Saturday, April 30, 2011

What's at Stake in 2012

In most elections, politicians pump up small differences into "issues" to distinguish themselves from the other guys. That won't be a problem next year, as two contrasting visions of America emerge in a contest between President Obama and an unknown Republican who will embody theirs.

In 1960, there was a big debate over what to do about two small islands, Matsu and Quemoy, between mainland China and Taiwan. Nixon accused JFK of weakness by being unwilling to use nukes to defend those dots thousands of miles away.

Eight years later, something real was at stake. With Americans dying in Vietnam, Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by vaguely promising to end that disastrous war. He won, but it took him five years to do it.

Now, behind all the bombast, the political divide is as genuine as it gets. The clowns (pace Trump) are going offstage, and the knife throwers are coming on.

Enter Gov. Mitch Daniels, the "reluctant" candidate, to defund Planned Parenthood in Indiana. After urging his party to call "a truce on the so-called social issues until the economic crisis is resolved," Daniels is making just such a move. He might as well have thrown in his hat with the announcement.

In the GOP new-face department, Daniels is behind Paul Ryan, the poster boy for heartless budget-cutting, whose charts and graphs conceal a regression to an America without a social safety net. Ryan's "flim flams" and outright lies about deficit reduction will come to the fore if he is on the Republican ticket.

Meanwhile, until or unless Barack Obama turns up the volume, the debate will be about dollars not human life, leaving it to marginal figures such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to remind us on the Daily Show that we "take for granted a Social Security system today which for 75 years has paid out every nickel to every eligible American, has reduced poverty among senior citizens from 50% to 10%.

"You got a Medicare system, it has its problems, but there are millions and millions of seniors today who are alive and healthy because of Medicare...You have Pell Grants which are enabling young people to get a college education that otherwise would not...So while we want to make sure that government is operating efficiently and honestly, let’s not throw the baby out with bath water.”

Sanders will defend his seat next year, just as the President runs to retain his. It would help clarify the national debate if they were both somewhere unashamedly on the same page defending the true value of government

Update: The Mitch Daniels bandwagon starts rolling as GOP strategists bewail "a lack of fizz" and "a flatness to the field" as their first TV debate on Fox looms next week. To offset the loonies and losers, they are beating the bushes for Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell--anyone plausible enough to make their case to the public on this planet rather than the Tea Party's.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Subverting Prince William's Mum

On the day of the Royal Wedding, memories of odd doings during the groom's toddler days with his fabled mother:

In the 1980s, a women's magazine editor was duty-bound to run cover stories about super-celebrity "Di." I did, including one showing her holding up Prince William, with a line reading "Princess Diana Faces the 'Terrible Twos' and Baby No. 2," based on a suspicion that the royal timetable called for a backup prince sooner than later.

The day the issue came out, the Palace announced her second pregnancy, and besieged by phone calls from reporters about how we knew, I responded with exquisite bad taste, "Inside information."

Soon afterward, we did get "inside information" from Buckingham Palace. Astonishingly, to refute rumors about Princess Diana's marriage and her mothering, the Queen's Press Secretary and his associate gave an exclusive interview to a McCalls reporter.

At the time, their choice of an American magazine seemed strange, perhaps influenced by the fact that the interviewer was a beautiful young woman, but in hindsight, it must have been more complicated than that--the start of Palace intrigue against Princess Diana.

This suspicion is confirmed by the fact that they brought up rumors we had never heard before, and their denials were laced with confirmation that there was some truth to them.

Princess Di has anorexia: "The Prince was concerned, everyone was concerned because the Princess did lose an enormous amount of weight following the birth of Prince William," but she was only trying to get back into shape for her public schedule.

Diana is a "shopaholic" who spends $4,000 a week on clothes: "The Princess does have a very distinguished wardrobe, and I think everyone would agree she's a leader of fashion."

Diana has a hot temper and expresses it with screaming or hostile silence: "There have been a lot of ups and downs," the Queen's Press Secretary admitted. "Of course, they have their disagreements, but they work them out in private."

Not always. "Everybody has seen her when she really has had enough of the cameras. You saw it on the slopes a year ago." What reporters saw and overheard was Charles pleading, "Please. Diana, please. Don't be stupid."

Prince William is a little terror, and Diana has no control over him: "Wills," they explained, is in the "terrible twos when children break things and throw everything in reach on the floor, but he's just a normal little boy. He was running up and down the halls of the offices here yesterday, while the Princess was swimming."

As the saying goes, with friends like that, you don't need enemies. When the story came out, there was a howl of pain from the British press, which had been making headlines from every rumor that the Princess had a hangnail. But the Palace issued no denials.

In later years, all this would seem tame when Fleet Street bloundhounds sniffed out tapes of cell phone calls by Charles and Diana with unplatonic friends, and the couple moved toward a formal separation.

As the world celebrates the glamour of a Westminster Abbey ceremony and all that, these memories are a reminder, along with populist grumblings, that there can be a seamier reality behind all that.

But, after William and Kate take their vows, this old Anglophile will be watching a rerun of the cheerful 1951 musical, "Royal Wedding," with footage of Queen Elizabeth's nuptials in the background. Featured in the cast were Winston Churchill's daughter Sarah and Peter Lawford, who would later marry into American royalty by wedding JFK's sister.

That ended in divorce, too, but today, it's only the romantic spectacle that counts.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Turning on Trump

As the President makes Birther jokes to Oprah ("I was there") and at fundraisers, the next stage of the media cycle begins: payback for Trump.

Like the slaughterhouse that uses every part of the pig but the squeal, journalists build up a big name, feast on it and then chop up the leftovers for a stew of deconstruction.

Now the Trump pot is heating up with editorial outrage at his antics, reports of falling TV ratings, doubts about his GOP credentials and the whole range of follow-ups that squeeze every last drop out of a hot "newsmaker." Next stop: Charlie Sheenville.

On MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell accuses his bosses of having "created a monster" by letting Trump go wild in politics without reining him in--as CBS did with its embarrassing star. But then again, Sheen was attacking the network, not just the President of the United States.

A New York Times editorial observes that the birth-certificate issue "was picked up by a cartoon candidate, Donald Trump, who rode birtherism directly to the prime-time promontories of cable TV. The Republican establishment began to wince as it became increasingly tied to Mr. Trump’s flirtations with racial provocation, and Karl Rove told him to knock it off. Naturally, he did not."

The diehards won't stop, but the media are all fired up for a Trump luau that will feed the public for a few more days until the next big porker lumbers into its abattoir.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama Birth, Romney Rebirth

Those who want to protect America from a Commander-in-Chief of questionable citizenship are getting ahead of themselves by putting all their energy into proving that Barack Hussein Obama was foreign-born and should not be reelected.

In primaries before next November, they will first have to head off Mitt (another odd name) Romney who may not be a secret Muslim but is a professed Mormon, certainly out of the Christian mainstream.

And while Romney has a valid Michigan birth certificate, there is also the question of a death certificate, officially stamped on his passport ("He is dead") by the French police after a lethal auto accident while he was a missionary there in 1968.

If the Birthers, led by their new spokesman, can see a Manchurian candidate scenario in sunny Hawaii, how much more plausible is the substitution by the devious French of a 21-year-old imposter with plastic surgery, waiting to emerge decades later and moved into the White House to foist foreign ideas on America?

To make their case against Romney, the Birthers could cite all those numerous flipflops of his on major issues, proving that he is not a genuine Conservative but an undercover agent who will do anything to get elected.

If he is really serious in his crusade, Donald Trump will get all his invisible agents out of Honolulu chasing Obama's birth records and send them to southern France to find out what really happened after Mitt Romney was pronounced dead.

That would force Anderson Cooper and his CNN crew to get over there too and do some real investigative reporting about Romney, instead of just taking the word of all those Hawaiians that Obama was born there.

Satire Apology: There is no way to send up you-know-who; he does it so much better himself. As Trump blusters toward a possible GOP run, we learn he gives most of his campaign money to...Democrats, overwhelmingly in his home state, New York.

“Everyone’s Democratic,” he explains. “So what am I going to do--contribute to Republicans? One thing: I’m not stupid. Am I going to contribute to Republicans...when they get beat when they run against some Democrat and the most they can get is 1 percent of the vote?”

Whatever he says about Obama's origins, one thing is clear: Trump wasn't born yesterday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trump's Bully Pulpit

Anderson Cooper, who was pushed around by a Cairo crowd earlier this year, takes a verbal mauling while trying to interrupt Donald Trump's tirade about the Obama birth certificate with a few facts.

This was not what Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he called the Presidency a bully pulpit. Luckily for the CNN anchor, it was a phone interview so the shoving was verbal as the non-candidate kept pelting him with shaky assertions even as Cooper struggled to get a few words in to question the sources on which they were based.

As bad as the mud wrestling was, CNN will air the rest of the interview tonight. Why so much Trump trumpery? Cable news, of course, is about ratings, not journalism, and as the network honcho explained his importance in the 1970s movie "Network" to the insane anchorman, "Because you're on TV, dummy."

Ironically, Trump's media ride comes as HBO is showing a muddled movie dramatizing the origin of reality TV, the 1973 PBS series about the Loud family, under the title "Cinema Verite" (pretentious, moi?).

One theme of that effort is how journalists, even "documentary" filmmakers, and their subjects "manipulate each other and thus warp the story they're co-creating."

As a fake reality star, Trump is now taking it all to the logical extreme, stepping off the set of his own show to run rampant all over the small screen, cutting out interviewers, the middle men, by taking over both parts of the dialogue.

If he gets there, he can stock the White House Briefing Room with cardboard reporters and ask himself only the questions he wants to answer. He is giving us a preview of that now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Arab Spring, Long American Winter

In this season of renewal, the American spirit is still bleak, but there are small signs of brightness ahead.

New polls show a "dour public mood is dragging down ratings for both parties in Congress and for President Obama," with lawmakers' approval rating at 17 percent, near an all-time low.

In contrast to an Arab Spring, no matter what daffodils and forsythia are saying, an American Winter of pessimism is persisting.

The dollar's value is sliding, and despite the Federal Reserve's efforts, "the pace of recovery from the global financial crisis has flagged."

Spiked by the Middle East uprisings, high gas prices remind Americans daily that they are being pinched. And even liberal pundits warn that the President has chosen the "wrong economic message" to rally his supporters by falling into the GOP's budget deficit trap instead of concentrating on job creation.

Reflecting all this gloom, Michigan is going Dickensian with a proposed new law to let foster children wear only used clothing from Goodwill, the Salvation Army and other second-hand stores. “I never had anything new,” the sponsor says. “I got all the hand-me-downs."

Yet for those who look closely, there are signs of Spring--among them growing resistance to the Republican's Ryan Plan to tear down the social safety net for the old, poor and disabled. Polls show overwhelming support for keeping hands off Medicare, and House Democrats have come out of hiding with a realistic plan that calls for more "shared sacrifice."

In the Senate, with Susan Collins defecting from the Ryan Plan, Harry Reid is planning to force a vote to pressure other Republicans to put up or shut up.

Even David Stockman, cheerleader for the notorious Trickle-Down Theory that fueled social inequality by pushing tax cuts for the rich and offering crumbs to the poor, is now back to preach against "The Bipartisan March to Fiscal Madness" and "Washington’s feckless drift into class war."

Reagan's Rip Van Winkle is three decades late, but his awakening reinforces hope that bad seasons don't last forever. We are more than ready for some of his former boss' "Morning in America" cheerfulness.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mixed Blessing for Trump: A Flashback

Billy Graham's son and successor says the Donald may be his "candidate of choice" for the Presidency, stirring memories of how the fabled minister got his start as the spiritual advisor to Presidents.

