Friday, October 30, 2009

Voice From the Republican Past

Two days after his 90th birthday, Edward Brooke was at the Capitol yesterday to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from President Obama and scold Mitch McConnell for his failure to be bipartisan.

Brooke, the first African-American ever elected to the Senate in 1966 as a Republican from Massachusetts, took the occasion to tell his party's leader:

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We’ve got to get together...It’s time for politics to be put aside on the back burner. You have awesome responsibilities.”

In today's polarized climate, Sen. Brooke would be almost unrecognizable as a Republican, championing civil rights and fair housing, voting against two mediocre Nixon choices for the Supreme Court and speaking out as the first in his party to tell him to resign over Watergate.

As a nonagenarian, he may be a distant figure to today's generations, but Barbara Walters brought him back into the spotlight last year by revealing in her memoirs that they had had a passionate affair in the 1970s but ended it out of fear of ruining their careers.

Nowadays, that might have just led to guest shots on The View and a joint coming-out interview on Sixty Minutes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why Are We Still in Afghanistan?

Yes, yes, to fight the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. But eight years later, American blood and treasure are still being poured into a country of dirt-poor, illiterate people who support themselves by growing poppy for opium and heroin under one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

As Barack Obama makes a midnight visit to honor the incoming dead and console their families, critics may sneer at his theatricality, but the President seems to be trying to clear his head and heart of the numbers and jargon that have dominated months of discussion about whether or not to send up to44,000 more troops to do what those who are now dying there in record numbers have been unable to do.

During the Bush years, despite pockets of fierce opposition, the American mindset was dominated by a Neo-Con vision, unleashed by the trauma of 9/11, of a superpower with "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity."

That led us into Afghanistan and then Iraq, where the blood still flows in factional fighting, and now the pressure persists on a President elected with a far different vision to stay on that course at the risk of being accused of dithering and defeatism.

At home on the economy, Barack Obama has been forced into pushing for Change on an unprecedented, unsettling scale, but polling shows the American people slowly overcoming their doubts.

How would they react to a daring Change in foreign policy? What would happen if, instead of escalating troop levels, the US took a different approach? Tom Friedman suggests one possibility:

"Yes, the morning after we shrink down in Afghanistan, the Taliban will celebrate, Pakistan will quake and bin Laden will issue an exultant video.

"And the morning after the morning after, the Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy their Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country, and, if bin Laden comes out of his cave, he’ll get zapped by a drone."

This may be as wishful as the Neo-Con faith in nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has cost Americans so much and produced so little, but it deserves as serious consideration as what Friedman describes as the result of their alternative: "China, Russia and Al Qaeda all love the idea of America doing a long, slow bleed in Afghanistan."

Those are the choices Obama is facing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All the National Pastimes

At the opening of the World Series tonight, there will be a moment of convergence for American culture's defining elements--politics, war and baseball--as Michelle Obama and Jill Biden stand next to a wounded veteran making the ceremonial first pitch.

Tony Odierno, who lost his left arm in Iraq five years ago when a grenade smashed his Humvee, now works for the New York Yankees. His father, Gen. Raymond Odierno, is the Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq.

From the perspective of an octogenarian, there is a flood of emotions at the prospect of seeing the nation's first African-American presidential wife at the center of a field filled with mostly black or Latino players who, in his childhood, were not allowed in the major leagues.

Back then, baseball, war and politics at the highest levels were for WASPs only with the rest of us relegated to watch from the stands or work in the trenches.

Now we are all out on those fields of dreams, but how well are we playing the games?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dithering Before Sending Americans to Die

"I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary," the President said yesterday at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. "And if it's necessary, we will back you up to the hilt."

He was talking to men and women in uniform but answering an American who never wore one, Dick Cheney, who has accused him of "dithering" about sending more troops to Afghanistan during a speech at the Center for Security Policy last week to accept a "Keeper of the Flame Award."

It's not clear what flame the awarders had in mind, but the former Vice President, who has grown more overtly bellicose in his time out of office, was too busy with "other priorities in the 60's than military service" getting five deferments to avoid it during the Vietnam war but has been more than willing to risk others' lives as a bureaucrat ever since.

Sarah Palin has preempted the title, "Going Rogue," but Cheney is walking the walk as he offends everyone from John McCain to Orrin Hatch with those attacks on President Obama for "dithering" on Afghanistan.

After decades as the perfect behind-the-scenes factotum, he has now morphed into the runaway Republican who has no hesitation about sending more and more Americans to places where doubts are growing about US ability to win the so-called war on terrorism.

Cheney's nominal former boss, George W. Bush, has confined himself to giving inspirational speeches to crowds dancing to Beach Boy tunes, but the former VP no doubt considers that dithering while Rome burns.

Health Care's Heart Failure

As Congress stumbles toward a final deal, the process is a reminder of the disheartening political climate in which we live today.

No one will really be happy with the final result. How could they be? In a world where human considerations are swamped by partisan posturing, the bottom line, if anyone can figure out what it is, will not be how much better or worse it makes our society but who wins and who loses. At heart, it will be a collection of poor compromises.

