Monday, August 31, 2009

Yes We Can...What?

Team Obama is in full campaign mode, firing off e-mails and organizing events to push ahead for health care reform, but nobody knows exactly where the goal line is.

According to the Washington Post, "President Obama's supporters hope to recapture the energy of last year's triumphant election campaign in a bid to regain control of the health-care debate, planning more than 2,000 house parties, rallies and town hall meetings across the country over the next two weeks."

The trouble with such exertion is that the object is not pulling the lever in a presidential election or urging a simple affirmative Congressional vote but influencing thousands of pages of still-shifting legislation in both Houses.

Yes, we can...what?

In the morass of issues involved, only the public option has come into focus to be distorted by lobbyists and loons into a future of government control and death panels, Big Lies that have to be answered with long and convoluted explanations

The demagoguery level is so high that Paul Krugman today resorts to nostalgia for the Unindicted Co-Conspirator, arguing that "Nixon’s proposal for health care reform looks a lot like Democratic proposals today. In fact, in some ways it was stronger."

On the other side of the ideological divide, George Will asserts, with some justice, that on health care reform "our ubiquitous president became the nation's elevator music, always out and about, heard but not really listened to, like audible wallpaper."

All this puts Obama supporters in the position of rushing around in all directions, trying to contain the flames of opposition in the equivalent of a Chinese fire drill.

As the Right revels in its newfound voice and the Left indicts the President for losing his nerve, health care reform is evolving beyond a crucial political and economic issue.

In many ways, it is becoming a test of how well American democracy can let rational voices be heard in a 21st century Tower of Babel--of whether Obama's new politics has enough power to revive and revitalize the best of the old.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Montage From an American Funeral

Distilled from a half century of seeing Kennedys up close and reporting their history, feelings about today's mass in Boston prompt renewed wonder about the complexity and unpredictability of American life.

President Obama's eulogy, eloquent as always, was after all the tribute of someone who has known Ted Kennedy for only a few years, graciously lauding him as "a Happy Warrior" and "a kind and tender hero."

His words were part of a much larger tableau, the sense of how love and conflict, wealth and ambition, personal failings and the search for redemption play out across generations of a public family.

The weekend's celebration was graciously orchestrated by Ted Kennedy's second wife, Vicki, who saved him when his personal and political fortunes were at low ebb in the early 1990s.

There was only a passing mention of his first wife, Joan, mother of his children, a stunningly beautiful woman who wrote about her chronic alcoholism for me in McCalls before their divorce in the 1970s and, of course, none at all of Chappaquiddick, which in 1969 marred the legend of Camelot and ruined the chances of another Kennedy in the White House.

Fittingly enough, an unspoken theme in that church today was atonement, and Ted Kennedy's most impressive advocates were his sons, Ted Jr., telling how his father's relentless devotion carried him through the loss of a leg to cancer and Patrick, still visibly shaky from addiction, testifying to the healing power of paternal love.

Their tributes brought no outward reaction from two men in the first row who grew up without that, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but it would have taken a heart of stone not to be moved by them.

As Ted Kennedy is taken to join his brothers in Arlington Cemetery, what comes to mind is something JFK said in an interview with me only weeks before he died.

He was talking about the brutal and violent instincts of human beings that, in his words, “have been implanted in us growing out of the dust.” In controlling those destructive impulses, John Fitzgerald Kennedy said sadly, “we have done reasonably well——but only reasonably well.“

He would have been proud of what his little brother did about that in the 77 years he was granted on earth.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Jaws, the Bank Sequel

Too-big-to-fail is morphing into bigger-than-ever swallowing up failing-faster-than-ever.

The nation's largest banks, infused with taxpayer billions, are feasting on the weak as the Washington Post reports that "no consequence of the crisis alarms top regulators more than having banks that were already too big to fail grow even larger and more interconnected."

FDIC chair Sheila Bair sums it up succinctly: "It is at the top of the list of things that need to be fixed. It fed the crisis, and it has gotten worse because of the crisis."

This alarm follows news that her agency's insurance fund, which guarantees deposits, shrank another 20 percent in the second quarter, down to $10.4 billion, the lowest level since the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s.

So far this year 81 banks have failed with another 416 on the FDIC'S "problem list."

Meanwhile, the bailout-bloated sharks are flourishing. J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo each now holds more than $1 of every $10 on deposit in the country. "Those three banks, plus government-rescued and -owned Citigroup," the Post reports, "now issue one of every two mortgages and about two of every three credit cards, federal data show."

As politicians debate socialized medicine, the country has moved toward a bastardized form of socialized banking, fed by the government for the ballooning profit of the few, who are squeezing out struggling smaller competitors by being able to borrow at lower interest rates while doing little to ease the consumer credit crunch, the original object of the bailout.

Now that the President has reappointed Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, the Obama economic team can get to work trying to undo some of its unintended consequences by starting to rein in superbanks with much tougher regulation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Media Wake, Biden Tears

The etiquette of celebrity death brings the usual talking heads--calculating Orrin Hatch on PBS, loathsome Joe Lieberman on Larry King--with me-me-me tributes to Ted Kennedy but largely unseen is Joe Biden with an authentic outpouring of human grief.