In backing Trump, the Grahams would be coming full circle on gambling casinos from a founder of Las Vegas to the honcho of Atlantic City.

In 1940s after starting out as a Fuller Brush salesman, the elder Graham went to L. A. and started saving celebrity souls. A young evangelist not adverse to publicity, he was landing only small fish until he hooked onto the mobster who helped Bugsy Siegel invent Vegas, Mickey Cohen ("I have killed no man that didn't deserve killing." Think Harvey Keitel in Warren Beatty's 1991 movie, "Bugsy.").

The conversion lasted only long enough to generate headlines but, after Cohen did a prison stretch, the Rev. Graham tried again, breaking bread with the reformed gangster.

"I am very high on the Christian way of life," Cohen said afterward. "Billy came up, and before we had food he said—-What do you call it. that thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff."

Alas, the conversion was not a complete success and, after flaunting his legitimacy in the media, Cohen was sent back to prison for tax evasion. "Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians," he shrugged. "Why not a Christian gangster?"

But the Graham ministry has never backed down from a challenge and, in Donald Trump, they will have the biggest to date. In converting to piety a loudmouth, loose-living, double-dealing egomaniac, they will be moving up from praying with Presidents to trying to create one.

Heaven help them--and the rest of us. "God does play dice with the universe," Albert Einstein famously said, but legendary evangelists apparently do, if they are willing to put Donald Trump's finger on the White House nuclear button.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Inverted American Empire

Somehow we got this thing backward. When I was studying history, the British controlled one-quarter of the world's land mass and its people, making them rich and powerful. Less than a century later, the U.S. is fighting in the Middle East with troops all over Europe and Asia in occupations that are draining trillions from our economy.

How did we get into such a dyslexic version of empire and how long can we sustain it? And why are we doing it?

The questions arise as we take another expensive step into a Libyan quagmire with the use of Predator drones even as John McCain, the Senator from Endless War, urges, "All we need to do is get sufficient air power in there to really nail Qaddafi's forces, and we can succeed."

As we inch toward more war in Libya, the one we "won" in Iraq is still weighing us down as the Baghdad government clutches at us to keep troops there, even as "fragile" progress in Afghanistan threatens that scheduled drawdown this summer.

In the face of all this pressure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is worrying out loud about the President's goal of cutting $400 billion from national security spending over 12 years:

“The worst of all possible worlds, in my view, is to give the entire Department of Defense a haircut--basically (saying) everybody is going to cut X percent."

Haircuts will do little without a reassessment of the Armed Forces' strategic mission in this century, which has been defined by a single event--the 9/11 attack--and the anxiety growing from it.

As its tenth anniversary nears, shouldn't we ask ourselves what we have been doing all over the Arab world since then, and isn't there a better way, without expending so much American blood and treasure, of protecting our national interests?

Reality eventually broke up the British Empire to end the inflow of wealth that gave them so much for so long. We should reexamine the reality that could reduce the American outflow that has been taking so much from us for so long now.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trump, Reagan and Karl Marx

"History repeats itself," said the father of Communism, "first as tragedy, then as farce." He foresaw what's going on now in a disoriented GOP that still hates his guts.

If Donald Trump stops tripping over himself to win the nomination, the party line would hail him as the Second Coming of Reagan, but the parallels are not the ones they would be selling.

Both candidates were created by TV, Reagan as a pitchman for General Electric (a global corporation that now pays no taxes) and Trump as the fictional business giant who, in real life, keeps losing other people's money and going bankrupt.

Unlike Trump, Reagan's ratings went south. As a former not-quite-movie star and one-time Democrat, he turned to conservative politics the way washed-up contemporaries now flock to celebrity reality shows and roasts, delivering a canned speech about free enterprise with such sincerity that he found himself Governor of California.

But in today's souped-up media-ocracy, no experience is required as presidential apprenticeship: Trump is poised to go directly from what David Brooks calls "Blowhardia" to a White House run with none of Reagan's experience in the government trenches.

Political incorrectness might not stand in the way. Just as Reagan became the first divorced president ever, conservatives may overlook Trump's flamboyant personal life the way many backed a multi-married, cross-dressing, pro-choice Rudy Giuliani the last time around. Desperation for a winner breeds tolerance.

After the bumbling of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Reagan rode into the White House on public disgust for two soothing terms as a Great Communicator who did little domestically and almost got himself impeached for illegal behavior in the Iran-Contra dealings but is now remembered mostly for his "Morning in America" rhetoric.

With disgust now at the rage level, the Trump boomlet is riding a much stronger current. Unless a plausible Republican stops his momentum, it could carry him to the nomination by default and fulfill the Marxist prophecy with a Groucho Marx farce. But few Americans would be laughing. With the possible exception of Democrats who, other than Obama and Clinton, have held a monopoly on ridiculous candidates over the past half century.

Update: The Trump farce continues as he berates Jerry Seinfeld for pulling out of one of his charities with unpresidential nastiness and to keep the publicity pot boiling promises to reveal "very interesting things" about the search for Obama's birth records.

Anybody here old enough to remember Geraldo Rivera's big buildup to opening Al Capone's safe and finding it empty?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Obama in a Media Hall of Mirrors

During serial interviews with local TV, the President is caught showing frustration with an aggressive Texas reporter who pushes hard about his unpopularity in the Lone Star state.

When it's over, with the camera still on, the Commander-in-Chief complains: “Let me finish my answers the next time we do an interview, all right?”

Life is imitating art again in the media hall of mirrors, as the President's reaction echoes a 2002 incident in "The West Wing" that may have inspired John Kerry when he was running for President in 2004.

Kerry, wearing a live mic, told voters his opponents were "crooked" and "lying." Back then, a New York Times column on "the gaffe," titled "Testing, Testing. Shrewd Politics or Kerry Foot-in-Mouth Syndrome?" suggested the Democratic candidate was taking a cue from the TV series:

"In one episode of the show two years ago, President Bartlet was giving a news interview and, once the interview was over, proceeded to disparage the intelligence of his Republican opponent, as the television camera kept rolling. There was a spate of stories critical of the president, but also, stories questioning the intelligence of Bartlet's opponents.

