Thursday, April 30, 2009

Elizabeth Edwards Has the Last Word

History closed the books on John Edwards' tawdry career a year ago, but his long-suffering wife is adding a footnote to the story of the negligence lawyer who served one term in the Senate, spent more time than that running for president as a champion of the poor while raking in money from a hedge fund and was eventually unmasked as a cheating husband by a tabloid newspaper.

In a forthcoming book titled "Resilience," Elizabeth Edwards now discloses she knew of her husband's infidelity a year before it became public, soon after he announced his candidacy.

"I cried and screamed, I went to the bathroom and threw up," she writes, according to the New York Daily News' report on an advance copy.

"Long-suffering" is inadequate to describe a woman who, after own successful career as a lawyer, lost her 16-year-old son in a car crash and was diagnosed with cancer that went into remission only to return as she supported her unfaithful husband's second bid for the presidency.

Even now, with this new book, Elizabeth Edwards chooses once again to forfeit her privacy and, while expressing her anger, hold on to a stand-by-your-man outlook.

"I lie in bed," she writes, "circles under my eyes, my sparse hair sticking in too many directions, and he looks at me as if I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. It matters."

It's hard not to feel for her pain and admire her spirit while wishing she had had better luck in love and life.

Can Obama Be Accidental?

On the evidence of his press conference, our president of 100 days seems so right for this critical time that it tempts a secular humanist to suspect Barack Obama came to power, not just by the natural selection of a brutal political campaign, but some more mysterious process of intelligent design.

How else to explain the qualities of mind and heart, and the eloquence to express them, that arrived in the White House just in time to deal with what he rightly calls "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression" and a world filled with natural and man-made dangers from pandemics to nuclear weapons in the hands of extremists?

He answered questions on all these and more last night with a command of the issues and his own brand of idealistic pragmatism, tempered with the kind of humility unseen in past presidents who had much more reason to be self-effacing.

In answer to a question on that subject, Obama said he was "humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful but...just part of a much broader tapestry of American life...I can't just press a button and suddenly have the bankers do exactly what I want or, you know, turn on a switch and suddenly, you know, Congress falls in line...

"This metaphor has been used before, but the ship of state is an ocean liner. It's not a speedboat. And so the way we are constantly thinking about this issue, of how to bring about the changes that the American people need, is to say, if we can move this big battleship a few degrees in a different direction, you may not see all the consequences of that change a week from now or three months from now, but 10 years from now or 20 years from now, our kids will be able to look back and say, 'That was when we started getting serious about clean energy. That's when health care started to become more efficient and affordable. That's when we became serious about raising our standards in education.'"

Ten or twenty years from now, that generation of Americans may also look back and wonder if their parents and grandparents were smart or just lucky in picking a president to attempt all that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Banality of Torture

Like other true Bush believers, the lawyer responsible for the torture memos turns out to be a hair-splitting pursuer of the abstract rather than an impassioned advocate.

Judge Jay S. Bybee says his work as head of the White House Office of Legal Counsel was merely “a good-faith analysis of the law” and that the "central question for lawyers was a narrow one."

We are in Eichmann territory here, the bland leading the morally blind, the self-deprecating functionaries just doing their narrow jobs while following orders that lead to horrors.

Now a friend of Bybee's, anonymous of course, says "I've heard him express regret that the memo was misused. I've heard him express regret at the lack of context--of the enormous pressure and the enormous time pressure that he was under."

Bybee, however, managed to overcome his qualms and keep serving the Bush Administration until he was nominated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he is still analyzing the law and rendering judgements.

At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the technician who ran the concentration camps, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil," to describe how the Nazi hierarchy depended on ordinary, ambitious but morally obtuse people like him to implement their inhuman goals.

A fellow judge of Bybee's now says in a statement: “He is a moderate conservative, very bright and always attentive to the record and the applicable law. I have not talked to other judges about his memo on torture, but to me it seems completely out of character and inexplicable that he would have signed such a document.”

No, it isn't.

Steaming Ahead in Slow-Mo

The news today will be about Barack Obama's whirlwind energy steering the Ship of State for the first 100 days, but below the water line, the crew is still seriously undermanned.

The Cabinet was finally filled yesterday as the President swore in Kathleen Sebelius amid a swine flu scare and an impending Congressional battle over health care reform but, in true Washington tradition, the New York Times reports, "no cabinet department right now has even a third of its top appointees in place."

Secretary Sebelius will start work with no confirmed helpers and, as Treasury struggles with its massive effort to save the financial system, only nine percent of top officials have been approved by the Senate.

This glacial pace matches that of previous administrations, indicating that, for all of Obama's sense of urgency, "politics as usual" goes on in the bowels of the Washington behemoth.

The Wall Street Journal, for one, won't be complaining. "It is once again the liberal hour in American politics," an editorial declares, "and the media and political classes now see energy in the executive as a national asset...

"Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, and sooner or later the twain shall meet. For now, we are living in another era of unchecked liberal government. The reckoning will come when Americans discover how much it costs."

The rest of us may be worrying more about getting that "unchecked liberal government" up and running before any more free-enterprise icebergs show up on the horizon.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shrinking the GOP

The Arlen Specter party switch today is the latest sign of an eight-year process--the shriveling of the Republican Party to a one-size-fits-all collection of conservatives that started in 2001 with Sen. Jim Jeffords leaving and even John McCain flirting with the idea after being splattered by the Rove smear machine in the primaries a year earlier.

Party Chair Michael Steele affirmed the meanness that motivated Specter today by commenting that he “didn’t leave the G.O.P. based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Senator Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don’t do it first.”

Nicely said. Translated, Steele is confirming that Specter's role in crafting a compromise to pass Obama's stimulus bill disqualifies him from the bitter-end party-of-no that is now the Republican brand.

This politically suicidal process cries out for psychiatric intervention, shrinks to stop the GOP from shrinking itself down to Rush Limbaugh and a few office-holding lookalikes.

Michelle Obama's First 100 Days

She is something new in the White House. Take it from someone who has met and known First Ladies over five decades, from Mamie Eisenhower on.

Michelle Obama is the first product of a women's movement sensibility, if not its ethos. Like her husband, she is not rooted in how things were before the 1960s, and her amazing popularity reflects that change.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, she has not pushed openly into policy but, unlike Laura Bush, she has not stayed in the shadows as the traditional supportive but invisible wife.

"First Lady in Control of Building Her Image" headlines the New York Times, noting, "The image that Mrs. Obama is projecting, however, fails to fully reflect the multifaceted first lady. A Harvard-trained lawyer and former hospital vice president, she is also a tough-minded professional who cares deeply about influencing public policy and sometimes promotes legislation at her events. Her top aides, for example, are often immersed in policy discussions in the West Wing that are not publicized by the White House."

What this misses is that Michelle Obama is the first woman secure enough to present herself as a full-time wife and mother, as a partner who has temporarily put aside her professional self, at first to help her husband campaign and now govern the country.

The public is responding to this authenticity underlying her promotion of gardening, child-rearing and other domestic concerns, sensing how far she has gone beyond First Ladies who traditionally exercised power through pillow talk.

Unlike the Clintons who touted a two-for-one presidency, the Obamas are offering a couple working together under a 21st century definition of gender equality, taking different roles in apparent comfort with them and each other.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama, Drudge and Swine Flu

As the Drudge Report hyperventilates with 18 headline links about swine flu, President Obama tells Americans the outbreak is "not a cause for alarm" and cites the current scare as an example of why investing in research is vital.

“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before,” the President said today in a speech at the National Academy of Sciences. “If there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it is today.”

The contrast is more than a textbook example of sensationalism vs. responsibility but a reflection of something more basic in the current American mindset.

Drudge, who is always excited about earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, thrives on stirring up primal emotions without regard to consequences, chalking up millions of web hits daily with irresistible appeals to fear, anger and other primal emotions.

