Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Curing Universal Unhappiness

From a fertile week for pop psychology comes news that social trust is declining at a time when personal connection is more important than worldly success.

As always, David Brooks draws on arcane research to prove that "countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime."

But where are those countries? Worldwide acting-out of rage and hatred, from Washington to Moscow, suggests a new Age of Anxiety, starting with the terror of September 2001 and exacerbated by a global economic meltdown seven years later.

Damage to the human psyche goes well beyond politics as clinical anxiety becomes the most common mental illness in America, suffered by 40 million, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and affecting millions more with, as one report describes it, "a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing--but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there."

As medicine struggles to understand and treat such distress in individuals, signs that it is undermining the whole society are everywhere:

*A pathological response to the passage of health care with verbal violence and a spate of acting out against bipartisan Congressional targets from Anthony Weiner to Eric Cantor (anti-Semitism, anyone?).

*Morphing of terrorism from political grievance to personal madness--from Jihad Jane to the current flavor of the week, the addled Michigan militia.

*Growth of the Tea Party movement, based less on issues than enormous free-floating dissatisfaction that, in its inchoate stage, is threatening Democrats electorally but has the potential to disrupt both parties with Sarah Palinish purging.

In this atmosphere, David Brooks cites studies showing that "daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others" and that "being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year."

Those get-a-life moves may not be panaceas for all the disruptions of our time, but for crackpots, online and elsewhere, who are fueling social madness, they suggest a start.

As E. M. Forster put it a century ago, only connect.

Update: New figures show U.S. prescription sales rose by 5.1 percent to $300.3 billion in 2009, compared to a 1.8 percent growth the year before, with antipsychotics leading the way with $14.6 billion and antidepressants at $9.9 million. In between were acid-reflux regulators and cholesterol-lowering drugs--all in all, a high price for trying to maintain a sound mind in a sound body.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Financial Reform: The Opacity of Hope

The glaring area in which this Administration has been Change-challenged is up next, and the question is whether the President will direct his new-found audacity at the money manipulators who have been wrecking the economy.

Unlike health insurers, the financial industry has little public support after the meltdown, but obfuscation is rife and will get worse as lobbyists pour tons of money into pressuring Washington lawmakers already on their payroll, running ads and petition drives.

What's worse is that the White House, led by former Wall Streeters Geithner and Summers, has so far shown little appetite for the kind of real reform advocated by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, who is only unleashed on rare occasions to lend them credibility.

In Congress Chris Dodd, who opened the door to disaster back in 1991 with an amendment that, in the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning Gretchen Morgenson, "expanded the cast of institutions that could call on the Federal Reserve's emergency backstop powers if they were ever to get into trouble," is heading the Senate Banking Committee's reform efforts and, while making grand promises, is also warning against "excessive regulation."

Even with his imminent retirement, Dodd and his Senate colleagues are short of what Morgenson calls regulatory DNA, offering bills that are "half-baked and really do not address some of the crucial elements of reform that are needed if we want to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again," prompting her interviewer Bill Moyers to suggest that the whole process sounds like making arsonists the new fire chiefs.

The real hope in all this is that Barack Obama, with a zest for combat sharpened by his health-care victory, will abandon caution and take on an industry that caused a meltdown, took billions of bailout money and is back doing what caused the crisis in the first place.

“He goes into these into these negotiations, and into these legislative battles, with a stronger hand," says White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, "because people understand that he’s going to fight for what he believes in.”

Some Republicans may join him, Gibbs believes: “Understanding that what they got out of the health care thing was virtually nothing, I think they may think twice on financial reform.”

Those who have lost much of their life savings in the past two years won't be ready to bet what remains on that.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Obama on Offense

"Winning isn't everything," football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, "it's the only thing." Half a century later, as Republicans adapt that gridiron philosophy into a threat of political gridlock, Barack Obama is signaling it may not be a winning strategy.

As Congress left town this weekend, the President did an end run around their blocking of his executive choices by making 15 interim appointments.

“The United States Senate has the responsibility to approve or disprove of my nominees,” he said. “But if, in the interest of scoring political points, Republicans in the Senate refuse to exercise that responsibility, I must act...I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government."

If that sounds exaggerated, consider John McCain's reaction to passage of health care, “There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year. They have poisoned the well in what they’ve done and how they’ve done it.”

As they take up the rallying cry of "repeal, replace and reform" of what House Leader John Boehner has called "Armageddon," Republicans see themselves in a battle of Biblical proportions that calls not just for defeating enemies but obliterating them.

After a weeklong acting out of rage and resentment by a Tea Party minority across the country, what Richard Nixon used to call "the Silent Majority" of Americans may be ready to recoil and get behind a President who is going about the business of acting in their interests to strengthen the economy and deal with international threats such as nuclear weapons.

When they do, the irrationality will fade and Democrats' losses in November may be minimized, but the long-term damage of winning as "the only thing" will linger on.

Paul Krugman put it best: "In the short run, Republican extremism may be good for Democrats, to the extent that it prompts a voter backlash. But in the long run, it’s a very bad thing for America. We need to have two reasonable, rational parties in this country. And right now we don’t."

Vince Lombardi knew that it takes two teams to play the game.

Update: To underscore his new political posture, the President makes a surprise visit to Afghanistan today to pressure Hamid Karzai and encourage American troops there. In the face of all-out GOP opposition, Obama seems to be echoing Admiral Farragut's classic response in the heat of Civil War battle, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Thursday, March 25, 2010

High Profiles: Pelosi and Palin

The two feistiest figures in politics today are doing it without a Y chromosome.

