Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fake Heroes and the Real Thing

Now we have bipartisan embroidery of war records as the Republican candidate for the President's former Senate seat in Illinois is caught giving himself a medal he didn't get in Serbia, joining the Connecticut Democrat who retroactively imagined himself in Vietnam combat.

On Memorial Day weekend, such false claims recall my World War II experiences with the subjects of heroism, cowardice and the reality between.

As a 20-year-old foot soldier waiting for assignment in France, I was ordered to stay up every night and type officers’ notes about suspected SIWs, Self-Inflicted Wounds.

Night after night, I tapped out stories in quadruplicate about men who had maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save their lives--shooting an arm or leg, slashing a thigh, dislocating a shoulder or wrenching a knee in some improbable fall.

One morning there, I met an officer who had just arrived to take command of a rifle company, a leathery-faced man with a thick red mustache, a West Pointer named James Woodside. He had been a paratroop colonel until he refused an order that would have needlessly endangered his men, been busted to captain and was now being sent to serve with the ground troops.

I never saw him again but, after V-E Day, when I interviewed soldiers for a regimental history, Capt. Woodside had become a legend. "The man was crazy brave," one of his sergeants said. He led charges against machine-gun positions, ran at snipers and, on one occasion, chased a German tank up a road with a bazooka on his shoulder.

To bracket stories of soldiers who gave way to fear, there were other such tales of bravery and valor, but those were the exceptions. As we listen to flowery words this weekend and shake our heads over politicians who get carried away to exaggerate their wartime experiences, it may be the time to remember a simple truth.

Fighting a war, like everything else important in life, is for most a matter of showing up, doing what has to be done and not running away, and there is a thin line between those who can do it and those who can’t.

The rest is rhetoric.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Socialized Oil Spill

The White House accepted full responsibility for a Gulf cleanup yesterday, but there was no outcry about the government takeover. Congressional Republicans were busy trying to repeal health care with marchers on Capitol Hill shouting "Kill the bill."

"The American people should know," the President said, "that from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort...BP is operating at our direction. Every key decision and action they take must be approved by us in advance."

In the oil spill, Tea Party protests over too much government have given way to GOP complaints about too little. Even Karl Rove, finally allowing that George W. Bush's hurricane response may have been a bit lackadaisical, now opines, "Mr. Obama's failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina's aftermath: 'I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.'"

Rove's Rupert Murdoch comrade-in-arms Peggy Noonan echoes this criticism, seeing a metaphor in the image of gushing oil for the flow of anguish from Americans over presidential indifference to their worries about immigration and health care reform.

After being bashed for trying to do too much, in this latest Republican gotcha, Barack Obama is now being assailed for doing too little, too slowly or in the wrong way. Unlike his predecessor, the President admitted mistakes yesterday while vowing to do everything humanly possible to minimize the mess caused by free-market zeal and too little government oversight.

But in a political climate seething with hate and resentment, such an approach is sure to be seen as not enough. A conservative National Review blogger, citing "unreasonable expectations of government," puts it well:

"The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things happen, and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them—and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want."

Tell that to Tea Party blowhards and their enablers as they purge Republicans for being the least bit bipartisan in bailouts for man-made as well as natural disasters.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Connecticut Sends in the Clowns

Up to now, there was only Joe Lieberman doing his Uriah Heep act for cable news cameras, but now the Nutmeg State has its own tent for November's national circus to rival such freak-show attractions as the Kentucky ophthalmologist with tunnel vision and flashbacks to an imaginary past.

The Democratic front-runner suddenly morphs from a buttoned-down bureaucrat to the character in "Arsenic and Old Lace," waving a wooden sword up the stairs yelling "Charge!" as Republicans counter with a woman whose yacht is named Sexy Bitch and whose political resume makes Sarah Palin look like Robert Byrd.

