Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good News About Afghanistan Ambivalence

The War on Terror, confusing and anxious-making as it may be, has produced one encouraging side effect in American politics: The gung-ho is gone as all sides concede the military effort in Afghanistan is a dangerous enterprise with an unknowable outcome.

As President Obama goes face-to-face with General McChrystal today by tele-conference, the debate over what to do next has been a good deal less rancorous than any other in recent Washington history. "Dithering" has been the harshest accusation against the White House by Congressional Republicans, as the Administration leaks reports of success against Al Qaeda by covert operations.

On PBS, GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss agrees with the Democrats' Carl Levin that "just putting troops out there is not going to guarantee success" and argues for more reliance on the military judgment than Levin is willing to accept, a far different tone than partisan disagreements over the Surge in Iraq.

As wrenching as what's at stake is, it's heartening to see some semblance of sanity in American politics, the disappearance of which Tom Friedman laments today: "Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word 'we' with a straight face. There is no more 'we' in American politics at a time when 'we' have these huge problems."

On the fringes, the overheated rhetoric goes on, from Gore Vidal on the Left expressing disappointment in Obama and predicting "dictatorship soon" to a Republican Congressman calling the President "an enemy of humanity."

In a perverse way, Afghanistan with all of its corruption and complexity is bringing back serious thought to political debate at a time when the substance of issues has been degraded into a 24/7 circus of media slanders.

Granted that self-interest is, as always, involved in both Republican and Democratic reluctance to stake their political futures on either going all in or pulling out of another quagmire in the making, the resulting focus on what's at stake there and how to going about dealing with it is a partial answer to Friedman's worries about "a different kind of American political scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss political issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest."

Whatever the outcome of White House deliberations on Afghanistan, they offer the faint hope that maybe "we" can.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Shameless Hall of Fame

The bar for embarrassment is so high now it's almost out of sight for celebrities who do things that would make the rest of us die of shame.

Tom DeLay, who left Congress under a cloud of Jack Abramoff corruption, is ready to sashay in sequins on "Dancing With the Stars."

Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as governor of New York for caucusing with call girls, shows up on Bill Maher's show, pontificating about the economy alongside Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and defending capitalism against Michael Moore.

Rod Blagojevich, under indictment for (in David Remnick's words) trying to sell Obama's Senate seat "as if it were a used Barcalounger on eBay," is doing TV shows (including Jon Stewart's) to plug his new book and making himself available to lecture at universities and corporate meetings and, from the evidence of his website, would no doubt be happy to do his Elvis impersonation for a price at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

Mark Foley, who bowed out of the House for hitting on teen-age pages with sexually explicit e-mails, is back as the host of his own radio talk show.

But being disgraced and bouncing back, according to a New York Times media critic, is no longer enough. The fallen have to be outrageous enough to warrant a second chance in the spotlight.

"Politicians," writes Alessandra Stanley, "can no longer talk their way out of trouble, they have to shake it off by revealing their inner dancing fool. Celebrities can’t just write a tell-all biography and earn a coveted appearance on 'Oprah,' they must disclose a horrifying secret"--such as Mackenzie Phillips' nostalgia about sharing drugs and having sex with her father.

Yet someone is trying to draw a line. Eugene Robinson, as a columnist and commentator who "used to like John Edwards a lot," has now decided that the former presidential candidate is irredeemable--"a bad cad."

What tore it?

"Edwards is being investigated by federal prosecutors for possible campaign-finance violations, though I think it will be hard for the law to lay a glove on him.

"But looking forward, with his mistress, to the day when Elizabeth would die? Planning a post-funeral wedding? Choosing the rock band? Even if all this was just a fairy tale meant to reassure Hunter and keep her quiet, I can't have any 'like' for John Edwards anymore."

Robinson's disgust is refreshing as is Elizabeth Edwards' reported angry blogging but, if and when the $400 haircut man eventually shows up with an oily memoir, any bets on whether most of the media will welcome him back to make a case for his oh-so-sincere rehabilitation?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Obama's JFK Test

The newest revelation of Iran's nuclear sneakiness echoes what the world faced in 1962 when the Soviets furtively put missiles into Cuba, but John F. Kennedy's problem was a faceoff for a few days compared to the complex struggle that will play out over the coming months.

Yet the key issue is the same--testing an American president's skill and resolve by an adversary who may be interpreting a rational and measured approach as weakness.

Back then, JFK faced an imminent threat to the American mainland that demanded immediate response. Obama's challenge has a less concentrated time frame, but in what is being described as "the Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion," he will have to rally support for what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls "a line in the sand" to stop Iranian nuclear nose-thumbing at the world, getting them to "pursue a new course or face consequences."

The first signs are promising. In putting Tehran "on notice" yesterday, the President invoked the carrot-and-stick formula that JFK used and, just as Kennedy ignored military advice to "bomb Cuba back into the Stone Age," Obama rejected the notion of "victory" in today's crisis.