On the PBS News Hour, the Speaker of the House evoked that old Feminist slogan to sell cigarettes, "You've come a long way, baby" as an energized Nancy Pelosi took a victory lap on health care.

Meanwhile, in the era when a woman couldn't make it to the White House, Sarah Palin is one of the few Republicans actually winning anything, her latest triumph a million-dollar-an-episode contract for a reality show on the Discovery Channel.

During the health care campaign, the President was making the speeches, but Pelosi was in the trenches fighting for every vote and now is offering no apologies.

"Bipartisanship," she tells Jim Lehrer, "is not more important than a little child who is sick, being deprived of coverage because he has a preexisting condition. It's not more important that...just being a woman is no longer a preexisting medical condition, that if you lose your job, you lose your insurance, that, if you want to start a business...or change jobs, you're not job-locked, that insurance companies can...increase your rates, and you're at their mercy."

On the other side of the ideological divide, Palin has come a long way from the knowledge-deprived Vice-Presidential candidate and is now, on a Facebook page, targeting by name 20 Democrats, vowing that in November "we’re going to print pink slips for members of Congress as fast as they’ve been printing money," even as she has to rebut charges of inciting violence against health care supporters.

As much as Pelosi and Palin may rub those who disagree with them the wrong way, together they exemplify how much the American political landscape has changed in half a century since a young John F. Kennedy wrote "Profiles in Courage" and failed to include even one woman.

To make amends, he wrote an article for McCalls, highlighting Jeannette Rankin, the first of her gender ever elected to the House of Representatives and the only member to vote against entering World War I. She lived to be 92, helped women get the vote and never stopped fighting for causes she believed in.

The next young politician to write about women as leaders in this century will have a much wider choice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Final Scenes of the Farce

Senate Republicans have sent David Vitter out to do to health care what he was caught doing with minions of the DC Madam almost three years ago.

By this grotesque logic, John Ensign should be up next instructing small business owners in better ways to cover their workers in good faith.

Even strait-laced Tom Coburn is getting into the spirit of the thing with an amendment barring coverage of Viagra for sex offenders.

If the GOP's last stand is taking on the look of a Feydeau bedroom farce, it's only fitting for an enterprise that has as much to do with reality as the racing around and slamming of doors in "Hotel Paradiso."

Unlike the House performance of breast-beating drama, members of the Upper Chamber will at least provide some comic relief before making their exits and letting the Democrats' production of health care reform play out on the national stage.

Their antics may be no more successful than Vitter's solo attempt to block Hillary Clinton's confirmation as Secretary of State but will provide Americans with an entertaining demonstration of the old Arab proverb, "The dogs bark but the caravan moves on."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From Now to November

According to pundits, Americans will be marking time for eight months, waiting to vote next fall in "a referendum on the most significant social legislation enacted in half a century."

But like most conventional wisdom, that's too simplistic a view of the political landscape in a confused, angry and volatile time.

As the President prepares to sign an interim bill and the Senate girds for its bound-to-be-ugly vote, the health-care battleground with all its smoking wreckage has only days left as the center of partisan conflict.

After that, other issues will predominate, and the sad spectacle of a disintegrating two-party system will move on to butchering them--Democrats reaching and probably overreaching for legislative solutions, Republicans locked into a solid opposition that is betting on gridlock as a winning strategy.

Looking at the challenge "to save this country from stagnation and fiscal ruin," David Brooks, while not exonerating the GOP, despairs of Democrats: "With the word security engraved on its heart, the Democratic Party is just not structured to cut spending that would enhance health and safety. The party nurtures; it does not say, 'No more.'”

Yet voters, persuaded that both parties are more motivated by politics than policy disagreements, may not be susceptible to arguments about ideology.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel sees the President's victory this weekend in visceral terms: "Part of the test here at the end wasn't this policy or that policy. It was 'Did he have the capacity to deliver?' That question mark around him and the presidency has been answered."

In any case, the electorate will not be in a state of suspended animation over this spring, summer and fall. No matter to how high a pitch Republicans can raise their rhetoric ("Freedom dies a little bit today" and "baby killer"), they will eventually have to engage on the substance of such issues as immigration and controlling Wall Street or risk losing the support of Independents not suffering from brain damage.

Meanwhile, it's much too early to start counting November votes.

Update: The post-passing of the bill begins with Gallup now showing "By Slim Margin, Americans Support Healthcare Bill's Passage," a reversal of last week's polls. The twists and turns between now and November will be many and varied, and anyone who tries to predict what will happen then should run his crystal ball through a car wash.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Disaster That Didn't Happen

The Democrats celebrated an overtime victory in the health care Super Bowl in subdued fashion--no champagne corks popped in the Oval Office, no one dumped Gatorade on Nancy Pelosi--a suitable response to winning by not losing.

When the cry of "baby killer" at Bart Stupak had faded and the last vote was counted, the significance of a year-long struggle was that Republicans had failed to bring down the Obama Administration with a crushing defeat.

In our cut-your-losses age, this is no small matter, but passing a convoluted package of "reforms," most of which won't kick in for years, is hardly the equivalent of bringing Americans Social Security and Medicare, as Democratic leaders claim.

The bill, says a New York Times editorial, "represents a national commitment to reform the worst elements of the current system...Our hope and belief is that this reform will in the end accomplish its great objectives. Right now, the good news for all Americans is that despite all the politics and the obstructionism, the process has finally begun."

There is much to be said for "hope and belief," but as with the economic stimulus and jobs bill, this Obama accomplishment will be a long time in putting bread on American dinner tables.