"The point of the episode was that President Bartlet had meant what he said and said what he meant.'The West Wing' has fans on the Kerry staff."

Whether President Obama was just annoyed at his Texas questioner or consciously letting off steam, the small uproar over his remark points up the disrespect for the nation's chief executive that has grown in this century, first with George W. Bush and now with his successor.

Nobody wants to go back to the overly compliant press of the past, but neither should any yahoo with a camera crew be badgering the President as he tries to get through to Americans about his deficit proposals.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

S&P: Degraded Downgrader

The Standard&Poor's warning on U. S. debt is being treated as Holy Writ, driving markets down and inspiring Chicken Little clucking in the financial world, but few are questioning the source.

We are not talking about the Vatican here but a for-profit company, owned by McGraw-Hill publishers, that has taken a public beating for over-rating the mortgage derivatives that led to an economic meltdown and is currently being investigated by the European Commission for "monopoly abuse" in its charges for debt data.

A skeptic might be tempted to think that S&P's bold stance has as much to do with its own rehabilitation as with macroeconomics. One equity-firm head puts it baldly:

"I have stopped paying any attention to anything that S&P says or does. Its performance over the past decade has revealed it to be incompetent and corrupt--it sold its AAA ratings to the highest bidder. It is the broker who lost all your money, the girlfriend who cheated on you, the partner who stole from you."

That said, the political world, including the White House, is welcoming the flawed messenger's message--that partisan jockeying over U. S. debt can spook lenders, including China, who are underwriting our deficits.

On the day of Pulitzer Prize announcements, the S&P flap is yet another reminder of how information flows in the 24/7 era of facts, factoids and fake news. For the first time, the national reporting award goes to journalism that did not appear in print--ProPublica's online series, "The Wall Street Money Machine."

Meanwhile, David Brooks, while keeping him at arm's length, deconstructs Donald Trump's appeal to "voters who believe that America could reverse its decline if only a straight-talking, obnoxious blowhard would take control."

To understand the world we live in, are these are only choices--a self-interested ratings service, non-profit investigative journalism or a self-promoting blowhard?

If they are, we are in trouble that goes deeper than debt.

Update: For reality-based reactions to the S&P spooking, one of journalism's sane voices, James Fallows, cites antidotes to the "(Needless) Hysteria."

Monday, April 18, 2011

Behind the Debt Limit Din

The noise level, as always, is high but whispers of sanity can be heard.

"What leaders don’t want to replicate," blogs New York Times' Richard Harwood, "is the brinksmanship that left the federal government within an hour of shutting down. On the debt limit, suspense itself could produce the falling confidence and rising interest rates that business and government both want to avoid."

But the barrier to bipartisan agreement is ideological posturing, Republican lust to tear down entitlements vs. Democratic desire to save as much of the social safety net as possible--an honest difference in values run amok.

In this climate, missing is the traditional influence of the "American ruling class," as E. J. Dionne describes it: "(T)he informal networks of the wealthy and powerful who often wield at least as much influence as our elected politicians accepted that their good fortune imposed an obligation: to reform and thus preserve the system that allowed them to do so well. They advocated social decency out of self-interest (reasonably fair societies are more stable) but also from an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. 'Noblesse oblige' sounds bad until it doesn’t exist anymore."

But politicians today, as much beholden to the 24/7 media din as wealthy patrons, are in a dilemma as Paul Krugman observes that "the two parties don’t just live in different moral universes, they also live in different intellectual universes...So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where’s the common ground?"

The common ground is survival of the American economy and, as Standard & Poor's lowers its outlook to negative, spooking global investors, Congress had better rush to loftier positions to escape an oncoming financial tsunami.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

GOP Hoof-and-Mouth Circus

Dr. Rand Paul, who months ago was checking out patients' eyes, is on TV proposing to cut off the Federal budget at the knees.

Sarah Palin, who abandoned her own state for big bucks, is on the Wisconsin capitol steps, to praise a no-show Gov. Scott Walker for resisting "violent rent-a-mobs": "He's not trying to hurt union members. Hey folks, he’s trying to save your jobs and your pensions.”

Donald Trump, with a history of business and personal bankruptcies, is on the tube bragging, "“I'm a much bigger business man and have much, much bigger net worth. I mean, my net worth is many, many, many times Mitt Romney.”

Welcome to the GOP 2012 three-ring circus, where all the attractions are suffering from hoof-in-mouth disease but for now are vastly entertaining crowds with their crazed antics.

The scene recalls one in an old Paul Newman movie, "Hud," in which infected cattle are herded into a large pit to be killed by shooters in raincoats and then covered with dirt by a bulldozer.

Voters may be enjoying the Republican show now, but that bulldozer is waiting in the wings just in case one of the critters staggers into the White House and starts to bury us all.

Is this a great country or what?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What-If: President JFK Jr.

In a fascinating new book, TV journalist Jeff Greenfield imagines alternate history in the past century--a 1960 assassination of President-Elect JFK to put LBJ in the White House for the Cuban Missile Crisis; Robert Kennedy's survival in 1968 to run against Nixon; and a 1976 victory by Ford over Carter to face the Iran hostage crisis.

Such what-ifs, underscoring how personalities and accidents affect history, suggest one for our times: Suppose John F. Kennedy Jr. had survived the plane crash that killed him in 1999 and gone on to a political career that put him in the White House now?

A plausible scenario would have him, with his background as publisher of a political magazine, running for the open New York Senate seat in 2000 and in a primary defeating Hillary Clinton with her recent baggage from the Lewinsky scandal and as a "carpetbagger" who had just moved into the state.

In 2008, with eight Washington years behind him, JFK Jr. would have been the ideal electoral antidote for the miserable Bush era, with newer Sen. Barack Obama on the ticket, to offer a combination of hope for the future and resonance of the Kennedy past to win the White House.