"This isn't a football game," he said. "So I'm not interested in victory, I'm interested in solving the problem."

The President's words suggest he understands the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When it was over, Robert Kennedy wrote in his memoir, his brother "permitted no crowing" and ordered that "no interview should be given, no statement made, which would claim any kind of victory."

As Obama tries to rally support from such unlikely allies as Russia and China in devising ways to pressure Iran, he will do well to recall Robert Kennedy's prediction that "we could have other missile crises in the future--different kinds, no doubt, and under different circumstances. But if we are going to be successful then, if we are going to preserve our own national security, we will need friends, we will need supporters, we will need countries that believe and respect us and will follow our leadership."

Almost half a century later, nothing has changed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Republican Recovery on Health Care

One salubrious side effect of the current debate has been the emergence of an energized GOP with a new generation of original thinkers:

*South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who previously described health care as "Obama's Waterloo" that will "break him," now observes that the debate is putting American troops at risk in Afghanistan.

He tells an interviewer that "the war in Afghanistan and our economy are our two biggest issues but he’s working on other issues such as healthcare and he’s putting off the decision on Afghanistan which I think puts our troops at risk.”

*House Minority Whip Eric Cantor offers an imaginative solution for the uninsured. To a town hall questioner with a relative who needs a cancer operation but has no way of paying for it, Cantor suggests a 21st century Scrooge option: "there are charitable organizations, there are hospitals here who do provide charity care if there’s an instance of indigency."

*Senate Finance Committee Republicans, who normally oppose government spending, are warning older Americans that Democrats are determined to “make Medicare solvent by basically slashing all [provider] reimbursements so they don’t treat Medicare beneficiaries” and "that Medicare Advantage beneficiaries will lose benefits" if insurance companies stop making enormous profits from the Bush-sponsored program, which Sen. Jay Rockefeller describes as "stuffing money into the pockets of private insurers" without providing "any better benefits to anybody."

As the debate drones on, one thing is clear: When the President accuses his political opposition of having no ideas of their own, he is doing an injustice to the ingenuity of the rising stars in the Republican Party.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Obama Wimp Factor at the UN

The President spoke to a contentious body of politicians today, asking them to stop bickering and start working together, and was greeted with applause. No one yelled "You lie!"

The United Nations, as critics will be quick to point out, is not the US Congress, and this attitude was summed up in a UK Telegraph headline even before the speech: "The UN loves Barack Obama because he is weak."

The postmortems will follow that line. "Obama," Fox News reports, "just put Israel 'on the chopping block,' said former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton."

Never mind what the President actually said: "To break the old patterns, to break the cycle of insecurity and despair, all of us must say publicly what we would acknowledge in private. The United States does Israel no favors when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And nations within this body do the Palestinians no favors when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel's legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security."

Overall, the President proposed "four pillars" as "fundamental to the future that we want for our children"-- nuclear disarmament, Middle East peace, environmental renewal and economic growth, while warning North Korea and Iran "must be held accountable" if they continue to pursue nuclear weapons.

"The world," he said, "must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear."

In distancing himself from the Bush era of going it alone in global affairs, President Obama opened himself once again to partisan attacks under the time-honored Wimp Factor, that Democrats are not macho enough to protect America from foreign threats.

Tellingly, as the President spoke in Manhattan, debate was going on in Washington over Afghanistan policy, with reports of a proposal by Vice-President Biden to reduce American forces and concentrate on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan with targeted actions.

In the coming days, Congressional Republicans will be attacking the White House for not doing enough in Kabul while they try to block progress on health care for Americans in Washington.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bill's Boswell, Nixon Shrink, Obama Cool

The mental health of presidents comes to the fore with publication of Taylor Branch's book about eight years of confessional conversations with Bill Clinton in the White House.

In more than 70 hours-long sessions, Clinton poured out his feelings to a journalist/friend, rather than a therapist, a cathartic adventure that recalls the furtive relationship of Richard Nixon with a psychiatrically oriented doctor that started before his Checkers crisis and continued through Watergate and beyond.

The political revelations in Branch's "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President” are less interesting than the fact of the relationship, an insight into how Clinton tried to ease the psychological isolation of being besieged by Whitewater and impeachment along with the usual stresses of the presidency.

The tapes also prompt reflection about Barack Obama's psyche as he faces the emotional storms of his time. The session last night with Letterman raises questions about whether a president can be too accessible, along with marvel about how comfortable this one seems to be in his own skin.

"I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election" was Obama's flip dismissal of how much racism is involved in the furor over health care reform.

Such breeziness may mask darker aspects of his personality, but thus far, Obama seems a safer bet to keep his composure during crisis than the fake-sincere Bill Clinton and the paranoid Unindicted Coconspirator of Watergate.

During the Nixon years, I lived on a hillside in Sherman, Ct., abutting the home of Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, who was later revealed to be the President's secret shrink. On occasions when military helicopters came swooping in, neighbors would shrug and say, "Nixon must be flipping out again."

