Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sentimental Chicago Cops

In 1968, what happened at the Democratic Convention was called "a police riot," but surviving officers held a reunion this weekend to celebrate what they remember as Custer's last stand for democracy.

The invitation assured attendees they were “the only thing that stood between Marxist street thugs and public order.”

As a witness to their efforts, arriving on a delegates' bus, I recall them surrounding the barbed-wire enclosed meeting site with battle gear, prompting a seatmate to advise, "If they ask you to take a shower, don't."

They were ubiquitous inside. One barred me from entering an area that my delegate badge entitled me to, nodding at Mayor Richard J. Daley seated front and center at the head of the Illinois contingent. "You guys pick presidents," he said, "but you know who's running this convention."

Outside, they were tear-gassing, clubbing and herding protesters, including a billy club across the backside of reclusive Hugh Hefner when he ventured from the Playboy Mansion to witness the action.

As they reminisced at their reunion, the retired cops could bask in the continuity of power in their domain, with Daley's son still running Chicago in a dynasty rivaling that of the Dear Leader's family in North Korea.

As the first Mayor Daley famously said on TV back then, "The police aren't there to create disorder, they're there to preserve disorder." They certainly did.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Non-Profit-News News

A report in today's Washington Post raises questions about what's happening to the American economy, government and journalism.

Headlined "How a Loophole Benefits GE in Bank Rescue," it details how the world's largest company wormed its way into the Obama bailout and profited from issuing almost a quarter of the $340 billion in debt backed by the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, qualifying by owning two small Utah banks but at the same time escaping regulation of its huge financial operations.

The story exposes one element in a complex process but, beyond that, in its provenance, reflects wider problems in helping the public understand what's going on under the surface of government handouts and conventional reporting in these days of shrinking investigative journalism.

The Post notes: "This article was reported jointly with Jeff Gerth of ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. ProPublica is supported entirely by philanthropy and provides the articles it produces, free of charge, both through its own Web site and to leading news organizations."

It's not only disturbing to find such charity behind the work of Washington's hometown news source but to consider the complications of how much attention it will generate in such GE-owned media outlets as NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

Half a century of working in journalism and as a media critic have made me leery of conspiracy theories, but it will be interesting to see how much, if any, play this particular news gets tonight from Brian Williams, Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Jim Cramer and other corporate employees.

It's same to assume that the President of GE won't be on the list of contenders for Worst Person in the World.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Disparity in Marital Smarts

That new soap opera, "The Sanfords of South Carolina" revives interest in a subject that intrigued me over decades of editing women's magazines--the sexual politics of two-career marriages.

Working with ambitious women in their twenties and thirties, I was struck by how different their lives were from the Father-knows-best ethos of earlier generations. They weren't holding jobs, as most of their mothers did, only until they could start homemaking and procreating.

In those "dormitory marriages," there were fascinating variations of relationships between equals or, human nature being what it is, unequals on either side. In many cases, the wives were much smarter, sharper and more competent.

The Sanfords look like one of those couples. In a society that still gives power more easily to men (pace Todd Palin), however, a successful woman like Jenny Sanford has to morph from a New York investment banker to a helpmeet who "largely gave up her professional life and turned to helping her husband’s political career" even as she refused "to abandon her sense of identity, her direction, or her own opinions."

His wife successfully managed campaigns for Congress and the statehouse while rearing four sons, but for Mark Sanford, such a powerhouse performance may have been hard on the libido, leaving him vulnerable to "a dashing new version of himself," as Maureen Dowd puts it, in the eyes of an exotic stranger.

Sanford's downfall is a sad example of a society that is still struggling with the idea of powerful women (Hillary Clinton supporters had a lot to say about that last year and Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings may revive the subject next month).

Without making a Joan or Arc out of Jenny Sanford (her outward perfection may have been daunting to live with), however, it seems safe to assume that her husband's disappearance from the political scene won't deprive the nation of a strong, gifted leader. If and when she dumps him, Mrs. Sanford might think about running for something herself. When it comes to brains these days, Y chromosomes don't count.

Michael Jackson's Ultimate Career Move

His passing is yet another reminder of how pop culture consumes its icons. At 50, Michael Jackson outlived Elvis by almost a decade, but neither was destined for the old age that Sinatra and Bing Crosby reached in an earlier era.

When Presley died in 1974, he was a grotesque caricature of himself, obese and drug-damaged, planning a comeback tour, but a cynic called his sudden death on a bathroom floor "a great career move" for an entertainer who was barely able to stand up while slurring his way through abbreviated concerts.

Now, amid all the outpouring of grief over a figure who meant so much to millions, there is the reality that Michael Jackson, emaciated and worn out, was dreading a comeback tour of his own and reportedly told fans after a recent rehearsal, "I don’t know how I’m going to do 50 shows...I need to put some weight on. I’m really angry with them booking me up to do 50 shows. I only wanted to do ten."

Now, celebrity vultures like Jesse Jackson and Deepak Chopra are stirring the publicity pot for new autopsies and investigations of doctors who were prescribing the multiple pills that Michael Jackson, like Elvis, was using to try to sustain a life that had spun out of control.

Those who remember the joy he brought into their lives will not be consoled by the search for someone to blame for losing him. The cynic may have been right after all. When the book closes on such lives, the careers remain, complete and intact.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Congress' Iffy Insider Trading

Members of the House Financial Services Committee were wheeling and dealing in the stocks of banks they were about to bail out last fall, a revelation that may test Congress' rock-bottom approval ratings.

Both Democrats and Republicans were scurrying to profit from cashing in or out, according to enterprising reporters from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who mined disclosure forms for the fourth quarter of 2008:

"Anticipating bargains or profits or just trying to unload before the bottom fell out, these members of the House Financial Services Committee or brokers on their behalf were buying and selling stocks including Bank of America and Citigroup--some of the very corporations their committee would later rap for greed."

Compounding the news of such avarice is the suggestion that some were inept at it.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Florida Republican, bought Citigroup stock the day before the House passed the rescue bill and President Bush signed it into law. She voted against it. The stock, which closed at $22.50 a share the day she acquired it, is now worth $3.

