Friday, July 31, 2009

Obama's Cash Bar

Yesterday's beer at the White House for Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley was complimentary, along with milk-of-human-kindness chasers, but for CEOs of large corporations, there apparently is no free lunch these days.

At a meeting for a meal with the President in his private dining room, Politico reports, credit card numbers were collected from the heads of Coca-Cola, AT&T, Xerox and Honeywell International.

An Obama spokesperson had an explanation: "“From time to time, White House guests are asked to reimburse for their meals, the reasons include ensuring there is no conflict or appearance of a conflict. That is consistent with our tough ethics rules and we will continue the practice when appropriate.”

Let's see if we have this straight: If you get into a public brawl and the President gaffes about it, drinks are on the house but, if you show up to gab about saving the economy, BYOB.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Crooked-Doctor Component

While the nation suffers a political migraine over health care reform, today's news spotlights an overlooked aspect of the mess--that the current system is turning doctors into thieves.

Federal authorities yesterday arrested 30 physicians and other medical providers for $16 million of fraud as part of a series of crackdowns in what the FBI estimates to be between $60 and $100 billion a year of health care crime.

The healers this time are accused, among other neat tricks, of billing Medicare for liquid food provided to dead patients and $4000 "arthritis kits" consisting of braces and heating pads.

Such a financial and moral breakdown was dramatized in a New Yorker article last month that President Obama has made required reading in the Oval Office.

Written by a New England surgeon, Atul Gawande, it reports on the small town of McAllen, Texas, which has the second-highest per-capita Medicare costs in the country (after Miami) and twice those of neighboring El Paso with no discernible health benefits as a result of doctor-owned hospitals, surgery centers and diagnostic-test facilities.

This kind of borderline thievery transcends the question of public or private health insurance, calling into question the fees-for-service nature of American health care.

"Providing health care is like building a house," Dr. Gawande writes. "The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later?"

He points to alternatives such as the Mayo Clinic and other "accountable-care" systems in which doctors and hospitals "adopted measures to blunt harmful financial incentives and...took collective responsibility for improving the sum total of patient care."

In overhauling the system, he concludes, "the damning question we have to ask is whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, first and foremost, or to maximize revenue.

"There is no insurance system that will make the two aims match perfectly. But having a system that does so much to misalign them has proved disastrous."

Meanwhile, the fraud and waste go on. The President should send copies of the New Yorker article to Congress. Reading it first will give them some perspective on the thousands of pages of the new bills they will be studying during their summer break.

The Good Citizen's Reward

While the President serves beer to Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley in the White House today, Lucia Whalen will be at work in Cambridge, pondering the lessons of her phone call to the police last week.

In the aftermath of Barack Obama's gaffe in saying the police acted "stupidly," the White House is smoothing over the ensuing national rancor with a photo-op reconciliation for the principals in the confrontation without acknowledging the abuse that has been heaped on Ms. Whalen as a racist.

"If you're a concerned citizen," she told reporters yesterday, "you should do the right thing if you're seeing something that seems suspicious. I would do the same thing."

The tape of her call reveals she told the dispatcher she had “no idea” if two men were breaking into the house, repeatedly suggesting they might live there. She did not mention the men’s race until a dispatcher asked if they were black, white or Hispanic.

“There were two larger men,” she says in the tape. “One looked kind of Hispanic, but I’m not really sure,” adding that she did not see what the second man “looked like at all.”

Ms. Whalen also told the dispatcher she was calling 911 on her cell phone at the request of an elderly neighbor who saw the men trying to get into the house.

After becoming a "a target of scorn and of ridicule because of the things I never said, " Ms. Whalen has the satisfaction of having done the right thing while the three principals in Gatesgate now bond and congratulate themselves for overcoming their own questionable actions in the affair.

She probably is not much of a beer drinker anyway.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Obama vs. Baucus for Health Care

In a defining moment for the politics of Change, the President is facing a fight-or-flight choice against a coalition led by a powerful member of his own party.

"Sometimes I get a little frustrated," Barack Obama told a town hall yesterday, "because this is one of those situations where it's so obvious that the system we have isn't working well for too many people, and that we could be doing better."

Yet, as the President commands crowds and TV cameras, Max Baucus and a handful of bipartisan assassins are strangling health care reform in a back room filled not with the traditional smoke but, more appropriate to the occasion, junk food.

Obama was sent to Washington last year by almost 2,000 times as many voters as the senator with a Montana residence who has found a home among capital lobbyists, but at this critical moment, Baucus seems to have more power to shape the future of American health care than the President and the heads of three other Congressional committees.

At stake are all the key elements of reform, including a public option and tax changes needed to pay the costs of expanding coverage, but Democrats seem ready to cave in, as Harry Reid puts it with his usual forceful leadership:

"I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes. That's my number one responsibility, and there are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate and I think the country."

In perhaps the most dramatic first six months of an American presidency, Obama has continually reached out for bipartisanship only to find empty air. Now, on the most crucial long-term issue of all, he is being met by a fist from Republicans gloved by a leader of his own party.

Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd are too enfeebled to fight back in the Senate, so the time for surrogates is over. Now the President has to get into the ring with Baucus and flex his own muscles against a champion of politics as usual.

