Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mission Creep on a Creepy Mission

Is anyone surprised that the C.I.A. is on the ground in Libya, along with who-knows-what Special Forces, presumably to find out who the rebels are and how to help them?

How could it be otherwise? The President's disingenuous speech evoked "images of slaughter and mass graves," then insisted that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake"--but to prevent the first, the second is inevitable.

Little wonder that such mission creep is meeting with Congressional resistance as the Clinton-Gates team secretly briefs members on what is no secret, that we are inching toward intervention to overthrow Qaddafi.

Frustration over such sleight-of-hand is spilling over into the White House briefing room as the Presidential press secretary is accused of using reporters as "straw men" to hide what is going on behind closed doors.

Presidential credibility has been the first victim of this war that is not a war--yet--evoking Hillary Clinton's campaign mantra of being ready to deal with crises on Day One, both she and the President have had hundreds of days to get a challenge like Libya right.

Other clichés come to mind: in for a penny, in for a pound, etc. Unless Qaddafi has a heart attack in the next few days, it's hard to see these Duplicity Sweepstakes continuing.

Barack Obama has two bad choices: either go to Congress and get a resolution for putting troops on the ground or let Libyan rebels be crushed with a "We did our best" shrug.

One way or another, clarity has to supersede mission creep. It won't be pretty.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

GOP's Shameless Olympics of 2011

A candidate will emerge from the 2012 Republican primaries only after running a gauntlet of embarrassment this year.

As polls show low public faith in Obama leadership, his potential successor will have to survive a field of self-promoting clowns unprecedented in presidential history.

Take Newt Gingrich (please), claiming his adultery (in two marriages) more excusable than Bill Clinton's because he was aroused by patriotic fervor and isn't a lawyer while urging voters to elect him to save their grandchildren from living in "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists."

Meanwhile Michele Bachmann wows Iowa Tea Party voters, extolling "the king of conservatism, Steve King," her fellow fruitcake in Congress who celebrated the murder-suicide of a "tax protester" flying a plane into an office building of the Internal Revenue Service, "an agency that is unnecessary," exulting that "when we abolish the I.R.S., it’s going to be a happy day for America.”

Gingrich and Bachmann are setting the bar for shameless stupidity high, but pizza magnate Herman Cain is matching them with a promise not to appoint Muslim Americans to his Cabinet or federal courts in order to stop a "creeping gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government."

Then there's phantom candidate Donald Trump, who invented 21st century self-promotion. If he gets serious, the atrocious Comedy Central roast of his hairdo, sex life et al by has-beens and never-will-bes is a gold mine for attack ads.

No wonder that Jim DeMint, the Tea Party's senior senator, is urging other Republicans to enter the race, while not entirely ruling out himself.

All this could be an insidious plot to make Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty and even Sarah Palin look sane by comparison, but the underdogs themselves could be riding a receding tide as a new poll shows the Tea Party matching unfavorable ratings of Democrats and Republicans.

As the games go on, the odds have to be tilting in favor of Barack Obama, no matter how many wars he starts and budget battles he loses. The eventual Republican candidate may be ruined by a Pyrrhic victory in the Shameless Olympics of 2011.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Over-Articulate Obama

For those who welcomed a thoughtful, analytical, measured President after the pietistic, never-in-doubt George W. Bush, Barack Obama's latest Big Speech is a reminder that words can cloud as well as clarify.

The President now tells us that "when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act. That’s what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks." But that assertion is not supported by hard facts any more than was Bush's warnings about Iraq.

No matter how carefully he explains the U.S. military involvement with no matter how much emphasis on the U.N. and NATO, Americans are left with a carefully crafted but confusing explanation of, to put it bluntly, what the hell we are doing in Libya.

"Some nations," Barack Obama tells us, "may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

Yet less than a minute later, he adds: "But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake."

As the ground action in Libya starts to look like a civil war, where does this leave us for the long run?

After the President's speech, John Boehner has a reasonable question, "Nine days into this military intervention, Americans still have no answer to the fundamental question: What does success in Libya look like?”

For all of Barack Obama's oratorical gifts, the Big Speech this time does little to reassure the American people and leaves them confused over what we are doing in Libya and for how long and how we will react if it all gets as messy as our previous Middle East adventures of the past decade.

For all the President's fine sentiments and carefully crafted argument, he has failed to be clear and persuasive.

Footnote: If viewers were wondering why the Presidential explanation of a small war was telecast at 7:30 Eastern Time instead of the usual 8:00, the answer is to avoid conflict with "Dancing With the Stars." Then again, tap-dancing around the core issues in Libya may have been an appropriate lead-in.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tea Party Goes Back Too Far

Patriots who revere the Founding Fathers may now be overshooting their mark by almost a century--back to the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s: If anything went wrong then, the answer was to find the servants of Satan responsible and get rid of them.

In Congress and statehouses across the country, newly minted Tea Party officeholders are hounding public employees and their unions as a response to frustration over economic woes--a solution that makes as much sense now as it did in Salem--and are edging into the kind of behavior that prompted Arthur Miller to write "The Crucible" in the 1950s as a response to McCarthyism.

For asserting that the GOP has blighted Wisconsin’s tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect,” a distinguished historian has been subjected to a demand for copies of all e-mails to or from his university account with the word “Republican” and names of Republican politicians, in a reprise of what Paul Krugman calls "the thought police."

In Washington, House Republicans are putting the AARP in the dock for supporting "Obamacare" with hearings intended to smear the senior citizens' organization, while the Florida GOP votes to ban automatic deductions of union dues and the climate of reprisal spreads in state after state.

In the last election, Christine O'Donnell failed to win a Senate seat with the claim that "I am a not a witch," but many of those who did attain office are not satisfied to leave it at that.

Someone should explain to them that, 300 years after the Salem trials, all the alleged witches have been exonerated and that memorials have been erected to them. In today's world, we may not have to wait centuries to correct that kind of insanity.

Next year's elections would be a good time.

Update: Maybe we don't have to wait that long, as Wisconsin voters work on recall petitions for Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican cohorts. Witch-burning may work both ways.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Gunboat Diplomacy Gone Amok

Not since the days of Iraq's mushroom clouds and smoking guns has the American air been filled with more obfuscation than now in Libya.

The "inchoate coalition" there, we are told, "remains divided over the ultimate goal--and exit strategy" of what now looks like a "military campaign that could last for weeks."