Here, for example, is Harry Reid, the worst Senate Majority Leader in memory, after reading the opinion polls, trying to hold on to his sliding-away seat with a last-minute conversion to a half-baked semblance of the public option to erase his months of indifference until now.

On the left, whatever remains of the public option will not satisfy those who, with good reason, resent the grip that insurance companies have on their health and well-being, yet Paul Krugman manages to be relatively exuberant:

"(I)f the Massachusetts experience is any guide, health care reform will have broad public support once it’s in place and the scare stories are proved false. The new health care system will be criticized; people will demand changes and improvements; but only a small minority will want reform reversed."

On the right, Olympia Snowe, the Republican heroine of the Finance Committee is sliding away from bipartisanship because the crippling of the public option by an opt-out for states is not as effective as her trigger proposal to delay it altogether.

A month or two or three for now, Congress and the President will be able to claim a historic accomplishment in health care reform, but how much heart will be left in it?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sully and the Pilots Who Lost Minneapolis

The journalism gods turned prankish Friday. As Chesley Sullenberger was taping a PBS News Hour interview about how he how saved 155 lives by landing safely in the Hudson River last January, two other pilots were overshooting Minneapolis by 150 miles.

The incident recalled an old standup routine in which Bob Newhart comes on the intercom as a clueless cockpit voice to ask, "Would any of you folks back there recognize Cleveland if you saw it?"

Now, the Northwest pilots are facing suspension as the FAA tries to figure out what caused their lapse to send fighter planes scrambling and put the White House situation room on alert.

“We were not asleep, we were not having an argument or fighting,” one of them insists about the mysteriously missing hour and a half of their flight as Sullenberger promotes the book which dissects his own life to explain those three minutes in which he and his co-pilot worked feverishly to save all those lives.

Millions fly daily to zigzag the world, and the voice that welcomes them onboard might just as well be computer-generated for all they know or care. At least for a time now, some will stop and give a fleeting thought to who is up front with their lives in their hands.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Viagra Pajama Party

At 83, Hugh Hefner in his Mansion is looking more like the faded silent-movie star of "Sunset Boulevard" than the host of the most swinging venue of the past century.

As a one-time draftee to be his successor as editor of Playboy 40 years ago, I'm bemused to see him, still in his trademark pajamas, popping Viagra and putting on a brave front even as the culture passes him by.

"This is one of the very best times of my life," he tells a New York Times reporter, whose reaction is "You want to believe him, but it is hard to ignore the realities of his business. Playboy Enterprises, hobbled by a shifting media landscape, is in need of heart paddles. On Tuesday, the magazine said it would cut the circulation numbers it guarantees to advertisers to 1.5 million, from 2.6 million. The company has lost money for seven quarters in a row."

In an era when nakedness is all over cable TV, Hef's Playmates and Bunnies are as retro as corsets and girdles, but the man who built an empire on daring to publish Marilyn Monroe's nude pictures in 1953 is in as much denial as the Gloria Swanson character in "Sunset Boulevard," waiting for Mr. DeMille to film the next closeup.

Nonetheless, with "three live-in girlfriends--each young enough to be his great-granddaughter," Hef is ready to go out in style as the crypt he bought next to Marilyn in a Los Angeles cemetery waits for him.

If there is an afterlife, it would be fascinating to overhear their conversations as she has "nothing on but the radio."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Country Wisdom: White House vs. Fox

Campaign attacks on Barack Obama and his crew as latte-drinking elitists are finally coming into play in their war of words with Rupert Murdoch's rough-and-ready outback minions.

Any country boy could have told them a basic rule of rural life: Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk.

Now, the Administration is finding itself befouled by controversy as an ABC correspondent asks at a briefing why "one of our sister organizations" was excluded from a round of official interviews and a moderate House Democrat calls the feud "a mistake...beneath the White House to get into a tit for tat with news organizations.”

The President himself, after pointedly meeting with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich and other sympathetic souls, goes public on NBC. “What our advisers have simply said is that we are going to take media as it comes,” he observes. “And if media is operating, basically, as a talk radio format, then that’s one thing. And if it’s operating as a news outlet, then that’s another.”

Historically, that's a distinction the American people have always reserved the right to make for themselves. Back in the late 1960s, Richard Nixon unleashed his Vice President Spiro Agnew to attack the unfriendly media.

Agnew, who later resigned in disgrace for taking bribes, pelted them with alliterative epithets--"pusillanimous pussyfooters," "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," phrases coined by the recently deceased William Safire who later morphed into a respected New York Times columnist and Pat Buchanan, who is still pontificating for MSNBC.

Those attacks brought a backlash. Although I spent an evening with Mike Wallace and other journalists privately questioning our own fairness, the White House intrusion into that debate only brought public disapproval and recruited more media members for what Nixon would call his Enemies List.

The lesson here for the Obama people seems simple enough: Call out Fox's commentators for their lies and distortion, but don't try to neuter the network as a news organization. In city or country contests, that's not a winning strategy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rocking Guantanamo

Life irritates art as leading musicians join a Freedom of Information suit to discover how loud rock was used as an instrument of torture against Guantanamo detainees.

Members of REM, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails want to know details of when and how their work was employed to break down terror suspects, although the CIA insists that the sounds were "not for punitive purposes--and at levels far below a live rock band."

