Sunday, May 31, 2009


Sunday morning news from the sanctity-of human-life front:

"George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who was one of the few doctors in the nation to perform late-term abortions, was shot to death on Sunday as he attended church, city officials in Wichita said.

"Dr. Tiller, who had performed abortions since the 1970s, had long been a lightning rod for controversy over the issue of abortion, particularly in Kansas, where abortion opponents regularly protested outside his clinic and sometimes his home and church. In 1993, he was shot in both arms by an abortion opponent but recovered."

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obama in the Operating Room

Today's joint statement by Sens. Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy promising to “seek common ground on health reform legislation” is, in essence, a declaration of war over inclusion of a public insurance plan to compete with private companies.

As chairmen of the two powerful committees shaping the legislation, Baucus (Finance) and Kennedy (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) will be jousting over the core issue that the Obama Administration has been tap-dancing around but will eventually have to face head-on in what promises to be a serious test of the President's toughness and resolve.

After failing to get more than a glimmer of bipartisanship on the stimulus bill, the President up to now has been wooing both the health care establishment and its Republican mercenaries, but the public option (Medicare-for-all) is the deal-breaker he will eventually have to face.

Baucus' Finance Committee, to get Republican Chuck Grassley and his crew on board, has been bending over backward with compromises that would give lip-service to a public plan but "only if private insurance companies had not made meaningful, affordable coverage available to all Americans within several years."

Kennedy and 28 other senators are not buying that, insisting, as are large numbers of House Democrats, on a public plan in the bill that would be sent to Obama, who has said it is needed to “keep the private sector honest,” but thus far has signaled only his vaunted pragmatism if the eventual showdown materializes.

Today's statement is an attempt to put a Band-Aid over Senate differences, but health care reform is ready for the operating table and the Surgeon-in-Chief will have to decide soon about where and how deep to make the incision.

Sound-Bite Coming of Age

Grownups are just children who owe money, said a character in the 1992 movie "Peter's Friends" and now, with the economic crisis, they owe even more and, thanks to 24/7 cable TV, seem less mature than ever.

"Republicans, Let's Play Grown-Up," Peggy Noonan urges in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that "idiots" in her party rise above temper tantrums in opposing Sonia Sotomayor:

"Don't grill and grandstand, summon and inform. Show the respect that expresses equality and the equality that is an expression of respect. Ask and listen, get the logic, explain where you think it wrong. Fill the airwaves with thoughtful exchanges."

As a grown-up White House tries to deal with overheated attacks on Obama's nominee as "racist," thoughtful exchanges are in short supply.

In his weekly address, the President observes, "There are, of course, some in Washington who are attempting to draw old battle lines and playing the usual political games, pulling a few comments out of context to paint a distorted picture of Judge Sotomayor’s record. But I am confident that these efforts will fail; because Judge Sotomayor’s seventeen-year record on the bench--hundreds of judicial decisions that every American can read for him or herself--speak far louder than any attack; her record makes clear that she is fair, unbiased, and dedicated to the rule of law."

But how many Americans will read any of those hundreds of decisions? How many more will make up their minds based on Keith Olbermann's rage about G. Gordon Liddy's radio rant comparing La Raza to the KKK and hoping that "key conferences" of the Supreme Court don't take place "when she's menstruating or something"?

Noonan says, "Comment-thread conservatives, like their mirror-image warriors on the left ("Worst person in the woooorrrlllddd!") are perpetually agitated, permanently enraged. They don't need to be revved, they're already revved. Newt Gingrich twitters that Judge Sotomayor is a racist. Does anyone believe that? He should rest his dancing thumbs, stop trying to position himself as the choice and voice of the base in 2012, and think."

Sounds good, but don't hold your breath from now until 2012 waiting for them all to grow up.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Court's "Miss Congeniality" Contest

Heartbreaking news for Antonin Scalia (irony alert): His reputation as the warmest, fuzziest Justice may be endangered by Barack Obama's new choice.

"Sotomayor’s Sharp Tongue Raises Issue of Temperament" is a New York Times headline, reporting the Supreme Court nominee's "occasionally combative manner--some lawyers have described her as 'difficult' and 'nasty'--raises questions about her judicial temperament and willingness to listen."

The message is that Judge Sotomayor is no pussycat. Shades of Lupe Velez, who starred in those "Mexican Spitfire" movies before World War II! Back then, audiences were highly entertained by the antics of an explosive, volatile Latina, who paraded her emotions to comic effect. But those days are long gone, along with the old stereotype of black men as lazy, shiftless Stepin Fetchits...aren't they?

Further down in the Times story, the verdict on Sotomayor is downgraded to "brilliant" and "assertive" with the observation by a male judge, a former dean of the Yale Law School, “Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman. It was sexist, plain and simple.”

Be that as it may, the debate over Obama's nominee promises to be as enlightening as an "American Idol" competition, with Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich leading the way by suggesting that Judge Sotomayor is a "racist ."

Even if Scalia hasn't, the standup comics have clearly met their match.

Good-Cop, Bad-Copping Obama

With a decade of rehearsal, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have their act down pat--the regular guy who never raises his voice and his hair-trigger partner who chews the scenery. After weeks of shaking up by the Snarler, here is the former Decider to sooth our nerves.

Defending his torture policy as unequivocally as his vice president has done, Bush gave an audience of business people yesterday a spoonful of sugar with the reheated argument that, after checking with the lawyers, he only did what was legal and necessary and that "the information we got saved lives."

If Obama differs, Bush insists, he is not going to blame him (implicitly for not saving lives). "Nothing I am saying is meant to criticize my successor," he said. "There are plenty of people who have weighed in. Trust me, having seen it first-hand. I didn't like it when a former president criticized me, so therefore I am not going to criticize my successor. I wish him all the best."

Such fake "generosity" is even more grating than Cheney's outright attacks on Obama for making the country less safe, but it's par for the course in Bush's act as the good cop in their collaboration.

Asked what he would like his legacy to be, the 43rd president had a ready answer:

"The man showed up with a set of principles, and he was unwilling to compromise his soul for the sake of popularity."

Or reality.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy's Health Manifesto

For the coming political battle, the last Kennedy of his generation is sounding the trumpet for health care reform.

"Over the last year," he writes in a Boston Globe OpEd today, "I've seen our healthcare system up close. I've benefitted from the best of medicine, but I've also witnessed the frustration and outrage of patients and doctors alike as they face the challenges of a system that shortchanges millions of Americans."

In his manifesto, Kennedy hits all the notes of Obama's proposal for change and, albeit in a somewhat tentative way, for the highest of all. After promising more transparency in health insurance plans, negotiation for lower premiums and regulation to prevent denial of coverage for previously existing conditions, Kennedy writes:

"We're also hearing that some Americans want the choice of enrolling in a health insurance program backed by the government for the public good, not private profit--so that option will be available too."

That wording presages the crucial struggle to include a Medicare-for-all provision in the bill that would put pressure on private insurers to compete in the health care market instead of maximizing their profits.

Since his medical crisis last summer, Ted Kennedy has been fighting his own battle to survive. Now he clearly intends to leave a legacy that will give other Americans better odds in theirs.

"Change," he concludes, "is never easy, but the status quo is no longer acceptable to any except those who profit from the current broken healthcare system.

"We cannot afford to wait--or to fail. And we will do neither.

"And when successful reform takes hold, the American people will wonder what has taken us so long."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sotomayor's Singleness

Since the President made so much of biography in introducing his Supreme Court nominee, every facet of Sonia Sotomayor's life seems up for discussion, including her marital history.

Divorced in her twenties, the new Justice would be taking over what is being called "the single seat" on the Court from David Souter, a bachelor. At her 1994 appellate confirmation hearing, Sotomayor introduced a fiancé who subsequently faded from the picture.