No health care reform at all this year would be better than the parody that is set to emerge from Baucus and his Change killers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

GOP Senators Judicious About Their Future

After a week of hearings and a fortnight of soul-searching, Republican Judiciary Committee members will vote today against confirming Sonia Sotomayor to protect the Supreme Court from activist judges--and save their own hides from the vengeance of The Base when they face reelection.

With the possible exception of Lindsey Graham, who is teetering toward approval, the minority is expressing no doubts about Judge Sotomayor's qualifications but terror over her possible excess of empathy.

Joining the parade of naysayers yesterday, Chuck Grassley explained that the nominee would not assuage a Souter-like feeling in "the pit of my stomach": "I was not convinced that Judge Sotomayor understands the rights given to Americans under the Constitution, or that she will refrain from expanding or restricting those rights based on her personal preferences."

Translation: Grassley's intestinal barometer tells him that voting no is much safer than having to explain approval of an Obama nominee with iffy demographics and temperament.

Yesterday ranking minority member Jeff Sessions wrote in an USA Today OpEd: "I don’t believe that Judge Sotomayor has the deep-rooted convictions necessary to resist the siren call of judicial activism. She has evoked its mantra too often.”

After the siren calls, mantras and stomach pains have subsided, Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed by the full Senate with only a handful of Republican votes in what used to be a relatively nonpartisan process.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Culture Critic Is Born

Politics' loss is society's gain as Sarah Palin stepped into her new career yesterday with "some straight talk" about the media and Hollywood.

"You represent," she told assembled journalists, "what could and should be a respected, honest profession, and what could and should be a cornerstone of our democracy--and that's why our troops are willing to die for you.

"So how about in honor of the American soldier you quit making things up?"

She also decried "anti-hunting, anti-Second Amendment circuses from Hollywood" that rely on "delicate, tiny celebrity starlets" to persecute peaceful gun owners with healthy appetites.

"Hollywood needs to know we eat, therefore, we hunt," she told a cheering crowd, including a woman in a red T-shirt reading "Palintologist," defining the profession as "someone who studies Palin and shares her conservative values, Maverick attitude and American style."

In these dark days, with America needing all the scholarship it can get, it comes as welcome news that Prof. Palin will be delivering her first lecture August 8th at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

It would be a sign of scholarly solidarity if Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. left his quiet retreat in Cambridge to welcome her to Academia.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sarah Palin, 2008-2009, a Political Obituary

As she steps down today as governor of Alaska, where is the Mouth That Roared headed? Political obscurity is a possible destination but, based on her 11-month performance since John McCain anointed her, that seems unlikely.

A long-time Alaska Republican operative tells the Washington Post: "As the saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be is between a grizzly sow and her cub. But now I have to change that--it would be between [Palin] and a television camera."

The irony is that, during the campaign, Palin soared on scripted sound bites but was a stealth candidate, never once appearing for questioning on Sunday political talk shows. Now that she has made a mid-life career change from politics to celebrity, she is as available as Ann Coulter, if not quite as brainy.

Yet, while helping bring down McCain's candidacy, Palin rocketed into the hearts of the GOP Hard Right, and it would take more than piddling proof of corruption to dislodge her.

In a well-advised written statement to the Post, the departing Palin insists, "I'm not leaving the governorship because of any particular ethics complaint. Rather, I have explained that the millions of dollars spent by the state and the diversion of resources to address politically inspired records requests, personnel board costs and wasting staff time is unnecessary and harmful to the state.

"I will take the battle nationally and I won't shy away from challenging the powerful, the entrenched, the corrupt and anyone standing in the way of getting our country back on the right track."

Especially when the TV cameras are rolling.

The Reality Check Is Not in the Mail

This month, for the first time in decades, a payment I sent did not reach its intended recipient.

This rare mishap was a reminder that good old reliable snail mail is in its death throes after 234 years of creating a national community out of isolated places thousands of miles apart, making a daily visit to the mailbox an adventure that brought the world to us with words on paper, many of them in the handwriting of people we love.

The decline now is even faster than it was during the Great Depression as the Postal Service projects 10 billion fewer pieces of mail in each of the next two years, from a high of 213 billion in 2006 to an expected 170 billion next year. The price of stamps will rise, of course, and there will also be less frequent deliveries and more closings of small post offices as Americans e-mail, text-message and tweet one another instead of dropping envelopes through narrow slots.

It's so much more convenient to pay bills online and have instant communication with friends and family that there will be few mourners for snail mail but, as with all progress, something will be lost.

Writing from the hand of a loved one on familiar stationery is becoming an anachronism (no beribboned bundles of e-mail will clutter future attics), but the thought and feeling that went into love letters will be gone, too, replaced by the product of racing fingers on keyboards and minds too pressured for careful choice of words.

Newspapers and magazines have migrated to the Web as well, trying to make sense of the world from minute to minute. By the time they arrive in mailboxes, most have the freshness and urgency of hieroglyphic tablets but. as they swamp us with instant information and interpretation, do we understand our lives any better than we did a century ago when there was more time to sort out the important from the ephemeral?

The Postal Service is surely going the way of dinosaurs but, in our all-electronic future, will there be any reality check in the mail?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Damage Controller-in-Chief

Nobody ever accused the President of being a slow learner.