Not so, says a Human Rights group's report, which insists one suspect was grilled while being "exposed to variable lighting patterns" and repeated playing of a song called "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor" by the band Drowning Pool.

If the CIA interrogators were using the music this way, they may very well have been inspired by a Woody Allen character in his 1986 movie, "Hannah and Her Sisters," who cringes during a rock band performance.

"I'm afraid," he says, "once they're done singing they're going to take hostages!"

The Guantanamo disc jockeys could have been humane enough at least to mix in a little Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to the Future for Banks?

A movement is stirring both here and in Britain to roll back commercial banks to the post-Depression era, when they were barred from gambling on markets with depositors' money by the Glass-Steagall Act.

Today Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman who heads the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board but is overshadowed by ex-Wall Streeters Tim Geithner and Lawrence Summers, goes public with his proposal to do just that.

“The banks are there to serve the public,” Volcker says, “and that is what they should concentrate on. These other activities create conflicts of interest. They create risks."

He wants to break up the too-big-to-fail giants created by a Republican Congress repeal of Glass-Steagall and signed by Bill Clinton in 1999 that led to the 21st century gambling spree on Wall Street.

If Volcker had his way, JPMorgan Chase would have to shed its Bear Stearns trading operations, Bank of America would un-merge from Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs would stop being a bank holding company.

Bank of England Governor Mervyn King calls for other governments to deal with the same dangers posed by banks that are “too important to fail,” urging separation of risky activities from more stable businesses such as taking deposits.

“The massive support extended to the banking sector around the world, while necessary to avert economic disaster," he says, "has created possibly the biggest moral hazard in history.”

Meanwhile, Obama's watchdog of the $700 billion bank bailout is warning that it will fail to earn back taxpayer money and hasn't changed Wall Street's culture of recklessness.

"The American people's belief that the funds went into a black hole, or that there was a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to Wall Street, is one of the worst outcomes of this program, and that is the reputational damage to the government," says Neil Barofsky, special inspector general of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

With all the Wall Street lobbyists still working in Washington and attending fund-raisers like the President's in New York last weekend, will anybody in Congress or the White House be willing to do anything about it?

Flashback From the Afpak Migraine

If Barack Obama had been president in 2002, he says he would have stayed out of Iraq and pursued al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But that simple "war of necessity" is now morphing into the biggest foreign policy headache of our time, a Hydra of impossible choices in Pakistan, the whole Middle East and beyond.

Even as Hamid Karzai agrees to an election runoff with who-knows-what prospects of national unity in Kabul, the perception of a growing gulf between the American military and the White House stirs echoes of the 1964 movie, "Seven Days in May," a what-if about a conspiracy to unseat a President led by the head of the Joint Chiefs who considers him too soft on America's enemies.

In today's 24/7 media world, politicking against a President can be done openly, not so much by active-duty generals, as in the movie, but by retired military talking heads like Gen. Anthony Zinni on cable news networks abetted by scare headlines online and elsewhere.

("Pentagon Chief: Obama Afghan Decision Can't Wait" screams Drudge yesterday linking to a Reuters report quoting Defense Secretary Gates as saying something quite different--that the President's strategy won't depend simply on the election: "I see this as a process, not something that's going to happen all of the sudden...the president will have to make his decisions in the context of that evolutionary process.")

Ever since the leak a month ago of Gen. McChrystal's report recommending 40,000 more troops, the media narrative has been a vacillating President, egged on by Joe Biden vs. hard-headed Pentagon honchos who are gung-ho to root out terrorists in Afghanistan, a parody of the complicated debate now going on in the White House.

Such oversimplification of what we face in the Middle East is a slow-motion "Seven Days in May," an undermining of the elected Commander-in-Chief that was dramatized as unthinkable in the last century. It shouldn't be thinkable now.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reform to Ruin Eyes and Make Us Crazy

The medical specialists most likely to benefit from the health care debate are optometrists as the Senate Finance Committee releases its 1502-page text and mental health professionals as a new poll shows a national mood swing from August rage against a public option to 57 percent of Americans in favor of it.

Max Baucus' masterwork can now be read as a sequel to the 839-page tome by the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, with which it will be merged into a doorstop of legislation to reconcile with the distillation of three House versions that Pelosi Publishers are touting as a discounted alternative.

Beyond the eye strain on Congress and its followers, the emotional toll is rising as the Wall Street Journal concedes that "a government-run health-insurance plan, once on life support in the Senate, is making a recovery among Democrats writing health-care legislation."

Now the best-selling author in the White House is charged with somehow melding these messy narratives into a coherent story of future American health care. Long past the audacity of hope spawned by dreams of bipartisanship, Barack Obama would do well to emulate John F. Kennedy, who took a speed-reading course in the Oval Office, and after digesting all this, suggest some simpler story lines.

In preparing for final publication, the President may want to recommend that Congress start by lifting a line from Dr. Spock's all-time best seller to tell Americans, "You know more than you think you do."

If they don't, look out for the bad reviews next November.

