Saturday, January 30, 2010

Deficits, Budget and Attention

Within 24 hours, the President tackled two national shortfalls--dollars and cents in the government's income vs. expenditures, civility and sense in the partisan debate over remedies for an economy ravaged by recession.

In his weekly address this morning, Mr. Obama zeroed in on seven Republicans who had sponsored a bipartisan commission for deficit reduction but then voted against it in the Senate.

"Now, it’s one thing," he said, "to have an honest difference of opinion about something. I will always respect those who take a principled stand for what they believe, even if I disagree with them.

"But what I won’t accept is changing positions because it’s good politics. What I won’t accept is opposition for opposition’s sake. We cannot have a serious discussion and take meaningful action to create jobs and control our deficits if politicians just do what’s necessary to win the next election instead of what’s best for the next generation."

This admonition came only hours after the President's unprecedented dialogue with Republicans at their Baltimore retreat yesterday, which struck some observers as a marital-therapy session for political Bickersons, complaining about failures of communication in their relationship.

How much good may come from getting the antagonists to vent in public remains to be seen, but Mr. Obama managed to express his hurt feelings about being called "a Bolshevik" as John Boehner et al delivered their message about not feeling heard or appreciated with a parcel of written proposals, adding plaintively, "We also need to listen to each other."

The dollar gap in the national budget will take years to bridge, but the White House and Congress can do a lot right away to ease their mutual attention deficit disorder.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Catcher and the Upper Crust

Two men in their nineties died this week. J.D. Salinger, a recluse in New Hampshire, produced four books in his lifetime. Louis Auchincloss lived in old-money Manhattan, practiced Wall Street law and wrote more than sixty novels, biographies and works of criticism.

Apart from being published in the New Yorker, they had little in common, Auchincloss the "chronicler of New York's upper crust," as the Times headlined his obituary, while Salinger chose a "half-century of solitude and silence [that] was a creative act in itself, requiring extraordinary force of will."

His passing recalls an evening in 1964 in a living room that resembled an overstuffed museum, paintings crowding the walls, sculptures and objets d'art on every surface. I had been invited to dinner by an elderly British couple, Jean and Edward Fowles, who were selling the Duveen Gallery, a five-story building full of art, to my boss, Norton Simon.

As I was admiring the decor, Jean Fowles handed me a small silver frame from the coffee table with a snapshot of a little girl and boy. "My grandchildren," she said with a sigh. "My daughter is separated from their father. He's a writer, J.D. Salinger..."

It was startling to be reminded of the already-legendary author of "Catcher in the Rye" amid all the opulence that Holden Caulfield would surely have scorned as the abode of "phonies" but was the natural habitat of Auchincloss, a cousin by marriage of Jacqueline Kennedy's, who wrote about that world with the kind of austere elegance of his role model, Edith Wharton.

Salinger with his sparse literary output has helped shape the sensibilities of generations of teenagers, while Auchincloss with a much larger body of work is unlikely to be remembered that well by literary posterity.

Yet, at this moment of their passing, it is his moral dissection of creatures in banks and board rooms that may resonate even more strongly in an America decimated by their greed than the shortcomings of the kind of parents Salinger excoriated in "Catcher in the Rye."

The literary life has many mansions.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Scolding State of the Union

Until his peroration "to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more," the President spent more than an hour last night calling out everyone in the chamber, including himself, for "a difficult year." Congressional Republicans, Democrats, even the Supreme Court came in for their share of scolding.

The unusual tone of this State of the Union came from both directions. Below each outburst of applause, there was an unprecedented hum of disapproval from stony GOP faces.

"Throughout the raucous House chamber," the New York Times reports, "scattered boos echoed in the air."

As the Times and Washington Post lead off with his assertion that "We face a deficit of trust," there is Barack Obama's acceptance of the fact that the Washington political atmosphere has turned toxic and his literal pivoting from health care to jobs and the economy as the main issue, along with a figurative shift from bipartisan outreach to bare-knuckles conflict in his political stance.

"At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000," he said, (noting that he was "just stating the facts"), "America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.

"Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door...

"Now, even after paying for what we spent on my watch, we'll still face the massive deficit we had when I took office."

Outlining his spending freeze and other efforts at deficit reduction, the President noted that the Senate had blocked his effort to empower a bipartisan fiscal commission but promised to create one by executive order and clamp down on lobbyists who stand in the way.

The Supreme Court justices seated in front of him came in for their share of tongue-lashing for their decision last week that "reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests--including foreign corporations--to spend without limit in our elections" as he promised corrective legislation.

The President finished his scolding SOTU by observing that "what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side-–a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. I'm speaking to both parties now...

"Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it's precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it's sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government."

But as long as opinion polls show that such behavior is working in their favor, how many members of Congress will stop doing just that?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shades of Watergate

A band of Conservative bozos is validating Karl Marx's aphorism that history occurs twice--first as tragedy, then as farce--by staging a revival of Watergate at Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in New Orleans.

Like Nixon's crew, their apparent intent was "opposition research" by bugging the Senator's phones, but they got some of the details wrong. Instead of a dead-of-night break-in, they showed up during working hours posing as telephone repair men. (Wrong movie: A ploy out of, not "All the President's Men," but Clint Eastwood's 1997 "Absolute Power").

From there, it was all downhill as James O'Keefe and his three helpers ended up in the slammer, charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, raising the stakes of their Watergate-like caper to a possible 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

Last fall, O'Keefe and a female helper caused a brief stir in Congress over ACORN by posing as a pimp and prostitute to entrap community organizers into appearing to give them help and advice.