"President Obama tried Friday," says the New York Times, "to defuse a volatile national debate over the arrest of a black Harvard University professor as he acknowledged that his own comments had inflamed tensions and insisted he had not meant to malign the arresting officer.

"Mr. Obama placed calls to both the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the man who arrested him, Sgt. James Crowley, two days after saying the police had 'acted stupidly' last week in hauling Professor Gates from his home in handcuffs. Mr. Obama said he still considered the arrest 'an overreaction,' but added that 'Professor Gates probably overreacted as well.'

“'I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up,' the president said in an appearance in the White House briefing room. 'I want to make clear that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sergeant Crowley specifically, and I could have calibrated those words differently.'"

Now can we get back to talking about health care reform?

Update: Now Professor Gates thanks the President for his support and ducks behind an elder statesman of the civil rights movement to suggest a larger meaning for his rowdy behavior:

"It was very kind of the President to phone me today. Vernon Jordan is absolutely correct: my unfortunate experience will only have a larger meaning if we can all use this to diminish racial profiling and to enhance fairness and equity in the criminal justice system for poor people and for people of color."

Kumbaya and to all, a good night.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Racial Politics, Hot and Cool

In saying a policeman acted "stupidly" in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Obama has uncharacteristically inflamed a minor incident and revived last year's idiotic debate about whether or not he is "black enough" to suit African-Americans or, on the other hand, too black for those who see the world primarily in racial terms.

Until Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. became a campaign issue, Obama seemed intent on minimizing race and inviting voters to judge him as a "post-racial" candidate, but his cool approach was temporarily derailed by his pastor's inflammatory rhetoric and now again by his friend's histrionic temperament.

On Bill Maher's show and in other TV venues, Gates presents himself as a brilliant scholar who, like Wright and unlike Obama, tends to dramatize racial discussions--and himself-- in ways that can make even those who agree with him uncomfortable.

The escalation of his encounter with a Cambridge policeman has all the earmarks of an incident that could easily been avoided. If race were not involved, Gates' neighbor might have been less zealous in calling police at the sight of two men forcing open a door in broad daylight, and the responding officer more circumspect in confronting unarmed suspects, but Gates' affront at being questioned and his confrontational attitude seem likely to have been part of the "stupidity" the President was quick to condemn without knowing all the facts.

Now that all charges have been dropped and Gates and the policeman, who ironically teaches others about the complexities of racial profiling, have vented in the media, Barack Obama may want to revert to his cool and conciliatory approach to racial tensions--and think twice about elevating a minor incident to a national issue, leaving that work to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and those who work full-time at it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Upside of Inertia

Six months and counting, Obama's Era of Change has reached a crucial point where the push against "politics as usual" has found a test case in health care reform

At his press conference last night, the President observed that "if you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen. The default position is inertia, because doing something always creates some people who are unhappy. There's always going to be some interest out there that decides: You know what? The status quo is working for me a little bit better."

In his struggles against deadlines in the stimulus bill, bank bailout, imminent downfall of Detroit et al, Barack Obama has been governing on a crisis high, where the dangers of doing nothing far outweigh the pitfalls of not getting it exactly right.

Now he is tilting against a health care dragon that has fed on half a century of greed, neglect and, yes, inertia, and his assault is being slowed not only by Republican reflexes as the Party of No but doubting Democrats and the slow erosion of public support for multiple proposals that have failed to cohere into a clear alternative to the current mess.

As the momentum for Change slows, the President may want to consider that inertia in American life has always worked both ways, as a deterrent to progress but also as a brake to driving off a cliff in the passions of the moment.

Nancy Pelosi may or may not "have the votes" to push a bill through the House, but the President--and the country--would be well served by stepping back from a half-year of a crisis high and taking a deep breath to sort out the various aspects of reform--the costs, the savings, the clear need for a public option--and put them together for a consensus that would appeal to all but the extremes of the political spectrum.

In the Senate, Dick Durbin doubts there will be a vote before the start of a month's recess on August 7th to get a bill to the President by his goal of mid-October, since differing House and Senate versions would take weeks, if not months, to reconcile.

On a subject that literally affects people with life-or-death consequences, it's painful to counsel patience, but as the effort of the early Clinton years showed, real chances to get better health care are few and far between. Inertia may be maddening, as reflected in the President's sense of urgency last night, but it also has its uses.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Honesty Option for Health Care

The debate is heading for rock bottom.

"If you like your plan," Barack Obama promises for the umpteenth time in the Rose Garden yesterday, "you'll be able to keep it. And each bill provides for a public option that will keep insurance companies honest, ensuring the competition necessary to make coverage affordable."

At tonight's press conference, will someone please ask the President why, half a century after handing over health care to profit-making private insurers, it should be necessary now to keep them "honest"?

Meanwhile, the industry that gave Americans one of the worst medical systems in the world at the highest cost is busy lobbying for more of the same with the legislative watchdogs like Sen. Max Baucus, who are negotiating the details of how to reform their ways.

In the House, we are in Joe the Plumber territory, as Democrats propose to pay premiums for the poor by taxing the very wealthy, couples making $500,000 a year or, as Nancy Pelosi is now hinting, perhaps $1 million.