Monday, October 19, 2009

White House Goes to War

The knock on Barack Obama from the start was his unwillingness to go head to head--"mix it up a little," as Maureen Dowd urged him during the campaign. Now, after a Nobel Peace prize, he suddenly seems to be brawling with everybody, from the health insurance industry down to Fox News.

“They’re filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads," he said this weekend in counterattacking the insurers. "They’re flooding Capitol Hill with lobbyists and campaign contributions. And they’re funding studies designed to mislead the American people.

“It’s smoke and mirrors. It’s bogus. And it’s all too familiar. Every time we get close to passing reform, the insurance companies produce these phony studies as a prescription and say, 'Take one of these, and call us in a decade.'"

As the President takes off the gloves on health reform, his surrogates fan out to confront Rupert Murdoch's cable minions. On ABC yesterday, David Axelrod defended Communications Director Anita Dunn's offensive against Fox News.

"I understand that their programming is geared toward making money. The only argument Anita was making is that they’re not really a news’s not just their commentators, but a lot of their news programming. It’s really not news--it’s pushing a point of view."

Axelrod was backing up Dunn's manifesto in a New York Times interview: “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent. As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”

A Times analysis sniffs that a White House web site called Reality Check with a "truth-o-meter" to correct Glenn Beck lies "sounds a bit like the blog of some unemployed guy living in his parents’ basement, not an official communiqué from Pennsylvania Avenue."

The new combative Obama may not be to everyone's liking, but it would be well to remember how the President-to-be reacted to Dowd's prodding. “When I get into a tussle,” he said, “I want it to be over something real, not something manufactured."

His tussles these days are as real as it gets.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Health Insurers' Self-Inflicted Wounds

If there is an emergency room for lobbyists, the gunslingers for America's health insurance giants need treatment for shooting themselves in the foot when they went on the attack this week against the Senate Finance Committee's bill.

Their coming out of the weeds has drawn fire, first from the White House ("everyone recognizes their motives: profits") and now Nancy Pelosi as she warns of tougher regulation and notes:

"It is absolutely clear that it is an unsustainable situation as we go forward, and it is well known to the public that the health insurance companies are the problem."

Instead of the insinuating "Harry and Louise" TV ads that helped torpedo the Clintons' health reform efforts, the insurers went for the jugular with a "report" that Paul Krugman characterizes as "A Hatchet Job So Bad It's Good":

"For 2009, it turns out, is not 1993. Once again, Republicans have tried to kill reform with smears and scare stories. But all they seem to have killed with their cries of 'socialism' and warnings about 'death panels' is their own credibility. Some form of health-care reform is highly likely to pass."

Yes, but the disheartening part of all this is that the President's "victory" will turn out to be a patchwork of fixes for a bad system that never should have grown into the monstrosity it now is.

Over half a century ago, when it was being put together, I asked my Congressman, a liberal Republican named John Lindsay who later became Mayor of New York and ran for President as a Democrat, why American health care was being put into the hands of insurance companies.

"Well," he answered, "you wouldn't the government to run it, would you?"

The answer then and now is they couldn't have done worse.

Cover Boy Obama

You can trace his pilgrim's progress in images that used to be a preoccupation of my working life, magazine covers.

In the "Cover of the Year," chosen by the American Society of Magazine Editors, Barack Obama is seen by Rolling Stone, beaming beatifically after winning the Democratic nomination, eyes looking down and inward in smiling contemplation of what lies ahead.

The runners-up reflect the emotional roller coaster that followed--Entertainment Weekly in October with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert spoofing the New Yorker cover that had satirized the Obamas as terrorists in the eyes of the opposition, followed by the Economist's full-length figure of the new President striding ahead surrounded by the white space of possibility and the New Yorker's post-election image of the White House as a glowing "hope-filled" symbol for the future and a light-hearted spoof of Obama interviewing canines for the position of First Dog.

By this May, however, the New York Times Magazine is showing a worried President in deep and somber tones contemplating the challenges of "His Economy."

In the months to come, there will surely be more Obama covers during a time when magazines themselves are reflecting the turbulence of American life with Gourmet gone, the Readers Digest in bankruptcy and Newsweek struggling to reinvent itself.

In the past, one of the touchstones for a good cover was an image of someone the reader might like to be or have as a friend. With his woes mounting, Barack Obama is losing traction as the former but for many still qualifies as the latter.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Gambling in Gotham

The news that Manhattan's Stuyvesant Town is on the brink of bankruptcy stirs memories of the world in which it became the home of returning World War II veterans in search of affordable housing.

Friday nights I would play poker in that brown blob of high-rise apartment buildings on the East River. The host was always Horace Gold and for good reason. He had not been outdoors for years, editing Galaxy, a science-fiction magazine, with a telephone, messenger service and a psychiatrist who made house calls.

The regulars were mostly his writers, but there were a few civilians like me, an unmarried young magazine editor. Sitting in often were Arthur Clarke, who would later write "2001: A Space Odyssey;" the avant-garde composer John Cage, who played his cards well with a sweet distracted smile; and Jackie Susann, an actress who was doing TV commercials for Schiffli embroidery and would soon take up writing best-sellers like "Valley of the Dolls."