Linda McMahon, according to Gail Collins, "made a mint off the formerly seedy, small-town entertainment known as professional wrestling by adding heavy doses of sex, more spectacular violence and a raw tone that bordered on pornography. Linda McMahon now likes to brag that she’s 'created a product that is one of America’s greatest exports,' as if there’s no question that bringing half-naked women wrestling in pudding to 145 countries was one of America’s greater accomplishments."

Ms. McMahon's political career consists of a year's appointment to the State Board of Education, followed by a promise to spend $50 million of her own money to win the Senate seat, which was enough to defeat former Rep. Rob Simmons at the Republican convention last week as her campaign went on steroids by promoting Richard Blumenthal's "misstatements" about serving in Vietnam.

The GOP candidate's former enterprise, World Wrestling Entertainment, has tried to clean up its act by forbidding wrestlers to cut their foreheads with razor blades in the ring, a possible sign that her campaign will not feature as much blood and gore in its negative ads as might be expected.

But the contest to find a suitable Senate clown to pair with Joe Lieberman is sure to be no tea party. The Democrat's war record may be as staged as the Republican's wrestling matches, but both are going to get a taste of real combat now.

Monday, May 24, 2010

False Issue of the Randslide

Today's to-do over government recalls what a book publisher observed half a century ago, when exposes like "The Hidden Persuaders" and "The Organization Man" were topping best-seller lists, "Americans are always astonished and upset to discover that society is organized."

Back then, amid post-World War II prosperity, the "upset" over threats to individual freedom was mild and came from the Left. Now it has migrated Rightward and escalated into rage, resulting in a crushing victory by the "uncompromising avatar" of Tea Party disaffection, who questions government's role in everything from racial discrimination to the oil spill.

The Rand Paul issue is framed as "a new culture war" by the President of the American Enterprise Institute, who sees it as a contest between "two competing visions of the country's future.

"In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise--limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution. These visions are not reconcilable. We must choose."

The falseness of that "choice" stares us in the face daily from TV screens in the impotence of government bureaucracies to control the disastrous results of free enterprise in the Gulf of Mexico even as Paul finds the President's criticism of BP "un-American."

It can be seen as well in pending legislation to control "market forces" that almost took the American economy over a cliff, only to be saved by an unavoidable taxpayer bailout nobody wanted. In no-good-deed-goes-unpunished mode, Wall Street's Masters of the Universe have gone instantly from Obama "enchantment to enmity" as formerly endangered Corporate America pours most of its money not into the party in power but into a GOP that resisted all bailouts and economic stimulus on its behalf.

The saddest part of all this is the shift into a government-vs-no government argument from a debate over how to make organized society work better, balancing the desire for individual freedom against the need for controls over rapacity and rampant greed.

At this moment, "paleoconservatives" have captured the media's and excitable voters' attention, but all Americans may have to pay a steep price for what comes afterward.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Paul and Palin Don't Meet the Press

The Tea Party's new hero has decided to emulate the 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate and avoid being grilled by annoying reporters (pace Rachel Maddow) by ducking his Meet the Press interview tomorrow.

Pity, for unlike Sarah Palin, Rand Paul's problem is not that he is clueless about issues but quite the opposite--he clearly has strong views on every subject. His recent mots about the 1964 Civil Rights Act infringing the rights of restaurants and the Obama White House picking on poor BP could be only the tip of an iceberg of Libertarian outcries over government suppression of freedom.

Americans, and particularly Paul's Tea Party followers, would benefit from elucidation of views inherited from his father who named him in homage to Ayn Rand, who inspired not only the Texas Congressman and former Presidential candidate but the architect of the 21st century economic meltdown, Alan Greenspan.

For clues to what the younger Paul might now be sparing voters in Kentucky and elsewhere, it might be instructive to look at Rand's novel and movie, "The Fountainhead," in which the architect hero, Howard Roark, blows up a public housing project because the sponsors made changes to his plans.

"My ideas are my property," he tells a jury at his trial. "My building was disfigured at the whim of others who took all the benefits of my work and gave me nothing in return.