The days of "gunboat diplomacy" are back, when great powers used shows of military strength to impose their will around the world. But in the Internet Age, the contradictions and confusion are there for all to see to complicate the mission.

As NATO takes command of the no-fly zone, the improbable picture of simply throwing an air-power blanket over Gaddafi to stop him from slaughtering his people starts to crumble under the reality that ground support and more conventional intervention will surely be needed to finish what has been started.

Still, the White House keeps insisting publicly, “It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners with the objective of protecting civilian life in Libya.”

When did an Administration that came to power with promises of transparency decide that the American public was stupid?

Anonymously, a "senior official" admits, “We didn’t want to get sucked into an operation with uncertainty at the end," but “In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders.”

Those who came to power on a wave of disgust over the Bush bunch doing just that should have known better. The least they can do now is stop the double talk and complicating the Libyan mess by refusing to admit that our goal, right or wrong, is to get rid of Gaddafi, and then go about doing it with the least possible further damage.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Good Performance in a Badly Scripted Life

Elizabeth Taylor has died at 79 without publishing her memoirs, but that would have been redundant. Everything about her, from the age of ten, is on film and in old magazines.

We never met but, in 1958, she saved my best friend's life. I had sent Bob Levin to interview her and her then-husband Mike Todd for Redbook. He was to see her on a Saturday morning, but the day before she was in bed with bronchitis and Todd suggested that Bob come with him on a flight from L.A. to New York on his private plane instead.

Just before takeoff, she called to say she was feeling better, and my friend stayed behind. Mike Todd's plane crashed that night.

In a life that seemed scripted by a bad writer, Elizabeth Taylor was the 20th century's most enduring celebrity--eight marriages to seven husbands, headline scandals, and a career as an actress that veered from fine acting to self-parody. But she did it all in high style.

In 1959, she had won an Oscar nomination, essentially for screaming at Paul Newman through "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but she had rehearsed the part privately, as I learned on my first trip to Hollywood that year as a magazine editor.

Staying at the Bel Air with a six-month-old, my wife and I apologized to the manager for the baby's crying. "No need," he assured us, "your suite was soundproofed after Elizabeth Taylor's honeymoon with Nicky Hilton."

That was the start of her first marriage to a hotel heir that lasted nine months. She kept marrying, not always wisely or well, but Elizabeth Taylor lived through it all openly and without hypocrisy to become a better actress and, in the end, a better person.

In "A Place in the Sun," director George Stevens drew performances from Taylor and Montgomery Clift that lifted her from a former child star in "National Velvet" into film art.

All through her hyperactive heterosexuality, she was drawn to the friendship of gay men--Clift, Roddy McDowall and Rock Hudson, with whom she starred in Stevens' "Giant." It was Hudson's death that led her to work so hard against AIDS in later years and receive a Humanitarian Oscar.

Now her death is prompting wonkish debate about "Is It Harder to Be a Celebrity Now?" Wrong question. Fame was and is never easy, but it helps to know who you are. Elizabeth Taylor did.

Update: Camille Paglia is back to expand on her exaltation of Taylor as a symbol of the "sexual power that Feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy...the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy."

Now Paglia adds: "The canonical shot of Elizabeth Taylor sewn into that white slip in 'Butterfield 8' is one of the major art images of my entire life! She is Babylonian pagan woman--the goddess Ishtar, the anti-Mary!"

Maybe so, but Taylor had a simpler explanation for herself, once telling fans, “I know I’m vulgar, but would you have me any other way?”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Get-Well Card for Health Care

As the new law turns one, the occasion recalls a greeting purportedly sent to a company president after surgery, "The Board of Directors wishes you a speedy recovery by a vote of six to five."

A year later, the public is still confused, Republicans swear to kill the law and the White House is sending out explainers to sing its praises. It's like combining a wake with a birthday party.

A new poll shows "Americans don’t think they like the Affordable Care Act, but they don’t want to be without it or left with whatever Republicans want to put in its place."

A close student of the law, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein concludes that it is "a lot more incremental than many people realize. More modest, by far, than the health-care overhauls proposed by Presidents Clinton, Nixon, Johnson and Truman.

"In 2019, once the law has been fully implemented for five years, it is expected to cover about two-thirds of the uninsured, to cost about 4 percent of what the health-care system spends in any given year and to cut the federal deficit by less than 1 percent. If you obtain insurance from your employer, Medicare, Medicaid or the veterans system--and that describes most Americans--you probably won’t notice the legislation at all."

Politically, an attack on "Obamacare" can swamp an eight-year wait for the full effects of an incremental set of changes crammed together into one of the sloppiest legislative sausages ever.

GOP front-running Mitt Romney, eager to make primary voters forget that his own state's reform served as a model for the mess, is celebrating the birthday by taking a cheap shot at it "If I were president, on Day One I would issue an executive order paving the way for Obamacare waivers to all 50 states."

Meanwhile, insurance premiums keep soaring, health-care rationing spreads and pie-in-the-sky promises recede as "reform" turns one. Cake, as Klein notes, will not be served.

But, for the next birthday, at the height of the presidential campaign, there certainly will be fireworks.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

War of Empty Words

As usual, the air is filled with sounds but nobody is saying much. In this era of certainty about everything, Libya has exposed the soft underbelly of politics and punditry by reducing expertise to abandoning omniscience and belaboring the obvious.

A New York Times editorial, after describing Qaddafi as "a thug and a murderer who has never paid for his many crimes, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103," hems and haws about the action against him, reviews what's happened and takes no position beyond "There is much to concern us," raising obvious questions:

"What will the United States and its allies do if the rebels cannot dislodge Colonel Qaddafi? At a minimum, they must be ready to maintain indefinite sanctions on the regime while helping the rebels set up a government, should they actually win. Mr. Obama should have brought Congress more into the loop on his decision, and must do so now."

The PBS News Hour trots out two old war horses, former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, to discuss "Turmoil in Arab World: Deepening Divisions or Turning a New Page?" and gets the answers: both or maybe neither with Scowcroft slightly more dubious about Libya than the often-wrong-but-never-in doubt Zbig.

As grateful as we should be about exposure of emptiness in all the usual political blather, this time of tense expectancy over whether we get bogged down in yet another Arab war reminds us that, in most of what matters in today's world, there are no simple answers only better questions.