In an era when empathy is an accusation, the Vice President is an anachronism--a politician often demeaned right and left for speaking his mind and heart, exposing himself to political ridicule.

Yesterday morning, in a routine appearance at the Department of Energy, Biden could not suppress tears along with memories of a friendship that endured for decades:

"He stood with me when my wife and daughter were killed in an accident. He was on the phone with me literally every day in the hospital, my two children were attempting, and, God willing, thankfully survived very serious injuries. I'd turn around and there would be some specialist from Massachusetts, a doc I never even asked for, literally sitting in the room with me."

Biden was 29 when he came to the Senate, Kennedy had been 30. "He and I were talking after his diagnosis," the Vice President recalled. "And I said, I think you're the only other person I've met more optimistic, more enthusiastic, more idealistic, sees greater possibilities after 36 years."

Although Kennedy improved the lives of millions, Biden recalled, he "never was petty. He was never small. And in the process...he made everybody he worked with bigger--both his adversaries as well as his allies.

"Don't you find it remarkable that one of the most partisan, liberal men in the last century serving in the Senate had so many of his foes embracing him, because they know he made them bigger, he made them more graceful by the way in which he conducted himself?"

In many ways, Ted Kennedy will be irreplaceable, but Joe Biden remains as an exemplar of truth-telling and passionate idealism.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mission for the Mourner-in-Chief

It will be a short trip for Barack Obama from his vacation site in Martha's Vineyard to Ted Kennedy's funeral in Boston Saturday, but the Senator's interment will be the start of a longer, tougher journey for the President.

He will have to follow his mourning by channeling the departed's gift for inside politics, summoning up Kennedy's legendary blend of toughness and people skills to lure Senators out of their "ideological caves" and come together to rise above lobbyist pressures and political posturing to pass meaningful health care reform

Sen. Robert Byrd suggests today, in expressing grief for Kennedy, that "in his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on health care reform which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to insuring the health of every American."

In the coming weeks, the President will have to put more than Ted Kennedy's name on health care reform. When the eulogies are over, he will have to put the old pol's stamp on his efforts to get a good bill passed by members of the club in which Kennedy spent almost half a century wheeling and dealing.

That would be the tribute Kennedy would cherish most of all.

Update: He can start by convincing Congress and the public to undo Medicare Advantage, "a wasteful bonanza averaging about $17 billion a year for [insurance] companies, which critics say provide few benefits beyond regular Medicare" but that Dr. Karl Rove insists gives seniors "better care and better value for their money."

A year ago, Ted Kennedy rallied from his illness to cast the deciding Senate vote to protect Medicare. The President will have to pick up that torch.

The Kennedy Brother Who Died in Bed

At the age of twelve, he pestered his family to let him contribute to a memorial volume about his oldest brother, Joe, who had been lost in World War II. What Teddy Kennedy chose to remember was how, after hounding Joe into letting him crew in a sailboat race and failing to help him win, he found himself thrown into icy water, only to be lifted back up seconds later by his brother's strong arms.

That fierce Kennedy will to win, coupled with even fiercer family love, marked the life of the man who died today, the only one of four brothers to survive into old age and fulfill the promise of those other lives cut short by the violence of a world in which they never stopped competing.

Remembered by President Obama as "a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time," Edward Moore Kennedy, for those who lived through those times, is also proof that redemption is possible, that there are second and even third acts in American lives.

Expelled from Harvard for cheating, becoming a Senator at 30 through nepotism, being disgraced by Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy overcame all that and more to morph in his last years into "the lion of the Senate," fighting fiercely for the rights of those with less privileged lives than his own.

Ironically, he leaves this world in a time of debate over the value of preserving lives indefinitely as a reminder that there is no expiration date on the human spirit. Ted Kennedy won't be here to vote on health care reform, but he will have made a vital contribution to what he called "the cause of my life."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Health Care Food Fight

From the steady diet of invective comes a bite of nostalgia, a reminder of the 1960s when right-minded (that is, left-leaning) people supported California migrant workers by not buying grapes.

Boycotted this time around are the Whole Foods markets whose CEO wrote a Wall Street Journal piece opining, "Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any."

Lovers of organic food and the public option rallied online asking supporters to stop "voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges" with the health-food chain, claiming that “Whole Foods has built its brand with the dollars of deceived progressives.”

This may not be exactly what the President has in mind when urging diet discrimination and exercise to keep down health care costs, but for one shopper, the boycott will pose no hardship. Visits to Whole Foods have always reminded me of what Jimmy Durante said when asked if wheat germ and yogurt made you live longer: "Naw, but it sure seems longer."

Whatever their political opinions, I'll stick with Trader Joe's.

Obama Is No LBJ

As Afghanistan starts to resemble Vietnam, Barack Obama is being compared to Lyndon Johnson, "a president who aspired to reshape America at home while fighting a losing war abroad."

Such parallels must be irresistible to historians and journalistic Big Thinkers, but they overlook the reality that Obama and LBJ are as dissimilar as two presidents could be in every way that counts--temperament, personality and approach to power.

Even the comparison has its roots in the current president's reflective nature as opposed to Johnson's self-assertion and certainty, going back to a recent off-the-record dinner with historians in which Obama "expressed concern that Afghanistan could yet hijack his presidency."