The furor faded with questions about editing of their sting tape, but O'Keefe has been out on college campuses, urging Young Conservatives to avoid complacency: "The more bold you are, the more opportunities will be open to you."

The possible motive for this new adventure may involve one of O'Keefe's helpers, the son of an acting US Attorney, for whom Sen. Landrieu proposed a replacement who was nominated last week by the President.

These 21st century activists should go back and study the history of their heroes. The Watergate dirty tricksters eventually were exposed and came to a bad end, as did the Great Unindicted Coconspirator himself.

There doesn't seem to be much political future in reincarnating Nixon's tragedy as Marx's farce.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tired Old Terrorists

This week brings intimations of mortality from Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal, two aging terrorists who achieved reknown by cutting short the lives of countless unknown others in pursuit of their ideology.

The mastermind of 9/11 is reduced to making an audiotape to hitchhike on the "accomplishment" of the 23-year-old loser who couldn't find his way to the lavatory to blow up an airliner, claiming that the work of "the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes” of 9/11.

Without claiming credit for the botched effort, bin Laden seems to be, according to a terrorism expert, attempting to franchise the Al Qaeda name, like McDonald’s, "to create mutual benefits. The benefit for bin Laden is he gets to associate himself with this attack. The benefit for the regional group is it gets to use the Al Qaeda name for fund-raising and recruiting.”

In doing so, bin Laden is putting himself in the position of those retired minor celebrities who appear in TV commercials to promote iffy products with their waning fame.

What may lie ahead for Osama, if he doesn't end his days in the cave equivalent of a nursing home, is suggested by the fate of Carlos the Jackal, now in a French prison after terrorizing Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s.

Carlos is suing makers of a documentary about him to get in on the final cut of the film in order to protect "his intellectual property rights to his name and biographical image."

As heedless as they have been about the value of human life, neither Osama nor Carlos is immune to the inroads of aging and the seductions of immortality, a sad commentary on the pathetic few who can create so much pain and fear for so many in the modern world.

Tomorrow's News as Old News

Headlines from the President's State of the Union speech have been leaking all week--a three-year spending freeze on domestic programs today following yesterday's package of tax credits for child care, caps on student loan payments and automatic retirement savings for employees.

After whatever revelation the White House is saving for tomorrow morning, by the time Barack Obama faces both houses of Congress in the evening, the only remaining suspense will be about his demeanor and delivery.

Even reactions are prematurely available as a John Boehner factotum derides the spending freeze with “Given Washington Democrats’ unprecedented spending binge, this is like announcing you’re going on a diet after winning a pie-eating contest.”

Before anything is said and done, the story is wrapped up and explicated for those who can confirm their predilections and prejudices by turning to CNBC or Fox News, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times for "reporting" on what they knew all about before it happened.

In this speeded-up spin cycle, little wonder that Americans have grown accustomed to having strong opinions before they can possibly know what they are talking about.

The economic stimulus is a perfect example. With much of the $787 billion still undistributed and very little hard information about results available, Democrats and Republicans are equally confident that it is a success or failure, depending on their own perspective.

At this rate, both parties can go on vacation until next November, since the pundits have told them how the voters are going to react in the election nine months from now. After all, last week's vote in Massachusetts, which nobody foresaw until a few days before it happened, made it all very clear.

Monday, January 25, 2010

One-Word State of the Union

A Gallup poll confirms that rank-and-file GOP members have followed their leaders in saying "no" to Barack Obama with the widest gap in approval ratings by party for any first-year president in history, 23 percent against 65 for Democrats.

Obama, who started as a wannabe conciliator, faces his first State of the Union with a one-word reality: fractured. Now, the White House is signaling a new fighting tone both in the words of the President and those around him.

David Plouffe, his campaign manager who has just come aboard as an adviser, writes in an OpEd: "Instead of fearing what may happen, let's prove that we have more than just the brains to govern--that we have the guts to govern."

The President spent the best part of his first year wooing "reasonable" Republicans (an oxymoron, it turned out) and getting a near-zero for his pains on every major initiative. It soon became clear that the opposition had seceded from the legislative process as surely as the South had from the Union in the Civil War--that debating policy differences now was as futile as trying to compromise on slavery then.

The loss of Ted Kennedy's seat may serve to rally the Administration like the firing on Ft. Sumter, as Obama pivots his focus from health care to “critical areas where middle-class families need a helping hand to get ahead,” as a White House leaker puts it.

Obama haters, who see him as a two-dimensional advocate for big-government tax-and-spending, may be in for a surprise as, in his flexible deliberative process, he shows signs of recognizing first-year mistakes and now turns for advice to, among others, such gray sages as Paul Volcker, Colin Powell and Warren Buffett.

Even the Wall Street Journal seems edgy about the stereotype, noting that "White House Toughens Tone" as the President gets serious about cutting the budget deficit, backing a bipartisan effort to study ways of doing it.

The state of the union at the moment may be fractured, but a battered Barack Obama may be getting fractious about dealing with it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Seducing Scott Brown

The Republicans' new Great White Hope could turn out to be a disappointment for the Right wing of the GOP--and an opportunity for Democrats.

"I know what I want to do: Go down there and be a good person, a good and competent senator," Scott Brown tells Peggy Noonan. "I have huge shoes to fill, the legacy is just overwhelming. I'm a consensus builder...I can disagree in the daytime and have a coffee or beer later on. Everyone's welcome to their opinion."