If matrimonial status has any bearing on Supreme Court deliberations, the new nominee is at the far end of the spectrum from William O. Douglas, who served longer than any other Justice (almost 37 years) and was married four times, going through three divorces while on the Court.

Yet Sotomayor shares with Douglas a background of extreme poverty after the early death of a father, in his case working as a waiter, janitor and cherry picker on the West Coast, where he saw "cruelty and hardness" by police against migrant laborers and "Chicanos."

Those experiences informed Douglas' work on the Court, which eventually resulted in an unsuccessful impeachment attempt in 1970, led by Rep. (later President) Gerald R. Ford, who attacked his "liberal opinions" and lifestyle.

Sotomayor may or may not turn out to be a philosophical soulmate of Douglas, but there is nothing in her history to suggest that she will emulate his flamboyance.

In the early 1950s, as a junior editor of a men's magazine, Argosy, I edited an article by Douglas, an avid outdoorsman who always needed extra money to support his ex-wives. It was about a cowboy obsessed with a wild black stallion, whose pursuit of the animal leads to grief at its death in captivity.

It's hard to imagine careful Sonia Sotomayor celebrating that kind of wildness.

Burris, Obama's Bookend

A newly released transcript shows the President's Senate replacement craven but just short of corrupt in his slavering for the appointment by the former Gov. Rod Blagojevich--more "pray" than "pay to play."

"In the call," the New York Times reports, "he seemed almost in a crass negotiation with Mr. Blagojevich’s brother--also his chief fund-raiser--over how he could help the governor, win the appointment and not run into trouble over negative connotations that he might be trying to buy an appointment by fund-raising for him."

Burris, an embarrassment to the President and his party who may well escape the grasp of prosecutors and serve out the term, is a bookend to Obama in exemplifying the range of American politics from superb to sleaze.

In his phone call to the governor's brother soon after the seat opened up, Burris shows an exquisite sensitivity to the line between being crooked and appearing crooked by trading fund-raising for the position:

“If I do that, I guarantee you that that will get out, and people said, ‘Oh, Burris is doing a fund-raiser,’ and, and then Rod and I both going to catch hell...God knows, No. 1, I want to help Rod. No. 2, I also want to, you know, hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.”

Now, everybody knows and the bottom line, whatever the outcome of the probe by the Senate Ethics Committee, is that Roland Burris, whatever he chisels on his headstone, is no Barack Obama.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor Doesn't Suit Yoo

As Republicans mull their response to the naming of a Latino woman to the Supreme Court, they have the benefit of legal scholarship from John Yoo, who suggests that Sonia Sotomayor would be "voting her emotions and politics rather than the law."

George W. Bush's torture expert is troubled by the nominee's lack of legal "firepower." He points out, "There are no opinions that suggest she would change the direction of constitutional law as have Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, or Robert Bork and Richard Posner on the appeals courts."

Disregarding for the moment the murmurs of "Thank God!" from the Left, Yoo's commentary may reflect a shrewd legal strategy in his own self-interest. As the lawsuit against him by convicted terrorist Juan Padilla winds its way through the courts, Yoo may be setting the stage for asking Judge Sotomayor to recuse herself if it reaches the Supreme Court.

Padilla is suing Yoo as one of the architects of unlawful policies that led to his designation as an "enemy combatant," detention in a military brig and the interrogations he underwent there.

Ironically, the Obama Justice Department is siding with Yoo in deeming a civil suit an inappropriate vehicle for this issue, however much the Administration has reversed and repudiated his legal judgments on torture during the Bush era.

Just in case the suit continues and reaches the Supreme Court, Yoo could claim that his dismissive opinions on Justice Sotomayor's qualifications might prejudice her against him from the bench.

In the alternate universe John Yoo inhabits, that makes as much sense as the rest of his thinking.

Super Week for the South Bronx

The New York Yankees went on a winning streak at their new stadium last week, and two products of the neighborhood have scored big on the political scene--Colin Powell in a challenge to save the Republican Party from Dick Cheney and today Sonia Sotomayor as President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court.

As the confirmation buzz starts, Americans will get to know much more about the new nominee, potentially the first Hispanic on the Court, but for a start, Judge Sotomayor grew up near Yankee Stadium and, in one of her first notable cases as a jurist in 1995, ended the Major League baseball strike by ruling against the owners for trying to subvert collective bargaining in labor negotiations.

In the past half century, the South Bronx has become the poster child for urban poverty and devastation but, as a product of that neighborhood, I can testify that, through generations of Eastern European refugees, African-Americans and Hispanics, it has also housed families with a burning desire to educate their children into the American Dream.

In the era of Barack Obama, efforts to improve life in such communities are part of the national agenda, and the emergence of such figures as the new Supreme Court nominee foreshadows the dividends that those investments could be paying in the future.

Update: In announcing the selection of Judge Sotomayor, President Obama praised her "rigorous intellect, a mastery of the law” and added that it is vitally important that a justice know “how the world works, and how ordinary people live.”

Sotomayor described herself as "a kid from the Bronx." She sounds like all of the above.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Flags, parades and speeches celebrate those who fought and died for their country, but what they did--and still do--is better commemorated by silent grieving over them than with bombast and color.

In "A Farewell to Arms," Ernest Hemingway had his World War I soldier saying:

"I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on proclamations...and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.

"There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity...Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene besides the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates."

Today is a day for honoring the fallen but disowning not glorifying what the worst in human nature made them endure.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cheney on the Couch

Stooping to psychobabble this Memorial Day weekend, I find myself wondering: What is the former Vice President, who evaded military service in his youth, trying to prove with his late-in-life display of extreme machismo? What fuels his tougher-than-thou attacks on Barack Obama, a Commander-in-Chief from a post-draft generation that did not have to face a public test of personal courage?

In his weekend address today, the President observes that "our survival as a nation came down not simply to the wisdom of our leaders or the resilience of our people, but to the courage and valor of our fighting men and women."

Below that simple statement of fact are many millions of individual struggles of conscience by young people over risking their lives for their country. (As one of them in World War II, I can testify to the fears as well as the courage of what is now called the Greatest Generation.)

In the 1960s, Dick Cheney resolved his own conflict by asking for and getting five draft deferments during the Vietnam war. Looking back, he said in a Washington Post interview, "I had other priorities in the 60's than military service."

Ever since then, as a member of Congress, Secretary of Defense and Vice President, Cheney has been part of a process that sends young people to give their lives for their country--without the deeply felt experience of those like John McCain, who doesn't share his views on torture.

What's disturbing about this disconnection between rhetoric and reality is the sense that Dick Cheney is, at some level, driven to prove that his earlier choices in life are not the true test of his manhood. No reasonable person would argue that they are, but does he himself believe that?

However unfair it may be to put Cheney on the couch this way, there is an oblique recognition of the issue in Gail Collins' comment today:

“'To bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come,' snarled Dick Cheney in his 'no middle ground' speech. Although really, for the sake of the national mental health, it might be better if we all just ignore the former vice president until he agrees to undergo therapy."

That's not likely to happen, but it would help if lay Republican leaders would advise him to stop acting out in public.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bush's Unleashed Dog Dilemmas

"And there I was, former president of the United States of America, with a plastic bag on my hand," George W. Bush told high-school students yesterday about having to clean up after his dog Barney relieved himself in a neighbor's yard.

When he shares a stage with Bill Clinton next week, will anyone in the audience ask Bush about the mess that his attack dog Cheney is making in Washington?

Compared to the former vice president, Barney is a model of loyalty, according to David Brooks in today's New York Times:

"When Cheney lambastes the change in security policy, he’s not really attacking the Obama administration. He’s attacking the Bush administration. In his speech on Thursday, he repeated in public a lot of the same arguments he had been making within the Bush White House as the policy decisions went more and more the other way."