In a 24/7 world of information overload, that's a formula for grabbing eyeballs which used to be the province of tabloid newspapers, now dying off like dinosaurs who just couldn't move fast enough as their environment evolved.

But the swine flu scare is also as good a time as any to emphasize the difference between news and infotainment.

We can get a daily rush from Drudge, but it's important to have Obama in the White House reminding us that "our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community" and setting a goal to "exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science."

If Drudge links to that, it will probably be headed SWINE FLU SPACE RACE.

Wall Street's Welfare Queens

As the furor over AIG bonuses fades, Paul Krugman today points to a real outrage: "pay at investment banks, after dipping last year, is soaring again--right back up to 2007 levels."

Such a symbol for unquenchable Wall Street greed may serve a political turning point just as did Ronald Reagan's Welfare Queen who drove a Cadillac three decades ago--with a number of added ironies.

Unlike the Great Communicator's character who was never found to exist, today's investment bankers are all too real and, in the 21st century, are ripping off taxpayers on a scale never imagined in Reagan's wildest dreams. The Welfare Queen's $150,000 has morphed into billions.

As Krugman observes, "Wall Street is no longer, in any real sense, part of the private sector. It’s a ward of the state, every bit as dependent on government aid as recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a k a 'welfare.'"

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the level of Wall Street compensation has always been disproportionate to achievement but turned astronomic only in recent years, as Krugman notes, as "a reward for their creativity--for financial, improved ways to blow bubbles, evade regulations and implement de facto Ponzi schemes."

But the reemergence of such greed may eventually prove to be as powerful a symbol for a new populism as Reagan's Welfare Queen was for the rise of conservatism in the 1980's.

Almost 70 years ago, Fred Schwed in his Wall Street classic "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" noted: "The burnt customer certainly prefers to believe that he has been robbed rather than that he has been a fool on the advice of fools."

That feeling seems to be stirring again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Obama's Bad 100 Days

As good newspapers die across the country, Rupert Murdoch is keeping alive one of the worst, the New York Post, to publish such gems as this weekend's "100 Days, 100 Mistakes" of "Obama's short, error-prone time in office."

Using such unimpeachable sources as Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Murdoch's own Sky News, the President is accused, among other acts of malfeasance, of overusing the teleprompter, sending his daughters to a private school, not adopting a dog from an animal shelter and having Rahm Emanuel criticize Rush Limbaugh.

No. 100 is telling a Democratic congressman who voted against the stimulus bill, "Don't think we're not keeping score, brother."

Murdoch apparently is, too, and journalism buffs are breathlessly awaiting the lists of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Aborting Health-Care Reform

As the legislative battle begins to get medical attention for millions, Senate Republicans are stalling Kathleen Sebelius' confirmation to lead the Obama reform agenda as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Barren of ideas, they are in a late-term effort to win the hearts of right-to-lifers by making an issue out of campaign contributions to Gov. Sebelius by a doctor who heads an abortion clinic.

Michael Steele, the GOP chair, has emerged from his Rush Limbaugh fiasco to harrumph: "Significant questions remain about Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ evolving relationship with a late-term abortion doctor as well as about her position on the practice of late-term abortions. The Senate should not vote, nor should Gov. Sebelius be confirmed, until these questions are answered fully and completely."

The problem is that, during the Senate hearings, there were few questions on the subject and, if any remain, the Governor answered them this week by vetoing a Kansas bill to restrict late-term abortions, saying, "The provisions in this bill that would allow for the criminal prosecution of a physician intending to comply with the law will lead to the intimidation of health care providers and reduce access to comprehensive health care for women, even when it is necessary to preserve their lives and health.

"While I agree that we should try to reduce the number of abortions, it cannot be at the increased risk to the life or health of women."

Clear enough? Majority Leader Harry Reid let his spokesman nail Steele: “This is nothing more than a baseless attack from someone desperate to stake a claim as the leader of the leaderless Republicans and get right with the right-wing of his party.”

And a misbegotten one at that.

Obama's Munich Moment

Pakistan is looking like Cuba in the 1950s and Iran in the '70s as armed zealots start to take over a country without the will to resist.

Accusing Pakistani leaders of "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sounded the alarm yesterday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

"We cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state."

As Congress debates $7.5 billion in new aid and an "extremely concerned" White House awaits a scheduled visit early next month by the Pakistani president, the growing threat of an extremist takeover of a nuclear-armed nation rises to the top of America's foreign policy agenda.

"The Pakistani government is fiddling as the Northwest Frontier Province burns," warns a statement from Amnesty International, noting that hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are "now at the mercy of abusive and repressive Taliban groups."

The Obama Administration is facing a Munich-like moment in the Middle East, and it will be a true test for a new president who has been accused of overestimating conciliation and lacking toughness in dealing with allies and adversaries.

This one, unlike George W. Bush's pre-invasion rhetoric about Iraq, does involve the real possibility of mushroom clouds.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Torturing Ourselves

The continuing national debate is getting more and more self-righteous as Americans look for absolutes in a world of moral murk.

Dick Cheney emerges from his psychic cave to insist that torture works, but he has no standing after eight years of secrecy and ruthlessness. Barack Obama tells us we are not the kind of people who torture on principle but refuses to punish those who did while believing they had a legal right to do so.

Now we are rooting through the moral wreckage for evidence of whether or not vile treatment of human beings can sometimes serve a greater good. Are those who insist that it never can and insist on punishing anyone who disagrees any less rigid than Cheney?

At 19, I was given a rifle and ordered to kill for my country against all my beliefs and three years later saw an American president command the only use of nuclear weapons in history to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children to save lives like mine in what would have been a bloody invasion of Japan.

Those experiences left me with a lifelong aversion to sanctimony on questions where life and death are involved. Even if the Cheney-minded can show that torture may sometimes produce useful information, does that justify its use as a policy? Even if those who disagree can refute those claims, does it justify their moral certitude?

The dangers of living in a world where rectitude is a zero-sum game (If I'm right, you must be wrong) are the greater threat to our humanity than the issue of torture as an abstraction in a world where, while recognizing ambiguity and ambivalence, nonetheless taking a moral stand is our best hope for surviving as the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Getting Down to Earth Day

Barack Obama escapes the White House again. turning up today at an Iowa wind-turbine plant to tout his energy and climate-change plans while Administration members fan out to announce other initiatives and even the Coast Guard twitters about ways of saving the environment.

A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email from Al Gore, who invented the environment, underscores the import of Earth Day:

"I can tell you that President Obama has signaled in the strongest possible terms that he intends to take bold steps and harness innovative resources to solve the climate crisis. Not only that, but Speaker Pelosi has said she will personally shepherd climate legislation through."

Lisa Jackson, new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says her agency "is back on the job. And that's not meant to say that the employees who were here all along haven't been working hard, but a lot of that work wasn't allowed to come forth for the American people."

Not all is sweetness and light, however, as environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blasts the President and other politicians as "indentured servants" to the coal industry. "Clean coal is a dirty lie," he says.

Meanwhile. Republicans are in a brown study about how to get into the green act, although House Leader John Boehner made a start Sunday, declaring that worries about carbon dioxide are "almost comical" since human exhalations and cow emissions produce so much of it.

In any case, we can all go out and plant something. Happy Earth Day.

The Abbott and Costello of Presidents

Life after the White House is always problematic for former occupants. Jimmy Carter devoted himself to hammering up houses for poor people and monitoring elections in faraway places, Reagan retreated into Alzheimer's and Bush 41 started parachuting out of airplanes, but none ever put together a vaudeville act as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are doing.

The two will appear together at the Metro Toronto Convention Center on May 29th to, as a flier for the event promises, “discuss the challenges facing the world in the 21st century” for 90 minutes that will include audience questions.

