attention of the addled.

But give them this much: They are stimulating the economy with spending by people who are not likely to be doing anything better with their money.

Obama's Stress Test

In the absence of an outrage du jour by the Bush Administration, the American Commentariat is now caught up in a more complex, elusive project--analyzing the nation's fall into future shock and Barack Obama's fitness to deal with it.

Is the President on a speeding-up treadmill struggling not to fall behind, as Paul Krugman suggests today?

"The problem with the budget," John Cassidy diagnoses in the New Yorker, "isn’t its size or its underlying philosophy, which is one of pragmatic progressivism. The problem is that unless the deterioration of the economy stops, the Administration’s ambitious multiyear plans could end up being purely symbolic...

"With some economists talking openly about a 'depression,' the Administration needs to start rethinking elements of its recovery program, and the President himself needs to get more involved."

In the New York Review of Books, long-time Washington watcher Elizabeth Drew observes that "the still-new President has a staggering number of challenges before him...Yet the President was traveling for most of his third and fourth full weeks in office. A little more management may be in order" and adds that "the President's aides had concluded that it hadn't been helpful for Obama to be seen participating in the give-and-take of Washington, that 'that's not what he was elected to do.' Yes it is."

All this polite, nervous yet serious criticism of a president they were prepared to cheer on reflects the disappearance for opinion makers of the black-and-white days of Bush and the new era of huge gray issues such as economic stimulus, bank bailouts and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for Detroit.

MSM pundits and bloggers alike are struggling to adapt as Markos tells CNN that "our challenge is that line from destructive criticism to constructive criticism, because there is going to be criticism. The issue is how we manage that and it's a fine line and it's very tough sometimes."

Meanwhile, Barrack Obama is beginning to show a little gray in his hair as the rest of us watch and hope and hold our breaths.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Our Town, Their Century

Frank Rich, drawing on his roots as a theater critic, goes back today to the perennially American "Our Town" to remind us of what has been lost in our national life since it emerged in another Depression seven decades ago.

"Once again," he writes of the play's continuing revivals, "its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away 'layers and layers of nonsense' so Americans can remember who we are-- and how lost we got in the boom before our bust."

This week Bernard Madoff will step out on the stage to explain how he created the nonsense that took away billions from his fellow citizens, including the Holocaust humanitarian, Elie Wiesel, who now says, "We gave him everything. We thought he was God."

In the background is a crowd scene of lesser crooks--"Sir" Allen Stanford of the Bahamas, who hustled greedy innocents and built himself a castle, complete with moat; Paul Greenwood and Stephen Walsh, "money managers whose alleged $667 million fraud looted the endowments at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon"; and the Noel family of Fairfield County, Connecticut, who "took in at least $500 million in fees (since 2003 alone) for delivering sheep to the Madoff slaughterhouse" and posed for Town and Country in their numerous homes.

Since colonial days, there have always been con men and swindlers among the American dreamers striving for success in the world's most open society, but as Rich reminds us, we have come a long way from the kind of people in "Our Town, whose narrator could say at the town cemetery:

“New Hampshire boys had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends--the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”

In this century, small town boys are still doing that in distant parts of the world but those of us they are leaving behind had damned well better clean up the Union they are dying about.