Friday, September 30, 2011

Empathy, Altruism and All That Jazz

Today’s subject is how complicated it is to be a good person in today’s world.

David Brooks offers deep-think about the “empathy craze,” citing research that “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”

Half a century ago, Mike Nichols and Elaine May made that point by satirizing an elitist couple's detachment (“It’s basically a moral problem.” “Yes, and moral problems are so much more interesting than real problems.”)

Brooks, as usual, hammers it too hard: “(T)eaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

“People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes...

“It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow.”

It may be, but empathy is also a start toward identifying cruelty to others and raising awareness. Two years ago, in Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Republican senators opposed Justice Sonia Sotomayor, accusing her of having too much empathy for the disadvantaged.

The deeper problem surfaces in moving from empathy to altruism, a concern for others that even animals exhibit but is fast disappearing from American public life.

Tea Party lawmakers have their own “sacred codes,” but they are fixed on money, not people, as they now propose to cut education grants, job training for the unemployed and heating subsidies for the poor.

For Paul Ryan, Ron and Rand Paul and other Ayn Rand acolytes in Congress, the basic sacred principle is her dictum: “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

Rand cited Communism and Fascism as social arrangements in which others sacrifice their interests for others, making no distinction between their brutal oppression and democratic societies that try to balance freedom with responsibility to others.

Now we have the fruits of her confusion being played out in Washington, with what the New York Times calls “An Icy Political Vision,” about which our professorial president is just starting to educate the American people with straight talk.

It will require many more lectures and hard work as the endless Republican debates keep selling the virtues of selfishness.

Being a good person is hard and complicated, but it’s practically impossible when empathy and altruism are turned into dirty words.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Their Terrorists and Ours

Osama bin Laden used to brag about making Americans so paranoid about terror attacks that just raising an al Qaeda flag would panic us into self-damage without any effort on his part.

His legacy comes back in headlines about the arrest of a 26-year-old Massachusetts man, who has been working for months with FBI sting agents to prepare attacks on the Capitol and Pentagon with remote-controlled aircraft, fake C-4 explosives, automatic AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and cellphones to act as detonation devices for IEDs to be used against American soldiers in Iraq.

Announcing the indictment of Rezwan Ferdaus, the Department of Justice reassures Americans that at no time were they in danger from the accused man’s plot.

Say what? Do we take this to mean that a single individual’s fantasies were abetted by who-knows-how-many U.S. dollars and how many FBI man-hours into a case that could be brought into court where, on the face of it, a defense attorney might make do well with a plea of entrapment?

Of course, threats have to be detected and relentlessly pursued but where is the line between nurturing them, one individual at a time, to make a legal case? Do we have enough money and manpower to keep doing that?

In trying to untangle this problem, it’s reassuring to learn that actual terrorists have their own difficulties over reality and perception as Al Qaeda denounces Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for continuing to spread conspiracy theories that the U.S. faked the 9/11 attacks.

“Why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?" the offended terrorists complain over being denied credit for crashing planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

As we continue to pour trillions into Afghanistan and Iraq in the “War on Terror,” how much of it is real and how much is the kind of public brainwashing that went on during the Vietnam years and the Cold War?

Update: As if on schedule, a fake scare shows up as the Onion, a satirical site, creates a momentary panic by tweeting “Capitol building being evacuated. 12 children being held hostage by armed Congressmen.”

Capitol police were not amused, but, in this atmosphere, it doesn’t take an Orson Welles invasion of Mars broadcast to persuade Americans that Tea Party terrorists have gone bonkers.

They have been holding the country hostage all year.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Deadline for GOP Politics of Resentment

As Chris Christie dithers at stage left, the candidate-filing curtain is coming down on Republicans with no one but Mitt Romney and hapless Jon Huntsman standing between them and nomination of a possibly suicidal candidate for next year.

Only 100 days away from the first primaries, 2012 is shaping up to be the year in which the GOP has to decide what kind of Change is more important—-expressing hatred for Barack Obama or getting him out of the White House.

Will they choose someone who satisfies Tea Party blood lust for the current President but stands less chance of attracting the marginal voters needed to win in November (Perry, Paul et al) or move to the center?

As Obama expressed Hope in the last election, will his anointed successor represent Resentment this time? If so, the out party would be well-advised to ponder some of the accumulated wisdom on the subject:

“Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”

And, all the way back to Buddhist wisdom: “Anger will never disappear so long as thoughts of resentment are cherished in the mind. Anger will disappear just as soon as thoughts of resentment are forgotten.”

Not many Buddhists will be voting in GOP primaries next year, but non-haters have to ponder the reasons for Christie’s indecision as he expresses it to supporters in California:

“(A)nyone who has an ego large enough to say ‘Oh, please, please stop asking me to be the leader of the free world, it is such a burden, if you could please just stop’--I mean what kind of crazy egomaniac would you have to be to say that? It’s incredibly flattering.

“But at the same time, that heartfelt message that you gave me is not a reason to do it. That reason has to reside inside me.”

Christie’s modesty is refreshing, but as time runs out, resentment is still the driving force in his party. If he enters, his voice could add some balance to future Republican debates, but until then it’s sad to see flip-flopping Mitt Romney as the Voice of Reason.

Long-time observers can remember when his father, George, was the GOP frontrunner in 1968 until he self-destructed by claiming he had been “brainwashed” by the military on a trip to Vietnam.