This will come as a shock to Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, whose beverage of choice is Tea, the more bitter the better, and it leaves an opening for the Obama White House and Senate Democrats to reach across and welcome Brown into what used to be the bipartisan atmosphere of that body.

For Brown, such a development should not require much seduction, since it offers him an opening to be a Republican not-Palin rather than just one more among 41 blocks of granite in the Upper House.

In addition, it makes sense for his long-range future since Massachusetts may only temporarily have turned red with rage and might be more likely to reward him in the future for moderation.

As someone who regards Roe v Wade as "settled law" and approves the President's policies for Afghanistan and Korea, Brown as another New England Republican could give cover to Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in their tendencies toward creating some semblance of what used to be civility and reason from a loyal opposition.

All of this may turn out to be wishful thinking, but unlike the fellow members of the club he will be joining, Brown is no financial fat cat, and he will be arriving after President Obama's call of congratulations and refusal to try to ram through health reform before he was seated.

If John Kerry and other Democrats dust off their collegiality skills, they may find Scott Brown easier to take than Joe Lieberman--and very likely a lot less shifty.

Obama's Comeback

Presidents can't afford the luxury of getting depressed, so here we have Mr. Audacity of Hope right after the Scott Brown newsshock being handed a football helmet in a sports equipment factory and telling crowds that he can handle the pummeling.

“So long as I have some breath in me," he vows in an upbeat Ohio talk using "fight" as a mantra, "so long as I have the privilege of serving as your president, I will not stop fighting for you. I will take my lumps. But I won’t stop fighting."

In a run of media misfortunes from the "systemic failure" to detect a would-be airline bomber to a surge of voter anger in the contest for Ted Kennedy's seat, the media narrative and opinion polls have been running downhill for Barack Obama but, with the State of the Union coming next week, the stage is set to mount a comeback for a president whose resilience is a strong point.

Unlike LBJ after the country turned against the Vietnam War, Nixon during Watergate and Jimmy Carter in his "national malaise" funk, Obama has shown he is unlikely to let a run of setbacks get him down, and he seems to have enough political momentum to buoy him.

In a new Gallup Poll showing the majority of Americans want to slow down health care reform, he nonetheless retains considerable personal confidence. "Given Obama's job approval rating of roughly 50 per cent," Gallup says, "clearly some Americans who express disappointment with the president's lack of progress still generally approve of the job he is doing."

With this residue of good will after a rocky first year, the President's comeback will require substance as well as style, action beyond rhetoric, and there are encouraging signs that he is making the needed changes.

In the Obama attacks on Wall Street this week, there is a clear indication that he has reached the end of the line with Geithner-Summers appeasement and is going in the direction that Paul Volcker recommended a year ago, tougher regulation and more pressure for reform of the financial industry.

In his weekly address today, he takes on the Supreme Court decision this week to allow corporations to spend more on political advertising, calling it "devastating to the public interest" and vowing to push new legislation to counter it: "The last thing we need to do is hand more influence to the lobbyists in Washington, or more power to the special interests to tip the outcome of elections."

As he showed during campaign onslaught over the Jeremiah Wright rants, Barack Obama has a gift for taking temporary setbacks, separating himself from them, putting them into a larger context and moving on.

This time, he will have to scale an even higher mountain of carping, marked by such excrescences as Conservative elder statesman Pat Buchanan's argument that he has "lost White America." As Buchanan and others on the Hard Right lose their marbles over the prospect of a Democratic downfall, Barack Obama will have to show Americans how much fight there really is in a cool and conciliatory president.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Yes, Thank You, Now Just Go Away

John Edwards has admitted that he is the father of Frances Quinn Hunter, the two-year-old daughter of his former mistress, Rielle Hunter:

“It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter, and hopefully one day, when she understands, she will forgive me."

This statement comes just before a book to be published next month by Andrew Young, Edwards's aide who is telling the whole story and completes the former presidential candidate's use of Nixon's strategy of "modified limited hangout" during Watergate, a slow drip of crucial information while hiding the rest until absolutely forced to come clean.

Now that we know it all, will John Edwards just get lost?

Radical Surgery for Health Care

Once, under local anesthesia on an operating table, I overheard doctors in heated disagreement on what to do next. It was not reassuring, but compared to Washington squabbling over health care reform after the Massachusetts debacle, restful.

The Surgeon-in-Chief wants to "move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on. We know insurance companies are taking advantage." He cites the need for "essentially a patient's bill of rights on steroids."

As he complains about "a fixation, an obsession in terms of the focus on the health care process in Congress," the President still insists "I'm not going to get into the legislative job is to as president, is to send a message in terms of where we need to set direction."

But how do you set direction for an unharnessed team of horses going every which way while tethered to another that is dug in not to move at all?

Paul Krugman translates Obama's prescription as “Run away, run away!" but when the finger-pointing is over, there will have to be a fallback consensus. In the Washington Post, Ezra Klein proposes something "real simple: Medicare buy-in between 50 and 65. Medicaid expands up to 200 percent of poverty with the federal government funding the whole of the expansion. Revenue comes from a surtax on the wealthy."

But it's unlikely that anything "real simple" will pass in today's climate. If Congress wants to get back to basics, there are elements of reform that would have widespread public approval--among them, the requirement that insurance companies spend at least a fixed percentage of premiums on patient care rather than maximize profit; that they stop cancelling people out for pre-existing conditions; and, perhaps, most crucial of all, that everyone have access to some form of affordable catastrophic insurance to keep families from going bankrupt when serious illness strikes.