The Plain Dealer reports that "members of the Financial Services Committee were privy to closed-door discussions, staff briefings and political horse-trading decisions between political parties, Congress and the White House. Banks lobbied Congress and the administration heavily."

At least one of them missed the point.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Taking Obama's Measure

With ten percent of his term in office gone, Barack Obama is being graded from the left and right and, not surprisingly, found to be doing (1) not enough and (2) too much.

(1) Paul Krugman faults him for "Not Enough Audacity," praising "Barack the Policy Wonk, whose command of the issues--and ability to explain those issues in plain English--is a joy to behold" but faulting "Barack the Post-Partisan, who searches for common ground where none exists, and whose negotiations with himself lead to policies that are far too weak."

(2) Peggy Noonan sees "a persistent sense of extraneous effort, of ambitions too big and yet too small, too off point, too base-pleading, too ideological, too unaware of the imperatives. And there is the depressing psychological effect of seeing government grow so much, so big, so fast. This encourages a sense that things are out of control and cannot be made better."

Somewhere between these polar views may be many who are less outspoken but trust Obama's instincts and judgment and, given the challenges he has to face, are willing to cut him some slack when he seems to be moving too fast or too slowly or trying to do too little or too much but won't hesitate to criticize him when we think he's going off course.

The opinion polls are getting iffy, but we still seem to be in a majority (pace Rush Limbaugh) who understand that, if Obama fails, we all do.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The President as TV Pitchman

The White House and ABC are taking flak for their health care infomercial last night for the wrong reasons.

As usual, the objections are political, with Republicans complaining about the lack of a response with their side of the issue, but Americans would not have been well-served by giving GOP equal time for their usual carping about socialized medicine.

What's disturbing is seeing the White House as the locale for a special edition of "Primetime," heavily larded with commercials, in a format making a pitchman of the President with tendentious questioners being used as props.

Barack Obama has more verbal dexterity and charm than any late-night TV host, but it's demeaning and far from edifying to see him in that role, competing for ratings with "CSI:NY."

This leads to glib and unpersuasive answers about serious issues as the role of a public plan to compete with private insurers and the soaring costs of end-of-life care.

If the White House and the networks want to educate voters, let them put the President at a table with experts on medical economics and ethics for a discussion without news anchors controlling the clock and fishing for sound bites.

Such a show would not draw prime-time audience figures, but countless Americans who truly care about the country's future would be willing to stay up late or take time out from weekend leisure to listen and learn.

The White House should be aiming less for ratings than bringing those who are interested into the national debate.

Sanford Smitten

To a pair of ancient eyes, the fallen Governor of South Carolina has the hapless look of Edward VIII giving up the throne of England in 1936 for "the woman I love," a man undone by unexpected passion after a lifetime of being trained to follow all the rules of a straight-laced society.

The bizarre details of his downfall testify to the emotions that must have overcome Mark Sanford--an Eagle Scout on his way to a presidential nomination suddenly disappearing, on Father's Day weekend no less, into his own secret world and returning to confess publicly with the dazed look of a man with no rational explanation for his behavior.

Sanford is not in the mold of Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Ensign, David Vitter, Eliot Spitzer and all those hypocritical politicians who cheat on their wives and voters for the erotic pleasure to which they feel entitled. Impulsively running off to Argentina and getting caught is not their style.

The Republican presidential field is now left to straight arrows like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and other superior figures of personal morality, but there is a pang over the loss of a middle-aged romantic writer of e-mails like this:

"You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light--but hey, that would be going into sexual details..."

Stylistically squishy, but surely the words of someone as honestly smitten as the man who gave up a throne for passion.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Carterizing Obama

John McCain, who relaxed during last year's campaign by improvising a "Bomb Iran" ditty, is back to lead a Republican chorus taunting Barack Obama as another Jimmy Carter.

The tune is familiar, but the words are all wrong. Three decades ago, Carter dealt with a vulnerable revolution in Iran by fumbling every move from allowing the deposed Shah into the US to watching American Embassy hostages in Tehran paraded on TV for 444 days with time out for a lethally inept rescue attempt.

Now, as Roger Cohen writes from Tehran, "Iran’s 1979 revolution took a full year to gestate. The uprising of 2009 has now ended its first phase. But the volatility ushered in by the June 12 ballot-box putsch of Iran’s New Right is certain to endure over the coming year. The Islamic Republic has been weakened."

Unlike Carter, who tried to placate and then was overwhelmed by forces he could not control, Obama has been firm and statesmanlike in denouncing tyranny in Iran without be seen as pouring gasoline on the fire in the streets, reiterating that "the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran's affairs.

"But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place."

The images of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman killed in the street protests, will endure as witness to a brutal regime but by themselves will not bring it down any more than the 1970 Kent State killings of four students unseated Richard Nixon back then. Yet four years later he was gone.

As a student of history, Obama understands the difference between an historical process and red-meat rhetoric, even if McCain and his GOP pygmy imitators don’t. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, those of us who knew Jimmy Carter in his prime can testify that Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter.

Not even close.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sin in Nevada

In the state where marriage is a union between a man and a woman and the senator they both work for, John Ensign is still running ahead of Harry Reid in approval ratings and is now busy apologizing, not to his wife, but Senate colleagues for embarrassing them.

Members of both parties greeted him warmly in Washington yesterday, and Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander cited Ensign’s decision to give up his position of Policy Committee chairman as “a substantial step...an act of contrition.”

Ensign's transgression, reported to Fox News by a confused husband seemingly unsure of whether he was seeking money or moral vindication, has to be seen in the context of Nevada as America's oasis from Puritanism, where quickie divorces were invented, legal brothels flourish and the Mafia created casinos to relieve tourists of their inhibitions and life savings.

In this setting, immortalized by movies from "The Misfits" to "The Godfather," the real scandal may be not Ensign's peccadillo but Harry Reid's ineptitude in figuring the odds to get anything done as Majority Leader of the Senate.

That kind of sin is unforgivable.

Left, Right and Wrong on Health Care

If you doubt that liberal and conservative have lost all meaning in the health care debate, consult the New York Times' columnists of those persuasions.