Moderates today can only hope he overcomes the gene that caused a Republican governor to observe back then, “Watching Romney run for president is like watching a duck trying to [alliterative expletive deleted] make love to a football.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Making Book on Palin

As deadlines near for filing to get on the ballot, the most peculiar Republican candidate of them all is running (or not) true to form-—in all directions.

The chief of Sarah Palin’s PAC is panhandling supporters by telling them time is “running out,” that “someone must save our nation from this road to European socialism” and she is “on the verge of making her decision of whether or not to run for office.”

In Palinspeak, this is either a last bid for bucks before the Tease ends with a retreat to Rupert Murdoch Moneyland (or not).

If it were anyone else, the decision to threaten Joe McGinniss with legal action over a book that he himself complains is dying for lack of media attention is odd for someone who is running and wants to put its nasty stuff behind her.

Palin’s lawyer cites an alleged McGinniss e-mail in which he tells his publisher that “nothing I can cite other than my own reporting rises above the level of tawdry gossip. The proof is always just around the corner, but that is a corner nobody has been able to turn.”

In the Palin circle, where the world revolves about her, this may be a compulsory denial for the faithful, but in reality, it only serves to call renewed attention to its “revelations.”

All this recalls other shoot-yourself-in-the foot moments such as Palin's complaint that that she was the victim of a “blood libel” after her rhetoric was criticized for contributing to the atmosphere that led to the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona earlier this year.

But protesting too much is a hallmark of the Palin style so it’s safe to say that she is either running for President or not, suing Joe McGinniss or not, but certainly not retreating into monastic silence.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cockeyed Optimists in a Crybaby Culture

A pitiful Wall Street parody of 1960s populist protests is a reminder of what has changed in American life over half a century. The hippie trappings are there, but the joyous anarchy and hope back then are nowhere to be seen in today’s crybaby culture.

More real passion was generated by a recent increase in Netflix prices than “Occupy Wall Street,” a diffuse demonstration against corporate greed that started a week ago with street-theater demonstrations by a few hundred activists and dwindled into handfuls being pepper-sprayed by New York Police.

We are deeper into culture than politics here when such a fiasco is seen against the uprising over inequalities against others by race and gender during the 1960s, which is being mirrored now only by Tea Party rage over perceived injustice to themselves by aging Boomers and their political heirs.

Political megatrends aside, this is a significant shift in American values from ideals of fairness and justice for all to rage over being victimized by efforts to care for the poor, the aged and helpless.

After World War II, a wildly successful Broadway musical and movie, “South Pacific,” captured the national imagination with an Army nurse singing of herself as “A Cockeyed Optimist”:

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow/That we're done and we might as well be dead,/But I'm only a cockeyed optimist/And I can't get it into my head.

I hear the human race/Is fallin' on its face/And hasn't very far to go/But ev'ry whippoorwill/Is sellin' me a bill/And tellin' me it just ain't so.

I could say life is just a bowl of Jello/And appear more intelligent and smart,/But I'm stuck like a dope/With a thing called hope,/And I can't get it out of my heart!

We may all have been naïve back then, and we certainly made our share of political mistakes, but it’s well past time for a 21st century revival of, if not the musical, the spirit.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The GOP Kleenex Candidates

Trump, Bachmann, Perry...and, on the horizon, Chris Christie. Republicans are using up frontrunners like disposable tissues, evoking a personal memory.

FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, my ninth birthday. In 1945 I was a 21-year-old foot soldier sleeping on the floor of a German farmhouse shaken awake to hear that the only president I could remember was dead.

Our world now manufactures public figures like Kleenex and, in this turbulent year, gives us no time to learn much about them before they vanish. Rick Perry, who came out of the box only weeks ago, is still bickering with Mitt Romney over what they said in their books as the 24/7 media toilet starts to flush.

Now the New Jersey governor who said no months ago is starting to say maybe, and what are the odds on His Hugeness standing next to tiny Michele Bachmann on a debate stage soon?

The person with a finger on the nuclear button is being decided in a process that makes “American Idol” look like the deliberations of the Supreme Court, to which the winner of this talent contest could be nominating new members.

Herman Cain, who has never been closer to government than sending out pizza to politicians, is reportedly surging after the last debate in which he wackily charged that “Obamacare” would have let him die of cancer.

Is this any way to choose a Leader of the Free World? We don't want to go back to the days of FDR, but can we get beyond a process that would embarrass voters in the student council election of a high school for the impaired?

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Tale of Two Species

Elizabeth Warren, 62 and Michele Bachmann, 55 are American women of the same generation, but they live on different planets.

As Bachmann grows more desperate in the GOP race to fire up the fringe of the Tea Party, Warren emerges in Massachusetts to remind Americans of their traditional values.

“If there was any election when we conservatives don’t settle,” Bachmann warns about her “radical” opponents, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, ”it’s this election. This is the election where we can have it all. Don’t settle!”

By contrast, Warren starts a senatorial campaign with a rebuke of class warfare and a reminder of the social contract that has served America well for over two centuries in a video that has gone viral.

"No,” she tells a living room of people. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

"You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did."

"Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Warren, a Harvard professor who set up Congress’ oversight panel for financial regulation, has been on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world for the past two years.

“To restore some basic sanity to the financial system,” she told Congress, “we need two central changes: fix broken consumer-credit markets and end guarantees for the big players that threaten our entire economic system. If we get those two key parts right, we can still dial the rest of the regulation up and down as needed. But if we don't get those two right, I think the game is over.”