That doesn't seem like too much to ask but, as Washington quacks keep gabbling to make political points rather than heal the health care system, who will get them to focus on the operating table?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

End of the Kennedy Legend

If his widow had run for Ted Kennedy's seat, would she have won yesterday's election?

Although Victoria Reggie Kennedy had spent a lifetime in politics and, on the weekend of the wake, showed unusual poise and grace, the Senator's widow rebuffed all suggestions that she run for his seat in a special election to be his proxy in passing legislation for what he called "the cause of my life."

In what would truly have been the last hurrah for the Kennedy dynasty, Tea Party rage would have been tested against half a century of Massachusetts love and loyalty for the family that dominated its politics for so long.

One left-handed indicator of what might have happened can be seen in the robocalls for Libertarian Joe Kennedy (no relation) meant to draw Democratic loyalists away from voting for Martha Coakley. Even in their absence, the Kennedys counted.

Scott Brown insisted he was not running for the "Kennedy seat" but, faced with defeating the Senator's widow, he would probably have ended up as luckless as Ted Kennedy's first opponent in 1962, who pictured him as a 30-year-old novice who would not impress voters if he were running as Edward Moore rather than Edward Moore Kennedy. But as the brother of the President and Attorney General and heir on his mother's side to colorful "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, Ted Kennedy won easily and kept winning for the rest of the century.

But this time Victoria Reggie Kennedy did not choose to run and, after the unhappy experience that followed her show of interest in replacing Hillary Clinton, neither did Caroline Kennedy or any of her cousins.

For Democrats in the White House and Congress, it was an inopportune time for the Kennedy legend to end, but as JFK might have pointed out to them, "Life is unfair."

Love and Survival

In these dark days, life still contrives to create moments straight out of feel-good movies, as it did this week in Haiti and has been doing over the past year in North Carolina.

Monday's PBS Online News Hour led off with a riveting drama from Port-au-Prince of Janette Samfour, a bank worker trapped in rubble for six days, suddenly being uncovered in view of her husband Roger, who had been hovering and praying at the site all that time.

As she was being extracted from the dangerous debris, she gave rescuers, fire fighters from Los Angeles, a message for her husband: "Even if I die, I love you so much. Don't forget it."

Janette Samfour emerged with broken fingers but otherwise unharmed to be reunited with Roger.

A different love-and-survival story is told by CNN about Laura Zych and Ben Bostic, passengers on Flight 1549 that crash-landed safely in the East River of Manhattan last January.

It was only months later at a reunion of survivors that they finally met, and Bostic confessed, "I was checking you out on the plane."

Their relationship, Zych now says, is a "positive outcome" from that day.

"We kind of pick each other up if we start to slip," he says. "What's better than smiling and laughing and love?"

Living to tell the world about it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Presidential Blame Game

As he completes a year in office today, Barack Obama deserves a gift from Americans--a moratorium on savaging him for everything that has gone wrong in their lives since last January 20th.

The man almost 70 million voted into the White House with hope and enthusiasm has been put through a wringer unlike any president in memory to come out shrunken in the polls, battered by a monolithic opposition offering nothing but toxic rage, beleaguered right and left for providing too much government and not enough to resurrect the economy and keep the country safe from terrorism.

Obama-bashing is flourishing across the political spectrum with enough viral strength to wipe out a half-century dynasty in Massachusetts and, only five months after bipartisan mourning for Ted Kennedy, replace him in the Senate with his polar opposite, a plastic figure out of a Tea Party Cracker Jack box.

The pontificating about Obama's downfall is dizzying in its diversity. Andrew Sullivan observes that the Radical Right has "successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year. If they can do that already, against the massive evidence against them, they have the power to wield populism to destroy any attempt by government to address any actual problems.

"This is a nihilist moment, built from a nihilist strategy in order to regain power."

Other sane Conservatives offer alternate explanations, with Peggy Noonan seeing "a disconnect, a detachment, a distance between the president's preoccupations and the concerns of his people."

David Brooks concedes that the President is "no ideologue" but claims that "his has become a voracious pragmatism. Driven by circumstances and self-confidence, the president has made himself the star performer in the national drama. He has been ubiquitous, appearing everywhere, trying to overhaul most sectors of national life: finance, health, energy, automobiles and transportation, housing, and education, among others."

On the left, Kevin Drum marvels at "how fast the left has turned on him. Conservatives gave Bush five or six years...But the left? It took about ten months. And the depth of the revolt against Obama has been striking too...there's a small but significant minority who are so enraged that they'd be perfectly happy to see his presidency destroyed as a kind of warning to future Democrats. It's extraordinarily self-destructive behavior--and typically liberal, unfortunately. Just ask LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton."

The saddest part of this picture is the vehemence on all sides directed at an extremely competent figure of good will who towers above the self-promoting hustlers in both parties who are blocking his best moves (i.e., reform of the financial industry) and making a mess out of his questionable decision to overhaul health care all at once instead of curbing the worst abuses incrementally.

But as Barack Obama starts his second year next week with the State of the Union, Americans of all persuasions will be doing him--and themselves--a favor by taking a deep breath and starting to think positively about our shared future instead of playing a destructive blame game that makes TV's survivor shows look tame.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Not Too Old to Fail

As America's bankers take a day of rest to honor the precepts of Martin Luther King comes the suggestion of an anomaly in their policy of equal-opportunity bloodsucking.