We played late and taxied cross-town to the all-night Howard Johnson's on Sheridan Square, where winners bought breakfast and bragged about their brilliance to a small audience of overnight cab drivers and people with nowhere to go who were not yet called homeless.

Even then, Stuyvesant Town's rent-controlled appeal was tainted by its strict racial segregation and the sterile institutional atmosphere enforced by its owners, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. But there were trees and grass and other urban amenities to make it more habitable than the city's low-rent slums.

Now it has been caught up in the 21st century whirlwind of real-estate greed, bought for $5.4 billion in 2006 by a syndicate of investors, including international banks, the Church of England and the California Public Employees' Retirement System, among others.

In their much higher stakes gamble than our postwar poker nights, they are all facing huge losses and when they fold their ill-advised bets, there will not likely be any morning-after breakfasts to critique their games.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Disconnect: Dow 10,000, Jobless 10 Percent

Symbolism comes with a heavy hand these days as Stock Exchange traders cheer at the Dow hitting 10,000 while the national employment rate heads for double digits.

The disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street keeps widening as money jugglers, who caused the credit crisis that led to bailouts with taxpayer billions, are getting record bonuses while those who do real work in the world, such as airline pilots, with hundreds of lives in their hands daily, are seeing their salaries slashed.

(On the Daily Show, Captain Sully Sullenberger, who saved 153 by landing safely in the Hudson River last January, has Jon Stewart shaking his head over the cuts.)

Today's stock market rise was fueled by JP Morgan Chase reporting a $3.6 billion third-quarter profit with the expectation that other banks and brokerage houses will follow suit.

Meanwhile, interest rates remain at record lows, a juxtaposition that will tempt Americans, such as retirees and near-retirees with IRAs, who can't afford the risk to put their money on the line again in the Wall Street casinos in the hope of getting a decent return.

Recognizing this disparity and the fact that Social Security recipients next year will not see an increase in their checks for the first time in three decades, the President asks Congress for a one-time payment of $250 to seniors and disabled Americans, just about the amount that Wall Street movers and shakers will tip the doormen at their Manhattan apartment houses.

Amid all the talk about employment as a lagging indicator in the recovery, it's clear that who in this economy gets paid off first.

Something serious is amiss when the most apt comment on the stock market rise comes not from the Obama Administration's financial wizards but House Minority leader John Boehner, not previously known for economic acuity:

"At the end of the day, the American people aren't looking at the stock market in terms of putting food on the table. They want jobs, and they want them now."

Now for the Ugly Part...

The assembly line in the Congressional sausage factory is ready to roll, to stuff what Max Baucus' butchers have hacked up into a casing with scraps from four other committees in the Senate and House.

Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and the "Bill Blenders" start work today in a process that will make the past few months look like the Lincoln-Douglas debates as lobbying groups across the spectrum flood Washington with "a torrent of spending and grassroots activity" to influence what gets into the final product.

Underlying all the din will be the central question: How much control over American health care will remain in the hands of the profiteers who have made it the most expensive and one of the worst systems in the world?

The White House, after months of trying placate the implacable, is finally framing the issue openly as Obama's deputy communications director puts it: "The insurance industry has decided to lead the charge against health reform, and everyone recognizes their motives: profits, We are going to make sure they can't sink this effort at the last minute."

The saddest part of the spectacle in the coming weeks will be the near-impossibility of a rational public conversation about the issue in a time when TV ads will make "Harry and Louise" look like "The Waltons" and the staged public outrage will make the Tea Parties look like tea parties.

The Wall Street Journal fires its first salvo at "ObamaCare" with a scare editorial about cost controls in Massachusetts and a promise to explain what the Senate Finance Committee did yesterday that its members fail to understand. "You know," it warns, "who wins when the interests of government conflict with those of patients to choose a doctor or treatment."

The only consolation for all this bilge is that it has finally reached the stage where individual voices can be heard with letters, phone calls and emails to Senators and Representatives, urging them to stand up for the public interest, and some form of the public option, against the privateers who have held American health care hostage for more than half a century.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Last Republican

Olympia Snowe may not be out of a Frank Capra movie but, as an independent-minded Republican in an era of hard-line party politics, she is certainly an anachronism.

When Time Magazine picked her as one of "America's 10 Best Senators" in 2006, it noted: "Because of her centrist views and eagerness to get beyond partisan point scoring, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe is in the center of every policy debate in Washington."

As the Senate Finance Committee votes today on health care, Snowe is in the spotlight, wooed by Democrats including the President and being blackmailed by GOP colleagues threatening to deny her chairmanship of a powerful committee to which her seniority entitles her.

But as a Republican who supports legalized abortion and gay rights, voted against the impeachment of Bill Clinton and supported Obama's economic stimulus, Olympia Snowe, whichever way she goes today, is a throwback to the last century when party label did not require a member of Congress to go brain-dead.

In those days, there were Senators like Republican Jacob Javits of New York and Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson of Washington, universally respected for independence and bipartisan on issues where their views did not conform to the party line.

Snowe's life story, which has suddenly become media fodder, suggests what shaped her. Orphaned early in life (her mother died of breast cancer when she was eight, her father of heart disease a year later), Olympia Jean Bouchles spent her childhood with working-class relatives and at boarding schools, studied political science at the University of Maine and never looked back in a career that started with marriage to a state legislator and working for Republican Congressman William Cohen, who later became Bill Clinton's Secretary of Defense.