On the left, Paul Krugman predicts reform "will be undermined by 'centrist' Democratic senators who either prevent the passage of a bill or insist on watering down key elements...

"What the balking Democrats seem most determined to do is to kill the public option, either by eliminating it or by carrying out a bait-and-switch, replacing a true public option with something meaningless. For the record, neither regional health cooperatives nor state-level public plans, both of which have been proposed as alternatives, would have the financial stability and bargaining power needed to bring down health care costs."

On the right, David Brooks insists: "We’ve built an entire health care system (maybe an entire government) on the illusion of something for nothing. Instead of tackling that basic logic, we’ve got a reform process that is trying to evade it."

Brooks argues for a plan by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Robert Bennett to repeal tax exemptions for insurance premiums and provide universal coverage. "The Wyden-Bennett bill has 14 bipartisan co-sponsors and the Congressional Budget Office has found that it would be revenue-neutral," he claims, but Senate Committee leaders of both parties are concentrating instead on "grand rhetoric and superficial cost containment."

The political hot air on Capitol Hill is filled with nonsense from both sides of the aisles, and so far the White House has been unwilling to make them stop the political blather and face reality.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Crotchety Catchers in the Rye

Nobody wants to hear about the failure of American fathers on this day of greeting cards and long-distance phone calls, but J.D. Salinger is still around suing people to protect Holden Caulfield and remind generations how they felt let down by parents who were "phonies."

Holden lives in the American imagination as the adolescent who kept picturing "all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them."

In his rescue fantasy, parents were unable or unwilling to save their kids from going over the crazy cliff called grownup life. Now another writer wants to appropriate Salinger's alter ego and show "the precocious and self-satisfied 16-year-old Holden" as "a 76-year-old version of himself fraught with indecision and insecurity.”

The copyright laws will likely uphold the efforts of Salinger, now 90, to protect his creation and save us all the indignity of having our noses rubbed in the reality of not living up to adolescent dreams and having turned out to be "phonies" just like the parents we disdained back then.

A more generous estimate on this sentimental day might be that we all tried to be catchers in the rye but that our arms were just not long enough.

Health Care Horror Show

After eight years in a Bush coma, Congress is busy "working" again and proving it doesn't work. The health care debate is a classic of evasions, non-sequiturs, empty rhetoric and lobbyist lies to patch together reform that will look like a Frankenstein monster with a Dr. Strangelove deception at the heart.

Despite public support for a government insurance plan, House and Senate members are going through contortions to craft something to look like one but guaranteed to fail.

Even Tom Daschle, the President's derailed first choice for health czar, has had an opinion transplant. Last year, he wrote a book arguing that a single-payer health care system would be fair, effective and save billions of dollars. Now he has joined has-been Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker to oppose a federal insurance plan.

"We've come too far and gained too much momentum for our efforts to fail over disagreement on one single issue," Daschle now says.

This recalls the classic response of a general in "Dr. Strangelove" who, being asked how a system designed to avoid nuclear devastation has allowed a failure that is about to blow up the world, "Well, I don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir."

The military metaphor seems apt in the circumstances. As a nation, we don't outsource wartime safety of citizens to private contractors (with the exception of Blackwater, which proves the point). Why then has saving lives in peacetime become a for-profit enterprise that clearly isn't working for individuals and is endangering the whole economy to boot?

Is socialized medicine any more of a threat to the American way of life than a socialized Armed Forces?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Daniel Pearl With a Happy Ending

The escape of a New York Times reporter from seven months of captivity in Pakistan recalls the shock of Daniel Pearl's beheading there seven years ago and prompts second thoughts about the uses of secrecy in a tell-all media age.

Unlike Pearl's captors, the kidnappers of David Rohde did not release videos of their work, and his family and employers chose to maintain secrecy in trying to arrange his release.

“From the early days of this ordeal," says Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, "the prevailing view among David’s family, experts in kidnapping cases, officials of several government and others we consulted was that going public could increase the danger to David and the other hostages. The kidnappers initially said as much. We decided to respect that advice.”

Other news organizations went along, and after climbing over a wall with an Afghani reporter who had been captured with him, Rohde is on his way back to his family, a rare happy ending in a time when political murder is a public act, and journalists are both the targets and, unwillingly or not, accomplices in the spectacle.

Add that as a postscript to the debate on "the public's right to know" everything in the Age of Transparency.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ex-Presidents' Flying Circus

As Bush 41 jumps from a plane to celebrate his 85th birthday, Jimmy Carter, a few months younger, parachutes into the Middle East with his own foreign policy for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and now Bush 43 is getting into the look-at-me act.

"Just because you're an old guy, you don't have to sit around drooling in the corner," the elder Bush said after landing safely in Kennebunkport last week. "Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life."

Such fatherly advice may have inspired George W., who is now out drooling in public about his successor's efforts to fix an economy that fell apart on his watch.

"I know it's going to be the private sector that leads this country out of the current economic times we're in," he tells applauding Pennsylvania business people. "You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money."

The acrobatic aspect of W's act is to hammer Obama's policies while bending over backward to maintain a vow not to criticize his successor.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Jimmy Carter is plunging full steam ahead in the china shop, bashing Israel and meeting with Hamas leaders (while escaping a reported plot of theirs to kill him), with a reprise of his White House boobery that failed three decades ago to free American hostages in Iran or stop Castro from exporting criminals and mental cases to Florida with the Mariel boatlift.

During the transition earlier this year, Barack Obama kept repeating a mantra of "one president at a time," a prudent approach as well for those whose 15 minutes of fame has expired.

Bush 41's geriatric parachuting may only make his Secret Service detail a little jumpy, but Bush 43 and Carter have the potential to be seriously annoying with their antics in the Ex-Presidents' Flying Circus.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Senate Body Snatchers

Judd Gregg, who agreed to become Obama's Commerce Secretary until someone reminded him he was a Republican, set off a round of name-dropping in the Senate debate on health care today.

