Monday, January 31, 2011

Assange's Steal-and-Spill Journalism

In the spotlight this weekend--60 Minutes and the New York Times Magazine--and from now on no doubt a subject of study in journalism schools, the question about him remains: Is Julian Assange a publisher, as he insists, or a fence providing stolen goods to the media?

One of the beneficiaries, executive editor Bill Keller, takes great pains to explain how the Times struggled with the temptation to partner with him, finally gave in and is now trying to keep him at long arm's length.

Labeling him "an anti-secrecy vigilante" rather than journalist, Keller huffs at Assange's claim that he acted as "a puppet master" for his paper's coverage and falls back on the traditional public's-right-to-know defense for benefiting from his electronic crimes.

On 60 Minutes, Assange emerges to portray himself as an Information Age Robin Hood, claiming that Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are inciting patriots to assassinate him, but comes through as more of an inveterate mischief maker whose agenda is self-aggrandizement by just dumping confidential documents without any effort to evaluate them or mitigate the damage that could result from his actions.

We are back close to the old First Amendment dilemma of shouting fire in a crowded theater. What are the limits, if any, of free speech?

In this topsy-turvy new era, Assange is now a martyr in the eyes of some sympathetic hackers who attack sites deemed hostile to Wikileaks but, for those who have struggled for a lifetime with the complex problems of responsible freedom of information, he looks like just another jerk playing with matches in a combustible world.

The so-called mainstream media should think twice about continuing to amplify the fires he sets off.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Republican Food Fight, 2012

The GOP ideological kitchen is being overrun by many cooks, including a pizza magnate presidential candidate and a chain that sells God-fearing breaded chicken to say nothing of Sarah Palin's WTF moose chili and Michelle Bachmann's side dish of apple sauce.

All this complicates 2012 for the white-bread front runner Mitt Romney, whose ever-changing menu will have to take on historic proportions to accommodate the varying tastes of primary voters.

But not to worry, says the conservative Weekly Standard, going all the way back to "what Lincoln called, in a different context, 'an open field and a fair chance' for all plausible contestants to demonstrate their 'industry, enterprise, and intelligence.'

"We need many candidates—-experienced and not so experienced, old and young, congressmen and governors, formers and futures—-all making their case, in debates and on the stump, in forums big and small, addressing issues of all sorts and reacting in real time to developments of all kinds."

We already have that. It's called cable TV news, which has turned the electoral process into a chaotic contest for face time with little discrimination for what's being said and even less Lincolnesque intelligence.

What Republican office holders are learning now is a variation on an old saying, "If you have the Tea Party for a friend, you don't need an enemy," as activists target party stalwarts like Dick Lugar in Indiana just as they unseated Utah's Bob Bennett last year.

For Democrats, who already have their White House candidate, next year won't be a food fight but the new Chief of Staff William Daley reverts to a culinary cliché in his first TV outing by asking about GOP budget cuts, "Where's the beef?"

As Romney, Pawlenty, Palin, Gingrich, Huckabee, Thune, Mitch Daniels et al start the 2012 stewpot boiling, there will be some esoteric ingredients in it, but political beef may be at a premium.

Update: Contenders are stockpiling one of the main ingredients in the recipe, money, with Romney having raised $4.7 million for his federal political action committee last year, Palin $3.6, Pawlenty $2.1 and Huckabee just under a million. Newt Gingrich, as always playing under his own rules, has piled up $13.7 million under a different section of the tax code.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Movie Hog Heaven

The year I was born, Charlie Chaplin filmed a classic scene in "The Gold Rush," boiling and eating his shoe while snowbound. This month, as driveways are piled high, I know just how he felt, consuming not footwear but an overdose of many movies made since then.

In the grip of cabin fever, the mind reels at thoughts of lowering the deficit, Winning the Future or understanding Egypt or Tunisia and just wants to settle into two-hour hammocks of alternate reality in which people behave the way you want them to and, most of the time, end up happy.

Thanks to the Christmas present of a device that streams movies from computer to TV, and reliable old Turner Classic Movies, it has been a month of contentment in the past, reliving again a pre-World War II childhood of vicariously experiencing American life through shadows on a screen.

Back then for a ghetto dweller, every week at Loews or RKO there were new places and new people to see, in restaurants and offices, at beaches or in woods, in cars or trains or ships, singing, dancing, joking. Book-lined rooms wrapped them in warm light, and oh how they talked! They moved through the world in a cloud of words, clever and sure, and even when their hearts were breaking, they knew just what to say and how to say it.

Social scientists had filled ten volumes titled "Movie-Made Children" to prove that movies were ruining kids like me, teaching us to lie, cheat, steal and sin. They did shape us but not in that way. Our childhood was spent in the dark, studying American life: how people dressed and talked and ate, what their homes were like, the looks on their faces and the words they said when they were happy, angry or sad. Movies taught us how to be in a world where the ways of our immigrant parents would never do and made us see that life could be more than working, worrying and trying to stay out of trouble. They showed us how to be American and hope for more.

Now, in a new century, movies have come full circle to brighten old age but with a curious twist. As I spend time with old friends like Paul Newman, Paddy Chayevsky and Nora Ephron, my computer is spying on me as surely as the FBI or CIA but trying to play Big Brother for my own benefit.

Based on previous choices, Netflix is trying to narrow down new selections but, as in all attempts to divine the human heart and mind, not quite getting the subtleties.

Based on watching "Notting Hill" and "IQ," it concludes that I like romantic pairing of opposites but fails to see that the latter's attraction is a sly performance by Walter Matthau as a match-making Albert Einstein.

The computer rightly suspects a leaning toward British movies but fails to grasp that "Howards End" is more than that, a revisit to one of the 20th century's great novels.

But not to worry, such spying is benign. Until the snows melt, it's comforting to be living in the past and see the past parading before my eyes. Happy watching to all!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Washington Goes Literary

Authorship is the issue as the President is accused of State of the Union plagiarism, a McCain aide is unmasked for writing an anonymous novel about 2012, and Republican economists boycott a news conference on publication of their own 576-page volume about the financial meltdown.

“Some on Wall Street and Washington with a stake in the status quo," the chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, declares, "may be tempted to wipe from memory this crisis or to suggest again that no one could have seen or prevented it.”