The most important of all is "What are we doing in the Middle East?" As the Libyan adventure starts to eat up all the budget savings that Democrats and Republicans are fighting over in Washington, shouldn't we be reexamining all the assumptions on both sides that have led us into what we are doing now not only there but in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and who-knows-what covertly in Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere?

At the very least, such a serious and open debate would provide a context for all the meaningless speechifying that is now going on over Libya.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hangovers of a Libyan Lost Weekend

George W. Bush, who gave up binge drinking for piety and power, knew more about mornings-after than his successor now reeling from the aftermath of his first foreign-policy bender.

Everywhere he looks, Barack Obama is surrounded by weird little men with hammers pounding away at his skull. John Boehner, yes. John McCain, of course. Liberal Democrats, why not? Michael Moore and Andrew Sullivan, a not-too-surprising left-right duo. But there are specters from the political dead as well: Ralph Nader?

And just before it disappears behind a paywall, the New York Times contributes perhaps the strangest headache-inducer of all with its invisible OpEd columnist Ross Douhat (whatever happened to William Kristol?) claiming that "the Obama administration has delivered a clinic in the liberal way of war."

Say what?

"This is an intervention straight from Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook," Douhat complains, "and a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods...Instead, the Obama White House has shown exquisite deference to the very international institutions and foreign governments that the Bush administration either steamrolled or ignored."

Sounds good, but apparently we are missing something: "Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building...they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence...with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require."

Politics used to "stop at the water's edge," but apparently we now have conservative wars (good) and liberal wars (messy), and never the twain shall meet.

Those of us who have grave doubts about the Libyan adventure deserve a better debate about a President who has veered from his usual sobriety--and bipartisan hopes for the briefest national hangover from it all,

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Times of Our Lives

If a dead tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?

Those who have spent a lifetime (75 years in my case) with the New York Times, from days of smudged fingers on, are moved to realize that "All the News That's Fit to Print" is passing another milestone.

As the Times imposes subscription fees for more-than-casual readers, it's like the change in a long affair--with time out for 15 years of open digital co-habitation--after decades together under old rules.

In those days, it was like waking up every morning with a virtuous kept woman. We paid only pennies a day for her favors, but she held our ménage together in high style by selling a byproduct of the relationship--our attention--to advertisers, scrupulously walling off their interests from ours.

It's astonishing to look back at how well and for how long this variation on monogamy worked--our complete faith in the integrity of a partner whose survival depended on, as Blanche Du Bois might have put it, the kindness of others.

Over that time, to borrow another theatrical metaphor, we had unwittingly "grown accustomed to her face," and like Henry Higgins, much more emotionally involved than we realized.

At times of upheaval--the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK's assassination, 9/11--TV and then the Internet took over our minute-to-minute attention, but the Times was our security blanket. With a familiar face and unparalleled reporting, the printed paper reassured us that the world had not been knocked loose from its moorings.

Newer generations may be baffled by all this, but Marshall McLuhan explained it, sort of, half a century ago: "People don't actually read newspapers, they get into them every morning like a hot bath." As in all his pronouncements, there is much hot air but also a grain of truth.

When it comes to paying for online content now, we are not talking about Rupert Murdoch's rapacious Wall Street Journal here but something entirely else--a family-owned American institution that has economically endangered its existence to serve the nation well and is now doing what it has to do to survive.

If younger readers desert, the loss will be theirs. Those of us with good memories never will.

Update: As some long-time readers complain about the cost, the Times gives us the inside story (still free) of its agonizing debate over imposing digital fees.

President Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "wanted a flexible system, one that would allow the company to adjust the limit on the number of free articles as needed--in the case of a big breaking news event, for example.

“'Let’s imagine there’s a horrifying story like 9/11 again,' he said in an interview. 'We can--with one hit of a button--turn that meter to zero to allow everyone to read everything they want.'"

To return to my original metaphor, it sounds like being a little pregnant. Good luck with that.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"To the Shores of Tripoli"

As our planes and missiles bomb Libya, we are back 200 years to the first foreign military action in American history, commemorated in the Marines' Hymn, intervention in a dispute over the throne between Arab brothers.

What we are doing in Tripoli now is, of course, sanctified by the U.N. and in concert with other powers, but it is a clear return to U.S. policy as "policeman of the world" advocated by Dick Cheney and Bush's Neo-Cons who led us into the Iraq disaster.

This time, however, instead of grey old men, the faces of intervention are those of three modern women of the Obama Administration, brandishing the best of humanitarian motives rather than dreams of American empire, but the risks of being trapped once again in a quagmire of nation-building are the same.

"The change in the region will not and cannot be imposed by the United States or any foreign power,” the President said yesterday. “Ultimately, it will be driven by the people of the Arab world.”

But the Arab world, as it usually does, is speaking only in whispers and behind a veil of deniability, while a Coalition of the Cautious--China, Russia, Germany, India and Brazil--abstain at the U.N., reserving the right to blame you-know-who if anything goes wrong.

Part of the Obama decision is traced back to Bill Clinton's regrets over failure to stop genocide in Rwanda, but that is an unsatisfactory reason for what we are doing now. History doesn't allow do-overs.

It used to be conventional wisdom that the military is always the first to push for use of arms, but they seem to be last on board for this intervention. For the sake of the Libyans and ourselves, let's hope they are being too modest about the possibility of a quick "cakewalk" over Qaddafi.

Otherwise, we could be trapped on the shores of Tripoli for a long time, as we are in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Update: Memo to Secretary Clinton: Now that the U.S. has moved against Libya, our new-found friends in the Arab League are taking back their "support" for action against Qaddafi. Fill in the blank of the old saying, "If you have X for a friend, you don't need an enemy."

Friday, March 18, 2011

No-Fly Flypaper

The Colin Powell warning about Iraq ("You break it, you own it") is now evolving into a reverse version for Libya. But if we fix that, don't we own it, too?

Hillary Clinton, announcing fatigue and retirement before Obama's second term, is leading a gung-ho charge against the Libyan strongman.

“Qaddafi must go,” she says, calling him “a ruthless dictator who has no conscience and will destroy anyone or anything in his way.”

That's true (as it was about Saddam Hussein), but it's not the whole story, as Indiana's Richard Lugar, one of the last traditional Republicans, reminds the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"Clearly, the United States should be engaged with allies on how to oppose the Qaddafi regime and support the aspirations of the Libyan people. But given the costs of a no-fly zone, the risks that our involvement would escalate, the uncertain reception in the Arab street of any American intervention in an Arab country, the potential for civilian deaths, the unpredictability of the endgame in a civil war, the strains on our military, and other factors, I am doubtful that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya."