“This is a greased slide to single-payer," he said of the Democrats' proposal. "It’s not about the issue of care. It’s not about the issue of coverage. It’s more about the issue of control...What it is about really is centralizing control right here amongst folks who think they really know how to run something from a central system.”

Gregg, who has had trouble running his own career, was admonished by Sen. Barbara Mikulski: "Well...This bill has just been accused of being somehow or another a combination between Rube Goldberg and Karl Marx. However, our current system is a combination of Adam Smith, Darth Vader and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. So I like our plan the better."

Chris Dodd joined in, asking "“Do I look like a body snatcher?” and, looking over at Gregg, said, “Don’t answer that question, Judd.”

Hilarity aside, the next time Obama wants a Republican cadaver for his Cabinet, the diggers should check for brain damage first.

Obama Fatigue

After five months in office, his whirlwind presidency is taking a toll on the President in more ways than one.

Worrying about the economy "keeps me awake at night," he told an interviewer yesterday.

At the same time, signs of Obama Fatigue are showing up among his own party in Congress over the massive muddle of health care reform. His tireless cheer-leading has failed to paper over Democratic differences and delayed markup this week of competing bills to expand coverage and rein in out-of-control costs.

In what could be a Summer of Discontent, worries by and over a President who, depending on critics' politics, has too much on his plate or is overreaching keep surfacing daily.

"I am concerned," he admitted yesterday, "about our long-term debt because if we don't get a handle on that then there's no doubt that at some point whether it's the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, whoever else has been snatching up Treasuries are going to decide that this is too much of a risk."

Meanwhile, as he prepares to announce a new plan for regulating the financial system, there are reports of in-fighting among the regulators even after efforts to achieve a broad consensus outside the White House.

At the rate that Barack Obama is spending his mandate, even his most ardent admirers will soon need time to catch their breaths for the marathon of Change in the three and a half years ahead. The headwinds are getting stronger.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tougher Than Thou on Iran

To post-election turmoil in Tehran, Washington reaction is shaping up as a classic round of mock macho, ranging from John McCain's twittering down to Eric Cantor's schoolyard taunting of the Obama Administration.

Faced with the unknowable depth, duration and consequences of opposition to Ahmadinejad's "victory," the White House is limiting itself to expressions of concern and disapproval, but carefully avoiding an active role in fomenting discord in Iran.

That's not good enough for today's Republicans in an age where the rule that politics stops at the water's edge is only a memory.

On the Today Show, McCain insists that Iran "should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics,” urging that Obama “should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, as befits his 2012 presidential delusions, as substantive as those self-promoted rumors about being considered as McCain's running mate last year, goes even further:

"The Administration’s silence in the face of Iran’s brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Middle East. President Obama must take a strong public position in the face of violence and human rights abuses. We have a moral responsibility to lead the world in opposition to Iran’s extreme response to peaceful protests."

The Wall Street Journal is cheer-leading the GOP's macho moves on Obama, declaring three days after the election, "Rarely in U.S. history has a foreign policy course been as thoroughly repudiated by events as his approach to Iran in his first months in office. Even Jimmy Carter drew roughly appropriate conclusions about the Iranian regime after the hostages were taken in 1979."

Such static is no less damaging for being so predictable and feckless. McCain, for one, might want to think back to his own and Al Gore's experiences with a "sham of an election" in 2000 and consider how he would have responded to Iranian bloviating about "people being deprived of their rights."

There is room for debate about the Obama Administration's ultimate response to the events in Tehran, but voters last year opted for statesmanship rather than political posturing on the world stage. Carping from the cheap seats was not on the menu.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Health Care Horse Trading

In President Obama's house call on the AMA today, the medicine may be coated with a little sugar for doctors that will be a bitter pill for lawyers, setting limits on malpractice suits.

Such horse trading is par for the course in politics, but when the legislation gets into the final stretch, bedside manner won't be able to sooth away the critical issue--a public plan to keep private insurers honest.

Today's Wall Street Journal plays Paul Revere, sounding the alarm that "The 'Public Plan' Would Be the Only Plan," arguing that "It's impossible for private insurers to 'compete' with government." Such despair over free markets is unusual for the Journal and will certainly come as news to FedEx and e-mail providers who never should have challenged the federal postal system.

The air will be filled this week with similar pitches for sticking with old-time elixirs and, for the first time in quite a while, voters have a chance to lean on their Congressional barkers with messages through all channels about their wishes.

One of my own, Joe Lieberman, asserts there is "a real opportunity to do this year what we've been trying to do for years...reform American health care. I think the one thing that will stop that is pressure on the so-called public option. Let's get something done instead of having a debate."

I'll be sending back Dr. Lieberman's snake oil prescription with one of my own, hoping that millions of others, including the Physician-in-Chief, will do the same for Washington's political quacks.

Spy Hard

News from two-thirds of the former Axis of Evil raises questions about whether US intelligence services are doing their jobs. How much do they really know about what's going on in Iran and North Korea?

The meaning of election results from Tehran and insight into Kim Jong-il's successor are as opaque as they would have been in a world without air travel, computers, satellites and huge budgets for undercover agents.

As they defend themselves over torturing prisoners who may or may not have known anything worth knowing, how skilled can our spy services be if what we find out about the new dictator of a nuclear-armed North Korea comes from a photo of him at age 11 and the 2003 memoirs of a sushi chef who met him when he was 7?

In a New Yorker interview, the new CIA director Leon Panetta stresses the need for the agency to increase its foreign-language skills and recruit officers of more diverse backgrounds who can infiltrate hostile parts of the world, but he seems to be hamstrung by dealing with the fallout from the torture debate. How long will it take to clean that up and start concentrating on today's global threats?

The unrest in Iran is outwardly murky, but how much do our government insiders know about what's happening under the radar?

Vice-President Joe Biden says on Meet the Press that "there’s some real doubt” about the election result, but “the decision has been made to talk” about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The White House may know more about whom we will be talking to and under what circumstances than they are telling us. But given the state of our spying after eight years of Bush-Cheney law-breaking and bungling, what are the odds?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Palin-Letterman Privacy Pox

The Great Cultural Divide has split wider open with the Queen of Low-Rent Resentment and the Sultan of Snark in open warfare, leaving those who still hope for rational public discourse waiting for it all to go away so we can talk about boring subjects like health care reform and saving the economy.