Most intriguing, given the same economic meltdown, Middle East muddle and fight over health care reform, is the question of how much traction GOP wall-to-wall resistance and Tea Party rage could have gained against a president invulnerable to charges of being a radical outsider who was not born in the U.S.A.?

If history is any guide, with the advice of uncle Ted and Camelot survivors, a second President Kennedy might have been as political cautious as his father but also more sure-footed than Obama has been in navigating the minefields of Congress and certainly less of a target of opportunity for wild slander.

Seeing Caroline Kennedy, now 53, on TV to promote her new book of poetry is a reminder of her failed attempt at being appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat two years ago and that her brother at 50 would have been a year older than Obama is now.

Yet some of the old Kennedy problems might have persisted. Even with John Jr. more than a decade gone, a former long-time girlfriend now publishes a fond memoir of when he was People's "Sexiest Man Alive," involved not only with her but actress Darryl Hannah and journalist Christine Amanpour, among others.

But, in light of the Perils of Barack Obama today and the collection of clods vying to replace him, grateful voters would surely have been as forgiving as they were for his father. And after eight years as VP, Obama would have been in good shape to run as the first African-American president in 2016.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tea Party Movie

As if Tax Day weren't painful enough, it brings the premiere of "Atlas Shrugged: Part I," a film 50 years in the making that, from reviews, seems almost as long to sit through.

Nonetheless, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Tea Party members will be on the edge of their seats watching Ayn Rand's epic of how "men are slave to society and government, and destruction of the profit motive leads to the collapse of society" as a parable for their current struggle to save America.

But there are critics. On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart invokes the prophetess by showing a giant Paul Ryan robot crushing senior citizens with a copy of her other doorstop epic, "The Fountainhead," required reading for Ryan's staff members.

Less hilarious is Paul Krugman, calling the Ryan plan "a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy."

Yet the Ayn Rand fantasy lives, not only in the hearts of Tea Party politicians but even an online dating service for Objectivists, who can find selfish soulmates and get together to watch the movie, munch popcorn and mutter about the moochers who are stealing their hard-earned wealth.

Meanwhile, even the review of conservative P. J. O'Rourke in the Wall Street Journal is headed "Atlas Shrugged. And So Did I," complaining that the movie "treats its source material with such formal, reverent ceremoniousness that the uninitiated will feel they’ve wandered without a guide into the midst of the elaborate and interminable rituals of some obscure exotic tribe."

But in Washington, the tribe is far from obscure, fueling a debate on the nation's economy with ideas from tracts that were considering loony nonsense by conservatives and liberals in the last century but are being celebrated on hundreds of movie screens now.

Update: One of the kinder reviews (on the Atlantic blog) says "the movie seems less like a story than a sort of visual concordance...Each element is religiously mentioned, but very little of it is adequately explained, much less dramatized. I suspect that for people who haven't read the book, the result is incomprehensible. What remains is a bunch of self-impressed windbags boring each other over drinks. I live in Washington DC. At least around here, that sort of thing is a live event, not movie material."

If you can call Washington "live."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gun-to-the-Head Governing--With Blanks

Don't bother to send in the clowns, they're here (see the 2012 GOP hopefuls), but it's those in Congress who are armed and dangerous, threatening to turn the world's richest nation into a gambling saloon for financial markets.

As last week's shutdown shootout cuts turn out to be illusory, Capitol Hill zealots prepare to repeat it with the vote over raising the debt ceiling and spook world buyers of U.S. bonds into raising rates, as they have in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Iceland, leading to higher deficits and even more borrowing.

Tea Party cowboys see themselves as riding to the rescue of an economy strapped to the railroad tracks, but their ignorant antics are threatening to shoot the hostage in the head and themselves in the foot.

The GOP could have pre-written its reflexive response to the President's proposal to cut borrowing by $4 trillion over 12 years with cuts in military and domestic spending as well as higher taxes on the wealthy.

But the stand of Boehner and McConnell is statesmanlike compared to that of Rand Paul and his ilk, who want to make a last stand at the fiscal Alamo over last week's agreement.

Wall Street is warning sane Republicans not to keep going to the brink, but the Congressional leadership will have a hard time restraining its newcomers from shooting up the debt ceiling debate.

Voters of all persuasions have already registered revulsion over this kind of gun-to-the-head governing but, when they start to see the real-life consequences, will they begin to rise up in outrage to sink the Tea Party and its cargo?

Update: An objective economic analysis finds the Ryan Plan "was generated by manipulating a model that would not otherwise produce this result, and that the basis for this manipulation is not supported either theoretically or empirically.

"This is indeed unfortunate, since it might encourage some legislators to believe that slicing federal debt dramatically can produce long-run gain without short-run pain...Unfortunately, we expect budget hawks to advance this argument during the coming debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. That would be an especially bad time to make the mistake of assuming the answer."

Translation: The Tea Party gun is loaded with blanks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gender on the Agenda Again

The President proclaims Equal Pay Day "to recognize the full value of women's skills and...acknowledge the injustice of wage discrimination."

Rupert Murdoch isn't buying it, as the Wall Street Journal insists "There Is No Male-Female Wage Gap" and that the day is "dedicated to manufactured feminist grievances."

That tortured argument has all the logic of the claim that tax cuts for the richest Americans are good for the economy but, as I write this, my eyes light on a framed scroll on the wall for efforts to pass the "Equal Rights Amendment" to the Constitution in 1979.

It failed, of course, and women's equality today is glibly asserted by citing numbers in the President's Cabinet and on the Supreme Court. But as always, political sound-bites cover up the reality of people's lives.

From years of editing women's magazines and co-writing a book on divorce, a different picture emerges, particularly among millions of single mothers struggling to survive on what the legal system provides for them.

The one area of American life in which women achieved "equality" was new no-fault divorce laws, which leave middle-aged women with children in poverty while former husbands thrive.