Four GOP members of the panel are doing just that, planning their own press conference to argue that the collapse was "multi-causal."

In a political climate where ideas and actions are at a premium, words are taking center stage. In a SOTU address notable for a lack of memorable phrases, Republicans are nonetheless trying to make the loopy case that some Obama phrases sounded "vaguely familiar."

In this climate, the President will have to take precautions against lifting language. For example, in a post-speech e-mail to supporters, he claims, "We do big things." Shouldn't he have credited Theodore Roosevelt's "Walk softly and carry a big stick"?

Outside of politics, where people still sell words on paper, a McCain speechwriter named Mark Salter is revealed as author of the anonymous "O," a poorly reviewed novel about the 2012 presidential election, with aspirations to duplicate the success of Joe Klein's "Primary Colors."

On the "Today" show, the publisher dropped hints that it may have been written by Stephen Colbert. Under the circumstances, the Comedy Central star should be suing for defamation of character.

Words are getting more fungible all the time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Three Degrees of Demagoguery

In a word, the State of the Union is stupefied.

The President, under pressure to rally a nation while placating a patchwork Congress, did his oratorical best but looked like a man leaning backward while urging Americans to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world" in the future.

Unlike Tuscon, this speech came, as it had to, less from Barack Obama's heart than a region of his political brain calculated to co-opt GOP opposition while laying out a blueprint for future growth. But that meant glossing over really hard choices to be made now in the face of public dissatisfaction and distrust. (His low point was trying to make Boehner blubber by mentioning his saloon-sweeping days.)

In that sense, the President practiced what a conservative New York Times columnist calls "The Politics of Evasion" by not mentioning non-Republican elephants in the room--entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare that threaten the government's solvency.

If he can be accused of demagoguery by omission, the opposing responses were full frontal in their distortion of American reality in 2011.

In the official rebuttal, Rep. Paul Ryan presented a plausible argument against government spending, omitting only the reasons for it and his own Draconian proposals for slashing it, the mask slipping just once in warning about transforming "our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."

If Ryan was slippery, Michelle Bachmann was Tea Party loony, with a misplaced teleprompter aptly making her look like she was talking to some fringe on her right, while dopey charts showed deficits rising steeply under Obama after Bush.

None of the night's three speakers addressed the reality of the past two years--that Barack Obama was sworn into management of a burning building and had little choice but to aim fire hoses of spending at unfreezing credit markets, saving Detroit and trying to stimulate the economy.

Whether he always did it wisely or well is not the main point, but accusing him of using too much water to put out the fires is a textbook definition of demagoguery.

Now that this stupefying "debate" is over, the President can go on to arm-wrestle Congress on where to spend and where to cut.

"At times Tuesday night," says a Times editorial, "Mr. Obama was genuinely inspiring with a vision for the country to move forward with confidence and sense of responsibility. Americans need to hear a lot more like that from him."

In detail.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pogo Was a Piker

"We have met the enemy," the comic strip character said four decades ago, "and he is us," but a new generation of politicians is making that look like an understatement.

As the President rules out immediate Social Security cuts, Rep. Paul Ryan, head of the Ayn Rand caucus, prepares to answer the State of the Union with his plan to scale back benefits for what his guru called "moochers" in American society.

A generational target isn't enough for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor: "There will be no bailout of the states,” he says. “States can deal with this and have the ability to do so on their own.”

To complete the GOP's enemies list, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions is threatening to shut down the entire Federal government "if the President just stonewalls--refuses to pass anything that will be responsible."

In this extreme Right cartoon of government, who is left except the richest Americans, their lobbyists and the Tea Party toadies who elected politicians to demolish responsible government?

As a public policy advocate puts it, "There's something surreal about our having just extended a tax cut that provides an average tax cut of $125,000 a year to each person who makes over a million a year. Somehow, we could afford massive tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country, but we have to slash K-12 education, air traffic control, clean air and water, cancer research?"

The answer is a mindless "yes" for a GOP that has just spent a pointless week "repealing" health care reform and is now campaigning for 2012 instead of governing now.

In his final days, Pogo's creator Walt Kelly envisioned "the Jack Acid Society" to parody the ultra-conservative John Birch Society of the time. Today's Tea Party-driven legislators are making all that look pale.

Update: At least one Democrat is showing good taste. Nancy Pelosi turns down Cantor for a date to sit with him at the SOTU. But not to worry about romantic implications: Her choice is Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, 85, father of 10 and grandfather of 12. Octogenarians make much better company.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Obama's Surge: A Media Fable

The story line is set: What George W. Bush tried to do by doubling down in Iraq, Barack Obama is accomplishing with a wave of empathic vigor--health care for 9/11 responders, repealing DADT, consoling and uplifting the nation after the Tucson atrocity and now the State of the Union.

"What Obama seeks," says New York Magazine, "is to reconnect with the essence of why he was elected, to reanimate the unifying, postpartisan, pragmatic yet visionary persona that inspired so many in the first place. 'What he wants,' says one of his friends, 'is to be Barack Obama again.'”

Significantly, this gush is titled "The West Wing, Season II" and concludes with a dramatic flourish:

"Obama lost his storyteller’s touch, and also his connection to what made so many vest so much hope in him to begin with: his apparent capacity to lift the country up and calm it down at the same time. Has he figured out how to reclaim that brand of mojo? Not yet, not fully. But at least he understands he must, which is a start."

The media, often wrong but never in doubt, are manufacturing yet another chapter in the ongoing fable of American politics created out of a messy reality. The needs of the news machine require not just a partial reversal in the President's fortunes but the fadeout of a two-hour movie.

A New York Times analysis is closer to the mark: "Mr. Obama’s recovery is not dramatic in magnitude, and may not last. What is notable is its rapidity" as an editorial soberly notes:

"(T)he president will have to balance inspiration...with feisty confidence in his fundamental principles. The midterm election showed how strongly voters hungered for lost leadership on the economy. Mr. Obama has it within him to stand up to the forces of governmental destruction and begin restoring confidence in his leadership."

There is no reset button in national politics, and expecting the President to change the Washington climate with yet another speech is a disservice to him and all of us. The best he can be expected to do is take away some of the GOP euphoric momentum toward butchering the budget without regard to human priorities.