In this topsy-turvy time for American politics, with Tea Party zealots out to shrink government, shouldn't we think twice about the U.S. resuming its role as "policeman of the world," as George W. Bush's Neo-Cons tried to do a decade ago?

If the UN intervenes in Libya after tolerating Qaddafi for so long, other nations, particularly in the region, should be leading the effort, as the new Egypt regime seems to be trying to do.

But the Obama Administration is moving inexorably toward military action, enough to satisfy the McCain wing of the GOP. After a briefing, Lindsey Graham is gratified:

"I want to take back criticism I gave to them yesterday and say, ‘you are doing the right thing.' My money is on the American Air Force, the American Navy, and our allies to contain the Libyans, and anybody on our side that says we can't contain the Libyan air threat--I want them fired."

Here we go again.

Update: Barack Obama is doing a George W. Bush impersonation, announcing the U.S. and its allies “will not stand idly by in the face of actions" that undermine "democracy" in Libya.

Such posturing overlooks the inconvenient fact that the U.S. and its allies have done just that all over the African continent for years now in places where "democracy" is as unknown it has been in Libya.

Wasn't there a candidate in the last election who warned about getting into "dumb wars?"

Update Update: American missiles strike Tripoli. “I want the American people," says President Obama, "to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.”

This is not what most of us voted for little over two years ago.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Saloon for the Ages

An image arrives, the cover of a new book in French showing American icon Marilyn Monroe 56 years ago in a legendary Irish saloon, a convergence of cultures for St. Patrick's Day.

In that place, where my generation learned about life, Tim Costello was our teacher. One of us, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a budding sociologist and later U.S. Senator, would famously say when JFK was killed, "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

Now, as the world batters our hearts every day, it's comforting to recall Tim's lost lessons--modesty, respect for learning and, above all, decency toward others.

He was our Irish godfather, keeping us happy but grounded and civil. When Frank McCourt, who later wrote "Angela's Ashes," came over as an 18-year-old immigrant, Tim would not serve him a beer until he went to the New York Public Library to read Samuel Johnson.

John McNulty wrote about the place in the New Yorker for a dozen years, but Tim kept it from changing. A stern look over his teacup at the back table was as effective as the rules committee of any private club. Costello's never went trendy in the way of another saloon, "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded."

Behind the bar was a blackthorn walking stick that had been broken over John O’Hara’s head by Ernest Hemingway, no one remembered why. On the facing wall were huge drawings on beaverboard by James Thurber, so valued that Tim had had them inked over, varnished and, when forced to move his establishment next door, removed and remounted. They were brown with age and tobacco smoke.

Thurber had filled the walls with images of cowardly canines (a dog being chased by rabbits) and little men menaced by huge women (“I’m leaving you, Myra, you might as well get used to the idea,” says one in the clutch of an Amazon several times his size). Such self-mocking masculinity suited the place. Tim did not abide noisy, pugnacious drunks.

The night we brought Marilyn there, the proprietor was stirred by curiosity to come to the table and take the order himself. When she asked for a screwdriver, Tim told her, "We don't serve breakfast here" and gave her vodka on the rocks instead.

If he were alive today, Tim Costello would not allow any of today's "celebrities" in the place. They wouldn't have met his threshold for decent behavior.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

President McCain's 100-Year Wars

He keeps reminding us how lucky we were that he lost in 2008. Now John McCain gets into a more-warlike-than-thou exchange with the Afghan War's current proprietor, David Petraeus.

Testifying before the Senate, the General cites "fragile and reversible" gains, guardedly talking about possible drawdowns but raising a likelihood of joint military bases with local forces well after our troops are scheduled to leave in 2014.

But that's not enough for McCain, who during the campaign talked breezily about a 100-year-war in Iraq. As ranking Republican on the Armed Forces Committee, he presses Petraeus to say that, instead of withdrawing some American forces this summer, a “reinvestment” of U.S. troops might be required.

This exchange follows a new poll showing nearly two-thirds of Americans now feel that the Afghan War is not worth fighting. If McCain were in the White House, instead of a cautious Obama, would we be slouching unthinkingly toward a second decade there as turmoil throughout the Middle East raises questions about how much blood and money we should invest in the region--and for what purpose?

But strategic thinking has never been McCain's style, just shoot-from-the-hip reflexes of a career military man with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. (Libya no-flight zone? Why not?)

Yet it may be too charitable to excuse away the former maverick's bad judgment by background alone. Contrast him with another soldier named Eisenhower, who led America to victory in World War II but left the White House warning against the "military-industrial complex" and the "disastrous rise of misplaced power" that could endanger "our liberties or democratic processes."

Ike said it even more simply: "People want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

But not if John McCain can help it.

Update: The level of discourse goes lower as a frustrated Democratic House member quotes the Rolling Stone editor whose interview helped bring down the previous Afghan commander:

"General Petraeus is giving us the Charlie Sheen counter-insurgency strategy, which is to give exclusive interviews to every major network, and to keep saying 'we're winning' and hope the public actually agrees with you."

If only as many Americans were paying attention to the endless war as to Charlie Sheen, there might be a civilized debate about it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beyond the Nuclear Sewer

Half a century ago, Americans feared atomic weapons of a nation that long longer exists, the Soviet Union, and its potential to destroy us. Now, as devastation spreads in Japan, anxiety arises about the original Faustian bargain to unleash a power that can't be fully controlled.

If this sounds like the start of a Luddite tract, not so. Nuclear power will be not be disinvented but, as we now know, can not be taken for granted, either.

When the horrendous losses in Japan are finally stopped, we will be faced with decisions that have been ignored for decades as the U.S. tries to free itself from dependence on Middle East oil but now clearly demand a no-free-lunch balancing of benefits and costs.

Those who lived through World War II can recall the tragic figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the "father of the atomic bomb," who in the following decade brooded about what he had done, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

For his pangs of conscience, Oppenheimer was punished during the McCarthy era and driven from public life until JFK and LBJ later awarded him a medal for his scientific contributions--but his warnings about nuclear dangers were forgotten.

Now here we are again, struggling to balance fears in a different context as Middle East turmoil drives up oil prices and endangers future supply just as the Earth is literally being knocked off its axis to shake confidence in the most likely alternative.