"I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim. It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing. I came here to be heard. In the name of every man of independence still left in the world. I wanted to state my terms. I do not care to work or live on any others. My terms are a man's right to exist for his own sake."

In Ayn Rand's universe, instead of being sent to a loony bin, the hero is set free to impose his vision on the world to universal acclaim.

Kentucky voters may want to take a look at that old movie as Rand Paul goes into hiding from journalists and promises to set them free from today's "orgy of self-sacrificing," letting people and corporations exist entirely for their own sakes.

Even Bush's "Axis of Evil" speechwriter Michael Gerson is a bit nervous, complaining that "Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government. Their objective is not the correction of error but the cultivation of contempt for government itself."

If Paul gets into the Senate and disagrees with what's going on, they may have to start checking him for explosives at the door.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Banana Oil Spill

A full month after befouling coastal waters with an explosion of black sludge that is still gushing from the deep, oil company explainers are out to persuade the public it isn't too bad after all (A BP honcho was soothingly omnipresent last night from the PBS News Hour to Anderson Cooper on CNN).

Insult to injury comes to mind as industry flacks try to minimize environmental harm abetted by Washington bureaucrats with, the New York Times reports, "prominent oceanographers accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope."

All this is corporate self-protection as usual, but the disaster is taking on larger significance in the political debate over offshore drilling in an era when hard choices are reduced to slogans about big government vs. free markets.

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes went below the surface static of corporate executives at Congressional hearings blaming one another to report on the reckless pressures exerted on crews to speed up results of drilling at unprecedented depths, even in the face of clear signs that catastrophic blowouts could be imminent, ignoring an unreported accident four weeks earlier.

As TV screens now show environmentalists shampooing and blow-drying sea birds while Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, once a GOP spokesman for less government, pleads for more Federal intervention, the oil spill soap opera goes on with a debate of whether "dispersants" to break up the sludge may be as toxic as the oil itself.

Against a background of ideological posturing about freedom from dependence on foreign oil vs. environmental protection, all this is a reminder that pushing for new solutions to old problems is risky and that Nature rarely provides Man with a free lunch.

But at the very least, spare us the large helpings of banana oil about what happened and what it may cost in the long run.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Political Theater of the Absurd

There is a Marxist explanation for all this. Groucho, of course, not Karl.

In Indiana, a Republican Congressman resigns after promoting but not practicing abstinence with a woman on his staff.

In Connecticut, a Democratic Senate aspirant is revealed as a Vietnam draft evader after years of "misspeaking" himself into the role of a war veteran.

In Pennsylvania, a Republican-turned-Democrat is turned out by his new party after decades of bipartisan tap-dancing, as one of the state's House seats held by the late King of Pork is retained by a Democratic protege.

In Kentucky, the Senate Minority Leader's choice for a colleague is trounced by a Tea Party lover named at birth for one of the crackpot political philosophers of the past century.

If there were a Glenn Beck blackboard to diagram yesterday's news, the resulting picture would resemble the Marx Brothers' classic stateroom scene, in which characters keep crowding into a small space until they spill out for the cameras in a tangled heap.

In coming days, there will be tons of political analysis about what's happening to Democrats and Republicans this year, but pathology may be more to the point. Reason, if it ever was a major element at the ballot box, has been routed by emotional upheaval that no number of bloggers and talking heads on Cable TV will able to explain away.

If there is an overall theme, however, it could emerge from a Marxian principle after all. "I don't want," Groucho once famously proclaimed, "to join any club that takes people like me as members." The voters this year seem determined to trash anyone who has ever set foot in the clubby halls of Congress.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Thousand Dead and Counting

"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan," President Obama said almost six months ago, "I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow."

Now, a Kabul suicide bomber raises the toll of our dead there to more than 1,000 as threats of terrorism on American soil are clearly tied to Pakistan, not Afghanistan.