As Cheney goes rabid against the Obama Administration, Bush loyalists are anxious to point out the vice president's declining influence during their second term in the White House.

Writing about "The Cheney Fallacy," former White House Counsel Jack Goldsmith disputes his claims that Obama has reversed Bush policies and argues, "The Bush administration shot itself in the foot time and time again, to the detriment of the legitimacy and efficacy of its policies, by indifference to process and presentation."

More and more, the current brouhaha is looking not like Cheney vs. Obama, but Cheney vs. Bush and recalling the old saying, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

But only as long as you can keep him on a leash.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dueling Speeches and Ragtag Terrorists

The 9/11 world is back with full force as Barack Obama makes the case for a judicious approach to terrorism, Dick Cheney argues that only bare knuckles can keep us safe and New York police stage a perp walk of petty criminals scammed into believing they could bomb synagogues and shoot down Air National Guard planes.

It's one of those wake-me-when-it's-over days as the overloaded mind wants only to watch an old movie on TV or hide under the covers, but the dueling speeches and the terrorist bust are part of the way we live now. There is no escape.

For someone of advanced age, there are powerful echoes of the 1950s in all this--another era of anxiety about threats to "our way of life" from evil forces and politicians eager to exploit them with an easy sell of fear.

Dick Cheney is no Joe McCarthy, but here he is attacking the Obama Administration for closing Guantanamo with a desire "to bring some of these hardened terrorists into the United States" and praising Congressional exploitation of fears that "the terrorists might soon be relocating into their states," as if they were going to be walking the streets rather than being held in maximum-security prisons.

But Cheney's retroactive paean to torture, which has raised his approval ratings a few points from abysmal to awful, is less relevant than the President's attempt today to reconcile national ideals with what has to be done "to keep the American people safe."

Obama reviewed what he called the Guantanamo "mess--a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily basis, and it consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country."

Along with a dissection of the legal and moral issues involved, the President, who prefers to focus on the future, nevertheless acknowledged the demagoguery of "fear-mongering" surrounding the issue.

"Listening to the recent debate," he said, "I've heard words that, frankly, are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country."

As this rhetorical duel was going on, New York Police were illustrating the complexities of the post-9/11 world by arresting four would-be jihadists for an "aspirational" plot (translation: they had the desire to bomb and kill but apparently neither the brains nor means until authorities provided them with harmless "explosives" and fake surface-to-air missiles).

The sadness in all this what used to be "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" comedy is that it now has to be treated with dead seriousness since Osama bin Laden took away our innocence almost eight years ago.

Elizabeth Warren As Pecora

A note to Washington Central Casting: Now that the President has signed on for a 9/11 Commission to investigate the economic downturn, let's skip the usual suspects to head it and, as in the 1930s, find a fresh face for the role of shaking up Wall Street.

Back then, ethnic outsider Ferdinand Pecora was the new star. This time, Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren looks like the best choice for a gender change in taking on the old-boy network that brought the country to the brink of ruin.

As Congressional watchdog for the bank bailout, Warren has been rehearsing for the part by showing a rare directness in calling for a clean sweep at the top. "The very notion that anyone would infuse money into a financially troubled entity without demanding changes in management is preposterous," she has said.

Along with her other qualifications, Warren has a public presence that inspires confidence, last weekend leaving Bill Maher in dumbstruck admiration.

In the past, she has proposed a new agency modeled on the Consumer Product Safety Commission to protect the public in buying financial merchandise.

"It is impossible," she has written, "to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.

"Why are consumers safe when they purchase tangible consumer products with cash, but when they sign up for routine financial products like mortgages and credit cards they are left at the mercy of their creditors?"

If she were to ask questions like that and get beyond the usual mealy-mouthed answers, Elizabeth Warren would play the 21st century version of Pecora to perfection.

Obama v. Roberts, Round One

As the President begins one-on-one interviews with replacements for David Souter, his eventual choice will be only the start of a four- or eight-year struggle for the soul of the Supreme Court in the 21st century.

The lines are clearly drawn. In voting against the confirmation of John Roberts, then-Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged the Chief Justice's intellect and scholarship but questioned "what is in the judge’s heart. It is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.”

In his tenure, Roberts has justified Obama's doubts. As Jeffrey Toobin observes in the New Yorker, "In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff...Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party."

President Obama's choice now will not alter the philosophical makeup of the Court but may go some distance in shifting its tone. If the rumored list of finalists is right, the new Justice is likely to share Souter's opinions but express them with more passion.

Judging from the President's track record so far, his pick will be confirmable but not bland. Gender and ethnicity will be in play but not determinative.

The actuarial tables suggest that Obama eventually will have his chance to alter the balance of the Court away from the Bush mindset in his own direction. Next week's decision will be a preliminary skirmish with the main battles yet to come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Profits Inevitable As Death and Taxes

Banks getting taxpayer bailouts are also cashing in on the demise of people who work for them or once did.

Today's Wall Street Journal has a tutorial explaining how banks are holding $122.3 billion in life insurance on workers and retirees with themselves as beneficiaries in order to escape taxes, inflate their earnings and to fund bonuses and pension benefits:

"Though not improper, the practice is similar to what is known as 'janitors insurance,' an insurance-on-employees technique that has long been controversial. Critics say the banks' insurance contracts are a way for companies to create tax breaks for funding executive pensions...

"Companies don't use the policies as piggy banks to pay for compensation and benefits. Rather, they benefit from keeping the money in the contracts."

Gains on investments are not only tax free but reported as income each quarter to offset interest on deferred pay owed to executives.

According to the Journal, banks have nearly doubled the amounts of such insurance in the past four years. Bank of America, which has taken $52.5 billion from taxpayers so far, holds an estimated $17.3 billion of such investments in the deaths of employees while Wells Fargo (including its Wachovia acquisition) has a similar amount awaiting future obituaries.

You may not be able to get blood from a stone, but American banks are doing very well with corpses.

Steele, the Un-Obama

Some divine Anthropologist must be balancing the racial books for America, giving us an African-American as president who is a superbly talented politician and, to lead the opposition, another who can't seem to get out of his own way.

Michael Steele's un-Obama skills were on display at a party luncheon yesterday, and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reports:

"The RNC chairman has managed to get into trouble with comic regularity during his first few months on the job. His latest brush with trouble had come only minutes before the lunch, when Fox News broadcast an interview with Steele in which he complained that party leaders--the very people he was about to have lunch with--have 'their knives bared' for him."

Milbank catalogues Steele's self-inflicted wounds as head of the Disloyal Opposition:

"He called Rush Limbaugh 'incendiary' and 'ugly.' He described abortion as an individual choice. He spent $18,500 decorating his office, which he had called 'way too male for me.' He offered some 'slum love' to Indian American Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, and speculated that the GOP base rejected Mitt Romney 'because it had issues with Mormonism.'"

In fairness, it's unlikely that anyone could galvanize today's remnant rabble of what was once the Grand Old Party, but Steele's ineptitude is looking more and more like a grotesque example of the Affirmative Action that Republicans always used to denounce.

The question now is how to depose him without adding accusations of racism to their heavy load of political baggage.

The opportunity may come up today at a meeting of state party heads who, if they curtail his power over funding, will be calling his threat to quit if they do.

Steele ended his rallying of the troops at yesterday's luncheon with "In the best spirit of President Reagan, it's time to saddle up and ride."

Into the sunset perhaps?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Coming or Going? GPS in Trouble

As Americans struggle metaphorically with where the country is heading comes news of an imminent loss of our literal sense of direction.

A GAO report on the $2 billion Air Force modernization of global position satellites warns that the system is at risk of failing as early as next year:

"If the Air Force does not meet its schedule goals for development of GPS IIIA satellites, there will be an increased likelihood that in 2010, as old satellites begin to fail, the overall GPS constellation will fall below the number of satellites required to provide the level of GPS service that the U.S. government commits to."

