Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Obama: Embracing the Orphan

Taking full blame for the Bay of Pigs debacle, JFK fell back on an old maxim, "Victory has a thousand fathers. Defeat is an orphan."

If the polls are right, Barack Obama has an unblessed event due in November, with no other claimants to paternity amid all the analysis of what when wrong in his love affair with the American people that looked so promising two years ago.

At this low point, he may want to look back at Kennedy's experience as a guide to dealing with adversity, admitting his part in it and putting the lessons learned to good use, as JFK did during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With only nine weeks of campaigning left, the President will no doubt hammer away at the economic mess he inherited and the intractability of his GOP opposition: "We have spent the last 20 months governing. They spent the last 20 months politicking."

Yesterday, he raked Republicans for "pure partisan politics" in blocking his small-business assistance bill. True enough but, for a fearful and angry electorate craving relief and reassurance rather than explanations for its distress, that won't head off an Election Day disaster.

As the November train wreck comes closer, even sympathetic pundits are in despair. Paul Krugman foresees "a federal government paralyzed by an opposition with no interest in helping the president govern" and urges Obama, without hope that he will, to offer "major new initiatives on the economic front in particular, if only to shake up the political dynamic."

E. J. Dionne is more realistic in advising the President "to engage the nation in an extended dialogue about what holds all of his achievements together" and explain "why his attitude toward government makes more sense than the scattershot conservative attacks on everything Washington might do to improve the nation's lot."

More than that, Barack Obama must rise to the challenge by doing what he does best--creating a context for political dialogue, as he did during the campaign by converting the Jeremiah Wright embarrassment into an occasion for a deeper discussion of race.

The subject this time would be the role of government in Americans' lives, which has been left to Tea Party caricature as oppressive, with no appreciation of its unique power to overcome adversity and encourage social justice.

This would involve the President admitting his own shortcomings by acknowledging, for one example, how the good intentions of health care reform ended up with a "victory" at the expense of widespread public understanding and support as well as explaining how complicated and imperfect have been the workings of economic stimulus and government bailouts

John F. Kennedy grew in stature during his time in office. Taking full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, he learned that "an error doesn't have to become a mistake unless you fail to admit it."

At this crossroads of his presidency, Barack Obama has to rise above the swarm of political pygmies that is dragging his administration down by engaging Americans in a discussion--and demonstration--of what real leadership involves.

He can start with an honest critique of his own.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nightmare Knockoffs of King's Dream

What would he have made of these separate-but-unequal travesties of his historic moment?

Martin Luther King told a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 47 years ago that "many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

Now, an "overwhelmingly white" sea of faces greets Rupert Murdoch's media minions Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin as they momentarily temper their hateful Tea Party rhetoric and try to hijack Dr. King's legacy by leaving their ugly protest signs behind to talk of a "religious revival" and an attempt to "restore America and restore her honor" in a coded attack on the nation's first African-American president and his policies.

Back then, King' s followers were fighting for the right to vote, send their children to unsegregated schools and sit next to white people in restaurants and buses. Today's "restore honor" patriots are complaining about budget deficits and government bailouts.

For their beliefs, civil rights protesters were attacked by police with billy clubs and high-pressure hoses while Dr. King spent nights in jail. For theirs, Beck and Palin have to endure million-dollar salaries from Fox News.

To counter their farce, there is a smaller African-American rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the unchurched radio talk show host who subsists on "love offerings" in a long career of risking nothing but limited TV face time by turning up to pontificate about every racial event in the news.

All this posturing brings to mind the expression "cheap grace," coined by the German minister and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in World War II to denote those who professed religious belief but managed to overlook the atrocities around them without personal risk.

For being outspoken when it really mattered, Bonhoeffer was disdained by his own church and hung by Hitler. Martin Luther King, who gave his life for what he believed, understood that kind of faith. He would not have been impressed with what went on in Washington this weekend.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bogart, Sinatra and What's-His-Name

Approaching 86 next month, Lauren Bacall is making news again, telling all about her life in a second memoir and doing interviews to promote it.