Now, even the proprietor of the war, Gen. Stanley McChrystal admits that "nobody is winning at this point" and talks wishfully about creating "Afghan defense capacity" while conceding that "for a significant period of time, assistance to that capacity and governance and development assistance is probably to be expected."

Now, our young people are still serving as targets in a so-called war that is not really a war but a misbegotten attempt at nation-building in a tribal country where corruption is rampant and ancient hatreds defy naïve hopes for democratic rule.

Over a year ago, a persuasive argument was made to increase funding and training for Afghans as US troops withdraw gradually while trying to buy away less extreme elements of the Taliban and preserving the option of air strikes to keep them bought.

"Our strategy in Afghanistan," former president of the Council on Foreign Relations Leslie Gelb contended, "should emphasize what we do best (containing and deterring, and forging coalitions) and downgrade what we do worst (nation-building in open-ended wars). It should cut our growing costs and secure our interests by employing our power more creatively and practically. It must also permit us--and this is critical--to focus more American resources and influence on the far more dire situation in Pakistan."

His proposal makes even more sense now, after what we know about the backing of the Christmas and Times Square bombers, another year of Karzai corruption and duplicity, and an accelerating toll of American casualties.

After announcing the Surge to an audience of West Point cadets, President Obama called it "the most emotional speech that I've made...I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back. There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much."

It's time for the President to revisit that gut feeling and start summoning Americans who, opinion polls show, have their doubts about being there to stop sacrificing our young people senselessly in Afghanistan

Monday, May 17, 2010

Voter Revolt, Obama Overreach

If anti-incumbent fervor peaks in tomorrow's primaries, the President will have to face squarely his own part in creating it with a Pyrrhic victory on health care.

In yet another instant-history book on the Obama White House, Jonathan Alter reveals that Rahm Emanuel "begged" the President last summer to scale back the mess that Congressional Democrats were creating but was rebuffed. "This is about whether we're going to get big things done," the Change President insisted.

The biggest Change, it turns out, is a tectonic shift in voter mood strong enough to reverse the inertia that has always kept American politics relatively stable, albeit at the expense of making the correction of inequity and injustice a slow process.

Now movement is fast enough to shake pillars of both parties in a rage against Washington of which Tea Party success is only a symptom, a rage fueled by nearly a year-long spectacle of Republicans yowling impotently while Democrats butchered and bargained over thousands of incomprehensible pages to buy off their own dissidents.

Last week's unseating of long-time Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah offers a microcosm of the new mood, in which a Republican stalwart was ousted for such crimes as having proposed, in collaboration with Democrat Ron Wyden, a solution praised by many experts in which "health dollars would be controlled by the individual (a long-time conservative goal) and used within a restructured, heavily regulated, totally universal, insurance marketplace (a longtime liberal goal)."

But such rational behavior, along with a vote for the TARP bank bailout (first proposed by the Bush Administration), was enough to bring down Bennett as a traitor to a mood that recalls William Butler Yeats in the aftermath of World War I: "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

As a president who inherited disasters after eight years of government paralysis, Barack Obama has, in most instances, moved with caution and care to get the country back on the right path and is this week on the verge of getting another complicated bill on regulating the financial industry passed by Congress.

But that news will be overshadowed by his determination, against shrewd political judgment, to go for broke on health care reform that most Americans still don't understand and the results of which won't affect their lives until years from now.

According to one of the President's favorite philosophers, Reinhold Niebuhr, "Moral reason must learn how to make coercion its ally without running the risk of a Pyrrhic victory in which the ally exploits and negates the triumph."

Tomorrow's voting results may very well underscore the wisdom of that advice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mideast Groundhog Day

Hamid Karzai is in Washington this week for another round of coddling an "ally" in the War of Terror who is conning us out of lives and money to preserve a shaky, corrupt regime.

Afghanistan's Caped Crusader will try to talk the Obama Administration out of diluting his stranglehold on the country by its emphasis on "empowering those at the provincial and district level," as a US official tactfully puts it.