Such shortcomings would affect all GPS users, the GAO says, not only the military that relies on them but the rest of us who can't find our around without the devices on car dashboards and electronic gizmos.

To make things worse, there is Galileo, a European rival satellite navigation system scheduled to start rolling out later next year as Russia, India and China expand their own efforts.

The Obama Administration has to get moving on this so we don't have to depend on foreigners to tell us whether we're coming or going.

Biden's Bittersweet Speech

The Vice-President pinch-hit for his old friend Tim Russert yesterday and scored high on nostalgia.

Replacing the late Meet the Press host as the scheduled graduation speaker at Wake Forest University, Joe Biden recalled their 1970s arrival in Washington from blue-collar families "where we never had to wonder whether or not we were loved...

"We were both raised by parents who had an absolute conviction, an absolute belief in the promise of this country...We grew up in a time when our parents told us, and meant it and believed it, even though they were of modest means, that if we worked hard, played by the rules, did what we were supposed to, loved our country, there wasn’t a single thing we couldn’t do."

Biden seemed to be grieving not only for his lost friend but for an America that is almost unrecognizable after decades of greed and playing fast and loose with "the rules" of good behavior.

In true commencement oratory tradition, the Vice-President overcame nostalgia to pump up the diploma holders, telling them "you're about to graduate into a point in history where everything is going to change no matter what you do, but you can affect the change.”

He urged them to think positively: “Doing nothing, or taking history into our own hands and bending it, bending it in service of a better day. So embrace the moment. Don't shy away from it.”

If they can find jobs.

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Hero Close to Home

"CNN's Heroes" confers fame on so-called ordinary people reaching out to help others in extraordinary ways, this weekend a 57-year-old suburban single mother named Pam Koner who, inspired by a newspaper picture of a hungry child, started a network of 600 sponsors to provide families in 13 communities across the country with over 800,000 meals and counting.

My admiration for Pam Koner is intensified by knowing her since childhood as the daughter of close friends--Marvin Koner, a brilliant photographer (his picture of Martin Luther King and his family is on the wall next to me as I write this), and his widow Silvia, a large-hearted woman with a gift for caring and friendship who, when I turned 50, gave me my first party on the birthday I shared with her husband.

The news about Pam is a temptation to revive the old saying about the apple not falling far from the tree in an era that recalls the Great Depression, when the unemployed were reduced to selling apples on street corners to survive.

Obama and the Non-Fighting Irish

No one will bridge the passionate gap on abortion, but Barack Obama, as he has on other issues, spoke yesterday for those whose position can embrace doubts in their own beliefs and respect for those who disagree.

Amid boycotts and protests at Notre Dame, the President used differences on abortion, as he did about race during his campaign speech after the Jeremiah Wright uproar, to move the debate toward "common ground" and shared humanity.

"In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true," he told graduates, "have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith...

"But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

"This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness."

A striking impression of the protest was its relative civility, with many arguing against awarding the President an honorary degree but not against inviting him to speak at the graduation ceremony.

For those of passionate faith and those with none at all, that mood change in America may be the real meaning of what happened yesterday.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Damage Bush Is Still Doing

Frank Rich's New York Times column today, headed "Obama Can't Turn the Page on Bush," is a sad symptom of America's best and brightest still obsessing over eight years of a national nightmare to the detriment of what needs to be done now.

With an economy in shambles and the Mideast a potential nuclear tinderbox, the Obama Administration has its hands full without "a new commission, backed up by serious law enforcement, to shed light on where every body is buried."

Although the Bush gang--Cheney, Rumsfeld et al--was a disaster, the American people elected them twice (originally with the help of some of the now-outraged idealists who voted for Ralph Nader), but they are gone.

The only power they have now (pace Cheney) is to control our consciousness with debates over past torture that Obama has now outlawed, with squabbles over what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it, with new "revelations" that Rumsfeld was an arrogant, lying son of a bitch.

Nobody wants to forgive and forget, particularly those of us who spent years blogging and howling about Bush abuses, but living in the past is no recipe for undoing it.

Instead, it channels our passion into recrimination and self-righteousness when we should be getting on with the battles over health care reform, regulating Wall Street and the banks, finding the best balance of military power and diplomacy in the Middle East and the mind-numbing dilemmas that eight years of non-government have given us.

It will take brains not bile to concentrate on those issues, and that's where our energy should be going now.

What Bush, Cheney and the rest did was unforgivable, but the lessons of their folly are clear. Let them rant in interviews and memoirs as a sideshow like the political freaks they were and are, but get them off center stage. We don't need commissions to keep telling us what they did. The historians will do that job while we devote ourselves to cleaning up the mess and stop playing Madame Defarge.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Harry Reid Embarrassment

As Democrats struggle toward a bulletproof majority (pace Norm Coleman), their impotence to get together and legislate or even confirm White House appointees underscores once again the fact that their Senate Majority Leader is no Lyndon Johnson.

"Nothing is simple if you’re Harry Reid," Gail Collins writes in her New York Times column today, citing his loss of 27 Democrats on a credit-card reform bill to an amendment allowing tourists to carry guns in national parks among a string of other ineptitudes during what the Republicans like to call "one-party rule."

Two years ago the dean of political columnists, David Broder of the Washington Post, labeled him the Democrats' Alberto Gonzales, "a continuing embarrassment thanks to his amateurish performance," and with Obama in the White House, Reid's leadership skills have not noticeably improved.

Now Collins reviews his inability to get the President's choices, including his own Legal Counsel, confirmed "in a place that holds one important aspect of credit card reform is giving people the ability to pack a handgun at the Grand Canyon."

The Senate may have more than its share of clowns, but Reid is a dismal choice for ringmaster. Even in his barely populated home state of Nevada, the Majority Leader has ratings so low that, almost two years before he has face voters in 2010, his campaign has been grabbing for coattails by announcing that President Obama will headline a fundraiser for him later this month.

As Collins points out: "Ted Kennedy is sick and Robert Byrd is 91 and it’s a miracle some of the other ones can find their way to the Capitol. Even if you eventually get all 60 Democratic votes in the same room, how do you get them to do the same thing? You will remember that when Specter came over, Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska instantly said: 'They might have a 60-member majority. That doesn’t mean they have 60 votes.' Reid must have found the point Nelson was making less chilling than the fact that the senator kept referring to his own party as 'they.'"

Is Harry Reid who has been, as Broder notes, "assuredly not a man who misses many opportunities to put his foot in his mouth," the best crew chief for this fractious gang at a time when the President, and the country, need all the leadership they can get?

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Powell Counterattack on Cheney

Last Sunday's sneer that he preferred Rush Limbaugh to Powell ("I didn't know he was still a Republican") has inspired a response to Dick Cheney from Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff for Colin Powell, when he was Secretary of State.

In a blog post to The Washington Note, Wilkerson reveals that, starting in 2002, the torture Cheney is now defending "was not aimed at preempting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al Qaeda."

In a full-bore counterattack, Powell's former aide describes Cheney's role in the demise of the party:

"He and Rush Limbaugh seem to be its leaders now. Lindsay Graham, John McCain, John Boehner, and all other Republicans of note seem to be either so enamored of Cheney-Limbaugh (or fearful of them?) or, on the other hand, so appalled by them, that the cat has their tongues. And meanwhile fewer Americans identify as Republicans than at any time since WWII. We're at 21% and falling--right in line with the number of cranks, reprobates, and loonies in the country.

"When will we hear from those in my party who give a damn about their country and about the party of Lincoln?

"When will someone of stature tell Dick Cheney that enough is enough? Go home. Spend your 70 million. Luxuriate in your Eastern Shore mansion. Shoot quail with your friends--and your friends.

"Stay out of our way as we try to repair the extensive damage you've done--to the country and to its Republican Party."