Ironically, TV screens are showing HBO's bloated remake of "Mildred Pierce," about the trials of such women in the bad old days of the last century, with about as much resemblance to the original movie as a tract on whaling to "Moby Dick."

The heroine is victimized by everyone but redeemed by baking pies and serving food. As a vintage weeper, it may make viewers feel good that their lives are so different now, but in the light of Equal Pay Day, are they really?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The President's Human Shields

Like the smart kid beset by schoolyard bullies, Barack Obama is turning to wonkish jocks for protection.

Leaks from The Speech reveal he will be relying on his Commission on Deficit Reduction and perhaps Congress' Gang of Six for bipartisan cover but also raise a question: If the President is taking a centrist stance against Republican extremism, who speaks for those who take a (dirty word alert) Liberal position? Where are the champions of what used to be a major view in American politics?

As Ezra Klein points out, Obama's failure to cite the Commission earlier has shifted the ground of the deficit debate to "a compromise between a centrist plan like Simpson-Bowles and a hardline conservative plan like Ryan’s, that’s not going to produce something Democrats are happy with, and Obama will be blamed for not taking the initiative and forcing everyone to simply consider Simpson-Bowles when he had a chance."

On the heels of the President's apparent tower-of-jello posture comes word that the Gang of Six is ready to follow up with its own compromised version of the Deficit Commission's proposals.

When Barack Obama took office, did anyone dream that a major issue now would be a debate over how and when to dismantle Medicare?

The only ray of hope in all this is an expression of overwhelming public disgust over last week's shutdown charade with voters calling the spectacle “disgusting,” “frustrating,” “messy,” “disappointing” and “stupid.”

If the President hides behind bipartisan human shields this week, the adjectives are not likely to turn more positive.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Obama's Next Great Speech (Ho-Hum?)

The familiar pattern emerges: Aides spin a preview, he delivers an admirable speech, nothing changes.

How did Barack Obama morph from an inspiring orator to a professorial President without the power to lead? Yes, yes: a crashing economy, wall-to-wall GOP resistance, Tea Party insanity... Granted, but there must be more.

"I'd rather be a really good one-term president," he said a year ago, "than a mediocre two-term president." As of now, there is doubt that he will be either.

Wednesday's speech on deficits offers another chance to lead, but a sinking suspicion suggests more of the same.

"Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office," Paul Krugman writes, "Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America’s partisan differences. re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise.

"But...the nation wants--and more important, the nation needs--a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand."

It's more complicated than that, of course, but these past two years underscore the classic dilemma about oratory: differing public responses to Cicero ("How well he speaks") and Demosthanes ("Let us march!").

If the President wants to mobilize Americans to back him against the Republican blueprint to tear down their government, more than Ciceronian eloquence is needed.

He will have to abandon illusions he can persuade Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan and the GOP 2012 pygmy aspirants to reason with him and risk engaging now in the confrontation that is coming next year in any case.

Barack Obama is no Truman, in temperament or intellect, but now would be the time to study the 1948 campaign in which "Give 'em Hell Harry" tore into a "do-nothing, good-for-nothing Congress"--and won reelection.

A "really good one-term president" would be mobilizing Americans against Tea Party madness now, remembering Truman's insistence that "The buck stops here." If he takes that advice, Obama may find controlling the debate about bucks can determine what happens at the ballot box.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Donald, Apprentice President

How can you satirize someone who does it himself every day?

Today's Trumpery is a letter to the New York Times attacking columnist Gail Collins, which malicious pencil pushers there have left unedited: "Her storytelling ability and word usage (coming from me, who has written many bestsellers), is not at a very high level."

Collins responds evenly, noting, "I once got an aggrieved message from him in which he misspelled the word 'too.'"

Literacy aside, the issue is Trump's embrace of the "Birthers" in his phantom pursuit of the Presidency, undeclared so far in order to protect his network exposure on "The Apprentice," even as polls begin to show him being taken seriously by potential Republican primary voters.

"More power to him," says another undeclared TV candidate, Sarah Palin, about Trump's "investigation" of Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth, while attempting to stay "credible, rational and moderate" on what she calls a "perplexing" issue.

In this pre-2012 jockeying, credible, rational and moderate are long gone in the rear-view mirror as the self-promoting Empty Suit of all time completely erases the line between politics and buffoonery to make Ronald Reagan's Hollywood background look like Jeffersonian scholarship.

For a small taste of what his candidacy would do to American society, roll out the recent Comedy Central roast, in which Trump sits complacently as show business has-beens and never-will-bes raunchily critique his relentless self-promotion, bankruptcies, hyperactive sex life and hairdo.

The height of wit is attained by social critic Snoop Dogg, observing, "Donald's saying he wants to run for president and move into the White House. Why not? It wouldn't be the first time you've pushed a black family out of their home."

If this candidacy flies, network TV's surrender to cheap reality shows will have infected American society to its core. Trump-Palin? Palin-Trump? Whatever. The ratings will be high.

Update: NBC, Trump's "Apprentice" home, shoots down his Birther baloney with an interview of the Hawaiian official formerly in charge of the records he disputes, pointing out, among other things, that a Republican governor in 2008 was backing McCain and would surely have disputed her verification of Obama's certificate if there had been any basis for doing so.

There is also the small matter of his birth announcement appearing in Hawaii's two newspapers, but that presumes that Trump and the Birthers can read.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Eleventh Hour Lovefest

In a windup worthy of the WWF, Washington budget wrestlers bounce off the canvas to take bows and hug one another for the cheering crowds.

In the Senate, Harry Reid is so carried away that, hours after calling the GOP "shameful," he praises every Republican in sight including John Boehner's chief of staff and, most of all, Mitch McConnell, who gushes back that Congress has made history, instead of repeating the history of the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton government shutdown.

For skeptics who suspect that the match was fixed from the start, Dana Milbank points out, "If negotiators were driven by logic, the possibility of a shutdown never would have arisen. Instead, they decided to go to DefCon 1 over a skirmish involving a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget."