In the Clinton tapes, there is a distant Nixon connection. Taylor Branch, in addition to his award-winning trilogy about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., also ghost-wrote "Blind Ambition," the Watergate memoir of John Dean, who ratted out his boss during the Congressional hearings.

In the 24/7 pressure cooker of the Oval Office, the man in the hot seat has to get emotional relief wherever he can. As Clinton laments in the new tapes, the Lewinsky scandal came about because he was feeling sorry for himself and "just cracked."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dangers of Dating Presidents' Daughters

On Letterman tonight, President Obama jokes about his daughters' future dates who may be stressed out over having men with guns hanging around.

If he really wants to know about that, I can tell him of the time Lynda Bird Johnson was working for me at McCalls, and I went to dinner at Trader Vic's in New York with our company's chairman of the board.

As we were being seated, the maitre d' whispered, "The President's daughter is going to be at the next table."

Lynda had told me that afternoon about having dinner with the son of a campaign contributor. As they went past, I called her name softly, and she stopped, apparently happy to see a familiar face. I got up and we hugged.

Later, on the way out, the head of her Secret Service detail rose from a stool at the bar where he and another agent had been sitting, screened by a beaded curtain. He was shaking his head.

"I was pretty sure it was you," he said, "but this other guy is new to the detail and he's never seen you. When someone got up and grabbed Lynda Bird, he was ready to react."

My dinner companion was thrilled. "You mean," he whispered, "we could have been plugged?"

The Secret Service man was still shaking his head. "When somebody makes a move, we don't have time for questions," he said.

A tip for Malia and Sasha when they're old enough to date: Stay out of restaurants with beaded curtains.

Vietnam Again?

As critics taunt the President about becoming another Jimmy Carter on the economy or Bill Clinton on health care reform, an older generation is haunted by the makings of another LBJ in Afghanistan.

General Stanley McChrystal's call for more troops with the or-else warning that our mission "will likely result in failure" is an invitation to follow the Vietnam path that led to 550,000 Americans fighting and over 50,000 being killed in a tribal war that ended in defeat and humiliation.

LBJ was motivated by the Domino Theory ("If we allow Vietnam to fall, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week in San Francisco"). President Obama is concerned about Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as safe havens for the kind of terrorists who executed 9/11.

He is on the brink of making a commitment but worries out loud: "Are we doing the right thing?" he said on CNN yesterday. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?

"I'm answerable to the parents of those young men and women who I'm sending over there, and I want to make sure that it's for the right reason."

His hesitation is well-founded. Beyond all the political blather is the reality that Afghanistan, like Vietnam, is the quintessence of Matthew Arnold's 19th century vision: "on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

In today's New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat claims: "On foreign policy, Bush looks a lot like Lyndon Johnson--but only if Johnson, after years of unsuccessful escalation, had bequeathed Richard Nixon a new strategy that enabled U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam with their honor largely intact."

But Iraq, a highly developed society, is still wracked by violence with who-knows-what to come after American withdrawal at the price of more than 4300 lives.

How much honor will there be in trying to pacify a country beset by corruption, financed by heroin trade, and coming off a stolen presidential election? Even more to the point, do al Qaeda and its offshoots really need "safe havens" in Afghanistan when there is a world of Yemens, Somalias et al to hide them from exposure?

The President would be well-advised by the history of the last half-century to look beyond military escalation as "the right strategy" in Afghanistan.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Yes We Can," "Maybe We Shouldn't"

Is Barack Obama trying to hide some innate shyness? After being on 60 Minutes almost as often as Andy Rooney and rivaling Oprah on weekday TV, the President will go for overexposure records with five Sunday talk shows tomorrow to be followed by Letterman Monday night.

The All Obama All the Time blitz is meant to explain and sell health care reform to confused Americans, but it calls up that ancient resistance to argument, "Don't bother me with facts, I've made up my mind."

Can one more rational explanation, or a dozen, undo the visceral resistance stirred up by lies and half-truths about government control crafted from thousands of pages about taxing, mandates, rationing, deficits et al?

Can any rewording of "If you like your current insurance, you can keep it" calm rampant fears about bureaucrats deciding who gets what treatment?

Can any appeal to American decency to care for "the least of these" erase suspicions that coverage for millions of uninsured will deprive current premium payers of medical attention they have been buying for years?

In the eight months of his presidency, Barack Obama has been piloting the ship of state through perilous waters, repeatedly being forced to unload billions on stimulus bills, bank bailouts and carmaker rescues to keep predators from swamping us all.

So far, his exertions have kept most Americans on board, as worried as they may be, and there are some early signs of success, but the swelling wave of ideological opposition to his health care legislation--whatever it finally turns out to be--is threatening his presidency.

The President has made his case over and over again. This weekend he risks jumping the shark with too many installments of a show that has run its course.