Colin Powell has too much dignity to swat Dick Cheney this way, but it's gratifying that someone has done it for him, his party and the rest of the country.

Obama-Bush Word War

The Administration's verbosity is under bi-coastal attack today from two former Bush factotums.

Bush I speechwriter Peggy Noonan complains in the Wall Street Journal: "As the federal government claims ever greater powers, its language has become vague to the point of meaningless and meaningless to the point of menacing."

On his Los Angeles Times blog, Andrew Malcolm, who was once Laura Bush's press secretary, offers an "Obama Era Language Update," explaining how "terror" and "drug war" have been euphemized into "man-caused disasters" and "a public health issue requiring treatment more than enforcement."

Of the latter, Malcolm predicts "vaccinations against drive-by shootings and muggings."

Noonan meanwhile under the title, "What's Elevated, Health-Care Provider?" drubs Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for using expressions like "accessing affordable quality health care" instead of "going to the doctor."

After eight years of W's mangled simplifications like "axis of evil," the Obama crew's wonkery may indeed be fair game (Treasury Secretary Geithner recently took on a tutor in plain speaking), but "menacing" is more than bit much.

It was Ms. Noonan, after all, who had the first Bush saying, "Read my lips--no new taxes," and we all know how well that bit of straight talk worked out.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Senate Loan Sharks

The President is telling a town hall meeting in New Mexico today that they have a right not to be "ripped off" by credit-card issuers, the day after the Senate rejected a proposal to limit banks to the 15 percent interest rate of credit unions.

“When banks are charging 30 percent interest rates, they are not making credit available,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, who proposed the cap. “They are engaged in loan-sharking.”

But his colleagues, who have approved billions of bailout money for banks, voted him down with only 33 votes to enforce the limit as Sen. Chris Dodd, who chairs the banking committee, suggested the Federal Reserve "study" the question.

"Americans know that they have a responsibility to live within their means and pay what they owe," the President said last week. "But they also have a right to not get ripped off by the sudden rate hikes, unfair penalties and hidden fees that have become all too common."

The banking Mafia and their lobbyists don't agree, and they seem to have the muscle to enforce their will in the US Senate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Staying Clean in a Dirty War

The heart sinks at the ongoing struggle of a President who exalts American decency trying to maintain it in fighting enemies imbued with the holiness of a cause that sanctions any and all abuses of human beings.

The inner conflict is crystallized in his decision today to resist court-ordered release of photographs showing alleged torture of Mideast detainees following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Publication, he says, would be of no benefit to investigations being carried out and could put future inquiries at risk:"In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Today's decision, a reversal of his previous stand, inspires ACLU condemnation: “The Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government."

Those of us grateful for the contrast of Barack Obama with George W. Bush may be forgiven for not subscribing to this rhetoric. Transparency is an ideal to be ardently pursued, but it can't include exposing everything we've ever done in a dirty war to public view.

Isn't it enough that that Obama has definitively ordered an end to such behavior? Can't we express our sorrow at past wrongs without inflaming an Arab world that won't make fine distinctions between then and now? Just as we can't bring back the dead from a misbegotten war in Iraq, isn't the best way to honor them not to repeat the mistakes that took their lives?

There is a line between transparency and self-righteous breast-beating, and we're lucky to have a president who keeps trying to find it.

Exposed: HMO Torture Memo

As Dr. Scott Gottlieb, "a partner to a firm that invests in health-care companies," explains that the "surest way to intensify flaws in the delivery of health care is to extend a Medicare-like 'public option' into more corners of the private market," it seems only fair to balance the debate with a secret memo from the files of one of those enterprises in which the good doctor has such faith:

TO: Claims Prevention Department

FROM: President, HMO

Bills are being processed and paid without full use of our avoidance procedures. Such negligence impacts your company’s bottom line, let me review our guidelines:

1. Use the response “require more information from physician” to its full extent. Some providers fill in code numbers, diagnoses and dates of treatment. But who are these people? Can we trust them with the health of our insured not knowing when and where they went to medical school, how long they have been practicing, and whether they rent or own their Lexuses?

2. Handle phone queries properly. Quick answers deprive members of full participation in their care. For the persistent, employ your half-hour hold capability and, if that fails, tell them the computer is down and promise to call back. That will keep them close to their phones and away from doctors’ offices.

3. Don’t confuse claimants with data overload. Just indicate service is not covered because of a,b,c,d,z or some combination. Our forms make definitions of a,b,c,d,z easily comprehensible with the aid of a magnifying glass and legal dictionary.

4. Use “pre-existing condition” as a disqualification. If enrollees are treated for back pain or headaches, assume they had backs and heads before signing up. Are we to pay for problems that should have been treated in the past?

5. When all else fails, deny reimbursement with “This claim has been previously considered.” By the time the patient, physician, laboratory and hospital check with one another, no one will be sure who sent or received what. We should not pay twice or, better yet, once.

We will soon have new tools to aid in your work. A revised schedule of “customary fees” will reflect the global economy by factoring in provider charges of emerging nations. And our accountants are number-crunching the promising concept of a receding deductible.

Our new non-discriminatory policy of hiring applicants regardless of IQ, education or Attention Deficit Disorder will insure better performance in the future. Remember: A claim denied or delayed is a drop of lifeblood to the health of our organization.

Dr. Gottlieb and others may claim the memo is a hoax, but millions of Americans will testify that it understates the reality of what he glorifies as "inherently personal transactions between doctors and patients."

The Pariah Channel

If Barack Obama risks media overexposure, the no-shame threats to American values are getting equal time on the public stage.

With Dick Cheney leading the way, the should-be-hiding-in-disgrace are popping up everywhere. John Yoo, the torture memo author, writes a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Rupert Murdoch's book-publishing arm has signed up the memoirs of Sarah Palin, who helped wreck John McCain's presidential campaign with her aggressive ignorance.

If Karl Rove is a political analyst, can Bernie Madoff be far behind as a financial cable news commentator?

In an age long gone, as an editor and publisher, I declined to bid for the "inside stories" of criminals, crooks and celebrity liars, on the principle that reporting on their activities was a better journalistic and moral choice than going into business with them.

Silly me! I didn't know that I was being an unbearable gatekeeper against the public's bottomless right to know. Soon we may have a 24/7 pariah channel, or with Fox News on the job, would that be redundant?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Prudence Doesn't Pay--Much

Under all the boom-and-bust news, old-fashioned American caution and thrift still exist, but the exemplars of those virtues are not being rewarded for them.

Smaller banks across the country complain they are being tarred by stress-test results of the Citicorpses and Bank of Americas that are soaking up bailout money after turning the old-fashioned business of savings, checking accounts and loans into high-stakes gambling.

“Banking should not be exciting,” says a small-town Indiana banker. “If banking gets exciting, there is something wrong with it.”

Depositors are suffering, too. Those who have saved enough to take out certificates of deposit now find one-year rates barely averaging 1 percent as worried banks see their FDIC insurance premiums soaring to cover the cost of sobering up institutions that went on drunken-sailor sprees.

Meanwhile, back on Wall Street, buoyed by recent market gains, the fast-buck boys are starting their spiels again, a recurrence of euphoria alarming enough to turn the usually cheerful Arianna Huffington into Cassandra.

Prompted to caution by, of all people, Eliot Spitzer, Ms. Huffington recalls John Kenneth Galbraith's warnings about "the pathological weakness of the financial memory" and a "mass escape from reality" in America's past.

Prudence is getting a lot of press these days, but those who practice it aren't getting much else.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Being Depressed

The cover of yesterday's New York Times Magazine in jangled hand-printing reads "I have sat in shrinks' offices going on four decades now and talked about my wish to die the way other people might talk about their wish to find a lover." These words surround a small dark snapshot of a woman's face looking at the camera in utter despair.