Self-awareness and modesty are traits that could serve him well as Afghanistan threatens to become the kind of quagmire that resulted from LBJ's often-asserted refusal to become "the first American president to lose a war."

If hubris was Johnson's Achille's heel, however, caution is Obama's counterpart.

“We must never forget,” he said in a speech last week. “This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.”

Maybe so, but in LBJ's time, the domino theory about the spread of Communism seemed just as compelling and proved to be flawed. The question now is will Obama reconsider that "necessity," as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and others have been urging.

Depressed and defeated in retirement, Johnson was still trying to understand what went wrong, and I heard him give an assessment of his successor Richard Nixon.

"Not much here," LBJ said, pointing to his head and then his heart, "even less here," before lowering his hand below the belt. "But enough down there."

Unlike Johnson, Obama is not so obsessed with such distinctions that they will cloud his ultimate decisions about changing direction in a war that Americans no longer want.

If he stays true to his own nature, he can avoid LBJ's foreign policy disaster and keep trying to match his achievements in working toward a Great Society.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Harry and Louise Packing Heat

Almost two decades ago, health insurers defeated Clinton health reform by inventing an iconic American couple sitting at the kitchen table to worry out loud about socialized medicine.

This time around, Harry and Louise are looking more like Thelma and Louise, not in TV commercials, but at "town halls" spewing lies, hate and carrying guns, with Republican Congressmen validating their rage as patriotism.

In his weekly address before vacation, President Obama served as Debunker-in-Chief, rebutting "some of the more outrageous myths circulating on the internet, on cable TV, and repeated at some town halls across this country"--that health care reform would cover illegal immigrants, pay for abortions, set up "death panels" for the elderly and other bilge that caused Congressmen Barney Frank this week to ask a questioner who invoked Nazi Germany, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"

The President's rational answers to the irrationality being stirred up by private opponents for financial profit and public officials for political gain are irrefutable.

"We’ll prohibit insurance companies," he promises, "from denying coverage because of a person’s medical history. They will not be able to drop your coverage if you get sick. They will not be able to water down your coverage when you need it most. They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime. We’ll place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses, because no one in America should go broke because they get sick.

"And we will require insurance companies to cover routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer on the front end. That makes sense, it saves lives, and it will also save money over the long-run. Taken together, the reforms we’re seeking will help bring down skyrocketing costs, which will mean real savings for families, businesses, and government."

Reasonable arguments can't dispute the sense and sanity of trying to do that, so in today's debate, there are no reassuringly normal Harrys and Louises to make the case for the opposition but their counterparts spewing prefabricated demagoguery and waving guns.

In the battle for health care reform this time around, there is more at stake for American society than health care reform.

Friday, August 21, 2009

No "Care" in Health Care

The political debate about healing is looking more and more like the last scene of "The Bridge on the River Kwai," a dazed doctor amid carnage mumbling "Madness, madness."

Not long after that 1950s movie about savagery arising from noble intentions, the psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm was obsessed with what he called "The Myth of Care." Stunned by social upheaval in the Sixties and rage over Vietnam, the author of "The Art of Loving" and "The Sane Society" kept searching newspapers and TV screens for images of people reaching out to help and comfort one another.

If he were alive today, Fromm would have an even harder time than he did back then finding evidence that, as they argue about health care, Americans haven't turned brutal and uncaring.

Barack Obama, who came to power as a healing figure, is being swamped by public anxieties and, the harder he works at being rational in an overheated atmosphere of fear and distrust, the more the President is judged as having passed the "point at which realism shades over into weakness" (Paul Krugman) and failing to take advantage of "the teachable moment" on health care (Peggy Noonan).

But whatever the potential damage to his party in next year's voting and his own prospects for reelection in 2012, the sight of Obama wandering the ruins of the health reform landscape, still trying to reason with unreasonable opposition, is less an indictment of the most gifted political figure of our time than a reminder that the best-educated, best-informed generations have not evolved much from the benighted days of half a century ago.

If anything, someone eligible for being hailed before a death panel might say that they have slid a long way back.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cheney's Contract Killers

A new leak in the Death Squad story first blurted out by Seymour Hersh discloses that the CIA in 2004 hired Blackwater "as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda."

According to current and former government officials, the New York Times reports that "Dick Cheney told CIA officers in 2002 that the spy agency did not need to inform Congress because the agency already had legal authority to kill Qaeda leaders."

In a March speech, New Yorker writer Hersh casually referred to "an executive assassination ring" operating out of Cheney's office: "Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us."

Today's Times story reflects ongoing efforts by the CIA in the Obama era under Leon Panetta to scrape off all the accumulated Cheney mud of the post-9/11 years:

"Officials said the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune. Blackwater’s work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior CIA officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program.

"Blackwater, which has changed its name, most recently to Xe Services, and is based in North Carolina, in recent years has received millions of dollars in government contracts, growing so large that the Bush administration said it was a necessary part of its war operation in Iraq...

"Blackwater employees hired to guard American diplomats in Iraq were accused of using excessive force on several occasions, including shootings in Baghdad in 2007 in which 17 civilians were killed. Iraqi officials have since refused to give the company an operating license."