It seems past time for the White House to stop trying to persuade the unpersuadable and concentrate on working behind the Congressional scenes to salvage some semblance of true reform and, in Paul Krugman's words, "make some hard choices about the degree of disappointment they’re willing to live with."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

President Baucus Prevails

The man who received 345,937 votes (and $11.6 million of health lobbyist donations), has overruled Barack Obama, the choice of 69,498,215 Americans, who presented his proposals to a joint session of Congress last week.

President Baucus' plan, which omits a public insurance option and other key elements favored by the occupant of the White House as well as other Congressional committees, is seen as holding together "the fragile coalition of major industry leaders and interest groups central to refashioning the nation's $2.5 trillion health-care system."

According to the Washington Post, evidence that Baucus will control the final bill is "the calm emanating from organizations that have criticized House health-care bills and a version approved by the Senate health committee" and that drugmakers and hospitals "had little to say" about the plan he announced yesterday.

Their silence may be traced to the fact that their money has already done the talking with nearly $170 million in contributions to federal lawmakers in the past two years.

Even so, the Wall Street Journ complains that the Baucus plan "remains a public option by other means, imposing vast new national insurance regulation, huge new subsidies to pay for the higher insurance costs this regulation will require and all financed by new taxes and penalties on businesses, individuals and health-care providers."

We have reached the point in the debate where the fine print in the reform proposals is no easier to read and understand than the vaunted insurance contracts for consumers that Republicans are fighting so hard to protect.

"Given reservations expressed Wednesday by members of both parties," the New York Times reports, "the Baucus bill is likely to be modified as it lurches through the committee to the Senate floor and then, presumably, on to negotiations with the House."

In the end, we are not likely to get what opponents deride as Obamacare but some bastardized version of Baucuscare, which will be much worse.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Health Care Reform at the OK Corral

Max Baucus' Gang of Six has turned into the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight by blowing enough holes into the health care bill to leave it bleeding on the Senate Finance Committee floor, the OK Corral of the new politics.

The bipartisan bunch has broken apart, with the last Republican, Maine's Olympia Snowe, holstering up over a proposal to tax high-cost medical insurance, which is prevalent in her state.

For his pains in trying to placate Republicans, the Chairman has, at least temporarily, lost his own Doc Holliday, Jay Rockefeller, who calls himself "probably one of his best friends among Democrats," for Baucus' concessions to win the now-gone GOP members of the Gang that killed the public option and scaled back affordability provisions for the poor.

Yet somehow, something will emerge from the Senate Sausage Factory packaged as health care reform and, after more bickering, bartering and butchering in both houses of Congress, leave all sides unsatisfied but allow the White House to claim victory in what the President calls solving eighty percent of the problem.

Wyatt Earp would have turned in his badge and left town.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Uncovering the Race Card--Reluctantly

Joe Wilson's blurtout last week lit a fuse to set off a slow-motion exposure of race in the national anti-Obama rage.

Today the House Black Caucus takes the lead in censuring the South Carolina Congressman with what are clearly mixed feelings about dealing publicly with an issue that seemed to have been settled by the inauguration of a "post-racial" president only a few months ago.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn has refused to call the "You lie" outburst racist, skirting the issue by telling reporters only that Obama is the first president to be treated that way, but other members of the Caucus are less circumspect.

"We've got to realize," says Georgia Rep. David Scott, "racism is playing a role here. I'm hopeful that this will be a wake-up call for us to get it off the table."

Such ambivalence reflects ancient fears of feeding prejudice by calling public attention to it, a dilemma long discussed privately by Jews over anti-Semitism.

During the election campaign, Barack Obama avoided race until the furor over Rev. Jeremiah Wright forced him to make his cathartic speech on the subject, and last week he tried to dismiss the Wilson uproar by quickly accepting his "apology."

Yet, in the savagery of some of the opposition to the President's policies, the elephant in the room is roaring too loudly to ignore.

On the PBS News Hour last night, conservative columnist Ross Douthat acknowledged that "clearly Barack Obama's race plays some role in the kind of--you know, the kind of anxieties and so forth that are roiling the political right."

African-American moderator Gwen Ifill had asked black Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson about the violent opposition to health care reform, "Is there something about this presidency which brings that out?" and she had replied, "I don't know if it's this presidency; I hate to think that it is."

So do we all, but it won't go away by not talking about it. Time to revive the bromide about sunlight as the best disinfectant.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bin Laden Loses Hate Market Share

This past weekend reflects the state of anti-Obama invective as literally countless American patriots in Washington rage against the President while the dean of terrorists delivers a mild harangue against him as "powerless."

In both cases, there are fact-check problems. The bin Laden message comes in a ten-minute audiotape with an undated photograph while the Tea Party crowd, estimated at tens of thousands by neutral observers, swells to two million in the reports of sponsors and right-wing bloggers.

Such discrepancies signal a shift of passion from foreign haters to homegrown. David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, notes the "wild accusations and the paranoid delusions coming from the fever swamps...