This would affect only a tiny fraction of the richest Americans but, in their Joe-the-Plumber fantasies, the working class can empathize with Republican outcries. "Tax is a four-letter word" with voters, says conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, pointing out that even families not in the top 1 percent "hope they're going to be there someday."

In the Wall Street Journal, one of the last rising Republican stars still standing, Bobby Jindal accuses Obama of a "fundamentally dishonest approach to reform," contending that "Democrats disingenuously argue their reforms will not diminish the quality of our health care even as government involvement in the delivery of that health care increases massively.

"For all of us who have seen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to hurricanes, this contention is laughable on its face. When government bureaucracies drive the delivery of services--in this case inserting themselves between health-care providers and their patients--quality degradation will surely come."

When the GOP sinks to using Bush's Heckuva-Job Brownie to beat up on Democratic health care plans, the debate must be nearing low tide.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Politics of Attention Deficit Disorder

Six months of scrambling on all fronts--bank bailouts, economic stimulus, climate change--have brought the President lower approval ratings from a public suffering from crisis overload and left him needing a Hail Mary pass to score on his key issue.

"With skepticism about the president's health-care reform effort mounting on Capitol Hill--even within his own party," the Washington Post reports, "the White House has launched a new phase of its strategy designed to dramatically increase public pressure on Congress: all Obama, all the time.

"Senior White House aides promise 'an aggressive public and private schedule' for Obama as he presses his case for reform, including a prime-time news conference on Wednesday, a trip to Cleveland, and heavy use of Internet video to broadcast his message beyond the reach of the traditional media."

This test of presidential clout, coming up on a complex issue against the background of other trillion-dollar commitments that have still to bear fruit, leaves him exposed not only to Republicans with their simple-minded message of tax phobia and deficit fear but increasing anxiety among 2010-vulnerable Democrats who now sense a potential lack of visible progress on all fronts by next fall to keep them in office.

In this kind of ADD political climate, health care legislation lends itself to demagogues' cover on all sides, with providers "promising" non-binding new efforts to cut costs as Republicans line up with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus to "back" a future public option for health insurance with trigger mechanisms that will never be pulled off.

This leaves the President having to resist the temptation to settle for small gains that can be claimed as victory but will leave the failed health-care system fundamentally unchanged.

As he embarks on this week's campaign, to get him into "Win one for the Gipper" mode, he may want to take to heart Ted Kennedy's valedictory in Newsweek, "The Cause of My Life," which retells the medical consequences from generations of the "Kennedy curse" and makes a passionate plea for universal health care now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


For the oldest of us, the Evening News died yesterday, the "most trusted man in America" who came into our living rooms every weekday night and told us about what was happening beyond our own senses, "And that's the way it is."

For two tumultuous decades, before 24/7 cable and the Internet, Walter Cronkite was the face of the news, mediating between millions of Americans and the raw chaos of events, ordering the flood of words and pictures into a hierarchy of importance and sending viewers off to live the other 23 and a half hours feeling well-informed.

It was an illusion, of course, but Cronkite was the ideal embodiment of reassurance that the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s was not upending the world as they knew it.

In the days before O'Reilly, Olbermann et al, he presented violent scenes at home and abroad with a McLuhanesque cool that drained most of the threat from them, giving only rare glimpses of human emotion in his welling eyes and shaking voice as he reported JFK's death, the disorder of the 1968 Democratic Convention and the sight of a man walking on the moon.

But beyond that calm façade were good journalistic instincts about the failed war in Vietnam ("If I've lost Cronkite," LBJ said. "I've lost middle America") and the meaning of Watergate (along with Woodward and Bernstein, CBS News was following the break-in while the rest of the media slept).

In the flood of tributes that inevitably follow the death of such a figure, the one that undoubtedly would have meant the most to Walter Cronkite was that he was always a good reporter. That he certainly was.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wall St. Wins, We Lose, What Else is New?

Juggling money is still America's biggest growth industry, according to the new earnings boom for Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, who only months ago came to Washington to fill their begging bowls with taxpayer bailout funds.

Cranky Paul Krugman says such news "shows that Wall Street’s bad habits--above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis--have not gone away" and "that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely."

Back to business as usual, the big firms are generating huge profits from trading and underwriting securities to make up for the failure of those who are losing jobs to keep up with payments on mortgages and credit cards.

At the same time, the pain is being spread equally to prudent retirees who saved without gambling in the stock market but, thanks to the Fed's concern for Wall Street's ability to keep wheeling and dealing, are earning a fraction of one per cent on their hard-earned money, much of which will now go to keeping up the huge bonuses of those who shuffle it around.

Is this a great country or what?

Moon Landing and Chappaquiddick

Forty years ago this weekend, two events marked the end of the Kennedy era--Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, as JFK had promised, and his brother Ted drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick to signify the end of Camelot.

"I believe," President John F. Kennedy had told Congress the year Barack Obama was born, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

For those old enough to remember, that juxtaposition of Apollo 11 and Chappaquiddick will always mark the 1960s as a reminder of the essential truth about politics: high ideals being pursued by flawed human beings.