But apparently the Vice President of the United States had no compunctions about hiring them as assassins and hiding their activities from Congress.

Obama's Unwanted War

As Afghanistan votes, our own President, like George W. Bush before him, has become the proprietor of a conflict most Americans don't understand and don't want.

A new poll by the Washington Post and ABC News shows: "A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more US troops should be sent to the country...

"The new poll comes amid widespread speculation that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, will request more troops for his stepped-up effort to remove the Taliban from Afghan towns and villages. That position gets the backing of 24 percent of those polled, while nearly twice as many, 45 percent, want to decrease the number of military forces...

"In January, before President Obama authorized sending an additional 17,000 troops to the country, public sentiment tilted more strongly toward a troop increase."

Last week Richard Holbrooke, our special Ambassador, told foreign policy experts, “The military struggle with US troops is not an open-ended event, but our civilian assistance will continue,” that we have to be "clear about what our national interests are” and that ultimately, success in Afghanistan would be like what a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

This vague formulation is underscored by the sobering facts that, beyond Afghanistan, murders in Iraq are mounting again, and Pakistan with its nuclear weapons is as unstable as ever. Congress added to the uncertainty by leaving Washington without taking action on a long-pending bill to triple economic and development assistance there.

During the presidential campaign last year, John McCain took flak for suggesting the US might be in Iraq for a hundred years. It's time for the Obama White House to start answering the nagging questions about our continuing role in the Middle East:

Is there any way to extricate ourselves from what looks like a permanent occupation and find better ways to protect American interests in that unforgiving part of the world?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Scorned Woman Scorecard

It's definitely not Stand By Your Man Month as Mark Sanford's wife and Bernard Madoff's mistress join Elizabeth Edwards in going public to take whacks at the cheating hearts in their lives.

After throwing out her lovesick husband, Jenny Sanford is posing for Vogue and telling an interviewer that the South Carolina governor, with whom she was not "madly in love" when she married him, “has got some issues that he needs to work on, about happiness and what happiness means...I think when a lot of men get to this midpoint in life, they start asking questions that they probably should have asked a long time ago.”

Meanwhile, a book by a married woman who had a fling with him reveals that Madoff, who was a powerhouse in grabbing other people's money, including her own, was otherwise "not well endowed" and a nervous lover to boot, avoiding her embrace in a hotel elevator on their first tryst for fear of being caught by surveillance cameras.

Such comedowns follow Elizabeth Edward's book about her husband's affair while using her terminal illness as an asset in his run for president and the news this week that he is ready to admit paternity of the child he fathered with the other woman.

There is "no such thing as a private affair anymore," Maureen Dowd writes today. "We live in a transparent era atwitter with indecent exposure."

True enough, but there are compensations. We can bury once and for all, the old adage about adultery that "it's always the woman who pays." Today there is some compensation with fashion magazine interviews, appearances on Oprah and book royalties.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Health Care Woodstock

Forty years ago, Baby Boomers were out rocking and rolling in the mud to, as one put it, "terrify our parents in a deeply satisfying way." Now, facing Medicare, they are acting out in public again, this time over death panels that might finally put those aged begetters out of their misery.

"It’s a vivid reminder," Frank Rich observes, "that what most endures from America, 1969, is not the peace-and-love flower-power bacchanal of Woodstock legend but a certain style of political rage. The angry white folk shouting down their congressmen might be--literally in some cases--those angry white students whose protests disrupted campuses before and after the Woodstock interlude of summer vacation ’69."

Politically the Baby Boomers never did get it right. For all their idealism about race, sex, gender, war and politics, they produced only two presidents, Clinton and W, both of whom managed to dodge serving in Vietnam and went on to exemplify selfishness that marred their tenures and helped wreck the economy.

Now the first president after them is struggling to overcome, in his words, "the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation--a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.”

But the Boomers have migrated from campuses to town halls, turning health care reform from an issue that deserves serious, rational debate into another me-first sandbox squabble, with a little help from Obama's post-Boomer polar opposite, Sarah Palin, with what Maureen Dowd calls "her visceral talent for aerial-shooting her favorite human prey: cerebral Ivy League Democrats."

At least back in Woodstock there was music to compensate for all the madness.

Obama's Benign Betrayal

Inevitable as it was, news of the President's caving in on the public option brings sad confirmation that the sellout of true health care reform was inevitable.

"The White House," reports the New York Times today, "facing increasing skepticism over President Obama’s call for a public insurance plan to compete with the private sector, signaled Sunday that it was willing to compromise and would consider a proposal for a nonprofit health cooperative being developed in the Senate."

Only yesterday, the President was OpEding on the same pages, "We have broad agreement in Congress on about 80 percent of what we’re trying to do," but the ground he is ceding to the Congressional Establishment and lobbyists is the difference between repair to a bad system and real reform.

After months of insisting that a government plan was needed to "keep the insurance companies honest," the President is backing off by telling a Colorado town hall yesterday, "The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it. And by the way, it's both the right and the left that have become so fixated on this that they forget everything else."