A New York Times editorial finally catches up with the reality that "Retirees Saved the Banks," a situation described here some time ago under the heading, "The Fed's Financial Death Panels."

The Times explains how the bailout has victimized older Americans:

"By lowering the short-term interest rate it controls to virtually zero and creating lending programs, the Federal Reserve has enabled banks to borrow cheaply. The banks re-lend that cheap money, but not necessarily to consumers and businesses. They can, for example, lend it to back to the federal government by buying Treasury securities, and earn a nice spread between their cost of funds and Treasury yields.

"At the same time, banks are awash in deposits, much of it from investors who have pulled their money out of riskier investments. With money rolling in, big banks don’t need to compete with one another for savers, which further depresses the interest on offer.

"The result is presumably healthier banks and certainly poorer savers."

Just so, a recognition that, as stated here, the Fed has pursued a "free-money-for-banks policy by holding interest rates near zero, as the largest deploy their profits (at least in part the result of giving retirees nothing in return for using their life savings) to repay bailout loans so they can start rewarding themselves with pre-bubble bonuses instead of making loans to get the economy moving again."

One unintended but painfully real side effect of bailing out banks too big to fail has been the failure to keep afloat older Americans, who played by the rules and prudently saved for retirement and are now too old to earn new income and too experienced to start gambling what they have left in Wall Street's rigged casinos.

As bankers launch what the President describes as "a massive lobbying campaign against common-sense rules to protect consumers and prevent another crisis" with guess-who's money, older Americans should be reminding Congress that, from now to November, they will be watching closely to see who has their interest in mind.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cranky Conquers All

The national mood disorder is getting worse as Americans act out their unhappiness in every venue available--from the fiasco in late-night TV programming to the election of Ted Kennedy's successor.

Details don't matter. The overriding theme is that whoever has been pulling the strings is guilty of something and has to be punished.

Even as the President's approval ratings keep plummeting, he tries to divert attention to an even juicier target in his weekly address--the bankers who were saved by government bailouts and are still practicing the bad habits that made them necessary

"We want the taxpayers’ money back, and we’re going to collect every dime," Mr. Obama says, proposing new fees to recover the rest of the $1 trillion bailout. "If the big financial firms can afford massive bonuses, they can afford to pay back the American people."

Revenge is the plat du jour, and it's being savored, hot or cold, everywhere. Even those viewers who gave Conan O'Brien dismal ratings when he replaced Jay Leno are now flocking to watch him as he berates the NBC bosses who tried to solve the problem.

In Massachusetts, for the "Kennedy seat" of more than half a century, polls are so alarming that the President, although overwhelmed by the crisis in Haiti, is taking time this weekend to campaign for the Democrat, whose vote will be vital to pass a health care reform bill.

We are well past the by-the-numbers outrage drummed up the Tea Party promoters and into some twilight zone of national discontent that seems to be feeding on itself, no matter what the merits of the issue.

"With populist anger running strong," a New York Times analysis observes, "anything that smacks of establishment entitlement is politically dangerous." Or as columnist Gail Collins puts it more succinctly, "the voters are sending a message that they are in a bad mood."

The only problem with all this is the history lesson that, when the tide runs high to "throw the rascals out," (.i.e, LBJ and Nixon), voters end up by throwing even worse rascals in.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Updating King's Dream: Love as a Weapon

If he had survived to turn 81 today, what would Martin Luther King have made of an America in which the racial barrier to the White House has been overcome only to be followed a year later by hatreds and division throughout the nation?

In his dream for America, there was not only justice and equality but universal respect and love. "In the process of gaining our rightful place," Dr. King said at the Lincoln Memorial, "we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds….we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

From the start in 1955, he was exceptional--a 26-year-old minister leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was harassed and arrested, a bomb exploded on his porch, but he rejected violence. “If we are trampled over every day,” he told his followers, “don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”

After reading this, I sent a reporter, William Peters, to Montgomery and, seven months later, while the boycott was still on, Redbook published the first national profile of Dr. King under the title, “Our Weapon Is Love.”

Months later, the Supreme Court struck down the Montgomery bus-segregation law, and the young minister was on his way to becoming the leader of a national movement.

In protests throughout the South, using nonviolence, King drew the support of whites as well as blacks. Like John F. Kennedy, he was a man of his time who understood the emerging importance of television. Unlike Kennedy, he went beyond words and used the full power of body rhetoric. He planned marches to elicit images of brutality against his people——guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses——for the evening news.

A decade later, when I asked him to contribute to a Christmas issue of McCalls, Dr. King wrote not about himself but about the apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”

He had asked them to join Mississippi Freedom Marches, and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies…..

“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...

“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...

“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”

Almost half a century later, a young man from those Chicago streets is in the White House and, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama acknowledged the ironies of his connection to Martin Luther King as he defended the "just wars" over which he is presiding: "As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naïve--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

If he were still alive, Martin Luther King would be a rebuke to Obama, and us all, for failing to create a world of justice and compassion. He certainly would be no Billy Graham or Rick Warren, ministering to the mighty and basking in their glow, although he might have agreed to deliver the benediction at Obama's inaugural with the sentiments that his contemporary Joseph Lowery expressed:

"Yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed--the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bankers' Show Trial Begins

“If we ignore history, we are bound to bail it out again.”