The jubilation over the moon landing ("one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind") was tempered back then by the trauma of a president's brother, and likely future candidate himself, involved in the death of a young woman and a scandal worsened by attempted coverups and a Nixonlike Checkers speech to save a political career.

Looking back 40 years later, does all this confirm Martin Luther King's contention that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," as often cited now by the first African-American president in history?

Chappaquiddick destroyed Ted Kennedy's hopes for the White House and led to 40 years of honorable service in the Senate, ending now with a terminally ill man devoting his remaining strength to the cause of health care reform.

Are the Kennedys' moral books balanced? A Higher Power will have to make that judgment.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Democracy of the Deaf

In Washington's two debates this week, health care reform and the Sotomayor nomination, you could turn off the TV sound and miss little of substance--the D or R on the chest of the talking head will tell you that the subject is universal coverage or government control and deficits, judicial qualifications or activism.

The election of a president who prides himself on reaching across political divides has resulted in the irony of more partisanship than ever as remnants of the Republican party that rode roughshod over opposition in the Bush years are reduced to mouthing the slogans that brought them to power back then.

On health care, it's the Blue-Dog Democrats who are discussing the substance of proposals as the GOP repeats scare mantras about socialized medicine and keeps voting a straight party line in committees.

In the Sotomayor hearings, Republicans are obsessing over the Wise Latina remark and other speeches, while majority members are asking the judge about specific cases and legal principles in the course of her career on the bench.

As the Obama Administration closes in on its first six months in office, the reality of possible bipartisanship keeps receding, leaving it as only more slogan in a dialogue of the deaf.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Health Care as a Right

The House proposal to raise taxes on the very rich to help cover health insurance for all brings into focus what has been a hidden issue in the debate until now: Should medical care be a right guaranteed to all by all, as education, safety in the streets and freedom from foreign invasion now are as part of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

If government pays for the schooling of Americans and their safety in the streets, is it any less logical to consider protection from life-threatening disease as a basic right rather than an individual choice?

"Tax is a four-letter word" with voters, says conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, pointing out that even families not in the top 1 percent "hope they're going to be there someday. So they don't necessarily think it's fair."

Even the Rightmost legislators and their constituents wouldn't propose privatizing the armed forces (pace Blackwater) and the nation's school systems but will argue that even partial public responsibility for saving lives in doctors' offices and hospital waiting rooms is unfair.

As the final showdown on health care reform comes closer, the President and his supporters are going to have to make that case against those who are still living with the Dickensian attitude that public responsibility for the poor ends with workhouses and prisons.

With Ted Kennedy's Senate committee now offering its own version of 21st century health care, that time is at hand.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Senate's Supreme Soap Opera

As the Sotomayor Show drones on, Democrats and Republicans are pushing dueling plot lines--an American dream of minority upward mobility vs. the Conservative nightmare of activist judges tilting the scales in favor of it (see firemen, New Haven).

Behind these postures is the reality that Supreme Court confirmations are now TV soap operas in which politicians emote to their core constituencies on the way to what only Lindsey Graham openly acknowledges as Judge Sotomayor's predetermined final scene: "Unless you have a meltdown, you’re going to get confirmed.”

Without the high drama of Borking or Clarence Thomas High-Tech Lynching, this week's action will feature nitpicking over Wise Latina Woman and other off-the-bench remarks by the nominee, leaving the dutiful viewer to muse over the middle-aged woman at the center of it all.

Behind that figure of "a young minority woman from humble circumstances who overcomes obstacles, fights discrimination and achieves the American dream," David Brooks sees "a person who worked hard and contributes profoundly to society, but who also sacrificed things along the way"--in short, a personal life.

Brooks' concern for Sotomayor is touching, but it invites comparison with attitudes toward the Justice she is succeeding, David Souter, a quirky, reclusive New England bachelor who preferred mountain-climbing to Washington socializing.

No one clucked over Souter's "sacrifices," and after this week's ordeal is over, Sotomayor will take her seat as the third woman ever on the Supreme Court and, by the time her tenure ends, such sexist distinctions will be long gone.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cheney's Quiet Coup

Last year's debate over whether the Vice President was part of the executive or legislative arm of government is being mooted by revelations that Dick Cheney was operating as a separate branch of his own.

Now we learn from Leon Panetta that he was running a secret counterterrorism program that the CIA withheld from Congress for eight years on his direct orders. Add this to Seymour Hersh's recent charge that Cheney had been running "an executive assassination ring...going into countries... and finding people on a list and executing them," and the picture emerges of a Vice President running his own post-9/11 war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

President Obama himself adds fuel to the fire in a CNN interview, telling Anderson Cooper that "the Bush administration resisted efforts to investigate a CIA-backed Afghan warlord over the killings of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001."

As much as the President and the rest of us want to put the Bush era to rest, the ghosts of Cheney's secret and illegal private war within the war on terror keep coming up and haunting us with questions of how much power one man can exercise unchecked in the administration of a president who calls himself the Decider but, where it counts, isn’t.

That past won't stay buried until we see it all fully and clearly.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Journalism 101: Whoring in Hard Times

"The Washington Post's ill-fated plan to sell sponsorships of off-the-record 'salons' was an ethical lapse of monumental proportions."