Well, not quite all. In an hour on TCM, there is, of course, the story of her classic coupling with Humphrey Bogart and even a few words about an affair after Bogart's death with Frank Sinatra.

But not a word about Jason Robards, to whom she was married for eight years in the 1960s and with whom she had a child, the actor Sam Robards.

In airbrushing her life this way, Bacall is doing what living legends, and many of us lesser mortals, do--using selective memory to put bad times out of mind and make the best of what's left.

This story of her lost husband is a tribute to Lauren Bacall's toughness. In a fringe way, I can testify to that quality.

In 1966, as editor of McCall's, I had sent an interviewer to see her for a cover story. He overheard Bacall threatening to alter the anatomy of Robards for having an affair with his co-star in a play. Worried that references to him might soon be obsolete, we reduced them to a minimum.

When the piece appeared, Bacall called me in a rage. Why was there so much about Bogart and her affair with Sinatra and so little about her current husband? I could not bring myself to tell her.

Soon afterward, at a party I was talking to David Merrick, the producer of "Applause" in which she was then starring on Broadway. When Bacall came in, he said, "She's driving me crazy asking for vacation time." Merrick, for whom hard-nosed was a term of endearment, ducked away by asking my wife to dance.

Bacall greeted me with a minimum of warmth. "I know you're still sore," I said, "but I'm going to make it up to you. I'll convince Merrick to give you some time off."

"Time off!" she snorted, tilting her head toward the dance floor. "Watch your wife!"

We were friends again. Several years later, she divorced Robards and erased him from her legend.

Bogart fans watch "Casablanca" over and over again but, for real-life romance, nothing beats seeing him fall in love with that long-legged young beauty in "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep."

It's all there on the screen.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reversal of the Alaska-Arizona Axis

In the scramble to make sense out of this week's primaries, a sidebar shows how far and how fast American politics has gone downhill in two years.

To keep the Republican nomination for a Senate seat he has held forever in Arizona, John McCain, who won nearly 60 million votes for president in 2008, had to spend $20 million, move far rightward on issues such as immigration and call in the help of Sarah Palin, the running mate he had plucked out of obscurity back then.

In Alaska, Palin, now the Tea Party kingmaker, did some plucking out of obscurity on her own by backing a totally unknown lawyer against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, hereditary holder of the seat, pulling off what Palin tweets as "a miracle on ice" unless absentee ballots take away Joe Miller's lead.

We are now in the era of disposable national politicians, to be created and used up like Kleenex (see Alvin Greene, the South Carolina Democratic candidate for Senate, an unknown self-financed veteran under indictment for showing pornography to a teenager or Republican Linda McMahon in Connecticut, experienced only in promoting wrestling "matches" with a predetermined result).

Democrats are so terrified of voter rage that they are running for reelection in disguise. See Robin Carnahan in Missouri calling "her opponent 'the very worst of Washington' for supporting the same financial services bailout that President Obama and most of the Democrats in Congress backed" and calling for extension of the Bush tax cuts.

But it is the Alaska-Arizona axis that outdoes all the other political freak shows this summer, underlining the rapid reversal of fortune that has overtaken the 2008 Republican running mates.

Barack Obama reached the White House promising change, but this is far from what he had in mind.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Slouching Out of Iraq

Generations of Americans have to take it on faith that wars can be won. Not since V-J Day in 1945 has there been dancing in our streets and strangers kissing in joy and relief.

With the mission in Baghdad far from accomplished, the last U. S. combat troops leave behind 4415 dead, billions of dollars spent (or stolen) and come home to a nation that is much less safe or united after seven years of sacrifice.

As the New York Times sums up the departing soldiers' mood, the war has been "not a glorious cause or... an adventure" but "a job that remains unfinished."

This echoes a Times report 35 years ago: "The last American troops left South Vietnam today, leaving behind an unfinished war that has deeply scarred this country and the United States.

"There was little emotion or joy as they brought to a close almost a decade of American military intervention."