That was the opening note of the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission struck today by its chairman, Phil Angelides, the former state treasurer of California.

In an atmosphere that Madame Defarge would have loved, America's bankers are now in the dock of public opinion, which has been boiling over more than a year after Bush and Obama handouts to save them followed by bad behavior that makes the aristocrats of the Ancien Regime look like Robin Hoods.

As they face TV cameras, bailout barons may be in for more than a public flogging. This Commission is "authorized to hold hearings; issue subpoenas either for witness testimony or documents; and refer to the Attorney General or the appropriate state Attorney General any person who may have violated U.S. law in relation to the financial crisis."

But seasoned Washington observers know enough not to expect a parade of tumbrels to the guillotine. The bottom line (as the bankers themselves might put it) is how tough will be the regulations that the White House and Congress, both compromised by their Wall Street ties, will have the guts to impose when the Commission lays out its findings of greed and arrogance that will surprise no one.

Meanwhile, there is catharsis for politicians and public to belabor bankers who are giving themselves huge bonuses while pleading their innocence in creating the smashup that has cost everyone else in the American economy to suffer.

The Commission's work is being compared to that of the Pecora hearings of the 1930s after the stock market crash that led to tighter regulation of Wall Street, including the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking but was killed off a decade ago, opening the way to today's mess.

Bringing back Glass-Steagall would be a step in the right direction but, after the Commission's autopsy is finally finished months from now, that may seem like only a beginning of what needs to be done to rein in these Marie Antoinettes, who are still feasting away as the crowds gather at the Bastille.

If the Tea Party people want to vent their anger, they should take a good look at what politicians of both parties are willing to do about this bunch.

Update: An informed verdict on the bankers' first day from Paul Krugman: "Well, if you were hoping for a Perry Mason moment--a scene in which the witness blurts out: 'Yes! I admit it! I did it! And I’m glad!'--the hearing was disappointing. What you got, instead, was witnesses blurting out: 'Yes! I admit it! I’m clueless!'...

After hearing the heads of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs claim that the disaster was unavoidable, like a hurricane, "the commission’s chairman, was not amused: The financial crisis, he declared, wasn’t an act of God; it resulted from 'acts of men and women.'...

"Do the bankers really not understand what happened, or are they just talking their self-interest? No matter. As I said, the important thing looking forward is to stop listening to financiers about financial reform."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bearing Witness

The 100-year-old woman who died yesterday takes something with her that is being lost in this century of hatreds on the rise everywhere--a human compassion that could persist at the risk of her own survival.

Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank and her family, was known for giving the world a gifted young girl's diary of a life never to be fulfilled, but her own longevity is a testament to the decency of unremarkable people who refuse to trade the lives of others for their own safety and comfort.

In a time when empathy can be seen as a fault and lethal selfishness rationalized as normal behavior, the story of Miep Gies, who sheltered eight Jews for years at the daily risk of her own life, is a reminder that there are always people who hold onto their humanity in even the worst of times.

"I want to go on living even after my death!" Anne Frank wrote. Although she was gone before her sixteenth birthday, her spirit remains as a gift from the centenarian who died yesterday.

After first reading the diary, she had said, " So much had been lost, but now Anne’s voice would never be lost. My young friend had left a remarkable legacy to the world."

So has Miep Gies.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Presidential Testosterone

"Like every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy," the New York Times declares, "President Obama is battling the perception that he’s a wimp on national security,"

That "perception" has haunted Democrats in the White House even before JFK, when Harry Truman ordered government employees to sign loathsome loyalty oaths in order to counter McCarthy era charges that he was being "soft on communism."

Even as the Times lists such Obama moves as sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, ramping up air strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and holding out for tough verification before signing a new nuclear arms agreement with Russia, the GOP keeps accusing him of erectile dysfunction in the War on Terror.

In the lead is Dick Cheney's daughter Liz with her "Keep America Safe" organization's TV commercial, "100 Hours," citing the President for dangerous inaction after the attempted Christmas airliner bombing (what he might have done besides talking tougher is unclear).

Such accusations of avoiding confrontation come with particularly irony from the political heir of a warlike patriot who was "too busy" for eight years to serve in Vietnam, asking for and getting five draft deferments.

But Obama's failure to display testosterone is being questioned from the Left as well, with Maureen Dowd lecturing him that "it’s not O.K. to be cool about national security when Americans are scared...He’s so sure of himself and his actions that he fails to see that he misses the moment to be president--to be the strong father who protects the home from invaders, who reassures and instructs the public at traumatic moments."

The JFK analogy may reassure Dowd and other doubters if they look back at Kennedy's signing on for the Bay of Pigs disaster in deference to hardliners he inherited in 1960, then taking responsibility for the results and learning enough to resist their demand to bomb Cuba "back into the Stone Age" and avoid nuclear war during the Missile Crisis.

One encouraging sign that Barack Obama knows the difference between talking and being tough can be found in Gen. David Petraeus' CNN interview with Christine Amanpour yesterday in which he refused to discuss "the assistance that we have provided in Yemen" but made it clear that the US is stepping up military aid in attacks on al Qaeda there.

This might be a good time to go even further back in the history of Presidential wimps and recall Teddy Roosevelt's advice about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two Years of Dirty Linen

If you didn't know that John Edwards was a philandering phony, Sarah Palin is no Einstein, Harry Reid's tongue moves faster than his brain or Bill Clinton in his golden years is still not Mr. Monogamy, "Game Change" is here to fill the gaps in your education.