Yet somewhere between Sarah Palin's aggressive anti-elitism and David Letterman's snidely assumed superiority, there is an issue beyond the need of politicians and media figures to keep calling attention to themselves--questions of privacy and boundaries,

Letterman critics are crying foul with claims of child abuse and misogyny in his joke about Palin's daughter and A-Rod, but is hanging the appropriate penalty for bad taste (see Imus, nappy-headed ho's), as a New York lawmaker insists in a letter to CBS?

Such posturing aside (the Late Show host is about to sign a new three-year deal for an estimated $90 million plus), the more interesting question is about the lengths to which Gov. Palin herself is willing to exploit her children for political gain, going so far as to willfully distort Letterman's admittedly bad joke about her 18-year-old daughter into one about a 14-year-old.

Fake outrage is a time-honored political ploy, but the Palin family is breaking new ground here, as they did at the Republican convention last year by having the high-school stud who impregnated the older girl smiling and waving at the TV cameras and then, after the baby was born, exchanging public insults with him for reneging on his promise to marry her and cashing in on the fame they handed him with TV interviews of his own.

This upward spiral of trading privacy for political gain is so dizzying that it's possible to be offended by Letterman's bad taste while feeling the object of it is dragging American politics to new lows.

Now can we talk about serious matters like Stephen Colbert's haircut in Iraq and guest-editing an issue of Newsweek?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jeremiah Wright to the Rescue

With the killings of a Kansas abortion doctor and at the Holocaust Museum, group hatred in this year of Change was losing its bipartisan flavor, but here comes Barack Obama's former pastor from stage left to restore some balance and, insofar as the subject allows, comic relief.

As usual, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's entrance involves tongue-tripping. After telling a reporter that "Them Jews aren't going to let him talk to me," Rev. Wright has clarified his estrangement from the President to explain that he meant "Zionists," which of course makes all the difference in the world to such Obama advisers of the Hebrew persuasion as Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod.

Even if, as the President keeps saying, words matter, Wright's bombast can't be equated with bullets from the Far Right, but it can serve as a reminder that reductive stupidity and scapegoating come from all directions in American society, as they always have.

The flavor of the day in zeitgests is what Paul Krugman calls "The Big Hate," an upsurge of "right-wing extremism...being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment."

But given the coincidence of widespread economic fears and the installation of an African-American president, it doesn't take Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck et al to revive traditional American mistrust of "others" and blame them for misfortunes.

Yes, there were hateful words behind the actions of those lone demented gunmen, but Rev. Wright's reappearance provides a moment of déjà vu that such talk does not inevitably lead to disastrous actions.

Barack Obama overcame it to win the White House, and what he is doing there will determine the future. Meanwhile, as the old Arab proverb says, the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Murderous Math in the Museum

Old age is an education in asymmetry as the ratio of effort to result keeps worsening, as it takes many times the previous exertion to get a fraction of the results for the simplest act.

In that light, what happened yesterday at the Holocaust Museum is a reminder that the rules of nature are not so simple: An 88-year-old with the strength to press a trigger kills a young man opening a door for him, terrifies thousands in the building and brings grief to millions, including the president of the United States.

"I am shocked and saddened by today's shooting," says Barack Obama, only days after visiting Buchenwald where the world learned about the imbalance between physical power and ending lives, where a few thugs in uniform could cause mass death with no more effort than turning a few switches.

What must have been the last thought of 39-year-old Stephen T. Johns as he held the door for a man more than twice his age to enter a place where the modern mathematics of life and death are displayed in all their horror? How could he have known that the hatred in that building would be concentrated in a decrepit man and explode to end his own life?

Yesterday's shock led to the closing of the museum, canceling the performance of a play to commemorate the brutal murders of Anne Frank and Emmitt Till, but whether or not the museum shooter lives long enough to be brought to justice, his name will as surely rot with him in the grave as theirs will be remembered forever in human hearts and minds.

Drs. No

The American Medical Association is telling Congress it opposes public health insurance that "mandates physician participation” because “many physicians and providers may not have the capability to accept the influx of new patients that could result.”

The AMA is too discreet to say openly what its lobbyists have been telling such sympathizers as Karl Rove--that "many doctors limit how many Medicare patients they take" because they "can afford only so much charity care."

As one of 45 million beneficiaries of such medical profession largesse, I am reminded of a provision in the classic Hippocratic Oath:

"Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves."

In modern times, such prudish injunctions apparently do not extend to financial matters, and doctors want to preserve their freedom to do with their billing what may be prohibited in other areas.

When President Obama addresses the AMA next week, he will undoubtedly put it more tactfully, but the time has come to redefine that aspect of the classic doctor-patient relationship.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Madness, Martyrs and Memory

At the Holocaust Museum in Washington this day, the history of human hatred marks a moment of convergence as an 88-year-old shooter, enraged about Jews and blacks, opens fire only hours before the scheduled performance of a new play about an imagined meeting between 15-year-old Anne Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy murdered in Mississippi a decade later for whistling at a white woman.

Today's gunman who killed a guard, James von Brunn, runs a racial-hate website about the book he wrote about going to jail after attempting a "citizen's arrest" of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in 1981.

The author of the play, Janet Langhart, an African-American writer, was at the museum this afternoon with her husband William Cohen, the former Secretary of Defense, during the shooting but was not injured.

In her play, Langhart imagines an exchange between the two victims of a hatred that has nothing to do with themselves as individuals.

"We're all here together in the darkness," Anne Frank says, "yet alone at the same time until we're pulled into the light, until we're remembered."

"Remembered?" Emmett Till answers. "By whom?"

These two children were robbed of their years--she would have turned 80 this week, he would have been 69 next month--but they will be remembered tonight not only by Langhart Cohen's work of art but an octogenarian madman acting out an abomination only hours before.

Iran's Referendum on Crazy

Mamhoud Ahmadinejad is accusing opponents of tampering with his pronouncements to make him look loony but, as Friday's Iran election nears, that would be overkill.