As he speaks, Barack Obama may be facing some intermingled Republicans and Democrats, but it won't escape his attention that Mitch McConnell will be firmly rooted in his usual seat. It will take more than words, however eloquent, to move him an inch.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Departures of Two Public Men

Robert Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by marriage and in spirit, died this week at the age of 95 just as Joseph Lieberman, 68 announces he is leaving the Senate next year, offering a contrast in public figures.

Shriver, brother-in-law of JFK and Robert, the first director of the Peace Corps who later led LBJ's "war on poverty," was a modest man. Lieberman, who claims to have been inspired to run for public office by President Kennedy, is not.

As Gail Collins puts it, "Normally people look particularly appealing when they’re promising to go away. This time, not so much.

“'I can’t help but also think about my four grandparents and the journey they traveled more than a century ago,' he said in his speech. 'Even they could not have dreamed that their grandson would end up a United States senator and, incidentally, a barrier-breaking candidate for vice president.'”

On the same New York Times editorial page, Bono writes an appreciation of Shriver, who also led the Special Olympics for the mentally disabled, "Bobby Shriver--Sarge’s oldest son--and I co-founded three fighting units in the war against global poverty...We may not yet know what it will take to finish the fight and silence suffering in our time, but we are flat out trying to live up to Sarge’s drill."

My friend Michael Harrington, whose book "The Other America" inspired the war on poverty, once described Shriver's spirit. After a deep breath outdoors and saying, "Great day to be on the slopes, eh Mike?" they went indoors to work in an office until dark.

Lest anyone defend Lieberman from this comparison on the grounds that he did not come from great wealth, Collins says of Lieberman who helped torpedo the public option in health care as "The Senator from Aetna":

"(P)eople with principles have to take an independent stand. But Lieberman’s career has taught us how important it is to do that with a sense of humility. If you’re continually admiring yourself as you walk away from your group, eventually people are going to feel an irresistible desire to trip you."

Joan Didion summed him up when he was running for vice-president as a Democrat before backing McCain and addressing the Republican convention eight years later:

"Senator Lieberman, who had come to the nation's attention as the hedge player who had previously seized center stage by managing both to denounce the president [Bill Clinton] for 'disgraceful' and 'immoral' behavior and to vote against his conviction (similarly, he had in 1991 both voiced support for and voted against the confirmation of Clarence Thomas) was not, except to the press, an immediately engaging personality...

"His speech patterns, grounded in the burdens he bore for the rest of us and the personal rewards he had received from God for bearing it, tended to self-congratulation."

They still do.

Update: Lieberman is defended by David Brooks as "A Most Valuable Democrat" in an overly generous tribute to his moderation and independence but, with the way things are going, by 2012 his opportunism may be cause for nostalgia.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Obama's JFK Do-Over

Between the Tuscon speech and the State of the Union next week, there is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address tomorrow, an apt moment to compare two Presidents in their 40's who broke ethnic barriers to get to the White House and found rough going.

Kennedy had his Bay of Pigs in the first months, which in retrospect looks like a walk in the park compared to Obama's term so far, but the President is now poised to recapture the momentum from his own inaugural and JFK's.

As Kennedy's papers go online, what he said on January 20, 1961 echoes down the years with new meaning. What he addressed to foreign nations could well be an Obama overture to an American Congress:

"So let us begin anew—-remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."

How did we get from a united front against foreign adversaries to confronting one another in a fractured nation? That may be beyond the purview of any speech, but Barack Obama can make a start next week to a Congress in which some members of both parties may symbolically sit together.

He would do well to recapture the spirit that John F. Kennedy invoked half a century ago:

"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—-I welcome it.

"I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—-and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."

It's your turn now, President Obama.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Palin's Mrs. Oswald Moment

The dots connect between Sarah Palin's self-absorbed interview on the Tuscon shootings and the response of Lee Harvey Oswald's mother after the death of her son who killed JFK and was gunned down two days later.

In Washington to testify before the Warren Commission investigating the assassination, Mrs. Oswald told reporters she was miffed about not being invited to the White House by Lady Bird Johnson.

"After all," Mrs. Oswald reasoned, "her husband became President and my son died in the same incident."

Now Palin tells Fox News, “Peaceful dissent and discussion about ideas, that is what makes America exceptional. We won’t allow that to be stifled by a tragic event in Arizona.”

All this is a kind of eerie reversion to the gruesome old joke, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?"

Mrs. Oswald's "incident" and Palin's "tragic event" come from the same egomaniacal cloth in situations where shamed silence might have been more appropriate. Or as Conservative commentator Joe Scarborough puts it:

"We get it, Sarah Palin. You’re not morally culpable for the tragic shooting in Tucson, Ariz....even if we were stunned that you would whine about yourself on Facebook as a shattered family prepared to bury their 9-year-old girl."

But Palin is having none of that. "I am not going to sit down," she says. "I am not going to shut up."

In the name of sweet reason, let's hope she keeps that promise. Mother Oswald would have been proud, and the rest of us will be pleased to see Palin upholding her tradition.

Update: "Palin Shoots Herself in the Foot," say pollsters: "So with a strong majority of Americans thinking that Palin had no responsibility for the shootings and almost half of them thinking the media mistreats her, she was in a more sympathetic position with voters across the country last week than she had found herself in a long time. And then she made the video..."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Preview of the New Civility

Out of respect for Tuscon victims, House Republicans have downgraded their designation of health care reform from "job-killing" to "job-crushing" and "job-destroying."

But with this new verbal sensitivity, John Boehner is insisting, "No act of violence is going to keep us from doing our jobs and representing the will of our constituents. The American people have made it clear they want us to focus on cutting spending and removing barriers to job creation."

This would be impressive if it were not for the tiny drawback that the Republican drive for repeal is all sound and fury, signifying nothing but political posturing and that the decision to go charging ahead, with less lethal verbiage, is in contradiction to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' admonition before she was shot to ""stand back when things get too fired up and say, 'Whoa, let's take a step back here.'"

As a new poll shows Americans across the political spectrum approving of the President's conciliatory response to the Arizona mayhem, the Washington GOP hacks convene for the weekend and come up with the decision, to coin a phrase, to put lipstick on their pit bull drive to undercut the Obama White House.

Health care reform is a serious issue with many aspects worthy of discussion to find common ground on improving the abortion of a bill that Congress passed in a disgusting display of partisanship and parochial self-interest.