"Like all conservatives, I am concerned about this administration's accumulation of economic power. Still, you have to be aware that there's a line where legitimate concerns begin to collapse into paranoid fantasy."

In his 9/11 anniversary message, bin Laden seems comparatively weary and old-fashioned in his rhetoric. "The time has come," he tells Americans, "for you to liberate yourselves from fear and the ideological terrorism of neo-conservatives and the Israeli lobby."

At the center of all this, Barack Obama on 60 Minutes observes "a coarsening of our political dialogue" and notes that "in the speech that I gave announcing that I was running for President. I said, 'We can disagree without being disagreeable.' And I think that the vast majority of the American people, that's exactly what they want.

"You know, they want people to be polite; they want people to listen to each other. They want people to engage in serious, vigorous debate, and passionate debate. But they want to make sure that it doesn't get personal. That people's motives aren't questioned."

Optimistic as usual, he predicts that over time "our politics will return to that tone. And I'm going keep on trying to set the tone as President, even if sometimes I get hollered at."

From all evidence, he may have to work even harder at that than passing health care reform.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fear Factor: Pearl Harbor to 9/11

Today is a reminder for those who live in one of the few places in the world where feeling safe is commonplace of what it's like suddenly to live with fear, to have the ground stop feeling solid under your feet.

Older generations experienced this epiphany in 1941 with Pearl Harbor. Their children were baptized by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now a new generation tells Peggy Noonan how they were transformed by the "life-splitting event" of eight years ago:

"Before it they were carefree, after they were careful. A 20-year-old junior told me that after 9/11, 'a backpack on a subway was no longer a backpack,' and a crowded theater was 'a source for concern.' Every one of them used the word 'bubble': the protected bubble of their childhood 'popped'...The video of 9/11 has firmly and ineradicably entered their brains. Which is to say their first visual memory of America, or their first media memory, was of its towers falling down."

Each generation takes a different lesson from its trauma. The Greatest had to grow up overnight and go off to fight in foreign places or stay behind to work in war plants and live with meat and gas rationing.

The Baby Boomers took the shock of nuclear reality in the 1960s to start a "youthquake" against their parents' values about gender, race, sexuality and fighting an ideological war in Vietnam.

What will this generation make out of its loss of innocence? The memorials at Ground Zero are still unfinished, but by presidential decree, today will be the first 9/11 anniversary to be commemorated as a National Day of Service and Remembrance, encouraging a tribute of sacrificing for the common good through volunteer work.

Such efforts won't get any headlines, but they are a much more traditional American way of responding to shock and awe than retreating into rancor, mistrust and selfish squabbling.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mixed Race Milestones

Last night, during President Obama's speech in Washington, a Congressman from South Carolina was moved to yell "You lie!" at him, an unprecedented outburst.

At almost the same time, more than 45,000 people in New York were cheering wildly as Derek Jeter reached an historic milestone in the annals of baseball.

Both the President and Jeter are the products of racially mixed marriages, which at the time of Barack Obama's birth, were illegal under miscegenation laws in South Carolina and 16 other states of the Union.

It's unlikely that anyone in the crowd at Yankee Stadium was thinking of Jeter's heritage, but it's hard not to believe that Rep. Joe Wilson's breach of protocol--prompted by the President's accurate statement that illegal immigrants would not be covered by his health plan--had no connection to either the President's race or that of the people he was talking about.

The juxtaposition of the two moments is a reminder of how far America has come in the last half-century and how far there is still to go.

Until the mid-1940s, African-Americans like Derek Jeter were not allowed to play major league baseball alongside Lou Gehrig, whose record he tied last night. During that time, as a soldier in South Carolina, I had to ride on segregated buses.

Now, with Obama in the White House and Jeter idolized by millions, all that is long gone but should not be forgotten. One encouraging sign is that, within hours of Wilson's outburst last night, more than $50,000 poured into the campaign of his opponent in next year's election, making it likely he will not have to be offended by Obama's speeches to Congress much longer.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Obama Throws Down the Gauntlet

If passion, eloquence and moral gravity were the main currency of American politics, Barack Obama would have changed the course of the health care debate tonight.

But with Washington as it is, the President could hope for no more than to restore some sanity by calling out the opposition for its "scare tactics," indicting insurance companies for greed and evoking the "large-heartedness" of Ted Kennedy's efforts for universal coverage as "not a Republican or a Democratic feeling" but "part of the American character."

After a summer of public discontent and falling approval numbers, Obama abandoned his disastrous hands-off approach to the legislation by firmly outlining what he wants.

From here on, the White House will be calling the signals for Congressional Democrats and, in time-honored tradition, making party loyalty an issue in the effort to use its majority effectively.

The President declared that "the time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care...

"I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it. I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now...

"I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road--to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.

"But that's not what the moment calls for. That's not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it."

Barack Obama has thrown down the gauntlet to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and their fractious factions. Now they will have to pick it up and meet the challenge.