Nothing could improve on his own YouTube classic claim that a halo surrounded him at a UN appearance in 2005 and that "the crowd stared without blinking during the entire speech.”

In what is shaping up as a close contest, the opposition is appealing to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei over the campaign debates, arguing that "millions of people were witness to lies and distortions of the truth, which were against religion, law, ethics and fairness and were aimed at the achievements of our Islamic System."

Meanwhile, thousands of young people have been filling Tehran streets with a symbolic green protest, holding green posters with green ribbons on their wrists and car antennas and holding up green fruit drinks.

The unspoken X factor in whether Ahmadinejad stays or goes could well be the ripple effects of President Obama's Cairo speech last week, which may have helped a pro-Western faction win in Lebanon.

Is Change in the air, even in the Middle East?

Sobering Up the Banks

Like unreformed drunks, American banks want to settle their rehab bills and go back to the old ways--no government curfews or sobriety pledges for the likes of JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs et al as they rush to repay TARP billions and forget they were ever one step from being trampled by pink elephants.

“These repayments," says Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in the cautious tones of an alcoholism counselor, "are an encouraging sign of financial repair, but we still have work to do.”

The "work" should involve an attitude adjustment on the part of the risk-addicted money manipulators as well as repair of the financial markets. After being on their knees only months earlier, bankers are now anxious to get back to the princely personal highs they derived from practically wrecking the system with greed and irresponsibility.

Even the Wall Street Journal wants to prevent future binges by members of the too-big-to-fail club.

"Unless we can put the kibosh on that unofficial designation for the biggest banks," it says, "their obligations ultimately remain potential taxpayer liabilities...Let them check out for sure, but make sure that they don't come back, or we'll be left with a financial system full of government-sponsored banks with an implicit guarantee should they run into trouble."

At the very least, before letting them resume their old ways, the Treasury should insist on getting bailed-out banks to subscribe to a counterpart of AA's 12 Steps, which include admitting that "our lives had become unmanageable," believing that "a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" and making "a list of all persons we had harmed" and being "willing to make amends to them all."

There is no guarantee that most won't fall off the wagon again, but unless taxpayers want to continue being their enablers, the government should do everything possible to sober them up before turning them loose.

Update: In the comments section of The Moderate Voice, "Silhouette" has a nifty full 12 Steps for "Absconders Anonymous."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Not-Boring Republicans

Say what you will about the post-Bush decline of the GOP, its current shenanigans make Democrats look like the Partridge family. Compared to Obama's solemnity, last night's Washington fundraiser was a hoot.

After rounds of will-she, won't-she speculation, Sarah Palin turned up, not as the keynote speaker but to stroll the stage of the ballroom as the body-language answer to Newt Gingrich's hour-long flood of words.

If the faithful, who donated $14.5 million to the cause, were bored by the former Speaker's logorrhea, they had the option of slipping out to watch Palin on Fox News, telling Sean Hannity how right she was about branding Obama as a wealth spreader.

With her usual eloquence, the might-have-been vice president summed it up, "Kind of a 'We told ya so.'"

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank reports that in the ballroom, "The master of ceremonies, actor Jon Voight, tried to fire up the minority party with the standard bromides directed at the majority: 'We are becoming a weak nation...Free the nation from this Obama oppression...Bring an end to this false prophet Obama.' The applause was polite but didn't entirely replace the sound of cutlery on china."

Voight may be an apt spokesperson. As a celebrity, he rates a "Is he still alive?" response, and his own daughter, Angelina Jolie, who works for humanitarian change in the world, hasn't been willing to listen to a word he says for years.

Just like the Republican Party and the rest of America.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Health Care Sellout

The table is set for the Senate to cut the heart out of health care reform, with an ailing Ted Kennedy pitted against Max Baucus, recipient of $3 million from the industry over five years with a platoon of former staff members working as lobbyists for them.

Unless the White House rallies constituents to rise up, the Senate sellout will come from lawmakers hiding behind surgical masks--so-called compromises that will effectively kill what the President has called a public plan "to keep the insurance companies honest."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich lists some of them:

"One of their proposals is to break up the public option into small pieces under multiple regional third-party administrators that would have little or no bargaining leverage. A second is to give the public option to the states where Big Pharma and Big Insurance can easily buy off legislators and officials, as they've been doing for years. A third is bind the public plan to the same rules private insurers have already wangled, thereby making it impossible for the public plan to put competitive pressure on the insurers."

All these ploys, plus others to give lip service to a public option but keep it on ice indefinitely, are being lined up to placate voters but serve the interests of the health insurers' and medical providers' lobbies.

If the President is serious about Change, here is his chance to prove it by going head to head with the bought-and-paid-for Senators of both parties who are still playing their old games and counting on real health care reform as being too complicated for the American public to understand.

Nothing will shake up the power of Washington lobbyists more than an uprising on this issue, and the President will have to stand shoulder to shoulder with Ted Kennedy in what he told the Democratic Convention last summer is "the cause of my life."

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Blog Fatigue

Back in the primeval days of personal corrective journalism--the precursor to blogging--gadflies like I. F. Stone and George Seldes would mail newsletters weekly to a tiny minority of Americans who wanted to know what was really going on behind newspaper headlines and radio bulletins.

A. J. Liebling, who did similar work in the pages of the New Yorker with occasional pieces on "The Wayward Press," once said that such efforts were hampered by the need to fill a fixed amount of space and suggested that, when conditions dictated, media critics just mail postcards to their subscribers: "No infamy this week."

Liebling's dictum is brought to mind by a New York Times piece on the short life and high death rate of blogs based on Technorati figures that show, of an estimated 7 to 10 million, "95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream--or at least an ambition unfulfilled."

As a late-in-life arrival after decades in the maligned mainstream media, I can testify to the exhilaration and frustrations of blogging--the freedom to react instantly to what passes for news, the brain pressure of making meaningful connections in the chaos of it all, the all-too-human need to find evidence of being heard and, in moments of doubt, anxiety over becoming the windbag at the cocktail party who sends listeners to the bar in urgent need of another drink.