But John Boehner, who breaks into tears at his own fulfillment of the American dream, seems to have little understanding of what it means to millions of others in distress. This week, he will be leading his House pack in a degrading show of insulting the electorate's intelligence, no matter how much he tones down the bloody verbiage.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Love as a Concealed Weapon

Martin Luther King always made it clear his mission was more than just passive resistance to evil.

At the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, he told followers, “If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”

In the years that followed, with the emerging importance of television, Dr. King went beyond words and used the full power of body rhetoric, planning marches for the nightly news to elicit images of brutality against his people--guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses--to win support for his cause.

"In the process of gaining our rightful place," Dr. King said at the Lincoln Memorial, "we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds….we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

As we celebrate his birthday after a week of trauma and search for redemption, his beliefs echo in the words of an African-American president whose election would have been unthinkable without Martin Luther King's life and his own brutal death.

Receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, Barrack Obama said, "As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naïve--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

This week in Tuscon, the President said, ""We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another...Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."

In his lifetime, that's what Martin Luther King did, believing "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." As we head into another year of public turbulence, it will take all our own strength to keep believing that.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Goodbye, Bill Maher

Watching him has always been a guilty pleasure, like taking your id out to the park for a backed-up dump of anger and hostility, but Bill Maher's season premiere at the end of a traumatic week persuades one watcher to take a small step for Mankind's civility by clicking off the remote forever.

All that hyperbole now induces more guilt than pleasure in a time when point-scoring seems more beside the point than ever.

One of the admirable public figures of our time, Elizabeth Warren, is on to talk about financial regulatory reform, but Maher keeps goading her to raise the rhetoric, which she calmly resists, but is the indignity worth it? In her position, there are other venues where people listen rather than laugh, whoop and applaud.

But it's the panels that take up most of the time and show Maher at his meanest, last night featuring the ragin' Cajun act of James Carville and a screeching young woman belaboring a Republican strategist as the host eggs them on.

What's really striking is the sudden drop in temperature during the "overtime" session when they stop playing to the TV cameras and answer questions from viewers. It's as if they had all taken tranquilizers in the minutes between.

In a time when Jon Stewart is offering civilized political satire. combined with mind and heart, it will be only a small sacrifice to forego Maher's "New Rules," wherein his gag writers often score hilarious points. But it will not come as news to most of us that Tea Party members are not like the Founding Fathers.

Putting up with an hour of aggressive oversimplification is just not worth it. Maher is smarter than Glenn Beck and I agree with him more often, but this is not the best time in American political life for those whose main purpose is to be clowns.

We have enough of them in Congress when it comes to that.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Afterimages of a Healing Moment

Michelle Obama sat silently, a First Lady holding hands with an astronaut, two middle-aged people in the grip of grief and hope, as the President made his speech.

Now she adds words of her own in an open letter to parents, citing "questions my daughters have asked...the same ones that many of your children will have" and urging them to talk about the goodness of the victims, especially nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, of whom the President said, "She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important."

A tough-minded blogger takes exception to the President's image from a book about babies born on 9/11--"If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today"--but can't stop thinking about it until he decides it's "appropriate to a memorial for a child" after all.

The lasting afterglow from the President's speech recalls the mood after John F. Kennedy's assassination, when a psychiatrist wrote that for weeks his patients stopped talking about their personal problems to pour out their feelings about the loss of someone they knew only from images on a TV screen.

In days and weeks to come, in this short-attention world, Tuscon will likely recede under the flood of 24/7 blather, but at least one Pulitzer-Prize political historian, Garry Wills, sees a more lasting effect, comparing Obama to Lincoln after visiting the wounded:

"Their message to him was one of dedication: 'They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.' This rang a bell with me. It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South...Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them."

Such comparisons can be dismissed as grandiosity but, as someone who has lived through a lot, I can testify that history has it own way of choosing moments that matter and lodging them in the American mind.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Part Pastor, Part Professor, All President

Whatever Barack Obama tells us about the State of the Union on January 25th, he showed us its heart in Tuscon last night.

He came there to lead a nation in grieving, parse the meaning of a tragedy and, above all, give hope to a shocked and divided people. In doing so, he reminded those who truly listened of what they saw in him two years ago.

Despite the crowd's distracting need to cheer and applaud, the occasion was a solemn homage to those who died, a tribute to those who helped limit the carnage and a call for unity going forward.

"Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame," the President urged, "let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together...

"So sudden loss causes us to look backward-–but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us."

If the President were looking for a springboard for his message of hope and healing, he couldn't have asked for anything better than Sarah Palin's pathetic attempt to upstage him.

Her use of the term "blood libel" to defend her own bloody rhetoric, whether out of ignorance about its meaning in anti-Semitic lore or coded cunning to provoke her "Christian" base, was divisive compared to Obama's plea for understanding and unity. Based on the record, ignorance is the more likely choice.

But ignorance is not a quality the nation needs in a President, especially in a time of such turmoil.

Barack Obama gave us intelligence tonight, coupled with feeling.

"Gabby opened her eyes," he told the crowd. "Gabby opened her eyes, so I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her. And she knows that we are rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey. We are there for her."

As was the President there for us all.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Life as a Gunman

During my teens and early twenties, I fired weapons at people, who were often shooting back at me.

It was not a pleasant experience but, after V-E Day in Germany, when most of our food was being sold in British and French black markets, I was persuaded to go deer-hunting not so much for sport as out of hunger. In early morning, sighting a brown hide and preparing to fire, I realized I was about to bag a cow.

That ended my hunting career, but I brought home as a souvenir a pistol I had taken from a German officer. Years later, when my teen-age son found it in a closet, I disassembled the gun and walked a mile in Manhattan dropping parts in trash bins to make sure it would never be put together again.

In the half-century since then, the Second Amendment has been of only academic interest, but a flurry of activity post-Tuscon reawakens the sense of wonder at how bearing arms against targets that don't shoot back has become a sacred right in America.

A GOP house member proposes a tiny step toward gun regulation, and House Speaker John Boehner slaps it down as if he were blaspheming against motherhood.

There are such stirrings after every American massacre, but the NRA has no need to worry. In Arizona, instead of a public recoiling from the bloodshed, there is a surge in sales of the semi-automatic Glock pistols used in the shootings. (Having to fire one shot at a time into a crowd is so inconvenient.)