Presidential Pillow Talk

In tonight's confrontation with Congress, Barack Obama will not be sweet-talking Republicans, who are locked into a long-term temper tantrum, but the Democrats and independents who embraced him last November and expected to live happily ever after.

Maureen Dowd, as usual, puts it in quasi-sexual terms, complaining that she "always knew he was going to be trouble...He was going to be the kind of guy who whipped you up and then, when you were all excited, left you flat, and then, when you were deflated and exasperated and time was running out, ensorcelled you again with some sparkly fairy dust."

This kind of couples-therapy talk masks a deeper problem for the President who moved into the White House on a wave of romantic promises about new politics and change, only to find the honeymoon cottage falling apart and that his hopes of working together to fix it were unrealistic.

Comparing Obama's dilemma with one-party autocracy in China, Thomas Friedman says, "Our one-party democracy is worse. The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying 'no.' Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions."

Two years ago, Dowd foreshadowed the current crisis by asking candidate Obama, "Do you worry that you might be putting yourself on a pedestal too much? Because people also want to see you mix it up a little.”

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

Tonight Obama will show us how well he can "mix it up a little" in the tussle of his presidency.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Good Speech, Wrong Listeners

The President is telling an audience to work hard, develop problem-solving skills and learn how to get along with others. "Whatever you resolve to do," he will say, "I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it."

That advice will come today in a nationwide address to schoolchildren, but the message is needed much more in the one he will deliver to a joint session of Congress tomorrow night.

The Hard Right has been howling over the prospect of Barack Obama promoting socialism in education and in the health care system, with about as much truth in one charge as the other.

His back-to-school message urges the young to learn from the successful: "JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, 'I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.'"

He may be delivering essentially the same message to Max Baucus, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid et al about health care tomorrow night, but there are no JK Rowlings or Michael Jordans in Congress, just a collection of goofoffs brawling during recess and trying to ace an A from voters in their next test.

But the President will keep trying in the hope that there is some truth in the bromide that no one is ever too old to learn.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor's Love Lost

Previous generations marked the holiday with parades, speeches and editorials honoring the dignity of work. Today's theme is despair over failure to find jobs.

"Labor Day 2009 is a terrible time to be an American worker," writes Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson.

"Official unemployment hovers just under 10 percent, its highest level since the early 1980s. Add in the partly employed and those who have given up on hunting for jobs because there are so few jobs to be had, and the unemployed and underemployed total 16.8 percent of the labor force--one out of six American workers."

Perhaps most significant is the growing new category, "discouraged workers," an estimated 758,000 Americans who "have not looked in the last four weeks because they believe that no jobs are available or that they would not qualify."

In a world where people tend to define themselves by what they do, this kind of psychological depression exacerbates economic woes. As someone retired from work I loved, it stirs memories of how lucky I felt to get up every morning and support my family without drudgery.

At 15, I had had a summer job as a shipping clerk, standing at a table, wrapping cartons. More and more kept appearing and soon I was swimming against a cardboard tide that threatened to swamp me if I stop pulling brown paper off a huge roll and wrestling it around packages.

By noon, I was getting the hang of it and I ate a sandwich in a kind of dreamy stupor. But when I started working again, time had slowed. My hands and arms kept moving, but my mind was in blank panic. All I could think about was the clock on the wall as I pushed the second hand with each breath. By the end of that endless day, I knew what it meant to be beside yourself.

Since then, my respect for people who do what they have to do to earn a living has been boundless. It's heartbreaking to see unemployment keep inching up, depriving millions not only of income but of their sense of independence and dignity from their labors.

By this time next year, with any luck, we can go back to celebrating Labor Day instead of bemoaning it.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Odds-on-Death Panels

To balance the furor over bureaucratic boards to decide whether the aged are worth saving with medical care, the financial wizards who brought on the mortgage meltdown have figured out a way to play roulette with their chances.

Bankers, the New York Times reports, "plan to buy 'life settlements,' life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash--$400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to 'securitize' these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die."

Gambling with Grandma's life expectancy is a free-market alternative to socialized euthanasia that may appeal to conservatives. They could invest in bonds that bundle policies from people with a mix of maladies--leukemia, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s--with due diligence to insure that not too many in the portfolio have an ailment for which a cure might be found. In that case, the value of the bond would collapse.

As the market develops, there could be the equivalent of socially responsible mutual funds, products that exclude those whom investors may find morally offensive such as sufferers from alcoholism or AIDS.

Yet, as in all investments, there will be risks. Even with computer simulations to estimate death rates, the new bonds will be taking a chance on the possibility that health care reform may be enacted and start to increase longevity.

If that were to happen and the market crashed, would there be another taxpayer bailout for bankers who bet wrong on American homeowners and then on their lives?

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Katrina Metaphor

Embattled as he now is, Barack Obama has not lost his rhetorical touch. In today's weekly address, he uses the fourth anniversary of the Gulf hurricane as an image for American efforts to repair the economy, reform health care and overcome political division.

"Government," he says, "must be a partner--not an opponent-–in getting things done."