But for an evening with no Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, the late-night entertainment value of the "showdown" should not be underestimated. If Linda McMahon, the doyenne of professional wrestling, had won that Connecticut Senate seat, she would have been proud.

Boehner is apologizing to Tea Party fans for not having taken it all in the SmackDown, but there will be other nights to build an audience for what looks like a continuing hit show.

Update: The President, unblinking optimist that he is, at least in public, puts the best face on the farce in his Weekly Address:

"Like any compromise, this required everyone to give ground on issues that were important to them. I certainly did. Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful--programs people rely on will be cut back; needed infrastructure projects will be delayed. And I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances. But we also prevented this important debate from being overtaken by politics and unrelated disagreements on social issues."

Translation: The Republicans brought a gun to a knife fight, but we dodged the bullet.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Middle East Money Pit vs. Mugging Old Ladies

In Baghdad, Robert Gates is reassuring troops they will be paid, eventually, no matter what happens in Congress, even as he tells them they may be staying longer than scheduled.

"If folks here are going to want us to have a presence," the Defense Secretary says, "we're going to need to get on with it pretty quickly in terms of our planning."

While politicians fight the Battle of Washington over a pittance for abortion funding and other social issues, the American money pit in the Middle East keeps getting deeper.

More than $1.1 trillion after the Bush Administration promised that Iraq oil would pay for its reconstruction, U. S. money is still pouring in as foreign companies vie to extract profits from the nation's natural resources.

Yet, in all the posturing over a fraction of budget deficits, not a word is heard to question huge American expenditures for what is becoming more and more an illusory War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and who-knows-where-else.

Pay the troops by all means, but at the same time start the debate over saving billions by getting them out of harm's way.

Bank robber Willie Sutton once explained his vocational choice by pointing out, "Because that's where the money is." If John Boehner, Paul Ryan and the Tea Party had been advising him, Sutton would have been out mugging old ladies for their Medicare checks.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Metaphor of the Day

Life seldom provides the perfect image for politics but, as John Boehner and Harry Reid struggle to extrude an agreement to avert a government shutdown, a man in nearby Maryland is found glued to a Wal-Mart toilet.

Surgical treatment at a nearby emergency room is required to detach the seat, a more successful procedure than Dr. Obama's attempt at the White House last night to get Congress unstuck.

Call in Comedy Central.

Two Different Wars on Poverty

Half a century after LBJ, America is on the brink of another "War on Poverty," this one not to ease the misery of millions but make them pay for tax cuts for the rich and comfortable.

Behind all the budget gabble is a reversal of Johnson's "Great Society" that provided a safety net for the poorest Americans with Medicare, Medicaid, Federal aid to education and, not incidentally, civil rights, all of which led to prosperity until a decade ago when unregulated greed began to undermine it.

Now, those most responsible for an economic meltdown are proposing to reverse it by going back to policies that led to the Great Depression. In his first Inaugural, FDR railed against "the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish" and proposed a return to "ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."

Republicans may be leading the charge backward, but the failure is bipartisan, a concentration on numbers with little discussion of those values behind them.

When the game of shutdown chicken ends, the President, instead of coaxing Congress to play nice, will have to set out an agenda that is faithful to the legacies of FDR and LBJ and give Americans a choice between those humanitarian traditions and Tea Party selfishness.

From the Johnson era, there is a clue to the direction Obama should take. In the 1960s, the Great Society was flourishing until LBJ became mindlessly enmeshed in Vietnam and squandered his legacy, both fiscally and politically.

Now, amid reports that the White House is remaking its national security team, would be the time to rethink our enormous investment in the Middle East and find ways of reducing that instead of making budget cuts on the backs of the most vulnerable Americans.

We don't know what pouring more money into roiling Arab countries will do for American security, but we do know what redirecting much of it back home would do for our social and political well-being.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Paul Ryan's Not-Palin VP Audition

As Washington continues to make April the most confusing and "cruelest month" in memory, at least half of the 2012 Republican ticket is becoming clear.

For clowns contesting for the top spot, Paul Ryan has positioned himself as a young, wonkish, issue-oriented counterweight--next year's knowledgeable not-Palin for Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, Haley Barbour et al and even Palin herself, freeing them to blather Tea Party and Social Conservative banalities while hiding behind his "expertise."

The irony would be a GOP VP candidate who seems to know too much replacing one who clearly understood little of anything. The question is: Which would be worse?

In a campaign, Ryan could easily gloss over criticism of his manifesto such as that of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, "This isn’t a serious proposal; it’s a strange combination of cruelty and insanely wishful thinking" and the two Pinocchios it earns in rigorous fact-checking for "dubious assertions, questionable assumptions and fishy figures."

As he has been doing on talk shows, the handsome, smooth-talking 41-year-old Congressman would project sound-bite seriousness to offset anti-Obama rants of the GOP presidential candidate, a quality that might have helped in 2008.

Tactically, it would be a good move for Republicans who have been beclouding voters' intelligence for a decade to have their own pseudo-intellectual on the ticket. For the rest of us, it would be adding the ultimate injury to insult.

At least with McCain and Palin, we knew what we would be getting. With whoever and Ryan, the picture would not be nearly as clear.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

New Age of Reason

Washington is acting out that old story of the farmer with a reluctant mule and the neighbor who offers to reason with the animal, then bashes its head with a plank.

"I thought you were going to reason with him." "I am, but first I have to get his attention."

Farmer Obama and Neighbor Boehner are standing over a dazed government with no sign that they can get it moving by week's end and deliver crops of services to those who depend on them.

But, to switch clichés, Republicans also have Paul Ryan out playing good cop to the Tea Party's bad cop with budget cuts of $6.2 trillion over ten years, a proposal that David Brooks, without reading the fine print, enthuses over, writing that Ryan "has grasped reality with both hands."

Some reality! Ryan's proposal puts a glaze of reason over a radical "welfare reform" to punish the old and disabled while keeping the future secure for the rich.