Yet there may be some logic in that. To quote a line uttered by a judge in one of Paul Newman's last movies, "If you arm one moron, you've got to arm them all."

The antithesis is obviously unthinkable.

Update: The New York Times publishes a debate on carrying guns, with a defender making the unique argument that one of those tackling the Tuscon shooter actually had a gun of his own but didn't use it, proving that "law-abiding citizens with concealed handguns can exercise excellent judgment in when is the right time to use their guns."

It must be wonderful to live in a world of "law-abiding citizens" armed to the teeth who can be depended on to use "excellent judgment" about using their weapons in every traffic accident, barroom brawl or other confrontation of modern life. Makes me feel warm, safe and sorry that I disposed of that World War II comforter.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuscon Rorschach Test

Verbal reactions should be almost as spent now as the bullets on the Safeway parking lot, but the fusillade of shooting mouths is heavier than ever.

As families go about burying victims, their deaths are translated from horrendous personal loss to political posturing that denies them the humanity they deserve.

Reading from Left to Right, start with mouthy Sheriff Clarence Dupnik who only hours afterward, instead of relaying facts, insisted on turning his grief into a screed against the "anger, hate and bigotry" that allegedly motivated the shooter.

Add the journalists who encouraged his venting but failed to ask the obvious question: Why wasn't there at least one police officer monitoring a small crowd in this charged atmosphere who might have brought down the shooter before so many lives were lost? (Wasn't the Sheriff aware of phone threats he had been making?)

Moving away from the crime scene, reactions are more a Rorschach Test for pundits than the perpetrator. In Slate, Jacob Weisberg cites "anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona. Extremist shouters didn't program Loughner...But the Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person...would react, would be able to react, and would not be prevented from reacting, in the crazy way he did."

They used to call that guilt by association but, to balance such speculation, there is always Rush Limbaugh et al to blast liberals for blaming his ilk in this way, and the Tea Party is out fund-raising over liberal "deception and dishonesty to try and smear all of us and our beliefs."

A voice of Sanity in all this is Jon Stewart, once again passing on comedy to pour out feelings of sadness and frustration over the senseless violence without blaming anyone for it as political pundits on all sides are doing.

He is reduced to the suggestion that politicians tone down their rhetoric so that we can recognize "the crazies" when we hear them.

Amen to that, but so far there is no sign such a miracle will happen.

Isn't it time for all of us, including me, to shut up and grieve for our country in silence?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Against Insane Fame

Now comes insult added to social injury as the "news" starts to tell us every detail of the Tucson killer's sick life and what led him to massacre innocent people and devastate a nation as well as so many families.

In my lifetime of journalism spanning Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated JFK, to Mark David Chapman, who gunned down John Lennon, one of the sorriest dilemmas was how and how much to report on those monstrous figures who try to redeem their twisted obscurity with the blood of well-known others.

"How much will I get for my memoirs?" the gunman who shot white supremacist George Wallace in 1972 asked police, after having stalked Richard Nixon and failed to kill him in his search for insane fame. (That was before passage of the "Son of Sam Law," to keep killers from profiting from their crimes.)

Their stories are always the same, in recent years from the Virginia Tech mass murderer on--resentful loners who explode into violence after years of bizarre behavior helplessly reported by those who came into contact with them. We, and journalists who represent us, search for moments when they could have been stopped, but never find satisfying answers.

The result is a kind of blood pornography, focusing on the perpetrators of violence. We want to know what drove them but never really find out.

As a First Amendment near-absolutist, I have no solution for this journalist trap, only a confession of my continuing regret about the one occasion I broke my own rule about not rewarding such behavior. I paid Oswald's mother to be interviewed by Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Jean Stafford. The result was a magazine article and later book, "A Mother in History," that dramatized the madness in which he grew up, but I still regret doing it.

As we mourn the victims and celebrate the lives they lived and, in the case of the girl born on 9/11/01 might have, we want to know what happens legally to the perpetrator but as much as we can, let's leave him in the darkness from which he came to destroy those lives.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Star Wars Survivor

Carrie Fisher defies genetics. How did this witty, wonderfully talented, albeit seriously troubled, woman emerge from the union of a lecherous moron and, to put it kindly, a bubbly but intellectually challenged Barbie doll?

Fisher tries to explain in the scathingly revealing and very funny one-woman show, "Wishful Drinking" on HBO. If you don't subscribe, manipulate a friend to invite you over when it's on, as it often is this month.

Her life arc goes from infancy during the past century's biggest Hollywood scandal--Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor (think Pitt, Anniston, Jolie, she advises today's audiences)--to iconic status herself (a Pez dispenser, among other knockoffs) as Princess Leia in "Star Wars" and, recently, as the poster girl (seriously) for bipolar disorder in medical journals. "It’s the same as manic depression," she explains. "Bipolar sounds like a gay bear."

Fisher, whose father recently died, still lives near her mother who, in a joint interview to promote the special, insists on blaming Eddie for the "disease, which you were unfortunately given by genetic factors, which is your father’s gift to his daughter."

A preview of Carrie's bollixed biography can be found in the 1990 movie, "Postcards from the Edge," based on her novel, in which she is played by Meryl Streep, whose mission in life seems to be portraying every semi-famous woman of our time. (Sample: Emergency room doctor: "We're going to have to pump your stomach." "Do I have to be there?")

Personal footnote: In Eddie Fisher's bachelor days, he kept pressing a Hollywood friend of mine to introduce him to Audrey Hepburn. "I couldn't explain," the friend said, "that she lived on a different intellectual planet, so I just said she was a Lesbian."

Soon afterward, when Hepburn married Mel Ferrer, Fisher was upset so "I told him she had gone somewhere for a miracle cure. He believed me."

With genes like those, where did Carrie Fisher come from? One clue is a line she quotes from her maternal grandmother, "A fly is just as likely to land on shit as on pie." This 54-year-old Star Wars survivor has had her share of both, but she has learned to deal with it all in a tart and sweetly satisfying way.

Update: For the New Year, Carrie resolves to be thinner and richer as she starts a gig as spokesperson for Jenny Craig.

"I look on the Internet and they say, 'Whatever happened to Carrie Fisher? She used to be so hot and now she looks like Elton John,'" she recalls.