Half a century after Theodore White invented the "Making of the President" genre, the insider campaign book has morphed from exposing the process to stripping bare the people. The news that "Elizabeth Edwards' virtuous image was a mirage" has supplanted the narrative of how Bobby Kennedy tried to stop JFK from putting LBJ on the ticket as what voters really want to know about what went on behind the scenes.

At least it would seem so from the weekend's gabble about revelations that Mrs. Edwards terrorized her husband's campaign staff even before he took up with a viral videographer, that Palin did not know what the Federal Reserve does, that Reid admired Barack Obama as a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," and that Bill Clinton, surprise, was not totally faithful to Hillary even during the '08 campaign.

Teddy White, who wrote four "Making" books from 1960 to 1972 was sometimes criticized for suppressing scandal and gossip in order to maintain access to politicians, but he was one of the best journalists of his time, eulogized by William F. Buckley thus: "(C)onjoined with his fine mind, his artist's talent, his prodigious curiosity, there was a transcendent wholesomeness, a genuine affection for the best in humankind."

Those who now know as much as they want about the Edwardses may want to go back and see how it was done in the time of the Kennedys.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Taking Offense Against Terror

If there really is a "war," why are all the images of it defensive and reactive, from the White House's talking heads this week to yesterday's arraignment of a young man in a T-shirt looking in the artists' sketches like a teenager caught swiping fruit?

As two generations of Cheneys fault Barack Obama for not being Jack Bauer of 24, real questions persist about how to fight an aggressive war on terror but avoid one "that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans," as the President put it the other day.

The answers are somewhere beyond the usual liberal/conservative divide, scrambling all the philosophical arguments.

Start with yesterday's courtroom scene. While it may have satisfied an American desire for due process, was that the best choice for dealing with a heinous crime that could have left hundreds of innocent victims and thousands of grieving family members?

Certainly Abdulmutallab is of far less importance than the people who recruited, trained, equipped and sent him on his mission. If what they did was an attack on American society, wouldn't it have been more appropriate to put him in the context of that war and do everything necessary (pace the debate on torture) to identify and take action against the real enemies?

The answer opens the lid on a Pandora's box of issues that go beyond political posturing over questions about our "values" and the terrorists'. If we are fighting an enemy convinced that killing innocent people is God's work and willing to hide behind the sovereignty of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or wherever, our choices are much more complicated than those of Jack Bauer or his civil liberties counterparts.

If we go on offense in the war on terror, some of the necessary tactics may be offensive to our aversion to secrecy and subterfuge, but is the only alternative to let ourselves be slaughtered by inviolable enemies who keep sending waves of Adbdulmutallabs and Shoe Bombers at us?

Dissenters may argue that a vigorous response will only "breed" even more recruits for the terrorists, but there is no shortage now, and that possibility pales against the value of letting those who plot to kill us know that we will be coming after them with more than words.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Connecting the Cliches

Quelling public panic is part of a President's job description, but yesterday's homeland security dog-and-pony show, while necessary, was not Barack Obama's finest hour.

He offered classic bromides--"The buck stops here" and "connecting the dots," along with the newest, "systemic failure"--followed by a laundry list of proposed bureaucratic "improvements" to paper over the stark fact that predicting and preventing terrorism may be all but impossible in today's world of easy mobility, instant communication and porous borders.

"Here at home," he said about threats from al Qaeda, "we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality...and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," while at the same time promising "to develop a strategy that addresses the unique challenges posed by lone recruits."

Yet it was a nondescript lone recruit, helped by who-knows-how-few planners in Yemen, who eluded detection, came within seconds of committing mass murder on American soil and managed to tie up the national security leadership for days examining the mechanics of his fumbling failure.

Worse than all this small-scale frustration is what it reflects about prospects for the larger "war on terror" with massive amounts of military might and money on the ground in unreliable Afghanistan and Pakistan, while doing diplomatic dances from afar with failed governments in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

All this suggests that fighting terror is less a war than an intensive daily grind of information gathering and collating, pairing defensive screenings with aggressive and, for the most part, necessarily covert actions against targets such as Anwar al Awlaki, the American-born cleric with ties not only to the Christmas bomber but the Fort Hood shooter last month.

It's going to be a long, hard and dirty business and reassuring the public by tweaking the bureaucratic aspects won't make it fit neatly into the familiar clichés. We will not only have to collect dots and connect them but, in many cases, go on to obliterate them at the source without public postmortems.

In an earlier time, Americans would trust their government to do the right thing and correct any mistakes, excesses or abuses later. Is that still possible?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Second Thoughts for Frequent Flyers

More than 50 million Americans a month board commercial airliners to go somewhere. In view of events from 9/11 to the recent Christmas Day unpleasantness, it may be time to revive memories of World War II posters asking, "Is your trip necessary?"

Now that any demented fellow passenger could be planning to blow them out of the sky, the question comes back with renewed force.

My own Luddite tendencies go back over half a century when, on a business flight, the thought occurred to me after growing up when air travel was rare, "I'm sitting here in a big tube in the sky having lunch."

Where are all those millions from later generations going today and why and, if new security burdens are adding time, aggravation and expense to their trips, should they reconsider making them in the first place?

In an age of telecommuting, how much business travel is still vital or simply a 20th century habit that's hard to break? How many vacation trips are prompted by a boredom perhaps better assuaged by other pursuits than mindless hyperactivity around the world?