At such times, there is the pep-talk wisdom of Andrew Sullivan: "You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard. And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality."

Unlike those pioneers who had to go to the post office with cartons of newletters, today's would-be founts of wisdom don't even have to get dressed and leave home. And Lord knows there is more than enough infamy to go around.

Getting rich and famous is another matter entirely, but these days the odds are closer to those of starting on a career in Wall Street and a lot more respectable.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Different Ways of Remembering D-Day

All the eloquence about World War II comes from Americans too young to have experienced it--Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation," Steven Spielberg'a "Saving Private Ryan"--and now Barack Obama is memorializing D-Day along with Nicolas Sarkozy, Gordon Brown et al.

The survivors are in their eighties now, but age alone does not explain how inarticulate we all are about the transformative experience of our lives. As usual, reporters are interviewing veterans, but the quotes are the same as they have been for more than half a century--less the vivid impressions of participants than the dazed wonder of witnesses, whose bodies were doing what they were told but whose minds and hearts were watching from afar.

President Obama, born decades later, sees it as "the story of America...that always gives us hope" and finds a lesson for today:

"For as we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore."

Tom Brokaw, of the generation between Obama and us, puts it even more strongly: "Their sacrifices at home and on the frontlines make our current difficulties look like a walk on the beach in comparison."

"Hardships," "struggles" and "sacrifices" put a rhetorical glaze over a nightmare of blood and body parts in which those who were there had little control over whether they lived or died.

Heroism was a matter of staying and doing what had to be done. That's a high enough bar to set for today's generations without glorifying their parents and grandparents who set that example in a time when doing anything else was unthinkable.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Obama, Reagan, Jews and Nazis

As the Great Communicator is canonized with a new statue in Washington, his 21st century counterpart is in Germany dealing with the same thorny issue his predecessor faced there a quarter of a century ago.

On his way to Buchenwald, President Obama speaks feelingly about his great-uncle's trauma in World War II over what the Nazis had done to six million Jews, as skeptics see the trip as a sop to those unnerved by his emphasis on a two-state solution for Palestinians during his Cairo speech and his pressure on Israel to stop expanding settlements.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan took flak for visiting a military cemetery in Bitburg, paying homage to the new Germany at the graves of SS members who headed Hitler's execution squads.

In his authorized biography, Edmund Morris describes Reagan's trip to a death camp soon afterward to placate incensed Jewish groups and his claim that he had witnessed the liberation of such places during the war. Given the Great Communicator's tendency to dramatize, it turned out that all he had actually seen was movie footage at the Army training film unit where he served.

Now Obama is explaining his Buchenwald stop by saying "this one has a personal connection to me," telling reporters that his grandmother's brother came home in shock over what he saw there as a young soldier.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel and survivor Elie Wiesel at his side, the President today said, "These sights have not lost their horror with the passage of time. More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished. I will not forget what I have seen here today.”

In a world of widespread Holocaust deniers, bearing witness has meaning, whatever the motives.

Ghosts of Harry and Louise

The Senate Republican leader is channeling a couple of GOP golden oldies to oppose a public option in the health care reform pending in Congress.

Unlike Harry and Louise in the 1993 TV commercials to torpedo the Clintons' initiative, Mitch McConnell's protagonists are real people--sort of--Bruce Hardy of England and Shona Holmes of Canada, who have been brought out to personify the horrors of "socialized medicine." But their stories have been as edited as a TV commercial to make the point.

Hardy had to pay for a new cancer drug for two months before it was approved. McConnell's take: “The government bureaucrats who run Britain’s health care system denied the treatment, saying the drug was too expensive...that Bruce Hardy’s life wasn’t worth it.”

About Holmes, who paid for her own surgery in the US as she could have in Canada, the GOP leader finds this lesson: "Here’s how Shona described her plight: ‘If I’d relied on my government, I’d be dead,’ Shona’s life was eventually saved because she came to the United States for the care she needed.”

This Harry-and-Louise flummery is part of a last-ditch effort to persuade Americans that the choice of a public plan to, in President Obama's words, "keep the insurance companies honest" is no less than a takeover of the entire industry.

As Paul Krugman notes, there are two lessons in the current debate: "(1) Don't trust the insurance industry. (2) Don't trust the insurance industry...The insurance industry will do everything it can to avoid being held accountable."

Including manufacturing a new generation of Harrys and Louises.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama's Knowing Naivete

The Cairo speech has come and gone, an American president preaching the Golden Rule to the Muslim world, trying to walk a fine line between faith and reason through murderous beliefs and irrational hatreds.

Parsing what Barack Obama said today will keep "experts" busy for some time, but the words were less exceptional than the act, an American leader presenting himself as both the product of and the bridge between two seemingly irreconcilable cultures.

“I am a Christian," he said, "but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.”

How will this be heard? By the suspicious Middle East as an exploitive outsider insinuating himself into their world and by suspicious Americans as confirmation of Obama's otherness that was the subtext of opposition to him during the presidential campaign?

In proposing a range of new contacts between the two cultures, the President is betting that faith and reason can be fused into an instrument of good will to overwhelm distrust and enmity.

He is too sophisticated not to know how naïve this will sound to those whose knowingness is armored by the relative safety of cynicism, a blackwashed vision of humanity that dominates global public discourse.

Barack Obama, however, seems willing to take that risk and, if even a fraction of his bet pays off, the world will benefit from it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Absurdity Alert

For insomniacs who could use a good laugh, Turner Classic Movies is showing the unintentionally funniest film of all time, Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" at 2:45 AM Eastern time tonight. It won't help you sleep but, in these days of economic crisis, it could remind you of how the worship of selfishness started over half a century ago and stopped being a laughing matter in the Bush era.

Empathy Police, Keystone Kops

Charges of racism against Sonia Sotomayor are being reduced to exceeding the speed limit for empathy as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions instructs former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia on the finer points of demographic discrimination.

In the scramble to discredit the President's Supreme Court nominee, what remains of the Republican Party is being decimated even more by open conflict between elected officials and "mouths" such as Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.