How much they are being paid, why they are previewing their routine in Canada and what on earth possessed them to do it in the first place, the flier sayeth not.

For two men who presided during the impeachment of one for lying about sex in the Oval Office and the other for lying the country into an unnecessary war, it might be more seemly to leave 21st century challenges to Barack Obama and go off together and build houses or jump out of planes holding hands, if they crave joint activities.

But the lure of show biz is apparently irresistible. Who's on first, Bill? I don't know, George. No, he's on third...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stealing Republican Thunder

"Obama is positioning the Democrats as the party of order, responsibility and small-town values," David Brooks writes in the New York Times today. "If he pulls this mantle away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics."

Where the conservative Brooks sees theft, the less ideological may find an expectable reaction to eight years of Bush lawlessness and loony laissez-faire. There is an indication of this in new Gallup figures on the relative mistrust of business and government

Historically, Americans have always been more wary of those who want political power than money. In handing out control of the then-limited capacity of radio and later television, for example, they set severe limits on the sales of ideas but practically none on peddling everything else.

That traditional mistrust of government power, Gallup reports, "expanded greatly in the 1990s--reaching a high of 65% in 1999 and 2000."

But Bush changed that: "In 2002, after the wave of accounting scandals at companies like Enron and WorldCom, opinions shifted, and the percentage mentioning big business as the greatest threat peaked at 38%, while concern about big government dipped below the majority level for the first time since 1981," then returned to normal "until the recent financial crisis caused more to fear the power of big business."

Now Americans, to Brooks' consternation, are putting their faith in big government to clean up the mess.

"Obama understands," he writes, "that this is primarily an authority crisis. A system Americans have trusted--the market--has failed in important ways. He has found a theme and bids to reassert authority. But he will seem like an impostor and a manipulator if he imposes responsibility on everybody but himself."

His worry is understandable, but there is no alternative to taking that risk. Obama is now the only game in town, and all the chips are on the table.

As John Bogle, a champion of capitalism who founded the Vanguard Funds, puts it in the Wall Street Journal:

"(S)elf-interest got out of hand. It created a bottom-line society in which success is measured in monetary terms. Dollars became the coin of the new realm. Unchecked market forces overwhelmed traditional standards of professional conduct, developed over centuries."

It will take a lot of brains and guts to get through what Bogle describes as "a crisis of ethic proportions," and most Americans will not be fussy about whether they are Democratic or Republican.

Unbundling Health-Care Derivatives

With a goal of passing legislation by June, Congress is getting serious about health care reform, and advocates of change are more nervous about their allies than about lobbyists defending the current failed system.

"More than 70 House Democrats," the Washington Post reports, "recently warned party leaders that they will not support a broad health reform bill that does not offer consumers a government-sponsored policy, and two unions withdrew from a high-profile health coalition because it would not endorse a public plan."

Their action was prompted by suggestions that the Obama Administration may be willing to compromise on that aspect of providing universal coverage.

The health-care crisis, like the home-mortgage meltdown, has no simple solution but there are similarities in their origins--the greedy intervention of third parties to profit from what used to be transactions between buyers and sellers.

Like the derivatives that wrecked the housing market, profit-seeking insurers have created a convoluted system that siphons off one out of every three health-care dollars for themselves, giving Americans less care for more money than any place else in the developed world.

In reform legislation, it's crucial to include what has been called a Medicare-for-All option that would give consumers a chance to buy care directly and pressure private insurers to improve what they offer.

Without such a choice, health-care "reform" could turn out to be like Wall Street bailouts that shovel money to Citibank, Bank of America and AIG and leave all the decisions about spending it to their discretion.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bank Bailout Mission Creep

With less lending now by TARP recipients since getting taxpayer money, the Obama economic team is letting it be known that a slow-motion takeover of banks is in the works.

"In a significant shift," the New York Times reports, "White House and Treasury Department officials now say they can stretch what is left of the $700 billion financial bailout fund further than they had expected a few months ago, simply by converting the government’s existing loans to the nation’s 19 biggest banks into common stock.

"Converting those loans to common shares would turn the federal aid into available capital for a bank--and give the government a large ownership stake in return."

Such temporary, partial nationalization is what some critics have been calling for since the credit crisis started last fall and, now that results of the stress tests, still undisclosed, apparently reveal little improvement in a shaky situation, the Administration is sending up trial balloons for doing just that under the cover of euphemisms.

Doing so by converting to equity positions with representation on bank boards would avoid use of the dreaded N word and steer clear of having to obtain Congressional approval.

As some of the largest banks announce profits and vow to return bailout money, they seem to be playing high-stakes Chicken with the President's economic advisers to encourage the stock markets and investors, but if and when the government takes seats on their boards, the game will become real and messy.

Everyone involved should be hoping that, before that happens, the free markets miraculously recover and start working again.

Twaddle About Obama's Toughness

Lyndon Johnson's appraisal of Richard Nixon comes to mind in the growing debate about President Obama's toughness or lack thereof.

"Not much here," said LBJ, pointing at his head. "Even less here," touching his heart, then lowering a hand to below his belt: "But enough down there."

Now there is clucking on both the Right and Left about how much Obama has "down there."

"In some of his earliest skirmishes," the New York Times worries, "Mr. Obama eventually chose pragmatism over fisticuffs" and quotes a former Clinton official: “The thing we still don’t know about him is what he is willing to fight for. The thing I worry about is that he likes giving good speeches, he likes the adulation and he likes to make people happy. It’s hard to think of a place where he’s taken a really hard position.”

Say what? Ramming through a stimulus bill and budget that could make or break his presidency? Pushing auto makers to the brink of bankruptcy if they fail to shape up? Ordering use of force to rescue an American captain in the Indian Ocean (too much, by Rush Limbaugh's lights)? Making public the torture memos (risky, says Bush's CIA chief as those on the Left complain about his refusal to prosecute former agents)?

The critics are confusing bluster with toughness. Republican Sen. John Ensign huffs, "I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez" this weekend, but Obama shrugs off such posturing as politics that makes "no sense."

During the campaign, Maureen Dowd had asked Obama, "Do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little. That’s how they judge how you’d be with Putin.”

“When I get into a tussle,” he answered, “I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured. If someone wants to get in an argument with me, let’s argue about how we’re going to fix the health care system or where we need to go on Iraq.”

Critics of all persuasions will have to learn to live with the style of a President who doesn't puff himself up as the Decider but actually goes about the hard work of making decisions by consensus if he can but unilaterally when he must.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Temptation of Sarah Palin

She has become a stereotypical figure--loved or reviled, depending on the beholder's politics--but the other day, for a brief moment, Sarah Palin let herself be seen as a human being with complicated emotions.

The Alaska governor made news by telling a right-to-life meeting that, after learning of abnormalities in the child she was bearing last year, she had for "a fleeting moment" considered abortion.

Palin was emphasizing that she had decided to have the baby, but her description of the inner turmoil in making up her mind had none of the usual pit-bull-with-lipstick comedy of her public persona.

The results of the amniocentesis, she said, "blew me away, rocked my world" and helped her understand "the complexities of what a woman goes through."

Palin went on to explain that no one, not even her husband knew ("I was out-state, nobody knows") and it would have been "easy to make it all go away, take care of it."

The disclosure of such feelings answers a pathologist's question of why, given her convictions, Palin would have undergone amniocentesis, in which "more normal fetuses would be aborted by the procedure than would abnormal ones be detected."

Clearly, as a 44-year-old career woman with four children, Palin was worried about the pregnancy--as most people in her position would be--and it is touching to hear her describe the inner turmoil over it in human terms, even if only to make a political point.

By the end of this excursion into reality, the governor was back to her usual breeziness, telling the audience she had thought, "I was old. Very funny, God. My name is Sarah, but my husband is not Abraham."