His description of hands-on efforts to rebuild New Orleans comes against a backdrop of devastation in Washington as bipartisan efforts in the Senate Finance Committee are deemed "all but dead" and the White House is reported to be "quietly talking about drafting formal health care legislation after allowing Congress to work on its own for months."

Amid this political wreckage, the President is at pains to point out that "with every tragedy comes the chance of renewal. It is a quintessentially American notion--that adversity can give birth to hope, and that the lessons of the past hold the key to a better future.

"From the streets of New Orleans to the Mississippi Coast, folks are beginning the next chapter in their American stories. And together, we can ensure that the legacy of a terrible storm is a country that is safer and more prepared for the challenges that may come."

Even as he stresses such an inspirational metaphor, Barack Obama manages to tuck in a political jibe at George W. Bush and Heckuva-Job Brownie.

"I’m proud," he declares, "that my FEMA Administrator has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida, a state that has known its share of hurricanes."

As opposed to being forced to resign as a flack for the Arabian Horse Association.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Is the Stimulus Working?

Yes, no, maybe, depending on the beholder's politics, economic theories and selective reading of the meager statistics and evidence available.

Vice-President Biden speechified yesterday that, after 200 days, the $787 billion stimulus, although not a “single silver bullet” but “silver buckshot,” was helping the economy. “Without it we’d be in much deeper trouble,” he said, claiming that "Instead of talking about the beginning of a depression, we are talking about the end of a recession."

As unemployment reaches 9.7 percent, Republican Chairman Michael Steele was quick to counter, "The Democrats' rhetoric on their economic experiment doesn't match with the reality of millions of Americans remaining unemployed."

The Washington Post takes the middle ground with a headline, "Stimulus Credited for Lifting Economy, But Worries About Unemployment Persist" and reports that "economists generally agree that the package has played a significant part in stabilizing the economy. They are less certain about the size of the impact."

For those who prefer to make up their own minds, the White House website offers statistics, maps and graphs to show how much money has gone out the door and where, noting that the Council of Economic Advisers will be issuing its first Quarterly Report next week.

The bottom line on the stimulus is there is no bottom line in sight, but that won't keep the pontificators from exercising their opinions as fact.

In his long takeout "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?" in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Paul Krugman notes about his professional colleagues:

"[Robert] Lucas says the Obama administration’s stimulus plans are 'schlock economics,' and his Chicago colleague John Cochrane says they’re based on discredited 'fairy tales.' In response, Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, writes of the 'intellectual collapse' of the Chicago School, and I myself have written that comments from Chicago economists are the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten."

While economists carry on their academic food fight, the rest of us can just keep watching our taxpayer money flowing out and holding our breaths.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Fate of the Public Option

What used to the key element of Obama health care reform is ready to be chloroformed by the President with Sen. Olympia Snowe standing by to assist him in the procedure.

The anesthetic is Snowe's "trigger mechanism" that would give insurance companies a defined period to make changes to cover more people and drive down costs. But if changes failed to occur, the "trigger" would be pulled, creating a public option to force change on the insurers.

In the Senate Finance Committee, Snowe is the last Republican straw the White House can grasp for the appearance of bipartisanship as Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel promises the President will be “more prescriptive than he has been to date” in his address to Congress next week.

But with opposition rising and approval ratings falling, the new politics of Barack Obama is looking more and more like the usual Washington game of settling for half a loaf or less with both sides declaring victory.

Meanwhile, the beat of the public debate goes as a 65-year-old backer of Obama health care is disqualified from expressing an opinion on the trigger mechanism by having his finger bitten off by an opponent during a rally in California. No word on whether Medicare or private insurance will pay the medical bills.

Kennedy Candor

“Atonement is a process that never ends,” Ted Kennedy writes in his memoir, confronting the shame shadowing his life that was avoided in a weekend of tributes--the death of a young woman at Chappaquiddick.

In a preview of the 532-page volume to be published later this month, the New York Times discloses that Kennedy "called his behavior after the 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne 'inexcusable' and said the events might have shortened the life of his ailing father, Joseph P. Kennedy.

"In that book, 'True Compass,' Mr. Kennedy said he was dazed, afraid and panicked in the minutes and hours after he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island with Ms. Kopechne as his passenger.

"The senator, who left the scene and did not report the accident to the police until after her body was found the next day, admitted in the memoir that he had 'made terrible decisions' at Chappaquiddick."

Such candor has not been typical of the Kennedys, who fought fiercely to protect their family myth over decades. That's underscored in this month's Vanity Fair story of how Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned William Manchester's book about JFK's assassination, "Death of a President," and then went to court to force him to cut parts of it that family advisers (she herself couldn't bear to read it) deemed personally or politically incorrect.

During that period, I published excerpts from a light-hearted book by Red Fay, a college friend of JFK's who had been his Undersecretary of the Navy. After strong-arming the publisher into cutting dozens of such harmless revelations as two-year-old John Jr. splashing his father at poolside and calling him "poo-poo head," Robert Kennedy solemnly thanked me for going along to "protect the children."