After the former Speaker walked back his twittering about racism, Sessions voiced approval of the retraction to focus on the issue of empathy:

“I firmly believe that many judges on the Supreme Court feel too empowered to impose their personal views while they interpret statutes or constitutions and that’s where we ought to focus the debate. Will she be restrained? Will she simply follow the law and be a neutral umpire or will she be a judge that’s not committed to faithful interpretation of the law, will not subordinate herself to the law?"

This line of attack, a view of robotic judges hewing to the letter of the law and ignoring its impact on human beings, comes with ill grace from those with a heritage of using it to maintain a "separate but equal" society in the South for almost a century--an America where today's president would not have been allowed to vote and where the mixed marriage of his parents was criminal under a "faithful interpretation of the law."

In trying to make "empathy" a dirty word, Republicans may want to look at Dick Cheney, the Radical Right's hero, who is diverging from the party line on gay marriage, presumably because he has some of that undesirable feeling for his own daughter.

If GOP Senators want to vote against Judge Sotomayor's confirmation, they will have to come up with a better rationalization than that.

Obama Talkfest

If nothing else, this President is setting records for communication as he visits the Middle East to say a few words privately and publicly in the Muslim world.

Before leaving, he tells Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that "if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us.”

His 20 minutes on the phone with Friedman and an interview with French TV yesterday, coming after dozens of other one-on-one media exchanges, have far outdone all previous presidents combined in giving access to the occupant of the White House.

Shortly before he died, JFK told me he had broken his rule against exclusive interviews only twice, for Izvestia with Soviet leader Khrushchev's son-in-law and a group of women's magazine editors about nuclear weapons.

Then there is the fabled Calvin Coolidge, the 1920s president known as "Silent Cal." At a White House dinner, when Dorothy Parker told him she had made a bet she could get him to say more than two words, Coolidge replied, "You lose."

In contrast, as President Obama's word count mounts, admirers will stress his openness while critics denounce him as all talk.

Be that as it may, Friedman tells him an old Jewish joke to start today's interview, and another comes to mind--about a voice from the balcony, after a famous Yiddish actor has dropped dead on the stage, keeps yelling "Give him an enema!"

Asked in exasperation how that could help a corpse. the heckler responds, "It couldn't hurt!"

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Flight 447 and the Titanic

The Atlantic Ocean rises to consciousness this week after silently swallowing 228 people on an airliner from Brazil just after the death in England of a 97-year-old woman, the last survivor of the Titanic.

Almost a century apart, the disasters recall the fragility of human life in the face of all the technological advances of 21st century life.

Sitting in the vast darkness over an ocean has become so safe and familiar that Flight 447's sudden disappearance sends only a ripple of anxiety around the world. Few may board a plane to cross an ocean in coming days with a twinge of worry until all the facts are known, until its freakishness is explained, catalogued and consigned to a category of events as unlikely as being struck by lightning.

In 1912, Millvina Dean was a two-month-old baby when her parents boarded the Titanic for its maiden voyage. She died this weekend, a survivor celebrity whose nursing home bills in recent years were paid in part by Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron, the stars and director of the 1997 movie about the disaster.

Between now and then, sudden mass death has become so familiar that, unless they have the political significance of 9/11, events like the fall of Flight 447 will persist in the public mind for only days or weeks until they are somehow explained and pushed out of awareness, uncommemorated by movies and recollections that last a hundred years.

Unlike the Titanic, the airliner from Brazil will sink from mankind's memory without trace.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Nancy Reagan's Last Hurrah

Approaching her 88th birthday, the former First Lady ventures an opinion on Barack Obama: Sometimes he isn't political enough.

Interviewed in Vanity Fair, Nancy Reagan says the new President could have gained more advantage from reversing Bush’s policy on embryonic-stem-cell research by inviting her to the announcement.

“I would have gone, and you know I don’t like to travel,” she says. “Politically it would have been a good thing for him to do. Oh, well, nobody’s perfect. He called and thanked me for working on it. But he could have gotten more mileage out of it.”

Mrs. Reagan, who knows about political mileage, is logging some herself by emerging from seclusion to give a wide-ranging interview, pose for pictures and turn loose surviving members of her inner circle to offer memories of the Reagan years.

In this last hurrah, she may be responding to the obvious--that the new man in the White House is the first president since her husband to dominate the office with his personality, and now Nancy Reagan must do everything she can to preserve the legend to which she is as devoted as she was to the man himself.

Just before retiring as an editor, I ran an interview with her in which she said that, if "Ronnie" had decided to run a shoe store, she would be spending her time polishing shoes. Now she is back to polish his image for history, the timing no doubt prompted by the fact that up to now it hasn’t been necessary.

Asked if she ever tried to discuss the stem-cell issue with George W. Bush, Mrs. Reagan says, “I think once I did, and then I didn’t anymore.”

Uncle Sam in the Rumble Seat

The American Century ends today with the death of General Motors as we knew it, the free-market engine that powered an economy and a culture to global preeminence, selling physical and social mobility to millions who had previously lived in small insular worlds.

The news about bankruptcy and hope for renewal with taxpayer money is disorienting to generations who came of age in an America where success was defined by whether you drove a Chevrolet or a Cadillac and how often you could afford to trade it in for the newest model.

That superficial stability, that innocence is as long gone as the first car I ever owned after coming home from World War II, a used 1938 Packard coupe with a rumble seat.

The government takeover of General Motors while trying to maintain the appearance of distance is reminiscent of that rumble seat, an upholstered perch behind the body of the car, the back of which hinged up from where the trunk would normally be to seat passengers in the open air away from the driver.

That image will serve for the Obama Administration's posture of taking ownership but insisting that it won't exercise day-to-day management ("a fine line,” says Lawrence Summers, co-head of the auto task force, “but we think it's manageable”).

Back in the day, rumble seats were popularly known as "mother-in-law" locations, to symbolize barriers to back-seat driving from family members whose unwanted presence had to be endured.

The separation worked for a while, but rumble seats eventually went out of style because of too much exposure to the elements for their occupants.

Riding shotgun on the new General Motors may make Uncle Sam feel that way, too.