The difference between then and now is that there is no foreseeable close. The 50,000 in so-called advise and assist brigades that remain behind, a military commander admits, although they "do not have a formal combat mission will, however, be combat capable. Some of those forces that will be embedded with Iraqi forces could indeed be drawn into combat."

What Barack Obama in his campaign called a "dumb war" is winding down not with a bang but a whimper of indefinite occupation in a country that was supposed to possess Weapons of Mass Destruction and to have harbored the 9/11 terrorists, neither of which turned out to be true.

With our human sacrifices continuing in Afghanistan, the American mood resembles that immortalized by William Butler Yeats at the end of World War II:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats ended "The Second Coming" with

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

In this century, a "rough beast" of anarchy is being gestated not only in the Middle East but here at home. Its coming is no cause for celebration.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Legal Victories of Shameless Liars

Truth may set you free, but lies are running a close second these days as Rod Blagojevich, Tom DeLay and a politician who falsely claimed to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor are doing well in the court system.

The legal principle involved in persuading only 11 of 12 jurors that Blago tried to sell Obama's Senate seat, according to Scott Turow, author of "Presumed Innocent," is that it's not enough to be caught with crumbs on your face next to an empty jar, after telling everybody how much you love cookies.

Being "crass and ham-handed" will not send you to the slammer when everybody in public life is selling out for campaign money.

Speaking of crass, this news comes as the Justice Department ends a six-year probe of Tom DeLay, the former GOP House leader who went on to fame on "Dancing With the Stars" until a stress fracture ended his second career.

Two of DeLay's aides were convicted of taking money from lobbyist Jack Abrahamoff, who also served time, but DeLay was nimble enough to evade Federal arraignment. He still has to tap-dance his way out of felony conspiracy charges in Texas for misusing campaign contributions but, in a climate where the U. S. Supreme Court is making even corporations safe in that area, the odds must be with him.

Meanwhile, a Court of Appeals strikes down the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to falsely claim a military decoration, freeing Xavier Alvarez, who was convicted of fibbing to voters about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor while running for a California Water Board.

While denying that they were endorsing "an unbridled right to lie," the Court majority ruled that "society would be better off if Alvarez would stop spreading worthless, ridiculous, and offensive untruths.

"But, given our historical skepticism of permitting the government to police the line between truth and falsity, and between valuable speech and drivel, we presumptively protect all speech, including false statements, in order that clearly protected speech may flower in the shelter of the First Amendment."

Free speech proponents must be celebrating, as are Blagojevich, DeLay and all the other Pinocchios who populate our political life.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Panic Politics, Jittery Journalism

What W. H. Auden poetically called "The Age of Anxiety" at the dawn of the nuclear era is back to haunt us, a climate of constant dread where bad news always crowds out good.

Politicians, abetted by headline-hungry 24/7 media, inflate every occurrence into a crisis and, after each is resolved or fades away, go on to the next occasion for Chicken Little howls that the sky is falling.

After months of panic-mongering about the Gulf oil spill, the leak is now plugged and Adm. Chad Allen, who managed the response with firm leadership and candor (in contrast to Brownie's bumbling after Katrina), is ready to step down, an administrator is sorting out claims against BP and the President is taking his daughter for a dip to show that Florida beaches are safe

But the cleanup, serious as it is, will now go on under the news radar as headlines replace oil worries with a raging debate about whether or not Muslims should build a mosque near Ground Zero.

The subject of Anxiety--its nature, intensity and realistic connection to our lives--is less important than its effect on our nerve endings and the need for politicians and media people to keep their constituents stirred up.

Such attacks on the public's peace mind create an atmosphere in which it's hard to distinguish between what matters and what can be used to keep the anxiety pot boiling.

Little wonder that the President, in the face of still falling approval ratings, is sounding an election theme of "Don't give in to fear, let's reach for hope," telling voters, "The worst thing we could do is to go back to the very same policies that created this mess in the first place."

But will that message be heard?

Auden, who was a keen social critic as well as poet, once wrote, "Cocktail party chatter and journalism in the pejorative sense are two aspects of the same disease, what the Bible calls Idle Words for which at Judgment Day God will hold us accountable.