That said, the President deserves credit for not wavering in the face of Tea Party rage and the Scott Brown surprise in taking over the seat of Ted Kennedy, whose widow praised the House victory in his memory.

But not losing is far from winning and, in the months ahead, Democrats will have to work hard to persuade dispirited voters that, despite total Republican obstructionism, something is better than nothing.

If they had lost yesterday, it would have been a political disaster.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Obama By Heart

Without advance text or notes, the 44th president of the United States did yesterday what he should have done a year ago in the struggle that will decide the fate of his tenure.

On the eve of their vote on the unholy mess that health care reform has become, Barack Obama took moral leadership of his party and, in a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment, invoked Lincoln for his theme: "I'm not bound to win, but I’m bound to be true. I’m not bound to succeed, but I’m bound to live up to what light I have.”

To the confusion of critics and more objective commentators alike, the President relied less on rational argument than an appeal to the hearts of Washington wheelers-and-dealers who are held in rock-bottom opinion poll esteem by Americans they represent.

Abandoning his hopeless quest for bipartisanship, he reminded fellow party members why they were there: "Something inspired you to get involved, and something inspired you to be a Democrat instead of running as a Republican. Because somewhere deep in your heart you said to yourself, I believe in an America in which we don’t just look out for ourselves, that we don’t just tell people you’re on your own, that we are proud of our individualism, we are proud of our liberty, but we also have a sense of neighborliness and a sense of community and we are willing to look out for one another."

With empathy for their "tough vote," Mr. Obama echoed Frank Capra's Jefferson Smith's urging them to live up to "what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed."

As this President spoke, patriots outside with a Tea Party sense of "neighborliness" and "community" were spewing racial epithets and gay slurs at lawmakers.

As he spoke, bishops of the American Catholic Church, while professing their social compassion, were instructing Congressmen of their faith to vote "no" in order "to ensure that health care reform respects the life and dignity of all, from conception to natural death."

As he spoke, Republicans were reassuring supporters yelling "kill the bill" that, in Mike Spence's words, "whether victory will come on the third Sunday in March or on the first Tuesday in November...victory will come.”

Barack Obama has made many tactical mistakes in a year's struggle over health care, failures that have led to overly complicated and convoluted policy and process but, facing today's climactic vote, he has earned the right to ask Congressional colleagues to "make good on those promises that you made in all those town meetings and all those constituency breakfasts and all that traveling through the district, all those people who you looked in the eye and you said, you know what, you’re right, the system is not working for you and I’m going to make it a little bit better."

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Fox News Foaming-at-the-Mouth Weekend

Rep. Steve King calls Sunday's health care vote sacrilegious "to take away the liberty that we have right from God," and Glenn Beck agrees that it is the work of "a group of people that have so perverted our faith and our hope and our charity, that is a--this is an affront to God."

Just the kickoff for a foaming-at-the-mouth festival in Murdochland as Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal applauds Brett Baier's sassing of the President on Fox News, while disclosing that "Fox is owned by News Corp., which also owns this newspaper, so one should probably take pains to demonstrate that one is attempting to speak with disinterest and impartiality, in pursuit of which let me note that Glenn Beck has long appeared to be insane."

Her column accompanies another Journal piece titled "Whether or Not Congress 'Deems,' Public Is Steamed" asserting that "brawling" on health care "has fed a public unhappiness with the institution of Congress that now borders on disgust."

How strongly their master, the former Australian Rupert Murdoch, feels about fomenting revolution here is reflected in the fact that, although he recently starting charging readers for such gems online, both links were available free at the time of this writing.

The start of the decisive health care weekend promises to be a test for First Amendment purists as well, as Fox News et al pull out all the stops in what used to be called advocacy journalism but has morphed into anarchic attacks on a president and his party.

How far all this has gone can be judged from the news that Bill O'Reilly is now seen as a moderate.

"You've become in some ways the voice of sanity here," Jon Stewart noted during a recent appearance on O'Reilly's show, which is "like being the thinnest kid at fat camp."

But this weekend, the fat kids will be gorging.

Sandra, Groucho and the Oscar Love Curse

The disturbing image of the day is Sandra Bullock happily clutching her Academy Award earlier this month, only to learn days later that her husband had been cheating on her with a tattoo model whose forehead reads "Pray For Us Sinners."

The news prompts the New York Post to discover an "Oscar love curse" afflicting women who won in recent years but lost their mates--Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, Hillary Swank, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon--an observation reflecting Feminist chestnuts about men being unable to cope with powerful, successful women and macho counter-arguments about their loss of femininity.

In Bullock's case at least, that doesn't seem to be an issue as biker husband Jesse James apologizes for "my poor judgment" in his liaison with tattoo-covered "Bombshell," who works as a stripper and poses on adult web sites.

Whatever the sociological import, the sad episode brings back memories of Groucho's classic:

"Lydia oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia,/Lydia, the Tattooed Lady./She has eyes that folks adore so,/And a torso even more so.

"Lydia oh Lydia, that encyclopidia,/Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo./On her back is the Battle of Waterloo./Beside it the wreck of the Hesperus, too./And proudly above waves the Red, White, and Blue,/You can learn a lot from Lydia."

Sandra Bullock's marriage went awry while she was working on "The Blind Side." What would Groucho have made of that?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ugliest Political Week in Memory

As health care fever spikes up, the body politic in woozy Washington is showing symptoms of a breakdown.

Democrats are struggling with parliamentary paralysis, Republicans are having apoplectic fits and Barack Obama is laying hands on everyone in sight with pleas to help a presidency on life support.