Not so. This rhetorical sleight-of-hand may reflect the President's conviction that half a loaf or three quarters is better than none, but it's Bill Clinton-slippery of him to label it a right-and-left issue, sidestepping the fact that Max Baucus, recipient of $3 million from the industry over five years with a platoon of former staff members working as lobbyists for them, is prevailing in the Senate Finance Committee, to gut the legislation of its crucial elements.

In the face of the ideological madness that has been stirred up on the subject, Obama's backing off is understandable for the pragmatists in the White House but bitterly disappointing for an Administration that promised to overcome politics as usual and fight for real Change.

The patchwork legislation to emerge will leave Democrats claiming victory and Republicans denouncing a government takeover of health care, but both will be trading politically on what will be a betrayal of the long-term public interest on a critical issue.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Honey, We Shrunk the President"

After months of a bigger-than-life presidency, Barack Obama is being cut down to size--by the enormity of an economic crisis, by orchestrated fear of Change as a reality rather than an idea and by exhaustion of the hope and idealism he stirred up during two years of campaigning. But behind the falling poll numbers and raucous town halls, something else may be going on.

"Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Web," says a New York Times headline for a report from Iowa: "As the health care debate intensifies, the president is turning to his grass-roots network--the 13 million members of Organizing for America--for support.

"Mr. Obama engendered such passion last year that his allies believed they were on the verge of creating a movement that could be mobilized again. But if a week’s worth of events are any measure here in Iowa, it may not be so easy to reignite the machine that overwhelmed Republicans a year ago."

Sensing a potential Obama Waterloo, the previously overwhelmed are suddenly energized. "The Obama White House has done the near impossible," Peggy Noonan claims. "It has united the Republican Party. Social conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians—they're all against the health-care schemes as presented so far. They're shoulder-to-shoulder at the barricade again."

Maybe so, but there are also signs that Obama is morphing, not into Jimmy Carter as Noonan suggests, but more of an embattled Harry Truman who found his presidential voice by taking on a "good-for-nothing" Congress in 1948.

In his less combative way, Obama is now directly confronting the proprietors of America's failed " health care system that works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people."

In today's weekly address, he says: "If you’re worried about rationed care, higher costs, denied coverage, or bureaucrats getting between you and your doctor, then you should know that’s what’s happening right now. In the past three years, over 12 million Americans were discriminated against by insurance companies due to a preexisting condition, or saw their coverage denied or dropped just when they got sick and needed it most.

"Americans whose jobs and health care are secure today just don’t know if they’ll be next to join the 14,000 who lose their health insurance every single day. And if we don’t act, average family premiums will keep rising to more than $22,000 within a decade."

In Montana yesterday, the President was confronted by an insurance salesman who asked him to explain why he was "vilifying" insurance companies. Obama told him and, in the coming weeks, will undoubtedly be telling Americans everywhere who the enemy is.

In what looks like the wreckage of his hopes for health care reform, Barack Obama, like John Paul Jones when asked to surrender, may be saying, "I have not yet begun to fight."

Friday, August 14, 2009

VJ Day and Death Panels

One of the astonishments of old age is finding that something significant happened to you on this day 64 years ago, as the calendar marks the anniversary of victory over Japan in World War II.

In this August of our discontent, it's jolting to remember how close and united Americans were back then. As one of those foot soldiers who had fought through Europe, all we knew then was that mushroom clouds over Japan earlier that month had ended our dread of going to the Pacific to storm beaches and face mass death again in foreign cities.

For the first time in years, we could wake in the morning without feeling there was an IOU out on our lives, held by someone unknown and payable on demand.

That sense of relief comes flooding back while reading the news about the debate over "death panels" for members of my generation by politicians and public, most of whom have never known how it feels to really have their lives on the line every day.

There are relatively few of us still alive who remember what it was like back then to be young and find ourselves suddenly relieved of the need to die for our country.

As one of them, I can't overstate my disgust to find, more than six decades later, Americans now feigning concern for my generation to score cheap political points. Such rhetoric is an insult to those of us who survived and, even worse, to those who didn't.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cheney, Rove and Sleeping Dogs

As the Bush Era recedes in the rear-view mirror, both friends and foes keep revisiting its glory days. The House Judiciary Committee makes public documents that show Karl Rove turning "law enforcement into a tool of partisan politics," and Dick Cheney wants it known that George W. Bush went soft on him in their second term and "turned out to be more like an ordinary politician in the end."

The former Vice President's rueful attitude will serve mainly to hype interest in his forthcoming memoirs, but the Rove revelations may affect the future of Bush's Brain in more drastic ways, with a New York Times editorial urging Congress to hold open hearings and the Justice Department to push its own investigation toward criminal charges in the firing of the US Attorneys:

"The materials released on Tuesday paint an ugly picture of fair-minded prosecutors under siege by the White House for refusing to politicize their offices. And it puts Mr. Rove, former President George W. Bush’s chief political operative, at the center of it."

The Obama Administration seems inclined to let sleeping dogs lie, but the Bush alumni show no signs of slinking off to snooze quietly.

Cheney is so incensed that his Presidential puppet fired his former mentor Don Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense after the 2006 elections and refused to pardon Scooter Libby for outing Valerie Plame before leaving office that he apparently can't wait for his memoirs to appear to vent his rage.