So says the paper's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, in a long mea culpa this weekend, underscoring how economic pressures can bedevil even those whose main business asset is a reputation for probity.

The lowliest staff member could have told the top people that it was not a good idea to ask $25,000 a head to attend "intimate dinners to discuss public policy issues" at the publisher's home with reporters serving as discussion leaders for "an evening of spirited but civil dialogue" with lawmakers and Administration members but, organizations being what they are, nobody did.

"They were all," Alexander writes, "aboard a fast-moving vehicle that, over a period of months, roared through ethics stop signs and plowed into a brick wall."

When a flier seeking underwriters for the first dinner this month was made public, an uproar ensued: "The damage was predictable and extensive, with charges of hypocrisy against a newspaper that owes much of its fame to exposing influence peddlers and Washington's pay-to-play culture. The Post's reputation now carries a lasting stain."

It's painful to imagine what Kay Graham, who took the heat for the Woodward/Bernstein exposure of Watergate that led to Richard's Nixon downfall, would have made of her granddaughter's decision to give lobbyists and their masters access to top government officials as well as her editors and reporters to help offset falling ad revenues.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth now says, "I have learned a lesson. Everyone has learned a lesson...If anyone should have stopped it, it should have been me."

She might have spared herself all this grief if she had known how the composer Gian Carlo Menotti answered the question of selling out commercially to support a noble endeavor.

"Your family is hungry," he said, "so send your sister out on the streets for a while. But when she came back, she would never be the same."

The Washington Post stopped just in time to keep its reputation for virtue, if not good judgment, intact.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stimulus Stew

The state of the economy, it's safe to say, is iffy at best but, less than six months after its passage, the market for badmouthing the stimulus bill is booming.

On the left, Paul Krugman insists that a "bad employment report for June made it clear that the stimulus was, indeed, too small" and "damaged the credibility of the administration’s economic stewardship."

From right field, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor tells us "the stimulus or so-called stimulus plan that spent almost $800 billion has not worked," while economist Karl Rove proclaims that "Obama can't be trusted with numbers" as he bashes the White House for being too slow in getting the money out the door.

In the center, Warren Buffet is musing about the need for a second round of pumping money into the economy, complaining that the first was "like taking half a tablet of Viagra and having also a bunch of candy mixed if everybody was putting in enough for their own constituents."

Meanwhile, Joe Biden is on a tour touting positive results here and there, as the Recovery blog announces web seminars (Webinars) to spread the good news.

In this flurry of opinionating, the prize for empty news goes to USA Today for its headlined revelation, "Billions in aid go to areas that backed Obama in '08," which undermines itself by noting:

"Investigators who track the stimulus are skeptical that political considerations could be at work. The imbalance is so pronounced--and the aid so far from complete--that it would be almost inconceivable for it to be the result of political tinkering, says Adam Hughes, the director of federal fiscal policy for the non-profit OMB Watch. 'Even if they wanted to, I don't think the administration has enough people in place yet to actually do that,' he says."


Thursday, July 09, 2009

When Quitting Would Have Been Heroic

David Broder muses today about exit strategies in public life:

"Two vastly different public officials--Robert McNamara and Sarah Palin--shared the spotlight this past week, triggering fresh thoughts about one of the classic dilemmas of governmental careers: When and how do you quit?"

Wrong question. What's important is why.

Coupling McNamara with Palin is less to the point than pairing him with Colin Powell, both honorable men serving presidents obsessed with fighting the wrong wars.

It took McNamara years to realize that his technocratic approach to Vietnam was foundering in Asian rice paddies and, when leaving as Secretary of Defense, he went to the World Bank without a public murmur about the American suffering over which he had presided.

Powell, on the other hand, knew from the start he was helping a president take the country to war with cooked intelligence but chose to leave quietly like a good soldier.

Either one could have spared his country the loss of lives, treasure and honor by quitting at the earliest possible moment and speaking out.

In comparing McNamara with Palin, Broder writes: "McNamara stayed too long and left too quietly. Palin is bailing out on her people far too soon. Neither can serve as an example for those in government wrestling with the decision of when to quit."

Sarah Palin does not belong in this equation. Whatever her reasons for leaving office, she was not involved in the death of young Americans in distant places. Leave her out of it and make a judgment about those who were.

Spitzer as AIG Culprit

When a commission probes the economic meltdown, Michael Lewis' Vanity Fair piece "The Man Who Crashed the World" will serve as a rough draft of what went wrong at AIG and started the financial landslide.

In chronicling how the company built a tower of risk that tumbled around Wall Street's ears, Lewis in passing reveals the role of Eliot Spitzer, then New York Attorney General, in enabling it all.

Lewis' close questioning of "the silent, shell-shocked traders of the AIG Financial Products unit...finds that the story may have a villain, whose reign of terror over 400 employees brought the company, the US economy, and the global financial system to their knees"--Joe Cassano, a hard-charging but relatively unsophisticated former back-room operator who drove credit default swaps to perilous heights.

When he got the job in 2001, Cassano was a pale imitation of the despotic CEO Hank Greenberg, who built AIG into an insurance powerhouse over 37 years, earning a AAA credit rating for prudence to go along with his aggressive tactics.