His agitation brought him to Fox News last night for a Tourette's Syndrome interview with someone named Bret Baier, who sat in the White House constantly interrupting the President with what the transcript describes as "cross talk" but sounded more like disrespectful baiting at cross purposes.

House Democrats have turned into babbling talking heads trying to explain "reconciliation" and "deem and pass" as stretcher bearers in the background search for arm-twisted victims to bring their body count to the needed 216.

Dennis Kucinich signed on yesterday, citing his worry that Republicans were not only attacking Barack Obama on the issue but trying to "delegitimize his presidency."

On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart offered a montage of right-wing raging, culminating in loony Rep. Steve King's call for a velvet revolution akin to the Prague uprising against Communism. But in what is called real life, Republicans are busy planning to repeal anything that passes after they take control of Congress in November.

Now that the CBO has put numbers on the proposed legislation ($940 billion over the first decade with deficit cuts of $130 billion and $1.2 trillion in the second), the stage is set for a Sunday vote that could put an end to the week's chaos that has been uglier than anything seen in Washington since the days of Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre, and we all know how long it took to recover from that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Memories Ever Green

St. Patrick's Day recalls lunches every year in the McCalls dining room with Guinness, Jameson and Bushmill to warm Irish friends, born and adopted, as they devoured the world's best corned beef and cabbage lovingly prepared by Kathleen McPartland. Even the boiled potatoes had a special savor.

After President Kennedy was killed in 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Growing up in the Bronx of the 1930s, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. In our apartment building, there was one Irish family whose men sat on the front steps in summer, drinking beer and joking. As the evening went on, their smiles got wider, their talk louder. They seemed to be breathing some other air. They were as poor as the rest of us, but so full of life.

As a young man in Manhattan of the 1950s, I would go after work to Costello's, a saloon where you could breathe that "other air" with writers, editors and artists, a place John McNulty had made famous in the New Yorker. Pat Moynihan was sometimes there, wearing an outdated straw boater, but no one seemed to think it odd.

Tim Costello was our Irish godfather, keeping us happy but grounded and civil. When Frank McCourt, who later wrote "Angela's Ashes," came over as an 18-year-old immigrant, Tim sent him to the New York Public Library to read Samuel Johnson.

Over the years my life has been entwined with colleagues, friends and relatives by marriage--love to Fiona, Hugh, Niall et al--who have leavened my Jewish gloom with their wit and cheer, so here's a St. Patrick Day's toast to Tim Costello and all the new generations of Irish who, as an OpEd writer reminds us today, have given us gifts of words and high spirits.

As this dark winter finally starts to lighten up, we need them more than ever.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Obama, Person to Person

Personalizing an issue is an old ploy, but Barack Obama has reminded so many of us why we put him in the White House.

Rallying support for health care, the President pressed the case of Natoma Canfield, a 50-year-old Ohio cancer patient. He had used her letter to him at a meeting with health insurers, and now he was telling a crowd:

"She’s self-employed, she’s trying to make ends meet, and for years she’s done the responsible thing...bought her health insurance through the individual market.

"And it was important for her...because 16 years ago, she was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. And even though she had been cancer-free for more than a decade, the insurance companies kept on jacking up her rates, year after year.

"So she increased her out-of-pocket expenses. She raised her deductible...she didn’t want to be in a position where, if she did get sick, somebody else would have to pick up the tab…

"But despite that, Natoma’s insurance company raised her premiums by more than 25 percent. And over the past year, she paid more than $6,000 in monthly premiums. She paid more than $4,000 in out-of-pocket medical costs, for co-pays and medical care and prescriptions. So all together, this woman paid $10,000--one year. But because she never hit her deductible, her insurance company only spent $900 on her care...

"Now, what comes in the mail at the end of last year? A letter telling Natoma that her premiums would go up again by more than 40 percent."

The climax of Obama's story is that, in January, she had to let her insurance lapse, and last week she collapsed and was diagnosed with leukemia.

Now, under all this public scrutiny, the Cleveland Clinic is saying it "will not put a lien" on Ms. Canfield's home, while seeking public assistance to help cover her costs.

Two years ago, while running for president, Obama talked about a young white woman who worked for his South Carolina campaign.

Explaining why they were there, Ashley Baia had told volunteers that when she was nine, her mother was stricken with cancer, lost her health care and filed for bankruptcy and that she "convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat."

"She did this for a year until her mom got better," Obama said, "and she told everyone...the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too."

When it was the turn of an elderly black man to explain why he was there, he answered, "I'm here because of Ashley."

That experience typified his campaign, Obama said then: “'I’m here because of Ashley.' By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough...But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger."

Since then, our union has failed to grow stronger, but despite stumbles along the way, we have a President who has held onto his humanity and is still here for the Ashley Baias and Natoma Canfields.

"To save one life," says the Talmud, "is as if you have saved the world."

Barack Obama is still trying.

The John Edwards Love Quadrangle

In politicians' philandering, from JFK to Bill Clinton and beyond, "love means never having to say you're sorry" (to quote the soupy 1970s movie) until your enablers run out of ways to keep you from getting caught.

Few have gone as far as Andrew Young, who tried to take a bullet for John Edwards by claiming he was the father of Rielle Hunter's baby, but greater love hath no man know the rest.

In her coming-out interview in GQ, Hunter says casually, "Andrew was in love with Johnny...Beyond. And I believe he loved Johnny more than he loved Cheri [his wife]."

In their Oprah appearance last month, the Youngs confirmed their unconditional devotion. "We did everything," Mrs. Young said. "Both of us...It was extreme. We never, never said no," her husband adding, "Any time he got into any kind of hot water and needed something, he called me."