But it was nice to see, if only for "a fleeting moment," a real person behind the improbable public figure.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

CIA Health Care

The lawyers wrote the torture memos, but the medical profession was there to implement them.

According to the Washington Post, "documents show a steady stream of psychologists, physicians and other health officials who both kept detainees alive and actively participated in designing the interrogation program and monitoring its implementation...

"Most of the psychologists were contract employees of the CIA, according to intelligence officials familiar with the program."

The Bush Administration was apparently as active in corrupting doctors as lawyers in violating AMA policies that physicians "must not be present when torture is used or threatened" and may treat detainees only "if doing so is in their best interest" and not just to monitor their health "so that torture can begin or continue."

The Bush version of the Hippocratic Oath apparently interpreted health care as keeping patients alive and well enough to endure continuing abuse, an ethical position that would not have offended Dr. Josef Mengele of Nazi concentration camp fame.

With the economy taking up so much attention, it has been easy to forget just how bad the past eight years of lawlessness have been.

"The health professionals involved in the CIA program broke the law and shame the bedrock ethical traditions of medicine and psychology," says the chief executive of Physicians for Human Rights, an international advocacy group of physicians against torture. "All psychologists and physicians found to be involved in the torture of detainees must lose their license and never be allowed to practice again."

The next time you visit your family doctor, you may want to check his resume for a stint of government service in the past decade.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Authenticity Chic

Trend watchers are celebrating what Peggy Noonan describes as the end of "bland affluence" in the economic downturn, the forced return to good old-fashioned down-home American values.

"The cities and suburbs of America are about to get rougher-looking," she writes. "This will not be all bad. There will be a certain authenticity chic. Storefronts, pristine buildings—all will spend less on upkeep, and gleam less.

"So will humans. People will be allowed to grow old again...There will be fewer facelifts and browlifts, less Botox, less dyed hair among both men and women. They will look more like people used to look, before perfection came in. Middle-aged bodies will be thicker and softer, with more maternal and paternal give. There will be fewer gyms and fewer trainers, but more walking."

As an octogenarian, I've heard this song before--more than once. In the 1960s, many retreated from city life and spent up to four hours a day commuting to the country where they could chop wood, grow vegetables and rear children with small-town values.

In the following decades, as a magazine editor, I saw the rising popularity of periodicals like Country Living, Real Simple, Vermont Life et al.

Below the radar of Baby Boomer striving, there has always been a strain of longing for a better life, for authenticity--not the chic of dressing up in it.

As a lifelong walker who has never had a personal trainer or spent time in a gym, I can reassure the newly poor that they won't be giving up much.

"The new home fashion will be spare," Noonan predicts. "This will be the return of an old WASP style: the good, frayed carpet; dogs that look like dogs and not a hairdo in a teacup, as miniature dogs back from the canine boutique do now."

Man (and Woman) need not live by Botox alone.

Painful Debate About Torture

In releasing the Bush memos, Barack Obama reaffirms that responsibility starts at the top by stopping practices that "undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer," absolving the practitioners who believed what they were doing was legal and making public the twisted thinking that sanctioned them.

But critics like Professor David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center want more: "We must formally acknowledge that what was done was wrong, indeed criminal. At the very least, a credible independent investigation must be undertaken."

There is a good case to be made that American morality on torture should not depend on who is in the White House, but the argument collides with the realities that a President faces, that "in a dangerous world, the United States must sometimes carry out intelligence operations and protect information that is classified for purposes of national security," as Obama put it in his statement.

His administration will not press criminal charges against CIA operatives who interrogated terrorism suspects during the Bush era. "It would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department," Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. says.

That position won't satisfy those who find a parallel with Nazis who were "only following orders" during the Holocaust, but 9/11 put Americans in a position where moral purity, or even the appearance of it, may be an impossible dream.

Meanwhile, the President has taken a step in the right direction by letting us see in detail just what was being done in our name and saying clearly that, on his watch, nothing like it will be done again.

After eight years of secrecy and lies by leaders who showed no doubts about their rectitude while abusing human beings, that's no small accomplishment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Limbaugh and Lee Harvey Oswald's Mother

"President Obama Ordered the Killing of Three Black Muslim Kids" is his own headline for this week's Rush Limbaugh rant about the weekend rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Indian Ocean pirates:

"You know what we have learned about the Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers that were wiped out at the order of Barack Obama, you know what we learned about them? They were teenagers. The Somali pirates, the merchant marine organizers who took a US merchant captain hostage for five days were inexperienced youths, the defense secretary, Roberts Gates, said yesterday, adding that the hijackers were between 17 and 19 years old. Now, just imagine the hue and cry had a Republican president ordered the shooting of black teenagers on the high seas."

Trying to imagine is hard, but the boggled mind eventually finds a precedent for Limbaugh's brand of logic in the reaction of Lee Harvey Oswald's mother when she was called to testify before the Warren Commission about her son's assassination of JFK.

Mrs. Oswald was miffed, she told reporters, about not being invited to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson, the new First Lady. "After all," she explained, "my son was killed in the same incident in which her husband became president."

For my editorial sins, I later had to have several phone conversations with Mrs. Oswald, and her shaky cause-and-effect connections became even clearer as she pursued her celebrity career as "a mother in history," eventually capped by calling JFK's death a "mercy killing" because he was suffering from Parkinson's Disease.

As he expands his own role in our era, Limbaugh is in as much danger as Mrs. Oswald of losing sight of reality before launching into grandiose analogies.

"They were kids," he said this week. "The story is out, I don't know if it's true or not, but apparently the hijackers, these kids, the merchant marine organizers, Muslim kids, were upset, they wanted to just give the captain back and head home because they were running out of food, they were running out of fuel, they were surrounded by all these US Navy ships, big ships, and they just wanted out of there. That's the story, but then when one of them put a gun to the back of the captain, Mr. Phillips, then bam, bam, bam. There you have it, and three teenagers shot on the high seas at the order of President Obama."

Somewhere in loony heaven, Marguerite Oswald must be nodding in agreement.

Banks/Treasury Mating Dance

Wall Street and Washington are not known for subtleties, but bailout discourse is getting to be like the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel with coy hints, convoluted language and hidden meanings in every line.

In "a delicate balancing act," we are told, "The administration has decided to reveal some sensitive details of the stress tests now being completed" to offset rumors about some of the weakest institutions.

This breach of etiquette is prompted by recent declarations of some impoverished but proud banks that they are actually making money again and will pay back or decline future government charity.

Translation: Banks want the money but only without being told how to pay not only top executives but, as one returner of bailout cash puts it, "our best sales people, our best relationship bankers."

If Obama is Mr. Darcy in all this folderol, Goldman Sachs is turning out to be his Elizabeth Bennet, pridefully announcing plans to disdain further help: “We just think that operating our business without the government capital would be an easier thing to do. We’d be under less scrutiny, and under less pressure."

But Goldman's newfound haughtiness can't cover the fact that it has been kept afloat by billions of never-to-be-returned Federal Reserve money paying off AIG obligations at face value rather than deep discounts, as the Wall Street Journal observes:

"The point is that Goldman and other banks can't have it both ways. If they want taxpayers to save them, then they have to take fewer risks and become smaller. Either that, or we need a new financial resolution or bankruptcy process that lets these companies fail while protecting the larger banking system."

Meanwhile, the plots keep thickening and, unlike Jane Austen's works, are not guaranteed to have happy endings.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Unsung American Hero

As the nation takes pride in Capt. Richard Phillips, who offered himself up to save his crew in the Indian Ocean, and Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the last to leave his ditched airliner in a Manhattan River, add another name to the list of American leaders under pressure.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who holds John Edwards' North Carolina seat, has told an audience how he responded to the financial crisis last fall.