Widowed by an auto accident, she ran for her husband's seat, then was elected to the US House of Representatives and eventually remarried. Her new husband, whom she had met in Washington, was elected Governor of Maine, making her the First Lady of a state while serving in Congress--a 24/7 life in politics.

With her overwhelming approval by voters over more than three decades, Olympia Snowe has little to fear from the Republican Far Right, which makes her a rarity on today's political scene and a reminder of the way it used to be before Washington became an arena for blood sport.

Update: At mid-day, Sen. Snowe indicates she will vote yes but with reservations about what she may do on the final version: “Is this bill all that I would want? Far from it. Is it all that it can be? No. But when history calls, history calls. And I happen to think that the consequences of inaction dictate the urgency of Congress to demonstrate its capacity to solve the monumental issues of our time.”

Well--and independently--said.

Limbaugh: Buying Into Brain Damage

Al Sharpton has his knickers in a twist over news that Rush Limbaugh is trying to acquire the National Football League franchise in St. Louis, but with all due respect, the Reverend and other protesters fail to see the internal logic of such a move.

With the recent revelation that NFL retirees, as a result of being hit in the head so often, are more susceptible to brain disease and early Alzheimer's than the rest of the population, it seems only natural that El Rushbo invest in the League some of the proceeds from his $400 million contract for pounding to pulp the neurons of his devoted listeners.

Rev. Sharpton and the director of the NFL Players Association are complaining that "sport in America is at its best when it unifies, gives all of us reason to cheer, and when it transcends. Our sport does exactly that when it overcomes division and rejects discrimination and hatred."

But NFL players are paid to hammer one another mercilessly, much as Limbaugh does to liberals. Overcoming division and hatred is more the province of basketball players like the man in the White House.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Health Insurance Parasites Unmask

After months of conning the President with promises of cooperation, the thieves who siphon off one out of every three dollars spent on health care are finally out in the open as reform legislation comes up for its first Congressional vote.

"In a blistering new attack," the New York Times reports, "the health insurance industry said Sunday that health care legislation drafted by Senate Democrats would drive up premiums, rather than making coverage more affordable, as the White House contends."

The industry lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, gave its verdict on the bill to be voted on by the Senate Finance Committee after weeks of wrangling and watering down:

“The overall impact will be to increase the cost of private insurance coverage for individuals, families and businesses above what these costs would be in the absence of reform.”

Wrong, but only what was to have been expected of the profiteers who hold Americans' lives hostage to their greed.

As late as Saturday, in his weekly address, President Obama was touting industry cooperation: "What's remarkable is not that we've had a spirited debate about health insurance reform, but the unprecedented consensus that has come together behind it."

Critics will call this naïveté, as unrealistic as Obama's hopes for bipartisanship on other issues, but it may be seen as going the extra mile to reach out for "consensus" that never comes at moments of decision, even after lip service to cooperation.

Now, the White House and the Democrats who control Congress can end the charades and get down to old-fashioned bare knuckles politics in pushing through what remains of health care reform.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Passion of President McCain

If the election had gone the other way, Americans would have been spared all this doubt and deliberation about what to do in the Middle East.

Asked today whether adding 10 or 20,000 troops for Afghanistan would suffice, John McCain tells CNN it would be "an error of historic proportions" not to meet Gen. McChrystal's request for 40,000 or more.

If Barack Obama were as sure of anything as McCain is of everything, there would be no need for agonizing over what conservative Peggy Noonan calls "a choice between two hells":

"The hell of withdrawal is what kind of drama would fill the vacuum, who would re-emerge, who would be empowered, what Pakistan would look like with a newly redrawn reality in the neighborhood, what tremors would shake the ground there as the U.S. troops march out...a great nation that had made a commitment in retreat...

"The hell of staying is equally clear, and vivid: more loss of American and allied troops, more damage to men and resources, an American national debate that would be a continuing wound and possibly a debilitating one, an overstretched military given no relief and in fact stretched thinner, a huge and continuing financial cost in a time when our economy is low," with no guarantee or even definition of success.

A resolute President McCain would have little patience for this kind of hemming and hawing even though, as Frank Rich points out, "He made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the war 'easily.' Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would 'probably get along' in post-Saddam Iraq because there was 'not a history of clashes' between them.

"What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq."

But the Might-Have-Been Republican President is content to keep shooting from the hip even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, another Republican, joins Hillary Clinton in emphasizing a more considered approach:

"(T)he new commander has done an assessment and found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than we anticipated when the decisions were made in March. So that's one thing to take into account.

"The other is, clearly, a flawed election in Afghanistan that has complicated the picture for us...

"The president is being asked to make a very significant decision. And the notion of being willing to pause, reassess basic assumptions, reassess the analysis, and then make those decisions seems to me, given the importance of these decisions...among the most important he will make in his entire presidency--seems entirely appropriate."

With McCain in the White House, Gates would be in deep trouble for waffling like that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Life's Late-Night Nobel Comics

Those too mesmerized by baseball playoffs to watch Letterman, Conan et al last night did not miss much. All day long politicians had been doing stand-ups about Obama's Nobel Prize.