I know that face, just as I know something about the feeling those words describe. A quarter of a century ago, the writer, Daphne Merkin, fresh out of college, worked for me at McCalls, a gifted young woman, more serious than most but glowing with ambition for the literary career that stretched ahead of her.

Now, in painful detail, she tells of a life since then in a black cloud of chronic depression punctuated by constant psychiatry and mounds of medication, ending in a hospital stay anguishing over whether or not to submit to ECT, electro-shock therapy.

Her thousands of words evoke the extreme of a condition I have lived with since childhood, suffered with in loved ones and anguished over with friends and colleagues. Her account will resonate with the afflicted and baffle those lucky enough to find it exotic, perhaps even self-indulgent.

Yet it is at the heart of modern life, as painful, debilitating and destructive as cancer. Psychiatry and pharmacology almost randomly seem to help some victims but fail those who are most directly connected to life and most vulnerable, as I once wrote about Marilyn Monroe and my best friend, the photographer Ed Feingersh, both of whom died in their thirties, unable to keep living with it.

Like them, Daphne Merkin seems to have suffered from that gift and used it to connect with other human beings as a writer, perhaps never more so than in this account of her struggles.

Even those who can't understand what she is going through may find something of themselves in her and wish her well for the future.

Life-and-Death Games

The health-care finals start in Washington today with the Obama home team hosting the all-stars who have made the American medical system one of the most expensive and least effective in the world.

The name of the game is cooperation as insurers, drug makers, hospitals et al come to the White House reportedly to announce "a voluntary plan to hold costs down, which health care industry officials involved in the effort say could save a family of four $2,500 a year in the fifth year, and a total of $2 trillion for the nation over 10 years. But there is no way of ensuring that the providers keep their promises, beyond publicizing their performance."

As a basketball fan, the President should recognize a fakeout when he sees one but, just in case, Paul Krugman has a head's up for him:

"What’s presumably going on here is that key interest groups have realized that health care reform is going to happen no matter what they do, and that aligning themselves with the Party of No will just deny them a seat at the table. (Republicans, after all, still denounce research into which medical procedures are effective and which are not as a dastardly plot to deprive Americans of their freedom to choose.)"

Behind all the trash talk this week will be the crucial contest over whether Congress will enact health-care reform that includes a government-sponsored option (Medicare-for-all) to give consumers a chance to buy care directly and pressure private insurers to improve what they offer.

Without that, they're just playing the same old games.

Cheney's Media Torture

After eight years in the Bush bunker, the former Vice-President is out waterboarding voters with interviews to make them confess that electing Barack Obama was a plot to subvert national security.

Dick Cheney capped his first hundred days as a voluble has-been with a "Face the Nation" appearance yesterday to illustrate Murray Kempton's classic definition of politicians as generals who watch the battle from afar and come down afterward to shoot the wounded.

His main target was a real general, Colin Powell, whose injuries leading up to the Iraq war were inflicted by Cheney's own twisted Scooter Libby intelligence used in Powell's speech to persuade the UN that Saddam Hussein had WMDs.

Asked to choose between Powell and Rush Limbaugh to represent Republican principles, Cheney did not hesitate to side with The Mouth, saying "my take on it was Colin had already left the party. I didn’t know he was still a Republican."

More and more, Cheney is looking like one of those Japanese soldiers discovered in caves long after World War II ended to emerge blinking in the daylight, convinced that their emperor was still on the throne. The difference is that they slunk off in silence, too shamed to be giving interviews.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A DiMaggio in the Age of Ramirez

His brother's death this weekend, coming right after the suspension of Manny Ramirez for drug use, recalls Joe DiMaggio as an American hero in a different century and a different world.

Dom, who died at 92, was one of three sons of an Italian immigrant fisherman to become major league baseball players and, like Joe, an All-Star. Family fame notwithstanding, after Pearl Harbor, the elder DiMaggios had to register as enemy aliens, were not allowed to travel more than five miles from home and had their fishing boat seized by the government.

In 1949, as the dominant figure in the game, Joe was the first to earn $100,000 in a time when players were indentured to their teams by law.

Now, in the era of free agency, Manny Ramirez will forfeit $7 million of his $25 million annual salary in a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test, a loss that far exceeds the total earnings of all the DiMaggios in their careers, adjusted for inflation any way you like.

But much more than money and drug use have changed. After he leaves the game, no one will be writing songs about Ramirez as Simon and Garfunkel did with "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you."

A few years after his retirement, I saw up close the mythic figure Joe DiMaggio had become. In a small gathering of friends, he was like a matador with an adoring entourage, saying little and smiling shyly.

A pair of middle-aged businessmen were brought in to shake hands and, posing for a Polaroid with DiMaggio's arms draped around them, years fell from their faces as they were boys again in the embrace of their idol.

Joe married Marilyn Monroe and, even after their divorce and her death, was sending flowers to her grave. In today's world, Alex Rodriguez has a brief affair with Marilyn wannabe Madonna that breaks up his marriage.

Years from now, A-Rod and Ramirez will still be rich and famous, but it's not likely that anyone will be writing songs about them.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Supreme Demographics

As Barack Obama, who changed the face of America's executive branch, prepares to name his first Supreme Court justice, speculation focuses as much on demography as it did during his presidential campaign last year.

Does he "have to" name a woman? Will his choice be a Hispanic woman or perhaps a Lesbian? Is political correctness running amok?

Not if you look back at Supreme Court history which, before the nasty Bork confirmation fight in 1987, is widely believed to have been beyond politics in a bipartisan search for the best legal minds available.

When FDR railed at the "nine old men" who blocked New Deal initiatives and made his ill-fated attempt to expand the Court by as many as six members, the only demographic issue was the naming of Jews, to the consternation of Justice James Clark MacReynolds, a Woodrow Wilson appointee and avowed anti-Semite who refused to talk to them or acknowledge their presence.

In those halcyon days, not long after women got the right to vote, the "best legal minds" were to be found almost exclusively in a white Protestant male gene pool that reflected not the diversity that Obama stresses but a minority of Americans that constituted a ruling elite.

Now that those barriers are down, there are heated arguments about which former outsiders have the strongest claim to representation, but when voters put Obama in the White House, they were giving him the power to decide what the redefinition of "best legal minds" should be for the 21st century.

After all the sound and fury die down, he will do just that.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Depoliticizing Prayer

After eight years of White House showboating on National Prayer Day, Barack Obama celebrated the event yesterday with a proclamation that emphasized the private nature of religious observance.

In his proclamation, the President noted that on "this day of unity and prayer," we "live in a nation where people of all faiths can worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience."

The Religious Right was not pleased, The marketing and media manager of the National Day of Prayer Task Force harrumphed: "The White House is a small part of what the national day of prayer is all about. Tomorrow there will be dozens of events held in our nation's capitol and governors from all 50 states have already issued proclamations...It would be belittling to those millions of people to reduce this day to merely one event not being held at the White House."

The irony in all this is that Obama, from all evidence, is more genuinely religious than Bush, who found his faith only when he was forced to give up booze in midlife.

Shortly before taking office, the President-in-waiting disclosed that he had been getting spiritual support every morning from "a prayer circle" of pastors from all faiths and denominations, some of whom "get on the phone and pray for me."

With the way the economy is going, even the most devout non-believer must be hoping that they are continuing their devotions.

Morning-Aftering the Meltdown

Congress is pushing through a 9/11-like bipartisan commission to root through the ruins of the economy, discover what happened and figure out how to avoid another meltdown, and the White House has signaled its approval.

With Democrats and Republicans already arguing over how many members each will pick, it promises to be an exercise in finger-pointing unless the lead investigators are imbued with the zeal and bite of the Pecora Commission that unearthed the causes of the 1929 market crash.