“On Friday night, I called my wife and I said, ‘Brooke, I am not coming home this weekend. I will call you on Monday. Tonight, I want you to go to the ATM machine, and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take,'" Burr said, according to the Hendersonville Times-News. "'And I want you to tomorrow, and I want you to go Sunday.’ I was convinced on Friday night that if you put a plastic card in an ATM machine the last thing you were going to get was cash.”

Sen. Burr now predicts the economy will recover but very slowly and not in the economists' classic V or W graph. "I think we are in a Nike swoosh,” he told constituents.

Burr claims to be a 12th cousin of Thomas Jefferson's Vice-President Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel after Hamilton called his conduct "despicable," but they didn't have ATM machines or running shoes in those days.

Wag-the-Dog Tea Parties

As Fox News, the Wall Street Journal et al are heavy-breathing about Tea Party protests on Tax Day, Gallup discloses that Americans' "Views of Income Taxes Among Most Positive Since 1956."

But reality is no more a deterrent for Rupert Murdoch than it was for William Randolph Hearst when he was stirring up the Spanish-American War in 1898 with a drumbeat of scare headlines. To a message from artist Frederick Remington reporting "There is no war," Hearst famously replied, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." And he did.

In a 24/7 news world, however, Murdoch's efforts seem less like Hearst's than those of the mental case who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt in "Arsenic and Old Lace," blowing a bugle and rushing up the stairs with a sword, yelling "Charge!"

One reason the Tea Parties won't work as a Wag-the-Dog move lies in Gallup's report that Americans who say taxes are too high has fallen from 68 percent in 2001 to 46 today:

"Since 1956, there has been only one other time when a higher percentage of Americans said their taxes were about right--in 2003, when 50% did so after two rounds of tax cuts under the Bush administration.

"The slightly more positive view this year may reflect a public response to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and budget plans. He has promised not to raise taxes on Americans making less than $250,000, while cutting taxes for lower- and middle-income Americans. The latter has already begun, as the government has reduced the withholding amount for federal income taxes from middle- and lower-income American workers' paychecks."

Add this to the undoubtedly large numbers of taxpayers who, in meeting today's deadline, will find that, as a result of falling income last year, they can expect a refund, and the tax protests look like they will turn out to be as limp as an overused tea bag.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pakistan Gets Worse

Pervez Musharraf and George W. Bush are gone, but the game goes on as, in the wake of $7.5 billion in new aid by the Obama Administration, the Pakistani prime minister complains of a "trust deficit" by US benefactors.

The shell game over Islamist extremists that began after 9/11 is looking even worse. In proposing increased aid, President Obama said he expected Pakistan security forces to crack down on terrorists in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

What he got was an agreement by the Islamabad regime to turn over control of the Swat Valley less than a hundred miles from the capital to a pro-Taliban group whose militants have burned schools, banned education for girls and beheaded government officials.

Sen. John Kerry, in Pakistan this week as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is greeted by a statement from the Prime Minister: "The U.S. should not attach conditionalities to the assistance package being presented to the U.S. Congress, as aid with strings attached would fail to generate the desired goodwill and results in Pakistan."

In Washington, Islamabad's ambassador complains that the new aid package is too "intrusive," while back home the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court condemns the flogging of a 17-year-old girl for refusing to marry a Taliban fighter and 200 comrades-in-arms storm terminals storing NATO supplies in Peshawar, killing a guard and torching vehicles.

With the infusion of more troops into Afghanistan, the shakiness of the government across the border is looking worse as it takes US billions and keeps telling us, as Musharraf did, to trust it and mind our own business about the extremist threat to its existence.

Obama's envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, faces a tough job in trying to break that cycle.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama-Kennedy Ethics Problem

Amid all the oohing and ahing about the official arrival of Bo the Portugese water puppy at the White House tomorrow, some spoilsport part of my mind raises a nagging question about the ethical implications of the gift by Ted Kennedy, whose niece Caroline is obviously up for an ambassadorship.

The new First Dog, with his "tuxedo-black fur, with a white chest, white paws and a rakish white goatee" is clearly destined for media stardom, but purebreds of his ilk sell for from $3000 to $5000 a pop (or pup) from professional breeders.

Will the Obamas have to declare him as a gift and will his status, aside from the Vatican's views on abortion, complicate consideration of Caroline Kennedy as an ambassador?

At least, we can be grateful that the dog did not come from the President's cousin, Dick Cheney, so there are no questions of nepotism--or snarling at visitors.

Easter Sunday in Underhill

The parking lots and picnic tables were crowded this weekend at Moore Park, named for my former brother-in-law in Underhill, Vermont, the kind of quiet, close-knit American town seen mostly these days on Turner Classic Movies but suddenly besieged by media after the capture of its resident, Richard Phillips, by pirates in the Indian Ocean.

For four days, until his dramatic rescue yesterday, Capt. Phillips' family was held hostage too by hordes of reporters in cars and satellite trucks until the State Police moved them off to the town center, where they spent their time, according to one local witness, "milling about with nothing to do but talk on their cell phones or to each other" after trying to get taciturn Vermonters to emote about their grief over the seaman's plight.

Even after Capt. Phillips' release, his wife Andrea stayed out of sight, leaving it to shipping company spokeswoman Allison McColl to read a family statement from a clipboard:

"The Phillips family wants to thank you all for your support and prayers. They have felt the caring and concern extended by the nation to their family. This is truly a very happy Easter for the Phillips family.

"Andrea and Richard have spoken. I think you can all imagine their joy, and what a happy moment that was for them. They’re all just so happy and relieved."

They did get a second-hand version of Mrs. Phillips' reaction. "She was laughing while she was on the phone with him," McColl told reporters. "She was saying his trademark sense of humor was still very much intact, and he's in great spirits. If you guys could have seen her light up when she talked to him, it was really remarkable."

But her lighting up was not on camera in a place where people still try to live their lives in private, even while under the hot eye of a media event.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Imperial Impotence

The captain of the Maersk Alabama is safe, but it took the the world's most powerful Navy four days to get him out of a lifeboat manned by a handful of fishermen turned kidnappers.

As grateful as Americans have to be over the rescue of Richard Phillips, his travail adds a punctuation mark to what the military experts call asymmetrical warfare but looks very much like impotence in the face of lawless attacks by those who have nothing to lose in a world of asymmetrical power and wealth.

On all sides, 21st century sophistication is beset by crazed criminals--Taliban thugs who live in caves, Pakistani gunmen who terrorize India's most upscale city, drug dealers who make a shooting gallery out of America's Mexican border--and there seem to be no answers to what is more like the gang warfare of the Roaring Twenties than the high-tech world of today.

Afghanistan, Iraq et al are treated as military and diplomatic dilemmas, but the world is looking more and more like one big crime scene.

Where is Eliot Ness when we need him now?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Kennedy Who Isn't Catholic Enough?

Distasteful ironies seem to be Caroline Kennedy's fate as she tries to follow her family's tradition of public service. After being smeared by New York's governor during her pursuit of Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, her appointment as US Ambassador to the Vatican now has reportedly been blocked by the Holy See because she supports abortion rights.

If true, the daughter of the man who broke through centuries of prejudice against his Church to become the first Catholic president is being deemed unsuitable to represent her country for views that would have no bearing on her duties as a US Ambassador.

When JFK ran, he assured voters he could reconcile his religious beliefs with his political duties, a position the Vatican did not find objectionable, but now his daughter is apparently being held to a different standard.

In January, I suggested: "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 a gracious ambassador to a generation of Europeans who have never known what it is like to love an American president."

The Vatican is apparently not the right place for that.

Kirk Douglas' Inner Issur

At 92, best-known now as Michael Douglas' father and Catherine Zeta-Jones' father-in-law, a movie legend is taking "an audit of my life" and, of course, doing it on stage and in front of cameras.