Another former enemy, Germany, shows the prudence that has restored it to a world power by immediately shutting down all pre-1980 nuclear power plants to assess their safety and make them more damage-proof.

When the devastation disappears from TV screens, will the U.S. government go back to its squabbling over budget deficits and refuse to spend money to do the same?

Nuclear accomplishments made us a superpower, but it will take wisdom and foresight to keep us one.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Beauty Tips for Suicide Bombers, Etc.

"Dying is easy, comedy is hard" goes the old saying. Even while Stewart, Colbert and SNL struggle, politics are making parody impossible.

Standup routines at Washington's Gridiron Dinner are tame as the weekend Oscar goes to a British think tank, which unveils (?) Jihad Cosmo magazine with beauty tips, mujahideen dating advice, complexion care and a guide for suicide-bomber child-rearing.

My friend and fellow octogenarian Helen Gurley Brown may have something to say about that, if it isn't a spoof. Still overseeing international Cosmo clones, her lawyers will not take kindly to infringement.

After the limp Peter King hearings on threats posed by American Muslims, however, any direct word from terrorists themselves, bizarre as it may be, would be welcome.

Back home, President Obama opens the annual comedy fest by asking the orchestra to follow up "Hail to the Chief" with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A," in a nod to the Birthers ("Some things just bear repeating," he says), but it's pretty much downhill from there.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who insists he is not running next year, shows up with his arm in a sling from rotator-cuff surgery to claim he was injured while flying to the Governors’ Conference in an airplane seat between Chris Christie and Haley Barbour, the first fat joke of the campaign.

Perhaps the best in vino veritas moment comes from Gridiron president Susan Page of USA Today who tells carousing attendees, “Just another Saturday night in Washington...exactly as the Tea Party suspects.”

Maybe someone should start a life-affirming Cosmo for them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Between Two Nuclear Nightmares

What a difference 66 years makes! In 1945, the Japanese homeland was devastated, not by Nature, by my country dropping atomic bombs to save lives of soldiers like me in what surely would have been a bloody invasion.

Now, an earthquake and tsunami have set off scrambling in that unwarlike nation to avert another nuclear catastrophe, and reports show the 8.9 magnitude seizure has shifted the Earth off its axis.

The difference between now and then is a shattering reminder that nothing in the world stays the same as the U.S. and other former enemies rush aid to mitigate and deal with the damage.

Even more, it underscores the price humanity pays for scientific advances that at first lift our hearts and only later reveal costs that come with them--Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Japan again

America won a war and lost its innocence on August 6, 1945, when the world's first nuclear weapon was detonated over Hiroshima. Six days later, World War II ended.

I was in uniform in Germany, one of thousands waiting to be sent as foot soldiers to invade Japan. All we knew was that a mushroom cloud had ended our dread of going to the Pacific to storm beaches and fight through cities. For the first time in years, we could wake up without feeling there was an IOU out on our lives, held by someone unknown and payable on demand.

It was weeks before we learned the moral price for our relief--that over 200,000 would die from that explosion in Hiroshima and another over Nagasaki three days later and our country would forever bear the burden of being the first to use weapons of mass destruction.

In August 1963, I was interviewing John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. "Since 1945," he said, "we have gone into an entirely new period of nuclear weapons. Most people have no conception of what it all means. A nuclear exchange lasting sixty minutes would mean over 300 million deaths. We have to prevent the end of the human race."

Since then, two nuclear powers have expanded to who-knows-how-many, and with luck and hard effort, humanity has managed to avoid obliterating itself.

The tragedies in Japan bracket our understanding that the world's survival is not entirely in our hands and that we had better work very hard to understand "what it all means." If not, all our other struggles could be irrelevant.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shaking Our Confidence?

The illusion of human control yields another metaphor as President Obama enters a press conference after learning about the disaster in Japan.

"Today's events remind us of just how fragile life can be," he tells journalists before taking questions about budget battles and Libya, all framed in the certainty that there must be answers to everything.

A day later, a faraway catastrophe is spreading with a nuclear meltdown in Japan and ripples of an earthquake that reach the U.S. to drown a West Coast sightseer.

Our media narrative of the world keeps being interrupted with reminders to show humility in the face of the unknown and unforeseeable, but the national attention span is short.

A shooting in Tuscon provides a parenthesis to certainty for a while and prompts moments of civility but, as Gabrielle Giffords recovers, all that is gone.

Now, as we cringe at new devastation, we are shaken with feelings of vulnerability that will surely pass after a few days and allow us to become passionate again over minutiae, even as the disaster is already politicized with news that Republicans have slashed $126 million from the budget of the agency in Hawaii that warned of the tsunami.

Of all people, David Brooks, whose new book about the human condition is being trashed by reviewers, two days ago wrote a prophetic Times column titled "The Modesty Manifesto," about a grotesque increase in Americans' self-importance over recent generations. ("In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a 'very important person.' By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.")

He cites "abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement--I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me-- to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion...

"I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship."

In coming days, the U.S. government will send help to Japan. and individuals will give generously to disaster relief, but all that may just be ransom for allowing us to hold on to the delusion that life can be controlled down to the last millimeter and we know just how to do it.

Update: As the stock market stays calm, "self-expansion" has its moment as a cable cheerleader for capitalism finds a silver lining in the tsunami: “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

Does that mean we don't have to sell Japan short?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Stop Beating Up on David Brooks

Writing a book is like any act of indecent exposure: You can enjoy doing it, but sooner or later, may be punished, as David Brooks is discovering.

A New York Times columnist and PBS commentator, Brooks is widely respected (including here), but "The Social Animal" is taking a pasting.

That's a risk if, like Brooks, you search for deeper meaning in the daily flood of news, particularly when you subtitle your book, "The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement."

What emerges, from promotional interviews and book reviews, is that he is using brain science and sociology to explain how "the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics...(W)e’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas."

If Brooks has set himself a high bar, he is not getting points for that from critics across the board.

Embattled NPR calls it "messy. Midway through, its characters devolve from protagonists to mouthpieces who deliver prescriptions for culture, business and politics. On occasion, Brooks veers into satire, which muddies his intentions."

Rightward, Forbes headlines "A Scornful Review," while Salon labels it "David Brooks' dream world for the trust-fund set" and Slate sums up:

"To tell the story of the unconscious and its role in shaping our fate, Brooks invents a man and a woman, Harold and Erica. The two are like the Forrest Gumps of social science..."