Now, with Edwards in permanent publicity hell, the quadrangle survivors are doing considerably better than their love object. Elizabeth Edwards is suing for divorce and her share of the family money, the Youngs are profiting from a best-selling book after escaping jail for possession of the infamous sex tape, while Hunter surfaces posing with her baby for a long New-Agey interview about their "profound," "till-death do us part" passion.

But there are always media flies in the ointment. Hunter, Barbara Walters tells us, cried over the phone for two hours over "repulsive" GQ photos of her in a man's shirt, string of pearls and nothing else. (But she may take some consolation from the fact that Jenny Sanford posed similarly for Vogue, looking quite elegant. But then again, since Mrs. Sanford was the wronged wife, maybe not.)

Meanwhile, Edwards was last sighted doing penance in Haiti after the earthquake, as the rest of the crew goes on with their lives, sadder but wiser.

"It's broken my heart," Andrew Young told Oprah, "that somebody who I considered my best friend lied to and then ran over me with a dump truck backward and forward."

So far, the object of Young's affection has shown no signs of saying he's sorry.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Obama's Greek Tragedy

If he signs a health care bill into law this month, in his heart of hearts, the President will be haunted by the ancient plaint of King Pyrrhus, "Another such victory, and I am undone."

How did 21st century America fall into Greek tragedy while fighting to spread the benefits of civilization to its people? How did rational debate deteriorate into the ancient ritual of a blood feud?

Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's designated voice of reason, writes in an OpEd today, "Should the Democrats' health-care train wreck make it to the president's desk, it will be a pyrrhic victory, and its devastating consequences will take their toll on our health-care system, our budget and our economy."

His argument that the new law is mainly "a range of job-killing tax hikes and controls on all Americans--to fund this new entitlement and to penalize employers and individuals who don't play by Washington's new rules" is as simplistic and misleading as White House claims that the bloated, bargain-marred thing will be an historic achievement for fairness and decency.

Pasting Ryan's handsome young face and wonkish voice over a year of monolithic know-nothing Republican obstruction is undermined by Minority Leader John Boehner's vow to "make it difficult for them, if not impossible, to pass the bill."

But blaming Republicans is too easy, another way of avoiding responsibility by playing their us-against-them game. Democrats would do well to recall a Shakespearian take on the human condition, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

That kind of thinking led Romans to conspire against their Caesar just as today's Congressional underlings are threatening to undo their leader with squabbles about abortion and other side issues that will profit them politically.

Yet, with all the good will in the world for his pragmatic idealism, it's hard not to fault Barack Obama for getting himself into this pyrrhic mess.

Instead on analyzing the red-meat issue and formulating a comprehensible plan to deal with its major components, the President stepped back and tossed it into the Congressional boneyard where it could be shredded into scraps.

Instead of emphasizing how the current system is threatening to bankrupt the middle class, Obama chose to reassure them that they could keep their current coverage while appealing to their sense of fairness in bringing 30 million uninsured into it, opening the way for selfish Tea Party demagoguery about socialism.

Instead of recognizing that health insurer "cooperation" was a sham, the President naively embraced it only to find they would be back lobbying against reform at crunch time.

Instead of accepting the hard truth that cost containment was a complex tangle of provider greed and unbridled patient sense of entitlement, Obama persisted in hazy formulations about bending the cost curve.

Now, he is faced with the choice of a pyrrhic victory or an unthinkable defeat while the rest of us find no catharsis in what has become a classic tragedy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Your Money or Your Life

Traditional highway robbers gave victims a choice of keeping one or the other, but Congress is poised next week to help insurance and financial marauders deprive Americans of both.

Under the radar of the health care mess, financial regulatory reform is being held up as lame duck Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee Chris Dodd fails to find a single Republican to join him in a minimal attempt to control Wall Street's runaway excesses.

"What Mr. Dodd needs to do," the New York Times declares in an editorial, "is to introduce the toughest and smartest legislation he can to revamp the financial system and protect American consumers. And he and President Obama need to twist the arms of Democratic committee members to bring the strongest possible bill to the Senate floor.

"Their rallying cry couldn’t be any clearer: Whose side are you on? The banks or the American people?"

A clue to the answer came last week in a 2200-page report on Lehman Brothers, showing how executives of the fallen firm practiced “materially misleading” accounting and “actionable balance sheet manipulation” to avoid going under in 2008, even as then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson made strenuous efforts to save them.

Sen. Dodd himself is no stranger to the Wall Street-Washington web of scandal that has undermined efforts to protect investors over the years, but he has a chance to atone in a last hurrah by fighting for meaningful new controls.

Or will he give way to Republican efforts to slow up legislation as he gets ready to go into retirement and the waiting period before he can go to work lobbying for Wall Street?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bye-Bye Limbaugh and Beck?

Forty years ago, a line of actors and actresses came out on a Manhattan stage and dropped their robes to face the audience naked. My reaction then was "That's interesting, now what else have you got?"

As it turned out, very little. Despite sketches by Samuel Beckett, John Lennon and other literati, "Oh Calcutta" was deemed "sophomoric and soporific" by a New York Times critic and remains memorable only for crossing a cultural threshold of public nudity.

It comes to mind now as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, two figures who strip their psyches bare in a new era, seem to be imploding after showing us everything they've got and bumping up against possible boredom with their act.

After a disastrous (in his own word, wasted) hour of bear-baiting Democratic pariah Eric Massa (akin to shooting fish in a barrel and missing), Beck now finds himself under fire from evangelical leaders for equating Christian social justice with Nazism and Communism.