Kirk Douglas' career is at the heart of a larger 20th century American story: how the children of refugees from European cruelty went to Hollywood and, as John Updike put it, "out of immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

After World War II and the growing popularity of foreign films had paved the way for more realism, Issur Danielovitch followed a generation of Jewish studio heads and writers out there to explode on the screen with the kind of passion and intensity unseen in pretty-boy Hollywood heroes until then.

They changed his name, of course, and Kirk Douglas became the angry star of "Champion," "Ace in the Hole," "Young Man With a Horn" and "Detective Story," among other tales of irresistible (in every sense) male aggression.

Along the way, according to his first biographical book, "The Ragman's Son," Issur-turned-Kirk played his role of sex symbol as avidly off screen as on.

He went on to become a producer who finally buried 1950s political blacklisting by giving Dalton Trumbo, who had been writing under aliases, credit for the screenplay of "Exodus" and continued aging passionately before our eyes for decades.

Now he is playing himself by recounting his near-death in a helicopter crash that killed two, his suicidal thoughts after a stroke in 1994, the loss of his youngest son to an accidental drug overdose five years ago and still trying to make sense of his relationship with a father who could never show love for him.

Over the years, our paths crossed a number of times, but what stands out is the time we were at one of those gatherings where the privileged babble away with no human connection whatever. To keep the conversation going, I suggested a game: Name the actor you would want to star in a movie of your life. “As for me,” I said, nodding at Douglas across the table, “I see Kirk in the part.”

He smiled the familiar dazzling smile that never quite reaches his eyes, a flash of the amused anger that fueled his movie-star charm. I smiled back in what I took to be a moment of shared irony between boys of dirt-poor immigrant parents being wined, dined and bored by the very rich.

Now he has finally stopped impersonating others and is playing himself, letting his inner Issur take a bow after all these years. As always, it must be a riveting performance.

Banks Want a Bailout Do-Over

Anyone who has ever cashed in a Certificate of Deposit knows banks are adamant about extracting a penalty for early withdrawal but now, in repaying taxpayers, they are whining about the rules.

According to the New York Times, "Some of the healthier banks want to pay back their bailout loans to avoid executive pay and other restrictions that come with the money. But the banks are balking at the hefty premium they agreed to pay when they took the money."

In a perverse way, it's reassuring that the financial crunch has not altered the basic rule of banking--to squeeze every last cent out of using other people's money for their own profit--but it also casts doubt on the government's convoluted plan to save the money lenders from their own greed and error.

“You will be seeing additional actions by the administration,” the President said after a meeting yesterday with his advisers to discuss results of the bank stress tests and the $500 billion to $1 trillion plan for public subsidies to encourage private investors to buy mortgage assets.

That proposal has been characterized by Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz as "ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses. It is a 'partnership' in which one partner robs the other."

But even such a giveaway is apparently not enough for some bankers who are resisting this subsidized sale of toxic assets because it would make them book big losses.

In the coming weeks, as government regulators tighten their grip on the system, they will be relearning what every depositor knows--that banks are in the business of having it both ways and even those that are not too big to fail won't go down without taking every last taxpayer dollar with them.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Obama-Makes-Me-Crazy Syndrome

The President's persisting popularity is driving the Neo-Con elite into an alternate-universe frenzy, as reflected today in Charles Krauthammer's description of last week's White House trip:

"With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own people for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness, for genocide, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantanamo and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world."

This follows Karl Rove's assertion that "no president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly. Mr. Obama has not come close to living up to his own standards. It took him less than 11 weeks to achieve the very opposite of what he promised."

These pronouncements are the latest emanations from the new Dick Cheney School of Logic, which holds that the President's refusal to torture is an invitation for another 9/11 attack.

Explaining such unhinged reasoning would normally be the province of Krauthammer, whose career arc has taken him from the practice of psychiatry to politics in the Carter Administration to Pulitzer-Prize punditry.

But it's doubtful that he will enlighten us on how the loony bin cliché of patients thinking they're Napoleon has morphed into depressed Neo-Cons thinking that Barack Obama is Osama bin Laden.

The 21st-century version of Elba is a crazy-making place.

Going to Seed With Michelle Obama

The gardening industry is growing as Americans across the country follow the First Lady's example of raising vegetables, fruit and herbs.

At yesterday's White House planting, Mrs. Obama told her fifth-grade helpers of international interest in their efforts on her trip abroad.

“Every single person from Prince Charles on down was excited because we are planting a garden,” she said as they dug in seeds and seedlings for spinach, chard, collards, kale, shallots, peas, broccoli, fennel, rhubarb, onions and half a dozen kinds of lettuce. Some of them reportedly came from the Monticello gardens of Thomas Jefferson, who would pass out seeds to White House visitors.

If this keeps up, Michelle Obama's passion for edible plants may become her hallmark in the same way that Lady Bird Johnson will always be remembered for spreading wildflowers across the national landscape.

Her efforts not only encourage good nutrition and thrift in hard economic times but spur the movement for grassless lawns that is encouraging Americans to stop wasting water, spraying an ingredient of Agent Orange and burning up fuel with power mowers to make their yards look like golf courses.

As a city-reared kid like Mrs. Obama, I can testify to the pleasures of bringing in your own food for dinner, up to and including the thrill of picking the last brussels sprouts from New England stalks on Thanksgiving day.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Backseating-Driving the Banks

After its vaunted stress tests, the Obama Administration is telling us, through unnamed officials, that banks are "in better shape than many people think" but will "probably need to be bailed out again, either by private investors or, more likely, the federal government." After billions of taxpayer bailout, some still need more capital.

The picture of Treasury hovering over American banks with constant questioning and advice, like a backseat driver, is not reassuring. It recalls a time when I had to explain to a lifelong politician turned company president why Time Magazine had called him an "amateur":

If a division head is doing well, the president should support him; if not, replace him. Anything else is like having people sitting next to the coach during a game whispering advice into his ear. That looks amateur.

The banks these days need supervision, especially over the use of taxpayer money, but, according to the New York Times, "it is becoming increasingly clear, industry insiders say, that the government will use its findings to press certain banks to sell troubled assets. The hope is that by cleansing their balance sheets, banks will be able to lure private capital, stabilizing the entire industry.

"In some cases, however, the investments of existing shareholders could be severely diluted by large sales of new stock.

"Some of the banks could also face more stringent restrictions on employee compensation or be ordered to change their boards or management. In extreme instances, the government could wind up taking larger, perhaps even controlling, stakes."

From the cheap seats, this kind of piecemeal supervision by pressure and without public disclosure looks amateur--nationalization by slow drip--and creates a no-win situation for taxpayers, blaming government interference for failures, no matter how badly individual banks are managed.

Within the limits of not creating public panic, the bank bailout could use a lot more Obama transparency and less of the traditional "trust us" secrecy by the Treasury, Federal Reserve and FDIC.

Freezing Your Ass Off

Literally. Researchers claim in the New England Journal of Medicine that we have blobs of brown fat, which can burn huge numbers of calories when activated by the cold, such as sitting in a chilly room between 61 and 66 degrees.

Once again, science comes to the rescue. Turn down the thermostat, throw out the Stairmaster, save money on heating oil and slim down. Was that issue of the Journal dated April lst?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Black Money and Terrorism Blackmail

After "Syriana" and all those heavy-breathing movies about oil, money and corruption, the most horrific Mideast drama of all is on PBS' Frontline this week as it documents the story of Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar and the British arms company BAE that culminated in the blackmailing of former prime minister Tony Blair with threats over terrorism to stop investigating billions of dollars in bribes.

What's most discouraging is that this story is not new. Testimony in a London court over a year ago led a judge to conclude that Blair "rolled over" for Bandar "just as if a gun had been held to the head" of the government.

The Saudi Prince threatened to hold back information on terrorists and suicide bombers that would lead to the loss of "British lives on British streets" if Blair's investigators kept looking into charges that he took $2 billion of bribes in arms deals with the British company BAE. They stopped.