AIG FP’s employees, Lewis writes, "suspect that the only reason Greenberg promoted Cassano was that he saw in him a pale imitation of his own tyrannical self and felt he could control him. 'So long as Greenberg was there, it worked,' says one trader, 'because he watched everything Joe did.'"

But then in 2005 along came Spitzer, in his own relentless drive to build the reputation that led to his election as New York governor, to hound Greenberg out of AIG while treating Warren Buffet, whose General Re subsidiary was involved in the same questionable deals, with extreme deference.

After that, Lewis reports, "as one trader puts it, 'the new guys running AIG had no idea.' They thought the money machine ran on its own, and Cassano did nothing to discourage the view. By 2005, AIG FP was indeed, in effect, his company."

In building his own reputation as a white knight, Eliot Spitzer, later forced to resign for failings of his own, seems to have been instrumental in starting the avalanche that threatened to bury us all.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Politics of Personality Disorder

Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford, who won't stop talking about the conjunction of their political and personal problems, are taking us into new territory where punditry has to give way to psychiatry to make sense of their bizarre behavior.

Consider the National Institute of Mental Health's definition of borderline personality disorder: "a serious mental illness characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual's sense of self-identity."

Of the two cases, Sanford's zigzags from ultraconservative pillar of the Republican Party to playboy of the Southern Hemisphere are easier to understand, a cultural cliché going back to "Rain," in which a devout missionary goes mad under the spell of Sadie Thompson.

Palin's odd week raises the psychiatric stakes--denying she is a quitter while quitting as she blames the media for her woes and then gives them nonstop interviews, a love-hate relationship with political fame that defies simple explanations.

In his analysis, Adam Nagourney of the New York Times observes that "there is plenty of evidence that argues against the idea that this was done with forethought and planning. The rollout was something of a car crash, as even her fans acknowledged."

Now Palin is all the over the place, talking to Time, CNN, ABC, Fox News and anyone else who will listen, wearing waders and spouting non-sequiturs next to a boatload of fish, embarrassing herself with references to a "Department of Law" in the White House and other unthinkable gaffes for someone John McCain and millions of voters deemed qualified to be a heartbeat away from a geriatric presidency.

Andrew Sullivan has compiled a dossier of her "lies," but that may not be the relevant category. What reality do politicians like Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford inhabit, and what would a psychiatrist from another planet make of their weird acting out?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Health Care Fallbacks

The Obama White House is waffling on the public option and making piecemeal deals with providers, as hospitals now agree to sacrifice $155 billion over 10 years toward the cost of insuring 47 million Americans without coverage.

With the Administration conceding it "won't draw a line in the sand" and citing the Bush prescription-drug benefit in 2003 as a precedent, real health care reform is receding into a politics-as-usual charade to give the illusion of Change while making marginal improvements.

Now, the catch phrase is "trigger mechanism" that would let a public plan come into play when "competition was judged to be lacking," an evasion of breathtaking vagueness.

With Ted Kennedy on the sidelines, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is weakened in its efforts to push for an immediate public plan, but rhetoric is still strong.

Sen. Chuck Schumer is emoting: "If it's not there on day one, those of us who support a public option have a real problem with it."

Not exactly "We have just begun to fight," but with true reform approaching critical condition, the vital signs are growing weaker. Those who want to rage against the dying of the light had better make their voices heard soon.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Death of the Best and Brightest

Robert S. McNamara, who died today at 93, was the exemplar of American know-how gone awry in a world too complicated for the practical mindset that built the most powerful nation on earth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

As one of JFK's "whiz kids" who went on to become LBJ's architect of the disastrous war in Vietnam, McNamara exemplified the limits of intellectual brilliance in a subtle and savage world.

"What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said, looking back in an oral history. “It led President Eisenhower in 1954 to say that if Vietnam were lost, or if Laos and Vietnam were lost, the dominoes would fall...

"I am certain we exaggerated the threat. Had we never intervened, I now doubt that the dominoes would have fallen; I doubt that all of Asia would have fallen under communist control...

“We didn’t know our opposition. We didn’t understand the Chinese, we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is know your opponents.”

A Harvard professor who left to become president of Ford after the financial devastation of his wife's illness, McNamara successfully brought his systems-analysis approach to running the Pentagon but became the main figure described in David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," Kennedy's crew of academic and industry brainiacs who pushed "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in Vietnam.

In later years, McNamara rued his role. "External military force cannot reconstruct a failed state, and Vietnam, during much of that period, was a failed state politically," he told CNN in a 1996 interview. "We didn't recognize it as such."

The lessons of his life are a critical reminder for the Obama Administration of the hubris that can blindside brilliance without accompanying insight into the realities of human behavior. Robert S. McNamara learned them too late, but they can help guide American policy today.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Overstimulated Statehouses

"People," Gail Collins asks in today's New York Times, "what is going on with governors in this country? Are we doomed to see them go bonkers one by one, state by state?"

As the President heads for Russia next week, he leaves behind troubled American statehouses, from Schwarzenegger's in California handing out IOUs like a busted riverboat gambler to those of Sanford and Palin, who resisted Washington's stimulus money and are now heading out of office, maundering about higher levels of arousal in Argentina and Alaska.