If Elizabeth Warren were to win the Senate race next year, there would be at least one strong voice for sanity in Washington, no matter who is in the White House.

It won’t be Bachmann, but she is part of the pack that has conservative William Kristol reacting with “Yikes!” over “the mediocrity of the field” and its “wackiness” in last night’s debate.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Obama Lite vs. Bush Dark

Tonight’s installment of the “Mitt and Rick Show,” AKA presidential debates, will introduce a new fringe character to be ignored—-former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who will bring to the party the novelty of a GOP wannabe who favors gay rights.

Meanwhile, the Texas governor keeps providing colorful language for the long-running sitcom by denouncing Romney to Fox News, “We need to nominate someone who has a stark clear difference between the Republican nominee and President Obama. We don’t need to nominate Obama-lite.”

This potentially racist remark won’t gain as much traction as “Ponzi scheme” in Florida unless it prompts one of the other candidates desperate for attention to dub Perry “George W. Bush dark” for his record highs of executions and lows of health care coverage.

Otherwise, tonight's chapter could well be titled “Bye Bye Bachmann” as the once electric star of the show gets the Charlie Sheen treatment in “Two and a Half Men,” a political funeral for the firebrand who is now down to 5 percent in the New Hampshire polls (Newt Gingrich territory) as Romney leads with 41 to Ron Paul’s 14 and Jon Huntsman’s up-and-coming 10.

While the sheeplike media keep focusing on Perry’s surge, there are rumblings in the background such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel’s plea for new candidates and Sarah Palin’s hint of a November decision. And somewhere in a smoke-filled room, Karl Rove and other Bush loyalist must be chanting “Jeb! Jeb! Jeb!”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Can Obama Reboot the Voters?

George W. Bush never admitted a mistake. It’s time for his successor to save a crumbling presidency by admitting his own while going head-to-head with Tea Party treason that is subverting his and America’s future.

“These guys are playing a different game than the president’s playing,” Vice President Biden tells Democrats about the intransigence of Congressional Republicans. “And we are no longer playing.”

Good enough, but Barack Obama has to do more than that—-start a new game (perhaps with a 60 Minutes mea culpa) by flatly admitting his misjudgments, telling voters what he has learned from them and enlisting their support against the know-nothing, do-nothing opposition he now faces.

Even the miserable opinion polls show rays of hope with substantial percentages of Republicans and Independents approving the President’s plan to raise taxes on corporations and the superrich even while disapproving his handling of the economy. It’s time for him to “reboot his presidency,” says one pollster.

Ron Suskind’s new book portrays “a young, inexperienced president lacking the leadership and managerial skills to deal effectively with the cascading economic problems he inherited; a brainy but detached executive with a tendency to frame policy matters oddly passive C.E.O.”

As tendentious as these anonymous assertions may be, it would be healthy for the body politic to hear the President’s own version of what happened and what he learned from it.

“Obama can be faulted,” writes Bill Keller in the New York Times, “for periods of passivity (his silence as Republicans have sought to defund financial reforms), for a naïve deference to Congress (his belated engagement in the details of the health care bill), for a deficit of boldness and passion, for not doing more to stiffen the spines of his caucus on Capitol Hill, for not understanding--at least until his latest barnstorming on the jobs bill--that governing these days is a permanent campaign.

“It is partly a failure of presidential communications that Republicans have succeeded in parodying each of his accomplishments, turning ‘stimulus’ into an expletive, portraying ‘Obamacare’ as socialized medicine and attacking the Dodd-Frank financial reform as an assault on capitalism.

“It’s not just that he has failed to own his successes. He has in a sense failed to define himself.”

With less than 14 months to go before the prospect of a Rick Perry or Sarah Palin in the White House, Barack Obama has to clearly define not only himself but the ugly alternative the nation faces if he fails to do it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Obama's Line in the Teabag Sand

The President has finally stepped up to deal with his personal pushback deficit by promising to veto any bill that cuts Social Security and Medicare without raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.”

Until now, the White House has been threat-free as the Boehner-McConnell gang holds the government hostage and sends all the ransom notes. The turnaround is long overdue. Now, let the Republican candidate clowns show voters exactly how going back to pre-George W. Bush tax rates will cripple “job creators.”

At the very least, Barack Obama has picked up the “class warfare” gauntlet and thrown it back into the GOP’s face.

“Warren Buffett’s secretary,” he said today, “shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett...It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million...

“We’re already hearing the usual defenders of these kinds of loopholes saying, ‘this is just class warfare.’ I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare...I believe the American middle class, who’ve been pressured relentlessly for decades, believe it’s time that they were fought for as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations.”

To underscore the President’s position with comic effect, a Louisiana Tea Party House member, asked in a TV interview exactly how the tax increase would be a hardship, explains that, while his businesses made $6.3 million last year, after you “pay 500 employees, you pay rent, you pay equipment, and food,” profits amount to “a mere fraction of that.”

“By the time I feed my family,” he complains. “I have maybe $400,000 left over.”

It only hurts when we laugh.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Life-and-Death Election, 2012

Unless Mitt Romney (or Jeb Bush) stops the Rick Perry steamroller, we are heading toward a referendum on the value of human life next year.