Ouch. But a few words, however qualified, for the defense are in order. Brooks' book seems an updated and more sophisticated version of those best-sellers of the 1950s--"The Organization Man" and "The Hidden Persuaders"--which wowed the post-World War II generation with news that society is not always what it seems and there are unseen forces at work.

If Brooks is a little late and/or "muddled" in searching for the unconscious in 21st century lives, he deserves respect for trying to understand what has driven America into a segmented, selfish and hate-filled society.

He may not have all the answers but is asking some of the right questions, and a witness for the defense can cite one of his political gifts that should not be overlooked.

In October 2006, Brooks spotted the potential of an unknown politician in a column, "Run, Barack, Run." Now he has written "Run, Mitch, Run," urging Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to go for it next year:

"He couldn’t match Obama in grace and elegance, but he could on substance. They could have a great and clarifying debate: What exactly are the paramount problems facing the country? What is government’s role in solving them?"

David Brooks deserves respect, however flawed his attempt at pseudo-novelistic deep think may be, as a journalist who is always asking the right questions. There aren't too many of them around.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wake-Me-When-It's-Over Syndrome

The overloaded mind reels to keep up with Scott Walker, Peter King and Muammar Qaddafi, the Three Stooges of this news cycle producing headline headaches that rattle our media teeth.

Do we have to keep up with debates about no-fly zones over Wisconsin by disloyal Muslim-Americans?

Today's cacophony recalls days when you could go on an isolated vacation and come back to marvel at how little of importance you had missed by being cut off for weeks.

Do we really need to know every twist and turn of the Battle of Wisconsin? Somehow the state will muddle through, despite its clownish governor, and labor unions will survive needed cuts in budgets and assaults on their legitimacy.

Would we be deprived by not watching Rep. Peter King reduce the House's first Muslim to tears by stigmatizing an entire Faith? ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but how you can spy for it?")

Do we need to make the Battle for Libya into a "video game," in Defense Secretary Gates' words, with a no-fly zone that might make Americans feel good in their living rooms but drag us into another Middle East mess?

Opinions on these weighty matters matter, but how closely must we follow every twist and turn simply because we can? Would everything get worse if we didn't?

These questions are prompted by hard words between Higher Powers of the media universe--New York Times editor Bill Keller and AOL's new empress, Arianna Huffington.

In his magazine, Keller writes that "we have bestowed our highest honor--market valuation--not on those who labor over the making of original journalism but on aggregation.

“'Aggregation' can mean smart people sharing their reading lists, plugging one another into the bounty of the information universe...too often it amounts to taking words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material. In Somalia this would be called piracy."

"Keller's attack is as lame as it is laughable.," Arianna huffs back with a torrent of her own unaggregated words.

Profits aside, all this misdirected energy recalls a young minister I knew long ago who was running himself ragged by conscientiously trying to solve every problem of his congregation.

One morning struggling to get out of bed, he had an epiphany--a vision of God frowning and wringing his hands to moan, "How will I get through the day without my young helper?"

My friend rolled over and pulled up the covers, graced by the knowledge that trying to solve all the world's problems could endanger the capacity to ease any of them.

Anyone here for watching an old movie or taking a nap?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Charlie Sheen's Disposable Celebrity

James Dean, Marilyn, Elvis... Fifty years ago, a classic book defined celebrities in the TV age as "well-known for their well-knowness," and, it often turned out, as disposable as Kleenex when their fame burned out.

Historian Daniel Boorstin was inspired by the Kennedy-Nixon debates to write "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America," a prophecy now having its umpteenth replay as a survey shows Charlie Sheen getting more Internet and social media attention than Barack Obama since the first of the year.

Confusion about reality has gone global, with a Chinese newspaper chiding Americans for being "unfilial" and making Boorstin's point about pseudo events by confusing Martin Sheen's role in "The West Wing" with real life: "He [Charlie] ignored his own father's advice to keep quiet, who was once the president of the US. Sheen is a disgrace, unfilial to his father and his fatherland."

In the half-century that fame has been uncoupled from achievement and appearances from reality, aided by cable TV and the Internet, the world we think we live in has become a 24/7 soap opera, designed to keep us watching and reading between commercials and pop-up ads.

As Sheen's latest cell-phone rant goes viral, his antics become fodder for fighting off boredom while, in the obscurity of sanity, his family suffers and goes on with real life, completing a devout film, "The Way," starring his father and directed by his brother, about "small miracles on a daily basis."

Charlie Sheen's meltdown may have the perverse effect of calling some attention to this modest effort, but it will pale compared to the near-pornographic interest in his personal drama.

At the time Boorstin's reflections on fame appeared, the poet Randall Jarrell was also musing about the subject:

"If Time, Life and the television shows are full of Tom Fool this month, he's no fool. And when he has been gone from them a while, we do not think him a fool--we do not think of him at all. He not longer exists, in the full sense of the word 'exist:' to be is to be perceived, to be a part of the medium of our perception. Our celebrities are not kings, romantic in exile, but Representatives who, defeated, are forgotten; they had always only the qualities we delegated to them."

Charlie Sheen's 15 minutes are almost up, but the sadness will linger on.

Update: From the inscrutable Orient comes word that the Chinese OpEd about Charlie Sheen was "a spoof," with the writer explaining, "Chinese people like a good laugh as much as anyone else."

Yeah, as I remember. Chairman Mao had us in stitches for years.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Supreme Court Welfare Case

If Justices were paid by the word, Clarence Thomas would be eligible for those government assistance programs he hates, if it weren't for his family's right-wing welfare income, which Thomas' disclosure forms for 13 years "inadvertently omitted due to a misunderstanding of the filing instructions."

In the five years since the Justice spoke in oral arguments carried on by colleagues with lawyers, he and Mrs. Thomas have been loquacious in lucrative self-expression that has brought them millions from the likes of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

Between 2003 and 2007, Virginia Thomas was paid $700,000 by the Heritage Foundation alone, as Murdoch gave her husband $1 million for his premature memoir.

Now, Thomas, who has a keener sensitivity to injustice aimed at himself than others, is complaining to the Federalist Society in what one scholar calls a "Louis XIV moment" that "any criticism--even criticism that he is harming the court--is an attack on the institution. It is more than an embarrassing conceit; it can be a dangerous delusion for any justice."