"Since the chatterer has nothing he really wishes to say, and the journalist nothing he wishes to write, it is of no consequence to either what words they actually use. In consequence, it is not long before they forget the exact meaning of words and their precise grammatical relations and, presently, without knowing it, are talking and writing nonsense."

In this new Age of Anxiety, politicians and media pundits are doing their best to drown us in scary nonsense.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Profile in Courage or Political Death Wish?

Barack Hussein Obama could have avoided this one, declaring the issue of a mosque near Ground Zero a local decision, as his Press Secretary has done for weeks, but the 44th President has taken his cue from the 35th by coming out in favor of building it.

In a "Profiles in Courage" moment, he declares: "Let me be clear: as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country.

"That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable."

The most ardent Obama haters will have trouble finding political calculation in a position opposed by 68 percent of voters in a CNN poll as well as a range of noisy voices from Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin to the Anti-Defamation League.

Acknowledging the pain of the 9/11 families, the President sees a larger issue: “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam--it is a gross distortion of Islam. In fact, Al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion, and that list includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.”

At least one victim's survivor agrees with him. Charles Wolf, who lost his wife that day, argues that "we were attacked...because of all the tenets in the First Amendment, freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. And for us to then roll back the freedom of religion, to me, is just falling right into their hands."

New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is not facing an angry electorate, has declared that denying the mosque would be "untrue to the best part of ourselves" and the firefighters and police killed in the World Trade Center: "We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting."

Such large-heartedness is hard to sustain in the face of raw emotion, particularly for a president with falling approval ratings faced with loss of control in one or both houses of Congress only weeks from now.

His Profiles in Courage moment is remarkable, even though and perhaps particularly because so many will see it as a political Death Wish.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Good-Hearted Movie Bad Guy

This month TCM is showing the movies of Robert Ryan, who was almost always seen hating somebody--Jews in "Crossfire," women in "Clash by Night," Japanese-Americans in "Bad Day at Black Rock."

In that one, he faced off against Spencer Tracy, another Irish-American who a generation earlier had become a star as his polar opposite, playing heroic priests and self-sacrificing best friends.

But life rarely imitates art. One night in the 1960s, I ran into Ryan in Westport, Ct. at a dinner for Dr. Benjamin Spock for his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Dr. Spock was flabbergasted that we had left our families on a Saturday night to honor him, but I was not surprised to see Ryan there. A World War II Marine veteran, the actor had vocally opposed McCarthyism, spoken out for civil rights and worked to ban nuclear weapons.

On the drive back to Manhattan, we spent an hour talking mostly about our admiration for Spock, who was risking his fame and would later be indicted for treason trying to save future generations.

I dropped Ryan off that night at the Dakota on the west side of Manhattan, where he lived with his wife and three children. A few years later, he died of lung cancer and his apartment was bought by John Lennon, bringing to mind Hemingway's remark that "the world kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Seeing Robert Ryan's movies now is always a reminder of how different he was in life. He was a very good actor and an even better man.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rise of Sarah Palin Sexism

Momma grizzlies with moola are on the march, as Linda McMahon of Connecticut joins Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman of California in bicoastal bids for a hostile takeover of American government.

Since Sarah Palin wowed voters with a wisecrack about hockey moms as pit bulls with lipstick and went on to make a mouthy mint in the media from a lost election and an abandoned governorship, a new kind of political woman has emerged in America.

Far from the image of a pants-suited Hillary Clinton with the gravitas to govern on Day One, these candidates are capitalizing on anti-incumbent fervor, asking voters to trust their total lack of experience in the workings of the political process.

McMahon, who made a fortune as a wrestling promoter, is spending $50 million to strong-arm her way into the Senate while Fiorina, who was paid to go away as the chief executive of Hewlett Packard, is trying to unseat Barbara Boxer, one of the most respected legislative leaders in Washington.