When Sarah Palin invented death panels to bash health care reform two years ago, with perfect pitch for political devastation, she planted a seed that has now flowered in the Tea Party frontrunner, who is being cheered for multiple executions in Texas by crowds who are also thrilled by the prospect of letting uninsured young people die.

How did Hope and Change so quickly morph into hate and fear? The confluence of a sinking economy, an African-American president and the Rupert Murdoching of the media? Too many signs point to the possibility that even a mild economic upturn might not be enough to a keep a cardboard cutout of a Texan from evicting Barack Obama from the White House.

Rick Perry won his first political race for agriculture commissioner running against a rule requiring farmers to get their workers out of the fields before they sprayed pesticide on them. Now, firing guns in the air at rallies, he presides over a state with more executions and less health insurance than any in the union.

As the Tea Party celebrates Constitution Day, one official brags about its schools program: “We go right back to the founders when it comes to the Constitution. The material we’re bringing in is very historical, there’s no agenda in either direction.”

It’s also historical that the founders didn’t let women vote and kept a whole race of people as slaves, but they tried to limit government and keep taxes down, and that seems to be enough for Tea Party patriots.

Unless something changes between now and next fall, Barack Obama faces a reelection fight not only against an ideological caricature but to preserve Social Security, Medicare and everything else life-affirming in American history for over a century.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Boehner vs. Tea Party Treason

At what point do stubborn blindness, knee-jerk resistance and blanket refusal to negotiate cross the line from ideological opposition to subversion of government?

In what has now become coded language for “The Tea party won’t let me,” House Speaker John Boehner, after lauding tax cuts and less regulation as the answers to job creation he learned working in his grandfather’s tavern, concludes that solutions “will require everyone coming to the table with their best ideas first and leaving politics at the door, with the courage to listen to each other’s critiques and questions.

“It means ending the name-calling, the yelling, and the questioning of others' motives. Leadership is about ending that nonsense, buckling down, and getting to work...

“Getting it done will require a serious effort by both parties. There are some in both parties who would rather do nothing.

“They’d prefer to sit this one out, waiting to be dealt a better hand down the road, after the next election.”

Surely Boehner can’t be talking about Barack Obama and the battered Democrats who were brought to the brink of default and saw the nation’s credit rating lowered by the obstinacy (pace Michele Bachmann) of his own Tea Party Caucus.

Surely Boehner must have in mind the Grand Bargain that he and the President had fashioned in early July as the beginning of a long-term deficit solution, only to have it sabotaged by his own deputy, Eric Cantor, leading the House freshman in opposition.

Surely Boehner doesn’t mean by those “waiting to be dealt a better hand” in 2012 Democrats facing disaster in opinion polling about the White House and Congress.

If his plea for a “serious effort” on the jobs bill is more than empty rhetoric, he will have to teach Tea Party fanatics that negotiation isn’t surrender and that making government totally impotent is more treasonous that anything they are accusing the President of doing.

Update: Boehner and Cantor have sent the President a letter, making a Chinese menu of the jobs bill, agreeing to appetizers that can be served with Tea, but not the harder-to-swallow items.

“It is our hope,” they write, “that Majority Leader Reid, the Democratic Majority in the Senate and President Obama will realize that while an all or nothing approach might make sense to some political advisors and communicators, it comes at the expense of making progress for millions of unemployed Americans--and that is a tradeoff none of us should make.”

Pass the fortune cookies.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Palin's Media Match

For decades, Joe McGinniss has been to journalism what Sarah Palin has become to politics--a relentless self-promoter who rarely lets facts get in the way of a good story-—and now they come together with the former’s book about the latter as she is on the brink of possibly becoming a presidential candidate.

The next media scandals du jour will emanate from that 320-page tome, the flavor of which is imparted by a review in the New York Times:

“'The Rogue’ suggests that Todd Palin and the young Sarah Heath took drugs. It also says that she lacked boyfriends and was a racist. And it includes this: A friend says, ‘Sarah and her sisters had a fetish for black guys for a while.’

“Mr. McGinniss did in 2011 make a phone call to the former N.B.A. basketball player Glen Rice, who is black, and prompted him to acknowledge having fond memories of Sarah Heath. While Mr. Rice avoids specifics and uses the words ‘respectful’ and ‘a sweetheart,’ Mr. McGinniss eggs him on with the kind of flagrantly leading question he seems to have habitually asked. In Mr. Rice’s case: ‘So you never had the feeling she felt bad about having sex with a black guy?’”

This kind of Palin journalism is being unloaded on the literary world by Crown, a division of Random House, whose recent list includes George W. Bush’s memoir, “Decision Points.”

McGinniss, who rented a house next door to the Palins in Wasila for “research” and pre-publication publicity, has a long history of calling more attention to himself than his subjects.

I was a book publisher in the late 1960s when his "Selling of the President" supplanted as a best-seller Theodore White's meticulously reported series of "Making of the President" books of the Kennedy years.

His reporting skills can be judged by McGinniss’ swallowing the story that Nixon's media handlers were manipulative geniuses when, in fact, they managed to spend millions turning a 15-point polling advantage after the conventions into a November victory by less than one percent.

Back then, a would-be reporter named A. J. Weberman was featured in Esquire as a "garbologist," who spied on the rich and famous by rooting through their rubbish, reconstructing their inner lives from the evidence of egg shells, coffee grounds and discarded scrap paper.