Great, as long as going hungry doesn't spoil her sense of humor.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Tuscon, Pakistan

Words matter. In Arizona, the space between fingers on a computer keyboard and a deadly weapon suddenly collapses, killing six, including a nine-year-old girl and leaving a Congresswoman in surgery with a bullet in her head.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will hopefully recover, but how do Americans deal with the shock of waking up in Pakistan, where political assassination is an acceptable means of expression?

The Arizona gunmen leaves a trail of social media ranting against the government, which in days to come will no doubt be judged as evidence of insanity but, absent the shooting, would otherwise draw little attention as a reflection of the country's political mood.

Is it irrelevant to point out that before her reelection, Rep.Giffords' district was shown in the crosshairs of those Sarah Palin "targeted" for defeat? Perhaps, but as Palin now offers Facebook condolences to the victims and prayers for "peace and justice," is it too much to ask her to tone down the gun rhetoric in offering political opinions?

As the President promises a full investigation of "this unspeakable act" with his State of the Union address approaching and the lip service across the political spectrum starts denouncing the mayhem, the Arizona victims would be well-served by a reminder of how deadly American discourse has become.

The attempted assassination of a respected Congresswoman whose astronaut husband is scheduled for a mission this spring is a vivid reminder that it may be more dangerous to venture into politics these days than into an unknown void.

As we take every precaution to keep our people safe in space, we can surely find ways of cutting down on the kind of lethal talk that marks them for death outside a supermarket on a Saturday morning.

Update: After the shootings, House Republicans postpone all legislation to be considered next week, including repeal of health care reform. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says Congress needs to “take whatever actions may be necessary in light of today’s tragedy.”

Not including gun control, of course.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Marriage Gone Amok

Skip the rice and orange blossoms, the New Year is starting out with deranged nuptial news.

In the week that Elizabeth Edwards' will was made public comes word that her widower will be marching down the aisle with Rielle Hunter, the horse killer's daughter he impregnated during his wife's terminal illness while still in the running for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination. No word on where they are registered for wedding gifts.

Not to be outdone in grotesque marriage planning, 84-year-old Hugh Hefner announces his engagement to a 24-year-old Playboy playmate, prompting Timothy Egan to write on a New York Times blog:

"Hefner’s reputation, a gloss of nonsense put forth by people who feel privileged to hang with the mummified sybarite at his mansion in Los Angeles, took a hit when a British newspaper recently published an account of the Hefner compound by a former bunny.

"The portrait that emerged was of a strange old man who popped Viagra pills like they were Skittles and doled out $1,000 a week in cash from a safe to his various 'girlfriends.' There’s a word for that kind of arrangement."

Such sneering by the Times follows a flap of its own over featuring in its wedding section a couple, each married to others, who fell in love after meeting at the school their kids attended. The story of the happy homewreckers did not go down well with readers of a more traditional bent.

In the olden days, things like that happened, too, but the smitten usually didn't break up families, hire a hall and alert the media. They had what were called "affairs." However...

Whatever else 2011 brings, its new take on family values is starting out with a rash of non-traditional unions that may make gay marriages look like a ho-hum.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Transfer of Power Plays

The news keeps arranging itself to tell us things.

In Washington, the House chamber presents a convivial scene, with members' children and grandchildren looking on, as Nancy Pelosi, in a tangle of handshakes and air kisses, turns over a huge gavel to John Boehner and resists a likely impulse to crown him with it.

In Pakistan, they transfer power differently. A "liberal" provincial governor is unseated by his bodyguard's bullets for mildly criticizing the country's blasphemy law, which demands death for anyone who insults Islam. Five hundred Muslim clerics praise the killer, who is being hailed as a national hero.

Self-congratulation for our civilized behavior might be tempered by realization that Pakistan is a crucial US ally, into which we have been pouring billions in the hope that a stable government there will help keep us safer from Middle East terrorism.

Even worse, after approval of a new START treaty with the Russians last month, worries about a confrontation should focus less realistically on the superpowers than on what an unstable nuclear Pakistan might do, under radical pressure, in its long-running tensions with India. No amount of our money and "diplomacy" can keep us safe from that.

The passions that will roil in the new Congress seem comparatively manageable. As Gail Collins puts it:

"The House on Wednesday was all about change, change, change, beginning, of course, with the new speaker.'Be it providence or destiny, a man of uniquely American values has been called,' intoned Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas in a nominating speech for John Boehner. 'He has lived the American dream and will protect it for our posterity.'

"Nononono, Representative Hensarling! You do not want to talk about John Boehner and the American dream, because he will start to cry and we’ll never get through this.

"Sure enough, Boehner pulled out a handkerchief."

Better that than a gun.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Live-and-Let-Live Deli

Convening of the new Congress brings back a long-age image, a Manhattan store called the Live-and-Let-Live Deli with a sign in the window: "Out of Business."

The proximate cause is literal--the White House's backing off from a provision in health care reform that would allow doctors to include end-of-life discussions with Medicare patients. Whether this is in response to the "death panel" scare raised by Dr. Sarah Palin and other GOP advocates for the elderly, no one will say, but Dr. John Boehner has diagnosed such consultations as a step “down a treacherous path toward government-encouraged euthanasia.”

In a broader sense, that old phrase of tolerance for others, "Live and let live," is as far from the new atmosphere in Washington as it can possibly be. Now that he has the power of House Speaker, Boehner is faced with reconciling the fireballs elected in November who want to tear down everything yesterday with the realities of what a responsible legislative body can and can't do.

“They have no sense of the limits on a party that controls only one of the three seats of power. Managing that relationship is going to be difficult,” says a former GOP House member.

“But, gee whiz," adds Boehner's friend, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, "it is not going to be easy. We have a bunch of those House guys who are really on fire.”

So let the legislative games begin but, as the debates grow hot and heavy, don't plan on sending out for sandwiches from the Live-and-Let-Live Deli. Some from either side, and possibly both, are going to be eating crow.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Congress' Ayn Rand Caucus

As government-hating lawmakers begin work tomorrow, their guiding philosophy will come from a deceased Hollywood scriptwriter whose credo of Selfishness Uber Alles was considered loony half a century ago.

In the House, Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan takes over as chairman of the Budget Committee and Ron Paul will head the Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy as he prepares for another Presidential run next year.