Now Frontline is telling the Bandar-BAE story from its roots in the Margaret Thatcher era to the present day when only the US Justice Department is doggedly pursuing charges of massive criminal corruption by the Bush family's Saudi friend who liked to call himself "Bandar Bush."

The details add up to souped-up penthouse porn with "black money" paying for fast cars, loose women, shopping sprees and a private jet decorated with the colors of Bandar's favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys.

For movie buffs, an added frisson is that the documentary is the work of Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino a decade ago in "The Insider," about his misadventures as a 60 Minutes producer trying to get the story of Big Tobacco's misdeeds on the air.

But Americans are still smoking and the Saudis are still raking in huge bribes. Truth may out, but does anybody care?

Medicare-for-All Goes Mainstream

The health care reform that dares not speak its name edged out of the shadows yesterday with a New York Times editorial suggesting:

"A new public plan--to offer consumers greater choice, keep the private plans honest and, one can hope, restrain the relentless growth in health care premiums and underlying medical costs--seems worth trying.

"Any new public plan would constitute only part of a much broader effort to provide coverage for 46 million Americans who currently are uninsured and many more who may soon join their ranks. Other major parts under discussion include strengthening employer-provided coverage, expanding existing public programs such as Medicaid and creating a national health insurance exchange where individuals without employer coverage, small businesses and possibly others could buy policies at inexpensive group rates from qualified private plans and, we hope, from a new public plan as well."

This tiptoe approach to what has been called Medicare-for-All is symptomatic of the political minefields surrounding what experts consider the best solution to health-care reform--a single payer system, which has been gaining the support of doctors, nurses and unions since Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill in the House last year but is not part of the Obama Administration's "incremental" approach to reform the system.

In fact, the downfall of Tom Daschle, the President's first choice for health czar, derailed the faint hope that such a solution would be considered, since Daschle had written a book advocating just that.

Meanwhile, private insurer profits and "administrative costs" keep draining one out of every three dollars spent, making US health care one of the most expensive and least effective operations in the world.

Getting Medicare-for-All on the agenda to compete with that system would be a start toward sanity.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Touch-All-the-Bases Presidency

After his surprise visit to Baghdad, Barack Obama is heading home to rising approval ratings after a week of showing all the symbolic talents he brings to the White House with both rhetoric and body language.

On the weekend in Istanbul, he affirmed US-Muslim relations and wowed young Turks in a town hall but, to balance any adverse reaction by hardliners back home, stopped off in Iraq to demonstrate his commitment there and award medals to the troops.

Skeptics may view all this and Obama's week-long performance in Europe as "too clever by half," but the mission of repairing America's reputation in the world does not allow for much subtlety.

"From the Thames to the Bosporus, and at several landmarks in between," according to a New York Times analysis, "Mr. Obama spoke softly without even hinting that he might ever reach for the big stick. Barely mentioning his predecessor, he emphasized one of their main differences: that the United States planned not only to give greater authority to international institutions that George Bush often shunned, but also to embrace the creation of some new ones...

"But with the notable exception of his approach to nuclear disarmament and countering proliferation--where radical shifts appear to be under way--what Mr. Obama described in public veered more toward a restoration of the old order than a vast strategic realignment. 'There will be a moment for that,' one of Mr. Obama’s senior advisers said...'This trip was more about reattaching all the cars on the train, and convincing them other leaders that we’re no longer headed for derailment.'”

That much the President, with his gifts for communication and remarkable energy, has done very well. But a week of mending international fences will seem like a rest cure as he comes back to Washington and faces the hard work of fine-tuning the bailouts and wrestling with Congress and lobbyists over such issues as cutting fat from the military and elsewhere to get the economic recovery going and keeping it on track.

There won't be many victory laps around the bases in that.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Saying "Enough" to the Banks

As Timothy Geithner dithers, the Congressional watchdog on the bank bailout, Elizabeth Warren, is previewing a much tougher attack.

"We want to ensure that the Treasury gives the public an alternative approach," she tells the Guardian about her worries that banks won't recover while being fed subsidies. "When are they going to say, enough?"

"The very notion that anyone would infuse money into a financially troubled entity without demanding changes in management is preposterous," she adds.

Professor Warren, head of the oversight committee monitoring the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, will call for shareholders to be "wiped out." saying, "It is crucial for these things to happen. Japan tried to avoid them and just offered subsidy with little or no consequences for management or equity investors, and this is why Japan suffered a lost decade."

Geither meanwhile is on TV hemming and hawing about possible "restructuring" of banks in the future as White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers plays down his $5.2 million gig last year with a hedge fund business as "a part-time job."

The Times runs an OpEd argument that the crisis needs to be "tackled head-on, not by propping up failing banks" but seizing them, stripping toxic assets and auctioning them off.

It's looking more and more like the most crucial restructuring needed may be at the White House economic team. When will the President say "Enough"?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Germans Are Too Generous

For a Jewish World War II veteran, it's comforting to learn from a New York Times OpEd that "There Are No Hurt Feelings in Germany."

Our new president, a German novelist reveals, is still much admired, even though "current warnings that Mr. Obama must inevitably disappoint the hopes we’ve placed on him will probably turn out to have been somewhat justified."

He goes on to explain: "People like my 75-year-old grandparents, who live in the countryside and have always thought and voted conservatively, are of the opinion that this presidency is off to a good start, as are nearly all of my friends here in Berlin.

"The announcements made and the measures undertaken in Washington in the past 10 weeks...have given rise to the impression that the new president means to turn his campaign promises into action."

This pompous generosity toward an African-American president does not sit well with someone who recalls how the author's forebears in 1936 were cheering another black man, Jesse Owens, in the Berlin Olympics for breaking records while their Fuhrer, disappointed in the failure of Aryan superiority, left the stadium to continue planning his slaughter of millions of Jews.

A decade later, as an infantry foot soldier seeing the skeletal survivors of that Holocaust and afterward working with and living among local townspeople to publish a regimental newspaper, I failed to meet a single German who would acknowledge let alone discuss what had been done.

Now, as that nation's leaders drag their feet in easing the global economic freefall, the same kind of selective memory dwells on the recent failures of America's financial system rather than the Marshall Plan generosity that restored German industry after World War II.

"Most of the people I’m in contact with, many of them intellectuals inclined to the humanities or the arts," the German Oped writer observes, "can comprehend only gradually and hesitantly the extent to which the economies of the world have become one inextricable tangle, and we never cease to be amazed at the level of irrationality present in the reactions of the institutions and individuals that play a part in the economic process. In us, it elicits a shrug expressive of something between cluelessness and resignation."

He may want to take a hard look back at his own country's long history of cluelessness and resignation before patronizing an American president for his personal qualities while worrying that he will "disappoint" German hopes.

North Korea's Nuclear Spitball

Like the kid in class who misbehaves to get attention, Kim Jong-il (or his stand-in) has fired a rocket to distract the world from the G20 summit, NATO meetings and all that cool stuff from which he is excluded.

As expected, world leaders are denouncing his misbehavior and promising some form of detention punishment, but North Korea is back in the headlines and in front of the TV cameras.

Obama's special envoy on North Korea tells reporters that, while trying to punish them for the test, the US is also prepared to resume six-nation talks with the North Koreans to persuade them to give up their nuclear ambitions. “We must deal with North Korea as we find it, not as we would like it to be,” he says.

In the real world, such high-school behavior has to be taken seriously and dealt with, but the South Koreans, who know their delinquent neighbor best, are responding more in sadness than anger as one official says, "We cannot help but feel shame and be disappointed at North Korea's reckless behavior" and another points out:

"We are greatly disappointed that North Korea was willing to spend tremendous amounts of money in launching the rocket in spite of the food shortages they face."