Now, new generations of readers will have to decide whether Sarah Palin, for all her brashness, deserves that kind of “journalistic” treatment.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jacqueline Kennedy's Japanese Wife Act

A prime-time TV special introduces new generations to “the most mysterious, fascinating--and feline--woman in American political history” through 47-year-old audiotapes made soon after JFK’s assassination.

For those possibly confused by abject adoration of her husband and bitchiness toward most other political figures of their time, some first-hand footnotes on the apparent contradictions.

In the tapes, Jacqueline Kennedy describes her marriage as “a rather terribly Victorian or Asiatic relationship,” and when Arthur Schlesinger suggests, “A Japanese wife,” she agrees. But it was more complicated than that.

When Mrs. Kennedy was about to become First Lady, she sounded more like a Stepford wife, telling a reporter I sent to interview her, "The most important thing for successful marriage is for a husband to do what he likes best and does well...If the wife is happy, full credit should be given to the husband because the marriage is her entire life."

When the reporter put away his notebook, Mrs. Kennedy looked him in the eye and said, "But I'm smarter than Jack, and don't you forget it."

This kind of ambivalence goes a long way toward explaining the Mona Lisa smile that eventually captivated a nation and the world.

It did not start that way. “I was always a liability to him until we got to the White House,” she tells Schlesinger. “And he never asked me to change or said anything about it. Everyone thought I was a snob from Newport, who had bouffant hair and had French clothes and hated politics...Sometimes I’d say, ‘Oh, Jack, I wish--you know I’m sorry for you that I’m just such a dud.’”

But half a century ago, before Feminist ideas had challenged the ideal of the happy housewife, Jacqueline Kennedy had not resolved for herself the contradictions between who she was and who she felt she needed to appear to be.

A year after the assassination, when I became editor of McCalls, then the world’s largest women’s magazine, I asked her to become an Editor at Large, to help keep alive the political, social and cultural ideas JFK had stood for, pointing out that Eleanor Roosevelt had been a columnist for the magazine for years.

“Oh, no,” she answered. “If I could do it through some man—-Robert Kennedy would be perfect, but that’s not possible...”

It took decades before Jacqueline Kennedy could see herself as more than a Japanese wife and become a book editor pursuing a career in her own right. The tapes are a reminder of how far she--and millions of other American women--had to go in the intervening years.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pin-a-Tail-on-Perry Debate

A Tea Party remake of “The Rocky Horror Show” could become as much a cult classic as the original that ended with space aliens leaving behind "crawling on the planet's face, tiny insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space--and meaning."

Last night’s performance was a howl with other actors taking turns whacking at the mad scientist’s creation, Rocky Horror, the Frankenstein Adonis who threatens their well-being.

Rick Perry played the robotic lead to perfection, never losing his composure, even as he took umbrage at Michele Bachmann’s suggestion that he had been making "innocent little 12-year-old girls have a government injection by an executive order" in return for pharmaceutical company campaign contributions.

The Texas governor said he was wounded by the suggestion that he could be bought for $5000, without disclosing what the going price might be.

Mild-mannered Jon Huntsman bounded on to accuse Perry of being “almost treasonous” for suggesting that the border with Mexico could never secured, and Rick Santorum charged the Texan for pandering to Latino voters by letting illegal immigrant children attend college at in-state tuition rates. Santorum may have been joking, but with his perpetual clueless smile, who could tell?

Mitt Romney, of course, led the chorus in denouncing the Ponzi scheme aria on Social Security, even as Ron Paul complained that his state taxes had gone up under Perry.

As the almost nightly debates go on, TV viewers may lose interest in these orgiastic doings, but that’s not too likely with a Tea Party audience yelling approval when Dr. Paul was asked if he would let an uninsured young man die if he came down with a life-threatening disease.

In cult performances, there are always small gems that go unnoticed. My favorite was Newt Gingrich’s Senior Moment, attacking the President for saying he could not guarantee Social Security payments, apparently forgetting that the statement was in response to Tea Party threats to push the government into default during the debt ceiling crisis.

Like the original Rocky Horror Show, future performances could well be staged in spooky dark theaters after midnight. But that might scare Wolf Blitzer and the rest of us half to death.

Update: Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is airing out her witch’s costume with a post-debate blast at all the candidates, especially Perry for “crony capitalism.” That would make the cast complete.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Doubling the 9/11 Dead

The weekend was spent mourning almost 3000 Americans who were killed on September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of that day, more than 6200 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan with the toll still rising.

The 9/11 dead were victims of a vicious attack on American civilization. Those since then were put in harm’s way by the conscious decision of our political and military leaders.

During all the speeches and commemorations here, 77 U.S. troops were wounded yesterday by a truck bomb in Afghanistan. Every week, more die there without a ripple in the news that reaches us as the Taliban celebrates our 9/11 by crowing that they have “endless stamina for a long war.”

In American politics, only an odd little man named Ron Paul raises his voice to complain about our being there.

Tonight, a Tea Party TV debate of Republican presidential wannabes will be denouncing Barack Obama for not fattening American wallets by stripping down government intervention in the economy.

Besides Paul, will any have a hard word to say about the trillions being spent intervening in the Middle East, to say nothing of the lives of our young men and women?

In our ongoing slow-motion 9/11s, Tea Party patriots have little to say about the damage government is doing.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

No Wallowing in 9/11

When the second tower was hit, a loved one called and said, “Turn on the TV.” Still holding the phone, I did and said without thinking, “This is the worst day of my life.”