Karzai, the Washington Post reports, has "bristled at suggestions...that one of the operation's major goals should be to dilute the influence of his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is one of the most powerful figures in the city and is seen by many Afghans as corrupt."

This Groundhog Day scene was unreeled many times in the Bush years as Pervez Musharraf sweet-talked us about what Karzai now calls "a matured relationship" between partners who "have joined hands to bring security to Afghanistan and by extension to the United States and the rest of the world" and went his own crooked way.

Musharraf is gone, Nuri al-Maliki is tap-dancing in Iraq amid renewed violence after failing to win an election, and now their Afghan counterpart is being fobbed off in a photo op with a President who clearly mistrusts him before what Maureen Dowd describes as "a private dinner at the home of Vice President Biden, who once stalked out of a Karzai supper at the palace in Kabul when the Afghan president claimed there was no corruption, and got furious again last month when Karzai said he would join the Taliban if foreign interference continued. (Translation: Stop upbraiding me, Obama, you’re stuck with me.)"

Are we? When the President made his agonizing decision for a surge in Afghanistan late last year, doubters described it as being like "an unemployed couple who just went out and decided to adopt a special-needs baby from a family that deals drugs and rear it in a neighborhood where the kids steal each others' lunch money."

The White House may want to take another look at the American couple who recently sent back an unmanageable Russian kid they adopted. If not, it will keep on being Groundhog Day in Washington for a long time to come.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Obama Chooses Himself for the Court

The torrent of words about the new Supreme Court designee suggests that Barack Obama has come as close to choosing himself as is humanly possible.

His former colleague on the University of Chicago Law School faculty, Elena Kagan is variously characterized as brilliant, ambitious, open-minded, pragmatic and progressive--qualities that carried the President into the White House but now have him besieged by criticism from the political Right and Left.

In announcing the appointment, he cited her "excellence, integrity and passion for the law," traits that may be better-suited and less controversial for service on the Supreme Court than in the White House.

Notably missing from the litany is "empathy," an attribute that Republicans redefined as prejudice during the hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. If anything, Kagan's record of consensus-building as dean of the Harvard Law School may raise qualms among Democrats who would prefer as much passion for people as the law .

With no judicial record to be mined for ideological attacks, the new nominee may have a much smoother ride to Senate approval than her immediate predecessor, a confirmation that could resemble a past era before Borking became a verb, when legal excellence was a prime consideration regardless of philosophy or biography.

It is, in fact, Elena Kagan's private life rather than her public record that has the potential for controversy. In all today's reporting on her appointment, there is one notable omission--a dog that didn't bark in the night--the absence of details about her human connections beyond work.

Last month, the White House issued a huffing denial when a CBS blog entry suggested that Kagan is gay, calling it "inaccurate." One way or another, germane or not, the subject is bound to come up again in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, beyond differences between them of gender, race and ethnicity, Barack Obama seems to have gone for his own doppelganger in picking Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.

Update: It is Andrew Sullivan, not the GOP, who asks "So Is She Gay?": "It is no more of an empirical question than whether she is Jewish. We know she is Jewish, and it is a fact simply and rightly put in the public square. If she were to hide her Jewishness, it would seem rightly odd, bizarre, anachronistic, even arguably self-critical or self-loathing. And yet we have been told by many that she is gay ... and no one will ask directly if this is true and no one in the administration will tell us definitively."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Wild West Hanging Party

Voter vigilantes are out for blood, and they can't wait for November to get it.

That was the message yesterday from Utah as a Tea Party posse took over the state Republican convention and convicted three-term Sen. Bob Bennett of not being conservative enough.

It was like a scene from the 1940 movie, "The Westerner," in which Hanging Judge Roy Bean metes out summary justice to suspects in a saloon. Mitt Romney showed up to plead for the accused, but the rowdy jury convicted Bennett as a horse thief for such specific crimes as voting for the TARP bank bailout and the general malfeasance of being an incumbent.