In New York, the legislature is being held hostage by Gov. David Paterson, who got the job after Eliot Spitzer resigned over professional stimulus, while former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, awaiting federal trial for corruption, loses out to Palin for the Sitting Duck Award, granted annually to the most ridiculed newsmaker in the nation.

Affairs of the states have been roiled by collapsing economies and rising pressures on chief executives to manage their way through crises rather than primp for the TV cameras in search of higher office. For some, like Bobby Jindal after his disastrous rebuttal to Obama's address to Congress, that may be a blessing in thin disguise.

Meanwhile, the antics of Palin, Sanford et al are distracting millions of mourners who won't win the lottery for tickets to the Michael Jackson memorial next week. Compared to some governors, the Gloved One was a model of sanity and much more entertaining to boot.

Palin: Media Martyr's Revenge

The self-styled victim of "the politics of personal destruction" has struck back at her tormenters by leaving Alaska's statehouse with trademark twinkly, crinkly aggression.

Sarah Palin dropped her bombshell on the eve of a holiday weekend, sending TV's talking heads scrambling back from vacation to studios or huffing over long-distance phone lines to parse her resignation.

Their puzzled but predictable responses ranged from William Kristol and Mary Matalin hailing the move as a masterstroke toward the 2012 presidential nomination to the consensus about it as bizarre and, in the words of Republican strategist Ed Rollins, "terribly inept."

In ten months on the national scene, Palin has tried to make ineptness an asset by equating competence with "politics as usual" and picturing herself as champion of the resentful and inarticulate from Joe the Plumber down

Palin's complaints about the media notwithstanding, her next logical move will be to follow the folk wisdom, "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em," and become a commentator for Fox News, where Rupert Murdoch will surely be happy to provide her with an income and national platform to ease the pain of her abuse by David Letterman and Vanity Fair.

In that role, and in lucrative lectures to right-wing Republican faithful, the former Governor will be free to exhibit her 21st century Animal Farm--from the pit bull with lipstick through yesterday's additions, the lame duck who milks a paycheck and dead fish who go with the flow.

In that ramble, Gov. Palin asserted that it would be "tempting and more comfortable to just kind of keep your head down and plod along and appease those who are demanding, hey, just sit down and shut up. But that’s a worthless, easy path out. That’s a quitter’s way out."

Then she quit.

Her future colleague, Mike Huckabee, was rushed onto Fox News to hail her "spunk." Unlike Mary Tyler Moore's old TV boss Ed Asner, Huckabee was both collegially and politically restrained from a more understandable reaction, "I hate spunk."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Two Styles of Political Suicide

While Mark Sanford continues to go for his own jugular with new confessions that will force him out of office, there is news about his neighbor to the north, John Edwards, that should bury him politically once and for all.

The two offer a fascinating contrast in self-destructive styles.

Now that his erotic secrets are out, the South Carolina governor just can't stop blabbing that he has "crossed lines" with other women, each revelation costing him the loss of more political allies, to say nothing of possible reconciliation with his wife.

Edwards, on the other hand, has been a true trial-lawyer weasel, practicing Nixon's "modified limited hangout," admitting only misdeeds revealed by others and hoping to keep all the rest buried.

This week those hopes were dashed by news of a book proposal by former aide Andrew Young, who once tried to take the rap for Rielle Hunter's pregnancy, but is now disillusioned (and no doubt greedy) enough to tell all about the affair, including their making of sexual videotapes and plans to marry after the death of Elizabeth Edwards from the cancer she has been fighting.

In his quest for the presidency, John Edwards kept talking about two Americas. When it comes to ambitious politicians, he and Mark Sanford have living in two different universes. but the result will be the same for their careers and help make voters wary of politicians posing as Mr. Clean.

Update: In the second part of his confessional AP interview, Sanford burbles, "I will be able to die knowing that I had met my soul mate." This declaration has haunting echoes of King Edward VIII renouncing his throne in 1936 for "the woman I love." The former king and his soul mate went on to a long life of exile in what used to be known as Café Society, but the GOP right wing has no such counterpart these days for dethroned Southern governors.

Bush's Ghosts

Despite a consensus over his failed presidency, George W. Bush's enduring impact on American life is being marked this week by the slow-leak withdrawal from Baghdad and the end of a Supreme Court term in Washington dominated by his Chief Justice.

Behind headlines about the Obama White House's frenzy to resuscitate the economy from regulatory neglect, the Iraq war and Supreme Court makeover are reminders that eight years of Bush damage will take a long time to undo.

A New York Times analysis finds "a widening gap between the Democratic-led political branches and the Supreme Court" and that the court "appears poised to move to the right in the Obama era," noting that Bush's appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, voted the same way 92 percent of time, the highest rate for any pair of justices.

The coming gabble over the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter will obscure the hard fact that the Supreme Court will be little changed by her arrival.

Similarly, today's exit of American troops from Baghdad will be celebrated as a milestone but is more notable as evidence that President Obama's clear campaign promises have been muddied by the realities of ending a misbegotten war, leaving 130,000 American troops and who-knows-how-many security contractors in Iraq for who-knows-how-long.

Last November, Americans voted for Change, but the ghosts of Bush's presidency will be haunting them for years to come.