It was only much later that I understood that reflexive reaction. Over more than seven decades, there had been other times of being jolted out of the smooth hum of daily life into awareness that the ground under our feet was not as solid as it seemed.

Pearl Harbor. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The weekend JFK was killed... But this was different. All that had happened Out There. With news of the Pentagon attack and the downed plane in Pennsylvania as well as the Twin Towers, we were being hit in the national nervous system, like a sudden punch to the stomach without warning.

On this anniversary weekend, we are flooded with images and words to try to make sense of that day. The two presidents of the decade stand side by side at Ground Zero to bear witness and offer prayers.

At the crash site of Flight 93, another eulogizes the victims. “There has always been a special place in the common memory,” Bill Clinton says, “for people who deliberately, knowingly, certainly lay down their lives for other people to live.”

The rest of us mourn silently for what we lost.

The terrorists that day took away not only all those innocent lives but a sense of feeling safe that will never fully return to those who survive. We now live in a world where distrust runs deep, not only at air terminals but in our political life at all levels.

Osama bin Laden is gone, but his legacy lingers.

"All we have to do," he bragged after 9/11, "is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note..."

Perhaps the best way to commemorate that day is to admit to ourselves how America has changed since then but refuse to wallow in self-pity for our losses.

It happened. We survived. We can overcome what it did to us, but it will take much more determination and strength of national character than an anniversary day can encompass.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Too Much News About 9/11 Terror Threats

On this anniversary weekend, an old question I used to ask editors and writers who were pitching a story during my working lifetime arises, “Why are you telling me all this?”

Starting right after the President’s jobs speech Thursday night, TV and cable news have been saturated with running accounts of two or three possible terrorists planning a U.S. attack on 9/11, with most of the information coming from government sources.

In New York, Hillary Clinton announces there was "a specific, credible but unconfirmed report that al-Qaida, again, is seeking to harm Americans and in particular, to target New York and Washington."

With all due respect, why are the Secretary of State, the Vice President and other Administration officials telling us all this? Is there anything the public can do to help them head off such a threat? If so, is there anything specific we should be looking for? If not, is there any tangible reason for spreading fear and anxiety?

No other reason for this running soap opera suggests itself than the ritual posterior-covering that precedes any plausible occasion for an attack. If nothing happens, everyone is too relieved to question whether the warnings served any useful purpose.

On this occasion, the exercise has gone well beyond the old color-coding with specific reports about would-be terrorists and their possible movements. Why are they telling us all this?

Update: The threat is "looking more and more like a goose chase," a senior U.S. official now says.

Yet in his Weekly Address, even the President joins the game, saying “they will keep trying to hit us again. But as we are showing again this weekend, we remain vigilant. We’re doing everything in our power to protect our people.”

We fervently hope so, but can we use a little better judgment in how we talk about it publicly?

Friday, September 09, 2011

The President Stops Pleading

For anyone coming out of a two-year coma, Barack Obama’s jobs speech to a joint session of Congress may have looked like the familiar sight of an American President exhorting lawmakers to legislate solutions to a crisis.

For the rest of who have had the misfortune to be wide awake, what was striking was Obama’s discovery of the imperative mood in his address. “Pass this jobs bill,” he kept repeating like the mantra of a hypnotist trying to impose his will on assembled Tea Party naysayers.

Whatever happens to his proposal for $447 billion in tax cuts and government spending to speed up economic recovery, the President’s grammatical shift is a departure from pleading with Republicans to be reasonable, as they never were in arm-wrestling over the debt ceiling, to challenging them to act now on job creation or face the consequences next November.

“The next election is 14 months away,” he told them with sledgehammer subtlety. “And the people who sent us here--the people who hired us to work for them--they don’t have the luxury of waiting 14 months. Some of them are living week to week, paycheck to paycheck, even day to day. They need help, and they need it now.”

Just in case some of the non-attendees missed the point, the President spelled out the message for them:

“Regardless of the arguments we’ve had in the past, regardless of the arguments we’ll have in the future, this plan is the right thing to do right now. You should pass it. And I intend to take that message to every corner of this country.

“I also ask every American who agrees to lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now. Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option. Remind us that if we act as one nation, and one people, we have it within our power to meet this challenge.”

Nothing spectacular is likely to come out of this jobs bill, but at the very least, the President has stopped wooing Republicans and started fighting back against those who want to “just dismantle government, refund everyone’s money, let everyone write their own rules, and tell everyone they’re on their own.”

Early signs on Twitter suggest that the President may have finally stirred up a serious conversation about creating jobs beyond the reflexive ideological responses. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Enter Perry, the Death Candidate

His debut on the debate scene elicited audience cheers for capital punishment, introducing a potential president more comfortable than any in memory with death as a solution to social problems.

Asked if he has “struggled to sleep” over execution of “234 death row inmates more than any other governor in modern times,” Rick Perry says no, affirming his faith in “ultimate justice” despite a national trend away from capital punishment.

But the Texas Governor has to be given points for consistency. His policy positions on Social Security and health care would also thin out the population of the old, the poor and the sick, taking America back to the good old days of survival of the fittest--with the possible exception of fetuses, a subject that did not come up last night.

How far have we come from criticism of a recent Supreme Court nominee for having too much empathy to the rise of a Presidential candidate who appears never to have heard of it?

In most of his evasive answers for the first hour of debate, Perry made Bill Clinton’s “Slick Willie” act look like bumbling. But when asked about his view of Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme,” which other Republicans have criticized, the Governor stopped dodging.