Back then, the inquiry started as a Republican whitewash of Wall Street that ran through three tame lead counsels until a bulldog New York assistant DA named Ferdinand Pecora took over and started grilling elite bankers and brokers to lay bare Wall Street abuses, up to and including the fact that J.P. Morgan, Jr. and his partners had not paid any income taxes for two years.

The issues are much more complicated now, and the Meltdown Commission investigators will need not only the subpoena power to root out wrongdoing but the expertise to trace and dissect the complex derivative deals that caused today's mess, and the members will have to have the background to understand what they find.

Congress will undoubtedly round up the usual suspects such as James Baker and Lee Hamilton, but this one could use a couple of Nobel economists who are not uncritical fans of the Obama Recovery campaign. Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz should be at the top of the list.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Washington Charade Week

These are days of political pantomime in which nothing is happening, but the Obama Administration is busy manufacturing reassuring pictures:

*The President poses with the elected leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, who preside over impotent, corrupt regimes, and expresses confidence: “We meet today as three sovereign nations joined by a common goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their ability to operate in either country in the future." The news on the ground tells a different story.

*Results of the bank stress tests are leaked in a flood of contradictory interpretations that inspire the stock market to rise as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner hires a key counselor--to help him persuade the public that the sky is not falling. It may not be, but we have no real way of knowing.

*The White House tells us a line-by-line scouring of the budget is saving $17 billion, but the fine print is that the amount is peanuts and, even so, is not likely to survive special-interest resistance.

Barack Obama promised us an end to "politics as usual"--theatrics and trivia to cover up what is unknown and unknowable--but we are still not ready for a president to tell us he doesn't know exactly what to do about nuclear weapons in a country threatened by murderous extremists or how to get the banks to stop stuffing their balance sheets and start lending again or how to control budget deficits in a time when government spending is needed to give the economy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

So we get the usual charades and photo ops. The bottom line may be depressing, but at least we have a relatively smart government looking for answers.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Presidential Libidos

The flogging today of John Edwards in the public square, aka the New York Times, raises the question of what relevance marital fidelity has to the qualifications of an American president.

Trust and truth-telling come to mind, of course, but it gets more complicated in looking back. JFK famously cheated on his wife, while Richard Nixon, as far as we know, was a faithful husband while betraying the country.

Jimmy Carter told Playboy he "lusted in my heart" but presumably overcame his desires to become a disastrously naive president.

Uxorious Ronald Reagan, Bush I (although there were rumors) and Bush II bracketed Bill Clinton, who couldn't keep it zipped but left office with a budget surplus and no wars.

Now the Obamas, as they have in so many areas, have upped the ante on connubial bliss, often holding hands and displaying a closeness most recently reflected in their sneaking out of the White House for a dinner date last Saturday night.

But how much do we need to know about presidential marriages?

Elizabeth Edwards has dragged her husband into the spotlight for, as Maureen Dowd writes, "a gratuitous peek into their lives, and one that exposes her kids, by peddling more dregs about their personal family life in a book, and exposes the ex-girlfriend who’s now trying to raise the baby girl, a dead ringer for John Edwards, in South Orange, N.J."

We could have all lived happily ever after without hearing the details of their marital wreckage and, more to the point, is it at all relevant to voters who did not otherwise sense that John Edwards was not to be trusted, even if he had never succumbed to the stalker who told him "You're so hot"?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Bank Stress Test Hustle

The process may tell us as much as the results, which are finally due later this week after many false starts.

The delays themselves indicate the government is negotiating stress-test grades with the recipients, and now a series of leaks has economists worried about the manipulation that is going on. What kind of truth will we see in this hall of mirrors?

Two headlines in the Wall Street Journal today encapsulate the doubts and fears: "More Banks Will Need Capital" and "We Can't Subsidize Banks Forever."

The latter proposes that banks be forced to sell all toxic assets, rather than cherry-pick them for cosmetic purposes, and that the government take tighter control in return for bailouts:

"(T)he government should stop providing capital, loan guarantees and financing with no strings attached. Banks should understand this. When providing loans to troubled companies, they place numerous restrictions, called covenants, on what these firms can do. These covenants generally restrict the use of assets, risk-taking behavior, and future indebtedness. It would be much better if the government focused on this rather than on its headline obsession with bonuses."

Meanwhile, as they always do, banks are paying off their shareholders while starving depositors with close-to-zero rates on their money.

A new study shows that "banks only marginally reduced dividends in the first 15 months of the crisis, paying out a staggering $400 billion in 2007 and 2008. While many banks have been reducing their dividends more recently, bank bailout money had been literally going in one door and out the other."

Among the big banks that will be at the government trough again after test results are announced will be Wells Fargo, partly owned by Warren Buffett, who at his stockholder meeting last week touted its strength and wished that he were legally allowed to own more of it.

Maybe the government should find a way to let that happen. Better him than us.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"A Grandmother to Kill For"

The Obamas' live-in babysitter gets her first-100-days report in the White House and, fittingly enough, Sally Quinn, the sharpest-tongued reporter of Mrs. Robinson's generation, delivers the verdict: “the perfect grandmother you’d kill for: cozy, nice, sweet, friendly, dear.”

“It seemed to me," Quinn says after meeting her at a lunch hosted by Teresa Heinz Kerry, "that she’s perfectly comfortable in her new life."

The Obamas may have been hoping for a full-time sitter, but it hasn't quite worked out that way.

"We're shuttling kids back and forth to play dates, just like usual," the First Lady says, "although now my mom does a little more of the shuttling than I do. I'm glad to have her here." But there's a but: "She has a very full social life, so much so that sometimes we have to plan our schedule around her schedule."

Mrs. Robinson, who at first resisted the move ("kicking and screaming," according to her son), has traded in her Chicago routine of friends, family and weekly yoga class for a taste of the Washington social whirl and seems to be savoring it.

Way to go, grandma.

Pakistan Nuclear Nightmare

With the repetitive rhythm of a bad dream, Pakistan keeps jarring America's sense of security, this week with the Washington visit of President Asif Ali Zardari, who will arrive with the usual assurances of stability while begging for more helicopters to fight off extremist insurgents.

As always, anonymous senior US officials warn they are "increasingly concerned about new vulnerabilities for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, including the potential for militants to snatch a weapon in transport or to insert sympathizers into laboratories or fuel-production facilities."

Yet, at his press conference last week, President Obama was confident that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were in safe hands with "strong military-to-military cooperation," while back in the Swat Valley Islamabad's deal with the Taliban was unraveling, and the sense of alarm in Washington obviously growing.

Somewhere in the background of this mess is the figure of A. Q. Khan, their former top scientist, who was jailed for selling technology to Iran and North Korea, among others, but released by Pakistan's Supreme Court in February to do who-knows-what in the proliferation black market as his country keeps expanding the size and number of its nuclear plants.

At the Washington summit this week, along with Afghanistan's tower of strength Hamid Karzai, Zardari will be assuring the White House and Congress that the upcoming $7.5 billion in aid, with perhaps a little more military hardware thrown in, will keep everything quiet in their neighborhood.

We have heard all this over and over again ever since 9/11, and it keeps ringing more and more hollow as time goes on. If the Obama Administration has some new formula of carrots and sticks, now is the time to use it so we can all stop having those bad nuclear dreams.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Obama's Grandmother and End-of-Life Care

How much time on earth is enough? How good does it have to be? What price are we willing to pay for it?

For decades, Americans have been debating when life begins, but now come the questions about the last days, as Barack Obama raises the hard fact that "those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill."

As usual, he sees the issue in human terms, recalling that "when my grandmother got very ill during the campaign, she got cancer...terminal. And about two or three weeks after her diagnosis she fell, broke her hip. It was determined that she might have had a mild stroke, which is what had precipitated the fall.