In the 21st century, such control is long-gone. In its account of the Ted Kennedy memoir, the Times notes, "The book does not shy from the accident, or from some other less savory aspects of the senator’s life, including a notorious 1991 drinking episode in Palm Beach, Fla., or the years of heavy drinking and women-chasing that followed his 1982 divorce from his first wife, Joan."

The last of the Kennedy brothers lived long enough to learn that the public now insists on seeing its heroes in the full, warts and all.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Obama's Blackboard Jungle

As summer vacation ends, the President is looking like the principal of a dysfunctional high school, trying to quell yelling in the corridors and fist fights in the auditorium and get the student body to pay attention to what's going on in class.

Shades of "The Blackboard Jungle," in which an idealistic teacher struggles to educate a rowdy mob that controls the school! In that classic 1955 movie, the hero has to take away switchblade knives before he can inspire rambunctious students to start paying attention.

In today's Washington, the learning curve is at a standstill, and it's unclear how much lecturing can get through the clamor of an undisciplined crowd. But the former law school professor will give it a try with an address to Congress next Wednesday to confront critics and stimulate supporters of health care reform.

Meanwhile, the parent body is losing confidence that anything constructive is going on in Obama High, and the President is already taking steps to connect with the next generation through a national address to students the day before he tackles the invincible ignorance of Washington lawmakers.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Coming Consensus on Afghanistan

The President is finally getting bipartisanship, not on health care, but against a war that has morphed into Iraq II as George Will, no bleeding heart liberal, now says it's "Time to Get Out of Afghanistan."

With calls for more troops and casualties rising, American abhorrence of an endless bloody occupation is coalescing into a demand for rethinking exactly what we are doing in that part of the world, why and for how long.

Even advocates for staying like Andrew Cordesman concede that "any form of even limited victory will take years of further effort" while insisting that the new military-diplomatic team is "our last hope of victory.

"Yet they can win only if they are allowed to manage both the civil and military sides of the conflict without constant micromanagement from Washington or traveling envoys. They must be given both the time to act and the resources and authority they feel they need."

We have heard this song before, thousands of American lives and billions of dollars ago, in Iraq, where bloody factionalism is still alive and well to keep us bogged down for years to come.

If Barack Obama is to avoid becoming another LBJ, it's time for a hard-headed reassessment of the risks and rewards of sending more troops to die in a country that has just shown it can't have an honest popular election and can't keep enough of a lid on corruption to enlist its own people against Taliban jihadists.

Instead of hiding behind Gen. Petraeus as George W. Bush did over Iraq, President Obama will have to engage Gen. McChrystal's view that the war in Afghanistan is "serious" but "winnable" and demand a clear answer to the question of "Win what?"

No one denies that the US has to combat terrorist threats in the Middle East but, eight years after 9/11, there has to be a better way than sending our young people to die there needlessly.

Palin's Year as a Publicity Saint

When John McCain chose her as his running mate, she was virtually unknown. Now, twelve months later, Sarah Palin is sifting through more than 1070 invitations for paid appearances and speeches as well as a file her lawyer describes as an inch and a half thick folder of offers for "network and pundit gigs, documentaries and business opportunities."

This makes her one of the 21st century's first publicity saints, a status I once explained to Marilyn Monroe.

"Why," she had asked, "do they print things about me that aren't true?"

"Because," I told her, "your name and pictures of you sell newspapers and magazines and, if there isn't any news, they'll use rumors and gossip, any excuse to print them."

In this era of disposable celebrities, many have been called to media sanctity, but only a few, most notably Barack Obama and the recently departed Michael Jackson, have been chosen. Palin's uniqueness is in achieving it with no visible talent as a politician or entertainer beyond her twinkly shamelessness.

Yet it would be rash to minimize this superstar quality, which can override all other considerations (i.e., Marilyn's meager achievement as an actress as well as the Palin wrecking of McCain's campaign) and keep the public endlessly enthralled.

Even the former Alaska governor's political obituary may be premature. Next month she will be making her first post-resignation speech at a Hong Kong conference of international global investment managers, following such previously enlightening lecturers--"notable luminaries who often address topics that go beyond traditional finance such as geopolitics"--as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Alan Greenspan.

This will be followed by publication of her book next spring with what is sure to be a tumultuous media tour.

Meanwhile, Palin keeps the publicity pot stirring with her Facebook page, injecting herself into the debate on health care reform with a perky fact-free post on death panels for the aged and disabled and who-knows-what future political gems.

In his landmark book 1962 book, "The Image," historian Daniel Boorstin documented the coming of celebrities "well-known for their well-knowness."

More recently, another sage, Mel Brooks' Max Bialystock of "The Producers," put Palin's fame into more modern perspective, "When you got it, baby, flaunt it!"

Publicity sainthood is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so Palin haters will just have to grit their teeth for a long haul.