"If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program that we have in place today, and young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age, that is just a lie," Perry said. "And I don't care what anyone says."

In exchanges with Mitt Romney, Perry hammered him for the individual mandate in Massachusetts and dodged a question about why Texas has the lowest rate of citizens with health care coverage in the country.

For someone who has suffered through more presidential debates than he can remember, the takeaway from last night is that the GOP has a frontrunner who is the political equivalent of Dr. Kevorkian. Other Tea Party favorites have no chance of matching him in clueless cruelty and self-righteous certainty.

Update: You know it’s getting nasty out there when Dick Cheney is snarling about Perry’s “over the top rhetoric” about Ben Bernanke, saying they would “treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.”

The former VP who by comparison is looking like a model of civility complains that Perry’s babble about Bernanke managing the Fed for politics “isn’t a valid charge.”

But Perry seems to want to go back to the days when they hung anyone who looked like a horse thief and asked questions later.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Government as Chinese Fire Drill

Prime-time TV tonight will feature, instead of a Barack Obama speech on the economy, a scramble of eight Republicans eager to replace him.

This President will propose emergency legislation on job creation at 7 P.M. tomorrow to accommodate the scheduling convenience of John Boehner and a network pre-season football game.

Is this any way to run a recession? While voters are eating dinner on the East Coast and those still employed elsewhere are at work or driving home in rush-hour traffic, the Leader of the Free World will be offering his proposals to save the economy at a joint session of Congress to empty seats that Tea Party incumbents plan to leave unoccupied in disdain.

What the White House has to say may reach an audience no larger than those of last week who were blacked out by a non-partisan Hurricane Irene.

Yet, for serious students of politics, tonight’s GOP debate may make up in entertainment value what it will surely lack in substance.

Rick Perry will be making his debut to offer himself as a low-rent, more animated George W. Bush with a Texas A&M degree in animal science instead of an Ivy League diploma.

On the stage with him will be the ghost of frontrunners past, Michele Bachmann, whose campaign was given a brief moment of plausibility by veteran political operative Ed Rollins, who has now decamped presumably to lend his future services to less loony candidates.

Mitt Romney, who unveiled his Tea-Party-friendly jobs plan yesterday in yet another move to preempt the incumbent, will smile and try to look prematurely presidential while Ron Paul, who has become the invisible man in the race, tries to climb back into view after being trampled by the rightward rush of the rest of the crowd.

Somehow the spirit of all this is encapsulated by Paul’s decision to aim his first TV commercial at Rick Perry not for his laundry list of oddball positions on issues but his support for Al Gore as president in 1988.

Back to the future, full steam ahead.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Obama's Dialogue of the Deaf With Congress

Lawmakers return to Washington to deal with deficits and unemployment, bringing with them little personal experience of either as House Tea Party freshmen make up one-fifth of this year’s list of Congress’ 50 Richest Members.

Among those considering the President’s proposals for job creation will be multi-millionaire car dealers and other entrepreneurs swept into office last year by voters angry over how government bureaucrats were spending their tax money.

As each party “desperately searches for the political high ground on spending and jobs,” decisions will be driven by the return of a plutocracy unseen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century when wealth openly controlled American politics.

Ironically, the new drive to geld government will collide with the kind of spending most economists believe is needed to stimulate an economy that now is producing “negative surprises” in job creation and driving public pessimism to new depths.

The tone of the new Congress is suggested by Tea Party icon Sen. Jim DeMint, who tells a reporter he is “so frustrated I don’t think I’m going to go” to the President’s speech before a joint session of Congress Thursday night.

As Washington gets back to work, the Dialogue of the Deaf is ready to resume.

Update: The latest polls reflect voter confusion about who can do what to improve the economy, with the President and Congress sharing the blame for not alleviating unemployment and uncertainty.

As advance word from the White House is that he will advocate $300 billion for job creation to be matched by the same amount in budget cuts, it sounds like the same old game of playing on Tea Party grounds by their rules.

The President badly needs a game changer.

Monday, September 05, 2011

A Labor Day Memory

At 16, I have a summer job as a shipping clerk, standing at a table, wrapping cartons. More and more keep appearing, and soon I am swimming against a cardboard tide that threatens to swamp me if I stop pulling brown paper off a huge roll and wrestling it around packages.

By noon, I am getting the hang of it and I eat a sandwich in a kind of dreamy stupor. But when I start working again, time has slowed. My hands and arms keep moving, but my mind is in blank panic.

All I can think about is the clock on the wall. I am pushing the second hand with each breath. By the end of that endless day, I know what it means to be beside yourself.

This memory comes back as Mitt Romney tells New Hampshire voters that “career politicians got us into this mess, and the career politicians can’t get us out of this mess. It will take someone who understands how the private economy works because he’s worked in the private economy, and I have. I’m a business guy.”

Romney, born to a Detroit executive who later became governor of Michigan, started his own working life at the top, merging, dismantling and profiting from companies by cutting jobs, not creating them.

This kind of political truth inversion on Labor Day is a reminder of how far we have come from work as physical to shuffling figures on spread sheets and computer screens.

Citing that is not a Luddite fantasy to glorify using our backs instead of brains to earn our daily bread but to underscore how growing up in wealth and privilege can now be transmuted into credentials for governing those who did not.