In the short term, the airline and tourist industries would suffer, but there could be the benefit of less national reliance on those countries whose oil revenues are financing the terrorists who want to blow us up.

Going through the sure-to-come indignities of long waits to have their crotches X-rayed, today's frequent flyers may want to use the time to give new thought to that old question, "Is your trip necessary?"

Doing so would not be letting the terrorists "win," just forcing them to find new ways to use our affluence against us.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Misreading Tea Leaves

"American history," David Brooks proclaims, "is often driven by passionate outsiders who force themselves into the center of American life" as he predicts: "In the near term, the tea party tendency will dominate the Republican Party" just as "the hippies defined the 1960s; the feminists, the 1970s; the Christian conservatives, the 1980s."

Say what? A journalist-survivor of those decades finds that as dizzying an oversimplification of what happened back then as it is of what is going on now, misreading media attention for underlying trends in the body politic.

In the real world, Republicans in 1968 took the White House on LBJ's persistence over an unpopular war that damaged the economy (see W in 2008), lost it when Nixon overreached at Watergate and came back after Jimmy Carter mismanaged everything from uncontrolled inflation to the Mariel Boat Lift and Iranian hostage crisis.

The hippies were long gone with no political afterlife, feminists failed to pass even a toothless Equal Rights Amendment and Christian conservatives were a fringe movement until a disputed 2000 election put into the White House a reformed drunk who had turned to religiosity in midlife.

Today's Tea Party "movement," an amalgam of Fox News rants and Dick Armey PR, is easy shorthand for the deep anxiety roiling Americans over a slowly recovering economy and endless military involvement in the Middle East that is doing nothing to lessen the threat of domestic terror.

Those fears drove Republicans out of power only a year ago and are causing political grief on both the right and left for a president who is trying to deal with them rationally in an irrational time.

Whether he is overreaching with health care reform is not a question that will be answered in this off-year elections, when a do-nothing and yammer-loudly opposition will surely make temporary gains, but Tea Party noisemakers will soon come up against the reality that, after dumping cargo in Boston harbor, the Founding Fathers had to envision and build a nation. The Contract with America in the 1990s is not a prototype for the Constitution then.

Right now, all the sound and fury is not only unnerving Democrats who have to face voters in November (North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring) but even Republican stalwarts like Lindsey Graham who isn't Glenn Beckish enough for constituents who have censured him for backing bank bailouts and favoring immigration reform.

Politicians will surely pay a price for all that unhappiness but, unless Republicans find something positive to offer, the dogs will keep barking as the caravan moves on.

Update: Add Connecticut's Chris Dodd to the list of outgoing incumbents. A battered Congress will face Change next year or, at least, some of the faces will be new.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tiger, Tiger, Still Burning Bright

The immortal hand and eye that frame his symmetry are those of Annie Liebovitz for a naked-to-the-waist Vanity Fair cover as Tiger Woods enters the new decade, not as the unflappable figure addressing a golf ball on Sunday afternoon TV but as a subject of sermonizing for the morning political pundits.

On Fox News, Brit Hume suggests that Buddhism may be below par for Woods' moral crisis: "I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'"

Vanity Fair offers a more worldly gloss on his media sins, suggesting that Woods "exhibited the same superhuman confidence off the golf course that he exhibited on it, apparently convinced he would never be caught despite the stupid sloppiness at the end—-text messages, voice-mail messages. He deluded himself into thinking he could be something that he wasn’t: untouchable. The greatest feat of his career is that he managed to get away with it for so long in public, the bionic man instead of the human one who hit a fire hydrant."

Only David Letterman reserves judgment, complaining in his monologue that he wishes the fallen idol would stop calling him for advice. But perhaps Woods should. As he keeps losing sponsors, his late-night counterpart is doing well after being water-boarded by extra-marital scandal.

If there is a message in all this, it may be that the public finds it harder to forgive a celebrity who comes on as Mr. Clean than one who specializes in being snarky and snide about everybody else's foibles.

But in an era where disgrace is only a temporary setback, before the decade is out, the two could find themselves co-hosting a Family Values telethon.

But meanwhile a word of advice for the Tiger: Keep your shirt on and remember what happened to Barack Obama's approval ratings after he appeared topless on a magazine cover last spring.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Alternative Alohas

Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh will both be leaving Hawaii with a better prognosis for the new decade than events of the holiday season might have provided.

If the Christmas Day body bomber had not been thwarted, the President's vacation would have been cut short to lead the nation in mourning hundreds of victims of what he today clearly attributed to terrorism: "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”

As daunting as his challenge is to "to make sure our hard-working men and women in our intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security communities have the tools and resources they need to keep America safe," the President will start that process in an atmosphere without the shock, rage and grief of another 9/11.

There may never be a precise answer to what determined the narrow margin of that suicide bomber's failure, once again underscoring how much more contingent real life is than political rhetoric.

That realization presents itself again with the emergence of Rush Limbaugh from a Hawaiian hospital after his own near-death experience on Christmas Eve. In a press conference, a relaxed, almost beatific Limbaugh calls the scare a "blessing in disguise," noting, "It takes things like this in life maybe to prepare you for the eventuality that you are getting older, you're not as young as you were, and not as invincible as you once thought you were."

Limbaugh and America were both lucky to dodge a bullet this week, and we might start the new year with a nod to Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" by giving "Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears" and easing up on blaming one another for what human beings can't control.