Rove, meanwhile, keeps savaging the Obama usurpers on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal, confident that he can escape prosecution in the US Attorney case by claiming he was only "a conduit" in the maneuverings to fire them.

In the days of raucous town halls about health reform, all this may get filed under the heading of stale news, but history will undoubtedly care.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Reverse-Nixon Era

Back then, the White House was obsessed with enemies lists and conspiracies, now we have a President trying to calm crowds riled by the prospect of death panels and plots to steal its freedoms. As Obama's approval ratings fall, pinpointing American paranoia is much harder than it was in the 1970s.

Just as the social upheavals of the 1960s allowed Richard Nixon to play on the anxieties of what he called The Silent Majority, the Era of Change has stirred up primal fears among Americans who need someone or something to blame for their unhappiness--Big Government, Obama's race, anything Other they can find to hate and vilify.

"Never forget," a Nixon tape revealed him telling his advisors, "the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy... Write that on a blackboard 100 times."

Now, instead of hate flowing outward from the White House, it is being directed at everyone in Washington--the Administration, Congress, the media--and no amount of rational argument about the specifics of health care reform will make it all go away.

The current rage is no doubt being stoked by fringe activists, but its persistence has to be taken seriously as a reaction to something that has unsettled millions.

The President and his Congressional allies can keep denying, as they must, absurdities that they have plans for “death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma,” but for the time being, nothing will reassure True Believers who have found a focus for their feelings in town halls, amplified by media coverage.

It took years for Nixon to implode from his paranoia, but the Republicans who are hoping to profit next year and beyond from today's emotions may want to remember that the attention span of enraged voters is hard to sustain and keep focused without a blowback against all politicians.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Lost Kennedy Sister

The eulogies for Eunice Shriver as a tireless humanitarian bring to light again the story of a forgotten Kennedy, Rosemary, who was diagnosed as mentally retarded and, at the age of 23, underwent a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in an institution.

When JFK was on his way to the presidency, no one talked publicly about a sibling who did not fit into the picture of a large family of healthy, active achievers, but when he was in the White House, Eunice with his permission wrote a magazine article about their sister and went on to spend the rest of her life working tirelessly for the retarded by founding and nurturing the Special Olympics.

“It fills me with sadness," she wrote back then, "to think this change might not have been necessary if we knew then what we know today.”

Rosemary Kennedy's story is yet another tragedy in the history of a family that lost its children to the public life chosen by the patriarch, Joseph Kennedy Jr.

Until she reached young womanhood, she lived at home and, despite her handicaps with the help of governesses and tutors, enjoyed a rich girl's life of tea dances, dress fittings and trips to Europe, but her increasingly erratic behavior, no doubt out of fear of pregnancy or other disgrace, led her parents to agree to what was even then the radical solution of brain surgery.

From then on, although she lived to 86, Rosemary Kennedy was as much a victim of her family's fame and ambition as her brothers Jack and Bobby were by assassins' bullets.

Eunice Shriver spent much of her adult life honoring her older sister's tragedy, and the improved lives of countless retarded people are a testament to what she wrought out of love and loss.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Stimulus as a State of Mind

Nothing significant has happened, but suddenly the economy is looking better. Excitement over snippets of good news, or more accurately less-bad news, is underscoring how much of it all is psychological and suggesting that Obama's aggressive stimulus attack, no matter how flawed, wasteful and even wrong-headed, has been crucial to keeping us from going over the edge.

In the past few days, the usually sober New York Times has been agog with happy talk about the economic crisis, climaxed today by a Paul Krugman assertion that Big Government "saved us" by not fearfully cutting spending and "unlike in the 1930s, the government didn’t take a hands-off attitude while much of the banking system collapsed."

This follows an analysis saying: “A report card on the stimulus plan offered by analysts nearly six months after it was passed by Congress suggests that the punch from increased government spending has helped the economy begin to bottom out faster than it would have otherwise.”

Yet another interpretive piece concludes that "the evidence is now pointing pretty strongly in one direction: history books may conclude that the financial crisis of 2008 turned out to be far less bad than it could have been and that Washington deserved much of the credit."

Before passing all this off as liberal wishful thinking, contrast today's situation with the economic free fall of the 1970s when accidental president Gerald Ford tried to cheerlead the nation out of stagflation with WIN buttons (Whip Inflation Now) and presided over low growth and runaway inflation that persisted through the Carter years into the Reagan era.

It will take months, even years, before the verdict is in on the wisdom of every aspect of the enormous Obama spending and deficit growth, but one thing is already clear: All that furious activity has been more reassuring than a President McCain approach of tax cuts and hoping for the best.

For the economy as a whole, Cash for Clunkers may signify the importance of getting consumers to feel that the sky is not falling and, given enough time, they will do the rest.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Mastering the Art of Marriage

Nora Ephron's new movie recalls the morning Julia Child burned my breakfast toast.

In the 1970s, her husband Paul and I were in their Cambridge kitchen talking heatedly about politics while Julia sort of tended the broiler but was more interested in leaning over to hear what we were saying. When smoke started pouring from the oven, she pulled out a tray and dumped the charred contents into the sink.