"When Glenn Beck is asking Christians to leave their churches, the Catholic Church, the black churches, Hispanic, evangelical, to leave all our churches," says the head of Sojourners, a Christian networking group, "I'm saying it's time for Christians to leave the Glenn Beck show."

Beck's desperation is echoed in Limbaugh's promise to leave the country if health care reform is passed. With his huge audience and contract, El Rushbo won't be going anywhere soon but his threat is symptomatic of the pressure felt by extreme figures to keep pushing the boundaries of expression.

Their plight brings up another image from the last century. In the early days of TV, a civil-rights leader described a dilemma:

"At dimly-lit open-air rallies each night, the speaker's face lights up in the glare of photofloods during those passages a cameraman thinks most likely to win ten seconds of network time. The lights go off abruptly when the cameraman's interest flags, leaving the speaker blinking in the dark, and fishing for another, even more startling statement to bring the lights back on."

Beck and Limbaugh, like their counterparts on the Left, keep fishing for ever more startling statements to hold our interest, but in a time when politicians say and do the unthinkable daily, it's getting harder to stay in the spotlight.

The only novelty left would be public figures coming on stage fully clothed and speaking with civility, but so far Barack Obama's act is only attracting a bare majority of the audience.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Jumpy Over Jihad Jane

The media hall of mirrors is manufacturing a "terrorism-case trend" out of an iffy indictment of a clearly disturbed Pennsylvania woman's e-mails, YouTube postings and MySpace page.

Interviewing a Washington Post reporter on the PBS News Hour, Gwen Ifill wonders if "she could have easily just been someone noodling around on the Internet" but is assured that Colleen LaRose, arrested last October for stealing her boyfriend's passport and taking it overseas, was a true terrorist threat, conspiring to assassinate a Danish cartoonist who had offended Muslims.

If so, Ms. LaRose has taken the tactic of "hiding in plain sight" to a new level by launching a plot that could be monitored online by anyone with Internet access, including the Feds.

In a time of shoe bombers and body bombers, it would be foolish to dismiss any bizarre threats, but this week's relatively fact-free indictment raises questions about going public to arouse so much anxiety based on so little.

Jihad Jane stands accused of attempting "to wage violent jihad in South Asia and Europe" and that she "recruited women on the Internet who had passports and the ability to travel to and around Europe in support of violent jihad."

What the legal document omits is that Ms. LaRose, a 46-year-old convert to Islam, has a disordered personal history, culminating in a suicide attempt after her father's death and that her electronic rantings, including fantasies about a Muslim marriage, were amplified by the same sites that encouraged Maj. Nidal Hassan, the psychiatrically impaired Fort Hood shooter.

All good reasons to monitor her activities, but a questionable basis for setting off a public uproar over a new trend involving European-looking women plotting to blow us all up.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Entitlement Derangement

"Ask not," JFK urged at his inaugural, "what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."

Half a century later, making sacrifices, large or small, has vanished from most Americans' vocabularies, replaced by a raging sense of disappointed entitlement that leads them to blame everyone but themselves for what's wrong with their country.

In bipartisan disgust, only 22 percent now approve of Congress, a 10 percent decline in two months and, in a reversal of precedent, fewer than half want to reelect their own representatives. Barack Obama, the avatar of Hope little more than a year ago, is holding on to a bare majority of support.

Such dissatisfaction is understandable in the light of Congress' miserable performance, but something deeper seems to be involved--a grotesque growth of selfishness in the society from top to bottom.

The newest poll on health care, for example, shows only a minority of a minority supporting reform as a moral obligation to the uninsured with the majority, even though dissatisfied with the system, opposed in response to fears that have been aroused that they will have to pay more or get less.

"We pay for most of our health care indirectly, through taxes or paycheck deductions," says a New York Times analysis, "which lulls us into thinking that the care is somehow free. As the Stanford economist Victor Fuchs notes, many Americans say they want to control costs--but oppose just about any policy to do so. It should be no surprise that politicians do the same."

The Tea Party movement, fueled by fears that someone else in the society could benefit at their expense, may be only the tip of an iceberg of discontent that has been growing since JFK's time.

Back then, wars were fought by young people drafted from every stratum of society rather than the mostly poor who volunteer now as much out of economic need and the hope of upward social mobility as patriotism.

Back then, home ownership was hard-earned by saving for a substantial down payment rather than promoted as an automatic right by uncontrolled easy-buck middlemen who created a bubble that has almost wrecked the economy.

On all sides, the traditional American work ethic is being eroded by a Me Generation's sense of automatic entitlement, even as many members complain about such government safety nets as Social Security and Medicare for those who have gone before them and earned what they are now getting.

"Finally," Kennedy concluded in his inaugural speech, "whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you."

Amid all the scandals about politicians' corruption today, are they acting with any more greed and self-regard than many of us who put them into power?

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Obama's Moby Dick

Relentlessly pursuing health care reform, the President is looking more and more like a modern Ahab, wounded by but determined to nail what he sees as the killer whale of the American economy at all costs.

Yet, as he keeps harpooning health insurers, even Obama admirers are warning that he risks capsizing the ship of state by, as Bob Herbert puts it, not concentrating on job creation that would ease "the frightening economic insecurity that has put a chokehold on millions of American families" rather than "an obsessive quest to pass a health care bill."

Another New York Times liberal, Frank Rich, warns: "The rise in credit-card rates, as well as the drop in consumer confidence, home sales and bank lending, all foretell more suffering ahead for those who don’t work on Wall Street. But on these issues the president, too timid to confront the financial industry backers of his own campaign (or their tribunes in his own administration) and too fearful of sounding like a vulgar partisan populist, has taken to repeating his health care performance."