The President himself led off his Rose Garden turn with "Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning. After I received the news, Malia walked in and said, 'Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it is Bo's birthday!' And then Sasha added, 'Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up.' So it's good to have kids to keep things in perspective."

Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele came back to crack, "President Obama won’t be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action” as Rush Limbaugh chimed in, "“Can you imagine, folks, how big Obama’s head is today? I think it’s getting so big that his ears actually fit.”

Poor taste was bipartisan as a State Department spokesman got off a one-liner about George W. Bush, "From our standpoint, you know, we think that this gives us a sense of momentum when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes."

Last year's short-term Republican star Mike Huckabee tried for dry humor:

"There will be an outcry from those on the right who will say that Obama's nomination, made two weeks into his Presidency, is impossible to justify but I think such an outcry will sound like right-wing whining. The better response is simply to allow those on the left to explain what he did in his first two weeks as President that merited such recognition."

William Kristol announced that the Weekly Standard would skip its usual "Parody Page" to publish news of Obama's prize, which was more ridiculous than anything his editors could make up.

In his cogent parsing of Obama's response, James Fallows alludes to a fellow former Jimmy Carter speechwriter's attempt at a Letterman Top Ten of Fox News' responses to the award, including "Besides, who cares what a bunch of geeks in Oslo think? The International Olympic Committee speaks for the whole world."

Old-time comic Jimmy Durante used to complain, "Everybody wants to get into da act!" Even former President of Poland Lech Waleska, who won the Nobel in 1983, came out of the wings to say, "“Who, Obama? So fast? Too fast--he hasn’t had the time to do anything yet.”

That wasn't as witty as some, but then again we all know about Polish jokes. Maybe something was lost in the translation.

Friday, October 09, 2009

A Nobel Rebuke for Americans

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama comes as a stunning reminder for those who elected him less than a year ago of what they expected when they put him in the White House. As the President faces another embattled day of economic and foreign policy conflict, amid falling approval ratings, a voice of universal moral authority can be heard as a rebuke to Americans who are forgetting what he represents.

"Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the Nobel committee says.

"His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

The uproar on the domestic Right will no doubt set new records in volume and vitriol, but for those who still believe that American goodness and hope can survive in a darkening world, it is a moment to savor and remember.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Republican Ghosts for Health Care

In time for Halloween, GOP specters are rising up to scare some sense into their Congressional heirs as they move zombielike toward a possible pyrrhic victory in the hope that poll numbers "may get worse for Democrats if they pass a health-care bill."

That prediction is the wisdom according to Karl Rove, who engineered the party's 2006 loss, but older, wiser Republican heads are emerging to warn against the short-term politics of being intractable on what all sides agree is a critical issue.

Former presidential candidate and Senate Leader Bob Dole tells an audience, "This is one of the most important measures members of Congress will vote on in their lifetimes. If we don't do it this year I don't know when we're going to do it" as he and another GOP Senate Leader Howard Baker prepare to join Tom Daschle in a statement urging passage of a bill.

This comes after still another Republican Senate Leader and physician, Bill Frist, tells CNN that he supports Sen. Olympia Snowe's trigger proposal for a public option in the legislation.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the still-active Republicans who have come out in recent days for some bipartisan sanity as his Washington confreres keep digging in their heels against any cooperation with the White House.

The underlying message is that this callow crop may be injuring their own party in the long run as well as the national welfare by continuing to play trick-or-treat with voters' hopes and fears.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Paging Dr. Phil for Letterman

We can figure out how to defeat terrorists in Afghanistan, get health care reform through Congress or save David Letterman's seven-month marriage, but doing all of the above may bring on a severe case of media overload.

Of the three national dilemmas, Letterman's is beginning to look like the worst, with a slow drip of liaison disclosures coupled with his own continuing on-camera mea culpas.

"When something happens like that," he told his audience last night, "if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there's only two things that can happen: Either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me."

The problem with Letterman's TV self-therapy is that such attempted sincerity is a poor fit for a figure whose career has been based on being snarky about everybody else's shortcomings.

He has progressed from last week's tap-dance about being blackmailed for "creepy" behavior to now thanking his staff for "putting up with something stupid I've gotten myself involved in."

If we're ever going to hear the end of it, Letterman may have to book Dr. Phil to put him through a full round of cathartic psychobabble and let it all hang out.

Meanwhile, there will be more late-night laughs available on Conan O'Brien's show.

Monday, October 05, 2009

General Confusion: McChrystal, Petraeus

When Dwight David Eisenhower came back from World War II, no one knew whether he was a Republican or Democrat until he ran for president. He had spent his years as a commanding general steering clear of politics.

Not so today. Starting three years ago when Iraq was in shambles, George W. Bush took political cover behind Gen. David Petraeus, who successfully redirected a misbegotten war into a counter-insurgency that worked well enough to open the way for American troop withdrawal under the next president.

Now, in Afghanistan, this breach of traditional military-political separation is haunting the effort to devise a new strategy for another failing war.