Sen. Mitch McConnell will be joined by Paul's son Rand, another staunch Libertarian he tried to defeat in the Kentucky primary.

When she died almost two decades ago, Ayn Rand was considered a fringe figure whose philosophy was derided by both Left and Right. But in the "Greed is good" era and the ascension of her disciple Alan Greenspan to chairman of the Fed, Rand became an inspiration for those who needed justification for extreme selfishness to look down at the rest of humanity as “looters” and “moochers.” Money, according to the Rand scripture in the turgid 1200-page novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” is the root of all good.

For a time, her influence was limited to Wall Street (of course) and thinkers in Hollywood and the media--Oliver Stone, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck--but now her ghost has migrated to Washington as a prophet for Tea Party members and will hover over the attempted demolition of Obama health care reform and other social measures of the past two years.

Even George W. 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."

In 1949, I was almost thrown out of a theater for fits of laughter while watching the drama of an incorruptible architect who blows up a housing project because someone added gingerbread to his design.

The movie was “The Fountainhead,” based on Rand's novel with a script by the author that set new records for pretentious dialogue and pompous self-assertion.

Sixty years later, disciples of this demented woman are trying to blow up the American government, but nobody is laughing now.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Godfather of the Boomers

The New York Times notes a milestone: This year Baby Boomers start turning 65, and for the next 19 years, about 10,000 a day “will cross that threshold.” This is the story of the man who helped shape them.

In 1945, millions of Americans came back from World War II and began to beget. The next year, a pediatrician named Benjamin Spock wrote the child-rearing bible for those Boomers, a book that would reach more readers than any other in history except the Bible itself.

“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” was more than a manual--it changed the mindset of parents from treating children as creatures to be trained and restrained to seeing them as human beings to be loved and nurtured.

Books before Spock’s favored “less sentimentality and more spanking,” discouraged playing with children and were dubious about affection. “Infants,” one warned, “should be kissed, if at all, upon the cheek or forehead, but the less of this the better.” Another agreed: “Shake hands with them in the morning.”

Dr. Spock rejected all this. “Trust yourself,” his book began. “You know more than you think you do.”

Over 50 million readers began to do just that and turn to Spock for everything their children did and didn’t do from the minute they came home from the hospital to the day they left for college.

The life of the man who changed childhood for Americans spanned the century. Born in 1903, Benjamin McLane Spock went to medical school to become a pediatrician, trained in psychiatry when he decided children’s minds were as important as their bodies, wrote the Book, became a beloved national figure and, in his seventies, risked everything to stop the threat of nuclear war.

When he died in 1998, Dr. Spock left behind not only his achievements as the Boomers' pediatrician but their godfather, a man of conscience who spent the last decades of a long life trying to keep them from “being incinerated in an imbecilic war.”

His life reflects 20th century America, from isolation and innocence through wars, cultural upheavals and political chaos, as a man who embodied the nation’s bedrock values and tried to uphold them in a complex world.

In Dr. Spock’s later years, I saw his struggles up close as editor of his magazine columns, publisher of his most passionate book and, most of all, his friend.

He described his own childhood as Victorian. Oldest of six, he was born at home in New Haven, Connecticut to a strong-minded mother whose faith in fresh air made her children sleep on an open porch in winter and go to school in an unheated tent.

After decades of advising parents, Dr. Spock looked back at his own childhood. “Mother was too controlling, too strict, too moralistic,” he said. “Though I never doubted her love, I was intimidated by her. All my life, I’ve felt guilty until proved innocent.” But, he added, “I identified with her love of children,” and that led him to his life’s work.

After marrying the first girl he ever dated, Spock moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1927 until he completed medical school at the start of the Depression.

A newly minted Dr. Spock sought psychiatric training in pediatrics but found none, detouring into adult psychiatry, undergoing analysis himself and was caught up by growing interest in Freud’s ideas fostered by influx of European intellectuals escaping from Hitler.

His studies led to enthusiasm for learning how children’s minds work and to a Manhattan practice, where sophisticated parents sought him out. One was the anthropologist Margaret Mead, famous for her studies of the South Seas. She not only wanted Spock to be her child’s doctor but insisted on having him in the delivery room while a camera crew filmed the birth.

As a successful pediatrician, the sheltered boy from New Haven began to move in a cosmopolitan world, wearing a fitted overcoat and black Homburg. But something was brewing under that rakish hat. In his office, parents asked about behavior but in Freudian seminars no one cared about such mundane matters. Spock began to translate theory into practice, offering advice in simple, reassuring terms.

When an editor of Pocket Books suggested a book (“For a quarter, it doesn’t have to be very good,” he said), he saw it as a way of passing along his ideas.

In the 1950s, Dr. Spock became a household name. First year sales were three-quarters of a million and never slowed down. His comforting tone resonated with parents who had moved to suburbs, away from their families, and wanted to give children a happier childhood than their own.

He soon attained publicity sainthood, becoming a beloved figure like Ike and Albert Schweitzer, representing values of goodness and decency to a public yearning for stability after a Depression and a devastating war.

A decade later, in the middle of a night when my first child was two, he began barking like a seal with dry, rasping coughs. We did what parents did then. In our copy of Spock, we found “croup” and took the baby into a bathroom to let steaming hot water from the shower ease his cough.

Seven years later, in Vermont, our third child was running a high fever. At an emergency room, doctors asked us to leave him in the hospital.

After a sleepless night, I phoned Ben Spock. He spoke to the head of pediatrics, who told us, “The resident did the right thing. Blood in the stool can indicate serious conditions. But in over thirty years I’ve never seen any of them in a child that age. Take him home.”

Once again, Dr. Spock saved us from worry as he did generations of parents. In the time between, I had persuaded him to write for the magazine I edited, Redbook, and in years to come, would see him use his fame, not to get more fame, money or power but try to stop what he considered an immoral war. His efforts hurt his reputation, reduced his income, disrupted his family life, got him arrested repeatedly and finally convicted in a Federal court and sentenced to two years in prison.

All this happened when Benjamin Spock was almost 70. He spent the next two decades speaking, marching and protesting. Instead of retirement on the sailboat he loved, he was on the road, sleeping in cheap motels and student apartments.

He never cared about self—protection. Once, I pointed out possible objections to something he had written. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry about my sounding naive. That’s how I’ve made my way.”