For months now, John McCain, the former "Maverick," has been saddling up and racing to the Right for the Republican primary in Arizona, but yesterday's Utah result suggests he may have trouble outrunning his angry pursuers, who this year won't listen to arguments about the advantages of seniority in Senate and yesterday dropped the 76-year-old Bennett in favor of two relative newcomers under 50, who will vie for the mantle of being more outsider-than-thou.

Walter Brennan won an Academy Award for playing the irascible Bean, the self-appointed "Law West of the Pecos," but this year the crowds of extras are taking over the spotlight and pushing all the well-known faces out of camera range.

The demographics of next year's Congress are sure to be different. The newcomers are going to be younger, but will they be any smarter?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Mother's Day in the Post-Pill Paradise

The annual rite of maternal flowers and phone calls coincides with the 50th birthday of an oral contraceptive to make motherhood optional for sexually active women.

"Welcome to the post-pill paradise," exulted a suburban wife to her lover in John Updike's 1968 novel, "Couples," celebrating the uncoupling of human lust from procreation.

But some things happened along the way to sexual Nirvana. AIDS, for one. And then a 21st century social conservatism that reached its peak with the Bush Administration's policy of promoting abstinence as the only answer in sex education.

"And we lived happily ever after," says Gail Collins ruefully about the Pill's arrival half a century ago. "Except that over the last 20 years, protests from the social right have made politicians frightened of mentioning birth control and school boards frightened of including it in the curriculum."

So, as on other issues in today's American dialogue of the deaf, politics and real life diverge. Just as abortion became a hot button issue in the crucial last days of Congress' health care debate, the question of whether reimbursement for the Pill will be covered is unanswered, even though 12 million American women of child-bearing age are taking it.

This week the FDA approved still another "improved" version of the Pill, one of 40 now on the market, but the long-anticipated male version continues to be a feminist pipe dream.

Nevertheless, when they make their phone calls or send flowers this weekend, those under 50 may want to thank their mothers for not being on the Pill long enough for them to be born.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Crazy Days, Calm President

The stock market plunges, a monstrous oil spill threatens coastlines, terrorism comes to Times Square, even the Grand Ole Opry is underwater, but the man in the White House is not pushing any panic buttons.

"Obama," David Brooks opines, "is handling his role, which ranges from the marginal to the significant, in these events with calm professionalism. He’s active yet not annoying. He’s not taking credit for everything. He’s not creating friction by making any missteps. He is calm, cool and collected."

In the face of such competence, along with signs that the economy is slowly improving, why is the President's approval rating still falling along with public trust in Congress, corporations, banks and other American institutions?

Republican obstructionism and Tea Party temper tantrums are not enough to explain a dark national mood that shows no signs of lightening. Even some bipartisan cooperation on reining in Wall Street seems to be making no difference.

We may be in Great Depression territory here, when FDR was the object of unremitting hatred by a segment of the population even as he was elected four times while leading the country out of economic chaos and winning a World War.

A friend who grew up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl back then had one plausible explanation. "When you pride yourself on being independent," he recalled, "it's hard to forgive someone whose existence reminds you that there was a time when you would have gone under without outside help."

From that point of view, Barack Obama, who is far from being another FDR to this point, may be another potential victim of that old axiom, "No good deed goes unpunished."

But that probably won't faze him, either.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Wake of Newsweek

As his magazine goes on the block, editor Jon Meacham calls Newsweek one of the few Catchers in the Rye between democracy and ignorance at the edge of a media cliff, a last bastion of reporting in what Jon Stewart describes as a field of "aggregating, commenting, analyzing."

As at a wake, when the deceased's glory days get more attention than those of terminal illness, Meacham's appearance on the Daily Show last night is in itself evidence of eulogy hyperbole.

His interview was scheduled not to talk about Newsweek but his role as co-anchor of a program that will replace Bill Moyers' Journal on PBS, but happened to coincide with the announcement that the Washington Post Company is putting the magazine up for sale.