But what can we expect from a Supreme Court Justice who can't grasp the complexity of forms meant to disclose conflicts of interest (ignorance of the law apparently is an excuse for High Court members) and, in 2000, saw no need to recuse himself from the case that awarded the presidency to the son of the man who had appointed him as he was still nursing grudges against Democrats in the confirmation process?

As health care reform inches its way to the High Court, before the case is heard, there is no doubt about how Clarence Thomas will vote.

Now, he tells Federalists that he and wife are "focused on defending liberty," and that "You all are going to be, unfortunately, the recipients of the fallout from that--that there's going to be a day when you need these institutions to be credible and to be fully functioning to protect your liberties."

No word on how much Thomas was paid for this ringing defense of his free speech.

Monday, March 07, 2011


The mot du jour has reached its entertainment destination, a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing Charlie Sheen's obsession, but in American politics, no end is in sight.

The Wisconsin standoff goes on along with the budget game of chicken to avoid a Washington shutdown, prompting E.J. Dionne to recall Nixon's "'madman theory'...a negotiating approach that induces the other side to believe you are capable of dangerously irrational actions and leads it to back down to avoid the wreckage your rage might let loose."

As John Boehner plays sane while pointing to his freshmen's irrationality and Scott Baker digs into his bunker, it's time for another look at the "winning" metaphor for human relations.

Vince Lombardi said it was "the only thing," but that was football and, as a recent documentary showed, his monomaniacal devotion made him a sports legend but eventually destroyed his life in mid-age.

Between Sheen and the TV network that exploited his shaky character for ratings, it's hard to care about who wins, but when politics, the so-called art of compromise, becomes a zero-sum game, we are all in trouble.

The past two years have been marked by Pyrrhic victories that have now gone bipartisan--first the President's decision to ram through a health care bill at all costs and now the GOP's determination to snatch defeat from the jaws of the victory that his political mistake brought them at the polls in November.

It's undoubtedly true that competitive spirit is needed to implement Obama's campaign to "Win the Future," but winning at all costs can be destructive, as Middle East tyrants are now discovering.

In this time of upheaval, politicians may want to look back at the words of one of the 20th century's noble losers, Adlai Stevenson:

“The hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning.”

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Obama's Second Inaugural Address

This week the President marked the 150th anniversary of a predecessor's words as the nation was falling into civil war. What Abraham Lincoln said then could well be a model for Barack Obama at his own second inaugural if and when he is reelected in a time of turmoil and division.

In praising the Great Emancipator for charting "a course to transcend our discord and bind the wounds of a severed country," Obama cited Lincoln's "unceasing belief and our enduring faith that we remain one Nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that will never break."

That bond is now being stretched thin as social hatreds and jealousies fuel bitter debates not only about the role of government and its size but the patriotism of those who disagree about budget deficits, public employees and their unions and every other issue that should be amenable to compromise and conciliation.

"We are not enemies, but friends," Lincoln said as he took the presidential oath. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

These days the "better angels" are in hiding as Obama's would-be successors engage in what conservative George Will describes as "a process cluttered with careless, delusional, egomaniacal, spotlight-chasing candidates to whom the sensible American majority would never entrust a lemonade stand, much less nuclear weapons."

Current leader of the pack is ever-changeable Mitt Romney, now in New Hampshire touting an "Obama misery index" to persuade Tea Partiers that he can be as mindlessly negative as the candidates they elected last November.

Barack Obama may be far from another Lincoln, but the political pygmies who oppose him add to his stature by comparison. Those of us caught in the crossfire between them can only hope that the United States does not again become the Untied States, as they did a century and a half ago.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Revisiting Sexual Politics

After a year of Tea Party rage over taxpayer money, Republicans are struggling to keep social conservatives in the tent with Mike Huckabee as the poster boy for the effort while those still in office try to focus on deficits and government spending.

Huckabee, recently laid off by Fox News, revisits his ministerial roots by chastizing pregnant Natalie Portman for flaunting her unmarried status at the Oscars to "glorify and glamorize the idea of out-of-wedlock children." After an uproar, the ex-Governor backs off with a blessing that he is "glad she will marry her baby's father." Ms. Portman must be relieved.

There are other signs of GOP strain over focusing on money vs. morals as John Boehner's bunch chooses to laud the Defense of Marriage Act with a written Friday afternoon news dump instead of posturing with House speeches about the sanctity of traditional families.

In doing so, they are taking the advice of dark horse Presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has advised them to back off cultural wars and “agree to get along for a little while” on social issues while warring on the money front.

But in the era of Fox News, that won't be easy to do. As Rupert Murdoch turns 80 next week, we are reminded that he built his empire on tabloid sleaze before turning to right-wing politics.

The latest reflection is Fox's excitement over a new "scientific study" that men who stare at women's breasts for at least ten minutes a day have lower resting heart rates and blood pressure than those who don't.

Charlie Sheen fans will be relieved to learn that, despite questions about his mental health, he must be in great shape physically.

But Mike Huckabee will want to know if Sheen's ogling has been politically correct.

Friday, March 04, 2011

When the World Was Young

No political or social infamy today but, as my odometer turns to 87, a memory about the sweetness of youthful longing.

Seventy-four years ago, on my Bar Mitzvah day, I went to the movies to see the elegantly beautiful British actress Madeleine Carroll and, on the day the Jewish religion declared me a man, I fell hopelessly in love with the most golden shiksa of them all.

A decade and a war later, at my alma mater, City College of New York, I was doing publicity for the Institute of Film Techniques, a grandiose name for a few courses started by Hans Richter, an avant-garde filmmaker who had fled the Nazis. Since the Academy Awards ignored them then, I suggested the Film Institute select the best documentaries of the year. He happily agreed and started to round up his friends as judges.

Looking at his list, unaware that my subconscious was groping toward divine fulfillment, I suggested the jury would benefit from adding a name, a big Hollywood name, a movie star name. We pondered for a while, but my subconscious had been reading the New York Times. Who was in New York, just retired from films, about to take her fourth husband, a tycoon at Time Inc.? Did it surprise my subconscious when her name came to my lips? Madeleine Carroll.

She agreed to do it. On the day of judging she appeared, a well-dressed woman of forty, but I was seeing her in soft focus, her shimmering hair framing lips, eyes and cheekbones that had inflamed a boy's heart. We sat in the dark, shoulders touching, for six hours, her perfume flooding my senses. If she was bored by the banal images of sensitive filmmakers with foundation grants, she never showed it.