"Ah, well," she said smiling and slicing more bread, just like the French Chef dropping a chicken on TV, brushing it off and telling viewers: "Don't forget, if you're alone in the kitchen, no one will know."

Now, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are reenacting their lifelong love story in "Julie and Julia," the kind of marriage new generations know from old black-and-white movies like "The Thin Man" mysteries, with a couple totally devoted to each other in a life of good food, good drink and good times with friends

In a decade as Julia's editor when she wrote for McCalls, I knew the childless Childs, although they didn't look like movie stars (she towered over him), as the real thing. They didn't solve murders as a sideline, like Myrna Loy and Wllliam Powell, but they had had an adventurous life, meeting during World War II while working for the precursor of the CIA, the OSS, he as a cartographer and she helping cook up a shark repellent for underwater explosives to keep them away from bombs meant to blow up German U-boats.

It's part of the Julia Child legend that she learned to cook to please him after they married when Paul was working in Paris for the State Department. She spent the rest of her life cooking and pleasing him.

Even our professional parting was involved with the closeness of their marriage. When Paul suffered the first of a series of strokes that would result in enormous medical bills until his death more than a dozen years later, Julia stopped writing columns for me after nine years to lend her name to a Sunday supplement offering a king's ransom for it.

When we met again in her last years, she was still the tireless, life-affirming Julia Child, but part of her heart was gone.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Stupidity as a Pre-Existing Condition

The rowdiness will no doubt subside, but could civility save the "debate" over health care? The signs are not encouraging.

Today the President devotes part of his weekly address to "dispelling the outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care.

"That’s simply not true. This isn’t about putting government in charge of your health insurance; it’s about putting you in charge of your health insurance."

A Republican rebuttal comes from the newly liberated Sarah Palin on her Facebook page:

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of 'their level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil."

As Obama and Democratic Congress members spend time and energy treating such stupidity as a pre-existing condition, the real issues in health care reform may be quietly being bartered away behind the usual closed doors.

A perfect example surfaces with news that the Administration had assured lobbyists that "any health care overhaul would not include allowing direct government negotiation of drug prices or require certain additional price rebates."

Now that this deal has gone public, the Obama White House is backpedaling away from it, but it raises questions about what else is being aborted there as well as in the Baucus-Grassley operating room on Capitol Hill in the name of bipartisanship.

When the hecklers are gone from TV screens next month, what will remain of real health care reform?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Unhealthy Debate About Health Care

Left and right, anxiety over the ugly turn of American politics this month is provoking conflict about the conflict.

Paul Krugman decries "recent town halls, where angry protesters--some of them, with no apparent sense of irony, shouting “This is America!”--have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health reform."

Across the ideological divide, Peggy Noonan finds, "What the protesters are saying is, 'You are terrifying us,'" expressing "a feeling of rebellion, an uprising against change they do not believe in."

Both sides agree that some of the outrage is trumped up--by "well-heeled interest groups...crass as they come" (Krugman) or the White House itself (Noonan), compiling an "enemies list" with an "email address to which citizens are asked to report instances of 'disinformation' in the health-care debate."

According to The Hill, "The showdowns between lawmakers and constituents have not only fueled the high-stakes battle over healthcare reform but also started a debate over the authenticity of the interruptions.

"With websites like encouraging activists to upload video and pictures from the heated meetings, Democratic members are asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi whether they should continue holding town hall meetings with large numbers of people...

"The Speaker has advised her rank and file to do what they deem appropriate. She said scheduled town hall meetings should go ahead as planned. There are other ways to get the message out, including tele-town halls, interviews, one-on-one meetings with constituents and news conferences, leadership aides said."

We are a long way, as Krugman notes, from the Norman Rockwell painting illustrating FDR’s "Four Freedoms" that "shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind."

For an historical parallel, we have to go back even more to William Butler Yeat's post-World War I poem, "The Second Coming":

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.../The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Women of the Week, Men of the Past

Sonia Sotomayor is on her way to the Supreme Court as Laura Ling and Euna Lee are reunited with their families after being wrested from the grasp of Kim Jong-il.

Yet the imagery of these triumphant women is blurred by double exposures from the past of men involved in their fates.

Voting against Sotomayor's confirmation today as the third woman and first person of Latino heritage on the Court will be John McCain, who incurred his party's wrath by being soft on immigration and was defeated last year after choosing a female running mate.

Calling Sotomayor's background "inspiring and compelling," McCain insists that "an excellent resume and an inspiring life story are not enough to qualify one for a lifetime of service on the Supreme Court. She is a judge who has foresworn judicial activism in her confirmation hearings, but who has a long record of it."

McCain, who reveled in Sarah Palin's campaign feistiness last year, now finds Sotomayor not demure enough for his tastes.

Bill Clinton, on the other hand, a decade ago was prattling in public about what the meaning of "is" is in his dicey relationships with women. Now here he is standing silently by as a courtly white-haired figure after rescuing "damsels in distress" from a pint-sized North Korean dragon, hugging only Al Gore at the scene of their reunion with loved ones.