In the days when Newsweek really counted, its editors, such as Osborn Elliott and Ed Kosner, did not find the time to double as TV hosts, let alone write Pulitzer-Prize winning biographies as the gifted Meacham has.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Kosner points out, "It was really important what was on the cover of Newsweek and what was on the cover of Time because it was what passed for the national press." The civil rights movement, for one example, stirred Americans with TV images but had its meaning defined by weekly and monthly magazines.

Those days are long gone and not likely to be lamented by new generations who get their news instantly and make up their own minds about what it means, abetted by a flood of unbridled online and cable TV opinion.

As an editor back then, I saw the essence of that job as not only finding out and telling readers what they wanted to know but what they didn't know they wanted to know until they saw it in a magazine. That work has largely migrated from the printed page, but as Meacham argues, it is still vital to democracy.

Journalistic Catchers in the Rye may be badly outnumbered now by talking heads and tweeters, but we still need them badly to see, tell us and help sort out what is going on in the dangerous world around us if we are not to go over those cliffs.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Asymmetrical War on Terror

We attack al Qaeda and the Taliban with Predator drones. They send us a hapless Shoe Bomber, a Christmas plane passenger with underwear that doesn't explode and now the Times Square terrorist who parks a used car full of jerry-rigged junk and leaves a trail of bread crumbs that results in his capture 53 hour later.

Yet, lopsided as this War on and of Terror may be technologically, the score has to be reckoned not only by body counts, which we have mercifully been spared, but the anxiety created in a post-9/11 America.

As Attorney General Eric Holder and a panel of homeland protectors congratulate themselves on camera today for the capture of Faisal Shahzad, the unspoken question that can't be asked or answered is:

If it takes all these resources to deal with what one terrorism expert delicately calls a lack of "tradecraft," how safe are we if and when the enemy sends in an A-Team?

The politicizing of this unanswerable question has yet to start, although John McCain, former opponent of torture, now in full campaign mode, has jumped in to warn against Mirandizing the suspect. (Interrogators actually delayed reading him his rights with a "public safety" exception to the law, although Shahzad has apparently been blabbing before and after.)

Americans must know instinctively that no amount of posturing about toughness can alleviate the knowledge that they have to live with an exposure that can't be demagogued away.

"This incident," the President told them today, "is another sobering reminder of the times in which we live. Around the world and here at home, there are those who would attack our citizens and who would slaughter innocent men, women and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda. They will stop at nothing to kill and disrupt our way of life. But once again, an attempted attack has been failed.

"It has failed because ordinary citizens were vigilant and reported suspicious activity to the authorities. It failed because these authorities--local, state and federal--acted quickly and did what they’re trained to do."

True enough as far as it goes, but the American temperament, especially these days, does not take well to existential uncertainty. Yet, in the War of Terror, that's what we are going to have for a long time to come.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Bill Moyers Will Be Missed

With sanity and good sense so media rare these days, when Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck star in "The 100 Most Influential People in the World," the loss of Bill Moyers' voice on PBS every weekend is hard to bear.

His retirement at 75 marks the last of a generation of 20th century journalists, inspired by Edward R. Murrow, dedicated not to getting the story first but getting it right, to concentrating on what used to be scoffed as "soft news" but, in today's 24/7 flood of facts, factoids and fakery, is the news that really counts.

Starting out as an ordained minister, the young Texan was derailed into national politics by LBJ, emerging from Great Society idealism and the bitter reality of Vietnam into a media world, never losing the liberal, populist bent inherited from his father, an East Texas laborer, who thought of FDR as a friend in the White House:

"My father knew FDR was talking for him when he said life was no longer free, liberty no longer real, men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness--against economic tyranny."

In his final Journal this weekend, Moyers was still his father's son, warning that now the "marriage of money and politics has produced an America of gross inequality at the top and low social mobility at the bottom, with little but anxiety and dread in between, as middle class Americans feel the ground falling out from under their feet...