The most unlikely political figure to emulate the wild-eyed captain of the Pequod, Obama is out on the hustings calling for "a final, up or down vote on health care," while Congressional action on otherwise healing the economy is hopelessly stalled.

FDIC Chair Sheila Bair is urging borrowers to pressure banks that are not lending to small businesses and consumers by calling them out in public, but from the White House, there is only health care, health care, health care as the Congressional Budget Office raises the projected ten-year budget shortfall to $9.7 billion.

For this President, there is now no turning back on his righteous quest, but there is a growing feeling that he is chasing the wrong whale.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tea Party, Hollywood Style

James Cameron was not king of the world this time as his former wife took custody of all the Oscars for an explosive low-budget howl of pain in this time of American rage.

Symbolically, millions of metropolitan New Yorkers were blinded to it all by a clash between two Goliaths of greed, ABC and Cablevision, acting out for the night in their living rooms what Wall Street has been doing to them everywhere for years.

What they missed was the usual Hollywood display of self-congratulatory pseudo-sensitivity with a few new wrinkles in the age of Obama. Oprah was on hand to celebrate African-American suffering in shape of the obese "Precious," but there was a nod to equal-opportunity insipidity in a cameo by Tyler Perry as a presenter and a loony interracial squabble over the award to a documentary about an African singer.

Pop sociology was also served by the performance of Barbra Streisand, who has been kvetching for decades over not being the first woman to get an Oscar for "Yentl," as the presenter to Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the barrier with her smashmouth movie about Iraq. "The time has finally come," Streisand emoted.

Instead of the usual Bob Hope-ish gagfest, MCs Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did a minimalist turn, starting with a low-heat roast of Meryl Streep, George Clooney and all the icons in the front rows, who seemed to be struggling to keep smiling.

Toward the end, in this era of reality, even the losers' obligatory pasted-on smiles were slipping off after they had endured long valentines from other stars before coming up empty-handed.

For someone who has watched "The Fabulous Baker Boys" with pleasure over a dozen times, the highlight was Michelle Pfeiffer's love note to an older, hairier Jeff Bridges, who should have been rewarded back then for his turn as a bitterly depressed romantic but finally got one last night for playing a musical survivor.

The Academy's snub of the innovative and wildly lucrative "Avatar" will no doubt be parsed by pundits in coming days, but for the moment, put it down as a Tea-Partyish protest against the powers-that-be in Tinseltown.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Death in the Family

The blogger who wrote under the name Jon Swift with a wit worthy of his namesake has died at the age of 46, leaving an ache in those of us who not only enjoyed his high style but benefited from his uncommon warmth and generosity.

In a world of so much me-me-me with links, the man whose real name was Al Weisel presided over Blog Amnesty Day to call attention to the work of those who were, as I was three-plus years ago, just getting started and had few readers beyond their friends and relatives.

His quasi-Conservative style, which has been compared to that of Stephen Colbert, often left me laughing out loud, so perhaps the most appropriate tribute is to direct attention to one of my favorite posts of his--about steroids and guns.

His gifts for both satire and friendship will be missed in a time when the supply of both is dwindling.

The Americanization of Me

Age and ego conspire on an 86th birthday to see my life as a metaphor for America over the past century.

In 1921, “The Americanization of Edward Bok” appeared. Bok was, as I am, the child of immigrants who became, as I would, editor of a large magazine and took part, as I did, in public life. His book won a Pulitzer Prize and is still read, an artifact of those Horatio Alger days when a poor kid could pursue material success without introspection or doubt about its desirability above all else.

My experiences, much more modest, reflect how such immigrant striving was part of what Henry Luce called the American century of wealth and power, which devolved into moral and social complexity and, eventually, the divisions and doubts of this new one.

Back then, our parents escaped a nightmare, and we inherited a dream. Hungry ghetto kids before us showed the way. Herman Mankiewicz, who would later write "Citizen Kane," had sent a telegram to Ben Hecht from Hollywood: "Millions are to be grabbed out here, and the only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

And oh how they grabbed! Movies had started to talk soon after I did, and the children of immigrants gave them words. They showed us the way to earn a living with our brains, not with their backs as our parents did.

We all wanted to be writers. Between the 1920s Lost Generation and the Silent Generation of the 1950s, we were on the rim of the Melting Pot and, if we tried hard enough, could hoist ourselves over and splash around in the splendor.

Woody Allen mocked our ambition in “Zelig,” who wills himself into becoming like the people he sees in newsreels. In pseudo-documentary style, Irving Howe, a scholar of the immigrant experience, explains the fictional chameleon: “He wanted to assimilate like crazy.”

So did we all. High-school classmates Paddy Chayevsky, James Baldwin, Neil Simon, Bruce Jay Friedman and Richard Avedon went on to make art out of the world we inhabited and the shinier one we wanted to enter.

We fought in a war and barriers came down--ethnic, racial, gender--and some of us played a small part in that, never doubting that the world would keep getting better. My working life brought encounters with iconic figures--John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote--and their early deaths inevitably evoked sadness about how making good in America was infinitely more complicated than Edward Bok ever dreamed.

Now all that experience has to confront a national mood that has turned sour after a brief flicker of hope last year that is being overwhelmed by bitterness, cynicism about community and a distrust that is rampant.

If age teaches anything, it is that in time everything passes. If last year's hope has faded, this year's despair will, too. For better or worse, we never stop reinventing ourselves

As JFK said, "Life is unfair," but Americans are very good at making the most of it.