All this comports with the topsy-turvy ideas of Ryan's philosophical mentor Ayn Rand. In her loony world, the weak are "moochers," sapping the strength of the strong and the rich. To see what Ryan really wants, watch Rand's movie, "The Fountainhead," in which the architect hero blows up a public housing project because sponsors changed his plans.

"I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life," he insists. "Nor to any part of my energy, nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim...The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing."

Such is the new Age of Reason for America, where pure selfishness is granted equal time with the hard work of making choices for a difficult future.

Brooks is right on one point, that this may be a "moment of truth for President Obama. Will he come up with his own counterproposal, or will he simply demagogue the issue by railing against 'savage' Republican cuts and ignoring the long-term fiscal realities...

"And what about the Senate Republicans? Where do they stand? Or the voters? Are they willing to face reality or will they continue to demand more government than they are willing to pay for?"

Good questions, but can we starting reasoning together without using heavy planks or phony posturing?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Running Through Sand for Reelection

Barack Obama brings to mind a world-class athlete I once saw, slogging through deep sand to strengthen his legs for competition.

In Libya and Washington, the President is doing just that, certainly not by choice, but it could help get him into condition for the 2012 marathon.

With only days left to avoid a government shutdown, he is pushing through Republican resistance even as they unload an even bigger pile of muck for the year ahead.

“We want to get spending and debt under control," says House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, "and we want to get the economy growing, and we want to address the big drivers of our debt, and that is the entitlement programs. We have a moral obligation to the country to do this.”

As always, the GOP is grading morality on a highly skewed upward curve.

“It seems to be the same old, same old,” says Chris Van Hollen, the Committee's ranking Democrat. “It's going to be continued big tax breaks for millionaires and big corporate special interests like oil companies and deep cuts in education for kids and health care for seniors.”

The President will likely avert this week's shutdown (even John Boehner can remember as far back as Newt Gingrich), but his campaign challenge will be to beat back the ruinous Tea Party surge toward dismantling government rather than trimming it back--and then communicate that choice to the voters.

Meanwhile, the stalemate in real sand is in Libya, a near-war in which the only grains of hope are rumors that younger Qaddafis may be ready to beach their aging patriarch, a move that might get the White House unstuck there.

On the day that marks the end of basketball's March Madness, it may be of interest that the athlete running through sand back then in the 1970s was the New York Knicks' Clyde Frazier. His team won it all the next year.

Update: The President makes it official--by email to supporters, kicking off what may be a $l billion campaign that should help shake out some of the sand from his shoes.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

March Madness Cinderellas

In 1950, an underrated team won both the NCAA and NIT basketball tournaments, a feat never accomplished before or since. They played for tuition-free City College of New York, which had no scholarships or country-club campus to attract the best high-school talent.

For those city kids, basketball was like life--threading through tight spaces under pressure, seeing openings and seizing them, making moves while keeping track of where others are, using every second and every inch to score in a game where bodies and brains are always in motion.

At City College, from which I had graduated and was then working in publicity, the game was a religion. We prayed for grace over the hardwood floor of Madison Square Garden and, that year, it came. Our undersized five, sons of Jewish immigrants and black kids whose ancestors had been slaves, won it all.

They were immediately hailed as the "Cinderella Team," but in less than a year, the fairy tale was over. Six of them were indicted for taking bribes from gamblers.

In our office, we had to deal with the uproar. Columnists and commentators who had spread the myth rushed to tear it down. Politicians viewed with alarm. Clergymen sermonized over Moral Decay. Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, dean of the coaches whose teams we had beaten, remarked that such corruption was only to be expected of niggers and kikes-- shortly before his pure Aryan players were arrested on similar charges as were those from other colleges.

Athletes were royalty when they brought in money and prestige, then denounced when they took something for themselves. Unlike those who played for the rah-rah universities, at City College there were no rich alumni to slip them spending money and/or keys to sports cars, only courtside gamblers to pay for going over or under the expected margin of victory.

Coaches and administrators were blind and deaf until prosecutors stepped in, then "shocked, shocked" that there was gambling in the casino. What those kids did was stupid and wrong, but their naivete was painful. None spent any of the money, its value was symbolic. One had stashed his in a shoebox in his mother's closet, and a week before they were caught, another had borrowed ten dollars from me. Now their sports lives were over.

Six decades later, that issue is still unresolved. As colleges and coaches with multi-million dollar contracts are enriched by "amateur" sport, the debate goes on at higher volume than ever before, and even the NCAA's (paid) president agrees that paying students should be "a subject we explore."

In this Final Four, as always, my sympathies will be with the underdogs as they strive only for the glory of it all.

Friday, April 01, 2011

No Boots on the Ground, Only Sneakers

The whatever-it-is in Libya gets more convoluted daily as Defense Secretary Gates tells Congress there will be no U.S. boots on the ground "as long as I'm in this job," while non-uniformed C.I.A agents soft-shoe their way in to find out who the rebels are and what they need.

In the Senate, John McCain proclaims that "Hope is not a strategy" as Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen reports the no-fly mission has been hampered by bad weather.

So much for the military situation. With obvious White House help, David Brooks enthuses over a "Squeeze and See" strategy to "ratchet up the pressure...reaching out to senior Libyan figures to encourage defection (the foreign minister has already split, and more seem to be coming).

"There is an effort to broadcast television signals into Libya to rival state TV. In the liberated areas, the multilateral alliance is sending aid to build civil society and organize the political opposition. The U.S. is releasing billions of confiscated Libyan dollars to the opposition to ensure its staying power."

Sounds good, but at the same time we learn that our Treasury Department has exempted from financial sanctions the Arab Banking Corporation, an institution almost 60 percent owned by the Libyan Central Bank.

Meanwhile, a trickle of high-level defections and rumors of Qaddafi peace overtures in London feed hope this water-drop torture of a non-war may actually end in the foreseeable future.

If it does, Obama will have earned his Peace Prize by winning a war without actually fighting one. Any bets?