Suddenly, Barack Obama's choice, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is embarrassing his Commander-in-Chief by making preemptive speeches about decisions still in the making, leading to the kind of possible confrontation unseen since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for politicking to widen the Korean War.

McChrystal is no MacArthur, and his going public prematurely is much more likely the result of inexperience rather than arrogance, but the Petraeus precedent is complicating a painful debate in a time of political polarization.

As he showed clearly on 60 Minutes last month, McChrystal is a conscientious, forceful commander with no illusions about Afghanistan, but going public with what should be his confidential advice to the President before final decisions are made is a disservice to both his Commander-in-Chief and Pentagon superiors.

Meanwhile, Gen. Petraeus, who may or may not be thinking about running for president in 2012, is reported to have "largely muzzled himself from the fierce public debate about the war to avoid antagonizing the White House, which does not want pressure from military superstars and is wary of the general’s ambitions in particular."

Petraeus is a gifted military man, as McChrystal also seems to be, but while they are in uniform, they would do well to keep their political views apart in the Eisenhower manner. If and when they become civilians, there will be time enough for airing them forcefully.

Update: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Bush holdover, weighed in today, subtly criticizing McChrystal. “I believe," he said, "the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency, so it is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right.

“And in this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations--civilians and military alike--provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately.

“And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.”

Friday, October 02, 2009

Letterman, Polanski, Palin and Beck

In last night's monologue, David Letterman makes a little joke about avoiding award ceremonies for fear of being nabbed for sexual misconduct (as Roman Polanski was in Switzerland) and then gives his audience a no-laughs account of being blackmailed over having affairs with women who work on his show.

We are deep into media-outdoes-real-life here, in the terrain of the 1976 "Network" movie that posited a TV anchorman who goes raving mad, is exploited for ratings and then killed on-air when they drop.

Letterman will no doubt overcome his extortion embarrassment as easily as he did the flap over a tasteless A-Rod/Sarah Palin daughter joke last summer as he continues on his new $90 million contract, while the ex-Alaska governor matches his income, thanks to Rupert Murdoch's underwriting of her sure-fire best-selling memoir next month and career as a commentator for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

Unless Palin's political career miraculously revives, all this might be filed as entertainment news, if it were not for the concurrent rise of Glenn Beck as a rival to Rush Limbaugh for the mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-anymore crowd.

A lifelong radio-TV mouth with a history of alcoholism and drug abuse, Beck now rates a Time cover and a section of his own on the White House blog to correct the lies and distortions he is spewing over Murdoch's media.

In the New York Times, under the heading, "The Wizard of Beck," conservative columnist David Brooks tells "a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche--even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as 'The Wizard of Oz,' of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain."

Brooks is right, of course, but the conflation of show biz and real life continues as surely it was starting to do decades ago when I ran into my high-school classmate Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote "Network," in a restaurant on his way to meet William Paley, the founding father of CBS and the archetype of TV executives lampooned in his movie.

"I must admit," Paddy confessed, "I'm a little nervous about meeting him."

After he left, the agent with me said, "He should be. They showed 'Network' on CBS last week, and it got lousy ratings."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

JFK's Court Jester

Paul B. Fay Jr., who died this week at 91, was a crony so close that John F. Kennedy appointed him Undersecretary of the Navy over the protests of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The role of Red Fay, as everyone called him, in Kennedy's life was much more personal than political. Sons of Irish-American wealth who had met in the Navy during World War II, they bonded to the point that Fay was an usher at JFK's wedding and later served as a "beard" at his friend's inaugural ball by escorting movie actress Angie Dickinson, whom he had never met before, so the new president could dance with her.

Working with Fay to serialize sections of his book, "The Pleasure of His Company," after the assassination, I was struck by the role he played in Kennedy's life, a guy's guy with whom he could unbend from the pressures of the public role he had inherited when his older brother Joe was killed in World War II.

In Fay’s guileless memoir, JFK could be seen without his public relations face on. In a 1953 letter, when he was a freshman senator, he wrote to Fay: “I gave everything a good deal of thought--so am getting married this fall. This means the end of a promising political career as it has been based up to now on the old sex appeal. Your special project is the bride’s mother—-one fine girl--who has a tendency to think I am not good enough for her daughter.”

After being introduced to Jacqueline Bouvier, who greeted him in her usual soft-spoken hush, Fay told his old friend, “She’s a fantastic-looking woman, but if you ever getting a little hard of hearing, you’re going to have trouble picking up the transmissions.” Kennedy roared with delight.

Fay described a gathering of the Kennedy clan for Christmas, 1959. At a mention of money, Kennedy Sr. reacted, “fire blazing from his eyes.” The Founding Father launched a tirade: “I don’t know what is going to happen to this family when I die. No one appears to have the slightest concern for how much they spend.” After one of the sisters left the room in tears, JFK deflected the tension. The only answer, he said, “is to have Dad work harder.”

Before the book was published, Jacqueline and Bobby Kennedy pressured Fay to remove some sections that didn't square with the Camelot myth. He did, but "the bride" apparently was not placated. When Fay tried to donate his royalties to the Kennedy Library, she turned him down.

Still and all, to get a sense of John F. Kennedy as a man rather than a myth, Red Fay's account of their friendship is a good place to go.