Bring out the cake and candles.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"No" Country for Old Men

Jim Bunning and Charles Rangel, with nothing in common but well-styled silver hair, took over the Congressional spotlight this week by refusing to "go gentle into that night."

The 79-year-old Bunning, called one of America's Five Worst Senators by Time Magazine and described by Bill Clinton as "so mean-spirited he repulsed even fellow know-nothings," made his last hurrah by single-handedly holding up for five days a bipartisan temporary extension of funding for unemployment benefits, doctors' Medicare payments and highway workers' salaries, among other uncontroversial purposes.

If Bunning dominated the media with his cantankerous, Tea Party-friendly display in the Senate before finally shutting up and sitting down yesterday, in the House another politician of his age, Charles Rangel, is about to be stripped of power after four decades of flamboyant service extending from the Watergate hearings through publicly questioning the mental status of Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin.

He is about to lose his job as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee after being found guilty by the House Ethics Committee of taking corporate-sponsored trips, just the tip of an iceberg of corruption charges still ahead of him.

Bunning, who parlayed All-Star baseball fame into a political career, is the polar opposite of Rangel, a Korean War veteran who became a Harlem wheeler-dealer of the kind that dominated African-American representation in Washington during the pre-Obama era.

As late as last week, at the Blair House health care summit, Rangel was making an earnest plea for the poor while standing out from other attendees in the attire of an opulent pimp.

Stepping down "temporarily," he is still holding on by his polished fingernails, but the writing is on Nancy Pelosi's wall that Rangel is about to become a lame duck just as surely as Jim Bunning is a dead duck in Washington.

Other, more modernly bland types will take their places but, at heart, will they be morally superior to the near-octogenarians who are saying their final no's in the Capitol this week?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

How Obama Misread America

Unlike JFK, Barack Obama's defining moment has arrived, not in the clarity of going eyeball-to-eyeball with a foreign power over nuclear weapons but head to head with Congress in a muddled confrontation he failed to anticipate sufficiently or control.

No matter how incredibly unfair it may be to compare the Cuban Missile Crisis to today's impasse over health care, presidents don't get to choose what will test them. The nature of their response is what counts.

Both Kennedy and Obama came into office with youthful energy and promises of change. In a calmer time, JFK immediately tripped over the Bay of Pigs disaster, took full responsibility and learned the limits of presidential power and the need to prepare the public for decisive actions.

Obama, on the other hand, beset by multiple crises, has not had the luxury of such on-the-job training. He has been forced into finger-in-the dike actions of economic stimulus, auto industry rescues and bank bailouts in the face of solid opposition from Congressional Republicans, using his trademark eloquence to paper over differences as well as he can.

What can be counted against him is the failure to learn from all this that mounting a massive overhaul of health care, no matter how urgently needed, would require a well-defined proposal and a period of public education to have any success against the inevitable lobbying of health insurers, providers and their legislative lackeys.

In this, Obama failed to benefit not only from the experience of John F. Kennedy but Bill Clinton, whose 1990s failure predicted what would happen. Instead of offering firm leadership, this President unwisely deferred to Congress, courted an intransigent GOP and allowed reform to balloon into an unholy mess of compromises, side deals and sellouts.

Now, he is in crisis, at least partly of his own making, as he prepares yet another speech tomorrow on "the way forward" to reconciling and passing what never should have arrived at his desk in the grotesque form that it inevitably will, no matter how many fixes are negotiated between now and then.

It is too late now to start from scratch, so the President will have to take the advice of Warren Buffett, who has a bigger financial stake in America than anyone else, and "get rid of the nonsense" in the Senate and House versions and retain what will stop feeding "the tapeworm that's eating at American competitiveness."

As a transformative figure, Barack Obama is at a crossroads where he will have to show us what he has learned about leadership.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Coffee, Tea or Hemlock

Beverage metaphors abound as liberal Coffee Party activists rise up to counter the Tea Party Movement while Nancy Pelosi suggests that some House Democrats may have to drink hemlock to pass health care reform.

"We're not here just to self-perpetuate our service in Congress," she said yesterday, pointing out Congressional opposition to Social Security and Medicare decades ago. "We're here to do the job for the American people."

Pelosi's followers face possible political suicide in November if they turn up the heat, as she urges, to produce "in a matter of days" final legislation to serve up, but the Speaker is undeterred.

"When we have a bill," she says, "you can bake the pie, you can sell the pie. But you have to have a pie to sell."

Whether voters are ready to swallow anything from Congressional ovens these days is iffy, even as public reaction to Tea Party conservatism arises in the form of Facebook exchanges and face-to-face organizing of Coffee Party chapters to channel discontent into another direction.

"You're dealing with a nation that's jaded, paranoid, distrustful, broke, angry," says an organizer, "it's like they just woke up from an eight-year meth binge. We've become so polarized. Once we say our political affiliations, everyone goes to their corner and then comes out swinging."

Coffee Partyers propose to offset with energetic civility what Frank Rich decries as "The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged" that leads a Republican Congressman, fruitcake Steve King of Iowa, to celebrate the murder-suicide of a "tax protester" flying a plane into a Texas office building of the Internal Revenue Service, "an agency that is unnecessary," exulting that "when we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America.”

Whatever their beverage of choice, Americans going through this over-caffeinated time may want to look back at the Depression when Irving Berlin, who later wrote "God Bless America," offered up a cheerful anthem with a potable theme:

"Just around the corner/There's a rainbow in the sky/So let's have another cup o' coffee/And let's have another piece o' pie."

With the way things are going, some of us may prefer stronger libations, but let's get back to drinking stuff together rather than throwing it overboard.