"So now she’s in the hospital, and the doctor says, Look...maybe you have three months, maybe you have six months, maybe you have nine months to live. Because of the weakness of your heart, if you have an operation on your hip there are certain risks that--you know, your heart can’t take it. On the other hand, if you just sit there with your hip like this, you’re just going to waste away and your quality of life will be terrible.

"And she elected to get the hip replacement and was fine for about two weeks after the hip replacement, and then suddenly...things fell apart.

"I don’t know how much that hip replacement cost. I would have paid out of pocket for that hip replacement just because she’s my grandmother. Whether...society making those decisions to give my grandmother, or everybody else’s aging grandparents or parents, a hip replacement when they’re terminally ill is a sustainable model, is a very difficult question."

Yet it is sitting there at the heart of health-care reform, as Obama anticipates "a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists" followed by a "democratic conversation" among all Americans.

"It is very difficult," he says, "to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels." An independent group can give guidance without being determinative, but politicians will ultimately have to find some answers.

One of them, Arlen Specter alluded to it on Meet the Press today. The 79-year-old senator, who has been battling Hodgins lymphoma for more than four years, said, "I would support advanced directives, where we find so much of medical care is paid for the in the last few hours or few days of a person's life. Not to tell people what to do on their care at that time, but have them, have them think about it."

It's going to be a difficult and emotional debate, not only for those of us who are directly affected, but for generations who love their parents and grandparents. It is time to start.

Swine Flu Economics: Good News

The Wall Street pandemic may go away. Warren Buffett gave his State of the Union Address yesterday and offered some hope to the frightened populace, and Robert Shiller, the irrational-exuberance expert, says the current Depression scare has been "relatively mild."

"In the last few months you've seen a real pickup in activity although at much lower prices," Buffett said during the annual Omaha stockholder pilgrimage, citing data from Berkshire Hathaway's huge real estate brokerage business.

The slowdown of new housing starts from 2 million a year to the current 500,000 will ease the crisis. "We're going to eat up inventory," he predicted. "That may take a couple of years. When it gets done you will have stabilization in housing prices. Then you will have demand for more housing starts."

In a New York Times OpEd today, Shiller, who specializes in market bubbles, comforts us with the news that this Depression scare may dissipate because we as consumers of economic news are too stupid to understand it.

During earlier Depression scares, he writes, "out-of-control inflation was widely visible, but today many people haven’t personally experienced rising unemployment and foreclosures. And it’s possible that the optimistic tone of the president and the Fed has assuaged some fears, and that people might believe that the government is fixing their problems.

"This time, the reasons to fret about a possible depression may seem less concrete. For most people, the worries that consume economists and accountants, about things like bank stress-test results or the 'OIS-Libor spread,' are rather hard to comprehend."

But it is still not time to breathe easier. Buffett warned his shareholders that government stimulus efforts could infect both Berkshire Hathaway and its subsidiary, the US economy, with higher inflation.

So don't put away the fiscal face masks and vaccines quite yet.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Souter's Tears

In his 2007 book about the Supreme Court, "The Nine," Jeffery Toobin wrote about David Souter's reaction to the decision that gave George W. Bush the presidency:

"His whole life was being a judge. He came from a tradition where the independence of the judiciary was the foundation of the rule of law. And Souter believed Bush v. Gore mocked that tradition. His colleagues’ actions were so transparently, so crudely partisan that Souter thought he might not be able to serve with them anymore.

"Souter seriously considered resigning. For many months, it was not at all clear whether he would remain as a justice. That the Court met in a city he loathed made the decision even harder. At the urging of a handful of close friends, he decided to stay on, but his attitude toward the Court was never the same. There were times when David Souter thought of Bush v. Gore and wept."

Souter's resignation now as a healthy 69-year-old man, after Obama's first hundred days, gives weight to Toobin's assertion, which raised doubts at the time, and underscores President Obama's declaration yesterday:

“I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives.”

Souter couldn’t have said it better, but he actually did, soon after his swearing-in in 1990:

"The first lesson, simple as it is, is that whatever court we're in, whatever we are doing, at the end of our task some human being is going to be affected. Some human life is going to be changed by what we do. And so we had better use every power of our minds and our hearts and our beings to get those rulings right."

The confirmation of a successor will almost certainly be an occasion for venting by Republicans in disarray and liberal Obama supporters unhappy over his failure to be ideologically correct on every issue, but Souter's tears, real or not, may be the best metaphor for what's at stake.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Obama Beyond the Sound Bites

His press conferences are dazzling performances, but to get a glimpse of Barack Obama in the round takes the oldest journalistic setting of all, an extended one-on-one interview by David Leonhardt for this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.

Under questioning to show his state of mind rather than elicit sound bites, we get a picture of how the President sees the economic crisis in the long run beyond the bailouts and fixes.

"The critics have said, you’re doing too much, you can’t do all this at once," he observes. "Congress can’t digest everything. I just reject that. There’s nothing inherent in our political process that should prevent us from making these difficult decisions now, as opposed to 10 years from now or 20 years from now...

"It is true that as tough an economic time as it is right now, we haven’t had 42 months of 20, 30 percent unemployment. And so the degree of desperation and the shock to the system may not be as great. And that means that there’s going to be more resistance to any of these steps: reforming the financial system or reforming our health care system or doing something about energy...

But part of my job I think is to bridge that gap between the status quo and what we know we have to do for our future."

One of his goals in "the post-bubble economy," Obama says, is "restoring a balance between making things and providing services, whether it’s marketing or catering to people or servicing folks in some way. Those are all good jobs, and we’re not going to return to an economy in which manufacturing is as large a percentage as it was back in the 1940s"

He cites a campaign visit to a Seattle plant where welders and tradesmen were retrofitting buildings: "They’re not performing the same kind of manufacturing that their fathers might have, but with similar skill sets they are now making hospitals and schools and office buildings much more energy efficient, and...providing enormous value to the economy as a whole."

For such a future, the President points to "the smart grid," a huge project to modernize energy use, which is being hampered because "we don’t have enough trained electricians to lay down those lines." Government, he says, can help with "matching up the training with the need out there."

In looking at today's work force, Obama questions the level of education today by citing his grandmother who never went to college but worked her way up to being a bank vice-president. She "could write a better letter" than some of his former students at the University of Chicago Law School, he says.

As he pursues what he calls his "ruthless pragmatism" on the economy, Obama is asked about public impatience about not seeing improvement fast enough.

"In some ways it’s liberating," he says, "in the sense that whether I’m a one-termer or a two-termer, the problems are big enough and fundamental enough that I can’t sort of game it out. It’s not one of these things where I can say, Oh, you know what, if I time it just right, then the market is going to be going up and unemployment will be going down right before re-election. These are much bigger, much more systemic problems. And so in some ways you just kind of set aside the politics."

Washington Bank Heist

Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because that's where the money is, but it was never their money. They only handle and maneuver it around, like parking lot attendants.

Yet, according to Sen. Dick Durbin, after smashing up financial vehicles and taking taxpayer billions for repairs, when it comes to the US Senate, banks "frankly own the place."

As he tried unsuccessfully to line up votes to help avoid foreclosures in bankruptcy, Durbin told voters that though it's "hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created," they "are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill."

In the lull before the Obama Administration announces results of bank stress tests, there is growing sentiment for getting tougher on the keepers of the keys.

Sheila Bair, head of the FDIC, in a speech this week called for an end to the "too big to fail" philosophy that has allowed banks to hold a gun to the government's head.

“Taxpayers," she said, "should not be called on to foot the bill to support nonviable institutions because there is no orderly process for resolving them.”

The President himself foresees an end to "the massive leveraging and the massive risk-taking that had become so common," but his economic team so far has been tiptoeing around the banking industry and their Wall Street cousins, hoping to bribe and cajole them into less greed and more responsible behavior.

The time is coming to sweep out the parking lot and get new attendants who can remember who really owns the money they keep jockeying around for their own profit.