In a sneering documentary about Hollywood materialism, the camera unsteadily panned million-dollar homes, with the narrator intoning, "This is Beverly Hills, a rich community with well-kept lawns..."

She turned and put her lips to my ear, her hair brushing my temple.

"And well-kept women," she whispered.

After the lights came on to end my dream, Madeleine Carroll took my hand in farewell with a dazzling smile.

She was the first of Alfred Hitchcock's blonde goddesses in the 1930s and, after her sister was killed in a World War II bombing raid, she had stopped acting to work in field hospitals as a Red Cross nurse, receiving the Legion d'honneur for bravery in France.

I still see that smile in my dreams and on Turner Classic Movies.

Now, before returning to world of Muammar Gaddafi, Charlie Sheen et al, you can share a few minutes of my youth here and here with Madeleine Carroll.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Generals' Private Pain

Behind the headlines, two swatches of news reflect a reality that tells us much about our moral lives today.

In Afghanistan, boys under 15 are collecting firewood when a U.S. helicopter swoops down to kill nine of them. Gen. Petraeus says, "These deaths should have never happened.”

Meanwhile, another high-ranking General talks about losing his son there and the bitterness he had expressed days later.

"Their struggle is your struggle," Gen. John Kelly had told an audience. "If anyone thinks you can somehow thank them for their service, and not support the cause for which they fight--our country--these people are lying to themselves...slighting our warriors and mocking their commitment to this nation."

Now, in a Washington Post interview, Gen. Kelly, who is Defense Secretary Gates' senior assistant, recalls the "unimaginable" pain of his son's death and offers another perspective--that he is opposed to indifference, not dissent:

"(I)f you are against the war, you should somehow try to change it. Fight to bring us home."

His emotions recall a 1942 story by Irwin Shaw, "Preach on the Dusty Roads," about a man who, after seeing his son off to fight in World War II, is overwhelmed with remorse that he hadn't been out begging people everywhere to prevent or stop it.

That story had come to mind in 1968 as many of us were criss-crossing Indiana urging people to vote for Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the Democratic primary to express their desire to bring other people's sons home from Vietnam.

Today, polls show that most Americans don't approve of what we are doing in Afghanistan, but they have no way to show what they feel or to "fight to bring us home."

As eyes are glued to a struggle to bring down a corrupt tyrant in Libya, Americans by their silence are endorsing the deaths of other people's sons and grandsons in a decade-long effort to prop up another in Afghanistan.

All "these deaths never should have happened," to broaden Gen. Petraeus' apology, but are we helpless to keeping them from going on?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

GOP's Fat Chances for 2012

Since William Howard Taft a century ago, no American president has come close to matching his portly presence at 300 pounds, but next year's Republican field could change that.

The subject comes up after a GOP split over Michelle Obama's campaign against obesity, with conservatives mocking the First Lady as Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie applaud her efforts to slim down chubby children with healthy diets and exercise.

In the TV era, from Eisenhower to Obama, White House occupants have all been relatively trim, but potential candidates like Huckabee and Christie could change that.

The former Arkansas governor wrote a book about losing 100 pounds but has gained some of it back with problems over what comes out of his mouth as well as what goes in, while Christie notes that "it’s a really good goal to encourage kids to eat better...I’ve struggled with my weight for 30 years, and it’s a struggle."

In the last election, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were breaking barriers of race and gender, but 2012 could focus on heft. With not-so-slim Newt Gingrich champing at the bit to be the first out of the GOP gate and Haley Barbour waiting in the wings, the Taftish caucus in primaries could be sizable.

It would be brave of Republicans to meet head-on the impression that they are the party of fat cats by nominating a candidate who eats heartily and doesn't spend so much of his presidential time trying to jog pounds off, as Bill Clinton and George W did.

If Sarah Palin decides to run, she will be a formidable figure but would be well-advised to stop criticizing Mrs. Obama over "food policing" and skirt the poundage issue. In hard economic times, voters won't care much about whether their leader could cut a good figure on "Dancing with the Stars."

Update: Meanwhile, the body count in the Mainstream Media is mounting as Gingrich and Rick Santorum lose their paid gigs with Fox News. Newt may have to make up the income by signing on as a spokesperson for Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Health Care on Life Support

In eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the President blinks by telling governors he will let states opt out of the individual mandate for medical insurance in 2014, three years earlier than the reform law allows.

After a waste of two months with a House dog-and-pony show of repeal and Senate failure to go along, the bipartisan mess that politicians have made of American health care is now a post-disaster triage scene after last November's electoral catastrophe.

As the Obama White House starts to back off, Republicans refuse to take "yes" for an answer. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who eulogized Ted Kennedy as "a United States senator who was dedicated to the last to advancing the vision of America that he held so dearly," is now fighting what Kennedy called the cause of his life with near-apoplectic fervor, denouncing Obamacare and calling the President's new concession "bullcorn" on PBS.

Hatch is up for reelection next year and can feel the hot breath of the Tea Party, which blew away his Utah colleague Bob Bennett after 18 years together in the Senate.

In this atmosphere, the battle will only grow more bitter and worsen a literal life-and-death struggle with political posturing while health care deteriorates.

In the real world, insurance companies still siphon off one of every three dollars that should be spent on patient care and tie up doctors, hospitals and labs with claim-prevention paperwork.

Providers struggle to find innovative ways to make patient care better but are overwhelmed by the insanity of the system.

One of the best doctors I know is forced to cut back his practice severely by converting to Concierge Care, in effect charging patients a hefty annual fee to keep qualifying for his services.

Even before the new law's reforms take full effect, the old system is collapsing. We don't have death panels yet, but rationing is well on its way, with Washington blowhards on both sides beating up on one another as patients sit unattended in waiting rooms.

Update: A New York Times editorial challenges Republicans to match the President's willingness to change with ideas of their own:

"Alternative approaches might include replacing the mandate to buy insurance with a system to automatically enroll people in health plans, reformulating tax credits for small businesses and low-income individuals to encourage near-universal coverage, adopting such liberal approaches as a single-payer plan or a public option, and even moving all or part of the enrollees in Medicaid into new health insurance exchanges. These would all have to be done without driving up the federal deficit or reducing benefits, affordability and coverage."

Waiting for a response from Dr. Boehner or Dr. McConnell, they should not hold their breath.