Whitman, who got rich enabling people to sell one another junk on the Internet, wants to follow in the footsteps of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose tenure should have made Californians wary of electing a political amateur.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Barack Obama has named two qualified women to the Supreme Court and appointed to his cabinet others such as Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano.

But in that theme park called Palinworld, qualifications don't count.

Palin herself, we learn from another exemplar of 21st-century femininity, Arianna Huffington, is morphing into a Jungian archetype in our collective unconscious, one of those "universal images that have existed since the remotest times...deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity."

All this has come to pass in less than two years, a Biblical span in the Internet era with the sacred scripture taking the form of a "Momma Grizzlies" video.

Lest we dismiss Palin as an entertainer, Huffington cites a Carl Jung warning that there are "explosive and dangerous forces hidden in the archetype come into action, frequently with unpredictable consequences. There is no lunacy people under the domination of an archetype will not fall prey to."

Dismissive critics of the Tea Party, take note.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Continuing Watergate Coverup

Richard Nixon's spirit lives on. Thirty-six years after the only presidential resignation ever, he is still with us as admirers try to hide evidence of his disgrace in the Nixon Library and Museum just as he himself did in the White House.

The Watergate room of the memorial is almost as blank as those missing Oval Office tapes in a to-do described by the New York Times after "the Nixon Foundation--a group of Nixon loyalists who controlled this museum until the National Archives took it over three years ago--described it as unfair and distorted, and requested that the archives not approve the exhibition until its objections are addressed."

In 1990, the Library had opened with ceremonies attended by three Republican presidents--Ford, Reagan and Bush I. What nobody noticed then was that Nixon had rewritten history, edited the crucial tapes and omitted any mention of the dirty tricks, break-ins and other illegal activities that led to his leaving office.

This whitewashed version of Watergate was seen by three million visitors before the Nixon shrine at his birthplace in Yorba Linda, California was transferred to the National Archives in 2007, which then ripped out the exhibits described by a scholar as "another Southern California theme park" with “a level of reality only slightly better than Disneyland."

Now, after the release of a flood of Nixon tapes revealing his raving paranoia, die-hard supporters are still claiming that their man has been maligned and his behavior was only par for the political course.

History disputes that but, in the face of Tea Party madness this year, Nixon could be retroactively rehabilitated in the future as a model of political sanity.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Notes on a Private Public Wedding

The long-running Clinton soap opera had its finest hour this weekend with a picture-book wedding that, for one octogenarian, evoked admiration for its restrained elegance and stirred half a century of memories.

Chelsea and Marc Mezvinsky were married a few miles down the road from a 1728 stone house in Dutchess County where I spent the first two decades of retirement.

But if the 2008 election had turned out differently, security considerations would have almost surely prompted the first daughter in history of two presidents to take her vows in the White House, where I attended Lynda Bird Johnson's nuptials in 1967.

A White House wedding has its own historical splendor, but as I recall, it was like being in a 3-D version of the TV Evening News, with all official Washington and a fair number of show business people milling around. (An image arises of Carol Channing, the original Broadway star of "Hello Dolly" in bright bloomers, carrying her own food in a plastic container.)

Chelsea Clinton, to her credit, opted for a more private affair, where the most notable celebrity sightings were of Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Vernon Jordan and Madeleine Albright.

On Friday, the father of the bride went to lunch at Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, where I dined every Saturday night for years and was surrounded by friends and family on my 80th birthday to eat Italian food created by Gianni Scapin, whose artistry was on display in the best American food movie ever, Stanley Tucci's 1996 "Big Night."

In this atmosphere, the Mezvinskys were married as privately as possible for a Presidential daughter by a minister and a rabbi, just as I was over 50 years ago to the mother of my children, whose genes come from a grandmother who belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and paternal grandparents who escaped the Holocaust by coming here after World War I.

In so many ways, the Chelsea Clinton wedding was a reminder of what Barack Obama unfortunately called "a mongrel people" on "The View" last week but is more rightly seen as an America that was once called "The Melting Pot" for multitudes seeking a better life in the freest country in the world and, despite the current furor over immigration, still is.