In the 1960s, when we were on a committee to ban testing of nuclear weapons, someone proposed an ad. Although Spock had never endorsed a product, he agreed. The result was a memorable image, the tall pediatrician looking down at a child, with the headline “Dr. Spock is Worried” and an appeal to save future generations from nuclear war.

In those days, amid campus riots, sexual revolution, drugs and the rise of the counterculture, Dr. Spock was blamed for creating a rebellious generation by encouraging parents to be permissive.

Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who later resigned for taking bundles of cash when he was a Governor, would point to rowdy hecklers of his speeches (often planted in the audience) and then intone, “Look at what Spock has spawned!”

The first article Dr. Spock wrote for me in 1963 foreshadowed the injustice of such accusations, explaining the rigid pediatric advice when he started practicing and how later he had revised his book “to counteract a growing tendency toward over-permissiveness among certain parents, to buck up their self-assurance and authority, to help them give firmer guidance to their children.” He had warned about “spoiled or undisciplined behavior.”

But media labels have to be short and punchy. A few years later the “Beloved Baby Doctor” became “Father of the Spock Generation.” Critics overlooked more salient facts that the hippies were children of unprecedented affluence and the first kids to grow up with television. Although Spock deplored their manners and style, he came to agree with them about Vietnam.

He had always voted Republican because his father had. But after Eisenhower promised to boost federal aid to education and failed to follow through, Spock took it personally and supported Adlai Stevenson in 1956.

Four years later, Spock told a reporter he would vote for Kennedy. When Jacqueline Kennedy heard he was for her husband, she replied, “Well, I’m for Dr. Spock.” They did a commercial together at the Kennedy home.

After the “Dr. Spock is Worried” ad helped persuade the Senate to ratify the test-ban treaty, he joined the board of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and a year later was elected co-chairman.

In 1964, he supported Lyndon Johnson, who vowed not to “send American boys to fight an Asian war.” LBJ called him afterward and said, “I hope I’ll prove worthy of your trust.” Three months later, Johnson began bombing North Vietnam and sending more troops there.

Spock’s outrage got him into trouble, not only with those he opposed, but political allies. SANE felt its respectability threatened when he led a New York march of 150,000 people, not all of them respectable, against the war in April, 1965 along with another disaffected board member, Martin Luther King.

Soon there was talk of a King-Spock ticket for the White House in 1968, but after King was killed, Spock found himself isolated among the youngest, most radical peace seekers.

In 1969, in a brief career as a book publisher, my first volume was by Dr. Spock. Although “Baby and Child Care” had earned millions, his new manuscript sent his publishers into panic: He was writing about morality and politics. I published it.

“I’ve spent my life,” Dr. Spock wrote, “studying and advising how to bring up children to be well-adjusted and happy. Now I see the futility of such efforts if these children are then to be incinerated in an imbecilic war.” The book gave his views on idealism, sex roles, aggression and hostility, and the need for moral education. I suggested the title, “Decent and Indecent: Our Political and Personal Behavior.”

In 1968 Spock was indicted for “conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet resistance to the draft” in a blatantly political act by the Johnson Administration.

The main testimony came from FBI men who, while interviewing him, had received a lecture about the immorality of the war. Spock urged them to take notes and had them scribbling furiously to keep up. Under cross—examination, Spock’s lawyer showed that, even so, the FBI men got much of it wrong. The other “evidence” consisted of films showing anti—war protests.

After lunch, with courtroom lights dimmed, Spock would nod off. “I was surprised,” he said, “that somebody brought up as goody-goody could go to sleep at my own trial for a federal crime.”

He was convicted, sentenced to two years in jail and fined $5000. A year later the Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

In 1972 Spock ran for President of the United States as candidate of the People’s Party, described as “feminist, democratic and socialist.” Spock said he was chosen “partly because I was well-known and partly because I could pay my own traveling expenses.”

In early September, he qualified for Secret Service protection and was surrounded by three shifts of eight agents each. “It was enjoyable to have lots of company when traveling,” he recalled. “They were a cheerful, witty group of men.” On the ballot in ten states, Spock got 79,000 votes.

One of Ben Spock’s endearing traits was his good-natured surprise at the affection he inspired, unaware that it was a response to his own expansive nature. When he was honored in Connecticut, he was astounded I had driven up to be there, along with Robert Ryan, an idealistic man who was usually cast as a psychopath in the movies. He found it hard to believe we would leave our families on a Saturday night to show our respect.

In 1993, at a dinner for the 25th anniversary of his conspiracy trial, the man who had prosecuted him, John Wall, came up to shake his hand. Told that Wall considered him “a real hero,” Spock’s reaction was typical, “I’m amazed.”

Until he died in 1998 at 94, Benjamin Spock never stopped giving of himself. “Every couple of years,” he wrote, “I respond to a call from a peace organization, knowing the older I get, the more attention I’ll draw. Especially if there is a barbed-wire fence to be climbed. I’m going to keep climbing until I keel over.”

So he did, a plain-spoken man who walked tall through a dramatic life of trying to do the right thing and inspiring generations to rear their children to do the same.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year's Palin Hangover

The party's over, and all those sober gurus are picking on my date. Conservative Charles Krauthammer says she's a half-term governor who "has no chance of winning a general election" next year. Next year?

At the New York Times, statistical wonk Nate Silver revisits his "10 Reasons That Sarah Palin Could Win the Republican Nomination" and concludes with a wordy "maybe not."

"Ms. Palin’s numbers," Silver grouches, "are problematic in some polls--like in a recent CNN survey in which about half of Republicans say they’re unlikely to vote for her," adding that "her support tends to be concentrated among Republicans with lower incomes and lower educational attainment--and these types of people are traditionally less likely to turn out in primaries."

Picky, picky, picky. A Washington Post blog chimes in to add that Palin is "giving every indication that if she formally enters the race, she intends to run as a factional candidate by mobilizing her personal loyalists...but it's highly unlikely that a factional candidate can win now in a coalition-style nominating process.

"It's not too late for her, but it's getting closer..."

This political obituary is headlined "Is Sarah Palin Toast?"--a reversal of meaning about the figure who has been the toast of the media for two years.

New Year's Day always brings hangovers, but a breakfast metaphor this early is as hard to take as the realization that the Presidential election is next year. Next year.

Pass the aspirin.