Half a century ago, I was asked to give career advice to a son of Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate who had lost to Eisenhower twice in the 1950s.

“When I got out of college,” the young man told me, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I did what my friends did--I went into banking.”

I thought about my shipping clerk job.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Demagoguing Dr. King's Dream Deferred

Last week’s storm postponed the Martin Luther King Memorial dedication in Washington, but Labor Day brings a sobering commentary on his life and work in a nation with 16.8 percent unemployment for African-Americans, 11.3 for Latinos and 8.2 for whites.

Half a century after the “I have a dream speech” with a bi-racial President in the White House, median household net worth is now under $6500 for minorities and over $113,000 for whites, with the percentage of families with no wealth at all twice as high and the disparity widening.

As Barack Obama’s would-be successors demagogue the jobs issue, the pain of recession is being felt disproportionately by the poor rather than a posturing Tea Party middle class yowling about possible tax increases.

Yet, with Dr. King long gone and Barack Obama tied in political knots, who speaks now for millions of Americans out of work or struggling with falling income from low-paying jobs?

Certainly not the media. A century ago, the axiom was that the job of newspapers was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But in the Internet era, the comfortable have much more access to computers, and the celebrity journalists of cable TV are more interested in the celebrity politicians who share their privileged lives, if not always their views on issues.

What the President might have said about poverty at the King Memorial dedication is overshadowed by his pleading in today’s Weekly Address to have Congress extend a routine transportation bill:

“At the end of September, if Congress doesn’t act, funding for our roads and bridges will expire. This would put a stop to highway construction, bridge repair, mass transit system...And it would affect thousands of construction workers...

“Usually, renewing this transportation bill is a no-brainer. In fact, Congress has renewed it seven times over the last two years. But thanks to political posturing in Washington, they haven’t been able to extend it this time--and the clock is running out.

“Allowing this bill to expire would be a disaster for our infrastructure and our economy. Right away, over 4,000 workers would be furloughed without pay. If it’s delayed for just 10 days, we will lose nearly $1 billion in highway funding that we can never get back. And if we wait even longer, almost 1 million workers could be in danger of losing their jobs over the next year.”

But with the Tea Party freshman class, “no-brainer” has taken on an entirely new meaning and, while their antics distract the body politic, who will keep alive Dr. King’s dream for all Americans and his passion for “the fierce urgency of Now?”

Friday, September 02, 2011

Perry, Palin Disaster Advisories

As Nature calms down, Americans face a weekend of man- and woman-made devastation as Rick Perry and Sarah Palin cloud up on the political landscape.

The “Going Rogue” short-term governor will be pouring “a full-throated defense of the Tea Party” over Iowa tomorrow while critics start to take a closer look at the Texas cyclone’s proposal to dismantle government before his first GOP debate appearance next week.

In a book last year titled “Fed Up,” Perry sounded his manifesto: “It is not enough to be fed up. We must act.”

Among the American institutions he finds hard to swallow is Social Security, “something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now,” one of the New Deal social programs that “never died, and like a bad disease, they have spread.”

In the GOP alternate universe, will other contenders even politely question the Governor’s Nutsy Fagan version of history or ignore those rants and spend their time piling on Barack Obama?

Will Mitt Romney, whose lead has evaporated in the Perry sandstorm, take him on or leave it to Jon Huntsman, who has nothing to lose, to sound the only voice of sanity?

In 1988, Perry supported Al Gore for president and chaired his campaign in Texas before switching parties. Now he accuses Gore of being “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult” and says of climate change, “It’s all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.”

In normal times, all this blowhard extremism and irrationality would be fodder for lively debate in a major party primary. But with Palin looming over the landscape, will any of the Tea Party captives speak up in an effort to derail him?

Update: Palin arrives in Iowa to continue her 2012 striptease. To crowds shouting “Run, Sarah, Run,” she drops a gloved hint, “I’m happy with the field of candidates. I think that there’s room for more, though.”

Is she thinking about Jeb Bush?

The Long Goodnight, Irene

Last evening, I left behind almost three million Americans in the Northeast still cut off from the 21st century by the high winds of Hurricane Irene-—without electrical power, TV or Internet access, many depending on iffy private generators that could conk out at any moment to remain unserviced by overwhelmed repair people and deprive them of fresh water and unspoiled food.

For five days and nights, it was like living in the opening lines of a famous 20th century novel: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Debates about government and private enterprise seemed moot, as municipalities, power companies, independent contractors and homeowners seemed equally powerless to deal with flooding, fallen trees and wires that thrust tens of millions back into an era they had never experienced.

On Sunday, I had no TV to hear George Will propound a conservative view of the storm on ABC: “Whatever else you want to say about journalism, it shouldn’t subtract from the nation’s understanding and it certainly shouldn’t contribute to the manufacture of synthetic hysteria that is so much a part of modern life. And I think we may have done so with regard to this tropical storm as it now seems to be.”

That would have been a comforting perspective as neighbors dealt with damaged homes and the inability to get food, water or medical help in the following days without driving over fallen wires and detouring around roads closed by repair crews slowing bringing power back to hundreds a day while thousands remained in the dark.

In my area, chain saws seemed equally occupied with the more lucrative work of cutting up unsightly trees on private lawns as with clearing public roads to restore power.

But to have commandeered all this help into repairing community damage first would have been socialism and contributed to the manufacture of “synthetic hysteria,” a condition unknown in Washington where George Will works, and that would never do.