"So it is that like those populists of that earlier era, millions of Americans have awakened to a sobering reality: they live in a plutocracy, where they are disposable. Then, the remedy was a popular insurgency that ignited the spark of democracy.

"Now we have come to another parting of the ways, and once again the fate and character of our country are up for grabs."

Agree or not, losing that media voice is bad for the country at a time when Sarah Palin, in Time Magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential Americans, can rhapsodize about her fellow designee and Fox News colleague, Glenn Beck:

"Though he sometimes dismisses himself as an aw-shucks guy or just a 'rodeo clown,' he's really an inspiring patriot who was once at the bottom but now makes a much needed difference from the very, very top."

Somewhere in Media Heaven, Edward R. Murrow must be frowning, and Time's founding father Henry Luce can't be too thrilled, either.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Saturday Night Live: Smoke and Jokes

Just another date night in 21st century America as Times Square is evacuated by a crude car bomb while the President delivers one-liners to black-tied media in Washington.

“We are very lucky,” New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg tells a 2 a.m. press conference after the disarming of an amateurish device of gasoline, barbecue-grill propane and fireworks. “We avoided what could have been a very deadly event.”

He is right, of course, in the might-have-been sense, had the "bomb" been the work of professional terrorists rather than some disturbed wannabe who will eventually be tracked down to everyone's relief.

There is the same sense of unreality about the President's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, with Barack Obama making ritual jokes about his ratings woes in a time of real slime threatening America's waters and social disturbance polluting the air.

Some of his jokes--about the Birthers, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Joe Biden's open-mic bleep--were fairly funny, but it's hard to avoid a fiddling-while-Rome-burns feeling about what was happening there last night as well as in Manhattan, where "The show must go on" bromide did not prevail as some Broadway houses stayed dark and others, including the aptly named "God of Carnage," started late.

Those who doubt that we are all living in some bizarre TV reality show now might want to keep notes about what happened last night when it all seemed like a dress rehearsal for something more real to come.

Update: New York's police commissioner says there is no evidence of a terrorist plot and that a suspect seen on surveillance cameras is being sought. "The intent," he says, "was to cause mayhem."

That it did.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Alienation in an Alien Nation

Barry Goldwater, who won 27 million American votes for president in 1964, once asked a WASP-only Arizona country club if he could play nine holes there since he was only half-Jewish.

Now the Grand Canyon State is becoming a national symbol for prejudice as lawmakers not only mandate Gestapolike searches for illegal immigrants but crack down on teachers who fail to speak English with an impeccable accent.

In Arizona's search for security, Peggy Noonan finds a response to a federal government in which "so many within it are stupid and unimaginative and don't trust the American people," resulting in "a deep and growing alienation" between those people and their national leaders.

Her diagnosis, however descriptively accurate, conflates the Bush and Obama eras by blaming alienation on "two wars that were supposed to be cakewalks, Katrina, the crash, and the phenomenon of a federal government that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger and bigger laws.

"Add to this states on the verge of bankruptcy, the looming debt crisis of the federal government, the likelihood of ever-rising taxes. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage."

This equates Bush political breakage and Obama efforts to repair it, finding comparable eight years of destroying trust domestically and around the world to little more than a year of frantic attempts to undo the damage, complicated by "a loyal opposition" dedicated to kneejerk obstruction and fueling of racial and ethnic hatreds.

All this suggests a different kind of alienation in a country that is becoming demographically less and less WASP and falling into Tea Party rage to express its unhappiness over loss of that privileged status.

Cracking down on immigrants has a long, sad history in American life but there is particular poignancy in watching bigotry during a week in which the President welcomes to the White House championship athletes named Rivera, Rodriguez, Posada et al, who risk being arrested when they travel to Phoenix to engage in the national pastime with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

If Ms. Noonan likes large words to describe our national condition, she may want to go down to the other end of the alphabet from "alienation" and try "xenophobia."