The rest of the civilized world is left shaking its head at the sight of an impoverished Communist dictatorship, which can't feed its population, acting out with missiles and the threat of nuclear weapons to get attention and blackmail other countries out of lunch money to maintain its outdated image as the tough kid in the schoolyard.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Palin Social Notes

As the Obamas hobnob with royalty overseas, their former rivals, the Palins, are making news in Alaska.

The matriarch of the clan, Gov. Sarah, is rebuking Levi Johnston, her former son-in-law-in-waiting, for appearing on the Tyra Banks Show to reveal that he and Bristol were "pretty sure" her mother knew what they were doing under the Palin roof.

"Bristol did not even know Levi was going on the show," the Governor's statement says. "We're disappointed that Levi and his family, in a quest for fame, attention, and fortune, are engaging in flat-out lies, gross exaggeration, and even distortion of their relationship.

"Bristol's focus will remain on raising Tripp, completing her education, and advocating abstinence. It is unfortunate that Levi finds it more appealing to exploit his previous relationship with Bristol than to contribute to the well being of the child."

As unsettling as all this may be to Palin family values, there is more--the half sister of the Governor's husband Todd is being charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor criminal trespass and theft for two Wasilla break-ins.

Sarah Palin campaigned against Obama for being elitist and out of touch with ordinary Americans. It's looking more and more like she may have had a point.

Mea Culpa to the Money Man

Paul Krugman and I owe Lawrence Summers an apology. In questioning the Obama toxic asset plan, I rashly compared the President's chief economic adviser to a used-care salesman and Krugman criticized his view of financial markets by suggesting, "Mr. Summers needs to get out more."

Now White House disclosure forms show Summers earned $5.2 million last year from a hedge fund and $2.7 million for addressing avid listeners from such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan, Bank of America, and the late Lehman Brothers. (A $45,000 fee from Merrill Lynch a week after Obama's election was discreetly donated to charity.)

Clearly, Summers has no need to be acquainted with previously-owned vehicles, and even Krugman will have to admit that he does get out frequently.

Where he goes is a different matter entirely. No one would begrudge a former Treasury Secretary and university president a standard of living befitting his station, but critics may feel he is giving the President advice that comes from the mindset that only months ago earned large sums and applause from the people now being bailed out by taxpayers.

Barack Obama frequently and rightly complains about being in a White House bubble, but he may want to take a closer look at the range of people he keeps in there with him.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Guilty Prosecutors?

This has been a dizzying week for deciding who is above the law or below it, with figures from Ted Stevens and Rod Blagojevich to the AIG bonus recipients parading before the public bench for reappraisal.

*The former Republican senator from Alaska gets a pass from a Democratic Attorney General on the grounds of bad behavior by prosecutors from the Bush Justice Department, which still faces unresolved accusations of firing eight federal prosecutors for not being political enough.

(Sarah Palin wants the Democrat who defeated Stevens to resign, but that idea has as much chance as the moose she shoots from airplanes.)

*The Disney World vacation of the impeached former Illinois governor is interrupted by news he has been charged with numerous counts of fraud and corruption, but only after successfully naming Barack Obama's successor to the US Senate.

His indictment raises again questions about the part played in his case by the universally sainted prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who went public with an inflammatory attack on Blagojevich in December but failed to charge him then. Was Fitzgerald's move, an obvious attempt to keep the governor from selling the seat, proper behavior for a federal prosecutor? Does it open the door to others hounding elected officials in less cut-and-dried cases?

*From, of all people, Fox News' usually rabidly wrong Glenn Beck comes a scathing interview with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal pressuring him for legal reasons for his public hounding of AIG bonus recipients, laying bare blatant political grandstanding by Blumenthal and, to a lesser degree, New York's Andrew Cuomo for political gain rather than duties of office. Beck wins that argument handily. Political piling on by officers of the law is an ugly sight, no matter who is at the bottom.

Eric Holder's action in the Stevens case is an encouraging sign that we are moving back to the traditional norms of rule by law but a New York Times editorial suggests more:

"He should not stop with this case. Don Siegelman, the former governor of Alabama, and Paul Minor, a prominent Mississippi trial lawyer, have charged that Justice Department prosecutors engaged in unethical behavior in cases that led to their convictions. Both men claim that they were singled out for prosecution because of their affiliation with the Democratic Party.

"Given the flagrant partisanship of the Bush Justice Department, it is especially reassuring to see Mr. Holder ignore party lines to do the right thing by Mr. Stevens. It has been far too long since the attorney general seemed interested in enforcing ethics and nonpartisanship in a department that has been shockingly lacking in both."

It's time to reaffirm that, while nobody is above the law, neither is anyone below it.

Nuclear Chess Matches to Come

Below the radar of saving the global economy, President Obama was working in London this week to keep the world from blowing itself up with nuclear weapons.

A meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev produced a joint statement that the two countries will begin negotiations to reduce arsenals in anticipation of an Obama visit to Moscow this summer.

Unlike George W. Bush's 2001 first encounter with Vladimir Putin, Obama did not look into Medvedev's eyes to get "a sense of his soul" but held a businesslike meeting to lay the groundwork to extend and strengthen the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December.

Nuclear arms control has changed since the Cold War days and, like the economy, is complicated by players beyond the two former superpowers who now have to deal with other nations who have them (China, India, Pakistan et al) as well as non-proliferation to those who want them, such as Iran and North Korea.

The complexity can be seen in the mixed feelings of Japan, the only nation in history to suffer nuclear attack, which nonetheless now wants the US to maintain an effective deterrent against the weapons of its Asian neighbors.

Similarly, India is expressing doubts about a new test-ban treaty "not explicitly linked to the goal of nuclear disarmament" that might create "a permanent division between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states," which translates into fears of Pakistan and China.

What used to be a WMD checkers game between the US and the Soviet Union is now a simultaneous series of chess matches around the world, and it's encouraging to see that Obama is getting ready to play them in Russia, China and wherever else necessary.

Reviewing Obama's Star Turn

The reviews will be mixed, but the President, to use his own phrase, "did OK"--and probably a little better than that--in his first star turn on the international stage.

In a heavy global melodrama not best-suited to his light touch, Barack Obama comes out of the G20 show with renewed respect for his leadership and about as much substantive accomplishment as possible from a large cast with conflicting motives.

“If there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s an easier negotiation,” Obama said at his international news conference afterward. “But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in.”

The President got only a fraction of what he wanted in stimulus--a pledge of $1.1 trillion to the International Monetary Fund and other institutions to help revive the global economy--but what he gave Europe in return was not at odds with his own goals.

"In the end," Steven Pearlstein notes in the Washington Post, "yesterday's communique, with its promise of a global regulatory crackdown, was an easy win for all concerned. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel could declare victory over unfettered Anglo-American capitalism, while Obama now has added political ammunition for taking on the banks, hedge funds, rating agencies and private-equity firms that will try to water down his proposals."

Impressively, Obama spent an hour yesterday successfully brokering a deal between President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and President Hu Jintao of China on the language for cracking down on tax havens, which ended with the French president calling our own "very helpful."

Making friends and impressing world leaders won't do much to solve the economic crisis, but it's a start.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Michelle and the Queen

After his first foreign trip as President, JFK said, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris--and I have enjoyed it!" Barack Obama may be feeling that way in London this week as the Gallup Poll shows the First Lady's favorable ratings eclipsing his own.

The British press, as always on the lookout to criticize crude Americans, half-heartedly tried to stir a flap about Michelle Obama "hugging" the Queen, but apparently Her Majesty hugged first, so there is no sequel to George W. Bush's faux pas in winking at the royal eminence.

Journalistic shenanigans aside, for someone who lived through the Kennedy era, there is both joy at seeing an African-American couple standing for the country at Buckingham Palace and a sadness at their towering over the now shrunken royal couple, especially Prince Philip who was always a tall, dignified figure half a step between the Queen.

Time and Change work both ways.