In the age of Obama, the former president has shown that we are not quite yet living in no country for old men, but his activities and McCain's this week suggest that we are getting there.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Bloodsucking Bankers Immune to Change

The Obama Administration is making an effort to "name and shame" them, but the vampires in banking and on Wall Street are still busy draining liquidity out of the American financial system.

According to the McClatchy newspapers, "The first report under the Home Affordable Modification Program, involving more than 30 lenders that together collect payments on 85 percent of American mortgages, found an especially dismal performance by two major national banks--Bank of America and Wells Fargo--that received $45 billion and $25 billion, respectively, in taxpayers' bailout money."

From February through July, the bloodsucking banks, too busy padding earnings and paying executive bonuses, started only 9 percent of those eligible for mortgage modifications on the process.

Beyond the Main Street parasites, the wizards of Wall Street are also back doing what they did to wreck the economy, giving themselves huge rewards for speculation that, in a classic definition, combines “private profitability” with “social uselessness.”

As Paul Krugman points out, "Even before the crisis and the bailouts, many financial-industry high-fliers made fortunes through activities that were worthless if not destructive from a social point of view. And they’re still at it."

Even the Wall Street Journal is unnerved by the Citibank trader who raked in $100 million while wheeling and dealing under a government guarantee, with the champions of free markets muttering that "disaster for taxpayers is inevitable when private reward is combined with socialized risk."

It's long past time for Tim Geithner and the Obama economic team to get tough with their former associates in the world of manipulating money for the greed of the few at the expense of the many.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Best and Brightest as Bargaining Chips

To two journalists Bill Clinton is trying to free in North Korea, add three idealistic young people "arrested" by Iran for crossing their border with Iraq for apparently no other reason than being American.

“They are definitely Americans," a security official in Iran’s western Kurdistan region tells Arabic TV. "They were detained four days ago. We don’t know whether they are tourists or not. We are questioning them.”

It's becoming standard procedure for repressive regimes to try to distract attention from their own political turmoil by taking as hostage US citizens whose presence in their precincts involves humanitarian or scholarly work rather than sightseeing.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, still awaiting confirmation that Iran was holding the three, has expressed the usual "concern," adding, "“We want this matter brought to a resolution as soon as possible, and we call on the Iranian government to help us determine the whereabouts of the three missing Americans and return them as quickly as possible.”

In this new case, two of the hostages have been identified as a student couple, studying Arabic in Syria and also serving as freelance journalists, writing recent articles about the Middle East. The third had been working in a Pennsylvania "sustainable living research center" until eight months ago.

In the "Death to America" era, it's becoming more and more dangerous for our best and brightest young people to follow their idealistic impulses to the world's hot spots. Is the only alternative intellectual isolationism?

Bill Clinton Back to the Future

Off-the-books diplomacy, recalling Bill Richardson's career as an unofficial negotiator with Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic in the Clinton era, is back with the former President himself in North Korea to arrange release of two imprisoned American journalists, employees of a media unit headed by former VP Al Gore.

Bill Clinton's gig is complicated by his wife's status as Secretary of State, giving new meaning to the expression "private channels."

All hands in the White House and State Department are maintaining official silence about the trip, obviously intended to break the stalemate over the Administration's need to act on the imprisonment while stopping short of destroying the possibility of future negotiations with North Korea over nuclear weapons.

Raising the stakes in rewarding blackmail by rogue states is a problematical development. Freeing the two women is a commendable objective but, in the light of North Korea's history of political blackmail, a dubious step that will only continue the cycle of American impotence in dealing with that regime.

Richardson himself, then a Congressman nominated to be UN Ambassador, went to Pyongyang in 1996 to gain the freedom of a young American man, so disturbed that he committed suicide soon after returning home.

The North Koreans, whose foreign policy seems oriented around getting attention on the world stage, will no doubt accept Bill Clinton's trip as the price of freeing prisoners who serve no other purpose for them, but the precedent is unnerving.

Keeping Bill Clinton offstage during his wife's State Department tenure would clearly be a plus for the Obama Administration. Given Al Gore's personal involvement in the current case, wouldn't a former Vice-President's humbling have been a high enough price to pay?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Silly Season Thrillers

August arrives with a dandy metaphor about the difference between the old journalism and the new--the New York Times' record-setting number of errors in reporting Walter Cronkite's death juxtaposed against a blog frenzy over the news of a Sarah-Todd Palin divorce.

Even for this traditional month of fake and flaky news, it's an impressive start. The Times Public Editor tells us all, maybe more than we want to know, about seven corrections in what the newspaper printed about the man who nightly told America "That's the way it is," in the course of which we learn that "a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not."

Comforting as it is to learn that the Paper of Record is still so zealous about accuracy, public flogging of staff members may strike other journalists as cruel and unusual punishment in the name of retroactively covering institutional ass.

Such MSM fallibility and stodginess has to be juxtaposed against the weekend's sensation, an Alaska blogger's report that Sarah Palin has thrown her wedding ring into a lake and is moving out on Todd to Montana.

This virtually fact-free "story" is being Googled and gaped over around the digital world, leaving traditional journalists the luxury of repeating the details while holding their noses and dutifully covering themselves by citing the former governor's denials.

And that's the way it is on the first weekend of August 2009.